Joanne Dominique Dwyer was born in Rockaway Beach, Queens, NY. She has lived in New Mexico for most of her adult life. Dwyer has been published in various journals, such as The American Poetry Review, Conduit, The Florida Review, Gulf Coast, The Massachusetts Review, The New England Review, Poetry, TriQuarterly and others. She received a Rona Jaffe award and holds an MFA from Warren Wilson. Her first book of poems, Belle Laide, was published by Sarabande in 2013.
J. Dee Cochran: Belle Laide, your debut book of poems, celebrates wild associations and varying themes. And yet, the book feels very cohesive. Could you talk a bit about how the book came about and how the poems were ordered? Did you anticipate each poem coming together in one book as you were writing them?
Joanne Dominique Dwyer: I appreciate your saying that Belle Laide feels cohesive. I suppose it is because of the writing style and the repetitive obsessive themes. But the poems in Belle Laide were not penned collectively; they were not written with the thought of a book in mind. They were not construed consciously to become cohabitating members of a club or tribe, to live together communally sharing gardens and kitchen duty someday within the tenement walls of a book. They were written as urgent orphans eking out a living by foraging on roadside herbs in the Diaspora of both desiccated and jungle terrains, and in the overcrowded refugee camps of dream borderlands. Absolve me the playful overwriting and the melodrama – the key here is urgent – each poem was written in a moment or a day – and revised the next day and subsequent day and sometimes years. But at the moment of conception to write a poem, providing we are privileged, the impulse is always present on varying levels – to write or die. The writer feels this exigency to make poems or perish.
Writing that is truly worth reading – let’s say, more than once, is usually written by a writer for whom writing is a vocation, rather than an occupation. But what I wanted to comment on here is my use above of the word privileged. While great writing comes from the urgency of vocation (and not all of us writing from urgency are therefore great writers), I believe it is a privilege to have the time to write. So many of the world’s population are living in conditions in which there are no real opportunities to write; life is at a survival level of having the basic human needs met. So it feels a privilege to me that I have food, shelter, safety, and time in which to pacify the urgency and that my urgency is not one of quelling physical hunger, but creative and psychological hunger.
For me, writing poems is a way to make sense of what might simply be construed as nonsense. So often there is an overabundance of information and sensory stimulation circulating and pelleting down all around us, like the type of hail that cracks our windshields. I write to calm down the ecstasy-taking rave goers inside me. I write poems to convert the feelings coursing through the container of my body into something concrete.
It is difficult to make a statement and find any permanent or lasting truth in that statement. No sooner is something uttered, than the opposite arises, like a clown at a funeral to convince you life is not sad, but comedic – or the reverse. For example, I stated moments ago that I write to make random coursing feelings concrete. And immediately it occurs to ask, Can anything be concrete, especially a work of art such as a poem, which is created by an individual? And furthermore, is there any such entity as an individual? Meaning a poem is written by a certain someone and comes from within their field of feeling, their field of thought. But who among us has an original feeling or thought? We are so interwoven and interconnected; so full of incestuous relationships; so influenced by everything we have ever read and by the myriad molecules of ancestral and collective matter bombarding us relentlessly. So what makes any author seem/appear original? Does it just come down to the way we string the 26 letters of the alphabet together?
But I was speaking of the impossibility to make something concrete: actual, tangible, solid. The poem in its form on the page is a concrete thing. Its intangible quality comes through the limitless interpretations a poem elicits as read through the lens of the multifarious individual readers.
And to answer your question about ordering the poems in Belle Laide: sequencing was very difficult for me. Though I believe as we mature as writers, the more detached from our writing we become. That detachment allows us to cut loose the poems that are not up to snuff. At first the poems are all our precious beauties that we want to cling to, but we must fearlessly reject and send home the contestants that are not going to do well in all three categories: bathing suit, talent and evening gown. That detachment allows us to be better revisionists of our poems. It took me many, many tries to get Belle Laide in the shape that Sarabande Books received it.
J. Dee Cochran: This book is a crowded house of arresting personalities. Belle Laide offers cameos from Marvin Gaye, Freud, Carl Jung, St. Augustine, Nick Drake, Kahil Gibran’s Jesus, Don Quixote, Billie Holiday, St. Teresa, to name a few. The narrator also refers to lovers, a brother and son.
“No ideas but in things,” the now famous quote by William Carlos Williams, functions as a mantra for many contemporary poets. Could an alternative dictum, “No ideas but in people,” better suit the purposes of your poetry? In other words, would you be interested in writing poetry wherein no people appear? Does the idea of a person generate more meaning/analogy for you?
Joanne Dominique Dwyer: Yes, the book is crowded at times with people. I suppose they are some of the invited and uninvited rave dancers sharing my dance card or co-refugees sharing temporary tent space with me near the river. They make me excited to be part of the human race, and offer me a balm against the rash-inducing heat of the harsher aspects of our world. And those people in my poems make my imaginary life richer; make me feel like I do have a tribe I belong to. I am fascinated by people and their lives, especially the unusual life lived, either by choice or by circumstance, which brings them, and therefore all of us, into contact with the undercurrents of consciousness. Too much of our human existence is based on making money and getting errands done. It’s such a waste of the gift of life, not to celebrate and bring magic and mystery into the everyday. And it is through the imagined and literal lives of others that we learn empathic thought, and it is also how we come to know there are very little differences between any of us, despite all the othering we humans do, at the core, we are so similar.
So I don’t think I would be interested in writing poems without people in them. Though, even if a poem is devoid of human beings, the writer is always present in the poem.
Belle Laide)" width="200" height="309" class="alignright size-full wp-image-12017" title="Interview: Poet Joanne Dominique Dwyer (Belle Laide)">/em>)">J. Dee Cochran: What inspires you to write?
Joanne Dominique Dwyer: Everything inspires me to write and language itself is a huge inspiration. For example, scanning your interview questions, I found these words: unfettered, indefinite, volatile and ruptured. I find them incredibly beautiful and provocative. They make me want to stop answering your questions and instead write a poem using those words.
I value storytelling more than I value prosody and craft, and narrative plays an important linking role in my associative poems, but it is rare that a story is the impetus for a poem. The story comes later; it unfolds and appears (and disappears), but the starting point is almost always a line, an image or a single word. I rarely have a set thematic, structural or even emotional idea of what I want to the poem to be at the start.
J. Dee Cochran: Do you have a motto?
Joanne Dominique Dwyer: I am not much of a motto person. Mottos are for politicians and those sure of themselves. I am rarely sure of myself. I am prone to mild-to-mid doses of the blues, and rather than walk under a ladder and brush up against it, causing a full bucket of Prussian Blue semi gloss paint to cascade down like a mudslide swathing the lizard that lives on the top of my head, and sauntering down the Neruda hills of my breasts and the wolf-sanctuary of my back, ribbed like a forest with a lost Gretel fleeing the witch, I am trying to alchemize depression with gratitude. Nobody is sick and nobody is dying – is something I am saying to myself lately and maybe that is a motto? I have been using it to counter any movement towards whining and self-pity. I have so much to be thankful for. And everywhere you look, if you really look, is rapturous splendor.
But if there were to appear a great god or goddess from the parting clouds, or a genie from an empty bottle of root beer to say to me, “You may have one and only one motto to use to empower you and get through the gophers eating the lettuce,” I would choose Do No Harm. It seems to me that I should repeat that like a mantra, especially when things get rough…
J. Dee Cochran: Several of the poems in Belle Laide are prefaced with quotes from notable writers or thinkers. The use of these epigraphs gives one the sense of how all thoughts/things are somehow connected, particularly in the cosmos of the written word. Before you entered a writing program, the structured community of writers and readers, how did your poetry writing develop? What first drew you to poetry?
Joanne Dominique Dwyer: What drew me first to poetry were emotions and song lyrics and books and renegade energy needing a path. I needed a vehicle to take my feelings for a ride in. I had the very common and essential human impulse to create and to turn thoughts and feelings and intuitions into art. That impulse is not always fostered and is often repressed. Also, most of us are devoid of a spiritual and ritualistic life that our ancestors had. For me, being in the wild both literally and metaphorically, through imagination, is a way of having ritual. It is a way of connecting spiritually to what it means to be a human being. Without some form of creativity and connection to our inner lives, we become zoo inhabitants in suits and gowns, having no awareness of the bars, but being terribly unhappy.
So I began writing in the manner of necessity for expression.
J. Dee Cochran: “…not all of us have been gifted with the erotica of answers.” That’s one of the amazing lines found in “Alchemy.” If privy to the world of answers, what question(s) would you ask? What keeps you in the space of unfettered wonder?
Joanne Dominique Dwyer: What more could one want than to be in a state of unfettered wonder! It echoes of ecstasy. I much prefer and admire the question-asking person over the know-it-all.
J. Dee Cochran: What is the best advice you have received in reference to writing?
Joanne Dominique Dwyer: I think the best advice I received was from my first writing teacher, Miriam Sagan, who said make peace with rejection.
J. Dee Cochran: Love and mercy are two prominent themes within the book. Interestingly, multiple poems start with love in the rhetorical mode, “If love is…” Mercy, on the other hand, is strongly declarative; there seems to be no “if” about it. I’m thinking of the lines, “Mercy is the combing of tangled hair/the sewing up of a split lip/ the staying of the execution.” Historically, poetry has treated love as a resident emotion, lasting forever, and mercy as a periodic installment of kindness. To consider the possibility of the reverse feels fresh.
In Belle Laide, love is indefinite, volatile, ruptured and radiant. Do you see your poems as love poems? Are you resistant to literature that suggests the narrator can easily define what love is?
Joanne Dominique Dwyer: You wrote “In Belle Laide, love is indefinite, volatile, ruptured and radiant.” That is so beautiful and I am honored by your take on the book and for your thoughtful, penetrating questions. Based on the “love poems” in the book, I think you nailed it – a very succinct (and succulent) way to describe how love is depicted in Belle Laide. This question about love versus mercy is the hardest for me. But, yes, absolutely, I see the poems as love poems – they were inspired by a relationship with a singular lover. And they contain all the infinite aspects of human love – meaning both the highs and the lows. Like the high of glue sniffing and the subsequent aftermath of being run over by a runaway shopping cart, because you are lying in the budding light of dawn in a PetSmart shopping lot after a night of sexy debauchery with an intoxicative inhalant. I do believe love is supreme, but maybe mercy is the superlative of supreme. Maybe it is harder to be merciful than it is to love. Maybe we love because it gratifies us, but the true test is can one be merciful – can one forgive, can one let go, can one give without receiving in return, can one let love be honored and respected and treated as of larger value than our individual egos, can one be kind, can one give up their seat on the bus of life for another, can one extricate oneself from consumerism and really share our wealth – have a little less so others can have a little more – can we just be a little more merciful all around?
I am the jaunty part of severed Siamese twins.
How motherly, the nun holding my everything
in her arms. How cruel, the one-way bus of music
spilling into my good ear & leaving its mute cloud
to pour out my bad one. They awarded me
the ear-trumpet, so I could hear the how’s & why’s
of your kind little sighs. Do I miss my half,
my copy, who twinned me & twined
down my spine? Yay & nay. Sometimes.
Yet, I don’t know one from one, the sign of sign.
Remind me, my face stares at dirt. Another
is pickled way inside the brine of night.
Hidden beneath me might simply be my double,
strung to a fig tree. But if you look closely,
just my tire swing, a dead yo-yo catching rain.
tablets click into sickly amber plastic like the urine they render so urgent in reverse. click (drop), click (drop), streams of static swishing sound heard on the off-air channels of anything analog. stay tuned. this pill is the hardest to swallow but easy to take. purging.
this one’s about purging. most medicinal, each coated dose of the past present and forever clears the Master Boot Record of dim plural protoplasms. what operating system are you running? hardware software hardware wetware. i wonder if chelsea1 was aware of the double entendre of ‘motherboard’. these petulant passétech metaphors are comforting. optimize. yes, just optimizing: efficiency, efficacy. the same way makeup optimizes your face and murmured subliminal suppositions optimize the way you respond nakedly to oblique sensation under weeping willows swaying under cinder blocks tethered to their branches with cable ties. you want to ease their concrete encumbrance, because then the branches won’t brush your increasingly sensitive skin and remind you of how poorly documented and advertised your software is, but you haven’t always had the strength to emit sledgehammers.
between the pills to make my body change and then stay the same and the nootropics to subtly sharpen what misogynist Cartesian duality would have as its diametric opposite and the also liver-straining ibuprofen much less needed now lies an oblong corpuscular truth. i’m a chemical girl in the popular parlance sense of the term: natural: all chemicals are natural, but say the word ‘chemical’ and instantly the average listener is furrowed and face to face with Frankensteinian form: hostile, manmade and decidedly sinthetic, artificially constructed in sterile laboratories and coming to intrude on the placid earthy conceptual lives and public bathrooms of nonexistent middle America. chemical language: (cis, trans), chemical customizations: (contra, replacement), chemical stigma: (contagious, symptomatic, deformation).
the omnipresence and importance of water is instantly recognizable, water pressure pumped through kidneys at an increased rate and eventually out the external elongated urethra cylindrically around which are my chemical connotations biased to bleary distortion. but phrase it ‘dihydrogen monoxide’ and vast furrowed majorities will vote to ban it. sole familiarity with monoxide is gaseous is poison: without that extra oxygen atom exhalation becomes suffocation, a sigh of relief becomes a desperate gasp for survival. and so otherwise inescapable desperation is framed as the hand that draws these pills daily to my muliebral mouth.
thesis and antithesis. this one’s about choices. they like to imagine squinting metonymies: this beige spearmint-flavored prescription as everything, that subtraction and suppression, blocking and covering and hiding, spinning a stifling pupa to initiate rebirth are the harrowed hallmarks of a conceptually generative process. femaleness: void. alternate: downgrade, that distended assumption pushing on the malignant custom we call transmisogyny2, propelling it forward and threatening to burst bombastic like a rubber-stamped chewing gum bubble in the mouth of someone trying far too hard to compensate for shoddy canceled cuteness:
***Why run an inferior version?***
always both implicit in the question and the answer. compatibility.
tech metaphors are especially comforting when they encase the bitter assumptions of others in fast-dissolvable gel capsules.
