Guest blogger Kristiana Kahakauwila on The Writer’s Family Tree: A Tribute to Joyce Carol Oates

kahakauwila   This is Paradise cover art

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Simply comment below with the name of your mentor (or the writer you’d like to be mentored by) AND share the link to this essay on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, etc. and you’re entered. A winner will be randomly selected by number generator on Dec. 31. 

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Kristiana Kahakauwila is one of the brightest lights among young writers, one who is in my “5 Under 35″ category (even if the National Book Foundation hasn’t chosen her as such yet). Her first book, 2013’s This is Paradise, is a compelling look into the lives of people who live in Hawai’i, the land of so many others’ dreams. She pulls back the curtain and shows us the real Hawai’i and real Hawaiians. Although her father was born and raised in the islands, her mother is Norwegian-American, and Kristiana was raised in Southern California (though she often visited family in Hawaii). She earned a BA in Comparative Literature at Princeton and an MFA from the University of Michigan. 

She has worked as a writer and editor for Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado, and Highlights for Children magazines and taught English at Chaminade University in Honolulu. An assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University, Kristiana splits her time between Bellingham, Washington and Hawai`i.

This is Paradise was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Summer 2013 selection of the Discover Great New Writers program, as well as for the Target Emerging Author program. 

Recently I returned to Princeton University, my alma mater, to celebrate the retirement of Joyce Carol Oates, who was my creative writing instructor and undergraduate thesis advisor, and has remained a mentor. A collection of her former students, spanning more than two decades of teaching, spoke of Oates, her influence, and their own work. Walter Kirn, who wrote Up in the Air, detailed the oddity of seeing one’s fictional self represented by George Clooney; Jennifer Anne Kogler described the frenzied responses of her YA fandom; Pinckney Benedict debated the term “regional fiction” in his warm Appalachian drawl. Each writer had a completely different aesthetic and set of interests, yet we all had Oates— her teaching, her editorial sharpness, and her presence.

Several themes arose from this disparate group of writers. One, that Princeton was a socially awkward endeavor for all of us, and that as undergraduates we felt, in one way or another, outside of the social constructs of the university. And yet, this “outsiderness” influenced our writing, shaped our observational skills and ability to empathize, and made us more resilient to criticism. Too, we all owed a debt to the teacher we were honoring, for her early support of our work (and of us, as nascent humans) and her insistence on the two-fold goal of excellence and production. (The woman publishes a book-length project annually and still finds time to Tweet! She embodies productivity.)

The third theme of the event was that of lineage, of feeling—even in one’s outsider-ness—a part of something larger. To read Oates is to read her early mentors, which included the works of Faulkner, Thoreau, and Dickinson. More than that, to read Oates and be taught by Oates is also to read and be taught by her students. I was introduced to Benedict’s crystalline stories in Oates’s class, first read Jonathan Ames’s hilarious essays as I was graduating from college, and discovered, more recently, Julie Sarkissian’s fantastic plays with voice. In reading these authors I deepened my understanding of place, humor, irony, point of view, and other craft techniques, both those particular to these writers and those influenced by our teacher. After the retirement party, when I returned to my own classroom, I was reminded of how significantly Oates shaped my pedagogy and how my students, in years to come, will continue the growth of this writerly family tree.

I am fortunate to have studied directly with Oates, and I delight in the time I spent in her presence. But I am not bound only to her influence. In fact, I can take a cue from Oates, who had no direct contact with her models. We choose our mentors, and even if we can’t know them in person, we can know them through their work.

I have, for many years, adored the writing of Michael Ondaatje. I’ve never met him, and can’t imagine I will, but he has become a mentor of sorts. When my prose lags or becomes too dry, I turn to his and read a few pages to remember what lyricism and poetry can sound like in fiction, and what narrative can do in poetry. I recently learned that Ondaatje studied under John Berger, so I’ve decided to read Berger. A new project for the new year! Similarly, when I discovered a conversation between Colum McCann and Ondaatje (in conjunction with the PEN World Voices festival in 2008), I set upon reading McCann. No surprise, I found his novels to be lyric, imagistic, transportive, and otherworldly– just as I find Ondaatje’s.

The choreographer Twyla Tharp, in her book The Creative Habit, calls this method of studying along lines of lineage or influence “scratching.” In one of the many excellent exercises in her book, she encourages artists to “read archeologically.” By reading backwards in time, moving from a contemporary work to a text that predates it (sometimes via the author’s direct mentors but also around the author’s themes, style, obsessions, and sources) a reader can travel alongside the writer. We can glimpse the evolution of what will become the artist’s style, genre, philosophy or other artistic hallmark, and if we read back far enough, we often find an idea in its embryonic, unadulterated form. Then, if we dare, we might borrow that idea, attend to it, and make it our own.

What I love about Tharp’s exercise is the reminder that we can place ourselves inside any artistic lineage we please. We do not have to be born into a lineage, nor do we have to luck into a classroom led by a master. Instead, we choose a writer we love, we read their work, and then we look to who inspired them, and whom they inspired. We read our way into that lineage, and by reading deeply, with engagement and breathless wonder, with admiration and a critical eye, by focusing on craft as much as we do the tidal shifts of our own emotional response, we teach ourselves how to write like those we love.

