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In the Spring Issue

In this issue:

On Art

Sallie Tisdale on touring the antiquities of Rome, Glen David Gold on tracking down a Gorey original, Heather Altfeld on the enduring gaze of John Berger, Paisley Rekdal on erasure and Paul Klee.

Ben Greenman’s “Polyptych” (a divorced man and a painting that must be observed just so), Toni Martin’s “Director’s Cut” (a woman’s life as reconfigured through a foreign filmmaker’s sensibilities), and Peter Orner’s “Pacific” (an elderly couple—a sculptor and a potter—and the very end of things).

Dan Alter, Denver Buston, Troy Jollimore, Rusty Morrison, Mira Rosenthal, and Alexandra Teague.

In Conversation
Dean Rader and Jordan Kantor on the visuals of poems and the textual of artwork.

Further Stories & Poetry
Rebecca Rukeyser’s “Pirates and Cowboys,” and Susan Steinberg’s “Machines” (“Parts of my brother’s brain, these days, don’t connect with other parts of his brain.”), poems by John Freeman, Molly Spencer, and Cate Lycurgus, and debut fiction from Min Han and Matthew Jeffrey Vegari.

Art: Featuring the work of Diana Guerrero-Maciá.

You can purchase a copy of No. 115 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA now and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Spring issue.

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“Who” by Kevin Killian: ZYZZYVA No. 45

Kevin Killian author photoSan Francisco is mourning the loss of one of its greatest writers. Kevin Killian was not only a tremendous talent –– as a poet, a novelist, a playwright, an art critic, and more –– but one of the most gregarious and giving souls one could hope to meet. The following is his poem “Who” from ZYZZYVA No. 45 in its entirety:

Who, I didn’t love him enough
ninety thousand names for the government
to gamble on, to conjure, out of a hole
so big it could be only

Who said to me look at my lesions, no,
Kevin, really look, don’t look
at the stars
enough of your avoidance behavior

His body, in state, or tumbled through
a rinse cycle drying in the feathery wind
lint on your net, your intersticed
net, who
I loved so long but not enough

Who gave Steve Abbott the “AIDS Award
for Poetic Idiocy” seven years before he died?
(Ed Dorn)

Who, rather than waiting
seized his little liver in a
silver thimble, the man I mistook for a moulting
hen, I, reigning the roost, the big cock of 1983,
impenetrable safe of steel, those
tiny fingers made me look like a monkey

Who on the plush row
of velvet embroidery, Joni Mitchell sobbing
in the pew behind me, “I wish I were a river
I could float away on,” a thirst so deep
confession doesn’t cover it

I wanted him to live
to fill his throat with Mella, mella peto
In medio flumine, but who
was it told me
They are moving his body
into the memorable room of a long love

Who was the madman who took him back,
while we watched indignant such a man could go
in the front row with Lisa and Dan
watching David Wojnarowicz scream
his spittle on my chin
at the gay bookstore in San Francisco

marvelling at, comparing him,
who did this to me, that I
lived and did so little to be clear
always the quaint uppermost in my mind,
my mad strive for personality,
always the quaint peppermint misread

made the little tiger the big lamb on Sunday,
broke my will, gave me to the boy
following him down to the grave
holding back, something

who launched this rocket into space,
that burst into earth, one death at a time,
its rockets a flare of red and pink pinspots,
livid bouquet in the night sky
over beautiful city
whose garden did I pick this death from?

Zing, zing, a phone insistent
as kismet, the fate that brought me to
a dark reply, hello, is Kevin Killian
home, I’ve got a message, and
who is this, I whisper into the phone,

who did you say was calling
for him, the straight black mouth
of the plastic phone,
I’ll see if he’s in
and who did you say, if you did say

and I don’t think you did say
who, who took me to this
date in my history, who made my
feet scatter like the burnt leaves of
the oak seedlings, while I walk to
the phone as though nothing
were happening,

under the sky, under the rain, in San
Francisco, home of the birds and the
sun and the big bottle of dilaudin and
morphine I gave to him Sunday
and leaving him, quietly, I closed

the door on my nation

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Q&A with Chia-Chia Lin: ‘The Unpassing’ and Making Sense of Absence

Chia-Chia Lin author photoChia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing (278 pages; FSG) is the haunting story of a year in the life of a Taiwanese immigrant family living in rural Alaska. The novel, told through the eyes of ten-year-old Gavin, observes the disintegration of the family after tragedy leaves them raw. With prose as stark and spare as the Alaskan shores and forests she precisely details, Lin conveys an intimate and understated account of trauma, beautifully rendering the internal world of each person affected by a shared loss.

Gavin has a sister who squirms away from her background by changing her name from Pei Pei to Paige; his father, who was an engineer in Taiwan, works as a plumber and stashes liquor in the corners of the house; his dissatisfied mother fishes like a bear in the river by moonlight; and younger brother Natty openly struggles to comprehend what’s happened to them. Lin’s depiction of poverty and dysfunction is as unflinching and sincere as only a child’s perspective could render it.

The Unpassing is a penetrating narrative on the difficulty of finding footing in a new country and how a family scatters in the wake of this change. Lin, whose short story “Hinterland” appeared in Issue No. 95, spoke with ZYZZYVA about the novel and her process as a writer.

ZYZZYVA: The novel revolves around the experience of loss and the attempt to make sense of absence. Does the title, The Unpassing, refer to this theme? Since this word doesn’t appear in the dictionary, what does “the unpassing” mean to you? 

Chia-Chia Lin: Absences have always called out to me. Something was once here, and now it is not. What is left behind? It’s not merely an empty space or a void. There is something real and tangible enough that it’s able to muscle into your daily life and crowd out other concerns, or consume air and attention and change the dynamics of the room. I wanted a title that reflected this contradiction—that something or someone who has left your life (passing away, passing out of it) could also, at the same time, re-enter your life with a brute, overwhelming force.

Linguistically, “un” words are also just fascinating to me. Unknowing something or unspeaking something is essentially impossible. These words are often accompanied by the word “can’t”; you can’t unknow something, you can’t unspeak something. You can’t go back to the place where you started from. The word itself takes up more room than it used to, now that it’s got this appendage. But it’s not a mere negation or an undoing. It’s a different creature altogether.

Z: The novel is framed around the Challenger disaster, as well as other events like the Exxon Valdez oil spill. What inspires you to incorporate such landmark events into your fiction? Do they help to ground your narrative in a time period, or do they serve more as symbolic elements?

CL: When I was writing The Unpassing, I was interested in interiors. So the book’s attention is directed inward, at the insides of things: at the connective tissue of this family, at the contents of this rickety house on the edge of a spruce forest, at the private thoughts and bodily experiences of a child. Altogether, this can make for a rather claustrophobic reading experience, and I recognized during the writing of this book that I needed to provide a little breathing room. Although it’s not my natural mode, I decided to go big not only in the setting (Alaska) but also in the markers of where we are in time. So we have these events that rock not just the family but the whole country. It was a way for me to provide just a touch of balance—to give a little context but also to break up the intense introspection here and there and to give glimpses of a larger world.

I never intended to make these events symbolic; that’s the sort of thing that happens almost against my will when I write. Side by side—the Challenger explosion, the family’s implosion—resonances just start to appear. My efforts are usually in the other direction, actually: to make things less overtly symbolic. I have a fear these days of being heavy-handed.

