THE REVOLUTION OF EVERY DAY and LANDFALL highlight strength of Portland’s novelists and indie publishers

Revolution of Every Day  Cari-Luna-350x300

The Revolution of Every Day

By Cari Luna

Tin House Books: 2013

388 pages, $15.95

 

Landfall-Cover-FINAL-web-sized  ellen_urbani

Landfall

By Ellen Urbani

Forest Avenue Books: Aug. 29, 2015

277 pages, $15.95

 

If you felt the axis of the literary world tilt recently, it was just the movement of writers and other creative types west from New York City to Portland, now often referred to as the Brooklyn of the West Coast. Portland has always been a bookish town — it wouldn’t be home to the massive Powell’s Books complex if it weren’t — but now it seems there are nearly as many writers as readers in the City of Roses.

So it should come as no surprise that a lot of good writing is coming out of PDX now. Two prime examples are the recent novels by Cari Luna and Ellen Urbani. While both are set in other cities — former homes of the authors — but they share a certain aesthetic: intensely focused, character driven stories where the setting is one of the protagonists and the prose sings.

Luna’s The Revolution of Every Day follows a group of ambitious squatters (no, that’s not an oxymoron) as they save NYC’s Lower East Side in the mid-1990s. The NYC of 20 years ago was a much more difficult place than it is today; the LES had been more or less abandoned by developers and middle class residents and had become a neighborhood of derelict buildings, high crime, and drug use. Enter a ragtag group of down-and-outers who slowly bind themselves into extended families, each living in one reclaimed building. Novelist Susan Choi aptly refers to them as “urban homesteaders.”

Revolution follows one small group of characters in one building as they try to save themselves by turning “Thirteen House” first into a home and then into a community. Amelia was a runaway taken in by Dutch immigrant Gerrit seven years earlier. Steve and Anne are the den parents of the building. While Gerrit is the silent planner and worrier, Steve is the driven rabble-rouser with the ability to work a room and make things happen. Cat is a legend of the downtown scene who runs the nearby Cat House but is now a shadow of her former sylph.

Luna puts us inside Thirteen House, allowing us to get to know the main characters, their dreams, and the fraught histories that brought them together. They are determined, even desperate, to create a communal, humane lifestyle in the former tenement that they have rebuilt with found materials and sweat equity. Doing so is the only way they can live, work, and dream in the city and avoid returning to their hometowns or anyplace else.

Gerrit’s slowly developing love for the younger Amelia remains unrequited, although she is grateful and indebted to him for saving her life. Steve and Anne maintain a marriage and partnership that is the envy of their peers but which has recently developed cracks in the foundation. Amelia is pregnant, and Gerrit is not the father. Anne is having doubts about whether the squatter’s life is really what she wants. Add to these domestic dramas the fact that Mayor Giuliani’s mission to clean up the city includes reclaiming the blocks of abandoned buildings and selling them to developers as part of a gentrification project.

After living and fighting the power with these characters for nearly 400 pages, I felt as if I had made (and then lost) several friends when the book ended on a bittersweet note (no spoilers here!). They have taken up residence in my mind and appear to be settling in permanently. The Revolution of Every Day is a novel that everyone who loves, or has ever loved, New York City needs to read.

***

The events of Ellen Urbani’s Landfall straddle Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. The story concerns two sets of mothers and teenage daughters, the determined and aloof Gertrude Aikens and her preternaturally bright daughter Rose, and the mentally unstable Cilla Howard and her prematurely maternal daughter Rosebud. Gertrude and Cilla are single mothers, the former living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and the latter in New Orleans, having fled Alabama twenty years earlier.  A freak accident brings the characters together momentarily in the aftermath of Katrina before spinning them off in opposite directions, their lives forever changed.

