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Back to the streets


Coronel knew an old man in Granada who said

(who often said):

“I wish I were a foreigner, so that I

Could go home

— Zero Hour, Ernesto Cardenal

I first came into contact with the work of poet Roberto Vargas a couple of years ago, when I saw his face, projected several stories tall, on a wall just off Valencia Street.

I was riding my bike to the Day of the Dead procession when I came across filmmaker Veronica Majano screening historical footage of the old Mission District on the wall of Dog Eared Books. The footage of Vargas was from a movie called Back to the Streets, and it showed a Latino hippie fest in Precita Park circa-1970. Long-haired Chicanos smoked weed and danced and played bongos on the grass while Vargas read from a stage. On today’s Valencia Street, Vargas was a ghost returned from a long-lost Mission, now standing twenty feet tall on the bookstore’s wall, reading a powerful poem that angrily denounced the SFPD for the mysterious death of a Mission Latino youth in police custody.

The film of Vargas was a beautiful snapshot of Latino youth culture in the neighborhood before gang violence and gentrification, like a Mission High School yearbook scene from an exhilarating era of Latino self-determination. In 1970, the Free Los Siete movement was feeding the community at a free breakfast program out of St. Peter’s Church on Alabama Street and had started free clinics and legal aid programs in the Mission. In the years to follow, the neighborhood would see the founding of the Mission Cultural Center and Galeria de la Raza and the inception of many of the neighborhood’s now world-famous mural projects.

Looking at the groovy scene in the park, it was hard to imagine that just a few short years later, Vargas and other kids from the Mission would be fighting alongside the Sandinistas in the jungles and mountains of Nicaragua. Yet the utopian promise of the era’s poetry, art, and youth culture in many ways culminated in the guerrilla war in which Vargas and other poets from San Francisco would fight and ultimately — in 1979 — help defeat the forces of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza.

On Feb. 24, the day of his 70th birthday, Roberto Vargas makes a rare return to San Francisco to perform in a poetry event at the Mission Cultural Center in honor of that Nicaraguan solidarity movement of the 1970s. A video will be shown of footage from that struggle — classic scenes of Vargas and others taking over the Nicaraguan consulate in San Francisco; of the famed nightly candlelight vigils at 24th and Mission BART Plaza in support of the Sandinistas — and Vargas will be reunited on stage to read with old poet friends like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Alejandro Murguía, and Vargas’ old compañero from San Francisco State University’s Third World Liberation Front, actor Danny Glover. The event is not open to the public. Invitations have been given out and the small MCC theater’s 150 seats have already been filled. Yet the event provides an opportunity to publicly honor Roberto Vargas’ contributions to the Mission, and to reflect on the hopes and dreams of Mission past.



Poetry was a part of Vargas’ world from the beginning. Vargas was born in Nicaragua, but came to the United States when he was a small child. In his 1980 collection of poems Nicaragua Te Canto Besos, Balas, y Sueños, he writes of “living in an offbeat alley called Natoma Street (where I always imagined a lost Mayan city existed beneath the factories).” By the late 1950s, Vargas may have been the first Mission District Latino Beat poet. “I graduated from Mission High School in 1958 and used to hang out in North Beach, going around to see all the poets,” he says. “I met Allen Ginsberg when I was just a 19-year-old kid running around in North Beach. Diane di Prima, Bob Kaufman, Ted Berrigan — all the major poets knew me when I was in my teens.”

After a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps and an attempt at a boxing career that ended with a detached retina (an injury that also helped him avoid the Vietnam-era draft), Vargas went to SF State, where he was heavily active in the student strike of 1968-69. Students walked out of campus and battled riot police while standing on picket lines for five months to demand an ethnic studies program at the university.

In the spirit of the times, Vargas and other poets — including a young Mission Chicano named Alejandro Murguía — joined the Pocho-Che Collective to publish poetry by local Latino poets. The poets went to cut sugar cane in the Venceremos Brigade in Cuba. They put out small poetry chapbooks in the Mission, full of poems that linked Che Guevara’s call for Third World revolution with the experience of the Chicano barrios of the United States in a new vision tropical. In the era after the SF State strike, the city started funding community arts projects in the ghettos. Like all classic zines, the first copies of Pocho-Che were scammed, in this case late at night at Vargas’ new job in the Mission’s Neighborhood Arts Program. In the years to come, the group would eventually publish hardbound books by Vargas, Nina Serrano, and others.

Today, Murguía is a professor in the ethnic studies program at SF State that the strikers fought to originate. He is the author of the American Book Award-winning short story collection This War Called Love (2002) and the memoir The Medicine of Memory (2002). He remembers, “The poetry scene was incipient, very young, and the readings weren’t always very formal. Sometimes they were at community events or protest rallies. But we had contact with Latin America. We knew people who had been in Chile, like Dr. Fernando Alegría.”

Alegría was a poet who had been the cultural attaché to the U.S. under Allende in Washington. Vargas recalls, “Alegría had myself and some other young poets come to Chile and spend a month or two studying with [Pablo] Neruda. But, of course, our plans were canceled by the coup in Chile.”

Murguia remembers the September 1973 coup in Chile that overthrew the popularly elected Socialist democracy of Salvador Allende caused the young poets to organize rare formal readings at Glide Memorial Church in protest. “We had several big ones there,” he says. “There was a broad range of poets — Michael McClure, Fernando Alegría, Jack Hirschman, Bob Kaufman, Janice Mirikitami all read. There was a line going down the block to get in.”

In addition to their mentor, Alegría, Vargas, and Murguía also knew one of their heroes, the Nicaraguan Marxist poet and priest, Ernesto Cardenal. Cardenal lived under the Somoza dictatorship in a sort-of internal exile in a religious artist commune called Solentiname. Vargas wanted to bring Cardenal to read in the United States, but Somoza would not allow the poet, who was critical of the Nicaraguan dictator, to travel outside the country. Vargas went to his old pal Ginsberg for help.

“Because Allen knew me when I was a kid, he helped me with my organizing for Nicaragua,” says Vargas. “Allen was part of PEN, and in 1973 or ’74 he went to the State Department with other writers to put pressure on [Anastasio] Somoza. Eventually Somoza relented and we brought Cardenal to New York for a reading.”

The poetry of Cardenal was a north star to the young Mission poets. Cardenal’s epic 1957-60 masterwork Zero Hour is perhaps the literary foundation of revolution in Nicaragua. Influenced formally by Ezra Pound, Zero Hour weaves a sprawling history of Somozan oppression and U.S. intervention in Nicaragua together with lyrical imagery of Nicaragua’s natural beauty and wildlife. The poem creates a poignant sense that Nicaraguans, unable to enjoy and own these natural riches, had under Somoza become exiles within their own country.

Of particular interest to the young Mission poets, though, was Cardenal’s Homage to the American Indians (1969), a book-length meditation on the glory of Mayan and North American native civilizations. “For us, the work of Cardenal was very important,” says Murguía. “Homage to the American Indians is a continental vision of Native Americans — everything from the San Blas Indians of Panama to the Indians of Omaha to the Indians of Mexico City and Peru.”

In Homage, Cardenal evokes a lost Indian Utopia “so democratic that archaeologists know nothing about their rulers,” where “their pyramids were built with no forced labor, the peak of their civilization did not lead to an empire, and the word wall does not exist in their language.” He writes:

But how to write anew the hieroglyph,

How to paint the jaguar anew,

How to overthrow the tyrants?

How to build our tropical acropolis anew

Cardenal’s poems of this lost glorious past were to Vargas more pointedly a vision of a Latin American utopia that can also be regained in the future. In Cardenal’s work, says Vargas, “There is a longing for the simplicity of that civilization — the creativity, the innocence, the tribalism. Can we get it back after all the dictatorships, after all that capitalism has done? Cardenal showed us what we were, what we had, what we lost.”

Under Cardenal’s influence, the Mission poets turned seeing lost Mayan cities beneath the city’s factories into a literary movement. By 1975, members of Pocho-Che had started a magazine called El Tin Tan with Murguia as editor and Vargas as contributor. El Tin Tan presented a sweeping utopian vision of a borderless invisible Latino republic united culturally and politically under the sign of the palm tree. The poets situated the capital of this world right here in the Mission District.

“To tropicalize the Mission — to see it as a tropical pueblo — was a political act of defiance and self-determination,” says Murguía. “We were saying that we put this particular neighborhood — our pueblo, in a way — not in a context of North American history but in the context of Latin American history. The history of the eastern U.S. doesn’t affect California until 1848 when the first illegal immigrants came to California — not from the South, but from the East.

El Tin Tan,” Murguía continues, “was probably the first magazine that was intercontinental in scope, a combination of politics and literature and art and different trends from the Mission to Mexico City to Argentina and everywhere in between.” He proudly recalls that it ran the first North American essays on Salvadoran poetry, and translated and printed a short story by Nelson Marra, a writer imprisoned by the Uruguayan dictatorship.

Yet for all its international perspective, El Tin Tan remained firmly rooted in the Mission. Columns by Nuyorican poet Victor Hernández Cruz and news of the assassination of Salvadoran guerrilla poet Roque Dalton ran side by side with the first comics by future Galeria de la Raza founder Rene Yáñez, all folded between wildly colorful cover art by neighborhood favorites like the famed Chicano artist Rupert Garcia and the muralist Mike Rios.

“The magazines were colorful — tropical — on the outside, but very political on the inside,” says Murguía. “That was a metaphor for our own work.”

By this time, Vargas had become an Associate Director at the SF Arts Commission. From within City Hall, he started to pump city arts money into the Mission, helping to fund projects like Mike Rios’ mural of the people holding BART on their backs at 24th and Mission BART Plaza and the Balmy Alley Mural Project — art that can still be seen in public today.

Once, Vargas commissioned a Chuy Campesano mural for the Bank of America building at 22nd and Mission. “I read a poem called “Boa” and had the crowd dancing and chanting, Es la Boa, Es la Boa,” says Vargas. “We were trying to say, ‘You made your millions off our farmers, but now you are on our turf in the Mission here in occupied Mexico. So we’ll put hieroglyphics on the walls of your bank like we used to do!’ Someone from the bank tried to take the mic from me and cops came and escorted us out.”

Vargas’s story of the mural’s dedication ceremony captures the bravado of the era. “It was a beautiful time, all of us young and thinking we were going to change the world. We wanted to change the world through culture.”

The poets organized the community to demand a neighborhood’s arts center, too. In 1977, the dream was realized when the City, with pressure from Vargas from within City Hall in the Arts Commission, purchased an old, five-floor furniture store at 24th and Mission to be made into the Mission Cultural Center. Murguia became the center’s first director.

The Mission utopia was becoming a reality for Vargas. In Nicaragua Te Canto, he wrote:

We used to drive

Our lowered down Plymouths and Chevys

On top of the breast of a mountain to

Make love and drink wine… Never

Knowing what was going to happen after

Mission High School

The Mission is now an expression of real culture, a many-faceted being … both plus and minus with the soul of a human rainbow…My people watching slides of Sandino and Nica history … White children wearing guarachas and afros trippin’ down the streets to party. Young Salvadoran poets discussing the assassination of Roque Dalton … The Mission is now an implosion/explosion of human color, of walls being painted by muralistas. There is a collective feeling of compassion for each other Nicas Blacks Chicanos Chilenos Oppressed Indios. The sense of collective survival, histories full of Somozas, Wounded Knees written on the walls.

In Zero Hour, Cardenal wrote of Nicaragua’s trees and birds and lakes, and their call to revolution, as seen from its mountains:

What’s that light way off there? Is it a star?

Its Sandino’s light shining in the black mountain


Vargas, the excited Mission kid, echoed in his work:


Tonight I am sitting on a mountain called Bernal Hill

Tonight I see the flames of America Latina spreading from here …



Perhaps inevitably, the Latin American Utopia Vargas and company created in poetry would seem so tantalizingly close to actualization that they would be forced to pick up the gun and fight for its existence.

When the enormous earthquake of 1972 left Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, in ruins, Nicaraguan refugees flocked to SF’s Mission District. Soon, San Francisco was home to more Nicaraguans than any place on Earth outside of Nicaragua. The family of Anastasio Somoza had controlled Nicaragua with brutal repression for generations. Somoza’s embezzling of relief funds for earthquake victims led to increased revolutionary activity against his rule. Taking their name from Augusto Sandino, a Nicaraguan revolutionary who led resistance against U.S. occupation of Nicaragua in the 1930s, La Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) — or the Sandinistas, as they were popularly known — began guerrilla activities in late 1974 by taking government officials and Somoza relatives hostage in a raid on the house of the minister of agriculture. They received a $2 million ransom and had their communiqué printed in the national newspaper. Thus was born the Sandinista revolution.

In the Mission, Vargas, Murguía, and others were in touch with La Frente, and began organizing Sandinista solidarity rallies to coordinate with La Frente’s actions in Nicaragua. Out of offices in the Mission Cultural Center, along with El Tin Tan, the poets published a newspaper called La Gaceta about the situation in Nicaragua. The paper had a circulation of 5000 copies and was available for free all over the district. The sight of pro-Sandinista rallies at 24th and BART Plaza became so common that the plaza was popularly nicknamed Plaza Sandino.

Vargas organized takeovers of the Nicaraguan consulate in San Francisco and traveled the US, speaking about Nicaragua. Yet, soon, this kind of support didn’t seem like enough. In Cardenal’s poetry, victory was inevitable. Cardenal had written that Indian time was circular, that “history became prophecy,” and that therefore the “empire will always fall.” He had also written, “The hero is reborn when he dies. And the green grass is reborn from the ashes.” In poetry, Vargas and Murguia found inspiration to go to war.

In 1976 and 1977, Mission District residents, in solidarity with the FSLN, began quietly leaving San Francisco to join up with La Frente and pick up the gun in the Sandinista Revolution. Among them were Roberto Vargas and Alejandro Murguía.

“It was very romantic,” says Murguía. “If you grew up in the time after Che’s death, when you had Che’s figure calling for “1,2,3, many Vietnams” and a lot of different armed struggles going on all over Latin America, then it would seem logical, I think, if you were kind of young and crazy, that you would want to participate in some of these situations besides just doing solidarity work or organizing rallies. Also, the coup in Chile crushed our generation’s hope for electoral change in Latin America.”

Today, Murguía tries to situate the poets’ embrace of armed struggle within the spirit of those long ago times, but one senses that Vargas would not hesitate to join a guerrilla war tomorrow morning. When I ask him how the young poets made the leap from verse to bullets, he is incredulous at the question.

“We had to fight! There was no other way!” Vargas says. “We had the historical perspective and as a people we were worthless if we let that situation stand. We had our own books out. But are we really revolutionary poets if we just sit back and collect our laurels?”

Murguía compares the Sandinista war with the Spanish Civil War, when there were many international brigades in which writers had been involved. He suggests the poets went to war because they were poets. “If you knew the situation intimately in Nicaragua and you were reading Cardenal’s poems,” he says, “it was easy to see the connection between poets and political necessity.”