Chia-Chia Lin novel The UnpassingZ: You capture the voice and perspective of your main character Gavin as a young child so effectively that it is often difficult to remember he is recounting the events of the novel from adulthood. Who can we imagine he is speaking to?

CL: That’s a really interesting question. The events Gavin recounts take place mostly over the course of a year, and he is much older when he tells this story—several decades older. What I imagined was that he was rather lonely in his adulthood—at one point I had very precise details worked out about his age and profession and living situation, which I later cut from the novel—and that he viewed this particular year (1986) as a kind of turning point for his family. So he’s telling the story with a heightened intensity and awareness that every decision, every event, has long-term repercussions for his life and for his family. But whom is he telling? I’m not sure. Sometimes I think it might be the single person in his life he feels close to (someone we have not met). Other times I think it’s really anyone who will listen.

Z: ZYZZYVA previously published your short story “Hinterland,” which is also set in rural Alaska. Your description of this liminal geography in both pieces is sparing yet vivid, and always detail-oriented. What draws you to this setting in your work?

CL: I wrote that story nearly 15 years ago. I had just finished an internship in Anchorage, Alaska. The story is set in the interior—specifically Denali National Park, where I went backpacking several times. I tend to think of that story as being set in a different world from my novel, which takes place in South-Central Alaska—a more populated, more temperate, and less wild landscape, where the house is as much a setting as the outdoors. On the other hand, I do think I was using both landscapes to explore ideas that felt especially urgent during the time I spent in Alaska, such as the challenges of navigating the outdoors and self-reliance. There’s also an elusive quality I was trying to put my finger on—the feeling of your everyday concerns falling away, or being pared back to just a few vital ones, and the way aliveness resounds in that setting. I hope I gestured at these notions in my novel—it’s hard to know what you’ve created. I suspect I was much clumsier in my attempts in the short story (which I have not reread in the years since—I find it impossible to return to old work), but I am glad to hear you felt that some of the landscape’s singularity was evoked.

I suppose I was also fascinated, in both works, by the fact that Alaska has so much mythology associated with it, and the strangeness of writing one’s own story against that huge backdrop, and how small and large one can feel at once.

Chia-Chia Lin graduated with an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she received the Henfield Prize. Her short stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, and other journals. Her first book, The Unpassing, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in May 2019. She currently lives in Northern California. You can read her short story “Hinterland” in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 95

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‘A Student of History’ by Nina Revoyr: A Term Among High Society

Nina Revoyr novel A Student of HistoryIn Los Angeles, there exists a rarified social echelon known as the Street People. These are not, as their moniker might suggest, the many who find themselves without shelter (much like San Francisco, L.A. is currently dealing with a staggering increase in its homeless population). Rather, the name refers to the wealthy landowners and developers who saw prominent streets named after them: the Crenshaws, the Chandlers, the Van Nuys. The descendants of these 20th century tycoons move in a world of power and privilege, the kind that isn’t even whispered about in the society pages. It is into this hermetically sealed environment that the protagonist of Nina Revoyr’s latest novel, A Student of History (238 pages; Akashic Books), finds himself thrust after he takes the job of transcribing the diaries of one of Los Angeles’ most wealthy heiresses.

In his early thirties, Richard Nagano is a graduate student at USC, still reeling from a recent breakup and struggling to make ends meet. At first, he looks at the gig working for Marion W– (the book censors her last name as though to protect the family’s privacy and prevent litigation) as merely a way to supplement his meager income. But as the elderly Marion takes a shine to Richard, going so far as to update his wardrobe with far more stylish (and expensive) attire, and employ him as her escort to various social clubs and galas, Richard realizes the shrewd older woman might be his entry into the upper class. What’s more, he begins to suspect her youthful diaries contain the kind of compelling historical gossip that could revamp his currently stalled graduate thesis.

Both of Richard’s motivations dovetail when he becomes infatuated with Fiona, a well-to-do socialite who quickly develops an interest in Richard, despite the ring on her finger. At her urging, he continues to investigate the tragic secrets hidden in Marion’s past, secrets that once uncovered could potentially put Richard’s good standing with his employer at risk.

With her past novels carrying titles such as Lost Canyon and Southland, it’s clear Southern California has long represented a preoccupation for Revoyr. Her style is both elegant and pleasurable to read; she juggles geographical detail, context, and plotting with a deceptive ease. Revoyr’s L.A. is a city teeming with contradictions, one where the world of everyday concerns and that of the elite class co-exist but rarely intersect until, that is, a random stroke of luck or fate sees a person travel from one world to the next. But even as Richard rubs elbows with the city’s rich and powerful, there remains something to remind him of his origins: his mixed heritage means Marion’s largely white social circles tend to exoticize his good looks; and while Marion may invest in Richard’s clothing, she’s not about to buy him a new car. And so, Richard must head from one soiree to the next in his broken down Honda, the shocked looks of the valet parking attendants a constant echo of his working-class roots.

At the heart of A Student of History, and what prevents the novel from merely serving as a takedown of the scandalous ultra-rich, is Revoyr’s complex characterization of Marion W–. At times, Marion doesn’t seem to have a good word to say about any of her peers; she frequently speaks out of both sides of her mouth, and doesn’t exactly tow the line of political correctness. Yet she is kind to those who work for her, she is fiercely protective of her family, and she absolutely dotes on Richard. While Richard serves as the audience identification character and our entry point into an unfamiliar domain, it’s Marion who proves the most memorable in the drama that unfolds. Her contradictions are exemplified by the fact that she donates generous sums of money to charitable causes, yet does so anonymously, in large part to upstage and frustrate other donors:

You gave that money?”

“Why, yes. Several years ago. No one there has any idea. They all think I’m a stingy old bitch.”

I let this news sink in. Of course she had given it. That was the reason she’d wanted to attend. “But…why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you want people to know?”

“I have no use for all this fuss,” she said. “People groveling and then wanting more. It’s better they think that you won’t given them anything.”

When Marion ultimately comes to feel as though Richard has betrayed her trust, it registers as a betrayal for the reader as well, even though Richard has far more to lose than Marion with his expulsion from the Hollywood high life. Through their time together, Richard reaches some understanding of Marion’s contradictory nature:

“She was a misanthrope who gave generously to causes she claimed to despise; an aesthete who welcomed people who didn’t share her sensibilities; a professed hater of the social niceties that she performed with such grace.”

In many ways, A Student of History adopts the familiar structure of the bildungsroman; like other classic novels before it, such as Sentimental Education and Great Expectations, we witness an earnest young man enter a hitherto unexplored sphere of luxury and privilege. Indeed, part of the pleasure of reading the novel is inhabiting that familiar structure, knowing all the while Richard will likely end his term among high society with a sense that perhaps he has lost more than he has gained. Yet by placing the novel in so specific a milieu––Los Angeles in 2019, an era where Americans are feeling the class divide more than ever––Revoyr forges a work that stands on its own. If the book’s ambitions prove modest, it feels entirely appropriate, considering Richard’s ultimate discovery that sometimes a modest life lived well––far from society luncheons and award ceremonies––is good enough.

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‘Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker’ by Kathleen Hale: Embracing the Inner Animal

Kathleen Hale essay collection Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy StalkerKathleen Hale’s essay collection, Kathleen Hale Is A Crazy Stalker (174 pages; Grove Press), presents a fascinating reflection on the sexual assault that shaped part of Hale’s life, as well as on humanity’s rapacity, Internet trolling, and mental illness. Although the collection of six non-fiction essays grapples with heavy topics, Hale’s self-deprecating humor helps to build and release tension, showcasing the irresistible charm of her writing.

