ZYZZYVA EventsJanuary 24, 2017
In Conversation with Shanthi Sekaran
Location: 7 p.m., City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
Description: Sekaran, the author of "The Prayer Room," discusses her new novel, "Lucky Boy" (Putnam) with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free. For more info: http://bit.ly/2iRDgE4January 26, 2017
ZYZZYVA Winter Issue Celebration, East Bay
Location: 7 p.m., Diesel Bookstore, 5433 College Ave., Oakland
Description: Come celebrate ZYZZYVA's Winter issue with a reading featuring contributors Kathleen Alcott, Ella Martinsen Gorham, Matthew Zapruder, and Scott O'Connor. Free. For more info: http://bit.ly/2ghs4gtFebruary 15, 2017
In Conversation with Min Jin Lee
Location: 7:30 p.m., The Booksmith, 1644 Haight St., San Francisco
Description: Lee, the author of "Free Food for Millionaires," discusses her new novel, "Pachinko" (Grand Central Publishing), with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free. For more info: http://bit.ly/2ilCU4PFebruary 22, 2017
In Conversation with John Darnielle
Location: 7 p.m., The Booksmith, 1644 Haight St., San Francisco
Description: Darnielle, the author of "Wolf in White Van," discusses his new novel, "Universal Harvester" (FSG), with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Ticket required. More info here: http://bit.ly/2jtVhIE
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
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.
If it weren’t for the prologue in Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time (464 pages; Penguin Press), a reader might be confounded by the many undulations the narrative takes as it kicks off in the present then looks back upon a past traumatic incident, excavating it. What could have been off-putting proves to be an adventure zig-zagging from public housing to brownstones, from England to Senegal, from 1982 to 2008, filling in the gaps in time and place and creating a definitive arc, albeit one completely warped.
Relationships, and the action that subsequently alters them, form the novel’s backbone, cementing the nonlinear action nicely. When we meet Tracey in the book’s opening, she’s another mixed-race girl whom the unnamed narrator has dance class with. Their friendship and fated falling out is the stuff of tragedy in the classical sense; our narrator muses, “there was always this mutual awareness, an invisible band strung between us, connecting us and preventing us from straying too deeply into relations with others.” Tracey is, indeed, the narrator’s sole object of obsession, one she returns to at varying points, often by way of other characters, illustrating their karmic inseparability—a lodestar by which she tracks her own success or failure. Tracey is the more talented of the pair, but her talent quickly dissipates when she falls prey to the socioeconomic odds stacked against her, eventually railing to bring the narrator down with her.
These are difficult days for writers, editors, teachers, and intellectuals of all kinds. Faced with fresh evidence of Auden’s claim that “poetry does nothing,” in the persona of President-elect Donald Trump, the temptation we face is to turn toward despair and disengagement. Yet this is the time we were made for. Now we must help each other to find our voices in the public sphere.
What we’ve found to be helpful is combining our abilities—as storytellers, witnesses, and listeners—with a community commitment. The Bay Area has a surfeit of both literary talent and social justice work. The local organizations we’ve highlighted below serve the very groups who have been demonized by the President-elect and his inner circle. We know and have been inspired by their work. If you’re searching for an immediate, substantive contribution, these places need us to donate our time, our effort, and our talent.
Mission Graduates’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.
The ADL is committed to stopping “the defamation of Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.” Their San Francisco offices serve as the organization’s Central Pacific Region headquarters, covering Northern California, Utah, and Hawaii. You can go to their website to find ways of getting involved.
East Bay Refugee Forum
The East Bay Refugee Forum is a coalition of more than 30 agencies which serve refugees, asylum seekers, and other displaced people who are trying to make a new home for themselves in the Bay Area. Their agencies are currently seeking translators, tutors, mentors, and writers who can assist job-seekers with paperwork.
Super Stars Literacy
Super Stars Literacy provides literacy and social skills training for underperforming K-2nd grade students in Oakland, Hayward, and Newark. They are looking for classroom reading tutors, program event volunteers, and service group teams.
The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
The Ella Baker Center works to end mass incarceration and curb abusive criminalization actions against low-income people of color. They’re based in Oakland. They’re looking for volunteer help with communications, writing blog posts, and handling surveys.
SIREN (Services, Immigration Rights and Education Network)
SIREN does community education, organizing, policy advocacy, and service provision for low-income immigrants and refugees in Silicon Valley. Based in San Jose, the organization is seeking volunteers for communications, citizenship application assistance, and bilingual services.
CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) Bay Area
CAIR is one of the nation’s leading civil liberties advocacy groups for Americans who practice Islam, and the Bay Area branch is the oldest chapter in the country. This chapter, in Santa Clara, serves the nearly 250,000 practicing Muslims in the nine-county Bay Area. They are seeking translation assistance and administrative support.
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
Communication, 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.
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.
Marcy Dermansky’s newest novel, The Red Car (206 pages, Liveright/Norton), moves much like the car it features: fast and unpredictable. It covers three stages and sixteen years of narrator Leah Kaplan’s life, beginning with her as a college freshman, then leading to her bumbling entry into adulthood, and finishing with her early thirties, when she’s a writer living in Queens with a possessive husband whom she does not love. Through it all Leah is a mess of contradictions; sexually open though terrified of affection, in earnest pursuit of her dreams but displaying a tendency for self-sabotage, “floating in unexplainable melancholy” yet always able to find humor in the bleakest situation. Leah is a puzzle that can’t be pieced together.
The red car of the title arrives when Leah, now an aspiring writer just out of college, works an administrative assistant job in San Francisco. She despises the mundaneness of the office, and her boss, Judy, only encourages her loathing, taking her out for long, boozy lunches and allowing her to write stories during work. She listens to Leah about her roommate woes and unromantic hookups with a boyfriend who isn’t really her boyfriend. Judy tells Leah she will do incredible things, and advises her not to marry because it would only confine her; she even threatens to fire Leah if she doesn’t apply to grad schools. Perhaps it is this ambition that Judy instills in her that causes Leah to resent her boss’s fancy new car as soon as she sees it. The car immediately becomes a symbol of the common—“Of fifteen more years at the office. A life sentence.”—but Leah also detects something more. “I feel like something sinister has happened in this car … Or could happen. I don’t know. Something bad,” she tells Judy. Judy insists the car is perfection, a “dream come true.”
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
There’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
Horror 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
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.
“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.
Originally from south New Jersey, Earle McCartney is a San Francisco writer. The recipient of the Joseph Henry Jackson Award in 2013, his stories “Sawmill” and “Rhizomes” appeared in ZYZZYVA Issues No. 96 and No. 101, respectively. His newest story, “Artificial Islands,” can be found in the Fall issue.
As with McCartney’s last two stories in ZYZZYVA, “Artificial Islands” beautifully captures people in close relationship to the natural world—in this case, it’s the ocean, as an adolescent girl goes fishing for sharks with her older brother, her father, and a family friend. The following is an excerpt from the story. You can read in its entirety by getting a copy here. (Note: Earle McCartney will be part of the lineup for our ZYZZYVA Fall All-Stars event at Litcrawl.)