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DEPARTMENT OF SPECULATION’s unique narrative creates thought-provoking reading experience

department-of-speculation   Jenny Offill

Department of Speculation

By Jenny Offill

Vintage Contemporaries: Oct. 7, 2014 (paperback)

192 pages, $15.00

Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation is a unique reading experience in a time when that phrase is overused and rarely accurate. In this slim volume, Offill has managed to capture the arc of a marriage: infatuation, marital bliss, established partnership, emotional distance, communication breakdown, adultery, and attempted rehabilitation and renewal of trust.

The wife is a novelist with one book to her credit, but she is struggling with her second. She agrees to ghost write a book in order to stay busy and generate income. Her husband is an accomplished musician. They live in New York City, where they are raising their young daughter. Their life is alternately fulfilling and frustrating.

The wife’s intellectual and career ambitions remain unfulfilled when she is pulled off that track by the demands of motherhood and marriage.

The baby is colicky and doesn’t sleep well, leading to frazzled nerves all around. “And that phrase—‘sleeping like a baby.’” Some blonde said it blithely to me on the subway the other day. I wanted to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear.” But a mother’s love is programmed and undeniable. “But the smell of her hair. The way she clasped her hand around my fingers. This was like medicine. For once, I didn’t have to think. The animal was ascendant.”

She hopes her marriage will be her sanctuary, but its ability to provide that security has faded. “The reason to have a home is to keep certain people in and everyone else out. A home has a perimeter. But sometimes our perimeter was breached by neighbors, by Girl Scouts, by Jehovah’s Witnesses. I never liked to hear the doorbell ring. None of the people I liked ever turned up that way.”

Her unhappiness persists. One day while walking, she finds a book called Thriving, Not Surviving in a box on the street. “I stood there, flipping through it, unwilling to commit. You think that the mental anguish you are experiencing is a permanent condition, but for the vast majority of people it is only a temporary state. (But what if I’m special? What if I’m in the minority?),” she wonders. The wife is recognizably complex: sensitive and thoughtful but neurotic and self-indulgent.

“She has wanted to sleep with other people, of course. One or two in particular. But the truth is she has good impulse control. That is why she isn’t dead. Also why she became a writer instead of a heroin addict. She thinks before she acts. Or more properly, she thinks instead of acts. A character flaw, not a virtue.”

“Whenever the wife wants to do drugs, she thinks about Sartre. One bad trip and then a giant lobster followed him around for the rest of his days.”

A battle with bed bugs only exacerbates the marital tensions. They receive Christmas letters from his relatives, but “my husband won’t let me write one. We send a smiling picture instead.” She imagines the letter she would write.

Dear Family and Friends, It is the year of the bugs. It is the year of the pig. It is the year of losing money. It is the year of getting sick. It is the year of no book. It is the year of no music. It is the year of turning 5 and 39 and 37. It is the year of Wrong Living. That is how we will remember it if it ever passes. With love and holiday wishes.” One can see why her husband won’t let her send one. He is perplexed by his wife’s personal and professional disorientation.

The husband and wife are reasonable and unreasonable, pleasant and difficult, loving and hurtful, just like a real couple. When the husband has an affair, they attend counseling, which the wife dubs “The Little Theater of Hurt Feelings.”

What makes this book unique is that Offill does not tell the story of this couple in chronological order or in any narrative form the reader is likely to have encountered. Instead, she has chosen to start in the present without revealing the status of the marriage and then allow the wife to narrate in a quasi-stream of consciousness that approximates the way our minds move back and forth through time to encounter experiences. It is a strongly interior experience.

The narrative moves among a range of perspectives: a present-tense narration of a past event, a flashback that reflects on the consequences of an event, an introspective moment that blends past, present, and future. Through it all, the wife presents pieces of the puzzle in seemingly random order, which the reader sorts and organizes into a coherent picture of the couple’s life.

Reading Department of Speculation is a dizzying experience in part because of the narrative approach, but also because Offill’s narrator is emotionally and intellectually unpredictable, always searching for sense in the world and her life. Her range of thoughts and emotions mirrors the way people actually experience love and marital tribulations: as a storm crashing through one’s life, turning one’s entire personal world upside down. The alternately introspective and sardonic narrative voice is masterful.

When you finish Department of Speculation and mentally arrange the pieces to form a coherent whole, you will be tempted to re-read the book immediately now that you have the big picture. When you do, the intelligent, gem-like writing sparkles even more brightly and makes more sense – or at least as much sense as can be made out of life.

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Alysha Kaye on Teaching and Writing: Taking My Own Advice

Alysha Kaye  The Waiting Room

 Alysha Kaye was born in San Marcos, Texas, where she also earned her BA in Creative Writing from Texas State University. She worked in marketing for a brief and terrible cubicle-soul-sucking time until she was accepted into Teach for America and promptly moved to Oahu. She taught 7th grade English in Aiea for two years and also earned a Master’s degree in Education from the University of Hawaii. She now teaches in Austin and tries to squeeze in as much writing as possible between lesson planning. She dreamed about “The Waiting Room” and that became her first novel, which was recently published. 

