ZYZZYVA EventsApril 13, 2018
ZYZZYVA Spring Issue Celebration, East Bay
Location: 7 p.m., East Bay Booksellers, 5433 College Ave., Oakland.
Description: Featuring readings by contributors Michael Zaken, Dawna Kemper, William Brewer, and Maddy Raskulinecz. Emceed by Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free.May 3, 2018
ZYZZYVA Spring Issue Celebration, San Francisco
Location: 6:30 p.m., Mechanics's Institute Library, Fourth Floor, 57 Post St., San Francisco
Description: Featuring readings by contributors Natalie Serber, Christopher J. Adamson, Greg Sarris, Tom Barbash, and Mackenzie Evan Smith. Emceed by Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free for ZYZZYVA readers.May 19, 2018
ZYZZYVA Fiction Workshop with Lori Ostlund
Location: Mechanics's Institute Building and ZYZZYVA Offices, 57 Post St., San Francisco
Description: A one-day intensive workshop with Ostlund, the author of the story collection "The Bigness of the World" and the novel "After the Parade." Class size is very limited. Applications are due by March 23. For more information, visit <a href="https://www.google.com/url?q=https%3A%2F%2Fzyzzyva.submittable.com%2Fsubmit%2F105363%2Ffiction&sa=D&usd=2&usg=AFQjCNEHtVZFN4oJ7wHx5TTH-0HRk5Wg4w" target="_blank">https://zyzzyva.submittable.com/submit/105363/fiction</a>August 18, 2018
ZYZZYVA Poetry Workshop with Dean Rader
Location: Mechanics's Institute Building and ZYZZYVA Offices, 57 Post St., San Francisco
Description: A one-day intensive workshop with Rader, author of the poetry collections "Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry," "Landscape Portrait Figure Form" and "Works & Days." Class size is very limited. Application are due by June 18. For more information, visit https://zyzzyva.submittable.com/submit/106864/poetrySeptember 22, 2018
ZYZZYVA Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Caille Millner
Location: Mechanics's Institute Building and ZYZZYVA Offices, 57 Post St., San Francisco
Description: A one-day intensive workshop with Millner, author of the memoir "The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification" and a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle. Class size is very limited. Applications are due by July 23. For more information, visit https://zyzzyva.submittable.com/submit/106865/creative-non-fiction
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
In this issue:
Art & Resistance Amid Turmoil
Troy Jollimore on how Wallace Shawn’s plays and his latest book, Night Thoughts, illuminate our predicament
Robin Romm on what Imre Kertész can teach us about art as resistance
T.J. Stiles on the road we travelled to arrive at this precarious moment
Andrew Tonkovich on “free persons,” and the risks writers must take
Dana Johnson’s “Like Other People”: In desperate need of a job, a graduate student takes a job cleaning cable boxes, working with folks also hard up for work.
Kristopher Jansma’s “The Corps of Discovery”: On a long road trip with his father, a middle-school history teacher considers Lewis & Clark, loss, and how no matter how much you prepare, “there were things you couldn’t reasonably expect to be prepared for.”
Krys Lee’s “The Jungle”: The trees and the vines have long received the terrified and the wretched; their plight does not go unnoticed.
Mackenzie Evan Smith’s “The Wet Continent”: “I have not set toe on a sailboat in more than a decade. I don’t know the last time I touched the ocean. … I think I am happier now. Am I really?”
Plus an excerpt from Dorthe Nors’s upcoming novel, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal
Victoria Chang, David Hernandez, Ruth Madievsky and Dean Rader on the topic of resistance; plus new poems from Judy Halebsky, Auzelle Epeneter, Bino A. Realuyo, Noah Warren, Christina Olson, and Jenny Xie
Over a home-cooked meal, a boisterous conversation between Matt Sumell and Michelle Latiolais about mentoring, anger, rescue dogs, and what it means to write for a living.
