Tag Archives: religion

the grand experiment of embodied, earthly love

Today’s guest blogger is Erin White. Her book published today, Given Up for You: A Memoir of Love, Belonging, and Belief, is a candid and revelatory memoir  of her hunger for both romantic and divine love. Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks, comments, “Reckoning with the rival claims of queer desire and Catholic faith, Erin O. White has written that rare and wonderful thing: an intimately personal page-turner that raises complex questions about the wider world and our future in it.” In this post, she writes about the representations of queer love in popular media.

Recently my wife and I watched “San Junipero,” an episode of Netflix’s dystopian anthology series, Black Mirror. “San Junipero” first aired in 2016, and is beloved enough to have a Spotify playlist with 50,000 followers. I hope that I’m not spoiling anything by mentioning that the episode is about queer love in the time of virtual reality.

When the show opens, it’s 1987 in San Junipero, a European seaside town where young people with big hair dance to T’Pau and play Top Speed, then drive around in jeeps on dark, sandy roads. San Junipero is perfect and beautiful, but it doesn’t exist. Or, more precisely, it exists only in people’s minds. It’s a simulated, virtual reality. Elderly people are allowed to spend five hours a week there, and before dying, can make the decision to go to San Junipero permanently, to spend eternity dancing to Robert Palmer.

“San Junipero” is essentially a love story, and what’s remarkable about it—what is still, in 2018, remarkable—is that it’s about two women. I recently read that the series creator, Charlie Brooker, originally wrote the episode for a heterosexual couple, but then decided to rewrite it for two women.

Brooker’s rewrite interests me.  Why did he decide to tinker with the protagonists’ sexual orientation? Part of me doesn’t want to overthink it, to just enjoy the women’s chemistry and banter and sex, and be grateful for the revision. Part of me wants to think that Brooker thought—as I do—that introducing complex queer characters into any narrative makes that narrative better (Brooker is quoted as saying it was “more fun” to write for two women.) But I can’t help but want to take a closer look.  After all, how, exactly, is “San Junipero” different than all the other movies and tv shows that employ the “bury your gays” trope?

As is so often the case when queer people are represented in the media, it’s complicated. Here’s a story about two funny, beautiful, clever women in love. Marvelous! But here’s what’s not so marvelous: their love exists entirely outside of time, outside the women’s actual bodies, and only in their minds. To add injury to insult, one of the women has been in a coma for forty years, ever since she crashed her car after, you guessed it, coming out to her restrictive and homophobic parents.

In order for these two women to live freely and be in love, they have to leave their bodies behind and enter a virtual reality. The Belinda Carlyle song “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” plays over and over in San Junipero. But the problem is, for these women, heaven isn’t a place on earth.  It’s just to the side of earth, a parallel universe on another plane of time and space. The women of “San Junipero” are wildy in love, and that’s a treat to watch. But they’re not actually alive; they’re not engaged in the grand experiment of embodied, earthly love. Don’t get me wrong—it was an absolute pleasure to watch their love affair on my television screen. It left me wanting more. I’m just hoping that the queer TV and movie narratives that “San Junipero” is bound to inspire will tell queer love stories that unfold right here, on earth.

Erin O. White


Erin O. White
 is a writing instructor and author whose work has appeared in the New York TimesPortland Magazine, and several anthologies. A native of Colorado, she lives in Massachusetts with her wife and daughters. Her website is http://www.erinwhite.net.

Given Up for You is published in the UWP series Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographies.

Where’s Andrew? and where’s the Black Penguin?

Our guest blogger today is Andrew Evans. His book, The Black Penguinwas just released in paperback. It was awarded honorable mentions by both the Society of American Travel Writers and the American Library Association’s GLBTQ Roundtable in their book award competitions. It is published in the University of Wisconsin Press series Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographies. Follow his travel adventures on Twitter at @wheresandrew

Writing such an intensely personal book as The Black Penguin has resulted in a bit of a neurotic roller coaster for me, given that every review feels like a myopic critique of my life. But, I’ve also seen in the responses to the book that I am not alone and that others have struggled and triumphed, too.

As a writer, I am one part thick, scaly dinosaur skin and two parts oversensitive mush. The paradox results from constant rejection versus daily attempts to corral my subconscious onto the page. This weird duality works, I hope, to produce above-average stories while keeping my confidence in check. But I, and I think most authors, continue to question our work long after publication.

After a book leaves your brain, your fingertips, and your control, you watch its progress. Like a tomato plant, it either takes over the backyard or becomes infested with beetles, withers, and dies. Either way, the book stops being yours and has a life of its own. There may be reviews and Amazon stars, awards, and the distant echo of social media. An author’s ego can be fed sumptuously, as when I saw my name displayed in the window of a famous bookshop, or crushed, as when I saw all the empty chairs for my reading.

