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Kailee Stiles

Writing History: ‘We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates

We Were Eight Years in PowerTa-Nehisi Coates will be the first to tell you that his road to becoming a celebrated essayist, author, and staff writer at The Atlantic began with failure. Failure to keep a job. Failure to graduate college. Failure to write exactly what he felt needed to be said. So begins his recent essay collection, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (Random House, 367), which, contrary to Coates’ inauspicious start, cements his reputation as a gifted, iconoclastic writer and serves as required reading for anyone concerned about how, and when, black lives have (not) mattered in American history. The book is separated into eight parts, one for every year of Barack Obama’s presidency. Each section contains a present-day self-reflection and a look at the goings-on of that particular year, followed by an original essay by Coates previously published in The Atlantic.

The collection, in an attempt to quickly capitalize on Coates’s spotlight, could have been a lazy mix of vague recollection of events and re-presentation of previous work. Not so. These prior essays are so richly written they reward a second (and third, and fourth) read. His arguments–on mass incarceration, studying the Civil War, etc.– have not lost their initial force, and in fact have been invigorated by the current political maelstrom we find ourselves in. Additionally, the commentaries preceding each essay are remarkable essays in themselves. Coates uses them to re-evaluate the successes and failures of his work, to add cultural and personal context to each piece, and to reflect meaningfully on the directions he and his country have gone. There is no fluff or languorous storytelling here. The chance to publicly, rigorously question and explain one’s previous work is a gift few writers are ever granted, and Coates does not waste the opportunity.

The highlight of the collection is the essay that first brought Coates to national prominence: “The Case for Reparations,” a feature article published in The Atlantic in June 2014. While none of the other essays are weak links in any sense of the term, “Reparations” can and should always stand above the rest, for its taboo subject matter and sheer moral certainty if nothing else. The idea of the US government paying reparations to black citizens for slavery is “a wildly impractical solution” to some, as Coates admits he once believed, if not an absolutely laughable one to others. Coates is a patient writer, a rarity in the twenty-four hour news cycle of hot takes, and the persuasiveness of his arguments is burnished as a result. He never bows to lowered expectations when he finds the fire in his argument, nor sacrifices seeing the forest for finding each tree. The rise and flow of each essay isn’t truncated to serve the smaller anecdotes that form the emotional core of his book, but works with them to create a genuine portrait of black lives in America.

We Were Eight Years in Power also demonstrates how incredibly well researched his work is. Somehow, Coates tells readers, white and black, facts we didn’t know (for example, that black families making six figures often live in neighborhoods where white family incomes are near the poverty line) and re-frames facts we did know (such as the tenuous class mobility of black families) creating arguments that are both unsurprising and shocking. We have always known that racism affects homeownership, but many of us have overlooked the participation of the U.S. government and viciousness of white property owners in creating that reality. Coates will not let us look away any longer.

He writes philosophically and thinks historically, without obscuring our current moment in time. When he writes, “The need for purpose and community, for mission, is human…It is that search [for meaning] that bedeviled the eight years of power,” Coates sees what many do not—that though we have only our own eyes and ears to experience the world with, our personal developments are part of the history we come from. Coates life growing up black in Baltimore is his own. No one else can account for what he did and saw. However, those experiences are not divorced from what happened in New England colonies in the 17th century, or at Gettysburg in 1863, or in the streets of contemporary Compton. Coates weaves all these threads together as though they were never separated at all, never sacrificing each component’s singular character.

Reading and re-reading Ta-Nehisi Coates is a special experience. Writers frequently pride themselves on making the act of choosing each word seem effortless, invisible. Yet Coates chooses to keep the curtain up, all too frequently reminding his readers that he still feels like an imposter–a black Howard University dropout working at The Atlantic?–and that he has been making it up as he goes for a very long time. All work worth doing is done painstakingly, but Coates’ honesty about the difficulties of thinking and writing intellectually is startling. His forthrightness actually makes the book more difficult to criticize, since he admits his own mistakes so plainly it leaves very few for the rest of us to find. This collection is a worthwhile read for its breadth, academic rigor, and shattering prose, but it deserves special attention for its self-portrait of a black writer finding his way. Every American should read this because Coates so effectively challenges our mythologies and assumptions with real data and human stories. But every writer should read it because nowhere else will a writer ever be so brutally forthright about the (political) struggle of writing itself.

