ZYZZYVA EventsOctober 19, 2019
ZYZZYVA Fall All-Stars at Lit Crawl
Location: 8 p.m., Dog Eared Books, 900 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Description: Featuring readings by Michael Jaime-Becerra, Michelle Latiolais, Min Han, Micah Stack, and William Hawkins. Free. More info here: https://litcrawlsanfrancisco2019.sched.com/event/TCkG/zyzzyva
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In this issue:
“Mrs. Sorry” by Gabriela Garcia: The young woman tending a luxury cosmetics counter knows of ravages beyond the aesthetic.
“Wilshire and Grand” by Dagoberto Gilb: A construction worker’s coffee date with an old flame picks at knotty threads of memory.
“Session Drummer” by Tommy Orange: More than the studio gigs, it’s managing an unstable father that’s truly challenging.
“Todo Se Acaba” by Michael Jaime-Becerra: Working at the same supermarket chain that employs his father fuels Jaime-Becerra’s longing for other ways of being in the world.
“Hospitality” by Michelle Latiolais: Every aspect of providing service at a restaurant, Latiolais recalls, can turn into a beatitude.
Jim Gavin on lower middle-class Southern California, television writing, the taboo of money, and his TV show Lodge 49.
Andrew Altschul’s “They Hate Us for Our Freedom” (an ex-pat in South America refuses to reckon with being American), William Hawkins’s “Swing-Truss” (a father-and-son trip to Alaska gets upended by an interloper), E.K. Ota’s “Lockstep” (a former pastor’s deep pain and its lasting consequences), and Micah Stack’s “Locket” (“I don’t remember yesterday like it was yesterday.”).
Cedar Brant, Rage Hezekiah, Major Jackson, Hanae Jonas, and Carl Phillips.
Featuring the work of Jake Scharbach.
Fanny Howe prefers to be alone—perhaps that’s what makes her such a perceptive poet. In her latest collection, Love and I (80 pages; Graywolf Press), the fruits of Howe’s solitude are on full display. Howe is introspective, curious, and content when she is by herself. Many of the poems in Love and I celebrate the comforts of being alone:
I’ll sit at the window
Where it’s safe to say no.
Won’t go out, won’t work
For a living, will study the clouds
That’s not to say Howe doesn’t grapple with the aches of loneliness as well: “Someone help find me an animal,” she implores, “Who will rescue me from / Being solitary.” When there’s no one with whom she can share her life, she asks, “Who will believe what I do?” The answer: no one—the only “proof that you lived is that you kept notebooks.” These sorts of autobiographical asides—brief flashes when Howe transforms herself from spectator to subject, and reveals herself to us—make for some of the collection’s most compelling moments.
In her poems, Howe paints vivid scenes and hones in on unexpected details, the kind that only catch the eye of the lonely. A keen observer and frequent traveler (she does most of her writing in transit), Howe’s gaze is wandering but sharp. She notices the child who “licked up the mist on the windowpane,” and the plane passenger who “clutched his head like an infant.” She conjures images of small, everyday beauty: “bridal curls,” “poppy seed cake,” “a grove of elms.” And for Howe, “the tinier the beauty the better.”
With a title like Love and I, one might expect the collection to be an excavation of romantic histories or an interrogation of the act of loving itself. But Howe throws her poetic net far beyond love, prodding at questions of memory and movement, of the body and nature and grief. We spend time both inside the poet’s head and within her well-crafted scenes, leisurely bouncing between introspection and dialogue, opinion and observation.
Fascinatingly, the collection’s most persistent motif is not love but children. They appear in poem after poem, playing, growing, and taking in the world. Children are everywhere: there’s one sleeping, another standing on her head. Howe finds their innocence remarkable, and she writes about them protectively, determined to safeguard their senses of wonder. “Children need a rest,” Howe writes, “their minds are swimming in junk / and fists.” And again: “Children need sugar. / Especially in danger.”
It’s hardly surprising that children are one of the governing structural elements of Love and I. In an interview with Jacket Magazine, Howe shared, “It’s very essential to me, the relationship I feel towards the future of young people, children in particular.” Unpacking this motif, on the other hand, is a more challenging endeavor. The recurrence of children inevitably incites nostalgic yearning, a desire for the ease and infallibility of early youth. But Howe’s connection to children runs deeper than that: in her poetry, Howe casts a maternal gaze, shaped by her own experience as a mother. That said, I can’t help but wonder if Howe, who retains a child-like sense of wonder and creativity, also sees children as peers, better suited to understanding her than adults. After all, she once told the Paris Review that if she “had to do it all over again,” she’d “like to be a wandering monk with some children traveling in my company.”
