Monday, January 26, 2009


I am in the process of rewriting a new novel. I do not like to talk about my work before I feel it is finished, and I won’t talk about the substance of this novel here either. But I do want to explore this process of rewriting, which I have found over the years to be the most difficult as a writer. I rarely lack ideas. I am always writing something, even it is only in my head. I tend to think long and hard before I put pencil to paper, or as I do now, before my fingertips dance over the delicate keys of my black MacBook.

So ideas come easily. Writing a draft of a story or a scene comes easily, for once I start writing I have a good sense of where I am going. Often I surprise myself, or the characters and their situations surprise me, and I am taken somewhere else. But again, that’s fine, and I try to be open to that possibility.

With my first novel, I was not completely satisfied with the result. Some of this was my fault, and some of it wasn’t. I have always loved the headlong, aggressive discussion of philosophical ideas, in philosophical seminars, and at the time of my first novel I was still enraptured by that style of no-holds-barred thinking. Ideas, and the truth-seeking of philosophical thinking, were preeminent in my mind over character and story. What I wrote was a philosophical novel with a mystery at its center, and in retrospect character and story were sometimes sacrificed for the exploration of ideas. The editor (contracted by the publisher) also wanted to change the novel to become primarily a mystery, and only secondarily a philosophical novel. I chafed at his suggestions, yet I read what he said I should change. In a hasty month, which is all the time I had from my publisher, I ‘rewrote’ the novel, half-listening to what had been suggested, angry at being misunderstood, thrilled to have my first novel under contract, ignorant of what it was to rewrite a literary work.

I am still not sure I know what it is to rewrite a novel, but I took it upon myself to try to learn after that unsatisfying process with my first novel. I asked fellow writers about their process of rewriting; I read many books on rewriting, and perhaps the best was The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell; most importantly, as I wrote new work I tried different ways to give myself a new, different perspective on what I was writing. Here are some of the lessons I learned.

First, I learned never to rush the work to publication, even if the publisher is clamoring for it. Take the time to leave the work alone, to do something else, and to come back to it with perhaps a more critical eye. Second, change the physicality of your writing process to gain a new perspective on your work. Write in pencil. Then write on the computer. See how that forces you to consider everything from your sentence structure to the flow of your story. Also, once you have a draft on your computer, print it, and re-enter it again as a new computer file, to force yourself to consider whether each word, each paragraph should be in your story.

Third, read poetry, and study the mechanics of poetry. There is nothing better for hearing the sounds and rhythms of your work, for appreciating a precise metaphor, and for choosing just the right word or phrase, than understanding a bit of poetry. Fourth, give your draft to friendly, willing strangers who love to read. Ask them not to pat you on the back, and make sure you tell them you mean it. Have a variety of people read and comment on your work. And listen, and digest the comments, and listen again to what your first readers have said. Whatever stays in your mind --whatever is a criticism you perhaps already possessed in your subconscious, yet now that comment exists in black and white from your reader-- that is what you should begin to fix.

Fifth, and finally, open yourself up, and don’t be so authoritarian, even if you have singular ideas. Master the art of rewriting, and you will be thrilled with what you can achieve. The work, the story, not you, nor your ego, is what should always matter.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Latino Dream With Obama

Tomorrow seems a new beginning with Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, and I am thrilled to be a witness and supporter to this change for our country. We are still in the dark days of our financial disaster and the unnecessary military quagmire of Iraq. Another unforeseen terrorist attack could worsen the defensiveness and cultural xenophobia too easily exploited by politicians. We have taken political steps to be more inclusive, to answer our problems differently, with a focus on those at the bottom and middle rungs of society, and to value competence over cronyism. I am hopeful we will succeed, yet I know we do not control our fate entirely: terrorists could still attack us, and immediately change the political debates in this country; foreign creditors own hundreds of billions of dollars of American debt, and their willingness to do so may waver in the future, with catastrophic consequences for the dollar, inflation, and interest rates.

