Friday, December 30, 2011


Over the years I've argued that it's fruitless to compare iterations of a story, especially when crossing forms (book to movie, etc). Better to take each on its own terms, I say. My converts are few, even among my own family. There seems to be a natural tendency to select a version and deem it authoritative. It's not always the original.

This week, at a family gathering, I told my brother-in-law that the book I most enjoyed this year was True Grit. It's great, I told him, maybe even a masterpiece. Economy, voice, plotting, characters. All done superbly. And it's funny. In the best way, because the humor is so embedded in the characterization.

I don't know, my brother-in-law said. I picked it up in the book store, but there didn't seem to much there that wasn't in the movie. (I think he was referring to the recent Coen Brothers adaptation.)

Exactly, I said. All of the best lines and situations are there in the book. Plus, you get Mattie's voice.

Not enough value added, he said.

Later that day I went to see the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with my father. Or, as he calls it, The Girl with the Purple Parrot (see previous post).

At various times during the movie he leaned over to say, That's not how it happened, you know.

As if the Swedish movie (he hasn't read the book) is real life and the American movie is loosely fictionalized.

He was particularly disturbed by the ending, which conflated two characters and ended on the wrong continent. I agreed that it seemed muddled and tacked on, as if the filmmakers suddenly remembered they had a mystery to solve.

And it's just not true, my father huffed.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Secret to a Long Life

Lately I have been consumed by my father's health. Trips to Cincinnati to visit him in the hospital, phone calls with my sisters, talks with doctors and social workers.

At least twice a day, Sam and I compare his father's health to my father's health. His father is 86, ten years older than my father, but his father is still living in his home. Even after an amputated leg and bladder cancer. My father wasn't able to stay in his home, and now he's on a fast-track to assisted living. Which he, and we, can't afford. It's constantly on my mind.

Sam and I are talking about this--again--just before I walk to the mailbox. When I come back, I hand him the mail that is addressed directly to him. One piece is a postcard from his dentist. Sam was due for a cleaning in January, 2010.

Wow, Sam says. They're just now letting me know that I'm two years late for my appointment.

That's quite a reminder system they have, I say.

You know, Sam says musingly, my father's been doing well for two years. Pretty much since January, 2010.

Spooky, I say. You think there's a connection?

We ponder this for a moment or two.

I think I'll make an appointment, Sam says. Just for a cleaning, nothing else. I don't want to kill my father, I just want him to suffer a little.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Especially Seeking Somalis

Not long ago, I was at the Global Mall and I ran across a neon green handbill. It was a casting call for the Tom Hanks feature film, Capt. Phillips, and it stated that Sony Pictures was "especially seeking Somalis."  Because I found this handbill outside a Somali money-wiring business, and because the auditions were held at the Somali Community Association, I can only assume that some Somalis are on board with this project.

It made me think, though.

On one hand, it would seem to be a step forward to have a film company insist that Somalis play Somalis. Unlike Black Hawk Down which used mostly Nigerian actors. (Or even The Good Wife, a show I love, which has a Somali character who doesn't look to be Somali).

On the other hand, I have actor friends who would argue that it doesn't matter. Actors are actors. They inhabit other identities.

But I think it does matter. When I was writing the Westerns section of my book Adaptations, I did a lot of research into how Native Americans were depicted in film. One of the films I cited, A Man Called Horse, particularly crystalized a lot of the controversy. Ward Churchill, a Native American activist and author, pointed out: "This droll adventure, promoted as 'the most authentic description of North American Indian life ever filmed,' depicts a people whose language is Lakota, whose hairstyles range from Assiniboin through Nez Perce to Comanche, whose tipi design is Crow, and whose Sun Dance ceremony and lodge in which it is held are both typically Mandan."

At the time, most reviewers agreed with Louise Sweeney, who said: "A Man Called Horse does have a documentary realism for several reasons. ... Production notes emphasize the use of members of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in feature roles and behind the scenes, creating accurate costumes, teepees, and weapons." Today, the notion that this film is documentary-like is almost laughable. Watch it. It hasn't held up well.

