In America, we know, youth has become king. Ours is a culture that tends to worship youthfulness with uncanny fervor, which can leave older adults feeling less than relevant, while depriving the young and old of vital chances to connect and learn from one another.
Until recently, if you homeschooled your children, you were either part of a pioneering movement in alternative education or doing so for religious reasons. Now, more than 2.2 million children ages 5-17 are homeschooled in the United States, a figure on par with the number of children enrolled in Catholic schools and public charter schools, according to Brian Ray, founder of the National Homeschool Education Research Institute and the journal, Homeschool Researcher. Ray points out that the number of secular homeschoolers is increasing exponentially, though just how fast is hard to measure.
Jalila spends her days fighting against the United Liberation Force and the Zios Army, wearing a black leather halter top and tight-fitting pants. She kicks ass to protect her home – The City of All Faiths – from those who wish to control it. Meanwhile, Zein is heir to an ancient Egyptian king and though he's a respected university professor by day, at night he is a crime-fighting machine with more-than-human powers.
These are two of four superheroes who populate the world of AK Comics, based in Cairo and distributed in the Middle East and the United States. Creator Ayman Kandeel, who, like his creation Zein, is a university professor of economics in Cairo, began this series in 2002. The comics, which are published in both English and Arabic, tout its characters as "The only Middle Eastern superheroes."
"I grew up reading all sorts of comic books and novels. As a kid I was impressed by ancient Egyptian history and wonders," says Kandeel. "I always imagined a superhero with ancient Egyptian roots, with all the mystery and mysticism that civilization embodies."
Stepping away from the comic-book world, the real world continues to deal with a very real war in Iraq, which has focused a laser beam of negative propaganda on Middle Eastern cultures, often lumping countries together into one homogenous, warlike Islamic mass by misrepresentation. AK Comics promotes a very opposite picture. All four main characters in the series are working on behalf of peace, after all.
Let's not forget Aya, "the princess of darkness," who not only works for an elite crime-fighting organization in the Middle East, but is trained as a lawyer, fighting for justice and gender equality.
"Aya was designed to confirm the gender equality issue that is still somewhat sensitive in the Middle East. Since she has no superpowers of her own, it was by choice rather than obligation that she fends off evil," says Kandeel.
And finally there is Rakan, "The Lone Warrior," raised by a saber-toothed desert cat, who wanders the deserts of Arabia and Persia, using the techniques of "Sheba" (wisdom and peace), making him an invincible warrior.
Kandeel says that "Rakan was created to satisfy those adventure and fantasy addicts with a mystic twist, offering the kinds of thrills that medieval East/Persia can offer. He embodies the strong, persevering and unrelenting nature of the warriors of that era."
The comics are based on U.S. standards, meaning one will find the standard burlesque, sexy women, the familiar diabolically muscled villains and heroes cavorting against gothic backdrops like stark buildings and obliterated vistas. Even the fight scenes are punctuated with the trustworthy "Bams", "Kracks" and "Hiyaas" that have been employed by comic books for decades. The creative teams behind each series is a mix of Western and Middle Eastern talent.
Marwan El Nashar, AK Comics' managing director, notes that the artwork differs from classic comic book style. "We are trying to adapt a unique individual style that can stand out from the rest. You will notice that the art features of our characters are quite realistic and more 'mature' than your average Marvel or DC Comics. The characters and storyline are our genuine creation. They tend to blend reality and actual events in a storytelling style. Moreover, we use altered names of Middle Eastern cities, monuments and so on. The futuristic era our heroes reside in creates a wonderful 'brave new world' atmosphere."
This apocalyptic atmosphere draws upon the Middle East's real, cumulative history of conflict, providing weighty storylines for these first-of-their-kind comics and then stretches it off into the fantastic. Three of the characters (all but Rakan) live in a time after the "55-Year War," which culminated in a massive nuclear explosion, a situation that can give a non-fictional shiver to any reader in today's political climate.
One gets a sense that these characters are more than just drawings and words on colorful pages for Kandeel. They are representative, symbolic of possibilities for transformation of the Middle East, drawing on his own powerful fascination of Middle Eastern mysticism and the very real conflicts that exist in the region today.