When Howe does turn her focus to the notion of love and its many permutations, the results are enthralling. She speaks bluntly about the pains of attachment, abandoning lush imagery to get right to the heart of things. “Is love one-way?” she asks. “Almost always.” As Howe has grown older, she finds “Love stood at a distance.” In the standout poem of the collection, “Destinations,” Howe mourns a lost relationship, writing simply, “On a side street (on my sheets) / one I love passed / as a shadow.”
One of Love and I’s most ambitious poems is “Turbulence,” a vast multi-pager that takes place on a plane ride and explores loneliness, faith, and death. A passenger, Howe notes the rain on the windows, the trembling wings, and the clouds below; wonders about the other travelers around her; and allows her mind to wander, as it inevitably does. Ultimately, she extends a comforting invitation to surrender, directed at both her fellow passengers and us, her readers—to unburden ourselves as best we can as we trudge through life:
Give up your wires, plugs, laptop, pills, water, cellphone,
Passport, ticket and shoes.
Give up your water, your wine, your songs and stories.
Put your arms up, your feet down flat and face ahead.
You have not reached the end yet.
Love and I is a meander through a singular mind, a mind that observes more sharply than many of us could ever hope to—or might want to. Howe, who at 78 years old has penned more than thirty works of poetry and prose, has little to prove to us now. Her approach may not always be accessible, but Howe’s inquisitiveness, generosity, and care are easy to appreciate and impossible to resist.
Fidel died three years ago. Obama is no longer President. Their absence from the American political landscape and Trump’s divisive posturing has given rise to the old Cold War rhetoric between Washington and Havana, bringing into question where U.S.-Cuba relations might be headed. These tensions challenge us to inquire where the literary response may be for those writers who live in the hyphen between “Cuban” and “American.”
A telling answer can be found in Cristina Garcia’s arresting fiction. Over the last twenty years her work has steadily moved away from Cuba-centric fiction to explorations going beyond the political and sentimental boundaries sometimes limiting the work of other Cuban-American writers. García has done this without entirely abandoning the roots stubbornly linking her to the island of her past.
García’s novel, Dreaming in Cuban, a finalist for the 1992 National Book award, was conceived by her experience and need to understand her own Cuban past, ushered her into the American literary consciousness. Since then, García’s inventive prose and boundless imagination has produced a number of subsequent novels including Monkey Hunting, Handbook of Luck, The Lady Matador Hotel (soon to be a play), and her most recent, 2017’s Here in Berlin (Counterpoint), which was long-listed for both the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
These novels confront the contemporary reality of the Cuban-American diaspora by writing stories that go beyond wistful memories of what Cuba was, and instead bend toward the wider world. Still, Spanish remains in the writing rhythmically, if not linguistically, proving what noted scholar Gustavo Perez-Firmat argued in his essay Growing Old Bilingual, “Even if we forget all the words of our first language, our tongue remains tuned to its music.”
I met García, whose amiable disposition she proudly attributes to being Cuban, at a café in San Francisco’s Mission District to discuss her notable career as a journalist and novelist, and to hear her thoughts on the evolution of Cuban-American literature.
ZYZZYVA: Do you define yourself as a Cuban-American writer?
Cristina García: I think of myself as a Cuban-American writer, but not just writing about Cuban-American issues. I don’t eschew it, either. It’s part of me. It’s a big part of me.
Z: So what does being Cuban mean to you?
CG: I think to me it really comes down to being raised by an intensely Cuban mother, and it comes down to being in the wake of the dislocation the revolution perpetrated on my family and extended family, both sides of the family. It means always being attuned to the politics of every situation, to agendas and subtexts. It means navigating in two languages, two cultures, and the sub-textual archeology that comes with it. And it means being the object of curiosity and at the same time also being a whiteboard for people’s projections about the island.
Z: I wonder whether that label hinders or expands our visibility and the way we’re viewed as writers. Is there a need to define us as such?
CG: No, but everyone else seems to require it. With Here In Berlin, my agent circulated it to my usual publishers. They were like, “We don’t know what to do with this. It’s not a short story collection. It’s not really a novel. Where are the Cubans?” I had written other things that weren’t strictly Cuban, there was a Chinese nineteenth century novel for instance (Monkey Hunting), but it still revolved, essentially, around Cuba. But with this one, nobody knew what to do with it. Finally, Counterpoint loved it. The editor totally got it and understood it and even understood why I would be interested. Almost like the root system of that dislocation, the division of Berlin, all of that. Why that was interesting, to chase the analogous, not that it has to be analogous (to the Cuban experience), but it was to me.
