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The City and the Writer: In Manhattan with Lorraine Adams

By Nathalie Handal

Special City Series/New York City 2011

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


1. Can you describe the mood of Manhattan as you feel/see it?

Manhattan's mood feels bipolar to me. The city's often strutting, with an unapologetic look-at-me itch. Maybe it's cause everyone at one time or another is on the street. (And on the street minus a car.) I think also the architecture, the bridges—all have an attention-grabbing lunge to them. This stuff makes for a hyper-creative, thumping, jumping megalopolis. At the same time New York does despair more seriously than any other American city. It's almost as if there's a darkness in the New York psyche that's in direct proportion to its high stomp. You can sink in New York and stay dark. All this talk about the mall-ification of Manhattan, it's rot. A massive piece of Manhattan is above 110th Street and I've found that hiddenness is alive and well there.  

2. What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Taking my mother to the Spine Institute at Columbia Presbyterian and learning from her doctor that her right arm, up until that time her only limb that we believed was temporarily paralyzed, was in fact permanently paralyzed. I've never felt so helpless.

3. What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most,  of the city?

The old streams and rivers that engineers have successfully channeled into underground manmade tunnels. In the basement of my house in Harlem for example, there's a grate that covers a giant opening in the floor. The Harlem River flows right there. 

4. What writer(s) from here should we read?

James Baldwin, Richard Price, Colson Whitehead, Walt Whitman, Dawn Powell, Hilton Als, Dorothy Parker, Alfred Kazin, Herman Melville, Ralph Ellison, Vivian Gornick, Cynthia Ozick, Paule Marshall, Henry Roth, Truman Capote, Damon Runyon, Joseph Mitchell, Miguel Pinero, Sekou Sundiata, Hubert Selby Jr., and of course, Federico Garcia Lorca.

5. Is there a place here you return to often?

The celadon and I'm not telling where it is.

6. Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Ulysses Bar on Stone Street

7. Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?


8. Where does passion live here?

On the street and in bed.

9. What is the title of one of your works about Manhattan and what inspired it exactly?

In the Granta—Pakistan issue last fall, my piece, “The Trials of Faisal Shahzad,” about the Times Square Bomber.

10.  Inspired by Levi, “Outside Manhattan does an outside exist?”


Lorraine Adams is a novelist, critic and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. She is the author of two novels: Harbor (Alfred E. Knopf, 2004), winner of the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award and a finalist for the Guardian First Book and the Orange Prize; and The Room and the Chair (Knopf, 2010).  Her work has been critically acclaimed in such publications as Harper's, Bookforum, NPR, the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Esquire, the Guardian, the Times of London, and translated into Turkish, German, and Dutch.  She is a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, and most recently, a Guggenheim grant for a novel she is currently writing set in Lahore, Pakistan. She lives in Harlem with the novelist Richard Price and their backyard posse of feral cats.

NH’s Discovery of the Month: Manhattan is always turned on. At ever corner, something to be lost in, desired, or intrigued by. There are delights we can never give up: Bob Holman’s the Bowery Poetry Club, Steve Cannon’s East Village A Gathering of Tribes Gallery and Salon, the Strand Book store, St. Mark’s Bookshop, The Drama Book Shop, Housing Works Bookstore Café, and Argosy Book Store for a piece of time and some reminiscing. There are those we need: Guernica Magazine, the New Yorker, the Sunday New York Times. Those we can count on: Poets House, Pen America, the Poetry Society of America, the Academy of American Poets. Those we have recently found:Yaa Samar! Dance Theatre, (Samar Haddad King, Artistic Director and Zoe Rabinowitz, Associate Director/ Those that keep surprising us: the street vendors, the different voices and accents that create a Manhattan symphony. Those we want more of: the Hudson, the eyes that see us when we can’t see ourselves, too busy trying to catch a bus, the subway, a yellow cab. Manhattan teases us, and we love watching it confuse us.

Published Mar 11, 2011   Copyright 2011 Nathalie Handal

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