THE TUSK THAT DID THE DAMAGE offers a potent, multi-perspective view of elephant poaching

The Tusk That Did the Damage

The Tusk That Did the Damage

By Tania James

Vintage: Feb. 9, 2016

$16.00, 240 pages

Occasionally a book comes seemingly from out of nowhere to grab you by your heart and mind and leave a permanent impression behind when you’re finished.

The Tusk That Did the Damage exceeded my expectations. It is a potent work that explores the various aspects of the illegal ivory trade in southern India. By combining timeless conflicts among humans and between humans and both the animal kingdom and the natural world, James has crafted a book that should hold most readers spellbound.

James uses a three-pronged narrative to provide readers with a panoramic view of life in the highlands of southern India, where elephant poaching is widespread. The first narrator we encounter is “The Elephant,” known as the Gravedigger. He was orphaned as a calf and raised to be exhibited, but his years of mistreatment have led him to escape his captors for a life of freedom and revenge. When the opportunity is presented, he kills humans and “buries” them and attempts to cover them with brush, virtually “erasing” them in the process.

Then we are introduced to the first-person narrative of a studious and ambitious young man named Manu, who has known only a life of extreme poverty and abuse as the son of a rice farmer.

The third point of view is provided by an American documentary filmmaker, Emma, who has recently graduated college and, along with her best friend, Teddy, is attempting to make a film about an Indian veterinarian who is attempting to rescue elephants calves and reunite them with their mothers (who are said to reject calves if they have had contact with humans).

The three narratives circle each other warily, eventually moving toward each other. Manu’s older brother Jayan is a small-time criminal who is part of a large poaching ring. Manu dreams of education as his escape from a life of few options and struggles to stay out of Jayan’s life. While nothing truly excuses the ivory poachers, we learn what drives them to destroy these incredible creatures in order to obtain their valuable tusks.

Emma and Teddy work together almost telepathically, but their project is complicated by Teddy’s developing interest in Emma and, more crucially, Emma’s attraction to subject of their documentary, Ravi Varma, the head veterinary doctor at the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on the edge of the Kavanar Wildlife Park.

Manu’s life changes when the Gravedigger kills and attempts to bury his cousin and best friend, Raghu. Manu was supposed to have been with Raghu that night and knows he would have been killed as well, leaving him haunted by survivor’s guilt as well as sadness and anger.

James weaves the plot strands together, turning the screw steadily toward the story’s inevitable tragedy. For The Tusk That Did the Damage is a tragedy despite the best intentions of some characters. The core of the novel is the universal conflict between idealism and pragmatism. We see it in the interactions of the film makers with Ravi Varmar and Samina Hakim (the Divisional Range Officer of the Forest Department), between Manu and Jayan, as well as Jayan’s wife, and between the elephant caretakers who are responsible for the Gravedigger at various stages of his life. James depicts the cruelty and kindness shown to elephants and humans — and the consequences of such treatment.

Everything is other than as it seems. Dr. Varmar is not without self-interest. Samina Hakim manages the forests in which elephants are supposed to be protected from poachers and other threats to their well-being. But the Forest Department allowed the Shankar Timber Company to clear large tracts of land, which disrupted the elephants’ habitat and led some of them to stray into neighboring villages, with dire results for humans and elephants. Emma and Teddy want to create a documentary with an important message, but they also view it as a means to achieve career goals. The low-level poachers like Jayan are not without justification for their actions, which are motivated by desperate circumstances. No one is completely innocent, yet no one is utterly corrupt either.

All of these conflicting impulses become entangled as the plot progresses.

Perhaps James’s greatest accomplishment here is the voice she has created for the Gravedigger. He is not human, and he does not think or express himself like a human. James has crafted a limited third-person point of view to depict the elephant’s thought processes, and it seems the perfect solution to this narrative challenge. He is both a character in the novel and an overarching presence of “The Elephant.”

When he is first used as part of a religious ceremony, he observes the crowd looking at him. “The people wrapped around him, parted wherever he walked, each face resembling the next, like river stones washed smooth of distinction.”

When he is sold to a man who owns several elephants that he rents out for various purposes, we experience his disorientation.