For me, the real blessings of a book tour are the face-to-face meetings with readers.

It’s surprising how many feel that I wrote the book specifically for them. So far, very few readers I’ve met on tour are gay Mormons like me. I have met Muslim women who struggle between faith, family, and love, and elderly gay clergy, interracial couples with racist in-laws, or just people who feel that they don’t belong. Meeting them all has reminded me that what may seem to be a very individual and personal story can reflect a universal emotional experience.

As a travel writer, I discovered that the book tour highlighted the amazing diversity of my own country. Every night I caught a new glimpse of American urban life, from the debonair professionals of New York City, to the queer theorists who flocked at the Harvard Bookstore, to Powell’s in Portland, where a man with two pit bulls and no legs thrust a handful of homegrown cannabis into my hands.

I was also reminded how impossible it is to categorize my book, which reflects the struggles I faced in writing it. I have found my book shelved under Travel, Memoir, Autobiography, LGBTQ, and even Religion. Indeed, it is this intersection of genres that interests me.

I have been especially touched by the diverse book clubs that have selected The Black Penguin for their monthly reading. From Maryland to California, I’ve received letters from book club members (all mostly women) who have read and discussed my book. One club has been meeting monthly for more than twenty years! Perhaps my greatest compliment came from a book club of high school English teachers, who let me know that they felt my book was well written. Sigh. Thank you; I had to rewrite it so many times! Accolades from the front lines of American literature are reassuring, especially after reading an online review that summed up my gut-spilling memoir in two words: “mildly interesting.”

I have moved on to writing my next book, but I am thrilled to see The Black Penguin in paperback and reaching readers across the world. I never expected this book to be “huge,” but I feel it is a huge success when someone texts me a picture of a tattered copy of my book, which they found in a rented beach house, or in a school library, or in a distant youth hostel. Seeing the book travel across the globe is the greatest compliment of all, and I send my sincerest gratitude to all my readers, wherever they are.

Andrew Evans has completed more than forty assignments for National Geographic, reporting from all seven continents. He is the author of the Bradt travel guides Iceland and Ukraine and lives in Washington, DC.

 

 

 

 

New books and new paperbacks, July 2017

We’re pleased to announce these new books, and titles new in paperback, debuting this month.

July 18, 2017
WISCONSIN AND THE SHAPING OF AMERICAN LAW
Joseph A. Ranney

“Not simply about Wisconsin’s legal history, for Ranney covers the sweep of state laws in American history from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 to recent legal questions of the twenty-first century. Impressively researched and invitingly written, this is a unique introduction to our states as laboratories of democracy.”—Lloyd C. Gardner,Rutgers University

State laws affect nearly every aspect of our daily lives—our safety, personal relationships, and business dealings—but receive less scholarly attention than federal laws and courts. Joseph A. Ranney looks at how state laws have evolved and shaped American history, through the lens of the historically influential state of Wisconsin.

 

July 18, 2017  NEW IN PAPERBACK
AMENDING THE PAST
Europe’s Holocaust Commissions and the Right to History
Alexander Karn

“Historical commissions, Karn argues, have brought expert historical practice to bear on complex questions, adding new meaning to facts that have either been debated or glossed over. These commissions matter because they serve to amend history in cases in which social memory has impeded understanding of historical injustices and begin the amelioration of past human rights violations.”Choice

“A very important contribution to the interdisciplinary scholarship on the broad theme of reckoning with histories of atrocity.”—Bronwyn Leebaw, University of California, Riverside

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

 

July 18, 2017 NEW IN PAPERBACK
SHAPING THE NEW MAN

Youth Training Regimes in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany
Alessio Ponzio

“Ponzio tells a nuanced story of the delicate and volatile relationship between interwar Europe’s two fascist regimes. . . . He highlights power struggles between leaders, curricula designed not to educate youth but to transform them into ideal representatives of their regimes, and strict gender policing within each of the organizations. Recommended.”Choice

“Ponzio provides, above all, valuable new perspectives on the tremendous influence of Italian Fascism on fledgling Nazi youth organizations, and the cooperative and reciprocal relationships that flourished between the two regimes.”—Michael Ebner, author of Ordinary Violence in Mussolini’s Italy

George L. Mosse Series in Modern European Cultural and Intellectual History
Steven E. Aschheim, Stanley G. Payne, Mary Louise Roberts, and David J. Sorkin, Series Editors

 

July 27, 2017
BEYOND THE MONASTERY WALLS

The Ascetic Revolution in Russian Orthodox Thought, 1814–1914
Patrick Lally Michelson