Vargas began organizing small, tight-knit cadres for battle in Nicaragua, recruiting his Sandinista guerrillas right off of the streets of the Mission. “I was secretive and I found them one by one,” he explains. “We were very clandestine and very compartmentalized. We never had more than a dozen people in our committee at once.”

Men who were menial laborers in San Francisco would one day be among the most respected heroes of the Nicaraguan Revolution. “When I recruited Chombo [Walter Ferretti], he was a cook at the Hyatt Regency,” says Vargas. “Later, Chombo would become a head of national security in Nicaragua. Another recruit was a former pilot, so I went to talk to him where he pumped gas at 21st and South Van Ness. That was Commandante Raúl Venerio. After the triumph of 1979, he would become the Chief of the Nicaraguan Air Force.”

When in San Francisco, Venerio later served as the editor of La Gaceta. In Nicaragua, the former gas station attendant became a real hero. “They got an airplane and attacked the National Palace,” says Vargas, laughing. “They hit it and split, and got away — real Mission boys!”

Before heading off to join La Frente, Vargas’ recruits would undergo a regimen of training and political education, an informal boot camp largely hidden in plain sight in the Bay Area.

“It was primitive,” remembers Murguía. “We didn’t really have someone with a military background to train us. We got just guns at pawn shops on Mission Street and practiced shooting at the firing range in Sharp Park down in Pacifica. We worked out with a friend who was a black belt in karate.”

Murguía says the most difficult part of training was the daily pre-dawn run of five laps around Bernal Hill. “We would run up the hill counter-clockwise — because that way is more difficult,” he says, “and we would wear these combat boots we bought at Leed’s Shoes on Mission.”

Besides being a part of physical conditioning, the run was a litmus test of the recruits’ commitment. “Doing activity like that is almost impossible if you’re not really psychologically into it,” says Murguía. “Try running five times around Bernal Hill! You start wondering after your third lap, ‘Goddamn! Why am I doing this?‘ Especially when no one is forcing you to do it!”

When I ask if the daily jog of 10 or 12 Latino men in combat boots on the hill at sunrise did not attract any, uh, attention, Murguía shrugs. “There were less people on the hill in those days,” he says. He recalls that the Mission cadres trained in complete anonymity: “We got money to rent planes and we took turns learning to fly the planes around the Bay Area. Nobody suspected anything because nobody knew anything about Nicaragua then.”

When I try to imagine a phalanx of Sandinistas at dawn on today’s Bernal Hill, surrounded by a crowd of early morning dog walkers, I can’t help but laugh. But the cadre’s training was deadly serious, and Murguía says its value was far more than psychological. “What I discovered when I went to the Southern Front was that our San Francisco cadres were some of the most advanced in the war,” he explains. “We understood the political situation and the tactic of insurrection and we had a minimum of physical conditioning. But some of these other cats, man! They literally just walked in off the street!”

For a time, Murguía remained the director of the Mission Cultural Center, while making regular trips to fight in Nicaragua. In 1977, Vargas resigned from the Arts Commission and went to battle for six or seven months. He and Murguía would spend the next couple of years rotating back and forth from the war front in Nicaragua to their solidarity work in the Mission. Murguía describes his entry into Nicaragua, his stay in various guerrilla safe houses in Costa Rica, and his experiences in the war in his 1991 American Book Award-winning fictionalized memoir, Southern Front.

Though Murguía says the actual military war on the ground was largely a stalemate between the Sandinistas and the Somozas’ National Guard, the Sandinistas were at last able to triumph through international pressure, strategic military victories, and a general strike. Somoza fled in July of 1979, and the Sandinistas entered Managua victorious on July 19 of the same year. Cardenal’s poem “Lights” describes the city as seen from a plane that brought the elder poet into a Managua free from the Somoza family’s rule for the first time in 43 years. In Managua, street graffiti declared, El triunfo de la revolución el triunfo de la poesía.

Vargas and Murguía, however, did not enter Managua with the victorious army. The Southern Front did not go to Managua, and Vargas had recently been sent back to the U.S., to coordinate a simultaneous take over of the Nicaraguan consulates in major U.S. cities from coast to coast to coincide with the victory in Managua.

Vargas’ work for Nicaragua did not end with victory. The Mission High kid now found himself serving in the new revolutionary government as cultural attaché to the United States. “I was jailed in the takeover of the DC consulate,” Vargas says, laughing, “but then I came back several months later to serve there!”

The voluble poet grows uncharacteristically silent when I ask him what it felt like to actually win the war.

“To win?,” he asks, pronouncing the word as if he was hearing it for the very first time. “Well … it’s like taking off a huge load, man. Like taking mountains off your back.” He is silent for a bit and then adds, “But what do you win? You win the right to continue the struggle.”

“To win was to reach the objective of getting rid of the Somoza family once and for all,” Vargas says. “But it was not really a win/lose situation.” Indeed, the Sandinistas inherited a country in ruins and in debt, with an estimated 50,000 war dead, and 600,000 homeless. Nicaragua’s left-wing powers would become an obsession for the Reagan Administration, who for the next ten years offered heavy financial assistance and training to the Contras, a coalition of pro-Somoza and anti-Sandinista guerrillas who fought to overthrow the revolutionary government. The U.S. strangled Nicaragua’s economy with a trade embargo like it employed against Cuba. In reality, for the Sandinistas, the war literally never ended.

“Somoza bombed everything in Nicaragua before he left the country. Reagan was spending — what? — $100 million a year annually against us at that time?” says Vargas. “They spent so much for a decade to destroy our little country.”

Nonetheless, poetry remained in the forefront of the Nicaraguan revolution. Cardenal was named Ministry of Culture, and he instituted poetry workshops across Nicaragua as part of a highly successful literacy campaign that raised literacy from just 12 percent to over 50 percent in the first 6 months of the revolutionary government. Soon, poetry was being written and taught in the tiniest villages and in the fields.

“We tried,” Vargas says bluntly. “We were doing very important land reform, incredible stuff for the economy. But it was dangerous to be a good example. We had the potential, but we had to hold off this enormous power [of the U.S.] for decades. Ultimately, we had to step back so they would not destroy Nicaragua.”

In 1990, Nicaraguan voters, weary of war and economic misery, chose to elect FSLN President Daniel Ortega’s U.S.-backed opponent, Violetta Chamorro, in the presidential election. “We lost the elections,” says Vargas. “But we had to allow them to demonstrate that we were not like Cuba or other revolutions. We lost beautiful young men and women to get that liberty.”

I ask Vargas to consider the successes and failures of the Nicaraguan revolution. He pauses and then seemingly changes the subject, excitedly telling me of the time he brought Ginsberg to meet the Sandinista soldiers. “Ginsberg was fascinated by the Sandinistas,” says Vargas. “And he wanted to see what he had been supporting on my behalf all these years. So I took him to the fighting along the Honduras border in 1984, during the Contra war.”

When Ginsberg went to the war zone, he brought not a rifle but a concertina. “I took him to meet these young soldiers in a trench. They see Allen with the concertina and they were like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ I told them he was a very famous poet. At once, they all started taking bits of paper out of their pockets that they had written poems on and started reading them to Allen. So there we are, with these soldiers in the trench with their rifles reading poetry, and Allen just wailing away on this concertina!”

I think of the strange road from Cardenal’s vision of lost Mayan cities to Vargas’ dreams of a Bernal Hill utopia to Ginsberg listening to soldiers’ poetry in a Nicaraguan trench, and I see that Vargas has answered my question with his own, the question asked by revolutionary poetry.



The lost moment with Ginsberg in the trenches is like a missing chapter out of Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives. Indeed Vargas’ story in many ways embodies that of Bolaño’s exile poet generation, of which he wrote, “They dreamed of a Latin American paradise and died in a Latin American hell.” Except for one crucial difference: Vargas is very much alive and still fighting.

Today, Vargas still puts in a tireless 50-hour work week as a labor organizer for the American Federation of Teachers in San Antonio, TX. During our conversation, he excitedly tells me of an action he is organizing for next month, a march of teachers on the Texas capital to protest budget cuts to education. “I camp out in the teacher’s lounge and talk to them when they are on break,” he says. “I signed up 50 new members last week!”

As he nears 70, the poet shows no signs of slowing down. “I can’t afford to!” he says. “My youngest son is only 17. When I get finished putting him through college, then maybe I can take a break.”

But work seems like more than necessity to Vargas; political struggle is the central theme of his life’s work. “Work, work, work, Erick,” he tells me. “That is what we have to do. I could go back and forth about what went wrong in Nicaragua, but there is more work to do and I have to stay positive. It is all part of the process.”

When Vargas comes back to the Mission Cultural Center this week, he will literally return, full circle, to a building he helped build. “We had no money to hire laborers, so we’d be there with our kids every weekend, building the place,” he remembers.

One of those kids was Vargas’ son, Mission poet Ariel Vargas, who will read in public with his father for the first time this week. “Cardenal baptized him when Ernesto came to bless the new Mission Cultural Center in 1977,” Vargas says. “He had offered to baptize any children who also might be there. In the end, there was a line of families around the block on 24th Street who had brought their children for Ernesto Cardenal to baptize. Ariel had already been there every weekend on his hands and knees sanding those huge gymnasium-like floors with us. The Mission Cultural Center is still there and that is our monument.” As he discusses the Mission, Vargas forgets the problems of the Nicaraguan revolution and begins talking nonstop again at last. He comes back to the stories that started our conversation. “You know, I lived at 110 Mullen on Bernal Hill,” he says, his excitement gathering. “Mike Rios was my neighbor. Rene Yáñez lived on the block. So it was all happening right there! Carlos Santana lived down the block at around 180 Mullen or something. We used to hear him and his band jamming all the time. The Arts Commission had a stage truck and I’d take it out to Precita Park and put the stage down for Carlos to play on.” I think of Cardenal’s vision of the repeating cycle of time, the promise that the empire will always fall and the hero will always be reborn. Much in the Mission has changed. But Vargas, the old poet, still looks out from Bernal Hill today and sees lost cities beneath the surface.















































































































































Crazy like a Mission homeboy



LIT Benjamin Bac Sierra, San Francisco City College English composition and literature professor and author of Barrio Bushido, an ode to Mission District vato locos, picks me up in his cherry red-and-black 1972 Chevy Monte Carlo low rider. As an academic who started selling weed in the Army Street projects when he was 10, Bac Sierra is well aware that he has an attention-getting car. As it turns out, it nicely represents his world view.

“I’m not supposed to be driving a Monte Carlo. I’m not supposed to be talking to you like this,” he tells me, his conversation inflected with casual swear words and a rhythm like that of an evangelist preacher, or maybe just a man who feels what comes out of his mouth. “A lot of people go into education and think they have to choose: am I going to be square or am I going to be how I used to be? But you can be intellectual and homeboy-homegirl at the same time.”

Barrio Bushido, Bac Sierra’s first novel, follows the story of three young men who ricochet from romance to brutal gang beatings, PCP leños, larceny, and neglect. Lobo, Santo, and Toro’s world has made them wild gangsters. Author Maxine Hong Kingston has compared Bac Sierra’s prose to that other chronicler of the underground man in uncertain times, Dostoyevsky. Although it hardly glorifies the protagonists, an honor and a beautiful-crazy logic to their deeds does emerge. Bac Sierra holds that the impulsiveness, that locura, needn’t be forgotten when someone leaves the street hustling lifestyle.

“I want to make a line between being a homeboy and the negativity. Craziness is a power — you can’t learn that in a book,” he reflects. We drive by his brother’s old house on Treat and 21st streets — Bac Sierra hears that a PayPal executive lives there now. After Bac Sierra’s father died, his brother, charismatic and clever, brought him up — until his brother wound up in jail and died young.

When Bac Sierra was 17, years after he had dropped out high school and begun dealing angel dust, he had a choice. He could continue his lifestyle, possibly ending up dead or in jail, or “retreat” into the Marines, which represented an honorable discharge, as it were, from the barrio.

Bac Sierra’s experience in the Marines followed the same lines as Toro’s, his headstrong and loyal Barrio Bushido character — to a point. Both of them cleaned up and were promoted to squad leader because of their sheer “craziness.” And both saw serious front line action during the Gulf War. Bac Sierra manned a machine gun as part of the first wave of Marines to land in Kuwait City in 1991. He also began writing in the military, letters home that he would revise “maybe 10 times — I wanted to be heard.” Although he doesn’t specifically recommend military service to young people, he recognizes the value of the discipline learned in the armed forces. “A lot of homeboys don’t do shit,” he says flatly.

After serving, he retained his strong ties to the Mission and his family there. Before his brother died, he was the one who motivated Bac Sierra to get his college degree, not to stop at his master’s in creative writing from UC Berkeley, but to continue on to law school. “Hood logic,” Bac Sierra calls it, the idea that a degree in a concrete field was far better than one writing. Although he hated every day of law school, he can now appreciate the experience and the knowledge it brought him.

He pulls the Monte Carlo over to speak with an older man on the corner across the street from his brother’s old house. “Yo escribí un libro, señor, en honor de mi hermano,” he calls out the window, inviting the man to his upcoming book release party at Mission Cultural Center. Many of his friends from the old neighborhood (he now lives in Richmond, where he is raising two of his four children, Margarita, nine, and Benny, six) are Barrio Bushido‘s biggest supporters. I ask him if it makes him sad, how much the neighborhood has changed since when he grew up. “This is the world. Economics knows no friends.”

I recognize the last line from Barrio Bushido. Its characters speak with an urgent poetry, moving through scenes influenced by Dostoyevsky and Miguel Ángel Asturias, with Gabriel Garcia Márquez-like magical realism. Bac Sierra wants the book to be taught in schools and has set a goal of having it adopted into 50 class sections by next semester.

Other things he hopes for: first, that readers be taken on a journey. “It doesn’t have to be stuffy. I want them to be amazed with the language.” Second, he wants the book to show that life is full of choices. “Start living here in this world,” as he puts it.

His last hope is for a “homeboy resurgence” in the Mission, the neighborhood that was once the center of Latino culture in Northern California. Thursday’s party at the Mission Cultural Center is a start. Bac Sierra is planning a low-rider show, Aztec dancers, a reading, and live music for the event — the positive parts of homeboy culture, like Bac Sierra himself. “I’m fucking straight homeboy,” he says. “I am very efficient. I am always inventing things.” 


Thurs/17 7 p.m., free

Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts

2868 Mission, SF

(415) 643-5001


Eat, pray, defend chick lit



LIT I read Eat, Pray Love a while ago, and I’m nervous to tell you that I liked it. Ever since bottle blonde Julia Roberts assumed her best worried-kitten face for the book’s film version, no self-respecting lit snob would ever admit to having enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s account of her year of finances-be-damned travel, healing from divorce, and fulminations on the belabored pursuit of love.

