Fiction

We Want What We Want: A Review of Genevieve Hudson's Pretend We Live Here by Peter LaBerge

BY KIMBERLY KING PARSONS

 “5 Arguments” by Qianqian Ye, from  Issue Twenty-Five .

“5 Arguments” by Qianqian Ye, from Issue Twenty-Five.

Desire drives every story, in one way or another, but few writers capture white-hot want like Genevieve Hudson. Pretend We Live Here (Future Tense Books) features characters obsessed with obsessions: how we are always trailing them, struggling to give them names, justifying them as we go along. Each of the wide-ranging voices in these stories—vegan activists, teenage skateboarders, a patient recovering from a harrowing surgery—are seekers at heart, unified by their sticky, boundless compulsions. “Anything I’m not supposed to have I want,” confesses the lesbian narrator of “Adorno,” who has, for reasons murky even to herself, recently slept with her beloved sister’s much-older husband. Hudson’s characters can’t always explain their actions, and they rarely know what’s best for them. Perhaps this is why they feel so nuanced and relatable. The world they walk through—flooded with lust, saturated with longing—is familiar to anyone who has ever had an insatiable ache.

Articulating desire is tricky—we want who we want, mostly without knowing why. It’s elusive, a chemical dance between bodies. Still, the characters in Hudson’s collection make half-hearted attempts to justify their urges. In “Bad Dangerous” the narrator laments her astrological predisposition for fixation: “I’m a Cancer after all. I reach out my crab claw and snap someone in my pinchers…It’s compulsive. I just keep pinching the shit out of this new thing until one day I lose interest and let it go.” Though many of these characters are in deeply chaotic situations, they are off-kilter and frequently funny, sarcastic and self-deprecating. They study crystals; they visit psychics and have their feet rubbed with sage; they have their birth charts read. Each of them is looking, in their new-age-y way, for gentle answers, or at least for alternative methods of rumination.

Rather than directly interrogate her characters’ jagged impulses, Hudson shows longing at the sentence level, bakes it right into the syntax. The language is corporeal and completely unexpected: a dirty floor “sprout[s] a kind of hair” and monotonous tasks “jiggle” a janitor’s heart. A filthy van is described first as smelling like “muscles and open wounds” and later as having a “menstrual stench.” The prose itself seems full of blood, the syncopation like a pulse.

Hudson’s careful attention to detail also makes her a master of evocative setting. In “Cultural Relativism” a young professor leaves Amsterdam for a teaching job in Alabama. Hudson is as deft at describing ivy-covered buildings and Southern “monuments of horror” as she is the icy waterways of the Amstel, but she never strays far from the body—where desire lives:

Conjure something that looks Ivy League—colonial mansions, wide lawns shaved to the height of an army crew cut, phallic chimes…Now, bring in a vicious Southern sun and burn everything so it walks with a limp. There, perfect.

There’s another type of yearning that moves alongside the physical in these stories: the search for home. We’re introduced to these characters in moments of dislocation—they are running from bad decisions, making new lives in foreign places or else traveling, living in liminality. But you get the feeling that no matter where they are, no matter how moored or forgiven or how loved, these characters would still feel adrift. The title reminds us that these are characters pretending to belong. For them restlessness is constant, and desire itself—even if it is fleeting, risky, or unrequited—is the closest approximation to feeling at home.

But the stories in Pretend We Live Here are certainly not tragic. Following desire, Hudson reminds us, can be blissfully life-affirming—it makes you bold, even as it drags you through dangerous places. “The wanting was a shake that started in my toenails and moved up toward something that wasn’t my brain,” says the narrator of “Possum,” after “innocent” dirty dancing at a Halloween party leads to full-blown fascination. The narrator’s crush, known only as “the possum,” tells her that if they lived in the same city, they would get into a lot of trouble. “The way the possum said trouble made me want to have it,” she says. “It made me want to eat drugs from the palm of her hand and follow her down the interstate on a motorcycle at 4 a.m. I wanted to turn a dollar into a straw and suck the possum up my nose.” This is precisely what the stories in this collection do: they take you off guard with their certainty and their strangeness—they grab your hand and lead you to unexpected, beautifully dark places. They make you greedy for more.

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Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage in 2019, and the novel The Boiling River, forthcoming from Knopf.

Melanie Finn: How I Wrote The Underneath by Peter LaBerge

BY MELANIE FINN

  The Underneath  ( Two Dollar Radio , 2018), by Melanie Finn.

The Underneath (Two Dollar Radio, 2018), by Melanie Finn.

She is young, 22, her make-up smudged, racoon-ish. She wears a tank top and jeans, unwashed, bra straps showing, rubbing her bare shoulders. Her shoes are the giveaway: scuffed, leaky sneakers, laces undone. I see her clearly, as she passes me, oh, I take her in, the smell of her, dandruff, cigarettes, the clinging odor of closed, dark rooms, of a creature kept underground.

Her shoulders, I think, should have sunburn, should be exposed to the sun by a lake somewhere, a reservoir where kids like her go and drink too much and plot their escape. Not ferreted in, as she is, room to car to room, her skin the color of mushrooms.

He’s ratcheted to her side, black t-shirt, low-slung jeans, a facial hair arrangement that hints at individuation. He has a sense of his particular self, his own life, his face and he looks at himself in the mirror, in that brief plateau between the high and the jones, when he feels, loves, regrets, yearns, hopes intensely. He takes a razor and chooses the side-burns, the narrow strip on the cleft of his chin. Then he erases himself with smack.

They move past me, they don’t even notice me, they are thinking only of the second floor, Skink or Bunty or Shifty, whatever his name, with his wares, whatever they are, bundles, eight balls, dime bags, tabs. I know because I have been in such motels, seeking such wares from such Buntys. I was once familiar with the underneath.

But now I am here, hand-in-hand with my dazzling twin daughters, I’m an actual paying guest at this motel, I will shower in it, sleep in it. Tomorrow I will get in my new Subaru Outback and we will drive away. No one will ask me to suck dick if I can’t pay.

So, this moment, her passing me, is where a book begins, because she turns slightly. Seconds—all this is happening is perhaps five seconds; we forget how the brain attends on many levels, and a book is about opening up those seconds, exploiting those levels and using the dark matter within as you wish. There is no exact word for this process; theft, manipulation, disfigurement—none quite convey the ruthless appropriation by a writer of another person’s experience, the turning and twisting it, like a glass blower, into narrative. In those moments, I am hardly human, I’m a soul-stealer.

This girl, my prey, I cannot see her eyes, they’re buried inside clumpy mascara, but I know she regards me, I have this sense she is trying to speak, she has a message. A plea?

Child.

She turns, moves on, as if on wheels, pulled by steel cables, into the motel. I turn, on my wheels, pulled by my cables. I see her child. He is sitting in the back seat of her shit-box Pajero, no seat belt, a hat and jacket, filthy and too big. He is five, his eyes gone like a war child, pin pricks. I experience two completely disparate sets of feelings. As a mother: sorrow, anger, pity, concern—does this girl want me to do something, call someone, save her, save the child? As a writer, I am already shamelessly conjuring the lines: of course there was a kid… with what was left of her smacked-out brain, with some remnant of her mother’s love, she’d left him in the car, her child, her asset. She wasn’t selling him. Yet. She wasn’t that far down. Yet. The “yet” was out there, she could perhaps glimpse it in the distance like a dark tower, and therein the dark walls lay all the terrible things she was capable of.

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Melanie Finn was born and raised in Kenya until age 11, when she moved with her family to Connecticut. She lived and worked in six different countries as a freelance journalist and screenwriter for 20 years. In 2004, her first novel, Away From You, was published to international acclaim. The following year, she and her husband, wildlife filmmaker Matt Aeberhard, moved to a remote region of Tanzania to make DisneyNature’s haunting flamingo epic, Crimson Wing. During the filming, Melanie became the medic to the local Masai community and established the Natron Healthcare Project. Her second novel, The Gloaming, was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the Vermont Book Award. The Underneath is set in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where she now lives with Matt and their twin daughters.

The Blurry Years: A Conversation with Eleanor Kriseman by Peter LaBerge

BY SHANNON BRADY

 Photo credit: Jeff Clanet. Eleanor Kriseman, author of   The Blurry Years     ( Two Dollar Radio , 2018).

Photo credit: Jeff Clanet. Eleanor Kriseman, author of The Blurry Years (Two Dollar Radio, 2018).

Eleanor Kriseman is a social worker in New York City. She was born and raised in Florida.

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Shannon Brady: First off, I want to say how much I enjoyed reading The Blurry Years and becoming immersed in your protagonist Callie’s world. Her loneliness, with an absent father and irresponsible, alcoholic mother is poignant. From the beginning I was expecting something terrible and relieved by her pluckiness and resilience. How did Callie come to life for you?

Eleanor Kriseman: The book started as a short story, which is the middle section of the book where Callie and Jazz meet. I kept writing about Callie and filling in her early adolescence and the book grew from there.

SB: Callie is an intriguing protagonist. When we first meet her she’s well read, getting good grades, generally raising herself and trying for a long time to not blame her mother for all the turmoil, irregularity, and danger she brought into her life. Her mom, Jeanie, is complicated. How did you approach writing about Callie’s mother?

EK: I wrote a couple of chapters from Jeanie’s perspective that I know wouldn’t be a part of the book. Even though I knew I wouldn’t use it, I needed to have an idea of her backstory and past history, so she wouldn’t be just a villain. I wanted her needs and wants to be palpable, too.

SB: Motherhood is such a loaded topic and role in our society. The unrealistic expectations for grandeur and martyrdom go hand in hand and there’s the other extreme of irresponsibility, neglect, and abuse. It doesn’t seem like we have many cultural or literary models for sustainable, balanced motherhood. Are there any literary mothers you love to hate or hate to love?

EK: I think this is also a loaded question, in addition to a loaded topic. I certainly didn’t want to contribute another mother to “love to hate” or “hate to love” to the canon, and I hope I’ve managed to give Jeanie enough credit and complexity to understand why she might mother the way she does. Callie’s father is largely absent from the novel—I think he’s only mentioned once or twice, but as far as they know, he’s still alive. He’s still out there. But Jeanie’s the one taking care of Callie, not him. The dynamics and responsibilities of parenthood are so gendered, even today, that mothers are the ‘default parent,’ and everyone seems to have an idea of how they could be doing their jobs better (without offering any support to accompany that advice).

SB: I agree that parenthood continues to be gendered and full of unsupported advice, and that as flawed as she is, Jeanie was the present parent to Callie. I also think you did a lovely job of not editorializing about Jeanie but showing her actions and how Callie responded. Was that tough? Dealing with motherhood and parenting and the safety of children, I wonder if there was a temptation to judge her on the page?

EK: It was incredibly tough to write Jeanie. I actually did write at least one chapter from her point of view, as a separate story originally, but it didn’t feel right to insert it into Callie’s story, so it didn’t stay in the manuscript. But, you know, as much as this book is not a memoir, or autobiographical, it is much easier for me to put myself in a position to feel as a daughter than as a mother, even though my life circumstances and relationship with my mom are nothing like Callie and Jeanie’s. What I tried to do—and I don’t know if it fully worked—is to craft her character in a way that would both explain her actions but not necessarily excuse them. Neglect and abuse and cruelty—those are cyclical and systemic issues, and often get passed down from generation to generation, or exacerbated by the precarity of economic instability. Rather than judging her, I’d hope that a reader—by the end of the novel—might get a sense of Jeanie’s own pain, or frustration, or setbacks that played into her identity as a mother.

SB: I was immersed in Callie’s perspective, but I did clearly see the effects of Jeanie’s parenting and the pressure of her having to parent alone, especially as Callie becomes a teen and her life takes a darker, more troubling turn. The weekend I was finishing your book, I also saw a powerful teen performance of Eve Ensler’s Emotional Creatures. It’s a play whose monologues of teens in different parts of the world explore their pain, subjugation, confusion, and their strength. The sexualization of teens was also reflected in your book. How did you approach Callie’s sexualization?

EK: I think it is deeply sad. The way teenage girls are sexualized has changed, but the way it makes a teenage girl feel is the same. When dealing with it in writing, I start with feeling and work out the circumstances from there.

SB: From your work as a social worker, have you seen some of the teen issues you explored in your novel?

EK: Most of the book was written long before I became a social worker. I began when I was a student and continued when I was working in publishing. It’s an age I’ve always been interested in. Now, it’s important to me to not mine the stories of anyone I work with and to keep it very separate. I’ll be at a middle school this year and definitely want to keep my work and writing separate.

SB: That makes sense. You have a good understanding and presentation of teens that comes throughout your work.

EK: It’s easier to write as an adolescent because that time marks you and I’ve lived through it. Right now I don’t feel as if I have the authority and knowledge to write much older characters.

SB: Do you have favorite teen literary characters?

EK: A Complicated Kindness is the coming-of-age story of a young girl in a Mennonite community in rural Canada. It was written by one of my favorite writers, Miriam Toews. I first read her book at age 15 and read it about once a year.

SB: As you read it again, has Toews’s book changed for you?

EK: Initially I was all about the teen narrator, but as I get older, I can interpret and understand the decisions of the other characters more. I also return to I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. It came out in 1948 and has a teen narrator who lives in a crumbling castle with her father and sister. It is a very funny book, basically her journal.

SB: Do you have a favorite genre?

EK: I like coming-of-age, short stories, and place-based novels, especially if it’s someplace I’ve never been.

SB: Speaking of place, although your book is Callie’s story, another protagonist seems to be Florida. Clearly you know the place well and infuse the setting with vivid, lush details that make the reader able to feel the humidity, the pools, the languor, the long, hot, lonely days. What does Florida represent to Callie?

EK: I love that you got the sense that there were two protagonists here, one being place (Florida in particular.) I think Florida represents something very different to Callie than it does to many other people—for Callie, Florida isn’t a vacation destination, or a relaxing break from reality. It is her reality. So the things she finds special and intriguing about it aren’t necessarily what the rest of the world does—a glimpse into the refrigerator of a rich woman whose son she babysits is just as “exotic” and foreign to her as “life on the beach” would be to anyone else. And I think, at least later on in the book, she becomes somewhat aware that what Florida represents to her does not align with the rest of the world’s perceptions of and about it.

SB: Your cover art conveys that duality of Florida well, with a picture of a young girl on the beach holding a blue balloon and another shot of a high-rise apartment and palm trees next to rubble. How did you choose your art?

EK: My mom owned a bookstore when I was growing up and I worked there, and then in another indie bookstore in Brooklyn, then in publishing, so I know that people judge a book by its cover. I was fortunate to have a lot of creative input with Two Dollar Radio. An old friend of the family, Bryan Thomas, did a photography series about the areas of Florida hardest hit by climate change. He calls it The Sea in the Darkness Calls. He had already combined the two images on the cover as a diptych and I liked the juxtaposition.

SB: I found it intriguing that you set your story in the past. What made you choose the late-seventies and early-eighties?

EK: I don’t like writing about cell phones. Hopefully it’s a limitation I won’t always impose upon myself, but cell phones have changed dynamics and communication and I didn’t want to write about that with Callie. It also makes it easier to say it’s not me. People assume autobiography or memoir about this book, and the time setting became a nice barrier. It’s really interesting working with teens now and I’m fascinated by how their communication is evolving. I love reading work set in the present day and writers who are able to weave miscommunication via technology into their work.

SB: Did your writing about Florida happen when you lived there or once you moved to New York?

EK: New York. I’ve lived in the city for 10 years. I came for college at NYU and have a degree in French language and literature, which is the least practical thing you can study. I started writing this book my last semester of undergraduate and finished the rest when working at a bookstore or in publishing. I wouldn’t have seen Florida as clearly had I not left.

SB: Are there any best times of day, places, or ways for you to write?

EK: Late evenings and early mornings on the weekends are good because it feels quieter in terms of the city, not everyone is out doing things. I write at home in a corner near a window. I also like the NYU library. It’s very calm and quiet. I work best when I have constraints on time and when my job doesn’t require the same kind of thinking. I don’t do as well with having a lot of time!

SB: What would you suggest to someone starting out and wanting to write and publish while holding down a day job?

EK: Break things up into more manageable tasks to make it less daunting. Start with a story or chapter. You can submit small parts of something larger and that can fuel your creative process.

SB: What are ways for readers to follow you and your work?

