Dana Bassett (development director): If there’s one thing I know about being Lebanese-American, it is that Lebanese-Americans love one thing–and that thing is Lebanese-American Khalil Gibran. With this knowledge firmly in hand, I was of course intrigued to see the words “Illustrated by Khalil Gibran” printed on the dark orange cover of The Book of Khalid, which stuck out to me while I was looking over second-hand titles at the Bed-Stuy bookstore and cafe Better Read Than Dead.
The back cover mentions that the novel, written in 1911 by Ameen Rihani, is considered to be the first by an Arab-American writer in English and that Rihani was besties with the great Gibran, who apparently based The Prophet (Leb 101 required reading) off of Rihani’s characters. As a devoted Arab-American, what could I do but give the man at the bookstore counter his eight dollars? It was my long-winded, disjointed and overly descriptive destiny.
I later learned from my friend Zain, who is an aficionado of forgotten authors, that, though The Book of Khaled was originally published a century ago, it was republished in 2012 by Neversink Press. According to Zain, Neversink “digs up forgotten authors for contemporary audiences.” Despite the book’s impressive historical pedigree, I have to admit that I do kind of understand why it was forgotten.
The text is presented as a “found manuscript” partially authored by the wandering dreamer, prophet, and fool Khalid and buttressed by the omniscient narrator’s interviews with various individuals, including Khalid’s best friend and travel companion, Shakib. But the narrative is very convoluted, and there are only three small illustrations by Gibran. The style makes it hard to tell what is “real” and what is not. The parafictional interplay between the narrator’s intervention and Khalid’s own almost makes the text interesting but mostly makes it confusing. Despite my communal loyalty to Gibran and best efforts to appreciate Rihani’s novel, I cannot earnestly say I recommend that you read it.
After a winding introduction, the book mostly follows the lives of an opposite but codependent pair of friends, Khalid and Shakib, and their selected misadventures as immigrants from Baalbek to the Little Syrian section of downtown Manhattan and back. While certain aspects of the novel feel significant, like Khalid’s propensity for burning books once he finishes reading them and a moving chapter on the metaphysical quality of ruffles, the chapters don’t necessarily relate to or build upon one another. In fact, the novel feels disjointed, as Khalid jumps from one failed scheme to the next. In one instance, the narrator abruptly ends a chapter on a painful event in Khalid’s life and then quickly pivots to Khalid’s meditation on the beauty of the natural world. Funnily enough, my edition is a “readers copy” with a menacing warning across the bottom: UNCORRECTED ADVANCE READER COPY — DO NOT QUOTE. Another apparent layer of separation between me and being Lebanese.
When I mentioned I was personally struggling with how much I wasn’t enjoying the book, Zain sympathized. “I find that books that deal with cultural identity—between two worlds and all!—tend to be all over the place all of the time!” he texted back.
I’m still going to finish The Book of Khalid (this weekend, in fact), but my waning interest in Khalid and Shakib’s activities feels like a personal failure of my Lebanese-ness.
“Inshallah it will come together in the end,” Zain wrote.
Inshallah Zain is right.
Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): This piece by Vivian Gornick in Lux gave me publishing envy, so I thought I would share it with you. It’s a portrait of Gornick’s relationship with her analyst, Dr. F, “a small, neat woman in late middle age, a German-Jewish Freudian analyst who wore an air of gravity that was both reassuring and off-putting.” Having internalized the patriarchal orientation of psychoanalysis at the time, Dr. F struggles to help Gornick with her issues: The analyst thinks they are trying to resolve Gornick’s trouble with men; Gornick thinks they are trying to resolve her trouble with work. (“Whether the therapists knew it or not, they were keepers of a culture that people like me were now rebelling against.“) The moments of epiphany in the piece—whether Gornick’s or Dr. F’s, relayed by Gornick—reminded me what I love about Gornick’s writing, the way she rings a line of dialogue like a bell, the way meaning resounds in small episodes. It made me want to go back and read Fierce Attachments. But also, how exciting to read something new! Viv has still got it.
