Category Archives: Interview

The Impact of Pollution Exposure on Educational Outcomes and Inequality

Upcoming Journal of Human Resources article uncovers the hidden effects of pollutants on cognitive development and academic performance in adolescents

Journal of Human Resources Fall 2019 current issue cover

Increasing environmental consciousness means that more people are reaching for metal straws, but we may not be aware of a much larger issue: the hidden toxins in the air. New research set to appear in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Human Resources suggests that pollutants from local Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) sites may impact the productivity and educational development of students in nearby schools.

Over the past four years, Claudia Persico, an assistant professor at American University, evaluated over one million elementary, middle, and high school students in Florida using their Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) scores, their level of academic success, and general wellness. With over 30% of schools in Florida existing within one mile of a TRI site, exposure to air pollution was found to be associated with lower test scores and a greater chance that students will be suspended from school, have greater numbers of absences from school and perform lower on their FCAT exams. Persico expanded on these results to determine if different proximities to TRI sites affected grade repetition, behavior, and health over time. When students’ records were examined, it was revealed that those who had been exposed to the pollution for a greater cumulative time had lower attendance records and more health concerns.

Persico joined us to discuss the genesis of her interest in this topic and the larger implications of the study. To learn more, read the full Journal of Human Resources preprint article, “The Effects of Local Industrial Pollution on Students and Schools.”


1. How did you decide to pursue this topic? What spurred this study?

I used to study the neurobiology of autism at the Boston University School of Medicine, but I became interested in why low-income children perform so much worse in school and are more likely to have disabilities. Because the developing brain is so vulnerable to the environment, this got me interested in studying pollution.

It turns out that in 2014 alone, Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) sites in America (which represent only one type of industrial plant) released 3.95 billion pounds of (untreated) toxic chemicals into the air, land, and water, out of 25.45 billion total pounds of toxic chemicals created in production-related wastes. Although we do not currently have comprehensive evidence on which pollutants are most harmful, the evidence we do have is worrisome and suggests a source of inequality that has not yet been explored in depth. Namely, since African American, Hispanic, and low-income families are more likely to live and attend school in close proximity to sources of pollution like toxic waste and TRI sites, where housing is less expensive, it is possible that exposure to pollution—which more affluent families can avoid because they can afford more costly housing—is one mechanism through which poverty produces negative cognitive and health outcomes over time.

2. You note that about 30 percent of children in Florida live within one mile of a TRI site. Is Florida an extreme case? How are the effects of pollutants on cognitive development applicable to other areas of the United States and the world?

There are currently about 21,800 TRI sites operating across the United States and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 59 million people (about 19 percent of the population) live within one mile of a TRI site (EPA 2014). We find that nearly 22 percent of all public schools were within one mile of a TRI facility in 2016 serving more than 11 million public school students.

While other countries don’t call their factories TRI sites, it is likely that my findings could generalize to power plants, pharmaceutical industry, chemical, metal, and concrete manufacturers, as well as other factories that produce pollution containing carcinogens or known developmental toxicants worldwide. It is difficult to know how many people this would affect given that there isn’t a central database for international pollution, but my guess is that many people are affected. 

3. What is one takeaway from your article that you’d like to communicate to non-scholars (or policymakers)?

These findings have strong implications for where we locate schools, playgrounds, public housing and places children or pregnant women congregate. For a long time, we have known that neighborhoods matter to children’s long-term outcomes. We are starting to realize that pollution is one major reason why this is the case, that pollution might drive more inequality than we are comfortable with, and that the true costs of pollution are only beginning to be understood.

4. To what extent do you feel that your research could inspire change in policy?

I think policymakers are starting to be interested in these findings, and I am optimistic about the future. While the land near TRI sites is cheaper to build a school on in the short run, the truth is that these sites might jeopardize the very mission of the schools located there. This also says nothing of the long-run costs on the children exposed to this type of pollution. In the back of the envelope calculation, we find that being exposed to TRI pollution in school leads to a US$4,361 decrease in lifetime income per person (in present value terms). With 436,088 children in Florida ever attending school within one mile of an operating TRI site during this sample period, this result implies US$1,875,178,400 in lost lifetime earnings.

5. Will you continue to pursue similar questions or will you take your research in another direction?

Yes, I am pursuing several new projects about the true costs of pollution. For example, I have another new working paper (along with David Simon and Jenni Heissel) in which we compare students who have to switch from elementary to middle school or from middle school to high school as they progress through the school system. We compare children who switch from a school that is upwind from a highway to a school that is downwind of a highway, and again find that highway pollution affects students’ test scores, behavior, and absences. Children who attend school near a major highway are again more likely to be low income or minority than children attending school elsewhere.

Figure 1. Locations of Toxic Release Inventory and Superfund sites in the United States in 2015.

Note: Toxic Release Inventory facilities are shown in blue and sites on the Superfund National Priorities List are shown in red.

