Posts Tagged ‘Flight of the Spumonis’

CONFESSIONS OF A CULTURE CRIMINAL

Last September, I wrote about “cultural appropriation” in “Let the Book Burning Begin.” Some attendees at a literary festival in Australia excoriated the novelist Lionel Shriver for advocating that “white” writers should be free to create characters of other ethnicities. They can also excoriate me!

My novel Slick! (one of Kirkus Reviews’ 25 Best Indy Books of 2012) presents Arab characters. They revealed all kinds of traits, some culturally specific, others simply human. Some characters I like. Others I satirize—as I did white American diplomats.

In San Café, I created—gasp—Latino characters. Again, I satirized human nature across ethnicities.

I avoided crossing most ethnic bounds in The Boy Walker but cop a plea to “cultural speciesism.” Like me, all my major characters are Jewish, but the novel’s narrator is the shattered Greenbaum family’s 12-year-old English Bulldog Brute. However, the speciesism isn’t all that grievous. Brute’s also Jewish.

In Flight of the Spumonis I had the gall to write about an Italian circus family with Irish roots. Was it okay because Italians and Irish are white? People think Jews are white, but I know many Jews with other genetic backgrounds. Also, I don’t identify that way. Still, I got enough Jewish characters into the novel to cover my tracks—including a “black” character who’s equal parts African-American, Chinese, Native American and, yes, Jewish.

Which leads me to my new novel The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht. I’m not giving much away by saying that Adonis is not—gasp again—Greek (would that be a no-no?) but Jewish. Yet he undertakes a relationship with a woman named Emily, adopted from Korea by white parents. He works closely with a Mexican-American named Fred. Can it be that in the major art museum where Adonis works, his contemporaries include people with Korean and Mexican genetics? Or must Adonis, living in a large but unnamed city, encounter only other Jews?

In Adonis, I also created an African-American character. I can imagine cultural purists salivating then snarling that Hunter Kirk must be a semi-literate gangster representing every racist’s stereotype. Or a star entertainer or athlete with no depth. Wrong! He’s the museum’s executive director. True, he shows Adonis a football in his office, but the protectors of cultural purity may be surprised:

“People always seem so startled,” said Dr. Kirk. “Or they think, Well, sure. All black men play sports.” A second-string tight end during his senior year, he’d caught the winning touchdown against his school’s archrival with seventeen seconds left. “Division Three ball. No pro scouts in the stands. Well, maybe one or two but not to see me. It was my only touchdown of the season. If you must know, of my career. A broken play. Life’s all about timing.” And discipline, he pointed out. It took discipline to earn a Ph.D. and an MBA. “No easy task for your average street kid.” He chuckled. “Of course, my father was a corporate lawyer, and my mother was a pediatrician.”

How dare a Jewish writer believe that an African-American can be educated and skilled, can lead a major arts organization, can be (final gasp) like anyone else? Take me to literary court and accuse me of recognizing the humanity in all ethnicities. I’ll plead guilty.

You can purchase THE ODD PLIGHT OF ADONIS LICHT directly from me or at Amazon. If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too.

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LET THE BOOK BURNING BEGIN

Political correctness recently broke out in Brisbane, Australia. Officials at a writers festival were so upset with novelist and keynote Lionel Shriver (The Mandibles), “they censored her on the festival website and publicly disavowed her remarks,” according to the New York Times. What horrific things did she say?

“Ms. Shriver criticized as runaway political correctness efforts to ban references to ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation from Halloween celebrations, or to prevent artists from drawing on ethnic sources for their work.” (“Lionel Shriver’s Address on Cultural Appropriation Roils a Writers Festival,” Rod Nordlund, 9-12-16). Re artists, some people believe that white authors should not create non-white characters. Ms. Shriver disagrees. “She deplored critics of authors like Chris Cleave, an Englishman, for presuming to write from the point of view of a Nigerian girl in his best-selling book ‘Little Bee.’”

Right on, Lionel! Like Incendiary, Cleave’s first novel, Little Bee is fabulous. Little Bee, the Nigerian girl who Cleave created, exhibits biting humor and remarkable courage. She offers a different perspective on England—one well worth examining. Oh, and Cleave creates sympathetic white Britons, as well—women as well as men.

Political correctness seems to demand that authors, playwrights and screenwriters create segregated worlds. Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn) and William Styron (The Confessions of Nat Turner) would be long forgotten. But all writers would pay the price. The Good Lord Bird by African-American James McBride would have its wings clipped since the white abolitionist John Brown plays a prominent role. Sherman Alexi, the Native American writer, would have to eliminate whites though they’re integral to his novels and stories.

Amy Tan? Imprisoned in Chinatown and the Middle Kingdom. Englishman Tom Rob Smith’s magnificent Child 44 set in Russia? Nyet! The late Bernard Malamud’s stories set in Italy with a Jewish protagonist and all those Italians? Bury the Italians. I’m sure I can find enough people to say Kaddish.

The foolishness never ends. Jewish Steven Spielberg directed the film version of The Color Purple with a screenplay by the Dutch-born Menno Meyjes. Scandalous! The Broadway smash Hamilton features minority actors playing America’s white founding fathers and mothers—and rapping. Man (and woman) the barricades! Then there’s earthling George Lucas creating all those aliens in Star Wars. Talk about intergalactic cultural insensitivity!

Let’s get real. Writers tell stories by drawing on their experiences with people of all ethnicities. They observe. They do research. And they imagine. Good writers create characters of any ethnicity who reveal human nature at its best and worst.

I don’t restrict my characters to Jews. Specifically, Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews. Specifically, men. Specifically, old men. In Flight of the Spumonis, the street kid Jimmy Q represents four different ethnicities, one of them Jewish. Do I get a pass? The private eye Moonbeam Cherney is a woman but Jewish. Cut me some slack? In my newest novel, the powerful executive director of a major museum, the holder of law and MBA degrees, is Black. Have I crossed a forbidden boundary?

Sure, we could purge our libraries, bookstores, Amazon and homes of all books guilty of cultural appropriation. But then we’d appropriate the cultures of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China and much of the Middle East. And our shelves would be bare.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And read a good book—whoever the author is and whatever ethnicity the characters. It’s a human thing.

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THERAPY TIMES FOUR

Self-reflection represents a blessing and a curse. The thinking, aware mind uncovers new possibilities. Yet seemingly intractable problems—a violent world, personal failings—stagger that mind. Four therapies guide me towards positive territory.

FRIENDS. My friend Jim and I do lunch every two or three weeks. We meet in Mill Valley. Revealing what’s on our minds, we share achievements and failures. Tomorrow, I’ll meet several friends at Torah Study as I do each Saturday morning. Then we’ll go for coffee. We’ll talk. We’ll bitch. We’ll laugh. We’ll laugh a lot. Other friends I’ll see for dinner and/or a movie. We’ll enjoy each other’s company and feel uplifted after. A therapist can charge $200 an hour or more. Friends listen for free. And they accept you as you are.

WALKING. As kids, my friends and I walked a lot because so much in our Queens neighborhood was in walking distance. To go to Manhattan, we’d take the subway. A token—this was before Metro cards—cost 15¢ as did a slice of pizza. Then we’d walk. In San Francisco, I walk from my house to the Pacific Ocean, Baker Beach, the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park and Mountain Lake, just two blocks away. I walk to my synagogue, Sherith Israel. That’s over two miles. Occasionally when I’m downtown, I walk home, covering as much as five miles (some up hills). Using your legs offers an opportunity to think, weigh challenges and, occasionally, find solutions. Walking with friends? Fabulous.

