Monday, November 11, 2002


The following review appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle Books section on Sunday, November 10, 2002, in a slightly edited version. That version is available on the Chronicle website ( at:
This is the full version of that review.

by William Severini Kowinski

The Dirt Is Red Here
Art and Poetry From Native California
edited by Margaret Dubin

The revival of California Indian cultures from close to the vanishing point to today's energetic resurgence is a profound and largely untold story, but now all of us can enjoy this anthology of art and poetry as a vibrant and revelatory expression of its success.

Quite simply, this is a beautiful book. Color reproductions are appropriately brilliant (Judith Lowry's "The Rescue," Henry Fonseca's "Creation 2001" for example) or delicate (Kathleen Smith's "My People's Home"), and two facing black and white photographs ("Lucy Lowry" and "Tuolumne MeWuk Rancheria Roundhouse") by Dugan Aguilar are alone worth the price of admission.

Editor Margaret Dubin (managing editor of the magazine, "News from Native California", which printed many of these writers and artists) has arranged texts and illustrations both for visual appeal and as delightful and sometimes subtle comments on one another. Printed on sturdy, glossy paper, this softcover book leaves more expensive coffee table tomes in the dust. This is a book to keep and revisit.

There's a dazzling variety of art, from work linked closely to ceremonial origins (the basketry of Linda Augilar and Linda Yamane, Bradley Marshall's regalia) to the abstract canvases of Fritz Scholder and Parris Butler, the sculpture and installation art of George Blake and James Luna, and the mixed media of Jean Lamarr, Brian Tripp and Frank Tuttle. The poetry (and two short prose pieces by Greg Sarris and Darryl Wilson) also demonstrates an impressive range of styles, from the heartfelt narratives of Sylvia Ross to the ritual rhythms of Frank LaPena and Stephen Meadows, and Richard Stewart's haiku inflections. There's a multiplicity of moods even within the work of a single artist or writer, evoking laughter, pain, meditation, mystery, sensuousness and wonder, and together comprising an eye-opening journey of rare quality and resonance.

I experienced one unifying thread in how this work illustrates and embodies the often-used but still indicative expression, "walking in two worlds." Grounded in cultures that grew here for thousands of years, these artists are also participants---often as far-flung students and teachers---in a demanding world dominated by very different premises and attitudes.

The clash is the occasion for the witty commentaries of James Luna's "High-Tech Peace Pipe" and L. Frank Manriquez painting of a pajama-clad Coyote in van Gogh's bedroom. But the complexities of this daily doubleness are also embedded in Janice Gould's meditations on family and being Lesbian, and in Wendy Rose's description of a "Literary Luncheon: Iowa City" where "I maintain/without willing it/an Indian invisibility."

It's there in Shaunna Oteka McCovey's satire on a huckster shaman who gives out a "Friends Drum Free" coupon, and her contrapuntal dialogue on creation stories-and in nearly every other poem and image in this collection. Even an evocation of nature suggests an aspect, like Deborah Miranda's "The Language of the Prophets" which ends: "Green pines take/what fog lets go."

"Indians evolve like everyone else," Deborah Miranda writes in another poem here. "Times change. We grow into/what comes next." As scholar and novelist Michael Dorris noted elsewhere, there emerged in the 1960s and 1970s a sizeable "new and maturing generation" of American Indian writers whose "primary language of expression is English, but an English accommodated to the special needs of their individual tribal histories and realities." Their work, Dorris wrote, both expands "the scope of English language composition and criticism" in form, and in content dispelled stereotypes by exhibiting qualities rarely found in Indians depicted by non-Indians: "humor, irony, intelligence, and stamina."

In 1994, Greg Sarris edited "The Sounds of Rattles and Clappers" (University of Arizona Press), the first major collection of poems and short fiction by writers with ancestry in indigenous California tribes. The distinction of ancestry, also followed in this anthology, is important, for California is host to more Native Americans than any other state, but most come from elsewhere. The immensely various California landscape fostered a hundred or more small tribes that developed complex cultures based on intimate relationship to their particular place, and its river or mountain, desert or forest. In this recurrently meaningful sense, their cultures are California.

This new book includes a succinct introduction providing historical context, and biographical notes on the artists that tell more of the story. Although they may live in distant cities for a time, many of these artists return to participate in traditional ceremony as singers, dancers, weavers and regalia-makers, activities which integrate artistic expression with utilitarian and religious purposes.