In the book’s titular essay, Hale recounts the time she once visited a negative Good Reads reviewer’s house in an effort to make amends. The story takes multiple turns as Hale discovers the negative reviewer’s identity is not what she thought. Hale eventually finds herself in a haze of hate mail and online trolling, leading her down an obsessive Internet black hole. What grounds the essay is Hale’s unwavering self-awareness: she continually questions the power we have over our minds and impulses—especially as they spiral out of control. Hale exemplifies these shortcomings when she ends up in an all-women’s mental hospital. Sitting in a therapy group, she describes the illusion of sanity:

The therapist urged us to stop. “What’s so funny?” she kept asking, and maybe we could have tried to explain it to her—the arrogance and self-delusion I’d just articulated—but instead we kept laughing.

“And I’m famous!” the toothless woman shouted, and the rest of us howled until our teeth clacked and our eyes brimmed with water…

Human impulse, whether it’s an obsession with reading hate mail to the point of an emotional breakdown or trying to understand our sometime predatory nature, provides a guiding thread connecting each essay. To make sense of the sexual assault she experienced in college, Kathleen turned her naive childhood fascination with animals into an obsession with predators and how best to defend herself against them. In “Prey,” her soul-barring essay on the strength of sexual assault survivors, the narrative offers scientific quotes about animal behavior interspersed with sections of the transcript from her rape trial. As in all of these essays, nothing is straightforward, but rather a swarming collection of thoughts, emotions, and humor, all skillfully constructed into a narrative. It’s impossible to walk away from the collection without sensing a tinge of madness, yet at the same time sympathetically identifying with the author’s voice.

Perhaps the self-identification stems from Hale’s dissection of something so innate to humanity: our inclination to be compelled by our impulses, behavior which is not dissimilar to animals. Hale’s fascination with animals continues in “Cricket,” when she attends the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. The contestants are compared to animals in the wild:

On the big screen, I caught a glimpse of Miss Alaska, smiling brightly like she’d won and hugging all the other losers, their heads tipped back in jubilee, teeth bared.

Primates smile to submit; if a beta meets an alpha in the wild, he shows his teeth to indicate his inferior rank. It’s called a fear grin. Sociologists say human women smile more than men because there lower social status motivates deference. They smile to indicate attentiveness to the needs, goals, and accomplishments of those who are more powerful.

If I’d learned anything in Atlantic City, it’s that girl were expected to lose like winners and win like losers.

This essay presents a tour of the intricacies of the pageant, including its sexism, racism, and fixation with beauty. Perhaps most interesting of all, Hale herself proves not immune to the pageant’s toxic culture. She is brutally honest when she admits to engaging in harsh criticism of the contestants. Like most great writers of nonfiction, she is acutely aware of her flaws; in the end, she finds herself the most ridiculous of all.

Hale’s collection does not fail to shock. Her maze of a mind brings her to strange locales, including Snowflake, Arizona, where an environmentally ill community lives in isolation; Okeechobee, Florida to kill feral hogs; and the hills of Griffith Park in Los Angeles to hunt a coyote. She recounts these experiences with a humorous edge. Hale’s fascinating essays challenge readers to examine and perhaps even embrace the animal nature in everyone –– the mania, the moments of obsession, the pull of emotions.

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‘Diary of a Murderer’ by Young-ha Kim: Offbeat and Darkly Rewarding

Young-ha Kim novel Diary of a MurdererWith a title like Diary of a Murderer (200 pages; Mariner; translated by Krys Lee), the latest English release of Young-ha Kim’s work might attract some strange looks while you’re holding it on the subway. But it’s a feeling more adventurous readers will be used to by now, and this story collection boasts precisely the kind of offbeat and darkly rewarding fiction that should appeal to such readers.

An award-winning author in his native Korea, Young-ha Kim has already seen several of his novels translated into English, though Diary of a Murderer is his first story collection to be published in the United States. The book opens with the titular novella, told from the point-of-view of a “retired” serial killer with an unusual predicament: right as he begins to suspect his adopted daughter’s new boyfriend might be a killer himself, he receives a grim Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Suddenly every day becomes a struggle to preserve his memories as he races to collect proof that his unsuspecting daughter’s suitor is not who he claims to be.

The idea of a protagonist attempting to solve a mystery while dealing with short-term memory loss no doubt brings to mind Christopher Nolan’s influential 2000 thriller Memento. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Young-ha Kim’s story was brought to the silver screen in Korea. 2017’s Memoir of a Murderer proved a box office hit in there, despite the fact that the screenplay deviates from the source material by turning protagonist Byeong-soo into a more likable, Dexter-esque vigilante who only preys on the worst of society.) But Kim’s story makes no such commercial considerations and, as a writer, he seems uninterested in the genre or pulp potential of his premise. Instead, he employs the idea of an unrepentant killer with a rapidly deteriorating mental state as a means to ruminate on the nature of memory, familial responsibility, and evil.

Throughout the story, Byeong-soo resists others’ attempts to psychoanalyze his behavior; he seems to suggest that the mere impetus to investigate evil––to try and study its root or cause––is tantamount to courting self-destruction. The most chilling exchange comes late in the novella when a journalist arrives to interview Byeong-soo about his past crimes:

A man who said he was a journalist visited me. He said he wanted to understand evil.

What he said was so clichéd, it amused me.

I said, “Why are you trying to understand evil?”

“I’d have to understand it in order to avoid it.”

I said, “If you can understand it, then it isn’t evil. Just stick to praying, so you can stay out of evil’s way.”

 The rest of the collection features three shorter works that leave behind thriller trappings for more existential and absurd territory, which proves even more satisfying. “The Origin of Life” follows the hapless Seojin, who begins a love affair with a childhood sweetheart named Ina, now trapped in an abusive marriage. Their romance soon leads to terrible consequences for Ina but, fortunately for Seojin, he is able to extract himself from the situation before any harm comes to him; thus, the story serves as both an examination of emotional cowardice as well as the all-encompassing sense of relief one experiences upon narrowly avoiding a disastrous fate:

“He was suddenly overjoyed. He was the only one intact, now and in the future. Happiness overwhelmed him. He had resisted temptation, and even felt proud that he had protected himself from a crisis. Fanciful ideas like the origin of life didn’t matter; being alive was what really mattered. Only then did he feel he had truly grown up, as he proudly let go of the sentimental kid who’d read biographies and harbored useless dreams.”

Possibly the highlight of the collection, “Missing Child,” chronicles the devastating fallout that occurs when a young married couple’s small child is abducted in a department store and, far stranger, the radical new domestic life that forms when the boy is returned to his parents many years later, after the husband has quit his job and the wife developed schizophrenia. The family unit finds themselves unable to rectify the truth of their biological relation with the unease they now experience in each other’s company––too much time has passed and too much has been lost to ever go back to the way things were. Although the story is told from the third-person perspective, Young-ha Kim briefly enters the father’s consciousness during a crucial moment with his son:

“I started considering genes only after we lost you, after I’d crawled on all fours searching for strands of your hair. I believed that it would help us find you. And because of the test results, you’re sitting in front of me right now. But you’re a real stranger to me, just like I must be a stranger to you. If the DNA from the hair I finally found on your baby clothes matches the cells scraped from the inside of your mouth, it means that you’re the same person, and we have to believe it, we must believe it, we’ve got no choice but to believe it, but why can’t we see it with our own eyes?”

