LitBirthdays August 28 – September 3, 2011

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August 28

Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei (born August 28, 1957) – Chinese artist, critic, activist

Read about Ai WeiWei here and (in Chinese) here

Read and watch the video about an Austrian exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s architectural art

While not as widely presented as his artistic oeuvre, Ai Weiwei’s work in the field of architecture is extremely important for the artist because of the collaborative – that is social and political – aspect of it. On three floors of architect Peter Zumthor’s Kunsthaus building, the exhibition focuses on Ai Weiwei’s collaborative architecture projects such as the Beijing National Stadium (colloquially as the Bird’s Nest).

“The main interest in Ai Weiwei and architecture is that he is always concerned about social and political situations. And of course, architecture is the discipline where you have always these negotiations. There’s always this discussion, and I think the social involvement is very important in general for the work of Ai Weiwei, but especially in the architecture.  What he was telling me is that he is very concerned to bring architects from all over the world to China and to bring theoretical and intellectual and cultural input. Because in his opinion there is a lot of building in China going on, but there is very few theoretical discussion.”

(Yilmaz Dziewior, director of the Kunsthaus Bregenz)

Read about Ai Weiwei’s blog here

In 2006, even though he could barely type, China’s most famous artist started blogging. For more than three years, Ai Weiwei turned out a steady stream of scathing social commentary, criticism of government policy, thoughts on art and architecture, and autobiographical writings. He wrote about the Sichuan earthquake (and posted a list of the schoolchildren who died because of the government’s “tofu-dregs engineering”), reminisced about Andy Warhol and the East Village art scene, described the irony of being investigated for “fraud” by the Ministry of Public Security, made a modest proposal for tax collection. Then, on June 1, 2009, Chinese authorities shut down the blog.

Read an excerpt from Ai Weiwei’s Blog (p. 100)

Hypnosis and Fragmented Reality: Li  SongSong

November 4, 2006

“Hypnosis” generally refers to the use of special techniques to bring a subject into a state similar to sleep. Or rather, it is guiding the hypnotized subject to lose control of his or her proactive state, leading to a weakening or loss of decision-making ability and self-control.

Perception, thoughts, volition. and emotions all melt away as the subject accepts the induction and suggestions of hypnosis.

Li Songsoug was born in 1973. When he was three years old, Mao Zedong left this earth, and in that same year the Tangshan earthquake ended 240,000 lives in a single night. It was a fabled farewell to the reign of terror that had ruled this land for the previous few decades, a valedictory to the brutal realities of class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Watch an excerpt from the Frontline documentary about Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei



Born August 28

Tasha Tudor (born August 28, 1915) – U.S. children’s book illustrator, author – Edgar Allan Crow (1953)


August 29

Rene Depestre
René Depestre (born August 29, 1926) – Haitian / French poet, novelist, activist

An interview (in French) of René Depestre about his latest (2016) novel Popa Singer

Depestre wins 2016 Grand Prize from la Société des Gens De lettres (SGDL) for his body of literary work (in French) here:

Read about René Depestre here and here and (in French) here.

Today it is not a question of affirming black cultures versus others. The colonial or racial question has been replaced by the issue of globalization. If the latter remains strictly financial, we are heading for disaster. To have ultramodern airports is not sufficient if we don’t have the Airbuses of the imagination to take off. What is cruelly lacking in globalization is “globality” – in other words the totality of the values of different civilizations. Globalization should also provide the opportunity to raise the level of solidarity in the world for those who have been left behind.

