Category Archives


Interviews with Current and Past Contributors, as well as with Other Writers, Poets, and Artists

Q&A with Daniel Handler: ‘Bottle Grove’ and a Changing San Francisco

In Daniel Handler’s seventh novel, Bottle Grove (227 pages; Bloomsbury), which was published in the fall, San Francisco gets both a kiss on the cheek and a flick to the ear. For those who have lived in the city for two or more decades, the novel has a magnetism perhaps unfelt by others who’ve only known the place in its most recent incarnation—as that of a giant Lego set, one pulled apart and restacked according to the heedless whims of the tech industry. Handler, a longtime San Franciscan, evokes the city in its beloved pre-boom familiarity, but because he’s telling a contemporary story, it’s free of nostalgia.

The narrative, one of changing identities and shifting desires—both carnal and financial—among various men and women from different social strata (bartenders and moguls, the struggling and the ensconced), is pleasingly dream-like. The settings all suggest the “inner” neighborhoods of the Richmond and Sunset districts, those places where you can still hear the foghorns sound, and where the stands of trees and blustery gray weather supply its streets with an eternal quality, as if it were a place out of the mist, outside of time. (And years ago, a feeling only reinforced when waiting an eternity for a requested taxi to pick you up.) There’s a cozy quality to the book, too, with people ducking into bars to avoid the cold rain or much worse, and a strong sense of how disparate people so easily cross paths here. (San Francisco has been called an urban village for good reason.)

Via email, Handler, in his humorous fashion, talked to us about his latest novel, about identity and desire, and about the state of our city.

ZYZZYVA: The impossibilities and absurdities of marriage and coupling are a theme of Bottle Grove, and there’s an air of A Midsummer’s Night Dream to it. People unsure of who or what they want; people living as in a haze, and somewhat surprised with whom they finally wind up with. Could you talk about this particular lens—loopy, almost slapstick—in which the novel examines romantic love?

Daniel Handler: This was the tone I wanted throughout, both in examining how marriage changes and how a city changes. Quick, impulsive decisions you have to live with, influences that are difficult to trace but impossible to escape, waking up a changed person, in a changed environment, wondering exactly what the hell happened. This is why it made sense to structure it like a pop album: where something impulsive gets pinned down and recorded, and then means something different every time you listen.

Z: The characters in the novel, all to some degree, are protean. But that leads the reader to a wider consideration—why don’t we consider cities, despite the abundance of evidence for this, as shape-shifters themselves? It’s as with people, don’t you think? When they change seemingly abruptly it’s upsetting and confusing.

DH: With a city, we’re always wondering what we can change that still makes it the town we love. Is it still San Francisco without Lucca Ravioli, or the Sutro Baths? And yes, it’s something similar with people. Is my friend still the same friend if he becomes a father? An addict? Successful? Bottle Grove tries to expand these ideas into the melodramatic, the better to look at them more closely, I hope.

Z: Do you think it’s being able to see traces of what you knew—traits that sparked your love for a person or a place—amid newer perhaps unappealing details that alienate us from that person or place? Or is there something else going on? A reminder of how little we seemingly control about our lives?

DH: It is always bracing to be reminded we are not the hockey player, or even the stick; we are the puck. But the more you stay in a place, the more every square block, every eye’s view, has ghosts behind it. You end up like a car working for Google Earth, updating but never forgetting.

Z: I was struck by the sheer amount of drinking in the book. It’s copious and invites the reader into a demimonde that I find to be characteristically San Franciscan. That is, the many delicious dives that stretch across the city; that particular pastime of day drinking in North Beach or the Mission during the workweek. Or are those things anachronisms now?

DH: Surely they’re only as anachronistic as artists in San Francisco, which is to say, hunted to nearly extinction. But I think chemical influence on consciousness has a long history in all interesting places. And a good bar is still such a fascinating gathering place: regulars and tourists, the coupled and the lonely, people out for a good time and people out to escape a bad one—all kinds of overlaps that might not otherwise occur without liquid assistance.

Z: At the risk of further romanticizing an already romanticized city, do you think there’s something about the windy, foggy weather of San Francisco that makes those bars further alluring? I’m thinking here of the pubs you can find in the Richmond and Sunset districts, complete with fireplaces and backgammon boards. Interestingly, it’s the same sort of weather that makes one want to hunker down and read for hours.

DH: A friend and I are reading The Odyssey together, out loud, in different dive bars. What I love is not only all the bars—different but the same—sprinkled through the city, what I love is that our endeavor isn’t very different from everyone else’s singular missions. Everyone’s there for something.

Z: One of the ever-fascinating aspects of San Francisco is how many pockets of neighborhoods exist within its tight quarters; a stretch of street seemingly untouched by whatever giant transformations are underway. “Bottle Grove” evokes that cloistered coziness, I think. Was that your intention?

DH: Absolutely. All the unsung neighborhoods and their short blocks of little businesses

Z: The novel would suggest that that very coziness—that sense of security in knowing you have a place you belong to—is being menaced, no?

DH: I think we’re in the process of learning if we’re really being menaced, or just feeling like it. But feeling like you’re being menaced, as with feeling like you’re in love or feeling like you’re thirsty, is kind of the same thing.

