Creating a Bilingual Revolution in Our Schools

I recently sat down with Fabrice Jaumont to discuss The Bilingual Revolution, his book about the creation of dual-language education programs in the New York City public schools. In 2006 Fabrice helped establish the first of many French-English dual-language programs, at PS 58 in Brooklyn, and later, with the assistance of parents, he helped some 20 New York City public schools set up their dual-language programs in French, Japanese, Italian, Russian and German. You can find a full list of dual-language programs (which also include Chinese, Arabic, Polish, Spanish, Haitian-Creole and Hebrew) in NYC public schools on the NYC Department of Education website.  In his book, Fabrice recounts how parents, school administrators and others came together to create these programs. He also discusses programs that did not succeed, and in conclusion, offers a step-by-step roadmap that parents can follow to create dual-language programs in their schools. Having spent my career in international business, I’ve long admired Fabrice’s enthusiasm and dedication, and am thrilled that he published this book. I found The Bilingual Revolution to be practical and candid: it is honest both about what does work – and what doesn’t, which makes this book valuable indeed. Here’s our interview (edited).

Liz Daly with Fabrice Jaumont and his book at the Invisible Dog, Sept 8, 2017

Editor’s Note: We use dual-language and bilingual interchangeably, but we’re talking about programs that are taught in two languages.

Liz Daly (LD): Let’s talk about you for a minute – you’re a dad, but you got into bilingual education before you had children.

Fabrice Jaumont (FJ): I was teaching French at Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland) as a teaching assistant. Then I became the linguistic liaison for the French Consulate in Boston where I worked for about a year and a half. I visited many bilingual programs, and immersion programs in particular, in public schools outside Boston. Then I got a job at the private bilingual school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I became a director there, managing a rigorous bilingual international program. The families understood how the program could provide life-long skills to their children. Like them, I was convinced of the incredible benefits of bilingualism.

LD: And you began working with the NYC public schools in…

FJ: Around 2005. I got here [NYC] in 2001 but I started meeting parents around 2004, 2005. That’s when I created this program for French heritage language children coming from Africa and the Caribbean. I worked with Jane Ross, who’s an educator and philanthropist. She had this idea that we should offer these high school students an advanced language course so that they could keep their French language fluency. Then they would become better learners of English and therefore integrate faster, finish school, get credit for college and make an asset of their French. That’s how I got into public schools in the Bronx and in Brooklyn.

At around the same time I met a few French mothers from Brooklyn, who were looking for bilingual programs in public schools like the ones in private schools. We got started, organizing panels, having discussions, meeting the DOE (Department of Education) and understanding the legal framework of our project.

New York City has this mandate for English language learners that says if you had 12 students entering kindergarten who are considered English language learners, then the school has to provide dual-language programs. It was working for Spanish, and maybe a few other languages… We decided to present our case to a school principal. If you could demonstrate that there were enough families in the school zone who were interested, with kids speaking a specific language at home and other kids wanting to speak that language, then the principal would sometimes say “yes.” That’s how we started with PS 58 in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Then there was PS 125 in Harlem, there was MS 22, a middle school in the Bronx, and all of a sudden the media started talking about this. Then people were moving near the schools or opening their own, and that’s what got the ball rolling.

LD: When I was growing up, I went to school with kids who didn’t speak any English, and they just got thrown into the classroom and would have to sink or swim. There was also a stigma around not speaking English, but today a lot of that has changed.

FJ: The principal at PS 58, Giselle McGee, spoke French when she was a kid: her mother is French and her dad is American. Giselle spoke French up to the age of 5, and when she went to school, there were no dual-language programs. After the first day of school, she came home and told her mother, “I don’t want to speak French, all my friends speak English.”   And she completely lost her French. So can you imagine how she felt when those enterprising mothers knocked on her door and asked if she would consider opening a French after school program. Within half an hour the conversation had switched to “Would you open a French dual-language program by September?” – which she did.

LD: Within the French community, there’s also been tremendous growth – I don’t know what the numbers are – but I live near Carroll Gardens, where the French population has exploded over the last 15 years. It’s a middle class community – and that’s an important component – but it’s a community that’s come here with the idea of not staying forever, and that still maintains very strong ties back home.

FJ: They were not immigrants in the classical sense. Each community has its own model.

There is a class component. [Take] the African francophone community in the Bronx. There are actually more French speakers in the Bronx than anywhere else, but no one sees them: they might be here illegally, or they speak three or four languages but their official one is not French, or they work three jobs and don’t have time to get involved. Different socio-economic factors can make it hard to create programs, [but] these are the situations where those programs would have the most impact. You need to have community engagement and parent involvement but also an open door, a principal and school staff who understand where these families come from, and who pay attention to the small requests these families may make.

LD: Are you seeing any change in the attitudes of school administrators and teachers towards bilingualism? Are they more aware of how it can benefit the kids?

FJ: In the younger principals, yes. Unless you have those rare monolingual school leaders who really understand bilingual education or those who come from that bilingual background – they know, they went through the whole thing. This is changing across the US: states like Utah, Delaware, North Carolina, Georgia are investing massively in bilingual education. They see the benefits not just for the community, but for the economy. They want their state to be economically viable 20 years from now and their workforce to be competitive.

In New York City the DOE has this mandate that forces the City to serve English language learners, and that’s where the Federal money comes in. In fact we have other families: we have English language learners, we have heritage language families like my kids, where families want to sustain the home language and they need the schools to do that, and the third group is the English-speaking families who want to acquire a second language or a third one. These are the three groups that I usually meet, who start to form the coalition.