“So one day the Gravedigger was picking the Candy Man’s pockets; the next day he was trapped in an open truck bed and bumping down the road to a new home. Sudden changes disagreed with the Gravedigger. He still trembled when remembering the day he was trucked out of the forest and into the Sanctuary, when life narrowed to a pitch-black cavern, and every which way was a wall. Then, as now, he perceived little of his situation. One comfort sustained him — that Old Man [his kind caretaker] had come along.”

While the characters, setting, and plot are all powerfully presented, James’s prose also stands out. It is usually direct and muscular, well suited to the story. But occasionally, her writing stretches out and becomes lyrical. Early in the book, Emma and Teddy take a taxi to meet Dr. Varma.

“We careened through plantations of coffee and tea, rows of bushes ribboning over the shallow slopes, bedazzled with bright red berries. A silver oak shimmied against the wind, its trunk a smear of marigold fungus. Easier to miss were the ditches carved around the plots, meant to keep wild elephants from snacking on the berries. From time to time, a mother and calf would loot the bushes, and the calf would slip and tumble into a ditch, out of its mother’s reach.” This is writing that demands to be read aloud.

When you finish The Tusk That Did the Damage you will have a more nuanced knowledge of the elephant poaching problem. What can we reasonably expect to accomplish, and how? What compromises must be made? For the elephant is not just part of the wildlife in India; it is central to the Hindu faith and the stories Indians tell about themselves, their land, and their way of life. These myths cast a shadow across much of the book, giving it the feel of a timeless fable as well as a contemporary socio-political novel.

The Tusk That Did the Damage is a short, sharp shock of a book that will leave readers with much to think about.

Laura van den Berg on the complex writing process behind her debut novel FIND ME

Laura-van-den-Berg   Find Me

Laura van den Berg’s first novel (after two acclaimed short story collections), Find Me, was published in early 2015 and has just been issued in softcover by FSG Originals. It was named to “Best of 2015” lists by NPR, Time Out New York, Buzzfeed, Booklist, Bustle, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Baltimore City Paper, and Book Riot, was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and has just been named to the longlist for the Dylan Thomas Prize. A detailed bio of van den Berg follows her essay. 

Writing a novel is not easy. Of course, I knew that going in—certainly when I began Find Me I did not think, “Hey, this should be easy!”—but as someone who had written only short stories, save for a few half-hearted 50-page stabs at novel writing, I did not appreciate how hard it would be until I was in deep. I wrote the first draft of Find Mein roughly six months, in 2008. I turned in my final edits to my publisher in May 2014. What was I doing with all that time in between?

If you were to compare that very first draft of Find Me and the finished book, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single sentence that carried over from the initial version to the final one. In the six months I spent drafting Find Me, I worked in a frenzy, writing straight through, following every impulse as it occurred to me, no matter how misguided—just as I would when drafting a short story. The result? A hideous 300-page mess.

It took me years—literally years—to understand what I had put on the page and why and what it might become, let alone what it should become. I’ve certainly had short stories that were hard to write, that took me years to write, but I’d never before felt so completely overwhelmed by a fictional landscape and its many possibilities and glaring flaws. And yet my heart was sunk into this story, and into the narrator, a young woman named Joy, and so on I went.

The years that followed were a mix of trial and error. A few knots were successfully unfurled; others were pulled tighter; new ones appeared. I would spend six months or a year writing in one direction only to realize that direction was hopeless and that I needed to delete and begin anew. That was the hardest part for me: the lost time, existing in that unfinished state, with the uncertainty of knowing if I would ever finish and, if I did, what kind of book I would have on my hands.

This process continued even after I was fortunate enough to sell Find Me and to get wonderful notes from my editor. On the one hand, I was so excited my book was going to be out in the world, but on the other I wanted to make sure what I put out into the world represented the absolute best I could do at that time. The novel has a two part structure—the first part is set in a hospital in rural Kansas; the second part is set on the road—and in the summer of 2013, I went to a writers’ colony in Key West feeling queasy about the second part.

