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.

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THE LOSS OF ALL LOST THINGS confirms that Amina Gautier is among our most fearless writers

Amina Gautier with Loss cover

The Loss of All Lost Things: Stories

By Amina Gautier

Elixir Press, Feb. 2016

$19.00, 200 pages

 

Win a signed copy of The Loss of All Lost Things (two available)! See below for details. 

The contest is now closed. Congratulations to the winners, Nazalet Hernandez and Melanie Page! 4/25/16

One of the great joys of reading authors with whom one is unfamiliar is discovering a truly distinctive writer whose work pushes all your buttons, intellectually and emotionally, and leaves you stunned, as if you’d looked at the sun for more than just that one permissible moment. In the last few years, I’ve experienced this reaction to the work of Molly Antopol (The UnAmericans), Rebecca Lee (Bobcat and Other Stories), Violet Kupersmith (The Frangipani Hotel), Brittani Sonnenberg (Home Leave), and Nina Swamidoss McConigley (Cowboys and East Indians).

Amina Gautier is the latest writer to make me mutter to myself in amazement as I read her stories. Her debut collection of stories, At-Risk (2012), won the Flannery O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction. The follow-up, 2014’s Now We Will Be Happy, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction and an IPPY at the Independent Publishers Book Awards. Her debut focused on at-risk youth, while the follow-up examined the bi-cultural lives of Afro-Puerto Rican-Americans with her trademark combination of intensity and insight. Gautier is unsparing with her very human characters (and readers), but she is also compassionate.

Gautier’s third collection, The Loss of All Lost Things, is her best work yet. Here she moves beyond the concerns of her earlier work to the issue of loss in its many forms. Her characters have either suffered a loss, literally lost someone or something, or are at loose ends in figuring out what to do with their lives following a significant and often unexpected event. What so impresses me about these stories is Gautier’s ability to plumb the psyche of very complex characters with a psychological acuity that will break your heart repeatedly.

The opening “Lost and Found” follows a young boy who has been abducted by a man identified only as “Thisman” as they move from motel to motel over a period of several months. They watch The Twilight Zone wherever they stay. One episode teaches him that “this is something one can do with words, stretch them into softness and push them past their meaning. Take him, for example. He prefers the word lost instead of taken. Lost is much much better. Things that are taken are never given back. Things that are lost can be found. He doesn’t like to think of himself as a stolen thing, taken away in plain sight of his own home, plucked from the curb like a penny found on the sidewalk. . . He knows that there is a place for things that are lost. . . He remembers the Lost and Found at the school he no longer attends. . . If only he could find the Lost and Found and turn his own self in.” Only five pages into this collection and Gautier has sent repeated bolts of lightning through my heart and mind.

The title story takes us into the home and life of the grieving parents of the boy from “Lost and Found.” The opening line scalds.

“The posters go up immediately.”

The narrator continues. “They search in all weather; they harass the media for coverage. They leave the light on outside. They do not touch their answering machine: they keep the message exactly the same. They supply the authorities with recent photos, with medical and dental records, with everything they ask. They do all they can think of. They never rest. They never tire. They never lose hope.”

As the weeks and months pass, each deals with the heartbreak, anger, and sense of loss differently, and it begins to wear down their unified front and eventually their relationship. “Blame is the glue that keeps them together. They shuttle it between them, neither one able to shoulder it alone. . . They cannot endure this without each other. Splitting up is too simple of a solution. Far too easy to buckle under the strain of it all. . . They are stuck. Stuck here. Stuck in this time. Stuck together. . . Worse than mourning is this waiting that never ends.”

Gautier stares across the abyss of what is perhaps every parent’s greatest fear and suggests what might be found on the other side, if it can be reached somehow. After the supporters and media have moved on, after hope seems like pretending, the parents make a random decision which they are convinced is the only way to save themselves, their marriage, and the well-being of their younger son. Only those experiencing this loss can decide what is best, even if it appears illogical or pointless to those on the outside.

“Cicero Waiting” is a variation on this theme of parents coping with the loss of a child. “Intersections” explores the seemingly cliched affair between a white college professor and a beautiful and brilliant black student with results that manage to sidestep those cliches.

“A Cup of My Time” probes another marriage, this time that of young, expectant parents. Sona’s twin boys are “battling it out inside of my womb.” Her doctor advises her, prior to a risky procedure, that if it fails to save the fetuses, “the two of you will have a tough decision to make. You’ll have to choose which one you want to live.”

“Disturbance” is the odd man out in this collection, a piece of speculative fiction with echoes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Gautier takes what seems like a domestic drama and stretches it into purely metaphorical territory with haunting results.