Source: National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services. https://toxmap.nlm.nih.gov/toxmap


Claudia Persico is an applied policy scholar whose research focuses on environmental policy, inequality, health and education policy using causal inference methods. Persico is also an IZA Research Affiliate, and a Research Affiliate with the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. Her research has recently been featured in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the Journal of Labor Economics, and the Journal of Human Resources. Her current work examines the social and biological mechanisms underlying the relationships between poverty, the environment, and children’s cognitive development and health. In particular, much of her current research focuses on how early exposure to environmental pollution can cause inequality by affecting child health, development, behavior, and academic achievement. She has also studied how school funding affects long term outcomes, how school segregation impacts racial disproportionalities in special education, and how childhood exposure to pollution affects academic outcomes. Her research has been covered by the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, the Atlantic, and many other major media outlets. She was formerly an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Ghana Studies Publishes Special Forum on First Ghanaian Archaeologist

Ghana Studies

The latest volume of Ghana Studies features a special forum in memory of James Kwesi Anquandah, who was a pioneer in the field of archaeology in Ghana. Forum editor Ebony Coletu chatted with the editors of Ghana Studies to describe Anquandah’s legacy and support for interdisciplinary research.


Ghana Studies Editors: For readers who may be new to Ghana Studies or to the field of archaeology, can you tell us why James Anquandah was such a towering figure in the field? 

Ebony Coletu: Professor Anquandah was the first student of archaeology at the University of Ghana in the sixties—and he went on to mentor five generations of archaeology students as a faculty member, along with countless others who were not working in archaeology or even students at the university. Because his research practice was deeply interdisciplinary, he attracted scholars beyond the department, many like myself just dropping in to his office to ask a few questions, but leaving with an exciting mandate to develop new approaches. You hear this in Kwasi Ampene’s article too, how conversations with Anquandah animated a speculative approach to researching musical practices in the Akan Stone Age and Early Iron Age. So Anquandah did not prescribe a method, he inspired methods, really from his energetic curiosity and commitment to telling new stories about the distant past. Also in this forum, Mohammed Mustapha and Wazi Apoh describe his “eclectic method”—which is a multi-disciplinary research protocol Anquandah used to answer complex questions. For him, it was not enough to write from a single discipline, or apply a single method consistently. Instead he wanted to synthesize history, policy, sociology, and art, to help reformulate and deepen the significance of a question and tell a better story about research findings, particularly for publics beyond the academy. 

GS Editors: What distinguishes this special forum commemorating the work and legacy of James Kwesi Anquandah (1938-2017)? 

EC: Soon after he passed, I circulated a call for papers that focused on mentorship as a way to map his influence across fields, thus “reframing the reach of archaeology.” The responses affirmed the call by capturing Anquandah’s marathon commitment to mentoring  (training five generations of archaeologists in Ghana) as well as the ongoing work of decolonizing disciplines. Rachel Ama Asaa Engmann addresses this directly in her essay, when she writes about autoarchaeology, a research practice that foregrounds direct descendants as researchers whose families have lived in or around the excavation site. She enlisted Danish-Ga descendants as researchers at Christiansborg Castle, unearthing artifacts and posing questions collaboratively. As a consequence of centering community-based knowledge production, the project inspires new pipelines for training in archaeology aimed at multilingual researchers who are gaining experience on site. She reframes the reach of archaeology by asking who can do this work and why? For Kwasi Ampene, Anquandah inspired a deep-time approach to Akan ethnomusicology, and in the process he challenges our dependence on sixteenth-century European traveler sketches typically used as evidence of musical practices. Questioning the explanatory power and the historical limits of these images, Ampene goes on to suggest a deep-time alternative: using archaeological research to speculate on the multipurpose use of agricultural instruments to make ancient music, inspired by those used for both purposes today.

GS Editors: You not only guest edited this special forum, you also contributed an essay to it in which you introduce the idea of “descendent epistemology.” Can you tell readers how your conversations with Anquandah helped you formulate this innovative methodology? 

EC: I was fortunate to meet Anquandah in the early stages of my research on Chief Sam, an Akyem merchant who led a diasporic return movement that recruited support from thousands of African Americans to purchase a ship that set sail from Texas, arriving in the Gold Coast in 1915. I had narrow interests in that first conversation. I wanted to reconstruct a fuller version of Sam’s family tree and identify a plausible link to the Sams of Anomabo, who are part of my family. Chief Sam’s life was far from conventional, leaving traces and descendants in multiple countries, including multiple wives and stepchildren. I sought Anquandah’s help to make sense of a more complex family tree. But after reading his interview notes with descendants and talking with him over several years, he began to reflect my questions back to me, noting that my concern with kinship had widened to include the technical matter of diasporic return: what was the status of African Americans who pledged to live, work, and die in African communities? Were they also, in some sense, part of Sam’s family? Sam had proposed to adopt them en masse to facilitate the process of landownership and repair a spiritual wound from separation by slavery. While mass adoption was unsuccessful, those who remained quickly integrated into indigenous communities through other means. I found Sam’s proposal, and colonial attempts to block it, an important antecedent to contemporary debates about diasporic right of return, evidence of kinship, and different routes to Ghanaian citizenship. 