Diary of a Murderer ends on a meta and comically surreal note: “The Writer” follows a middle-aged novelist faced with writer’s block and a looming deadline, even as his ex-wife may or may not be sleeping with his new editor. Young-ha Kim clearly derives glee here from poking fun at the notion of the writer with a capital “W” as enshrined by popular culture. The narrator of “The Writer” is constantly trying to devise ways to get out of his literary contract, with little consideration given to the integrity of his work or his audience of loyal readers. When he realizes he could be sued for breach of contract if he doesn’t eventually turn in a book, he receives some advice from his friend, a philosophy lecturer:

“Then how about this instead?”


“Write an unintelligible, chaotic book that’s unpublishable. Write something like James Joyce’s Ulysses. A difficult book, one around a thousand pages long, without a clear plot line or a recognizable subject.”

Ulysses has a plot and a concrete subject.”

“To be honest, I haven’t read it. What’s it about?”

Unconventional and acerbic, Young-ha Kim’s stories possess a knack for black humor as their protagonists find themselves in increasingly degrading situations. Diary of a Murderer feels like a stellar entry point into the writer’s distorted world, and makes clear why his examinations of contemporary urban life and its many contradictions have earned him comparisons to the likes of Albert Camus and Haruki Murakami.

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ZYZZYVA wins CLMP’s 2019 Firecracker Award for Best Magazine: General Excellence!

2019 Firecracker AwardWe’re thrilled and honored to have won CLMP’s 2019 Firecracker Award for Best Magazine: General Excellence! We want to thank CLMP for all they do to support independent publishing; thanks to Poets House for hosting this event; and thank you to all our readers, contributors, and colleagues for inspiring and sustaining us in this work. And congratulations to all the finalists! The event in New York City proved a beautiful night of literary community.

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Q&A with Yu-Han Chao: ‘Sex & Taipei City’ reveals a strange, secretive world

Yu-Han Chao author photoYu-Han Chao’s Sex & Taipei City (195 pages; Red Hen Press) offers twenty short stories that explore the repressed world of sexuality in Taiwan and how it is often secretive, awkward, and stranger than one might expect. Chao’s collection reads like a witty recount of gossip slipped between friends. There is an intimacy to each character and their lives that pulls the reader into modern Taipei with its night markets, karaoke rooms, and bustling streets. Chao doesn’t shy away from the provocative world she is exploring: the stories range from a young girl selling her body as a form of revenge, a grandpa who watches Japanese porn at high volumes, and a bride bought by a controlling man. Chao’s writing is shocking yet provides a rare glimpse into a world usually concealed. She brings to light the gendered, familial, and cultural aspects of sex in Taiwan in an entertaining way. Chao, who was featured in Issue 78 of the journal, spoke to ZYZZYVA about the book’s themes surrounding sex and Taiwanese culture, as well as her affection for the country and its people:

ZYZZYVA: The environment and culture of Taipei play a prominent role in your collection. The urban, modern setting is a vibrant part of the stories, yet we find peoples relationship to sex is quite the opposite: it is secretive and hidden. Why did you settle on Taipei as your setting?

Yu-Han Chao: The short answer is it’s my hometown, it’s what I know and, in a sense, who I am. I was born and grew up in Taipei, Taiwan. I miss the city, many of the people, the 7-11s, cute little stores, night markets, some of the neighborhood gossip, and all of the food. Taipei is one of my favorite characters.

Z: How did you come to write about sex and relationships specifically, and especially how it operates in modern Taiwanese culture?

YHC: I think what’s interesting about modern Asia is there are all these liberal and Western influences, but people’s families and parents and neighbors and aunties are just as judgmental as they were thirty to sixty years ago. It’s a huge problem for young people, and sometimes lies and secrets are necessary to save them from being cast out or severely penalized by family.

There’s always conflict between genders, generations, and cultures, especially as the demographic of Taipei becomes increasingly diverse. Young people must be home by 6 p.m. for dinner every night, and aren’t supposed to be dating at all, yet they watch Sex and the City on HBO every night after family dinner, sometimes with Mom and Grandma. Asia is a huge oxymoron. Not that America isn’t, but the polarization in repressed cultures often happens more internally, in individuals, rather than across political groups.

When it comes to sexual practices, the more repressed and proper the society in the daytime, the more weird fetishes may crop up at night. Taiwan has nothing on Japan when it comes to fetish culture!

Z: I found myself interestedsometimes even repulsed, but in the best way possiblein the chaotic world you portray, such as, for example, with the story about the Grandpa who watches Japanese porn obsessively. Could you talk about what it was like to write something about a topic that can, at times, be awkward or strange?

YHC: Carl Jung talks about the shadow: the more “good” you behave from day to day, the more darkness may grow in your shadow (hidden, inner self) to counterbalance all that goodness, ying to yang, darkness to light.

So, having grown up as a good Asian girl trying to navigate the extremes of socialization and social expectations, I find myself interested in spotting the opposite of everything I’m supposed to be and do. It comes out in the stories.

For example, growing up as young girls in Taiwan, the elders in the family tell us that “men are animals,” and we should never, ever be alone in a room with a man because they cannot be trusted. Then, suddenly, we graduate from college, and it’s all, “So when are you getting married?” Looking at the contradictions in sexual mores and societal norms, many things seem absurd, illogical, practically entertaining, rather than dirty or unspeakable.

There is nothing entertaining about violence or violation, which are also portrayed in Sex and Taipei City because, unfortunately, it happens every day, everywhere. Maintaining (a safe) distance at times can be an effective coping or survival skill for anyone living in today’s world.

Z: What are some of the Taiwanese traditions and beliefs about relationships and intimacy that made their way into your work?

YHC: In my family, when we were growing up, nobody ever touched anybody. No hugs, kissing, displays of affection. So any of that stuff has to happen behind closed doors, under the covers, if at all, and for the most part we feign innocence when it comes to sex.

Taiwanese society does a pretty good job of keeping sex a secret up until Health Education in middle school. I remember finally learning where babies came from and feeling devastated because my favorite, beautiful math teacher––who seemed so perfect in every way––was hugely pregnant with twins, and the only explanation for her pregnancy was that dirty thing she must have done with her husband. I was pretty disillusioned at the time; I felt like I couldn’t even look at her anymore!

Now I’m in America, a practically-middle-aged Asian woman with a young child, and most people in real life see me as such a polite and proper person that their jaws drop when they read my writing and realize the filters just aren’t there.

Z: I noticed many of the characters operate under, or are some way informed by, gender expectations. They may be pushing back against patriarchy, like in Yuan Zu Socializing, where she sells her body for money to get revenge on her father. Or, they may be desperately trying to fit into these gendered expectations, like the character of Jolie in Simple as That. How did gender play a role in crafting these stories?

YHC: Gender-based socialization is a huge divider in many societies, and in Taiwan gender roles can be very exaggerated, from appearance to career expectations to sexual dynamics…basically, shaping people’s entire lives. Fiction is one way to draw attention to the issue so that people can recognize the consequences to such inherent inequalities and power struggles. 

Z: Does family structure play an important part in Taiwan as well?