I would describe this work as contemporary art and poetry with extra dimensions: enlivening and enlightening differences from the mainstream drawn from not only complex personal experiences but from traditional cultures that evolved in close affiliation with the land and waters, flora and fauna of the places where we live. Those differences-subtle or bold, candid and ironic, found in form and content--- combine with familiar elements of shared culture to offer us the opportunity of insight into both another point of view and our common humanity. This book is itself a kind of ceremony and celebration. It belongs in the homes and hearts of every Californian.

quotes from Michael Dorris: PAPER TRAIL by Michael Dorris, HarperPerennial 1995, pp 250,-1.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

The Lit'ry Life: October 2002

Note to the Death of the Author semiotic/deconstructionists: Gee, I guess you were right after all.

Of the 15 best-selling nonfiction books on the New York Times hardcover list for September 29, five have no authors.

There are two books credited to the editors of Life magazine, one is "by the New York Times," one "by CBS News," and one by "photographers of the New York City Police Department.

Of the remaining ten titles, three are by journalist employees of newspapers, and one by a TV commentator.

Well, at least these behemoth corporations aren't being coy about controlling book publishing. I always thought that they should take their rightful share of the credit.

My reading since last time: I finished Mark Epstein's "Thoughts Without a Thinker" and went on to his "Going On Being," which in some ways is a more involving book. He structures it partially around several people, his particular teachers who each provided a different point of view, a different piece of the puzzle, which he assembles in his both his practices-- Zen meditation and psychoanalytic practice with patients.

Redemption Motifs by Marie-Louise von Franz is one of her many short books constructed from a series of lectures to Jungian analysts. I always enjoy reading these, and I always seem to be learning something, although afterwards I'd be hard pressed to tell you what.

A quote in a review of a book by Margaret Atwood sent me back to Northrup Frye, who I haven't read in many years. He is a penetrating observer and thinker, centered on literary criticism, but since literature leads to so many other places--contemporaneous culture, traditions, personalities, history, mythic mysteries---he is awfully acute and interesting on many matters. So far I've read one collection of texts delivered as talks or speeches, called "The Eternal Act of Creation." I have "Spiritus Mundi" (a selection of essays) and his classic "Anatomy of Criticism" newly on the shelf.

I read one novel last month--Tom Robbins' "Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas." It was fun. Reminds me what the basic art of the novel is: delay. You start all these plot elements in motion, and delay and delay the payoff, until the reader understands that it's the journey that's entertaining. Which is good, because the payoff isn't that great in this case. Still, he's added a sci-fi kind of sensibility to his countercultural romps, and his particular take on the Nature of Things nicely links elements of the Doris Lessing sci-fi novels to Kurt Vonnegut's "Galapagos."

I am impressed by Theodore Rozak's "America The Wise" aka (in paperback) "The Longevity Revolution," which I've finally gotten around to reading. This is an important book, not be overlooked. I felt strongly enough about that to write the author, and to review it gratis for My review follows, BUT FIRST...

If you define the literary life to include stories in all their forms, then a few comments on what I've been watching on TV seem appropriate. At our house we've cycled through the cop dramas so prominent this year, and found the experience to be ultimately empty. Several of the series we were faithfully watching this summer---"Monk," "Deadline" and "Breaking News"---are either off the air or awaiting new episodes. That left us with "The West Wing" as the only ongoing series, though we often let ourselves watch "Law and Order" afterwards--I watch it partly to catch glimpses of New York actors I used to know, including one who was in one play I wrote, and carried around another for his audition piece.

The only new series I'm faithfully watching is "American Dreams." It's another one of those miracles---a solidly well done drama, skillful and innovative, that not only blows away just about everything else on TV but advances the drama series form in new ways. That it's about the 1960s is even more amazing. The 60s have never been portrayed well on TV and almost never in the movies. But this series is smart, it's largely accurate, and it has heart. All the actors are strong, the writing is very good, the editing and storytelling is remarkably subtle.

I grew up a few hundred miles from where this series is set (it's in Philadelphia; I was outside Pittsburgh) at about the same time. I'm not exactly the age of any of the characters, but very close. I also grew up in a Catholic household and attended Catholic schools, as the kids in this series do. Although there are plenty of anachronisms in the expressions and gestures characters use (which is part of the fun of watching it--"We didn't say that!" "Nobody pointed at each other like that then!"), most of the context is completely convincing.

