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.

__

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.

Unraveling Trauma and Title IX: An Interview with Sarah Cheshire

INTERVIEW BY MANDY SHUNNARAH

I don’t know what the other entrants’ chapbooks in the 2017 Etchings Press Chapbook Contest were like, but I know Sarah Cheshire’s win for Unravelings was well-deserved.

After becoming romantically involved with a trusted creative writing professor and mentor, “Jane Doe” is forced to recount the details of the relationship––including its varied manipulations and abuses of power––for a Title IX investigation. Unravelings is a fictionalized memoir in the sense that names, locations, and other identifying information has been obscured for privacy reasons, though the Title IX proceedings Unravelings describes mirror what Cheshire herself experienced as an undergraduate.

At only 51 pages, Unravelings is the epitome of “though she be but little, she is fierce.” Through primary source documents like texts, emails, and Title IX reports, as well as lyrical verse and prose poetry, Unravelings guides the reader into the complicated truths between confidant and abuser, victim and survivor.

As a cord of twine unravels, it becomes frayed––so too does this story as it progresses. Paragraphs lead to speculation and ask unanswerable questions that boil down to how did we get here? Each time, the reader is brought back to center through vibrant repetition and verse––almost like a prayer for understanding in the labyrinth of institutional bureaucracy that oversees even the most intimate matters.

In this way, the chapbook is both a literal and metaphorical unraveling––one that resolutely echoes the thought patterns and stages of grief felt when healing from trauma.

I talked to Sarah about the writing and healing process.

Mandy Shunnarah: I appreciate the use of screenshots––like the texts, Facebook messages, and emails––and the official-looking Title IX documents. Tell me about your decision to add in those elements rather than making the chapbook text-only.

Sarah Cheshire: As a part of my writing process, I spent a lot of time re-reading old emails and text exchanges between myself, Professor X, and others implicated in the story, trying to reconstruct what happened and how it felt. I was really just trying to jog my memory, but found that these documents in and of themselves told a story.

Much like the experience itself, the social media exchanges were fragmented and nonlinear; oscillating rapidly between moments of clarity and moments where logic seemed to be suspended. There was a frenetic, yet poetic quality to them that conveyed the state I was in that year almost perfectly. I also think that, as collected “evidence,” these screenshots provide a bridge between Doe’s memories and the story the institution is trying to tell. They were the last thing I included, but ultimately I think they are what ties the piece together.

MS: What challenges did you face in the writing process?

SC: Going into my M.F.A. program, the situation I wrote about in Unravelings was still very fresh in my conscious. Whenever I would sit down to write, I would still feel like I was writing under the critical eye of the man who evaluated my creative work throughout college; whose mentorship both sculpted my creative voice and ultimately undermined the confidence I held in that voice.

This might sound melodramatic, but throughout my process of writing Unravelings I kept thinking of a line in one of Virginia Woolf’s essays: “Killing the Angel in the house [is] part of the occupation of a woman writer.” To Virginia Woolf, the Angel in the House represented the pressure women writers face to write the versions of themselves that men want to read, rather than their true selves. To me, the Angel in the House was the looming feeling that I was still writing to appease my college mentor’s toxic gaze. I knew that I needed to, metaphorically speaking, “kill” this gaze in order to reclaim my own voice.

Unravelings was the first piece I completed as a graduate student. It was a very hard piece to write, partially because the events of that year still felt so convoluted in my mind. Basically, I wrote it because I felt I wouldn’t be able tell other stories until I’d fully unraveled this one.

MS: I found it interesting how, despite Professor X taking advantage of Doe, she protects him in the Title IX proceedings. Statements that might identify him are redacted at her request and she requests an informal investigation, rather than a formal one. Often trauma victims’ actions are misunderstood––can you talk more about that element of the story?

SC: Well, this was a man who dragged me through the mud, but who I was also in love with. He was coming from an incredibly traumatic past, which he shared with me privately (in retrospect this was also a violation of boundaries) and which added an extra layer of nuance to my perceptions of him.