One of my biggest mistakes had been holding on to things that weren’t working for way too long, for not letting go sooner, and now I knew I was running out of time. “Write the book you want to read” became my line to myself. In Key West, it was brutally hot and I was plagued with insomnia and most days I would walk to the ocean to swim because that made me feel awake. One morning, in the water, I knew with uncommon certainty that I needed to cut the second part and start over. Totally. And so I did.

When I left Key West, the version of Find Me I took with me was much closer to the final book, though some significant edits still lay in my future. I called all my missteps and detours “lost time” above, but I know that’s not really true, since all those detours played a part in getting me to where I needed to be, and I don’t think it would have been possible to skip over them. They were necessary, in their way.

So I am grateful to this book. I learned a great deal from it. I am in the early stages of a new novel project now and I know that “write the book you want to read” is a good line to listen to. I know that if I get that queasy feeling I will hit “delete” and never look back. I know detours are necessary sometimes and that very few of the sentences I’m putting down now will remain and that I am in no particular rush.

Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida and earned her M.F.A. at Emerson College. Her first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009), was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her stories have appeared in Conjunctions, The Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and One Story, and have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and the Pushcart Prize XXIV

Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in November 2013. The Isle of Youth was named a “Best Book of 2013″ by over a dozen outlets, including NPR, The Boston Globe, and O, The Oprah Magazine; it was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor Award, and received both The Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and The Bard Fiction Prize.

 

WILLFUL DISREGARD a potent Swedish novel that takes a psychological scalpel to romantic delusions

Willful Disregard

Willful Disregard

By Lena Andersson

Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death

Other Press: Feb. 2, 2016 (paperback original)

$15.95, 196 pages

 

Lena Andersson is a well-known newspaper columnist, social commentator, and novelist in Sweden. Willful Disregard, her fifth novel and winner of Sweden’s highest literary honor, the August Prize, is her first book to be published in the U.S., and it is an impressive introduction to a writer with keen insight into love in both its universal characteristics and its modern trappings.

Andersson probes the mind of thirty-one-year-old journalist Ester Nilsson, who becomes infatuated with artist Hugo Rask when she is asked to write an in-depth profile of the semi-legendary older man. From their first interview, they seem to be intellectual kindred spirits, and Ester is entranced.

Over the following weeks they meet for meals or drinks and their long conversations about art, philosophy, and culture continue. Ester is smitten and believes Rask returns at least some of her affection despite the relationship’s platonic nature. It appears he is involved with another woman, at least in some fashion. Ester is so enamored of Rask and so convinced that her future lies with him that she leaves her long-term boyfriend. Undoubtedly, Ester reasons, Rask is disengaging from his other commitment as well. Ester hangs on Rask’s every word, gesture, and action, obsessively analyzing each for its true meaning with regard to his feelings and their burgeoning relationship. She squeezes impossibly rose-colored interpretations out of the most minor of words and deeds.

Andersson proceeds to probe Ester’s thoughts and emotions with laser-like intensity. The ruthlessly unsentimental narrator sees through Ester’s pretensions and rationalizations into her true motives, flawed thinking, and overwhelming need to “only connect.” In doing so, Andersson has written one of the most accurate explorations of the self-deception and madness of new love that I have ever encountered. In that sense, it reminds me of Scott Spencer’s brilliant Endless Love (although her prose style is tersely analytical where his is richly nuanced and Romantic).

In fact, if there is a writer Andersson puts me in mind of, it is Elena Ferrante. As with the Italian novelist behind The Neapolitan Quartet that begins with My Brilliant Friend, the writing is distinguished by a fierce and unrelenting psychological dissection of every character and relationship. But Andersson also displays a sharp wit and the ability to find the bittersweet humor in most situations. I can’t recall the last book in which I was tempted to highlight so many pithy lines of description and explanation.

A few examples should suffice.

At one point, Ester awaits Hugo’s call, which is not forthcoming. “She had to occupy herself with something while waiting for her life to start. She looked at the phone. Perhaps she had it on silent by mistake? No. No one had called, and no text message had arrived unnoticed. She rang herself from her landline to check her mobile was working. Sent herself a text. Everything worked as it should.” Later that day, the narrator notes, “It was three o’clock and he had not called. She had coffee in a cafe and an extra-large pastry with it, on account of the situation.” Both observations are bitterly true, full of pathos, and from a distance, undeniably funny.