"We believe there is a global human need to have superheroes around. This is true of all histories and mythologies and is quite evident by the recent trend in big blockbuster movies. It's important for individuals to have faith in someone greater (physically and morally) than themselves. We in the Middle East are desperate for such individuals that we can identify with," said Kandeel. "When it comes to the global market, there's much attention, curiosity and controversy about this troubled region and there's a serious attempt to better understand and relate to issues that face the Middle East. Hence, we can capture a small portion of that attention."
Reception to the comics in the United States has been tremendous, according to El Nashar.
"We released four issues just to test the U.S. market, whereby sales averaged 4,500 copies per issue. Currently we do only direct sales and subscriptions via our partner in L.A," he said.
The comics are also excellent sellers in Kandeel's home country of Egypt with interest beginning in other countries of the region.
"We've been approved by the Ministry of Education to conduct presentations in school. We now have several key accounts such as Egypt Air, the American University of Cairo, several cultural centers and book stores. Our rate of growth is just superb," said El Nashar.
Despite his optimism, AK Comics faces some barriers in reaching a wider Middle Eastern audience. Religion is not discussed in the plotlines, and political strife is referred to vaguely, or cloaked in abstract references. In the Middle Eastern version, Jalila's outfit was modified for a more conservative audience. On getting into the Saudi market, El Nashar was quoted in Lebanon's Daily Star as saying, "We're trying to negotiate with the Saudis to see if censorship can be avoided. Hopefully they are getting more liberal."
In the U.S., the comics debuted at the paean of comic book commotion, "ComiCon" in San Diego with results that were encouraging, according to El Nashar. They will return for ComicCon 2005, and begin a larger U.S. distribution after that.
"In a sense our comics are borderless, with a vision of a globe void of wars and conflicts. Clearly, our heroes promote peace and prosperity, protecting the weak and the needy in the most volatile region of the world," said Kandeel.
Though the National Endowment for the Arts is in the business of funding art in all its variations, it's easy to forget the department belongs to the same government that has recently cut funding in areas from education to environmental protection – and arts – in order to finance the war in Iraq.
One of the NEA's recent projects, "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience," is exercising this irony with literary intentions.
Operation Homecoming has coordinated with all four branches of the armed forces and the Department of Defense to sponsor writing workshops for returned troops and their families at military installations throughout the United States. These workshops have been taught by famous writers, poets, historians and journalists, from Tom Clancy to Tobias Wolff. The ultimate goal is for military personnel and their families to submit work to an anthology (which shares the same name as the program) to be published in spring of 2006. The focus is on troops who have served either in Iraq under Operation Desert Storm, in Afghanistan or in the current Iraq conflict.
The anthology will be edited, pro-bono, by Andrew Carroll. Carroll is the director of the Legacy Project, a national initiative that encourages Americans to seek out and preserve wartime correspondence before these letters (and e-mails) are lost or destroyed.
Since the U.S. seems hell-bent on keeping war a part of history, ad infinitum, the question remains to be seen if a project of this nature can help to exorcise some of the trauma of war that, especially in the last four years, is contributing to a new generation of war veterans. "One cannot tell the story of our nation without also telling the story of our wars," writes Dana Gioia, Chairman of the NEA, in the project's media kit.
Lt. James Habeck works in security forces for the Air Force. "We're the guys who defend the air," he said. Habeck is 34 years old and has been in the military for most of his adult life, sixteen and a half years. He was deployed in Operation Desert Storm and, most recently, returned from Iraq in early September. He and his wife – who is also in active military duty – have a four-year-old son.
Habeck attended the workshop led by writer Larry Smith and actor Stephen Lang at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska on Nov. 22.
"I heard about it on NPR and wanted to participate because I thought it was a great way to take the letters I'd written to my wife and compile them," he said.
He went in without expectations, motivated as much by meeting the actor Lang, (who starred in the movie "Gods and Generals," which had a "profound impact" on Habeck's life), as to get direction on archiving his letters.
Though Habeck found the workshop "enjoyable" and felt as though the teachers provided fresh ways to approach documenting the wartime experience, it wasn't until the weekend after the workshop that the first powerful writing happened for him.
"I went to visit my parents that weekend and some memories of while I was in Iraq came up for me. I started writing. It isn't exactly therapeutic, but when you see things on paper you don't want to talk about, it sort of makes them okay. Writing gives you the luxury to come to terms with your experiences," he said.
Just because a dramatic event took place in wartime, doesn't mean it will translate into a dramatic literary creation, but Habeck found himself surprised by the poetic potential of some writing that occurred around one memory in particular.
"I remember I was working with the Army, stationed just outside the Sunni Triangle [in Iraq]. I had to go up north, where dangerous work was going on. I came back to camp exhausted and I smelled perfume for the first time in months. After getting used to gunpowder, dirt and oil, it just made me stop and miss my wife, and miss home. I ran through the tents looking for who was wearing it. It was a powerful juxtaposition for me, the softness of it. It's funny but it gave me a sense of hope, reminded me that this was just one corner of the world where terrible things are happening," said Habeck.
Richard Bausch, a professor of English at George Mason University and the author of "Good Evening Mr. & Mrs. America" and "Hello to the Cannibals," among others, taught a workshop in June at Fort Drum Army Base in Watertown, New York.
"[The workshop] was exhilarating," he said. "There was a wide range of expression. I even worked with a group of wives of soldiers who were deployed. Whenever writing reaches a level of truth, there is surprise for the writer – it's the single most trustworthy thing about the craft and the act."
Both Bausch and Habeck agree that, though writing about war is cathartic, it doesn't necessarily serve as therapy.
"This is a war. [The workshop students] all had lost comrades and were, most of them, going back into the line of fire. They talked about how it was, and how long it had been since they had seen their families, and how badly they missed their loved ones," said Bausch. "But they were not complaining either. They were writing about it truly, and being faithful to the truth of their experiences."
"I think it's great that this program recognizes that people in the military have feelings about what we're going through. We don't have much chance to be creative or to share these things," said Habeck.
It remains to be seen just how cheerfully the government will encourage soldiers to write about experiences that do not support the efforts of war or the current administration's policies.
"Looking at the great literary legacy of solider writers from antiquity to the present, I cannot help expect that important new writers will emerge from the ranks of our latest veterans," writes Gioia.
One can certainly hope so.
Last September, the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) ruled that manuscripts from countries such as Iran, Syria and others with which the U.S. is under a trade embargo cannot be edited, translated or published.
Although the work she deals with is published outside of Iran, the vague rules put Niloufar Talebi – writer, performer and director of The Translation Project – in an awkward position, as her work is expressly designed around translating, editing and publishing Iranian poetry.
"In the post 9/11 climate leading to the U.S.-Iraq war, Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries have been mushed into one murky, Arabic-speaking, terrorist-threat-to-the-free-world zone," said Talebi, who lives in San Francisco. "Most Americans, even educated ones, are not aware of the vast differences in language, religion and government between Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan – a shortcoming that can be corrected by introducing literature in translation into the American culture."
Though the consequences of the OFAC ruling are still murky, it is enough to spark concern in Talebi. Meanwhile, she's pushing forward with her project.
The Translation Project seeks to track the rich tradition of Persian poetry in diaspora since the 1979 revolution, now that so many Iranians reside outside of their home country.
Every generation has its defining breed of writer. The twenties had the French-inspired literary salons, the fifties had the rebellious beats. Now, we have an edgy 30-something crowd delivering fiction that screams "we dare you to pin us down" and includes in its minions McSweeney's poster child Dave Eggers, and the multi-faceted Ben Marcus – educated in philosophy and literature at New York and Brown Universities.
