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In the Winter Issue

In this issue:

New writing from the East Bay to San Francisco, from the North Bay to the Peninsula

Fiction
“This Is Why We Can’t Have Nasty Things” by Charlie Jane Anders: “San Francisco used to have a million pockets and folds in her long flowery skirts, where the strange and barely loved could create their own reality. But lately, not so much.”

“Andi Taylor vs. Artemis Victor” by Rita Bullwinkel: “The fact of the two girls’ bodies was not lost on Artemis Victor or Andi Taylor or on any of the young women in the Daughters of America tournament. Their body was the only tool they had at their disposal.”

“Island of Beginnings” by Lydia Conklin: “Sometimes Posey forgot that she’d emerged on this side of her marriage middle-aged. That she’d grown a potbelly and her hair was stringy from years of dying it what she had thought until recently was a striking crimson.”

“Ring Around the Equator, Pockets Full of Acres” by Chia-Chia Lin: “It mimicked her life at work, when she calculated the hours until lunch, or how much of the day was left, or how much of the week or year. But her new athletic life was a different kind of life. A second, better life?”

“Strangers” by Nina Schuyler: “Then I heard the coyotes howling—they were always moving, large packs at night, displaced from the never-ending construction. I imagined them sprinting on the dirt paths like veins on the hills, illuminated by the moon, sprinting to catch a rabbit, a mouse, sprinting for the sheer pleasure of sprinting.”

And First-Time-in-Print “Channel 4” by Michael Sears and short short stories by Ingrid Rojas Contreras and Andrew Roe

Nonfiction
Paul Wilner on Lowell High School and youthful literary pursuit, Gloria Frym on the wide resurgence of a late writer and beloved friend’s work, and Lydia Kiesling on the grasping for home, and its slipping away.

Poetry
sam sax, Meg Hurtado Bloom, Luiza Flynn-Goodlett, W.S. Di Piero, Sara Mumolo, Kevin Simmonds, Lady Nestor Gomez, and Matthew Zapruder

Interview
Dodie Bellamy and the late Kevin Killian—stalwarts of the New Narrative and the unconventional life—on poets, art, and San Francisco.

Art
The notebook sketches of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (introduced by Mauro Aprile Zanetti) and the photography of Janet Delaney (introduced by Nathan Heller).

You can purchase a copy of No. 117 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA now and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Winter issue.

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‘Space Invaders’ by Nona Fernández: Mutations of Reality

To replicate child-like bewilderment rather than to simply retell it is an enviable feat—one that Nona Fernández masters in Space Invaders (88 pages; Graywolf Press; translated by Natasha Wimmer). Bordering on autofiction, the short novel calls upon Fernández’s childhood in Chilé in the ’80s during the turmoil surrounding dictator Pinochet’s unseating, and looks at how those times pervade the lives of the fifth-graders who center the story, and manifest in unexpected and devastating ways

The young community faces police brutality and various other traumas, culminating in the disappearance of Estrella—a well-loved peer who vanishes without explanation. The story is primarily composed of various recollections of Estrella in the form of dreams and memories, while copies of her letters to her best friend Maldonado conjure her presence directly. Fernández’s narrator, a man named Zúñiga, relays stories of Estrella that continue to haunt his adult life as well as those of the others. These stories blur the line between fact and fiction, as Zúñiga tells us:

“If dreams and memories were truly different, we might be able to identify its source, but on our memoryless mattresses everything is mixed-up and the truth is that it doesn’t really matter anymore.”

Fernández’s effective and purposeful confusion of Estrella’s memory distills the narrator’s idea of the truth down to nothing but raw, subjective emotion. Some of the most memorable accounts of this collective’s childhood are obvious mutations of reality, mutations which might more accurately convey the heightened emotions the children experienced. The only person in the group to have ever visited Estrella’s home, Riquelme, has a terrifying dream of a “green, glow-in-the-dark hand,” inspired by Estrella’s father’s prosthetic hand and the classic video game Space Invaders that he played at her house. The hand, meant to resemble the bullets which erupt from the game’s laser cannons to kill the aliens, chases and obliterates Riquelme and his fellow “extraterrestrial children.”

Estrella’s father, who we see being tried in 1994 on the same television Riquelme played the video game on, turns out to have served an instrumental role in the murder of communist militants resisting Pinochet’s rule. It is the wooden hand that gives the man away. Fernández slowly and elegantly untangles the backdrop of the children’s lives in this final section, expressed through video games and school plays. It is only with Space Invaders that Riquelme and the rest are able to faintly grasp any reason for the senseless violence of Operation Condor as it quietly “disappears” their loved ones.

The chapter “Game Over” indexes the children’s individual experiences with the aftermath of injury, loss, and death. There are disappearances, funerals, beatings, anonymous threats, police searches—each of them having a profound and violent effect on both an individual and group level. Zúñiga concludes the chapter by reflecting on the fluid temporality shared by the victims of this cruelty:

“Time isn’t straightforward, it mixes everything up, shuffles the dead, merges them, separates them out again, advances backward, retreats in reverse, spins like a merry-go-round, like a tiny wheel in a laboratory cage, and traps us in funerals and marches and detentions, leaving us with no assurance of continuity or escape.”

As the children’s conceptions of the people and things they love, such as Estrella or Space Invaders, are skewed and made unrecognizable by political pretense, the guarantee of what the narrator labels “continuity or escape” is undermined.
Ruminating on the framework of the novel—portioned into “First Life,” “Second Life,” “Third Life,” and “Game Over”—it’s clear Fernández is relating her experience of Pinochet’s Chilé with the lifecycle of the player’s spaceship in Space Invaders. There is no ceiling to the high score; there is no cap to cruelty; there is no true end to that game; there is no escape from a scarring past. Space Invaders reveals how a child’s memory of a tragedy can accurately reflect the pain of the experience even when it does not necessarily reflect the truth.

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‘Session Drummer’ by Tommy Orange, ZYZZYVA No. 116

ZYZZYVA Volume 35, #2, Fall 2019This holiday, we present Tommy Orange’s short story “Session Drummer” from Issue 116 in its entirety.

I’m on a train and it’s Saturday so I don’t have to work, but when I’m not working Saturday I’m usually working. I mean it’s work only because I get paid and need the money, but it’s playing drums—like a drum set in a studio. I’m a sometimes session drummer working mainly at this studio in West Oakland where people know me as a good enough drummer to call when they need a good enough drummer for a usually mediocre album project. What I do for a living, as they say, is to wash windows. I wash building windows no one else wants to clean at the risk of falling to their deaths at fall-to-your-death-high heights. The pay is actually pretty good, because of the risk that a cable could potentially snap and I could fall to splat. I like the sky on glass better than I do the sky—I like to make it shine. I don’t need the money I get for drumming, but it’s nice to get extra money especially ’cause I’m always helping out my dad. I don’t like to think or talk about my dad and that is maybe precisely why I always do.

Sometimes when I’m looking out the window of a train I’ll find myself sort of accidentally narrating in my head about human behavior and activity like some fucked up anthropologist and it’s really sad, but I don’t usually catch myself doing it until it’s too late.

