Jan. 14, 2011

The Story of the Week

by Joshua Mehigan

Experience was nothing that day. That day was Sunday.

It was impossible to transcend the Western Tradition of Sunday.
But he did not demand a better world.

This he left to the moon, the moon's day, Monday.

Saturday he was maudlin, and may have been in love.
Friday he got phone calls, but wasn't there to answer.

Wherever he was he was not falling in love.

Thursday was bunk. The sack of his heart emptied.
Wednesday was symmetry, a thimbleful of nothing.

What seemed most decisive, redemptive, was Tuesday.
Suffering really meant something to him then.

Monday, last Monday, he felt sure he'd found
the catch in the course of circular motion.

Sunday he did not demand a better world.

"The Story of the Week" by Joshua Mehigan, from The Optimist. © Ohio University Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of historian Taylor Branch, (books by this author) born in Atlanta (1947). He came from a well-off family who ran a chain of Laundromats and bowling alleys and had no interest in politics. When he saw the famous photographs of police dogs attacking civil rights protestors, it was a wake-up call. He said, "Until those dogs in Birmingham, which penetrated my little world of high school sports and chasing girls, I thought that everything in America was wonderful." So he started to learn about the civil rights movement, and when he heard part of a speech by Martin Luther King Jr., he said, "I knew that I wanted to investigate the life that could produce that voice."

He has done exactly that. He worked for the civil rights movement and as a Democratic activist — he shared an apartment with Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham in 1972 to work on the George McGovern campaign. He has written several books, but he is most famous for a chronological trilogy about the civil rights movement collectively known as America in the King Years. The three books were Parting the Waters (1988), which won the Pulitzer Prize; Pillar of Fire (1998); and At Canaan's Edge (2006). His most recent book is The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President (2010).

He said, "I would like my readers to entertain the core notion that civil rights history is not a quaint tale of yesteryear, but rather our best model for the urgent task of understanding and refining democracy."

It's the birthday of the novelist Anchee Min, (books by this author) born in Shanghai (1957). She and her parents and her three brothers and sisters lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment. But under the Maoist regime, they were suspected of being bourgeois intellectuals. Her father taught astronomy, and he was accused of subversive teaching because he taught about sunspots, and since Chairman Mao was considered the sun, it was assumed that he was insulting Mao. Min's family was moved to communal government housing, her parents were given new jobs, and she went to work memorizing the words of Chairman Mao and denouncing anyone or anything associated with Western influence. She was the head of the Little Red Guard at her elementary school, a model Maoist.

When she was 17, Min was selected to be sent to a labor camp called Red Fire Farm, where she could fulfill the noble cause of being a peasant. It was terrible, back-breaking work, and even worse psychologically. One of her co-workers, a woman named Little Green, was caught with a lover — he was executed, and she went insane and killed herself. Min herself had an intense, secret love affair with a woman named Yan, one of her commanders, a dedicated Revolutionary.

But she was whisked away from Red Fire Farm after she caught the eye of a film crew sent out by Jiang Ching, Mao's wife, to find the perfect actress for a new film. Jiang Ching didn't care about finding someone who could act — she wanted a "perfect peasant-type face," and Min said her own fit that description, with "weather-beaten skin, calloused and blistered hands, broad smile, wide-set eyes and big nose." She ended up being chosen from 20,000 candidates to play the lead role in a film, a pet project of Jiang Ching's. But partway through production, Mao died, and Jiang Ching was suddenly hated, as was anyone connected with her. No one wanted to talk with Min or treat her like a human being.

She had a friend who helped get her to the United States. She didn't know any English, so she applied to the University of Chicago because it was the only school where she didn't have to actually prove that she knew English. She had a friend fill out her application and check the box saying that she spoke English, and she managed to make it the United States. When the University of Chicago found out that she didn't know a single word of English, they kicked her out, but she was allowed to stay in the country for six months, and was told that she would be deported if she couldn't learn to speak English in that amount of time. So she watched Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and The Oprah Winfrey Show. She started writing as a way to improve her English, and slowly she wrote a memoir about her experiences in Communist China, a book called Red Azalea (1994). It became a New York Times best-seller, and since then she has written six novels, including Becoming Madame Mao (2001), about Jiang Ching, and The Last Empress (2007). Her most recent book is Pearl of China (2010), about the novelist Pearl S. Buck.

