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.

BEST 21 BOOKS OF 2016

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BY GABINO IGLESIAS

 

Last year was such an outstanding year for literature that a top ten list just wouldn’t cut it. Horror, literary fiction, poetry, nonfiction, noir; every conceivable genre produced at least a couple of gems that deserve to be on this list. I started the year aiming to read 200 books, which is something I try to do every year. Work, looking for work, too many long books, and writing a dissertation were all elements that got in the way. That being said, I managed to read about 110 books, and here are the best 21 in no particular order:

 

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21. Floodgate by Johnny Shaw. This was fast, fun to read, packed with more action than a superhero movie, and showed a level of worldbuilding that makes it a novel that should be used to teach it. Shaw can do crime, violence, intrigue, and comedy, and all of those can be found in spades here.

 

 

 

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20. Death Confetti: Pickers, Punks, and Transit Ghosts in Portland, Oregon by Jennifer Robin. Robin is a performer, writer, and traveler whose life definitely belongs to the small group of those that should be written about. This collection of nonfiction takes place mostly in the streets, on public transportation, and in bars across Portland. The people and situations the author encounters are enough to make it a recommended read, but the outstanding and commanding way in which Robin writes about them make it an absolute must and earn the book a spot on this list.

 
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19. Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing by Lauren Beukes. One of the first authors to come to mind when thinking about writers who can move in and out of a plethora of genres while simultaneously sounding fresh and unique, Beukes has become a household name thanks to novels that are a bizarre, scary, wildly entertaining mix of science fiction, crime, and horror, and this collection offers more of that.

 
Image result for bruja wendy ortiz18. Bruja by Wendy C. Ortiz. What Ortiz does for the memoir here is comparable to what Flaubert’s Madam Bovary did for modern realist narration or what Capote’s In Cold Blood did for the nonfiction novel. Simply put, Ortiz’s “dreamoir” is a new thing and this book will be the starting point for a movement as well as the go-text for all upcoming memoirs that inhabit the interstitial space between reality, memory, very personal surrealism, and dreams.

 

Image result for magic city gospel17. Magic City Gospel by Ashley M. Jones. Going into a poetry collection without being familiar with the author’s work is always an adventure. With this book, the adventure yielded a treasure trove of southern imagery, a screaming celebration of roots and culture, and an unapologetically raw view of the female African American experience. This is brave, beautiful, necessary poetry that should be taught in schools and that undoubtedly becomes more important with each dumb step the country takes backwards.

 
Image result for a collapse of horses by brian evenson16. A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson. Evenson is one of the most talented living writers in the world, and this collection is full of stories in which he proves it time and time again. Sad, strange, creepy, touching, surreal, scary; if you can think it or feel it, Evenson does it here. The best short story collection of 2016 and yet another superb entry into the oeuvre of a man who seems to only get impossibly better with each new offering.

 
Image result for black wings has my angel15. Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Haze. The folks at the New York Review of Books know how to pick their classics, and this one is my favorite so far. A narrative that still resonates in modern noir’s DNA, this is a dark, twisted tale of love, violence, secret agendas, and the way plans have a tendency to crumble.

 
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14. Witch Hunt by Juliet Escoria. This book is full of the kind of poetry that reaches deep inside you, pulls out the ugliest things you have to offer, and then slaps you in the face with them, and Escoria does it all just by sharing her own life. Full of heartbreak, broken relationships, and crippling realizations, this book is what happens when a talented author decides nothing in her past is sacred and exorcises the demons by writing them out.

 

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13. The Incantations of Daniel Johnston by Scott McClanahan and Ricardo Cavolo. This is the only graphic book on the list, and it’s more of a surreal biography than a novel. Touching and magical, Cavolo’s art and MacClanahan’s words combine perfectly to offer readers a look inside the brain and soul of an outstanding artist tortured by mental illness and haunted by demons most of us can’t even begin to fathom.

 
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12. The Book of Endless Sleepovers by Henry Hoke. Sometimes a poet is capable of stuffing his entire life into a book, and that’s exactly what Hoke did here. The pain, awkwardness, drama, and discoveries of a child transform into the suffering, joy, and blossoming sexuality of a young man, and all of it is filtered through the author’s sharp mind and tender heart. By the time I was done with this, I wanted to ask a million questions, congratulate Hoke a million times on his accomplishment, and give him a million hugs.

 
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11. Chicano Blood Transfusion by Edward Vidaurre. El barrio has a heart that spans the globe, and Vidaurre taps into it to write poesía with a lot of truth and feeling. Readers will find the usual themes here, but also a range of new ones and different, unique experiences and memories. La poesía del barrio has a new voice in Vidaurre, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

 

 

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10. Albina and the Dog-Men by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Just like no film director can compare their work to the bizarre visions created by Jodorowsky, no author can claim to bring together poetry, love narratives, and surrealism to the page the way he does. This is a long, sexualized, mythological fever dream that fits in perfectly with everything Jodoroswky has given us in his long, illustrious career.

 
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9. Glue by Constance Ann Fitzgerald. I read this book on my phone while sitting in my car. I didn’t plan on that, but the first few pages hooked me and the rest is history. This is a powerful, autobiographical narrative that deals with loss and coping. Fitzgerald shines at showing us that being broken and not knowing how to handle things is a perfectly normal part of being human.
Image result for Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones.

 

 

 

8. Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones. Sure, this is a werewolf novel, but it’s also an outstanding noir, a fantastic YA narrative, an emotional family saga, and a great road trip tale. Jones has always managed to work in many genres at once, and this one stands amongst his best work to date, which is saying a lot.

 

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7. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay. Anguish and loss are at the core of this creepy narrative. The disappearance of a young son is the vehicle Tremblay uses to scare readers, but it’s also the event he uses to deconstruct the way humans (re)act under pressure and how an event can make people collapse. This is another author than only gets better with each new book, and I eagerly await whatever he puts out next.

 

 

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6. The Fisherman by John Langan. I’ll keep this one short: the mythos book that will be talked about and discussed twenty years from now? This one.

 
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5. I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas. A scathing academic deconstruction of the Lovecraftian scene and its problems would collect dust in university libraries across the country, so instead of doing that, Mamatas wrapped it all up in a wildly entertaining and surprisingly funny novel about a murder at a Lovecraftian convention. If you care about the destruction of racism and misogyny but don’t mind doing it with a smile on your face, this book is for you.

 
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4. Novi Sad by Jeff Jackson. Post-apocalyptic fiction done right. Tense, gloomy, strange, and poetic. This is the shortest novella on this list, and it packs as big a punch as anything else on this list.