EK: I have an author Instagram account where I’ve been posting old pictures and things researched when writing. There are pictures from my childhood, vintage tourism posters, and images from photographers like Stephen Shore, who used to take extensive cross-country trips in the ‘70s and managed to work Florida into his route on at least one of them!

SB: I’ll take a look at it and look forward to continuing to read your writing. Thanks for chatting and sharing your process and thoughts.

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Shannon Brady has written about dance for The Village Voice, book reviews for The New York Times Book Review, reporting for Vanity Fair and various other freelance writing projects and poetry publications. Shannon once joined a dance troupe in order to write a profile about the choreographer. She has taught high school and college writing in New York and California.

World Before Page: A Conversation with Jamel Brinkley by Peter LaBerge

BY LEAH JOHNSON

 Jamel Brinkley, author of  A Lucky Man  (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Jamel Brinkley, author of A Lucky Man (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Jamel Brinkley is the author of A Lucky Man: Stories (Graywolf Press/A Public Space Books). His fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Best American Short Stories 2018A Public Space, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, The Threepenny Review, Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, Epiphany, and LitMag. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was also the 2016-17 Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. His work has received support from Kimbilio Fiction, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, the Tin House Summer Workshop, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Beginning this fall, he will be a 2018-2020 Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University.

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Leah Johnson: Hi, Jamel! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions about this raw, moving collection. When you began to craft A Lucky Man, what works and what tradition, if any, did you believe it to be in conversation with?

Jamel Brinkley: Thank you! I appreciate the opportunity. In terms of your question, I didn’t think about the fact that I was writing a collection until fairly late in the game. Prior to that, I was just working on one story and then another story and so on. In some cases, I felt I was trying to be in conversation with individual stories by other writers, including “Old Boys, Old Girls,” by Edward P. Jones, “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” by Yiyun Li, “The Mistress,” by Gina Berriault, and “The Ascent,” by Ron Rash. As I began to think of the stories as a possible book, I thought of them as being in conversation with Edward P. Jones’s two collections, which are very important to me. I was drawn to the geographical focus on one place and to the careful, loving, and honest attention to the lives of everyday black people.

LJ: You said you “began to think of the stories as a possible book.” At what point did or does that happen for you?

JB: I honestly don’t think I was truly convinced until I got a literary agent, but then again, maybe not until she told me a year and a half later that I had completed enough stories, with enough to say to one other that we could begin sending it to book editors. People in my MFA program would refer to the stories I was workshopping as part of a collection, but I didn’t really take that seriously. In my mind, I was just learning how to write. But I guess every new story or novel is a process of starting over and learning how to write it.

LJ: You’ve spoken previously about leaving your PhD program because of the inaccessibility of language used to discuss the writing. I’m wondering if A Lucky Man was a stride towards grounding contemporary fiction in something more attainable for a more diverse audience? And if so, how has the discourse surrounding the book so far interacted with that intention?

JB: I wouldn’t say that I had that intention actually. But I did want to write stories in which the language was clear, first of all, with controlled flights of what you might call lyricism. It’s been interesting to see readers call the language of the book precise and simple on the one hand, and poetic or even “mannered” on the other.

LJ: You’ve worked with language in a number of different ways—as a teacher, an academic, a writer—but I’m curious about what it was that spurred you into making writing your own fiction more central in your life?

JB: The desire to write my own fiction, which I suppressed, denied, or redirected for a long time, wouldn’t go away. Eventually I would just find myself doing it, though without much discipline or direction. I finally took a series of writing workshops during the summer of 2012, and the teachers I met then were very supportive of my work, urging me to consider placing it more centrally in my life. Their encouragement helped me believe in my potential as a writer.

LJ: I want to spend a second on process, and more specifically, what the process was or is for writing a collection so deeply grounded in place. What did the day-to-day of crafting this collection look like for you?

JB: I’m a daytime writer, typically in the morning, or from the morning into the early or mid-afternoon. In a first draft, I proceed pretty slowly, just discovering the story and its characters sentence by sentence. The grounding in place helped because it gave me something solid to knock up against during a process in which I’m otherwise fumbling around. Aiming for a solidity in the prose, even in a first draft, also helps me. Once the chaos of a first draft is done, I try to see what’s there, particularly what’s there that I hadn’t really intended to put there but what might actually be useful or important. This can be very difficult to do without a workshop or other readers, by the way. From that point on, in revision I’m just trying to work on one element at a time. I may have a draft where I’m working only on the dialogue, or one where I’m working only on one specific character. I try not to work on more than one thing in a given draft, so hopefully by the end the whole story feels layered and carefully attended to.

LJ: You have quite a revision process. How do you know when a story has reached its final form? And after that, how did you know when your collection was done or ready for submission?

JB: I stop when I feel like I’ve done all that I can do, taking into account some of the feedback from workshops and trusted readers. I never think, “This is it! It’s perfect now. Not a word can be touched.” But I do know I’m reaching the end of what I can do on my own when I’m done addressing the technical concerns I can see. In her Paris Review interview, Toni Morrison says, “I work very hard in subsequent revisions to remove the writerly-ness from it,” and I find myself doing something like that near the end of a draft. I feel like intense technical revisions tighten up a story, but maybe too much. I try to loosen things up near the end, to relax the language and the story a bit so that it feels more like life. I also look forward to the chance to work with a good editor. I’m not a parent, but I imagine that the feeling I have when I send a story out might be similar to a mother or father watching their kid go out into the world. You know they’re not at all perfect, but you hope you’ve done a fine enough job with them that they can fend for themselves and have a good existence overall.

LJ: What struck me in multiple stories in this collection was the discursive nature of the dialogue. It was equal parts sharp and honest. I was struck by the scenes between Claudius and Ben and Naomie and Sybil in “No More Than a Bubble”, off rip. Is there any advice you’ve received on how to make dialogue jump to life that you could give writers who struggle with it?

JB: Dialogue can be hard to teach, but what I’ve found most useful to keep in mind is to prioritize the sound of the speech more than the content, and to allow the dialogue to sometimes move at odd angles. I like the idea of dialogue sounding exactly right, but also reflecting our human tendency to hesitate, to dissemble, to be preoccupied and less than fully attentive to others. That’s how I work to get the tension and contrast in rhythms that I want my dialogue to have.

LJ: I’m headed to Kimbilio for the first time at the end of the summer (yay!), so I have to slide a question in specifically from one Kimbee to another. Did writing in community with other black folks provide you with something that other spaces didn’t—especially as your work seems to wrestle so heavily with issues of race and class? If so, what name would you give to that something?

JB: Congrats! I’m so glad the Kimbilio community exists. In a way, the discussion of craft was heightened at Kimbilio (and at Callaloo, another community I’ve been fortunate to be a part of), maybe because we recognized that craft isn’t apolitical and that race and class and gender aren’t separate from craft. In other, predominantly white spaces, where craft is more likely to be seen as some kind of “pure” thing, people can get tripped up by matters of race, class, gender, and politics. Danielle Evans has said something like, “Some work needs to be done in the world before it can be done on the page.” It feels to me like a place like Kimbilio represents work that has been done or is being done in the world, the work of making authentic community.

LJ: You were raised in New York, and the strength of that relationship to the city is woven beautifully throughout the collection. Has living in other places for grad school and for fellowships changed your relationship to the work at all?

JB: I lived in New York for decades before I moved to the Midwest and, now, to the West Coast, so I think something essential about the city, or at least the city in a certain era, has been indelibly stamped on me. I wrote most of the stories in this book while living in Iowa. It’s hard to say whether that resulted in some kind of loss. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did, but I was able to get the work done, and I think the whole “distance brings clarity” effect was in play too.

LJ: From The New Yorker to Entertainment Weekly, A Lucky Man has been a major part of the conversation of what not to miss this year—and rightly so. That seems like a magnificent way to debut. How are you processing the reception—both the good we’ve seen or the maybe not-so-great that we haven’t? How are you staying grounded?

JB: I’m the sort of person who doesn’t get too excited when things are going great, but who can fall into despair when things aren’t going as well as I would like. I’ve been very pleased with the positive reception the book has gotten so far, and I’m grateful to the team at Graywolf for the huge role they’ve had in getting that reception. While the overall reaction has been good, of course I’ve obsessed over the lukewarm pre-publication review that was riddled with errors, or the fact that the New York Times, for example, decided not to review the collection. Like Erykah Badu said, “Now keep in mind I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my shit.” What has helped to keep me grounded is meeting or hearing from readers and booksellers who enjoyed the book. It feels like a miracle that anyone has read it! The other thing that has kept me grounded is the experience of reading from the book in New York with my mother and brother in the audience. The book is dedicated to them, and to have them there and to see how proud they were of me has helped keep everything else in perspective. I’ll never forget that evening.

LJ: The collection opens with an epigraph by Carl Phillips, and as I read the book I couldn’t help but note how deeply poetic much of the language is. It seems like there is a definite interplay between genres in your work. What poets are you reading right now?

JB: I’ve just finished the new Terrance Hayes collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, which I really enjoyed. Jenny’s Xie’s Eye Level and Tarfia Faizullah’s Registers of Illuminated Villages are two others I’d mention. Last week I was excited to read a new Layli Long Soldier poem, titled “King,” which was published online by Wendy Xu at Hyperallergic. Keith S. Wilson has been putting out exciting work, and I’m looking forward to his forthcoming collection, Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love, with Copper Canyon Press. I’m still thinking about a recent Traci Brimhall poem, titled “Dear Eros,” which VQR published, and Safiya Sinclair’s “Gospel of the Misunderstood,” recently published in The New Yorker. I’ve been rereading Joanna Klink’s Raptus, as I often do when I’m going through it. I’m looking forward to returning to some June Jordan and Wanda Coleman, and to reading Lynda Hull for the first time.

LJ: What sustains you in this work?

JB: Eating well, sleeping well, reading, and spending quality time with friends and family are all important. But I would also mention this: The writer Kaitlyn Greenidge has been posting excerpts of Toni Cade Bambara’s essays on social media. In one of those excerpts, Bambara says the “underlying standard” in the book reviews she wrote was this: “Does this author here genuinely love his/her community?” I think that’s terrific and true. And even if my work doesn’t shy away from sadness, tragedy, and flawed humanity, ultimately I write out of love for my community. That’s why it’s equally important for me to try to get pleasure, humor, joy, strength, and striving onto the page. Telling the entirety of the story, out of love and a desire to tell the truth, is sustaining for me.

LJ: Now that A Lucky Man is out in the world, what’s next for you—with the Stegner Fellowship and beyond?

JB: More stories, and maybe a novel too! I have a few projects going, and some notions about others that I haven't started yet. We’ll see what works out.

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Leah Johnson is an essayist, fiction writer and hopeless midwesterner currently moonlighting as a New Yorker. Leah is a recent graduate of the MFA writing program at Sarah Lawrence College and a 2018 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow. Her work—which can be found at Bustle, Electric Lit, Yes Poetry, Cosmonauts Avenue, Faded Out, and elsewhere—is centered on the miracle and magic of black womanhood.

 

Conversations with Contributors: Meg Freitag by Peter LaBerge

BY LAUREN R. KORN

 Meg Freitag, author of  Edith  (BOAAT, 2018) and contributor to  Issue Twenty-Two .

Meg Freitag, author of Edith (BOAAT, 2018) and contributor to Issue Twenty-Two.

Meg Freitag was born in Maine. She has degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and UT Austin's Michener Center for Writers. Her poems can be found in Tin House, Boston Review, and Black Warrior Review, among other journals. Her first book, Edith, won the 2016 BOAAT Book Prize and was published by BOAAT Press in late 2017.

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The following interview took place over Google Hangout and GMail between March and July 2018.

Lauren R. Korn: Edith is your first book. What has the process of publishing a first book been like?

Meg Freitag: It’s been really good! I’ve loved working with the folks at BOAAT. As far as the book is concerned, because it is a first book, I didn’t feel much outside pressure to publish it right away. I ended up spending a lot of time—a couple of years—revising it. I’m really proud of the finished product.

LRK: You said you didn’t feel a pressure to publish. You earned an MFA at UT-Austin’s Michener Center for Writers—you felt no pressure to publish while in the program, either?

MF: No. Not so much. My professors in the MFA program were pretty encouraging of me making the work into what I wanted it to be.

LRK: What is your day job?

MF: I work as a conference producer. I put together industry conferences on esoteric tech topics for Silicon Valley folks. It’s unlike anything I thought I’d end up doing but it’s been fun. I’m learning a lot and I travel a ton.

LRK: It doesn’t sound like you have much writing time, then?

MF: No, I don’t. It can be hard. I have to really muscle it into my schedule.

LRK: With so little time afforded to you, have you been able to tour with the book?

MF: A tiny bit, yeah. I went to Austin for the book launch. I still have a lot of friends there and some of my family’s there, so it made sense to do it there. And I’ve toured a little bit around the Bay Area doing readings. I did a reading when I was in Tampa for AWP in March. I’m hoping to do a little more of it before the end of the year.

LRK: The poem that begins your collection, “When Edith Doesn’t Have a Body” is not addressed to Edith—it speaks of her in the third person. It is also separate from the rest of your collection—it is not part of Parts One, Two, Three, or Four. The poem reads, then, as a preface to the collection, and I’m curious as to why you chose that particular poem to act as such when there are other poems in the collection that speak to life after Edith; e.g., in “Sometimes It’s Easier to See Into the Future Than It Is to See Into the Self,” you write, “So much goes on without you, Edith.” Are you speaking directly to your readers here, introducing us to the parakeet who becomes not only the subject of your narrative, but the object, as well?

MF: You know, it’s funny, I actually hadn’t realized until you mentioned it that it’s the only poem in which she’s addressed in the third person. I guess it does serve as a kind of introduction to Edith in that way, and introduces my impulse to speak directly to her. I like that it also establishes Edith’s death and the circumstances surrounding her death right away so it’s not a distracting mystery throughout the book.

LRK: That’s a good point. Putting that poem at the front, you wouldn’t have to keep mentioning her death in other poems; you could just put it out front.

MF: Yeah. I feel like sometimes, when you have something big that’s unsaid, it ends up taking over everything. It can be so distracting.

LRK: Was that a pretty big question brought to you in your workshops?

MF: [Laughs] No, not so much. My workshop peers were really close to everything that happened. I had started writing these poems to Edith as a writing exercise. I didn’t realize they were going to turn into an entire book. I was just interested in experimenting with apostrophic address. At the time I started writing to Edith, it was quirky and fun, because she was still alive. And then a few months into the project, she died, so the tone of the poems changed (obviously) due to that. And, you know, I was close with everyone in my workshop, so everyone knew what had happened. 

LRK: How long did you have Edith before she died?

MF: Five and a half years.

LRK: Is that pretty typical?

MF: I think 7-8 years is typical—in captivity, and even longer in the wild. There are a lot of accidents when birds are kept in captivity, as proven by my situation. I thought I had a couple more years with her.

LRK: You mention “captivity.” Containment and boxes, too, play a large role in your collection—from Edith’s cage to an airplane’s black box, from the internality of one’s body to loneliness (read: the relationship of one’s body to another’s). In “A Limitation of Mockingbirds,” you write, “If someone hurts your feelings, there is an impulse to thrash around / Inside your own body.” How did your relationship with Edith exemplify or make clear the poet-speaker’s reality of containment and/or captivity?

MF: This is a great question, but I’m not sure how to answer it. The truth is, I think, it didn’t really. You’re definitely onto something here, and I think that’s the case with a lot of the themes that you’ve drawn out with your questions, but these themes aren’t always apparent to me at the time I am writing. This relationship, inside versus outside—it wasn’t something that I was really consciously infusing into my work. But I’m sure there was something going on in the back of my mind or deep down in my psyche that kept putting those images into the poems.

LRK: It’s interesting to me, the way that you brought captivity into our conversation: that there is danger in keeping an animal in captivity, that their life can be shortened. This isn’t really a question, but there seems to be some semblance of guilt there, that Edith may have lived longer had she not been held captive in an indoor space.

MF: Absolutely.

LRK: In that way, I feel like this manuscript acted as a vessel for your grief. You came out the other side not only with this enormous product, but you probably dealt with your feelings in a way that was a lot more manageable.

