Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Necessary Writer: Terry Tempest Williams

In Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Terry Tempest Williams confronts the fearsome beauty and power of nature in her descriptions of the rise of the Great Salt Lake and the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, and tells the tragic yet life-affirming story of the cancer delivered by nuclear weapons testing that has ravaged her downwinder family.

In An Unspoken Hunger, Terry, as outspoken as she is gracefully and meticulously artistic, articulates the mystical bond between women and the wild. In Leap, Terry recounts her immersion not in a living landscape but rather in a painted world, Bosch’s wildly detailed triptyph, The Garden of Delights, a journey of the imagination that asks, among many other provocative questions, why we don’t value nature as highly as we do artistic masterpieces?

In Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, and in The Open Space of Democracy, Williams forthrightly and creatively extends her poetics of place into a politics of place, recognizing that one must defend what one loves.

A naturalist, writer, and activist hailed as a visionary, Williams has testified before Congress, gone to jail for acts of civil disobedience, and journeyed to Hiroshima and Rwanda to participate in acts of art and healing. Williams has contributed to numerous newspapers, magazines, and anthologies, and she advocates tirelessly in person for wilderness and justice. Williams has received the Robert Marshall Award from the Wilderness Society, the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western American Literature Association and the Wallace Stegner Award. She is the recipient of Lannan and Guggenheim fellowships. Terry Tempest Williams is the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah, and the University of Wyoming's first Eminent Writer-in-Residence.

Terry has said, “Writing becomes an act of compassion toward life, the life we so often refuse to see because if we look too closely or feel too deeply, there may be no end to our suffering. But words empower us, move us beyond our suffering, and set us free. This is the sorcery of literature. We are healed by our stories.”

The truth of this observation is born out in her newest book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World. Here’s the Booklist review:

Ecologist and writer Williams composes gracefully structured inquiries lush with unexpected and revelatory correspondences. In her most far-reaching and profoundly clarifying work to date, Williams considers the complex beauty of brokenness and the redemptive art of creating wholeness from fragments in a triptych of explorations. She begins in a mosaics workshop in Ravenna, Italy, and then brings the understanding gleaned from working with tesserae to her day-by-day observations of a beleaguered Utah prairie dog town. Williams marvels over this tunnel-building, highly communicative species and dubs them “prayer dogs” for their habit of standing and watching the sunset. Prairie dogs are crucial to the biodiversity of the grassland ecosystem, a living mosaic, yet they have been brutally massacred and driven to the brink of extinction. The story of her brother’s death entwines with Williams’ riveting account of her trip to Rwanda with visionary artist Lily Yeh to help create a genocide memorial. Brokenhearted in this land of bones and sorrow, Williams gathers shattering stories of death and resilience with the help of an extraordinary survivor who becomes her son, bearing witness to the horror of neighbors slaughtering neighbors in an attempted annihilation. Scientific in her exactitude, compassionate in her receptivity, and rhapsodic in expression, Williams has constructed a beautiful mosaic of loss and renewal that affirms, with striking lucidity, the need for reverence for all of life.
— Donna Seaman

Listen to my Open Books interview with Terry Tempest Williams. You'll find it in the Nonfiction section.

Among the many things we have to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, in a time of cruel diminishment and fear, of catastrophic lies and high crimes, are writers of Terry Tempest Williams' eloquence, insight, compassion, passion, and courage. Let us be thankful, too, that we will have a new President who reads signifiant books, out of respect for the past and the knowledge and experience of others, and who has written books in pursuit of understanding and coherence, truth and inspiration.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Amitav Ghosh and Unity in Suffering

The beautiful Fullerton Auditorium at the Art Institute of Chicago was nearly full on Saturday morning, although it was the sort of cold, windy, spitty day best suited for staying home. I've heard many an inspiring lecture there and was rather astonished to find myself on the stage instead of in the audience. I was there to speak with Amitav Ghosh, the imaginative and erudite author of profoundly entertaining, history-steeped, and humanist novels, among them The Glass Palace, The Hungry Tide, and his newest, Sea of Poppies.

