10/30/15

Nadja Spiegel - Constructing virtuoso depictions of life in a style that lets them get right under your skin, Spiegel's precise, brittle, seemingly straightforward prose paints a vibrant picture of human compromise and cooperation with both humor and restraint

Book review: Sometimes I Lie and Sometimes I Don’t, by Nadja Spiegel, touches on identity from the inside and out
Nadja Spiegel, Sometimes I Lie and Sometimes I Don't, Trans. by Rachel McNicholl, Dalkey Archive Press, 2015.


Love, injury, deception, uncertainty, and self-sacrifice: debut author Nadja Spiegel is hardly the first person to write about these things, but the way she has written about them is incomparable. Constructing virtuoso depictions of life in a style that lets them get right under your skin, Spiegel's precise, brittle, seemingly straightforward prose paints a vibrant picture of human compromise and cooperation with both humor and restraint. Bittersweet, made up of just a few simple strokes, these stories herald the arrival of an important new voice in European literature.


Austrian author Nadja Spiegel’s debut collection of experimental short stories, Sometimes I Lie and Sometimes I Don’t, describes individuals struggling to retain their senses of individuality. In the coy story, “lisa and elias and me,” Ines involves herself in a casual sexual relationship with the same boy on whom her best friend crushes. She reasons that keeping her romantic affair secret is a form of loyalty to her friend’s happiness. Like most of Spiegel’s narrators, she resists attachment out of a desire to remain unfeeling. She affects nonchalance concerning Elias’ inattention. One begins to feel that her record of events is not just unreliable but overly forgiving on her own questionable decisions. There is also much self-abasement as a form of deflecting others’ acts of unkindness. This is in keeping with the young narrator’s knowing voice, one that is convinced of its own prescience. But her own jealousies emerge as Elias returns Lisa’s advances: “Sure he is, I say. Maybe he really is that kind of guy, I add and bite my tongue before I say the kitchen belongs to me. But what use is a tongue anyway? I’m not the kind of girl who needs a tongue; I’m not the kind of girl who has anything to say.” Here, Ines’ habitual diplomatic handling of Lisa’s innocence almost gives way to the articulation of her own possessive feelings about Elias. Ines is an unromantic lover for Elias’ convenience and for fretful Lisa’s sake, a believer in Elias’ dutiful courtship. But in truth, she is neither. She knows that among company, she is a sham. There is always the sense that Spiegel’s narrators are learning and relearning the rules of propriety; that they are struggling to negotiate public expectations. For this reason, her characters are hapless misfits, loners, or drifters. In the public sphere, they are forced into roles.
Among the protagonists in these fictions, most of the characters in orbit seem to happily admit all their duplicity as necessary role-playing in a dishonest world. By the story’s conclusion, Ines has managed the acting without consequence to either party. More importantly, she has also clung to her sense of herself as a girl who enjoys being romanced but understands that at her age, most boys’ attentions will be shallowly motivated. She deftly slips into roles and lucidly perceives the wants of others. Her confession, “Sometimes I lie and sometimes I don’t” is her recognition of this deftness. But Elias denies her the same tokens of affection he freely awards Lisa. The tragedy is that she craves approval from Elias against her knowledge that he cannot give her the profound sort of love that she desires. She understands “Elias is not the kind of guy who falls in love. He only loves, for instance.” Ines’ isolation, one of the necessary trials of adolescence, is more keenly felt because of her heightened sense of awareness.
The daughter-narrator in “how we forgive” also suffers from a sense of loneliness when the pieties afforded to the dead threaten a truthful commemoration of her mother. Spiegel complicates questions of decorum by suggesting that the girl accidentally caused her mother’s death while she was at the wheel. “how we forgive” is a story that seems to have been penned by the narrator in a precarious state of emotional instability. The self-consciousness typical of adolescence has been carried to a state of paranoia. Even the most mundane detail recalls to her the scene of her mother’s death: “In the restaurant later, when it’s dark, the men’s coats on the window ledges look like rolled-up dead kittens.” This is a narrator writing with a palsied hand and a fitful mind. She discloses her world with a lens unsteadied by the intensity of her emotions. The writing, characteristic of Spiegel, is a form of stream-of-consciousness, one that feels raw with the proximity of the experience described: “I sever my hands at the wrists, cut my cheekbones out of my face and pull my Achilles tendons out of my heels. I have two sets of each already, since my mother died.” There is desperation to this writing, as if all the contained self-hatred were finally allowed a means of expression. The daughter feels that the acknowledged rituals of mourning, whether the praise regarding the noble faces of the dead or certain trite consolatory phrases, falsely evoke her mother.
Spiegel is often preoccupied with the struggle of how to remember the dead, the difficulty of which Roland Barthes lamented in both Camera Lucida and Mourning Diary. The question asked in these stories is thus: How to preserve the memory of an individual against oblivion? Barthes believed in the power of the photograph as a representative evocation of his dead mother. “How we forgive” ends with the daughter attempting to write a story about her mother’s death. Writing as a form of healing in the wake of trauma is nothing novel. However, in this instance, the daughter writes in protest of the public codes of mourning that have depersonalized her mother to just another corpse awaiting burial. Ultimately, the daughter rejects the forgiveness offered her, but not as a matter of absolving herself. What irks the narrator is that to forgive an implicated individual is to ultimately construe death as the result of a logical series of events. It is to think that death can be rationalized, that it can be perceived as an understandable event. For the narrator, this sort of conventional thinking papers over the true senselessness of death. She writes that the other mourners “forgive for no reason.” The sentimental rituals of mourning do a disservice to the narrator by understating her experience of grief. The daughter’s evocation of her mother, to “pronounce her name as she was,” is motivated by a desire to vocalize the extent of her loss amidst all the suffocating pieties.
The strangled voice is a recurring theme in Spiegel’s varied fictions. In “fatherland,” a child yearns to hear his submissive mother articulate herself. Anne, in “meta plays the violin,” seeks acknowledgment from a more talented best friend. Denied confidants, most of these characters reflexively turn inwards, as if they were resigned to the immovability of their circumstances. What is curious is that even when systems of oppression are overthrown or subverted, these characters remain inarticulate. For instance, in “fatherland,” when the abusive father dies, Spiegel concludes with an image of the mother and son at the kitchen table both wordlessly fumbling in the dark: “They sit there until night comes. They don’t know what to do with the night.” An oppressive father described for them well-defined roles. It is an irony that when afforded the alternative — the freedom to speak without consequence — each cannot overcome their habitual reticence. These are voices that have been silenced to a lingering state of muteness. For Spiegel, the recovery of the individual voice after years of suppression is akin to the learning of a foreign tongue.
In this precocious collection, the tyranny of public spaces, the result of inviolable laws of behavior, polices these narrators from self-expression. One feels that most of these stories are diary entries logged by young men and women straining against their own invisibility. These thwarted children, with their voices unheard in lived life, recover their senses of personhood on the page. - Darren Huang


It’s difficult to write about Nadja Spiegel’s debut collection of very short stories: they’re so slippery. They “spool” and “rewind” (these are her words about the voice of “Ophelia”, who is old, but somehow also isn’t, until she’s dead and the whole thing is hardly resolved). The creations of the Austrian author, who is still in her very early 20s, can at first glance seem slight: vignettes of contemporary romantic and family relationships whose elusive protagonists do “nothing in particular” – until they reveal themselves as something a lot darker and more complex. At the start of her tales, most of which are told as internal monologues, it is often unclear how characters are related to each other, or even whether they are male or female.
Many feature doubles, twins, and couples without boundaries: where does one character start and the other finish? There is an intimacy that could be romantic but could be familial, which, in several stories does get too close for comfort. There is no difference between skin and skin, of sisters in particular: “We said nothing for so long that I couldn’t tell where my body ended and hers began.”
For Spiegel, bodies are unreliable indicators of personality. “We were actually pretty alike, we just had different shells,” says an ugly sister of the one she believes to be more beautiful. People are a mystery, because they are often not quite as they appear: “my problem,” says one narrator who has a relationship with her life-class model, “was trying to dissociate Milo’s outer shell from Milo himself.” When he, in turn, paints her: “The way he looked at me made my body irrelevant; it was an artist’s gaze.” She refuses to display the resulting abstract painting in case anyone sees “her” naked.
Spiegel writes on experiencing beauty as an observer who breaks the body down into spare parts in the name of love, or art. As they have only a glancing association with identity, the way bodies fragment is sometimes funny and sometimes horrific, but this fragmented sensibility also allows for moments of awkward sensuality: “Hannes pointed at my thigh, at the hole in my tights, and touched his index finger to my skin; it fit perfectly into the rim of the hole.”
There are many liminal states of dress and undress in the collection: characters are draped in nighties, sheets, towels. Evasive, fey as indie-pop, these are emo stories in which teenagers and twentysomethings make advances to each other via little compliments and gifts. Spiegel’s protagonists drink “hot milk and honey”, they eat Nutella, they offer “a packet of chocolate biscuits”. There are many small, cute things, that somehow turn big and dark, and the stories are littered with sudden images (and acts) of violence: “When Paula played the piano, her face was a derailed train.” There’s a lot of music in these stories and musicians, for music is an alternative to words, which are untrustworthy. Even the stories’ titles are set in shy (or petulant?) lower-case.
The inadequacy of language is particularly evident in Speigel’s mistrust of names: “For three weeks I never heard Malika say anything other than I am Malika,” says one narrator, who fails to know Malika any better via the use of that word. Sometimes Spiegel’s characters are called K and X; sometimes they are called “Marie” but at the same time, “Eiske”; sometimes just “the mother” and “the son”. This use of formalism links Spiegel to other Austrian writers, particularly Elfriede Jelinek, and Thomas Bernhard.
In the end, the collection is about the failures of language, especially to describe human identity: “I can’t find the words for the sentence. I can never find words for my sentences,” says one of Speigel’s protagonists. “And if someone were to ask me Whatisyourname, my answer would be: I don’t know,” says another.
What is left? Things that can be suggested, but not solved by anything Spiegel can put on the page. We’re left with an equation of coexistent facts, equal and opposite: “a) What everyone knows: Meta plays the violin. b) What no one knows.” - Joanna Walsh


