On St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday significant to engineers in the USA, I wrote about the prominence of that profession within my family. It so happens that I’ve had occasion to expand upon that on another holiday. I’ve never really been big on Father’s Day, despite having four children of my own, but on the usual phone call to my father we got to talking about his background in electron microscopy.  He was not only a pioneer applying it to materials engineering, but also involved in education, looking to produce the next generation in his field, particularly from Nigeria.

Years ago, when she was around my current age, my mother went to Mexico and was robbed.  She had just been granted American citizenship, so it was very important that she was able to find her papers.  The story has been passed down to me since puberty, as a word of caution for a woman entering the world: freedom is a risk.

Why did you decide to write a book about Caravaggio? Is there anything new to say about him, after all these years?

It might seem strange, but even though Caravaggio is one of the most obsessed-about and massively popular artists of all time, an extraordinary amount of devastatingly interesting and revealing new information has come out about him in recent years. I am talking about new, hard, archival discoveries, a truly astonishing treasure trove of documents from the distant past – new facts about the prostitutes with whom he consorted, the women (and perhaps men) with whom he had sex; the soldiers, mercenaries and thugs with whom he fought and argued; the other painters with whom he contested; the man he murdered in a castration-attempt on a tennis court in Rome in the summer of 1606; the man he shot and near-fatally wounded on the brutal military island of Malta a few years later; the gang of four who pinned him down and cut his face off in Naples, condemning him to a terrible, slow, lingering death …

 

What sets your biography apart from others that have been written about him?

All of this new stuff had been discovered by scholars working in different places in different, disconnected ways. Some of it had been published, but generally only in aracane or extremely academic corners. No one had put it together, however. So I did. Whether the reader thinks I have done a good job with the information, the information itself is transformative in terms of what we know and think about the painter. I think it’s like a bomb dropped into the still waters of existing Caravaggio literature. Basically, my book is the first to bring all of this information together for the general reader. As a result, I believe it is the first book about him truly to tell the full story of who he was, why he did what he did, and ultimately what happened to him.

 

How do you hope to change perceptions of him?

For centuries Caravaggio has been regarded as a mysterious, rather mad outsider. After ten years and more of detective work, I believe I have finally been able to make sense of him, and of the patterns that shaped his life – deeply tragic patterns from the start, going back to the death of all his male relatives, of plague, when he was just 5 or 6 years old. I hope that my book releases him from the many stereotypes he has been subjected to in so many of the other books (and films and novels) that have taken him as their subject: Volatile Lunatic, Tragic Outsider, Protypical Gay Icon. For me, he’s none of those cardboard cut-outs. He’s a real, complicated, dangerous but also deeply sympathetic human being.

 

Are there any other ambitions behind your book?

Most definitely. The nature of the Caravaggio archival treasure trove, as I have called it – different sets of documents unearthed in archives in Rome, Naples, Malta and elsewhere – is that it doesn’t just give you this extraordinary, troubled man’s life. It gives you his whole world, and it is a truly fascinating world, one where people live by very particular, apparently strange but ultimately logical codes of honour.

So for example, in this world, if a painter insults Caravaggio behind his back, Caravaggio will go up behind him late one night and smash him on the back of the head with the back of his sword: the logic being that if you insult me behind my back, I attack you from the back. If a woman insults Caravaggio’s reputation, he will smear excrement on the windows of her house: the logic being that if you attack my honour, which is my face, then I besmirch the front of your house, the architectural face you present to the world. If a man argues with Caravaggio about a woman, Caravaggio will attempt to castrate him in a duel: the logic being that if you insult me sexually, I will wound you sexually. What I hope you get from my book is a true and deep understanding of the codes and the logic – however twisted that logic might be – by which Caravaggio and his friends and enemies lived their lives. In other words, he was not some freak or weirdo, but a dangerous man in a dangerous world.

