On March 15, past contributor, author of nine books (poetry, fiction, and nonfiction), Daniel Olivas, was invited on to the Beckett’s Babies podcast. Within the podcast, the group discussed topics such as Daniel’s play, Waiting for Godínez, being selected for the Playwrights’ Arena 2020 Summer Reading Series, Daniel’s first memory, how he has been selected for Circle X Theatre Co.’s inaugural Evolving Playwrights Group where he is adapting his 2011 novel, The Book of Want, with a planned Zoom reading in 2021, among a variety of other matters.
The interesting thing about getting old is watching it unfold. This is applied science: biology in action, psychology and sociology revealed in real time as I experience the changes in my body and brain. I can react to others’ responses or my own, or I can step back and withhold all judgment. I’m both participant and observer.
I’ve written about aging, about post-seventy tattoos and half-marathons, physical decline in spite of excellent health, dwindling opportunities and increased invisibility, a thicker skin and fuck ‘em attitude about things that used to bother me. The challenge, though, as a writer, is to make this process and my experiences appealing to readers young and old. The former may be inclined to glaze over and think, what has this to do with me? B-o-r-i-n-g. The latter might appreciate commonality, feel less isolated in their own experience, or they might choose to avert their eyes, say I’ve got my own shit to deal with, she doesn’t know the half of it.
Since Baby Boomers entered their seventies they’re writing about aging too, as if they discovered it, expressing the indignity of it all, their painful joints or purported joys, or just plain denial as they grasp at perpetual youth, pronounce seventy to be the new fifty. But I got there first by a few years, and I intend to stay in the conversation. If all else fails, I’ll beat them to eighty and have new stories to tell before they catch up again.
There is a fish in the mirror, this very first line in the “This Mournable Body,” a novel by Tsitsi Dangarembga, distorts the reality that what you see out there, probably and/or actually, is not what it is; and opens up the truth that the “coolest cruising” of our expectations and the arrival of our promised land are always either suspended or ebbing.
This Mournable Body (Graywolf, 2018 & Faber & Faber, 2020), one of the shortlisted fiction for the 2020 Booker Prize, is the last installment of her trilogy, Nervous Conditions (1988), which was enlisted in the list of BBC’s top 100 books that shaped the world, which she wrote at the advent of Zimbabwean independence but its narrative line was set during the colonial Rhodesia in the early 1960s when the nation and the land were going through the identity crisis, a story of Zimbabwean girl’s, Tambudzai Sigauke, enlightenment with that “it’s bad enough . . . when a country gets colonized, but when the people do as well! That’s the end, really, that’s the end” and she started her struggle in pursuit of hope to liberate herself, at first, from the circle of poverty, darkness of ignorance and injustice of patriarchy; then to explore her identity as a colonized black African, in a broader sense, “the crisis of personhood” as Ms. Tsitsi Dangarembga said in an interview with Madeleine Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
As a very practical woman and properly conscious about the reality of the world Dangarembga had changed her territory of creative endeavor from literature – a psychologically charged and solitary work process for which she needed 400 dollar and a room of her own as Virginia Woolf prescribed – to film which requires a more physically engaged schedule, and took her eighteen years of seclusion, subsequently, to publish the second part “The Book of Not” (2006), set in the turbulent times of the Zimbabwe’s war of emancipation in the late 1970s when Tambu had gone through a feeling of indignant displeasure of the image of her sister Netsai’s dismembered leg and the encounter of uncle Babamukuru’s twinge spinal cord encamped with bullet “so to the scars of war were added the complications of Independence” in her life.
As Nervous Conditions, the title was scrounged from the preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961)- a refutation of colonization and an anatomy of dehumanization – written by Jean-Paul Sartre, is an archetype of Old Colonialism, “This Mournable Body” is the kaleidoscope of New Colonialism, the title is also sprung from the essay “Unmournable Bodies” (2015), a subjective reaction to the Occidental lamentation over the slaughtered journalists of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical Parisian journal, by Teju Cole who commented in conclusion “that incontestability, that unmournability, just as much as the massacre in Paris, is the clear and present danger to our collective liberté.”
Tambu, in Nervous Condition, equated education as the emancipation from poverty but when she was in Sacred school she saw the hidden perpetrator- her blackness as a source of her wretchedness whereas, in This Mournable Body, she equates the independence or decolonization as the flowerbed of personhood but at the different stages of her career she experiences tones of “fresh humiliations” of old bondage and gets the taste of “losing hope” of new freedom as an effect she realizes that the rejection of the dignity of personhood, in the political logic, is the root of her domestication and dejection.
The novel represents the ceaseless conflict between our expectations and reality both in an individual and the national level either parallel or reciprocally. In childhood Tambu thought her high achievement lay in the sacrifice of Shona, her indigenous language, in the name of imperialist language and education would give her prosperity and lofty social status. But her education seems to be a raucous failure when she writes a letter, in chapter 6″ to her cousin Nyasha, a film maker in Germany as a fictionalization of Dangarembga’s real life, “to break away from the implacable terror of every day” in Zimbabwe and tears it up thinking that “if you cannot build a life in your own country, how will you do so in another ” and she submerged into a more screeching misery that “the vegetables become too disgusting to eat, as first cooking oil then salt fall off your shopping list… Every minute of each twenty -four hours taunts you with what you are reduced to.” Surprisingly, Tambu, in chapter 11, sets her foot on the “new realm of impossibility” when her cousin returns Zimbabwe “in spite of her degree, in Europe” radiating the failure of continental dreams with such “liminal complexity.”
Tambu used to think that breaking the colonial servitude and racial segregation would give her the possibilities to devour her personhood, however, in her antique age after leaving a stagnant job at the advertising agency and taking an unbalanced refuge, constantly in the fear of deportation, in a hostel for young women in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, then she rents an economical cottage “to live” from a white widow. There she comes to learn (in chapter 7) that “the moon shadows have edges sharp as knives” in a close conversion with Christine (the niece of the white widow) that the independence she had got through her “fruitless war” with “full of lairs” is shining with “false hope” as like Tambu’s “worthless education intensifying” her ludicrous miseries and distresses. In chapter 12 where Tambu hears Mainini, her war veteran aunt’s testimonies of disappointments and violence that have been popped up from colonial war and domestic riots:
“Yes, sometimes we wondered why we went to war when we came back and everyone was shocked and began to hate us. … Mainini pauses, remembering her little son whom she had left to fight in conviction that her risk was the down payment on a better life for both of them. … When the Rhodesian soldiers came, the young boy ran back to kraal… in order to prevent the Rhodesian butchering the entire herd. Instead, the soldiers drove bullets through the boy’s back… ripped his stomach open and spread his intensities on the sand that was mixed with cow dung.”
