Celebrating 10 years!!!!!!

Dear Readers,

I began this blog exactly 10 years ago to the day, September 30, 2012. When I started it, I had no idea what to expect. I had set up this website as a way for me and a friend (who had recently left an unhappy graduate school program) to continue our wonderful discussions that we always had on the phone, but online for people to read them. As she decided not to participate, the blog became entirely mine. I saw it as an outlet for all my various intellectual musings, artistic opinions, cultural criticism, and more, a place to put down words on paper that were not my long, formal fiction projects. Over the years, it has taught me so much more than I could’ve ever imagined. I got to interview interesting people. I analyzed books in detail. I offered my thoughts on politics and the situation in the world. And most of all, I got to share with others the things I love most: the arts. I had no readers in the beginning; I was just simply thrilled to write and have a place to do it.

            And the rewards have been incredible. An editor at The Guardian had praise for my work. People started following it. It gave me clout because it showed to agents that I have a platform as a writer. And, on a whim, when I saw a call for non-fiction essay collections in winter 2021, I put together a manuscript of my favorite pieces from this blog and began querying agents. While I have had no takers yet, I have had positive feedback, and that has been so surprising and wonderful, how something that I just started for an internal need has become something concrete.

            But most of all, what is the most gratifying and humbling thing is the fact that you, my readers, have cared enough to follow and read my blog. What I want to say to you is a heartfelt thank you, and also to encourage you to go for it: start your own blog! What are you waiting for? If I can do it, you can too. It’s really not hard and you just never know the places it might take you.

Creating Your Own Personal Canon

We often hear about The Canon, a presumed-monolithic entity of classics from Western literature and art that is in opposition to literatures from outside the west, different art forms, and different ways of conceiving classical works. There is also much good debate about the canon as we know it, what should be included in it and what should be discarded so that we can make way for works that are more relevant and reflective of our modern society and perceptions. However, we can also ask ourselves about our own tastes and preferences, and create our own personal canon. What are the books, paintings, pieces of music, works of art that inspire us personally?

As I wrote in an earlier post, many years ago I saw a photo exhibit by Patti Smith at the Detroit Institute of Arts. What was most striking was not the photographs themselves, but the canon she had put together through photography. She has a sensitive, aesthetic eye and is moved by great art of any kind; she also knows which body of work inspires her. Inspiration is a word that is thrown around loosely, in clever memes on Instagram, on wooden cubes for home decor. On a deeper level, it is something that we cannot live without. Different artists speak to us in different ways–some appeal to our “shadow” or dark side, some uplift us, others challenge us, motivate us, see things in a different way than we do, etc. etc.

When we create our own personal canon, it does not necessarily mean we have to make a list or a Pinterest board to define it in a formal way. Naturally, we will gravitate to certain types of works or artists and over time, we get a sense of what we like. Emulation is part of the process: maybe we paint like X, write like Y, or dress like Z. And then we start developing our own voice, using elements of X, Y, or Z, and eventually our voice becomes our own. For those who aren’t artists, a personal canon will simply be a body of work and artists whom one always want to see more of. A person working in finance who has no aptitude for music may always want to follow the latest from Björk, or a scientist may have regular tickets to the symphony. What matters, in any case, is that we know who or what inspires us and ignites our soul. I argue in favor of following the artists we love best, the trajectory of their creativity, knowing the body of their work. Don’t we love talking with people who have a passion for a particular artist in depth?

We can choose whatever elements we want for our own personal canon. Who’s to say that someone can’t mix Rihanna with Balkan folk dancing with Latin American magical realist authors? Think of your canon as a special box in which you put your favorite, most precious objects. Each of these objects is like a different stone: one might be precious, one might be common but look nice, another one might be unusual. There is no right or wrong here; all that matters is that you choose what you love, knowing that it reflects a part of you that is your deepest soul.

Book Review: The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid

This is a brief review of Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel. I am a fan of Hamid, because I admire how he accomplishes so much in a short space in his novels. This book is, in a word, clever. The premise, execution, the subject matter and how it is handled is truly intelligent, insightful, and wry. Hamid manages to get a lot of social commentary in without hitting the reader over the head with it. (SOME SPOILERS BELOW.) It is a brilliant book that is absolutely worth reading.

