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Isabel Erickson White

A Salve for Our Grief: ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders

Lincoln in the BardoGeorge Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (350 pages; Penguin Random House), recently released in paperback, continues to offer the salve we need. This exceptional novel, which went on to win the Man Booker Prize ––making Saunders the second American (in a row at that) to win the prize –– has the kind of sensibility necessary for national healing; as The Atlantic noted, “In a year in which writers and artists have wrestled with the question of how to tackle the increasing prominence of hate in the political sphere, the Man Booker judges seemed to respond to Saunders’s humanizing portrait of a leader felled by grief.”

 As always, Saunders’ work celebrates humanity where you least expect to find it. In his story collection Tenth of December he cheerfully examined the dark emotions driving middle-class Americans. And in Lincoln in the Bardo, which takes place during the first year of the Civil War and centers on the death of Abraham Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son, Willie, Saunders works tirelessly to understand the book’s multiple characters. Most of them are ghosts stuck in a graveyard, who are present on the night of Willie’s arrival in the cemetery. Throughout the novel, Saunders inserts excerpts from letters, newspapers, and some fictional archives that discuss the Lincoln family’s tragedy from afar. Each archival extract and fictional voice is broken up into small paragraphs, marked underneath by the speaker’s name, making the text read as a play.

“I didn’t just do it to be fancy,” Saunders told the New York Times after winning the Man Booker, “but because there was this emotional core I could feel, and that form was the only way I could get to it.” The archival excerpts also serve to break up the main narration, which is comprised of voices from the Bardo—a Tibetan space that exists between death and rebirth, where one’s fate is still undecided, similar to purgatory (although Saunders has argued that purgatory wasn’t quite right for the story; he imagined purgatory as too similar to waiting in line at DMV). The Bardo is populated by people whose bodies have died, but whose spirits are still tied to the living world. These lost souls find themselves unwilling to move on to the next world.

The souls residing in Willie’s cemetery occupy a place of denial; each one has a final memory that prevents them from accepting the truth of their own demise. They refer to their corpses as “sick-forms” and their coffins as “sick-boxes,” indicating they still think they’ll one day return to the world of the living and their loved ones. Each night, they wander the grounds of the graveyard, repeating the very same stories that keep them stuck in this liminal space. The ghosts in the Bardo can enter one another’s body, helping them access someone else’s memories, desires, and anxieties. In a discussion at San Francisco City Art and Lectures on the occasion of Lincoln in the Bardo’s paperback release, Saunders said that fiction has a similar kind of power: it has the ability to help us better understand the experiences and emotions of others, because it allows us to step into the position of someone whose experiences are far from our own. Saunders work provides a manual of sorts for national healing; it is through the practice of imagining oneself in the place of another that one can view others with compassion and ultimately move beyond differences.

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When Art Must Step In: Q&A with ‘Bullets into Bells’ Editor Dean Rader

Bullets into Bells The poetry collection Bullets into Bells (Beacon Press) stands as an innovative response to American gun violence. The work is a collection of poetry, each poem paired with a prose response written by an “activist, political figure, survivor, or concerned individual.” Many of the poems are in response to widely reported shootings, such as Sandy Hook or the murder of Tamir Rice, but there are also several accounts of less publicized shootings.

Despite the high coverage of gun violence in the media, reading this book gives the sense that this type of violence is even more pervasive than it seems, and that nearly all Americans have experienced some brush with the life-changing power that guns wield. The authors in this collection call out to politicians, gun owners, gun sellers, and everyday citizens to change our laws and culture around guns. As US Senator Chris Murphy writes in his response, “The only way we can change this reality is if people speak up, consistently and loudly. Ask yourself: what can you do to make sure that Orlando, or Aurora, or Sandy Hook never happens again? It can’t be solely thoughts and prayers buried in tweets or in moments of silence. We must continue to speak out—to tell the stories of loved ones lost and to push for action to save lives.”

Dean Rader, who is one of three editors on Bullets into Bells (along with Brian Clements and Alexandra Teague), was kind enough to talk to ZYZZYVA about the book and the ambitious campaign behind it.

ZYZZYVA: The book includes poetry and essays from a variety of authors, from well-known poets and activists to victims of gun violence and even the daughter of a man who was killed using guns. How did you go about finding contributors for the collection? What kinds of responses did you get?