The year’s just hours old and everything feels new and not in a good way. Christmas just passed and I spent it with my dad and his wife for the first time. I guess we have our shit together enough to feel okay celebrating together and not fighting; to be able to afford gifts, to care enough that each one of us cares enough to get together at all. I had the thought over the holidays that this new administration is like the ghost of America’s Christmas past. But then I thought America is not Scrooge and probably won’t have a change of heart anytime soon anyway. And then I had the thought that America is Scrooge and will have a change of heart sometime soon probably?

It smells like piss and new-car on this train, with a faint trace of cigarettes, bourbon, and burnt rubber, or condom rubber, or both; all of them are there in the smell that I smell just now as I pass an especially sinister-looking man on the second to last train. He’s white, like poor-white, and desperate-seeming enough to be entirely untrustworthy, he says something about it being his birthday that I ignore and he just stares hard at me like he’s trying to force something out of me, like with his dark eyes under thick dark brows, he’s trying to move further in, past the surface of my face, as he watches me watch him, loving that I’m, if not scared, then at the very least acutely aware of his presence.

* * *

I get to the studio late ’cause my dad called me when I was almost there and told me some shit about his wife that made me stop in my shoes. Is that a saying? No, sorry, it’s that I stopped dead in my tracks, but my shoes are what stopped, with my feet wearing them and me looking down amazed that I’m surprised he’s once again lost it.

“She took all my clothes and gave ’em to the homeless,” my dad had said. I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything. “She took all the money I keep under the mattress I was gonna pay you back with so now you’re gonna have to wait a little longer.” I didn’t want to have to tell my dad that if he had enough money under his mattress to pay me back why did it go under the mattress in the first place and not to me.

“She’s off her meds,” he said. I’d loaned him $2,000 to get a new used car after he told me she’d taken his car and refused to give it back. This was before the holidays when all of our problems seemed to disappear. The thing about my stepmom’s supposed mental health problems is that they’re not hers but my dad’s. I play along like he’s living with a criminal, like he’s the victim, because when he gets to where he gets to it’s the only way. I’ve known his wife, Carol, long enough to know she genuinely has his best interests in mind. I genuinely don’t know why she stays with him. Or I do know—hate that I know—and don’t want to know because of how much it’s related to why I keep caring about him. Abusive people can be charming is something no one likes to admit. Carol’s one of these white women who worships Native American men even while these men like my dad knowingly take advantage of the fact that white women like my stepmom worship them.

My parents split when I started high school. The non-fight over custody hurt. Meaning my dad didn’t fight to have time with me. The strands that connected us to any shared sense of reality had been coming looser and looser over the years, way before he was accusing my stepmom of shit I knew was some kind of crazy sabotage related to his being particularly self-destructive via a most likely undiagnosed bipolar diagnosis. I’m maybe like him in ways I can’t see. That’s the fucked up thing about not seeing: you don’t see what you don’t see, or you see what other people don’t see when they don’t see, but never your own.

* * *

Producers—like directors and doctors—are control monsters. Have god complexes. I like the guy I’ll be playing for today. His name is Dennis. He’s an old white guy who always wears a beret and actually pulls it off. Normally I don’t like berets on anyone unless it’s in a black-and-white picture. Or if they’re from another country and I’m seeing them in a movie. Dennis is pretty old or looks that way anyway, and once you get old enough you can wear any kind of hat you want.

They’re all smoking a blunt on the sound engineer’s side of the glass. I’d hit it once then come onto this side of the glass to sit on the throne. That’s a fancy name for a drummer’s stool. I’m trying to get this dream I just remembered to go back where it came from. Something about a giant robot made of arcade machines. We were in a battle against people from the City. Eating heads gave the robot power. I was helping the robot lure people close enough to him that he could suck their heads into his vacuum arms bloodlessly, which would make his glow get brighter, and he’d grow a little. I felt good. We were winning. We were getting stronger. We needed more heads. I don’t know or care what the dream means right now ’cause I’m about to play. But here it sits with me on the throne, heavy like an impossibly shaped crown on the top of my headphoned head which hears all the nonsense they’re talking on the other side of the glass.

* * *

The session goes well but it’s a little boring because they keep punching in guitar licks where the producer doesn’t think the timing’s quite right. It’s an indie rock band full of white guys not as good as session players who care about making a good album more than they do playing on it. All I pretty much do is watch the producer watch the lead singer, watch the session guitarist, Eric, who’s very good, and black, unable to listen to the vague directions the producer keeps giving him about hitting it right. You don’t hit guitar licks. You might rip, or shred, or some other apt verb—that verb you do on the guitar—but you don’t hit. Finding out the band’s name is the worst part of my day: Radical Enjambment.

* * *

I get back on the train headed for my dad’s apartment over in San Leandro. I didn’t tell him I’m coming. I know he’d leave if I told him I was coming. I see his call coming in and intuit he wants to know where I am. I know he knows I might be coming over.

“Hey, son,” he says, casually like he’s happy I answered for reasons related to wanting to hear my voice when I know it’s because he wants answers from me related to whether or not I’m coming over.

Hey dad sorry I can’t talk right now, I text like I’m busy, which will make him think I’m occupied somewhere and most likely not headed to his apartment. The weird thing about mental illness, or whatever you want to call it, is how you can end up closer to a parent more fucked up to you than the one who loves you better because of having gone through shit and coming out together—if you can.

* * *

I’m at eye level with the J15 on his front door. I don’t knock because I know him. He’ll not answer. There’s an eyehole and he’s an asshole. He’ll see me and say no to us having an encounter today, no to my knock. He’ll not come to the door to even say it, he’ll say it by not having to say it. He’ll be somewhere far off from where anyone should rightfully be. Shit’s fucked up for some people and has been for long enough to where it will feel normal to the point of comfortable for people who have had to get used to it. But I do knock only I duck and move to the left of the door where he can’t see me from the eyehole or his front window. When the door opens and he pops his head out to see both ways I get up like I was tying my shoes and make sure he can’t close the door by stepping through it. The house is a mess to say the least and to say the most would be to say it both smelled and looked like puke.

“Where you been?” is what my dad asks me sitting shirtless and pantless but with yellow-white worn underwear—sitting but maybe more leaning—on his couch. “You haven’t been here,” he says to me like he’s saying, You don’t know me.

“I’m not here about money,” I say.

“Everyone’s here about money,” he says.

“You know what I mean,” I say.

“You don’t is something we won’t talk about,” he says.

“Dad she’s not against you,” I say.

“She keeps taking everything,” he says, then stands on the couch like that’s something someone should do when they really mean to mean something.

“You’re the one, Dad. You’ve always been the one,” I say.

“You know you don’t know, son.” This thing he says as a statement seems at once entirely true and false at once, because I do know that it always comes back to him and what he does to us—we, the anyone forced to explain that it’s we who love ourselves wrong, and not him when aiding and abetting his madness.