This new breed of writer tends to use fiction to explore the pathos and myths of American life. Marcus claims to have grown up in the Midwest, Europe, New York and Texas, which could account for a literary aesthetic that has been described as both "twisted" and "genius" and compared to the divergent likes of Samuel Beckett and George Orwell. He is a former senior editor for Conjunctions literary magazine, known for its experimental fiction, the author of the novels "The Age of Wire and String" (Knopf) and "Notable American Women" (Vintage) and most recently the editor of "The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories" featuring a range of writers including Mary Gaitskill, Lydia Davis, George Saunders and more.
His work is both familiar and surreal and has earned him a dedicated, if cult-like, following.
Jordan Rosenfeld: What were you looking for when you began collecting the authors for "The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories"?
Ben Marcus: I wanted each story to be really different stylistically and for this to be a source book of short fiction that showed the range and variety of the kinds of stories that are being written today. I didn't want to have only realist fiction, or just lyrical or meta-fictional or minimalist fiction. With some anthologies that I've read in the past, even with some I've really loved, I've tended to find that those anthologies reinforced a single way to write a short story. When I teach I've always ended up making these course packs of Xeroxed stories from different kinds of writers and giving them to students as an inspirational model to show that originality is still possible. That was my operating principle for this book.
In order to collect these stories into an anthology, you must have had some kind of aesthetic at work that allowed you to look at a story and recognize its merit. What did you look for?
Some old fashioned standards still applied. I wanted it to be memorable, to transport me, to consume me, devour me and completely engage and fascinate me, as well as trouble and confuse me. I wanted to be overcome by stories in different kinds of ways. The aesthetic was attempting to allow as many kinds of aesthetics and sub-aesthetics as I could find. I wanted to pick the kinds of stories I thought I might not normally like. That was interesting to me because I deliberately read all kinds of writers I hadn't read because maybe I had felt they weren't for me. I tried very hard to read into all kinds of worlds. I kept proving myself wrong and finding ones that I did like.
Can you think of an example where you were really surprised by a writer's work?
It's embarrassing to admit now – because they all look like such beautiful stuff now – that I can't really recall why I might not have thought I'd like them. For instance the Deborah Eisenberg story in this collection which is now one of my favorites, called "Someone to Talk To" is just a devastating story. It's intimate and fierce, and terrible, terrible things happen on the interior of these characters. I had stereotyped it 100 percent incorrectly based on god knows what. I hate to admit that. I'm glad I was able to knock down a few prejudices I had.
I wonder if you can address the word "new" in the title. Is it intended to mean that these stories are doing something new and different?
That's a good question. New could just mean it had to have been written today, and it's a slower timeline in literature, so if it's been written in the last 15 years we could call it new. I was using it more temporally rather than that these are all new kinds of styles, because I think, as I say in my introduction, quite a few of these styles are an extension of literary styles of the past. That's an ongoing conversation that writers have with each other. That's what a tradition is, to absorb the work from the past and engage it and make your own version of it and maybe modify or supplement or subvert it in some way. I guess I'm not a real believer that there are all the sudden a bunch of new styles; I think there are tiny gradual shifts that go on all the time.
Would you say that one of your hopes for this book is to expose people to stories and authors they might not have found on their own?
Absolutely, because I think as readers it's hard to always find the kind of work that we might like. It's difficult to get access to things. I believe that a writer who might like the Deborah Eisenberg story would be curious to see the Joe Wenderoth story "Letters to Wendy's" which is entirely different. I believe that readers want a lot more than we might give them credit for. I do hope that by putting a lot of unlike writers in one place readers will enjoy the opportunity to see stories produced in such different ways.
Publishers, agents and editors are always talking about how short story collections and anthologies don't sell very well. And yet, it seems to me in light of the American attention span, especially if you give merit to reports like the NEA's "Reading at Risk," the short story is the ideal length of literature for the average American.
I have also heard this about them not selling well. And yet every season publishers are publishing a lot more collections. So it's not really clear why they're doing it if they feel they don't sell. It seems that some of the most noteworthy books of fiction of the last decade have been collections of short stories: "Jesus' Son," by Denis Johnson. "Pastoralia," by George Saunders. I know students devour short stories. There are lots of reasons other than a short attention span to like the form of the short story; it's beautiful when done well. It's got speed and urgency and complexity and is capable of being really transportive. I think that whether or not it should sell more is a really complex issue. Reading is hard; it's not something you can do passively. It takes attention and it also challenges us. The kind of reading I'm presenting in this book is not the kind you can just escape into and forget about your life.
