Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Reading the World: 7. Australia

from The Arrival, by Shaun Tan
Immigration has become a topic of great interest to me--and feels very much like a life-long interest. Immigration, tied in with culture and family, comprise the bones of the story.

Tan writes about his experience developing The Arrival on his website, "I was reminded that migration is a fundamental part of human history, both in the distant and recent past.

In Tan's story, a father from an unnamed land travels to another unnamed land. He leaves his wife and daughter behind as he attempts to earn enough money to send for them to join him.

We encounter giants, shadows of monsters, strange fruit and vegetables, indecipherable language, astonishing vehicles, foreign customs, and a feeling of being a complete and total outsider.

The fact that there are no words in this book did not bother me in the least. The progression of images connected me closer to the main character, the immigrant father. I learned with him. I felt confused and uncertain. I lived his struggle to find food and a semblance of a steady income.

Actually, I can't imagine this book being "written" any other way.

from The Arrival, by Shaun Tan
And I suppose the feeling I encountered as a reader, is the backbone of my experience. I felt more than I saw or digested as traditional text. The uncertainty which each page brought was welcomed.

The main character not only succeeds because of his grit and perseverance, but also because of the kindness of strangers. He encounters people with their "silent" stories to share. These people sympathize with his circumstance and help him make it.

I am looking forward to placing this book in my classroom library and asking students what they think this story is about--I really can't wait to hear some of their take-aways from The Arrival.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Reading the World: 6. Angola

Credit: Angolan contemporary artist: Atonio Ole
As I read, I jot down observations and questions, or I research current headlines written about the country at hand. Caught up in the charm of Ondjaki's The Whistler, I did not stop to write anything. The pleasure of the language was enough.

However, at a loss to write something about The Whistler looking at headlines helped provide a touch of context:


Angola Prison and the Shadow of Slavery

The New Yorker-Aug 19, 2015
Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick's photographs from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, which were taken between 1980 and ...

Voice of America-Aug 14, 2015
JOHANNESBURG—. In the last decade, the nation of Angola has pulled off what some experts consider an economic miracle, transforming ...

Inonge Wina commends Angola

Zambia Daily Mail-Aug 20, 2015
VICE-PRESIDENT Inonge Wina has commended the Angolan government for putting in place a successful social protection system that ...

Angola regime rules in apartheid style - activist

News24-Aug 16, 2015
Johannesburg - From beating women to unleashing dogs on protesters, Angola's government runs the oil-rich nation with an apartheid-style ...


Clearly, Angola has been immersed in volatile change--growth and loss--over recent decades. Further digging brought me to an article about Angolan art by Joanne Thomas in USAToday:
"Contemporary life in Angola is hard. According to World Factbook, the nation has the lowest life expectancy in the world at 38.2, and 40.5 percent of the population live below the poverty line. These impoverished conditions, in conjunction with prolonged civil unrest, have marred the continuation of cultural traditions. Celebrations and traditional ceremonies, for example, were largely interrupted or discontinued during the civil war."
Thomas' objective was to explore Angolan art--previously ignored and forgotten. To have a hopeful, gentle book like The Whistler emerge is remarkable. For me, as I continue to think about the book itself, what matters more is that beautiful art is present and emerging from Angola. The Whistler underscores the importance of art in all its forms for all cultures.

In trying to match an appropriate image with this blog post, I fell into a blog called Angola Rising: Dialogue of Ministry in Angola; A Land Rising from Past Challenges. Specifically, I focused on a post about emerging Angolan art.

In it, Angolan artist Antonio Ole says, “The world is in transition. And during transitions there tend to be artistic explosions, explosions of creativity. Right now, everyone should be alert. Interpreting the world is part of what we artists do.”

My take away from the experience of reading The Whistler is that it exposed me to art as language, as a way for human beings to communicate...as evidence that art emerges, can still live, even without the nourishment I (blindly) assume all art comes from.

Ole goes on to say, “I feel very inspired by this positive energy. Development is not only about education and health; it is also about the evolution of a cultural identity."

The Whistler, and in a bigger sense the blossoming of art in Angola, gives me a new lens to view...and think about...the world, yes. But it also gives me a new lens to think about me and my place in the world.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Reading the World: 5. Albania

Adrian Limani, flourished bulb
What happens when you read a novel by an author "hailed as one of the world's greatest living writers" (according to the bookjacket) and you struggle finding any way "in" to the book?

You don't put it down even though the little voice inside your head is telling you, "just put it down...it isn't going to work out for you...put it down..."

I did not put it down. And the little voice did not go away.

So, I took notes on an envelope doubling as my bookmark as I read--not because it was difficult or to keep track of a tangled plot--but because I could not connect with the book. I kept looking for a thread to latch onto.

Part Orwell, part Kafka, part Beckett, The Palace of Dreams is Ismail Kadare's attempt at creating his version of hell. And for much of the first half of the book I engaged (a bit) even though the little voice inside my head kept murmuring, "weird..."

Wishing I knew more about Kadare's homeland, Albania, I jotted down thoughts which seemed like metaphors worth digging into later:

--the influence of dreams
--outside influences on dreams
--the value of dreams from the peasant to the king
--what kinds of information needs secrecy?
--when do dreams need to be kept secret?


And then I felt myself grasping to use anything--any shard of an historical context of the relationship(s) between the Albanians and the Turks. Kadare threaded a theme of "shared power" (and shared knowledge) and it made me curious about how historically oppositional cultures find common ground. This interesting line on page 68 kept the little voice inside my head quiet and hopeful for a beat:

"Sharing power doesn't just mean dividing up carpets and the gold braid. That comes afterward. Above all, sharing power means sharing crimes!"

But, like much of what I found interesting, this theme fell flat for me and the little voice inside my head railed on and on, "told you...if you are not enjoying a book just put it down...Kadare won't be offended because he did not write it for you anyway."

Unfortunately, the book did not work for me. I lost track of any slight scent of engagement once I reached the last 1/4 of the story as the plot just unravelled like old, cheap yarn--leaving me with little to want to discuss with other readers. For me,  The Palace of Dreams went from weird and interesting to dull and disconnected.

The reality is we are all not going to connect with every book...irrespective of author or reader, culture, or era. I believe the hype about Kadare and maybe I should give something else of his a shot.

But for now, it is on to another country...