Tracey Stevenson, her previous employer, appoints Tambu in her ecotourism enterprise named Green Jacaranda Getaway Safaris in the farmland targeting the European audiences and prospects. In the thriving time of their tourism venture, then President Robert Mugabe’s “government at independence transformed much of the settlement into a home-ownership area” and “the trouble with the inheritance laws in the country” pushes them to find a new spot in the Tambu’s homestead and again she hears a hyena’s laughing sound of the downfall of her economic security and mental discomfort in her head on; and the narrator says to Tambu: “The tourist brochures you composed said your country’s village women rub their cow pat floors until they shine like the cement floor. The brochure lied. There are no shines in your memory. Your mother’s floors are never shown with anything. Nothing ever glittered or sparkled.” These lines utterly open up the very naked lies of history that the liberators assured her the Promised Land but Tambu feels there is no true freedom she ever gets, only she has just transferred from colonial captivity to democratic domestication.
This “uneasy conscience,” Sartre commented in the preface, in “the system which depends on overexploitation, as you know, would be ruined.” You will see the similar kind of reverse colonization or the revenge of the past in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace in the post-apartheid South Africa. Who to blame elite settlers or “colonized minds?” The undisputable answer is not near to get.
Tambu falls into the crisis of personhood, as like an assessment test, in the chapter 8 & 9, she becomes the person she was not and “exhaustion propels [her] over the border of the wakefulness into a sleep from which [she] half hope [she] will not wake.” She feels an agony at her biology class at A level towards the older students who “were toddlers at independence” but have the privileges of manicures at the luxurious saloons and this tardiness make her to punish immorally and almost kills Elizabeth and she falls into a mental breakdown. At the clinic she expresses her embarrassment to Dr. Winton said: “I don’t have the things that make me better. I want to be better. I want the things that make me.” In an “anguished composition” of shame and sorrow Tambu feels a “weakness of contrition,” consequently, to deplete her tormentation, she seeks retribution from Elizabeth’s family by paying her medical bill to recover in chapter 17. But shockingly in chapter 18, Tambu deceives her sense of personhood spending all the savings for Elizabeth to her long cherished manicures and pedicures, to the cinema complex on Robert Mugabe Avenue, for enjoying the weekends in Harare Gardens and for “occult and spiritual divining” at Queen Victoria library. The reader will taste another intense degree of downslide of Tambu’s morality in chapter 19 where she makes a transaction with her mother by promising a leg for Netsai, her sister, “as a kind of barter for the programme” of the finest organic tourism spot for the Westerns as if Tambu “bloated tongues spill onto the earth” where her “umbilical cord is buried.”
From the ebbing, the first part, to the arrival, the last part, most of the pronounced characters either young/old, black/white or central/peripheral are women and their contributions to creating and developing a nation and branding and uplifting the spirits of the traditions and cultures of a country which are very much unique in recent literary landscapes. Dangarembga shows us how Zimbabwean war-women like Christine, Netsai and Mailini have been bearing all the sufferings and the nightmares in their lives as the narrator says:
The women from war are like that, a new kind of being that no one knew before… it is rumored the blood stopped flowing to their wombs the first time they killed a person. … so that the ancestors tied up the nation’s prosperity in repugnance at the awfulness of it, just they had done to the women’s wombs.”
As like the representation of the spirit of Zimbabwean women, as Tambu boastfully says, they “shriek with grief and throw themselves around. They go to war. They drug patients in order to go ahead.” The reader will gradually come to feel the psychological tenacity a woman can go through in a life. To visualize these coarse episodes of women psyche, Dangaremga flares up some motifs of an army of crawling and creeping ants and spiders over her neck and across her skull; a growling and laughing hyena into her head and her flowing womb down her hip bones.
This Mournable Body was a title of a fiction until 28th of July 2020 but it is not a fiction anymore after 31st of July 2020 the day she has been arrested by Zimbabwean security forces only because she has violated the law against anti-corruption demonstration in protest of detainment of the Zimbabwean journalists who are reporting, gathering and protesting the President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government policies that pushing the fledgling country in the full destitution; and the authority has called the demonstration a ‘planned insurrection.’ The novel is real now like her own life when she has, on the same day, tweeted: “Friends, here is a principle. If you want your suffering to end, you have to act. Action comes from hope. This the principle of faith and action.” And the tweet notifies us that literature is a political act itself as well as an artful product; and journalism is not a crime. The trilogy is a perfect blending of facts and fiction, Dangarembga has been carrying Tambu on her shoulder for thirty years, correspondingly, Tambu has been growing with her woes in pace with Zimbabwe’s cry of despair. Moreover, the narrative view of the second person merges the characters and readers with such a dexterity that will push you to feel as if it is your own private story. This Mournable Body is a phenomenal tour de force of human freedom and dignity, of women solidarity, of reality and its desperation, is a canonical and sublime knowledge of Zimbabwean history.
Lynn Sloan is a photographer and the author of This Far Isn’t Far Enough, a story collection, and Principles of Navigation, a novel, chosen for Chicago Book Review’s Best Books of 2015. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Shenandoah, American Literary Fiction, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and included in NPR’s Selected Shorts. Her photographs have been exhibited nationally and internationally. For many years she taught photography in the MFA program of Columbia College Chicago, where she founded Occasional Readings in Photography and contributed to Afterimage, Art Week, and Exposure.
Patricia Ann McNair has managed a gas station, served as a medical volunteer in Honduras, sold pots and pans door to door, tended bar and breaded mushrooms, worked on the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and now teaches in the English and Creative Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. Her acclaimed short story collection Responsible Adults was released in December 2020 by Cornerstone Press. McNair’s The Temple of Air received Southern Illinois University’s Devil’s Kitchen Readers Award and the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award. And These Are The Good Times was a Montaigne Medal finalist. She lives in Chicago with her husband, visual artist Philip Hartigan.
This interview is with past contributor, Patricia Ann McNair, conducted by Lynn Sloan, on March 1, 2021. It is in regards to Patricia’s new story collection, Responsible Adults.
Lynn Sloan: Patty, I’ve enjoyed and admired your work for years, so it’s a real treat to have a chance to ask you about your writing and your new story collection, Responsible Adults. Great title. It’s the title of one of your stories, but what it suggests, a bad situation where a sound, responsible adult is needed, can be applied broadly to this entire collection. Reversing those two words of the title to adults responsible also works. In these stories, it is usually the adult, the one in charge, who is responsible for the harm done. When in the process of pulling together this collection did you choose this title?
Patricia Ann McNair: Hello, Lynn, and what a pleasure to talk with you as well! I think you are exactly right that these stories and the situations the characters find themselves in ache for the intervention of a responsible adult. That was something that became clear to me as I started to put these pieces into a binder to see what they might look like as a collection. I hadn’t finished the story that the title Responsible Adults comes from quite yet, and in a way that has never happened before, the title for the collection came to me before I had a story for it. I just liked the sound of it, Responsible Adults, especially as I thought of it in regards to the relationships in the stories. “Who is responsible here” can have a different meaning from “Who is responsible for this?” One implies a sort of blame, an insinuation of guilt, the other assumes that someone is in charge. Each of these ideas speaks to my stories in some way, so, yeah, the title stuck with me. And then I had to find one of my unfinished, untitled stories that might make use of those two words as well. A sort of backward approach for me; I usually like to find a title that has surfaced organically in a story and can do double duty for the collection. But this time the title asserted itself into and onto the book.
