- December 11, 2013
Winter Issue Celebration/Holiday Party
Location: 7:30 p.m. The Booksmith, 1644 Haight St., San Francisco
Description: Celebrate the launch of the Winter issue, and have a drink and a snack with ZYZZYVA. Contributors Lisa Teasley, John W. Evans, & Monique Wentzel among the evening's readers. Free.
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In our newest issue, time and worlds bend:
In Juan Pablo Villalobos’s “Photisms”: A little boy tells his distracted psychiatrist that he sees mysterious green lights and hears a voice telling him, “See you in the non-world.”
In Lisa Teasley’s “Full Circle”: The bonds between a couple stretch across eras and genders, forged by incredible loss, rancor, and love.
In Monique Wentzel’s “Modern Speedwash”: A struggling woman finds a portal to a universe she’s made different choices and has a comfortable life to show for it. But can she so easily give up the life she knew before?
And in Moritz Thomsen’s “The Bombardier’s Handbook”: An excerpt from the late author’s once-lost World War II diary speaks afresh to the anguish and horror of war.
Also, a conversation in verse between Matthew Dickman and Kazim Ali; fiction from Daniel Tovrov on the new (unforgiving) newsroom; Mary Otis’s story on a mother and daughter’s reckoning while camping near the beach; Don Water’s tale of a terminally ill man who waits for the end in Juarez; Catherine Brady’s story of a bankrupt woman in San Francisco, fighting against more than just foreclosure on her home; J. Malcolm Garcia’s noir set in a homeless program in the Tenderloin, plus new poetry from Heather Altfeld, John W. Evans, and Wendy Willis (including a recipe for huckleberry jam).
And featuring artwork by Tom Stolmar and Marcus Covert, and a portfolio of David Maisel’s eerily beautiful photography of Western landscapes ravaged by mining.
I first had the pleasure of meeting Dani Shapiro in 2007 at Le Sirenuse on Italy’s Amalfi Coast at the initial Sirenland Writers Conference. Shapiro (who is the bestselling author of the memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History) established Sirenland in Positano, Italy, with Hannah Tinti “to provide an antidote to competitive, hierarchical writing conferences” that she “can’t imagine would be good for anyone’s creative process.”
Her latest and well-received book is an extension of that intention. Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life (Grove Press; 256 pages), Shapiro’s “love letter to other writers,” offers an intimate exploration of what it means to be a writer, to “hone and hone and chisel and chisel away at ourselves until we arrive at that true place, at the deepest level of specificity.” Part memoir, part instruction, Still Writing shares Shapiro’s process, struggles, success, and wisdom to inspire writers—at all stages of development—to trust the work, trust themselves, and keep writing.
In late October, I discussed Still Writing with her. The following is a portion of that conversation:
ZYZZYVA: You’ve published five novels, two memoirs, and now Still Writing, which is a national best-seller. You’ve written screenplays, are published in the best magazines, have taught all over the world. You have your own writing conference in Italy, you’ve appeared on “Today” and Oprah’s TV show. Does this feel like success?
Dani Shapiro: No! Boy, oh boy. Success is such a curious idea for an artist. Maybe it is for everyone. I don’t know. Ask any writer what their favorite book is, and always it’s the one they’re working on or the one just entering the world. I’m very wary of any feeling of accomplishment. When someone tells me they love Slow Motion, that it’s their favorite of my books, I think, I wrote that in 1997! Or even Devotion, which I brought out in 2010.
The idea of any kind of place of arrival, it’s not real. If every book is a new mountain and every day you are at the bottom of that mountain looking up at it, then there never really feels like a place of arrival. Reallybeing a “successful writer” means schlepping through airports, and staying at the Staybridge Suites on the side of the highway, and sometimes showing up at bookstores to very sparse audiences. There’s a line from Still Writing that I find I say a lot: every day a new indignity. I think I should have T-shirts made for all of us. I don’t think anybody stops feeling that way, at any point.
If you’re finding yourself bored with the same old menu choices, which always hover near the top of the food chain, but you can’t imagine consuming large sarcophagid maggots, scorpion, spleen, lungs, lips, or even a bite of an endangered species for dinner, let Dana Goodyear navigate for you the outer limits of this emerging American food scene.