Depestre on not being an exile:

Personally, I don’t consider myself to be an exile. This might appear as a paradox, because traditionally exile is associated with sadness, nostalgia, and mourning. Fortunately, I don’t live my exile in those conditions. I left Haiti at an early age, but I decided to take my roots with me. Most Haitians, especially those who live in Canada or the U.S.A., are deeply affected by their exile and often suffer passively instead of using it as an element of their own creation. They live their exile as a mourning with all the nostalgia, the sadness, the sausade as the Brazilians say. Most Haitians feel this sausade, and some of them turn to alcoholism and lose gradually their sense of creation. For my part, I write; I manage to put some distance from my past, from the Haitian tragedy. On the one hand, you have the tragedy of a country that is today dying, and, on the other hand, it is the tragedy of people like myself, who can’t do anything about it. All we have left is the power of the imaginary to prevent us from disappearing.

(Callaloo Vol. 15, No. 2, Spring, 1992)

Read a poem Depestre dedicated to his friend, Gerald Bloncourt, published in February 1946, when Depestre and Bloncourt were 19 years old.

Hasta la vista…

À mon camarade

Gérald Bloncourt

Bourreaux rendez-moi mon ami / Executioners, give me back my friend

bourreaux rendez-moi la colère de ses yeux / executioners, give me back the anger in his eyes

entre mille trahisons / from a thousand betrayals

vous avez choisi un lourd matin d’exil ! / you have chosen a heavy morning for exile!

Mais là-bas aussi il luttera contre vous. / But from there he will also fight against you.

Que savez-vous des lèvres qui s’entendent / What do you know of what is heard from his lips

que savez-vous de lui, que savez-vous de la Révolution / what do you know of him, what do you know of the Revolution

pour vous le monde a des limites / for you the world has limits

pour vous la vie est un petit cercle / for you life is a small circle

mais les buts sont pareils sur la terre de France ! / but the goals are the same on French soil!

Vous n’avez pas détruit nos foyers / You have not destroyed our homes

vous n’avez pas coupé notre entente / you have not cut our alliance

bien haut par-dessus vos têtes d’assassins / high above your assassins’ heads

bien haut par-dessus tant de crimes / high above these many crimes

nos mains sont soudées par l’unique espérance. / our hands are joined by a single hope.

Qu’importe la distance qu’importent les vagues / No matter the distance, no matter the seas

qu’importe ce départ qu’importe l’au-revoir / no matter the departing, no matter the goodbye

le même soleil nous éclaire / the same sun shines on us

la même colère nous soulève / the same anger stirs in us

la Révolution est toute notre vie ! / the Revolution is our entire life!

Il y eut des hommes à Guernica / There were the men at Guernica

il y a des hommes dans mon pays / there are the men in my country

il y a des hommes sur la terre de France / there are the men on French soil

le même sang, le même espoir, le même amour. / the same blood, the same hope, the same love.

Que ce soit ici que ce soit Paris / Whether it be here, whether it be Paris

que ce soit Rio que ce soit Boston / Whether Rio, whether Boston

le seul soir qui compte, / the only thing that counts,

est celui de la Révolution ! / is the Revolution!

Bourreaux rendez-moi mon ami ! / Executioners, give me back my friend!

Vous ne l’avez pas tué / You have not killed him

vous ne l’avez pas brisé / you have not broken him

Bourreaux rendez-moi son âge / Executioners, give me back his time

que vous avez trahi ! / which you have betrayed!

Mais déjà il y a des feux sur les rivages de France / But already there are fires on the shores of France

mille visages attendent mille espoirs renaissent / a thousand waiting faces, a thousand hopes reborn

debout, soldats de la Révolution / stand up, soldiers of the Revolution

Voici venir Gérald BLONCOURT. / Here comes Gérald BLONCOURT

– René Depestre

(from a special edition of La Ruche newspaper,

 Saturday February 26, 1946)

Watch an excerpt from Haiti in All Our Dreams / Haïtï dans tous nos rêves


Born August 29

Dorothy Tennov (born August 29, 1928) – U.S. psychologist -Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love (1979)


August 30

Camilla Lackberg
Camilla Läckberg Eriksson (born August 30, 1974) – Swedish crime novelist

Read about Camilla Läckberg here and here

Camilla Läckberg talks about her goals and preferences


Born August 30

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (born August 30, 1797) – British novelist – Frankenstein


