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Civil Conversations

By Harry Thorne
The Indypendent
November 17, 2008

Derrick Jensen’s 2006 epic Endgame was a rambling but provocative dissection of the environmental and political ills of civilization. Surveying the damage wrought by civilization, from dammed rivers to genocide, Jensen presented his solution: in order to save the planet, committed activists should work to bring down civilization in its entirety by “any means necessary.”

Many readers who consider themselves politically radical may find Jensen’s conclusion both dangerous and preposterous, yet Jensen has an avid army of fans who pack auditoriums to hear him speak and a popular but closely guarded internet forum.

However, even these fans may find themselves slightly disappointed by Jensen’s latest book, How Shall I Live My Life?: On Liberating the Earth from Civilization, which consists of previously published interviews conducted by Jensen between 1999 and 2001. The time lag between the interviews and the book’s publication can make the collection seem out of date. In an interview with the anti-car activist Jan Lundberg, much time is devoted to the topic of peak oil, yet we learn nothing new about our current energy crisis and oil prices that have oscillated wildly in the last few months.

But despite the lag, there are ideas of lasting value in How Shall I Live My Life, even for those who reject Jensen’s all-or-nothing approach to civilization. The book presents an appealing diversity of voices, each articulating a different vision of environmental activism. The interviewees include Thomas Berry, an environmental activist and Catholic monk; Jesse Wolf Hardin, the founder of the radical group Earth First!; Vine Deloria, the late American-Indian activist and writer; and Carolyn Raffensperger, a lawyer who campaigns against corporate abuse of public safety.

One of the most engaging interviews is with Kathleen Dean Moore, a philosopher based at Oregon State University. Moore passionately argues against mechanical and abstract thinking in favor of a deeper connection with place. “What I am recommending,” she says, “is a way of life that is rich with noticing. Caring. Remembering. Embracing. Rejoicing in … the smell of a child’s hair, or the color of storm light.” This and other interviews serve as useful introductions to the work of less-known environmental thinkers.

This book may also appeal to readers who are put off by the hubris of the anti-civilization movement, of which Jensen is a leading figure. Jensen’s Endgame may be a radical manifesto, but its vision of small groups of committed foot-soldiers working to bring about a natural utopia is also strangely old-fashioned. Endgame’s emphasis on revolution and vanguards seems out of touch with the democratic spirit of recent anti-capitalist and environmental activism. The diversity of How Shall I Live My Life, on the other hand, seems more in tune with this activism. Despite a subtitle of Liberating Earth from Civilization, most of the interviewees do not seem interested in a tactically impossible struggle against a supposedly monolithic civilization. Instead, they promote diverse paths toward a deep connection to place and nature — a connection that could lay the basis for significant social transformation.

Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Derrick Jensen's Author Page

P2P Foundation Review of For All the People

Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America 
By Kevin Carson
P2P Foundation

Curl’s history of cooperative and communal movements in America is set against the backdrop of one overpowering trend:  the transition from an almost completely self-employed work force at the time of Independence, to a present-day labor market in which self-employed workers are almost as much of an anomaly as free blacks ca. 1850.  Two hundred years ago, wage labor was viewed as a form of bondage, something submitted to only when absolutely unavoidable.  The majority of wage laborers were apprentices and journeymen, who viewed their status as a temporary stage on the way to the normal status of self-employment.

In the course of his history, Curl stands on its head a great deal of the pious “received account” most of us learned in the public schools’ American history classes.

Most of us are probably at least vaguely familiar with Bradford’s account of Plymouth Plantation, for example.  But from Curl’s version, unless you’re really good at reading between the lines, you’d never get any idea of the role that either class struggle, or the designs of a corporation called the Merchant Adventurers, played in the story.  The Mayflower Compact, as it has been passed down to us from Bradford via the Received Account, was the inspiring first example of American self-government through a written charter.  What’s left out of this edifying account, as Curl points out, is that most of the emigrants to Plymouth were indentured servants; signing onto  a Compact en route to America, which declared the signatories free and equal, amounted to a servile insurrection.  The free workers sided with the indentured servants, and the masters—presented with a fait accompli—signed the Compact in the face of necessity ( p. 21).

We also get, from the second-hand version of Bradford’s account adopted by American political culture,  a patronizing narrative in which those idealistic Puritans at first attempted to “have all things in common” (just like the primitive church in the Book of Acts!), but then abandoned their primitive communism in the face of reality (and starvation) by farming their own family plots individually.  What you might not guess from Bradford’s account is that this edifying tale of misguided idealism was actually the story of a peasants’ revolt against the manorial authority of the Merchant Adventurers.  What actually happened was that, in the original articles of incorporation, the colonists were permitted to work two days a week on their own family plots, and the other four days would work on the Corporation’s land as its employees.  The Merchant Adventurers soon changed these terms, fearing that the colonists would devote most of their effort to their own plots and do as little as they could get away with on company land.  Instead, the colonists were to work six days a week for the Merchant Adventurers, and be provisioned by the company.  To the colonists, most of them peasants from the open fields of Nottinghamshire, this amounted to reducing them to serfdom.  Their decision to work the land for themselves was the kind of land reform that would have gotten them slaughtered by CIA-backed death squads, if they’d done it today.  In other words the story, rather than being a simple morality play that foreshadowed the 20th century revolt against Soviet collectivism, was more a reflection of the peasantry’s relations with the landed classes in the old country.  The Plymouth colonists were, for all intents and purposes, tearing down an Enclosure—more like the Diggers on St. George’s Hill than kulaks (pp. 20-21).

There’s a great deal of interesting information in Curl’s book, like his account of the vibrant American working class movement from the turn of the 20th century to WWI and its liquidation under A. Mitchell Palmer, or attempts at self-organized alternatives to capitalism (like the Unemployed Exchange Organization) during the Great Depression.  The countereconomic networks of consumer cooperatives, alternative newspapers, rural communes, free schools, and the like that arose in the 1960s and 1970s are also fascinating.

But my main focus is on Curl’s book at it relates to matters of interest to the P2P and Open Manufacturing communities.  The most important generalization I derived from the book is the importance of capital outlay requirements in determining the viability of self-employment and cooperative employment.

The first major wave of worker cooperatives was under the auspices of the National Trades’ Union in the 1830s (p.4).  Like the Owenite trade union cooperatives in Britain, they were mostly undertaken in craft employments for which the basic tools of the trade were relatively inexpensive.

From the beginning, worker cooperatives were a frequent resort of striking workers.  In 1768 twenty striking journeyman tailors in New York, the first striking wage-workers in American history,  set up their own cooperative shop.  Journeyman carpenters striking for a ten-hour day in Philadelphia, in 1761, formed a cooperative (with the ten-hour day they sought) and undercut their master’s price by 25%; they disbanded the cooperative when they went back to work.  The same was done by shoemakers in Baltimore, 1794, and Philadelphia, 1806 (p. 33).

This was a common pattern in early American labor history, and the organization of cooperatives moved from being purely a strike tactic to providing an alternative to wage labor (p. 34). It was feasible because most forms of production were done by groups of artisan laborers using hand tools.  By the 1840s, the rise of factory production with expensive machinery had largely put an end to this possibility.  As the prerequisites of production became increasingly unafforable, the majority of the population was relegated to wage labor with machinery owned by someone else (pp. 35, 47).