Because I find that world utterly, transfixingly interesting, I have tried wherever possible to give the reader the documents that survive in full: the whole of a trial transcript, for example, or the entirety of a prostitute’s account of attacking her rival. I explain who the people involved are, I come to my conclusions, but I also give the reader as much as possible of the raw history, so they can decide for themselves whether they agree with my conclusions and inferences. Also, by quoting these documents – the few other books to make limited us of them have abridged or summarised them – I feel I put the reader really in touch with the feel and the smell of seventeenth-century Rome, or Naples, or Sicily.

 

What about the paintings? 

Well, they are the reason I wrote the book in the first place. If you like, my book is three books interwoven together: the story of Caravaggio’s life; the portrait of the world in which he lived with all its codes and customs etcetera; combined with deep, lengthy analyses of each and every painting. The part I would most like to be judged on is the last. My analysis of his pictures – those dark, dramatic, deeply profound depictions of men and women in extremis – well for me that is the heart and soul of my book.

I hope I have proved for once and all that Caravaggio was not just some flash in the pan, some gifted proto-photographic master of realism; he was an immensely subtle, emotionally profound, intellectually complex artist. I don’t use the genius word lightly and there aren’t many artists or writers I would apply it to, but he really was a genius. I also think he was one of the most touchingly, deeply humane and human human beings ever to have lived.

 

What’s your most vivid memory of writing the book?

Sitting in my study late and night and suddenly realising that I’d solved the supposed mystery of how he died and who had killed him. I started crying, for Christ’s sake! I even realised that I knew the name of the man who was the last person to see him alive: a humble boatman called Alexander Caramano, who took Caravaggio to his death on a boat named Santa Maria dello Porto Salvo, Saint Mary of the Safe Harbour. History can contain such astonishingly cruel ironies.

His life had the patterns of a tragedy, the patterns of a work of art, almost. You couldn’t have made it up. It was such a sad, sad life, in the end. But what dark gold it produced.

 

Is this your first self-interview?

Yes and no. It’s the first time I’ve ever been asked to create an entire interview but it’s been my experience that most interviewers (who aren’t me) end by asking: “Is there anything else you’d like to add? Have I missed anything important?” So I’ve actually contributed at least one question to zillions of interviews.

And that’s not all. I’m also in the habit of asking myself questions as I cycle or swim; remind me to buy a fake earpiece so onlookers assume I’m speaking on a cellphone and don’t call the men in white uniforms (with straitjackets and handcuffs in their pockets) to take me away.

 

Are you enjoying this self-interview?

I am! It seems to be going much better than I’d anticipated. I was really nervous about whether or not I could answer my questions.

 

Is there any question people frequently ask you about your Mistresses book?

Yes! Why wasn’t so-and-so wasn’t included in my book?

 

For example?

For example, Lou Andreas-Salome, identified by one writer as “the most notorious woman in the intellectual world of nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century Europe. Rilke and Neitzsche had both courted Lou, and Nietzsche who did not generally think much of women, went so far as to ask Lou to marry him…”

 

Okay, and why wasn’t Lou Andreas-Salome included?

For the same and very good reason that hundreds – make that thousands – were not. Space! Mistresses is very long and I had to make brutal decisions about whom to include. I wanted each of my stories to have some depth, so that each woman’s story – and her lover’s – would resonate with readers. In the end, I had to scrap as much research as I used; my book shelves were full of notes and stories about scores of mistresses who didn’t make it into my book. I used to say that if anybody wanted to write another book about mistresses, I could give them all the research they could possibly need.

Here is my lament about this very issue, found in the Introduction: “So many mistresses, and concubines too, with so many stories! Slowly, I chose the women in each category who would best illustrate the various themes and subtexts I had begun to discern in the mass of research material. The triage was difficult as I excised woman after woman, at first gingerly and then more ruthlessly. Slowly, an entire bookcase filled up with my often fascinating rejects—Lady Emma Hamilton! Diane de Poitiers! George Sand! Coco Chanel!—victims of redundancy and space, and of my decision to focus on individuals. But what a cast of survivors, each with a story that is unique yet at the same time links her with so many other women. They come from all times and places, and from every class, caste, color and condition. They are aristocrats and slaves, wives, mothers and spinsters, and they are lodged in huts and harems, houses and mansions. Some are famous, usually because of their relationships, while others can only be coaxed back to life through the reminiscences of their lovers and others or from official documents. What all these women have in common is that they have been either mistresses or concubines. This book is about their experiences and their special stories. What makes each woman important in this book is the unique way in which her life story reflects and sheds light on the multifaceted institution of mistressdom.”

