Life Within the Simulacrum: If the Internet Dies, Am I Still a Writer?

Life Within the Simulacrum is a featured column focusing on technology & social media, travel & literature.

BY DALLAS ATHENT

Recently I was assembling my portfolio. One of the magazines I regularly write for re-routed their archive and I panicked — I couldn’t find one of the best articles I’ve ever written in my life on their website anymore. So what did I do?

I Googled it.

“Philippe Avignant At Large Magazine Dallas Athent”

That should do it. And it did. There was the link, floating around in space. Even though I couldn’t find a way to it anywhere on their website, it still existed. I was still a person. But then I had to ask if anyone would ever find this article again. It’s quite possible only a few people before it’s gone forever. And ironically, if anyone does search “Philippe Avignant At Large Magazine Dallas Athent” to get directly to it they’ll likely now come to this article instead.

Growing up, I read magazines. If I was lucky I saved up enough money as a teenager to head into New York City and go to St. Marks where I’d find random zines and lit mags. I still have copies of those magazines today. Sometimes this still happens. I travel from city to city and always come across publications I never heard of and am happy to pick up.

But this kind of discovery now happens more frequently in the internet. We’re publishing more than ever. It’s so easy. Throw up a Tumblr, buy a .com and make it happen. Take submissions through Submittable. Share Google docs. It costs next to nothing. It can be done by your phone on the go and on the computer. It can be shared on social media for free. People share a link. Maybe some people click it and discover a new website. They then save said website, or follow it. Maybe they read more. Maybe they don’t.

But once all of these websites can no longer be maintained, and we find 404 errors, it’s like we never really wrote anything at all. What happens when the Editor of some online mag moves to Europe moves and lets the publishing trickle out? What if somebody just forgets to renew a GoDaddy URL? What happens in 100 years when historians are studying the art of today? Will all of our archives fade into oblivion?

The answer is — of course they will. Even things that are printed fade over time. Pages deteriorate with age. Things are thrown out. Nothing is permanent. We are flecks of dust in time and all we have is this moment. This is what the internet reminds me of. The internet is forever until it’s not. We are published writers until we aren’t. Links or it didn’t happen. But when something is in print, at least you can hold it in your hand. You can pinch yourself and then commit to checking out the rest of the book or magazine to read more, instead of xing out of a tab you may never revisit.

The act of sharing articles, essays and poetry has become more important than the literature itself. We share, therefore we are. If you’re not being published, you’re not doing anything.

So I have to ask, if the internet goes down, who am I? I honestly don’t know anymore. Even this essay is starting not to make sense. But that may not even matter because it could just become a random link that I have to Google one day to prove I wrote for PANK. The point is things are on the internet, and the internet isn’t real so I can’t measure what that means when life is lived in the flesh.

But at least I can share this link and prove I’m a writer, right?

Dallas Athent is a writer and artist. She is the author of THEIA MANIA, a book of poems with art by Maria Pavlovska. Her work, both literary and artistic has been published or profiled in BUST Magazine, Buzzfeed Community, VIDA Reports From The Field, At Large Magazine, PACKET Bi-Weekly, YES Poetry!, Luna Luna Magazine, Bedford + Bowery, Gothamist, Brooklyn Based, and more. She’s a board member of Nomadic Press. She lives in The Bronx with her adopted pets.

 

How do you live when you’re hiding who you are? A conversation with Tadzio Koelb, author of TRENTON MAKES

INTERVIEW BY YI ZOU

Before publishing Trenton Makes (Penguin Random House), Tadzio Koelb had poems, reviews, and essays already under his belt. Now, after four years of on and off writing, editing, and revisiting, he has completed a tale of identity, isolation, and corrupt humans living in a corrupt society. In Union Square, on one of the few pleasant days in the middle of winter, he talks about his journey in writing, the inspiration for his protagonist, and how a story set in post WWII relates to our modern world.

 

Yi Zou: How long has the idea of Trenton Makes been in your head? What inspired it?

Tadzio Koelb: A pretty long time. I remember talking about it with my thesis advisor in my undergraduate program. I was finishing a different novel then, but I had already come across the CD of jazz music by Billy Tipton, who was discovered at the moment of his death to be biologically female.

That had set me thinking about a few different things. Most immediately, how do you live when you’re hiding who you are or what your body is? How do you do that? And I took it to an extreme because I think extremes are where you find more interesting stories.

 

YZ: How long has it taken for you to complete the novel?

TK: It’s hard to say exactly, because I started a bit and then went back to revise an earlier novel that I never managed to place with a publisher. So, I usually say it’s about four years.

You just have to do it. You just have to sit down in front of the piece of paper or the computer or however you function as a writer. Right now, I’m not really doing that since I’m sort of waiting, I’m so caught up in the excitement of publishing this novel that I don’t have the ability to focus on the next thing yet.

 

YZ: Is this a story that you planned out piece by piece before you started writing, or did the plot form as you wrote it? Have these characters changed from how you envisioned them in the beginning?

TK: A little bit of both. I would outline pretty extensively, but when I went to flesh out those various different pieces, they would sometimes be much longer or shorter than I would have anticipated. There were big question marks surrounding some of the events. How to arrive at them, and what all of the various repercussions might be.

Some characters changed, very drastically. I had originally thought that Dion would be almost a cult leader, for example.

 

YZ: Did you ever encounter a block while planning or writing, and what helped you get past it? What did you learn?

TK: I think of writer’s block as just another name for fear of failure. Naturally, I experienced fear of failure all the time. I think it’s a constant. I think if you’re an artist and you don’t fear failure, you’re probably not a very good artist, because you should want to do something that you’re not sure how to do. You should be attempting to do something ambitious and difficult.

I think the most important activity to do for a writer is to read. Reading is an enormous inspiration and a source of almost comradery with other writers, even if they’re long dead. They encourage me and they lead me.

This is my first published novel, but not the first one I wrote. I had an instructor at my master’s course, who used to say, “Writing a novel teaches you how to write the novel you just wrote”. Having said that, though, it’s like anything in the sense that the more you do it, the more you understand it, the less you have the question yourself.

 

YZ: What made you so interested in the post WWII time frame? Did you have to do a lot of research?

TK: I chose that particular time, because the character was, for me, best displayed against a backdrop of isolation. I didn’t want there to be chat rooms, support groups, anything that might suggest a kind of network to which this character could turn. But, I wanted a time that wasn’t so different from our own and I believe that a lot of things that happened in WWII are still affecting the politics that we’re suffering from in America today.

I thought I was familiar, but you discover a lot of small things that would have never occurred to you to ask. How did people get rid of their garbage? Or heat their houses?

 

YZ: Is the style of non-linear storytelling something you employ often?

TK: Yes, it is. In this particular case, I was also influenced or inspired by a book called “The True Story of the Novel” by Margaret Doody. She discussed earlier forms of the novel and different ways in which novels could be structured. It inspired me to be as transgressive in the formatting of the novel as I thought the character Kunstler was in relation to his surroundings and society

 

YZ: There is this element of reincarnation through violence, from Kunstler’s husband to Kunstler and finally to Kunstler’s son. How did this motif come to be?

TK: I pulled in my discussion of Kunstler as, sort of, the ultimate self-made man. I looked at a couple of stories, one of which is Frankenstein. In this case, Kunstler is both Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster. I also looked at the story of Isis, who tried to reassemble her husband but was unable to find his sex organs. I also looked at the Nietzsche-ian statements of the revenge of the son on the father, and these kinds of violent progenitors.

 

YZ: Kunstler ends up doing some incredibly immoral things. Were you concerned with keeping your protagonist “sympathetic” or “likable”?

TK: The important thing about Kunstler is that he demonstrates how bad systems generate immoral behavior. We see a lot of stories about people facing difficulty that are shown as deeply and essentially good, but forced to do something—perform an act—bad. I think that’s a misrepresentation of the way in which we are affected by our inequalities. I think that a corrupt system creates corrupt morality which the individuals trapped inside can’t even see as corrupt. Kunstler is somebody just like that. In order to get what he wants and needs, he will do things that seem, to him, to be justified.

