Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Freedom Maze, by Delia Sherman

Lobster & Canary was at the November 22nd book launch party at The Center for Fiction (NYC) for Delia Sherman's The Freedom Maze (published by Small Beer Press's Big Mouth House imprint).

We have not yet finished the book, but it promises to be one of the best for 2011. (Don't just take our word on that: Kirkus Reviews has already selected The Freedom Maze as a best children's book of the year, and strongly positive advance reviews are in from--among others-- Alaya Dawn Johnson, Gregory Maguire, Cory Doctorow, Holly Black, N.K. Jemisin, Jane Yolen, Nisi Shawl and Terri Windling).
It's a time-travel story with some great twists. It provides us with a set of powerful lenses through which to explore, imagine and think about race and gender-- in the antebellum South and as that period continues to impact the present day.

Here's the synopsis Small Beer supplies (you can download the first chapter at the Small Beer site by clicking here):

"Set against the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and then just before the outbreak of the Civil War, The Freedom Maze explores both political and personal liberation, and how the two intertwine.

In 1960, thirteen-year-old Sophie isn’t happy about spending summer at her grandmother’s old house in the Bayou. But the house has a maze Sophie can’t resist exploring once she finds it has a secretive and playful inhabitant.

When Sophie, bored and lonely, makes an impulsive wish inspired by her reading, hoping for a fantasy adventure of her own, she slips one hundred years into the past, to the year 1860. On her arrival she makes her way, bedraggled and tanned, to what will one day be her grandmother’s house, where she is at once mistaken for a slave."

You can read more about Delia at her site by clicking here.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Shahzia Sikander & Du Yun at Sikkema Jenkins

Shahzia Sikander's current show at Sikkema, Jenkins (in NYC's Chelsea) includes a 10-minute animated video projected on a large wall, entitled Last Post, with accompanying music by Du Yun.

The animation is kaleidoscopic, constantly changing, with forms collapsing and fragmenting, colors shifting, ghostly calligraphy floating in the background. The main character is an English East India Company officer, at first stolidly implanted within the world of a Mughal miniature painting, then balancing precariously and ultimately dissolving. Jewel-like shapes detach themselves, become floating corpuscles--to our eye the opium derived from the poppy and shipped from India to China in the 19th century.

The music is perfectly suited to the images; one is lured into the viewing room-- which is separate from the large, open main gallery-- by the deep, melancholy themes. Together, moving images & flowing music, tell a story of transcultural exchange, of disparities in power and unbalanced power, of decay and renewal.

Above all, Sikander (trained at the National College of Arts, Lahore before moving to RISD, and living now in NYC) and Yun (trained at the Shanghai Conservatory before moving to Oberlin and Harvard, and living now in NYC) are superb at re-contextualizing traditional forms and at mixing different genres without resorting to pastiche or the lowest common denominator. In this, they remind Lobster & Canary of Yinka Shonibare and of Kehinde Wiley, artists who are in the vanguard of our emerging globalized world, knitting us together while retaining the granular, organic individuality of each of us and the authenticity of our constituent local cultures.

As Sikander puts it in an artist statement on the Sikkema, Jenkins site:

"I find the terminology and the referencing of work in terms of an east and west paradigm, simplistic and dated. It robs the work of all nuances in meaning. In fact these days the world is small and one should really consider work in terms of some sort of global context of ideas. Work I believe should stand on its own, irrespective of geography."

For more Sikander, click here and click here (a filmed conversation between Sikander and MoMA director Glenn Lowry).

For more Du Yun, click here (scroll far down on the right-hand side to check out her list of influences!).

