With Mercer Out of the Hospital, ‘Swearing in English’ Finally Has Its Big Night

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Earlier this year, when Oakland actor and author John Mercer was due to take the stage for the opening night of his one-man show drawn from his memoir/essay collection, Swearing in English: Tall Tales at Shotgun, he was otherwise occupied: he was in the hospital with viral encephalitis, a life-threatening illness that would keep him there for 11 days. The advertised shows were cancelled, and the book launch never happened. (You can read more about the memoir here.) Now Mercer, who is a member of the Shotgun Players, has recovered and the show will go on. What was going to […]

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A Poet Survives China’s Prison: Liao Yiwu’s ‘For a Song and a Hundred Songs’

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Violently quashed protests, wrongful imprisonment, book banning, torture—these acts have become almost expected within the context of political rebellion and its suppression. The painful, familiar components of modern repression are given new perspective, however, in Liao Yiwu’s memoir and new book, For A Song And A Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison (New Harvest Press; 404 pages), translated by Wenguang Huang. In his book, Yiwu, a Chinese poet, tells the story of his time in prison following the Tiananmen Square protests of June 4, 1989. Though not a protestor or even, as he admits, particularly interested “in […]

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Scottish Storytelling, Elvis, and Perfect Moments: Q&A with John Mercer

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Oakland writer and actor John Mercer is a British expat from Leeds, in Yorkshire, who is a member of Berkeley’s Shotgun Players. He recently appeared on their Ashby Stage in Tom Stoppard’s Shipwreck and starred as Vladimir Nabokov in The Divine Game. His one-man show, Swearing in English: Tall Tales at Shotgun, directed by Christy Crowley, was set to premiere this month, but was postponed after he was diagnosed with viral encephalitis in May. The rollicking, profound pieces in Swearing in English take readers on a wild ride, from Mercer quitting law after getting his degree (and taking acid) to […]

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Buffeted in His Father’s Wake: Kelly Daniels’ ‘Cloudbreak, California’

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“The pure products of America go crazy,’’ William Carlos Williams memorably wrote, and from Aurora to the weird kid lounging at the register of the local 7-Eleven, we see the proof of his perception all around us. In ‘70s Southern California, Kelly Daniels grew up amid such strangeness as the son of a drug-dealing, surfer-bum dad (who was ultimately convicted of killing a drug-dealing cousin) and a well-intentioned and loving mom, who signed up with a cult called the Church of the Living. Although he found temporary refuge with his wealthy grandparents, Daniels grew up, understandably, confused and angry. With […]

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Finding Refuge From the End of a Marriage: Joelle Fraser’s ‘The Forest House’

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Nature plays an integral part in Joelle Fraser’s new book, The Forest House: A Year’s Journey into the Landscape of Love, Loss and Starting Over (Counterpoint Press, 224 pages), which chronicles her life right after her marriage ends. Wanting to disrupt the life of her young son, Dylan, as little as possible, Fraser resolves to stay near the small mountain town where Dylan’s father lives. The only place she can find that’s close enough to town, but far away from the gossip (it was Fraser’s decision to leave her husband) and sympathy there, is a one-bedroom home tucked into the […]

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A Frank Investigation of Her Family: Q&A with Paula Priamos

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In her recent memoir, The Shyster’s Daughter (Etruscan Press; 250 pages), which was excerpted in ZYZZYVA 91, Paula Priamos investigates the death of her lawyer father and paints an unapologetic portrait of her family, with characters both perverse and loving. Priamos peers into the motivations of her family members with a rare and enticing frankness that distinguishes her work from that of other memoirists. Beyond the title, Priamos hints at the type of story she’s about to tell in the first page with a description of her father, who’s phoning her. She can easily imagine him being “somewhere far sleazier” […]

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From Iguala to Los Angeles, the Making of a Writer: Q&A with Reyna Grande

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Each year thousands of children are left behind as their parents cross the border into the United States looking for work. Often these children set out on journeys of their own in hopes of finding their parents. These terrifying treks, and their devastating effects on families, have been chronicled by others. In 2006, journalist Sonia Nazario wrote a spellbinding account of a young boy’s trek from Honduras to the United States in Enrique’s Journey: The Story of A Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite With His Mother. In 2009, the documentary film Which Way Home captured the plight of two young […]

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The Well-Researched Drug Memoir: ‘Opium Fiend’ by Steven Martin

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When you think of opium smoking, the sepia-steeped image of an exotic Shangri-La probably comes to mind.. However, opium consumption has long been a worldwide phenomenom, with smokers found among  the upper crust and the impoverished. In his memoir, Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction (Villard; 416 pages), Steven Martin delves deep into the long-lost secret history of a drug that once captured the imaginations of everyone, from the haute couture to Hunter S. Thompson. Martin—a freelance writer living in Southeast Asia whose curiosity about opium smoking eventually led to his becoming an addict to […]

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A (Long) Painful Path to Self-Knowledge: Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’

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Close to the beginning of Wild (Knopf, 336 pages), Cheryl Strayed’s compact and potent memoir about hiking 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, the author finds herself holed up in a remote motel room, assessing her baggage. In a literal sense, this means tallying up the all the things she thinks she’ll need for the trek – a lantern, a tent, a foldable saw, a packet of condoms – and stuffing them into a giant backpack. In a metaphorical sense, it means mapping out her escape from a life punctured by difficult endings: the unexpected death of her mother, […]

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The Slippery Nature of Nonfiction: Q&A with Jackie Bang

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Jackie Bang’s story “Silver Mailbox,” which appears in the Winter 2011 issue of ZYZZYVA, is either a heavily fictionalized piece of nonfiction or a heavily factual piece of fiction. Or perhaps something else. The story of a Washington couple — the Miner and the Collector — and the recently-arrived infants brought into their brood, it’s a stylized piece of writing that leaves you eager to learn of the fates of these strange but compelling people. We talked to Jackie Bang via email about her story and the larger work of hers from which it’s taken. ZYZZYVA: “Silver Mailbox” is the […]

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Deb Olin Unferth’s ‘Revolution’ and the Costs of Memoir

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Save some long-mothballed, early twentieth-century avant-garde movements, memoir may be the only literary genre requiring a statement of principles. This applies to readers and writers alike. Do you expect a memoirist to show perfect recall, to reconstruct a past with vividly described environments, clear dialogue, and novelistic scenes? Or do you want a memoirist to admit the fallibility of her memory? Perhaps in an introductory preface, and to confess that some scenes, characters, and timelines may be elided, compressed, combined — i.e., do you mind if she makes things up, as long as it’s in the service of a good […]

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