LS: Most of your stories involve parents and their children. Though swift and taut, almost all of your stories cover an arc of many years, even when the present moment of the story lasts only a few minutes. In “Good News or Money,” an adult daughter calls her estranged father and leaves a series of phone messages. In “Responsible Adults,” the narrator says, “Time was something stretchy to me, long and short, short and long.” Can you talk about time in your stories?
PAM: I have always admired the kind of story that makes the reader feel as though the world of it existed before the first line, and will continue in some way after the last one. So as a writer, I need to establish a sort of continuum of time in the pages. Funnily enough, I usually do that through breaking the chronology of the story. A character—if we are trying to make them human—in any given moment has other moments behind them, and more ahead (usually, that is, unless we are talking about Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” for instance). I like to visit those moments that are outside of the story, as a character would. “Good News or Money” features a seventeen-year-old girl who carries a lot of crappy memories that she is unwilling to let her father forget, so she excises them in her phone message. The story is meant to read as though it were happening in real-time, pauses and interruptions and all. And time is something stretchy to me, too, perhaps in this historical moment it is to all of us. In “What Girls Want” I especially jump around in time, in narrative distance, and this is partly because of the way the narrator is willing—and not—to admit their involvement in things, in the lives of others. His self-awareness evolves, his confessions are difficult and sporadic, his culpability spans years.
LS: In several of these stories, the relationship of care or responsibility is outside the family—a cop in “Serve and Protect,” and a teacher with her own troubles who faces a difficult teenage student in “Regarding Alix.” You teach writing, you’re a professor, you know the complications and limits of responsibilities of a teacher. Did that make this story easy to write or hard?
PAM: “Regarding Alix” is one of the more autobiographical stories in the book (although all of them have some part of me, some memory or observation or emotional tug of mine). In that sense, it was easy to write because of the closeness I had to the situation of teaching a group of teen-aged writing students at a boarding school. It was right after 9/11. During, really; our first day of the semester was September 11. Making that setting and using that tension—the overwhelming sadness and worry we all felt—apparent on the page was not too difficult. But I am interested in this idea of the responsibility of teachers, perhaps especially right now while we all have to renegotiate the way we teach and interact with our students. There was some of that when the towers went down, too. So much was out of our control, out of the control of our students. It is amazing to me that we survive these things, but we usually do. This current crisis is ongoing, and every day we hear about how students are suffering, struggling. And I can’t help think about us, too, the teachers. We are expected to be the responsible adults here, some would say we are paid to be. And yet, as in “Regarding Alix,” we are not always fully equipped to make things better. I think I veered away from the heart of your question there. Easy to write, maybe, but hard to do. Hard to shoulder my (our, their) responsibilities and to admit my (our, their) failings.
LS: One of my favorite stories is “What Girls Want” in which the dad blows up a suburban version of the American dream during an afternoon barbeque, alienating forever his wife and young daughter. But it’s his relationship to a neighbor kid, the boy who asked him, “What do girls want?” who later exposes the irrevocable damage the dad has done to himself. I loved this. How did you decide to use a secondary character in such a pivotal way?
PAM: Some years ago I saw a man I had known in college on the train. He, like I, was nearing middle age, and was a very different human than he was when I knew him. He had been an odd and sensitive kid in college; the man on the train was out of it, rocking and smiling and overdressed for the summer day in a heavy coat. He was a bit of a mess, actually. I carried that image with me for a long time; I saw him more than once, he didn’t remember me, I could tell. I looked for him whenever I was on that line at the end of the day. I suppose I knew I wanted to write a story about someone like him. Someone who gets lost as they become an adult, who migrates quite a ways from the nerdy, weird, interesting young person they were. The first draft of “What Girls Want” started with my recreated character on the train, but that wasn’t working. I needed to explore how he got there. I imagined him as a child, as someone that was both smart and annoying, in that way kids can be especially to some unaware adults. So I had to create a flawed, unaware adult. From there I let the character—Gregory—be more of a wrench than the gears of the story. His role was to mess things up for the main character—or at least to give the main character someone to blame for the things he messes up. The heart of the story is the stepfather/daughter relationship, and Gregory provides a sort of triangulation that pulls at that, creating an uneasy balance.
LS: People act badly in your stories and they harm others, others who rely on them. While your sympathy, and ours, is with the harmed, you also make us understand the anguish of those who cause the damage. At what point in writing do you explore this side?
PAM: God, we all make mistakes, don’t we? I don’t know about you, but every time I do something stupid or harmful (usually without intention) I hold so much guilt about it! I try not to be afraid of admitting when I mess up, but I also want to figure out why I do, and maybe try to explain it to whomever I have messed up against. I know I start making a story with an awareness of trouble, of bad behavior. That trouble happens before I can figure out much else, but it is never enough on its own to make a very good story. The people I know, the people I grew up with, the adults who were responsible in my life (and weren’t) are multifaceted. They misstepped, they fell and hurt themselves, maybe fell on someone else in the process. But that doesn’t always mean they shouldn’t be able to try to get up and step again. Even as I make my way through this answer, I am aware that there are folks I really do believe don’t deserve a second chance or our understanding. People who were recently in charge of so much, did so much damage. Some part of me does not believe that they are capable of change or betterment or even self-reflection. But in the everyday way of things, people screw up, and in my fiction, I believe it is important to consider why that might be, or what the consequences of the bad behavior might be on the doer, or how they might change because of it. In fiction—maybe more than in life, is this true?—the bad guys need to have more depth than just their badness. In fiction, characters must suffer their wounds. We, their writers, and they, the characters, owe that to the readers.
LS: As a writer who is always reaching for the next challenge, what comes next?
PAM: Well, immediately what comes next is surviving this semester of remote instruction. While I am teaching, it is hard for me to sink into the work I want to do, the writing of things other than assignments in a learning management system, comments on student work, complaints in my journal. This has always been the case for me, not just during this pandemic. But! But in just a few weeks I will turn my attention back to the work of a novel-in-progress. I am working on a story that takes place in a lake community in the seventies. There is infidelity, race issues, abortion, nosey neighbors. A sort of wet Peyton Place, you might say. Thank you for asking!
Following is an interview conducted by Superstition Review‘s Poetry Editor, Erin Peters.
Jaclyn Youhana Garver is a freelance writer in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She writes fiction and poetry, and she has been featured in Narrow Road, Poets Reading the News, and Prometheus Dreaming (forthcoming). Her work has also been chosen by the Wick Poetry Center as a Traveling Stanza selection.
