[REVIEW] Trench Town Rock by Kamau Brathwaite

Lost Roads Publishers, 1994

REVIEWED BY DEBORAH TAFFA

In “Trench Town Rock,” Kamau Brathwaite accounts for the broken third, people who live out a violent inheritance in a world where the criminals are no longer discernible from the officials who are assigned to stop them. The title is a nod to Bob Marley, as well as the Jamaican neighborhood where both the author and the singer spent time formulating their messages. In an interview Marley once said, “There is America, there is Russia, there is Rasta.” The statement forces the reader to look beyond everyday power structures. What exists in this third state? How is society evolving in the forgotten corners of the globe? Rastafarians are a minority with a weak political voice; their strongest avenue is art. Like Marley, Brathwaite reminds us that the artistic voice has the imperative in an otherwise broken society. Brathwaite embodies the harsh reality of his culture with unconventional strategies that make the reader feel his experience viscerally—jammed words, run-on lines, misspellings, and varied font sizes—to create louder and softer sounds. He uses myriad sources from the world he portrays: news clippings, radio transcripts, and West African mythology. He mixes and matches his indictment to show us the disintegrating state of postcolonial Jamaica.

Brathwaite awakens the reader to the dangers of life in Jamaica from the opening page. The narrator is asleep when a murder takes place in his apartment complex. The reader understands quickly what is at stake, feels it in his body through the use of telling action, font size, and unconventional spelling. Brathwaite brings us into his bedroom and we are “aweakened by gunshatt.” We hear the Jamaican voice in our head, feel his fear as he fumbles “into the dark with its various glints & glows: mosquito, very distant cockcrow, sound system drum, the tumbrel of a passing engine.” Sound is mixed together with darkness and suddenly, without punctuation, we launch into “TWO SHATTS” and the text grows bold and large to replicate the startling sound of a gun fired. When the police arrive they scurry in like insects, the line that describes them running on “with salaams & slams & semi-automatic acks, revolvers slung from belts and holsters or tucked like asps into their waist-line trousers; & evvabody walkin fass fass fass . . . “The language mimics the emotion and action. The message he wants to convey—busy movement around the scene of the crime—enters the reader’s vision with a scurrying transience. His stylistic conveyance continues throughout the book without getting tired because of the variety of information he presents.

Relentless images involving unsolved crimes and violence carry the reader forward. There is a dead man with “beautiful long hair curled around his body making snakes like dance/like dancing . . .” The snakes sway menacingly and remind us of a time when the people on this island were considered no better than animals. He describes a dead policeman by first describing him as a “big, dark, meaty guy” before reversing to negate X his presence in the world. “But I can’t tell you what he looked like: features, the human face, I mean: both eyes shot out/stabbed in, his nose unhinged, a huge gash in the right side of the throat, his tongue there black & smooth . . .” He cancels the man’s presence in the world with the words “can’t tell” before the passage folds back towards the police: “yet all his skin & flesh still firm & natural like if he flash & living still & not a ant or insect (here he uses a carefully planned line break) coming even near his blood & no one say a prayer . . .” The margins on this page, combined with the line break and indentation, imply that the police are the insects. Brathwaite makes use of a line break to convey dual meanings: the police return as insects, yes, but there are also actual insects crawling all over the crime scene, insects taking advantage of what has been spilled. Insects steal what is wanted and desired even as the body is still warm.

The way the society turns on itself, the way people betray each other for small gains is examined in the second half of the book. A woman gets her arm chopped off for her bracelet, people dig around dead bodies in a car crash for shoes and coins. The community has become so desensitized to death; death has become such a part of their mental landscape, the crowd witnesses with an unblinking eye. In turn, Brathwaite portrays this fact with such shocking calm that the reader feels a rising horror. By the time we get to the end of the book’s first section and Brathwaite writes, “so that these crimes we all embrace the victim and the violate the duppy and the gunman so close on these plantations still so intimate the dead/undead,” we see. The words— plantation, the embrace, the dead/undead—are specifically chosen. The vocabulary is laden with associations that have the strength to imply we are embroiled in this world’s historic errors, bound and complicit, not able to escape our responsibility and wonder.

A bit of history is introduced in a radio interview in the section labeled “Straight Talk.” A one word page follows—it says “ttortt.” Double tt’s, both sides confused and potentially responsible—the government official in the conversation refers back to the 80’s when crimes were at their previous height. The new surge of violence has everyone thinking about revolution and revolt. At one point in the interview Brathwaite interjects during an argument, “[Perkins had in fact retailed a similar story just before McKenzie phoned]” and the reader sees that they are fighting less over differences than they are posturing for gain. Who gets credit for telling the story? In a society where power means money people lie. People manipulate the political possibilities in order to benefit their own interests. “McK” begins to sound like shorthand as his name gets shortened, like a preacher he says I “want to bring you back, Mr. Perkins, to 1976, Mr Perkin when those very same people, Mr. Perkins . . .” The repetitions of a Sunday school class and a discussion is launched about observing and reporting. The reader sees that these men are discussing reality versus truth. The reader sees that the discussion about observing and reporting has a subtext: the problem is a question of reliability or the manufacturing of reality through the organization of facts. The truth is that no one has the answers anymore.

Finally Brathwaite himself is a victim of violence. When he calls his manager for increased security in his apartment the guy tells him he is “concern” but then basically tells him to stop complaining or leave. “If I continue to feel threat at MMA, I ‘should’ (I quote) ‘look into the possibility of alternative (sic) accommodation (sic).” No one cares. How do these impoverished postcolonial countries establish a new, functioning community when the criteria for what is good and stable have been lost? It is fitting then, after pages of news clippings that illustrate more violence, Brathwaite turns toward a Jamaican story from West Africa about “Anansi.” Anansi is a trickster, a rebel, the sneaky one who manifests a spirit of rebellion and is able to overturn the social order when he so pleases. For oppressed people trickster conveys a message from one generation to the next: dignity can be had, freedom can be found, only if a person keeps trying. Brathwaite’s essay sits on the margins. It comes back at us again and again. It uses large and small font, unconventional spelling, dashes and brackets, clippings and dates, transcripts and memory, sound that mimics the cadence and volume of violence. He uses everything at his disposal in the attempt to keep trying. He is Anansi. He uses Anansi strategies in his structure, story, and spirit.

