Tanizaki’s Yaichi: A Japanese disabled character as hero, outcast, and metaphor

Today, the University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to publish Kenny Fries’s account of a journey of profound self-discovery as a disabled foreigner in Japan, IN THE PROVINCE OF THE GODS. Here he comments on some of the “outtakes” from early drafts of the book.

Fifteen years ago, I first traveled to Japan to look at its historical and cultural relationship to otherness, to difference. More specifically, I wanted to learn about how the Japanese viewed and represented disability. During my first stay in Japan, much of this eluded me for reasons I write about in In the Province of Gods,

Three years later on my second trip, I found what I was looking for. But, as my book’s focus shifted, this research became more background than foreground. Though some of what I found in Japan about representation of disability remains in the book, much of it is now only in what I call the “outtakes.”

I did include in my book observations about the disability representation in Japanese writer Tanizaki Junichiro’s novel Portrait of Shunkin.  Most notably, I write about the way that Tanizaki’s story of Shunkin, a blind samisen singer, illuminates my meeting two of the surviving Hiroshima Maidens, the twenty-five hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) who traveled from Japan to the United States for medical treatment in 1955.

But another of Tanizaki’s blind characters is not represented in my own book. In A Blind Man’s Tale, Tanizaki tells the familiar story of the siege of Osaka Castle and historical figures Nobunaga and his successor Hideyoshi. He recounts this history through the voice of Yaichi, who like Shunkin is a blind samisen singer. Yaichi is also a masseur. (Samisen singer and masseur are traditional occupations for the blind in Japan.) Yaichi is in the service of Lady Oichi, sister of Nobunaga. She is married to Lord Nagamasa, an ally of Nobunaga until they have a falling out.

Many familiar tropes of blindness attend the tale of Yaichi, especially that of a blind man’s unrequited love. Because of his blindness, he goes unnoticed by the men but is taken into the confidence of a beautiful woman above his station. There is also the unfortunate metaphor of “blind devotion.” But what is singular about this tale comes at the story’s climactic moment.

During a siege of the castle, Yaichi entertains Lady Oichi along with a visitor, the warrior priest Choroken. As a master samisen player himself, Yaichi notices that Choroken’s playing includes embellishments of a tune with “queer phrases, twice-repeated.”   Yaichi informs us,

Now, there is a secret code that all of us blind samisen players know very well. Since each string of the samisen has sixteen stops, the three strings together have forty-eight: when you teach a beginner how to play the instrument you help him memorize these stops by marking them with the forty-eight characters of the alphabet.  Everyone who studies the samisen learns this system; but we blind musicians, since we can’t see the characters, have to learn it by heart, we associate each note with its proper letter quite automatically, as soon as we hear it.  So when blind musicians want to communicate secretly they can do it by playing on the samisen, using this system as a code.

Tanizaki Junichiro

Yaichi realizes Choroken’s “queer phrases” are communicating that the servant needs to save his mistress, and he perceives the plan Choroken is secretly transmitting. Yaichi’s blindness is a crucial asset in this covert exchange.

Tellingly, in the popular Kabuki theater version of the story, this original element is left out, leaving the story to emphasize the comparison between the “blind” love of Yaichi with that of those who court the widowed Lady Oichi and her beautiful daughter “whose voice sounded just the same” as her mother.  Lady Oichi affections are won over by Hideyoshi, even though he killed her family.  In the end of the Kabuki version, Yaichi is left on stage, remembering his Lady, who appears in the distance playing her koto.  She disappears, leaving Yaichi decidedly alone and crying.

In Tanizaki’s story we are shown how disability can, in certain contexts, be advantageous, as well as how the nondisabled use disability for their own purposes. But, as in much of Japanese culture, the story simultaneously conveys opposing ideas.  In A Blind Man’s Tale, we are given the blind man as hero, outcast, and metaphor.

Kenny Fries is the author of Body, Remember: A Memoir and The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory,  and editor of Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Goddard College and is the recipient of a prestigious Creative Capital grant. He lives in Berlin.

Author’s website: https://www.kennyfries.com/

Finalist, National Book Awards! (Philippines)

The National Book Development Council of the Philippines and the Manila Critics Circle have just announced finalists for the National Book Awards of the Philippines.

Among the finalists in the History category is Feeding Manila in Peace and War, 1850–1945 by Daniel F. Doeppers, emeritus professor of Geography and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Daniel Doeppers

The University of Wisconsin Press published the book in 2016 in the series New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies, which UWP publishes in collaboration with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at UW-Madison. The book focuses on how Manila has historically dealt with the formidable challenge of getting food, water, and services to millions of residents, a problem that is increasingly pressing for policy makers, agencies, and businesses who manage food, water, and services for the world’s megacities.

Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet of the Australian National University has called Doepper’s work “outstanding, wide-ranging scholarship that shines in every chapter. He crafts a thoughtful, well-reasoned analysis of provisioning Manila and comparable cities. This is a sterling example of how to investigate and analyze such questions, not only for other parts of the Philippines but elsewhere in Southeast Asia and beyond.”

UWP licensed a Philippine edition for the book to Ateneo de Manila University Press, which submitted Doepper’s book for the award competition. Winners will be announced in the coming months.