Well-read people will immediately know that this novel alludes to Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” where Gregor Samsa wakes up and is transformed into a giant beetle. However, in this case, Anders (one of two protagonists) wakes up and find that his skin has darkened. Anders goes through various stages of understanding, first experiencing shock but then eventually experiencing fright, as he sees how dark-skinned people are treated differently. His good friend Oona, who soon becomes lover, seems fairly accepting of the change, but not everyone else is as open-minded. Anders’s father, for example, is drawn as a classic, working-class white male who values whiteness, but still cares for his son. Likewise, Oona’s mother, takes comfort in her connection to and white pride groups online. 

As members of the town become dark-skinned one by one, and as violence increases, Anders and Oona deepen their connection, going from casual sex to a relationship and eventually to love. Oona also becomes permanently dark-skinned. Hamid skillfully juxtaposes this intimate relationship against the backdrop of riots and violence against dark-skinned people by those who hang onto their white identity till the last, who try to maintain white supremacy until they too succumb to the fate of turning dark. There is also the shadow of Anders’s father’s illness, which is terminal, along with the recent death of Oona’s brother.

What is interesting, and shocking, perhaps, is that the reader would expect the novel to be more about the realization and acceptance of not being white in society. Instead, Hamid shows us the struggle that white people have with both dark skin as well as becoming a minority. He gets inside the mindset of white people who feel threatened by black or brown people, and in playing this “reverse psychology” trick, illustrates how racism develops and is quite pervasive in American society. Hamid turns the tables on us, because he has crafted a narrative about how racism develops from white fragility and shows us the fearful white’s POV—all quite clever, given that Hamid is of Pakistani origin.

The main criticism I have of the novel is that the paragraphs are constructed by very long, run-on sentences. Conventional punctuation, such as semicolons and periods do not break up the paragraphs, so it requires the reader to pay close attention, making it difficult to read. There is very little dialogue, with Hamid focusing instead on interiority. At times, the novel can feel a little “thin,” as it stays very focused on a few characters’ experiences. My other chief criticism is that the ending feels abrupt, time is summed up too quickly, and it doesn’t quite give us a satisfying resolution. However, this novel is still quite intriguing and really one of a kind, reflecting the events of the past couple of years (a pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, white supremacy riots, etc.) that are transformed into a dystopian world that will appeal to readers of speculative fiction as well as fans of multicultural literature. Hamid always has something interesting to say, and a very engaging way of saying it. I look forward to his next novel, as he is one of the most insightful, thought-provoking writers around.

Poise and Dignity: Remembering Queen Elizabeth II

Should we mourn someone who was the head of a very hegemonic, unjust institution that controlled so much of the developing world, and that holds a disproportionate amount of wealth today? A monarchy that is so linked to colonialism, slavery, and inequality? Someone who is still a polarizing figure not only in the Commonwealth and developing countries, but in her own country (there are many republicans, a word which means something entirely different in the UK.)

And yet, something must be said, because her passing cannot go without comment. In a world where oversharing is the norm, social media takes precedence over all forms of communication, and individualism is a driving force in how people live their lives, there was one woman who quietly went about her business without complaint and with an even temperament because she knew it was her duty: Queen Elizabeth II. What can be said about this great lady that hasn’t been said already? What can we learn from a woman who was nearly 100 years old and of a very different generation, who admittedly struggled to deal with emotional situations, especially related to family? And who was the elite of the elite, wealthy beyond belief, and royal?

-Change with the times. This might sound ironic, because in many ways, the queen was resistant to change and valued tradition over trends. However, she chose subtle ways to adapt within the framework of the institution and her culture. She had to become a media presence. She dismantled her empire. Her children adopted lifestyles and mores that were radically different from her own conservative Christian ones influenced by the Church of England. Her grandsons married true commoners who came from ordinary working families, with ancestry that included lower income people. And yet she was still the Queen, upholding the traditions of centuries, even a millennium.