“Impressive in its analytical breadth and astute in its interpretive depth, this is an engaging, lucid, and original contribution to the history of modern Russian thought and modern Orthodoxy.”—Vera Shevzov, Smith College

“Reading this extraordinary book is like having missing pieces of a puzzle click together at last. Actors normally examined separately—radical socialists, theological academies, hermits, great writers, bureaucrats, lay intellectuals—emerge as part of the same religious culture that placed asceticism at the center of discourse and practice in imperial Russia’s defining century.” —Nadieszda Kizenko, University at Albany, SUNY

 

July 27, 2017
IF YOU DON’T LAUGH YOU’LL CRY 
The Occupational Humor of White Wisconsin Prison Workers
Claire Schmidt

“A lucid, compelling study of some very funny, compassionate corrections officers. Their intelligence and comic delight shine through on every page.”—Jackie McGrath, College of DuPage

America is fascinated by prisons and prison culture, but few Americans understand what it is like to work in corrections. Claire Schmidt, whose extended family includes three generations of Wisconsin prison workers, introduces readers to penitentiary officers and staff as they share stories, debate the role of corrections in American racial politics and social justice, and talk about the important function of humor in their jobs.

Folklore Studies in a Multicultural World

 

 

New books in June 2017

We are pleased to announce six new books to be published in late June.

June 20, 2017
WRITTEN IN BLOOD

Revolutionary Terrorism and Russian Literary Culture, 1861–1881
Lynn Ellen Patyk

In March 1881, Russia stunned the world when a small band of revolutionaries calling themselves “terrorists” assassinated Alexander II. Horrified Russians blamed the influence of European ideas, while shocked Europeans perceived something new and distinctly Russian in a strategy of political violence that became known as “the Russian method” or “terrorism”.

“A superb model of interdisciplinary scholarship: highly original, subtle, thought-provoking, and a pleasure to read. Analyzing both word and deed, Patyk rewrites the history of modern terrorism showing why the Russian case was pivotal. A gripping story.”—Susan Morrissey, author of Suicide and the Body Politic in Imperial Russia

 

June 27, 2017
THE POX LOVER
An Activist’s Decade in New York and Paris
Anne-christine d’Adesky

Memories of the turbulent 1990s in New York City and Paris told by a pioneering American AIDS journalist, lesbian activist, and daughter of French-Haitian elites.

“In a voice both powerful and cool, The Pox Lover takes on a sprawling personal history, deeply aware throughout that it is the politics of anyone’s day—and how we respond to it—that shapes a life. Never far from the mad joy of writing, loving, and being alive, even as it investigates our horribly mundane capacity for horror, this book is a masterpiece.”—Michelle Tea, author of Black Wave

 

June 27, 2017
YOOPER TALK

Dialect as Identity in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Kathryn A. Remlinger

Yooper Talk explains linguistic concepts with entertaining examples for general readers and also contributes to interdisciplinary discussions of dialect and identity in sociolinguistics, anthropology, dialectology, and folklore.

“Although humorous songs poke fun at Yoopers’ words and customs, Remlinger takes this place and its people very seriously. She explains how history, ethnicity, environment, economic changes, tourism, and especially language have created a colorful and distinctive regional dialect and identity.”—Larry Lankton, Hollowed Ground: Copper Mining and Community Building on Lake Superior

Languages and Folklore of the Upper Midwest
Series Editor(s) Joseph Salmons and James P. Leary

 

June 27, 2017
THE LIMA INQUISITION

The Plight of Crypto-Jews in Seventeenth-Century Peru
Ana E. Schaposchnik

The Lima Inquisition reveals the details of the Americas’ most alarming Inquisitorial crackdown: the ‘Great Complicity’ and subsequent Auto de Fe of Lima in 1639. Schaposchnik convincingly shows that it was not an aberration or just another Baroque-era spectacle—it was the essence of what the Inquisition was and had been all about, from inception to abolition.”—Kris Lane, Tulane University

“An in-depth look at the trials of the Great Complicity in the 1630s, during which almost 100 people, overwhelmingly men and women of Portuguese origin, were accused of being crypto-Jews and detained and tried by the Inquisition. Recommended.”Choice

 

June 27, 2017
9XM TALKING 
WHA Radio and the Wisconsin Idea

Randall Davidson

This is the fascinating history of the innovative work of Wisconsin’s educational radio stations, from the first broadcast by experimental station 9XM at the University of Wisconsin to the network of stations known today as Wisconsin Public Radio. Randall Davidson provides the first comprehensive history of the University of Wisconsin radio station.