Debut collection from an award-winning Austrian author, a fresh new voice in innovative fiction.
The themes explored in these very short stories are both timeless and quotidian: life and death, love and sex, family and friends. Narrators negotiate family and relationships and the uncertainties of young adulthood. What distinguishes Spiegel is her willingness to experiment with form and language. Her strengths as a stylist are what make her debut shine, and those strengths are all on display in “How It Is,” one of the most successful stories in this collection. Written in short bursts of memory and suppressed emotion, doubling back on itself to express feelings that are complex and inescapable, this story has an exquisite shape. The narrator is a young woman describing her sister. It’s not until the second page that the narrator states one of the fundamental facts of this narrative: “My sister is an actor.” The reader already knows this, but it’s clear that the narrator needs to say this—finally—even though she’s no more enthusiastic about her sister’s vocation than their bitter, willfully unhappy mother is. Like much experimental fiction, this story is short on action and devoid of plot, but it’s rich with the razor-sharp language of someone who would rather observe and record than talk: “What’s up? My voice sounds like birch bark, rough. If I peel it, it would sound like: Go away.” The reader doesn’t have to take “How It Is” as autobiography to believe that this protagonist who doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up might turn out to be a writer.
This collection is unlikely to bring new readers to experimental fiction, but fans of authors like Lydia Davis, Ben Marcus, and Jenny Offill will want to check it out.  - Kirkus Reviews



Fran Ross - a playful, modernized parody of the classical odyssey of Theseus with a feminist twist, immersed in seventies pop culture, and mixing standard English, black vernacular, and Yiddish with wisecracking aplomb

fran ross




Fran Ross, Oreo, New Directions; Reprint ed, 2015.[1974.]


read it at Google Books


A pioneering, dazzling satire about a biracial black girl from Philadelphia searching for her Jewish father in New York City
Oreo is raised by her maternal grandparents in Philadelphia. Her black mother tours with a theatrical troupe, and her Jewish deadbeat dad disappeared when she was an infant, leaving behind a mysterious note that triggers her quest to find him. What ensues is a playful, modernized parody of the classical odyssey of Theseus with a feminist twist, immersed in seventies pop culture, and mixing standard English, black vernacular, and Yiddish with wisecracking aplomb. Oreo, our young hero, navigates the labyrinth of sound studios and brothels and subway tunnels in Manhattan, seeking to claim her birthright while unwittingly experiencing and triggering a mythic journey of self-discovery like no other.


The first time I read Fran Ross’s hilarious, badass novel, “Oreo,” I was living on Fort Greene Place, in Brooklyn, in a community of people I thought of as “the dreadlocked élite.” It was the late nineteen-nineties, and the artisanal cheese shops and organic juice bars had not yet fully arrived in the boroughs, though there were hints of what was to come. Poor people and artists could still afford to live there. We were young and black, and we’d moved to the neighborhood armed with graduate degrees and creative ambitions. There was a quiet storm of what the musician and writer Greg Tate described as “Black Genius” brewing in our midst. Spike Lee had set up a production studio inside the old firehouse on DeKalb Avenue. Around the corner, on Lafayette Street, was Kokobar, a black-owned espresso shop decorated with Basquiat-inspired paintings; there were whispers that Tracy Chapman and Alice Walker were investors. Around the corner, on Elliott Street, Lisa Price, a.k.a. Carol’s Daughter, sold organic hair oils and creams for kinky-curly hair out of a brownstone storefront.

Now, in nineties Fort Greene, we had arrived. Many of the black kids in our midst were recovering oreos: they had grown up listening to the Clash, not Public Enemy, playing hacky-sack, not basketball. They were all too accustomed to, as my friend Jake Lamar once put it, being the only black person at the dinner party.
Only now we were throwing our own dinner party. We were demi-teint—half-tone—a shade of blackness that had been formed in a clash of disparate symbols and signifiers; there was nothing pure about us. We were authentically nothing. Each of us had experienced a degree of alienation growing up—too black to be white, or too white to be black, or too mixed to be anything—and somehow, at the same moment in time, we’d all moved into the same ten-block radius of Brooklyn.
“Oreo” came to me in this context like a strange, uncanny dream about a future that was really the past. That is, it read like a novel not from 1974 but from the near future—a book whose appearance I was still waiting for. I stared at the author photo of the woman wearing the peasant smock and her hair in an Afro and could easily imagine her moving through the streets of Fort Greene. She belonged to our world. Her blackness was our blackness.
“Oreo,” its first time around, in 1974, had disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Save for a few amused and somewhat confused reviews in Ms. magazine and Esquire, it apparently didn’t speak to the wider cultural landscape of the moment. It came out only two years before that other novel, the cultural sensation, Alex Haley’s “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” While “Oreo” may have been one of the least-known novels of the decade, “Roots” went on to become the single most popular novel of the decade. It occupied the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list for twenty-two weeks. It was adapted into one of the most-watched television miniseries of all time.
For most Americans my age—particularly if you are black—“Roots” is part of our childhood iconography. We can all trade stories of sitting on the floor, watching with a mixture of rapture and disbelief. I remember weeping when Fiddler died, because I, too, played the fiddle. I remember at school, the day after the first episode of the miniseries aired, a white girl walked up to a table of black kids in the cafeteria and said, with tears in her eyes, that she was so sorry about slavery, and could she please empty their lunch trays for them?
The titles themselves of these two texts—“Roots” and “Oreo”—imply the profound gap between the works, giving us a clue about the kind of black narratives we like to celebrate, and the kind we’ve tended to ignore. “Roots” looks toward the past. It offers black people an origin story, an imagined moment of racial purity—when the Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinte is kidnapped, off the shores of Gambia. It constructs a lost utopia for us and a clear fall from the Eden of Africa. “Oreo,” from the title alone and its first loony pages, suggests murkier, more polluted racial waters.
Oreo, born Christine Clark, the biracial progeny of the fall, is our heroine, and, like all good heroes and heroines, she’s on a quest. But, unlike Alex Haley, Oreo is trying to find her white side—her missing Jewish father. Her absent father is no site of longing; he’s a voice-over actor in Manhattan, who has left her an absurd list of clues to help locate him. He’s a bum, according to her mother. “I’m going to find that fucker” is how Oreo sets out on her search, which feels more like an excuse to wander away from her home than a real desire for a father.
Aesthetically, “Oreo” has all the hallmarks of a postmodern novel in its avoidance of profundity and its utterly playful spirit. It draws no conclusions, and the quest leads to no giant, revelatory payoffs. The father and his secret about her birth constitute, in the end—and without giving anything away—as absurdist a feminist send-up of the patriarchal myth as one could hope to find. At every turn, the novel embraces ambiguity. Its quest-driven plot is diverted by wordplay and meta-references to itself. In many ways, it feels more in line stylistically and aesthetically with Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut than with Sonia Sanchez and Ntozake Shange, to name two other black female writers of Ross’s time.
Oreo never becomes a fully believable character, and this feels appropriate to the work’s spirit. The novel does not strive for realism; Ross is not trying to construct a seamless, plot-driven narrative or a sympathetic, three-dimensional main character. We are always aware of Oreo as a construct, and of her story as a construct. Puns, wordplay, standup-comedy riffs, menus, charts, tangents: the journey to find the father is just a chance for Ross to meander through her wicked and free imagination, and to push us toward a hyper-awareness of language itself. “Christine,” Ross writes, and she could be writing of herself, “was no ordinary child … she had her mother’s love of words, their nuance and cadence, their juice and pith, their variety and precision, their rock and wry.”
Alongside the feminist standards we had lying around my house when I was a kid, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying,” there was an anthology of black literature, “Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America,” that always seemed to be in the kitchen. It was one of the early, canonizing texts of the burgeoning African-American-studies departments. On the cover was a silhouette of a black male face, foreboding and sad, surrounded by a circle of red. I guess that male profile was supposed to be taken literally, because, of the thirty-four authors included in the book, exactly four were women.
“Oreo” resists the unwritten conventions that still exist for novels written by black women. There’s nothing redemptively uplifting about Ross’s work. The title doesn’t refer to the Bible or the blues. The work does not refer to slavery. The character is never violated, sexually or otherwise. The characters are not from the South. Oreo is sincerely ironic, hilarious, brainy, impenetrable at times. Oreo’s mother is mostly absent. She dumps Oreo and her sweet, eccentric brother with their grandparents so that she can go on the road. She writes the children mawkish, insincere letters from different places. Oreo replies with letters written backward. When held up to a mirror, her words read “cut the crap mom.” Her mother does just that and begins to get real with her daughter. She explains in one letter why women are oppressed. After an elaborate theoretical analysis, she concludes, “I have been able to synthesize these considerations into one inescapable formulation: men can knock the shit out of women.” In the same letter, her mother tears to hell the stereotype of the black matriarch: “There’s no male chauvinist pork like a black male chauvinist pork.”
As in the best satire, nobody in “Oreo” is safe; nobody is spared. The humor is low at times, scatological and plain silly, and the humor is high, sophisticated wordplay and clichés flipped on their heads. Ross is a hard sell for February, Black History Month, and a hard sell for March, Women’s History Month. Hers is a postmodern text; it is a queer text; it is a work of black satire; it is a work of high feminist comedy; it is a post-soul text. Her novel is multifaceted and multilingual, making it an awkward presence on the landscape of American fiction, where “ethnic” literature can be put in kiosks like dishes at a food fair, and consumed just as easily.
After “Oreo,” Ross never wrote another novel. She died young, of cancer, in 1985, anonymous from a literary standpoint, but surrounded by friends. We know only scattered details about her life, tidbits about who she was as a person. At Temple University, several professors encouraged her in her studies, and she graduated magna cum laude. When she first came from her home town, Philadelphia, to New York City, she lived in a boarding house in midtown, the Webster Apartment for Women. A friend who met her there recalls her as brilliant and warm and extremely funny. Ross was fascinated by Jewish culture and the Yiddish language. She loved Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Jean Genet, and James Baldwin. She heard Baldwin speak at various venues around the city. In her social world, she was often the only black girl at the white-feminist dinner party.
Once, with a group of these friends, she looked up the famously reclusive Djuna Barnes in the phonebook. They all went to the listed address, and, standing outside the apartment door, they heard classical music playing inside. When they knocked, Barnes, an old woman already, opened the door and simply said, “I don’t see people anymore,” before shutting the door in their faces.
Ross’s middle name was Delores, and she signed all her letters FDR, amused by the Presidential echo. She was intensely close to her family, particularly her mother. She was disappointed by the way “Oreo” was ignored. She tried to find another home for her talents and went to Los Angeles, in the late seventies, with a deal to write for Richard Pryor’s television show. Perhaps a standup comedian, especially somebody as out there as Pryor, would appreciate her disregard for social propriety, her outrageousness, her loyalty to nothing but the workings of her own startlingly original mind. But, when she arrived, she found herself disillusioned by the people in Pryor’s circle—and the show was cancelled. She returned to New York City and her day job in publishing, still searching for a genre in which her voice could be heard—a space where she could be true to her own fierce contradictions.
This essay is adapted from the introduction to a new edition of Fran Ross’s “Oreo,” out in July from New Directions. -

