Fiction doesn’t come from nowhere. Every piece of fiction finds its beginning in the author’s direct personal experience, humble as it may be. The fiction that results is seldom just a fact-by-fact narration of the experience, although the experience does provide the basic starting point. It’s the storyteller’s verve that brings the final fiction to full flower. Dickens, Cervantes, Austen, Morrison…the works of all of them have such simple roots. Yours can come from a whiff of a rose’s petal or a dream vision of the beginning of the universe…and everything in between. But it has to start somewhere in your day-to-day.
I served in the Peace Corps in Sarawak, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo, from 1965 through 1967. I was twenty-two when I arrived. I had seldom set foot outside of Oakland, California (well, I did go to Berkeley for five years, a distant few miles from Oakland) and I left the United States with my father’s words ringing in my ears. “Terry, why are you doing this?” I was originally supposed to go to Côte d’Ivoire, mainly because I had studied French in university. But the Peace Corps notified me that they had enough volunteers in that nation for the moment, and would I consider Malaysia? I did not know where Malaysia was. I didn’t look it up. I simply said yes, and some months later I arrived in Kuching, Sarawak, a city on the island of Borneo.
Malaysia is in Southeast Asia, to the south of Vietnam. (I did know where Vietnam was, of course. What American didn’t, in those times?) Malaysia was a new nation, an agglomeration (at least for the while) of the Malay peninsula south of Thailand, the island city of Singapore at the tip of Malaya, and the territories of Sarawak and Sabah, which together take up about a quarter of the island of Borneo, three hundred miles to the east across the South China Sea. All former British colonies, they had recently been abandoned by their Limey overseers, cobbled together as a nation, and sent off on their own.
My job was to help set up an English-language primary school system in the upriver regions where Iban tribesmen lived. (The English-language use was the Malaysian government’s idea, and I’d be glad to tell you about it some other time.) A war was going on at the moment between Malaysia and Indonesia, along the north-to-south border that separates the two nations in Borneo. The Ibans were much affected by all this and had abandoned many of their jungle longhouse villages because of that war. The new Malaysian government had set up downriver refugee camps for these Ibans, and I lived in one for the year and a half that I was going up and down the Skrang River setting up schools.
Many of these camps were being run by British officials, leftovers from the recently abandoned colonies. I met one, a man named Craft, who was in charge of a government rubber plantation near the refugee camp in which I was stationed. We had met because a Scotsman who had been in Sarawak since the Second World War and was married to an Iban primary school teacher introduced us.
Craft, the Englishman, was a singularly offensive man who embodied all the clichés that we’ve seen in British movies that feature self-congratulatory Brits lording it over the natives. He wore the de rigueur tan British walking shorts, white shirt, tan long socks, and brown leather shoes. He spoke some brand of the King’s English that would fool you with its elegance, even as the ideas being expressed were self-important, silly, and frequently violent. Craft’s white skin was actually red, rather like a new brick, I thought. The cause was a combination of the years of strong sunlight in which he had worked and the strong whiskey that he seemed to imbibe all day long. You consulted with Craft, if you had to at all, before noon on a given day. After that hour, you could expect whining, racist complaint for the rest of the day, fueled by the alcohol.
McGregor, the Scot, was well known in Sarawak for his complete understanding of the Iban language and its culture as well as being a fine rubber man who knew his trade. He always had the respect of the Ibans whom he trained and who worked for him. He also had a very thick Edinburgh accent that made conversation between him and me almost always comic. We made fun of each other’s strange manner of talk. My Californianisms often brought him to glee. “How is it, laddie,” he once asked me, “that anything gets done in that bloody place when you talk so strange?” We occasionally had to give one another vocabulary lessons.
One Saturday, while I was visiting with Craft and his wife, who was also British and red-skinned and, I had learned, could not bear her husband, an Iban came to their house in a panic. One of the Iban workmen had slashed his right leg with a machete and was bleeding badly. Swearing, Craft went into the house to get the keys to his Land Rover. I knew that he spoke no Iban, which I did, and I asked if I could come along to help. I had invaded Craft’s territory, I guess. He told me drunkenly to mind my own fucking business, Yank, and then held up a moment, to tell me that all my innocence and sobriety was just a ruse out here in this goddamned swamp where you couldn’t trust a bloody Iban to even know how to swing a goddamned machete. “So what help could a fool American be?”. He climbed into his Land Rover and was gone.
