Daniels, Ritivoi present new works
Carnegie Mellon English professors Jim Daniels and Andreea Ritivoi on Friday gave a joint reading from their recently published works, Eight Mile High and Intimate Strangers: Arendt, Marcuse, Solzhenitsyn, and Said in American Political Discourse, respectively, in the university bookstore.
Daniels, who is a professor of creative writing at Carnegie Mellon, began the event with a reading from his new book of fiction. Eight Mile High is comprised of linked short stories written in a flash fiction format — often referred to as “prose poems” — meaning they are relatively short and use lyrical language. The book’s stories center around characters living near the famed Eight Mile road in Detroit, which is both a physical and symbolic borderline between the predominantly white and working class suburbs and the African-American urban center.
Daniels chose to read a story that comes at the end of the book, titled “The Tall Tale and Cowboy Mattress,” which focuses on a main character of the book, whom it follows from childhood. In the story, the character reflects on his own child, who is grown and attending the fictitious Eight Mile High from which the book draws its title. The piece’s narrator focuses on a mattress spotted with images of cowboys and recalls both his son’s and his own happy period of innocence.
Andreea Ritivoi, who is a professor of rhetoric focusing on narrative and identity among other subjects, followed with a reading from her book, Intimate Strangers. She introduced the selection by explaining the Leo Tolstoy short story “Kholstomer,” which tells a typical love story between a farmer and his wife, but is told from the perspective of their horse. In this manner, everything the reader sees is filtered through the horse’s perspective, with the goal of making normal things take on a new shine. For example, the horse refers to everything, whether it be the farm or the farmer, as “his,” which goes against a normal human view of property ownership in a farm environment.
Ritivoi explained that this technique is known as “defamiliarization,” and Tolstoy uses it to allow the reader to re-examine the most basic aspects of life. Ritivoi went on to explain that she sees foreigners, whom she defined as anyone identified by Americans as foreigners, as key agents of defamiliariaztion in the American political discussion, a role they are often scrutinized for.
The four subjects of Intimate Strangers — Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Edward Said — were all foreigners with varying degrees of legal citizenship, but all came under great attack for criticizing the American political system. Ritivoi explained that all of her subjects were extremely vilified, with some even receiving death threats, for having the gall to criticize America as a foreigner; even though individuals considered to be “native” Americans echoed their criticisms.
Through a study of their writings, Ritivoi dissected the rhetorical voice of the foreigner and how to establish the concept of defamiliariaztion through careful use of language, and concluded that the voice of a foreigner could be adopted in writing to give a unique perspective on issues.
Attendance was sparse, consisting mainly of the professors’ students and colleagues. Those in attendance responded warmly to the reading, especially given their departmental connection to the two professors. Fifth year scholar and professional writing and creative writing double major Josh Claudio said, “It’s cool seeing Jim outside of an academic environment and speaking on things that personally interest him.”
After Ritivoi concluded her segment, Daniels made a point that the two works are not quite as different as they appear. Daniels explained that within Detroit, which has become somewhat of the poster child of a failed America, one must “earn the right to criticize Detroit by being from there.” He spoke of a team of French photographers who photographed the ruins and abandoned buildings of Detroit, and how the citizens felt violated and exploited.
Daniels said, however, that if the same photos had been run in a local newspaper, there would likely have been little to no controversy. “Who has the authority to criticize?” was thus a central theme of the afternoon.