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

ornerPeter 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. With the same combination of self-effacement and scrupulousness, Orner discussed with us via email how to inhabit a story and what kinds of stories he like to inhabit.

ZYZZYVA: You have a penchant for stories about people telling stories, like Juan Rulfo’s “Luvina,” which you write about in “On the Beauty of Not Writing, or, An Unnecessary Homage to Juan Rulfo,” and Álvaro Mutis’ “The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call,” which you write about in “Since the Beginning of Time.” In the former, you write that you return “again and again to Rulfo’s first book [The Plain in Flames] to re-experience something… fundamental: how to inhabit a story simply by listening.” You like these kinds of stories because they put this inhabitance on display. Of course, this is what you do in these essays. For you, is there much of a difference between performing listening in fiction and in nonfiction?

Peter Orner: Thanks for the question, which kind of lays out it better than I ever could. You inhabit a story by becoming an active listener, especially in stories like the incomparable Juan Rulfo’s, where it often feels like the speaker is talking directly into your—and only your—ear. As for listening in non-fiction versus listening in fiction, I’m not sure I’d say there is a difference. I think it’s all about concentration, whatever form of work you’re reading. And I find that I don’t do nearly enough of it, listening to the page, slowly, as I read. Reading online is making me read faster, which is the deadliest thing, I think. I’m not anti-technology or anything, but I think that increasing the speed by which we read is crappy for literature. I notice this with myself. When I read on-line, my eyes move a hell of a lot faster. My eyes aren’t taking it in as they would on a page, I’m skimming down the screen, I’m looking for something else to click—and so when I say we got to listen to the page, I mean we got to read with all our senses. Somehow this answer became a screed, but my point is I read to slow down, and that’s what I mean by inhabiting a story.

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‘Three Wishes’ by Rolf Yngve, ZYZZYVA No. 108, Winter Issue

Once, a traveler failed to heed all the warnings and found himself driving deep into a canyon clotted with half-melted snow and scabs of stunted oak. The agreeable woman of the cell phone insisted he make a U-turn, but finally she succumbed and directed him to proceed as he had wished all along. He was to continue forty-six miles, then turn left on Rural Route 62.

The sun lowered. The canyon walls narrowed in, steeper and higher. The road twisted and climbed. But the pavement was well maintained and dry. There was no traffic at all until headlights appeared too close behind him. Some sort of old car with those skinny tires. He slowed to let a pale yellow Dodge Dart struggle past.

This traveler was a careful man who had come of age when airplanes regularly fell from the sky, when low-speed auto accidents killed you, when no one survived cancer. He shivered recalling the stupidity he had once exhibited driving cars like that Dodge Dart even sixty miles an hour. A light confetti of snow streaked through his headlights. The road would get slick. He asked the cell phone, how far to the next turn. The agreeable woman told him to proceed forty-six miles then turn left onRural Route 62.

“Aw, come on, that’s what you said a half hour ago. How far to the next turn, really?”


He was about to pick up the cell phone, peer at its tiny map, but years of learning from stupid mistakes like that saved him. He had his head up to see the Dart, stopped too far out into the road. Someone waved from the shoulder next to the vehicle’s opened hood.

He was no fool.

He slowed to let his lights linger on the car and a trim sort of western woman. Well-cut jeans. A dark, quilted jacket. Of course, she could have a firearm or a boyfriend with hands like clubs, but something about the forlorn slouch of the car, the barren road, and the rules of rural community made him ease up to her, slide open the passenger window.

“Looks like you could use some help.”

“I could use a lift to the next town.”

“What’s the next town?”

There was a distinct beep. The cell phone lit up and answered with its bright, woman’s voice, “The next town is Mesquite in fifty-three miles, Alan.”

She leaned down to look in, a cascade of dark Grecian curls streaked with gray and caught with a jewelry of snowflakes. “That’s your name? She always interrupt like that, your cell phone?”

“Sometimes. Sometimes it answers the wrong question. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all. It keeps saying the next turn is in forty-six miles. Do we need to call someone to tow your car?”

“No. Thanks. Won’t help. Got no money to tow it.” She stood and called out, “Raphael! We got a ride!”

Uh-oh. Here it comes. You dumb-ass, old fart. A boyfriend hiding in the trees. But a flop-eared little dog with the black-and-white face of a cartoon character flung itself up from the ditch, shook its left rear leg and bounced up chest out, grinning with a little pink tongue.

“You mind having my dog in your car?”

“He doesn’t smoke or anything, does he?”

“Not anymore.”

“He’s welcome, then.”


The little dog sat next to her on the heated passenger seat where it watched him with good humor and interest, then yawned, little white teeth in a mouth too big for his face and a wild eye cocked up into the air.

“You call him Raphael?”

“Yep. My husband’s idea. Now I’m stuck with it. He got work up in North Dakota. Oil shale.” She had the clean smell of soap, or maybe it was the dog, who had already given up on the conversation and put its head down.

“Is that where you’re going?”

“Yep. He got himself a girlfriend up there, too.”

“Sure. How do you know?”

“He quit calling me Sweetheart on the phone and started calling me Honey. You can call me Cybil, if you want to know.”

“You know, if you need some money to tow that car, I’ll give it to you.”

She went still.

“I mean. I don’t mean anything more. I don’t want anything back.”

