BK Book Fest: Absurd Borders



My seventh and final panel for the day at Brooklyn Book Festival 2010. And guess where I’m at—the international stage. I’ve spent so much time here they should name it after me. Subjects covered up to this point in the day: oppressed writers, food, foreign destinations, translations, war correspondents, war in fiction, and now, border crossings. Throw in our managing editor Ed Hancox for a trip to the land of comics and you’ve got yourself some well-rounded coverage from The Mantle!


BKBF introduces the Border Crossings panel thusly: “Three writers with hyphenated identities and whose work crosses and bridges cultural boundaries read from their most recent books.” All three writers were excellent—very sharp, witty, entertaining, and informative. An absolute perfect way to end the day (which flew by!). The three authors privileged to read for moi: Luis Alberto Urrea (representin’ a Mexican side), Gary Shteyngart (representin’ Russia), and Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia in da house).


In the previous panel, Chang-rae Lee was the first to read from an e-book. In this panel, Urrea was the first and only author of the day who treated the audience to a memorized recitation. His delivery was brilliant. Someone give Urrea and Feryal Ali Gauhar a radio program—these two are natural storytellers. Urrea recited a delightful excerpt from Into the Beautiful North (Back Bay, 2010), a story of comedy, beauty, and immigration politics flipped upside down (from the narrative we are familiar with in the U.S.). If I hadn’t already lined up my books for vacation next week, I’d have packed his novel into my suitcase. The impression I was left with is that his novel is written with the political wit of Graham Greene, but colored by the magical writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.


Up next, a reading by Mengiste, who took the audience to the jail cell of an imprisoned emperor in 1970s, civil war-ravaged Ethiopia. Her passage took us not only across borders, but across time. My sense is that if you want an accurate portrayal of her home country during this time, turn to Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (Norton, 2010) for an accurate, intimate look at the bloody events. Recall what Susan Abulhawa said in the previous panel: violence and destruction from war are often well-reported in the media; it’s the intimacies of the personal experiences of war that must be documented by the writer. Mengiste gets that.


And then the star of the show. Sorry, Urrea, but if I hadn’t added Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (Random, 2010) to my packing list, I would have room for your book next week! I’m excited to read this satirical depiction of a near-future American dystopia. And now I’ll have Shteyngart’s frenetic, geeky mannerisms running through my mind as I devour it. For this contribution to the panel’s theme of crossing borders, if/when his book is translated into Russian, it’s going to be a real eye-opener for Russian readers. Shteyngart takes the absurdities of American society, and then gives them a shot of steroids (one example from the book: there are only two news channels in near-future America—FOX Liberty-Prime and FOX Liberty-Ultra). His reading was comic-drama at its best. With this latest novel, Shteyngart seems to have perfected the voice he brought to a hungry American audience with The Russian Debtante’s Handbook and Absurdistan.


(On top of all this, Shteyngart gave shout outs to his mentor, a one Chang-rae Lee who had just finished reading in the previous panel. That’s Korea meets Russia in New York City, for all of you keeping track of borders here.)


Q&A time and we had some good ones. And guess what! Another question about writing from a distance of the subject matter! In stark contrast with the mixed response from the previous panel, here all three authors were in agreement. Is it easier to write from a distance? Urrea says distance is necessary in order for the land and people to become mythologized in the author’s mind. He invoked Denis Johnson to make his point: write naked, write in blood, and write from exile.


Mengiste cooed at that answer, adding that distance gives the author some “authority” to write about the subject (what kind of authority, though?). And she added that temporal distance is necessary too, to write more effectively (this in light of her novel being historical fiction). Shteyngart added that he writes better in foreign countries where the language of everyday living (and thinking) does not intrude on the writing process (I believe Henry Miller said the same thing about writing Tropic of Cancer while in Paris). Super Sad, for instance, takes place in New York City, but was written in Italy. And as for the beginning of the novel that takes place in Italy? Written in Germany.


I’ll wrap up my coverage of Brooklyn Book Festival with this note: when asked how the writers compete with the absurdities of everyday life in order to gain the attention of an increasingly distracted audience, Urrea noted that absurdities are tragic, comic, and endless, so be open to them. For Shteyngart: reality is too fast, there’s no present, it’s all future.


Amen, brother. I’m already sitting at the international stage at Brooklyn Book Festival 2011.



BKBF 2010, Ethiopia, Gary Shteyngart, Luis Alberto Urrea, Maaza Mengiste, Mexico, Russia