Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Regarding The Encyclopedia of Rebels: An Interview with Mel Freilicher

KIRPAL GORDON: First off, congratulations, Mel, on your new book, The Encyclopedia of Rebels, published by San Diego City Works Press. It moves gestalt-like in serial form(s) toward a full inclusion, and I thought of Robert Duncan’s lines in “Rites of Participation,” “To compose such a symposium of the whole, such a totality, all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the proletariat, the foreign; the animals and the vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and failure---all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are.”


MEL FREILICHER:  Thanks, Kirpal.  For some time, my writing has largely been about processing texts in new combinations (new ways of “cooking” them, as Peter Elbow would say). This book evolved gradually--I wrote some of the pieces quite awhile ago. The first was the one where Jane Eyre becomes an FBI mole in the middle of the Vietnam war.  I loved the idea of dropping the forthright, and oh so moral Jane into this nefarious milieu: I used several ex-FBI agents’ confessional memoirs as well as a lot of information about the  COINTELPRO programs designed to infiltrate leftist organizations to create internal disruption, and even to assassinate dissidents like the Black Panthers.


     I’ve been interested in past radicals for a long time: what they accomplished, and to what degree they were fucked over in the end--like “Big Bill” Haywood, leader of  mine workers unions, and the IWW, who had to flee to Russia or face life imprisonment here, once WW1 and all the anti-sedition acts kicked into high gear.  From all reports, life there was lonely and even more alcoholic in the few years he had left--he never learned the language for one thing--though he was an official Soviet hero. As I got into reading about some of the radicals’ deaths--suicides, madhouses--the more pressing and depressing it was to unearth more stories.  I began looking for successes, like Jane Addams: these people tended to start out with money, education, and political connections, of course, and they also had a more liberal, reformist approach to social evils.  Still, it wasn’t invariably like that. 


     By the time I came around to writing the last and longest piece which I conceived as the title piece for this collection, I was trying to cover the widest array of rebels’ stories possible: though the main thrust concerned John Brown and a discussion of some lesser known abolitionists, and aspects of the Civil War--like the horrendous rate of vets’ post-war mental illness.  I think if the book seems inclusive in ways that you’re suggesting, it may chiefly be due to this last piece which goes into the background and accomplishments of people like Mother Jones, Upton Sinclair, Dalton Trumbo as well as many individuals who I knew nothing about--in some cases, I didn’t even know of their existences--until I started my research.


KIRPAL GORDON: It’s fascinating research delivered at a moment in time in which our need for progressive political thinking could not be greater. You are certainly “cooking” texts! However, much to this reader’s satisfaction, you blend & bend non-fiction elements---biography, history, personal admiration for your subjects, gossip, journal---with the tropes of fiction & drama to create a hybrid text that indeed does poetic justice to the wide range of your American rebels.

One thing that much enlivens & humanizes these rebels is your own political activity as a grassroots activist in San Diego. Another is a very tender account of your relationship with Kathy Acker from college days & beyond. A third is your decades of teaching at UCSD. Would you comment?


MEL FREILICHER:  There’s a lot to say about all of this.  I wanted most of these pieces to be funny--partly just for accessibility, and to offset the heaviness of the material. I tried various strategies. “Stories We Tell Ourselves” is about recent historical research which revealed how Denmark Vesey and 34 others were trapped in a trumped up slave rebellion conspiracy trial (actually, Vesey himself was a freed black man), resulting in their execution--a careerist move engineered by a reactionary South Carolina politician who ultimately became governor and leader of secessionist forces.  Not many yucks in that story, but I framed it with a satiric Nancy Drew mystery; some sexualized Horatio Alger scenes (which required only a few changes from the original text); a look at how the Stratemeyer syndicate functioned, which was responsible for creating and publishing all the popular children’s book series in those decades.  The title, “Stories We Tell Ourselves,” allowed me to play around with popular fiction as well as the previous falsified history which featured Vesey as the perpetrator of a conspiracy, not its victim.


     The easiest piece to make into a comedy was the radio play, based on an actual one, where Superman fights the Nazis’ fifth columnists.  For the sake of the book, I further punched out Lois Lane as a well educated feminist heroine, tirelessly spouting off about women’s roles in Nazi Germany.  Jimmy Olsen finds a woodsy fuck buddy in this script, and by the end Lois and Superman are acting out scenes from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, as George and Martha, which morph into their speaking as the country’s first presidential couple, bragging about how much land and how many slaves they own. 