LD: I think that for parents who come from countries where things are done from the top down, you need to teach them that they can do things here, and that they should do these things. If they’ve never had the experience of going to a school and saying, “This is what we want”, then it will be very hard for them to do that.

FJ: In the French community, these mothers were not used to being accepted in the school [in France], but they quickly understood that here it was possible. And with the help of American mothers they started approaching the schools and asking for things. With Giselle, there’s a funny story. [The school is in] Carroll Gardens, an old Italian neighborhood. A few years after the French program opened, some of the Italian parents approached Giselle and asked her why she hadn’t created an Italian dual-language program. And she said it was because no one had asked her. So you have to ask.

[There’s also] the Italian school principal… At a meeting at the Italian Consulate, I was explaining how the French did it, how the Japanese did it, the Russians … and this man said to me, “No offense, but if the French did it, then the Italians will.” He had been a school principal in Bensonhurst, the Italian part of Brooklyn, and he never thought such a program could be created. And the next year, he found a primary school principal who was willing to do it and [then you had] the first Italian dual-language program. That’s what people need to understand – yes, you can ask.

LD: In your book you talk about programs in primary school, even in middle school, but then they seem to stop…

FJ: It’s starting to change – Utah is thinking Kindergarten to College; but here and in a lot of other places you see [many programs] in elementary school, then in middle school it starts to go down, and in high school, nothing, with the exception of one or two. I visited the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies in Chinatown, they’re now #9 or #10 in the US in terms of academic outcomes, and they’re really a model for high schools. And the school you visited in Brooklyn, the Boerum Hill School for International Studies, I think in a few years from now it will be a model – there are now hundreds of applicants trying to get in. In high school, we’re seeing the beginning of a change, with children in the 9th and 10th grades wanting to take this all the way to the International Baccalaureate (IB) and dual-language IB. Which I think is unique in the public schools in the US, as this is an advanced IB in two languages. You have that in private schools. So now NY1 has featured the school, showing how it has created socio-economic and racial balance in the three years since it was started. And I like to see that it’s now named best middle school in Brooklyn by Inside School. It’s funny how you can transform a school, a community and a way to look at a dual-language program.

LD: So what do you need to keep the revolution going?

FJ:   I want to see this approach everywhere – it can change a city, it could change a country… That’s why I wrote the book. I thought, now it’s on paper, it’s a recipe, maybe not an ideal one, but one that’s been tested and proven, and here’s a vision of mine. So try it. I hope I get that across and give parents the desire to do it. That’s what I think is needed. They’ll do it for their children – their motivation is strong. With that they can transform their school, they can be very active in that process, so that is the best thing I hope for. In Washington D.C., they’re applying this book to the letter. When I was there a few weeks ago, they took me to all eight wards. We sat in playgrounds, in people’s homes, in restaurants, chatting, the way revolutions are done, on the ground. In Boston, where I was last week, Massachusetts has just announced that it is removing its ban on bilingual education in the public schools.   So I met with the person in charge of world languages for the Boston public schools and she said, “This book is coming at the right time, this is something we’re thinking about now, we need these programs”.

LD: So when you were working in Boston they had a ban on dual-language programs?

FJ: There were three states: Arizona, California and Massachusetts that had bans since the end of the 1990’s on bilingual programs in the public schools. This was bilingual education that served immigrants. This didn’t affect the private school where I taught – the parents wanted their kids to be bilingual. This didn’t affect the immersion programs either, because they were doing foreign language immersion and that was not considered bilingual. Now they want to change the law, the same way California did. Apparently Los Angeles is now creating dual-language programs in French and other languages. And in the last few years, they’ve been creating these programs in Texas. I went there three years ago to give a talk, and they’ve created the first full school French immersion program in Houston.  In Austin there’s a group of parents trying to do this , in Dallas… I see it happening everywhere… Burlington, Vermont, I’m going there next month… they also thought that they needed to change one of their schools into a dual language school, so that’s how I got involved.

I don’t know if I have enough juice to write another book, but I want to write one on different cities, featuring these initiatives, because I think it’s so fascinating.

LD: I’m noticing an uptick in the number of Europeans coming to New York – I’m hearing more conversations in German and Eastern European languages than I did 5 or 10 years ago.

FJ: I live in Greenpoint, and right across from my apartment is PS 34, which for years and years and years welcomed Polish families, but no one asked for a Polish dual-language program – they had Saturday language programs. About 2 or 3 years ago, a group of mothers in the park heard about the French program at PS 110 and the Japanese program at PS 147, and they started to think, Why don’t we do the same. So they got together, spoke to the principal and the superintendent (who was of Polish heritage). Now, for the first time, Greenpoint has a Polish dual-language program, the same way Bensonhurst has an Italian dual-language program. The Germans are getting there, but it’s harder for them. The German expats have a tendency to put their kids in private (German) schools when they seek to sustain the home language- it takes a leap of faith for them to put their kids in public schools.

LD: Well even for the French, it took a leap of faith to put their kids in the public schools. I think some of what you’re seeing is what we discussed before, a change in the mentality of the new immigrants, who want to keep that connection to home. I think it’s also because now people are seeing successful dual-language programs, and the light bulb goes on. That’s sometimes what you need – that one example. And let’s face it, the NYC public school system is a bureaucracy, and a very big one, so I think for many people it’s daunting to even think about tackling that.

