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Arianna Casabonne

‘Open Me’ by Lisa Locascio: Self-Discovery in a Foreign Land

Lisa Locascio novel Open MeOpen Me (275 pages; Grove Press), Lisa Locascio’s first novel just re-issued in paperback, is a politically charged and erotic story that fearlessly tackles race, xenophobia, and female sexuality. Immersed in the mind and body of a young woman living abroad in Denmark, the novel seethes with passionate descriptions of both sex and emotions. It shamelessly details something often hidden and rarely discussed—female sexuality in its rawest form.

The narrator, Roxana Olsen, is an 18-year-old American girl spending her summer in Denmark — a summer meant to have seen her studying abroad in Paris with her best friend. However, a logistical error on behalf of her school counselor lands Roxana alone in Copenhagen, eating strange meats on single slices of rye and drinking beer in dimly lit punk bars. As Roxana arrives, she is still coping with the shock of her parents’ divorce, and coming to grips with her transition into adulthood. Almost immediately, she falls into a relationship with Søren, an unhappy, 28-year-old student advisor. Soon she leaves Copenhagen with Søren for Farsø, a small town in Jutland:

Outside, the sky and everyone and everything under it was white and low to the ground: the curving cobblestone roads, the narrow buildings that lined them, and the Danes themselves, whose shapes somehow receded rather than grew as we approached. I followed Søren down a sloped sidewalk and around a corner. Signs I couldn’t read and one-story houses with small square yards. Farsø.

Here, Roxana spends her days in a classically Scandinavian apartment: all white and minimalist. She scrubs and cleans, maintaining the image of domestic bliss for Søren while he works on his masters thesis everyday at the library. The apartment in Farsø becomes a white haze for Roxana, and time blurs into itself as she is kept locked inside its walls by Søren. Slowly, her idealistic vision of Søren fades, and Roxana realizes the prejudices and unhappiness heavily present in the older man, as well as in Danish society. Roxana begins to embody her dissatisfaction: she refuses to shower and basks in her filth, seeing it as proof that she is still alive after being trapped in an apartment with little social contact. Her dissatisfaction eventually leads her to another, vastly different man named Zlatan, a Bosnian Muslim refugee of the Balkan War and, in many ways, Søren’s opposite.

Through her relationships with these two men, another important layer of the story emerges: the eroticism of feminine sexuality. With careful observation and lush details, Locascio distills the experiences of the body and the pleasure sex brings, which become an important means through which Roxana feels alive. Daring and flawless in her depiction, Locascio locates the desire at the root of this sensuality. In Roxana’s relationships with Søren and Zlatan, she undergoes a metamorphosis before the reader and becomes open to and absorbed by the people and places around her. Most importantly, she discovers a different form of love—a sense of closeness and compassion. Locascio poetically describes it:

Everyone cloud icons, the floating notes of a surah in the sky. I resisted the beauty. Even as a calm descended, I insisted to myself that I loved him, that this was a reason for the sadness I felt. I pressed my face into his chest.
“Sweet heart,” he said. Two words. “You feel love, Roxana, a terrible openness, so open that it injures you. The pain that tells us that we live, that we have not yet gone into the earth.”

Open Me is an intimate story of self-discovery in a foreign land. Laced with politics and sexuality, Locascio’s novel plumbs a deeper place of love and understanding, toward oneself and others.

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

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

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

The therapist urged us to stop. “What’s so funny?” she kept asking, and maybe we could have tried to explain it to her—the arrogance and self-delusion I’d just articulated—but instead we kept laughing.
“And I’m famous!” the toothless woman shouted, and the rest of us howled until our teeth clacked and our eyes brimmed with water…

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

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

On the big screen, I caught a glimpse of Miss Alaska, smiling brightly like she’d won and hugging all the other losers, their heads tipped back in jubilee, teeth bared.
Primates smile to submit; if a beta meets an alpha in the wild, he shows his teeth to indicate his inferior rank. It’s called a fear grin. Sociologists say human women smile more than men because there lower social status motivates deference. They smile to indicate attentiveness to the needs, goals, and accomplishments of those who are more powerful.
If I’d learned anything in Atlantic City, it’s that girl were expected to lose like winners and win like losers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘The Light Years’ by Chris Rush: The Turbulent Sublime

Chris Rush memoir The Light YearsChris Rush’s memoir, The Light Years (368 pages; FSG), opens during the Summer of Love. In the suburbs of New Jersey, Rush is the sweet yet strange middle child in a family of seven kids. As a boy, he is obsessed with making paper flowers by hand, maintains an enchantment for a pink satin cape described as a “fashion miracle,” and turns the family’s psychedelic basement into his bedroom. To him, his parents are “the most fabulous –– and most happy,” and he is content to play the part of the devout Catholic son. However, at twelve-years-old, Rush’s world is transformed when his bold older sister, Donna, takes him to a “Be-in,” a day in the park filled with hippies and drugs. Here, she introduces him to Valentine, a charming friend who acts as spiritual leader when he doses everyone with acid. Valentine places a tab of “Orange Sunshine” on Rush’s tongue as if giving sacrament, and for the first time Rush experiences LSD:

In silence, everyone stared out across the lawn. Soon, an agitation began to flutter inside me. Or was it outside? As the breeze moved across the park, the shuddering of the trees was mesmerizing; the lawn rippled like the surface of a lake.
I thought: Gods here.