 

 

 

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3. Patricide by D. Foy. The best literary novel of 2016. Smart, fast, violent, philosophical, and possessing a depth that most literary fiction can only dream of. Foy is an author whose work will be talked about a lot in the near future. I suggest to start reading him now.

 

 

 

 

Image result for Swarm Theory by Christine Rice.2. Swarm Theory by Christine Rice. I could write ten pages on the way Rice weaved together a narrative about a whole town and all its denizens, but that would probably bore you. Instead, I’ll say this: Swarm Theory is the most impressive book about a town/plethora of characters that I’ve read since devouring Camilo Jose Cela’s The Hive, and remember that Cela got a Nobel in Literature in 1989.

 
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1. The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock. Along with Jones and Evenson, Pollock is a national treasure whose work constantly mesmerizes readers. Hilarious, vicious, filthy, and smart, this story of brotherhood, death, and crime was one of the few true literary gems published by one of the Big Five in 2016.

[REVIEW] Super Extra Grande by Yoss

 

Restless Books
June 2016

 

REVIEWED BY Gabino Iglesias

Science fiction is a place where minority authors have brilliantly mixed the possibilities of the future with the sociopolitical problems of their time. Everything from politics and sexism to racism and the silence of the subaltern (the one Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote about) have been explored within the context of a narrative that takes place in a fictional future. Cuban science fiction author Yoss’ Super Extra Grande does all these things, but he wraps his sociopolitical arguments in so much humor, adventure, and raunchiness, that it is easy to miss it. Yoss, the pen name taken by José Miguel Sánchez Gómez in 1988 after winning the Premio David in the science fiction category, marries hard science with wild invention and throws that mix into a hilarious, politically and sexually charged universe where all alien races have stopped being unknown to each other. The result is a witty narrative that proves that, when done right, science fiction can be the most entertaining genre even when delivering a message.

 

Super Extra Grande takes place in a distant future in which Latin Americans have invented a way of travelling that’s faster than the speed of light and which has put the members of all seven intelligent species in the universe in contact with each other. Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo is a veterinarian who works with the largest creatures in the universe. At the beginning of the novel, Jan Amos is deep in the bowels of a gigantic sea creature on a mission to recover a piece of jewelry for some very important people. The mission is dangerous and messy, but the mess he’s thrown in after makes it look like a walk in the park. When a colonial conflict threatens to make war explode between the seven intelligent species, Jan Amos is forced to embark on a perilous rescue mission that will make him go inside the most gigantic creature in the universe to find two swallowed ambassadors and bring them back. Unfortunately, the two ambassadors he must rescue also happen to have a shared past with him, and the nature of their relationship could complicate things quite a bit.

 

Super Extra Grande imagines a Latin-Anglo future in which Spanglish is the official language shared by the seven intelligent species. Besides the beautiful implications and the fact that Yoss is pointing at something that is plausible if looked at through the lens of the shifting linguistic dynamics in the United States and the growing use of both English and Spanish is schools and households in various countries across Latin America, the truth is that having Spanglish dialogue enriches the narrative and makes it crackle with authenticity. Here is an example of an admiral discussing the mission the galactic veterinarian will end up in:

 

“Probablemente it’s sad, pero it’s también very realístico. Besides, nosotros no somos rivales. Not ahora, anyway…Pero I insist in any case that Doctor Sangan should be given as little información as possible. Él es just un civilian. And the truth is, you’ve already told him demasiado.”

 

The way that Spanglish is constructed feels legitimate, and it helps those unfamiliar with Spanish to get the gist of it based on context. In this regard, kudos must be given to translator David Frye for his outstanding work.

 

Besides the space it creates to discuss alternate realities, the best science fiction is that which delivers on the promise of its name, and Yoss pulls it off with flying colors in part thanks to his degree in biology and in part thank to his fearless approach to creation. The variety of creatures he crafted for this relatively short novel is a testament to a powerful imagination, and the fact that he managed to flawlessly merge them with a larger narrative without bogging down the action is proof that he is a talented storyteller. Furthermore, Yoss’ work deserves attention because regardless of what he does in the story, he always keeps his focus on subverting the order of things:

 

“As it turns out, the large eels with six “nipples” are all males. And the few that swell with eggs to double their size, as well as the intelligent humanoid beings who build ships powered by the Arnrch-Morp-Gulch entailment (that is, the Tunnel Macroeffect or González drive) and who defend their space borders so aggressively, are all female.”
Yoss tackles science fiction with the attitude of a rock star, and he has the talent to make even his wildest ideas work. Super Extra Grande follows the parodic tradition of Cuban science fiction and treads new grounds in terms of the amount of imagined science and fauna found in its pages. This is a narrative in which anything is possible, love and desire are thrown into the tumultuous new territory of interspecies relationships, and Spanglish is the unifying language of the galaxy. In other words, this is science fiction at its best: wildly imaginative, revolutionary, full of strange creatures, and a lot of fun to read.
 

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS (Broken River Books), HUNGRY DARKNESS (Severed Press), and GUTMOUTH (Eraserhead Press). His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbicide, and many other print and online venues. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

[REVIEW]: This Census-Taker by China Miéville

this-census-taker

Del Rey, 2016, 206 pp.

Reviewed by Giselda Aguiar

 

China Miéville’s novella, This Census-Taker, starts with the narrator retelling the story of when he, as a nine-year-old, ran away from his uphill home to the town below and announced to the gathered crowd: “‘My mother killed my father!’” All this within the first three pages of the book.

From the moment of that utterance to the end, Miéville crafts a story of shock after shock: disappearances, unexplained behaviors, murky pasts, and mystical elements.

Before continuing with the current narrative, Miéville (and the narrator) use(s) flashbacks to set up the boy’s relationships with his parents prior to the incident. The narrator tells of his father’s unusual and frightening behaviors concerning animals and, perhaps, humans; of his friendship with the town’s homeless children; of the oddities of the place and its inhabitants; and of snippets his mother tells him of his parents’ pasts.

Through these flashbacks the narrator establishes the setting and his personal history with some of the other main characters before returning the story to the present action.

After the boy readjusts his account of what he witnessed and after a brief investigation by the downhillers, no evidence of foul play is discovered and the young boy must stay with his remaining parent. The rest of the novella is of the weeks that followed.