 

YZ: Did you experience rejections while trying to get Trenton Makes published?

TK: Oh, yes, quite a lot, in fact. There were some agents worried about the length. Specifically they thought it was too short. Some liked the first half but not the second half. And some liked the second and not the first. Some, one rather, told me she thought it read like a first draft. It’s almost exactly the same draft, with minor changes, that’s being published one month from now.

 

YZ: Are you represented by an agent, and how did the two of you connect?

TK: I’m represented by Anna Stein, at ICM. I came to her through one of the many ruses I used for meeting agents. Essentially, any time I met a person, of any kind, whether or not that person had any relationship with the literary world, I’d ask them if they knew an agent. And if I submitted my work to agents, and they said it wasn’t for them, I asked them to recommend someone else. I was always on the lookout for an introduction. I got an introduction from a colleague at Rutgers, and I was very lucky that Ana was sympathetic with the work.

 

YZ: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

TK: For the writing part, I think write what you really want to because you’re going to be rejected a lot. It’s better to be rejected for something you meant than something you did only to please others, and ultimately, you’ll write a better book if you’re being honest. For publishing, I think luck is a huge part of it. I thought I was going to have to publish this book on a mimeograph machine and sell it on the corner. I just got very lucky, I think, that the subject matter was timely, and I found an agent who was interested, and she knew the right editors to go to, and so on.

 

Yi Zou is a graduate student studying fiction at the New School MFA program.

The Orange Sun Makes Us Stronger

BY JARED LEMUS

My children wake up to watch cartoons and I burn the newspaper. They can’t read yet, but I’m afraid some of the ink that says “shooting” “bombing” “racism” will leak into their cereal. I’ve called to cancel my newspaper subscription twice now, but it keeps coming. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be informed, but I’m also trying to keep this from my children for as long as possible. As if postponing it will make it less harmful. I know it won’t.

“I want to watch monster trucks.” My three-year-old. Destruction has already made its way into his life without him knowing. He enjoys watching the trucks destroy smaller cars. He claps when one of them catches on fire and says, “Dad, look.” I tell him I know and avert my eyes. How can I explain that the rest of the world looks like that, too? How can I explain that people have made it okay to expect and accept violence? How to explain survival of the fittest without saying that it means adapting and that adapting means building bigger destructive machines? I still don’t know.

I picked him up from pre-school the other day and found him sitting at a table by himself. “Is he in trouble?” I asked the teacher. She told me he wasn’t sharing toys with the other children. Get more toys, I thought. But that night, I sat down and tried to tell him how important it is to share, how important it is to always get along with others. Since then, I have never found him sitting alone at that table again. How easy was it to instill that in my child? How easy is it for other parents to say, “Just take them,” or “Push them to get what you want”? This worries me.

Now he looks up from his cereal to ask, “Why do you put fire on that paper?” I tell him it’s easier to start the chimney with the kindling of words. Fire already exists on the page, and fire fuels fire. I tell him to grab his backpack and drive him to school.

“I shared just like you told me to,” he says, right before he gets out of the car.

“Good. That’s how humans should be,” I say. “Caring, compassionate, loving.”

“Other kids don’t share,” he says.

“I know,” I say. “Set an example.”

I watch his backpack bounce up and down as he runs into school: a building almost as dangerous as high security prisons. Only three years old, and I’m already worried about middle school, high school. Soon, I’ll be dropping him off with a bulletproof vest and instructions on what to do in case of a school shooting, a bomb threat, a racist comment.

Step one: do not engage.

Step two: hope for the best.

My wife hates reading me type this, but I ask, “Am I wrong?” Her silence and tears tell me that I’m not, but they also tell me that she’s almost regretful for having brought such beautiful children into this world. Our one-year-old on her hip looks at me wondering why my eyes look the way his do when he trips and hurts himself, and I tell him, “All humans look like this when they’re in pain.”

In the afternoon, I pick up our son from pre-school and he asks, “Dad, what’s a snowflake?”

“It’s what falls from the sky when it’s cold,” I say. “It’s millions of snowflakes that allow us to make snowballs,” I say.

“They’re white?” he asks.

“Yeah, why?”

“Zack called me a snowflake today,” he says. “But we’re not white, right?”

“No,” I say, “we’re Hispanic.”

“Then how am I a snowflake?”

“You’re one of these many snowflakes,” I say. “They’re all different, but if they come together, they can cause an avalanche.” My son. Only three and he’s already dealing with people labeling him. Because he’s sharing? Because he’s being kind? Because he says, “I think hurting people is bad”? “I’m one of those snowflakes, too,” I say. He smiles. Content to know that he’s not alone.

“And Mom?”

“Yes, and we’ll always stick together.” It’s hard to explain what a label is. How can I say, “We melt, we evaporate, but we make it back to the ocean and come back again”? How to explain that global warming is being perpetuated by The Orange Sun in the White House? That it’s destroying icecaps and glaciers, but that snowflakes become water, and that when they’re all melted away, they will drown the White House in waves taller than the Empire State Building? The thought of this being a possibility brings me momentary happiness.

“How was school?” my wife asks, when we walk through the door.

“Good,” he says, and throws his backpack on the couch as he runs to his room for his dinosaur collection.

I kiss my wife, and my one-year-old’s face wants to know, “What’s up with this whole no-one-picking-me-up thing?” I scoop him up and point at items on the kitchen counter: zucchini, squash, peppers. “Knife,” I say, “chop-chop.” And imitate my wife chopping an onion. It’s funny how many ingredients it takes to make this quiche, how many different herbs and spices go into one thing to make it work. What would this quiche be if we left out the eggs? The olive oil? The cheese?

The garbage disposal startles the child in my arms, and I tell him it’s okay, not to worry. “Daddy’s got you,” I say. He calms and stares at the place from where the noise is coming. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I lie. “Nothing’s going to hurt you,” I lie harder, and he believes me. At least for now.

Over dinner, my wife and I talk about our day. She tells me how difficult it is to balance housework, watching a one-year-old, and working on an MBA online. She tells me about some financial thing I don’t understand. “QuickBooks,” she says, “ugh, it’s the worst.”

“The worst,” our three-year-old says.

We laugh, remembering why we’re working so hard: we want our kids to have the best life possible. Sometimes we pull all-nighters, we apply for new credit cards, we take out loans. But sometimes we drink a glass of wine and watch TV while the kids sleep. We hold each other on the couch and I read her poetry from famous writers. She jokes asking if I want her to read me some of her statistical data analysis. On some nights, nights like the one I know we’ll have tonight, regardless of what we’re doing, I’ll compare her skin color against mine. I’ll wonder if she made the right choice. I’ll think about how our children have my complexion and not hers. I’ll wonder how much longer The Orange Sun will cast a shadow that makes it difficult to see anyone that isn’t holding a torch.

I feel my wife’s hand on mine and realize I’ve been zoned out. I see her hand juxtaposed against mine and smile. I know we can make it in this world. I know there are many others like her who want to make a difference. I know that every time she heads out the door with a poster in her hand, she’s trying to bring about change. I’ll worry all day, all night, and when she gets home, I’ll ask her not to go back again. But she won’t stop. “Not until I know the kids won’t have to be doing this instead of me.”

“Are you okay?” she asks.

“We will be,” I say.

After we bathe the kids, brush their teeth, and put them to sleep, we hover over them. We watch their chests rise and fall. “I wonder what they’re dreaming of,” my wife whispers. It’s a rhetorical question, but I don’t know the answer. Does our three-year-old dream of the bedtime story we told him that night? Does our one-year-old dream about us? And how much longer until they start dreaming of war and famine? Of poverty and political divides? Our three-year-old is already getting bullied even if he doesn’t know it. The words spoken to him by children are just regurgitations of what their parents have said. They don’t understand. The children don’t understand what it means, and the parents don’t understand the effect of their words on developing minds or how it will affect the future.