-Embrace different people. It is well known that the queen cared deeply about the Commonwealth, a group of nations that were former colonies, the majority of which were not white. Nelson Mandela even had a special nickname for her, and the two were on a first name basis. She even broke protocol to reciprocate when Michelle Obama placed her hand on her back, as she was very fond of the groundbreaking First Lady. There is no question that much of the world is still recovering from centuries of British colonialism (the Partition was one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century, in my opinion), and that many despise the British Monarchy. And she was not fond of Diana’s heart-on-her-sleeve approach to connecting with everyone, did not have the Princess of Wales’s connection with all the marginalized groups in society (who loved Diana dearly). But we cannot overlook the individual and how she had a personal rapport with many that her class (including her own mother) deemed unsuitable. She came from a society that was extremely racist, whose roots were connected to colonialism and slavery, and the current royals must move forward with making reparations.

-Do your work. Elizabeth’s steady, dutiful personality never wavered. It was extremely rare, almost unheard of, for the queen to miss her engagement. She never appeared fatigued, she treated everyone kindly, maintained a sense of cheer, and traveled extensively in the UK and around the world. She worked into her 90s–a rare feat for anyone, given that most people retire in their mid-60s, and do not survive to their 100thdecade. We have no idea what health problems she suffered throughout her lifetime, or her personal struggles. All we know is that she took her job seriously, through ups and downs, even when it was not a job she should have had. She was very fair to her staff, remembering their names and details about them. It is of note that she would have had a tremendous knowledge of- and insight into 20th and 21st century British history and politics, given her weekly audiences with prime ministers. She put duty and the institution above her personal life and expected others to do so.

-Maintain a sense of humor. By all accounts from people who met her, the queen was incredibly funny. She never took herself seriously, though she took her job seriously. When someone in a shop once commented that she resembled the Queen, she commented, “I find that rather assuring.” Recent years saw her willing to entertain the crowds by appearing with James Bond in her entrance to attending the London Olympics, and the recent, brilliantly funny video of her having tea with Paddington Bear before the Jubilee.

-Love animals and nature. Those who knew her well have said that were she not queen, she would simply have been a country lady, living at her manor, tending to her horses and dogs and plants. Her infamous corgis surrounded her throughout her life, and she had a deep interest in the plants and flowers and trees at her residences. Though her lifestyle was undoubtedly beyond extravagant, her own pleasures were fairly simple. 

-Maintain a sense of composure and mystery. Even when an intruder snuck into her bedroom, the Queen had enough sangfroid not to panic. She never gave interviews, save once, and she rarely revealed things about herself in public. These are characteristics that were typical of her class, and hence why she clashed with Diana, to whom she was sometimes unsympathetic. She kept herself on an even keel, much like the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was a figurehead, not a best friend. Even her dress sense, which was sometimes dowdy and outdated for modern times, featured simple cuts and bright colors so she could be seen. Perhaps it is this very British upper-class sense of “good breeding” that many Americans find so appealing (hence the popularity TV shows and movies about the English aristocracy.)

There are many things to criticize about the Queen, no question. She was not the warmest of mothers and could not understand emotional needs in her sons and daughters in law, or in her family. Sometimes she was out of touch with the zeitgeist of a decade. But even the staunchest Republicans and anti-monarchists cannot fail to respect the late Queen Elizabeth II on a personal level, for there were very few people like her in the recent decades or century. As an individual, a working professional, she was remarkable.

Fairytales for Grown-Ups

This weekend, I saw “3000 Years of Longing,” which was a thoroughly enjoyable, modern, Arabian nights-style fable based on a short story by A.S. Byatt. The film alternates between scenes with the buttoned up academic Alithea (played by Tilda Swinton) and the djinn (the incredibly charismatic Idris Elba), and the flashback stories the djinn tells her of love and romance and wishes and tragedy. The scenes with just the two of them are prim, pristine, in a chic Istanbul hotel in the modern era. But the scenes in the past are candy-colored, lavish, even slightly gaudy, and they work brilliantly. All of this speaks to our human need for something that is out of the ordinary and mythic, something primal in our souls that needs to be fulfilled by a story that has magic to it.

