Friday, May 24, 2013

A Tribute to Barbara Oliver (1927–2013)

This week the San Francisco Bay Area received the very sad news that the wonderful actor, director, and arts administrator Barbara Oliver passed away on May 20, 2013. Barbara cofounded the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, California, and served as its artistic director from 1992 to 2004. This blog is dedicated to Barbara. 

                                                              Barbara Oliver

Here is a tribute to Barbara from one of her close collaborators, the writer Dorothy Bryant, author of the play Dear Master (which Barbara appeared in) and numerous novels, including the amazing The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You and Confessions of Madame Psyche.

The idea for Aurora Theatre Company began in the late 1980s with a luncheon conversation with Barbara (just turned 60) about the paucity of plays featuring older leading ladies. In my ignorance I offered to write a two person ‘reading’ based on the friendship between George Sand and Gustave Flaubert. (I had no idea of the work and the cost of what seemed like a modest effort to fill some time before Barbara got another role with a ‘real theater.’)

“A year of research later, plus another year of mostly unpaid public readings (followed by my rewriting) by Barbara and Ken Grantham (and other actors) transformed this ‘dialogue’ into a play, performed successfully at the Berkeley City Club, (where she [Barbara] was a trusted member), and the beginning of Aurora Theatre Company. Her achievement was monumental—a fact I learned (knowing nothing about how a play went from page to stage) as we moved along. I would never have attempted such a thing without Barbara’s staunch belief that it could work, and her willingness to do these readings, her incredible savvy about climbing all the hurdles to production, her use of contacts built by solid respect for her work at Berkeley Rep and other theaters. She was totally creative and totally practical. Whenever we hit a snag that might have made others give up, she would nod thoughtfully and then work her way toward a solution.

"Thanks to her I wrote five more plays that were performed here and in other cities. Barbara had taken what had seemed like a setback and transformed it into an opportunity to display and use all of her talents, which, with her quiet, unassuming manner, few people knew she possessed. I learned a lot from her.”

My own connection with Barbara also began through the play Dear Master. I was teaching a summer literature class for high school students at UC Berkeley in 1995, and we were reading a translation I’d done of the novel Horace by George Sand, and a novella by Flaubert. To make that period come to life for the students, I persuaded the university to host a reading of Dear Master, with Barbara recreating her role as George Sand. Barbara was so moving and wise and memorable in that part. She embodied George Sand.

After that Barbara supported my efforts at playwriting, which were very rough at the beginning. I was working on a play that consisted mostly of dramatic monologues, and Barbara gently informed me at one point, “It sometimes helps if the characters talk to one another when they’re onstage.” She was infinitely patient and read draft after draft of my plays, but she never failed to let me know when I could do better—had to do better. Barbara was a fantastic and enormously generous mentor, and she had a great respect for writers.

After retiring from the Aurora Theatre, Barbara couldn’t stop developing new plays, and she founded a reading series called Four New Ones, where each year she planned to direct staged readings of plays in progress. She only got through the first year because of commitments to act and direct for other companies.

She directed several staged readings of another play of mine, Things I Didn’t Know I Loved. I admired the way that Barbara worked with the actors, choosing people she respected highly, and letting them find their way into their roles.

I had a chance this week to speak with Barbara’s daughter, Anna Oliver, who is a costume designer. Anna shared a few of her memories of her mom.

“My mom’s dad was a missionary, a Northern Baptist preacher. When she was three years old, my mom went with my grandpa and grandma to India. She came back to the U.S. when she was seven, speaking Hindi.

“When my mom was very young she used to listen the Metropolitan Opera on the radio on Sunday afternoons. She wanted to be an opera singer. It was outside the norm for the world she grew up in to go on stage.

“There were several roles she performed that she talked a lot about. Studying drama at Carnegie Tech, she played Cordelia in King Lear. One of the roles she was most challenged by but most glad she did was in The Chairs by Ionesco, at the Aurora Theatre. She also enjoyed doing The Gin Game there opposite my dad, Bill Oliver, though it was somewhat harrowing because my dad was ill.

“In her directing, she did a lot of George Bernard Shaw, and adored it. She also directed Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Aurora—that was Babs at her best. She was very happy with the production of Wilder Times [short plays by Thornton Wilder] that she directed at the Aurora in 2012. The short Wilder play The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden—a lot of that was informed by Barbara. She knew those folks.