We go to bed tonight and I’ll dream. I don’t know about what. Maybe small nothings or short-story plots or bill due-dates. Or maybe I’ll dream of the day I’ll wake up and won’t have to set the newspaper on fire.

Jared Lemus is the Associate Editor of the Jabberwock Review and was previously the Managing Editor of the Equinox. His work is forthcoming in the Kenyon Review, and his work has appeared in the Mochilla Review, The Crambo, and elsewhere. He thanks his wife and children for this publication.

 

 

 

 

Home // Village Square

BY ARRIEL VINSON

Home

You made a home out of me – snuggled into my body’s crevices – expected me to be shelter – the clothes that clung to you like magnets – the water you sipped on – for quenching – to dry out the river in me. I didn’t know how to say no / make myself less / of a castle and more of a cave / cloaked in darkness / too sturdy to tumble / to seep / into you. You made a home – is where the heart is – is me for you – where is mine? – somehow signed my bones away – never gave you permission – to take // I take back – three words – with my hands cup them – once velvet – shove them back in my mouth like a meal – let regret awaken my taste buds – feel them struggle down my throat – rumble in my belly like drums – occupy – I tell them stay – never leave again // leave me alone – the key please / give me back mine / house / please give me back my home.

 

Village Square

mama and grandma      find a new place  after the white lady buys us out our home

the one my great grandma owned our legacy  we get an apartment small as one floor of the old house     I make friends with brown girls    go to Saturday fiestas with Jesus hanging on their wall      tapestry the color of a Midwest sunset    Virgin Mary on the end table

while her family gets drunk  while my mama works grandma blocks the door with a gold metal stopper                           people breaking in cars over here             blood clots in nostrils                               phlegm thick as soot              brown stuff been growing                        ’round the tub              grandma scrapes it off                    mama ain’t got time to worry gotta provide the roof for us                  in walls like moss                           its own       soil    landlord won’t tear it out we stay                  wonder if it’s growing large as the rent                mold grabs me              by its teeth  tosses me like a disk    mama says  we have to go              grandma stops scraping         blood rolls back into              my nose                                                    we can breathe again

 

Arriel Vinson is an Indiana native who writes about being young, black, and in search of freedom. She is an MFA Fiction candidate at Sarah Lawrence College and received a B.A. in Journalism from Indiana University. Her poetry won third place prize in LUMINA Journal, judged by Donika Kelly, and she has had essays/articles published in Blavity, The LaLa, HuffPost and more.

[A Reviewable Feast] Adult Gummies by K. Karivalis

Neon Burrito Publishing, 2018

A Reviewable Feast is a hybrid book review/author interview series by Mandy Shunnarah.

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“I saw the best minds of my generation artificially enhanced by the excessive nutrients of two-a-day adult gummy multivitamins, upgraded alongside their devices… going through the motions as the world watched, being completely aware they were being watched… every one of them pretending to work harder than the next but only as hard as will require the least amount of effort.”

With that howler of an opening, K. Karivalis begins Adult Gummies, her satirical novella on the battle between Millennials making art, making money, and often being disenchanted by both. The characters learn the hard way that office jobs can lack creative and spiritual fulfillment, while full time creative self-employment can lack steady income. In the parlance of our times, the struggle is real.

Jen, Kat, Dirk, and Thad work at the amorphous Company, a business whose goings-on we know nothing of besides content creation, advertising, and sales. Jen dreams of being the Content Queen, vying for the head copywriting position. Kat wants to be a “real writer” who’s creatively fulfilled. Dirk coasts along, not having to do much since his privilege as a white man already affords him more money and growth opportunities than Jen, his chief rival. Thad endures the indignities of daily racial microaggressions just going to and from work. Adult Gummies is sardonic social commentary at its best.

I talked to K. Karivalis about Millennial struggles, music as an escape, and the effect of personal branding on art.

Mandy Shunnarah: I’m curious about how this book came to be. Did you have an office job you hated where you ran into the real-life inspirations for the characters?

  1. Karivalis: I landed my first office job when I was 24 and it was at Binder & Binder (yes, the Social Security Disability law firm with ads on daytime TV) and it was bleak, like a caricature of a mundane office job. I was hired as a “writer,” which meant I wrote legal documents and had to learn all these laws about Social Security Disability, etc. The contrast between the rather alternative “artsy” lifestyle I lived the first few years after graduating college and the 9 to 5 world was jarring, almost terrifying, but in a fascinating way because it was all completely new to me. I felt like I was thrown into a movie set, like I was starring in a movie about a young woman navigating the banality of big city office life. So it felt natural to translate those experiences into a book, though I didn’t do so until a few years after I left that job. One particular character (Dirk) is very much based off of a former coworker, the others are more inspired by bits and pieces of people I know and different millennial stereotypes.

MS: One of the things I loved about Adult Gummies is that, while satirized, it’s eerily true to life for Millennials who have worked at a company that produces content. Kat says she wants to be a “real writer, not a copywriter,” and meanwhile the protagonist Jen actively wants to be a copywriter because then she’d be the Content Queen she aspires to be. And yet neither of them fit well at The Company. I imagine there are a lot of writers who feel like this right now––wondering whether they should write for the sake of creating art or write what sells, even if what sells is often substandard. How did you navigate all this? Is this dichotomy something you find yourself struggling with?

KK: The characters Kat and Jen represent this dichotomy: quit your job and pursue your writing dreams with reckless abandon or climb the ladder of being a “professional” writer in a “professional” setting, hoping that if you reach your desired position, you will be satisfied creatively while still having the comforts that 9 to 5 jobs provide. Kat’s decision to (spoiler alert) quit her job and become a “real writer” and Jen’s dedication to playing the professionalism game represent the fork in the road I feel like I am at now.

I currently work an office job but it’s part time, which gave me the time to write Adult Gummies. Before I started working on the book though, I was focused on finding a full-time professional job as a content creator and/or copywriter at a company that I thought embraced the idea of a progressive office environment and encouraged creativity, such as the Urban Outfitters corporate headquarters, which is one of the biggest employers of young creatives in Philadelphia. At the Urban Outfitters corporate headquarters, people bring their dogs to work, buildings are situated on this beautiful campus with trees and public sculptures, there are many artisan options for cruelty-free lunch, you can bring your laptop outside to work on the grass when it’s nice out––this sort of utopian idea of The New Professionalism, trying to rid office jobs of their stigma. I thought the combination of my professional experience and online “clout” (some of these jobs require a minimum amount of Instagram and/or Twitter followers) would make it easy for me to land one of these jobs, but alas, this was not the case. So I thought, ‘okay screw you I’m writing a book.’

Unfortunately, I think most young writers these days give up on The Dream and get the creative labor job and tell themselves they’ll write their novel in their spare time. But this is the climate we are in now––this is the reality of money ruling the world, in addition to health insurance, benefits, sick days, 401K, job security, etc.

About a year into working at Binder & Binder, my dad died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack at the age of 54. I got the phone call at my desk at Binder & Binder (I had left my cell phone at home that day by strange coincidence), and immediately that environment was poisoned with that traumatic memory. I quit my job directly afterwards and worked odd jobs for a year while in a deep state of grieving. I slowly started to rebuild my life and got the part time office job I work now, as a kind of minimal-amount-of-money-making placeholder until I felt ready to return to full time work. After I applied to and didn’t get the creative professional jobs I thought I wanted, I got real with myself and thought: “this is all a big procrastination dance to avoid putting my nose to the grindstone and writing a book.” So then I wrote the book.

I don’t think I would have had the dedication, motivation, concentration it took to write the book if I didn’t go through this horrific experience, but something about being reminded on a ceaseless, obsessive basis of my own mortality and the finite reality of living really gave me the kick in the pants I needed!

MS: I couldn’t help noticing the subtle music references throughout the novel, which was a nice surprise. I saw some Smashing Pumpkins, Pink Floyd, and others. Tell me more about the soundtrack to the novel.