The release of her follow-up, Committed (Viking Adult), a socio-historical look at marriage couched in the story of Gilbert’s own unexpected union to her green card-challenged hubby Felipe — and the announcement of her Jan. 14 appearance at the Yoga Journal Conference — goaded me to examine just why people are down on Gilbert. After perusing the con side (a blog called Drink Curse Hate was enlightening) I found that the ire seems to hinge on two precepts: that she is self-centered, and that her writing is what we diminutively refer to as chick lit. Well three, if you count complaints about her flippant usage of Eastern spirituality for self-help. But I’m not sure I have much to answer back to on that front.

First, a self-centered writer? Well stomp my keyboard and call me Danielle Steele. Writers write because we think we have something interesting and important to say. There are plenty of writers who write about themselves, and only themselves, and whom people fall over themselves to love. Hey, David Sedaris. Eat, Pray, Love is indeed all about Gilbert, but that doesn’t make it uninteresting. Glamorous travel writer leaves unsatisfying marriage, mends heart with an empowering trek around the world, yoga, Italian food, and impressively hunky Brazilian men encountered along the way. Hate on, haters, you’d write about it if it happened to you.

Second, chick lit. Literature written for chicks, by chicks, about chicks — am I getting the definition right? This term can stop being a pejorative one yesterday, as far as I’m concerned. And really, any book that teaches women that it’s okay to long for more than children and complete kitchen sets (which EPL does in spades) should be applauded in these uncertain times.

The funny thing about Gilbert is that before Eat, Pray, Love, she had a thriving writing career. Her creative nonfiction books were about men, of all things: an account of the macho culture of a Maine fishing village (named Stern Men) and the tale of an awe-inspiring, if prickly master outdoors-man (this titled The Last Man in America). Gilbert was a regular contributor at Spin and GQ, for which she penned the article on her days bartending at one of Manhattan’s most testosterone-heavy dives, Coyote Ugly Saloon. There was a movie based on that one, by the way.

“I couldn’t believe that Disney wanted to buy this story, it was so raunchy,” Gilbert tells me over the phone from the converted New Jersey church where she and Felipe had set up shop just prior to the onset of Eat, Pray, Love fever. “I still don’t know how they did it — I was like no! I can still smell the vomit.”

No, she could never have anticipated the last book’s zeitgeist-level success. No, she doesn’t expect Committed to replicate those sales numbers. The Eat, Pray, Love mania was “like a big circus parade going on just outside my door nonstop. I spend my day washing dishes and doing laundry and then I look out the window and go, ‘Wow, there’s that circus out there — they have dancing bears!’ and then I go back to doing what I’m doing.”

As far as she’s concerned, the book was the pinnacle of her career — and that’s fine. “The definition of a phenomenon is that it only happens once and you don’t know why it happened.”

But my money’s on Committed to be a success in its own right. The premise: Gilbert’s just not that into marriage. But marry she must, to secure Brazilian hubs Felipe the right to live in the country they’ve made their home, so she embarks on finding out what the hell it is about societally recognized partnership that people down through history have found acceptable, even appealing. She comes up with divergent and fascinating tidbits: that early Christians eschewed marriage, a socially conservative writer’s thesis that marriage is in itself a subversive act.

I read the book in a day. Gilbert’s conversational flow carries you through her life’s intimate details, like the transcribed list of personal faults she complied for Felipe. (She includes her need for attention and overly enthusiastic cold shoulder, yet leaves out the inevitability that every iota of their relationship will at one point be discussed by book clubs around the country.) A tone as engaging as hers has rarely been applied to the question of what marriage means in this day and age, and it’s refreshing to see that matter given some thought — even if her research is by her own admission not exhaustive. Hey, I probably wouldn’t have read the book if it had been.

I wanted to give the book to my newly sprouted crop of married friends, see how my mom reacts to Gilbert’s conclusions on child rearing, copy a chapter on the importance of solo travel for my boyfriend to read.

But they’d probably make fun of me. Elizabeth Gilbert? Please, that’s chick lit.


Jan. 14, 7:30 p.m.,

$29–$39 conference attendees, $49–$59 regular admission

Hyatt Regency

5 Embarcadero Center, SF

(800) 561-7407



Page street


Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas (University of California Press, 158 pages, $24.95) is one of the best ideas a writer has come up with in a long time. By combining private and public support, Solnit was able to give away portions of the atlas in full-color, full-spread map handouts. (My favorite tracked both famous/infamous queer public spaces and the migration of butterflies throughout the city.). In the process, she also gave lectures in public spaces, providing a public service in the name of history and inclusion before dropping this tome on the book-buying masses. Gent Sturgeon’s version of a city-fied Rorschach alone is worth the price of the ticket. From insect habitats to serial killers, Zen Buddhist centers to the culture wars of the Fillmore and South of Market that some call redevelopment; Solnit and her cadre of artists, writers, cartographers, and researchers — Chris Carlsson, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and Mona Caron among them — give us the infinite depths and limitless potential that can be found in 49 square miles. (D. Scot Miller)

A lot of good and even great books came from the Bay Area this year, but one stands out: a book of poetry, Cedar Sigo’s Stranger in Town (City Lights, 100 pages, $13.95). He is a young writer who improves dramatically each time I hear him read, and his poetry and critical writing are among the wonders of our age. And of the age before, since through him speak the dead poets David Rattray, John Wieners, Robert Creeley, Denton Welch, Philip Whalen, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, Eartha Kitt, Raymond Roussel, Lorine Niedecker, and Cole Porter. When new writers come to San Francisco, they ask me if I’ve met Cedar Sigo. If they don’t know Sigo’s work, then I hand them a copy of the new collection. Don’t have to say much, I just step back a little to avoid the stars and diamonds and apples popping out of their eyes like toast from a toaster, because this crazy work is that crazy good. (Kevin Killian)

Compared with the prosaic grind of the inner city, the Sunset can seem like a — albeit foggy — vacation. Wide streets, surf breaks, dunes fit to get lost in: the neighborhood is just right for an offbeat bohemian getaway. But maybe those are just the reverberations of the past, which western neighborhood historian Woody LaBounty has dug up in Carville-by-the-Sea (Outside Lands Media, 144 pages, $35). This coffee table book illustrates the lives of the Sunset’s first modern-day inhabitants, who constructed a seaside village of retired street cars to inhabit back in the days before the N-Judah. Colorized at times for an Oz-like effect, the photos LaBounty digs up to illustrate “Cartown” reveal a community of artists, families, and enthusiasts — even a women’s cycling club — amid an untamed, oscillating sandscape. Those converted SoMa warehouse apartments suddenly don’t seem quite so rugged, do they now? (Caitlin Donohue)

In a city that boasts literally hundreds of theatrical world premieres per year, it’s astounding how few make it to the printed page. Bravo, then, to EXIT Press, new publishing arm of the venerable EXIT Theatre, for helping to ensure that at least some of our local play-writing talents will be preserved for posterity. And who better to inaugurate the series than Mark Jackson, whose professional development has been closely tied to the EXIT, and to the San Francisco Fringe Festival, which it produces? Far from being merely a collection of “Fringe-y” experimentation, Ten Plays (EXIT Press, 492 pages, $19.95) is a testament to the tenacity of vision. From reimagined Shakespearean classics (R&J, I Am Hamlet) to Jackson’s breakout hit The Death of Meyerhold, the bleakly comedic American $uicide, and the stirring Kurosawa-esque epic The Forest War, what these plays have in common is an audacious commitment to the illimitable possibilities of live theater. Of which, giving these works an opportunity to reach a wider audience is but one. (Nicole Gluckstern)

By any good political standard, John Lescroart’s Damage (Dutton, 416 pages, $26.95) is awful. It’s all about how a criminal uses the technicalities of law to get released (damn liberal judges) and how his family — newspaper publishers with ties to the (damn liberal) political establishment — protects him even as he continues to rape young women. Reminds me of that atrocious movie Pacific Heights, which is supposed to convince you that eviction protection and tenants rights are unfair to the poor landlords. But Lescroart writes about San Francisco, and does a pretty good job describing the city, and his characters are so real and well-crafted that I’m able to set aside the politics. In this case, Ro Curtlee, the rapist, is such an evil, evil bad guy — but a plausible, privileged evil bad guy — that he comes to life in a way that makes you want to kill him yourself. And makes you understand why a cop might feel the same way. And in the world of crime fiction, making you feel pain is half the game. It’ll be out in paper this spring. (Tim Redmond)

What Carl Rakosi was to Objectivism — a significant poet who dropped out of sight only to reemerge an old master — Richard O. Moore is to the SF Renaissance. The 90-year-old Moore was active in Kenneth Rexroth’s libertarian-anarchist circle in the 1940s, but abandoned poetry publishing for the more efficacious mass media of radio and TV, cofounding both KPFA and KQED in the process (and shooting the only footage of Frank O’Hara to boot). But Moore never stopped writing, and his debut volume Writing the Silences (University of California Press, $19.95) offers a brief but tantalizing introduction to more than 60 years of poetic activity. Moore’s diction is spare but memorable; a hawk’s wings, for example, “balance on the blind/ push of air.” Yet his low-key tones are wedded to an experimental sensibility; witness 1960’s “Ten Philosophical Asides,” which might be the first poem in English riffing on Wittgenstein, more than a decade before language poetry. Writing the Silences is thus belated yet ahead of its time. (Garrett Caples)

I commissioned three of the works in Veronica De Jesus’s Here Now From Everywhere (Allone Co. Editions, 130 pages, $26). Her portraits of Michael Jackson and Jay Reatard ran in the Guardian, while I paid out of pocket for her to render a tribute to the poet John Wieners for my boyfriend. Along with just-announced SECA Award winner Colter Jacobsen, who published this book, De Jesus is my favorite creator of drawings in the Bay Area. Like Jacobsen, she delves into memory — her memorial portraits can be seen for free on the windows of Dog Eared Books, where this book is for sale. The charm and value of Here Now From Everywhere is immediate, but the book reveals more of its multfaceted personality with each return visit. De Jesus’ illustrated dictionary of inspirational icons ranges from superstars to half-forgotten pop heroes, from cultural figures to obscure female athletes. It’s a gift. (Johnny Ray Huston)

“I told Micah last night that my new book would be a haunted house.” Berkeley-based poet Julian Poirier’s El Golpe Chileño (Ugly Duckling Presse, 128 pages, $15) is filled with the ghosts of past and present. Essentially a bildungsroman, it tracks Poirier’s protagonist’s growth from youthful journeyman into adulthood though a kind of mixed-genre Theatre of the Absurd. Vaudeville, comics, memoir, film pitch, epistolary, failed novel, poetry, the carnival, and travelogue are all wielded brilliantly in the hands of Poirier, making for a phantasmagoric reading experience where the whole emerges defiantly greater than the sum of its parts. Poirier writes, “I turned my whole brain into a city and wrote down everything I saw happening there.” And indeed it certainly feels that way — the book is ripe with the names of places, of friends living and dead; with lists of dates and years; and with drawings and photographs, making up what Poirier somewhat obliquely labels “The Stolen Universe.” El Golpe Chileño is truly a success of form and content, of the high and low, of pop and elegy. (John Sakkis)

Mirrors and masks



LIT/VISUAL ART At a time when everyone is bemoaning the death of the book from either Kindle or just plain old lack of interest, I stand up for our old friend and former conveyance. There’s something about it — the smell of fresh ink, the feel of the yellowed-pages of a well-worn paperback, that gentle “crack” of the spine of a new volume — that can never be replaced by some black-matte gadget. As a writer and lover of all things book, I’ve been impressed by a few this year that may reignite your love for what’s laying between the covers, just waiting for your return.

Julian Bell’s Mirror of the World: A New History of Art (Thames and Hudson, 496 pages, $34.95) is an unassuming tome. Clocking in at just under 500 pages, this softcover textbook-looking marvel has become a mainstay on my research shelf and bathroom magazine rack. Gathering full-color plates of some of the most lush (Delacroix’s Death of Sarandapulus), confrontational (Donatello’s David), and demanding (Jane Alexander’s Vissershok) images in Western art over the last 500 years, Bell has managed to do what so often seems like the impossible in the art world: he’s included damn near everybody. To Bell, Nok terracotta, Chinese Master Guo Xi, and Dogon carvings have as much influence on contemporary art as Warhol, Pollack, and Manet. “I want to believe,” he says in the introduction, “that works of art can reveal realities that had otherwise lain unseen, that they can act as frames for truth.” Mirror to the World does just that, framing a more-true, inclusive history of art while providing a nifty little timeline in the back to play catch-up.

Speaking of timelines, I’m grateful that Simone Werle’s 50 Fashion Designers You Should Know (Prestel, 160 pages, $19.95) has one! As a latecomer to the world of fashion, I know what I like, but sometimes have no idea why, or where it came from. The designers profiled in this book are given full- color spreads featuring their most signature pieces. Armani, Prada, and Dolce and Gabbana are explored at length, while conceptualists such as Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kubokawa are not overlooked. From early-20th century designers like Coco Chanel and Andre Courreges to contemporaries such as Vivienne Westwood and Tom Ford, this guidebook is handy and dandy.

One of the most beautiful books I’ve gotten my hands on this year is also one of the most challenging and provocative. Martin Eder’s Der Blasse Tanz/The Pale Dance (Prestel, 320 pages, $64.95) is a formidably luscious soft-focus bomb waiting to go off in the reader’s psyche. The German painter walks the thin line between fantasy and reality, nightmare and saccharine dream, child-like infatuation and barely-legal obsession. With a technical prowess to rival Renoir and Botticelli, Eder uses watercolors to draw us into this uncomfortable in-between, turning us into admirers and voyeurs at the same time. From the plush feel of the slightly weathered cover-stock, to Isabel Azoulay’s introduction and its insights regarding feminism and erotic art, everything works together, making Der Blasse Tanz an artifact that tells our oh-so modern story in a way that only a well-made book can.

But if there is any book out there right now that truly justifies why art and photo books still exist, it’s got to be Phyllis Galembo’s Maske (Chris Boot, 208 pages, $46). I love this book! In it, ordinary people turn into mythic figures and magicians, tricksters, and gods through fantastic costumes in African and Caribbean rituals and celebrations. Striped bodysuits that cover the entire body, including the face, conjure both Sesame Street and Freddy Kruger. Outfits are made entirely of bunched greenery. A lacquered wooden mask topped with a headdress and a full-body model doubles and then triples a small boy’s mass. The images themselves are striking, statements on both fashion and fetish. Knowing that there are 180 of them, and explanations for each one, makes the imagination take off on plywood wings.

Nan on Jean



WRITERS ISSUE So this is my very first book review ever (!) unless you count the book review I had to do in school on The Yearling, so bear with me because I’m a beginner. But anyway the title of the book is A Book of Jean’s Own (St. Martin’s Griffin, 288 pages, $14.99) and the author is Jean Teasdale who lives in an apartment somewhere with her husband Rick and her two cats, one was named Garfield which I’m guessing she took from the comic strip and I forget the name of her other cat. You’ll find out if you read her book!