Z: So does that mean you’re consciously moving your work outward to broader subjects and away from more traditional Cuba-centric writing?
CG: My interests have just been broadening, and there are also many other really good writers investigating that. I’m just kind of following my own thing, my own obsession. It’s hard to imagine anything I write that would be devoid of Cubans, but yeah, it could happen.
Z: Do you see the same thing happening with Cuban-American writing overall? Will it expand beyond the ostensibly Cuban?
CG: Yes, I think it will. It just keeps expanding…but I often find that it’s the artists who are doing the expanding and the institutions that publish us, kind of run to catch up. There’s a time lag. What’s being written now by emerging writers will take time to catch up. There’s a lot of interesting stuff coming down the pike that is going to defy categorizations. The language, the lexicon for describing Latinx literature, they’re going to have to think of other kinds of rubrics. It’s going to be an interesting interrogation, not just by the publishers, but also by academia.
Z: Is there a difference between Cuban-American writing and other “ethnic” writing?
CG: I think “ethnic” is a sort of catchall term for the hyphenated Americans. It seemed for a while that there was this race by publishers to get the new hyphenation. It became a quest for the exotic within which they were corralling a lot of work that was really of the same template. Nothing against our ethos, but there are so many other kinds of stories. I think they’re just growing pains. Publishers and the artists are not always in sync. We’re sometimes at cross-purposes. They’re fundamentally mercantile organizations. They want to profit. They want a return. They want big audiences.
Z: What do you think is the writer’s place in this historically political moment? Writing fiction necessitates that we position it in the truth of the times, right? I mean, given today’s rhetoric of hate and divisiveness, I find it almost imperative that we do so. Contemporary fiction ought to be part of the fabric of the times, doesn’t it? It should inform.
CG: Journalists are basically writing the first drafts of history. They are in the most difficult and unenviable position in a way, because they don’t have a lot of the information. They are constantly negotiating, especially now with all the Internet misinformation and disinformation. How do you make sense of that? I think as writers, whether we write about our times directly in our fiction or not, we have a responsibility to be alert, watching, commenting, and saying in one way or another, A mi con este cuento? [You’re going to try to fool me with that story?] Then saying No, este es el cuento. [No, this is the real story.] So contesting, skewering, pushing back, and resisting official history.
Z: Should writing aim to be political? Do you consider your writing political?
CG: Absolutely. It’s part of the oxygen. It’s in the water table. It’s in the air. It’s everywhere. Not just when I’m writing about Cuba. I don’t think I could write without having the bigger political, historical context of a place. I’m not interested in stories that are hermetically sealed off in a classroom or a kitchen. For me, what makes it interesting, to read as well as to write, is that the story has roots and tentacles in the larger world. The decisions are a sense of self and belonging or un-belonging of the characters.
Z: An awareness of the moment.
CG: I don’t know who better captures our age than artists.
Z: I’ve been in this country over forty-five years, and my view of both Cuba and the U.S. has changed over time, influenced by my perspective of the politics within and between the two. Do you foresee Cuban-American writing changing as a result of the evolving politics here and on the island?
CG: The early generations are radically different from the later ones. All those preoccupations and how they inform literary production is a fascinating question. It would be interesting to look at it just in terms of all the writing happening in English. Would it all have to be in English? Would the new generations write in Spanish? You’d have to figure out what the parameters were. Are there commonalities generationally? It’s a point of view question. How far away are you from the island? What’s your perspective? At what level of heat in relation to the revolution are you? It’s always there, hovering. The revolution is the backdrop, whether it’s explicitly alluded to or not; it’s always there.
Z: There’s a passage in Dreaming in Cuban that says “Everyday Cuba fades a little more inside me and it’s only my imagination where our history should be.” I returned to the island twenty-eight years after I left. I recall struggling with the contradiction between my personal history, the country’s history, and the country of my imagination. How does history inform your writing?
CG: Maybe it’s my journalism background and my love of history, but I don’t hold back from supernatural things, yet everything is ultimately grounded in historical moments and facts. Even though someone might be talking to a ghost, the description of that Brooklyn street needs to be accurate. I take liberties with the descriptions. In Here in Berlin, there isn’t any story in there that wasn’t jolted into being from something I’d read or heard. Then I go crazy with the embellishments, the embroidery, and the imagining—inserting fictional characters into a setting and sometimes pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. I like getting close to the really impossible. But history is a trampoline for the rest.