After this life changing experience, Rush begins to sell drugs at his boarding school and eventually ventures out to the Arizona desert to make a big purchase from Valentine. Here begins Rush’s tumultuous journey of growing up, filled with beauty and agony as he becomes deeply involved in the 1970s counter-culture. His search for a home—and fascination with drugs—takes him all across the country; from Tucson to Marin, Los Angeles, the Oregon Coast, and ultimately back to his parent’s home in New Jersey. Along the way he is accompanied by a cast of eccentric characters: enlightened Christian smugglers, a man who believes he was visited by UFOs, and a nudist drug dealer named Flow Bear. Rush also begins to discover his sexuality and falls in love with Owen, a Mormon boy from Idaho. His love interest and unconventional lifestyle causes tension at home as his father turns into an abusive alcoholic and his mother’s sanity frays at the edges. Rush encounters violence so many times it’s a wonder he survived to tell his story.

While Rush’s story is incredibly interesting and thought-provoking on its own, his writing style lends an honest and mind-bending quality. Rush recounts the highs and lows with a clarity that refuses to glorify or ask for pity. He simply presents his adolescence for what it was: a time of infinite magic and joy as well as one plagued by addiction and isolation.

Although the memoir takes the reader to some dark moments in Rush’s life, overall it serves as a recollection of the wonder of his youth:

When we drove to Point Reyes, to see the ocean, I was dazzled. California was the end of America, where the continent slipped under the sea. One could go no further. It was the place to collect one’s dreams and make something of them. The fantasy of Haight-Ashbury had collapsed into violence. But across the bay in Marin, there was peace.
People were getting back to nature. It was a good scene.

In this way, Rush reveals how the 1970s was a sublime yet turbulent time in American history.

And all throughout this story is Rush’s large-hearted compassion for the friends he made along the way. Amid the derangement and pain, there was always a companion at his side; there moves an air of tenderness for all the people who floated in and out of Rush’s life during those years. It’s difficult to come away from The Light Years without an appreciation for the beauty Rush finds in a seemingly harsh world. Seeing through his perspective could potentially leave readers changed for the better.

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‘Instructions for a Funeral’ by David Means: A Location of Deeper Grace

David Means story collection Instructions for a FuneralDavid Means’ latest collection, Instructions for a Funeral (208 pages; FSG), further secures his position as a standout writer of short fiction. Featuring Means’ customary idiosyncratic style, with sentences that span halfway down the page—or more—the book’s prose takes you on a trek, one that demands complete attention from the reader, but repays that attention. Through his dense, carefully crafted sentences, Means transports us through time and place, interweaving action with his characters’ inner ruminations and flashbacks, and in the process touching on the most tender and enigmatic parts of existence. In a section titled “Confessions,” the author discusses what these stories mean to him:

Theres simply no way to distill or describe whats in the stories, except to say I attempt, to say the least, to respect whatever each story seems to wantnot only want to be, but to say in its own wayeach one, as far as I can see, an expression of a particular axe I must grind, particular souls in particular situations, and in some cases a voice that needs to say what it says or else (and I feel this, really, I do) itll be lost forever to the void.

Several of the stories here take place in upstate New York, near the Hudson River, while others are set in California or the Midwest. In one, a psychiatric patient believes he is a butler, and in another, the death of a close friend turns out to be not what we think. In “The Chair,” a stay-at-home dad contrasts his wife’s exciting career in New York with the “deep solitude” he feels at home, as well as the subtle rewards of fatherhood that come with it:

Love isn’t in the actual grab and heft of body when he comes out of school and runs into my arms, crying with glee. No. Love is the moment just as he comes out the school-house door, standing amid his friends, and searches for my eyes. Love is the second he sees me, and I see him…

In “The Mighty Shannon,” we are dropped in the midst of a marriage plagued by loneliness and shame. The narrator strikes up a relationship with his son’s teacher after sensing his wife is being unfaithful. The story follows the couple through therapy sessions and the moments of affection that come from having a long-time companion. The narrative sheds light on some of the more unattractive yet also sacred parts of the marriage bond, ultimately arriving at a place of forgiveness.

In the collection’s titular story, the narrator gives precise instructions on how he would like his funeral to occur. Written as a list with obscure, sometimes comedic details, the story explores feelings of betrayal and, again, the meaning of fatherhood. Other works, such as “El Morro” and “Carver & Cobain,” focus on characters on the outskirts of society (a drug addict, and a homeless sibling), providing a personal and empathetic view of them.

In fact, Instructions for a Funeral gives voice to those who often remain voiceless, delivering portrayals of raw vulnerability and urgency that compel one to keep reading. In the collection’s final story, the narrator comments on a need to turn “the harsh limitations of reality…into a story of some kind” and “bring the banality of sequential reality to a location of deeper grace.” Arguably, Means has done just that.

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