“An engaging, even engrossing, narrative about the station’s pioneering work in broadcasting. … A reader witnesses … the struggles that small and educational broadcasters faced in the early years in what was nearly a constant battle to maintain a foothold in the frequency spectrum.” Journalism History

 

 

June 27
FROM WAR TO GENOCIDE
Criminal Politics in Rwanda, 1990–1994
André Guichaoua, Translated by Don E. Webster, Foreword by Scott Straus

“A landmark in the historiography of the Rwandan genocide. No serious scholar writing about the genocide can afford to ignore this trailblazing contribution.”—René Lemarchand, author of The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa

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

A model for 21st-century prophetic activism

Doris Dirks and Patricia Relf  are the authors of a new book,  To Offer Compassion: A History of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, published today by the University of Wisconsin Press. In this guest post, they reflect on the social justice activism of the little-known Clergy Consultation Service, a religious organization of the 1960s and early 1970s dedicated to providing women with safe abortions.

On May 22, 1967, at a time when abortion was illegal in the United States, an article on the front page of the New York Times announced that twenty-one New York City clergy would counsel and refer women to licensed doctors for safe abortions. The group called itself the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS).

Doris Dirks, Minister Howard Moody, and Patricia Relf

Not many people know the story of the CCS. Some of the loudest speakers in the debate about abortion access since Roe v. Wade have been conservative religious voices, leading the general public to believe that all people of faith, especially the clergy, were opposed to abortion.

Just since 2010, states have adopted 334* abortion restrictions , constituting 30% of all abortion restrictions enacted by states since Roe v. Wade. On March 6, 2017, the White House proposed preserving federal payments to Planned Parenthood only if it discontinues providing abortions. Congressional Republicans have said that they will move quickly to strip all federal funds from Planned Parenthood.

As the fiftieth anniversary of the CCS approaches in May, we think about the network of some 3,000 clergy who referred as many as 450,000 women for safe abortions between 1967 and 1973. Will that kind of service will be needed again? The clergy we interviewed for our book came of age during the 1950s and 1960s and were at the forefront of the civil rights, antiwar, and women’s rights movements.

When we first started researching the CCS in 2002, we wondered where the voices of progressive clergy were in the social justice movements of the twenty-first century. Now we are starting to hear those voices being raised once more. In recent weeks, clergy and religious organizations have spoken out on transgender civil rights. More than 1,800 religious leaders signed on to an amicus brief on behalf of Gavin Grimm, a trans student who has fought for the right to use a high school restroom that aligns with his gender identity. A broad network of thirty-seven Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations announced a campaign to mobilize congregants to lobby Congress and the president on behalf of immigrants, refugees, and undocumented people.

The pastor of Ebenezer Lutheran Church and congregants at the Chicago Pride Parade.

We are experiencing divisive and turbulent times. The CCS provides a historical example of how clergy acted in the past to help women get safe abortions. It provides an example for social justice activism today.

*research published in 2016 by the Guttmacher Institute.

Doris A. Dirks is a senior academic planner with the University of Wisconsin System Administration.

Patricia A. Relf is a freelance writer.

New books in May 2017

We are pleased to announce six new books to be published in May.

May 9, 2017
WHISPERS OF CRUEL WRONGS
The Correspondence of Louisa Jacobs and Her Circle, 1879-1911
Edited by Mary Maillard

Louisa Jacobs was the daughter of Harriet Jacobs, author of the famous autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. That work included a heartbreaking account of Harriet parting with six-year-old Louisa, taken away to the North by her white father. Now, rediscovered letters reveal the lives of Louisa and her circle and shed light on Harriet’s old age.

“A rich and fascinating portrait of Philadelphia’s and Washington D.C.’s black elite after the Civil War. Even as the letters depict the increasingly troubled political status and economic fortunes of the correspondents, they offer rare glimpses into private homes and inner emotions.”—Carla L. Peterson,author of Black Gotham

Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography
William L. Andrews, Series Editor

May 16, 2017
TO OFFER COMPASSION
A History of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion
Doris Andrea Dirks and Patricia A. Relf

“Conservative Christianity has become synonymous with opposition to abortion, but before the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized it in the U.S., clergy organized to protect pregnant women and direct them to safe abortions. Dirks and Relf explore this extraordinary and little-known history through detailed first-person interviews and extensive research with Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergy who, between 1967 and 1973, created a pregnancy counseling service and national underground network to provide women with options for adoption, parenting assistance, and pregnancy termination. . . . Critically important social history that too many in today’s abortion wars have never known or chosen to forget.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

 

May 23, 2017
SPIRIT CHILDREN
Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana
Aaron R. Denham

“A brilliant, sensitive, and moving book about the heartbreaking phenomenon of infanticide. This is a book to be taken seriously by hospital personnel, public health policymakers, NGO workers, and anyone interested in the fate of the world’s most vulnerable young children.”—Alma Gottlieb, coauthor of A World of Babies

“A skillful ethnography of the spirit child phenomenon in northern Ghana—children who fail to thrive, are feared to harm their families, and therefore should be ‘sent back.’ This insightful, theoretically rich analysis offers a nuanced ecological, economic, and cultural explanation of maternal attachment.”—John M. Janzen, author of The Quest for Therapy in Lower Zaire

Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture
Thomas Spear, Neil Kodesh, Tejumola Olaniyan, Michael G. Schatzberg, and James H. Sweet, Series Editors

 

May 23, 2017
THE LAND REMEMBERS

The Story of a Farm and Its People  9th Edition
Ben Logan
With an introduction by Curt Meine

“Ben Logan is strikingly successful in recalling his own boyhood world, a lonely ridge farm in southwestern Wisconsin. . . . He reviews his growing-up years in the 1920s and ’30s less with nostalgia than with a naturalist’s eye for detail, wary of the distortions of memory and sentiment.”—Christian Science Monitor

“A book to be cherished and remembered.”—Publishers Weekly

 

 

May 30, 2017
PINERY BOYS
Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era
Edited by Franz Rickaby with Gretchen Dykstra and James P. Leary

As the heyday of the lumber camps faded, a young scholar named Franz Rickaby set out to find songs from shanty boys, river drivers, and sawmill hands in the Upper Midwest. Pinery Boys now incorporates, commemorates, contextualizes, and complements Rickaby’s 1926 book. It includes annotations throughout by folklore scholar James P. Leary and an engaging biography by Rickaby’s granddaughter Gretchen Dykstra. Central to this edition are the fifty-one songs that Rickaby originally published, plus fourteen additional songs selected to represent the

Franz Rickaby

varied collecting Rickaby did beyond the lumber camps.

“[Rickaby] was the first to put the singing lumberjack into an adequate record and was of pioneering stuff. … His book renders the big woods, not with bizarre hokum and studied claptrap … but with the fidelity of an unimpeachable witness.”—Carl Sandburg

Languages and Folklore of the Upper Midwest Series
Joseph Salmons and James P. Leary, Series Editors

 

May 23, 2017
The second book in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series
DEATH AT GILLS ROCK
Patricia Skalka

“In her atmospheric, tightly written sequel, Skalka vividly captures the beauty of a remote Wisconsin peninsula that will attract readers of regional mysteries. Also recommended for fans of William Kent Krueger, Nevada Barr, and Mary Logue.”
Library Journal, starred review

“Three World War II heroes about to be honored by the Coast Guard are all found dead, apparent victims of carbon monoxide poisoning while playing cards at a cabin. . . . The second installment of this first-rate series (Death Stalks Door County, 2014) provides plenty of challenges for both the detective and the reader.”Kirkus Reviews

“Skalka captures the . . . small-town atmosphere vividly, and her intricate plot and well-developed characters will appeal to fans of William Kent Krueger.”Booklist

New publications, February 2017

Murtaugh-Good-Night-Beloved-Comrade-c

We are pleased to announce two new books to be published in February.

February 7, 2017
GOOD NIGHT, BELOVED COMRADE
The Letters of Denton Welch to Eric Oliver
Edited by Daniel J. Murtaugh

Denton Welch (1915–48) died at the age of thirty-three after a brief but brilliant career as a writer and painter. The revealing, poignant, impressionistic voice that buoys his novels was much praised by critics and literati in England and has since inspired creative artists from William S. Burroughs to John Waters. His achievements were all the more remarkable because he suffered from debilitating spinal and pelvic injuries incurred in a bicycle accident at age eighteen.

Though German bombs were ravaging Britain, Welch wrote in his published work about the idyllic landscapes and local people he observed in Kent. There, in 1943, he met and fell in love with Eric Oliver, a handsome, intelligent, but rather insecure “landboy”—an agricultural worker with the wartime Land Army. Oliver would become a companion, comrade, lover, and caretaker during the last six years of Welch’s life. All fifty-one letters that Welch wrote to Oliver are collected and annotated here for the first time. They offer a historical record of life amidst the hardship, deprivation, and fear of World War II and are a timeless testament of one young man’s tender and intimate emotions, his immense courage in adversity, and his continual struggle for love and creative existence.

Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographies
David Bergman, Joan Larkin, and Raphael Kadushin, Series Editors

 

February 21
OF BEGGARS AND BUDDHASBowie-Of-Beggars-and-Buddhas-c
The Politics of Humor in the Vessantara Jataka in Thailand
Katherine A. Bowie

An exploration of the subversive politics of humor in the most important story in Theravada Buddhism

The 547 Buddhist jatakas, or verse parables, recount the Buddha’s lives in previous incarnations. In his penultimate and most famous incarnation, he appears as the Prince Vessantara, perfecting the virtue of generosity by giving away all his possessions, his wife, and his children to the beggar Jujaka. Taking an anthropological approach to this two-thousand-year-old morality tale, Katherine A. Bowie highlights significant local variations in its interpretations and public performances across three regions of Thailand over 150 years.

The Vessantara Jataka has served both monastic and royal interests, encouraging parents to give their sons to religious orders and intimating that kings are future Buddhas. But, as Bowie shows, characterizations of the beggar Jujaka in various regions and eras have also brought ribald humor and sly antiroyalist themes to the story. Historically, these subversive performances appealed to popular audiences even as they worried the conservative Bangkok court. The monarchy sporadically sought to suppress the comedic recitations. As Thailand has changed from a feudal to a capitalist society, this famous story about giving away possessions is paradoxically being employed to promote tourism and wealth.

New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies
Alfred W. McCoy, Thongchai Winichakul, I. G. Baird, Katherine Bowie, and Anne Ruth Hansen, Series Editors

 

 

 

Lithium Jesus: Charles Monroe-Kane’s memoir of mania

Lithium Jesus: A Memoir of Mania is published today. It is perhaps not surprising that Charles Monroe-Kane, who has heard voices in his head since childhood, should find a career as an award-winning public radio producer and host. Here he talks with us about his life. He’s also chosen links to radio pieces that expand on this story.
Why did you write this memoir? I’d struggled all my life with mental illness—extreme mania, hearing voices—and it got misunderstood in many different ways. It got me in a lot of trouble, actually. And surprisingly, about five years ago, in my 40s, it got really bad. The voices were changing, and I was actually scared. I went to a therapist to talk about it and my therapist was like, “I can help you, but you need to slow down! Write this stuff down!” So I did.
And really, on a deeper level, I wrote the book because I was trying to figure out who the hell I am. Why did I take lithium, and why did I quit taking it and then start taking it again? And what were these voices, anyway? Was it mania? Brain chemistry awry? Angels? A gift? Was I just crazy? I never really thought this book could get published. I just wanted to tell the truth to myself so I could figure it all out.
 
Can you tell us about your book title, Lithium Jesus? Well, the lithium part is about the drugs. As for Jesus, I grew up in a rough-and-tumble steel mill town, and I was a very manic kid who was pretty out of control and hearing voices, which, of course, I didn’t tell anyone about. One day at an Evangelical/Pentecostal summer camp, I heard people speaking in tongues for the first time. It sounded, structurally, very similar to the voices in my head. That didn’t scare me; I actually found it comforting. I ended up becoming a born-again evangelical Christian because I felt a kindred spirit with those people. And once I got the guts, I also spoke out loud the voices that I’d been hearing for years. That led some people to think I was anointed by God, and when you’re 14, 15, 16 years old, and grownups see you that way, that’s one hell of an ego boost. It was also a good feeling to think that God was speaking through me. I thought the voices in my head were angels. It was beautiful at the time!
Later you made a huge leap from being a clean-cut Christian to a lifestyle that included lots of mind-bending drugs. Why? I think the reason was twofold. One, when I left the church and God, I was pretty lost. You can imagine, your whole life is wrapped up in Jesus, and when that’s gone but you still have these voices leftover . . . that was very difficult for me.
Second, I wanted to rebel. In high school I didn’t drink, smoke, or have sex. But I wanted to do those things! Of course, my introduction wasn’t beer: it was psychedelics. And that’s not surprising, really. I went from having charismatic experiences in church to taking psychedelics because it was familiar. I liked it. I wasn’t afraid of it. And I did a lot of it. Before it turned into abuse, it was a way for me to be both transcendent and an atheist. I still sincerely believe drugs are a way to do that. I just don’t think you should do lots and lots of them without a guide or some help.
This is your story, but you’re not always a hero in it. I think many people make themselves the goat of their own story because they’re embarrassed about their own past. It’s one or the other, right? We either exaggerate to belittle ourselves or to make ourselves great. If we were all a bit more honest, we’d find out we’re all both sinners and saints.
With this book, I said to myself, “I’m not going to judge the church. I’m not going to judge the people I did drugs with. I’m not going to judge anybody, including myself.” Because who wants to read that? Look, salvation is the journey, not the destination. So let’s quit denying how we got to the place we are at and just chill the fuck out. And keep on down the path, you know?
You’re a public radio producer. Did that influence the way you tell your life story in this book? Yeah, when I was staring at the blank screen, trying to “just write,” I didn’t even know where to start. But I knew I had about seventeen core stories I wanted to tell, stories that I’d told many times before. So I decided to treat the whole thing as a radio producer would.
Here in Madison, I usually go drinking on Thursday nights with my buddies at our local bar. I decided to start bringing my recorder to the bar, and I’d record myself telling these stories. Then I would go home and transcribe and edit them, and I’d put them in chronological order and add some connective tissue to make them work. A few more intimate pieces I recorded alone. So the whole thing’s very oral, because that’s what I know how to do. But I would advise other people to try this. You think you can’t write a book, but I bet you can talk! Then see what you get.
 [Listen to a radio interview with Charles Monroe-Kane about hearing voices, and talking to God, on the To the Best of Our Knowledge radio program.]
 Charles Monroe-Kane has won a Peabody Award for his work as a senior producer and interviewer for the program To the Best of Our Knowledge, broadcast on 220 public radio stations. He has reported for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