Aparna Gopalan (contributing editor): If you are queer, Asian, or part of a complicated parent-child relationship, Kim Hye-jin’s Concerning My Daughter is not a book you should pick up without careful planning. Not simply because it will leave you bawling for minutes or hours (although it is likely to do that) but because it might leave you haunted for days and weeks to come.
The book is told from the perspective of an unnamed 70-something-year-old woman who works in a nursing home in an unnamed country and watches her also-unnamed 30-something-year-old daughter with constant pain and disapproval. With the usual accoutrement of a novel (proper nouns, a plot) stripped away, all that’s left on the page is the raw, first-person experience of a woman laboring her way to the grave while watching her beloved child grow up to be gay.
The book opens with the daughter in financial distress. After asking her mother for money that is nowhere to be found, the daughter ends up temporarily moving in with her mother and bringing her partner Lane along with her. This sets up scene after scene of the mother’s suffering as she is forced to look directly at the things she had otherwise “only imagined and assumed,” and, one might add, things she had denied. In one early scene, the mother watches her daughter and Lane through a bedroom door left ajar. She recounts: “my daughter, dressed in a sleeveless shirt and shorts, has one arm wrapped gently around the girl who’s facing away from her. Sisters who get along well. Close friends. But what draws them to each other isn’t something so common and ordinary. Whatever it is, it’s clearly beyond my assumptions or expectations.”
The mother does not take this irrefutable proof of her daughter’s sexuality well. Over the course of the novel, she becomes more venomous than any first-person protagonist has any right to be, at one point saying to herself, “Why won’t she try to live a normal life? Why won’t she even try? Why did I bring a child like that into the world? And to think how happy I was when I first had her! She was a wonder to look at and gazing down at the sleeping child filled me with feelings I can only describe as love...Why does my daughter, of all people, have to like women?...How could she be so cruel? Why am I ashamed of this child that came out of me? I don’t like the fact that I am ashamed to be her mother. Why is she making me deny her, and by extension myself and this entire life I’ve lived?”
Reading these internal asides, snipes, and diatribes, one seems to get a front row seat to the thoughts of every parent with a child who refuses to conform. It’s like finding the private diaries of Evelyn from Everything Everywhere All At Once and witnessing the guilt, sadness, disgust, and stubborn denial that simmers underneath the surface of a seemingly-benign disapproval. Reading this book feels like a faux-ethnographic exercise in trying to answer the questions any child facing a parent’s rejection asks themselves, such as, Why are they like this? Where is their horror coming from? And what makes it so very enduring? The mother’s narration offers tantalizing clues.
At times, it seems her disapproval of her daughter is animated by nothing more than petty shame as she imagines her family becoming fodder for gossip: “What if someone sees? What if strange accounts travel from household to household, embellished and altered at every stop, sweeping through the neighborhood? What if the words reach my ears like a storm?” But there are deeper fears at play, too: “You think you’re going to be young forever?” the mother asks her daughter. “You are alone. What do you have? A husband? Children? Friends and colleagues will leave you eventually.” As the novel progresses, the mother’s narration repeatedly returns to the anxiety that her child will live out old age just as she is: toiling endlessly in an often demeaning job, coming home everyday to an empty house, living only with memories of people who are gone.
Ultimately, the mother’s refusal to accept her daughter seems to stem from an unshakeable belief that her child will not be able to defy the laws of society and normalcy to find peace, love, and a graceful old age with Lane.“What kind of world do they think they live in?” she thinks when her daughter and Lane speak up against a neighbor beating his wife rather than simply turning their eyes away. “A magical, brilliant place they read about in books? The kind of thing a few people can pick up and overturn?”
As the book goes on, the mother’s anguish intensifies: at one point she confesses she wants to kill Lane. But then, when a patient at her nursing home is mistreated and the mother resists it rather than watching from the sidelines, she herself begins acting as if she can transform the world from a cruel place to a kind one. She refuses to believe her colleagues when they say old people’s suffering is just “the way of the world,” or just “normal.” She begins to make a scene, to do things that set people talking, defy the rules she so insidiously inflicts upon her child.
