Daily Outtake: I want to love this book, but I can’t

Text & Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
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This book arrived in the mail a couple weeks ago, a review copy I’d requested.

Sarah Jane Cervenak's book, Wandering. (Photo: @collazoprojects)
Sarah Jane Cervenak’s book, Wandering. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

The topic was–no, is–intriguing: “Combining black feminist theory, philosophy, and performance studies, Sarah Jane Cervenak ruminates on the significance of physical and mental roaming for black freedom….”

Right up my alley of interests.

I want to love this book so much, but I.just.can’t.

It’s just bloated with academic jargon, the kind of unnecessary intellectual puffery that sent me running from my PhD program. I’m not against 25 cent words– you know that– but why do we have to make important ideas so unnecessarily cryptic? Why do academic institutions push professors to write this kind of stuff when they could be writing about the same topics in much more accessible ways?

To Wear the Crown: Writers Speaking Out Loud

Text & Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
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Two among many LGBT writers whose work has inspired me.
Two among many LGBT writers whose work has inspired me.

June Jordan.

James Baldwin.

Audre Lorde.

Adrienne Rich.

Cristina Peri Rossi.

Elizabeth Bishop

Truman Capote.

Willa Cather.

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Before I knew that any of these writers identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, I knew their work– their words. Each one exerted his or her own influence over my own development as a writer, helping, above all, to show me what words could do if you knew how to use them.

I learned about these writers in South Carolina and Georgia classrooms.

Earlier this week, I was invited to join the group “Writers Speaking Out Loud,” which was organized to advocate academic freedom and to denounce the efforts of South Carolina politicians to strip funding from schools where texts by LGBT authors are taught. It’s embarrassing and distressing to me that the need for this group even exists, that politicians find the work of LGBT writers to be inherently threatening.

What’s both outrageous and disappointing about their punitive approach is that they’re attempting to silence some of the voices we need to hear the most. Each of the writers I named above wrote about something universal: the struggle to be recognized and accepted, not only by society– and certainly not only (or even primarily) about being LGBT– but by one’s own self. And given the bullying epidemic and self-esteem crises that seem to plague schools and our very culture, these messages–these testimonies of power and self-possession, are more important now than ever.

When Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison reflected on the death of writer James Baldwin, she said:

“You knew, didn’t you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it? How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wildernesses for me? How strengthened I was by the certainty that came from knowing you would never hurt me? You knew, didn’t you, how I loved your love? You knew. This then [his death] is no calamity. No. This is jubilee. Our crown, you said, has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do, you said, is wear it.'”

To honor the writers who have shown fierce courage and tamed wildernesses, let’s wear those crowns.

Now in New York: Pablo Helguera’s “Libreria Donceles” at Kent Fine Art

Text & Instagram Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo

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My online friend–soon to be “in real life” friend because we’re having lunch together tomorrow– journalist Monika Fabian, tipped me off to Pablo Helguera’s installation, “Librería Donceles,” at Kent Fine Art on 11th Avenue between 24th and 25th Streets.

"Portadas Feas"-"Ugly Covers"
“Portadas Feas”-“Ugly Covers”

Writing about the exhibit for New York Daily News, Fabian explained the show’s concept:

“In a city where one in four citizens speaks Spanish, it both surprised and saddened artist Pablo Helguera to watch New York’s Spanish-language bookstores close over the years…. So Helguera did something about it. Last month, he “opened” Librería Donceles, the city’s only Spanish-language used bookstore, at the Chelsea gallery Kent Fine Art through Nov. 8. Bibliófilos — book-lovers in Spanish — can browse and buy the rare finds, most of which would never be found in local stores, Helguera says….”

Helguera brought several thousand books from Mexico to New York for the exhibit, which isn’t really like an exhibit at all, said the volunteer who showed me around the gallery when I stopped by for a visit this afternoon. “People taking the Chelsea Galleries Walking Tour are so confused,” she said. “They come in here and see the place set up like a bookstore and they say, ‘Wait, I thought this was an art gallery.'”

She went on to explain that Helguera told the volunteers who act as gallery docents/book vendors for Librería Donceles that he chose to set the bookstore up in a gallery rather than, say, a pop-up shop because a storefront–even a temporary one–would be cost-prohibitive. The cost of running a bookstore is, in fact, the reason that all but one of the city’s Spanish-language bookstores have shuttered in recent years (the only one in existence as of this writing is La Casa Azul, which I highly recommend). Even though Helguera’s “bookstore” will have a short run, it may (one can dream, at least) bring the importance of Spanish-language resources back into public conversation in a city that seems all too happy to let big box stores take over retail spaces that once housed places like Librería Lectorum.

