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|Sheila Heti (born December 25, 1976) – Canadian fiction and nonfiction writer, performance artist|
Q: Is an MFA not something available at the University of Toronto? Or were you not interested in being taught writing?
Sheila Heti: It’s probably offered, but it just never appealed to me, going to school to write; it always seemed like something you had to learn on your own – like having sex, I wouldn’t go to school for that either. You do it until you figure it out, and the figuring it out is part of the fun. It should be natural, not institutional. Besides, for me, the essential joy of making art is that it has nothing to do with anyone else.
The Poet and the Novelist as Roommates by Sheila Heti (Brown Bunny Magazine, January 23, 2011)
Sheila Heti reads her letter of support for Temesgen Gebreyesus, an imprisoned Eritrean journalist.
(Read more about Temesgen Gebreyesus here and here and in the Human Rights Watch report on Eritrea’s political prisoners, page 16)
Born December 25
|David Sedaris (born December 26, 1956) – U.S. comedian – SantaLand Diaries (1992)|
He’s a writer who still can’t quite believe his good fortune, despite nine million book sales that say: “Believe it.”
Sedaris was born in upstate New York, but grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. He’s the second of six children, all of whom – along with his mother Sharon and father Lou – figure prominently in his stories. The quest for attention, and the love of storytelling, he says, began around the family table.
“All we ever wanted was to make our mother laugh, and she was generous with her laughter. She wasn’t a fool, though. She would say, ‘That went on way too long’ or ‘I’ve heard that before.’ Even at the time, I remember thinking, ‘I think this is different than other people’s lives.’ ”
If young David had high ambitions, he kept them to himself. He dropped out of college, twice. He did way too many drugs, and kept together with a series of low-paying jobs. One of those jobs was as a Christmas elf at Macy’s department store in New York City.
“I don’t have any skills, and I’m small, so they hired me,” he said.
That led to his story, “Santaland Diaries”: “I wear green velvet knickers, a forest green velvet smock and a perky stocking cap decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform.”
[from a CBS News article by Serena Altschul, “David Sedaris: A Writer’s Fairy Tale Life“]
Read excerpts from SantaLand Diaries
In order to become an elf, I filled out ten pages worth of forms, took a multiple choice personality test, underwent two interviews. and submitted urine for a drug test. The first interview was general, designed to eliminate the obvious sociopaths. During the second interview we were asked why we wanted to be elves, which, when you think about it, is a fairly tough question. I listened as the woman ahead of me, a former waitress, answered the question, saying: “I really want to be an elf? Because I think it’s about acting? And before this I worked in a restaurant? Which was run by this really wonderful woman who had a dream to open a restaurant? And it made me realize that it’s really really important to have a … dream?”
Everything this woman said, every phrase and sentence, was punctuated with a question mark and the interviewer never raised an eyebrow. When it was my tum I explained that I wanted to be an elf because it was one of the most frightening career opportunities I had ever come across. The interviewer raised her face from my application and said, ‘And…?”
I’m certain I failed my drug test. My urine had roaches and stems floating in it but still they called me back for another round of questioning. I met with the two head managers for a brief interview where they asked questions related to my interests and hobbies. I can’t recall my exact words but somewhere along the line I expressed an interest in whittling. In truth the only thing I’ve ever whittled is a bong. I was just searching for something elf-like and figured I’d pulled it off when they sent me downstairs to fill out a series of tax forms. Afterwards I was sent to a holding pen where I took a seat beside a female dwarf. This, I thought, was a good sign. Names were called and the smallest people were summoned into the managers office. After them went the guys with the biggest ears and the women without chins. I waited at long time. Just when I’d given up hope the manager cocked her finger and led me into her office where I was told,”Congratulations, Sir. You are an elf.”
I have spent the last several days sitting in a crowded, windowless, Macy’s classroom undergoing the first phases of Elf Training. This morning we were lectured by the SantaLand managers and presented with a Xeroxed booklet of regulations titled “The Elfin Guide.” Most of the managers are former elves who have worked their way up the candy-cane ladder but retain vivid memories of their days in uniform. Several of the bosses led us in motivational cheers, a concept which stuns me to the core. One guy rolled up his sleeves and yelled, GIVE ME AN S! “S,” WHERE’S MY A? “A!,” HOW ‘BOUT A BIG OL’ N? “N,” DID SOMEONE SAY T? “T,” LET’S GET A RECALL ON THAT A! “A!” What’s that spell? “SANTA!” WHO’S THE MAN?! “SANTA.” COME ON ELVES, FEEL GOOD ABOUT YOURSELVES, LET’S RAISE THE ROOF!!! SANTA, SANTA SANTA! It was his goal to send chills down our spine and personally speaking I think he did an excellent job. I was mortified.