Yes, I am crazy enough to try to teach writing at same time as trying to BE a writer. It’s not always the best of times…but luckily, I’m not in this boat alone. I’ve connected with so many other (usually English) teachers who have published, are working on publishing, or who dream of being published one day. It definitely makes me feel less crazy.

As much as I complain about my squirrelly teenage students, they do so much for my writing career! First and foremost, they keep me in check: they never let me take myself too seriously. In article I wrote for the San Francisco Book Review, I explained that my students, “will never allow me to take myself too seriously and thank goodness for that. No one likes that pretentious-never-smiling writer who goes around constantly sighing about how their agent and editor just “don’t see eye to eye.” Oh please. I make a living telling kids to capitalize and spit out their gum. I write on the side. I get two sad paychecks a month, break up two fights a year, and hand out maybe two stickers a day. I write on the side.

I think every author out there truly needs someone (or hundreds of mini-someones) to keep them humble. I’m sure even J.K. Rowling has a bubble-burster. Probably someone who gloats to her about Avatar doubling the sales of every Harry Potter film. But seriously, where would we be without these parade-rainers? While you may not be walking around the halls of your employment wearing dry erase marker streaks on your white dress, I encourage you to find your own path to absurdity. If your life isn’t a joke, you’re not a writer.”

My kids are also super inspiring…every day, I’m surrounded by hundreds of artists—artists who haven’t reached that point in their life where they question everything they do—they’re still just…doing. Drawing, painting, singing, rapping, writing, sculpting, building, sketching, playing…you name it, my students exceed at it. If you’re ever feeling lost, muse-less, I encourage you to hang out with kids for a day, or even an hour. The things that come out of their mouths! They have no filters, no shame, no inhibition—it’s beautiful and hilarious and scary.

However, I realized recently that I am SO much harder on my students than I am on myself. I think it’s because I love them…a lot! And I want the very, very best for them, obviously. So I push them and I question them and I expect so much out of them and I let them know when they can do better.

I think this is how most teachers are…but the thing is, am I taking my own advice? I’ll tsk-tsk a student for not utilizing an outline and a rough draft before turning in a final and then I’ll turn around and do the exact same thing with my writing. I’ll judge a student’s poetry formatting—questioning their lack of punctuation or placing of words…and then realize that my poetry notebook is filled with I-don’t-care-about-formatting poetry. I force students to peer-edit even though I personally would hate for my peers to edit my work before I’m completely happy with it.

As a writing teacher, there are countless strategies that I introduce to my kiddos—from graphic organizers to practice tense changes to helpful sentence stems. It’s actually quite ironic. I have books upon books upon books all about How To Teach Writing, and worksheets, packets, and spirals full of notes from professional development courses on the same subject. Geez, I even got my Masters in Secondary English Education…I wrote a thesis about teaching writing…and yet. Yet, HELL NO, I don’t use all of those strategies when I’m working on my own writing.

I have to give them as many ideas and options as I know of, because they’re all so different—of course they’re not all going to have the same writing process—and they’re definitely not going to have MY writing process. I literally open up a Word doc or my aged, fading pink notebook and release a furious jumble of words. I prep/plan/outline 0% of the time and I edit maybe 15% of the time. I like fragments. I like cussing. And I like starting sentences with “And.” If I taught my students to write like me, I’d get fired.

I could go on and on. The point is, teaching helps me with my writing more than I can even explain—and not for the obvious reasons. Not because of my endless resources on outlining, but because of the latest hashtags and slang words my students have taught me (if you don’t know what a thottie is, or #AlexFromTarget, then you need some teens in your life, stat). Not because of the countless pieces of literature I have about drafting and editing, but because of the grit and humor and innocence and pain their lives have given some of my characters’ lives.

My goal is to keep writing, keep teaching, and keep trying to be better at both! Who knows, maybe one day I’ll even take my own advice.

You can contact Alysha Kaye or learn more about her teaching and writing at these links:

www.alyshakaye.com

@alyshakaye7

www.alyshakaye.wordpress.com

Amazon

Goodreads

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Karin Lin-Greenberg, 2014 winner of Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, on Patience and Publishing

WIN A SIGNED COPY OF FAULTY PREDICTIONS! Leave a comment after Karin’s post AND then copy the text directly below and share it on Facebook or Twitter. That’s it, you’re entered. The winner will be randomly selected on December 10.

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Karin Lin-Greenberg in classroom  Faulty Predictions

Karin Lin-Greenberg has made a splash on the literary scene with her debut story collection, Faulty Predictions. As one of two winners of the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (along with Monica McFawn), Lin-Greenberg received a publishing deal with University of Georgia Press, which sponsors the award, for the collection of stories she submitted for the contest. Reading Faulty Predictions, one sees very quickly why Lin-Greenberg was selected for the award: she has command of the story form, great empathy for her quirky and very human characters, and a droll sense of humor that adds an inspired light touch to her tales of family conflict, identity, and coping with a rapidly changing world. I expect to hear much more from Karin Lin-Greenberg after this stellar debut. (My review, posted on September 26, is here.)

In this essay, written for Read Her Like an Open Book, Lin-Greenberg considers the need for patience and persistence in publishing in light of our increasingly impatient culture.

