Scoping my inbox

Friday, October 17, 2014

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I often complain about some of the strange and hateful emails I get. However lately, the opposite kind of random emails have been falling into my inbox. They are filled with kindness from strangers and beautiful things. One such email I received recently is from artist, Philipp Haager, whom I wrote about here.

There’s something about Philipp’s work that just speaks to me on a visceral level, primarily, and then I move on to consider the intellectual implications of it. Not all art follows this logic for me, sometimes the intellect dominates and I feel like I’m doing a disservice to both the artist and their work. At the same time, I’m increasingly unwilling to bend the intellect to any will but its own. Isn’t it lovely though when emotions and thought combine through a piece of art? That’s how I feel about Philipp’s work.

I re-read what I wrote about his work and this passage is worth repeating when describing it: “The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Romantic paintings I am familiar with symbolise a different conceptual world where form is grand, but self-contained. Haager’s paintings, on the other hand, require the viewer’s participation alongside the artist’s vision. These are paintings that are so layered, they literally require you as the viewer to interpret them through your own vision – they move you back into the outside world, and into context. This movement back to the external world of the viewer is a postmodernist tendency that self-reflexively reminds us that all art is the product of a specific time and specific place, rather than something that emerges pristinely transcendent, rooted in an ahistoric Sublime. In a sense, Haager simultaneously calls upon a Romantic ethos while requiring a postmodernist response; and this is an exciting contradictory pull that seeks a ‘both-and’ relationship with art.”

The images above are updated room-shots from Philipp’s last show, Paramountscope, combining paintings he worked on for several years and shown in several exhibitions. In the document Philipp sent me, these paintings are described as a process of “constant questioning of the meaning of the image itself: What we see and how we see, the changing nature of our gaze. The exhibition title alludes both to the dramatic, cinematic aspect of large-format pictures as well as to an inquiry into the visual essence of our media-attuned perception as reflected in painting. Similar to double exposures in photography, or the restoration and digitalisation of old (film) material, the artist has reworked what are in some cases older works that have already been exhibited under a different title or in a different format and rearranged them for this show.”

There’s so much I want to write in response to this, perhaps I will at a later date when I have more time. But in the meantime, you can gaze at some of his images.

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On a somewhat related note, a few weeks ago I received the longest, but also one of the kindest, most sensitive and intelligent emails from someone who reads my blog. It shouldn’t matter that he was a man, and really I’m not in favour of giving guys a cookie every time they act decently to female bloggers. But I do want to point out: women bloggers get a lot of crap thrown their way. I don’t pretend that the emails I get, and have gotten, even compare to some of the constant barrage that other women writers receive. In comparison, my situation is relatively mild. However, when a man who reads your blog sends you a supportive email instead of an abusive one, it can’t help but feel like a glimmer of hope – hope that the loudest misogynist voices can be counteracted by others. So if you’re a man who loves reading a woman’s blog, send her a kind email. Seriously, we get told to shut up all the time; for being too smart/too dumb, too pretty/too ugly; or, for whatever flavour of the month insult it is; or, for simply existing. It would be nice to hear from those who refuse to tell women to go sit quietly in their corner.

And, thanks Andrea!

Images, from top to bottom: Paramountscope, Strzelski Galerie, Stuttgart 2013 (f. l.: n. T. (white); Nearfield, Phase 13; Paramountscope, Strzelski Galerie, Stuttgart 2013 (f. l.: Nearfield, Phase 15 / melting memory (red), Nearfield, Phase 16 / melting memory (green); Paramountscope, Strzelski Galerie, Stuttgart 2013 (f. l.: Nearfield, Phase 15 + 16, Phase 11 (Vers. 2); Paramountscope, Strzelski Galerie, Stuttgart 2013 (v. l. “Tale about a chinese moon”, Phase 14, Misty Memory, Abstract Painting No. 1 (white).

All images are copyrighted to Philipp Haager.

“Then I take a deep breath, and lie”

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Alone

I read this article by Etgar Keret and felt more comforted by its lack of comfort than anything else I’ve read lately. Keret doesn’t provide me with a ‘Moral of the Story’ for Yom Kippur, but just a story that points to our inconsolable imperfectness, and the perfection of our vulnerability. I don’t like moralising, didactic points from personal narratives, or linking those holidays which mean so much to Jews around the world with some grand gesture about the world. I like something that reminds me of how weird we all are – we bizarre human beings and all the stupid but lovely things we do.