August 31

DuBose Heyward
DuBose Heyward (born August 31, 1885) – U.S. novelist, librettist, lyricist – Porgy (the novel, 1925) and Porgy (the play, 1927); co-librettist for Porgy and Bess (1935)

Read about DuBose Heyward here and here

Read about Heyward and Gershwin working on Porgy and Bess here

Read a blog post comparing differences between Heyward’s novel Porgy and the opera Porgy and Bess

Although the inhabitants of Catfish Row are primitives, they are not so by nature. For Heyward makes it crystal clear that the white people of Charleston, both upper-class and working class, have socially isolated the blacks among them. The law does not work for them, with its white enforcers seeing the blacks solely as vicious, potentially mobbish animals, useful solely in their remarkable physical strength as haulers of cotton, fishermen, or domestics. It is only their tribal solidarity and mutual loyalty that enables the inhabitants of Catfish Row to survive. Hence, Sportin’ Life, the octaroon, is expelled by the matriarchal Maria, for he lusts after white girls and subjects the community to lynching. No 1930s leftist could have painted a more realistic portrait of their economic and legal burdens.

It should be noted that Heyward’s novel probably could not be published today. Between the constant use of the “n” word and the dialect, publishers, whether academic or not, would catch hell if they reproduced it, even though the characters are strong, communal, rational and determined to survive as a group despite their miserable material circumstances.

Kendra Hamilton’s paper compares the fictional Porgy of Heyward’s novel with the real Porgy (Goat Cart Sam), and Charleston, South Caroliina, in the 1920s

The narrative of the man insiders knew as Goat Cart Sam–not “Goat Sammy,” as Heyward and the Charleston papers called him–is in some ways a personal narrative. My grandmother, Anna Hamilton, knew him as a girl growing up on Charleston’s “neck”-the area north of downtown that joins the peninsula to the mainland. The story Mrs. Dowling and my grandmother tell bears little resemblance to the one that Dubose Heyward was to tell.

“Oh, he was a mean man,” Mrs. Dowling said. “A drunk and whatnot . . . And that Bess business-it wasn’t no Bess. They just wrote it up as a story and put all this Sporting Life and stuff in it. Of course, there were people likethat . . .”

“No, they wasn’t no Bess,” my grandmother agreed, “but he had plenty of girlfriend. He used to beat ’em, beat ’em with his little goat whip.

“Us children been scared of him, that Sam,” she continued. “They said he was a ‘bad’ man, and you know any time they call someone a bad man, you kinda look at ’em out your eye sideways.”

White Charlestonians certainly noticed Sam, but it’s a fact that he would never have become central to the myth of the city had not Dubose Heyward, a marginally successful poet seeking some way of catapulting the divide between himself-an ill-educated though talented provincial-and the witty, Ivy-League sophisticates at the MacDowell Colony for writers, heeded the advice of his friends John Bennett and Hervey Allen and begun to look closer to home for the stuff of fiction.

While [Heyward] may well have seen African- Americans as “inheritor[s] of a source of delight I would have given much to possess,” he also saw them primitives whose existence justified the dominance of an aristocracy to which they were irremediably inferior. His antimodernist, paternalistic vision was tailor made for a white South still reeling from the twin blows of Civil War and post-war Depression and a white North alarmed by the swelling ranks of disaffected Southern blacks within its midst. Audiences responded viscerally to the book, and then the play (which had a triumphant run on Broadway), and still later the Gershwin opera, though the MGM film flopped. The real Goat Cart Sam and the real African-American community quickly became irrelevant to forces that ignored the conditions of their lives in order to turn them into intellectual property.