“All I’m saying is get it together, if not for you then for us,” I say, and I don’t know exactly who I mean by us.

“Everyone always thinks they have it more together than we do,” he says.

“Who do you mean by ‘we’?”

“Who do you mean by ‘us’?” he says and steps off of the couch and goes to the fridge for a bottle of sparkling apple juice.

“You’re off your meds,” I say as a statement but mean as a question.

“What are yours?”

“I’m here to tell you it’s okay about the money, I don’t need it,” I say.

“Who does?”

“Dad you’re not treating me right. I’m gonna go,” I say.

“But who does need money,” he says.

“I work for a living. I wash windows way up in the air where the sky shows brighter than when I look at it in the sky. And I do other stuff to make a living. I play drums. They pay me to do that, too. I didn’t live the life you lived but I lived one inside of the one you lived. I know you may not hear this even as I’m saying it but I’m saying it because I know things said can live longer than the span of their sound in the air,” I say. His back is to me, he’s bent into the fridge looking for something or not looking but hoping something will come from inside the fridge he never could have thought to look for.

“I work for a living,” he says. I walk to the front door and I grab hold of the knob. I drum my fingers on the knob from pinky to thumb with the pinky meaning the highest note I hear in my head and the thumb the lowest. What I’m drumming is what I’m feeling and I don’t know exactly what it means. I’m waiting because I know he was just repeating something I said and not actually saying something, and because I know he likes to have the last word.

“You haven’t lived the life I’ve lived inside the life I’ve lived, son,” he says. And he walks out of the room meaning to me it’s already been time to go.

* * *

In the car I keep flipping back and forth between listening to music and the radio and podcasts then going to the silence of my loud head about my dad and how much he or I could possibly know about each other at all. I get to a red light and it seems to stay red forever. It keeps staying red. While it refuses to change I think about the future past and present as the same dreaded thing to think about. The light stays red and I don’t even know where I’m going or why. All I know is that I’m here red waiting for green, and my dad is at home and we can’t possibly understand ourselves or even anything.

Tommy Orange is the author of the New York Times best-selling novel There There (Knopf), a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize. You can purchase Issue 116, which features his story “Session Drummer,” via our Shop page.

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The Bay Area Issue: Editor’s Note

One day in July I ran into a colleague on my way to lunch. We commiserated about the state of the world, briefly, and then he asked me if I’d been to the Flower Piano program at the San Francisco Botanical Garden yet. He said he’d just been, and that after one of the professional performers finished her set, a few of the people milling around took turns playing. One played David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” singing softly under his breath. Another, a child of about ten, played a classical sonata, with astonishing beauty.

There’s still art here, he said with a half smile as we parted ways. We’re still here, I said in agreement.

It was only the second or third time someone had made a remark in that vein to me in the past few weeks.

There’s a palpable sense that the pressure on creative folks in the San Francisco Bay Area is nearly intolerable—a widespread and reasonable feeling that is nevertheless at odds with the exceptional density of people still doing creative work of the highest caliber here. There’s a sense that we’re all hanging on by our fingertips, and maybe only the fingertips of one hand, while the other hand continues writing, continues playing.

Will the region that has always been our home endure as a generative hub of literary and artistic innovation? I want to say, Of course it will. But nothing is a given. If we don’t make deliberate efforts to make the Bay Area a sustainable place for bakers and musicians, teachers and translators, poets and playwrights to live, we could see a major transformation, one that will incalculably diminish the fundamental identity of this place.

In the meantime, the pressure from the sense of transience and the precariousness of it all naturally filters in and shapes the work we’re seeing. As always, remarkable work can emerge from struggle and heartbreak, even from despair. We can celebrate that, but it’s impossible not to worry about the cost. Because on the other side of that coin, the less romantic side, is all the unseen, unknowable work that could have been, but was stifled by lack of opportunity and support.

At a concert at the Fox Theater in Oakland in August, I chatted with a neighbor. The conversation quickly turned to lament, as it so often does: he’s a San Francisco native, and grew up taking the N Judah out to Candlestick (more lamenting) to see the Giants play. He was living with family while searching for housing, he told me, and increasingly widening the search area. He paused and then said, “I’m not sure whether the Bay Area is really a place people live anymore. Maybe it’s more of a temporary place to be for a few years.” He was thinking of leaving the state entirely, maybe moving to Scottsdale, Arizona, so he could visit the Giants at spring training.

At times it seems there’s as much despair about the inevitability of this transformation as there is about climate change: the decline is so far advanced and powerful in its own momentum, and the problem so expansive and multiform, and the leadership necessary to tackle it effectively and efficiently so lacking.

But then I’ll find myself in a certain neighborhood, or in certain company, and somehow all that disruption seems muted or far off, as though the fog had cast a protective spell on that corner of the Bay.

And if it’s not a foregone conclusion, if such pockets of neighborhoods and community persevere, then we have to try to protect the culture that we still have.

With that in mind, and on the cusp of our 35th anniversary next year, we bring you an issue dedicated to this unique place. If for you, too, it sometimes feels that this transformation of home is already a fait accompli, I hope this sampling, drawn from the wealth of our local talent, from all stages of career and across genres, pushes back against that notion—and, in so doing, makes an eloquent case for all we stand to lose, and all we must invest in conserving.

Some of us are still here; others have left. Some are poised to go, reluctantly or bitterly or enthusiastically seeking new terrain. Amid the tension and pressure, amid the injustice and anxiety, art and literature endure and blossom in the Bay Area with uncommon ingenuity, vision, and persistence.

Order ZYZZYVA No. 117—The Bay Area Issue—here.

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

With Thanksgiving nearly upon us, we thought we’d add a special wrinkle to our Staff Recommends this month: alongside our usual selection of films, books, and music, we’re including Thanksgiving recipes (or drink pairings) you might want to give a try this holiday. Enjoy!

Lindsey Pannor, Intern: I can already envision my trip home this Thanksgiving: filing into a huge jet plane, (hopefully) sleeping through the red eye, waking up hovering right over home, and watching the deep orange of the sunrise scatter the thick winter night. I’ll have my headphones on, listening to Lætitia Tamako’s self-titled album by her moniker “Vagabon.”

Since its release late last month, I have amassed an array of reasons to adore Vagabon. Most strikingly, Tamako’s sound traverses genre constantly. The album lies somewhere in between the oozing dream pop of Beach House and the lo-fi buzz of Miya Folick; and despite never settling into one sensibility for too long, I am still able to take comfort in familiar, brief, distinctive moments of indie rock and R&B aesthetics throughout. Tamako distinguishes this album’s style from her last by favoring analog beats over her old guitar melodies, diving into personally uncharted territory.

These new beats combined with her distinctive voice gives rise to a magical transformation, from what used to be an alternative sound typical to countless artists to one uniquely her own. Tamako integrates her crooning vocals alongside gentle blips of synth and slow bass riffs simultaneously and seamlessly. The solemn beginnings of many of the songs, set in a slow 4/4 signature like the heavy cold nighttime air, easily lift into rising upbeats of horn and yearning. They tangle into one another, calling on the liminality of morning’s waking.

