VIDA announces changes to VIDA Count for 2015

The following is a press release from VIDA that I know will interest many of this blog’s readers.

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May 20, 2015 — With the release last month of its fifth annual VIDA Count & second annual Larger Literary Landscape VIDA Count, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts also released its first attempt to count race—with incredible social media reception and international response:

“VIDA’s new Women of Color Count is a big step toward more public visibility of the diversity problem in literary media, and an encouraging sign of how hard the volunteer-staffed organization works to continually move the conversation forward.”—Huffington Post, April 7, 2015

“The 2014 VIDA Count tells a vital story about the lack of parity in the literary arts. In addition to surfacing the barriers women face in the literary space, the research shows that the obstacles are compounded for women of color.” — Women, Action & the Media.

Inspired by tremendous support from organizations like WAM: Women, Action & the Media! and responses from Huffington Post, The Guardian, and Newsweek, VIDA will continue to develop and broaden the scope of the annual VIDA Count by also counting LGBTQI writers and writers with disabilities for 2015. This concerted effort will further deepen and complicate the conversation about imbalances from an intersectional position. This development will also enable the articulation of issues converging at the points of gender, race, sexual orientation and disability.

Throughout the rest of the year, VIDA will be contacting all women published in 2015 to complete a short anonymous online survey that will permit writers to self identify these factors for themselves.

In the spirit of VIDA’s all-volunteer efforts, VIDA will enlist public support to encourage writers to participate in a self-identifying survey. Stay tuned for #HelpVIDACount on VIDA’s Facebook and Twitter pages!

This growth coincides with the departure of Jen Fitzgerald from the Count Department. It is with immense gratitude that VIDA applauds her generous management of four VIDA Counts as completed by her and the many incredible VIDA volunteer counters. Questions regarding details about the VIDA Count may be directed to Cate Marvin at cmarvin@vidaweb.org.

Author Christine Sneed on The Pleasure of Influence

Christine Sneed by Adam Tinkham

Every day, many times a day in some cases, I find my thoughts turning to the work of a few fiction writers whose books I feel an almost romantic attachment to.  This list of literary idols changes on occasion depending on what I’ve been reading or teaching in the past year or two.  A writer whose work I’ve just read will join it, and another will step back into the shadows, though each of these admired novelists and poets drifts in and out of view on many days like clouds floating by in a sometimes-blue, sometimes-gray sky.

During graduate school and the years immediately following it, I became fully aware of the influence these writers exerted, men and women who were near-constant, benign specters that circulated in and out of my thoughts. The first two were Jim Harrison and Alice Munro.  As a poetry MFA student at Indiana University in the mid-90s, I often thought about the work of Dean Young and Lynn Emanuel, two poets I wished desperately to emulate.  At the time I first read their work, I was only a couple of years out of college and not yet – embarrassing as it is to acknowledge in these polarizing times – politically aware or engaged with the world in a way that extended beyond my own comfortable frame of reference.  I was beginning to learn to think abstractly, and was also making my first, awkward attempts to imagine lives and points of view different from my own.

Needless to say, I wasn’t writing poetry anything like Young’s and Emanuel’s, two geniuses whose poems still make me feel an almost maudlin gratitude for the experiential possibility and sentiment and language that their work presented to me in my mid-twenties.  Their words woke me up, I realize now, almost twenty years later, and this is the same thing that the short stories and novels of the fiction writers who keep company with each other in my head do, too.

In the last year and a half, I’ve been thinking every single day about the work of Scott Spencer, a writer whose third novel is the intensely intelligent, sensual, and devastating Endless Love (a 1979 National Book Award finalist).  This book makes the kind of emotional and psychological impact that devoted readers are likely to encounter maybe once a year.  Its point-of-view character, David Axelrod, is seventeen when the catastrophic house fire that he describes at the novel’s start occurs, a fire that he purposely set in order to alert his adored, off-limits girlfriend (by paternal decree) and her family to the flames. David didn’t, however, expect his small porch fire to become a full-blown conflagration.  With his confiding, reasonable-sounding voice, David is probably the most skillful rendering of an unreliable narrator that I’ve ever encountered.

