The relationship between the writer and their practice is ongoing, and this collection feels like a generous gift to those who already write, those who may be dabbling, and those who may be completely stuck in either newness or crisis. In CREDO, this relationship the individual has with their act is explored via three different forms of writing-on-writing: manifestos, statements on craft, and writing exercises. Each section in the anthology contains contributions from different writers, fifty in all, who are connected to one another via the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop, an ongoing project which serves to “create a global network of creative writers, artists, and intellectuals who actively bridge their private aesthetic philosophies with their public forms of art.” The spread is, to some degree, diverse; the writers come from different styles and backgrounds and identities, and we see intricate and personal relationships between the writers and their works through the book’s three sections.
If you have been waiting for sounds to fall from Echo’s lips and stir you to wakefulness, do not wait until after tomorrow. Banerjee is here with a rallying cry to carpe the f*ck out of this diem. “There were no tomorrows left anymore,” she warns in “Après-demain,” and “. . . there isn’t a story i haven’t believed in,” from “Paper Men.”
Jaswinder Bolina, author of The 44th of July, Phantom Camera, and CarrierWave, has called this book “the first truly post-national book of poems [he’s] ever read.”
Banerjee’s scope is wide, and her reach does not exceed her grasp. While she looks for home, characterized as nothing more than a “constant state of momentary arrivals*,” she dwells in ocean, in moonlight, in making love to Thanatos as a lover worships the body next to her in bed. She explores the realms of water, whether shipwrecked Atlantis or sound inside a leaf-grown well. She revels in the oop! and wop of a didgeridoo and regales in the language of Hindu gods, Japanese frogs, and those the world over whose tongues circle the stories of these poems, “ready for what / it will allow: / to wait for sounds.”
I’m so happy to have the opportunity to review three picture books for the 5th Annual Multicultural Children’s Book Day. A day to learn, share, and talk about the fantastic diverse literature available for young readers. It was a joy to share these stories with my twin three-year-old boys. (Disclosure: I received the following three books from their authors to give an honest review for #MCBD2018.)
As an Indigenous woman with two little boys, finding them diverse stories is very important to me. As biracial children I want them to have books that reflect their Indigenous heritage as well as stories from as many cultural backgrounds as possible. I want my boys to have the opportunity to not only see a representation of themselves in stories but find a connection to diverse characters.
A Tall Tale About a Dachshund and a Pelican: How a Friendship Came to Be, written by Kizzie Jones, illustrated by Scott Ward and published by Tall Tales. This is a simple story about making friends regardless of differences and celebrating diversity.
This delightful flip-over bilingual English-Spanish picture book is a sequel to Kizzie Jones’ award-winning book How Dachshunds Came to Be. The illustrations are beautiful. As someone who grew up with a dachshund, I thought the artist portrayed the exuberance of Goldie the dachshund perfectly. Dog lovers will adore this story. This tale is about the excitement of a dog wanting to make a new friend. The lesson to take away is unmistakable: you can like and appreciate someone without being similar. It held the attention of both twins on our first reading. I can see it becoming a recurring book for story time. It is a charming sequel to the Tall Tale Series.
The next two picture books I have the pleasure of reviewing are Sporty Lou: Soccer King and Johnny Skip 2: The Amazing Adventures of Johnny Skip 2 in Australia written by Quentin Holmes and published by Holmes Investment & Holdings LLC. The illustrations in both Sporty Lou and Johnny Skip 2 have a cheerfulness to them, and the bright color palette works well for both stories. It’s impressive that both books are drawn using the same style and the two little boys are completely different. The characters and background in each book are diverse.
Sporty Lou: Soccer King is a story about Lou, a spirited little boy being taught soccer for the first time. In Lou’s fantastic imagination his self-confidence is shown as he pictures a stadium full of people cheering his name. Lou’s disappointment in not being a naturally gifted player shakes that confidence. Lou’s dad wants to share this great game with him and doesn’t let Lou stay discouraged. He gently teaches and encourages Lou to persevere.