KK: Parts of the novel examine intergenerational workplace dynamics––how employees from each of the three generations of working age people in America right now (Millennials, Gen X-ers, and Baby Boomers) interact with each other on a common playing ground. During the after-work karaoke party, Jeff in Sales (Gen X-er) sings “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” by The Smashing Pumpkins and Kat visualizes him in the time period of the song, in the 90’s, when Jeff in Sales (in her mind) was young and still had hope for a non-conformist lifestyle, before he sold his soul to the 9 to 5 world. The line “Despite all my rage I’m still just a rat in a cage” is in a way the thesis for the entire novel: you can hate your job as much as you want but you’re still working the job. Are you a victim of the system or are you playing yourself? Are you staying at the job you hate because you don’t have the financial means to quit or do you just lack the guts?

I decided to feature this song through karaoke because I had attempted singing it at a karaoke night a few weeks before I wrote that scene and it was surprisingly hard to sing. It starts a cappella so I was off key for like half the song. The frustration of searching for the right note after the song already started really helped me vocally express the desperation inherent in the lyrics of the chorus. So that’s what happens to Jeff in Sales too––he’s visibly frustrated trying to sing on key and also visibly frustrated at his life situation. Not only being a rat in a cage, but a rat in a cage that can’t sing its favorite song properly.

The Pink Floyd lyric “All in all your just another brick in the wall,” has become such a widespread shared sentiment for feeling helpless and dissatisfied with capitalism and modern society that it’s a cliché. Because it is so iconic and well known, I liked playing with that lyric and having Kat write on her Tumblr “All in all you’re just another blown up pizza pocket shit-stain on the wall, the white walls, the pin-pricked cubicle walls of the proverbial Dilbert.” Offices are filled with many different types of walls, both physical (glass partition, drywall, cubicle, rows of ceiling-high filing cabinets) and, of course, metaphorical.

I also want to touch on Jen’s karaoke choice, which is “Escape” by Enrique Iglesias. This is funny in context because she sings it to freak out Dirk, singing he “can’t escape her wrath.” Kat also visualizes Jen in the time period of the song like she did Jeff in Sales, but it is 2001, so she gets into a thought spiral about 9/11. Associating Enrique with 9/11 seems absurd, but it kind of made his career. Right before 9/11 happened, Enrique released “Hero” and it was a hit. However, after 9/11 “Hero” somehow became the theme song of honoring all of the fallen heroes of 9/11, and he sang it at NYFD/NYPD memorials, even though it’s a song about a romance, not about actual life-saving heroes. So this sappy, romantic-sad pop song became the theme song for the NYFD/NYPD 9/11 heroes. It was the chosen song for New York radio DJs to remix with audio from rescuers and politicians speaking about 9/11. It just seems so bizarre thinking back on it now.

MS: I want to slap this novel into the hands of every Boomer who’s ever told me I should get a “real job” while asking me to do work for free and simultaneously telling me that my generation ruined the economy. At first, I thought Adult Gummies was about disenchantment with office life, but as the characters find out, freelancing in the gig economy can be worse. In your experience, do you think the economy Millennials have had to battle makes creating art more difficult or do you think it forces us to be even more creative?

KK: This is my hopeful optimist answer: Overcoming obstacles makes for interesting art. Financial obstacles force us to be not only more creative in our budgeting but also more driven and dedicated to the act of creating (because time is money so if you spend time making art it better be worth it, as in it better be spiritually fulfilling or at least make you look cool). Creating can still feel like an act of rebellion, it can still help us express complicated emotions and ideas that go against the status quo.

The internet art of the 2010’s is a good example: artists who lacked the money for a studio space and supplies used whatever software they had on their computer. Music too, like bedroom pop and vaporwave––that all came from people holed up in their rooms with nothing but a laptop with Garageband and guitar or midi keyboard. And as far as promotion goes, everything can be done through social media. Living paycheck to paycheck and working a terrible job that barely covers your expenses is a bleak existence. Dedicating ourselves to creating art gives us purpose and an escape from the monotony of our money-driven reality.

This is my jaded pessimist answer: That being said, there is no denying the current economy makes it much harder for us to do what we want. It’s difficult to live on a minimal income, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have dodged accruing massive amounts of student loan debt, credit card debt, getting sick and being unable to work, supporting family members, etc.

And the attitude we get from Boomers doesn’t help either, though it has given us such glorious tone-deaf clickbait as: “Millennials Aren’t Buying Diamonds, Why?” And that whole “if Millenials stopped buying avocado toast they could buy a house” fiasco. In recent times I have seen friends who were once set on being writers and artists choose the path of a full time job with a steady income after realizing how many risks have to be taken to dedicate yourself to your creative work.

If we take the little time and money we have and throw it all into writing a book, what if nobody reads it? What if it sucks? These were constant ruminations I had before, during and after writing Adult Gummies––a lot of self-doubt, anxiety and fear of failure.

MS: Nowadays it’s not just office workers who have personal brands––even writers and other artists are often expected to have a brand as part of their creative output. What effect do you think having (or striving to have) a personal brand has on art?

KK: I think it can have a profound effect at the beginning but then becomes problematic when the artist or writer wants to do a new project differently, thus having to not only re-brand but re-brand with grace. Marketing is so important (unfortunately) to get your work noticed and most artists or writers don’t know the first thing about marketing (unfortunately).

I picked up a bit of marketing knowledge when conducting research for Jen’s character, and also through my experiences on social media. A lot of the vocabulary in Adult Gummies is the result of my own experience trying to develop a personal brand for my Instagram account. Generally posts that had a consistent “theme” and “aesthetic” would get the most likes, and at that point in time my Instagram was my only active creative outlet (before I wrote Adult Gummies), so I put a lot of heart and time into it. Then I started developing a personal brand.

Kell Casual was my fake name associated with my Instagram account and she is a character who works in a dreary office but wants her microwaveable meals to be ethically sourced! And she rates different brands of adult gummy multivitamins on Amazon and links these reviews to her Twitter! And she writes melodramatic sonnets about hating Mondays! And she needs to know, for the sake of her brand’s philosophy: How does one make something so un-cool, cool?

Developing a personal brand included targeting Kell Casual’s biggest interests. There had to be reoccurring themes, including the character arc of writing and then finishing her book (my book). Jen’s character is kind of a vamped up, more clean-cut version of Kell Casual, like how actors stay in character for a few months to prepare for an Oscar-worthy role. I did a light version of this, performative for the internet, to create a multidimensional, round character for Jen. I lived in a similar flesh to experience similar experiences. Thus writing a book about a Millennial working a mundane office job became part of the brand, and then the brand became the book, and then the book promoted itself, and then people read it and apparently it doesn’t suck.

Mandy Shunnarah is an Alabama-born writer now living in Columbus, Ohio. Her essays, poems, and book reviews have been published in or are forthcoming from The Citron Review, Barely South Review, Entropy Magazine, Southern Women’s Review, The Missing Slate, New Southerner Magazine, and Deep South Magazine. Read more on her website offthebeatenshelf.com.

 

winter crush

BY ALEXIS SEARS

 

I don’t know how to write a love poem, so thank God this is just

a poem. I avoid mushy clichés about how he is my precious gem,

how I swoon when he brings me Campbell’s and Gatorade because

I am vomiting for the fifth time that week. When we are together,

I am obsessed with my body—not how it looks in the fluorescent

lighting of my bathroom—but how it moves, or doesn’t move,

how my limbs shift almost robotically while he undulates beneath me,

whispering you have to ease into it. I cringe for days. But he knows nothing.

He doesn’t know why, when he scrubs my purple lipstick off his chin,

I ask if he’s ashamed of my trace. Why, when he grabs my hand and spins me,

strokes my jawline, murmurs that he loves my wit, my meek smile, I snap

that his sarcasm destroys me. And looking at him, I know that he is not destroyed

himself; no one would tug his curls or twist a steak knife into his perfect dimple,

scrape his body the way past lovers have scraped mine. My apartment

is soft, and warm, and outside, slabs of ice wince beneath snow boots,

shattering.