“My mom always said that theater is a three-legged stool—the play, the production, and the audience. It can’t stand without all three of those. What struck me about her perspective was how much the audience mattered. My mom cared so much about writers and language, but theatre for her was communication to a purpose—to connect with an audience.

“She was generous and gracious, but it wasn’t all selfless. She did it because she loved the theater. She genuinely believed in the transformative power of theater.”

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Interview with Liliana Heker

This blog is an exclusive interview with the wonderful Argentine fiction writer Liliana Heker. Thanks to Andrea G. Labinger for translating the interview.

                                                         Liliana Heker

ZR: I've read that you studied physics when you were younger. How did that influence your writing?
LH: I think that although my study of physics has left some traces in my literature, the real significant influence must be traced back to the fact that in my adolescence, a time when writing began to be my essential activity, I chose to specialize in physics. As it happens, ever since I’ve had use of reason, both predilections, mathematics and literature, have been very strongly apparent in me. Beginning at the age of four I can recall making up stories, feeding voraciously on the stories people told me or read to me, as well as those I listened to in secret, and later, when I learned to read, devouring fiction. And at the same time, by age four I see myself trying to provide a rational explanation for everything that surrounds me and turns out to be inexplicable. At school I was good at writing compositions and nearly infallible in math. In adolescence, it seemed natural for me to express everything that was excess and madness through writing, but (perhaps for that very reason) it never occurred to me to choose literature as a formal course of study.

ZR: What changed, then, to make writing your career?
LH: For me writing was a place of freedom, where I could discover and reveal myself exactly as I was. I didn’t hesitate to choose physics as a major because scientific thought was a passion of mine and because, somehow, I felt that this type of thought could contain me and help me get organized. At sixteen I entered the College of Exact Sciences and, at the same time, began to work for a literary magazine, El grillo de papel (The Paper Cricket) and write my first short stories. At twenty-one, with one book of short stories nearly complete, I left the College of Exact Sciences because I realized that I was still passionate about science, but I had nothing to contribute (to create) in that field. Where I really did have something personal to contribute was in writing, in which I could express even my scientific self. And that’s what I think has happened. In several of my short stories, and also in my novel Zona de clivaje (Cleavage Zone), the character who tries to organize reality logically appears at the forefront and is challenged.

ZR: What other ways did your study of the sciences affect your writing?
LH: As I’ve already intimated, my study of physics made concrete contributions to my writing. Above all, it has refined my ability to structure and organize both fiction and essays. But it has also made very concrete contributions in terms of acquired knowledge. In my works of fiction the reader will detect that Entropy, the Uncertainty Principle, or the planes of cleavage form a natural part of my experience. And in the novel The End of the Story, the College of Exact Sciences appears as an unavoidable locale. In short, I think that one very chaotic, nonsensical area and another, very rational and systematic one, coexist within me, and as far as I can tell, it’s a fairly peaceful coexistence.

ZR: Do you have a theory about why Argentina has given birth to so many short story writers over the last century? I think about Japan, how it has given us so many great short poems—haiku, tanka. It seems as though a country can specialize in a particular literary genre, but why?
LH: As you very correctly point out, Zack, Argentina is a country of notable short story writers. Even a tremendous novelist like Roberto Arlt has written exceptional short stories, and Borges, the canonical Argentine writer, didn’t need to write a novel in order to attain that status. I think, rather, that there are a number of factors, sometimes interconnected, favoring the abundance and excellence of short story writers in Argentina. I’ll mention a few. 1) Unlike what happened in other Latin American countries, in Argentina, in the beginning, there was very little influence from Spanish literature (which is very lush and has little to do with the austerity of the short story), and on the other hand, a great deal of influence from English and French, and later, North American literature, three literatures in which the short story has been very important.  2) In the River Plate region we have had, in my opinion, the first great short story writer in Latin American literature: Horacio Quiroga. Quiroga was born in Uruguay (another country with notable short story writers) and lived nearly all his life in Argentina. He was a bad novelist, and in every sense, a master of the short story, since he didn’t just write remarkable stories; he also wrote masterfully about the secrets of the genre. In his Decálogo del perfecto cuentista (Ten Commandments for the Perfect Short Story Writer), he points out those whom he considers to be the masters of the genre: Poe, de Maupassant, Chekhov, Kipling (a selection that illustrates what I said earlier). 3) In Argentina there is, by and large, a starker, less exuberant countryside than in other regions of Latin America, a phenomenon that, in a complex way, influences the choice of worlds and narrative styles. 4) There is a type of speech and syntax (connected, in turn, with a unique way of seeing reality and a predisposition to irony and doubles entendres) that perhaps draws us Argentines to the unique effect the short story presents. No doubt these are approximations or points of departure to try to understand this phenomenon. The fact is, in Argentina there are great masters of the genre and several generations of noteworthy writers of short stories, which makes it more likely that new writers will write short stories. For various and complex reasons that exceed the limits of this response, a short story tradition has become ingrained in Argentina and that trait, literarily speaking, makes us who we are.

