Non-2013 Pop Culture I Discovered Last Year

AV Club recently asked their staff writers and regular readers an interesting question: What’s the Non-2013 pop culture you discovered this year? Well, that got me to thinking because 2013 was a pretty unique year for me in (re)discovering some great non-2013 pop cultural artifacts. I thought I’d take the time and share some of them with you.

I am Cuba (Yo Soy Cuba)

When Turner Classic Movies aired this classic piece of Soviet/Cuban agit-prop back in September, I was in awe. I’d read about how revolutionary this  film was, but I had no idea just how much, so watching it for the first time was a revelation. From the beautiful B&W cinematography to the narration, everything in this film is like a prose poem rich with imagery and music. Told in four separate stories, I Am Cuba takes place just before the Cuban Revolution, and, sparingly, though nonetheless sympathetically, tells the stories of four different people––a young kept woman living in Havana, a revolutionary student, a sugarcane farmer, and a man who joins the revolution after his family is killed. But the real star of the film, of course, is its cinematography. The scene in which a camera soars out of a window and over the city streets as it follows a funeral procession is nothing short of amazing. The dizzying camera movements bring you so fully and so completely into the film that the fourth wall breaks down and you are one with the sights, sounds, smells, and, most importantly, people of Cuba.

Forever Changes, by Love

I’d known for a while now about the 1960s rock band Love, headed by singer/songwriter Arthur Lee, a friend and contemporary of Jimi Hendrix’s, but 2013 was the year I discovered their seminal album Forever Changes. Released in 1968, Forever Changes is very much of its time––L.A. acid rock with off-beat, but deeply inspirational lyrics––yet it has a meditative allure that transcends time. I listened to this album almost non-stop over last summer, its songs, such as the majestic “You Set the Scene,” growing on me with each listen.

Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi

2013 was the year I first heard of Helen Oyeyemi, even though her first novel was published in 2005. Born in Nigeria but raised in Britain, this young writer has quickly made a name for herself in the literary world with novels like White is for Witching, Icarus Girl, and Mr. Fox (2011). Her stories are both literary and fantastic, emotionally resonant yet whimsical. Mr. Fox, for instance, is about a writer, St. John Fox, his imaginary muse, Mary Foxe, and his wife, Daphne. The entire novel is a storytelling competition between Fox and his muse, Mary Foxe, as they deal with the control each has over the other. Oyeyemi’s prose is deceptively simple, belying the density of thought and care in each sentence, but creates a world that is unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

Twin Peaks 

I first saw David Lynch’s Twin Peaks during its original run in 1990, but it wasn’t until I re-watched the entire series on Netflix over the summer that I really came to appreciate it (I was honestly surprised by what I’d forgotten and what I might have missed out on the first go-round). While fans and critics alike mention its weirdness, its cinematic quality, both in cinematography and music, as well as the murder mystery at the heart of the series––Who Killed Laura Palmer?––what struck me during this re-watch was how honestly it portrayed grief. Few TV series or films examine how absurd the bereavement period can be: One moment you’re singing and tapping dancing as if you’re on top of the world and the next you’re in a blubbering heap of tears. As someone who’s lost her sister nearly ten years ago, I can relate. After the networks pushed Lynch and producer Mark Frost to solve Laura Palmer’s murder during its second season (they had originally intended for it to remain unsolved), the show lost its way and veered wildly into territory that was both wacky (and not in a good way) and ridiculous (one storyline involved industrialist Ben Horne having a nervous breakdown and thinking he’s Jefferson Davis during the Civil War). But the series’ finale, directed by Lynch, more than redeemed itself with one of the most bizarre and freaky episodes to ever appear on TV. Twin Peaks was definitely ahead of its time!

New Releases for 2014

The new year is only five days away, which means lots of resolutions that won’t be kept and new releases from the literary press. I’ve put together a partial list of what to expect in the bookstores in the coming year.

Leaving the Sea, by Ben Marcus

Marcus, known for his experimental fiction, returns with a book of short stories that further pushes the boundaries of what prose is capable of doing. It includes the title story about the slow disintegration of a marriage told in one sentence. Expect this to be available January 7.

Haiti Noir 2: The Classics, edited by Edwidge Danticat

Akshashic Press will be releasing their second anthology of classic fiction from Haiti. Edited by author Edwidge Danticat, this new releases will appear in bookstores on January 7.