It’s customary to ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, to atone for any hurt you may have caused. I would ideally like to do so too. At the same time, I know this gesture, when ritualised, can become cliché. In order to remind me how it’s not cliché, how it’s profound and essential, Keret also reminds me that as he asks for forgiveness, he prepares to lie. I like that:

“I remember going home from school on that day. I rode my bike, the pedals turned easily, the road felt smooth, and even the uphill parts felt like they were downhill. I never saw her again, but since then, whenever I have a strong urge not to tell the truth, I think of her outside her high-school classroom, smiling broadly, her face full of pimples, saying she accepted my apology. Then I take a deep breath, and lie.”

Image credit: Alone by Emilio Longoni.

A Year of Beauty

Thursday, September 18, 2014

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Photo: Amber Scott by Justin Ridler

Drest in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
The neck that made that white robe wan,
Her stately neck, and arms were bare;
Her blue-veined feet unsandl’d were,
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair.
I guess, ’twas frightful there to see
A lady so richly clad as she—
Beautiful exceedingly!

--From “Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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To help celebrate The Australian Ballet’s launch of its stunning new 2015 season, A Year of Beauty, I’ve compiled my own ode to beauty. If you’d like to take part on Instagram, the hashtag #whatisbeauty will take you to all things ballet and beautiful.

Found here are some beautiful images coupled with some beautiful words...

Full disclosure: I do write for The Australian Ballet, and although I’m biased, I am totally besotted with the 2015 season. It is worthy of a million blog posts. So enjoy!

Giselle 

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Photo: Juliet Burnett and Adam Bull by Georges Antoni

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes

--From “She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron (George Gordon)

The Sleeping Beauty

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Photo: Lana Jones by Georges Antoni

She sleeps: her breathings are not heard
In palace chambers far apart.
The fragrant tresses are not stirred
That lie upon her charmèd heart.
She sleeps; on either hand upswells
The gold-fringed pillow lightly prest:
She sleeps, nor dreams, but ever dwells
A perfect form in perfect rest.

--From “The Sleeping Beauty” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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Photo: Chengwu Guo and Madeleine Eastoe by Georges Antoni

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

--From “La Belle Dame sans Merci” by John Keats

20:21

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Photo: Andrew Killian by Justin Ridler

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

--From “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats

Cinderella

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Photo: Amber Scott by Lynette Wills

Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

--From Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Swan Lake

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Photo: Amber Scott and Adam Bull by Liz Ham 

I love thee, mournful, sober-suited Night!
When the faint moon, yet lingering in her wane.
And veil’d in clouds, with pale uncertain light
Hangs o’er the waters of the restless main.

--From “To Night” by Charlotte Smith

Exit by way of here...

All images are used here with permission from The Australian Ballet. Please seek permission if you’d like to re-blog.

Nausea

I woke up today with a horrible headache and nausea. I’ve been feeling this way for the past few days. I know exactly what’s causing it: work/deadlines stress. This is called life and it’s pretty normal stuff.

Here’s something that isn’t ordinary that causes nausea too.

How do I separate my ordinary nausea from this one – this one that I seem to write about repetitively and futilely? I don’t even know what to write anymore.

I will say this though. I know my nausea in all its forms is a privilege. It’s the privilege of being alive. There are 6 million people who don’t have that privilege, who are not here to speak for themselves, and who did not die so we can keep abusing their deaths, their innocence and their memories.

Europe and the UK are pretty unpleasant places to be a Jew right now. I find myself negotiating basic things, like what kind of jewellery to put on (better not wear that Star of David necklace I got from my grandmother), or who will recognise my very Jewish and very Israeli name and react badly (this has happened, usually from men, and it’s very intimidating). I find myself frustrated at the smug banality of other people’s reactions and slogans, and the self-congratulation of ‘respectable’ middle-class people who tsk tsk at all the ‘savages’ in the Middle East, but who casually contribute to the rise of both anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiments in their own countries.

But all of this comes with the knowledge that I have the privilege of being alive. So I’ll take my nausea and my tears, and I’ll take my rage and shaking hands, and I’ll take my daily negotiations. What I will not take is the minimising and appropriating of 6 million Jews, over and over again.

I would like everyone to visit Auschwitz. Go stand in that pit of pure hell and then tell me if you don’t feel nausea too. If you do, take it as a sign that your body knows, somewhere deep inside, what was done here, and that it will not let you stand by and watch as this hatred rises up again.