Z: Bottle Grove is full of many literary referents, and one of its delights is that you can be ignorant of all of them but still enjoy the novel. But could you tell us more about Reynaud the Fox, for whom one of the characters is named? What drew you to employing such an ancient figure in your novel?

DH: I was just starting to think about this book when I spotted a fox in my neighborhood—a startling site that, along with coyotes, has since become commonplace. I started reading about foxes and saw that, unlike other animals, the fox is given the same personality all over the world: conniving, amoral, often in disguise. It was such a perfect spirit for what I was trying to capture, and before long I discovered Renyard the Fox, an old French text, alternately funny and terrifying, that often uses romantic love as a plot device to explore how little we know. It seemed fair to nick his name.

Z: What is your greatest trepidation about how San Francisco has changed in the past decade? And what has been an unexpected delight?

DH: The income inequality is the worst—forcing more and more interesting people out of the city and bringing in a sort of wealthy playground sort that’s really no fun.

On the plus side, though, you no longer have to rely on taxis to get home.

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Q&A with Seth Borgen: ‘If I Die in Ohio’ and Some Extraordinarily Unremarkable True Thing

The stories in Seth Borgen’s collection If I Die in Ohio (160 pages; New American Press), winner of the New American Fiction Prize, are like bars where I have learned more about people and about writing than anywhere else, except perhaps from books. And like those bars, they are places where people who would never have crossed paths come together—a retired, well-known architect and a young high school dropout, for example; a slacker, stoner, atheist and a Mormon. The characters do not seek each other out, but once they do, something happens. Nothing huge or life-changing but something that helps combat the loneliness and the despair, the inability to make decisions, to leave or to stay, or to love.

Borgen’s characters, while not transformed, are still are able to get up the next morning. They are sometimes even a little bit stronger or more hopeful, like you might be after a night talking to a stranger in a bar. You don’t walk out of there less lonely or knowing what to do with your life, but later you wonder how the other is doing, whether they got home okay, and hope today will be a better day for both of you, and then, maybe it is.

The following interview with Borgen, who lives in Akron, Ohio, where he teaches creative writing and writes full-time, about his first book of stories was conducted via email.

ZYZZYVA: A lot of your characters are men who can’t act or make a change even if it means they’re miserable. Is this the American archetype now, the new hero in a botched society?

Seth Borgen: I don’t know if it’s a new hero, but it sure is a lot of men. More and more, it seems men are raised to be vessels of inaction. They’re given very strict guidelines regarding what it means to be a man, which happens to include being ashamed of the existence of their own emotions. The moment life gives them something they don’t expect, they’re not prepared to handle it. They shut down. The light goes out and it can’t light again.

Some of the stories are perhaps born out of my own anxiety over becoming one of those men who do and value all of the things culture tells them to minus the emotional infrastructure to adapt or change. But more than that, as a writer, I’m fascinated by the processes that lead to inaction rather than action and that being able to capture that formless thing is a more meaningful depiction of the world.

The line on me back in workshops was that nothing ever happens in my stories. And I was always like, yeah, because nothing ever does. Where I come from, my people don’t act. They die inside their own lives but still breathe and walk around and buy stuff for two, three more decades. And I think that’s people from a lot of places. And I don’t think that makes their stories any less worthy.

Z: Can you talk about how you came up with the seeds for some of your stories? Mormons, ice-sculpting, any others you are interested in.

SB: Short stories tend to come from some combination of two places—from someplace within the writer or from someplace beyond the writer. Sometimes what we’re doing is litigating or relitigating personal experiences. The other times, we’re like professional stenographers following around people who don’t exist and we have absolutely no idea what they’re going to do or say next. For the former, the writing is an act of will. For the latter, it is an act of discovery. Personally, I’m more interested in the discovery. I’m more the stenographer than the litigator. Actually, what I am is one of those bugs that carries around on its back every bit of junk and debris it finds. My stories tend to begin with some extraordinarily unremarkable true thing. An image or a feeling or part of a feeling. I carry it with me and, over time, people, places, entire worlds that have absolutely nothing to do with me build up around that zygote of an idea.

For example, there was a time I went to the same bar several nights in a row. To get to the bar, I had to cut through an alley. That first night, there was a discarded ice sculpture in the alley tipped on its side like it was drunk or dead. Because it was winter, it was there the next night and the next night. That image, and what it felt like to step over that piece of ice four, five days in a row eventually became “I Really Can’t Stay,” a story that bears virtually no resemblance to anything that actually happened to me. The origins of most of my short stories follow a similar pattern.

Z: Were you really studying to be a dentist? Are you glad you decided to be a writer?

SB: I never actually studied dentistry. I just wish that I had every day. And talk about it, like, all the time. What I like about dentistry is the idea of clear objectives and quantifiable goals. On any given day, you might have to fill five cavities and perform a root canal. You know exactly when you’re done for the day. With nothing left on your list, you leave and who you are away from work resumes.

When you write for a living, you’re never not working. It’s all working. There’s no leaving the office and winding down because the office is inside your stupid brain. Every day you wonder, Did I do enough? Did I write enough? Was it good enough? What part of myself did I leave on the page today? Am I still a person? And, you know what, there really aren’t satisfying answers to these questions we ask ourselves every day. I might be wrong, but I just feel that if I were a dentist, I’m not sure how often I’d leave work asking myself if I’m still a person.