Just as some of the towners dismissed the boy’s story, the reader starts to question how reliable the narrator is. He is a grown man looking back at his childhood. While the amount of time that has lapsed is not clear, years have passed, which might have muddled his memories. In addition, his nine-year-old self has all the confusions and misunderstandings of a child, making the retelling not completely dependable.

However, these uncertainties are what make the novella a compelling read that has one guessing what is true and trying to figure it out with the clues available: what the boy knew or thought he knew.

The book starts with a mystery and while it is “solved” in the boy’s mind, halfway through the reader might start doubting the boy’s explanation of what must have happened after he ran from home the first time. Perhaps the remaining parent is being honest or is indeed a psychopath. The introduction of a mysterious stranger adamant in completing his job, even though everyone in his position “‘were recalled,’” adds to the reader’s doubts and misgivings as to what really happened and where the adult narrator is now.

Many other unsolved mysteries abound and are not resolved by the end: the town’s history and certain people’s backgrounds, motives, and whereabouts. Readers are left thinking that something internationally horrible happened between several nations before the start of the story that has left the town in an almost post-apocalyptic world with orphan children running the streets and people forced to use candles for lighting.

The time it takes the narrative to return to the present action is a bit long for such a short book: about a third into the novella. After it returns to the boy telling the downhillers about the crime he supposedly witnessed, the narrative is easier to follow than the flashbacks that preceded it and the real interest is in this later two-thirds. Had the entire novella been organized in chronological order—starting with the events in the flashbacks instead of the boy running down the hill—it would have made a boring start and the reader might not have had the incentive to keep reading without the cliffhanger created by the insertion of the flashbacks into the present action.

A stylistic or narrative issue the reader will encounter may be the added hints concerning the narrator’s current whereabouts and situation. These hints—given throughout the book, starting first in the flashback section—might confuse readers with its vague indications and hard-to-follow timeline, and they include shifts in point of view from first to third or first to second. These switches might create confusion or an ephemeral feeling as the first-person narrator disconnects himself from his younger self.

If you cannot handle a book that leaves unanswered questions, then perhaps this book is not for you as it will leave you with an unsatisfied curiosity. But if you want a puzzle that leaves you wondering days, weeks after finishing the book, then pick this novella up. It can lead to a great discussion with friends who also want to figure out the mysteries in This Census-Taker.

 

Giselda Aguiar has an MFA in creative writing from Florida International University. When she is not teaching English Composition to college freshmen, she is reading or writing in the mystery and fantasy genres. Her writing and photography has appeared in The Florida Book Review, MIami, TUami podcast, and AngryGOTFan.com.

 

[REVIEW] Deceit by Vanessa Hua

Image result for deceit vanessa hua

 

Willow Books, 2016

Reviewed by Jonathan Duckworth

“We were chop suey, orange chicken, egg foo yung, Chinese and yet not, American and yet not.” This quote from the collection’s opening story, “Line, Please,” perfectly and succinctly isolates the tension at the heart of the stories in Vanessa Hua’s debut collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities. Be it “Chinese-American,” “Korean-American,” or “Mexican-American,” the stories all put into question what either side of such bifurcation really means and if a person can be both at once.

At first look it’s difficult to draw any kind of general conclusions about the stories in the collection. Most, but not all are set around the Bay Area of California. Most, but not all center on Chinese-American immigrants or the children of such immigrants. However while some of the stories drift from the Bay Area or follow the struggles of immigrants of different extractions, they all contain at the heart of them, as the title suggests, some element of deceit. In the first story, “Line, Please,” Kingsway the rapper’s many sex scandals have leaked and finished off his already floundering career, forcing him to flee back to the Bay Area where he grew up, where he can still hope to escape the truth. In the story that follows, “Loaves and Fishes,” the tables are turned on Kingsway when during a trans-Pacific flight another equally fulsome and equally down-and-out Chinese American rapper, Prophet Alex, performs every confidence trick he can think of in an effort to make a connection with Kingsway, his fellow “fallen man.” The most complicated pattern of deceit emerges in the story “The Older the Ginger” (my personal favorite), where not only has the main character, Old Wu, been deceived by his opportunistic old-country relations looking to marry off their daughters to him, who they wrongly believe to be an American millionaire, but by the later stages of the story he appears to succumb to lure of self-deception, to feel and act like the wealthy American his relations believe him to be.

Stylistically, the collection showcases a number of novel and effective storytelling flourishes. The most notable of these flourishes is what I would call “telescoped time.” On several occasions, such as in “The Responsibility of Deceit,” “Accepted,” and “The Shot,” Hua closes a story with the protagonist having either just done something momentous or disastrous or on the verge of doing it, and then a rapid slideshow of events across a long stretch of time that fully explores the consequences of that action, be it the consequences of coming out as gay to traditional Chinese parents or the legal and familial repercussions of felony arson. One thing that I wished to have seen more of in this collection was the recycling of characters between stories. Hua used Kingsway’s reappearance in “Loaves and Fishes” to great effect, putting a character we already have reason to care about into a new situation. Given how many of the stories are set in the same geographical area within the same immigrant population it wouldn’t have been too great a stretch for more such crossovers. But Hua’s skills as a story-crafter and narrator are showcased better than anywhere in the story “For What They Shared,” the story which more than any other explores the troublesome bifurcation inherent in the immigrant experience. In this story, Hua alternates between two viewpoint characters camping on opposite sides of a road, a Chinese-American who feels out of place in America and who is inexorably drawn by economic and filial circumstances back to China, and an American of Chinese descent who feels disconnected from her native culture. Here Hua manages to craft two characters both wholly-realized and simultaneously hopelessly fragmented, both on intersecting but divergent trajectories.

In parts, the collection reminded me of the best of Jhumpa Lahiri and Robert Olen Butler, but these are only incidental comparisons, and I have full confidence that in time Vanessa Hua will be a writer to whom up-and-coming storytellers are compared. My overall impression of Hua’s debut collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities is that it feels less like a debut and more like the effort of a seasoned and well-established master.

 

 

Jonathan Louis Duckworth is a current MFA student at Florida International University in Miami, where he works as a teaching assistant. He also serves as a reader and copy-editor for the Gulf Stream Literary Magazine. His work appears in or is set to appear in Sliver of Stone Magazine, Mount Island Magazine,The Kudzu Review, andHermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal.