     The book’s lengthy title piece took a long time to write: I tried a lot of different approaches to the humor sections which all turned out to be silly, as I kept suspecting, and as my friend and invaluable reader, Stephen-Paul Martin, confirmed.  Then I started thinking about using anecdotes from my own past in the New Left, and to a lesser extent family anecdotes, revealing the chasms between my political beliefs and those of my regular, liberal-ish Jewish family.  I felt like these anecdotes were both informative and sort of absurd (in retrospect)--like our plans to stop a supply train during Vietnam, or some of the civil rights sit-ins that ended in sexual encounters (after the sit in was over)!


     Once I started doing this, I realized that much of the impetus for writing about, and trying to understand the motives of, these admirable radicals of the past was very personal, intimately tied into the need to re-assess my own history: falling away from my activist past; dealing with the usual difficulties and frustrations of trying to make a living teaching and continuing to write. (This is basically the thrust of the entire piece, “Saved by Hippolyte Havel, Anarchist,” which concerned a frustrated period of time when I’d stopped writing, and was re-inspired by reading about this wild guy in pre-WW1 New York.)


     Since I’d been teaching at both UCSD and San Diego State for many decades in somewhat precarious lecturer positions, conditions of employment there naturally played a big role in this reassessment--especially because I was writing it in the midst of California’s, and the UC system’s, economic downswing. In “Encyclopedia,” I came around to considering ways that teaching provided me with a substitute for activism, as did the actual writing about radical figures from the past who I tended to idealize.


     The piece about Kathy Acker was initially written soon after her death, and was therapeutic for me; I expanded it when putting the ms. together, and its tone is really quite different from the rest of the book.  It was meant as an homage to her but also as a clear-eyed-as-possible, psychological assessment of the life circumstances involved in shaping her.  Because I had known Kathy up close for so long, I’ve often found a lot of people’s assumptions and writings about her, both when she was alive and since, to be weird (though her “presentation of self” certainly invited this): myopic, self-serving, inaccurate, just off-the-wall   For one thing, I wanted to set the record straight.  Her life and work remain totally fascinating and hugely significant to me. The tragedy of her death was compounded by her refusal to have chemo or radiation after her mastectomy, or to even consider that--partly due to (understandable) paranoia about the medical establishment.


KIRPAL GORDON: I find the comic elements in your character descriptions serve as compassionate reminders to see the humanity behind the mesmerizing, larger-than-life quality. Keeping them human helps limit the hero-ification of these radicals which indeed helps us understand better what it means to speak truth to power. For example, I have always admired-feared the John Brown solution & to read of how different generations of African-American leaders have thought of him really enriched my understanding. Ditto on your anecdotes from your time in the New Left; they contextualized the struggle & brought it up to date. And yes, Hippolyte Havel roaming the West Village is not a detour. Like his bohemian neighborhood, he’s a destination!

Regarding your remark that teaching has provided you with a substitute for activism, how have you found student responses to be over the decades? Is our horrific legacy of racism, nationalism & elitism so institutionalized as to be rarely addressed?



MEL FREILICHER:  I also feel that the comic elements point to the less easily mythicized, more idiosyncratic, screwed up and endearing qualities of these individuals. Although I admire John Brown pretty much unreservedly--and his attitude toward black people appeared to lack the condescension of more blue-blooded abolitionists--not many comic elements there! A telling anecdote for me about Brown’s grimly unrelieved Puritan character concerns his disciplining one of his many children. Keeping a list of credits and debits regarding John Jr.’s behavior (Brown was a failed businessman), when it came time to settle up, he’d whip him, stop in the middle then whip himself bloody for the remainder of the punishment, since he viewed his son’s flaws as a reflection of his own.


      For awhile, in the “Encyclopedia” piece, I thought about trying to explicitly sketch out some of the ways these figures intersected with my own activities, but I decided against that approach. I strongly believe what James Baldwin says in his preface of Evidence of Things Not Seen, his brilliant meditation on the Atlanta child murders: “History, I contend, is the present--we, with every breath we take, every move we make, are History.” So I did want to draw out the kinds of historical legacies and immediacies which you mentioned regarding Langston Hughes and John Brown: Hughes had 2 relatives who fought and died with Brown, and he saw Brown as a hugely important figure.


