Fiction Responding to Fiction: William Trevor and Yiyun Li

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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.

 

Indie Spotlight: Pressgang

pressgangBegun in 2012 by fiction writer Bryan Furuness, Pressgang is based at Butler University and is affiliated with Butler’s MFA program and the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writer Series. Pressgang’s initial publications have come from its Pressgang Prize, which awards $1,500 and publication to a book-length fiction or memoir manuscript. Its initial two titles show a determination to publish wonderful range of styles, from the quirky and poignant collection of stories by Jacob Appel, Einstein’s Beach House, to Teresa Milbrodt’s delightful collection of vignettes Larissa Takes Flight.

Pressgang’s current Editor-in-Chief is writer Robert Stapleton, and he is the force behind Pressgang’s newest and most ambitious title, just published this month. Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose is a fantastic collection of stories both written and illustrated. Editors Josh Neufeld and Sari Wilson recruited several trios of writers and cartoonists to “respond to one another’s work with original pieces of flash fiction,” producing a rich collection of collaborative riffs from an amazing range of writers and artists. Lynda Barry, Aimee Bender, Junot Díaz, Steve Almond, Sherrie Flick, and so many more not only created the stories and comics in the collection, they also discussed the collective creative venture they took part in.

For Ploughshares, Robert Stapleton discusses Pressgang’s latest publication and current status, and shares what the press has in store in the future.

KF: Your submission guidelines request work that blurs boundaries: “Think Lorrie Moore, think Laurie Anderson, think Lemony Snickett,” and your initial publications exhibit that refreshing eclectic flavor. How will Pressgang’s editorial choices evolve now that the press is under your leadership?

RS: Bryan and I have had neighboring offices at Butler since 2010. We share many similar aesthetic and publishing interests, and Booth and Pressgang have naturally risen from our daily conversations. Since Pressgang’s inception, I have been intimately involved with its editorial board and the decisions of what to publish, just like Bryan has always been, and still is, integral to Booth’s editorial curation. The primary distinction is that I tend to champion graphic design whenever possible.

KF: You’re also editor of the online and print journal Booth. Do you see a collaborative future between the journal and press? How do you manage both enterprises?Continue Reading

Is International Fiction Relatable?

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Not too long ago, as a writer who was based in India, once a colony of the British, and who had once been a “citizen of the world” living in the United States, I wondered, with apprehension, whether my stories would resonate with American and global readers and editors. As a struggling writer, I presumed that great stories surmount barriers of geography and culture by bringing out universal themes. (Theme transcends plot and setting. Theme is a comment on the human condition. Cinderella is not just the story of a poor maid who overcomes the cruelty of her family and lives happily ever after with Prince Charming. The theme of the story reveals that people who are kind and patient are often rewarded for their good deeds.)

Then, fairly recently, I came across the word “relatable.” I did not have a language as convenient as that until then to ponder how my readers might relate to my stories, whether fiction or nonfiction. “Relatable” did not exist in the vocabulary of literary criticism until the mid-twentieth century, according to an article in Slate. In fact, the word has gained currency only over the past decade, writer Rebecca Mead says in her essay on the topic in The New Yorker. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists the first and the oldest definition of relatable as “able to be told or narrated; suitable for relating.” The second meaning is more recent: “Able to be brought into relation with something.”

The third and final meaning, and the most recent, is “that which can be related to; with which one can identify or empathize.” According to the OED, the first use of this sense of the adjective dates back to 1965. The term became the buzz of the literary world, including The New Yorker magazine, when Ira Glass, host of a popular public radio program, said, after a performance of King Lear, that Shakespeare is not “relatable” and that he is “unemotional.”

Shakespeare was British and Western, and here a popular literary commentator based in the Western world was calling the Bard “not relatable.” Wasn’t Shakespeare “relatable” universally? Didn’t his plays have universal themes? Aren’t universal themes not “relatable” globally?