[REVIEW] Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow by Fabienne Josaphat

 

 

The Unnamed Press
256 pages
Released February 23, 2016

REVIEWED BY MELISSA OLIVEIRA

Good historical fiction requires a subtle balance: enough research to animate the historical subject, but not so much emphasis on factual detail that character, action and other elements of story are sidelined. Dancing in the Barons Shadow, Fabienne Josaphat’s fast-paced debut about two brothers trying to survive the brutality of Haiti under François Duvalier, is the sort of historical novel that moves more like an action film than a costume drama. Josaphat expertly projects event after event onto a well-imagined historical backdrop which reflects, I suspect, an immense amount of time spent reading and interviewing. Still, her novel runs along at a breathless pace, its tight plot never appearing to labor under the weight of so much research.

Some of the book’s tension derives from the setting Josaphat has chosen for her tale: Port-au-Prince in 1965. This is the Haiti of François Duvalier, a.k.a. Papa Doc, who was responsible for murdering between 30,000 and 60,000 people with the help of his militia, the Tonton Macoute, as well as infusions of anti-Communist aid money from the United States. We never meet Duvalier directly in this novel, but the influence of this US-educated-medical-doctor-turned-dictator pervades every aspect of life in Port-au-Prince. There’s an undercurrent of dread in each scene, and even the workaday conversations early in the novel are colored with the possibility that the Tonton Macoute is watching.

Yet even amid all this rich historical and political background, Dancing in the Barons Shadow is a personal story at its heart: a tale of two brothers whose different personalities and life choices bring them into repeated conflict with each other. When we first meet Raymond L’Eveillé, we learn that he is a Port-au-Prince taxi driver who is simply not able to make enough money to keep his family from starving because a statewide curfew cuts into what would normally have been his prime earning time. He waits anxiously outside a brothel for a client while curfew looms, hoping to make just a bit more cash before heading home. We hit the ground running a moment later, though, as Raymond is presented with a choice: to use his knowledge of the winding streets of Port-au-Prince to rescue a young family of three fleeing from the Tonton Macoute, or to do nothing and live with the fact that he might have prevented whatever awful fate awaits the family. “What kind of man was he?” Raymond wonders as he tries to ignore the father’s knocking on the taxi window. Yet his conscience wins, and he risks what little he has to help — learning only later that he has, in fact, saved the lives of a popular radio journalist and his family. He has also most likely landed in trouble himself; his white Datsun taxi isn’t difficult to identify, he knows.

Enter his brother Nicolas L’Eveillé, a law professor whose arrogance and bourgeois values hamstring him in a myriad of ways. Nicolas has a history of living well while his brother’s family starves, but now stoops to a new low by refusing to help with the cost of disguising and repairing Raymond’s taxi. Though Raymond is sure the Tonton Macoute will find him in short order, he is unwilling to listen to a high-minded lecture on his flawed life choices. Yet Nicolas, true to form, wants to lecture but not actually help his brother. He also lectures his students on human rights abuses, for example, without thinking about potential consequences. Worse still, he has been recently at work on a book manuscript in which he proves the regime murdered writer Jacques Stephen Alexis. Nicolas imagines that his manuscript will be published in secret and distributed widely outside of Haiti, displaying for the world the repression of the Duvalier regime. He also imagines that he and his family will be able to quietly escape Haiti, and that his colleagues can be trusted to help. Yet Nicolas, trusting as he is, underestimates the power of fear and intimidation on even the most rational of people. Like many in that time and place, Nicolas disappears into the dreaded Fort Dimanche, where some of the novel’s most harrowing of scenes take place. I don’t want to reveal much beyond this point, except to say that Josaphat prompts the reader to ask Raymond’s question of every character and at every step: What kind of man was he? Can Raymond still think of himself as a decent man if he isn’t helping those who need it? What kind of man is Nicolas, underneath the education, money and prestige? What kind of person can anyone be under such dire circumstances?

Josaphat keeps her storytelling lens trained on the brothers. This makes for a novel that is both intimate and tightly plotted, though I wondered often about the stories of those outside of the main action. There’s a compelling cast of characters whose stories I was eager to follow even further. Eve and Yvonne, for example, are the wives of the L’Eveillé brothers, and their own choices propel them far afield. Each probably warrants her own novel, but I wanted more here: more flesh and detail, and more than a quick sketch provided in the epilogue. In addition, readers should be aware that this book covers some emotionally challenging ground, particularly in the torture and interrogation scenes. Still Josaphat makes it worth the reader’s while in the end. Given the decades of brutal repression under Papa Doc and his son, it wasn’t difficult to imagine an ending to the story that obliterated hope. It speaks to Josaphat’s skill, however, that this story leads to a place of hope and reconciliation.

During his self-appointed tenure as President for Life, Duvalier affected the dress, voice and mannerisms associated with Baron Samedi, the loa of Haitian Vodou associated with death, and the baron referred to in the book’s title. This Duvalier — the one with the flair for the theatrical, who insisted bullets couldn’t hurt him because he was already an immaterial being, and who ordered that every black dog be killed based on a rumor that his enemy could transform into one — garners much attention in conversations about Duvalier. While Duvalier’s reputation is explored in detail in Dancing in the Barons Shadow, Josaphat doesn’t let the baron steal the show. Instead, she offers her readers a tightly-plotted historical drama firmly situated in the realities of surviving under Duvalier.

 

Melissa Oliveira grew up in central Connecticut and holds an MA in English Literature from the University of Colorado. She lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.

[INTERVIEW]: Yaa Gyasi on HOMEGOING

BY ASHLEY M. JONES

Yaa Gyasi’s explosive debut novel, Homegoing, has earned national acclaim, and for good reason–this book is masterful in its craft, powerful in its message, and maybe greater than all of that, it explores mostly every side of the African Diaspora from the slave trade (including African involvement in the acquisition and movement of slaves, which is something I don’t see often in literature on the subject, and Gyasi manages to do this without feeding into the warped narrative that because some Africans were involved in slavery, it is somehow made “okay” or above critique by modern Black thinkers), to wrongful imprisonment to funnel black workers into coal mines and other industries, to modern descendants of this family who finally return home, even if they don’t exactly know what that “home” really means.

I devoured this book greedily, and although this book has garnered comparison to Roots, it is a fresh story, a new voice, and another necessary genealogical journey that is taking its place in literary history.

I was lucky enough to talk to Yaa (YG) recently about her new book, the writing process, and the place of politics in literature. See the interview below:

 

AMJ: I’d like to start off by congratulating you on your success with HOMEGOING—a debut is a tricky thing, I know. Can you talk about the process of writing this book? Did you know it was a hit?

