ZYZZYVA EventsMay 29, 2015
ZYZZYVA's 30th Anniversary Celebration and Fundraiser
Location: 6:30 p.m., Two Embarcadero Center, 28th Floor, San Francisco
Description: Featuring Hector Tobar, Molly Giles, Dean Rader, and Andrew David King. Hosted by KQED FM's Michael Krasny. Food and drink by Broadside Wines, Lagunitas Brewery, La Mediterranee, Bi-Rite, and Alta CA. Plus silent auction with treats galore! Tickets start at $25. Order here: http://bpt.me/1438564May 31, 2015
ZYZZYVA at the Oakland Book Festival
Location: Frank Ogawa Plaza & Oakland City Hall, Oakland.
Description: "The Reshaping of Voice and Vision: The Possible Paths of American Literature," a panel presented by ZYZZYVA at the inaugural Oakland Book Festival. Managing Editor Oscar Villalon moderates, and featuring Paul Beatty, Vanessa Hua, and Hector Tobar. Free. For more info: http://bit.ly/1H242iZJune 4, 2015
In Conversation with Sam Quinones
Location: 7:30 p.m., Green Apple Books on the Park, 1231 9th Ave., San Francisco
Description: Quinones discusses his new book, "Dreamland: A True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic," with ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Part of the ZYZZYVA Presents series. Free. More info: http://bit.ly/1FQg0uA
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
Issue No. 103 kicks off our 30th anniversary year with a wealth of new works by the country’s finest contemporary authors.
Lydia Millet’s “The Island in the Porthole”: What plagues this stranded cruise ship: navigation gone awry or existential crisis?
Héctor Tobar’s “Secret Streams”: In Los Angeles, a winding path of water brings two loners together.
Julie Chinitz’s “Shiftiness: The Border in Eight Cases”: A meditation on mercurial notions of territory and place in U.S. history.
Christian Kiefer’s “Muzzleloader”: A bevy of unexpected visitors intrude on a widow’s refuge in the Colorado forest.
Joe Donnelly’s “Bonus Baby”: Welcome the return of baseball season with this story of a pitcher sifting through memories while on the mound.
Karl Taro Greenfeld’s “Tracking Gap”: The communications department of a Japanese commercial airline scrambles to handle a PR nightmare when one of its passenger planes disappears.
Plus, more fiction from Molly Giles, Nick Fuller Googins, Ben Greenman, Robin Romm, James Warner, and Monique Wentzel; an essay from Kyle Boelte on serving as a juror; poetry from Luiza Flynn-Goodlett, Robert Hass, Ruth Madievsky, Nicole Stellon O’Donnell, D. Eric Parkison, Joshua Rivkin, Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet, Joseph Voth, and Matthew Zapruder; artwork from Amos Goldbaum; and a new project from philosopher and artist Jonathon Keats, who asks you to consider the vast potential in emulating bacteria in the corporate world.
Welcome to the newest feature on our website: the ZYZZYVA Video Series—featuring short readings and interviews with ZYZZYVA’s many contributors. We kick off our series with Vauhini Vara, whose story “We Were Here” appears in ZYZZYVA No. 101. Vara, whose fiction has been honored with an O’Henry Award, is also an award-winning journalist. Having worked at the Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade, she now covers technology and business for the NewYorker.com, where she was previously the business editor. Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talked with Vara about “We Were Here,” as well as about her career as a journalist.
And if you click on “Continue Reading,” you can see a video of Vara reading from “We Were Here.” We hope you enjoy!
When I moved to California last year, water was far from my mind. Naturally, upon my arrival I was shocked by the severity of the drought, the messy status of water rights, and the endless bickering over an element that I considered a common occurrence, as well as a natural right. For Californians, however, these environmental threats are nothing new. Beyond the political scope, environmental issues, at their core, reveal the moral grappling of humankind, and yet a surprisingly few number of authors take on the subject.
In light of the current drought, John van der Zee’s “Grassfire,” which appeared thirty years ago in the first issue of ZYZZYVA, remains morally pertinent. The story, detailing a man’s struggle to put out a small wildfire, illuminates the essential crux of California’s environmental issues, which, thirty years later, are just as controversial. A wildfire presents a moral dilemma; though, with its rapid and unpredictable expansion, it ultimately contradicts the old adage that what is one person’s problem is not another’s. “Grassland” begins with gallantry before crumbling again into conflict.
Van der Zee’s prose is evocative and succinct. The wildfire is just as animated as the characters, animal-like, morphing into the irrepressible fears of our protagonist, inserting itself into the politically divided landscape. And though fire poses the greatest immediate peril in this story, the threat of drought looms ominously at its side. The descriptions of the burnt landscape and dry faucets, when read today, resemble the unheeded forewarnings of a prophet. — Sarah Cooolidge
In schools throughout the country, American children and teenagers tend to learn about the Vietman War—and by extension, the country of Vietnam—through the prism of U.S. culture. This is not merely to reaffirm that entrenched ideas and predilections form our understanding of historical events, but also that early conversations about the war often gravitate away from Vietnam-as-place-and-people, and toward what Vietnam-as-idea sparked in the American consciousness. Student-led protests, the creation of the most talked-about countercultural movement in our history, the unthinkable fallibility of the American military—even Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles are all likely to be mentioned before Ho Chi Minh or Saigon. To young Americans, if not most Americans, Vietnam is a jungle in which unlucky youths fought and died before they lost a war, came back home, and started their American families.
Dehumanization is a part of art, war, and life; it can be both a shield and a sword. American art mines senseless loss and unspeakable atrocities for poignant drama, political insights, and moral ironies, and does so expertly. But before a deathly moment of horror, there is a life that has been lived, regardless of the hemisphere in which it was. What does it mean to engage with a subject containing the histories and hopes of an entire people about whom we know so little?
The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s complex and compelling first novel, confronts us with that difficult and often discomfiting question. Ostensibly a tale of subterfuge, the novel makes use of an engaging narrator and tackles issues of artistic representation and cultural identity. Its narrator is the half-Vietnamese, half-French (and therefore worthy of scorn and distrust from many of his fellow Vietnamese) aide to a jingoistic, uncompromising South Vietnamese general. He is also a mole, working undercover for the communist regime; we learn on the first page that his story is a confession beginning in April 1975, shortly before the fall of Saigon: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.”
Gwendolyn Womack’s first novel, The Memory Painter (320 pages; Picador), is a historical and scientific thriller fueled by themes of reincarnation and identity. World-famous painter Bryan Pierce is at the mercy of sudden trance-like states wherein he is able to paint moments of beauty and pain from his past lives. His art acts as a distress call, and it’s answered by Linz Jacobs, a neuroscience researcher. When Linz visits an art gallery and recognizes in one of Bryan’s paintings an image from a recurring childhood nightmare, an immediate connection to the artist soon becomes an exploration of shared history and past mysteries.
Beyond the elegant, geometric design of its cover, Sphinx (Deep Vellum; 120 pages; translated by Emma Ramadan) is an ambiguous, multifaceted beast. With its third publication, Deep Vellum, an eclectic Dallas press, brings the work of French writer Anne Garréta to English readers for the first time. Nearly thirty years after its original publication, Sphinx also marks the first English translation of a female member of Oulipo (short for ouvrir de littérature potentielle, or “workshop for potential literature”), the exclusive, prestigious writer’s workshop that included George Perec and Italo Calvino among its members. (Garréta is the first member of Oulipo to be born after its founding.) The goal of so-called potential literature is to restrict or manipulate language structures to open up the narrative possibilities of literature. And, indeed, there is something both freeing and unsettling about the prose of Sphinx. Though the sentiments at the heart of the novel are universal–love, passion, and melancholy–the agents of such feelings are strikingly absent, phantom-like forms that refuse to be pinned to the page and examined as specimens.
Critics and readers will find it difficult to say exactly what Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel is. His first novel in ten years, The Buried Giant (Knopf; 317 pages) marks a daring departure from the tortured and unreliable first person accounts his readers have come to expect. Some will exaggerate this departure, and yet Ishiguro’s prose remains undisputedly his: lyrical, patient, almost simple, but with lingering notes of deception and the unsaid.
It may be that his subject matter refuses categorization. Despite the appearance of ogres and pixies among its pages, The Buried Giant is not a fantasy novel. Although it recounts a quest to slay a dragon, it contains little of the narrative drive found in classic adventure tales. The protagonists are two elderly Britons, Axl and Beatrice, who are deeply devoted to one another, and yet this is not a love story. Ishiguro even goes so far as to directly borrow a literary (and historical) character, portraying the aged Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew and a Knight of the Round Table, who, despite the changing times, continues to lug himself around in a full suit of rusted armor. But this is not an Arthurian legend either. So what do we call it?
James Hannaham’s striking new novel, Delicious Foods (Little, Brown; 384 pages), digs deep into a son’s loyalty to his mother and deeper into his mother’s dependence and addiction to crack cocaine. When Eddie’s mother, Darlene, fails to return home, he begins a search that leads him to Delicious Foods—a farm where addicts, lured with false stories and promises, are forced to work for next to nothing and are unable to leave.
The prologue of the novel begins with the end. Eddie escapes Delicious Foods, but freedom comes with a price. Hannaham introduces us to the horror of this world, when on page one he describes Eddie driving a stolen SUV, steering with the nubs of his wrists—his hands having been recently sawed off. Though we learn in the prologue that everything ends up O.K. for Eddie, one question central to the entire novel haunts him: Will he ever be able to save his mom from her demons, and will he ever be free of his own?
Tartuffe, Molière’s timeless tragicomedy about religion, hypocrisy, and relationship distortion, was censored after a single performance in 1664. When the archbishop of Paris condemned Molière’s portrayal of religion, King Louis XIV acquiesced to the Roman Catholic Church and publicly banned Tartuffe. The seductive muddle of the title character’s benevolent deception led a second version to also be banned in 1667, and it wasn’t until 1669 that a third version of Tartuffe was finally published and openly performed to great success. Happily, 350 years later at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the audience is free to experience Tartuffe’s subjective truth in all its dark glory.
“Once upon a time, you told yourself that you would be no killer, that this was how you would live your life,” reflects the protagonist of Christian Kiefer’s new novel, The Animals (Liveright/Norton; 320 pages), as he prepares to euthanize a wounded moose in the book’s opening chapter. “And yet you learn and relearn that everything is the same.”
Bill Reed is the operator of the North Idaho Wildlife Rescue and a man haunted by a guilty conscience. Caring for wounded animals—raccoons, badgers, an owl, a wolf, and a blind grizzly bear, among others—is a form of catharsis for Bill, who is on the run from his criminal past and living under a different name. (His real first name is Nat.) When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service threatens to close the rescue shelter, the livelihood Bill has carefully built for himself and the animals is endangered. To make matters worse, his former best friend, Rick, is fresh out of prison and seeking payback.
The narrative switches between the story’s current setting of 1996 Idaho and Bill’s young adulthood in 1984 Reno. As he grapples with the rescue’s impending closure, we learn who Bill was, about his gambling addiction, and the catalyst for the bad blood with Rick. Survival is at stake as Rick and Bill circle each other in increasingly aggressive encounters from which neither can back down. As past sins threaten to eclipse the present, Bill is forced to explore what he is willing to do to save the people and animals he loves. Kiefer, whose story “Muzzleloader” appears in the upcoming issue of ZYZZYVA (No. 103), uses nature and seasonal imagery as powerful backdrops in an atmospheric narrative about conscience, survival, and primal identity—a story in which violence is inevitable. We talked to him via email about how he came to write The Animals, the importance of reading the work of master writers, what it means to “know your plants,” and the role of poverty in narrowing people’s options.
Kyle Boelte’s memoir, The Beautiful Unseen: Variations on Fog and Forgetting (Counterpoint; 176 pages), weaves together the author’s investigations into the mysterious San Francisco fog with an exploration of his memories of the life and suicide of his brother, Kris. On one side of this dual narrative, Boelte researches the fog from the standpoint of San Francisco history and the science behind the Bay Area’s climate. On the other, he remembers his life before and after his brother’s death. Juxtaposing these two themes, memory becomes reminiscent of the fog and vice versa.
With remembering comes forgetting, and memories can cloud over time. Boelte’s memories of his brother, whose death occurred when the author was 13, become vague and even seemingly warped as he gets older. There’s an instance in the book where Boelte realizes he and a friend remember the same situation differently: one remembers Kris being there and the other doesn’t. Via email, we asked Kyle Boelte (who has an essay in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 103, out in April) about how he approached writing on such a personal subject.
January marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the infamous labor and extermination camp in Poland where more than one million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, right under the nose of Polish citizens and the wider international community. The timing of this gruesome anniversary is poignant, as European anti-Semitism is perhaps more virulent and threatening now than at any point since the war. Anti-Semitism has unfortunately proven itself to be an extremely adaptive prejudice, taking different forms wherever and whenever it emerges; it has also proven to be monumentally destructive for culture. “The politics of hate that begins with Jews,” as Jonathan Sacks wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “never ends with Jews.” The anti-Semitism we see in Europe today has roots in historic prejudices, but there are new aspects to its current incarnation. The distinctly European strain of anti-Semitism has combined with tensions surrounding events in the Middle East, as well as simmering resentments from Europe’s often alienated Muslim communities.
European leaders have struggled even to face, much less stem this rising tide of bigotry. The French ministers of foreign affairs and the interior penned an op-ed for the New York Times last July, titled, almost plaintively, “France Is Not An Anti-Semitic Nation.” Just three days later, on July 13, crowds marching in anti-Israel demonstrations set the streets of Paris on edge with chants of “Death to the Jews” and two synagogues were attacked; a third synagogue was defaced the following day, and similar attacks, as well as assaults on Jewish citizens, continued throughout the following months in Paris, Lyon, Nice, and elsewhere. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been steadfast in her denunciation of bigotry, but even she must be unnerved by the thus far uninhibited rise in anti-Semitism in Germany, where demonstrations last summer also featured chants of “Adolf Hitler.” Despite Germany’s stringent laws prohibiting the use of overt Nazi imagery, the production of clothes that assists white supremacists in identifying each other through more subtle branding has proven lucrative for at least one company. A recent article in the New Republic details the enormous expansion and popularity of Thor Steiner, a clothing company that “has gone from a small business patronized by German neo-Nazis into a multimillion-dollar clothing chain with a presence throughout Europe.” Thor Steiner’s clothing features sly references to Nazi imagery and slogans, and over the past several years they’ve opened stores in “the Czech Republic, Finland, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom, among other countries, as well as 13 locations in Moscow.” They’ve registered their trademark in the U.S., too. Meanwhile, the surge of violence continues. Several weeks ago, a gunman in Copenhagen targeted bystanders at a free-speech rally and a synagogue, killing two civilians and injuring five police officers. As we commemorate the past, our most urgent obligation is to honestly confront the thorny history of anti-Semitism, and to face its current incarnation with clarity.
Historical records are, of course, critically important in such work, but literary fiction has a role to play as well. Where the sheer magnitude of the historical record of the Holocaust can sometimes become so overwhelming that our empathetic faculties are all but exhausted or shut down, fiction can offer us a way in, once again. Both the writing and the reading of Holocaust fictions are fraught with pitfalls, yet the subject calls to us, and it is a call that should be heeded. Over the past year several new novels have been published around the subject, and, in light of recent events and the escalation of violent attacks, one in particular seems perhaps even more relevant now than when it was first published: Martin Amis’s 2014 novel, The Zone of Interest (306 pages; Knopf), deserves renewed attention, not only for what it accomplishes, but also for the confused reception it received. Some found it to be satire, which implies the work offers exaggeration to the point of comedy. That’s not how I read it. With this recent surge of anti-Semitism tearing its way through Europe, it is more important than ever to read such books carefully, and to scrutinize not only their pages, but how they are received.