Ghosh seems to absorb history, including that discovered in such primary sources as court documents, as naturally and productively as a plant absorbs sunlight. His fiction is many-faceted, rich in tragedy and wit, romance and social concerns. He loves spending "long, dreamy days" at his desk writing, and his pleasure in language and story are palpable. Brilliant and fluent, Ghosh responded to each question with a beautifully formed story or thoughtfully expressed observation. When I asked him how he is able to write of dire things--slavery, torture, imprisonment, addiction, exile--without losing a sense of life's vibrancy and humor, he replied by talking about how, even in the darkest moments, the most oppressive places, people come together and find comfort in community, solace in making the best of the little they have--a patch of sun or shade, a hand to hold, food to share, however simple. We take heart; we distribute the sorrow, help carry the weight. We rekindle gratitude and hope, appreciation for beauty and laughter. That's just the way we are. We come together and find strength.

I couldn't help but think of the extraordinary community that coalesced around Barack Obama. We recognized the light of a true leader. Now we need to continue to support our new president, and each other. All of Ghosh's characters end up on a ship, the Ibis. It's no cliche to say that we truly are all in the same boat, that we all rise and fall together, and that we can make this new start a voyage into a more sane, responsible, just, and sustainable future.

I'm so grateful to Amitav Ghosh for all the compassion, art, and ardor he brings to his writing, for his generosity, and for the joy he finds in writing. In life.

Friday, November 7, 2008

RIP and Oh Happy Day!!

Chicago has felt lately like the center of the universe. While many of us continue to pay tribute to the late great Studs Terkel, our city on the lake was the site of a spectacular celebration of democracy at its finest. We cried and cheered and danced and cried some more with astonishment, relief, and pride as Barack Obama came before us as the first African American president-elect, and the leader that will guide us out of the nightmare of the past eight years. I felt liberated, as though a hood had been lifted from my head and face. As though I'd been released from a cramped cell and could stand up straight and take a deep breath for the first time since 2000. We can once again try to live up to our ideals. This is transformation, with millions of new voters, with millions of voices raised to reclaim our beloved country, to reassert decency and justice. I'm so grateful to everyone who worked so hard on behalf of Barack Obama, family and friends included. Thank you, thank you.

And in the midst of jubilation, life, and death, go on. On the literary front, we mourn the loss of another great book advocate, another inspired reader and a supremely gifted critical writer, John Leonard. A man Studs much admired, and vice versa. John Leonard contributed mightily to our culture. He leaves an empty space, and one wonders if any one critic can command the attention he did in this time of pixels and pieces. Quick takes and endangered newspapers.

But then, I think of Obama and know that we'll figure things out. And that we'll keep writing and reading, learning and thinking.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

More on Studs

A Conversation with Studs Terkel

As an associate editor for Booklist, and as a book reviewer and critic, I had the profound good fortune to speak with Studs Terkel onstage and off. It was always a tremendous thrill and boost to converse with him in front of hundreds of his fans, I could feel the admiration, delight, and love rolling off the audience like a breeze over water. And the thunderous applause Studs received recalibrated one’s heartbeat. And no matter how prolonged the clapping, how enthusiastic the standing ovation, Studs would lean over to me and say, “How I’d do? Was it all right?” Half-teasing, but sincere. Studs was a giving and humble guy. He genuinely admired people, all kinds of people, and so for all his fame, he never put himself above anyone else.

I had the great honor and pleasure of celebrating Studs Terkel’s phenomenal contribution to American literature when nominated him for the National Book Critics Circle’s Ivan
Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. Named after the first president of the NBCC, the award is given annually to a person––a writer, publisher, critic or editor––who has contributed significantly to book culture over time.

As the NBCC states, “Past winners have included Pauline Kael, Studs Terkel, Lawrence
Ferlinghetti, Bill Henderson, John Leonard, Louis D. Rubin Jr., Jason
Epstein, William Maxwell, Leslie A. Marchand, Robert Giroux, Alfred
Kazin, Elizabeth Hardwick and the Library of America. As you can tell
from the list, the award is truly ecumenical, seeking to recognize
outstanding and long-standing work from any sector that affects a book
and contributes to American art and letters.”

