11 November 2017

[This is a post explaining a few of the methods & sources I used to write a literally-translated wine list.]

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14 February 2014

Some seasonally-appropriate tunes for all of you who are trapped inside walls of ice and already opening the second bottle. Here’s love as: something you can lock out, or be invulnerable to if you’re cold enough, or not human; a curse, a poison, a way to get revenge; ten gin-and-tonics; some kind of joke; a hungry bear.

1. Unbelievers // VAMPIRE WEEKEND
2. I’m gonna lock my heart // BILLIE HOLIDAY
3. Nothing but a heartache // THE FLIRTATIONS
4. Misery loves company // BLACKFEET BRAVES
5. Aftermath // SZA
7. Standard bitter love song #8  // THE MOUNTAIN GOATS
8. We sink  // CHVRCHES
9. Stepping over hearts  // INSIGHTFUL
10. Get lucky  // DAUGHTER
12. No one’s gonna love you as much  // NICOLE WILLIS & THE SOUL INVESTIGATORS
13. I don’t believe you  // THE MAGNETIC FIELDS
14. Don’t fuck around with love // THE BLENDERS

Download here.

November’s facts

2 December 2013

fact checking in action

Fact-checking detritus from various freelance assignments last month, culled from a lifetime in service to the truth.

From Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing: “Raised in a Kauai geodesic dome by two surfing parents, Keala Kennelly has an untouchable reputation as the sport’s most fearless tuberider. […] Breaking rank from the girlish ‘surfette’ look that all but defined women’s surfing in the ’90s and early ’00s, Kennelly was a leather-clad and tongue-studded nightclubber who moonlighted as a DJ and often looked, as surf journalist Alison Berkeley put it, like ‘a sinister Disney cartoon character.’”

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5 August 2013

Fact-checking a story is getting lost in rabbit-holes of one kind or another. After a while you start to take amusements of a very particular kind: dry, pedantic, maybe totally incomprehensible. In this case, I was looking for the most accurate possible version of a quotation attributed to Wole Soyinka. There is no reason for you to find this  interesting, but I find endless minor variations on a theme kind of relaxing. You see the phrase, originally specific and tied to history, get polished down into a maxim that’s portable and casually deployed, you see every writer wear out the word “famous.”  Was it a quip or statement, criticism or aphorism? 1976, or 1967, or 1962? Did the tiger pounce or leap or jump or strike? Eventually, tragically, hilariously, it ends up credited, in three different books of quotations, as “an African proverb.”

Here we go:

The reaction of the first generation of Anglophone writers in the 1960s to the older tradition of French Négritude theory is usefully, if crudely, summed up by the often quoted remark of Wole Soyinka that ‘a tiger does not proclaim its tigritude.’

…and it is hard not to sympathize with Wole Soyinka’s famous criticism that ‘a tiger does not proclaim its tigritude.’

Hence Wole Soyinka’s now famous maxim: “A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude.”

Soyinka expressed this in his famous statement that ‘a tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces.’

I am reminded of Wole Soyinka who points out that in a free environment a tiger does not proclaim its tigritude, a tiger jumps on its prey.

The future Nobel laureate from Nigeria proclaimed, “The tiger does not proclaim its tigritude. It leaps on its prey.”

“A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude before it strikes.” These words, coined by Nigerian playwright and activist Wole Soyinka …

Wole Soyinka (1934–), Nigerian writer. “Does a tiger feel its tigritude?” on the use of the word ‘negritude’; often quoted in the form ‘A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude—he pounces’ in Time magazine, 17 November 1967

This is the meaning of Soyinka’s well-known aphorism that the Tiger does not need to proclaim its Tigritude, it just pounces. A Tiger, we note, has an immutable identity rooted in genetics.

One should also note that Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian dramatist, and Mphahlele, the South African writer-scholar, once vocal anti-négritude voices, have moved away from a narrow reading of the notion. Soyinka’s statement, that a tiger does not proclaim its tigritude but jumps, became the play word of the anti-negritude school.

“A tiger does not shout its tigritude,” Soyinka argued, “it acts.”

“Négritude? A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude.” — Wole Soyinka, 1976

Soyinka’s disagreement with the Négritude tenets was summed up by his famous remark made in 1964 at a conference in Berlin: A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces.

