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In the Winter Issue

Issue No. 102 offers for your enjoyment more of the country’s finest stories, poetry, essays, and visual art:

Michael Jaime-Becerra’s “Omer, March 1987”: A boy out skateboarding stumbles upon his mother’s affair.

Melissa Yancy’s “Dog Years”: A scientist must make time for her family, her career, and, somewhere in there, cure one son of his devastating disease.

Laura Esther Wolfson’s “Infelicities of Style”: In the hinterlands, a young dance critic experiences the complications of art.

Octavio Solis’s “Retablos”: How may times has El Paso lamed him? Yet how many times has he walked back to his past walked away?

Plus, fiction from Josh Emmons (a slacker in France takes in her American cousin), J. Malcolm Garcia (a social service agency for homeless serves as a predator’s lair), Kate Petersen (a young woman returns to England and a love eluded), A. Nicole Kelly, Kathleen Alcott, and Jeffrey Moskowitz.

Also, work from artist Julio Cesar Morales’s series We Are the Dead, and poetry from Chuck Carlise, Lucille Lang Day, Rae Gouirand, Andrew David King, Joshua McKinney, Suzanne Roszak, and First Time in Print poet Andrew Gavin Murphy.

You can get a copy of No. 102 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Winter issue.

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Realism and the Fantastic as Very Much the Same: Q&A with Kathryn Davis

(photo by Emma Dodge Hanson)

(photo by Emma Dodge Hanson)

In Kathryn Davis’ novel Duplex (Graywolf Press, 195 pages), the suburban mundane is interrupted by the magical, the mythic, and the bizarre. In a neighborhood of duplex housing, kids play on the street as robot neighbors fly past them, sorcerers and Bodies Without Souls drive by in Mercedes, and teddy bears become human babies. Two coexisting narratives alternate from chapter to chapter, as two worlds slide past each other and often overlap. The intimacy between these worlds is such that the particularities of each echo the other, the realities of both merging into one.

The novel, recently published in paperback, follows such characters as Miss Vicks (who is described as “a real woman; you could tell by the way she didn’t have to move her head from side to side to take in sound”) and her neighbor, Mary, who happens to marry a sorcerer; robots who look like people, a baseball player who sells his soul for success. The narrative of this cast alternates with that of the narrative of Janice and the neighborhood girls, who, as though at a sleepover, listen to their cooler, older peer,as she tells them stories about the phenomena of their world. Janice’s stories, many of which could stand alone as fables, do more than just interrupt the more linear narrative of Miss Vicks and those around her. These stories ground the world of the novel as one with a long history of bizarre occurrences that are perceived as both mystifying and entirely ordinary by its characters.

One way of allowing yourself to experience the brilliance of Duplex is by accepting that the novel thrives in its departure from logic; the text is not there to hold your hand. The reader instead treads through the thickets of the strange, often leaving one scratching her head. Those wishing to follow a story whose plot has a traditional structure, with a clear climax and conclusion, might not find what they expect, but they will find themselves bedazzled and delighted with the narrative’s unconventionality. We spoke with Davis via email about Duplex and the uses of plot and genre in her work.

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A Possible Way for Tech and Artists to Work Together?: Digital Art from Depict

Yue Li's "Untitled" (2014), digital painting

Yue Li’s “Untitled” (2014), digital painting

A lot of the conversation in the Bay Area about art and tech describes an alienated, if not antagonistic relationship between the two spheres. Tech workers “displace” artists in much of the dialogue about rising rents and gentrification. Tech also threatens art by making its replicability ever easier and cheaper, and by fostering a culture of consumption that habituates people to enjoying the works of writers, artists, actors, and musicians for free.

And yet, a fruitful relationship between the two camps isn’t impossible. San Francisco startup Depict is hoping it has found a way to (in startup language) “optimize” the performance of both with its new venture: an online gallery that lets people collect digital art and display it on any desktop or mobile screen.

