Monday, June 08, 2009

Writers Nudging the World

For the past two years, former Ninth Letter contributor Yann Martel (first issue; spring/summer 2004) has been on a mission to offer helpful elucidation of the world of books to the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper--a politician enamored of cuts in funding for the arts who, in Yann's words, "fills his entire consideration and froths his sense of busied importance to the very brim. And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts. But he must have moments of stillness.

"For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness. That book will be inscribed and will be accompanied by a letter I will have written. I will faithfully report on every new book, every inscription, every letter, and any response I might get from the Prime Minister.”

Prime Minister Harper has been sent a lovely little library of works by Marcus Aurelius, Flannery O'Connor, Northrop Frye, Kafka, Rilke, Orwell, Tolstoy, and Borges, plus a couple of graphic novels--Mauss by Art Speigelman and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi--and a sprinkling of Gilgamesh and the Bhagavad Gita. And so on. So far, though, the very busy prime minister has declined to respond to the bounty of these gifts. However, all of Yann Martel's accompanying letters are available at What is Stephen Harper Reading? and you could do worse than spend a few hours of your life nosing through these delicious, eloquent missives. Here is Yann's introduction to his take on Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird:

"In an interview some years ago Mavis Gallant mentioned an operation she underwent. She awoke from general anaesthesia in a state of mental confusion. For several minutes she couldn’t remember any details of her identify or of her life, not her name or her age or what she did, not where she was nor why she was there. An amnesia that was complete—except for this: she knew she was a woman and that she was thinking in English. Inextricably linked to the faintest glimmer of consciousness were those two identity traits: sex and language.

"Which says how deep language goes. It becomes part of our biology. Our lungs need and are made for air, our mouths and stomachs need and are made for nutrition; our ears and noses can hear and smell and, lo, there are things to be heard and smelled. The mind is the same: it needs and is made for language, and, lo, there are things to be said and understood."

Or try this lovely passage from his letter about Blackbird Singing, a collection of lyrics and poems by Paul McCartney:

"A song’s lyrics, I realized, are inseparable from its melody. The melody supplies the lift, suspending one’s disbelief and cynicism or giving one permission to entertain the forbidden, while the lyrics supply the in, inviting one to compare one’s experience of life with what is being said in the song, or, even better, inviting one to sing along. The possibility of listening intelligibly and of singing along are essential to a song’s appeal, because both involve the direct, personal participation of the listener. This participation, the extent to which one can mesh one’s life and dreams with a song, explains why something so short—most of the Beatles’ early songs are less than two minutes long—can go so deep so quickly. That’s the beguiling illusion of a great song: it speaks to each of us individually, and with a magnetic voice, and so we listen intently, instantly drawn into an inner dream world. Who hasn’t been moved to the core by a song, eyes closed and body shuddering with emotion? In that state, we address feelings we might be too shy to deal with in plain speech—raw, hungering lust, for example—or ones that cut deep but are so mundane we are embarrassed to talk about them: loneliness, yearning, heartbreak."

Stephen Harper owes Yann Martel--so far--57 letters of thanks in response. Clearly, the man wasn't raised right. His loss, but our gain!


More successful in his nudging of the world is Robin Hemley, Ninth Letter's first trifecta author, as he has contributed non-fiction (first issue; spring/summer 2004), fiction (issue 5; spring/summer 2006) and now poetry (current issue; spring/summer 2009). Recently, Robin wrote for McSweeney's a dispatch from Manilla, "The Great Book Blockade of 2009," about an illegal embargo of foreign books by corrupt Filipino customs officials trolling for bribes, a blockade flying in the face of international law.

Something about Robin's post struck a chord of multiplying harmonics among that country's concerned citizens, and the ensuing protests and media attention actually caused President Gloria Arroyo to get involved. You can read all about it here in this article from the Far Eastern Economic Review, "Notes from a Blockade Runner," which ends with this quote from Robin:

"As I write this, I’ve just heard from a friend that President Arroyo has lifted the book blockade and that effective immediately, there will be no taxes on imported books. Together, Filipino book lovers have performed what I consider a miracle in less than a month’s time.

"As for me, I’m floored that my original McSweeney’s piece actually effected positive change. I’m not accustomed to this. I’m accustomed to the usual things that haunt most other writers: creditors, editors, and the assorted hobgoblins of creativity. I love introspective and imaginative writers, such as Proust and Kafka, but I reserve special admiration for writers who try (but most often fail, despite noble efforts) to shake things up in the world beyond the writing desk. And while it’s the collective efforts of a group of concerned citizens of the Philippines (bloggers, journalists, and ordinary book lovers) who deserve the laurels for their efforts, I doubt I’ll ever think again that what I write or say can’t possibly make a difference in our troubled but still repairable world."

Bravo, Robin Hemley! Perhaps you too should write a letter to Stephen Harper!

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