(it’s telling that the synonyms for ‘pubescent’ are temporally specific: teenage, juvenile. dictionaries don’t account for my body at all. thesauruses do with sordid substitutes selectively parsed from the banners of pornographic websites and the incidental lexicons of men so straight that their main exhilaration is a penchant for faux-Freudian novelty. don’t talk to me about pure invention and gorges unexplored and maps out of date by years when your cartography is contingent upon rose-wet caves and small hands and your friend coined the future name for the pornography flickering on the screens of your precious city in the subtitle of her dissertation.3)
this one’s about myth-making: reclaiming placement on the semiotic square4: i tire of traversing categorical axes involuntarily, pinballed into actants in the coveted plexiglas machine centered by the binary opposition man:::::::::::woman. my status is static still to me and static scrambled to willful warping, the antonym of dynamic and the static of TVs, radios, messages uncommunicated over morphing media. this one validates the antisubject—antiandrogenic, blocker, a chemical kernel of ~not. these milligrams confer less visible least tangled tangibility—no (re)growth of the hair or tissue variety, only the shrinkage of atrophy as technical equipment is repurposed into something equally possible from inception but spectacularly unanticipated. hacking. body hacking. personalizing what i did with so many constituent networks in high school.
technical metaphors are comforting. insinuation is a cozy bulls-eye. parts can be easily outlined and uneasily accessed through so. many. colorful. wires.
ultimately, though, it’s about defiance. yielding to X-Acto precision, proscribed, yet prescribed, trading prefab tears for anesthesia would render this one outmoded. human bodies are the only machines in which a structural reconfiguration in hardware directly improves specific program performance. and this is where the technical screen breaks down, the signifier rests stubbornly beautiful in my unblemished palm, and organic orchids grow from the over-tinkered shell of the eviscerated desktop chassis.
1. Chelsea Manning, a transgender woman and former US Army intelligence analyst recently sentenced to prison for mass-leaking confidential documents to Wikileaks. In her online chats with Adrian Lamo (the full transcripts of which were published online by Wired Magazine), she said “the CPU is not made for this motherboard” in a conversation about her gender and dysphoria.
2. Transmisogyny is a term coined and popularized by transfeminist activist-writer Julia Serano in her manifesto Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. It refers to the especially potent type of discrimination and oppression faced by trans women and gender-variant people who were coercively assigned male at birth, at the intersection of transphobia and traditional misogyny.
3. From Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty One Love Poems”. Adrienne Rich was a known associate and supporter of Janice Raymond, who wrote originally as a dissertation the infamous transmisogynist invective The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male.
4. Greimas’ semiotic square, a fundamental representation of the elementary structure of meaning and myths.
When I walked into the brewpub for our first date, she greeted me by throwing her arms around my neck, kissing me on the lips, and nuzzling her face against my beard. I said, when she finished, “It’s nice to meet you.”
It was our first face-to-face meeting, after a month of trading messages on a dating site. She’d seemed normal enough online—more than normal, desirable. How could you not want to date a girl who includes Tobias Wolff in the “Celebrity Crushes” section of her profile? But, I thought, I guess you can never tell. I followed her, warily, into the dining room, where she’d already found us a table.
“I brought you a present,” she said when we sat down, and she withdrew from her purse a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five, which she had recommended to me several times in our messaging back and forth. It was the perfect icebreaker, and I wished I’d thought to do something like it myself. I’d been worried that, having said so much in our messages, we would have nothing to talk about in person, but then our beers arrived at the table and we were slipping easily into a passionate conversation about books.
Everything was going great until, after the waitress brought the checks, the girl looked at me from across the table and said, “I have a confession to make.”
“I’m not exactly who you think I am. I mean, well, I guess the best way to put it is: I’m your girlfriend from eight months in the future.”
“I’m from the future. There was this time fluke that sent me back to the beginning of our relationship. Where I come from, we had a really good thing going. I mean, we were really in love.”
“In love. I know this must put you in a terribly awkward spot, but I couldn’t bear to keep it from you. It’s just so…weird.”
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You’re saying you travelled back from the future to date me? Like the plot in Terminator?”
“I’ve never seen Terminator.”
“Well that’s a deal breaker,” I said.
She slugged me in the arm. “You haven’t seen it either.”
It was true, I hadn’t.
“It was a time fluke. It won’t happen again. I’ve been reading up on them. They’re super rare. Has to do with solar flares and quantum entanglement.”
“Do they have flying cars in the future?”
“Now you’re just being stupid.”
We signed our checks.
“Okay, so what now?” I asked.
“Now you suggest we go get some ice cream.”
I was kind of craving ice cream, now that she mentioned it, but that must have been the power of suggestion. Sure, she seemed a little crazy, but there was something weirdly charming about her, too, something that made me want to see this date through to the end. I said, “Let’s get some ice cream.”
The next day I called her to set up a second date. The first date had just gone so well—we’d walked and talked for hours, and then when it was time to leave she’d asked, so nervously, “Do I get to see you again?” How could I say no? I told myself the time-travel thing must have been a joke I hadn’t gotten.
We met up, as we had before, in the town that was halfway between our two towns, this time at a Thai restaurant. I’d never had Thai food before, so she talked me through the menu dish by dish. “But get the drunken noodles,” she said. “That’s what you got the last time we were here. You love drunken noodles.”
And it turned out I did love them, albeit reluctantly. This time-travel thing was starting to make me feel hemmed in. I mean, I’ve never really believed that there’s some cosmic, meant-to-be, predestined other half out there, not for me or for anybody else. Love is a choice, a commitment two people make to each other, and with this girl I was beginning to feel like that decision had already been made for me. What had Alternate Future Me been thinking?
But I already knew what he had been thinking, because I was thinking the same thing: This girl was a catch. She was smarter than I was and almost as funny, beautiful to look at and beautiful on the inside, too, as cheesy as that sounds. I mean she had a fierce, passionate sincerity about the things that matter. Also she could play mini golf like a boss. When we got to the course, I made a bet with her, thinking I could impress her. “Winner buys ice cream,” I said.
“Okay, but I’m going to win. I’m from the future and I know these things.”
“You’re just trying to intimidate me,” I said.
But she wasn’t. She annihilated me. Five hole-in-ones and she landed her final putt right in the mouth of the hydraulic clam on the last hole, a shot that set off a buzzer and won her a free game.
“Not fair. You’re from the future,” I said as we headed to the ice cream counter. “Let me pay.”
“Nope. Your money’s no good here,” she said, brushing away the hand with which I held my wallet.
When we hugged good night, she got emotional. She said, “You once told me, on our six-month anniversary, that you finally understood why Baucus and Philemon asked to be turned into trees, that you were glad we were growing into each other.” She squeezed me. “I’m glad we’re still growing into each other.”
“I said that?” Wisps of her hair were clinging to my beard and tickling my face. I couldn’t figure out how to extricate myself.
“You did.” Her voice was getting quivery.
“Well if I said it, then I guess I must have meant it.”
“You did,” she sniffled, giving me one last squeeze, “and I’m sure that you will.”
The next night I called her up and said, “I was thinking, there’s a carnival in town. For our third date maybe we could go.”
She clicked her tongue. “No, that’s where we went for our last third date. You threw up on me on The Zipper. It was kind of a pivotal moment in the history of us, but it’s not one I’d like to relive.”
We went to the movies instead—or tried to, anyway, but instead got wonderfully lost on some back country roads and ended up lying on a blanket and just staring up at the stars. She told me about her nieces and nephews in Oregon, her “siblets,” she called them. She told me about how much they loved her and how, in the future, they loved me, too. “It’s so weird,” she said. “These kids, they just love me for no reason. Just because their mom is my sister.”
After that we lay in silence for a while, just holding hands and looking up, and we saw a shooting star. It was the first shooting star she’d ever seen.
When it was time to go home, she hooked my iPod up to the tape deck in my Explorer and played my favorite songs, now and then sliding in a favorite of her own that she knew I would like, and we cranked the volume and sang at the top of our lungs. I drove the back roads at breakneck speeds, the Explorer swaying as I took the turns, and she stuck both her hands through the sunroof. The fire flies were hovering over the fields, and it occurred to me as we sang that it was such a cliché to be in love in this way. It occurred to me that we both knew this and that neither of us cared. The wind was in our hair.
When we returned to the brewpub parking lot where we’d left her car, I killed the engine and we got out and hugged goodbye.
I said, “I think I could learn to love you.”
She said, “I think so, too.”
ARTIST STATEMENT by Rola Khayyat
My interest in the intersection between art and war developed out of a personal experience, which continued to shape and inform my academic and artistic sensibility. Growing up in the context of the Lebanese civil war, it naturally took some time before I could patch together aspects of my childish sensorium to compose a “memory” of war that I could identify and talk about. Driven by a desire to grasp what I came to understand to be the defining condition of my life-world, I developed a picture of war in the child’s imaginative laboratory. After the civil war ended in 1990 and my childhood imperceptibly receded into more distant territory, this “memory” of war that I had quilted from the fabric of experiences and stories began to take on a texture of its own, embodying and splicing with multiple perspectives and narratives at the same time that it quietly fell out of touch.
Beirut, a city that has been the site of perpetual war(s), is replete with a host of divisions – mental demarcations, ideas of religious and sectarian differences have long shaped our everyday urban practices in the city – from private spaces to public spaces. Since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, and the ensuing sectarian strife that followed, the infamous ‘Green line’ which once divided (Christian) East Beirut from the largely (Muslim) West has proliferated into many smaller ‘green lines’ in the psyche of the Lebanese peoples. In a situation where the arena of private life is entirely mediated by confessional belonging, these ephemeral mental borderlines continue to shape everyday life in the post-war city. Lebanese citizens are invariably bound up with this intangible oscillation between presence and absence – the dialectic of remembrance and forgetting.
My work examines a number of material and immaterial borderlines that have come to define the contemporary geography of the city – in this particular case, Beirut and its peripheries – those that have been constructed along sectarian and religious lines, and others that remain subtle, always in flux. My inquiry into the dialectics of war and memory approaches the concept of religion and sect as an urban practice. I examine how these conceptions of religious and sectarian differences shape the urban spatial practice and experience in the city, creating a separate imaginary—mental maps with demarcations—within the fabric of a city. Through such an approach I am able to explore new dimensions on representation of war, time, memory and identity – a portrait of a city in constant flux, abandonment, reinvention and change.
Imagine there’s no heaven, and hell
is explained to us by the Quran
as the thing muddying our faces.
How would a hardened ego become sensitive
to the living breeze of divine grace?
It would avoid imagining the ethical incongruity
of an eternal heaven for the elect.
And it definitely wouldn’t picture those elected
dropping little wreaths onto the earth from paradise.
When Louis Desau asks How do I make this better?
tell him: Dress like fucking Demeter, and
make it clear that it’s Demeter when she searches
for Persephone and lets everything die.
Yesterday I was having lunch with Maggie
and the waitress arrived as I said
It’s complicated. France itself was great, and
I still love the culture
and want to master the language
even though I keep thinking of France
as where I was at when my father had his stroke.
The waitress took our orders before saying
I can totally relate. For me
heaven and hell are both the mid-90s.
Lost in Space)" src="http://www.identitytheory.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Ben.Tanzer.EmptyBottle-500x331.jpg" width="500" height="331" title="Author Q&A;: Ben Tanzer (Lost in Space)">/em>)">
Ben Tanzer is the author of the books My Father’s House, You Can Make Him Like You, So Different Now, Orphans, and Lost in Space, among others. He also oversees day to day operations of This Zine Will Change Your Life, directs Publicity and Content Strategy for Curbside Splendor, and can be found online at This Blog Will Change Your Life, the center of his growing lifestyle empire.
In what way do you think literature has the ability to change the way people live their lives?
I think literature can change the way a reader lives in terms of the ways they seek the change in the world they desire. For example, The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey is endlessly referenced by people who read it and decided their desire to impact environmental change just wasn’t hard core enough. That said, I think literature, and the arts in general, are more likely to trigger increased action around beliefs people already hold, as opposed to changing their actual positions. For example, see the reaction to Fahrenheit 911. I also think, however, what is more common, is that the right book, at the right time, can tap into a reader’s experience of joy, pain, love, or sadness in ways they may not have had access to previously, and those moments do change lives, because after that you can never quite close those doors again.
What was the last book you gave as a present?
Besides one of my own? Because my books make for good presents, really. Well, good presents and great paper weights. But the book I most recently remember giving someone was the quite terrific Fathermucker by Greg Olear, which I gave to my younger brother.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice has been don’t edit first drafts until you’re done. Get the words out, don’t get in the way of them, just write, start to finish, and don’t look back. You can edit later.
Which author do you re-read most frequently?
I may need to unpack this a bit.
I re-read much less frequently than I did when I was younger, but when I did I constantly re-read Jim Carroll, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, J.D. Salinger, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and V.C. Andrews.
Of course, that kind of list is cheating, and I’m sorry about that.
Today, there are so many books I want to read, and much less time to do so, so while I try to read everything I can by authors like Raymond Carver or Andre Dubus, as opposed to say re-reading them, I am more likely to read the writers I know and love personally, who find ways to keep getting published, and force me to be a completist.
So, I’m not re-reading them per se, but I am do try to read everything they write, and those authors include Scott McClanahan, Jason Fisk, Joseph Peterson, Paula Bomer, Mel Bosworth, Barry Graham, Lindsay Hunter, Tom Williams, all small-press wonders, with some of them no longer so small at all.
Which is more cheating. And more sorry on my part.
What is the best sentence you’ve ever read?
I’m not much for sentences, or lines, remembering them anyway. I’m more about the feeling I associate with books, but as cliche as it sounds, and as embarrassed as I am to write it, there may be no greater line than this one from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:
“We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.”
I remember that line was on the cover of the edition I received as a gift, and not unlike the first time I read The Basketball Diaries my brain sort of exploded when I read it.
How do people write like that? So electric and real time? And do they actually live like that? Because if so, sign me up.
Describe your writing routine.
Quite boring. I compulsively focus on writing for at least 30 minutes per day every day, wherever I am, and whatever I am doing, on whatever piece of work is important to me that day, nothing precious, no perfect time of day, or place, just write, and if I don’t get to write, I don’t beat myself up, okay, I do, but only for a little while, and then I get re-focused on making time the next day, and then the one after that.
Do you ever listen to music when you write? If so, what’s on your playlist?
Yes, and while I can go either way with that, I generally do like to listen to music, and I usually prefer music that is punchy, and sparse, and fast, something like the Ramones, the Beastie Boys, X, Be Your Own Pet, and Jay Z. But there are also songs I will find which fit the mood of a particular book when I’m working on it, and that song can influence the title, “Orphans,” for example, by Beck, which became the title of my last novel, and in those cases I will also play that song again and again the entire time I’m working on that book. With my new collection Lost in Space, I fixated on “Lose Yourself” by Eminem, and though it didn’t work its way into the title or text, the rhythm and aspirations seemed right on.
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Best bookstore you’ve ever been to?
Good question, I love bookstores as much as anything in the physical world. Does that sound dramatic? Don’t answer that. Please. But Shakespeare and Company in Paris may be the greatest thing ever created by man, and St. Marks Bookshop in New York City, as well as, Books Inc. in San Francisco, are places I spent a lot of time lingering in when I lived in those cities. I am also partial to The Book Cellar and Quimby’s here in Chicago. All of that said however, my first bookstore remains my favorite: Fat Cat Books in Johnson City, NY, a town next to one where I grew-up. Books. Comic books. National Lampoon. Heavy Metal. Everything you could possibly want or need. At the age of 13 anyway.
If you were standing in line at a bookstore and noticed the person in front of you was holding your latest book, what would you say to them?