Dean Rader: Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and I considered many different poems—we may have had as many as 100 at one time. But our publisher, Beacon, wanted to keep it to 50. That seemed like a good number and reasonable in terms of finding respondents. A side note—all of the respondents (and their subsequent pairings to poems) was done by Brian.

Brian’s wife, Abbey Clements, was the other 2nd grade teacher at Sandy Hook when the shootings happened in 2012. Instead of turning one way and going into Abbey’s class, the shooter went a different direction and murdered 20 children (as well as teachers and administrators). Because of Brian’s and his family’s involvement with the Gun Violence Prevention movement, he had access to a number of people who were eager to participate in the book. So, Tamir Rice’s mother, Samaria, writes in response to a poem by Reginald Dwayne Betts. The on-call ER doctor working at the hospital after the Sandy Hook shooting wrote a response to “The Bullet, in its Hunger” by Ross Gay. Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams wrote a response to Robert Hass’ “Dancing.” The poems are amazing works of art; the responses are emotionally wrenching direct human pleas.

The call and response structure of the poems and the responses is like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Z: What kind of work went into organizing and editing this diverse group of voices? Were any of these poems published previously or were all written on request for Bullets into Bells?

DR: Most of the poems included were already published, though around ten were written specifically for the anthology. Robert Hass, Dana Levin, Brenda Hillman, LeAnne Howe, Tess Taylor, Yusef Komuanyakaa and some others all wrote special poems for the book. Of course, all of the responses were written in response to individual poems.

The selection process for the poems was at times very difficult and at other times, quite easy. I think the hardest part was settling on only 50 poems. We also wanted the poets represented to be diverse—in terms of race, gender, age, and even in terms of “fame” or publication record. We were also willing to print some poems that were not explicitly about gun violence, like Jane Hirshfield’s “For Those Who Cannot Act” or Ada Limón’s “The Leash.”  Brian deserves all the credit for pairing the responses with the poems.

Z: What role do you think literature, specifically poetry, plays in fighting something like gun violence? What do you hope this work can do to reshape how people think about guns?

DR: America has a history of responding to emotionally moving aesthetic texts. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense was instrumental in solidifying sentiment toward American independence from England. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin galvanized middle class white opposition to slavery. Photographs by people like Dorothea Lange moved citizens and politicians to enact policies surrounding the Dust Bowl. Aesthetic texts like poems educate our emotions—they help us feel in a more informed way. This is important because we often make decisions based on our emotions—our fears, in particular, but also our hopes.

At times, when policy falls short, art must step in. You can list all the statistics in the world. You can give people all sorts of data. But, numbers are faceless. They are cold. They don’t activate our emotions. Poems can and do.

I’m not sure these poems and responses will reshape how people think about guns, but our hope is that they move readers to start examining their emotions about laws surrounding gun violence. The great American poet Wallace Stevens writes, “Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.” These poems, these responses, are trying to do just that.

By the way, the book is just one of three interrelated projects. The second is a plan to host a reading in all 50 states. Already there have been readings in Idaho, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Washington DC, California, Alabama, Massachusetts, and Maine. Others are scheduled for Illinois, Arizona, Colorado, South Dakota, and New York. If readers are interested in hosting an event, please get in touch with me. The third component is a supplemental website (https://bulletsintobells.com/) where you can find out more information about the book, its contributors, ways to get involved, other Bullets Into Bells events, and other poems that respond to the gun violence epidemic. I hope all readers of Zyzzyva will send in a poem.

Z: In this collection, there are many poems and responses by parents who lost their children to gun violence and most of them spend the rest of their life thinking about the what ifs. I found these pieces to be the most moving. As a father, you must be particularly invested in this cause. Have you found that becoming a parent changed how you think about gun violence and gun control? What kind of political action do you think is necessary for you and other parents to feel safe sending your children out into the world?

DR: It’s so interesting you asked this question. When I was on the plane flying out to the release party in Boston, I was thumbing through the book, and for whatever reason I kept landing on the very responses you mention. It was one testimony after another by a parent about their child getting shot and most often, killed. I remember tearing up there on the plane. That intense combination of the random and the unjust is almost too much to bear.

I don’t know that I fear for my sons’ safety, but I do know that anything can happen any time, any place. A safe neighborhood is safe until that moment is isn’t. A school is safe until it’s not. Our country, on the macro, is a relatively safe country—but not for everyone. And, it is certainly not safe for everyone in the same way.