Lou is a little boy with dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, and cappuccino skin color. He is ethnically ambiguous and could be any nationality. It’s possible a child from any race could look at Lou and see themselves or someone familiar. He’s every child. I like the two sides we see of Lou; he pictures himself as a sports star and he’s a small boy who as he struggles, and misses finds the determination to keep trying.
Many kids who love sports will enjoy this book. But I think the lesson of perseverance in Sporty Lou is important for any child to hear. I appreciated the thoughtful way the dad taught and corrected Lou. Sporty Lou: Soccer King is an enjoyable read-out-loud book.
Johnny Skip 2: The Amazing Adventures of Johnny Skip 2 in Australia is a story about Johnny, a black little boy, and his dog Grounder who use a remarkable device to skip all over the world. They go to Australia to explore the outback and help a kangaroo.
This story has a lot going on for a picture book and it didn’t hold my three-year-old boys’ attention. I think it would be better enjoyed by kids five to seven. This interactive adventure is an ambitious series that combines science and magic. The book teaches about the culture, language, animals, and environment of a continent. The story presents a lot of information on Australia quickly, but this causes the rhyme structure and rhythm of the text to feel forced making it difficult to read out loud. I’m interested to see what is next for both Sporty Lou and Johnny Skip 2 in their series.
Reading diversity in fiction creates empathy and understanding in real life. These three books reflect a piece of our diverse, beautiful and complicated world. I’d like to thank Kizzie Jones and Quentin Holmes for contributing their stories to Multicultural Children’s Book Day.
Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017 (1/27/18) is in its 5th year and was founded by Valarie Budayr from Jump Into A Book and Mia Wenjen from PragmaticMom. Our mission is to raise awareness of the ongoing need to include kids’ books that celebrate diversity in home and school bookshelves while also working diligently to get more of these types of books into the hands of young readers, parents and educators.
–Anna-Celestrya Carr, CWW Media Development Intern
On a journey that begins in South Florida and ends up in Romania, the country of her family’s forgotten history, Tara Skurtu plays “the amoeba game,” a game that has no rules. With subtle and serious humor, with the vivid spontaneity of memory and dreams, and with surgical precision, these compelling, mysterious poems hold up a lens that reveals the slippery and changing dimensions of our many selves.
If you’ve ever longed to name the nameless space between lovers, or searched for home under foreign skies, Tara Skurtu’s chapbook Skurtu, Romania, will leave you haunted with traces of those journeys. This poetry collection reads like a verse novella told from the first person point of view. It is a search for the self in a foreign land, a quest for the shape of love and how to interpret it. The collection opens with the speaker’s attempts at situating the body in a place and in relation to the intimate, yet silent interlocutor ‘you.’ At the beginning, in the poem, “Limit,” the poet sets us up for the kind of archaeological dig we are about to embark upon, removing layers from languages and relationships, “My body, a strange passenger/surrounded by walls/of books in a language/I don’t understand. I’m trying/for sleep in another country./I’m taking pictures of/pictures of you.”
The imagery in the poems beautifully oscillates between a bird’s eye view and a macro lens perspective, from “everywhere” to the graphite at the point of a pencil, from a speck to a forest, from a dream to “a lattice of wormholes.” The particular moments captured between the lovers reveal a space that is at once intimate and isolating. There are as many moments shared as there are forgotten, and there is something lost in the translation of memory. In “Spoiled,” the reader is reminded of the disappointment that expectations can lead to, as the lover brings the speaker “a perfect apple,” but although it looks perfect in the palm, “I bite the apple and wish/I hadn’t—the flesh mealy, a mouthful of sweet mashed potatoes I spit/into the garbage.” The disconnect between desire and experience, between dream and reality, is playfully examined in exquisite detail.
What is revealed so delicately in these poems are the unexpected small sacrifices a lover makes to connect with a beloved, and in a strange land, that means being “stuck in your village, walking/a chicken on a leash” or eating “the one thing I told myself/I’d never eat—I swallowed/the bite whole.” The difficulty of being stuck during the search for a place in a new country, new language, and new relationship is paralleled with what the speaker observes, like “a fly [that] zips/into the flytrap. Its body puttied/to the glue strip, legs waving/like six wet strokes of black ink.”
