<![CDATA[Amanda Sarasien - News]]>Mon, 29 Jan 2018 12:04:43 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[Visiting the American Writers Museum]]>Mon, 29 Jan 2018 17:49:40 GMThttp://amandasarasien.com/news/visiting-the-american-writers-museum
We find ourselves in a time when questions surrounding American identity — What is “Americanness” and who has the right to call him- or herself an American? — seem to lurk under the daily headlines, taking up a refrain that has been repeated throughout this nation’s history. In some ways, then, this is the moment when a museum celebrating the writer’s role to define American identity is most necessary. Yet it is also the moment when such a project becomes most challenging and fraught.
​Before visiting the new American Writers Museum in Chicago (opened May 2017), I wondered how a museum with the stated mission “to engage the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, our culture, and our daily lives” could deliver on this goal. Even putting aside this contested territory of Americanness, our fractured sense of what constitutes a cohesive “history” or “culture,” how, on a practical level, does one even go about creating a museum to the written word? As a writer, I’d like to believe that words and books are alive and inherently resist being pinned down inside a glass case like so many specimens of rare butterflies.
The curators and decision-makers at the American Writers Museum would seem to agree, for they have created an institution where the written word is meant to be experienced, not read. With guidance from the Smithsonian Institution; design from the firm Amaze Design; oversight from leading writers, scholars and publishers; and countless grants, including from the National Endowment for the Humanities, they have transformed an admittedly limited, second-floor space on Chicago’s “cultural mile” into something expansive, even endless, with the wealth of interactive displays packed inside.

At the entrance, helpful staff will recommend beginning your tour at the timeline whose first entry, at 1492, you’ll find next to a screen playing an informational film on a loop. But, of course, you can also start in one of the special exhibit galleries or go to the left of the ticket counter to peruse large banners displaying key facts on Chicago writers, hung on a sort of clothesline so you can move the banners around to get a clearer view of your favorite writer. Of the exhibits I saw, I found the timeline to be the least engaging, though I would agree the recommendation to start there is sound, as it forms a good foundation from which to take in the other exhibits. The timeline displays one hundred representative American writers positioned in the order of their birthdates, the timeline itself parceled into the various literary and historical periods, so that the entire wall serves as a sort of crash course in American literature. Indeed, I can’t imagine how the museum could succeed in its mission without this necessary education. 

Perhaps to reduce all of American letters to a single wall of one hundred writers seems on its face not simply ambitious but impossible, bedeviled by questions of why this author and not that one (I, for one, was particularly disappointed by the exclusions of Sylvia Plath and Toni Morrison). Perhaps. Nevertheless, to shy away from this endeavor would, I believe, have been a mistake, since by necessity this timeline should serve as a kind of “backbone” around which the rest of the museum moves.

I therefore had a few thoughts on how the exhibit could be improved. Beyond the obvious need to make the wall more interactive (it’s the most text-heavy exhibit in the entire museum, with three-sided spinning “blocks” that give very brief overviews of each writer, so that by writer #100, even avid readers feel quite fatigued), I found I came away with very little real knowledge in exchange for all this reading. Rather than thinking about American writing from the mindset of a canonical literature course, it would have been more interesting if the curators had thought in terms of how writers conversed with one another, with their times and with us in our current moment. Do neatly delineated “movements” and “periods” really reflect such conversations or speak to the seeming messiness of the present discourse? And, though a writer is certainly animated by the events of her time, does a birthdate necessarily mark her place in American literature? Does it tell us what she means to readers here, now, what her work continues to mean for the future? Or does it even necessarily speak to her creative concerns, or the source of her inspiration? For example, Gertrude Stein, who does appear on the timeline, both influenced and was influenced by Ernest Hemingway, twenty-five years her junior. Better to do away with chronology and categories and incorporate a touch screen (much like the table-size screen found on the other side of the museum, which I will address below) that can be organized around issues, style and influences, so that museum-goers can find the nexus points for themselves, thereby engaging more deeply with the most pressing questions of American identity. Because America is, in essence, a nation founded on an idea, a timeline meant to show how writers understood and shaped this idea cannot be static.
Waterfall of Words
One of my favorite exhibits was a wall near the timeline called the Waterfall of Words, where key phrases from a multitude of American writings are carved in relief, lighting up in a kind of moving word-image that highlights each quotation in its turn. I found myself transfixed watching different passages reveal themselves in mountains or emerge from Matrix-like streams of letters, but without a seat to test how long this loop of “quote-art” (each arrangement more riveting than the last) could continue, I soon felt compelled to move on to other exhibits.