Not saying much

Monday, August 25, 2014

I’ve noticed today that most of my posts lately begin with ‘who the hell reads this blog anymore?’ I realise this is annoying to read as someone who isn’t the author of this blog. It’s not fishing for compliments, it’s me wondering what I’m doing, or not doing, with this blog. So many things are conspiring to not make me want to blog, not least of which is me not quite feeling like me.

It will take a while to get used to the changes that have occurred in my life, to really comfortably sink back into my skin. In Australia, even at my lowest point of ‘what am I going to do with my life/career’ panic, I always held onto this version of myself that I could comfortably sink into – it’s a version that I feel is me without the self-defensiveness, shyness, insecurity. It usually comes out through daydreams, or night-dreams, where I could picture stories in my head and just enjoy them. I haven’t been dreaming much lately – of course, I have normal dreams when I sleep, what I mean is, I don’t really feel like me enough to take those elaborate awake dreams with stories I like to make up. This may explain why I’m writing more poetry lately, because I find it easier to write disjointed, metaphorical sentences, rather than big long narratives.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s most likely a temporary thing. You don’t just make huge life changes and feel completely comfortable in a few short months. You certainly don’t when you do it alone. I’m not unhappy, there are many things in my life that have changed for the better, and for the first time I’m getting paid to do work I love full time. I feel useful, productive, appreciated. Those are not things to be diminished. But I don’t quite feel like me yet. This makes it hard to visit my blog and write. This place only makes sense when I make sense. But then, I do like that it exists and is here waiting for me when I need it.

Birthday

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Parisian Flower Market

It’s strange reading this birthday post from last year, because so much has changed, and yet so much is the same. It’s my birthday tomorrow. I have no profound thoughts, other than offering a poem and an image, and perhaps a suggestion that you can join me in my birthday gift to myself by donating money to Yad Vashem (or The Donkey Sanctuary, or anything else that reaffirms our humanity, if only for a brief moment).

The Garden by Moonlight
By Amy Lowell

A black cat among roses,
Phlox, lilac-misted under a first-quarter moon,
The sweet smells of heliotrope and night-scented stock.
The garden is very still,
It is dazed with moonlight,
Contented with perfume,
Dreaming the opium dreams of its folded poppies.
Firefly lights open and vanish
High as the tip buds of the golden glow
Low as the sweet alyssum flowers at my feet.
Moon-shimmer on leaves and trellises,
Moon-spikes shafting through the snow ball bush.
Only the little faces of the ladies’ delight are alert and staring,
Only the cat, padding between the roses,
Shakes a branch and breaks the chequered pattern
As water is broken by the falling of a leaf.
Then you come,
And you are quiet like the garden,
And white like the alyssum flowers,
And beautiful as the silent sparks of the fireflies.
Ah, Beloved, do you see those orange lilies?
They knew my mother,
But who belonging to me will they know
When I am gone.

Image credit: A Parisian Flower Market by Victor Gabriel Gilbert.

Interview with Erica Lorraine Scheidt

Friday, August 1, 2014

northern lights

About a year ago, I asked author and friend Erica Lorraine Scheidt to do an interview on her novel Uses for Boys (which I ‘reviewed’ here). My love for this book, and for this woman, has not waned. Life got in the way, as life often does, and we both forgot about this interview. And then yesterday, I received a surprise in my inbox when Erica sent her responses to those questions I asked.

I’m probably not the world’s best interviewer and some questions are a bit clumsy/mundane. But I want to end this week with something thoughtful, beautiful, and humane. So here it is. Thank you, Erica.


(P.S. The image above technically doesn’t have much to do with the interview, but it just ‘fits’ in my head somehow. Don’t ask me for logic right now. Image credit: Northern Lights by Sydney Mortimer Laurence.)

Hila Shachar: How did you become a writer?

Erica Lorraine Scheidt: When I was a kid, I was certain I was a writer. I dropped out of high school to become a writer, and then I dropped out of college to become a writer, and then another college, and then I moved to New Orleans to become a writer, and then I went to the The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics to become a writer. And then, like everyone else, I graduated from college, got a job, and never wrote again.

Some fifteen years later, I returned to writing. I quit my job, I wrote stories, I took classes, I spent time with writers I respect. I lost all my teenage bravado. I’m humbled by writing, I struggle with it. I want a beautiful paragraph. I throw away a million words for every few that I keep.