There is no doubt that fewer guns out there in the world means fewer deaths. In my poem in the anthology I reference Japan, which has 127 million people and rarely more than 10 gun deaths a year. That’s about as many gun deaths as were in Sacramento County in 2016. Two things Japan has done is 1) simply decrease the number of guns and 2) make it very, very hard to get a gun.

If America’s culture around gun and sensible gun laws is going to change, it will be because of the current generation. Students in the 14-22 age range can, literally, change this country.

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A Will to Live: ‘Hotel Silence’ by Audur Ava Olafsdóttir

Hotel SilenceIcelandic novelist, playwright, and poet Audur Ava Olafsdóttir offers a bizarrely lighthearted and humorous –– yet nonetheless moving –– portrayal of suicide and post-war life in her latest novel, Hotel Silence (214 pages; Grove Press; translated by Brian FitzGibbon).

After a painful divorce and the discovery that his daughter is not his biological child, the middle-aged narrator, Jonas, determines to commit suicide. His next-door neighbor, a man preoccupied with issues of gender inequality and female suffering, unquestioningly lends him a rifle. But once Jonas realizes his daughter would likely be the one to discover his lifeless body, he instead buys a one-way ticket to a foreign country where he can complete the task alone. He packs minimally: “I pack for a corpse,” he declares, only bringing a few items, including his old diaries and his tool kit (in case the room has something that needs fixing or he needs to screw in a hook from which to hang himself).

Jonas travels to an unnamed city in an unnamed country, one recently destroyed by a similarly unnamed war, to stay at Hotel Silence. He is one of three guests, which both his taxi driver and the hotel’s owners, a young brother and sister, note is the most business the place has received since the end of hostilities. In fact, they hope that Jonas’s trip will mark an economic turning point for the city.

The citizens of this place can use the change in fortune. They have lost their homes, have been maimed, and have witnessed families torn apart. Jonas’s pain is entirely unlike what these people have faced, but Jonas’s mother makes a Tolstoy-esque point: “All suffering is unique and different…and therefore it can’t be compared. Happiness, on the other hand, is similar.” In other words, suffering cannot be quantified or ranked, but perhaps it can be approached in similar ways.

While at Hotel Silence, Jonas spends time reading his journals, which are largely fixated on the books he’s read and his past relationships with women. In one entry he writes: “Thanks for life, mom. Why not Dad? I thank Mom for giving birth to me and girls for sleeping with me. I’m a man who expresses gratitude.” While this sentiment may sound egotistical, Jones proves earnest. He is a man who is happy to help women, who appreciates the presence of women and the act of being of service to them. His interest in women seems to offer a welcome distraction from painful self-reflection: “How did I become me?” he thinks at one point, indicating a desire to achieve insight and to understand his failure to do so. Yet it is precisely this interest that ultimately convinces Jonas to give life a second chance.

He begins by doing small things around the hotel: he fixes closet doors and clears the sand out of showerheads. He later moves on to larger projects, like helping to build a home for a group of women in town so they can rebuild their lives. He assists the hotel’s owners (the sister happens to be a single mother) piece together a mosaic of nude women. The mosaic, of course, will never return to its original state, will always reveal the scars of its devastation. But like Jonas and the inhabitants of this war-ravaged city, much of its original beauty can be restored –– and as Olafsdóttir shows in her winning novel, it is a task worth attempting.

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A Migration of Spirits: ‘Freshwater’ by Akwaeke Emezi

FreshwaterAkwaeke Emezi is a Tamil and Igbo writer from Nigeria who has received recognition for her short stories and creative nonfiction, as well as her work as an experimental video artist. With Freshwater (229 pages; Grove Press), she marks her first novel, an ambitious and original one at that. The book follows Ada, a young girl growing up in Nigeria, as she is both plagued and protected by a host of spirits that cohabitate her body and share her thoughts. Through beautiful and haunting prose, and through the different voices residing in Ada, we get a glimpse into her mind, a metaphysical space of “ọgbanje” (an Igbo term for a spirit that brings misfortune to a family by inhabiting the body of a child). Although Ada has been chosen by the god Ala to share her physical vessel with the gbanje, Emezi’s representation of her fractured mind proves surprisingly universal.

Freshwater begins with a narrator called “We,” a group of spirits who first exist in Ada’s mother’s body. “We” describe themselves as “the hatchlings, godlings, ọgbanje,” and act with indifference to the needs and interests of humans. The day they come into complete being is the day of Ada’s birth, “the day we died and were born.” Ada’s conception is explained by her father’s request for a daughter, which the god Ala answered. In doing so, Ada’s father opened a gate to the spirit world, summoning these entities into his family’s lives. When their little girl arrives, the happy parents name her Ada, meaning, “God answered.” “We” regards Ada from an observational perspective, but “We” and Ada often share the same desires, such as the need for blood, which they satisfy through Ada’s self-cutting.

