Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The flood of change?

Currently, we have two dear friends staying with us. They arrived unexpectedly. They live in New Orleans.

When news of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation she would reek on the gulf coast flooded the airwaves, we became hugely concerned, our concern compounded after we tried to contact them on a number of occasions and they didn't call back. It turned out they were on vacation in Russia and arrived at JFK on Sunday morning. They didn't contact us because they were traveling with friends and one of them became very ill and they had to get him to a doctor and look after his upset wife. They've since flown off to stay with a daughter in Atlanta and our friends then called and asked if they could stay because they had no way of getting back to their beautiful home in the French Quarter.

They were once our neighbors in Bucks County and have been together for fifty-one years. About ten years ago the maintenance of the lawns and farmhouse they owned became too much, so they decided they to pack up and move to New Orleans where Bob's best friend and his wife (the chap who got sick) live. Of course, over the years, Larry and I have visited them and our trips have always been happiness-laden experiences.

I fell in love with the French Quarter from the moment I set foot on its uneven, cobbled streets. The gorgeous shabbiness of the rambling homes, the live oaks sprawling chaotically toward the heavens, the competing aromas wafting from the myriad of restaurants (many of which I've tried because I love my food), the lazy Mississippi river, the shops laden with exotic wares, all of these sights conspired to make me feel I was in an old European city. Of course, there are more prestigious areas of the city, the Garden District for example, but their palatial houses and the fancy European cars parked under their porticos can be found in any city. Nothing state-side can compare with the Quarter and its carefree inhabitants.

So like our friends and other countless Americans, it's with profound shock that we watch the disintegration of that great city. Exacerbating the shock of the city's newfound circumstances and threatening to push it toward grief is my recently learning just how important New Orleans is to the United States in general, with its nearby refineries that I knew about, but also with its business of shipping grain and other commodities throughout our land. In my ignorance and, undoubtedly because I was always there on vacation, I'd always thought of New Orleans as solely a 'party town'.

As I watch the breakdown of law and order in that city, I am reminded of just how fragile our democracy and way of life is today. We assume we are the mighty United States, that we are the natural provider of democracy and aid throughout the world, that foreigners look to us to shine justice's lantern in the world's dark corners. There can be no excuse for looting or unlawful activity in our society. What we are witnessing on CNN and other broadcasting outlets is stultifying. It is difficult to believe this widespread illegality is occurring in the United States.

And yet, our New Orleans friends are not surprised. Of course, they are deeply shocked. The flooding has not reached the part of the French Quarter where their home is situated, yet they cannot relax because the house may be looted and/or destroyed by these people. Already, their tenant had to leave his apartment out of fear: on the only night he chose to remain, the streets were in pitch darkness and awash with bands of roaming strangers. People are being approached aggressively for money, etc.

For years, our friends have told us that outside of the affluent areas, New Orleans is within a hair's breath of being a 'third-world city'. Just outside the French Quarter, hordes and hordes of the city's population live in housing that is best truly described as 'shotgun shacks.' I have seen these houses and the abject poverty with my own eyes, would not have believed it could exist in the United States otherwise. The education system in these parts of the South is in shambles and churning out thousands and thousands of kids who can't read or write. What hope do these people have? Should we really be shocked when they seize the opportunity and turn predator?

I ask you whether these conditions should be allowed to exist in the United States. Why are we not using our tax dollars to improve the lives of all our citizens, the impoverished blacks and whites as well as the well-off? A country can only be truly great when ALL of its citizens are energetically pursuing happiness. Why can our lawmakers not realize this? Why can they not focus and apply themselves truly toward the betterment of our America. Why can they not stop squandering our resources? May true enlightenment come out of the floods and misery in New Orleans and the gulf. This, I fervently hope and pray.

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Princess, the update

Apparently, it was a most interesting evening at the parental home last night.

Mum decided it best to tell the truth and waited for an opportune moment to announce the fish's demise. After the telling, which took place out of Ryan's earshot, everyone went to Siobhan's house--it adjoins my parents--but still my mother could not see Princess. My sister found her. She was staring at them open-mouthed and belly-up from one of the turrets uppermost windows.