 

Who is your favourite mistress? (You’re allowed to have more than one.)

Probably Emilie de Chatelet and Phibbah. Both are 18th century women but their circumstances couldn’t be more different. Emilie (permit me to use her first name; I spent weeks reading and writing about her intimate life, and feel that this familiarity is appropriate) was both brilliant and generous, with a scholarly passion and physical lusts that shaped her life in extraordinary ways. I’ve included a short excerpt about her life as Voltaire’s mistress below. Some readers will be satisfied with it, others will want to read the much longer section in the book.

I’ve done the same with Phibbah’s story and provided a brief excerpt from the book. Phibbah was an enslaved cook on a Jamaican sugar estate and became the mistress of her overseer, expatriate Briton Thomas Thistlewood. Their relationship endured for thirty-four years, until his death, and produced a son they raised together. Because Thistlewood kept a comprehensive journal that included details of his sexual encounters, we know a great deal about their intimate life. I’ll quote myself here: “The relationship was deeply erotic and volatile. They had sex several times a week, including when Phibbah was menstruating. They quarreled, often because Phibbah was jealous about Thomas’s infidelities with other slave women.”

 

What draws you to these women’s stories?

They were intelligent, ambitious and passionate women who sought to circumvent the constraints of their era and circumstances, and to a large extent they succeeded.

 

Are there any mistresses who have anomalous stories?

There are, indeed. Lola Montez, as she called herself (her real name was Eliza Gilbert), seduced the aging King Ludwig of Bavaria though she only allowed him to suck her toes. Despite this restriction, Ludwig fell obsessively in love with Lola and in the end abdicated the throne because of their relationship. Showing not the slightest remorse or concern, Lola dumped him and ended up in the United States, where she earned her living lecturing about her career as a mistress. She also justified her stranger-than-fiction behaviour as “one woman going forth in independence and power of self-reliant strength to assert her own individuality, and to defend, with whatever means God has given her, her right to a just portion of the earth’s privileges”—including, evidently, Ludwig’s.

 

Is there a common denominator among mistresses?

Yes. Despite vast differences of era, culture, circumstances and personalities, there are a few common denominators that could also be described as occupational hazards. Mistresses faced tremendous personal insecurity and could lose their privileged positions whenever their lover tired or them or found a prettier, sexier or more appealing woman. Mistresses faced social opprobrium and were scorned as whores; few of them could overcome the stigma of their status. The institution of mistressdom pitted woman against woman, and the mistress usually faced-off against her lover’s wife and children. Her own children with her lover were considered bastards, and like her, had no legal claim on their father.

 

Wow! That’s quite a contrast with the stereotype of mistresses that most people seem to have, of glamorous woman in silk negligees, smoking cigarettes or nibbling chocolates in the comfort of luxurious suites as they wait for their lover to arrive and take them to bed. On that note, what do you think about the choice of international covers? How do they reflect different cultural values about mistresses?

What a fascinating question! I’m so glad I asked it. Well, I haven’t seen them all, but here are my impressions of those I have. The American, Canadian and U.K. covers portray naked women barely covered by their bedclothes, their faces soft with sleep. They are young and lovely, and alone, perhaps lonely; their absent lovers are nowhere to be seen. The French cover is a backside view of a sweetly coy young strawberry blonde nude leaning against a sofa. The Greeks chose a dramatic image of a glowering beauty whose posture suggests intense emotion and perhaps a dagger in her hand. The Italian hardcover offers a quartet of mistresses: Maria Callas, Camilla Parker Bowles, Jeanne Hébuterne and Madame de Pompadour; the Best Seller sticker decorates Callas’ chest. In the paperback version, a majestic single mistress graces the cover. She gazes over her bare shoulder, her expression enigmatic. Despite her nudity she is beautifully groomed with rouged lips and an intricately-designed headdress. The Serbian cover is a clever riff on the theme of the A History of Celibacy cover, which features a single pair of shoes carelessly shucked off at a bedside.  Mistresses suggests illicit sex with the simple photograph of a seated couple pressed closely together, her high heels dangling next to his bare feet.

