This Week in Literary History: Nov. 23-29

Recognizing the birthdays of James Agee, Han Kang, and more

Here’s your new edition of This Week in Literary History from Bidwell Hollow. Your list of notable literary births and events for this week is below. Enjoy!

Arundhati Roy Fights for the Truths She Sees

By Emily Quiles

Outside of India’s Supreme Court in New Delhi, protesters, called “satyagrahis” in the tradition of Gandhi, chanted, “Arundhati, keep up the fight. We’re with you. We’re with you.” 

Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy, who has written against globalization, multinational corporations, US global hegemony, Hindu-Muslim violence, nuclear weapons, and big dams, watched from a balcony above with tears in her eyes. Signs read, “Free Speech not Frightened Citizen” and “Judgement Day”. It was 2001, moments before Roy’s court hearing. 

The court had issued a broad contempt notice against her in reaction to her activism to halt the development of the second-largest concrete dam in the world, the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Construction for the dam, funded by the World Bank, started in 1987. The dam spans the Narmada River in western India, and Roy and others objected to the people displaced by the dam’s creation. 

Upon hearing the Supreme Court’s contempt ruling, Roy placed her traditional dupatta scarf over her eyes and laughed.

“As a woman who grew up in a village in India, I’ve spent my whole life fighting tradition,” she told broadcast journalist David Barsamian. Yet this time, she wasn’t alone.

Growing up, Roy’s mother ran an alternative school in Kerala. “It’s phenomenally successful,” she explained. “Yet folks in town don’t know quite what to make of her. Or me. Like a pair of witches.”

The problem was they were unconventional women, at least compared to the standards of traditional India. “But to have been brought up by a woman who never made it her mission in her life to find another partner to entwine herself around is a wonderful thing,” Roy said.

Roy’s independence and forced solitude led her to many hours of wandering and fishing along the Meenachil river, which flows through the heart of India’s Kerala district. “Those hours that I spent catching fish made me the writer that I am,” Roy said in the documentary, Dam/Age” “The hours of silence, of contemplating and trying to insinuate yourself into the hand of an unsuspecting fish.” 

With her early exposure to water, Roy empathized with the 25 million Adivasis indigenous people expected to lose their homes and sacred lands to constructing the Sardar Sarovar Dam.

Roy’s on-the-ground involvement, specifically with the Narmada Valley’s dam project, spurred her to write, The Greater Common Good in 1999. The advocacy piece of nonfiction was a stance against large-scale government projects purported to improve its citizens’ lives, but which also resulted in human tragedies and costs to others. 

As the West pressured India to develop or ‘Westernize,’ Roy asked the question others were afraid to: “Will dams even deliver the benefits promised?”

“It was easier for me to understand because I think I understand the river not as an environmentalist or as an ecologist but just because the river was my friend when I was little,” Roy said. “The loss of a terrible aching thing.”

Roy approached the topic intending to tell a story as if she were telling it to someone who knew nothing about the Sardar Sarovar Dam.

Roy described this as being one of the greatest pleasures of writing. “Telling the story in a way that ordinary people can understand, snatching our futures back from the experts and the academics and the economists and the people who really want to kidnap or capture things and carry them away to their lairs and protect them from the unauthorized gaze or the curiosity or understanding of passers-by,” she said.

This very idea was what got her voice shaking as she addressed India’s Supreme Court in 2001. Roy refused to let the Indian government silence her. 

“I don’t want to be a victim,” Roy said. “I don’t want to disappear into the darkness. I don’t want anyone to disappear into the darkness.”

Roy, who won a Man Booker Prize in 1997 for her novel, The God of Small Things, routinely mixes her literary talents with politics. She tries to call out truths as she sees them. However, Roy doesn’t think you should speak the truth to the powerful. “Power knows the truth more than I do,” she said.

So now, when she receives legal threats or harassment for her work, she “takes it as a badge of honor. I don’t want to be complimented by these people (the powerful).”

Arundhati Roy

  • Born on Nov. 24, 1961, in Shillong, India

A Writer Who Befriended an Early Star of the Silver Screen

By Andrew Sanger

Born on Nov. 27, 1909, in Knoxville, Tenn., James Agee’s is a name that looms large in the pantheon of great American writers. His work spanned from novels and poetry to journalism, screenwriting, and film criticism. 

Since his death in 1955, Agee’s received a good deal of literary reverence. But during his lifetime, most overlooked Agee’s wor. It was only posthumously that books of his such as A Death in the Family and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men brought Agee the status and influence in American culture that he holds today. 