Hunter’s Best Friend

The University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to publish today a paperback edition of A GROUSE HUNTER’S ALMANAC. In this post, author Mark Parman reminisces about his faithful hunting dogs and their importance beyond mere scenting.

I wrote most of the essays in A Grouse Hunter’s Almanac eight to ten years ago.  That’s a long time in dog years, nearly a lifetime. Gunnar and Ox, the dogs at the center of the book, have been gone almost as long. We live with two different English setters now—Fergus and Jenkins—and on occasion I call one or the other Ox or Gunnar.  Recently a friend called, an English setter fanatic, asking about Ox’s lines and his breeder, and after our conversation, I dreamed of Ox several nights running. Although no longer here in the flesh, these dogs are still very much with me, something I realized even more keenly as I paged through A Grouse Hunter’s Almanac, making a few corrections for this new paperback edition.

Ox pointing a woodcock

In the essay “Dogless,” however, Ox and Gunnar are literally absent from the pages. When rereading it, I was surprised that I didn’t mention them by name, referring to them obliquely as “my dogs.” The essay describes what it was like for me to hunt without a dog one early October day in northern Wisconsin. I hadn’t hunted grouse or woodcock without a dog for several years. Walking by myself through the bright woods and falling leaves, it took just a few minutes for me to realize I would rather hunt with a dog than with a shotgun if forced to choose between the two.
I would rather hunt with a dog than with a shotgun if forced to choose between the two. Click To Tweet
I could get into a rational explanation to justify why a dog improves your hunting chances and ability to bag birds, but for me it all comes down to the fact I have no desire to upland hunt without a dog.

Gunnar with a Sawyer County grouse

I drove home after this fruitless hunt and jumped out of my truck as Gunnar and Ox, released from the house, charged out to greet me. They had seen me leave in the morning with a gun case, and they hadn’t forgotten this slight. They sniffed me all over, trying to fathom where I’d been and why they’d been left behind. It was a new experience for them as well, and they appeared to be at least as unhappy with it as I was. After this, I never hunted without one or the other until they both finally passed on.

Matt Parman (the author’s brother) with Ox

Since then, I’ve kept this wordless pact with Fergus and Jenkins.  On occasion, I hunt them together, but mostly they take turns—one goes out, one stays at home.  As I back out of the driveway, I have a hard time not glancing over at the picture window where the dog left behind stands pressing his nose against the glass, looking as sad as a dog can. Some days, it’s enough to make me roll back down the drive, unlock the door and release whoever was marked to stay home that day. The perfect joy, the happy dance in the driveway, their lust for life cuts me to the heart.

How can anyone live without this?

Fergus and Jenkins with an early season grouse

Mark Parman is a member of the Ruffed Grouse Society and the Loyal Order of Dedicated Grouse Hunters. He has written for Sports AfieldPointing Dog Journal, and other outdoor magazines. In the late spring of 2018, the University of Wisconsin Press will publish a new collection of his hunting essays, Among the Aspen. He has retired from teaching English and journalism at the University of Wisconsin–Marathon County and now lives near Hayward, Wisconsin.

For more of Mark’s writing, visit setterboys.com.

The Path of Totality: Illuminating THE DISINTEGRATIONS

On August 21, the United States experienced its first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in almost one hundred years. The next day, August 22, we officially published Alistair McCartney’s new novel The Disintegrations. Here, McCartney reflects on the eclipse and other books that inspired his.

During the recent eclipse, the moon or its shadow blocked the sun; in some places that lay in the so-called path of totality, it did so completely, for up to two and half minutes.

When I found out the official publication date for The Disintegrations was the day after the solar eclipse, it struck me as a good omen. On further reflection, it also struck me as appropriate: this is a book about a guy who’s trying to unravel the secret of death, a book that aims to cloak the reader in at least partial, temporary darkness.

The process of writing The Disintegrations was long and arduous. It took me about nine years to realize the book. The challenges this novel presented were related to content—writing about death and the dead is an impossible task—but form was also a challenge, as I tried to figure out the right structure to hold together the pieces I was assembling.

Like most writers, I turned to other books while attempting to solve this aesthetic problem. These eleven books helped me figure it out, placed me in their path of totality, their shadows providing a source of illumination.

Peter Handke, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, 1972; Translator Ralph Mannheim, 1975.
I first read this novella from Handke as a student in the late 1990s, and it floored me, in particular this Austrian author’s ability to write about the suicide of his mother with such objectivity: “My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks: I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away, and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to the news of her suicide.” (199).

One of the main struggles I encountered in writing The Disintegrations was finding the right voice and tone to articulate death, one that didn’t make my skin crawl. I re-read A Sorrow and it acted as a signpost for me, to help me locate that register. Although my book springs from nonfiction—all my writing does—through my point of view, it becomes fiction. Handke’s definition of fiction in an interview from 1980 resonates deeply with me: “[My novels] are only daily occurrences brought into a new order. What is ‘story’ or ‘fiction’ is really always only the point of intersection between individual daily events. This is what produces the impression of fiction.”