Oscar Wilde’s short stories often have this “fairytales for grown-ups” quality to them. There are certain “stock characters”: a prince, a princess, animals that talk and guide us, evil beings. Those who dislike fairytales may say these characters (And fairytale characters in general) are two dimensional, flat, stereotyped. They are welcome to their opinion. I would argue these characters are there to serve the story, a greater message, rather than necessarily be something in and of themselves. There is a difference between archetypes and stereotypes.

Recent decades have shown the mania for fairytales as evidenced by the Harry Potter books. While certainly written for young people, countless adults have enjoyed the books as well as the films. We enjoy watching Harry develop magical powers, special effects, and watching good triumph over evil.

In literary fiction, a good deal of the work of Salman Rushdie has a fairytale-like quality to it. Think of Haroun and the Sea of Stories: even the title signals its connection to the Arabian nights and the Middle East/South Asia’s tradition of storytelling. While the novel is allegorical, it can be read on two levels: that of a child’s tale, and that of a critique of censorship.

There is of course the work of Angela Carter which draws directly on fairytales and (from what I have told, as I have not yet read her) Kelly Link. I find it refreshing that there are many authors (not listed here) who write on the edge of the fairytale/speculative fiction/magical realism and modern literary fiction; it is often a welcome change from the heavily realistic style we see so frequently, one that focuses on middle class, domestic issues, trauma, and relationships. The stories of indigenous cultures and ancient cultures, such as that of India, have never let go of the fairytale, as they are still seen as a relevant source of wisdom and entertainment.

Especially in a time like this, when we have been suffering with a pandemic for over 2 1/2 years, isn’t it nice to have something that transports us to a magical world, where princesses are beautiful, strong, and decisive, princes are handsome and brave, animals are our guides, palaces drip with opulence and jewels, and evil is something to be triumphed over?

What It’s Really Like to Be an Opera Singer

Myths and stereotypes abound about opera singers or the opera world. The classic clichéd image of a fat woman with blonde braids and a helmet with horns belting out Brünnhilde lingers in our zeitgeist, but the reality is very far from this. Legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti put opera on the map, creating a presence in quotidian life, made it a household phenomenon to the point where someone might say, “Sure, I can sing, but I’m no Pavarotti.” For others, opera is a complete unknown. Even for me, trained on the violin and the world of classical music since childhood, opera was a beautiful yet virtually alien art form: I believed they were descended from some other planet, because how else could they produce those otherworldly sounds? What is the field of opera like, beyond all the misconceptions and stereotypes? Here are my observations as an emerging professional soprano.

At its core, one must simply produce a good sound with healthy technique. Many of us are trained in the Italian bel canto style, which translates to “beautiful singing.” Control of the breath and good breath support, producing the sound in the “mask” (roughly, the area of our face which is now covered with a mask due to Covid!), and no strain on the vocal cords are all key components of opera singing, no matter the method of training.

The majority of arias and Lieder are in foreign languages, especially in Italian for beginners. So knowledge- and ideally mastery of different languages or at least transliteration of the sounds for those who are not linguistically inclined is crucial. The more you understand what you are singing, the more convinced you are about the text, the better your credibility. This is not an easy task; even some A-level singers do not understand the languages in which they are singing. This is certainly understandable in many cases, such as if one is singing in Czech or Russian. Even if the singer knows the language, such as Italian, the texts are written in older and poetic forms of the language, so that also provides a big challenge.

This relates, naturally, to acting. How do you manifest the text through your body and gestures? And at the same time are trying to produce a healthy, consistent sound that does not vary as you change emotions? Cecilia Bartoli is notorious for her movements (which some might say are excessive), while Renée Fleming is often fairly still. Some of us are advised to study straight acting and not acting for singers. I believe this is good advice, because it gives the singer broader tools and a deeper understanding of the craft. And there is also the whole aspect of acting for stage, how you block and move, your physical relation to other performers and to the overall effect of how it looks to the audience. 