A COLLEGE GIRL MAKES WARDROBE DECISIONS BASED ON THE POSSIBILITY OF A RANDOM TSA SCREENING 1964 White kid gloves / cinched waist / her perched hat the precise plum match to her two-piece suit / a corsage (seriously, a goddamned corsage) / a Cherries in the Snow pout / a blushing visage coral or rose / a fur, perhaps, in beaver or lamb. 2004 Pajama pants, peppered in cartoons / flip flops with jewels that stud the thongs / pigtails (seriously, goddamn pigtails) / a gray T-shirt that boasts, “Journalists do it daily.” Don’t look at me, Terry, standing in line. I know you’ve a quota to meet, so many at random searches to complete to assure you don’t permit on the plane any drugs, bombs or hydrogen dioxide. (Water, Terry, I’m talking about water.) It doesn’t matter, though. You’ll search me nonetheless, just like that agent last time and the agent who’ll be next. And anyways, I’ll stick with PJs and pigtails, my sandwich board to shout I’m threatening like sidewalk chalk, an eagle scout, freckles, and winks, but apparently, the extra melanin in my skin, a gift from my father, means you must pull me from the line, away from my friends—none of whom you also select at random, I see, goddamn it, Terry—so you run the backs of your Caucasian hands along my Persian arms, my cartooned inseam, my Assyrian torso. Then you make me move my Iranian pigtails from my Middle Eastern shoulders. You look so bored, Terry, and I wonder if you notice: We’re quite the chatty portrait of our country tis of thee.
Interview With Jaclyn:
The setting of your poem is very specific and relatable for people who have travelled in American airports. What inspired you to write about the experience of a TSA screening?
This summer, I found a photo of myself at an airport in 2004, with two college friends, on the way to a Society of Professional Journalists conference in NYC. For the three or so years after 9/11, I began to be “randomly” searched on every flight I boarded. Seriously. Every flight. I thought it would help if I dressed in an unintimidating way. I remember I did this each time I flew, but it was wild to see photographic proof, especially compared to two other young adults who were dressed in, you know, normal airplane-appropriate clothing. Finding the photo, seeing how 21-year-old me felt like she had to dress, seriously pissed me off.
You’ve spent an impressive amount of time working for daily newspapers during your professional career. How do you feel this writing experience impacted you creatively?
I can’t even imagine writing creatively without my journalism experience. Writing for a daily newspaper made me completely deadline-focused. If a journalist doesn’t finish her story on time, there could an actual hole in the newspaper. Plus, the piece needs to be done well and accurately, often in hours or less—journalists don’t have days and days to perfect a piece of writing.
I adore the saying Done is better than perfect. Writers, especially creative writers, can get stuck in this I can’t show this to anyone because it’s not perfect hole. Then nothing ever gets finished. Writing for a daily newspaper was a wonderful way to keep from being too precious about my words. What I write matters, and it’s important to me, but once I turn in a story, it’s on to the next thing.
Writing for daily publication also gave me tough skin. I adore editor feedback and love seeing how subsequent drafts improve. Similarly, I also trust my gut. Writing is a wonderful mixture of both subjectivity and objectivity, even in poetry. My newspaper experience gave me an almost scientific approach to being creative.
What audience do you hope to reach through your poetry? Why is this audience meaningful to you?
As a reader, the best feeling is “Oh my goodness, you too? I thought I was the only one.” As a writer, then, that’s who I want to reach—anyone who has felt like me, to help them feel less alone. Strangely, the opposite is true, too: It’s such a rush to be told “I never thought of it in that way before.”
Those audiences are meaningful to me because it means we have a shared experience. Especially in 2020, feeling a connection—to anyone, even some writer you’ve never met—is vital.
How has the global pandemic impacted your creative process?
The pandemic hasn’t impacted my creative process so much as it’s impacted my creative output. I’ve written poetry since I was about 12 and I had a writing minor in college, so writing creatively has always been a part of my life. However, the pandemic made me itch to do more. I answered that by enrolling in a poetry class. The instructor helped me figure out what was missing from my poetry unlike any writing teacher I’ve had before. After the class, I asked where she was teaching next, and I signed up for that class, too. She helped me see where and how my work could be improved, which simultaneously showed me how to edit my own work.
This year has been hard, and there are a few things I can point to and say “That, specifically, made things a little easier.” Writing poetry is one of those things.
What is the most important piece of advice you have received as a writer?
In college, a journalism professor taught us to let the other person have the last say. When someone reaches out to a reporter to complain about something they wrote, the caller or emailer doesn’t actually care what the writer has to say about it. They just want to be heard (and maybe to be nasty). That knowledge, that someone who has something mean to say isn’t looking for a response, is incredibly freeing.
What are your upcoming projects?
I have a number of manuscripts in the works, but two are currently taking up the most of my time—a poetry book and a women’s fiction novel, which I will be pitching to agents early next year. I also write horror short stories. I love bouncing between genres and working on projects of varying lengths.
Following is an interview conducted by Superstition Review‘s Poetry Editor, Erin Peters.
Paul Chuks is an emerging Nigerian poet, writer and song writer, studying philosophy at the University of Benin, Edo state, Nigeria. He has appeared or is forthcoming in StreetCake Magazine, Kalahari Review, Neurological Magazine, Afritondo, The Remnant Archive and was recently shortlisted for The 49th Street‘s top ten poets in Nigeria. When Paul is not reading or writing songs, he’s critiquing the hiphop game or mimicking Michael Jackson.
To the Man Standing at the corner lifting the placard that said “All Lives Matter” as a protest against Black Lives Matter.
Your ancestors have apparelled in seem like bruteness in the past
But in this one, you are standing in a corner watching black lives evanesce like lights beholding a murky sky.
You think about justice, but your soul is
a leaky faucet, expelling your empathy
into an abysmal pit.
My ancestors’ tears are the ghosts of this poem/appearing as metaphors/telling you to drop that placard, go home & shut your mouth like Trump’s border[s]/because you are slow-dancing with the injustice of their history.
You are sipping our pain into a black-
hole/& our cries go out like a bird’s
tweet against a horrendous wind-
This poem is a scar tissue/like the body of a slave/telling the world/that blacks wouldn’t clamour for their lives to matter if there was fairness/as the world wouldn’t know dryness if there were no tongues.
Interview with Paul:
What motivated you to write your poem as a direct address? What impact do you hope this form will have on your audience?
I wrote the poem as a direct address, because many have allowed themselves to elude the important message of the movement, that is: take black lives seriously as you take others. When George Floyd’s sad situation happened, & the BLM movement kicked off to an almost untamable situation, many on the internet, sewed threads that ran counter to the BLM movement, with the prevalent theme: ALL LIVES MATTER. It irked me because they have not recognized that ALL LIVES MATTER remains a superstition, if a black boy can be shot at, because he reached into his car for his hair-brush, but the officer mistook it for a gun. And the jury acquits the officer on account that he tried to clamp down a druggie. ALL LIVES MATTER is a remark of the ignorant, or the devil, who enjoys the maltreatment of black people.
What has inspired you to write about the Black Lives Matter movement?
I think my biggest inspiration to write about the BLM movement, is the fact that I’m black. I have an ambition of taking a Masters course in America. The moment I get there, I’ll wear the profile of a black boy. I also write about them, because I can feel & perceive their pain. The Injustice makes all of us bleed from sealed places.
What audience do you hope to reach through your poetry? Why is this audience meaningful to you?
My poetry is intended to be variegated with everything possible to make a subject of, so i want the whole world to listen to me, while i play the game of painting pictures with words & inkling of my feeling(s). B: the audience is meaningful because without them, my tag as a poet is a facade. My pets can’t read, neither can the birds that perch on the trees behind my house.
How has the global pandemic impacted your creative process?