 

 

[REVIEW] Eat Only When You’re Hungry by Lindsay Hunter

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

REVIEWED BY MATT E. LEWIS

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Lindsay Hunter knows a thing or two about old wounds. The characters of her previous novel Ugly Girls, a Florida-based female coming-of-age story, are angry and complicated – dripping with all the cringing, emotional contradictions of puberty. Hunter once again uses the Floridian landscape as a pressure cooker for the characters of her new book, Eat Only When You’re Hungry, to vivid effect. But before we migrate down south, the story begins with Greg and his wife Deb, living in a strangely bucolic version of West Virginia. Despite the financial ruin and rampant drug addiction in most parts of the state, Greg is able to spend his retirement in a calmer neighborhood, most likely by his own design. We quickly learn that despite being obese and addicted to fast food, Greg has inherited his Mother’s snobbery toward the ‘unwashed masses’, much like the domineering mother of Bojack Horseman, whose venom and emotional trauma echoes down generations well past her own. Ironically, or maybe inevitably, Greg’s own son, GJ, is a junkie and perpetual loser, mooching off Greg’s ex-wife Marie in Florida. But when Greg gets the call from his ex which claims that GJ has disappeared, Greg rents an RV and takes off for the Sunshine State, in a hero’s journey that quickly dips into scathing self-examination, and finally a poignant dirge for the life he could have lived.

Of course, things don’t go as planned for Greg. Things deteriorate from the very start, when he leaves the comfortable womb of routine and immediately delves into a limp-dicked episode at a truck stop strip club. This is just the beginning of a pattern we see Hunter creating for the character from the start. On the one hand, we sympathize with Greg, who is often at the mercy of his own food addiction, depression, and traumatic upbringing. But there are just as many passages detailing how Greg’s violent actions and choices have shaped GJ’s own trauma. As in life, there is no hero or villain, just a cycle of behaviors that we try to fight against but often lose. Hunter drives the point home with Greg’s own awareness of his destructive behavior. Rather than a one-dimensional character trapped in a pattern of denial, Greg knows exactly where the blame rests for the fate of both himself and his son. “The mercy in that child’s heart, Greg knew he’d never deserved it. Would never deserve it. But if GJ was still a child, there might be mercy still,” he ruminates on moments when GJ didn’t yet understand what was happening, and takes it as hope that there could be possibility for change. But the other interpretation is that the time for enacting any kind of change has passed, and Greg must live with the shitty environment he’s created for him and his loved ones.

In addition to this generationally-repeating trauma, we also see Hunter deftly capture one of the most prevalent moral dilemmas – the child as a junkie. Though encouraged by the abuse and emotional distance of his father, GJ is an embodiment of all the classic symptoms of addiction: thefts, broken promises, ducking in and out of the lives of his loved ones without warning. The most heartbreaking aspect of this is that Greg does not feel one-sided, black and white contempt for his boy – rather, he understands and relates to him all too well. His mistreatment and disdain of him comes from a place of his own self-hatred, which he transfers to GJ, despite being sympathetic to his situation. “Home was a refuge of silence, where there were no expectations and no pressures. So Greg could understand why it felt so good for GJ to lie to himself, lie to Greg and Marie, about his plans for the future, and then never find the wherewithal to follow through.” In a way, Greg and GJ are two of a kind, both regretting their lost opportunities in life despite ending up on vastly different planes of social status. They are bound together by the common thread of addiction, with Greg’s weight and diet carrying as much impact on his health as GJ’s drug habits. Both are prisoners, and both have lost.

Trying to think about how these characters can resolve their lives misses the point. What Hunter has done in Eat Only When You’re Hungry is write a lovingly detailed ode to contemporary tragedy, one that looks ugliness in the face and accepts it as a fact of life. Calling this novel a ‘tragedy’ would be a bit of a misnomer – there is redemption toward the end – but not the kind of deus ex machina, jump-the-shark resolution we’re all used to seeing. In Eat Only When You’re Hungry, people are capable of both bad and good; they fight their impulses and are controlled by them. The answer is not that we always have a choice, or that our impulses are beyond our control, but that we live in a world with both and it’s our job to make sense of it. That empathy should be practiced not just with the people we meet ‘fighting a hard battle’, but with ourselves, too. Forgetting to do so can cause grave consequences for the people you love and who try to love you. Like addiction, habits are not easily broken, but require constant practice, vigilance, and patience. Lindsay Hunter has given us her parable of Greg, who even in the midst of his life spiraling out of control, remembers the mantra that at one time, gave him hope.

The Personal, the Political, and the Musical: An Interview with Hanif Abdurraqib on They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

To say Hanif Abdurraqib writes about the music that’s the soundtrack to our lives is an understatement.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is the first essay collection from Abdurraqib, who is a music columnist at MTV News and a poet whose work includes the collection The Crown Ain’t Worth Much from Button Poetry. Whether it’s Marvin Gaye, My Chemical Romance, Chance the Rapper, Carly Rae Jepsen or Nina Simone, Abdurraqib is writing about the music that makes sense of the world and validates the experiences of those who suffer most when the world is doling out its pain.

The essays in They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us are a forthright look at life at the intersection of music, race, class, and culture. A Springsteen concert opens the door to a meditation on Michael Brown. Putting Nina Simone vinyls on the record player gives way to a discussion on how black people’s stories are taken from them by white hands. Listening to My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade on the tenth anniversary of its release leads to a discussion on death, grief, and hope in the dark. Future’s recent albums ask listeners to consider the kind of breakup-induced heartache from which it feels impossible to fully heal. A look back on years of Fall Out Boy shows stirs a contemplation on friendship, suicide, and living on your own terms. A ScHoolboy Q show explains how a word can be violence on one tongue and deep companionship on another, depending on the color of the mouth that said it. A Cute is What We Aim For show ponders misogyny and the feeling of having grown up when the art you once loved hopelessly stagnated.

These are not essays on background music or classical tunes praised in the ivory tower of academia. Abdurraqib writes on a breadth of musical taste that is wide and varied, yet all of it is accessible and modern––likely artists Millennials grew up listening to or currently have on their iTunes playlist. Abdurraqib is taking the music many already enjoy and asking us to consider its more profound implications. Readers are asked to investigate the ways in which music shapes and informs our lives.