They closed the meeting saying, “I want you to remember that even if you are assigned Photo Elf on a busy weekend, YOU ARE NOT SANTA’s SLAVE.”
David Sedaris performs “Six to Eight Black Men“
Born December 26
Narendra Prasad (born December 26, 1946) – Indian playwright, novelist, actor, theatre director
Alejo Carpentier (born December 26, 1904) – Cuban novelist / essayist – The Kingdom of This World
|Greg Mortenson (born December 27, 1957) – U.S. humanitarian – Three Cups of Tea (2006)|
Read about Greg Mortenson here
Reflecting on the state of a post-9/11 world, Mortenson advocates in his books and during his speaking engagements that extremism in the region can be deterred through collaborative efforts to alleviate poverty and improve access to education, especially for girls. Formerly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, schooling focused on boys. Because educated boys tend to move to the cities to find jobs, they seldom return. By contrast, educated girls tend to remain in the community and pass their enhanced knowledge to the next generation, thus, Mortenson suggests, educating girls has more of a lasting benefit for their community. [from Wikipedia]
Read a summary of Jon Krakauer’s “Three Cups of Deceit,” which claims that Greg Mortenson has used the majority of funds received for personal gain rather than building and operating schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Mortenson has built some schools in remote areas and deserves credit for that, Krakauer writes. But he hasn’t been as successful at putting teachers and students in the buildings, the author says, or building nearly as many as he claimed. Staff at CAI are mostly devoted to supporting the promotional activities, Krakauer says, rather than actually getting schools staffed and functioning.
Read Mahvesh Khan’s opinion article about the Greg Mortenson scandal
Although his story might have inspired Americans to hope for a better future as regards their relationship with Pakistan, the lies he told destroyed his credibility and provided one more reason for cynicism in a turbulent world. I am Pakistani. I grew up here in Pakistan, I was educated here, I work here. Therefore, I understand and, to an extent, share certain perspectives with my fellow countrymen. These include the idea that all non-governmental organizations (NGOs) funded by the Americans are fronts for the CIA. Americans working in the development sector and caught telling lies are automatically used as further evidence for this view.
My second point is that a “serious and large-scale engagement” with the American public is not necessary for Pakistan to turn its education system around. The only engagement Pakistan requires is with its own self. This I hold to be true for any Pakistani system, education or otherwise. Leaders for social change emerge from the struggle within their own societies. They do not visit the society in question from time to time, inject a little money to assist a certain project, then go off home to continue with their other, more comfortable lives.
Born December 27
Mirza Ghalib (born December 27, 1796) Urdu-Persian poet
Kevin Patterson (born December 27, 1964) – Canadian novelist, short story writer, M.D. – Consumption – A Novel (2007)
|Liu Xiaobo (born December 28, 1955) – Chinese professor, human rights activist, 2010 Nobel Prize winner|
Read a 2015 update on Liu Xiaobo in the U.K. Guardian:
Liu Xiaobo was formally arrested by the Beijing Public Security Bureau on June 23, 2009 and charged with “inciting subversion of state power” for co-authoring Charter 08, a declaration calling for political reform, greater human rights, and an end to one-party rule in China that has been signed by hundreds of individuals from all walks of life throughout the country.
The son of a university professor, during the Cultural Revolution he followed his parents to the Inner Mongolian countryside, where he stayed from 1969 till 1973. He then spent more than two years in a rural people’s commune in his home province of Jilin, and was given a job as a construction worker in Changchun in 1976.
When Communist Party Chair Hua Guofeng re-established the national university entrance examination in 1977, Xiaobo was admitted to the Chinese department of Jilin University. He graduated in 1982 and entered Beijing Normal University where he was awarded his Ph.D in 1988.
Liu Xiaobo did not take part in the pro-democracy movement of the late 1970s. While Wei Jingsheng and his comrades were fighting for democracy, Liu was interested only in literature, writing poems, and reading Western philosophy.
He made a name as a literary critic when, in 1986, he wrote an article denouncing Chinese writers’ dependence on the state and their inability to think for themselves. The article had an enormous impact and he was labeled the “black horse” of China’s literary scene.
He was a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York when the 1989 pro-democracy movement erupted in China. Whereas many of his colleagues at home were seeking ways to go abroad, Liu immediately returned to China and spent most of his time in Tiananmen Square. Consequently, he left his apartment and was arrested on 6 June. Labelled a “black hand” behind the movement, he spent 20 months at Qincheng jail in Beijing.
