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

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How 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 […]

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

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You can accuse the narrator of Susan Steinberg’s Machine (149 pages; Graywolf) of many things, but failing to hold the reader’s attention isn’t one of them. Steinberg’s first novel after a series of story collections, Machine chronicles a dread-filled summer on a nameless shore following the suspicious drowning of a teenage girl. Our narrator, a former friend of the deceased, grapples with guilt, teenage boredom, and her own privileged family’s struggles. “This is a story about desperation,” she states, “you could also say acceleration; but in this story, they’re the same.” The novel unfolds in haunting and poetic style, with […]

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

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This 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 […]

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

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In 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 […]

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

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Chia-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 […]

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

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Yu-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 […]

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

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Ross 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 […]

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

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Namwali 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 […]

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Q&A with Andrew Ridker: The Absurdity of the Facts of Things

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It’s hard not to see Andrew Ridker’s acerbic, cerebral first novel, The Altruists (319 pages; Viking)—which has attracted attention from NPR and The Times, among others—as an answer to the question of how to think about, let alone write about, a major strain of American life in 2019. The plot centers around a family at once archetypal and painfully real: Arthur, a pedantic, regret-filled professor who finds tenure elusive; his psychotherapist wife, Francine, whose premature death from breast cancer was worsened by Arthur’s cheating on her in the terminal stages of her illness; their daughter, Maggie, a sanctimonious, kleptomaniac tutor; […]

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Interview with Erik Tarloff: Hollywood Endings

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Berkeley novelist Erik Tarloff is a polymath. Growing up in Los Angeles, he was steeped in the motion picture industry (his father, Frank Tarloff, was a screenwriter), but he has also been deeply involved in politics, including stints as a speechwriter for Bill and Hillary Clinton and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, among others. He has satirized the Washington political scene in his acclaimed 1998 novel, Face-Time, about a speech-writer whose girlfriend is sleeping with the President, and taken a fictional look at the complicated political and personal dynamics of ‘60s Berkeley in All Our Yesterdays. He is also the […]

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Interview with Rae Gouirand: Words Loosen and Diffuse

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In Glass Is Glass Water Is Water, one of the first full-length books to be published by Spork Press, Rae Gouirand (whose poetry book Open Winter won the Bellday Prize) explores relationships, intimacy, the body, and the tension inherent in wanting to be understood without having to be explicit. Gouirands’ poems push against linear, heteronormative ways of reading and often challenge prescribed forms. Gouirand, whose poems were published in ZYZZYVA No. 102, recently spoke to us about how her work speaks to present-day concerns, such as the MeToo movement, and delved more deeply into her craft. ZYZZYVA: One of the reasons I was drawn […]

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Interview with Kristen Tracy: Interspecies Conflict

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One of two epigraphs for Kristen Tracy’s debut collection of poetry, Half-Hazard (94 pages; Graywolf Press), advises that, “when a bear attacks, the victim who fights back is likely to fare better than the one who plays dead.” Although this is useful information to have in case of a rogue bear attack, it’s not as helpful when considering how to read the stunning assortment of poems included in the book. Readers might be better served if, rather than attempting to fight the sweeping flow of Tracy’s fantastic lines and vivid imagery, they “play dead” and allow it to wash over […]

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