The corporate transformation of the economy was a revolution imposed from above.   A high-volume, centralized railroad network was key to the creation of a national corporate manufacturing economy—and in this the state played an indispensable role.  This included the land grants, which included not only rights of way, but also enormous swaths of land (amounting to “a full half of all the Western lands,” all told) on either side whose appreciating value was intended to serve as a source of capital.  But it didn’t even stop there.  The railroads also used their political muscle to secure the direct appropriation of capital from the taxpayers.  And on top of that, once in operation they used their rate-setting power to promote the concentration of industry, simultaneously gouging small farmers and urban consumers, while giving volume rebates to large manufacturers (p. 78).

An alliance of industrial plutocrats and southern landed oligarchs seized political power in the Compromise of 1877 (otherwise known as the Great Betrayal).  In return for ending military reconstruction in the South, and handing power in the region back to the prewar planter class, the corporate oligarchy secured southern backing for its power grab at the national level.  The southern states switched enough electoral votes to the Hayes ticket to overturn a decisive Democratic majority (pp. 86-87).

The top-down imposition of the factory system, the seizure of national power by Gilded Age plutocrats, and the resistance to it by workers and farmers, amounted for all intents and purposes to a civil war.

The corporatization of the American society provoked an all-out resistance by artisan laborers, factory workers, and small farmers—together called the “Great Upheaval” by Curl.  The first and largest wave of the Great Upheaval was associated with the Grange and the Knights of Labor.  The Greenback-Labor Party elected fifteen congressmen in 1878, and supported legislation at the state level regulating the freight rates charged by the state-created and state-subsidized railroads.

The railroad barons and bankers, fighting a ruthless counter-revolution, refused credit or shipping to Grange enterprises (p. 79).  They viewed the Knights of Labor and its network of cooperatives as a serious threat to the whole capitalist system (p. 93).

The Knights won their biggest victory in the Union Pacific Railroad strike of 1885, forcing Jay Gould to recognize the union and arbitrate all labor disputes.  The ensuing influx of new members swelled Knights of Labor ranks to nearly a million in 1886 (p. 102).

The two most dramatic confrontations of the Great Upheaval, the railroad strike of 1877 and the eight-hour day movement, were defeated by decisive state action.  The railroad strike, which turned into a nationwide general strike, was broken (“to prevent national insurrection”) by Hayes’ troops (p. 87).  The eight-hour day movement, which rose to a crescendo in nationwide general strike of 1886, culminated in the post-Haymarket repression.  That reaction, comparable to the Red Scare under Woodrow Wilson, saw the near-total liquidation of the labor movement and full-scale war against the Knights of Labor cooperatives.  Railroads refused to carry cooperatives’ products, manufacturers refused to sell them machinery, wholesalers refused them raw materials, and banks refused credit.  The local community support on which the Knights depended was undermined by a press campaign against labor radicalism and “anarchism,” much like the Red-baiting hysteria under A. Mitchell Palmer thirty years later (pp. 106-107).

Most attempts at worker-organized manufacturing, during the Great Upheaval, failed on account of the capital outlays required. For example, when manufacturers refused to sell farm machinery to the Grangers at wholesale prices, the Nebraska Grange undertook its own design and manufacturing of machinery.  (How’s that for a parallel to modern P2P ideas?)  Its first attempt, a wheat head reaper, sold at half the price of comparable models and drove down prices on farm machinery in Nebraska.  The National Grange planned a complete line of farm machinery, but most Grange manufacturing enterprises failed to raise the large sums of capital needed (p. 77).

The Knights of Labor cooperatives were on shaky ground in the best of times.  Many of them were founded during strikes, started with “little capital and obsolescent machinery,” and lacked the capital to invest in modern machinery.  Subjected to economic warfare by organized capital, the network of cooperatives disintegrated (p. 107).

The economy  today is experiencing a revolution as profound as the corporate transformation of the late 19th century.  The main difference today is that, for material reasons, the monopolies on which corporate rule depends are becoming unenforceable.  Another revolution, based on P2P and micromanufacturing, is sweeping society on the same scale as did the corporate revolution of 150 years ago.  But the large corporations today are in the same position that the Grange and Knights of Labor were in the Great Upheaval back then, fighting a desperate, futile rearguard action, and doomed to be swept under by the tidal wave of history.

The worker cooperatives organized in the era of artisan labor paralleled, in many ways, the forms of work organization that are arising today.  Networked organization, crowdsourced credit and the implosion of capital outlays required for physical production, taken together, are recreating the same conditions that made artisan cooperatives feasible in the days before the factory system.  In the artisan manufactories that prevailed into the early 19th century, most of the physical capital required for production was owned by the work force; artisan laborers could walk out and essentially take the firm with them in all but name.  Likewise, today, the collapse of capital outlay requirements for production in the cultural and information fields (software, desktop publishing, music, etc.) has created a situation in which human capital is the source of most book value for many firms;  consequently, workers are able to walk out with their human capital and form “breakaway firms,” leaving their former employers as little more than hollow shells.  And the rise of cheap garage manufacturing machinery (a Fab Lab with homebrew CNC tools costing maybe two months’ wages for a semi-skilled worker) is, in its essence, a return to the days when low physical capital costs made worker cooperatives a viable alternative to wage labor.

The first Great Upheaval was defeated by the need for capital.  The second one will destroy the old system by making capital superfluous.

Buy For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America, 2nd Edition | Download For All the People eBook now | Back to John Curl's Page

Peter Kuper Reviewed by the Daily Crosshatch

By Brian Heater
The Daily Crosshatch

A sketchbook is a secret thing, a collection of unfinished and often times abandoned ideas never intended for public consumption—at least not in their current state. It’s a private space for honing one’s craft and workshopping, separating good ideas from those best left unexplored

Over the years, these parameters have loosened, particularly in the comics community, where the sketchbooks of artists like Robert Crumb and Chris Ware have been collected and bound and put on store shelves next to their most meticulously crafted works. While subject to a good deal of cherry picking and editorial oversight, these collected sketchbooks still hold a similar appeal as their predecessors, offering a still relatively candid glimpse into their creators’ thought process.

The whole space is complicated a bit further with the introduction of the “sketchbook diary,” a book, which, while lacking some of the polish of a more deliberately produced title, often feels as though it were conceived of as being a marketable title from its inception.

It’s hard to say precisely what Peter Kuper’s motives were in the creation of Diario de Oaxaca, but given the amount of work clearly invested in nearly ever page, it seems rather likely that, fairly early on in the process, it became clear that, given the right publisher, the work would eventually be released for public consumption.

But while Kuper’s art often has a relatively finished feel to it (compared, at least, to more traditional sketchbooks), a sense of experimentation and adventure pulses through the journal’s pages, as the artist immerses himself and his work in the culture and art that surround him during his family’s Mexican exodus. Diario de Oaxaca is a constantly unfurling collage.