The party removed back soon thereafter to my mother's house while Michael, my sister's husband, fished Princess out of her bowl, told Ryan who was naturally very sad, and the two disposed of the body in the garden

After a few hours, my sister came back in to Mum who began to apologize further as she is prone to do, though she informed me she also took great care to re-emphasize it was not anything she had done. Apparently, my sister stood and left the room leaving my mother as open-mouthed as her last vision of Princess. She heard Siobhan shut the back door quite hard before she returned to the parlor and proceeded to tell her she'd just gone out to check Ryan wasn't about and eavesdropping (he's a very intelligent child) and she wasn't to fret anymore about the fish.

It turns out it wasn't Princess who'd died. Princess had in fact died months ago, as had another subsequent fish, and Siobhan had replaced these fishes with very similar ones on two occasions. She hadn't told Mum about them in case she'd inadvertently tell Ryan. In fact, Siobhan admitted to being so tired of the fickle fishes that Michael and she decided to tell Ryan that Princess had indeed died. And moreover, my sister informed Mother that, after the last remaining one departs, there will be no pets of any description forming part of the Florida-James/McNicholl household.

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Monday, August 29, 2005

Princess, the goldfish

Mum rang to share her crisis last night. My sister Siobhan and her family went to Spain on vacation last week, are due back tomorrow, and left her in charge of my eight-year-old nephew's two goldfish. These goldfish are so beloved in my sister's household that one has already been taken to the vet a few months ago because it was swimming listlessly. This news of my sister's love for fish was all the more astonishing in that she would under no circumstances allow neither David (my other nephew) nor Ryan a puppy nor kitten when they wanted one on a number of occasions a few years ago. Dogs and cats were decreed disruptive of her home's tranquility, which I read to mean they shed far too much hair and thus much additional household vacuuming would be required. (My suspicions were confirmed subsequently when my mother remonstrated she was not prepared to look after any four-legged animal--they live beside one another--when my sister, her hubby and the kids went off to work and school respectively.

It now appears Mum has failed to look after a finned animal as well because one of the fish, Princess, the largest and sleekest to boot, has departed. And exacerbating the issue is the fact that my sister asked about the fish on a call last night. Apparantly, Mum noticed the now deceased fish was looking "a bit pale around the gills" a few weeks ago and, moreover, that it had developed some white spots around its mouth, but she said nothing to Siobhan and now wishes she had made her observation public...certainly before they left for Spain. Apparently, the tank has a submerged castle replete with an open door, mirrors and high turrets within and the fish has gone inside and cannot be coaxed out with neither pencil, fork nor my father's plump index finger.
"Are you sure it's dead, Mum?" I asked.
"It's dead."
"Perhaps the pencil jabbings or Dad did it in?"
"That's not funny." She coughs.
"They normally go belly up."
"It can't. There's not enough room."
"What about the other fish?"
"I don't think it knows. They can't sense these things."
"No, what's it doing?"
"God, I hope it doesn't die, or if it plans to, that it'll wait until tomorrow evening."

The obvious answer--which I, of course, tendered promptly--is to go to a pet store and purchase another healthy fish of the same proportion (and my mother did admit there is one of similar size in another pet shop about two hours drive from her home). However, she feels very conflicted. She thinks it would be deceitful, and she should just tell them the truth on their return because it was not her fault. I said that would be tricky and asked whether she'd do it before they give her her gifts or after.

After a pregnant pause, she informed me that Dad was helping to decorate my brother Dermot's home, the home where I and my siblings had been raised, and complained his wife had had the kitchen cupboards removed on a whim, only to be told subsequently by a craftsman that she'd made a mistake because they were made of some of the best wood he'd ever seem.
"As if I'd have sub-par cabinets in any home I ever lived in, Damian," she said.

Now, my sister-in-law has decided she wants them put back again but a few of the doors have been damaged, which will cost her greatly to have them repaired. The vindication in Mum's voice sizzled through the phone line, and then it darkened again when she returned to her goldfish dilemma.