Z: How did growing up in Ohio influence your writing? People who have never lived there like to think of it only in political terms, as a battleground state. How was it different from the South and your experiences there at the University of Mississippi, where you received your MFA?

SB: I was raised in the suburbs of Akron, little homogenized hamlets that largely grew out of populations fleeing dying cities. I did my undergraduate work in Columbus at Ohio State, a college laid out more like a sprawling, steam-belching factory than a college. And no matter where you stand in Columbus, if the wind is blowing in a particular way, you can smell the farms. So, as a state, are we industrial or rural? Both and neither. Are our best days ahead or behind? Both and neither. Every election cycle, is Ohio blue or is it red? It’s both and neither. Being from Ohio means being defined by the absence of a clear definition. We have a little of everything and an abundance of nothing. Born out of that absence of a clearly defined identity is a sort of perpetual frozen pragmatism. It’s a self-defense mechanism—a survival mode that never shuts off.

I feel like that frozen pragmatism is everywhere in my writing. And then I did my graduate work in Mississippi. Before moving to Mississippi, I didn’t fully understand that Northern fiction was a thing and Southern fiction was a thing. I didn’t fully grasp the ways in which individual writers could be coming out of traditions that were larger than they were. I mean, I was pretty dumb. Everyone else in the program probably knew that already, but, boy, I sure didn’t. So, anyway, there I was, a very northern writer suddenly immersed in the South and its literature. The result, I’ve come to understand, is an accidental and haphazard layer of otherworldly dreaminess woven into my precious frozen pragmatism. The result of that, I’m not claimed as a Northern writer or a Southern writer, which is very, very Ohio.

Z: You have three stories in your collection that take place in another time in history that are quite different from each other. How did this come about? How is writing about another time period different from writing about the present?

SB: Most of my stories are set in some version of the past, whether that’s clearly established in the text or not. That’s largely because I’m not particularly drawn to characters who carry smart phones. But, yes, sometimes a story decides it’s necessary that we go way far back. And, for selfish reasons, I’m glad when that happens. A segregated lake in 1952. An Akron slum in 1919. A swanky hotel in 1920 Paris. The more removed a character is from who I am, the easier the writing becomes. When the characters are nothing like me and they are inhabiting worlds that are nothing like my world, I’m less inclined to ruin my stories by asking myself what I would do.

On top of that, I appreciate the ways in which the past offers an illusion of knowability. The past feels to me like a ship that’s already sunk. The wreckage can be explored and studied and parts of it might be salvaged. But the present feels more like a ship in the process of sinking. It’s hard to reflect meaningfully on anything while holding on for dear life. Fuck today, really. Today is dumb. There are other writers more adept at sorting that out.

Z: People love to know about process, so this is my process question: How do you do your best thinking about your characters and stories?

SB: I don’t know if this will be of much use to anyone else, but, for me, the most crucial information when unlocking a character is their name and what they do for a living. And as annoying as it is to say this, their names and professions are not up to me. They choose to reveal that information or they don’t. If they do, everything else begins to fall into place. If they don’t, they stay strangers. The story or book doesn’t get written. Before I start a story, it’s like I’m barely awake in a dark room looking for a coffee cup. I absolutely know the coffee is there, but it doesn’t matter what I know or what I think I know if I can’t find the handle. The name and profession is my handle. There are writers, probably a lot of them, who name their characters whatever they want and move on. And who’s to say that’s not a better way. It sounds a lot faster, if nothing else.

Z: What authors or books have you learned the most from?

SB: I was in my late teens when it hit me that I was going to write books and stories for the rest of my life. I was desperate to become a better writer and I was the wettest clay I would ever be. And when that’s where you are, something finds you. What found me was a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald stories on tape. Tapes, if you can believe that. Each story was read by a different celebrity. Parker Posey. Blythe Danner. Campbell Scott absolutely crushing “May Day.” And for years, those tapes were the only things I listened to in my car. A thousand trips between Columbus and Akron. To Birmingham and back multiple times. That strange combination of passive and active absorption, it altered my DNA. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was developing a more three-dimensional relationship with language and character than I would have otherwise. That has never left me.

I had many life-altering relationships with books and stories since then and before then and during that time. I was reading Richard Ford’s Rock Springs when I finally figured out why being a writer has any value whatsoever. Good writing puts into words things that have always been true about ourselves but we never had words for them before. And then that new understanding helps us live. I was reading Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America when I realized there were levels of good I’d never achieve and that’s totally OK because there can’t be two Lorrie Moores. But nothing is more responsible for what kind of writer I became—for good or bad—than those tapes.

Z: Why do you write, and don’t say because you have to. Well, you can say that, but you have to explain why.