Jenny Sampson’s tintypes of California skaters
Custom cover design & illustration by Josh Korwin
Author and poet Martin Pousson’s Black Sheep Boy (182 pages; Rare Bird Books ), winner of the 2017 PEN Center USA Award for Fiction, and re-issued in paperback last month, is an unforgettable novel with prose that reads as both brutally honest and hypnotic. The story centers around our narrator, Boo, as he struggles with growing up gay in Acadiana, the bayou lands of Louisiana. Told over the course of sixteen linked stories, the book covers a wide span of time, from the “wild-hearted” boy’s birth to his freshman year of college, and centers around the qualities that make him the “black sheep” of the title.
Boo is unable to fit the masculine identity that his family, religion, and community demand of him. During childhood, his manner of movement and speech convinces his superstitious and abusive mother he is possessed by the devil: “Mama strapped down my restless hands with duct tape then ordered a doctor to fit braces on my twisting feet. By five, I’d learned sacrifice for the stutters when another doctor cut out a flap of flesh to correct my tangling speech. Mama showed me the horn-shaped piece to prove a point: the devil had me by the tongue.” His father, meanwhile, is mostly absent as he works from sunrise to sunset to meet his wife’s ever increasing demands for a piece of the good life she feels she deserves.
Boo is called Sissy, Queen, Fairy, and Jenny-Woman as he encounters drag-queens, priests, and neighborhood bullies. He has a variety of sexual encounters; some sweet and gentle, others haunting and traumatizing.
Pousson’s writing is melodic, with phrases that slope and sweep along the page. It is easy to get lost in the cadence and diction of his beautiful language. His phrasing is surreal and poetic; in one of the strongest stories, Boo remembers his grandfather—who by this time has lost all speech— and imagines him as a shapeshifting werewolf, proud of his grandson: “His eyes are black as bayous… From his neck, an endless chain of zigzag teeth swing like a second jaw. He moves without caution and knows no taboo. He’d frighten any tataille into the woods, chase any pack of animals into the dark. He’d terrify the words out of any boys mouth, chew the mask off any villains face. Yet his breath is perfume.”
At times the writing is so fantastical that it is difficult to find a more grounded, emotional connection to the storytelling, but that does not take away from the power of these stories. Pousson wastes no word. Black Sheep Boy represents an entertaining and dazzling read, and serves as a heartfelt ode to those the author addresses in his dedication: the “odd ducks, strange birds, and queer fish” among us.
Icelandic novelist, playwright, and poet Audur Ava Olafsdóttir offers a bizarrely lighthearted and humorous –– yet nonetheless moving –– portrayal of suicide and post-war life in her latest novel, Hotel Silence (214 pages; Grove Press; translated by Brian FitzGibbon).
After a painful divorce and the discovery that his daughter is not his biological child, the middle-aged narrator, Jonas, determines to commit suicide. His next-door neighbor, a man preoccupied with issues of gender inequality and female suffering, unquestioningly lends him a rifle. But once Jonas realizes his daughter would likely be the one to discover his lifeless body, he instead buys a one-way ticket to a foreign country where he can complete the task alone. He packs minimally: “I pack for a corpse,” he declares, only bringing a few items, including his old diaries and his tool kit (in case the room has something that needs fixing or he needs to screw in a hook from which to hang himself).
Jonas travels to an unnamed city in an unnamed country, one recently destroyed by a similarly unnamed war, to stay at Hotel Silence. He is one of three guests, which both his taxi driver and the hotel’s owners, a young brother and sister, note is the most business the place has received since the end of hostilities. In fact, they hope that Jonas’s trip will mark an economic turning point for the city.
The citizens of this place can use the change in fortune. They have lost their homes, have been maimed, and have witnessed families torn apart. Jonas’s pain is entirely unlike what these people have faced, but Jonas’s mother makes a Tolstoy-esque point: “All suffering is unique and different…and therefore it can’t be compared. Happiness, on the other hand, is similar.” In other words, suffering cannot be quantified or ranked, but perhaps it can be approached in similar ways.
