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White Tears

The Suffering You Didn’t Have: On Hari Kunzru’s White Tears

White Tears
Hari Kunzru
Penguin Random House, 2017

Review by Will Preston

On a dark night in 1920s Mississippi, the story goes, the bluesman Robert Johnson walked out to the crossroads and sold his soul to the Devil. He was gifted with a preternatural ability to play the guitar in return: the strings bending beneath his fingers, his voice filled with what sounded like the anguish of generations. When he died mysteriously at 27, he left behind almost nothing, just a scattering of records and a swirling fog of myths. Johnson’s songs feel bracingly authentic to this day, filled with the violence and repression facing blacks in the Depression-era South. But the stories told of his life are anything but authentic. Johnson’s identity was hijacked in the decades after his death, largely by white fans eager to spread legends and half-truths about the voice in their record player. This was not an unusual legacy for black, pre-war blues musicians. “White urbanites reshaped the music to fit their own tastes and desires,” the historian Elijah Wald has written, “creating a rich mythology that often bears little resemblance to the reality of the musicians they admired.”

Continue reading The Suffering You Didn’t Have: On Hari Kunzru’s White Tears

A lot of life in “Little Death”: a review of Daniel Karasik’s new play

Review by Sarah Higgins

Little Death
Daniel Karasik
BookThug, 2015

Daniel Karasik’s Little Death:  A Play reads like a performance. Of course, it needs to be seen on stage to be fully experienced—but the solitary reading experience of Little Death engages the breath in a unique, encompassing way, enabling reader to become performer. This is one of its greatest strengths, the ability of the format to elicit emotion through its simplicity. Just try to read this without feeling their tension:

BRIT:    I know
That’s the
So ridiculous

ALEX:   I’m just trying to

BRIT:    Please
Let’s not (32-33)

Formatting the play like a poem enhanced an internalization of action within the text—line breaks are well-used as pauses, and the lack of punctuation drives the breath and the story onwards. Karasik sketches the bare bones of the scenes, often with only a couple words—Hotel bar. Home.—and leaves the rest of the world up to the reader (or designer, or director) to construct. This gives the actors and director great freedom of movement, which, of course, is what a published play lacks—a physicality.

9781771661805-487x780Here Little Death stumbles, when read, because some of the physical details of the characters and their lives aren’t visible through the language. Is Alex actually in pain? What are the symptoms of his illness? True, a sense of mystery can heighten interest in a story, but persistent questions become a distraction instead of an enhancement.

That said, Karasik’s two protagonists, Alex and Brit, are deftly drawn (if ultimately unlikeable). With each read they become more complex, more human, more heart breaking. Unfortunately, that beautiful complexity falters in some significant places. When Brit assumes responsibility for Alex’s situation, it empowers him in a way that feels unearned and imbalanced because it disempowers her. Alex’s general lack of reaction in the text means her statement is unchallenged, which, as a woman, makes me uncomfortable. There may be a physical reaction that can clarify it, but with Karasik’s barebones directions that reaction is not knowable to the reader.

And that is where my biggest hesitation with Little Death lies—in knowing what Karasik thinks of his own characters. Who does he side with, and when? Do we buy into the premise as a realistic situation, or is it more satirical than that? These are, of course, questions that should be answered individually, and answers that would be aided by the added elements of a full staged performance—but having a sense of where the playwright stands would help shape the world in which the reader as audience finds themselves.

All in all, Little Death is a masterful exploration of how to write a readable play. With strong characters, inimitable voices and a playfulness of form and language, Daniel Karasik breathes life into his written words—breath he gives to the reader.

Sarah Higgins is into her second year of her Creative Writing Masters of Fine Arts at UBC. She’s foremost a playwright, and has had work produced at both edges of the country—from Little Mountain Lion Productions in Vancouver to a recent show in the Halifax Fringe festival. This is her first foray into theatre reviews, and she is excited to work with the talented writers at PRISM international. Continue reading A lot of life in “Little Death”: a review of Daniel Karasik’s new play