Mar. 28, 2012
Places I Have Heard the Ocean
In a cat's throat, in a shell I hold
to my ear — though I'm told
this is the sound of my own
blood. I have heard the ocean
in the city: cars against
the beach of our street. Or in
the subway, waiting for a train
that carries me like a current.
In my bed: place of high and low
tide or in my daughter's skates,
rolling over the sidewalk.
Ocean in the trees when they
fill their heads with wind.
Ocean in the rise and fall:
lungs of everyone I love.
It's the birthday of Nelson Algren (1909) (books by this author). Born Nelson Algren Abraham to working-class parents in Detroit, he grew up in Chicago's immigrant neighborhoods. He wrote his first story, "So Help Me," during the Great Depression, while he was working at a gas station in Texas. His life — and work — changed dramatically after he was caught stealing a typewriter and spent five months in jail. His later novels and stories would feature the down-and-out, the loser, and the reject. He became known as a writer of Chicago; he wrote: "If a writer could write the truth about one Chicago street, that would be a good life's work."
In A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), set in the world of pimps and prostitutes in New Orleans, Algren gives his three rules for life: "Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own." The novel is, in many ways, about the contempt of a nation for its dispossessed, and in it he wrote: "When we get more houses than we can live in, more cars than we can ride in, more food than we can eat ourselves, the only way of getting richer is by cutting off those who don't have enough."
Nelson Algren, who said, "A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery."
Today is the birthday of Mario Vargas Llosa (books by this author), born in Arequipa, in southern Peru (1936). He went to a military academy in Lima, which he hated. His father was authoritarian in nature and wanted to drum any literary aspirations out of his son with a rigid, disciplined lifestyle. The plan backfired: Not only did Vargas Llosa continue writing, but he also used his experiences at the academy as inspiration for his first novel, The Time of the Hero (1963).
He ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990, against Alberto Fujimori, but lost. He's subsequently renounced politics, saying, "Literature and politics are mutually exclusive. A writer is someone who works alone, who needs total independence. A politician is someone who is totally dependent, who has to make all kinds of concessions, the very thing a writer can't do."
His latest book, The Dream of the Celt, was published in Spanish in 2010; its English translation will be published later this year.
It's the birthday of Russell Banks (books by this author), born in Newton, Massachusetts (1940). Banks' latest novel, Lost Memory of Skin (2011) — a finalist for the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction — was inspired by an encampment of sex offenders living under a causeway near Banks' Miami high-rise apartment.
Virginia Woolf committed suicide on this day in 1941 (books by this author). A lively, witty, productive, creative person, whose life was overshadowed by her death. She wrote three of her best books in the space of just a few years in the 1920's: Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and Orlando (1928).
It's the birthday of the journalist Iris Chang (books by this author), born in Princeton, New Jersey (1968). She was a talkative, but serious, child. She began writing while she was still in grade school, starting an advice column à la "Dear Abby." She won a "young author" competition when she was 10, and in high school, she was always writing and publishing something. When she began working as a journalist, she drove herself very hard, not eating or sleeping for days at a time. She wrote books about the Nanking Massacre, the history of the Chinese in America, and the Bataan Death March — which was the book she was working on when she had a nervous breakdown. She stopped taking her medication because it made her groggy and unable to work. She was in therapy and had a plan for recovery. But she was unable to overcome her illness, and she committed suicide not far from her home in San Jose, California, in 2004.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®