The quip graduated into the celebrated adage about tiger and tigritude at the African Writers Conference at Kampala (Uganda) in 1962.

As Wole Soyinka would say, a tiger does not have to proclaim its tigritude. Neither does Mandela.

Nigerian proverb: A tiger does not have to proclaim its tigritude.

There is an African proverb that says, the “Tiger does not have to proclaim its Tigritude.”

…whose criticism of the movement is summarised in Soyinka’s famous aphorism that Le tigre ne proclâme pas sa tigritude; il saute sur sa proie. (A tiger doesn’t proclaim its ‘tigerness’; it jumps on its prey.) The problem this paper sees in this assertion is that if a tiger has been tamed over the years not to be conscious of its natural instincts or capacities, then it would lose its ability to feed itself.

Soyinka: “un tigre ne proclame pas sa tigritude— il bondit” (a tiger doesn’t proclaim his ‘tigerness’—he springs!).

And I remember too Soyinka’s smile when I asked him last year in Hanover, in what terms exactly had he put his phrase about the tiger, about how it does not proclaim its tigritude; I remember what he told me—after repeating his phrase and throwing in another reference to the eagle that does not proclaim its eagletude—that such preoccupations are known only to Francophone Africans.

It turns out, by the way, that the earliest recorded instance I can find of Soyinka taking this phrase out for a spin is a 1960 essay for the Horn, “The Future of West African Writing,”: “And if we would speak of ‘negritude’ in a more acceptable broader sense, Chinua Achebe is a more ‘African’ writer than Senghor. The duiker will not paint ‘duiker’ on his beautiful back to proclaim his duikeritude; you’ll know him by his elegant leap.” Or to put it another way:

Soyinka’s famous put-down of Negritude (“a tiger does not have to proclaim his tigritude”) apparently originated in this remark on the duiker and duikeritude, of which it must have been a perversion, tigers being no more indigenous to Africa than surrealist French poetry.


Some sources:

Being Black, Being Human: More Essays on Black Culture, Femi Ojo Ade
Black Odysseys: The Homeric Odyssey in the African Diaspora Since 1939, Justine McConnell
Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin
Marxism and African Literature, ed. Georg M. Gugelberger
National Consciousness in Russian Literature, Gamel Nasser Adam
“Negritude: New and Old Perspectives,” Lewis Nkosi
Research on Wole Soyinka, ed. James Gibbs, Bernth Lindfors
The Routledge Book of World Proverbs
“The Senghor Complex,” Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing, Patrice Nganang
Toward a Critical Realist Reading of African and African Diaspora Literatures, Dokubo M. Goodhead
The World Contracted to Recognizable Images, Edrik Joel Lopez
World Musics in Context, Peter Fletcher

I remember

2 August 2013

I remember that one of the twelve-year-olds I taught at camp told me that the rat king in the Nutcracker ballet with the three heads and the glowing red eyes had scared her; to make herself feel better she thought about the person inside the costume and how nervous they must be to be out in front of all those people.


27 July 2013

Here are some sentences I read in print recently and liked enough to go to the trouble of copying out:

‘You still have a queen,’ the lady checking museum tickets remarked. ‘So why don’t you cut her throat? Kings and queens are pointless, cost a fortune.’

Famously, when opening his club, The Establishment, in Soho in 1961, Cook remarked that he was modeling it on ‘those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.’

‘We learned to tap a keg,’ declared Representative Steven Palazzo, a Mississippi Republican and Sigmi Chi brother, who then yelled a cheer as hundreds of FratPAC donors applauded.

Mr. Shuppert disputed Ms. Ward’s charges, attributing the ‘sex noises’ to the garden’s full-throated bullfrogs.

Many here say the tango’s blending of passion and brooding perfectly expresses the Finnish soul.

In the entrance to the exhibit we see a video of punks ‘pogoing,’ which was a dance that was jumping up and down.

If, after a second highball, it brought tears to his eyes, he would recommend publication.


Sources:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Four months into a day job polishing wineglasses (rarely filling them):

Champagne smells like burnt toast; Riesling, hot tar or gasoline. A certain dry Tokaj, on the nose: orange Gatorade. Wine can smell like violet candies, menthol cigarettes, jalapeños, and nail polish remover. It can taste like fresh-cut grass, beef jerky, and licking a chalkboard.

