Non Sequiturs: Finding Literary Inspiration in Stream of Consciousness

l-e-kimball-author-photo  Seasonal Roads

By L. E. Kimball


I’m not sure who came first, but it must have been either Chevy Chase or Steve Martin. It was too early for Tim Allen, though he comes often. Not Steve Martin, though. The last time he arrived in my dreams, he never went on at all. Just hid under my desk because he said if he came out, I’d force him to have sex with me.

I assured him I only wanted him to fix the oven.

I always have trouble with Steve, it seems. And that’s unfortunate because I always have such hopes for us. There was this one night he showed up (he was our next door neighbor and we all had sloping front lawns in the dream neighborhood) and he was exasperated because the trees and bushes—everything and anything he tried to plant–slid down out of his yard into a big pile in the road, accordion-like. We were used to this in our own yards. But Steve thought this was my fault; I thought so too.

                                                 “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

I dream about comedians. Lots of them. But I dream most often about Steve Martin or Tim Allen.

I write about comedians, too, sometimes, as in the excerpt above. Even when I don’t, they influence me and therefore, they influence my writing.  Once in a writer’s workshop, the members read my comedian story (above) and they said a character (and by inference the author who wrote it) must be a total narcissist to dream about famous people, comedians notwithstanding. But I can only say that when I watch them, the good ones, I realize I am looking at the smartest people on earth, that in order to understand the nuances and subtleties of comedy and language, they must be brilliant—and I suppose I identify with their neuroticism, their angst, their sadness. They influence me because even though they realize that tragedy and comedy are a heartbeat away, and they might even argue there is no difference between them, they do laugh and they make me laugh, and laughter is the only thing that gets me through this life.

 Tim Allen showed up one night and we spent the night looking for hood ornaments. Like in his book, I’m Not Really Here. Everywhere he turned there were hood ornaments. He looked at me seriously at one point. Comedians, he told me, are the only people who know that The Divine Comedy is a journey from Heaven through Purgatory ending in Hell, not the other way around. I wasn’t sure what Heaven and Hell had to do with hood ornaments.

But I was thinking how my comedian phenomenon itself is synchronistic in nature. Well, maybe it isn’t, I guess they’d have to really show up in my bed to qualify, but it seems synchronistic just the same.

                                                 Spinner Falls” — Seasonal Roads

 

All comedians are philosophical but none more so, it seemed to me, than Steve Martin and Tim Allen. Steve Martin studied philosophy; Tim Allen has obviously done the same in at least some limited context. Woody Allen and Robin Williams come to mind . . . .

But regardless, my fascination with comedians is something that needs to be said about me.

So one night I was lying in bed contemplating a character I wanted to write about whose husband had been cheating on her. The relationship was toxic, yet neither could let go of it.  Failed? Maybe. Yet toxic or not, nothing is truly “failed” until it is over, or so I was thinking. As I was pondering the complexity of this, I looked over and saw my husband snoring away in bed with me, mouth wide open, inhaling with enough force to rattle the walls and pull the curtains from the windows. I thought about how people in bad relationships sort of “feed one another” and I started to laugh. A short story, I think to myself: comedian sections interspersed with a second person Kafka-esque magical realism that might depict the paradoxical, sad (yet humorous) nature of toxic relationships, of marriage—a story where the woman sees her husband as a metamorphosed giant amphibian bug, the two of them trapped in a maddening purgatory…

 

You sleep naked now. Before he had insisted on it. Now it’s your personal revenge.

Next to your bed stands an oak nightstand that once belonged to his mother, dark, heavy grained, upon which rests a delicate lace doily, a pair of dime store reading glasses, a few books written by women he refers to as your “harpies” (Atwood, Oates, Moore, Proulx), and a book called Trout Stream Insects, an Orvis Streamside Guide. Oh, and that collection by Kafka you stumbled along at the library reading selection of the month.

Next to the books there is a square jewelry box your own mother gave you—made of glass the color of purple oxidized blood. It has a matching lid that is attached on two sides with antique brass hinges, the bottom lined with plushy white satin—stark against the red glass—and on top of the colorless satin the daily ritual:  the results of today’s foraging.

Not too extensive; certainly not a collection as diverse as what is featured in the Orvis Guide:  a couple mosquitoes (one you slapped after it had sucked a bit of blood from your kneecap), a medium-sized house fly, a papery mud-colored moth, and two tiny gray spiders … not the real fuzzy kind because, after all, that could be a little too much.

All dead.

Oh, and tweezers. You always need tweezers.

