Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Writing the Epic

Gonnerman calls her book Life on the Outside the Prison ‘Odyssey’ of Elaine Barlett. The young reporter seems to have a place in our society, like Homer in ancient Greece, of telling epic stories of homecoming. In Homer’s the Odyssey we are taken on a journey with our hero, so that he might return home after 20 year of war, imprisonment and trial in order to bring social order back to his family and play the role of his lineage. Upon returning home, he discovers that it is not as he left it, and he must endure another battle to secure his role and family. Elaine Barlett fights her own war, with poverty and the Rockefeller drug laws, sixteen years of imprisonment, and emerges as a kind of hero – returning home. However, Barlett also discovers that her freedom must continuously be fought, even within her own home and within society’s blockades.

Gonnerman has been reporting on the National justice system in America for over 10 years, revealing the accounts of those who have endured the harsh hammer of American law. The stories she writes give the reader a look at the individuals who are all too often blanketed beneath terms like, ‘felon,’ ‘sex-offender,’ and ‘drug trafficker.’ Not only are we given the opportunity to see who these people are, how they entered the justice system, but also, what it is like for them to return home. Gonnerman reports on people who are marginalized by society by getting up close and personal with the folk themselves and letting them shine through in her words. Her ability to do this in a strategic manner gives the reader some understanding of the social and judicious constructs that make re-entry, or reintegration into society so difficult. Gonnerman writes for social change, using the age-old method of storytelling in order to highlight the problems in our justice system.

Gonnerman reports, like Homer in his epic tales, using a narrarative that tells the story from multiple characters’ perspectives. Gonnerman, in Life on the Outside was able to use all the characters that interact with Elaine Barlett in order to bring dimension and objectivity to her telling of the prison Odyssey. Gonnerman did this by spending more than two years up close and personal with the Barlett family, noting the food they ate, specific interactions and facial expressions. Unlike Homer, her narrative doesn’t change from third person, however she does use tools, like shopping receipts and letters from her children to color pieces of an intricately woven journey. Gonnerman’s talent for writing on the National justice system in such a human way is an inspired way of invoking social change and evading stigmatization in society.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Consuming Sunday

It was a cold Sunday in early November. Doug sat on the sofa in grey sweatpants watching Henry Fool. Rebecca was walking around the two-roomed Brooklyn apartment, in old corduroys and a sweatshirt; her mullet haircut was in disarray, and her eyes distraught. Doug shot her a helpless glance, and she slid on a long white down coat and went to the corner of Maple and Flatbush to the market, she went straight for the counter, asking the shopkeeper for Midol. She hates medication, but once a month she traipses down to the corner for a pack of aspirin, two extra-strength tablets. A young man with a doo-rag puts down fifty cents for a single Newport. She also pays in change and says ‘Shukrân’ quietly to the owner.

They hadn’t been grocery shopping in over a week. The fridge was rather bare except for some organic half n’ half, some sad looking spinach and a Tupperware with one of Doug’s homemade curry leftovers. It was his specialty according to Rebecca. He did not want to go anywhere today, and neither did she, but 20 minutes later she was showered, dressed in jeans, with her cowboy boots on – grabbing her huge leather and wicker basket from Morocco.

The Midol kicked in as she took the Q train from Prospect Park to Union Square. There are no Natural Grocers in East Flatbush. Park Slope has a few expensive, very fancy organic markets and one very functional Co-Op, but the couple had opted out from the Co-Op the day they had inquired and had been given a very serious run-down of the ‘rules and regulations’ of the community grocer. She enjoyed subway rides into the city anyway; she had only been in New York since July.

Rebecca had quit smoking in the spring. However, since Doug moved in she had been buying rolling tobacco. Doug smoked Parliaments, but was not addicted. Rebecca stopped and sat in the sun on a wooden bench in Union square and rolled a Bali shag quickly, loosing bits of tobacco to the wind.

There was a crowd in Whole Foods, but less busy than weekday afternoons, and a slower moving pace. She grabbed a rolling basket and went downstairs, starting at the cheeses because this is where she always lingered longest. She picked up different kinds, turning them in her hands, looking for the nuttiest, creamiest, and richest – but then checking the prices to compare. Normally she would buy a sharp, versatile cheddar for $4.00. But she picked up Brie, for $9.99, and put le bon homme in the basket. Whole milk and a dozen eggs for crêpes. Maple whole milk yogurt. Salted butter, imported – giving her a vision of langoustine with salty butter and fresh bread on summer days in France.

She stepped into the tea isle, and perused for a good five or ten minutes before choosing a Yogi blend, Organic Dong Qua women’s tonic is an effective and organic way to lessen fatigue, restore your energy and balance a woman’s hormones.

She always picked up pasta and sauce for the staple spaghetti bolognaise. It’s surprising she still liked pasta after having it so much growing up. Rebecca grabbed the other staple, garbanzo beans. Then she saw a can with a label saying ‘Eden Organic rice and beans.’ She loved rice and beans, and grabbed the can, half jokingly, she giggled and put it in her basket. She stopped and picked up some rice crackers with tamarind, imagining how nice and crunchy they would be alone. She was getting hungry.

The butchers were quick to help her. She hadn’t learned the direct, quick off the tongue New York style of ordering; she described softly what she wanted, a tenderloin for her Sunday roast, the best cut. No, the one below the filet mignon for $24.95 lbs.

Behind her the jams were aligned, labels perfectly lined, looking out at her. The Bonne Maman. The lovely shaped glass jars of confiture. She read one letter F of the three-letter word, and her mouth salivated as she put a jar of Fig jam in the basket without checking the price.

The vegetables were always organized and colorful, with colored men, all black, arranging, revamping the vegetable displays, smiling, and checking their watches. She always had the same battles, local or organic? In season, or exotic? She picked New Jersey tomatoes, beautiful fingerling potatoes – which remind her of her days in fine dining – a few apples for the Brie, a bright orange pepper, a bag of carrots, and a well endowed organic zucchini. She loved the spring greens in the big plastic box, hated the packaging – and always bought it. And one Costa Rican banana.

Upstairs, she squeezed her fingers around the bread to see when it was made. The baguettes were fresh baked at the perfect consistency. The chocolate was conveniently placed at the checkout lines. She sighed, as her hand moved with memory and habit to the dogoba chocolates, never below 76% dark. Rosebud or mint? Mint this time.

Her number was called and she passed checkouts 16-21, each with a pretty young, black female working the register. Rebecca’s boyfriend had recently pointed out the fact that “everyone” who worked Whole Foods was black, so far, he was spot on, except for the tall white guy with the poor complexion – but he was the floor manager.

$94.48. You saved -.20 cents on your bags. Credit or Debit? Debit. Cash Back? No.

When Rebecca got home Doug’s eyebrows raised, and he inspected her basket while she changed into comfy clothes. A banana peel was on top, she had eaten it with a few corners of the chocolate on the train-ride home. The crackers had also been opened, and one of the rows was missing. He picked up the can of rice and beans and made a face. ‘They’re not even black beans, its rice with garbanzo beans.’ He shook his head.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