As an artist, Kuper is a stranger in a strange land, attempting to adapt his art to his surroundings, all the while sprinkling in photos of the city’s world famous protest wall art and other local phenomenon. Like a true notable outsider, sometimes he blends in seamlessly, and other times we’re witness to an aesthetic culture clash. Where Kuper truly succeeds, however, are in those moments when Oaxaca’s natural and manmade beautify serve as the building blocks for a piece that remains staunchly Kuperesque.

Even when Kuper’s experiments prove less successful, however, the book is a downright stunning—and thoroughly engaging—read. Proper sketchbook or no, Diario de Oaxaca is one of the strongest travelogues this medium has produced in recent memory.

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More on Paper Politics

PM Press is proud to announce the arrival of Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today. As Josh MacPhee states at the opening of the book: "Paper Politics started out as an exhibition of political prints, and has now taken the form of this book, but it has always also been a project of building communities." Here are some sneak previews from each of the book's sections.






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Interview with Tomoyuki Hoshino

Tantalizing excerpts from the novel's extras, we know you will enjoy! Here translator Adrienne Carey Hurley interviews the award-winning Japanese author Tomoyuki Hoshino. This is his first book to be published in English.

Since his literary debut in 1997, Tomoyuki Hoshino has published twelve books on subjects ranging from ‘terrorism’ to queer/trans community formations; from the exploitation of migrant workers to journalistic ethics; and from the Japanese emperor system to neoliberalism. He is also well known in Japan for his nonfiction essays on politics, society, the arts, and sports, particularly soccer.

Hurley: Before PM embraced this novel, it took us a while to find a publisher for the English translation. Along the way, we found a few professionals in the U.S. publishing world who loved the first chapter, but were bothered by the ending. We even were asked to change the ending or publish only the first chapter. I was shocked to learn that some noted contemporary Japanese writers have agreed to have the endings of their works changed for the U.S. (and by extension English-language) marketplace. While I shared my frustrations and thoughts on all this with you and we both refused such changes, I never asked you what it felt like for you to be faced with that kind of response and request.

Hoshino: It felt like Iraq or Iran.

"The Middle East is really selling now!"

"Well, let's see.... You're right. It sure is. But Iraq is a little hard to understand. I think it will sell better if you change Iraq. Can you change Iraq?"

"You're joking, right?"

"No, I'm serious. Change it."

It felt like that. I'm very glad my work wasn't changed.

"I changed Iraq, but it's still not selling that well."

"Maybe you didn't change it right. Yes, that's it. It would have been better if you'd changed Iran. Try changing Iran."

"But if we go that far, it's not really going to be the Middle East anymore."

"It's okay. As long as it sells. Alright then? Let's change Iran."

Hurley: My students and I like to discuss what doesn't appear in this novel, like the U.S. (Perhaps our inquiries are structured by the arrogance of U.S. imperialism and its claims to universal relevance.) Aside from the aquarium scene from The Lady from Shanghai, almost no mention is made of anything related to what my students call "the Western world," and they like to speculate, "where did it go?" After all, much of the modern and contemporary Japanese literature they encounter invokes "the West" more overtly. In writing a novel that addresses questions of borders, sovereignty, migration, and security involving nations, what did the absence of the U.S. mean for you? Does the U.S. empire have to disappear (or be abolished) before the Japanese emperor system can?

Hoshino: Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata wrote a number of "Japanese" works. Foreign (especially Western) readers experienced these works as "very Japanese" and proclaimed you could find "Japanese beauty" in them. This was to be expected. Mishima and Kawabata depicted images of Japan that Western eyes wanted to see.

But Japanese readers who were aware of such assessments followed suit, saying these works were written with a sense of "Japanese beauty that even a Westerner could admire" and that "Japan had the kind of culture written about in these novels."

This was how value judgments about "Japaneseness" were shaped.

Foreign readers who only find value in the first chapter of this novel must still have those Western eyes.

Paradoxically, foreign readers today seem to respond to Japanese literature with a lot of "American-ness" as universal and, at the same time, as "Japanese." Perhaps "Japanese" novels subtly and gently exoticize American problems.

When I read that sort of novel, I feel like I'm reading fantasy fiction and wonder, "Where is this tale from?"

I didn't intend to eliminate American references from LHK. It's not explicit, but I think of it as covered by America's shadow. The effort to put out the nationalist fire in the first chapter is also an effort to get out from under the shadow of America. After all, Japan's reality after the end of World War II and ever since the American Occupation has been that of "America above the Emperor."

Hurley: I love the setting of the second and third chapters. The remote mountain lodge calls up images not only of idyllic mountain resorts, but also of the Aum movement's headquarters, the Chichibu Rebellion of 1884, the Umemura Rebellion in Hida, the Asama Sanso Incident, and especially (at least to me) United Red Army (Rengô sekigun) figures such as Hiroko Nagata. But the setting's significance isn't limited to Japanese histories and contexts. Iroha's use of the phrase "reservation," themes of self-governance and autonomy, and the title of the final chapter, drawing on Luis Buñuel's 1951 film Subida al cielo, invoke multiple landscapes and histories. Where did your own journey into the mountains of Lonely Hearts Killer begin and what do the mountains mean to you?

Hoshino: My first clue for the secluded mountain setting for Iroha and the others came from Buñuel's film Subida al Cielo ("Ascent to Heaven" in Japanese). The mountain reaching up to heaven is a threshold place that carries an image of death mixed with utopia. In the first chapter, Mikoto et. al. develop the vision of everyone dying for a utopian society. Ascension or "Ascent to Heaven" is the name for precisely this vision. However, the people holed up on the mountain are Iroha and others who commit to living and try to distance themselves, running away from Mikoto et. al.'s vision. I wanted to put the brakes on the escalation, and this ironical situation effectively neutralized the vision of death and utopia

That was the impetus for the mountain, which also relates to an image in the third chapter. You ascend from the mountain and migrate to a different place; but even though you cross the border, you aren't entering the world of the dead, but moving to another kind of life. I set up the mountain as that kind of three-dimensional threshold. Iroha and the others are definitely holed up on the mountain, but the mountain isn't a dead-end. Depending on your changing perspective, it links to a different latitude or culture. Before they were surrounded, they had the possibility of coexistence, not "unification." Underlying that possibility is an image of a reservation with autonomy. I think the groups of rebels who historically entrenched themselves in the mountains had similar visions.

One other factor was Japanese mountain worship. In Japanese animism, each mountain is a different god. With the arrival of the emperor system, they were forcibly unified. However, in this novel the people who look like okami (“Majesties”) "come down" from the mountaintop. In other words, they stop being okami. They abdicate "unification."

Buy this book now | Download eBook now | Back to Tomoyuki Hoshino's Page

Owen Hill on the Professor of Pop

Owen Hill's the Incredible Double
The Professor of Pop
October 16, 2009

Owen Hill's first novel, The Chandler Apartments, was a page-turner, read literally in one frenzied Saturday morning. Declaration of (minor) interest: Owen is a friend of a friend (& once kindly gave me discount @ Moe's but don't tell anyone that.)

