America clamps down on online anonymity, the last refuge of Mexico’s free press
The last time I went to Mexico I was mugged at gunpoint on the same day that the country’s anti-drug czar was found to be a paid informant for its cartels. Since then, things have become so much worse that they now approach the surreal: in August, seventy-two migrants were massacred for refusing to become cartel assassins; in September, the prosecutors assigned to the crime were murdered as well. The cartels slaughter police and politicians with impunity; they have built roadblocks to wall off highways and entire downtowns. Meanwhile, corruption is beyond rampant — one of the major cartels, Los Zetas, is led by former Mexican Army Special Forces soldiers.
And those are just the stories we know. The Mexican press regularly censors itself, and who can blame it, when reporters and photographers are murdered every month? El Diario, the newspaper in Cuidad Juarez, bloodiest city of all, recently ran an editorial that begged the local drug lords to “explain to us… what you would like us to publish or stop publishing… because the last thing we want is for another one of our colleagues to fall victim to your gunshots.” (more…)
A feminist take on Liz Phair, half a lifetime after her landmark Exile in Guyville
When Liz Phair released Exile in Guyville in 1993, I was fourteen years old and only beginning to understand the less than optimal implications of growing up female in a man’s world. Phair has described herself as a “diamond of pressurized anger” in creating the collection of songs that became a soundtrack for disgruntled, dissatisfied girls, and that has ranked on Rolling Stone and Spin lists of greatest albums of all time. So many of us latched on to her sentiments of anger and dismay, buoyed by the accessibility of her lyrical rage, sexual agency, and unabashed “fuck the haters” attitude. Given our culture’s recent wave of nineties nostalgia, typified by this month’s Matador at 21: The Lost Weekend in Las Vegas (where Phair performed), this seems an appropriate time to revisit her status as a feminist icon.
Now I’m thirty-one, sitting with Phair at a hotel bar on Robson Street in Vancouver, watching her drink an herbal tea. Five albums later, she’s candid about everything from music industry drama to (almost-too-personal) emotional trauma, much like Exile was over fifteen years ago. When I apologize for rambling from early morning flight exhaustion, she leans forward and touches my leg reassuringly, still fulfilling the unintentional promise she made to teenage girls so many years ago: that someone should and will listen to you.
Meanwhile, I’m trying not to be distracted by how stunning she is. I remind myself that detailed descriptions of her “shiny blonde hair” and “striking blue eyes” do not a feminist interview make. When I confess I’m a culture writer, not a music critic, Phair is eager to strike up a conversation about gender. “It’s so hard for me to just say small things for you,” she admits. “I’ve shut up about (feminism) for the last five years. I’ve been patted on the head. But when I start it’s hard to stop. It feels like I’m vomiting because I repress so much. And then I have to dial it down, dial it down.” (more…)
Everybody knows book prizes are wonderful things — but so are wonderful books
One of my great anxieties in this age of the dominance of literary prizes is that most of the good novels that don’t win a major award will somehow cease to exist for readers. What happens, for instance, to Andrea Levy’s The Long Song in the wake of its failure to win the Giller Prize? Is Michael Winter’s The Death of Donna Whalen somehow unworthy of your time if it’s not selected for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize? Such honours are inarguably positive things: they raise the profile of many books — and the “longlist” contrivance is designed to bring more titles into the warm ring of light cast by these shining awards — and the authors who win them receive much-needed and often very large amounts of money. But they inevitably create a culture wherein people gradually become less inclined to think about books and more inclined to think about the select few that bear the imprimatur of juried success.
There are authors for whom this doesn’t so much matter. Philip Roth became no less relevant this past month in being again overlooked for the Nobel Prize in Literature that so many people think is due. And a writer like Tom McCarthy, whose new novel, C, didn’t win this year’s Man Booker Prize, is assured some measure of success because of the cult following for his last work, Remainder. Which brings us to my favourite novel of the year: David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
When the Booker longlist was released, Mitchell was an oddsmaker’s favourite, a man who had made three previous longlists and two previous shortlists (and who’d only published four novels), generally considered among the best and most exciting writers of his generation. But then Thousand Autumns proved unable to squeeze into the cramped waiting room of the shortlist, and everyone seemed to stop talking about it. Or, rather, everyone who talks about books for a living seemed to stop talking about it. Mitchell, like Roth or McCarthy, had readers well before this current period of awards eligibility and will continue to have them well after. (more…)
Emma Donoghue, in Toronto for this year’s IFOA, talks about her writing craft
Irish-born, Canadian-based author Emma Donoghue has published nine novels, three short story collections, and a number of plays and literary histories. This past fall she released Room, a novel about Jack, a five-year-old boy, and his Ma, who have both been held hostage in an eleven-by-eleven-foot shed for Jack’s entire life. Room, inspired by the Josef Fritzl kidnapping case (in which Fritzl confined and raped his own daughter for twenty-four years, and imprisoned three of the seven children she bore him), has been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, and the Man Booker Prize. Donoghue, recently in Toronto as a featured guest of the International Festival of Authors, paused to talk to The Walrus Blog about developing Jack’s unique voice, writing historical versus contemporary fiction, and what comes next for her.
Emily Landau How did you get into Jack’s head? This is not only a five-year-old boy, but also one whose experience has been radically different from the average child’s — through the first half of the book, he has no experience of the world beyond the shed.
Emma Donoghue It was a help that my own son was five, but it’s not like they have much in common. In a way, I tried to isolate elements of my son’s behaviour and mindset and speech which any five-year-old would share, but then I tried to think of all the ways in which Jack’s experience has shaped him. So I sat there doing a constant nature-versus-nurture debate in my head. In a lot of ways, Jack knows a lot of things, but in other ways, he hasn’t a clue. He’s a funny mixture of extremely advanced and educated, and of knowing less than a baby. (more…)
In which the author recounts her personal experience of tubal ligation
I wasn’t wheeled into surgery, I walked. I suppose if you’re healthy, if you choose to have surgery, you walk in. It felt like the final test of my resolve, to walk myself into a room where I would be forever changed. I held my IV bag above my head, which had been encased in two caps to hold all my hair. I was escorted by an OR nurse who surprised me when she said, “I know it’s none of my business, but why are you getting a tubal ligation?” In my blue gown and paper booties, moments away from having my request for total control over my reproductive organs fulfilled, I was asked to justify myself.
I answered with all the nicety I could muster. After all, this woman was about to play an integral part in making sure I came through the procedure without complication. Inside, I was screaming. I had a lot of “Why”s that needed answering too. Why can’t I escape this, even now? Why do I have to spend so much time justifying this? Why do people feel they have the right to question me?
In my original draft of this piece, written the day before my surgery, I wrote almost 1,500 words about what had led me to this point in my life. I wrote about my family, but that’s none of your business. I wrote about my past pregnancy, terminated thirteen years ago, which is also none of your business. (Though talking about my abortion doesn’t seem to confuse anyone, unlike tubal ligation, and I get almost universal support when I mention it, also unlike tubal ligation.) I wrote about my feelings surrounding the physical changes during pregnancy and lactation, feelings which — when voiced — garner comments that I am psychologically unwell. I wrote about all the things I’d lose if I had kids, a line of thought that sometimes gets me pitying looks, as if I’m too stupid or immature to know that I don’t really want to sleep in any weekend or have the time and money to book plane tickets on a whim. When that nurse asked, “Why are you getting a tubal ligation?” I had already spent far too much time justifying myself. (more…)
The thrill of Minecraft, the net’s newly viral, crudely sadistic sandbox game
It’s hard to imagine this pitch going over well at, say, Activision or EA headquarters:
I’ll construct a really punishing computer game, with dreadful graphics and no goals or story whatsoever. Players will spend most of their time making stuff out of other stuff they find and trying not to die. I’ll release a buggy alpha version early on, let players fiddle around with it for free online, and make millions off of €10 downloads while still developing the game.
So much the worse for Activision or EA, then: Swedish game developer Markus Persson, better known as Notch, has singlehandedly accomplished exactly that this past year. His strange sandbox-construction game, Minecraft, has gone completely viral, with over 1.25 million registered accounts and sales around $100,000 per day since early September; he’s now building a company and hiring a team to bring the game to completion.
The basic mechanics of Minecraft are simple. You appear as a roughly rectangular person in the midst of a randomly generated environment, populated by trees, mountains, lakes, and peaceful animals. Everything in the world is composed of cubic blocks, and anything you see can be collected by breaking it apart — first with punches, and later with tools that you craft. The most useful resources are ores found in deep underground caves, but wherever there is darkness, there are monsters. As the pixelated sun sets at the end of your first day in Minecraft, you must scramble to dig yourself into a shelter of some kind, lest roving hordes of zombies, skeletons, and other creatures find you. And they’re there for you alone; a crude multiplayer mode is available, but in the default you are the sole human occupant of your world.
The game provides no story and has no overriding goals; you can spend your time collecting materials, fighting monsters, building ridiculous things, or exploring the endless landscape, generating new terrain wherever you go (Notch calculates the maximum size of Minecraft’s map at eight times the surface area of Earth). It’s disorienting at first to be playing a fundamentally aimless game, but Minecraft — a.k.a. “Minecrack” — turns out to have a peculiarly seductive appeal. After playing it for a couple of weeks, I have some ideas about why that might be. (more…)
Author Stephen Marche discusses his interactive novel for walrusmagazine.com
Lucy Hardin’s Missing Period is an interactive novel, created exclusively for walrusmagazine.com, with hundreds of possible storylines and multiple outcomes. It uses a web format to capture the reality of a young woman in Toronto in the early 2000s, allowing the reader to explore different aspects of Lucy’s life and times and the city in which she lives, while following her through the labyrinth of her various futures. Lucy’s fate, like our own, is up in the air, open to negotiation and sudden change. Author Stephen Marche (Raymond and Hannah, Shining at the Bottom of the Sea) spoke to The Walrus’s managing editor about the development of the idea.
Jared Bland How did this project start for you? How did it evolve, both over the course of the drafts, and once it began to live in an electronic environment?
Stephen Marche The project began with Lucy, with her character. I was trying to get at the reality of a thirty-year-old woman living in Toronto, the kind of woman that I have more or less been surrounded by my whole life — urban, bookish, conflicted. It seemed to me that the fundamental lie behind any fictional character is the conclusion and the idea of a single continuous course to their existence. That’s not how people are. They contain, at any given moment, many possible futures. So I wanted to find a way to express that plural reality. Everything really flowed from that idea.
What is the relationship between this novel’s subject — a precarious moment in the life of a young woman — and its form?
I think Lucy, who’s thirty, would have remembered Choose Your Own Adventure books. And of course she would live online like the rest of us. So the form is particularly appropriate to both her past and her present reality. (more…)