WRITING. Few authors make big money. The majority—publishing traditionally or independently—keeps their day jobs. Many target the commercial market. Most, I suspect, write novels or stories to work out what roils within them. I do. The only book on which I “made money” was my non-fiction work, Solo Success. A labor of love—I wanted to share what I’d learned about the business side of freelancing—it brought in less than a single ho-hum work month. (Disclosure: My ho-hum months were quite good.) Writing fiction helps me deal with the world. I observed the idiocy of America in Iraq and the ongoing dysfunction of the Arab world. Slick! I detest the hypocrisy both of right-wing hyper-capitalism and left-wing revolutionary movements. San Café. Fathers and sons spawned The Boy Walker. A range of issues produced Flight of the Spumonis. I just finished the first draft of a new novel. It deals with superficiality in American culture. I probably won’t make a dime. Still, I feel better exploring something that disturbs me.

SHABBAT. Shabbat arrives every Friday night. It serves as a focal point in time for considering what’s really important and connecting with what is greater than ourselves and ultimately unknowable—often translated as God. Observing Shabbat offers release from a world that’s always challenging, often painful. Each week, I get to call time out. For an introvert, that’s invaluable.

Who’d have thought therapy could be so cheap? Or that it might take so many forms? True, these four therapies don’t guarantee perfect results. But they nudge the scales towards a sense of balance. Often that’s the best we can expect. I’ll take it.

The blog will take a rest next week and return on September 18. To all who are observing and celebrating the Jewish New Year (5776), Shanah Tovah!

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

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TRUMPING THE DONALD

I don’t support saying negative things about people. The Rabbis consider lashon hara—evil speech—one of humanity’s great sins. But let’s get real. Negativity can be part of a grand strategy to achieve something necessary. Something great. That’s why American political life revolves around attack ads. So I’m adding my own wisdom to the political scene: Donald Trump is a schmuck.

Before you condemn me for engaging in evil speech, let me offer sound reasons for such a statement. I’ll begin with evidence—something politicians tend to avoid.

The Donald slammed Mexicans as rapists and murderers. Mexican immigrants anyway. Well, illegal Mexican immigrants if you’re picky. Lots of people come here from Mexico illegally. That’s wrong. But they come to work—and they work hard. Yet a number of recent mass murders in this nation were perpetrated not by Mexicans but by white American citizens.

Then the Donald attacked John McCain’s war record. “He’s not a hero,” said the Donald. Why? McCain, a Navy fighter pilot, was shot down over Vietnam and held captive for 5-1/2 years. POWs, according to the Donald, can’t be heroes. As it happens, McCain’s father was Admiral John McCain, Jr. The North Vietnamese offered to release the current senator from Arizona during the war—without his captive brothers. McCain refused special treatment. Of course, capturing the Donald would have been impossible. In college, he received student deferments then a 4-F medical deferment before getting a high draft lottery number. In fairness though, he did spend his high school years at a military school.

Campaigning for all he’s worth (“I’m really rich,” he boasts proudly), the Donald flew to Laredo, Texas to speak about immigration. He claimed great personal risk. Bravely, he eschewed body armor and a helmet—if he could find one large enough to cover his comb-over. Still, no one else in attendance appeared worried. The Donald also attacked former Texas governor Rick Perry for wearing glasses, supposedly to make him look intelligent. (I might give him a pass there.) And The Des Moines Register claimed that the Donald denied their reporters press credentials for an event in Osklaoosa, Iowa because the paper urged him to drop out of the Republican primaries, calling him a “feckless blowhard.”

Now let’s move to a better reason for me to castigate the Donald. I’m hoping he gets so riled up that to spite me, he buys 100 copies each of my novels—Slick!, San Café, The Boy Walker and Flight of the Spumonis—and burns them publicly. Nothing spurs an author’s sales like a good-old-fashioned book burning. Those bright orange embers are dollar signs. Trust me, you can’t buy that kind of media exposure and excitement. In fact, I’ll cut the Donald in for one-third of my royalties. It’s the least I can do; we’re both from Queens.

But wait. Could the Donald be playing me? Has he been waiting for me to call him a schmuck so he can burn books so my sales can soar so he can direct yet another revenue stream towards his bottom line? Suddenly, I’m feeling anxious. Out of control. Maybe I should have titled this post “Trumping the David.”

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—July sale priced at $15 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

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WHO’S WHITE? WHO CARES?