Her lyricism mirrors this consistent movement throughout, making apparent both the uniqueness of her prose style and its incredibly specific universality, the kind that seizes up my heart. Particularly timely to the season, songs like “Please Don’t Leave the Table” tap into that familiar pang of betrayal when left to eat alone, as she begins the song with a wavering profession of love, and begs for the addressee not to leave, because, well, she’s still eating. “Home Soon” follows on the album, dragging one simple refrain over soft violin and reverb: “I give it all away / I’ll be home soon.” Pleasant and grounding, this song is among my favorites as it pulls away from the theme of a lover and dedicates space to reconnecting with our origins.

As we return to our nests and are met by the people who know us best this month, we will inevitably be wrapped in the existential fog of the holidays. Reflection and gratitude are integral to the spirit of the upcoming weeks, and instead of settling stagnant into the confusion this brings, I’ll be looking to Vagabon for guidance. As a woman writing and producing all of her own music as well as exploring her sense of self in relation to the love she has for others, Tamako’s new album has given me a forgiving, inspiring roadmap to explorations of my foundations.

RECIPE: Speaking of inspiration, I’ll also be trying my hand at baking Melissa Clark’s recipe for Brandied Pumpkin Pie while I’m back home. There’s truly nothing like a good pumpkin pie in my family, and perhaps I’ll garner some extra affection with such a well-reviewed and unusual variation on the classic. I’m eagerly awaiting a trip to the Fox Theatre upon my return, where, on December 7th, Vagabond will be opening for Angel Olsen. Feel free to join me.

Laura Cogan, Editor: I’m sorry, but all I can really think about at the moment is food. Every year around this time it’s as though my interest in cooking comes lumbering out of a deep hibernation, lured from slumber by the chill in the air and the scent of gingerbread. Still, even at peak interest, I am not a skilled or patient cook, so any recipe that makes it into my folder of favorites can’t be fussy or “fiddly” (as they say on the Great British Baking Show, where most assignments are, in fact, quite fiddly). Here are a couple that I especially enjoy, both preparing and eating.

Years ago, when I proposed shifting to a vegetarian or at least a “pescetarian” Thanksgiving meal, my family was generously accommodating. It was much easier than I expected to get everyone to abandon the turkey, which, while labor intensive, turned out not to be anyone’s favorite part of the meal. My mother’s only condition was that there must be stuffing, and I promised there would be. As it turns out, making stuffing in a dish rather than inside a raw turkey is an immeasurably more enjoyable experience. A win for everyone, especially the turkey (and germaphobes).

This recipe (while not as clearly written as it might be) turns out a reliably delicious stuffing, and conveniently offers one method with many variations; I recommend the apple and cranberry. Doubling the recipe for a large group works well, although it requires a good deal of space.

The other indispensable part of the Thanksgiving meal or seasonal baking, in my view, is pie. I’ve tried several but here is the most popular, most frequently requested pecan pie recipe I’ve made so far.

Note the generous 3 tbsp of bourbon (vs. the mere 2 tbsp suggested by many other recipes). Yes, you will taste the bourbon. If a bourbon cocktail could wrap itself in a cozy coat of chocolate and pecans and masquerade as a tipsy desert, it would be this pie.

This year I’ll be (clumsily) making it with a homemade crust, but trust me when I tell you that using a deep dish frozen pie crust is just as good, and makes it the actual simplest pie I’ve ever made. If you do use a prepared crust I highly recommend adding this step: brush the rim of the crust with an egg wash and then sprinkle with turbinado sugar. This makes it look gorgeous, and if someone happens to assume you did in fact make it from scratch I don’t see any reason to interject and correct them. Let’s not make the holidays any more difficult than necessary.

Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: There was a time when proposing a sequel to an iconic film like The Shining would have been met with outrage by the culture at large (I still remember the media pillorying Gus Van Sant received for his ’98 remake of Pyshco); but based on the dismal theatrical turnout for this year’s Doctor Sleep, it seems the general audience reaction in 2019 is indifference. Which is a shame for a number of reasons, but one of those is that—as daunting as it seems to follow up Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 1980 horror film—Doctor Sleep is really quite good.

The movie represents the finest theatrical effort yet from Mike Flanagan, a filmmaker who has built a steady resume of humanist horror films that favor character and emotion over graphic violence or hollow jump scares. Movies like Oculus and Ouija: Origin of Evil display Flanagan’s interest in familial legacy and the inheritance of trauma, culminating with last year’s exquisite Netflix mini-series The Haunting of Hill House. His ability to balance supernatural elements with character drama, not to mention his keen visual sense, made him a natural fit to adapt Stephen King’s 2013 novel Doctor Sleep.

And therein lies the challenge: how to reconcile King’s source text with The Shining’s cinematic legacy, given that King himself has long been the loudest critic of Kubrick’s adaptation. In the novel, one senses that Jack Torrance is a fundamentally good man, despite fighting a losing battle with his inner demons; onscreen, we suspect Jack Nicholson would have eventually gone axe-swinging mad even if he had never checked into the Overlook Hotel. It’s a discrepancy that has clearly always irked King, who saw his own struggles with alcoholism reflected in the character. Flanagan’s film, then, must ultimately serve two masters, but the director does so artfully, paying homage to Kubrick’s enduring visual iconography while penning a depiction of the Torrance family that is perhaps more in line with King’s vision.

To be honest, I found the experience of watching Doctor Sleep in the theater to be strangely moving. The Shining has long been one of my favorite films and, in many ways, feels like more than just a movie to me; it’s a work of art with an atmosphere so palpable that, for 146 minutes, the skeptic in me shuts off and I believe whole-heartedly in the supernatural. A viewing earlier this year felt even more magnified than before—as the Overlook Hotel is a place where evil congregates and thrives and, looking around us these last few years, that seems to be increasingly true of the world outside the movie theater as well. It makes me want to cling to what good exists in The Shining universe: the resourceful Danny Torrance and his psychic protector Tony; Shelley Duvall’s wide-eyed matriarch; the genuine warmth Scatman Crothers brought to his role. Duvall, long derided by many for her turn in the film, gives my favorite performance in The Shining; and I suppose that’s partially what made Doctor Sleep so emotionally impactful: as I watched Flanagan’s sequel, I sensed that he cared about and appreciated those same aspects of Kubrick’s film, and not just the immediately quotable moments like “Here’s Johnny!” (Alex Essoe’s performance here as Wendy Torrance serves as a lovely tribute to Shelley Duvall)

In 2019 it’s easy to feel like ‘the Shine’ has gone out of the world. Evil does persist, as evidenced by Doctor Sleep’s most difficult-to-watch scene, in which the movie’s antagonists, a pack of RV-driving vampires known as the True Knot, torture and murder a young boy in an empty lot. But Flanagan is able to end his adaptation on a hopeful note: in Doctor Sleep, we see psychic trauma serve as a bond between one generation in the next, as a middle-aged Dan Torrance fights to protect a young girl named Abra, also blessed with supernatural abilities. And it’s ultimately Dan’s same demons, when properly harnessed, that allow him to fight back against the True Knot. It’s a reminder that so many victims of abuse do not go on to inflict that same abuse on others, but instead find the courage to become counselors or mentors to those in need.

