By Jorge Antonio Vallejos
After upsetting the crowd with one of my famous “Jorge upsets the crowd questions” (Why is it that Arab writing hasn’t blown up in the West like Indian, Turkish, and Latin American literature? And does the vilification of Arabs in Western media have something to do with that?) Susan G. Cole’s LUMINATO interview with Hanan al-Shaykh was done.
Actually, my follow up to my question is what had the Arabs in the room hiss at me in disgust:
“The only writer we hear of in North America is the ever tokenized Khalil Gibran,” I said.
Hanan al-Shayk agreed that Indian literature has blown up in the West. She reduced Latin American literature to “magic realism”. And she dodged my media question. I was not surprised. People have a tendency to dodge my questions.
After talking with Dionne Brand earlier I was determined to chat with Susan G. Cole and internationally published Arab journalist Mona Eltahawy. Yes, lots of big-timers were in attendance to see Hanan al-Shaykh.
I waited patiently as an Arab family hogged Eltahawy. It’s all good. I’ve done it before. And I was waiting so I could do it. Plus, I’m half Arab. So, I’d be another Arab hogging the famous Arab journalist.
Eltahawy started giving out her business card and I asked for one.
“Are you with them?” she said.
“No, I’m not.”
“Were you the one who asked the question about Arab literature in the West?”
“I’m going to talk to you, give me one second,” said Eltahawy; she pointed at my chest first and then put up for finger in the ‘give me a sec’ fashion as she spoke to me.
While Eltahawy was saying her goodbyes the mother of the Arab family said, “I agree with you about Khalil Gibran.”
That’s one person who didn’t want to rip my head off.
Eltahawy was chill, super cool, and intelligent. No pretension. Published in all the big places (New York Times etc.) she was very down to earth. We talked browness, culture, mixed race identity, racism, violence against women of colour, and how the black and white dichotomy in North America leaves people like her and I out of the picture. Eltahawy informed me that Arabs aren’t even on the American census. They have to check “OTHER” if they want to participate. Edward Said would have a field day with that one. I can already see the essay.
After taking a photo with Eltahawy (she loved my Indigenous Resistance t-shirt) she said, “Make sure you email me, Jorge.” Me, Jorge, the brown guy with the lisp, limp, who wears fatigues and political t-shirts that piss people off, and who sticks out at every cultural event he attends?
I was on a roll and planned on keeping that ball rolling.
Susan G. Cole was next on my list. I had given her a package of my writing two years ago and heard nada. The following year I had asked a question at the International Festival of the Auhtors at Harbourfront that she liked. So, I emailed her the next day; subject line: The Guy Who Asked Brando Skyhorse the Question that You Liked.
This was my chance, again.
“Susan G. Cole, I’m Jorge Antonio Vallejos. I love your interviews!” I said.
Cole and I talked about Skyhorse and then I mentioned that I write for XTRA! and Anishinabek News and that I wanted to write for her.
“You have to call me,” said Cole. “My inbox gets tons of spam.”
Pen in hand, this brown boy took down that number fast and finished with a “thanks” and a handshake.
I then moved in on Hanan al-Shaykh. We took a picture together and then I asked for an interview.
“I don’t have time,” she said.
“Can we do it over email?”
“I don’t do email.”
“Thank you,” I said.
Three out of four aint bad!
I left Monday’s LUMINATO event more excited than after experiencing my first kiss.
Tuesday night I was to attend a poetry reading of Arab writers at LUMINATO. Attending Monday’s event saw my sickness get worse. I spent Tuesday in bed.
Wednesday’s event was an interview with Joyce Carol Oates. I enjoy her writing on boxing and her poems: two things she is not really known for. Her short stories are great too.
When checking my email on Wednesday morning I had a message in my inbox I did not expect:
I am following in regards to you requesting to attend Arabic Poetry last night and not showing up, I have removed all of your events from our records.
I emailed back and explained my sickness. A response a couple of hours later said there was no room for me.
I went down anyways.
Wednesday’s event was at the CBC building. I took the streetcar down from Spadina Station and walked in to the Glen Gould Studio and approached the media table.
“Hi, I’m Jorge Antonio Vallejos,” I said.
“Yes, I remember your name. Black coffee…” said the kind person behind the counter as she checked my name off from a list and pulled out an envelope with my name on it.
She placed the ticket in my hand. “Thank you,” I said and walked in.
There was lots of room at the back of the theatre; about twenty seats, maybe more. And many single seats in between the crowd.
Joyce Carol Oates was at LUMINATO talking about her recent memoir A Widow’s Story. Oates is known for writing stories that have horrific murders and violence. A memoir about death was no surprise.
The first thing I heard form Oates once sitting down was, “You try to seem normal so people don’t think you’re deranged.” It was the start to a very open and honest talk. One where Oates placed all her cards on the table: delusion, sadness, fits of rage, waking up to reality. Essentially, being human. Something that readers forget about writers they look up to.
Similar to Monday, interviewer and interviewee sat on couches across from each other. Jane Urquhart was the interviewer on this night. She asked good questions but talked a little to much about her own widow experience at times.
Mourning was talked of for quite a long time.
“Grief is very repetitive. Thoughts keep coming back like a prayer wheel,” said Oates.
The thoughts Oates described were more like torture than prayer.
“There’s a compulsive feeling to go back in time to do something different,” said the American icon. Examples of the wishes to take her husband to a different doctor and hospital were shared, as well as dreams of the hospital calling to say her husband was OK only to see her awaken to the grief she was living. Oates played(s) the ever losing game of “coulda, woulda, shoulda” like many of us. Her confessions on stage were a leap off the pedestal that many of her fans place her on. And it’s why her stories are what they are:
“I’m very sympathetic with people who can’t cope,” said Oates.
Oates talked of time being “a curious experience in our lives” and how it’s “subjective”. She later talked of her best friend, now dead, who is still her best friend because of all the time they shared. Now that she is re-married, is Ray, her dead husband, still her husband?
Urquhart and Oates talked about the Ontario Review, a literature journal that Oates and her husband, Ray, started in 1974, and which is now defunct. Oates bigged up Canadian poet Tom Wayman: “The poet we published most was Tom Wayman.” I’m a big fan of Wayman’s poetry so that made me happy.
Above: Joyce Carol Oates wrote me in 2006 after I sent her a review I wrote of her book “On Boxing”. See the letter in my hand in the pic with Oates at the top of the page.
Oates later described poetry as “a gift from grace that comes out of nowhere.” I disagree. Poetry comes from sitting down and writing; it’s no different than any other genre in that sense. A line in A Widow’s Story describes the process well:
“To be a writer you have to be strong enough to write.”
One of the world’s most prolific writers, described by some as “The Queen of American Letters”, Oates said, “I’m overwhelmed by ideas.” This is the reason she constantly journals; a practice that many writers do; something to keep in mind.
A great poet, essayist, short story writer, novelist, and now memoirist, Joyce Carol Oates a widowed newlwed said, “It doesn’t matter where I am. I’m homeless now.”
Tune in to Black Coffee Poet Monday June 20, 2011 for a review of “Louder, Faster, More Fun” by The Johnnys.