                                                    “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

There is some connection to luck—or lack of it—tied to writing for me. Some connection to the universe, a cosmic energy or whatever you want to call it, something one must “tap into.” Talent is involved– we writers always think there is at least some of that—and certainly fortitude. But synchronicity is part of it: that place where luck and fate meet faith.

You might, however, think luck and fate are antithetical to one another. I’m a mixed philosopher type, believing neither in determinism or indeterminism. (Mills maybe?) Causal relationships between one event and another somehow still related to volition/signs/luck/opportunity.  If three people are thrown into the sea, the determinist might say it’s all fated so he might as well not swim. The indeterminist might think it is all chaotic chance and not swim either, but a mixed philosopher, according to Mills, might swim until a boat or plane showed up. Now the determinist will stubbornly argue that the mixed philosopher only believed he had some control over the outcome because he was raised to believe it, while someone else believed they had no control because he (she?) was raised that way—or circumstances had conspired—so he or she couldn’t believe, but these are still, he’ll argue, all causal relationships. Well, OK, maybe, but I maintain that if a person believes a thing—for whatever reason (perhaps just reading Mill) – he might, nevertheless, actually change the course of events.

So these days, despite the nagging feeling that I really might be fated to believe in Mill and ultimately have no control over anything at all, I believe anyway.  And this belief has led to the next insane belief:  that someone out there at some point might indeed connect with my work—and therefore save me!

 

Your friends tell you straight out. About wine bottle and glasses on innocent shopping sprees, back rubs in chance moments they’d spent alone with him. Vague suggestions you had better keep him satisfied. 

Once you protected them from him. Now you no longer bother.

He doesn’t do confrontation.

You left the orange peels in the sink again, you say. No reaction. You’re tracking mud all over the house. Not a flicker. I don’t like it when you drink every night in front of the kids. Nope, not even an up-yours, kiss-my-ass kind of look. Nothing. What was it Margaret said? A riddle:  What is more powerful than God, more evil than the devil, the poor have it, the rich lack it, and if you eat it, you die?

Nothing.

The answer was nothing.

                                                     “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

Synchronicity. Jung coined the term and defined it as “meaningful coincidences” (if those coincidences occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related). I’d have some pressing life question or writing conundrum on my mind and suddenly someone on TV or in the grocery line would be talking about something completely unrelated to my problem and yet would seem to have the answer to my life/writing dilemma. This seemed to necessitate a sort of mindful living, a sort of Buddhist-type tuning into yourself while simultaneously turning outward to the universe around you. And that necessitated, in turn, an underlying sort of optimistic outlook toward life and my work that belied outward appearances to the contrary.

 

Why is it always funnier to watch someone doing something asinine if they run by a window or a door, far away? Like Chevy Chase in Funny Farm. Watching him wrassling that snake down the lawn looked so much funnier through the window with his wife unaware of his predicament than it would have up close and if she’d seen it—

That private joke with the audience.

Maybe it’s easier to laugh at people from a distance.

                                                        “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

So on this particular evening, I had seen Chevy Chase in Fletch, dancing with the animated characters in one scene and singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” I giggled. Full of a synchronistic black humor myself, I sat up and finished the entire story in three hours. Here is the ending:

 

You remember the insects—how they hatch over rivers in the early evening.

Mate and die.

These days comfort comes only in your ritual. You do it not just for you, but because you know he needs it, has come to depend upon it as much as you do. He snores and heaves, mouth hanging open like usual. Pink sticky tongue oozing out of the gash that is his mouth, all of it vibrating with the shuddering gasps of his next breath. You’re tired and you think maybe tonight you’ll just skip the whole thing. But it’s the only thing left for either of you and it must be done.

You lift the tweezers from the bedside table, open the glass lid of the box and poke through the assortment. You look over to see if there is any further change in him. His teeth seem shorter, mouth bigger. Thumbs? Does he have thumbs? It’s something you’d like to know, but his hands are tucked underneath him.

What will it be? You decide on the mosquito, the one you slapped this morning while reading Margaret Atwood, and using the tweezers, you pick him up gently by one papery wing. Is he quite dead? Maybe a wiggle or two. You drop it then—carefully onto his tongue. As far back as you can manage.

Then it’s gone with hardly a falter in his breathing. What will it be next? Maybe the spider next. You lift one, a semi-fuzzy, grayish-brown one, by one of its back legs, hold it suspended over his waiting, eager mouth. You wait, you wait, keep waiting…

You drop one more insect—the moth—into his eager, greedy mouth.

It seems right—for both of you.

Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.