 

Which do you like best?

That changes all the time. I’m always astonished at how cover designers go about their work. And if you ever ask me about the covers of A History of Celibacy, I’ll go wild! They’re even more spectacular and imaginative!

 

I’d like to ask ….

Enough! I’m longing for a cup of tea and then I need to get back to work writing another book. Thank you so much for this interview.

 

Where did you get the idea to write And the War Came?

Watching Chris Matthews talk about Christine O’Donnell, who, in case you may have already forgotten, was briefly famous last year for being a Tea Party insurgent who won the Delaware Republican primary. I realized that when most of us study history, we read about great figures and landmark moments, and it can get really boring really fast because everything is chiseled in marble and written in granite, and it doesn’t seem real. Whereas the way we experience politics in our daily lives is with tumult and energy, with nobodies vying for attention and often eclipsing truly significant people, with bad ideas outshouting good ones. And in no period was this more true than in the six months between the election of Abraham Lincoln and the bombardment of Fort Sumter.


How so?

This was the most intensely political period in American history. There were four candidates in the election of 1860. Lincoln won less than forty percent of the vote. Only a late surge by Lincoln in New York kept the election from being thrown into the House of Representatives. After that, the states began thinking about secession. The usual phrase we hear is “The South seceded.” In fact, there were 15 states where slavery was illegal, and so there were fifteen separate debates about what to do. Several went quickly, but four of the states did not secede at all. Virginia and Tennessee at first voted against secession before voting for it. The slaveholding faction almost certainly resorted to vote fraud to take Georgia out, and there was practically a coup in Virginia before the governor supported secession.

Opinion in the north was just as divided. New York business interests wanted to appease the south. Abolitionist New Englanders said good riddance. A faction thought they should let the slave states leave in peace, confident that they would come crawling back. And others believed that the Union was worth preserving, and that these rebels should not be permitted to have their way.


Do you see similarities between that time and today?

Sure. The capacity of people to lie is the same. The capacity of people to act on their fears is the same. The capacity of people to self-dramatize and then believe their own bullshit is the same. And the capacity for people to misjudge how bad things can become is just the same.

Most people in the North did not believe the slaveholders were serious; they had heard this secession song before. Most people in the South could not believe that the North would fight, and those who did were sure that the South would win within a matter of months, this despite the south being much poorer, much less industrialized, and far outnumbered. As a result, they got a war that killed 620,000 men. It reminds me of this debt crisis debate, which is full of people who are placing a narrow interest over the country’s general good, and who refuse to imagine the catastrophe of default.


What surprised you the most in your research?

I was surprised to recognize how nakedly this war was a rebellion created by slaveholders, for slaveholders, which was then sold to non-slaveholding southerners—who were the vast majority of the population—that this was an attack on their freedom and their way of life. The slaveholding interests had held enormous power in early America, but with the settlement of the west, the influx of European immigrants, and the growth of industrialization, the planters of the South had reached the zenith of their influence. They wanted to break away, have their own nation, conquer territory in the Caribbean and Central America, and establish a vast slaveholding empire that controlled cotton and sugar, two of the world’s most desirable commodities. This was not a secret; they made it clear in their speeches. They miscalculated, they blundered, they laid waste to their society, they brought carnage to their communities.

And still there are people in the South who accord them and their cause great honor, and a general vestigial honor that lingers. In Tennessee, for example, there is a state park named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, who, besides being a Confederate general, was a slave trader before the war, and one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan after the war. Is there no one else Tennessee could think to honor?