YG: I got a grant in 2009 from Stanford to travel to Ghana to conduct research for a novel, and I had kind of a different idea in mind. I wanted to write something about mothers and daughters, and I wanted to visit the area that my mother is from—the central region. But as soon as I got there, I kind of knew it wasn’t going to pan out. A friend and I decided to visit the Cape Coast Castle, and so I visited the castle, I took the tour, and the tour guide started to mention how there were soldiers who lived and worked in the castle who sometimes married the local women, which was something I had never heard before. And then they took us down into the dungeons. And that was really kind of the genesis of this project for me.

I kind of immediately felt haunted by the material, and I knew that I wanted to write about it. And I kind of took a circuitous route—in the beginning I’d wanted to write something that was set in the present, in present-day America, and then just flash back to Ghana in the 18th century, so you could kind of see what slavery had left us now, but then I realized that over time I was actually more interested in being able to watch things move as they changed kind of subtly over this long period of time. Once I realized that, I changed the structure to the one that you see now, one that would allow me to stop in as many decades along the way as possible. And so I wrote the first two chapters when I got to Iowa in 2012, and they’re pretty similar to the way they appear in the book now, so those felt like really urgent and different than anything I’d ever done before in a really good way. And from there, I made a family tree that I put up on my wall that looks a lot like the one at the beginning of the book, but mine also included the dates during which the bulk of the chapter would take place, and also one thing was going on in the background, politically or historically during the time period, so the Yaa Asantewaa War, the beginning of cocoa farming in Ghana, something like that. And then, I wrote chronologically, and I stopped at the beginning of each chapter to do a little research on whatever it was that I had written. So I would grab a book like Black Prisoners and Their World, before starting a chapter, and I read as much as I could, enough to make me feel like I was in the world. And after that, I closed the research book and let my imagination take over, because I didn’t want it to be all stifled by research.

And that’s kind of how I worked. And I wasn’t sure—I said before that I felt like it was different than anything I’d ever written, and it’s hard to tell, it’s hard to be objective about your work in that way. But I have a great reader, she’s been reading my work since my freshman year of college, and I remember sending her the first two chapters, like right after I had written them, and she emailed me back, “this is the best thing you’ve ever written, keep going.” So that was kind of my clue that I had landed on something that I wanted to explore further.

AMJ: You sort of answered this in the first response, but I’ll ask again: as far as your research, how many books did you have to read?  What was that process like?

YG: I read quite a few books—I listed a few of them in the back, and those are just the ones that I feel like I used pretty heavily. I was worried about—sometimes I read a historical novel and I feel like it was just an opportunity for the writer to tell you everything that they learned about the history in that time period, and you kind of lose the character and the story and those kinds of things that make me want to read fiction in the first place rather than reading a historical text. And so I didn’t want this book to feel that way, I felt like if I ever came to this crossroads where I have to decide between the plot and historical fact that I was going to choose plot—that was kind of how I approached this.

And so, again, my process was just that I would research at the very beginning of each chapter and then I would close the book and just write. If there were things that I came upon that I needed to do more research on then I would make a note of it, so that after I finished the first draft I could go back and look through my notes and try to research things a little more clearly than I had before to get simple answers. Like, what kind of mallet would he have been holding? Those are things that are less fun to research but still kind of necessary.

AMJ: Some people are calling Homegoing this generation’s Roots. Does that seem accurate to you? Do you welcome the comparison?

YG: I never read Roots and I never saw the miniseries. And I haven’t watched the re-make, either, though I’ve been meaning to. I kind of knew that was a comparison that was going to be made just because of the nature of this book kind of being a genealogical look at a black family. [Roots is] pretty much the original book that deals with that. I totally understand the comparison in that way, but I did want to be careful to not feel as though I was having to answer to Roots as I was writing, and so I kind of made the choice to not read it. So now I would love to—to sort of get in on that conversation because I haven’t had the best answer to that question after the book came out. But it is interesting to hear other people talk about it. And Roots came out in the 70s and there’s been a lot of changes since then. So it’s nice to have this book come out and see the ways in which the conversation has changed since Roots came out.

AMJ: I definitely see the reason for the comparison, too—although I didn’t think about Roots while I read Homegoing, I definitely think they’re doing something similar for the world. Roots was important to past generations (and present, as most Black kids I know were forced to watch with their parents), and Homegoing, I think, can do something similar for this generation.

The form of the book is particularly striking to me—I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book (and this could be because I’m just not reading enough novels) whose story is told entirely through different characters the whole way through without compromising a single plot point. How did you decide to use this form, and was it hard to keep it all so chronological and tight?

YG: I was thinking about ways to do it. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude and I adore that book, I think [Marquez] is a genius and I also kind of quickly knew that I wasn’t going to be able to write a book like that. It just seems too hard. And I thought that the structure would allow me to keep things as simple as possible while letting everything else be big and messy.

I think I’d read other books that kind of have this multiple points of view or long period of time and a lot of those books cover far fewer years than this book does. Or, if it’s about family, there are fewer members of the family, just ways to allow you to come back to a central character. And so I was nervous about trying this, because I knew that it was going to cover too many years to allow me to do that in a realism way. I don’t know, it’s just one of those things—I wouldn’t’ know if it was going to work until I finished the first draft. Not the best position to be in as a writer—working on something that might not gel, but I felt like, in terms of things I didn’t want to compromise on, I thought, the length of time that this book covers was one of them. I really wanted to go from 18th century Ghana to present-day America and how I was going to get there—I wasn’t quite sure, but I was going to try this structure, finish the first draft, read it over, and see if it made any sense.

AMJ: I think Homegoing has some political aspects, even if it might not be immediately apparent, that work is at play in the novel. Some have said that literature and politics don’t mix, others say that artists are the true “reporters” of the times in which they live.  Maybe this is mostly said about poetry, but I’m wondering, even as a fiction writer, do you think the writer/artist has a political responsibility? Can/should politics and art coexist?

YG: So many of the writers that I admire are writers who very overtly talk about politics or history. Writers like Toni Morrison or James Baldwin. It’s a part of who they are and it’s a part of their literature and I couldn’t ever have imagined being the kind of writer who didn’t write about anything. And I also don’t believe that that kind of writer exists.

I think a lot of white male writers get to believe that they are writing these neutral stories, but when I read them I feel the politics in them. The politics of exclusion, or the politics of white supremacy or whatever it is. So I just don’t believe that we’re capable of writing something that is divorced from history or divorced from politics.

The fact that this book feels overtly political, I think that’s something about the place that we are in. But, I think that it is something that I knew that I had to do and wanted to do and I didn’t want to shy away from including that. And, a lot of the books that I love don’t shy away from including that.