Our collective opinion has changed because there has been work done to educate people about Native American issues. We've come some distance from images of the Red Man and the Noble Savage.

Which, I guess, is my issue with this Tom Hanks film, however well-intentioned. Pirate is to Somali as Savage is to Native American.

Otherwise, would Jeffrey Gettleman (one of the best and only Western journalists covering Somalia from inside Somalia) have ended a recent article about the drought and famine in Somalia with this paragraph (emphasis mine):

It is important to remember that however plagued Somalia is, however routine conflict, drought and disease have become, however many Somalis have already needlessly died, Somalis are not somehow wired differently from the rest of us. They are not numb to suffering. They are not grief-proof. I’ll never forget the expression on Mr. Kufow’s face as he stumbled out of Benadir Hospital into the penetrating sunshine with his lifeless little girl in his arms. He may not have been weeping openly. But he looked as if he could barely breathe.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Conversation with a Young Poet

I need to write six poems for my poetry project, but I don't know what to write about, Mary says.

Mary is fourteen and in the sixth grade. She's behind in her schooling because she lived in Africa until a few years ago.

Why don't you try thinking about childhood memories, I suggest. Does anything come to mind?

The jumping cats.

Jumping cats?

Yes. When I was little, my father and I used to sit on our porch and listen to the cats jump from roof to roof. The houses were very close together, you know. This was when we lived in Guinea.

How did that make you feel? I ask.

Okay when I was with my father, but scared at night. Loud thumps and scratching sounds would wake me up. The cats were all black with yellow eyes.

That does sounds scary, I said. I think that story would make a really good poem. What else do you remember?

There was a European boy in our village who walked on his toes all the time.

A European boy?

Yes, he had an accent.

And he walked on his toes?

All the time.

Desmond, who has been listening in, jumps out of his chair. Like this? he says, walking with a bounce.

No, Mary says, like this. She gets up and stands on her toes, like a ballerina on pointe.

Wow, I say. He walked like that all the time?

Uh huh. We laughed and laughed and laughed.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Writing About Real People

I recently published an essay about what it's like to live with someone who is struggling with a neurological disorder. (To be specific, his disorder might be multiple sclerosis, or it might be a form of ALS. We don't have a definitive diagnosis. All we know is that it sucks.)

I published the essay (called "Toadal Chaos") in Gulf Coast, a wonderful journal out of the University of Houston.  I was really proud to be in this issue, because it's very beautiful and contains some very fine work. The problem was ... I couldn't tell anyone.

While I had implicit approval from Sam to write about our struggles, I hadn't shown him the essay. It was hard to write and I knew it would be hard to read. I was afraid it would hurt him. To be honest, I was sort of counting on the fact that only writers read lit mags. But I felt guilty. Since I've been writing nonfiction I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about privacy and trespass and truth, etc.

Then a friend gave me a copy of Sharon Solwitz essay, "The Witness Complains," about living with her husband's MS. Our stories are remarkably similar, although we expressed them in very different ways.

So I wrote to Sharon and asked her whether she had shown her essay to her husband. How would someone react, seeing himself exposed in such a way? She kindly wrote back immediately and said that it had been difficult for him to read, but that he was grateful. Her words had shown him that she had seen and understood what was happening with him. Illness is so isolating.

Still, I didn't show my essay to Sam. He had to ask for it. He said he wanted to read everything I've published in the last year. I prevaricated. There isn't much, I told him. Which is true. It's been a dry year. He persisted.

I went into the other room while he read. His sobs were so loud I had to come out several times to make sure he was okay. I cannot even say how difficult those minutes were.

When he was done, he said it was honest. He said there was no reason for me to have kept it from him. He said it was hard to read.

The story doesn't end there. Last Sunday, he took my essay to his family's holiday reunion. He set it on one of the tables with a sticky note to mark the place. He did it because he wanted his family to know about what I do. Such bravery astounds me.