Here's the opening para from his new novel The Incredible Double, words that will draw you in like a punter to a strip club -- ok then problem drinker to a dive bar -- if you read them aloud:


"My '87 Tercel is in great shape, only a hundred thousand miles and almost new everything, but it does have trouble with the Bay Area hills. Coming out of the tunnel on 24, leaving Berkeley, heading toward the suburbs, I was losing speed and the SUVs were losing patience. I shifted it down into second and wagged my middle finger. My best friend Marvin says that driving slow in a small car is a revolutionary act. Maybe's he right. A woman in a Hummer, no lie, who probably weighed in at 97 pounds, half of it hair, gave me a look that could kill and, waved her phone at me. When you think of spoiled little brats in military vehicles careening through the 'burbs, you know how rotten the twentieth-century will be."


Most important 2 words: no lie. That gives you the genre for cert & tells you that while our narrator has some ironic distance on Marvin, they are perhaps (or were) ideological cousins. Owen isn't afraid of cheap shots if they're funny & tell you something ("half of it hair") because he knows he's been freed by genre. The prose never drifts into agitprop but it's constantly hinted at it, as if this were an Op-Ed piece in Socialist Worker, written by a poet with an acute sense of humour. The first para immediately sets up the dystopian world we are about to enter but you don't feel trapped in it exactly. You just know that the mise-en-scene for wherever our story & our narrator are headed is going to be "rotten".

And this rotten-ness dear voyeur from cyberspace is happening right here right now in river city as Berkeley gets increasingly comfy with being a rich town (a security guard asked Susan to move her bag from where it might be stolen last night @ about 6pm... on a main throughfare in mf Rockridge) where even the south side (site of the Historic POP Homeland) has monster homes and monster cars and of course therefore monster peeps.

Like The Chandler Apartments, The Incredible Double captures a time & a place perfectly: here, now. But that would be boring because it would be too obvious, so Hill never forgets that you make it interesting (& significant) if you pepper the story with nostalgia for times passed.

He does, after all, drive an '87 Tercel.

Raymond Williams
once described literature as a record of lived experience which is of course not always the case since neither lived nor experience are really the correct terms for a lot of contemporary fiction. But in the case of the savvy crime-thriller, if you can set the noir against the nostalgia then you have one powerful vehicle (if you're a poet) for evoking the time & the place that is the fag-end of Berkeley as we now know it.

And anyway, whether or not you care about that (& you should), Owen Hill has written another page-turner.

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Stealing Third

An Interview with E. Ethelbert Miller
By Shonda Buchanan
The Writer's Chronicle
December, 2009

E. Ethelbert Miller is a well-known chronicler of black literary life in Washington, DC and across the country. He is a consummate documenter, as well as a writer of poetry and nonfiction. Eight years ago, Miller published a ground-breaking memoir, Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer, that captured the voice of a college-bound youth and his working-class father. As a literary activist, Miller is the board chairperson of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). He is a board member of The Writer’s Center and editor of Poet Lore magazine. Since 1974, he has been the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. Miller is the former chair of the Humanities Council of Washington, DC and a former core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College. He is the advisory editor of the African American Review, founder of the Ascension Poetry Reading Series, and winner of the 1994 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for his poetry anthology In Search of Color Everywhere. Miller has edited several anthologies, and is author of five collections of verse. His new memoir, The 5th Inning, a 165 page book, was published in March 2009 by Busboys & Poets.

E. Ethelbert Miller has found himself in the role of storyteller for his father, brother, and several friends simply by outliving them. In essence, writing The 5th Inning is tantamount to stealing third base, and entering certain moments and people into the record books for good.

Shonda Buchanan: Why use baseball as a motif?

E. Ethelbert Miller: When I look back on my life, I find that baseball was very important to me. It was the one thing that I was very passionate about from an early age. You had to actually stop me from playing and stop me from spending all my money on baseball cards. I grew up when many of the people whom I liked in terms of heroes—Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle, and Clete Boyer—were baseball players. I lived not far from Yankee Stadium. Oftentimes, one gravitates toward a sport, and that sport is something you live with your entire life. For me it’s baseball. When I was writing this second memoir, I said, okay, what is it that I really know? I think I know baseball best.

Buchanan: Why the fifth inning?

Miller: The fifth inning is an official complete game. It goes into the record books, and I’ve always looked at that as a metaphor for our lives. I look at so many of my friends, and people whom I don’t know, dying before they reach the age of sixty. Cancer, suicide, heart attack. So that became something I began to look at as I wrote The 5th Inning. Many games end because of rain or darkness. When I look at things I struggle against—depression, marriage, raising children—I see this sort of overcast. No matter how much people might see your life as being a beacon of light or you as being happy, you’re on your own on the mound. You’re in the batter’s box. You know the score.

Buchanan: How does this correlate with your work as a writer?

Miller: I think, right now, there is a certain sense of completion. What I’ve been doing for the last two years is boxing up my personal papers and giving them to the Givens Collection at the University of Minnesota and to George Washington University. I’m very conscious of what I’ve done and the importance of making material available to future scholars. I can go back and say, okay, these are all the things that went into Hoodoo Magazine, or these are what I used when I was editing In Search of Color Everywhere or Fathering Words. Here are documents, a tremendous amount of correspondence with people that I think are important for literary scholars. Going back and making sense out of what I saw as a very important period, especially in terms of Washington, DC history, and in terms of black literary history. National and international. When I look at what was taking place on the campus of Howard University that I was witness to—I look at the era, the early ’70s, as a golden era. Here I am, a young person in the early 1970s, and I’m meeting people like C.L.R. James, Haki Madhubuti, and Walter Rodney.

Buchanan: You talked about being a purveyor of art, and being a father, and ushering in the work of others. What about your own work as a writer?

Miller: I’m writing more. For a good part of my life, I was organizing. Some people don’t know that I wrote a memoir, and they aren’t familiar with my nonfiction work. At this particular point in my life, I feel it is time to really bring my work together, and make it available to the public. I’m writing better than ever before. And this goes back to baseball. You’re not going to hit the ball every time you get up. But there are times in your literary career when you know you can get on base with what you’ve written.

Buchanan: What is the book about for you?

Miller: This is a book that I felt I needed to write because of all the things I’ve experienced over the last few decades. Things that coincide with raising children and being in a second marriage. I needed to be honest. Many times people will say, “Oh, Ethelbert, you don’t seem happy, why don’t you change your life?” What I did when writing this book was to realize, okay, these were the pitches that I threw or the pitches that I faced. Baseball is very exact. The records are there. That’s how the influence of steroids taints these records, but when you look at baseball, you look at that box score. That tells you what happened. And the other thing about baseball is, you have to see the game. Similarly, you have to see my life on a daily basis because there are a lot of things that don’t show up in the box score. That’s something that I feel is there in this book—that level or degree of honesty. That’s why very early on I tell the reader, you won’t know if I’m throwing balls or strikes because it’s going to change. Some things will shock people. Sometimes I go off on a tangent, and that’s how this book is put together.

Buchanan: Did you realize anything differently in this second memoir than in the first? Fathering WordsThe 5th Inning feels more confining and even a bit sad. seems more like you trying to connect with your father, but there’s still a bit more optimism. You were at the beginning of your life even though it’s retrospective, while

Miller: I was very conscious of writing the first memoir. I knew I was telling someone about my beginnings. I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about. So there’s a chronology there you can follow, even though I’m going back and forth. It does cover South Bronx, to college, to becoming a writer.