GS Editors: Taken together, what does this collection of special forum essays tell us about the next generation of archaeological research coming out of Ghana? 

EC: The last essay says much on this point. Mustapha and Apoh tell a story about Anquandah’s decolonial legacy, which has shaped their own research itineraries instead of resting on a citational model that preserves what previous generations of Africanist archaeologists prioritized. For example, Apoh’s research builds new sources for the understudied topic of German missionionization and colonization in historical archaeology. While Mustapha pushes back against an exogenous theory of social complexity in the Mamprugu Traditional Area in Northern Ghana by investigating indigenous innovations that led to large scale ancient ironworking. Engmann’s work also sharpens this point by challenging value assessments in the literature, which can determine which places are considered critical to research while marginalizing others. Her work at Christiansborg Castle is groundbreaking for the sheer number of artifacts excavated in a short period of time on a site previously considered marginal. This despite the fact that it served as the seat of several administrations, from Danish governors to Flight Lieutenant John Jerry Rawlings. Though this forum began in a memorial spirit, it was exciting to edit because it features forthcoming interdisciplinary work in Ghana Studies encouraged by Professor Anquandah’s pathbreaking example.


Ghana Studies Volume 22 is available on Project MUSE. Browse the table of contents, which includes the special forum along with other articles and reviews. And if you’re attending the African Studies Association Conference this week, stop by the University of Wisconsin Press booth (#314), where you’ll find Ghana Studies alongside many of our other titles in African Studies.

An Interview with Poet Rae Armantrout

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, we present three interviews with living poets, originally published in Contemporary Literature journal. The interviews are freely available to access until May 1.

Our final poet is Rae Armantrout, a central figure of the Language poetry movement of the 1970s and 1980s who was nevertheless somewhat separate from that collectivity, crafting her own flavor of poetry that over time has remained “distinctive and distinctively fresh, particularly in its allegiance to a honed version of lyric that brings to mind the poetry of Emily Dickinson or George Oppen, and in its attention to the degradations—and the surprises—of American speech that permeate our consciousness and infiltrate even our dreams,” according to interviewer Lynn Keller. The conversation presented here touches on everything from physics to religion to ghosts to feminism. Armantrout discusses her cancer diagnosis and how it has impacted the practice and content of her writing, leading her to write poems more quickly and to dwell on mortality (though she says, “I’ve always had an attraction to the dark stuff anyway. I used to say I was channeling Kali. (Not so funny now.)”). When Keller asks Armantrout about the religious imagery in her recent work, she replies that though she’s not religious, she sees a parallel between religious practice and the act of creating a poem or other artwork:

Who are we talking to when we write? I don’t really think, in my case, that I’m talking to a specific audience; I think I’m talking to myself, but when I’m talking to myself, who am I talking to? It feels very much like when I was a child and I prayed, so it’s not that I actually believe there is an entity called God who hears what I say, but there is this desire to somehow perfect utterance. But make it perfect for whom, you know? I think in a way we are making something for the gods that we don’t believe in.

Read the full interview here, and then go read Armantrout’s poems!


And check out our other poetry month offerings:

An interview with Marge Piercy

An interview with Myung Mi Kim

An Interview with Poet Myung Mi Kim

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, we’re presenting three interviews with living poets, originally published in Contemporary Literature journal. The interviews are freely available to access until May 1.

Our second poet is Myung Mi Kim, in conversation with Lynn Keller. Kim, a Korean-American, refers to herself as “as a poet arrived at an uncanny familiarity with another language—or more precisely, as a poet transcribing the interstices of the abbreviated, the oddly conjoined, the amalgamated—recognizing that language occurs under continual construction.” As Keller puts it, in Kim’s hands, language

is subject to fracture and disruption, excision and rearrangement. It functions not as a means of gaining an illusory stability but rather as a register of the often jarring instability of human experience in time, and of the stumblings, the incoherencies, the polyphonic complexity of the immigrant’s experience in and between several cultures.

The wide-ranging discussion presented here touches on the poet’s process, childbirth and family, documentary poetry, poetic forms that privilege visual impact, the pastoral, geological time, the slipperiness of nostalgia, the generative power of silence, migration, and loss and mourning. Kim and Keller’s conversation bounces among so many different topics in part because Kim’s vision of poetry is so expansive and all-encompassing. As she describes it, “Poetry invites a practice of language/perception that embraces mutability, undecidability, the motion underneath and around what’s codified in conventions of language, grammar, syntax, semantics, and so forth. Poetry produces new ways of participating in perception, thinking, historical being and becoming.”

Read the full interview here, and then go read Kim’s poems!


And if you missed yesterday’s post, check out an interview with poet Marge Piercy.

An Interview with Poet Marge Piercy

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, we will be presenting three interviews with living poets, originally published in Contemporary Literature journal. The interviews are freely available to access until May 1.