When Ester believes Rask has lied to her, she sends him a ferocious text message. “It was a highly condensed communication, as strained as dread and panic become when they conceal themselves behind haughtiness. Its tone exuded contempt rooted in self-respect. It was a message you could cut yourself on. And she censured him with all the justification of the scorned.” [I’ll pause to allow you a moment of recognition.]

Not surprisingly, Rask pulls away in response. When, later, she and Rask discuss this situation, Ester discovers that his view of their relationship, and relationships in general, differs significantly from hers. Her naivete is astonishing for someone her age, who is clearly not inexperienced in matters of the heart. Is she simply irrational about love despite being coolly rational about everything else? Is this her first great infatuation? True love? Or does her delusion rise to the level of mental illness? (For the record, this is not “Fatal Attraction” territory.)

Is it so strange that “[S]he chewed endlessly over what had happened, with herself and with anyone who would listen, going through what she could have done differently at such-and-such a time or on such-and-such an occasion, if only she had known things would turn out as they had”?

When Ester has no choice but to conclude that the “relationship” is over, she suffers intensely. “Grief cannot remain acute indefinitely,” the narrator informs us. “It soon gets moved to the day ward and the rehabilitation clinic. Ester anaesthetized herself with company and people she would not have spent time with had she been harmonious rather than half dead. She did everything in her power to avoid being alone with herself…She was not stoical but in shreds, totally frayed.”

Although Andersson never introduces Ester’s friends individually, she makes effective and drily humorous use of them as a background character. “The girlfriend chorus was kept very busy. It interpreted, comforted, soothed, exhorted and indicated new directions of travel. She had to break free, it said, and she repeated: I’ve got to break free from this idiocy.”

A brief encounter with Rask months later rekindles her not quite extinguished hope. She decides to call him. “She was ringing because the itch was back, the malarial love itch that is always latent once it has invaded the cell system, lying ready to break out at any time.” This is exactly right. We have all been there, male and female alike.

Andersson perhaps puts this concept best when the narrator observes that “everything in existence wants to live, and hope is no exception. It is a parasite. It lives and thrives on the most innocent of tissue. Its survival lies in a well-developed ability to ignore everything that is not favourable to its growth while pouncing on anything that feed it and help it to live on.”

While Ester Nilsson is uniquely flawed and misguided in love, she is often Everywoman, at least as far as I can tell from observation and experience. I suspect that most readers will experience conflicting emotions when they read Willful Disregard. They will think, This woman is crazy. She is nothing like me! I would never do that! Mere pages later they will think, Oh my God, I’ve done that! That is so true. What was I thinking?

As I read Willful Disregard, my reactions ranged from cringing and shaking my head in disbelief, to laughing and nodding my head in agreement — all in recognition of its essential truth. Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones) sums up this cherry bomb of a novel best when she says, “Willful Disregard is a story of the heart written with bracing intellectual rigor. It is a stunner, pure and simple.”

THE FRANGIPANI HOTEL’s haunting tales of Vietnam announce the arrival of a remarkable young writer

This is a re-post of a review from February 17, 2015, the publication date of the softcover edition.

Frangipani Hotel  Violet Kupersmith

The Frangipani Hotel

By Violet Kupersmith

Spiegel & Grau (paperback): Feb. 17, 2015

$15.00, 240 pages

Vietnam. Most Americans of a certain age are still haunted by the Vietnam War all these years after the war that nearly split the country in two. The Vietnamese are undoubtedly confronted with the ghosts of the Vietnam War as well, 40 years after the U.S. military left Saigon. A third group is also dealing with that conflict, even though they were not even alive at the time: the children of the Vietnamese refugees who emigrated to the U.S. after the war.

Violet Kupersmith is the daughter of a boat refugee from Da Nang and an American father, who met in Houston, where many Vietnamese were resettled in the 1970s. Her bicultural upbringing eventually led Kupersmith, while a student at Mount Holyoke College, to begin writing stories about the experiences of her mother and grandmother, and the folk tales the latter told her.