Of these, the most popular seemed to be the working typewriters, where museum-goers could sit down and tap out their opus: given time constraints, a short story which can then be offered up for display. I had never realized how loud these machines could be and imagined the writer whose rhythmic accompaniment was the piercing clicks and clacks of his own creative pace. Perhaps the loss of the typewriter as a creative tool means severing a writer’s bodily connection to the rhythms of thought, the sound of language?

I, however, gravitated to a large touch screen table which had a series of icons flowing across it like a river. Take your place at this table and with your finger drag one of the icons towards you like a dish to be savored. A list of hyperlinks pops up telling you the author for whom this icon is representative and why, the author’s inspiration, audio clips of the author or of the works being read, excerpts, etc. Certainly this is what I would have hoped for in the museum’s first gallery – a way to contextualize the work, instead of being limited to the writer as a Borgesian “I.” Surrounding this table were other interactive screens, such as those walking visitors through a writer’s process in minute detail (the literary use of adjectives, for example) as well as a Wordplay game allowing visitors to hone their skills with friends.

When I visited, two special exhibits were on offer: one a gallery of photos portraying Chicago writers, and the other a look at the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie books. Of these, my favorite was the Laura Ingalls Wilder exhibit, which I found interesting despite not having been a devoted reader of the series as a child. The photography exhibit did seem to imply a native’s familiarity with Chicago writers and their biographies, though the photos could be appreciated as art in and of themselves.

As a non-native of Chicago, I cannot take advantage of the museum’s regular programming which, according to their website, includes story time, readings, lectures and “Write In” events meant to foster a love of writing in students. However, I’m thrilled to find such programming is a core component of the museum’s mission and look forward to staying connected in the hopes of attending one of these events very soon.

For now, however, I remain not simply impressed by the breadth of the exhibits and the ingenuity with which they animate the written word, but also excited for the future, as the American Writers Museum seems, to my eye, poised to outgrow its space with an ever more dynamic mix of thought-provoking displays. For the setup is by its nature provisional, that is, it does not suggest a certain way of “reading” American literary history but rather leaves it up to the visitor to situate the literature she is exposed to. One key takeaway from the American Writers Museum is that there is, in fact, nothing singular about this moment, that questions of identity have always plagued Americans and, as a result, seeped into American writing. And isn't that exactly the perspective missing from today's societal discourse? A nation founded as an experiment cannot lay claim to a single American culture, but rather, is "Americanness" in flux, continuously in the process of defining and redefining itself. A museum of American writing should be no different.
Text and photos © 2018 Amanda Sarasien
<![CDATA[Book Review - The Consequences]]>Wed, 15 Nov 2017 12:23:59 GMThttp://amandasarasien.com/news/book-review-the-consequences
DoppelHouse Press has just released the first English translation of the highly lauded, bestselling Dutch author Niña Weijers, with her novel The Consequences, in a "lithe, sinuous" translation from Hester Velmans. This raw, ambivalent novel asks us to consider the relationship between art, life and commodification, in the character of Minnie Panis, a performance artist toying with an idea for a new project which quickly becomes more personal than she could have ever imagined. The book's conclusions, or lack thereof, will leave the reader unsettled. Read more of my thoughts at The Literary Review.
<![CDATA[Book Review - Kintu]]>Mon, 14 Aug 2017 14:30:28 GMThttp://amandasarasien.com/news/book-review-kintu
At The Literary Review, I explore Transit Books' epic new release, Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. Conceived as a national mythology, Uganda's answer to Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, this ambitious novel, I argue, is a timely tale for all audiences, and thus, with this debut, Makumbi stands to become a powerful voice for our globalizing world. What is, ostensibly, a knitting together of multiple personal stories -- of seemingly disconnected characters whose individual searches for identity do not crystallize until they themselves converge -- becomes a collective tapestry of personal versus communal, national versus global, and the ripples of meaning colliding with unexpected beauty. 
<![CDATA[Publication Announcement]]>Mon, 20 Mar 2017 13:18:06 GMThttp://amandasarasien.com/news/publication-announcement2730688
Rogue critic GLB Pym is up to his old tricks, and this time he's starting a movement. I managed to convey his manifesto to the editors at FLAPPERHOUSE, where it appears in Issue #13, out today. Ever the tireless (yet pedantic) crusader for forgotten vanguards, Pym will convert you to the cause of Italian Futurist Ennio Alata, in this his "Manifesto for Alata, Transcinematist; or Winged Imagination." Available in print or digital, tossed into this latest iteration of FLAPPERHOUSE's standard literary brew: one part surreal, one part shadowy, one part outré, and a heaping dose of provocation.
<![CDATA[Book Review - Motherland Hotel]]>Fri, 17 Mar 2017 12:12:14 GMThttp://amandasarasien.com/news/book-review-motherland-hotel
At Reading in Translation, I review the first novel of Turkish modernist Yusuf Atilgan to appear in English, Motherland Hotel, translated by Fred Stark. In this psychological thriller, Atilgan bends and shapes language, testing its mettle in the fire of his disturbed protagonist's mind. The result is "a shape-shifting tour de force, a stumble through a noirish house of mirrors," which seeps into the "shadowy recesses of consciousness," thereby pushing literature into the realm of cinema. A wildly experimental novel which boldly treads new existential territory, Motherland Hotel announces the arrival of a voice who should have long ago climbed to a place within the canon of "the world's most daring modernists."
<![CDATA[Notes on an Exhibition - Shakespeare's Characters: Playing the Part]]>Thu, 08 Sep 2016 16:13:59 GMThttp://amandasarasien.com/news/notes-on-an-exhibition-shakespeares-characters-playing-the-part
Image courtesy Toledo Museum of Art
2016 has seen a wealth of Shakespeare-related programming, performances, carefully timed book releases, and even a special hashtag, all in observance of the 400-year anniversary of the Bard's death in April 1616. Now that the dust of this international ferment has more or less settled, the Toledo Museum of Art offers up its own variation on the theme, with Shakespeare's Characters: Playing the Part. Promising to "bring the beloved writer's works to life," this exhibition engages visitors well beyond the works and their iconic roles, where the characters serve as diverse points of entry into a multidisciplinary exploration of Shakespeare's far-reaching influence.
My immediate impression upon entering the gallery chosen for this exhibition was its scale. The blurb simply does not prepare you for the variety of materials on display, much of it meticulously culled from the Museum's own collection. Unfortunately, the space allotted to such an extensive array does not do the exhibition justice, particularly given its current popularity. Visiting on a Wednesday afternoon, an unlikely rush hour, I found myself jostled more than once out of that prime viewing territory each museum-goer stakes out before the respective works, unable to contemplate them at my leisure. Soon, a crowd streamed in to listen to the exhibition curator discuss her choices, and the small size of the room became even more apparent. 