Chicago-born Peter Orner is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College. Peter is the author of two novels published by Little, Brown: The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (2006) and Love and Shame and Love (2010), and two story collections also published by Little, Brown: Esther Stories (2001, 2013 with new foreword by Marilynne Robinson) and Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge (2013). His essay collection/memoir, Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Reading to Live and Living to Read (Catapult, 2016) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His work has been translated into French, Italian, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Japanese.
When Orner visited San Francisco’s The Bindery last month, he spoke to Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about his latest collection of stories, Maggie Brown & Others, published by Little, Brown. He also read from the book, which you can hear at the 30 minute mark.
You can accuse the narrator of Susan Steinberg’s Machine (149 pages; Graywolf) of many things, but failing to hold the reader’s attention isn’t one of them. Steinberg’s first novel after a series of story collections, Machine chronicles a dread-filled summer on a nameless shore following the suspicious drowning of a teenage girl. Our narrator, a former friend of the deceased, grapples with guilt, teenage boredom, and her own privileged family’s struggles. “This is a story about desperation,” she states, “you could also say acceleration; but in this story, they’re the same.” The novel unfolds in haunting and poetic style, with Steinberg making liberal use of the semicolon to propel the reader along the page. Despite its brief length, the narrative feels weighty in its ruminations on youth in despair. Steinberg discussed Machine with ZYZZYVA via email:
ZYZZYVA: Machine is told in these somewhat independent sections, many with their own unique formatting, and several of which have been published as standalone pieces in places such as ZYZZYVA Issue 115. The structure is not quite what I’d call a “novel-in-stories,” but it is something unique. How did you develop the structure of Machine?
Susan Steinberg: I thought I was writing a linked story collection narrated by the same character throughout, but as I started putting the pieces together, it made more sense to try to envision it as a novel. This meant I had to stop thinking about whether or not it would satisfy whatever expectations or perceptions I had of novels in general, and start focusing on why I had to tell this story in an often fragmented, differently formatted way. I had to figure out how to push aside conventions—formally, structurally, and stylistically—and still have it make sense. I spent a lot time playing with chronology and condensing time and combining characters. It’s a book, too, that omits a lot, including names and scenes, but I find omission to be a big part of how I understand story.
Z: The novel made me think about how something interesting often happens while we’re on vacation, particularly when we’re young: we experience the desire to toss aside inhibitions and give ourselves permission to act like a different version of ourselves. The narrator of Machine is frequently concerned with how she will be perceived by both her own social clique and the locals who live by the shore. Was the sometimes performative nature of “being on vacation” on your mind while writing the novel?
SS: I did want to convey that there’s a lot of performing going on, but I see the setting less as a vacation and more as a repeated ritual, as if the narrator is always expected to live two lives: the girl she is in the city and the girl she is at the shore. I see vacations, in general, as luxury, whereas I see these summers, drunken as they are, as pressure for the narrator, particularly in how they relate to her identity. Sustaining that performance, the constant shifting definition of self—and to be conscious of it—is fraught and often painful, so I don’t see it so much as a freedom as I do as an obligation, just like the performance she does when she’s back home.
Z: There is an undercurrent of menace and latent violence throughout Machine. The book is a reminder that teenagers can be, well, dangerous. What were some of your literary influences in writing what one might call a more realistic depiction of young people?
SS: This is a great question, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’m not convinced my depiction of young people comes from literary influences. I think it comes more from having been the teenager I was.
Z: I noticed a reoccurring theme of doubling throughout the novel –– there’s the narrator’s father’s study in their family house versus his study in their house by the shore; there’s the pristine side of the lake the family vacations on versus the “poor side” of the shore, and more. The narrator even states at one point, “…say there’s no such thing as fiction; say there’s only substitution.” Was this doubling a thread you wove through the book, or something you noticed appearing during the writing process?
SS: The doubling wasn’t something I planned, but at some point I realized I was returning to issues of substitution and replacement and, again, performance. I became interested in how characters were playing the roles of other characters—the narrator inhabiting the life of the drowned girl, the other woman inhabiting the life of the narrator’s mother, the brother’s plan to follow in the father’s footsteps—and it led me to thinking about how fiction, too, is just a replacement for something else, a situation or emotion, and how simultaneously liberating and restricting that can be. I think this relates to your earlier question about performance and vacation, that fine line between when it’s fun/freeing and when it’s work. Perhaps that fine line is the where much of the conflict lives in this story.
