Fiction Unbound: On Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost

field guide to getting lostI’m on a bit of a Rebecca Solnit tear right now. I recently gave my reading notes for The Faraway Nearby, and I’m currently reading Wanderlust: A History of Walking. In between, I picked up A Field Guide to Getting Lost. It’s brilliant, of course. And it’s got that perfect Solnit touch that walks the line between universal and individual, abstract and personal.

But there is one weird section I’ve been struggling with. Every couple of days I think back to how irritated I was when I read it and then I try on different reasons to explain why it bothered me so much. I think I’ve got it. And as I am a big believer that significant lessons may be learned by parsing out one’s own irritations, I wanted to jot it down here.

What follows turns out to be an examination of what intellectual probing (in the particular way of the essayist) may or may not offer the writing of fiction, based on a moment in the book when Solnit offers a somewhat detailed plot treatment of an imaginary novel.

The premise of the book is that there are many ways to get lost. Geographically, mentally, spiritually, etc. It’s also a book about distance: where you are vs. where you’ve been or where you’re going. So, in line with both themes, she begins the essay “Two Arrowheads” with this totally killer passage:

“Once I loved a man who was a lot like the desert, and before that I loved the desert. It wasn’t particular things but the space between them, that abundance of absence, that is the desert’s invitation.”

The beginning of the chapter is a dreamy stream-of-consciousness meditation upon that love (her love of the desert and its “hermit”) and love’s narrative path in general. There are animals, and many changes of color, and when you set that quiet circus into the stark desert setting you get something that seems like a bunch of Chagall surrounded by Georgia O’Keeffe. It’s odd. But fine.

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Review: The Surrender

Surr

The Surrender, Scott Esposito, Anomolous Press 2016

It is nearly too perfect that the French word genre denotes both literary genre and gender. For if Scott Esposito’s quietly powerful essays found in The Surrender do not defy genre, they certainly do reveal the plasticity of memoir and then stretch the form to its limits. Somewhat the same could be said for the author’s own exploration of gender.

In this book, the acclaimed critic sets before the reader a “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to inhabit the clothing, the actions, the spaces, and the identity of a woman. Yet instead of forming these facts into a chronological narrative, he rejects the constraints of beginnings, middles, and endings, and bravely allows for the openness of his own story.

There are both fiction and non-fiction books that recount the experiences of trans women. And you should read them. But I have trouble finding resonances between those books and this. The slowly softspoken prose, with its ebb and flow of emotional tides, is something I would be more likely to associate with music or poetry or a certain kind of literary theory. I was reminded less of Juliet Jacques’s Trans and more of Anohni’s (of Antony and the Johnsons) album I Am Bird Girl, or Barthes’s Discours amoureux.

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RIDM Screening 122: Atalaku

Directed by Dieudo Hammadi, Atalaku is set during the latest elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

http://www.imdb.com/video/wab/vi1422763033/

Here’s a quick timeline:

1960: Patrice Lumumba becomes the first Prime Minister of the newly independent Republic of Congo (the one that becomes the DRC, not the other one). He is deposed by the president, Joseph Kasa-Vubu, and then eventually placed under house arrest with the military leader Joseph Mobutu (remember him – this is the one Bob Dylan wrote a song about – it’s called “Leopard Skin PillBox Hat” …right…)

1961: Lumumba is brutally assassinated, (there’s a fantastic film about it directed by Raoul Peck if you’re interesting…) and Mobutu beginshis assent into power.

1965-1997: Mobutu (monsieur coup d’etat himself) is in power and becomes the archetype of many African dictatorships to follow…

1996: Laurent Kabila leads Tutsi factions against Hutus in Eastern DRC – thus begins the First Congo War.

1997: Laurent Kabila comes to power after the invasions of the DRC (then Zaire) by Rwanda, defeats Mobutu’s forces. This ends with First Congo War, but we have another one…

1998: Second Congo War, which lasts until 2003 (officially). This involves several nations and effectively rips the enter of Africa apart.

2001: Joseph Kabila succeeds his father in office after the latter’s assassination.