RECIPE: Not unlike our Editor, I’m always looking for an excuse to remove turkey from the Thanksgiving equation—it’s dry, it makes you sleepy, and is really only there to accentuate the stuffing and gravy, if we’re being honest. A couple years ago, I tried this honey curried roasted chicken as an alternative and now I have no reason to ever go back. Sorry, turkey!

Gabe Weiss, Intern: Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen’s novel Niels Lyhne explores the same polarities between dogmas of religion and science that we still face today. Modernist poet Rainer Maria Rilke claimed the only books he found indispensable were the Bible and Jacobsen’s novel. In his letters, he praised Niels Lyhne“In it there is nothing that does not seem to have been understood, held, lived and known in memory’s wavering echo.”

To me, it is not surprising that a sensitive poet like Rilke would suggest Niels Lyhne to young poets searching for a reason to write, as Jacobsen’s novel aims to distinguish the polarity between faith and reason. The book examines the internal struggle of a rational person with romantic ideals attempting to redefine his faith on his own terms. I suspect Rilke saw this struggle to be the same for all poets who try to shape their lives around art and tackle the burden that comes with this personal commitment.

Jacobsen himself was both a poet and a botanist, a translator of Charles Darwin, and an admirer of Kierkegaard. Through his studies, the author’s conflicting interests between science and poetry led him to believe that the illusion of the Christian faith was in conflict with the laws of nature. Much like his character Niels, Jacobsen lost his romantic partner due to these beliefs and later suffered from tuberculosis, which likely fueled the writing process of his masterwork.

Niels Lyhne is a coming of age story about a boy who feels contempt for the Christian faith that his family clings to like a crutch rather than overcome their grief and suffering through reason. Despite Niels’ indifference to organized religion, he realizes that his disapproval of God and his family’s blind devotion to Him is out of spite rather than genuine doubt. After the death of his aunt Edele, he decides to cast God out of his heart due to what he regards as a betrayal. As Niels matures, he engages in various love affairs with women who try to warn him about the consequences of idealized love. Throughout the novel, we find that many of the characters in the book seem doomed to feeling alone, from the tutor who was in love with Edele to Niels’ long affair with his friend Erik’s wife, who tries to teach him to accept what he can’t control: “We can’t hold out waging a battle against ordinary people; deep inside we think they are right because they are the ones who judge.” Jacobsen’s depicts Niels’ struggle to fill the emptiness of a godless existence and live vicariously through those very same individuals who oppose him.

While this novel is rooted in its atheistic beliefs, it also shows Niels’ gradual attainment of free will. At Edele’s funeral, Jacobsen delves into the mind of the angry pubescent who bitterly justifies his resentment of God:

“With a believing mind he had followed Jesus on his wandering of the earth. But the fact that Jesus was still subordinate to his Father, walked so powerlessly, and suffered so humanly, had concealed his Godliness from Niels; in him Niels had seen only the son of God, not God Himself, and thus it was to God the Father that he and prayed, and it was God the Father who had betrayed him in his bitter need. But if God had turning away from him, then he could also turn away from God. If God had no ears, then Niels would have no voice.”

Here Jacobsen makes the bold claim that the suffering of Christ is comparable to the same kind of betrayal that Niels felt when Edele passed away. To me, Niels Lyhne evokes the restlessness that comes when we feel dissatisfied with the beliefs that govern us in our own age. Jacobsen’s mature approach to these religious dilemmas remind us that we are living in the repercussions of historical change, and that we are still a part of an ongoing narrative, regardless of what we might think. Jacobsen’s confident approach to Athiesm as a way of life doesn’t entirely dismiss religion, for it reminds us that faith and reason are now in our own hands, and we must responsibly wield them to inspire the stories yet to be told for generations to come.

RECIPIE: Here is the recipe for the German Rotkohl my grandmother used to make for us each year.

Oscar Villalon, Managing Editor: There’s plenty that’s been said about Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, but among the movie’s rich themes worth considering is how Scorsese, who is 76, depicts aging. It is pitiless. Decrepitude is in the fore. We see his characters reduced to wheelchairs and walkers, limbs trembling, words slurred. A walk down a dark hallway becomes a life-and-death challenge. But worse, much worse, is what it would mean to be the near the end of life without love. Your friends are all dead. Your family wishes you were dead. And yet you carry on, alone in a nursing home, just regret and perplexity to keep you company.

I would suggest that it’s one thing to depict from your director’s chair, while cozy within the warm assurance of your youth, the inevitable (assuming you’re fortunate to make it that long). But it is entirely different to do so when you are in the anteroom leading to the Big Nothing. Perhaps that is why aging doesn’t come off as   a simple trope here. Rather, it feels like gospel truth. It raises the question of what are you doing with your life: are you taking care of what’s important? Will you be able to stand yourself? Can you make your peace?

Spalding Gray said everybody knows they’re going to die, but nobody believes it. The Irishman can be understood as an old man’s soliloquy wherein he no longer has the luxury of not believing. Even as he still can’t quite bring himself around to that understanding—out of fear, perhaps, of accepting how badly he misspent his life, or simply because he doesn’t feel bad about the evil he did, so what sting could dying hold, what was the point of anything?—the film’s minor-key atmosphere of gloom and sadness tells us there will be a reckoning for its titular protagonist, even if the audience doesn’t witness it. But the pathos of the old asking the door be left open a little bit for them at night, reverting to reassurances sought by an anxious child, are harrowing enough to see.

RECIPE: If you’re into egg nog, this recipe from Bi-Rite is a must (click to
pages 4-5 on the slide to find it).

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‘On Valencia Street: Poems & Ephemera’ by Jack Micheline: A Return to San Francisco’s Core

“The art world is so fucking boring it could make your heart cry,” writes the late Jack Micheline in On Valencia Street: Poems & Ephemera (133 pages; Lithic Press; edited by Tate Swindell), and it’s a phrase that neatly captures the vibrancy of Micheline’s gut-wrenching artistic project. On Valencia Street contains an array of unpublished work by the honorary Beat (Micheline purportedly derided the label of “Beat poet” as a “product of media hustle), as well as varying pieces of memorabilia, including drawings of a Basquiat-Johnston lovechild, posters for live readings, and nearly illegible notes written on napkins. Micheline’s aesthetic sense of San Francisco’s Mission District, and its streets which he so valued, has been faithfully and thoroughly catalogued here.

Though often regarded as one of the less nuanced poets of his time, it is Micheline’s straightforward style and eerie emulation of his historical moment that lifts his work off the page. Proclamations like, “The rich and poor will all die broke / We will all go naked to our maker” are the sort of moments of vulnerability and truth that endow Micheline with a profundity that defies the skew of language’s mediation. The directness of excerpts such as “You dead souls work here / No one laughs / Man gone” in “Poem on My 39th Birthday” achieve their poignancy by its plainness.

