Welcome to the Cardi Party

‘The “secret” to her success is that she is able to simultaneously be and represent different things to different people’

Over Super Bowl weekend, Cardi B cheerfully eclipsed this year’s televised halftime show by appearing in Atlanta at a series of related events that only underscored her steadfast refusal to take the stage inside the stadium in protest of the NFL’s continued blackballing of Colin Kaepernick. Only Cardi B seems able to dominate a news cycle as much by what she doesn’t do as by what she does. Continue reading “Welcome to the Cardi Party”

Aretha: The Voice of America

It may be difficult for anyone born after 1980 to fully grasp how important Aretha Franklin has been to America. There is simply no longer any national context or political narrative that adequately explains it. She began as just a small girl whose remarkable voice was big enough to convey all the frustrated yearnings of an oppressed people, and all the unfulfilled promise of a great nation. We no longer inhabit the kind of world that gave shape, depth, and momentum to Franklin’s career — my own experiential understanding of America has more in common with that of my grandmother, who was born in 1888, than with people who hit their teens or twenties during the 21st century. Continue reading “Aretha: The Voice of America”

Harlan Ellison, 1934-2018

‘The consistency with which Ellison wrote smart,
complex stories in his own unique voice stands out
as proof that he belongs in the mainstream literary
canon as much as Poe, Camus, Baldwin, or Austen’

Most of the early obits about award-winning writer, teacher, activist, and legendary cultural gadfly Harlan Ellison center on a long biographical checklist. His beloved father died when he was young; he was bullied daily at grammar school in Painesville, Ohio; he became a serial adolescent runaway; he took on diverse working-class jobs to survive; he served two unhappy years in the Army, then was expelled from Ohio State University for insubordination; was fired from Disney on his first day there as a writer after making playfully profane jokes about the animated characters trademarked by the Mouse House. None of these details speak to what Harlan would have called “the work”; and I would say, as Ellison sometimes did, only his work matters. Continue reading “Harlan Ellison, 1934-2018”

Catching Up With the Next Generation of Sci-Fi Writers

‘In a community that attracts atheists, Wiccans,
CIA agents, physicists, semioticians, libertines,
libertarians, and unrepentant Trotskyites, one
might anticipate a few political debates’

Ever wonder where new science fiction writers come from? Typically, the best ones emerge from its readership. This would include video gamers and other genre media fans whose love for a broad spectrum of imaginative literature is both critical and obsessive. SF fandom (the initials here meaning “speculative fiction” to capture all flavors of fantasy and science fiction in one easy acronym) incubates its own future. Continue reading “Catching Up With the Next Generation of Sci-Fi Writers”

In Celebration of Ursula Le Guin’s Fantastic Legacy

The late author was obsessed with the nuances of language, and how words can shape the beliefs and behavior of entire civilizations

Scholar, poet, translator, essayist, teacher, and fantasist Ursula K. Le Guin was working right up until her death in Portland, Oregon, last week at the age of 88. 2017 saw the release of her latest book of nonfiction essays, and she had recently finished collaborating on a crowdfunded film and an authorized biography, when mortality snuck up and shocked her fans with her premature departure. As a writer, a teacher, and a role model, she will be missed. Continue reading “In Celebration of Ursula Le Guin’s Fantastic Legacy”

In Victor LaValle’s “The Changeling,” a Fairy Tale Gets Hard-Boiled

The Changeling
By Victor LaValle
Spiegel & Grau, 448 pp.

Historically speaking, this has always been a mad, mad world, but the 21st century reveals the hallucinatory essence of each day’s “new normal” more vividly than even visionaries like Guy Debord or William Gibson could have predicted. Today’s global societies are not only multilingual and multicultural, but multi-perceptual as well. To accurately reflect this truth in fiction, writers must become so sensitive to pluralistic points of view that their storytelling speaks of, for, and to multiple perspectives at once. Because speculative genres like fantasy, horror, and science fiction specialize in exploring unusual perspectives via myth and metaphor, the literature of “what if” is potentially more useful to any truly ambitious author than the starchy literature of “what is.” Continue reading “In Victor LaValle’s “The Changeling,” a Fairy Tale Gets Hard-Boiled”

Martine Syms’s Interactive MoMA Installation Explores the Tyranny of Screens

After entering “Projects 106: Martine Syms” at MoMA, you might not know where to begin. Surrounded by walls adorned with collaged photographs, vintage movie posters, and cryptic graffiti sit a trio of outward-facing video screens; three wire benches encircle the triangle of screens at the center of the room. Smartphone-wielding visitors can take advantage of an augmented-reality app that was custom-designed by the artist to interact with the exhibit; those without such devices may find themselves wondering what the “phone zombies” next to them are up to. On the screens are episodic segments of Incense, Sweaters, and Ice, Syms’s feature-length piece about the impact of migration, work, and digital media on people’s sense of identity and community. The movie uses text-screen animations, video vérité, and stylized film footage to weave together issues of race, class, gender, and economics. It also prioritizes interactivity: A scene will appear on one screen only to end abruptly and move to another. The resulting circumambulation — like the random migrations of the room’s phone zombies — is simultaneously bizarre and exciting. Continue reading “Martine Syms’s Interactive MoMA Installation Explores the Tyranny of Screens”

Nova Ruth Wants to Free Us From the Bondage of Slavery

On YouTube you can find a video of Javanese soul singer Nova Ruth singing “Perbatasan” (Indonesian for “Borderline”) from the back of a pedicab driven by her American-born collaborator, Grey Filastine. Strings of lights draped on the pedicab illuminate a world of endless roads and fragile vehicles in an unnamed Indonesian city, while English subtitles translate lyrics about the alternating hope and despair of contemporary war refugees. The rhythmic and melodic structure of the song is based on the circular polyphonics of Javanese gamelan, while the digital loops and noise-filtered string mosaics evoke Migos as much as Philip Glass. Continue reading “Nova Ruth Wants to Free Us From the Bondage of Slavery”

Rakim, Marly Marl, Roxanne Shanté, and Other Rap Pioneers Celebrate Forty Years of Hip-Hop

Four decades ago, when the Bronx was famously burning, one nightclub brought together the boogie-down borough’s dancing queens, hustlers, graffiti kids, turntable ninjas, and fledgling MCs under one roof. “It was just Sal’s place up in the Bronx where it all went down, where everybody in the whole rap industry used to go hang out,” Marley Marl says. “Whenever Sal has a celebration, I’m always down to keep the Fever spirit alive.” Continue reading “Rakim, Marly Marl, Roxanne Shanté, and Other Rap Pioneers Celebrate Forty Years of Hip-Hop”

The Wildly Surrealist Stories of Leonora Carrington

The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington
By Leonora Carrington
Dorothy Project, 232 pp., $16
Down Below
By Leonora Carrington
New York Review of Books, 112 pp., $14
The Milk of Dreams
By Leonora Carrington
New York Review of Books, 56 pp., $15.95

April 6, 2017, marked the centennial of artist and writer Leonora Carrington’s birth. A British-born textile heiress who ran away from her parents, her inheritance, and bourgeois conformity to join the Surrealist carnival in Paris at the age of twenty, Carrington proceeded, like many iconoclastic Surrealist women, to build a legendary life around her own imagination. Although American biographers, art galleries, and museum curators have been raising Carrington’s public profile since the mid-1980s, she only continues to attract curiosity and admiration in the 21st century. Continue reading “The Wildly Surrealist Stories of Leonora Carrington”