This essay collection is not for white readers in the sense that it doesn’t pander to them. There are essays on experiences that white people will never know firsthand––like the terror of being pulled over by police because you supposedly look like a criminal or the sanctuary of black churches. For white people, the essays are a necessary trojan horse: it sells them what they want––music writing––but it gives them what they need––social justice.

I talked to Hanif about writing, music, and black joy.

Mandy Shunnarah: What I love about your essays is that they live at the intersection of the personal, the political, and the musical. It’s clear the essays span over the course of several years, so I’m curious what the trajectory of your writing was like. Did you start out writing music essays and incorporate your story and issues of social justice over time? Or have you always blended the three?

Hanif Abdurraqib: I think I’ve always been interested in how the personal can work its way into a narrative without (hopefully) overtaking a narrative. I say personal and don’t simply mean the actual body––but also the emotions, interests, feelings that rest in the interior of the personal. I’m not really setting out to get people to believe what I believe. Rather, I’m trying to get them to find something new and unique in music. Perhaps risk seeing it as something greater and seeing where their own personal narratives might align within the songs they love. So I guess I’ve always blended the three, but I’ve never really imagined it as blending as much as I’ve imagined it as a different way of viewing a landscape I love looking out onto.

MS: Your taste in music is eclectic and it’s clear your ear is keener than the casual listener. How did you become interested in a wide range of artists? Are there genres you feel like you’re only just dipping your toes into?

HA: I grew up in a house with a lot of music, and so I kind of developed my ways of hearing and listening at an early age. It’s a bit of a stretch to say that I grew up in a “musical family”––it’s not like my siblings and I were in a band––but my father played instruments around the house. I had a brief and unsuccessful stint as a trumpet player.

But more than that, I listened to music that my parents carried with them into the house. Jazz and soul and salsa and funk and songs from South Africa. I am the youngest of four, so I got to absorb all of the music which trickled down from my older siblings. My older brother and sister would introduce hip hop to our house, sure. But also, since we were children of the 90s, I got exposed to grunge, metal, and classic rock––all of which allowed me a path backwards, so that when I was old enough to start charting my own musical tastes, I was doing it with a working knowledge of the past, and I’m always so eager to dig out the tasty and unique parts of history resting underneath a recording.

I want to know about what happened to Fleetwood Mac in between Rumours and Tusk. I want to know about Nick Drake’s brilliant burst of output and then his mental and emotional decline. I watch The Last Waltz once every single year and mostly just for the way the camera picks up Mavis Staples whispering “beautiful….” after the Staple Singers join The Band for a stirring rendition of “The Weight.” I see a whole story in all of those moments. I’m listening to the actual music, sure. But I’m also interested in filling the spaces that simply listening sometimes doesn’t afford a listener.

When I was a kid, my brother and I used to sit in our room with a tape-recorder boombox, and we’d listen to the radio all day long, back when folks had to listen to the radio all day to maybe catch a song they loved once or so every six hours. And when the song we wanted to hear came on, we’d rush to press record on our tape recorder, and rip it right off of the radio. And there was that burst of excitement––hearing this thing you’d been hoping to hear and rushing to capture it. It felt like the slow opening of a gift that ended up being exactly what you wanted, every single time. I’m trying to capture and maintain that kind of excitement about music. I’m trying to carry that with me, even when I have the weight of so many other things to compete with.

MS: Out of the hundreds (thousands?) of concerts you’ve been to, if you could only pick one to see again, which one would it be and why?

HA: Oh, I think probably one of the early Fall Out Boy shows that I write about in the essay “Fall Out Boy Forever” in the book. Likely the 2003 Halloween show they did in Chicago at some shitty venue where the stage collapsed.

It was such a fascinating moment because I don’t think I’ve ever had a moment like that again, where I’m watching the turning point for a band happen in real time. My pals and I had been going to their shows since about a year earlier, when they started playing to tiny crowds and were getting heckled endlessly. The Chicago emo/pop-punk scene was at an interesting place in 2002-2003, because a lot of these dudes were just coming out of MUCH more hardcore bands, and the transitions for some of them proved to be difficult. Fall Out Boy was kind of a band without a country, largely due to Patrick Stump’s distinct singing. They were too pop for the hardcore scene, but definitely too difficult to access for the pop scene. It took about a year for them to get traction, but when they did, they really took off.

That Halloween show was the one that really turned the corner for them. I remember it well because shit got so crazy that the stage collapsed and they had to stop playing. Pete Wentz was used to wading out into the crowd and getting this mostly lukewarm reception, but that night when he walked out into the crowd, kids were jumping on his back, tearing at his shirt, grabbing his head. It was wild. There were almost 100 kids packed into a room that maybe only should’ve held 70, tops. You could see on the band’s faces that they had no idea what was happening. In a way, Fall Out Boy was born that night. Since I’m pretty disconnected from the band in its current state, I’d love to see that one more time.

MS: Some of the most poignant essays were those talking about the myriad ways joy is ripped from black people by white people and the systems of oppression they created. In addition to celebrating black musicians, which you did beautifully in They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, what are some of your favorite expressions of black joy?

HA: The way my friends sing the words to the songs they know and then make up the rest. The opening moments of a spades game––that first hand, when anything feels possible. The old black woman at the eastside market I go to from time to time who looks me up and down and says it’s good to see you, baby, and I know she means it. The way a joke can echo through a group text and shrink distance. The grease that lingers on the hand and then perhaps upon the fabric of pants after dipping fingers into the Popeyes box. The way the clock pushes past midnight on a Tuesday and I look at my watch in a city that is not my own and insist that I have to go to sleep, and the people I love will give me a hard time until I am leaning over, wrecked by laughter, no longer tired.

I don’t know. I think in order to talk about the lack of joy as a type of violence, you have to know the architecture of joy itself, and realize how precious it is when it is in arm’s reach. I think you have to accept the many forms it takes. These days, I’m interested in the joys that are pre-existing, already waiting for me to slide into. I’m trying to remember those best and not take them for granted.