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Rocket Man: ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ by Michel Faber

The Book of New Strange ThingsMichel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (Hogarth; 496 pages) explores first and foremost the separation of a husband and wife by light years of space. It is also a meditation on religion in an age of science, on devotion, and, to put it plainly, on life-work balance. Coming after his acclaimed novels The Crimson Petal and the White and Under the Skin, Faber’s new novel has been praised by the likes of Phillip Pullman, David Benioff, and David Mitchell. It is hailed as “genre-defying,” and though it plays into certain sci-fi tropes, it examines the human reaction to communion with interstellar beings in a complex and specific manner, a manner often reserved for more literary works. It shies away from the technical acuity of hard science fiction, existing in the space between a speculative and literary work.

Peter, a former drug-addict-turned-preacher, takes on a job for USIC as a missionary to aliens on the newly discovered world Oasis. “These days, the bigger the company, the less you can figure out what it does…You ask USIC what they specialize in and they tell you things like…Logistics. Human Resources. Large-scale project development.” Peter never even decodes the acronym.

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The Complex Truths of a Disturbing Relationship: ‘Excavation’ by Wendy Ortiz

EscavationIn her memoir, Excavation (Future Tense Books; 244 pages), Wendy Ortiz looks to her journal entries and memories to piece together a narrative of her adolescent traumas. In the 1980s and ‘90s, Ortiz was seduced by her 8th-grade English teacher who instigated a relationship that would last five years. Now a registered sex offender, “Jeff Ivers” (as he is called in the memoir) is described in both flattering and disturbing terms, Ortiz’s attraction to him having as much to do with his charisma as with the danger his love promises. Now married, and with a child of her own, Ortiz digs into her past so as to fight her demons, revealing with utter honesty and unrestrained prose the vicious details of her ordeal. But rather than point fingers or give a moralizing depiction of a taboo story, she instead shows us the intimate spaces and the blurred lines of the relationship—as seen by a girl who doesn’t fully believe herself to be the victim of an older man’s predation.

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A Layered Portrait of a Mind at War with Itself: ‘Viviane’ by Julia Deck

viviane“The cry of the mind exhausted by its own rebellion”—Albert Camus

The slim spine of Julia Deck’s first novel, Viviane (The New Press, 149 pages), expertly translated from the French by Linda Coverdale, belies its intellectual heft. Deck’s crystalline language, too, appears innocently transparent, offering up on a silver platter events just as they transpire and thoughts just as they emerge from the narrator’s troubled mind. But this, too, is delightfully deceptive, as the hidden influences of language, and the impossibility of knowing or telling exactly what happens, appear to be part of Deck’s central concern.

On the first page, Deck flatly introduces us to Viviane Élisabeth Hermant’s excruciatingly uncertain perspective: “You are not entirely sure, but it seems to you that four or five hours ago, you did something that you shouldn’t have.” Her predicament is stark. At forty-two, Viviane is a new mother and newly single: her husband, Julian, has left her for another woman, declaring one day, “I’m leaving, it’s the only solution, anyway you know that I’m cheating on you and that it isn’t even from love but from despair.” Utterly alone, Viviane now believes, though she cannot be sure, that she may have killed her therapist. As Viviane tries to determine what she may have done, she is both detective and, perhaps, culprit in this psychological thriller. She delves into the “hole [her] memory has become,” trying to remember what she did. But she conducts her investigation in the external world, too: following and even interviewing witnesses in a series of increasingly bizarre and chilling encounters. It is a captivating and puzzling story, and it is refreshing to see a new work of literature explore the ways narrative can both bend perception and reflect a psychologically troubled mind without allowing the narrative itself to lose all sense. This is a literary thriller with aspirations, one with a well-developed understanding of the literary and theoretical traditions of modernism and post-modernism.

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Finding Communion with Characters Half a World Away: Q&A with Jack Livings

Jack LivingsBack in late July, Michiko Kakutani gave a first book of fiction the sort of review authors rarely receive. It was an unqualified rave of Jack Livings’ story collection, The Dog (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux; 240 pages). “With ‘The Dog’,” Kakutani concluded, “Mr. Livings has made an incisive—and highly impressive—debut.” One could go even further. With The Dog, and its eight brilliantly told stories set in contemporary China, Jack Livings has delivered one of the best books of 2014—if not the best debut work of fiction by an American writer this year.

Much as Ken Kalfus did with Russian society in his story collection Pu-239, or the legendary B. Traven’s accomplished with Mexico in The Night Visitor and Other Stories, The Dog immerses itself into a “foreign” culture and unassumingly but palpably renders it for the distant reader (i.e., the average American). Whatever perception of otherness the reader might have held is torn down. In its place appears a deep recognition of these myriad characters whose anxieties and fears, accomplishments and failures, injustices suffered and resiliencies displayed all speak directly to us. We gladly inhabit these often comic, often tragic lives.

In the title story, a beleaguered Beijing man, who incinerates bodies for a living, is summoned home by his cunning and boorish business partner, who also happens to be family. In “The Heir,” a rebellious grandson and the opportunistic cops of the Public Security Bureau pique Omar, a Uyghur crime boss of dead-eye ruthlessness: “Once, a Kazakh had brushed against Omar’s wife in the market. The man apologized profusely, prostrating himself, delivering gifts in the following days. It’s nothing, Omar had said. He waited ten years to pour hot lead down the Kazakh’s throat.”

Elsewhere in The Dog, the same desperation irradiating U.S. newsrooms infects the staff at the Guangzhou Post in “Mountain of Swords, Sea of Fire,” a funny, salty tale that culminates in the moral reckoning of a veteran newsman: “He’d nearly frozen to death chasing the Panchen Lama on his exodus across the mountains of Nepal. He’d roasted in the sun for weeks at Lop Nur waiting for a subterranean nuclear test. He could have stayed in the newsroom, pulled the Xinhua file off the telex and punched up the copy, but he’d insisted on being there in person to feel the ground tremble. It mattered to him to witness the story. What had that all come to?”

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The Persistent Strangeness of the Ordinary: ‘See You in Paradise’ by J. Robert Lennon

See You in ParadiseCompiled from fifteen years of work, the stories in J. Robert Lennon’s new book, See You in Paradise (Graywolf Press; 256 pages) dwell on quotidian fears and dissatisfaction and on the strange nature of contemporary American life in modern suburbia, which can be found here in run-down mountain communities, lakeside cabins, and college towns. In this collection, ordinary people find themselves straddling mundane reality and its bizarre or magical undercurrents. Drawing elements from science fiction, horror, and the surreal, several of Lennon’s stories manifest these undercurrents in more literal ways than others. But the disaffection of their characters, the often absurdist butterfly effect triggered by their plots’ movements, and the feeling that anything can and will happen, are what unite all these pieces.

The opening story, “Portal,” sets the tone with its unceremonious appropriation of magic into an ordinary setting. A family discovers a portal in their backyard that sends them to alternate universes, but the device soon becomes overused and lackluster, falling into disrepair like an abandoned piece of furniture. When the portal falls into a “senile,” nonsensical state, it sends them to dimensions that reveal each of their hidden—and unnerving—desires, and they soon lose interest altogether in their family trips. As each family member begins to escape into his own psychic landscape (without help from the portal), the story offers a sincere depiction of the cold dissatisfaction and solitude felt in a deteriorating family.

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Racism Transformed into a Given: ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ by Claudia Rankine

Citizen Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (160 pages; Graywolf) explores the subtleties of racism and prejudice that seem all too prevalent in an oft-claimed post-racial United States. Rankine delves into the macrosociology of racism by examining prejudice in sports, economics, and pop-culture, and melds her pinpoint analysis with individual experiences of alienation and otherness at restaurant tables, front porches, and boardrooms. Citizen observes racism from a myriad of angles, employing a clever and effective combination of second person perspective with the speaker’s internal monologue, and fusing various lyric and reportorial forms with classic painting and contemporary multimedia art.

In constructing a racial identity, the speaker of Citizen cites what a friend had once told her— that there exists a “Historical Self” and a “Self-Self” that are in disagreement with race. When the historical knowledge of racism and the expectations of its ubiquity are placed beside the global-citizen, the individual, it prompts a sort of cognitive dissonance. This “is how you are a citizen: Come on. Let it go. Move on,” the speaker says, feeling alone in her otherness. Moving through the book-length lyric poem, the reader comes to empathize with the flinching nature of the judged—“Every day your mouth opens and receives the kiss the world offers, which seals you shut…the go-along-to-get-along tongue pushing your tongue aside.” Rankine explores racism and ignorant racial prejudice as a sort of unspoken, public exile, and the blind search for a solution, which only at times, sadly, is to become a citizen.

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The Philosophical Novel Couched in a Tale of Marriage: Q&A with Jenny Offill

Dept of SpeculationIn Jenny Offill’s most recent novel, Dept. of Speculation (now out in paperback), a writer’s marital life and motherhood are traced through a series of short, brilliant segments, creating a narrative collage of moments marked by references to outer space, scientific facts, or Buddhist teachings. The unnamed narrator’s Brooklyn life consists of bed bugs and trips to Rite Aid, philosopher and almost-astronaut friends, and preschool supplies. In this domestic setting, we piece together the book’s fragments of prose to emotionally engage with the protagonist as she navigates her personal chaos, all while she wishes to find the time and solace to engage more fully with her art.

One of Offill’s talents is in creating a feeling of wholeness in the narrative—creating a suggestion of what is there—by not giving an explicit telling of the story. Each of Offill’s short sections is so precise in its language it’s as if she’s using a scalpel to extricate the right narrative moment, the right external reference to give life to the plot and characters. Though shaped like a puzzle, the novel engages with the reader: when you’ve all but forgotten something, Offill provides moments that unify and shape the narrative for you. And as the gifted but conflicted narrator tries desperately to piece together the beautiful and difficult moments of her life, the book suggests that these spaces between what is ugly and what is incandescent are where the art of human experience is to be found. We spoke with Jenny Offill about Dept. of Speculation via email.

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Teaching Poetry Means ‘Make It Human’: Q&A with Juan Felipe Herrera

Photo by Randy Vaughn-Dotta

Photo by Randy Vaughn-Dotta

This month, West Coast writers are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of California Poets in the Schools, a collective of professional poets who facilitate poetry and performance workshops in schools around the state. Each year, CPITS introduces more than 26,000 students to poetry and performance; each year, these students generate more than 100,000 poems through the program. By exposing children to poetry at a young age, CPITS teachers encourage a conception of poetry as a humane, practical, and social practice. They coach students in a skill they will likely use all their lives: that of studying and expressing their experiences and of making something tangible and novel in the process.

Since its inception, the organization, which began as the Pegasus Project at San Francisco State, has served half a million students, brought programs to schools in twenty-nine counties, and garnered an impressive list of volunteers. One such teacher is Juan Felipe Herrera, Poet Laureate of California since 2012, who led his first writing workshop as a CPITS volunteer in the early 1970s. Since then, in addition to writing more than twenty books for children and adults, Herrera has led numerous poetry and arts programs, from El Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego to the Soledad Correctional Facility to the University of Iowa. (He currently holds a professorship at the University of California, Riverside, where he was appointed the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in 2005.) In honor of CPITS’ semi-centennial, we spoke with Herrera, a past ZYZZYVA contributor (issues No. 13 and No. 89), via email about his experiences teaching poetry.

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Fleeing from Ruin to Fringes of Barcelona: ‘Street of Thieves’ by Mathias Énard

Street_of_Thieves-front_largeSet during the revolts of the Arab Spring and the collapse of Europe’s economy, award-winning French author Mathias Énard’s new novel, Street of Thieves (265 pages; Open Letter, translated by Charlotte Mandell), follows the life of a young Moroccan man living in the lower fringes of society, always working toward a future that remains a bit out of reach. “Men are dogs,” Énard writes at the beginning, “they rub against each other in misery, they roll around in filth and can’t get out of it…”  Amid that grime and grit, we witness the transformation of his narrator, from boy into man, from cowardice to courage, a change shaped by both the animality and the pressure of a society where people, like beasts, do whatever it takes to live.

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