So was I. That was the last conversation I ever had with Craft.
Many years later, when I was finally writing stories based on what I’d seen in Sarawak, I remembered him and a scene I had witnessed in his office between Craft and McGregor’s then seven-year-old son. The boy spoke an amalgam of Scots English and Iban, a lingo that I and McGregor enjoyed quite a bit, but that was insulting to Craft. He had once said to me in private that English was bloody English, and that Iban was gargle, and “that boy can’t seem to negotiate either one.”.
I wrote a story titled “The Wee Manok,” in which all these characters appear in fictional form. It is one of several in the first book of mine ever published, titled The Day Nothing Happened. It came out from Mercury House in San Francisco (sadly now defunct) in 1988, and was edited by the wonderful Alev Lytle Croutier, with whom I am still close friends.
The Day Nothing Happened will be published in a new edition next year.
“The Wee Manok” ends rather differently from how I just described my experience with Craft himself. That’s okay with me, though, since his form of self-serving cruelty is of little interest and would make for bad fiction. He’s far more interesting to me in the way that I re-invented him for “The Wee Manok”, because I gave him a conscience. That ability to change one set of expectations (i.e the basic facts) into quite another (i.e. the final written story) is one of the great pleasures of doing fiction.
“The Wee Manok “ is available in digital form on Amazon. (Note: you’ll need the Kindle app, which is available at no cost for all devices.)
August 11, 2020
No one wishes to be frivolous about the current pandemic. It’s real and should be respected. Wear the mask. Don’t stand close. Pay attention to who is around you. Etc.
There is an aspect of the virus, though, that for me is no problem at all. I spent many years in corporate business, an endeavor that I did not much enjoy and am glad to have left, a departure that took place about fifteen years ago. Business did allow me to make some money, which very much helped in raising a family. It also enabled me to hone my skills as a conversationalist, skills that were always with me anyway, even without business. (Although, these days, business is so often done with computer engineers, with whom it is almost impossible to carry on a conversation. They know so little—I mean, what can you say with just a zero and a one?—and have few tools to clearly express that vacancy. But that’s another subject, for another day.)
I’ve been pursuing a different profession since I left business, which is to write fiction. One can argue that that’s hardly a profession, since it is close to impossible to make enough money to support yourself and a family on creative-writing-wages. But the one thing you must have to make that pursuit fruitful is time alone. I suspect no one has ever completed a novel while working in one of those workplace offices that have been the rage for the last few decades. Everybody in one room, long tables, workstations everywhere, noise and blather everywhere, and no privacy.
For the writer, solitude is the requirement for doing fiction. You are always alone and, if you have talent, are always involved in a complicated conversation with yourself. This sort of thing can often be difficult, which I think explains the bad fiction being written today, which, as far as I can see, is most of it. In a turmoil-ridden, dark world, many fiction writers fall into the trap of being driven into that darkness. So, these days we have buckets of novels written about how featureless life is. They are often slim volumes about small lives, in the manner of, say, Camus’s The Stranger, as in this, written by Camus himself: “She wanted to know if I loved her. I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn’t mean anything but that I probably didn’t.” It may be that Camus was a good writer…maybe. At least he’s interesting in his character Meursault’s emotional dismissal of himself and everyone around him. But most of the contemporary novels that I’ve attempted reading that try to explain the current emotionally plain, viewless atmosphere are themselves viewless. Plain, as well. Yes, they give you an idea of what it is to live in these times of Corona virus shutdown and braggart presidential cluelessness. But, to get that, all you need do is look around. To write well about it is another matter. Simply spelling out the emotional failure that is the main subject of contemporary fiction —- one novel after another —- isn’t enough.
But, of course, the fine novel, rare as it is, is out there. You must keep looking. At least for now, García Márquez will have to do. His work still has it in spades, although his time has passed. Edith Wharton too, although even she would have trouble these days, since so much of her work depended on fascinating conversation between compelling women. Wharton’s characters were unhappy, but very much more than just unhappy.
It’s out there, that novel. It’s being written now…somewhere. We mustn’t give up. We’ll find it.
Terence Clarke’s novel The Splendid City, with Pablo Neruda as the central character, has been translated to Spanish by Chilean novelist Jaime Collyer. It will be published as La espléndida ciudad later this year.
#fiction #writingfiction #literaturaenespañol
August 8, 2020
As everyone knows, we’re in the midst of a pandemic. Tango itself was affected by another plague that took place in Buenos Aires in the nineteenth century.
The mosquito, and the Yellow Fever that it brought to Buenos Aires, killed eight percent of the population of the city in 1871 and reduced the overall population by one-third of its previous number as masses of people fled to safety.
This wasn’t the only such scourge to visit Buenos Aires. There had been other, smaller outbreaks of the Yellow Fever in 1852, 1858, and 1870. But 1871 was the worst year of the lot when, at its worst, five hundred porteños a day were dying from the disease.
A war on the part of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil versus Paraguay (known as The War of The Triple Alliance) had been fought between 1864 and 1870. It was a particularly difficult struggle. Paraguay was defeated entirely and suffered what some estimates put at two hundred thousand deaths. Bad as that certainly was for paraguayos, the aftermath of the war was also a singular disaster for citizens of Buenos Aires. Argentine soldiers returning from the war brought the Yellow Fever with them, and the rest is history. Polluted drinking water, untreated human waste, and the hot, wet summer climate so welcoming to mosquitos were singular elements in the spread of the disease. The major one was that of the overcrowded conditions caused by the enormous influx of immigrants during that time from everywhere in the world to Buenos Aires.
This immigration story is one of the most famous of this storied city.
As in New York City, Buenos Aires was the arrival point for hundreds of thousands of impoverished immigrants from across Europe and countries farther to the east. Mostly packed into the famous conventillos, which were large tenement blocks built both privately and by the government, these people suffered enormously from the Buenos Aires epidemic. They had nowhere to go and no money to get there even if they could escape.
The black population of former slaves, although small by comparison to most of the immigrant groups arriving in the port, lived south of the city in generally miserable, poverty-stricken, and overcrowded conditions. Better-to-do white citizens began building neighborhoods in the northern part of the city, in order to distance themselves from the black and immigrant peoples. A 2013 article in the International Business Times says this: “It has been alleged that the president of Argentina from 1868 to 1874, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, sought to wipe out blacks from the country in a policy of covert genocide through extremely repressive policies (including possibly the forced recruitment of Africans into the army and by forcing blacks [by military means] to remain in neighborhoods where disease would decimate them in the absence of adequate health care.)”. That word “alleged” does little to reveal the truth of whether blacks were so treated, and I have not yet been able to determine the truth of what happened. What we do know is that the black population of Buenos Aires was reduced to almost nothing by the pandemic, whether or not they were surrounded by the army.
These losses account directly for the fact that one encounters so few black people today in Buenos Aires.
So…what does this have to do with tango? The basic rhythms of tango came to southern South America with black slaves from Western Africa, beginning in the sixteenth century. As with jazz in the United States, tango derived from those rhythms. Despite the many considerable elements in tango that came with other nationalities during the times of immigration, the basis for the music and dance forms is black. (Please see my recent piece, “Tango Negro”, for more of the details.)
We can only speculate about what tango music and dance would be like in our own time had the black population of Buenos Aires not been so decimated in the nineteenth century. My guess is that it would be much different from what we see today, in many important ways.
Terence Clarke’s non-fiction book, An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White, is available in books stores everywhere and online.
July 15, 2020
In 1883, an Argentine writer named Ventura Lynch, who studied and wrote about tango and all its variations, described tango’s older relative, the milonga: “It is so universal in the environs of Buenos Aires that it is an obligatory piece at all the lower-class dances (in Lynch’s Spanish, “bailecitos de medio pelo”), and it is now heard on guitars, on paper-combs, and from the itinerant musicians with their flutes, harps and violins. It has also been taken up by organ-grinders…It is danced in low life clubs, and also at the dances and wakes of cart-drivers, the soldiery, and compadres and compadritos (i.e. streetwise ruffians and gangsters).”
This was written well before the tango’s own development in the twentieth century. But the milonga was already an ancient term, and referred to music and dance that was, in the days long before Lynch, not Argentine at all.
The famous early gauchos from the Argentine pampas and elsewhere in southern South America…lonely cowboys wandering from place to place in search of work…also sought entertainment. They found it in their own “payadas,” which were verse-competitions in which a gaucho, with his guitar, would sing a verse of his own making, and a second gaucho would respond with a competing verse, an answer to the first payador’s offering. Inventive rhyming language back and forth was the goal, accompanied by guitar, with quick thinking and improvisation the method.
Some of these gauchos were black, and before 1861, the year slavery was outlawed everywhere in Argentina, many of the servants and country working class were black slaves. They had been brought to Argentina from the Niger-Congo regions of Africa, where the many Bantu languages and dialects are spoken. One theory has it that these slaves, not understanding the Spanish in which the payadas were sung, and noting how much language there was in the competitions, referred to them with the word mulonga, which is the Bantu for the Spanish palabra, or the English “word.”
So these payadas were a lot of talk, and with time, the competitive gatherings became known more universally throughout Argentina as milongas.
Dance was not far behind, and at first it was an individual expression, in which a gaucho (probably bottle in hand, his movements fired by drink) would dance to the payadores’ music by himself. Simple, a step to every beat of the music, rough-and-ready solo moves were the earmarks of the early milonga dance.
Sometimes, the men would dance with each other…milonga’s earliest appearance as a couples event. Later, as the music and dance moved toward the city in the nineteenth century, the presence of women became a reality (usually women of not much virtue). The phenomenon was deeply influenced by the black former slaves, whose presence in Buenos Aires made a permanent mark on the music and, especially, the dance. The best-known rhythms were the habanera and the traspié, the syncopations that we now always hear and see in contemporary milonga. Both are of African origin.
With time, the milonga became not only a music form in its own right, but also the single word that would describe a gathering of people coming together to dance. So,—¡Vamos, chicos, a la milonga! “Let’s go, guys, to the milonga!”
Terence Clarke’s novel, The Splendid City, with the great Pablo Neruda as the central character, will be published later this year in a Spanish-language translation by noted Chilean novelist Jaime Collyer. Titled La espléndida ciudad.
July 3, 2020
Few black people live in Buenos Aires. This has not always been so. As in other countries, black slaves were brought to Argentina from the 16th century well into the 19th, a total of about four million people. Some became gauchos in the pampas, the great, flat plains that take up so much of the center of Argentina. Most others were sent to cities, towns and farming regions in the hinterland provinces. In Buenos Aires itself through those centuries, there was an ongoing population of about eight thousand black Africans who worked as domestics or in various craft labors.
If you ask a porteño why there are so few blacks in Buenos Aires now, you’ll get a few different answers, all of which are evasive. My favorite came from a well-born Buenos Aires society matron whom I met who was visiting an Argentine friend in San Francisco, where I live. “Oh, they didn’t care for it and decided to go somewhere else,” she explained. I think she actually believed what she was saying, especially given the air of wealth-bound cluelessness that her entire conversation exhibited. (But that’s another, and comic, story.) It is true that, for porteños in general, most of the black experience in Buenos Aires has simply been forgotten, erased or denied.
But, indeed, the blacks who lived in Buenos Aires didn’t “decide” to go somewhere else. Thousands were forcibly recruited into the Argentine army, to fight in the terrible war between Argentina and Paraguay from 1865 through 1870. A very large number of black soldiers died in that endeavor. Also, and famously, yellow fever infested the shores of the Rio de La Plata, on the southern bank of which Buenos Aires is located. It is generally thought that the fever was introduced by Argentines returning from the war with Paraguay. The pandemic invaded all the poorer neighborhoods of the south of the city, and thousands of blacks died from it. The current north of the city of Buenos Aires includes a few still quite wealthy neighborhoods that were first built by more moneyed whites trying to escape that plague. They left the blacks behind, for the most part convinced that blacks were the carriers of the disease and should be abandoned.
Through inter-marriage with whites, those blacks left were subsumed into the larger population and, in effect, black people per.se. almost literally disappeared from Buenos Aires.
But not their influence.
Most of the slaves came from west Africa. As in the United States, they brought their forms of music with them, particularly in the rhythms that later became known in Argentina by such names as habanera, milonga, traspié, murga, candombe, chacarera and others. European immigrants by the many thousands also brought their forms of music to Buenos Aires, and tango is surely a melting together of all these traditions. But it goes without saying that tango’s rhythmic base is African in origin. (For a more detailed description of the African influence on South American music in general and, more specifically, tango, click here.)
In 2013, Angolan filmmaker Dom Pedro made a documentary titled Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango. You can find it on PrimeVideo.
Basically it has two parts. The first is an ongoing conversation with the stellar Argentine pianist and vocalist Juan Carlos Cáceres (who was to die in 2015.) Cáceres lived in Paris for decades but devoted much of his spirited music and deep scholarship to studies of the influence of blacks on the history of tango. He explains here many of these different rhythms, where they came from, and where they can be found in tango. His knowledge is encyclopedic, and his musicianship is terrific.
The second half of the film features many black musicians still living in Argentina and just across the river in Uruguay, who well understand the rhythmic basis of tango and are attempting to keep those rhythms alive. The music they play in this film provides a clear demonstration of where tango came from, and is wonderful.
For a look at the Tango Negro trailer, click here.
(Terence Clarke’s 2019 novel, The Splendid City, has been translated to Spanish by Chilean novelist Jaime Collyer. Titled La espléndida ciudad, it will be published later this year.)
June 30, 2020
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “digression” as, “in discourse or writing, a departure or deviation from the subject.”
Fair enough. Clear as day.
My favorite digression in all literature is the entirety, from first word to last, of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel El amor en los tiempos del cólera…Love in The Time of Cholera. (If you don’t have Spanish, Edith Grossman’s translation to English of this book is one of the best from one language to another I’ve ever read. It is lyrical, kind-hearted, accurate, literate, humorous, and imbued with the many pleasureful oddities of García Márquez’s unique Spanish-language style.)
In this novel, Florentino Ariza is introduced as an enclosed, shy boy attempting manhood in a small late-nineteenth century city in Colombia. He is in love with a local beauty, Fermina Daza. The novel begins as a boy-meets-girl story, progresses through the boy-loses-girl phase, and ends with the boy-wins-girl denouement.
The simplest story ever.
But this series of events takes fifty years, nine months, and four days to unfold and arrive at its successful end. Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza are by the last pages, of course, elderly. But their love is consummated…finally. During the half century of Florentino’s pursuit of Fermina (during which time he has six hundred and twenty-two affairs with other women) the reader learns about every kind of historical, political, social, and religious event in the Colombia through which the great Magdalena River flows. Cholera is always a factor in the background, and García Márquez uses the disease as a metaphor for love itself…the heat, the heart’s affliction, the very choleric intensity of love’s involvements.
Florentino bides his time for that half-century. After the failure of his youthful efforts at romancing her, Fermina marries a local doctor, Juvenal Urbino, who is one of the most celebrated citizens of their city, an urbane, Europeanized sophisticate. Their marriage is a rich one, with many problems. In the meantime, Florentino begins work as a telegraph operator and is eventually employed by a local riverboat company (freight and passengers, up and down the Magdalena.) In time, he becomes its president, all the while pursuing the many very remarkable women he encounters during the half-century of his bachelorhood.
It is the period of time between the breakdown of Florentino and Fermina’s dalliance as youths and the death of Juvenal Urbino a half century later that the great majority of the digression I mention here takes place. The reader waits, and waits some more, only to wait even more, through hundreds of pages, as Florentino sometimes wanders, sometimes surges through his varied fascinating affairs personal and public. Fermina’s marriage is described in equally specific, breathtaking detail: her fervid happiness and unhappy disappointments, her mistaken rage-filled jealousies, the arrival of her children and their ascension to adulthood, her involvement in the church and her social standing as the important Doctor Urbino’s wife.
Here and there, infrequently, Florentino and Fermina encounter one another by chance. Little happens on those occasions. Little can happen. But Florentino’s fervor for Fermina only increases as the years pass.
The great Magdalena River, which runs south to north through the entirety of Colombia, figures importantly twice in this narrative. Although his entire professional life revolves around the riverboat company, Florentino Ariza makes only two trips up the Magdalena and back (one on his own as a younger man, the second with Fermina Daza, both now geriatrics.)
Both voyages are beyond memorable.