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Berman, Delany, Hairston, Hernandez, Johnson & Kushner at The Center for Fiction (NYC): Celebrating Le Guin

Last month The Center for Fiction in midtown Manhattan presented a reading series as part of the NEA's Big Read (in partnership with Arts Midwest) celebrating Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea. (The Center is an elegant haven for books and book-lovers in the midst of Manhattan's roar and hustle, reminding Lobster & Canary of the wizard's school on the island of Roke in Le Guin's Earthsea; visit the Center, support the Center.) Click here and here for information on the entire series. Lobster & Canary was in the audience October 24th for one of the panels: "Outsiders In/Of Science Fiction and the Fantastic," moderated by Ellen Kushner, and featuring Steve Berman, Samuel R. Delany, Andrea Hairston, Carlos Hernandez, and Alaya Dawn Johnson.

The panel was everything such an event should be, i.e., a warm, smart and authentic conversation both among the panelists and with audience members, deftly moderated; a lively give-&-take, laced with inclusive humor.

Kushner launched the discussion by asking whether speculative fiction is inherently an "outsider genre." Lobster & Canary is happy to report that we could not discern a clear consensus among the many and quickening responses (what a dull panel it would have been had a consensus emerged). The garden simply has too many blooms--as Le Guin notes in her essay collection, Cheek by Jowl (referenced by Hairston on the panel), fantasy is necessarily about "reinventing the world of intense, unreproducible, local knowledge" as a way to deny or refute simplistic conclusions, false unanimity and soul-flattening homogenization.

Or perhaps there was agreement that spec fic is intrinsically outsider art but the panel was eager to move on to two other (related) questions:

* Is spec fic friendly to writers other than straight white males (corollary: friendlier than other genres)?

* Is the boundary between speculative fiction and other forms of fiction (what Delany called here "Big Lit") clear, hierarchical and fenced?

Not surprisingly, opinions varied on both themes. Responses were thoughtful and nuanced inside their "yes but..." and "maybe, sometimes" wrappers. Le Guin was the stalking horse throughout, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Lathe of Heaven referred to as much as or more than The Wizard of Earthsea, the critical essayist of "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" and The Wave in the Mind as honored as the novelist.

A few flowers from the garden:

Berman suggested that the speculative elements in a story are akin to the tools a carpenter uses, that speculation is not present merely as either ornamentation or an end in itself, but as a means to address deeper societal issues.

Hairston spoke of spec fic as writing in the subjunctive, the "what might be." She interleaved that concept with the drive to identify and then recover what we have lost, the right and need to imagine worlds when "the film stock has dissolved" in ours. She also reminded us that, even with super powers, there is no guarantee that one will be able to change the world-- spec fic is not simple escapism or wish fulfillment.

Johnson emphasized the playful use of spec fic to "twist the world," to see what the twisting reveals about how we live today, and how we might live otherwise now or in the future.

Johnson also highlighted (citing David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas as an example) that the boundaries between speculative fiction and the other kind appear to be getting more porous, as genre fiction experiments with literary techniques and mainstream fiction adopts speculative tropes.

Delany took a less sanguine view, arguing that the border is very real and patrolled by power brokers who only now and then allow, say, a Vonnegut up and through. He used Sturgeon as the counter-example of a great writer who has gone unheralded by "Big Lit."

Hernandez turned the map inside out, leaving the border police ineffectively guarding checkpoints that no longer matter, by saying all fiction is speculative--it is just that self-proclaimed spec fic writers are more honest about what they are up to.

The fact that The Center for Fiction hosted the Le Guin series suggests that the borders may be fairly open, or at least that visas are no longer necessary. (But see the P.S. to this entry). The panel discussed Nabokov, Flaubert and Morrison along side Russ, Disch, and of course Le Guin.

Lobster & Canary regrets only that we were unable to attend the other panels and readings in the series!

P.S. Then again, perhaps Delany is right to be skeptical of claims about genuine understanding and rapprochement between Spec Lit and Big Lit. Four days after this panel, Glen Duncan opened his review of Colson Whitehead's Zone One in The New York Times Book Review this way: "A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star. It invites forgivable prurience: What is that relationship like? Granted the intellectual’s hit hanky-panky pay dirt, but what’s in it for the porn star? Conversation? Ideas? Deconstruction?" *Sigh*