On his release, he was a changed man. He wrote no more about literature, but joined the struggle for democracy, publishing articles in the Hong Kong media criticizing the Chinese government, and organizing petitions to denounce human rights violations.
The 4 June massacre had completely changed his outlook. A man who had been interested mostly in debating with the elites, discovered the courage, the intelligence, and the political sophistication of the common people – the lao bai xing.
[from an Amnesty International article by Jean-Philippe Béja]
Read Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08 manifesto here
“The Chinese people, who have endured human rights disasters and uncountable struggles across these same years, now include many who see clearly that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values.
By departing from these values, the Chinese government’s approach to “modernization” has proven disastrous. It has stripped people of their rights, destroyed their dignity, and corrupted normal human intercourse. So we ask: Where is China headed in the twenty-first century? Will it continue with “modernization” under authoritarian rule, or will it embrace universal human values, join the mainstream of civilized nations, and build a democratic system? There can be no avoiding these questions.
Born December 28
Shen Congwen (Shen Ts’ung-wen) 沈從文 (born December 28, 1902) – Chinese novelist – The Long River / Chang He (长河)
Mortimer J. Adler (born December 28, 1902) – U.S. philosopher, essayist – How To Read a Book (1940)
|Gilbert Adair (born December 29, 1944) – U.K. film critic, screenwriter, playwright, novelist|
He was the author of five novels, including The Holy Innocents (1988), which won the Authors’ Club First Novel Award, Love and Death on Long Island (1990), which was made into a film by Richard Kwietniowski in 1998, and later, A Closed Book (1999), a literary thriller about a prize-winning novelist left blind after a serious car accident. He also wrote a parody of Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, sequels to Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan and a number of books of non-fiction, including Hollywood’s Vietnam (1981) and The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice (1992).
[from the British Council of Literature bio]
Gilbert Adair was for two years at the end of the last century the chief film critic of The Independent on Sunday. As he pronounced upon, damned and just occasionally approved of the week’s offerings, he did so in a voice that deprecated its owner’s undeniable cinephile authority – a ludic, knowing quality that extended beyond his writing on film. His irresistibly playful fiction ranged from Agatha Christie pastiches (the Evadne Mount trilogy) to literary thrillers (A Closed Book), via imagined further adventures of Peter Pan and Lewis Carroll’s Alice.
In Gilbert Adair’s And Then There Was No One (2009), the third of his pastiches of Agatha Christie’s detective stories, a writer called Gilbert Adair is lacerated thus by a reader: “Postmodernism is dead … Nobody gives two hoots about self-referentiality any longer, just as nobody gives two hoots, or even a single hoot, about you. Your books are out of sight, out of sound, out of fashion and out of print.”
In the 1997 film of his novel Love and Death on Long Island, Giles De’Ath (John Hurt) finds himself in the wrong cinema. “This isn’t EM Forster,” De’Ath bawls fruitily at the screen. True. It is Hotpants College II, about randy undergraduates, starring Ronnie Bostock, with whom De’Ath becomes unrequitedly, but touchingly, obsessed, just as Von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice becomes obsessed with the boy Tadzio. Indeed, Adair wrote The Real Tadzio (2001), a biography of the boy who inspired Mann’s novella. Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Dreamers (2003), about an incestuous student menage a trois, was adapted by Adair himself from The Holy Innocents and was in part autobiographical.
Adair was born in Edinburgh. He made few details about his early life public, a reticence perhaps befitting a writer who erased himself from his books so assiduously. He told one interviewer he did not want to mention the university he attended (where he studied modern languages). In the late 60s, he left Britain for Paris to indulge his love of cinema. At the Cinémathèque Française, he found not just a spiritual home, but also became both “politicised and eroticised”. As he recalled: “It was a very sexy thing, and romantic, being with these young people watching old American movies, or being in the streets arm-in-arm …The whole thing was like a collective orgasm.”
Read the December 2011 U.K. Telegraph obituary for Gilbert Adair here
Parody and pastiche informed much of Adair’s wide-ranging work as a novelist, film critic and poet. He wrote a long poem riffing on Pope called ‘The Rape of the Cock’, and sequels to Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. His novel Love and Death on Long Island is a homage to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Even his most brilliant work of film criticism, Flickers: A History of the Cinema in 100 Images, could be seen as a parody of coffee-table film books: this collection of stills from the movies is glossed not with the usual banal commentary but with tangential, eccentric, often deeply personal essays.
Adair received much critical acclaim in recent years for two book-length Christie pastiches, The Act of Roger Murgatroyd (2006) and A Mysterious Affair of Style (2007). It is the tropes, structures and rhythms of the whodunit he is playing around with and, like Christie herself, his ingenuity is only fully apparent when the detective explains the clues and elucidates the mystery in the final chapter.
