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Illustration: Ben Kirchner
Raduan Nassar was 48 and at the height of his literary fame when, in 1984, he announced his retirement. He wanted to become a farmer.

I liked a recent article in the New Yorker about a Brazilian who left the writing life to become a farmer. Did literary perfectionism stress him out too much, or did farming just seem more real?

Alejandro Chacoff has the story.

“In 1973, the Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar quit his job. After six years as editor-in-chief at the Jornal do Bairro, an influential left-wing newspaper that opposed Brazil’s military regime, [he left] and spent a year in his São Paulo apartment, working twelve hours a day on a book, ‘crying the whole time.’ In ‘Ancient Tillage,’ the strange, short novel he wrote, a young man flees his rural home and family, only to return, chastened and a little humiliated, to the place of his childhood.

“ ‘Ancient Tillage’ was published in 1975, to immediate critical acclaim. … In 1978, a second novel appeared in print; Nassar had written the first draft of ‘A Cup of Rage’ in 1970, while living in Granja Viana, a bucolic neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. It, too, was received euphorically, winning the São Paulo Art Critics’ Association Prize (ACPA). …

Last year, Nassar’s two novels were translated into English for the first time, for the Penguin Modern Classics Series. …

“Nassar was forty-eight and at the height of his literary fame when, in 1984, he gave an interview with Folha de São Paulo, the country’s biggest daily newspaper, in which he announced his retirement. He wanted to become a farmer. … The following year, he bought a property of roughly sixteen hundred acres and began to plant soy, corn, beans, and wheat. …

“Nassar said that farming had always been his main occupation, whereas writing had ‘just been another activity.’ But his life in agriculture did not begin smoothly.

“ ‘For the first six years, we got killed; there were only losses.’ … Like his characters, he appears to have found solace in manual labor. ‘My life now is about doing, doing, doing,’ he told an interviewer, in 1996, when asked how he was faring after his literary retirement. …

“Both [Luiz Schwarcz, the editor-in-chief of Companhia das Letras, the country’s main publishing house,] and [Antonio Fernando de Franceschi, a poet and critic who became a close friend of Nassar’s,] believe that Nassar’s decision to quit came not from a waning of interest but from literary perfectionism. ‘He’s a guy who devotes himself so much to the craft that I think it’s hard for him to feel rewarded,’ Schwarcz said.” More here.

I intend to track down his books.

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Photo: Robert W Kelley/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Langston Hughes on the front steps of his house in Harlem, June 1958.

Before Suzanne and Erik moved to Providence, they were living in a lovely renovated brownstone in Harlem.

There’s a fine line between newcomers investing where there’s been too much disinvestment — and gentrification. The early changes seem to benefit a neighborhood and its people, but inevitably rising property values push out many longtime residents and institutions.

Today, a group of Harlem artists from various disciplines are banding together to keep a significant piece of the Harlem Renaissance around to nourish African American arts.

Tom Kutsch writes at the Guardian, “All that signifies the legacy of a house once occupied by the poet laureate of Harlem is a small bronze plaque, partially covered by a cedar tree’s branches and the green ivy that envelops much of the building.

“The onetime home of Langston Hughes has sat largely unoccupied for years, but a new movement is trying to reclaim, for a next generation of artists, the space of a man who is forever intertwined with the Harlem Renaissance.

“Spearheaded by writer, performer and educator Renée Watson, the collective effort is busily trying to raise the necessary funds to purchase a lease and make needed renovations to the house. …

“Watson plans to make the Hughes house the home of the I Too, Arts Collective that she launched alongside the effort, which aims to, in her words, have ‘programming that nurtures, amplifies, and honors work by and about people of color and people from other marginalized communities.’ …

“The collective gets its name from one of Hughes’s most famous poems – I, Too – in which his narrator concludes by intoning:

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.

“Watson is using the crowdfunding website Indiegogo to solicit donations for the project, for which they’re hoping to raise at least $150,000 to cover a lease and begin the renovation process. By the time of publication, they had raised more than $54,000, already exceeding the $40,000 Watson says would cover at least a six-month lease. …

“For more than a century, Harlem has been inextricably linked to black life and culture in America; the birthplace of the aforementioned Harlem Renaissance, which fostered a wide array pre-eminent black artists and writers, from Zora Neale Hurston to Claude McKay and Duke Ellington. …

” ‘The erasure of black Harlem may come despite our best efforts …’ said Tracey Baptiste, a local children’s author who is involved with Watson’s collective. ‘But this project is about making sure that gentrification doesn’t also happen in the hearts and minds of our artists.’ ”

More here.