Helguera’s libreria is named after Donceles, a street in Mexico City that’s known for its numerous used bookstores. Helguera sourced thousands of books from friends and complete strangers, to whom he gave pieces of his own art in exchange for the texts. The gallery is set up like a bookstore: there are a couple seating areas–one for kids, and one for folks who may want to settle in for a while and play a game of chess. There are shelves and tables laden with books, many of which are vintage. The shelves’ sections are labeled by theme, some predictable (fiction, essays, poetry) and some not so predictable (“portadas feas”-“ugly covers”; “ficción de valor dudoso”-“fiction of dubious value.”)

"Ficción de valor dudoso"-"Fiction of dubious value."
“Ficción de valor dudoso”-“Fiction of dubious value.”

The idea of Librería Donceles is for people to engage with the books, said the volunteer on duty. Visitors to the gallery can even buy one book per visit; the cost is determined by the visitor, who makes a donation that goes to Mano a Mano, a local cultural organization that, among other things, offers Nahuatl courses and workshops about Mexican arts and culture.

I ended up walking out with a collection of Julio Cortazar’s letters, and I’ll be back at least one more time before the exhibit closes on November 8.

Now Open in Cuba: English-Language Bookstore, Cuba Libro

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Image: Courtesy of Cuba Libro
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Cuba Libro is the island's only bookstore specializing in English-language books.
Cuba Libro is the island’s only bookstore specializing in English-language books.
Because my husband is Cuban and because I’ve visited Cuba nearly a dozen times over the past decade, I get lots of travel questions about the island. I can’t answer most of these questions, as I tend to stay with my mother-in-law and I’ve never experienced Cuba as a tourist; I end up directing inquiries to my friend Conner Gorry, who has lived on the island for longer than I’ve been visiting. Her blog and her travel app are as much intel as you’re going to get without moving there yourself.

Conner just sent word about Cuba Libro, an English-language bookstore and cafe in Havana… the island’s only English-language bookstore and cafe. It just opened this week. Here’s everything you need to know about it, straight from Conner:

This island is unique in so many ways (both good and not so) and one thing that has always struck me is that Havana must be one of the only – if not the only – capital city where you can’t get an English-language newspaper or novel. The reasons are complex (what isn’t in Cuba?!) but it means literature lovers have to beg, borrow or steal books in English or bring their Kindle well-loaded.

Located on a terminally shady corner in the desirable Vedado district, this ‘café literario’ is bringing the bookstore/coffeehouse concept to the island. All books and magazines pass through the ‘Conner filter’ (if you find a Harlequin Romance on the shelves, you get a free espresso!): I guarantee if you’re in need of quality reading material or conversation with interesting, creative Cubans, you’ll find it here.

In addition to featuring monthly shows by talented local artists – August showcases over a dozen captivating images by photographer Alain Gutiérrez – Cuba Libro offers many services travelers are after: water bottle refills; postcards, stamps, and mailing; a cultural calendar (so you won’t miss that hot concert or polemic play); and expert travel tips. This is an ethically-responsible business that offers a lending library for those who can’t afford books, a collective employment model where the entire team benefits, and an environmentally-friendly approach. Like Cuba itself, Cuba Libro strives for equity and a healthy, culturally-rich atmosphere.

This is also a regguetón free zone – we listen to real music at Cuba Libro! Come early to snag a coveted hammock or hanging chair in the garden.

Open Monday-Saturday, 10am-8pm.

New on Bookshelves: Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo unless otherwise noted
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Matthew Goodman's "Eighty Days" was released by Random House on February 26, 2013.
Matthew Goodman’s “Eighty Days” was released by Random House on February 26, 2013.
Matthew Goodman is a lucky writer.

While looking for an idea for his next book, Goodman came across an interesting anecdote about Nellie Bly.

“Most people know Bly’s name,” Goodman said when I interviewed him by phone last weekend, “but they’re not sure why they know it.” Bly was a 19th-century journalist, Goodman knew that much. What he didn’t know–and what it seemed almost no one else knew, either– was that Bly had also taken a round-the-world trip in 1889. “I found a one-sentence mention of her trip,” Goodman said, “and I wanted to know more.”

Bly’s round-the-world trip would have been enough for an interesting story (Bly herself wrote an account of the journey); solo female travel may be totally normal and socially acceptable now, but it certainly wasn’t in Bly’s day. Plus, she had dreamed up the idea for the journey herself and presented it to her employer, The World, a New York City newspaper. Then, there were a couple extra elements of interest: Bly wasn’t taking a leisure tour around the world; she was taking a whirlwind trip to prove that a real traveler could beat the round-the-world time of a fictional traveler: Jules Vernes’ Phileas Fogg. And–also completely unheard of in 1889–she was doing so with a single bag, a gripsack, which was only slightly larger than a doctor’s bag.