Earlier you said that the stories in this collection, while they may be original, are very much building on older techniques. Is there anyone in this book you feel really is writing from a cutting-edge point of view, or doing something more different than everyone else?
I think Sam Lipsyte is writing very charged prose with complex sentences that explore the limits of grammar but still connect emotionally to the characters. His stories are a bit other-worldly and slightly outside of reality, yet the emotions are completely true to life. Gary Lutz, to me, is a writer at the outer limit of what can be done right now with language. He is an actual language artist as opposed to simply a writer of short fiction. It's interesting to me that we refer to artists as people who make paintings or sculptures or installations but a writer is not often referred to as an artist. I think Gary Lutz is somebody who reminds us that simply putting words together can be an art form. He writes sentences that actually do tell a story but on top of that they stir up our insides and completely shift around our sense of how the world works. I see him as a philosopher of language.
When you were preparing to pull this collection together, what did you have to do in order to find these stories? How well versed were you already in seeking these people out?
I just started making big piles of books from my own library and I contacted a whole bunch of writers and readers and friends and editors and asked them, 'Who is crucial to read? Who am I overlooking here? I made list after list and bought hundreds of books and just went through them and if I found a story that struck me I put it aside. I would test myself by seeing how well I remembered it, how much it stayed with me, haunted me. That is really the standard I used. I would also go back to writers I rejected and reread their work to see if I might have been wrong. I tried to get as much advice as I could, then locked the door and did a lot of reading.
Who are some of your personal influences – writers – on your own writing?
Donald Barthelme has always meant a lot to me. He was probably a writer I read in a short fiction anthology and then went and bought his books. I was in high school and early college and I didn't realize you could write such funny, strange stories that could still have so much grief and heartache in them. When I read his work it really created a sense of possibility for me that you didn't have to shut down or kill a part of your personality but rather you could try to engage it and turn all the jets on. He was a really exciting writer to me. Also Tom Bernhard, the Austrian writer, who wrote long, angry ranting, very cerebral and difficult but wonderful novels. He is a complete original; there is just no one at all like him. The degree of ferocity in his novels including "Correction" and "Woodcutters" is still a real inspiration to me.
Are you still one of the assistant editors for Conjunctions literary magazine?
No. I edited for another literary magazine after Conjunctions and I'm not even there any longer. I am not officially an editor anywhere.
How did being an editor influence your writing life?
Being an editor certainly puts you in the company of lots of interesting manuscripts every day. You get to read people from around the country and see what their ideas about fiction can be. I've always thrived on immersing myself in the possibilities of fiction and surrounding myself with provocative ideas. What is frustrating about being an editor at a literary magazine, unless it's your own magazine and you make the final decisions, is that you find work you're crazy about that you can't get published for any number of reasons. So putting an anthology together was a really interesting opportunity for me because I was not necessarily going to be vetoed by anyone. I was not engaged in a political battle with other editors about what would go in and what wouldn't. I was the sole decision-maker and I got to see if my decisions were substantive or not. I consulted lots of people I respect to challenge my decision-making process so that I wasn't being dictator-like with the choices. Anything a writer can do to help make space for the writing he or she really believes in is a really important service.
What's on your agenda these days? What kinds of things are you working on?
I'm finishing a collaboration with the artist Jasper Johns. We have put together a little book. I've also finished a collaboration with a painter named Terry Winters. It's a sort of series I've been doing with artists. I'm at work on a novel that sort of explores the world of allergic response and it envisions a slightly, slightly, slightly futuristic world in which people are allergic to language. Other than that I'm writing some short fiction and book reviews and teaching in the graduate creative writing program at Columbia.
Instead of HTML code, he's got black paint. He breathes car exhaust rather than recycled office air. The highway patrol is on his case, not the FCC. At this tense election precipice, there is one political blog that bridges the digital divide, the brainchild of a Southern California man who goes only by the moniker "The Freeway Blogger."