Maurice Blanchot, Death Sentence, 1948; Translator Lydia Davis, 1976.
I was already well into writing The Disintegrations (which for years I was calling The Death Book) when I read the French writer and philosopher Maurice Blanchot’s miraculous little novel (or récit) Death Sentence.  Like Handke’s novella it’s less than one hundred pages. Blanchot’s strange, crystalline perspective on death, thanks to Lydia Davis’ incredible translation, was essential:  “These things happened to me in 1938. I feel the greatest uneasiness in speaking of them. I have already tried to put them into writing many times. If I have written books, it has been in the hope that they would put an end to it all. If I have written novels, they have come into being just as the words began to shrink back from the truth” (1).

I reread this book about a year later, to keep learning how to write my own book. Like all astonishing books, it continued both to teach me and to elude me. Its style, both simple and ambiguous, was crucial as I forged my own style. The compression of Blanchot’s work guided me in radically compressing my own book from a much longer draft. (Earlier versions were three times as long as the “final” product.)  Blanchot wrote not novels but récits, which is what The Disintegrations is: a book where the author and narrator are one and the same, a self-reflexive book that is as much about what cannot be told as what can, a book that is neither fiction nor non-fiction. As Lars Iyer writes in “Blanchot, Narration, and The Event,” a “récit would interrupt both the assurance of the novelist who creates and preserves a world and also the assurance of the reader, for whom the world the novel imitates is the same world he or she inhabits.” More than any other writer, Blanchot showed me how to write from a place of impossibility: the impossibility of representing or writing (about) death, the impossibility of representing anything.

Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations, 1886; translator John Ashbery, 2011.
I’ve loved the Illuminations since I was a teenager, rereading the Louise Varese translation almost every year. Rimbaud is in my bloodstream. For my fortieth birthday, my friend David Schweizer gave me a copy of the new Ashbery translation of Rimbaud, and it reignited my relationship to this beloved book. Although thematically The Disintegrations is perhaps more my version of A Season in Hell, if you look at any of the less narrative-driven chapters such as “A Hole in the World” or “Disintegration” or “Data” or “Odors” or “Immortality,” you see the trace of Rimbaud’s prose poems throughout this book. I am , if truth be told, a poet who disguises himself as a prose writer. You also see this majestic book’s influence in the title, The Disintegrations, a phrase which, when I hit upon it, struck me as the dark mirror image of the Illuminations. Throughout this book, my narrator finds himself in an inverted mode of astonishment, a negative state of wonder.

Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, 1975; Translator Jonathan Griffin, 1977.
My initial “finished” draft of the book was written in a much more straightforward, linear manner (or, at least, my version of linear). Of course, I didn’t realize until I got to the end of the draft that this is not the kind of novel I should be writing. I did a radical revision last year, gutting the book, re-tuning the voice, rewiring the apparatus. Blanchot’s notion of the récit helped me realize this. So did the great filmmaker Robert Bresson’s summary of the non-linear nature of the aesthetic process:  “My movie [book] is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film [in the book] but, placed in a certain order and projected onto a screen [the page], come to life again, like flowers in water.” (p. 23)

Although I would not have minded getting to the final version sooner, Bresson’s characterization of the process as a dialectic of creation and destruction gave a logic to my own drawn-out process in which I built the book, destroyed it, then reordered it into what it was meant to be.

Susan Sontag, “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson” in Against Interpretation, 1966.
Following the major revision, which was profoundly liberating (the only “easy” stage of writing this book), I did a line edit that was far more excruciating. I’d get up at 4 a.m. in the February dark, so I had time before I went to work. I was especially struggling with one of the stories “Eun Kang and the Ocean.” Robert Bresson’s films Four Nights of a Dreamer and The Devil, Probably had been essential for me at various stages of writing, in ways that I can’t put into words, something to do with their purity, their directness and indirectness, their formal coolness, and I found myself reading Sontag’s essay on his films in Against Interpretation (one of my favorite books ever) to help me articulate the power of Bresson’s work: “The emotional distance typical of Bresson’s films seems to exist for a different reason altogether: because all identification with characters, deeply conceived, is an impertinence—an affront to the mystery that is human action and the human heart.” (181). Reading this allowed me to continue narrating Eun Kang’s story, to sustain a detachment to my subject, and to strive towards my perverse goal: writing a book that was as cold as possible, a book not for the living and their needs or feelings, but for the dead.

My perverse goal: writing a book that was as cold as possible, a book not for the living and their needs or feelings, but for the dead.

JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1951.
Although European writers are my primary source of inspiration, in some ways I think of The Disintegrations as my American book. I first read The Catcher in the Rye as an adolescent when one of my older sisters passed it on to me. In Australia, at least in the 1980s, Catcher wasn’t nearly so ubiquitous or canonical as it is here in the States. Anyway, I found myself rereading it fairly early on in writing The Disintegrations, and I was astonished by the book, how complex and perverse it is beneath a seemingly simple narrative. And of course, there’s the purity of the voice of the adorable Holden Caulfield, whom I continue to have a big crush on. Needless to say Catcher was a major influence on The Disintegrations, an influence I had to tone down, pull back on, distort, even reject, as I was striving for a less intimate effect and a less forthcoming voice. But the ghost of Salinger and Holden Caulfield is still in The Disintegrations, especially in the sections “The Weight”, “Chris, a Recipe”, and “How to Dispose of Me.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or,The Whale, 1851.
While we’re on the subject of American classics, Moby Dick also cast its spell on me during the writing process, just as it has cast its spell on so many writers. In that earlier, much lengthier draft—which incidentally was titled The Death Book; or, The Disintegrations in homage to Melville’s title—I had a bunch of epigraphs on death, just like the “Extracts” section of quotes about whales in Melville’s novel, and I included this line from Melville himself: “Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of life and death” (p 42). Luckily I saw reason. To try to write one’s own Moby Dick is a quest as futile and full of hubris as Captain Ahab’s. I realized the goal of my death book was far more modest. But Melville continued to inspire me. The Disintegrations remains a book about a guy as single-minded as Ahab and as solitary as Ishmael, on a dangerous quest to find the unknowable. Melville’s (or Ishmael’s) assertion that we’ve gotten the life-death equation wrong is a major theme in the narrative. And Melville’s glorious chapter headings and the book’s protean form can absolutely be seen in the structure I ended up employing to articulate the ineffable.

