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Metropolitan Stories by Christine Coulson

She would walk along that basement corridor for another twenty-six years, each day cut and folded by the belief that just beyond the museum’s worn paths and daily rituals, there lies the possibility of something wholly unimaginable.

Christine Coulson, Metropolitan Stories

In Metropolitan Stories, Christine Coulson’s debut novel, the mighty and the miniscule denizens of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art rub shoulders with (or tiptoe past) one another in this collection of vividly realized stories. Coulson is a veteran museum employee and began her career at The Met as a summer intern in 1991. She spent over twenty-five years working in various museum departments until 2019 when she left the museum to write full-time. Metropolitan Stories is the happy result of this shift. Magical realism permeates Coulson’s tale that details an earnest love affair with art and the people who care for it.

Because we did not realize that we needed to be rescued by marble and silk, or canvas and oil paint, or charcoal upon a page, pushing beyond gilded frames and glass cases to reach out and do with us what they will…

Christine Coulson, Metropolitan Stories

In Metropolitan Stories, employees of the museum, from the lowly organizer of the museum shop bags up to the museum director, inhabit the galleries and back-rooms, in service to the objects housed there. As they go about their jobs, sooner or later, they begin to understand the power and magic of the art. They realize that the art knows more, has already lived, that the “objects were there, saw the whole thing, right in front of them.” With “their own dramas, with their delicate fears, their skyscraper egos, and their cracked and broken hearts” the human characters in Coulson’s stories are fleeting foils to the permanence of the art itself.  

The distinction between fantasy and reality blurs as artworks literally come alive, a seemingly commonplace occurrence. In a hilarious casting call, hundreds of different renditions of Muses from the museum’s collection audition for the role of “Muse” to the museum director. Later, a marble Adam “dreamt about bending his other knee or running his fingers through his hair. He imagined stretching the cavern of his mouth around the apple he held and hearing its hard crunch.” The various stories are linked by the common setting of The Met which becomes a cavernous, magical behemoth, a complicated character in its own right, full of hidden chambers and doorways to other worlds. The author’s tongue-in-cheek humor shines through in stories as disparate as two guards caught in flagrante delicto in a janitor’s closet to the musings of a fauteuil à la reine who wishes there was a support group for old chairs. 

Art lovers will probably enjoy the anthropomorphizing of various works, and anyone who has ever visited The Met will recognize some of its most famous installations (the Temple of Dendur features in several of the stories). Fans of magical realism (think Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King, and classics from Gabriel García Márquez, Haruki Murakami, and Salman Rushdie) will appreciate Coulson’s contribution to the genre.

All-in-all Metropolitan Stories was a fast, fun read with quick flashes of profound insight into the human condition. Art becomes comedian, hero, refuge, and savior, sometimes all at the same time. Mostly, the art endures. The art is “the proof, sticky but silent, hanging on that wall, standing on that pedestal.” Proof of the existence of other people that created, gave, played with, or just gazed at the art. Proof of a line of human connection, experience, and thought more powerful than death. In the end, the art is “proof that anyone was ever there at all.”

Metropolitan Stories
by Christine Coulson

249 pages

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Habiburahman’s First, They Erased Our Name

TEN years ago I volunteered as an English as a Foreign Language tutor for a refugee resettlement agency in central Pennsylvania. During that time I worked with a Christian Karen family from south-eastern Myanmar*: father, mother, and their nine month old son who had been born in the U.S. One day a week, after I finished my job at the local bank, I would go over to their tiny apartment to teach them for an hour. Although they come from a different ethnic and religious group, I couldn’t help but think of them as I was reading First, They Erased Our Name: A Rohingya Speaks by Habiburahman, a harrowing memoir detailing the “slow genocide” of the Muslim Rohingya people in western Myanmar. In First, They Erased Our Name Habiburahman (known as Habib), with the help of journalist Sophie Ansel, tells the story of his life as a Rohingya in Myanmar, his flight from his home country, and his subsequent life as a refugee. Reading about Habib’s life experience was like watching a decades-long train wreck of persecution culminate in what can only be called a genocide. 

*Note: Both the names Myanmar and Burma are used in the Burmese language. Burmese has vast differences between its spoken and written forms. This difference can be compared to colloquial language versus formal language in English. So in Burmese, Burma (Bama) comes from the spoken language while Myanmar (Myanma) comes from the written, literary language. There is no end of controversy surrounding which name should be used. I’ve chosen to use Myanmar since that is the name Habiburahman uses most often in his book.

