Origin Story: Tony Tulathimutte’s PRIVATE CITIZENS



Tony Tulathimutte’s debut novel, Private Citizens, charts the spectacular floundering of four recent college graduates. His eye is so sharp, his characters so recognizable, and his truth so pitiless that I sometimes had to close the book, as if he might read my soul through its pages. This is one of the most provocatively intelligent novels I’ve ever read.

I met Tony at a bar and asked him how the book came about.

David Busis: You said that before you started this book, you were writing pious, well-crafted stories. Did this book come out of a contrarian impulse, or did it come out of a willingness to take a risk that you weren’t willing to take before?

Tony Tulathimutte: Pure desperation. I hadn’t written almost anything for two years. I’d written a story collection that on some deep level I was too ashamed of to even try publishing, because of this issue of piety. The novel I’d been working on ended up dehydrating into a novella. Process-wise it was an important bridge between the older stuff and this, writing at greater length, but stylistically it was still like the old stuff. Once you’ve been writing a few years, it’s hard to let go of whatever little accolade or attention you’ve managed to get and start over with a new approach. But you have to, if you don’t want to stagnate.

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Structure: What Writers Can Learn from Visual Artists

Image courtesy of Julian Partridge

Image courtesy of Julian Partridge

Of all the rules that artists follow, this one is paramount: never ever fill in details before the structure is done.

Painters sometimes spend hours sketching before ever touching the canvas. And when they finally do, they build their work slowly, layering in color, laboring on the drawing underneath, roughing in the composition before tightening it up. And once the structure is securely in place, it takes vigilance to ensure it isn’t weakened or lost. Have you ever wondered what an artist is doing when she steps back from her easel and squints? She’s blurring out the details to see beyond them and take stock of the form underneath.

For years, I earned a living by this rule, sculpting superheroes and cartoon characters. Batgirl, Superman, Jimmy Nuetron, Big Bird, Bugs Bunny, Marge and Bart Simpson—hundreds of my original prototypes line the shelves in my studio.

Each figure began with a block of clay. I’d work the shape from all angles, adding and subtracting to it, leaving tool marks everywhere. With every change I’d step back. I’d look at it from above, below, and every angle in between. I often used an old art school trick and looked at it upside down in the mirror, all in an effort to look through the clay and see the structure of the figure underneath.Continue Reading

Reading POC is Grand but Why Aren’t We Reading Natives?

Leonardo DiCaprio called during his Golden Globes acceptance speech for viewers to deepen our appreciation and respect for First Nations tribes, and made-for-cable movies are showing Natives in a more positive, less violent light. But what about us writers and readers? Who among us is giving a shout out to indigenous writers? As for all those readers touting their year of reading People Of Color, how about we avoid skipping over Natives?

This blog series will feature just these authors throughout 2016. It will go into and beyond Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich because contemporary nativist titles come from Canada all the rugged way down to South America, and across oceans to Australia and New Zealand. They also extend to Taiwan, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, because according to some reports 370 million people across 70 countries can claim indigenous heritage.

It’s a bit surprising—given the trend to read exclusively women or non-white authors—more attention isn’t given to indigenous populations. Even my research or queries into the agencies active in promoting world lit are met with radio silence. Therefore it’s the goal of this blog to promote awareness of, interest in, and perhaps a surge among native lit in the mainstream. Through it, like other art forms and cultural resources, we glean an understanding of Natives’ ways of life and our role in their marginalization, and we forge a connection through our shared human condition.Continue Reading

ROUND-UP: PEN, Amazon Bookstores, and New Digital Book Series


A snapshot at this week’s literary news, from PEN’s literary award shortlists to a new take on digital books:

  • PEN American announced their literary awards finalists for 2016 last week. Winners for Debut Fiction, Art of the Essay, Literary Science Writing, PEN Open Book, and PEN/Fusion Prize will be announced at the 2016 PEN Literary Awards Ceremony on April 11. The other remaining winners will be revealed on March 1.
  • Several sources have reported that Amazon has plans to open 300-400 physical bookstores across the country. The rumors started after Sandeep Mathrani, chief executive of the mall operator General Growth Properties, said to analysts, “Their goal is to open, as I understand, 300-400 bookstores.” Amazon opened one bookstore, called Amazon Books, in Seattle last year. The company has made no comment on these alleged plans, however, so the rumors may be false.
  • Google’s Creative Lab announced a partnership with London publisher Visual Editions to create a new digital bookstore for books that can’t be printed. The project plays with the concept of digital content by publishing “books that change dynamically on your phone or tablet, using all the attributes of the modern mobile web to do things that printed books never could.”

