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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Edie Meidav

Edie Meidav is the author of the novels The Far Field, Crawl Space, and Lola, California (all published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and of the story collection Kingdom of the Young (Sarabande), which is her newest book. She is recipient of a Lannan Fellowship, a Howard Fellowship, the Kafka Prize for Best Fiction by an American Woman, the Bard Fiction Prize and other citations, and her essays were published in ZYZZYVA Issues No. 95 and 100.

When Meidav came to the Bay Area earlier this month, ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talked to her about Kingdom of the Young at the Booksmith in San Francisco. She also gave a reading from the collection, which you can view after the jump.

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Fearless Ballet: Q&A with Deb Olin Unferth

(photo by Elizabeth Haidle)

(photo by Elizabeth Haidle)

Wickedly funny and utterly relatable in its depiction of human plights and personal tragedies, Wait Till You See Me Dance (200 pages; Graywolf Press) marks the return of Deb Olin Unferth to the world of short stories. From the banal life of an adjunct professor harboring an unrequited love in the titular story to a man held prisoner by his phobia in “Fear of Trees” (published in ZYZZYVA No. 108 along with three other pieces), each story within the collection is imbued with Unferth’s wit and dark humor, capturing the spectrum of human drama with a tinge of believable absurdity.

Unferth talked to ZYZZYVA about her often-volatile relationship with writing, the influence of her family on her work, and her philosophies on craft.

ZYZZYVA: It’s been a decade, since your last short story collection, Minor Robberies, and a little over six years since your memoir, Revolution. Was the process of writing Wait Till You See Me Dance any different for you this time around?

Deb Olin Unferth: It was easier this time, to be honest. I’ve been in hiding for so long it feels like, working on three books at once takes a long time.

Z: Hiding or teaching? I’ve noticed that in many of your stories the protagonist is an educator of some sort.

DOU: Well, I’ve always taught when I write, been doing that forever, but recently I’ve been involved in a prison project that’s been taking a lot of my time. It’s a two-year writing program teaching inmates at a maximum-security penitentiary down in southern Texas.

Z: That’s interesting considering the main character in “Mr. Simmons Takes a Prisoner” teaches inmates, and—like many of the characters in the collection—is portrayed in an incredibly vulnerable way. You depict Mr. Simmons as an apathetic father and husband, who’s contemplating abandoning his family for a prisoner he’s teaching, yet you manage to make him sympathetic through it all. Is this vulnerability a conscious effort on your part?

DOU: It’s funny you mention “Mr. Simmons …” That story was based on my father. He volunteered, like Mr. Simmons, to tutor an inmate, help them rehabilitate before being released back into society. My dad started meeting with her all the time, writing her letters, paying for her textbooks and courses. When I wrote the first draft of the story I think I was a little mad at him—it was not a funny story. Years later I rewrote it for this collection and, at this point, my dad and I had healed our relationship. He literally sent me a fax saying he wanted to be closer to me and included these letters between him and the prisoner. I was furious with him back then and that was the original draft’s tone. So, when I took the story out of the box and rewrote it, I could see his humanity: he was a changed man and so was Mr. Simmons. In terms of vulnerability with my characters, I just want there to always be something at stake.

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Medea as Something More Than Monster: ‘Bright Air Black’ by David Vann

Bright Air Black With all of the revenge, patricide, and doomed attempts at heroism as one might expect from Greek mythology, David Vann retells the story of Jason and the Argonauts through the eyes of Medea in his new novel, Bright Air Black (250 pages; Black Cat/Grove). Medea is most commonly known for her fierce, self-sacrificial love for Jason, which borders on madness as she is driven to betray her family and abandon her home country to help him rise to power. In this retelling, Vann introduces us to a Medea that goes beyond just her supporting function within another hero’s journey, and who has her own dreams of conquest in mind as she sets sail on the Argo.

The novel begins moments after Medea decides to leave Colchis, her home, with Jason, and steps onto the Argo, where the most of the first half of the book is set. We see her as she is feeds the dismembered corpse of the brother she slaughtered into the sea, for her father, the king of Colchis, to trail after and collect. Although this opening may seem exceptionally horrifying, the reader soon learns Medea is rarely without blood on her hands. Early in her journey, it is revealed her motives for these incredible actions have nothing to do with her love for Jason, and everything to do with a hunger for power. It is not just Jason using Medea here, but Medea using Jason so as to get closer to ruling her own kingdom one day. As she sails on the Argo, she ponders the nature of god (with philosophical questions such as “How can we know when we’re worshipping a god and when we’re worshipping the sign of god?”), how stories of heroism get shaped by biases that obscure their darker, more realistic elements (about Jason: “The stories will reveal nothing about the real man who lived”), and how no one—despite status or title—is invincible.

