Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom

Public talks at universities are vehicles to present gestating ideas and arguments, and in many ways Steven Hahn’s new book The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom, drawn from a lecture series at Harvard, is much the same. However, the kind of shift in the framing of American and African-American history that he calls for makes this collection well worth reading. Amongst many provocative suggestions, Hahn requests a study of the UNIA outside the long shadow of Garvey to understand the intellectual character and engagement of people who joined one of the largest black political movements. I look forward to work to that takes up Hahn’s charge.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Saving Shaman Drum

Saving Shaman Drum:

A Call for a Campus-Community Alliance

One block from the University of Michigan's Institute for the Humanities, Ann Arbor's premier community humanities center is dying. Can we protect our local cultural landscape so that our civic ecology flourishes? Can we re-imagine Shaman Drum as a thriving independent bookstore, a sustainable center of learning, pleasure, and commerce?

At Shaman Drum, sales of trade books are up but textbook sales have plummeted catastrophically in the last six months. This reveals the contradictory effects of U-M's commitment to digital culture. Given the financial pressures on students and the absurdly high prices of textbooks, the university's policy that favors Internet shopping by students--implemented in Fall 2008--is entirely understandable. Owner Karl Pohrt wrote in his recent open letter to the community, "It is impossible for local textbook stores to compete under these circumstances."

Pohrt also said, "I don't think there are any villains here." Nor do we. We are writing in a pragmatic 'let's solve this problem together' spirit.

A Tradition of Commitment

We have a strong tradition of university commitment here in Ann Arbor. U-M's financial office has policies that favor local vendors. U-M's research office invests in regional economic development, seeding new knowledge enterprises.

We've got a university that supports its own 'public goods' and their contribution to the community at large: the arboretum, botanical gardens, museums, the University of Michigan Press, and the Michigan Quarterly Review. U-M partners significantly with a major arts presenter, the University Musical Society. The University Libraries help support the Ann Arbor Book Festival. And we have all of this at a time when we are facing a state cut on funding for the arts, making the university's public and community commitments more important than ever.

The University's public mission is also embodied in its academic programs. These include a renowned cluster of scholarly and creative programs, along with living-learning communities such as Lloyd Hall Scholars, which sponsors Festifools on April 1, the Residential College, which has launched the Semester in Detroit, and the Michigan Community Scholars Program.

So the University has a history of support for community enterprise and good models to build on.

The Ann Arbor News cared enough to put the news of Shaman Drum's imminent closing on the front page, with a supportive editorial. George Wild, Shaman Drum's landlord, has already stepped up to the plate, encouraging the bookstore to stay open and to consolidate its two-story operation on the ground floor.

We call on our university colleagues--administrators, faculty, and students--as well as our colleagues in the city--philanthropists, business people, and the local community of teachers, writers, and readers--to join in an ongoing, spirited effort on Shaman Drum's behalf.

We need a lively, strategic conversation that leads to realistic action. Here are some ideas that have surfaced so far:

· The U-M Institute for the Humanities makes space available for Great Lakes Literary Arts Center classes when the Institute's space is lightly used.

· U-M's textbook policy includes a statement on the benefits of the local purchase of books for course use.

· Individuals in the Ann Arbor community purchase shares or memberships in the Great Lakes Literary Center.

· U-M launches a center for the study of "the local" within an existing institute or program. With a joint board of advisors, drawing on leaders from higher ed and other sectors, this center could support research collaborations on communities of writing, reading, and publishing. It could also investigate other areas of community cultural development. Drawing on Professor Roy Strickland's model of the "city of learning" design and planning strategy used by cities around the country, the center could imagine Ann Arbor as a thriving "city of literacy."

· Shaman Drum, located around the corner from the new LSA North Quad, becomes a site for teaching and learning for U-M students. Students have few chances to reflect on their consumer behavior as purchasers of books or to weigh the effects of digital culture in a specific locality. Shaman Drum and U-M can provide that opportunity.