I’ve read several of Spencer’s other novels, e.g. Men in Black (which is of no relation to the movie franchise), The Rich Man’s Table, Willing, and A Ship Made of Paper, and the writing is often very funny in addition to being beautiful and smart.  His books burst with so many moments of linguistic brilliance. Below are a few of my favorite sentences from the opening pages of Willing:

“I was a face in the crowd, a penitent on the edge of a Renaissance painting, a particularly graceful skater in a Breughel, the guy in the stands at the World Series…his hand on his heart and his eyes bright with belief during the singing of the national anthem.”

“I carried my desire within me like a tray filled with too many little cups of ceremonial wine: one false step and the whole thing comes crashing down.”

“Physically, I was of the type no longer commonly minted, a large serious face, a little heavier than necessary, broad shoulders, sturdy legs, hair and eyes the color of a lunch bag.” (That lunch bag does me in every time – I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used as a color before now.)

Another writer with Chicago ties (Spencer grew up on the south side of the city and quite a bit of Endless Love is set in the Hyde Park-University of Chicago neighborhood) is Rosellen Brown, who writes poetry and prose with equal genius.  Her novels-in-verse, Cora Fry and Cora Fry’s Pillowbook, are, in some ways, like a literary, small-town, page-bound Sex and the City (forgive me if you’re reading this, Rosellen; I love Sex and the City, and Cora, maybe, would too?).  And then, her novels, among them, Before and After, Autobiography of My Mother, and Tender Mercies (no relation to the Robert Duvall movie) are all so different and ambitious and alive.  As for the short story form, “How to Win” is frequently anthologized, and is included in the John Updike-edited Best American Short Stories of the Century.

It’s the quality of aliveness that I’m always looking for in every poet’s or novelist’s work.

Two other writers who are frequently in my thoughts: Penelope Fitzgerald and Mavis Gallant.  I read The Blue Flower (one of Fitzgerald’s later novels and the one that got her noticed more widely by American readers) about fifteen years ago, and I remember thinking, “I didn’t know a novel could be like this. How did she do this?”  The Blue Flower is set in the late 1700s and is based on the life of the German Romantic poet Novalis.  It is so witty, smart, and wry, so of-the-moment, it seemed to me, that the events recounted in this novel (which won the National Book Critics Circle Award) could have been set in the mid-90s, when Fitzgerald was actually writing it.   Mavis Gallant – if you haven’t read any of her work yet, I envy you your discovery.  I suggest starting with Across the Bridge or her marvelous New York Review Books Classic collected stories, Paris Stories, with a foreword by Michael Ondaatje.

I remember Martin Amis describing his relationship with his favorite books and their authors in his memoir Experience (he’s another writer I’ve been obsessed with – for one, his 1995 novel The Information is a wild and amazing book!)  He wrote that a quality he loves about books is that they’re always there waiting for him, like old friends.  Even in the middle of the night, he can go to his bookcases and, reassuringly, find the books he loves.

How comforting to know that we have these friends, that we have a whole set of voices and experiences waiting to be heard and lived (again, if we’re rereading) whenever the impulse strikes us.

Christine Sneed‘s third book, the novel Paris, He Said, was published on May 5 by Bloomsbury. Her first book, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, won AWP’s 2009 Grace Paley Prize and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her second book is the novel Little Known Facts, published in 2013. Her stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, Ploughshares, New England Review, Glimmer Train, and a number of other journals. She teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign and Northwestern University. Twitter:@ChristineSneed  
Christine Sneed photo by Adam Tinkham

Jessica Anya Blau: My Favorite Women Writers of the 1950s

Jessica Anya Blau 2013-07-10-JessicaBlau

When most people think of women of the 1950s they think of poodle skirts, ponytails, and mothers wearing aprons with their hair stiffly molded into the shape of fancy dinner rolls. When I think of women of the 1950s, I think of some of my favorite writers. Here’s a list of my top four. Feel free to tweet this list and add all the women you noticed I missed.