The word relatable, as used by Glass and others since, has brought both discomfiture and relief to me as a writer who often writes of cultures and settings different from Western. If Shakespeare is not “relatable,” how could I hope to be relatable? Continue Reading

Mirrored Crisis: Post-Trauma Diaspora Memory through Jonathan Safran Foer’s EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED

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Photograph by Julius Constantine Motal

The aftermath of war and displacement is often a diaspora, the literal scattering of a group’s seeds far from the tree of origins. However to call that wrenching of branches, as was discussed in Part I of this series (Mirrored Crisis: What Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex can show us about today’s refugee crisis) just a scattering is to deny the pain involved. The descendants of a group who have gone through such traumas often feel something missing in what was once their homelands, the tree of origins now like a phantom limb that aches so much that they are moved to try to discover the original tree.

In 1959, my father left Istanbul for the United States following events and circumstances that made staying in Turkey a difficult proposition for the Greeks and minorities of the country. Fifty years later in 2009, I moved to Istanbul myself. I did so to research and write about the Greeks of the city in the 1950s. In doing so, I was trying in my own way to discover and understand the past that I felt but could not see.

In preparation for my work, I read a lot about Turkey and Turkish history. By chance during that time, I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. Without having gone on his eponymous character’s and sometime narrator’s journey, I felt a connection to my own story. Though Foer is trying to recover traces of his Jewish family who had been in the shtetl, or village, of Trachimbrod in Ukraine based on a photograph, a few maps, and the aftermath of the Holocaust, which was much larger than my own family’s trauma, I could still see my own quest within his.Continue Reading

The Place of Zines in Contemporary American Politics

Zines straddle the border between Fluxist market-dodgers and the reputably tainted world of self-publishing literary dropouts. The difference between a zine and that 50 Shades of Grey-inspired alien erotica novel is function and intention. A zine works as a platform for writing and art that’s too provocative, political, or honest for traditional newsstand publications. According to Barnard College, which hosts one of the primary zine databases, literary zines are not well received, and that’s because literary works already hold a predominant place in the writing world.

As we wait for the results of the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, there’s a sense that momentum is building toward a political explosion. A quiet shuffling, for now, which appears like a whisper on the pages of political zines: the most prevalent and useful of the breed. In response to the ISIS attacks on Paris in November, for example, Comedy Zine (a political satire zine) unabashedly suggested campaign slogans for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad such as “Bomb, baby, Bomb!” In a stab more closely related to the presidential campaign, the zine also listed dialogue overheard at a Jeb Bush campaign event as “Vote Bush, third time’s the charm.” The Pulp Zine explicitly criticized voters with “You’re fired, America,” for taking interest in Donald Trump as a presidential candidate.Continue Reading

“Different Paths Up the Same Mountain”: An Interview with Adele Kenny

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Adele Kenny’s poems speak from the head and the heart, giving thoughtful scrutiny to the moments that move us—whether to wonder or to grief. She is the author of more than 20 books of poetry and nonfiction, including What Matters, winner of the 2012 International Book Award for Poetry, and A Lightness, A Thirst, or Nothing At All, a collection of prose poems. She is also a strong advocate for poets, most notably in her work as poetry editor for Tiferet Journal and founding director of the Carriage House Poetry Series in Fanwood, New Jersey. We caught up at the start of the new year to talk about writing, metaphorical mountains, and what poetry and dancing have in common.

Matthew Thorburn: What draws you to prose poems? Does writing in prose present unique opportunities for you as a poet?

Adele Kenny: It may be that my initial romance with prose poems derived from past experience as a ballet dancer and dance teacher. I’ve always been aware that poetry uses space just as dance does, so I was very conscious of the prose poem’s use of space and how different it is from other forms of poetry.  Then there’s the intriguing name—prose poetry. How can poetry be prose, and how can prose be poetry? I don’t believe that one can be the other, but a combination of the two does form its own genre, a certain duality that I find exciting. Prose poems aren’t bound or defined by lines (they look like paragraphs, and are box-like in appearance), but they still employ the techniques and tricks of poetry.