Buchanan: Was Fathering Words about black men and depression, or fatherhood?

Miller: More family. I didn’t start out writing a book about depression. I wrote this book because I wanted to give praise and testimony to my father’s and brother’s lives. I felt that when they died, they had a lot remaining to offer life. For them to disappear without leaving anything behind—I felt that this is where I come in as a storyteller. What I can do is create the story. I can elevate their lives. I can take my father, who was a working class man in a post office, and elevate his life and make it much more heroic. The highest compliment to my having that skill is the success in keeping the memories of my father and brother alive. This is the power of the word. This is the power of creating myths. Whenever I go into a classroom and see young students reading about my brother and father, I know that I’ve achieved what I set out to do. Many people write books that come out but are never read. Every year, the audience for Fathering Words increases.

Buchanan: You write in The 5th Inning, “I need the strength to continue and the feeling that I’m writing what needs to find its air.” It feels as if sometimes in the narrative you are suffocating in your life. What are you trying to set free with this memoir?

Miller: As a person who is always dealing with documenting, I think what I’ve done, for good or bad, is document my life. I would not want someone to look at my books of poetry and come to a certain conclusion. I think if you read my poetry and my memoirs, you begin to find certain links. This is, I feel, pushing aside the silences that exist inside our relationships and the silences that many times exist within a home. In Fathering Words, I wrote about the dual sounds of music in a household. I grew up with that, but when I look at my own home, there is a certain level of silence. Everyone comes in and goes to their separate rooms. Sometimes, if it’s not a holiday, we take our meals in ones and twos, but not the four of us. Also, this is a book in which, by the time I’m finished, the family I’m writing about has changed. My son is off to college—he doesn’t come back that often. My daughter—it’s just a question of time before she transitions out. So it’s a different house than the one that I was reflecting back on. A memoir is always looking back.

Buchanan: How does your family view the memoir?

Miller: I sent each one a copy, and no one said anything. I sent the first copy to my sister. The second to my biographer, Julia Galbus, in Indiana. Those were the first people who got copies. My sister was very saddened by it. She felt it was very painful and said, “I want to know more.” I didn’t send her the entire thing. I incorporated what Julia Galbus said into the memoir because it was a whole thing about darkness. That was very helpful for me to realize that I don’t have to write against this. If it proceeds in this direction, then it’s just going to be a dark book.

Buchanan: It’s a nonlinear structure, much like the first book.

Miller: It’s nonlinear, even though it reads in such a way you get a sense of what I’m processing. You get a sense of some of the things happening while I’m at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). I included my friend Kay Ruane, who is a painter. She’s the person who survived an airplane crash. What I did was no different than what a visual artist would do in terms of finding objects and assembling them. That’s how this memoir was written. I think it makes it very rich for someone who can come back and read it in such a way that he or she sees the jokes I’m playing. For instance, there are places where I’m lifting lines from Bob Dylan. If they know Dylan, they know the line. I consciously added a lot of baseball, which I wouldn’t have had time to do if I had not gone to VCCA. I’m talking about specific players. That’s where I wanted to go deeper into the metaphor.

Buchanan: Your favorite players representing certain aspects of your life?

Miller: Exactly, or they become players that play against my life. I look at Pumpsie Green, the first black player for the Red Sox. No one remembers Pumpsie Green or Tony Conigliaro, whose life was tragically interrupted by getting hit in the face. By bringing those names to the forefront, a person who is really into baseball and giving it a serious critical read will realize, “Oh, Ethelbert is talking about Carl Yastrzemski or Bill Monbouquette. Why is he referring to those names?” If someone comes along and wants to look at my life or poems now, they would have to look at my blog. Some of my best writing is caught up in there. And what holds it together is my admiration for the baseball player Ichiro Suzuki. He’s there throughout my entire blog. It’s not different than being influenced by Ezra Pound or Whitman. So we see these connections. In a close reading, someone will ask what does this person represent here?

Buchanan: You don’t answer all the questions you raise for the reader. Why?

Miller: I think, for both memoirs, if you took a marker and circle the questions marks, there are quite a few. I’m conscious of that because I don’t know the answers, and sometimes it’s a riff on life. I want the reader not to just think about my life, but to think about their own lives. “Well, why did you do that?” Well, what would you do? If I’ve done my job, you as the reader reflect and make these connections. The fifth inning now for my sister has become a part of her vocabulary when someone dies. Oh, the fifth inning. What happens is it begins to resonate outside of baseball, and I think if I can do that as a writer then I’ve done a good job.

Buchanan: Do you feel that when you reflect back on your life and work, you have become your father?

Miller: I think so. But I think I’ve done some things that he would be proud of. I’ve been able to get my children to where they are today. But I’ve never worked as hard as my father. I’ve never pushed my body physically.

Buchanan: But writing is a physical act.

Miller: Writing is physical. You’ve got to really sit there and keep your body going, and if you’re not disciplined, it doesn’t happen. Writing isn’t easy. Re-writing isn’t easy. You’ve got to make your free throws, you’ve got to practice. You look at a line, and you’ve got to look at that line over and over again. If you’re going to give up, then you’re not the writer.

Buchanan: Give me an example.

Miller: This summer, I went to VCCA and I realized that many of my friends were living the writer’s life. I saw this when I was working up at Bennington. The residency would be ending, and my fellow colleagues were going off to Italy to write. It’s no wonder they have a book every two years. I could go off to France to write, to Italy to write. Have some bread and wine. But you look at yourself—you’re in your fifties, and you realize you’re not living the writer’s life. You’re not taking advantage of some of these things. I look at my long-term relationship with Howard, and when I look at how some schools have never embraced writers, I see how that’s continued with me. If I look at how Sterling Brown was treated, or especially Julian Mayfield—these people are given no institutional support. Or as I remember Stephen Henderson used to say, “Léon Damas is walking across the campus of Howard University. No one knows he’s one of the founders of Negritude.” And if they did, they wouldn’t care. That tells you something about the campus. A part of me says, “I’m going to write myself out of Howard.” And another part of me says, “I’m going to stay there until I get my due.” See, that’s my father: “The longest day hasn’t ended.”

Buchanan: Is what happened, and is happening to you, indicative of the role of the artist in academia?

Miller: No. I’m a literary activist. I don’t take that nonsense. I’ve looked at writers. I’ll begin with Sterling Brown. People used to say, “Oh, he’s the poet laureate of Washington, DC.” He wasn’t. We went down and made him the poet laureate. I remember when he had his proclamation, and he was getting in his car, he was a happy guy. We had it on Capitol Hill. We had to bribe him to get him out of his house, but he was happy. It was official.

Buchanan: Unlike Langston Hughes being the unofficial poet laureate of Harlem.

Miller: Right. What I feel is important to do—I have all these people’s papers—is to make sure these papers get into the hands of scholars. This is what I get angry about. The people running historically black colleges don’t protect the stuff. They don’t have the funds or the staff. Or they want to sell someone’s paintings. They don’t appreciate what they have.

