Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Telling Difficult Stories in Interesting Ways

This week’s Lincoln Avenue is a little unusual, because I don’t often get to talk with writers about their work, and my conversation with Serbian author David Albahari was especially interesting. Albahari was invited to YSU as a guest of the Judaic and Holocaust Studies Center, largely because of his Holocaust novel, Götz and Meyer. The novel’s narrator is exploring his own family’s history, including some who were killed by two SS soldiers, Götz and Meyer, who drove a specially-fitted truck that would be filled with Jews from a Serbian labor camp, who were then murdered by carbon dioxide piped into the back of the truck as the two soldiers drove around Belgrade. The story is horrifying, and well worth reading simply as a window into the experience of those who survived the Holocaust and, at least imaginatively, those who contributed to the death toll.

But Albahari’s writing is equally interesting for its literary style. Both Götz and Meyer and Bait, another of his novels, are written as monologues, and each book comprises a single, albeit very long paragraph. In contrast, other books by Albahari use a very fragmented style, with multiple stories emerging through a series of short flashes. These stylistic experiments reflect the writer’s interest in postmodernism, with all the questions it raises about the nature of narrative and truth. To invite such questions about an event like the Holocaust is incredibly powerful. In Götz and Meyer, the narrator keeps trying to imagine how the two soldiers lived, how they thought about their work, their relationships with their families, and so on, but the long meditation also reflects on the narrator’s family history and his students’ responses to his historical research. These musings invite the reader to think about the human natures of both the killers and those who were killed.

Albahari’s comments on the subject and style of his work are interesting, and he also talks about what it was like to be Jewish in Belgrade before and after the dismantling of Yugoslavia.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

How we say it, how we sing it

This week, I’m talking with ethnomusicologist Aaron Fox, who directs the Center for Ethnomusicology at Columbia University, about his work on the language and sound of country music. His book, Real Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture, like our conversation, is both concrete and theoretical, getting at how people talk and sing and why it matters.

Aaron Fox has a good gig. For his book, he spent several years observing, interviewing, and even playing music in a honky-tonk bar outside of Austin, TX. These days, he’s spending time in Barrow, Alaska, working with the native Inupiat people, young and old, to return a collection of interviews, song performances, and documents that have been in the Columbia University archive. While that work involves very long flights from New York to Alaska, it’s also hands-on ethnomusicology, and that’s what seems to inspire Fox.

What I like best about Fox’s work is the idea that popular music matters. We listen to certain music, in certain ways, because of what it does for us. Music can express who we are, and it can shape our relationships with others. It can comment on everyday life or on politics, or both. I also appreciate how Fox links music with conversation, viewing both as ways that we use voice. He reminds us that it’s not just what we say that matters, but how we say it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

English Festival Celebrates 30 Years

From Wednesday to Friday this week, the YSU campus will become a busier place, as thousands of middle and high school students, their teachers, some parents, and visiting scholars and writers participate in the annual English Festival. This year, the Festival is especially exciting, because we are celebrating its 30th year. To mark the occasion, I talked with Gary Salvner, co-chair of the English Festival and chair of YSU’s English department, about the program’s history, how it works, and what’s planned for this celebration year. You can visit the Festival, in Kilcawley Center. Several sessions are open to the public, including the talks by writers at 9:25, 10:35, and 2:20 each day. Stop by the information table outside of the Chestnut Room for more details.

Our interview can’t fully convey the behind-the-scenes story of the Festival, but as a member of the English department, I see it all the time. Planning goes on all year. The committee, which includes both YSU faculty and area teachers, meets regularly to select books, identify guest speakers, organize the distribution of materials, plan the Festival schedule, recruit volunteers, and judge contests. While a dozen or so people do all the planning, another cadre of volunteers steps in during Festival week to lead discussions, staff information tables, and run workshops. It’s a time-consuming project, and the organizers commit incredible amounts of time and energy.

Why do all that work, year after year? Because the English Festival makes a difference for so many students in our community. By promoting the value of reading for pleasure as well as for study, by engaging students in creative writing and production of several kinds (essays, songs, videos, and more), and by recognizing the power of young adult literature, the English Festival helps to foster literacy and an appreciation for education among young people in our Valley. It also reminds students that reading and talking about literature can be fun. It all sounds very serious, but playing language games, debating aspects of the Festival books, and listening to visiting writers talk about their work is also a good time.

I bet a lot of WYSU listeners attended the English Festival sometime in the past 30 years. What do you remember about it? Did it make a difference for you?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Support Public Radio

Because it’s pledge week on WYSU, we’re not running Lincoln Avenue this week. If you miss it, show your support by making a pledge and tell the person who answers your call how much you like Lincoln Avenue!

Here’s why I believe in supporting public radio: it’s the closest thing we have to a truly free press in the U.S. Most other widely accessible, professional media outlets are business enterprises, so their fundamental purpose is to make money for the corporations that own them and the investors in those corporations. Even with the best of journalistic intentions, reporters, editors, commentators, and staff will be influenced and sometimes directly guided by the business interests of their owners. That might not mean giving a specific slant on a particular story, but it does affect the mix of stories available, because it’s all about numbers. To operate, the media relies on ads, and to sell ads, they need to attract viewers, so at least some of their editorial decisions will be focused on how to get more people to watch.

Now public radio also has to worry about numbers, but we do it without a profit motive. While NPR and WYSU locally rely on contributions and underwriting from business, a significant portion of our funding comes directly from the people who listen. In some ways, that increases the pressure to serve and engage the public. On the other hand, that gives us the freedom to tell stories and cover issues that might not be popular.

I’ve tried to do that on Lincoln Avenue – to bring in a variety of guests and perspectives, to question some of the conventional wisdom in the local community, to make people think. Thanks for supporting this program, and I hope you’ll extend your support to WYSU.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Solidarity with Chinese Workers?

This week’s Lincoln Avenue interview might be a bit tough for listeners in the Mahoning Valley, because it focuses on the problems faced by Chinese workers – the very people who are doing some jobs that used to be done here. So the first thing I asked my guest, Katie Quan, is why Americans should care about the situation of Chinese workers.

The answer isn’t revolutionary, but it does matter: it’s not just about human rights but of fair economic competition and the broader interests of workers around the world. Chinese labor is cheap because it’s so exploitative. Workers are regularly not paid; have almost no rights to object to their hours (she describes how some people work 17 hours days, 7 days a week), working conditions, or treatment; and don’t have the knowledge or skills to organize to stand up for themselves. Quan argues that the American labor movement can help Chinese workers fight for better conditions and better pay, largely through outreach that brings workers together across global divides. Chinese workers, she says, need to know that Americans care about their rights, not just buying cheap clothes. Quan has been working with American labor leaders to create a dialogue with Chinese workers. Last year, the Change to Win coalition of labor unions sent a delegation to China to explore strategies for building global solidarity.

Paradoxically, Quan also notes that the terrible situation she describes applies only to the lower class of Chinese workers. Labor laws protect most workers in China, but the largely migrant factory workers are especially vulnerable. Some have even been killed for trying to fight for their rights.

The point, I think, is that Americans who have lost jobs to Chinese workers should not blame the workers. We should look to the system and recognize that improving conditions for Chinese workers might help level the economic playing field a bit. And even if it doesn’t, we should not accept when any worker is poorly treated, underpaid (or not paid at all), and forced to work in unsafe conditions.