While at Hotel Silence, Jonas spends time reading his journals, which are largely fixated on the books he’s read and his past relationships with women. In one entry he writes: “Thanks for life, mom. Why not Dad? I thank Mom for giving birth to me and girls for sleeping with me. I’m a man who expresses gratitude.” While this sentiment may sound egotistical, Jones proves earnest. He is a man who is happy to help women, who appreciates the presence of women and the act of being of service to them. His interest in women seems to offer a welcome distraction from painful self-reflection: “How did I become me?” he thinks at one point, indicating a desire to achieve insight and to understand his failure to do so. Yet it is precisely this interest that ultimately convinces Jonas to give life a second chance.
He begins by doing small things around the hotel: he fixes closet doors and clears the sand out of showerheads. He later moves on to larger projects, like helping to build a home for a group of women in town so they can rebuild their lives. He assists the hotel’s owners (the sister happens to be a single mother) piece together a mosaic of nude women. The mosaic, of course, will never return to its original state, will always reveal the scars of its devastation. But like Jonas and the inhabitants of this war-ravaged city, much of its original beauty can be restored –– and as Olafsdóttir shows in her winning novel, it is a task worth attempting.
Christina Olson is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Terminal Human Velocity (Stillhouse Press) and Before I Came Home Naked (Ankylosaurus Press). She teaches creative writing at Georgia Southern University. Two of Olson’s poems are featured in ZYZZYVA No. 111. Presented here in its entirety is the poem “Pack Time”:
In late May, the men succumbed to winter madness, shaving their heads and posing amid great hilarity while Hurley immortalized the moment with a photograph.
—from Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition
Who can blame them—their ship sunk
in pack ice. The dark days looping
like a tape reel. The sled dogs snoozing
away in their dogloos. White noise.
Lentils and seal meat. In the Southern
hemisphere, summer is winter. One
morning, Hurley photographs ice
flowers and captions them as pink
carnations. The difference between
metaphor and madness is just five
letters. And a month is a false way
to mark time, a way to claim it
like a parcel of land. Nature the only
marker: pop of crocus, peel of sunburn.
On land, we flip a calendar page
like a badge, like a finger: we’ve survived
another thirty days. When the sun
never rises, men must make their own
calendars. They shave each other’s heads,
grinning with razors. They run hands
over each other’s pates, gleaming
in the lamplight. Their scalp skins
so white, like the ice. Like skulls.
To: All Quest Industries Employees
From: Judy Kemper, Vice President of Marketing
Subj: Lost cardigan—please help!
I seem to have misplaced a very important sweater and I’m almost certain I left it here in the office this past Friday. If you have seen my lime green Laura Ashley cardigan, size M, with pearl buttons, a small-to-medium gravy stain on one sleeve (left), and one frayed cuff (right), please tell me where you spotted it, and if this information leads to its recovery, I promise to give you a reward of your choosing, up to $10 in value. I do wish it could be more, but unfortunately, my husband and I are on a tight budget this month, due to expenses incurred when a tree fell on our car last Wednesday evening during a thunderstorm and another tree, unbelievably, fell on our roof less than an hour later!
What are the odds? And what on heaven and earth is going on with our karma? Not that I believe specifically in karma or anything related to the Hindu faith, but it does seem as if something strange is going on here.
By the way, if you choose to forfeit your reward for locating my treasured cardigan in light of Glenn’s and my current financial situation, I will be happy to repay the favor by searching high and low (for up to 15 minutes) if you ever lose anything of sentimental or monetary value in this office and are desperate for help finding it.
If anyone here at Quest Industries actually does know how to calculate the odds of a tree falling on your car and another tree falling on your roof less than an hour later, I’d be very interested in hearing what they are.
Here is some more information for the math nerd(s) among us: We have six trees on our property (well, four now, technically) and they are all about 50-75 years old: two birch, one maple, two evergreens, one gingko. There was a squirrel’s nest in the maple, and an unidentified bird’s nest in the gingko. The maple was the first tree to fall (on the roof) and the blasted gingko fell on the car approximately 48 minutes later. The car was parked in the driveway, about 8 yards from where the tree fell on the roof. The gingko and the maple were on opposite sides of the front yard and did not have overlapping root systems, as far as I know. Also, according to my mother-in-law, the gingko tree was haunted.