Z: In this novel, you seem to bend the semicolon to your will. You deploy this perhaps under-utilized bit of punctuation to great stylistic effect throughout the novel. When did you realize that you could use the semicolon as an effective means to tell story you wanted to tell in Machine?
SS: I love “bend the semi-colon to your will.” I want that on a shirt.
I used a lot of semi-colons in my previous book, Spectacle, and then I was being more ambitious, trying to make the semi-colon connect more than just clauses. I wanted to connect entire stories to one another with a single semi-colon, and I wanted to makes a point about intimacy, to show the difference between clauses that need to be separated by a semi-colon versus a period. In writing Machine, it was more a way to work with time and pacing. I was thinking about the speed of the semi-colon, how it’s faster than a period, slower than a comma. And it’s more elegant, for lack of a better word, in my opinion, than both. I like forcing that elegance onto an ugly scene. I think it creates an automatic tension.
Susan Steinberg is the author of the story collections Spectacle (Graywolf), Hydroplane (FC2), and The End of Free Love (FC2). She is the recipient of a United States Artists Fellowship, the Pushcart Prize and a National Magazine Award. Her stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Conjunctions, The Gettysburg Review, American Short Fiction, and ZYZZYVA Issue 115, among others.
At the risk of stating the obvious, most of us will spend a large portion of our waking hours working. For many people, the work they must do is in tension with the life they want to lead. For others, work is the site of the most profound expression of their life force. Many of us labor somewhere in the middle, as both our work and our sense of self are subject to major change over the course of time. And while work and life are not the same, the sheer number of hours devoted to work (or consumed by it) makes it an inescapably important part of our existence. What we do at work— and how we think about it—can inform much of how we experience life itself as we go through our days.
It would be, probably, too strong to call this a themed issue. But threaded throughout many of the selections here—sometimes in the foreground, sometimes as an integral part of the underpinning architecture—is the theme of work. It’s the generative engine of conflict or a burgeoning worldview, the site of alienation or community, a place of escalation, ambition, escape, or beauty. At cosmetics counters and grocery stores, restaurants and cafes, newspaper offices and production sets, the stories, essays, and the interview here are laced with concerns about labor, class, money, and identity.
In Dagoberto Gilb’s story, a former construction worker and a writer sit across a table as wide as a canyon, trying to truly see each other and understand what happened between them years ago. Jim Gavin speaks with uncommon candor about money and its attendant anxieties. Michelle Latiolais’ poignant essay describes the grace and dignity she found in restaurant service. Michael Jaime-Becerra recalls how the experience of his first summer job—following in his father’s footsteps working at a Viva Mart—ultimately crystallized his understanding of the radically different life, and work, he’d need to seek out.
Reviewing the issue, I’m struck by how many of these pieces subtly, organically, challenge lazy clichés about what kinds of work are valuable, who should do which jobs, and how we’re expected to then feel about it.
Whatever you’ve worked on today, however you’ve spent your precious time and energy, I hope you’ll read something here that resonates. In some ways, I think the conversation opened here about labor is just a beginning—and something we may want to explore again in a future issue.
Anyone who has ever questioned the capacity of poetry to do something needs to read Carmen Giménez Smith’s newest collection, Be Recorder (88 pages; Graywolf Press). Be Recorder refuses to pretend it lives elsewhere, in some untouchable world of the lyric. Rather, each poem is undeniably here, in the now of state-generated violence and imperialism, of oppressive immigration policies, of love, of motherhood, of writerly politics. This list, while certainly marking many of Giménez Smith’s major attentions, is painfully incomplete: Be Recorder sees everything, even what it has yet to witness.