SB: I think most lives come down to some personalized version of keeping the chaos at bay. Everything wants to kill us. Everything wants to run right over us and make us nothing. And it will, eventually. For me, writing is my version of keeping the chaos at bay. We get through so much of what we get through by telling ourselves that there’s got to be some meaning to all of this. So I comb through the vast garbage can of human existence and the much smaller garbage can of my own personal experiences looking for scraps of meaning. That’s where it started, but I had options back then. I could have done other things. But that’s not really true anymore. Existentially, I wouldn’t do anything else if I could. Pragmatically, I’m not really qualified to do much else at this point. The fallback options used to be things like newspapers, magazines, video stores, teaching. All that’s basically gone now. In a way, that’s a good thing. The cake is baked. People who pay people to do things don’t want to hire me and I don’t want to work for them. We’ve all decided that writing really is what I should be doing with myself. I fantasize about becoming a dentist. But I’d be a fucking terrible, miserable dentist.

Anne Raeff’s second novel, Winter Kept Us Warm (2018), won the silver medal for the California Book Award for Fiction. Her short story collection, The Jungle Around Us, won the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Raeff’s next novel, Only the River, will be published in May 2020. Her wife, novelist Lori Ostlund, was the judge for the New American Fiction Prize awarded to Seth Borgen.

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Q&A with Cristina García: ‘Here in Berlin’ and Writing in Cuban

Cristina García author photoFidel 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.

Continue reading

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Q&A with Brandon Shimoda: ‘The Grave on the Wall’ and Writing with Ghosts

Brian Shimoda book The Grave on the WallHow to capture a life, how to represent it, is a difficult if necessary question to address in writing. Brandon Shimoda’s The Grave on the Wall (222 pages; City Lights Books) relentlessly contends with this concern as it recounts the story of Midori Shimoda, the author’s grandfather, within the entangled histories of immigration, Japanese incarceration during World War II, mourning, and memory. The book is also an examination of writing itself, the mechanism available for, and sometimes burdened with, conveying these stories; with relaying and reimagining them, opening them to visitation.

A chronicle of the living and the dead and the places where delineation between the two is impossible (and perhaps inaccurate) to locate, The Grave on the Wall composes a careful, often prescient look into what it means to remember someone, and in the process, to build an understanding of oneself. Or if not an understanding, a vision: Shimoda is a poet, and this book––while technically a nonfiction memoir––holds space for the uncertainty and song of the lyric. The Grave is not a book of poems, Shimoda explains. But it could be a book of poetry.

This is an important book. In the ever-coming present of government-imposed trauma and concentration camps and graves, its importance is years in the making. Shimoda, who lives in Tucson, Arizona, discussed The Grave on the Wall with ZYZZYVA via email.

ZYZZYVA: The role of the grave, both as place and concept, is traced and transfigured throughout The Grave on the Wall. Much of your prose centers on the visiting or imagining of graves––the African burial ground, a home in the northern Japanese region of Tohoku destroyed by a tsunami, a photograph of Midori. Many of the graves visited are built intentionally, meant to memorialize a person or event. Others, however, such as the photograph, unexpectedly present themselves as graves; graves that are revealed rather than fashioned, which seem to have agential power outside of any human-directed scheme. The book itself might also be said to function as a kind of grave, offering a place where loss can be recalled, visited. This is all to say, who produces a grave, if anybody? Do all people (places, memories), once dead, have one?

BRANDON SHIMODA: A place “where loss can be recalled, visited.” That is an incredible definition of a book.

I wish I could sit with these questions longer and let the answers grow, like moss or vines or fog, around me. Then maybe they would become my grave, or one of them: the ruin that follows the invitation to think about what I have done, or what I, or we, are doing…

My impulse is to say (because I don’t know, but will likely find out exactly how little I know in the hours or minutes before I die) that we all produce graves not only once we are dead but while we are still alive, because a grave marks anywhere a part of us has ended, and parts of us are always ending. Or as I wrote in The Grave on the Wall: “A grave is anywhere we leave an unrepeatable part of ourselves. A part that has broken away.” To which I would add: a part that has been arrested. A part that has been unrealized, unconsummated, starved, stripped, stolen, disappeared. A part that has died. I think about the places we go, or can go, to visit or revisit those moments when part of us ended, or died. Those places are graves. And the things, including people, a person’s face, who remind us—not out loud but by the fact of their being—of those moments, are graves, too: ritual graves, where we go to visit or revisit, often unconsciously or without wanting to, those moments.

The insularity and isolation of graveyards is absurd, dishonest, frustrating. Although I love them, I don’t understand them, because they prioritize, among other things, culmination and finality, while diminishing or utterly rejecting the fact that death is a multifarious and omnipresent interweaving.

Have you ever visited a place where a part of you or your life ended?

There are so many places, even right here where I live, where I, when I go or pass by, am startled into the awareness of being in or passing by a place where a former version or aspect of myself remained, was not carried forward. Then I begin to see, everywhere, across the landscape of my life, therefore everyone’s lives, all of these markers: a date, a description of what ended:

Here lies the love that was felt…

Here lies the dream that motivated a year…

Are they always losses?

But there is a difference between one’s own grave and the graves of others, and the meaning they embody and offer to each visitor, each mourner, each remaining, looking over. And the enormous consideration of who or what is given the power or right or space to nominate and/or claim and/or legislate and/or maintain the grave or graves, and the equally enormous consideration of who is permitted access to and/or withheld and/or prevented and/or barred from the grave, and the equally enormous consideration of those graves that have been disappeared, by force, from existence.

