Friday, October 9, 2009

Strange Tribe at the Miami Book Fair

I'll be presenting my memoir, Strange Tribe, at the Miami Book Fair on Sunday, November the 15th, at 2:00 in the afternoon. A good part of Strange Tribe takes place in Miami and I'm really looking forward to finally being able to speak about it in my hometown.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

San Fermin

This article was published today in the Madrid daily "El Mundo"

It was only when I first visited Pamplona in July of 2008 that I finally understood the impact that the Fiesta of San Fermin must have had on my grandfather’s work. Of course, I had read The Sun Also Rises (1926) and had heard various accounts of the Sanfermines from family members who had been there, but the reality of the Fiesta far surpasses any description of it. The explosion of color and energy that starts with the Txupinazo and continues with the beauty and the pathos of the encierros and corridas is certainly unique in Europe and, as far as I know, in the rest of the world.

Ernest came to the Fiesta nine times and most of these years were in what I would call the prime of his writing career, from 1923 to 1931. It’s true that he wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls in 1940 and The Old Man And The Sea in 1952, but most Hemingway scholars consider his best work to be the short stories that he wrote in the 1920’s and that of the novels he published in that period The Sun Also Rises or Fiesta, stands apart from the others in terms of style and theme. Indeed, like many of his short stories, The Sun Also Rises is subtly subversive. Things are not always what they seem. On one level we have a hero (Jake Barnes) and a heroine (Lady Brett Ashley) who seem to reaffirm the classic stereotypes of men and women, but in reality it is Brett who acts like a man, who is aggressive sexually and who can drink with the best of them. Jake is a wounded war veteran and was sexually emasculated in a plane crash on the Italian front. He is the submissive personality in the story, the feminine foil for Brett as she seduces all the men she encounters.

As stories go it is not exactly what you’d expect from my grandfather, given his image as a womanizer and all-around macho-man, but then Ernest was much more complicated than most people give him credit for. Like any true artist he did his best to express the stories that were inside him, to give form and texture to the emotions and events that he experienced and I can’t help but think that the Fiesta de San Fermin was fundamental to his art in that it provided the perfect mix of contradictions, of good and bad, ugly and beautiful, comic and tragic.

While the Fiesta is, in fact, the celebration of a saint, San Fermin, most foreigners are aware of Pamplona because of the running of the bulls. Every year television crews from around the world film the encierros and even if you’ve never read Fiesta or Michener’s The Drifters you will probably have seen at least once in your life a video of this crazy run in a small town in northern Spain where supposedly sane men decide to risk their lives racing in front of a pack of fighting bulls, each of which weighs upwards of 500 kilos.

Many young Americans, Canadians, Brits and Australians see their participation in the running of the bulls as a kind of right of passage to manhood. Indeed, while I’ve never run myself, I’ve spoken to many at the fiesta who have and this year I was even asked to console a young, slightly drunk, US Marine who was on leave from Iraq and who had come to Pamplona like many other men his age to test his courage against the bulls but who in that crucial moment had found his courage lacking. He was packed in with hundreds of other runners near Mercaderes when six Toros Bravos came thundering through the square on their way to the Curva at Estafeta and he had found himself at a kind of crossroads in his relatively short life. He could stay in the square and probably get hit by a bull that was about to over-run him or dive under the barrier and save his own skin. He chose the latter and when I saw him in the afternoon at a bar just to the left of La Perla hotel he still couldn’t reconcile himself to his perceived défaillance.

He was about six feet tall, well built and with the typical crew cut of an American soldier. I introduced myself and told him that no matter what the outcome of his run had been, just by deciding to put himself in harm’s way he had already been through something that my grandfather had never experienced. Contrary to what most people might think, Ernest never ran with the bulls. There are photos of him playing with the cows in the plaza after the encierro, but he was not a runner.

The soldier was surprised to hear this from me, yet he still could not get over the fact that he had been afraid when he should have been courageous. I told him that there was nothing to be ashamed of and asked him what he would have done if a large truck was about to run him over on a road? Would he stand his ground and get killed or would he step aside?

“I’d step aside.” He said.