Agee also played a significant role in film history, holding screenwriting credits on two timeless Hollywood films of the 1950s, The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter. And Agee is also one of the most famous film critics of all time. He was the main film critic for both Time Magazine and The Nation in the 1940s. Agee’s credited with helping to establish the reputation of silent film stars such as Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

Shortly after World War II, Agee formed an unlikely friendship with perhaps the greatest silent film star of them all: Charlie Chaplin. Their friendship was first kindled with Agee coming to the defense of Chaplin’s 1947 film Monsieur Verdeaux.

The movie had not gone over well with most critics, its dark satire a tough sell in the post-war United States. In a signal of what was to come for Chaplin during the Red Scare, when Hollywood blacklisted Chaplin, people publicly berated the actor. They accused him of harboring Communist sympathies, and many questioned his failure to become an American citizen. (Chaplin originally hailed from the United Kingdom before moving to Hollywood in 1913). 

Agee used his platform as a critic to come to Chaplin’s, and the film’s, defense in his columns, even going so far as to attack other prominent critics’ reviews of the film. Chaplin was so relieved and grateful to read Agee’s kind words that he reached out with a personal letter of thanks, thus beginning a friendship that continued for many years.

Agee had long admired Chaplin, way before Monsieur Verdeaux hit theaters. Agee even wrote a screenplay that situated Chaplin’s famous character The Tramp in a nuclear apocalypse, which he titled The Tramp’s New World. 

Agee saw the United States’ use of atomic bombs during World War II as both highly unethical and utterly terrifying. In a piece for Time entitled “The Bomb”, Agee described the strange, new age humankind now found themselves in: “Man’s fate has forever been shaped between the hands of reason and spirit, now in collaboration, again in conflict. Now reason and spirit meet on final ground. If either or anything is to survive, they must find a way to create an indissoluble partnership.” 

Agee believed that this dark new era was ripe for the irreverent social satire of Chaplin’s Tramp.

Before his acquaintance with Chaplin, Agee had sent Chaplin’s studio a copy of the screenplay and had received nothing more than an impersonal rejection letter. Now that Agee officially knew Chaplin, he had the inside connection he needed to possibly bring the film to life. Unfortunately for Agee, after reading the script, Chaplin was not interested in moving forward with The Tramp’s New World. Chaplin didn’t have an issue with the script, but he no longer had any interest in making films focused on The Tramp. 

Chaplin never quite had the heart to relay this fact to Agee. Instead, he invented new ways to put Agee off, while Agee was too shy to push Chaplin on the matter. Nevertheless, the two’s budding friendship grew, and Agee went on to find plenty of other work, and success, in Hollywood. 

Although they never collaborated on Agee’s dream project, Chaplin and Agee continued as friends. Eventually, Chaplin brought Agee in on the production of his 1952 film Limelight as a consultant and, essentially, an in-house critic. Agee’s third wife, Mia, wrote that Chaplin would “have Jim tell him what he thought about various scenes. And Jim would, of course, tell him very honestly. Of course, Chaplin never paid attention to what he said. But it didn’t matter. As far as their relationship was concerned, this was perfectly all right. This was the sort of dance you went through.” 

During the Red Scare, when U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others in the U.S. government attempted to root out supposed Communists, Chaplin’s popularity waned, and his social circle tightened. But Agee remained one of the actor’s few loyal friends.

Sadly, Agee struggled with alcoholism throughout much of his life, particularly towards the end. Having already survived a heart attack in his life, he tragically suffered a second one in a Manhattan taxi cab and passed away at the age of 45. Agee and Chaplin remained close friends until the end.

James Agee

  • Born on Nov. 27, 1909, in Knoxville, Tenn.

  • Died on May 16, 1955, in New York, N.Y.

Han Kang's Powerful Stories Guide Us Through the Process of Healing From Pain

By Christine Kingery

When tragedy strikes, how do you process the pain? How do you move forwards to some semblance of a positive future? What is the nature of healing?

These are the kinds of questions that Han Kang explores in her novels. Kang's literary style—written in Korean—is sparse, quiet, and unforgettable. She writes about the destruction of the bodies of individuals, families, cities, and states through takes of pain, tragedy, and metamorphosis. Kang's books, germinating from her own experience of the world, are poignant and viscous with suffering. They are stories that you feel, not figuratively, but viscerally and personally.

Kang's accolades include the prestigious Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian: A Novel in 2016, a book about a woman's descent into insanity as she embraces vegetarianism. Its sister-book is Human Acts, a tale about a real-life political uprising in South Korea in May 1980 when thousands of citizens were brutally murdered by their government, followed by a decades-long cover-up. The White Book, about Kang's older sister who died just a few days after being born, was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize also in 2016. 

