Charles Yu won the 2020 National Book Award for Interior Chinatown but some of us became fans a decade earlier, with How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010). That novel brilliantly uses SF conventions to uncover the kind of self-deceptive infilling that we all do every day, the little stories we tell ourselves to make our world seem predictable and safe when it’s anything but. In this crossover episode, which originally aired on Novel Dialogue, where critics and novelists sit down together in peace, He speaks with John and with science-fiction scholar Chris Fan, Assistant Professor at UC Irvine, senior editor and co-founder of Hyphen magazine.
Charlie kicks off with a brief reading. Then the conversation gets quickly into intimate territory: the pockets of safe space and the “small feelings” that families can and cannot provide, and that science fiction can or cannot recreate. Graph paper and old math books get a star turn. Charlie’s time as a lawyer is scrutinized; so too is “acute impostor syndrome” and the everyday feeling of putting on a costume or a mask, as well as what Du Bois called “double-consciousness.”
Margaret Cohen joins John to discuss The Underwater Eye, which explores “How the Movie Camera Opened the Depths and Unleashed New Realms of Fantasy.” Margaret’s earlier prizewinning books include The Novel and the Sea and The Sentimental Education of the Novel, but this project brings her places even her frequent surfing forays hadn’t yet reached. She charts the rise of “wet for wet” filming both in the ocean itself and in various surrogates, exploring the implications of entering a domain that humans can explore and come to know, but never master.
In nearly 50 years of filmmaking, British director Mike Leigh has ranged from comic portrayals of ordinary life amid the social breakdowns of Thatcher’s Britain (Life is Sweet, High Hopes) to gritty renditions of working-class constraint and bourgeois hypocrisy (Meantime, Abigail’s Party, Hard Labour) to period films that reveal the “profoundly trivial” elements of artistic life even two centuries in the past (Topsy-Turvy, Mr. Turner). (if you want to skip all intro, here is the audio.)
Leigh contains multitudes. What Roland Barthes says about the novels of Marcel Proust is true of Mike Leigh films as well: you notice different things every time you return to them.
Dana Stevens joins Elizabeth and John to discuss Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema and the Invention of the Twentieth Century. Her fantastic new book serves as occasion to revel in the work and working world of Buster Keaton, that “solemn, beautiful, perpetually airborne man.” Although packed with fascinating tidbits from Keaton’s life, Camera Man is much more than just a biography. It performs its own airborne magic, lightly traversing topics like the crackdown on the use of children in vaudeville, the fluidity of roles before and behind the camera in early Hollywood and the doors that were briefly (ever so briefly) opened for female directors.
Among other treats, Dana unpacks one of Keaton’s early great “two-reelers” One Week ( a spoof of brisk upbeat industrial films) and his parodic “burlesques” e.g. of Lillian Gish.
Our first August rebroadcast was John and Pu’s 2019 interview with SF superstar Cixin Liu (you may want to re-listen to that episode before this one!). Here, they reflect on the most significant things that Liu had said, and to ponder the political situation for contemporary Chinese writers who come to the West to discuss their work.
They consider whether our world is like a cabinet in a basement, and what kind of optimism or pessimism might be available to science fiction writers, and extend the conversation from their interview about world building, realism, and film. They compare the interview to a recent profile of Liu in The New Yorker, and ponder the advantages and disadvantages of pressing writers to weigh in on the hot-button topics of the day (hint: RTB made the right choice!).
John and Pu Wang, a Brandeis professor of Chinese literature, spoke with science-fiction genius Cixin Liu back in 2019. His most celebrated works include The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End.
When he visited Brandeis to receive an honorary degree, Liu paid a visit to the RTB lair to record this interview. Liu spoke in Chinese and Pu translated his remarks in this English version of the interview (the original Chinese conversation is at 刘慈欣访谈中文版 Episode 14c).