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A Reckoning with the Past: ‘Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI’ by David Grann

Killers of the Flower MoonIn a time where many of us are revising our understanding of American history, David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (Doubleday, 339), presents another world of facts some have attempted to forget. The book, a 2017 finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction, is a work of stunning archival research whose prose is as laudable as it is grisly. From the outset, Grann’s book proves a necessary journalistic exposé – one that was years in the making – about a campaign to marry and then murder Osage Indians on their own reservation. But between the lines, Grann has written something else: a wrenching Western true-crime mystery about a tribe nearly destroyed by white greed.

As its subtitle suggests, Killers unearths the remarkable story of the “Reign of Terror” against the Osage Indians in Oklahoma in the early 20th century. The allotment agreement given to the Osage Indians by the U.S. government in the 1870s included a rare provision that stated the Osage owned the “headrights” to any “oil, gas, coal, or other minerals” beneath the land they owned, rights which could only be inherited, not bought or sold. Soon after, oil was discovered all across Oklahoma and the registered members of the tribe became wealthy beyond imagining. Grann even recounts the outrage found in articles about the Osages’s fortunes, instances where “the press claimed that whereas one out of every eleven Americans owned a car, virtually every Osage had eleven of them.” But over the course of the following years, slowly at first—then in larger numbers—individual Osage began to disappear or fall strangely ill.

Grann’s narrative starts with the “whodunnit” disappearance and murder of one Osage woman, Anna Brown, and grows to encompass the dozens, if not hundreds (since many deaths went unreported) of Osage who were poisoned, shot, bludgeoned, blown up, or otherwise killed in the early 1900s. Grann traces the subsequent investigations by a nascent FBI with considerable intensity, cannily pushing readers to race through the book to find out who killed Anna Brown, Charles Whitehorn, Joe Bates, and so many others. With every page, Grann builds suspense without ever reducing the victims to mere historical subjects. Each person is rendered vivid and captivating throughout, a feat that doubles the horror of the events described.

To add to the urgency of this story, acknowledging that the past is always present, Grann describes his interviews with many of the descendants of the victims of this “Reign of Terror.” These interviews, described in the book’s final section titled “The Reporter,” are perhaps the most fascinating part of the book. “The Reporter,” of course, is Grann, and his attempt to uncover what has happened is a happening in itself, extending the story of Killers into our time rather than pretending it exists apart from us. Switching to the first-person, Grann here also candidly reveals the scope of the work involved in producing historical nonfiction. He evocatively describes the near-mania that can take over when assuming such a project, with “stacks of files” growing into towers in his office as he pores over thousands of FBI documents, archives, wills and testaments, and rarely touched archival photographs.

By detailing the herculean process necessary for unearthing this story, Grann humbly points us toward the real debt he and his work owe to individuals like Kathryn Red Corn, director of the Osage Nation Museum, and Margie Burkhart, murder victim Anna Brown’s great-grandniece. Grann makes it clear that without their insight and willingness to assist his project, Killers could not exist. And in acknowledging their pain and contribution, he underscores the impetus in producing this piece of history: to reckon with the past’s effects on the present. The Reign of Terror on the Osage did not just rob its people of their money – it fragmented families, robbed children of their parents, grandparents of their children, and the tribe of its brothers of sisters. Killers, Grann makes clear, is about, for, and in a significant sense by the Osage, both living and deceased. Grann makes it plain that those losses are still felt today, and although white history has forgotten them, “the Reign of Terror had ravaged–still ravaged–generations.” Killers does not dredge up the past for its own sake, but wisely grapples with its effects on the present.

Because of Grann’s journalistic-historical hybrid approach, we never lose sight of the sight of the here and now: those still suffering today from wrongs no one can make right. While his research could have filled a textbook on Osage-U.S. relations, Grann hones his work instead into a deep, riveting mystery. As a result, Killers of the Flower Moon becomes the most compelling read of the year, shining with a sincerity of purpose and a rare clearness of mind worthy of the lives lost.