Fran Ross’s first and only novel, “Oreo,” was published in 1974, four years after Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and two years before Alex Haley’s “Roots.” It wasn’t reviewed in The New York Times; it was hardly reviewed anywhere.
It’s interesting to imagine an alternative history of African-American fiction in which this wild, satirical and pathbreaking feminist picaresque caught the ride it deserved in the culture. Today it would be where it belongs, up among the 20th century’s lemony comic classics, novels that range from “Lucky Jim” and “Cold Comfort Farm” to “Catch-22” and “A Confederacy of Dunces.”
These sorts of lists have been for too long, to borrow a line from the TV show “black-ish,” whiter than the inside of Conan O’Brien’s thigh.
“Oreo” might have changed how we thought about a central strand of our literature’s DNA. As the novelist Danzy Senna puts it in her introduction to this necessary reissue: “ ‘Oreo’ resists the unwritten conventions that still exist for novels written by black women today. There’s nothing redemptively uplifting about her work. The title doesn’t refer to the Bible or the blues. The work does not refer to slavery. The character is never violated, sexually or otherwise. The characters are not from the South.”                  
Instead, in “Oreo” Ms. Ross is simply flat-out fearless and funny and sexy and sublime. It makes a kind of sense that, when this novel didn’t find an audience, its author moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s to write for Richard Pryor.
The first pages of “Oreo” tell you a lot of what you need to know about this novel’s comic tone and the ways Ms. Ross stirs Yiddish into black vernacular to barbed effect.
In Paragraph 1, a Jewish boy in Philadelphia informs his mother that he’s dropping out of school to marry a black girl. His mother “let out a great geshrei,” Ms. Ross writes, “and dropped dead of a racist/my-son-the-bum coronary.”
In Paragraph 2, across town, the black girl informs her father she’s marrying the Jewish boy. He “managed to croak one anti-Semitic ‘Goldberg!’ before he turned to stone, as it were, in his straight-backed chair, his body a rigid half swastika.” Dad remains a half-swastika’d pretzel for most of the novel.
With that, this book is off and burning strange American rubber. The couple has a dark-skinned son they name Moishe. They also have a daughter, Christine, known as Oreo, who is this novel’s heroine. The book is her teenage quest, in bumpy parody of the classical odyssey of Theseus, to find her father, who fled to New York City when she was young.
There’s a good deal of Pam Grier in Oreo. Tired of watching men beat women with impunity, she develops a system of self-defense she calls “the Way of the Interstitial Thrust, or WIT.” She deploys WIT in so many ways.
In one scene, on the prowl for her dad, she steals a pimp’s cane and gives him “a grand-slam clout” across the rear: “If his howl meant anything, it meant that he was now the only person on the block with four cheeks to sit on.” She grows pretty fearsome, for a little thing.
About what happens when Louise is at the stove, we read: “Five people in the neighborhood went insane from the bouquets that wafted to them from Louise’s kitchen. The tongues of two men macerated in the overload from their salivary glands. Three men and a woman had to be chained up by their families.”
When Oreo hands out some of Louise’s food on a train near Trenton, “groans and moans were heard amidst all the fressing.” There are spontaneous orgasms among the eaters. Food provides a lot of this novel’s offbeat imagery. In one scene Oreo grows so hungry she thinks to herself about deprivation: “It was what General Mills must go through when Betty Crocker was in mittelschmerz,” pain from ovulation.
It’s tempting to keep quoting Ms. Ross. Her throwaway lines have more zing than most comic writers’ studied arias. When Oreo enters a New York City luncheonette for “a hot-sausage sandwich, a Shabazz bean pie and a Pepsi,” for example, she finds herself studying the woman behind the counter, who is reading a magazine.
“Oreo did a double-take. Vogue? She had misjudged the woman. Harper’s Bazaar, yes; Vogue, no, she would have sworn. Oreo now saw that she had missed the gaining-circulation squint of the eyes, the condé nast flare of the nostrils. Oreo was disappointed in herself. It was like mixing up the Brontës.” These lines sent a flare up my own nostrils.
“Oreo” is acid social criticism, potent because it is lightly worn. One of the advantages of Philadelphia over New York City, Oreo comments, is that Philadelphia has “red and white police cars so you can shout, ‘Look out, the red devil’s coming!’ ” She makes the case that coily hair (she prefers this phrase to “kinky hair”) is a clear evolutionary improvement over straight because coily hair keeps your head cool in summer, warm in winter and protects “from concussions by absorbing the shock of blows to the head.”
Ms. Ross takes a cultivated and nearly Nabokovian joy in the English language. She turns the words “friedan,” as in Betty, and “kuklux” into verbs. She arrives at the following collective noun: “a rothschild of rich people.” She bruits the notion of “an emergency semicolon.” Even the puns click. Oreo is warned to look out for rock outcroppings on her travels because “Manhattan is full of schist.”
Ms. Ross, who worked in publishing, wrote for Essence and other magazines and lived near Zabar’s in the same building as Jules Feiffer, died in 1985 at 50. It’s a great loss that we never got another novel from her.
For this reissue, we owe a debt to Ms. Senna and to the novelist Paul Beatty, who sang this novel’s praises in his influential anthology “Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor” (2006).
In his introduction to that book, Mr. Beatty wrote about feeling browbeaten, as a young man, by many canonical works by black writers. He spoke of missing “the black bon mot, the snap, the bag, the whimsy” upon which righteous anger and freedom take flight.
“Oreo” has snap and whimsy to burn. It’s a nonstop outbound flight to a certain kind of readerly bliss. It may have been first published more than 40 years ago, but its time is now. -