“Obviously, because you don’t want to die.” And as I finished the sentence it occurred to me that everything about this conversation was highly surreal. There I was counseling this 23-year-old Marine whose day job consisted in dodging IED’s (improvised explosive devices) and in general policing a people, the Iraqis, who at best wanted to have nothing to do with him and his army and at worst wished him dead. How could someone, I thought, who did this for a living be afraid of the bulls? But afraid he’d been and ashamed he remained until I reminded him that tomorrow was another day and that the bulls would run again that if he really felt he needed to prove something then he’d have his chance.

Of course, as the events of this year has shown, if ever a reminder was needed, running with the bulls is an extremely dangerous activity and should never be taken likely. Even the most experienced runners can have a bad day and end up in the hospital. A Scottish friend of mine who has been running for over twenty years fell down and banged his head and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance for CAT scan. It was the first time that he’d run the Curva at Estafeta in 137 runs and the first time that he’d ever fallen.

The young man from Madrid who died was also an experienced runner and was from a family where his father and his grandfather, natives of Navarra, had also been runners. From what I’ve been told he carefully prepared every encierro that he ever did. He would go to bed early the night before, would never dream of showing up on the course drunk and at 27 was in his prime. Still, the encierro is such that all it takes is one moment of bad luck and all the experience and agility of a young man means nothing.

After his death and the other serious injuries in this year’s Fiesta, some have suggested that the encierros be restricted to those who know what they are doing and who run with the bulls having properly prepared themselves for the task. In short that it be restricted to “professional runners”. I, however, think that the encierro should be left as it is, i.e. open to any sober adult who wants to run it.

Those who participate are volunteers. No one is forcing them to do this, just as no one forces a boxer to enter the ring with an opponent who could, in theory at least, kill him. And what of skydiving, or even surfing, or road cycling? In Italy I practiced amateurial level road racing and occasionally there were riders who would fall off their bikes on steep descents in the Italian Alps and die. It was a always a rare event but you knew that there was a risk and tried to race as safely as possible, still life is full of surprises and bad luck does happen. I remember that I cycled because I loved the sport and loved the feeling of rushing down a mountain at 70 kilometers an hour on two very thin tires.

I didn’t want to get hurt but at the same time whenever I heard about people who had fallen badly I never thought about quitting. It was just a part of my sport and I imagine that those who run in the encierro feel the same way about theirs.

I remember once asking a bullfighter why he kept going back to fight, in spite of his many serious injuries and he told me, “John, death is all around us, and we are going to die no matter what we do eventually. The important, though, thing is how we live our lives.” Now perhaps I’m wrong but I think that this is also the essence of the Fiesta, how you live your life. My grandfather understood this when he went there for the first time in 1923 and it is something that I was able to see with my own eyes 85 years later.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

El Txupinazo!

El Txupinazo

Just a little over 12 hours left to the Txupinazo and the official beginning to the mother of all parties, la Fiesta de San Fermín.

I'm in Pamplona, Spain and this year, because it's the fiftieth anniversary of the last time my grandfather was here for the famous "running of the bulls", I've been invited to see the opening ceremony from one of the balconies of the town's City Hall. Last year I didn't see anything of the rocket they launch, because I was standing in front of the Ayuntamiento and wedged in between a zillion other people and trying (without much luck) not to get soaked with the wine and champagne that was being sprayed in industrial quantities.

This time I'm sure that the view will be better, but not the energy and the excitement that I'll feel. That's guaranteed for everyone.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Saturday Evening Post

A word to all you short fiction fans out there, The Saturday Evening Post is publishing "Uncle Gus", a story I wrote for the inaugural edition of their newly revamped magazine. After many years this historic publication, founded by Benjamin Franklin, has decided to reintroduce the short story to its format.
It should be in newsstands now, for those of you in North America, but you'll also be able to read it on their website.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


The great Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti died today in Montevideo at the age of 88. Below is one of his poems and my translation of it.


Cuando éramos niños
los viejos tenían como treinta
un charco era un océano
la muerte lisa y llana
no existía.

Luego cuando muchachos
los viejos eran gente de cuarenta
un estanque un océano
la muerte solamente
una palabra.

Ya cuando nos casamos
los ancianos estaban en cincuenta
un lago era un océano
la muerte era la muerte
de los otros.