All of this would have made for a compelling book, but Goodman found one more bit of information that sold him on his next project: Bly wasn’t the only female reporter setting off on a high-speed round-the-world journey on November 14, 1889. Another young reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, who has been all but lost to history and our collective memory, said Goodman, set off just hours after Bly in a competing publication’s attempt to capitalize on the publicity stunt. Bisland was reluctant to take the trip and didn’t travel as light as Bly, but interestingly, she ended up enjoying the trip much more and, ultimately, she became a repeat world traveler and expat.

The central characters of Goodman’s new book were established and in a way, the trajectory of his narrative was already set, with dramatic tension built in. Goodman’s task, for the next 18 months, was to immerse himself in research. Goodman, who calls himself a narrative historian, says that historians are really travelers, but rather than traveling from one place to another, they’re traveling from one era to another. As he reconstructed Bly’s and Bisland’s stories and tied them into a single narrative that would visit Hong Kong, Yokohama, Ceylon, and numerous ports of call in between, Goodman consulted everything Bly and Bisland had ever written about their trips; every article about the trips that he found in their own publications, as well as other newspapers around the US; the memoirs of contemporaneous travelers; 19th-century guidebooks; and even newspaper advertisements. “Advertisements are extremely helpful,” he said. “They help you know what the hats looked like and what they cost, what people were reading, what kind of medicine they were taking. Those kinds of details make your narrative richer.”

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World is the best book I’ve read in a long time, and one of the reasons is because Goodman was so attentive and so thorough in his research. He demonstrates a remarkable deftness in establishing a sense of place in so many geographically and culturally disparate locations, not simply sharing evocative details and helping readers understand what the trip meant to the women who were taking it and to the public generally, but also helping the reader understand the dominant social issues of the time. What is particularly impressive is that he does so in a way that never feels overly didactic or dry; the narrative never loses the cantering pace that the Bly and Bisland race help Goodman establish. And he manages to avoid a pitfall that often characterizes historical non-fiction, that of inhabiting the subjects’ voices in ways that feel appropriated and inauthentic.

Bly’s and Bisland’s round-the-world trips would have been remarkable today, but they absolutely riveted the country as they were occurring. Bly’s newspaper, The World, held a contest inviting readers to guess Bly’s final trip time for a chance to win their own round the world trip, and the paper received nearly one million entries. The paper’s management had to hire 19 clerks from the post office to count and sort the entries on round-the-clock shifts. When the winner returned to the US, she was greeted by the kind of fanfare that’s hardly seen today; the crowd was estimated to be 10-15,000 strong, giving off “a hum that rose and fell like the swell of cicadas, but deeper-voiced….” The women’s trips inspired people to name their children after the journalists, gave a whole generation of women the impetus and courage to pursue careers as journalists, and certainly encouraged many more to take their own journeys, albeit slower ones.

All of which begged the question, I thought: How could we have possibly forgotten about a chapter of history that was so important and compelling, not only in the history of travel, women, and journalism, but one that was clearly so significant for the entire nation, which was following news of the journeys anxiously (circulation and newsstand sales of The World increased dramatically during Bly’s trip)? That’s what I asked Goodman, who agreed that our collective forgetting of these trips was pretty remarkable. In fact, he was initially anxious about the prospects of his Bly/Bisland book project because he couldn’t believe he’d found such an incredible tale that no one else had written about. He admitted he was fortunate to have discovered an episode from the past that offered a strong narrative, sufficient primary and secondary source material to research, a story that hadn’t been told (at least not completely or sufficiently), and that had some larger social significance.

Goodman answered my question by pointing out that Bly and Bisland were traveling just at the turn of the century, when so many technological and social changes were taking place. The speed of life was quickening, he explained, and novel gimmicks intended to gain attention for a product, business, or cause were being introduced all the time. The round the world trips captured the public’s attention for their duration and for a brief while after, but then they moved on to the next big thing. How Bly and Bisland moved on–and how the trips impacted their careers and their lives–are the subjects of the closing chapters of Eighty Days.

Nellie Bly's tombstone in Woodlawn Cemetery.

Goodman, for his part, is looking for his next book project, but will also continue to live with Bly and Bisland as he promotes Eighty Days, which went on sale yesterday. He is glad that he has a chance to reintroduce Bly to the public and to restore Bisland to her rightful place in women’s, journalism’s, and America’s history. His North American book tour starts tonight with a reading at the Barnes and Noble on 86th and Lexington; over the next few months he’ll also make stops in Washington, D.C., Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, and Rhinebeck. A complete list of readings and events can be found on his website. If you’re in New York, you can also join him at Woodlawn Cemetery, where both Bly and Bisland are buried, for a discussion of the book on March 24.