The premise of Kupersmith’s debut story collection is that a Vietnamese-American high school student has asked her grandmother from the Old Country to help her with a class project by telling her about her experiences as one of the “boat people.” The grandmother is at first reluctant to revisit this physical and emotional territory, but when she is eventually persuaded to share her stories, she tells a series of what can best be described as Vietnamese ghost stories.

In The Frangipani Hotel, Kupersmith has managed the impressive feat of seamlessly blending these timeless Vietnamese folk tales with a contemporary approach to storytelling. The result is eight stories that seem both ancient and modern simultaneously.

Although the stories are always intriguing, the collection’s strengths are its mood and voice. Kupersmith manages to maintain a sense of mystery and foreboding throughout the book’s 240 pages, holding the reader’s interest with stories that explore the parallel worlds of the real and the supernatural, and the frequent occasions on which they intersect. Whether set in the streets of Saigon and Hanoi — crowded with a cacophony of people, scents, and sounds — or the fecund Vietnamese countryside, these stories are sticky with the oppressive heat and humidity of Southeast Asia. But Kupersmith’s greatest gift is her facility with the voices of all these characters, young and old, Vietnamese and American, as they tell their stories within her stories.

The opening title story is set in a faded early 20th century hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. It is narrated by the young front desk clerk, Phi, whose Uncle Hung owns the hotel (and has recently taken to calling himself “Mr. Henry”).

“The Frangi itself is a seven-story deathtrap, with four-footed things scurrying around inside the walls and tap water that runs brownish. If you slammed a door too hard the entire thing would collapse.”

A blustery American businessman intent on seeing the real Hanoi checks in and slowly befriends Phi, who speaks enough English to serve as his interpreter. Phi then encounters a beautiful and mysterious woman staying in one of the rooms, although she cannot be found on the guest register and no one else seems to know she is there. When the American and the apparitional woman meet, the American’s desire to know Vietnam takes an unexpected — and yet somehow fateful — turn as the past claims its hold on the present.

“Skin and Bones” tells of two adolescent sisters in Houston who are sent by their frustrated mother to spend part of the summer with their grandmother in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Thuy has become one of those all-too-common overweight American girls, and her older sister, Kieu, is sent along to keep an eye on her. When Grandma Tran fails to show up at the airport to pick them up, they’re not overly concerned, and they find their way to her house. Grandma is unusually distant and quiet, so the girls, resolutely American and utterly bored, find ways to entertain themselves.

Thuy sets off to explore the neighborhood and finds herself drawn by an irresistible scent of cooking food. The source is a run-down stall on wheels selling Banh mi, “the Vietnamese sandwich [that] was one of the more positive souvenirs of the French colonial era.” The proprietress is an old woman whose face is hidden beneath a large conical straw hat and who speaks softly accented English.

Over the next few days they develop a friendship of sorts, although the woman’s side of their conversations is often cryptic. She is particularly interested in Thuy and her mother and whether they identify as Vietnamese or American, at one point saying, “She is far away, isn’t she? In another world, you could say. And there are many, many worlds within this one. Worlds alongside each other, worlds that overlap each other; you might not even know if you wandered into one that wasn’t your own.” You should be hearing the theme to The Twilight Zone about now.

In “Little Brother” a loquacious long-haul truck driver tells the riveting story of the strangest trip he ever made. While making a delivery at a hospital in Saigon, he is persuaded by an alluring nurse to take a dying patient, Minh, with him on his return trip south so the man can die back home in his village. He is advised that it would be best if he didn’t speak to Minh on the long drive. Needless to say, the irrepressible driver is unable to bear the quiet – or his nearly catatonic passenger — for long. When he asks what the hospital was like, Minh lifts his head and replies, “Filthy. Vile. Foul. There were no healthy people to talk to and I was always hungry.”

Minh then persuades the driver to share his life story, since he has undoubtedly seen so much in his twenty years on the road. As darkness descends and they drive through a seemingly endless stretch of desolate countryside, one of Vietnam’s “many worlds” makes its presence known, just as the elderly vendor in “Skin and Bones” explained to young Thuy. There are ghosts of all kinds in Vietnam, from ancient times, the French colonial era, and the war, and all seem restless.