Now we come to the actual career side of things, something which many singers are not prepared for given the general lack of information about this from musical institutions. The standard rule is to have five arias of different languages and characteristics ready before you audition. Of course, this will vary from singer to Singer and what their goals are. The expected path for talented singers is to audition for young artist programs or smaller companies, participate in competitions (such as the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions). One can also audition for professional opera choruses, via soloist in a church or ensemble, etc. There is a huge leap from training to having a career as a singer, because there is no one way in which to develop it. Everyone’s path will be different. Some people attend the top institutions in this country, maybe even perform in a couple of A-level productions, but struggle with auditions, and give up, changing career paths altogether. Others work menial jobs, such as someone I knew who was folding clothes at a retail store yet singing in high-caliber performances. There are others who make a steady living as a working singer, singing in their church, local gigs, weddings, small productions, and more. And there is also a category of singers who are working professionals in a different field while pursuing opera as a second career.

For the lucky singers for whom opera is their entire career and livelihood, there is a high level of professionalism and discipline they must maintain. It is irritating when nearly everyone asks if most opera singers are divas–absolutely not, as one simply CANNOT maintain a successful career as an opera singer if one is not a responsible performer and agreeable colleague, because there are at least a dozen people to replace you. Professional singers’ schedules are booked for months, even a year or two in advance (several years in advance for the top singers in the world). This can involve lots of travel, and not very much pay, so it is not a lucrative career except for those at the very top. German singers who have a Fest contract are fortunate, as they receive a regular, stable salary: it is a regular working job. Many accomplished professional singers also teach conservatories or universities as a way of maintaining stability with both career and finances.

In my experience, almost all the world-class singers I have studied with or met are down-to-earth, kind, and extremely committed to their craft. Some are even self-deprecating and self-effacing! Many of them certainly have high standards for what they expect of their students but are not cruel or unkind. They understand how important it is to be supportive of the singer, who is in a vulnerable position, and that the opera world can be brutal. This doesn’t mean they sugarcoat the difficulties of the career: some can be quite frank about how a student should develop their career given their abilities. But I want to dispel the myth of the snobby, volatile, entitled, opera singer, because most of them are nothing like that (with a couple of exceptions). I find there is more pettiness and ignorance at the bottom and beginner levels than there is at the top. Some singers are quite intelligent, cultured, and well-read.

Teachers and music institutions have been extremely mindful in recent years of the mental health of their students, and the old style of teaching with brutal put-downs, tantrums, harassment, etc. is on its way out. This is a very positive and necessary thing. Also, opera companies and organizations have been reevaluating their pasts and the lack of diversity in casting, along with the stodgy nature of repeated operas by dead composers. In the opera world beyond the stage, as the pandemic spurred artists on to create new ways of performing.

It is truly a joy to be part of such a beautiful, bizarre, challenging, and historic art form.

The Writer as Truth-Teller

We have seen the tragic event of the past week and events of the recent past and this only emphasizes the importance of the writer as a social figure. It is also crucial that we allow democracy to filter into the classroom, allowing a variety of viewpoints to be read in various texts.

There are a variety of ways in which writers tell the truth. Sometimes, they overtly criticize a political regime or administration. This act seems to be what is most often chastised and severely punished, even by imprisonment or death. At other times writers use satire, a phenomenon which, when done carefully, evades censors and thus the readers (or viewers of theater) are quick to pick up on institution that is being critiqued. Humor can be a tool in doing this: what we know of as, for example, “dark Slavic humor” masks a sarcastic commentary. The twin sister of satire is allegory, in which a fable-like quality is given to the lead characters and narrative, allowing it to be read on one level as simple story (that retells a classic we know), while a more profound subtext is below what we read on the surface.

Politics, religion, social institutions, -isms of various sorts (such as sexism) are all topics that brave writers address through literature whose goal is social commentary. Sometimes, fiction is the best way to make sense of our world and engaging people: think of how many people tune out and stop watching the evening news or reading the (online) newspaper when they are faced with the literal facts and information about what is going on in the world. Fiction allows for a deeper analysis of our current situations, end it often does so in a much more poetic or palatable way.