Anyway, tomorrow will tell which solution she opts for, though I suspect it'll involve a few toilet flushings and Dad being rapidly dispatched to the distant pet shop.

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

False apologies

Pat Robertson's outrageous call for the United States to reactivate the Doctrine of Assassination and murder a foreign head of state offended me on many levels. It offended my Roman Catholic upbringing, my sense of decency, my understanding of the American way of life and my understanding of civilized behavior. I should say, I do not pretend to have a firm grip on the state of Venezuelan politics but I understand Chavez is an avowed anti-globalist as are many people in Europe and the United States, that his country's government was awash in corruption before he came to power, that he has little time for organized religion and sees them as hypocrites, and that he enjoys the support of the majority of impoverished Venezuelans who happen to have brown skin but has little or no support among the ruling class who're descended from European ancestry. Moreover, I do find it quite odd that President Chavez has a penchant for wearing military uniforms in public, likes to associate with Fidel Castro and has a spotty record of success but, as the head of a foreign power, he is entitled to absolute respect regardless as to whether his rule and government is deemed repugnant by other westernised countries.

What is not okay is for a self-appointed man of God, the leader of a large Christian evangelical group to call for that country's leader's assassination. Under no circumstances can a Christian sanction killing and Mr. Robertson has overstepped his boundaries, widely. Nor is this the first time he has done so. And, as before, he has predictably issued a meaningless apology wrapped up in the skin of a further admonishment, an apology that is intended solely to restore his status-quo as a practicing Christian and prominent American. It seems to me the members of his religious community would be better served if they replaced this aging patriarch with someone less incendiary, with someone who would practice fully the edicts of Christianity. In calling for President Chavez's assassination, Mr. Robertson has in my view placed himself squarely in the barren terrain of fanatical Islamists, jihadists and others who will brook no vision of the world but theirs. By his redundant apology, he is not redeemed, but rather exacerbates a tendency toward wanton dangerousness.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Helen Boyd's interview

At the Lambda Literary Award readings, I was most fortunate to meet and strike up a conversation with Helen Boyd whose book My Husband Betty published by Thunder's Mouth Press was a finalist in the transgender category. Helen is a fascinating woman, is married to a man who happens to crossdress, and her book explores the relations of these straight men and their female partners or wives.

Anyway, Helen read A Son Called Gabriel and liked it very much, said she didn't see the ending coming, and invited me to answer a few questions she had for her Five Questions with series.

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Sunday, August 21, 2005

Goodbye, Mo

Last Friday, the world lost a highly colorful, eccentric, charismatic character as Marjorie (Mo) Mowlam died in a hospice in Kent, England at age 55. She died of a brain tumor that first appeared in 1997. In her tenure as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland--a job no British government cabinet member ever wants, she being no exception, because it is viewed as a second-rate position, a position of exile--she was both hated and loved by both the nationalists and extremely conservative Unionists. However, they will never forget her because she was straight-forward, chewed gum, put her feet up on the highly polished table during meetings if she felt like it, swore at politicians, poked fun at them, and, once even, took off her wig to help diffuse tension during a very important meeting. Though she did not want to be sent to Northern Ireland, once she became the SoS, she settled into her role with unmitigated dedication and enthusiasm, grew to love the province, and was one of the key players instrumental in bringing Sinn Fein to the negotiating table and helped bring about the Good Friday Agreement.

Though a huge public persona, Mo was an intensely private individual and few were privy to her most intimate thoughts. Her youth was spent in difficult circumstances--her father descending into the grip of alcoholism--and she experienced much personal tragedy in her life, which included the loss of a boyfriend by drowning whom she loved intensely. Moreover, Mo made her presence felt on our side of the pond because she spent six years here, studying for a Ph.D at the University of Iowa and teaching in Florida where she was stalked and assaulted (before managing to escape) by a stranger who broke into her apartment. She maintained vociferously that her stalker was Ted Bundy who killed two young women at a nearby campus.

On her return to Britain, she did what had to be done to rise up Labour's ranks, won a seat in Westminster eventually, and moved up the rungs of government. In fact, her popularity became so great, she obtained a huge ovation at the 1998 Labour Party Conference, one so huge it outlasted Tony Blair's ovation, and she was convinced he never forgave her for that.