Our first offering features poet, novelist, and memoirist Marge Piercy. Interviewer Bonnie Lyons describes Piercy’s poetry in this way:

Valuing usefulness highly, Piercy writes poems that are accessible to ordinary readers without sacrificing rich imagery and subtle sound effects. Her poetry embodies her belief in the importance of attention in her precise word choice and acute perception. Tikkun olam, Hebrew for “healing the world,” is central to her poetry, which works to awaken her readers’ passionate recognition of all that could and should be changed through human effort.

To date, Marge Piercy has written nineteen volumes of poetry, seventeen novels, and a memoir. When asked how she navigates multiple genres, she characterizes herself as “a poet who also writes novels.” She describes the benefits of her chosen genre:

You can write poetry when you are dying. The Plains Indians would try to have a final utterance. You can write poetry in a prison cell—you can scrawl it on the walls. You can memorize your poems. You can carry them around with you. A novel is a far more artificial construction, and it takes huge amounts of time to write one. If you were fighting as a guerrilla, you couldn’t write a novel, but you could write poetry. A novel is far less portable.

Lyons and Piercy discuss the writer’s long history of social and political activism. Piercy articulates how she has created a balance between activism and writing—two fields of activity that are often felt to be in conflict with one another. Piercy explains,

When I was a full-time organizer, I basically gave up sleeping to write. In my life since then, because I have been able to reach people through my writing, I feel much less of a conflict. In fact, it’s all of a piece with me. I don’t divide things up that way. I don’t make a value judgment that one type of poetry is more important than another—neither my poems about Judaism, or poems about love, or poems about the war in Iraq or the environment.

The interview also touches on the usefulness of poetry, the importance of reading in order to write, poetry as an act of attention similar to a religious practice, making a living as a writer, Piercy’s reputation as an “anti-academic” poet and how poetry can thrive outside of academe, and writing about sex, aging, and the body.

Read the full interview here, and then go read Piercy’s poems!

Employers Look Closely at Your Address, Study Finds

Journal of Human Resources cover imageForthcoming Journal of Human Resources article finds evidence of distance-based discrimination in the hiring process

It’s a vicious cycle: those living in poverty are often unable to afford housing in city centers, putting them far from jobs. And, according to new research set to appear in The Journal of Human Resources, employers may discriminate against job seekers who have longer commutes. This could be one factor making it difficult for many Americans to escape poverty, posits David Phillips, the study’s author.

Phillips had a hunch that a person’s address might impact their chances of getting hired. To measure the effects of distance on an applicant’s performance, Phillips’s team sent 2,260 resumes in response to low-wage position openings (requiring only a high school education) in Washington, DC. The findings were clear: the farther away an applicant lived from the job location, the less likely they were to receive a callback from the employer. To clarify these results, Phillips wanted to determine whether employers looked more favorably on addresses from wealthier neighborhoods, even if they were far from the place of work. When resumes were sent from neighborhoods with similar levels of affluence but different commute lengths, Phillips found that applicants from the more distant neighborhoods received 14 percent fewer callbacks than applicants who lived closer to the job site, even though both applicants could be presumed to have the same socioeconomic status. Overall, Phillips determined that employers weigh an applicant’s distance from the job more heavily than their neighborhood’s affluence.

Phillips, a researcher at the University of Notre Dame, joined us to discuss the genesis of his interest in this topic and the larger implications of this study. To learn more, read the full Journal of Human Resources preprint article, listen to Phillips’s interview with NPR, and check out some of the press that this study has been receiving, here, here, and here.

How did you decide to pursue this topic?

During my dissertation, I spent some time working with a non-profit employment agency in Washington, DC. Most of their clients lived in less affluent neighborhoods in Southeast DC and transportation was a common question. I helped them run a pilot testing whether public transit subsidies could facilitate the job search process for people looking for low-wage jobs. It became clear that their clients were working with major transportation issues. At some point in that project, the idea came up that employers were probably aware of the transportation difficulties that people face and might respond to the address listed on the job application.

Why did it make sense to publish in The Journal of Human Resources?

The JHR has a great reputation for publishing rigorous work on the most important questions in empirical economics. As a result, it reaches a broad audience of applied economists. I thought the paper’s topic would be a good fit for that audience given increased attention to neighborhood effects and urban geography in the literature lately. The JHR also has a track record of publishing correspondence experiments. This paper fits with earlier work by David Neumark and Joanna Lahey that has shown up in the pages of The JHR.

How does the distance bias interact with other discrimination applicants might face—due to class, race, or gender, for example?

Discrimination based on commute distance could compound existing inequity. Other things equal, remote places are cheaper and thus attract people with other disadvantages. For example, on average a black person in DC lives one mile farther from jobs than a white person. Even if employers have a clear, rational, unbiased reason for avoiding people with long commutes, that penalty disproportionately falls on people who face other barriers.

What part of your findings surprised you the most, and why?

An interesting topic is one where you suspect an effect exists where other people think it doesn’t. So, I went into this betting employers care about addresses, and the response to distance was not a surprise to me. I was more surprised that employers do not respond much to neighborhood affluence. I expected employers to really penalize distant, poor neighborhoods both because of their remoteness and because of poverty. And I don’t find evidence of the latter despite the fact that the fake applicants come from very, very different neighborhoods in terms of affluence.


