Las Vegas is known, primarily, for being Las Vegas. It has earned most of what it’s famous (or notorious) for but, like most tourist cities, those who call it home see something else. Residents have different priorities from visitors, and a city built on creating experiences for others can make some surprising things for itself. And in Las Vegas, one of the things is literature.
For a dozen years, the Black Mountain Institute
has been out here in the desert, nurturing what they call ‘literary imagination’. They run the creative writing program at UNLV and host readings and public performances. They have extensive fellowship programs for everyone from emerging writers to tenured professors. They work with poets and memoirists, on fiction and nonfiction, and everyone and every thing in between. They believe that the best literature is about connecting shared experiences, so they promote the intersection of literary traditions and daily interests.
As part of this mission, three years ago, BMI brought The Believer magazine
to Las Vegas. The Believer is a long running, award winning bimonthly collection of rigorous writing, penetrating essays, and eclectic optimism. The magazine and the institute have been a good match, both built not on literature for its own sake, but everything that literature can celebrate.
This union gave birth to the The Believer Festival
, a now annual celebration of BMI’s literary imagination and The Believer magazine’s love of art, music, and comedy. It was considered an audacious bet on Las Vegas as a fertile ground for a funky literary sensibility, and the bet has appeared to pay off. The first year sold out based on word of mouth alone. For the second, held this Spring, they scheduled more events in spaces twice the size, and still sold out. Readings, signings, and performances were scattered across the Las Vegas valley, from an amphitheater in the mountains where the audience listened to award wining authors read while the sun set, to a poetry slam in tiny house community (with a deeply appreciative alpaca wandering the grounds). Art installations were created just for attendees, while a camera obscura on the back of a truck followed events around, providing a unique perspective on it all. The festival wrapped up with a good old-fashioned variety show, with Grammy winning musicians, New York Times best-selling authors, and series-starring comedians sharing a small stage. And everyone got together for a sing along at the end. But most importantly, the show was a fund-raiser for Black Mountain Institute’s City of Asylum
program. Because good, powerful writing, can not only impassion people, it can rouse their opposition. The City of Asylum program provides threatened writers a place to write without censorship, political repression, or threats to their life. For the last six years, BMI has been bringing writers who are in peril in their home countries to Las Vegas where they can rebuild their careers and their lives.
Threatening dissident writers is, of course, not a new fad. At the beginning of last century, Paris hosted a community of thriving artists, and when two World Wars swept through the city, it gave birth to an astounding number of creative and political movements as the artists were tested. André Breton
was in Paris for the start of both wars. He was a writer, poet, and vocal anti-fascist, but today is known for founding the Surrealist movement. He served France in the medical corps for both World Wars. But the Vichy government called him subversive and banned his writings. He fled to the United States in 1941, where he lived in exile until after the war. Although Surrealism peaked in popularity in the late 1920s, André Breton stayed active in the movement both during his exile and when he return to Paris after the war.
Breton’s medical education and experience with mental illness during the wars formed much of the bedrock for Surrealism, which he created as a method for tapping into the subconscious. To him, Surrealism wasn’t an art form so much as its was a method for generating experiences. For example, taking part in an Exquisite Corpse
game (were artists collaborate on a work of art by only seeing the tiniest part of others contributions) was a Surreal experience, tapping the artists subconscious to complete an image or story. But the resulting creations, often a jarring mashup of styles and themes, could also cause their own Surreal experiences in the mind of the audience. Surrealism was capable of generating more Surrealism.
Kawamata Chiaki’s novel Death Sentences
fictitiously finds Breton during his exile in New York, where he’s trying to keep his movement alive among his fellow refugee artists. A passionate but mysterious young writer named Who May confronts Breton with a series of Surrealist poems that Breton finds powerful, but increasingly maddening. Like the best Surrealist works, Who May’s poems changed him as he wrote them, and changed the readers as they read them. His poems became increasingly powerful until, at the end, he wrote the poem that separated the life from his body.
is about this poem, one which has the power to take readers lives from them, and turn unwitting publishers into criminals. It's about both the impossibility of suppressing an attractive idea, and the history and legacy of Surrealism. While we follow the poem across languages and through time, the novel looks at the power of language to bend reality, which feels very timely. No asylum program would have saved the fictional Who May from his fate, for he was persecuted by his own words. But similar programs in the 40s did provide shelter and aid André Breton, allowing him to preserve his ideals until he returned to France in 1946, were he fought against colonialism and fascism until his death in 1966.
It's worth noting that the overall plot of this book sound similar to Koji Suzuki’s The Ring
(which spawned an international horror franchise), but Chiaki’s Death Sentences
predates *The Ring* by more than six years. It was originally published in Japanese in 1984, but the English edition from 2012 is nicely translated by Thomas Lamarre, and has additional material on Surrealism, and Japan’s fascination with the art generated from French occupation.