AMJ: We’re both raised in Alabama—I’m born and raised in Birmingham, and you grew up in Huntsville (by way of Ghana). Did your experience as a southerner impact your decision to write this book? Do you feel like you’re putting Alabama on the literary map in a new way?

YG: I don’t know if I identify as a southerner. I was born in Ghana, then I lived in Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, and then Alabama. I kind of moved around a lot, and in a lot of ways, I think that this book reflects that kind of restlessness of place that I tend to have.

But, at the same time, Alabama was the most formative place in my life. It’s still the place that I think of as home, it’s where my family is, it’s where my little brother spent all of his life, and so my relationship to Alabama is really important to me, and I don’t think that I could have written a book like this if I hadn’t grown up in Alabama.

I came from a country that had involvement in the slave trade, then I end up in a place where the effects of slavery are still so strongly felt, and it’s something that wasn’t lost on me, and it’s something that I was sort of unconsciously navigating my entire childhood, going home to Ghanaian parents and being told all the ways that I wasn’t African American, then leaving my house and being African American to the rest of the world, and trying to figure out what that meant for me ,and what that meant for my brothers. And all of that is in this book—questions of identity, questions of identity as it pertains to ethnicity and race and country and all of those things are in here. I think if I hadn’t grown up in Alabama, I don’t know that I would have had the same kinds of questions.

AMJ: What new projects are you working on?

YG: I started another novel. I like to have something that I’m working on when another thing that I’m working on frustrates me, so I started it kind of a long time ago. But it’s still in the very early stages. It’s set in the present, it feels pretty different than this one. But, I think I’m starting to realize that with every project it’s going to be really different and I’m going to have to relearn how to do this work every time, and that’s where I am with it.

 

 

 

Yaa Gyasi is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, AL. Homegoing (Knopf) is available for purchase now.

Ashley M. Jones received an MFA from Florida International University. She was a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award Recipient. Her debut collection, Magic City Gospel, is forthcoming from Hub City Press.

[REVIEW] The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

Viking/Penguin
March 2016

REVIEWED BY ERIC FARWELL

Small, painful changes abound in Karan Mahajan’s debut novel, The Association of Small Bombs. Revolving around two families and two market bombings, the work examines the ways people change, drift, and act out in an effort to stave off loss. Despite some passages involving discussions of India’s political divide, it would be quite a stretch to consider this a political novel. Mahajan’s focus is on the aftermath of a terroristic attack, and how the event opens up doors to either grow closer and celebrate life, or isolate oneself and build walls to keep life out. As the characters all struggle to accept the doors they’ve opened, the focus moves away from the big picture concerns, and tries to account for ways one can negotiate being true to oneself in their growth and still do right by others.

By this measure, the characters are divided into two groups: those who extend their hands and those who are recklessly selfish. Vikas and Deepa Khuranas, who lose their two sons at the start of the book, grow in distinctly different directions. Vikas, a documentarian, begins visiting the market where the boys died, speaking with police officials, and generally trying to make sense of it all via the detachment his camera lens allows. Deepa opts to throw herself into her cooking business, slowing down only to dote and obsess over their daughter, Anusha, a sort of miracle baby that brings the family together while pushing them apart. Vikas, absorbed by his work, hates his daughter, who serves as a reminder of what he lost. Deepa continues to try and reach Vikas through his grief, but ultimately there’s too much between them to sustain. Mahajan navigates their emotional separation by focusing on them as separate, isolated individuals. In plain, unbusied language, Vikas and Deepa find the poetry within their misery and slowly make their way back to themselves. Without the drama and pretense of a typical “literary fiction” couple, the Khuranas are able to be fully real, due to Mahajan’s writing and the small, stumbling steps he gives his characters permission to take.

The pace of the novel adjusts as needed, with sections slowing down or speeding up based on the emotional charge of the characters. For the younger characters, there is little inward-reflection done, nor is there any sense of scrutiny regarding the ways of the pedestrians in India. This appears at first blush to be a reaction to manuscript length and deadlines, but after further consideration it’s apparent that this is another subtle shade of reality that Mahajan is using to color his characters. Unlike their elders, the young men Mahajan focuses on are part of the volatile nature of India’s seemingly strained political culture. Unlike Deepa and Vikas, who have something real to lose in political upheaval, these young men look to involve themselves in whatever they think will change things for the better and keep them from ending up like the Khuranas when they’re middle-aged. This interior difference between the boys and their elders is what makes passages involving a deeper consideration so poignant, such as when Vikas looks out his window and considers the effects of reality on the artist. ““He couldn’t bring himself to do it, couldn’t tear himself from this window, which was like a portal into heat, death, futility, irritation – and also a stage. What had happened to him was so real, he couldn’t re-enter the world of make-believe – yes, that was the work of a documentary filmmaker too: make-believe” (75).

Maybe the greatest trick Mahajan pulls off is creating a fully vibrant India, even if it doesn’t extend beyond the few characters that populate the novel. Everything from the description of the Lajpat Nagar market:

“A formless swamp of shacks, it bubbled here and there with faces and rolling carts and sloping beggars. It probably held four seasons at once in its gigantic span, all of them hot. When you got from one end of the market to the other, the wooden carts with their shiny aluminum wheels had so rearranged themselves that the market you were in was technically no longer the market you had entered: a Heisenbergian nightmare of motion and ambiguity” (1)—to the use of words like “beta,” “auntie,” and “uncle,” which help to build a concrete world that rises off the page. The stilted, proper English of the characters imbues them with a vivid realness one wouldn’t expect, but Mahajan uses sensory details masterfully. When it comes to pain and violence, Mahajan provides detail sparingly, giving us enough to feel with the characters, but not so much that it breaks the spell of the book. Sparseness is the novel’s secret weapon, and because the world is detailed enough, the lack of information surrounding the political aspect of the work never seems cheap or undercooked. We take the journey because the world feels so real; and in real life, the whys and wherefores of an individual heart are rarely transparent.