David Phillips

Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

David Phillips, PhD, works in the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) within the Department of Economics at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on poverty, particularly as it relates to low-wage labor markets, crime, housing, and transportation. His research has been published in high quality economics field journals and presented widely for policy audiences. Prior to coming to Notre Dame, David received a Bachelor’s degree from Butler University, earned a PhD in Economics from Georgetown University, and worked for 4 years at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

The Decline—and Rise?—of LGBTQ+ Bookstores

Michael Lowenthal’s acclaimed novel, The Paternity Test, is now available in paperback. Lowenthal is our guest blogger today, the publication date of the paperback edition.

I came of age as a gay writer when LGBTQ+ bookstores were at their peak, with close to 100 in operation across the United States. Now only six such stores remain.

Publishing a novel with a gay protagonist feels entirely different in 2018 than it did when I published my first book, The Same Embrace, twenty years ago. On one hand, so-called mainstream culture has grown much more welcoming to a diversity of LGBTQ+ artists and stories; on the other hand, a once-thriving infrastructure that specifically supported LGBTQ+ literature has been largely erased.

I came of age as a writer—as a gay writer—in an era when the OutWrite conference for LGBTQ+ writers attracted 1,500 participants annually; when most cities in America supported a weekly LGBTQ+ newspaper that published robust coverage of gay arts; when “the Gay Book Boom” was a hotly discussed topic; and when LGBTQ+ bookstores were at their peak, with close to 100 in operation across the United States. Now only six such stores remain.

For her recent master’s thesis “LGBTQ Bookstores: Past, Present, and Future,” Emerson College student Stephanie Nisbet interviewed me about my experiences. On the occasion of the paperback publication of The Paternity Test, I’d like to share some of our discussion:

Stephanie Nisbet: What was the first LGBTQ+ bookstore you visited, and what do you remember about the experience?

Michael Lowenthal: Glad Day, in Boston, which at that time was located on the second floor of a building just across from the main branch of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. To get to the store you walked up a narrow stairway, and on the way up I had to squeeze past a man who was on his way down, and that moment of contact set the tone for the whole experience: thrilling, terrifying, full of sexual frisson but also a sort of bookish bonding.

At the time, I was a college student in a small town in New Hampshire, probably 19 years old, recently out of the closet, and I had never been to a gay bar or community center or pride parade. The only public gay gatherings I had been to were my college gay-student group meetings. So I was fantastically nervous (had anyone seen me walk into the building? I felt like I was glowing in neon) and at the same time giddy with excitement.

Once I was in the store, I could barely look anyone in the eye; I mostly kept my gaze glued to the books. But when I did look up, I saw that everyone else was glancing around in a way that seemed both furtive and, shall we say, quite friendly. The store was really small, with not much space between shelves, so there was a lot of nudging past people and close breathing. The back of the store had more porny stuff, magazines and videos, and I was too scared to go back there. Two queeny young bookstore employees were joking at the register, talking too loudly, almost as if they were making fun of the hush-hush atmosphere, and I wanted to get to know them. Or to be them. I think I bought an Edmund White book, The Beautiful Room Is Empty.

When I left I was exhausted from the tension. I couldn’t wait to go back!

SN: Is there any one LGBTQ+ bookstore you feel particularly connected to?

ML: Definitely Glad Day, since Boston was the city I visited most often when I lived in rural New England, and since I moved here in 1994 and have lived here ever since. In fact, when I was moving to Boston, the first place I went was to Glad Day, to look at the big bulletin board in the hallway outside the store, which was where gay guys tacked up “seeking roommate” notices. Answering those ads was the only way I even considered finding a living situation. (Remember, this was before Craigslist, before apps.) So that’s how I found my first place in the city.

When I became a writer, Glad Day was the first bookstore where I ever gave a reading. I became friends with John Mitzel, the longtime manager (who later opened his own gay bookstore, Calamus Books), who was a witty, brilliant (if troubled) old-school raconteur. Because I was a book reviewer, I got sent lots of books by publishers, and I would often bring stacks of them into the store to sell. Wanting to support a young writer, John would pay me way more than they were worth, in cash, and then take me next door to his regular bar, where he would drink me under the table (while discussing politics, literature, and sex, not necessarily in that order), even though he had two martinis for every one that I drank. So, Mitzel, and Glad Day, gave me a big chunk of my gay education.

Image Credit: AP

While I felt particularly connected with Glad Day, I will note that I have also been to gay bookstores in New York, DC, Baltimore, Rehoboth Beach, Norfolk, Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Arizona, Toronto, Paris, London, Berlin, Madrid, Taipei . . . and probably many more that I’m forgetting. In many of these stores, I gave readings. But in others I was just a visitor. It used to be that when I was traveling to a new city, the first obvious stop would be the gay bookstore, to meet locals who could tell me all the right places to go and things to do. The bookstore was a community center, travel agency, pickup spot, and so many other things, all rolled into one.

SN: As of 2016, Boston no longer has an LGBTQ+ bookstore. Do you believe there is still a place for another Calamus, for example, in the city?