One of the many unifying themes that bring Kang's works together is violence—the kind we do to ourselves and the kind we do to others. The subtext underlying the descriptions of the violence is the sense that healing begins through vocalizing the experience. This is intentional. "The characters who embrace their own horrors at least have the hope of freedom," wrote New York Times book critic Jiayang Fan.

In The Vegetarian, the protagonist is a Flaubertine housewife named Yeong-hye, whom her husband, Mr. Cheong, describes as "completely unremarkable in every way." Yeong-hye decides to embrace vegetarianism after having a dream in which she transforms into a tree. 

Mr. Cheong sees his wife's vegetarianism as an act of insolence and rebellion, and he assaults her—physically, emotionally, and sexually. The violence seeps into the larger family as they try to force-feed her. Yeong-hye eventually slits her wrists and is institutionalized. As she withers away from anorexia in the institution, going so far as to act like a tree by doing handstands and basking in the sun, she has a moment of realization that her act of defiance is misplaced. And through it, her sense of integrity has eroded. Kang ruminates on the effect of passive resistance and its consequences and the cultural subtleties of aggression and passivity that are all very Korean. 

While The Vegetarian focuses on an individual and the family unit, Human Acts deals more on the pain and suffering of a community and nation by describing the atrocities surrounding the 1980 Kwangju massacre. 

Kang tells the story by following a 15-year-old boy, Dong-ho, who dies in the conflict. Dong-Ho's story is pieced together from the perspective of outsiders (like Elizabeth Strout's novel, Olive Kitteridge): from the viewpoint of Dong-Ho's mother, through his friend Jeong-dae, and another from the perspective of "The Writer" (Kang herself). 

Through these lenses, the reader sees how the massacre has infiltrated the very soul of the culture itself. "The horrors may differ for Han and Yeong-hye," wrote Jiayang Fan. "But they are hewed from the same dark place, where memories of brutality persist and take on phantasmagoric lives of their own." 

Here's what Kang's said about the devastating nature of trauma: "I believe that grief is something which situates the place/space of the dead within the living; and that, through repeatedly revisiting that place, through our pained and silent embrace of it over the course of a whole life, life is, perhaps paradoxically, made possible." 

A mish-mash of violence and beauty exists, and Kang desperately tries to make sense of the "'unspeakable' yet 'genuinely happing'" reality to find some way to emerge and keep living.  

Any description about Han Kang necessitates a conversation about her longtime translator, Deborah Smith. Smith shared the 2016 Man Booker International Prize with Kang, which is even more impressive because Smith was just 26 years old and had only learned Korean six years before translating The Vegetarian. Her work has earned mixed reviews, with some upset that Smith has "embellished" Kang's simplistic style, "with adverbs, superlatives, and other emphatic word choices that are nowhere in the original." 

Kang doesn't share this hesitancy with Smith, saying, "I am lucky to have met Deborah, a wonderful translator who can render subtlety and delicacy." They have worked on many translated works together.

According to Smith, she needs to add to Kang's works to present the language so that Western readers can appreciate them. Smith said that when she reads Kang's words, the images are "so powerfully evoked by the Korean that I sometimes find myself searching the original text in vain, convinced that they were in there somewhere, as vividly explicit as they are in my head." What Smith describes is what any writer hopes to coax from the reader: "a feeling so visceral that it's as if she had absorbed the text into her own experience." 

Thanks to Smith's translating work, Korean art is finally infiltrating the United States. Arguably, Kang helped to pave the way for Bong Joon Ho to bring the Academy Award winning-movie Parasite to American theaters and homes in 2020. 

Ultimately, Smith helps to bridge a language and cultural divide by bringing Kang's literature to this side of the world. Kang's work may resonate with Americans as people in this country begin to deal with their painful histories of civil unrest and quest to control their destinies.

Han Kang

  • Born on Nov. 27, 1970. in Gwangju, South Korea.

An Optimistic Author Who Writes Where Wombats Play

By Andria Kennedy

Ask a writer their favorite word, and their answer often reflects whatever their most recent work-in-progress may be. Ask Jackie French, and you get a much more poignant response: "Zugzwang, and not just because it is useful in Scrabble," French said. "It means a situation where any move will mean a loss - which is life, really. Our society focuses on gain, but loss can be beautiful. Accepting it as inevitable leads to focusing on now, as well as the next three million years. When times are at their hardest, humans are capable of the greatest generosity, self-sacrifice, duty, inventiveness, and empathy."