Such concepts, beautiful in their skeletal state, surface in nearly every piece and color Micheline’s work with the foundational qualities of the human condition. Distilled in “[Untitled…]” are his notions of life, death, and love: “People / Die / Because / There / Is / Nobody / To / Love / Them.” The poem is placed next to two cool-toned and slightly torn diner napkins, splattered with the blood-red figure of a boy, and in this juxtaposition a stripped down and strikingly pure emotion emanates: Micheline is not condemning the world but mourning for it.

As the book progresses, with the touch of a masterful hand, it gently elaborates and textures Micheline’s basic poetic themes. Near the end, a spread features two posters with a description of a reading: “4 Jacks / 4 Wednesdays,” listing Micheline as the last performer in the lineup. This dialectic of individual experience and homogeneous identification is an apt metaphor for Micheline’s poetry. Although his topics are some of the most common calls (as common as the name “Jack”) to poetics, they are animated by Micheline’s studied and spontaneous subjectivity. Similarly, the physical journey of discovery editor Tate Swindell undertook to produce this book, digging through old boxes in the Tucson garage of Micheline’s son, is echoed in the experience of reading On Valencia Street.

It has been twenty-one years since Micheline’s fatal heart attack during a BART ride between San Francisco and Orinda. In a moment when the city’s cultural legacy seems to be pulsing more faintly, the reproduction of his principles is affecting. His essence, possessed by the aspirations of his subversive city, finds hold in this new look at his work.

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‘We, the Survivors’ by Tash Aw: A Grim Portrait of Life Under Late Capitalism

The latest novel by Man Booker long-listed author Tash Aw offers a grim portrait of contemporary Asia under late capitalism. We, the Survivors (336 pages; FSG) traces the life of Ah Hock, a Malaysian-born citizen of Chinese heritage living a quiet life of solitude on the other side of a murder sentence. Ah Hock relays his story to a young journalist looking to shed light on the circumstances that led to Ah Hock’s violent crime, a crime he himself doesn’t quite understand. The murder is ultimately connected to Ah Hock’s former career as second-in-command at a local fish farm, as well as his longtime friendship with Keong, a hotheaded boy from his childhood village.

By most appearances, Ah Hock was once the portrait of success: raised by a single mother and accustomed to backbreaking labor in his youth, he eventually settled down with a wife and worked his way up the ranks at a booming fish farm. Yet his achievements do little to relieve the pressures of working class life at a time in Malaysia when climate change is rapidly affecting agricultural industries, and companies are increasingly relying on undocumented workers.

Ah Hock manages the foreign employees at the fish farm; these men, from countries such as India and Bangladesh, are often susceptible to illness and death due to strenuous labor, low wages, and poor living conditions. The migrant workers are treated as outcasts, even by Ah Hock. But for all of Ah Hock’s success, he is not so dissimilar to these workers, suffering as they do from the illusion that upward mobility is within reach. In reality, they are at the mercy of countless economic factors entirely outside their control:

“…the feeling of anxiety, the knowledge that the entire town depended on trade from faraway places, goods being bought and sold by people we would never know. Some politician in America decides that they can’t buy Malaysian rubber gloves; suddenly ten factories in the area have to shut down. The Europeans want to save the fucking planet so they ban the use of palm oil in food; within a month the entire port is on its knees. Life continues, but you feel it slipping quietly away, and you worry that it’ll never return. And because of that fear, you feel caught in a suspended state. On the outside, life seems normal, but inside it’s drawn to a standstill.”

Told in a conversational tone, We, the Survivors is peppered with pop culture references to Hong Kong stars like Andy Lau and Leslie Cheung, and presents a matter-of-fact acceptance of life’s harsh circumstances. Through their repeated interviews, Ah Hock develops something like a fatherly affection for the young woman recording his narrative, though there remains between them an invisible barrier defined by her privileged background and urban life versus his more rural, impoverished existence.

Tash Aw’s skills as a writer lull us into a sense of comfortable familiarity with Ah Hock, which registers as disturbing when one remembers he is a convicted murderer. There are no easy answers at the end of We, the Survivors—and there shouldn’t be: this is a stark rendering of Southeast Asia in the 21st century, a region barreling toward an uncertain future at the speed of modernity. It’s an outlook shaped by the ravages of climate change, by a society that treats its migrant population something subhuman, and by rampant corruption. Yet thanks to Ah Hock’s striking voice, the novel is never less than a pleasurable read.

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‘In the Dream House’ by Carmen Maria Machado: No Mere Confessional

Carmen Maria Machado’s new book, In the Dream House (264 pages; Graywolf Press), begins with a statement of intention. Machado, the author of the acclaimed story collection Her Body and Other Parties, tells us she has written a memoir to add her story of queer domestic violence to the catalog of contemporary literature: “I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon,” she writes, “and that it can look something like this.”

Depictions of intimate partner violence between women have been largely left out of our collective culture, Machado tells us, warping our understanding of it as a phenomenon. It was imperative, then, that she share her own story of abuse. “I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice;” she writes, “measure the emptiness by its small sound.” Machado then considers the value of the memoir as a genre, noting its unique capabilities to uncover and contextualize truths. Fundamentally, every memoir is “an act of resurrection.”

She both summons the past and reanimates her former self; she bends genre to her will, excavates meaning from chaos. She reconstructs the limits of form and narrative and structure, delivering a spectacular literary performance.

In often harrowing detail, Machado recounts an abusive relationship that commandeered her life. In graduate school, she met and fell for a beautiful woman, who remains unnamed throughout the book. Instead, she is referred to as “your girlfriend,” or, more chillingly, “the Woman in the Dream House.” Their courtship is lovely and lusty, something plucked from a dream: “Sometimes when you catch her looking at you,” Machado writes, “you feel like the luckiest person in the whole world.” But the relationship quickly devolves into an emotionally, verbally, and psychologically abusive one: “Sometimes when you catch her looking at you, you feel like she’s determining the best way to take you apart.”

Throughout the memoir, Machado refers to her past self in the second person. It isn’t until she has escaped her abuser and regained her agency that she reclaims the first-person pronoun. There are two Carmens, she tells us: “I was cleaved: a neat lop that took first person […] away from second.” In the Dream House, then, is an attempt at wholeness, at reconciling these two selves. “I thought you died,” Machado confesses about her other half, “but writing this, I’m not sure you did.”

Machado wields language like a weapon then applies it like a salve. Her craftsmanship is especially evident in the structure of the book, which is styled as a series of vignettes, each playing with form and centered around a specific genre or trope: “Dream House as Lesbian Pulp Novel,” “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure,” “Dream House as Chekov’s Gun,” to name only a few. With each iteration of the Dream House, Machado opens a new avenue of literary exploration. But this isn’t about showing off Machado’s ability to deftly vault between genres (though she certainly can). Every new incarnation of the Dream House gives us a new line of sight, another perspective through which we can construct reality.