A tyrant leant over my cradle and traced a destiny for me that will be hard to avoid: I will either be a fugitive or I won’t exist at all.

Habiburahman, First, They Erased Our Name

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar that have lived in Arakan, a western province that borders Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal, since at least the 10th century CE. Habib summarized the history of the area as “a land of Buddhists and Muslims, with many pagodas and mosques, […] independent before it was colonized by the Burmese, then the British.” 

Although there is a long history of cooperation between various ethnic and religious groups in Arakan, for the past sixty years, the military has engaged in operations to “cleanse” Myanmar of “Bengali invaders,” a euphemism for the Rohingya. Habib lists these operations, with names like “Pure Gold,” “Purify and Whiten like the Jasmine Flower,” and “Clean and Beautiful Nation,” and describes them for what they are: “manhunts, massacres with poetic, fanciful, warlike names that bestow glory on those who perpetrate them.” Poignantly, Habib tells how in 1996 Rohingya laborers “are forced to dismantle each stone and each piece of teak” of the centuries old Sandhi Khan mosque. He continues to state that the mosque “was a memory that had to be erased so that the history of Arakan and Myanmar could be rewritten by those now in power. […] The mosque no longer exists, the slate is wiped clean, and history begins anew.” Over the decades the Rohingya have watched as their cultural and religious history has been erased. They have had their property confiscated and have been forced to live in segregated neighborhoods. They have been arrested for arbitrary reasons, raped, tortured, and killed by the military and their neighbors alike.

In 1982, Habib was only three years old when a new law redefining Burmese national identity took effect. The law stated that to retain Burmese citizenship a person must belong to one of the 135 “recognized ethnic groups,” and the Rohingya were not recognized. He explains that “with the stroke of a pen, our ethnic group officially disappears.” Across Myanmar “an outlandish tale takes root by firesides in thatched huts […]. They say that because of our physical appearance we are evil ogres from a faraway land, more animal than human. This image persists, haunting the thoughts of adults and the nightmares of children.” From the mid-twentieth century to the early 2010’s the groundwork was insidiously laid, paving the way for a broader campaign of genocide.

I don’t feel hatred, because I understood a long time ago that hate serves no purpose, it is just stupid and belittling to those who feel it.

Habiburahman, First, They Erased Our Name

Through all of the hatred, racism, and physical violence he had to endure, Habib managed to excel in his education. He was among only four Muslim students at his secondary school of thousands. In a memory echoing school integration in 1950’s and 1960’s America, Habib recalls:

When we enter the building for the first time we’re met with contemptuous and hostile looks. We have to act meek. We carry on walking, pretending to be impervious to the sneering.

After passing his high school exams, Habib was able to enroll in university courses in Yangon by obtaining a fake identity card to hide that he is Rohingya*. Although he was able to hide his “illegal” background on paper he could not hide the obvious – his dark skin. 

*Note: Habib was able to effectively pass himself off as a member of the Kaman ethnic group, Muslims who are officially recognized as an indigenous ethnic group in Myanmar and have thus retained citizenship.

The word kalar, a “pejorative term expressing scorn and disgust for dark-skinned eithnic groups,” was constantly on the lips of the ethnic Burmese around him. As a young child, Habib received a version of The Talk from his father after returning home late. His father explained,

You are Rohingya, Habib. You must not play with just anybody, anywhere and anyhow. You must know your place. You have to be more responsible than children from other ethnic groups. You are not like them.

I was struck by how heartrendingly similar it seemed to conversations that parents of black and brown children in the U.S. must have with them about staying safe when dealing with police or just being in a public space. In fact, I found there were many similarities between the treatment of the Rohingya and how our current government has characterized people of color and immigrants. While it would be a false equivalency to compare the genocide of the Rohingya to race relations in the U.S. today, it is not difficult to turn back the pages of history to find a time when the comparison is apt. Nor is it difficult to imagine how disparaging and dehumanizing statements about migrants and people of color today could morph into violence on a larger scale (unfortunately, we’ve already experienced such violence and terror in the form of racially motivated mass shootings and the immigrant child separation policy).

This book is not only my story. It is the chronicle of a genocide.

