Jan. 12, 2011

City Scene in Snow

by Jonathan Greene

After sledding in the park's deep snow,
the two sons refuse to walk home.
The weary father trudges along
pulling them home
in the sparsely trafficked streets
snow still falling.

At times the kids fall off, laughing,
not wanting the day to end.


Hushed streets except for the
rumble of the subway.

Out of the corner of his eye
the father spies Orpheus

with guitar case, descending
the dark steps, off to reclaim lost love.

"City Scene in Snow" by Jonathan Greene, from Distillations and Siphonings. © Broadstone Books, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day one year ago that a huge earthquake struck Haiti, the worst in that region in more than 200 years. The earthquake had a magnitude of 7.0, and its epicenter was in the town of Léogâne, about 15 miles west of Port-au-Prince, the nation's capital. Geographically, Haiti is a small nation — only about 10,000 square miles — and more than 2 million of the nation's 10 million people were in Port-au-Prince. So the earthquake devastated the entire country.

The San Francisco Earthquake was caused by the San Andreas fault, which runs through California. Similarly, Haiti sits on a fault line between the Caribbean plate to its south and the North American plate to its north, called the Enriquillo fault. At first, everyone assumed that the Enriquillo fault was responsible for last year's catastrophe — scientists had already predicted that the fault was poised for an earthquake. But last summer, scientists discovered that there is actually a previously unmapped fault that runs along the northern border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and it was this unknown fault, now called the Léogâne fault, that caused the earthquake in January.

Haiti was already in a tough position to be able to deal with such a massive disaster. Haiti was once a profitable French colony called Saint Domingue, filled with sugar and coffee plantations. The French made a fortune by importing slaves from Africa, who outnumbered colonists on Saint Domingue by 10 to 1. In 1791, the slave-led Haitian Revolution threw out the French colonial government. But after that promising beginning — winning its independence in 1804 — Haiti never really had a chance to establish itself. France demanded compensation from Haiti for the loss of labor and resources — an amount worth about $21 billion by today's standards. It took Haiti until 1947 to pay off that debt. Leader after leader came through, trying to get Haiti back on its feet, but with such terrible debt it was always a lost cause. Haiti has had 22 leaders in 65 years, and various leaders exploited Haitians, put the country further in debt, and encouraged deforestation and overfarming.

In 1915, the U.S. invaded Haiti, and controlled it until 1934. In 1957, François Duvalier, or "Papa Doc," was elected president. Papa Doc was a populist, and he gave more rights to poor black people, but he was also a brutal dictator. He passed on leadership to his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as "Baby Doc." Both of these dictators were backed by the United States because they were opposed to communism. In 1986, Baby Doc was overthrown, and Haiti was run by the military. A series of coups and military regimes followed, until Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected in 1990, the first democratically elected president of Haiti. He was overthrown in a coup, reinstated, and then served out his term. His prime minister, René Préval, was elected president, served his term, and then Aristide was re-elected in 2000. But in 2004, he was overthrown again in a coup and forced into exile. After an interim president, Préval was elected for a second time, and served through last year. In 2008, a series of storms and hurricanes killed almost 800 Haitians. Even before the 2010 earthquake, Haiti was the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, with the average Haitian living on less than two dollars a day.

The earthquake completely devastated the country, and a year later Haiti is still working to recover. Although plenty of nations pledged foreign aid, it didn't always come quickly — a lot of that money still hasn't made it to Haiti. And in the days after the earthquake, with the whole country in chaos, it was almost impossible to get basic resources to people that needed them. Last November, a wave of cholera swept through the country.

The Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat (books by this author) spent her childhood in Haiti but immigrated to America when she was 12. She writes novels, short stories, and essays about Haitians and Haitian-Americans, books like Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), The Farming of Bones (1998), and most recently, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (2010). She said: "From now on, there will always be the Haiti of before the earthquake and the Haiti of after the earthquake. And after the earthquake, the way we read and the way we write, both inside and outside of Haiti, will never be the same. Daring to speak for the collective, I will venture to say that perhaps we will write with the same fervor and intensity or even more as before. Perhaps we will write with the same sense of fearlessness or hope. Perhaps we will continue to create as dangerously as possible. But our muse has been irreparably altered. Our people, both inside and outside of Haiti, have changed. In ways that I am not yet capable of describing, we artists too have changed."

Danticat said she wishes that people would understand that there is more to Haiti, and to Haitians, than poverty and tragedy and political instability. She writes about the beauty of the land there, the warm, close families, the delicious food and beautiful art. She wrote a children's book called Eight Days (2010), illustrated by the Haitian-born artist Alix Delinois. It's the story of a boy named Junior who is trapped in the rubble of the earthquake for eight days, and survives partly because he spends his time thinking of all the beautiful things about Haiti, imagining something new each day. She wrote: "On the sixth day, I went to the countryside with my sister, like we do every summer. A warm rain fell and we went outside and jumped in all the puddles. We got soaking wet and muddy. We opened out mouths toward the sky and each caught a mouthful of rain."