“No. No. It’s not like that. It’s his old car. I might just leave it up here and move on. You’re a nice guy, aren’t you? There are nice guys out there, aren’t there, Raphael? Dickhead’s a nice guy, but he’s got that girlfriend and I know it. Do you mind if I ask you a question?”


“So if a guy could have anything, any three things he wanted, what would he choose—because I know Dickhead, he might say something else, but what he really wants is beer and sports on a big screen TV and someplace warm to park his dick when he gets the itch. Is that about it for guys?”

“I guess.” The snow was heavier and wetter. Alan turned on the wipers. “At least a lot of guys.”

“OK. How about you? Say I could grant you three wishes here and now—and you didn’t have to care what I think. Not give a shit—three wishes because you’re a good guy and you did me a favor and then offered me money on top of it.”

“Naw. That never works.”

“How so?”

“You give a guy three wishes, so he says, I’d like to go home again, and it’s been knocked down and turned into a mall. Or, I’d like to get over this disease, and he gets hit by a truck. No more disease. Or I’d like to have my wife back, and she turns out to have been your mother all along. You know.”

“So you want to go home, you want to get healthy, and you want your wife back. That’s not so bad, Alan. It’s better than beer, the 49ers, and strange pussy. You know what I’d want? I’d like for once to have a little magic in my life. You know, like the perfect birthday present you never knew you wanted. It’s starting to snow for real, isn’t it?”

Winter driving. Just what he feared, going downhill on an iced-over, twisting road. “Look. You want wishes? Let’s try this. Cell phone, I want the snow to stop.”

A musical dink-dink, a perky illumination, and the agreeable woman piped, “OK, Alan, the music’s stopped.”

They laughed. Raphael panted and nodded.

The snow stopped.


The snow stopped, the moon rose over the mountaintops to cast down upon a meadow of high, pale grasses. Alongside, a lacework of bare cottonwoods stood over a glittering creek, and all the stars came down close, icy clean, and clear.

“That’s some cell phone you got there, Alan. The snow—it quit just like that. I wonder if we get more than three wishes.”

“You never get more than three wishes, never. And they always turn out bad.”

Raphael put his face up to the passenger window, a little whine.

“Raphael wants to pee. We should stop.”

“See what I mean? We stop, Raphael gets out, and there will be a mountain lion or something. Hungry. Or he’ll fall in the creek. Or the car will slide off the side of the road.”

The dog moaned.

“He might pee in your car.”

Alan slowed very carefully, brought the car to a halt in the middle of a road so black it seemed invisible inside its moon-bright shoulders. The little dog tumbled out, sniffed at the clutches of grass standing up out of the thin snow. The air was cool, sweet from the creek chattering past.

Alan looked up. Blinked. “Have you ever seen the stars out so bright, with a moon this big? Have you ever seen a sky like this?”

“Western skies.” Cybil kicked at the gravel on the shoulder. “You city people never get out from under your streetlights.”

“I bet that husband of yours is looking at the same moon; I bet he misses you. I wasn’t always a city person.”

“I could tell.” They watched Raphael stick his leg up and teeter around to let out a weak little stream, off-balance. He ran back to them, his floppy ears streaming, stopped at Alan’s feet, wiggled and looked up with his eager, happy face. Alan squatted down, whisked his hand through the smooth fur of the dog’s back, warm and live with pleasure.

Alan stood up a little too fast. The night around him narrowed down too near—something hollow in his chest, the familiar taste of copper. He put his hand out on the car, steadied, took in a deep breath. He closed his eyes for a moment, opened them. The same pale and gentle grasses waited under the cottonwood branches, the same clean stars clattered on the ripples of the creek. And something—the air or the little dog or the woman—made him peacefully content.

Cybil stood holding the dog, both of them attentive, watching him.

She opened the car door. “Raphael’s OK, now. We can go.”

Order your copy of Issue No. 108 here. 

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‘The Urban Forest’ by Ella Martinsen Gorham, ZYZZYVA No. 108, Winter Issue

Dan bought a house alone after he turned forty-one. It wasn’t in the order he wanted to do things, but he had grown impatient waiting for an acceptable woman to come around the bend. The house’s simplicity soothed him: a kitchen outfitted in stainless appliances, a living room mantel wide enough for his flatscreen, and three square bedrooms painted white as milk. A tank of a tree out front shielded him from traffic and forward neighbors.

Movers assembled his cross-training equipment in the garage, which had been converted into a spare room. On the glass shelves in the medicine cabinet he arranged his shaving kit, the European sunscreen that imparted a faint sheen to his skin.

When he was a boy his mother had let him burn at the beach, and a blister covered the right half of his face. The blister filled with liquid, deforming him for days before deflating in his sleep. It was typical of the maladies that would strike him when under the care of either of his parents. “We were raised by wolves,” his older sister Juliet liked to say. “We had to keep our wits about us, didn’t we?” He would nod obediently. Wolves, yes. Wits, yes.

Juliet and her woman friend Tamra lived in the same tree-lined pocket of Los Angeles. The Sunday after Dan moved in, Juliet invited him for dinner. “Bring a bottle of something,” she said on the phone.

“Can you be more specific?” he said, palming the dome of his NutriBullet blender. In front of his house, the mammoth tree spewed a shower of its dark fruit.

“Not that one you always get at Vons. Something—” Her voice was trampled by wind buffeting her convertible. “Tannins make Tamra’s joints flare, so no red. You know what? You can handle it.” In fact, she did not think he could handle it. He had known for some time that she believed he was backward socially, an unfinished project. She’d once sent him a link to the Six Habits of Highly Empathic People, something for him to study.