What is most profound can be boiled down to the movement of a knee, as Tara Skurtu masterfully choreographs words to create a visceral dance between the flight and fog that characterizes searching, making the quest for a common language palpable. “I press the nib, I push out words—place words, blank words.” As the collection progresses, we see the speaker taking solace not in abstract language, but instead in the concrete, sensorial experience of the world. “I couldn’t unstick the poem/on my walk in the rain, but when/I reached the market in Berceni,/the curbside cabbages calmed me.”
By the end, the speaker is beginning to dream in the language of her lover, learning to see in a new language. Closure is not complete, it is a story about to be told over a nightcap, and we end on the brim of the glass, smelling the cognac. The poet has set the chapbook up to be read with a kind of cyclical fluidity, and it beckons to be read again. “Let me be a line, a word/ in the middle of a line.” I urge you to read Tara Skurtu, a compelling and important contemporary poet.
The poetry chapbook Skurtu, Romania was published by Eyewear Publishing last winter, and Tara Skurtu’s first full length poetry book, The Amoeba Game is coming out this October (2017), also from Eyewear Publishing.
Tara Skurtu received a 2015-17 extended Fulbright, a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship, and two Academy of American Poets prizes. Her poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Poetry Review, Poetry Wales, and Tahoma Literary Review. Tara’s debut poetry collection, The Amoeba Game, is forthcoming from Eyewear Publishing. She lives in Romania.
Diana Norma Szokolyai is a writer and Executive Artistic Director of Cambridge Writers’ Workshop. She is author of the poetry collections Parallel Sparrows and Roses in the Snow, as well as co-editor of CREDO: An Anthology of Manifestos and Sourcebook for Creative Writing.
Valmike Rampersad and Anna-Celestrya Carr at the Bazodee after party.
Bazodee: a state of dizziness or confusion often used with regards to love or infatuation. In other words, caught up in a magical moment. I experienced this last week when I attended the international premier of Bazodeeat the Playstation Theater, in the heart of Time’s Square.
Bazodeeis a film combining the styles of a Bollywood musical, the American rom-com and the cultural aspects of the Caribbean. Dubbed “Trini-wood” by members of the cast. The story is of Anita Panchouri (Natalie Perera), the dutiful Indian daughter of a deep-in-debt businessman (Kabir Bedi), who is about to marry a family friend and wealthy Londoner (Staz Nair) when a chance encounter with a local singer, Lee de Leon (Soca music star Machel Montano in his film debut) sets things askew. After failing to become internationally known as a musician in London, Lee returns home to Trinidad disheartened. In search of a muse, Lee agrees to perform at the engagement party for both families. Unable to deny their mutual attraction, and with the excitement of Carnival approaching, Anita must now choose between the answer to her family’s financial prayers and the possibility of real love.
Bazodee stars legendary soca and calypso artist Machel Montano, along with internationally acclaimed actor Kabir Bedi, Staz Nair, Natalie Perera, and scene stealers Valmike Rampersad, Cindy F. Daniel and Chris Paul Smith.
Representing the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop (CWW), I stood in line next to Roger Paperno, the director of the music video “I Forget,” one of the original songs written for the film. The line attending the premiere extended to Broadway and down the block. The pre-show reception continued past 7:30pm while people filled the theatre. In attendance were television, print and online media from several South Asian countries as well as from Europe and the US that covered the red carpet as Machel Montano and other main actors arrived.
Susanne Bohnet, CEO of Serafini Pictures and Producer of Bazodee, opened the night with “We at Serafini Pictures, we are here to bring you relevant stories from a view point which has nothing in common with the white supremacy of Hollywood. We believe to honor who we are and to celebrate who we are. Our films will feature in the leading rolls Africans, African Americans, Asians, West Indians, Latinos, the LGBT community and everybody who we feel deserves a strong voice and an authentic viewpoint. Bazodee is a passion project of many; it’s a film we’re very proud of.”
Directed by Todd Kessler, former show runner and a co-creator of Blue’s Clues. The cinematography captured the atmosphere of Carnival and the striking beauty of Trinidad and its people. The film boasts a full cast of people of color. Every actor in Bazodee is authentic, and their actual background is close, if not identical, to the background of the character they are playing. Most of the actors in the film are Trinidadian, which I found refreshing as compared with the standard Hollywood whitewashed rom-coms.