“Whoa, seriously? Did you lose a bet? And can I take a picture of you? Because my kids are not going to believe this. Oh, and can we hug? Not in a weird way or anything. It’s just that I think I’m in love with you.”
I think something to that effect is likely.
What literary landmark would you most like to visit?
I get very excited about bars where writers hung out, which is very cliche as well, so sorry about that too. But before I started writing I was always on the look out for those bars, Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, and the White Horse Tavern in New York City, and I was always hoping to somehow channel, or even steal, some of the writerly energy I assumed still loomed there. I suppose I would like to keep that trend going, and so I will pick the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans where I will be for work, and a reading, later this month.
Do you own an e-reader?
No, so no, no interest. As a writer, I think they’re great if people use them to read books. and my books in particular. As a reader, I want an actual book to hold. That said, when I travel for work and there are like five novels weighing down my backpack, and the dude next to me on the plane pulls out an e-reader, I do question everything I hold dear for a moment.
Is Facebook good for you?
If you are an author and treat it as a marketing platform, yes, anything that gets your work out there is good. For everything else, I think it’s mostly benign if you use it in small doses, and primarily limit yourself to re-connecting with former high school boyfriends or girlfriends for possible illicit assignations. Not that I do that, I’ve just heard it might be a thing among other people.
What about Amazon?
Is that the website where they sell all that stuff? I’ve heard of it, and it’s clearly bad for small business, independent bookstores especially, so, not great, and yet, as an author, moving books is wonderful, much better than one hand clapping for sure, and Amazon definitely encourages that, the moving books part that is, not the silence.
What job have you held that was most helpful for your writing?
I’m not sure any job was particularly helpful, but being a high school athlete, a runner and wrestler, and even a competitive college ultimate frisbee player, stop laughing please, was certainly helpful. To be competitive and on, all of the time, involves discipline and schedule, a lot of super-focused manic intensity, and the need to ignore outside distractions, all of which is huge for writing.
What is one of your vices?
I’m all compulsion and mania. I’ve never learned moderation, which if not an actual vice, is certainly an embarrassment, which itself may be a vice, because I cannot escape it, and barely try to do so.
What is one of your prejudices?
I’m not sure if this is a full-on prejudice, but I am a sucker for attractive people, men or women, it’s terrible, and that’s not to say I act negatively, or with prejudice, towards someone who is not, I sure hope I don’t, but attractiveness, in looks and personality, awesome skin, all of that, and cool, I love cool, can at least temporarily sway me, fairly easily, and in pretty much any direction said person would like me to lean.
Favorite books you’ve read in the past year?
It has been a very good year for books, but some of my favorites include We The Animals by Justin Torres, maybe my favorite, Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children by Dave Newman, The Temple of Air by Patricia Ann McNair, MEATY by Samantha Irby, A Deep & Gorgeous Thirst by Hosho McCreesh, Tomorrowland by Joseph Bates, Wheatyard by Pete Anderson, Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan, The Last Good Halloween by Giano Cromley, and Made to Break by D. Foy.
I’m terrible at this kind of question, the naming just one thing of anything question, but if I must, I would like to say moist because I have no idea why so many people hate it, moist makes me think of sex, brownies, and old houses, which are all good things, right? That said, I don’t love that word, just the idea of it, so instead I will say fuck, for sure, there is no word better than that.
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Chicago native Charles Blackstone, one of Newcity‘s Lit 50 in 2012 and 2013, is the author of the novels Vintage Attraction (Pegasus Books, 2013) and The Week You Weren’t Here (Dzanc Books and Low Fidelity Press, 2005). He is also co-editor of the literary anthology The Art of Friction (University of Texas Press, 2008). His short fiction has appeared in Esquire‘s Napkin Fiction Project, The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Fiction anthology, Lewis University’s Jet Fuel Review, and the University of Maine’s Stolen Island. Blackstone has written essays for Chicago Sun-Times and The Millions. His short plays have been produced by Victory Gardens and Lifeline Theaters. Blackstone is managing editor of Bookslut, an internationally acclaimed book review publication and blog.
His interview setting: A wine bar in Chicago. Think: modern, sleek lines.
His drink: A sparkling rosé from France.
Alison Barker is a writer, educator and critic who currently lives in New Orleans.
Her interview context: her living room in a New Orleans shotgun, surrounded by brand-new Ikea furniture.
Her drink: A white wine, from Stamata, Greece.
Vintage Attraction is a love story and an exploration of wines—Greek wines in particular—alongside an uplifting tale of career rejuvenation. Peter Hapworth, a creative but demoralized English college adjunct meets Izzy, master wine sommelier and local restaurant celebrity, after seeing her on television and firing off a whimsical, late-night email to her—introducing himself as, among other things, a “conceptualist.” Peter has a knack for imagining restaurants based on a few sensory details and a unifying theme—usually scribbled on a cocktail napkin or the back of a takeout box. Between Chicago wine bars and Greek wineries, Peter and Izzy must navigate the first months of love, complete with miscommunications, the occasional hangover, career pitfalls, and a sizeable mortgage in one of Chicago’s transitional neighborhoods.
Alison Barker: First things first: What are we drinking? I’m having a white from Stamata, which I’ve learned is near Athens, way south of where Peter and Izzy spent most of their time, right? I want to say…lots of texture. But I’m no wine expert.
Charles Blackstone: I ended up with a sparkling rosé—from France.
AB: Wow! Is it sunny there in Chicago?
CB: It wasn’t too bad today…there’s the promise of spring. So, this fits the occasion, I think.
AB: So far I am reminded of crusty bread and pineapple, maybe with the skin not totally or tidily cut off it, as I drink this. Like, something a little bit sharp might jab. And that’s like today. Overcast, rain predicted for the end of week’s Mardi Gras parades…happy, but there are dirty puddles to step in.
CB: I do terribly with crusty bread. I’m always injuring my mouth—and then complaining about it. People know to serve me very soft things. And more or less at room temperature.
AB: Now that we have wine in hand, you in Chicago, me in New Orleans, let’s start this way: what is one aspect of Vintage Attraction that you’d like a reviewer or an interview to focus a bit on?
CB: I feel like point of view isn’t discussed much, and I think it’s an important component of this one…And it’s an issue that very much ties to the process of bookhood, one could argue.
AB: Yes! As you know, I was really struck by Peter’s “conceptualism” and how it’s used to develop his character, his relationship with Izzy, and the plot. I found myself wondering where this conceptualizing—and the need for it—comes from in this character’s life. And who he’s talking to.
CB: I kind of knew early on that this character would think in terms of concepts. The entire thing came out of a sort of misguided pickup approach from grad school. I’d go on dates, or just meet girls I wanted to date, and start in with these “concepts.” Actually, one from the book. The Quiet Cafe. That was one I had thought up before I got to Boulder, and so had mentioned on a (number of) date(s). I don’t think it got me very far, in terms of courtship, but it led to an interesting character component, so I guess it wasn’t a complete failure.
I had a good concept the other night. These occur to me, occasionally, in the voice of the character. This one was for a dry cleaners run by Yiddish-speaking, old-world Jews: Laundreck. I thought of another good one recently. And I was like, “Where was this when I was drafting?” But now it’s gone. Probably for the best.
AB: This was one of my favorite elements of the book. Peter’s conceptualizing serves as a creative outlet for him, and it’s also something that Izzy understands and loves about him. It really propels the narrative.
In terms of Peter’s use of it, he does bring them out when he’s trying to mesmerize, but also I think when he’s comfortable, no? Or escape.
And his relationship with Izzy is the first time it is recognized as a strength and we get to watch him recognize it as such.
CB: I think definitely a source of escape, a way of finding comfort in the uncomfortable aspects of his life. And also I was interested in what might become of a guy with big literary dreams (as in, goes to grad school) that doesn’t get to do anything “creative” with his life following that period of time. So that’s one place it comes from. But, yeah, Izzy is the first person he goes out with who gets it, or at least wants to, and so I think that’s a moment of connection for them.
AB: The way it provides him and Izzy with constant access to his imagination, and the way he uses it to provide commentary and order to his surroundings reminded me of “curiosity cabinets.” Kunstkammers, Wikipedia tells me they were also called. In Renaissance and Victorian times, I think they were largely oddities arranged in tiny, attractive boxes, but I like the way Peter will decide on a theme and focus food and drink for a hypothetical restaurant and do a little world creation the way that framing any group of objects gives them their own context. Wikipedia also told me that they were sometimes referred to as “memory theaters,” and I felt really moved by that term, and I think it resonates with Peter’s stunted dreams you describe just now, and lack of outlet.
CB: I’ve had a lot of characters in the past that live solely in memory, in the past, and I think Hapworth could definitely have been one of those characters, if he hadn’t been catapulted into the life that moves faster than the speed of reminiscence.
AB: Yes. What else is there, indeed. A friend once commented about his girlfriend: “I don’t know where her inner fantasy life is, and sometimes I think she’s with me to try to learn how to access hers.”
CB: I think that’s how people do—or should—connect, by way of their inner lives. What else is there? Even if it’s not sustainable, it’s still important.
AB: In VA, you take the time to have us fully inhabit a headspace, as you did with The Week You Weren’t Here. How did you decide on both TWYWH and VA narration? Did either undergo a narrative shift during revision?
CB: TWYWH was always that way. When I stumbled on the voice and the narration, that’s how it looked and sounded. That is, mostly. There’s minimal punctuation in the finished book, and there was a lot less than minimal in the early drafts. But then VA, I guess I started that way, but then switched over. One reason is: Barry Hannah. He said—to paraphrase—that you could get away with a difficult voice in the first person, in a way that people wouldn’t be as quick to accept in a third. I had some early readers who were stumbling over what amounted to a very—I don’t know, singular—sort of voice in the third person. There was a danger that people might read that as the narrator, or as me, but really I always just saw it as Hapworth’s consciousness, the same as a first person.
AB: Yes. I think I see. Do you think that the shift to first person was about giving the story to outside readers as “story” instead of performing Peter’s headspace?
CB: I felt like in both points of view it was still very much a story outside of the head.
AB: Which is what, I think to me, makes it move and work as “mainstream” fiction as well or whatever the kids are calling it these days—and maybe what keeps it moving when the alternative as you suggested earlier is wading in reminiscing for him. Yes, I was actually torn about Peter and thinking—I mean, how I conceived of his thinking. I am not sure I would call it neurotic. I see that he comes from a context of neurosis, and his early college memories reflect that he felt a part of his culture.
CB:I sometimes worried that Hapworth didn’t think about things enough. But he still gets read as a neurotic, so I must have succeeded.
I think another thing that gets overlooked–to go back to your much earlier question–is that Peter and Izzy really don’t know each other that well. Or haven’t spent much time together. And yet they are kind of roped into this life together. And I think that state governs a lot of the choices. Stylistic, in the narrative, or even actual choices, in terms of action, on the character level.
AB: Yes. I marked so many places where Peter talked about how he saw something or someone through new eyes, mediated through a new set of circumstances or, in the case of Izzy, first through seeing her on her television program Vintage Attraction, and then, as he actually puts is, “newly contextualized” through marriage. So academic and cerebral. Physical context is super important to him in order to make meaning of a situation based on how much time he spends describing interiors.
CB: That’s an important concept, I think. How you see something when newly contextualized. Or re-contextualized. That makes people uncomfortable.
People who believe in, and have faith in, the master narrative. The omniscient. Like nothing could be subjective. I don’t think it really works like that off the page, so I’m reluctant to present that on the page.
AB: Ah. I see. And you’re commenting on that with Peter because Peter’s master narrative is that he collects data in every new context in similar ways, maybe?
CB: I think so. I just think he’s not going to be this person to say, oh, here’s something unpleasant, and now I’m going to do [whatever it is people do when faced with unpleasantness]. But that’s not me, either. And the same is true of Izzy, I think. Some readers have reacted to the “sudden change” in the plot after Izzy and Peter get married. Is this a spoiler alert? I guess from the prologue you know things get sticky. Anyway, I’ve heard some complaints.
AB: You mean how neither one of them addressed the overwhelming speed with which they committed, and stopped communicating once suspicion took over Peter, and Izzy withdrew emotionally? And then when they went to Greece despite serious doubts about their relationship?
CB: This may be what’s unusual about the story. I think some had an issue with Izzy’s “abrupt” change. I hasten to say it’s abrupt, because, thanks to the limited POV, we have no idea how long she’s had a problem or whatever; we only know what he perceives. But also in Peter’s passive acceptance of it. These aren’t things that strike me as odd. And I’m more intrigued by what readers have a problem with. Perhaps this is the point of fiction. To identify what it is that troubles ourselves and each other. Because it’s a mirror, right? So, if people don’t like how things are going, if the actions don’t conform to preconceived ideas about how characters (people) in fiction (life) should conform, maybe that tells us something about who we really are.
AB: I read it as a reaction to the overwhelming stress of those changes they jumped into. Pulling away because your whole identity has just been submerged in a union. I thought it was good discomfort—and it was tension that was needed—and that was how Peter was going to experience disharmony and disillusionment anyway–because look at how he handled the disillusionment of his job.
CB: That’s what I saw, too! The reaction to the stress of it all. And also here we have stress within a seemingly pleasant, happy event, which is interesting.
All of this. Yes. I wish everyone read like you did. Like you do.
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AB: Well, there you also have the sort of messages we take to heart about courtship—it’s important to be independent, but it’s important to hurry to make things official so you stand powerfully as a unit and extinguish ambiguity. It felt right to me because Peter kind of gloms on to an idea or a person like most of us do. We are supposed to “date” (says someone) for a period of time and Izzy and he both make fun of the idea of jumping into things too soon, but on the other hand that’s what feelings kind of make us do. But then they had to start to really get to know each other. And as with every love, it’s really quite terrifying.
CB: I think I wanted characters that rejected that sort of accepted protocol. How you meet, how long you remain skeptical, when you submit to love, or at least the idea of love. I also like characters that take chances.
AB: I think he also really wants a best friend. Which he finds in her. How do you set your characters up to take chances? With Peter, it was his email that got the ball rolling—and it was his strength, his writing, that enabled him to take that risk?
CB: I think so. That ties into this whole he-has-a-dormant-skill thing. He must have written well, at least decently, at some point. And thanks to teaching and everything, he’s lost sight of it. Except for when he emails. And that best friend thing, definitely. They’re very much people who exist in the world surrounded by people but still very much alone. I think that helps them connect.
AB: Yes. Emails can be used as cabinets of curiosities. And I like that their relationship starts with a risk because his creativity is his way of taking a risk—he creates a persona in his email to her. How hard would it have been for Peter’s ego to leave teaching for a job that has no “credit” in the academy before he met Izzy? She re-contextualizes what his skills are.
CB: He never would have! And she would have never thought about getting away from the restaurant life. These people (like most people) need people to be their catalysts. And yes, I think they both re-contextualize each other’s skills.
He thinks he’s not a writer. She thinks she’s just a TV personality sort. And through each other, they see there’s more.