· Students and faculty in U-M's Nonprofit and Public Management Center and the School of Information work with Shaman Drum on developing a new business model and writing grants to support it.

Rebuilding the Commons

We know that there are other ideas that we have not yet thought of, and that is why we need a diversity of talents and perspectives. Indeed, we need a community-wide effort to rebuild the commons.

The 2008 election revealed American’s deep hunger for a restored commons--for a robust public life. Shaman Drum, along with a few other key locations in Ann Arbor—the Neutral Zone, Nicola's Books, the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti District Libraries, and the Kerrytown Bookfest among them—is a humanities commons, a place where our public and personal stories can be written, told, read, and talked about. It is a place for making, studying, buying and selling the stuff of print culture. It is where we can test the civics of literacy.

In 2008, Geoff Eley, the Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor of Contemporary History, convened a national symposium on "Writing in Public." Speaking from deep personal experience, he summoned up the power of the cultural commons as embodied in Shaman Drum's project. This commons is defined by a belief in

the importance of...'deep literacy'...the necessity of finding the ways to sustain...conversations among scholars, writers of all kinds, booksellers, publishers and readers, if a culture is to retain not only its confidence, generosity, and vitality, but also its forms of optimism about the future.

Shaman Drum, Eley continued, has sponsored a

continuous conversation...about the possible ways in which the life of the mind and the exchange of ideas inside the University and the community can be helped to mutually enrich each other.

This effort forms part of a larger public mission that includes "all the arduous and inventive work that becomes necessary to bring the University and the community together."

Richard Howorth is the former mayor of Oxford, Mississippi and owner of Square Books, a famous independent bookstore. He spoke at a 2002 national conference at the University of Michigan about "Liberal Arts Communities." He addressed the role of independent bookstores, literary festivals, and partnerships with campus programs in fostering significant economic revival and cultural tourism in his university town.

"Obviously," Howorth said, "a university functions just as any industry does, by creating jobs." But then he went on to make a more specific argument about liberal arts communities. He was using 2002 data, but his argument, even with the current downturn in housing prices, is still compelling. He concluded that "universities that are strong in the arts and humanities"--here he cites U-M, the University of Mississippi, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Virginia-- "tend to create communities with lively cultural development and thus strong economic development."

Howorth joined economic logic to and to civic logic in imagining "an America I believe in because I have seen it happen, where it now exists, in my hometown." How do we get there? It takes a village, Howorth says.

Academic institutions need to work with economic developers to devise projects that are mutually beneficial, and the people employed by universities need to reach beyond the classroom to the public to promote the value of liberal arts.

It will need the ongoing and concerted efforts of campus and community to keep this ideal alive. It will take all of our talents to keep Shaman Drum and the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center among us. If, together, we can make this work, we will all have become partners in civic problem solving at a time of profound paradigm shifts in how knowledge is made, marketed, and debated.

Julie Ellison


Robert Hass, Berkeley CA

Richard Howorth, Oxford MS

Thomas Lynch, Milford MI

Robert Pinsky, Boston, MA

For a complete list of signers, click here.

If you would like to add your name to this letter, please email us here.

"Far Bright Star" Book Review

Far Bright Star, the forthcoming book by Robert Olmstead is another one of his masterpieces of historical fiction. Our main character Napoleon is courageous and proud, stoic and fierce, a warrior, a leader and a realist. The density of the suspense, the suffocating heat and dust leading up to the bloody standoff in the desert with Pancho Villa's gang of merry murderers is Faulkner-like in language and sensibility but almost pulpy in how quickly the reader is moved from page to page. Olmstead has a gift for objective violence. There is nothing romantic or surreal about it, it is what it is. At the end of the battle-chapter I had to put the book down for a day and digest all of the blood and lives lost on that afternoon, to reflect on the dichotomy of Napoleon experience and his men's innocence . . .only to pick it back up and be brought through one of the most brutal descriptions of torture and death I've ever encountered. Like Coal Black Horse, Far Bright Star is challenging, the story is arduous and emotional. The strength of Napoleon to survive is beyond comprehension. To say the reader "feels" this book is to be glib and forgiving. Far Bright Star left me worn-out, banged-up, and regretfully aware of all the things I am not. As far as I know, Algonquin Books publishes the finest new fiction available.


Release date for the hardcover is May 26, 2009

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Repost from the Ann Arbor Chronicle Article

Open Letter 2: A Nicaraguan Interlude
"Faith begins when what you've given your life to betrays you."

In the midst of all the sturm und drang surrounding the future of Shaman Drum Bookshop, I went to Nicaragua.

Dianne, my wife, had been teaching for the last month in Catarina, a town in the mountains south of Managua. She volunteered under the auspices of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, a small congregation in Ann Arbor of which we are both members. ECI is collaborating with the Iglesia Bautista Remanente, a Baptist church in Catarina, on projects that “will bridge the divide between wealth and impoverished countries by providing capital, employment and opportunities for cultural exchange.”

Joe Summers, our minister, is an old friend of mine – we worked together in the bookshop years ago – and ECI is an openhearted, diverse community that is serious about creating a better world. Although I’ve been mostly engaged with Buddhism in my adult life, I was attracted to this church because of the willingness of Joe and the congregation to struggle together around difficult issues. And I still enjoy a good sermon.

I hadn’t had much of a chance to talk with Dianne about the state of the bookshop given that our telephone and internet connections were short and infrequent. The experience teaching in Catarina was transformative and very positive for her, but living conditions were difficult. She asked me to come. I traded my frequent flyer miles for a ticket to Nicaragua.

I traveled to Nicaragua with a delegation of eight members from the church. There were many moments during the trip when these good people made me feel that it might still be possible to fix (or at least patch up) this broken world. The delegation came to Catarina to celebrate the wedding anniversary and the ministry of Bayardo Lopez Garcia, Padre of the Church of the Remnant.

After Haiti, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere, according to Joe. The U.S. State Department says it is “prone to a wide variety of natural disasters, including earthquakes, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions.” The country, situated on two converging tectonic plates, is a “Belt of Fire.”

Nicaraguan history has been every bit as volatile as its geography. From 1853 until the Great Depression, the U.S. Marines landed there seven times and occupied the country for twenty one years. In 1937, General Anastasio Somoza seized control of Nicaragua. He and two subsequent Somozas robbed and thugged the country blind until 1979, when Tachito Somoza was overthrown by the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional), named after Augusto Sandino who led an armed insurrection against U.S. interests in 1937.

From 1981 to 1990, the C.I.A. ran a secret operation to topple the government, mining harbors and financing the Contras, who fought a vicious civil war against the Sandinistas.

The current government is led by Daniel Ortega and is a coalition of the Sandinistas and the Liberal Party. Ortega is widely believed to have stolen the last election, and his leftist posture is seen as a rhetorical cover to rob the country. I’m told he requires his staff to address him as El Commandante.

Catarina is a windy town of eight thousand souls perched on the lip of an extinct volcano, which is now a lake. During a recent earthquake, people reported that the water in the lake sloshed around like it was boiling. The town is paved with flagstones and you can still see men on small, fast horses galloping up the steep streets.

Just inside the cemetery at the edge of Catarina is the grave of Benjamin Zeledon, leader of a 1912 uprising against a puppet government installed by the United States. He was killed by government troops, who then dragged his body through town. Augusto Sandino, a teenager at the time, witnessed the desecration of Zeledon’s body, which led to his radicalization.

I stayed at the Hotel Jaaris. Rooms there rent for ten dollars a night. Water was only sporadically available, and there has been a serious shortage in the area, which set off a noisy protest demonstration in Catarina a week before I arrived. The hotel did not have hot water.
The walls in our room didn’t meet the corrugated metal ceiling, so you could hear what was going on in the other rooms. The metal roof created an almost perfect interior acoustic bounce. Some nights it was difficult to sleep.

No matter. The vibe was positive. The hotel had a pet bird and a barking dog. There were lots of clucking chickens and crowing roosters in the next building. And the people of Catarina were extraordinary. Near the end of our stay a number of them said they would pray for us. I’m not used to having people speak to me this way. I always felt it was my responsibility to cultivate Great Doubt – as the Buddhists say – around religious claims, but it became increasingly obvious to me during this trip that people living in such impermanent economic, political and geographical circumstances just might know some things I didn’t.

I replied gracias when people said they would keep me in their prayers.

I had the good luck during the trip to meet the poet-activist Ernesto Cardenal. One morning we drove to the Galeria casa de los Mundos in Managua to look at Nicaraguan folk paintings from the Primitive Painting School. The building is also Cardenal’s residence, and he was in his office. At eighty four he is still very active and spry. He greeted us warmly, signed autographs and posed for pictures.

Cardenal was Minister of Culture in the Sandinista government following the revolution, but he has dissociated himself from Daniel Ortega. Ortega has countered by freezing all of Cardenal’s assets. Although he is obviously beleaguered, he seems at peace with his situation.

Cardenal’s poetry is direct and accessible, and it is clear that North American Beat poets influenced him stylistically. His books have been widely translated and are available in the U.S. from City Lights Publishers, New Directions and Curbstone Press. He is the most important living poet in Nicaragua, which is a country that values its poets. The great Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario’s picture graces the Nicaraguan currency.

Cardenal is also a Catholic priest and was a friend of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. In the early 1970s he founded a lay religious community on one of the islands in the Solentiname archipelago in Lake Nicaragua. Among various other community projects, he read the Bible with a small group of campesinos. Cardenal asked them to respond from their own lived experience. He recorded the conversations and eventually published them as “The Gospel in Solentiname” in four volumes. They are among my favorite books. They were published in the U.S. by Orbis Books, and I’m afraid are now out of print.

At the Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor the congregation is invited to reflect on the sermon immediately after it is given. This is modeled on base communities like Cardenal’s that were developed by Latin American Liberation Theologians in the 1970s. They exemplify a radically democratic hermeneutic.

Joe told me, paraphrasing Martin Luther, that “the scriptures become the Word of God in the hearing of the believer. This is a wonderfully nuanced view; very different from saying the scriptures are the Word of God. It becomes an active, dynamic process – it’s what is meant when we say this is the living Word of God.”

Christianity offers its adherents a rich and vibrant set of symbols and stories – as do all the major religions – and it provides a context in which people can structure their experience and give meaning to their lives. At its best, it is a powerful force for social change, a counter-cultural critique of the dominant society. Cardenal represents this form of religious culture.

And politics are another context. We spent a remarkable evening talking with five Catarinians about local and national politics in Nicaragua. Four of them were former Sandinista companeros. (Joe told me he preferred companeros to comrades because its etymology implies “to break bread with.”) These men, now middle aged, had all been active in the 1979 revolution.

Near the end of the night I asked what it was like to participate in a revolution and then see its ideals eroded, compromised and betrayed. Perhaps it was impertinent of me to ask this question because it implied assumptions I had no right to make, but they welcomed the opportunity to reflect on their experience.

Ariel Perez Olivas, a former Sandinista political analyst, said, “It makes me homesick when I think of the ideals and goals of the revolution in the early days. All our resources were used up in the war with the Contras. Now we have to deal with the problem of an entrenched political class that is focused on its own interests.”

Sandy Iran Canales, who still carries fragments of a bullet in his chest from a wound he received in 1979, told us, “When I was young I was moved to fight against the National Guards. All the people were so excited by the revolution, but then lands were stolen and money was misused.”
One of the men said, “Our revolution has become a rob-olution.”

Erving Sanchez, the former mayor of Catarina, said, “The government wants to politicize everything. They show favoritism. When I was mayor, we sat down together to support the people who really needed it. We need to form a culture of resistance against the national leadership. To me, Sandinista means simply to find a way to help the poor.”

Joe ended the evening with a riff on Kierkegaard. “We begin in the land of the aesthetic, which is a place of endless choices. Then we grow into the ethical life. We make commitments. At a certain point we fail at them. This will lead you to the life of faith or you can chose to return to the aesthetic life. Faith begins when what you’ve given your life to betrays you.”
On the drive back to Catarina following a visit to a Spanish School I start to nod off, but it is difficult because I’m sitting between Joe and Bayardo, who are having a spirited discussion in Spanish with Sandy, our driver. After a few minutes Joe translates.

He says Bayardo and Sandy are talking about the Sandinista Literacy Campaign in 1981 when High School seniors went into the countryside to teach the campesinos to read.

In two years illiteracy was cut in half in Nicaragua, despite the murder and rape of many students by the Contras.

Bayardo tells us he hid books underneath his poncho as he moved on horseback around the countryside.

“We carried lanterns with us so we could teach people at night. I was teaching in a relatively sparsely populated area filled with Contra soldiers. There were spies all around and I had to move from house to house fairly quickly or I would be betrayed.”

“I was very frightened,” he says and then laughs.

Then he and Sandy break into song. They sing the anthem of the Sandinista Literacy Campaign:

Avancemos brigadistas
Muchos siglos de incultura caerán
Levantemos barricadas
De cuadernos y pizarras
Vamos a la insurrección cultural.

-Jennifer Reyes Rosales translated the lyrics:Let's advance brigadistas

Many centuries of illiteracy will fall
Let's build up barricades
Of notebooks and blackboards
All the people to the Cultural Revolution.

-So there you have it. I’m riding down the road with two men who are laughing and singing together after they recall risking their lives thirty years ago to teach people to read.

These men speak about what happened with … a great lightness. To speak any other way about these things would not be appropriate, but what they are saying is simply so far outside of my own experience that it is unimaginable to me.

It strikes me that this is why I came to Nicaragua. I was meant to hear this shocking and moving testimony.

If these men were willing to risk their lives to teach people to read, the least I can do is to try to keep the bookshop going. Despite the downturn in the economy and all the trash talk about the “death of the book,” I intend to do just that.

Life is very strange. When I left Ann Arbor I felt it was the most inappropriate time in my life to leave town. By the end of the trip my opinion had changed. It was the perfect moment.

-Karl Pohrt

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Who Will Watch the Watchmen?

Alright. So Zack Snyder has brought the most famous graphic novel, Watchmen, to the big screen. It opens this coming Friday, March 6th.

Zack Snyder is the director who brought us the visually stunning (and substance lacking) epic 300 (which was based off the graphic novel by Frank Miller).

I first read the Watchmen when I was 18, after a friend gave it to me for my birthday. He told me, "You read comics, so you'll probably love this one. I heard it was one of the best graphic novels of all time."

That was quite the hype. Usually with an introduction like that, the subject at hand often has a hard time living up to it. And sometimes it hits the nail on the head. This, was Watchmen.

Most people view comic books as a child/adolescent/guy-who-doesn’t-see-sunlight thing. But those stereotypers need to read Watchmen. Alan Moore is a phenomenal writer, and Dave Gibbons can tell a very vivid story using only images. Put those two fellas together and you have comic book gold.

I don’t know if I can say the same thing for Zack Snyder and the cast of the movie version, but I will pay $9.25 to find out.

I can safely say Watchmen is the most complex and dynamic comic I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. It has multiple subplots which completely intertwine, incredibly panel lay out, it’s politically conscience, and has a climax I NEVER saw coming. Plus it could loosely be described as a super hero comic. But it would be more accurately described as the death of the super hero.

So, do me (and other comic readers) favor and read this graphic novel before you see the movie. This isn’t just some action packed blockbuster with cool special effects, regardless of what the trailers make it out to be. In fact, the comic has close to no action. And I heard they changed the ending even though that was the best part. So, as you can imagine, I’ll be going into the theater with low expectations on Friday (which is exactly how I felt when I went to see V for Vendetta, another Alan Moore comic adaptation).

But – I will definitely be there.

- Cristina
(Yes, I am a lady. Shocking I know.)