'Extra Sensitive' Sex Ed

IT’s a ten-minute break in a three-hour class at NYU and I’m conversing with the three other members of my group, all young women in their early twenties. We’re studying Globalization amongst a dynamic group of young students. I’m telling a story about my disappointment in a visiting Professor from last semester. One of my major qualms with the Professor is that he had brought some of the common HIV myths into our classroom. One day he had mentioned, while moving quickly from one subject to another, that condoms don’t prevent HIV transmission. I got shivers when I heard him say this, and again as I retold it to the girls in my class. All three of them looked at me, dark brown, blue and green eyes wide. Blue eyes looks at me and says, ‘That’s right.’ In a very factual tone, ‘Condoms don’t prevent against HIV.’ Green eyes blinked again and spoke in a soft tone, ‘I grew up in a really small town.’ She said, shrugging. Blue eyes continued, ‘it even says it on the package, does not prevent hiv infection, only against STD’s’ I looked at her, and took a deep breath, reminding myself that all three of them are proclaimed Christians and they have probably received their sexual education infused with fundamental doctrine, which teaches abstinence as the only way. Blue eyes could feel that I was about to refute her argument, which she was so used to executing in the classroom, and so she went on, ‘Like, in my junior high sex ed, our teacher told us that the HIV microbes are way smaller than other STD’s, and so they can, like, pass through the condom.’ Brown eyes chimed in, ‘yeah, and condom’s aren’t 100% protection anyway.’

In 2000 I lived in Tanzania and taught sexual reproductive health to high school students, as their peer. This was precisely one of the myths that we were working to eradicate during the two years I spent in Tanzania. It seemed there were generally two main problems, the first being the silence that still surrounds sexuality and STI’s and second, the Church’s damnation of Sex and Protective Education. I looked mainly at blue eyes, who had been telling me her learned truth as though it were fact. And I spoke as gently as I could, ‘HIV is a virus, and a sexually transmitted infection; it’s carried in semen and vaginal fluid. Condoms are effective against HIV and STDs. No it’s not 100%, but it’s your best chance if used correctly.’ I wanted to keep going, but I could tell that blue eyes was no longer listening, she had become uncomfortable and had reopened the newspaper to read. Green eyes had folded her legs close to her chest. Brown eyes checked the time on her portable. I looked around the room for someone to share my fear and frustration with. I wondered how many more of my peers at this prestigious school have been miseducated about the virus that causes AIDS. I balked at the fact that none of us had received sexual education since our debut as mere 13 year olds. What scared me the most is that when they went silent, so did I, class started again and blue eyes continued discussion in the same factual style. I didn’t tell them that women our age, 18-24 are at the highest risk of infection. I didn’t say that they have been victims to the false information, with no support in scientific findings that is still so common. I didn’t tell them that they can pick up condoms in the health center, durex, in purple package, our school color, and that if they read the back it would say Effective against pregnancy, HIV (AIDS) and STD’s. As my fear for our generation and the pandemic we face, I closed my eyes and prayed to God that their ignorance was safely cradled in virginity.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

100 copies

How's this for journalism and social change?

Ms. Bartlett, who lives in Washington Heights, in Manhattan, met with Joseph L. Bruno, the Republican majority leader of the State Senate, who had endorsed her clemency and promised to buy 100 copies of the book, written by Jennifer Gonnerman.... —NYT

Further Gonnermania

Jennifer Gonnerman now writes frequently for New York magazine; her focus, now as ever, is on the people that society seems to barely notice (or else ostracize or demonize).

Here's a piece on food deliverymen; here's a recent piece on a home where sex offenders live. And here's her New York archive.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Documenting Life

In Gonnerman's book, Life on the Outside, it bewilders me how much detail is presented to the reader. The main character, Ellaine Barrlett's life is already extremely interesting, heart-wrenching and humanizing in its essence, however Gonnerman manages to sketch out facial features, exact times, emotions, telephone calls, what was bought and from which bodega, and from who, dialogue, and specific outfits. Her scrupulousness gives the story an even greater humanizing effect, humor, sadness... and also adds to its legitimacy.