Habiburahman, First, They Erased Our Name

A few years ago it was hard to miss news stories about the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar. The stories of indiscriminate violence, hiding in the forests, fleeing to neighboring countries for refuge were heartbreaking, but until I read Habiburahman’s memoir I never realized the prolonged history behind these horrors. The news cycle has moved on since then, but the harsh reality endured by the Rohingya remains. Now living in exile in Australia, Habib wrote his story so that “the truth one day [will] be known and a light shone on our tragedy, the hidden history of Burma.” This book is a difficult and emotional read. Habib’s personal tragedy gives us insight into a particular atrocity, but it also serves as a powerful warning against narratives of hatred, racism, and fascism within our own country. First, They Erased Our Name is an eye-opening journey into the making of a genocide, told from the point of view of a man who survived the odds stacked against him.

First, They Erased Our Name:
A Rohingya Speaks
by Habiburahman with Sophie Ansel
translated by Andrea Reece

248 pages

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Review: Michael Schmidt’s Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem

LET’S start with a confession: I am a historian and I have never read Gilgamesh. I didn’t read it in graduate school. I didn’t read it in college. I didn’t even read an excerpt in high school. I am a Gilgamesh virgin. But, perhaps this apparent lapse in my education was all for the best since I could approach Michael Schmidt’s Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem from an… untouched perspective. I ended up reading the book thanks to a conversation with a good friend who was teaching the poem to his undergraduate students and a serendipitous encounter with a review in The New Yorker.

In his latest book, Schmidt asks contemporary English-language poets a series of questions about their experiences reading Gilgamesh – an interesting approach in order to ‘get at’ the world’s oldest known poem. He asked them to comment on their “first remembered encounter” with the poem, which “might have come not by textual means but via the collages of Anselm Kiefer, or a surprising episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation” (…you had me at “Star Trek”). The answers he received to his questions, along with poetry inspired by Gilgamesh, are interposed throughout, providing jumping-off points to the literary scholarship. I enjoyed the more personal touch provided by these voices and I think for a general audience it will serve to make the subject more accessible.

The first half of the book provides us an introduction to the semi-divine king, Gilgamesh and his friend, the “wild man,” Enkidu, along with other characters. Using plenty of excerpts from various translations, Schmidt takes us through a summary of the main action in the poem. In addition to this detailed overview, we start to get a sense of the fluid nature of Gilgamesh: as recently as 2006 a new tablet was discovered which filled in missing parts from the opening lines.

The Flood Tablet, from Gilgamesh, 7th cen. BCE, British Museum

We play a primary role in the poem, we occupy it as we might a great sculpture: a broken form we – in reading – mend, a space we fill out, in which we find things we did not know, that change us.

Michael Schmidt, Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem

The second half of the book delves further into historical and literary criticism of the poem itself as well as of the various translations and interpretations. Schmidt argues convincingly that Gilgamesh, being such a fragmentary piece of writing, “invites, indeed requires, construction” from modern readers. The physical state of the clay tablets create very real gaps which are either carried over to modern versions “verbatim,” with dashes and ellipses, or are filled through educated guesswork or more imaginative insertions. He draws a fascinating line between translations created by scholars with knowledge of the ancient languages in which Gilgamesh was written, and interpretations by artists who rely on scholarly translations to create their work.

Scholarly translations keep the uncomfortable, always instructive difference of the original in constant view. They aren’t threatened by modern versions in English prose and verse.

Michael Schmidt, Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem

Gilgamesh, because it was written in such a far distant past and doesn’t strictly adhere to any particular literary form, becomes open for almost any kind of (re)interpretation. There are numerous re-imaginings of the poem, from picture books and comics to dramatic adaptations, rap, and dance, among others. Although “the poem comes to be read with an appropriative, anachronising, modern eye” this in no way detracts from it. One of the main arguments of Schmidt’s book is that these modern interpretations help Gilgamesh – they provide an “in” for modern readers (as the poets answering his questions attest to). That is, modern artistic interpretations often provide us our first introduction to the king.

The final chapter was perhaps my favorite and functions as a case study for the application of the historical and literary theories introduced earlier. The chapter leaves us with thoughts on some of the many translations and interpretations of the “taming” of Enkidu by Shamhat, the temple prostitute. Schmidt guides us through several modern versions from the earliest and “relatively chaste” (“[Shamhat] shew’d him her comeliness, (yea)…”), to a two-line condensed version (“Strongest sent, his harlot went,\ One Kid[Enkidu] exulted until unmanned”), to versions where Shamhat takes a definitive lead role in the action. We are treated to an extended excerpt from Philip Terry’s “wayward” Globish translation of Gilgamesh. With lines such as “Open | you leg | show WILD | MAN you | love box” it is a seemingly forced translation, but it ends up conveying both the humor and the heartache of the situation.