García Márquez uses the changing descriptions of the Magdalena during these two trips as rich backdrop to the emotions, triumphs, and disappointments through which Florentino Ariza passes during his entire life. In the first trip, the river is a life-filled treasure of forested, flood-filled flora and fauna in which a younger Florentino is overwhelmed time and again by lustful carnal pleasure. In the second voyage, decades later, the river has become a half-hearted sorry flow, de-forested and ruined. But it is on a riverboat going up this magnificently sad failure that Florentino receives, finally, the considerable deep love of which Fermina Daza is capable. The detailed sensuous transition in descriptions of the river is one of the novels many strengths. Novelist Thomas Pynchon wrote this: “There is nothing I have read quite like [the] astonishing final chapter (on the Magdalena), symphonic, sure in its dynamics and tempo, moving like a riverboat too….”
Pynchon went on to write, “This novel is revolutionary in daring to suggest that vows of love made under a presumption of immortality—youthful idiocy, to some—may yet be honored much later in life when we ought to know better, in the face of the undeniable…. Love in the Time of Cholera [is a] shining and heartbreaking novel.”
Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote that, “Instead of using myths and dreams to illuminate the imaginative life of a people as he’s done so often in the past, Mr. García Márquez has revealed how the extraordinary is contained in the ordinary…. The result is a rich, commodious novel, a novel whose narrative power is matched only by its generosity of vision.”
Both these reviews, written when the book was published in 1985, are understatements. Love in the Time of Cholera may not be everybody’s cup of tea. The digression does go on for more than three hundred pages. You may be inclined to tell García Márquez to get on with it. But, while the pursuit of each other by the two characters is important and masterfully done, the digression itself is the novel, epitomized by its very last word, which is “forever.”
This is my favorite novel.
The translation to Spanish of Terence Clarke’s novel,The Splendid City, by Chilean novelist Jaime Collyer, will be published later this year.
June 15, 2020
President Trump’s new plan, to accept in Jacksonville, Florida the Republican Party’s request that he run for a second term as president, has historical resonance.
Jacksonville was the site of Axe Handle Saturday, August 27, 1960. On that morning Arnett Girardeau, a black student home in Jacksonville for the summer from Howard University Dental School, went to Hemming Park in the downtown area with a few others, having gotten some news of potentially alarming activities there. “As we approached Hemming Park, we saw several white men wearing Confederate uniforms. Other Whites walked around Hemming Park carrying ax handles with Confederate battle flags taped to them. A sign taped to a delivery-type van parked nearby read ‘Free Ax Handles.’ Small fence rails bordered that section of Hemming Park. We could see bundles of handles in the shrubbery. No one attempted to conceal them.”
A group of young black students from the local NAACP Youth Council was planning on sitting in that day at the white lunch counter in Jacksonville’s W.T. Grant department store, which was walking distance from Hemming Park. (Blacks were required to dine at the blacks-only counter at the rear of the store.) A similar event had taken place two weeks earlier at Jacksonville’s Woolworth’s store, when eighty-four of the youths sat down at the white counter and waited to be served. The counter seated exactly eighty-four people, so there was no room in this instance for a white person looking for lunch. (This was part of the plan for all subsequent sit-ins in Jacksonville. The number of seats in whatever lunch counter would be assessed, and exactly that number of black youths would show up for the sit-in.) On that first day, the students remained seated at the whites-only lunch counter until the lunch counter was closed, without being served.
The hidden axe handles on August 27 were clearly intended for use by whites against these black students sitting in at W.T. Grant’s, and the resulting melee, which pretty much engulfed the entirety of Jacksonville, went far into the night.Radio stations warned white people to stay out of black neighborhoods, and vice versa. In one particularly memorable event, a truckload of armed white men (believed to have been Ku Klux Klansmen) arrived in a black neighborhood called Blodgett Homes, and began firing at various apartments. Perhaps to the surprise of these men, residents of the apartments returned fire. The truck retreated.
Named Axe Handle Saturday, the event was a signal occurrence in the civil rights movement in the United States. (A complete description of the occasion can be found in the book It Was Never About A Hot Dog and A Coke! by Rodney L. Hurst, who on that day was one of those black students.)