The mother’s growing hypocrisy—preaching conformity to others while refusing it for herself, telling her daughter to stop protesting at work even as she herself loses her job for her “sentimentality”—makes the second part of the book even more infuriating than the first. It takes a homophobic mob attacking her daughter for the mother to see that like her, her daughter and Lane “stand with their feet planted on firm ground, not in fantasies or daydreams...They exist in the thick of life, terrifying, relentless.”
This is not to say the mother “comes around” to having a gay daughter—this story, after all, is not bound by the plot requirements of an Oscar-nominated movie. Even as she spends her days caring for a patient that she (not to spoil anything) literally steals out of her nursing home, the mother hopes that the sight of her changing diapers and cleaning bedpans will make her daughter and Lane ‘realistic’ about their old age. She hopes they will “go find themselves a real partner now – someone who will share the responsibility and trust,” because her daughter’s seven-year-long relationship still cannot appear “real” in her eyes. But no other ending could have really done this book justice or made it feel like it is ventriloquizing all the world’s unaccepting parents, laying bare their deepest fears for their children to read with pain and horror, but also, maybe only for a minute, with understanding.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Nineteenth-century Danish art is certainly not something museumgoers get to see much of, which makes “Beyond the Light: Identity and Place in Nineteenth-Century Danish Art,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 16th, all the more welcome. The show is a generous one, with about 100 works in various mediums organized by theme. Sketches and paintings of arresting nature scenes abound, as do portraits. Danish monuments are covered, too, and striking works depicting eerie dolmens feature prominently. Most impressive are paintings of Copenhagen and its harbor, particularly Johan Christian Dahl’s Copenhagen Harbor by Moonlight (1846). The painting is a massive work, more than three feet by five feet, of a looming nighttime sky, the moonlight glimmering on the water captured with the perfect degree of sadness and gloom.
One interesting series of paintings and drawings of rooms—some inhabited, some not—makes brilliant use of space and geometric shape. Among this latter group are two pieces that make the entire exhibition worthwhile: Interior with an Easel, Bredgade 25 (1912) and Moonlight, Strandgade 30 (1900–1906). These are the only paintings in the show by the greatest of all Danish artists—indeed, one of the greatest artists of his time—Vilhelm Hammershøi. (Two drawings are also included, as well as a suitably scruffy-looking portrait.) I mentioned Hammershøi when I recommended the Edward Hopper show at the Whitney, for light and private interiors were these artists’ great subjects. Both of the Hammershøi paintings are of uninhabited rooms, but it’s his genius that an empty room becomes the perfect pretext for filling a space with shadow and light, laid onto the canvas with a stunning variety of tone. Shadows of objects replace the objects themselves. In Moonlight, light seems to originate from an impossible place below the surface on which light is cast. But Hammershøi has seen something we don’t: that light can come from below, reflected off a well-polished floor. Different qualities of light are handled with equal mastery; hazy light and harsh light are given their individual personalities. There is no need for a figure in the room, for light is given being.
I can only assume there was some curatorial problem that prevented the museum from having more works by Hammershoi, who stands head and shoulders above his compatriots. Even so, two unforgettable works on a show is a number not to be sneered at.
A personal note: When we travel, my wife Joan and I like to have a theme for our trips that will take us beyond the tourist route. So we visited the Lisbon of Fernando Pessoa, the Paris of Proust, and Oslo through the films of Joachim Trier, visiting every location in his works shot in the Norwegian capital. We already have our package of lists and maps of the locations containing paintings by Hammershøi, as well as the places he painted them. “Beyond the Light” has whetted our already voracious appetite for more of this largely unsung genius.
We hosted a conversation between artist Katz Tepper and Greg Bordowitz back in March of last year, where Tepper discussed how kinship, disability, and diasporism informed the creation of their film Roasted Cockroach for Scale. We wanted to share that Roasted Cockroach is on view at Lauren Gitlin and has been extended until February 19. You should go see it if you’re in New York!