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Casey Jong

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.

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‘What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About,’ edited by Michele Filgate: A Complex Bond

Michele Filgate editor What My Mother and I Don't Talk AboutIn What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About (288 pages; Simon & Schuster; edited by Michele Filgate), fifteen writers grapple with the unexpected developments and shortcomings of their relationships with their mothers. In her introduction, Filgate explains that while each individual essay is an achievement in itself, together they work to address the ways we tend to idealize our mothers, as well as reflect honestly on the imperfect relationships we forge (and sometimes end) with them over the course of our lives:

Acknowledging what we couldn’t say for so long, for whatever reason, is one way to heal our relationships with others and, perhaps most importantly, with ourselves. But doing this as a community is much easier than standing alone on a stage.

The essays range in both tone and subject matter: some authors have been estranged from their mothers for years, having suffered abuse and neglect throughout their childhoods, while others are only beginning to understand their mothers as they become parents themselves or think deeply about their family dynamics. This collection engages with tough questions about holding accountable the people we’ve been taught to revere, recognizing the impression our mothers’ greatest strengths and flaws have left on us, and the importance of putting oneself first. At the center of that conversation is the difficulty all children face as they try to understand their parent as a person and not simply a mother.

In “16 Minetta Lane,” Dylan Landis tells an episodic story about her mother’s friendship with noted artist Haywood “Bill” Rivers that taps into the curiosity many of us have about our mothers’ lives before they gave birth to us:

Tell me, what did you do with your glittering mind? Did you make the right choice? Marry the right man? Would you have studied at the Sorbonne, Erica? Laughed with writers at Les Deux Magots?
Did you lock up that dazzling wit of yours, or did you write a book?
Did you get to stroll in Paris? Would you care if your daughter were a perfect doll of a brown baby?
Who would you love, Erica?
Who would you be?

Others writers in the collection show us how, as Filgate writes in her introduction, mothers can be set up to fail. In “Xanadu,” Alexander Chee explains how he survived things his mother couldn’t shield him from: the difficulties of growing up queer and Asian, the traumas of sexual abuse, and the death of his father. Chee unpacks the complications of trying to protect one’s protector:

It is the night before my first novel’s publication in the fall of 2001, and my mother is about to travel to New York for my launch at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. If I don’t make the call, I will read from the novel in front of her, a novel about surviving sexual abuse and pedophilia, inspired by events from my childhood—these autobiographical events, events I have never described for her—and she will find out the next evening in a crowded room full of strangers. And she will never forgive me if I do…Our family had passed through a season of hell, and this was what I’d done to survive it. I know at last: I never told her about this because I was sure I was protecting her.

Careful not to omit moments of love and tenderness, these fifteen writers also reach striking realizations that could potentially alter or destroy their connection with their mothers. What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About captures the complexity of the bond between mother and child, each of the authors conveying their relationships in a way that seems both universally understood and uniquely experienced. Readers are likely to express gratitude to these these writers for diving headfirst into the mental health issues, feelings of loss, and constant learning we all go through, mothers included.

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‘Little Boy’ by Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Life as an Endless Novel

Little Boy novel Lawrence Ferlinghetti“And so do I return to the monologue of my life seen as an endless novel.” Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Little Boy (179 pages; Doubleday) is aptly self-identified as “unapologetically unclassifiable” on its jacket copy, and the poet Billy Collins called it a “torrent of consciousness” in his own review. Both descriptions are fitting for the short but powerful work by the now 100-year-old Ferlinghetti.

Little Boy begins as a rather fast-paced novel, narrated in the third person, based on Ferlinghetti’s childhood. It tells the story of Little Boy, who was raised by his Aunt Emily, later was moved to an orphanage, and then “adopted” by a wealthy but unaffectionate foster family of sorts. Just as readers settle into the story, the plot unspools into the lengthy monologue of a voice called “me-me-me.” “Me-me-me” becomes Ferlinghetti’s new central character as he transitions into the first person, and represents both Ferlinghetti and society at large, one riddled with narcissism and an obsession with the self. As Ferlinghetti abandons all punctuation and linear narrative structure, the writing reflects on the life he has lived and the world he was born into.

