Kevin’s Culture Picks: What did our expert watch in April?
Every week, I’ve been doing a deep dive into cultural issues, usually theater-related, that are bothering me or that deserve a second look. But who needs another thinkpiece, right?
I host two weekly programs on my theater company’s Faceboook page (Facebook.com/EpicTheatreCo) where I ask guests what has been keeping them creatively engaged or excited, and I thought I could put together some of the movies, television shows, books and music we discuss.
I’ll do this at the beginning of every month (until we’re out of … this), and hopefully it’ll keep you busy as we start to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
So, here’s what I enjoyed in the month of April:
The Last Blockbuster (Streaming on Netflix)
Bad Trip (Streaming on Netflix)
Tina (Streaming on HBO Max)
All Creatures Great and Small
Sasquatch (Streaming on Hulu)
Crying in H Mart, by Michelle Zauner
Peaces, by Helen Oyeyemi
100 Boyfriends, by Brontez Purnell
Today We’re the Greatest, Middle Kids
OK, Orchestra, AJR
Our Country, Miko Marks & The ResurrectorsMusic, Benny Sings
Six Cover Songs, Wild Pink
Californian Soil, London Grammar
Flu Game, AJ Tracy
Best Streaming Theater of the Month
The Belle of Amherst — Granite Theatre in Westerly chose a perfect show for the digital form in William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst. The one-woman show all about the enigmatic Emily Dickinson was smartly directed by Paula Glen and featured a must-see performance from Steph Rodger. I didn’t review it for this magazine because I’m friendly with all involved, but since this is a space where I can laud my favorites unapologetically, I’ll take this opportunity to say that my very talented friends knocked it out of the park.
Pulp Made Modern: Rhode Island author Robert Isenberg’s supernatural adventure tales modernize the genre
Robert Isenberg fell in love with Pittsburgh.
During a 16-year period of living there, and in the years following, Isenberg became a jack-of-all-trades, working as a journalist, a playwright, an actor and a videographer. His dream had always been, he said, to write the next Great American Novel. But somewhere along the way, a new dream took root.
His master’s degree from University of Pittsburgh gave him a reading list of Great American Novels, of “serious” fiction, and of difficult stories. As he was pursuing his creative endeavors in his spare time and working on his degree, he began to think about writing something fun.
“I loved the idea of writing something for fun… [something with a] pulp-fiction atmosphere,” Isenberg says. And, perhaps most importantly, he wanted to “do it my way.”
Enter Elizabeth Crowne.
The backdrop of her stories, compiled in multiple formats under the title, “The Adventures of Elizabeth Crowne,” is the city he loved so much. The world she lives in is pulpy, filled with adventure. And its writer is happy to keep building stories around her.
The first Elizabeth Crowne story, “The Woman in the Sky,” came out in 2016. Since then, Isenberg has been working on this serialized project, creating an audio series that covers about two arcs per year.
Physical copies of the stories are also in print.
His latest endeavor, an audiobook titled “The Mysterious Tongue of Dr. Vermillion,” compiles five of these stories into hours of listening. In it, Elizabeth Crowne, a paranormal detective with a sharp wit and quick tongue, leads listeners through supernatural mysteries, against the background of a fictionalized 1920s Pittsburgh.
These stories indulge the author’s love for classic adventure stories, embracing the hallmarks of the genre, including sidekicks, traveling and a quick-witted, snarky heroine.
But Isenberg explains that his writing style places a high importance on grounding the story in the personal and the real.
“[Elizabeth is] a female paranormal detective in the 1920s — how can that be personal?” Isenberg laughs. The answer, he explains, is to build the story around likeable characters who are dynamic and have realistic weaknesses.
“Ultimately, it’s not going to be up to me if she’s authentic,” Isenberg says.
But he says that his listeners, when they explain their enjoyment of the series, tell him that what they like the most is his centerpiece creation: Elizabeth.
“Every character is a composite of [real] encounters,” Isenberg says. He explains that he worked to create a diverse cast that felt real to him, and acknowledged the historical nature of the story.
The characters may fit a cliche, he explains, but his style is to take these character archetypes and give them something completely unexpected. This, he says, grounds the character, makes them feel more real in the subversion of what is expected.
And though embracing cliche is a part of the appeal for Isenberg in the stories he’s worked on for the last few years, his goal is to subvert some of the more problematic elements that classic pulp adventure stories have long been known for.
As an example, he says, in her travels, Elizabeth investigates in Egypt — a setting that Isenberg says he tried to write from a less colonial perspective than a traditional adventure story might take.
“[This is] such a trope, such a cliche… How can I do this differently?” he says of his writing process.
He explains that the genre allows for so much room to explore and play with characters, traits, stories. This is an exciting world for Isenberg to play in, and he plans to continue working on stories about Elizabeth and her supernatural adventures.
“The Mysterious Tongue of Dr. Vermillion” is available on Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher and Audible. Copies of the physical book are also available on Amazon and Books In Print — which means any indie bookstore can order them.
Bright Days Ahead
Your Future Is Bright, a children’s book written by local author Corey Finkle and gorgeously illustrated by Shelley Couvillion, is an inspiring piece of work that follows children discovering a world of possibilities as they explore who they want to be when they grow up.
Finkle recalled that as a child, he sometimes found the idea of the future frightening and wrote this book to help assuage the fears of kids who look to adulthood with trepidation. “The idea was to make a book that could sit on the shelf next to Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, but be more reflective of our time,” he said.
Couvillion’s illustrations provide further comfort to kids by depicting the powerful relationship they have with their caregivers as they navigate growing up. “She’s perfect for this book,” Finkle said. “She somehow was able to capture the true love, affection and joy that exists between grown-ups and kids.”
Your Future is Bright will be available on April 13, and signed copies will be available at Books on the Square in Providence (booksq.com).