Fran Ross' Oreo is one of the funniest books I've ever read, but I've never quoted it. To do so, I would have to put quotations before the first page and then again at the last. Instead, I just use the words so many others who have been privileged to encounter Oreo use to describe it: hilarious, uproarious, insane. But these adjectives don't do it justice either. To convey Oreo's humor effectively, I would have to use the comedic graphs, menus and quizzes Ross uses in the novel. So instead, I just settle for, "You have to read this," and from just the first page they see what I mean.
Oreo is the story of the biracial daughter of an African-American woman and Jewish father, a man named Samuel Schwartz, who disappeared when she was an infant, leaving behind only a note that told her to later seek him and the mystery of her birth. When as an adult Oreo leaves her native Philadelphia on a quest to New York City in search of Sam Schwartz, she finds instead several sharing that name in the phone book. Soon Oreo is pulled into an adventure that mirrors the Greek tale of Theseus' journey into the Labyrinth, where the vehicle toward humor is the quirks of language in Jewish and black culture and every turn takes the reader deeper into the satire and into the heart of the absurdities of American identity.
As funny as the novel Oreo is — and it is very, very funny — it was ignored during its era. But it is easy to see how such a smart, hilarious novel could escape notice. There are books, great books, that appear at a time when no one is ready to read them. Oreo arrived in 1974, during the height of the Black Power movement with its focus on an African-based identity and black male power. A novel about a biracial woman's search for her Jewish identity, complete with Yiddish word jokes and a structure based around Greek mythology, was about as far away from what was expected of a black writer as possible. Biracial identity didn't even truly exist in the popular imagination at the time of the book's publication: If you were mixed you were considered black, and if you fought that you were branded an Oreo — white on the inside, black on the outside — a joke Ross embraced in the title character.
Oreo is at its core a feminist odyssey, but it came eight years before the publication of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, at a time when feminism was still viewed as largely a white-woman's movement. And most problematic in finding an audience during its time, Oreo is the ultimate idiosyncratic novel, as poet Harryette Mullen, who was largely responsible for bringing it back into print and cult status in 2000, called it. A truly original view of our world is what we yearn for in fiction, but sometimes when something is so original, so many years ahead of its time, it takes time for the audience to catch up to it. It's a statement of how far we've come that for this quirky, hilarious, odd, little biracial black book, that time is now. - Mat Johnson


It may come as a surprise to many readers of Fran Ross’s Oreo, recently rereleased by New Directions, that upon the book’s first appearance in 1974, the story failed to find its audience. Oreo has something for everyone: It is a minefield of irreverent wit, with laughs detonating from every paragraph; it is a picaresque adventure, heralding one of the most badass-yet-endearing heroines ever to swagger across the pages of world literature; it is a self-reflexive ode to reading, a Janusian nod to literary tradition which boldly proclaims its own originality; it is a (multi)cultural satire still—and perhaps even more—resonant in contemporary American society; and it is a linguistic experiment, a polymeric admixture of neologisms, word play, euphemisms, semantic puzzles, and code-switching, which, with an ear to the music embedded in spoken language, trips along like poetry.
How, then, could such a soaring literary achievement have been forgotten, left out not only from the canon of the Black Arts movement—which, by carving out that intersection between popular culture and a serious interrogation of racial identity, staked out prime literary real estate for Oreo—but also ignored by any index of those works which articulate a uniquely American voice? Danzy Senna, in her introduction, ventures a convincing answer, by comparing Oreo with its contemporaneous counterpart, Alex Haley’s bestselling Roots: “Roots looks toward the past. It offers black people an origin story, an imagined moment of racial purity…It constructs a lost utopia for us and a clear fall from Eden, Africa. Oreo, from the title alone and its first loony pages, suggests murkier, more polluted racial waters.”
Indeed, Oreo eschews the easy explanations of myth and therefore resists any comparisons which would have made it commercially palatable. It is a quest narrative which only leads us further into the labyrinth while seeming to thrill in getting hopelessly lost. “Oreo,” as the book’s epigraph defines the term, refers to “[s]omeone who is black on the outside and white on the inside.” It is also the name of our plucky heroine, who does not exactly fit this description (and whose nickname comes from an altogether different and more amusing linguistic source), but who is racially mixed, the offspring of a black mother, Helen Clark, and a Jewish father, Samuel Schwartz. The story bounces back and forth among anecdotes describing Oreo’s quirky family members and acquaintances, particularly Louise and the catatonic James Clark, her maternal grandparents and caretakers. That is, until Oreo comes of age and her mother hands over a list of clues left by her father tolead her back to him and the secret of her birth.
From here, the narrative whirls Oreo into the heart of New York City, where a series of encounters serves mainly to highlight the cultural diversity of this condensed urban landscape – if only hyperbolically. Thus many of the characters amount to types who, in pure Vaudevillian fashion, are defined by their idiosyncrasies (quite often consisting of offbeat speech patterns) and quickly fall by the wayside as Oreo, pronouncing upon the scene with the observations of a stand-up comic, proceeds to her next test.
Nevertheless, Oreo herself is an imposing character. In the vein of the quintessential mythical hero, she possesses every skill which is indispensable in her quest: She is a whiz with numbers and puzzles. She is a precocious imitator, peppering her thoughts and speech with borrowings from Yiddish, French and Latin (not here defined, but easily discernible in context), threading her register with scholarly allusions and the individual vernaculars she assimilates with ease. And, she seems to possess a herculean strength, or at least a physical prowess which finds its expression in a martial art of her own creation, with moves she dubs “hed-lok,” “shu-kik,” “bal-brāc,” and “fut-strīk,” among others.
Yet as unbelievable as it may be to unite these talents in a single character, it would seem Ross paid close attention to heredity, linking each of Oreo’s traits to one which is comically displayed by one or another member of her motley family. It is as if Oreo represents the embodiment of American hybridity, that complex alloy out of which our cultural mettle is forged and hardened. It is also worth noting that Ross herself was quite the prodigy, excelling at both academics and athletics at a predominantly Jewish high school before graduating at fifteen and attending Temple University on scholarship.. She went on to work as a proofreader and editor before writing this, her only book, and thereafter  became a comedy writer for the Richard Pryor Show (xiv-xvi). One cannot help but see Oreo as a reflection of the author’s own background, in particular of her intellectual horsepower and wide-ranging interests.
Yet despite Ross’s clearly formidable intelligence—or perhaps because of it—she does not underestimate her readers. The novel abounds with literary allusions, most notably that of the Greek myth of Theseus from which the plot is recast. Much of the humor depends upon this flinging down of past literary idols and is delivered with the wink signaling a frame of reference shared between bibliophiles. Ever aware of its own place within this literary heritage, of itself as a text, Oreo impishly cherry-picks the western canon to create a new classic. Anyone who has ever taken a college literature course will delight in Ross’s clever use of character lists, summary, and self-interpretation—particularly the epilogue, titled “A Key for Speed Readers, Nonclassicists, Etc.”—which combine to form a sort of CliffsNotes guide comically embedded in the book it purports to explain.
But it is language that is the star of this book. Readers will find themselves wanting to return to sentences over and over again, if only to replay footage of Ross’s feats of lexical acrobatics, which seem almost effortless. Indeed, the musicality of the text is so engrossing that puns, allusions, and other asides often slip by unnoticed:
Her eyeballs were hot globes of tapioca. She breathed in flues of fire without flame, exhaled dragon blasts, stirring up sultry harmattans in her private sudatorium. The wax in her ears was turning to honey. Liquid threads were in conflux at her belly button (an “inny”), which held a pondlet of sweat. Pores of unknown provenance opened and emptied, sending deltas of dross toward her navel’s shore.
Even to give an overview of Oreo’s Joycean innovation would require an entire dissertation, despite the slimness of the novel. It suffices to say that this is the work of an author with an ear fine-tuned to that peculiarly American idiom, an author fundamentally aware of language as creative force. In fact, the novel’s end shows Oreo’s entire quest to have been linguistic: Language is the puzzle not only of Oreo’s identity but of American identity writ large, and the sobering themes laid bare by this seemingly innocent riddle—race, ethnicity, feminism, otherness, urban violence—remain ripe for unraveling even today.
For this reason, the puzzle at the heart of Oreo remains unsolved, and perhaps, as Senna argues in her introduction, that is the reason for its bewildered reception in 1974. Nevertheless, that is precisely why the novel will endure, greeting each new generation of readers with its continuing relevance, its edginess which resists smoothing down, and its unsettling questions, which further probe that unfinished experiment that is American culture. - Amanda Sarasien