The film is a universal love story, one could say a bit cliché, but set against the backdrop of Carnival on the vivid, colorful islands of Trinidad and Tobago, it becomes fresh. The film’s themes include unity and honesty triumphing in the face of adversity. The story has potential to be a serious drama exploring the struggle of an inter-racial/cultural relationship and the sacrifice Anita experiences for the sake of her family. However, Bazodee has a lightheartedness throughout.
Watching the film, I realized that as an Indigenous woman, I’ve never been in a theater that had an audience almost completely of people of color. It was incredible to witness the audience react to and connect with a film that was made predominantly for them. Sitting in the theater, there was a dialogue between the screen and the people. I believe there is a real sense of freedom when people are able to see themselves represented in media. The small moments of female friendships had the women in the audience cheering. Scenes that were written for the audience were a riot. One man yelled out “informer!” at a confrontational point of the movie.
The on-screen chemistry between Montano and Perera was believable and they looked good together. The most impressive performance was from UK-based Trini actor Valmike Rampersad. His creepy, uptight, lurking, always suspicious character Nikhil provided the gravity and suspense to the film. He was as charming off screen as he was villainous onscreen.
Soca is the heartbeat of the film. The music felt like another character throughout the story. Most of the musical numbers were taken from Montano’s discography reinterpreted and remixed for film. Passionate and beautiful. The film is a good introduction to soca music.
The most obvious flaw in the film was with the editing. There were some continuity issues, and there were points that could have been brought up earlier in the film that would have made the ending more authentic. However, that didn’t stop the film from being entertaining and becoming a valued part of Trinidad’s filmography. The premiere ended with an after party and special live performance by Machel Montano and Friends.
Bazodee opens in movie theaters across the United States on August 5, 2016.
—Anna-Celestrya Carr, CWW Media (Audio/Visual) Development Intern
“Have you always daydreamed of charming coastal life on Rhode Island but never had a chance to experience it firsthand? Here is your glorious, picturesque and everything-you-ever-dreamed-of chance. Nestled directly on the coast with plenty of time for sailboat watching, this stunning location will surely inspire your greatest summer hit (especially if you’re a beach-read type of author).
We expect you to stop reading now and to book your dream retreat immediately. Go ahead; you know you want it.”
Poet Douglas Piccinnini’s Story Book: A Novella(The Cultural Society, 2015) “suspends and electrifies narration mid-creation,” writes Rita Banerjee in a review of the work at LA Review of Books. “Piccinnini’s training as a poet illuminates his work, the structure of his prose echoing the long-lines of Ammons and Walt Whitman,” she writes. More:
“These rolling lines are less biting than Ginsberg’s, but through a Stein–like interplay of sense and nonsense, his diction evokes vulnerability and makes evident the emotional, psychological, and cultural stakes involved. In this space of confusion, syntax and grammar break down as the speaker attempts to reformulate his own expression and empower his own disabled tongue. As language learns to articulate itself, ready-made forms of cultural capital — such as the privilege of being an American or speaking in the neo-colonizing tongue of English — are challenged by the speaker’s very inability to give them significance or import. In this Chapter 1 and in others, the parameters of the speaker’s life, of his identity, and of his sexuality are called into question by the birth and death of language.”
In this week’s edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Rita Banerjee reviews Douglas Piccinnini’s Story Book: A Novella. She writes:
DOUGLAS PICCINNINI’S Story Book: A Novella suspends and electrifies narration mid-creation. Story Book explores narratives of self-imposed amnesia, bloody encounters at home and on the road, Oedipal rage, suburban cocoons and the anxiety of marriage, male sexuality and therapy sessions gone awry, Catholic school and homosociality, confrontations with love, death, and surveillance, and of course, the purported cure-all of worst-case scenario guides. The “novella” is composed of a series of short stories which all begin with the title, “Chapter 1.” Each Chapter 1, laced with metatextuality, develops its own existential confusions before arriving at a moment of implosion or interruption.