Joan Didion, A Book of Common Prayer, 1977.
Joan Didion is one of my favorite living American writers. The Disintegrations owes so much to her astringent, acute perspective on the interplay between sunshine and death in California. I love her nonfiction but also her fiction. Apart from the voice and tone, the major difficulty with writing my own book was coming up with a structure to contain the fragments. When I undertook that radical revision, restructuring the linear narrative I’d created, Didion’s novel A Book of Common Prayer was so instructive as a model of how to do this. Didion’s organic, fugue-like composition, her use of repetition and recurring motifs, and the cool, precise use of first person, really showed me how to tap into my own narrative fugue.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights, 1848; Translator Alan Myers, 1995.
I was pretty aware of the influences on this work as I wrote, but one that took me by surprise was “White Nights,” an early short story of Dostoevsky’s. I’d read it a long time ago and picked it up to reread. I was struck not only by how beautiful it is but also by how much the story inspired The Disintegrations. “White Nights” tells the story of a lonely guy in Saint Petersburg who wanders around at night, who thinks too much, and who meets a young woman he falls in love with, but who can’t love him back. (Incidentally, Bresson’s Four Nights is a retelling of this book.)

The more straightforward version of The Disintegrations saw my narrator wandering around the cemetery with an unnamed companion, telling him all his ideas about death. As I mentioned, I had to do away with that artifice, but Dostoevsky’s discursive, philosophical, morbid, dreamy tone is still very much at play in what you’re reading—see the chapter “An Encounter” as an example. Like his narrator, mine is similarly “oppressed by such strange thoughts, such gloomy sensations; questions still so obscure to me are crowding into my brain and I seem to have neither power nor will to settle them” (33).  The Disintegrations may appear to be unconventional, but in many ways it’s quite old-fashioned, a nineteenth-century novel of ideas rewired for this century. Dostoevsky is one of those writers who have been with me since I was a teenager and follow me around whether I like it or not.

Dennis Cooper, The Marbled Swarm, 2011.
For me, Cooper is up there with Didion as one of the greatest living American writers. I’ve read all his novels. He’s one of the few contemporary American writers who create absolute fictive worlds; by this I mean a book that is placed under the extreme pressure of the author’s totalizing vision—the outside world no longer matters. These are the kinds of books I’ve been drawn to since I was a kid. The Marbled Swarm has this propulsive narrative rhythm to it that was really important to me as I constructed my book’s own idiosyncratic rhythm. I was thinking a lot about my narrator’s secrets, what he reveals, what he doesn’t reveal, what’s unknown to him, what is untellable. Cooper’s masterful work, and its ever-shifting, kaleidoscopic focus on concealment, was a guiding light.

W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants, 1992; translator Michael Hulse, 1996.
I discovered Sebald’s work as an MFA student in the late 1990s. Like so many readers, I was immediately bewitched; I devoured all his books. He died during my final MFA residency, while I was rereading The Rings of Saturn. But it’s The Emigrants, the first of his books that I read, that has stayed with me the most: the delicacy and obliqueness with which he approaches the Holocaust. And of course his amazing fusion of genres—each book an alchemical combination of fiction, memoir, travelogue, history and biography—as well as his deft combining of the traditional and the experimental.

Sebald is one of those writers that I think you don’t want to get too close to, aesthetically. His work is so singular that to be too influenced by it, at least literally, would just result in a pale imitation. I work in an entirely different register, yet my blurring of genres in The Disintegrations—fiction and nonfiction, story and eulogy, poetry and obituary—owes so much to Sebald, as does the  book’s voice and tone in which I try to tread lightly. The trace of his voice, still so strong sixteen years after his death, can be seen in a story like “Aino’s Song”, especially the character of Herta, as well as “My Grandfather’s Hemorrhage.”

Alistair McCartney

Alistair McCartney is the author of The End of the World Book, a finalist for the PEN USA Literary Award in Fiction and the Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White debut fiction award. He teaches fiction in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles and oversees their undergraduate creative writing concentration. Born in Australia, he lives in Venice, California.

 

Q&A with a Self-Made Woman

Today, the University of Wisconsin Press publishes SELF-MADE WOMAN, the story of one individual’s intense struggle to accept her true self. In this post, Denise DuBois (who grew up as Dennis Dubis in 1960s Milwaukee) answers some questions about her book and gender today.