FJ: I’m glad to see that it’s happening and I’m glad to see more and more communities wanting to do this. I’ll meet with a group of Korean parents in Brooklyn next month – they want to preserve their language and culture. When I was approached about a Japanese program, it was by a mixed group of Asian mothers: 2 Japanese, 1 Korean, 1 Chinese, and 1 Taiwanese. For some it was about maintaining their language; for others, it was about learning another language that was Asian. And they took this idea to a school whose students were predominantly Latino. But they were able to convince Principal Sandie Noyola, and now there are kids of Hispanic background in the Japanese dual-language program as well as kids of other Asian backgrounds – slowly the Japanese are looking at this school as an option, even those who are thinking of going back to Japan. The Japanese First Lady visited the school, and gave them a grant for around $30,000. The Japan Society is involved, The Japan Foundation is involved – it’s interesting to see it come together.

LD: You’re trying to translate your book into other languages – tell me about that.

FJ: I wanted to translate it at least into the 9 language groups in the book: I did the French, and I have found translators for Arabic, Chinese Italian, German, Japanese, Polish, Russian and Spanish. I’m reaching out to foundations, governments and cultural institutions, trying to find funders. I’m creating a website, in different languages, to go with the book, as a tool for communities to set up their own programs. And eventually I’d like to get the book translated into other languages.

LD: Fabrice, I do think you arrived in New York at the perfect time, and people were ready for the bilingual revolution. Aux barricades!

You can find more information about Fabrice Jaumont’s book, The Bilingual Revolution here



Interview with Author Carol Rinzler

Carol Ann Rinzler

I’ve known Carol Ann Rinzler for a long time, but as an advocate for community-based planning and for green space.   It was only two years ago that I discovered her writing talents when I read Leonardo’s Foot – a book that is but one of more than twenty she’s written on the subject of human health (including Nutrition for Dummies).

This year she published Spare Parts , a look at several of so-called “vestigial” organs, along with many interesting detours along the way – from the Chinchorro of South America, who were mummifying their dead some 4,000 years before the Egyptians, to a romp through depictions of “future man” in film and literature, starting with Jules Verne’s 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon.   After having read the book, I decided to interview Carol to find out more about her interest in this field and how she came to develop this specialty.

Liz: What drew you to medical topics?

Carol: Paul de Kruif, the 1930s/40s medical writer who covered such fascinating moments as the discovery of what caused pellagra. His books were on my parents’ bookshelves and in my hand every day after school. I had thought about medical school, which was why I went to Mt. Holyoke which, in my day, was the women’s science school. But I realized I was a better observer than an actor and chose to write about medicine rather than practice it.

Liz: Why the topic of vestigial organs?

Carol: I like writing about body parts (one of my books, Leonardo’s Foot, tells how the foot, not the brain, fueled our rise up the evolutionary ladder). The appendix was just starting to be recognized as part of the immune system, so I picked up on that right away.

Liz: How long did it take you to write this book?

Carol: Two years: one to think, one to write.

Liz: Tell me about how you researched it.

Carol: In my own library and on the Net, across borders – it is amazing to send a question to a professor in Italy and have an answer within hours.

Liz: In what way(s) is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

Carol: My editor encouraged me to expand it from a book on the appendix to a book on the Darwin Six: appendix, wisdom teeth, coccyx (tailbone), external ear muscles, body hair, and plica semilunaris conjunctive (third eyelid). He was right.

Liz: Was there anything you were surprised to learn as you researched this book?

Carol: That life may have originated on land, not in the sea, with the Ediacaran biota posited by University of Oregon paleontologist Greg Retallack.

Liz: Was there anything you were pretty sure of that was confirmed by your research?

Carol: That we are not unique. And that while Darwin was unquestionably a genius and clearly right on evolution, lacking our modern technology and biochemistry, he could not see inside the body nor could he truly evaluate processes such as immunology and the immune system. I have no doubt at all that, were he living today, he would agree that the “vestigals” are integral parts of a fully functional human body. Evolution deniers aside, as one of my favorite doctors says, “The human body is so marvelous that nothing is there by accident”.

Liz: Let’s talk for a second about your fascination with Leonardo and Darwin, and why you come back to them all the time.

Carol: The fact that you’re asking is interesting because you have just made me realize that there is a connection: Leonardo’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man showing a perfectly proportioned human male, along with his dissection of the body, done mostly in secret because the Church forbid it, led me to Darwin. Leonardo showed the body. Darwin took it apart and explained how we got here, how Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man evolved. So they were two sides of the same coin, and I hadn’t realized it until you asked it how connected they were. I have to find the third person in the triad because there must be someone who ties these two together. Leonardo was 15th century and Darwin was 19th century, so what we’re really looking for is someone at the end of the 20th or the beginning of the 21st century who’s gone a step further, and tied the multiple functions of the body together. And if you find him or her, you must call me and tell me.

Liz: What’s the next book going to be about?

Carol: Sorry, it’s a secret.

French Culture and Language in La Grosse Pomme!

The French language and French culture is found throughout the globe.  According to the Organisation internationale de la francophonie,   French is spoken by 274 million people on 5 continents.  This article focuses on France, which has the largest French-speaking population in New York City that has grown exponentially over the last dozen years or so.    

There are 67 French-related organizations in New York City, under the umbrella of the Committee of French-Speaking Societies.   I’m just going to talk about a few of them.

If you’re looking for French film, theatre, lectures, books or even lessons, here are three great places to start:  the French Institute, Alliance Française (FI:AF)  which has all of the foregoing, all year round.   In addition to their midtown facility, FIAF also has language classes in Brooklyn. 

The Maison Française at NYU  and the Maison Française at Columbia  offer a wide variety of lectures, screenings and exhibitions. 