Story Book is thus about a modern man, a modern artist, and a modern thinker disabled by language. The ghosts of Gertrude Stein, A. R. Ammons, and Samuel Beckett haunt Piccinnini’s prose as each chapter performs its role as self-confrontation or self-interview. Piccinnini’s power as a writer emerges when his disabled speaker learns how to articulate himself, and how to use the very language that hinders his understanding of himself, in order to climb out of existential dilemmas and tailspins…
Another “Chapter 1” begins with the simple provocation: “What did I love?” In this chapter, the speaker sits alone at his computer trying to decipher the meaning of his relationships with women and his odd infatuation with words. He ponders the difficulty of writing an address, a story in which the perspectives of the “you” and “I” combine and trade places. He considers how easily days of productivity disappear as the writer attempts to get a sense of urgency on paper. He writes, “I feel the quotation of an afternoon, emptied — empty before me,” and then reveals:
This is the third time I’ve lived with a woman.
I’ve been in love before. I’ve been loved. I’ve also wanted to have sex with the same person over and over again but that is not love, I think.
Sex can be love. But love and sex are different, obviously. Is it obvious? Sometimes you’ll want to have sex with someone you don’t know and never want to know. You’ll find yourself destroying a complete stranger in some compromising position. It would seem to be some biological failure, love and how we live.
This is the first time I’ve been married. I love my wife. I read recently, “Love is a condition of understanding.” I’m quoting from memory. It sounds like something you might read anywhere.
A nagging sense of quotation, of living a life built on quotation marks haunts the novella. The speakers of his stories are troubled by the thought that their very human existence and their desires for creative expression have already been written and have found a home in someone else’s prose. The fear of living a life already recorded and already performed by literary archetypes creates a start-and-stop motion in Piccinnini’s prose.
Rita Banerjee received her doctorate in Comparative Literature from Harvard and her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington. Her writing has appeared in Electric Literature, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Riot Grrrl Magazine, Poets for Living Waters, The Fiction Project, Objet d’Art, and on KBOO Radio’s APA Compass in Portland, Oregon. Her first collection of poems, Cracklers at Night, received First Honorable Mention for Best Poetry Book of 2011-2012 at the Los Angeles Book Festival, and her novella, A Night with Kali, is forthcoming from Spider Road Press in October 2016. Creative Director of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop, she is currently working on a novel and a book of lyric essays.
What makes a great opera? Is it the music? The costumes? The story? Or can it become great for the performer who helms the leading role? Novelist and CWW 2016 Summer in Granada Writing Retreat faculty member Alexander Chee’s latest work, The Queen of the Night is a historical fiction novel that follows Lilliet Berne, a Parisian opera sensation in the late 19th century. Lilliet receives an offer for an original role, an honor most opera performers only dream of. However, when she discovers that the opera is based heavily on her past, she embarks on a journey to discover how the work came to be. The novel traces Lilliet’s journey, beginning with her childhood as an American frontiersman’s daughter. Readers watch as Lilliet joins a circus and a brothel, serves the Empress of France, studies under opera legends, and ultimately arrives at her current status as one of France’s most famous opera singers.
Chee’s novel is a historical epic, and Lilliet is a character in the vein of a Dickens protagonist. Her life takes so many turns, and she is forced to navigate using her wit and talent for assuming new roles.
Though this shape-shifting proves convenient, Lilliet struggles to discern how much control she has over any one of her personas. While she cycles easily through roles, she finds herself influenced, even dominated, by others, and most of the conflict in the book comes from run-ins with authority figures. The most dangerous is a tenor singer who tries to morph Lilliet into the opera legend of his fantasies. Lilliet, dubbed a Falcon soprano due to her unique and potentially temporary style of singing, is often associated with falcons and other avian imagery. Lilliet is a master at “flying” from dangerous people and situations and finding a way to survive.
It is true that Chee’s novel is a hefty read, but I never found myself losing interest. I found Lilliet fascinating–multidimensional and endowed with a unique voice. She is strong and clever, but she also possesses very human faults.