ZR: Could you say something about how your family came to Argentina?
LH: My maternal grandparents arrived as children in 1889 on the Weser, a mythical ship that brought the first [Eastern European] Jewish immigrants to Argentina that same year, those who established the first colonies in Entre Ríos and Santa Fe. My great-aunts and uncles were “Entrerrianos” (from the province of Entre Ríos); the first to be born in Buenos Aires was my mother. My paternal grandparents arrived in 1905 at La Pampa, with my father, who was a newborn baby, and two other small children. All of them came from Russia, from the Ukraine area. I don’t know much more than that.

For more on Liliana Heker, please see this blog.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Liliana Heker: A Writer We Should All Know

Scanning the shelves of the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library one day, hungry for good fiction, I ran across Liliana Heker’s The Stolen Party. The book is a collection of short stories translated from Spanish by Alberto Manguel. Rarely does it happen that I make a selection almost at random in a library and end up dazzled. But dazzled I was.

                                                           Liliana Heker

Several of the stories in that book were among the most memorable I’ve ever read. Heker is a master of magical realism, but she has her own take on it. The first story in the book, “Georgina Requini: or the Chosen One,” telescopes the entire life of a wannabe actress into 30 pages. It’s breathtaking, zooming from one phase of the main character’s life to the next, in and out of her fantasies, so we rarely know where and when the action takes place until we get our bearings a couple of sentences into each episode. That puzzle is one of the most fun aspects of the story. But this disorientation also mirrors the main character’s bewilderment about how her fate plays out. The story is a technical tour de force, warping the space/time continuum, but it’s also deeply moving and knowing, a combination that magical realism doesn’t always deliver.

The title story of The Stolen Party is also amazing. More in the vein of naturalist fiction, it tells the tale of a nine-year-old girl who is the daughter of a maid, but gets invited to the birthday party of the girl whose family employs her mother. I won’t give away the shocking ending.

Julio Cortázar, like Heker, an Argentine master of fiction, said about her writing, “Liliana Heker is a magician. She turns little daily objects and trivial events into pieces of gold. She is wise, she is frightening. She must be read, she must be read.”

Also available in English is Heker’s novel about the period of the dictatorship and the Dirty War in Argentina, The End of the Story, translated by Andrea Labinger. The novel caused a stir both on the left and the right, because one of the revolutionary characters is subjected to torture, turns informant, and then becomes the lover of her torturer.

Heker was born in Buenos Aires in 1943 to a family that emigrated from Europe. In response to a question about her roots, Heker responded: “My maternal grandparents arrived as children in 1889 on the Weser, a mythical ship that brought the first Jewish immigrants to Argentina” from Eastern Europe. Her ancestors settled in Entre Ríos province, home of the Jewish gauchos.

Interestingly, Heker began her academic career as a student of physics. That might explain her comfort in playing with the rules of time and space in her fiction. She was also a literary prodigy, publishing her first stories at the age of 17. She’s well known in Argentina for cofounding two important literary journals: El Escarabajo de Oro (The Golden Beetle), and El Ornitorrinco (The Platypus). Her work has been translated into numerous languages, and fortunately for us, English is one of them.

My next blog will be an exclusive interview with Liliana Heker, featuring information not available elsewhere in English.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
Writers I Can't Stop Reading, Part 1Part 2Part 3. Part 4, Part 5
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka