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Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5

Slaughterhouse Five

In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim is Kurt Vonnegut’s unwitting conspirator in condemning war despite the acknowledged futility of his endeavor. In order to achieve his critique of war and its veneration he sketches the tragic life of an unwitting fool, a savant thrust unarmed and helpless into combat, who is given insight and perspective he can put to no real use.

Billy’s life is cursed. The perspective that he gains from living out of sync with time, unstuck in its flow, does not change the events he must revisit or the conclusion that the novel reaches the senselessness of war.  The insights he is given by the Trafalmadorians lend him no agency to transcend time or death but rather affirm that, ironically, he is stuck in a moment, in thousands of them, like an insect in amber. Billy’s lot is a cursed one because he must relive tragic and revolting moments alike, time and again, with foreknowledge of what is to come and the inability to change them. He must relive the War, his imprisonment, and his reintegration to society as not only a disgraced veteran but the survivor of a tragic plane crash and brain damage. He is not blessed with precognition. He is not free to change his lot or better understand it, bereft of free will; he copes as best as he can and takes shelter in the revelations of a Trafalmadorian delusion. The possibility that these beings might be real or that Billy might be truly unstuck in time are both moot: his curse is to relive his life without the ability to intervene or remain still in time.  In this curse there is, however, the small blessing – more to the benefit of the reader than for Billy- of a unique exploration of the human condition, morality, and time.

This exploration suggests that in war all participants shed their humanity, its inherent compassion and morality, in favor of cruelty and depravity, regardless of how society may portray them in the aftermath of conflict or the safety of distance. Billy’s curse provides the reader with a fertile intellectual ground for questioning zealous patriotism, war enthusiasm and the veneration of its participants. Billy’s disjunction with time affords the reader a view of men like Roland Weary, abused by life and in turn made abuser, devoted to violence and obsessed with its implements. It provides us with a glimpse, an artistic rendering, into the stark cruelty of the German soldiers with their captives in internment, and the needless slaughter by fire that the Allies rained on Dresden…

On Carpentier’s Kingdom of this World

Creolization and Magical Realism in the Caribbean

In his prologue to The Kingdom of This World, Alejo Carpentier sets out a vision that strongly resembles Eduard Glissant’s ideas of creolization and its poetics. Glissant’s ideas of creolization consistently parallel Carpentier’s vision of the marvelous real and despite their different eras and modes of thinking, the notions of Caribbeaness in cross-cultural poetics and Americaness in the marvelous real overlap more than they diverge. This overlap allows us to enter into a conversation about culture, identity, agency, and the future of literary and cultural construction. Carpentier and Glissant intersect at a critical junction: in a shared desire to explore the human condition, its tragedies and its potential. They share an interest in re-approaching established forms of knowledge about the Caribbean and the Americas because they are insufficient, skewed and divisive. They both sense, in the Caribbean and in the Americas, an entry point into larger domain of knowledge, into issues of post colonial and modern crises. The two envision a model for understanding symbiosis, synthesis and hybridity in culture and art.

Glissant and Carpentier, above all, intersect in a shared belief of a greater communality to the human experience. Barbara J. Webb places the two thinkers, along with Wilson Harris, among authors that “recognize a capacity for creation and renewal in myths, legends, and folktales that arose from the encounter of Amerindian, African, and European cultures in the Americas…for [whom] the folk and mythic imagination is the key to artistic and historical understanding”(Webb,4). Carpentier attempts to present a different way of writing about the Caribbean, one that explores human nature and the construction of identity through new modes of conception and literary treatments, moving away from realism and, in particular, surrealism. What he proposes is an artistic project, an endeavour to understand the social condition through myth, story, and history. Glissant, in contrast, sets out to accomplish similar ends with the notion of creolization. It is a form of resistance to mestizaje, to notions of race and hierarchy. He proposes the retrieval, however impossible, of a history of all people – particularly the subaltern. This he considers to be “the ultimate point of our imaginative unconscious” (Glissant, 4). His notion of creolization set out a project of rediscovery – of a history of all peoples, of a different world poetics. Kingdom of this Earth undertakes just such a cause, giving voice to the voiceless; accumulating knowledge and experience of time slowly while exposing a plurality of identities, religions, languages and forms of expressions unique to a place where myth has not yet been exhausted (Capentier, n.p.).  Its exploration of narrative forms, music, myth and history as well as humanity’s nature, not that of the individual. This closely follows Glissant’s notions of the poetics of duration (136) and the poetics of creolization, of what he thinks of as the cross cultural imagination (142). These notions, this essay will endeavour to show, are at work in Carpentier’s novel. Glissant writes that cross-cultural poetics are not “linear and not prophetic, but woven from enduring patience and irreducible accretions (142).

On Mario Azuela’s Los De Abajo

Azuela’s The Underdogs: The Literary Imagination

The literary imagination can unfold the knots of history in a way that is otherwise impossible. It is able to break through the limitations of objective description and political theory by engaging a sense of morality, of common cause and empathy for suffering that change opinion and influence action.  It plays a very important part, furthermore, in a nation’s reprisal and embrace of its modern history. The literary imagination and its voice are a central pillar in the construction of national identity in the 21st century, inseparable from most form of history. Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs, however, demonstrates that the literary imagination is capable of more than chronicling or even complicating events that mark what is considered momentous; it allows the author (and it therefore challenges the reader) to confront the true obstacles to significant social change during times of revolution and upheaval– the violence, greed, and essentially ‘human’ flaws that ossify society’s cruelties and inequalities in the shifting of ruling classes.

When considering and unpacking, as a cultural reader and historical critic, a dramatic reformation of society and its power structures, the literary imagination (the voice of authorial interpretation and account) can illustrate the complexities of human nature in the face of what amounts to be inexorable, predetermined historical events. It is positioned to confront and unpack, in Mexico’s case, for example, the bitter failures of several movements during a century of upheaval and revolution as profoundly human failures, not political or ideological shortcomings. Azuela’s novel shows that without a clear vision or an unquestioned leadership, after its victory against “Porfidian” federalist forces, the revolution descends into an unavoidable chaos, into violence and the corruption of ideals. This descent is unavoidable because of a vacuum of power, a lack of information and knowledge, and an absence of law and cooperation that is fleshed out in the novel through different characters and episodes – a vacuum created by a history of colonialism, elitism and oppression.