Though long gone from Northern Ireland when Mo took her position there, I recognized from afar that elusive blend of charisma, determination and irreverence that defined her public persona, that set people like her apart, and loved her for it. Though retired from public life due to the illness, she will be missed by her peers, enemies and all who admired her. The world is a darker place for her departure. God speed, Mo.

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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Why I write

As an author, I hope that my writings will educate as well as entertain, that they will reach and move people in ways that perhaps even I cannot anticipate. Of course, I realize that not all of my future novels will meet this kind of self-imposed 'test' if you will, but nevertheless, this is something I am conscious of when I write certain books. For example, my next novel which will soon go out on submission to publishers and whose working title is Unusual Steps is really a dark comedy, and was written with no particular lesson or objective in mind. In other words, its goal is to entertain.

Not so with A Son Called Gabriel. With this novel, I was as determined to educate readers about what it's like for a young boy who discovers to his horror that he's growing up gay in a very conservative culture as I was to entertain them with humor and wit. Some lofty-minded authors will undoubtedly scoff and say the author should have no such goal in mind, that he or she should care only about the goal of creating high art. That, too, is also fine, a worthy objective. But, frankly, I don't give a damn if they think this is the only goal in writing quality fiction. I care passionately only that my work is accessible to people who love to read, that they can relate to the story, and where possible, that they can learn something no matter how small in the process of reading it.

I am very happy to report that I appear to have been successful in this mission with 'Gabriel.' Many people have said at readings or they've emailed to say how glad they are that I have written about this complex subject within the context of a novel. Such conversations and emails brighten my day, make me so very joyful that this was my first novel to get published.

Recently, I received an email from a woman who wrote to express her feelings after she'd read 'Gabriel.' I was very moved by her words and wish to share them with you. After I'd read the email, I closed my eyes and said to myself, "This is why I wrote this book."

Here it is:


My name is Rita-Anne. I just finished reading "A Son Called Gabriel". I purchased the book, only having read the inside page and being drawn to it because it is set in Northern Ireland.

By about pages 8/9, I realized that he was gay. That's when I read the reviews on the back cover!

While I have many friends who are either gay, lesbian or transgendered, I found this book gave me a greater understanding of the internal turmoil they experienced as children/young adults.

Having been to Northern Ireland too many times to count (my best friend lives in Belfast), I completely understood the social elements, the familial conflicts and the time frame in which the book is set. And while I laughed a number of times throughout the book, I must confess I cried shamelessly when Gabriel hits his breaking point.

That said, I am sorry the book is finished because I now feel a sense of loss. In addition, I am sorry I didn't get a chance to meet you while you did the signings in the North Wales and Philadelphia areas last month.

Thank you, Mr McNicholl, for writing such a tender, wonderful and insightful novel.

All the best,
Rita-Anne Provenzano


It's me who thanks you, Rita-Anne.

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Monday, August 15, 2005

Sky Power

God, what superb power filled the skies last night. There's nothing as marvelous, as spectacular, as thrilling as a Pennsylvania summer lightning storm.

Our house is situate on a knoll and set within a circle of mature trees--stretching elms, graceful sassafras and sturdy ashes in the main--and last night was the most beautiful lightning I've ever beheld in my entire life. Every crack and hole within the tree canopy, every gap between the black tree trunks filled instantly and often with gloriously blue electric that threatened with every thuderous boom to advance farther and come uninvited into the bedroom. And what angry earsplitting I felt the stucco walls shake as if in terror, and I imagined the cedar shingle roofing rise and curl before its blue power. Spice, our seventeen-year-old dog now currently having trouble with his back legs, and practically deaf, slept right through the wild symphony.