“Spinner Falls” — Seasonal Roads


L. E. Kimball has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Massachusetts Review, Washington Square (New York University), Orchid, A Literary Review, Gray’s Sporting Journal, and Lynx Eye. Her first novel, A Good High Place, was published by Switchgrass Press. Her second novel, Seasonal Roads, was published by Wayne State University in 2016. She has also had creative nonfiction published in dozens of national publications such as ByLine, Exceptional Parent, and Country Almanac, and she’s been published in the op-ed section of The Detroit News. Author Lisa Lenzo reviewed Seasonal Roads for Read Her Like an Open Book on August 15, 2016.

Lynn holds a bachelor’s degree in English and an MFA, both from Northern Michigan University. She is currently an Assistant Contingent Professor at NMU.

THE GIRLS mostly lives up to its hype, but in unexpected ways

The Girls

The Girls

By Emma Cline

Random House, June 2016

355 pages


The Girls was one of 2016’s most anticipated novels, and it fulfilled those expectations by becoming a big-time buzz book and a bestseller. Despite hearing that Cline was an outstanding young writer, I avoided her book because I had absolutely no interest in its premise of a 14-year-old girl getting enmeshed in a group of older girls who belonged to a commune that was clearly based on the Manson family.

My interest was eventually piqued by the raves for Cline’s prose-poetry, a style of writing about which I am always curious. And, to my surprise, I liked The Girls a great deal, despite finishing it with reservations about several aspects of the book.

The Girls is in some ways not what it was represented as: it’s a coming-of-age character study set against the socio-cultural turmoil of 1969, rather than a plot-driven, page-turning tale of evil (although it makes an appearance, as expected, late in the story). The first hundred pages are among the most piercingly accurate depictions of yearning, confused adolescence I have ever read, thanks to Cline’s insight and her memorable prose.

Set in Petaluma, a nondescript town an hour north of San Francisco, The Girls introduces us to Evie Boyd through that uniquely intimate relationship one shares with one’s best friend in the fraught years of early adolescence. Evie is disoriented by her parents’ divorce and struggling to find her place in relation to her parents and her few friends in the emotionally overheated transition from junior high to high school. Summer has already become boring, and she and Connie are at odds with each other, in part because Evie has a fierce crush on Connie’s older brother, Peter. Cline perfectly captures the inchoate desire of young girls:

“So much of desire, at that age, was a willful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love. We spoke of our desperate need for them with rote and familiar words, like we were reading lines from a play. Later I would see this: how impersonal and grasping our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes.”

And a few pages later: “That was our mistake, I think. One of our many mistakes. To believe that boys were acting with a logic that we could someday understand. To believe that their actions had any meaning beyond thoughtless impulse. We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intention in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly and young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.”

Set adrift after things become too complicated with both Connie and her New Age-y mother, a lonely Evie encounters a trio of feral young women at the local park and becomes smitten with the leader, Suzanne. Before long, she catches a ride with them back to the isolated, run-down ranch where they are living with the darkly charismatic musician-prophet Russell.

The bulk of The Girls concerns Evie’s slow introduction to the life of these wayward girls and their wastrel cult leader, and her dawning awareness that she was both fascinated and frightened by the thought of joining their commune. Events in Evie’s life and that of the girls slowly begin to spin out of control when the family’s wealthy rock star benefactor fails to deliver the long-promised lucrative record deal.

The last third of the book brought to mind the seemingly prescient words of Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Evie’s lack of conviction saves her from drowning in “the blood-dimmed tide” about to be unleashed. Yet she doesn’t seem significantly altered by her experiences, as one would expect in a coming-of-age novel. Only through the framing device of a middle-aged Evie still unmoored from her own life do we get a partial glimpse of the impact that summer had on her.

The evocative quality of Cline’s writing consistently impressed me, as did her insight into the lost girls so drawn to Russell despite his constant manipulation and evident madness, which they viewed as a form of hypnotic and sensual charisma. When Evie first talks with Russell, she is entranced. But her attraction to him seems little different than her earlier interest in 17-year-old Peter.

“It all started making sense, what Russell was saying, in the drippy way things could make sense. How drugs patchworked simple, banal thoughts into phrases that seemed filled with importance. My glitchy adolescent brain was desperate for causalities, for conspiracies that drenched every word, every gesture, with meaning. I wanted Russell to be a genius.”

And, despite the slow-moving plot, the sense of foreboding one brings to the reading of The Girls is managed to powerful effect by Cline. While not quite a page-turner, the brooding intensity of Cline’s writing turns the screw steadily until it snaps off at the expected climax. The Girls is a haunting depiction of a young girl’s initiation into the incomprehensible contradictions of the adult world.