Ahora veteranos
ya le dimos alcance a la verdad
el océano es por fin el océano
pero la muerte empieza a ser
la nuestra.


When we were very young
old people were thirty
a puddle was an ocean
death, smooth and plain
didn’t exist.

Later as children
old people were forty
a pond was an ocean
death but
a word.

Already when we married
the elderly were fifty
a lake was an ocean
and death was the death
of others.

Now as old hands
we are within reach of the truth
the ocean is finally the ocean
but death has started to resemble
our own.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Les, Marty and Ernie

Here's a photo from 1940 of my great-uncle, Leicester Hemingway, standing with a beer in his hand on his schooner in Havana with Ernest and my grandfather's third wife Martha Gellhorn.

Happy Hour in Havana

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Strange Tribe review from OSU

Here's a review of Strange Tribe that came out on the Ohio State University newspaper, the Lantern, the day before my lecture.

Hemingway's grandson to bring troubled family tree to Wex through his memoir

Amanda Bishop

Issue date: 2/16/09 Section: Arts
  • Page 1 of 1
For John Hemingway, having a famous last name wasn't so much a gift as a package deal. Along with that name came a schizophrenic mother, a transvestite father, and a grandfather who, though a brilliant wordsmith, was also a manic-depressive who killed himself.

Hemingway, a writer and translator who lives in Montreal with his wife and two children, will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 17 at the Wexner Center Film and Video Center to talk about his aptly-named memoir, "Strange Tribe." The appearance and book-signing, sponsored by the Department of English and the Sexuality Studies program, is free and open to the public.

john Hemingway.
John Hemingway

The memoir represents a son's effort to forgive, to deal with ghosts of his own and help people to understand the troubles and secrets that sifted down through generations of the Ernest Hemingway clan.

"The hardest thing was seeing what happened to them. I wanted to help them, but there was nothing I could do," said Hemingway, in a telephone interview. "It's difficult when you have all that pain wrapped up. How are you going to deal with that? I was thinking, 'I've had enough of that. It's not my problem.' But it is."

His father, Gregory Hemingway, was the youngest of Ernest Hemingway's three sons. The other two boys were blond; Gregory had the dark hair of his mother, Hemingway's second wife, Pauline. Ernest called him by a nickname, "Gigi," took him out shooting, and was proud of his marksmanship.

Patrick, Jack, Ernest and Gregory Hemingway pose together. Ernest' grandson, John Hemingway will appear at the Wexner Film and Video Center on Feb. 17 to discuss his recent memoir, 'Strange Tribe.' Photo courtesy of John Hemingway.
From Left: Patrick, Jack, Ernest and Gregory Hemingway pose together. Ernest' grandson, John Hemingway will appear at the Wexner Film and Video Center on Feb. 17 to discuss his recent memoir, 'Strange Tribe.'

But like Ernest, Gregory would suffer from both bi-polar disorder and a drinking problem. He also had a fixation with cross-dressing that began in boyhood. Gregory underwent a series of sexual reassignment surgeries as a man, and eventually took the name of "Gloria."

Gregory Hemingway had too many issues of his own to be a reliable father, so John, who did not inherit his father's manic depression, spent much of his childhood living in Miami with Ernest's brother, Leicester. For years, John alternated between anger at his father and a longing to reconnect with him. He decided to write the memoir after his father's death in Miami in 2001 at the age of 69.

One of the most poignant passages in the memoir is John's recollection about going to the movies with his father. It was a tradition he enjoyed, one of the rare father-son bonding experiences salvaged from a sporadic relationship. Near the end of one of the films, the two of them watched as a troubled character on the screen sat in an office with a gun, put it to his head and pulled the trigger.

At the sound of the shot, Gregory crumpled in his seat, rocking, moaning: "No, no, oh, no." John knew immediately why his father was reacting so strongly: in 1961, Ernest Hemingway, paranoid, depressed, unable to write and in failing health, had committed suicide in similar fashion.

Four Hemingway family members, besides Ernest, committed suicide - his father, sister, brother, and a granddaughter.

In researching the memoir, poring through old family letters and consulting with a new wave of Hemingway biographers, John Hemingway was struck by the similarities between Ernest and Gregory.

"Both were very witty and funny. They could also hold grudges. If you got on their bad side it would take you awhile to get back on their good side," he said. "Both of them were bipolar, and had a lifelong battle to achieve a balance between male and female."

