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February 17, 2021
I have been accused…wrongly…of being prolific. A book a year over the last seven years. Words and more words.
But it’s not true.
One of the curses of writing fiction is that, in general, it does not sell as well as non-fiction. The reasons for that are many and have been written about a great deal (itself another source of non-fiction.) But it is just a plain fact that, as a rule, English-speaking people don’t read nearly enough fiction.
Those of us devoted to writing fiction must accept that fact. But, if the practice compels you as a writer, it doesn’t matter. The wander of mind that fiction requires is for a writer one of its great attractions. The individualism of it. The adventures of the soul and the heart. The challenge of making something up out of whole cloth. It’s fun. Even tragic fiction is fun…to write, if perhaps not to read. You can do what you want with fiction.
But I have to tell the truth. I am hardly prolific.
After the publication by Mercury House and Ballantine Books of my novel My Father In the Night,in 1991 (my third book) I couldn’t get anything published at all. This was during the antediluvian times prior to the internet and the revolution it has caused in book publishing. So, if you were serious as a writer, you had to run the gauntlet of literary agents and the Big Four (or Five or Six, whatever it was depending upon the many corporate takeovers) of serious publishing houses. Each of those two gauntlets represented a very rough passage through which you and your fiction manuscript had to pass. In my case, I would say that I have received favorable reactions from maybe two percent of the hundreds of query letters and subsequent correspondences I have had with literary agents and publishers.
My favorite was a letter and contract I received from one New York agent who wished to represent a novel I had sent her. I was thrilled…except that her contract would seal me into an arrangement from which, if I signed, I would not be allowed to leave were I to be dissatisfied for some reason. (Although she could get rid of me, if she wished, as spelled out in the contract.) Also, the agent required that I send her every future manuscript I was to complete, into, as the contract specified, “eternity.” She would also represent any stage, film or television work that was to derive from the manuscripts of mine under her control, also into “eternity.” There was much other self-serving language, all of it to the benefit of the agent.
I think she did not understand that I was hiring her, rather than the other way around.
So, I wrote back to her, with a version of her contract that I had run through the Word “Track Changes” editing program. My edits released me from all the requirements the agent had put into her contract, except for the one that pertained to her representation to publishers of the one title I had sent to her. “After all,” I wrote, “we haven’t worked together, and I will want to see how you do with this first project.” I also added the proviso that if, after two years of her representation, she had not placed the book, I could opt to re-open the conversation about our contractual relationship, with the idea of possibly changing it.
I sent my edited version of the contract to her with a kindly letter. For some reason, I never heard from her again. Perhaps she thought me naïve.
The second gauntlet is filled with the major publishing companies. One of them, Ballantine Books, had published My Father In the Night in a trade paperback edition. When I attempted to interest them in my next book, I found that the editor who had accepted My Father In the Night had left publishing altogether. The new Ballantine editor had no idea who I was and, after an initial exchange of letters, brought an end to the conversation.
During the next twenty years, I wrote seven books of fiction, and could summon no interest in them from any agent or publishing company.
In the meantime, the internet was born and flourished. Along with it came the flurry of software programs that put the means of production for books into the hands of the authors. It took just a few years, but that did happen. It is a revolution. It also happened that, if as an author you pursued this path and you had sales, you would receive a significantly larger royalty payment per copy than you ever would have received under the previous regime of agents and corporatized publishers. Also, the entire panoply of book distribution opportunities remained as much in play for individual authors as it was for books published in the old-fashioned way.
You also, by the way, have much more control over your relationships with movie people, Netflix, Amazon Prime, et. al., since there need be no agent intervening in the conversation.
Sensing a breakthrough, I started publishing my own work about seven years ago. I had written almost all those books during the previous twenty years. The manuscripts had resided in desk drawers, cardboard boxes, and on computer hard drives. I resuscitated them all, had them professionally edited, designed, and produced, sold in print and ebook forms, and professionally reviewed (I must say, rather favorably in all cases.)
Thus, suddenly, I was “prolific.”