The Cultural Services of the French Embassy in NYC  has been a  force for spreading French Culture in NYC.  You can find out about dual-language education programs here ; they maintain a robust calendar of film, theatre, readings, festivals on their events calendar 

If you’re looking for books – in both French and English, head over to  Albertine, the book store located in the Cultural Services building, or Idlewild bookstore, which has locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

If you’d like to be part of an on-line community of French speakers and people interested in the French language, check out New York in French 

For more general information about the French in NYC, take a look at French Morningwhich publishes in both English and French, and covers French activities in LA, Miami, San Francisco and Texas

You also might want to take a look at French District,which has 10 editions in the US (three are also in English), and a large directory of service providers.

To find out about Québecois artists appearing in New York, go to Québec’s international page then scroll to “Events” at the bottom  

The Consulate of Luxembourg has events posted on its website 

Belgium Consulate in NY posts events on its Facebook page   

For Swiss events in NYC, you can sign up for a newsletter through the Consulate’s website

A great source for finding information on concerts by musicians from French speaking Africa and the Caribbean is Afropop  

I realize I don’t have everything in here, so if there’s another organization I should know about, just drop me a line!

Philanthropy and Higher Education in Africa

(l-r) Naomi Moland, Teboho Moja, Fabrice Jaumont at the Albertine

Over the years, I’ve gotten to know and admire Fabrice Jaumont, the education attaché at the French Cultural Services who’s done so much for dual-language French-English programs in NYC public schools.  Fabrice recently published Unequal Partners: American Foundations and Higher Education Development in Africa, and the Albertine book store hosted a discussion between Fabrice and South African educator and author Teboho Moja,    which was moderated by Naomi Moland.  Below are the highlights of that conversation.

Private philanthropy has helped fuel the growth of higher education in Africa – as of 2014, there were 1639 higher education institutions throughout the 54 countries of the continent (as compared to only 31 in 1944).  While many are state-run, private institutions are also springing up to meet growing demand – as in the rest of the world, higher education is seen as a driver of development and income growth.  Over 300 U.S. foundations are investing in Africa, with the big foundations – Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon – trying to transform education on the continent. Of the $4 billion that was invested between 2003 and 2013, most has been in English speaking countries, especially South Africa, with very little going to French or Portuguese speaking schools.  Funding from non-US sources tends to  come from governments, and follows the old colonial paths.  While funding for building both capacity and buildings has made higher education more accessible, there is often a mismatch between the priorities of foundations and the recipients – the people on the ground know what is needed, but the donors have the money and so determine priorities.  The speakers cited the example of a foundation that wanted to fund classes in women’s studies, but the university would have preferred to spend the money on upgrading Internet access; this clearly highlighted the need for the relationship between the donor and recipient to be negotiated, so the donors can be involved in setting agenda. Funding by private foundations raises several larger questions:  Who owns development? What is the African model of education? Should countries follow US model?  The speakers noted that the African Union takes a regional approach to higher education that cuts across colonial lines (in it’s Development Plan 2063, NEPAD has placed higher education in the center of its strategy).

They also mentioned initiatives that seek to address these issues, such as as the one by the Carnegie Foundation which sends diaspora members to Africa to work with schools. Carnegie is also working with a group of about eight universities to help them strategically transform themselves into more research-oriented institutions, to enable their students to better compete in the knowledge economy.

While the speakers concluded that philanthropy and foundation funding are necessary for the continued growth in higher education in Africa, they did ask the question  of what happens when the funding stops – will Africa be able to do it on its own, or will the continent look to another source, such as China, to grow its education sector?

All in all, a conversation that gave me a lot to chew on, and made me want to read Unequal Partners.  You can watch a video of the talk here.

Celebrating New Literature and Independent Presses

Salman Rushdie addressing the audience at the New Literature From Europe Festival

I hope you don’t think your intrepid blogger is all about exhibits and plays; from time-to-time she likes to read a good book!  Or at least hear their authors talk about them…  I’ve been lucky to hear some authors read from and speak about their work, or the works of other authors. 

At the New Literature From Europe Festival, noted author Salman Rushdie gave the keynote speech at the last panel, “In the Mother Tongue – A European Reading.”  Rushdie gave deserved recognition to the importance of works in translation – which he described as a trilogue among the author, the reader and the translator.  He noted that translations open up the world to us, and that it allowed him to discover Russian literature.  He made the point that a translator is the least recognized figure (and, I would add, seriously underpaid), yet so crucial, acting as a gate-keeper, allowing you to get through the (language) door to experience being in another culture.    Rushdie spoke about the need for good translations, citing Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote:  she understood that Cervantes used colloquial Spanish and that he did so to make fun of courtly literature, so she was able to give us a translation that brought the story to life.  On the other hand, he noted how Proust was often mistranslated, as when A la recherche du temps perdue was rendered as Remembrance of Things Past instead of In Search of Lost Time.   

As he concluded his remarks, Rushdie expressed his disappointment that only 2% of work sold in the US is translated.  I couldn’t agree more!

The readings that followed showed both the vibrancy of European literature, and the need for good translations.  The authors read an excerpt from one of their works in the original language, while the English-language version was shown on the screen.  Szczepan Twardoc (Poland) read from his soon-to-be published novel The King;   Immaneul Misfud (Malta) read from his novel Jutta Heim;  Susana Moriera Marques (Portugal) read from her first book, Now and at the Hour of Our Death; Mihkel Mutt (Estonia) read from his short story, Mein Floralein; Asle Skredderberget (Norway) read from his thriller The Oslo Conspiracy; Christian Crusat  (Spain) read from A Brief History of Travel & Desert; Yoko Towada (Japan & Germany) read from her novel, Memoirs of a Polar Bear;  Tommy Wieringa (The Netherlands) read from his book These Are The Names; and Colin Barrett (Ireland) closed the session with his reading from his short story The Clancy Kid (which was written in English). 