Spatial constraints notwithstanding, one could happily spend hours of discovery in this gallery alone. (Yet for those who do feel claustrophobic, a handy exhibition guide is available containing detailed directions to other works with a Shakespearean connection scattered throughout the Museum's collection.) The exhibition demands much of its viewers. This is to be expected when its subject is a playwright. Text abounds, whether in the copious labels accompanying each piece, on the wall decal of that oft-quoted line "All the world's a stage...," or in the printed and bound plays themselves, exhibited under glass and open to key passages. Nevertheless, this text is precisely what fulfills the exhibition's stated purpose of animating Shakespeare's enduring characters. Beside each artistic portrayal of a given character, the label contains the role's most memorable lines, so that the static image comes to life and speaks to viewers across the centuries. 
That, alone, would make Shakespeare's Characters: Playing the Part a resounding success. For such is the challenge of Shakespeare four-hundred years on. As aficionados are well aware, and as the exhibition makes clear, the First Folio was not printed until after the Bard's death. (Then came the Second Folio, a copy of which is on display and which was, for me, a highlight.) Despite the numerous stagings and cinematic portrayals which have intervened, what was originally an immediate and dynamic performance has since become distanced, lost in translation, as it were. Shakespeare did not compose for the page. But it is only through the cold text of the printed Folios that we have access to the ephemeral performances. Like the man who resurrected mythical figures and historical heroes only to himself become the stuff of myth, Shakespeare's characters have transformed the cultural lexicon, but at what cost? Four centuries of reinterpretations, all sifting together in our collective memory, risk burying these lively personages, preserving them immobile in the amber of their iconic monologues. Pairing textual excerpts with artistic representations of dramatic scenes and complex figures represents a new and multifaceted approach to Shakespearean appreciation, allowing visitors to participate in a sort of aesthetic dialogue across place and time. Thus, the work of the Bard becomes a kind of crossroads transporting our inherited myths, mores and history from antiquity into the modern day