Life Mission: Looking into a distant moon ocean
More than 340 million miles beyond Mars, an icy moon awaits its first close-up. Days before NASA’s Perseverance rover reached the surface of the Red Planet, the US space program announced updates to another long-awaited mission with the potential to find signs of life. In October 2024, the Europa Clipper will leave Earth on a private rocket, destined to begin orbiting Jupiter nearly six years later to study Europa, the smallest of the yellow planet’s largest moons.
“Unlike what one day might be discovered on Mars,” writes David W. Brown in The Mission, a swirling exploration of the history, science, money and policy maneuverings behind the two-decade journey behind the mission to Europa, “Europan life has a real chance of complexity.”
In 1610, German astronomer Simon Marius and his Italian adversary Galileo Galilei each sighted four satellites orbiting Jupiter using homemade telescopes. Galilei published his findings first. Despite centuries of improvements to telescopic technology, the Galilean moons of Jupiter — including Callisto, Ganymede, and Io — remained a mystery until NASA’s Pioneer and Voyager missions in the 1970s beamed glimpses of their surfaces back to Earth. A distant speck amidst the celestial spheres, many of the revolutions of Europa began in Providence.
“We’re mentally hardwired to think in the short term,” said Jim Head, a distinguished professor of planetary geosciences at Brown University. “We have to cultivate and work toward trying to think more in the long term.”
In 1961, having failed out of his sophomore year at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, Head listened to breakthroughs in the space race at home in Washington, DC, on what he calls “my first sabbatical.” Within six weeks, Soviet Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space, Alan Shepard followed as the first American, and President John F. Kennedy addressed Congress to propose not only landing on the Moon, but also “even more exciting and ambitious exploration of space… perhaps to the very end of the solar system itself.”
After gaining readmittance to Washington and Lee, Head continued his major in geology. He had enrolled in an introductory course to fulfill a science requirement. Unlike chemistry and physics, the labs took place outdoors and involved field trips. Head fell for the study of the Earth’s surface and carried his curiosity to graduate studies at Brown, writing his dissertation on the 400 million year old history held in the sedimentary rocks of the Appalachian Mountains.
As Head completed his PhD in 1969, he thumbed through an employment directory. Most of the listings for geologists involved teaching at small colleges or working for the oil industry, but in a separate section, Head found an unexpected advertisement. With the Apollo 11 mission months away, a photograph of the Moon was accompanied by the text “our job is to think our way to the Moon and back.” Although lacking lunar expertise, Head called the phone number printed in the corner. The experiences that followed, he said, “opened up the heavens.”
“When I went to NASA, I was deathly afraid they would find out I didn’t know anything about the Moon or the planets,” said Head. “And I quickly learned, of course, nobody knew anything about the planets. That’s why we were going.”
Working on the Apollo program, Head helped select lunar landing sites, trained astronauts in geology and surface exploration, and analyzed the samples they brought back from the Moon. In 1972, he returned to Providence as a member of the faculty at Brown, though shuttled back and forth to Houston for a year as interim director of the Lunar Science Institute. At home, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon orbited around the needle of Head’s record player.
Researching the geological processes found across the planets and the historical record they left behind, Head studied Arctic and Antarctic glaciers and volcanic deposits in Hawai’i, in Iceland and along the sea floor. To improve scientific collaboration between the United States and the USSR, he established a research partnership between Brown and the Vernadsky Institute in Moscow. He advised missions to Mars, Venus and Jupiter and also worked as part of the mission teams, but said he viewed teaching undergraduates and supporting graduate research as central to his role. One of those graduate students was Louise Prockter.
Growing up in London, Prockter learned at the Natural History Museum that rocks “told stories about the world they left behind,” writes Brown. After high school, she decided not to pursue university studies. Instead, she spent several years in a series of sales roles, starting with local newspaper advertisements before finding work selling typewriters and later PVC ring binders.
“I got to think creatively at that time,” said Prockter, now chief scientist of the space exploration sector at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “I learned a lot of things that, while having nothing to do with science, were very useful. I learned to work under pressure. I learned to work with deadlines. And that’s very useful in the space business.”
After enrolling in a part-time correspondence program on general sciences, Prockter continued her education. Attending Lancaster University as a “mature” undergraduate student, in one of her classes she read a Journal of Geophysical Research paper about crater formation on Venus. Written by Peter Schultz, a professor at Brown, the publication — a “meticulous work conducted over a number of years to solve a small oddity on another world,” writes Brown — set an example she wished to follow. As Prockter considered US graduate programs, in July 1994 she flew from England to meet with Jim Head. Her arrival in Providence coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. That week, she found a pizza party set up alongside telescopes on campus to witness a comet shattering into Jupiter.
In her own research at Brown, Prockter studied geomorphology, interpreting planetary surfaces and their relationships with geology. She focused on volcanic activity in the Earth’s ocean and on Venus, writing her dissertation on features in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. When in 1995 Prockter witnessed images from NASA’s Galileo space probe, she understood the transferability of her research across the planets. She led the imaging plans for two of the mission’s Europa flybys.
“The payoff is unbelievable,” said Prockter. “When you get images from spacecraft that no one’s ever seen before.”
“It’s just almost a universal language, of space,” she said. “Everybody dreams, and everybody aspires to learn more about the universe and why we’re here.”
Head and Prockter were joined in their work by Geoff Collins, now a professor at Wheaton College, and Robert Pappalardo, a postdoc arriving from Arizona State University. He had looked to space for as long as he could remember, writes Brown. Crafting a model of the solar system above his bed as a child, Pappalardo replicated the icy moons of Jupiter with “crushed masking tape” held in place by toothpicks. He found geology to be his pathway to the planets.
“I view the solar system as a laboratory for trying to understand how life originated and evolved,” said Head.