The University of North Florida was founded in Jacksonville in 1972. A new professor at the institution, Peter Kranz, with a doctorate in psychology, decided that this would be an appropriate location for a class he wished to institute, in which direct verbal confrontation between black and white students would be the key element. The one strict rule in the class was that physical attack would not be allowed. Otherwise, the verbal gloves were off, and the students were encouraged to speak openly and directly about how they felt about each other’s racial identity and actions.
It was the only such class ever offered in an American institution of higher learning, and it took place while Jim Crow legislation against blacks was still in full flower in Florida.
Each class lasted a single semester, and was held twice a year for six years, until 1978. (For a complete description of these classes and of their quite remarkable results, please see my book An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White. The book was featured on a recent presentation of National Public Radio.)
Now, in 2020, President Trump is planning to accept the Republican nomination for president in Jacksonville. It is not an irony that this will be so. He is, after all, a throw-back to the whites-only sentiments of the Deep South of previous decades. But times have changed, in Jacksonville and the rest of the United States. I expect the president and his Republican cadre will receive a boisterous, if not entirely agreeable, reception in that city.
Terence Clarke’s latest novel, When Clara Was Twelve, was published on April 15.
June 12, 2020
Having learned that this film by Kenneth Branagh is a dramatic recounting of William Shakespeare’s late-in-life return to his home-town Stratford from his famed glory as an actor and playwright in London, I expected the movie to have the same level of high, conflicted drama and boisterous derring-do as exist in so many of his plays. For me, Shakespeare has always been a celebratory character himself. He must have been, I’ve thought, simply on the strength of his fame as an actor and especially on what he wrote.
So, this film surprised me.
Here, Will Shakespeare, played by Branagh, is presented as a world-weary, almost defeated man whose fame, great as it is, has been left behind in the ruins of his Globe Theater, recently destroyed by fire. He returns to his family (his wife Anne Hathaway, played with stoical, closed-in reserve by Judy Dench) and two daughters. We learn right away about Shakespeare’s having left the family in Stratford twenty years earlier, to make his career as an actor, and his continuous absence during that time. Now, his wife Anne is well into old age, one daughter, Suzanna, is married very unhappily to a disapproving Puritan bore, and the other, Judith, remains a resentful spinster. Will himself has lost his muse (indeed, he was not to write another play), and turns his attention to gardening, at which he is not very talented.
We learn eventually of the death years before of Will’s beloved only son Hamnet and the overall guilt-obsessed come-uppances from which all the members of the family have since suffered. Especially Will. He has the poems that Hamnet apparently wrote as child, which Will has always thought presaged Hamnet’s own future genius as a writer. Hamnet died of the plague (or at least everyone has been led to believe so) and Will still feels guilt for his not being present to save his son. Hamnet’s death is the constant reminder to Will of his own failures as a father.
Two elements in this film fascinated me. Night during the early 1600s was, of course, devoid of light. Candles and the fireplace were the only sources of interior lighting during that time, and darkness is central to all the conversations held at night in the film, which are many. The candlelight is beautiful and compellingly effective to the mood of the piece. But many of the conversations in this reduced light reveal the guilt and vituperation that exists between Will, his wife, and daughters. The surrounding darkness underscores the pain of their exchanges. Will, seized with longing for his lost Hamnet, yet defends himself against the anger of his daughter, Judith. Because she was not born a boy, she resents the life to which she feels she was consigned. Hamnet was the star of the family snuffed out by the plague. Anne, Judith, and Suzanna have all been secondary to Will’s hopes for his son, even as the boy has so long been in the grave.
The second element I find so interesting in this film is its reserve. This is a sad story notable for the self-examination among its characters. As such it may not be every viewer’s cup of tea. It is usually very quiet. The characters are all to some degree self-punishing. There is little action in the film, and many of the scenes are notable for long sequences of conversation, shot from a distance, with many fewer cuts than is usual in our current-day obsession with shallow, hurried, and nervous film-making. No car-chases here. No gruesome splatters of blood. Rather, character is explored. Guilt is revealed, as are self-criticism and, sometimes, self-acceptance — once one’s own responsibility for terrible events becomes clear.
All these things make All Is True a very thoughtful film . Shakespeare’s character, as marvelously played by Branagh, reveals hurt sadness that I would not have expected from the man who wrote those incredible plays. But so be it. The story works. The sadness is truth. The guilt is palpable. The very occasional celebrations are hard won.