Now I liked this book very much and someone told me it was supposed to be “satiric” but to me it just felt like meeting an old friend and sharing a little “wit and wisdom.” I must say I got quite a few chuckles from Jean’s stories and now that I’m writing this I remember from The Yearling that the hard part of writing a book review is that you’re not allowed to say exactly what’s in the book because that would spoil it for everyone else so I can’t actually tell you the stories here. Sorry!

I have to tell you one thing because I just can’t resist and it’s that Jean shaved off all her hair one day by accident even “down there” and I had to laugh out loud when I read that. Can you imagine?

Now I don’t know about the guys, but I suspect a lot of the gals that read this book might have a few pieces of advice for Jean.

For one thing, Jean has Type 2 diabetes and still eats rich chocolate desserts and I looked that up on the Internet and found out that it’s a very serious disease and that people who have that should not be eating sweets at all (which is what I thought before I even checked). For heaven’s sake Jean put a few recipes in her book and the “Oooey gooey choco-cocoa-mocha cupcakes with raspberry filling and coconut-cream-cheese-cola frosting” has tons of sugar! Jean even insists that you make the frosting with real cola instead of diet even though I think Coke Zero tastes just as good as Coke and I even like it better than Diet Coke and either one would be a fine substitute although I think Diet Pepsi has a nasty aftertaste and I wouldn’t use that.

And I also thought that Jean could be bit more strict with Rick because he seems to get drunk and stay out after work quite a bit and I gather from Jean that he’s not exactly the romantic type, but girls! You know we’ve got to work on our husbands now and then to get them to “shape up” and I know when Doug seems distracted I have a few tricks up my sleeve like a certain pout that isn’t obvious and it’s kind of hard to do but after 28 years I’ve “got it down” as the kids say and it works!

Anyway Jean’s a doll and I’m planning on reading her book all over again from Page One because sometimes I don’t “get” everything there is to “get” in a book the first time around and it’s helpful to read it twice. And there was one part where Jean was wondering if writing the book was worth it and if she really had anything important to say and my heart went out to her and I wanted to scream through the book into her ear and tell her that she was doing a great job and that you don’t have to have something “important” to say in order for it to be well worth saying! 

It’s not easy being an arrogant know-it-all



WRITERS ISSUE Having to constantly suffer the company of the ignorant, it’s difficult to suppress my condescension. After all, I know about obscure music and books that few others know of and this makes me superior.

For that matter, I must also tolerate the naive with regard to politics and current events. It is a constant struggle to maintain a civil façade, to avoid an outburst. After all, the polite response to the uninformed is not to point out their glaring faults but to gently correct their errors in a subtle, guiding way. Maintaining patience is not easy.

I was talking the other day to an acquaintance (it’s hard for people to actually be friends with one as superior as me) and I was shocked to find he’d never heard of Sainkho Namtchylak. Come on, what rock do you have to be living under to not know of the Tuvan throat-singing virtuoso — a singer who makes Diamanda Galas sound like Whitney Houston — who collaborates with free-jazzers like saxophonist Evan Parker? I tried not to be too disdainful as I informed him of her numerous releases on the British record label, Leo. It’s just so difficult not to get sarcastic when faced with that sort of colossal ignorance and cultural complacency.

Do these people just take whatever is offered them on MTV, instead of digging deeper? I have to laugh at the people who think they’re hip just because they listen to something they consider obscure, like Borbetomagus. Come on, they’ve been around forever. Even some grunge-listening moron who hasn’t picked up a magazine since Forced Exposure turned into a mail-order company knows that.

How did I become as I am: namely, one of the most hip people on the planet, endowed with a broad cultural knowledge? Obscurantists are made, not born. To tell the wounding truth, my strength came from weakness. In high school, I was a geek, woefully ignorant of popular culture and rock music in particular. My reading was predominantly in the genre of science fiction. I listened to the folk and classical music my parents preferred and, for exoticism’s sake, enjoyed the synthesizer stylings of Wendy Carlos and Tomita. Children have no taste. We’re shaped (or should I say twisted?) by our environment.

Once I discovered punk rock, I shot up like a late bloomer whose delayed pubescence doesn’t preclude his growth to a height greater than six feet. I devoured the Trouser Press Record Guide, listened to lots of music from the collections of friends. I started reading obscure magazines that reviewed music none of my friends listened to and I was an early adopter of the Internet: I had email in college in 1984 and my Usenet newsgroup posts archived on Google Groups date back that far, before the 1987 Great Renaming, which reorganized online discussion forums. I was an invited member of a secret e-mail music list called “Music-flamers” in 1986.

Let’s face it, it’s too easy to put someone down for being a fan of Korn or Britney Spears (what’s the difference, really?). I prefer to insult people for being so obvious as to be fans of virtually mainstream 1970s British psyche-folk group Caravan instead of Everyone Involved or fill-in-the-blank with your favorite ultra-obscure, private pressing, un-reissued psyche-folk LP of the early ’70s.

Why should music be something that we have in common, something that might bring us together, when it can be a soapbox to stand on to put us above other people? Why settle for the pleasure of turning on someone to good music when you can use it to put them down? If you can tell me, I’ll let you listen to my copy of Jim French and Galas’ If Looks Could Kill or Orchid Spangiafora’s Flee Past’s Ape Elf

Excerpted from The International Homosexual Conspiracy (Manic D Press, 224 pages, $14.95).


Moving portraits



WRITERS ISSUE The Metreon is handy if you require 10 different Inception showtimes. But watching a movie there is not same as seeing one — even the same one — at a circa-1922 palace like the Castro Theatre, a space lovingly dedicated to the specific pleasure of Going To The Movies. Edited by Julie Lindow (a former Castro employee), the brand-new Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theatres (Charta Art Books, $39.95) compiles essays from Bay Area film advocates, paying homage to San Francisco’s dwindling population of theaters. The book is illustrated by photographer R.A. McBride’s colorful, often haunting images of spaces robust (the Roxie) and ravaged (the New Mission).

Cinephiles will recognize most of the contributors, including San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival director Chi-hui Yang (topic: Chinatown cinemas); Landmark Theatre cofounder and current Balboa Theatre proprietor Gary Meyer (a personal timeline of his life as an exhibitor); and Guardian writer D. Scot Miller (a look at theaters in the onetime “Harlem of the West,” the Fillmore), among others. There’s also an interview with author Rebecca Solnit, who points out that the shared-experience aspect of movie-going is lost in a multiplex environment. Buying a ticket in a theater inside a mall, she writes, “you don’t have that funny sudden spiritual bond that this person next to you in line, who looks so different, also wants to see cowboys.”

Even before they met, Lindow and McBride had a mutual interest in local theaters. “I had been thinking about doing a book to help the movie theaters. At a party that Melinda Stone [another of Left in the Dark‘s essayists] had, I met Rebecca [McBride] and she had started her series of [theater] photographs. So we thought, that might make a great book if we combine these two things together. And then she handled the photos, and I handled the text.” The collaborative spirit continued to the selection of contributors. Lindow says making a connection with one author would lead to her to another; she describes the writing process as a true community effort.

By contrast, McBride found that accessing every venue she wanted to document wasn’t easy (she was flatly denied access to Cow Hollow’s Metro shortly before it closed). She also made some surprising discoveries (a toilet in the projection booth at the Clay, for example).

“There were over 100 theaters at one point in the San Francisco Bay Area — and I’ve only photographed 19 of them,” McBride says, with a certain amount of wistfulness. “One my favorites was the Coronet, which is now gone.”


Wed/13, 5:30 p.m. reception;

7 p.m., slideshow with R.A. McBride

SF Camerawork

657 Mission, second floor, SF


More events at www.leftinthedark.info


Lost city



WRITERS ISSUE With its vast divide between the rich and poor, its lusty appetite for sex, and its backroom real estate deals, it would seem that even the boutique and completely gentrified San Francisco of today offers to writers of crime fiction a rich vein of noir opportunity. Yet the lone novelist today determinedly probing the dark side of San Francisco’s endless battle to clean up the streets is Peter Plate. His latest novel, Elegy Written on a Crowded Street (Seven Stories Press, 176 pages, $13.95), is Plate’s ninth in a hardboiled writing career that spans the era of out of control gentrification in San Francisco. With little fanfare or support, against the real life backdrop of police sweeps of the homeless and the start of the dot com boom, Plate has produced a shelf of books that represent a lonely, yet noble and deeply radical literary effort to write noir crime fiction in which not the cops but the criminals are the protagonists.

Plate’s novels are full of delicious hooks. They reliably begin with some of the best premises in noir fiction today. Fogtown (Seven Stories Press, 2004) opens as a crowd of Market Street homeless and down and outers witness the crash of an armored Brinks truck at dawn that temporarily fills the desolate street with crisp, new hundred dollar bills. In Police and Thieves (Seven Stories Press, 1999), Doojie, a small-time Capp Street weed dealer, accidently witnesses the murder of a homeless man by a police officer and spends the rest of the book on the run from the murderous cop who seeks to silence him.

Like Doojie, Plate’s characters are always in the wrong place at the wrong time, unwilling spectators as the city changes around them. The free money in Fogtown offers the Market Street dwellers a tantalizing glimpse of the kind of new carefree life being lived all around them by the rich who have newly arrived to the city. Yet, like the upscale new eateries and clubs popping up everywhere, the money is off limits to them, and those who take the money instantly become, like Doojie, hunted by police. Plate’s strength is in conveying the hopelessness and despair of lone characters pitted in Doestoyevskian battle with societal forces far greater than they are. As they are slowly ground down by this struggle, we feel their terror, incomprehension and paranoia. As the drug dealer and SRO hotel manager, Jeeter, says in Fogtown, “Rights? You don’t have any rights. You have choices. That’s all you have. And you made the wrong one.”

In this context, noir fiction for Plate is protest fiction. A longtime street activist, Plate writes with the gut instincts of a protester, taking his novels right to the barricades where different visions of San Francisco violently clash. One Foot Off The Gutter (Incommunicado, 1995), is a mordant postcard from a Mission District just about to enter its gentrification era in which a homeless cop, a Latino gang member, and a yuppie doctor all covet the same Victorian houses at 21st Street and Folsom. Soon The Rest Will Fall (Seven Stories, 2006) is set in the Trinity Plaza Apartments on Market Street at the height of housing activists’ struggle to save the low income housing from demolition. Plate has so reliably found the pulse of change in the city that at times his work has blurred tragically with reality. Police and Thieves ends with a fire at the Crown Hotel on Valencia Street. Just months after the book’s publication, the real life Crown Hotel burned to the ground.

Since Plate finished his Mission Quartet at the close of the dot-com era, he has turned his attention to San Francisco’s Main Street, Market Street. Recently, in its inaugural issue, the incipient local newspaper San Francisco Public Press reported that one lone real estate speculator owns 62% of the vacant real estate between 5th and 6th on Market Street and that he is willfully leaving those properties vacant until he can make the money he thinks he deserves off of the property. Those uselessly abandoned and boarded up buildings at the very heart of the city are the recurring backdrop for much of Elegy Written On a Crowded Street, perhaps Plate’s darkest and most emotional work to date.

Elegy is not so much a traditional crime fiction thriller, but a lyrical roman noir in which police and thieves battle not each other but the stifling conditions of the city. Plate’s latest evokes Don Carpenter’s 1966 classic Hard Rain Falling (reissued this year by New York Review of Books), an unrelenting work that also took place largely on Market Street. Carpenter’s novel brings to life the old dive 24-hour pool halls and dirty hotel rooms of a 1950s San Francisco where the promise of the Gold Rush American West has faded. The novels’ restless young pool hustlers and small time thieves can only shuttle aimlessly back and forth in the new remote control city, like the 8 Ball, waiting to fall. Elegy’s characters are their descendents, still on Market Street and still waiting.

Down this mean street walks May Jones a tough, hard-drinking bail bondswoman, who is nearing forty with no prospects. Like everyone around her, Jones dreams of escape from the city. Even Jones’ clients are leaving for Portland. “It’s got trees. Good people. Cheap housing,” an erstwhile, young crusty-punk bank robber earnestly tells Jones as she prepares to skip bail. But Jones is condemned to remain, while all around her are the undead ghosts of those already disappeared and the soon to be departed. The cleaned up San Francisco is haunted. The living are exhausted. Jones says to herself, “I have pipelines to the lands of the dead.’

Jones echoes the food stamp caseworker, Charlene Hassler from Plate’s welfare reform novel, Snitch Factory (Incommunicado, 1996). Like Hassler, Jones is being worn down between the insatiable needs of her clients and the treacherous intrigues that surround her job. Jones’ client is Mary Anderson, a pregnant twenty-year-old African-American who has killed her boyfriend, the SFPD’s star snitch on Fillmore Street. By keeping her client out of jail, Jones finds herself on the cops’ shitlist and in fear for her life. As in other Plate novels, a police hunt for Jones ensues. As in other recent Plate novels, after the initial hook, the plot soon becomes murky and this hunt becomes elliptical and hard to follow, perhaps even a bit ridiculous. A plot sideline in which Jones has a brief fling with a dyke she meets at the End Up goes nowhere. The ghosts of Lenin and punk rock legend, Will Shatter make surprise cameos that stretch the reader’s credulity. Yet, Plate’s spot on descriptions of Market Street today and the universe of dread his characters inhabit there remains compelling throughout and one never doubts that the unraveling narrative is what life feels like for his characters. Plate writes with a tightly wound urgency throughout and Elegy makes a persuasive case that what is happening at 5th and Market today is happening to the city as a whole.

Fantastical plot aside, it is the weight of the dead that is the true subject of Elegy. The book opens with a dreamy scene, shrouded in fog, in which Jones watches the dead body of one of her former clients as it bobs up and down in the surf, unable to either reach the shore or go under for good. Some policemen have waded into the water to grapple with the dead man and bring him in, but the body proves too difficult to apprehend and the cops are pulled down with the it into the crashing waves. Throughout Elegy, Plate’s characters similarly bob along, paralyzed and unable to take decisive action, only pulling each other down, and as the novel ends, May Jones is more or less back where she started. Sadly, like many of Plate’s recent books, the novel fails to fully satisfy because there is no resolution to the plot. Plate’s characters do not seem changed by their ordeal; they only become more numb. Yet perhaps that is the point. Plate seems to be saying that as long as the city fails to grapple with its own dead, nothing can change, and the city is condemned to go around and around in a sort-of netherworld, reliving its past traumas in new conflicts. “It’s a moment in hell that should be taking place beneath the ground,” Plate writes of a brutal police assault on a drunken derelict in Elegy, and it sums up the whole book. The dead won’t stay buried.

While an elegy is a funeral song, a lamentation for the dead, it also suggests a last word. With Elegy has Plate said all he has to say about San Francisco? One hopes not. Perhaps no writer working today has left such a record of what it feels like to live in the American city in the era of gentrification. Yet, in life as in Plate’s fiction, knowing the truth can take its toll, as Doojie finds out when he is hunted by the police for the truth he alone knows. By the end of Elegy, May Jones has spent so much time wallowing in the murky depths where her clients dwell, that her identification with them is complete and her fate has become inseparable from theirs.