HS: What compelled you to write Uses for Boys?

ELS: I knew I wanted to write about girls. And I was writing all these stories (incomplete, fragmented stories) about adolescence and about loneliness and at the same time I was reading and rereading The Lover by Marguerite Duras and a lot of Jean Rhys and I started writing about a girl for whom sex was an anodyne against loneliness.

HS: As I was reading Uses for Boys, I felt like it was filling an unspoken void in terms of the types of books that I currently see being written for and marketed to girls and young women. I’m much more used to, for example, encountering typical romances in the genre of young adult fiction now. Maybe this is a generalisation, but I do feel Uses for Boys is different and has a different tone. Did you deliberately want to create a different type of story for young women and girls?

ELS: I was frustrated with a certain pattern, it’s the: adolescent girl has some trauma (loses a sibling, is raped) and then starts down a self-destructive path (bulimia, cutting, drugs), then she meets someone (sometimes a teacher, sometimes a coach, often a boyfriend) and finds something (long distance running, art, love) that helps her understand her inner strength, and she moves on trope. So much of adolescence is uneven, and growth is not always forward; sometimes it’s a cluster of awarenesses and sometimes it’s a sequence of setbacks and sometimes you have to trust yourself and sometimes that’s a terrible idea.

Because I was trying to work against easy answers, early drafts of Anna’s story weren’t very satisfying. Anna just kept running and looking and it took an act of will to get her to stop and stay and see what happens when she takes the story she was given and rewrites it.

That said, there’s a tremendous amount of young adult fiction that is startling and human and curious and visceral. Brooklyn Burning by Steve Brezenoff is a favorite. And, Skim, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki.

HS: I stated before that I love Anna like a friend, or a sister, or even a part of my teenage self, even though I had a much better and different childhood. Did you intend to make her such a relatable character?

ELS: I can relate to her. God, she seems so relatable to me. She’s me, she’s my best friend, she’s my goddaughter—and yet she’s also not. I was so heartened when a young reader said:

>>>> “I’m 13, and I’m reading this book…It’s definitely one of my favorite books. It’s so real, so poetic, and it’s the fact that everything in this book, all the wonderful and all the terrible little things, can happen to anyone.”<<<<

And I have to say, I didn’t realize how dark everyone would find the book. I saw Anna as always trying so hard to be true to herself and to make a place for herself in the world.

HS: I have to confess to feeling quite angry when I read some of the negative reviews of Uses for Boys, some of which are basically victim-blaming and slut-shaming. Were you surprised by this reaction to Anna as a character?

ELS: I don’t know if I was surprised, because honestly I didn’t know what to expect. And I knew the story was more raw and explicit than most stories about adolescent girls. I was saddened by a few reader comments about the sexual assault—I wondered, is it because we don’t talk about the unsettling, unexpected reactions of survivors after a sexual assault? I know we all want there to be this clear marker: this is rape and this is what a survivor feels after rape. But I was much more interested in the messy complexity of Anna’s experiences.

HS: By the end of the book, I felt very protective of Anna. She inspires a raw, visceral response. Could you talk a bit about how she came to be – how you shaped her as a character and what inspired you to create her.

ELS: I don’t know if I could have done that on purpose. A lot of readers say things like they just wanted to hug Anna or hold her or protect her. I do think writing—and reading—is a form of empathy. And that it’s the mix of our unexpected frailties, strange resiliencies, problematic desires, and misguided actions that make us such empathetic creatures.

HS: Anna’s friendship with Toy is particularly interesting. I also found Toy’s name very interesting and thought about its significance. I was wondering of Toy acts as a type of ‘foil’ for Anna, or whether for you she has a different role in the story.

ELS: I was very angry at my best friend when I was writing the book. I felt like my real life would never measure up to her fantasy life and even though I was in my late thirties, and we’d been friends for more than twenty years, I felt like I couldn’t get this friend to really see me. That’s the genesis of Toy.

But as she became a character, I thought of Toy as a child who had suffered things so horrible that fantasy was her only possible response. I don’t know if she’s a foil. I saw her and Anna employing different, though both learned, responses to their loneliness.

I have no explanation for the name. It just came to me. And I’m inexplicably charmed by the name Toy, although I’m not sure that’s warranted.