I: Patience, a History

Much of my childhood seemed to be about waiting. I owned a book called Free Stuff for Kids, and on each page there was information about something—a bumper sticker, a button, a poster—that kids could send away for and get for free in the mail. Corporations usually sponsored these free things, and the free items advertised their products. I didn’t mind the advertisements. I just thought it was fun to write a letter requesting a free button and then, six to eight weeks later, find a button declaring I loved a certain brand of cereal in a padded envelope in my mailbox.

There was a book that was extremely popular in my elementary school’s library, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, and everyone in my third grade class would wait for weeks for their turn to check it out. The library had two copies, the spines on each book reinforced with tape, the edges of the pages rounded from so many readings.

Speaking of the library, there was a section labeled “For Sixth Graders Only,” which contained books with “mature” topics. We would have to wait until our elementary school educations were nearly over before we could even touch those books. Each time I entered or exited the library, I stared at those shelves, thinking of how much longer it would be before I was allowed to read the books. Some of the books I remember residing there were Forever by Judy Blume and The Long Secret (the sequel to Harriet the Spy), and my friends and I spent a lot of time whispering about what might be in those books. (Incidentally, I must say that those gods and goddesses from the Greek myths I was reading in third grade were up to more trouble than most of the characters in the “For Sixth Graders Only” books.)

During junior high, one of my parents would drive me to the Hollywood Video store up the street from our house on some weekend evenings. I’d always go right to the shelf of new release VHS tapes, and more often than not, the movie I wanted was checked out. So I would walk through the comedy section, pick an older movie to watch, and come back the next week and hope the video I wanted was on the shelf. Sometimes it would take a month before the video I wanted was actually available.

I could go on and on about what I waited for during my childhood, but I’ll just give one more example. For my birthday one year, I got a rock tumbler. I plugged it into an outlet in the bathroom and let it run continuously for six weeks. Sometimes I would go into the bathroom and watch the barrel rotate, listen to the rocks clank as they fell to the bottom of the tumbler. Every week or two I’d stop the machine, wash the rocks off, and pour in a finer grade of abrasive grit. The rocks got smoother and smoother, until, during the last week, I poured polishing grit into the tumbler with the rocks, and finally, what emerged six weeks after I started were rocks that were shiny and beautiful.

II: Patience, Revisited

And now? Well, if you want a video, you can likely stream it. If you want a book that’s checked out of the library, you can download it to a device. If you want to know what’s so scandalous about a book you’re not supposed to read, you can Google a synopsis. I am willfully refusing to look up rock tumblers. I don’t want to know that there’s some special chemical that can now polish rocks overnight. I hope there’s not. I hope there are still things that people have to wait for.

III: Waiting

When I began to submit work to literary journals when I was in my mid-twenties, I was unfazed about the long wait times between my submissions and the responses I’d get from editors. After all, I’d been the kid who was delighted when, after waiting for two months, I got a bumper sticker in the mail with the logo of an orange juice company printed on it. I don’t like getting my stories rejected, but I do like getting responses to work I’ve sent out in the world. I have now been submitting work to journals for twelve years, and I’ve gotten used to the slow influx of rejections, some of them coming six, seven, eight months after I’ve submitted. I don’t feel impatient waiting for them; it’s just part of how things work. And once in a while there’s an acceptance, which is certainly something worth waiting for.

Last semester, I talked to the students in my Writing Short Fiction class about submitting work to literary journals. I showed them a packet I’d put together of rejections I’d gotten over the years. Then I pulled up my Submittable account on the screen at the front of the classroom to show them how electronic submissions to journals work. I pointed at the dates when I’d submitted my stories and said that for some of them I’d been waiting almost a year to hear back.

“If you wait for a long time, are they more likely to say yes?” asked one student.

“Not necessarily,” I said. “Sometimes it just takes that long for them to get through the work that’s been submitted.”

“But now you have a book coming out,” said another student, “so that means that these submissions listed up on the screen, they’ll all get accepted, right?”

“Oh,” I said, “no. Not at all. I still get rejected all the time.”

My students looked surprised. Or sort of surprised, but mostly sad. I imagined they were thinking how strange and unfair publishing was. Not only do people get rejected regularly, but you have to wait a long time to get this news. How terrible.

IV: The Kids Are Not Alright

Several weeks ago I accompanied two student editors of my college’s literary journal to a conference for editors of undergraduate literary journals. For two days, I was in a room full of ambitious young people who cared deeply about reading and writing and wanted to edit the best literary journals they could. One student editor, a freshman at an Ivy League university, gave a presentation about the pressure of publishing. She talked about attending a prestigious summer writing workshop for high school students when she was sixteen. One evening a few of the students were sitting on the lawn outside a building on campus where a famous literary journal was edited. The other students—all of them still in high school—were competitively comparing where they’d been published. They were boasting about their contest wins. The young woman felt miserable and dejected because she hadn’t been published yet. She felt so far behind her peers. When she returned home from the workshop, she started entering contests and didn’t win. She felt like a failure.

Oh my god, I thought. I wanted to leap up on top of a table and scream that someone who’s sixteen has all the time in the world. They don’t need to worry about getting published. They don’t need to stress out about contests. Sure, enter contests if you want, but don’t kick yourself if you don’t win. It’s a cliché, but you win some, you lose some. That’s how life works.