In her new culinary narrative, Anything that Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture (272 pages; Riverhead Books), New Yorker contributor Goodyear explores the outer shoals of foodie culture with narrative skill and aplomb. More than just a recitation of bizarre foods preferences, Goodyear, who teaches at the University of Southern California, underscores her research into this gastronomic underground by providing the historical background, philosophical tenants, and legal framework that created America’s culinary landscape—a place, she claims, undergoing rapid change due in part to social media.
“Food porn is the most popular content of Pinterest, one of the fastest-growing Web sites in history, and it dominates the photo-sharing sites Instagram and Flickr. It’s all over the TV. As with birders and pornographers, the more outlandish and rarefied a find, the more a foodie likes it,” Goodyear writes.
Born in Peru, and now living in Barcelona, author Santiago Roncagliolo was named as one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists a few years back. Noted for being the youngest person to win the prestigious Alfaguara Prize (for his novel Red April, which was published in English in 2010), Roncagliolo is also a translator, a children’s book author, a newspaper contributor, and a soap opera writer.
His past work has examined the horrors of the Sendero Luminoso in Peru as well as the sex trade in Tokyo, but in his latest book in English, Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories (Two Lines Press), a darkly funny collection translated by Edith Grossman, the settings are more familiar—the dull workplace, the tucked-away apartment, the day-time bus ride. Yet the tales are all the more enthralling for their seemingly prosaic environments, opening up worlds of desire, death, and dreams (or maybe it’s delusions?).
In the title story (told entirely in unattributed dialogue), empty sex, disdainful customer service, and a soured affair all unfold, and eventually dovetail, over the phone. “Despoiler” tells of a lonely Barcelona woman’s phantasmagoric evening out, a night seemingly populated by her beloved and long-lost stuffed toys. In “Butterflies Fastened with Pins” the serial suicides of friends plague a young man, and in the collection’s final story, “The Passenger Beside You,” a woman explains how the “enormous bullet wound in her heart” came about.
We spoke to Roncagliolo over email about his new story collection and his writing.
Günter Grass begins his magical realist masterpiece The Tin Drum by explaining that “no one ought to tell the story of his life who hasn’t the patience to say a word or two about at least half of his grandparents before plunging into his own existence.” In Pig’s Foot (Bloomsbury, 333 pages), Carlos Acosta’s first novel (translated by Frank Wynne), the narrator more than abides by this advice. Pig’s Foot is the story of the narrator, told from the very beginning, when his great-great-grandmother arrives as a slave in Cuba in the 1800s. Acosta’s novel, set in a remote and muddy town and among a large family, is the tale of all of Cuba as well as just one man.
Oscar Mandinga, a black Cuban and the last surviving member of his family, is living in Havana in 1995. But as his grandfather tells him, “No man knows who he is until he knows his past, his history, the history of his country.” Acosta frames the story as the dialogue from Oscar’s interrogation by Commissioner Clemente, a doctor and alleged Grand Wizard of the Cuban branch of the Ku Klux Klan. This narrative framing allows for a mythical rendition of Cuba’s history which always remains rooted in reality. As we hear a master storyteller relate the past as it was told to him, we’re aware of a fog between Oscar’s words and actuality. But this is good, because the fog allows Acosta to play tricks.
Oscar begins by telling the history of Pata de Puerco, the town with so few people that “it seemed like the last place God made.” In the 1850s, a family of powerful slave traders moved in, and with them, seven thousand African slaves. Oscar’s great-great-grandparents are among the slaves, who are soon freed, and from there we follow their lineage through time. His family is present during the Ten Year War, the Mob years, the Castro years and present in so much more of Cuba’s history—always involved but never central in the action. Even as we learn about the slave trade, the revolutions, and other formative moments in the creation of what we know as Cuba, the novel is always centered on this one family and this one town.
There are obvious similarities here to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which also tells a wider history through one remote and isolated town. But unlike One Hundred Years of Solitude, which centers on the effects of outside influence and the loss of the old world, in Acosta’s novel slavery and its aftermath are the central themes. Cuba’s treatment of its black population has always been a key part of its history, and Acosta recognizes as much. Like their fellow black Cubans, the Mandingas are both essential and marginalized, and by understanding their role in the island’s history, we better understand Cuba as a whole. As Fidel Castro, who is noticeably absent from Pig’s Foot, said about Cuba in a 1977 speech, “We are not only a Latin American nation, we are an Afro-American nation also.” Acosta does a wonderful job expanding that idea in his intriguing first novel.
The recent award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Alice Munro was one of those cultural events which seemed uniquely well-deserved, if just because of the Canadian author’s modest attention to the little disturbances of men—and women— that give life meaning and shape. It may mean—I hope it means—a rebirth of interest in the short story, a form that while notoriously hard to “brand” in the publishing world, is uniquely qualified to communicate such particularities.
Donald Lystra explores this territory with tact and precision in his new collection, Something That Feels Like Truth (Switchgrass Books/Northern Illinois University Press). A Michigan native and retired engineer who came to writing late in life (his first novel was Season of Water and Ice), Lystra’s quiet stories recall the rhythms of Raymond Carver’s and the unhappy angst of (early) Beattie, although Hemingway’s Nick Adams tales are the more obvious antecedents.
In his novel Freedom, Jonathan Franzen has one of his characters make a pun that would make anyone groan. “Nor-fock-a-Virginia!” a character says in a fake Italian accent. When his German translator asked for clarification, Franzen explained: “Punchline of a pun about an Italian who won’t fuck virgins. The pun refers to the city of Norfolk, Virginia. Anything that works in German and is both dirty and refers to Italy or Italians would be fine with me.”
If it was hard to come up with a solution in German, it was almost impossible in Italian: “It had to be something which was not really Italian but would sound Italian to American ears,” says Silvia Pareschi, “and it had to be dirty and silly, because that was the spirit of the character who pronounced it.” After thinking about it for months, it suddenly struck her: “Fuck-accia! was my word.”
It was just another challenge for a top-tier literary translator. Besides working with Franzen, Pareschi has also translated works by Don DeLillo, Junot Díaz, Amy Hempel, Cormac McCarthy, E.L. Doctorow, Nathan Englander, Julie Otsuka, Denis Johnson, Annie Proulx, and many more into Italian. She and her husband, author and artist Jonathon Keats (whose book of fables, The Book of the Unknown, she translated in 2010) live six months a year in her native Lake Maggiore, and the other six months in San Francisco.
I interviewed Pareschi about her work as a translator in her San Francisco apartment over a bowl of home-cooked risotto.
ZYZZYVA: There are so many definitions of translation that I’d like to start with a provocative one. Boris Pasternak said that translation is very much like copying paintings. How would you respond?
Silvia Pareschi: Pasternak’s quote comes from an interview with Olga Carlisle published in The Paris Review in 1960. While ostensibly defending the translators of Doctor Zhivago from the accusation that their work had not done justice to his book, Pasternak rather condescendingly says, “It’s not their fault. They are used, like translators everywhere, to reproduce the literal sense rather than the tone of what is said—and of course it is the tone that matters. Actually, the only interesting sort of translation is that of classics. There is challenging work. As far as modern writing is concerned, it is rarely rewarding to translate it, although it might be easy.”
For the world premiere of Basil Kreimendahl’s hilarious and tenderhearted play Sidewinders (directed by M. Graham Smith), the Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco has flipped its performance space, arranging the stands of chairs so the stage is deeper than it is wide. Papier mache clouds hang from the ceiling, casting shadows on the clouds painted on the walls, creating an illusion of depth (lighting design by Heather Basarab). The stage seems to open up in front of us on three sides. The set, designed by Michael Locher, is dotted with sandy colored, flat-topped stumps, like desert mesas in miniature.
It seems right, in this setting, to encounter two fools: Dakota, a swaggering gunslinger (played by Sara Moore), and Bailey, an elegant soldier (played by DavEnd). Their train has run out of track, and they are stranded, as Dakota says, “on the Edge of Everything.” Profoundly disoriented, they do not know where they are, where they were before, nor who they were before. Their dilemma is both existential and venereal. Bailey does not know what Bailey is, what parts Bailey has, or whom Bailey should fool around with, and if Dakota knows, the gunslinger isn’t sharing. Bailey’s parts are so mysterious that they can only be named by singing nonsense phrases. Whether it is the vastness around them that spurs Bailey’s self-examination, or whether Bailey has always been questing to make sense of gender and sexuality, we can’t know. But the mystery of identity seems to be drawing Bailey further into the unknown borderlands. “We could go…that way,” says the soldier, wide-eyed, with an emphatic hair-toss in the direction of the frontier.
Ethel Rohan’s latest collection, Goodnight Nobody (Queen’s Ferry Press), is a slim volume of thirty (extremely) short stories, most of which clock-in at under five pages. It’s a daring, highly compressed form, and Rohan uses it to turn out characters who are often stuck, ill-adapted, grieving, or fallen out of love.
In “Someplace Better,” one of the few longer pieces in Goodnight Nobody, a guy picks up a girl at a tattoo shop. She’s young and beautiful, and she’s there to get a tattoo of a planet across her forehead. Though the tattoo artist refuses, the manager relents, and it’s only by the saving graces of the interested gentleman that she comes away unmarked: “Come next door and get a drink,” he says, “Think the tattoo over…You’re crazy enough to get a tattoo like that on your face, you’re crazy enough to go anywhere with anyone.” As in so many of the stories here, a bizarre moment, seized upon, becomes a vehicle for investigating character. Working within a form so spare, Rohan sets a demanding pace, one that rarely lets up. The strange planet Diane never manages to get tattooed across her forehead—a last-ditch attempt at agency as well a symbol for “someplace better”—is quickly exchanged for something a bit messier, less tangible. The relationship that forms between Diane and the man of the story becomes a kind of life raft for her, and for the reader it’s a lens through which we’re given a moving image—neither bright nor garish like the drawing the young woman wished to get on her face—of Diane’s pain.
Earlier this year, when Oakland actor and author John Mercer was due to take the stage for the opening night of his one-man show drawn from his memoir/essay collection, Swearing in English: Tall Tales at Shotgun, he was otherwise occupied: he was in the hospital with viral encephalitis, a life-threatening illness that would keep him there for 11 days.
The advertised shows were cancelled, and the book launch never happened. (You can read more about the memoir here.)
Now Mercer, who is a member of the Shotgun Players, has recovered and the show will go on. What was going to be a one-night show for November 11 at the Ashby Stage (across the street from Ashby BART station) sold out, so a show for Tuesday, November 12, at 8 p.m. has been added. (The performances will also serve as the long-awaited book launch party and signing.) You can click here for tickets.
“I have wanted to call it The Back from the Dead Show,” says Mercer. “After all, it’ll be only 11 days after Halloween. Or since zombies cannot be gotten rid of, no matter how much we want them to please, please go away, The Zombie Virus Ate My Brain Show. Both in appropriately appalling taste. Or, since its 11/11, we could call it The War Is Over Ceasefire Show.”
Mercer is in the meantime busy writing stories for his next book, and says he’ll return to acting in the new year when Shotgun presents all three parts of Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia.
Who was the woman known to history only as “Terry, The Mexican Girl” from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road? Given that she was the linchpin for what became one of the most renowned tales in American letters, and that virtually all of Kerouac’s characters were based on real people who subsequently became famous themselves by association with the book and, often, as artists in their own right, it seemed improbable that no one had taken the time to track her down. That is, until author, poet and performer Tim Z. Hernandez found himself standing on the front doorstep of the house of a 92 year-old woman named Bea Franco.
Just months prior to her death, she had no knowledge of her place in literary history. But, had it not been for the diminutive daughter of migrant farm workers from California’s San Joaquin Valley, the world may never have heard of a vagabond scribbler named Kerouac and the book that defined a generation and launched 100,000 road trips may never have made it to print.
Sid Dullaney, the protagonist of Don Waters’s first novel, Sunland (University of Nevada Press; 200 pages), is thirty-three, newly single, and unemployed. He has moved from Massachusetts back to his hometown of Tucson to care for his widowed grandmother. Nana lives in Paseo del Sol, an old folks’ home Sid struggles to afford. To pay the exorbitant cost, he starts making runs across the border to buy her medication, and gradually, medications for almost all of Paseo del Sol’s residents. “I began introducing myself to Nana’s neighbors and friends, showing off my best smile. The business, born from necessity, grew.”