ML: I do think there’s room for an LGBTQ store in Boston, but the concept would need to be adjusted and updated, I imagine. I think LGBTQ people are hungering for community right now, because there are so few places/occasions for us to gather. Most of the bars have closed, and with some of the key civil rights battles won (for now), there are very few public marches or demonstrations, aside from our once-a-year pride parade, which is now mostly reserved for banks, politicians, and churches. Most people don’t read a weekly LGBTQ newspaper, the way we used to. So there’s an empty spot where we used to share a common ground. Folks feel isolated, or connected only to their own small circle of friends. If there’s an upside to the Trump era, I think it’s that it’s reminded people of the power, solace, and joy of gathering together with likeminded strangers and neighbors in relatively public places. I think people are looking for spaces and ways to harness the kind of spirit that we see at the Women’s Marches and trans-rights marches and anti-Muslim-ban marches and anti-gun-violence marches and Black Lives Matter demonstrations. I think a new LGBTQ bookstore that not only sold books but also offered, say, a coffee shop and an evening events venue for story slams, would attract a lot of people and energy.

Michael Lowenthal is the author of three previous novels: Charity Girl, Avoidance, and The Same Embrace. He is a core faculty member in Lesley University’s MFA program in creative writing and lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

 

 

 

 

 

Talking about civilian complicity with the Pinochet regime’s violence

Civil Obedience: Complicity and Complacency in Chile since Pinochet by Michael J. Lazzara is published this week in the series Critical Human Rights. We spoke with Lazzara about issues raised by his book.

Q. Why is it so important to talk about civilian complicity now, more than forty years after the September 11, 1973, coup that put General Augusto Pinochet in power?

A. In the midst of the Cold War, the Pinochet regime (1973-1990) came to power as a violent reaction against democratically elected President Salvador Allende’s “Peaceful Road to Socialism.” Pinochet’s seventeen-year dictatorship resulted in the murder, disappearance, and exile of thousands of Chilean citizens who longed to build a more just and equitable society, as well as the torture of tens of thousands more. Throughout the 1990s, the early years of Chile’s transition to democracy, people almost exclusively attributed the Pinochet regime’s human rights violations to the military, the most egregious perpetrators. Yet we know that dictatorships are always supported behind the scenes by a cast of complicit civilians who play roles—major or minor—in perpetuating the violence and who, through complex processes of rationalization, manage to turn a knowing blind eye to the torture and murder of their fellow citizens.

The stark reality is that many of those who supported the Pinochet regime “behind the scenes” in the 1970s and 1980s remain active in politics, business, and other sectors today. Victims, their families, artists, academics, journalists, lawyers, and concerned citizens have struggled for decades to fight for memory and create a culture of respect for human rights. To a great extent, they have succeeded. But we can’t easily forget that memory and human rights constantly find themselves under attack from political and economic forces that still perpetuate certain violent attitudes fostered under dictatorship.

Q. Is the public discourse of these civilian accomplices relevant for thinking about the “post-truth” era in which we’re living?

A. Definitely! My book is not only about civilian complicity in Chile but also about how civilian accomplices remember and justify their past actions and commitments. I use the phrase “fictions of mastery” to talk about the vital lies (or partial truths) that such accomplices spin, both publically and privately, in order to live with themselves or to convince others that they were acting in the “best interest” of the country or out of a sense of patriotic duty.

Clearly, our contemporary scene is full of individuals who spin stories to advance particular agendas or maintain their hold on political and economic power. My book deconstructs and “outs” such self-serving fictions—and actors—while also advocating for a need for accountability (moral, ethical, and even judicial, when applicable).

Q. Your work provocatively suggests a relationship between complicity and complacency. How are these two concepts linked?

A. The question is important because it forces us to ask: Who is complicit? My book answers this question boldly, even somewhat controversially. It asserts that the spectrum of complicity is vast—that it includes not only those who participated directly in the dictatorship’s crimes but also those who knew what was going on but stood by and did nothing. Even more assertively, I argue that the vast spectrum of complicity in Chile may very well include certain people who years ago fought for revolutionary change and social justice and who now, decades later, wholeheartedly embrace the neoliberal model that the General and his civilian economists espoused. I call these revolutionaries-turned-neoliberals “complacent subjects” and wonder if their political stance, interested in protecting their own status and wealth, might be construed as a form of complicity with the dictatorship’s legacy.

Q. The Chilean dictatorship ended nearly three decades ago. Many analysts praise the country’s transition to democracy as highly “successful.” Why is it important that we continue thinking today about the legacies of the Pinochet regime?

A. Many people, especially economists outside of Chile, have called Chile an “economic miracle” because its economy did relatively well when compared to other countries in the region. This may indeed be true by some measures. But we cannot forget that Chile’s economic strength has its origins in a dark history of torture, disappearances, and murders. We also can’t forget that, despite its economic growth, Chile remains one of the most unequal countries in the world. Moreover, socioeconomic inequality has sparked massive protests and deep disenchantment with political elites from across the ideological spectrum.