Although a bit verbose at times, Schmidt’s book is well-written and reads like having a chat with a down-to-earth friend who happens to be a literary scholar. Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem approaches the world’s oldest known poem in a unique and quite fun way. While I still haven’t read Gilgamesh (a PDF of Andrew George’s 1999 translation is waiting on my computer), I now have a passable understanding of the story and structure as well as the pitfalls inherent to the translation of such an ancient and fragmentary piece. I think the reviewer in The New Yorker had it right when she said that perhaps, rather than trying to choose which translation to read, one should start by reading Schmidt’s book. It offers an intelligent but relatable introduction to Gilgamesh as well as to the scholarship and modern artistry which swirls around the nearly 4000 year old poem.

Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem
by Michael Schmidt

165 pages
(including bibliography and index)

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Review: Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police

IF roses, all roses, suddenly disappeared, would your memory of them fade away as if they had never existed? This is the premise of Yoko Ogawa’s compelling dystopian novel, The Memory Police. On an unnamed island, ordinary, everyday things periodically disappear. Inhabitants simply awake in the morning feeling “that something has changed from the night before…that something has been disappeared from the island.”

K. Hydrick – digital illustration

Birds, emeralds, boats, roses, no longer exist on the island. With each disappearance the islanders perform a funeral-like ritual to “gather the remnants up to burn, or bury, or toss into the river,” thereby ridding the island of any trace of an object that could prompt a memory. Those who do remember must conceal the fact from the Memory Police, a mysterious paramilitary force, tasked with enforcing memory loss. Similarities between the Memory Police and the Nazi SS are striking as they periodically sweep the island, searching for anyone who does not forget, bundling them off in canvas-sided trucks to an unknown fate.

The protagonist, an unnamed young woman who writes novels capturing the pathos of the disappearances, discovers that her editor is one who remembers, so she decides to hide him in a space beneath her floorboards. Ogawa was fascinated with Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl as a teenager and the diary’s influence is evident, and in today’s political climate, the themes in Frank’s diary are still very much relevant.

Originally published in 1994, The Memory Police was published in English this year and is a finalist for the 2019 National Book Awards in the Translated Literature category. The translation itself is lovely. Several times I stopped to reread sections because they were so original and unusual. My favorite was a description about holding a heart: “I imagine it fitting perfectly in my palms, soft and slippery, like gelatin that hasn’t quite set. It might wobble at the slightest touch, but I sense I’d need to hold it carefully, so it wouldn’t slip through my fingers. I also imagine the warmth of the thing. It’s usually hidden deep inside, so it’s much warmer than the rest of me.” Ogawa’s prose here has somehow managed to make Jell-O sexy.

And no matter how wonderful the memory, it vanishes if you leave it alone, if no one pays attention to it. They leave no trace, no evidence that they ever existed.

Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police

Rich details envelop us and pull us into a strange society where the majority of people forget, and the minority who remember can only stand by helplessly as the world literally disappears from others’ perception. Given its treatment of memory and perception, the novel could very well function as an allegory of the relationships in families affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Perception of reality is examined via the relationship between the novelist and her editor as their viewpoints become increasingly estranged. Have the disappeared items really gone (as most of the islanders experience) or has something unknown, but perhaps reversible, happened to the hearts and minds of the people to wipe away any trace of these items and their attendant memories (as the editor believes)?

The disappearances are beyond our control. They have nothing to do with us. We’re all going to die anyway, someday, so what’s the difference? We simply have to leave things to fate.

Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police

The book also serves as a warning against giving up too much control to a totalitarian system. As things continue to vanish, the islanders’ world contracts and they lose mastery of their lives. Apathy reigns throughout. The characters seem to lack the will to really question what is occurring or to stand up to it in any meaningful way. Although originally written twenty-five years ago, the novel’s subtle message condemning state control is apt in our time of increasingly authoritarian leadership.

At times channeling Lois Lowry as well as Ray Bradbury, in The Memory Police Ogawa constructs a believable society consumed with forgetting. Themes of memory, loss, control, perception, and reality thoroughly intertwine giving depth to what would otherwise be a fairly typical dystopian novel. It is a fantastic translation with vivid language that unfolds slowly, leading toward an almost inevitable conclusion, making for a strange yet satisfying read.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

274 pages

English translation by Stephen Snyder (2019) from the original Japanese

Finalist – 2019 National Book Awards, Translated Literature (winner to be announced Nov. 20th)

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Review: Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa

Embroiled in a bloody civil war since 2011, Syria has long been subject to coups, repressive regimes, and state sanctioned surveillance.* Death Is Hard Work, the latest novel from Syrian author Khaled Khalifa, is infused with lived experience and captures the utter disruption of life in a war-zone. The author bombards the reader with all the horrors of war, while still managing to leave room for hope.