There are those who will say a writer should write with the philosophy of “art for art’s sake,” such as Oscar Wilde did. However, Oscar Wilde himself did comment on society in many of his works, albeit in a highly aesthetic way. Even his own life, as a gay aesthete writer, was an act of rebellion for which he heavily paid the price. The takeaway should be that enjoyable, appealing prose and social commentary are not mutually exclusive.

Understanding How We Deepen Fiction

Being a writer is quite an arduous process and a fascinating endeavor, nonetheless. Once we discover the impulse to put something down on the page, we find that there are layers and layers of work. Perhaps the most gifted of writers have little struggle, but for the rest of us mortals, it takes much trial and error to understand the complexity of our task.

Over the years, I have enjoyed editing others’ work in workshops, conferences, and even privately. In the early days, my feedback was largely line edits, as that’s what I understood fiction editing to be. Over time, I started to think about plot and motivation: was there a clear cause-and-effect? Were the characters’ reasons for doing things legit, based on what was on the page? And naturally, this tied into scene and scene length. Where did I feel there was a bit missing, where something needed to be expanded? What darlings need to be killed? (A lot of writers err on the side of putting in too many details, and often they do not serve the plot or the main thrust of the story.) Was the writer setting us up properly at the beginning of the story or piece of fiction for things to unfold in the way they did throughout the work?

And in my own writing, I came to understand importance of the quality of prose. A good friend of mine from my MFA program spent hours laboring over her sentences. We would send each other a sample of our work weekly, and I understood from her that it wasn’t enough to simply tell the story from the images in my head: variation in my sentences and what I put on the page was extremely important. Due to my earlier training in the social sciences and academia, I was used to observing and writing down what I saw. This had its advantages, in that my characters were never flat, and I always received positive comments on the their complexity and on the realism of my stories. However, the cost was I had to think about the nature of my prose, which sometimes seemed simplistic and flat. Who were the master stylists among writers? Who had a great command of the language and used diction to their full advantage? Toni Morrison is one author who immediately comes to mind, as well as Oscar Wilde.

Dialogue was another part of craft that I picked up on by analyzing the masters in addition to my social science training and powers of observation. Robert Boswell, one of my MFA advisors, had me write craft essays (called “annotations” at Warren Wilson) on this, and I learned that what mattered was not only realistic-sounding dialogue, but also the structural purpose it held. For example, in Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” dialogue was deception; the characters were constructed through dialogue that was very much at odds with their personalities. Good dialogue in a piece of writing makes it feel real. The characters come to life, we can relate, and the reader is engaged. Playwrights must have a strong sense of this, for their works are based entirely on dialogue. Same for opera: everything is told through the libretto.

As my understanding of writing became more sophisticated, I started to understand more about that elusive concept called “emotional resonance.” Earlier in my writing career, it sounded like a slippery, ambiguous, subjective term (which one could argue still is). But I got a better sense of this intangible thing over time and especially when working with my final Warren Wilson advisor, the renowned Joan Silber. When the reader grasps the themes and characters from the beginning, they anticipate certain feelings and emotions to be evoked. Then they ask, “What feels real or true to this character or situation? Would the character really do X? Or shouldn’t there be more expansion here, so we see how the character reacts to Y?” In my own work, a novel retelling of a classic, I changed a significant element of the plot with one character, putting her pregnancy before marriage, because it affected what was going to happen through the whole novel. I jokingly told my advisor that my realization of this was a WWJD–”What Would Joan Do?”–moment, that she would have made such a suggestion while I was writing. Even outside the scope of retellings, this is an important yet subtle technique, for the best writing incorporates this without the reader ever knowing. Consider two examples (spoiler alert!): The Story of a New Name, where Lenù sleeping with the father of the boy she is in love with is shocking but fitting, or Jane Eyre’s flight from Mr. Rochester after she finds out he is married. They feel right with the tone of the novel and the character.