All finalists for Barnes & Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers” fiction award are women

the-lightkeepers  Homegoing  shelter

Abby Geni’s The Lightkeepers (Counterpoint Press), Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (Knopf), and Jung Yun’s Shelter (Picador) were today named the finalists in the fiction category of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award.

The nonfiction category included Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, a memoir about her life as a botanist, as well as Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond and Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips.

Books are nominated by Barnes & Noble booksellers, and the finalists and winners are chosen by a committee of six distinguished writers.

In The Lightkeepers, according to the B&N announcement, “a young woman finds herself surrounded by an unreliable cast of characters on a remote archipelago–and caught in a murder mystery. Abby Geni’s sense of place and haunting narrative voice reminded us of Eowyn Ivey’s bestselling Discover pick The Snow Child and 2014 Discover Award Winner (Fiction), All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld.”

The Lightkeepers was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s 2016 First Novel Prize, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, and was praised by Francine Prose in the New York Times Book Review.

Homegoing “follows two branches of a family—one in America and the other in Africa–over 300 years, and the writing is so assured that it’s hard to believe this is a debut. This heartbreaking, beautiful book reminded us of Toni Morrison’s exquisite novels and an earlier Discover pick, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis.”

Gyasi’s debut novel won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard First Book Prize, was named Debut Novel of the Year by NPR, and was shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s 2016 First Novel Prize. It was named a New York Times 2016 Notable Book, one of Oprah’s 10 Favorite Books of 2016, and one of  Time‘s Top 10 Novels of 2016.

Regarding Shelter, B&N said, “Our jaws dropped as we read the shocking opening, and we couldn’t stop turning pages as a young father is forced to face his past – and his parents – in order to save his family’s future. This is a must-read for anyone who compulsively read Celeste Ng’s bestseller Everything I Never Told You.”

Shelter was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s 2016 First Novel Prize, named one of the most anticipated books of the year by The Millions, and was the #1 Most Buzzed About Book of the Year in Buzz Feed. It received positive reviews in the New York Times, The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago TribuneEntertainment Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, and Library Journal (starred review).

PEN America announces 2017 Literary Awards finalists

PEN America has announced the finalists for its 2017 Literary Awards.

Awards will be announced on their website on February 22 in 10 categories, as well as in nine special categories for career achievement and manuscripts. However, winners of the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature will be announced live on March 27 at the 2017 PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony, which will be held at The New School’s John L. Tishman Auditorium in Manhattan.

With the addition of four new prizes, this year’s awards will be the largest ever, conferring nearly $315,000 to writers and translators spanning the fields of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, biography, essay, translation, and more.

Finalists in the Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction include Clare Beams for We Show What We Have Learned, Brit Bennett for The Mothers, and Yaa Gyasi for Homecoming. The judges in this category are Jami Attenberg, Tanwi Nandini Islam, Randall Kenan, Hanna Pyalvainen, and Akhil Sharma.

weshowwhatwehavelearnedcover  the-mothers  Homegoing

The short list for the PEN Open Book Award, to recognize an exceptional book-length work of literature by an author of color, includes Petina Gappah for The Book of Memory, Helen Oyeyemi for What is Not Yours is Not Yours: Stories, Solmaz Sharif for Look: Poems, and Monica Youn for Blackacre: Poems. The judges are Ishmael Beah, Major Jackson, and Bich Minh (Beth) Nguyen.

the-book-of-memory  what-is-not-yours-is-not-yours  blackacre  look

PEN America also gives out awards in several categories in which there are no finalists, such as the Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature, the Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, and the Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry to recognize an emerging American poet.

You can see the complete list of finalists here.

PEN American Center is the U.S. branch of the world’s leading international literary and human rights organization. PEN International was founded in 1921 in direct response to the ethnic and national divisions that contributed to the First World War. PEN American Center was founded in 1922 and is the largest of the 144 PEN centers in 101 countries that together comprise PEN International.

Aline Ohanesian: Turning the trans-generational grief of genocide into historical fiction

Raffi HadidianAline Ohanesian is the author of critically acclaimed novel, Orhan’s Inheritance, which was long listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, a Summer 2015 Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick, an April 2014 Indie Next pick, and an Amazon Top 25 pick for 2015. The novel was also a finalist for the PEN Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction. 