Carthage, by Joyce Carol Oates

Oates ought to be called the hardest working writer in America. After her novel The Accursed was published last year, she’s publishing a new one, Carthage, on January 21. This involves a missing girl, an Iraqi war vet who becomes the prime suspect in her disappearance, and a town that comes to grips with the horror of death and violence in its midst.

Thirty Girls, by Susan Minot

Minot’s latest book is ripped from the headlines in world events: a young girl who’s abducted by a fundamentalist faction in Uganda; a journalist covering the events there while coping with failed relationships. Their lives intersect. A touchy subject, but we’ll see how Minot handles it with her deft prose. To be published on February 14.

Bark, by Lorrie Moore

In her first collection of short stories since her masterful Birds of America fifteen years ago, Moore’s latest tackles subjects as diverse as the Iraq war, 9/11, divorce, politics, and death and mines how the personal and the political collide in the most unexpected ways. Should hit the bookstores February 25.

 All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengetsu

The author of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air returns with a new book that is a love story between an American woman and an African man in 1970s America. Yet the story delves beyond a simple love story and explores the dislocation of immigrants caused by political violence and sacrifice and the loyalty one feels to his homeland and the people who fought to liberate it. Look for it starting on March 4.

Book of Hours, by Kevin Young

Also to be published on March 4 is Kevin Young’s new book of poetry about death, grief, and the renewal of life. This collection of deeply personal poems covers the death of Young’s father and the birth of a new child with the beautiful, sharp clarity of love and wisdom.

A Year in Recommendations: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

51L3ktA41ZLChimamanda Ngozi Adichie is all in the news now, what with her TED talk a few years ago taking a minor role in Beyoncé’s sneak attack release of her latest album. Featured on the track, “Flawless,” Adichie calls to a better understanding of feminism for young girls today. In her latest novel, Americanah, Adichie tackles with a sharp, satirical edge, not only a feminist call for young, Nigerian women whose only ambitions are to marry rich, but also the incisive observations of immigrant life in both Britain and America. At the heart of her novel is a star-crossed love story. Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love as teens growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, but their ambitions to rise above the meager circumstances of their home country lead them to emigrate to America and Britain, creating a separation that tears them apart physically and emotionally. While Ifemelu thrives in America, navigating our obsessions with race, the language barriers, and odd customs––she is awarded fellowships, jobs, and becomes a successful blogger––she also cannot get past the sinking feeling that she is becoming something she does not want to become: an Americanah, a Nigerian who has become so successfully assimilated into American life that she has forgotten her Nigerian roots. Obinze, likewise, navigates similar paths in Britain, but when his visa runs out he is forced to turn to extralegal means to stay. Eventually he is discovered and is summarily deported back to Lagos, where ironically he benefits financially from a real estate boom. Yet, like Ifemelu, he is unhappy because the life he lives is not the one he envisioned. Years later, older and somewhat wiser, Ifemelu and Obinze cross paths again and their happiness now depends on their willingness to pursue what they both truly desire.

Americanah is a love story, but it is also a sharp, incisive attack against what Adichie also referred to as the “danger of the single story”––that one definition, one way of life, one way of living is ever enough, in our personal lives, in our politics, and especially in our stories.

The Writing Life: Writing, Rejection, and Perseverance

Rejection is a necessary hazard in writing, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier. When an essay I submitted a year ago was rejected, I received a form letter along with the manuscript in my carefully folded SASE. It read as follows:

Dear Cynthia,

Thank you for sending us your article query. It was read carefully and given our full consideration. Unfortunately, it misses the mark for our pages.

The glories of a rejection form letter!

I understand that editors don’t have the time to respond to every submission that lands on their slush pile, but I’m still at a loss at the rejection. I wrote the essay specifically for that magazine. I’d bought and subscribed to it for years. I thought it fit with their general interest. But apparently I missed the mark.

How a story or article gets chosen often depends on convenience rather than quality. I’ve read that university press journals will often tip the balance toward submissions from MFA students over non-MFA students since the MFA programs are essentially the only thing funding the journals. It’s become a pay it forward system for the literary world. In another account an editorial board uses a democratic system, wherein submissions with the most votes win. Stories that are the most polarizing, and therefore the most interesting, end up being rejected for want of a clear majority. Hearing all that makes it seem as if the entire game is rigged, that even in the literary world a meritocratic system is just as equally out of reach. But even under the best of circumstances, chance and luck still win out. Having interned once at my alma mater’s campus undergraduate literary journal, I know that, among the list of possible poetry selections that went through the first round draft by students, the ones we rejected weren’t bad. It’s just that for some reason or another they didn’t wow my co-editor and me. The entire process is subjective. Another editor might have chosen our rejections and rejected the ones we accepted. It’s all a matter of getting the right work into the right hands. So I keep reminding myself not to take it personally; it wasn’t meant to be.

