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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.

SAN FRANCISCO

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

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.

 

SOUTH BAY

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

83741e15-dcdd-48ad-aa02-f443283e1a49Friends,

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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What’s There to Be Afraid Of?: Some Long-Lasting Works of Horror

Black Hole When my best friend read Charles Burns’s graphic novel Black Hole at age eleven, her parents assumed it was a harmless comic book. They were sorely mistaken, and, in her own words, Black Hole messed her up. How bad could it be,? I thought, flipping through the weighty twelve-issue collection. Black Hole is set in Seattle during the mid-1970s, when a horrific STD plagues a small suburb. Only teenagers can contract “the bug,” and like the AIDS epidemic, the town is initially unsure of how it spreads. The disease manifests itself in a variety of disturbing ways. Adolescence is already a bizarre time in anyone’s life, but then Burns throws strange physical mutations and heavy recreational drug use into the mix. The point of view changes from issue to issue: sometimes you are in Chris’s mind, whose skin starts to molt off her body like a snake’s after she has sex for the first time. Then we follow Keith, who is falling for Eliza, a struggling artist with a tail and roommate troubles. There is no shortage of nudity, and these are sex scenes like no other. Burn turns on a dime from creepiness to sexiness, and there are moments when both of those feeling are evoked simultaneously, like when Chris’s first time happens in a cemetery. There is yet another layer of eeriness as things get violent. The infected become pariahs, some living in tents in an area of the woods called “the pit.” In this state of alienation and teenage angst, the outcasts turn to alcohol, drugs, and even to murder. There are moments where you are floating in the black hole, trying to discern whether a scene is a nightmare, a bad trip, or reality. Several of the characters are in an altered state of mind more often than they are sober, and this hallucinogenic quality is reflected in the panels. The pictures are beautifully unnerving, a rich blackness you feel you could fall into. But whether you are unsuspecting middle-schooler or a faint-hearted adult, Black Hole will mess you up.—Devan Brettkelly

Pet SemataryThere’s horror, and then there’s horror. Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, for example, is horrific because its subject is real. These pitiless things happened, these gruesome deaths occurred, and that they did strongly suggests your life skates upon an icy crust of unwarranted optimism and dumb luck—and beneath, a light-swallowing abyss swirls. It relates a horror that heaps contempt upon the most brazen torture-porn, dare-you-to-watch movie. That’s what you came up with as being the worst thing that could happen to somebody? You know nothing. You’re a child. Which is not to say the other kind of horror, horror as genre, can’t truly rattle. Though it’s been decades since I read it, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary remains with me. Why? Not because of its conceit of a burial ground that brings back the dead (Oooooo, scary stuff! as Count Floyd might have said), but because of how King evokes the all-too-possible terror of losing your small child, of being utterly hollowed by grief and by guilt. The novel, of course, is an engrossing read, and we are indeed deliciously frightened by the consequences of trying to bring back the dead. But that’s not even its point. The point is to stand next to that wretched stretch of highway running by that house, shoulder to shoulder with the devastated protagonist, and recognize that the abyss lurks everywhere; it’s moving beneath your feet even as you read this.—Oscar Villalon

The Turn of the ScrewHorror icon H.P. Lovecraft once delivered a central theory on the genre: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Even after decades of psychoanalysis, there’s arguably no territory more uncharted, more unknown than the human mind. It’s an area Henry James explored brilliantly in his 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, a tale of solipsistic horror that consistently calls into question the reliability of its narrator. As the new governess at an Essex country-house tends to her two youthful charges Flora and Miles, she encounters ghostly apparitions of the children’s previous caretakers, with James generating suspense from the possible spoiling of Flora and Miles’ Victorian-era innocence—while at the same time subverting that supposed purity through their otherworldly behavior. Over a hundred years later, The Turn of the Screw remains essential horror reading. —Zack Ravas

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Vanessa Hua

Vanessa Hua (whose stories “The Third Daughter” and “River of Stars” appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 91 and No. 98, respectively) is the author of the story collection Deceit and Other Possibilities, named a “searing debut” by O, The Oprah Magazine. Her fiction has appeared in the Atlantic, Guernica, and elsewhere, and for nearly two decades she has been writing about Asia and the diaspora, filing stories from China, Burma, South Korea, Panama, Abu Dhabi, and Ecuador. A Visiting Editor in Creative Nonfiction at Saint Mary’s College this fall, she is also a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Hua spoke to ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about her book at the Booksmith in San Francisco earlier this month.

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Hanging in the Balance, Like a Puppet on a Hand: Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

“This is really a drag—and a bore,’’ the doomed jazzster Chet Baker tells director Bruce Weber in Let’s Get Lost, in response to (sympathetic) inquiries about his drug habits. The same could be said of the recent controversy over the decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan.

In a certain sense, it all makes sense: the high-minded indignation from select members of the literary Establishment (though, some, like Salman Rushdie and Joyce Carol Oates, welcomed the decision), and disgusted repudiation of boomer nostalgia (we get it, Irvine Welsh) in other quarters. It’s of a piece with the kind of responses the hillbilly from Hibbing has received—and invited—throughout his career, amid his dizzying changes from folk prophet to insolent rocker, country crooner to Christian preacher, callow courtier to spurned lover and husband.

But it’s a category error—ironic for someone who’s made a career out of blowing up categories. Like Whitman, Dylan is large, and his work contains multitudes, including a multitude of complaints about his creative choices. Since fanboy prose famously comprises so much of the writing about Dylan, let’s dispose of the objections first.

