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Claire Ogilvie

Merging into a Singular Voice: ‘They Said,’ edited by Simone Muench and Dean Rader

They SaidThey Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing (535 pages; Black Lawrence Press), edited by Simone Muench and Dean Rader, is an ambitious, immersive collection that challenges readers and writers alike. Breaking out of traditional ideas of authorship, the book gathers hundreds of pieces of multi-author writing that span multiple genres and formats. At the end of each work is a blurb written by the authors that describes their unique writing process. In the spirit of the collection, we decided to collaboratively read and review the work in the form of a conversation.

Claire Ogilvie: What stood out most to me about this anthology was the conscious noting of the authors’ writing processes and unintentional similarities of those processes across genres. It was interesting to see that many of the works started off as passion projects, or as a joke between friends, and then morphed into something more meaningful that was later published or performed. Some of the contributors, following the styles of their work, described their writing process similarly, like Maureen Alsop and Hillary Gravendyk who poetically note of their piece “Ballast”: “A mirror shone a refused language, the last moon slipped. As to the dreaming craft lightened one moment then another left.” While I didn’t exactly grasp what this described of their process, it did help me better understand the authors’ thoughts and intentions.

Caleigh Stephens: All of the writing about process definitely adds this extra dimension. I found the writing, and the writing about the writing, to be conversational, which helped illuminate the relationship between the authors outside of the piece. Creative writing is often presented as this isolated and individual art, and They Said functions as a challenge to that. The nature of collaborative writing is that it allows the author, as John F. Buckley and Martin Ott note, to “get out of that ‘I’ voice, that sometimes dark, sometimes limiting well of ego.” There’s a focus on process that underlies the entire collection, and while there are many excellent pieces of writing here, the anthology fundamentally is a work for writers and people fascinated by the craft of writing.

CO: I agree that the informal, candid description of processes enhances the work since it gives more background about the authors themselves and their relationship, or the concept of what they set out to write originally, as well as the often unexpected results. The series of poems that features the “The Sea Witch” by Sarah Blake and Kimberly Quiogue Andrews has one of my favorite process notes because, while some of their poems about the Sea Witch are a little cheeky or even slightly humorous (“The Sea Witch Needs a Mortgage for The Land, If Not for The House of Bones”), the poems had an overall experimental nature that the authors explained as “…a bit like a very friendly tennis match wherein one of us starts by making the ball. One of us will write a draft of a poem, as complete as we can get it, and then we send it to the other, who has free reign to add, cut, rearrange, etc.” Blake and Andrews process was clearly one of friendship and trust, which is reflected in their work.

CS: I also found “The Sea Witch” poems to be interesting due to the range of style and tone. With such an intricate and individual art such as poetry, the meshing of two (or more) voices cultivates an atmosphere of exploration. Some authors choose to write back and forth while others merge into a singular voice, becoming indistinguishable. Some, like the cross-genre piece “The Wide Road” by past ZYZZYVA contributors Carla Harryman and Lyn Hejinian, include both –– writing that hovers between poetry and prose, followed by letters written by the authors that are “about our work-in-progress as a part of the work itself.” The collaboration is embedded into the text rather than being something the authors must work around. “The Wide Road” also stands as an example of the experimentation that pervades the collection. Even beyond those pieces labeled “cross-genre,” there’s an interplay of poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction throughout that results in writing that flouts convention.

CO: It all sort of feels cross-genre to me, like some of the fiction could have just as easily fallen into another category. Like Tina Jenkins Bell, Janice Tuck Lively, and Felicia Madlock’s piece, “Looking for the Good Boy Yummy,” which takes the real events of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer’s life and final moments and then fictionalizes them through multiple perspectives and narratives. In their description of their process, they write, “We chose to tell Yummy’s story in the form of a hybrid comprised of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry because so much has been said about him and each form would reflect a different view. We believed the true Yummy was somewhere in the center of all the accounts.” The authors are intentional about mixing genres to better represent the realities of gang violence and poverty. The fictionalization of the story takes it to an interesting, murky, and political place. Which raises the question: when does a fictionalized account become cross-genre?