Fran Ross’s 1974 novel Oreo, rereleased this year thanks to New Directions, is really damn funny if you get the jokes. They only come fast and smart, and Ross will sometimes generously explain them to her readers, like in this scene where the eponymous heroine teases her English tutor:
Oreo overheard him mumbling happily to himself about the many joyous conflations he and his new [girl]friend had had together. That one was easy for Oreo to figure out. “Conflation, from conflare, ‘to blow together,’” she said to herself. ‘Oh, shit. The professor’s just talking about plain old sixty-nine.”
It’s nice to see the humor pulled out of the book; you can somehow grow inured to it when hit with these wisecracks every other sentence.
A comical reworking of the myth of Theseus, Oreo is a story told in fragments and formal experiments. In brief, comic episodes, scenes, and, sometimes, restaurant menus and math tests, Ross cracks jokes and builds an image of her lead, the young black Jewish woman Christine Clark AKA Oreo, as she sojourns to discover the “secret of her birth.” Through a ludicrous romp of sleuthing, Oreo follows a series of ridiculous clues left by her father on a coffee stained list in an attempt to find him and, by extension, the secret. Armed with her Thesean sword and sandals, a mezuzah on a chain (containing a New Testament passage no less!) and a pair of socks to keep warm, Oreo’s journey takes her all over Manhattan — stinky cheese shops in the Village to a Harlem brothel — concluding the novel with a mythic suicide and some role play at a sperm bank.
Ross’s approach to humor is as much distinct as it is distinctive of the time, at least to the new crop of readers whose image of American humor in the mid-1970s is most likely what they received in their parents’ nostalgic sharings of the male-dominated, often Jewish vaudevillian, comedy canon: Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (both 1974); Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971) and Sleeper (1973); and the comedy albums of Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Cheech & Chong, and National Lampoon. The novel’s jokes range from crude play with etymology, as seen in the above crack, to the playful turns of mocking absurdity that made Groucho Marx famous: upon meeting his daughter for the first time, Oreo’s father happily notes “You have my eyes,” and Oreo’s response? “I was going to say the same thing to you.” Ross leaves it to the reader to imagine Oreo tapping her cane (which, yes, she is carrying around Manhattan) after this line. In this comic tradition, the humor works as a kind of identitarian smokescreen, as if to say, “Who am I? Someone cleverer than you, and that’s all you need to know.”
The crude and obvious contemporary connection this reviewer would draw to Ross’s work would be Ishmael Reed’s outlandish and sharp satirical novels, such as Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and Flight to Canada (1976). Yet there seems to be something altogether different in Ross’s project. To speak generally, that is, reductively, Reed examines culture on the macro-level as a network of mythologies, identities (racial, gendered, national, and so on), and telecommunication waves. Ross examines culture on the micro-level of individuals acting in the world, making themselves, and, most importantly, having fun with the structural orders that make culture and identity — most especially language. One of the more important and fascinating differences this makes on Ross’s novel is the relationship she builds between her reader(s) and the work, the characters, and herself as the writer.
At the introduction of the novel’s biracial heroine, Ross positions the reader: “A secret cauled Christine’s birth. This is her story — let her discover it.” A cute pun followed by terse, if chuckled, warning to back off. Readers can take this tone as a microcosm for the whole of Oreo — a tale of a black American Jewish woman, who mixed ethnic and racial identities match America’s favorites for (comedic) entertainment. And here I am, a white American goy, being told that Christine’s story is a secret not for me to know before she figures it out.
Ross’s novel offers readers an unending stream of snort-worthy punchlines with implicit boundaries for who can access this story and how they can. Oreo is Christine’s story, and it is for her (read: Fran Ross) and nobody else. Black and Jewish readers probably have more to gain from such a story than readers like me: more aesthetic satisfaction, more bite to the humor, less time spent looking up Yiddish words. But the most significance seems to come from Ross’s claim of her protagonist’s independence from those enjoying the representation of her life. We can watch and laugh if we want to — but never forget that Ross’s life is not for us.
Ross plays with the desires to make certain peoples and their bodies legible according to cultural standards, similar to the way Oreo messes with a perverted caller posing as a medical doctor asking about her age, underwear choices, and virginity. When he asks the fourteen-year-old Christine to tell him “all the words [she] know[s] that mean sexual intercourse,” she casts a “wicked smile” and says, “Certainly. Procreation, cohabitation, coition, coitus.” Knowing she’s mockingly tapped into wrong vocabulary and frustrated him, she then tells the pervert what he wants to hear: “a lot of words that begin with p and c and t and x, that rhyme with bunt and pooky and noontang.” Manipulating and controlling this heavy-breathing perv with her knowledge of language, expectations, and patriarchy, Oreo convinces the caller, salivating with lust, to come to her house, only to greet him with her own specially-developed mixed-martial art: “Way of the Interstitial Thrust.”
Oreo knows how to make herself into whatever she wants to be by playing with the ways those around her perceive her; except that the joke is on them, the kick to the groin is for them, and the laughs are for her. Even the reader, who certainly gets their laughs, is not wholly allowed into her world. When the horny doctor asks for Oreo’s address, Ross doesn’t give her reader a street and house number in the dialogue, instead merely writing: “She gave him her address.” Ross reminds the reader that they are not in charge of this phone call, Christine’s Thesean journey, the language and pop-culture-referential play, or the novel itself. We readers should just be happy to be here.
Am I disingenuously reading a particular politics into Oreo? Totally possible. Ross probably mostly wanted to write a funny novel and make some cash. Such a theory would be supported by Haryette Mullen’s excellent new forward to the novel: struggling to make it as a comedy writer, Ross tries her hand at this ridiculous pile of ink and tree pulp so many people seem to be paying money for. It’s a good way to make a buck when you’ve got a quick wit, and “yucks for bucks” doesn’t necessarily mean political resistance or revolution. But, even so, mythology is more than just Ross’s narrative inspiration for this novel; isn’t mythology in a Barthesian sense the basis of great comedy? Our most revered comedians often play with what we think we know, otherwise known as lies we tell as if they’re truths (such as, stereotypes of black and Jewish women), to discover the sometimes joyful surprise that we were mistaken or that our myths are more fiction than axiom. This play with mythology is often as tragic as it is comedic, but it seems fair to assume that there’s always a political relevance.
Full of jokes on and with the bourgeoisie — clearly the demographic of cultural capital holding gut-busters Ross is writing for — the novel can so easily pull such a reader into the humor. Pages fly by with quips from precocious and insistently impatient characters, and, at the end, this reader can’t help but feel he just sat down and, following the suggestion of junk food in the novel’s title, gave the business to a bag of barbeque-flavored potato chips: staring into the middle distance, chuckling through the gum-cutting soggy debris of fried potato slices, reaching to the bottom of the empty wrinkled reflection-less mirror bag only to come up with my own fingers covered in delicious brown and orange flavor dust.
I am the readerly Janus head of stuffed and starved, pleased and disgusted. Ross certainly came, but how about you, reader? I don’t think Ross, Christine/Oreo, Helen, or any of the women in the novel particularly care about how the reader feels. Oreo is for its readers’ consumption, their over-satisfied stomach aches and plastic sleeves with only the sooty remains of cream-filled chocolate cookie sandwiches are their own business. I picked up Ross’s book, Oreo learned the secret of her birth, and I laughed my ass off, anyway. -         


“A brilliant and biting satire, a feminist picaresque, absurd, unsettling, and hilarious ... Ross' novel, with its Joycean language games and keen social critique, is as playful as it is profound. Criminally overlooked. A knockout.” (Kirkus (Starred Review))

“With its mix of vernacular dialects, bilingual and ethnic humor, inside jokes, neologisms, verbal quirks, and linguistic oddities, Ross's novel dazzles…” (Harryette Mullen)

“It took me two years to "feel" Wu Tang's first album, even longer to appreciate Basquiat, and I still don't get all the fuss over Duke Ellington and Frank Lloyd Wright. But I couldn't believe Oreo hadn't been on my cultural radar.” (Paul Beatty - The New York Times)

“Hilarious, touching and a future classic.” (Vanity Fair)

“Think: Thomas Pynchon meets Don Quixote, mixed with a crack joke crafter. I'm not sure I've ever admired a book's inventiveness and soul more.” (John Warner - Chicago Tribune)

“The novel will endure, greeting each new generation of readers with its continuing relevance.” (Amanda Sarasien - The Literary Review)

“Hilariously offbeat. ” (Essence Magazine)

“This is a novel that refuses to be categorized or tamed in any way.” (Bookforum)

Oreo has snap and whimsy to burn. It’s a nonstop outbound flight to a certain kind of readerly bliss. It may have been first published more than 40 years ago, but its time is now.” (Dwight Garner - The New York Times)

“Uproariously funny…criminally neglected.” (Stephen Sparks - LitHub)


Excerpt:


First, the bad news
When Frieda Schwartz heard from her Shmuel that he was (a) marrying a black girl, the blood soughed and staggered in all her conduits as she pictured the chiaroscuro of the white-satin chuppa and the shvartze's skin; when he told her that he was (b) dropping out of school and would therefore never become a certified public accountant — Riboyne Shel O'lem! — she let out a great geshrei and dropped dead of a racist/my-son-the-bum coronary.
The bad news (cont'd)
When James Clark heard from the sweet lips of Helen (Honeychile) Clark that she was going to wed a Jew-boy and would soon be Helen (Honeychile) Schwartz, he managed to croak one anti-Semitic "Goldberg!" before he turned to stone, as it were, in his straight-backed chair, his body a rigid half swastika,
oreosw
discounting, of course, head, hands, and feet.
Major and minor characters in part one of this book, in order of birth.
Jacob Schwartz, the heroine's paternal grandfather
Frieda Schwartz, his wife (died in paragraph one but still, in her own quiet way, a power and a force)
James Clark, the heroine's maternal grandfather (immobilized in paragraph two)
Louise Butler Clark, the heroine's maternal grandmother (two weeks younger than her husband)
Samuel Schwartz, the heroine's father
Helen Clark Schwartz, the heroine's mother
Christine (Oreo), the heroine
Moishe (Jimmie C.), the heroine's brother
Concerning a few of the characters, an apercu or two
Jacob: He makes boxes ("Jake the Box Man, A Boxeleh for Every Tchotchkeleh"). As he often says, "It's a living. I mutche along." Translation: I am, kayn aynhoreh, a very rich man."
James and Louise: In the DNA crapshoot for skin color, when the die was cast, so was the dye. James came out nearest the color of the pips (on the scale opposite, he is a 10), his wife the cube. Louise is fair, very fair, an albino manquee (a just-off-the-scale -1). James is a shrewd businessman, Louise one of the great cooks of our time.
Samuel Schwartz: Just another pretty face.
Helen Clark: Singer, pianist, mimic, math freak (a 4 on the color scale).
graph
NOTE: There is no "very black." Only white people use this term. To blacks, "black" is black enough (and in most cases too black, since the majority of black people are not nearly so black as your black pocketbook). If a black person says, "John is very black," he is referring to John's politics, not his skin color.
A word about the weather
There is no weather per se in this book. Passing reference is made to weather in a few instances. Assume whatever season you like throughout. Summer makes the most sense in a book of this length. That way, pages do not have to be used up describing people taking off and putting on overcoats.
The life story of James and Louise up to the marriage of Helen and Samuel
In 1919, when they were both five years old, little James and little Louise moved to Philadelphia with their parents, the Clarks and the Butlers, who were close friends, from a tiny hamlet outside a small village in Prince Edward County, Virginia. When they were eighteen, James and Louise married and had their first and only child, Helen, in the same year.
During World War II, James worked as a welder at Sun Shipyard in Chester, Pennsylvania. Every morning for three years, he would stop at Zipstein's Noshery to buy a pickle to take to work in his lunchbox. He would ask for a sour. Zipstein always gave him a half sour. From that time on, James hated Jews.
After the war, James had enough money saved to start his own mail-order business. He purposely cultivated a strictly Jewish clientele, whom he overcharged outrageously. He researched his market carefully; he studied Torah and Talmud, collected midrashim, quoted Rabbi Akiba — root and herb of all the jive-ass copy he wrote for the chrain-storm of flyers he left in Jewish neighborhoods. His first item sold like latkes. It was a set of dartboards, featuring (his copy read) "all the men you love to hate from Haman to Hitler." No middle-class Philadelphia Jew could show his face in his basement rec room if those dartboards weren't hanging there.
With this success as a foundation, James went on to tie-ins with other mail-order houses. He was able to offer his customers cheese blintzes for Shevuoth, handkerchiefs for Tisha Bov ("You'll cry a lot"), dreidels for Chanukah, gragers and hamantashen for Purim, wine goblets for Passover, honey for Rosh Hashanah, branches for Succoth ("Have the prettiest booth on your block"), and a recording of the Kol Nidre for Yom Kippur ("as sung by Tony Martin"). Next to each item in his catalog was a historico-religious paragraph for those who did not know the significance of the feasts and holidays. "You have to explain everything to these apikorsim," he told Louise, who said, "What say?" Over the years, his steadiest seller was the Jewish History Coloring Book series, including "the ever-popular Queen Esther, Ruth and Naomi, Judah and the Maccabees (add 50¢ for miniature plastic hammer), the Sanhedrin (the first Supreme Court), and other all-time Chosen People favorites." At last, his money worries were over. He was able to send Helen to college and buy Louise the gift of her dreams: a complete set of Tupperware (5,481 pieces).
Temple University, choir rehearsal
templegraph
As Helen sang her part in the chorale chorus Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, she constructed one of her typical head equations, based on the music's modalities and hers:
Simple, she conceded, compared with the overlapping fugal subject-answer-countersubject head equations that were her favorites — elegant, in fact, but not quite absorbing enough to keep her mind off the fact she was perspiring and wanted desperately to pee. Samuel, passing through the rehearsal hall, caught a glimpse of Helen's face and, mistaking her expression of barely controlled anguish for religious fervor, was himself seized with an emotion that mystics have often erroneously identified as ecstasy-cum-epiphany (vide Saul on the road to Damascus, Theresa of Avila every time you turn around): the hots. His accounting books fell to the floor.

Driss ben Hamed Charhadi - He was an illiterate shepherd and petty drug trafficker in Tangier. The book relates the story of Charhadi’s life in a fatalistic and unsentimental manner.

dris
Driss ben Hamed Charhadi, A Life full of Holes: A Novel Recorded and Translated by Paul Bowles, Harper Perennial, 2008.


One of the most unusual literary innovations ever produced, A Life Full of Holes is the result of a singular collaboration between two remarkable individuals: Driss ben Hamed Charhadi, an illiterate North African servant and street vendor, and legendary American novelist and essayist Paul Bowles. The powerful story of a shepherd and petty trafficker struggling to maintain hope as he wrestles with the grim realities of daily life, it is the first novel ever written in the Arabic dialect Moghrebi, faithfully recorded and translated into English by Bowles. Straightforward yet rich in complex emotions, it is a fascinating inside look at an unfamiliar culture—harsh and startling, yet interwoven with a poignant, poetic beauty.


The author of this book, Driss ben Hamed Charhadi, is an illiterate house servant in Tangier, Morocco. Despite his qualifications for the "Most Unlikely Novelist of Any Year Award," he has, with the aid of Paul Bowles's tape recorder "written" the first novel ever produced in Moghrebi, an Arabic dialect of North Africa. Mr. Bowles, a composer-author known for such novels as "The Sheltering Sky" and "Let It Come Down," says of his translation of Charhadi's taped book, "Nothing needed to be added, deleted or altered."
Charhadi's novel is a simply told narrative of the fight for survival by a boy named Ahmed (who might prove to be Charhadi himself if there were enough facts available about the author to make a comparison). The story begins when he is 8 years old--and his mother marries a man who does not want to support another man's child. It ends with Ahmed around the age of 20. In between he has worked at a variety of jobs--shepherd, baker's helper, watchman, housekeeper for a European pervert--and he has been in prison for theft. At the novel's close, he is not one franc farther away from starvation than when his story began. There is little hope that he will ever be. If Ahmed's life sounds unbearably depressing by our standards, it is not by the author's. "Even a life full of holes, a life of nothing but waiting, is better than no life at all." Ahmed is a fatalist. Since his life is in Allah's keeping, there is nothing he can do about his destiny: "It was all planned and written long ago. . .Whatever is written beforehand has to be gone through." Because of the story he has chosen to tell (and probably because Driss ben Hamed Charhadi has neither written nor read a single word in his entire life), the novel is little more than a series of episodes strung together by the simplest of declarative sentences. At first glance, the style calls to mind those unimaginative children's books which offer things like: "I see the cat. The cat sees me. Do you see the cat?" However, it is not long before the reader adjusts to the Charhadi salt-free fiction diet. One becomes aware of a poetical simplicity weaving through the blandness. On top of that comes the revelation of a natural story-teller at work, one who knows intuitively what to tell his audience and what to omit. Charhadi (or is it Bowles?) never digresses from the main theme of his narrative, Ahmed's daily fight to stay alive. Only in terms of this central thread will he introduce characters, places and events. Time is spanned by the simple statement, "Today and tomorrow, today and tomorrow. . . ." and the story picks up again a week or a month later--or wherever Charhadi instinctively knows it must be resumed. Two outstanding portions of this unique book deserve special mention. The first is a chapter entitled "The Wire," which tells of Ahmed's arrest and imprisonment for stealing from a warehouse. He spends 10 months in jail before sentence is passed on him. There are days when he lives with 80 men in one half of a cell while the prisoner in charge has the other half completely to himself. Guards continuously beat the inmates. Later, in solitary confinement, Ahmed is given only bread and must take his drinking water from the latrine. The continuous contrast of the brutal incidents related and the innocent style used to relate them leaves an indelible picture on the reader's mind. The final chapters devoted to Ahmed's work as houseboy to FranÁois, the French homosexual, though told with the same noun-plus-verb spareness, creates a fully detailed study of human decay. When Ahmed first goes to work for FranÁois, his employer is wealthy, living in a fine house, the owner of a successful business. Because of his fascination with a Moslem boy, whom he allows to rule him completely, he is stripped of everything. Continuous witness to his downfall is Ahmed, who never enters into this bizarre existence and never passes judgment on it. ("Everyone does what he pleases in life.") Ahmed is concerned with nothing but the 500 francs per day he receives for his work. It is a fascinating portrait of corruption seen through the world's most dispassionate eyes. In these two portions, as in the entire novel, Charhadi is concerned with fiction. However, it is as nonfiction that "A Life Full of Holes" will live longest with the American reader. Here is Morocco as seen from the bottom up by an observer too inexperienced to tell anything but the truth. It is a land where anything is tolerated, where anything is acceptable so long as a man can stay alive. Life may be cheap--but it is incredibly precious. The Charhadi-Bowles collaboration may seem like a gimmick at first glance. It is far from that. Taped, translated or what-have-you, this "novel" deserves bookshelf space far more than many conventional products of local literary laborers. Freedom
When a man goes out of jail it is the happiest day of his life. His heart is open and he is not afraid of anything. I said to myself: I'm going home and see my mother. When I got there she said: How are you? Have you really finished this time? Not just escaped? This time I've finished it. Another time you won't try to sell kif? Never again in my life! I told her.--"A Life Full of Holes."  - HASKEL FRANKEL