Until you get there it’s the digressions and arcane information that keep you entertained, especially on the subject of crime fiction. The Evadne books sit alongside the great critical studies by Dorothy L Sayers, Julian Symons and Michael Dibdin on my shelf.
The epigraph to one of the books is Alfred Hitchcock’s line, “cinema is not a slice of life but a slice of cake”; Adair is tipping us the wink that he’s offering us pure entertainment. But there is a third Evadne novel, And Then There Was No One (2009), which is a very different kettle of red herrings. It is set in the present day and narrated by an author attending a Sherlock Holmes festival in Switzerland. Gradually we discover that the narrator is Gilbert Adair himself, and things take a bizarre turn when he discovers that Evadne, the character he has created, is also at the festival.
It is an author’s worst nightmare: a confrontation with a character who knows her creator’s every flaw and failing and is prepared to fling them in his face. The honesty with which Adair faces his own regrets and inadequacies makes this book extremely poignant as well as riotously entertaining.
He was never a best-seller; as his Guardian obituary notes, when somebody mistook him for Red Adair, he replied “no, I’m unread Adair”. One can only hope that his death prompts more people to buy his books and give their little grey cells a work-out they’ll never forget.
Born December 29
William Gaddis (born December 29, 1922) – U.S. novelist – J R (1975)
Dallas Austin (born December 29, 1970) – U.S. songwriter
|Julia Briggs (born December 30, 1943) – U.K. biographer, professor of English literature – Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life (2005)|
At Oxford, while bringing up her family, she wrote a BLitt thesis on the English ghost story – not considered a proper subject for a doctorate – which became Night Visitors (1977), her first book. From 1978 she took up a permanent post as fellow of Hertford College, Oxford. In 1983 she published This Stage Play World: Texts and Contexts 1580-1625, revised in 1997 and still in use by students. She then devoted herself to finishing Donald Crompton’s book on William Golding, A View from the Spire (1985), after he died. In 1987 she published a life of the children’s writer and Fabian socialist, E Nesbit, A Woman of Passion, which contributed to the emerging study of children’s literature, as did Children and Their Books: a Celebration of the Work of Iona and Peter Opie (1989), co-edited with Gillian Avery.
She was a dedicated editor of Renaissance and modern writers alike, always fascinated by the evolution of a writer’s thought and imagination. The creative process is at the heart of her illuminating Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life (2005). She wanted to understand Woolf primarily through her books rather than her social milieu, capturing for her reader the excitement of the life of the mind.
The least territorial or rivalrous of colleagues, Julia was a nurturer of others, while insisting upon the highest standards of research. She was in her element supervising doctoral students, and they adored her. A natural supporter of the underdog, she was hugely sympathetic to the needs of mature students, and relished teaching adults in day schools and workshops throughout her life. [from the Guardian obituary by Alison Light]
Read Anne Fernald’s tribute to Julia Briggs here
I did not know her well but she always struck me as someone who had the hang of life. It’s not that life was easy for her. Often, when I saw her, she was or had been sad. But still she was so beautiful, such fun, so funny, so loving and generous. She just seemed to have the knack for being alive. That has long inspired me as it will continue to do. I know so few feminist academics who are so openly happy in both their work and their children and so knowing Julia was for me, a tremendous gift.
Born December 30
Alfredo Bracchi (born December 30, 1897) – Italian lyricist, scriptwriter
Joseph Rudyard Kipling (born December 30, 1865) – British author and poet – The Jungle Book (1894) (short stories)
|Machi Tawara (俵 万智 Tawara Machi) (born December 31, 1962) – Japanese poet|
Her first volume of tanka, Salad Anniversary, was published in 1987 and became an immediate bestseller with nearly three million copies in print. With this outstanding debut publication, she recieved the Modern Japanese Poets Association Award(1988). Her third collection of tanka, Chocolate Revolution, was published in 1997.
Machi Tawara reads some of her poetry:
Read about Japanese tanka verse here
“Your left hand exploring my fingers one by one maybe this is love”
[from Machi Tawara’s Salad Anniversary, English translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter]
A birthday I spend thinking
how a whole year is so short,
a single day so long.
[From Salad Anniversary, translated by Quentin S. Crisp]
[Read more of Tawara’s tanka verse here]
Born December 31
Siné (Maurice Sinet) (born December 31,. 1928) – French cartoonist
Odetta Holmes Gordon (born December 31, 1930; d. December 2, 2008) – U.S. Singer, songwriter, civil rights activist