The past does not go away. Anyone who goes to Chile today can see and feel signs of the dictatorship’s legacy everywhere. It’s palpable! The political and economic class that sympathized with the dictatorship is now back in power, and the dictatorship’s constitution, penned in 1980, remains in effect. There are still families who have not located their disappeared loved ones. And despite the valiant efforts of those who have struggled to create a culture of human rights and justice, every so often people in positions of power appear in the media denying past human rights violations or explaining them away. Schools avoid talking about the recent past, particularly at the primary and secondary levels. Lots of families remain politically divided. For all of these reasons, it is just as important now as it was in the 1980s and 1990s that we continue the fight for accountability, truth, and justice.

When I began researching Civil Obedience, eight years ago, almost no one was talking about civilian complicity with the South American dictatorships. The topic was complete public taboo. Over the past five or so years, important works of journalism have started to address the subject, and it is now commonplace to hear people in Chile use the term “civilian-military dictatorship” (dictadura cívico-militar). I hope that my book will help fuel an honest debate about the uncomfortable ways in which Chile’s brutally violent past still maintains a hold on the present.

Michael J. Lazzara is a professor of Latin American literature and cultural studies at the University of California, Davis. His several books include Chile in Transition: The Poetics and Politics of Memory and Luz Arce and Pinochet’s Chile: Testimony in the Aftermath of State Violence.

Critical Human Rights
Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus, Series Editors 

 

BOB SMITH: ON RELIGION, NATURE, LIFE WITH ALS, AND HIS NEW BOOK ‘TREEHAB’

Treehab book coverToday is the publication day of TREEHAB: TALES FROM MY NATURAL WILD LIFE by comedian and writer Bob Smith. Christopher Bram interviewed Bob Smith for the Lambda Literary Review, and we excerpt a portion of that interview here. Go to the Lambda site to read the full interview

BOB SMITH: ON RELIGION, LIFE WITH ALS, HIS LOVE OF NATURE, AND HIS NEW BOOK TREEHAB

by Christopher Bram   September 20, 2016  Lambda Literary Review

In the wider world of pop culture, Bob Smith is known as a stand-up comic. He was the first openly gay stand-up to appear on the Tonight Show. This was followed by many other appearances, including a special on HBO. He toured the country for several years in the groundbreaking comedy trio Funny Gay Males, performing with his buddies Jaffe Cohen and Danny McWilliams. His smart, wry, low-key comedy monologues, which you can see on YouTube, are unique in tone and full of memorable lines. Years before I met him, I often quoted (with attribution) such Smith bits as: “My high school had a Head Start program for homosexuals. It was called Drama Club.”

But in the smaller world of book readers, Smith is known as a writer. And he’s a wonderful writer. This should be no surprise. Good writing is full of the same attention to detail, originality, and surprise that powers the best stand-up comedy.

Smith’s newest book, Treehab: Tales from My Natural Wild Life, is another collection of essays but with a wider, richer range than his first books. It’s a glorious achievement, one that has already earned high praise from Kirkus, Stephen McCauley and Armistead Maupin. This is The Portable Bob Smith. There’s a lot of Smith to carry, but the book carries it with ease. We hear about his love of nature, of rocks and minerals, and Alaska. He tells stories of his career as a stand-up, as well as what it’s like to be the sperm-donor dad of two children. He talks about his dog Bozzie and his four best friends, the men he calls his “Nature Boys,” which includes his life partner Michael Zam. And he discusses his experience with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neuro-degenerative disease that affects the motor neurons. It can work quickly or slowly. Stephen Hawking has lived with it for years. Luckily for Bob its progress has been slow. He was diagnosed with ALS twelve years ago and has been able to keep working. The first thing he lost was his ability to speak. In the early stages he assured his stand-up audiences that his slurred speech didn’t mean he was drunk, only that he had a neurological disorder. When Bob could no longer perform, he concentrated on his writing.

I recently spoke with Bob about his new book. He’s temporarily lost the use of his hands and can no longer type. He now spells out words with his feet, pointing at letters on a Lucite board. But Bob expresses himself better with his feet than most people do with a fully functioning set of fingers. Also present was Bob’s best friend, Eddie Sarfaty, a brilliant stand-up comic and fine writer in his own right, author of Mental: Funny in the Head. Eddie is now working on his own novel.

Eddie knows Bob well enough that he can often finish his answers once Bob begins them, but not always. We sometimes put words into Bob’s mouth in what follows, but he always agreed with what we attributed to him.

Do you have a favorite essay [in the book]?

Bob Smith

Bob Smith

“Nature Boys.”

Eddie: Because boys and nature are his two favorite things.

It’s a wonderful portrait of your best friends, four gay men who are bound together by their love of wildlife and the great outdoors. You are full of love, Bob. You love so many things: birds, books, friends, your partner Michael, your two children, Maddie and Xander, Alaska, of course, and Henry David Thoreau. But you also have the healthy gift of anger. Who are some of the people and things that make you furious?