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith. Otto Penzier said of Highsmith, “She was a mean, hard, cruel, unlovable, unloving person.” Everything I’ve read about her makes me believe that to be true. However, she wrote some damn fine books that have given me weeks of great pleasure. Most people are familiar with Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, from the Hitchcock movie. I, too, love the movie. But the book is just as fabulous.  Read it, and then read The Price of Salt, my next favorite Highsmith book. Once you’ve finished those, it’s time to get to the Ripley series, including the first book, The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Francoise Sagan

Françoise Sagan. A film was made about Sagan’s life (it’s French, and I love French films but haven’t seen it yet). Her life was certainly cinematic—she had two husbands, many lovers, and a long-term lesbian affair with the French Playboy Magazine editor Annick Geille. Oh, and there was also the gambling in Monaco, the coma after the car accident, and the drugs and alcohol.  Her first novel (written before the drugs and alcohol, when she was only 18), Bonjour Tristesse, is a lovely, fun, quick read that will make you wish you could run to the French Riviera, rent a house, and write a character as wonderfully spirited as Sagan’s Cécile.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks. Instead of gambling in Monaco or just being downright mean, like the two writers above, Gwendolyn Brooks spent her life writing.  By age 16 she had published 75 poems.  (I, on the other hand, was wearing a black crochet bikini and making out with boys on the beach at 16, flighty fool that I was!) I love reading Brooks’ work, and I love reading it aloud. Brooks’ poems are so beautifully rhythmic, you can do hand claps or jump rope to them. Start with the collection Bronzeville Boys and Girls. I promise, you’ll be a Brooks devotee after a single stanza.

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor. No list of great writers—male, female, of any decade—is complete without Flannery O’Connor. There are many great books about her, her life in rural Georgia, her love of peacocks and peahens, her Catholicism and her premature death. They’re all fascinating; go read them. But first, read anything and everything she’s written. Start with the short stories if you haven’t read them already. Begin with the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. These stories contain characters that will stick with you like your extended family—people you’ll know and think about for the rest of your life.

Jessica Anya Blau is the author of three novels. The Wonder Bread Summer, her third novel, won various “beach read” contests from NPR, CNN and Oprah.com’s book club. Jessica is the author of the 2008 bestselling novel The Summer of the Naked Swim Parties, which was named a Top Summer Read by “The Today Show,” The New York Post, and New York Magazine. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s Writing Seminars Masters program, Jessica has published more than two dozen short stories. Her second novel, Drinking Closer to Home, came out in 2011. Her honors include a “Family Matters,” Glimmer Train Finalist in 2008, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Scholarship in August of 2003, the Santa Barbara Independent Fiction Contest Winner in July 1998, and the Eclectica Featured Writer in August 1997. Jessica was born in Boston and raised in Southern California. She earned a BA in French from the University of California, Berkeley. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and two children.

ORHAN’S INHERITANCE reveals a past that helps us understand the present

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Raffi Hadidian

Raffi Hadidian

Orhan’s Inheritance

By Aline Ohanesian

Algonquin Books: April 7, 2015

337 pages, $25.95

The publication of Orhan’s Inheritance comes as pressure on Turkey to acknowledge its role in the Armenian genocide of 1915 appears to be reaching critical mass. A century is a long time; perhaps this will be the year when progress can be made toward healing this open wound.

Set in 1990 and 1915, Aline Ohanesian’s debut novel serves as both an introduction to the history and current issues and a compelling story of physical and cultural survival.