Have you ever considered what makes a story that is told different from a story that is written down? The most obvious one is your relationship to the person who is recounting the tale. In the case of a story that's been put down on paper, there is a sense of distance between the author and what they are recounting, while the story teller is more directly involved with his narration. Whether or not what they are telling you actually happened is irrelevant, their physical presence and the sound of their voice connects them to their story in a way that creates an intimacy that is hard to recreate with the written word.
It's been my experience that when a story that was originally told is converted into a written work it loses that sense of intimacy. However, that was before I read A Life Full Of Holes, published by Harper Collins Canada, a story told by Moroccan author Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi (the pen name of Larbi Layachi) that was recorded and translated by the great American writer Paul Bowles. Somehow or other, even though you are reading this story, it manages to capture the experience of having it told to you.
According to the introduction, this story was told to Bowles by Charhadi over the course of a couple of months. Charhadi would simply plunk himself down in front of the tape recorder and tell a section of the story without stopping or even pausing to think about what he was going to say next. Instead of adapting the story into something polished, Bowles elected to simply translate it from Charhadi's dialect as literally as possible without any editing.
A Life Full Of Holes is the of the story of Ahmed ben Said Haddari in Morocco. Told in the first person, the story follows him from early childhood through adolescence until adulthood. The picture that is painted is one of abject poverty and misery as he tells us of the various ways in which he tries to make a living, and the misadventures that befall him. From his step-father who refuses to feed him unless he goes to work when he's a child, the beatings he experiences at the hands of bullies, the racism he faces from the Europeans (referred to as Nazarenes in reference to the fact that their prophet Jesus was originally from Nazareth) who occupy and rule Morocco, to the times he spends in jail, his life is one long struggle to survive. Every time it looks like he might finally be getting his head above water something happens to pull him back under again.
What makes this story so powerful is the straightforward manner that Ahmed reports on what happens to him. Whether it's the prison guards stealing the food and cigarettes his mother has brought him in jail or him being arrested for being in possession of kif and his sentence being decided by a representative of the tobacco industry (they want people to smoke tobacco instead of kif and pressure judges into passing stiff sentences against kif users in order to discourage its use and force people to switch to their product), his various misfortunes are presented in a matter of fact manner that makes them seem like everyday occurrences that could and do befall everybody.
There is something about reading about injustices presented without emotion that makes them even more disturbing. It makes them seem like just another part of life that people have to deal with, and that nothing anybody does is going to make it any better. It doesn't seem to matter whether it's the Europeans or fellow Arabs in charge, as anybody whom Ahmed comes across who has some sort of power is corrupt in one way or another.
There is a pervasive element of fatalism that flows throughout A Life Full Of Holes that is personified by the way Ahmed and other characters accept their lot in life. "Allah wills it" – God wills it – eventually becomes his one solace against misfortune as it allows him to take whatever comes his way with a certain level of equanimity. There's no point in getting upset about being sentenced to jail for three years for something you didn't do, because there's nothing you can do about it anyway. If its God's will that you're going to spend that time in jail, you might as well just try to make the best of a bad situation instead of giving yourself aggravation by fighting the inevitable.
What really gives this book its power though is the fact that in spite of it being written out, you still have the sense that the story is being told to you. While Charhadi electing to tell it from the point of view of his lead character in the first person helps create that impression, the fact that it is told completely in the present tense gives it an immediacy that's normally lacking in a written narrative. Each stage of Ahmed's life is recounted while he is living it, so we are experiencing it at the same time he does with none of the usual division between characters and readers.
A Life Full Of Holes is not only a powerful and slightly horrifying portrayal of life for the poorest of the poor in colonial Morocco in the 1960s, it's also a brilliant example of how it's possible to recreate the magic and immediacy of oral story-telling in writing. Most times when people write out a story that's been told to them they tend to adapt it to meet the needs of the novel form. That's not been the case here, and the result is something truly unique and special. - Richard Marcus


Paul Bowles first began translating the stories of contemporary native Moroccans in 1952, transcribing by hand the tales of Ahmed Yacoubi, several of which appeared in Evergreen Review. In the early 1960's, with the aid of a tape recorder, Bowles decided to pursue the preservation of Maghrebi oral literature. This decision was prompted in part by Bowles' acquaintance with Larbi Layachi, a young Moroccan who was working as a watchman at a café at nearby Merkala Beach. Layachi, although illiterate and not a "storyteller" in the true Arabic tradition, proved to be a master of the tautly spun narrative, and his story, obviously nothing more than thinly veiled autobiography, is told with the same stark, unembellished point of view that formed the basis of the Italian neo-realist cinema, yet virtually without pathos, sentimentality or moralizing of any sort. Basically left to fend for himself at the age of eight, Layachi works a series of jobs as shepherd, baker's helper, laborer, watchman, houseboy to a "Nazarene" gay couple, and as a petty trafficker in kif in the rough-and-tumble streets of Tangier at the cusp of post-colonialism, eventually winding up in jail, sentenced to hard labor in a rock quarry. Adversity raises its Medusa-like head on every other page, in the form of betrayal, denunciation, false accusations, uninformed decisions, corruption, or just plain bad luck, of which Layachi obviously had a very generous helping.
Whereas the typical westerner might have difficulty supporting Layachi's dogged fatalism in the face of constant defeat, failure, frustration and setbacks, the majority of which do seem to be of an unjust nature (despite Layachi's at times pathological tendency to blur the parameters of right and wrong), it's Layachi's very determination to go on no matter what that gives A Life Full of Holes its extremely positive and life-confirming slant. To survive such an uncompromisingly negative chain of events without becoming a burned-out, apathetic nihilist is a true test of faith. And while the Koran is frequently cited to explain or justify particularly heavy blows of fate or irrational human behavior ("It's the will of Allah," etc.), it's also Layachi's ironic and cynical sense of humor that serves as a buffer between himself and life's harder edges and as a comic foil against the perpetrators of ill will. Compellingly told and packed with detail, Layachi's story of survival is also one of simple poetry. - Mark Terrill    





Category: An illiterate writer resigned to being unread
Charhadi (the pseudonym of Larbi Layachi) is the second writer on this list affiliated with Paul Bowles. He was an illiterate shepherd and petty drug trafficker in Tangier whose story, A Life full of Holes, was recorded, transcribed, and translated by Bowles. It was the first book produced in Maghrebi, an Arabic dialect of Northern Africa, and relates the story of Charhadi’s life in a fatalistic and unsentimental manner.

10/29/15

Elena Poniatowska "reports"" the life story falling somewhere between fact and fiction, and based on a series of interviews of a poverty-stricken but amazingly independent woman

59200


Elena Poniatowska, Here's to You, Jesusa!, Trans. by Deanna Heikkinen, Penguin Books, 2002. [1969.]           
Chapter One

A remarkable novel that uniquely melds journalism with fiction, by Elena Poniatowska, the recipient of the prestigious 2013 Cervantes Prize

Jesusa is a tough, fiery character based on a real working-class Mexican woman whose life spanned some of the seminal events of early twentieth-century Mexican history. Having joined a cavalry unit during the Mexican Revolution, she finds herself at the Revolution's end in Mexico City, far from her native Oaxaca, abandoned by her husband and working menial jobs. So begins Jesusa's long history of encounters with the police and struggles against authority. Mystical yet practical, undaunted by hardship, Jesusa faces the obstacles in her path with gritty determination.
Here in its first English translation, Elena Poniatowska's rich, sensitive, and compelling blend of documentary and fiction provides a unique perspective on history and the place of women in twentieth-century Mexico.




Originally published in Mexico in 1969, this passionate and unflinching classic deserves a warm reception upon its belated publication in English. In the Latin American tradition of the testimonial novel, acclaimed Mexican author and journalist Poniatowska "reports"" the life story falling somewhere between fact and fiction, and based on a series of interviews of a poverty-stricken but amazingly independent woman. Left motherless and with a roaming father in impoverished turn-of-the-century Oaxaca, Jesusa is married at age 15 to an abusive cavalry captain during the Mexican revolution. Always a tomboy, she turns increasingly irascible, vindictive and opinionated, everything a Mexican woman of her time is not supposed to be. When her husband is killed three years after their marriage, Jesusa remakes herself repeatedly, taking on various trades to support herself. She repudiates modern life, has several run-ins with the law and takes comfort in an eccentric religion. As an independent woman at the beginning of the century, she is something of a pioneer and role model, though her eccentric ways leave her lonely and solitary. Because Jesusa, whose real name was Josefina B""rquez, didn't allow herself to be tape-recorded, Poniatowska painstakingly transcribed her story. The result is one long breathtaking monologue, its only plot the incredible life story of its protagonist. Poniatowska never intrudes, but the warmth she feels for Jesusa infuses the sentimental introduction and spills over into the text. Both women benefit from their unusual relationship, Jesusa validating Poniatowska's Mexican existence and Poniatowska saving Jesusa from anonymity. Loss, alienation and hardship are palpable in the narrative, ably translated by Heikkinen, yet faith in survival and self makes this a life-affirming tale. - Publishers Weekly