Despite this guarded hope for the Obama presidency, I have also gotten the sense, by watching the news today and reading the newspapers, that Latinos are at the periphery of this change, bit players aboard the narrative train about what an Obama presidency means for the fulfillment of Martin Luther King’s dream. Much of this is understandable: Obama is a self-identified African-American, even though his mother was white and his father was black; the majority of the American electorate voted for Obama as the better candidate who also happened to be black; the civil rights struggle embodied by MLK was primarily to redress the modern consequences of American slavery, including racism, segregation, and the political and economic disenfranchisement of blacks. Cesar Chávez marched and fought for the farmworkers along with Robert Kennedy, yet this Chicano and Mexicano narrative is often given short shrift in official accounts of the civil rights era. Were Latinos bit players to begin with? Perhaps in the 1960’s. But the world has changed, for better and for worse for Latinos.

We have become the largest minority in this country, with the highest growth rate of any ethnic group. Yet Latinos are Cubanos, Mexicanos, Dominicanos, Puertorriqueños, Centroamericanos, not a homogeneous voting bloc, not a race, but a hodgepodge group united by an ancestral Spanish from Latin America. We are closer to our homelands than, say, the English or Irish or Italian immigrants who came before us. Yet this proximity opens up the possibility of living in a nether world, between Spanish and English, between going back ‘home’ and making the United States your home, between identifying with the new Latino immigrant and thinking this immigrant is an alien. Is this nether world better than having a clean break in the New World with your ancestral past? That is an open question not easily answered by anyone.

The biggest change for Latinos today is that they, or at least Latino undocumented workers, became the political pariahs in the hate-filled rhetoric after 9/11. The drug violence and political instability in Mexico and America’s voracious drug habit will only mean the potential for more immigrants from the South, legal and illegal, will remain high for years to come. The hope with Obama is that he will give us a more complex, and more humane, understanding of the undocumented worker. The hope is that he will not scapegoat the weak, even during an economic depression or even after a terrorist attack. The hope is that he will include those who are outsiders, and attempt to help them become part of the American Dream, to help them integrate successfully into our culture, and to welcome the positive changes these newcomers bring to America today. For Latinos, we need to work to help ourselves, too.

Barack Obama is indeed not the grandson nor the great-grandson of slaves: he is the son of an immigrant. That perhaps is not part of the narrative train that has been fueled by the media or even by those who support him. But my suspicion, after I heard Obama’s comments on the immigration debate a few months ago, is that he understands what it is to be an outsider, a person who needs to define himself differently from established traditions, someone in between, a compromise, a bridge to where we want to be.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Killing Latinos in New York

This week The New York Times ran a front page story on Marcelo Lucero, an Equadorean immigrant who was stabbed to death in November by young thugs who shouted anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic slurs: Latinos Recall Pattern of Attacks Before Killing. The news story was about the long-standing pattern of hate in the Long Island town of Patchogue, a pattern that was news to the police. The mayor of Patchogue said that the immigration debate painted undocumented immigrants as “animals,” as outsiders who are “expendable.” Immigrants who have brought life back to Patchogue’s Main Street are instead blamed for cutbacks in schools, for crime, for bringing an alien culture and language to New York. One of the youths (all have pleaded not guilty) told authorities that he only went out “beaner hopping” once a week.

The mayor’s point belies the protestations of anti-immigrant talking heads and political demagogues, that they are attacking only illegal immigrants, not legal immigrants, that they are attacking “those who break our country’s laws,” not Latinos in particular. When you obsessively focus on every crime by an undocumented worker, invariably from Mexico, when you wave the flag and accuse immigrants of taking jobs from ‘real Americans’ to exploit economic fears, when you characterize someone who is darker than you and speaks another language as sub-human, the thug on the street with a knife in his hand and with hatred in his heart will not ask first to see your Green Card. He will stab you, and he may not even bother to ask questions later. That’s the reality. Our hateful environment encourages hateful, thoughtless acts.

‘It is okay to kill a person who shouldn’t be here. It is okay to kill someone who does not speak English. It is okay to kill the kind of person whom my mother and father hate at the dinner table. It is okay to kill someone who sounds like the person the red-faced Lou Dobbs is vilifying on CNN every night. No one wants that kind of person here in the United States, I am doing the country a favor, and I will be having some fun while I’m at it, by getting rid of this vermin.’ How long will we allow these poisonous thoughts to seep into American minds? Shall we wait for more killings of Latinos before we stand up against this hate?