What figures did you find the most interesting?

It is fascinating to watch the inexperienced Lincoln get his act together; he clearly underestimated the South’s seriousness, and was behind events through most of this period. It is fascinating to watch the weakness of President Buchanan, and to see selfish men taking advantage of that weakness, and stronger men try to fill the void. I am personally drawn to the Christine O’Donnell types—actors with small parts who momentarily appear but influence the drama: the Gourdin brothers of Charleston, who stage-manage South Carolina’s secession, for example; or Montgomery Blair, the Postmaster General, who alone among Lincoln’s cabinet, advocates fighting for Fort Sumter, and carries the day; or Katie Skillen, the teenage daughter of an army sergeant who was in an arsenal in Charleston that was taken over by rebel militia. When they replaced the US flag with one of their own, she began crying.

“Don’t be afraid,” a member of the militia assured her. “Nobody shall hurt you.”

“I’m not at all afraid,” she shot back. “I’m mad to see our flag go down and that dirty thing take its place.” The drama, the passion, the intensity—that’s what I love.


Tell me if this is a normal conversation to have while standing with the other groomsmen at a wedding.

The End of an Era / It was good while it lasted / Crying won't help

“Never before has there been a generation of Americans so disillusioned by the American Dream.”

“Maybe in the 20s? It’s hard to compare.”

For the last year and a half I have been obsessed with the violence in Mexico and the cartel-fueled drug wars.  There is a character in my new novel named Violeta.  She lives in the midst of the blood drenched chaos and I felt I had to be familiar with the horror of her day-to-day life so that as I could write her story.  I have spent a lot of time down on the border, interviewed people whose lives have been affected, visited the sites of savage brutality.  I start each morning with the Mexican blogs where I read about unspeakable atrocities and look at gory photos.  Mass graves keep popping up all over the country in which 20, 30, 70 tortured bodies are discovered.  At first I was able to keep my boundary intact.  The crimes committed against innocent people in Mexico were upsetting but they were happening in a foreign country—not here in my life.  I was safe.  But slowly the reality of Violeta’s life started to color the way I looked at the world.  Everyday I viewed pictures of headless bodies and crying families.  I read accounts of barbarous torture and saw that the cartels were engaged in a monstrous competition, each group trying to  out do the other in order to prove that they were most fierce and therefore most powerful.   I got depressed.  Was this the end of western civilization, as we know it?  Had human nature devolved to such a level that we were slaughtering each other over drugs and money?  I decided to take a look at history in order to put things in perspective.

My son Milo started reading when he was three. Almost seven now, he reads everything and anything–with the exception, he explains, of “fiction.” If it’s not based upon something tangible in the world he’s not interested, which makes him a strangely knowledgeable authority on things well beyond his years.

Milo knows about many subjects, but like his father he’s got a remarkable memory for dates, maps and events over the course of human history. And while he’s still very much a seven-year-old, thus making historical context a little complicated for him, he can tell you with fair accuracy the major events of both the First and Second World Wars. He knows about shipwrecks, which ones went down when, what the differences in their destruction were, why the passenger liner Lusitania is suspected of carrying weapons destined for England (a second explosion in her hull after the Germans shot her–a suspiciously huge blast which sunk her in eighteen minutes).

Last week over waffles in Hawaii, Milo was reading a souvenir newspaper I bought him from Pearl Harbor, a tiny little grownup pouring over the tragedies of December 7, 1941 with the gravity of a concerned citizen. “It’s so nice to see a kid reading the paper,” a gentleman told my brother, no matter that it was several years out of date and had the headline WAR! across the top in 200 point type. “No-one reads the paper anymore.”

My brother, not having kids of his own yet, readily recognized the opportunity to brag. “That’s nothing. Check this out.” He turned to Milo. “Tell me about the mongoose.”

Milo considered for a moment. “Well, they hunt during the day unlike the palm rats, which means they’re not nocturnal. So they’re diurnal. Yep. Diurnal. Also, they’re invasive here in Hawaii.”