The pandemic has not affected my creative process, so far. Rather, my academic life. It has cancelled an academic year, pushing my future farther..all in this transient life.
What is the most important piece of advice you have received as a writer?
My best advice as a writer was gotten from another awesome writer I admire: Nome Patrick. He said: Paul, read more than you write. It was an interesting discussion on the essence of reading and the miracle it does to one’s repertoire. It has worked so far.
What are your upcoming projects?
More & more poetry. In fact, a chapbook is in sight. But for now, more poetry.
When I thought about writing this I was stumped for an opening. What catchy first line speaks to being a writer in these socially traumatic times? Then it came to me. Thank you. Thank you for all the work I know you must have done, all the work I know you must be doing. Thank you for caring about the world even when that caring takes away from the time you have to write the novel, finish the poem or invent a new form we haven’t seen yet. Thank you for even thinking about doing something – that’s actually an active step in socially responsible responses. Thanks for helping where you can, at a foodbank, in a volunteer program, on a political campaign. Or on six political campaigns.
I live in Pennsylvania, where there are always at least six political campaigns that could use my help, my money, my time and my gasoline. I’m nearly 71 so I’m not able to do all the things my younger political friends and allies can, but the one good thing about a state as mucked up as Pennsylvania is today is that there is always a job to do that will fit your skills and energy. So, although there are countless ways you can respond to the social disfunction we call modern American, I want to talk a bit here about political activity.
Full disclosure: I did not come to politics naturally. The hot ticket items of the 70’s and 80’s involved me, the Vietnam War, Nuclear Power Plants, but I was not active in social movements like aiding AIDS victims. I’ve marched on Washington a few times, but I have not marched to end genocide or to change voter laws. I kept many issues at the periphery of my attention and I hoped that someone was addressing those issues. I was a poet. I made art. And art matters. I volunteered in the art field, teaching in schools and running a free writing workshop in my living room for fifteen years. But I was not a political operative.
Then came Trump. When I got past the flattening shock of the elections results, I realized that Pennsylvania put him over the line. The Republicans who crafted his campaign had been smart and sneaky. It was new to me, the way they got him elected. I knew they were able to do it in part because I had been asleep at the wheel. Politics, I’d thought, was not my domain. I was a good enough person doing lots of good things. Other good people were taking care of this political stuff. I thought they did not need me.
So that’s me. If you’re a conservative, you can still listen to (or read) this. Just substitute your values for mine, and consider what writers are called to do when a political crisis of this magnitude overtakes their country and their generation. I will set down a few things I had to do in the past election season, and in my ongoing involvement in politics. Other writers will probably need to do them too.
- I had to get educated about my local situation, and meet the local people responding to it. Here’s where I got lucky. A University of Pittsburgh professor, Marie Norman, responded to the 2016 election by forming a Facebook group to organize political action. She called it Order of the Phoenix (yup) and as soon as I caught wind of it, I joined. I was not alone.The group attracted a lot of people who were appalled not only by Trump as a man, but by the policies we knew his election would enable. When Trump said he would have all the “best people” running things Stephen Miller and Betsy De Vos showed up.
- I read a critical book that described in excruciating detail the Red Mapping that had damaged the fairness of state and federal districts in my state. “Ratf**ked” by David Daley, tells the story of the gerrymandering of America, state by painful state. Daley’s facts motivated me to get involved with elections and with a group that fights gerrymandering. In Pennsylvania, legal activists took the Republican controlled State Senate to court when they drew highly gerrymandered districts that violated legal constraints. The State Supreme Court ruled that they had to re-draw the maps using parameters that resulted in fairer representation for Pennsylvania’s citizens. I could explain all this, but just read Daley’s book – especially if you live in Arizona, or Wisconsin, or Florida, or Ohio, or Michigan. Or anywhere really, just read it.
- That led me into working on the 2018 election where we did well in southwestern PA. Republican control of our State legislature was impacted by the election of many Democrats. It’s great when things go that way. But there was no time to bask in that success.
- When 2019 came around, I asked, “there’s a 2019 election?” Yes, Deborah. There’s an election every year – not just when Senate and House seats are up for grabs. That year we worked to elect a better District Attorney for Allegheny County. We had a great candidate, but we lost. I look forward to helping her win next time. For me this was another lesson: if you want social change you have to think long-term while you work as if this is your only chance. You must persist in the face of defeat.
- Then there was this year – and you no doubt know that Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes put Biden over the top. You might not know how big a part Allegheny County played in that. We made a difference, maybe even the difference. In Allegheny County the group that may have had the biggest effect is Order of the Phoenix. And when the race was called for President-Elect Biden, we all got to feel something we cannot expect to feel again soon.
So that brings us to now. What does this history have to do with you, with writers in the age of Social Unrest? Well, here are a few thoughts:
- Social unrest means there’s something very wrong. Contented citizens do not spend their time hollering. So whichever side of our current divide you’re on, there is a place for you to work, and work you should. That does not mean you can’t write poems, essays and novels as well. There is no “one size fits all” in responding to current events. The many things that happen in our personal lives matter. Family and friends still matter. Music matters. Art matters. Gardening matters. Having fun matters. Laughing matters. Being lazy matters. Looking at clouds matters. But there should be some time and energy that you put into bettering this world at every stage of your life. When I was between trying to stop Nuclear Proliferation and trying to stop Trumpism, I was raising kids, sustaining my community, being a lover, a wife, a writer, a teacher and you will be (or are) those things too. Those were worthy pursuits, but I regret not keeping my eye on the way things were going nationally. I regret that my serious political involvement came so late. I regret that we were on the way to this place for such a long time while I was ignorant. This will be a lifelong regret. Mea culpa.
- So we can work. We can educate ourselves in lots of areas, not just in the literary world. We should learn about our states, our towns, our cities, our neighborhoods. Who is feeding your homeless? How are school funds disbursed? None of us can work on every problem but we can keep swinging our eyes around the landscape to keep it all in mind. We can choose something to learn a lot about. I have a political ally who studies how elections are conducted. She knows the safety records behind various kinds of balloting. She knows who makes voting machines and how the contracts to do that are awarded. She knows what local governing bodies have the final say on issues related to voting. I didn’t even know we had a County Council here who makes these decisions. When I need to know about election issues, I contact Julie. I’m re-visiting everything I can find about gerrymandering – the laws and practices, the US Supreme Court cases. I hope to be a useful resource about that when I’m done. But my other specialty is being a good foot soldier. I take orders well these. When we need to get yard signs distributed, when thousands of postcards need to go in the mail to get voters to the polls, when we need to recruit other workers, I’m a good person to contact. There is always a critical issue here, and there are always great people to work with – folks who keep me at it, or let me off the hook when I need time off, because we all have lives, need rest, and all that other good stuff. But – for a start – we can get educated about how things work where we live.
- I had to admit that the things I do, and the things I don’t do matter. That’s not complicated, but it’s easy to forget. Take a look at climate issues, the economy, the educational system, the healthcare system, voting rights, energy production, food distribution, and especially racial inequity which will be a part of the story in each of the preceding areas.