The exhausted tone of Elegy suggests that like Jones, Plate, the lifelong activist and engaged writer, has perhaps stared into the abyss too long. Nonetheless, his nine novels are a significant achievement, the life’s work of a doggedly engaged writer. In each book, I have found scenes that remain unforgettable in my own mind and that have permanently altered my own perceptions of San Francisco and its streets. While Plate’s novels are each flawed in their own way, I love them with the Algren-like compassion he clearly has for his memorable characters, like the homeless cop who lives in his squad car in Gutter, and the ex-con who robs a pot club while dressed like Santa Claus in Soon the Rest Will Fall. Taken as a whole, Plate’s novels offer a compelling and defiant portrait of the psychic toll the disappearance of loved people, places, and opportunity from the city has taken on those left behind.




Past presence



LIT/MUSIC/VISUAL ART A present from the past — the paradox within that phrase is as close as one might get to pithily describing hauntology. The term was coined in 1993 by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida to describe utopian specters within capitalist society. But more recently, the music writer Simon Reynolds has specifically applied hauntology — literally, ghost logic — to music, using the term to describe the playfully eerie studio-as-séance-site releases on the British label Ghost Box, and similar recordings.

Since his early days as a journalist for Melody Maker, Reynolds has cannily related French theory to musical phenoms in practical and illustrative ways, whether applying the feminism of Hélène Cixous to Throwing Muses, ideas about jouissance to the sonic innovations of My Bloody Valentine, or Deleuze and Guattari to the jones for acceleration in rave culture. With the release of Reynolds’ most recent book, Totally Wired: Postpunk Interviews and Overviews (Soft Skull Press, 464 pages, $16.95), I thought the time was right to turn the tables and interview him about hauntology and the related library music genre — especially since the current Berkeley Art Museum exhibition “Hauntology” cites him while putting forth a hauntological theory of visual art.

SFBG What do you think about the current interest in library music as culture grows ever more digitized? To me it seems there’s an intrinsic push-pull between searches for rare objects in far reaches, and then their incorporation into digital or online spheres.

Simon Reynolds Certainly there are some music bloggers who specialize in library [music] and go about it in an extremely systematic manner — they aim to upload or share or post every single Bruton or Peer International Library or Chappell release. They work their way through the entire catalog, number by number. These are super-obscure records, and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of discography for a lot of the labels — I guess they weren’t precious about their own output. That must be both attractive and maddening (attractively maddening?) for a certain kind of obsessive-compulsive collector.

People are building a body of knowledge about library music, in the same way that reggae collectors did with the similarly chaotic and massive output of record labels in the ’70s. But it still has the aspect of an unmapped zone, a zone of discovery, which you can’t say about many other areas of music.

SFBG What aspects of library music appeal to you, and what aspects don’t?

SR I like the electronic stuff done by people moonlighting from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, or by oddball figures like Ron Geesin. Or Eric Peters and Frederick G, who did stuff — electronic weirdness, or effects-laden goofy production-type tracks — for Studio G among other library labels. The Studio G stuff on the Trunk compilation G-Spots is just so luxuriant sounding.

In library music, the weird combination of anything-goes experimentation and un-precious functionalism creates good results, especially when you factor in brevity. Most library tunes are really short. So you get the same alien buzz as from experimental music, but without being detained for 20 minutes to an hour.

I also like the whole mythos and vibe around library music, the idea of all these studios in Wardour Street and thereabouts in central London churning stuff out, with top session players or underemployed composers earning a bit of dough on the side. And of course the packaging, with its uniform artwork for different series and wonderfully distilled evocative track descriptions (“pathetic, grotesque”; “relaxed swing-along”).

The downside is that some library music is just anodyne. A large proportion is sub-music, just splinters of mood or feeling that aren’t developed because they’re meant to underscore or mood-tint brief moments in a movie or TV show. I’m also less interested in the breaks end of library music, the “groovy scene in swinging discotheque” redolent tunes favored by some beat headz.

SFBG How would you characterize or define the relationship between library music and hauntology?

SR What people would consider the classic era of library music — the ’60s and ’70s, when there were groups of musicians in the studio, as opposed to the ’80s and thereafter, when it increasingly became one composer using a digital synthesizer to play all the parts — has heavy associations with the popular culture of that period. Especially TV programs and radio, and particularly children’s TV. Library music was used when there wasn’t a budget to get a soundtrack made, so you got this off-the-peg stuff.

If you’re a child of the ’60s or ’70s, this music has a potent memory-stirring effect, but in a nonspecific way. You hear certain kinds of lite-jazz chords, or melancholic orchestrations, or certain analog synth sounds, and it sets off reverberations inside you, but you can’t place them. (A later generation will probably have the same relationship with digital-era music — we’re maybe getting that with the vogue for video game sounds in a lot of dance music now.)

When hauntologist artists use this material, they can trigger all these emotions. They can also mess with the “science of mood” in library music by making emotions clash and mingle in strange combinations.

The formality and institutional vibe of library releases has a similar appeal to the “benevolent state” stuff that the hauntologist artists are into (like polytechnics, new towns, the BBC when it believed in elevating and educating the common man, etc.). Even though the library labels were commercial ventures, the aura of them is oddly similar to government or educational institutions: kind of stuffy and prim. The artwork relates to the way Penguin and Pelican books looked. It has that “lost Britain” quality.

SFBG Have you heard responses from theorists about your application of Derrida’s concept of hauntology to music?

SR No. I really just stole the word off Jacques because I liked the feel of it. It’s Mark Fisher of k-punk who’s done the more serious mapping of hauntology as a theory onto the music. I think there are definitely some parallels and connections, but Derrida’s thing seems very much bound up with Marxism and philosophy.

SFBG What is particularly hauntological about the Ghost Box label’s recordings, and what are some notable hauntological recordings over time?

SR The “haunty” aspect to the Ghost Box stuff relates to the reverberations I just described. They use samples from the era’s library or incidental music and TV or Radiophonic Workshop scores. Or (in the case of more composed-and-played recordings by Belbury Poly or The Advisory Circle) they write new melodies and motifs that are evocative of that era or in the style of that music.

I think there’s an intrinsic musical appeal and value to this stuff that works on people who don’t have the nostalgic connection. For instance, I know some quite young Americans who really like Ghost Box’s stuff. But if you are of the demographic, it has this extra layer of meaning and effect. It can be bound to a generation, and also to nationality. (Interestingly, it appeals to Australians, who get a lot of the TV from the U.K., and thus have a similar pop cultural matrix of memory).

The Ghost Box artists have a “haunty” aspect in the sense that they’re interested — in a simultaneously playful and serious way — in all kinds of pop culture to do with the supernatural and horror, from the Algernon Blackwood/Arthur Machen tales of cosmic horror, to the Hammer House of Horror movies, to Doctor Who, to ghost stories. Again, there’s a nostalgic aspect in the sense that these things, first encountered as a child, have a profound effect. British children’s TV had some really creepy and macabre stuff on it. In retrospect, you wonder, “What were they thinking broadcasting this stuff to under-10-year-olds?”

Ghost Box has fun with the cultural associations of all this stuff. There is a really pleasing clash of the campy and the genuinely disquieting in the way they handle it. It’s not some goth/industrial scary thing, which I think is where people get confused — they put on the Ghost Box records and discover they’re quite pleasant and enjoyable.

I like the main three Ghost Box groups very much — The Focus Group, Belbury Poly, and The Advisory Circle. And Roj made a cool album, The Transactional Dharma of Roj. The label’s most fully realized, brilliant record is Advisory Circle’s Other Channels. But in terms of individual peaks, I’d say certain tracks on Focus Group’s Hey Let Loose Your Love and Belbury Poly’s The Willows are among the most remarkable music of the past decade. For me they find this place between idyllic and eerie that just presses all my buttons, especially when you add the overall framework — the design and the concepts have this dry, poker-faced humor to them.

A similar vibe is going on in the records by Moon Wiring Club and Mordant Music, who are the other two central hauntologists for me. The Caretaker, a.k.a. Leyland James Kirby, has also done some really great stuff, but it’s more amorphous and drone-y.

SFBG Inside and outside of a deployment of library music, does hauntology appeal to you more than “retrofuturism” as an idea and a practice?

SR They are similar, or they overlap. The Ghost Box guys and Mordant Music are into the whole nostalgia for the future trip. Part of the appeal of something like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is the futurism of it, the alien impact it had on impressionable ears, now inevitably filtered through a scrim of bygone charm and quaintness.

SFBG What future forms might hauntology take?

SR It may well be that every generation will come up with some kind of working-through of its recent past, the stuff that affected it most intensely as children. If you look at Ariel Pink and all the people he’s influenced who’ve come through recently, it’s bound up with a different memory-set: ’80s pop, MTV, and radio.


Through Dec. 5

(Oct 29, 6-9pm “Hauntology at L@te Event with Interdisciplinary Intro Panel and musical performances Indignant Senility, Barn Owl, and Jim Haynes)

Berkeley Art Museum

2626 Bancroft Way, Berk.

(510) 642-0808



Call of the grisly



LIT With volumes devoted to numerous U.S. cities and quite a few foreign capitals, it sometimes seems as if Akashic Books’ expanding line of noir story anthologies will wind up covering virtually every major metropolis on earth. Because less gritty burgs like Portland, Ore.; Seattle; and Phoenix all have entries in the crime fiction series, it’s only fair that Mexico City gets a nod.

Akashic must be commended for waiting several years until the great novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II agreed to take on editing duties for Mexico City Noir (Akashic Books, 250 pages, $15.95). Taibo, who was born in Spain but has lived in Mexico since 1958, is the author of wildly entertaining and internationally successful mysteries that push the genre’s boundaries in interesting directions. In addition to a dense biography of Che Guevara, he has written a doorstop-size book about Pancho Villa that should have been translated into English years ago.

In his introduction to Mexico City Noir, Taibo describes the capital city as having “the most corrupt police force on the planet.” (A recent guidebook cites research showing that 13 percent of the megacity’s incarcerated population are veterans of the police corps.) Taibo writes of the corruption and mayhem sewn by members and ex-members of “security” forces: “If you’re lucky, you can stay away from it, you can keep your distance … until, suddenly, without a clear explanation of how, you fall into the web and become trapped.” He concludes, “You wake up in the morning with the uneasy feeling that the law of probabilities is working against you.” If that’s not noir, what the hell is?

The stories Taibo assembles shine a harsh light on systematic injustice and dire poverty amid, as Taibo puts it, “an economic crisis that’s been going on for 25 years.” Among the book’s highlights are a street drunk who may have witnessed a police killing, a demented priest with some unsavory urges, and plenty of street-level contemplation of the violence of everyday life. There’s also enough grisly narco-related mayhem to satisfy fans of the Saw movie franchise (assuming they can read).

But while stateside crime fiction often achieves such levels of violence at the expense of a moral center, and rarely works on more than one fairly obvious (if lucrative) level, these short stories are rooted in rage at the injustice that permeates life in Mexico City. The sometimes experimental narratives lay out the harsh socioeconomic realities of post-NAFTA Mexico, where the less-than-magical realism of the market makes the rich richer and the poor poorer — and the U.S.-backed drug war provides plenty of bad men with more guns. The warped humor here, especially in Taibo’s contribution about the struggle for the soul of an embattled street corner, is part of the survival mechanism of people who have seen too much of life at its worst but must keep laughing anyway.

Akashic is complementing the release of Mexico City Noir by reissuing The Uncomfortable Dead (Akashic Books, 268 pages, $15.95), the novel Taibo wrote in collaboration with Zapatista spokesperson and strategist Subcommandante Marcos. In an interview included as part of the new edition’s supplementary materials, Taibo describes the frenetic pace at which he and Marcos wrote alternate chapters for serialization in Mexican paper La Jornada, for a total of 12 chapters over 12 weeks. That ongoing deadline pressure has produced a giddy read, and if it doesn’t deliver the kind of straightforward narrative and tight plotting that U.S. mystery readers look for, the literary pyrotechnics of these two impressive wordsmiths offer undeniable pleasures that eschew formulaic predictability.

Taibo’s chapters feature his Coca-Cola-and-tobacco-addled, one-eyed detective Hector Belascoarn Shayne on the trail of a murderer named Morales. Marcos in turn writes about a Zapatista investigator named Elias, who is also searching for a man named Morales. The two stories wind up intersecting in a sometimes surreal jumble in Mexico City, where, in Taibo’s words, there are “more movie theatres than Paris, more abortions than London, and more universities than New York.”

The 1968 Mexico City police massacre of student activists is a key reference point in both books. That bloody repression was clearly a watershed period for Taibo and Marcos, profoundly influencing both of them. In the early 1980s, Marcos went south to Chiapas and joined the guerrillas who evolved into Zapatistas. Taibo became a history professor at the Metropolitan University of Mexico City and president of the International Association of Political Writers; He also went on to write ‘68, a memoir of sorts available in English from Seven Stories Press, and the experimental novel Calling All Heroes: A Manual for Taking Power (which features a survivor of the 1968 police massacres who enlists the aid of his childhood heroes Sherlock Holmes, Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, and D’Artagnan to help him in a new reform movement) just reprinted by local publisher PM Press.

Both Taibo and Marcos retained their radical politics and commitment to class struggle. They also share a fondness for absurdist humor, and both display an endearing willingness to laugh at themselves. Self-effacing humor is not a trait one usually associates with committed leftists, alas. The writing of Taibo and Marcos is a fine corrective to the unfortunate association of strident humorlessness with radical activism.

Addicts unanimous



LIT What is it about addiction memoirs? Like Pringles — something food junkie Frank Bruni might know something about — you just can’t have one. They’re easy to devour and easy to digest, as compulsively consumable as the impulsions they’re filled with.

While they certainly won’t have the final say in the matter, two recent addiction memoirs, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man (Little, Brown, and Company; 240 pages, $23.99) by Bill Clegg and Born Round (Penguin, 368 pages, $16) by Frank Bruni, fit the genre’s high-stakes bill.

“I can’t leave and there isn’t enough,” declares the first line of Portrait, as Clegg stares at the crumbs in a bag of crack and the crumbs of his successful career as a literary agent. This is only the beginning of what quickly becomes a journey into an all too lucid nightmare.

The articles in the title suggest that Clegg’s story — while not anonymous the way Go Ask Alice was in the ’70s when readers were convinced of its authenticity — isn’t remarkable because addiction is, well, wholly unremarkable. Clegg makes this clear in his episodic telling of day after day, night after night of crack binges and self-inflicted explosions and implosions.

Clegg’s prose is like beautiful quicksand — calm in its capture, deadly in its swallow. In some of the book’s ugliest moments, he abstracts himself from the mire through third-person, conjuring an out-of-body experience and pressing himself against the glass case of his own madness. ” … He feels the high at first as a flutter, then a roar … It is the warmest, most tender caress he has ever felt and then, as it recedes, the coldest hand.” The book’s brazen unsentimentality is its best and most addictive ingredient.