And here is where the exhibition surpasses its stated objective. Because in its assemblage of paintings, lithographs, photographs, pottery and other material artifacts, the characters do far more than speak. Thanks to the curator's painstaking connections, they function more like ambassadors negotiating art's conversation with art. ​A marble bust of Julius Caesar from about 50 CE, accompanied by the famous Act III, Scene I betrayal ("Et tu, Brute!"), sits beside a 2009 Murano glass mirror from American artist Fred Wilson (glass being the Museum's specialty), titled "Iago's Mirror" and accompanied by Iago's Act I, Scene I profession, "But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve / For daws to peck at. I am not what I am." Arthur Hughes' Pre-Raphaelite imagining of Ophelia, whose label details a fascinating discovery on the back of the painting, faces an early sixteenth-century Italian maiolica plate depicting Pyramus and Thisbe, characters portrayed by the actor-characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream's meta-drama. This latter, self-referential, example in particular calls attention to Shakespeare's plays as artistic creations - conversant with a daunting array of other works of art - which themselves became sources of inspiration for artists of succeeding generations. To chip away at the inter-textual palimpsest could prove daunting. Yet, in spotlighting Shakespeare's characters, this exhibition gives visitors a point of reference, a base from which to explore the circuitous lines of influence radiating across civilization.

Perhaps the exhibition did not need to bring Shakespeare's characters to life. Because, despite the passing of four centuries, this year's plethora of Shakespearean tributes shows us that his characters are alive and well in popular culture. But Shakespeare's Characters: Playing the Part offers one of the most convincing answers to why and how these compelling figures continue to speak to us.  

Shakespeare's Characters: Playing the Part
Toledo Museum of Art
September 2, 2016 - January 8, 2017
Gallery 6, free admission

Blog post and exhibition photos © Amanda Sarasien
<![CDATA[Book Review - War, So Much War]]>Thu, 01 Sep 2016 15:03:56 GMThttp://amandasarasien.com/news/book-review-war-so-much-warPicture
My review of Catalan modernist Mercè Rodoreda's War, So Much War was selected for publication in the summer issue of The Puritan. The novel, which I call "literary quicksilver" for its defiance of conventional literary forms, was published only three years before the prolific writer's death in 1983 and now appears, courtesy of Open Letter Books, in a "hypnotic" and "incandescent" English translation by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent. Tensely psychological, Rodoreda's deft manipulation of voice serves as a perfect vehicle of expression for the novel's existential themes, foregrounded in this nameless, place-less war which suggests an interior, rather than a geographical, landscape. Yet despite the vague setting, Rodoreda devotees will recognize the author's recurrent pastoral imagery, simultaneously violent and bucolic, and her provocative stream-of-conscious narration peopled with fascinating characters. Explore the enigmatic territory of the self with my review of a welcome addition to the Rodoreda corpus in English.

<![CDATA[Book Review - I'll Sell You a Dog]]>Tue, 09 Aug 2016 04:00:00 GMThttp://amandasarasien.com/news/book-review-ill-sell-you-a-dogPicture
Today sees the English-language release of Mexican novelist Juan Pablo Villalobos' I'll Sell You a Dog (translated by Rosalind Harvey), which I reviewed for The Literary Review. Featuring a curmudgeonly narrator, Teo, who repeatedly disavows writing the novel you are reading, I'll Sell You a Dog is at once an uproarious satire and a poignant meditation upon art, frustrated ambition, aging, and the human need for meaning-making. Surrender to this "riotous ouroboros" of a novel, as Teo, heading a cast of quirky characters, flings you haphazardly through his life story. 

<![CDATA[Book Review - Quiet Creature on the Corner]]>Wed, 22 Jun 2016 12:56:02 GMThttp://amandasarasien.com/news/book-review-quiet-creature-on-the-cornerPicture
In my latest review, I reflect on Quiet Creature on the Corner, from contemporary Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll, recently released in a "stirring" English translation by Adam Morris. A provocative plunge into the "absurdity of human condition" which leaves the reader grasping for some enduring truth, this slim novel is "a play of tantalizing incongruities," a coming-of-age story in which the narrator never fully comes of age, featuring an orbit of characters whose attempts to reach out to one another shroud them in deeper darkness and isolation. Probe this "fascinating, if inscrutable" voice in contemporary Brazilian fiction, with my review at Reading in Translation.

<![CDATA[Essay Publication]]>Thu, 14 Apr 2016 13:44:47 GMThttp://amandasarasien.com/news/essay-publication

My essay "Portrait of a Pink Lady: Booth Tarkington and the Changing Face of America" examines writer Booth Tarkington's 1918 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, through the author's personal collection of portrait paintings, some of which are now on display at the Indianapolis Museum of Art's exhibition "A Gentleman Collector: Portraits from the Collection of Booth Tarkington." Using the enigma of a particular painting, Portia in a Pink Blouse, as a jumping-off point, I reflect on the novel's provocative facial imagery: How do the paintings in Tarkington's collection elucidate the themes in his writing but also paint a beguiling portrait of the author himself, "struggling to make sense of the changing face of America?" Read more of my thoughts on The Mookse and the Gripes.