In this 2019 conversation, rebroadcast now to follow up RTB 82, Elizabeth and John try their best to unpack Zadie Smith’s take on sincerity, authenticity and human sacredness; the “golden ticket” dirty secret behind our hypocritical academic meritocracy; surveillance capitalism as the “biggest capital grab of human experience in history;” and her genealogy of the novel. If we had to sum the day up with a few adjectives (and we do): funny, provocative, resplendent, chill, generous, cantankerous.
In this 2019 episode, John interviews the celebrated British writer Zadie Smith. Zadie’s horror at the idea of rereading her own novels opens the show; she can more easily imagine rewriting one (as John’s beloved Willa Cather once did) than having to go through them all again. From there the conversation quickly moves through Brexit (oh, the inhumanity!) and what it means to be a London–no, a Northwest London–writer before arriving at her case against identity politics. That case is bolstered by a discussion of Hannah Arendt on the difference between who and what a person is. As Zadie puts it, “When you say my people, you can[‘t] know for certain who those people are by looking at them and by hearing what they have to say. I think what fiction as a kind of philosophy always assumed is that what people make manifest is not all that people are. There’s a great part of human selves which are hidden, unknown to the self, obscure, and that’s the part that fiction is interested in.”
As dwellers of and in language, we know the power of words, but what we do not know—or perhaps we know but aren’t able to predict the particular form and effects of—is the process by which language forms a spectacular house of meaning, such as the poetic edifice that Mohabir has built. Mohabir’s poems house his queer identity, diasporic existence, and multivalent violence—they are a construction of precise imageries and innovative hybridifications of interfacing languages.
When three erudite scholars sit in a studio around broadcasting microphones (or in a recorded Zoom meeting) to discuss books and the ideas conveyed in them, the conversation is likely to be uplifting, edifying, and surprising. Surprising because there is always a new twist, a new angle, a new intersection where the exchange of ideas divulges new means of un-silencing the past in ways that even the author might not be fully aware of. Mohabir indicates (after a series of probing questions and observations by John Plotz and Ulka Anjaria) that: “I was expert at amnesia, in that, I didn’t know what was lying latent in me until I started to dig away.” Such is the process of meaning-making, of excavating knowledge, or simply having an excellent conversation with probing questions around a fascinating subject—in this case, Rajiv Mohabir’s well-seasoned poems. Mohabir’s cross-linguistic facility (as John Plotz described it in their conversation) is a form of creolization where he inhabits deeper into the various tendrils of colonial and “subaltern” languages.
Listening to literary critics John Plotz and Ulka Anjaria as they interviewed the poet and chutney verbal mixer, Rajiv Mohabir around his electrically meticulous poems, was simply a delight. A gastronomical feast of poems was served with hybrid blisses where “turmeric lips bow to the ground” (Cutlish, 36), despite the fact that Mohabir’s ancestors were brought up in a land where “Colonization still erases our memories” (Cutlish, 38). The speaker in the poem “Offering” informs us that “In the land of erasure, I run myself clean / touch my lips to the bottle as I drink” (Cutlish, 37). Through various forms of consumption, memorization, re-memorization, and reverencing, the poet or the speaker of the poem offers us an arresting last line: “I worship foremothers. I eat the bird’s wild heart” (Cutlish, 37). Worship and eating are both consumptive and nourishing acts regardless of how each is done. I eat the bird’s wild heart” (Cutlish, 37). Worship and eating are both consumptive and nourishing acts regardless of how each is done.
Rajiv Mohabir first grabbed my attention after I read his 2016 poetry collection The Taxidermist’s Cut. What a clever and powerful title, I thought! As I began reading some of the beginning poems in the book, I found myself leaning against a bookshelf at Raven Bookstore in Harvard Square, re-reading the following lines several times from the poem entitled “Ortolan.” The Ortolan is a bird that I always had a particular curiosity towards–it was considered a delicacy by members of the French aristocracy, who delighted their palates with exotic selections:
Take the bird alive and blind it.