MS: Since your last book was a collection of poetry, I’m curious about how you balance your poetry and your essay writing.

HA: I imagine everything as a poem, some blooming wider than others.

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Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though Birmingham, Alabama, will always have her heart. Her creative nonfiction essays and book reviews have appeared in The Citron Review, The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, New Southerner Magazine, and Deep South Magazine. You can read more on her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.

You Know Nothing: A Triptych

BY YASMINA DIN MADDEN

1.

My mother chases me around the dining room table while my sister watches, frozen in the corner of the room like a demented deer. The edge of the table catches my hip, and I swear I feel a crack somewhere inside me. She is a blur in my peripheral vision, her long black hair lashing out behind her like a whip. I only stop when she does, but I’m ready to keep going.

She lunges across the dining room table, but I jump back. I laugh as she pounds the table and spit flies from her mouth as she screams. “You think you know everything? Nothing! You know nothing.”  My mother’s face, which is beautiful—even I can’t deny that—glistens with sweat, and her full lips stretch back in a sneer. “You’re a lunatic,” I say. I smile because I know this is part of what makes her crazy: That I won’t raise my voice, that I won’t cry in front of her, that I won’t eat her Vietnamese food or follow her rules. “This is America,” I tell her. “Get a clue already.”

She goes into the kitchen, and I wonder if it’s over, if I’ve won, until she comes back gripping her butcher’s knife, the one she uses to slice meat for the soup that makes me choke.  My hip aches, and I feel sweat collecting at the base of my spine. Even for her, this seems like too much. Outside I hear children scream Ghost in the graveyard! Their laughter is far away, but it washes through the screened windows, muted as if we were all underwater. When I was a kid my mother cried for me when I got hurt. No one has ever cried for me but her.

2.

 

Stupid girl.  And me running after her crazy like a chicken with its head off.  Skirt so short and top she cut to hang off her, make her look like she live on the street. No shame! Always Elyse thinks she know. Her hair with blond from her father. And she puts lemon to make even lighter! No Asian in her. Not like her sisters, and brother. They have Asian. They know how to act. “Turn off the soup,” I yell at Lily who watches.

Elyse just keep running. Always going that one. Never home. Never helps. Only with friends all the time. When she home, only open her mouth to complain! “I won’t eat that,” she always say. Only cereal she eats. And then she in the bathroom. I know what she doing.

I lean on the table, and she laughs in my face! My wrist aches when I pound the table. “You think you know everything? Chúa ?i tôi s? gi?t b?n!” She’s so stubborn. When she was a baby, she barely cry. Not like my others, who cry easy, who let me hold them. No. Elyse only cry if it really hurts, so I knew it was bad if she cry. I always afraid when she little. I was so young with Elyse, and back then I cry with her.

In kitchen the soup boil over, broth everywhere, under the burners, dripping on my clean floor. All day I cook and clean and still more to do. Help kids with math. Max need to do his reading. Still need to chop vegetables for dinner! The knife handle is so smooth, and it feel so light in my hand.

3.

Watching my mother chase my sister around the dining room table is like watching a sporting event; not like tennis with its neat volleys and its predictable accumulation of points, more like horse racing: A burst of energy by beautiful, muscled beasts, who might, in a flash, collapse in a heap of busted bone and ligament. My mother yells for me to turn off the soup, but I won’t move.

They are long and lean, my mother and sister, with straight dark hair that flares out behind them as they lap the table. Who knows what they fight about this time: My sister’s smart mouth? Her habit of puking after meals? Elyse calls the Vietnamese food my mother cooks disgusting, which sometimes it is, but it’s often good, too. That’s the thing about Elyse, something can never be more than one thing for her. For either of them. They’re exactly the same, really, my mother and Elyse.

My mother can’t catch Elyse, so she yells, in Vietnamese, that she’s going to kill her. This is the only Vietnamese I know. “You’re a lunatic,” Elyse tells her. She is calm and smiling in her peach miniskirt and off-the-shoulder sweatshirt. My sister talks to me like this, too, and it makes me want to punch her in the face.

My mother goes into the kitchen and returns gripping a knife, the one she uses to chop bitter melon for the soup I love. Elyse is afraid, though she tries to look like she isn’t. My older sister is hard. But it’s true that my mother seems crazy. They stare at each other for a moment, both breathing fast. There’s a chance my mother won’t throw the knife, but there’s just as good a chance she will. We wait. When my mother flings the knife across the table at my sister, the tip of the blade nicks the wooden surface before clattering to the floor beside Elyse, who has flattened herself against the wall. No one moves, until, finally, I walk closer to the table and see the split in the shiny brown surface, glimpse the raw, splintered wood inside.

This piece began in the single point of view of the eldest daughter. However, I realized the piece called for the other characters’ points of view, in order to develop from scene to story. As a triptych, the piece then became an experiment in voice, in that each part of the story had to offer a voice and tone distinctive to that speaker. What held it back for a while is that I don’t feel particularly comfortable writing fragmented English, as it comes loaded with the possibility of stereotyping and cliché. In the final draft, I did use some fragmented English in the mother’s section to underscore the eldest daughter’s sense of her mother as other, and, of course, to develop the more overt tension of cultural dissonance. Finally, I’m interested in exploring narratives that take what we, as a culture, want to define as sacred, and, at least in this case, consider the complexity of a love that is inflected with anger and violence.

Yasmina Din Madden lives in Iowa and her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Idaho Review, The Masters Review: New Voices, Word Riot, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, Carve, and other journals. Her story “At the Dog Park” was shortlisted for The Masters Review Anthology: 10 Best Stories by Emerging Authors, and her flash fiction was recently shortlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions of 2017.  She teaches creative writing and literature at Drake University.

 

 

Hossain’s DJINN CITY satires & encapsulate’s today’s zeitgeist

(Unnamed Press)

BY NICHOLE L. REBER

Saad Z. Hossain’s recently released Djinn City from Unnamed Press builds on his 2015 novel Escape from Baghdad! This Bangladeshi writer captivates with his often humorous blend of satire, sci-fi, fantasy, and mythology that takes place in 2066 underground, at ground level, and in the skies.