It’s the birthday of Jack London, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1876). His mother was Flora Wellman, a spiritualist from a wealthy family, but the identity of his father is not known. He was probably the son of William Chaney, a radical thinker who popularized astrology in America. Flora and William certainly lived together, and in his memoirs, Chaney claimed that she was his wife. But no one knows for sure, because all the official records of that era were destroyed during the San Francisco earthquake. Flora claimed that Chaney abandoned her when she refused to have an abortion. But when Jack London approached Chaney later in life, he said that he was not his father, that his mother had slept around.

In any case, Flora married a Civil War veteran named John London when Jack was a baby, and the boy grew up thinking that John was his own father. His mother was inattentive and sometimes cruel, and his stepsister Eliza raised him a lot of the time. He grew up in Oakland — a working-class town without the high society of San Francisco — and on farms and ranches in the area, where John was a modestly successful farmer. But Flora kept pressuring her husband to buy up bigger and bigger farms, so that she could re-create the affluence of her childhood. Then disease wiped out John's chickens and he couldn't keep up with the mortgage on their large ranch, so they moved back to Oakland. Flora continued to scheme ways to make more money, but they kept failing, and finally had to move to West Oakland, the poorest part of town.

When Jack was seven years old, he drank some red wine at an Italian wedding. He said: "I was a sick child, and despite the terrible strain on my heart and tissues, I continually relapsed into the madness of delirium. All the contents of the terrible and horrible in my child's mind spilled out. ... All the inconceivable filth a child running at large in a primitive countryside may hear men utter was mine. ... My brain was seared for ever by that experience. Writing now, 30 years afterwards, every vision is as distinct, as sharp-cut, every pain as vital and terrible."

In Oakland, he got a reputation as a good fighter. He left school at the age of 14 and went to work in a canning factory. He spent some of his spare time reading, inspired by a local librarian who had befriended Mark Twain and helped publish John Muir, and he read everything she recommended. But most of the time he spent drinking. The men at the bar didn't care that he was poor, that he was young, that he smelled like the cannery. He listened in awe to their stories of adventure, and imagined adventures of his own.

So he bought a boat and started working as an oyster pirate, stealing oysters at night and selling them in the markets during the day. It was profitable work, and the public supported it because they disliked the big companies that monopolized the oyster industry and then sold oysters for high prices. He went on to work as a sailor, a factory worker, and then up north for the Klondike Gold Rush. When he came back, he started writing, setting many of his stories in the Klondike. He worked as hard at writing as he did at everything else — he stuck to a writing regimen of 1,000 words every morning. And his work paid off — he published The Call of the Wild (1903) when he was just 27 years old, and it made him famous. Between 1900 and 1916, he wrote more than 50 books. But he died in 1916 at the age of 40 from an overdose of morphine, which he was using to treat his uremia.

In The Call of the Wild, he wrote: "There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad in a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight."

It's the birthday of novelist David Mitchell, (books by this author) born in Southport, England (1969). He went to the University of Kent to study literature, and to pick up some extra money, he babysat for a professor's sons. He made up stories for them, and to make the stories more interesting, he would switch between different literary styles.

He used that same trick many years later, when he was writing his third novel, Cloud Atlas (2004). It has six linked stories, one within the other, from six different genres — a 19th-century diary relating a sea adventure in the South Pacific; a slow-paced set of letters from a 1930s musician serving as the personal aid to a brilliant old composer in Belgium; a 1970s California environmental thriller, in pulp-fiction style; a contemporary gangster story of a small-time British publishing crook; a near-future dystopia set in Korea, filled with clones, advanced technology, and an oppressive totalitarian regime; and finally, the story of a tribal, post-apocalyptic culture in the South Pacific. Cloud Atlas was a best-seller, an award-winner, and got great reviews.

But after being praised for his clever linguistic twists and turns, Mitchell's most recent book is a straightforward piece of historical fiction set in 18th-century Japan, and many reviewers are calling it his best book yet. It's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010). He said: "Midlife crisis. Age. The heart gets more interesting than structure. I've got kids, I've got a wife, we're stuck with each other for a while. And suddenly there's an understanding that this is what life is — it's actually the mess, it's the mud, it's the tangle. It's not the clean, hygienic ... fireworks. It's the little invisible novels that get written between two people every day of their lives. It's the subtle power shifts. It's the love, it's the less-noble sentiments that make every single day either good or bad or not so good or wonderful or moving through all these things at the speed of West Cork weather. This is interesting stuff. Why go out there in search of extraterrestrial life when it's already here?"

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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