Though not what this 2015 Senior Australian of the Year and 2014-2015 Children's Laureate may have intended when she gave this answer in an interview on the website My Book Corner, the words became prophetic for this wombat-loving author. French and her husband built their home from the ground up in eastern Australia's Araluen Valley 46 years ago, savoring relaxation among the bush's wildlife. It was a life threatened when the Charleys forest fire swept toward their homestead - one branch of the terrible fires that consumed Australia throughout 2019 and into 2020. In Jan. 2020, French took up her battered typewriter to undertake a new writing project - a first-hand account for The Sydney Morning Heraldof the impact the fires had on the lives of those around her.

"Friends in their 70s and 80s, who would not want to be called old men, have been out for days and nights for three months with their tankers," French wrote. "I have seen an old man, dying in great pain, still struggle towards the flames to give his wisdom on where the fire might go. I have seen wombats share their holes with snakes, possums, and a nervous swamp wallaby. A fridge on the highway kept constantly stocked with cold drinks for those defending us. Six firies [firemen] leaning against the hospital wall, too exhausted to stagger inside for first aid. The next day they went out again."

French called on political and environmental reform to prevent future devastation while still lauding everyday heroes' actions. And she donated her fee for the article to purchase books for schools that lost their libraries to the consuming destruction. Zugzwang in action, in French's backyard - with a touch of her deep heart and her beloved wombats, just for good measure. With the work she and her husband put into their home, she's always felt a part of the world around her: "The animals here are fellow inhabitants," French said. "Possibly, there is a moral reason to share my garden. But mostly, I do it for myself because, without the others in my garden, I would be less."

Jackie French's fighting spirit has marked her writing career since school. Dyslexia dogs her footsteps still, presenting a constant challenge - for her and those who dare to read her handwriting. Rather than burying the struggle, though, French openly discusses her condition in interviews. 

"I didn't ever overcome dyslexia," French said. "I just didn't let it stop me. I still can't find my way out of car parks, no one can read my writing, including myself, and I still cannot spell. I was trying to write a recipe last week, and the step was to sauté the potatoes. Spell check kept on saying poets. Now I have a recipe saying 'sauté your poets until they're brown.'"

French is the epitome of an optimist, and it's advice she shares with every aspiring writer. It's advice she shares with people, in general. "All success is just the final step on the ladder of failure - yours or someone else's," French said. "Forget 'failure is not an option.' Failure is an attempt; 1-500 until it works. Every book I have written has failed until I have revised, rewritten, and sent it to the editor who has torn it to pieces then helped me piece it together again. I'm not sure I even believe in 'failure.' No matter how long your life is, it will always be short. Enjoy every second of it, and never waste one by thinking, 'That was a failure.' You may not have reached your target; you may never reach it. But if you stop and look around, you will probably find you are somewhere extremely interesting on the journey."

Perhaps that "somewhere" is in the Australian bush, watching wombats play as the growth recovers, or just playing "zugzwang" for a high Scrabble score. Either way, it sounds like a win.

Jackie French

  • Born on Nov. 29, 1953, in Sydney, Australia.


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Arundhati Roy

James Agee

Han Kang

Jackie French

Notable Literary Births & Events for Nov. 23-29

Nov. 23

  • Gloria Whelan

  • Ishmael Beah

  • Nigel Tranter

  • Nirad C. Chaudhuri

  • P. K. Page

  • Paul Celan

  • Peter Stanford

  • Wilson Tucker

Nov. 24

  • Ahmadou Kourouma

  • Arundhati Roy

  • Carlo Collodi

  • Frances Hodgson Burnett

  • Mordicai Gerstein

  • Penny Jordan

  • Spider Robinson

  • Thomas Kohnstamm

Nov. 25

  • Alexis Wright

  • Arturo Pérez-Reverte

  • Charlaine Harris

  • Connie Palmen

  • Elsie J. Oxenham

  • Gerald Seymour

  • Giorgio Faletti

  • Helen Hooven Santmyer

  • Isaac  Rosenberg

  • Joseph Wood Krutch

  • Marc Brown

  • Mark Frost

  • P. D. Eastman

  • Poul Anderson

Nov. 26 🦃

  • Frederik Pohl

  • Marilynne Robinson

  • Vicki Pettersson

Nov. 27

  • David Rakoff

  • Han Kang

  • James Agee

  • Kevin Henkes

  • L. Sprague de Camp

  • Marilyn Hacker

  • Michael A. Stackpole

  • Ridgley Torrence

Nov. 28

  • William Blake

  • Leah Konen

  • Nancy Mitford

  • Dawn Powell

  • Randolph Stow

  • Genevieve Taggard

  • Stefan Zweig

Nov. 29

  • Louisa May Alcott

  • Lauren Child

  • Jackie French

  • Madeleine L'Engle

  • C.S. Lewis

  • Sue Miller

  • Willie Morris

  • Kevin O'Donnell, Jr.