It is this impulse –– to witness and uncover, while also pointing toward the unknown –– that makes this collection and its politics so compelling. You don’t even have to open the book to hear its first demand, conveyed through the well-chosen title: “Be Recorder.” To illuminate historical harms, personal traumas and joys, we must first record them; to spectate actively is to remember and to write down, to capture each occurrence and refuse to let it go unnoticed. A “recorder” is, however, not just the person who keeps records, but the apparatus of recording itself. This complicates things: the power of witnessing can be revolutionary for the unseen, but such an apparatus can also be wielded by those forces the revolutionary witness pushes against. The state, too, is a recorder, one which dictates and archives a dominate understanding of history, marks borders on the land, shuffles, expels, and kills those defined as deviant. Be Recorder understands the messy role of documentation and declaration:
can I trust your simpatico or will my dark repel / will you be frontier and border kiss me for the camera / can I have authentic depth and will you align with me / will you hold my curls when I’m expelling phantoms / who open tunnels into the past will you consider the sky / contra the west with its grinding machines will you Spartacus / with me will you jump in fight can it be your caravan too / record my face lover record my limbs record them for / us all I’m lucky I’m lucky I’m so lucky that I’m lucky
In a single stanza, both the “west with its grinding machines” and a lover recording limbs appear. The personal grace and closeness of being seen in a moment of intimacy, and the violence of being watched and restricted by the nation’s “frontier and border,” exist on the same plane. This is not the only instance of Be Recorder‘s play with oppositional truths and the paradox of radical gesture:
I hardly care that I’m doing / harpy that I’m a city’s pestilence / should I mother or write / serve art or the state
Can art serve the state? The state has certainly exercised art as a means of propaganda, and artists have often, quite willingly, chosen to allow it. In recognizing this dichotomy and historical tension, the poem highlights an important truth, a manifesto posed as a question. To truly serve art is never to serve the state in any capacity, which is to say, that which seeks to meet the demands of empire should hardly be considered art at all.
This is just one reading of this poem, this line, this book, yet it’s hard not to feel galvanized by the possibilities it offers. Be Recorder operates as both a mirror and an imagination. We are rallied by it, called to attention, to action, to sight:
can I expect / a chronicle of the moment or is it fraught with the lyric therefore fraught / with the vulgar density of people is that the hitch aesthetically / thus ethically does it seem impossible the desire for such validation / or could you break free and record / be recorder
The phone calls me to attention.
An old friend, dead. 89. She had
a “good run,’’ as they say, it was
for the best, whatever that means.
Trumped, quickly, replaced with
wincing news that another’s son
killed himself, jumped off a bridge
too far. Words fail,
repeatedly. Searching for emoticons
in lieu of emotions.
Stir and mix the customary
repetitive political jabber,
Where is love? Is it in the stars
above? I sink below, mired in
timeless sorrow, time beyond time.
Multiple failures, fumbles, fright.
Who to “speak’’ to?
God is dead, or so it’s reliably
said. We pull our weight in key strokes.
Hot type. Cold comfort. Worst,
there is none. No one here but
thee, me and meaningless
conversations with ourselves.
Call me. I’ll be there. Forever.
Waiting, but not at home.
Don’t really want to stop
the show, thought you
might like to know. Waiting
for that call. Who’s there?
“Family,” “Love,” and “Time and Space” comprise the three sections of Xuan Juliana Wang’s first story collection, Home Remedies (204 pages; Hogarth). These categories describe this book better than much else could: Wang conjures an incredibly wide range of characters and plotlines, all tied together through notions of familial bonds, love, and temporality. There are no broad strokes or homogenizing glances in Wang’s work. These stories, concerned with Chinese young people and their engagements with culture, curiosity, and identity are complicated and specific, personal and detailed, messy and absurd. Each story Wang creates is so perfectly and wholly its own world; the only moment of disappointment they offer is in their brevity. It’s hard not to feel a sense of loss at the close of each universe, so vivid, full, and necessarily affecting.
The book’s opening story, “Mott Street in July,” centers on a Chinese family living in the U.S. over the course of a very hot summer, one marked by the national “Asian carp crisis.” The three children of the family, Walnut, Pinetree, and Lucy, watch as their parents leave their small apartment to join the “Fish Generation,” those who presumably have gone to kill the carp, which “could be lured with moon cakes and rice noodles to swim alongside chartered boats across the ocean, back to the waters where the carp belonged… to guide them back to their rightful home.” Political and surreal, this story is as heartbreaking as it is subversive, able to touch upon intergenerational trauma, abandonment, and love under systematic exclusion through almost mythic prose:
The fish followed the river, the father followed the fish, the mother followed the father, and the children, holding their arms out, did not have a past to chase. Love could be a burden, too… The fish themselves must be confused, too. The carp hadn’t done anything wrong… They lived for more than a hundred years in these American waters and felt a lot of anguish and confusion, which they passed down to their own fish children… They had come so far and done what was asked of them; now they were unwanted.