Studs took immense pleasure in this award. He loved books passionately, and read books with penetrating insight and receptivity. When I was asked to write an interviewing the interviewers piece for Bookforum in 2007, I just had to start with Studs Terkel. Bookforum published a brief excerpt of our conversation, and I would like to share the transcript with other Studs fans here.

Seaman: You’ve spoken with so many great writers over the years. Who do you remember most vividly?

Terkel: Jimmy Baldwin, when he first came back from his long self-exile from America. He had just come back from Switzerland and Nobody Knows My Name was out. Well, he was great, just back after a long absence. He felt high. So I thought, hell, I’ll lead off with some Bessie Smith, some blues, and that did it. He loved it. He was terrific.

And it was very exciting to talk with Margaret Atwood. You know, these are improvised conversations to a great extent. I read the book, or, lots of times, all the writer’s books, thoroughly. I know them inside out. I mark them up, I’ve really gotten into it, you know.

And then, well, invariably, I start with the author’s voice. I like to have the author read, maybe from the beginning, or a favorite passage, something to set the tone. This is radio, so you want that. Then what I aim for, what I hope for, is that we’ll talk about the book, absolutely, but more than that, we’ll talk about their outlook on life. How do they see the world? What are they curious about? What’s on their mind?

The thing is to be flexible. You’ve got to be open to the conversation. You’ve got to know your stuff, and you’ve got to willing go where they go. Flexibility with substance. Style and substance are related after all. Form follows function. I’m a Louis Sullivan man. I like it solid and ornate. Stone and life, you see. You need both the solid and the fluid. That’s how it’s done.

Another great conversationalist is Gore Vidal. Oh yes, he is very clear. There’s nothing wasted in what he says. The clarity is, oh, amazing. It seems so easy, and he says so much, so naturally. That really stays with you. That’s impressive, that’s exciting. Gore Vidal has really got it.

Seaman: Writers tell me how amazed they are at how obviously well-read their books are. I just spoke to Patricia Hampl, who said that you “munched” her book. That it was “manhandled.”

Terkel: Oh, yes. Everyone says that. I’m famous for that. Patricia Hampl, she’s great. There are so many great women writers. Fabulous writers. They’re really doing great things in new ways. Now I’m thinking about Toni Morrison. How I love Song of Solomon and The Bluest Eye. Toni Morrison is brilliant. Such insight. Such stories. Wow.

And I love the nonfiction writers, too. Harrison Salisbury. Remember him? At the New York Times. A historian, knew it all about the Soviet Union, China. He was someone who could speak spontaneously but deeply. That’s an art.

Tobias Wolff is like that, too. So much at the ready, you know. He writes beautifully, too, both fiction and nonfiction. Yes, that’s really something.

And way back, before he started writing novels, Tom Wolfe was something. I liked his early works. Very adventurous. Smart. He was a master of the short takes, and a great talker.

Different worlds, fiction and nonfiction. They’re both important.

Of course, thinking about my hometown, I loved Nelson Algren. Oh yes. We would talk. Nelson, well, he was great. He could speak on any subject, which was a good thing, because he would wander away every time. You’d be talking about one topic, and then off he’d go, on to something else. And you had to stay with it. And it was thrilling. I’ll never forget Nelson.

Seaman: Are there any writers you wish you’d spoken with?

Terkel: Writers I wish I spoke with? John Steinbeck. Now that’s a shame. I did write a good long introduction when they reissued The Grapes of Wrath, the great American novel. At least I was able to do that. And I regret never talking with Saul Bellow.

The thing is, much as I love talking to writers, it is regular folks who say the most surprising and unforgettable things. Yes, people, ordinary folks––a paralegal, an engineer, a bus drive, waitress. Now they can talk. They can tell you things. They have stories. Regular people, they stay with me.