The Koch Brothers. Donald Trump. Climate change deniers. People who don’t believe in evolution. The Koch Brothers. (Again!) Soy milk. The NRA. Unfunny comedians.

Do you want to name a few unfunny comics?

(He smiles and shakes his head.)

Who are your heroes?

Thoreau. Mary Leakey. Verner Wilson [a Yupik storyteller and environmental activist from Alaska]. Lily Tomlin. W. C. Fields. Maude Lechner [the daughter of friends, who shaved her head to raise money for ALS when she was eleven].

Who are your favorite writers? You’re the man who turned me on to P. G. Wodehouse, for which I am eternally grateful. Who else do you love?

Evelyn Waugh. Dawn Powell. Charles Dickens. Stephen McCauley. Armistead Maupin. Jane Austen. Ronald Firbank. Tolkien.

That’s right. You’ve been a huge fan of Lord of the Rings from an early age.

(Bob nods eagerly.)

You have not been able to talk for five years now, but you can still type. Did this make writing harder for you?

No. Good writing is always difficult.

Did your words become more concentrated when you couldn’t say them aloud but had to save them for the written page?

Yes. I think my writing became better.

I think so too.

Eddie: I agree.

This is a stupid question, but how badly do you miss the laughter of a stand-up comedy audience? Is there an equivalent for a book writer?

(Bob sadly shakes his head.)

Eddie: But you get letters from your readers. Often for books years after you wrote them.

But it’s too bad I can’t do stand-up anymore. Because ALS is hilarious.

******************

Go to the Lambda site to read the full interview.

 

Ovid Repeats Himself

Variation within repetition is common in Latin epics, but Ovid is the undisputed champion of its usage.

Fulkerson-Stover-Repeat-Performances-cLaurel Fulkerson and Tim Stover conversed recently about how the genre of Latin epic poetry lends itself to repetition. They explore a distinct form of repetition in Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the new UWP book they’ve edited. Repeat Performances: Ovidian Repetition and the Metamorphoses is published in the longstanding University of Wisconsin Press series Wisconsin Studies in Classics.

Laurel  Let’s start at the beginning: we had an idea for a conference on Ovid. The Classics Department at Florida State University, thanks to a generous bequest from the George and Marion Langford family, is able to host one or two conferences a year. Tim is a scholar of Latin epic, and I’m an Ovidian, so we thought it made good sense to focus on the Metamorphoses. One of the things we both had been thinking about was the ways Ovid seems to be doing a slightly different thing in his epic, in terms of how he structures episodes. That’s an immediately obvious feature of the poem, but we wanted to pay more attention to it, and we hit upon repetition. Many of the stories in the Metamorphoses are so similar, and there are innumerable cross-references back and forth between episodes.

Tim  Repetition is certainly a feature of later epic as well, so we wondered if there was a kind of repetition that was particularly Ovidian. We wanted some of our contributors to identify and elucidate the Ovidianism of post-Augustan epic’s repetitious gestures. A systematic study of Ovid’s influence on Flavian epic and beyond is a critical desideratum for our field. One of the exciting things about this book is that several of its papers demonstrate how deeply Ovid influenced later writers of epic, while also pointing to new avenues for research on the reception of Ovidian repetition specifically. Perhaps the most salient example of the latter is the use by Neil Bernstein of Tesserae, a web-based interface for exploring intertextual parallels in Latin literature. It’s a strength of this volume that it brings together more traditional approaches to Ovidian repetition and newer cutting-edge technology on intertextuality.

Laurel  And, of course, epic itself is a repetitive genre. We say in the introduction that we think it’s more repetitive than many other genres. All of literature is necessarily repetitive, but the body of epic material becomes codified so early on; the whole Homeric cycle is predicated upon the notion that everyone already sort of knows these stories.

Tim  Precisely. The point of the cycle seems to be in telling the same stories in a different way, so that what is deemed  “innovative” in any new version is not the basic plot of a given story, but rather what kinds of material will differentiate it from its predecessors at a microcosmic or atomic level. This practice is foundational for later poetry, but is most pronounced in epic and tragedy, two genres that over time cross-fertilize each other in complex ways. That’s another angle explored in our book. Variation within repetition is a key factor of all of Latin epic, but Ovid is the undisputed champion of its usage, as the contributors to this volume reveal. Ovid’s example then sets repetition on a new and exciting path, which is discernible in the specifically Ovidian nature of the repetitiveness of post-Ovidian epic.

Laurel  Or so we think; you’ll have to read the book to make up your own mind.

Fulkerson at WadhamLaurel Fulkerson is a professor of classics and an associate dean at Florida State University. She is the author of The Ovidian Heroine as Author and No Regrets: Remorse in Classical Antiquity.

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATim Stover is an associate professor of classics at Florida State University and the author of Epic and Empire in Vespasianic Rome.

Contributors to the book are Antony Augoustakis, Neil W. Bernstein, Barbara Weiden Boyd, Andrew Feldherr, Peter Heslin, Stephen Hinds, Sharon L. James, Alison Keith, Peter E. Knox, and Darcy Krasne.