Cab Calloway performs “It Ain’t Necessarily So”

from the Porgy and Bess opera

Cab Calloway

London theatre production of Porgy and Bess – “It Ain’t Necessarily So”

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong sing “Summertime” (lyrics by DuBose Heyward)

Porgy & Bess 1957 vinyl LP

Born August 31

William Saroyan (b. 1908) – U.S. novelist playwright, story writer – The Human Comedy 


September 1

Nelson George
Nelson George (born September 1, 1957) – U.S. novelist, filmmaker, cultural critic – The Plot Against Hip Hop (2011)

Read about Nelson George here and here

Nelson George reflects on how the 1960’s American Civil Rights movement is depicted in film and literature

All manner of documentary and feature films, from earnest biographies to goofy musicals, have tried to illuminate, not just this period of American history, but also the myriad ways in which humans react when faced with profound moral choices. The latest cinematic endeavor is a feature adaptation of “The Help,” a 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett that has been on the best-seller list pretty much since its release and has been published in 35 countries.

A larger problem for anyone interested in the true social drama of the era is that the film’s candy-coated cinematography and anachronistic super-skinny Southern belles are part of a strategy that buffers viewers from the era’s violence. The maids who tell Skeeter their stories speak of the risks they are taking, but the sense of physical danger that hovered over the civil rights movement is mostly absent. Medgar Evers is murdered in Jackson during the course of the story, but it is more a TV event, very much like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, than a felt tragedy.

Do the filmmakers put us inside the head of the black woman braving a gantlet of jeering whites to integrate a segregated school? Do we understand the strain on a white diner owner who finally allows blacks to enter his place despite the anger of his neighbors? It is this nuanced humanity that this movement demands.

That most Hollywood-created features have failed to reach this standard is no surprise. The film industry was as much a pillar of institutional racism as any business in this country. To indict American racism is, by definition, to attack the machine that created decades of stereotypes.

The fail-safe response for Hollywood has been to depict racial prejudice in cartoon caricature, a technique that has made the Southern redneck a cinematic bad guy on par with Nazis, Arab terrorists and zombies. By denying the casual, commonplace quality of racial prejudice, and peering into the saddest values of the greatest generation, Hollywood perpetuates an ahistorical vision of how democracy and white supremacy comfortably co-existed.

To protect viewers, sometimes at profound damage to the historical record, white heroes are featured and sometimes concocted for these movies, giving blacks a supporting role in their own struggle for liberation.

The other Hollywood fallback strategy when dealing with the movement (or race-themed film set in any period) is to employ “the Magic Negro,” a character whose function is to serve as a mirror so that the white lead can see himself more clearly, sometimes at the expense of the black character’s life. Sidney Poitier’s selfless convict in “The Defiant Ones” was probably the definitive Magic Negro role, though the formula has survived decades, from Will Smith’s God-like caddy in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” up to Jennifer Hudson’s helpful secretary in “Sex and the City” — just a few incarnations of this timeless saint.

The 300-pound gorilla of civil rights films remains the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There was a modest television mini-series starring Paul Winfield in the late ’70s, but the task of filming an ambitious, era-encapsulating fictional feature has enticed directors since his assassination in 1968. (“The Mountaintop,” a play with Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. King and Angela Bassett as a Memphis maid, coming to Broadway, will take a micro approach, looking at the last night of his life.)

Using Dr. King’s life as the through-line for a film about the civil-rights movement is the great white whale of historic filmmaking.

Nelson George talks about his life and growing up in New York City

Born September 1

Eleanor Hibbert (aka Victoria Holt; Philippa Carr; Eleanor Burford) (born September 1,  1906) – U.K. novelist – My Enemy, The Queen by Victoria Holt (1978)

September 2

 Tim Key (born September 2, 1976) – U.K. comedian, poet, performance artist – The Incomplete Tim Key

Read about Tim Key here and here

Poem #1070 UNTITLED

‘Can I have one more crumb please?’

Said the boy from the novel.


Said the mean character.

Then the author described the

dreadful carpets and said how cold it


Tim Key recites his poem about the Royal Wedding, “The Princess and the Frozen Peas”

Tim Key - Royal Wedding poem

Tanya Googled herself.    Still nothing.