“Guests” concerns twenty-something Americans working in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), in a reversal of the “land of opportunity” theme. Mia works in the immigrations department of the U.S. Consulate and dislikes Vietnam, to which she has been able to adapt. Her boyfriend, Charlie, teaches English at the Australian International University and has adapted exceptionally well; he had a Vietnamese girlfriend prior to meeting Mia. While Charlie and many Americans like him explore the many sides of Vietnam and take advantage of the uninhibited and inexpensive night life, Mia becomes increasingly preoccupied, both with a feral cat that keeps climbing up to her apartment window, crying and scratching the window frame, and a young Vietnamese man named Tuan, who is enamored with her. Their attitudes and actions take them in opposite directions, with Mia finding that part of Vietnam will always be with her, for one cannot leave even the new Vietnam without being deeply affected.

In “Turning Back,” a young Vietnamese-American woman from Houston who works the night shift in a small Asian market meets a very strange old man with a story that will take her places she never imagined existed. And once again, the spirit of Vietnam is shown to be a shape-shifter with seemingly unlimited powers.

The closing story, “Descending Dragon,” is a short but pithy observation on the power of immigrant grandmothers to maintain and wield their power to great effect even when it appears to others to be long gone.

2014 was a banner year for short story collections, including debuts. Of particular note were Phil Klay’s Redeployment, which won the National Book Award, and Molly Antopol’s The UnAmericans, which was nominated for an NBA. Violet Kupersmith’sThe Frangipani Hotel is a powerful and persuasive opening statement from a young writer we are certain to hear much more from; the only question is whether she will be able to move beyond her personal connection to Vietnam and the Vietnamese-American immigrant culture to wider concerns. I’m willing to bet she will manage that transition.

ORHAN’S INHERITANCE: debut novel’s love story set during the Armenian genocide explores the past to help us understand the present

Orhan's Inheritance paperback    Raffi Hadidian

Orhan’s Inheritance

By Aline Ohanesian

Algonquin Books: Jan. 19, 2016

368 pages, $15.95

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.

Author photo by Raffi Hadidian

A chat with Rachel Cantor about the writing of GOOD ON PAPER

rachel-cantor-2015-bennett-beckenstein  Good on Paper

Rachel Cantor has been writing stories with her distinctively smart-and-witty voice for several years. They have been published in Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Fence, and Volume 1 Brooklyn and have been anthologized, nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, and short-listed by both the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. But she really burst onto the literary scene with her 2014 debut novel,  A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World (Melville House). Cantor has lived and “worked everywhere from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe (most recently in Nigeria, Senegal, and Laos).” Noteworthy stops included Rome, Melbourne, France, India, and Pakistan. She currently lives “in the writerly borough of Brooklyn but have at various points made my home in most U.S. states between Virginia and Vermont.”

Last week marked the publication of her second novel, Good on Paper, which is receiving rave reviews from mainstream media and bookish publications alike. I spoke to Rachel briefly on January 31.


You balance a compelling drama with wickedly sharp humor and manage to keep it from becoming gimmicky or jokey. The latter leavens the former, as in the best comic relief in fiction of ideas. Where does your skill in doing this come from? Your peripatetic life experiences, your ethnic-religious culture, your muse, strong coffee?

I tend to write voice-driven fiction, and the voice you describe—both serious and comic—is what comes naturally to me, especially (though not only) when writing in the first person. That voice is integral to who I am—part of my personality, even—rather than a skill, per se (though hopefully I also do it well!). So it would be hard to say where it comes from—genetics? stories heard in infancy? experiences on the road? I can say for certain that it’s not coffee, because I don’t drink the stuff (but I wouldn’t want to count out tea!).

Shira’s work on the translation of a Nobel Prize winner’s poem seems like a metaphor that mirrors her efforts to organize and make sense of her complicated personal life. How did the idea of having your protagonist struggle with an Italian poet’s new version of a work by Dante come to you? 