All in all, it was a wonderful evening, and I can’t wait to read the works which were presented!

(l-r) Matthew Sharpe, Barry Gifford, Lee Stringer, Kia Corthon, Paul Auster, Phil Jackson (Annie Ernaux on screen) at Seven Stories Press reading

A few days earlier, I attended a wonderful literary event at the Brooklyn Public Library: There Is No Middle Ground Celebrating 20 Years of Seven Stories Press.    In that spirit, various writers read from the work of Seven Stories authors, each representing a particular theme. 

American masters: Paul Auster read an excerpt from A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut which is his almost biography.  I admit to having trouble understanding Vonnegut’s novels, but I was lucky enough to hear him speak a few times, and he was a brilliant lecturer – this book seems to be more like his talks than his prose, so I’m going to give it a try.

New voices of consequence: Matthew Sharpe  read Postcards from the End of America  by Linh Dinh which will be published in 2017.  The book chronicles Dinh’s trip around the US, where he visited cities and towns where people were living on the edge economically.

Literature makes lifeKia Corthron read science fiction writer Octavia Butlers essay Positive Obsession  about how Butler became a writer, and why, when you decide what you want in life, you should aim high; and from Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower which imagines the U.S. in 2025 ruled by a charismatic President, but where violence reigns all around.

Exquisite prose: Francine Prose read from two works by French writer Annie Ernaux about her father:  A Man’s Place, about his life and death, and Shame, about the time her father tried to kill her mother.

Hoop dreamersPhil Jackson read from baseball writer  Charley Rosen‘s  House of Moses All Stars which recounts the story of a Jewish baseball team as it plays around America during the Depression.

Dan Simon, the founder of Seven Stories Press, read from Grand Central Winter,   Lee Stringer’s account of being an alcoholic, then smoking crack cocaine, losing his apartment, then becoming homeless…   Simon discovered him when he picked up a copy of “Street News” which Stringer had been publishing.  Stringer gave a lovely tribute to Seven Stories Press, recounting how, after having been addicted and homeless for 12 years, when Simon asked him to write a book, he was really being shown a door to the rest of his life.

Chicago’s bestBarry Gifford read Nelson Algren’s short story “How the Devil Came Down Division Street” a  very funny tale about a barroom drunk and a possible miracle, from The Neon Wilderness Collection Gifford also paid homage to Seven Stories Press’ founder Dan Simon, who became a publisher to publish Algren’s work, which had enjoyed fame in the 1930’s and ’40’s then was blacklisted in the ’50’s.  Eventually, Algren’s stories went out of print until Simon brought them back.   His best known works are The Man With the Golden Arm and Walk on the Wild Side.   

Seven Stories Press whose tagline is “Works of Radical Imagination” describes itself as  “fiercely independent,” publishing fiction, political non-fiction, literature, and works in translation.  It also has the Triangle Square imprint, which publishes young adult (YA) literature on topics like ecology, sex and social justice, as well as the Spanish language imprint, Siete Cuentos Editorial, to introduce important English-language texts to Spanish-language readers.

I was blown away by the readings, and I encourage you to take a look at these and other works published by Seven Stories .

Earlier in the year, at the Goethe Institute,  I attended a reading of  the English language version (translated by Steph Morris) of The Last Weynfeldt, Martin Suter’s novel about a Zurich art expert and his involvement in an art forgery scheme.  I enjoyed the reading immensely, and picked up the book, which I hope to read over the holidays. 

The novel is published by New Vessel Press, an independent publisher  which specializes in the translation of foreign literature, bringing voices from around the world not often heard in the US to new audiences. 

The work of these and other small, independent presses is very important, so the next time you’re looking for a book for yourself or someone else, think about these publishers.

Diplomacy in the Midst of Civil War

Dante Paradiso

Earlier this Fall, at the Half King pub, I got to hear Dante Paradiso, a US Foreign Service Officer read from and speak about The Embassy, his just-published an account of the Liberian civil war of the early 2000’s. (You can watch his talk here) The book focuses on events that took place between June and August of 2003, a period of complete chaos –   the warlord Charles Taylor, who had supported rebel movements in Sierra Leone and other places, was  fighting two rebel armies in Liberia, where he was nominally in control.   At the same time, he was attending peace talks with them in Ghana, when, unexpectedly,  an international court indicted Taylor for war crimes.  Almost every country closed their embassy in Monrovia – no place in the country was safe.  The US was preoccupied with Iraq, and  many in Washington wanted the US to also leave Liberia, as the ragtag militias and child soldiers fighting Taylor advanced on the capital.  The book recounts how US Ambassador John W. Blaney made the courageous decision to keep the US Embassy open and go personally to the front lines to broker a cease fire. 

Paradiso wrote the book because he felt it is important for people to know what happened in Liberia, and because he was inspired by the bravery of Ambassador Blaney and his team.

During his remarks, Paradiso noted how, to be effective in a combat zone, diplomatic personnel need to be on the ground to work on problems so they don’t get worse – there is a risk to staying, but things could get worse if they leave.  Good information is vital, so diplomats need to talk to people on all sides and all around to get a full picture.  It’s only in this way that they can assess the risks to peoples’ lives, and devise a plan to get to a better place.  Not surprisingly, there’s often a wide gulf between perceptions on the ground and the ones in Washington, DC (substitute the capital of your choice), which makes the situation precarious, because in a conflict zone, it’s vital for the Embassy to have the backing of the policy makers and politicians back home.