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A Teenage Ecosystem: ‘All the Dirty Parts’ by Daniel Handler

All the Dirty PartsWith his new novel, All the Dirty Parts (144 pages; Bloomsbury USA), Daniel Handler once again displays a preternatural understanding of teenagers (or an exceptionally detailed memory of his own youthful experience). Handler’s book is the first to make me remember what it was like to be seventeen years-old – in a good way – which is a testament to how honestly the book captures the frantic energy and sexual drive of that time, as well as the pain and confusion which can trail close behind. Handler, who appears in ZYZZYVA No. 76 and No. 100, and is already a legend under his pen name of Lemony Snicket, lends his biting and bittersweet wit to Cole, our sex-crazed narrator. Wisely, Handler leaves out the sort of romantic fluff many novels about teens cloak themselves in, and instead hones in on “the dirty parts.” All the Dirty Parts leaves behind the fantasies of “happily ever after,” in favor of the more immediate happy endings most teens think about.

Handler’s slender novel passes through a year in Cole’s life, although time moves in jumps and starts. We see Cole move through several short, sexually driven relationships before they cool off and he ultimately finds himself involved more deeply than anticipated with his best friend, Alec, and later Grisaille, a French foreign exchange student. Cole can be aggravating and unlikeable but if we were honest many of us would admit we weren’t all that likable as teens, either.

What distinguishes Cole’s story is Handler’s sparse description of the fragile and vicious ecosystem created by teens. They rarely see themselves as cruel, least of all when it comes to sex; they can, however, deeply feel the cruelty inflicted upon them. The power disparity that exists in their minds–the “me versus the world” mentality–comes through in Cole’s stream-of-consciousness narrative. We find ourselves on his side through several repulsive episodes, temporarily forgetting other characters’ feelings. This very narrowness of focus, the literal inability to see other points of view, constitutes the novel’s summation of what adolescence is. In other circumstances, this claustrophobia would be irritating; in a novel about a teenage boy’s sex life, one wonders how it could be written any other way.

Divided into sections of varying lengths representing Cole’s trains of thought, the novel gives us short passages acutely fixated on one messy emotion or moment that can accompany sex—rage, confusion, betrayal, even addiction—before halting and veering to the next. The absence of traditional chapters is refreshing, and contributes to the breathless, almost carnal anticipation of the next section. It might be possible to read All the Dirty Parts at a normal pace, but every part invites the reader to rush headlong until the last page, which stops us like a brick wall.

Form follows content, and Handler expertly wields both to produce an all-around startling work. The depth of emotion we experience through Cole’s eyes is matched perfectly by the sparseness of language. Handler’s diction is sometimes poetic, sometimes merely functional. In both cases, his wording seems entirely true to what a teen like Cole might think or say—a feat other novelists have struggled to match.

Readers may find the moments when they dislike Cole the most serve as a painful reminder of those moments as a teen that hurt the most: the girl who stole your boyfriend, the one that got away, perhaps the first time someone looked you up and down and then looked away–or the times you can recall doing something similar to someone else. The intense reality of All the Dirty Parts comes from its curious ability to draw out the memory of our teen selves—the awkwardness and the ecstasy alike.

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Everything All the Time: ‘Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology’ by Ellen Ullman

Life in CodeEssays about the perils of the Internet are common, as are the many books hawking cynicism about the “Information Age,” the “iGeneration,” or start-up culture. But Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (303 pages; MCD/FSG), stands above the pseudo–science crowd; she draws us into the world of computer programming from the inside, showing us what she’s learned since the beginning of the Internet. The memoir, comprised of some of Ullman’s previous essays as well as several new ones, is arranged somewhat chronologically (from 1992 to January 2017) and thematically as Ullman describes what her title suggests: a lifetime spent in code.

Her perspective is hard-won and enduringly timely. Everything in the book, from her account from decades past of being the only woman on teams of male computer engineers to discussions then of AI advances, could have been published in the Atlantic during the last month. This underscores how little tech culture has changed since Ullman began programming in 1978. However, one would be wrong to assume Life in Code is a stuffy play-by-play of Javascript bugs, Microsoft takeovers, and Silicon Valley unicorn start-ups—though each does have their role. In an irony that is not at all lost on Ullman, it becomes clearer with every page her book is about people—their missed connections, flaws, and rare triumphs—more so than the technologies those very people seem to prefer inhabiting over their own lives.