Aline was born in Kuwait and immigrated to Southern California at the age of three. After earning an MA in History, she abandoned her PhD studies to conduct the research that led to her debut novel. She is an alumna of the Bread Loaf and Squaw Valley writers’ conferences. She lives and writes in San Juan Capistrano, California with her husband and two young sons.

The paperback edition of Orhan’s Inheritance was published by Algonquin Books in January 2016.

[This interview was originally published on January 18, 2016.]

Photo by Raffi Hadidian


What led to your fascination with the Armenian genocide? Was it a story that seems to have been passed down with your mother’s milk, as it were?

I had an emotional connection to this history because my grandparents on both sides were survivors. I felt I had to tell this story not only for them but for the 1.5 million who lost their lives. Writing this novel was my way of coping with and exploring trans-generational grief.

What aspect of this cultural history spoke most powerfully to you in terms of storytelling?

I’m always amazed at the resilience of the human spirit. When people suffer the worst of fates and still manage not only to survive but be kind and loving.

Tell me about the research you did for Orhan’s Inheritance.

In some parts of the world, the history in this book is contested, so it was very important to me to be as historically accurate as possible. It took me seven years to write this novel. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I probably read every history book ever written on the subject, including a few books from denialists. I have a masters in History from UCI [University of California at Irvine] and whenever possible I referenced primary sources, things like diaries, letters, ledgers, etc. I also took a trip to the interior of Turkey, where the book takes place, and spent time in a small village where they still burn cow dung for fuel. It was like walking into a time warp. Great for my research.

How long did you work on the book?

It took me seven years to write it and another year to find an agent. She sold it on the first round within a week of signing me.

orhans-inheritance-paperback

What is the key to blending the history and politics of something like the Armenian genocide with a story so that the two are in balance?

Writing a book like this, with two time periods and several characters whose story spans eighty years, is like weaving a tapestry. What matters most is the characters and their story. I only included history that impacted my main characters in a direct and personal way.

I love the fact that Orhan is a photographer who has experienced a form of photographer’s block but learns how to see again — but differently — from his encounters with Seda and Ani. It has stayed with me as one of the central “images” of the novel. Can you explain the genesis of this idea and how you wove it into his character development?

I have an affinity toward people who make art in whatever medium. They are my tribe. Making him a photographer reduced the psychic distance between us. I tend to place a high value on people who choose art over everything else in their lives. With Orhan, I got to experience what it felt like to turn one’s back on one’s art. It wasn’t just a block, but a voluntary distancing of himself from his art. I wanted to explore the personal consequences of that, not just to him but to his family and community. Making art is hard, but the alternative can be devastating too, if one has the ability, sight, calling, whatever you want to call it.

I was particularly intrigued by the question that arises late in the book when Orhan is forced to confront the issue of identity. Is he a Turk of the past or the present, or a global citizen of the present and future? How is he supposed to live his life in light of these questions? I imagine that is a question that has been (and is still) faced by Germans and the new generation of Serbians and some Rwandans, etc. How do you view the issue of collective guilt?

It’s so true, and this book was #1 in Serbia I think precisely because that society is still dealing with those questions. As a novelist, I don’t propose any answers to the question of collective guilt. Instead, I ask the question and let my characters answer it for themselves. There have been major shifts in identity formation as a result of our global connectedness, via the internet, speed and ease of travel, etc., but in some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Our world is still suffering from violence born of nationalism, racism and sexism. Collective guilt is different from personal, individual guilt and has to be acknowledged by the nation-state. In the case of Turkey, that state has a deep history of denial and oppression of basic human rights.

I was also moved by Ani’s sentiment that “Remembering is all we have in the face of denial. Silence is the enemy of justice.” What role does fiction have in this “remembering”?

I think great art can also bear witness. Here I’m thinking of the work of Arundhati Roy, Louise Erdrich, Edward P. Jones and others. Those are the writers I admire the most, the ones who can tell you a heart-wrenching story and inadvertently teach you about history and its power structures. There’s a great quote by Toni Morison that goes, “All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS,” she declares. “What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’”

I’m curious about whether Orhan’s Inheritance has been well received by the Jewish community (if you know). I would imagine the concept of “transgenerational grief” would resonate among those who are descendants of the Holocaust, both literally and figuratively. Your description of Armenian loss having existed for generations “like something precious, in every syllable of language taught in Saturday schools, and in the smell of dishes, and in the lament of songs” rings very true for me. It’s universal.

I haven’t heard from any Jewish organizations, but I will say that I have been a student of the Holocaust and its literature, and I feel an affinity toward that community both in my personal life and my professional one.