I was thinking about the people who have been dispossessed of, or withheld from, their graves. It is, to me, similar to people who have been dispossessed of their corpses. The people who were turned, in less than a second, to ash, in Hiroshima, on the morning of August 6, 1945, for example. The dispossession of a vital transition: between one phase of existence and another.

What happens to the soul of a person whose body has been dispossessed of one of its vital transitions: from life to corpse, from corpse to grave?

There are, I think, others…

The ruin that follows the invitation…

Z: In recounting and uncovering your grandfather’s story, government documents –– such as Midori’s FBI file –– constitute a central component of your research. How did you approach crafting a work that both interrogates imperialism and state-sanctioned violence, while also relying upon accounts of the state to understand Midori’s life? Was there a particular methodology you employed, or certain questions you asked yourself, in undergoing this excavation and critique?

BS: My grandfather’s FBI file, which my Aunt Risa obtained and shared with me, is a work of (subtle yet insidious) violence masquerading as bureaucracy. It is less a compilation of facts about my grandfather, and more a compilation of the ways the FBI (therefore the U.S.) shined a light through my grandfather’s body and life and into the abyss of its own demented subconsciousness. But it proved to be very useful. It introduced me to people the FBI felt were relevant to my grandfather’s life. Some were, including the Mormon man in Utah who offered him asylum during the war. I was able to track down the Mormon man’s granddaughter, and meet her, ask her questions. Through her, the FBI file came to life. And I was reminded, also through her, that the FBI file was the bureaucratization of real anxiety, paranoia, and rage, and that the anxiety, paranoia, and rage still exist, and are active. When I was paid that reminder, the FBI file became a relic then, practically quaint.

I wrote about the Mormon man’s granddaughter in the Monument Valley chapter of The Grave on the Wall. I don’t want to repeat too much of what I wrote, but to say: I encountered in her a kind of overt and evangelical racism that the FBI file very efficiently withholds, as you figure it would. And though the FBI file could not have predicted the Mormon man’s granddaughter, it became clear to me that the FBI file was working on her behalf: was securing not my grandfather’s future, or his place in the future, but that of the Mormon man’s granddaughter.

Here are two things I learned about the Mormon man’s granddaughter: One, being a Mormon, and the granddaughter of a man who offered asylum to an enemy alien during World War II, she was very proud of her grandfather, and believed that his act of colorblind charity was both a selfless act and an act mandated by God, and two, she believed that Middle Easterners were dying and being resurrected in the form of Mexican children who were crossing over the border into the United States and were coming to kill her and her people (who, I gathered, were Mormons or whites, or both) and take over the United States.

She was like a minor character in one sitcom (the FBI file) who was given the starring role in its spin-off (real life), and everything she said seemed to be plagiarized from the 1940s, not to mention the 1930s, 1920s, 1910s, 1900s, 1890s, and so on, backwards and forwards.

I sometimes feel that The Grave on the Wall is a counternarrative to my grandfather’s FBI file, if not a rewriting of it, one in which the obscured or suppressed or erased voices have been permitted to speak, and the violence, subtly yet insidiously outlined in the fog of the original FBI file, is exposed and examined and re-situated in the corroded hearts of power and authority.

I was thinking this morning about how interrogations without answers become, over time—and in their repetition and perpetual descent (you used the word “excavation”)—monologues, soliloquies. Like shouting down a well. Because who and what is being interrogated is often silent, unforthcoming, which forces the interrogator to turn inward, so that their body becomes like a labyrinth, folded—multiply folded—down the passages of which the verses of the monologue, the soliloquy, touch, overlap, become gills.

Continue reading

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Q&A with Susan Steinberg: ‘Machine’ and an Automatic Tension

Susan Steinberg novel MachineYou 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.

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Q&A with Homeless: ‘This Hasn’t Been a Very Magical Journey So Far’ and a Vague Reality

Homeless novel This Hasn't Been a Very Magical Journey So farThis Hasn’t Been a Very Magical Journey So Far (257 pages; Expat Press) is a difficult novel to categorize. It isn’t often that a crushing romantic tragedy unfurls in a universe so absurd. The book’s biting dialogue, irrational laws of physics, and buddy-comedy dynamic recall Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Beneath the story’s self-deprecating charm, however, lies a relationship that, in both its gentle initiation and passionate conclusion, raises questions about caring for one another and caring for oneself at the crossroads of love and mental illness.

This Hasn’t Been a Very Magical Journey So Far is the first novel from poet and artist Homeless, who displays his work publicly on the streets and subways of New York City. At its center is Hank Williams, who has fallen in love with Patsy Cline, both characters endowed with the names of famed country musicians who died tragically young. Hank Williams leaves a mental hospital with the help of a man-sized cat clad in a leather jacket. The two embark on a destination-less journey as they grapple in tandem with the irreversible reality of romantic partnerships lost.

At times obscene and at others deeply emotional, This Hasn’t Been a Very Magical Journey So Far is a thoroughly surprising read. Homeless talked to ZYZZYVA about the novel.

ZYZZYVA: The characters in This Hasn’t Been a Very Magical Journey So Far range from people to cats to owls to gophers. What inspired you to blend the animal and the human?