I included redacted moments (which, in the text, mainly consist of striked-out but still legible details about his past) because, rationally, I knew that his past shouldn’t excuse his behavior but, in the moments where I was asked to hold him accountable for this behavior, I still felt an emotive need to contextualize it. I knew that he really fucked up, but we had also seen each other in incredibly vulnerable moments and I still felt a sort of convoluted tenderness towards him.

Essentially, I think I defended him because I was having a hard time reconciling his abuses of power with the tender moments that we shared, both in intimate spaces and in our writing. I am told this is common amongst survivors. Sadly, I think many survivors end up justifying the actions of abusers because they have seen the goodness in these people and want to believe that this goodness still exists, even when it’s being shrouded by anger or violence or manipulative behaviors. I believe that trust and emotional sensitivity—the ability to, as Rihanna would say, “find love in a hopeless place”––are beautiful, radical qualities that a lot of survivors possess.

In the feminist utopia of my dreams, these qualities would be celebrated. It’s only when others exploit them, and we find ourselves searching for ways to love those who continue to hurt us, that they become curses. Ultimately, I think this was my problem; why I ended up protecting him. I truly believed that he was better than his actions and he just needed more time to prove it. I believed this until his actions subsumed me, and my own story got lost inside of his.

MS: As I read Unravelings, I got the impression that formal proceedings like Title IX ask things of abuse survivors that are often difficult or impossible to give––such as linear memories and externally identifiable examples of gaslighting, for example. Based on your own personal experiences and the research you did for Unravelings, do you think Title IX effectively seeks justice for victims?

SC: This is a complicated question; one that I actually find myself grappling with often when thinking about Title IX, as well as the court systems, the police, and other forces survivors are told to appeal to when seeking justice.

Over the course of my four years in college, Title IX saw many positive reformations. I witnessed huge strides in the extent to which survivors have been able to access certain forms of justice through the institutional apparatuses in place, mainly due to the tireless activism of campus survivors and the founding of advocacy organizations such as KnowYourIX. This it is not to say there isn’t a huge amount of work left to be done; I find it nauseating that, in the year 2017, we are still seeing cases of women dropping out of school and even taking their own lives because the system has failed them.

In my case, however, I actually felt like the Title IX system was working to the best of its ability—I was treated with humanity and validation by the officers involved, and for the most part, felt agency over how the process played out. My issue isn’t with Title IX per se, but with the task that it holds people to; the task of creating clarity in narrative, when stories, trauma, and people themselves are innately so very messy.

Something I thought about a lot while writing the book was the notion of grey matter; the spaces between black and white, right and wrong, good and bad. In my opinion, the most genuine stories come out of these grey spaces. These are the spaces of nuance. The whole purpose of a formal Title IX process is to weigh evidence and determine which side of a story is “right” and which side is “wrong.” This need for clear delineations of truth inherently puts survivors of trauma at a disadvantage because in moments of trauma, it is common for linear memory to become disrupted.

I also think that the way that these systems box people up in their individual sides of a story can inhibit perpetrators from engaging in the deep critical self-reflection necessary to truly hold themselves accountable for their actions––and, ultimately, to rectify and change. But I’m less concerned about them.

I think justice means different things for different people. I, personally, don’t feel like justice, on a fundamental level, would have been served simply as the result of him “getting in trouble” for his actions. Maybe this is because of some lingering twisted desire to protect him, or because, if I’m being completely honest, I partially blamed myself for how everything unfolded (and still do, which I’m working on). But I like to think that I feel this way because something in me resents the notion that the messiness of stories and human emotions can be resolved simply by weighing facts and legislating right and wrong.

I think that Title IX is necessary in that it holds institutions accountable to survivors and is effective when implemented correctly and compassionately. But I also think punitive models of justice have their limitations. If we’re ever going to see shifts in sexist paradigms, we need to find additional ways to hold people accountable for their actions, ways that give space for healing, restoration, and consciousness-raising rather than just punishment and deterrent.

