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Julia Matthews

‘Stubborn Archivist’ by Yara Rodrigues Fowler: The Preciousness of a Moment

Yara Rodrigues Fowler novel Stubborn Archivist

The task of organizing one’s life experiences into a comprehensible narrative is a universal one—why else do so many of us go to therapy? Through our internal dialogue we create stories, or perhaps allow ourselves to live according to the stories that best help us cope. This is a work of inclusion and omission, of unearthing and rearranging:

But there were good times
There were good times. Come on. Be honest with yourself.
Yeah the sex had been good sometimes…
And she had loved him…
And there were other things. But she’s a stubborn archivist.

Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s first novel, Stubborn Archivist (378 pages; Mariner Books), is constructed through this sorting of memories. The book that emerges is funny, painful, and healing. It reads like opening up someone’s journal, as if the never-named narrator stopped to jot down pieces of her story as they burst into view. The novel has the intimate quality of a narrative not yet organized, straddling prose and poetry through its ambiguous dialogue and internal monologue. Rodrigues Fowler refuses to undermine the preciousness of a moment, allowing singular thoughts and actions to take up room, while never shying away from blank space on the page.

Stubborn Archivist follows three generations of women in Brazil and London. There is the unnamed narrator, a young Brazilian-British woman struggling with her digestive health and reckoning with residual trauma from her first relationship. Then there is her mother, Isadora, a doctor from Brazil who moved to London with her British husband as well as with her younger sister, who lives with the married couple and grapples with depression. And finally, there is Cecília, grandmother and matriarch, who resides in Brazil with the narrator’s grandfather. In their own ways, each of these women experience the impact of life under Brazil’s military dictatorship.

Stubborn Archivist roots the personal in the political, as the legacy of the dictatorship trickles through the characters’ experiences of romance and family. The narrator recounts her early relationships and her brave confrontation of an ex-boyfriend regarding his acts of assault. Her sexual experiences frequently cross boundaries, both cultural and consensual:

Something I don’t talk about and I regret
I can talk in Portuguese in bed
Okay yes do it
Okay

Quiet moments like these give Stubborn Archivist a singular intimacy. Rodrigues Fowler uncannily captures that home-alone feeling when one has complete privacy: as the saying goes, the true measure of our character is what we do when no one is watching. Rather than evaluating her narrator, however, Rodrigues Fowler seems to question how she grows through these private moments, and how they reflect her interior life. The reader watches the narrator rewriting and revising an email to her boss while bedridden with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, waxing fastidiously before flying to Brazil, and biking through the streets of London at night. Stubborn Archivist, even as it spans decades, is built from these solitary moments. Layers and layers of experience accumulated through generations are ultimately embodied in the characters’ daily routines. Rodrigues Fowler writes a story of multicultural identity as it is impressed upon the physical bodies that live it. The subtle power of the novel’s ending lies in the narrator taking ownership of her body, despite the ways it has been fetishized, other-ed, and assaulted:

Caetano sings tinny music into the night. He says, you don’t know me at all. You move your body.

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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.

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‘Lanny’ by Max Porter: A Farewell to Childhood Innocence

Max Porter novel LannyIn came the sound of a song, warm on his creaturely breath, and he snuggled up against me, climbing up on my lap, wrapping himself up around my neck.

So begins Lanny (216 pages; Graywolf Press), the latest novel by Max Porter, author of Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Lanny takes place in a village outside of London, where there lives a being known as Dead Papa Toothwort—a formerly mythic figure among the townspeople, now reduced to a popular Halloween costume and a warning for schoolchildren. After napping for an indeterminate amount of time, Dead Papa Toothwort wakes at dusk to embark on his favorite pastime: listening to the music of chattering voices drifting from the village. He listens especially for the voice of an eccentric young boy who has recently moved to the village with his parents. Porter’s description of this boy, Lanny, is ethereal:

His eyes are like spring hornbeam, a very fresh green.

…his little golden downy-hair knees, his bruised and grass-stained boy’s knees.

…he is growing up, shedding his fairy skin…I can’t imagine this boy becoming a man.

Lanny cycles through passages from the perspectives of Dead Papa Toothwort, Lanny’s mother, Jolie, and father, Robert, and their neighbor Pete. While Robert adjusts to a new commute from the village into London and often struggles to understand his son, Jolie, an actress and crime fiction author, adapts to their rural lifestyle and loves Lanny unconditionally. She arranges for Pete, a famous and aging artist, to give Lanny art lessons. The two quickly form an unlikely and joyful friendship, tromping through the forest together to sketch, climb trees, and discuss life, in scenes reminiscent of A.A. Milne’s Hundred-Acre Woods.

Lanny is constantly flitting off to locations unknown, much to the concern of the adults around him, but always turns up with delightful questions and singular insights. That is, until he disappears entirely, and the novel—until now a quiet reflection on nature, childhood, and familial relationships—slips into a harrowing page-turner. The scope of the story grows from the village to the entire country as reporters and investigators descend on Lanny’s family and his case makes headline news. Lanny’s absence is filled with chaos, pain, and scandal, as his parents scramble to find him and their fellow villagers attempt to assign blame. At last, enter Dead Papa Toothwort, who conducts a surrealist performance in order to confront Jolie, Robert, and Pete with hard truths about themselves and Lanny’s whereabouts.

With Lanny, Porter accomplishes very much with so few words. Dead Papa Toothwort’s passages—akin to concrete poetry—illustrate the point-of-view of a true outsider, living beyond human consideration, while Lanny’s Mum and Dad represent an incredibly honest and unromantic portrait of family life. Their perspectives unmask the unkind thoughts humans experience and endure even during times of stability, or perhaps in their efforts to preserve such stability—the necessities of maintaining marriage and family. Lanny and Pete’s friendship, on the other hand, is outside of the domestic, situated in the natural world, and explores the poles of youth and age.

The novel is an ultimately optimistic rendition of the loss of innocence and an examination of growth, but it’s a growth that requires burying uninhibited, elfin childhood. Lanny, who embodies the impossibility of timeless youth, gives and gives to others, but must lose his young self. With time, as Dead Papa Toothwort knows, the forest remains the only constant:

By the time he gets to the edge of the woods he has crumpled into nothing more than a whiff or a suggestion, he is only silent warm crepuscular danger, and the badgers and owls have seen this before, and they know not to greet him, but to hide.

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‘As One Fire Consumes Another’ by John Sibley Williams: Each Poem a Sermon

John Sibley Williams poetry book As One Fire Consumes AnotherThe poems in John Sibley Williams’ latest book, As One Fire Consumes Another (82 pages; Orison Books), are verbs: they implore and demand, they connect and recall, they cry out and they quietly walk away. The collection, winner of the 2018 of the Orison Poetry Prize, maintains a generational sense of story — an understanding of family that is dense in time and broad in scope as it considers both the immediacy of human relationships and the distance of the natural world. Williams is as acutely focused on the wide arcs of historical violence and injustice as he is on everyday detail, lending each poem a sermon-like quality.

Williams’ meditations on some of life’s greatest questions take form as he relates honest perceptions of the world around him. There is a sense that the poet is exercising restraint — each poem is something like a paragraph, constrained within margins of identical width. The sentences themselves are spare, presenting each thought without superfluous explanation:

In the dark of a man’s fist pressed to chest.
Couch clothed in ghost-white sheets like a fishing village in winter.
Next time, use a Sharpie when listing your demands to god.

The collection reads as a sort of offering, inviting the reader to find connection and understanding where they might. And there is a sense throughout these poems that fragments form a whole –– in Williams’ frequently staccato use of language, and in his choices to revisit themes from multiple perspectives and leave visible his edits and revisions. Here are some choice examples:

To tell a body you are not my house, then to furnish it with walls & fire anyway

There is a breeze here that carries a hint of smoke from older crosses

Love feels out of context among so many dead & thirsting things.

What he heard reply from deep within the absence the night before he leapt, unbirdlike, isn’t much use to us now, the dead or the living.

In that last fragment, the seemingly despairing sentiment that often permeates this collection is tangible. But it’s not desperation but rather frankness that characterize Williams’ confrontations with death, loss, and communal pain. Moreover, the titles of the three series he divides the collection into –– Harm, Keeping the Old World Lit, and We Can Make a Home of It Still––suggest a possibility of rectification, or at the very least a forward momentum. Like the smoking aftermath of fire, Williams leaves room for renewal. His poetry itself is part of this project. The poem “Fallow as That” begins, We are out divining fish from dried riverbeds again. With this line Williams encapsulates every poet’s task, and in this collection he sets to work.

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‘Aug 9—Fog’ by Kathryn Scanlan: Glazing the Mundane with Meaning

Kathryn Scanlan book Aug 9—Fog Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9—Fog (128 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) is short and sweet — to be read in one afternoon, then reread many afternoons over. Existing somewhere between fiction, collage, and found poetry, Scanlan’s book is composed of sentences the author pulled from a stranger’s 1968 diary, which she won in an Illinois estate auction. As Scanlan’s authorial voice blends with that of the diary owner, the two meditate together on the passage of everyday life. While reading Aug 9—Fog, I was reminded of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead in the effortless way Scanlan glazes the mundane with meaning. Scanlan forms a collage out of the diary, which was kept by a woman in her eighties, and turns it into a series of slim vignettes that trace the seasons of a year. The book’s perspective is akin to looking out a kitchen window, observing the changing weather and the coming and going of characters:

Mildred papering. Vern took a fish down to Bayard for his birthday. Daffodils and pussy willows out pretty.

Sure pretty out. Sure grand out. D. making a new piecrust. All better.

There are certain works of poetry or prose that carry such an irresistible mouthfeel that I have to whisper along with the words as I read them, and this book offers a perfect example. The abbreviated voice of the diary’s author does not elaborate for the sake of explanation or grammar, and begins to give the impression of a lovably stylized character. Her words are almost childlike in their simple colloquialism, proving irresistibly relatable:

Jar broke, she canning tomatoes. Our apples not a bit nice. So spotted.

Scanlan’s arrangement of the author’s words render a tender and human portrait of old age, relating daily experiences of illness, hobbies, care from family members, and loneliness. One of the book’s most salient themes is the physical body and the fragility of its health. There are delicate passages in which family members wash the aging author’s head, and there are oppressive passages in which characters grieve disease and death. Scanlan’s authorial focus on seasonality and emergence suggest the hope of turnover, but it is difficult to shake the author’s uncanny details of daily life after loss.

Ever where glare of ice. We didn’t sleep too good. My pep has left me.

Aug 9—Fog is fascinating, particularly to young writers still making sense of form and genre, since Scanlan’s authorship is editorial: the words are not her own, and yet the book and its plot are her artistic creation. Her prose pursues an object of fascination and presents it with the language most fitting, regardless of convention.

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‘People I’ve Met From the Internet’ by Stephen van Dyck: Delight in the Details

Stephen Van Dyck memoir People I've Met From the InternetStephen van Dyck’s People I’ve Met From the Internet (151 pages; Ricochet Editions) is the ultimate memoir for the Information Age: a series of extraordinarily personal vignettes derived from a data spreadsheet. The book spans 11 years and takes place in multiple states, mostly roaming the arid space between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Los Angeles, California. It reads like a grand road trip in the age of dial-up Internet.

The book’s earliest pages take the form of a table divided into columns like “REAL NAME,” “SCREEN NAME AT THE TIME WE MET,” and “X=TIMES MET OR DAYS SPENT.” When starting the memoir, you might assume these would be pages to skim, a visual stunt to bring the reader into a digital headspace. However, the data becomes a form of narration unlike any you may have encountered before. The reader becomes a detective and decoder: the simple entry “x99+” under “X=TIMES MET OR DAYS SPENT” reveals a long-term relationship, and entries like “watched Survivor at his apartment” clues you into the context of the early aughts.

Van Dyck’s memoir proceeds as a repetition of this list, but this time with annotations, and each successive entry generates a jarringly precise depiction of coming into one’s sexuality at the advent of the social web. Throughout the annotated entries, the men and women van Dyck meets online often play as much of a role in his adolescent development as his father and mother, guiding him into his burgeoning sexual identity. After the loss of his mother, and aided by the sometimes inept but unfailingly kind support of his father, van Dyck sets out on his own, following a connect-the-dots map from AOL user to AOL user around the country. Exploring glowing gay landscapes—in the blue light of computer screens and beneath the rosy warmth of Southwestern sunsets—van Dyck meets tops and bottoms, otters and bears. He acquaints himself with adulthood in strangers’ apartments. Throughout, van Dyck’s writing is unnervingly relatable; his explicit depictions are vulnerable, candid, and human:

When we started to have sex, Luke asked if I had wiped…As I lay on my side, Luke wiped my ass. Luke told me I needed to wipe properly. Inspired by Luke’s bowl of lubes, I filled my pockets each time I went to MPower or the Under 21 Group, and slowly amassed a collection of my own.

Van Dyck’s prose mirrors the dataset the book begins with: a linear presentation of facts. The details he includes are both mundane and mosaic, and as he lists them the story coalesces. In this way, through frank snapshots of the people around him, a dynamic portrait of an evolving artist is rendered.

When the memoir catches up to the present and entries start to occur in real-time, alongside commentary on van Dyck’s self-doubt regarding his writing project, the text becomes something like conceptual art:

I wondered later if I met Robbie because I knew it would be a good story. I was starting to have this question about many of the guys I was meeting. Or was the list project giving me an excuse to do what I already wanted to do?

In People I’ve Met From The Internet, we share in van Dyck’s struggles at the bleeding edge between life and art, and wonder what to make of the man behind the experiment. Perhaps the point of it all, his book seems to suggest, is simply to delight in the details

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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

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