He offered up three key elements needed to solve a complex international crisis:

  • international consensus on the way forward
  • credible partners on the ground
  • communication with people on the ground to know what all the different factions want

I’ve only started the book, and I think it would be a delight if you want to know about the nuts and bolts of diplomacy.  Because there are so many actors, from so many different agencies, and the story moves between Liberia and the US, sometimes you have to go a bit slow to keep the characters straight, but the book keeps the story going while conveying the confusion of the situation and demonstrating the courage of the Ambassador and his staff who stayed in Monrovia. 

Happy Times in the Bronx – book review

Prof. Mark Naison, Liz Daly and Bob Gumbs (l-r) Photo by Trevon Blondet, Black Blonde Images

Prof. Mark Naison, Liz Daly and Bob Gumbs (l-r) Photo by Trevon Blondet, Black Blonde Images

Too often, when people think of the Bronx, they think of abandoned houses, empty lots, gangs, drugs and fires.  While that description certainly applied to a large portion of the borough for many years, today you’ll find vibrant communities in previously devastated areas, as well as neighborhoods that are rebuilding themselves.  Developers are now actively pursuing projects in locations they wouldn’t have dared walk through 20 years ago.

But before the Bronx burned, it was a largely middle-class, prosperous place, even in areas that were later ravished by drugs and abandonment, such as Morrisania, which is profiled in a new book, Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life in the Bronx from the 1930s to the 1960s .  I recently attended a talk by the book’s authors, Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University and Bob Gumbs, a graphic designer, artist and author.  Having grown up in the Bronx, in Hunts Point and later in the Castle Hill projects, to me this book is a much needed corrective to the popular image of the borough.  As a Fordham alum, I’m proud that they’ve created the project that inspired this book, and published it. Through the voices of seventeen people, who grew up in one neighborhood, Morrisania, the story of the Bronx comes alive, and provides a vantage point from which to consider the effects of private market practices (especially in real estate) but also public policy.

The book had its genesis in an oral history program, the Bronx African American History (BAAH) project,  that Fordham University started 14 years ago, with an interview with Victoria Archibald-Good, the sister of the basketball great, Tiny Archibald,  who recounted her happy recollections of growing up in the Patterson Houses, which, at that time, was a multi-racial, middle class neighborhood with great schools.  Then Bob Gumbs got involved with the BAAH and over time more community members told their stories.

Between the 1930s and 1960s, blacks from Harlem, the South and the Caribbean settled in the Morrisania section of the Bronx – in contrast to other neighborhoods, they were welcomed there, by landlords trying to fill apartments that had been vacated by tenants who had been evicted or had moved to the suburbs.  Through the recollections of individuals who grew up there, the book provides a snapshot of a stable community – which also had its problems – that provided the foundation for the success achieved by many of its residents.  The neighborhood’s history is told by residents who went on to become teachers, musicians, public servants, a theologian, an architect and sports journalist.  A strong work ethic was central:  many of the families had fathers who had steady employment as Pullman porters, mail carriers, tailors, and some who had second jobs.  Neighbors watched out for each other’s children, and didn’t hesitate to tell them when they were misbehaving.  The churches were also integral to peoples lives, providing not only spiritual nourishment, but also community, youth activities, and a link to larger forces, such as the civil rights movement.  The book’s participants speak about attending schools that were racially integrated; caring teachers; after school programs that went on until 9:00 pm; and community centers that provided activities which kept them away from gangs. The Police Athletic League offered community programs led by police officers, allowing for friendly contacts between NYPD and local youth.   But it’s music that permeates this chronicle: public school music programs that let students take instruments home for practice, providing training for a future musical career (Jimmie Owens, Joe Orange, Arthur Crier), and mentorship and camaraderie for the kids.  There were  also plenty of opportunities to mingle with neighbors from the area’s diverse populations and musical traditions: salsa, soul, doo-wop, jazz, rock…. In the local clubs you could listen to Herbie Hancock, Edddie Palmieri, Valerie Simpson, the Chantals, some of whom grew up in the area.

Before the Fires also raises the question of how Morrisania, and so many other stable neighborhoods fell apart. Through the individual stories, it becomes clear that drugs, especially heroin, were a major culprit, as were  the loss of decent paying jobs, especially in manufacturing, the disinvestment in cities by the Federal government, and worst of all, in my estimation, the disinterest and neglect by the City of it’s public housing stock, and its public schools, especially the defunding of music and arts programs, as well as after school activities. 

The voices and stories in Before the Fires  are not only authentic, but engaging – if you’re interested in urban history, this book is a must read.

The Bronx African American oral history project continues at Fordham:  to find out more, or to listen to some of the stories, click here 

A Novel Evening Indeed

Tony Macaulay (top) and Daniel Mallen

Tony Macaulay (top) and Daniel Mallen

One of the things I love about festivals in New York, is the chance to hear new voices alongside more established ones.   That’s what happened earlier this month, at a reading by two Irish authors, at the National Arts Club, sponsored by 1st Irish  and the WB Yeats Society of NY.   First up was Tony Macaulay  who hails from Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he grew up at the top of Shankill Road during “The Troubles.”  Tony spoke with understanding and humor about growing up in such a dangerous, divided place, and how those years provided the fodder for two of his three memoirs:  Paperboy, about his experiences as a 12-year old delivering The Belfast Telegraph in his neighborhood; and Breadboy which recounts  his experiences  from age 14 to 16, delivering bread for the Ormo Minishop in Belfast.  His third book, All Growed Up, follows him as a university student in Coleraine.   In addition to writing, Tony lived on the “peace line” in Belfast for many years, working with youth on a community development project, and he’s also worked conflict resolution in post-conflict countries such as Montenegro and Bosnia.  Yet, he is hopeful for humanity, and hasn’t lost his keen wit and sense of humor.