“Days of Being Mild” (likely a reference to Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai’s 1990 film Days of Being Wild), by contrast, features a group of young people who have recently moved to Bejing, or Bei Piao, young adults out “to prove that the Chinese, too, can be decadent and reckless.” The group of roommates that the story recounts more than live up to this promise, filling their days with erotic fashion photography shoots and experimental filmmaking, punk shows, and new lovers. Visually, the story is a far cry from the crowded apartment on Mott Street where three children learn the limits of love. But both stories find their characters in orbit, albeit a precarious one, around family making; the difficulty of defining oneself in opposition to one’s parents, or the special kind of dependence that forms among young people when they no longer feel held by those who were meant to protect them.
It feels rare for a single book to do so many things, and to do each of them so well: an unrequited queer Olympic love story, a woman transformed by the designer clothes of a dead model, an aging machine, teenage violence, sexual yearning, unwanted marriages. Each vignette is magical, and critically real. It’s a gift to read something so attentive, able to traipse across time and space with the utmost care for each life brought into focus.
Even if Patrick Coleman’s first novel, The Churchgoer (354 pages; Harper Perennial), was not prefaced by a quote from Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, the story’s noir flavors would be unmistakable. Mark Haines, a former youth pastor turned burned-out security guard and amateur surfer, lost his faith and more than a step when his beloved sister committed suicide years ago. In his rearview are a wife and a teen daughter who can barely swallow their bile to speak to him on the phone every so often. Meanwhile, always close at hand is the alcohol addiction he fights to keep a lid on. (“Alcoholics, like pastors maybe, are never recovered but always recovering,” he notes.) Mark spies a chance to do some minor good in the world –– a shot at redemption would be too much to hope for –– when he happens across Emily, a young woman by the side of the road, trying to thumb her way from Oceanside to Seattle.
Mark offers to buy her a meal at the local greasy spoon, an act of generosity he must shamefully admit is at least somewhat motivated by his attraction to Emily, but little does he know his good deed will go far from unpunished. Emily isn’t a femme fatale, but she might be that other noir staple, the Woman in Trouble:
She wrapped the leash around the tail of the board and walked up the beach, a classic California profile in nearly full shadow, her features existing only in a burned, golden shade, like the saints on Renaissance altarpieces that seemed to be inwardly self-illuminated. But Emily couldn’t be the surfer girl the Beach Boys sang out, the girl half the young (and not so young) men around her lusted for, laughing through evenings at bonfires and ukulele sing-alongs. That was just her darkened profile, a corresponding outline. And if she was in shadow, my face was catching the light, and she was coming my way.
The further Mark becomes enmeshed in Emily’s life, the further he enters a world of violent drug dealers, underhanded evangelicals, and powerful real estate magnates. “San Diego’s a small town,” Mark notes, “and the evangelical scene is even smaller.” Mark is far from a seasoned private detective like Phillip Marlowe, but his own self-loathing and guilty conscience will prove all the motivator he needs to dig deeper into the conspiracy once Emily vanishes without a trace.
The Churchgoer is populated with the kind of hard-boiled monologues one associates with the noir genre (“Time and perspective,” Mark muses, “two unrelenting, changeable assholes –– but not without a sense of humor”), and its cast of pistol-wielding drug peddlers wouldn’t be out of place in your average detective novel. But Patrick Coleman’s background is in poetry (his poems previously appeared in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 94), a background that’s revealed not only in The Churchgoer’s lush language –– even the seediest and most squalid neighborhoods of San Diego County are rendered with great care –– but in the way Coleman is far more interested in Mark’s crisis of faith than a conventional plot.
As Mark’s amateur investigation (which includes impersonating a police officer when necessary) sends him undercover to one of Southern California’s most successful “mega-churches,” he comes face to face with what he views as a mirror of his former hypocrisy. He ultimately can’t resist the opportunity to ruffle the church’s Santa Claus-esque pastor:
He was a good actor, a professional preacher, face muscles that could bench three-hundred and open a beer bottle with nothing but a dimple. Speaking was his way of control, his lifeblood. I didn’t want to let him have it, kept taking it away.
Even so, Mark must eventually acknowledge that his quest to “save” Emily might merely be an attempt to make up for all the ways he’s let down his daughter –– assuming Emily needs any saving at all. In the end, Mark’s lot in life stems from one decision: the moment he turned his back on his religion and family when the foundation for his faith crumbled. But the numerous close calls he encounters while searching for a trace of Emily will cause him to question the dogma of hatred –– hatred for himself, hatred for the world –– that has served as his bitter fuel in the intervening years.