      For instance, Upton Sinclair was one of the founders of the League of Industrial Democracy (so was another rebel in the book, Florence Kelley) which was the progenitor of the much diminished Socialist Party led by Michael Harrington (who wrote the very significant study of American poverty, The Other America), Bayard Rustin and others: that was the group that SDS spun off from--rather violently. At that time, the Socialist Party refused to condemn the Vietnam War--one reason that Bayard Rustin began to fall out of favor with the left. When they realized they’d spawned this radical young group, the Party tried to hide their mailing lists: needless to say, quite a schism rapidly developed.


     About the students: it’s hard for me to generalize since I’ve been teaching mostly lit/writing majors and minors who are atypical for this science school. UCSD is set up with 6 different colleges which largely seems to me a way to maintain a top-heavy bureaucracy. The core courses are different in each college (along with some graduation requirements).  A few of those courses seem to involve some history of U.S. racism.


      But, to generalize, I do I feel that the lit and writing students are often bright, creative and motivated, but lack information, especially about history: particularly problematic, they don’t understand that such a perspective is absolutely crucial. Often, a poli sci, history or ethnic studies major in a writing workshop will know a lot more than the lit majors (the communications majors seem to know even less).  (Unfortunately, the lit majors usually haven’t read much literature either, the Dept. leaning rather heavily toward cultural studies.) For our class readings, I try to clarify the biographical, social and historical contexts--and to pick works from different eras and geographical regions of the world.  But I also emphasize the importance of a close reading of the text, a skill that often seems to be lacking--and one which I believe can actually be taught.


     A few years ago, some very telling events regarding student racism happened at UCSD.  It started with the “Compton cook-out” which was a major party at a large apartment complex near school where students, especially frat members (happily, UCSD doesn’t have frat houses on campus--yet) occupied many apartments: the party was apparently spread out, each apartment having a related theme.  An unbelievably offensive invitation went out on line, quickly going viral locally, offering women guidelines on how to come dressed, and acting like, ’ho’s.  There were photos of mostly Asian students in blackface and fright wigs. Some students at school started to react, there were demonstrations; soon 2 major petitions appeared on line, with (if I remember correctly) about an equal number of signers: one was this is appalling, the other, what’s-the-big-deal-get-over-yourself. 


     A number of weird events followed, some of which got a fair amount of national media attention, to the consternation of the administration: UCSD already had the smallest percentage of African American students of all the UC campuses.  A few black students residing in the dorms were being taunted, and they, not the offenders, were placed in other housing facilities; someone put a KKK hood over the statue of Dr. Seuss (a major La Jolla benefactor to the school); a noose was found hanging in the library.  Several weeks later, an anonymous student confessed, claiming that she and her friends just happened upon a small piece of rope; she was simply astonished that one of them could make a noose out if it.  They went to study in the library, and she forgot all about it, leaving it on a table (it was found hanging from a bookcase). (Supposedly, she was suspended for a quarter.) One campus, closed circuit TV program applauded the Compton cook-out, taking the opportunity to show many of the blackface photos again, and to use “the n word” as often as humanly possible.


     The school newspaper took a very rational line, condemning what was going on and pointing out that many of the students didn’t even have the information to make a semiotic analysis of what a noose meant to African Americans. Worse, they apparently didn’t care enough to inform themselves--slavery was a long time ago, and hey, this is the age of reverse discrimination.  (I was proud that two of the main editors were my students!)  All along, I kept ranting (undoubtedly, with many colleagues), that this was indeed a failure of education.  Although I hate the expression, “a teachable moment,” since it applies to virtually every moment we’re breathing, it did seem like a time for real discussion.  I have no idea how much of that went on outside of specific humanities and social science classes. The administration staged a very lame “teach in”: black students and others spontaneously walked out of it, and held their own version.  The Black Student Union came up with a list of demands, a few of which were met--mostly involving hiring more administrators, in the capacity of overseeing diversity hiring.


