January 22, 2004
a few more notes from the last few sessions:
One session on Sunday was called, "The Mythology of the American Dream". The moderator noted that the title was two steps away from reality: The myths behind the dreams...
The American dream was primarily an economic dream, but it also included the possibility of social mobility...from one class to another class -- something that was close to impossible in most other countries.
The myth was reinforced by a series of books for boys by Horatio Alger Jr. which were always about boys that went from nowhere to somewhere, from nobody to somebody through honesty, hard work, and determination.
Junot Diaz, said "In Santo Domingo there was no running water and no power." He had the idea of Americans being the chosen and the rest of the world being unchosen. He was suddenly transported to live among the chosen, but found himself living in a black ghetto in New Jersey. His American dreams started to change.
"Who do you ask about the grenade attack?" he said. Ideally you can ask those who've been blown to pieces -- but you can't. So you ask the survivors and more frequently those who launched the grenade.
David Louie said to read The People's History of the United States,(1980) by Howard Zinn, a history of the US written through the eyes of the oppressed and powerless. He adds that the dream of social mobility was only available to certain classes -- not slaves or indentured servants.
Elizabeth Nunez reminds us dourly that "the vast privilege that I have accrued in the US is based on the misery of others" -- the survivors of the grenade attack. The stories are told by the successful, the survivors, and the adults.
Lil scribbles in her notes that "it's the storytellers who tell the stories, and stories can be told with empathy and compassion." I'm thinking of the amazing movie Osama about the suffering of a young girl under the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Sunday Afternoon sessions were free and open to the public. Ticket holders were not guaranteed seats. This, and help with financing to 10% of the participants (your correspondent included) are two other wonderful things about this event.
Cristina Garcia "As with all immigrants, your soul is in constant turmoil. You don't know the rules. You don't believe all the rules. But an amazing energy is released when you enter a new land."
Elmaz Abinader "I believe literature. I don't believe newspapers. I don't believe politicians. When I want to know something, I don't go to congressional records. I don't go to encyclopedias. I go to the stories."
Robert Olen Butler "Through art we enter into the sensibility of the other and find ourselves reflected there. That's the only thing that can save us." As readers, we are never taught to distrust the lies of a third-person, omniscient narrator. This narrator is presented to us as wholly objective. It is more valuable to read the subjectivity of the first-person narrator who can admit to a flawed point of view.
The author's gift is to reassure the world that the things that divide us don't.
A discussion breaks out about writing authentically in voices not our own. Butler was asked if he could accurately write about a suicide bomber.
He says that, as a matter of fact he had just written a short essay in the voice of a suicide bomber. He had read that a famous guillotinist -- the person who dropped the guillotine on the heads of French nobles -- had observed that a head could stay conscious for one and a half minutes following its decapitation. Butler also knew that in a time of heightened emotion, a person could speak at 160 words per minutes. He embarked on a book of short essays -- each exactly 240 words long -- written in the voices of various decapitated heads. He had seen a picture of the woman who had blown herself up in Tel Aviv. He had seen the head blown intact, right off her body. One of his 240 word essays is hers. These will all be published in a book which he's tentatively titled, Severance.
Hmmm, this is a gruesomely morbid note to end these communiqués with...but I've come to the end of my conference notes.
Next year's Key West Literary Seminar is on Humour, so it should be somewhat lighter.