The novel opens with the backstory of Indelbed, a child who lives with his widower dad and a few ghostly servants in a decrepit house in Bangladesh’s capital. His father is a very learned and very drunk man, possibly because he misses the boy’s mother, and he refuses to allow his son a traditional education. Dr. Kaikobad won’t even educate his son about his own mother, other than the fact she died giving birth to him, which people love to joke about as “death by Indelbed.”

When Kaikobad falls into a coma, Aunt Juny, Uncle/Ambassador/GU Sikkim, and cousin Rais take the little guy under their wing. They initially seem to resist doing so, less so upon learning he’s related to djinns and his father is a djinn emissary.

Who/what the heck are djinns, anyway? A survey course in mythology might convey their various villainous characterizations. In Hossain’s novel, they are indeed villainous. They come in human form with a powerful aura that surrounds them and works as a weapon. It’s their human qualities that bring out Hossain’s funny, satirical encapsulation of today’s zeitgeist. They’re a litigious lot who think nothing of creating 743-page contracts, they have no allegiance with family members, and they politicize seemingly everything. Capable of becoming embroiled in frequent existentialist debates, they argue about evolution and creationism and djinn superiority over all other creatures.

Here’s an example that takes place when Rais and his mother are on the trail to figuring out how a sort of overlord evil djinn named Matteras killed Uncle/Ambassador/GU Sikkim.

“What if humans and djinns are just related species, or even just mutations of one specie?” Rais says. “Most djinn don’t believe in evolution or genetics. They wouldn’t like this at all. I mean, it might tear them apart.”

“Even the most tolerant, humanized djinn think they’re inherently better. Imagine if there was irrefutable proof that they’re just like us? I don’t think they could accept that, as a specie,” Aunt Juny responds.

These debates go on throughout the book. For instance, Matteras throws Indelbed into a labyrinthine underground murder pit of Matteras’s own creation. There rock wyrms threaten to eat the boy, who’s been there long enough to become a man, and Givaras, who’s apparently been there for at least a millennium. Givaras, a pedantic, Dr. Frankenstein type, has tried and failed in his attempts to breed various forms of creatures who are placed down there with him. Failed, we learn, means killed.

Now the rascally character, who flagellates between likeable and despisable, plans to try again– this time with Indelbed. Before he does so he says: “I will try a technique of heating your blood, essentially boiling it. The pain is going to be rather horrid; I think some of the sensations will get through despite your damaged spine. However, you should survive, which is the main thing. It’s only pain, eh?” This time Givaras succeeds. In fact, from Indelbed’s perspective, he could construe the experience as a lesson captured by that old platitude “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Matteras’ attempt to convince the other djinn at a major conference that there’s an overpopulation of “Humes.” They’re destroying the earth, he wants other djinn to think. Continuing on with Hossain’s themes of superiority and evolution vs creationism Matteras wants to get the OK to commence massive natural disasters that will ultimately destroy the human race. “Are we to end our days in obscene couplings with jumped-up monkeys? Chosen by God, I say! Chosen by fire!” he says.

Then there’s the existential perspective of Kaikobad, the little boy’s comatose father. He is actually alive as a sort of ghost. Walking through parts of the capital city he sees “buildings winking out of sight overnight, entire streets turning to mist.” People were disappearing as well. He “saw them fade in front of his eyes, dissipating into a kind of alternate existence, or to some purgatory.”

On a final note, Hossain’s humor is just one more reason to read this book. Its light-heartedness echo the Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, especially when he mentions technologies actually in use today:

“Us djinns are more free spirit antiestablishment types…We don’t go in for big government.”

“You follow Twitter?” “Follow? We’re the ones who invented it! Djinns love brevity. It’s a racial trait, I’m sure you’ve discerned.”

My only complaint is that there are too many characters to saliently keep up with. To be fair, though, that very complaint marks me as a Western reader. We aren’t used to such a high number of characters. Among subcontinental literature, however, it’s inherent.

Nichole L. Reber picked up a love for world lit by living in countries around the globe. She’s a nonfiction writer and her award-winning work has been in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Lunchticket, and elsewhere. Read her stories on a Chinese cult, wearing hijab in India, and getting kidnapped in Peru at http://www.nicholelreber.com/.

Facing the Bull

BY JILL TALBOT

“You all die at fifteen.”

—Diderot

Fearless girl statue fights trump meme culture, flat screen TV in the clinic getting a new pace maker—half of us have gone backwards, half forwards, another half to Mars where they can now plant potatoes, halibut and dollar store haircuts. But for now the statue stands proud. I wonder when they’ll pop her cherry.

Millions of Facebook shares, girl statue faces bull. What bull, I thought, but this is a lie, at first I felt like a happy face emoji because that’s what all the cool feminists told me I should feel, then a nagging wrench that something was not quite right—of course it wasn’t. A girl of about seven or eight with her hair back in a pony tail wearing a summer dress—this is now the symbol of the power of my voice, my choices? Honestly, I’d rather be the bull facing her.

Meme culture teaches girls can be anything. When you’re a girl you can believe what you’re taught, if you can work through all of the mixed messages … The tampon commercials declaring you’re powerful beyond measure, now here’s how to hide your shame, the soap commercials declaring all girls beautiful, as if that’s the one thing we’ve been waiting to hear our whole lives and needed capitalism to tell us, a president peeping in the change rooms of Miss Universe pageants, condom advertisements declaring the best sex ever requires hours of grooming and hair removal because he deserves it.

Sometimes I feel like I am a bull facing the seven year old me who thinks that she can rule the world, that she will go into business because the thought of doing something devoid of power and control didn’t enter my head—that was how I survived childhood. One day I would beat those with power by becoming them. Rich, of course. But still looking good in a dress … Fearless girl statue, the article was titled, but I thought that courage must involve fear, facing something dangerous without fear is child-like naiveté—as is the statue.

When I was the size of the statue, I fought boys in arm wrestling and usually won, I played war video games, I never wore shoes in summer, I loved math and wasn’t too cool to admit it, I read everything I could find. I thought tampon commercials were the bull.

I stare at the clinic TV as paramedics rush in. I want to ask them if we can watch  something more uplifting like Orange Is The New Black.

Now it’s been agreed that the statue will remain. The symbol of women’s empowerment—a frozen child who will never grow up. Bronze, probably Caucasian though it is hard to tell.