Buchanan: How long have you been at Howard?

Miller: I’ve been at Howard as a full employee since 1974.

Buchanan: Have you taught at Howard?

Miller: I’ve never been a professor there. I’ve never taught at Howard. I’ve run the African American Resource Center. I’ve taught at University of Nevada Las Vegas, American University, George Mason, Emory, Henry College, and Bennington.

Buchanan: Why never at Howard?

Miller: Because I didn’t go on to get all those degrees, and the reason for that is I knew what I wanted to do. There was a point when I came back from UNLV where I was treated very well, and came back to Howard. They were trying to phase out my position because there was this push to get me to go back to school. That’s for their own interest. I told the dean, “This may sound arrogant, but you guys study literature; I make it.” To me, I try to advance the field of literature. I’m not looking at some footnotes. I look at the things I’ve done that I don’t even take credit for. When I went to UNLV, I had to put together a resume for the first time. I’ve never packaged myself as a media person even though I do radio shows and NPR. For example, the Humanities Council now runs almost all of my shows that I recorded when I worked for them at UDC Station.

Buchanan: You said in the book, “I once wrote an essay in a magazine in which I mentioned that my deepest fear was to be a survivor. I don’t want to be the person discovered after being underground and trapped for fourteen hours. I don’t want to be the person lost in the mountains and freezing for days. I’m just a guy in a second marriage.” Aren’t you surviving?

Miller: That’s a good read of that.

Buchanan: What are you surviving?

Miller: Everything. Relationships, Howard. I look at the climate change. I look at New Orleans, and I’ve been telling people that the concept of home has become almost obsolete. That we almost have to give that up. That many of us are going to be on the move, or you can’t assume that everything here is going to stay.

Buchanan: Scott Russell Sanders might have something to say about that, too.

Miller: As writers, for example, the expression “I’m going to call home” makes no sense because you call your mother and she’s on a mobile phone. We’re always recreating new spaces or claiming space to call our home, but it’s not permanent.

Buchanan: So what is your home? Where is it?

Miller: Here. Maybe this will be a place where a visiting writer will stay one day. That would be the ideal thing.

Buchanan: You wrote in The 5th Inning that you’ve spoken and written so much about love that you now need to begin to love yourself and your aloneness. When will that happen?

Miller: It’s always a process. Each day I struggle with that.

Buchanan: What would you tell budding writers now, after a lifetime of writing? And what would you tell budding memoirists?

Miller: It’s important to keep tradition alive. Try and document as much as possible. This will help to reclaim memory in the future. I’m afraid we have become a people who no longer value the book. I see reading books as being fundamental to the soul’s well-being. To read alone or read aloud is as important as meditation or prayer. It is also why we write. I would remind all budding writers to “always be closing.” ABC. That was the mantra my friend Liam Rector echoed throughout my tenure, teaching in the Bennington Writing Seminars. Finally, it’s important for all young writers to understand that they have the capability to shape history and not simply be shaped by it. I would remind writers to see themselves as witnesses, and to always speak the truth to the people, as well as truth to power. A love of language should be as strong as the love for life.

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Galileo's Dream

A Q & A with Kim Stanley Robinson
By Terry Bisson
Shareable: Life & Art 

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of America’s most important science fiction authors—and an underappreciated utopian visionary.
He grew up in Southern California ‘s Orange County (a Republican stronghold credited with launching the “Reagan Revolution”) and earned a PhD in literature from the University of California, San Diego, in 1982. Starting with the publication of The Wild Shore in 1984, Robinson embarked upon creating an ambitious body of work that tackles themes of ecological sustainability, economic and social justice, and the relationships between science, politics, and values—and in the process, he has won every major science fiction award. Robinson is most famous for the Mars trilogy, published from 1992 to ’96, which imagines wonderfully flawed human colonists building a terraformed utopia on the red planet.
Next month, Spectra will publish Robinson’s new novel, Galileo’s Dream, which envisions the founder of modern science as a bridge between Renaissance Italy and a distant future on the Jovian moons. Last month, PM Press published a special edition of Robinson’s classic novelette The Lucky Strike. In the following excerpt from that book, award-winning science fiction author Terry Bisson (editor of PM Press’s Outspoken Authors series, of which The Lucky Strike is part) interviews Robinson about real and imaginary shareable communities, global warming, capitalism, and what science fiction can teach us about living in the future.—Jeremy Adam Smith, Editor of
Terry Bisson: Your first big trilogy was the Orange County series. Did you feel you owed that to your birthplace or was it because Orange County, California, somehow concentrates all the tendencies good and bad in modern America?
Kim Stanley Robinson: That trilogy is actually called "Three Californias," as the handsome Tor trade paperbacks say. I guess it was a little of both. I wanted to ground some of my science fiction in my actual home town, and I also felt like I was the beneficiary of a lucky coincidence, in that my home town seemed to me to represent some kind of end case for America, some kind of future already here for the rest of the country to witness and hopefully avoid following. I’m not sure that was a true perception, but it had to do with the westward movement in American history, and the fact that when people reached the Pacific there was no where else to go, so the leading edge of malcontents and dreamers was stuck there and had to make something of it. Los Angeles is the big exemplar of how that can go wrong, San Francisco how it can go right, and Orange County is like the purest expression of LA. And in my time it was so beautiful, then it was so destroyed, and it was so drugged out; it seemed a good spot to talk about America, so I used it. It still feels like a lucky thing, and I think it was fundamental to me becoming a science fiction writer in the first place. When I ran into science fiction at age eighteen, I said, Oh I recognize this, this is home, this is Orange County.
TB: My favorite of that series is Pacific Edge, the utopia of the series. What’s yours? Are there any particular problems in writing a utopia?
KSR: My favorite is The Gold Coast, for personal reasons, but I think Pacific Edge is more important to us now. Anyone can do a dystopia these days just by making a collage of newspaper headlines, but utopias are hard, and important, because we need to imagine what it might be like if we did things well enough to say to our kids, we did our best, this is about as good as it was when it was handed to us, take care of it and do better. Some kind of narrative vision of what we’re trying for as a civilization.
It’s a slim tradition since [Sir Thomas] More invented the word, but a very interesting one, and at certain points important: the Bellamy clubs after Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward had a big impact on the Progressive movement in American politics, and H.G. Wells’s stubborn persistence in writing utopias over about fifty years (not his big sellers) conveyed the vision that got turned into the postwar order of social security and some kind of government-by-meritocracy.
So utopias have had effects in the real world. More recently I think Ecotopia by [Ernest] Callenbach had a big impact on how the hippie generation tried to live in the years after, building families and communities.
There are a lot of problems in writing utopias, but they can be opportunities. The usual objection—that they must be boring—are often political attacks, or ignorant repeating of a line, or another way of saying “No expository lumps please, it has to be about me.” The political attacks are interesting to parse. “Utopia would be boring because there would be no conflicts, history would stop, there would be no great art, no drama, no magnificence.” This is always said by white people with a full belly. My feeling is that if they were hungry and sick and living in a cardboard shack they would be more willing to give utopia a try.
And if we did achieve a just and sustainable world civilization, I’m confident there would still be enough drama, as I tried to show in Pacific Edge. There would still be love lost, there would still be death. That would be enough. The horribleness of unnecessary tragedy may be lessened and the people who like that kind of thing would have to deal with a reduction in their supply of drama.
So, the writing of utopia comes down to figuring out ways of talking about just these issues in an interesting way; how tenuous it would be, how fragile, how much a tightrope walk and a work in progress. That along with the usual science fiction problem of handling exposition. It could be done, and I wish it were being done more often.
TB: Your recent “Global Warming” trilogy (40 Signs of Rain; 50 Degrees Below; 60 Days and Counting) was about global warming—which leads to a deep freeze! What do you think of Obama’s “green” agenda? Is it headed in the right directions?
KSR: Climate change will mostly be warming, but that will add such energy to the world system that the turbulence will lead to areas of greater cold in winter, as well as more severe storms, etc. So I followed a scenario that describes the “abrupt climate change” that the scientists have found in the historical record, that results when the Gulf Stream is shut down at its north end by too much fresh water flooding the far north Atlantic.
That could happen with Greenland melting, though now they think it is lower probability than when I wrote (oh well). I like Obama’s green agenda and hope his whole team and everyone jumps on board and pushes it as hard as possible.
One thing happening is that the Republican Party in the USA has decided to fight the idea of climate change (polls and studies show the shift over the first decade of this century, in terms of the leadership turning against it and the rank and file following), which is like the Catholic Church denying the Earth went around the sun in Galileo’s time; a big mistake they are going to crawl away from later and pretend never happened. And here the damage could be worse, because we need to act now.
What’s been set up and is playing out now is a huge world historical battle between science and capitalism. Science is insisting more emphatically every day that this is a real and present danger. Capitalism is saying it isn’t, because if it were true it would mean more government control of economies, more social justice (as a climate stabilization technique) and so on. These are the two big players in our civilization, so I say, be aware, watch the heavyweights go at it, and back science every chance you get. I speak to all fellow leftists around the world: science is now a leftism, and thank God; but capitalism is very, very strong. So it’s a dangerous moment. People who like their history dramatic and non-utopian should be pleased.
TB: Your latest work, to be published next month, is about Galileo. Or about the relationship between science and politics. Or is it ambition and religion? Or work and age?
KSR: A bit of all those things, but mostly I was thinking science and history; what science is, how it has affected history, how it could in the future. And also about Galileo’s actual work, which is ever so interesting. He was a great character.
TB: You gave one of the Google talks. Was that cool or what? What did you tell them?
KSR: It was a lot of fun. The Google people were great, and their free cafeteria is out of this world. They put the talk online so you can find it on YouTube. It was my first Power Point talk ever, so that was a bit clunky, but fun. It was configured as a talk to the Googlers, telling Google what it could do to fight climate change and enact utopia. I’m not sure the folks at (their charitable/activist foundation) were listening, but it was worth a try, and basically a way to frame my usual talk about what we all should do. Mostly I say, go outdoors and sit and talk to a friend: this is our primate utopia and very easy on the planet.

