Author Archives: me

Obsessions: Our Solitary Fancy

Who wasn’t obsessed by the Beat Generation in high school? Okay, it was just unbearable punks like me. In Jack Kerouac, I saw a reflection of my ineloquent angst. I used to be able to recite entire paragraphs of On the Road, but I’ve since blocked all of it from my memory. I was particularly interested in Allen Ginsberg because, like me, he was unpretentiously pretentious—or at least we both tried to be. He might allude to a Greek myth in a poem written on acid. A surfer boy reeking of weed, I used polysyllables that made my classmates’ eyes …Continue reading

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Bumbling Along, But Full of Heart: ‘Wait Till You See Me Dance’ by Deb Olin Unferth

Wait Till You See Me Dance (Graywolf Press, 186 pages) marks Deb Olin Unferth’s second collection of stories, following Minor Robberies (2007). The author of the novel Vacation and the memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the Sandinistas, Unferth displays a smart and snappy application of the short-short form in this volume of 39 stories—29 of which are fewer than three pages long (and four of which appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 108). Wait Till You See Me Dance is filled with concise, meaningful sentiments that both entertain and engage the reader in commentary surrounding …Continue reading

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Nightmarish Existence of The Child: ‘The Impossible Fairy Tale’ by Han Yujoo

The dichotomies of childhood—children’s capacity for both guileless love and extreme cruelty—make our earliest years ripe material for storytelling; fairy tales, in particular, have long traded on the contradictions of youth: Hansel and Gretel narrowly escaping an evil witch’s clutches only to burn her alive in her own oven, Red Riding Hood fending off the appetite of a ravenous wolf disguised as her grandmother before filling his stomach with stones. It’s through this lens the reader approaches The Impossible Fairy Tale (214 pages; Graywolf Press; translated by Janet Hong), the first novel from Korean author Han Yujoo and her first …Continue reading

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Shiftiness: The Border in Eight Cases

airport-1897716_1920President Donald Trump’s revised travel ban—an executive order targeting Yemen, Sudan, Iran, Syria, Somalia, and Libya, and reducing the number of refugees allowed into the country from 110,000 to 50,000 people—was to have taken effect today. The order was met with legal challenges in three states, challenges in which groups such as the ACLU and the Northwest Immigration Rights Program argued that it remained, among other things, a thinly disguised ban on Muslims. But yesterday, as the New York Times reported, Judge Derrick K. Watson in Hawaii issued a nationwide order blocking the ban.

In April 2015, ZYZZYVA published Julie Chinitz’s essay “Shiftiness: The Border in Eight Cases” in its Spring/Summer issue. Chinitz, who volunteered with the Northwest Immigration Rights Program in the early ’90s, carefully considers in her piece the ideas of borders, of immigration, of refugees, of what it means to come to this country and what it means to be an American. Her insights remain significantly relevant, given the objectives of the Trump White House. The fifth section of the essay—”Borders and Bodies”—especially so, as she looks at the case of United States v. Montoya de Hernandez. Because of that Supreme Court ruling, she writes, it’s “why to this day people can find themselves locked up at the border, hours on end, with no idea what they’re suspected of having done wrong. … In his dissent in Montoya de Hernandez, Justice Brennan raised a warning about this kind of abuse … ‘Indefinite involuntary incommunicado detentions “for investigation” are the hallmark of a police state,’ he wrote, ‘not a free society’.”

She further notes: “In legal terms, border points such as those at airports are called the ‘functional equivalent of the border.’ They also include territorial waters, spots where roads coming from the actual border converge, UPS sorting hubs, etc.: places that aren’t exactly the border, but close enough.”

We believed at the time of publication that Chinitz’s essay was important, and the weeks since Inauguration Day have only confirmed our view. The following is “Shiftiness: The Border in Eight Cases” in full. We urge you to read it.

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History and Poetry as Unending Things: ‘Whereas’ by Layli Long Soldier

Whereas (120 pages; Graywolf) is Layli Long Soldier’s first book of poetry, and what an exquisite book it is. Gathered in one volume, Long Soldier’s poems clearly expose the ways language—either English or Lakota/Lakȟótiyapi—is used to create and destroy opposing politics. She does not shy away from political speech in Whereas, and indeed, she can’t—not as long as Native people continue to suffer under continued settler colonialism, or as the various languages and traditions of the thousands of indigenous ethnic groups are continually stomped out yet revitalized in specific Native spaces. Divided into two parts, the book begins with “These …Continue reading

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Home Story Delivery Service

On a cool weekday night, I rushed home from my job in San Francisco to my Oakland bungalow to quickly arrange chairs and put out cookies and wine before the guests arrived. They weren’t coming to see me, but rather were going to be there for a reading by an author/actor they had heard me rave about. I copyedited John Mercer’s 2013 collection of memoir pieces, Swearing in English: Tall Tales from Shotgun (a reference to Shotgun Players, the Berkeley theater company he belonged to for 10 years), and his second, The Long Arm of Lunacy: More Swearing in English, …Continue reading

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Meditating on Evil under Paradise’s Sun: ‘After the Blue Hour’ by John Rechy

In his new novel, After the Blue Hour (212 pages, Grove Press), John Rechy offers a hybrid erotica-mystery that he labels as “true fiction.” The author of seventeen books and praised by such great American writers as James Baldwin, Edmund White, and Gore Vidal, Rechy achieved literary fame with his first novel, the international bestseller City of Night, published in 1963. In his new novel, set in the ’60s, the narrator, a 24-year-old writer and ex-hustler also named John Rechy, receives an invitation to join an admiring fan, Paul Wagner, for the summer on his private island. Upon arrival, John finds himself …Continue reading

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Notes on the First 30 Days

On the morning of Inauguration Day, I met up with a friend in midtown Manhattan, where we rented a car and set out for Washington, D.C. Our plan was to make the drive before nightfall, have a quick dinner, finish making our signs, and get a good night’s rest before the Women’s March. Not only was it less expensive to rent a car than to fly or take a train, but our road-trip had the added benefit of keeping us away from TV all day—a serendipitous media blackout for which we were both grateful. We didn’t turn on the radio, …Continue reading

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‘Pain and Loneliness in Equal Measure’: Q&A with Peter Orner

Peter Orner’s Am I Alone Here? Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live (316 pages, Catapult)—which concerns Orner’s favorite stories, the lives of their authors as well as Orner’s own—has a modest subtitle. It suggests the essays in the collection, which was recently named a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award, are rough, unfinished. (One of the essays in the collection, “Since the Beginning of Time,” appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 107.) Because Orner maintains this Midwestern-like self-deprecating tone throughout the book, his intellectual rigor might catch you off guard. He takes stories—telling them, reading them—very seriously. …Continue reading

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Poems of a Man ‘Robbed of His Country’: ‘In Praise of Defeat’ by Abdellatif Laâbi

Abdellatif Laâbi is perhaps Morocco’s most well-known poet-activist-writer, and a well-respected Francophone poet as well His personal history—founder of leftist Moroccan/Maghrebi magazine Souffles (Breaths) in 1966, imprisoned for “crimes of opinion” against King Hassan II from 1972 to 1980, and exiled to France since 1985—is staggering on its own, and his writing reflects each stage of his life in haunting and affective ways. This is perhaps what makes In Praise of Defeat (824 pages; Archipelago; translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith) so incredible. The book is a veritable brick—it’s almost intimidating in its scale, refusing to let the reader forget Laabi’s illustrious …Continue reading

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Love (and Lives) on the Balance: ‘Lucky Boy’ by Shanthi Sekaran

In her new novel, Lucky Boy (472 pages, Putnam), Shanthi Sekaran plunges readers into the drastically different yet irrevocably intertwined lives of two women, and in doing so explores facets of motherhood, immigration, and the American experience. Solimar Castro Valdez is eighteen when she leaves the impoverished cornfields of Santa Clara Popocalco in Oaxaca for “the promise of forward motion” in California. Her journey north is nightmarish; she is nearly forced into drug smuggling, she survives a rape, witnesses the horrific death of a boy, and for days rides in the bed of a truck, gagging on the stench of …Continue reading

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Three Poems for Inauguration Day: ‘I Used to Be Much Much Darker’ by Francisco X. Alarcón

On the occasion of Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day, we would like to share with you three poems from our early volumes—poems we believe speak to values that will be very much challenged by the incoming administration.

“I Used to Be Much Much Darker” by Francisco X. Alarcón (who died last January) appeared in ZYZZVA No. 3 (Fall 1985). A playful even jovial poem, it tells, in English and in Spanish, of the speaker’s love of self, of reveling in his “darkness”—something others would deem unworthy of celebration. Indeed, as the speaker plangently notes: “but anyway/ up here ‘dark’/ is only for/ the ashes:/ the stuff lonely nights/ are made of.” Yet it’s the poem’s indefatigable cheerfulness—could we even call it optimism?—that remains with the reader.

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