The last time I could recall such massive thunder and lightning was on the evening my parents had arrived to spend a fortnight's vacation with Larry and me. Mum is terrified of lightning, is heedless to the fact that fork lightning is a rare occurrence in any part of Ireland. I remember how paralyzed she used to get when we were children and there was an early evening storm replete with ferocious boomers that rolled across the sky as if God and the devil were locked in a game of bowls. As soon as the first pang of sheet lightning flashed across our eyes, she'd scream like a banshee and freeze like she were a hare caught in a car's headlights. Between the first and second boom rolls of thunder, she'd charge to a nearby closet, or the darkest room in the house, and would refuse to re-emerge until we came and told it the storm had passed, which we never did of course until we'd raided the cookie cupboard and gorged ourselves.

On her first night in Pennsylvania a fork lightning storm erupted right over the house. Bone-tired from her long flight, she'd already retired for the night and in between lightning flashes and the thunder, so violent I could hear the window panes shudder, I heard massive hysterical screams overhead. Next instant, furious footsteps came down the stairwell and mother crashed through the French doors leading to the living room in her bright pink nightie. Always proper and reserved in the presence of company, and especially in front of Larry whom she was just getting to know, Mother hadn't even bothered to bring her robe, so intense was her terror. Naturally, it was great fodder with which to pull her leg throughout the duration of the vacation, and she also saw the funny side.

And wouldn't you know it? On the day of their departure, Murphy's Law came into play and a violent thunder storm broke out in the afternoon which brought down a middling-sized tree on our driveway. By then though, Mother was utterly calm, almost oblivious; by then, she'd taken a second or third pill from her Valium stash because she's also terrified of flying.

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Friday, August 12, 2005

Connie Martinson Talks Books

When I was out in LA recently, I was invited to discuss A Son Called Gabriel with Connie Martinson on her infamous book show. Well, for those of you living in the LA area, that show will air on Monday, August 15th, at 3 PM and again at 11.30 PM PST on LA CITYVIEW -CH 35.

It also airs in SF and NYC and some other major cities, but I don't know the time.

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Thursday, August 11, 2005

It's official!; I'm a Mac man now

I've ended my procrastination and took possession of a G4 Mac Powerbook. I'm now the owner of a sleek, metallic 17-inch laptop (which fits into my briefcase--a non-negotiable requirement)and am now learning how to use the thing.

I didn't buy it new. I decided to be uncharacteristically frugal. You see, my neighbors Scott and Jessica both have laptops and Scott is a Mac man, knows everything about Macs that there is to know. So when I mentioned a while ago that I was thinking of moving to Apple, he helped me research the internet and I bounced tons of questions off him. Then things got busy with the paperback release of 'Gabriel' and I put the whole thing on the sideburner. Anyway, he called me recently and said he was getting a new more powerful Mac--he does lots of CAD design work--and asked if I was interested in buying his old one (only around two years old approx) for a good price. I took him up on his offer.

Most people don't like to buy second-hand ('pre-owned' is the American euphemism, I know) but I was comfortable and Scott has spent two hours setting my systems up and answering my questions as I used the thing. He was also dead nice in that he wanted me to have a 'first time Mac buyers experience.' So, he put the Powerbook (along with its cables and manuals) I was buying into the same pretty box his new laptop arrived in and let me open it as if I'd just taken delivery of a brand new machine. It was a really neat idea because, as soon as I opened it and took out the incredibly slim, silver oblong and felt its weight in my hands, I fell in love with it as I've never fallen in love with a computer before. The only other laptop I owned was an Hitachi that I was very fond of, but it was stolen from my hotel room in London--an inside job, the police said--about five years ago.

Already, I've learned a lot--there isn't a great amount of difference really--and its much faster zipping through the 'net' than my old one. One thing I'm missing is the PC mouse with its double click to do 'cut and paste', though I've been told I can buy any mouse that's USB compatible and it'll work. But the Mac shortcuts more than make up for this shortcoming in the interim. Another learning curve issue is adjusting to the notebook keyboard and I'm touching one button that makes everything uppercase.

I've also splurged and got a 'router' so I can access the web from any part of the house and bought a 'cruzer' which backs up all my stuff into its key ring sized storage device that's 1.0GB. Next on the agenda is the acquisition of a new laser printer because my old one does not run on the Mac operating system, but they've become a lot cheaper. Currently I have a Brother 630 that cost bout $550 when I bought it seven years ago and it's archaic, prints only 6 pages a minute.