MF: Yeah, I think so. The project worked to bring a kind of heuristic order to my world, which is helpful when you’re going through something that feels otherwise bottomlessly meaningless. But I think part of it was also just the time it took to write it. The fact that the manuscript took me several years—during that time, the natural grieving process was also working itself out. And I mean, any time you lose someone who is really dear to you, you’ll always have feelings of regret and a kind of imagining of a different life in which that loss didn’t happen. It’s still something that is very sad to me, and I’m sure always will be, but time takes the edge off. By the time the first draft of the book was finished, the grief had aged--it was less of a visceral, emotional experience and more of an intellectual mind-fuck. Like, it had reached a point where it wasn’t so much, “GUH…,” but more like, “It’s so fucked up that she’s not still here.” 

LRK: It becomes a logical reaction versus an emotional reaction.

MF: Right.

LRK: So many of your poems speak to your dreaming life in relationship to your waking life in a seamless way. In thinking about poetry and its place in genre (i.e., its place in literary marketing), I can’t help but think of how poets utilize fictional narratives as metaphors. Is this what you’re doing with dreams in Edith, or should your readers see these references as literal?

MF: It’s a little bit of both. They're definitely not solely metaphorical devices, but there were times when it was convenient to use them as such. A lot of the dreams are based on dreams I actually had, and some of them aren’t, or they’re kind of revised dreams. Dreams, to me personally, are really important and inform the way that I live my life. I have a Jungian sensibility about dreams in that I believe dreams reveal truths to you, they teach you how to live. And so there was no way that dreams weren’t going to be a huge part of the speaker’s experience of the world of the book, because it’s something that’s so present in my own life.

LRK: You say, “the speaker.” There is the confessional “I” so present in these poems. This book reads so confessionally, so narratively, and I’m wondering, do you want your readers to read the “I” as you?

MF: That’s a good question. There is of course a natural inclination to see the speaker as the writer in “I”-centric poetry. Even as someone who writes and reads a lot of poetry, and as someone who’s taken a lot of poetry workshops, I still tend to assume sometimes in the back of my head that the “I” is the author, the “I” is the writer. I have to constantly remind myself that that’s not the case.

I would say that the speaker of my book is someone who is very close to me and someone who is very similar to me, but is not me. And I agree with you: Edith is arguably in the big-C Confessional tradition, but at the same time, it’s not completely autobiographical. A lot of it is. A lot of the big, important things that happen in the book are, but the art of narrative is also at work. I’m trying to tell an interesting story.

I believe that a poem can absolutely be written in the “confessional” mode without having to be entirely factually true. Take Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” for instance. One of the pillars of Confessional poetry, but it’s also a personae poem. Sometimes you must circumvent the self to get to a deeper, more vivid truth.

LRK: I assume the speaker-author relationship a lot, too. And so often I find myself having to bring myself out of that. Some writers even get agitated by that assumption.

MF: While I don’t feel agitated by it, I do understand the resistance to it. It can feel a little reductive I think. Even if you are writing exclusively from personal experiences, the work ends up being this kind of false or constructed life. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end to a poem or book of poems. But who experiences the world like that?

I think there is also resistance to feeling like, as poets, we owe the world our deepest, sloppiest truths.

LRK: I get that, too.

I’d like to talk with you about your writing practice, the spaces that you were able to write from (or in) and the spaces in the book, itself. There is an astounding sense of space or place in Edith. A good many of its poems mention a “kitchen” or “tile” or “floor” in a way that has me wondering whether a) Edith’s cage was kept in the kitchen; and/or b) this manuscript took its shape in the kitchen (if those two questions aren’t one and the same).

And what does your writing process (in the kitchen, if that is, indeed, where the manuscript was written) look like? How has it changed throughout your movement through educational institutions, and how do you see it changing in your immediate future (whether that question portends a forthcoming project or career change, etc.)?

MF: So, first, Edith’s cage was not in the kitchen. It was in my living room. And just a PSA for anyone thinking about getting a parakeet, you're actually not supposed to keep their cages in the kitchen. Birds are really sensitive to smells, particularly chemical smells. Like Teflon. Like, if you burn a non-stick pan—that can kill them. But that’s where Edith’s remains were found, in the kitchen, on the floor, so that brought it explicitly into a couple of the poems.

And as far as my writing process, I’m not the kind of person who works at a desk. I’m a rover. When I started Edith, I lived in a tiny one-bedroom house. It was a very small, 500-square-foot square that was divided into four tiny rooms. One of them was a kitchen, one of them was a bedroom, one was a sort of living room, and one was an office. I think most of the poems were written from my bed. I’m a big bed-writer. I think zero percent were written from my office. My office is a place where I end up stashing stuff. Some of the book was written in the kitchen, though.

It’s hard to say exactly how my process has changed over the years. It’s always been somewhat of a fluid thing for me. Just like I move around my environment when I’m working, I move in and out of different phases, different processes. Different things work well for me at different times. I’m pretty adaptable in that way, which I feel lucky about. But the flip side of my procedural easy-goingness is that I struggle with self-discipline. If I find a project that has a lot of natural momentum for me, then all’s well. But I can get really squirrelly when I’m working on something more challenging or elusive to me. I let myself off the hook pretty easily. I’m trying to be better about it. I’ll say that entering grad school did have a big impact, just because of the vast amounts of time I was suddenly allowed. I could plan my whole day around the writing. I could stay up all night working on something and sleep until 1 if it felt right. 

And yes—to answer your last question, I do see this all changing once again in the near future. I’ll be leaving my current job at the end of July, actually, and moving once again to go back to school. To study fiction of all things. I’ve never focused on prose-writing full-time, so I’m not even quite sure what that’ll be like for me. 

LRK: Where will you be studying fiction, and how did you come to decide to try your hand at fiction in a workshop setting? Are you solely looking for a lengthy time to write, the time afforded to graduate students?

MF: I’ll be attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. I’ve been working on fiction for a while now, but the more I work on it, the more I realize I have a lot to learn. I think my fiction has something going for it on the sentence level, but I have a really hard time with structure, pacing, character development, etc. That is all totally overwhelming to me. I want to get better at it. Part of that is taking classes with people who can teach me how to do these things, and part of it is, yes, just having the time to practice.

LRK: I think it’s easy to understand how craft at “the sentence level” might be a strength for a poet, and how things like structure and character development might be, initially, out of reach. That said, I think your poetic inclinations towards character may be stronger than you think. I’m interested in how you created a speaker in Edith who is so transparent, and I’d like to talk with you about lying and how you use it as a device in your poetry (and how it operates outside of your poetry).

More than one of your poems “sees” your speaker lying, but that lying is either transparent: “I’ve been lying a lot lately,” or it’s introduced only to be re-examined in a come-clean sort of way: “When I was ten I found a dinosaur bone / In my backyard, beneath the Slip ’n Slide. // … When I was ten I lied a lot—About…finding a dinosaur bone / In my backyard, about having a Slip ’n Slide.” I think there’s a vulnerability to announcing yourself in a such a way, and not only does it elicit a child-like interest in perception, it also creates a striking intimacy between the poet-speaker and her readers. Can you speak to that desire for transparency and, ultimately, that page-playfulness?

MF: The way that I play with “lying” in this collection is a little more intentional than some of the other things you’ve mentioned. This goes back to what we were talking about earlier, about the speaker and the self. Like I said, I do think it’s natural to come to an “I”-centric book and assume that it’s entirely autobiographical. To bring up the idea that there is even the possibility of un-truth in a poem is destabilizing in a way that I think disrupts the assumption of writer/speaker continuity.

Also, there’s just something really exciting about an unreliable narrator or speaker. There’s a complexity there that’s interesting to me.

LRK: I read this as being a collection of events that probably did happen, but that destabilization made me question that assumption. Like, there was a point at which I was like, Did this actually happen? Was there, actually, a bird? Was this all constructed in order to bring these internal things into focus? So, I, too, am really interested in the unreliable narrator—in both poetry and in prose. I mean, it’s very clever, and you’ve done it so well.

MF: Thank you.

LRK: So, I’m at an age where I’m very conscious of the female, child-bearing body that I inhabit. Assuming that you, too, identify with that feeling and that embodiment, I’d like to know the thought- and writing-processes that birthed a collection so tightly threaded together by the repetition of that imagery. “Birthed” is a good word, actually, because birth and babies are two (or one) of the motifs I see in Edith. I think that each works with and against Edith’s character in certain ways; how did you imagine babies working within your Edith concept? Babies and birth (and milk, too) are, at times, paired with animals and insects—also very prevalent in your collection. Aside from Edith, what roles do animals and insects play in your every-day? What role did you wish them to play in Edith and/or in the characterization of your speaker?

MF: Again, this wasn’t really conscious for me. Both of these things are just a part of my world, the world that I draw from in order to write what feels real and alive to me. I think those are two separate things for me, though, animals and birth/babies. I don’t think the themes are so related in my head. Animals represent the natural world, which is something that I think about a lot. And being a woman of childbearing age, it’s inevitable that it’s a part of my psyche. So even though it may not be something I’m actively thinking about, it makes sense to me that it would be something subliminally revealed in my work.

LRK: Can you go into a little more detail about how animals are a part of your world?

MF: I’m looking at my dog right now. So, I have a dog, and I had a bunch—well, not a bunch, but I had several birds. Edith wasn’t my only bird. And other pets, too. For a long time I worked for a reptile sanctuary that also did educational programming. I’d bring snakes, lizards, tortoises around to different schools in the Bay Area. We even had an 80-lb. Burmese python I’d take around sometimes. I’d bring her on the city bus in a rolling suitcase. Everyone would think I was just on my way to the airport. Her name was Julie. 

I love animals and have a lot of respect for them. I feel like we have a lot to learn from them—about ourselves, about our relationships with each other and with the earth. About death.

LRK: That’s amazing. I love that. I hope that’s something that continues to thread itself throughout your poetry. It’s unique. It’s not “nature poetry,” per se, but the connection I felt in reading Edith was similar to the inextricable sense of being “at one with.”

MF: Thank you! I hope it continues, too. I think it will.

LRK: Was there a point at which you knew this collection was, indeed, going to be a collection? Did its cohesiveness come about through workshop input, or…?

MF: It was pretty late in the process of actually writing the book when I realized I was writing a collection. I was just focused on writing the individual poems at first. I had a lot of energy for them. I’d sit down to write, and I’d get really excited. So, the collection sort of took off from that point, that energy. I kept going, and at some point, I was like, maybe there’s a book in here.

LRK: You begin your collection with an epigraph by Édith Piaf: “Formerly you were breathing the golden sun. / You were walking on treasures. / We were tramps. / We were loving songs.” Can you speak to how that epigraph defines or best suits your collection?

MF: Edith—the bird—is named after Edith Piaf. And I’m just a big Edith Piaf fan. I knew I wanted her to be present in the book somehow, but that presence just never worked out in any of the poems. And that song really speaks to me. It’s a song about loss. I thought it was appropriate in that way.

LRK: Edith won the 2016 BOAAT Book Prize, judged by Dorianne Laux. What is your poetic relationship to Laux’s work? Did you see Laux as someone who would read your manuscript with a certain amount of enthusiasm, or was she peripheral to you entering the contest?

MF: She wasn’t the main reason I entered the contest. I love BOAAT, and so I was excited to see that they were doing a first book contest. And I love her work, and I do think there is a little bit of a thread there. She writes pretty narratively-cohesive poems, and I guess, when I saw that she was judging the contest, I did think it could make sense. But when you submit to a contest, you have to get by other very discerning eyes before you get to the contest judge anyway, so was hard to imagine that she was going to end up seeing the manuscript. But she’s great. I met her once, and she’s wonderful. Very generous, very irreverent.

LRK: Your dog is named Ramona Quimby. You must have been a Beverly Cleary fan as a child? Can you speak briefly to your evolution as a reader? How did you come to poetry?

MF: Yeah, I love Beverly Cleary. I used to really, really love books when I was a kid. My favorite was horror-writing, scary stories. By the time I was in fifth grade I’d read every Stephen King book that had been published at the time. But when I got to middle school—or maybe I was a bit older—I started resenting books, because they reminded me of homework. I was very into visual arts—painting, drawing, photography. That’s all I wanted to do. But when I discovered Sylvia Plath [laughs] and Anne Sexton—maybe my sophomore year of high school—they totally blew open my world. Their work gave me a lot of renewed energy for reading and writing.

LRK: It’s always interesting to me when Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton come up in any referential spaces. I mean, a lot of girls, a lot of women, a lot of people, came to poetry through them. And in your book, I can see a bit of that influence, too. Especially in the confessional mode and your speaker’s unabashed attitude, re: truth and un-truth. I don’t know whether the conversation has to be new, regarding those poets… I wish I had something more insightful to say, except that I see their influence in Edith.

MF: That’s high praise.

LRK: Good. It was meant to be.

You’ve said you read a lot. Because I’m a book hoarder and greedy reader myself, can you throw some book or author recommendations my way?

MF: Okay, full disclosure: I’m in a writing phase at the moment. I don’t really write and read at the same time. I get too enamored with the voices of writers I admire and end up losing myself. And I’ve been trying to be in a writing phase, and so I’ve been reading very lightly.

But as far as what books or writers have really excited me recently, I’d first have to mention Hera Lindsay Bird, a younger poet from New Zealand. Her first book came out on Penguin, and it’s self-titled. So bold. I’m recommending her to everyone right now. Um, Emily Kendal Frey’s Sorrow Arrow, which was published by Octopus a few years ago. Their whole catalog, really. Larry Levis’ Winter Stars is a book I’ve been returning to a lot. Laura Kasischke. A dear friend of mine, Bridget Talone, just published her first book on Wonder. It’s called The Soft Life and it’s out-of-this-world good. Hieu Minh Nguyen’s new book Not Here. Frank Stanford has been speaking to me a lot in recent years. His opus, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, is enduring and powerful. No one’s ever written anything like that. It’s an exhausting read but 100% worth it. Anne Carson is a big influence. I re-read “The Glass Essay” recently and can’t stop thinking about it. And Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, of course.

LRK: You should pick up Sina Queyras’ My Ariel, from Coach House Books. It’s in direct conversation with Ariel. It’s a big collection—it’s 120-some pages. But it’s really beautiful and really dynamic.

MF: I have to admit, the recommendations question always stresses me out. I just know that I’m going to end the conversation and then think of someone else I want to add. This question is something I’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking about. So many wonderful, necessary writers out there right now. It’s a golden hour for poetry. 

LRK: That’s a great note to end on, Meg. Congratulations, again, and good luck with your book tour and new writing life in Iowa!

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Lauren R. Korn is a poet and graphic designer currently living in Fredericton, New Brunswick. An M.A. student in English at the University of New Brunswick, she is also the Director of Content for The Adroit Journal. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming.

Scar Tissue: A Conversation with Catherine Lacey by Peter LaBerge

BY SPENCER RUCHTI

 Photo credit: Jesse Ball. Catherine Lacey, author of  Certain American States  (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).

Photo credit: Jesse Ball. Catherine Lacey, author of Certain American States (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).

Catherine Lacey is the author of four books, most recently Certain American States. She lives in Chicago.

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Ask anyone who’s read her: Catherine Lacey writes some of the best sentences in the English language. Dwight Garner once called them “the sign of a writer settling in for a long backcourt game, one who is going to wear you down rather than go in for the kill.” I’m inclined to disagree. Even when her characters are seeking answers, exhausted and unsure of themselves, Lacey’s fiction is sharp and fluvial in nature: part Kafkaesque non-arrival, part sick-of-your-platitudes, part unconcerned about the kill because living is hard enough.

Her new book of stories, Certain American States (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), is full of characters losing track of themselves, moved or paralyzed by grief. Devotees of Lacey’s previous work will find the same preoccupations with loss, what makes us love another person, and why that love fades. “No one should trust the feelings that occur at nineteen or twenty,” Lacey writes in one of her stories. “Everyone should just sit very still until they reach the calmer waters of later-young-adulthood, that promised land of lowered expectations. Even so, I still don’t get it—how so many people manage to keep asking the same person the same question every day—Is this what you want? Am I still what you want?—without going insane.” Lacey writes about artists and their transgressions; the strange texture of those desires “incommunicable between strangers”; what happens when we are at the end of our sorrow and decide to give everything away; what happens when a person becomes tired of being a person.

I met Lacey at the Tin House Summer Workshop, where I was her student. We conducted the following interview over e-mail.

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Spencer Ruchti: The earliest of the stories in Certain American States were published in 2013, just a year before Nobody Is Ever Missing. What’s changed the most for you since then, in your writing and in your taste in books? What differences did you notice when you started looking at these stories as a collection?