- Find your tribe, your people, your interests, and once you do, stay loyal. These are the people who will sustain you all your life. It may be something as personal as reminding you to keep sending out your work, or as big as reminding you to care about the generations who will need this planet when we are long gone. This is what is currently called “selfcare” – a phrase I find chilly and antiseptic, but then I’m an old lady.
And that’s it from me. Thanks for reading this. I’d love to hear from those of you engaged in political work, big issue work, little issue work, any of it. I don’t go to writers’ conventions anymore, but I sometimes imagine a session where there is no panel, no major writer. Regular writers just come in and write briefly about the work for the world they are doing. Then those descriptions, those pieces of paper, are pinned to a very big wall so we can see how effective we can be. This is the age for the fully engaged citizen and the fully engaged writer. Meet you on the ramparts.
“Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.”–W.H. Auden
In late autumn of 1972, when I was twenty-two-years-old, I visited Mozarts Geburtshaus (Mozart’s Birth House), in Salzburg, Austria. I was one of only a handful of pilgrims climbing the narrow stairs to the cramped, former living quarters. Looking into a display case containing some of Mozart’s personal effects, I became transfixed by a lock of the composer’s hair. I recalled a familiar passage from Michael Kelly’s Reminiscences: “[Mozart] was a remarkably small man, very thin and pale, with a profusion of fine fair hair, of which he was rather vain.” And there it was: a lock of that same “fine fair hair”—exactly as described by one of Mozart’s personal friends. I was in a dream-like state, until a tall, uniformed man, in his late-sixties or early-seventies, tapped my shoulder and motioned for me to follow him. I didn’t think I had done anything wrong—so I followed without complaint, and was led to a small, eighteenth-century clavichord. The curator’s stern face suddenly gave way to a benevolent smile, as he pulled back a plexiglass covering from the clavichord’s keyboard: granting me permission to play. A placard identified the instrument as the one used by Mozart while composing his opera The Magic Flute. I was a tubist; not a pianist. But thanks to a former college piano proficiency class, I was able to plunk out the opening measures from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11. My fingers were touching the very keys Mozart touched.
It’s not my intention to present the above memory as a travel-log boast—or a “Bucket List” notch (the Bucket List craze was not around in 1972; and at my current stage of life, I consider that practice an empty pursuit, and more than a little macabre). Mozart was—and remains to this day—my absolute favorite composer. My experience in Salzburg freed the composer from his plaster-of-Paris bust and helped me to see him as a fellow human being, with whom I could have shared bread and wine and enjoyable conversation. And for reasons I can’t explain, my newfound “long-distance” friendship enhanced my awe of the inscrutable genius of this “remarkably small” man’s remarkably profound music.
Around 1980, my professional music career was cut short by a non-life-threatening condition called “Embouchure Dystonia.”A few years later, I was able to lose my self-pity,and turn my creative energies to writing short stories. Good friend that he is, Mozart stuck around; and his music has continued to be a balm for my soul, and an influence on my writing. Which brings me to the Mozartean.
For most of my years writing short stories, I have considered the Mozarteana touchstone. My use of the term refers not to musicological analysis, but rather the emotional and spiritual elements Mozart’s music lends to deep expressions of the human condition. The fact is, I’ma bit rusty on my music theory. And even if I were able to outline an analysis of, say, the finale movement of the “Jupiter Symphony,” it wouldn’t explain the workings of Mozart’s imagination. Genius and the imagination cannot be deconstructed,distilled, or tacked upon a Periodic Table. The best we can do is attempt informed and thoughtful descriptions of the mystery.
In 1956 (the bi-centennial of Mozart’s birth),theologian Karl Barth wrote: “What occurs in Mozart is rather a glorious upsetting of balance, a turning in which the light rises and the shadows fall, though without disappearing . . .”That same year Frank O’Connor (a patron saint of the Mozartean short story) describes the Mozartean way of seeing things as “half way between
tragedy and comedy, [representing] a human norm.”
Cross-pollination in the arts is nothing new. Ernest Hemingway, on more than one occasion, said that he wanted to write the way Cézanne painted. In a 1958 interview for the Paris Review, Hemingway was asked to name his “literary forebears.” He responded with a long list of great writers, painters, and two composers: Bach and Mozart. He said: “I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.”
The actual study of harmony and counterpoint would be a stretch for most people these days (or even in 1958). There are, of course, less severe approaches for the layperson. One approach would be to find Leonard Bernstein’s Young Person’s Concerts on YouTube. These incredible concert/lectures were broadcast on CBS (network television!), from 1958 to 1972.
A certain amount of spadework is necessary for all levels of art appreciation. We become better readers if we are able to see, hear and explain the differences between free verse and a Shakespearian sonnet. We become better listeners if we are able to hear and explain the differences between a Gregorian Chant and a Bach Cantata. Great art does not reveal its deepest treasures to a passive audience. It won’t happen by osmosis or pharmaceuticals.
But at the risk of sounding contradictory, I think it would be perfectly reasonable to begin the Mozartean quest simply by listening to some of Mozart’s compositions. I highly recommend beginning with two very short pieces: The Clarinet Concerto, and Ave Verum Corpus. Both of these pieces were written in the last year of Mozart’s short life; and both are exemplary of music in which the light rises and the shadows fall, though without disappearing.
Following is an interview conducted by Superstition Review‘s Poetry Editor, Erin Peters.
Usha Kishore is an Indian born British poet, and translator, resident on the Isle of Man, UK. Usha is currently a Research Scholar in Postcolonial Poetry at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. She has been anthologised by Macmillan, Hodder Wayland, Oxford University Press and Harper Collins among others. Her work has appeared in international journals like Asia Literary Review, Index on Censorship, Indian Literature, Pirene’s Fountain, Poetry Salzburg Review, South Asian Ensemble, South Asian Review, The Stinging Fly and The Warwick Review.
Usha’s poetry has won prizes in UK competitions, is part of international projects and features in the British Primary and Secondary syllabi and Indian Middle School and Undergraduate syllabi. Winner of an Isle of Man Arts Council Award and two Culture Vannin Awards, she is the author of three poetry collections and a book of translation from the Sanskrit. Her latest collection, ‘Immigrant’ was published in 2018 by Eyewear Publishing London.
“Drug Mule” by Usha Kishore:
She embroiders time under an alien sky:
chikankari on handkerchiefs, kutchi work
on cushion covers, kashmiri couching
on bedspreads. Draping a pristine white sari
over her wasted life, she clicks crochet needles
in the hollowed air of betrayal. Her seventy-five
years, spanning the length and breadth of India,
now cocooned in an English prison.
Here, she is everybody’s Ma – mother,
the word means the same in any culture.
She does not want to learn the sahib’s tongue;
she is content to live in the silence
of another language that mutters apologies
for her predicament. She has no visitors.
she is a drug mule, carrying a toxic crime;
a contraband for an air-ticket to see
her beloved grandchild. She shows me
smudged photographs of her great grandchildren
she has never seen, chanting their names
as if in a litany. Her frail voice wraps me
in dialect Hindi, as she searches my face
with faded kajal eyes. It is all His will,
she points to some sovereign of the skies,
summoned in reluctant cloud that peers
through the watery eye of the ceiling.