But I also understand that it’s not how life works for some kids. Some kids have only known success. And, hey, that’s great, but if you want to be a writer, you’ve got to get pretty familiar with rejection. Even if your work is good, you will inevitably get turned down at some point. While I listened to this young woman speak, I realized that the current epidemic of impatience wasn’t just confined to people not wanting to wait for individual rejections. It also involved people thinking that if they didn’t publish—and maybe if they didn’t get a book contract—before they were out of their teens, they had failed at being a writer.

The Internet has made us impatient by bringing instant gratification to our daily lives, and I think it’s also caused problems with making people too informed about some things. When I was in high school, I didn’t know what literary journals were. I didn’t even know what they were in college. The first time I encountered one was in graduate school, where there were a couple Glimmer Trains on a table in the graduate English office. I picked up one of the journals while I was waiting to register for a class, and then it clicked that stories are published in journals before they are republished in story collections and the yearly best-of anthologies that I was familiar with. So, okay, I was exceptionally naïve about publishing for a long time, but I think knowing too much can cause trouble. Because of the Internet, young people today know all about journals and contests and submitting work. They know who else their age is getting published. Publishing can become competitive, a race. And it’s not a race. Sometimes it takes a long time before work is ready. I’d be pretty embarrassed if the stories I wrote when I was sixteen were available for anyone to read on the Internet. When I was sixteen, I loved writing, but I still had an incredible amount to learn, and I’m so glad I didn’t feel pressure to publish. I’m grateful I had many years in which to write and learn and explore and grow, and I didn’t have to worry about proving myself with publication. I’m glad I didn’t even think about publication throughout high school and college. This is not to say that someone who is sixteen shouldn’t be published. I’m just saying it’s not a race, and there’s no banner at the finish line that says, “If you are old enough to vote and don’t have a book out yet, you’re a loser.”

V: But How Can I Get Published?

Many of my students have asked me how my life has changed since my book was published. “Not much,” I tell them, and they always look disappointed. “I mean,” I say, “it’s a good thing to have work out in the world. But it’s not like winning an Oscar. It’s not like overnight my life has completely changed.”

But here’s one thing that has changed: people have been asking me how they can get published. No one asked me this before my book came out. And, well, I don’t have a secret formula. I submitted, I waited, I revised. I kept working. I took old stories out of the collection and replaced them with new ones each year. I submitted individual stories to journals and the collection to contests. I entered dozens of contests for seven years.

People have come up to me after I’ve done readings and asked for my advice about publishing. I’ve had adults do this, and I’ve had college students do it. I ask if they are taking classes and what they’ve been writing. Most of the time, people aren’t writing much but they have fantasies of being a writer. One man had a penname picked out already. One student—a biology major—said he’d never actually written a story before, but he thought it would be really cool to get some fiction published.

I try to be encouraging and direct people to resources like The Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market and Poets & Writers magazine. If they are students, I encourage them to take writing classes. (I’ve also been told, however, “I don’t have time to take writing classes, but that’s okay because I already know how to write.”) As I’ve talked to more people who want to be published, this is what I’ve learned: a lot of people want to be published, but they don’t want to put in the work to get published. They don’t want to be patient, to work on their craft for years, and then to wait months for responses to their work. They just want to be published and they want it to happen quickly. And here’s the problem (and I apologize in advance for sounding like a curmudgeon): now anyone can be published. I’m talking Facebook, personal blogs, Twitter. These forums are great in many ways, but they also give people instant gratification. Post a photo of your cat on Facebook and within minutes you can get dozens of “likes.” Publish a piece in a print journal and you’re lucky if you even hear from one reader who enjoyed your story.

When I’m dealing with strangers who ask for publishing advice, I just stay positive, encouraging, but when I’m talking to my own students, I can be a little tougher. This is what I tell them: I think the first questions, the questions that should come before “How can I get published?” are “How can I get as good as I can possibly get as a writer?” and “How can I learn more?” I tell them not to worry too much about publishing yet; publishing is the very last step, and in some ways it’s the least important. Getting better is the most important. It’s certainly what I care about with my own writing. I think if I only cared about publishing I’d have given up by now because of all the rejections over the years. But getting better, well, that’s something I can do on my own, something I can keep working on. I can keep studying published stories and novels I admire, I can keep revising and editing my own work, keep pushing myself to do better.

VI: Tumble On

So some final words of advice about publishing: Be patient and be persistent. Keep working on your stories until they’re as strong as you can make them before you send them out. Don’t worry if you’re turning seventeen or twenty-seven or eighty-seven and you haven’t published yet. Let’s go back to the rock tumbler. Let’s turn it into a metaphor. Think of your stories as those rocks that go into the tumbler. They’re dull and dirty when they start, but give them time and steady attention and what happens? They go from rocks to gems. Don’t send your writing out until you’ve worked on it over and over again, scraping away what’s not working, polishing every sentence. Be patient, give yourself all the time you need, and don’t send your work out until it shines.

Photo at top left courtesy of Siena College.