The Churchgoer is at once a cracking noir yarn and an introspective examination of the limits of belief and doubt. Late in the novel, Mark experiences his own “dark night of the soul”; with Mark trapped and in the dark, quite literally, this section allows Coleman to dive deep into Mark’s sensory experience and mental battle as he struggles for air. It’s a test of will as great as any faced by a Biblical hero (like Daniel tossed in the lion’s den), and Coleman renders the scene with language that recalls the opening of Genesis:
The silenced filled the darkness and the darkness filled the silence. Then the terror rose up.
Nothing. I was adrift in nothing. Nothing to see. Nothing to do. Nothing to hear, except my own breathing and whispered profanity.
Back against the wall, Mark finally encounters a situation that his quick wits and smooth tongue can’t get him out of. Like so much of The Churchgoer, this moment serves as a reminder: no matter how far we think the past is behind us, no matter how self-reliant we claim to be, there always comes a reckoning. In this case, the reckoning packs a punch, but so does Coleman’s unsentimental prose in this stellar debut.
The task of organizing one’s life experiences into a comprehensible narrative is a universal one—why else do so many of us go to therapy? Through our internal dialogue we create stories, or perhaps allow ourselves to live according to the stories that best help us cope. This is a work of inclusion and omission, of unearthing and rearranging:
But there were good times
There were good times. Come on. Be honest with yourself.
Yeah the sex had been good sometimes…
And she had loved him…
And there were other things. But she’s a stubborn archivist.
Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s first novel, Stubborn Archivist (378 pages; Mariner Books), is constructed through this sorting of memories. The book that emerges is funny, painful, and healing. It reads like opening up someone’s journal, as if the never-named narrator stopped to jot down pieces of her story as they burst into view. The novel has the intimate quality of a narrative not yet organized, straddling prose and poetry through its ambiguous dialogue and internal monologue. Rodrigues Fowler refuses to undermine the preciousness of a moment, allowing singular thoughts and actions to take up room, while never shying away from blank space on the page.
Stubborn Archivist follows three generations of women in Brazil and London. There is the unnamed narrator, a young Brazilian-British woman struggling with her digestive health and reckoning with residual trauma from her first relationship. Then there is her mother, Isadora, a doctor from Brazil who moved to London with her British husband as well as with her younger sister, who lives with the married couple and grapples with depression. And finally, there is Cecília, grandmother and matriarch, who resides in Brazil with the narrator’s grandfather. In their own ways, each of these women experience the impact of life under Brazil’s military dictatorship.
Stubborn Archivist roots the personal in the political, as the legacy of the dictatorship trickles through the characters’ experiences of romance and family. The narrator recounts her early relationships and her brave confrontation of an ex-boyfriend regarding his acts of assault. Her sexual experiences frequently cross boundaries, both cultural and consensual:
Something I don’t talk about and I regret
I can talk in Portuguese in bed
Okay yes do it
Quiet moments like these give Stubborn Archivist a singular intimacy. Rodrigues Fowler uncannily captures that home-alone feeling when one has complete privacy: as the saying goes, the true measure of our character is what we do when no one is watching. Rather than evaluating her narrator, however, Rodrigues Fowler seems to question how she grows through these private moments, and how they reflect her interior life. The reader watches the narrator rewriting and revising an email to her boss while bedridden with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, waxing fastidiously before flying to Brazil, and biking through the streets of London at night. Stubborn Archivist, even as it spans decades, is built from these solitary moments. Layers and layers of experience accumulated through generations are ultimately embodied in the characters’ daily routines. Rodrigues Fowler writes a story of multicultural identity as it is impressed upon the physical bodies that live it. The subtle power of the novel’s ending lies in the narrator taking ownership of her body, despite the ways it has been fetishized, other-ed, and assaulted:
Caetano sings tinny music into the night. He says, you don’t know me at all. You move your body.
Dear friends, the newest issue of ZYZZYVA is here! Issue 116 is now available for pre-order, and you won’t want to miss what we have in store for you. You can look forward to a collection of writing on the subject of labor, including fiction by Tommy Orange and Dagoberto Gilb; an interview with Jim Gavin, the creator of AMC’s Lodge 49 (catch the the premiere of Season 2 tonight at 10pm!); and essays by Michael Jaime-Becerra and Michelle Latiolais.
You’ll also find poetry by Cedar Brant, Rage Hezekiah, Major Jackson, and Carl Phillips; and more prose by Andrew Altschul, E.K. Ota, Micah Stack, and others.