After Dan hung up, he walked out front and circled the tree. Cherry-black marbles skipped off his head and shoulders. When they hit the ground they burst open, revealing a tiny network of yellow seeds.

He spread both hands over the broad, gray trunk and appraised a density any man would have to succumb to. Ten feet up, hulking limbs vanished in clumps of leaves shaped like pointed tongues. A mountain range of knuckled roots sprang forth at his feet. Dan got dizzy thinking about the span of the tree’s reach underground.

The sidewalk was stained a brownish color and smelled like old meat. Someone, the sellers or their agent, must have power-washed it daily during escrow. His stomach churned. This was on the two worthless fucks he’d hired to inspect the place. He’d paid them to be thorough. As the chief compliance officer of a brokerage firm, and its moral vector, Dan put a premium on being thorough.

Still, he had been in a rush to move on from his apartment of sixteen years. He’d lived in a studio over a bicycle rental shop. In his twenties, the thing to do was rent by the beach, stumbling distance from sushi houses and a pub painted green where you could pick up an easy-access girl on a Saturday night. The lifestyle lost its appeal as, one by one, his friends had managed to create something lasting.

Watching a person age held no allure: the flagging skin, the dark scrawl of veins across arms and legs. But settling down was normal. He wouldn’t be left behind to fester on his old futon. The desire to have a normal life for himself had overtaken him, so much so that he’d made sure to buy a house big enough to one day share.


Dan found a specialty wine shop on the way to Juliet’s, and a young clerk steered him to a Tasmanian white. “It’s one of those new finds,” she said, adjusting the apron strap around her neck with a delicate finger. “It’ll be perfect.” Her unnaturally blond hair was cut blunt at the chin, pieces swinging in and out of her face. She almost glowed in the dim, frigid room.

“I’m going to have to trust you,” he said, leaning into the counter. As she unspooled a length of gold ribbon, her shirt slipped off one narrow shoulder, revealing his favorite bone—the collarbone. Three small moles formed a line at the base of her neck. None of them looked cancerous.

Nice, clean outlines. He wanted to reach over the counter and adjust her clothes so no one else would see.

“All right? Have a good one.” She pushed the box toward him and smiled lopsidedly. Dan found it beguiling, as though she’d left the door a crack open for him.


Juliet and Tamra lived in an old Spanish-style bungalow on a street lined with palm trees, coveted for its cul-de-sac at one end. Tamra had inherited some money. She didn’t have a job, though supposedly she’d been trained in the art of feng shui. Dan couldn’t see any future in that post-recession. It was Juliet who carried the both of them with her publicity firm.

He rang the doorbell and the dog kicked in with its yapping. Then, his sister’s fair, cropped head appeared in the window.

“Danny.” Juliet threw the door open and pulled him in for a hug.

Tamra crouched, holding the dog’s collar as it craned its neck. She said hello in her flat monotone.

Juliet took the wine and they adjourned to the kitchen. She poured glasses for the three of them and sniffed hers. “Ew. Fruity,” she said.

“Is that bad?” Dan said.

“I’m going to let mine aerate.”

Tamra cleared her throat. “How’s the new house?”

“Coming along. I may have a landscaping issue.”

“You should let Tamra harmonize it,” Juliet said.

“Right,” Tamra said with a little edge. Once Dan had found her good-looking, with her dancer’s turned-out walk. But she was one of those women who didn’t like men. It went beyond a lack of attraction.

Together they carried bowls of aggressively healthy food to the table: farro salad with peppers, roasted cauliflower.

“Are you up for having a little houseguest next weekend?” Juliet said. She lifted the dog onto her lap. “This bubba. I wanted to take Tamra to the desert for some rest.”

“I don’t know,” Dan said. “I have errands. Bills.”

“Monty is so low-maintenance. It’s good for you to take care of somebody.” The dog sniffed at her plate. He had a flattened face and bulging eyes that gave him a look of constant alarm. She fed him a piece of cauliflower. “Look at bubba,” she said as he licked his nose assiduously.

“He needs a little male bonding,” Tamra said, and smirked at Juliet.

“He doesn’t shit, does he?” Dan said. Juliet let out a small laugh.“No, it’s fine. I’ll do it.”


After dinner Tamra took leave to do her “evening stretches” and Dan sat with his sister in her living room, a view of palm trees alit in the pink dusk.

“Why can’t I have a damn palm tree?” he said.

The dog sauntered in and Juliet put him on Dan’s lap. Dan placed his hands on the dog’s back, and then let them fall at his sides. “He’s wheezy, isn’t he?” he said.

She leaned in. “What’s new on the dating front?”

“I’m gearing up to join a new service. After I get settled in.” He grabbed an old Variety from her coffee table. The dog began to lick his pants.

“I was wondering something,” she said.

“Yes. I am receptive to meeting someone.” He thumbed the pages.

“Do you think you might be gay?”

A sucker punch. Dan winced and pushed the dog off his lap. “You’re batshit crazy. Way off the mark.” Of course she didn’t believe it was true.

“I can’t remember the last time you even dated,” she said.

“Oh, Jesus. I banged the girl who lived down the street. Giana. Then she pushed me to sell my weights.”

“Lots of women would do that.”

Dan stood and brushed the hair from his pants. “Game over. This is pointless.”

“I don’t want you to be alone. That’s where I’m coming from.”

“I’ll be on Tinder soon,” he said. “You’ve never heard of it.” His coworker Marcus used Tinder for hookups. She was too long off the market to know of it, too hunkered down in her own niche life.

He shut the door in her face before she could offer him leftover farro.

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‘Flood Control’ by Rebecca Thomas, ZYZZYVA No. 108, Winter Issue

Other Names: Rio de los Temblores, Rio de Santa Ana, Wanaawna

Invisible waterways line the land of my home. We stand on creeks and rivers not knowing they exist until they fill. It is only then that we recognize the symbols for water. When the rains come, water falls fast. Rivers form. Land floods. This has always been the story of Southern California, but we ignored this fact when we settled here. We saw topsoil and water and sun and endured devastating floods every few years. We grew, and the floods washed out homes. Until finally we tried to control the water.

My childhood home in Costa Mesa is at the bottom of a small hill on the edge of suburbs that stretch for almost a square mile. Here, homes curl in on themselves with cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac. A drainage ditch runs next to a bougainvillea-covered wall that separates homes from a private golf course. My house lies at the edge: a corner lot on a dead end. Behind us, the Greenville-Banning Channel, the flood control for my part of Orange County, and next to that, running parallel, is the largest river in Southern California: the Santa Ana.

The Santa Ana River was never stable. Every year, it took a newpath to the Pacific. Its origin stayed the same—the mountains, inland—but it always ran restless in the lower reaches. Often, the river ran through someone’s home or farm, and when the floods came, the riverbed could almost span the entire county. In 1862, it rained for nearly forty days straight. The river killed twenty people in Orange County. In 1938, a tropical storm flooded the Santa Ana, damaging fifteen hundred homes, carrying away the topsoil that the citrus trees loved so much. After a damaging flood in 1969, the county had become too developed to ignore the danger of the water. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared the Santa Ana the biggest threat for flooding west of the Mississippi. Even so, houses continued to creep. If people wanted the building to continue and the flooding to stop, they had to regulate the water, make it uniform, designate a “Santa Ana River” with clear, rigid borders. A solution was proposed to control the river. By 1989, construction near my home began.

The solution? Concrete.


Underneath the crab grass in my backyard, a sprinkler is broken. On the surface, the leak is invisible, its origin unknown until I walk and suddenly my feet sink and squish. I am young enough to be excited about helping my father fix this problem, and together we dig, pulling up grass, mounding dirt to the side of us, trying to reach hidden pipes.My father reaches into the ground to feel for the break. His hand disappears in the muddy swamp the sprinkler created, a small aquifer that will soon drain away. He moves my hands to feel it. Mud sleeves me, and my hand gets lost in the ground.

The sun bakes my back. Reaching down, I feel the plastic. My fingers run along the crack. The water is cold on my palms. We drive to the hardware store with our broken part. I stand with my father on the concrete floor in the sprinkler section. Before us is a row of plastic options, of joints and connectors and patches.We compare the old part for the new. My eyes scan the possibilities, the inner workings that make up our pristine lawns. Such complicated equations for green. I know what we are looking for, a cylindrical connector with a three-quarter-inch circumference. “Is this it?”my father asks, holding up a piece. After studying it, I say, “Yes.”We buy it, go home, and put in the new part. We turn on the water and watch our handiwork, testing for leaks, for weaknesses, before we put the ground back in place. Dirt packs under my nails. I will spend the week digging it out, a reminder that I know how the grass is made. That it is possible to fix a flood if it’s caught early enough.


The threat of flooding in Southern California has always been known. When Juan Crespi, the diarist for the Spanish settlers, first looked upon the Santa Ana, he knewthat it flooded despite the trees that grew in a river just seventeen inches deep. In his journal, he wrote, “It is evident from the sand on its banks that in the rainy season it must have great floods which would prevent crossing it.” But that didn’t prevent settlement. The allure of fresh water was too hard to ignore. First came the Gabrielinos, the Native Americans who inhabited the river’s shores. Then, the missions came and took the land, bringing agriculture and oppression. Before long, the Californios with their ranchos replaced missions, bringing cattle, which in turn brought cities.

But it was the topsoil that created Orange County. Citrus came and spread, and soon the county was formed, breaking away fromLos Angeles. Orange County couldn’t have formed without citrus, and citrus wouldn’t have existed without the Santa Ana River. And yet, the river is largely unknown. People mistake the Santa Ana for a flood control channel and nothing more. After all, rivers aren’t supposed to be made of concrete. We know it as a landmark, something that we see as we wait in traffic on the 405 or the 22. The origins of the river lost as we inch forward on the freeway.


My grandmother is in the backyard studying Hebrew. Sitting on our porch swing, she rocks back and forth, her face to the flood control channel. She turns each flashcard over, memorizing the turn of the letters, the meaning behind the symbols. The sight of the cards amazes me, this other language littered on our green-and-white striped cushions. She swings, while I play with our dog. In my memory, it is quiet, but construction must be going on. Once construction started at the end of the ’80s, it never stopped. Maybe the noise was something so ubiquitous, so natural, that I did not take notice and remember.Maybe the ground shook from tractors and their beeping filled the yard. But in my mind I hear only the sounds of my dog running and my grandmother’s voice as she describes the language.

She tells me that each word can have many interpretations. She tells me the story of Job, how it’s clear the man was never meant to be taken as a historical figure. That he is a parable. This news stuns me, and it feels like something is falling away. But as she explains more, I catch myself. I’ve learned a truth. There are layers to words, to stories. Meanings underneath the surface.


I wash my hands in my church’s bathroom. We use the bathroom by the banquet halls, not the crowded one in the sanctuary. I like this. In the sanctuary, I have to be quiet and wait in line. There, sounds bounce off the marble floors, making me nervous. High heels and jewelry clicking everywhere.

I wash my hands in the same sink that I always use—second from the last, by the shelf for purses.Water rushes from the faucet, and I stare into the mirror. I don’t study the freckle on my right ear or check the cowlick in my blond bangs. Instead, my eyes shift to a sticker at the bottom of the mirror: We are in a drought. Please don’t waste water.

I don’t remember learning about droughts, but somehow I knew the word’s meaning. Maybe I had just learned about the water cycle and conservation fromRicky the Raindrop in school. I wash my hands, reading the word that tells me that water is limited.Water pours out of the faucet, splashing the sink, the mirror, the brown marble counters. It scares me that water is finite even as it bombards me. I don’t understand how it can be both scarce and everywhere, covering our Crayola-green lawns from perfectly timed sprinklers. The word “drought” doesn’t seem to connect to the reality that pours out before me.

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An Upended Life Amid an Upended City: ‘Meantime’ by Katharine Noel

MeantimeMeantime (288 pages; Black Cat/Grove) is an absorbing novel, the second from author Katharine Noel, whose first book, Halfway House, received widespread acclaim. Meantime seems to be on a similar track, as reviewers praise its humor and emotional depth—especially as found in its narrator, Claire Hood. Claire is dry and amusing, and her voice and reactions are engaging and convincing. The main plot points—Claire growing up with her bohemian “Naked Family,” her varied boyfriends and failed relationships, her marriage to Jeremy, and Jeremy’s illness and recovery, et cetera —are all fascinating; the characters and their dialogues drive the novel. There is not one character, however small, that doesn’t seem fully realized. (Claire’s judgments about them notwithstanding). And none is entirely despicable or lovable, but all are undeniably real.

But what sets Meantime apart is how Noel’s beautiful prose renders contemporary San Francisco. Her San Francisco is not some overblown mythical city promising rebirth or “finding yourself,” and it certainly isn’t overly romanticized, either. The San Francisco of the novel, from its descriptions of the views of the Bay or the litter and garbage lining the streets, are recognizable to anybody familiar with the city (thankfully, the novel has no references to the Golden Gate Bridge or fog). Noel’s San Francisco is the same San Francisco that I myself am familiar with, one that has been facing rapid gentrification and staggering income inequality—that in recent years seems like it’s been dialed up to 11.

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Letter From the Editor

The following Letter from the Editor appears in the Winter issue. It was originally written a few days before Election Day.

“What is essential is the intense presence of the viewer in the intense presence of the art.”—Edward Albee

Edward Albee

Edward Albee

Dear Readers,

For eight years I lived in New York, and during that time I took in a reasonable amount of theater, on, off, and off-off Broadway, whenever and wherever I could get tickets. There was, as you can imagine, a great deal of serious and experimental work to choose from, which was particularly fortuitous because my graduate work was in part on Samuel Beckett. One memorable evening, my father and I saw a brilliant production of Endgame at the Irish Repertory Theatre starring Tony Roberts as Hamm (you may best remember Roberts as Woody Allen’s patient and much taller friend Rob in Annie Hall). In Endgame he was confined to a dilapidated wheelchair for the entire play, his eyes shielded from the audience by sunglasses, his body shrouded in piles of rags—and from this disadvantaged position Roberts captivated in every moment. Another fine evening of theater was also had well off Broadway, in a production juxtaposing three short pieces by Beckett (including Not I) with, after an intermission, Counting the Ways, a one-act by Edward Albee. Albee became another playwright I sought out, and over the years I saw Sally Field in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and Kathleen Turner in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Both productions featured the always excellent Bill Irwin.) After each show I left the theater feeling drained, as though I myself had been through an extended bout of personal reckoning. Yet I returned to see both productions a second time. What is it about Albee’s work that seems so essential? What makes his work such a complementary pairing with the stylistically distinct Beckett?

I think it has something to do with Albee’s unsparing examination of who we are, and how we allow ourselves to become such mysteries to ourselves: this kind of investigation is demanding, but speaks directly to how art can craft meaning from the raw material of life. It has a personal dimension (his plays often examine intimate and long-term relationships), as well as a social and a political one. Albee’s work calls for us to wake up, to take stock, to challenge ourselves to confront who we’ve become. It asks us to see how we’ve wounded the ones we love, intentionally or otherwise, how we’ve drifted from our intentions and our better selves; to stop skating along complacently and consider the complexities of identity, relationships, and society, in all their tangled, gnarled glory. It’s an exhausting but profound journey we take. In other words, his work delivers on the promise of art.

Beckett is, still, literally incomparable. He plumbs essential questions about existence by relentlessly discarding all excess: the staging is spare, and speakers are often confined in one manner or another so that distraction is minimized and the dialogue can then do its work of relentlessly circling and closing in on the matter at hand. Through rhythm, repetition, a deliberate kind of digression, and a concentration on language itself, Beckett drills below the noisy, stubborn surface of daily life. “Absurd” is a word that often gets thrown around in discussing Beckett’s work, but the work is more stripped to a core (the voice that speaks, the mind that thinks) than it is simply absurd.

Albee’s work does something different but related. He, too, works to shatter the tough shell of the quotidian and to burrow into the difficult subject matter underneath. He presents material in what appears to be a more familiar setting (with the trappings of home and family), and then proceeds to make the familiar deeply strange. He uses crisis and excessive drink and elements, yes, of the absurd to crack the polite surface and to push his characters, and the audience, past delusion and into painful confrontations. Like Beckett, he uses language, humor, and extreme situations to dissolve our complacency.

There was an unpleasant dissonance in learning of Albee’s death in September within the same week I read about Tom Wolfe’s inexplicable new book in which he claims evolution cannot account for the human development of language: a thesis he supports with flawed logic and an exuberant obtuseness. We are in a time of real resistance to the facing of facts and hard truths that Albee championed. (How discouraging that evolution itself must still be counted among these.) This seems, indeed, to be a time of minimal respect for facts, for science, and for hard truths. Evolution (and its deniers) seemed to be of interest to Albee through the years; his 1975 play Seascape is in part a meditation on evolution. In one scene, a character attempts to explain evolution to a mated pair of man-sized lizards, with little success. In 1998, Albee clarified these needlessly muddied waters: “I hold that we are the only animal who has invented and uses art as a method to communicate ourselves to ourselves. And I am convinced that this has a great deal to do with evolution; again, my apologies to the creationists.”

virginiawoolfplaybillToday, many of the trends and tics in American culture that most worried Albee seem amplified. In Stretching My Mind, a 2005 collection of essays, interviews, and reflections spanning his career, Albee laments critics who, instead of seeking to shape public opinion and guide public reception for art that may be difficult, try only to reflect existing opinion back to the public in a kind of self-congratulating hall of mirrors. “It is not enough to hold the line against the dark,” he wrote in 1989. “It is your responsibility to lead into the light. People don’t like the light—it reveals too much. But hand in hand with the creative artist, you can lead people into the wisdom…simply, that it is the dark we have to fear.” This concern endures, and a parallel abdication of duty in politics and political coverage—with too many members of the media shaping their work around public feelings about issues rather than the issues themselves—confronted us in this election season. Too many demurred when presented with an opportunity to call out a lie, retreating instead to the now familiar defense that the public can decide for themselves—evidently without the benefit and expertise of those whose job it is to analyze, contextualize, and fact-check.

Explaining in The Paris Review the meaning of the title of his most famous work, Albee said, “who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, who’s…afraid of living life without false illusions.” The answer, if we are honest, is all of us. There is a perennial quality to this challenge at the heart of Albee’s work, but rarely have we been in more urgent need of the courage to dispel our personal and collective false illusions than now. Albee’s voice was singular. His loss is a great one for the arts, for the theater, for those who appreciate a thoughtful and meticulous kind of provocateur.

As we go to press with this issue in early November, we are in an odd position, knowing that it will publish about a month after the presidential election. Whatever the outcome, there will be much to concern us. For this is one of those loaded moments in our history when the tectonic shifts rumbling far below the surface can be easily felt.

No matter where we find ourselves, the motto that appears above the figure in our cover art is apt: be strong. We all have a great deal of work to do—as citizens, as artists, as members of myriad overlapping communities.

A world in crisis demands our full attention—a willingness to dispel our self-protective illusions—and requires the full-voiced efforts of our better selves.

Wishing you and yours a peaceful holiday season, and a bright NewYear.



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In the Winter Issue

Our Winter issue features fiction, nonfiction, and poetry:

“Throwback Thursday” by Joshua Mohr: online, it’s the appearance of happiness that matters most.

“Revision” by Mar Colón-Margolies: on assignment covering Texas’s abortion laws, a journalist considers the line between his humanity and his profession.

“Wild Kingdom” and “World Away” by Octavio Solis: the tenacity of adolescent memories reveal themselves in a father’s explosive anger and in a school production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

“Operator, Information” by Glen David Gold: picking up from Issue No. 100’s “The Plush Cocoon,” we offer another installment from Gold’s forthcoming three-volume memoir.

“Flood Control,” an essay by Rebecca Thomas: in Southern California, amid the drought, the concrete channels tell us people have reckoned with deluges there, too.

Short short fiction from Amy Tan, Elizabeth Rosner, and Deb Olin Unferth.

A wide-ranging conversation with acclaimed author and feminist Susan Griffin.

Plus more fiction from Mick LaSalle, Catherine Sustana, Scott O’Connor, Rolf Yngve, and Eric Severn; a translation of Italian author Giuseppe Zucco’s disquieting tale “The Wallpaper,” and introducing First Time in Print fiction writer Ella Martinsen Gorham.

Poetry from Matthew Zapruder, Jenny Qi, Matthew Dickman, Gary Lark, Abigail Carl-Klassen, Jesse Wallis, and Emily Benton. And featuring art by Annie Galvin.

You can get a copy of No. 108 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Winter issue.

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Obsessions: Authoritarian Kitsch

Charles Bronson in "Death Wish 3" I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it.
—Susan Sontag, from her essay “Notes on Camp'” (1964)

Charles Bronson steps away from the dinner table, a Norman Rockwell tableau of elderly friends, gravy boats, and stuffed cabbage. He folds his napkin and politely excuses himself. On the street below, he discovers two gang members removing the stereo from his Cadillac Seville, a vehicle he bought several scenes earlier for the express purpose of enticing criminals.

After a brief exchange with the thieves, one remarks, “We’re stealin’ the fuckin’ car, what’s it to you?” Bronson retorts, in a charmingly incompetent performance, “It’s… my car!” He extends his arms in a stilted (but sincere) manner, enunciating the syllables in a way that no actual human would. The thieves smirk at each other, deciding “Now you’re gonna die,” and one of them cartoonishly flicks open his switchblade. Bronson draws a gun and shoots the both of them before calmly returning to his cabbage.

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Where to Donate Your Abilities: A Sampling of Bay Area Community Organizations

These are difficult days for writers, editors, teachers, and intellectuals of all kinds. Faced with fresh evidence of Auden’s claim that “poetry does nothing,” in the persona of President-elect Donald Trump, the temptation we face is to turn toward despair and disengagement. Yet this is the time we were made for. Now we must help each other to find our voices in the public sphere.

What we’ve found to be helpful is combining our abilities—as storytellers, witnesses, and listeners—with a community commitment. The Bay Area has a surfeit of both literary talent and social justice work. The local organizations we’ve highlighted below serve the very groups who have been demonized by the President-elect and his inner circle. We know and have been inspired by their work. If you’re searching for an immediate, substantive contribution, these places need us to donate our time, our effort, and our talent.


Mission Graduates
Mission Graduates’s purpose is to increase “the number of K-12 students in San Francisco’s Mission District who are prepared for and complete a college education.” Many of these students are recent immigrants to San Francisco, starting their education all over again in a new language. They need donations and volunteers, including tutors.

La Raza Centro Legal
La Raza Centro Legal “is a community-based legal organization dedicated to empowering Latino, immigrant and low-income communities of San Francisco to advocate for their civil and human rights. [They] combine legal services and advocacy to build grassroots power and alliances towards creating a movement for a just society.” They need volunteers for translation, paperwork organizers, and communications.

The Beat Within
The Beat Within holds weekly writing and discussion workshops in Bay Area juvenile detention centers. With help from mentors, incarcerated youth write and publish a bi-weekly 60-page magazine. They seek volunteers year-round and can be contacted at (415) 890-5641.

The Wellness Academies at Huckleberry Youth Programs
Huckleberry Youth Programs in San Francisco provide shelter, health care, and counseling services to runaways and youth in crisis. They are seeking after-school tutors for their Wellness Academy, which offers college and career prep.

Voice of Witness
Voice of Witness “promotes human rights and dignity by amplifying the voices of people impacted by injustice.” They publish oral history books and have an education program for high school students. They are in need of volunteers for translation, transcription, and web design.

Mujeres Unidas y Activas
Mujeres Unidas y Activas is a leadership development program for Latina immigrants, with an eye to both personal empowerment and social and economic justice for the larger communities they serve. Their successes have included the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance and statewide access to prenatal care for immigrant women. They are in need of English tutors.

Anti-Defamation League
The ADL is committed to stopping “the defamation of Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.” Their San Francisco offices serve as the organization’s Central Pacific Region headquarters, covering Northern California, Utah, and Hawaii. You can go to their website to find ways of getting involved.



East Bay Refugee Forum
The East Bay Refugee Forum is a coalition of more than 30 agencies which serve refugees, asylum seekers, and other displaced people who are trying to make a new home for themselves in the Bay Area. Their agencies are currently seeking translators, tutors, mentors, and writers who can assist job-seekers with paperwork.

Super Stars Literacy
Super Stars Literacy provides literacy and social skills training for underperforming K-2nd grade students in Oakland, Hayward, and Newark. They are looking for classroom reading tutors, program event volunteers, and service group teams.

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
The Ella Baker Center works to end mass incarceration and curb abusive criminalization actions against low-income people of color. They’re based in Oakland. They’re looking for volunteer help with communications, writing blog posts, and handling surveys.



SIREN (Services, Immigration Rights and Education Network)
SIREN does community education, organizing, policy advocacy, and service provision for low-income immigrants and refugees in Silicon Valley. Based in San Jose, the organization is seeking volunteers for communications, citizenship application assistance, and bilingual services.

CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) Bay Area
CAIR is one of the nation’s leading civil liberties advocacy groups for Americans who practice Islam, and the Bay Area branch is the oldest chapter in the country. This chapter, in Santa Clara, serves the nearly 250,000 practicing Muslims in the nine-county Bay Area. They are seeking translation assistance and administrative support.

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Solidarity: A Letter from the Editors


In general, we keep partisanship and day-to-day politics out of the journal. We hope we can provide a space for thoughtful contemplation of all aspects of contemporary life through art—a way of thinking which, while engaged with the political, is not political in its mode and does its work well outside the 24-hour news-cycle.

But we are now compelled to speak to you directly about this election. On November 8, this nation succumbed to the greatest threat that faces any democracy: that a sizable number of its people may find democracy itself—with all its imperfections—too unpalatable, and choose instead to surrender their agency to a strongman. This nation has elected a boastfully ignorant, vulgar, deceitful, professionally unqualified bigot.

There will be much to write and discuss and agonize over in the days, months, and years to come. There is an abundance of blame to go around. There is much work to do. But before we move forward, we’d like to address that which feels most urgent at this moment, and most relevant to what we endeavor to do here at ZYZZYVA.

We believe Donald Trump’s candidacy has cultivated a new strain of fascism and that he has displayed autocratic tendencies. We believe this because we have listened to his words, and paid attention to his actions. He has told the American people repeatedly how little respect he has for basic tenets of our democracy such as a free press and an independent judiciary—and we believe him. He has told us repeatedly how little respect he has for civil liberties, and we believe him. He has told us that he holds women and immigrants in contempt, and we believe him. And now we have seen him select Stephen Bannon, a leading figure in the white-nationalist movement, documented anti-Semite, and enormously effective conspiracy theorist and propaganda creator as his chief-strategist. In order for those Americans dismayed by this election to organize an effective resistance to the incoming administration, we must clearly acknowledge the magnitude and character of the problem we face.

This extraordinarily distressing moment is, of course, personal for so many of us. For our small staff, as in so many communities around this country, the election of Donald Trump reverberates as a stunning rebuke. We are both the proud children of immigrants, and we are feminists; one of us is Jewish, the other is Mexican. For us as for so many other immigrants, ethnic and religious minorities, the disabled, for survivors of sexual assault, the LGBTQ community, for feminists, the message seems clear: the new president and an untold number of his supporters do not see us as Americans.

Our disappointment in this outcome has nothing to do with traditional politics—liberal versus conservative—and everything to do with the still radical ideals of individual freedom and equality on which this country was founded. They are ideals we’ve never perfectly achieved, but for which each generation has fought and for which we will now continue fighting with renewed focus.

Those of us committed to defending civil liberties and a free press—and to resisting any action by the new administration that threatens those ideals—may feel like outsiders, out of step with much of the population, not to mention the party now dominating the federal government. But we are in fact picking up the torch for American ideals. Our shared hopes are profoundly democratic, and profoundly American. We must not let this latest chapter in a long struggle make us feel like outsiders in our own home. We must remember that our participation in this difficult battle makes us American in the best sense of the word.

For all of you who are justifiably afraid of what the future holds, for all of you who feel rejected by your country, where you and your parents or grandparents have worked so hard to build good lives: we share your distress, and we are with you. We share your grief, your anger, and your worry.

ZYZZYVA has never been just a journal: it has always been about community. If you are looking for solace and solidarity as we all take a collective breath and begin to figure out what to do next, please know we are with you. If you’re looking for a safe haven, we hope you may find it in the community we’ve built here in the pages of the journal, where we will vigorously defend the First Amendment as we expand our nonfiction offerings; you’ll find it at any of our events where we can gather to share ideas and concerns; and you’ll find it on our online community of readers, writers, and artists. We’ll work to create even more opportunities, both in the journal, online, and in events, to foster dialogue and analysis of our changing political and cultural climate as we try to answer, What do we do next?

Despair may be rational, but we cannot succumb to it. Albert Camus, who’s been much on our minds of late, wrote:

“The words that reverberate for us at the confines of this long adventure of rebellion are not formulas for optimism, for which we have no possible use in the extremities of our unhappiness, but words of courage and intelligence which, on the shores of the eternal seas, even have the qualities of virtue.”

Camus wrote of “the generosity of rebellion,” a kind of rebellion “which unhesitatingly gives the strength of its love and without a moment’s delay refuses injustice. … Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.” Just so, let us give our all to the present.

Keep making your art. Literature can do so much to shed light on the dark corners where the complex convergence of factors that led us to this strange and troubled time festered, and continue to fester. We need that light more than ever. We’ll do everything we can in our own tiny corner of the universe to make sure your voices are heard, your rights are protected, and our community is inclusive.

Yours in solidarity and resistance,

Laura and Oscar

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Finding in Music What Language Lacks: ‘A Greater Music’ by Bae Suah

A Greater MusicCommunication, or a lack thereof, is front and center in A Greater Music, (128 pages; Open Letter Books; translated by Deborah Smith) Bae Suah’s latest novel to come out in English. Our music-loving narrator is an unnamed Korean woman living on and off in Berlin and Korea, struggling to learn German. Her difficulties in the structure and rigor of academia are documented throughout, up until she meets M, an unconventional tutor who teaches with wild disregard of basic grammar and syntax in favor of a higher learning and exchange of ideas. Presented near the novel’s conclusion is their initial meeting. M invites our narrator to read from a passage she does not comprehend. “Even if you can’t understand, you can still make me understand. Look at it that way,” M offers as a defense of her methodology, “and as time passes you’ll come to understand it too.”

Such is the philosophy explored at the core of this novel, and in doing so equates language-learning with music, the nuances of which are not directly translatable and more closely align with emotion. So it’s no shock when our narrator and M develop a romantic relationship whose vocabulary has yet to be determined to the reader. M has an alluded-to allergic condition that further complicates and strains their relationship, though other pertinent details are left out. While standing unarguably as the novel’s primary concern, M comes and goes as a memory whose legacy is a piece of a larger puzzle.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Patrick Hoffman

Patrick Hoffman was born in San Francisco, where for a decade he worked as both a private investigator and an investigator for the Public Defender’s Office. His first novel, The White Van, was a finalist for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award and was named a Wall Street Journal best book of the year. His new novel is Every Man a Menace, which Kirkus, in its starred review, called “a nasty tour de force” and a “strong and original addition to the crime fiction genre.”

Hoffman spoke to ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about his new book at the Booksmith last month.

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