Then Daniel Mallen, a firefighter in Cork, a published songwriter, and a first-time novelist, read from his book, The Judging of Abigail Perdue.  The story revolves around Abigail Perdue, who has just died, and now finds herself in a place called Stasis, where she will be judged by five other new arrivals, who will examine her life and vote on her fate – and she will have a vote on theirs. However, there are only three outcomes: eternal peace in Heofon; rebirth on Earth; or destruction in Gehenna…

Being a firefighter made Daniel realize how quickly life can be taken, and how little we know about each other.  It also started him thinking about what happens in the afterlife, and led to this book.  He recounted some of the coincidences which arose while writing this novel. I’ll tell you one.  A character in the book is a firefighter named Michael Roberts, who has a sister named Karen. Daniel took this name from a t-shirt one of his colleagues gave him that is inscribed with the names of the firefighters from Engine 214, Ladder 111 who died on 9/11.  It wasn’t until after the book was published, that Daniel was contacted by the real Michael Roberts’ mother, only to discover she was the  woman who brought the t-shirt to his firehouse some ten years earlier, and that her late son’s sister is named Karen. 

It was delightful to listen to both authors, who, having dealt with people under very trying circumstances, evince a strong empathy for their fellow human beings, and maintain a positive outlook.  I’m looking forward to reading their books! 

The Feverish Art of Ronald Lockett

Homeless Poeple, Ronald Lockett, 1989; paint and wood on fiberboard

Homeless Poeple, Ronald Lockett, 1989; paint and wood on fiberboard

The Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett,  at the American Museum of Folk Art is a show that demands your attention, on many levels.  The work is astounding.  But it may require you to linger and dig a bit beneath the surface.  If you do, you will be rewarded.

Lockett lived and worked his entire life (1965-1998) in the Pipe Shop neighborhood of Bessemer, Alabama.  A satellite of Birmingham, (which was once a center of iron and steel production, as well as the civil rights movement) this area both engaged in the fight for equal rights and endured the repercussions of the deindustrialisation of the South, as factories closed and jobs became scarce. Lockett would have heard the stories of his family and neighbors who had worked in the fields and factories or participated in the protests.  And he was connected to the larger world through TV, which he liked to watch.  These personal interactions and more distant events combined to shape his work.

Though Lockett’s career lasted only a decade, his output was prolific. (The late artist Thornton Dial was his cousin and mentor.) Working mostly with found materials, especially tin, wood and chicken wire, as well as non-traditional materials such as industrial sealing compound and enamel, he created deeply personal works of hidden beauty, even though they touch on themes of individual and societal suffering and loss.

A recurring motif  throughout his work is the stag, whose body is always surrounded by wire. Lockett also references many historical events, such as Jesse Owen’s victories in the1936 Olympics, the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, using them to point to the contemporary suffering of African Americans.

The front space of the exhibit showcases Lockett’s paintings, some of which have historical titles – Hiroshima, Holocaust – or titles of more localized suffering, such as his Homeless canvases. In all these works, his imagery is allusive, rather than realistic: set against a stark, featureless background of one color, or large blocks of three or four colors, are people (or skeletal images)  who are drifting or falling.  Their lack of defining features gives them a universal, everyman quality. (His Hiroshima series has no people, only swirls of smoke).  In this area you’ll also find Civil Rights Marchers, a powerful painting in swirling grays, white and red with embedded objects, which read almost as an aftermath.  (Two other pictures also from 1988 which use the same colors, materials and techniques, but have environmental themes, Poison River and Out of Ashes, are in another section.)

The Inferior Man That Proved Hitler Wrong, Ronald Lockett, 1995, tin, colored pencil and nails on wood

The Inferior Man That Proved Hitler Wrong, Ronald Lockett, 1995, tin, colored pencil and nails on wood

The rest of the show focuses on Lockett’s larger scale (about 4’ x 4’) works of found materials, which he took from buildings that had belonged to the Dial family.  Most time, Lockett uses the materials as he’s found them – lots of wood, rusting tin sheets layered over each other or with metal grills – sometimes he’s painted over them with iron-oxide based paint, industrial sealing compound and enamel.

In some cases the image is not readily accessible – it may be made from strips of tin that blend in with their background, or it may be found in the negative space, outlined in nail heads or in holes. It’s worth spending time with these multi-layered works; I found the wall labels helpful in understanding them. His depiction of the runner Jesse Owens is especially moving.

Sarah Lockett's Roses, Ronald Lockett, 1997, cut tin and paint on wood

Sarah Lockett’s Roses, Ronald Lockett, 1997, cut tin and paint on wood

There are a few pieces in which Lockett painted over his metal surfaces with bright colors, evoking quilts: I especially liked his homage to Princess Diana (England’s Rose) , and the one to the garden of his great grandmother, Sarah Dial Lockett (Sarah Lockett’s Roses).   He spent many hours in her house, and the influence of her quilts is evinced by Lockett’s use of blocks of color, and his layering of materials.