Keep it in a windowless room,
or if there are windows, board them up.
It’s important that no light gets in
The beauty in the precision of the language, the concrete image system coupled with the couplet as its stanzaic form, creates the illusion of a perfect pairing. Yet, there is a violence running through this poem that creates a sense of disbelief and pleasure—a desire to know more. A desire to enter the lightless room to see the blinded-bird and to understand this peculiar ritual. Is the poem really about a bird, an Ortolan? Of course not, the poet is too clever. The form of the poem, particularly the content of the first octosyllabic couplet, signals an epigrammatic presence in the hand of a cunning poet. I braced myself for the twist, for the elemental metaphorical surprise that the bird is being used for concealment and discovery. Sure enough, it arrives 8 couplets later:
Hide your gluttony from the god
with hungry dog-eyes who envies,
our nocturnal commotion. Taste the burst
of liquor-flowers from the lungs
on your tongue. Taste the entire life
in the dark. Taste every man
who has ever put me in his mouth.
(“Ortolan”, 2017: 8)
After I read and reread that poem I knew I had to purchase the book (The Taxidermist’s Cut) and follow the writings of Rajiv Mohabir. A poet who can create envy from a god as a result of blissful nocturnal commotion while offering semantic terror, is a poet that I ought to follow. I have since found myself completely drawn to his work.
The edifying conversation between John Plotz, Ulka Anjaria, and Mohabir reinforces my interest in him as a writer as I enter or re-enter into his work. To my utter enjoyment, both Plotz and Anjaria zoomed in on the first full poem of Rajiv’s 2021 collection, Cutlish. The poem, “The Po-Co Kid” (and the collection in general), displays, as John Plotz remarks, the “neological exuberance” of Rajiv’s writing. “The Po-Co Kid,” or the post-colonial kid, reveals the witty mind of a semantically agile poet—a poet who is fully engaged with history, myths, and post-colonial entanglements. In reading that poem, my mind kept looping around a very arresting line: “I clip my yellow nails at dusk.” Only a very attentive poet could offer such vivid imagery with temporal and corporeal specificities in order to construct deeper meaning that is situated between myth and personal defiance. The prohibited act of cutting one’s toenails at dusk is violated by the speaker of the poem so that his position of otherness could be queerly present with a cutlish and chutneyed stance. As the speaker of the poem emphasizes: “Let’s get one thing queer—I’m no Sabu-like sidekick, / I’m the main drag” (Cutlish, 5). Defying Gayatri Spivak’s famous dictum, Mohabir, as a descendant of subalterns, does speak as he is “dreaming up a khuli (coolie) future”, and has provided room for his Aji (grandmother) to speak as well.
Patrick Sylvain is a Haitian-American educator, Pushcart Prize-nominated poet, social and literary critic, and lead author of Education Across Borders (Beacon Press, 2022). In the Fall, Sylvain will serve as Assistant Professor in Global/Transnational/Postcolonial Literature at Simmons University.
Since the original airing of this episode in June 2021, Roger Reeves’ second book Best Barbarian was published by W.W. Norton, and the paperback edition of David Ferry’s translation of The Aeneid was published by the University of Chicago Press.
Their tongues are ashes when they’d speak to us.
David Ferry, “Resemblance”
The underworld, that repository of the Shades of the Dead, gets a lot of traffic from heroes (Gilgamesh, Theseus, Odysseus, Aeneas) and poets (Orpheus, Virgil, Dante). Some come down for information or in hopes of rescuing or just seeing their loved ones, or perhaps for a sense of comfort in their grief. They often find those they have loved, but they rarely can bring them back. Comfort they never find, at least not in any easy way.
Rajiv Mohabir is a dazzling poet of linguistics crossovers, who works in English, Bhojpuri, Hindi and more. He is as prolific as he is polyglot (three books in 2021!) and has undertaken a remarkable array of projects includes the prizewinning resurrection of a forgotten century-old memoir about mass involuntary migration. (If you don’t need to read any further, Listen to the episode here).