HS: One of the saddest things for me about Anna’s childhood is her lack of family. And by ‘family’, I don’t mean some stereotypical image of the traditional nuclear family, but simply, a sense of belonging or enveloping, and love. Or in Gail Jones’ better words in Dreams of Speaking, “a space into which her self could be poured, without erasure.” Was this a clear theme you had in mind when you first started writing Uses for Boys, or is it something that developed along with the story and with Anna?

ELS: Hila, yes.

And that’s exactly what the book became about—I didn’t know it when I started. At first I thought the book was about boys, and then I thought it was about best friends, and then about the mom, and finally, only when I was finished with the final revisions and it was at the publisher’s, turning into a book, did I realize it was a story about family.

Family is a talisman-like word to me. A magical word that’s about belonging and being claimed. It’s no surprise that as I was finishing the book, I fell suddenly and startlingly in love with a woman and her daughter and we three made a space where our whole selves are poured without erasure.

HS: It’s hard not to talk about gender with regard to Uses for Boys, as it seems to so truthfully highlight the gender roles boys and girls are expected to play out as they get older. Is this a deliberate critique in the book?

ELS: Yes. Sometimes I feel like my whole life and all of my actions are a deliberate critique on gender roles. And especially now that I write for and work with girls—how is that that sexuality has become our one innate power? That sexuality is the last thing that the powerless can trade on? That we can be sexualized by others without our consent? How did this happen? I both want to work to dismantle it and so often I cannot stomach it. I feel a dark, bleak, grief in how our girls are systematically sexualized and made to feel powerless. I know you know what I mean. I know it’s one of the things we connect on, Hila, across continents, that sometimes our grief for the human race is something we are wailing and wailing and yet our voices are tiny and without weight.

HS: One of the most honest things for me about this book is its attitude to sex, especially in relation to teenage girls. Could you talk a bit about this and why you felt it important to portray sex so honestly?

ELS: Thanks for this question. I really love to talk and write about the weird, visceral, reality of two bodies together—especially when you’re young and you’ve never had that kind of intimate exposure to another person’s body. Our own bodies are so mysterious, but then, under the umbrella of “sex” we get to touch all these strange foreign parts of another person’s body. It’s comical, and nonsensical, and mystical, and really, just damn cool.

HS: Storytelling plays as important role in Anna’s relationship with her mother as well as with Toy – could you talk about the significance of telling stories in Uses for Boys?

ELS: A lot of the motif of storytelling comes from how I see the world. Our families give us stories to understand the world, and over time these stories change, or they don’t fit, or they do. And we tell ourselves stories about ourselves, and those stories change over time, and they become outdated and they don’t work anymore, and we need new stories.

A lot of Uses for Boys follows Anna as she learns to rewrite the story she’s been give. I’d love to think that’s our one great power, that we can write our own stories. That telling our stories is a brave and powerful act. That telling our stories makes us less alone.

HS: What young adult fiction do you love and recommend? What’s the first book you remember making a strong impact on you? What general books do you think every girl should read, or be given?

ELS: Here’s a few. The first one, the one I feel like I’m always writing toward, is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. That was the most powerful book I read as a child. As a teenager, I read Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr., and it was astonishing. I had no idea you could do that with language and story and character. I’ve read The Lover by Marguerite Duras dozens of times and it contains so much about the slipperiness of language and memory and how we tell the same story over and over. More recently I was heavily influenced by Exquisite Paine by Sophie Calle, which manifests how our stories change over time and in relation to others’ stories. I am bowled over by The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell. I’ve read it twice in a row now and it feels like the only thing I want to read. I’m also rereading the essays in Madness, Rack, and Honey by the poet Mary Ruefle. Especially the title essay. And Mary Oliver’s Stag’s Leap, the book about her divorce. This essay, by Bethany Rose Lamont, called “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, has been hugely influential in terms of thinking about how our stories change over time. It appeared in Rookie.

Rookie has the writing that most gets under my skin lately. It’s written for teenagers. The other YA that gets me: I already said Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. I love AS King, especially Everybody Sees the Ants, and Ask the Passengers. Her books don’t pretend that everything makes sense. Also Dirty Wings by Sarah McCarry is the book that I would have carried and around and read out loud and dogeared the pages when I was a teenager.

This is not YA, probably, but maybe it is. I love this essay by Roxane Gay, “What we Hunger for.” Maybe anything by Roxane Gay.