2006: First free elections in 46 years. Kabila wins. (Which is a lot like more of the same thing…)

2011: Another multi-party election…

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RIDM Screening 84: A jamais, pour toujours

Confession: I am basically posting this for good form, because it is a documentary that I saw, and thus feel obligated to include it in the series. (Plus, duh, I like bragging about all these awesome films I’m seeing. Aren’t you tempted to move to Montreal now so you can watch great documentaries and go to jazz festivals and, oh man, just wait ’til you see the book festival coverage I’m going to throw your way…they’re doing a spotlight on Haitian authors this year…I know, right?)

Alexandra Sicotte-Lévesque directed this film, which is confusingly titled “A jamais, pour toujours” in French and “The Longest Kiss” in English. The latter refers to a pronouncement that the Nile River joins (sort of?) Sudan to the newly created South Sudan, in a long goodbye kiss. Which is beautiful. The narration that went along with the film (we never have any idea who is speaking it) is a wonderful poetic reflection on the history of Sudan’s conflicts and the recent secession of South Sudan. Another beautiful thing: the cinematography. The webpage description (and I’m endlessly fascinated by these) describes the film as a “an essential look at an often misunderstood and tragically ignored country.” I would say that for all of the random media flashes we get that loudly proclaim the “genocide” and “chaos” and “cautious optimism” and “tribal clashes” and many other things that you typically hear about African countries in the news, it is, indeed, necessary to stop for a minute and see an intelligent exploration of how people are going about their daily lives in current Sudan and South Sudan. Yes, people are killed, and violence disrupts an entire country, but there are people who live as well. And that seems to be the goal of this film – to show that people continue to live.

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RIDM Screening 69: Ayiti Toma

Focusing on foreign aid (before and after the earthquake), the slave trade and colonialism, and vodou in Haiti, this documentary provides a far-reaching scope of a complex society. If there is one flaw the film suffered from it was the ambitious attempt to cover everything. How can you not try to cover everything when you’re talking about a place that has a history of being so egregiously misunderstood? That misunderstanding was also a focal point of the film, and it seemed as though an appropriate subtitle would have been, “Everything you don’t know about Haiti and by the way we have a lot more than earthquake damage and vodou here but, indeed, we do have a lot of those things as well” or something like this. It was very much a film that knew its audience.

One particularly well done aspect of the film was the wide range of interviews conducted. From vodou priests/priestesses, to Haitian sociologues/economistes, to young kids living in the bad part of town, to the jaded American aid workers (including Sean Penn?), to the cynical but wise (drunken?) fonctionnaire (that guy is everywhere, what is it with that guy?), to historian Laurent Dubois (‘heck yes!’ for those of you who work on Caribbean history). And this is one of the things that they are all both demonstrating and saying, which is (to paraphrase) : “There are an infinite number of viewpoints in/on Haiti – some of them better than others.” And they create a fully-formed, comprehensible picture of current Haiti and how it got there.

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RIDM Screening 30: The Square

This was my first screening so far of the  Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal and I can safely say that it was fantastic way to start.

the square

First, a word on the festival:

Since 1998, the RIDM has been bringing filmmakers from Quebec, and from around the world, to the city of Montreal for about a ten-day span to expose their work to eager audiences and also to hold small workshops. While this is my first year attending the RIDM, one of the first things you notice is the collective atmosphere.

Before the beginning of the film, the large audience was greeted by a representative, first apologizing for the director’s absence (apparently this film is in the process of becoming almost unmanageably popular and she was needed elsewhere but was really sad not to make it), and secondly inviting us all to a party. Apparently partying and hanging out with the directors is a big part of the overall experience. Hey, I’m all for that.

Another quick, coup-d’oeil observation is the fantastic selection. While there is an emphasis on Quebecois and Canadian directors, it is truly a worldwide collection of documentaries. Now, obviously, I’m going to hit all the Caribbean and African films so stay tuned.

A pretty big sell for me is that, thanks to funding from the National Film Board of Canada (by the way, USA, what the crap, you don’t have a national film board? This is amazing! Dude, in Canada, the government will FUND your intelligent social commentary in the form of film. Do you even, like, … Canada, do you get how awesome it is to BE YOU???) … okay, like I was saying, thanks to the NFB, students and seniors can attend all matinees for free, y’all. Free. Amazing…

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