Jun. 7, 2012

The Old Gentleman

by Alden Nowlan

If you want to ask
a question, the chairman said,
begin by giving us
your name and address.

So the old gentleman
seated near the back
of the auditorium,
when it came his turn, said
he was Louis St. Laurent
and came from Quebec;

and we all of us laughed:
because that's who he was
and it was the kind of little joke
one expected of an elderly
former prime minister;

but the next time
he said the same thing

and the time after that,
said it quite simply

and it became obvious
it wasn't meant to be funny,

wasn't meant to be anything
other than courteous,

like his holding open the door
for whoever happened to reach it
at the same time he did

and never lighting a cigarette
without offering the pack to
the person in front and the person behind
and the persons seated
on either side of him.

"The Old Gentleman" by Alden Nowlan, from Selected Poems. © House of Anansi Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the woman who's been called "the world's most famous linguist": best-selling author Deborah Tannen (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1945). She became interested by the different ways people communicate, so she studied linguistics and wrote a book, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (1990). It remained on the New York Times best-seller list for almost four years.

The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk (books by this author) celebrates his 60th birthday today. He was born in Istanbul in 1952 and grew up in a fairly wealthy and Westernized district. He studied architecture and then journalism, but at 23 years old, he decided to become a novelist. He lived with his mother and wrote full time, and seven years later, he published his first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons (1982). He's worked as a novelist for 30 years and has never held any other kind of job, and apart from three years he spent in New York, he's lived his entire life in the Istanbul district of his birth.

In 2005, Pamuk gave an interview in which he made remarks about the Armenian Genocide and the mass killing of tens of thousands of Kurds. He said: "Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do." Criminal charges were filed against Pamuk in Turkey, and his statements resulted in a new law making it illegal to make anti-Turkish remarks. There was an international outcry, and several noted authors — including Gabriel García Márquez, Umberto Eco, John Updike, and Günter Grass — spoke out in Pamuk's defense. The charges were dropped early in 2006.

Recent books include The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist (2010) and Pieces from the View: Life, Streets, Literature (2010).

Today is the birthday of Louise Erdrich (books by this author), born in Little Falls, Minnesota (1954). She grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, the eldest of seven children. Her father came from a family of German immigrants and her mother was French Ojibwe, and both her parents taught in the school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The family didn't own a TV, so Erdrich and her brothers and sisters made up stories and poems. She said: "My father used to give me a nickel for every story I wrote, and my mother wove strips of construction paper together and stapled them into book covers. So at an early age I felt myself to be a published author earning substantial royalties." Louise's grandfather had been the tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Reservation, and he was a storyteller who encouraged his granddaughter to learn and then tell the stories of her Native heritage.

She went on to Dartmouth the first year that they had a Native American Studies Department, and in the first class that they admitted women. She wrote poetry, and supported herself with a variety of odd jobs: lifeguard, farm laborer, and flag girl for a road construction crew. Her first book of poetry was Jacklight (1984), but along the way, something changed. "I began to tell stories in the poems," she said, "and I realized that there was not enough room." So she started writing fiction. Her first novel, Love Medicine (1984), about a fictional reservation outside the town of Argus, North Dakota, was a best-seller, winning a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Erdrich's latest novel, The Plague of Doves (2008),was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her book The Round House is due out later this year (2012).

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




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