Elena Poniatowska’s testimonial novel is based on extensive interviews carried out between 1963 and 1964, with Josefina Bórquez, an elderly Mexican woman. Through the novel, Josefina morphs into the character Jesusa Palancares as Poniatowska pieces together her ethnographic field-notes into a narrative that shifts between Spiritualist visions and surreal recollections of a life lived in bars and on the battlefield. Jesusa works as a domestic servant, in factories making boxes, and as a professional drinker, betting on herself to out-drink the men. At night she makes a space for herself where she can: in a woman’s prison, on the frozen ground of the army camp, along a narrow balcony, or in the corner of a stranger’s courtyard.
In such a precarious life, there are few moments of rest, as Poniatowska discovers when she tries to interview Josefina. There is no time to talk, only time to work (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: viii). She alone ensures her survival (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: 101, 132).
Survival means staying afloat, breathing calmly, even if it is only for a moment in the evening when the chickens no longer cackle in their cages and the cat stretches out on the trampled earth. (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: xiii)
Jesusa is a fighter, ‘fiercer than a female fighting cock’ (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: 155). She endures life on the battlefield, first with her father and then with her abusive husband, neither of whom survive the Revolution. She relishes the tough life of a soldadera (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: 212, xvii), and returns to army life when the opportunity presents. Her father once gave her gunpowder water to make her brave (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: 5), and it seemed to work.
Her dignity is essential to her survival. She is fiercely proud, refusing to drink coffee grounds or eat bean soup (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: 241), to be treated as poor. Neither charity nor friendship suit her: ‘Her isolation is striking’ (Franco 1989: 179). At the end of her life, she does not falter: ‘She died as she lived, rebellious, obstinate, fierce. She threw the priest out, she threw the doctor out’ (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: xx).
Nevertheless, Poniatowska, in her account of the interview process and the two women’s cautious friendship, recalls moments of tenderness and tranquility: settling the chickens on the narrow bed; examining the dolls Josefina bought for herself but kept wrapped up; the exchanging of postcards while Poniatowska travels to France. More than anything else, Josefina is revived by the telling of her story:
On Wednesday afternoons, as the sun set and the blue sky changed to orange, in that semidark little room, in the midst of the shrieking of the children, the slamming doors, the shouting, and the radio going full blast, another life emerged – that of Jesusa Palancares, the one that she relived as she retold it. Through a tiny crack, we watched the sky, its colors, blue, then orange, and finally black. A silver of sky. I squinted so my gaze would fit through that crack, and we would enter the other life. (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: xiii)
Through the construction of her own version of events, Josefina places herself at the centre of her world. After a life lived in the shadows, dismissed by those a few rungs up the social ladder, she is able to speak her truth, account for her actions. Once the book is published, Josefina asks Poniatowska for twenty copies to give to men in the neighbourhood, ‘so they’d know about her life, the many precipices she had crossed’ (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: xx).
As a testimonial novel, Here’s to You Jesusa is concerned to honour and enable the voices of those absent from the literary canon. Testimonial literature seeks to represent the social and political experience of the illiterate, the prisoner, the slave descendent, the trade-unionist, the member of the pueblos originarios, the slum-dweller, etc.; in short, all those who exist at the margins of Latin American society. Through testimony, such works seek to raise awareness and to promote social and political change. - earthandstarrs.blogspot.hr/2009/02/elena-poniatowska-heres-to-you-jesusa.html

This is a phenomenal story of a woman's search for identity in the volatile years of the Mexican Revolution. The story follows Jesusa from her earliest memories in a countryside with her family, to the life of a working-class elderly woman in the maze of Mexico City. The reader sees it all, from the peace of childhood to the discovery of her spirituality to industrialization. It seems as though Poniatowska creates Jesusa's narrative to serve as a metaphor for Mexico and what it is experiencing politically, socially, and psychologically at this time. Jesusa is the heroine of the story and, although she is at times so outrageous and difficult to understand, her strength, humor and sense of self give the first-person narrative such an overwhelming authority. For instance:

"Me, imprisoned in my pots and pans, but I'm not much of a fighter anymore or as mean on the streets now, because I got old and now my blood doesn't boil and I've lost my strength and my hair fell out and I just have pegs for teeth, I'd scratch myself, but I don't have any fingernails left after so many came out in the laundry sink. And here I am now, just waiting for it to strike five in the morning because I can't sleep and it all comes back to me, everything I've been through since I was little and I walked around barefoot, fighting in the Revolution like playing blindman's bluff, being beaten, more unwrapped each time in this fucked up life."
Poniatowska is most famous for a collection of memories from surivors of the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968, "Massacre in Mexico." Because of her career as both a novelist and journalist her works combine fiction and documentary forms such as archival pictures, oral histories, and interviews. The introduction of Here's To You Jesusa! has a detailed account of interviews between Poniatowska and a woman that Jesusa's character is based on. This is an extremely compelling and heart-wrenching novel and I highly recommend it. - 7sistersbooknook.blogspot.hr/2006/11/heres-to-you-jesusa.html



Elena Poniatowska, Massacre in Mexico, University of Missouri; Reprint edition, 1991.


Elena Poniatowska's gripping account of the massacre of student protesters by police at the 1968 Olympic Games, which Publishers Weekly claimed "makes the campus killings at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970 pale by comparison."


During the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City, 10,000 students gathered in a residential area called Tlatelolco to peacefully protest their nation's one-party government and lack of political freedom. In response, the police and the military cold-bloodedly shot and bayoneted to death an estimated 325 unarmed Mexican youths. Now available in paper is Elena Poniatowska's gripping account of the Tlatelolco tragedy, which Publishers Weekly claimed "makes the campus killings at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970 pale by comparison."
"This is a story that has not been effectively told before," said Kirkus Reviews. "Call it the grito of Tlatelolco, a cry of protest and the subjective manifesto of Mexico's suppressed, potentially explosive, middle-class dissenters." In this heartbreaking chronicle, Elena Poniatowska has assembled a montage of testimony drawn over a three-year period from eyewitness accounts by surviving students, parents, journalists, professors, priests, police, soldiers, and bystanders to re-create the chaotic optimism of the demonstrations, as well as the terror and shock of the massacre.
Massacre in Mexico remains a critical source for examining the collective consciousness of Mexico. As Library Journal so aptly stated, "While the 'Tlatelolco Massacre' is the central theme of this study, the larger tragedy is reflected, and we see a nation whose government resorts to demagoguery rather than constructive action while it maintains and protects the privileged position of the new 'revolutionary' elite." Octavio Paz's incisive introduction underscores the inability of the Mexican government to deal with the socio-economic realities of the Mexican nation.
Students and scholars of Mexican culture, historians, sociologists, and others who seek to interpret aspects of that country's national reality will find this book to be invaluable.


On the Tlatelolco massacre, Poniatowska achieves two things. One, is that she documents the utter chaos of the killings. Second, she makes clear the immense level of organization there was to the killings. Lets start with the chaos. This comes mostly from the initial reactions of those who were there. There is the anthropologist, Magarita Nolasco, who can’t wrap her head around the amount of blood that is spilled. She uses the word “sticky”, and indeed to track the amount of times the word “blood” is used in her account helps that detail “stick” in a reader’s mind. Nolasco also notes the indistinguishable bodies piling up, how she thought any one of them might be her son. Then, there is Jose Ramiro Munoz’s story of his confusion when his friend never returned from the Plaza. One mother, Elvira B. de Concheiro expressed how dumbfounded she was when the helicopter began firing-like in a movie. She stated, “I wandered around in a daze….until finally someone grabbed me by the arm and stopped me” (Resistance, 143).
The above referenced accounts all evoke chaos. There is lots of gunfire, lots of blood, bullets, bodies, people running in all directions. Certainly, it is traumatic to imagine hiding behind a pillar while those around you are shot to death. It is horrifying not to know whether your son is dead or not. The chaos of the massacre that Poniatowska captures highlights half of the horror from the killing.
The other horrific half is the organization of the events on October, 2, 1968. Most notable is the soldier, Ernesto Morales Soto’s, account. He gives details of the night as if it was a grocery list. For him perhaps it was, because it was simply his orders. He was ordered to wear white gloves to distinguish himself from civilians, and seal off two entrances to “prevent anyone from entering or leaving” (Resistance, 141). These were his orders. The killing was planned. That in itself is horrific, haunting, and calculated. Then, there is the business of the helicopter that uses tracer bullets. It dumfounded Elvira B. de Concheiro. The fact that these were tracer bullets only further solidifies how horrifically organized the massacre was. The bullets weren’t blindly fired, but fired with intent- with a target they were programmed to find.
So, there are two halves to the horror of the Massacre. A chaotic half and an organized half. Poniatowska’s decision to supply excerpts from interviews on the massacre gives us both those halves. Perhaps there is little opinion to her essay, but it is certainly effective. There is no way to read these excerpts, even the Soldier’s claim that he was only following orders, and not feel disgust at what happened October 2, 1968. Poniatowska’s “A Massacre in Mexico” is effective, because it does not beat around the bush. It points out what exactly happened, and needs no help in illuminating the cold horror of it all. -

Liberating the Canon - an edited anthology capturing the contemporary emergence of radically innovative and non-conforming forms of literature in the UK and US

Liberating The Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature , Ed. by Isabel Waidner, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018. "If there were a...