1. Was there one defining moment that inspired you to write Self-Made Woman?

It was one defining place that inspired me to write my story. The island of Kauai. I had rented a little private studio on the north shore, just off this epic beach in a place called Haena, which means “wilderness” in Hawaiian. There’s something magical about Kauai. I really suspect that there’s more oxygen in the air out there in the middle of the Pacific, no kidding, and more oxygen for the brain means increased alertness and creativity. I wrote the entire 650- page manuscript, every word, on Kauai from 2010 to 2014. I felt like Mozart composing a symphony at my keyboard, which I likened to a piano. I went into the”zone” every afternoon. That was so wonderful!

2. What was an experience you absolutely knew had to be in this book?

It’s just as hard for me to answer this question as it was for me to write about it in the book. Being honest with myself. Not being afraid to put it all out there on the page for the reader. There were things that happened to me in life that just had to be told, much of it self-inflicted. It was painful for me to recount those experiences and put that into writing. Many times during the writing of my book, I broke down in front of my screen, just devastated to be living this all over again. It was like I was there all over again. Very hard to write, but I always rallied. Kauai had a way of refreshing me.

3. How did you approach writing your memoir? Were there parts that were harder to write than others?

My approach was straightforward. It was all in my head, all 650 pages. Each day I worked off a yellow legal pad that I had next to my desktop. It was full of handwritten notes from the previous day of writing and ideas that popped into my head when I went running and  swimming every morning. I got up at 4:30 am everyday.  I wrote from noon to 6 pm, in bed by 9 pm, without fail. There were excruciatingly painful moments of writing, and other parts that were a refreshing relief to write, but in either case I knew early on in the writing process that I was onto something really good, even with the difficult stories. My story had to be told.

My approach was straight forward. It was all in my head. All 650 pages. Click To Tweet

4. Do you think the struggles you overcame were necessary to make you who you are today?

We all have struggles to overcome in life. Mine were no different than anyone else’s. But, I did come close to death many times and was at the door. Being that close to death does, in my humble opinion, have something to do with who I am today. I am a survivor, and I am thankful that I still have my mind intact and wonderful physical health so that I’ve been able to convey my life story. In that sense, it made me who I am today.

5. What kept you going through it all? Was there a specific dream or thought that you held on to?

In the deepest, darkest moments of my life, most specifically when my crystal meth addictions bubbled up like a witch’s brew from hell, when all seemed lost and hopeless, when my moments of complete and utter loneliness surrounded me, I just always thought,  I can pull out of this somehow and not lose faith in myself. Many times I felt so lost that it seemed I could never survive, but I did. For those who find themselves in that horrible place, just know that you can survive, too.

6. “The American Dream” has undoubtedly changed over the years. Would you say your story is your personal American Dream? Does everyone have a different conception of the American Dream, or is there a common thread that unites us?

“Patience, young grasshopper,” said the Master in Kung Fu. I suspect that has always been my own personal American Dream. If you wait for something long enough it will come to you, if you want it badly enough (and I wanted this book very badly for many years), it will come to you. Humanity is the common theme that unites us all. We don’t need countries for that. 100,000 years ago Humanity walked out of the African Savannah and colonized the world for better or worse. I still have faith in Humanity that it’s for the better. I will never lose that faith.

I still have faith in Humanity that it’s for the better. I will never lose that faith. Click To Tweet

7. How do you feel people today view gender nonconformity? Is it getting easier to re-identify oneself or are there more issues many of us aren’t even aware of?

Gender nonconformity has become very fluid and is changing right before our eyes, nationwide. Oregon is now the first state to allow a third gender option on driver’s licenses. People who identify as gender nonbinary—neither male nor female—can list their sex as “X” instead of “F” or “M.” This is a huge win for the LGBTQ community as some people gravitated towards this option and other states are expected to follow very soon. Many universities across the country already have this in place on their application forms too. Such a change from when I transitioned in 2003!

8. What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with how to identify?

Be true to yourself, accept yourself, learn to love yourself first, so that you can learn to love others! Talk to your friends about this, talk to your family, but only if they are accepting of you. Do not isolate yourself as I did. Do not feel ashamed as I did. Do not do crystal as I did, do not drink as I did, do not take other drugs as I did. Escape from all that and save yourself a boatload of misery. I did drugs and alcohol to numb my true self, to run away from my true self, and to forget about my true self. Just remember, in the end you can never run away from who you truly are, from your true self.

Denise Chanterelle DuBois is an actress, environmentalist, and businesswoman. A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she lives in Portland, Oregon.

Author’s website: https://selfmadewomanbook.com/

Book trailer for Self-Made Woman.

The Land Remembers: Refreshing the Memory

This summer, the University of Wisconsin Press released the Ninth Edition of Ben Logan’s beloved memoir, THE LAND REMEMBERS: The Story of a Farm and Its People, with a new introduction by Curt Meine. In this post, Meine reveals a different side of author Ben Logan.

When the University of Wisconsin Press invited me to write an introduction for a new edition of Ben Logan’s beloved memoir The Land Remembers, I thought immediately of the several opportunities I had to meet, talk, and share a podium with Ben. Ben died in 2014 at the age of 94. I did not know Ben well. On those occasions when we did meet I was struck by his easygoing demeanor, understated humor, and quiet intelligence. He seemed a man quite at p  eace with himself.