KIRPAL GORDON: Your remarks on grim John Brown with his whipping of son & self remind me how much we need these correctives to our hero-ifying impulses. As for UCSD, real discussion about real people based on an actual event currently happening on campus is an incredible opportunity for a group “ex ducare” experience. In this era of terrorism, it is hard to imagine American college students unaware of the implications of a noose or a KKK hood; they aren’t merely emblems of the terrorism we perpetrate on black people---they’re the evidence of the crime yet to be brought to justice.

Which connects to your notion that a close reading of text is a teachable event for without understanding language, context, nuance, history, symbolism & psychology, we would not come to appreciate that we make history every day, as Baldwin said. Which leads me to ask you, now that we’ve started a new year, who from 2013 would you nominate for entry into your encyclopedia of rebels?


MEL FREILICHER: I think of helping students to read closely as a skill that can be learned over time, using provocative texts (like Kenzburo Oe’s “Agwhee, the Sky Monster” and Clarice Lispector’s short stories, for example) which have appealing characters and narratives; under careful scrutiny, when they start getting unpacked, mostly for their sociopolitical implications, so do students’ brains!


     As for a 2013 list, I feel like I don’t know enough about global politics to begin to do justice to such a task.  (Similarly, I know much less about who’s writing fiction today than, say, what novels were written in the U.S. and Europe in the 19th century on which I’m totally fixated.)  Offhand, I can’t think of any politicians, elected or otherwise, who’d make my list, though the late Paul Wellstone (was he assassinated?) and Elizabeth Warren are certainly positive forces.


     On top of my list of anti-politicians would be Ed Snowden, who has actually been getting a lot of positive press lately.  For instance, the exteriors of numbers of buses in D.C. have big THANK YOU, ED SNOWDEN ads on them.  Getting government out of individuals’ private lives is apparently an idea that people of virtually all political stripes can get behind. And tapping cell phones of leaders of other countries, aside from being a poor strategy to win friends and influence people, is just plain tacky. Of course, I would also put Julian Assange and the Wiki-leaks crew on that list, as well as Chelsea Manning--though I must say to do what she did while in the military seems tantamount to a death wish.


     Mostly the list would be composed of individuals whose names I don’t know, and probably never will. People like Grace Lee Boggs, and many Detroit activists who are trying to build self-sustaining infrastructures--urban farms, soup kitchens, housing and alternative schools--in the middle of near total economic collapse. Like the admirable Zapatistas, I think these people have given up on representative democracy, seeing it as a fiction of the “Empire of Money,” as they term it: they’re all about participatory democracy.  Subcomandante Marcos would surely be on that list.


     While individuals in Detroit and Chiapas are already operating from close to ground zero, I  assume there will continue to be severe, more or less worldwide economic crises since very little manufacturing is  left in this country, and the giant financial institutions are barely regulated.  The existence of alternative modes of survival would, at least, give people some sense of possibilities.


       I know a little about a number of significant movements in Latin America to redistribute arable land to the poor, and also to take over defunct factories. I think the Right to the City movement has resulted in squatters being able to stay on land, and improve it. In places like Chicago and Cleveland, there have been some successful worked-owned businesses springing up when companies have failed or outsourced their entire workforce.


     Smart political commentators like Naomi Klein and Amy Goodman serve very useful functions.  I also think there are many progressive aspects of the slow food movement.  For that matter, my hat is off to any teacher who can continue to work creatively within the current horrendous, assessment-driven education system of No Child Left Behind aka Race to the Top. In other words, there are a lot of people on the front lines as the Empire slides into further decline.



KIRPAL GORDON: So how can Giant Steps readers stay better informed on your writing (your earlier book with San Diego City Press Works, The Unmaking of Americans: 7 Lives, is killer) and thinking and teaching and activism?



MEL FREILICHER: That’s hard to say.  I don’t have a website or a blog.  Living in San Diego, I’ve gotten used to low visibility, and I’m past the point in my “career” where I expect anything else.  GOOGLE is always there, of course.  I’ve written many book reviews and essays in the past, and continue to have some interest in doing that. I often have some unpublished pieces which I only send out sporadically.  If anyone is interested in contacting me regarding any of this, my email is melfrei@aol.com.


     Many thanks, Kirpal, for the opportunity to spout off.  While parts of The Encyclopedia of Rebels itself are a kind of meta-commentary on how and why it was written, I really appreciate the chance to review my own processes in writing this book.







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