He joined John and first-time host Ulka Anjaria (English prof, Bollywood expert and Director of the Brandeis Mandel Center for the Humanities) in the old purple RtB studio. During the conversation, Rajiv read and in one case sang poems from his wonderful recent books, Cutlish and Antiman.
Madeline Miller has made a name for herself by retelling Greek myths; she calls it literary adaptation or mythological realism. Her 2012 debut novel The Song of Achilles (Orange prize winner), retells an episode from the Iliad. Circe, published in 2018, is a retelling and expansion of the Odyssey from the perspective of Circe.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is a witch who lives on the island of Aiaia and turns visitors into beasts. She traps Odysseus’s men this way, but with his cleverness and help from the gods, Odysseus himself evades her tricks, frees his men, and wins her over. She is an important ally, telling him how to visit the underworld and return home. As the introduction to the RtB conversation with Miller puts it, though, she only has a “bit part.” Reflecting on her approach to retelling Circe’s story, Miller tells RtB, “I do feel like it’s a corrective in the sense that it’s a balancing […] We’ve had three thousand years of the male heroic tradition. Can we just pull on that a little bit, and bring the female voices up?”
Retellings are intensified stories. When you read a retelling, you read at least two stories at once, like the doubled vision of blurry eyes. Because of this, I was fascinated to see that Circe in Miller’s retelling has a similarly doubled vision of herself. She constantly sees herself as men see her, constantly hears her story as a man would tell it.
“I could imagine the stories he was telling of me, humorless, prickly, and smelling of pigs,” Circe says after sending Hermes away from her island. She is well aware of the stereotypes she inhabits, steps around, plays into and is forced into. They have become the lenses through which she views herself, and therefore limit the ways she can imagine herself being. She is haunted by the way others will tell her story.
In this rebroadcast, John and Brandeis neuroscientist Gina Turrigiano (an occasional host and perennial friend of Recall this Book) speak with Madeline Miller, author of the critically acclaimed bestseller Circe.
They discuss Circe’s place in Greek mythology and in a retelling of the Odyssey “from below” or “from the side,” the concept of “mythological realism,” and the influence of The Once and Future King on Madeline’s writing. They touch too on the sweet family aspects that show up in Homer, and on Odysseus’s changing reputation throughout time. Madeline has two totally unexpected recommendations in our Recallable Books section.
When Stephenie Meyer’s first Twilight Saga entry made it to the big screen in Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight (2008), it dutifully included a rendition of the vampiric Cullen family’s supernaturally enhanced baseball game. The film sequence – affectionately nicknamed Vampire Baseball by fans – diverges slightly but significantly from its novel counterpart, depicting the game with a certain conscious absurdity that never devolves into self-parody. Everything from the soundtrack’s bombastic guitar riffs to the rapid, disorienting cuts offer a high-octane viewing experience unmistakably out of step with this strange permutation of what Immortal Teenage Heartthrob Edward Cullen drolly identifies as “the American pastime.” Indeed, something more complicated lurks beneath the surface of Hardwicke’s ballgame. Unlike earlier scenes that allow the Cullens to credibly perform normalcy and mortality in front of protagonist Bella Swan, the Vampire Baseball sequence highlights the conspicuous traits which remind her that her newfound friends are neither normal nor mortal at all.
John asks about hopeful visions of the radical politics of fantasy (Le Guin, but also Graeber and Wengrow’s recent work); Elizabeth stresses that fantasy’s appeal is at once childish and childlike. E. Nesbit surfaces, as she tends to in RtB conversations. The question of film TV and other visual modes comes up: is textual fantasy on the way out?
John and Elizabeth talk cultural renewal with Christina Thompson in this rebroadcast of a 2019 Recall this Book conversation. Her Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia both relates the history of Polynesia, and explores how histories of Polynesia are constructed.