Homeless: My initial idea when beginning This Hasn’t Been… was to write a children’s fiction book –– but for adults. To this day, I’m still a huge fan of Roald Dahl, especially James & the Giant Peach (which I give a nod to in my novel), so I wanted to do something like that. I wanted to have a story where a character goes on what’s supposed to be a magical journey with characters that are supposed to be magical. So combining human characters in a world with animal characters was just to give it that children’s fiction feel.

Z: The novel frequently jumps around in time, which I found very engaging. In writing the novel, did you work chronologically? What was your understanding of time within the world you created?

H: Honestly, I was all over the place when writing it. I had no idea where it was going, kind of like the way the characters have a destination in mind but they really have no idea where they’re going. I didn’t do that on purpose, but once I made that correlation I kind of let myself off the hook and just began writing these two separate storylines with no real end in sight. And so then I kept my eye open along the way for chances to connect them. It was an exciting way to write at times when it worked, but also insanely frustrating when it didn’t. I’d probably never it do it that way again.

Z: Reading the novel gave me the feeling of attempting to recall a dream—full of strange detail but often with vague chronology, boundaries, and stakes. Did you attempt in your prose to represent such a dream state –– or perhaps even psychosis?

H: While I don’t try to represent a dream state in all my prose, in this novel specifically I was aiming for a hysterical, fever-like dream, but one that was layered over a vague reality. In my head, Hank Williams actually goes on some kind of journey in the real world, but he’s so consumed with grief that he’s practically lost his mind, and so the way the book reads is how he perceives the world around him during this insanely troubling time in his life.

Z: I adored the romance at the novel’s core, and was both fascinated and frustrated with your depiction of the character Patsy Cline, who Hank Williams is mourning. At times she seems to exist only within Hank Williams’s sense of love and loss, but she can also be read as an autonomous character who makes decisions according to her own needs. Can you help me make sense of her?

H: I’m fascinated with people and characters who are in immense pain from simply being alive. People and characters who seemingly hurt for no reason. It’s like they don’t know how to exist on this planet, like every single moment of their life is a struggle. An example of a couple like that would be Sid and Nancy. And that’s where Patsy Cline came from — a Nancy Spungen type. The idea of this person who is out on control, and who knows they’re out of control, but can’t seem to navigate the pain of living. And people like that can be hard to make sense of. They do what they want to do. They live irrationally. They make drastic decisions. They seem to feel things stronger than most people –– but the appeal to that is, when you’re with them, you also feel things stronger, both good and bad, which is what Hank Williams experiences when he’s with Patsy Cline, and why he’s so desperate to find her after she leaves. I have no idea if I’ve answered your question, but…

Z: What drove your shift from the frank vignettes of your poetry to your first novel?

H: I wrote a novel because I needed to purge myself of a girl who had a hold on me. This book was really just a way of working through that. Poems can help, too, I guess, but only in smaller ways, in little bits and pieces. Whereas dedicating 200+ pages to this loss you’re going through really seems to allow you to work a lot more out. Even find some sense of closure.

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Q&A with Peter Orner: ‘Maggie Brown & Others’ and Real Life as Fiction

Peter Orner collection Maggie Brown & OthersIn an age of instant reactions and hair-trigger controversy, Peter Orner is a writer who slows things down, living up to Susan Sontag’s admonition that “the writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth…and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation.’’

Born in Chicago, he graduated from the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. A former professor and department chair at San Francisco State University, he is now a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth.

Orner’s eclectic body of work includes the novels The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo and Love and Shame and Love; an essay collection/memoir, Am I Alone Here? Notes on Reading to Live and Living To Read, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist; and three short story collections: The Esther Stories, Last Car Over The Sagamore Bridge, and the just published Maggie Brown & Others: Stories (Little, Brown and Company).

He’s also somehow found the time to edit three non-fiction books for the Voice of Witness Series: Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives, Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives (co-edited with Annie Holmes), and Lavil: Life, Love and Death in Port-Au-Prince (co-edited with Evan Lyon). If you need something done, ask a busy man.

The new book’s title story, “Maggie Brown,’’ about the narrator’s lost romance with a college girlfriend, is vintage Orner. “A few years ago I saw her at a Minneapolis airport,’’ he writes. “She looked right at me, didn’t know me from Adam, and marched onward. Maggie Brown in a business suit…You end up forgetting the people you shouldn’t and remembering the people who’ve forgotten all about you.’’

Peter Orner answered questions about Maggie Brown & Others (and other matters) via email:

ZYZZYVA: I was struck by the ambition of Maggie Brown & Other Stories. It seems like a quantum leap forward, given the five separate sections, linked by mood but not subject, and the ambitious closing novella, “Walt Kaplan Is Broke.’’ Did you feel a special urgency as you were writing the pieces, and putting them together, given the times we live in and your own sense of where you are as a writer?

PETER ORNER: Did someone once say, ‘Write each book like it’s your last?’ I’ll say it: Write each book like it’s your last. I’m not sure I was responding to our strange life and times, but maybe I was without quite knowing it. I’ve always tried to see stories as somehow floating above my present day concerns. Or maybe floating above isn’t the right phrase. Existing separate? A kind of alternate reality, one that has more to do memory than it does the present?