Yet knowing all that doesn’t sting any less when the yellow envelope reappears in my mailbox (or as the case may be a rejection email in my inbox). The entire process is maddening because I don’t know whether the actions I take will lead to satisfactory results. I’m flailing around, trying to find some soft place to land. Sure, there are rules and tips that I follow time and again, but that is no guarantee against rejection.

What would make the entire process a lot easier is if I knew why my work keeps getting rejected. However the reality of the submission process makes that next to impossible. Years ago, when the number of small literary magazines were a healthy ratio to the number of submissions they received, editors could take the time to write rejection notes, explain why each piece wasn’t accepted, or even offer criticisms. As a writer it helps to know what I’m doing right or what I could do better. But that job has been taken over by creative writing programs. As valuable as these programs can be, a jury of your peers isn’t quite the same as a judge.

Still, as soul-crushing as submission rejections can be, they aren’t the end of the world either. After the rejection, I had a good cry (I’m just sensitive that way), and renewed my sense of purpose. I doubled down, went back to work on my novel, and looked for other opportunities to place my prose. I’ve been lucky enough to get a few of my essays and reviews published and placed three of my short stories as well. Hopefully that luck will continue. All I can ever do is keep trying. Giving up is the worst rejection of all.

A Year in Recommendations: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Park, by Jeanne Theoharis

51PbJr7C-TL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Rosa Parks is an iconic figure in the Civil Rights movement as well as American history, and yet she is also the most misunderstood. While in the collective imagination she is the little old lady who, tired after a long day of work, refused to leave a bus seat when ordered to by a bus driver in Birmingham, Alabama, she was in fact a dedicated and forward thinking revolutionary for social and economic justice. Long a member of the NAACP, Parks fought against racial segregation, often quietly, but no less importantly in the years prior to the bus boycott. She was also an indefatigable supporter of Malcolm X and did not turn her back, as other civil rights activists were forced to do, on Marxist and socialist activists. This side of Mrs. Parks rarely makes it to the mainstream, but earlier this year, Jeanne Theoharis’s biography The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Park, corrects that oversight. The Mrs. Parks who emerges from Theoharis’s document is still the quiet, shy, and unassuming woman of the public imagination, but underneath that is someone of great intelligence, steely reserve, and tenacity. The biography covers Parks’ life from childhood to death, revealing aspects of her work as a social and political activist that was new to me. For instance, Parks continued with her work long after the boycott, often in the shadow of civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, working with Marxists and Black Panther activists toward social and economic justice. She would do this work well into the 1980s and 1990s, until her death. Parks also bristled at the persona that was created of her in public as well as the sexism she and other women in the movement faced. Theoharis’s well-written and exhaustively researched biography is a testament to a women who deserves far more credit for her role in the civil rights struggle and her commitment to justice.

A Year in Recommendations: Round House, by Louise Erdrich

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Source: goodreads.com

Few books startle me, but Louise Erdrich’s Round House was one of those few. This 2013 National Book Award winner is a gripping tale of mystery surrounding the rape of an Objiwe woman outside her Minnesota reservation. The story takes place in the 1980s, before laws concerning sovereignty and jurisdiction were changed only recently by the Obama administration, allowing the prosecution of crimes against Native Indians outside their reservations. So the mystery in Round House revolves not only on the who, but the where. The novel is also a coming-of-age tale since it’s POV is told through young Joe, whose mother Geraldine is the victim of the vicious crime. As he and his friends uncover clues about who raped his mother and where the crime actually took place, Joe’s innocence quietly flakes away as he begins to see the world in its totality: his mother’s depression, his father’s powerlessness to protect their family, the injustices and minor cruelties Indians face on and off the reservation. I was captivated from beginning to end. The novel is brimming with subtle insights and quiet, but seething outrage at the wrongs, both minor and major, committed against her people. But there is beauty and love and the resilient power of forgiveness there as well, creating a novel that is as complex as it is simple in its demands for justice.