Alexis Sears is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University. She is from Palos Verdes, California. Her work has appeared in the Texas Review, Passages North, and elsewhere.

 

Hybrid (kitchen/language/literature) spaces: a conversation with Matthew Baker

INTERVIEW BY JENESSA ABRAMS

(LSU Press, 2018)

We are navigating a tight kitchen. Matthew Baker is peeling sprouts off potatoes that have been aging on the counter. He’s planning to make corn chowder. I’m pouring baking soda into a measuring cup. When he reaches for a knife, I am using it to chop garlic. The pot I’ve put out to boil water for my pretzel rolls, he places a square of butter in for his soup. We move in sync and completely out of tune. We’re wearing pajamas. We’re wearing pajamas because we’re both writers who work from home, and also, we live in that home together. Much before our co-habitation, we interrogated one another at an artist residency in Vermont. Ever since, we’ve bombarded each other with questions, sometimes in a hybrid of languages. We are not strangers to inquisition, and Baker is no stranger to formal experimentation, as his debut novel, If You Find This (Little Brown, 2015), a middle grade mystery about familial love and redemption, infuses mathematics and musical notation in the prose. Three years later, enter: Baker’s debut collection. Hybrid Creatures (LSU Press, 2018) is a four-story collection, each of which is told partially in a hybrid language: HTML, mathematics, musical notation and formal logic. I first read the book in an earlier draft in PDF form. Now there is a box of paperbacks from the publisher in my living room. The conceit of Hybrid Creatures is that there are some human experiences that can only be communicated through hybrid tongues. Here, as the author’s partner, now acting as formal interviewer, while cooking alongside him, I will try to do something similar.

JA: Most evenings, when we sit down to talk, we begin with the directive: Tell me a thing or en français: Dit moi un chose, so this shouldn’t be such a leap. Tonight, tell me a thing about the inception of Hybrid Creatures. From writing the first story, did you know you were going to sculpt a collection of hybrid pieces?

MB: (meticulously chopping potatoes in quarters)

My last semester of college, I did an independent study on comics and graphic novels, which got me thinking a lot about different storytelling mediums, and the types of storytelling maneuvers that you can only do in certain mediums. For instance, a really obvious example in film would be how you can switch back and forth between color and black and white, like in The Wizard of Oz, or even Schindler’s List. Or in comics and graphic novels, the types of maneuvers that Chris Ware does with stories told in diagram form. So, I was thinking a lot about that, and about prose, and trying to think of storytelling maneuvers that only prose writers can do.

JA: (watching pretzel rolls as they rise underneath oiled plastic wrap)

That shift into color in The Wizard of Oz is something so particular to the medium. It creates an emotional experience that works solely because we can experience an altered perception of the world visually. I’m wondering about the forms you chose for the stories in Hybrid Creatures. How did you decide which hybrid language was going to go with which narrative?

MB: (plops quartered potatoes into pot)

Well, I didn’t really. I started with the languages. Before I wrote the stories in the book, I wrote a collection of prototype stories, and in each of those, that was all there was, the artificial language, and then I would design the story around that—but I wasn’t satisfied with the prototypes. I wanted to find some way to write stories that not only would use artificial languages from these other fields, but that would incorporate artificial structures from those fields too. So, when I wrote the final stories—the stories in the book—I started with the language, then I chose a structure, and then I designed the entire story around that.

JA: So then the characters in the book, or at least the protagonists or narrators, became people who had a need for that language, or who had an ability to communicate in that language?

MB: (adding butter to sautéing potatoes)

Yeah, the narrator or the protagonist of each story was determined by whatever the lexicon of that particular story was going to be—someone who would speak that language, and who might interpret their experiences and understand their world through that language, and through the corresponding artificial structure.

I like that we’re doing this while we’re cooking, but I also wish that we could just look at each other while we’re talking.

JA: (walks over to stove, stares at Baker)

In contrast to those complex structures, I was struck by how traditional the stories themselves were. It felt almost like an equation—if you had equally complex narratives, in addition to the experimental forms, maybe the stories wouldn’t work.

MB: (stirring sautéing potatoes)

That wasn’t a realization I made until after I had written the prototypes. One of the prototypes was this story published in Conjunctions called “Proof Of The Monsters.” Not only was that story experimenting with the linguistics of formal logic, but it also was randomly written in diary form, and then it also had these speculative sci-fi elements—it was just too much. There was too much happening. So, that was a lesson I learned from writing that story: I needed to simplify things.

When I first started seriously writing, one of my writing mentors was the poet Jack Ridl. You’ve never met him. He’s this kind, wise old poet. After spending three semesters together, the final thing he said to me about my work, the one lesson he wanted me to take away was: If you are going to do a weird thing, only do one weird thing at a time. He probably phrased it much more articulately than that, but that was the gist of it and that was what I took away.

JA: My mentor, Elissa Schappell said something similar about how to balance language and action—the necessity to lower one when amping up the other.

MB: (adding water to pot)

Only do one weird thing at a time was very important advice for me as a writer—in some ways it was the key to figuring this project out.

JA: I have to ask about the mathematics story, “The Golden Mean.” I find that story to be the strongest in the collection, for several reasons, but one being that there is an emotional honesty and vulnerability that is enormously affecting. As you know, I write from experiences that very much look like life, situationally, although my characters are always fictively constructed. You have a very similar familial makeup to the protagonist in “The Golden Mean” in that you come from divorced parents and move between two families. What happens when we write from life?

MB: (laughs and turns the intensity of the stove burner up)

That’s a brilliant question. Can I respond with a question of my own: Is this all the corn we have?

JA: (grabs stool and heads to cabinet)

I believe so, but let me check—oui, mais we have two cans of black beans.

MB: Merci beaucoup, we don’t need them.

JA: Bien. I didn’t forget my question. And don’t forget to warn me when it’s time to start boiling pretzel rolls.

MB: Parfait, we aren’t quite there yet.

JA: The mathematics story—

MB: (adding corn to pot)

Right. When I wrote my children’s novel, If You Find This, I deliberately wrote a book about a dying grandfather as a way to try to process the experience of losing my grandfather. The process of writing that book was therapeutic for me. But for “The Golden Mean,” it wasn’t about trying to figure out anything for myself—it was about trying to express, the best that I could, what it’s like to be a person caught in the circumstance of existing in two families simultaneously.

JA: And you achieve that with the structural division. We feel the incompleteness. In your first book, even if you wrote it, in part, to process your grief, you were also able to intimately communicate the experience of loss to your readers. But here, I suppose what you’re saying is: the math story is less for you and more for us.

MB: Exactly. For me, this project was about taking these very familiar cliché storylines—having divorced parents, losing your spouse, having dementia—and attempting to find a way to make a reader truly feel those experiences. Trying to develop a storyline to use in conjunction with formal logic, for instance, I realized that writing about a character with dementia could potentially be very powerful, because for a character who thinks about the world in terms of formal logic, there would be nothing more devastating or world-altering than to lose the ability to think logically, in a clear sequential order.

JA: That devastation is palpable. It reminds me about what we were speaking about last night, the book and subsequent film Still Alice, and the play Wit. I think in all three examples, the third being Hybrid Creatures, there is a nuanced dimension of poignancy when the individual experiencing failing mental capacity identifies so deeply with their intellect.

MB: And of course, not everyone has a job that requires working with an artificial language or that necessarily shapes the way that you perceive the world. I think many people do experience this, though, across a wide range of fields. For instance, I have a brother-in-law who’s a chemist—maybe that’s a strange way to phrase it, because you know who my brother-in-law is, but for readers—

JA: He’s also very good at board games, but, yes, your brother-in-law, the chemist—

MB: I asked him recently how much his study of chemistry affects his everyday experience of the world. Like for instance, if he was cooking and he was caramelizing some onions and he had butter and sugar and salt and onions in a pan, was he thinking about the chemical reactions happening in the pan at that moment, as he was cooking, or was he just thinking about how good the caramelizing onions smelled?