A petition to make the statue permanent goes viral, some of us don’t get a choice in the matter. A more ideological crumbling symbol would’ve been a woman facing the bull head on, or perhaps a post-it-note on the bull’s head—sorry, I’ve got better things to do today. When I was a child I would’ve taken you on because I was fearless. As a young adult I would’ve taken you on to prove something. Today I think I will go read a novel.

But none of those would be me. I didn’t say it was me, I didn’t say anything, they didn’t say you could speak.

Jill Talbot attended Simon Fraser University for psychology before pursing her passion for writing. Jill’s work has appeared in Geist, Rattle, Poetry Is Dead, The Puritan, Matrix, subTerrain, The Tishman Review, The Cardiff Review and PRISM. Jill won the PRISM Grouse Grind Lit Prize. She was shortlisted for the Matrix Lit POP Award for fiction and the Malahat Far Horizons Award for poetry. Jill lives on Gabriola Island, BC.

Shanbhag’s first novel to be translated from Kannada into English lingers in its intimacy

(Faber & Faber)

BY NICHOLE L. REBER

The intimacy Vivek Shanbhag creates in his 118-page novel Ghachar Ghochar lingers in a way many of today’s first-person fictions or memoirs don’t. But it’s the realities he shows in this fictional account of rising India that arrest the reader first.

His first novel to be translated from the Indian language of Kannada into English (by translator Srinath Perur), Shanbhag’s story centers around one family’s entrance into the middle class, a popular theme in contemporary Indian literature. There is the traditional Amma (mother), who dotes on her family from her kitchen throne; Appa (father), who’s been forced into early retirement; uncle, Chikkappa, the family breadwinner; sister, Malati, the epitome of spoiled brats everywhere; and the unnamed narrator.

Before opening a profitable spice company, the family used to rely on earning household staples like an iron, a clock, and a suitcase as employer prizes for Appa’s good sales record. All financial decisions were made together. The family even discussed how many rupees Appa could give each person for holidays and on what they’re spent—a pair of pants for the narrator (the son) a cooking spoon for Amma, a sari for sister.

The first sign of the family’s success is a gas oven. Bringing a gas oven into the shabby house, Amma can cook standing up for the first time (in very traditional Indian households cooking is still done whilst kneeling). Soon they move into a house large enough for each person to have a bedroom all his/her own, though not all is marvelous.

“We were leaving something behind, though I couldn’t say what,” the narrator tells us. “The house was huge in comparison to the one we had left. Two stories. A room for each person.”

The furniture brought from their old lives is ill suited to their luxurious life. Neither does their new décor: when Amma and Malati are given free range at the furniture store the results are more mix-it-up, less match-it-up.

Moving into the middle class is more than cosmetic, of course. This is apparent in the quick demise of Malati’s marriage. When she moves in with her new husband’s family, she throws temper tantrums, acts superior to them. “Maybe she had gotten used to having whatever she wanted and it diminished her capacity for making the inevitable compromises that accompany marriage,” the narrator tells us.

Then we come to the narrator’s own marriage, arranged by class not by caste—evidence of modern, newly-middle-class India— occurs for similar and also quick reasons. His wife Anita finds out that despite the big title he has with the family business, he has no bona fide responsibility there, and feels deceived. She can’t relate to a man who doesn’t have to work, who lives off family members, and so she leaves.

It is primarily through the narrator’s relationship with his wife that he conveys the deepest intimacy to readers. It starts, however, long before that. In fact, by the second page, we’re learning how inexperienced he is with women. We meet him after he’s skulked away from his first would-be girlfriend. There’s no conversation, no argument, no nothing except his seeming to disappear from her life. Hanging out at the café afterward, he hopes to find confidence in the adages of the waiter Vincent, which bring supposed therapeutic clarity like American bartenders do for their patrons. “Part of me longs to speak to Vincent but I’m holding back— what if his words hint at the one thing I don’t want to hear?” he says of the man who doesn’t know beyond a superficial level.

The narrator’s a bit wimpy, but in the vein of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, we fall for him because of his imperfections, because of his intimate confessions. He gives details of his marriage, not in sexual ways but with gentle self-reflection: “A woman I didn’t know had chosen to accept me, in body and mind.”

“Her arms tightened around me. I could feel her bangles pressing into my back. Through touch, this unknown woman began to be known to me.” Their intimacy is still nascent when she tells him the family story behind the meaning of ghachar ghochar, which is one of the most universal parts of the book.

Later, Anita clashes with the females of the narrator’s family, causing shifts in his own dynamics with them. But he couldn’t stand up for her or against his sister and mother. When Anita leaves town, the narrator and the family reestablish those dynamics.

“It was as if Anita’s absence had allowed us to be ourselves again, without inhibitions.” They’d rather remain an interdependent unit, unbroken by outsiders. Like any intimate unit does.

Read the novel to see if he’ll fight to get Anita back. Read it to learn more about the realities of rising Asia.

Shanbhag is the author of eight works of fiction and two plays, all held to critical success in his native South India. He held a 2016 residency at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Workshop.

Nichole L. Reber picked up a love for world lit by living in countries around the globe. She’s a nonfiction writer and her award-winning work has been in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Lunchticket, and elsewhere. Read her stories on a Chinese cult, wearing hijab in India, and getting kidnapped in Peru at http://www.nicholelreber.com/.

[REVIEW] How Seidlinger’s MY PET SERIAL KILLER Slays a Whole Genre—Then Reanimates It, Better and Gorier

(Cinestate, 2017)

REVIEWED BY MICHAEL NATALIE

As befits a gory dissection of horror films, Michael J. Seidlinger’s My Pet Serial Killer opens cinematically.

Lights up on an ennui-stricken graduate student. We’re given a few cryptic words—Claire, student, master—and an impressionistic portrait, its features subordinated to a pervasive sense of unhappiness. Over the next thirty pages, this misery takes shape: What begins as dissatisfaction becomes misanthropy, what begins as loneliness becomes a profuse yearning. An attending psychologist would revise his diagnosis from depression to narcissism; a malignant strain of narcissism with a litany of other issues percolating underneath—but leaving the patient somewhat anchored in reality.