Catherine Lacey: I’ve been writing short fiction for myself for as long as I can remember, but around 2010 I started writing every morning like it was my real job before I went to a job that paid bills. I wrote a ton of unpublishable stories then—mostly trashed now—and I think the main thing that changed since then is that I’m less impressionable. I have a clearer vision of what my stories need to have in order to be mine; I’m not looking outward for confirmation that I’m doing it right. I think there’s a necessary period in a writer’s development during which you allow all your favorite writers into your head and you judge your work against their work. My crowd was Grace Paley, Flannery O’Connor, Gary Lutz, Lydia Davis, Donald Barthelme, Sam Lipsyte, and Lorrie Moore, among others. But eventually you have to tell everyone to go home so you can start judging your work on its own terms. A few stories survived those early years, and they’re the ones that stood out as distinct from everything else I was working on at the time—sort of premonitions of a latent voice that I didn’t realize I was developing.

SR: How did you come to this initial crowd of writers?

CL: Sometimes a writer feels so entrenched in my head that I lose track of when I first read them. Barthelme is this way. O’Connor is the same. The rest, also, I’m not sure how I first came across them. I remember someone I don’t particularly like talking shit about Lydia Davis in 2005 and I later realized that because that dude didn’t understand her work, I knew immediately that I would like it. Also, it makes sense to go figure out who are the favorite writers of your favorite writers and go read them.

SR: You once described yourself as a “spongy” writer, someone who absorbs and inadvertently mimics the styles of other writers. What writers do you feel spongiest toward? When you notice this foreign voice in your work, do you let it stay, or do you mute that voice in the next draft?

CL: You must learn to use that sponginess as a tool, I feel. If a writer does this to you, you must only read them when you want to use their voice as a direct influence on a particular work. I think I contracted a mental virus from Thomas Bernhard about ten years ago and I still work around the scar tissue. He’s a dangerous one. And my partner has noticed that often when I complain about something it often comes out sounding like a Lydia Davis story. (Representative complaints: You’re often walking a few paces ahead of me; The bird you pointed out flew away before I could see it; We cannot understand why everyone dislikes our friend Margaret.) Davis has completely colonized a part of my brain, and I think she’s brilliant so it’s fine with me. Most importantly, you cannot read low quality shit or watch low quality films or whatever. It will hinder your verbal and visual vocabulary.  It will mess you up before you even know what hit you.

SR: Sort of speaking of Lydia Davis, who’s a prolific translator: can you speak about the process of having your work translated? What’s essential in the author/translator relationship?

CL: I admire translators so much—they’re the most careful readers and they care intensely about language and meaning and precision, which is more than I can say about most people. If I had my pick I’d surround myself with translators. They’re my favorite people.

Yet the possibility of my books being translated did not occur to me until it was already underway. The experience has varied widely by country. My publisher in Italy is a small, independent house, but both novels have done well there because independent book sellers in Italy have been my advocates. I can show up at a bookstore in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday morning and it’s packed. I can only assume that my Italian translator, Teressa Ciuffoletti, improved the books with her vision.

With most translations, I’ve gotten a few emails asking me to explain a line or word choice and through that I’ve realized how much unconscious thought and intention goes into every decision.

SR: You also write some of my favorite sentences in the English language. Here’s a representative passage from “Please Take,” which, even out of context, knocked me out of my seat when I first read it: “I weep athletically almost every day and sometimes I cannot get down a city block without collapsing but Adrian is always upright and smiling and glad, so glad, so glad. It may be we do not live in the same world at all. Some nights I wake up and panic, thinking he’s truly gone, for real this time, and I lie there shaking, all my organs going wild in me for hours until I roll over and see he’s been beside me all along. I keep sleeping in the wrong places, I think, or maybe I’m just waking up not where I am.”

When you’re writing something like this, with its own current, rhythm, and gravity, how do you start? Do you draft meticulously?

CL: Thank you. I feel I write the best sentences when I’m in a place of total embodiment with the character who is speaking. By embodiment I mean that I am inhabiting, physically, the space of the character, that I feel I have briefly become that person, that my mind has been given over to their way of seeing the world so fully that my body feels different, too. When I’m in that place of embodiment, I often won’t even have to edit much. Once I have a full draft of something I will read every line of it aloud to make sure the audial integrity and spatial balance is there. I still do a good deal of nitpicking and vacillating between words and moving commas around.

SR: When you get to the draft where you’re reading every sentence aloud, what makes you pause and revise?

CL: I read my pages as quickly and as loudly as I can; any time I stumble or meet resistance, I stop and figure out why. Also, any time I get bored with a sentence or feel like I’m repeating a point that’s already been made in the story, I delete savagely and without remorse.

SR: Can you talk about where the story “Violations” came from? It acts as a parody of your own writing style, or maybe a rebuttal to how critics have tried to define your voice. The narrator is obsessed with the idea that his ex-wife, a novelist who writes in monstrous, unwieldy sentences, is writing about him in an autobiographical sense.

CL: There’s a long version and a short version to where that story came from and I’ll tell you something of both. On the one hand I was feeling angry and childish and petty, so I was trying to make fun of myself for feeling that way, and on the other hand I was feeling a little burdened by the idea that the facts and experiences of a life are not exclusively our own—that is, the things that happen to us usually involve other characters, other people, who will inevitably have a way of telling the story that differs from one’s own. Writing stories well, however, is difficult, and some of us have cultivated this skill more than others, so there is often an imbalance in who gets to tell a story based on who is simply better at telling them. This is something we all have to contend with in our families and relationships and friendships. Looking back at that story now I can see how there’s another level going on, which is that I’m in the unusual position of having given stories to the public that are then professionally and non-professionally critiqued or discussed in terms of syntax or style or whatever and that experience is a bit weird but ultimately humorous to me. After a few critics describe some aspect of one’s style it inevitably changes your experience of that style. You start looking over your own shoulder a little. This also happens interpersonally; we often contend with other peoples’ ideas about who we are (or who they want us to be) in ways that can be exhausting and limiting. I wanted to stop doing that, so I used this story to exorcise that feeling.

SR: So much of your fiction deals with grief and how people function in the wake of death. There are some characters who are paralyzed by the death of a loved one, and others who fantasize about performing their grief. (From “ur heck box”: “The months after Rae died I had the repeated impulse to do something inappropriate, something dangerous, but the only thing I could think to do was not get off the subway when my stop came.”) What is it about grief that interests you?

CL: I really don’t know. Something strange that happened when I wrote my first novel; the parts about the main character’s adopted sister dying young came really immediately and honestly; I never edited or questioned any of those parts. Then, after the book was done but before it was published, my step-sister died young and it felt like I’d had premonitions of that loss before it happened. It’s only been recently that I’ve realized there’s so much grief in my work. I don’t know exactly where it comes from, nor should I, but the stage of grief is a rich one for fiction, I suppose, because it connects a character to the past. It implies a narrative immediately.

SR: Do you feel a unique connection with any character or narrator in the story collection?

CL: I suppose I feel a unique connection with all of them, that is, each character feels like a very distinct perspective and each requires a different mode of connection, but in general, I feel an aversion to aggrandizing characters. I don’t like it when a character feels too precious. I prefer to leave them unnamed when it makes sense, and I tend to avoid physical descriptions if I can. A character is a way of looking at the world, not a person to idolize.

SR: What new books are you excited to read in the next year?

CL: Laura Adamcyzk has a debut collection—Hardly Children—coming out from my publishing homebase, FSG Originals, and it’s really excellent. Miriam Toews, an incredible mid-career writer from Canada, is publishing a book called Women Talking that is a total miracle. I adored that book and cannot wait for everyone to read it.

SR: In the last few years you’ve lived and worked out of New York, Montana, Mississippi, and now Chicago. How have you reconciled with nomadic living? How does writing in Brooklyn contend with, say, writing in Missoula?

CL: I had a fear that if I left New York I wouldn’t be able to write as well because I always thought there was something about the pressure of that place that made me work, but that hasn’t been the case. Ultimately the transience of the past few years is what shifted the story collection from being titled Small Differences to being titled Certain American States, and I ended up replacing some older stories with some newer ones (“Because You Have To” and “Family Physics”) that were generated by all that moving around. No matter where I live, I always find it reasonable and compelling to wake up and have some coffee and write for a while.

SR: Did you find new pressures in new cities? Different anxieties than the ones you found in New York?

CL: American cities differ the most, to me, in their forms of loneliness and disturbance. In some places it’s the loneliness of car travel, in others, stringent societal norms create a feeling of solitude. In Montana a deep relationship with nature is a virtue. In Mississippi it’s seen as a marker of poverty—why would you go outside if you can afford to be inside? The main difference between people in Chicago and people in New York, as I see it, is that people in Chicago are comfortable being happy while people in New York distrust happiness. The latter stance is more natural to me, but I am trying to see the usefulness of the former.

SR: The last story of the collection, “The Grand Claremont Hotel,” has a voice that’s strikingly unlike the others. The narrator is fired from his job while on a business trip and undergoes existential dread in his newfound freedom. Hotel management upgrades him from room to room in a Kafkaesque series of events until one day he realizes the hotel won’t let him leave. He’s trapped in purgatory but seems to find peace there. What inspired this story?

CL: Oh dear, I’m not sure I really know. I’ve stayed in a lot of hotel rooms lately. One night I was in Reno to speak at the university and I was upgraded for no reason to a room larger than a small house that had a bathtub in the living room. I feel this enticing, numbing sense of being coddled every time I stay in a hotel. I find it both enjoyable and upsetting, which is usually a good place for me to begin writing.

SR: “Enjoyable and upsetting” sounds like a perfect blurb for this collection. What other enjoyable/upsetting events have inspired these stories?

CL: Crying in public, watching and practicing martial arts, filling out family court paperwork, air travel, unsuccessfully attempting to teach high school students, co-owning and running a bed and breakfast, setting up temporary homes in drastically different places several times in two years.

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Spencer Ruchti works as a bookseller in Harvard Square. He lived a long time in Pocatello, Idaho, and then Missoula, Montana. He now lives in Boston, where he’s writing a novel.

Cracking open the vault of human hypocrisy and duality: A review of Sloane Crosley's Look Alive Out There by Peter LaBerge

BY MADELINE DIAMOND

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One of today’s masters of the personal essay, Sloane Crosley, brilliantly explores a wide range of topics, from elementary school grudges to fertility, in her new collection, Look Alive Out There (MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2018). Crosley’s third book of essays, published ten years after her first, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, maintains her signature wit while offering stronger self-reflection.

Perhaps one of the most striking essays in this new collection is “Outside Voices,” in which Crosley describes her one-sided relationship with a noisy teenage neighbor in her West Village apartment. Crosley sets the scene by introducing the neighbor, Jared, from her distant perspective.

How do I begin to explain my relationship with this creature? Is it a relationship if you’ve never met? Certainly this is an acceptable dynamic online, but played out in real life it’s called stalking. All five of the windows in my apartment faced Jared’s house. And for as many years, I heard every word this kid said.

Crosley crafts the character of Jared with humor and ease—the reader simultaneously knows everything and nothing about him, just as the narrator does. While much of the essay discusses the idiosyncrasies of New York City life, it strays from insularity and exclusionary language. New Yorkers, in particular, may commiserate with the author and the standard of claustrophobia in New York apartment living; but fundamentally, “Outside Voices” is about privacy and perception. The author’s tangible frustration comes not only from the invasion of her own privacy, but also from her inadvertent invasion of Jared’s. She doesn’t want to know as much about Jared’s life as she does, but the fact of the matter is that she does, which ultimately drives her intervention in his life. Through dialogue and her sharp-tongued narrative voice, Crosley invites the reader into her mind and effectively expresses the terror that Jared has caused her. In one scene, the she describes an instance in which Jared and his friends witness the narrator and her boyfriend, who is referred to as “the emotionally unavailable man,” naked through a window.

“What’s the relationship?” [Jared] shouted up, making a megaphone of his hands.

“You have to admit,” said the emotionally unavailable man, “that’s some sophisticated heckling.”

Staying low, I opened the window further.

“Shut up, Jared!” I snapped.

Jared’s friends snorted and slapped the table.

“Oh shit, man,” said one of them, “she knows your name!”

It was the first time I’d used his name, a treat I had been saving for myself. I lay on my back and grinned at the ceiling.

Without much of a physical description or other basic information, it would seem that Jared is initially a difficult character to connect with, although Crosley provides just enough characterization for readers to understand who he is and what he represents. Similarly, the lack of characterization of the narrator’s boyfriend, an authorial choice, emphasizes the discrepancy between perception and true identity, a common thread throughout the essay.

There is also the issue of Jared’s name. The repetition and sonic presence of his name is such an integral part of the essay, and finding a pseudonym for this character to do justice to the havoc he’s wreaked is no small task. Is it a coincidence that the name Jared is one currently circulating the media with disdain, thus catching readers up to speed with a similar sense of frustration? For Crosley, a known lover of wordplay, it would be hard to believe that this wasn’t a conscious choice. By the end of the essay, the author, exacerbated by neighbor-induced mania, comes to a realization that despite Jared’s, and later his younger sister’s, unwanted presence in her life, and vice versa, their existences are ultimately separate. “Their lives were out there and mine was in here. They were forever behind me in time, as unable to catch up as I was to wait for them.”

While much of the essay is light and energetic in tone, this excerpt in the last paragraph of the piece suggests the true toll that this relationship, or lack thereof, has taken on the narrator. The author uses imagery to form a juxtaposition between Crosley’s identity in an enclosed, indoor space and Jared’s in a presumably freer, outdoor space. As a woman in her thirties, Crosley has earned a degree of security in her life, as evidenced by her five-windowed apartment, while Jared, his friends, and his sister, all teenagers, lack certainty but have a degree of freedom, which is part of what instigates the author’s disdain. Although, as Crosley soberly puts it, her life and Jared’s will continue to exist on different planes, emphasized by their spatial separateness.

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Crosley transitions between tones from essay to essay, from the comical to the deeply introspective. The personal essay format lends itself well to tonal shifts, and with that, the opportunity to shed the limitations of more traditional memoir. Take the final essay in the collection, “The Doctor Is a Woman.” While much of the collection is dedicated to the author’s adventures—and misadventures—this essay delves deeper than others in this book, as well as her previous two collections. The author examines the culture of the fertility world and, ultimately, her decision to freeze her eggs.

What makes this essay so remarkable is the author’s description of medical procedures, both from a clinical and a deeply personal perspective. Crosley details the steps of freezing one’s eggs with candor, but uses more casual language to remain true to herself as a writer:

You inject vials of drugs into your abdomen to persuade that one egg to let everyone have a chance. At the end of two weeks, you are briefly knocked out while your eggs are popped in a freezer.

By employing a conversational tone about a serious life event, Crosley invites the reader to join her in this experience. The use of the present tense gives the reader the sense that they are experiencing these events alongside her, rather than being told the story long afterwards. At the same time, this essay includes introspection that allows Crosley incredible vulnerability. “[The eggs] are just floating fractions of an idea. I know that. But I had never seen a part of my body exist outside my body before. I felt such gratitude.” Crosley writes “I know that” after the previous declarative statement, as if she’s addressing the reader directly. While many of Crosley’s essays use language that speaks to her readers for comedic effect, this essay is particularly noteworthy because of the candor and Crosley’s step away from self-deprecating humor. By putting herself at the center of this essay, she is able to provide a genuine account of what the fertility world looks like today while simultaneously exploring greater themes of self-identity and social expectations.

In an essay titled “The Chupacabra,” one of the shorter pieces in the collection, Crosley examines the life of a writer through a reflection on a unique assignment from a magazine—to find a creature, the chupacabra, in rural Vermont. “I am a less-than-ideal candidate for the job. I don’t specialize in mythical-creature hunting or even run-of-the-mill hunting.”

