literature

Indigenous Futurism with Grace Dillon: A Dispatch 7 podcast

I’ve just published my latest podcast episode of Dispatch 7, which is an interview with Dr. Grace Dillon about Indigenous Futurism. I’ve known Grace for a long time. She kindly wrote the preface to my own book -Dangerous Spirits- on the windigo, an evil spirit in Algonquian narratives and history. I like to think that this preface captured the enthusiasm, breadth of knowledge and humor that Grace shows in this podcast episode.

It’s ironic that in this podcast I briefly brought up the Indigenous knowledge of how to manage a landscape with fire, in order to avoid mega-fires. About a week after our interview much of the West Coast of the United States went up in flames. I am deeply worried for many old friends and former students. I’ve left that short comment in, because the point is still valid. But I would have spoken differently if I had known what was about to happen.

One of the great things about talking with Grace is that she always leaves me with a long list of novels that I want to read. This conversation was no different. Please see the show notes for a long list of novels, graphic novels and programs that Grace recommended. If you are looking for some reading suggestions, this is the right podcast episode for you.

Shawn Smallman

Wylding Hall, a book review for Halloween

The Rotunda, Stowe Landscape Gardens. Photo by Philip Halling. Creative Commons license, Wikipedia

Every year I cover an appropriate international mystery for Halloween. For example, last year I talked about ghosts of Hong Kong and Macau. Earlier this month I talked about the ghost ship the Baltimore, which was found with only a single survivor, a woman, who soon vanished from Nova Scotia and was never seen again. This year I want to review a novel, Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand. The novel is a ghost story set in a remote English country house in the 1960s. The characters are primarily members of an English folk band, who came of age in the era of Fairport Convention in the late 1960s, when the folk rock movement was a pop culture force in Great Britain. Even though the pop culture of this period will be familiar to most Western readers, the specifically British context will be alien to most Americans and Canadians. The story begins after a terrible tragedy, which leads the band manager to isolate the band in an old country-house, not only to heal the group’s members but also to create a new album.

The work is inspired by the genre of pop music band histories that focus on juxtaposing the differing voices of band members. Hand, an American, has an amazing ear for dialogue. I think that dialogue is always tricky for a writer, as the smallest error in tone or wording can be jarring. At the same time, it is perhaps the best tool for characterization, and this is how Hand employs it. Dialogue propels the novel, so that the reader is soon swept into the jealousies, loves, and secrets of a British band. All ghost stories are dominated by the past. In Hand’s novel, however, the past at times seems distant and undefined. In truth the book is dominated by the 1960s in one summer in the life of a band. It differs from the stories of M.R. James and many other English authors of ghost stories because the past doesn’t seem to overwhelm the present. Even though the past intrudes, this novel is truly the story of the band itself. …

Literature and Espionage

Sometimes you just can’t make up a story as strange as reality. For anyone following the inquiry into possible Russian collusion with the Trump White House, the endless details are as fascinating as they are intriguing. Clive Irving has a wonderful piece, “What Would Le Carré’s Master Spy Think of Trump and Russia?,” in the Daily Beast, which imagines what George Smiley (the fictional master spy) would make of current events.

Espionage is also in the news because of the case of Sergei V. Skripal. A former spy in Russia, he and his daughter were both found seriously ill on a bench in Salisbury, England. This particular case has many parallels to the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, which was covered in a book titled “A Very Expensive Poison.” To date, both of the victims are alive; let’s hope that the terrible events associated with Litvinenko aren’t repeated.

In online forums a vigorous discussion has already begun regarding the likely poison. If I had been working for the FSB (AKA Moscow Central), I would have chosen fentanyl. It would be deadly at a low dose, and the victim could be blamed for ingesting or inhaling it. After the debacle with polonium in the Litvinenko case, it seems unlikely that a radioactive substance would be used again. While poisons from Himalayan plants may be difficult to detect, they also raise too many questions. Much the same could be said ricin. Nerve agents also point to a state actor, as was the case last year in Malaysia. I will be very curious to see if a poison can be identified, and whether that information will be released.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

PS- the poison has now been identified by the British authorities. According to press reports, it was a nerve agent, which would seem to be a means to draw attention. One of the police officers who responded has now been hospitalized and is in serious condition, likely because of exposure to the poison. George Smiley would have done more subtle and careful work.

Love, hate and novels

When I talk about globalization in my introductory class, it’s common for my students to think immediately of economic globalization, rather than other aspects such as cultural globalization. Yet to be a global citizen entails making connections between our worlds and that of others, and one of the best forms to do this is through music, art and literature, which make an emotional tie to other cultures. I recommend this interview with Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan, in this article “The Profound Reason we should all Read Internationally, not Locally.”

Shawn Smallman, 2017

The art of Strange Things Done

I love mystery novels, and northern mysteries in particular. My sister, Ellen Wild, has a new book Strange Things Done coming out this September. The lead character of the novel is Jo Silver; after a body is found in the Yukon river, she is drawn into a mystery that leads her to fear for her own life. You can hear about the local reaction to the body’s discovery in this brief video. I love the visual look of the website for the book, with the superimposed photos of an old Yukon building and a cemetery. This aesthetic carries through to the trailer for the book, which she filmed in the Yukon. The imagery -the woman’s hair in the river, the ice, Brandy Zdan’s music, the quirky northern bar, the barking dog- create an atmospheric glimpse of a town with secrets. Think a northern Twin Peaks. The book already has won an impressive set of awards:

2015 Unhanged Arthur Award for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel ― Winner
2014 Telegraph/Harvill Secker Crime Competition ― Shortlisted
2014 Southwest Writers Annual Novel Writing Contest ― Silver Winner
2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award ― Longlisted

You can find preorder the book (in the United States for October 18, 2016 or Canada for September 24, 2016) before “the freeze-up hits and the roads close.”

Shawn Smallman, 2016

Strange Things Done, quote by Ian Hamilton

David Groulx, Wabigoon River Poems

David Groulx is a poet of Indigenous and French-Canadian heritage who was raised in Elliot Lake, Ontario in Canada. His recent book of poetry, Wabigoon River Poems, has Canada’s Indigenous experience at its core, but places this history into a global context. A single poem can leap from Algeria to Vietnam, always within the context of a post-colonial viewpoint. The name of the book comes from the Wabigoon River near Kenora, Ontario, which suffered mercury pollution from a pulp and paper plant, with tragic results for local peoples.

The final poem in the first section is a meditation on a picture of the poet’s mother taken at the “St. Joseph Residential School for Girls.” In Canada, perhaps 150,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in Church-run and government-financed schools, which were designed to assimilate them into Euro-Canadian culture. They failed, but caused immense suffering. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has sought to document this history, and has issued recommendations to address this legacy. Still it remains to be seen whether these findings will be truly embraced by the federal government, educational institutions, churches, and average Canadians. Although Canada is a developed country with a progressive reputation, the nation has always had a curious blind-spot regarding its own history of colonialism, as though colonialism was a European sin eradicated with Confederation. …

Ghost Fleet: a book review

F35 on training flight. Wikicommons. U.S. Navy ID number ID 110211-O-XX000-001
F35 on training flight. Wikicommons. U.S. Navy ID number  110211-O-XX000-001

P.W. Singer and August Cole have written a techno-thriller based on a Chinese invasion of Hawaii, in a strange replay of Pearl Harbor. As with Tom Clancy’s work, there are multiple points of view, moral black and whites, and the technology is at times as much of a star as the main characters. Yet this work creates a pessimistic twist to Clancy’s upbeat vision. In Ghost Fleet America’s reliance on technology makes the country so vulnerable to attack that it must draw (spoiler alert) on irregular warfare tactics that its armed forces learned fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is a contradiction within this work. At times some scenes come across as unrealistic, and the analysis of international politics seems simplistic. Some plot devices, (another spoiler alert) such as the discovery of new resources leading to a surprise invasion, are so common in the genre as to be exhausted. In contrast, the focus on technology is all too convincing, and this detailed look at possible scenarios for future warfare (the book has extensive endnotes) is fascinating. The work is also carefully plotted, and the climax is deftly handled. …

Book review of Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa, 1926-1939

Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa: 1926-1939 is a graphic novel that intertwines two stories: 1) the chaotic history of Japan during the 1920s and 30s and 2) the author’s childhood during this same period. The author is remarkable in that he is now 91, but he has a vivid memory of his own childhood during this period. Tragically, he would ultimately lose his arm while fighting for the Japanese army, although this book (the first in a three volume series) does not cover that period in his life. This book is a staggering achievement, both artistically and intellectually, which everyone interested in Asia should read. …

Spies of the Balkans: A book review

Heinkel He 111 during the Battle of Britain. This file comes from Wikipedia Commons.
Heinkel He 111 during the Battle of Britain. This file comes from Wikipedia Commons.

We live in a time obsessed with spying. Wikileaks and Snowden have shown that non-state actors are now important actors in espionage, while also raising fundamental questions about the right to privacy. Now the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are talking about building their own undersea cable, in order to evade U.S. eavesdropping on their transmissions. This would enable South America to communicate directly with Europe without passing information through the U.S. We now know that the U.S. recorded even German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone conversations. Other nations are outraged, but they might do the same if they had the capability. Spying seems to flourish more now than at any time since the end of the Cold War. In this context, the espionage genre is not fading away. …

Machado de Assis: A new translation by John Chasteen

Machado de Assis at the age of 57, Wikipedia.
Machado de Assis at the age of 57, Wikipedia Commons.

One of my favorite ways to engage students in thinking about another part of the world is through literature. For this reason, I’ve been reading the short stories of Machado de Assis in John Charles Chasteen’s new translation, which is named after perhaps the author’s most famous short story, the Alienist. It’s often said that Brazil is the sepulchre of great literature. There is still no English translation of Taunay’s, A Retirada da Laguna, an epic first hand account of a disastrous retreat during the Paraguayan War, which is widely hailed as a literary masterpiece. And even people who know the work of Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are likely to be unfamiliar with Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), likely the greatest Brazilian writer of all time.

Machado de Assis was born into the Brazilian empire, which largely escaped the widespread conflict that Spanish America experienced after independence, despite a host of regional rebellions. His father was the son of freed slaves, and his mother was Portuguese. He had an irregular education, but managed to learn four languages, and become a great novelist, poet, and writer of short stories. He was the first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. …

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