I wrote many stories about Shira before I wrote Good on Paper, so her work as a translator predates the novel. Even if it didn’t, it makes sense that Shira, a one-time expatriate and ex-academic with literary interests, would find herself involved in translation. Also, I really enjoy writing (and reading!) books about work; I’m interested in how a character involves herself in endeavors outside herself and her family. When I decided that a translation project would drive the narrative of this novel, it wasn’t hard to focus on Dante: any Italian poet concerned with his place in the literary canon (as the poet in this book is) would, I assume, want to “take on” Dante. The fact that the poet was interested in Vita Nuova rather than The Divine Comedy makes sense given that he wants to tell a love story, not (merely) a tale of spiritual redemption.

I love the idea of people creating their own families, as Shira and Ahmad do, even though he’s gay and they’re not romantically involved. Together, they provide Andi with stable “parents.” What appealed to you about this subplot?

Again, these characters and interrelationships and fault lines predated Good on Paper, so I didn’t have to create them for this novel. Ahmad already was Andi’s de facto father, they already lived together in Ahmad’s Manhattan apartment. The question instead was: how will the conflicts Shira has historically experienced, both within herself and with others, play themselves out in this book? How can Good on Paper push Shira to her emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual limits? This involved pressuring her relationships, including those with her daughter and best friend Ahmad. Though truth be told, I think their shared Upper West Side apartment, with its many rooms and lovely location, was the product of New York City real-estate wish fulfillment!

Good on Paper is a novel about the power of stories to change lives. How has the reading and writing of stories changed your life?

It’s hard to say how reading may have changed my life, since I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read stories—they determined who I am. Before that, who knows what I was? I started writing stories at a relatively late age (my mid-30s); certainly that changed everything! When I decided to write, to “become a writer,” that forever changed everything important about me—my lifestyle, how I spent my days, the critical choices I made, what I gave up (material comforts, for example), my goals, the people I hung out with. It gave me the focus that has directed my life ever since. As soon as I made that commitment, my life felt aligned for the first time. I’ve never looked back!

Wendy J. Fox: Reconciling book sales as a debut author

Wendy_J_Fox  The_Seven_Stages_of_Anger_cover

When I found out my first book had been accepted for publication, I did not have dreams of a bestseller or fame; I mostly experienced relief. While I’d published in magazines and anthologies, suddenly there was a book of my own.

There was the sheer, beginning thrill of finally feeling like an author, and then there was the reality of how other folks, people who are not writers, ask about it.

“So, how many books have you sold?” a typical conversation might start.

It’s a hard question to answer. It’s tempting to tell the truth (south of a thousand), and it’s tempting to dodge, oh, it’s not so much about sales, and it’s also tempting to outright lie and say something about how the publisher handles all that, how you’re not really involved, how you only think about it when you get a royalty check.

I don’t blame anyone for the question.

In the current culture, where books are understood as content, where consumers believe that “information wants to be free” and forget that information also has value and wants to be expensive, people understand success in terms of compensation. The paradigm of cheap/costly, rather than an argument for open-source, in the way that it is used today, was actually a continuum proposed by the writer Stewart Brand in the 1980s.

Yet, since 2009, according to Author’s Guild, there has been a 30% decrease in the income of writers, with more than half of the 2015 respondents earning less than $11,670 annually (the set point of for the US federal poverty level). Even those who are up for big awards, like the Man Booker, might sell fewer than a thousand copies of their books annually.

Depressing as it is, within this context, my own numbers don’t look so bad.

My debut collection of short stories owes its existence to a prize, and then it was shortlisted for another prize. More than one reviewer said something nice about it. Still, stories add another layer of sales challenge. In January of this year, Megan Lynch, editorial director at Ecco Press in New York said “There have always been a few collections that have taken off, but most don’t succeed commercially.”

So, how many books have you sold?

At press time, BookScan (the Neilson rating agency, the same group who compiles TV ratings) says I have just 105 reported sales from bookstores. They gather this through POS (point of sale) data. If my book, or another book, was purchased at a retailer, including Amazon.com, it’s going to be reflected in this number.

Fox BookScan

My POS high point is 34. Those are sales reflected from two readings—readings I traveled for, on my own dime, and readings at which I had a great time, but readings that were certainly not covered in cost from selling 34 copies at $14.95.