__

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, and The New Southerner Magazine. You can read more of her work at her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.

Best Books of 2017

The year is almost over and it’s time to revisit some of my favorite reads of the year. As with any list, this is not as extensive/inclusive/comprehensive as I’d like it to be, but having to do other things besides reading severely cuts into the amount of time I can spend inside books (if you have any leads on a gig that pays you to read whatever you want, get at me). In any case, this was a fantastic year. I made a list of best crime reads and one of best horror books, but some of the best books were in the enormous interstitial space between genres. Anyway, here are some books I hope didn’t fly under your radar:

Where the Sun Shines Out by Kevin Catalano. I was ready for this to be great, and it was, but the pain and violence in its pages blew me away. This is a narrative about loss, guilt, and surviving, but the way Catalano builds his vignettes allows him to show the minutiae of everyday living and the sharp edges of every failure.

Absolutely Golden by D. Foy. Funny, satirical, smart, and packed with snappy dialogue and characters that are at once cartoonish and too real, this is a book that, much like Patricide did last year, proves that Foy is one of the best in the business and perhaps one of the most electric voices in contemporary literary fiction.

I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) by Tatiana Ryckman. I met Tatiana when we read together at Malvern Books in Austin in late 2017. She read a chunk of this and it blew me away. I got the book that same night. Imagine your favorite philosopher deconstructing weird relationships while trying to simultaneously make you cringe in recognition and laugh at yourself. Well, this is what that philosopher would write. A short, powerful read that I will soon be reviewing here in its entirety, this was a blast of fresh air.

Itzá by Rios de la Luz. This short book destroys patriarchal notions of silence, abuse, and growth. Rios de la Luz wrote about a family of water brujas and in the process redefined bilingual bruja literature. This is a timely, heartfelt book that celebrates womanhood in a way that makes it necessary reading for every gender.

Pax Americana by Kurt Baumeister. With Trump in the White House, this novel is more than an entertaining look at the dangers of unchecked religion and politics. Yeah, call this one a warning that should be read by all. It’s also very entertaining and a superb addition to the impressive Stalking Horse Press catalog.

The River of Kings by Taylor Brown. I don’t want to imagine the amount of research that went into this book. However, I’m really happy that Brown did it, and that he turned everything he learned into a novel of interwoven narratives that is a celebration of a river, of people, and of language. This was so stunning that Brown immediately joined the ranks of “buy everything he publishes authors” before I’d reach the tenth chapter.

Human Trees by Matthew Revert. If Nicolas Winding Refn, Quentin Tarantino, and David Lynch collaborated on a film, the resulting piece of cinema would probably approximate the style of Revert’s prose. Weird? Yup. Smart? Very. Beautiful? Without a doubt. It seems Revert can do it all, and this is his best so far.

In The River by Jeremy Robert Johnson. The simple story of a father and son going fishing somehow morphs into a soul-shattering tale of anxiety, loss, and vengeance wrapped in a surreal narrative about the things that can keep a person between this world and the next. Johnson is a maestro of the weird and one of the best writers in bizarro, crime, and horror, but this one erases all of those genres and makes him simply one of the best.

The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan. A slice of Americana through the McClanahan lens. Devastating and hilarious. Too real to be fiction and too well written to be true. Original, raw, and honest. Every new McClanahan books offers something special, and this one might be his best yet.

In the Distance by Hernán Díaz. This is the perfect marriage of adventure and literary fiction. The sprawling narrative covers an entire lifetime of traveling and growing, and it always stays fresh and exciting. At times cruel and depressing, but always a pleasure to read. I hope we see much more Díaz in translation soon.

Beneath the Spanish by Victor Hernández Cruz. Read the introduction and you’ll be sold on the entire book. Multiculturalism is fertile ground for poetry, and Hernández Cruz is an expert at feeding that space with his biography and knowledge and then extracting touching, rich poems and short pieces that dance between poetry, flash fiction, and memoir.