Grace Paley’s “Wants”: Activism and Civic Involvement for Writers


Photo by Erich Ferdinand

Photo by Erich Ferdinand

After years of dodging PTO meetings and volunteer opportunities, I became involved in a school overcrowding issue in my town because I didn’t want my children’s class sizes to become enormous. The problem seemed simple at first, but soon enough I was attending school committee meetings, spending hours writing emails, and holding forth at a four-year-old’s birthday party about educational inequity.

As I sank deeper into the quicksand of civic involvement, wondering if this were one of the times I’d said yes when I should have said no, I remembered a passage from my favorite short story. I pulled the book off the shelf, as I’ve done so many times before. “Wants,” the classic Grace Paley story, is three pages long, and it contains the entirety of the narrator’s life.

The narrator runs into her ex-husband at the library. She returns two books she’s had for eighteen years, pays the fine, and checks out the books again. Her ex-husband rehashes their marriage, brags about the sailboat he’s got money down on, and says, “But as for you, it’s too late. You’ll always want nothing.” Left to consider this “narrow remark,” the narrator sits on the library steps and lists the things she wants.

I want, for instance, to be a different person. I want to be the woman who brings these two books back in two weeks. I want to be the effective citizen who changes the school system and addresses the Board of Estimate on the troubles of this dear urban center.

I had promised my children to end the war before they grew up.

I wanted to have been married forever to one person—my ex-husband or my present one.

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Octavia Butler’s Notebook Represents All The Anxieties Of Writers Of Color



On its blog last week, the Huntington Library released previously unseen photographs of some of the late Octavia Butler’s papers, which the library catalogued after Butler’s untimely death nearly ten years ago. Included in the collection are some of Butler’s early science fiction stories, contracts, drafts, and notebooks, one of which caught the attention of nearly everyone on my Twitter feed last week.

On the back of one of her notebooks, Butler writes:

I shall be a bestselling writer. After Imago, each of my books will be on the bestseller list of the LAT, NYT, PW, WP, etc. My novel will go onto the above lists whether publishers push them or not, whether I’m paid a high advance or not, whether I win another award or not. This is my life. I write bestselling novels.

While everyone celebrated the spirit of these words I’m embarrassed to say that I, on some gut level, cringed when I read them. I couldn’t articulate why. I love Octavia Butler—I love the Patternist Series, I love the Xenogenesis trilogy, I love the Parable series. I love Octavia Butler! So, what was my deal?Continue Reading

An Interview with writer Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

Yu-Mei Balasingamchow is a fiction and nonfiction writer from Singapore. Her stories appear in the anthologies From the Belly of the Cat (2009) and Let’s Tell This Story Properly: Commonwealth Short Story Prize Anthology (2015), as well as in the journal Mänoa. Her nonfiction work includes Singapore: A Biography (2009), co-authored with Mark Ravinder Frost and commissioned by the National Museum of Singapore. Balasingamchow participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP), a ten-week annual residency for writers from around the world, in fall 2015.

Xin Tian: Tell me about the residency program.

Yu-Mei Balasingamchow: IWP is very contained—it’s ten weeks, you live on campus together, then everyone goes home. You’re always running into each other in the same place. These experiences help because they’re small and short—you go there, it’s really stimulating, take it or leave it, and then it will never happen again.

I could hear myself think so clearly. You start giving yourself reasons to say yes, rather than no, about what you want to write. Being taken out of the place where you usually write and being placed in this foreign environment is quite idyllic. It doesn’t ask very much of you except just to be there.

IWP asks that you do one public reading at the Shambaugh House or at the Prairie Lights bookstore in town. Some residents read from their native languages, or from newly translated pieces that they worked on with students at the university’s MFA in Literary Translation.

We were also involved in an undergraduate class, International Literature Today (taught by Christopher Merrill and Natasa Durovicova), where students read and ask questions about residents’ work. A few of us spoke to high school creative writing students at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and at a class at Bard Early College New Orleans, where there are college prep classes for public high school students. In DC, I visited an AP Lit high school class through a PEN American Center school outreach program.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Bethlehem” by Chika Unigwe


In “Bethlehem” (One Throne Magazine), Chika Unigwe explores the ways in which a community’s sources of pride and ignorance can cause tragedy in the lives of those who don’t fit into the conventional molds.

In the first section, Unigwe presents clues to the conflict between the protagonist Chimelumma and her infant Beth (short for Bethlehem).

A baby was supposed to fill all the gaps in their lives, plug all the holes through which sadness might seep in….Instead, the reality now was that Beth was creating fissures in Chimelumma. Chimelumma knew how to seal cracks in china plates: put the china in a pot, pour in two cups of milk, heat over low for an hour, cool in cold milk, rinse, and voila! the crack reseals itself. But Chimelumma did not have enough milk to heal the cracks Beth had created, or to stop the cracks from spreading.

Unigwe is describing what was expected from the baby versus what has actually happened. But notice how she implies some important contextual information in the process: First, that sadness was already seeping in before the baby was born. Second, that Chimelumma doesn’t believe she has enough “milk” to heal the additional cracks the birth of her child has created.Continue Reading

Fiction Responding to Fiction: William Trevor and Yiyun Li


Poets often respond to other poets in their work. With fiction, these connections are less apparent and yet they are there, as writers want to pay homage to or have a conversation with another writer. Over the next year, this series will consider a pair of joined stories each month, exploring the stories and their connections.

Our first pair of stories is William Trevor’s “Three People” and Yiyun Li’s “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.” You can listen to Li read “Three People” here, and you can read “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” here.

“Three People” is included in Trevor’s collection The Hill Bachelors, published in 2000. The story takes place in a small town in contemporary Ireland, one of Trevor’s favorite locales, and it explores the relationship between Mr. Schele, an older man; Vera, his grown, unmarried daughter; and Sidney, a middle-aged man who the father hopes will marry Vera. All three characters are lonely and often alone with their thoughts; dialogue rarely dips beneath the surface and moments of interiority also come infrequently. As a reader, this means that we are immediately caught up in the mystery of the story, trying to make sense of this triangular relationship by following the clues that Trevor places so precisely.

The first half of the story is told through Sidney’s point-of-view; we slowly learn—in Trevor’s inimitable way—that Vera and Sidney share a secret unbeknownst to the father. But Sidney only gives us the barest bits of information:

He had just turned twenty when he first helped Vera. In Mr. Schele’s house they do not ever mention that. They do not talk about a time that was distressing for Vera, and for Mr. Schele too.

In the second half, we learn—again, very slowly—what exactly happened that is never discussed. The point-of-view shifts between the three characters, although the access to Mr. Schele’s thoughts is minimal. And it is when we are with Vera, in church, that we finally learn what she did and why Vera and Sidney are tied together forever: she killed her sister, and he lied to protect her. The present tense of the story works wonderfully to underscore the pressure of that past on the present; we flip back and forth between past and present as the story unfolds.

Trevor’s stories often end bleakly; this story ends as follows:

The darkness of their secrets lit, the love that came for both of them through their pitying of each other: all that might fill the empty upstairs room, and every corner of the house. But Vera knows that, without her father, they would frighten one another.

The future, then, is unsure and feels haunted. Surely Mr. Schele will die in the not-so-distant future. Sidney and Vera will be left together, and Trevor leaves us with that unsettling sense of doom.

Yiyun Li has spoken often of her respect and admiration for Trevor’s work. Many of Li’s short stories are, in fact, directly linked to Trevor’s; Li writes: “I like to imagine many of my stories having conversations with his stories.” “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” is the title story in Li’s second short story collection, published in 2010.

Li’s story is placed in contemporary Beijing. Here, too, we have three lonely characters: Professor Dai, a retired professor of zoology; Hanfeng, her middle-aged son, recently returned from the States; and Siyu, the professor’s former student. It is fascinating that Li chose to change the genders of all three characters in Trevor’s story. And not only are the genders reversed but unlike Mr. Schele, whose presence is vital yet somewhat ghostly, Professor Dai is the one who orchestrates the events of the story: she brings her son and her student together with the goal of creating an arranged marriage.

The story begins with a formal meeting between Hanfeng and Siyu. The point-of-view moves back and forth between the two characters, and we learn quite a bit about both characters and their histories. Li provides more interiority than Trevor with moments of insight that are often stunning. Her language on the sentence level is beautiful and the way her sentences flow and branch is reminiscent of Trevor.

We never have access to Professor Dai’s thoughts but we learn the source of her sadness in the advice she gives Siyu about marriage:

You could feel trapped by the wrong man…you would have to wish for his death every day of your marriage, but, once the wish was granted by a miracle, you would never be free of your own cruelty.

By the time that the three come together for dinner, we have realized that Siyu is in love with Professor Dai, and we learn, through both Siyu and Hanfeng, that Professor Dai was in love with another woman. And here, while Professor Dai did not kill her husband, she believes that her wishes made it so. The guilt that she lives with is tightly linked to the guilt that plagues Vera.

It seems clear by the end that the arranged marriage will come to pass. Li consciously steers her story towards a more hopeful place. The end of her story is gentler than Trevor’s:

They were lonely and sad people, all three of them, and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.

Even as the three characters are bound to each other, as they are in Trevor’s story, there is hope in Li’s story. The lovely phrase “with great care” inserts a note of grace to her ending. It is almost as if to “make a world”—an act of creation—will allow these characters to move beyond false social constraints and, we hope, experience some small bit of happiness.

Review: TESTAMENT by G.C. Waldrep

TESTAMENT_g.c. waldrepTestament
G.C. Waldrep
BOA Editions, 2015
144 pp, $16

Buy: paperback | Kindle | Nook

An endnote to G. C. Waldrep’s excellent new book-length poem points out that it “originated as a exploration of and response to three texts,” Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip (2009), Carla Harryman’s Adorno’s Noise (2008), and Alice Notley’s Alma, or The Dead Women (2006). It is no new thing for good poetry to inspire more good poetry, but since cross-fertilization is a sign of robustness, such acknowledgements are good to have.

Not that Testament is strikingly similar to the three named texts, at least superficially. The Robertson, Harryman, and Notley books are unclassifiable genre-benders, but the cover and title page of Testament plainly identify it as “a poem,” and it looks, reads, and even sounds like a poem—Waldrep writes for the ear as well as the eye, embracing musicality more freely than many current poets. Harryman’s and Notley’s books have a particularly hard political edge, mounting a resistance to the fear-as-policy bleakness of the Bush-Cheney years. In Waldrep’s poem, although references to gender, capitalism, and race are frequent (likewise for history, faith, and the Trillingesque “moral imagination”), questions outnumber answers (“Ask yourself: is it your country? Do you / belong there? Does gender?”), and even the assertions come wrapped in enigmas:

Capitalism swaggers
Outside language in the chrome shadow of
Something like an enormous, gleaming motorcycle
We aren’t sufficiently afraid of. Not yet.

Another aspect of the Notley, Harryman, and Robertson books (and a remarkable one, since political commitments usually involve an identifiable subject position) was that their speaking subjects were contingent and shape-shifting. The title of Waldrep’s book may evoke the stable identities we presuppose stand behind wills and witnesses, but he too keeps the speaker elusive (his previous book, Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, was an experiment in the collaborative construction of a lyrical subjectivity with poet John Gallaher). The poem was originally drafted at the Hawthornden International Retreat for Writers, and traces of that stay abide in references to an “Egyptian novelist” and “British poets”; there is also a “you” and an “us” and a kitchen that was “a delirious semblance / of all our commensal desires.” Winding among such landmarks, though, is a network of mistakes, a selfhood seemingly composed mainly of words misheard or misread, of memories misremembered, of accidents.

The scope of the book is difficult to convey in a brief review, or I would try to unpack Waldrep’s exploration of sense and memory in the recurring image of the bee, the eye, and the flower; or attempt to summarize his inquiry into language in the third of the book’s five sections; or ask whether the references to ribs and flaming swords are intended to evoke Eden and the Fall, and whether that fall connects to the various references to Icarus. The most concise reference point that occurs to me, though—Notley, Robertson, and Harryman notwithstanding—is that Waldrep is the closest American poetry comes to Geoffrey Hill, in the music of his language, the range of his erudition, the integrity of his intellect, and the honesty of his doubt.