Though many of these stories I’ve been working on for many years, I wrote and re-wrote much of this book while living in Namibia for two years between 2016-2018. It helped to be away from the circus, and maybe this helped me concentrate a little better. If there was urgency, it was informed by a particular Namibian kind of urgency. In Namibia, when someone says they are coming now, they might come in a few hours, maybe a few days. But when they say they are coming now now, then they’ll be right there. I guess I wrote this book under the spell of now now.

Z: You dedicate the book to your family, and to the late African-American novelist and essayist James Alan McPherson (author of the short story collections Hue and Cry and Elbow Room), a writer who is too often overlooked these days. Can you talk about your relationship and his influence on you?

PO: Jim McPherson was a professor of mine at the University of Iowa. An essential American writer, and we overlook him at our peril. He was also among the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. He didn’t so much teach as guide. And he was less interested in writing than in what connects us and make us human – together.

I’ve told this before in greater detail, most recently in an essay about McPherson in The Believer, but he once taught a class that revolved around Richard Jewell, the security guard who was wrongly accused (by the FBI, I believe) of bombing the Atlanta Olympics. The theory was that he planted the bomb in order to rush in and save people because he had a hero complex. Turned out: he was just rushing in to save people. He was a goddamn actual hero. Jim was fascinated by this story, and what it said about us as a society. He couldn’t get enough of examining what makes us do humane, and inhumane, things.

Z: You’re from the Midwest, but like many self-driven exiles, you were pulled West. The epigraph to the first section of the book is from Jack Spicer, another too-neglected poet:
Come back to California, come back to California / every mapmaker, every mapmaker is pleading.’’ Now you’re back East as a professor at Dartmouth, after teaching for years at San Francisco State. But I’m wondering if you think it’s even possible to connect to this complicated state. Or is it just a state of mind?

PO: I lived nearly twenty years in California, in both San Francisco and Bolinas. Funny, I always felt like a Midwesterner misplaced in California. Now I feel like a Midwestern Californian misplaced in New England. (If I went home to Chicago again, I’d feel like a Chicagoan displaced in Chicago.) What I love about this beautiful line of Spicer’s is the idea of the mapmakers pleading for one’s return to California…

I’m not entirely sure what he means, but I love it anyway. We know that mapmakers aren’t exactly unbiased, right? Is there something about the way California looks to us on the map that pulls us there? This idea spoke to me as I was working and pining away for the Pacific.

Continue reading

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Q&A with Namwali Serpell: Recipe for Revolution—Brief and Contingent Solidarity in ‘The Old Drift’

Namwali Serpell novel The Old DriftNamwali Serpell’s The Old Drift (566 pages; Hogarth/Penguin Random House) is nothing short of a feat. The novel, which unfolds over several generations, is an alchemy of Zambian history, Afrofuturism, science, and fantasy. It is a triumphant and tragic retelling of the country’s birth and a sage forecast of what the future might hold for Zambia. Featuring a cast of memorable characters, Serpell’s narrative follows the lives of several generations of indigenous Africans, as well as Brits, Italians, and Indians—some colonists, some immigrants—who eventually become citizens of Zambia. Wittingly and unwittingly, many of Serpell’s characters contribute to Zambia’s technological and political “progress” (including by collaborating, albeit ambivalently, with Chinese and American investors). In the novel, Serpell, who won the Caine Prize for African Writing and the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, lovingly and vividly portrays the pluralistic Zambia she knows; undermines the reader’s ability to pinpoint blame for conflicts small and large; and compels us to consider how moments of contingent and brief solidarity might bring about socioeconomic equality.

I sat down with Serpell last April in Berkeley to talk about her latest work. Below are some of the highlights from our conversation.

ZYZZYVA: The book is incredibly sad. Would you agree with that?

Namwali Serpell: A through-line across the entire novel is the rage that underlies mourning. So there is a sadness—not a depressive sadness, but a sublime grief.

Z: I noticed that the children in the book seem to be destined to follow their parents or grandparents in some way (for better or worse). For example, Jacob takes after his grandmother. When he finds out his grandmother’s history, it seems to him his obsession with fixing or engineering things makes sense. Joseph pursues the profession of his father in an even more literal way, and Naila seems to seek to right the wrong that her grandfather committed against native Zambians. This coupled with the instances in which the wrong people are blamed for bad things make me ask if this is perhaps a metaphor for some form of reparations on the African continent—that the children of those who have done wrong should, to some extent, right those wrongs?

NS: Reparations isn’t a language I use to think about how to address the injustices of colonialism. There has been on the continent a really interesting movement to do something analogous to reparations. So getting Germany to formally apologize to Namibia for the genocide of the Herero. Or the descendants of the Mau Mau rebels whose family members and who themselves were tortured by the British—they had a court case in England where they were given compensation.

There is the question of how we reclaim justice. How do we, for example, get full ownership of the copper mines in Zambia, which even at the moment of independence, the British managed to hold onto? There are attempts like that, which seek restitutive justice, but I wouldn’t use the language of reparations, which more often applies to slavery in the U.S. and the Caribbean. I’d say these are analogous struggles.