The discussion considers various moments of cultural contact between Polynesian and European thinkers and doers. Those range from the chart Tupaia drew for Captain Cook during the “first contact” era (above) to the moment ijn 1976 when the Hokule’a‘s traveled from Hawaii to Tahiti in a triumphant reconstruction of ancient Polynesian wayfinding. Thompson has fascinating thoughts on how the work of David Lewis, Brian Finney and the Bishop Planetarium served as invaluable background to the navigational achievements of Mau Pialug and Nainoa Thompson.
As an indigenous person, listening to “Land-Grab Universities” (Recall this Book 76) made me reflect on my own education–acquired from a land-grant institution. It was both sobering and stimulating to consider how I profited from a university whose historic and present-day rhetoric on land-grabbing, land acknowledgement, and land-use is a continued support for the settler colonialism project in the U.S.
The episode unfolds from Robert Lee and Tristan Athone’s project, “Land-Grab Universities,” a High Country News investigation into how the United States funded land-grant universities with expropriated Indigenous Land. He explains that under the Morrill Act of 1862, colleges were built across the U.S. to teach branches of learning related to agricultural and mechanic arts to foster agricultural production. States received parcels of land to build their colleges on but also received land beyond the campus grounds to lease and sell for fundraising efforts. But before these states could be given parcels of land to sell, the federal government violently seized lands from Indigenous people – nearly 11 million acres of land from 250 tribes, bands and communities.
John and new host Jerome Tharaud (author of Apocalyptic Geographies) learn exactly how the growth of America’s public universities relied on shameful seizures of Native American land. Working with Tristan Athone (editor of Grist and a member of the Kiowa Tribe) historian Robert Lee wrote a stunning series of pieces that reveal how many public land-grant universities were fundamentally financed and sustained by a long-lasting settle-colonial “land grab.” Their meticulous work paints an unusually detailed picture of how most highly praised institutions of higher education in America (Cornell, MIT, UC Berkeley and virtually all of the great Midwestern public universities) were initially launched and sometimes later sustained by a flood of cash deriving directly or indirectly from that stolen and seized land.
This July 2021 conversation (the asterisk in 75* indicates a rebroadcast) features Brandeis poet Elizabeth Bradfield, and the poet Sean Hill, author of Blood Ties and Brown Liquor (2008) and Dangerous Goods (2014).
Sean read his “Musica Universalis in Fairbanks,” (it appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review) and then, like someone seated in an archive turning over the pages of aged and delicate documents, unfolded his ideas about birds, borders, houses and “who was here before me.”
In “Church Bells Will Signal,” the Greek poet and revolutionary Yiannis Ritsos mourns and celebrates the oppressed and martyred during the fight for a liberated Greece: “those ones are in irons, and those others are in the earth. // The earth is theirs and ours.” Although not a “political” poet in the conventional sense, Ritsos helped reclaim the totality of Greek history in service of social struggle, imbuing even his most innocuous lyrics with the specter of solidarity––a subversive practice that got his work banned several times by Greek authorities.
George Kalogeris is also not a “political” poet, but, like Ritsos, his attention to poetic speech emerges from a place of deep struggle and historical memory. His 2018 collection, Guide to Greece, borrows its title from the 2nd-century AD travelogue by Pausanias and charts the intersections of ancient and modern Greece. The decision to poeticize Greece, of course, has a long and uneven legacy in western thought. In the works of non-Greek writers like Michel Foucault, W.B. Yeats, and Robert Penn Warren, their investigations into the ancient world serve mostly to enrich or supplement their own philosophical-poetic development. For many of these writers, “Greece” loses all historical specificity, becoming a metonym for the “west” in its infancy. Greek myths, political forms, and cultural practices are instrumentalized indiscriminately; they gain meaning largely as the foundation of Euro-American culture. Reading, Foucault’s late engagements with ancient Greek poetry, one might not realize that Greece’s history continued past the fourth century B.C.