Ullman’s book upends our expectations. Her writing seamlessly merges with her subject matter, shifting from scientific investigation and programming primer to philosophical inquiry and journalistic account—and circling back again. And because she cannot account for things she did not see, hear, or discuss with someone, the book is welcomingly personal like a diary. But it is a history as well. A longtime San Franciscan, she records the city’s meteoric rise with a sense of horror as Silicon Valley eats it alive. And she recounts the various concerns presented by evolving computer engineering as they happened at the time. (For anybody too young to remember, her account of the Y2K bug provides not only a newspaper-like synopsis of why it was such a concern, but presents us with the real people who were, and weren’t, worried about catastrophe at the time.) With all this comes the hope of presenting a grander truth that supersedes the merely anecdotal. In this, Ullman succeeds.

The stories she weaves throughout are not only interesting in themselves, but offer endless insights, as Ullman bends language to make her point. (I doubt there has ever been a better description of a co-working space in San Francisco than as a “warren” of start-ups.) Given her memoir is centered on the Internet and on programming, there’s a bit of unavoidable nomenclature and jargon to hurdle. But Ullman guides the average person through the vocabulary of this willfully closeted arena with grace and finesse. In doing so, she also forces us to acknowledge how little we know about the technologies we’ve allowed to shape our lives.

Above all, what is so marvelous about the book is its intimate tone. Whether Ullman seems worried, resolute, optimistic, or in doubt, the reader always has the impression of sitting down to coffee in her living room as she tells a story. She cares about her reader, and wants to offer us an important look into the techies’ ivory tower, to see what the world looks like from the Googleplex. To the final page, Life in Code depicts its world of sushiritos and nap corners as a perfectly wound dark comedy. There’s a transfixing, laughable absurdity to it all–but there’s always a disconcerting reality lurking not far behind, one that blinks and blinks like a green power light, always on.

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Talking Shop: Troy Jollimore on Workshops, Content on Demand, & the Poetic Craft

Syllabus of ErrorsPoet Troy Jollimore hurtled onto bedside tables everywhere when his widely celebrated debut, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2006. Since then, his tightly wound, exploratory poetry has touched on everything from the the nature of beauty to meeting Charlie Brown in a bar. We are pleased to say Jollimore will  be leading ZYZZYVA’s first ever Poetry Workshop. The deadline to submit your work is September 15th. The poet, who has appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 92, 101, and soon in 111, recently took time out of his busy schedule to talk with us about Writing Workshops, living in the age of On Demand content, and what we mean when we discuss Poetic Craft.

ZYZZYVA: Poetry workshops sometimes don’t come to mind as readily as fiction workshops – what do you think the communal, learning atmosphere of a workshop can bring to poetry, specifically?

Writing poems is hard, and we need all the help we can get. That’s an obvious thing to say, but there’s a great deal of truth in it. Beyond that, I could say that every poem, and every act of writing a poem, implies a community, or perhaps several intersecting communities: the readers for whom the poem is intended, the writers of the poems that preceded it and form the background against which it is written, the community one physically lives in, which sustains the material conditions in which poems can be written.

The writing workshop is a quite special form of temporary, semi-spontaneous community; a place where we come together, as people do in church or at the movies, to give our shared attention to one another’s works and ideas and, in the process, to discover and come to know each other a little more deeply. Sometimes a poem will crack open before your eyes in a workshop; sometimes the blockage that was holding it back will simply disintegrate and fall away. Sometimes someone will say something—a casual, offhand remark, as often as not—that solves your poem’s problem, or makes you realize that your poem really doesn’t have a problem. Sometimes you can even find solutions for problems having nothing to do with poetry at all. And sometimes you just walk away feeling enriched and comforted by having spent time in the company of other people who, like you, share this odd particular interest for an art form that has, against all odds, persisted through the millennia.

Z: What kind of intentions–formal, personal, poetic–do you hope people come into the workshop with? 

TJ: To share their passion and enthusiasm with each other. To talk openly about poems and other things they care deeply about. To get to know other people, and themselves, a little better. To open up their work, expose it to the air, and help it grow. To discuss their artistic struggles, to display their imperfect works in an atmosphere in which imperfection is forgiven and even loved for what it is and often turns out to be the first step toward something wonderful. And to make friends. That might sound a little cheesy, but I really mean it. Friendship is vastly important and our present society seems to be becoming more and more inimical to it. Art—whatever particular art form happens to turn you on the most—remains one of the best sites for finding friends, real friends, others of your kind.

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