I am perplexed at how someone else could ever write such a personal account for someone other than themselves? It is as though Gonnerman became a bar on Elaine's prison cell, a fly on the wall of apartment 13B, and a member of the family, it seems. I am extremely impressed with her ability to make the story so personal and devout to detail, while still being on the outside of Elaine's experience.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

My Friend the Media

Since President Bush embarked on his six-day, five-nation African ‘safari’ there has been an unprecedented coverage of his efforts with development in Africa He started in Kenya, still up in arms since their election, ‘warning’ the government that it needs to agree to a power-sharing agreement with the opposition. But what is really being done to prevent further violence in Kenya?
Although currently Chad is facing rebel groups trying to overthrow their government, new violence has erupted in the Darfur region of Sudan, warlords are fighting in Somalia and Ethiopia and Eritrea are having yet another border standoff – Bush has decided to take a showcase tour of some of Africa’s achieving foreign aid programs. Bush hopes to use this trip to highlight success stories in Africa and the programs he has launched to fight disease, poverty and illiteracy. Isn’t it in his favor how colorful and correct he looks on his visit to Africa? It reminded me of how media is used as a tool to create whatever reality he/she is trying to portray. The choice of what is covered, and when, effects the audience greatly because in most cases it is the individuals unique source of information. The amount of coverage that the media gives a certain topic is what gives that event, conflict or person its ordained value in the world.
In Joe Gould’s Secret, Mitchel illustrates in two instances his own influence as a journalist. The first being with his story of the young homeless couple who were living in central Park. His article instigated a great deal of response from the public, just because of the way that he had told their story. And in this case, it wasn’t even the couple who were seeking support, it was just a compelling story that touched the public into become involved. Similarly, Mitchel’s telling of Joe Gould in his first published article also created a portrait of Gould that wasn’t exactly spot on, but nevertheless, the public’s opinion of him was greatly effected after reading the news article. Also in reading Gonnerman’s ‘Life on the Outside,’ our main character, Elaine uses media coverage as a tool to bring her to life as a human being, with a family, rather than the anonymous inmate/drug trafficker. Eventually it would be her use of the media to highlight parts of the story that would support her release from prison and demonstrate the fallacy of the Rockefeller drug laws.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

From Chad to the Bronx

When I board the 4 train at Union Square I am pushed into the car with the array of afternoon commuters. It’s not until 42nd street that I am able to find a seat, and as the train moves north towards the Bronx there are fewer faces and the buildings are also more spread out. I check my directions and get off at Bedford Park, walk a few blocks past the eyes of policemen and school kids – who are seemingly aware of my presence here. Then I wait for the D train for over 20 minutes, there is only one other woman on the platform and she looks at me and says ‘They always take forever up in here.’ Finally it arrives and I get off at the last stop, 205 st.

Bour had called me this morning to tell me that he might not be at home when I arrived, but that Emilie would be waiting for me. I explained to him that it was ok if he wasn’t around, it was her that I had been trying to see for a few weeks now, since she stopped coming to English classes at the resettlement center. I find their house, and at the door of the basement apartment, I knock on the window as Bour had directed me, and wait. A few moments later Emilie opens the door and greets me in African style greeting, pressing our cheeks together, three times on alternate cheeks. We speak French and I explain to her that she is missed at the center. She invites me into her home, the basement of a brick apartment building. We pass the small, dank kitchen and she shows me through into the salon, where she has been watching an American sitcom series. She leaves the television on and after I am seated she brings water, juice and cookies, making sure that I have all that I need before we start talking. There is a succession of conversation very different from the American way; there would be no serious talk until we had made all the greetings. Then, she would show me the apartment, which, I had already seen, except for their bedroom, with its exposed piping on the ceiling and windows that let the wet in, allowing mold to grow. She explains that the superintendent hasn’t been responding to their requests to fix the problems, and that they can’t really communicate well. Have you been learning English from watching television? I asked Emilie in French. She shrugged and said, un peu and gestured for me to eat another chips a hoy cookie.