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HOW TO BE BOTH spins dazzling, dizzying tale of two characters centuries apart

How-to-be-both-US-647x1024

Ali-Smith

How to be both

By Ali Smith

Pantheon (Dec. 2, 2014)

384 pages, $25.95

Scottish writer Ali Smith has developed a reputation as a prodigiously inventive novelist whose books make one’s head spin with their dizzying blend of humor and intellectual ferment, as well as with their experimental structure. How to be both, which was a finalist for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, is the latest addition to Smith’s oeuvre of idiosyncratic books. In its best moments, it is a jaw-dropper of a read, both hilarious and touching (often at the same time), and always deeply thoughtful about Big Questions. The plot itself defies easy summarizing.

How to be both has two distinct halves. One is the contemporary story of George (Georgia), a precocious Scottish teenager struggling to cope with the death of her brilliant and eccentric mother. The other takes place in the 15th century and follows the life of Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa. Interestingly, the book has been published in two versions, one starting with George’s story, others starting with del Cossa’s. My copy began with the former and moved back in time. Having read both sections, I think the story works best in that order, but I could see how chronological order could work well, too.

As the title suggests, the novel is about dualities: past and present, male and female, young and old, life and death, art and commerce, the moment and eternity. George’s mother is fascinated by one of del Cossa’s frescoes in a small town in Italy and goes so far as to take George there to see it shortly before she dies. George’s story moves seamlessly back and forth in time from her experiences with her mother to her present dilemma over how to grieve and how to move forward. A new and sophisticated female friend, H, suggests one path to peace. The presence of del Cossa’s time-shifted spirit serves as another form of guardian angel. The highlight of George’s story is the sparkling dialogue between the mother and her wise and quick-witted daughter.

In the del Cossa narrative, we get a portrait of the artist as a young man; or is it young woman? Smith keeps things vague as she details del Cossa’s childhood, relationship with his wall-building father, and decision to seek an apprenticeship to a painter. Clearly, without giving away too much, del Cossa is very different from other young people of the time. This section combines a coming of age story, art and social history, political intrigue, and sexuality in an occasionally confusing narrative that moves from third person to stream of consciousness and back and forth between the 15th century and early 21st century Italy. At times Smith’s writing distracts and detracts from the story through her insistence on displaying her dazzling intellect and wide-ranging curiosity. She turned my brain into a pretzel several times as I attempted to make sense of time, place, character, and meaning.

How to be both is one of those books that cannot be grasped even slightly without reading it. Reading a review is but a sip from a bottle of rare vintage. If you enjoy inventive narratives that challenge your intellect (and your concept of how a story should be told), then you will find it a rollercoaster ride of a read. Even on those few occasions when Smith’s reach exceeds her grasp, she remains an awe-inspiring writer whose work should be experienced by everyone at least once.

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CITIZEN examines current Black American experience with powerful prose-poetry

Citizen   Claudia Rankine 2014

Citizen: An American Lyric

By Claudia Rankine

Graywolf Press (Oct.  7, 2014)

169 pages, $20.00

If ever there was a book for and of its time, it is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Rankine, a poet and essayist, considers what it means to be a black American in 2014, six years after the election of the first black president. While there was much talk in 2008 and 2009 about America entering a post-racial era, it was mostly a naïve wish. Of course, what we learned was that we were entering an era in which racists were the ones who felt rejuvenated, crawling out from under their rocks to spew hate in every direction, but particularly toward the (half-) black man who dared to occupy the White House.

Those who pay attention to issues of race, culture, and economics may know quite a bit about these subjects. But do they understand what it means to be black, here and now? Do they understand what it feels like to go through life with your skin color defining you before you have a chance to say or do anything on which you might more fairly be judged? Only the smug and arrogant – and most oblivious — would make such a claim (as we have seen frequently in the media, particularly in the last few weeks).

One can argue that substantial gains have been made and that life has never been better for black Americans. But rather than nearing the end of this journey toward true equality and acceptance, we are discovering that the oasis ahead was a mirage and that we have miles to go before we reach our destination.

Rankine makes this clear by taking us on a personal and conceptual journey through the contemporary black experience in Citizen. Through a hybrid of prose-poetry essays and more traditional poetic approaches, Rankine forces readers to face the daily reality of being black. It is, in many ways, a case of death by a thousand cuts.

Citizen is divided into seven parts, each of which addresses a different aspect of, or takes a different approach to, the subject. The philosophical, almost stream of consciousness introduction moves into a series of incidents in which black Americans encounter the manifest forms of racism, from benign ignorance to virulent hatred. Rankine has explained in recent interviews that these experiences came mostly from friends and colleagues, as well as her own life.

And it stings to read about these accumulated insults, indignities, slights, misplaced resentment, and the like. In one scene, a well-traveled black woman settles into her window seat on the plane. A woman and her young daughter stop in the aisle. The girl tells her mother, “These are our seats, but this is not what I expected.” The mother replies, “I’ll sit in the middle.”

In another, a black woman visiting her alma mater is joined at lunch by a white alumnus, who proceeds to explain that her son was not accepted at their prestigious college because of affirmative action or some such program, as if the black alumna were somehow responsible for either the policy or the school’s legacy decision.