The American hypocrisy on illegal immigration is stunning on so many levels. We profit from undocumented immigrants every day. With cheaper food at our tables. With apartment buildings and houses built by these workers. With nannies who take care of our children. American companies are richer because of the work of undocumented immigrants: food producers, home builders, construction companies, restaurants, bakeries. Perhaps we want to keep these immigrants in their shadowy, defenseless status. ‘Make money off of them, and kick them in ass, or kick them out when we’ve finished using them,’ that seems to be the cruel new American credo.

This hypocrisy on illegal immigration extends beyond those in ‘white’ America, descendants of English, Irish, German, Jewish, and Italian immigrants who made their way to the New World by hook or by crook. This hypocrisy extends to some Latinos who have made it here, and want to close the doors to any more newcomers. It extends to some African-Americans who claim a privileged minority status, and so don’t see why any benefits of the civil rights movement should be given to those who weren’t forced to the New World as slaves.

This has never been, and never will be, a black and white issue. We should ask and argue for a return to working out the complex problem of immigration humanely and rationally. We should decry those who use incendiary rhetoric on immigration to climb atop the backs of the weak, for higher ratings or for more votes. We are better than that. Perhaps it is too much to ask of human beings, to see if they don’t recognize that poor, new outsider as someone they once were, as someone who their grandfather or grandmother might have been in another time. It is too much to ask, but we should nevertheless keep asking for America to have an open mind, if we are to keep the best traditions of the New World alive.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Human Nature and the Failure of Our Institutions

We start the New Year hopeful that it will be better than last year, but here is a suggestion: let’s go beyond ‘hope’ to examine one of the many things that went wrong in 2008, particularly in the financial sector, and how we can begin to fix the problems.

One of the fundamental, recurring problems, as I see it, is the assumption that human beings will act for their benefit and the benefit of others if they are acting out of self-interest. A corollary of this mistaken assumption is that people regulate each other, or that the market disciplines itself, and so the less interference you have in the marketplace, the better for everybody around.

Yet when investment banks were allowed to take on unprecedented debt, in 2004, not only did they do so, but they did it to the detriment of their shareholders. Again, when mortgage brokers were allowed to peddle subprime mortgages to those who did not understand them, or who were themselves riding the real-estate boom, on no or shaky documentation, these brokers did it enthusiastically. When politicians were allowed to accept millions from banks, brokers, and other financiers, to promote the “American Dream” of owning a home, these politicians took the money and ran to their bully pulpits to hawk what became an American Nightmare. When Henry Paulson was given $350 billion, with little strings attached from Congress, guess what Mr. Paulson did? Here a clue: he didn’t do what he said he would do, the banks that received this money kept it, and we are no closer to helping los de abajo, those at the bottom of the heap.

The Securities and Exchange Commission failed us. The Federal Reserve failed us. The United States Congress failed us. The President failed us. Many of our banks failed us. Mutual funds failed us, for charging us too much for mediocre returns. Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s failed us, for not rating risk the way they should have, for accepting money from the very institutions they were rating. Even the media failed us. Today, newspapers and TV shows are doing double time to expose the shenanigans which led to the debacle of 2008, but during the boom most of them were cheerleaders for the financial sector, for promoting mortgages to people who couldn’t pay them, for innocuous, celebrity-obsessed, simplistic reporting that eschews complexity, thoughtfulness, and precise criticism. The media were giving us the lowest common denominator, what produced the most ratings, and so in the end we failed ourselves, for not demanding something better when it mattered most, before 2008.

Human beings will take advantage of a situation, if they can profit from it, and if they don’t see it will affect others terribly and immediately, and if they are allowed to do so. So many large and small actors in our debacle performed in this way: why even think about the long-term, or the big picture, if I can get away with it, and if it brings me benefit, and if it’s strictly legal? Of course, millions of these selfish decisions, and a few of these selfish decisions worth billions of dollars, did corrode our general welfare, did damage our financial sector, and are now giving the world pause about whether they should keep lending us billions to keep us afloat.

The point is not to regulate for the sake of regulation, or to assume government will be immune from its own special brand of corruption. It won’t. But there is a crying need for common sense legislation or regulation that protects us from our own excesses, that forces upon us a sense of the general, long-term financial welfare of our country, that safeguards the consumer from predators, that encourages and funds the vigorous investigation of the powerful and well-connected to keep them honest, even when they claim nothing is wrong. Let’s not hope people do the right thing; let’s make sure of it.