A few weeks ago, Rachel Dolezal stepped down as president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP. Ms. Dolezal claimed to be—and still identifies as—Black. However, she is the child of Caucasian parents. I’ll let African Americans decide whether or not they’re offended. But I do share something in common with Ms. Dolezal: I don’t identify as white.

There’s nothing wrong with being white. Some of my best friends and all that. But being Jewish, I identify primarily with all Jews regardless of their genetics. The Jewish people are Caucasian, Black, Latino and Asian. Maybe a few Native Americans. And mixtures. Loads of mixtures. Jews come from the Arab world and India, too. Are they white? Other? I have no idea. I simply don’t care who’s white and who isn’t. It’s just that being white’s not my thing.

I’m not alone in this thinking. Remember the 1990s TV hit Northern Exposure? Each Thanksgiving, Native Americans in the fictional Alaskan town of Cicely pelt “whites” with tomatoes. Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) protests. He’s Jewish. White people—Russians—persecuted his ancestors in the Tsarist Empire. No tomatoes for him. Then there’s the Ku Kux Klan and its ilk. All espouse white pride along with hatred of Jews. Dylan Roof, the alleged killer of nine African-Americans at Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel AME Church, wrote a manifesto. He not only ranted against Blacks but also cited “the Jewish problem and other issues facing our race.”

A statement by Chip Johnson, the common-sense columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, bolsters my point. In his June 16 piece on Rachel Dolezal, Johnson wrote: “Throughout history there have been light-skinned African Americans, people of mixed race and those of Jewish heritage [italics mine] who have passed for white to escape oppression, improve their prospects or simply to survive.” Johnson’s comment leads me to believe that I’m not the crank I may appear to be.

Ethnic makeup and identity certainly can be complex. In my novel Flight of the Spumonis, Jimmy Q, who accompanies 13-year-old Marco Spolini on a cross-country journey, is equal parts Chinese, Native American, Jewish and African American. The world pigeonholes him as Black, so that’s how Jimmy sees himself. He knows that puts him behind the eight ball, so he persuades the white Marco to hit the road with him.

Racism, of course, can work both ways, changing colors like a chameleon. Some Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans—people from ethnic groups who’ve had precious little to do with each other—band together with African Americans under the banner “People of Color.” They assail “white privilege.”

Being white has been and still is an advantage in American society. But people don’t get to pick their genetics. Many leveraging “white privilege” study, work hard and, while succeeding, open their hearts to all of their fellow Americans. The opponents of “white privilege” see skin, hair and eyes, not human beings.

Is race a social construct? Given the large number of Americans with mixed genetics, that’s becoming true. Whether or not race means anything, it should never be taken as the equivalent of species. Whatever our colors or features, we’re all part of the same human family. That should privilege all of us

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

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EXTRAORDINARY ORDINARY THINGS

Life often seems routine. We wonder, isn’t there more? Yet we find comfort in life’s everyday rhythms. The problem isn’t that we surrender to the mundane. It’s that so much in our ordinary lives is extraordinary—and we’re blind to it.

Attending Shabbat services last Friday night at Congregation Sherith Israel then Torah Study on Saturday morning unveiled a continuing miracle. Many people still find fulfillment in tradition and community. Saturday with friends reminded me how extraordinary it is that people enjoy being together, laughing together, sharing experiences.

Sunday, Carolyn and I visited Alcatraz. San Franciscans often take the Rock for granted. But we returned to see the Ai Wei Wei exhibit. Waiting for the ferry gave us the opportunity to speak with two advertising executives from Perth, Australia. I’m a retired ad creative, so we had a lot in common. The routine ferry ride was anything but. The water is a magical place if only for ten minutes.

The prison looked the same but not. Entering the New Industries Building, we came face to face with a colorful Chinese dragon at least 150 feet long. Further on, we saw portraits of political prisoners from around the world created with LEGOs. We also encountered a huge sculpture based on birds’ wings—metal panels above which teapots perched. Tibetans long have used solar power to cook.

The visit to Alcatraz brought into focus the daily marvels of living in a city surrounded by the Pacific, the Golden Gate and the Bay. I walk a lot, and the vistas from the Coastal Trail off Land’s End and any number of other trails and streets offer blue water, white sales, massive tankers and the green (for now) Marin Headlands. Views of the Golden Gate Bridge—which I can walk to—always delight. And while I live in an urban place, Mountain Lake is only two blocks away.

As to the workweek, mine is hardly ordinary. I write fiction. I just brought out a new novel, Flight of the Spumonis. I’ve started another and very different book. Yes, there’s a routine to writing. It is work. But the experience of creating a story with characters reflecting the human condition is very special.

I often wonder how we can read a novel or watch a movie or TV show (we just finished Bosch and started House of Cards), get caught up in a story then forget that “they” are us. Each of us is a character in our own story. Every day brings new plot twists—challenges to our social relationships, work efforts and attempts to give order to a world that often seems random at best, senseless at worst. Our lives contain real texture—drama if you will—because they’re filled with joy and sorrow.

It’s all about how you see life. We can dismiss ourselves as specs in a vast universe—which we are. Yet we’re thinking creatures capable of contemplating that universe. Nature and science lead us to wonder at it all. Questions abound. Why do we love? Why do we hope? Why do we sacrifice? Why do we mourn? Why do we write blogs? It’s extraordinary.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

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COMIC STRIP WISDOM

I read comic strips. As a kid, my favorites included “Dick Tracy” and “Li’l Abner” (Daisy Mae, yes!). Today, it’s “The Knight Life,” “Rhymes With Orange,” “Zits” and “Garfield.” Occasionally, I read “Sally Forth.” A few weeks ago, a particular “Sally” inspired me.

In a fantasy sequence, it’s 2025. The dad, Ted, counsels his adult daughter Hilary (12 or so in the present) about her music. She’s having a tough time. A musician’s life constitutes hard work and exhausting travel. I get it. My son Yosi plays fiddle for Hurray for the Riff Raff. Fortunately, they keep moving up through will, effort and, of course, talent.

Ted’s advice—in the present he’s rather childlike, but he’s matured—resonated. My novel Flight of the Spumonis just became available at Amazon as I began a new and very different book. Ted asks rhetorically if Hil knows why musicians make music or writers write or actors act. Then he answers, “It’s about having a voice. And if you don’t pursue your art, you may lose that great opportunity to have your say.”

It’s not about money. I know. Many years ago, I hoped to break through as a writer of fiction. I had a few stories published in small magazines. Won third-place in a contest. I wrote a novel and found an agent. Editors were complimentary but didn’t buy. I wrote a few more novels, including the first version of Spumonis. Nada. No more agent, either. I stopped writing. I had a growing family and a growing business. I chose not to feed Carolyn and the kids scraps so I could pamper my ego as a struggling artist. I figured I could always write later in life. It all worked out.

I wrote two non-fiction books. Solo Success found a home at Crown Publishers (Random House). I had my 15 minutes—okay, seconds—of fame. The money wasn’t much, but I loved the emails and letters I received from freelancers around the world. I published God’s Others myself. Close to 65, I got back into fiction after telling a wild story to my friends Dan and Ira over coffee. Dan said, “That would make a good novel.” It became Slick!

I’ve always been a storyteller, and fiction gives me a voice. Slick! mocked corruption and hypocrisy—Middle Eastern and American. Kirkus Reviews named it one of the 25 Best Indie Books of 2012. I followed up with San Café, set in Central America. Then I switched gears. The Boy Walker examined the impact on a father and son of losing a wife/mother and daughter/sister. My research included both oncology and stand-up comedy. Now, Flight of the Spumonis looks at 1980 America struggling with a damaged economy and geopolitical frustration. We see a time much like ours through the eyes of a 13-year-old trapeze artist who runs away from the circus and journeys across the continent.

It’s not easy making sense of life, but fiction offers readers a uniquely empathetic look at other people—and themselves. In doing so, it helps bring people and cultures closer. So in “Sally Forth,” Ted rightly tells Hil that through their art, artists can interpret the world. Which demonstrates that comic strips can be very serious.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or go to Amazon.com.

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