Starting with Shockie, a radicalist bombmaker who sets of the explosion that sets the course of the book, we’re ushered into the unseemly world of political militants, exhaustive rhetoric, and racial and economic barriers that these cells feel need to be toppled. In Shockie, we also have the idea of the stock-character cliché. He’s dogmatic, seemingly violent for no reason, and committed to a dangerous cause without clear connections to its agenda. It isn’t until Ayub is introduced later in the story that we begin to see the nuances of Shockie’s psyche. Ayub comes to join the radicalist cause after feeling anger over losing his girlfriend and closest friend, and thus losing his power as pseudo-leader of the NGO, which looks to promote peace and understanding as a way of generating governmental change. Unlike Shockie, Ayub is a complex character that transitions from one extreme to the other without much difficulty, yet remains conflicted about his actions up until he sets off a bomb. His complexity imbues him with humanity, and in certain ways it is unclear whether or not he serves as an villain or yet another stock-character: the young man who turns to violence as a way to still his own pain. It is only in Ayub’s naivety that we’re able to see those aforementioned nuances to Shockie. Here, nearly seven years after he set off the bomb in Lajpat Nagor, Shockie is grizzled, broken, and strangely emotional, full of pain and regret over his actions, but unable to tear himself away from the cause that he originally believed in.

Bridging the two terrorists is Mansoor Ahmed, the childhood best friend of the Khuranas’ two sons. After surviving the first bombing, he begins to fear venturing too far away from home. When his father decides to send him to America for college, Mansoor’s nerdy and awkward shell begins to melt away, but after the onset of carpel tunnel nearly cripples him, he returns to India where he gets involved in the NGO and he engages in a fanatical observance of his Muslim duties. Oddly, the one bright spot in his life seems to be Ayub’s girlfriend, Tara, whom Mansoor covets and privately lusts after. If there’s a weak spot in the work, it’s Mahajan’s characterization of Tara, who never seems to lift very far off the page. Unlike Deepa, Tara is relegated to the role of tired girlfriend, seemingly conjured in order to help Ayub move on to setting off the bomb. Mahajan uses her to fill a void, and when she leaves for university in the states, both Mansoor and Ayub try to invent new roles for themselves in order to escape the bleakness of their lives.

Ayub ultimately goes on to betray his values while Mansoor embraces his. After he escapes the hospital, Ayub’s guilt leads him to confide in Mansoor, whose deep-seated fear of terrorism and strong Muslim selflessness leads him to taking the fall for Ayub. Inside the one place he knows is probably safe, Mansoor reflects on the whys and wherefores of his life, ultimately deciding to live a quiet life at home with his family. This hits upon what Mahajan seems to be after: if there’s anything one can depend on after a tragedy, it’s that life will continue on in strange ways, just as it would regardless. If our greatest feats of humanity are forgiveness, reconciliation, and love, then those are what we should look to develop when loss and worry crop up on our streets. Perhaps, if we can keep this in mind, when we clear off the shrapnel and dirt, we’ll see the NGO was right all along.

[REVIEW] The Good Son by Paul McVeigh

Salt Publishing
April 2015

REVIEW BY CATH BARTON

It is the late 1970s. Mickey Donnelly is 10 years old. He lives in Ardoyne in West Belfast. Mickey has passed his 11+ exam and has been offered a place at St Malachy’s Grammar School. But he is told that his family cannot afford to send him there.

In The Good Son, Belfast-born Paul McVeigh tells the story of the nine weeks of Mickey’s summer holidays before he goes to secondary school. He tells it through young Mickey’s eyes, conveying all the spark and wild dreams of a pre-pubescent boy. Ardoyne is a Roman Catholic area more or less surrounded by Protestant areas. It is not safe anywhere in Ardoyne, for this is the time of the Northern Irish “Troubles,” when sectarianism violence can erupt on the streets at any time. Mickey is quite matter-of-fact about the reality of this. He has grown up with it, although he’s only ever seen Protestants on TV.  On an errand to a shop by the iron barricades which mark a boundary between Catholic and Protestant areas he says:

“They’ve started calling them peace lines which really makes me laugh cuz actually this is where people come to kill each other.”

Mickey is innocent about the worst atrocities and we can laugh at his misunderstandings. When he is heard shouting in the streets about another child’s father being in prison for stealing sausages he gets a visit from one of the Ardoyne Hard Men to set him straight about the man having “fought hard for his country.. But Mickey is still confused:

“They wanted him to steal sausages? Why? Were they hungry? And could they not just buy them from the butcher’s like everyone else? There’s no way I’m ever going to join the IRA if that’s the kinda missions you get sent on.”

There are more immediate issues that concern Mickey day-to-day. As he dodges through forbidden streets, his pre-occupations are looking after his mother, the mysteries of sex, and the initiation torments which await him at St Gabriel’s secondary school. His dream is to go to America, where he plans to work in a diner. And one day, he tells his Ma, he will be President of Ireland, because he is a good boy. Like all small boys though, he does not differentiate between large and smaller ambitions. He is given a five pound note with which to go shopping and he knows it’s a lot of money:

“One day, when I grow up, I’m goin’ to have a five of my own and I’m goin’ to spend it all on sweets.”

Mickey Donnelly is truly, at heart, a good boy. The guile of adolescence has not yet infected him and he loves his Ma, his little sister Wee Maggie and his dog Killer—who makes him “as happy as a pig in poo”—with a protective ferocity. When he spies Ma through the fence, railing against a world in which she has married a drunken waster, he begs her to give him a job in the house so he can help her out.

In this family, a slap round the head is more common than a hug and sorry is not a word used very often, but there is laughter and underneath there is palpable love. Paul McVeigh navigates the choppy sea of Mickey’s shifting experiences and rapidly-changing emotions with skill and verisimilitude. Having lost food coupons which he had been given for shopping, the boy devises a way to repay his Ma by chopping up wood to sell round the houses, getting his hands full of painful splinters in the process. When she finds out she talks to him with uncommon tenderness:

“ ‘My son,’ she says, and her body sort of shudders. She shakes her head. ‘Your wee hands are destroyed.’ She traces the splinters and welts with her fingers.”

Next minute she’s wiping her eyes and flying at an accusing neighbour with the hatchet that Mickey uses to chop his wood.

Mickey may live during the Troubles with a capital ‘T,’ and he gets often into trouble with a small ‘t,’ but I don’t experience him as a troubled character. Yes, he is often confused, but aren’t we all confused as children? Yes, he suffers heartbreak, but is that not part of growing up? Mickey is an intelligent boy and he has a strategy for survival—he acts. He’s seen lots of films on TV. He knows how to look cool—he practices the Ardoyne Hard Man Dander, chest puffed and knees pointed out as he walks. Other boys may call him names because he’s a loner, but he’s plucky and resourceful and he cares about other people. When he sees a bunch of girls chanting insults at one who has been tarred and feathered he wants to rescue her:

“Even though she’s a Brit-lover, I don’t think it’s right. I mean, you can’t help who you fall in love with.”