She does not dream of redemption, she does
not envisage freedom. She has nowhere to go.
Every morning, she mumbles a wounded prayer
to the miniature Ganesh, poised on a makeshift altar
in the corner of her cell. She measures her days
with skeins of crewel threads, snipping them
at pre-destined length, with tiny sewing scissors.
She sieves afternoon light in grams of flour,
translating it into her recipe of onion bhajis.
Counting the stars trapped in a weathered rosary
of tulsi beads, she falls back into her reverie:
cross stitch, chain stitch, smyrna, herringbone;
each stitch knotting an unheaved sigh.
Interview With Usha:
In a previous exchange, you had mentioned that this piece is particularly close to your heart. Could you speak more to that statement?
‘Drug Mule’ is based on drug trafficking and the use of women as drug carriers. The poem is close to my heart as I am committed to gender equality and I feel that the vulnerability of women is being exploited. According to BBC statistics (2005), 18% of the UK’s female prison population are foreigners and are imprisoned for drug related offences. It is also a painful fact that older South Asian women are being used as drug mules. It makes you wonder if these women are criminals or victims.
How do you incorporate social justice in your poetry?
Many of my poems are themed on social justice, especially on race and gender equality. As a member of an ethnic minority community in the UK, I am very much aware of differences and my poems highlight the need for more integration. My third collection, Immigrant (Eyewear Publishing, London, 2018) highlights the politics of being an immigrant professional interacting with discrimination and reflects on the binary perspectives of assimilation and marginalisation.
My second collection, Night Sky Between the Stars (Cyberwit India, 2015) reflects my pre-occupation with Indian womanhood and articulates concerns of a marginalised gendered identity. The poems in this collection draw heavily from Indian myth, rendering voices to female mythical characters and projects Indian womanhood in a different light.
You have written three books of poetry as well as a book of translation from Sanskrit. How has your work in translation influenced your more personal writing projects?
My translations from the Sanskrit certainly influence my poetry in the form of thematic concerns and uniquely Sanskrit literary devices such as vyatireka (comparative excellence), dṛṣṭānta (a figurative device that can be described as ‘simile-like’ or parallel) and vakrokti (creative twist).
How has the global pandemic affected your writing process?
I am an English teacher in a secondary school on the Isle of Man, where thankfully, the effect of the pandemic has not been that severe. So, the schools are open and functioning (we were only briefly shut in Spring. We re-opened in Summer). I usually have to find time to write, amidst a busy schedule. I am currently a PhD scholar in Postcolonial Poetry with Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. So, in the last two years, my writing has been put on the back burner.
The global pandemic has brought a creative surge, especially in poetry, signifying that the human spirit rises above global challenges. At this difficult time, a considerable number of poetry anthologies, themed issues of journals and discussions on poetry have all come to the forefront. Poetry is a healer!
Some editor friends have been keeping my work alive by soliciting submissions and giving me opportunities to participate in poetry webinars. Coincidentally, a friend of mine alerted me to your call for submissions on Social Justice. My writing has certainly picked up again.
What is the most important piece of advice you have received as a writer?
It’s not over yet!
It was a real struggle to get my first collection into print, despite being published internationally. I was about to quit. The above advice, ‘it’s not over yet,’ was given to me by the founder-member of the Isle of Man Poetry Society, the late Jeff Garland. Soon after this conversation with Jeff, I received Arts Council and Culture Vannin grants and my first collection, On Manannan’s Isle was published on island in 2014. I have not looked back hence.
What are your upcoming projects?
As mentioned earlier, currently my research takes priority.
However – Translation wise, I have completed the translation of the Sanskrit epyllion, Ṛtusaṃhāram by the legendary Kalidasa. I am seeking a publisher for this project.
I am also translating Jaisankar Prasad’s Hindi epic, Kamayani (1936) that falls under the Chhayavaadi school of Hindi Poetry. Chhayavaad has been interpreted as Neo-Romanticism, I would call it Romantic mysticism. Kamayani addresses human emotions in pathetic fallacy, personification, and mythological metaphors. This has been a slow process as I would like to do justice to this epic, amidst time constraints. I have found this translation extremely challenging, but highly inspiring and enlightening.
The poetry goes on! I don’t think I am ready for another collection yet. But recently, I have started submitting to journals like Superstition Review! Thank you very much for accepting my work for your blog on social justice.
High tide rushes out upon the sour smell of sulfur and methane gas released from the drying peat beneath our feet. Ribbed mussels exposed along the creek bed seal their twin valves tightly and go to sleep under the drying sun as gulls and terns plunge into the shallowing water searching for killifish and flashing silversides in the receding flow. The water is brown and silt-laden under skies blue and wispy with tattered clouds. Walking out onto the marsh we look like hobbits carting heavy equipment into the misty mountains, each slumped under the weight of canisters of dry concrete, steel rods and a jackhammer. We’d come to drive steel rods into the salt marsh until we met refusal against a subterranean gravel bed, possibly deposited a thousand years ago by a hurricane. Some of the rods go down seventy feet, pushing the limits of the jackhammer to anchor our devices, delicate things called “surface elevation tables” or SETs. These devices will let us measure the marsh surface elevation, which over time will let us know if the land is sinking or rising.
The dreadful mathematics behind these measurements are inexorable, the SET like nature’s chronometer tuned to silt accretion on the marsh’s surface or its erosion and loss due to sea level rise and global warming. This fearful symmetry is a balance we must measure and maintain if life along the coast is to be sustained. For by all measures the coastal lands in New Jersey are expected to lose this long-term war with the sea because climate change is no longer a hypothesis but a fact that must be understood, measured, and adapted to. As seawater heats up it expands like steam whistling from a kettle, the shoreline sinking under this expansion, water permeating rivers and coastal bays like a child’s bathtub filling with bubbles. The air above these waterways fill with moisture, as well, which moves inland on the sea breezes until cooling heights bring it down again in rainstorms and floods. Unseen and distant, yet no less important to this rise in sea surface, are the shrinking glaciers in the mountains and calving icebergs at the planet’s poles. Until at last, their melting tonnage is added to the mass of the seas, which move they must, inland and up over the millions of homes that line the earth’s waterways.
Adaptation is the key to what we need to do now. For to survive in our flimsy houses along the beach, our skyscrapers in New York City, or even the quiet village a hundred miles upstream of the coast but whose tidal intrusion brings salt water and killing infiltration of drinking water wells along the estuaries, we must adapt to what the world will become. For scientists these facts, based on field-collected data from ice cores and SET tables, are an abacus we cannot ignore. A multitude of empirical facts like those we collect from our SETs alarm us as to their long-term implications. Yet the populace seems asleep, wary of the predictions from natural scientists whose job is to watch and measure.