YHC: Family is a huge part of the tensions in the book, because in Taiwan the elders have great authority and power, and like the male lead’s mother and grandmother in Crazy Rich Asians, they can be very domineering. This means a grown man or woman could be forty years old and have children but is still expected to obey his or her parents or grandparents’ wishes. The fact that traditional Taiwanese families have multiple generations under one roof doesn’t help, because, once again everybody knows everybody’s business and tries to exert influence over one another’s lives.

The tightly knit family structure is great for Chinese New Year–– we love our family and back home we always have our village—but sometimes the seeming lack of free will can be difficult.

That said, having lived away from Taiwan and my family for decades, I miss everything about having a village. From seeing my family, having support with childcare, exposing my child to Chinese and Taiwanese culture, to the gatherings and food—always the food—I miss my people, I miss Taipei, and I miss everything about Taiwan.

Yu-Han Chao, author of Sex & Taipei City, was born and grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, and received her MFA from Penn State. The Backwaters Press (an imprint of University of Nebraska Press) published her poetry book, We Grow Old, in 2008. Another New Calligraphy, BOAAT Press, and Dancing Girl Press published her chapbooks. She maintains a blog about writing and nursing.

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ZYZZYVA Recommends May 2019: What to Read, Watch, & Listen to

May, we hardly knew you! Yes, it seems we are well and truly in the midst of summer now, which means we’re gearing up for our Annual Fundraiser & Celebration on June 21st. But we’re also taking time out to share what ZYZZYVA recommends this month—a roundup of the works we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:

Tierra Whack album Whack WorldJulia Matthews, Intern: While I’ll admit I’m often one to play songs out of order, hitting shuffle or getting distracted, I relish an album that begs to be listened from start to finish. Tierra Whack’s dreamscape Whack World is one such project. Released a year ago this spring, Whack World is Whack’s debut visual-album. On the fifteen-minute record, each song lasts just one minute before the rapper launches into a new one. It’s maddening, and it’s genius. Whack’s album is ripe with infectious hooks, pulling the listener into groove after groove only to truncate each song, never landing on the satisfying resolution our ears are trained to anticipate. I’m left with the sense that her music is larger-than-life: if her songs were forced to shrink by resolving to an end, it might be detrimental to their melodic contagiousness. Or perhaps the music is too potent, and hearing a song’s ending could be dangerous for the listener.

It’s this kind of imaginative spirit that Whack World inspires — Whack is unafraid of dwelling in the nonsensical. The audiovisual experience (directed by Thibaut Duverneix and Mathieu Léger) is outrageous, blending the playful with the dark. In “Pet Cemetery,” she sings in a graveyard full of animal sock puppets, lamenting the loss of her dog, perhaps in tribute to the death of her friend and fellow Philadelphia rapper, Hulitho. She often contorts her voice, adopting a deep and garbled mumble or a grating twang, and compliments the grab-bag variety of her sound with fantastical outfits and settings throughout the visual album.

Whack World is not fifteen minutes long because Whack doesn’t have much to say. Rather, it’s an exercise in less being more. She has listeners melodically hooked, but refuses to fill out each song beyond the exact sufficiency of her razor-sharp lyrics. In the visual album, Whack captivates with every entrancing scene, but knows she can cut off each one only to plunge the viewer into another. Whack’s music is bubbling into the mainstream, buoyed by critical acclaim for much of her work. To listen to Whack World is to flout musical conventions and embrace visceral ridiculousness. Fill in the gaps with your imagination.

Netflix series EasyArianna Casabonne, Intern: Netflix’s Easy is an anthology series created and directed by Joe Swanberg chronicling the lives of various couples in Chicago. Now in its third season, I stumbled upon Easy from Netflix’s “Recommended” section. I will admit, most of the time the recommended section does not yield the best results, however once in a blue moon Netflix reveals a hidden gem of a show. Easy is just that. Each episode focuses on a different couple, and throughout the seasons we watch their relationships morph, experience challenges, sometimes end, and sometimes begin again. The couples include a husband and wife who decide to explore an open marriage, a young lesbian couple figuring out how feminism and emotional obstacles play a role in their relationship, and a fading comic book author as he struggles to remain current and mend the pain he has caused various women.

There is a diverse and notable cast, including Dave Franco, Emily Ratajkowski, Orlando Bloom, and Jacqueline Toboni. The exploration of relationships among different sexes and races allows the show to delve into social issues as well. One episode focuses on a sex-positive feminist writer and sex worker played by Karley Sciortino. Her character refers to her sex work as a “side hustle” which she hopes will help her launch her career as a writer. In another episode, an older graphic novelist deals with a former graduate student of his who makes a comic about the time he slept with her while she was still his student. This episode addresses not only the abuse of power, but what rights artists have to share other’s stories, especially when it may be damaging to another person. Although the episodes tackle a variety of relationships and issues, they are all bound together by the setting of Chicago.

What Easy manages to capture very well is the nuance of human emotion. The challenges the couples face are wide and varied, yet the show narrows in on relatable experiences the viewer can take part in. The show’s title conveys just how naturalistic the writing and acting appear, allowing the audience to easily connect with the characters. The world these people live in feels authentic and modern, and something particularly current to our lives today.

Zhang Yimou film ShadowZack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Zhang Yimou stands as one of the select few Chinese filmmakers to achieve success at the U.S.  box office –– 2002’s Hero remains the third highest grossing foreign-language film in America –– and even after the creative misfire of 2016’s (still interesting) The Great Wall, a new film from Yimou is a cause for celebration, particularly when he’s working in the wuxia genre he knows so well. Films like House of Flying Daggers and The Curse of the Golden Flower are as much about stillness as they are the swift motion of martial arts; they luxuriate in their costumes and zither soundtracks as much as their bladed weaponry and wire-assisted battles. Yimou pinpoints at each of their centers a cauldron of barely repressed emotion that gives rise to the balletic violence: when the seasons suddenly change mid-battle in The House of Flying Daggers, mirroring the characters’ relationship to each other, it somehow makes perfect sense in Yimou’s stylized world.

His latest film, Shadow, is no exception, and fortunately it’s now screening in San Francisco. The movie finds the filmmaker truly embracing the artifice of digital cinema for an almost comic book-like aesthetic. True to its namesake, Shadow boasts a nearly black-and-white color palette, with blacks as deep and inky as the calligraphy brushstrokes we witness the characters perform. The first hour of the story gives itself over to palace court intrigue –– set during the Three Kingdoms period, it’s a twisting narrative that sees a wounded General replace himself with a highly trained double in order to scheme against the petulant young Emperor. Torn between the General and his ‘shadow’ (both played by Deng Chao, though his performance is so skilled viewers would be forgiven for thinking there are two separate actors in the roles) is the General’s wife, who finds herself developing feelings for her husband’s duplicate.

The table is clearly set for betrayal, intrigue, and tragedy in equal measure, and Yimou does not disappoint, tightening the rope for a back half full of expertly-choreographed action sequences, including razorblade umbrellas twirling in the rain, an androgynous army wielding crossbow gauntlets, and the startling introduction of blood red to the film’s stark milieu. It’s been over a decade since Zhang Yimou has delivered this brand of film –– the same gravity-defying, martial arts epic that introduced him to American multiplexes –– but Shadow operates with a confidence and grace to indicate Yimou hasn’t missed a step in the intervening years. Shadow is precisely the kind of visually lush, operatic tale that calls for the theatrical experience. I recommend Bay Area audiences seek it out while they have the opportunity.

