Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Samuel R. Delany's Clarion West Reading

Tonight I had the pleasure of listening to Samuel R. Delany read from his new novel, Dark Reflections, at the Science Fiction Museum, the last of this year’s Clarion readings. The auditorium was packed to near-capacity with respectful devotees, and that heartened me, considering just how small turnouts to literary events can be here in Seattle. Before he began his reading, Therese Littleton presented him with a “glass brick” etched with his image, in honor of his membership in the Museum’s Science Fiction Hall of Fame. The image sat on the podium as he read, from my perspective looking like a static white miniature of his head (complete with wild beard) just below the real thing. He did not really notice the image before him until after he’d finished reading and put his glasses back on and announced he would be fielding questions. Then, before answering the first question, he frowned at it and said that he couldn’t talk with that thing looking at himand reversed it, so that the image now looked out at the audience.

Delany read four short selections from the first and third parts of the novel. The first selection was an exquisite extended image of (black gay poet) Arnold Hawley at sixty walking through in a shower of dogwood petals. The next selection recounted Arnold Hawley’s first fraught encounter with Bo’muh and the third selection Arnold’s telephone conversation with his Aunt Bea, hinging on the question, “Aunt Bea, do you know anything about sex?”; Delany’s rendition of these two passages made me shake with silent laughter. In the fourth selection, Arnold, now sixty-eight, walks in the fog on wet pavement and realizes that he’s wearing shoes with a crack in the right sole.

I can’t recall a reading flying by as swiftly as this one did. The genial warmth and humor Delany puts into his voice when reading narrative, the perfection in his portrayal of speech in dialogue, held me raptthough I, of course, knew how the story turns out! (During the Q&A someone asked him about that, and I was delighted to see him hold up a copy of the book and suggest she shouldn’t have much trouble finding one for herself.) Interestingly, Delany remarked before he began reading that one of his reasons for writing this particular book was his wish to show the creative writing students he teaches what the life dedicated to writing is actually like.

Some of the questions during the Q&A were predictable, though since Delany doesn’t give the same canned responses at every reading, the whole of the Q&A kept my interest. Here are a few of the dozen or so he fielded (questions and answers both paraphrased, not verbatim):

Did “sci-fi” have an influence on how you wrote Dark Reflections?

Science fiction, Delany replied, focuses on and analyzes the object. He noted that he brought an analysis of the object to bear in places in Dark Reflections and suggested that that is the kind of analysis that is native to science fiction.

What does science fiction do best that other fiction can’t do?

Science fiction, Delany replied, critiques the object, shows it in a different focus, distorts it, and by doing that teaches us about it. His answer was more expansive and elaborate, but that was the gist.

Why calloused feet and bitten fingernails?

This was a non-question, and was thus to my mind obnoxious. Delany replied shortly that he had a sexual thing for those characteristics. The guy (who was seated two rows behind me) pushed it, asking Why? What was it about those thingsat which Delany treated him to an amusing little spiel about all the straight men who after reading his autobiography just had to tell him about their sexual fetishes for women with this or that particular characteristic. Delany remarked that it might be a good thing for women to know how many different particular characteristics appealed to heterosexual men: that one type did not fit all.

Do you find the current political situation discouraging, with so many of things that had been accomplished being lost?

You have to expect that progress will be uneven, Delany said. Sometimes we move things forward, sometimes things slip back. But something important happened around 1968. Until then, mostly black people had been working for civil rights, and then the civil rights movement morphed into the fight against racism that was taken up by a wide spectrum of society; similarly mostly women had been working for women’s rights, and then the women’s liberation movement morphed into the fight against sexism that was taken up by a wide spectrum of society; just as the gay rights movement morphed into the fight against homophobia, also embraced by a wide spectrum of society.

Because this was the last question of the night, Delany didn’t unpack the implications he sees in this shift. He did remark that he had a set lecture he sometimes gives in reply to this question, but that there simply wasn’t time for him to give it tonight.

All in all a delightful, stimulating evening. If Delany ever reads in your city, I highly recommend going to hear him.

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