CS: The beauty of the collection is that although each section is labeled by genre, the works are able to move beyond those confines and tell their stories in the most authentic way possible. Thanks to the collaborative aspect, not in spite of it, the writers feel free to challenge themselves stylistically. Some pieces came out of literary games –– authors adding two sentences at a time or working in “antonymic translation.” On the whole, the stakes don’t feel very high in those examples, and often the works aren’t perfect, but this doesn’t lessen the anthology’s ultimate impact. As Cynthia Arrieu-King and Ariana-Sophia Kartsonis write, “We play and I still feel astonished by what happens when we do.” This is an inspiring collection precisely because it brings up more questions about the nature of writing than it answers.

CO: Yes, the most impressive aspect of this anthology is its commitment to collaboration –– from the editing, to the writing of the introduction, the collaborative reviews of the material inside, and the pieces themselves. It’s collaboration within collaboration, and even if a piece didn’t necessarily resonate with me I always respected the craft of the poem, or story, or genre-breaking-rule-defying piece in front of me. It’s all so thoughtful and intricate. You can tell from the effort shown by the contributors and the editors that it’s a labor of love, and as a writer and reader that’s what interests me.

Caleigh Stephens and Claire Ogilvie on their process: Claire and Caleigh originally (and quite candidly) had no idea how to go about writing a collaborative review of a collaborative anthology. The entire review-writing process was an extended conversation, as they picked out individual sentences and pieces to share with the other while reading.They came to appreciate the art of “collaborative writing” all the more after giving it an honest attempt one Sunday afternoon. Distracted by IKEA locations, yerba mate, and the current state of U.S. politics, they holed up in Claire’s living room and decided that they wanted their review to reflect the ongoing dialogue they had about the work. In short they would describe their own artistic collaborative process as “in cahoots.”

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A Most Unlikely Heroine: ‘The Story of H’ by Marina Perezagua

The Story of HMarina Perezagua’s masterfully written novel The Story of H (281 pages; Ecco/HarperCollins: translated by Valerie Miles) follows the agonizing lifelong journey of an unlikely heroine, H, an intersex woman mutilated in the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima. The bombing is a paradoxical catalyst in H’s life, giving her the freedom to pursue the surgeries she needs to become anatomically a woman; but with this comes the loss of her family, home, and most important to her identity, her ability to conceive a child. H faces ostracization after the bombing and her transition, and leaves Japan to travel the world in search of love, family, and an understanding of the atrocities experienced by survivors like herself.

When she moves to New York City, H meets the love of her life, Jim, a former prisoner of war. Over the course of their partnership she becomes obsessed with helping Jim reunite with his long lost Yoro, a Japanese girl who was left in his care and whom he loves like a daughter. The search takes them across the world, spans decades, and eventually drives H to commit murder. As she relays her life to readers and the police, H experiences the phenomenon of psychological pregnancy, which she occasionally acknowledges as a manifestation of her impossible wish to become a mother and her all encompassing love for Yoro and Jim.

Perezagua’s novel, which was published in Spanish in 2015 as Yoro, tells not just H’s story but the stories of other victims of Hiroshima, as well as that of the slave laborers who built the Burmese Railroad and mined uranium in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the victims of the sexual abuse carried out by UN peacekeepers in the Congo so many years later. It is not written for the faint of heart. Perezagua disbars no details in elucidating readers to the terror experienced by people across continents and throughout history. The lesser-known traumas Perezagua revisits, in acknowledgement of the continued suffering caused by World War II, are repulsive, terrifying, but necessary the novel does not relish in these atrocities but rather uses them to demand culpability. In her note to the reader Perezagua describes most eloquently the importance of her work:

“Just as pieces of broken pottery can be put back together by covering their cracks with a varnish of gold dust, so could I both in my day-by-day life and in what I write try to protect the historical and aesthetic value of scars. When I see a wound, I admire it because there, and not in our unbroken flesh, do I find the nature of being human: its vulnerability, but also the enormous energy that it requires to pick up our pieces from the ground, reunite them, and be born again.”

While The Story of H reads as a confession of a murder it could more adequately be described as a fictitious memoir, peppered as it is with historical accounts, supplemental research, and anecdotes. Perezagua’s writing oscillates from pithy and fierce on one page—to swirlingly poetic the next. It is difficult to come up for air when reading the novel because H’s account is so unrelenting, her telling impassioned and coded, full of hidden meaning and etymology that necessitate a second read.