At the end of the summer of this story, Mickey works out a way to help his Ma and possibly even get himself to America. Possibly. Whatever the difficulties of his life, it is not, at least at the point where this story ends, tragic. Though we are bound to wonder what will become of young Mickey.

In The Good Son Paul McVeigh traces the physical geography of Ardoyne with as much precision as he depicts the geography of the human heart.  As a reader you run up and down those streets with Mickey, onto the wastelands where kids sniff glue and bombs explode unpredictably. He navigates the tricky first person narrative style with assurance and peoples the story with vivid characters. Fartin’ Martin, Ma’s-a-Whore and Minnie the Tick Woman may sound like the names of caricatures, but they step off the page as realistically as young Mickey himself and as brightly as the characters in Mickey’s favourite film, The Wizard of Oz.

Mickey Donnelly deserves to take his place in the litany of boy literary heroes. Paul McVeigh’s prose sings from page one in the accents of the North Belfast streets, and is rich in detail. While The Good Son does not have the same breadth, it has something of the spirit of Dickens or Zola, transformed for our times. Gritty realism with a human face. Not only is it hugely enjoyable, but it also conveyed to me more of the atmosphere of the Troubles than any number of factual accounts.

 

 

[REVIEW] Not a Self Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu by Yi Shun Lai

Shade Mountain Press
218 pages
Released May 6, 2016

REVIEW BY MELISSA OLIVEIRA

As long as we suspect we’re falling short in some area of our lives, there’s really no end to the books we will buy to try to improve: a 2014 article I read stated that self-improvement was “a $10 billion per year industry in the U.S. alone.” As it turns out, when it comes to solving the problem of ourselves, we have very deep pockets — and solving herself is exactly what Marty, the smart but hapless narrator of Yi Shun Lai’s wonderful new novel, Not A Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, seems on a quest to do.

From the outside, twentysomething Marty Wu appears to be doing pretty well. She moved to New York from Taiwan when she was five, and when the novel opens she has a job in Manhattan working in advertising sales for a magazine. Unlike her previous job as an illustrator, advertising sales isn’t a line of work that particularly excites Marty. Still, she appears to be good at it: the early pages of the novel find her on the verge of closing a deal that promises a fat bonus check.

Yet Marty, whose story comes to us in the form of a diary she began on the advice of a self-help book, is someone we come to know intimately, and all is not perfect in Marty’s world. We know, for example, that her fascination with self-help books borders on an obsession born of insecurity. Each interpersonal interaction and emotional reaction is noted carefully in the pages of this diary and compared to an ideal version that she might have read, say, in The Language of Paying Attention to YOU or a similar user’s guide to life. We also know that advertising sales is a poor fit for this vibrant and creative young woman, and that the aforementioned bonus check is a potential way out of the gig. Alone at her desk, she listens to fashion and design podcasts, and daydreams about investing her windfall into a little storefront: the type of warm and intimate costume boutique that would, she hopes, allow clients to “slip into another skin” for a time.

But Marty is our heroine, and as she says herself, “I think somewhere in one of my books it says that I must be a Protagonist, like characters in novels. Protagging is hard. Characters in novels never have it easy.” Yi Shun Lai, for her part, pulls no punches with Marty. Rather, as Lai steers Marty into increasingly uncomfortable and painful situations, Lai writes with an incisive humor and a light, chatty tone that often had me laughing aloud as I read.

While this was one of the funniest books I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a while, though, it isn’t all laughs. Marty, we understand, has a serious longing to go after what really matters to her, but she is hobbled by variety of obstacles — the very challenges that made her such an avid consumer of self-help books in the first place. The promise of such books, after all, is one of hope — hope that Marty might finally learn how to be a better leader, colleague, saleswoman, daughter, person. Since there are no guides for learning simply to be a better, stronger Marty, our narrator flails. She searches relentlessly for advice from people and books that are so distant from the reality of her life and relationships.

This brings us to Marty’s relationship with her mother. Mama excels at cutting Marty down: thoroughly, efficiently, and often while switching in rapid succession between English and Taiwanese. “I double-step,” Marty writes when meet Mama for the first time, “trying to move quickly, and trip. ‘Sloppy,’ says my mother, only in Taiwanese it sounds like more than that, like you haven’t just tripped, but that you’re a tripping, drooling shadow of a functioning creature.” Watching Marty endure what she does is often heart-wrenching, and we aren’t entirely surprised that she will try anything to please and appease her mom — even resorting to lies in order to make herself seem like the Good Daughter she imagines would make Mama happy. After an epic career misfire in Las Vegas, however, Marty’s constructed self falls away in a hilarious and startling way. Marty, now forced to reevaluate and refocus, decides that the Old World might be a good place for a fresh start, so she accompanies Mama on a trip to the family home in southern Taiwan.

It all sounds very serious in the telling, but the writing is efficient and funny, with Marty’s voice making the whole thing really pop. Still, the centrality of the mother-daughter relationship and how Marty navigates its tremendous challenges charmed me more than I expected. Where another novel might make stronger use of a romance plot to keep us interested, Lai sidelines the romance a bit, giving the mother-daughter relationship enough room for serious exploration and nuance. This dynamic is where all that humor digs deep into the particular challenges of defining and asserting an artistic identity in the world — whether that world is the hectic atmosphere of New York City business, or the strong family landscape and rich tradition of small-town Taiwan, or even just within the heavy gravitational pull of a difficult parent. I don’t wish to spoil anything, so I will say only that there are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers for Marty, and it’s better that way. It’s a complicated journey to learn to help oneself, but it’s also a joy watching this fun and multidimensional character navigate it.

What blindsided me was the expert combination of humor and deep feeling that I found here. Where Not A Self Help Book initially engaged me with its light and enjoyable storytelling, I found that by the final pages I was impressed by the subtlety and the seriousness Lai treated the relationships between the women of the novel. Some, I think, will see parallels between this book and Bridget Joness Diary, as it shares some similarities with that book — epistolary storytelling, young female narrator, the preoccupation with self-help books. If, like me, you enjoyed Bridget Jones, you’ll probably delight in Marty Wu as well. My feeling, though, was that underneath the superficial similarities, Not A Self Help Book was an entirely different sort of novel. It’s one that cares deeply for its complicated female characters for their own sakes, and more than for their entertaining antics and romantic attachments. As I read, I felt keenly aware of real, lasting consequences for Marty Wu, as one who must become her own authority on bridging different cultures, ideals, geographies and life stages. A novel that can do all of this and still make me laugh out loud is one I can heartily recommend.