The man just stared. “Okay, then!”

My brother laughed with pride when he told me the story.

This is what we have to deal with around these parts: a seven-year-old who is extremely seven-ish when it comes to his emotional maturity but can pull facts out of the clouds like rain. His insatiable quest for knowledge keeps us up long past his bedtime with his queries about historical events. Last night, in the dark, looking at the mottled shadows, he said: “Tell me about the French Revolution.”

The French Revolution isn’t one of my stronger suits. I admitted to Milo that he really should ask Dad about it, but the short of it is this: people were sick to death of monarchs and took matters into their own hands to create a republic, but then everyone got a little carried away and started slaughtering people mercilessly from all quarters. Then a little short guy led the French army throughout Europe, taking over a great deal of it until they got to Russia, which by its very nature defeated Napoleon and his troops.

“That’s the 1812 Overture,” Milo said.

Good grief, I thought.

So you will understand when I explain that his head doesn’t work within the realm of superheroes and sports figures. He works with historical heroes and villains, Nazis and Napoleon, U-boats and the Blitz, air raids and invasions on land and by sea. This is what he knows.

The other day he drew a picture in class on the back of his spelling test. It features two people in a fire truck driving up to a burning building, at the top of which is a tiny figure, apparently caught in the fire. One stick says to the other stick, pointing a little stick finger at the building, “That’s a Nazi.”

Which, if you know my kid, makes perfect sense.

But his teacher somewhat frantically pulled Lars aside to point it out. “I wanted to show this to you,” she started. “I didn’t even notice it at first, but some other parent saw it and was really upset by it.”

Lars took a look at it. “It’s what he knows,” he said. “He knows about World War II and he knows who the Nazis are.” She looked unmoved. “Our family is Jewish,” he said, a strange sort of justification when you get down to it.

“It’s just one of those things we need to be sensitive about,” she replied. But she was rattled and didn’t know how to deal with it. She wanted it to go away.

After Lars explained the situation to me, we were at a loss. Milo hadn’t condoned Nazism, nor written about how Adolph Hitler was a fine fellow with great ideas; he had drawn a picture with a Nazi in it. A stick Nazi. Had the words, “That’s a Nazi” not been written, it would have been just another seven-year-old artwork exploring seven-year-old anxieties and thoughts about his seven-year-old world.

And we realized, both because we were getting defensive, but also because we were genuinely angry about it, that if Milo had written “That’s the Shining Path,” or “He’s Pol Pot” or “There’s Darth Vader,” no-one would have thought twice about it.

Now we were placed in the unenviable position of explaining to Milo that his teacher was upset by something somewhat intangible. He hadn’t espoused any belief in the Nazi philosophy, nor had he made reference to anything they had done, either in support or condemnation. He didn’t call someone on the playground a Nazi. He hadn’t done anything wrong. We explained to Milo that we weren’t mad, but that he couldn’t talk about Nazis in school. “Why?” he asked – reasonably, I might add. If you can’t talk about Nazis in school, where can you talk about them? Are schools for learning about everything except the Nazis? He’d written a solitary word, one based in a period of history he knows about, in a drawing. He’d written a word. “I can’t believe my first grader is being censored!” Lars said, and while “censored” is a bit hyperbolic, I have to agree: this was much ado about nothing.

If the word “Nazi” still has the power to terrify in this knee-jerk way, it makes me extremely uncomfortable about where we’re headed. If we can’t talk about Nazis, we can’t talk about what happened in World War II. And if Mark Twain’s “niggers” are excised from Huckleberry Finn, we can’t talk about slavery or the Civil War with any realism. If we’re hair-trigger about certain buzzwords like “Nazi” and “nigger” even in their historical context while overlooking other historical atrocities, like Cortez storming the New World and Mao’s “Cultural Revolution,” we’re whitewashing all of them, either by hysterical touchiness or willful ignorance.