Anchee Min wants her young daughter to understand that everyone suffers. She said, "Whenever I tell her a fairy tale, I always say, 'Then they lived happily ever after. Of course, you have to keep in mind that hearts change, and you can be crushed.'"

Red Azalea begins: "I was raised on the teachings of Mao and on the operas of Madam Mao, Comrade Jiang Ching. I became a leader of the Little Red Guards in elementary school. This was during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution when red was my color. My parents lived like — as the neighbors described them — a pair of chopsticks: always in harmony. My father was an instructor of industrial technique drawing at Shanghai Textile Institute, although his true love was astronomy. My mother was a teacher at a Shanghai middle school. She taught whatever the Party asked, one semester in Chinese and the next in Russian. My parents both believed in Mao and the Communist Party, just like everybody else in the neighborhood. They had four children, each one a year apart. I was born in 1957. We lived in the city, on South Luxuriant Road in a small two-story townhouse occupied by two families. The house was left by my grandfather, who had died of tuberculosis right before I was born.

"I was an adult since the age of five. That was nothing unusual. The kids I played with all carried their family's little ones on their backs, tied with a piece of cloth. The little ones played with their own snot while we played hide-and-seek."

It's the birthday of writer John Dos Passos, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1896). His father was married to a woman who was not his mother, and he was born in a hotel. He had a lonely childhood, moving around Europe with his mother. In 1910, his father's first wife, an invalid, died, and he married John's mother.

Dos Passos went to Harvard, then served as a volunteer ambulance driver during World War I with his friends E.E. Cummings and Robert Hillyer. He wrote many novels, and is most famous for his U.S.A. trilogy: The 42nd Parallel (1930), Nineteen Nineteen (1932), and The Big Money (1936).

Dos Passos was good friends with Ernest Hemingway. He wrote about their time in Paris: "I did enjoy going to the day bicycle races with him. French sporting events had for me a special comical air that I enjoyed. We would collect a quantity of wine and cheeses and crunchy rolls, a pot of pâté and perhaps a cold chicken, and sit up in the gallery. Hem knew all the statistics and the names of the riders. His enthusiasm was catching, but he tended to make a business of it while I just liked to eat and drink and enjoy the show."

He said, "If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works."

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Mary Robison, (books by this author) born in Washington, D.C. (1949).

She grew up in Ohio with five brothers and two sisters. She ran away from home twice when she was young, one of those times going to Florida to look for Jack Kerouac. She always wanted to be a writer, and she kept journals and diaries and wrote poetry as a teenager. She started writing seriously when she enrolled at Johns Hopkins University, where she worked with the novelist John Barth. She said of Barth, "The man was magic. I'd be helping in some beauty shop if it wasn't for him."

She published a short story called "Sisters" in The New Yorker magazine in 1977, and within a few years she began to be lumped in with writers like Raymond Carver and Amy Hempl, who wrote about ordinary people in a stripped-down prose style. These writers were called minimalists, but Robison said: "I detested the term. I thought it reductive, misleading, inconclusive and insulting. It was the school that no one ever wanted to be in. They'd bring your name up just to kick you."

She published a few collections in the 1980s, including An Amateur's Guide to the Night (1983) and Believe Them (1988). In the 1990s, she was struck with a terrible case of writer's block. She said: "For about 10 years I didn't publish much of anything, and I didn't have anything. I had nothing, and I really didn't know if I ever would again. ... It's about pride, really; feeling the words on the page can never represent you. It's the worst thing you can learn about yourself. You could go mad."

After a while of being unable to write anything, Robison began taking drastic measures. She started driving around in her car with a tape recorder, and whenever anything came into her head, she would just scream it into the tape recorder. Then she'd go home and write these things down on note cards. Eventually she had about a thousand note cards, and she realized that with a little work she could arrange them into a novel.

The result was her book Why Did I Ever (2001), a very short novel told in 536 very short chapters about a woman named Money Breton, divorced three times, who's addicted to Ritalin and trying to support herself as a screenwriter.

Her most recent book is a novel called One D.O.A., One on the Way (2009).

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




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