Ada primarily shares her mind with “We” until she leaves Nigeria to attend university in Virginia. When Ada arrives, she is marked as prudish because of her disinterest in sex, telling her friends that she has made a vow of celibacy. But after her boyfriend sexually assaults her, a new ọgbanje appears—the licentious Asughara—whose purpose is to protect Ada by taking control of her whenever men are involved. Asughara adds an important depth to Emezi’s story, eliciting conflicting emotions. Ada and Asughara argue in the “marble room” of Ada’s mind and build a codependent relationship, leaving us to wonder if Asughara is protecting or harming Ada. Despite the uncertainty, one sighs with relief when Ada’s attempt to seek treatment from a therapist is thwarted because the therapist seems like an unwelcome third party who would create a wedge between Asughara and Ada. As “We” explains, the gods living in humans are inescapable; it is better to feed them than to ignore them.

Befitting a story about a fractured mind, the style of the novel is unconventional. Not only does Emezi write in multiple voices, but the story also progresses in a nonlinear fashion. Her writing compresses time and space—the past, future, and present moments in Ada’s life are ever-present, as are the places and people she visits. It begins with Ada’s birth, but once Ada reaches Virginia, the text moves back and forth in time, in ways that are often confusing. The organization of events is not without purpose, however. After the sexual assault, Asughara chronicles Ada’s adult life and often returns to the time before the assault and then far into the future. By doing this, Emezi reveals Ada and the gbanje in a way that resists an understanding of Ada as two separate selves: the Ada before the assault and Ada after. This pushes the young man who assaulted her out of the spotlight—we regard him as a negative influence in Ada’s life, but not as the key acting figure.

Ultimately, Emezi offers a perspective on mental illness that refuses categorization and diagnoses. Rather than characterizing Ada’s behaviors—her insatiable sexual appetite after being raped, her self-mutilation, alcoholism, and an eating disorder—as coping mechanisms or symptoms of mental illness, Emezi attributes them to conflicts between our spiritual and physical selves. She also refuses to portray the spirits that lead Ada to acts like self-harm as entirely malevolent. As she makes clear, Asughara and the other ọgbanje love Ada, and exist to protect her. (Often there’s the sense Ada should give herself up entirely to the ọgbanje, who, unlike Ada, cannot experience pain from the outside world.) With her brilliant novel, Emezi shows how the different aspects of our personality are often in conflict, and how that conflict can be inescapable.

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An Ideal Citizen: ‘The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea’ by Bandi

The AccusationThe cover of The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea (248 pages; Grove Press) boasts a brightly colored piece of North Korean propaganda featuring six luminous, smiling faces. The seven stories in the collection, however, offer something very different: heart-wrenching accounts of a brutal life inside the country’s borders.

The Accusation’s journey to publication is miraculous in itself. Its author, Bandi (a pseudonym meaning “firefly”), smuggled his manuscript out of the country with the help of a defecting family member. For more than four years, he secretly wrote the manuscript, entirely in pencil, and remains in North Korea where he serves as a member of the Chosun Writers League Central Committee, a state-funded writing organization. Bandi’s book represents the first published work to criticize the North Korean government written by someone still living in that country.

The stories in The Accusation center on the importance of one’s reputation in North Korea, and how quickly it can be ruined by rumors and accusations of one’s opposition to the government. In each story, the characters experience a longing to break free of the societal pressure that restricts their intimate relationships. “City of Specters” reveals the absurdity of how even the most minor acts of can earn someone the label of anti-revolutionary. In it, a mother who uses extra curtains to protect her sensitive child from seeing a poster of Karl Marx that frightens him is quickly marked as a threat; a civil servant explains to her how unique curtains could be seen as a signal to spies. And while the rigidity of the government’s demands is so bizarre as to be almost humorous, Bandi depicts how these demands place a barrier between people. One must choose between being a good citizen and being a good family member, and choosing the latter most often results in punishment.

In these stories we see the ways this fear makes North Korea into a country of trained actors; to simply survive, its citizens must repress their grief and anger, even in the face of lost loved ones, and produce exaggerated performances of mourning for the death of Kim Jong-il. The characters in this book smile through their physical and emotional pain, only calling on these hidden agonies when tears are necessary.