Environmental degradation is another theme that is important to Lockett, and in this exhibit you’ll also find several collages and paintings that address this issue   

Deer, Ronald Lockett 1990, collage

Deer, Ronald Lockett 1990, collage

My favorite work is at the end of the show (or maybe it’s the beginning); on paper which has seemingly been washed over in black ink, is the collaged image of a deer, outlined in white, staring straight ahead.  Even though the stag is a recurring motif in Lockett’s work, there is something very specific about this one – it just seemed to grab me.  I’ve posted more pictures on my Instagram feed.

I attended a talk by author and professor Deborah McDowell, who grew up in Pipe Shop. Although she never met Lockett, she certainly understood the context of his art.  In her talk, Prof. McDowell made several points which were helpful to me in understanding Lockett’s work.  Below is my summary of her remarks.

When looking at Lockett’s art, we must think about emotion and affect.  Too often,   African American artists are viewed only through historical and socio economic lenses.  An emotional response should not be viewed as insincere – after all, Rothko invoked emotions when speaking of his work, and how his work provoked them.

Our understanding of the civil rights era comes through photos of violence – sneering dogs, horses, troopers, clubs – or pictures of the spirit of triumphalism.  These images have claimed and cannibalized history, leaving out the experiences the historians didn’t see.  The civil rights era also coincided with the deindustrialization of the South – we need to consider the larger context of this era and look at its casualties.  As people were gaining their rights, there were no jobs for them.  Even though he was born too late to participate in the Civil Rights era, Ronald Lockett was embedded in kin networks and would have heard all the stories, especially as he interacted with older people.

Remembering is re-membering:  taking the remains and putting them back together.

Ronal Lockett  was preoccupied with using the remains and converting them into something new; his work is saturated with grief, loss and mourning. He found resonances of suffering in historical events.  The titles of his works – Hiroshima, Oklahoma, Driven From My Homeland – convey these themes and reflect his engagement with history and also the local, human, personal plane.  Some of his work makes references to mass graves; a mass grave was discovered when the US Pipe factory was built – the bodies were disinterred and re-buried somewhere else.

Prof. McDowell also read from her 1997 book Leaving Pipe Shop, Memories of Kin , which recounts her years growing up in Pipe Shop (1950’s and ’60’s), as well as her return there to investigate her father’s death. I’m about half-way through the book, and even though I grew up in New York City, McDowell’s use of local dialogue and specific imagery creates a very intimate portrait of life in a close-knit Southern community which resonated with me. This memoir also brings to life people who were part of the civil rights struggle, who may not have made the front pages, but whose support and participation were essential to its success.

Untitled by Melvin Way, ball point pen

Untitled by Melvin Way, ball point pen

Concurrent with The Fever Within is  the exhibition Once Something Has Lived it Can Never Really Die, which mixes ten of Ronald Lockett’s works with some eighty small and portable works imbued with protective qualities and powers, made by a wide range of artists situated outside the mainstream.  There are some lovely amulets, plugs and pendants in the shapes of seals, polar bears and wales crafted from walrus ivory during the 18th and 19th centuries by peoples of the Thule Culture.  One display of Brazilian votive offings consists of wooden carvings of hands, feet, heads, torsos, and a few complete figures, which were made with express wishes for recovery, marriage, good harvest or other important life events.  There’s a wonderful recreation of Noah’s Ark – in the back is a crank that animates the animals.  I especially liked the work of Melvin Way, a contemporary artist whose small scale drawings (ballpoint pen on paper and scotch tape) are filled with mathematical formulas.

The Museum will be hosting other events around this exhibition, the next one being at 6:30 on August 9th, when Director Camille A. Brown will perform an excerpt from her 2014 Bessie Award–Winning production Mr. TOL E. RAncE and will speak about shared cultural themes and issues of race that are common to her and Ronald Lockett.  More information here   

On August 18th, filmmaker David Seehausen will introduce several short documentary films he has made about African American self-taught artists from the South, and will dialogue with artist and filmmaker Scott Ogden. More information here  

Both exhibits continue until September 18th. 

Mutilated Money – One Man’s Passion

IMG_2080Tattered, torn bills and rusting coins may not seem like something you’d want to spend a lot of time with, but Harley J. Spiller does, and he’s written a book sharing his passion for them, showing us the beauty in items we might discard without a second thought. Spiller is not only an educator at the Museum of American Finance , he’s also the deputy director of avant-garde art space Franklin Furnace.   In Keep theChange:  A Collector’s Tales of Lucky Pennies, Counterfeit C-Notes, and Other Curious Currencies, he delivers a lively account of not only how he came to hold these objects in such esteem, but also delves into topics such as how US Dollars are made (using Swiss presses and Crane’s “paper”), how it’s destroyed (officially, by the US government), and, most interestingly for me, how artists have used currency in their works – from William Michael Harnett’s 1877 recreation of a $5 bill to contemporary artist J.S.G. Boggs’ freehand illustrations of money.

In one chapter, Spiller provides us with slang terms that have been used to describe money – I was familiar with many, such as Benjamin, cabbage and smacker, but was completely stumped about a number of others, like frogskins and rhino. 

The book contains a number of fascinating factoids: “it takes four thousand double folds (forwards and backwards) before a banknote begins to tear”; or that banknotes created by Benjamin Franklin, in addition to”images of blackberry, willow and other leaves… bore the frightful inscription “‘To Counterfeit is DEATH’”; or that what we call paper money is really made from cotton and flax…

This delightful book is sure to answer many questions and pique your curiosity further.  You can listen to Spiller talk about his book in a video on the Museum of American Finance’s website.