I'm hoping for great things from my Powerbook! Not least, I'm hoping it'll inspire me to complete my latest novel which I haven't worked on in yonks--more about that in another post. And my old faithful PC will retire from its writerly duties (just as soon as I email myself my manuscripts), but its hard disc will churn and resound onward for all within earshot to hear because it's become Larry's toy.

So all in all, I'm pleased as punch (should a writer worth his salt resort to cliche ever, I wonder?) and am happy to have great neighbors who are also friends. Now onward with that new novel...

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Monday, August 08, 2005

A self-imposed abstinence of sorts

I had a very interesting experience this past weekend. My friend, Lee, of L&L (they of the evening of the infamous 'psychiatrist game') had a birthday party--a pool party on account of the excellent weather--and I was most disappointed not to be able to down some large and excellent looking Margaritas on account of the fact I had a reading at a local BN at 6.00 pm. At 5.00 pm, just as the food--I'm a voracious lover of good food--was about to be served, I duly left the party in sad spirits, doubly so because I was going to miss a game of softball that was to take part afterward, and drove to the reading. During the ride, I indulged a thought that the deities of the universe would undoubtedly be most benign this evening because of my heap of deprivations and would pull out all the stops and deliver me an alert audience of at least thirty bodies, all solvent, all anxious for a bit of Northern Irish culture.

The first signal that something was amiss was that there were no copies of my novel in the window. As I pushed open the double doors leading into the beautiful air-conditioning--it was wretchedly humid outside--the second clue became apparent because of its absence. The stand announcing an author event was also missing. Immediately, I went to the information desk, asked for the crm as I scanned the BN events leaflet, and was told she was not working that day.

After I explained myself, the bookseller contacted the manager who came out crimson-faced and very apologetic. The poor crm had made a mistake (when she'd contacted me about the reading she was only one week into the position) and put me down for a September date instead of August. I've just spoken to her now on the phone and we've settled on a September date, though she was still mortified about the mix-up.

It was all rather amusing really, particularly so since I hadn't really wanted to do the reading that evening, either. In hindsight, the fact that it was to take place on a Sat evening should have been a red flag. I should have mentioned at the time we were arranging the thing that it seemed to be an odd evening for an author event. In fact, I'd almost take a bet that John Grisham would not pull a big audience on a hot summer evening.

Anyway, back I went to the birthday party and, as I was coming up the driveway, I saw a bunch of people huddled in a circle on the front lawn. I got out of the car and went over. Poor Lee had injured her ankle in the softball game and was writhing in pain as someone applied ice to reduce the swelling. Not a nice way to celebrate one's birthday. However, no serious damage was done and I went back to the car, absolutely determined now that nothing was going to prevent me ending my Margarita abstinence.

At this time I'd also like to add, because Lee is a voracious reader and she's currently reading a book I've been interested to review on the blog, I've invited her to do the review. I won't give the title just yet, but it'll post in early September.

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Friday, August 05, 2005

Paula and Love in Action--no, it's not a band name

I guess you've probably surmised I would not be a Lou Dobbs fan, but now Paula's starting to come across as a hack. Now Bill's gone from American Morning, the only one left to like is Soledad, and I think she should get her tail back to the networks or PBS.

Anyway, here's a copy of the e-mail I sent to Paula Zahn and her "producers" about...well, it speaks for itself, really.

It's unlikely I'll get a response because my experience with conglomerates (in my case, MCI and American Express) is that they ignore letters of complaint in hopes the pest will go away and they can then continue with their corp. objective of making tons and tons of money. However, in the event CNN responds, I'll be sure to share.

Dear Paula, et al

My name is Damian McNicholl and I'm the author of A SON CALLED GABRIEL, which is a semi-autobiographical novel and deals in large part with a young boy struggling with his sexuality in a very conservative environment.

It's taken me until today to decide to write about a recent episode of 'Paula Zahn Now', an episode in which you presented the case of two youths being sent to a camp called Love in Action for 'curing.' The reason for my delay was the unexpected onset of a temporary emotional hangover.