Yet whatever goes down comes up. There’s always the flipside to addiction and consumption: expulsion. While Clegg, with the crack toke count rising, arrives at a sickly ectomorphic physique — perfectly captured in the perhaps unfelicitously cartoonish book cover — Frank Bruni, in his college years, aims for a similar build with the help of amphetamines and bulimia. In Born Round, he “regurgitates” — his words, not mine — his insatiable struggle with appetite as he moves up the food chain from addict to critic. It’s something he believes he was “congenitally rigged” for, he tells me in a phone interview.

Born hungry into a large Italian family of enablers, Bruni pokes fun at his gut — and his gastronomical gusto — with flippant prose that puts everything out on the proverbial five-course table. Food is Bruni’s own version of crack, and Born Round shows how his diet stood in the way of promotions, led to body dysmorphia, and found him getting cozy with the fridge on date night. (“It was Haagen-Dazs or love. I couldn’t have both.”)

In working with a genre that’s been tried-and-sometimes-true (think James Frey’s 2003 A Million Little Pieces), these books beg the question: Do we really need another addiction memoir?

“I didn’t think of keeping it fresh or whether or not the world needed another one,” Clegg tells me when I broach the question. “The landscape of other addiction memoirs didn’t occur to me. The writing of [Portrait] preceded any idea of it being published. When I first started, it was just a transcription of memories while I was in rehab.”

Bruni, former food critic for the New York Times and still a writer there, performs a similar rewinding of the memory-tape. He even goes back to a time when, as a toddler, he wept for a third hamburger. “I couldn’t just sit down and … reproduce chapters of my life,” he says during our conversation. “I had to do an in-my-head interview with myself like I would with a profile subject.”

Bruni is among a minority of men in dialogue about eating disorders today. “Almost all the discussion about eating disorders is focused on women,” he says. “Society … tells men to be stoic and that talking about ooey-gooey vulnerabilities is not masculine.”

Both memoirs get at the heart of addiction’s tedium. In each tawdry vignette of Clegg’s cracked-out narrative, he moves like a sleepwalker with no hope of waking, prodding the underbelly of New York in the mean search for a fix. It’s a broken record: cab ride, hotel room, cab ride, hotel room, and the paranoia in-between. These urban encounters are the stuff of Hubert Selby Jr.

Bruni moves at a like rhythm, throwing up meals as if it were breathing or blinking: a habit he just can’t kick. Something, as he writes, “encoded in [his] genes.”

Perhaps the act of buying into a memoir is like paying admission for a nasty, self-indulgent carnival (for example, Eat Pray Love). Or perhaps it’s just fuel for postmodern narcissism. Ex-denizens of addiction’s terrain will marvel at how both Bruni and Clegg balk at blaming others. Though if I were Bruni, I might blame his mom and her bacon-wrapped hot dogs.

There are moments in Portrait where Clegg peers beneath the detritus to blame some bad parenting, but in the end, he really blames no one. “The process of repair will be going on for the rest of my life,” Clegg tells me. “My primary work is with other alcoholics and addicts. It’s through that work I stay sober and rebuild my relationships.”

Bruni says the heavy lifting is in “constantly reminding yourself where you’ve been, where you don’t want to go, and how you got to those places that make you unhappy.” His temptations to binge remain at large. “Just last night after … a really good meal in a restaurant,” he explains, “I came close to buying a pint of ice cream. I took a deep breath and said, okay, are you really hungry? Are you thinking about the potential subtle difference you’ll feel in your pants tomorrow if you eat this?” Bruni’s a funny guy, and I want to laugh, but I don’t. “It’s … an ongoing struggle that I don’t think will ever end.”

Though there’s no end in sight for Clegg and Bruni, at least they’re not tacking on a happy ending and pulling any punches, because, ultimately, that would be relapsing.


Sun/25, 4 p.m. free

Omnivore Books

3885 Cesar Chavez, SF


Mon/26, 7 p.m., free

Books Inc.

1760 Fourth St., Berk.


Ride the Iron Horse


There’s a mysterious paradox present in the fact the Golden Gate Bridge was essentially born in the pit of the Great Depression. On the one hand, this marvel of architecture and beauty stands for potential and optimism as made manifest in the dreamiest haven of California. On the other, the Golden Gate is like a metallic siren, known as a place where those who have lost contact with American life go to disappear.

In Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge (Bloomsbury Press, 224 pages, $23) the esteemed historian and state librarian emeritus Kevin Starr focuses on the positive side of the landmark, even if he notes tragedies such as the deaths of ten workers near the final days of the bridge’s construction. Starr isn’t seduced by the romantic or melancholic image of the fog-shrouded structure so much as committed to celebrate — with great acumen and an oft-oratorial voice that unites broad yet vital references in a turn of phrase — its greatness. His book is as well-ordered and constructed as its subject, with cleanly presented chapters outlining the bridge’s relationship to subjects such as politics, money, and design, saving the more ambiguous — yet also perhaps richest? — areas of suicide and art for last.

As such, Golden Gate is complimentary to Donald MacDonald and Ira Nadel’s more illustrative, text-based 2008 tome Golden Gate Bridge: History and Design of an Icon (Chronicle Books, 144 pages, $16.95), a well-designed hardcover with a cover that pays homage to the International Orange color of the bridge itself. Another recent book that pairs off and contrasts well with Scharff’s is Gary Snyder and Tom Killion’s Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History and Prints (Heyday Books, 160 pages, $50), in the sense that Starr, ever mindful of context, is keenly attuned to the bridge’s role in connecting nature and urbanity in Northern California. In the latter stretch of the book, he takes time to explore the contested role of BART in relation to the bridge.

In the “Art” chapter of Golden Gate, Starr makes cursory mention of the scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 Vertigo in which Kim Novak hurls herself into the water at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Anyone who visits this cinematic landmark, whether alone or on a group tour, will discover that after Sept. 11, 2001, it has been fenced off. So, while safeguarding against real-life suicides has not (at least yet) resulted in overt changes to the look and structure of the bridge, the possibility of terrorist attack has led to some tiny degree of visual blight near it. It’s curious, and contradictory, and the type of detail — complete with the added twist that a hole ripped into the metal fence allows for good photography — that Starr might enjoy. He isn’t interested in singing the praises of the bridge’s famous creators, such as Joseph B. Strauss, as he is in demonstrating the meaning of their accomplishments. Trains and boats if not airplanes brought us the Golden Gate Bridge, and Scharff shows why its Art Deco subtle majesty — those paradoxes again — is here to stay.


July 8, 6 p.m., $7–$12

Commonwealth Club

595 Market, SF

(415) 597-6700


July 13, 7 p.m., free

Bookshop West Portal

80 West Portal, SF

(415) 564-8080


July 14, 7 p.m., free

Books Inc.

2251 Chestnut, SF

(415) 931-3633


July 15, 6 p.m.

California Historical Society

678 Mission, SF

(415) 357-1848


Road rules



CULTURE Dear cars: I’m only doing my part to keep the air clean, and I promise you, I’m trying to stay in my lane when I have one. I’m looking as cute as I can astraddle my fly new ride, puffing up hills for health. Alas, your intermittent, unwarranted honk is a sorry companion to my bike high. “Get a car!” is a bummer too. Bicyclists sure enough have to put up with some shit.

Which is why we’re glad to have Eben Weiss, New York City’s outspoken Bike Snob. He’s won raves among the two-wheeled for his blog (www.bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com), which pointedly voices the frustrations of the biking masses. Sure, Weiss is opinionated — don’t get him started on brakeless bikes for civilian use — but in our recent phone interview, he articulated his ideas about transportation with an aplomb and wit I seldom hear elsewhere.

And by gosh, it’s only right he follow grand blogging tradition and put out a book. My chat with Weiss coincided with the start of his tour to promote Bike Snob: Systematically and Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling — he hits San Francisco Thursday, June 17 — a project that compelled him to shed the cloak of anonymity under which he had blogged for years. (Turns out he’s a looker.)

Right off the bat he told me, “There’s no such thing as ‘bike culture.'” Them’s fightin’ words in SF, which reveres the idea of a biking class that generates its own social mores, political convictions, and tasty microbrews. “As far as I’m concerned, I like to ride. So my ‘common cause’ is just to be happy. You have a lot of different kinds of cyclists. They do it for fitness, they’re into the environment … It’s like anything else: a lot of people doing a lot of things for a lot of reasons.”

Weiss is of the opinion that terms like “bike culture” have been used by the cycling industry to sell us things, a ploy that leads to the type of fashion victimology so snarkily snapped and captioned on his blog. “A decent bike and a good lock,” Weiss says. “And that’s really all you need. I think part of the reason the cycling media can drive you a little bit crazy is that there’s such an emphasis on equipment. You can spend hundreds or thousands on cycling-specific sneakers, on a bike that looks a certain way. I recommend that you get a bike, any bike. Spend as little money as possible — just you and the bike, that’s it.”

It’s refreshing advice, the kind you don’t usually hear from people who have been city-biking as long as Weiss has. I also asked him about traffic laws — he’s questioned their relevance to biking in the past. Do we obey the stop signs, Bike Snob?

“I think it’s important to remember that breaking a rule because it really doesn’t apply to you is different than breaking a rule because it’s exciting,” he tells me. “Anything that involves stopping is good. People who ride bikes think putting your foot down is an admission of defeat. I think they need to get over that. You have to be nice to pedestrians. You have to treat others with the same respect you want motorists to treat you with. Not riding on sidewalks is a good rule.”

Indeed. He’s also got words for nonbikers that they would do well to heed. Avoid referring to your cyclists friends as “Lance Armstrong,” groping on their top tubes without permission, and asking them whether they’re impotent.

And for God’s sake, quit asking if bike accident victims were wearing a helmet. Weiss, in the traffic safety chapter of his book entitled “Why is Everyone Trying to Kill Me?” has gone on record about his neutrality regarding society’s “all helmet, all the time” insistence, calling it something of a misguided fixation. This is not the politically correct line to walk for a bike activist. He’s caught flack for being seen at road races lacking the proper headgear.

But unlike other prominent figures in the bike world who rally fellow cyclists under one flag or another, Weiss doesn’t consider himself an activist so much as a curmudgeon. (Albeit a curmudgeon with a hot blog, a new book, and a heady slew of good ideas.) His popularity may be a result of his non-hectoring, yet still bitingly impish, attitude — an attitude that, whether he likes it or not, jibes well with the current bike culture. Ride on, Bike Snob, we’ll be reading.


Thurs/17 6:30–8 p.m., free

Sports Basement

1590 Bryant, SF

(415) 575-3000


“Chronic” 2010



LIT/NCIBA Because poetic subjectivity is by and large an exclusive undertaking

in which the poet attempts to impress upon the reader, via the use of poetic conventions, his fundamentally unknowable immanence, it often results in complete discursive failure. Those who’ve ever experienced a poetry workshop surely recall the gentle "make it more concrete" euphemisms directed at those well-meaning but misdirected poets brave enough to tackle personal catastrophe with verse — the results of which are usually a mire of intimations, associations, and abstractions that in no way resemble poetry or even, on a basic level, communication.

"If it were that easy, we’d all be doing it" is, in this case, true. Few poets can convey complex interiority with such deftness, originality, and precision as D. A. Powell. He can rework what would otherwise be affective sentiment into a lucid and devastating articulation.

With his latest and fourth collection, Chronic (Graywolf Press, 64 pages, $20), Powell offers his best work to date, the winner of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Award in poetry. Its cavalcade of lyricism keeps tempo with phonic and syntactical playfulness (Powell is often compared to Gerard Manley Hopkins. Framing the poems in the collection is Powell’s epigraph, taken from Virgil’s Ecologues (itself a reworking of Theocritus’ Bucolica): Time robs us all, even of memory: of as a boy I recall/That with song I would lay the long summer days to rest./Now I have forgotten all my songs.

The result is a brilliant use of Virgilian source material as a formal element that provides a frame of reference for Powell’s own subjective experience. Among the book’s best pieces is a "redux" of Virgil’s second Ecologue, which tells of love and erotic longing between two male shepherds:

what was his name? I’d ask myself, that guy with the sideburns

and charming smile

the one I hoped that, as from a sip of hemlock, I’d expire with him

on my tongue

silly poet, silly man: thought I could master nature like a misguided


as if banishing love is a fix. as if the stars go out when we shut our

sleepy eyes

("corydon & alexis redux")

Even readers unaware of the fact that Powell is gay and living with HIV will not miss the dark subtext of the hemlock reference. The same themes, deeply personal to the author, are present in the book’s title poem. In "Chronic," Powell’s idiosyncratic verse structure — its syntactical breaks, lilting and elliptical sounds, lines that are unpunctuated yet entirely expressive — are employed to great effect in a lengthy, but quickly moving, rumination on ecological devastation:

and so the delicate, unfixed condition of love, the treacherous body
the unsettling state of creation and how we have damaged—
isn’t one a suitable lens through which to see another:
filter the body, filter the mind, filter the resilient land

and by resilient I mean which holds
which tolerates the inconstant lover, the pitiful treatment
the experiment, the untried & untrue, the last stab at wellness


No matter the overarching topic, each poem in Chronic is watermarked with Powell’s distinctive voice, one that his previous books Tea, Lunch, and Cocktails (things that, along with chronic, make for a satisfying afternoon) helped establish. The homoeroticism, pop culture references, adroitly inserted colloquialisms that lent charm and personality to past works are all present, but the scope has become more expansive and more complex. I am greatly looking forward to the next stopping points on Powell’s poetic horizons.



Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese (Knopf)


Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (McSweeney’s)


Chronic by D.A. Powell (Graywolf Press)


Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter (Penguin)

CHILDREN’S ILLUSTRATED (award to illustrator)

Zero is the Leaves on the Tree illustrated by Shino Arihara (Tricycle)

Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko (Penguin Young Readers)

Andromeda Klein by Frank Portman (Delacorte Young Readers)

Tamalpais Walking by Tom Killion and Gary Snyder (Heyday Books) *

Pigs in Oakland



LIT/NCIBA One gets the sense that Novella Carpenter can do anything. A girl from rural Idaho, she knows how to hack it in "scruffy, loud, and unkempt" Oakland, the murder capital of the United States, amid the drug deals, gun fights, and open prostitution on the urban fringe. She also maintains a healthy, active relationship with her auto mechanic boyfriend (described as "a love sponge"), her many friends, and her local community.

On top of these already impressive competencies, she probably knows as much as Laura Ingalls Wilder about farming: she can grow more types of vegetables than most of us have eaten or even heard of; harvest rainwater; keep bee colonies; make honey; and raise and slaughter chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, goats, and — Jesus Christ!pigs. You learn all this and more in Carpenter’s urban farming memoir, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer (Penguin, 288 pages, $16), winner in the Food Writing category of this year’s Northern California Independent Bookseller Awards. Unlike many others who’ve published books on their stellar accomplishments, Carpenter is bitingly funny, an immensely gifted storyteller, and likeable throughout.