Although we had only those few direct personal interactions, Ben and I shared a connection through the work and legacy of conservationist Aldo Leopold. Ben had studied with Leopold at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1940s, an experience that would prove to have a durable impact on Logan’s life and writing. I had written a biography of Leopold, and over the years had met and interviewed many of Leopold’s former students. Ben stood out by pursuing a career as a writer, not in conservation. Although Ben never mentions Leopold in the body of The Land Remembers, he briefly alluded to Leopold’s influence in an afterword to a 2006 (eighth!) edition:

“[H]umans are not separated from all the other living parts and places and mysteries of what Aldo Leopold called THE LAND—all things on, over, and in the earth. When I first heard him say that in a University of Wisconsin classroom, it was a moment of great discovery. His definition of land included me, made a place for me in the immense mosaic of life.”

Humans are not separated from all the other living parts and places and mysteries of THE LAND Click To Tweet

Ben Logan

Ben was only twenty years old at the time. His sensitivity to the land, and to the human and natural relationships inherent in land, has many sources in his life, education, and career. But that “great discovery” on campus in Madison would lend a unity to the narrative of Ben’s life and to the story he would ultimately commit to the pages of The Land Remembers. It would also give the book a universality that allowed it to appeal to readers far removed from the Kickapoo Valley ridgetop farm in southwestern Wisconsin where it is set. In remembering his own childhood on the land, Ben tapped into the widely shared human need to re-member ourselves.

In the introduction for the new University of Wisconsin Press edition I sought to fill in some of the details of the story behind the story. Late in life Ben became more open about his painful World War II experience. In particular he was traumatized by the loss in December 1943 of nineteen of his Navy shipmates when their craft hit a floating mine near Naples, Italy. Ben was spared only because he was in a nearby military hospital at the time. The Land Remembers was fundamentally a consequence, decades later, of that tragedy and his resolve to “live both for myself and for those who died.” To pull together a life dislocated by war, Ben returned to the land in his memory, publishing The Land Remembers in 1975—and then returned in his person in 1986 when he and his wife Jacqueline purchased back the family farm.

Preparing the introduction for this new edition thus refreshed my own memory. What I had recalled as Ben’s steadiness and composure gained an edge that I had not appreciated before. Beneath his outer calm I now saw a core of courage: a determination to come to terms with one’s life experience through the power of story.

Curt D. Meine is director for conservation biology and history with the Center for Humans and Nature, senior fellow with the Aldo Leopold Foundation, research associate with the International Crane Foundation, and associate adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work  and coeditor of The Essential Aldo Leopold, both also published by the University of Wisconsin Press.  With Keefe Keeley, he has coedited The Driftless Reader, which UWP will publish in late September 2018.

A Russian Revolution Reading List

In this centennial year of the Bolshevik Revolution, here is intriguing reading on political and cultural facets of the revolutionary era (1914-21).

AN AMERICAN DIPLOMAT IN BOLSHEVIK RUSSIA
DeWitt Clinton Poole
Edited by Lorraine M. Lees and William S. Rodner

“A fascinating edition of US diplomat DeWitt Clinton Poole’s oral account of his experience in revolutionary Russia from 1917 to 1919. . . . His views of the early Bolshevik government, like those of other Americans who were there, are critical as the centennial of the Russian Revolution approaches. Highly recommended, all levels/libraries.“Choice

“A historical treasure trove for an era that will never be short on paradoxes, colorful characters, brutal conflict, and harrowing circumstances. Poole, one of the last American diplomats in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution and before recognition in 1933, was a cool, detached observer of events, and rather prescient in his predictions.”Russian Life

 

THE BODY SOVIET
Tricia Starks

The Body Soviet is the first sustained investigation of the Bolshevik government’s early policies on hygiene and health care in general.”—Louise McReynolds, author of Russia at Play: Leisure Activities at the End of the Tsarist Era

“A masterpiece that will thoroughly fascinate and delight readers. Starks’s understanding of propaganda and hygiene in the early Soviet state is second to none. She tells the stories of Soviet efforts in this field with tremendous insight and ingenuity, providing a rich picture of Soviet life as it was actually lived.”—Elizabeth Wood, author of From Baba to Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia

 

FAST FORWARD
The Aesthetics and Ideology of Speed in Russian Avant-Garde Culture, 1910–1930
Tim Harte

“The book is well-written and richly illustrated. It is a pleasure to read both in the old-fashioned slow way and to browse in the accelerated fast-forward mode. This highly stimulating study responds to a long-standing need to address speed as an aesthetic category in modern Russian art and constitutes a very welcome and important contribution to the field.”—Nikolai Firtich, Slavic Review

Fast Forward reveals how the Russian avant-garde’s race to establish a new artistic and social reality over a twenty-year span reflected an ambitious metaphysical vision that corresponded closely to the nation’s rapidly changing social parameters.

 

WHEN PIGS COULD FLY AND BEARS COULD DANCE
A History of the Soviet Circus
Miriam Neirick

“A beautifully written, compact history of the Soviet circus.”—Janet M. Davis, author of The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top

For more than seven decades the circuses enjoyed tremendous popularity in the Soviet Union. How did the circus—an institution that dethroned figures of authority and refused any orderly narrative structure—become such a cultural mainstay in a state known for blunt and didactic messages? Miriam Neirick argues that the variety, flexibility, and indeterminacy of the modern circus accounted for its appeal not only to diverse viewers but also to the Soviet state. In a society where government-legitimating myths underwent periodic revision, the circus proved a supple medium of communication.