Urbani’s depiction of Hurricane Katrina and the nine circles of Hell it brought to New Orleans is an indelible portrait of death, destruction, and the impulse to survive. Having survived the flooding, but just barely, Rosebud is forced to set out east, headed back to the Alabama her mother left two decades earlier. Rose, separated from Gertrude, searches for answers to her dilemma and a way forward in the past her mother carefully hid from her for 18 years. Considering this tightly woven parallel plotting, it’s not surprising that there is a secret in past that connects the girls and explains much.

But the heart of this novel is Katrina and the close-up view of the days and weeks following the hurricane. Urbani takes readers from the images on their TV screens and computer monitors into the experience of those who sought shelter in the Superdome, those who attempted to flee the city, and those who stayed behind to ride out a storm they underestimated, only to face the unprecedented flooding, death, and destruction that followed. Urbani provides a wealth (perhaps an overabundance) of historical and socio-cultural background and has plenty of criticism for the politicians and other government agencies responsible for, first, protecting New Orleans and, later, saving its residents and helping to rebuild their shattered city and lives.

The other highlight of Landfall is Urbani’s prose, which manages to be both muscular and lyrical in equal measure. There is something distinctly “New Orleans” about this tender-and-tough combination that makes it the perfect voice for this heartbreaking story.

If you’re looking for other Portland writers to explore, I recommend Rene Denfeld’s transcendent novel, The Enchanted, and Liz Prato potent story collection, Baby’s On Fire. Fiery poet Wendy Chin-Tanner is also worth your attention.

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CITIZEN examines current Black American experience with powerful prose-poetry

Citizen   Claudia Rankine 2014

Citizen: An American Lyric

By Claudia Rankine

Graywolf Press (Oct.  7, 2014)

169 pages, $20.00

If ever there was a book for and of its time, it is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Rankine, a poet and essayist, considers what it means to be a black American in 2014, six years after the election of the first black president. While there was much talk in 2008 and 2009 about America entering a post-racial era, it was mostly a naïve wish. Of course, what we learned was that we were entering an era in which racists were the ones who felt rejuvenated, crawling out from under their rocks to spew hate in every direction, but particularly toward the (half-) black man who dared to occupy the White House.

Those who pay attention to issues of race, culture, and economics may know quite a bit about these subjects. But do they understand what it means to be black, here and now? Do they understand what it feels like to go through life with your skin color defining you before you have a chance to say or do anything on which you might more fairly be judged? Only the smug and arrogant – and most oblivious — would make such a claim (as we have seen frequently in the media, particularly in the last few weeks).

One can argue that substantial gains have been made and that life has never been better for black Americans. But rather than nearing the end of this journey toward true equality and acceptance, we are discovering that the oasis ahead was a mirage and that we have miles to go before we reach our destination.

Rankine makes this clear by taking us on a personal and conceptual journey through the contemporary black experience in Citizen. Through a hybrid of prose-poetry essays and more traditional poetic approaches, Rankine forces readers to face the daily reality of being black. It is, in many ways, a case of death by a thousand cuts.

Citizen is divided into seven parts, each of which addresses a different aspect of, or takes a different approach to, the subject. The philosophical, almost stream of consciousness introduction moves into a series of incidents in which black Americans encounter the manifest forms of racism, from benign ignorance to virulent hatred. Rankine has explained in recent interviews that these experiences came mostly from friends and colleagues, as well as her own life.

And it stings to read about these accumulated insults, indignities, slights, misplaced resentment, and the like. In one scene, a well-traveled black woman settles into her window seat on the plane. A woman and her young daughter stop in the aisle. The girl tells her mother, “These are our seats, but this is not what I expected.” The mother replies, “I’ll sit in the middle.”

In another, a black woman visiting her alma mater is joined at lunch by a white alumnus, who proceeds to explain that her son was not accepted at their prestigious college because of affirmative action or some such program, as if the black alumna were somehow responsible for either the policy or the school’s legacy decision.

A black woman schedules an appointment with a therapist over the phone. When she arrives at the therapist’s home office and rings the doorbell, a woman throws open the door and screams, “Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?” Rankine writes, “It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or German shepherd has gained the power of speech.” Stunned, she manages to tell the woman she has an appointment. “Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry. I am so sorry, so so sorry.”