TB: I understand that you live in a utopian community [called Village Homes, pictured above and below; images by Michael Corbett]. How does that work? Is it pre- or post-modern?
KSR: A little of both, I guess. The model is an English village really; about eighty acres, a lot of it owned in common, so there is a “commons” and no fences, except around little courtyards. There are a lot of vegetable gardens, and the landscaping is edible, meaning lots of fruits, grapes and nuts. 
It’s really just a tweaking of suburban design, but a really good one. Energy mattered to the designers and we burn about 40 percent the energy of an ordinary suburban neighborhood of the same size. That’s still a lot, but it’s an improvement. Village Homes was built in 1980 or so; if every suburb since then had followed its lead, we would have much less craziness in America, because the standard suburb is bad for sanity. But that didn’t happen, so for the 1,000 people who live here it’s a kind of pocket utopia. Not the solution, but a nice place to live right now, and it could suggest aspects of a long-term solution. It’s been a real blessing to live here.
TB: I hear you and [the novelist] Karen Joy Fowler like to write together in cafes. What’s that about?
KSR: I wrote in cafes for many years; I liked seeing the faces, which often became characters’ faces, and I liked hearing the voices around me, I think it helped with dialogue, and made my writing even more a matter of channeling a community. Fowler joined me in this at several cafes downtown, all of which died, we hope not from our presence, although we may have killed three.
It was good to meet with someone going through the same issues, it was a kind of solidarity and also a bit of policing, in that there was someone to meet at a certain time, who would then be watching in a way. It was a great addition to a friendship. But now Karen has moved, and on my own I’m finding I like my courtyard better than any of the cafes left in town.
I thought I was getting tired of writing, before, but now I realize I was only tired of spending so much time indoors sitting around. When it’s outdoors it feels completely different.
TB: You are firmly ensconced in the science fiction genre. Many writers regard that as a trap, and others as an opportunity. How do you see it? Is working in a field with a developed, opinionated and rambunctious “fandom” a blessing or a curse?
KSR: It’s the hometown. It’s a floor and a ceiling, in some respects. I love the genre and the community, but want readers who don’t usually think of themselves as SF readers to give me a try, as they have in the past for Bradbury, Asimov, Frank Herbert, Ursula Le Guin, and so on.
These days there seems to be a lot of permeability. [Michael] Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was a great SF novel, an alternative history, and it was widely read and enjoyed by people. Maybe Philip K. Dick’s takeover of the movies helped break down part of the barriers.
Anyway, there is no reason to pretend it’s a ghetto and we are oppressed artists that the world won’t give a break. In the 1950s that was true and drove many writers mad. Now to hold that position (which some do) would be only a confession that you’d rather be a big fish in a little pond than swim in the big ocean. I like the ocean, but I love SF too. And really, to have a literary community as a kind of feedback amp on stage, loudly talking back to you and ready to talk at any moment— any writer is lucky to have that. The solitude and alienation of many writers from their audiences strikes me as sad. It’s solitary enough as it is, in the daily work.
TB: Science fiction writers are always complaining about the state of publishing. What do you think would be the proper role of science fiction in a proper publishing world? Would there be genres or categories at all?
KSR: I don’t know! That’s a real alternative history. If there were no genres or categories, people might be more open to trying new things. That would be good. I’d love to try it. But it’s not the world we have. Going forward from now, I guess I think every science fiction section in every bookstore should have a sign saying “Science Fiction—You Live Here, Why Not Read About It?” or “Science Fiction, the Most Real Part of This Store” or something like that. Something to remind people of reality, which is that we are all stuck in a big SF novel now, and there’s no escape; might as well accept it and dive in.

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Poets at the Crossroads

The 5th Inning by E. Ethelbert Miller and Something Like Beautiful by asha bandele
By Peter Aaron

By Brenda M. Greene
Neworld Review

Two poets, E.Ethelbert Miller and asha bandele (spelled with lower case letters) have new memoirs out, both examining the suffering that comes with the need for love. In both cases these are followup stories to earlier memoirs. Now Miller, in The 5th Inning (PM Press) and bandele, in Something Like Beautiful: One Single Mother’s Story (HarperCollins) each explore a sort of Phase 2 of their lives.