Why a temporary emotional hangover, you might ask? Well, it came into being when I noted how carelessly you reported on this painful subject. I feel you abdicated your responsibility as a journalist in this instance, and I have admired your work greatly. However, this piece was poorly reseached, if at all researched, and you completely disregarded both the opinion of the AMA and APA in your zeal to present a spurious organization claiming to 'cure' its charges of the affliction of homosexuality.

As a seasoned and responsible reporter, it is your duty to present all sides of an issue, and you and CNN have failed terribly. Where is the empirical data from this institution claiming successful conversions? I am not talking of one case or two. I am asking, what is the statistically meaningful number of persons they have 'cured', and where is their data?

Where is the presentation of AMA and APA opinions that there is no problem, that there is nothing to 'fix' or 'cure' when someone is homosexual. Where are the counterbalancing viewpoints from people such as me, people who have grown up in conservative homes and communities, who have struggled with our sexuality, and who are now well-adjusted, successful and happy the Supreme Being or God chose to make us homosexual?

Without posing these vital questions and presenting a balance, your presentation came across as amateurish at best. May I suggest you go to the library and obtain a copy of my novel, and also check out other works like it, and do meticulous research, and then redeem yourself by presenting a fair and balanced program on this subject. I would also like you to take some time out and reflect on the great pain and anguish you will have caused the young people whose parents, as a result of your inaccurate reporting, will now doom their child to spend time in this camp. That experience will endure far longer in their lives than my emotional hangover, of that you can be certain.

Damian McNicholl

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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

WBAI Pacifica Radio, NYC--99.5FM

For those blog readers living in and around NYC, this coming Monday, August 8th, beginning at 11.00 am, I'll be interviewed about A Son Called Gabriel on Pacifica Radio's Out/FM program by host Peter Jonas. The interview will be live from their offices overlooking the Hudson at the end of Wall St. Looking forward to it as I'm a big Pacifica radio fan. I don't know if it'll be archived but I'll find out, and if it is, I'll post an update.

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Monday, August 01, 2005

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits review and some Author Blarney

TNHope and Other Dangerous Pursuits Having read with others at the Book Expo America's Emerging Writers series last June, I heard Laila Lalami read an excerpt from her forthcoming book--link is provided for you to gain additional information--which will be published by Algonquin Books in October 2005. Intrigued by its Moroccan setting, I raced to the back of the room after the reading and helped myself to an ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) and decided on a whim to take it with me on my recent book tour to Los Angeles.

Her book, a collection of stories, written in straightforward prose, transports the reader into a mint tea suffused part of the world where many of the citizens work yet still live in what I think of as unmenacing poverty, though some, aspiring to better their lot, are ferociously attracted to the 'greener grass' of Spain. Utilising the framework of a perilious journey to be undergone in a rubber boat across the Straits of Gibraltar--a framework which works because it unites each characters dual stories (a 'before' story in Part One and an 'after' story in Part Two)--Lalami introduces us initially to her 'actors' through the eyes of Murad, a man who has paid much for his passage.

Among his fellow travellers is Faten, a devout Muslim--befriended by the sophisticated and wealthy Noura, a girl who takes up wearing the hijab much to her westernized parents horror--who will make it to Spain and a life of prostitution; Halima, a wife whose drive is to escape and divorce her abusive husband; and Aziz who leaves behind a pragmatic wife and dreams of making enough money in Spain to return and found a viable business in his homeland.

After I'd finished her book, the thought occurred that, while I read pretty extensively, I read the work of British, Irish and North American writers in the main. While Lalami is born and raised in Morocco and her book is not translated, nevertheless, the book's setting prompted me to consider what I'm missing by not actively seeking out literature that has been translated into English. In any event, I consider myself fortunate to have come across this book of colorful stories. On a few occasions, I will say I found myself so intrigued by a major secondary character that I found the story's conclusion a tad abrupt because of my need to know more, but such is the author's prerogative as the creator of her characters. The power of these stories lies in their universality:they show us that humanity has the same needs and problems, no matter whether we are rich or poor, or whether we stem from the sophisticated West or the sunwashed medinas of Morocco, and that the crossing of treacherous straits in pursuit of our dreams does not inevitably meet with success or happiness.

Author Blarney

Laila, thanks for taking the time to stop by my blog and
answer a few questions about your first book.

Thanks for having me.

DMN: Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits examines the lives of four Moroccans who decide to flee their homeland in search of a better life in Spain. What served as your inspiration for these stories and how did you set about doing research?

LL:I don't think my characters' decision is so much a question of flight as it is a quest to improve their lot. There's something of that in all of us, I think, but few of us have had to contend with the particular circumstances that compel my characters to decide to leave. The first time I heard about the boat trips across the Mediterranean was in the 90s, and I thought it would be interesting to write a story about one such trip. But then I realized that writing about the trip itself was a little like trying to look at a painting with my nose up against it. I had to step back and think about the characters's lives before and after. So that's how the book came about.

DMN: Of the various characters in the book, I found myself most drawn to Faten because of her curious blend of assuredness and desire to please, particularly her
desire to please her flatmate in the final part of her tale. Is there one character in the stories with whom you feel a particular affinity and, if so, could you elucidate?

LL: I'm fond of all my characters, even the boat captain (an earlier version of the book had more back story about him and how he ended up in the business of smuggling people.) But I suppose if I had to pick one, it would be Murad. He was the first character I came up with, and the one who stuck around the longest.

DMN: I found that you seasoned your prose with just the right amount of Moroccan to give the stories great texture and vibrancy without interrupting the 'fictional dream' or pace. As a writer from a foreign country too, I also had the similar task
of conveying to the reader the feel of the native language and culture without bogging down the narrative. Was it difficult for you to decide on how much idiom or Moroccan to include in order to reach a necessary or correct balance?

LL: I tried to follow my instincts, to represent the internal thoughts and dialogue of my characters as best as I could. Sometimes, there were words that simply wouldn't work in translation, so I used Arabic. Other times, I chose to use the vernacular to make a point.

DMN: What do you hope people will take away from your book when they reflect?

LL: First, I would hope that they enjoy reading the book. And of course I hope it engages readers. I've been told that my book is political, which sort of surprised me, as this wasn't my goal at all when I wrote it. I was mostly interested in the characters. But I suppose we live in an age when class is so rarely addressed seriously than when it is, it becomes a political statement. Anyway, I have no illusions about changing anyone's mind about anything. I just hope that people get to see the world through my characters' eyes, for a little while.

DMN: Algonquin Books is the publisher of your first book. How did this come about?

LL: In the most traditional of ways, I suppose. I found a literary agent (Stephanie Abou of Global Literary Management) and she sent out my book to several
publishers, including Algonquin. We had some serious interest from several of them, but Algonquin was the most enthusiastic.

DMN: Is it fair to say Morocco is comprised equal part Christians and Arabs and that the cultures live harmoniously? What is the economic situation in Morocco now? Do people still attempt to cross the Straits illegally?

LL: Ethnically speaking, the vast majority of the Moroccan population is a mix of Arab and Berber. The dominant religion is Islam, with small Jewish and Christian
minorities. As far as illegal crossings, yes, they still happen, despite all the drownings. In fact, the majority of would-be migrants these days are non-Moroccans, who travel hundreds of miles through the desert from sub-Saharan Africa, on foot, in order to get to Tangier. They live in hiding or get odd jobs until they can cross. Until people have something better to live for in their own countries, they will
continue to try their luck elsewhere.

DMN: I read that you attended university in England at one point. Where and what did you study, and how did you find student life in the British Isles?

LL: I studied at University College London, for a degree in Linguistics. I was very bookish and somewhat of a loner, but I enjoyed London tremendously.

DMN: You have now begun work on a novel. What differences or unexpected challenges, if any, have you encountered between writing 'Hope' and your new work?

LL: It's tough, man. I'm working on a very difficult chapter now, so it's been excruciatingly slow. With short stories, I found getting the first draft down
somewhat easier, though I revised fastidiously.

Laila also runs the literary blog Moorish Girl.

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