Orhan Turkoglu, a young businessman living in Istanbul is called home to a tiny village on the outskirts of Sivas, in Central Anatolia, known as “the other Turkey,” when his 93-year-old grandfather Kemal is found dead. Orhan learns that he is to inherit the family’s business, to his father’s dismay. But even more disconcerting to Orhan, his father, and his Auntie Fatma is the fact that his grandfather has bequeathed the small home in which he and Fatma have lived for 70 years to someone named Seda Melkonian, a woman no one has heard of.

The will contains her address in Los Angeles, so Orhan sets off to meet with her in hopes of having her sign over to Orhan and his father the rights to the family home. Ms. Melkonian lives in the Ararat Home for the Aging, an Armenian retirement home. Her niece, Ani, her only living relative, had arranged for Seda to live there, but she is deeply unhappy about it. “It is a museum for the living, breathing relics of an unburied past, built by a community for whom everything, from the church picnic to the baker’s son passing the bar exam, is a testament to survival. ”

Seda is similarly disillusioned with the recent renewed interest in the Armenian past. “Everyone is an amateur historian,” she thinks. “They use words like witness and genocide, trying to bridge the gap between her past and their own present with words. She wants nothing to do with it. But the other residents have fallen under a confessional spell. They’re like ancient tea bags steeping in the murky waters of the past, repeating their stories over and over again to anyone who will listen.” Seda refuses to think of her past, telling those who ask that she can’t remember.

Ironically, Ani is curating a photographic exhibit about the genocide that is being presented at the Ararat Home. “This exhibit is just another venue for what Ani and her generation like to call baykar, the struggle.” Seda is uninterested but admits she can hardly avoid it, since it is just down the hall from her room. “‘Why would you want to avoid it?’ Ani asks. ‘Aman, I’m tired of the past. I was there, remember? Once was enough.'”

This is the formidable woman Orhan must confront with his grandfather’s will. He wants only to know what her connection to Kemal is and to obtain her signature. But Seda is stubbornly close-lipped, refusing to tell Orhan anything, afraid to revisit a past she is convinced will destroy her. Needless to say, there is far more to the story than Orhan could ever imagine.

Before long, we are taken back to 1915, when Kemal was an 18-year-old Turk living in the village of Karod during the last days of the Ottoman Empire and working for a wealthy ethnic Armenian family, as did many Turks in Sivas.

With World War I and the empire’s alliance with Germany came the scapegoating of the Armenians in Turkey and what today we would call ethnic cleansing. The men are taken away to places and fates unknown, and the women and children are marched across central Turkey into what is now Syria. Those familiar with other genocides and ethnic cleansings in the past 100 years know the story well; it is virtually the same every time.

The bulk of Orhan’s Inheritance tells the story of Kemal Turkoglu, who is drafted into the Ottoman army, and the experiences of Turkish soldiers and Armenian civilians during the war. Ohanesian provides readers with a close-up view of both sides of the conflict through the eyes of young Kemal and the Armenians we met earlier in Sivas.

Although survival against all odds during war is a familiar story, the details of this particular exodus and suffering are unfamiliar to most people. It is a story of callous disregard for the humanity of fellow citizens now deemed “the enemy,” nearly inconceivable sacrifice and suffering, and an indomitable will to live.

The story Orhan hears forces him to consider the history of his family and his country in a different light. Early in the story, we are told that “Orhan fixates on the word genocide. Massacres abound in his country’s history, as they do in any nation’s history. But genocide is a different accusation altogether. Why do they insist on using this word?”

But as Ani explains to Orhan, “‘Remembering is all we have in the face of denial. Silence is the enemy of justice,’ she says in a mocking voice. ‘That was my father’s motto, anyway. The baykar, or the cause, with a capital C, is a sacred thing to an Armenian.'”

His inheritance is not the family business or home, but the truth about his family, the war, and the nature of the relationship among Turks and Armenians then and now.

Late in the novel, Orhan thinks, “And if he is Turkish, what does that mean? Is he the prodigal son of a democratic republic or a descendant of genocide perpetrators? Maybe he is all of those things and none of them.”