Language is as powerful as you’re willing to make it. To de-fang “Nazis,” who still feature prominently in popular culture despite our first grade teacher’s wish, we have to talk about what they did. Indiana Jones, made of either video game LEGO’s or Harrison Ford’s best years, still fights the Nazis in front of thousands of children every day. Children are exposed to Nazis; if we can’t explain why they’re important, we’ve lost the struggle for making meaning out of the meaningless.

Nothing was more meaningless than the Holocaust. If we cannot explore the senseless, meaningless horror of it because we can’t write the word “Nazi,” we’re in a whole heap of trouble.


*In the days that have followed, things, as they do, have changed somewhat. Milo’s teacher has talked to us more completely and we have an understanding. But certain things remain true, and it bothers me. I wrote a comment to Ronlyn Domingue which I think sums up my remaining feeling about the situation, even with the understanding with his teacher.

You know, I have to be fair here. The teacher has talked to me in the aftermath, and she’s okay. She knows that Milo is a kid whose curiosity runs from the interesting to the completely arcane. She felt she had to raise the subject with us because the other parent was sort of hysterical about it. This is coming clear in the days following–but it certainly wasn’t clear when I wrote this post. That’s the problem with internet immediacy. Facts changing to make a less charged situation.

However, having exonerated my son’s teacher I will say this: the parent who became hysterical about my son’s drawing had no jurisdiction to become so. The same truth of knee-jerk reactions about things applies as much as when I wrote it, and I’ve experienced it in other situations. People love to moralize where there is no moral.

The truth is, whatever issues this parent raised about my son’s drawing caused far more harm than good. First, there was no wrong done, and now my son feels embarrassed about it, doesn’t know what he can and can’t talk about in school, and feels like he did something wrong, no matter our assurances to the contrary. Second, what business was it of hers anyway? She’s not teaching the class; the teacher admitted that when she saw the drawing that was causing the fuss she just shrugged and knew it was Milo being Milo. The parent has no context, no history with him, doesn’t see him on a daily basis; how can she be so impertinent to think she should call him out to the teacher?

This sort of petty mischief in the guise of being a concerned citizen enrages me. It’s not the first time it’s raised my hackles and I’m sure it won’t be the last. The shrapnel from this one event is going to take a long time to remove.

This is a continuation of a series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1. For items 17-32, see part 2. In this final installment I include a few observations I’ve culled from my father’s memoir of his life in Nigeria and abroad “Seeing the World in Black & White.” (SWBW) (AWP, 2006)¹

33. Modern Nigerian literature, ever vibrant, is certainly on the up. Young as it is Nigeria has already had an early generation of great writers, household names such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, not to mention the likes of Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and even the prolific pulp novelist Dan Fulani. It’s almost too much to ask for more, but as it happens, we have much, much more with new generations exploding on to the scene, including poets Chris Abani, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe and lesser known contemporaries such as Chinweizu. But the real earthquake manifests in novel form, with the emergence of the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Sefi Atta, and Nnedi Okorafor. I can’t pass without a word for the recently deceased poet and playwright Esiaba Irobi. One of the neat aspects of these 21st century blossoms is that so many of them are young women.

In the 1970’s, the television show, All in the Family, was one of the most popular shows in the nation and a real cultural mainstay. One of the reasons for its enduring popularity (aside from great acting and interesting plot lines) was the fact that regardless of where you fell on the political spectrum, All in the Family offered a humorous portrayal of the generational divide. The show’s creators (and many viewers) felt that the show clearly illustrated Archie Bunker’s bigotry and was therefore critical, rather than condoning, of his prejudices. In reality, studies actually showed otherwise. In, True Enough, Farhad Manjoo points out a study that showed that bigots and non-bigots each found the show equally humorous but that they also, “harbored very different ideas about what was happening in the show.” The psychologists Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach, who conducted this study, found that people of low prejudice saw Archie Bunker as closed minded and a bigot, whereas people of high prejudice saw Archie Bunker as, “down-to-earth, honest, hardworking, predictable and kind enough to let his daughter and son in law live with him.”