Some other outstanding books I read this year:

Dumbheart / Stupidface by Cooper Wilhelm

Inside My Pencil: Teaching Poetry in Detroit Public Schools by Peter Markus

Something to Do With Self-Hate by Brian Alan Ellis

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi

 

 

SOMETIMES I THINK ABOUT IT: ESSAYS (Graywolf, 2017) author Stephen Elliot talks about his web series DRIVEN

INTERVIEW BY JENNIFER PARKER

“The key to life is figuring out how you’re fucked up, and rolling with it.” And Stephen Elliott should know. Elliott’s gone from The Adderall Diaries to his web series Driven to his latest book of essays, Sometimes I Think About It, which came out in November. The founder of The Rumpus is essentially a prolific artist. He’s taken the sum total of his life experiences and has made a web series that provokes, pokes and jabs us into being woke in a post-election climate that put us in a stupor, until #metoo illustrated how normalized bad behavior had become.

 Driven co-presented by Slamdance is a fresh variation on pithy content in the age of information overload. It’s essentially the basis of self-reckoning as writer turned ex-writer and now a sort-of rival Uber-esque, Panda driver, Paul (Elliott) passively shepherds New York City’s wounded souls.

There’s something deeply profound about Driven, about the elegance of the quotidian and the banal of the interesting. It sort-of flips tropes. In the first episode – as in many debuts – he cleans his closet out and introduces himself: we learn that he is a writer – and relatively accomplished at this – when a fellow author, Michael Cunningham steps in, mentions no less than three times in earnest that he should consider writing for his new TV show his turning down of the offer possibly suggesting that this writer shopped a show in real life. We also learn that his girlfriend (Jennifer Missoni) is also living the life as a professional mistress, and that they haven’t had sex in a while (and although this is problematic for her, neither want to break-up, indicating either co-dependency, hope for the future or both. We also hear jokes about Williamsburg mentioned and Airbnb. Score two for the NYC bubble.

Like fellow gen-X author Bret Easton Ellis’ series, The DeletedDriven also keeps its baroque moments off-camera to create an ominous tension, navigated by individuals reconciling difficult pasts. Our cabbie has his own troubled history, and in avoidance of the cabbie-sum-father confessor trope, his passengers are more mirrors of his mind-state than he is of theirs. Think Less Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and more Willem Dafoe as John LeTour in Light Sleeper. Just go to Elliott’s website and look at a clip of The Adderall Diaries and you’ll see that he has a lifetime of agency to explore any broken aspect of our society.

Visually, Driven has the production values of a high budget, well-funded, scripted series. Elliott’s literary style ranges to a natural economy with pacing, framing and lighting. The first shot in episode three of Driven, comes from the perspective of a cat in a carrier watching the Panda car pulling up. Cut to Jorge (Brian Luna), the cat’s nervous looking owner in a superman hoodie who is not made any calmer by making conversation with his feline-allergic driver, Paul (Stephen Elliott). By the end of the episode, there will be a shared custody arrangement of a female cat named Bruce Wayne, a break-in, a delightful scene in a comic book store, a cat-napping and Elliott’s perfectly dry delivery of the statement, “dogs are loyal, cats don’t know who you are.”

The artistry onscreen of any episode of Driven is economy. Elliott tells a story with an arc in anywhere from eight to twelve minutes with production values that rival a major theatrical release, with each episode coming in for the impossible tight budget of $800.00. Anyone who is familiar with Elliott’s writing knows that he has a way of synthesizing complex information into clear and relatable language. His cross-genre memoir, The Adderall Diaries, has the tidiest explanation of a database kernel. Without a computer science degree, it is almost impossible to wrap your head around what the internal structures of a database engine actually is, which is funny considering data is what rules our lives online.

I had the chance to sit down with Stephen Elliott at Grumpy Café in Chelsea and by phone. We chatted over tea and pastries (I think I’m the only one who ate) to talk about his web series, Driven. It’s a rare interview, when all the interviewer needs to do is ask one question and the subject generously dictates the rest of the piece:

Jennifer Parker: What are you working on now?