New Books For September 2016

We are pleased to announce these three new books arriving in September.

My Son Wears Heels book cover

Publication date: September 6
MY SON WEARS HEELS
One Mom’s Journey from Clueless to Kickass
Julie Tarney

“A memorable account of one young person’s journey toward self-identity and a valuable parenting guide for a new era of gender awareness and acceptance.”Foreword

Julie Tarney

Julie Tarney


“Not only does the book chronicle an especially memorable mother-son relationship, it also suggests that the best parenting is the kind that does not forcibly mold a child into what he/she ‘should’ be but lovingly allows him/her the freedom to follow his/her own special path. A fearlessly open and frank memoir.”Kirkus Reviews

 

Lithium Jesus: A Memoir of Mania book cover

Publication date: September 13
LITHIUM JESUS
A Memoir of Mania

Charles Monroe-Kane

As featured on This American Life

Charles Monroe-Kane

Charles Monroe-Kane

“A young man grapples with bipolar ‘voices’ via religion, hedonism, activism, and Lithium. In his debut, Monroe-Kane, a Peabody Award–winning public radio producer, brings a fresh perspective to familiar memoir territory. . . . [A] compelling account of wrestling with inner turmoil against gritty, dramatic international settings.”Kirkus Reviews

“This humble, funny, raw (yes, sex) book is a pell-mell kaleidoscope of faith, drugs, bawdy behavior, and mental illness that resolves not in soft focus or shattered glass but in the sweet important idea that there are many ways to be born again.”—Michael Perry, author of The Jesus Cow

 

Treehab book coverPublication date: September 27
TREEHAB
Tales from My Natural, Wild Life
Bob Smith

“Smith, a successful comedian and author of both nonfiction and fiction, has lived with Lou Gehrig’s disease [ALS], and even though he now communicates through his iPad, his wit is as sharp as ever. . . . Never moving too far from his comedic nature, Smith delivers one-liners throughout, and nothing is off-limits. A truth-telling tour conducted by an agile guide.”Kirkus Reviews

Bob Smith

Bob Smith

“To say that Bob Smith can make a hilarious one-liner out of everything from imminent ecological catastrophe to his own struggles with ALS is to emphasize only one aspect of the beautiful and devastating Treehab. This is a profound meditation on the fragility of life and the enduring power of tolerance, love, and the many ways of creating families. A smart, funny, inspiring guide.”—Stephen McCauley, author of The Object of My Affection

A vision for a modern, democratic Muslim nation

An interview with James Rush about Hamka’s Great Story: A Master Writer’s Vision of Islam for Modern Indonesia 

Just published, Hamka’s Great Story by James R. Rush explores the life and work of of an influential Indonesian thought leader, his vision for his emerging nation, and his lasting influence on Muslim religious culture. It is published in the University of Wisconsin Press series, New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies.

By immersing myself in his prolific body of public writing, I sought to see Indonesia through his eyes instead of through my own. This was my first goal.

Hamka’s Great Story focuses on a single individual. What drew you to Hamka? And what’s the big picture? I am first and foremost a historian of Indonesia. I went to Hamka to understand Indonesia better. By immersing myself in his prolific body of public writing, I sought to see Indonesia through his eyes instead of through my own. This was my first goal. But because Hamka was such a widely read and influential thought leader, I felt that seeing Indonesia through his eyes could also help us understand the large and important Muslim Indonesian subculture from which he spoke and to which he spoke. This became my second goal. I believe that this is immensely valuable for those of us who are interested not only in modern Indonesia, but also in national identities everywhere, and how religious ideas and identities are enmeshed within them.