Born September 2

Tom Glazer (born September 2, 1914) – U.S. folksinger, songwriter – Melody of Love

September 3

Naomi Lewis
Naomi Lewis (born September 3, 1911) – U.K. children’s literature anthologist, poet, teacher, literary critic – The Mardi Gras Cat: (1993)

Read about Naomi Lewis here and here and here

Following a number of jobs working as a teacher and a copywriter, she started her career as a writer after the Second World War by entering the weekly competitions run by the New Statesman. Quickly noticed by her contemporaries as an intelligent and insightful critic, she went on to produce regular articles for the New Statesman, as well as for The Observer, The Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times and the Listener. Her first published work, A Visit to Mrs. Wilcox (1957) included a selection of these articles and won immediate acclaim, becoming a Book Society recommendation. Over the sixty years of her literary career, Naomi Lewis produced a vast number of works; as a reviewer, an anthologist and as a poet in her own right.


The second child of four, she was born into a Latvian Jewish immigrant family in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Her father was a fish merchant, her mother a gifted artist and musician. Despite financial difficulties, the house was filled with music and the conversation of professionals and intellectuals. These early days spent playacting with her siblings and foraging for books in the attic bestowed on her that unique gift and probable source of all the best fairy tales: the happy childhood.

Lewis was a great admirer of Andersen and used her own affinity with the world of magic and fairy tale to translate his genius. It was not just her retelling of the stories that infused them with new energy, but the wonderful introductions that accompanied them; urging and explaining to young minds the individuality of each tale and the personality that had formed them.

When asked in an interview for the children’s book magazine Books for Keeps if she believed in fairies, Lewis replied: “Of course, but I am never sure if they believe in me.” Another of her favourite ideas was the fine line between the worlds of reality and magic. Was she perhaps thinking of this when she came across the crime writer Julian Symons fast asleep in front of the fire that used to be kept at the reading room of the London Library? Mischievously, she left a note on his lap with the message “All is discovered, fly at once!” and claimed never to have seen him there again.

[The Guardian obituary, July 14, 2009]

She gained wide renown through the evening classes that she ran at the City Literary Institute for 40 years. The curriculum stemmed entirely from her own personality and her experience as reader and writer. It was a course in “creative writing” long before the universities gave the subject official status, and such was its success that students each year suffered withdrawal symptoms and kept coming back for more. “The best thing in my life,” said one.

[The U.K. Sunday Times obituary, July 10, 2009]

Read Book Maven’s blog post about Naomi Lewis and her memorial service here

A very frail Russell Hoban, now in his ’80s, surmised that a healed animal of some kind had “put a cross on Naomi’s door” and there were many reminiscences of her rescuing creatures, especially pigeons. We even heard a BBC recording of Naomi herself talking about untangling pigeons’ feet from the threads that cripple them in London streets.

There were memories of Naomi’s flat in Red Lion Square from those lucky enough to get into it (Russell Hoban talked about how he and Leon Garfield had speculated about penetrating that inner sanctum but never succeeded). Antonia Robinson mentioned the tottering piles of books six feet or more high and the mazes she had to walk between them, sternly adjured “not to touch anything.”

Naomi used to pretend to be a witch as often as a good fairy to the many children of her acquaintance and to be able to grant wishes. Sophie Herxheimer the illustrator re-told how a wish Naomi had given her mother, Susan Collier, as a teenager was used thirty years later to ensure the safe return of Charlie the cat, who had been missing for days. How pleased Naomi must have been to hear that story!

Listen to a reading of Naomi Lewis’ translation of “The Princess and the Pea” by Hans Andersen

Born September 3

Mort Walker (born September 3, 1923) – U.S. cartoonist – Beetle Bailey

Spike Feresten (born September 3, 1964) – U.S. television comedy writer – Seinfeld (Soup Nazi episode)



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