Emilie is 47 years old, like many Africans she looks much younger, however in the last six months, since her arrival in America as a political refugee she is looking older and her face is swollen with weight and worry. In the first months of her arrival she was coming to the ‘literacy for life’ program at the International Resettlement Committee where I work as a teacher assistant, helping the clients to feel comfortable with English. It had been a few months since Emilie had stopped coming, her husband, Bour, explained that she was suffering from posttraumatic stress and the Doctor had told her to stay at home for three months. Three months at home, I pondered the idea of complete social isolation for a woman that is inherently social and asked, ‘Is she depressed?’ to which he replied, ‘Of course she is.’ It is extremely common for refugees to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, cultural bereavement and depression during their resettlement period. I couldn’t see how it would be helpful for cultural integration for Emilie to stay at home, alone, without any English – so I had decided that I would travel to the Bronx to listen and try to understand what she needs.

‘You know, I lost my child in an accident not long before we left Chad.’ She looked at me, her eyes filling softly with tears. I told her I had not been aware of this, and didn’t urge her to go into detail –I have been told to be attentive of asking too much about the lives left behind of our clients – it could be more traumatic than I am qualified to support them in. She explained that she was unable to let go of her loss, that it haunted her. She told me how different life had been in Chad, with her son and her comfort of life. Her husband had been a custom’s officer for over thirty years, and had become the highest rank, becoming the overseer of his regions officers. It was his job that had given them a life of comfort and ease in Chad, but also had brought them into the mix of a corrupt power struggle and conflict; finally they had to seek refuge outside of their country. ‘Now look at him,’ she said ‘He has become like a child again.’ Both Emilie and Bour came to America unable to write, Bour is able to write with little difficulty now. Though Emilie asked to start at the very beginning, explaining that she did not know the alphabet in English, and even in French, had never written. So I brought out some worksheets that brought us to the very beginning, and we spent some time sounding out the letters.

When we were discussing when I should return for another lesson, and some lamb stew she handed me a pile of papers from the hospital, with the dates for her next appointments. I leafed through the papers and read one highlighted sentence: patient is trying to get pregnant, premenapausal. I decided to ask her if it was true, to which she responded, ‘ah, you know my secret.’ Her husband is in his late sixties and already had children before he married Emilie. She bore only one son, the one she lost and now she would like to have another child. She knows that it’s getting late in her cycle, that it might not be possible, but she is willing to try anything – even fertilization drugs. ‘Of course, only if God is willing’ she said, holding back tears.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

His Story as History

This week I walked down past where the Bowery ends, to meet up with some young men of my generation before a red-bricked building on 15th Seventh street, at McSorely’s old Alehouse. The doorman allowed me in without looking at my i.d., saying in a soft Irish twang, that he trusted my face. When I walk in my senses were overwhelmed with the smell of men, sweating beer, hops, sawdust and history. The chandeliers above the wooden bar are covered in a thick past of black dust, and wishbones mark the lives of those who did not return to their local jaunt from the world’s wars. This is New York. It opened in 1864, and is New York City’s oldest saloon. My eyes are devouring the surrounding walls, aged pictures and glassy eyes of the men around the room. I see a framed book-cover, ‘McSorely’s Wonderful Saloon’ by Joseph Mitchell and I consider the way that he would describe the ever-raw setting with such a truthful, humble and human approach. I think of Joe Gould.

It was a true surprise to learn that after publishing Joe Gould’s secret Mitchell was not to write or publish anything more. Does this reveal a certain potency of their relationship over the course of 20 years? Was it Gould that challenged and betrayed Mitchell and the integrity of his story? Or did Gould act as a reflection of Mitchell, or some illustration of a quality that he should like to bring alive? I cannot be sure why Mitchell didn’t write anything after Joe Gould’s Secret, but I do see a connection in the coincidence, because Joe Gould both entrapped and liberated something inside Mitchell, the literary artist. I believe that Gould presented a sense of freedom that was enhanced by being outside of society; He didn’t owe anything to anyone, he said whatever he wanted, when he wanted, he went to and fro as he wished and he fabricated stories – creating his own reality. Mitchell indulged in Gould’s freedom, first only as a reporter, but quickly he was emotionally involved. Gould unlocked some part of Mitchell that would allow him to reflect on himself, while reporting on Gould. And because he published both the profile and it’s inclusion of his own personal account, his integrity as a journalist was stretched.