Through Claire’s perspective, we are given the terms of a conversation we can’t yet understand: “I,” “you,” “woman,” “man,” “master,” “pet,” “fight” and—crucially—mystery. Twenty-odd pages in, another character takes shape: Victor Hent, the Gentleman Killer. We’ve seen Victor before, in prior literary and film incarnations. His dark, slicked-backed hair and the shallow world into which he wades evoke Patrick Bateman—particularly as portrayed by Christian Bale.

Predictably, Victor and Claire forge an instant attraction. A reader scouting for tropes might read Victor as Claire’s karma; the runoff of her own toxic psychology into the real world, here to punish her for her narcissistic power fantasies—fatally so. One might expect Claire to join the ignominious ranks of the foolish dead, the slasher victims who could’ve averted their sad fates simply by locking their front doors.

Nope. Seidlinger bucks our first expectation by quickly and firmly establishing Claire as the dominant half of the pair.

But it’s not just that Claire dominates Victor: Her power fantasies are so fully actualized it quickly becomes difficult to picture her suffering any kind of comeuppance, even at the end of the story.

What follows My Pet Serial Killer’s cryptic (but suitably disturbing) opening scenes is a gory romp which explores not only the psychology of murder and murderers, but also the psychology of horror films and audiences; a the literary answer to the burgeoning film canon of self-referential horror flicks: Funny Games, Behind the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon, Cabin in the Woods, and so on.

Without giving too much away—in fact, we can file this comment under Captain Obvious—Claire’s attraction to Victor stems from his capacity to kill. He kills, she watches. More critically, Claire applies her forensics expertise in order to enable and preserve her clumsy, impulsive “pet.” She’s not just complicit; she’s in charge, and the manner of her voyeurism implicates the audience in her mindset.

Specifically, she tends to watch the murders as a filmgoer would—through camera. Seidlinger makes the deft decision to incorporate old-school cassette tapes here, recalling the early days of slasher flicks. Furthermore, Claire demands Victor cultivate a certain aesthetic, ramp up his Patrick Bateman flair—to her, this isn’t just murder; it’s art, and it doesn’t count if it fails to project an aura of mystery.

At his most direct, Seidlinger cuts the narrative with italicized reflections, which he maddeningly labels “optional.” To oversimplify: These reflections raise Claire’s voice up to the level of the author’s, with deranged allusions to the novel’s critical underpinnings. In these rants, Claire frequently imagines how her work would play with audiences. If Seidlinger’s “optional” tag regarding these italicized rants reflects a genuine ambivalence—as opposed to just a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor—that’s understandable. The old maxim goes “show, don’t tell.” However, it’s My Pet Serial Killer’s direct and deeply interior moments that transform the novel from a violent, audience-shaming slog into a visceral think piece.

For example, the first of the italicized segments contains a satirical advertisement for the horror genre, a darkly hilarious rant which blends Claire’s fetishes together with the fascinations of the audience. Crucially, Claire’s ramblings inch close enough to sanity that the reader can—in some sense—“get” her. From this union between Claire and the audience springs one of the novel’s principal obsessions: mystery.

 In Nothing Ever Happens, you live a life of certainties until you come across a mystery, and whatever you do to make sense of that mystery only ever feeds that mysteryin Nothing Ever Happens,the mystery is really the only reason to livewith such a state of mind, its a good enough reason to let deviance be our director.

Implicit in this fascination with ‘mystery’ is the admission that the horror genre is popular, not because we enjoy pain, but rather because we hate boredomand mystery rescues us form that boredom. Horror’s guided by the same core motive force as any other genre; the impulse towards escapism. The fact that the novel admits this early on salvages it from potential silliness—the ridiculousness inherent in a comparison between the average reader and the deranged Claire.

But as the novel unfolds and Claire’s actions become increasingly brutal, the distinction between hating boredom and enjoying pain becomes murkier. Seidlinger’s attempts to incriminate the audience become more potent. And here lays the novel’s true monster: Not Victor or even Claire, but the sense their macabre performance exists because only because we want it to.

In other words, the novel’s real horror is the fear that attends guilt.

And it works.

Seidlinger achieves this black, guilty fear through many channels—not least, a provocative narrator and the bare, brutal facts of the plot. But Seidlinger’s most subtle success lies in his novel’s structure; a well-made two-room insane asylum to house the narrative’s philosophically-demented screams.

My Pet Serial Killer has two parts: Be Mine and Youre Mine. The aesthetics of Be Mine concentrate mostly on blood, Dexter style. Youre Mine is more honest about what happens when people die—all those other, somehow less sanitary, fluids. Both stories have an interplay of sex and violence, but the sex becomes more prevalent in the latter half. While both arcs have a docudrama element, Be Mine plays out many of the classic slasher film tropes, while Youre Mine is heavier on snuff and found footage elements. Furthermore, Claire’s reflections on the genre change in emphasis—from the film to the television format. This seemingly inconsequential shift actually belies an important theme of the novel: That the violence never stops.

In other words, while the novel is never a comfortable read, it gets progressively less so. We graduate from the familiar horror tropes and their attendant fantasies, moving into cruel and uncharted waters. All the while, from beginning to end, Claire mocks—or, more precisely, sarcastically applauds—the reader for staying with her on her journey even as it rockets beyond sterile, commercially-accepted fantasies towards something far worse. In the end, you’re left wondering if you’ve crossed a line—Claire’s line.

The line between hating boredom and enjoying pain.

It’s no mystery—My Pet Serial Killer wants us to feel complicit in Claire’s crimes.

And we always are, even more than we would be than if we were watching them in filmed form. After all, its a novel. Our own imaginations are doing the work of conjuring everything that happens. And there lies the story’s principal strength: In the manner of a true nightmare, doubts and fears linger on. Even now, as I slowly reaffirm the difference between the audience and the monster.

After its original release by Enigmatic Ink in 2013, My Pet Serial Killer has been re-published by Cinestate today, Halloween 2017.