Even a skeptic will be forced to acknowledge that a constant onslaught of interactions – most of them negative — based on one’s race would be exhausting, disheartening, and eventually infuriating.

In another section, Rankine explores the incident at the 2009 U.S. Open tennis tournament in which Serena Williams became infuriated with a line judge’s call and verbally accosted her. “What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like?” Rankine asks. “Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.’”

Rankine reviews an earlier incident, at the 2004 U.S. Open, in which the chair umpire was excused from officiating finals matches after making five egregiously bad calls against Serena in her semifinal match against Jennifer Capriati. “Though no one was saying anything explicitly about Serena’s black body, you are not the only viewer who thought it was getting in the way of Alves’s sight line.” That match led to the introduction a year later of the Hawk-Eye line-calling technology. The 2009 incident is thus given context that didn’t exist for most viewers at the time, who wondered, as did Rankine, if Williams had (finally) lost her mind.

By piling up these painful anecdotes, Rankine simulates the experience of being black. But Citizen is not a laundry list of complaints or an exercise in self-pity. After sensitizing the reader by guiding us for a mile in black shoes, Rankine shifts to a deeply felt analysis of the consequences of implicit and explicit racism, concluding that one can’t simply shake off a lifetime – not to mention a racial and cultural history — of such experiences and pretend it doesn’t exist.

“The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.”

Rankine also analyzes the uses and abuses of language in expressing race-based ideas and emotions and reaches a counterintuitive conclusion. “For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person. After considering [philosopher Judith] Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present.”

Much of the second half of Citizen comprises prose narrative “scripts for situation videos” that Rankine made with her husband, John Lucas. These scripts take us through a series of deaths of black men and boys at the hands of whites, often police officers, including early 20th century lynchings, the Jena Six, James Craig Anderson, and Trayvon Martin. Rankine also considers such related matters as New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” policy, which unfairly singled out black men (“And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description”), the contrast between U.K. and U.S. media reporting on race-related incidents, and the 2006 World Cup head-butting incident involving France’s legendary soccer player, Zinedine Zidane, who is of Algerian Berber descent.

A section on Hurricane Katrina is particularly wrenching, as she interpolates multiple voices.

“Then someone else said it was the classic binary between the rich and the poor, between the haves and have-nots, between the whites and the blacks, in the difficulty of all that…. The missing limbs, he said, the bodies lodged in piles of rubble, dangling from rafters, lying facedown, arms outstretched on parlor floors…. What I’m hearing, she said, which is sort of scary, is they want to stay in Texas…. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, she said, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them…. Then this aestheticized distancing from Oh my God, from unbelievable, from dehydration, from overheating, from no electricity, no power, no way to communicate.”

Rankine has crafted a multi-faceted exploration of the contemporary black American experience that succeeds both as a work of literature and a public service at a time when such an exploration is desperately needed. Now, if only we could put a copy of Citizen in the hands of every American adult.

Adichie wins National Book Critics Circle Award for “Americanah”

Americanah

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for Americanah, her brilliant novel about a young Nigerian woman who comes to the U.S. for college and struggles to acculturate as a “Non-American Black.” Her lost love is experiencing his own struggles as an immigrant to the U.K. The novel is a powerful character study, a love story, and a sharp-eyed truth-telling about American culture, race, and identity.  Americanah was nominated just last week for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in the U.K. Adichie won the Orange Prize (now called the Baileys Prize) in 2007 for Half of a Yellow Sun, which detailed Biafra’s fight for independence from Nigeria in the 1960s.

Two other women won NBCC awards tonight. Physician-reporter Sherry Fink won the Nonfiction award for Five Days at Memorial, about the grueling experiences at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans in the days following Hurricane Katrina. Amy Wilentz won the Biography award for Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti.

Five Days at Memorial  Farewell, Fred Voodoo