The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Howler” by LaTanya McQueen

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In modern society, what often constitutes progress is the dulling elimination of those instinctual parts of our being that aren’t beholden to conscious thought—say, our hard-wired physical and emotional responses. In “The Howler” (Permafrost) LaTanya McQueen explores the potentially redemptive nature of those impulses that lay beyond our control.

McQueen begins the story from the perspective of the unnamed boy narrator, with a description of the phenomenon the title suggests.

It started with a tickle in his chest, almost like an itch, until the feeling grew. He found himself opening his mouth wide, his lungs filling with air, the muscles in his throat constricted, and then it came. A howl, deep and guttural. He felt the vibration against his vocal chords. He imagined it as a response to a dream, perhaps still part of the dream itself, and so he got up from the bed and stretched and then went into the kitchen to find his stepmother.

What McQueen establishes is not just the physicality of the howl, but its relationship to the boy’s waking mind, drawn here more as instinctual than premeditated. That he imagines what it is, instead of knowing, speaks to the fact that both the cause and experience of the howl are happening on a level different than his conscious mind.Continue Reading

Taking Something Unconventional and Making It Beautiful: An Interview with Elisabeth Jaquette

Elisabeth Jaquette is a prolific writer and translator of Arabic. Her translations have appeared in the Guardian, Asymptote, multiple anthologies, and other places. She holds an MA from Columbia University and was a CASA Fellow at the American University of Cairo. In this interview, we discuss her first novel-length translation, Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue, which was published last month by Melville House. The Queue is a part-1984, part-Kafka, part-magical realism story about a small group of characters experiencing the effect of a rising authoritarianism—known only as the Gate—on life in a fictional Arabic country. The work received an English PEN Translates Award in 2014, and this year Jaquette served as a judge for the PEN Translation Prize.

Graham Oliver: This book is one in which the shift in audience from one language to another is especially difficult to quantify, right? You probably dealt with separate questions about how the new audience will appreciate it as art but also how the reference points needed to make it work carry over.

Elisabeth Jaquette: My greatest concern was figuring I thought a great deal about how to convey the allegorical aspects of The Queue. I read the novel after having lived in Egypt for five years, through the revolution in 2011 and its aftermath. So its parallels to specific events, governmental bodies, and even the Gate’s rhetorical styles were very clear to me. But a foreign audience has none of those reference points. How can you recreate a political allegory when you can no longer assume that the underlying referents are common knowledge? How can you convey satire when the audience of the translation doesn’t know what’s being satirized?

I was also conscious that different lived experiences lead to different assumptions about power, which was an even greater gap to bridge. When the official behind the counter tells you he’s lost your papers, has he really lost your papers? Do you assume the newspaper intends to print the truth? How cautious should you be about surveillance? In general, I think Americans tend to take political reality more at face value, and that affects how an American audience reads political satire like this.

Ultimately, I had to be satisfied with the fact that The Queue is such a rich novel because it functions on two levels: as allegory of Egypt’s recent political history and as a commentary on authoritarianism more broadly. Readers can recognize universals in a book that is very much rooted in a specific history. The mechanics of authoritarian regimes are so boilerplate: censorship, bureaucracy, manipulation of the truth, forced disappearances.

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Review: A BESTIARY by Lily Hoang

bestiary_hoangA Bestiary 
Lily Hoang
Cleveland State University Poetry Center, April 2016
156 pp; $16

Buy: paperback

Not all rat mazes have corridors. For the Morris water navigation task, it is as it reads: a rat must learn to fare in water. It is placed inside a pool and must swim to the other side. Once the rat learns its path, the scientist adds a solution to the water, causing it to become opaque. The hypothesis is that the rat will be confused. However, “despite changes to the environment, rats swim right to the platform.”

Lily Hoang is a first generation Vietnamese-American. A Bestiary, her debut collection of essays, is not about rat experiments, though they appear in some cases (as the above garnered from “On The Rat Race”). In meditations comparable to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Hoang both approaches and avoids her sister’s death (drug overdose), her failed marriage (white man she calls Chris), and a destructive on-again, off-again relationship (white man she calls Harold).

She has made attempts, like the rat, to find her way back home, but the paths didn’t lead the way they promised. “I had wanted to be a good wife, and for the most part, I was,” she writes, “but the fact that my marriage was a catastrophe doesn’t change.” As for Harold, he is a stubby lighthouse with broken lamps and both of them know it, but she remains. In “On Scale,” she does the math: “The weight of my love measured against the weight of my life without him measured against his betrayal and all the terrible things he’s told me over the years. In the end, no matter my options, I know I will choose Harold.”Continue Reading

The Best Essay I Read This Month: “Citizen Khan” by Kathryn Schulz

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It is a good thing that Kathryn Schulz’s “Citizen Khan” was published in The New Yorker, because it is so eerily textbook perfect a piece of longform feature writing that had it come through a lesser fact-checking department, I might have worried some of the details were made up.

“Citizen Khan” is the lost-and-found tale of an Afghan immigrant who gained fame (sort of) and fortune (definitely) selling tamales in frontier Wyoming in the first half of the 20th Century. More broadly, it is the tale of Wyoming as a young state, of how immigrants are inextricable from the fabric of our nation’s history, and of how Muslims have long been helping shape our culture despite the current wave of Islamophobics mistakenly thinking they’re something new.

It is also, first and foremost, a feat of reporting, which is a pleasure to realize because it really didn’t have to be—there are so many interesting nuggets lying around on the surface, easily scooped up, that a good, fun story could have been written on the topic without going nearly as deep or doing nearly as much work as Schulz did. But she did, and so instead of being just good and fun, the resulting story is one of the best things I’ve read all year.Continue Reading

Writ in Water: Yellow Not Mellow

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A sight now common across California: the yellow toilet bowl.

Conscientiously curated, it’s a light shade of daffodil, lemon, banana; this is early in the lifespan, the visitors before you healthy and drinking plenty of water. If less lucky, you lift the lid on honey or medallion, yellows migrating goldenrod and worse. (Browns, mercifully, are still banished.) In homes and apartments, in private in the most private of spaces, this has always been personal preference, maybe laziness—how many visits before a flush?—but in public, a new and different matter. In restaurants and stores and movie theaters and malls, we are witnessing a colorful conversation about conservation, a visual diary of how comfortable California has become with changes in personal habit.

True, a flush or two doesn’t solve the drought; even forty million yellowing bowls doesn’t compare to daily agricultural water use or decades of water table abuse and wasted runoff, but, as author Charles Fishman notes, “For a century, California has pioneered innovations that have changed the way we all live.” As California goes—literally—so too will the rest of the nation.Continue Reading

Feminism by Way of Tragic Misogyny in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Photo by Orbitburco12

 

In social justice activism, offensive rhetoric is considered a form of toxic pollution. Language shapes our culture, society, and schema for thinking about different groups, and so can never be considered harmless. The only venue in which politically incorrect language gets a free pass, so to speak, is humor. Political satire often uses otherwise damaging rhetoric as a means to expose the absurdity of certain arguments and attitudes, and it’s considered acceptable, so long as the caricatural villain spouting the vitriol is played for laughs.

But what happens when bigotry is coded not as comedy, but tragedy? And not just for the oppressed, but for the oppressor? This is a much thinner tightrope to walk, as Bernie Sanders discovered recently when Mother Jones unearthed his brazen and controversial essay about gender roles from the seventies, which graphically depicts a fictional couple indulging in rape fantasies—the woman imagining herself as the victim and the man projecting himself as the perpetrator—and then turns into an explicit lament of normative gender roles and their deleterious psychological impact on individuals of both genders.

And men. Men are in pain too. They are thinking, wondering. What is it they want from a woman? Are they at fault? Are they perpetrating this man-woman situation? Are they oppressors?

Although the narrative devices used in the essay could be construed as sensationalist, the overall message is, in fact, feminist. As a work of fiction, it leaves a lot to be desired (which one would only expect from a future presidential candidate), but interestingly, the essay is essentially a more ham-fisted—and considerably less literary—version of the most memorable vignette in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which begins: “And yet I did not fall in love with her until she had related the story of the unbelievably horrifying incident in which she was brutally accosted and held captive and raped and very nearly killed.”Continue Reading

When He Was King: The Words and Wisdom of Muhammad Ali

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Standing in line at the grocery store the other day, I counted four magazines the published special issues to commemorate the remarkable life of Muhammad Ali, who died on June 3 at 74 years old. The funeral for Ali, who had not been a significant public presence for more than three decades, was televised live nationally.

Ali’s absence from the limelight was due largely to Parkinson’s Disease, which severely limited his speech and motor skills over the second half of his life. It is impossible to convey to the current media-saturated generation how large a shadow Ali cast on America from the time he first won the heavyweight championship in 1964 until his last fight of note in 1980. Before America and the rest of the world became wired for cable, Ali was everywhere.

Which is to say he was far more than merely the heavyweight champion of the world, even at a time when the title carried a prestige that is unfathomable now. He was the first global sports celebrity and understood this intuitively, determined not to squander the platform he’d earned.Continue Reading

Living Between Languages: Notes on Language and Loss

Graffiti on a Wall in Chicago

I was seventeen years old when I started working at the front desk of a beach resort in my coastal city in Brazil and began to teach myself my first sentences in English. In the tourism industry, English was currency, and as such I wanted to earn it. It was only natural that I soon began to read books in English, worn volumes of Salinger and Nabokov tourists never picked up from the lost and found box at the reception desk.

Learning another language (I suppose it could have been any language) changed my life: it made me yearn to be a writer. I’ve become both half-conscious and super-conscious of what I’m saying, of the strangeness and newness of language. I pick over my own speech. This awareness of style, of diction, of how sentences are formed and information is conveyed isn’t entirely a bad thing for a writer. It’s an exercise in slowing down, in spending more time underneath the surface.

Eva Hoffman writes in her Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language:

I’ve become obsessed with words. I gather them, put them away like a squirrel saving nuts for winter, swallow them and hunger for more. If I take in enough, then maybe I can incorporate the language, make it part of my psyche and my body. I will not leave an image unworded, will not let anything cross my mind till I find the right phrase to pin the shadow down.

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Round-Up: Chicago Public Library Giveaway, the 2016 PEN Pinter Prize, and Gregory Rabassa

10865739354_367ed0b246_kFrom the Chicago Public Library’s children’s book giveaway to the passing of a central figure in Latin American writing, here’s some of last week’s most important literary news:

  • Writer and activist Margaret Atwood was awarded with the 2016 PEN Pinter prize. The prize, named for playwright Harold Pinter, is given to a literary writer who casts an “‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world and…define[s] the real truth of our lives and our societies.”  Judges described Atwood as an “exemplary public intellectual” and a “consistent supporter of political causes.” As the recipient of the Pinter Prize, Atwood will select a co-winner for the prize, who will be announced this coming Fall. Atwood will spend October and November on tour for her newest novel, Hag-Seed.

  • Public libraries in Chicago want to get kids reading this summer. So, the eighty branches of the Chicago Public Library System hope to give away one million children’s books. Any child who signs up for the library’s summer program will receive twelve free books. Organizers of the giveaway described a “persistent lack of access to books in low-income neighborhoods,” as being a motivating factor for the event. In low-income Chicago neighborhoods, on average, the ratio of children to books is three-hundred to one. In contrast, the average middle class child owns thirteen books. The books will almost all be provided by Bernie’s Book Bank, a non-profit which seeks to increase book ownership among at-risk children.

  •  Gregory Rabassa, translator and professor at Queens college, died this past week. Rabassa was the English translator of many critical Latin American texts, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. A central figure in the “boom” of Latin American authors during the 1960s, he won a National Book Award for his translation of  Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch. He is also the recipient of the National Medal of Arts (2006), and a lifetime achievement award from the PEN American Center for his contributions to Hispanic Literature. A lifelong lover of language, Rabassa would often do his translations as he read a novel for the first time, stating in a memoir that “by doing things this way, I was birthing something new and natural.” He was ninety-four years old.

The Cost of the Academic Job: A Personal Narrative

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Photo by Anton Petukhov

A few years ago, a small university invited me on an MLA interview for a tenure-track assistant professor position teaching publishing and creative writing. The hiring committee assumed I would be attending the conference and so told me when and where to be. I had no travel funding for the interview, but it was the only interview I was offered that year. I worried: was one interview enough to justify the expense? But what other options did I have? So I ponied up the money from my savings account and flew for the day to icy Chicago. Rather than spend the extra money and attend the conference, I wandered the morning away at the surgical museum on the waterfront before the afternoon interview. When I arrived at the hotel room, the all-male committee of three met me with practiced hellos and gestured that I sit in a chair at the foot of the bed while the three of them clustered together on the sofa and another chair. Later, a friend confided that she once had an MLA interview in which the committee had her sit on the bed before several men in chairs; the room was so small that her knees were nearly touching one of theirs. My interviewers turned to one another, arms crossed, so that they signaled that they were not ready to begin the interview. They began talking—gossiping?—to one another about something socially esoteric to me: a conversation they had had with a colleague or friend, an allusion to their supper the night before. I sat in my chair, uncomfortably aware that I was not a part of the conversation and that neither my inclusion nor exclusion crossed their minds. Eventually, after a minute or two, I offered that I was ready to begin whenever they were. One of the committee members seemed startled by my verbal nudge, but he greeted the idea warmly enough. Their delivery of the questions seemed largely perfunctory, which caused me to believe that my interview was merely a formality. Had they already found someone they wanted to hire? Did they know before traveling to MLA? I left the interview feeling defeated, as if I had been on exhibition like a Pollock in front of a public who passed by muttering, “Well, I could do that.”  

Still, I had to maintain hope. It was my only in-person interview that season, and my visiting position would run out by the end of the semester. I’d had a tough year balancing my full teaching load with thirty or more job applications, my creative work, and a stint of medical issues and complications, all of which I was trying to resolve before my visiting position’s health insurance ran out. I also felt some urgency in getting my second book finished. Writers, poets especially, with only an MFA and one book seemed to not get any bites. At the end of the season, I tallied the Who Got What list on the Creative Writing Academic Jobs Wiki and saw that only one of the tenure-track poetry positions was taken by someone who didn’t have a Ph.D. It was that job season that caused me to consider applying to creative writing Ph.Ds as well as programs in other disciplines. I didn’t hear back from the job I interviewed for at MLA for weeks, months even, until I finally queried, assuming that they had offered the position to someone else. I received an email back that said that the line had been cancelled and that the university would not be hiring anyone. Continue Reading