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A Wide-Ranging, Dazzling Debut: ‘Swimmer Among the Stars’ by Kanishk Tharoor

Swimmer Among the StarsSwimmer Among the Stars, (256 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), Kanishk Tharoor’s first collection of stories, centers on concepts of language, conquest, and our ever-changing position on this planet. Born in Singapore and raised in Geneva, Tharoor touches on the imagined personalities of several countries and cultures— ruminating on the complex ways in which strangers cooperate and learn from one another, even on the brink of warfare. Often focusing on the strong polarities, and in turn, similarities of differing cultures, Tharoor is meticulous in illustrating the realistic yet otherworldly on both a microcosmic and macrocosmic level.

Setting his thirteen stories in land, space, and sea, and roaming in time from as early as 190 B.C. to a post-apocalyptic future, Tharoor asks us to conceptualize the relationship between past and present by treating time and language as near characters of their own. Reminiscent of the magical realism of Salman Rushdie or Haruki Murakami, Swimmer Among the Stars collectively capitalizes on the often unexplainable, enchanting feelings and interactions brought on by strong cultural identities and superb storytelling.

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Stories We Tell When We Won’t See What’s in Front of Us: Q&A with Emily Fridlund

(photo by Doug Knutson)

(photo by Doug Knutson)

Dark, haunting, and arresting, History of Wolves (279 pages; Grove/Atlantic) announces Emily Fridlund as a literary voice to watch. The book’s story opens as an isolated, woodland community in northern Minnesota confronts a scandal involving a predatory high school teacher. The sullen and introspective narrator, fourteen-year-old Linda, watches the tumult unfold from a distance, as she does most things in life.

That is, until the self-sufficient ninth-grader gets drawn into the lives of the young Gardner family who move in across the lake. Linda takes to the Gardners’ precocious four-year-old, Paul, but begins to notice peculiarities about the child, like the strange Scripture-like verses he seems to quote and his frequent bouts of fatigue. Though History of Wolves builds to a tragic series of events, the novel never trades in empty shock; part of its strength is in the way Fridlund adroitly explores the ways in which we reckon with tragedy—as individuals, as family units, as communities.

This auspicious first novel probes the terrible limits of faith, the responsibilities of motherhood, and the secrets beneath the surface of small towns. “I was intrigued, I was repulsed,” remarks one of the characters, and the reader is likely to relate. Fridlund understands the precariousness of youth, how “coming of age” is seldom about reaching a new plateau of maturity but more often like what Linda experiences standing under a scalding hot shower: “some feeling of woe, some feeling of desolation I hadn’t known I’d felt. A capsized feeling, a sense of the next thing already coming.”

Fridlund talked to ZYZZYVA about History of Wolves and some of her influences as a writer, as well as her story “Lock Jaw,” which appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 101.

ZYZZYVA: One of the aspects of a novel that draws me in, perhaps before anything else, is its milieu. The setting here feels so tied to the book’s events, with details about the oppressiveness of winter and the isolation of this wooded community creating the kind of environment where Paul’s story could so easily happen. Like with Linda’s dogs and their chains, I think their mere presence adds a certain texture to the novel, in a similar way the scandal with Linda’s teacher, Mr. Grierson, compliments the main story of the Gardner family. How much of the novel began with, say, the character of Linda or Paul versus the woods themselves? 

Emily Fridlund: I’m so glad to hear that you were pulled in by the milieu. The woods and Linda, setting and narrator, were always inextricably linked in my mind. I began with Linda’s voice, and the first scene I wrote was the one in which she approaches Mr. Adler, after he collapses in front of his class, and tentatively takes his hand. I was intrigued by the boldness of such a gesture, and also by the longing for human contact that might inspire it. As I tried to understand both these qualities in this peculiar teenage girl, it began to make sense to me that she would be a person forced into independence at a very young age, a kid schooled by woods and lakes—and that this very same background would also make her wretchedly solitary.