Freeway Blogger's signs are simple black-on-white statements like: "War President? My Pet Goat"; "The War is a Lie"; and "Rumsfailed." His personal favorite is: "Nobody Died When Clinton Lied." Attached to highway overpasses and cyclone fences, the messages stay up for a couple of hours, perhaps a couple of months. They challenge the Bush administration, displaying the blogger's disgust with the war on Iraq and obliquely indicting the mainstream media's suppression of alternative voices.
"The first signs I put up were after the election of 2000. I had been taught as a child that democracy is a place where you count the votes, and when I saw that was not going to happen, I felt cheated," he says in a phone interview.
"The reason I've done this is not because I'm consumed with a hatred of Bush or flaming with political passions," he points out. "The men who founded this country gave us the first amendment as a way of making sure that democracy stayed alive and vibrant. The reason they gave each of us the right to speak out was to sound the alarm if we felt our country or democracy was in danger."
Freeway Blogger is sounding that alarm by encouraging a nationwide sign-posting extravaganza called the "National Freeway Free Speech Day: Driving America to Think" on Oct. 13. The date coincides with the third and final presidential debate.
"I'm getting swamped with emails from people all over the country saying they're going to participate. I really believe there will be a thousand of us by the 13th." Through his website, he has garnered commitments from nearly 700 people to put up signs in 175 cities across 45 states. His web site advises that laws vary from state to state, and taunts, "But you'll have to catch us first."
To Freeway Blogger, he is simply exercising his first amendment right; to law enforcement in California, where he plies his trade, he's breaking the law (which states that signs must be 600 feet away from freeways) – though he has yet to be caught or cited for his acts of protest.
He'd ideally like to see people join in from the southern states like Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi and of course, more participants from the swing states. "I'm particularly proud of Phoenix, the location of the presidential debates, where at least 25 people will be papering the city," he says.
"I am just a guy with a pickup truck and an overhead projector and I've been able to reach millions of people for a nominal cost. It's hard for me not to think that if there were just ten more people like me we'd have the Western United States covered."
Freeway Blogger says he is not inclined toward organizing large movements of people, but he believes in showing others that their voices can be 'heard.' "The 13th is a dry run. We know what happened in the last election; we'd be fools to think it can't happen again. This time, I want to know that we spoke out, that we won't go down without a fight."
Since he began his sign-posting protest acts, he has single-handedly put up over two thousand signs. His most intense effort was in early September – the day that the death of the 1000th American soldier was announced. He attempted to put up 100 signs in one night as a statement, but fatigue forced him to quit at 83.
Freeway Blogger has learned a lot in his four-year journey. He originally used bed sheets, heavy bicycle chains and clunky, large canvases. Through trial and error he's learned to use lightweight cardboard, upon which he slaps a coating of white latex paint. With an overhead projector he blows up the letters and traces them in black paint. Then he finds some sort of freeway infrastructure to nail or staple or prop his signs to. Other than doing a "victory lap" to see how the sign looks, he doesn't wait around. "I'm very careful to do this in such a way so as not to get caught," he says.
From now until Nov. 2, sign-posting will be nearly a full-time job.
"Freedom of Speech: Use it or Lose it" is his website's tagline. He claims that the Bush administration's slow erosion of citizen's rights on behalf of Homeland Security scares him less than "our own laziness and sloth."
"This is the Age of Information and yet half of America thinks Saddam Hussein is behind the attacks of Sept. 11. Obviously there is something wrong. Another thing that astounds me is that from July 8 of 2002 until November of 2003, the president never once uttered the name Osama bin Laden in any press conference, radio address or publicly at all." This fact inspired the sign, "Osama bin Forgotten."
Emulators have been crafting signs of their own. Some of these notables include: "Texas Crude, We're Screwed," "Fear More Years," and "Support our Oops."
"If what happened in the election of 2000 happens again in 2004, this country will be papered in signs that just say "NO." We will have painted the country in a sea of "NO" and will have, at least, spoken out."