Pills

BY DANA VERDINO

In the event that you try a new pill and it dampens your creativity, try another new pill. In the event that that other new pill doesn’t work to your liking either, then try another pill. This is the way I would go at my life. Step by step, pill by pill. This one pill lifted my mood but made me sleepy, and this other one gave me energy but made me lonely. They say there is no magic bullet, though I haven’t given up trying to find it. I think there must be the perfect cocktail of pills that I haven’t stumbled upon, a perfect combination of herbs, vitamins, and prescription medications. Every new cocktail brings hope and keeps me moving to the next. I’m like a chemist running experiments on myself. I add this, take out that, and factor in the alcohol, the cigarettes, and the men. Without these other highs, the pills are uninspiring, and without the pills, the highs are dangerous. The pills take away the self-loathing and the guilt. The pills make the highs leave less of a dent in my heart.

“If all these pills cannot provide you with an answer, perhaps you should try therapy,” says my psychiatrist, a serious woman with blonde hair in a loose bun, round blue eyes, and large pearl earrings. “Let me recommend someone to you.”

I try to shut my mouth after she says this. She doesn’t want to analyze my inner dialogue; it isn’t part of her job description. She doles out medicine according to symptoms. She doesn’t listen to your daddy issues or analyze your dreams with you. She is beautiful. She doesn’t know that if she had what I had she would never be what she is.

“I’ve tried that,” I say.

But this is not entirely true. I went to a few of those free group meetings at the local church for people with my kind of illness. I remember floating around the church before the meeting started. There was a table with a canteen of watery coffee, those small styrofoam cups, and hard straws. I sipped on the coffee as I read signs and pamphlets. I don’t drink coffee, actually.

There was a decent turnout. Mostly there were women. Apparently, we are the ones who need to share our misery with others the most, as if we could heal through admittance of what shames us. I wish it were that simple. None of these women went out of their way to socialize. This was to be expected. Such an illness goes hand in hand with social withdrawal and excessive rumination. We were too tired to forge relationships beyond the ethereal circle of textbook therapy and empathetic nods. Meanwhile, relationships are likely what we all need the most because we hate ourselves to no end.

My shrink must have known I was curtailing her suggestion, because she then asks me, “How long did you try your therapy?”

I say, “A few sessions.” She looks at me curiously. “My point is that I just know…I know that talking isn’t going to help me. I had a fine upbringing, I have my health, my looks, education…no reason to feel the way I do, no explanation other than this faulty wiring in my head.”

“Ok,” she says.

I am not used to this sort of appeasement so early on. Normally I have to fight for this. People closest to me rarely believe me. They think I make excuses and take the easy way out. Maybe they’re right, but it doesn’t matter. I just know it can’t work. I can’t afford to entertain futile endeavors. Every hour is too long when you are sick and you can’t sleep through it. I am glad there are no prerequisites in meeting with this blonde-haired, blue-eyed prescription pad. All I need is all that I have and all I want is a new pill so I can keep moving, step by step. From my apartment to the train to her office, and the steps to the bars and the beds and the bathrooms, the steps through the sand and water and wind just to keep from breaking.

Dana Verdino‘s work has appeared in Fiction at Work, Boston Literary Magazine, Open Minds Quarterly, Camroc Press Review and Heart Insight, the magazine of The American Heart Association. Dana is an English instructor and is sort of working on a memoir. Or maybe a short story collection. She has an M.A. in English, an M.A. in Education, and lives in South Carolina with her husband and four children.

Nutrition Facts

BY KAT TAN

that she tried very hard to forget and in fact thought she had forgotten only those bullies broke that part of her brain too the part that wore round glasses and brightly patterned cotton scarves and muttered under its breath mm hm mm hm as it shuffled and reshuffled all those lovely chapter books in all those Koa wood shelves that stretched from freshly vacuumed navy blue carpets skyward so now all the books have tumbled down and disappeared the carpet into a blanket of ripped out pages and that part of her brain has been quite scrambled since the day that memory was zapped into monstrous life like Frankenstein had been only she can’t put her finger on how that story actually went since she read it quite some time before the day those bullies sliced her up into 5 servings per container and opened their mouths wide because the serving size they cut for themselves was quite large and she rather thought they bit off more than they could chew since the taste of her made their stomachs twitch and they went running and told the rest of the school how she had made them sick and the rest of the kids said really and tried a bite themselves some found her too fibrous for their liking and others had an underdeveloped taste for protein on young women and yet others only nibbled because they were aspiring anorexics who refused anything that yielded over two hundred and fifty calories but some kids had such a sweet tooth that they actually came back for seconds and in no time she was little more than crumbs but still the bullies weren’t fed so they took her bones and ground them into fine powder that if analyzed was 75 percent pure calcium and fortified their nerve even better than milk could so the bullies started spreading rumors about why she had so many bites taken out of her and she tried to stop them saying look how many mouths I’ve fed how many people I’ve nourished how many bellies I’ve warmed but some jealous old boyfriend had swallowed her voice box sometime during one of their last kisses before they broke up a few months back and then he gave the still fluttering voice box to his new girl so the bullies were free to tell everyone that she had in fact been rotten and mushy under her rosy pretty skin and don’t we all hate it when girls like that pass themselves off as something fresh when in fact they bruised on their way to the market and she was so thoroughly sucked brittle that all she could do was listen to the bullies say this and eventually started to believe it a little and then believe it a lot that she was an expired unhappy fruit with a scrambled up brain that no one would want even for free and she was still thinking this when she got into her dream college and still thinking this as she delivered her graduation speech and still thinking this when she got on a plane and still thinking this when she unpacked her bags in an empty dorm and still thinking this when the winter melted quicker than it ever had up in the North and was in the middle of thinking this one day when her class was assigned a book called Frankenstein and she read it in a day first in her head and then out loud and now that she thinks about it wasn’t the creation called The Creature and the human called Frankenstein and wasn’t Frankenstein the villain of the book after all?

Kat Tan is a spoken word poet, wannabe-psychiatrist, activist, songwriter, reformed shy-person, cactus-enthusiast, & read-&-walk-er. She is a Robertson Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill & Duke University. Her work has appeared in The Health Humanities Journal of UNC-Chapel Hill, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, & elsewhereShe twice represented UNC at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational & was UNC’s 2017 Grand Slam Champion. Tan is the current director of the Wordsmiths of UNC-Chapel Hill & a graduate of the Yale Writers’ Conference. Every day, she falls in love with your smile. Follow her work at www.katoutofbag.com.