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Without a Place in the Orphanage: ‘Such Small Hands’ by Andrés Barba

612yB1t2-LLIn Such Small Hands (108 pages, Transit Books), the new novel by acclaimed Spanish author Andrés Barba (translated by Lisa Dillman), childhood abandonment and trauma are examined through the abnormal, ritualistic behaviors of Marina, a seven-year-old girl turned orphan. Following the unexpected deaths of her parents, Marina loses any control she once had over language and emotion. Placed in an entirely unfamiliar world, filled with cartoonish, seemingly identical little girls, Marina grapples with her black-sheep identity as she confronts complicated, and at times, horrific decisions that eventually lead to drastic consequences.

Loosely based on a brutal event that took place in 1960s Brazil, Barba’s twelfth book creates a narrative similar to other bildungsroman such as Oliver Twist and even Pan’s Labyrinth, maintaining a lyrically rich and devastating portrayal of adolescent struggle. Caught between the bookends of trauma, Marina finds herself in limbo as she fails to both perform and to cope with her emotions effectively.

Switching between a collective first person, gang-like perspective of the orphans and a third-person perspective for Marina, a deep sense of longing and tension is formed between the two voices. Despite hopes of finding friendship with her comrades, Marina and her peculiar behavior create a barrier of jealousy and anger that poisons the entire orphanage and ultimately leads to violence.

Meditating on desire and loneliness in an otherwise cold and de-sexualized world, Barba compares Marina to an imprisoned zoo animal. “Inexplicably, we all edged closer, without meaning to. An inevitable attraction made us crave contact with her, seek out her voice, yearn for her to look at us. We no longer cared about the animals, or felt scared of the wolf, or sorry for the elephant, or admired the glimmering grace of the dolphins; we wanted Marina’s contact, and we didn’t know how to cast ourselves into that desert.” Lingering every so often on ideas of physical touch and the young prepubescent body, the novel amplifies the importance of human contact in both a sweet and startling way.

Such Small Hands evokes a sensation similar to the horror of witnessing a child being dragged beneath a riptide. You want to help, scream, bury your face in your hands, but you also can’t fail to notice the poignant valor of an innocent life gasping for air, struggling against forces seemingly greater than us all.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Min Jin Lee

Min Jin Lee is the author of two novels. Her first one, Free Food for Millionaires, was named a “Top Ten Novel of the Year” by The Times of London, NPR’ “Fresh Air,” and USA Today. Her newest novel, Pachinko, is a national bestseller and has been named a New York Times Editor’s Choice, an American Booksellers Association’s Indie Next Great Read, and has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal.

Earlier this year, she spoke about Pachinko—an epic story of the experience of generations of Koreans and Japanese of Korean heritage living in Japan—with ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon.

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In the Spring Issue

In this issue:

Interview:

Acclaimed poet and critic W.S. Di Piero in conversation: on Shakespeare, the art of translation (the translator inhabits “The house of a language, an imagination, a culture.”), and on being a good citizen.

Nonfiction:

Sallie Tisdale’s essay “The Hinge”: “My worst regrets,” she writes, “are not big and dramatic; they are as tiny and sharp as glass ground into my palm.”

Fiction:

Nick Lane’s “So You’re Thinking of Becoming a Despot”: It’s easier than you think (and it’s a great way of getting that one village girl to finally notice you).

Louis B. Jones’ “Ever Since the Cloverleaf”: Two old friends having lunch—and a conversation that flirts with the criminal—at a near-shuttered Trader Vic’s.

Victoria Patterson’s “Appetite”: The wife of an author begins a fraught friendship with an aspiring writer.

Ben Greenman’s “Right Angles”: snippets from the inner life of Fearless Leader.

Plus more fiction from Christine Sneed, Kristen Iskandrian, and Andrew Martin, and introducing Andrew Mangan.

Poetry:

Laton Carter, W.S. Di Piero, Ru Freeman, D.A. Powell, sam sax, Melissa Stephenson, Cynthia White, and Paul Wilner.

Art:

A portfolio of stunning still life photography from Paulette Tavormina

You can purchase a copy of No. 109 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA now and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Spring/Summer issue.

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Tangles, Erasures, and Connections: ‘Of Form & Gather’ by Felicia Zamora

P03334In the introduction to Felicia Zamora’s collection of new and selected poems, Of Form & Gather (62 pages; University of Notre Dame Press), Edwin Torres writes that “A poem’s burden is to live inside its creation, where the organized singularity of its gathering is what brings the reader to the reader’s own voice.” This is an accurate description of how Zamora’s poems work, and what they do to the reader. The book is divided into four sections, titled “circles & circulations,” “that that that; this this this,” “in in; gather gather,” and “To be out of- dually other.” Each section does exactly what the title of the book says, as they each play with form and formalistic elements while underlining the circular and repetitive nature of Zamora’s poetry and images.