Ohanesian deserves credit for keeping the focus on her heart-wrenching story and avoiding turning her novel into a polemic against the Turks. Few are completely innocent, and some of the guilty remain recognizably human. Nearly all are caught up in forces beyond their understanding or control, and survival is the only objective. The characters have positive and negative things to say about both the Turks and the Armenians.

Orhan’s Inheritance is a moving portrayal of people at their best and worst. It’s a history lesson we all need to be reminded of from time to time and, in this case, a chapter most have never read in the first place. The hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide is a good time to learn about this particular example of suffering and survival. As always, stories can and will save us.

Women writers highlight roster of semifinalists for VCU Cabell First Novelist Award

VCU CFNA 2015 Semifinalists

Judges for the Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award have released the list of this year’s semi-finalists, which includes books by six outstanding women writers.

The dozen titles were evenly divided by gender, and the competition is stiff. One glance at the nominees makes clear that there are a lot of great new writers out there (“new” being relative, of course, since there are no overnight successes in writing).

The Award is “a tribute to writers who have navigated their way through the maze of imagination—who have invented their own compasses and created characters, plots, and voices to enliven the common hours,” according to the CFNA website.

The nominees, in alphabetical order, are:

Alix Christie, Gutenberg’s Apprenctice

Rene Denfeld, The Enchanted

Boris Fishman, A Replacement Life

Roxane Gay, An Untamed State

Smith Henderson, Fourth of July Creek

Bret Anthony Johnston, Remember Me Like This

Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You

Rebecca Rostert, Last Night at the Blue Angel

Jess Row, Your Face in Mine

James Scott, The Kept

Josh Weil, The Great Glass Sea

Morowa Yejide, Time of the Locust

The winner will be announced next month, followed by an awards ceremony at VCU in November.

Recent winners of the Cabell First Novelist Award include Helene Wecker (The Golem and the Jinni, 2014), Ramona Ausubel (No One is Here Except All of Us, 2013), and Justin Torres (We the Animals, 2012).

Author Michelle Brafman on “literary mamas,” writing mentors at the right time and place

Michelle Brafman   washing-the-dead

When my daughter was six years old, she desperately wanted to jump off the diving board at our community pool. All summer, she eyed her friends climbing up the ladder, walking the plank of the board, and flying into the water with glee. I tried everything to help her muster up the courage to take that leap. On one of the last days of the summer, my husband took her to the pool without me. I’d been staying home with the kids full time and had treated myself to a few hours alone in a dark movie theater. When I walked into the house and found a huge smile on my daughter’s face, I knew. “How did it happen?” I asked her. “Mrs. M.,” she said.

I was feeling pretty zen after indulging in a matinee, a bucket of popcorn, and a Diet Coke, but I still I felt a twinge. The big-hearted Mrs. M., now my friend Amy, simply walked next to my girl, held her hand, and offered the right words of encouragement before they jumped into the pool together. Boom. My daughter went off the board again and again. And I wasn’t there.

Sometimes we must rely on other people to mother us. And this is a very good thing.

My novel Washing the Dead is about a woman whose mother has an affair, causes the family to be exiled from their tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community, and then takes off. Half the book tells the story of Barbara Pupnick’s spiral into a dark place, and the other half recounts her journey back to the emotional and spiritual home her mother had burned down. But this is not the story I’m telling today.

Barbara survives her mother’s abandonment, largely because her former preschool teacher steps in to mother her. During her final year of high school, Barbara volunteers in her teacher’s classroom, babysits her son, and on the nights her mother sneaks out with her lover, accepts a warm meal and help with her calculus. Barbara’s mentor even takes her shopping for underwear.

This case of substitute mothering is extreme, but as my daughter’s diving board experience taught me, we find mother figures when and where we need them. My mother is a terrific reader and has dried my tears after some of my toughest rejections, but I find my most productive literary nurturing elsewhere. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits all mother. What a relief for all of us!