A black woman schedules an appointment with a therapist over the phone. When she arrives at the therapist’s home office and rings the doorbell, a woman throws open the door and screams, “Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?” Rankine writes, “It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or German shepherd has gained the power of speech.” Stunned, she manages to tell the woman she has an appointment. “Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry. I am so sorry, so so sorry.”

Even a skeptic will be forced to acknowledge that a constant onslaught of interactions – most of them negative — based on one’s race would be exhausting, disheartening, and eventually infuriating.

In another section, Rankine explores the incident at the 2009 U.S. Open tennis tournament in which Serena Williams became infuriated with a line judge’s call and verbally accosted her. “What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like?” Rankine asks. “Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.’”

Rankine reviews an earlier incident, at the 2004 U.S. Open, in which the chair umpire was excused from officiating finals matches after making five egregiously bad calls against Serena in her semifinal match against Jennifer Capriati. “Though no one was saying anything explicitly about Serena’s black body, you are not the only viewer who thought it was getting in the way of Alves’s sight line.” That match led to the introduction a year later of the Hawk-Eye line-calling technology. The 2009 incident is thus given context that didn’t exist for most viewers at the time, who wondered, as did Rankine, if Williams had (finally) lost her mind.

By piling up these painful anecdotes, Rankine simulates the experience of being black. But Citizen is not a laundry list of complaints or an exercise in self-pity. After sensitizing the reader by guiding us for a mile in black shoes, Rankine shifts to a deeply felt analysis of the consequences of implicit and explicit racism, concluding that one can’t simply shake off a lifetime – not to mention a racial and cultural history — of such experiences and pretend it doesn’t exist.

“The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.”

Rankine also analyzes the uses and abuses of language in expressing race-based ideas and emotions and reaches a counterintuitive conclusion. “For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person. After considering [philosopher Judith] Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present.”

Much of the second half of Citizen comprises prose narrative “scripts for situation videos” that Rankine made with her husband, John Lucas. These scripts take us through a series of deaths of black men and boys at the hands of whites, often police officers, including early 20th century lynchings, the Jena Six, James Craig Anderson, and Trayvon Martin. Rankine also considers such related matters as New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” policy, which unfairly singled out black men (“And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description”), the contrast between U.K. and U.S. media reporting on race-related incidents, and the 2006 World Cup head-butting incident involving France’s legendary soccer player, Zinedine Zidane, who is of Algerian Berber descent.

A section on Hurricane Katrina is particularly wrenching, as she interpolates multiple voices.

“Then someone else said it was the classic binary between the rich and the poor, between the haves and have-nots, between the whites and the blacks, in the difficulty of all that…. The missing limbs, he said, the bodies lodged in piles of rubble, dangling from rafters, lying facedown, arms outstretched on parlor floors…. What I’m hearing, she said, which is sort of scary, is they want to stay in Texas…. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, she said, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them…. Then this aestheticized distancing from Oh my God, from unbelievable, from dehydration, from overheating, from no electricity, no power, no way to communicate.”

Rankine has crafted a multi-faceted exploration of the contemporary black American experience that succeeds both as a work of literature and a public service at a time when such an exploration is desperately needed. Now, if only we could put a copy of Citizen in the hands of every American adult.

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BRIGHT SHARDS OF SOMEPLACE ELSE announces the arrival of a distinctive new fictional voice

Bright Shards of Someplace Else

Bright Shards of Someplace Else: Stories

By Monica McFawn

University of Georgia Press: Sept. 15, 2014

164 pages, $24.95

 

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Occasionally I come across a book that is more challenging than most to review. It’s not because it’s a bad book and I don’t want to write a scathing review; in those cases I just don’t bother with a review (life’s too short to be mean-spirited about a book). It’s because the work is so distinctive or pleasantly perplexing that I struggle to put my thoughts and feelings about it into words.

Monica McFawn’s debut collection is such a book. She submitted a selection of her stories to the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction contest and was named one of the two winners for 2014 (the award is given out biennially to two writers).  And there is good reason for that: although it is still early in her career, she is already writing at an impressively sophisticated level. The result is this collection (published along with Karin Lin-Greenberg’s supremely entertaining Faulty Predictions).

McFawn, who teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, possesses a fiercely idiosyncratic intelligence that is revealed on nearly every page of this eleven story collection.  A few stories  (“The Slide Turned on End,” “Elegantly, In the Least Number of Steps,” “Ornament and Crime”) reminded me of the quirky hyper-modern stories of Karen Russell and Ramona Ausubel (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, of George Saunders). In these cases, McFawn provides her eccentric characters with unique challenges that make for compelling reading even as they keep the reader confused or off-balance.

“The Slide Turned on End” is a brilliant exploration and mockery of scientific and academic research pretensions in which a former biologist and DNA expert becomes convinced that abstract art appeals to us because it captures the essence of our physical selves. He soon becomes a professor of art and a cause celebre in certain circles. A journalist meets with him for an interview, in which O’Hara explains his theory, known as “micro-aestheticism. “

“‘I realized we humans probably react to art because we must, in some subconscious way, recognize it. Even abstract art. What I’m saying is I think we can sense the tiniest part of ourselves–and our origins–the cells, platelets, and our amoeba ancestors–in these images. And I think that’s what resonates with us when we view abstract art.  We are, in a sense, recognizing the bits.'”