One of the most impressive examples of her mastery of craft is the way Perezagua fills H’s retelling of her journey with amusing narrative, balancing out the horrors we encounter. Also, H often will divertingly expound on an idea she has just happened upon, or a theory she is busy assembling. Her tangents range from painful revelations to fragmented bursts of clarity about herself and others:

“If exorbitant hospital bills left me homeless, I don’t think I’d ever wash up, I’d waltz my stench around all the public places. That’s why I never cover my nose. Of course the smell bothers me, but it’s not offensive, and above all, it opens my sensory canals to a new perception: that smell, whomever it’s coming from, is always the same; it’s a democratic smell. When we’re clean, we all smell different. But when we’re piss-stained and sweaty, we all smell the same. I don’t like our common odor very much, but it nonetheless offers an unusual and mentally satisfying experience. There are things that do make me sick, like seeing some lady hold her nose ostentatiously over a stupid smell. So yes, no question, if I didn’t have a home and lived on the street, I would let layers and layers of stench accumulate too, just to make sure I couldn’t be confused with all those people clutching their noses while kissing any old ass necessary to make the money to buy the perfumes that camouflage their spite.”

Reading Perezagua’s novel (and Valerie Miles hypnotic translation of it) means a traumatic re-visitation of the darker moments of human history, mirrored by H’s own pitfalls. Yet The Story of H is simultaneously a joyful and perceptive recollection of a long and complicated life. Perezagua set out to write a novel that explored the difficulties and triumphs of humanity, and in doing so she wote something equal parts disturbing, visceral, and enchanting.

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Dormant Secrets of a Sleepy Town: ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ by Jon McGregor

The Reservoir TapesIn his newest book, The Reservoir Tapes (167 pages; Catapult), British novelist Jon McGregor (long-listed for the Man Booker Prize three times) returns to the complex world of his acclaimed 2017 novel, Reservoir 13, which was set in a seemingly sleepy English village. McGregor further explores through this story collection the intricate lives within that community as they begin the agonizing search for Becky Shaw, a local girl gone missing. Told from the same fifteen distinct perspectives of Reservoir 13, McGregor’s stories give readers a candid view of the relationships and transgressions of these private townspeople.

The Reservoir Tapes began as a side project to Reservoir 13, appearing first on BBC Radio 4 as fifteen separate episodes. The “perspectives,” as they’re called, addressed the months leading up to Becky’s disappearance (in Reservoir 13, McGregor focused on the passage of time following that), exploring the tensions and fissures long present in the community, and offering readers more information about the characters while leaving the mystery as unresolved as at the end of the original story.

But The Reservoir Tapes also serves as an enjoyable read or listen (they’re available as podcasts on iTunes, BBC, and Audible) for those unfamiliar with McGregor’s novel. The imaginative and nuanced vignettes McGregor creates are less about the particulars of Becky Shaw’s unnerving disappearance and more concerned with the divergences in morality amongst the villagers.

The book begins with a one-sided transcript of an interview with Becky’s mother about her daughter’s disappearance. The introductory chapter is haunting and strained, as an unknown voice attempts to ask questions, peppered with apologies and words of comfort, in response to Charlotte’s unseen and redacted answers. The conversation generates as many doubts about the ensuing events as it attempts to answer.

While not as stylistically unnerving, the following chapters prove equally absorbing, as they follow each character through his or her outwardly mundane life only to reveal the sordid details of their families, marriages, and friendships. McGregor writes from the perspective of insecure teenagers and the unhappily married, creating distinct narratives articulating a pattern of similarly repressed concerns throughout the village as we’re transported to the kitchens and gardens where they spend their misty mornings contemplating their troubles. The vignettes are succinct and impressively subtle, wavering between a mix of reflective and tangential thoughts, offering brief but revealing portraits of the narrators as they see themselves. Occasionally they will deviate from their own self-absorption and off-handedly gossip about the other villagers, fostering the sense that we’re amid a close-knit community. By taking the story of Becky Shaw’s disappearance from its original long form to a more truncated prologue, McGregor has enriched his story that much more, making the mystery at its center that much more compelling.