Because this is series television drama, all the main characters are basically sympathetic. They all have flaws and all have redeeming characteristics. We see them change, sometimes within the 40 minutes or so of an episode. In that sense, it's unrealistic. Family dynamics and people don't really change that quickly or that much. But if you put a realistic portrait of, for instance, my father, or the fathers of my friends, you wouldn't necessarily have a sympathetic character week after week. In a dramatic play or a film, nuances within a set character can be revealed in interesting moments, or a character can be tested by a single large event. But when you're creating a character for people to follow week after week, that character has to be sympathetic, or else an out and out stereotypical villain.

In "American Dreams," this does something that TV drama series can do in a unique way: it can heal. Those of us who remember growing up in the 1960s may recall the generational battles and bad feelings, the unfulfilled yearnings and confusion of adolescence and our particular circumstances. In "American Dreams" we can relive moments in a better way. There is in fact a psychological technique of dealing with actual dreams that counsels you to recall your bad dreams, then "daydream" them again but with the plot and outcome you want to happen. This is healing. And so is watching the lovely young woman on this show dancing with such joy, in scenes you dearly wished could happen but never did. In the show, for instance, a group of teens that includes a famous pop group circle their cars, train their headlights on a center area, get out This never happened, or could happen, in my teenage life. We were too backward, awkward, self-conscious and unimaginative. But it sure looked like fun.

The situation is similar within the family. This isn't "Father Knows Best," but this father isn't your dumb sitcom dad, either. He is complex, stubborn, yet responsive. The children, perhaps because several are relatively close in age, treat each other and respond to each other as people. In short, this series is a combination of how things were and how we wish they were. Which is a perfect combination for a TV series.

"American Dreams" has already dealt with the response to President Kennedy's assassination with great sensitivity and accuracy. It is beginning to deal with race, and is laying the foundations for dealing with Vietnam, feminism and the sexual revolution. Music is central, as it was then. One of the main characters is a regular on American Bandstand, and the television studio scenes are dead-on, full of terrific subtext and bits, probably because Dick Clark---the originator of American Bandstand---is one of this series' exec producers. This is the most promising drama series to hit TV since "The West Wing."

Like aspects of "American Dreams," this season's "The West Wing" serves as much- needed fantasy fulfillment. In the first couple of episodes, President Bartlett made speeches so far above the rhetoric and content of speeches by current politicians, it was enough to make you cry. Apparently this season's shows are being criticized for getting too close to reality in portraying the Republican presidential candidate as a folksy, brainless opportunist from Texas---sorry, I mean Florida (!), but I make no apologizes for finding this therapeutic. We need an intelligent President unafraid to speak honestly, even if it's only on Wednesday nights.

Now, as promised, the review of AMERICA THE WISE/ THE LONGEVITY REVOLUTION by Theodore Roszak.

First a caveat: This book is sometimes offered along with Roszak's "America The Wise." They are however the same book--"America The Wise" is the hardback. I haven't compared them, but if not precisely the same, they are virtually the same, according to their author.

Frankly the worst thing about this book is the title--both titles. The book itself however is a very important one. For anybody who would like some hope for the future, and especially for baby boomers, this book is essential.

It's not about longevity, really. It's about the next twenty years or so, when the boomers--Roszak calls them the New People--reach traditional retirement age. It's likely that they will be healthier and more active and involved than previous generations. And there will be a lot of them (it's time to fess up, I guess--a lot of US.)

Roszak contends--with good reason--that the panic about boomers destroying Social Security and Medicare is largely manufactured for political purposes. Social Security is solvent now and will be for the next generation, and with minor adjustments, can be made so for the indefinite future. Medicare is a problem mostly because the whole health care system is a mess. Besides, the demographics suggest the increase in dependent older people will likely be offset in a decrease in dependent children.

But where this book shines is in outlining societal attitudes that could change due to an aging population. Advertisers don't like older consumers because they aren't so impressionable--they can't be lured so easily by absurd ads. So patterns of consumption could change, for the better. Other elder values plus the necessity for taking care of the very old and ill will challenge us to become more compassionate as a society, and more interested in living than moneymaking. For after all, as Roszak says, this aging of the population is going to happen--not just in the U.S. but worldwide-- and we're going to have to deal with it. It's either take care of each other, or kill the old folks. But don't let them know, not as long as they can still vote!

By and large this book is very cogent. It may be provocative to some, but it states its case with admirable clarity, so readers can easily confront what Roszak has to say. Baby boomers like to think of themselves--ourselves--as forever young. So perhaps we've ignored being slandered as selfish whiners who will bankrupt young folks (as Roszak points out, a lot of young folks are being kept afloat by parents.) But we don't have to die before we get old. The best may be yet to come.