Contemplating that breakthrough, I had had conversations with many writers and publishing people about this whole notion of doing it all myself. An editor whom I had hired to edit two of those seven books, who remains to this day beyond famous for his work as an editor and as a publisher, told me, “Being published by Houghton Mifflin these days, Terry, is like being able to say that you were on the roster of the 1947 New York Yankees.” An equally well-known New York literary agent who is a close friend of mine told me a few years ago, “The great literature of the twenty-first century, Terry, will have been self-published.”
So there you have it…one brief history of a prolific writer.
Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Moment Before, will be published on September 1, 2021. It is the third of a trilogy. The others are titled My Father In The Night and When Clara Was Twelve. Those two are available everywhere, in print and ebook versions, as will be The Moment Before.
www.terenceclarke.org #fiction #writing #editing #publishing
January 29, 2020
Regarding a recent seriously foolish move on the part of the San Francisco School Board, to change the names of several of the city’s schools, please see this article from yesterday’s The Guardian. If the people after whom these schools are named are to be criticized, use the moment as a teaching vehicle to enhance current students’ understanding of history. George Washington? Abraham Lincoln? Dianne Feinstein? Yes, none of these was (or is) a politically correct purist, and we can talk about that. But erase them from public notice, as the school board suggests?
I suggest sending the school board back to school.
Have them read the more than 16,000 books that have been written about Abraham Lincoln and the no doubt like number of books written about George Washington. And then, have them take a look at Dianne Feinsteins’s admirable handling of the murder of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in 1978, whom she succeeded as mayor, and her ongoing laudable career as a solid liberal leader in the U.S. Senate. Thus taught about these figures in the much broader way that apparently was not provided by their education, perhaps the school board (about whom little has been written) will better understand the nuttiness of what they are proposing.
January 21, 2021
The famous Diego Rivera mural, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City (1931), at the San Francisco Art Institute, is in mortal danger.
The Art Institute’s financial difficulties are well known in San Francisco, and the reasons for them are justly decried. The transformation of one of the warehouse buildings on the docks below Fort Mason into a second facility a few years ago was a mistake, both financially and aesthetically. It is an artistically pointless boondoggle that cost millions, and therefore a prime source of the Art Institute’s current troubles.
To alleviate the debt, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has proposed selling the mural, assessed at a value of fifty millions dollars, to George Lucas, to be placed eventually in his Los Angeles museum. (For the details of the situation, click here.) Were that to happen, what is perhaps the most important single piece of art in San Francisco would leave the city. San Francisco and those here who place deep importance on the emotional and intellectual worth of fine art would be deprived forever. Mind you, I’m not speaking just of the well-fixed who sit on boards and contribute large sums to maintain San Francisco’s place as an art center. I am speaking of the many viewers one always sees looking at the mural (during non-Covid times, of course.) This includes the enormous Latinx community that lives in the city, and those other communities of color and ethnicity who find in the mural a staunch reminder of why it has such importance in the city’s remarkable racial history, good and bad.
Little can diminish the importance of the Art Institute to San Francisco, and to the city’s future. The Rivera mural itself symbolizes that importance. But also, a brief look at who studied or taught here establishes it as a major font of important American art. A few of those? Annie Leibovitz, Imogen Cunningham, Joan Brown, Richard Diebenkorn, Ansel Adams, Linda Connor, Manuel Neri, and David Park, among many, many others.
Without the Art Institute, San Francisco would take a major step backward. San Francisco State University, from which I received a master’s degree in English Literature, remains an important center for the visual, musical, and literary arts. But the Art Institute is its own deeply important entity and deserves the opportunity to save itself and to be reborn as the major arts institution it has so prominently been.
Here is a modest proposal…. The University of California recently bought the Institute’s debt. That purchase includes the ownership of the Institute’s building. The Institute itself now has a six-year lease on the building, which gives it a window to raise the funds to save itself without selling the mural. But, if that is unsuccessful, the property will become a permanent possession of the University of California.
And that would include the Rivera mural.
My proposal is that the University actively step in now and make the Art Institute of San Francisco a separate campus in the University of California system. Of course, it would be a place devoted to the visual arts, but I would also make it a principal home for dramatic writing as well as creative writing in general, film, video, acting, media arts, recorded music, performance studies, and other essential arts.
Something like the Tisch School of The Arts in Manhattan, part of New York University.