In his famous 1959 book “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” C. P. Snow the scientist and popular novelist posited that there are two modes of knowledge, the humanistic and the scientific. He postulated that because of these differing educational approaches, which are mutually exclusive, they generate two opposing worldviews. His famous challenge to the “literary intellectuals” after hearing them harangue about the illiteracy of scientists was to challenge them to describe Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics. He noted, “The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of, “Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”
This dichotomy, Snow felt, impeded any meaningful communication between the two camps without serious translation. Subsequently there emerged a furious debate on whether the phenomena really existed at all, and if it did, whether a means existed to bridge the two cultures. Snow felt it might which he described in a subsequent book entitled “The Third Culture,” which called for an infusion of both science and humanities into higher education. I have been fortunate in my own education to have lived in both worlds, first by studying Classical Languages and then Marine Biology. So, I can see both sides and understand this dichotomy in practice. In fact, even among practicing scientists there can be a communications breakdown due to the forced early specialization required in universities. Listening to an engineer’s explanation of an event sometimes makes me feel a “stranger in a strange land.”
For science uses not only a technical vocabulary but also a different way of processing information. In fact, we now know from neurological studies that humans use different parts of the brain to process information. This phenomenon called the “right brain – left brain” dichotomy where research showed that the two different hemispheres of the brain are responsible for different manners of thinking. The left-brain is logical, sequential and rational, analytic and objective, and tends to look at the parts of a problem. In contrast, the right brain functions more randomly, is intuitive, holistic and synthesizing, and subjectively looks at the totality of a problem.
Most individuals are born with a distinct preference for one of these styles of thinking although some are more whole-brained and integrated. Left-brain people are naturally adept at logical thinking, analysis, and accuracy, with linear reasoning and language functions such as grammar and vocabulary lateralized to the left hemisphere of the brain. In contrast, right-brained individuals focus more on aesthetics, feelings, and creativity with an enhanced sense for processing visual and musical stimuli. They are also good at spatial manipulation, understanding facial perceptions and possess what we call artistic ability.
This “right brain – left brain dichotomy” found useful application by speech pathologists when dealing with left hemisphere brain injuries. For example, in cases of aphasia, or speech loss, due to left hemisphere head traumas they will use music therapy to reintroduce language since this involves the right side of the brain, which reaffirms the grammatical rules lost to the damaged left hemisphere. Thus, when I turned to studying science after years of Latin and Greek poetry my brain fizzled a bit at first under this new paradigm. But with perseverance, I mastered the fundamentals and gained proficiency in both worlds forcibly creating the third culture envisioned by C.P Snow within my own cerebellum.
Yet the discontinuities of the two cultures paradigm I found persisted when I moved out of Academia and took my first job, especially due to the unique characteristics of an applied scientist working for a government agency where my endeavors required both practicality as well as accuracy. I was also fortunate in as much as my position as a “research scientist.” Now many layman and people un-attuned to the process of science may not see the significance of this statement. To elaborate, a scientist or a technician may use science but not study science or understand the underlying principles that drive its conclusions.
For example, a mathematics teacher may understand the elements of algebra and calculus, which he dutifully teaches to his wards in a junior high school. Similarly, a structural engineer will use these same mathematical equations to devise a stress diagram for building a bridge based on the know load capacity of commercially available steel plate. However, in selecting his steel he may have access to a dozen metallurgical mixtures using various combinations of chrome or titanium to augment the mineral composition of the steel. These are both applications of science. Yet the materials scientist who painstakingly devised experiment after experiment to test hypothesis on which mixture would make the best steel superstructure for the bridge, he engaged in research using the time-tested methods that have come down to us from antiquity on how best to pose and answer scientific questions.
The scientific method of research has four steps including the observation and description of some interesting phenomenon; the formulation of a hypothesis to explain this phenomenon; the use of the hypothesis in an experiment to predict your phenomena and quantify the results of your observation; and the lastly performance of experiments testing your predictions by other independent researchers. In my own field of marine biology and environmental science, this hypothesis might be as open as “How many fish are in the sea?” to more pragmatically “How many bluefish can fishermen catch before the population crashes?”
Research by the National Marine Fisheries Service addresses this latter question, which entailed catching and tagging bluefish off the Atlantic coast. The released fish were subsequently captured by fisherman from Florida to Maine with a promise of monetary reward if the tags were mailed back to the Service. After careful deliberation and years of capture, the Service concluded that the bluefish population off the east coast had a complex, size-specific migratory behavior. They self-sorted into similar size and age schools that started inshore then moved progressively offshore to seek larger prey as they grew. Moreover, these schools moved seasonally in echelon up the coast to feed on the billons of tiny animals called zooplankton that grew in response to the annual explosion of microscopic one-celled plants called plankton, which thrived in the cold yet nutrient-rich northern waters. Because of these studies and others like it, the United States government sets both commercial and recreational fishing quotas based on science as validated by research. The policy of the limits on certain types of seafood is typically protested by fishermen, but buoyed by the scientifically defensible research, thus policy-makers can assure them that their actions are not indiscriminate but based on a sampling and what each fishery can endure.
It is unfortunate that many of today’s politicians and policymakers confronted with the same kind of empirical facts about “climate change” and its more insidious symptoms such as sea level rise and the increase in extreme weather events, fail to see the facts and trust the scientists hired to inform them. Adaptation is the human genius. From the first hominid making a stone axe that saw flints spark and the savannah grass around him flame up to the eighteenth-century alchemist who invented chemistry by mixing chemicals in pursuit of gold, the analytical mind of man has lead the way to the modern world and all it technological wonders. But scientists are trained to be skeptical and to only weigh evidence despite the shaman in the corner of the hut screaming at his loss of prestige.
Climate change and sea level rise are the latest challenges to our long-term survivability on the coasts of the world. If given unfettered resources and allowed to work closely with planners and policymakers, the 21st century and its unusual hazards might be managed more effectively. If not, what we will see are a series of short-term fixes after each extreme weather event, or a hap-dash collection of sinking impoundments as each mile of coastline falls beneath the waters.
As I note in my book, “Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the New Garden State” (2010) data from deep sediment cores suggested that stable barrier islands with shallow lagoons and salt marshes behind them evolved in New Jersey only 4,000 years before the present. Prior to that the ocean swept in unhindered to crash against the continental margin. Native Americans arriving on the eastern coast of North America around 10,000 years ago may have witnessed the slow rise of these shoals into islands, their greening by windblown seeds and eventual colonization by diverse animal species during winter freezing of the bays. Eventually this gave rise to the unique forested ecosystem that Europeans found in the sixteenth century and which persist in protected areas today.
The tragedy is that in this current era our children may have the reciprocal experience of watching helplessly as the islands are reclaimed by the sea due to human negligence. The waves pushed ashore will be aided by the unseen hand of man, the greenhouse gases of our industrial revolution undoing in a century what it took a millennium for storm surge and wind to create. So, from my perspective sea level rise research projects are more critical and convey a greater sense of urgency than any that have gone before. Because of the greater risk at stake it is important that we study, plan, and act now before it’s too late.
The coastal landscape in New Jersey will most likely be different to my grandchildren’s eyes, as it was to mine and my father in his day. And seeing this change they may wonder what we did, or did not do, to protect that most valuable natural resource. And I’d like to think I could answer that I helped to preserve a beach or a forest. Even a headwater swamp reclaimed to forest along a mountain ridge along the Appalachian trail. And when they saw it, they might say, “Yes, that’s beautiful.”