The narrator’s self-deprecating voice is a hallmark of Crosley’s writing style, as is the conversational tone used in this essay. The use of rhetorical questions, like when the narrator examines a flyer offering massage services that is “printed in Comic Sans (is there any other kind?),” offers a sense of familiarity that grounds the more outrageous subject matter of the essay in reality. Surely not all of the experiences Crosley writes about will be relatable to her readers, although her reflections on the unpredictability of the human experience, often expressed through quips, transcend subject. Similarly, in the penultimate essay in the collection, “Our Hour Is Up,” the narrator uses the rhetorical to add her mature sense of wit and perspective to a piece centered on a childhood memory: offering therapy sessions to her elementary school classmates—on Tuesdays specifically. “Why Tuesdays? Because Monday is too loaded, Friday is not loaded enough, Thursday is charged with anticipation for Friday, and Tuesday is essentially a less popular version of Wednesday. And ‘less popular’ is exactly where I belong.” The addition of this clever retrospection helps Crosley reconcile the relationship between the subject of the essay, her younger self, and her present-day narrative voice.

The conversation between the speaker’s two selves serves a major role throughout this collection. Whether it be the child and the adult narrator in “Our Hour Is Up,” the rational and the irrational self in “Outside Voices,” or the writer and the civilian in “The Chupacabra,” Crosley is constantly cracking open the vault of human hypocrisy and duality through the examination of her own experiences.

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Madeline Diamond is a writer and journalist based in New York City. She graduated from Bucknell University, where she majored in creative writing and American history. While at Bucknell, she interned at West Branch, the University's literary journal. Her writing has appeared in HuffPost, Business Insider, and more. 

Remembering Rudrakshi Bhattacharjee by Peter LaBerge

BY PETER LABERGE

Nothing makes us happier than witnessing growth and passion in emerging writers. When we came across a startlingly fresh, unique writing sample from a high school student named Rudrakshi Bhattacharjee in 2017, our jaws dropped, and we knew she had to claim a seat in the program.

We are heartbroken to share Rudrakshi’s unexpected passing at the end of last year, during her junior year at Greenwood High School in Bangalore, India. To pay tribute to Rudrakshi’s extraordinary promise and potential, we have asked her mentor, Andrew Gretes, to reflect on his time working with her, and are fortunate enough to share a short story of hers below.

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On Rudrakshi’s Passion and Drive: A Brief Reflection

BY ANDREW GRETES

Working with Rudrakshi last summer was truly a joy. Her energy and passion for writing were contagious. She’d toss out a spry semantic observation—“I really like the word ‘human’ before ‘urgency’”—and I’d find myself mulling over the line and thinking to myself, Well no wonder that story I’m writing isn’t working; I’ve placed the human after the urgency!

There’s a wonderful maturity in so many of Rudrakshi’s sentences. When I read a line like, “Sometimes she used to think her parents were like characters from different plays who came to rest under the same roof,” the whole drama of being a child (half-offspring, half-spy)—our desperate quest to decode our parents—it all comes swirling back to me and gives me chills. Rudrakshiki’s fiction is littered with such lines.

Her imagination, her verve, and her ability to evoke such human mysteries will be deeply missed. In her writing statement, Rudrakshi spoke of an “intense belongingness” she found in reading the Adroit Journal. I smile at the thought of a young writer reading Rudrakshi’s fiction today and feeling that same jolt of intensity and belongingness.

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This is How It Took Place

BY RUDRAKSHI BHATTACHARJEE

 

           This is how I remember Anthony.                                                                                                                                                             Sentient and aberrant. Curved chin, topaz jaw, hair sprouting out of his bottle-shaped head. Not beautiful, never that, but intriguing. Rising up from beneath the water, his arms on mine, the veins in his neck bulging, like thin green snakes trying to push their way out of his skin. Laughing sometimes; throat quivering, chapped lips and a mouth suddenly penetrable. His laugh has always been a quiet, rustling sound, you could hear it only if you tried. Then he is beneath the water again, absolved, as if he was never there at all.

           I don’t remember how I started cheating on Mark with Anthony but I remember it happened very fast.  I knew Anthony’s apartment address in a day, his allergies (pollen and tobacco sauce) in another, his relationship with his parents (non-existent) in a week. Somehow my life formed a routine. I spent my days with Mark and my nights with Anthony. Comedy shows and then Goddard films. Discussions about Central Park and then the Met. Loud buzzing groups with mimosas and then a solemn bottle of wine.                                                                                                                                                             Sometimes I liked to pretend that they were the same person and that he was just different in the morning and the evening. Two sides to the same person. I’ll never get bored, I told myself. Its like the perfect partner. A two in one deal. I repeated this to myself continuously, in cabs, on the subway, standing on pavements as I stared at the reflection of my face in rain puddles wondering when I had started looking as drained as a rotten grape. They were very similar thought, and this made it easier to pretend. Mark liked his coffee with no sugar, as did Anthony. Both of them loved the idea of winter but realized that a hot summer was easier to bear. They had both been on their school swimming team. Both of them worked in sales, although one was a cashier, the other a regional manager. They could have almost been best-friends. Meeting on the C Train, drinking chilled beers after work, kicking back their feet, and loosening their collar and discussing women and sports. I like to think of them that way: old friends fitting into each other comfortably, always laughing at a joke I had told.

           An example of a conversation with Anthony:

           “We spent our nights on the streets, just walking and looking at the guys selling their paintings. It was beautiful in a way I don’t think I’ll ever experience again.” Anthony pulled at my earlobes the way Mark pulled at my toes.

           “Did you ever buy a painting?”

            Anthony sighed, smoke blew into my face. “We were broke and in college. English majors. We still can’t afford paintings.”

            “You’re not a failure. And you can now.” “It’s almost as if you think I love you because you flatter me.”

“You were young and dumb then, I’m sure you bought some obscure painting. Half a breast, face of a lion.”

            “We were young.”

            We were young.

            Anthony said this often and only when I had not met him for a few days. It was a sore point for him. That he is forty five and I am twenty seven and Mark is twenty eight. I told him it’s scandalous. I told him age looks good on him. I told him I’ll love him when he’s grey. I told him all the things I’m supposed to tell him.

            His eyes gleamed, his fingers jokingly reaching for an aspirin lying on the table because he knew that I knew that later he would rummage for Benzedrine in his bathroom cupboards.

            I wish I could describe the pathos that Anthony’s tired figure evinced from me anytime I touched his pulsing warm body as he talked in a flurry of drunken murmurs even though he had not touched a drop of alcohol. Anthony’s guzzling brown iris dilated, the whites of his eyes disappearing. I was always rapacious with Anthony’s eyes, I imagined myself swallowing them while I lay with Mark.

 

            An afternoon I spent with Laura in a Fifth Avenue restaurant I could barely afford:

            My friend Laura called Anthony the Mysterious Musician even though I told her numerous times that Anthony had never played a music instrument. “That doesn’t matter,” she’d said, “he just has to be the type.” I told her she had been watching too many romantic comedies.

            Laura didn’t find the age thing strange as I thought she would have. But then again, her husband is six year younger than her; she cannot judge. Laura met Anthony once. She said he was gruff and smug and and she made me wonder when I had stopped seeing him in the way everyone else saw him. We argued.

            “But Mark’s so much better for you. He’s so nice.”

            “I think so too.”

            “Then why not drop Anthony.”

            She cupped my face. She thought I liked it when she treated me like her daughter, she thought I had never been shown affection without lust accompanying it. All this analysis from a psych class she had taken in community college more than three decades back. I called her Grizzly Bear in my head and not only because she never shaved properly so she pricked my skin anytime she brushed her legs against mine. “And stay with Mark. I understand the need to break out and try a dangerous thing but its been a year now. I mean I gettit, the literature thing. But he has the personality of a brush.”

            “I’m just enjoying myself.” She petted me disconcertedly before licking the large brownie on her plate and gulping it down.

            As I stared at the thin wrinkles on her face that made it look like she was always squinting and the alarming whiteness of her hair, I wondered why I continually surrounded myself with people who were at least ten years older than me.

            “Just don’t get too attached. What happens if Mark doesn't forgive you?” I didn’t see her much after that.

 

            Places I Have Visited With Mark:

A deli in a street in Chelsea that we found by accident

Coney Island

a Youtube Space Gordo’s Bar

An open mic night at an LGBTQ friendly bar where Mark sang “My Heart Will Go On”

The Strand

Mark’s parent’s house on the Upper East side Staten Island

            Places I Have Visited With Anthony:

His apartment

 

            When I first told Mark I loved him it was because of how he smelt that day. He smelt like detergent and smoked ham. He reminded me of the liveliness of a Sunday brunch and the openness of cafés with rooftop seating. He reminded me of houses with long hallways and mirrors running from end to the other. He reminded me of baby blue walls and bright orange curtains and white fruit bowls and marble kitchen islands.                                                                                                                                                              When I first told Mark I loved him, he bought me a gold pendant. When we fought I gave it back. When we made up, he gave me a new one. This is how it was with Mark. Endless chances and charity donations. A life of two kids, country clubs and a tennis court on which he would let me win if I asked.

            Anthony, I knew I would never marry. It wasn’t even because we rarely agreed or because there were always aching silences between us or because he was always so angry that he needed to chew Benzedrine to sit upright. It wasn’t even because anytime I kissed him I had to pretend I could not taste the sour bite of a previous cigarette or because I never knew what he was going to do until he did it. It wasn’t even the age thing, although I had wondered about that at first. It was because when I told him I was with Mark, he scowled and then laughed and said, “I’m sorry that this has happened. And I’m sorry that I love you as well.”

            Towards the end of my relationship with Anthony and the start of my marriage with Mark, Anthony finally began to share his poems with me. He was like a more callous Allen Ginsberg and sometimes I found him dry and witless. But I liked the idea of having my very own beat poet, tightened and caged and leashed to me. I only seemed to live for the idea of things, I was slowly realizing, I never had any time to give to the reality of situations.

 

            The reason I broke up with Anthony and spent three weeks in misery while Mark rubbed my back, and applied ointment and combed my hair before finally proposing to me was because of what Anthony said once when I told him I didn’t want to choose between him and Mark.

            He said, “And that’s another thing I hate about women. A woman finds a million ways to tell a man he’s useless without having to say it out loud.”

            I told him I always knew he hated women. He chuckled. It was a really ugly, throaty sound. I only thought it was a chuckle because it was easier to think that than think of it as something harsher, like the clearing of his throat. “Even my barber knows that.”

            I told him he was a homosexual. Then I told him I didn’t mind if he was but that I’d known all along.

            “I’m not gay,” he said. “I’ve let you into my house for so long, haven't I?”

            I asked him why he was so angry about Mark. He’d never said anything before. Why was he asking about Mark now?

            “Because I didn’t realize I could until today.” Then I left his apartment, not even turning around once.

            Within three months I was back. It was eleven, I took a cab even though the fare was 60 dollars but with my new name and bank account of Mrs. Mark, I had been promised that money did not matter. We would have to save, yes, but not in the way I had been when I had lived in Brooklyn.

            “You can withdraw and withdraw," Mark had said to me in the way you tell a child he can have as many red toy truck as he wants. “Anything you need,” Mark smiled, and his teeth suddenly seemed alarmingly white to me, as if he had had them removed and replaced with a shinier ivory set he thought would look much better.

            When I spoke to Anthony, he scowled at me the entire time I talked. The hollows of his cheeks gaped at me, his dark eye circles glowered. I wanted to touch his face and feel its bristly edges. I wanted to kiss him right above his chin where he had cut himself shaving. I wanted to scream at him that it wasn't fair that the reasons I had fallen in love with him were the reasons I couldn’t stay.    

            He said, “I did miss you.”

            I said, “I was in Paris. Love and all that.” He said, “My subscription to the Leopard’s Review got over.”

            I said, “I’ll buy you a new one.”

            He said, “Buy me a new fridge too while you’re at it.”

            Sometimes I thought about poisoning Mark while I sat at my desk in the library, making no justice to the managerial position he had got for me. I thought of slipping some antifreeze in the cranberry juice I would give him while we would sit on our terrace, watching the building opposite where Mark wanted to live because it had bigger rooms and a bigger terrace and more floors. I would love him then, I decided, I would be so kind to him that day. I would purr at every joke he told, I would rub his back, I would do all the things he had done for me. I would feel sad, maybe even cry a little once he was dead but the thrill of taking away his life, of being so powerful lit a sort of burning desire in me. My body suddenly felt alive and jocular: it was like I had been reminded that my body was my own and my life was my own and I could do whatever I wanted. It seemed like a tremendous finding to me, this simple thought that I could do what I wanted, that tomorrow I could run away to Bali or throw myself off a cliff because my life was mine. I had forgotten that I had a pulse for so long that now when it became apparent to me once again, I felt it with a such a deep and powerful throbbing that it seemed impossible to ignore it. It became more and more clear to me that I could only love Mark if I was going to leave him.

            This is the way in which Anthony becomes angry:

            First he will shake his head slightly and scoff, releasing a sudden whoosh of air from his mouth. Then he will sit down on whatever is near him, be it a table, a chair, sometimes even the ground. Then he will stare at me, threatening me to continue. I will continue. Then he will look down and close his eyes, and I will imagine that when he opens his eyes again they will glow a violent shade of red and he will sprout out fingers like Edward Scissorhands and slice me into thin creamy pieces of flesh so he can keep me cooped up in some jar he has forgotten to clean in his kitchen.                                       

  But he will not do any of this. Instead: he will laugh, and take me into his arms and I will apologize and he will say, “you do like me, dont you,” and I will say, “not always, not now, maybe yesterday” and he will smile because he finds me funny and I will stay there sprawled out on his chest, chin up, watching his rubbery purple lips murmur something in Latin, and I will say, “why did you learn a dead language” and he will say, “to impress you” and I will not say anything because now in this moment we are in a movie, in a romantic comedy and I can feel nothing except this sort of bubbling happiness because to love and to know that you are loved is enough, its enough for me, and we will stay like this till Anthony’s skin withers away and flakes of his dead skin fall to the floor, and I will stay there buried in his skeleton until that too breaks and I am left with only this memory of him and then I will mourn, mourn, mourn.                                                                                                                  

 

            This is the way in which Anthony tells me he's leaving:

            “I’m going back to Kansas.” He’s eating the maple sugar and honey oats I bought him from CVS, and is picking out the dried raisins because he thinks they look like dead insects. “My mother’s dead.”

            “I thought you lived in Missouri.” “Kansas City,” he growls. “Anyway, I’m leaving soon, my brother wants me there for the funeral to say a few words. And I haven't seen my nephew in a while, so I’ve bought a bike for him. This is pretty much my last day with you. I’ll be home for a while.”                                                                                                                                                              I watch him. He looks as haggard as always with his ruffled hair and his untucked shirt and his blue Under Armor boxers which he has worn every time I’ve met him. But there’s something different, something so out of place it’s disconcerting. He’s grinning. His face looks like those lopsided colorful smiley faces children make with play doh. He looks like Mark. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry to put you through all this. Don’t forget me.”

            “How could I forget a poet as famous as you,” I say and I am supposed to sound bitter but I just sound pathetic. Like I’m begging him to stay.

            He laughs. It is settled.

            When I get back home to Mark, I tell him I have been having an affair for the entirety of our relationship. I tell Mark about Anthony’s retarded brother, his alcoholic sister, his dead mother, his broken cobblestone home, his favorite yogurt shop where he was kissed by a senior girl and the park nearby where his friend was shot. But then I am crying, because I am getting mixed up, because Anthony’s brother might have been a construction worker, he may not have a sister, he might have lived on a farm, and his friend might as well be alive and well and working in Goldman Sachs. I can believe anything I want because I will never know the truth again.

            “Why did you marry me?” Mark says. He is making a sandwich with only lettuce and chunky pieces of cream cheese between the bread.

            “I love you,” I say. It’s like another way of saying sorry. “I love you.”

            “Why did you marry me?” he says again and takes out taco shells from the cupboard. Mark once told me he loves Mexican food because the best days of his life were the holidays he spent with his aunt in Tijuana. He helped her sew when she couldn’t anymore because of her arthritis and in return she would give him Cochinita pibil which he would give the boys near his aunt’s house so that they would agree to playing soccer with him. When he told me this I suggested we go to Chipotle.

            “I am not particularly rich, or handsome, or clever. Why did you marry me?” Mark does not get angry in the way Anthony gets angry. When Mark gets angry he bites his nails, or peels off his scabs or cooks sporadically. When Mark gets angry he does not shout, he discusses.                                                                                                                                                              “Oww!” he yelps suddenly, his fingers have brushed the pan inside which he is making tomato sauce. His iPhone beeps and he flinches in surprise. I cannot think of a life without him.