For Miller, his new memoir is a reflection on middle age, marriage, fatherhood, career choices, death and failures as he approaches 60. His first memoir, Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer (St. Martins Griffin) was published in 2001. In 2003 it was selected by the DC We Read for its one book, one city program. It presents a frank portrayal of his early life beginning with his childhood in the South Bronx and continuing with his days as a college student at Howard and his evolution into a poet, father and husband.

Miller is the author of nine collections of poems. His 2004 collection How We Sleep on the Nights We Don’t Make Love was an Independent Publisher Award Finalist. He is also the editor of four anthologies of poetry, including In Search of Color Everywhere (1994) which was awarded the 1994 PEN Oakland, Josephine Miles Award, and was a Book of the Month Club selection. A member of many literary boards and organizations and known for his commentaries on poetry and literature, Miller can often be heard on NPR.

In bandele’s case, Something Like Beautiful is about her journey from student to prisoner’s wife and single mother. A journalist, poet and novelist, bandele first gained recognition with her award-winning memoir The Prisoner’s Wife (Scribner, 1999), a deeply moving work that reveals the gripping tale of her decision to marry Rashid, the father of her daughter, and her struggle to hold on to a dream of a “normal marriage” upon his release from prison. Her novel Daughter (Scribner, 2003) depicts the consequences of the silences and secrets in our lives and presents a sensitively told narrative of the fragile and complexities of mother daughter relationships. bandele is also a former feature editor for Essence Magazine and the author of two collections of poems.

In The 5th Inning Miller expresses some beliefs about what it means to be a memoirist. The writer, he says, should not write to harm and should keep healing and the transformation of the self at the center of the narrative. The memoirist must decide what to include and what to leave out, for if not done carefully, he can bring harm to his loved ones, friends and supporters. Thus, the memoirist must be sensitive and committed to truth and to the courageous act of capturing those special or life transforming moments that present an authentic portrayal of his/her life.

Miller sees life in baseball metaphors, with the fifth inning possibly his last. “Everything comes down to balls and strikes,” he says. “You don’t need religion to understand this. One can keep a scorecard just like God” .

Although many youthful baby boomers may beg to differ, Miller believes that life begins a trajectory toward the end at around 50. On aging, he reflects that: ”Someone might ask about your diet or mention how you don’t look your age. But you know your age. You’re more aware of it each year when you complete an application. There are fewer boxes to check where it says ‘list age.’" And he ponders, “When do you stop reading horoscopes or simply accept the cards handed to you? How many times can you avoid death?”

He also says that as he gets older “the poems appear less and less. The personal is prose.” And he riffs on the lyrical nature of his memoir: “This memoir has a jazz feel to it. Is it BeBob? Parker and Diz? I like the energy that flows from one chapter into another.”

Central to his memoir is a quest for love. He asks which is the inning in which husbands stop talking to their wives. What happens when the passion leaves the marriage and one’s vows become “autumn” or the “fall? What is “. . . that moment when a man moves beyond desire? When he no longer needs to turn around to look at a woman?”

Miller is not afraid to display his frailties, his misgivings about the time spent with his son and daughter, and his own strained relationships with his mother, father, and brother. He is open about his failures and asks how do we cope with failure in career, marriage and life and how do we look at ourselves when we believe that we have failed as lovers, parents and friends.

Miller’s words to his son: are apt symbols for his life. He informs his son, who has kicked a basketball out of the park one day. “You don’t kick the ball! You never kick the ball! The ball is your friend!” As he sees it, wives, partners, sons, daughters and friends are our own “balls” that we should never kick away.

Still, it is bandele’s memoir that is the more despairing of the two, right from the opening line: “This is a book about love and this is a book about rage. This is a book about those opposing emotions and what happens to a woman, a mother, when, with equal weight, they occupy the seat of your heart.”

bandele paints a haunting picture of her evolution from a young woman who grew up in a middle-class environment and survived sexual and emotional abuse and the challenges of having a husband who was incarcerated, to one who learned how to love and heal herself and to establish a relationship with her daughter. Adopted as a baby, bandele harbors feelings of rejection from her biological mother and searches for love in the relationships she experiences. A victim of sexual abuse at a young age, she carries these traumatic memories into her adulthood, shaping her responses to men and perhaps affecting the men she chooses.

At times, you may wonder whether bandele is going to be able to achieve the balance she so desperately seeks. She describes depression as a drawn-out process that keeps pulling her in deeper: “At some point, it no longer seems strange to wake up each day and wonder how you will get through the first hour, the second. In the beginning it was wine every night and cigarettes that were my morphine. Eventually it was sleep. I could barely get out of bed, see friends. . . I went into what I can only describe as hiding.”

As her narrative deepens, bandele moves beyond herself and reflects on her role in her community and the larger global world, and how helping children in various villages and communities helped to save her. “The cliché is that children have as much to teach us as we do them,” she writes. “And like most clichés, those words rang empty to me until I lived them. I lived them all the way out. And now I know that they are true” She cautions the reader against self-medication in the form of drugs, alcohol and sex emphasizes the need to be fully present in the face of adversity, to accept that our lives will be filled with pain, loss, disappointment and to recognize that these elements are a natural part of our everyday existence.

Her memoir closes with a view into her mind’s eye of the reasons we have for living and of what must be done to address the mental, emotional, spiritual and educational problems in our communities. In her words:

“Renewal. Children, if life is fairly good to them, will not have to learn. This while they are still small. Adults, if we live any measure of time and with any measure of energy, will most certainly run headlong into it, that challenge to come back or not. Many of us will have to learn it over and over. We will have to figure out how to renew ourselves after the loss of a love or a job or a friend or a parent------or ourselves.”

"Brenda M. Greene is Professor of English and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.

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Dallas Mom Reviews My Baby Rides the Short Bus

By Nancy Churnin
Dallas Moms blog
The Dallas Morning News
October 28, 2009

Here's one book I wish I'd had during the dark days after learning my daughter has autism.

My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids with Disabilities (PM Press, $20) is an anthology of first-person stories from parents about children facing an array of physical and intellectual challenges. Edited by Yantra Bertelli, Jennifer Silverman and Sarah Talbot, the book features real voices--mostly moms--about everything from the heartbreak of the diagnosis to the triumph in watching a child master a seemingly simple task to pragmatic advice like how to set up a Special Needs Trust.

At its best, the book reads like a conversation with a loyal friend. Like a confidant, My Baby Rides the Short Bus made me wince and ache with its honest take on difficult situations. You want to throw your arms around some of these moms. With others, you'll decide to borrow their playbook. Quite honestly, a few of these mothers have handled certain situations a lot better than I did.

Meet an editor and one of the contributors this Friday. On Oct. 30 at 7 p.m., Jennifer Silverman will appear with writer Robert Rummel-Hudson at Legacy Books, 7300 Dallas Parkway, Suite A120 in Plano (972-398-9888 or
For more on the book, visit

Buy this book now | Download ebook now | Back to Jennifer Silverman's page | Back to Sarah Talbot page | Back to Yantra Bertelli's page


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