What I was thinking about more broadly is the larger question that the swarm of mosquitoes that narrate the novel raise continuously, which is about error and contingency and agency. So there’s a kind of cycle of unwitting retribution happening between these three families, whereby one family is harming the other, which is harming the third, which is harming the first, and this keeps going throughout the generations. I triangulated that relationship, instead of having two families at war like the Montagues and the Capulets, in order to render this kind of oblique quality of relation that undermines our ability to pinpoint blame.

So, for example, the first collision between three family members that are ancestors of the three major families, which happens at Victoria Falls Hotel—it would be hard to pinpoint the blame for the acts of violence that take place in that context. Because you could say Lina reaches out and hits N’gulube because she’s upset that her mother, Ada, has left her side. Ada has left her side to attend to her husband, Pietro, who has just had hair snatched off his head. And Pietro’s hair has been snatched off his head because Percy was trying to grab his hat as a joke. And Percy accidentally hurt him because he was feverish with malaria and so not fully conscious of what he was doing. So really the creature to blame for all this is a mosquito!

This sort of thing happens throughout the novel. Everyone’s responsibility for any particular complication is always mitigated. Agency emerges in relation rather than as something we each possess deep inside of us (like “I did something wrong”). It’s very rare in the novel where someone actively does something wrong to someone else. Most of the time, there’s some set of contingencies that draw people into some kind of collision.

And that is, I think, one way of reconceiving colonialism—as a set of forces that interact and create these really arbitrary and strange acts of violence that will change the entire fate of the rest of the nation. Don’t get me wrong. There is power behind this. There is structural violence. Imperialism does have that kind of force. But to pinpoint it as one person or another’s fault is very difficult. And I think it’s a seduction to think that we can blame single agents for structural violence in that way. So if we think about the borders that got drawn in Zambia, the upper left-hand corner is orthagonal, literally because the king of Italy took a pen and drew this border at a right angle. To me, that kind of arbitrariness is just as important to understand about colonialism as all of the force and power behind it.

Z: What does your novel say about what it means to be African?

NS: I wanted to subvert expectations of what it means to be African. So the idea of “being Zambian” gets contested at various points in the novel. One important figure for this is Agnes, who comes into Northern Rhodesia just as it’s turning into Zambia. Her marriage to her black, Zambian husband is illegal until after independence. So anyone who was in the country at the moment of independence became Zambian. That was the rule. So she stays and becomes Zambian. By the end of the novel, she’s spent most of her life in Zambia.

So this is very similar to my father, who came to Zambia in the late 1960s and, when the country became independent, became a Zambian citizen; married a Zambian (my mum); and stayed. So, to me, he’s Zambian even if he’s white. He speaks a Zambian language. So I was interested in the question: what do you do with that kind of assumption of identity? Sir Stewart Gore-Browne is another example—he came as a British settler and he was violent to his Zambian workers, but he also then became involved in the fight for independence from the British. He helped Kenneth Kaunda become our first president. Browne was one of the first people to represent black Africans in parliament at all.

So it’s very hard to separate out the racial question and the cultural question and the national question. And it’s also very clear to me that characters like Agnes and historical figures like Gore-Browne and people like my father in my own life still retain a vestige of Britishness that means they will never fully be accepted into Zambian society in certain ways. And they still have white privilege. But they’re Zambian, too. So to be Zambian is a very complicated term, one I wanted to throw into contestation. Even someone like Naila in the contemporary generation, she’s born in Zambia to an Italian mother and an Indian father—she considers herself Zambian, she considers herself black . . .

Z: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that.

NS: Yes, this is why her friends are like, “Uh, black how?” They laugh at her. But that claim to solidarity with other Zambians is itself the basis of her sense of her identity. I wanted to point to the multiracial and multiethnic, multi-linguistic roots of my country and see it as a place for syncretism. President Kaunda, when he said, “One Zambia, one nation,” this was our mantra when we became independent from the British. He was trying to lasso all of these different people together. Because it’s not just people from outside. There’re also seven different main tribes within Zambia. So a sense of unity that still acknowledges differences is very important to Zambian identity.

On a related note, you know, the question of the naming of Victoria Falls is very interesting to me.

Z: Yes, I love that the book begins with that. I think Mosi Oa Tunya, which translates into “The Smoke that Thunders,” is a much more meaningful and much more beautiful name.

NS: David Livingstone was the person responsible for naming it Victoria Falls, but it was very unlike him. He did not name any other pieces of landscape. People who know about Livingstone know what sorts of preconceptions he brought with him. They know about how he treated his bearers (black workers). He beat them. He shot at one of them once. He was very condescending to them.

He also freed them from slavery. He also advocated to eradicate the Arab slave trade. He literally freed people with his own hands. He brought religion to Zambia, and Zambia is still a very religious country despite our first president having been a “humanist,” not a Christian. There’s still a lot of Christianity in Zambia. So Livingstone is revered as a missionary there.

And we still call it Mosi Oa Tunya, but we also still call it Victoria Falls. So there’s this kind of ambivalence and this kind of double acceptance. It’s a good example of the kind of ambivalence that I want to represent in the book, because I think to pretend otherwise would be to deny the reality of how things are at home, whether or not I agree with it.

Continue reading

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment