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Scout Turkel

‘Blackfishing the IUD’ by Caren Beilin: Inflaming Technologies

Caren Beilin nonfiction Blackfishing the IUDJust over halfway through Caren Beilin’s newest book, Blackfishing the IUD (165 pages; Wolfman Books), she states the simple truth that we have already learned, have already felt and suffered with, over the course of our engagement with this work: “Reading is ruining my life.”

Recounting her own experience with medical gaslighting, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the copper intrauterine device (IUD), and what it means to have metal—a toxic thing, an inflaming thing—placed in the uterus, Beilin’s text is part critique, part personal essay, and part platform for the stories, worries, angers, and generous advice of other affected women. Her voice is unique, but her story necessarily isn’t; it’s a facet of this memoir which makes it both highly particular and eerily resonant. At times, Beilin’s work reads as a manifesto, at others, a poem. But always, as a plea: “…what is copper combined with woman?” she asks. “What does the IUD do when it is not doing that sentence? The womb is wet. It rusts.”

Reading this book will ruin your life. Not because the information will be new to many of us, but because it takes things women have known for some time, that they have felt burning in their abdomens and fuming in their blood, and grants them transfiguration. The relegated-fiction of online forums, systemically dismissed internal nervousness, visible and invisible pains—all of these things and the copper trail which follows them are reinstituted as meaningful. Here, meaningful means allowed to hold something. To contain truth, and to mandate that these truths, in these forms, be accepted as legible. Copper becomes a readable subject, as does the woman’s body, and the woman’s voice, emanating from that same entity which we must learn to trust. These things have always been trying to talk with us. Blackfishing demands that we listen, and that we say something back, even (or perhaps, especially) if it is just, I believe you.

This project is life-ruining in the sense that things must sometimes be shredded to be understood. Beilin takes her subject to its extent: her descriptions of pain—the pain brought on by her copper IUD and subsequent RA, the emotional pain of navigating the medical world—and the routine dismissal of that pain, are almost impossible to sit through without, at the very least, a break, or, more severely, intermittent panic attacks. Breakdowns at the thought of the birth control in one’s own body, and what it might be doing when it doesn’t perform “that sentence,” the sentence of Planned Parenthood and other providers, the phrases and gestures which market the IUD not just as healthcare but as a political proclamation. “Now we are awesome cyborgian women, feminists with metal we enjoy in our womb.” Blackfishing isn’t a testimony against birth control, nor against the right of all people to access it. But it does throw necessary skepticism at the way reproductive healthcare institutions wield the concept of choice. Choice is important, necessary. But perhaps the choices we have are very, very bad. Are inflamed.

Beilin, whose past works include Spain and The University of Pennsylvania, employs tactfully constructed prose, as beautiful to read as it is horrible—and overwhelmingly—to sit with. It incites anxiety, but also, invites community. To read this book is to never be alone, to find things funny as well as terrifying and to, at last, situate invalidated fears in a legitimizing network of corroboration.

Blackfishing the IUD is a little book from a little press (the wonderful Oakland-based Wolfman Books). A podcast series will accompany its release, as if its own smallness can acknowledge itself. The effect of reading Blackfishing is unfathomably vast, but like any well-executed critical project, it does not pretend to be an end, an answer, or enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here lies the love that was felt…

Here lies the dream that motivated a year…

Are they always losses?

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

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

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

There are, I think, others…

The ruin that follows the invitation…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Be Recorder’ by Carmen Giménez Smith: A Call to Action

Carmen Giménez Smith poetry book 'Be Recorder'Anyone who has ever questioned the capacity of poetry to do something needs to read Carmen Giménez Smith’s newest collection, Be Recorder (88 pages; Graywolf Press). Be Recorder refuses to pretend it lives elsewhere, in some untouchable world of the lyric. Rather, each poem is undeniably here, in the now of state-generated violence and imperialism, of oppressive immigration policies, of love, of motherhood, of writerly politics. This list, while certainly marking many of Giménez Smith’s major attentions, is painfully incomplete: Be Recorder sees everything, even what it has yet to witness.

It is this impulse –– to witness and uncover, while also pointing toward the unknown –– that makes this collection and its politics so compelling. You don’t even have to open the book to hear its first demand, conveyed through the well-chosen title: “Be Recorder.” To illuminate historical harms, personal traumas and joys, we must first record them; to spectate actively is to remember and to write down, to capture each occurrence and refuse to let it go unnoticed. A “recorder” is, however, not just the person who keeps records, but the apparatus of recording itself. This complicates things: the power of witnessing can be revolutionary for the unseen, but such an apparatus can also be wielded by those forces the revolutionary witness pushes against. The state, too, is a recorder, one which dictates and archives a dominate understanding of history, marks borders on the land, shuffles, expels, and kills those defined as deviant. Be Recorder understands the messy role of documentation and declaration:

can I trust your simpatico or will my dark repel / will you be frontier and border kiss me for the camera / can I have authentic depth and will you align with me / will you hold my curls when I’m expelling phantoms / who open tunnels into the past will you consider the sky / contra the west with its grinding machines will you Spartacus / with me will you jump in fight can it be your caravan too / record my face lover record my limbs record them for / us all I’m lucky I’m lucky I’m so lucky that I’m lucky

In a single stanza, both the “west with its grinding machines” and a lover recording limbs appear. The personal grace and closeness of being seen in a moment of intimacy, and the violence of being watched and restricted by the nation’s “frontier and border,” exist on the same plane. This is not the only instance of Be Recorder‘s play with oppositional truths and the paradox of radical gesture:

I hardly care that I’m doing / harpy that I’m a city’s pestilence / should I mother or write / serve art or the state

Can art serve the state? The state has certainly exercised art as a means of propaganda, and artists have often, quite willingly, chosen to allow it. In recognizing this dichotomy and historical tension, the poem highlights an important truth, a manifesto posed as a question. To truly serve art is never to serve the state in any capacity, which is to say, that which seeks to meet the demands of empire should hardly be considered art at all.

This is just one reading of this poem, this line, this book, yet it’s hard not to feel galvanized by the possibilities it offers. Be Recorder operates as both a mirror and an imagination. We are rallied by it, called to attention, to action, to sight:

can I expect / a chronicle of the moment or is it fraught with the lyric therefore fraught / with the vulgar density of people is that the hitch aesthetically / thus ethically does it seem impossible the desire for such validation / or could you break free and record / be recorder

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‘Home Remedies’ by Xuan Juliana Wang: Perfect Worlds

Xuan Juliana Wang collection Home Remedies“Family,” “Love,” and “Time and Space” comprise the three sections of Xuan Juliana Wang’s first story collection, Home Remedies (204 pages; Hogarth). These categories describe this book better than much else could: Wang conjures an incredibly wide range of characters and plotlines, all tied together through notions of familial bonds, love, and temporality. There are no broad strokes or homogenizing glances in Wang’s work. These stories, concerned with Chinese young people and their engagements with culture, curiosity, and identity are complicated and specific, personal and detailed, messy and absurd. Each story Wang creates is so perfectly and wholly its own world; the only moment of disappointment they offer is in their brevity. It’s hard not to feel a sense of loss at the close of each universe, so vivid, full, and necessarily affecting.

The book’s opening story, “Mott Street in July,” centers on a Chinese family living in the U.S. over the course of a very hot summer, one marked by the national “Asian carp crisis.” The three children of the family, Walnut, Pinetree, and Lucy, watch as their parents leave their small apartment to join the “Fish Generation,” those who presumably have gone to kill the carp, which “could be lured with moon cakes and rice noodles to swim alongside chartered boats across the ocean, back to the waters where the carp belonged… to guide them back to their rightful home.” Political and surreal, this story is as heartbreaking as it is subversive, able to touch upon intergenerational trauma, abandonment, and love under systematic exclusion through almost mythic prose:

The fish followed the river, the father followed the fish, the mother followed the father, and the children, holding their arms out, did not have a past to chase. Love could be a burden, too… The fish themselves must be confused, too. The carp hadn’t done anything wrong… They lived for more than a hundred years in these American waters and felt a lot of anguish and confusion, which they passed down to their own fish children… They had come so far and done what was asked of them; now they were unwanted.

“Days of Being Mild” (likely a reference to Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai’s 1990 film Days of Being Wild), by contrast, features a group of young people who have recently moved to Bejing, or Bei Piao, young adults out “to prove that the Chinese, too, can be decadent and reckless.” The group of roommates that the story recounts more than live up to this promise, filling their days with erotic fashion photography shoots and experimental filmmaking, punk shows, and new lovers. Visually, the story is a far cry from the crowded apartment on Mott Street where three children learn the limits of love. But both stories find their characters in orbit, albeit a precarious one, around family making; the difficulty of defining oneself in opposition to one’s parents, or the special kind of dependence that forms among young people when they no longer feel held by those who were meant to protect them.

It feels rare for a single book to do so many things, and to do each of them so well: an unrequited queer Olympic love story, a woman transformed by the designer clothes of a dead model, an aging machine, teenage violence, sexual yearning, unwanted marriages. Each vignette is magical, and critically real. It’s a gift to read something so attentive, able to traipse across time and space with the utmost care for each life brought into focus.

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‘Stay and Fight’ by Madeline ffitch: Living Off the Land

Madeline ffitch novel Stay and FightBuilding family in the face of capitalist-driven environmental collapse might look something like Madeline ffitch’s first novel, Stay and Fight (304 pages; FSG), at once indulging fantasies of reclusive living outside the gaze of the State, while simultaneously narrating the impossibility of such an existence. This is not to say Stay and Fight denies the prospect of, or human capacity for, crafting alternative, distinctly non-traditional ways of surviving. On the contrary, ffitch’s characters sustain themselves, maintain a home, and even raise a child, all miles outside the comforts and confines of urban or otherwise familiar civilization. And yet, even in the wilderness of Appalachian Ohio, systems and their effects creep in: child protection services, energy companies, public schools. Even while off-the-grid, the grid watches.

A uniquely comprehensive and necessarily tangled understanding of what it means to live under normalizing forces and rapid climate degradation is present throughout Stay and Fight, though the plot pays these matters little explicit concern, and for good reason: it doesn’t have to. Told from four distinct perspectives, each character’s understanding of one another and themselves is fundamentally mediated by their conditions; ffitch doesn’t need a manifesto to demonstrate Anthropocenic stakes. The novel’s first narrator, Helen, a young college-educated woman from Seattle, arrives in Appalachia with her boyfriend Shane, looking to make it on their own on twenty acres of empty land. It doesn’t take long for their plan to collapse: put off by his girlfriend’s chattiness and their highly isolated life, Shane leaves after just a few months of “roughing it” in a small trailer and trimming trees with Rudy, a helpful but abrasive local drunk. Helen is alone, but doesn’t mourn for long. She soon takes over Shane’s job as Rudy’s assistant and is introduced to the rest of her neighbors, namely Lily and Karen, a lesbian couple living on “The Women’s Land Trust,” a separatist community. When Lily gives birth to a baby boy, Perley (the novel’s fourth narrator), the couple knows their days in the woman-only community are numbered, prompting Helen, eager to find company and purpose, to offer the new parents a place to live on her land. Lily and Karen have lived in Appalachia for years and know that Helen is clueless and, to make matters worse, thinks she knows everything. Despite their concerns, the allure of living rent-free is too good to pass up. They set off to build a house, unsure of what their life will look like inside of it. A happenstance family forms.

Stay and Fight is built on such moments of unlikely and nearly coincidental intimacies. Soon, the women begin to care for, feed, and shelter one another every day. ffitch, however, avoids the glossy, familiar narrative of feminist utopia this story could have easily reproduced. Life is primarily unpleasant and usually rife with conflict. Helen embraces “the great outdoors” with the gusto of someone who romanticizes fleeing conventional society, and, despite having almost no practical survival skills, tells Lily and Karen what to do and how to do it at every turn, obsessed with “best practices” for living off the land.

Helen’s overbearing behavior founds one of the novel’s most engaging and humorous critiques, that of liberal-arts-flavored elitism. While sparing no attempt to make herself seem native to the poverty-stricken area, Helen lives in Appalachia voluntarily. She loves the hardship, even, or perhaps especially, when it seems most unbearable. Yet Helen also feels fundamentally separate from those who were raised there, proud of her B.A. in liberal studies and overwhelmed by her felt obligation to share knowledge with those around her:

“I think you’re using the word yuppie incorrectly,” I said. The men looked at me, “Young urban professional, right?” I said. I looked at Aldi for confirmation, but Aldi, so ebullient with Rudy, gazed at me like the stranger I was. I pressed on. “That principal may be a professional, but he’s definitely not young or urban.”

“Helen’s from Seattle,” Rudy said. “She’s just mad because she’s a yuppie too.”

We all know a Helen. She is easy to dislike, and disdain toward her is merited. But like everything else in ffitch’s story, it’s complicated. Helen is the only one with a steady job, and she helps care for Perley, becoming an integral part of the toddler’s life. Even when they don’t want to, Helen, Lily, Karen, and Perley come to need each other: no one goes to the doctor, and rather than letting Perley play with toys, they teach him how to use tools. They share a skepticism of social structures, nationalism, and institutions that speaks to a well-founded distrust of government and Western-sanctioned ways of doing things, a distrust which, as a reader, resonates profoundly.

They might not enjoy it most of the time, but staying together is the only way this family can fashion a life that looks the way they want it to. This is not want in the pleasurable sense, but rather want as it relates to need. Amid fighting and hunger and a relentless snake infestation, they retain the power of self-actualization, straddling the hard-to-measure distance between agency and adversity. Each choice—such as not wanting Perley addicted to Western medicine and sugar, or brainwashed by patriotism in school—involves the hardship necessitated by doing everything without help, outside the rules of the State. No matter how strenuous, it seems the only way to make real their collective intent, one born out of love as much as principle. The impulse is utopian, even if reality proves less so.

Stay and Fight is smart and self-aware enough to refuse any confident solution toward forging intimacy and independence under our current sociopolitical circumstances. It knows that such a solution does not exist. Rather, there is staying, there is fighting, and there is fighting to stay. There is trying to protect your child from harm, and there is producing unforeseen harm as a result. There is State intervention, normalizing forces that (as always) refuse to let live those who try and turn away from its authority. There are pipelines slicing through the land, there is inadequate healthcare, there is hateful speech and addiction and hunger. Stay and Fight touches upon the most central, tender, and violent conflicts of our time without opting for simplicity, allowing the sadness and humor of family to guide its reader toward a more generative understanding of all the ways there are to stick around for something you believe in.

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