JA: (hops onto counter)

I love that question.

MB: He said that the answer was both, that he’d be thinking about how good the caramelizing onions smelled, but that he’d be thinking about the chemical reactions happening in the pan too, and that to some extent he’s always thinking about it—that his knowledge of chemistry affects every experience he has. The first time I ever saw that phenomenon replicated in fiction was in the novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin—have you read that?

JA: I have not.

MB: Oh, you need to read it. It’s brilliant—also, time to start boiling the pretzel rolls.

JA: (hops off counter and turns on oven)

On it. Now, I want to talk about the influence of research on your writing. I know you’re insatiably curious and your hunger for knowledge leads you to incorporate so much from the world into your work. The result is that it feels like you have an intimate knowledge of so many diverse fields—which is another way of saying, like I’ve often suspected, maybe you’re a robot—or another alternative: the internet has given you a way to be a specialist in everything.

MB: (stirring soup)

A lot of it is research. For instance, even though I studied music and knew how to read sheet music and music dynamics, I wasn’t intimately acquainted with the structure of a classical symphony and the structure of the different movements within a classical symphony. Nonetheless, it was important to me for “Movements,” the music story in the collection, that each of the four sections have the same narrative development as the corresponding movement would have in a traditional symphony.

JA: You do a lot of that work in everything you create, where you bury or embed things that an average reader may not pick up on. It seems deeply important to you.

MB: I love video games, and a wonderful and maybe unique tradition within that storytelling medium is the tradition of the Easter egg—hidden content, bonus content, that can be unlocked or discovered if you invest enough time in exploring the story. As a writer, I’m interested in trying to hide as many Easter eggs as possible in each of my stories, to make it as rewarding as possible for a story to be read multiple times—so that potentially, every time it’s read, the reader can make another startling and wonderful discovery. They’re usually in-jokes. Does that make any sense?

JA: (turns on burner for saucepan)

It makes complete sense. The veracity of your worlds comes through in all of your work. I keep thinking about the philosophy story and the conversations that take place throughout it in the background. It’s an interesting experience for the reader because we’re following a protagonist who is confused about where he is and who he is, and you’ve added all this external chatter. In a lesser narrative, that chatter might just be funny or mildly interesting, but here, the conversations feel inherently connected to the larger story.

MB: Well, this was a terrible idea, as usual—

JA: Interviewing while cooking?

MB: Well yeah, that, but also, I got this idea into my head that because “Proof Of The Century” was going to try to tell the entire story of a nearly hundred-year-old man’s life, and because it was also going to try to tell the story of an entire country over that same hundred-year period, I might as well, at the same time, try to incorporate every major subfield of philosophy into the story too.

JA: That is a terrible idea.

MB: So yeah, you’re right, those background conversations at the family “symposium” are meant to contribute thematically, in that these different characters—in a very casual, everyday, holiday get-together setting—are debating a wide range of subjects that philosophers have been debating for centuries. Ethics, aesthetics, political philosophy, etc. Maybe that wasn’t your question.

JA: (watches over saucepan as water begins boiling)

I’m not sure I asked one.

MB: Something else I can tell you about “Proof Of The Century” is that it was also important to me that the proofs in the story include all the basic maneuvers used in formal logic. In the same way that in skateboarding there’s this basic vocabulary of tricks or moves that you can do, in formal logic there’s this basic vocabulary of moves or tricks that philosophers use. Modus ponens, modus tollens, etc—they’re the ollies and nollies of formal logic. In thinking about the various proofs embedded within that story, I decided it was important to incorporate all of those maneuvers at least once—which, again, was a terrible idea, but I did it.

JA: (dumping baking soda into saucepan)

You’re you. Of course, you did.

MB: (staring into foaming saucepan)

That’s a fun reaction! If only the chemist could be here to see it.

JA: (begins dropping in pretzel rolls)

C’est le meilleur. I think we should talk about loneliness. Since language is the way we communicate, I’m curious how isolation features into the book. For me, the reading experience created a connection and sort of broke the individual isolation of your characters and I’m wondering if that was intentional—if you thought at all about the fact that language is the means through which we communicate and that your characters exist primarily in varying forms of seclusion.

MB: Well, for a character who thinks about the world in a hybrid language, who is fluent both in English and some artificial language like HTML, I think that can be isolating—in the same way that if you grow up speaking English and Mandarin, when you’re around people who only speak English, sometimes there will be things you want to express that are impossible to say.

JA: (places pretzel rolls on baking sheet)

And I felt like the hybrid languages were a way to express that which would previously be inexpressible.

MB: Yeah, I think for some of the things you could paraphrase it in English or try to find a synonym, but it wouldn’t quite be the same. You translate stories from French, and I know you’ve said that there are words and phrases in French that no matter how close you get to translating them into English words, sometimes you can’t quite capture the meaning. And that’s just as true for HTML, or music dynamics, or math notions, or formal logic, as it is for French and any other natural human language.

JA: In a way your hybrid languages feel like a form of abstract translation. Let me put these in the oven—

MB: I wonder if this is the first author interview ever to be conducted while both the author and the interviewer were in a kitchen cooking a meal together.

JA: Both in pajamas, bumping into each other in a tiny kitchen—actually, let’s talk about us. We sometimes communicate in a hybrid tongue.

MB: Yeah, in this apartment we primarily speak English, but we also speak in French and Spanish and Italian and now Japanese. But yeah, what’s your question?

JA: Well, talk to me about that. I know for me, there is an additional meaning in saying I love you in very rudimentary Japanese. The texture and emotional experience is different than expressing it in English.

MB: Tell me about the experience.

JA: (walks over to where Baker is searching the spice rack)

I think there is this idea that when I say I love you in Japanese, you’re the only person I’ve ever said I love you in that language to before, and it’s this created thing, learning Japanese together—there is an added level of intimacy, not just in its singularity, but in that it’s connected to a culture that means so much to you. Maybe it’s the same thing in reverse with French. Does that make sense?

MB: (holding cayenne)

Désolé, I need to get to the pot.

JA: Tu est le plus romantique. I guess what I’m trying to say is, until I thought deeply about your book and even about having this conversation, I always just took us speaking in those different languages as an aspect of our relationship. I didn’t necessarily sit with what it meant—with why we do it. Or with why it’s so meaningful.

MB: Well, when you speak two languages, say English and HTML, it’s limiting in a way, because most people speak only one of those languages, but it’s also liberating in that with certain people it allows you to communicate in a richer way, or to communicate more than you could communicate before. And when you speak multiple languages—if you speak, like we do, in English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese—then it’s even more liberating because it allows us to say things that we weren’t able to say with English alone. Like I love you, or J’adore tu or Aishiteimasu. Even if they don’t come with subtly different meanings, eventually they take on subtly different meanings, in the same way that sometimes you want to say I’m hungry and sometimes you want to say I’m starving and sometimes you want to say I’m ravenous. I think it feels special and meaningful because it allows us to communicate even very basic things in a deeper, more nuanced way.

JA: I think your stories do the same thing. And I think, in many ways, the characters in your stories probably wouldn’t be able to express themselves without the accompanying languages—or their emotional experiences wouldn’t be able to be communicated without them—Let me just quick check on the pretzel rolls. They’re done!

MB: The soup is ready too.

JA: Parfait, let’s eat.

(walking over to table with soup and pretzel rolls in hand respectively)

MB: (reaching for a pretzel roll)

I’m very grateful to the editors, both at the magazines that originally published these stories and at LSU Press, which published the collection. The formal constraints for this project added a layer of difficulty not only for me but for the editors too. Oh, these pretzel rolls are a masterpiece!

JA: Merci beaucoup, I had to work with my own constraints because we ran out of yeast.

MB: Zut alors.

JA: In thinking again about constraints and experimentation, I’m wondering about Hybrid Fictions, the course you’re currently teaching at my alma mater, The Gallatin School at NYU. Aussi, the soup is trés bien.

MB: Merci beaucoup, Parfait. In Hybrid Fictions we exclusively read and write interdisciplinary fiction: fiction that incorporates subject-specific language, forms, and concepts from other fields of study. Biology, physics, etc. We’re writing stories in the form of architectural blueprints. We’re writing stories in the form of chemical compounds. So, it’s a workshop in a hyper specific subgenre of experimental fiction.

My students registered for this course voluntarily, of course, but still, sometimes these writing prompts make them nervous. I think it can be terrifying, as a young writer, to even conceive of, let alone to actually dare, to break from tradition and to try something new. I think another great fear for young writers is that, if they do attempt something new, that their work will be perceived as gimmicky. Which is a legitimate fear, of course. I try to emphasize that it’s not enough simply to tell a story through some new interesting lexicon, or language, or structure, or form—that it’s still crucial for the story to have an effect on the reader, emotionally and intellectually, and that ideally the experiment should be used to tell a story that’s only possible to tell in this new way.

JA: It isn’t enough to be flashy. It has to actually do something. It has to be affecting.

MB: (dips a pretzel roll into the soup)

To me, that’s the difference between a gimmick and a story that’s worth reading. There are people who write experimental fiction in which there’s absolutely no connection between the experiment and the actual story—the plot and the characters. It’s just an experiment attached to some random story. No matter how brilliant and innovative the experiment is, work like that doesn’t interest me. It’s like watching somebody who’s invented a rocket shoot a rocket into the air for no other purpose than just to show everyone that they can build a rocket. Just to make a loud noise. A bright light in the sky. The experimental fiction that I love, the experimental fiction that excites me, are experiments that are done for a purpose: writers who aren’t just shooting a rocket into the air to show off, but because they’re trying to put a satellite into orbit, or because they’re trying to land astronauts on the moon.

JA: It seems fitting for us to end with space. Both you and your stories are not quite of this world.

__

Jenessa Abrams is a Norman Mailer Fiction Fellow and a Columbia MFA graduate in fiction and literary translation. She has been awarded fellowships and grants from the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center and Columbia University. Her writing has been published in Tin House Online, TriQuarterlyJoylandWashington SquareBOMB MagazineGuernicaThe Offing, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Recently, she was named a finalist for Narrative Magazine’s 30 Below Contest and both Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award and Fiction Open Award. Her work was nominated for the 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. She currently holds a research fellowship at the New York Public Library and is pursuing a graduate degree in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University.

Matthew Baker is the author of Hybrid Creatures, a collection of stories written in hybrid languages, and the children’s novel If You Find This, which was named a Booklist Top Ten Debut and nominated for an Edgar Award. His stories have appeared in publications such as American Short Fiction, New England Review, One Story, Electric Literature, and Conjunctions, and have been anthologized in Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions. A recipient of grants and fellowships from the Fulbright Commission, the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Ragdale Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Blue Mountain Center, Prairie Center of the Arts, Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, he has also taught at Vanderbilt University, where he was the founding editor of Nashville Review.

Life Within the Simulacrum: My Name Is Not My Name

Life Within the Simulacrum is a featured column focusing on technology & social media, travel & literature.

BY DALLAS ATHENT

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to truly be an artist. I walk a tightrope between two worlds. One as a creative soul who constantly lives on the brink of an existential journey, and then one where I’m just here to make money and survive.

See, I was never a person who just threw caution to the wind, said “fuck it” and despite all the risks, threw themselves into being a full-time creative dreamer. As a Type 1 Diabetic I literally can’t survive without health insurance. It just wouldn’t be possible without putting me into a crippling debt. Thus, I’ve always tried to maintain a full-time corporate career while straddling the world of art in my spare time. The thing is, in today’s internet world maintaining a full-time job often times maintaining a clean, Google-able record. Especially in client facing roles.

So I made a pen name.

And now my name is not my name.

For the reasons listed above, the practice of using a pen name is becoming more and more popular. I’m not the only one. Having a pen name means one also has multiple email addresses, people from one’s past commenting on status updates with said person’s real name, while said person’s name is displayed on all social media as their fake name. People who have known me outside of writing attend events and pause before addressing me, remembering I’m someone else. Thus, I’m a woman in two world – one where I’m me and then another one where I’m also me.

So how does life really change for someone who’s living between two names? It’s a bit bizarre at first but not the worst thing in the world. It doesn’t really split your identity. If I lived in two complete personalities which were devout of each other that would be easier. The tricky part is, you learn to live as one person, which a personality where certain attributes are more “highlighted” at times. At work I’m more aggressive. In writing I’m more open. In both scenarios, I’m confident, forthright and funny (if I do say so myself).

So does it really matter then, to have a pen name? For the most part, no. I’m a person and that’s that. But to others who have to live a semi-false existence due to personal paranoia when it comes to one’s career and “the man” I’d recommend the following when choosing your pen name:

Either chose something so fake it’s obvious it’s fake (like ‘Star Unicorn Fantasy’), OR use your original first name with just a new last name. If you choose a name that’s too normal it just feels like a lie. Which it is. So make it obvious it’s a lie, or just use your damn first name.

Ensure said name is highly searchable / Googleable and that nobody else has it. If you’re going to go through the trouble of changing your name for writing make sure you benefit to the fullest!]

Commit to it. Make sure everything you do, your emails, your bylines, every single article is in that name going forward. Make no compromises, or your identity as a writer will start to split into several Horcruxes like Lord Voldemort.

At the same time, be ready to admit that name is not your name (kinda like I’m doing by writing this damn article). It will come up, eventually. Whether you’re referring someone you know from writing to your job, or you get close with a fellow writer to the degree that they meet your brother or sister, your pay for a round with your credit card, it’ll happen. Own it. It’s okay. We’re all living within the simulacrum with a false sense of self anyway.

And Godspeed. I can tell you my name is not my name. And yours doesn’t have to be either.

Dallas Athent is a writer and artist. She is the author of THEIA MANIA, a book of poems with art by Maria Pavlovska. Her work, both literary and artistic has been published or profiled in BUST Magazine, Buzzfeed Community, VIDA Reports From The Field, At Large Magazine, PACKET Bi-Weekly, YES Poetry!, Luna Luna Magazine, Bedford + Bowery, Gothamist, Brooklyn Based, and more. She’s a board member of Nomadic Press. She lives in The Bronx with her adopted pets.

Life Within the Simulacrum: Status Update

Life Within the Simulacrum is a featured column focusing on technology & social media, travel & literature.

BY DALLAS ATHENT

If you’re reading this, it’s probable that you follow or are friends with a lot of writers on social media. Perhaps, you, yourself are a writer. You are on PANK, after all.

Assuming this is true your social media feed probably looks similar to mine. Every day I see at least 10+ links a day shared by other writers about how grateful they are to get again have a poem or story published. It usually goes something like this:

“I’m so honored to have [x] published in [x]. Thanks to [person tagged] for being such a force in the literary community.

[insert link].”

I, myself, have posted such statuses. I’m sure you have too.

On each post, the hearts start flying. The tagged individual who’s responsible for publishing said piece will not only “like” the writer’s post themselves, but then comment or reply with an additional “<3” emoji. The rest of us writers will continue to like said post. Sometimes we even love it. Who doesn’t love it when a person we know gets published?

There, technically isn’t a problem with this. I’d be a horrible person if I thought support for fellow writers was a bad thing. (Truth be told, I may be horrible, but for different reasons.)

My bigger question, however, is out of allllll of those likes, how many people are actually clicking the link and reading? Dear reader, I regret to say that I think that number is likely dismal; I personally confess to only going out of my way to read 1/10 of the links that I “like.” While that’s literally embarrassing to admit I know I can’t be the only one adding hearts to things I never have any intention on actually reading.

As I ponder this truth, I even realize I’ve probably liked things in the past that are probably, in fact, abysmal with no idea since I never clicked the damn link!

The thing is, we can’t possibly read everything that comes through our feed each day, but does that mean we should keep reacting to it? In the past I’ve done this to show I’m somehow supportive of the person who shared the post, even if I knew I didn’t have the time nor mental capacity to read it.

But I’m starting to realize this is more harmful than it is helpful.

Being published seems to have become more about having a status update to share with people about being published than having people actually read said piece. So here’s a pop quiz question for 2018:

Which is more valuable to a writer’s career:

  1. Having one person read their work, and really getting something out of it
  2. 100 people seeing on social media that the writer was published but not reading their work at all

Honestly, I don’t know for sure so don’t feel like you failed anything if you don’t agree with me, but it certainly seems like the latter, and that’s, well, just downright depressing. But you know what? I have faith we can change that.

Dear reader, I call on you. Stop hearting things you didn’t read! Join me and stop it.

Stop. It.

Because the truth of the matter is, this does nothing for the literary community. It forces us to live within a simulacrum of success, meanwhile the hard labor we put into writing goes into a vacuum and is swallowed up by yet more links and publications. In a desperate attempt to move literature forward and be noticed not as a craft of the past, we mistakenly believe the more we boost each other’s posts the more we’re giving visibility to poetry and fiction, and this is actually doing the opposite. It’s causing us to have a larger sense of engagement, when nobody is really engaging at all. The best thing we can do is try and entice people who aren’t into literature to read our sites by NOT liking anything we don’t read, try reading at least one thing a day, and then actively commenting on what we thought of it. It may feel as if we’re taking away support, but in fact, it will put responsibility back on the literary community to be strategic, purposefully and create an overall, better experience for online publications.

Long story short, let’s just stop aimlessly clicking in an effort to be seen, shall we?

Dallas Athent is a writer and artist. She is the author of THEIA MANIA, a book of poems with art by Maria Pavlovska. Her work, both literary and artistic has been published or profiled in BUST Magazine, Buzzfeed Community, VIDA Reports From The Field, At Large Magazine, PACKET Bi-Weekly, YES Poetry!, Luna Luna Magazine, Bedford + Bowery, Gothamist, Brooklyn Based, and more. She’s a board member of Nomadic Press. She lives in The Bronx with her adopted pets.

Salt Houses author Hala Alyan talks Immigration Through Poetry and Her Upcoming Collection of Poems

INTERVIEW BY LAURA METTER

Hala Alyan is an award-winning Palestinian American poet, novelist, and clinical psychologist and most recently, the author of Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). But after the long-form fiction, Alyan’s already back to working within poetry, a place she knows well–past collections include Atrium (2012), winner of the 2013 Arab American Book Award in Poetry, Four Cities (2015), and Hijra (Southern Illinois University Press, 2016), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry.

I talked to Hala about the work, its thematic concerns, and her poetic process.

Laura Metter: Why poetry after a novel?

Hala Alyan: These pieces came organically after I was finished with Salt Houses and had sent the novel off to my publishers for editing. I wrote many of them during a trip to Marfa, Texas last year. I don’t usually plan which genre follows the other; actually, most of the time, I’m working on several projects at once. It helps me stay excited about what I’m working on.

LM: Is there a connection between these poems and your novel?

HA: My new collection is a meditation on the transforming landscapes of womanhood, wifedom, loss and exile. To a certain extent, both the collection and the novel use language as a cultural vehicle of sorts, trying to create a dialogue between two worlds: my American existence and my Arab one, exile and the rebuilding of life in its aftermath.

LM: What went into your process of selection or sharing?

HA: They were painful ones to write, but completing them felt particularly cathartic. Given the legacy of immigration and war in my ancestral homelands, I wanted to share poems that examine that migration, both literally and emotionally.

LM: How do these poems connect to yourself?

HA: They were all written during my actual twenty-ninth year, which was a strange and difficult and marvelous one. In many ways, this collection is my most honest, the one in which I am most transparently myself.

LM: Is there a theme?

HA: If I had to pick one, it would be—the creation of home when all one knows is exile and flight.

LM: What were some of your biggest challenges getting this book finished?

HA: In terms of Salt Houses, I would say discipline when it came to editing was particularly overwhelming. I would keep losing interest and want to start writing something new. I have the easiest time with the “freeflow” part of the writing process, and am most stumped by editing, rereading the same passages over and over. I get so bored…

LM: What helped you finish this collection?

HA: I was lucky enough to secure a couple of residencies over the last year that gave me enough time and space—not to mention access to nature and inspiring artists—to put the final touches on the manuscript.

LM: Do you see yourself continuing more with novels or poems?

HA: Hopefully both. The one thing I’m really excited about experimenting more with is non-fiction, especially personal essays.

LM: What do you want your audience to take away from this collection?

HA: Honesty requires a little fear, at least the way I do it. I’m hoping readers can recognize the truth in these pieces, that they felt urgent and necessary to write. Also, I hope I’ve done the narrative of immigration—as I experienced it in my family—justice.

__

Laura Metter is a young fictionist and poet based in Greenwich, Connecticut. Her poems and essays have appeared in Adanna Literary Journal and The Artifice among other magazines.

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Below is an excerpt of Hala Alyan’s forthcoming poetry collection:

 

Dirty Girl

 

See, I knew I’d make my mama cry if I stole the earring and so into my pocket it went. I asked America to give

~

me the barbeque. A slow dance with a cowboy. Pop goes the grenade. Pop goes the Brooklyn jukebox. Give me male hands, oleander white, hard, earnest, your husband in the backseat of his own car, my jeans shoved down, the toxic plant you named your child after, a freeway by the amusement park that jilted girls speed across, windows rolled down, screaming bad songs at the top of their lungs.

~

After the new world. Before the New one. The Peruvian numerologist told me I’d be trailed by sevens until the day I died.

Everything worth nicking needs an explanation: I slept with one man because the moon, I slept with the other because who cares, we’re expats, the black rhinos are dying, the subway pastors can’t make me tell the truth. Tonight Z isn’t eating and five states away

I’m pouring a whiskey

~

I won’t drink.

~

I count the green lights. Those blue-eyed flowers your father brought when I couldn’t leave my bedroom. The rooftop, the weather, the subway empties its fist of me, the red salt of my fear. A chalky seven stamped on the pale face of the sleeping pill.                          What I mean to say is

~

I’m divisible only by myself.

 

 

Gospel: Texas

 

Poison ivy I

never got. My grandmother

 

asking the Burger King cashier

for pommes frites.

 

First shooting

star. First silverfish. First carrot

 

in snowball. Kansas on the

weekends, the blade

 

of I-35. Permission slips.

My mother

 

dressing me as a

pilgrim for a school trip.

 

Arabic word for girl

longer than

 

English word for

no. First valentine card.

 

First grasshopper.

The seventeen windows

 

of that simulated

colonial town,

 

peering in every

single one. Pretending

 

the air we churn

is butter.

 

 

The Female of the Species

 

They leave the country with gasping babies and suitcases

full of spices and cassettes. In airports,

 

they line themselves up like wine bottles.

The new city twinkles beneath an onion-moon.

 

Birds mistake the pebbles of glass on the

black asphalt for bread crumbs.

 

*

 

If I drink, I tell stories about the women I know.

They break dinner plates. They marry impulsively.

 

When I was a child I watched my aunt throw a halo

of spaghetti at my mother. I’m older than they were now.

 

*

 

In an old-new year, my cousin shouts ana bint Beirut

at the sleeping houses. She clatters up the stairs.

 

I never remember to tell her anything. Not the dream

where I can’t yell loud enough for her to stop running.

 

And the train comes. And the amar layers the stones

like lichen. How the best night of my life was the one

 

she danced with me in Paris, sharing a hostel bed,

and how sometimes you need one knife to carve another.

 

*

 

It’s raining in two cities at once. The Vendôme plaza

fills with water and the dream, the fountain, the moon

 

explodes open, so that Layal, Beirut last daughter,

can walk through the exit wound.