Machado dissects the complexities of abuse, love, sex, and violence, all through a distinctly queer lens. She realizes that abuse at the hands of another queer woman feels like a unique betrayal — torture at the hands of one of your own. And because abuse between queer women is so widely ignored, it becomes easier to perpetrate. “I am doing this because I can get away with it; I can get away with it because you exist on some cultural margin, some societal periphery.”

In the Dream House is no mere confessional: Machado also widens her aperture to analyze our larger culture. She tackles depictions of queerness and abuse, from Star Trek to Vertigo to Gaslight, investigating the ways in which abusers ensnare and manipulate their targets. And through a plethora of footnotes, which connect moments in Machado’s life to Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, she irreverently considers how tropes manifest in reality. The footnotes are a sort of book-long wink, a running joke with literary roots; they are painfully clever.

Spending time with Machado inside the Dream House can feel uncomfortable, even claustrophobic—this is by design. It’s on us to linger in that discomfort, to feel—even just temporarily—as trapped and forsaken as Machado has. (This is the resurrection that memoir is capable of—not just the resurrection of people and places, but of ephemeral feelings.) Reading her memoir could in a sense destroy you, but it will reconstruct you, too, leaving you better than before you found it.

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‘The Promise’ by Silvina Ocampo: Remembering How to Die

In The Promise (120 pages; City Lights Publishers; translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Powell) the nameless narrator, after falling over the handrail of a transport ship, recollects her life in a disparate series of largely character-based vignettes as she waits to drown or be rescued at sea. As she comes to in the ocean, she promises Saint Rita that in exchange for her life she will commit to publishing a book documenting a “dictionary of memories that are at times shameful, even humiliating.” And so the lone novel by the prolific Argentine author Silvina Ocampo (1903-1993) becomes a brief study of memory, examining how those facing imminent death attempt to plug the holes of their past with the many meaningful scenes—minutiae reimagined, acquaintances revisited, and action relived—that constitute a life lived.

Perhaps what’s most interesting and impressive about Ocampo’s investigation of the mind is just how collective the retelling becomes. Our protagonist does not so much retell the scenes of her life as recount scenes of the lives of others in relation to her, acting more as a voyeur than a direct participant. Even when a potent sensual memory is conjured it is not the narrator’s memory that’s evoked but the imagined memory of another character,:

He caught a whiff of her hair that emanated a dirty brush smell in the heat, like the heads of those people in his childhood kneeling in confessionals, smelling of cheap perfume and powders, of barbershop pomade.

This tactic raises intriguing questions about what is real and what is imagined in one’s mind. Ocampo, whose sister Victoria founded the legendary literary journal Sur and whose husband was Adolfo Bioy Casares, suggests it is not merely the fact of what happened, but rather the reality of a feeling that may or may not have occurred that stamps itself indelibly upon us.

Entire passages, pages even, repeat themselves throughout the book. As Ernesto Montequín states in the introduction, this repetition is by design, and serves to offer additional perspectives or small variants to the narrative, reshaping the narrator’s identity. In short, this tactic demystifies the idea that memory is stable, suggesting its very nature is nebulous.

The protagonist also seems acutely aware of the revisions taking place. A distant unpleasant memory in Palermo is now fondly remembered:

Those times when I felt unhappy now seem so joyful, when my nephews would get their hands so filthy playing with dirt that when we’d return to my sister’s house, instead of taking a bath or going to the movies, I’d have to clean their nails with Carpincho saddle soap…

But while most of the “action” of the novel lies in a fictionalized past, the most intense moments arise when the narrator takes the reader back into the present, into her drowning. Often whole sections and trains of thought are sharply cut off, jolting us out of a reverie such as in this passage that follows a particularly emotional encounter between two characters: 

Poor Irene. She didn’t like the water. Sometimes we would go swimming in the river, but she almost always stayed on the bank. What would she think of the ocean, this ocean that surrounds me! She would have died a thousand times over already. There’s too much water to cry. Wouldn’t my eyes drown?

As The Promise unfolds, we learn this is not a story about an individual’s persistence, but rather the persistence—sometimes to the point of being oppressive—of the memory of an individual. Her “mental journey or itinerary” through her past begins as a way of staying awake to stave off death, but soon morphs into something altogether different. Later, when she appears to finally be ready to accept her fate, her mind rejects the idea entirely. “Dying is the only sure thing. Now I can finally die. But how to do it? It’s as impossible as ever.”

These are the moments that elevate The Promise into a higher echelon of letters; simultaneously, death proves evasive and nostalgia serves as a survival tactic. All the while readers get to witness the wondrous tightrope act Ocampo performs, traipsing back and forth between past and present. It’s soon evident that failures and inconsistencies along the way are not cause for concern, but reason to celebrate the potential of our own memories.

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Q&A with Heather Christle: ‘The Crying Book’ and a Nourishment from Sharing

Over the course of The Crying Book (208 pages; Catapult Press), Heather Christle examines the phenomenon of crying from every possible angle: social, cultural, biological, and historical. She asks the tough questions, ones that science still can’t answer: Why do we cry? And what does it mean to cry? Christle’s inquiry is rigorously researched, but it is also deeply personal. While she was writing The Crying Book, she was doing a lot of crying herself, grappling with depression, mourning the passing of a dear friend, and preparing to become a mother.

The scope of The Crying Book is surprisingly vast—we learn as much about crying as we do about grief, art, motherhood, and Christle’s life. As she conducts and shares her painstaking research, she is also intimately attuned to her pain; she weaves together her examination of crying with her personal experiences, studying tears while shedding them herself. The result is a book that is as informative as it is profoundly moving. ZYZZYVA spoke to Christle, whose poetry was published in Issue No. 114, about The Crying Book via email.

ZYZZYVA: Throughout The Crying Book, you play with the relationship between researcher and subject, and you’re constantly straddling the line between the two. On the one hand you’re conducting a meticulous, thoughtful study of crying; on the other, you are the often the one who is doing the crying. Can share a bit about your experience as both a researcher and subject while writing the book, and if there was any tension between those two roles? 

HEATHER CHRISTLE: I think I felt that tension not as discomfort (which the metaphor of tension often expresses), but more literally as a physical sensation of being stretched in different directions. There would be moments when I was crying, or when I was with someone who was crying, and I would both be in that space and simultaneously recall some fact about crying that would make my awareness shift. It made me feel I was in several places at once, with a string of consciousness held taut between them. On the whole, I think it helped me maintain my humility, knowing that my reading would not release me from being a crier, from being described.

Z: In many ways, The Crying Book is as much about mental illness as it is about crying, and the book contains some of the most lucid (and accurate) descriptions of depression that I’ve read. You personify despair so that it becomes this parasitic but still authoritative presence, one with a clear agenda. “Despair,” you write, “wants me not to know the difference between itself and me.” Was it challenging to describe despair so precisely, or was it liberating to put it into words? 