People get weird about wine—self-deprecating jokes about how they don’t possibly know as much as you, or jockeying displays of expertise to impress their dates, or sudden strident displays of opinion. A seven-hundred-and-fifty milliliter bottle is, among other things, an agricultural product derived from grape juice; a good way to get liquored up with a friend; a luxury good, like a designer handbag; and an internationally-traded commodity, like pork bellies.

Farmers planted vines on steep, rocky slopes because the land wasn’t good for anything else; wine was the lunchtime drink of peasants. Champagne only exists because the climate wasn’t right for straight-ahead wine, so they had to fuck with the process to make something drinkable. The village council of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, convinced that their vineyards were being raided by extraterrestials, passed a law in 1954 prohibiting the “flying overhead, landing, and taking off” of flying saucers or cigares volants (flying cigars)

Malbec is overdone. Slovenia overperforms. Tannins do not get along with goat cheese. You can switch back to white after a bottle of red, why not? You feel acid at the hinge of your jaw, residual sugar on the tip of your tongue, tannins in your gums. The American oak barrels in which Rioja is traditionally aged make it smell like dill and coconut suntan lotion. A bowling-pin bottle shape called a ‘skittle’ takes its name from an English lawn game.


6 October 2011

Price of “Invisible Jim,” an empty doll-shaped package, from a U.S. toy manufacturer: $3

Harper’s Index, Aug ’01

Working on becoming visible any day now.


19 April 2010

Atlas Sheet 10, Gerhard Richter (1962).

Thinking about this & that, but none of it seems worth a whole piece of writing. I keep running into groups of British tourists stranded in northern Spain by the Icelandic volcano, and I imagine a world in which planes are forever grounded, England inaccessible apart from tunnel & ferry. Strawberries & lilies are in season, & my morning paper reports a new round of ETA-related arrests — 10 people in Bilbao, including lawyers & members of the organization’s political apparatus.

What else? I’ve been checking out a movie a day from that library, too. Very few Spanish films to choose from — with notable exceptions, the bulk of the collection is newish American movies & John Wayne westerns.

The Dark Knight (2008) — Spanish title is El Caballero Oscuro, which if you translate it backwards comes out something like The Shadowy Gentlemen. Rewatching it, I realized I’d forgotten Alfred’s colonial Burmese past, in all of its glancingly referenced weirdness — even to the point of his euphemistic reason for being there (“my friends and I were working for the local government”). And how does one fit together the dour punchline of the first anecdote (“Some men just want to see the world burn”) with the second (“We burned the forest down”)? Just who, exactly, is just looking to see the world burn? And why is there no other sane option for raiding British-sponsored caravans aside from wanting jewels, as though anticolonial insurgents must be either greedy or insane? — of course, if you can’t reason with them, there’s nothing to be done but lock them up on islands indefinitely. I always forget whether this film wants to make me think the Joker is a member of Al-Qaeda.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) — Speaking of insurgencies against the British motivated by neither rubies nor world-burning. I saw the first fifteen minutes of this on Spanish television last year, and it’s radically deformed by dubbing, even more so than usual — Gaellic & English are both rendered in equally accented Castellano, which flattens the film immeasurably & turns that opening scene senseless. Very, very difficult to watch violence rendered with such naturalism — no music, lots of clumsy fumbling, few cuts. I watched Syriana last night, too, which means that I’ve seen men have their fingernails pulled off with pliers twice in the last week.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) — The final shot, holding that lead bird & saying that it’s the “stuff dreams are made of”! Not having seen it before, I was surprised, actually, at how much of an unmoored asshole Sam Spade is allowed to be, even accounting for noir-typical misogyny. Usually when your partner dies, it’s supposed to be a blow, not an excuse to avoid his wife & repaint the windows. Poor Peter Lorre — I always see him playing the same variant on the creepy, unspecified foreigner. I guess being a Hungarian Jew means that in 1940s Hollywood you might as well be from Anywhere.