The boldly and rather ironically named Love (125 pages; Archipelago Books), written by Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik, was originally published in her native country in 1997. Twenty years later, it has now been translated into English by Martin Aitken and is being released in the United States by Archipelago Books, perhaps in part due to the steady demand here for dark, noir-like literature out of Scandinavia.
Exploring many opposing themes, including hope, disappointment, longing, and unrequited love, the novella tells the story of Vibeke and her young son, Jon, who have recently moved to a secluded town in the northern reaches of Norway. The action of the story takes place over the course of just one day as mother and son go off on their separate journeys. Ørstavik invites the readers into her two characters’ innermost thoughts, seamlessly switching back and forth between their perspectives— often within the same paragraph. Their stories unfold breathlessly close together on the page, suggesting the strong link between mother and son that Vibeke’s actions betray.
It is the day before Jon’s ninth birthday and he spends the majority of it by himself. He takes Vibeke’s absence to mean she is busy planning a special celebration for him, but as readers we know this isn’t true; her designs are much more self-involved.
Though it’s easier to be angry with Vibeke rather than sympathetic, her deep loneliness and insecurities are apparent. Her character proves selfish and single-minded: she doesn’t think about what it takes to be a good mother, she wants to find a man. To that end, she cares about being beautiful; her needs come before Jon’s. In contrast, Jon constantly thinks of his mother. He wonders where she is, what she’s doing, and fantasizes about his birthday cake and the train set he hopes to receive.
As their nights progress, a creeping sense of tragedy brews within the story. Vibeke spends her evening bar-hopping with a man she met at a traveling carnival, while Jon bounces from stranger to stranger, accepting their offers to stay warm. Though Love is only one hundred and twenty-five pages, its careful craft and beautiful details make it worth savoring—right to its haunting but inevitable conclusion.
Akwaeke Emezi is a Tamil and Igbo writer from Nigeria who has received recognition for her short stories and creative nonfiction, as well as her work as an experimental video artist. With Freshwater (229 pages; Grove Press), she marks her first novel, an ambitious and original one at that. The book follows Ada, a young girl growing up in Nigeria, as she is both plagued and protected by a host of spirits that cohabitate her body and share her thoughts. Through beautiful and haunting prose, and through the different voices residing in Ada, we get a glimpse into her mind, a metaphysical space of “ọgbanje” (an Igbo term for a spirit that brings misfortune to a family by inhabiting the body of a child). Although Ada has been chosen by the god Ala to share her physical vessel with the ọgbanje, Emezi’s representation of her fractured mind proves surprisingly universal.
Freshwater begins with a narrator called “We,” a group of spirits who first exist in Ada’s mother’s body. “We” describe themselves as “the hatchlings, godlings, ọgbanje,” and act with indifference to the needs and interests of humans. The day they come into complete being is the day of Ada’s birth, “the day we died and were born.” Ada’s conception is explained by her father’s request for a daughter, which the god Ala answered. In doing so, Ada’s father opened a gate to the spirit world, summoning these entities into his family’s lives. When their little girl arrives, the happy parents name her Ada, meaning, “God answered.” “We” regards Ada from an observational perspective, but “We” and Ada often share the same desires, such as the need for blood, which they satisfy through Ada’s self-cutting.
Ada primarily shares her mind with “We” until she leaves Nigeria to attend university in Virginia. When Ada arrives, she is marked as prudish because of her disinterest in sex, telling her friends that she has made a vow of celibacy. But after her boyfriend sexually assaults her, a new ọgbanje appears—the licentious Asughara—whose purpose is to protect Ada by taking control of her whenever men are involved. Asughara adds an important depth to Emezi’s story, eliciting conflicting emotions. Ada and Asughara argue in the “marble room” of Ada’s mind and build a codependent relationship, leaving us to wonder if Asughara is protecting or harming Ada. Despite the uncertainty, one sighs with relief when Ada’s attempt to seek treatment from a therapist is thwarted because the therapist seems like an unwelcome third party who would create a wedge between Asughara and Ada. As “We” explains, the gods living in humans are inescapable; it is better to feed them than to ignore them.