I could go on and on about what makes fiction deeper, as I feel this post is superficial and doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I want to say. Besides, numerous books and articles have been written on this subject. But I choose to write from my own experience because it has been a surprising, sometimes frustrating, yet always- fascinating journey that will continue for the rest of my life.

The Sound Clown: A Tribute to Kinesthetic Comedians

One of my favorite things to do is to examine the life and body of work of an artist (very often in the performing arts). To choose someone whose work I am vaguely familiar with and get to know them more in depth. Though I had certainly been exposed to his songs on old records and a couple of his films as a child, I wanted to know more about the late, great Danny Kaye, who was nothing short of a genius. He was a singer, actor, dancer, conductor, Chinese chef, pilot, UNICEF goodwill ambassador–the list goes on. What struck me about him was his gift for language and wordplay, and how he manifested it physically. And I have never been the greatest fan of stand-up comedy (with a few exceptions), which can feel artificial and forced and ultimately not very funny. 

This got me thinking about comedians whose work I have always loved: performers who are very auditory and kinesthetic, who’s comedy is based on sound, funny noises, how something is said, and how this verbal modality is expressed in the body. In other words, body-based comedians, whose very physical entity is their vehicle, rather than words spoken into a microphone. We can look at a lineage starting with Kaye that includes other performers of the same ilk.

Danny Kaye had a tremendous ear for languages and could fake them very credibly. He could take each line of dialogue and know how to extend certain words with exaggerated gestures for comic effect. His timing, sense of rhythm and musicality, and his versatility made him like no other, though he often played the ever-vulnerable clown. One need only see his last performance, in a guest turn as the dentist Dr. Burns on “The Cosby Show,” to see all his best qualities: the physical clowning, the very accurate German accent, his natural affinity for children, and his acting prowess.

One could include Kaye’s contemporary Victor Borge same vein, though he is technically a musician who happened to perform rather than an actor. Borge (born Børge Rosenbaum) was a Danish Jewish pianist who was a serious prodigy and accomplished classical musician. He went on to develop a career as musical comedian, interspersing jokes and routines with piano performance. Those of us of a certain generation will certainly remember his famous punctuation routine from “The Electric Company!” He turned classical music performance into something very accessible, or we could say, he brought intelligence and sophistication to comedy.

The disgraced monster/comic legend Bill Cosby also incorporated sound and physical comedy, as we could see frequently on “The Cosby Show.” He had beginnings in stand-up comedy and expanded into acting. Who could forget his routine about the lemon that daughter Denise wanted to buy for her first car? Cosby was a master of onomatopoeia, a device that I would assert is one of the best combinations of sound and physicality. Watching him do a funny walk or dance was hugely entertaining, and though his personal life is beyond horrifying, he left behind a remarkable body of work.

The lineage continues with the late, brilliant Robin Williams, whose loss we still feel dearly. Gifted not only as a comedian but also as a dramatic actor, Williams’s off-the-wall antics were like jazz: spontaneous, improvisatory, yet hitting all the right marks. We think of all kinds of funny voices when we think of Robin Williams, from Mork from Ork to the DJ in “Good Morning Vietnam” to Mrs. Doubtfire and beyond. Williams’s speed was astonishing, the way he could change gears between characters and thoughts and voices and gestures. He was like a barometer of human follies who left no stone unturned. Even dance–his brief, brilliant routine of styles of choreographers in “The Birdcage” is pure comic genius. Roberto Benigni could be considered the Italian equivalent of Robin Williams. His brief turn in the film “Night on Earth” demonstrates a Williams-like goofiness and spontaneity, and he is beloved in Italy and even here (as is evidenced by his Oscar for “Life is Beautiful.”) There was also the late Phil Hartman who was accomplished both as a writer and as a comic actor, someone who was tragically murdered when he had so much potential left.