What do you make of recent research that suggests the trauma of events like genocide can be passed down genetically? (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/descendants-of-holocaust-survivors-have-altered-stress-hormones/)

My community and I always knew it to be true and I’m glad that science now supports that wisdom.

What was your area of study when you earned your MA in History? What were you working on in your Ph.D. program?

I was studying American history, partly to try to figure out what it means to be an American. My dissertation was on the intersection of citizenship and consumerism in American culture. I had an incredible group of professors and I owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

For those who want to learn more about the subject, which books do you recommend, both fiction and nonfiction?

For non-fiction I would recommend Dawn MacKeen’s The Hundred Year Walk, which just came out to raving reviews. It’s a lovely story of her grandfather’s survival and it explains the past but also points to what’s happening now in the Middle East. There are some great novels about the topic. My three favorites are Micheline Marcom’s Three Apples Fell From Heaven, Nancy Kricorian’s Zabelle and Antonia Aslan’s Skylark Farm. There are dozens more including one from Chris Bohjalian called Sandcastle Girls.

What has been the highlight of being a debut novelist? 

One highlight is receiving letters and emails from readers who’ve been impacted by the novel. I never imagined the lovely things people would say about my words. It is a surreal and wonderful experience and it’s been happening at least once a week since the book came out last April. I’m incredibly grateful for the reception the book has had, but to be honest, the very best part of this journey has been and remains the hours I spend writing. That is my prayer, my religion and my privilege. It’s not always easy but it’s always rewarding. (Even on bad days when I want to throw my laptop into a ditch, I’m still grateful I get to write. To try.)

What are you working on now?

It’s a secret. No, just kidding. I am working on two things at once. I have no idea which of the two will take fire, but it’s exciting. I don’t want to repeat myself, so I’m stepping way outside my comfort zone. I don’t know how readers will react, but I’ll worry about that after I’ve finished writing.

How has social media changed the landscape for writers, especially those early in their career?

Social media is a great way to create community and converse with other writers and readers. It’s only a problem if it gets in the way of your writing. I’m sure some people can tweet and work on their novels at the same time, but I’m not one of them. I have to limit social media so I don’t have any of those apps on my phone or my laptop. I have them on an iPad that I use in my leisure time. Like a lot of other things, it can be a double-edged sword.

Which writers have had the greatest influence on you as a reader and a writer? What have you read recently that has impressed you?

I mentioned some of them earlier. I re-read one of the Russians at least once a year. Having said that, I’m always reading so I’m always discovering new favorites. I’m on a Lidia Yuknavitch kick lately. I loved The Small Backs of Children. And Josh Weil’s The Great Glass Sea blew me away. Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life and Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek. I could go on and on.

Are there any books you especially like that you think have been unfairly overlooked?

Oh, so many. I don’t understand why some books get the attention they do, while others are ignored. I do believe there’s a benefit to living in Brooklyn and/or having an MFA. Like in any business, connections matter when it comes to coverage and who gets reviewed, etc. I do think gatekeepers like agents and editors are important. But the writer can’t worry about anything beyond the page. I worry about the words and let the rest take care of itself, or not.

Do you have any recommendations for standout fiction by women for the readers of this blog?

Many of the writers I’ve mentioned here are women and women of color. Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women is an excellent short story collection. I love Susan Straight both as a person and a writer. I thought the structure of Naomi Williams’s Landfalls was very interesting. Again, I can go on for pages.

THE JUNGLE AROUND US: STORIES probes the mysteries of people and places

the-jungle-around-us

The Jungle Around Us: Stories

By Anne Raeff

University of Georgia Press: Oct. 1, 2016

$24.95, 140 pages


The folks at the University of Georgia Press who administer the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction have done a stellar job of “discovering” new talent. The list of winners includes Dana Johnson, Lori Ostlund, Ha Jin, Bill Roorbach, Amina Gautier, Antonya Nelson, Debra Monroe and, in the last few years, Monica McFawn and Karin Lin-Greenberg.

One of the two 2016 winners was Anne Raeff, an English teacher at East Palo Alto Academy. UGP recently published The Jungle Around Us, a collection of Raeff’s stories, which were previously published in literary journals like Guernica, New England Review, and Antioch Review.

The Jungle Around Us is a darkly compelling series of stories set in places we rarely visit and know little about, from southern Mexico and Nicaragua to Bolivia and Paraguay. The characters share a sense of dislocation, literally and figuratively, and Raeff coolly probes their psyches and actions as they try to orient themselves to threats both real and imagined. Yes, there is jungle, as well as war, heartbreak, loss, memory, and identity, all surrounding, oppressing, and confusing these characters. Raeff’s narrative voice and prose style are calm and hypnotic, a contrast to the intensity of her characters’ struggles.