Importantly, prose poems are strongly rooted in imagery and metaphor. Imagery is the engine that powers my poems and, for me, it’s even more imperative in prose poems. Prose poems also contain complete sentences and deliberate fragments; they speak the language of dreams, and give a nod to the surreal. They often include strange layers of language in which what appears to be abstraction really isn’t.

I find it a particular challenge writing prose poems, a challenge that forces me to stay inside the “box” but still create work that’s both haunting and lucent—work that contains subjects imbedded with sub-subjects but presents an integrated whole of language, meaning, and form. Continue Reading

Round-Up: #1000BlackGirlBooks, Lack of Diversity in Publishing, and Playwright Wins Victorian Prize for Literature

 

 

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From a kid challenging a lack of diverse representation in literature to a historical Victorian Prize for Literature winner, catch up on what’s going on in literary news:

  • Eleven-year-old Marley Dias started #1000BlackGirlBooks, a book drive with a goal to collect one thousand books that feature black female protagonists by February 1. Dias said she was “sick of reading books about white boys and dogs” and wanted to read more books that she could relate to. She plans to donate the books to schools and libraries in St. Mary, Jamaica.
  • Lee & Low Books released the results of a Diversity Baseline Survey last week. The survey revealed a significant lack of diversity within the publishing industry. These results indicated that the majority of people employed in publishing are white women.

“Doom as Entertainment”: The Johnstown Flood in Art and Literature

Johnstown Flood“It’s awful, watching doom as entertainment,” says a character in Kathleen George’s The Johnstown Girls, one of a number of literary works about the Johnstown Flood of 1889 that started with Walt Whitman’s “A Voice from Death,” a commissioned poem that first appeared in the New York World. The catastrophe was, wrote David McCullough in 1968, the biggest news story since the murder of Lincoln and “the most extraordinary calamity of our age.”

What is the line, I wonder, between “doom as entertainment” and disasters as larger-than-life reminders of the power of nature and the reality of our mortality? Between honoring history and capitalizing from it, between rubbernecking and paying tribute, between schadenfreude and fascination with the details that help us to understand the human condition?

The Flood museum, housed in the old Carnegie Library in downtown Johnstown, stays on the respectful side of the line between exploitation and testimonial, remembering stories of survivors and the more than 2,000 dead through photographs, objects, and a back wall that is a haunting sculpture of wreckage, pieces of houses and wagon wheels and telegraph poles.

Through artifacts and art, the museum assembles a picture of unfathomable loss and destruction and subsequent efforts to make meaning of it: an Academy Award-winning documentary, paintings of the chaos of disaster reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch depictions of hell, paintings that recall the Biblical flood, a clip from a silent film. In it, a woman frantically rides a horse to her ex-love’s wedding to warn him and his guests of the oncoming flood. She dies a melodramatically noble death, cheesy by today’s standards, saving him and his new wife.Continue Reading

How to Write Violence

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How to talk about violence in literature, when the term violence is so broad? “Violence” is defined as “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something,” but it’s also used to depict the “strength of emotion or an unpleasant or destructive natural force.” How to talk—or write—about violence at all, both despite d because we seem so inundated by it?

This is essentially where Lidia Yuknavitch’s essay “Suffer the Children” opens—with a question, fielded from a friend in response to her new book, The Small Backs of Children: “Why bring violence and sexuality so close to the body of a child?” At the heart of the question lies another, shorter question: why bring violence? Longer: why, in a world so teeming with stories of shootings, stabbings, massacres, genocides, do we devote more pages to violence? Is it necessary, and does it incite empathy or produce the opposite effect, introducing empathy’s cousin, apathy? Or, “is there any space left for not watching, not focusing, not keeping abreast of all the events and atrocities unfolding in the world, as an ethically viable option?” (Maggie Nelson)

Maybe the question is not why, but how? How, in a world so teeming with stories and narratives of violence, do we write violence? If writers are to participate as creators or re-creators of violence in literature, or to respond to it, how might we write it in a way that’s not exploitative, aggrandizing, or gratuitous? And how do we participate as readers, as spectators, of violence?Continue Reading