The rightful heir to Robin Williams is Jim Carrey (who seems largely to be on hiatus from acting these days).”Rubber-faced” is frequently used to describe Carrey, who is capable of doing absolutely anything and everything with his face and body. We watch Jim Carrey to see him go off the rails: there is nothing funnier than watching his character go unhinged! He is a master of accents and mimicry, be it Clint Eastwood or the inimitable impression of Wile E. Coyote, complete with harmonica sounds. He is laughing and he wants us to laugh along with him, because he will push the limits of normal human life for humor. And just like Williams, Carrey also has an incredible depth as a dramatic actor, which makes sense because tragedy is the counterpart to comedy.

It pains me that I cannot think of a female actress/comedian who is quite in the same category as these men. I am a huge fan of Carol Burnett (who is only second to Lucille Ball, in my opinion), and while Burnett indeed is an expert in pushing limits for humor and very physically gifted, I would argue that she is more of an actor and an accomplished singer whose comedy focused on characters in her sketch/variety show. She is no less talented than these men, but her style is not exactly the same. This leads me to ask why there aren’t more auditory-kinesthetic comediennes. Is it because we do not encourage women to go as wild, and socialize women to be more polite? Are women expected to have a slightly more team form of comedy? Or are there certain biological gender differences behind this? Comedy has been very male-dominated art form in America, though we have gifted women who have risen and continue to rise to the top (think Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, and the wonderful Melissa McCarthy)?

In any case, we need to continue to encourage women in comedy while appreciating the great heritage of “sound clowns.” It will be exciting to see who is next in this lineage!

A Cast of Characters: Paying Tribute to The Ensemble

In working on a novel with numerous characters, I ask myself what is it about a cast of characters who interact closely that we find so appealing? How do we juggle lots of people? How do we keep them all interesting and worthy of a reader/viewer’s attention? It strikes me that this is a difficult task, whether it be in literature, television, or film.

One thing that strikes me is that there has to be plot lines of equal weight; that is, no one plotline is more important than the other. Each storyline must be intriguing enough that the reader/viewer will remain engaged, have events that grab the reader/viewer in a dramatic way. Think of Anna Karenina: we want to know if Anna will be able to divorce Karenin, but we also want to know if Levin will ever find love again after being rejected by Kitty. Or “Ted Lasso”: will Ted open up to Dr. Fieldstone and reveal his past trauma? But wait, we also want to know if Nate will develop confidence and get proper acknowledgement of his talents, and if Rebecca will find romance with her mystery texter on Bantr!

Second, there have to be characters that are generally equally interesting. One may be a villain, one may be finding their strength, one may be driving the plot, etc. In the performing arts, this requires an ensemble cast of actors who are all extremely talented. I recently saw the “Top Gun: Maverick” sequel and the cast was full of heavyweights. It is hard to say if Tom Cruise is a better actor than Val Kilmer or if Kilmer is a better actor than Ed Harris or if Harris is better than Jennifer Connolly. It is a good sign when a production can cast the best people who are at the top of their game and equally talented. In literature, if we look at Little Women, we are invested in Jo’s desire to become a published writer, but also in seeing if Meg can succeed at domestic life and marriage, if Amy will change after a trip abroad, and, sadly, if the frail Beth will stay in good health or succumb to illness.

All the characters must be working together toward the momentum of the plot and the narrative. Their interactions contribute to what will happen, building tension and moving the story forward. We don’t want too many weak links because they will stick out like a sore thumb. The characters together must also form a whole, a sort of literary “family” that we care about, beloved group and community that we want to see succeed–or perhaps fail! I believe this relates to our communal nature as human beings, a primal urge to value groups and understand their dynamics. It is also very important to note that many non-western or non-white literary traditions place a high value on the ensemble or group over the individual. The “Great Man Theory” that predominates in our artistic culture is not necessarily esteemed elsewhere.

I have always believed there should be an Oscar category for “ensemble cast,” because sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and it feels wrong to nominate one actor and not another who was equally excellent in a film. The Screen Actors Guild rightfully does this, likely because its nominating members are fellow actors and people in the field who understand the importance of this. And the best writers who can juggle many balls in the air, so to speak, create complex works of literature that are tapestries of narratives and characters.