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Outsiders in Life and Love: ‘Never Anyone But You’ by Rupert Thomson

Never Anyone But YouPublished in a year defined by women’s activism, Rupert Thomson’s new novel, Never Anyone But You (368 pages; Other Press), succeeds in reimagining the lives of two of the most intriguing, elusive, and under-appreciated figures of the Parisian Surrealist movement, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. As lovers, anti-fascist activists, and even step-sisters, the two were an inseparable creative force during their more than forty years of partnership.

Originally born Lucy Schwob (Cahun) and Suzanne Malherbe (Moore), the pair hailed from two affluent and, well educated families that encouraged their artistic pursuits; introduced as teenagers in 1909, they began an artistic partnership that led to romance. The artists’ families became close, resulting in the 1917 marriage of Malherbe’s widowed mother to Schwob’s divorced father. Ironically, the marriage made it easier for the pair to continue their romantic relationship and live together in Paris, helping them navigate their eras barriers around gender and sexuality. It was around this time in their artistic careers, that they adopted the more gender-fluid identities they would become best known for — Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Outside of Cahun’s writing and the pair’s collaborative photography, which captured their avant-garde view of gender and renunciation of the patriarchy, there is little work to substantiate the motivations of Moore and Cahun’s eccentric and electric lives. This is largely because the Nazi’s destroyed their home in Jersey in 1944, when they were arrested and sentenced to death for the creation and distribution of anti-Nazi propaganda. This lack of physical records, coupled with the secrecy necessary to maintain their bohemian and forbidden romance, has left much of Cahun and Moore’s private lives to the imagination.

Interestingly, while the couple’s art and writing have been exhibited and published since the 1920’s, achieving them cult-figure status in gay community and the art world, Cahun continues to receive the majority of praise, despite Moore’s intrinsic involvement in their photography and Cahun’s writing. (David Bowie said of Cahun’s work, “You could call her transgressive or you could call her a cross dressing Man Ray with surrealist tendencies. I find this work really quite mad, in the nicest way.”) Unlike some of their Surrealist contemporaries, Cahun and Moore did not use their work to achieve fame or notoriety. Their artwork was boundary breaking, self explorational, and deeply personal. It was not until decades after their deaths that Moore and Cahun’s photography resurfaced. Nearly a hundred years later, the pair’s androgynous photography continues to be breathtakingly mysterious.

The ingenuity of Thomson’s novel is its focus on the relationship from Moore’s perspective, fleshing out her identity as a person and an artist in her own right. In this way, Never Anyone But You imagines a tender and, at times, volatile love story for Cahun and Moore. He explores the couple’s forty-five-year relationship from beginning to end; twisting and turning through the uncertainties of young love, the security and maturity of lifelong partnership, and the atrocities and violence of two world wars. The book reads as the confessional diary one wishes Marcel Moore had kept. Thomson elucidates Cahun as a prolific artist vacillating between stability and self-destruction, but primarily focuses on the toll this takes on Moore as her life-long confidante and caretaker—a role Moore simultaneously cherishes and fears: “Sometimes the person you’re closest to is the one you understand the least. Sometimes, when you’re that close, everything just blurs.”

As we experience their world, from the extravagant Parisian parties (where they met and befriended Robert Desnos, Henri Michaux, and other Modernists who happened through Paris) to their brutal imprisonment, Thomson’s writing brings into being the secret, profound, and determined love Moore and Cahun shared, asking introspective questions in the process:

“Is physical love bound to decay, just as everything in the physical world decays? Is it natural for love to change and deepen into something that feels almost spiritual? Had I altered or had she?”

And,

 “Can the love somebody has for you be tangible like that, there one moment, gone the next? Does it take up space inside you? And when it evaporates, does it leave a gap where it once was?”

One of the strengths of Never Anyone But You is that it doesn’t shy away from the plentiful uncertainties of Moore’s life and her sorrowful end. The final passages, some of the most striking in the novel, parallel the final scenes of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening; exploring the character’s resolved final moments in a haze of tranquil dreams and reflections.

It could very well be that our best attempt at understanding Marcel Moore and Claude Cahun’s love and art is through Thomson’s psychologically mesmerizing re-imagination of their lives, coupled with viewing their art (some of which you can see at SFMOMA’s current exhibit, Selves and Others, on display until September 23).

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