Gautier also explores individuals searching for the solutions to the voids in their lives.

In “What’s Best for You,” we meet Bernice, a black single mother who works in the university library and is lonely but maintaining her standards. When the amiable new custodian flirts with her, she is forced to confront the cost of her biases.

“As I Wander” finds a widow named Judy trying to adjust to her life following the loss of her older husband. She has lost track of the shape of her normal life. She spends the night on a bench in a local park, sleeping among the homeless. “She had lost her ability to find anything disgusting in mingling among those whom she would have normally avoided. . . Life had stolen something from them, robbed them, made them crazy and despairing so that they cared only for something to distract them. The park had become a depository for the unwanted, forgotten, and discarded.” Including, now, Judy. She seeks solace in an unexpected form with disappointing results.

The Loss of All Lost Things is a dark and often disturbing collection, but Gautier is such a gifted storyteller, the characters and conflicts so compelling, the telling details so perfectly chosen, that you can’t turn away. Amina Gautier is a fearless writer who I am willing to follow anywhere.

The Loss of All Lost Things contest

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Differently Motivated: In Defense of the Slacker-Writer

Monica McFawn 2016   Bright Shards of Someplace Else

By Monica McFawn

I wasn’t—and have never been—a particularly good student.  In fact, the best way to describe me as an undergraduate was as a slacker—and an unrepentant one at that.   School, for me, was a dance of strategy and deception.  Do as little work as possible but give the impression of working hard.  If your mind drifts, nod more vigorously to feign engagement. Write showoffy, passionate essays to hide sloppy research and logic.  Laugh at the professor’s jokes to build up goodwill you can later leverage for assignment extensions.  If class is held in the library for a “research day,” dart down the stacks and scurry to the exit when the professor isn’t looking.  Be sure to sign the attendance sheet first, of course.

I enjoyed the drama that my slacking created—the exhilarating all-nighters, the perfectly calibrated performances of my bogus excuses, the passable grade wrenched from the maws of failure.  I like to believe that I may have written one of the first emailed excuses to a professor in a time when it was still a novelty.  I remember it to this day:  Due to a series of complex misfortunes, I cannot attend class…. The pleasure of school was not in learning the material, but learning—outwitting, ideally—the game of school.   I was a bullshitter, a brownnoser, a layabout, a faker—but, in my mind, free.  Every time I skipped class, I felt the thrill of shirking a responsibility, of rejecting others’ expectations in order to follow my own interests.   Slacking seemed like a way to preserve my selfhood, even as I was told my life would be defined by how well I did in school.

I’m a professor now, and now I’m the target of the expertly performed excuses, the fake laughter, the bullshit.  I also see now what I didn’t then—that a college education is a privilege, and my slacking itself was the behavior of someone lucky enough to have a supportive, soundly middle class family.  Still, even with the wisdom of age, I admire the old slacker version of myself.  My eighteen-year-old self may have been ruled by sloth and mischief, but I’ve come to believe that “slacking” can actually be beneficial for writers—especially women—for two main reasons.

  1. Slackers know how to prioritize and protect their boundaries.

A slacker’s day is a series of refusals.  No, I won’t get up before noon.  No, I won’t clean the dishes, make the bed, do the laundry.  No, I won’t study.  No, I won’t go to class.  No, I won’t visit the professor during office hours. And like that great slacker of American Literature, Bartleby, I didn’t even bother with an excuse if I could avoid it.  I preferred not, and that was all the justification I needed.

Nowadays, I realize how important this slacker-skill is, especially for women. Saying no is critical to the creative life.  Saying “no” is a way of protecting one’s boundaries, of leaving time for the art and people we truly care about.   When my book,  Bright Shards of Someplace Else, came out, I overextended myself, taking on every reading, article, or interview request.  I’d forgotten what I learned from the depths of slackerdom: that I needed to protect my time and passions, even if that meant I outwardly appeared less active.   When I skipped class years ago, it wasn’t always about simply revelling in my idleness (though often it was about that).  It was also about freeing up time for what I cared about, which back then was riding my horse, reading, arguing with friends about ideas.  But as I got older and more ambitious, I forgot the simple teachings of the slacker: that saying no is not only okay, but required.

The problem is that women have been culturally conditioned to overachieve and overcommit.  It’s no coincidence that the iconic slackers of film (and TV) are historically men (think Ferris Bueller, The Big Lebowski).   Even though female slackers are finally making an appearance on the screen, research shows that women in real life find it hard to say no to excessive workloads.   Slacking is a form of power.  It’s a way of saying: “My time is worth more than this task or duty.  I’m worth more than this task or duty.” Perhaps that wasn’t exactly my inner monologue when I was lying in bed reading teen novels rather than attending class, but the argument could be made that my slacking had a feminist bent.

  1. Slackers Use Cunning to Pursue Pleasure and Avoid Difficulty

The most frequent advice that writers get is that writing is hard work that demands unwavering discipline and a willingness to embrace difficulty.  Writing is about putting in long hours, powering through discomfort, self-disgust, and boredom.  On  the face of it, the slacker seems to have no hope as a writer.  Writing is about work and difficulty, and slackers avoid those things at all cost.

Lately, however, I’ve started to see that the slacker’s ethos can even be applied to the writing process.  For years, I used to believe that I should simply keep writing when it became difficult.  This was the message I used to send to students, too, but now I find myself saying something more in line with the old slacker me. “If you feel yourself really struggling to write a section, if it’s really boring or difficult, see if there’s a way you can avoid it.  Maybe it isn’t needed.  Maybe if it’s boring to write it will be boring to read.”

There are, I realized, different kinds of difficulty.   There’s the difficulty that comes from trying to represent nuanced emotions, from dramatizing the ethics of a thorny relationship, from breaking up the “frozen sea within us,” as Franz Kafka put it. This is the type of difficulty a writer should lean into.  But then there is the difficulty that comes from having to write a dull, but logistically required passage to move your characters through time and space.  This was the type of writing I encouraged my students to slack on.

Slackers don’t work hard, but they do work smart.  A good slacker is cunning, always looking for steps that could be skipped or streamlined so she can get back to what’s pleasurable or fun.  A slacker’s mindset leads to formal innovation and experimentation as she tries out all avenues to avoid any writing that feels like a slog.  A slacker’s mindset creates a story that is all high points, since all the slacker really wants are the highs. A slacker is playful and rascally, two qualities a writer needs at least as much as a work ethic. And finally, a slacker, like a good writer, finds satisfaction in dodging an expected route.

I wrote this essay to remind myself of the value of slacking, so in the interest of full disclosure I need to report that I have succeeded and failed in this in equal measure.  I said “yes” to writing this essay—a clear breach of the slacker code.  However, I redeemed myself by both pushing back the deadline twice and pulling a near all-nighter.  My plan is to work on being a better slacker—but if I fall down at even that job, I figure I can still count it as a success.

***

Monica McFawn’s story collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else, won a Flannery O’Connor Award and was named a Michigan Notable Book, a finalist for the Ohioana Book Award and an NPR “Great Read.” Her stories have appeared in journals such as Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Gettysburg Review and others, and her screenplays and plays have had readings in New York and Chicago. She is also author of “A Catalogue of Rare Movements,” a poetry/art chapbook, and host of the Nathaniel Hawthorne-themed comedy podcast, The Hawthorne Effect.  A recipient of a NEA Fellowship in Literature and a Walter E. Dakin fellowship from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, McFawn is an assistant professor of English at Northern Michigan University, where she teaches fiction and scriptwriting.  She can be found online at www.monicamcfawn.com

Flannery O’Connor Award winner Karin Lin-Greenberg on the role of patience in publishing

Faulty Predictions  KLG

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

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

I: Patience, a History

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

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

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

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

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

II: Patience, Revisited

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

III: Waiting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV: The Kids Are Not Alright

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

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

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

The Internet has made us impatient by bringing instant gratification to our daily lives, and I think it’s also caused problems with making people too informed about some things. When I was in high school, I didn’t know what literary journals were. I didn’t even know what they were in college. The first time I encountered one was in graduate school, where there were a couple Glimmer Trains on a table in the graduate English office. I picked up one of the journals while I was waiting to register for a class, and then it clicked that stories are published in journals before they are republished in story collections and the yearly best-of anthologies that I was familiar with.

So, okay, I was exceptionally naïve about publishing for a long time, but I think knowing too much can cause trouble. Because of the Internet, young people today know all about journals and contests and submitting work. They know who else their age is getting published. Publishing can become competitive, a race. And it’s not a race. Sometimes it takes a long time before work is ready. I’d be pretty embarrassed if the stories I wrote when I was sixteen were available for anyone to read on the Internet. When I was sixteen, I loved writing, but I still had an incredible amount to learn, and I’m so glad I didn’t feel pressure to publish. I’m grateful I had many years in which to write and learn and explore and grow, and I didn’t have to worry about proving myself with publication. I’m glad I didn’t even think about publication throughout high school and college. This is not to say that someone who is sixteen shouldn’t be published. I’m just saying it’s not a race, and there’s no banner at the finish line that says, “If you are old enough to vote and don’t have a book out yet, you’re a loser.”

V: But How Can I Get Published?

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

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

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

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

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

VI: Tumble On

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

Amina Gautier on Male Verbal Privilege: “Men Don’t Say or Do That!”

Amina Gautier

Amina Gautier is the author of At-Risk, which won the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the newly-published collection, Now We Will Be Happy, which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize [see my recent review here]. She has published more than 85 stories in some of the country’s most prestigious literary journals. Her fiction has been awarded fellowships and scholarships from Breadloaf Writer’s ConferenceCallaloo Writer’s WorkshopMacDowell ColonyPrairie Center of the ArtsSewanee Writer’s Conference, and Ucross Foundation

Gautier attended Stanford University, where she earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English Literature in four years. She then attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in English Literature. She is currently a professor of English at the University of Miami. A scholar of 19th Century American literature, Gautier’s critical work focuses on such nineteenth century American authors as Charles W. Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Elleanor Eldridge, Benjamin Franklin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Walt Whitman.

 

By Amina Gautier 

Two years ago, I was invited to a public university in the Midwest to give a reading from my first short story collection At-Risk. Prior to the evening’s reading and book-signing, I was also scheduled to visit an undergraduate course in creative writing where the students had read selected stories from the collection. While visiting this class (whose members were from diverse backgrounds), one male student raised his hand to deliver a criticism of one of the short stories in the collection. Like almost half of the stories in the collection, this one was told from the point of view of a young African American boy. The story was about two brothers who were pulled apart by rumors surrounding the older brother’s sexual orientation. I do not remember what scene exactly the student objected to specifically, but his criticism was, “Boys don’t do that.” When I asked him how he knew that boys did not do or say whatever it was I’d had my male character do or say, his response was, “I’m a guy and I grew up in a household of men. I have three brothers.”

Of course I could have responded with, “Actually, I also grew up in a household of men, and in my experience I have witnessed men and boys do [whatever it was I’d had my male character do],” but I did not. I did not need to justify my writing. It is good and solid and strong and fierce and none of it is written on a whim or without careful research and observation. In any case, I had not written a story that attempted to capture and represent the experience of all boys on the planet Earth from the birth of Cain and Abel to the present day. I had written a story that represented the ways in which one particular African American boy in a particular neighborhood in Brooklyn at a particular time period with a particular family and particular family dynamic and set of circumstances came to do the thing that he did. And I succeeded.

Or I could have responded with, “We are not in the midst of an alien invasion and you have not been chosen as the sole human delegate to represent the species or take the alien to our leader. One man cannot speak for all men, just as one woman cannot speak for all women. As a man, you are joined to other men by your biological similarities. However, you are also set apart from other men by your cultural, racial, national, religious, political and sexual affiliation and by your linguistic and economic background. A rich man may not always make the same decisions or speak in the same fashion as a poor man; an illiterate man may not think in the same fashion as a literate man; a devout man might not see the world in the same fashion that an atheistic or agnostic man would. You do not and cannot speak for all men. You may be able to try and speak for the men in your household, with whom you have conferred and lived and discussed the meaning of life, but even then, you are likely to get some things wrong.”

But I did not say that either.

What I found interesting was his unwavering belief in his ability to speak for the entire male sex and correct the poor female who had gotten it “wrong.” I actually understand the impulse. There have been books I’ve read by male authors where I thought the female characters’ reactions seemed so off—so inappropriate, stereotypical, ditzy or flat to me that it led me to mentally ask What woman in her right mind would ever act that way? Or to say I don’t know any women who act like that. My sentences, however, reflect a different sort of positioning. They do not say No woman would ever do or say that. They privilege the individuality of the character’s experience over mine. No, I do not know any women who would ever do or say the things that I have read certain female characters do or say in novels, stories, plays or poems. But I do not know every woman and if in the context of the story, it is believable that that particular woman would respond that way despite my personal experience which would suggest otherwise, then that’s that (If, however, the context does not make her actions or words believable? Well, that’s a whole other thing.). There are plenty of things that I would not do and plenty of actions taken by other women that personally give me pause, but that does not lead me to deny the diversity of our experiences as women.

This is, of course, not the first time this has ever happened to me. During the process of preparing my second short story collection for publication, one of my short stories had a word changed because the word that I used was not deemed to be a word men use. In this short story, told from the point of view of a younger brother (notice a theme here? Clearly, I like writing about brothers), the two brothers get into an argument and I have my narrator say that his brother screamed at him. The editor told me that I had to change from “screamed” to “shouted,” because men don’t use the word “scream.” The editor is a man, so this is how he knows. This was news to me. Until that moment, I had been ignorant of the fact that there was not a single man on the entire planet, living or dead, who had ever used the word scream.

The two instances I describe are chauvinistic moments of verbal policing representative of the ways in which language gets gendered, where iterations of certain terms and phrases become irrevocably attributed to one sex to the exclusion of the other. This is why women who are emotional are always called “hysterical” and men are merely described as “stressed”; why women who are direct are “aggressive” while men are “assertive”; why women who initiate are “bossy” but men who do so are “leaders.” Language is policed from both the bottom and the top and women are often sandwiched in between.

Few have gone on the record to question Flaubert’s right to write Madame Bovary, Richardson’s audacity to write Clarissa or Pamela, or Henry James’s right to produce Portrait of a Lady all from the points of view of female protagonists, nor tried to police their ability to know or represent what women might do or say, yet when women authors assume a male point of view, there is a frequent backlash. In worst case scenarios, women authors are accused of male-bashing, of hating men to the point where they will deliberately and maliciously use their artwork for the sole purpose of depicting men in negative fashions. In the not so worst case scenario, women are accused of simply getting it wrong, and are seen to be in need of correction. So these women authors are either viewed as malicious or plain old stupid.

When someone says, “Men don’t say that. Or women don’t do that. Children don’t do that. Or Blacks/Latinos/Asians/Native Americans don’t do that,” and justifies it with “I know because I am one, my best friend is one, I have met one, or I have read about one,” instead of acknowledging the limitless nature of humanity and the individuality of every being, the statement erases individuality, categorizes and condenses groups by age, sex, race and other identifying factors and then shrinks individuals even further by then forcing them through the lens of one person’s experience, which is presumed to be normative. If a man utters sentences such as, “Men don’t use that word,” “Men don’t behave in that fashion,” and “A guy would never say that,” he is privileging his own experience as male and as a man, reading it as normative, and conflating an individual experience with a collective one. He is basically saying, “I am a guy and I feel this way. Because I am a guy who feels this way, this feeling must be natural and normal to all guys (in all parts of the world, regardless of education, race, age, citizenship, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, political affiliation, socioeconomic background.) Thus all guys must feel the way I feel. Therefore, because I feel this way, guys feel this way.” When broken down into its implicit parts, it becomes easier to hear how smug, utterly ridiculous, incredibly stupid and reductive such a statement actually is. The statement is not only arrogant, ignorant, and marginalizing, but it is Procrustean. Instead of Procrustes stretching or severing the limbs of unsuspecting travelers in order to force the travelers to fit the dimensions of his iron bed, the utterer of this statement stretches or severs the experiences of everyone else to fit the confines of his world or experiences.

Growing up in a household of men among multiple brothers does not mean that you know masculinity or what men think, say and do. It does not make you an expert. It means that you know what masculinity looks like in your household under the particular set of circumstances in which you and your brothers grew up. Someone who grew up with more or fewer brothers under different religious, economic, social, political, national, ethnic, and racial circumstances will experience a different version of masculinity than you. Both versions will be valid. Your experience gives you access to a community of shared and overlapping experiences; it does not give you a license to authenticate, validate, approve, judge or exclude.

To say that men don’t do or say a certain thing or to say “I don’t know any men who do or say this” and to imply through that statement that men don’t do or say a certain thing asserts either that only experiences which come into your purview are valid or that you are an expert in all things and know everything, so if there is something that you don’t know, it is clearly not worth knowing. There are certainly, on this planet, men who do or say whatever certain thing you just said they do not do or say. Perhaps you need to get out more.

In a world where people have at one time or another legally deemed others to be 3/5 of a person, sanctioned forms of mass extinction of particular ethnic groups, sold men and women into slavery, dropped atomic bombs, sold women and children off for sex trafficking, locked their children in cages, microwaved them in ovens, left them locked in hot cars, attempted to have sex with infants, placed children in overhead bins on airplanes, and dismembered and eaten the bodies of others, I cannot comfortably utter the words “Men don’t do… Women don’t do… People don’t do…” with any sense of authority.

Quite frankly, I can’t think of a single thing I can say that people don’t do.

And that scares me.

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

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Karin Lin-Greenberg in classroom  Faulty Predictions

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

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

I: Patience, a History

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

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

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

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

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

II: Patience, Revisited

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

III: Waiting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV: The Kids Are Not Alright

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

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

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

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

V: But How Can I Get Published?

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

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

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

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

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

VI: Tumble On

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

Photo at top left courtesy of Siena College.

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

Bright Shards of Someplace Else

Bright Shards of Someplace Else: Stories

By Monica McFawn

University of Georgia Press: Sept. 15, 2014

164 pages, $24.95

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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