EPIC REVISIONISM
Russian History and Literature as Stalinist Propaganda
Edited by Kevin M. F. Platt and David Brandenberger

“Platt and Brandenberger have collected first-rate contributors and produced a coherent and powerful volume that amplifies what we know about the uses and abuses of history in the Soviet 1930s.”—Ronald Grigor Suny, University of Chicago

“A boon to graduate students and a delight to aficionados of Soviet culture.”—Jeffrey Brooks, John Hopkins University

 

 

RUSSIA’S ROME
Imperial Visions, Messianic Dreams, 1890–1940
Judith E. Kalb

A wide-ranging study of empire, religious prophecy, and nationalism in literature, Russia’s Rome provides the first examination of Russia’s self-identification with Rome during a period that encompassed the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and the rise of the Soviet state.

“Gives a new and significant context to the work of some of Russia’s major poets and prose writers of the early twentieth century. Kalb’s main contribution is to show that the interest in the Roman Empire was not an incidental part of Russian literature in this period, but a genuine obsession.” —Michael Wachtel, Princeton University

 

Prison Laugh Riot

The University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to release IF YOU DON’T LAUGH YOU’LL CRY: The Occupational Humor of White Wisconsin Prison Workers. Author Claire Schmidt writes about the unexplored world of prison staff humor. In their high-stakes, high-stress environment, these workers let off steam by cracking jokes that are not always nice. In this post, Schmidt emphasizes the difference between movie portrayals of cruel  guards and real corrections workers and discusses why the evolving state of U.S. prisons is no laughing matter.

 

 

“There’s nothing funny about prison.”  That’s what my uncle told me when I started researching the humor of prison workers.
There's nothing funny about prison, said my uncle as I started writing about what was funny about prison. Click To Tweet
And yet, when prison workers get together, they surround themselves with laughter. Many of the people I interviewed for this book—my collaborators—are gifted verbal artists, making each other laugh. Practical jokes, gag gifts, smart remarks, memes, and mimicry evolve into stories that travel beyond the walls of the institution.

One collaborator told me, “I am constantly trying to make my coworkers laugh. I consider it imperative to do this every day in this profession. Humor cuts tension. Cutting tension in the correctional setting, rather than adding to it, elevates my self-worth.”
We love to hate the prison guards in films and television; their violence, racism, and inhumanity is legendary, from Cool Hand Luke to The Shawshank Redemption. But we almost never see the faces or hear the voices of actual, living prison workers. Prison work happens behind closed doors—there is no “take your daughter to work day.”

The men and women who work in Wisconsin’s correctional facilities work hard for low pay and eroding benefits. They don’t get much respect or appreciation. The job brings elevated risk of heart attack, suicide, substance abuse, and divorce. So why is humor so important to prison work?

The men and women I interviewed insisted that humor is an essential job skill. “It’s really true—if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry,” one collaborator told me. Enduring stress, boredom, stigma, violence, and human suffering is part of prison work. As one collaborator observed, “We need to rely a lot on gallows humor to cope with the things that we see.”

When we joke, we are able to talk about such scary or taboo topics as sex, death, and race. The communicative power of humor is especially important in prison. Workers can express anger, sadness, or frustration with their jobs under the protection of “only” joking.

Prisons are all about people and all about communication. My collaborators made it clear that they use humor to build functional relationships with inmates as well as to communicate solidarity and affection to their coworkers. Wit and comic timing can deescalate a crisis and good storytelling turns that crisis into an educational story.
One collaborator told me, “If we like you, we’ll mess with you!” Humor helps to educate, test, and initiate rookies, just as gag gifts and roasts are an essential parts of corrections retirement parties. Laughter turns outsiders into insiders, but humor also defines the boundaries between groups like officers vs inmates or black vs white.

Humor isn't safe or nice. Professionalism is at war with the desire to push the limits. Click To Tweet
Humor isn’t safe or nice. Professionalism is at war with the desire to push the limits and to talk about uncomfortable things. Prison worker humor (just like doctor or teacher humor) can be tasteless and offensive. “We joke about a lot of gay stuff,” one collaborator told me.

Corrections officer Harriet Fox writes, “We sure laugh a lot at work. Watching inmates act disorderly and shocking can be sadly entertaining.” And since most Wisconsin prison workers are white, anxiety about unfamiliar cultures manifests in racial humor. Just because humor is offensive doesn’t mean it isn’t important.
Although violent crime has declined in the US, we lock up a huge number of our citizens (and in Wisconsin, a really disproportionate number of black, Hispanic, and Native people). It’s getting harder and harder to recruit and retain correctional officers in Wisconsin after the workers’ union was stripped of collective bargaining rights. If we want safer prisons, we can start by trying to understand what makes these workers laugh.

Audioclips from interviews conducted by Schmdit wherein prison guards tell stories of the humor involved on the job. 

“Don’t send me any of them down here!”

“What’chu know bout CeeLo Green?”

“Best part of the job.”