That balancing act, on Ernest Hemingway's part, has been a hot topic among Hemingway scholars since the publication, in 1986, of an unfinished Hemingway manuscript that was stitched into a novel entitled "The Garden of Eden."

In the novel, the main characters, David and Catherine, engaged in sexual role playing in which they get identical haircuts and reverse gender roles in bed: At one point Catherine tells David "Now kiss me and be my girl." Hemingway scholars such as Carl Eby at the University of South Carolina and Debra Moddlemog of Ohio State have written extensively about the roots of Hemingway's fascination with such experimentation, which may reflect a little-known side of the two-fisted writer and macho adventurer.

John Hemingway theorizes that Ernest Hemingway's fascination with his own feminine side softened his attitude toward his gender-bending son. As evidence, he offered a story Gregory told him. It is a story that would ultimately give John Hemingway two gifts: a title for his memoir, and a heightened understanding of the relationship between his troubled father and his world-famous grandfather.

"I think that my dad was around 11 or 12, and he had put on a pair of his mother's nylons," John remembered. "Ernest walked into the room, stared at him for a moment, shocked, then walked out again without saying a word. But a few days later, he looked at Gregory and said: 'Gigi, you and I come from a strange tribe.' "

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Any man's death diminishes me

While Ernest Hemingway’s short stories are without a doubt some of the finest in American literature and perhaps the best of what he had to offer, his message in For Whom the Bell Tolls is what I like to think of when I think of my grandfather. When he quotes from John Donne’s Meditation XVII, “No man is an Island, entire of itself." Ernest evokes at the same time the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War and the reality of the human condition. None of us, in spite of what we may believe, or have been told, is ever alone.

We are all in this together, or as Donne put it “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind." Still in hard times like these you can’t help but wonder if the mayor of Bay City, a small town in Michigan, ever had the time to read Donne or my grandfather’s novel and what he was thinking when he found out that he had allowed a 93 year old man to freeze to death in his home.

The Bay City house where Marvin E. Shur froze to death

Marvin E. Shur owed over a thousand dollars to the Bay City utility company and the company had put a “limiter”, a kind of automatic circuit breaker on Mr. Shur’s electricity meter. Over a period of ten days the limiter was designed to encourage the “client” to pay up, by slowly reducing the electricity that he could use. If, at any point, the 93 year old had decided to turn up the heating in his house (quite probable given the frigid artic temperatures outside, -23C/-10F) the limiter would have automatically shut off his power. The utility company says that Mr. Shur could have easily switched the power back on, but that would have meant going outside into the cold to flick a switch on the limiter and no one had bothered to contact the old man to tell him that he could do this, or to verify that he was physically capable of venturing outside.

Mr. Shur was a widower with no children and the city coroner estimates that he finally died of hypothermia two days after the limiter was installed on the 13th of January. On the 17th, his body was found by neighbors who noticed that the windows of his home had frosted over. Shur had tried to dress as warmly as he could with two pairs of pajamas, but it wasn’t nearly enough. The news of the death of this retied factory worker and World War II veteran, couldn’t perhaps compete with the torrent of corporate media hype surrounding Obama’s impending inauguration but it certainly had a lot to do with the country that the Prince of Hope was about to lead and the degeneration of America’s sense of solidarity and humanity.

Utility companies in many areas of the Midwest and Northeast of the US have been steadily increasing their rates, and for the poor, the unemployed and the elderly this is an enormous hardship. Often they are forced to decide between food or heating their homes. The mayor of Bay City, Charles Brunner (a democrat who later flew to Washington for Obama’s lavish inauguration festivities), has shown little remorse for what he has done. In fact, on the same day that Shur’s death was reported nationally the mayor voted with the town council to increase the town’s utility rates by 3%.

“We’ve gotten very creative in the ways we purchase power, but it’s a very complicated market and it’s an expensive market,” Brunner said after the meeting. “and we have to pass the costs on.”

Lecture at Ohio State University

For those of you in the Columbus, Ohio area, I'll be talking about my memoir, Strange Tribe, and all things Ernest at OSU's Wexner Center Film/Video Theatre on February 17th at 7:00 pm.