Journalism is supposed to be a verified account of the truth, who, what, when, where, why? And withholding the ‘What I think’ of personal opinion. The difficulty with the Mitchell’s reportage on Gould is that he became personally involved in the intricate, and fabricated truth of the ‘Oral History.’ Firstly, he was drawn into it because he wrote the first article, Professor Seagull introducing the Oral History as though it were tangible, yet it was purely on the account of old Joe Gould. It wasn’t until much later that he would discover that the Oral History was indeed only a mouthful of words, a few re-written essays of Joe’s life and not much else. So Mitchell had learned that his first article was fictitious in its telling of Gould’s work of art. Mitchell then feels a sense of duty to his work, but also an infusion of duty and pity for Joe Gould – which drives him to write the second article, ‘Joe Gould’s Secret.’ In the second article, Mitchell rewrites the story that we have already been told, except this time he withholds nothing, he shares all that he has discovered about old Joe Gould, including self reflections and challenges that he faced personally. Although some part of the Oral History and his relation to Gould left Mitchell in a written silence, it was the recording of Gould’s story, told by Mitchell that was an honest history of that time.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Fool's Gould?

This 1996 Virginia Quarterly Review article about Mitchell seems interesting, and I was going to recommend it to you. But I couldn't disagree more with his assessment of Joe Gould's Secret:

If The Bottom of the Harbor is Mitchell's finest book, its successor, Joe Gould's Secret, is his most disappointing....The book is unexpurgated information, much of it unsatisfying. Instead of a judiciously chosen and arranged fugue of facts, we're hauled off to every conversation Mitchell had with Gould, whose boring digressions within digressions are matched only by his capacity to talk for hours, night after night, about the same subject: himself. The book is an exhausting read; we feel only slightly less flayed alive by Gould's verbosity than Mitchell must have. The fascinating thing is that even though we're given the facts, and nothing but the facts, and they add up to a wholly different and in some ways more exact and accurate Gould than that profiled in "Professor Seagull," the end result is much less satisfying because it lacks a certain verity.

Journalism; A Vessel for Society's Secrets

In reading Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret I have discovered some of the more intimate nuances of journalism and its role as a vessel for society’s secrets. Mitchell’s tells Joe Gould’s story through two articles, and in his book, a collection of the two previously published articles, we are also invited to discover how the journalist’s story unfolds in relation to his assignment. The most refreshing aspect of this book is that, as an original newspaper article, it still maintained its integrity. That is to say, it is a very human encounter and exchange.

The main vein of both the book and the bohemian, Joe Gould is his lifework, The Oral History. At first I was entirely enamored by the idea of a historical account told in vignettes of conversation about, and of the Village in its prime. The tradition of Oral History is long lost in our time, and for as long as I have known history – it has been told by the elite white, and so I was an avid supporter of an artistic era being told by a dirty, awkward, shy, black sheep of society. I was slightly disappointed to discover that the Oral History was perhaps alive only in Gould’s mind, although Mitchell’s telling of the story did, in same way bring alive a certain oral history of that time. He is able to shed light onto some of Gould’s life story, and bring understanding into his role and exclusion from the other ‘bohemians’ and poets of his time. Which, together, gives the reader a feeling of the village and how people spoke to one another in relation to time and circumstance.

The richest aspect of this story for me was to look at the essence of Mitchell and Gould’s encounter. I cannot say if Journalism has maintained the possibility of having such a strangely intimate connection with someone that you are writing about? That is not to say that there is no longer an intimacy in journalism, but in this case, Mitchell allows the reader to see how his subject affected him. Furthermore, he respected Joe Gould and he used his writing as a tool for change, for others to esteem the village fool as a valued human being.