And a final word of advice: If you meet a correctional officer, avoid “don’t-drop-the-soap” jokes. They’ve heard them.
If you meet a correctional officer, avoid “don’t-drop-the-soap” jokes. They’ve heard them. Click To Tweet

Claire Schmidt is a folklorist and assistant professor of English at Missouri Valley College.

Burying the United Nations Genocide Treaty

This week, University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to release THE SOVIET UNION AND THE GUTTING OF THE UN GENOCIDE CONVENTION. After the staggering horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, the United Nations resolved to prevent and punish the crime of genocide throughout the world. The resulting UN Genocide Convention treaty, however, was drafted, contested, and weakened in the midst of Cold War tensions and ideological struggles between the Soviet Union and the West. Author Anton Weiss-Wendt presents a unique historical account of the failure of the genocide convention. 

Joseph Stalin is the most outstanding figure in Russia’s history, followed by Vladimir Putin and Alexander Pushkin, according to a poll of Russians released in June 2017 by the independent Levada center in Moscow. The 38% of Russians who gave their vote to Stalin clearly dismiss and/or trivialize the mass crimes committed by his regime.

Mine is a story of international criminal law through the prism of Cold War, a legal history of the Cold War. Click To Tweet

When I learned the word genocide, it was in Russian. My paternal grandparents spent nearly twenty years of their lives in Stalin’s Gulag, though they rarely spoke of it. For me, genocide is a personal story. But I am also a professionally trained historian. Hence, the objective of my book is not to condemn but to explain. Neither is it exclusively a story of the communist dictatorship and its crimes.

Unearthing a mass grave on the site of a Gulag camp at Chelyabinsk, east of the Urals, in 1990 (Scanpix)

The Soviets were certainly the biggest offenders in trying to hollow out the Genocide Convention during the UN debates in 1947–48, but they were not the only ones with a vested interest. Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States wanted political groups to be protected by the Genocide Convention. The two countries also reached an unlikely consensus that postponed indefinitely the establishment of an international criminal court. The British, for their part, never tried to conceal their dislike for the kind of international treaty they regarded as futile.

As I worked through documents in over a dozen archives in the United States and Europe, I have oscillated in my view of whether or not Stalin and his top diplomats/ accomplices Andrei Vyshinsky and Vyacheslav Molotov (the men on the front cover of the book) should have stood trial on charges of genocide. I conclude that, “under ideal circumstances, Stalin and the Soviet Union could no doubt be indicted for genocide,” yet I caution that this statement not be taken out of context.

Negotiators for the former Allies in World War II—the Soviet Union, the United States, the United Kingdom—were each conscious of cases of mass violence that they did not want to be covered by the convention. For the Soviets it was forced labor, ethnic deportations, and the destruction of political opposition in Eastern Europe. The Americans had on their minds racial discrimination at home and the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe. The British had yet the longest list of hot-button subjects: the treatment of colonial populations, American use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the treatment of Jews in Mandate Palestine, again the faith fate of German expellees, and so on.

A car owner in Moscow displays his admiration of Stalin, October 2015 (Photo: Ilya Varlamov)

The big question for me—and for all those who have examined or tried to apply the Genocide Convention in a court of law—is whether or not it is a useful legal tool. I am not optimistic. Cold War politics bankrupted the word genocide and ran aground the international treaty that was meant to stamp genocide out of existence. Stalin, and bloody dictators like him, care little for human rights law and are seldom brought to justice.

Stalin, and bloody dictators like him, care little for human rights law and are seldom brought to justice. Click To Tweet

Anton Weiss-Wendt directs research at the Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Oslo, Norway. He is the author of Murder without Hatred: Estonians and the Holocaust and Small-Town Russia: Childhood Memories of the Final Soviet Decade; editor of The Nazi Genocide of the Roma; and coeditor of Racial Science in Hitler’s New Europe, 1938–1945.

Honoring Mekemson era at Contemporary Literature

Mary Mekemson, hard at work editing Contemporary Literature

The Fall 2016 issue of Contemporary Literature marked the end of an era, the last to be edited by Mary Mekemson. Her nearly thirty years as managing editor with the journal were celebrated at a party in September, given in honor of her retirement. Mary received a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature in 1988 and took the position of managing editor with the journal in 1989. She has read, corrected, and revised every word in Contemporary Literature from 1989 to 2016. She was (and is) a superb editor. Her insistence upon clear writing improved the prose style and argument of many an essay. She regularly received praise and thanks from the authors with whom she worked, and her mentoring of the journal’s graduate-student editorial assistants was much appreciated. The editorial office staff of the journal and staff at UW Press wish Mary the very best.

 

 

Executive Editor Thomas Schaub, outgoing Managing Editor Mary Mekemson, new Managing Editor Eileen Ewing

Eileen Ewing is the new managing editor. “Having worked for Contemporary Literature for several years as its editorial and administrative associate, I am pleased to take on the role of managing editor. It allows me to continue my scholarly engagement with the literature of the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I have a Ph.D. in English, with my dissertation focusing on twentieth-century women’s writing. I am particularly interested in the technical aspects of journal production and find the process of rejigging workflows for an electronic environment both stimulating and fun. I look forward to the challenges of manuscript editing and to carrying on the journal’s tradition of excellence.”