There are also the 79 books my publisher sold in presale. There are the 90 (as of my last royalty report in June of 2015) that have been sold since. There are the 89 books I have sold myself. There are also the 76 I have given away to reviewers, to friends, to friendlies, to prizes entries and other longshots. There are the 18 copies that are out in consignment.

So, how many books have you sold?

457.

Well, maybe, if the consignments move.

439 if they do not.

363 if I subtract the giveaways (which I should, because those were not actually sales, they were only books that left my possession).

I could add in here another 3, for Kindle—remember how ebooks are supposed to be such a thing?—getting me to 366.

Even I’m shocked by the low numbers. When people have asked me, I’ve estimated, not having done the actual addition for a year. Recently, a long-time friend who has his first book coming out asked about sales, and I told him what I thought was the truth, giving him the “just shy of a grand” number, and I didn’t even realize how off I was. (Mostly, I over-reported what I personally have sold and under-reported what I have given away.)

In October, on the anniversary of my first book’s publication date, I was at a corporate event for my day job, and writing came up. My coworkers looked me up on Amazon, and they were interested, in the way we are interested when we find out new dimensions to our colleague’s lives, but they didn’t add the book to their shopping carts, and I doubt either of them have purchased it since.

A month prior, in September, the least-selling of the Man Booker dozen short-list clocked in at 604 copies. This title, Sleeping on Jupiter, belongs to Anuradha Roy, whose first book, An Atlas of Impossible Longing was reviewed by everyone from Ms. to Publishers Weekly and translated into 15 languages—an impressive debut by any measure. (Sleeping on Jupiter just won the DSC prize for South Asian literature, which will net Roy $50K and likely—hopefully—bolster her sales numbers.)

So, how many books have you sold?

75.3% as many as a short-list for one of the most prestigious English-language prizes.

0.0000806667% as many as the Harry Potter franchise.

With 840 million English speakers worldwide, by volume second only to Mandarin, breaking a thousand in sales should not be so hard—but just like my coworkers, zillions of lookers never get the book into their cart. And to be frank, zillions aren’t even required. The best-selling English-language book of all time, A Tale of Two Cities, has had since 1859 to reach 200 million copies. Modern titles like The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey that have topped bestseller lists have only approached (or in the case of Harry Potter, exceeded) Dickens’ numbers as an aggregate of a series; single titles, like The Fault in Our Stars which has done remarkably well at 18.5M approximate sales, still only represents 5.52% of the native-speaking population and 2.20% of the total English-speaking population overall.

Of course, a true creative life is not about selling, and readers certainly do not have to purchase literature to engage in it. Indeed—in the United States, there are more public libraries than there are McDonalds [PDF], Americans check out an average of 8 books a year, and well over half of U.S. adults hold a library card.

Given that books sales are slumpy even on major publishers, it’s worth thanking those fewer than 500 who have welcomed The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories to their shelves.

So, how many books have you sold?

Honestly, not so many as I would like.

Yet, I don’t think I would trade an ebook bestseller for being able to hold my own, bound words in my hands, for the experience of writing something kind to a friend on the front pages of it, for finding a typo on the back cover and then just having to accept this, because, well, it’s print. I can absolutely say I would not trade my little (short, poorly selling) book that I am very proud of for a big (long, blockbuster) book that I didn’t care about.

So, how many books have you sold?

Not as many as I would like. And also, enough.

But P.S., you should buy my book.

Wendy J. Fox received her MFA from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers, and her work has been published or is forthcoming in many literary reviews.

Her essay “Coming Clean in Kayseri” was included in the best-selling Tales from the Expat Harem, and one of her manuscripts was a top five finalist for the Minnesota State University at Mankato’s Rooster Hill Press short fiction competition. Her story “Ten Penny” was  selected as part of a series by The Emerging Writer’s Network for National Short Story Month, and her story “Maps of the Americas” was chosen as a semi-finalist for the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards competition.

Her debut collection, The Seven Stages of Anger & Other Stories is the winner of the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and was published in October 2014.