At times, the monologue seems circular as it returns again and again to the same few moments of his childhood, like the “cat’s eyes” tapioca pudding he remembers from the orphanage, or the bearded lover his aunt took when he was young. Among these recollections, readers are swept up in existential questions of agency, modernity, coming of age, and growing old:

I’ve summarized my past by theft and allusion and all I know is that I’ll be taking an escalator soon to the next level of existence or nonexistence and will it be the down-escalator or the up-escalator and thereby hangs the tail of this mutt and he still wagging it And how did he go from a youthful anarchism to humanitarian socialism as a creed to live by And how did he end up a painter and a poet always alienated in one way or another and still claiming that he was never ingested by the dominant culture that ingests so many rebels before they croak

Thoreau, Ginsburg, and other iconic writers are surely present, through both their influence and by reference, in Ferlinghetti’s meditations on the cultural shifts and stagnation he witnessed throughout the 20th century. He pays homage to his past by recounting his memories (he seems to remember everything) whenever they come to mind; it is almost as much a book about the 20th century as it is a book about Ferlinghetti. And since he believes the past informs the future, it is also a book about what is to come. In fewer than 200 pages, Ferlinghetti somehow touches on religion, capitalism, patriotism, sex, trauma, war, love, and more:

and what is the plot of this novel if not the remembrance of things still not past for the past is but a cautious counselor of what has yet to come what has yet to transpire or expire so farewell final albatross as time ticks on and all of us like insects in an anthill seen from space all nebulous figures dancing in a tropic night through the night-mazes singing a lyric escape again then and why not Are we to live in despair all the time thinking only of our certain deaths so why not live the highs and ignore the lows

Eventually, the “novel” settles back into full sentences and revisits the character it began with:

Little Boy grown up dissident romantic or romantic dissident has his youthful vision of living forever, immortal as every youth is, believing his own special identity would never, could never, perish.

 Ferlinghetti’s Little Boy truly is a a deluge—not a stream—of thought that allows readers to witness the author as he grapples with the life he has led. It is a privilege to view the world—past, present, and even future—through his weathered, critical, and poetic lens.

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‘The Collected Schizophrenias’ by Esmé Weijun Wang: A Map into Rarely Charted Waters

The Collected SchizophreniasEsmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias (202 pages; Graywolf Press) consists of twelve essays addressing the technical definitions, medical prognosis, and personal challenges of schizophrenia. In the first essay, Wang discloses her own diagnosis to the reader: during her time as an undergraduate at Yale, she was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (bipolar type), which she describes as an illness that combines certain behavioral markers of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. She makes it clear the schizophrenias (of which there are a few types) are both complex and vast in how they are perceived and experienced. Wang manages to discuss such a broad topic by anchoring each essay with a specific cultural or personal touchpoint: for example, her concerns about whether or not she would be a good mother, and the case of Malcolm Tate, a mentally ill man who was murdered by his family members. In another essay, she discusses the movie Lucy and her experience with delusions induced specifically by films that take place in other realities. One delusion she often experiences is that of the people in her life having been replaced by doubles or robots. Another is Cotard’s delusion:

I write this while experiencing a strain of psychosis known as Cotard’s delusion, in which the patient believes that they are dead. What the writer’s confused state means is not beside the point, because it is the point. I am in here, somewhere: cogito ergo sum.

Wang’s vulnerability as she puts her diagnosis and lived experiences in conversation with each other welcomes us into her life while also provoking our own self-reflection. Her Ivy League education and status as a published author are frequently identified as ways she finds validation among neurotypical people. In the essay “Yale Will Not Save You,” she writes, “‘I went to Yale’ is shorthand for I have schizoaffective disorder, but I’m not worthless.

Neurotypical readers may ask themselves, would we see Wang as credible if not for her ability to articulate her delusions and episodes? Would we trust a schizophrenic person’s recollections if that person was not college-educated or successful in their career? Her in-depth discussion of medical, educational, and judicial institutions ask us to question the humanity and compassion we extend to those who struggle with their mental health. Without speaking on anyone else’s behalf, Wang touches on involuntary hospitalization policies, the potential overlap of schizophrenia with other disorders like PTSD or manic depression, and more:

I’d been living with medication-resistant schizoaffective disorder prior to the new diagnosis, and PTSD, while uniquely excruciating, was not—unlike schizoaffective disorder—considered to be incurable…I was grateful for the hope of a condition I could eliminate.

Wang gives readers a map of sorts into rarely-charted waters. She handles the discussion of schizophrenia with a gentleness for both the subject matter and the reader. The collection strikes a balance between the technical and the emotional, and works, like good books do, to change how we think.

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‘Territory of Light’ by Yuko Tsushima: A New Life in Tokyo

Yuko Tsushima Territory of Light novelYuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light (183 pages, FSG; translated by Geraldine Harcourt) begins when the husband of the narrator, Mrs. Fujino, leaves her. After months of apartment hunting, she moves with her two year-old daughter into a new building. The apartment is abundant with light most hours of the day, but it fails to illuminate their lives the way she hoped it would.

The novel consists of twelve brief chapters, each one a vignette of life in Tokyo with an inquisitive and sometimes unruly daughter. (The narrative was originally published in Japan in twelve installments, between 1978 and 1979.) At first, Mrs. Fujino finds empowerment as a newly-single woman living in the city, but the thrill of independence quickly fades, and her obligations wear her thin. Her daughter is causing trouble at daycare, and in the middle of the night has crying fits that often end with soiled sheets and start up again just hours later. Over the course of the story, Mrs. Fujino becomes disorganized, sleeping in well past 10 a.m. and sometimes staying out too late at the bar or in finding companionship with old acquaintances. The mother-daughter duo’s schedule becomes erratic, and their relationship seems to shift with the added stress. Fittingly, as a reader, it is sometimes hard to maintain a sense of direction; it’s this simultaneously muted and overwhelming feeling of instability that comes through in Tsushima’s book.

Through it all, Mrs. Fujino remains an insightful and placid narrator. Though her daughter and soon-to-be ex-husband unhinge her, her thoughts are clear and her internal monologue displays an acute self-awareness:

Impatient at her slow pace as we headed for daycare, I picked her up and ran. As I did so, the thought that, in spite of everything, maybe some part of me wished my daughter dead crossed my mind. Why would I have dreamed of her dead body otherwise?…When we reached the centre, she tripped away to join the other children without a backward glance. The moment when she separated herself from me was a palpable relief.

While she realizes much of the instability around her is of her own making, she never loses sight of her humanity—and the humanity of her young daughter, whose father left the picture rather suddenly:

A couple of nights after I’d dreamed of her death, as she cried and cried, the same as ever, I laid her on my lap like a baby and began to recite ‘magic words’ while rubbing her chest and stomach, tracing circles … My daughter had stopped crying and was listening to my voice, a smile on her lips. Encouraged by that smile, I continued, still more fervently, to recite the magic words.

Tsushima’s Territory of Light, for which she won the inaugural Noma Literary Prize, is a tender and relatable story, highlighting both the obstacles and highlights of a transitional stage in life. By the novel’s end, readers are left with the sense this mother and daughter will continue to learn and change together as they remake their life.

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Sarah Moss’s ‘Ghost Wall’: Sacrificed to History

Sarah Moss Ghost Wall novelIn Sarah Moss’s novel, Ghost Wall (130 pages; FSG), seventeen-year-old Silvie embarks on a trip to rural northeastern England with her family and a university archaeology class. Silvie’s father, Bill, earns a living as a bus driver, but his true passion is for the history of the Iron Age and its “bog people,” the ancient Britons who were sacrificed in this region centuries ago. Over the course of the two-week trip, the small group attempts to reenact the lifestyle of 1000 B.C., wearing scratchy tunics and hunting and foraging for their meals. For Bill, the trip is a chance to live exactly like the ancient Britons –– down to the dated and ritualistic behaviors that let him indulge in his own violent and misogynistic tendencies.

Silvie narrates the story, moving fluidly between related observations and internal monologue. The narration transitions so smoothly, in fact, that it can sometimes be hard to distinguish what is being said aloud and what are simply Silvie’s thoughts weaving themselves into the moment. Interestingly, perhaps because of the stream-of-consciousness style, the distinction doesn’t feel very important.

As the story goes on, it becomes obvious to the characters and reader alike that Silvie, desperate for independence and an end to her childhood, harbors real fear of agitating her father. Silvie’s narration suggests her mother, Alison, spends the trip (and her life beyond the trip) cooking and cleaning, obedient to Bill’s demands. Bill physically abuses his family more than once during the reenactment, but always out of sight of the others. It’s a well-kept secret until, as the trip brings their dynamic to light, a student named Molly concludes something simply isn’t right:

He hits you, she said, your dad. He’s been hitting you here. You’re scared of him. No, I said, no, I’m not, of course I’m not, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I stopped. Maybe you’re jealous because your dad left you, I thought, because he doesn’t love you, because he doesn’t care enough to teach you a lesson. Haven’t you been listening, people don’t bother to hurt what they don’t love. To sacrifice it.

While Molly and Silvie forage each day, the archaeology professor and Bill feed off of each other’s enthusiasm for the historical period. Their excitement turns dark following the reconstruction of a “ghost wall,” which was used during the Iron Age to ward off the Romans during times of war. After rebuilding it, the pair considers it an almost spiritual gateway into the past. They become carried away and eventually insist that Silvie play the part of the human sacrifice in a ritual the following night:

Silvie, said Dan, Silvie, you sure you don’t mind this? The ropes and everything? Of course she doesn’t, said Dad, she knows we won’t hurt her, she’s not stupid.
Silvie, said Dan.
I nodded. Yeah, it’s OK.
You lead her, Bill, said the Professor, after all, she’s your sacrifice.

Ghost Wall is a short and cogent book highlighting the dynamics of one family through the lens of a rather bizarre and unsettling family trip. Bringing the distant past together with issues faced by women today—most of them rooted in history themselves—Moss’ novel asks readers to consider what we might stand to gain from history, and what we must leave behind.

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Dreamwalking in the Modern World: ‘The Day the Sun Died’ by Yan Lianke

YThe Day the Sun Diedan Lianke’s latest novel, The Day the Sun Died (342 pages; Grove Press; translated by Carlos Rojas), manages to strike a balance between humor and horror as the world crumbles over the course of one very long night in Gaotian Village, China. The story is told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old Li Niannian, whose parents own the village funerary shop, and opens with a somewhat chaotic preface in which Li Niannian calls out to the spirit world, asking them to listen as he recounts the night’s bizarre events.

On this night of the great somnambulism, the people of the village and its surrounding region slowly begin to “dreamwalk,” carrying out actions and desires in their sleep that they might otherwise suppress or be consumed by in their waking state. A villager harvests wheat in the fields for fear of the fast-approaching flood season. A man kills another man for sleeping with his wife. Others jump into the river to go swimming and drown. In the midst of the chaos, stores and homes are looted.

Lianke’s prose, partnered with Rojas’ translation, makes a convincing and trustworthy narrator out of Li Niannian, clearly portraying his childlike curiosity and nervous demeanor through an artless vocabulary and blunt inner monologue. Interwoven with occurrences of the great somnambulism is a brief history of Li Niannian’s father, Li Tianbao, and of a relationship that complicates the story, one between Li Tianbao’s funerary shop and his brother-in-law’s crematorium. The story takes place just a few years after the Chinese government has made cremation mandatory in order to preserve farmland. Burial is a traditional and sacred practice, and so Li Niannian’s uncle is hated by many—especially by those whose secretly-buried relatives were disinterred and cremated—and Li Tianbao has secrets of his own to keep on the matter.

The Day the Sun Died peaks when dreamwalkers decide to fight a town battle to restore the Ming Dynasty and Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of centuries ago. The novel uses factual historical anchors (like the Ming Dynasty and the policy on cremation and disinterring bodies) to raise critical questions about China’s clashing traditional and “modern” practices, enforced by rigid familial and state structures, respectively. Just as most of the dreamwalkers insist they are awake, China is dreamwalking, too, Lianke seems to suggest, though it believes itself to be awake—going so far as to outright deny chaos to preserve social order. Li Niannian recalls that there were 539 deaths that night, but finds the official statement reads differently:

In Zhaonan County’s Gaotian Town, there were false rumors about large swaths of dreamwalking-related deaths and social disturbances, and in order to put a stop to these rumors and promote a stable social order, the government sent in a large number of national cadres and public security officers to conduct an investigation and also help the masses to regain a good and productive social order.

Notably, Lianke includes himself as a village person and key character in The Day the Sun Died. Li Niannian knows him as Uncle Lianke, the author neighbor who loans him books from time to time. In this way, The Day the Sun Died makes direct reference to some of Lianke’s most famous works, and follows him through a bout of writer’s block that snatches all meaning from his life. Ultimately, it is while in his dreamwalking state that Yan Lianke’s character finds his inspiration to write again––to write this very story, it seems.

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