“If you want to see what it would be like, with climate change and global warming run amok, you go to Venus,” said Prockter. “If you want to see what it’s like on a world where there used to be water but now there isn’t, you go to Mars.”
For Pappalardo, Europa held particular intrigue. At Brown, he analyzed the data from Galileo and planned the mission’s campaigns to capture images of Jupiter’s icy moons, including high-resolution images of Europa. The data led Prockter, Pappalardo and their colleagues to speculate about the existence, and the implications, of water captured under its frozen surface.
“Brown’s importance to the Europa story is more than happenstance,” said Brown, the writer, about the university. “The inner workings of the ice shell surrounding the ocean were unlocked there, and scientists at Brown chipped away at the nature of the mysterious moon’s bizarre geology.”
After six years as a postdoc at Brown, Pappalardo became an assistant professor at University of Colorado, Boulder. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory plucked him from academia to become a senior research scientist at its headquarters in Pasadena, California, where he led the science behind the possibility, and then the eventuality, of exploring Europa. After Brown, Prockter moved to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, continuing her collaborations with Pappalardo as a scientist shaping the planning for the team’s missions.
Brown University’s influence on planetary sciences dates back before the Revolutionary War. Then known as Rhode Island College, in 1769 Brown’s professors Benjamin West and Joseph Brown published their observations on the transit of Venus, leaving their legacy behind on the naming of Transit and Planet Streets near campus. Ladd Observatory opened for researchers in 1891 and began to welcome the public in 1930. Faculty members guided the science behind the Viking 1’s mission to Mars, confirmed the existence of water on the surface of the Earth’s moon, and uncovered further evidence of water within its interior. Research from Brown graduate students and faculty, including Head, informed the decision for the Perseverance rover and its Ingenuity helicopter to explore the Jezero crater on NASA’s current mission to Mars.
In The Mission, Brown writes that Jim Head was a “force among the chosen few in the field” whose contributions to the Apollo program were “part of the most arresting and audacious achievement of the twentieth century, if not all of human history.” By approaching his doctorate as “a degree in advanced problem solving,” Head said he sees no surprise in his career path being “nonlinear.” For the researchers whose orbits fell into alignment together under Head’s helm, including Prockter and Pappalardo, when the Europa Clipper reaches its destination in April 2030, its findings will be the result of the questions and hypotheses raised in Providence.
“Science is really simple,” said Head. “It’s just simply the exploration of the unknown. And you know, almost everything is not yet known.”
After the pandemic, reward your inner astronomer at Rhode Island’s observatories: Ladd Observatory at Brown University in Providence; Skyscrapers, Inc.’s Seagrave Memorial Observatory in North Scituate; the Community College of Rhode Island’s Margaret M. Jacoby Observatory; and the Frosty Drew Observatory in Charlestown. The University of Rhode Island’s planetarium also hosts a public program.
Voices of the Earth: The Future of Our Planet II
This collection of 67 environmentally themed poems can be depressing and uncomfortable to read at times, which is exactly the point publisher Notable Works set out to make with this release. Local authors all contributed work inspired by our current natural world, which is, unfortunately, a disaster (to put it nicely). The poets don’t paint a positive picture of the environment we live in, instead leaving a grim reminder of the impact of our carbon footprint.
Aubrey Atwater’s “On the Changing World” sets the tone for the collection, serving as a call to action for everyone or risk losing the things we often take for granted. It’s a request for a united front to prevent the obvious (to most) dire consequences. The rest of the poems follow Atwater’s lead, focusing on where the world is, where it is inevitably going and the work that needs to be done to cause change.
Because Voices of the Earth was released in 2020, a portion of poems discuss COVID-19. Two mention it in the title, a few allude to the virus and a couple others discuss it in depth. While they were some of the most emotionally difficult to read, they will serve to be an important part of history down the line.
While this collection is full of strong writing, two poems really stuck with me. “Beyond Recycling” by Shalissa Coutoulakis is more of a guide than a poem, but it may be the most important in the book. It discusses the correct way to recycle and (especially relevant) what not to put in the recycling bin. Coutoulakis should send this to every school to start educating the young (and hopefully teaching parents something in the process). The other poem, “Don’t Stop Me When I Say I’ve Had Enough” by M. Neil, tops out at only five lines long, but paints an amazing visual of the incoming doom and change that is about to happen to the narrator. The last two lines of the poem, when read together, may be the best ending to a poem I’ve ever read. It’s striking and powerful; one I make sure to read often.
Voices of the Earth is more than a collection of poetry. It’s also a resource for people who are looking for ways they can help change the world for the better. There is a thoughtful introduction written by Lauren Parmelee, senior director of education at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. Most importantly, there is a list of local resources via environmental agencies. The list of 53 agencies are broken down into four categories: advocacy and education; coalitions; conservation, perseveration and restoration and government agencies. All of the agencies list either their mission statement or give a description of their values and/or ways to help, as well as their contact information.
There is an aura of hope in each poem. The doom and gloom of what currently is serves as an inspiration to change. The poems serve as a blueprint as to what needs to be different and how it could potentially be done. This is a wake-up call to every reader to take a look at what they should be doing differently and why taking care of our Earth is so extremely important. Let Voices of the Earth be the first step.
Writing Toward a Better World: 2021 PEN America Literary Award finalists with local ties
Ninety-nine years ago, Thomas Hardy sent a message to a dinner gathering of writers in London: “The exchange of International Thought is the only possible salvation of the world.” The collection of poets, essayists and editors, and novelists contributed their literary skills to the group’s acronym: P.E.N. Club, which celebrated the opening of organizations in the United States and across Europe. Nearly a century later, 100 PEN centers around the world today ladder up to PEN International, an association bridging literature and human rights while advocating for the principles of a free press and freedom of expression.
Since the inaugural PEN Translation Prize in 1963 celebrated Archibald Colquhoun for his translation of The Viceroys from Federico de Roberto’s Italian original, PEN America has expanded and evolved its annual awards to recognize new works of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. In an email announcing the 2021 shortlist, program director Jane Merchant called the 55 titles “the highest examples of literary excellence, during a time when writing is urgently needed to support empathy and a better world.”
Several of the finalists were influenced by time in Rhode Island and the South Coast of Massachusetts:
Finalist for the PEN Translation Prize, recognizing “book-length prose translations from any language into English.”
In her “Writers on Writing” course in the Literary Arts department at Brown University, Lizzie Davis encountered unfamiliar works from independent publishers that pushed boundaries in terms of form and content. The syllabus included Rikki Ducornet’s Netsuke, the first novel she read from Coffee House Press.
“I thought, if I ever work in publishing, I want it to be for a press that publishes books like these,” Davis said. “So much of what I’m doing now seems to be the direct result of my time spent in Providence and the generosity and support of the people I encountered there.”
Now editor of Coffee House Press, based in Minneapolis, Davis credits a Brown workshop led by Forrest Gander for enabling her as an undergraduate to translate a single work of literature over the course of one semester. From a stack of books, she selected a collection of prose poems by Spanish writer Pilar Fraile Amador. The following year, when Amador visited Providence for a bilingual reading series, Gander invited Davis to participate.
“That book exerted some kind of gravitational pull on me,” said Davis. “I was hooked.”
After translating most of Amador’s poetry, co-translating Valeria Luiselli’s American Book Award-winning Tell Me How It Ends, and bringing a selection of poems, letters and various excerpts from Spanish and Italian into English, Davis met novelist Juan Cárdenas at the Medellín Book and Culture Festival. She arrived in Colombia after a hurricane cancelled a connecting flight and left her stranded for 24 hours in San Salvador, El Salvador. Since Davis was staying at the same Medellín hotel as Cárdenas, the organizers of the book fair encouraged her to get to know him and rely on him as a local guide.
“I didn’t know then that he was a writer and translator, but he mentioned that Coffee House published all his friends,” said Davis. “I found one of his books at the fair, started reading it, and immediately knew that I wanted us to publish it, and that I wanted to throw my hat into the ring as a possible translator.”
Finalist for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography, recognizing “excellence in the art of biography.”
Now a professor of public affairs at The University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, Dr. Peniel E. Joseph lived in Rhode Island between 1999 and 2005.
Besides a one-year fellowship with the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, during this period, Joseph served as an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island and spent two summers on fellowships at Brown to research and write his first book, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (Henry Holt, 2007).
The history department and Africana Studies program at URI were “filled with world class scholars, who encouraged me as a young scholar,” said Joseph. He wrote at cafes near Brown and learned about the history of Black student activism on both campuses. He said these experiences galvanized his studies of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and his interest in the relationship between race and democracy.
“In short, I owe such an enormous intellectual and personal debt to the many friends and colleagues and students and administrators and community folk who supported me during my years in Rhode Island,” said Joseph. “I loved every minute of my time there.”
Finalist for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, recognizing “writing that exemplifies literary excellence on the subject of the physical or biological sciences and communicates complex scientific concepts to a lay audience.”
As a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle, Dr. Emily Levesque researches and explains how massive stars evolve and die. Born and raised in Taunton, her earliest memories of stargazing took place in the backyard of her childhood home. In The Last Stargazers, she writes of first meeting an astronomer during an astronomy night hosted nearby at Wheaton College.
“My writing and astronomy career were both heavily shaped by the arts and science opportunities that my parents and teachers were able to make possible in the area,” Levesque said.
She participated in local, regional and state science fairs while growing up. At Taunton High School, Levesque joined the math team and participated in band and theater.
“As a university professor, now I’m starting to get a small understanding of how immensely hard some of our teachers in the Taunton school system worked and fought to make these opportunities available,” she said.
Levesque considered Kenneth Perry, her eighth grade science at Martin Middle School in East Taunton, a “big driving force.” She also studied music under Ann Danis, now a professor of music and director of orchestral activities at URI, and played violin in Rhode Island youth orchestras.
“Science and the arts have always been very closely connected for me,” she said. “I think learning how to enjoy hard work, how to find and tell a good story and how to pass your enthusiasm on to an audience are all crucial components of both.”
Finalist for the PEN Translation Prize, recognizing “book-length prose translations from any language into English.”
After Emma Ramadan earned her B.A. in comparative literature and literary translation at Brown, she pursued a master’s degree in Paris, a Fulbright in Morocco and a stint in New York City before returning to Providence in 2016 to co-found Riffraff bookstore and bar with her husband Tom Roberge. (Read Motif’s December 2019 feature on Riffraff and Q&A with Ramadan and Roberge.)
Ramadan credited Cole Swensen and Forrest Gander at Brown who “made it feel like the community of writers in Providence was something very special and that people like that were being drawn here.”
As well as bringing Moroccan writer and filmmaker Abdellah Taïa’s novel A Country for Dying to readers of English, Ramadan has translated more than a dozen novels and poetry collections from French.
Her translations of Zabor, or the Psalms by Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud will publish in March with Other Press and In Concrete by French novelist Anne F. Garréta will publish in April with Deep Vellum.
Finalist for the PEN Open Book Award, recognizing “book-length writings by authors of color.”
While pursuing graduate studies in American and English literature at Brown in the late 1990s, Asako Serizawa hadn’t considered the possibility of writing fiction. Interested in modernist and postcolonial literature, she considered classes taught by Neil Lazarus and Mary Ann Doana to be “foundational” to her creative work.
“Brown was absolutely crucial,” Serizawa said. “It gave me a critical frame, a way to think about not just my material, the context and content, but my aesthetic choices, as well.”
Living in an attic apartment along Benefit Street in Providence, Serizawa often braved the wintertime risks of the “craggy back steps” for coffee and popovers downstairs at the now shuttered Cable Car cinema and cafe.
“It would’ve been the perfect place to revise manuscripts,” she said, “if I’d been working on my book then.”
Finalist for the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, recognizing “a book-length work of any genre for its originality, merit and impact.”
Although spending much of her time at Brown in 1991 involved with campus activism, protesting against the university over issues of class and race in admissions, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore discovered the avant-garde form of “language poetry” in workshops with Lee Ann Brown and C.D. Wright.
“What language poetry taught me was to condense all of my experiences into just a few spare words on a page,” said Sycamore. “Through that, I really learned how to edit.”
Sycamore withdrew from Brown and moved to San Francisco, but returned to Brown in 1994 for what would have been her senior year before withdrawing one semester later. During this time, she explored the city’s gay bars, club culture, and arts venues and events. At ’Stravaganza, AS220’s annual queer entertainment showcase, she read her first short story based on making a living in San Francisco as a sex worker.
“One thing I learned over the years is to write toward feeling,” said Sycamore. “I think that what I was actually learning at Brown was more about clinical detachment in writing.”
She has now edited five nonfiction collections, three novels and two memoirs, including The Freezer Door.
“As a queer kid growing up in a world that I knew wanted me to die or disappear and growing up in a family that magnified that violence rather than protecting or nourishing me, leaving Brown and moving to San Francisco was the best choice I ever made,” said Sycamore. “It allowed me to find other kids like me and to find other queers and outsiders who were intent on building our own world, building our own value system, building our own ways of living with, and lusting for, and taking care of one another.”
Finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel, recognizing “a debut novel of exceptional merit by an American author who has not previously published a full-length book of fiction.”
Earning her bachelor’s degree in English from Brown, C Pam Zhang specialized in Creative Nonfiction. Her senior thesis received the David Rome Prize for the best lyric essay by a Brown undergraduate, and an excerpt of the lyric poem, written in eight parts, was featured in Prospect, an annual Brown anthology.
“Half of what I know about writing fiction derives from nonfiction forms I encountered and tried for the first time in classes with Catherine Imbriglio and Carol DeBoer-Langworthy,” said Zhang.
“I was fueled by far too many 5am potatoes and buttered muffins at Louis on Brook Street.”
The longlist for the 2021 PEN Literary Awards also included a few other authors with local connections:
Kevin’s Culture Picks: Stay entertained like Kevin does this month
Every week, I’ve been doing a deep dive into cultural issues, usually theater-related, that are bothering me or that deserve a second look. But who needs another thinkpiece, right?
I host two weekly programs on my theater company’s Faceboook page (www.Facebook.com/EpicTheatreCo) where I ask guests what has been keeping them creatively engaged or excited, and I thought I could put together some of the movies, television shows, books, and music we discuss.
I’ll do this at the beginning of every month (until we’re out of … this), and hopefully it’ll keep you busy during these endless winter months.
So, here’s what I’m enjoying so far this month:
Herself (Streaming on Amazon)
One Night in Miami (Streaming on Amazon)
MLK/FBI (On Demand)
The White Tiger (Streaming on Netflix)
“Pretend It’s a City”
“The Night Stalker”
(All Streaming on Netflix)
Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders
Hades, Argentina, by Daniel Loedel
Heaux Tales, Jasmine Sullivan
Magic Mirror, Pearl Charles
Collapsed in Sunbeams, Arlo Parks
OK Human, Weezer
Sex, Addiction, and Everyone Else, Nictone Dolls
Not Your Muse, Celeste
I Need a Freak, Harassment
Best Streaming Theater of the Month
In and Of Itself — Normally I’m not all that into shows that are built around magic, but this is a gorgeous reflection on identity and storytelling that’ll leave you stunned by its powerful ending. Check it out on Hulu.
“A Thrilling Tale”: The magic and medicine of Rudolph Fisher
When, in 1932, Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure-Man Dies was published, the journal Opportunity called the mystery “startling in its cleverness,” predicting the protagonist, a Harlem doctor with a detective’s eye, would reappear. That year, Agathie Christie spun her investigative hero, Hercule Poirot, into a seventh book and William Faulkner’s Light in August reflected the weight borne by a country whose stories were rife with racial classifications. Reissued this month by HarperCollins, Fisher’s work trod themes familiar to his contemporaries while breaking ground not only as the first known crime novel by a Black author, but also as the first to feature exclusively Black characters as they contend with a resurrected murder victim who promises, “He who knows completely the past and the present can deduce the inevitable future.”
An early witness to the migrations and voices that would later breathe life into his fiction, as a toddler Fisher shared a Manhattan apartment with his mother and father, a brother almost 20 years older who had served with the 25th Infantry Regiment, a Black unit given the military’s segregation, a teenage sister still in school, the ghosts of three siblings dead, and a waiter, houseworker, and bellhop from below the Mason-Dixon line paying rent as boarders. Within the tenement, Fisher’s neighbors were a mix of native New Yorkers and newcomers from the West Indies. Afro-Cuban essayist and editor Rafael Serra lived in the building next door. On the other side stood a lodging house of European immigrants, most of whom had arrived from Germany.
The New York Times described the stretch near West 33rd Street and 7th Avenue, one block from Broadway, as a “little principality” and “the despised ‘patch.’” Before his family arrived, a woman burned her roommate to death in an adjacent building, and a paperboy lost his leg when struck by an electric streetcar. Across the street, police raided the home of women dubbed the Three Musketeers for reportedly stage-managing thefts from “innocent wanderers” when rations were light. On the corner, a hotel offered a breakfast menu of English mutton chop, broiled quail on toast, and a side of Russian caviar, with Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial available by quart or by pint. After the funeral of a police officer, a white mob ransacked Black businesses, striking residents with clubs and clamoring for lynchings in the streets. Two avenues westward, the Thirty-Third Street Baptist Church preached salvation, and a local pastor wrote to the mayor for help on Earth: “The color of a man’s skin must not be made the index of his character or ability.”
With construction planned for Pennsylvania Station and railroad lines connecting New York with the South, tenement owners began to sell their properties, and many residents found themselves moving up to Lincoln Square and Harlem. Fisher’s father, a pastor, received an assignment farther north: in Rhode Island. When the Fishers arrived in Providence, electric streetcars shuttled along Broad Street, running between downtown and the city’s south side. In the shadows of the Union Railroad storage station, in September 1906 Rev. Fisher purchased a vacant lot for $10 (today: $2,900). On the site, he established the Macedonian Baptist Church.
As Rhode Island’s manufacturing economy surged, more than 100,000 new residents within a decade pushed the population above half a million for the first time. The state’s Black population increased by 437 to surpass 9,500 — fewer than the New York City neighborhood of Fisher’s early childhood. Of the dozen other houses on their Providence street, all but the next-door neighbors were white, mostly immigrants and children of immigrants from Canada, England, Ireland and Germany working as servants, bakers, box cutters and machinists. While Fisher’s father built the church, his mother worked as a dressmaker at home. By 1910, church records noted Fisher’s father’s efforts were “proving a vigorous offspring,” with a congregation of 60 members.
In the mornings, Fisher walked less than five minutes to a red-brick schoolhouse beside a gold and silversmith factory. As a student, he earned recognition for his writing, oration and music. At 11, to mark Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, Fisher recited in the main hall an ode to “a great soul passed from earth.” Three months later, he conjured the “tumult in the city” during 1776, rattling off verse about the Independence Bell ringing out for “glorious liberty.” With his school’s Glee Club, Fisher performed the works of Franz Schubert and delivered a solo recitative.
When Fisher entered Classical High School, the college preparatory program fell under the leadership of principal William T. Peck, a devout Baptist who had served as a delegate at a Rhode Island Baptist State Convention at the same time as Fisher’s father. At first, he avoided extracurriculars, but he returned to glee as a sophomore and added debate during his junior year. As a senior, Fisher served as treasurer of the former, president of the latter, associate editor of the yearbook and class poet. Of the languages taught at Classical, he opted for German over Greek, and expressed an intent to pursue medicine, hoping to study surgery.
Throughout high school, Fisher showed confidence on stage. At 16, he joined Rhode Island’s lieutenant governor to speak about Lincoln. At 17, he recited James Whitcomb Riley’s poetry at a school ceremony and led the debate team to win the state championships. At 18, he riled up his class dinner, delivering a speech The Providence Journal described as “replete with witty sallies, and enthusiastically applauded.” Other students dubbed him a “silver-tongued orator” and “the genius of the class — at least in extemporaneous brilliance.”
“The way apparently unpronounceable words flow from Fisher’s fluent tongue is indeed a revelation,” read his senior yearbook, “and it has certainly caused us unlimited worry to learn how he manages to swallow so much of the dictionary during the lunch period.”
Fisher’s principal urged the graduating class “to decide where to go in life and then get there.” Jim Crow laws limited how much Fisher could follow the same advice as his classmates.
Fisher entered Brown University as one of two Black students in his class. Pursuing a dual major in English and biology, he received the Caesar Misch Prize for German, placed first in the Thomas Carpenter Prizes for Elocution, and earned university scholarships for “exceptional scholastic ability” and being “the student with the highest standing in rhetoric, English composition, and public speaking.”
At a time when 1,800 Black residents of Providence marched in solidarity with silent parades held across the United States to protest lynchings and other killings on the basis of race, Fisher opened a civil forum on current issues with a musical program and hosted an afternoon lyceum to welcome public discussion.
After the United States entered the First World War, Fisher registered for the draft. Of the descriptions listed on his registration card — “White, Negro, Indian, and Oriental” — he crossed out three. Donning a khaki uniform and Montana peak hat, he drilled on campus with the Student Army Training Corps.
Weeks into Fisher’s senior year, the outbreak of the 1918 influenza pandemic led to Brown announcing a quarantine order and placing armed guards at the campus gates. Even as the war came to an end in armistice, commencement exercises the following summer bore a somberness given the dead and wounded overseas as well as the pandemic’s harm at home. A brass band led Fisher in the procession of graduating students down the hill from campus, as an honor flag displayed 42 gold stars, one for each of Brown’s former students and faculty lost in the war — more than half of whom had died from illness rather than in active battle.
Fisher served as orator during Brown’s commencement program and was selected as one of two class speakers. Noting his plans to pursue a medical degree, the Brown yearbook issued its own prescription: “Between soothing syrup and that glib tongue of yours, you ought to be a sure cure for anything.”
Less than six weeks after commencement, Fisher’s father died at home. His kidneys failed after a year of nephritis, a condition more likely following exposure to the 1918 influenza strain. Widowed, Fisher’s mother moved back to New York, finding work at the Colored Orphan Asylum in the Bronx. As a “Cottage Mother,” she helped with the care and education of nearly 300 parentless children classified as “inmates” in the 1920 US census. Fisher returned to Brown in the fall to complete a master’s degree, then enrolled in medical school at Howard University in Washington, DC.
Commuting to Howard from Baltimore, where his sister taught at the Colored Teachers Training School (today: Coppin State University), Fisher studied radiology; taught courses in embryology; led lab studies on chicken, pig and human embryos; and played fullback on an intramural football team. Under the banner of Howard’s motto, “Humanity First,” Fisher earned his Doctorate of Medicine as one of 27 graduates in 1924 and accepted an internship at the affiliated Freedmen’s Hospital, founded decades earlier as a Union Army barracks that provided medical care to those who had escaped enslavement or had been displaced by the Civil War.
Although Fisher told his Howard peers he planned to practice medicine in Egypt, he remained in Washington, DC, married his girlfriend, Jane Elsie Ryder, and began to submit short stories he had written around his medical work. In February 1925, The Atlantic Monthly carried Fisher’s first piece of fiction. The issue also featured “an original unpublished ballad” by Abraham Lincoln and an essay on the former president by an assistant secretary in his administration. Fisher’s “City of Refuge” captured the awe of King Solomon Gillis, a neophyte in New York who had “probably escaped a lynching” in North Carolina after he stepped off a subway in Harlem feeling “as if he had been caught up in the jaws of a steam-shovel, jammed together with other helpless lumps of dirt, swept blindly along for a time, and at last abruptly dumped.”
As other stories of Fisher’s began to appear, Alain Locke anthologized an excerpt from “The South Lingers On” in his definitive collection of the era’s Harlem literature. The Atlantic hailed the author’s “profound understanding of his race.” And The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, selected Fisher as the recipient of its $100 Amy Spingarn prize (today: $1,500), judged by Charles W. Chestnutt, Sinclair Lewis, Mary White Ovington and H.G. Wells.
A National Research Council fellowship at Columbia University in 1925 gave Fisher reason to return to New York. The residence of his childhood had long since been demolished during the construction of Penn Station and rebuilt into Gimbels, a 12-story department store. With his wife, Fisher made a home in Harlem. While studying bacteriology and pathology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, he also found friendship among other writers, musicians and artists. In May 1926, Carl Van Vechten welcomed Fisher with his wife and sister after dinner to meet publishers Blanche and Alfred Knopf.
When Fisher’s debut novel, The Walls of Jericho, fell into the hands of readers in 1928, Knopf trumpeted its latest voice from Harlem as a work in line with Nella Larsen, James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. Bearing the title of a short story in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1903 collection, Old Plantation Days, and with reference to the biblical Book of Joshua, Fisher’s satire descended upon the nuance of race, class, labor and wealth. In an interview with Vincent McHugh for The Providence Journal, Fisher said he drafted The Walls of Jericho “in great haste.”
“Its impromptu form suggested that it had been done with the left hand but I had never before seen the evidence of a left hand so skilful,” noted McHugh. “I should like to see what Dr. Fisher’s right hand can do.”
During the preceding years, Fisher had managed a second fellowship from the National Research Council, practicing medicine at Mt. Sinai and Montefiore Hospitals. He conducted research into ultraviolet rays, co-writing papers with his findings for the Proceedings of the Society of Experimental Biology and Medicine and the Journal of Infectious Diseases. Fisher continued to contribute to The Atlantic and had fiction in the pages of McClure’s and reportage on white New Yorkers’ intrigue of Harlem in American Mercury. Amidst it all, he and his wife welcomed their only child, Hugh.
The end of the 1920s started for Fisher with the death of his mother. As the Great Crash ushered in the Great Depression, the private hospital where Fisher worked fell into financial trouble and changed hands. He continued in the role of superintendent under the new ownership of the facility, which too fell into bankruptcy. He paid $90 monthly (today: $1,350) to live in Harlem’s Dunbar Apartments, the first large-scale cooperative housing complex in New York built with a purpose of welcoming Black residents. Fisher’s brother, a postal clerk, and sister, a public school teacher, lived with him, his wife, and their son. They listened to radio broadcasts together, and Fisher wrote by typewriter for four hours in the mornings before work.
Fisher enlisted in the US Army as a member of the reserve medical corps with the 369th Infantry. And as an employee with the New York City Department of Health, he opened his own radiology practice at a family residence in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens. The City Record, the official journal of New York City, misclassified Fisher as a veterinarian.
When Fisher’s second novel, The Conjure-Man Dies, was published in 1932, TheNew York Times called the follow-up to The Walls of Jericho “a puzzling mystery yarn which is at the same time a lively picture of Harlem.” The Crisis found it to be “a thrilling tale which is bound to be hailed the most unusual mystery of the year.” Opportunity, the journal of the National Urban League, argued that “firsts” like Fisher’s were “all very well indeed” and “should be noted” but instead of the work being “a good detective story” defined by the author’s race, it was all the more appropriate to conclude without qualifier, “it is a good detective story.” The reviewer predicted the protagonist, a Harlem doctor with a detective’s eye, would live on.
As Fisher conducted radio interviews, drafted an adaptation of the novel for the stage, published additional short stories, and continued his medical practice, a “stomach condition” led to multiple surgeries. While few reports surfaced about the precise cause or condition of Fisher’s health, The Crisis noted when he had received a diagnosis of “a heavy cold.” On December 26, 1934, as The New York Times reported on “the merriest” Christmas holiday since the Great Crash, Fisher passed away at Edgecombe Sanitarium in Harlem. He was 37 years old. The Times noted he had suffered “a long illness.” The Providence Journal reported it had been “a short illness.” Three days later, he was buried beside his mother in the Bronx.
Zora Neale Hurston transmitted a message by telegram to Fisher’s wife: “The world has lost a genius. You have lost a husband and I have lost a friend.” Langston Hughes later wrote, “I guess Fisher was too brilliant and too talented to stay long on this earth.”
Days later, a posthumous short story was published in Metropolitan,carrying Fisher’s detective-like doctor into another mystery. With support from the Federal Theatre Project of the Works Progress Administration, in 1936 Orson Welles brought The Conjure-Man Dies to the stage of the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. Fisher’s wife and son kept his copyrights active, and his sister retained drafts of Fisher’s manuscripts, family correspondence and other records, which found their ways into the archives of Brown University, Emory University and the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. But with time, Fisher’s legacy faded.
“He was actually one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance,” said Delia Steverson, an assistant professor of African American literature at the University of Florida. “He characterizes this assertiveness, this pride, this independence, this unadulterated creativity.”
More than 50 years passed after Fisher’s death before the University of Missouri Press compiled a collection of his short stories. In the 1990s, the University of Michigan Press reissued both novels. A now defunct London publisher included Fisher as Black Classics, and Fazi Editore in Rome brought out an Italian translation, Dark Harlem. After a 2017 hardcover edition, in January HarperCollins released The Conjure-Man Dies as a paperback and e-book, with The Walls of Jericho due to follow in May.
“When these books are published, there needs to be fanfare,” said Ray Rickman, executive director of Stages of Freedom, a nonprofit that promotes Black cultural events in Rhode Island. “It needs to be orchestrated, and there’s no orchestra leader.”
Rickman features Fisher during Stages of Freedom’s cultural walking tours in Providence. The organization is fundraising to establish a museum about Rhode Island’s African American history, and Rickman said the nonprofit is in discussions with the Classical High School Alumni Association to produce a booklet and display on Fisher for students and libraries. In recent years, artist Sandra Smith stitched both of Fisher’s novels into a square on a wall quilt commissioned for Roger Williams University, and the Rhode Island Black Historical Society and the Rhode Island Historical Society have curated exhibits featuring the life of the author.
At the University of Florida, Steverson included Fisher among two dozen literary figures and publications for a Wiki Education project to improve the quality of Wikipedia entries related to the African diaspora. Students in her survey course on African American literature conducted research, presented their findings in class, and drew from 275 references to make nearly 800 edits to improve the Wikipedia pages of their assigned topics. Within two months of their semester’s conclusion, their updated entries were viewed almost 40,000 times.
“Work like Wikipedia is going to help to provide open access to knowledge and help to fill these equity gaps,” said Steverson.
“Fisher demonstrates how certain Black voices get lost throughout time,” she said. “What we don’t want is for Rudolph Fisher to be lost in translation for the next 50 years or the next 100 years.”
Dispatches From the Fort: Jeff Danielian publishes his fourth volume of poetry and it’s about time
Jeff Danielian is back with his fourth volume of poetry (to go along with four works of non-fiction geared toward educating youth), featuring his introduction, 56 poems and what he describes as “a short non-fiction adventure.” Danielian doesn’t pull any surprises with his writing style, keeping things humble and to the point.
My favorite poem of the collection is “17,” seemingly written about Danielian’s daughter before she starts her independent journey in the world. It’s emotional, powerful and caring. The poem is clearly full of love and is one that many parents can identify with.
My favorite line comes from “Life as a Stone,” and he uses it to both begin and end the poem. “The beginning is the end is the beginning” showcases the constant circle we attempt to maneuver through in hopes of reaching something. The line serves as a reminder that there is always work to be done, no matter how hard we strive for satisfaction.
Time is the theme of this collection. Danielian seemed inspired by the atmosphere and his observations of his friend and artist William Schaff’s home/work space, dubbed Fort Foreclosure. It’s either a sign of maturity or just the inevitable growing up in general, but there is a lot of reflection written into each poem. This serves to be his most impressive work.
Danielian ends the collection with a short non-fiction adventure to Prudence Island, featuring photography by Michael Cevoli, simply titled “The Writer and The Photographer.” The two head out on an early morning in the spring to start their adventure. Danielian does a great job describing their day. The best part of this writing is that he didn’t set out to create an intriguing story, instead letting the day itself navigate his words. He is a simple narrator, putting his observations into prose. Cevoli’s eight black and white pictures add an extra layer to Danielian’s descriptions. This makes for a nice book end to his introduction, in which he discusses his love and appreciation for Rhode Island, and especially his close knit town of Warren and the impact it’s had on his life.
Danielian writes with simple realism, and his poems all have a comfortable familiarity. It’s akin to listening to a new album by AC/DC or the Ramones: You know what you’re going to expect and anything different would be infuriating.
The Groston Rules: Latest release from Mark Binder captures adolescence
Senior year of high school can be a defining moment in a person’s life — it’s both a jumpstart into the future and a further sculpting of the previous 17 years. In Mark Binder’s novel The Groston Rules, Isaac Cohen and his six friends who make up “Team Bombshelter” appeared to have a more memorable (for better or worse) year than most.
The story is a first person account from Cohen, written as an assignment from school, though each of his friends has a dedicated chapter that develops their character. He is a typical senior with a potentially bright future, though he is the least successful of the group. The friends all have their own strengths that they bring to the table, each taking lead when their skills and ideas are needed most. Cohen usually stays in the background, feeling inferior to his friends, until he has a great idea for a senior prank that impresses his friends and gets the entire class involved.
The seniors of Groston are written as they would for most movies or television. The jocks (especially the star quarterback and his offensive lineman) and homecoming queen have minor but significant roles. Instead, Binder focuses on the often overlooked, average students and showcases their issues in a way that is mostly relatable. Many of their trials and tribulations could happen anywhere at any time, which is refreshing.
Binder effectively brings back high school memories. While some of their adventures are a bit outlandish, common emotions, friendships and insecurity all run rampant throughout this book. The reader can identify with Cohen as a sympathetic protagonist and wants to root for him. He is self aware and tells the story in a way that makes it clear he might have made different decisions if given a second chance, which is an experience I share often.
My only issue with the story is an admittedly selfish one involving the senior prank. While well written and the ultimate climax to the story, the end result is something that should have been visual instead of written. It is well described, but the description doesn’t quite work for me, as I’m not quite familiar with the parody of their prank. This description would work much better in a movie, which is something I would love to see.
The Groston Rules is a throwback to adolescence. Everything is understandable and nostalgic, with parts that will hit close to home for many people. It’s a pre coming-of-age tale, as there is a lot more growth to be done. Most importantly, it’s real, because Cohen’s or his friends’ emotions could have been experienced by nearly anyone.
The Groston Rules will be released on November 8. For more information, go to markbinder.com