The current leadership of the Art Institute must also be relieved of their duties…immediately. For the last twenty years, the Institute has been diminished by poor decision-making and bad management. When the University of California takes over, this is the first change that must take place.
All this is pie in the sky, perhaps. But I don’t think so. The Institute can be remade into a vital center for the creative arts, as is Tisch, and a major source of those arts into the future. It needs fine, insightful management with a true business sense and the kind of major emotional commitment to the arts that, if the Art Institute disappears, will sink into real decline in this city.
The Institute and Diego Rivera’s remarkable mural are too important to San Francisco for that to happen.
Terence Clarke lives on Russian Hill, two blocks from the San Francisco Art Institute. The Rivera mural was a principal inspiration for his novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro.
January 5, 2021
Compared to the artists, critics remain in the back seat. Yet a very few have written marvelously about the graphic arts. When I first read E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, I thought that being an art historian would be something to which I could aspire. The book is still a must for anyone who knows little about the history of Western art and wants to know a lot more. At the time, I knew almost nothing about that history, having survived university without ever taking the time to go to the school’s art museum. (That would be U.C. Berkeley.)
The trouble was that, by the time I did read Gombrich, I was in my mid-20s and married to an artist who had insisted that I read his book, maybe to make myself less embarrassing at art openings. I had also written a couple of unpublished novels. Those agonizingly arrived-at works nonetheless had convinced me that, really, I would be happier making my own art. The only disappointment was that my art would be made of the ever un-beautiful, gracelessly utilitarian words with which novelists have to work.
The tools—and the talent—that resulted in Velásquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja were not to be mine.
I was able eventually to read sufficient criticism and history—John Ruskin, Robert Hughes, Kenneth Clark and others—to have serviceable enough knowledge to write about art. But it required my own imaginative powers to express how I truly felt about what I was viewing. I simply did not have the technical chops to explain how a painting works, either in terms of its shapes or the materials and tools used to make it. In the time-honored phrase, I knew what I liked.
The Mexicans interested me tremendously. For one, they weren’t Europeans, a single fact that goes a long way to explaining why they are so special. The unique mixture in Mexico of the vernal, myth-fueled sensitivities of the indigenous peoples and the crazy otherworldly enthusiasms of the Spanish conquistador artists made for something entirely unique. When I saw the great Rivera murals in the National Palace in Mexico City and the heart-chilling Orozco depictions of The Conquest at the then-orphanage in Guadalajara, I realized a more earth-bound pagan-animist consciousness than what I had read about in so much of western European, heaven-touring art.
Diego Rivera’s earth-mothers and and Jose Clemente Orozco’s flame-wrapped, man-angel swirling into the Guadalajara universe struck my heart.
I wrote a novel in which I created a fictional Mexican artist whose work has the same combination of fruitful grit and celestial transformation of these and so many other Mexican artists. He comes to San Francisco, California and determines to paint murals across the entirety of the outside of the Cathedral of Saint Mary in that city (which actually exists, at the corner of Gough and Geary Streets). The local archbishop thinks the artist and his ideas crackpot, and therein lies the tale. Jesús Lázaro is the artist, and The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro is the book I wrote about him.
When I started it, I knew that I would have to describe Jesús’s fictional art. What I had always thought necessary in writing about actual art became, precisely, the task at hand. But while the Mona Lisa has qualities that are abundantly evident, in my case the paintings I describe do not exist at all. So, my writing took on all the responsibility of providing for the reader’s emotional response. The reader of my book can only imagine the painting, and I have to give him/her the words that bring that imagining to flower.
That’s difficult enough when you’re presenting some sort of social scene, which is the basic stuff of almost all fiction. But describing an entire individual piece of art that is so ephemeral as to not be there at all is a different task. Luckily for me, it was a lot of fun, which lightened the burden considerably. But nonetheless, I would love to view Jesús Lázaro’s paintings, wherever they may be, to see if I got them right.
AND… I’m at it again! I’m in the middle of writing a novel titled The Moment Before. The main character, Yvette Roman, is a renowned Parisian artist who suffers from a rare form of severe epilepsy. In the moments before a seizure, she encounters exotic visions so important to her heart that she feels she must paint them. One day, though, a masterful forgery of her work shows up at her New York gallery. She has no memory of having painted it. So it must be a forgery, mustn’t it? But could a forgery actually be the best piece she has ever done?
Yvette’s affliction itself is based on the fact that my father was, and my son is, epileptic. I am not, so that here too I have to imagine what Yvette is going through. If you would like to know about the importance of this in my own life and work, you can read my essay titled “Fathers, Sons, and Seizures.”
The novel will come out in 2022.
(The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published in 2015. It is available in bookstores everywhere and at all the usual online sites.
“Tinta roja” is a much-loved tango that was written in 1941 by Sebastián Piana and Cátulo Castillo. It has been recorded by most of the important tango orchestras with singers of equal distinction. Here are three versions of it, by three different singers, in three very different styles.
The first, by the orchestra of Anibal Troilo with the voice of Francisco Fiorentino, has an old-fashioned sweetness that, although beautiful, does not for my money represent the disaster that is told by the lyrics. I think Troilo was trying for the kind of heartfelt nostalgia for a lost youth that is featured by so many tangos. But it doesn’t work for me here because, in the second half lyrics of the song, the feelings express such barren loss. Here it is.
The second version is sung by Roberto Goyeneche, the famous “Polaco.” A man of the streets (before he was discovered, he was a Buenos Aires municipal bus driver who would sing tangos without accompaniment while driving. That’s how a record producer found him.) Goyeneche’s version of “Tinta roja” has a harder heart. His sadness in this version is much more authentic than that presented by Fiorentino. The orchestra behind him (also that of Anibal Troilo) surges through the song with almost Hollywood-style over-arrangement. But for me, Goyeneche’s voice saves the day. This man ‘s anger is lined with sadness.
The third version is a very contemporary one, sung live by Ruben Juarez, who accompanies himself on bandoneon. I believe Juarez, in both his playing and singing, catches the despair and fury of “Tinta roja’s” lyrics. The man walking about in the dark alleyway of this tango is coming apart. He suffers quietly sometimes, angrily at other moments, enraged finally. For me it is the most authentic version of this tango I’ve ever heard. See if you agree.
Here are the lyrics to “Tinta roja,” first in Spanish, followed by my translation to English:
tinta roja en el gris
de ladrillo feliz
sobre mi callejón
con un borrón
pintó la esquina…
Y al botón
que en el ancho de la noche
puso el filo de la ronda
como un broche…
Y aquel buzón carmín,
y aquel fondín
donde lloraba el tano
su rubio amor lejano
que mojaba con bon vin.
¿Dónde estará mi arrabal?
¿Quién se robó mi niñez?
¿En qué rincón, luna mía,
volcás como entonces
tu clara alegría?
Veredas que yo pisé,
malevos que ya no son,
bajo tu cielo de raso
trasnocha un pedazo
de mi corazón.
tinta roja en el gris
de mi sangre infeliz
que vertí en el malvón
de aquel balcón
que la escondía…
Yo no sé
si fue negro de mis penas
o fue rojo de tus venas
Por qué llegó y se fue
tras del carmín
y el gris,
donde lloraba un tano
sus nostalgias de bon vin.
Colored red in the grey
Of the happy brick
In my alleyway,
With a smudge
Coloring the corner…
And to the cop’s badge
That in the thickness of night
Celebrates the end of its beat
Like a simple brooch…
And that carmine-colored mailbox,
And that little tavern
Where the Italian guy weeps
For his faraway blonde amor,
Washing it down with a glass of good wine.
Where will my neighborhood be?
Who took my youth away?
In which corner, my moon,
Were you emptied, as you were,
Of your clear happiness?
On the sidewalks that I walked,
The bad guys now no longer there,
Beneath your flattened sky,
There walks in the night
A piece of my heart.
Colored red in the grey
The boiling over
Of my sad blood,
Shed on the little geranium
On that balcony
That hid her…
I don’t know…
Was it the blackness of my pain
Or the red of your veins,
Blood of mine?…
Why did she come and then go,
Passing the carmine
And the grey,
And the faraway tavern
Where the Italian wept away
His wishful longings with a glass of good wine?
The translation to Spanish of Terence Clarke’s novel, The Splendid City, with Pablo Neruda as the central character, was published on December 1. Titled La espléndida ciudad, is available in bookstores worldwide and at all the usual online sites.
December 1, 2020
I’ve always had faith that I could write, which I began doing seriously when I was in my early twenties. A couple of my books were published in the late 1980s and early 90s. But after that, I couldn’t get anyone interested. This was pre- or early-internet time, and we had not yet seen the founding or early struggles of a couple of important businesses: Amazon particularly, Facebook, Twitter, et.al. In those times, the road to publication lay through a series of bottlenecks that made publication very difficult indeed. Those would be the community of literary agents and then the publishers themselves. Both these groups had a kind of monopoly on who would get published and who wouldn’t.
For the majority of fiction writers in the United States, if not all writers, the bottlenecks became the bloodied fields of failure. There are thousands and thousands of writers with completed manuscripts, and a few hundred who get published every year. Those few are the ones selected by literary agents (most of whom are in New York City) for representation. Established publishers will not look at any projects that are not represented by an agent. So, if you write and wish to be published in that system, your chances of success are slim to none. (I read a statistic once that, on any given day, there are 120,000 manuscripts in the U.S. postal system, making their ways from the authors to some publishing person or another. Of those, few will indeed be published. The rest lose.)
It has been this way for many, many years.
For the first few years of my writing with serious intent, I put myself firmly in the middle of it all by following the rules. I wrote earnestly and often to agents. I followed their stringent rules to the letter, for submission to their agencies. I waited the de rigueur two to six months for a response, which was almost always “Thank you, but we find your fine work not quite right for us,” or some such. Those responses, of which there were hundreds…many hundreds…put me completely out of the running for establishment publishers, for years.
In the past twenty years or so, however, we’ve seen the advent and growth of viable publishing possibilities that circumvent this self-important and ruinous system. The possibilities came about with the advent of the internet and those companies I mentioned above, with some others. Prior to those events, if you were an author and self-published your books, you would be committing professional suicide, even if your books had real value. Agents and publishers, once they learned that you had self-published, would not look at your work at all, since self-publishing was viewed as an instance of authors accepting their own failure. Also, as a side-issue, the companies that did do self-publishing expected the author to carry the entire burden of producing and distributing the books. They charged the author handsomely for both those services. The reading public for such books was made up of the author’s family and a few friends. Otherwise the author was sunk.
But now, all this has changed. Books can be tastefully designed, produced, and sold using all the tools of online marketing that we now know so well. Also, because of Amazon (and Apple Books, BN.com, and other companies) the author has an open door to the world book-reading market, in printed and digital products. Also, the author will usually make a per-copy royalty that is twice or three times the amount he/she would receive from the established publishers. So, if you get $1.50 per copy sold as a royalty from Houghton Mifflin, you’ll receive a royalty of three or four dollars for each copy produced and sold outside the established publishing system. The established publishers used to carefully edit, market, and publicize their products. Budgets for those things have been uniformly slashed by all the established publishers, especially since most of them have been taken over by corporate conglomerates.
So…there is that expense that the author must shoulder himself/herself. The good news is that the author gets to control what’s happening there, in ways not even imagined just a few years ago.
With all this, the influence of the long-established publishing community, which is still gigantic and worldwide, has lessened. But the fact is that now, for the first time in publishing history, the means of production are in the hands of the author. One noted literary agent of my acquaintance said this to me two years ago: ”Terry, the great literature of the 21st century will have been self-published. Don’t even consider wasting your time with the New York crowd.” A very noted editor with years of experience in the New York trade, who worked with me on two of my novels, said this to me: “Having your book come out these days from a huge publishing house is like having played on the 1947 New York Yankees team. Who cares?”
Of course, Amazon is not perfect, as we all know. But that is another story.
(Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Moment Before, will come out in 2021. The translation to Spanish of his novel about perilous events in the life of Pablo Neruda, The Splendid City, is being published today, December 1, and is available everywhere worldwide. The title? La espléndida ciudad.)