Stephen Elliott: That is a good question. I think that the main thing I’m doing really is I’m working on the Driven web series. Making a few more episodes. Teaming up with Al Madrigal’s company, All Things Comedy. They host podcasts but now they’re going to start doing video content. They’re going to start hosting my web series and helping with the production and getting the word out as well. So, I’m pretty hopeful about that.

JP: I was struck by the cinematic quality of the production values. How did you manage to consistently produce what are tantamount to miniature movies?

SI: I don’t know. I mean I’m sure it is something to do with white privilege but. I just think that I was lucky that I worked with a lot of great people on other projects. And they liked working with me and I appreciated all the things they did. And I was able to convince these really amazing people to keep working with me on things that pay way below their rate. Like the guy that shot After Adderall (Adrian Correia) which is a $10,000 movie. He’s the cinematographer now for the second season of Glow, the Netflix’s show. So, this is a big-time guy who gets paid a lot of money, has a really coveted job amongst cinematographers, really well respected. Like most artists if he really likes the project, he’ll work on it.

There’s this thing about movie making that’s actually very Marxist.  When the budgets get higher, everybody gets paid more and when the budget’s lower, everybody gets paid less, which is really beautiful actually. And great people work on really low budget stuff all the time. But you have to be able to convince them. They don’t want to work for really low pay on something that’s not going to be good. If they trust you and particularly if they like the script, then that’s most of it—really.

The other thing I think is it’s a lot easier to make a movie for no money than not enough money. People feel shortchanged when you don’t have enough money and they’re not going to give you their best. Because you’re only paying them not as much. But if there’s no money and everybody working on it is working on it because it’s an art project and they want it to be good and there’s an understanding that nobody’s going to make any money on it. We’re all doing this creative project. Like with Driven or like with after After Adderall, there was no chance of me ever making any real money off those things. I don’t even have contracts with anybody, I can’t sell these things; I can’t sell After Adderall to a distributor. I don’t have contracts for the people who work on it so everybody knows this person has no money, they’re really making an art project, something creative they care about and believe in—they want any part of that.

Whereas if you’re making something that’s a commercial project then and you’re really concerned with doing all the right paperwork and making sure that you can sell it and make money even if you don’t end up making money, but you leave that possibility open and you make people sign their lives away then of course they want to be paid more for that. I think it’s mostly finding good people and working with them over and over again. Also, when I write something that’s low budget. I write toward the budget but I don’t have any money so I try not to have more than two locations. And when I’m writing those locations, I’m writing places that I already know I can get.  With a poem when you start, you have certain rules, like maybe 14 lines, and this many syllables, or whatever the rules are. Similarly, when I’m writing a script. If I know I have $500 to make this so I’m not going to put in something like a location that I don’t know that I can get that I don’t already have access to somehow.

JP: Happy Baby (Graywolf Press) was just reprinted in November. Congratulations. The first time we spoke you mentioned that this was the only book that you gave yourself a set of literary rules to follow when writing the book. How did that work?

SI: Yeah, I was really kind of like a literary fundamentalist. I’d really bought into this idea of show don’t tell. I’d been doing a workshop for the first time really in my life doing the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. And so, I was with all these people that had done a lot of workshops because they all had MFA’s. They already considered themselves writers and they studied creative writing and then they either had an MFA or a Ph.D. in creative writing. I’d never studied creative writing before doing the Stegner Fellowship so with these people. I didn’t study for a long time and I’m learning a lot from them but I’m also realizing that. In workshops when people don’t know what to say they often say “why.” They want to know why this character is doing something. There is a real search for causation, and I realized that I really didn’t like that. I didn’t want to say why character was doing something because I don’t really think things. I don’t think most the things I do or don’t have one cause and effect. I did this because of that. All these different causes add up, we don’t really know why we do. I just blanked out. So, I had this rule that I was never going to tell you why, I was never going to answer the question of why. It only had “to.” The only thing that had it to be is it had to be true or it had to be possible. Is it conceivable that this character would do this? If it was conceivable and not impossible then I would never explain it. It’s enough that it’s possible that they do it.