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Resisting Easy Definition: ‘My Private Property’ by Mary Ruefle

.…there is the poem as a unit-like thing, and then there is the poem that pervades existence, which is much more like the wind, and that is the poem everyone senses from time to time, whether they can read or not, whether they ‘care’ about the unit-like thing or not.—Mary Ruefle, from a 2013 interview with Andrew David King in Kenyon Review

It’s hard to define a poem these days. But whether you call the short pieces in Mary Ruefle’s new book, My Private Property (128 pages; Wave Books), poetry or prose poems or essays or flash fiction or mediations or whatever, I’m hooked on them. They “go down a treat” I might say if I were British and lived in the last century. And they are deceptively simple.

Simple, that is, until you try to figure out how she does it. How does she create a tone at once distanced and intimate? Straightforward and offbeat? Mary Ruefle’s mind is on display here in all its quirky richness. If you don’t know her erasure books, her essays, or her earlier books of more conventionally lineated poetry, starting with My Private Property will give you the essential flavor of her work.

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Obsessions: Wish List

“Obsessions” is our web-only essay series that asks emerging West Coast writers to examine the books, poems, songs, television shows, images, or whatever else that has been dominating their attentions lately. We continue with this piece by Vanessa Martini. Martini is a bookseller at City Lights Books. She lives in San Francisco.

My saved eBay, Etsy, and Craigslist searches, with commentary on what late capitalism’s insidious grasp makes me believe each item will do for my life or say about it:

Honda CB450 Four

If I get this it means at some point I actually got my driver’s license, which means I figured out how to schedule beyond what I already do, so there’s something totally implausible already. I’ll have my driver’s license and have gotten my M1 certification, and I’ll have a sweet little zippy bike, classic looking, red preferred, black or silver acceptable, even something like turquoise could be considered, but not yellow, not bright green. It will be mine. I won’t be sitting on the back anymore. It will be mine, and I will ride wherever I want, whenever I want. Because of this I will go to the beach more often than I do, and up to Marin more than I do, and maybe my dad will even get back on his BSA sitting in the garage, the one that’s silver with a purple stripe—dreamy—but, alas, too tall for me. We could ride together. Maybe at least he can teach me how to fix it because he’s best when he’s teaching me things, even though I get bratty and sassy, and we piss each other off, he has something to focus on, the teaching part, and he’ll have to show me how to change my brake fluid or whatever it is instead of not saying anything at all or saying something that upsets me and then he gets upset that I’m upset and the way he tries to tell me he’s upset upsets me more, and then he feels somehow infringed upon or uncomfortably pressed into feelings he doesn’t understand so he resorts to this clipped anger, this weird clipped anger, and I retreat and cry and am sullen. Things are better when he has something to teach me, like how to change brake fluid. I will also look extremely cool when I take off my helmet and shake out my hair.

 

Rick Owens leather jacket, size S

This will make me look like my job pays a lot more than it does. It will make me look like the sort of person who buys bottles of wine she will not drink for at least ten years so as to “let the tannins soften,” who has a white cat despite an all-black wardrobe, who regularly visits the dry cleaners, who has bookshelves that fit everything, no stacks required. The sort of person who has enough space. More than enough. An excess of space, with minimal stuff in it (a place for everything and everything in its place). A person who does not sweat, with immaculate hair the wind seems not to bother. A person people take seriously. A person who is left alone on the bus at night—who probably does not even take public transit, yes, this jacket will make me look like someone with the luxury of privacy, who can envelop herself in solitude and lambskin with equal ease. Sometimes the looking-like is enough to push past what really is.

 

Japanese tansu chest

There is a house where I live, alone, no roommates. There is enough room for the tansu chest. Aside from a bar cart, it is the only piece of storage furniture in the house not used for books or that does not have books somewhere on its surface. I keep many generously-sized towels in there, the kind that really cover up everything when wrapped around your body, chest to knees nearly. There are also sheets that are soft from years of washing but show no signs of wear beyond a faded tag. They seemed expensive at the time, but hey, you get what you pay for, right? There are smaller towels, too, for the hands and faces of visitors who stay on a squashy sofa or in my bed, depending. They come frequently and from all over, and I am glad to have them. I bring them to the best coffee in my neighborhood, the best Thai, the small store selling lovely things. They think it all charming and tell me they’re glad I’ve found a place for myself, they mean it, too, I can see them meaning it somewhere in their eyes, and they are the type of friend whose word I trust implicitly after many years of different kinds of friendship all layered together like many-colored glass to form one distinct hue for our friendship now. We go out for breakfast and then on a long walk. One of us brings an apple or a pear in a bag and we stop and share it somewhere with a nice view. I picked this walk just for the view, and I point out landmarks. There is the theater, there is the grocery store open twenty-four hours and never seeming quite real inside, there is a house where I used to live. We lapse into not talking very much but it feels soft together. Eventually we get back to my house. I give them a glass of water and then they want to take a shower, so I open the tansu chest for a towel. While they shower I nap accidentally on the couch (it’s just so soft). It is quiet and cool in the house, my house, my house alone. Soon it gets dusky. Candles are lit, the windows open. My friend makes dinner as a thank-you for hosting. Fresh pasta with shrimp. Some bread to get the sauce up. A green salad, sharp with lemon and cracked pepper. White wine, cold from the fridge. Somehow there is always more to discuss.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Mauro Javier Cardenas

Mauro Javier Cardenas (whose story “Dora and Her Dog” was published in Issue No. 104) is the author of the new novel The Revolutionaries Try Again (Coffee House Press). Harper’s Magazine has described his first novel as “a high-octane, high-modernist” work “from the gifted, fleet Mauro Javier Cardenas.” And in its starred review, Publishers Weekly said “Cardenas dizzyingly leaps from character to character, from street protests to swanky soirees, and from lengthy uninterrupted interior monologues to rapid-fire dialogues and freewheeling satirical radio programs, resulting in extended passages of brilliance.”

Cardenas spoke to ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about his book at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco earlier this month.

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