HC: I didn’t experience it as a challenge, but nor was it exactly liberating. I feel the same satisfaction about shaping an accurate description of despair that I do about shaping an accurate description of other events, I think. It would be nice to be liberated from despair, but for me it does not work that way. This is true of writing about anything personal. I mean, describing—for instance—the way an elderly man on an overnight flight last week kept waking me because he was overcome by the need to whistle the kind of tune that says “I am nonchalantly waiting for time to pass and generally happy to do so, though this very whistle suggests I require your recognition of this circumstance and therefore my good-natured patience has certain limits around it” feels pleasant, but it can’t make me any less tired. The describing makes something else happen. It generates a new sensation, but does not, for me, replace the one being described.

Z: You touch on the experience of crying in public, and the shame that can be attached to that. You talk about how some people might “hide behind a lie about allergies or a cold,” and about how people on airplanes devise special methods to conceal their crying (men hiding under blankets, women pretending to have something in their eye). In your research, what did you learn about the relationship between crying and shame, especially in regards to crying being seen as a (gendered) sign of weakness? 

HC: First off, I feel like it’s important to note that virtually all the research I encountered around gender and crying treated sex and gender as binary and synonymous. I would love to read a study that took a more accurate view. (This seems totally doable! If there can be a “feminist, anti-colonial lab specializing in monitoring plastic pollution,” why not one specializing in tears?) So, with a recognition of the limits of the currently available information, I’d say that shame and crying can be very intertwined, that crying need not feel shameful, but if an audience—real or imagined—responds to a person’s tears with disgust or annoyance, shame can result. The quality of the response of that audience is often rooted in the identity of the crier, and whether they see the crier’s tears as appropriate, given all the expectations they might have for a person inhabiting their particular identities. Lastly, I’ll just say that there can be enormous gaps between the stories people tell about their beliefs about crying and gender (as a sign of strength, weakness, power, vulnerability, etc.) and how they actually respond when in physical proximity to tears (whether their own or others’).

Z: I’m fascinated by this image you posted on Twitter of a tool you used to edit The Crying Book, which envisions the book’s various strands as colored squares on a grid. I think this grid does a great job of demonstrating visually how complex but thematically unified the work is. Can you talk a little bit about this visualization, how it came to be, and perhaps clue us in to what a few of the strands are? 

HC: It was so helpful to make this chart. I was struggling to maintain (or even create) a sense of the book as a whole, to apprehend its entirety. Any moment I examined felt like it had its own centrality, like it insisted on all the rest of the book being seen in relation to it in particular. I had to take action to make the book into something other than words, and to contain it within a single page. I knew if I did that, I could hold each moment in place and understand the entirety of their relations at once. And adjust them! Yellow represented science; green represented language and literature. I assigned shades of blue to different phases of my own life. Some passages contained only one color; others had several, and so the line of the book thickens and thins across the page. It would be hard for me to overstate how soothing this process was. I kept my colored pencils very sharp.

Z: In your Author’s Note, you talk about how conversations with friends helped shape the book, saying it would have been “impossible to write this book without their company.” What are the roles of collaboration and conversation in your creative process, both as a poet and an author?

HC: So much of The Crying Book is about the relationships between things, between ideas, places, people. Formally, that’s at the core of the book. I am endlessly curious about what happens when entities are in conversation, what unexpected angles they illuminate in each other. Early in my poet life, I witnessed Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer composing collaborative poems one word at a time, in front of an audience. I was enthralled; I was inside the poem, watching it build. For a long time after, I made poems that way on my own, one word at a time, feeling where the language could go. I love to be inside friendship as well, to watch it grow and change, to watch how we shape and hold each other. Conversation, when it is real, when it moves beyond recitation, is one of the great joys of my life. At the most basic level I learn so much of what I should read from my friends, and The Crying Book is hugely influenced by that, but the gift of their company is so much more. Company! The ones with whom one eats bread! I love this etymology. I love the sense that nourishment comes not just from food, but from its sharing.

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‘Black Card’ by Chris L. Terry: A Satirical Look at Racial Identity in America

Chris L. Terry’s new satirical and funny novel, Black Card (272 pages; Counterpoint), challenges ideas about race and identity as it follows its unnamed mixed-race narrator as he navigates the complex world of the punk rock scene in the American South, trying to understand where and how he can fit in—or if he can ever fit in. Structured episodically, Terry’s novel manages to address specific and thematically relevant incidents of the narrator’s life minus an overwhelming page count.

“I was finally black again,” the novel begins, in 1997. “I sat on my bed, waiting for proof. Gray smoke oozed under my bedroom door and through the crack where the windowpane met frame.” The novel itself—like its opening line—walks a tightrope of humor and introspection. In Black Card, race is something one can lose or keep, and to obtain it you need an ally not unlike one found in a video game: somebody who tests your knowledge and then hands you a necessary item for the next task. The ally here is Lucius, who, after reviewing the events of the last few months, finds that the protagonist is finally entitled to his Black Card.

“I hereby bestow you with this Black Card. Carry it with you, as proof that you’re one of us, because …” He squinted and started to read from the back of the card, “This card entitles the brotha or sista who bears it to all black privileges, including but not limited to: Use of the n-word, permission to wear flip-flops and socks, extra large bottles of lotion, use of this card as a stand-in for the Big Joker in a spades game, and most important, a healthy and vocal skepticism of white folks aka crackers aka honkies. To be renewed in five years, upon evaluation.”

Five years later, the twenty-something protagonist finds himself crashing with his band at the home of a family that throws around the n-word like confetti at a wedding. This scene serves as the apex of a section of the novel where the narrator has already had his white bandmates ask him asinine questions about black culture, been mistaken for light-skinned famous and non-famous black men, and asked to perform all of the rap songs at karaoke night for the all-white audience. Because the narrator does not say or do anything about any of these indignities, he loses his Black Card.

“This ain’t your first time playing dumb tonight,” said Lucius…“It’s not yours no more. You let those crackers act a fool and didn’t say a damn thing. Your pale, mixed ass just sat there like some sorta white boy. So, that’s what you are. You ain’t black no more.’”

With his Black Card revoked, the narrator sets out to reclaim it. This literal quest allows Terry’s novel to explore the concept of identity, those we choose (like writer or Cross-Fit enthusiast) and those thrust upon us (like those associated with the color of one’s skin).

Eventually, the narrator is liberated from his vexing quest when he realizes there is nothing he needs to do to be black. He is black, and therefore everything he does is black and part of black culture, whether he plays hip-hop or punk rock, or works in a coffee shop or goes to college. “It was black people listening to black music. I was a black person playing black music. My experiences were black, even though they weren’t the ones I’d seen on TV and pieced together from Lucius.”

Black Card’s critical look at racial identity in America sees the cracks in everything and calls out everyone, the narrator included. It’s a brilliant comedy that speaks to what America is right now.

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How to help those affected by the California fires

Northern California is once again faced with wildfires. We encourage you
to explore this link from the Northern California Grantmakers on ways
you can help the many people displaced by the fires. NCG provides a
number of options, including vetted wildfire relief and
recovery funds such as the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and the
Solano Disaster Relief Fund.

Please feel free to share links to similar relief efforts in the
Comments below.

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