And finally, an attempt at cataloging the English-language books in the Bilbao municipal library, Casco Viejo branch:

There are 85 books in the collection. They include a surprising smattering of recently published literary fiction — to wit: Amy Bloom’s Away, Peter Carey’s Oscar & Lucinda, Ha Jin’s War Trash, Marilynne Robinson’s Gideon, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace — that makes me picture a single reader, some expat who ended up donating the books because they weighed too much. Also, The Confederacy of Dunces. No canonized modernists of the kind taught in high schools (Hemingway, Joyce, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Woolf), no Twain or James, no poetry of any kind. Of David Foster Wallace’s Great Male Narcissists (Roth, Mailer, Updike), we have one Updike novel — Marry Me — and no David Foster Wallace, either. Aside from Coetzee, no postmodernists of any stripe, actually, not even Paul Auster, who’s very popular here in translation. No African-Americans, not even Ellison or Baldwin or Morrison. No Orwell, & no dystopias not Orwellian. The British 19th century is represented by a single copy of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities — no Austen, no Eliot, no Brontë, no Shelley, etc. etc.

This has, inadvertently, become a catalogue of omission (and the catalogue of omissions will itself be incomplete, & inadvertently reveal my own blindnesses). So what is there? Genre fiction, of course: 1 Patricia Cornwell, 1 Sue Grafton, 1 Robert Ludlum, 1 Michael Connelly. But — no Clancy, no Michener, not even a pure hack like Balducci, and, in the collection I surveyed, no hint of Dan Brown. No Dick Francis, no Agatha Christie. No fantasy or science fiction that I recognized (not even Tolkein, not even Bradbury).

Perhaps most unnerving: among this catalogue of omissions & recognitions, I’ve only been able to name 12 books. (I should correct: 14. I checked out an omnibus collection of three John Banville novels and Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire). In other words, 71 of the books are unrecognizable to me to the point that I can’t even arrange or classify them. These 71 nameless, unclassifiable books include what looks like a trilogy of romance novels set in ancient Egypt, and a book whose cover design suggests that I should know it but don’t. The next time I sit down to emend this catalogue (I’ve been reading too much Perec), it’ll already be a futile gesture; books will have been checked out & returned in the interim, and who knows what I’ll find?

Now that I’ve got some detritus out of my system, we’ll see if I can’t write something with a throughline soon.


4 March 2010

I write often, here, or at least it seems like often, about how indeterminate fluency in a language feels, like kneeling down to grab fistfuls of water, how speaking well approaches & recedes in equal measure. This is maybe something only us monolingual kids get really neurotic about, because up until Language No. 2 it’s all binary, you speak or you don’t, & I don’t know if this is really a noticeable preoccupation (in the same way, I mean) for people who live & speak in multiple languages.

These are a few things I think about: The way that, if I speak English heavily for a day, I have a kind of linguistic hangover, & my Spanish comes out more sluggish & grasping than usual the next morning. The way that a conversation is like a dance, it depends to an extent on your partner filling in the gaps or adding on or following you, so that you speak better & more fluidly with native speakers than with your foreign friends, unconsciously emulating or echoing them.

It’s funny, too, the way that people modulate the way they speak depending on how fluent they think you are, which if they don’t know you can swing on things totally unrelated to your actual speaking ability, like your accent, or whether you make a small error too early, or whether it’s loud in the room & you don’t hear what they said the first time and ask them to repeat it.

Accents, actually — rhythm, language-as-music, sounds between words — make a big difference. Last year I could pass for a local for five or ten seconds at a spell — I had the local Jaén accent, a few expressions & fillers pitch-perfect, & while over a long conversation I’d show something, a word slightly americanized, a misgendered noun, etc etc . . . here, I’ve had to relearn my fillers, pronounce the s at the end. Asking for things & being immediately understood is getting the rhythm right, not the words, because it’s a certain formula that’s expected, not content, & if you deviate from that, if you haven’t learned it, then they have to slow down and dial in & listen to what you’re saying, it’s harder. Little things, like asking for un crianza instead of una, because the gender comes from the unvoiced part of the phrase, you’re really asking for un tinto de crianza.

You can tell you’re getting better when people stop saying, Pero hablas muy bien, eh? People tell you that you’re speaking very well when they notice the effort, they’re encouraging you. After a certain point, after they’re understanding you without effort, they forget that you’re a foreigner speaking the language, they stop saying so altogether.

I know I’ve been speaking too much English when someone compliments me on my Spanish. I smile, say thanks, inwardly I’m saying to myself, Natch, not again. I must have messed something up.