The centerpiece of the collection is a quartet of stories featuring sisters Juliet and Simone Buchovsky, in which we observe the two young women as they try to make sense of the mystifying adult world.

In “Keeping an Eye on Jakobson” they encounter the man who is only referred to by his surname, sitting in their back yard and smoking big, smelly cigars while discussing the Vietnam War with their father Isaac and his woman friend, Mrs. Tuttle, whose son is off fighting in the war that has so disturbed Jakobson.

In “The Buchovskys on Their Own” their father, forced to travel to Russia to do research for his book, leaves the girls in the care of his friend, Katja Ladijinskaya, whom he has known since their families immigrated from Russia together in 1941. During his time in Russia, Isaac and his daughters discover that people and places are not at all what they expect.

“Maximiliano” finds the adult Simone, now a home health care worker, visiting Juliet in Asuncion, Paraguay, where she is living with an older man and his precocious young son, Maximiliano. In a setting unlike any she has experienced, Simone is perplexed by Juliet’s choices and the mysterious comings and goings of Raul but intrigued by his son’s gentle nature and fascination with birds. The sisters find each other inexplicably foreign after years in which one has lived in New Jersey and the other in places like Paraguay.

“Chinese Opera” concludes the collection with an exploration of the effects of the murder of their neighbor, Danny McSwene, with whom the sisters once listened to music and practiced dancing.

“After the War” concerns Karl and Margot Epstein, who fled Vienna to avoid the Nazis and ended up waiting out the war in the jungles of Bolivia. After six years, they immigrate to New York City, where they struggle to adjust. Although New York City is not unlike the Vienna of their memories, they have been marked by their time in Bolivia and it has affected their marriage. Karl had tried his best but he never felt part of Bolivia. He found some solace in his friendship with the drug addicted priest Antonio, in scenes that remind one of Graham Greene’s work. But the ghosts of the past follow Karl and Margot to their new life in the new world.

In “Sonya’s Mood,” we meet the daughter of Karl and Margot, living in New York City in the late 1980s, as AIDS decimates part of its population. She was 11 when they left Vienna and 17 when they moved from Bolivia to New York City. Now, approaching her 60th birthday, she still daydreams about Bolivia and listens to her “scratchy old 78s. They sound right to her, even though they are full of static and skips.” The music recalls her first love, Luis. Despite her long marriage to Dan Cohen, her moods have only worsened rather than faded. She meets a gay friend, Rick, for lunch, and his stories of heartbreak and newfound romance add kindling to her low but long-burning flame.

“The Boys of El Tambor” takes us to Coatzacoalcos, Mexico, a coastal town near Veracruz.  Ester, a painter, writes to her former lover, Amy, a writer, back in Albuquerque, about her sudden decision to pick up and leave after experiencing personal and artistic frustrations, in part because Amy insists she needs both Ester and her boyfriend, Gilbert. Ester has stopped in Coatzacoalcos and taken work as a domestic of sorts. She enjoys her anonymity because no one asks about her painting or Amy, and she finds comfort hanging out at El Tambor, “a sleazy bar where all the drag queens hang out” and where a lesbian is welcomed as “one of us.” She enters into an arrangement with Marta and Rafael, her employers, mirroring Amy’s circumstance but without love or passion. The middle-aged homosexual who owns El Tambor offers Ester a moment of solidarity that begins to set her back on track. Interestingly, “The Boys of El Tambor” connects with “Sonya’s Mood” and “After the War” when Ester notes in passing that she might return to her hometown of New York City or even Bolivia, “where my mother and my grandparents spent the war years.”

“Carlito on Pink” introduces us to Kenard, a 16-year-old American student in Nicaragua who is equally possessed by his new passion for photography and the developmentally disabled son of his host family, Carlito. At home, his father is in jail for murder and his mother is going through a series of boyfriends. Kenard’s life at home is limited to school and the Boys and Girls Club, so the school trip to Nicaragua offers him escape and time to think. Carlito becomes his preferred subject.

Raeff’s stories are subtle and haunting, and I occasionally felt as mystified as her characters in sorting out the import of people and events. I was rewarded by second readings, a sign of rich, complex stories that, like the characters within, don’t reveal all their secrets at first meeting. There is a quiet confidence to Raeff’s writing that belies a fierce intellect unafraid to confront the darkness in the jungle around us.