Befitting a story about a fractured mind, the style of the novel is unconventional. Not only does Emezi write in multiple voices, but the story also progresses in a nonlinear fashion. Her writing compresses time and space—the past, future, and present moments in Ada’s life are ever-present, as are the places and people she visits. It begins with Ada’s birth, but once Ada reaches Virginia, the text moves back and forth in time, in ways that are often confusing. The organization of events is not without purpose, however. After the sexual assault, Asughara chronicles Ada’s adult life and often returns to the time before the assault and then far into the future. By doing this, Emezi reveals Ada and the ọgbanje in a way that resists an understanding of Ada as two separate selves: the Ada before the assault and Ada after. This pushes the young man who assaulted her out of the spotlight—we regard him as a negative influence in Ada’s life, but not as the key acting figure.
Ultimately, Emezi offers a perspective on mental illness that refuses categorization and diagnoses. Rather than characterizing Ada’s behaviors—her insatiable sexual appetite after being raped, her self-mutilation, alcoholism, and an eating disorder—as coping mechanisms or symptoms of mental illness, Emezi attributes them to conflicts between our spiritual and physical selves. She also refuses to portray the spirits that lead Ada to acts like self-harm as entirely malevolent. As she makes clear, Asughara and the other ọgbanje love Ada, and exist to protect her. (Often there’s the sense Ada should give herself up entirely to the ọgbanje, who, unlike Ada, cannot experience pain from the outside world.) With her brilliant novel, Emezi shows how the different aspects of our personality are often in conflict, and how that conflict can be inescapable.
San Francisco writer Anne Raeff’s new novel, Winter Kept Us Warm’’ (304 pages; Counterpoint Press), officially out next Tuesday, is an ambitious, multi-generational tale that deals with the interlocking lives of three characters—Ulli, Leo, and Isaac—who meet in Berlin shortly after World War II has ended. A departure of sorts from Raeff’s 2015 story collection, The Jungle Around Us, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, it shares a similar interest in the complexities of character, motive, and human nature, albeit on a different palette. (In a coincidence of fate, Raeff’s wife, Lori Ostlund, previously won the O’Connor Award in 2008 for her collection The Bigness of the World.)
Raeff spoke to us by e-mail about the new book, her biography, and her future projects. This is a writer who deals with serious, sometimes unfashionable subjects, with depth and compassion, qualities the new novel displays in abundance.
ZYZZYVA: Winter Kept Us Warm covers a lot of ground and geographical locations, from Germany to New York, Los Angeles and Morocco. It also seems like a “European’’ novel, in the sense that politics is seen as part and parcel of the tapestry of life, rather than something to be addressed separately. Was that partly your intent, to bring that tradition back? Are there novelists you were particularly influenced by who deal with the same concerns?
Anne Raeff: I don’t see how it is possible to separate story from history. In fact, the word story didn’t come into the English language until the early 16th century. Before that, history was the only word, and it meant a narrative of important events. Perhaps because the stories I grew up with were so closely tied to cataclysmic events in history like the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, and World War II, from a very early age I thought of history as story and story as history.
My father was an historian by profession, but the interesting thing is that he didn’t teach me the facts of history, though he encouraged me to study and read about history on my own. Instead, he told me stories. He told me the story of the girl who died because of a gas leak while taking a bath in a pension in Lisbon. She and her family were among the many Russian refugees like my father who had escaped Occupied France and were waiting in Lisbon for visas to come to the United States. He told me about the prisoner at the POW camp in Arizona who believed that Stalin was living in his head.
Part of American exceptionalism is a lack of interest in history and an almost ideological denial of the effects of history on individual lives. Perhaps now that American literature is including a greater variety of voices, the importance of the forces of history will become more integrated into literature and into the American consciousness. The book that comes to mind that weaves together a very particular moment in history with a very particular human tragedy is Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. It is a book with an extraordinary sense of place, which is also something that is extremely important to me.