If Benedict Anderson was right that nations like Indonesia are imagined communities, we should be asking: What sort of community, exactly, is being imagined for Indonesia? And by whom? To Hamka and other members of his generation (including seminal figures such as Sukarno) fell the remarkable opportunity of “imagining” the nation of Indonesia in the very moments of its historic formation as the Dutch East Indies gave way tumultuously to the Republic of Indonesia. Hamka’s Great Story is exactly this: Indonesia imagined as a modern Muslim nation.Indonesia

Who was Hamka? Hamka (Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, 1908–1981) was a prodigious writer with a popular touch. He wrote beautifully in the Dutch colony’s lingua franca, Malay, which was also adopted in the 1920s as the aspirational national language for Indonesia and called Indonesian. Hamka’s early magazines, books, and novels found readers throughout the far-flung nation-to-be. What gave them their traction, aside from Hamka’s easy style and good stories, was their message. We are living in an age of profound and destabilizing change, he said. We can embrace this change hopefully if we embrace Islam as our guide. Islam can shape our new society and provide its values. Indonesia, our dreamed-of nation, can cohere around it. This positive message touched the zeitgeist. Hamka embellished it prolifically throughout his lifetime, which eventually stretched from the colonial era well into the life of the Republic.

What sort of Islam did Hamka propagate? Like the vast majority of Indonesians, Hamka was a Sunni Muslim. But as a self-described modernist, he declined to identify with the traditional schools of law, or madhhab (Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafi’i), and claimed “the Madhhab Salaf, being the school of the Prophet and his companions and of the ulamas who follow his footsteps.” In this, he followed Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida and other reformers based in Egypt, whose ideas he streamed into Indonesia. Like them, he rejected many traditional Muslim practices as superstitions and sought to reconcile Islam with the modern sciences and political advances of the West. Our country, he told his readers, can be both thoroughly modern and thoroughly Muslim. He envisioned a literate, prosperous, democratic Indonesia in which the values of Islam permeated the society at large and provided the basis for ethnic and religious tolerance. In his imagined Indonesia, monogamous marriages would replace polygamous ones, strong nuclear families would supersede shambling extended ones, and rationality and knowledge would overcome myth and ignorance.

Was Hamka an original thinker? Hamka was a brilliant synthesizer of facts, ideas, and arguments that he gleaned from the works of others, most significantly (as he often remarked) from modern Egyptian writers and intellectuals whose work he read in Arabic. Even the plot of his most famous novel was borrowed. Yet, in transposing all of this to Indonesia, he created something new. We can say that the master narrative that underlay his entire body of writing—what I call his Great Story—is both original and unique in its depth and complexity. Its ubiquity in the public sphere in the form of his multitudes of books, pamphlets, newspaper columns, novels, interviews, and, eventually, radio and television programs and audio cassettes made his Great Story a foundational frame of reference for generations of Indonesian Muslims.

Was Hamka’s vision for Indonesia contested? Very much so. Indeed, it was part of a huge public argument about what sort of society and nation Indonesia should become. His ideas comported with the views of the modernist mass organization Muhammadiyah, of which he was a leading figure and popular theologian. But they stood in contention with the more conservative views of Indonesia’s other mass Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama. Moreover, Indonesia’s much smaller community of Christians found Hamka’s assertive propagation of Islam overbearing and, at times, threatening. And its communists, who surged intermittently during his lifetime, belittled Islam and religion altogether. Hamka played a key and sometimes controversial role in this contest over the fate of the nation, which came to a bloody head in the 1960s in a bitter culture war that ended in the massacre of the country’s communists and rule by the army. As all of this played out, he spent more than two years as a political prisoner and, subsequently under the new military government, served ambivalently as head of Indonesia’s first national council of Muslim religious scholars.

Hamka died in 1981. Do his ideas matter today? Some of Hamka’s books remain popular today and his thirty-volumes of commentary on the Qur’an are still widely read. More significantly, however, Hamka’s modernist formulation of Islam for Indonesia underlies much of the discourse about Islam in Indonesia today, even though his role in shaping this discourse has been obscured by the passage of time. As Indonesia struggles with the surge of angry and exclusionist Islamic movements that have found so much traction elsewhere—and, to a degree, in Indonesia, too—his complex, inclusive, and hopeful vision, still so prevalent, makes it harder for the ideas of extremists to take root and grow.

James Rush

James Rush

James R. Rush is an associate professor of history at Arizona State University. He is the author of Hamka’s Great Story, as well as Opium to Java: Revenue Farming and Chinese Enterprise in Colonial Indonesia, 1860–1910, The Last Tree: Reclaiming the Environment in Tropical Asia, and numerous biographical essays about contemporary Asian activists, humanitarians, and public intellectuals in the Ramon Magsaysay Awards book series and website.