I also admire the way Chee conveyed opera in the story. It can be difficult to communicate performance, which relies so heavily on visual and audio, in prose. However, Chee’s book manages to convey all the operas and performances via detailed imagery and clever diction. Even the more abstract operas were so well fleshed as to remind me of a George Méliès film. I only wanted to see them realized on the stage.
Overall, The Queen of the Night is a wonderful novel. Liliette is a strong and fascinating character, and Chee tells her story in precise, rich prose. I am very excited to read more Alexander Chee, and I am very excited for the Historical Fiction course he will be teaching at our Granada retreat.
–Alex Carrigan, CWW Managing Intern
For more information on Alexander Chee and The Queen of the Night, visit his website here.
Last year, the Syrian refugee crisis became a point of international discussion. The Syrian Civil War has seen millions of Syrians displaced and fleeing into neighboring countries. In between news reports of nations closing their borders and celebrities advocating for refugee aid, we heard stories about the people who made it out. We heard about what and who they lost escaping the war zone, the challenges they faced fleeing the country, and the difficulties of starting new lives in different nations.
When I picked up the newest book from poet, educator, former CWW faculty member, and CREDO contributor Kathleen Spivack, I found myself entrenched in a different mass exodus, though one of equal gravity. Unspeakable Things, Spivack’s first novel, follows several characters who escaped World War II-Europe and are attempting to start anew in New York City. These characters include a beautiful and physically deformed former countess, her Esperanto-speaking cousin, his institutionalized wife, his granddaughter who is going through a physical and emotional crisis, a pediatrician who dabbles in genetic experiments for his Führer, and a string quartet who were driven out of their home following a disastrous concert and the loss of their little fingers. These characters influence each other’s tales, as the unspeakable events of the War continue to effect them.
Spivack’s characters are united by an almost obsessive interest in memory and the past. Some characters are haunted by their pasts, some still bear the marks of terrible events, and others embrace the past as part of a progression. What differentiates Spivack’s characters on a thematic level is how they choose to let the past affect them–whether it will be saving, destructive, or something else.
Spivack imbues her tale with a lovely attention to music. For many of Spivack’s characters–the Tolstoi Quartet (so named because they consider Tolstoi the most universal writer, which I love), for example– music is life. These musicians once lived together, sharing beds with their instruments while their wives slept on the floor. When they lose their little fingers and the ability to play as a result, they are only concerned about steadying their instruments. Additionally, the institutionalized woman is a former concert pianist, and it is the prospect of her music that keeps her husband striving to improve her health. Spivack even gives the author’s dedication “To music, which forgives everything.”
Part of what makes Spivack’s tale unique is her use of magical realism. It is rare that a novel treats World War II via magical realism, so I was intrigued by Spivack’s use of genre. In this book, inanimate objects can react and emote, reflecting the mental and emotional states of their owners. In one chapter, the countess character spends two weeks in an affair with the mystic monk Rasputin, who then leaves his hand prints burnt onto her inner thighs. For her, the prints mark shame and sacrifice and continue to throb, burn, and react decades after the affair. For another character, the ghost of her son is a reminder of what the family lost when they fled Europe, but also a symbol for her fractured mental state.
In terms of critique, I did feel at times that Unspeakable Things lacked subtlety. While I thought that some symbols, such as Rasputin’s hand prints and the ghost son, were interesting and fitting, there were times where things were a little too on-the-nose, or too deliberately provocative. For example, we know that the pediatrician is a bad guy because he molests his child patients and has their mothers pay for checkups with their bodies, all while conducting genetic experiments to create a super race. Did we also need to see him wear lingerie and makeup while masturbating to a photo of Hitler? Probably not. There were times where I thought Spivack could have tried to work certain elements in more organically, or just removed them altogether.
Despite this, I did enjoy reading Unspeakable Things. I loved that there was always a turn when I thought I knew what was going to happen. Overall, it reminded me of Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses. Oshima’s is a film that, while extremely erotic, contains important political and social criticism and a fascinating storyline. Additionally, I give Spivack credit for making the transition from poetry to fiction; her language and writing style are often beautiful. I hope that she continues to write novels, and I hope that she returns to certain ideas and images from this book. For those readers who want an erotic, magical historical fiction novel, with great imagery and style, Unspeakable Things is worth the read.