Rachel Cusk novel TransitLaura Cogan, Editor: I’m midway through Transit, the second in Rachel Cusk’s compact and rigorous trilogy of novels, and as the book centers around a period of transition, upheaval, and uncertainty in the narrator’s life, it seems somehow appropriate that I’m writing about it while still reading and still gathering my thoughts. In this volume, Cusk’s narrator (Faye) is back in London, recently separated from the father of her children, and renovating her life nearly from the ground up. The run down second floor apartment she’s purchased requires extensive work. The largest part of the project—redoing the floors—is meant to assuage the vociferous complaints of her elderly downstairs neighbors who are sensitive to all footsteps from above, but thus far has only inflamed tensions, as the noise of the construction itself outrages them. There may be a metaphor in here, but I wouldn’t want to reach at one when Cusk has done such a beautiful, intricate job of laying down each sentence just so, and layering complex themes throughout. As in Outline, most of the text is rendered through a series of conversations. The stories shared by friends, colleagues, and acquaintances are varied but rich with interconnectedness. The longing for freedom, the fear of change, the myriad ways we are shaped and hurt by our relationships with our parents and children—these all emerge at the forefront.

Amid all this, the meta-considerations of Outline are continued as well. In that first volume, a neighbor in Athens tells Faye, “I discovered that a life with no story was not, in the end, a life that I could live.” That may be true for many of us. But it seems Cusk is asking Faye and the reader (and perhaps herself) to consider more fully what, then, constitutes a story. And in Transit, that question is more explicitly linked to the sacrifices and risks involved in our primary relationships. In one of the relatively rare moments when Faye, rather than just reporting the stories and ideas she’s listening to, steps forward and shares her own, she says, “…it seemed to me that most marriages worked in the same way that stories are said to do, through the suspension of disbelief. It wasn’t, in other words, perfection that sustained them so much as the avoidance of certain realities.”

I continue to be fascinated with Cusk’s work in these books, with the opacity of Faye, and the unusual authority and confidence of this voice and structure. It’s the kind of work that opens door upon door of inquiry, prompting me to take many, messy notes in the margins. I’m looking forward to reading Kudos next.

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America Was Hard to Find

Kathleen Alcott novel America was hard to findKathleen Alcott is the author of three novels, her newest being America Was Hard to Find (Ecco). Her new book tells the stories of Fay Fern and Vincent Kahn, and in doing so considers the cultural watersheds (such as the anti-Vietnam War movement and NASA’s space program) that occurred over pivotal decades of the United States’ recent history. The following is an excerpt from America Was Hard to Find.

Alcott will be in conversation with Managing Editor Oscar Vilallon about her novel at The Bindery in San Francisco on Thursday, May 30.



Letters from Charlie, unopened, asked what her plans were, when she might be leaving, why she hadn’t responded, whether it was money she needed, whether it was a car. She kept them in a neat stack on her bureau under the childhood ribbons Claudette had saved and repositioned here on the mirror, reminders as she fell asleep about who they believed her to be. The spelling bee where she had cried hidden in the red velvet wings, the tennis tournament she had won in the middle of a heat wave. I have a child, was the first thing she thought when she woke up, whether she could hear him or not, a slow fear that poured her out of bed. She kept waiting for the news to change.

He held blocks in primary colors, mystified by them, possessive. A banana was a gavel, he commanded the room with his judgment. Who she was didn’t matter, she thought, what she had believed or fought against—the life she had chosen in reaction to her parents’ had ultimately folded her right back into theirs. Claudette spoke to her and to Wright in almost the same voice, asked almost the same questions. What would you like to do today? What would you like to eat?

It was welcome to them, how she was diminished. At the dinner table her paralysis presented as excellent manners, no, yes, either is fine with me, thank you. If she wept over the roast beef, or while sitting out the afternoon on the wraparound porch, they presented her with the baby. A year passed like a matinee she pretended not to have mostly slept through, accepting what had changed and working out the events behind it. He took his first steps in the green-gold grass with the view of the town hung in fog behind him.

She watched television with her father, game shows, the news, an activity that rewarded her muteness, her lack of anything to say. Truth or Consequences, flat riddles posed by a jaunty host to faces as indistinguishable as loaves of white bread. Why was the wife concerned that her husband was a light drinker? Because he’d drink until it was light. Her father laughed at them, slippered feet crossed at the ankles, the same delay as the studio audience. There were commercials that mystified her, the joy of them. Why do girls in love always look so beautiful, the television asked. A woman in plastic twirled to unheard music. It’s because they always walk in the rain. Noxzema.

Her allowance each week was twenty dollars. His first words were a sentence, “No please.” On the last day of July they watched the footage of the partial eclipse, men streaming out of tall buildings in San Francisco holding cereal boxes to their faces. In the fall a black boy enrolled for classes at a college in the South and her father changed the channel on the riots, cars turned over on a lawn before the Doric columns of the lyceum. After a silent dinner, meat loaf shot through with a ribbon of orange cheese, she returned to the couch and changed it back. Her son remained in the dining room, sitting high on a booster and refusing to eat. When James heard what Fay was watching he did not enter, although from the frame of the door he made his dismissal clear, a hand waved in diagonal across his face as if at a bad smell. There was a shot of the governor’s car rolling onto campus, white faces warped in joy at its arrival, and it took her a moment to understand he was there in protest of the student, an Air Force veteran, the grandson of a slave. This event her parents did not discuss, life on land with people, but when the country had prepared for its first orbit they behaved as if in anticipation of a celebrity at their dinner table. Claudette baked in advance, shortbread cookies that looked like rockets.

Her parents stood by her door in the morning, tapping together without rhythm, her son in Claudette’s arms pawing at it, too. They had brought her coffee and she blinked, gathering a robe around her gauzy nightgown as she stood in the door frame. The coverage was already on in the living room, and the sound of it unsettled her, as did the benign smiles of her mother and father, people who had seemed incapable of delight for as long as she had been aware. Cronkite’s voice had never comforted her, that low bleat sounding like someone reporting from the bottom of a pit. A freckled man from Ohio, his face calm and clean, rode an elevator up the tower and boarded the capsule shaped like a badminton birdie. He was to ring the planet, hurtle around it waving bravely. On the enormous Atlas rocket, thirty stories tall and pale as milk, he waited as his audience did for the boom. When it came it disfigured the whole image, filled the frame with smoke, and then the camera struggled to keep up, losing it and finding it, losing it and finding it, the point of the rocket darting in and out until it was a nebulous white shape in a sphere of gray. The image was like a disease seen through a microscope, a vivid, frantic mutation, and all of it, the great furnace of the takeoff and the low human babble and the wind’s dilating of the reporter’s talk, sounded to her like an evil distraction … Has passed through the area of maximum dynamic pressures, the television said. Fay’s parents clapped politely, stunned, unaware of the look on her face. It was the first day their country encircled the earth, and the first day she hated her country.


Something had changed, they knew. She was always leaving her shoes somewhere, then the slippers they offered as corrective. It was a kind of self-neglect that enraged them: barefoot by the refrigerator at midnight, barefoot as she carried him up the stairs, a sideways angle that made him laugh, singing the songs her sister had. As though a solution were just a matter of the right slip-on loafers, Claudette suggested a day in the city, see the Easter displays at the department stores. Wright stayed behind with James, something Claudette suggested, girls’ day out, with a wink her daughter did not acknowledge.