October 6, 2020
I speak Spanish, which I learned as an adult, and I write in English. But to write a full novel in English about one of the principal Spanish-speakers and writers of the last hundred years does present a challenge. This despite my having translated three of that author’s books to English.
I had read about the very dangerous passage that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda made in 1949, escaping from Chile to Argentina on horseback through the Andes Mountains. He had been barred from his senator’s seat in the Chilean Congress, and there was a warrant out for his arrest…all due to grave political disagreements with then-president Gabriel González Videla. It was decided by the Communist Party in Chile, of which Neruda was a member, that the only way to get him out of the country safely was on horseback through the Andes. It was a very dangerous undertaking in which Neruda was led through the cordillera by trackers familiar with the territory. Despite very rough conditions and a couple of close brushes with death, they completed the trek, and Neruda was able to move on to Paris, where his wife Delia del Carrill was awaiting him. He went on to even greater international fame and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973.
I succeeded in finishing the novel, which has the title The Splendid City, and it was published in 2019. I’ve always thought that there would have to be a Spanish-language translation of the book, Neruda’s fame and readership in Spanish-speaking countries being of legendary proportions. Through a friend of mine, a prominent Chilean novelist living in the United States, I made the acquaintance of Jaime Collyer, who is himself a noted novelist and short story writer, and a prominent figure in contemporary Chilean writing. We talked. Jaime read my novel (he is remarkably fluent in the English language) and liked it. We decided to work together.
So…La espléndida ciudad will come out in its Spanish-language edition on December 1, 2020 in the translation by Jaime Collyer. It will be available in bookstores everywhere (especially, of course, in Central and South America) and online at the usual sites.
Despite all this, which was pretty fast-moving for me and exciting, I worried that because the original is in English, a Spanish-language translation wouldn’t have the kind of authenticity that such a book would have, had its author been hispanic. English has such a northern European twist to it (a combination of Celtic, Britannic, Germanic, Danish and who knows how many other frozen-tundra linguistic elements) that a rendering of it into Spanish may not have the sunny, warm-breezes, wine-induced, olive-oil Mediterranean flow that such a story deserves.
You realize that this is a real possibility once you’ve studied the two languages and understand the difference in feel, one from the other. For me, a romantic tale is not the same in English as it is in Spanish. (I’m talking about the languages here and the cultures they represent. To talk about the more carnal differences between the two peoples is another matter altogether.)
Luckily, I have read many, many Neruda poems in Spanish as well as his very entertaining memoir, Confieso que he vivido (I Confess That I Have Lived). So, I have a ready sense of his often breezy and very adventuresome writing style. Neruda is a poet who goes out on a limb almost constantly. You have to pay attention to what he’s doing, while at the same time relaxing and flowing with it. That attention is often super-rewarding, although not always. (To punish yourself a little, read Neruda’s political poetry, most especially his odious “Oda a Stalin.”)
I decided to go out on a limb myself. Neruda describes his escape in Confieso que he vivido, but in just thirteen pages. It’s cursory and quick, hardly satisfying if the reader wants to know everything about this extraordinarily dangerous trek. In his account and those of his biographers, there are place names or hints about the weather, the mountains, and occasional dramatic moments. But not enough to give us the real story in detail.
Realizing that Neruda is himself a fantasist in so much of his work, I decided to be one in my novel. I put him and the others in the situations that he describes; but then I made up what happens in those situations mostly out of whole cloth. For example, the trackers lead Neruda into a lava tunnel (a common result of volcanic activity when hot lava makes a stream for itself through the volcano’s rocky structure.) Neruda and his helpmates did indeed encounter such a tunnel (by now millions of years old and, thankfully, free of the searing lava flow) and passed up it. But what they see in that tunnel, as described by me, is complete fantasy. No such visions have ever been found in South American caves as far as I know. There are several other very unlikely events in the novel, including conversations with long-dead gauchos condemned to wander through these terrifying mountains forever.
To my great pleasure, Jaime understood what I was trying to do in those sequences, and his translation honors the adventure that is presented in them…adventure both historically accurate and thoroughly made up, fantasms and all, by the author.
My hope is that I’ve written a South American-Mediterranean novel, despite my own rainy, teeth-rattling, Irish-English, cold weather antecedents.
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.