I refuse, as a rule, to consult all fortunetellers, palm-readers, and tarot-card diviners. I won’t so much as glance at a horoscope; routinely, I forget what my own astrological sign might be. It’s not so much that I believe or disbelieve in what a fortuneteller might have to tell me, but that I distrust myself, not knowing how my future behavior might change in response to what any would-be oracle has to say.
Chloe Benjamin’s second, much-lauded novel, The Immortalists (352 pages; Putnam), follows four siblings who, as children, go to a fortuneteller to learn when they’ll die. Afterward, tensions between the future and the present, between predictions and reality, threaten to break this family apart. I talked via email to Benjamin (whose first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, won the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award) about her powerful, compelling new book, and about death, the present tense, and dance.
ZYZZYVA: I’m not at all alone in finding the central premise of The Immortalists—the possibility of finding out, and maybe even believing in, the date we’ll die—to be both terribly moving and terrifying. What brought you to this idea?
Chloe Benjamin: I know it sounds strange, but I have such a hard time answering this question! I think it’s because concepts, for me, always feel very subconscious—I don’t have a clear memory of the first time the idea hit me, but I do know that the basic kernel was always there: four siblings go to visit a fortuneteller, and then the book follows each of them over the course of their lives. I wish I had better origin stories. Stephen King has a great line that references the muses as “the boys in the basement”—this idea of people working away at some deeper level of a writer’s consciousness. Of course, as a feminist, I amend that to “the gals in the basement.”
Even if I can’t remember the precise spark, I do know that The Immortalists comes very much out of my own neuroses. I’ve always struggled with uncertainty and loss, which are intertwined, for me: the uncertainty of whether and when we will lose our loved ones, our happiness, our stability. And there’s no greater, or at least no more final, loss than death. It’s occurred to me that I would be able to slough off so much worry if I knew that I and those closest to me would live long lives. Of course, we can’t know that, but it got me thinking about what it would be like if we could know—with no guarantee that it would be good news. Is knowledge a blessing or a curse? A liberator or a hindrance? And to what extent are denial and ignorance actually positive forces in human life, in that they enable us to keep going?
In 2011, I was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I spent two years as the Kenan Visiting Writer shortly after the release of my first book, a story collection. One of these stories, “Bed Death,” appeared in the PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories, and it was this publication that led to my meeting Matthew Lansburgh. He sent me an email after reading it, and we struck up a friendship. In 2012, I moved back to San Francisco, and during a quick trip to New York in 2015, I finally met Matthew; we spent two days together, during which time he served as my “date” for a literary event.
Later that month, he visited San Francisco, where he met Anne, my wife, who said that talking to him felt like talking to a brother. This sort of easy familiarity often exists between gays and lesbians, but we had numerous other things in common as well: all three of us are writers, of both stories and novels; we all write work that incorporates LGBTQ characters and themes without targeting a primarily gay audience; Matthew grew up in California, where we now live, and he lives in New York, where Anne grew up; his mother is from Germany, Anne’s from Vienna, and this informs their work, albeit in quite different ways. One of Matthew’s ongoing preoccupations in his work is the relationship between his main character, Stewart, a gay man who has moved from California to New York, and Heike, his German-born, overbearing mother. Outside Is the Ocean (192 pages; University of Iowa Press), which received the Iowa Short Fiction Award, is a collection of linked stories with Stewart and Heike at its heart. It is funny and heartbreaking and, as Publishers Weekly noted, it “succeed[s] as a nuanced character study and a resonant commentary on the challenges of romantic and familial love.” I read it in its entirety in a matter of days in manuscript form, and when the book landed in our mailbox, Anne devoured it just as quickly. Though Anne and I have similar aesthetics, we do not always respond with equal passion to books, but in Matthew’s case, we did, even when we discussed the book in private, which is, after all, what really counts.