In San Francisco, Fay could not be moved to touch the dresses, hold up the bracelets. Her mother, tired of looking behind to find Fay seated again, reading on a mirrored stool, handed her the car keys. “Why don’t you listen to the radio. I’ll meet you in the garage in two hours,” she said. Dressed as her mother had instructed her, in a just-purchased celery chiffon dress with a high collar and empire waist, she took the first bus she saw.

Against the concave orange plastic seats she was aware how she appeared, how people might imagine her. A young bride glowing between two parts of her life, money in her purse, a collection of Pyrex in her cabinet, some man who knew her childhood nickname with her photo on his desk. There was no way to correct these assumptions, the looks from denim-clad people her own age that went right past her. She committed herself instead to the window, rode the whole way curled around to look out it. On the street from which the bus got its name, Fulton, she pushed the door open. She thought she could see a stretch of green several blocks down, a place where the city opened, and she walked with a hand on her abdomen, her few things in a white leather coin purse swinging at her as she went.

The Victorians she walked under were trimmed like cakes, pinks and blues and violets competing for attention, some with balconies full of plants and others with hand-dyed curtains, and when they let onto the green horizon line of the Panhandle, a long and narrow park you could see across but not around, she was taken by a muted panic, thinking she could not remember the last hour she had spent that was free to her direction of it. She was not in possession of her life, she knew. Suicide crossed her mind like a breeze, nothing that could be helped.

It was the stands of eucalyptus, their smell, and the streets across the park that led in dramatic angles upward, that urged her onto the lawn, where she lay down in a triangle of sun and waited for a thought that was calm enough she could follow it.

Gathered in a loose circle—the girls in linen jumpers and blouses that tied at the neck, the boys with glasses pushed midway up their foreheads, the collars unbuttoned—were a group of students, no older than Fay. She sat five feet away, pretending at contentment. Their scratched leather book bags weighed down foreign newspapers, encircling their talk, one continuous, mutual, angry sentence, elaborating, diverting, returning.

“Special forces, they say—”

“Advisers, they’re calling them, they’re calling people who are terrorizing a country the size of—”

“A country smaller than California—”

“Smaller than California, this nation, and operating pretty much the same since the fifteenth century, and what kind of advice are they giving? Have you ever extracted any wisdom from a chemical that—”

“—kills forests, eviscerates crops that have only served as the primary source of food for hundreds upon hundreds of years, not to mention what kind of—”

“—effect that’s going to have on, oh, people, little kids, babies not born yet, old men trying to live out the rest of their time, and Kennedy meanwhile—”

“—has got a good show we can watch, a dazzling program about celestial exploration that will affirm our country’s inherent valor! He’s our nation’s hope, our nation’s cleft-chinned blue-eyed hope, he’s got a—”

“—beautiful wife so he must be virtuous above all else, for only the good end up with the beautiful.”

There came a collective sighing, reshuffling of papers, and they sat back on their hands or forearms, seeming certain, to Fay, in a way she wanted to be. It was this that moved her, that admitted the boldness required to stand and approach them, looking like she did, a frilly confection, a person who did not belong to herself.

“Excuse me.”

As they looked her over their disdain was a unified front, even their collarbones thrown forward in a way that indicated disapproval.

The boy who had talked the loudest sat up, twisting a dandelion between his thumb and forefinger in quick, angry rotations.


“Actually not a missus at all.” She prepared for the next moment like a swimmer, surveying a distance and committing her breath to mastering it.

“Costume courtesy of a deeply embarrassed maternal figure, a disguise for the mother of a bastard. Fay.” She flashed her left hand, bare of matrimony, waggled it. In the air was the suggestion of the ocean, in the mild temperature the threat it would drop.

They opened around her admission, relaxing their jawlines, tugging their socks up. One canted a hand over his eyes to see her better.

“Given my current incarceration, I’m wondering whether I could borrow one of your newspapers there. I could send it back by—”

“Take it,” someone said.

“Subscribe to it.”

“Get that special jelly and mimeograph it and—”

“Give it to someone else.”

The boy with the tortoiseshell glasses who had called her Mrs. unfolded and refolded the paper, aligning the sections, running a firm index finger down the seams where the crease had loosened.

She waved goodbye, the thing she had asked for held between her ribs and bicep, crossed to the roads she’d admired before, the houses set at forty-five-degree angles, and took Central up to Haight, the strain in her thighs a discomfort that nudged her more awake. Another park waited for her, and it was there she unfolded it, on a plane of grass that followed a sharp incline. The wind that moved the pages almost animated the images, girls bent over rubble, corpses lined up with their shorts around their ankles, men with the waterline at their hips as they crossed the mangrove swamp with a gnarled child on a gurney. Once she saw them they were a part of her, the mosquito netting of the makeshift hospital dropping into the depth of the water, the limp penises of dead men exposed for their families to see.


Saying her name later, crippled at the elbow by shopping bags where she stood in the driveway, her mother rapped on the passenger-side window. Fay stayed as silent as she’d been on the ride home, an artifact behind glass, what happened around her immaterial.


From AMERICA WAS HARD TO FIND by Kathleen Alcott. Copyright 2019 by Kathleen Alcott. Reprinted courtesy of Ecco, and imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Q&A with Ross Gay: ‘The Book of Delights’ and an Essay a Day for a Year

Ross Gay essay collection The Book of DelightsRoss Gay’s The Book of Delights (288 pages; Algonquin Books) is a collection of over 100 short essays. The project began as a type of writing exercise: Gay would write one essay about something delightful every day for a year. While the collection doesn’t contain an essay for every single day of that year, and some of the essays might be called more thought-provoking than purely delightful, the book couldn’t be more aptly named. The pieces read at times like prose poetry or journal entries, and they cover a variety of topics, such as a single flower growing out of the sidewalk or two people carrying a bag together. The Book of Delights brings together aspects of poetry, nonfiction, cultural criticism, and memoir, while keeping with the interests of Gay’s previous works. Gay spoke to ZYZZYVA about some of the overlapping themes that emerged in The Book of Delights, as well as his writing process:

ZYZZYVA: Some essays in The Book of Delights feel incredibly personal, almost more like journal entries than essays. When you wrote these, what audience did you imagine you were writing to?

Ross Gay: That’s such a good question. I mean, there’s a handful of things in terms of audience that I’ve realized over the years. One is that I’m writing to myself. I’m my first audience, and I’m writing to figure these things out and deepen my relationship to these things, and I’m writing to delight and surprise and confuse myself, too, so that’s the first thing. And then, I’m writing very much to the people whose work and lives I feel intertwined with or inseparable from. My dear friends, like Patrick Rosal, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Curtis Bauer, and all these people who I’m in a kind of writing community with…and my neighbors, too! The Book of Delights especially is so rooted in where I live. I’m writing for my neighbors and for other people who are reading the books I’m reading, and for people who are interested in art criticism, because in some ways I think this book is criticism. And I’ve realized I’m also really writing to my brother.

Z: Could you talk a bit about what it’s like for you to move from poetry to prose—or perhaps between poetry and prose? How is your process different for each?

RG: Well, with these essays—because I did give myself the task of writing them every day for a year—I knew I’d write them quickly and daily, so I probably knew pretty early on they would not do the work the way a fifteen- or twenty- or fifty-page essay would.

Someone asked me, “Why’d you write essays instead of poems?” and I said, because I just couldn’t write a poem every day! There’s some relationship to unknowing that poems have to me. For this task of writing each day for a year about something, the poem as a form wouldn’t even occur to me, and I just can’t explain it more than that. It’s just something about it.

Z: I left a few of the essays in The Book of Delights feeling kind of un-delighted. For example, “Hole in the Head” is one that was almost completely absent of the delight and lightness many of the essays bring. I’m curious about how concepts like death and violence collide and overlap with delight in this collection.

RG: I think what’s interesting about The Book of Delights is there’s a pretty regular tension where the practice of attending to delight feels like a kind of labor. And the essay you mention tries to begin this one way [with delight], but the gravity of this ongoing brutality we live with takes the essay. So, I think that tension is what’s interesting to me about the book because it’s true to the way I experience life. Which is to say, I am witness to and beneficiary of profound kindness and tenderness and sweetness, and I am also living amid great sorrows, and that sorrow includes and means violence and brutality and the whole thing.

There’s that longish essay, “Joy is Such Human Madness,” where I do that little false etymology of “delight” meaning “of light” and “without light,” and that maybe joy is both at the same time. That’s a long and wandery way of saying that that’s how I think and understand the world and my own life.

Z: Is that the same tension that’s carried through your poetry as well, when you discuss joy and beauty alongside death and violence?

RG: I think so. I recently was looking at that first book [Against Which] and had occasion to look at some of the poems I really had forgotten about, and it was like, oh, this is something I’ve been thinking about hard for a long time, that things reside right next to each other or on top of each other. And in a certain kind of way, I’m interested in it, because I feel like that’s life. But I also feel like there’s a way that understanding brings us closer together, the understanding that the beautiful and the brutal exist. And one of the brutalities of [our way of life now] is that it makes us forget our dying. That’s one of our first commonnesses.

You and I, we’re both going to die. And there are all sorts of apparatuses we could use to avoid or deny that, but I suspect that if we were to just sit with that fact, I think there’s some kind of understanding or knowledge between us that would be allowed to happen.

Z: The Book of Delights seems like a midpoint between your poetry and your other nonfiction. Was writing this latest book of essays then an entirely different process from other essays you’ve written, like “Loitering Is Delightful” in The Paris Review?

RG: I think the essays in The Book of Delights have some of the spirit and the sound of some of my poems, for sure. It’s also the case that I drafted them all in 30 minutes. That loitering piece, though, it took a long time. And it took conversations with people and asking people to read a paragraph or certain parts that were really sticky for me and saying, “I have this wrong, don’t I? How do I get this right?”

There’s a moment in that loitering essay where I say something like, “laughter is kissing cousin to loitering,” and it was my friend Pat who said that laughter is like loitering. He was like, you can’t consume while you laugh because you’ll choke, and that’s where that line came from. Which is to say, I do not write these things on my own. And the ones [in The Book of Delights] that I just really love in a different kind of way are the ones I just couldn’t figure out on my own. And they probably took longer to write, and in that way they were probably more like my relationship to poems.

Z: I love that you’re expressing that you are helped by friends and fellow writers to craft these pieces, because so often writers—young writers, especially—are afraid to harness and wield other people’s language or ideas.

RG: There is this fabrication—it’s a lie—that we need to write these things entirely on our own, and it’s a violence against the truth of our lives, which is that we live in communities.

And that’s what I want to study: radical collaboration—which is constantly happening! It’s all the ways we have the capacity to [share with each other and] love each other, but there is such a profound interference to that capacity. That’s why we need to study the ways we do have those capacities, and that we do it despite these intense institutional and structural pressures that try to impede us from simply being together.

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ZYZZYVA & Ploughshares Subscription Bundle!

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Get the best literature from coast to coast this Memorial Day Weekend with ZYZZYVA & Ploughshares!

Subscribe now and get two great literary journals –– ZYZZYVA & Ploughshares –– for one low price of $49.99. That’s 35% off the cover price!

Beginning with the next issue of both Ploughshares and ZYZZYVA, subscribers will receive:

  • 4 issues of Ploughshares (print and digital)
  • 4 issues of ZYZZYVA
  • Free submissions to the Ploughshares regular reading period

Don’t delay –– subscribe now before this offer ends!*

*Offer valid though May 28th, 2019.

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‘What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About,’ edited by Michele Filgate: A Complex Bond

Michele Filgate editor What My Mother and I Don't Talk AboutIn What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About (288 pages; Simon & Schuster; edited by Michele Filgate), fifteen writers grapple with the unexpected developments and shortcomings of their relationships with their mothers. In her introduction, Filgate explains that while each individual essay is an achievement in itself, together they work to address the ways we tend to idealize our mothers, as well as reflect honestly on the imperfect relationships we forge (and sometimes end) with them over the course of our lives:

Acknowledging what we couldn’t say for so long, for whatever reason, is one way to heal our relationships with others and, perhaps most importantly, with ourselves. But doing this as a community is much easier than standing alone on a stage.

The essays range in both tone and subject matter: some authors have been estranged from their mothers for years, having suffered abuse and neglect throughout their childhoods, while others are only beginning to understand their mothers as they become parents themselves or think deeply about their family dynamics. This collection engages with tough questions about holding accountable the people we’ve been taught to revere, recognizing the impression our mothers’ greatest strengths and flaws have left on us, and the importance of putting oneself first. At the center of that conversation is the difficulty all children face as they try to understand their parent as a person and not simply a mother.

In “16 Minetta Lane,” Dylan Landis tells an episodic story about her mother’s friendship with noted artist Haywood “Bill” Rivers that taps into the curiosity many of us have about our mothers’ lives before they gave birth to us:

Tell me, what did you do with your glittering mind? Did you make the right choice? Marry the right man? Would you have studied at the Sorbonne, Erica? Laughed with writers at Les Deux Magots?

Did you lock up that dazzling wit of yours, or did you write a book?

Did you get to stroll in Paris? Would you care if your daughter were a perfect doll of a brown baby?

Who would you love, Erica?

Who would you be?

Others writers in the collection show us how, as Filgate writes in her introduction, mothers can be set up to fail. In “Xanadu,” Alexander Chee explains how he survived things his mother couldn’t shield him from: the difficulties of growing up queer and Asian, the traumas of sexual abuse, and the death of his father. Chee unpacks the complications of trying to protect one’s protector:

It is the night before my first novel’s publication in the fall of 2001, and my mother is about to travel to New York for my launch at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. If I don’t make the call, I will read from the novel in front of her, a novel about surviving sexual abuse and pedophilia, inspired by events from my childhood—these autobiographical events, events I have never described for her—and she will find out the next evening in a crowded room full of strangers. And she will never forgive me if I do…Our family had passed through a season of hell, and this was what I’d done to survive it. I know at last: I never told her about this because I was sure I was protecting her.

Careful not to omit moments of love and tenderness, these fifteen writers also reach striking realizations that could potentially alter or destroy their connection with their mothers. What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About captures the complexity of the bond between mother and child, each of the authors conveying their relationships in a way that seems both universally understood and uniquely experienced. Readers are likely to express gratitude to these these writers for diving headfirst into the mental health issues, feelings of loss, and constant learning we all go through, mothers included.

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