Tuesday, June 4, 2019

On “disabuse[ing] us of some of our stereotypes,” Book Launch for "Correspondents"

“A million thank yous to the many friends who turned out tonight (Eid, in fact, fittingly) at McNally Jackson Books in Williamsburg for the launch of my new novel "Correspondents." We ate almost all the baklava! A special thanks to the amazing McN-J staff, to Grove PR wiz John Mark Boling and especially to Yasir Dhannoon and Lexi Shereshewsky of The Syria Fund, which the night benefited. As I learned with the last book, I never fully realize what my deep emotional impulses were for writing a book until I talk about it before a crowd for the first time. Hence, tonight was a bit stumbling and emo for me and thankfully Yasir was right there beside me to help me sort our way through it. Am VERY thankful to all who bought copies --we sold out the store stock save a few books, which means REORDER! Thank yous for showing up to Benjamin Heim ShepardIvy ArceNatalie JamesGabriel San EmeterioMartin WilsonJerome Ellison MurphyChristina QuintanaLizzie ScottVirginia VitzthumNora Burns, Ron Cohen, Cara BuckleyJessica Margaret GlaserOliver RadclyffeBrooke BermanJoe Okonkwo, Ted Theodore Davis, Joe Mejia, Imanol B MzdrJeff GolickMaggie MalinaDavid TischmanXavier SmithAaron Mack Schloff, Laura Whitehorn, Susie DayAngela KyleCarl SwansonKendall WertsTeddy RylesBruce Richman and anybody who I didn't name because I can't see you in the photo!” - photo and caption  by Tim  Murphy

A few weeks ago, Tim  Murphy sent me  an  invitation to the book launch for his new novel:
“Please join me Mon Jun 3 at 7pm at the beautiful new Williamsburg branch of McNally-Jackson for the official launch of my new novel CORRESPONDENTS (out May 28), a tale of two families--one Arab-American, one Iraqi--during and after the American-led invasion of Iraq. I will read and then will have a chat with Iraqi-born, NY-based entrepreneur Yasir Dhannoon, who was my technical adviser on the book and who is also involved with The Syria Fund, for which this evening will also be an informal benefit. I will also sign books! There will be wine and sparkling water and perhaps even Middle Eastern pastries, inshallah! Hope to see you there!”

I was excited to be there.
Murphy is the most unique of novelists.
For 15 years, I’ve  loved his work as an AIDS journalist.
When I  worked in a syringe exchange  program, we enjoyed his supportive writings on  harm reduction.  
When a dear friend died, he
Housing Works, which brought eight busloads of protesters from New York City, the day was also, as one staffer said, the “second half of Keith’s funeral.” He meant the April death of the group’s beloved cofounder (and King’s lover) Keith Cylar, whose image graced posters and T-shirts. “[Keith and I] were planning on getting arrested together today,” King said. ‘But he would be thrilled to see this.’”

Like many of the greats, he moved from journalism to  literary fiction, publishing  short stories  and Christadora in  2016,  pointing at  his own demons, our additions, compulsions, and dances with intoxication.
“She could feel the Melancholy Demon bearing down,” he wrote  in Christadora.
We all  could. 

Somehow we  thought we were out of the woods, we were a good country again when we elected  Obama, Murphy sighed out loud last night at the book launch for The Correspondents, his novel of love  and war, xenophobia and culture.

“Every novel begins with an obsession,” he confessed last night, discussing his inspiration for this larger than life story.

“You go deep,” I commented to Tim, watching him observe and get to know people as a journalist through the years.

With the Correspondents, he’s gone deeper than anyone expected.

“For years now, I’ve been obsessed with the Iraq War,” he continued, pointing out that Obama was essentially elected on his opposition to the war, pulling the country out, and allowing us to forget it.  But we couldn’t completely forget it. The same forces that got us into that war, the lies, the xenophobia, the sense of vengeance, they never  went away, always simmering below the surface.

“How quickly we become absorbed into the myopia,” Murphy wondered, reflecting on our propensity toward amnesia.

“Obama was elected and we felt like we were good again.  And,  of course, we’re not.
Then Trump was elected; my father died, and it was this grounding thing,” Murphy continued.  “And I had feelings about that.”  Although the book takes place before Trump’s ascent, it addresses the subcurrents which brought him into power.
“It’s a book about family history, American families, immigrant dreams, work, and American consciousness.”

Throughout the reading,  Murphy laughs at himself,
“AIDS, Iraq – cheerful four-letter words that will guarantee you book sales and cheery feelings. Next book will probably be about Zika.”

A lover of reading and people, Murphy is generous with him time, blurbing friends books, strangers books, my books, gushing about this book or that that he is reading, hi brow and low, Michelle Obama and  Matt Bernstein Sycamore.  This love of reading, of big topics, the  absurd, of the vistas of our imagination extends through his writing.
There were so many questions I could have asked as Murphy referred to writers, such as George  Elliot, whose prose inspire. She writes:
“'Our vision, both real and ideal, has since then been filled with far other scenes: among eternal snows and stupendous sun-scorched monuments of departed empires; within the scent of the long orange-groves; and where the temple of Neptune looks out over the siren-haunted sea. But my eyes at least have kept their early affectionate joy in our native landscape, which is one deep root of our national life and language'”.

You can feel this sensibility in Murphy’s writing. 
The  Correspondents points to something  both bountiful and dark in  us.  There is something wonderful about the communities of immigrants, such as in Boston where he grew up. But there is also something dark and closed about the ways we close ourselves to the world, becoming inundated and absorbed with ourselves.

There is a bigger world to see and understand.
My friends said, “Don’t go to Iraq.  Really just don’t,”
And misunderstanding grows.
Travel through Afghanistan and Iraq in  the 1960’s marked the happiest of adventures of my parents’ lives, making friends  not war. 
My mom wanted  to study Iranian art.
And then the revolution happened.
Misunderstanding grows.
And she turned to English illuminated manuscripts.
Murphy hopes  we can  all get  lost in a cab with someone we don’t know,
With  a stranger, learning about the generosity that is out there. 

Hopefully, the characters in the Correspondents can “disabuse us of some of our stereotypes,” he concludes. They remind me of the people in  Naguib Mahfouz’,  Cairo Trilogy. Mahfouz writes:

“I believe in life and in people. I feel obliged to advocate their highest ideals as long as I believe them to be true. I also see myself compelled to revolt against ideals I believe to be false, since recoiling from rebellion would be a form of treason… Art is language of the entire human personality.”

It feels like Murphy is leading  us down that same path toward a place where we all become a little more  human.

A supportive friend. 

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