Anne Raeff: When I was reading Outside Is the Ocean I was often overwhelmed by the sadness and desperation of the characters, but I never wanted to run away. I wanted to be overwhelmed by their desperation. I wanted to experience their weaknesses, their inability to connect, their pettiness, their humanity. Heike is, perhaps, one of the most human characters of modern literature. She wants so desperately to be loved, yet she does not know how to love. She is kind to animals and to people who are even more lost and isolated than she is, but she is cruel to those who are closest to her, who know her most intimately, who know her weaknesses. Perhaps, although she is an immigrant, a woman who came of age in Germany during World War II, she is the archetypal American—full of hope and ideals, yet, ultimately, so alone.
Lori and I interviewed Matthew about his book via email and Google Docs.
ZYZZYVA (Lori Ostlund): Let’s start the discussion with short stories. All three of us love short stories. We read them. We write them. You won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for this book. Anne and I have both received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (FOC). I once served as a screening judge for the FOC, so I know that it receives around 450 story collections a year for its annual contest. Contests (Drue Heinz, AWP Grace Paley Award, Sarabande’s Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, Prairie Schooner Book Prize, BOA Short Fiction Prize) remain an important route to publication for story writers. Can you begin by describing the moment when you learned that you had won the award?
Matthew Lansburgh: I remember the moment vividly! I was walking toward my apartment on 28th Street in Manhattan. I was on the north side of the sidewalk, heading toward Sixth Avenue when I received an email from James McCoy, the editor of the University of Iowa Press, asking me to call him. At first, I had no idea who he was or what the email might be about. At the time, I was sending out stories constantly, and I wondered whether it was someone from The Iowa Review with a question about a story I’d submitted. I’d sent Outside Is the Ocean to the Iowa Short Fiction Award about five months earlier and hadn’t spent much time thinking about it in the interim. (I’ve always believed that the best way to maintain one’s sanity after sending something out to a journal or a contest is to forget about it and keep busy with other projects.)
The cover of The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea (248 pages; Grove Press) boasts a brightly colored piece of North Korean propaganda featuring six luminous, smiling faces. The seven stories in the collection, however, offer something very different: heart-wrenching accounts of a brutal life inside the country’s borders.
The Accusation’s journey to publication is miraculous in itself. Its author, Bandi (a pseudonym meaning “firefly”), smuggled his manuscript out of the country with the help of a defecting family member. For more than four years, he secretly wrote the manuscript, entirely in pencil, and remains in North Korea where he serves as a member of the Chosun Writers League Central Committee, a state-funded writing organization. Bandi’s book represents the first published work to criticize the North Korean government written by someone still living in that country.
The stories in The Accusation center on the importance of one’s reputation in North Korea, and how quickly it can be ruined by rumors and accusations of one’s opposition to the government. In each story, the characters experience a longing to break free of the societal pressure that restricts their intimate relationships. “City of Specters” reveals the absurdity of how even the most minor acts of can earn someone the label of anti-revolutionary. In it, a mother who uses extra curtains to protect her sensitive child from seeing a poster of Karl Marx that frightens him is quickly marked as a threat; a civil servant explains to her how unique curtains could be seen as a signal to spies. And while the rigidity of the government’s demands is so bizarre as to be almost humorous, Bandi depicts how these demands place a barrier between people. One must choose between being a good citizen and being a good family member, and choosing the latter most often results in punishment.
In these stories we see the ways this fear makes North Korea into a country of trained actors; to simply survive, its citizens must repress their grief and anger, even in the face of lost loved ones, and produce exaggerated performances of mourning for the death of Kim Jong-il. The characters in this book smile through their physical and emotional pain, only calling on these hidden agonies when tears are necessary.
The final piece in the collection, titled “The Red Mushroom,” suggests the author’s self-contempt and dissatisfaction with his career. Bandi writes about a reporter who is commonly referred to as the “bullshit reporter” since his work only praises the government or spins stories to the point of fabrication. This is, of course, due to the severe limitations put on North Korean journalists. Like his protagonist, Bandi is a state-sanctioned writer who must acquiesce to political restraints on his writing. The story raises the question of what it means to be an artist of any kind in Bandi’s country or in any other totalitarian state. While the cast of The Accusation would likely argue that it means one must be a liar, Bandi’s work speaks to our irrepressible need for self-expression and drive to create art. His writing and characters prove magnetic; they are anything but the one-dimensional characters of North Korean propaganda.
A short note on office policy regarding potted plants and floral bouquets:
a) If you enjoy the company of a potted plant on your desk, please water it as needed in order to keep it from becoming an unsightly and dispiriting brown heap of tendrils, leaves, stalks, stems, pistils, stamens, husks, pods, and/or roots.
b) If you have received a bouquet and are keeping it at your desk, please do not, under any circumstances, balance it on the edge of your cubicle wall where it will inevitably be bumped and dislodged by a passing coworker and crash down upon his/her person, thus potentially resulting in grievous injury, permanent disability, and in some cases, death or dismemberment.
c) Cacti are not permitted inside or within 500 feet of our offices; we regret this exclusion, but due to an incident that occurred last spring on these premises with a visiting Nepalese diplomat, we must outlaw all cacti at Quest Industries; in fairness to the cactus involved in the incident, it is possibly true that the Nepalese diplomat is an extremely clumsy individual—nonetheless, in order to avoid future cacti-diplomat-related incidents, no members of this plant species are permitted anywhere on our property.
d) Some plants are known to attract various airborne insects; for example, gnats and an unidentified species with flea-like characteristics have been sighted in recent weeks swarming the three potted plants on Bill Dubonski’s desk; Bill has kindly and ungrudgingly addressed this situation with great success by spraying his miniature ficus, potted ivy, and a mongrel species of flowering plant with water containing a mild detergent. No gnats or flea-like creatures have been spotted for the past 4 days swarming his cubicle or any neighboring cubicles. Thank you, Bill. With 72 hours’ advance notice, Bill has informed us that he is willing to offer his special spray bottle to anyone in the office who might require it.
With frequent moments of insightful social commentary, Luke Kennard’s first novel, The Transition (328 pages; FSG), takes us to an exaggerated version of our current society—a dystopian world of recognizable stress.
Karl and Genevieve are both university-educated and hold decent jobs. Genevieve works as a teacher, and Karl has a dubious career as a fake product reviewer and ghostwriter for lazy college students who can afford his services. In the first few pages of the novel, we learn things have gotten to the point where the “average age of leaving the parental home drifted into the early forties.” At the same time, things such as male contraceptive implants, self-driving taxi cabs, and self-refilling refrigerators are common. Without the help of their parents to fall back on, Karl and Genevieve struggle and flail. In their early thirties, they still can’t afford to live alone — instead they rent a room in a shared house; having children remains out of the question. As rents keeps rising, Karl (secretly) opens up more credit accounts to pay for groceries, car repairs, and vacations they can’t afford. Whenever Karl complains about their lot in life, Genevieve reminds him that they are still wealthier and better off than ninety-seven percent of the world’s population.
To pay off some of his debt, Karl becomes involved in credit fraud and is ultimately caught. He is given an offer: go to jail for fifteen months, or participate in a pilot scheme called the Transition. After choosing the latter, he and Genevieve spend six months living with older mentors who guide them through concepts like employment, finances, relationships, and more. In other words: Adulting 101. The goal of the program is that by the end of their sentence, the couple will have paid off their debts and have enough money saved for a down payment on a house.
This too-good-to-be-true “Get Out of Jail Free Card” soon becomes a burden to Karl. He continues to land himself in trouble, and his relationship with Genevieve grows increasingly strained. Karl’s developing suspicion of the ill intentions of The Transition becomes the novel’s central conflict. Though Kennard expertly introduces new conflicts and builds suspense, there’s no dramatic conclusion to his story. In fact, the novel is consistently anticlimactic; just when you think there will be an aha! moment, Kennard adds another layer of complication and ambiguity. (Are the villains really villains or simply people looking out for themselves?) And each character is flawed in their unique ways.
The Transition is not as easily definable as a typical dystopian novel. Kennard writes cleverly about an unlivable economic climate, sprinkling instances of lovely nuance and truthful observation throughout. The novel never preaches or patronizes the reader. Instead, The Transition serves as a funny, fresh, and all too likely depiction of the future.