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I love experiments that garner a new audience for the work of writers and other artists. I remember one effort I tried to join: short fiction for postcards. My submissions weren’t used, but I received a postcard a month for a year, each with a tiny tale.

If you’ve traveled the subway in New York or Boston, you may also have seen posters with some very accessible, but not dumbed-down, poetry.

In France, there’s a vending machine. Alison Flood writes at the Guardian, “Readers in Grenoble can now nibble fiction instead of vending machine snacks, after publisher Short Édition introduced eight short-story dispensers around the French city. …

“Readers are able to choose one minute, three minutes or five minutes of fiction, and, just two weeks since launch, co-founder Quentin Pleplé says that more than 10,000 stories have already been printed.

“ ‘The feedback we got has been overwhelmingly positive … We are getting requests from all over the world – Australia, the US, Canada, Russia, Greece, Italy, Spain, Chile, Taiwan.’ …

“The French publisher hopes the stories will be used to fill the ‘dead time’ of a commute, ‘in a society where daily lives are moving quicker and quicker and where time is becoming precious.’

“ ‘In the bus, the tram or the metro, everyone can make the most of these moments to read short stories, poems or short comics,’ said a statement from Short Édition. ‘And they can be sure to enjoy the ending.’ …

“The stories are drawn from the more than 60,000 stories on Short Édition’s community website, with the publisher’s 142,000-strong reader community selecting the best 600 for the vending machines. Users are not able to choose what type of story – romantic, fantastical or comic – they would like to read. ‘Just the length, it’s the beauty of it,’ said Pleplé.”

More here.

Photo: Short Édition
A short story vending machine in Grenoble. 

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Photo: Jake Naughton/The New York Times
Ayun Halliday creating a new issue of “The East Village Inky”  as part of the MTA Zine Residency

Remember the Amtrak Artist Residency? Here’s what might be called a “stealth residency,” organized by a librarian in New York and taking place on the New York subway system.

Colin Moynihan writes at the NY Times, “Thirteen people formed a sort of mobile salon just after noon on Friday, boarding an F Train in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn with the aim of riding for hours through three boroughs while writing and illustrating zines — self-published, photocopied periodicals usually made by hand. …

“The two-day event, called the MTA Zine Residency, had been organized by a librarian and an archivist at the Barnard College library, which they said has the largest circulating collection of zines in an academic library. …

“Despite the initials in its name, the event was organized without the knowledge or collaboration of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway system. The peaceful takeover of the subway car reflected the do-it-yourself spirit that is a basic prerequisite to zine making, said the other organizer, the archivist Shannon O’Neill. …

“ ‘Remember the promise and betrayal of the #AmtrakResidency?’ the organizers of the subway project wrote, while announcing their own subway and ferry trips. ‘We won’t pay for your MetroCard, but we also won’t demand to own your stuff!’ …

“Transit officials had no objection to the activities. ‘As long as they abide by our rules of conduct, we certainly welcome them in the subway system to nurture creative self-expression,’ said a spokesman, Kevin Ortiz.”

More here.

I’m thinking of several artistic readers of this blog when I say you may want to get on board this train the next time it comes around.

Photo: Jake Naughton/The New York Times 
Composing zines on the F train on Friday during the MTA Zine Residency. 

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If you want people to innovate, get out of the way. That’s what I think must have happened when Bill Littlefield launched his sports program at WBUR. Clearly, someone gave him freedom to do it his own kooky way, and when radio stations around the country wanted to carry the program, that laissez-faire manager must have smiled.

Both sports fans and non-sports fans like Littlefield’s show. He covers all the usual sports topics but also showcases offbeat competitions like this one at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. Karen Given was the reporter.

“Just 15 minutes before game time, the vast and serene campus green at Vermont College of Fine Arts showed no signs of the annual Writers vs. Poets softball game. There were no bats, no balls, no bases, and no players. Suddenly, Victorio Reyes stormed onto the scene.

“ ‘First of all I’m a poet,’ he said. … ‘There’s two things,” Reyes continued. “One: the United States invests way too much money in sports and too much emotion, okay? That’s the first thing. The second thing? This game is life or death. That’s all you need to know.’ …

“No one seems to know the overall record. Louise Crowley, director of the MFA in Writing program, said the game itself is similarly imprecise.

“ ‘We might have 50 people in the outfield. It’s just kinda an informal, crazy game.’

“ ‘Eventually, will there be bases?’ I asked.

“ ‘There will be bases, yes,’ Crowley said. ‘There will be bases, there will be a batter, there will be a catcher, you know. But other than that, it’s just sort of a free flowing, everything goes.’ …

“After dinner, there’s a reading, and then hours of painstaking writing and re-writing before workshops begin again early tomorrow morning. …

“Poetry instructor Matthew Dickman had a preexisting injury this time around, so his job was to provide inspiration — of the negative variety.

“ ‘Whenever a fiction writer gets to bat, a student, I’m going to sit behind them and talk about how difficult it is to get published,’ Dickman said. ‘How they’ll probably just go back to working wherever they work and their dreams will come to an end.’  …

“Every once in a while, the pitcher lobbed in a good one and the batter managed a hit — usually a pop fly that floated over the outfield. And, although the number of outfielders had ballooned to at least a dozen, every single one of those pop flies dropped to the grass.” More at Only a Game.

I laughed all the way through this report.

Photo: Going the Distance Blog
At the annual Vermont College of Fine Arts softball game, it’s war. Cats vs. dogs have nothing on poets vs. prose writers.

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Amtrak-trains-Boston

I love Amtrak, and I love writing, but I don’t think I am ever going to do an Amtrak Artist Residency, so I am passing along the info so you can apply. It sounds like fun. Just glimpsing the exposed backs of houses along the tracks with their hints of the private lives lived in them is inspiration for a ream of stories.

William Grimes writes for the NY Times blog ArtBeat, “The wheels have begun moving on Amtrak’s plan to offer writers a rolling residency aboard their trains. … Up to 24 writers, chosen from a pool of applicants, will be given a round-trip ticket on a long-distance train, including a private sleeper-car room with a bed, a desk, and electrical outlets. …

“The idea was born in December when the novelist Alexander Chee, in an interview with the magazine PEN America, casually mentioned his love for writing on trains, and added, jokingly, ‘I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.’

“When Jessica Gross, a writer in New York, echoed the sentiment on Twitter, Amtrak arranged for her to do a trial residency on the Lake Shore Limited from New York to Chicago. She agreed.

“Her account of the trip, ‘Writing the Lake Shore Limited,’ published by The Paris Review in February, grabbed the attention of The Wire, The New Yorker and The Huffington Post. Soon after, Amtrak decided to turn the trial run into a full-fledged program.” More on when and how to apply.

Even before that series of events, there was the Whistlestop Arts Train, you know. I blogged about the rolling public art project by Doug Aitken last July, here.

Trains for dreaming. Holiday model train layout at Amtrak’s South Station, Boston.

model-trains-Amtrak-S-Station

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Thank you, Gwarlingo, for tweeting this. Looks like there’s hope for us all.

“All your excuses are invalid,” says Dustin Kurtz in an article at the Melville House site about “the seventy-five year old winner of a prize for emerging writers.

“The semiannual Akutagawa prize was awarded in Japan this past Wednesday, and this season’s winner was Natsuko Kuroda. The Akutagawa prize, begun in 1935, is awarded for stories published in newspapers or magazines by new or emerging authors. Kuroda is seventy-five years old.

“Her story, ‘ab Sango’ (it can be previewed and purchased here) is unusual in that it uses no pronouns for its young principle characters, and is written horizontally across the page from left to right, rather than the standard top to bottom. The result is strange and beautiful, and hints at a genealogy of Popper-esque fairy tale formulae, of mathematics or of sociology, and all of which is given subtle cultural freight by Kuroda’s horizontal lines. But again — because it bears repeating — this intriguing emerging writer is seventy-five years old.

“Kuroda is in fact the oldest writer ever to be given the Akutagawa prize, and she is nearly as old as the prize itself. Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the award’s namesake and perhaps Japan’s most celebrated story writer, famously killed himself when he was less than half her current age.

“Upon receiving the prize, Kuroda said, ‘Thank you for discovering me while I am still alive.’ ” More.

Photograph: Melville House, an independent book publisher in Brooklyn, NY.

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