Writing Out of Rage: How Sexual Politics Inspired “The Unraveling of Mercy Louis”

This essay was originally posted on March 30, 2015, but it seems appropriate to post it again as 2016 crawls off into the sunset.

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By Keija Parssinen

The advice goes that you shouldn’t compose an email while angry, but what about a novel? Can good art emerge out of rage? I’d argue that the answer is yes, but that’s because I was a flaming nova of fury while writing my second book, The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. In an interview with the NEA Arts Magazine, Toni Morrison said, “Writing for me is thinking, and it’s also a way to position myself in the world, particularly when I don’t like what’s going on.” Maybe that’s why I sat down in early 2012 and started The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. I didn’t like what was going on in our country, not at all. And I wanted someone to hear me roar.

It was election season, which meant that Republicans were attacking reproductive rights with increased zeal. But suddenly, the politicians weren’t just injecting themselves into the private health decisions of American women. They were also weighing in on sexual violence, to horrifying effect. In Missouri, where I live, Todd Akin infamously coined the term “legitimate rape,” when he told a local TV station: “If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has way to try and shut the whole thing down.” The comments might have been laughable, the unhinged croakings of a drunken uncle at a reunion picnic, but Akin was running for the U.S. Senate, hoping to represent about three million Missouri women, and so his comments were deeply disturbing. Indiana’s Richard Mourdock soon blundered his way into the conversation, saying that even when a pregnancy resulted from rape, God intended it, and therefore, a woman should be forced to carry the baby to term.

At the time, I was pregnant with my first child, a planned pregnancy for which my husband and I were grateful. But the pregnancy evoked complicated feelings in me. I became hyperaware of the fact that suddenly, my body was not my own. Beyond the fact that people openly commented on and touched my body lay the fact that, if for some terrible reason I needed an abortion after twenty weeks, I would not be able to get one. The local Planned Parenthood clinic stopped doing the procedure at all that year. As my husband and I trekked to the doctor for our prenatal visits, I felt like Akin and Mourdock and Romney were there in the doctor’s office with me, micro-managing my pregnancy. I wondered how anyone—particularly any man—could have the gall to believe he should be a part of this intensely personal journey.

As the year wore on, the Steubenville and Maryville rape cases gained national attention. I cried tears of grief for those girls who lost their innocence so violently, and so publicly. And I cried tears of rage for how the respective communities responded to the crimes: by shaming the girls, excusing the boys, burning down houses, driving families out of town.

Throughout all of this, I wrote. Every day, heavy with the pregnancy, I sat down and wrote the story of the girls of Port Sabine, Texas—a community much like Steubenville, or Maryville, or Anywhereville, USA. In my story, I made the girls fierce—strong, smart and athletic—but I made the town a powerful oppressor, interfering in the natural development of its young women out of fear of their nascent sexuality. A fear that runs deep in this country, all the way back to Salem and the Colonies.

I wrote out of rage, and I wrote out of fear, hearing my teacher Elizabeth McCracken’s advice that “revenge is a fantastic reason to write” as I typed. “Don’t tread on me or the girls or women of this country, you Tea Party motherfuckers,” I would think as I wrote another scathing chapter. At times, I worried that my anger would somehow affect the baby growing inside me, so I did yoga and meditated, to try and counterbalance the high emotion that fueled the writing.

The morning of January 18th, 2013, I emailed a draft of the novel to my agent. Later that day, I gave birth to my son. It was a time of great happiness, and relief. I was glad to let go of my anger for a while, and embrace the special joy a wanted baby brings. But while I breastfed and snuggled my sweet infant, I found my thoughts wandering to the still burning world outside my door. And I thought about my characters, particularly the teenage mothers. Here I was, a thirty-two year old woman nurturing a son I wanted with all my heart, but still, it at times felt impossible. As I struggled with sleeplessness, difficulty nursing, and a body I no longer recognized, I understood viscerally the need for women to be able to make the decision to have babies on their own terms. Because it is the hardest thing we will ever do, and because it can be financially and emotionally devastating if you’re not in the right place in your life.

When my agent returned the draft to me with her comments, I was able to approach the manuscript with the cool detachment necessary to shape an angry screed into something more subtle, more artful—and hopefully more affecting. As we gear up for another election season (groan), I want to send a copy to Akin and Mourdock, Santorum and Cruz, Romney and Bush, and anyone else who has ever reduced women to second-class citizens by denying them domain over their bodies, not just to show them the devastating psychological effects that such a message has on young women, but to introduce them to some kick-ass female characters whose complex thoughts and desires might just shock the imbeciles into the realization that women are fully realized human beings, too.