The final piece in the collection, titled “The Red Mushroom,” suggests the author’s self-contempt and dissatisfaction with his career. Bandi writes about a reporter who is commonly referred to as the “bullshit reporter” since his work only praises the government or spins stories to the point of fabrication. This is, of course, due to the severe limitations put on North Korean journalists. Like his protagonist, Bandi is a state-sanctioned writer who must acquiesce to political restraints on his writing. The story raises the question of what it means to be an artist of any kind in Bandi’s country or in any other totalitarian state. While the cast of The Accusation would likely argue that it means one must be a liar, Bandi’s work speaks to our irrepressible need for self-expression and drive to create art. His writing and characters prove magnetic; they are anything but the one-dimensional characters of North Korean propaganda.

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Truth in a Glass: ‘The Wine Lover’s Daughter’ by Anne Fadiman

The Wine Lover's DaughterIn The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir (272 pages; FSG), Anne Fadiman, the author of Ex Libris, At Large and Small: Familiar Essays, and, most notably, her prize winning work of nonfiction, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, writes about her famous father, Clifton, or Kip, Fadiman. She centers her memoir, her first book in ten years, around her father’s love of wine, a love affair that begins on his first trip to Paris with an inexpensive bottle of white Graves.

Although Kip Fadiman’s love of wine was sincere—he found pleasure in the taste and complexities of wine, as well as an appreciation for its ability to enhance conversation—his daughter reveals that his interest was also tied to a desire to be as far removed as possible from his Jewish immigrant background. A self-described “meatball,” Kip Fadiman was born in 1904 to lower-middle class Eastern European immigrants in Brooklyn. Embarrassed by his parents and pedigree, he took great strides to “de-meatball” himself by reading through the Western canon, learning to speak impeccable English from his older brother (which later helped with his career as a radio host), putting himself through Columbia University, and, eventually, by becoming a leading wine connoisseur. Although he saw enormous success as a radio host for NBC’s Information Please, was editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster before the age of 30, worked as a book critic for The New Yorker for ten years, and co-wrote the unofficial Bible of wine, The Joy of Wine, he always feared he would someday be exposed as a fraud or counterfeit.

Since he never got over feeling like an intruder to WASP culture, he worked to scrub himself of any Jewish identity, Fadiman writes, and was confounded to find later generations attempting to reclaim their Jewish roots. As she points out, wine fit in perfectly with his lifelong career of divorcing himself of his lineage – wine was civilized, civilizing, and decisively not Jewish. While her father’s embarrassment over his Jewish identity is at times troubling for a contemporary reader and for Fadiman herself, she reminds us, “I don’t have a clue what they were up against and never will.” Instead of attributing his attitude to denial and snobbery, she ascribes it to the culture that her father grew up in. This is the same culture that shaped his alma mater’s decision to pass on hiring him as a professor, claiming they had already reached their quota for Jewish professors in the department (which was at one)—a moment that made him perceive his incredibly successful professional life as a failure.

Fadiman’s writing remains polished, humorous, and approachable in The Wine Lover’s Daughter. Her love of language always shines through—in Ex Libris she discusses the Fadiman family’s joy for polysyllabic words and her father’s children’s book about a worm with an appetite for words like “zymurgy”—but her work never indulges itself to the point of requiring its readers to keep a dictionary at hand. The magnificence of her work is in her empathy for her subjects and her unwavering rationality. She never acquiesces to a reader’s impulse for her to judge her subjects or make a definitive statement that would ultimately prove reductive.

After years of trying to enjoy wine, the author finally confronts the fact that she will never love wine the way her father did. When she reaches this conclusion, she goes on a trek to find some biological reason for her distaste. At first, this chapter seems like a distraction, one that detracts from the otherwise magnificent account of the father and his relationship with his daughter. Yet, by the end, one is reminded of Fadiman’s skill as a writer. What made her book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down such a great success was her refusal to succumb to easy answers. She wrote with empathy for both the Western doctors and the Hmong families as they struggled over the (eventually) failed medical treatment of a young Lao girl in Merced, California. Here, she again refuses to see the world in simple terms. The answer is not found in her and her father’s different biological reactions to wine, but in their rich, yet dissimilar histories. She recognizes that her father’s love of wine could not be separated from the romance of his first experience with the white Graves and his longing to reinvent himself.

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