Nov 23, 2011

The Writer's Almanac for November 23, 2011

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Nov. 23, 2011

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For Anna Catherine on Thanksgiving

by Samuel Hazo,

The first girl in generations,
   you game when the century clicked
   from nines to zeroes to plus one.
Capped on a pallet, you flexed
   your toes and let us count
   your fingernails.
                              We studied you
   as our particular event,
   our small surprise, our bonus.
Months earlier, I prayed
   that you'd be born intact
   and healthy, and you were.
Today I wish you beauty, grace,
   intelligence—the commonplace
   grandfatherly clichés....
   makes us crave for those
   we love such bounties of perfection?
Life, just life, is never
   miracle enough no matter
   how we try to church ourselves....
Squirming in my arms, you save me
   from my tyranny of dreams
   with nothing but your version of a kiss
   and the sure, blind love of innocence.

"For Anna Catherine on Thanksgiving" by Samuel Hazo, from The Song of the Horse. © Autumn House Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of pop philosopher, historian, and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht (books by this author), born in Long Island in 1965. Hecht holds a Ph.D. in the history of science, a subject that fascinates her — and simultaneously convinces her that art trumps scholarship. She inhabits each world — teaching, studying, and publishing both poetry and historical, analytical nonfiction — but ultimately pledges allegiance, she says, to poetry. "If you look at a testimony of love from 2,000 years ago, it can still exactly speak to you, whereas medical advice from only 100 years ago is ridiculous," she said in an interview with the Center for Inquiry. "And so as a historian, I write poetry. I'm profoundly committed to art as the answer. Indeed, I don't put science really as the way I get to any of my answers; it's just helpful. It's poetry that I look to. It's the clatter of recognition. Everybody has different ways, but I attest that poetry works pretty well."

Hecht was speaking on the topic of her latest book, called The Happiness Myth: The Historical Antidote to What Isn't Working Today (2007), in which she argues that happiness is a phenomenon influenced far more by culture than by what we think of as scientific fact. In it, she writes: "We think our version of a happy life as more like physics than like pop songs; we expect the people of the next century, say, to agree with our basic tenets — for instance, that broccoli is good for a happy life and that opium is bad — but they will not. Our rules for living are more like the history of pop songs. They make their weird sense only to the people of each given time period. They aren't true."

It's the 31st birthday of memoirist Ishmael Beah (books by this author), born in Sierra Leone (1980) 11 years before a brutal civil war ripped his country apart, eventually killing half a million of his countrymen, aided by the recruitment and conscription of child soldiers. Beah was one of them.

His 2007 book, A Long Way Gone: Memoir of a Boy Soldier, tells the story of how, after he and a group of boys from his village fled from rebels, they were picked up by an army militia, plied with drugs "to give them energy," taught to fight with bayonets by practicing stabbing banana trees, and led into the jungles to do bloody battle against other bands of boys. Beah was 13; some of his friends were still so small that their AK-47s dragged on the ground. He was removed from fighting by UNICEF and taken to a rehabilitation center. From there, he moved to New York City, where he lived with a foster mother and attended two years of high school before entering college.

Beah's book came out not long after other, infamous memoirs were discredited; soon enough, journalists began investigating the credulity of Beah's story too. Several articles alleged that he had exaggerated his tale and had claimed he was younger and fought for longer than in actuality. Beah has always maintained that his version of events was accurate, and his defenders point to the trauma he undoubtedly experienced as an origin of any inconsistencies.

In any event, no one disputes that Beah fought in the war, experiencing far too much when he was far too young, and that he is one of the only child soldiers to chronicle this growing phenomenon. As he writes in the prologue to his book, when his American high school friends questioned him about his past and he admitted that he, like everyone in the country, had witnessed actual fighting with actual guns, they responded, "Cool." On that charge, at the very least, Beah's book sets the record straight.

It's the birthday of author Nirad C. Chaudhuri (books by this author), born in 1897 in what was then Bengal, a region of British-ruled India, but is today part of Bangladesh. He was the son of a lawyer, part of the Bengal Hindu aristocracy, and when his academic career came to a humiliating end upon failing to complete his master's degree, he took a job as a government clerk. He began publishing articles and reviews, and transitioned into a career of journalism.

Chaudhuri's own father considered him the only one of his six sons who would never amount to much. Ten years after leaving school, at the age of 34, he could not find a wife for himself in the Western style, as he was determined to do, and had to ask his father to find a match for him. He became the private secretary of a leader in the Indian National Congress and rubbed shoulders with figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, but his position only left him increasingly disillusioned about the future of Bengal.

He left the region for Calcutta and was a radio political commentator when, nearing his 50th birthday, in poor health and believing he probably only had a couple years left, he became depressed that India's imminent independence from Britain would end the Western influence he and the intellectual Bengali class had encouraged. Chaudhuri despaired that he had never achieved anything — and that it was probably too late.

He would write his memoirs, he decided; an account of his childhood set against the backdrop of the historical events and political climate that led to the decline of the Bengal Renaissance. Every day, before he left for work, he wrote 2,500 words.

When Chaudhuri published the The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian in 1951, at the age of 53, he ceased to be undistinguished — or unknown. The book was instantly decried in his native country, in part because its dedication was so inflammatory: "To the memory of The British Empire in India, which conferred subjecthood on us but withheld citizenship; to which yet every one of us threw out the challenge: 'civis britannicus sum,' ["I am a British citizen"] because all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule.'' Although Chaudhuri argued his dedication was meant as a condemnation of the hypocrisy and racism of British colonialism, to Indian nationalists it read too much like an apology for the same. He was forced from his job and widely scorned at home.

But not abroad. Chaudhuri's book found much acclaim in Britain and the United States. He was invited to visit England and contribute lectures to the BBC, which were collected in a book titled A Passage to England. E.M. Forster — author of the novel A Passage to India from which Chaudhuri had taken his book's name — reviewed it and said Chaudhuri had integrity, courage, and "a good English style." Chaudhuri himself once claimed he was "an Englishman except in birth," and remained a lifelong devotee of opera and classical music. In fact, on the night of his wedding, preoccupied that his new bride would not be sympathetic toward his passion for European music, he asked her to spell the word "Beethoven." Only after she did so correctly could he begin to relax, satisfied that she wouldn't require him to give it up.

Chaudhuri continued to write about India and his countrymen for the rest of his life, but he did so, for the final 29 years of it, from England. He moved to Oxford, where he wrote, among other books, a second autobiography — called Thy Hand, Great Anarch! — and his final book, Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse, in which he defined the three harbingers of doom as Nationalism, Individualism, and Democracy. He was 99 years old when he wrote it. Chaudhuri died in 1999 — two months shy of his 102nd birthday, and about 50 years after he'd thought he would.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

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