Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Don't make me a celebrity! Please, make me a celebrity!

It was one of the first things I noticed upon coming to the USA--celebrity culture. Not that the South Africa of my youth lacked magazines devoted to "uncovering" Rock Hudson's skinny-dipping locales and speculating about how he got HIV. Or less gloomily, counting Liz Taylor's diamond necklaces. But the trend was magnified on this side of the Atlantic. What I noticed was the sheer number of prime-time TV shows dedicated to Hollywood, not to mention trashy rags at the checkout counter.

And then there was the cult of personality about Nelson Mandela.

In the "struggle," we just saw Mandela as our "Comrade Leader." The battle to defeat apartheid was collective--the only thing we had on our side was force of numbers. But here, Mandela was seen as a charismatic Beowulf-style hero who'd single-handedly slain an evil monster. I remember Charlene Hunter Gault interviewing him on PBS, and Madiba telling her off several times for assuming democracy in South Africa was "his" victory. This difference seemed to epitomize a culture steeped in adversity, which promotes community, versus a more prosperous, individualized one geared more to mass entertainment.

But whether it's Jesus, Buddha, Prince William, or the Biebs, we seem to need people to exalt above ourselves. Today, South Africa is almost as celebrity-obsessed as North America. When it comes to Lady Gaga or Zac Efron, the amount of money and attention we pour on celebrities is staggering. Did you know that Beyonce made $ 84 million in 2009?

Which brings me to the current focus of this blog--the experience of publishing a first book. My publicist at my press told me the day he met me: "It's only celebrity memoirs that we try to get onto the big radio and TV shows." A friend--also a book publicist--explained, "If you want to sell books, frankly, the goal is to try to make yourself, as much as possible, into a celebrity." Of course, what she was saying was entirely relative. Even the biggest celebrity literary authors, like Dave Eggers, are ultimately small fry. But I think her point was that if I want people to read my words and get my message--if I want an audience for the stories which I worked so hard to produce--I need to be able in some modest way, to play the celebrity game.

Yesterday, WITF--the public broadcasting TV station in Harrisburg, PA--came to our Writers Institute building to interview me about my book and about the Travel Writing in South Africa course. In the big universe of celebrity-hood, it was nothing at all. Tomorrow, at 8 pm, a small news magazine program will broadcast a couple of minutes about me and my students to a central Pennsylvania audience. But still, the camera guy and anchor added a touch a glamor to our bookish surroundings. There were photo lamps; reflective umbrellas. It was fun to talk about teaching and writing, and as is so often the case, I was proud as can be of the Susquehanna University students when they got in front of the camera.

My friends, students, and colleagues didn't lose the chance to tease me about it, though.

"You're a celebrity now!" they said. "A hot shot! Obama will be inviting you to the White House!"

'No," I wanted to reply, echoing my erstwhile President, back in 1994. "I'm just an author!" Half my brain was going, "Shit, yeah! Barack and me, natural buddies." The other half, "Don't you dare call me that dirty c-word!" And of course, it doesn't need to be said that the whole idea was completely ridiculous.

I suppose the ultimate point to these ramblings on the topic of celebrity culture is that I'll take every little thing the world is willing to throw at me, in order to be able to live my dream. That dream is simply to create truth and beauty--emotional, formal, and linguistic --on the page. That's the passion that made me want to be a writer. That's my vocation, what the Italian essayist Natalia Ginsburg called--I'm quoting roughly from memory here--the thing that "burns away everything inessential."

If someone hands me $84 million--thanks so much! I'll buy a nice island and tower off the South African West Coast and use the beautiful solitude to read and write more. I'll donate the surplus to end corrective rape and support the education of young South African writers. Not that I'm holding my breath--but I'm just saying.

If the world hands me nothing at all, I'll write in whatever time I can carve aside.

Either way, writing and love of the people in my life--family, friends, students, colleagues, neighbors--are the two things I care most about.

I don't even think I'm kidding myself on this point. All of this book publicity stuff--successful or unsuccessful--is just a means to an end. All the rest is meaningless.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Miming memories and signing Kindles

It has begun... Readings galore! Two weeks ago, I read at Virginia Tech's creative writing program, at the invitation of Fred D'Aguiar. Then, last week, I read at Susquehanna University, where I work as a professor. Last Saturday I read at the beautiful, excellent Midtown Scholar bookstore in Harrisburg.

Many of the visiting authors we get at SU seem to struggle with performing their poems, essays, and stories. They write exquisite sentences, but struggle to voice them with the same feeling that went into them. I've always thought this had to do with writers being generally shy and introspective individuals, more comfortable alone with words than in front of a crowd.

Perhaps I missed my true vocation as an actor/performer, like my partner, Peterson Toscano? I doubt I have a shy bone in my body. This is probably an essential character trait for someone like me--an exhibitionist, er, I mean, memoirist! For whatever reason, though, I've always intensely enjoyed reading my work.

On stage I forget myself and get into acting out my story. At the SU reading, at one point I knocked on the podium to imitate a friend in the story knocking on my window. At another I mimed hunting through an invisible garbage can for tuna cans. I've always felt a bit self-conscious about how crazy I can get doing a reading. I feel clownish. Somehow serious literature should be more subdued, more dignified, shouldn't it? And I feel a bit like a fake. I won't say I prefer reading my sentences to struggling with them in my solitary study. Yet I do find reading much easier than writing, which is often an intensely pleasurable-painful struggle.

Do I lose points as a writer for laying it on thick from the podium? For not suffering from social anxiety disorder?

Then again, I love listening to audiobooks, and I have to say there's nothing like a skilled reader to bring out the beauty of, say, Eliot's Middlemarch. Also, according to my editor Elizabeth Beier, writers need to learn how to become better performers if they want to sell books through readings. Most authors sell very few books at such events.

The thing that most amused me at the three readings I did this week, though, is how apologetic several people were about me to sign their books. Are you kidding me? You shelled out $16 or more for my book, and you're embarrassed to ask for a signature? To me, being able to sign books is a tremendous privilege.

At the Harrisburg reading, I even signed a Kindle, using a special kind of glo-pen... it was "virtually" as good as signing a hard copy, with the smell of ink and paper and the heft of pages in one's hands.