This is a continuation of my series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1.

17. Nobody deploys the witty put-down quite like Wafi and Safi boys (and girls). You know it by many names: “the dozens,” “snaps,” “cracks,” “yo mama jokes,” and such. The tradition of non-violent contests of wits through rapid-fire mutual insults is well know anywhere Black culture has left a mark. But in my travels I don’t think I’ve met any group that dishes it out quite as expertly as folks from the Niger delta towns of Warri and Sapele (AKA Wafi and Safi), rendered in the particularly extravagant brand of Pidgin English for which that region is famous. I myself still bear the scars from some such encounters. And if you are trying to get cozy with a girl from that region, you had better come correct, or you might not survive the resulting put-down.

Nigeria’s 50th birthday was a fortnight ago. On October 1, 1960, the British officially turned over sovereignty of the country to the Speaker of the newly independent Nigerian Parliament, Jaja Wachuku, in the form of the Freedom Charter. The new nation nearly convulsed apart within ten years, and in many ways, it’s amazing such an entity has survived intact, an agglomeration of hundreds of ethnic groups (and indigenous languages), many of which were so recently colonized by Britannia that they were not very warm to the idea of sharing political commonwealth with a bunch of circumstantial peers.

The holiday got me thinking of what it means to me to be a Nigerian, born in Nigeria, educated in Nigeria and abroad, living (and naturalized) in the USA, but with a very strong sense of rootedness off the Bight of Bonny. Nigeria is enormous. I’ve read estimates that a quarter of all black people in the world are of recent Nigerian origin. Among such multitudes there is so much to say that I’ve just begged off to a series of vignettes in a number that suits the occasion, and I’ve broken the expansive result into three parts. Please do join me in this sampler from our enormous platter.

In 3000 BCE, papyrus scrolls allowed people to preserve oral stories in writing. Then, about 2000 years ago, people figured out that they could fold a scroll up into a codex, or even produce individual sheets of paper that could be bound into a book.

Around 1439 CE, Gutenberg’s movable type printing allowed people to reproduce books for the masses.

By the late 1800s, paperbacks were finding themselves in the most remote locations of the world. Books were more available to the general public than ever, but these books were still written as though the stories within them were consistent, straightforward narratives–oral stories on paper.

In the maiden voyage of this column, Poetry for the Nervous, Vol 1, I led with the principle that what you love, what strikes you, what moves you in poetry is what matters.  Critics do not matter.  The judgments of others do not matter.  Poetry is yours to dispose as your heart dictates.  If your teachers or friends impose upon you some poem or poet they champion, and you just don’t get it, there is no need to think yourself stupid or inadequate, nor to give up on poetry as a whole.  You will find what you love eventually, because poetry in its essence is as deep within us as our desire to communicate.

From an appeal towards what you love, I’ll work into something a bit less romantic.  I think the best poetry is also useful.  That’s a dangerous word in the world of art, wrapped up as it is in the most ancient debates about aesthetics and utility, but I’m always ready to argue that gallery art is great, but does it really beat, say, a well crafted chair that is beautiful to behold, and is also very comfortable for sitting?  Do any human efforts match the art of nature, for whom, especially if you are a cosmologist, utility is the most fundamental quantity?

Before we discuss if we have a “right to be happy” or “how can we be happy,” we must first decide what we mean by ‘happiness.’

The word “happiness,” today, is used too ubiquitously to really mean much.There is a happy life, a happy moment, a happy accident.In etymological terms, the word’s origin is actually more closely related to “happen-stance” or “haphazard” where the root “hap” has to do with something being accidental or as a matter of fortune, rather than a result of purposeful action.  In most European languages, happy meant lucky.  Further, happiness’ connotation, its common usage rather than its definitive definition, has evolved from one of generality over a lifetime to one of one’s current state of being.Saying, “I am happy,” used to mean that your life was going well.Now it means, “This cake in my mouth is really something.”So, what was once a description of goals, direction and prudence, is now a full-mouthed reply to a bit of frosting.