AB: Speaking of contexts, I feel like the physical space of college teaching accounted for the most vivid scene work in the book—maybe with the scenes Greece a close second—but that could be because I am familiar with the teaching grind, and how over-familiarity with hierarchies that oppress us can whittle away at a creative mind.
CB: This was a major thing I was after exploring with this character. And something the journalists give very short shrift. (To use a Hapworthian phrase.) Maybe they can’t relate. Or won’t admit to being able to relate.
AB: The department party and the classroom scene(s) were very real and very demoralizing and I’ve been there.
CB: Those bacon-wrapped scallops are very real.
AB: Ha! My experience is more with stale bagels and wizened carrot sticks. I like how you made the caricatures of the fellow teachers, who are also trapped but loveable, like T. Stoddard, part of a colorful community who reappear a bit in the wine shop later. It is T. Stoddard who comes by later to check out Peter’s new wine shop, right?
CB: Well, I think the bagels and carrots are what adjuncts subsist on throughout the semesters, but once or twice a year this party–mainly, I think, to impress the grad students—goes on and it’s all here’s how the other half lives for a couple of hours. But it’s an illusion, since there really is no fancy living in academia for anyone. Maybe just for department chairs and vice-provosts. Yeah, T. Stoddard and The Pregnant Lady come to the store.
AB: Yes. I like that that moment helps shift the tone about these fellow instructors–they were part of what sort of tortured Peter in the way that they were his reality before, and like all jobs we hate, once we leave, we see that the people at that place are just people, some of them are trapped like we were, and some have decided to stay. And in a way, aside from the worrisome drinking problem, the T. Stoddards of the world—the former coworkers—could benefit from seeing the Peters of the world leaving.
CB: Hapworth doesn’t really have any friends. An occupational hazard when being a transient in a transitory profession, I suppose. And so, yeah, I like how in spite of himself, in spite of themselves, there are connections. People just hang onto these jobs. Nobody knows why. I made it a semester after grad school—and then one a few semesters later, but that was continuing ed—teaching like this and I knew I’d had enough.
AB: Would you mind telling me about your experience in the adjunct world?
CB: After applying to all the tenure-track jobs everywhere toward the end of grad school, and then getting rejected from all of them, I started to lower my expectations. And I continued to lower them. I came back to Chicago, took a couple of classes. I wasn’t really equipped to teach developmental reading and composition at a community college, and slogged through that for a while. I knew I couldn’t live that way for long. There was a lot of driving involved. The comp class met on Saturdays at 8:30 in the morning, and I wasn’t much of a morning person at the time. Residual grad student life, I suppose.
But I’d actually had published a novel during this time. It was in its first UK publication, so a tiny little thing, but it seemed like it could be helpful. Then a tenure track job at the community college came online, and I was pretty well liked among the faculty, I thought, and so put in an application. I probably wouldn’t have gotten an interview if it weren’t for the book, which I dumbly only told them about after submitting. They were impressed, though. But I didn’t really have any experience, and they were looking to fill certain hiring quotas—one of the faculty on the search committee told me this at one point—so it didn’t matter what skills I had or who liked me. I think after that, I knew I’d have to find something else to do. I was a little more realistic about everything than Hapworth is.
AB: I really appreciated the humor and despondency of adjuncting in the book. And because, as I think you mentioned with his creative emails, Peter is not using his creativity a bunch, it is used in a curdled, snarky way in his over-the-top descriptions of characters he works with. The situation calls for very specific pigeonholes, and everyone just sort of burrows into one nearest them in terms who they “are” in the adjunct terrain.
CB: I think what keeps Hapworth attached to this go-nowhere existence is the fact that it does, at least on a very basic level, involve language, which was something that meant something to him at one point and that has endured. The world doesn’t care about words and ideas, and I think he’s mostly aware of that fact, and yet he still does.
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AB: Teaching can be a way to stay in the unformed stage of creativity—you are always re-framing how “to begin” with language with every new student or class—and I think you can get some vicarious inspiration or hope from that, but also some inaction on your own projects.
CB: It’s addictive, maybe. But less dangerous than zip lining.
AB: Yes. Except for fomenting resentment, which eventually would create a T. Stoddard maybe. Peter really cares about words, and delights himself with his vocabulary. At one point in a sex scene he says he “obviated her bra.” At first I wasn’t sure to whom he spoke. But now I think it’s to himself.
CB: I call it dialect. I remember people sounding this way in the department. I remember sounding this way.
AB: That makes sense. His narration is based on the dialect of other adjuncts?
CB: Yeah. He speaks, and thinks, in academic. And they speak to each other this way.
AB: So in some ways, to keep his joy, he needs to be outside of the machine that works with language—and just be with a partner who lets him follow his joy.
CB: I’m reminded of coming across Joel Chandler Harris as a kid and wanting to correct Uncle Remus.
AB: Ha. Whereas I tried to imitate Uncle Remus. And my playground aide’s facial tic. Another story.
CB: Well, I think it’s probably exaggerated for literary effect. Yet, I think it’s plausible, because on some level the grad students and adjuncts wrote and spoke well officially, but then would, like, drink cheap beer and have pronoun-antecedent disagreement in their off-hours.
AB: I see sort of a cannibalistic quality in your medium being what you teach and what you express yourself with. I recognized all of it.
CB: What about Trainspotting? Nobody reads these books and charges the author with, I don’t know, being a Scottish heroin addict. But I think how that book gets away with it is because of the omniscient voice that comes through in Standard English. I went a more Andy Kaufman approach to this comedy.
AB: Maybe, as you’ve suggested I think earlier, the dialect is uncomfortably close to what many of us wade in every day? The relationship between Peter and Berkal was very realistic and it’s clear he’s that one who has illogical and unending energy to fight for the scraps of adjuncthood. And hasn’t hit a wall yet.
CB: He’s still a grad student. The romance will fade if he ever finishes his dissertation. Though he’s not completely deluded. Deluded enough to still try to ingratiate himself to the department head and tenured professors.
AB: A recent Salon article by Edward McClelland was really resonant for me regarding jobs that require advanced education—and it’s one reason why I delighted in your satire of the adjunct ecosystem. He reports a certain “class consciousness” that prevents unionizing that, along with the state of universities, could be applied to the adjunct’s plight. The academy has its own hierarchy, and being a part of it makes you a part of the intelligentsia, which confers status. Oftentimes adjuncts don’t acknowledge themselves as working class or poverty level because our idea of class is linked to education status a lot.
CB: That’s interesting, about the intellectual reasons to stay in a profession that has no financial rewards. I remember in that semester of community college teaching going to a Halloween party and telling someone I “taught college English.” I liked being able to say that.
AB: I understand it took you four years to write. Did you ever lose faith that you’d finish? I love that I don’t feel anguish or painstaking coming through in the prose like I do other books. It’s a fully inhabited world and a generous escape—and that is amazing to me that you could plunge into it so frequently for so long to get it done. What is your best place to write?
CB: I thought about giving up on it several times. It wasn’t that I couldn’t finish—there always was a draft that had a beginning, middle, and an end—but I just wasn’t happy with the results for a long time. But back to the writing process, without being immersed in a project, the best writing environments are pretty much wasted on me. Though who’s to say what the best environment is.
Faulkner wrote on his security guard third shift. Cheever went down to the boiler room every morning. Home is good for me, since often I get to have a pug on my lap. But having a lap pug can sometimes slow the process, since he’ll claim one hand for himself and then I’m left to type with just one hand.
Some of my favorite scenes from Hapworth I first came up with at a table at Starbucks. A Starbucks that no longer exists, which is disappointing, should that location have been lucky.
There’s this character that I’ve known for a long time, and I’d like to work with her again. She first appeared in a novel manuscript I wrote twenty years ago. I was in high school at the time, but for some reason tried to write the novel’s trio of POV characters as college students. Knowing, even at that idealistic age, that the thing was probably more apprentice exercise than viable manuscript, I put the finished draft away and had no plans to look back.
AB: That takes a lot of strength.
CB: Well, in grad school, I dug it up and revised it and turned it into my thesis. Though it made it past my committee, and I was able to graduate, it still was pretty unpublishable, as I’d spend the next three or four years of revisions discovering. Even when I took the characters out of college and put them in high school (the time when any of the real-life experiences I was drawing from actually took place, including the year the story was set, 1994). The problem was really that the story was too much a product of my earliest influences. The thing read like Less Than Zero meets Reality Bites. Then, about four years ago, I was in between drafts of VA, and I thought I’d pick up the female lead, the strongest character, again. This time I made her in her early thirties and took out the other POV characters (though one and one who vaguely resembles the other make appearances). Still, though, I think I was too close to the voice and aesthetics and perspective of Hapworth and VA. So, I got three-fourths of the way through that draft and set it aside.
AB: I love that you acknowledged a need for breathing room, just as a close relationship needs at times.
CB: What I think I’d like to do now is figure out a way to invoke both drafts, maybe through alternating chapters set in 1994 and 2014, and see if I can figure out what story there is to tell. It’s been hard to really sit down and work with it, since I’ve been chiefly occupied by promoting and everything, but now that that’s starting to wind down (at least until the paperback comes out this fall), I feel like I’m finally ready to begin—at least begin thinking about it.
AB: I look forward to reading the fruits of that labor. Thank you for this conversation about character and the mind of Hapworth.
CB: My pleasure. Let’s talk again soon!
Mont Blanc casts its shadows on the heavens. I never knew that mountains eclipse one another, eager to steal the sun. They all do it; even the smallest, most bullied peak throws its weight on the lowly clouds. Nothing is sovereign; everything in this heavy landscape leans on everything else.
Alpine clouds carry the chill of mountains on their blue backs. They float so low I could shepherd them with the hook of my arm. I could tie a flock to our van and float across the Alps into France.
Each cliffside switchback disorients the clock; it is light, it is dark, it is light again, all in twenty minutes. Day breaks and mends twenty times in five square miles, it seems. There is no dawn here, no gradual rising of the sun from east to west. Daylight comes in a blink as the sun rolls over a crest from east to west. At noon a mountain’s twin vales, like open palms, fill with warmth and the clouds shrug their shadows. Just as quickly the sun rolls into western valleys; a stuck stone, and eastern clouds assume the blue.
Daylight strobes but the mountains are steadfast and predictable in their terrors. On these sublime and chilling spines I need to weigh my importance against small things. To the cosmos in my purse I am a mountain casting shadows. My lip gloss, the post card from Pompeii of a nude statue about to fuck a headless woman carved from a mountain’s shoulder. My purse is their whole world. Their whole safe world. This van is our whole world when I avert my gaze from the window. This notebook. This pen is all that exists. This thought.
My thought is a mandala, a mantra. A round thing turning over and over in my mind. A focus for my eyes and my breath. It’s as close as I come to prayer. All around, steeples rise from peaks as if the mountain were sharpened to a single point of consciousness. Even the chill feels sacred, tastes sacred, and winds its wind around the heart. This is where people climb peaks, stand on their toes, and nudge god. There must be a church for every villager. They must inhabit the sacred space like a second body, a carapace, and feel closer, louder, stronger. Church bells hold conversations with god and mountains shudder.
We veer on a slip of switchback and I clutch my comforts closer; a sprig of rosemary from Provence, mother of pearl spoon, a whole candied nectarine from the Italian Riviera like a translucent sun with syrupy skin. Petrarch’s Canzoniere, splayed as if to balance itself. Petrarch who had trouble ascending Mount Ventoux, who held his “sweet little volume” of St. Augustine’s Confessions ever tighter.
Sweet little comforts.
Like the bird’s nest on the dashboard spiraling ever into itself, and stronger for it. Warm things, like this coffee cup and this journal I just spilled it on as we bumped over a crag of ice. The coffee’s small pool of warmth in my lap. The warmth reminds me of southern Italy, of ripe figs hanging at mouth-level. Of olive oil sprinkled on my hands, arms, and legs, and over my bread; liquid gold squeezed form trees not much taller than I am. Trees I lorded myself over. A dinner table lit on fire wick by wick, to illumine our feasting. I can comprehend a universe of fruit and fire, a life measured in mouthfuls and handfuls. I can weave my soul around it and throw my magnificent shadow over all else.
even though I remember clearly the blossoms
on the crooked apple tree each spring, and how I
finally was tall enough my eighth year to reach the low
branch and swing myself up into the crook next to the trunk,
the rough bark chilly, rough, and damp against my backbone, white
petals edged with pink that worked their way into the spine
of my new book, Little House on the Prairie, how the leaves couldn’t
hide me from your gaze out the kitchen window, and that meant
I would be called down and into the house before the book
All of this a lie, because you can’t remember the apple tree,
so it was never there, and I was never there, and
and I am just like my father, a liar who remembers things
that never happened, never were, in those spans of years
that were as unremarkable to you as the pressed apple blossoms
that tumbled from the pages of that yellowed, musty book
when I pulled it off the shelf.
We cannot escape our origins, however hard we try, those origins which contain the key—could we but find it—to all that we later become.
“There will be people who’ll cross the street to avoid you because you’re black,” my mother would tell me when I was younger, in every conversation or argument about race we ever had.
“Don’t be a nigger,” my older sister once told me, as she sat with a friend doing high school Sociology homework. If she was in high school then I must have been five at the youngest, nine at the oldest—I think I had asked her whether or not I should be wearing a du-rag.
“Nigger,” writes H.G. Bissinger in Friday Night Lights, a book about a high school football team in a small Texas town. “The word poured out in Odessa as easily as the torrents of rain that ran down the streets after an occasional storm, as common a part of the vernacular as ‘ol’ boy’ or ‘bless his ‘ittle’ biddy heart’ or ‘awl bidness’ or ‘I sure did enjoy visitin’ with you’ or ‘God dang.’”
Bissinger, having just left an editorial position at the Philadelphia Inquirer, decided he would follow alongside Permian High School’s Panthers throughout their 1988 season. We learn that the team goes undefeated, then loses the state championship. Bissinger gives the book the subtitle “A Town, A Team, and A Dream.”
On “nigger,” he later writes: “People who used the word didn’t seem troubled by it. They didn’t whisper it, or look chagrined after they said it. In their minds it didn’t imply anything, didn’t indicate they were racist, didn’t necessarily mean that they disliked blacks at all. Instead, as several in Odessa explained it, there were actually two races of blacks. There were the hardworking ones who were easy to get along with and didn’t try to cut corners and melded in quite nicely. They deserved the title black. They deserved the respect of fellow whites.
“And then there were the loud ones, the lazy ones, the ones who stole or lived off welfare or spent their whole lives trying to get by without a lick of work, who every time they were challenged to do something claimed that they were the helpless victims of white racism. They didn’t deserve to be called black, because they weren’t.”
Though Bissinger’s book takes place in Texas, 1988, I never saw much of a difference growing up in the eighties and nineties between Odessa and my hometown of Normal, Illinois. The word “nigger” wasn’t a part of the vernacular in Normal, but I could feel the difference between “the hardworking ones” and “the lazy ones,” “the quiet ones” and “the loud ones,” and the way that everyone saw them. I knew my sister and my parents didn’t want me to be one of the loud ones. And they surely didn’t want me to be lazy.
“One of the difficulties about being a Negro writer,” writes James Baldwin, “is that the Negro problem is written about so widely. The bookshelves groan under the weight of information, and everyone therefore considers himself informed.”
But Baldwin, much like my parents, couldn’t foresee the change in eras. I’ll never know what it’s like to fear bombings at my church or to be the parent of an Emmett Till. I’ll never have the exact same fears my parents projected because I am a baby of a post-whatever generation. And while Baldwin acquainted himself with the Negro “problem,” he never saw it evolve into an Oreo phenomenon.
When my parents met, in 1969, Blacks had only been allowed to live in Illinois State University’s dorms for twenty years.
I’ve asked my mother what it was like to be black, in Normal, in 1969. “Well,” she said, “when you went to the store they followed you around all the time thinking you were gonna steal something. And the police would follow you around. It was hard to get a job, but it was harder for men to get a job than it was women. And they wouldn’t want to rent an apartment to a man but they’d rent one to a woman. But, I mean, overall it wasn’t that bad.”
I interpret “it wasn’t that bad” as meaning it wasn’t Mississippi. Wasn’t Alabama. It wasn’t Texas or even Louisiana, where my grandparents had come from. My mother herself wasn’t born and raised in the South—she was born in Waukegan, Illinois, to a family of stragglers from the Great Migration. She moved to Normal to study Physical Education at Illinois State University. There she met my father. Started a family. Raised the four of us in a town of 129,000 people. My father was studying Political Science and Communications, and when my oldest sister was born my parents decided not to finish college.
“Most black people at ISU,” my mother says, “their major was Communications. I think because. . . . Well, for the black men, if you were an athlete you took Communications—I don’t know if it was because it was easy or not. Almost all of them had Communications majors.”
“You had to carry a B-average to be a Communications major,” my father contends. “I thought most of them had Sociology majors. It was the most popular major for black people. Unwed mothers and stuff. I mean, that’s the culture we came from. That’s why most of them were Sociology majors.”
“The culture we came from” being one of unwed mothers does stir a curiosity in me, makes me wonder about my grandparents’ generation and the children they bore without present fathers. This is supposed to make sense to me, I think. That black fathers are not present. That they flee.
My mother eventually switched her major from P.E. to English. She said it was easier, that it required fewer credits to graduate. But after she and my father had my sister it didn’t matter anymore, because she just needed a job.
My parents met while pursuing their education, in a program for Blacks and Hispanics called the High Potential Students Program. My mother worked for the program, kept records and was a typist, and my father was a student.
They met at the same university on whose campus I spent my time growing up, riding my bike and rollerblading through the Quad as I got to know my town on my own throughout junior high and high school. Looking back, I understand it must have been strange for college students to see children on campus while walking from class to class, but this place was a part of my town, I thought, and they were only visitors. I had as much a right to this campus as they did, reinforced by my love for the environment. I’d fallen for the campus architecture—the music building built like a miniature castle, the enormous five or so story library—and for the professors with their ties and briefcases (so different from my parents wearing blouses and khakis and sweaters to work), and I know that a part of my development began right there, within an idyllic portrait of my childhood filled with patches of grass and students much older than myself.
This environment more than any other probably formed a worldview for me. Different from my father’s Chicago streets and my mother’s suburban parks, the college campus was a bubble, a place engineered for superficial equality. I would learn that the campus wasn’t like my junior high school, where too-cheap jeans meant pauperized parentage or where a faction of Hip-Hop fans, mostly black, sat at one lunch table while another table of students, myself included, talked about rock and Top 40 songs. I first observed a real division in my life in junior high, where two types of black children split themselves up in the lunchroom and I was clearly the type to sit with my white friends. There was no rap music for me, no after-school basketball. I was accused of being an Oreo.
The education of a Black American on how to be a Black American begins in the home, then spreads itself through experience and literature and misfortune and luck. Whether it was my parents’ intention or not, my home education left me without a sense of Black Pride and instead instilled only fear. Until my twenties I grew up thinking I didn’t want to be black—I just wanted to be a person, someone color-neutral. As a boy I understood that people were different but couldn’t understand why anyone made a big deal of it: I had found it strange, still find it strange the way race can be created simply by recognizing it.
My reluctance comes, I think, from the fact that I am black and that I’ll always be perceived as black. I can’t fight this with anyone, nor would I want to—the visible recognition of myself as a minority is already ever-present, and it would be a futile fight. But I suppose it’s also true that I’m an Oreo, harnessing a kind of white sentimentality within my black body; I used to wonder when I was younger if this was how I made friends—because I didn’t fit a stereotype I wondered if the other children fought or shed their own reluctance in befriending me. The children I grew up with were mostly white, a few of them some kind of Asian or Hispanic, and only the children of my parents’ friends black. And what of my friends’ parents, I wondered—how many of them cared that their daughter or son had a black friend? Why would people cross the street to avoid an identity that wasn’t my choice? Would someone sitting next to me on a bus move their seat because I’m black? As a child, was I supposed to cry when someone called me nigger (or sometimes Micah McNigger)? And if I didn’t cry, if I wasn’t upset, would that make me a bad black person? What does it mean to be a good black person? Is it the same as being a good Russian or a good American, loving vodka or baseball signs of loyalty? “The American image of the Negro lives also in the Negro’s heart; and when he has surrendered to this image life has no other possible reality” (Baldwin).
These questions and more were all I could think about as a child and as a teen, struggling to find something to define in myself in a town where the only clear definitions of race looked like a picture of 1988′s Odessa, where there were two very clear distinctions of Black people. Had I grown up somewhere other than Normal, or had I grown up poor, perhaps I would have come to understand in a much different manner the ways race and class work. But these things are sometimes subtle to a child, and though I knew how my town viewed and talked about class I was only just figuring out where to begin with race.
My education in the classroom has been a different story. The most seminal racial texts I can remember encountering are Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school, and both in college and in graduate school James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son.
Baldwin called America a “country devoted to the death of the paradox.” Here I am, his paradox, my own American Psychology combining the politics, aspirations, and convictions of those whites around me as a child with this Black paranoia—a potential riff on Du Bois’s “two warring ideals in one dark body.” My ideals have been at war. Adulthood has had me concede, Tipping the King in my childhood and teenage ambition to be raceless.
I react, mostly, to Baldwin’s essays “Many Thousands Gone” and “The Harlem Ghetto.” His critical breakdown of the Negro in America in contrast to Richard Wright’s Native Son (in “Many Thousands Gone”) and to the New York Jew (in “The Harlem Ghetto”) helps explain some of the plights of those of us in marginalia; but overall, the pieces are temporal failures.
“Many Thousands Gone” itself, on the surface, is not a failure, as it was written with all the knowledge one can have of one’s own era; however the writing (the our and us and we presumably belonging to the white American) should have essayed to predict, from Baldwin’s Afro-American-European vantage the possible trajectories of the Black American. “He is a social and not a personal or human problem,” Baldwin writes, and our goal with social problems should be to anticipate their solutions throughout the hours.
If the Black American were a social problem, are people like me the solution? Because we—the blacks who’ve railed against stereotype—exist, I wonder if we’re looking at the end of Baldwin’s thesis:
“. . . the Negro in America can only acquiesce in the obliteration of his own personality, the distortion and debasement of his own experience, surrendering those forces which reduce the person to anonymity and which make themselves manifest all over the darkening world.”
We are not solely talking here about the Educated Black, the presumed outlier of our history containing the faces of those like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., but rather those more like Will Smith or Bill Cosby, trailblazers for what Baldwin seemed not to foresee: a new black whiteness.
In Grantland‘s 2011 article “The Rise of the NBA Nerd,” Wesley Morris writes that “21st-century blackness has lost its rigid center, and irony permeates the cultural membrane.” Families on television like the Bankses in the nineties’ The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the Huxtables in the earlier The Cosby Show gave the country a new kind of Black American: educated, well-off, and far distanced from any inkling of culture-perceived niggerness, from the qualities of the Black American we’re mostly wary of confronting. These characters were almost everything I wanted to become when I was younger, their erasure from conventional blackness a beacon for those of us not fitting in with convention in the first place.
“The Negro in America can only acquiesce in the obliteration of his own personality.”
There is nothing in this world that I’m more afraid of being than a man who is testicular, aggressive, and black. And in fact, all of my performances are the result of either my Black or my masculinity-related paranoia, and my acquiescence isn’t so much a way of “passing” in America but rather in avoiding a fear of my potential self. “Black people are unnerving,” writes video essayist John Bresland, “because they’re paranoid. They see racism everywhere, even where it isn’t.” I’d like to raise my hand here, to own up to this paranoia, to worrying out of some infantile fear about where racism actually exists, even though I believe racism is sometimes much less about the process of othering than it is a compulsion to love those like ourselves—isn’t hatred, after all, usually in defense of something we love? And “although the two can be confused,” writes Bresland’s wife, the essayist Eula Biss, “our urge to love our own, or those we have come to understand as our own, is, it seems, much more powerful than our urge to segregate ourselves.”
But I haven’t even loved “my own.” Outside of my family I’ve managed to remain close to no other black people, and I have no excuse aside from my hometown being Normal, IL. Which is not to say that this is a real excuse: it’s more of a reason spurned by my discomfit towards the subtleties of race in my hometown.
I can’t confess to obliterating anything black about myself, either, because I never saw it as being there in the first place. Race wasn’t an issue in daycare, where I was the only black child in my class; nor in Kindergarten where I was the only black yet again and, I think, things remained this way until second grade or so. By the time I was meeting other black children in my classrooms, I had already come to understand that I was different. And that my parents and my sisters were different—we acted differently and spoke differently. I remember noting how the other black kids at school sounded when they spoke. I can remember asking my father once when I was about five how, when I answered the phone, I could tell whether or not the person on the other end was black. I wish I could remember his answer.
I wonder what he means when Baldwin uses a word as strong as “obliteration.” It implies a scale, implies that when there is a scale for whiteness it is only applied to minorities and that being less black or less Asian or less Hispanic means becoming more white and not option C or D. To obliterate seems, to me, as if it should mean getting rid of the -ness altogether, becoming instead something unidentifiable. Baldwin did write, later in “The Harlem Ghetto,” that “the American ideal, after all, is that everyone should be as much alike as possible.” And that Americanness rather than Blackness or Asianness or Whiteness means anonymity. But perhaps I come up short of understanding. If this is what it means to be an American, it doesn’t seem that Baldwin thinks this a bad thing.
“. . . the distortion and debasement of his own experience.”
In “The Harlem Ghetto,” Baldwin writes: “It is part of the price the Negro pays for his position in this society that, as Richard Wright points out, he is almost always acting. A Negro learns to gauge precisely what reaction the alien person facing him desires, and he produces it with disarming alertness.” He maintains consistency in his theses—he seems to believe, through and through, that the Black American can never really be himself if he wishes to get along in the white world, but shares no specifics of how he should “be himself,” as a part of a unified blackness. I don’t believe that I, myself, have so much performed anti-blackness as I have had to learn, from a young age, about the qualities of blackness from family, friends, and other schoolchildren, and then adapt to this learning. These things are socially learned, aren’t they? We’re natural in our actions and expressions until someone guides us in another direction, saying things like don’t be a nigger or discretion is the better part of valor.
Once, my younger sister, Morgan, and I were swimming at a Four Seasons and asked my father if we could stay longer. I was in the hallway next to my father, and I could see the pool from the other side of a looking glass while I pleaded with him to give us more time. He gave me the OK and I rushed through the hallway, through the locker room, and back out onto the pool deck to let Morgan know we could stay. Censoring my excitement and obeying the safety rules, I stopped running once I reached the pool deck. To make up for this I yelled across the entire pool to Morgan, who was floating in the shallow end of the water in perfect view of my father. We can stay! Dad says we can stay! And merely seconds later, before I could even jump back in, I saw my father motion with his index finger to come to him, out of the pool, immediately. A cold face had said all he’d needed to say.
After we dried off and grabbed our things we walked out to the truck, myself immensely sad and confused at my father’s seemingly mercurial decision-making. He remained silent until we began the drive back, and at this I quivered. I always quivered at his silence. He told us, shortly after the truck left the parking lot, that had I not let the entire pool know our business we would have been able to stay. That I needed to learn discretion.
Now, I can sometimes see the looks on people’s faces when black children are loud in public. It’s a sure look of disapproval, perhaps not toward the children themselves but toward the assumed negligence of the parent(s). Children yell, yes, and they play and scream and laugh gutturally, but it’s the heightened volume of children talking that gets adults’ ears perked. Where did he learn that? Why do they talk about such things?
When a child speaks loudly everyone in range listens, and one can only hope the child has something delightful to say.
The problem with the social decorum of black children playing is that their loudness comes off as a shortcoming—as a thing all right for only non-black children to display. Adults cringe, I cringe, at some of the things these children say and we probably therefore do degrade the image of this child (and on this point, Baldwin and I agree). Perhaps, in public, this was always on my father’s mind—perhaps he was always worried about playground talk of sex or money or the things we saw on television, a clear reflection of his sentiments as a parent.
“. . . surrendering to those forces which reduce the person to anonymity.”
What if I’ve desired anonymity? What if it wasn’t a forced thing? There’s been a lot said in history about the forced anonymity of women and the forced anonymity of gays, while the other side of the coin suggests a desired anonymity of peoples like Jews and Blacks and those of biracial ethnicity. And if Baldwin is right about America’s melting-potness, then I want to know more about this desired anonymity.
Desired anonymity, I think, is not necessarily a point of surrender. In October 2011, The Harvard Crimson ran Zoe Weinberg’s “Raceless Like Me,” an article laying out a spectrum for students at Harvard University who wish to push the boundaries of racial identity to do so. At one end: the raceless, at the other, the racially transcendent, and somewhere in the middle the aracial. The difference is that “racial transcendence,” coined by Harvard’s Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, comes off as both lofty and naïve, in danger of being confused with color-blindness, which “advocates ignoring race without confronting the inequality and discrimination it breeds. Color-blindness implies that racism can be solved passively.”
“Racelessness,” Weinberg writes, “is far more complex, because people who transcend race ‘are actually aware of how race negatively affects the daily existence of people of color. They have very likely experienced discrimination, yet they respond by understanding those situations as part of a broad societal problem: one in which they are deeply embedded, but not one that leads to their subscription to racial identity,’” according to Rockquemore.
If I see black as a description and not as an identity, then I believe I spoke aptly earlier when talking about my youthful wish to be raceless. Though aracial may fit for someone with more than one concretized heritage, raceless seems to be the word for those of us making thought-out decisions about our identities. But the potential roadblock with this is that I don’t have more than one concretized heritage: I could speak to you about the variety of my family names or my Creole great-grandfather or my half-German great-grandmother, but it’s not something I can grasp the way one can grasp having one black and one white parent. In essence, at the bottom of this issue is my jealousy toward the bi- and multiracial, as the status quo affords them the allowance of checking the raceless box.
A lot was unearthed in the Crimson‘s interviews with students, ranging from from biracial students literally checking the black box because they wanted to bring statistical awareness to inequalities, to those who check it because “it is so overwhelmingly in your favor to identify by race if you’re a minority,” as stated by student Anjali R. Itzkowitz. “You would be a fool to say you’re raceless if you’re black.”
The boldest question it poses: “if we know race is a social construct, at what point do we begin the process of deconstruction?” This is the question Baldwin didn’t ask and should have. My answer, at least at this point, is within our personal relationships. And I’m a hypocrite, because I let my friends talk about how “white” I am without correcting them—but if I did things right I would start with them. Just like talking about romantic attraction began with them and talks about our parents’ money began with them. In my social development and snowballing realizations, everyday talk, not haute scholarship, is where the deconstruction should have begun.
Writing about a subject like race is difficult not because the topic is hefty, but because I have so many biases toward it. I’d very much like not to be lumped in with writers considered to have made notable contributions to Black and African-American Literature because I’m not writing about a Black experience—I’m not writing as a black man. Please remove me from the discourse, because I don’t represent anyone but myself.
However, the other hurdle in representing myself within marginalia is that some readers, inevitably, will feel I represent them as well. It always seems a danger to write about the othered group without fear of misrepresentation, which makes me even further want to avoid labels. What I want is a slight inverse of one of James Baldwin’s own wishes: I want to be a good man and an honest writer.
Being an honest writer means to me that I cover all my bases, that I stick to the facts as I know them and, when necessary, scrutinize the little things. As writers it isn’t our job to worry about fact-checking our memories, but there are certainly other things that need to be corroborated—the clinically biographical facts I want to extract in my writing, the names of streets on which I’ve lived, the things that, without showing my research, would have me admit to laziness—here, I’m doing my damnedest to be sure I’ve checked up on the crucial bits.
It’s necessary for me to make sense of the ways I’ve read the world throughout my experiences, and to ensure that as I’ve moved through life I haven’t brushed the wrong experiences off. “An author is not to write all he can,” writes John Dryden, “but only all he ought.” And I ought—need—for the sake of my own sanity, to begin evaluating my decisions and my experiences.
One day at recess, Hermann, a boy with a dark mullet who licked his lips beet-red, called me a nigger. It was the first time I had ever been called a nigger. I told on him not because I was hurt or upset, but because I wanted to see what would happen to him. I enjoyed the eye-widening of the recess supervisor when I told him what had happened, and I knew he’d move quickly to find this boy and bring him to justice.
I don’t know, nor do I think I ever knew what happened to Hermann that day, as he was dragged away by the arm by one of our lead supervisors near the end of recess. But I discovered power in a word—power that, at seven or eight, I knew I was using the way he had wanted to. I had turned his dominance back onto him.
I still wonder about that power. I wonder whether, had I felt less racially neutral, I would’ve made far different decisions, far different observations. I wonder if, had I felt a little blacker, whatever that might mean, recess would have ended the same way.
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
Fall has risen from the earth
like Lazarus. The dogwood in the backyard
remembers its flowers. The sky’s throat is raw
with wood smoke and small regrets.
I have slept beneath quilts in third floor
apartments. I have scribbled endings
on tables with chopsticks and pretended
there is still time for funerals and baptisms.
Let winter come. Let the water freeze
dark and opaque. I will find
new reasons to wait
in the persistent whiteness of snow.
He undresses the apple’s heart
with a knife. His hands
are knowledgeable, palming the meat
without slipping. Slowly
a pile of red skin grows on the table,
like snow or eyelashes unattached
to a wish. I watch, scraping
a thumb along my own knife idly
as if trying to peel the whorls from it cell
by cell. He finishes
and cubes what is left, then
gathers it into the pot with the rest of the apple chunks
browning with oxidation. I
am not used to seeing him
so gentle, his fingers so careful.
I am used to seeing these fingers grip shovels
and beer bottles, hammers and leather belts.
Now he adds water, sugar, a pinch
of cinnamon, takes the pot
to the stove. In an hour, we
will eat applesauce with silver
spoons, slurp it too hot in the backyard
until it cools with the setting sun. We will stand
beneath the trees whose swollen fruit
we coaxed into sweetness, and he
will charge his hands with a new
task, cradling his bowl like
a bird’s nest, his tongue licking sugar from his knuckles
until they are slick and shining.
This is the little island where I crashed my bike in the moonlight outside of a WWII bunker by the Thames. It didn’t look like this when we were there, of course – it was night already so I couldn’t take pictures. I couldn’t even see with my own eyes. From 8 pm until after midnight we rode along footpaths - torches in hand - from pasture to pasture, through forest paths, through dozens of ”kissing” gates, cycling past sheep-fleecing fences and branches claimed with woolen flags. My bicycle chain blurred beneath me like prayer beads. We rumbled over roots, ducked under branches, and threw moon-long shadows on our laughter.
We followed a path toward the river, surprised by an abandoned cement bunker from WWII. Anyone could be living in there, hiding in there. I sped up past its black windows and rode blind over a fallen tree, lurched, and landed in a bed of stinging nettles with my bike on top of me tangled in my legs. Everything fell from my pockets: my ID, my wallet, my phone, everything. I spread the nettle, feeling for familiar shapes with my eyes closed.
I was certain the malevolent presence in the bunker would be looming over me when I stumbled to my feet but luckily my friend was standing sentry. Pockets full again, we flew from the forest in shock, the bikes’ shocks delightful from ditches to hills to corrugations of dried mud – we flew so fast, we might’ve lost our bodies, might’ve spilled from their empty pockets – back to the field, the middle of the field, far from the forest’s hem, so we could see anything approaching us from my leafy imagination.
I didn’t notice till then the thousand nettle stings rising like pearls on my wrists; burning bracelets that he kissed and rubbed dock leaves, folk remedies and wives’ tales on. The island was ours; each kissing gate and the kisses inside of them, each water trough, every animal call, root, rock, dock leaf and bunker. Even the moon.
Back at the cottage we began exploring the topography of my body, another adventure: twigs in my hair, calves striped red and skirt smudged in tones of meadows and earths, juice of healing greens along my blistered wrists. The forest underlined me, accentuated me, painted me. I feel alive in this little village at 1 am, this unknown village whose dark places left their signatures all over my body, whose kisses still hum around my wrists.
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Noah Cicero is the author of several novels, including The Human War (2003), The Condemned (2006), Burning Babies (2006), Treatise (2008), The Insurgent (2010), Best Behavior (2011), and most recently Go to Work and Do Your Job. Care for Your Children. Pay Your Bills. Obey the Law. Buy Products. (2013). His stories have appeared in many journals, including Identity Theory (read “Waiting for Coffee”). A native of Youngstown, Ohio, he now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he may or may not be snowed in on a mountain.
In what way do you think literature has the ability to change the way people live their lives?
Literature changes the way you perceive reality, it gives multiple meanings to every situation. If you just read one book, say the Bible or Koran, or if you just watch sitcom television, your reality is very limited, you have very few ways to interpret situations. But I believe if you read a lot, your mind learns the ability to play different games or see different options in every situation that non-readers might not see. The funniest moments I’ve had with literature, have been not understanding a book, but then like five years later entering into a new experience and then it hits you, “Oh, that was what the author was talking about.” The delayed epiphanies are the best.
What was the last book you gave as a present?
The Elephant Vanishes by Murakami.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
A professor told me when I was 20 that I needed to make concrete images. That I needed to focus on language that lacked abstractions, something the reader could create in their own minds. This, for me, has always been interesting, because there is a duality in creating an image every author must contend with, especially when someone reads it from a foreign country. For example, my first novel The Human War had people living in a trailer park. In Ohio there are very nice trailer parks and very shitty ones, but it doesn’t mean you are terribly poor, which I think a lot of Americans know. But some people in England imagined Pikeys living in caravans, and had a completely different image of my characters.
Which author do you reread most frequently?
To be honest, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. But I don’t think I read it for its writing, because I don’t think my style resembles his, I view it as my personal bible or work of philosophy. I’ve traveled to 40 states and crisscrossed America over 10 times in a car, and been to five other countries. Traveling to me and living an isolated kind of dreamy life, is very relevant to me. And it is almost like I read it, to remind myself of who I am and what made me start writing in the first place.
What is the best sentence you’ve ever read?
“Something is taking its course” from Beckett’s Endgame.
Describe your writing routine.
I wake up, shower, dress, go to the local coffee shop and buy a large coffee. Then I go home and write till the coffee is done, which takes an hour an half to two hours. I usually can write five pages in that time. Which adds up over the course of several months. I usually only write in the morning.
Do you ever listen to music when you write? If so, what’s on your playlist?
I like to listen to long songs with little focus on the lyrics, so I don’t have to flip to YouTube a lot and the words don’t interrupt my thoughts. My playlist probably sounds really uncool: Achilles Last Stand by Led Zeppelin. Master of Puppets, Orion, One by Metallica. Shine On You Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd.
Best bookstore you’ve ever been to?
A used bookstore in Moab, Utah. All along the coast of Maine there are like twenty awesome used bookstores.
If you were standing in line at a bookstore and noticed the person in front of you was holding your latest book, what would you say to them?
That has never happened to me, but when I was working at The Grand Canyon at the ice cream parlor someone asked me if I was Noah Cicero, I said yes, and then I had a small panic attack. The line at the ice cream parlor was really long, so we only talked for a minute.
What literary landmark would you most like to visit?
I think running with the bulls thing in Spain, so I could pretend I was in The Sun Also Rises.Best Behavior)" width="307" height="475" class="aligncenter size-full wp-image-11907" title="Author Q&A;: Noah Cicero (Best Behavior)">/em>)">
Is Facebook good for you?
Facebook is good to sell books and keep fans updated. But on a personal IRL level, no, it fucks up my life. Here are some reasons, I think most people who have some micro internet fame can agree with:
1. You post something about your book or an article you like: people from the lit world get into a small debate about it, which is cool, then somebody you went to high school with who you never interact with comments something about ‘jews’ destroying America. So you have to patrol that.
2. Somebody sees your name in an article, they friend you, then you write something and they troll you. THEY wanted to be your friend, not the other way around. So they ask to be your friend and then they troll you. What?
3. Your break up with someone, and even if you defriend them, all their friends are now your friend, and they tag your ex, and omg. Currently, I’m in the middle of the Oregon forest, and I still can’t get out of Ohio.
4. People on a weekly basis ask me to read their novels or blurb their books. I don’t sell more than a thousand copies a year, I can’t help anyone.
What about Amazon?
Amazon is the only thing that saves me.
What job have you held that was most helpful for your writing?
What is one of your vices?
What is one of your prejudices?
That all Republican males are secretly homosexual.
Favorite books you’ve read in the past year?
Lives of the Saints, 1Q84, Zen Koans
“Binoculars” pronounced with a British accent.
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“Loneliness is a state of lack, a longing, and though that can be acutely painful it’s also interesting. I do think that reading helps, maybe more than any other art form, in that it gives you this extraordinarily privileged access to the interior. It shows the reader other people also experience shameful, difficult feelings, which in itself makes one less lonely.” – The Myth Of The Alcoholic Writer: An Interview With Olivia Laing by Michele Filgate at Buzzfeed
“Everything is possible for the writer. There isn’t anything anyone can tell you that you can’t do, and there is no such thing as ‘getting away with’ anything. There’s no one to tell you what you can or can’t do. You’re only limited by the fences you allow yourself to build around yourself, for whatever reason, including fidelity to some idea about literature someone else imposed upon you some time long ago or five minutes ago.” – TO RAGE AGAINST MEANINGLESSNESS: Praying Drunk author Kyle Minor interviewed by Matt Bell at The Believer
We’re currently reading Chris Abani’s new novel The Secret History of Las Vegas. Mark Athitakis reviews the thriller for The Washington Post: “It’s a grim book, but one that contains the giddy, sour pleasures of the bleakest crime fiction, and the Nigerian-born Abani cannily makes his Sin City a signifier of the larger world’s degradations.”
Abandoned liquor store photo by Joseph Novak.
The birds (of paradise) are chittering
which seems insufficient
for a poem, because it does not match
the intensity—or is it pain?—
I feel and want to strike out with
like a pack of Diamond matches
or a baseball bat, waived
before the curve or fastball
pitch of history, and insufficient
also because I don’t know the names
of the birds to call their bluff
of meaning with my own.
But I am wrong.
They are more than enough.
They might in fact be too much.
Like some green or mauve
swath laid down on a canvas
that would devastate me
if I were as light
as I would be if I had eyes
and yet no life. This poem
is like a watercolor day/date
spread open on the sky’s table
like a diamond encrusted
skillset, skull, or skivvies, words
on display, legs lasered, the latest
like the New York World Trade’s
Fair in 1939, long awaited, is sense
necessary, as long as there’s
latex and leather, weather, windex
to wear, as long as there’s a voice
in the diamond encrusted
hills of thunder saying I and you
while we wait on hold with beauty
and are transferred to loss
who redirects us to surprise and elation
as a bus shifts by with all colored kinds
of thirsty flowers, though it’s much
on hold, no face time, and little voice,
and when we speak to people
or purple, or pillows,
they mostly seem to imitate
the pliant, pallid pallets
we would be speaking to
if we had reached the people,
or the paisley parsley, that once lived here,
in this cloud encrusted garden,
if we had reached the phone
with our swim fins half-intact—
matte board, bleached coral, broken spoke—
calling as we are
from our compromised positions
third to last row of the Greyhound.
Things keep floating up
and there’s no appropriate person
to tell, so silence descends
like diamond encrusted dust
over our mouths and over the storied
pines, whose spires the churches
have been ripping off for years
in their Grand Ole Opry conspiracy
to take us nowhere first-class
and now we have officially arrived
scientists say, and the birds in the void
where the spires once were—forgive me
for this long detour of, or out of,
meaning—pig iron, fig leaf, Farrah Fawcett—
are chittering, which seems
sufficient for a pomme.
What Changes Everything: 5 Questions with Masha Hamilton" src="http://www.identitytheory.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/MashaHamilton-credit-S.E.-McKee-200.jpg" width="200" height="300" title="What Changes Everything: 5 Questions with Masha Hamilton" />Masha Hamilton is the author of five novels: 31 Hours, Staircase of a Thousand Steps, The Distance Between Us, The Camel Bookmobile, and most recently What Changes Everything (Unbridled Books, 2013). She has also founded two world literacy projects: the Camel Book Drive and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. She recently served sixteen months as Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy at the US Embassy in Afghanistan and now works as Communications Director for Concern Worldwide in New York.
For every digital copy of What Changes Everything sold, your publisher Unbridled Books is gifting $1 to your nonprofit Afghan Women’s Writing Project. What is the AWWP and how did you come to start it?
The Afghan Women’s Writing Project pairs Afghan women with published authors in the United States for online writing classes in three secure classrooms and then publishes the writing on awwproject.org. The idea developed after I saw a videotape smuggled out of Afghanistan in 1999 that showed the execution of Zarmeena, a mother of seven, killed by the Taliban in Kabul’s Ghazni Stadium in front of a crowd for allegedly murdering her husband.
Watching the videotape of Zarmeena kneeling on the soccer stadium and then being shot repeatedly was heart-stopping. Without knowing any particulars, I wondered if in fact her act hadn’t been criminal, but instead one of enormous courage. I was determined to find out about her.
But few details were available, and this made me realize not only were Afghan women hidden beneath burqas, but their stories were silenced. After many years as a journalist, I had come to believe that telling one’s own story is as important to a certain kind of survival as food and shelter. In response, I began to learn what I could about Afghanistan, reading books and articles, attending lectures. This interest led to my visits to Afghanistan and, in May 2009, the founding of AWWP.
What Changes Everything: 5 Questions with Masha Hamilton" width="200" height="300" class="alignright size-full wp-image-11890" title="What Changes Everything: 5 Questions with Masha Hamilton" />A graffiti artist plays a prominent role in your novel. Have you ever done graffiti? What would your graffiti tag be?
Danil is a street artist, and as I discovered while working on the book, there is a big difference between graffiti writers and street artists—both in style and in motivation. Graffiti writers often don’t think all that highly of street artists, I found (too commercialized, too artsy for their taste; street artists are more mainstream while graffiti writers are sub-culture). Danil does “sign” his work, though not all street artists do; the style and content of their work often becomes recognizable (consider, for example, Bansky or Swoon, to mention two who are well-known.) Graffiti writers often chose their tags based on how certain letters look together visually, or which letters they like to write, and usually tags are short, so you can throw them up and get away before police come. One graffiti tag I like is by a writer referred to as “the Booker,” who writes “Read” or “Read More” or “Read Up” or similar. Because my novels explore the tension between hope and horror, maybe that would be my tag: Hope 4 Horror, switching it around with Horror 4 Hope, or one large H as the first letter of both Hope and Horror. I would want a partner, so we could look out for each other, and so one could write Hope while the other wrote Horror, on a rotating basis. Did I overthink this one, or what?
You include a real-life character, Mohammad Najibullah, in your story. What were the challenges involved in inserting him into the story? How did you research him and what were your goals for his character?
I knew I wanted Najibullah to be part of this story because he was a larger-than-life and a complex character, just as many Afghans are. I thought, from a story-telling standpoint, that the ending to his portion of the story would add texture and a dual nature to the novel’s conclusion. I also wanted to include him because so many Afghans in Kabul remember him well. They remember his manner and his speeches and they recall, on September 27, 1996, seeing his tortured body hanging from a Kabul traffic light. I still wasn’t sure he would fit into my story, but when Amin appeared, elbowing his way into the draft, I saw the links clearly.
I managed through the Internet to connect with one of his daughters and exchange a couple emails, which helped me write the letters. I also asked Afghans about him whenever I had the chance. History is tightly interwoven with the present in Afghanistan. I met a number of men who had been boys at that time and recalled riding their bicycle to see him in death. “It was a horrible sight. That’s when I understood the Taliban were not our saviors; they were just brutal,” one told me.
What appeals to you about letter writing in fiction?
I liked using the technique with Stela because it was her way of reaching out beyond her immediate circle in her search for comprehension, and one of the themes the novel explores is how war connects us in the most unexpected of ways. I own a bed and breakfast in Brooklyn, and I’ve just returned from 16 months working in Afghanistan as Director of Communications at the US Embassy. Over breakfast two mornings ago, I started talking with some people from West Virginia whose son had served in Iraq and is now living in Brooklyn. Immediately we—strangers of different backgrounds and political beliefs—were in a space of shared language. Many people are quiet about the impact of war on their daily lives because it is unpopular and often unwelcome in the public consciousness, but for them individually, it dances right below the surface, and has changed their lives. Stela doesn’t run a B&B; she runs a used bookstore in Ohio. So writing letters was her way of trying to break through the boundary of space to find answers.
If I want to read accurate, detailed news stories about Afghanistan on the Internet while drinking my morning coffee, where should I go?
Photo by S.E. McKee
I always put that at the top of each page. Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Dei, which means That In All Things God May Be Glorified.
This week I learned that every other year the Holy Ghost plants a baby seed in a married mom’s tummy. Nine months later a slit opens up underneath across the bottom and the baby slides out. It’s not like a zipper. It doesn’t go up and down but across like a smile, all at once. It just appears when the baby is ready. Baby slits are minor miracles, not major enough ones for the mom to be named a saint. Most moms are way way too busy for that. You can’t be named a saint unless you perform thousands of good deeds for the poor and cause at least two major miracles after you die that aren’t proved fraudulent by the Devil’s advocate appointed by the Holy See. The Holy See is the pope. See in Latin means sitting in his papal chair. While sitting there, he is infallible. If he says you’re a saint then you are, ipso facto. A few days later the slit heals back together without any help from the doctor who delivered the baby. That storks deliver babies is mere superstition, of course.
The mom is the actual mother, of course. She carried the baby around all that time, eating for two until it grew big enough to come out and start crying. To make it stop crying she nurses it, sometimes with a bottle, sometimes with one of her breasts, which are a sin to look at unless you’re her husband, or unless it’s honestly by accident and only for a couple of seconds. Four or five at the most. Especially nipples, which you shouldn’t even think about, ever. Just long enough to know what you’re looking at and decide of your own volition to look away. The same for any girl’s who is old enough, the same for any woman’s unless she is old.
The main difference is, God the Father is the father of Jesus. St. Joseph was Mary’s husband, but still. In all other families the mom’s husband is the actual father of the baby.
Baby Jesus was born when the Holy Ghost helped God the Father by planting the seed inside Mary via the immaculate conception. Via in Latin means “by,” and im means “the opposite of.” Maculate means “stained,” because immaculate is the opposite. Maculations are stains on the soul that cause birth defects and other bad things. Conception means “idea made flesh.” It makes perfect sense. Jesus was flesh of her flesh, so Mary was exempt from all stain of original sin. In case there’s any doubt, Gramma Grace has holy cards showing it. The Holy Ghost rains down on Mary, but the Holy Ghost isn’t a rain cloud. It’s a white dove glowing in a bright golden light above Mary, or sometimes just the light beams, no Mary. Light beams rain down on her immaculate heart, just like the holy cards show. Most moms and girls keep them as bookmarks in their missals or purses. Most grammas too, and of course all the nuns. But so how many kids do nuns have? They have none. They’re not married, so no baby seeds ever get planted in them.
Everyone knows the difference between homophones like “nun” and “none,” but some people still mix up “apostles” and “epistles” because they’re near-homophones, but not homonyms. You just have to remember that epistles are letters the apostles wrote to their flocks after Jesus ascended unto Heaven. It was like He rained up.
I’m 27 years old and I’ve been writing – or have written – the same story again and again. Many have told me this. Sometimes they say it calmly, benignly, meaning it as a compliment. They say that I reveal different aspects of the same story. They even use the word ‘kaleidoscopic’. At other times they say it as a question: You are writing the same story again and again? When they do that, they don’t mean to be rhetorical. Of course not. They’re asking me something deeper. They’re asking me if I’m stuck. They’re asking me if this is all that I’ve got to tell. And they are insinuating that they are uninterested. Because they have had it all before. From me. They are thinking: Of course he has nothing more, he is only 27.
I looked for the definition of a kaleidoscope, and this is what I found: A toy consisting of a tube containing mirrors and pieces of colored glass or paper, whose reflections produce changing patterns that are visible through an eyehole when the tube is rotated.
So what are the limits of a kaleidoscope? Does a kaleidoscope produce the same images again and again, or does it not? After each complete rotation of the glassy tube, do the images repeat themselves? Likely they do. And, well, even if any two images of a kaleidoscope are at least minutely different, why should anyone bother about the minutiae? In other words, conversely, if a kaleidoscope exhausts, it is boring. And boring is bad.
What can kaleidoscopes do to avert this fate? Perhaps the only way kaleidoscopes can forever renew themselves is by not asking you to look into them, but by asking you to look out from them. Why not?
And so, the three conditions of an ever-entertaining kaleidoscope are the following:
That it be expansive enough to let you in
That it gaze at distinct sights of the world, in order to forever change what is outside
That its tunnel of vision be intricate, meaning that it be both cinematic and novelistic
So now: LOOK!
Look at him inside the cubicle on the seventh floor of a large building. Look how he struggles with the project plan on his office laptop. Look how in the project plan there are forty-seven interrelated tasks under six interconnected categories, all with varying timelines that are all intricately related to each other. Look how some tasks appear green, some amber, some red. Look how he cannot make any sense of the colors, how he cannot establish any dependencies between the tasks, how he cannot make any action plans. He is set for miserable failure. Look how, even with the few tasks that he has absolute clarity of, he cannot move forward. Moving forward, acting, doing, is for him a problem, even when he is paid for it. Look how he is avoiding meeting the only person in the organization who could help him. It is clear that he is dysfunctional, impotent in contributing to the machinery of his metropolitan world. Look at The Bachelor.
Far, far away from the metropolis, in a small, small town…
Look into the squat bungalow. Look into the bedroom that hasn’t seen a whitewash in years. Look at her lying on the bed. Look how her face slackens when she listens to her heartbeat. Look how there is little similarity between what she is today and what she is in the photograph on the wall, the one in which her 24-year-old self is draped in a blue sari, her gaze averted. Look into the sharp eyes in the photograph, the sharp nose, the coy demeanor made still for an eternity, the graceful sari draping elegantly over the left arm. And now, look at the 25 odd years in between, settled on the body, on the face. Look at her gaze moving about the room. She can look at that photograph on the wall and not pine for anything, as if she were looking at a stone, or as if the photograph’s way of capturing time was as unremarkable as that of a stone’s. Look at The Mother.
Not more than a kilometer from the squat bungalow…
Look into a squat office compound with flat roofs. Enter an office cabin, where a man is signing useless documents behind a large desk. Look at his signature in Hindi, at how the bars and accents of his name shoot up like ferns on the near-brown paper. Like the top third of a thicket of sugarcane. Look how the cabin is full of preserved specimens of diseased sugar cane stems. Count and marvel at the number of diseases that can ruin a sugarcane crop. Now look at the man’s thick-rimmed cheap spectacles, and behind them his long eyelashes that are – yes, if you look closely – beautiful. Look at the wooden table that he has been sitting behind for the past 15 years, a heavy wooden table, immovable. Look at the archaic-looking office cabin, with no computer, no gadgets. This scene could very well be from the seventies, but is not. Look at him sighing after signing the documents. Look at his thoughts, it is possible. Look at him thinking of the day of his retirement, a day that is not very far away. Look how he counts the days remaining, just to keep himself occupied. Look how he calculates all his savings in his mind, and then shakes his head. And hey! Hey! Look, look, there, at that external thought or metaphor inside the room, hovering near the ceiling. There, just below the lethargic ceiling fan, hovering like a cloud, a cloud that you can see. Try to read the cloud. Look how the cloud says something about the spectacled old man behind the table: Like Mr. Biswas from A House for Mr. Biswas. Look at the man with your hyper-novelistic gaze now, and impart a meaning to the dull scene. Know that this man here, this old spectacled man with long eyelashes, has no house to go to after retirement. Look, now, at his anxiety regarding the future, the future when his younger son will go to college, and when he and his wife will have to quit the government bungalow they have always stayed in. Look at The Father.
Three kilometers away from the office compound, on the main road in the small small town…
Look at the speed of the gear-free scooter. Look at the whiskery beard and the Adam’s apple. Look at the cheap, large-dial watch on the thin wrist. Look at the red Adidas shoes below the tight blue jeans. Look at the mouth, the mouth inside which the tongue seems to be sorting a chewing gum, repeatedly. Look at the mouth inside which no chewing gum really exists. Look at the style. Look at the premonition of a smile. Look at the promise of a man. Look at The Brother.
Ten hours later, when The Bachelor is home, you look inside the screen of his desktop. There is the moving image of a woman. The woman and the Bachelor are in a video conversation. Look at the woman’s tangled blonde hair. Look at the large space between her nose and her upper lip. Look at the suggestion of unmade eyebrows. Don’t complain about the quality of the image, it is because of the bad internet connection at the woman’s end. Below the large rectangle of the woman’s image is the small rectangle where The Bachelor’s own moving image is visible to him and you. To him, his own image is darker, unattractive. For some strange reason he looks more at himself in this small rectangle than at her in her large rectangle. It bothers him that the small image that he sees in the small rectangle is visible at the woman’s end as a large rectangle, possibly magnifying the unattractiveness of the visual content inside it. He keeps his palm across his chin, covering his lips, in a gesture that is only partly voluntary. You can outright assume that he is shy.
Now look at the yellowish wall against which the woman is sitting, and on that wall look at the quarter of a painting that is faintly visible, all inside the large rectangle inside The Bachelor’s monitor. You do not notice any forms in the painting, and are bound to assume that it is a work of abstract art. It may or may not be one, but what you’ve just seen is perhaps the rationale for abstract art. All that is abstract is nothing but the limit to the sense-seeking gaze.
Now the video conversation is nearing an end. Look at the woman kiss the fingers of her right hand and then cover the large rectangle on the screen with those fingers. Look at The Bachelor wave in response. He cannot kiss and cover his camera, he is shy. The rectangles switch off.
Now let us travel a thousand or so miles, westward. And let us do that instantaneously…
The woman we had moments before seen in a rectangle within a rectangle is here, in genuine three dimensions. Look at her looking at the full painting we had earlier looked at a quarter of, electronically, from very very far. Look at the painting. It is truly abstract, but you can notice the form of a brown mountain in it. Look at the woman look at the painting and look at her thoughts. As you know, it is possible. Look how she is thinking of the afternoon five years ago when she had bought this painting for 120 Canadian Dollars in a high-art shop in Toronto. Look how she remembers the seller tell her that the artist held great promise, and was likely to see a major appreciation in appreciation, and therefore an appreciation in demand. It’s been five years and there has been no appreciation. Suddenly, for no particular reason, the nature of this woman’s gaze changes. She looks at the painting. Look at her trying to trace the contours of the colors now. All dark…darkened…darkening. She thinks of The Bachelor. You can see that. She touches the grain of the canvas of the painting, at exactly the outlines of what we have earlier called a mountain. How do you climb an abstract mountain? she thinks, novelistically. Look at her sigh. Look at the sighing de La Belle Femme. Regarde La Belle Femme.
Allow me, me who is outside, to offer an interlude to the gazing. No point in looking at me, I’m only a semblance.
First, I want to comment on the third condition of the ever-entertaining kaleidoscope, as you are seeing it manifest here. I hope you have noticed how this condition plays. Intricacy is all, one has to go beneath the surface. Merely seeing cannot suffice. But there is something more to this third condition, and that something is difficult to pinpoint.
Second, I want to posit that there exist in the real world kaleidoscopes that very nearly meet the three conditions. Facebook is one. The only condition it misses is the third one, which is to say that Facebook is not novelistic. That makes a lot of difference.
Look at The Father and The Mother and The Brother watching TV. They are watching a football match between two English clubs. The score is 0-0. The Brother is the most excited. His excitement at watching the football game is natural, almost like an instinctual excitement, the kind that one is born with. But The Brother is not an excited person in general. It is tough to place his passions, simply because he is of an age when one both realizes one’s passions and also begins to lose them one by one. As of now The Brother is supporting one of the two teams, but his support for that team is not unshakable. It will vanish if the other team starts losing very badly.
Second in excitement is The Father. He has had a short day but he feels that he has had a long day. Just as he has had a long life but feels that it has passed by too soon. It is only the vague, perhaps fabricated, memory of enjoying watching football in his youth that makes him watch football now. He does not know either team and for him the distinction between the two teams is simply the colors of their jerseys – red and blue. Now and then he makes a vague comment about the red team playing better than the blue one, something that The Brother registers absent-mindedly. The remote control is in The Father’s hand, and since the game is approaching halftime he is pondering which news channel to switch to in the intervening ten minutes. The Father is also conscious of the fact that The Brother would want to watch the half-time analysis as well. He realizes he does not have the energy to argue with The Brother, and so, perfunctorily, after rotating the remote control twice or thrice in his right hand, he places it on the table before them and nudges it toward The Brother.
The least in excitement is The Mother. She has been in the house all day, like everyday, and she is currently cutting vegetables for dinner. For her the men inside the TV are too small, like varicolored flies flitting across a green dish, and she can make no head no tail of the kinetic images. She is expected to have watched all the TV she wanted in the day, when The Father and The Brother were away, and she has half a mind to tell both of them that she did not do so, that she in fact never watches TV when they are away, that she just lies on the bed and thinks of her elder son (The Bachelor) and thinks of her younger son (The Brother) and thinks of her youth and thinks of the places she could have been to had she not been stuck with someone (The Father) whose only expertise was in the diseases of sugarcane. She thinks of The Bachelor because she is the only one who knows that he is a failure at work, and has the sense to sense that he will, in all likelihood, be as much a failure in the world as his father is, and she thinks of The Bachelor because she is the only one who understands just how much he loves La Belle Femme and how this love of his is going to destroy him because this, this ardency in love, is what The Bachelor has inherited from her, and she thinks of The Bachelor because she understands him as a combination of two hollow halves, both defective, whose culmination in a single personality has calamitous outcomes. She worries about The Brother as well, because he too is from the same grain, and he too may tread a similar path.
The Mother is silent, although there is a hum of anxiety in her head. The dim light of the living room accentuates this hum. The light lends a soft shadow to everything inside the room, shadows that go unnoticed by the three persons in the room but are bound to make you scared. The Mother’s cutting of the vegetables is automatic. The two men around her don’t notice a thing.
Look at the kitchen knife in The Mother’s hand. Her grip is tight, tightening. Look at the hardening of her eyeballs. Look at her stare into chopped vegetables as if chopped vegetables were some kind of a symbol, a terminal symbol. Look at her desires, the innermost. The ones that haven’t taken a form, the ones that are abstract. Is it possible to look at them? Yes, concentrate. You can. You will see the desire to kill. You will see her rage and her sadness, and the desire to kill.
Look away. Look at the knife. It is an old knife, perhaps as old as the marriage. Over the years, it has had to be sharpened many times. If only you could see underneath The Mother’s grip, you would see how the knife’s handle has an imprint of the fingers of her right hand.
A dozen items from the news feed of The Bachelor’s Facebook account. The time is close to 9 P.M. This is going to be like two kaleidoscopes in series.
Shared by a male friend: A picture of a half-consumed pint of Tuborg beer on a glassy, watery, seemingly endless surface that seems to extend right till the horizon. The sky above this horizon is luminous, annotated by an unusually bright and yellow setting sun. It is tough to make out whether this is a crafted advertisement for the beer or a picturesque moment from the friend’s vacation.
Shared by a male friend: A picture of the friend flanked by two elderly people on either side. The elderly people are most likely the friend’s parents. The caption above the photo says: ‘A week of bliss.’
Shared by a female friend: A link to a website that promises to proffer some action plan to all those who feel utterly frustrated by the Indian political situation.
Shared by a female friend: A link to an article about the legacy of A. K. Ramanujan, the poet and scholar and translator. The Bachelor likes the post without really intending to read the article any time soon.
Shared by the ‘English Premier League’ page: A picture that seems to be, vaguely, about the varicolored football jerseys that the clubs are donning this season. The Bachelor realizes that he had liked this ‘English Premier League’ page a couple of years ago and that he does not like it anymore, and yet he does not unlike the page now because of a minor apprehension regarding losing out on information about the football league in case he were to become interested in it again.
Shared by a male presence that The Bachelor cannot really identify as a friend: A link to a website accompanied by a picture from that website. The picture is of Michael Jordan in a black suit next to an extremely potently cathartically hot woman. The breasts of the woman mark perfectly tightly spherical shapes on her ochre dress. The text accompanying this picture is about the second novel of an extremely talented writer. The Bachelor, of course, finds it funny that the picture and the text have absolutely no relation to each other. For that reason alone he ponders liking this post, but then decides against it, because if anyone notices that he has liked this post, they will not be able to decipher the complex thought behind his liking the post and will most likely assume that he has liked the post because he has liked the breasts of the awesomely incredible woman.
Shared by a male friend: A simply textual announcement, a status message, that the friend has finished reading a book of poetry and that it was awesome. The Bachelor likes the post, immediately, as if there were some danger in not liking it.
Shared by ‘The Hindu’ page: A news item mentioning something about the toxicity of the bleach content in common white flour, and how it may be a major cause of pancreatic cancer.
Shared by a female friend: A smug picture of the friend’s pair of legs, one on top of the other, besides a male’s pair of legs, again one on top of the other. The picture has these four legs and nothing else. The setting, from the little there is of it, seems to be that of an airport. The tips of her shoes and the tips of the man’s shoes point towards each other, in a gesture that signifies connection, but is to The Bachelor neither cute nor romantic nor erotic, but altogether disgusting.
Shared by a female friend: A picture of M. S. Dhoni, the Indian cricket captain, holding a street dog in his arms, apparently in his capacity as a brand ambassador for a program that aims to convince people to adopt street dogs in greater quantities. For some outlandish reason, The Bachelor is disgusted by this post as well.
Shared by a male friend: A change in profile picture: A picture of the friend and his wife, full body shot, although the camera is bizarrely tilted by almost 45 degrees to the left, making the couple appear as if they are falling. The couple is glitteringly dressed. The wife is beautiful. The Bachelor is disgusted.
Shared by a male friend: A link to a Youtube music video of some obscure American band. He has peppered the post with the introductory text, “Sometimes it takes me too much to discover a ‘new’ artist. What a terrific singer and band!!” The Bachelor is indifferent to this post.
The Bachelor is from here on indifferent to all further posts.
Then he receives a message from The Brother.
STOP looking. Exit! This is it.
Hope you liked the experience. Of course there is no denying the fact that the putative kaleidoscope may still be criticized. Some among you might feel cheated by the fact that it was tied to views of four persons that were in some way connected. You are right when you ask: Why should we see persons or objects in a deterministic fashion, as if the gaze was ordained by some narrative power?
Well, this is the story I’m stuck to.
The fallacy of the putative kaleidoscope may lie in the fact that the second condition presupposes a grander hand that moves the kaleidoscope. Basically, when you enter the grand kaleidoscope, you let an Other direct your gaze. The whims of this Other determine the quality of your experience. If this Other is stuck at some things, so are you.
The second fallacy, and the more important one, may lie in the simple fact that even the novelistic gaze is only a gaze. It makes you look at feelings, knowing that the best it can offer are mere abstractions. In effect, it makes you look at the semblances of feelings in the hope that you will try to reach out to the subliminal. But in this flurry of looking, cinematic or novelistic, you glide over the true nature of feelings. Feelings are those that can only be felt.
So feel the story beyond the kaleidoscope, if you can.
Close your eyes.
Drinking from a Bitter Cup" src="http://www.identitytheory.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Angela-Author-1-375x500.jpg" width="225" height="300" title="Interview: Angela Jackson Brown, Author of Drinking from a Bitter Cup">/em>">Angela Jackson-Brown is a writer and poet who teaches Creative Writing and English at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. She is a graduate of Troy State University, Auburn University and Spalding University. Her work has appeared in literary journals, such as: Pet Milk, Uptown Mosaic Magazine, New Southerner Literary Magazine, The Louisville Review, Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal, Blue Lake Review, Identity Theory, Toe Good Poetry, and 94 Creations. Her short story, “Something in the Wash,” was awarded the 2009 fiction prize by New Southerner Literary Magazine and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in Fiction. Her debut novel, Drinking from a Bitter Cup, was published by WiDo Publishing January 7, 2014. Angela is currently working on her second novel.
Drinking from a Bitter Cup starts in Louisville, Kentucky and then shifts, by loss of the main character Sylvia’s mother, to Ozark, Alabama. How did you decide on where this story would start and how each place would shape Sylvia’s identity?
So often as writers, our first instinct is to write about some far off distant place that we know nothing about because we think where we came from is not interesting enough. Sadly, that was me for many years, until I realized the writing I loved the best was from writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison who wrote about the familiar. So setting my novel in Ozark, AL and Louisville, KY made the most sense to me because I grew up in one and I lived my best life in the other and I knew I wanted the same to be true for Sylvia. I wanted to show that home, as in a location, can constitute safety and love for some people, which it did for Sylvia.
This novel is a moving account of how the issues of race, class and gender intersect, as seen through the innocent eyes of the fifteen-year-old female narrator. Could you talk about how you first started to conceive of the book in relation to point of view?
When I first started writing Drinking from a Bitter Cup, I wrote it in third person. My writing mentor, Kenny L. Cook, who was one of the first to read my novel in its infancy stage, suggested two things. First, he said I should think about writing the novel from the POV of the young protagonist, Sylvia, and second he suggested I figure out how old she is when she tells her story. Once I did those two things, the story came to life. It would not have been the same story if I had kept the narration in third person or if I had made Sylvia older. There is a rawness in the story because of the young age of the narrator that would have been lost if, say, thirty year old Sylvia had told the story.
This novel largely seems to be about survival. If we borrowed Didion’s dictum, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” what story or stories is Sylvia, a girl who has lost her mother at the age of ten, telling herself to stay alive?
When I wrote this story, part of my goal was to “untell” my own story of abuse and hurt. I wanted to write a fictional story that would show a young girl who has been to hell and back, yet, she is not broken. She has battle scars, but she is still intact. Because many of us have grown up believing in a fairytale ending, we often get blindsided when the fairytale goes awry. I knew my young heroine needed to understand early on that happily ever after is impossible, but happy right now is possible for us all. Because she believes strongly in that mindset, she is able to endure whatever life throws at her.
Drinking from a Bitter Cup" src="http://www.identitytheory.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Angela-Image-2-281x500.jpg" width="169" height="300" title="Interview: Angela Jackson Brown, Author of Drinking from a Bitter Cup">/em>">As an avid reader, Sylvia reads a wide range of books that influence her view of the world. By the same token, what books do you see as helping you to shape this novel?
To be honest, I endowed upon Sylvia my own love of books and the books that bring her strength are also the books that did the same for me. When I was in the third grade, my teacher, Mrs. Kennedy, gave me the book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Up until that moment when I turned over the book cover and saw a black face like mine, it never dawned on me that black people wrote books. I mean, all I ever knew were books for and about white people. I read Little House on The Prairie, the Nancy Drew series, and a whole host of other books for and about young, white girls and boys, and I became scarred by the “absence of me” in those books. At some point in my young life, I accepted the fact that people like me did not exist “between the margins.” But Maya Angelou and her book set me free from that mindset, because her Stamps, Arkansa was my Ariton, Alabama. Her rural south, black people were my rural south, black people. So, I stopped writing in secret and I recommitted myself to my secret dream of becoming a writer. I knew if Maya Angelou could do it, then just maybe, I could too.
This book, with a great deal of finesse, makes one question our definition of family. At one point, Sylvia makes a comparison to The Waltons, a television show based on a large white, nuclear family, as representing a real family. If this story was set in today’s environment, do you think Sylvia’s definition of family would be more inclusive?
Well, let’s see. I haven’t really thought about Sylvia beyond the age of fifteen. As I said in another interview, Sylvia stopped talking to me. By that I mean, I no longer felt like this restless spirit was pushing and prodding me to tell her truth. So, it is not easy for me to place her in a contemporary setting, but my best guess is, Sylvia, would continue to define her family as those people who she feels the greatest love for and from. She would not feel as if blood ties define family, so for her, family could just as easily be the elderly grandmother figure down the street who sends her a hot plate when she’s hungry as well as the homeless guy by the street corner who waves at her as she heads to the grocery story. For Sylvia, family creates itself.
As a poet and writer, your storytelling often seems effortless. Is poetry and novel writing as equally gratifying to you or do you find one more laborious?
For me, poetry feeds my prose. The two are so intrinsically connected, it is difficult for me to write a story without thinking about how the language can become more lyrical in nature. Novel writing is more laborious for me because I have a short attention span when it comes to writing the first draft. I have the idea in my head and I just want it to appear on the page. Now revision – revision is my favorite part of writing. During the revision process, I can linger there forever. I like seeing the characters become multi-dimensional. I love seeing the landscape of the piece become rich and full.
Not every novel has a lesson to be learned or a moral to take away. However, if you were pressed to suggest such a thing, is there a particular theme or element of the novel you hope readers will give more thought to?
My character, Sylvia, says: “I don’t believe in happily ever after, but I do believe in happy right now.” For me, that is the “theme” or “moral to the story.” This young protagonist goes through a lot – both mentally and physically. But somehow, she has figured out how to live in the moment. So, if readers don’t take anything else from the novel, I hope they take that.
Drinking from a Bitter Cup" src="http://www.identitytheory.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/BitterCup_CVR-333x500.jpg" width="200" height="300" title="Interview: Angela Jackson Brown, Author of Drinking from a Bitter Cup">/em>">This book, I think, has the ability to give readers hope in humanity, a sense of equilibrium in what can be a crazy time. When Angela Jackson-Brown isn’t penning stories, what does she take comfort in?
Teaching. I love being a teacher. I love it when I see a look in the eye of a student who finally “gets it.” Whatever it is. I love it when a student tells me at the beginning of the semester “I hate English” or “I hate writing” and then, by the end of the semester, that same student says, “English isn’t so bad” or “I want to be a writer someday.” Some people go their entire life without know what their calling is. I have been blessed to find out that one of mine is teaching and sharing what I know with others.
Finally, similar to my character, Sylvia, I try to take comfort in the moment. Right now, I am working on my second novel, but I am trying to tell myself, “Don’t miss out on enjoying this moment, Angela.” There will never be another first novel, so I don’t want to spend so much time stressing over the second or third or tenth novel, that I lose out on celebrating this time in my life. Carpe Diem.