Carpenter always knew that farming made her happy. But recalling the solitude she felt as a child growing up on a farm in Idaho, "a place of isolation, full of beauty — maybe — but mostly loneliness," she "chose to live in the city." At first she couldn’t decide which city she wanted to live in, despite the dearth of progressive cities to choose from. Portland was out of the question for being "too perfect." Austin was "too in the middle of Texas," and in Brooklyn there was "too little recycling." San Francisco was "filled with successful, polished people." So she chose to move to Oakland, which was "just right." In Farm City, Carpenter points to Oakland’s "down-and-out qualities" — the music scene, the scruffy citizenry "who drove cars as old and beat-up as ours" — that made it feel most like home.

Moving to Oakland was the first leg of Carpenter’s journey. The next was to turn her small part of the city into a "modified, farm animal-populated version." Indeed, it is Carpenter’s relationship with her fellow animals that provides the biggest, most startling revelations in Farm City. If you’re an animal lover at heart, as Carpenter is, it seems nothing short of barbaric to raise your own animals, grow to love them, and then stoically kill them one day. But Carpenter thinks the matter through in philosopher’s terms, describing animal husbandry as "a dialogue with life." Raising her animals to be eaten is not a matter Carpenter takes lightly — she recalls the many hours spent Dumpster diving for enough food to feed her ravenous pigs — and, part and parcel, she assumes their slaughter as her responsibility. To render the experience is one of her duties as a writer.

But turning her Oakland habitat into a farm was not an easy process. Farm City, which begins with a cheeky nod to Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa ("I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto"), chronicles the obstacles, frustrations, fumbles, and profound satisfactions of achieving a major accomplishment through innumerable and successive trials and errors. Carpenter may have a clucking henhouse today, but at one point she had to use Q-Tips and, when they failed, her own fingers to remove backed-up fecal matter from the "blocked buttholes" of her baby chicks (when you have them shipped, they tend to develop digestion problems). In her learning process, Carpenter leaves no stone unturned and no detail — not even baby chicken butts — unexamined.

Point for point


› arts@sfbg.com

LIT In Chekhov’s story “Lady with Lapdog,” there is a passage that describes the inner life “running its course in secret” as that which holds “everything that was essential, of interest and of value … hidden from other people.” This revelation resonates throughout Elif Batuman’s new book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 304 pages, $15). Drawing its title from Dostoyevsky, The Possessed offers a compelling glimpse into the inner life of its author, one informed by a love for books.

Batuman’s graduate studies at Stanford took her on adventures to Samarkand, Uzbekistan; St. Petersburg, Russia; Ankara, Turkey; and Venice, Italy, but the richness of her descriptions owe less to exotic settings or the course of events than to the books she packs in her suitcase. Batuman’s chapters on Samarkand, which can be read as a crash course on Uzbek literature, are filled with recollections of Navoi, Farid al-Din Attar, Muqimiy, and G’afur G’ulom (the “Uzbek Maxim Gorky”).

Borges’s fanciful story “On Exactitude in Science” describes a map so large and exact that it covers the land “point for point.” The story ends with an eerie image of a tattered map stretching into the desert, inhabited by people and animals, until it becomes the very world that it outlines. In the same sense as Borges’s map, literature provides its own cartography. Like a true bibliophile, Batuman reads (and writes) as a traveler: a Don Quixote figure who navigates her way through the life that is revealed by tracing the longitudes of the life that is hidden.

From Stanford, where she currently teaches comparative literature, Batuman spoke with the Guardian about The Possessed.

SFBG In the last paragraph of “Summer in Samarkand” you write, “I am reluctant to say that what ended in Samarkand was my youth.” What do you mean by that?

Elif Batuman The pathos of graduate school is that you go in at 22, and they kind of spit you out at age 30, and you’re like, “Where did my youth even go? What became of it?” When you’re young, every adventure could be this life-changing thing that opens the door to something new, and after a certain point you kind of stay the same, and you’re doing all these things, but it’s just a succession of events. The biological narrative has ended, because you’ve reached adulthood, and the burden of creating that narrative falls onto you in a way that’s not the case when you’re young and everything is so dramatic.

SFBG At the same time, as a writer you feel that if you don’t incorporate your experience into some kind of narrative, it becomes a wasted experience.

EB One of the huge reliefs of writing this book is that I finally did something with that time in Samarkand. There is a nice story by Isaac Babel called “My First Fee” where he talks about how his untold stories are sitting in his heart “like a toad on a stone.” It is a little bit like that.

SFBG The Possessed is a literary memoir, and you write about people you meet in your academic career. You also talk about people you met at conferences, your boyfriends, and various academic trials and tribulations. What have these people’s reactions been?

EB I did get some negative response about “Who Killed Tolstoy” from a professor. She basically said that she thought I shouldn’t have published it, and she thought it was in terrible taste and horribly indiscreet.

SFBG Really?

EB It was [about] that episode on the bus. It was kind of a peculiar e-mail: “When I read this, I thought it was fiction, but recently I found out that this incident on the bus happened.”

SFBG When the guy who had an accident on the bus wouldn’t throw out his pants afterward?

EB Yeah. She used the phrase “despicably cruel.” I was frustrated by that e-mail, because it seemed to me the story was only being read as gossip when I tried really hard, when people did things that I thought were interesting or funny, to write about them in the service of some larger point. In the Tolstoy piece, it was about the universal frailty of the human body that affects all of us. It wasn’t about one guy who did something embarrassing, but about this horrible plight that we’re all in as human beings.

SFBG The Possessed got overwhelmingly positive reviews. When people said not-so-positive things, did you have to develop a thicker skin?

EB I can’t read reviews, because they freak me out. If they’re one paragraph, I’ll read it. My publishers send these publicity updates with one-sentence reviews in them, so I know the Buster Keaton–Susan Sontag quote [laughs].

SFBG “If Susan Sontag had coupled with Buster Keaton, their prodigiously gifted love child might have written this book.” It’s a weird description.

EB [Laughs.] It freaked out my mother. She was like, “Why would they say something like that? Why do they think Susan Sontag should be your mother and not me?’

From Beijing to Oakland



LIT In 2005, after dropping out of a PhD program in immunology, Chinese writer Yiyun Li debuted her first book of fiction, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. A collection of stories exploring the aftershock of the Cultural Revolution on mainland and overseas Chinese, it won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award. Li’s story “Immorality” won the Paris Review Plimpton Prize.

Afterward, Li’s green card application was rejected by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — twice. Her “extraordinary ability” as an artist (Title 8, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 204.5) could not be proven until she won, on top of those accolades, a Pulitzer Prize.

Fortunately for the status of fiction in America, Li’s extraordinary ability was finally recognized in 2007, 11 years after her arrival to the United States. In a journey that has taken her from Beijing to Iowa, Li now resides in Oakland with her family. Li left China in 1996 to pursue a doctorate in immunology at the University of Iowa. Living in China, she had no interest in writing fiction, and her natural affinity and aptitude for telling stories in English took her by surprise. Her second language in speaking, she discovered, was really a “first language in creating and thinking.”

Li has a scientist’s eye toward precision and a gifted storyteller’s ability to extract meaning from the mad fracas of human circumstance. Last year, she published a well-received first novel called The Vagrants. Set in China during 1979, in a fictional provincial city called Muddy River, the novel provides an unflinching view into the era’s brutality and violence. The novel also reveals, carefully and without sentiment, the unexpected moments of transcendence that result when love, empathy, and human emotions bloom in the harshest of environments.

Li spoke with the SFBG about The Vagrants, released in paperback by Random House a few weeks ago.

SFBG You write in English, which you learned as an adult. Does this have to do with any innate differences linguistic between English and Chinese? Does it have anything to do with your associations with China?

YIYUN LI I wasn’t trained as a writer in China, and even though I widely read Chinese literature when I was in China, I never had the urge to write in Chinese until I came to America, picked up English, and felt it a natural way to express myself. I think it is a more personal decision than I may have indicated, though honestly I myself sometimes feel mystified by this switch of languages too. I feel much more like myself when I write in English, which is to say English is really my first language in creating and thinking. In a way I do censor myself less when I write in English — again, that censoring is not from others, but from myself.

SFBG Do you think in Chinese?

YL I no longer think in Chinese. Of course as my mother tongue, Chinese is still used in my everyday life — I still count and do my math in Chinese, but when I think about literature, art and philosophy I think in English.

SFBG As an international student, your decision to forgo a promising medical career and become a writer was extremely brave. During the process of writing your first book, did you experience great anxiety or doubt? Were you ever tempted to give up and go back to medicine?

YL I didn’t feel self-doubt — I think by the time I gave up my immunology career, I was certain I wouldn’t go back. There was a certain level of anxiety but I would say at the time it was minimal. I probably just lived with a tunnel vision and all I thought about was to write, and write well. I was certain that I needed some time to improve myself, so it did not occur to me to give up.

SFBG When you write, do you find you draw any lessons from your experiences studying medicine?

YL Medical knowledge, like any kind of knowledge, is helpful and useful for a fiction writer. I think my training perhaps helps me look at the world and its many violences without being sentimental.

SFBG In The Vagrants, even small children in Muddy River are completely unmoved by public executions. This strikes me as devastating and true. My mother told me that when she was growing up in China during the early 1970s, she saw a man bleed to death on the side of the road. The real horror of the experience didn’t dawn on her until decades later. You were seven years old in 1979, the year in which The Vagrants takes place. Writing about violence from the perspective of children, do you recall events from your own childhood in China?

YL Your mother’s experience was quite close to my own experience, and indeed for most children, empathy and sympathy come not naturally, but with some help from grownups and education. When violence is prevalent, as one sometimes finds in life, not only children but adults too stop questioning the injustice. I did draw from my own memories of the time, but like your mother, I had to look back as a different person to understand the tie.

SFBG Have you gone back to China since you’ve left? How are you received?

YL Yes, I have been back visiting. I keep a very low profile when I visit China. so there is not much trouble for me.

SFBG You’ve mentioned that your biggest literary influence is William Trevor. You’ve named Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Greene as influences, too. Do you draw any influences from Chinese literature?

YL My favorite Chinese author — Shen Congwen — influenced me a lot, not in the way of how he wrote stories and how he used language but how he looked at the world as a storyteller.

SFBG Speaking of Chinese novels, some of your characters in The Vagrants, like Teacher Gu, are quite literary. I enjoyed that Kai and Kialin hold their clandestine meetings in the library. I also liked that Jialin’s mother steals books for him from the shelves she’s supposed to guard. What books are these characters reading? If you could pick a book for each Gu, Kai, and Jialin, what might be a book that affected the way each viewed the world at that time?

YL This is a great question. For Jialin and Kai, I imagine they would be reading Gadfly, a little-known novel in the West but a hugely popular novel in China (and Soviet Union) written by the Irish author Ethel Voynich. I also thought Jialin might be interested in reading French authors. For Teacher Gu, I would imagine he would read Tolstoy.

Place of refuge?


LIT If you’ve been tracking the battle over San Francisco’s sanctuary ordinance, or you’re simply interested in the fight for immigration reform at the federal level, then check out Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America (Scribner, 400 pages, $27.99). Written by Helen Thorp, a journalist married to Denver mayor and Colorado gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper, Just Like Us is the true story of four young girls whom Thorp tracked for five years, starting with their senior year in high school.

“All had at least one parent who entered the country from Mexico without the right documentation,” Thorp says over the phone. “One was born here; one had a green card; and two didn’t have papers, so they were split down the middle on their legal status — through no fault of their own — but because of a situation they inherited.” This split led to differing experiences as all four girls came of age in the United States, even though all excelled in public high school.

“Two of them didn’t have the same opportunities, privileges, or even ways to pay for college as the two with papers had,” Thorp explains, noting that she changed the names of all four students to protect their identities. The main narrative of Thorp’s book sticks closely to the experiences of these four exemplary girls — including the political firestorm that broke out in Denver (and spread statewide) after an undocumented Denver resident committed a violent crime.

The echoes for San Francisco are obvious. The slaying in 2008 of three members of the Bologna family by the alleged killer Edwin Ramos, an immigrant who repeatedly passed through the city’s justice system as a juvenile, increased the heat in a political firestorm that had been crackling since the city passed its City of Refuge ordinance in 1989 and burst into flames in December 2007. That was when federal agents intercepted San Francisco probation officers at a Houston airport as they tried to repatriate Honduran teenagers by flying them home instead of reporting them for formal federal deportation.

In the Denver-based story Thorp recounts in Just Like Us, a young man who never had much schooling and was in Colorado without the necessary paperwork shot two police officers at a party, killing one. To add to the intrigue, the man was employed as a dishwasher at a restaurant owned in part by Thorp’s husband.

“It certainly was a heinous crime, since this young man shot two police officers in the back,” Thorp recalls. “Even the Mexican immigrant community was horrified, and no one rallied to his side. He was disrupting a baptismal party for a Mexican family in a popular social hall. He destroyed the celebration and he had a young daughter, who he essentially ended up abandoning, when he went to jail. He had lived in Los Angeles — that’s where he purchased the gun — and may have had gang ties. That, at least, was what was alleged at his sentencing. He shot the police officers because he felt one of them had insulted him and allegedly had mishandled him. His pride was wounded, but his response was so aggravated, there was no justification for it.”

As a result of this tragedy, which touched one of the high school students she was tracking, Thorp ended up becoming close to the widow of the police officer. “His family had an immigrant background, and he grew up in a Spanish-speaking family — though that was not reported in the media — and his widow’s mother was an immigrant from England who kept her green card and never became a citizen,” Thorp continues. “So the widow ended up having an incredibly nuanced point of view and would comment on what happened to her family with more grace and generosity than you would ever expect a human being to muster in those circumstances.”

Thorp feels that heated debates between advocates on opposing sides of the immigration equation is a result of what she calls “a collision of different beliefs.”

“We believe strongly that you are innocent until proven guilty, and we believe in the United States as a nation founded by immigrants. But we also believe in the value of law and order, so we don’t have a favorable view of illegal immigrants, and definitely not of illegal immigrants who commit crimes,” Thorp observes. She also noted that people tend to view juvenile immigrants in a kinder light: “They are morally in a different category than people who made the decision to come here without documents.”

But Thorp suggests that tackling immigration locally may be a losing proposition. “I understand why people want to tackle the subject at a local level since the federal government continues not to resolve the issue,” she says. “But you run into the fact that, peculiarly, this issue needs a federal solution even though we feel the impacts at the local level.” She believes the Obama administration needs to create reform that clarifies whether the feds are offering people a path to citizenship and that involves penalties for those who knowingly broke the law when they came here without papers,

“I understand that San Francisco is on the cutting edge of many things, but I can’t imagine that my husband, as mayor, would adopt a sanctuary policy in Denver,” she says. “And that’s because the concept of a sanctuary city in Colorado is only used by social conservatives with derision. The way ‘sanctuary city’ is used here signals a flagrant disrespect for law and order.”

That said, Thorp notes that the question of whether local police should become an arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and an enforcer of federal immigration laws has been debated, and that people generally agree that this is not the job of the local police. “Local police department budgets are exhausted simply by doing the other tasks we’ve given them. If you add to that locking up nonviolent offenders [accused of being here illegally], it would break the bank.”