My literary mamas are writing instructors, savvy readers, and/or writer-friends (actually male and female) who can read me and for me without any skin in the game. They might wonder while critiquing my fiction if in real life I’ve stolen a family heirloom from a dead aunt or lied to my husband, but they won’t assume it’s because I wasn’t raised well, and they won’t ask. They’ll simply probe, sometimes gently and other times firmly. They’ll hold my hand while I venture into what my friend Dylan Landis calls “the basement,” the deepest and truest parts of ourselves.

And when my literary mamas read my memoir pieces, they’ll shine a light on my blind spots and take a tuning fork to the notes I’m not hitting, and I’ll thank them. We won’t do that messy dance we do with our mothers, where we ask them if they like our new haircut and they tell us, verbally or not, and then we get offended. My tone deafness won’t embarrass or anger them, and they won’t hedge about my bangs.

My literary mamas will listen to my publication woes, but they won’t take my rejection personally and rip apart the character of an agent or an editor they’ve never met. I’ll move on more quickly that way. They’ll wait for me to vent, and then they’ll brainstorm and sometimes make introductions. I’ll seek their guidance in writing query letters or blurb requests (with one literary mama I take straight dictation). They’ll throw gorgeous book parties after readings where they’ve beamed with perhaps not the pride of a real mama, but a joy devoid of the worry that I’ve written about them or that I will somehow humiliate myself.

I learn from my literary mamas, writers whose stories have taught me alternative ways to think about love, grief, redemption, and motherhood: Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, Marilynne Robinson, Zora Neale Hurston, George Eliot, Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, Faye Moskowitz, Amy Bloom, Rebecca Brown, Lidia Yuknavitch.

The common denominator for all literary mamas on and off the page is that in their own way they inspire me to serve in this capacity for someone else, be it a student or a friend. The cycle continues, making me a proud literary grandmama.

Over the years, I’ve periodically thanked my friend Amy for teaching my daughter to jump off that diving board, and she’s looked at me quizzically, perhaps wondering why I’ve held on to this anecdote for so long. My daughter has since found other secondary mamas — teachers, coaches, summer camp counselors, and random adults — who believe in her, who will coax her into taking various leaps. And I will continue to be grateful to them for doing for her what I can’t in that moment, even as a small part of me will be wishing that I could.

Michelle Brafman is a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She earned her MA in Fiction at Johns Hopkins University. Her essays and short fiction have been published in Slate, The Washington Post, Tablet, Lilith Magazine, The Minnesota Review, and many other publications. She teaches creative writing at JHU’s MA in Writing Program, George Washington University, the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis’ New Directions Program, and workshops throughout the Washington, D.C. area. She is the founder of Yeah Write, a writing coaching business. She lives outside Washington, D.C. with her husband and two children.

Barnes & Noble announces Summer nominees for “Discover Great New Writers” award

In the Country   etta-and-otto-and-russell-and-james     Orhan4_pg2-HCjkt.indd     The Given World

Barnes & Noble recently announced the winner of the 2014 Discover New Writers Award, which was given to Australia’s Evie Wyld for All the Birds, Singing. (The runner-up was The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol.)  Now the nation’s largest bookseller has announced the latest nominees for the 2015 award (a new crop of books is nominated each season).

Several standout novels by women were nominated in early Spring, including Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Etta & Otto & Russell & James by Emma Hooper, and A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor.

Last week saw the announcement of the Summer selections, which include 10 novels by women.

The Wonder Garden — Lauren Acampora

In the Country: Stories — Mia Alvar

The Turner House — Angela Flournoy

The Unfortunates — Sophie McManus

Girl at War — Sara Novic

Orhan’s Inheritance — Aline Ohanesian

The Given World — Marian Palaia

Church of Marvels — Leslie Parry

The Book of Speculation — Erika Swyler

Diamond Head — Cecily Wong

The 2015 longlist will be complete once the Fall and Winter nominees are announced later this year. The finalists will be announced in February 2016, with the winner being revealed in March 2016.