There’s no backstory in Happy Baby and there’s no narration at all, the whole entire book is unseen. It always moves forward in the present tense even though each chapter is earlier than the one before it. I Had all these rules: No explaining, no narration, everything is seen you know. No adjectives, no adverbs, really lean and really fundamentalist. And the problem with that was it was great for that book. But then after that I got really stuck. You can’t you can’t write every book that way because you’re writing the same book over and over again. I didn’t know what to do after I’d written Happy Baby, I’m kind of written myself into a corner.

JP: In Driven and in Happy Baby and somewhat in The Adderall Diaries you incorporate BDSM so casually, it makes it almost commonplace.

SI: I don’t know if it is or it isn’t. It exists, it’s a thing. I think BDSM plays a role in a lot of people’s sex lives but there are so many different degrees of it. Like my entire sex life is BDSM. I don’t do anything else. I only do one thing and I’m 100 percent hardwired this way. Most people, their kinky stuff is just a plug in. it’s like your Safari browser and your browser is like just basic fucking and then you download the bondage plug in or the leather plug-in or the foot fetish plug-in and then you go from there, but for me, it’s the entire browser. So, I think I think power exchange is a huge part of sex for most people, but it’s just the amount or different degrees. So, in other words, in some ways it’s very niche, in other ways it’s very universal.

JP: Ok, that’s a great answer.

SI: People that are like me who are just really hard wired to only do kink, that’s actually pretty rare I think.

JP: Do you feel like there’s any parallels between Driven and any of your earlier work?

SI: Driven is kind of a way to get back into writing short stories. There’s consistent themes but ultimately, each one is an individual short story.

JP: What would you say are some of the consistent themes?

SI: Connection is a real big theme and. I’ve been writing a lot about love and the impossibility of love. So those are some basic things but also almost every episode is a commentary on the new political landscape. It’s very subtle, but most characters are dealing with something that they weren’t dealing with before Trump was elected if that makes any sense. They’re funny but they’re quite a bit more political than they may seem at first blush.

It’s a lot about connection. I’ve been working on this novel and there’s this character in the novel who realizes he’s incapable of love. And I’m kind of obsessed with that idea. I just want to explore that and write about what that means.

JP: Do you think that people are incapable of love or do you think we fool ourselves into thinking we are capable of it?

SI: I think the main thing is that every single person has a different definition of love. There’s no wrong definition there’s no wrong reason to love somebody. I think people get disappointed a lot because we love someone whose definition of love might be different from ours. Because that’s a very normal thing to have happen, really people radically diverge in what they think love is. The two main characters in a novel, that’s kind of one of the biggest conflicts. Diametrically opposed definitions of love. To one of them you know love comes and goes. It’s not it’s not something safe. If you fall out of love with somebody then it means you never did love them. It’s impossible. Love is a permanent state of flux. And. You can see through accomplishing two characters that marry such radically different ideas of what love is.

JP: Anything else you want to touch on?

SI: I have four episodes of Driven in post. One is based on the Martin Scorsese cameo from Taxi Driver, except played by Madeline Xima as a young lesbian. There’s also the immigration episode, starring Sakina Jaffrey and Al Madrigal. So many car share drivers are immigrants so that episode is particularly relevant.

Catch Driven on the Slamdance website http://slamdance.com/Slamdance-Co-Presents-New-Web-Series-by-Stephen-Elliott-DRIVEN and on Stephen Elliott’s website http://www.stephenelliott.com/. Elliott is generous with his content and makes it available for free.

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Jennifer Parker is a Manhattan-based writer and mother. The editor in chief of StatoRec, Jennifer’s film criticism and author profiles have appeared in Fjords Review and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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

INTERVIEW BY MANDY SHUNNARAH

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/.