New York, Writing

I am currently housesitting for a friend in New York for a couple of weeks.  There is such a pleasure in the change of pace of working in this city after a month of writing in rural Virginia.

I am finding during this stage of the book writing process a strong inclination toward introversion.  In my borrowed New York City apartment, I read for hours every morning, take long walks around the neighborhood, through the Botanical Gardens, the park.  I read random articles and book snippets in the Brooklyn Public Library and in bookstores and from an abandoned copy of the New York Times at a nearby cafe.  I text my friend Erin and tell her what I plan to work on in my book that day.

Otherwise, I am so happy to be alone with my thoughts.

There is so much labor involved in book-writing.  So much time that is pure work, so much thinking and inhabiting and imagining.  I need so deeply to be alone with both the work of bookwriting, and the sometimes unrelated thinking that surrounds it.

In these years after my divorce, these unexpected years of my early thirties, I seem to be living in each span of months.  Planning my life in spurts of centeredness and certainty.  I do not know what the next spurt will bring me.  I know only the rightness of this moment.  And that I will need this time alone with my thinking in order to get to whatever’s next ahead of me.

Current Reading: Euphoria

I just finished reading Lily King’s fantastic new novel Euphoria, based loosely on events in the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead.  Inspired by the brief months in 1933 when Mead conducted fieldwork in New Guinea along with her second and third husbands, King changes the three characters’ names — and aspects of their lives and outcomes.

I read Euphoria outside on the back porch over the course of the last few weeks.  It’s one of those books I’ve read slowly by design.  There’s a lot Lily King does here that I want to absorb.

King keeps a close lens on her three characters, chronicling their mounting sexual tensions and the tight, confined spaces they occupy. There’s a compression in the storytelling: the novel takes place over the course of just a few months in remote villages linked only by “tiny dark canal(s)” and “close corridor(s).”  This compression creates a tension so taught the novel veritably vibrates.

Yet beyond these threads of narrative momentum is the fascination and sheer pleasure of the characters’ anthropological thinking.  And our interest is not limited to the vivid, enticing exoticism of the fictional cultures the characters are studying, which we glimpse through the periphery of the novel’s unfolding.  Even greater pleasure comes from the characters’ intellectual calibrations, their grappling with  anthropological methods and theory, their attempts to redefine their places in the evolving field of anthropological endeavor.  Bankson (the fictionalized character based on Mead’s third husband) problematizes the role of the anthropologist in a way that anticipates modern anthropological thinking.  And there is a nuance and expansiveness of thought in Nell (King’s Margaret Mead character).  She integrates her progressive thinking about agency and perception into innovative new field practices with a confidence that feels staggering.

King changes a lot about the three characters’ life stories — improvising certain hidden aspects of their backgrounds, wildly changing their endings.  And yet I wonder whether her portrayal of their intellectual lives alone might serve as an impetus to change the characters’ names.  It’s a heady business to fabricate and inhabit a serious thinker’s thought.  And Mead is in King’s rendering, as in life, a formidable thinker about anthropology.

She is also a confident inventor of possibility in her own life story, bold and unrelenting in her willingness to carve out a space for herself and a professional and personal independence.

But in the novel’s ending King departs sharply from Mead’s biography.

{be forewarned: spoilers about the novel’s ending to follow}

Continue reading

Library, Sweet Briar

{Studio, Improvised}

During my VCCA residency, I wound up doing a lot of writing over at Sweet Briar’s library.  Their quiet, wood-paneled browsing room gets flooded with daylight, and I loved working alongside all the lush color and texture of wood and textile.  It wound up being a great space to escape and play through the long draft of the book’s new story.

Sweet Briar Library

Sweet Briar Library

Listening Lately: Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens

On the way down to my VCCA residency last month, I caught this interview with Rhiannon Giddens and have been listening to her new album Tomorrow Is My Turn ever since.

She’s so open in talking about her own creative growth and the development of this latest project.

The album is potent: comprised of a diverse range of songs, it feels cohesive, and therefore radical in its multifaceted, holistic rendering of women’s voices.  And beyond that there is the pleasure of Giddens’ singing and the album’s deft arrangements, the coherence of her various influences.  We can hear on this album her passion for old American music and folk songs, her classical training and the years she’s spent developing and honing her particular talent, the imprint of spirituals and country and swinging downbeat grooves, and the occasional Celtic lilt of her part-time life in Ireland.

Giddens’ choices create an album at once intriguing and provocative, wideranging and empathetic and profoundly evocative.  In honoring this particular assemblage of women and their songs, she crafts what feels like a contemporary mandate.  This album insists on a certain, far-expanded and complicated understanding of where we’ve come from; it makes demands of us now.

(“Waterboy” feels like a particularly apt song to listen to this week as we all struggle to listen better and more empathetically.)

I’ve been particularly loving her renderings of “Black is the Color” and “Last Kind Words,” which sent me into a spiral of research the other night.  This recent piece of long-form journalism from the New York Times Magazine offers particularly valuable insight into this staggering song and the fascinating story behind the two women singers and guitarists who made it.

Museum Picks, VMFA

{Five favorites (+ one)}

On our trip to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Mom and I decided to pick two galleries to visit.  We opted for South Asian and 21st Century.

South Asian art always has such an appeal for me.  I love the architecture and sculpture and textiles.  VMFA has some particularly exceptional pieces, including an entire 19th century pavilion and silk Gujarat textiles so finely embroidered you are reduced to abject admiration of each tiny, precise, vibrant stitch.

Mom read Arabian Nights in its entirety one summer when she was a kid and has had an affinity for its jeweled-toned illustrations since.  So this North Indian / Mughal watercolor and ink illustration appealed to her right away.  Not unlike Scheherazade, this vina-playing yogini has completely captivated her audience.  Check out all those fine lines and darts of bold color.

One of the things I found myself thinking about as we walked through the South Asian gallery is how cross-cultural and geographically interconnected artist creation has always been.  The museum’s curatorial staff believe the illustration is a Mughal copy of a North Indian painting.  The embroidered textile was created in the worldwide embroidery center at Gujarat, which traded textiles to the European market.

After an obstacle-ridden year, Ganesha has had a lot of resonance for me lately as the remover of obstacles.  And in his correlative role as the lord of new ventures and patron of arts and letters, he feels like a good presence to hold onto during this new year of risk-taking and book-writing.  Back in November, when I was just beginning to wrap my head around this new adventure, Mom spent a weekend with me in Baltimore, and we went down to check out the Ganesha at the Walters Art Museum down the street from my apartment.  This week Mom overcame a few of her own big obstacles, so with both of us starting new ventures, this Dancing Ganesha feels fittingly celebratory.

The 21st Century gallery was a great complement to the South Asian collection: equally fabulous and, in its own way, both as spare and as ornamental.  Barry McGee bought empty liquor bottles from nearby San Francisco Mission District hobos and painted them with portraits of their owners.  This clean-lined piece carries a lot of tangled social commentary and resists being reduced into any one, simple message-based meaning.  Yet for all its interest in societal observation, the piece is also deeply human.  The portraits are expressive and startling in their empathetic reach.

Mom and I both stopped to sit for a while with Mickalene Thomas and her Interior: Two Chairs and Fireplace.  The rich pattern and ornamentation of this rhinestoned 1970s-inspired interior has put all kinds of art history into play, including all those early-Nice Matisse interiors I love.

And though we had chosen our two galleries, we couldn’t help but stop briefly in 20th Century to admire Beauford Delaney’s stunning portrait of Marian Anderson*, which is too arresting and luminous and potent not to see in person.

*(And certainly too brilliant for my phone’s camera, so I’ve borrowed this picture of it from VMFA.)

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts / Road Trip

  

With my spring VCCA residency wrapping up, my mother flew down to Richmond to join me for an impromptu mother-daughter road trip back up to the (reportedly still snow-patched) north.

We headed right for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which I’ve been dying to see, and even more so since I found out about the Chihuly glass installation commissioned for their courtyard.  The sculpture garden did not disappoint: lush and green and spacious, and full of modern pieces installed in dynamic interaction with their surrounding space.  People from Richmond had wandered in for lunch at brightly painted cafe tables scattered on the various patios and for picnics on blankets on that hearty green expanse of grass.

We headed up to Amuse for the most sumptuous lunch I’ve had at any museum restaurant (I’m still dreaming of that coq au vin and fresh-baked herbed bread).  And there’s nothing quite like enjoying an exceptional meal with an aerial view of Henry Moore and red glass-reed Chihuly.

Our favorite piece in the garden wound up being Jun Kaneko’s ceramic Untitled, Mission Clay Pittsburgh Project, which you can see in the first picture and which, along with some of Kaneko’s other work, is the largest freestanding sculpture made of clay.  The medium is so unexpected; there is an organic feel to this even form, and Kaneko evokes an expressive depth through the splashed glaze and richly patterned surface.  We were transfixed.

Current Reading

{The Paris Review + Chai Green Tea}

The interview with Hilary Mantel in the new Paris Review is amazing.  And it’s such ridiculously good timing as I work on this book of historical fiction and wrestle through its myriad attendant challenges.

Mantel talks pretty frankly about this writing process:

When I come to write what I call a big scene, especially in… any historical material, I prepare for it.  Whatever I’ve done on that scene, I put aside.  I read all my notes, all my drafts, and all the source material it’s derived from, then I take a deep breath, and I do it.  It’s like walking on stage — with the accompanying stage fright.

And, she continues:

When I’m writing a novel about historical figures, I have to be everybody.  It’s strenuous…. When people are real, though dead,… I consider them my responsibility.

It is a heady business, this writing fiction set in the past.  So happy to have come across this new interview.

Plus, perennially grateful for the stash of green tea my mother sent to Virginia for my residency.  The chai in this blend cuts any bitterness when, writing along mid-scene, I invariably forget and leave it over-steeping.

To the Boathouse

{Lakeside, Sweet Briar}

This spring I’m down at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts for a residency.  I’m already well into a long draft of the book’s second-to-last story. With all the bookwriting, there’s not a lot of mojo left for blog posts.  But there are long walks to the Sweet Briar boathouse with its spindling floors and greening, weather-gnawed clapboards and the music of the lake on those old woodwind pilings.  The perfect antidote to these lengthy days (and late nights) of writing.

Hey Baltimore & DC, What a Weekend!

Baltimore and DC, you all have the best weekend coming.  Jonathan Harper’s new collection Daydreamers comes out tomorrow and One More Page Books in Falls Church is feting the launch with a 5:00 reading and party.  You can (and should) buy this fantastic new book and put it at the top of your list for spring reading.

Daydreamers

The BMA is also getting in on the weekend action with a Contemporary Print Fair on Saturday and Sunday, which is an terrific opportunity to pick up original new art and see and support contemporary talents.

And up the road, the Smith College Club is hosting its inimitable and enormous annual book sale all weekend.

Smith College Book Sale 2015

And because this weekend really is the best, you can continue the party with a Silent Art Auction and Celebration of the Arts gala (complete with emerging performing artists), brought to you from my old friends at the Howard County Arts Council.  Tickets start at just $50 — a steal!