“O’Hara went on to compare this who’s who of abstract art to what he assured me was a who’s who of bacteria, protozoa, and cells. Here and there the resemblances truly were uncanny, but what that proved remained obscure.”

Eventually, O’Hara persuades the journalist to provide him with a drop of blood so they can examine her own “abstract art” under the microscope. This experiment requires the use of a new blood stabilizing agent called Ethiphet. Soon the journalist is experiencing O’Hara’s theory firsthand and discovering new insights into art. But matters do not progress in the way one might expect.

In McFawn’s more traditional stories, she uses her pen as a scalpel to cut to the heart of her characters’ foibles, and in doing so, she tells us much about ourselves.

In the opening story, “Out of the Mouths of Babes,” Grace, a twenty-something oddball is baby-sitting a nine-year-old boy described by his mother as “different,” “special,” and “high-maintenance.”  She is told that young Andy is not to use the phone. Grace soon learns that Andy is a highly capable negotiator; he likes calling salespeople to practice. After speaking with a termite exterminator, Grace asks him if he’d like to try clearing up a mistake on her phone bill with a call to customer service. What’s the harm? But one call leads to another as Andy straightens out Grace’s messy life. “Adult lives spread out before him like big sloppy maps that their owners could not refold.” But the evening doesn’t end quite so well.

In “Dead Horse Productions,” the owner of a boarding stable passes away, leaving her son Bill to attend to matters. Despite his mother’s mid-life discovery of a passion for horses, Bill knows or cares little about horses. He is faced with a dead horse in the middle of winter and calls upon Fran, a former riding student who had become an acolyte and employee of his charismatic mother. They engage in a tense debate regarding how to move the frozen equine from the pasture. Fran wants to use a special massage she’d learned from Bill’s mother that would relax the muscles and allow the carcass to be moved more easily; Bill suggests using the backhoe.

“She was afraid of trying the backhoe. Afraid it wouldn’t work–because if the full force of the machine bore down on the carcass and nothing happened, the floating horse would have moved into a more certain plane of paranormal. Afraid it would work–and his mother and her massage would have been bypassed, overthrown, disregarded, unneeded, unheeded–it would be, for Fran, a death of a god. No, the backhoe would not do. The dead horse was no doubt a mystery, no doubt a problem, but there were many mysteries and many problems, and if you had to forsake something to solve each one you’d have nothing left for your trouble.”

To Bill “the dead horse was a mystery, to be sure, but it was a mystery that had overstayed its welcome. There had been mysteries and inexplicable things throughout his life….One could learn to live with these mysteries, but a dead horse, in all its corporeal fact, could not be endured.”

This encounter between two people incapable of understanding each other leads to a revelation for each of them.

“Key Phrases” finds the manager of Journey’s End Memorials (“our company made videos of deceased loved ones to play at funerals or wakes”) attempting to find a way to fire an incompetent employee, with little success.

In “Line of Questioning,” a college English professor is questioned by the police regarding the nature of his relationship with a former student who has been found murdered. Here McFawn plays with the conventions of such plots and again finds something new to reveal.

“Snippet and the Rainbow Bridge” allows McFawn to demonstrate her impressive knowledge of the equestrian field. Judy and Marti own Heart’s Journey, a horse rescue ranch. Despite their successful business partnership, they have different philosophies of horse care. They retain two large animal veterinarians, Dr. Jim and Dr. Merrill, one Old School and one progressive, whose philosophies align with that of Judy and Marti, respectively. They are faced with the question of what to do about a seriously ill horse with a special talent for painting (yes, you read that right).

The story’s highlight is a brilliant depiction of how a horse’s mind operates. “To live in a horse’s body is to experience a perpetual loop of sensation, as if each nerve ending were being plucked in a pattern….Then, of course, there are the eyes, set on the side of the head. It is like being on a themed ride at an amusement park: everything to the side is thrilling and bright, but the area right in front of the car is black. Your world is peripheral. The blind spot in the center of your vision is your center, dark and certain, a void you can retreat to whenever you want.”

The collection closes with one of the strongest stories, “The Chautauqua Sessions,” in which a successful country songwriting duo, lyricist Danny and singer-guitarist Levi, reunite at a studio in the Appalachians to try to recapture the magic of their heyday. But the chemistry is altered when Danny’s son, Dee, a recovering drug addict, arrives to reconcile with his father. Levi and the ranch-studio’s manager, Lucinda, give Dee the benefit of the doubt, but Danny has seen and heard it all in his long history of coping with Dee’s addiction. Is Dee really clean and sober? Can music bring them together? Will Danny risk making himself vulnerable to more suffering in yet another attempt to save Dee? Danny’s plan to get rid of Dee so he and Levi can work results in an unexpected but entirely plausible series of events that will change everyone’s lives.

Monica McFawn’s stories are not easy reads with simple conflicts and pat resolutions. She leaves a lot to the reader to infer on the way to reaching a final impression of a story’s meaning. While some stories in Bright Shards of Someplace Else are less successful than others, McFawn is always intriguing and thought-provoking, and the quality of her prose is never an issue. This is a smart, ambitious collection of stories by a writer whose initial acclaim is certain to grow.

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