Work it!



LIT/VISUAL ART Yvan Rodic has to be one of the luckiest souls on the planet. He’d have to be to make my cynical ass fall in love with him. His new book Facehunter (Prestel, 320 pages, $24.95), a pastiche of photo book, style manual, travelogue and (hallelujah!) manifesto, has just the right combination of couture and subversion to earn a place on every cigarette- burned coffee table in the world.

"Globalization is a myth," he declares in his introduction. "The belief that international brands and pop culture are making the world a standardized society populated by clones is an old-skool science-fiction vision of the future, not the reality of the 21st century."

If anyone would know it is Rodic, who has traveled in nearly 30 countries, taking pictures of real people looking real fly for his blog, which eventually landed him as a contributor to Tokion, GQ, and Modette, which in turn got him a book deal with Prestel. Told you he was lucky. But luck, in this case, is only preparation meeting opportunity, because Rodic has an eye and a philosophy that is long overdue in the worlds of art, fashion and photography.

"Judging from the people I’ve met on my travels, it’s obvious that instead of talking about globalization, we should talk of ‘creole-ization,’" he says. Rodic calls this phenomenon of customizing identity from fragments of culture from different parts of world "New Creole Culture." I can think of another name for it …

Whether standing in front of the lush foliage of Turku or the stark grayness of a Manhattan winter, the clothes and the everyday people in Facehunter are beautiful. The mostly 20-something Nordic models within Rodic’s pictures are to be expected. He calls his peers "the iPod generation," and credits them for taking "this chameleon-like approach to fashion, exploring the many facets of their personalities with radically different looks, or customizing their individual styles with elements from different eras and cultures." John Galliano, Prince, Vivienne Westwood, Afrika Bambaataa, and myself cuff you on the ear for that one, young’un.

The real surprises in Facehunter come from Rodic’s more atypical models: the stout, the squat, the over 30. In these photos, I find the folks who really knew how to "work it" in the parlance of prêt-à-porter rabble-rousers. They bring a radical cohesion to the book’s overall aesthetic. People from cities as disparate as Sao Paulo, Singapore, and Warsaw have a shared sense of what is fashionable, transcending economics, geography, race, and gender — an encouraging sign if there ever was one.

There are no labels mentioned in Facehunter, no designers, allowing the clothes to speak for themselves, and even better, allowing you to bite that style without it coming back to bite you in the ass. Rodic posits that the rise of the "New Creole Culture" encourages this.

"Trends are dead, baby!" my new favorite shutterbug announces. "Nietzsche’s exhortation ‘Become what you are’ is now a reality." I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Divided world


Tamim Ansary is a gifted writer whose 2002 memoir West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story is a must-read for anyone wanting to know more about Afghanistan. In this funny, touching book, Ansary, son of an Afghan father and American mother, recalls growing up in a traditional village and later traveling to the United States, where he wound up at Reed College in Portland, Ore., then moved on to San Francisco.
In his new book Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (PublicAffairs, 416 pages, $26.95), Ansary sets out to fill the noticeable Islamic gap in English-language world histories. Ansary concedes Edward Said’s point that the West’s view of Islam has been highly “Orientalist” — prone to emphasize sinister “otherness.” But, Ansary writes, “more intriguing … is the relative absence of any depictions at all.” While working as an editor on a world history textbook for U.S. high schools, Ansary fought for inclusion of more Islamic history. His colleagues on the project were less than receptive. In the end, Islam was the focus of just one of 30 chapters. Ansary writes: “In short, less than a year before September 11, 2001, the consensus of expert opinion was telling me that Islam was a relatively minor phenomenon whose impact had ended long before the Renaissance. If you went strictly by our table of contents, you would never guess Islam still existed.”
Destiny Disrupted is a one-stop antidote to that problem. The prose is fun to read, often graceful and never dull, and steers clear of academic jargon. If school textbooks aspired to this level of writing, there would be fewer bored, uninspired kids in the world.
Ansary is adept at culling from and distilling dense histories to present an Islamic view of world history that acknowledges and teases out various competing strains of Islamic thought. The book presents Islam not only as a religion, but as a social project that takes on political and economic questions and includes a complete system of civil and criminal law. Ansary doesn’t have one particular ideological ax to grind, and is clearly a secular, cosmopolitan intellectual comfortable with ambiguity, paradox, and nuance. He refrains from excessive editorializing, but is also not afraid to call a spade a spade when he’s discussing massacres, wars, or imperial conquest.
Here’s Ansary on Egypt in the 1930s: “Egypt would get an elected parliament, but this parliament’s decisions must be approved by British authorities in Cairo. Beyond these few points, Egypt was to consider itself sovereign, independent, and free. Egypt quickly developed a full-fledged (secular modernist) independence movement, of course, which offended the British, because why would an independent country need an independence movement? Didn’t they get the memo? Apparently not.”
Ansary doesn’t apologize for the harsher aspects of Islamic fundamentalism. In one of the book’s more depressing passages, he writes that he doesn’t see how the Muslim “divided world view” on separation of the sexes can coexist in a single society with more Western ideas of gender mingling. Ansary doesn’t offer a solution to that conundrum, but calls for Muslim intellectuals to grapple with it. Unfortunately, the thinkers he cites doing such work are Iranians now largely discredited in their own society as the U.S. ratchets up pressure on their homeland, tainting anyone associated with Western ideas.
As President Obama continues George W. Bush’s policies of military occupation in Afghanistan, it’s to be hoped that books such as Destiny Disrupted and thinkers like Ansary inspire Americans to start thinking about the Muslim world in new ways. Ideally, these new approaches won’t include aerial bombing of civilians and other forms of “collateral damage.”

Once every two weeks



LIT I have a stack of Try magazines on my lap as I write this. The pages are white, marked by the black of letters and photocopied pen marks and the gray shades of color photos or aged pages filtered through Xerox. Some of the pieces in issues are printouts of e-mails, or maps of sites in Oakland going into foreclosure. Others are copied from typewritten pages — or bank receipts. There are numbered lists, unnumbered lists, exquisite corpses, poetic critiques of programs, hidden sonnets for the public, and mash notes from poet to poet. There are images of Peter Lorre, and images by Dean Smith. One of my favorite poems in Try is "Flipper Turns 25," by Alli Warren. Another, by Stan Apps, is partly about Big Star. One of my favorite issues has writing about Contempt (1963) and Overboard (1987). Cover stars include one of Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles sculptures, at least one member of Ralph Eugene Meatyeard’s Crater family, and an erect David Wojnarowicz wearing an Arthur Rimbaud mask. It was in Try that I learned that no book by Jack Spicer is under copyright. The names of the contributors to an issue of Try are usually found on or near the back cover.

SFBG Why Try?

Sara Larsen Working with what you have at hand. Just because we don’t have much money, that doesn’t mean we can’t put out a magazine every two weeks or so. Also, we looked around us one day and realized we are surrounded by brilliant writers and artists. And that all of them really should know what the others are currently working on, that this knowing is generative and produces more work.

David Brazil We’ve seen so many people assume that it’s impossible to get anything done in the arts without institutional support, grants, or other kinds of fundraising. We intentionally designed our project to be as inexpensive as possible to produce and also to be free. We’re trying to give the lie to a whole set of assumptions — both about how something is made, and what it could be for.

SFBG How do you manage to print biweekly/bimonthly? How have Try‘s content and the submissions changed over time (if they have changed)?

DB We usually manage to print by the seat of our pants. There’s invariably some logistical or financial obstacle. We’ve tried to learn the lesson of incorporating setbacks as constraints governing the production of the product — a sort of chance operation. And as it’s turned out, issues we’ve produced in this way have often been far better than what we imagined in the first place.

SFBG The particulars: when did you begin publishing Try, what are your frameworks or structures for it, and how many issues have you done to date? What do you like about the folded 8 1/2 by 14-inch (or 2 by 7-inch) format?

DB We began publishing Try in the spring of 2008 and developed our framework as we went along. We’re in the habit of breaking rules as soon as it becomes apparent that they are rules, but we’ve done every issue staplebound on legal size paper, so that’s become habitual. I’d guess we’ve done 28, but we date them rather than number them, so sometimes even we lose track.

SL The 8 1/2 x 14 paper we fold over to make Try gives a spacious page and it’s easy — every copy store has it.

SFBG Do themes or similarities ever emerge within an issue due to happenstance?

DB As time has gone by and our slush pile has expanded, we’ve gotten into the habit of curating our issues around not themes exactly, but motifs, which can show up in subtle ways. The issues we’re the most proud of end up harmonizing the work of the individual contributors and themselves forming an aesthetic whole.

SL Sometimes we’ll know someone is coming to town to read and we’ll solicit work from them and a number of poets who we think resonate with their work. And we’ll throw in some surprises too — someone unexpected, or someone whose work is totally different from everything else in the issue.

SFBG Have you found out about any writers through their sending work unsolicited?

DB We’ve found many writers this way — and we encourage such submissions!

SFBG Who would you love to receive an unsolicited submission from?

DB and SL Lessee … Bernadette Mayer, Susan Howe, Raymond Pettibon, Dennis Cooper, Bhanu Kapil, Will Alexander, Rob Fitterman, Samuel Delany, whoever’s reading this …

SFBG What motivates you to write?

DB Ineluctability.

SFBG Do you like photocopiers? What tips do you have for people who want to use them?

DB and SL Man, we fucking love photocopiers. And materiality. What is done by hand. We are not about the Internet. We are about a physical object that contains many people’s work passing hand to hand.

DB My only real advice is, make sure to print a sample set before you run off 100 copies.

SL We are also not opposed at all to people borrowing their friends’ copies of Try, bringing it to the copyshop themselves and making more. Not many people have thought to do this, surprisingly, but we’d love it if they did.

SFBG What are you obsessed with at the moment?

DB Obsolete technologies. Prophecy and the logos. Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. The contents of our next issue.

SL Quiet reading and writing time. Cooking greens. Study groups.

SFBG Has the experience of putting together and distributing Try changed your view of writing in the Bay Area, and if so, how?

DB We’ve always thought of Try as an attempt to provide a mirror within which a very dynamic writing community may see itself — and, hopefully, be seen by future readers. If anything, we’ve become convinced in the past year that the local scene is even more vibrant and populous than we’d previously imagined, which is very hard to believe.

SFBG What are some of the more enigmatic or strange contributions you’ve received?

DB We’ve received bar reviews, anonymous cartoons, scribbles on napkins, ATM receipts, rejection letters from MFA writing programs, texts in braille, faxes from different time zones … and lots and lots of amazing poetry.

SL We’ve also found on the ground or stuffed in library books drawings or pictures that have become our covers or part of an issue.

SFBG What would you like to see more of in Try?

DB We initially imagined Try as a testing ground for work still underway, or else brand new, provisional, still-to-be-revised — and we’d still love to see more of that kind of writing.

Try magazine is on hiatus until January, 2010. Write to Try at 3107 Ellis, Berkeley, CA 94703 or at trymagazine@gmail.com.

Dark mirrors



LIT Recently I was at a meeting with an unnamed arts organization, planning for an AfroSurreal art exhibit. As we were hashing out the details of display, the concept of the black dandy become a bone of contention among my learned colleagues. What was, and is, a black dandy? How does the black dandy differ from the white dandy? What’s the difference between a dandy and fop? Aren’t those terms interchangeable? Why bother looking at or for a black dandy at all? I’m seldom at a loss for words — it just takes me a minute to arrange them properly sometimes. (Ask my editor.) But this time, I had nothing to say. I just directed all queries to Slaves To Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity (Duke University Press, 408 pages, $24.95).

Monica L. Miller’s book is the first of its kind: a lengthy written study of the history of black dandyism and the role that style has played in the politics and aesthetics of African and African American identity. She draws from literature, film, photography, print ads, and music to reveal the black dandy’s underground cultural history and generate possibilities for the future.

Slaves to Fashion looks at black dandies of the past, beginning with Mungo Macaroni, a freed slave and well-known force within the London social scene in the 18th century. Miller also studies contemporary manifestations, in the vestments of Andre 3000 and Puff Daddy, showing how black dandies have historically used the signature tools of clothing, gesture, and wit to break down limiting definitions and introduce new, fluid concepts of social and political possibility. Though Slaves to Fashion is über-academic and at times weighed down by post-structrualist jargon, Miller more than makes up for it with uncanny feats of scholarship that illustrate ways in which the figure of the black dandy has been an elephant-in-the-room — albeit a particualrly well-dressed one.

A great example is Miller’s citing of the character of Adolph in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Almost immediately after the publication of this "great abolitionist work," its characters became some of the first American archetypes: Simon Legree and Uncle Tom are two notable examples. In comparison, Adolph — a black dandy pivotal to the story — was excised from the public imagination. Miller sees this as a reaction to what she calls "crimes of fashion," which take place when Africans and African Americans don the clothing of the oppressed to both emulate and satirize the oppressor. Adolph served as a "dark mirror" to both American materialism and the deep fear of the impending gender and race-mixing that would take place after abolition.

This fear, according to Miller, is the difference between the black dandy and the white dandy or the fop. Unlike a Caucasian counterpart, exemplified by the likes of Oscar Wilde, the black dandy comes from a position of underprivilege and uses flair and style as a way to redefine masculinity to include him. In other words, as opposed to a feminine front, it is the black dandy’s fluid masculinity — his "queering" of the term — that threatens to undermine the social order. Adolph is the exact opposite of the static, predictable docility and animalism of "the Big Black Buck" Uncle Tom. When he’s in town, you have to lock up your sons, daughters, wives, mother, father, and yourself because his power of seduction is so great. Think Prince during his Dirty Mind (Warner Bros., 1980) phase and you get the general idea.

Fear, according to Miller, continues to generate a serious backlash in reaction to the idea — let alone reality — of true equality for black people in the west. Images of black cork minstelry that lampoon the black dandy’s aspirations have been around as long as the black dandy. From Zip Coon and Jim Dandy in the early 19th century to present-day manifestations in popular culture, ambivalence — a tool of the black dandy — has served as a double-edged sword. Exactly when and where does "stylin’ out" become "coonin’"? If W.E.B. Du Bois, the quintessential black dandy, couldn’t figure it out, I’m not sure that I can find a definitive answer.

Slaves to Fashion rediscovers its footing in exploring the nature of "otherness." Returning from investigations of the black dandy’s lineage to note his role in contemporary art and culture, Miller shines a light on filmmaker Isaac Julien, editor and photographer Iké Udé, visual artist Yinka Shonibare, and beyond. In the process, she answers a variety of questions regarding what a black dandy is and does. Ultimately, the black dandy’s problem is an AfroSurreal one: by perpetrating these "crimes of fashion," by avoiding and exploding pat definitions of blackness, masculinity, and sexuality, he occupies a realm outside convention, and all too often, recognition. It is from these murky waters of post-postmodernity, I believe, that the black dandy brings a message for us all.