            Weeks Later:

            Anthony emails me pictures of him with his family. He looks like a child in all of them. He is eating corndogs and making silly faces with his sister. I email him back and ask him if he has found a writing job there yet. He tells me his brother got him a job in construction.

            Your mother is dead, I want to remind his smiling face. But I don’t say anything and I delete his contact from my phone.

            What Mark and I do on Saturdays when we are both home:

            When Mark asks me why I did it, why I hurt him like I did, I am not sure how to respond. He is looks at me expectantly, waits for me to say something like i have so much love that I cant contain it but I disappoint him. I say ‘I’m sorry’ and he says, “I know you are but what am I” and he laughs but he rarely comes home now, he spends all his time in his office or at the gym. Sometimes I go through his phone when he is in the shower, quickly skimming through his messages. So far I am safe, Mark only texts his friends things like account numbers and questions about holidays, there are no women. There is one other text he sends every Friday, where he asks ‘how much’ and the response comes ‘$250 for an ounce of MJ’ and Mark says ‘meet at the location’ but I don’t mind. Mark and I are happy.

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Rudrakshi Bhattacharjee was a student at Greenwood High School in Bangalore, India, and she studied with Andrew Gretes in the The Adroit Journal 2017 Summer Mentorship Program.

Why We Read Fiction: A Review of Jamel Brinkley's A Lucky Man by Peter LaBerge

BY KWAME OPOKU-DUKU

  A Lucky Man , by Jamel Brinkley (Graywolf Press, 2018).

A Lucky Man, by Jamel Brinkley (Graywolf Press, 2018).

There is a moment four pages into “J’ouvert, 1996,” the second story of Jamel Brinkley’s collection, A Lucky Man, that is in so many ways emblematic of the nine stories comprising the whole. Brinkley’s young narrator, Ty, is about to get a bad haircut from his mother, a day before the West Indian Day Parade. Where the readers is situated in the plot, Brinkley has already rendered the family dynamic so fully, it becomes easy to think that you know what the story is about: looking foolish at a very crucial time in his transition from youth to manhood. It becomes easy to laugh as Ty pleads with her to go to a barbershop. “‘Trip’s been going since before he could walk,’” the narrator says, to which his mother responds, “‘Like I give a damn about some fool calls himself Trip.” There’s a familiarity to the characters that comes from Brinkley’s use of dialogue, generous  in the way it both provides a window into the characters’ lives and serves as a bit of misdirection. It can lull the reader into a false sense of security. But reading on, one comes to realize, no one truly knows what lies in another human’s heart, and what Brinkley has done in this first collection is remind us exactly why we read fiction—to find that out. To live in it.

The stories in A Lucky Man range from 18 to 38 pages, and in that space, Brinkley depicts each world in astounding detail. Clothes, music, walks, looks, skin tone, bodies—like the narrator of the first story, “No More Than a Bubble,” says, he and his friends “liked to know these kinds of things.” It’s these details that leave you so immersed, feeling like you know, so that when young, male partygoers, who crash a party looking for sex, come to understand something about themselves that they weren’t quite prepared for, you feel implicated along with the narrator. When, at the end of the story, he reflects on how his idea of beauty has changed, we are left to wonder about how our own misconceptions of beauty are constructed. The veneer of a story about two knuckleheads looking to score has cracked, revealing a story about a son trying to understand his father, about the fear of being alone. As the narrator is left wondering if he really got what he wanted, the reader will also wonder, Is this what I wanted, too? How have my own expectations influenced my reading of the story? Faulkner famously lamented that young writers forget that “the problem of the human heart at conflict with itself” could alone make for good writing. Brinkley takes Faulkner’s words to heart. His stories teem with conflict and, ultimately, are about locating that feeling. They speak to the way the heart’s conflict moves through time. They shift and grow with each page.

To be a writer of color—to be a black writer—is to bear the burden of expectation. To be a black male writer of any era is to bear the burden of representing black masculinity. Throughout the nine stories, Brinkley writes refreshingly nuanced portraits of black men, which, more often than not, highlight their fragility, in many cases as the men attempt to highlight their virility. Fraught relations between fathers and sons are interrogated in several of the stories. Themes of comportment and performance emerge as the sons make their way out into the world and try to find a connection, whether it be through exploring their sexuality or musing over the eventual arrest that will rob them of their future. Brinkley’s commitment to creating complex characters and allowing them to exist as they are, regardless of the consequences, is one of his many strengths. His protagonists often live through cringeworthy moments, and there are undercurrents of menace everywhere, reminiscent of writers like Mary Gaitskill or Raymond Carver. Yet, the precision through which Brinkley employs detail gives his stories such a rich and singular feel that it’s hard to compare him to anybody. Much of the beauty in these stories comes from the perspective of their narrators. There is distance between the speakers and the story being told, which allows for questions, which allow for moments of poetry. Wisdom exists in Brinkley’s speakers, even if they don’t see it themselves—it’s in the questions they ask and in the ways they remain unsure.

In the final story of the collection, “Clifton’s Place,” a neighborhood bar is transformed until it is unrecognizable, a chilling story of erasure through gentrification. Brinkley pairs this erasure with the owner of Clifton’s Place, a woman struggling through the phases of dementia, and the various demises of its group of neighborhood regulars, known as “the folks.” The story follows a regular named Ellis, a lonely, somewhat pathetic man, as he witnesses it firsthand. While being lectured by the bartender, Sharod, about not being run out of their own establishments, Sharod warns him, “[W]e can’t have none of that soft-ass, bearing-gifts-for-massa, wannabe native informant bullshit. I see you eyeballing that white girl, but don’t get it twisted. The gentry don’t give a fuck about you.” Ellis still follows her home and humiliates himself. Again, Brinkley spares no one, and by end of the story, just as we are not sure if we can bear any more degradation, Brinkley walks us through that door, allowing us to live out the consequences, and as we read the last words, we are once again left wondering, Is this what I wanted? We are once again left questioning ourselves, reminded once again why we read fiction.

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Kwame Opoku-Duku, along with Karisma Price, is a founding member of the Unbnd Collective. His debut chapbook, The Unbnd Verses, is forthcoming from Glass Poetry Press, and his work is featured or forthcoming in BOMB, Massachusetts Review, The Literary Review, Bettering American Poetry, BOAAT, and elsewhere. Kwame lives in New York City.

Feminist Fridays: Don DeLillo’s White Noise is Relevant Again... by Peter LaBerge

...But Not Just Because His Protagonist is a Hitler Scholar; Or, A Feminist’s [Re]Reading of Don DeLillo’s White Noise

BY AMIE SOUZA REILLY

  “ Self-Portrait as a Housewife ,” by Anita Olivia Koester, from  Issue Twenty-One .

Self-Portrait as a Housewife,” by Anita Olivia Koester, from Issue Twenty-One.

When Don DeLillo’s White Noise was published in 1985, Jayne Anne Phillips wrote this in her New York Times review: “In light of the recent Union Carbide disaster in India that killed over 2,000 and injured thousands more, White Noise seems all the more timely and frightening– precisely because of its totally American concerns, its rendering of a particularly American numbness.” She was referring to the Bhopal gas leak, the worst industrial catastrophe in history, a disaster so calamitous that its repercussions are still felt in the community. (In fact, while I was writing this, The Atlantic published an article revisiting its victims.) There is no denying how the second segment of DeLillo’s book, titled “The Airborne Toxic Event,” seems like a microcosm of that tragedy. In this section, a train has either derailed or gotten rammed or something has punched a hole in its side, and as the chemicals spewing from the wreckage change from a feathery plume to a black billowing cloud, the town is forced to evacuate, all while the media, the government, and the healthcare system report a litany of changing symptoms and prognoses to the town’s people.

Certainly the ideas of shifty media and environmental disasters are still relevant thirty-three years later, but what’s notable about White Noise is that as relatable as it was in 1985, it is timely, frightening, and pertinent to American concerns for a new (but perhaps not as praiseworthy) reason: Babette. The first-person protagonist’s wife is often overlooked, both within the novel and in the praise surrounding it. But not only is Babette overlooked, she is also overly looked at, which makes her a pretty perfect representation of American women. But even beyond the male gaze and flattening of Babette’s character, I believe her experience with the fear-of-death blocking, black market drug Dylar is emblematic of our current administration’s war on reproductive rights.

That seems like a lot to pull out of a character who is primarily described as “Jack’s wife who has an affair with Willie Mink,” but bear with me.

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In the third and final section of the novel, while the two are lying in bed, Jack confronts his wife about the Dylar pills he and Babette’s daughter have found. (The title of this section, “Dylarama,” sounds like “diorama” and reading it feels like peering into a box of Babette’s drama—it’s microcosmic, almost like a John Donne metaphysical poem, a tiny world unraveling in their bed.) He tells her, “It’s time for a major dialogue;” adding that he and her daughter Denise have her “backed against a wall.” His approach is confrontational, assertive, and accusatory. Jack compares the technology of the pill, which he’s had analyzed by a neurobiologist at the college where he works, to the microorganisms released to devour the toxic cloud. In this analogy, Babette and the airborne toxic event are the same, and a connection between mother-Babette and Mother Earth seems almost too easy. What warrants closer consideration is how this connection erases the individual-ness of Babette’s dilemma, yet also enlarges it. Before she speaks to Jack, he seems to see her use of Dylar as being equivalent to the town’s disaster: a huge, life-altering mystery that overcomes his thoughts. However, once she tells him the whole story, her whole story, the weight of the problem evaporates (at least for Jack) and he diminishes its importance.

After Jack’s opening monologue, Babette is silent for several minutes before she begins to tell her story. She starts by trying to identify the source of her unease, to set up the why before the what. But she doesn’t get very far. Jack won’t stop interrupting. First he corrects her, stopping her midway through her sentence to point out that she meant to say she was going through either a “landmark” or “watershed” period, not a “watermark period” as she has mistakenly said. And then, once she moves past his grammar lecture and begins explaining her crippling, unwavering fear of death, he interjects: “You’ve been depressed lately. I’ve never seen you like this. This is the whole point of Babette. She’s a joyous person. She doesn’t succumb to gloom or self pity.”

Jack is not only dismissing Babette’s understanding of her own mind and body, but he is delineating her person down to a compressed, “joyous” version of her that he has created. To him, her fear cannot be real, for it does not fit how he understands her. And as she continues to talk, he gaslights her into exhaustion. He tries to dissuade her fear of death by blaming her weight. When that doesn’t work, he belittles its seriousness: “If you’re able to conceal such a thing from a husband and children, maybe it’s not so severe;” and then he tries to take her horror away from her: “I’m the one who fears death.” All of this deflects from Babette and undermines her autonomy and her authority. Reading Babette in 2018 reminds me of every man who has spoken over me in a classroom or a boardroom, of every doctor who has ignored a woman’s pain complaint, of all of the men who have told women to smile.

Nevertheless, Babette persists with her story. Yet it seems that Jack, for all of his determination to get her to explain herself, still cannot pay attention. Perhaps this is the whole point of Jack—to be obtuse, self-involved, and childish. But his dismissiveness and insistence on talking over her feels too familiar.

Even when the conversation ends, the misogyny continues. The two get up, use the bathroom, and head back to bed. But Jack waits while Babette fixes the sheets, and when they both tumble in, as she tells him how tired she is and curls up for sleep, he peppers her with more questions. She acquiesces, but when she asks to stop after answering a few, he continues. It seems as though Jack still cannot conceive of a Babette who does not fit his meaning. He is dumbfounded: “I have watched you bathe Wilder, iron my shirts…” Through his confused musings it becomes clear that he only wants her to be his happy wife, the teacher of simple tasks, mother to children, reader to the blind.

But wait. Despite all Jack’s interruptions, we do get to hear from Babette regarding what Dylar is, where she got it, and what has happened to her since. After she finishes telling Jack about the mounting fear of death that has swelled within her, she tells him she found out about Dylar in a magazine. Her blind client requests that she read him tabloids, and it was while Babette was reading from the National Examiner that she saw an ad. She is vague in her description of what it said, telling Jack, “Volunteers wanted for secret research. This is all you have to know.” In a world full of fear where things stop making sense, even rag magazines hold truth. (How often does reality feel like an article in The Onion? How often does one read an article that feels real without realizing its satire?)

Babette tells Jack she followed through on the ad, passed a battery of tests, and became part of the study, ingesting the capsules that slowly released Dylar into her body, in theory, blocking the receptors that allowed her to fear death. However, just as the experiment seemed to be in full swing, three of the four scientists changed their minds, concerned the drug was too risky and its side effects too unknown. They worried she could die, or that parts of her brain could die, and even though Babette’s whole reason for seeking out the drug was because she fears death, she wanted to move forward. The mental gymnastics there are difficult, but the desperation is easy to understand. Babette, removed from the study but determined to alleviate her fear, must do anything to get the Dylar, and so, like Eve in the Garden of Eden, she followed the snake to the forbidden fruit. Babette confesses to Jack that she slept with the fourth scientist, Willie Minks. “It was a capitalist transaction,” she says.

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Of course, the novel is bursting with commentary on American consumerism; it’s full of car brands and commercials, food lists and fashion choices, so Babette’s assertion that sex with Willie Minks was “a capitalist transaction” fits well within the scope of the story. But how raw it feels to read this now, when women’s rights to their bodies are increasingly controlled by the wealthy white men running our country, when women who cross the border seeking asylum have their children taken, are themselves sent back. Women’s bodies as commerce, traded, exchanged, and transacted, is a tale as old time and as new as tomorrow. Considering Babette while Title X funding is under siege, science-based healthcare for women is being overridden by moralistic ideals, and Brett Kavanaugh steps closer to being on our Supreme Court shifts my understanding of this diorama-esque section into something more macrocosmic. It seems like all women are Babettes, existing in a country full of Jacks certain that they know where women should be: “I have watched you bathe Wilder, iron my shirts.”  

And it’s not just Babette, it’s the Dylar she’s taking, that begs us to consider how relevant, maybe even prophetic, White Noise has turned out to be. I can’t help but think about how similar Dylar is to another slow-release drug that staves off fear: birth control. IUDs and implants seem to me to be just as miraculous as the capsule Babette takes. And it doesn’t seem difficult to jump from fear of death to fear of pregnancy, especially as maternal mortality rates in this country are on the rise, and threats to contraceptive freedom (which not only prevents unwanted pregnancies, but also relieves symptoms of endometriosis, ovarian cysts, even acne) are hovering over our heads like their own toxic cloud. Is it too hard to imagine a world where men use their power to elicit sex in exchange for birth control? The Handmaid’s Tale is not the only dystopian feminist novel we need to hand out.

It seems easy to swap out some of the words from Jayne Anne Phillips’ NYT review to make White Noise just as pertinent today. This book is, at its heart, an examination into how we function while the outside world is uncertain, how we come to normalize change, how the minutiae of life marches forward, how grocery shopping and newspaper deliveries coexist with disasters. That is, I believe, what Phillips was describing as “a particular American numbness.” Babette’s character is certainly emblematic of this phenomenon; she functions quite well despite her inside and outside world’s chaos. However, a close look at her experience with Dylar and with her obtuse husband with twenty-first century mindset is illustrative of our current (and long-held) male-dominated power structures. Babette’s story, like so many women’s stories, is one about resilience.

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Amie Souza Reilly holds an M.A. in English Literature from Fordham University. She teaches at Norwalk Community College and Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and ten-year-old son. She has published essays in The New Engagement and Entropy, and has flash fiction forthcoming in Toasted Cheese and Pigeonholes. Her blog can be found here: https://theshapeofme.blog.

Lures and Hooks: A Review of Lee Conell's Subcortical by Peter LaBerge

BY CARA DEES

  Subcortical , by Lee Conell (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

Subcortical, by Lee Conell (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

“There’s a science to certain mysteries,” the narrator of the short story, “The Afterlife of Turtles,” declares. Midway through Lee Conell’s debut short story collection, Subcortical (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), the protagonist’s uncle—a man who loves science fiction and “worries about the state of his soul in a way intense enough to allow him to receive money from the state”—is missing. His absence forces her to question destiny, heaven, hell, mental illness, and belief, itself. This wrestling with belief, the give-and-take between the impossible and the possible, the desperately wished-for dream and stark reality, pervades the collection. Characters’ desire for transformation, the return of the dead, the ability to traverse social class or afford a college education, is deeply felt and deeply real, even as Conell situates many of her stories among ghosts, phantasms, and science fiction. Subcortical urges the reader to take fantasy and fiction seriously, to consider how belief in the supernatural or the unlikely is not only an emotional touch point, but also a potential form of salvation.

Winner of the 2018 Story Prize Spotlight Award and an Independent Publisher Book Award for Short Story Fiction, Subcortical’s stories often feature characters on a moral or psychological precipice, balancing between their past and an uncertain future, when visions of the monstrous or the uncanny drive them to face their guilt and fear. In “What the Blob Said to Me,” a grandmother relives her role in the construction of the atomic bomb among the backdrop of the 1958 film, The Blob. Soon, she associates the creature with her own silent complicity: “an oozing hush of havoc, a mucousy muteness surrounded by the sounds of others, by human screaming.” In “My Four Stomachs,” high school student Carley struggles to cope with her boyfriend’s debilitating mental illness. As Carley attempts to digest her confusion and grief, she recounts their relationship from the perspective of the four chambers of a cow’s stomach: “A place of entrapment, a place of softening. All at once. As if entrapment and softening were synonyms. They’re not synonyms.” Carley uses her encounter with the bizarre—in this case, the digestive tract of a mild-mannered, fistulated cow named Buttercup—to try to comprehend tragedy, puberty, first love and its disappointments.

Even “The Lock Factory,” a story anchored in realism, hints at the mysterious. Awarded the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award and named a distinguished story in Best American Short Stories 2017, its protagonist is spellbound by the idea of freedom. She is especially invested in her vision of how her mother’s past co-workers escaped from or succumbed to their Midwestern hometown. Though gripping throughout, it is the present day scenes that most captured my attention, perhaps because of the far reach and pull of the mother-daughter relationship:

With my mother calling after me, I sprinted . . . Until then I’d always imagined an invisible tether linking me to my mother—if I got too far away, I was sure that tether would snap me back to her through some kind of mysterious maternal physics . . . And there, coming after me, was my mother. But not my mother like I knew her. I had never seen her run so fast. I had never seen her move with such strength.

Throughout the collection, Conell never loses touch with the reader; the passion and sense of loss in these stories, their beat and pulse, is never distant. Whether transported to New York or Nashville, the 1940s or the present day, she does not lose sight of what lures and hooks our hearts.

The lyrical control of Conell’s sentences allows her to transition smoothly from grief and bitter anger to sharp, quirky humor reminiscent of the fierce wit of writers like Lucia Berlin and Grace Paley. In fact, Paley’s dictum, “Luckily for art, life is difficult, hard to understand, useless, and mysterious,” seems to apply particularly well. In their attempts to understand pain and love, characters grapple with the mysterious head-on. In “The Rent-Controlled Ghost,” mystery takes the shape of a lonely young boy worried he “might become a ghost in the new apartment” of his renovated complex and subsequently befriending the ghost of a past tenant. In the haunting story, “The Sextrology Woman,” mystery assumes the form of a mold specialist in a relationship with a PhD candidate who disapproves of his career. This career, however, allows him to look at mold “the way some people might gaze up while inside a cathedral, as if serious Mystery were whooshing around a sacred vaulted space.”

Whatever the reader chooses to call it—mystery, magical realism, the glimmer of possibility—there is an overarching theme of the dream of reaching forward and above where you are at the present moment. These stories are brimming with the potential energy of each character, to join “beings that live on the margins, outside of any logical dimension, any successful design,” as the teenage protagonist of “Hart Island” earnestly hopes. After all, in a world in which Elizabeth Taylor is a genetic mutant, perhaps it is also possible to climb to a wealthier and more powerful social class, like the protagonist in “Mutant at the Pierre Hotel” dreams, or to pull a live rabbit from your hat for your former boss, like the narrator instructs in “A Magic Trick for the Recently Unemployed.”

Dreams, hopes, the unreal-made-real and vice versa, weave and tighten these stories together, rewarding the reader with perspectives that captivate and confound, whirl you around and yet fasten you to the solid reality of the human body. A persistent motif that sounds throughout the collection is, as one might suspect, the subcortex, the part of the brain responsible for instinct, memory, pleasure, and fear. Here, one might think of Frank, the protagonist of “A Guide to Sirens,” who fascinates honeymooners with fabricated myths about the island they’re touring. Such a task is both freeing and unsettling for Frank, who remembers his own troubled marriage:

Frank has packed all his memories of her away in what he likes to think of as the cerebral cellar of his brain. He imagines those memories decomposing down to their more basic bits, fusing to other forms: fairy tales, myths, legends, the stuff of tacky tours, the stuff that makes his living, the stuff that allows him to live.

It is this small, memory-laden “cerebral cellar” that Frank credits for his particular construction of the mystical or ineffable. Science and mystery, legend and loss become, to a degree, synonymous, and their gorgeous tangle is simultaneously dangerous, heartbreaking, and life-giving.

Sheila, a grieving college student in the story, “Unit Cell,” likewise places a stress on the importance of the subconscious for emotional survival. Confronted by images of her dead sister, she begins to think that, “instead of trying to keep the memory back, she should allow it to repeat until that higher-order structure emerges.” For Conell, the power of the human mind to provide structure and take it away is absolutely vital in the pursuit of self-knowledge. This dual nature, for instance, allows the narrator of the titular story, “Subcortical,” to begin to process how she was manipulated into taking part in a horrifying gay conversion experiment masquerading as science, as well as to address her own collaboration. Unable to sleep at night, she imagines the patient free and happy, “finally recognizing the person on the other side” of the two-way mirror she watches him from. Conell’s dexterous, smart treatment of these characters, her willingness to reveal their mistakes, flaws, humor, weirdness, and love, occupies a landscape both intimate and surreal, one the reader has “never seen before, a place that exists just beneath the surface of her waking mind.”

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Cara Dees holds an MFA from Vanderbilt University and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati. The recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and a Pushcart Prize nomination, she was named the runner-up for the 2018 Third Coast Poetry Prize and a finalist for Indiana Review’s 2016 Poetry Prize. Her work appears or is forthcoming in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Best New Poets 2016, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, The Journal, and The Southeast Review. Her first manuscript was recently listed as a semifinalist or finalist for the Brittingham & Felix Pollak Prizes in Poetry, the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, The Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize, and the St. Lawrence Book Award.

A Conversation with Natalia Sylvester by Peter LaBerge

BY LETICIA URIETA

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Born in Lima, Peru, Natalia Sylvester came to the U.S. at age four. In 2006, Natalia received a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Miami. A former magazine editor, Natalia now works as a freelance writer in Texas and is a faculty member of the low-res MFA program at Regis University. Her work has appeared in Latina Magazine, Bustle, Catapult, Writer’s Digest, The Austin American-Statesman, and NBCLatino.com. Her first novel, Chasing the Sun, was named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad, and was chosen as a Book of the Month by the National Latino Book Club. Her second novel, Everyone Knows You Go Home, is out now from Little A Books.

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If you follow Natalia Sylvester on social media, you know that she is an outspoken advocate and activist for equity in publishing and immigrant rights. I have followed her work since hearing her read an excerpt from her first novel, Chasing the Sun, at Resistencia Bookstore in Austin, TX. She has been a strong supporter of my work and the work of other women of color in our community, always pushing for more room in literary spaces for voices that are still going unheard.

Her latest book, Everyone Knows You Go Home, is a beautiful touchstone for the ways in which narratives surrounding migration and familial bonds sometimes need to be wrenched from the mouths of pundits and reporters to return them to the world of flesh and blood, to the daily lives of the people living these stories. This was one of many topics we discussed in a conversation we had last spring.

Leticia Urieta: Where did this project (Everyone Knows You Go Home) begin for you?

Natalia Sylvester: I like to say that there is the spark of the idea and then what sustained it. The spark of the idea was that my husband and I were married on the Day of the Dead and people used to say, “Oh, that’s so interesting,” or they’d say, “Oh, that’s so funny,” and so I just took that to the next literal place. And what became interesting to me was that idea of, What if it was a spirit that came on that day, but no one would speak with him? And then, who would? And I thought, maybe this daughter-in-law. I thought also of the very special bond that would develop year after year, but also the strain that bond would have on a new marriage—if she is developing a special bond with this father-in-law that no one else wants to speak with, and he is visiting on every anniversary, at a time which is supposed to be all about her and her husband. That was the spark of it, really, but what ended up sustaining it (the project) for me, or where I feel the heart of the book came from, was the many stories that I have heard over my life that people had shared with me, whether family or friends, or even just people who I would speak with growing up. We moved a lot, first to Miami and then to the Valley (Rio Grande Valley), and I would talk to people and learn about their different experiences as immigrants, from all over Latin America, and they are just trying to make a home here. There are many different ways that those experiences have so much in common and also ways that they have very unique perspectives, as well. In some ways, I had always carried those stories and thought about them my whole life, and as a writer you wonder sometimes, Of all the things that I carry, will I ever find the right story to hold them? I was waiting for the right story to come along that would bring all of these stories about immigration together in a way that felt truthful and that could, in some way, honor those experiences. I wanted to explore the invisible spaces, the in-between spaces, how we often feel their presence so much. It became this story about how, once you’re here and you’re trying to make this home and you don’t know where you fit, there can be a lot of life and richness in that in-betweenness, too.

LU: As the novel moves back and forth in time to Omar’s crossing in 1981, there are many moments when he inhabits a space that is not a space. I wondered how place, both in this novel and perhaps in your first, is an engine for storytelling?

NS: I think I’ve always been fascinated by place and how we are connected to them even after we’ve left them. When I was very young, there were many years that I couldn’t go back to Peru because I was going through the immigration system, and it’s almost like you’re stuck. But even when I was little, I was very aware of migrants being people who had moved, and yet, in order to find out if we can or can’t stay, we can’t go anywhere. And so, it was a weird thing to have experienced. Most of my memories are of the U.S., and my idea of home was in the U.S., but I remember that it still felt, if not temporary, then fluid and a place that had not committed to us, though we had committed ourselves to it. That’s a weird thing to navigate, and when we did go back to Peru, I was struck by how much I didn’t remember, but that this was the place I came from, and the question of belonging was no longer there, at least initially. There is a very different connection there that was almost unconditional. Here [in the U.S.], it always felt that we had to prove ourselves. And so I thought, Is there a difference between a place you call home and a place that you are from?

LU: Do you feel that there is a spiritual in-between place in the book, such as in the desert crossing, when the characters often feel that they are in no place?

NS: I think that came out of a place of feeling lost and the physical and spiritual borders of these characters who are risking everything for the chance to reach the end of that path, but the in-between is where you can really not know if you will come out on the other end.

LU: Can you speak a bit more about the reasons why you chose to move back and forth in time in this narrative, especially considering Omar’s origin story?

NS: One of the questions that was really driving this story for me was the understanding that when my parents left Peru, it was a choice that seemed impossible to make and one that required them to leave everything they knew and loved. Can we really call that a choice? And so throughout my life, I wondered how bad things could have gotten for them to have made that decision. I ended up asking that same question about Omar and Elda. He leaves her, and in my mind I know he loved her and his family deeply. I wondered what would it take for that to happen, and in order to figure that out, I had to go back to find out what they had been through together. It became important to me because I have been frustrated with the conversation around dehumanizing immigrants—like, we just up and left, como si nada, like it was an easy thing to do, to take the easy way out. And it’s never like that. It’s probably the hardest decision anyone ever has to make. Omar’s story came out of me wanting to fully see what the sacrifices were that came from my own family, and [those sacrifices were] expressed through this love story.

LU: Does this help to humanize Omar?

NS: I hadn’t thought of that at first because, in my mind, I already knew him. His voice always came through pretty clearly for me. For a reader it might be a different experience, but in my mind, I thought, This is who he is, because, though I didn’t know his whole story, I knew enough to understand him and to not start out by judging him.

LU: Are the questions that this book is asking distinct from your first novel, or are there questions that you think they are both are asking?

NS: I think it’s a mixture. Both came out of a desire to see and witness the sacrifices of my parents and people like them. There are many things I will never know. There are so many things about why we are here, how we got here, that my parents will probably never tell me or that they will protect me from. That’s how families go—we keep so many secrets. That came out a lot more through Elda’s character. She would rather not talk about her sacrifices and would rather protect her family. Both books came out of that, in a sense.

I can usually step back after I finish a book and see what I was interested in, or see obsessions that come back, like marriage, family, immigration stories. This story felt more personal to me. The first one (Chasing the Sun) was more about uncovering the history of my family, which I didn’t grow up knowing fully, whereas this one felt more personal because it did come from experiences that I had or I had seen from other people around me, and it felt closer to me. I can’t separate that [fact that] I am an immigrant from the way that I see the whole world. It might not be the only part of my identity that is important, but I can’t deny my experiences. I never thought I was “important” enough to tell these stories (migrant stories), only that I wanted to. The difference is whose voices are being amplified and who is given a platform. As writers we have incredible privilege to tell these stories, but there are people living them, and that is valid and heroic in itself. I don’t feel that I am any more heroic than someone else. We each carry these stories in our own way, and I am just carrying this story. I process things by writing about them. Someone else might carry their story differently, just by making sure that their children have the life they hoped for, or in everyday ways that don’t get that spotlight. The everyday is what is so rich in bravery, in triumph and joy, and that is what is overlooked so much. Immigration is politicized, but that conversation overlooks the daily moments of our lives we are just trying to live.

LU: What does it mean to you to depart from realism and explore forms of haunting in this novel—both the literal haunting of Omar, and the haunting of things unsaid from the past of this family?

NS: So much of this was about the unknown of my own past. Even though the story only crosses two generations, I was interested in the idea of crossing generations and ancestry. Especially when you come from a history of roots that are actively oppressed and erased, to me what haunts me is the amount of names and stories that I will never know, which is very much a result of colonization and of knowing about my European ancestry, the Italian ancestors, but not of the indigenous ancestors, and how much of that has been erased. Unknowing has haunted me for a long time, because I struggle with how much I can claim when I don’t know so much of the cultures I come from, but then, I can’t deny that they exist. I do not want to turn away from what they (my ancestors) worked for that made me.

It wasn’t as important for the characters to know all of the family secrets. Even in the end, not all secrets that a person carries are revealed—sometimes they are taken to the grave. Do they have life beyond? Do they cross over? This is the way intergenerational trauma and silence works. You can still feel the pain and the scars. Even when the characters don’t know the full stories, they feel the presence of them, and they carry it inside them. We have these borders that are invisible spaces that, day by day, are made more tangible and difficult to cross, and they affect us, but they are still very much manmade.

LU: What have you been reading that is asking the same questions, or that influenced you as you were writing this book?

NS: I will say that one book I read a year or two before was Anatomy of a Disappearance, by Hisham Matar. That absence is such a presence in that book was so beautifully done. I instantly memorized the first sentence: “There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.”

LU: How have other Latinx people or Mexican/Mexican American people been reacting to the book?

NS: This is a question that means a lot to me. What has meant a lot is that a lot of people have told me that they connected to it and related to the characters and that they felt seen by a particular character. Some people have even said, “Oh, I see myself in this particular character,” which is kind of surprising—like Claudia, because she is a more peripheral character. I like getting these responses from Latinx people, and I want to listen more for their responses. People often ask, “What do you hope the audience will get out of this story?” and I always ask, “Which audience?” because that matters. We can’t always assume a default white audience because if we do, then people will think of the story as a plea for humanizing these characters, which I have such an issue with because we shouldn’t have to plea for our own humanity. I hope that other Latinx people can relate, too. It is a multifaceted experience as it is, but I think that there is something powerful in us being able to see each other and to feel seen and heard at times when we usually don’t. People have even said, “We liked your first book, but we loved this one,” and I say thanks because you hope that you grow as a writer over time, that you’re putting better work out each and every time. I’m grateful for that.

LU: How do you see this book fitting into the current, and turbulent immigration debate in the U.S.?

NS: I began writing this book in 2013. What surprises me is when people seem surprised by the threats that the immigrant community faces today because the xenophobia and racism that fuels it—and that our administration has been stoking since day one of the campaign—is deeply rooted in our history. None of it is new to us. And though I wrote this book first and foremost out of love, as an act of simply witnessing the love and sacrifices and struggles and strengths of our community, I couldn't do that without also writing the oppression. And in doing so, of course there’s an element of hoping to protect, of calling oppression out in hopes of fighting it, or, if not killing it at least weakening it. I think this highlights the biggest disconnect between how the publishing industry treats books by POC or any marginalized groups and why we write. We do it out of protection, out of hoping to prevent our realities from becoming nightmares. But we are not heard as much when we give warnings, only when we are proven, too late, to have been right all along. And then suddenly our books are called timely and necessary, and suddenly only our pain seems to matter, not the full lives we’ve been trying to uplift all along. What a privilege it must be, to not have to exist in a world where brown babies are kept in prisons, for your work to be deemed necessary.

LU: Is it important for you to be identified as a Latina writer?

NS: Actually, yes. Because we live in a time where to not take someone’s identity into account is to automatically assume they are white. I don’t want that part of me to be denied or erased. I hope that we can get to a place where we don’t see these aspects of our identities as ways to be pigeonholed or niche, but that’s not on us. That’s something we have to hold people (publishers and readers) accountable for. Yeah, I’m Latina. Does that mean you can’t relate to my work? I’ve spent my whole life relating to yours. I think the Latinx identity is an interesting one, because it doesn’t exist in the same way outside of the U.S., and so it is very much tied to our existence in the U.S. as people who came from all over Latin America. That’s a specific space that is worth claiming and that I want to claim. 

LU: How are you balancing promoting the book with what you are working on now?

NS: I have kept writing during this book tour. For my first book, I stopped writing for months and months and didn’t start this book for a while. As soon as this second book sold in 2016, I was already working on something else. Air travel has been great for me to write a bit here and there. I want to try to check-in with the manuscript, even with one sentence, or some journaling. It’s not balanced, but it’s about surrendering myself to process, and there’s times in which I just keep living and know I’ll come back to it.

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Leticia Urieta is a proud Tejana writer from Austin, TX. She works as a teaching artist in the Austin community. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cleaver, Chicon Street Poets Anthology, BorderSenses, Lumina, The Offing and others. She has recently completed her first mixed genre collection of poetry and prose and is currently at work completing her novel that tells the story of a Mexican soldadera caught up in the march to Texas during Texas’ war with Mexico.

Conversations with Contributors: Rachel Heng by Peter LaBerge

BY ALANA MOHAMED

 Rachel Heng, author of  Suicide Club  (Henry Holt & Co., 2018) and contributor to  Issue Twenty-Three .

Rachel Heng, author of Suicide Club (Henry Holt & Co., 2018) and contributor to Issue Twenty-Three.

Rachel Heng’s debut novel Suicide Club will be published on July 10, 2018, by Henry Holt, Macmillan (US) and Sceptre, Hachette (UK). Suicide Club will also be translated into six languages. Rachel’s short stories have appeared in The OffingPrairie Schooner, the minnesota review, and elsewhere. Her fiction has won Prairie Schooner’s Jane Geske Award, was recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and has been recommended by the Huffington Post. Rachel graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Comparative Literature & Society. She is currently a James A. Michener Fellow at UT Austin’s Michener Center for Writers, pursuing her MFA in Fiction and Screenwriting.

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Alana Mohamed: Suicide Club, aside from being a pleasure to read, can also be very funny. A lot of that comes from the contradictions of wellness culture. I wanted to start by asking for your definition wellness culture. How do you see that as relating to the Ministry’s lingo?

Rachel Heng: I don’t know if I have a definition, per se. Thank you for appreciating the humor. It’s weird, I always have this conversation with my husband, and he asks me when I’m going to write something funny, and I’m like, “I think I am writing stuff that’s funny!” He’s like, “That’s not funny.” We have very different ideas of what constitutes funny.

I think the book definitely deals with the absurdity of some of this controlled, sanitized existence. It’s not like I think everyone should be unhealthy, or not take care of their bodies, but I do think wellness culture in overdrive has a comic element to it. What the latest super food is and what the latest hot exercise is, because the previous one was not as good; the short attention span we have for products and treatments and how it’s always about fads and the next new thing. I tried to get that into the book as well.

AM: I was fascinated by the language the Ministry employs. “Life-loving” vs. “antisact,” the coded language of their Directives. Where did you pull that language from, and were there any real-life things you were influenced by?

RH: I was working in the corporate world at the time and I’ve always been fascinated by corporate lingo. Have you read Station Eleven (by Emily St. John Mandel)? There’s this moment in it—it’s about this post apocalyptic world, and people are escaping this flu—and there’s this moment where there’s a bunch of executives sitting around, looking at their emails, and they’re sort of speaking in their corporate lingo, but also realizing that they talk that way. I remember when I read it, I thought I had never read anything like that before, but it spoke so well to my daily life and what was going on in my head. Even reading government websites and newspapers, you see the euphemisms for things and the way that language can hide so much. It encodes so much inequality and violence, and just the ways in which we talk ourselves into things as a society, by calling them certain things.

A more extreme example is if you look at the kind of documents that were deployed in WWII, or anything like that. Any kind of war documents, any propaganda. I recently read Solmaz Sharif’s collection Look, which is based on, I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s the American military dictionary. What she does is she writes poems around the definitions of different terms in the military dictionary to try and do that precisely and shake that language out of its formal, supposedly value-free terms that actually encode so much violence. And how do we think about the ways in which we use language to hide that?

All of the directives, the names of programs, the numbers, all of that to me was something I had fun with, but also is something I think about a lot in our daily lives as well.

AM: I started to wonder about what happens to institutional memory when people get to live for so long. How does that function in a world shaped by government double-speak? How do people preserve that knowledge? Do they get to? The relationship between Lea and Kaito seems to point to the importance of that.

RH: Institutional memory and collective memory as a society was really interesting to me. I’m someone who’s a hoarder and really obsessed with losing things, as you might be able to tell from reading the book. But I’ll keep receipts and tickets and all those types of things. And because of my deep fear of loss—and death, but loss generally—my reaction to that has always been to preserve and keep memories. I write journals, I write stories. That’s why I write so much, it’s a recording exercise. What was really interesting to me was in this world where people essentially no longer fear loss—because they no longer fear death, because they can live forever—what that does to memory and the conscious preservation of stuff. What I came to, unconsciously, because it’s not like I had a thesis I was putting into the book, but unconsciously something that emerged was this day-to-day self-obsession. There’s this weirdly long-term thinking, while still being very much in the present, because it’s kind of about preserving one’s self and maintaining this ritual of wellness and health, but also never really reflecting on it. So in a way the absence of death leaves them in a suspended state of immortality, and that suspension is also the suspension of collective memory.  

AH: I got the sense of a claustrophobic world, but you go to lengths to point out that this obsession with immortality, the way it’s institutionalized in people’s lives, is not a global thing yet. It seems to be based mostly in New York, so why did you choose New York for the setting of this novel, and what makes New York so integral to the lives of the Suicide Club that they couldn’t leave?

RH: I was living in the U.K. when I wrote this book. It seemed natural at the time that it would be set in New York, and upon reflection I think it’s because I associate that kind of drastic inequality with the U.S. In many ways it’s because of the lack of social safety net, the fact that health insurance is so expensive, while in the U.K. you have this universal healthcare system, which, despite its flaws, provides free health care. No matter what happens you are going to be able to see a doctor, you are going to be able to have surgery or get treatment for cancer. You’re never going to be out on the streets because you can’t afford these things, which to me seems like a very sensible thing to do and I’ve never understood that about the U.S.

I’m from Singapore, and while there isn’t the same level of universal health care, there are subsidies and government hospitals and so on. The fact that in America there isn’t that kind of government subsidized health care, or a social safety net more generally, always struck me as deeply fascinating—like, this incredibly rich country that just doesn’t do that. And I’m not an economist, but I feel, intuitively, that America can afford these things since so many other developed countries can afford them.
 
I was thinking about the implications of that sort of deep inequality, and New York seemed to embody that. It’s a city of such extremes, of claustrophobia in many ways, but also housing the mega-rich with people who are really poor and what that means to have all those contradictions in one place.

AM: There’s a moment when you write about Kaito having to carry his son, who’s supposed to be younger or healthier, 30 blocks to the hospital because he’s ailing. It’s so powerful, because it’s such a reversal. I was wondering what’s at stake when these norms have shifted, or when we view health as an investment as opposed to a general good?
 
RH: There’s another great book by Michael Sandel called What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of the Markets. I really love that book. He writes about the market-ization of sectors like health care, and what he argues is that when you put something into a free market, you are changing the way we think of that public good, regardless of whether it results in more economic efficiency, because now it's regarded as a commodity. One example he gives is people trying to get more blood donations. They started paying people a fee to donate their blood in order to increase the rate of blood donation. And what happened, actually, is the rate of blood donations dropped. Because people started to regard it as, “Oh, this is something I get money for,” and you start thinking about how you value that. And you’re like, “Oh, well I’m only earning $10 from this—is it really worth it to go all the way there for $10?” Whereas previously, you would donate blood out of altruism and because you wanted to. It wasn’t to earn anything. By making that a financial product and something people could make money off of, it changed the way we view it as human beings. And taken to the logical extreme, thinking about, as you say, the investment in other people’s health, that seems very terrifying to me. Just having a financial interest in other people's life spans. It changes the way we regard humanity and other people in society, and it is very scary and dystopian.

AM: There are so many wide-ranging effects of that. Part of what struck me as sad about the novel is that Lea has all these deep-seated issues with rage and violent tendencies. There’s this whole system structured to encourage her to keep that locked away, as opposed to getting treatment. As readers, who are we supposed to sympathize with here?

RH: The dystopias that I’m most interested in are the ones in which we don’t know who’s at fault. You have this feeling of helplessness and you wonder, “How did we get to this point?” Because in real life, it’s never that straight forward. In a dystopia where you have the oppressed and the oppressor, you know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. But I think in life, so often everyone is propagating these systems and these harmful structures of power, so what I wanted to do in the book was create exactly that type of situation where you can’t tell who you are supposed to sympathize with.

Lea has kind of bought into this system. She is not the most likeable character and has a lot of flaws. But at the same time, you do sympathize with her because she’s just a human being caught up in this society, who has a sad and dysfunctional relationship with her dad. At the same time, she wants to prolong his life so she can spend time with him, but she also recognizes his wishes as a human being.

And thank you for pointing that out, because its something I think about a lot. People ask me, “Why is she so dislikable,” and I’m like, “Because I didn’t just want to write someone who’s likeable, and have the system against her!” To me, it's an easy answer. It's like, “Oh, okay. The problem is the system.” I wanted her to be invested in it and also accountable for propagating the very system that harms her.  

AM: You do a great job of following Lea down this rabbit hole, essentially because she has this complicated relationship with her father. With Anja, she’s already suffered significant enough loss to become disillusioned with the entire system when we meet her. I know that she’s from a foreign country with socialized medicine. Do you think that changes the way she views the system that’s cropped up in America?

RH: In the book, Anja’s from Sweden, and when she left, they didn’t have the same system in place as the U.S. But at the point we meet her in the book, the rest of the world has gone the same way as the U.S., but is just a few steps behind. So she doesn’t really have an exit option anymore. I think she is more disillusioned with it. She wasn’t even born into it. Her mother became obsessed with this American way of life, and Anja went along with that. Eventually she got sucked in and then stuck in the situation she’s in today. I would say she’s definitely bought into it less, and that accounts for her role in the Suicide Club. She feels like she has to do something but doesn’t know quite what to do, and that’s her way of taking action.

AM: Anja and Lea’s relationship seems so interdependent and I feel like part of that is because they are both artists surviving in an artless world. I was wondering if you could talk about the ways art keeps people connected in dystopias; or, what is art's role in this kind of mind-controlling society?

RH: I recently re-read A Brave New World, which was a book that I loved when I was a teenager, and I realized just how much I unconsciously borrowed from it. [Laughs] The absence of art in that world was definitely a big aspect of it. In A Brave New World, art is banned, music is banned, and all they listen to is this synthetic, really calming stuff that’s meant to keep people happy and floaty, but not really thinking about stuff or having deep, compassionate emotions. So I think that was the inspiration for [my dystopia]. And similarly, in the [Suicide Club’s] world, art is outlawed and certain types of music aren’t allowed. The kind of music that they listen to in office buildings and so on is triangles and birds and wind songs, sort of spa music. Because art is dangerous in many ways. Making art and consuming art is the stuff that unsettles people and jolts them to action, and that’s not what the society wants.

AM: I wanted to talk about the Suicide Club itself for a moment. It’s such a weird indulgence in richness and levity, but it also uses such grim language to extol their mission (“They leave us no choice”). I was struck by that tension. Do you think that tone is necessary in the world that they’re dealing with, or is it a choice they’re making?

RH: Because of the title of the book, people have asked me about mental health issues, and I didn’t write this book about mental health issues. The people in the book are not
depressed. It’s very divorced from the broader conversation around suicide. Suicide in the context of this novel is very much the terrible and logical conclusion to the world I have set up— one of a sanitized existence. Immortality is almost becoming the norm, and mandatory, and people are almost unable to die natural deaths. So in a way, it’s two polar opposites, both of which are horrible and, ultimately, Lea doesn’t choose either one. That grimness, I didn’t want to shy away from it. I felt like if I was going to include it, it had to be what it was. It was better to include it with all of its grim depictions within this highly sanitized world, so you do see the two polar opposites and so that you can see Lea being torn between them. The decadence is the counterweight to this sort of sanitized, sterile, immortal existence.

AM: I wanted to ask, because we’ve been talking about dystopias you’ve been influenced by, what, in your mind, makes a good dystopia?

RH: I like dystopias where you get a sense that it’s pervasive and everyone is accountable to it and it’s not just one party. It’s complex and holds people accountable. I think that’s why I love the Hulu remake of The Handmaid’s Tale, seeing it from the Commander’s perspective and from the Commander’s wife’s perspective. What’s really interesting is, seeing that, you almost understand where they’re coming from. It’s not just that you are the good guys and these are the bad guys. You can still tell that some people are more morally aligned than others, but at the same time, they are human beings. They’re not just dismissed as evil anomalies. You can see how society actually got there. Those are the types of dystopias that I really love. They feel realistic and even more inevitable in some ways.

I always feel like my favorite dystopias have at their heart a utopia that’s failed. That’s always really fascinating to me. You can say, “Oh, what if the world was this terrible place?” but the thing is, that feels like an action movie. But if you say, “This world is terrible, but you can understand why they got there,” that’s different. I think the most heartbreaking dystopias are the ones where you see why the people are convinced into doing what they’re doing. In A Brave New World, when the commander in chief is like, “Well, everyone’s happy now! What’s wrong with that?” that to me is so terrifying, because it seems like it could happen so easily. And it’s so heartbreaking, because people are just trying to do their best and things sort of spiral out of control.

AH: I don’t want to ask about the future, since we’ve already talked so much about the future. I wanted to ask, in writing Suicide Club, what have you learned about your writing and your attachment to certain themes. Going forward, has writing the book encouraged you to explore other themes further?  

RH: It made me realize just how obsessed with death I am. [Laughs] I always knew that I guess, but writing an entire book about it, I was like, “Oh, I should probably see someone about this.” I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these kinds of things, which probably helped the book. I think those themes will always be present in my work, because even in my short fiction, implicitly, there is some theme of loss or the passage of time and aging, and it’s still popping up but in different ways. I’m working on another book right now, not dystopian, it’s kind of realist and historical. I already see similar themes starting to creep in. As a writer there are certain things that you’re preoccupied with, and they haunt your writing all of your life. For me, it might be aging and loss. [Laughs]

Before I wrote this book, I was always worried that I wasn’t doing it the right way, or that I wasn’t planning well, or the outlining was really all over the place and it wasn’t proceeding logically. It was so messy and so much trial and error. At the time, I thought this meant I was doing something wrong and that it wasn’t going to be a book, that I was never going to find the story. But now, after having gone through that, the many rounds of edits, the cutting of hundreds of thousands of words, I’m realizing that is my process. Which is, on one hand, depressing and stressful, but at the same time it’s quite reassuring. Even as I start this new book and feel that this is hopeless, I know from my experience writing Suicide Club that even if it feels that way, it can still turn out to be a cohesive piece of work that I’m happy with.

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Alana Mohamed is a freelance writer and librarian based in Queens, NY. Her criticism and essays have appeared in the Village Voice, BuzzFeed and Mental Floss. Her fiction has most recently appeared in wildness and BULL Magazine. She is the founder of Anxiety Dream Zine and previously edited fiction and essays for the Coalition Zine. She writes about books, history, and culture, and tweets about everything else @alanamhmd.