Just incidentally, there is a scene in All Is True that I would advise every actor to watch. Ian McKellen appears as the Earl of Southampton. He was a friend and supporter of Shakespeare’s early career as a poet. He is often suggested by Shakespeare scholars as the subject of many of the poet’s early romantic sonnets. In the film, the earl, now an old man, arrives in Stratford for a visit with Will, and the conversation between them (at night, in low light) is not to be missed. Self-revelation, love, and humor are all part of this scene. Sadness for Will is the ultimate result as the Earl departs the conversation as though he already has dismissed it. In this, two superb actors briefly explore dalliance, exchange, maybe love, and final disappointment, in all of which the viewer is thoroughly involved.
Terence Clarke’s non-fiction book about racial confrontation in the United States, An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White, was published last year, and is available everywhere.
June 5, 2020
These days, the Covid19 virus has decided that we must all be given the chance to see whether we can stand ourselves. So, being sequestered at home is de rigueur for most citizens, especially those in cities.
The avoidance of personal introspection, the usual in high-rise office skyscrapers and other such places, is being foiled. Now, stuck at home, we must deal with ourselves instead of with the pursuit of the corporate summit, the elbowing aside of others in the way of that pursuit, the plot to do an end run past the schmuck senior managers, and other such.
I have witnessed all these and many more, during a business career that lasted twenty-five years. The printing industry (you remember printing, don’t you?), and the early high-tech software industry, in San Francisco and New York City. The most memorable for me was the most recent: a contract position as a senior marketing writer for a small, avidly ambitious, hotshot branding firm in San Francisco. I think I was hired by the CEO of that company, who was about thirty, because of my many published books. He introduced me on my first day in the firm as “a real writer.” This got a lot of laughter. I could not tell if the glee in the room was at my expense, since most of the staff were tech people and therefore uncommunicative. Perhaps they didn’t know what a writer is. Or maybe they were already, despite their being in their twenties, failures when it came to their childhood fantasies of adventure and derring-do. I would not be able to tell you.
In any case, my contract was for several months, and I spent the time in one of those frenetic, noisy group environments (long tables, multiple computers, countless programmers, and endless noise) that offer no escape, and drive crazy any employee who cares about his or her privacy. I was handsomely paid for the work I did helping re-brand a San Francisco Bay Area power-grid development company, and was let go a month before the end of my contract, without explanation. I suspect it was that I was unable to summon enthusiasm for writing poorly about the power grid. Writing poorly is the standard for branding firms. These companies make up all those one- or two-sentence word-play slogans that you see everywhere on the sides of municipal buses, on billboards, TV ads, and the internet. They are attempts at sales humor that are generally not funny. The power grid itself, of course, is not funny, and I couldn’t summon up the appropriate cutesy-pie prose that the CEO expected me to provide.
In whatever case, I was gone.
So, I returned to my home office, sequestered myself there, and got back to the novel I had been writing, The Splendid City, with the great Pablo Neruda as the main character. I am happy to say it was published last year to high praise.
This had been the territory I had occupied almost exclusively, by myself, for the previous several years. I sit at a round table in the bay window of the studio apartment that is my office. The windows give me views of the long, often sunny Russian Hill garden that my landlords maintain. It is very quiet here. There is a hum from the passing traffic on nearby Bay Street, but it is not particularly bothersome. I have a kitchen, a daybed, and a closet. Bookshelves. Bathroom. Art. Quiet.
I am alone for about seven hours a day.
Nowadays, those with whom I worked in those business offices are being required to do the same thing as I’ve been doing, and I am sure they are not prepared for it. Contemplation derives from silence. So, while they have been working in those offices, there has been little silence; thus, very little contemplation. Also, I hear them complain about how lonely it is at home, and how they can’t get any work done. My sense of it is that, in the past at the office, they have gotten a lot of work done, but that it has all been shallow. What they are suffering from, being sequestered, is the arrival of the need to consider their souls. That’s tough duty for most business people, while it is grist for the mill among “real” writers. So, these only recently sequestered people are encountering issues that they have so far successfully avoided.
Themselves, for example.
Terence Clarke’s most recent novel, When Clara Was Twelve, was published on April 15.