* It would be remiss of me not to mention the atrocities currently taking place in north-eastern Syria due to surreal power plays between the US, Turkey, and Russia. Although the original Arabic was published in 2016, Death Is Hard Work still stands as a relevant and humanizing look into an area of the world that continues to suffer from the whims of self-interested strongmen.

“In the end, though, war is war, and it wouldn’t be over easily or quickly. It carried its stench with it wherever it reached, wafting over everyone, leaving nothing as it had been. It altered souls, thoughts, dreams; it tested everyone’s capacity for endurance.”

Khaled Khalifa, Death Is Hard Work

In a June 2019 interview, Khalifa, who still lives in Damascus, detailed the hardships of living and working in the midst of war. The particulars of day-to-day life – sporadic electricity, no heat in winter, frequent “disappearings,” absent family and friends – are present throughout the novel. Khalifa went to great lengths in order to keep the manuscript of Death is Hard Work, and consequently himself, safe from intelligence inspections, placing the file in a folder on his laptop “with a dramatic television series about love.” This real-life episode appears in the book when one of the characters engages in digital self-censorship in order to “pass” random, disruptive security checks. It is such haunting details which make the novel all the more heartbreaking because they are not hyperbole.

The novel focuses on three estranged siblings who come together to fulfill their father’s dying wish to be buried in his ancestral home. Bolbol, is a deeply sensitive, fearful, but ultimately pragmatic man who pulls his siblings into a funeral procession of epic proportions. Recalling pivotal moments from his past as well as contemplating the precariousness of his current situation, Bolbol serves as the narrative backbone of the story. Hussein, the angry eldest brother who works as a mini-bus driver, resents Bolbol’s promise to their father, while Fatima, the younger sister, seems to be almost an afterthought as she intermittently tries to maintain peace between the siblings on the journey. The adult siblings, along with various friends and family, each play their separate roles in what becomes a veritable odyssey to move their father’s dead body across the war-torn country.

“The calmest of the four was the corpse, of course, which knew no fear or worry; blue tinged, it swelled with perfect equanimity and didn’t care that it might explode at any moment. When it vanished, at last, it would do so willingly, unconcerned with wars, soldiers, or checkpoints.”

Khaled Khalifa, Death Is Hard Work

Khalifa’s writing is exact: it does not shrink from the atrocities of war or the psychological pressure of trying to live a normal life in a war-zone. There is very little dialogue in the book and the author writes from an omniscient point of view (a perspective I have not encountered in most of my recent reads) with the characters’ internal thoughts and motivations driving the narrative. The point of view often switches unexpectedly between characters and sometimes it can take a few moments to reorient to who is speaking, but on the whole the technique works. Even the deceased father, Abdel Latif, has a “voice,” both through the memories of his children as well as in his own flash-backs. Gallows humor is woven throughout the narrative (at one point the body of Abdel Latif is arrested at a government checkpoint) which offers a slight reprieve from reading about the undeniable pain of what it means to survive in Syria today.

“Surrendering to one’s memories is the best way of escaping the wounds they preserve; constant repetition robs them of their brilliance and sanctity.”

Khaled Khalifa, Death Is Hard Work

On the surface, this is a story about the war and how it affects and complicates the siblings’ efforts to bury their father. The novel offers a strong critique, not just of the Assad regime, but also the other factions in the war. As Bolbol ruminates at one point, no matter what side the fighters are on they all bring death and destruction and then consequently a “hunger for revenge.” But deeper down, the story is also about the great universals: love and longing, the self and family, memory and death, exploring choices unchosen and the lifelong regrets that follow. These universals that make up our lives are made sharper and given an insistent edge, or are rendered almost ridiculous, because they are set against the backdrop of war.

While capturing the sprawl and violence of the Syrian civil war, this slim volume offers an unflinching look at life and death and the absurdities inherent to existence. The subject matter is undeniably dark, however Khalifa writes with such precision and humanity that, ultimately, Death Is Hard Work is a worthy and enjoyable read.

Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa
180 pages
English translation by Leri Price (2019) from the original Arabic

Winner – Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature

Finalist – 2019 National Book Awards, Translated Literature (winner to be announced Nov. 20th)