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Obsessions: Our Solitary Fancy

The poem "A Supermarket in California" appeared in Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"

The poem “A Supermarket in California” appeared in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”

Who wasn’t obsessed by the Beat Generation in high school? Okay, it was just unbearable punks like me. In Jack Kerouac, I saw a reflection of my ineloquent angst. I used to be able to recite entire paragraphs of On the Road, but I’ve since blocked all of it from my memory. I was particularly interested in Allen Ginsberg because, like me, he was unpretentiously pretentious—or at least we both tried to be. He might allude to a Greek myth in a poem written on acid. A surfer boy reeking of weed, I used polysyllables that made my classmates’ eyes roll. And, like Ginsberg, I’m queer. One night, I rewrote his poem “A Supermarket in California” as if my life depended on it. I called it a “A Health Food Store in California” and scrawled it with a speed that brings to mind Truman Capote’s vicious comment on Kerouac: “That’s not writing at all—it’s typing.”

I rewrote by substitution. Because I made them so fast, I wasn’t sure how seriously to consider the individual changes. I used to think the fact I rewrote the poem was more significant than the specific alterations. In “A Supermarket,” the speaker, who I’ll call Ginsberg, imagines following Walt Whitman around “the neon fruit supermarket.” I imagine following Ginsberg around “the quiet health food store.” Many of the later substitutions riff off this first deviation. Whitman eyes grocery boys in the supermarket. Ginsberg eyes dreadlocked grocery boys in the health food store. Ginsberg wanders “in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans.” I wander “in and out of the brilliant stacks of Kombucha.” These easy jokes reveal little. Things start to get interesting when I exchange the hetero families of the supermarket: “Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!” But what’s this? A gay surprise among produce: “—and you García Lorca, what were you doing down by / the watermelons?”[i] In the health food store I find “Hoards of / hipsters shopping at night! Aisles full of Doc Martens! Anarcha- / feminists in the avocados, young idealists in the tomatoes!—and you, / O’Hara, what were you doing down by the sprouts?” (At long red lights, I reached for my copy of O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency I had stashed underneath the driver’s seat of my car.)

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Bumbling Along, But Full of Heart: ‘Wait Till You See Me Dance’ by Deb Olin Unferth

Wait Till You See Me DanceWait Till You See Me Dance (Graywolf Press, 186 pages) marks Deb Olin Unferth’s second collection of stories, following Minor Robberies (2007). The author of the novel Vacation and the memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the Sandinistas, Unferth displays a smart and snappy application of the short-short form in this volume of 39 stories—29 of which are fewer than three pages long (and four of which appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 108).

Wait Till You See Me Dance is filled with concise, meaningful sentiments that both entertain and engage the reader in commentary surrounding what it means to survive in today’s world. Touching on topics as varied as gun violence, the unpredictability of success, the complexity of family dynamics, as well as the not-so-complex ideas of privilege, Unferth gravitates toward an array of nuanced subjects.

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Nightmarish Existence of The Child: ‘The Impossible Fairy Tale’ by Han Yujoo

The Impossible Fairy TaleThe dichotomies of childhood—children’s capacity for both guileless love and extreme cruelty—make our earliest years ripe material for storytelling; fairy tales, in particular, have long traded on the contradictions of youth: Hansel and Gretel narrowly escaping an evil witch’s clutches only to burn her alive in her own oven, Red Riding Hood fending off the appetite of a ravenous wolf disguised as her grandmother before filling his stomach with stones. It’s through this lens the reader approaches The Impossible Fairy Tale (214 pages; Graywolf Press; translated by Janet Hong), the first novel from Korean author Han Yujoo and her first work to be translated into English.

The book opens on a bleak grade-school world (“Do you know you can kill someone with a fountain pen?” is one of the first lines spoken) and quickly establishes the novel’s central parallel: the charmed life of the angelic Mia—who wants for nothing and receives lavish gifts from both her biological father and her mother’s paramour (as the novel opens it’s a set of seventy-two German watercolor pencils, perhaps a nod to the Germanic origins of the Grimm fairy tales)—presented in sharp relief against a classmate’s known only as the Child, an unfortunate girl who experiences a constant torrent of abuse from her mother: “She wishes she could be erased. But every time she tries to erase herself, she only grows darker.”

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