Round-Up: Ahmed Naji, Katherine Dunn, and More

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From a protest over the imprisonment of an Egyptian writer to the first ever female-led crime writing festival, here are the latest literary headlines:

  • PEN America is teaming up with writers across the globe to protest the “unjust imprisonment” of Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji. Last week, at least 120 prominent writers signed an open letter demanding his release. The signatories include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Neil Gaiman, and Roxane Gay, among others. The letter is addressed to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and also urges the  “Egyptian government to uphold the right to free expression of all”. PEN America recently awarded Naji with the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.

  • Katherine Dunn, author of the National Book Award Finalist Geek Love, passed away last week at the age of 70. Dunn was a Portland, Oregon native and published three novels in her lifetime: Attic, Truck, and Geek Love. She was also a prolific journalist, publishing pieces on boxing in the New York Times and The Oregonian, among others. At the time of her passing, Dunn was working on her fourth novel.

  • The nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books hosted a panel on “Love and Loss in Children’s Literature” during this year’s Book Con. Authors like Jenny Han and Francisco X. Stork tackled the themes of love and loss but also how they are “made richer by being interwoven through ‘marginalized cultures,’” according to Publisher’s Weekly. This panel comes just days after WNDB announced its coming masterclass, in conjunction with the Library of Congress, on writing and publishing for children and young adults. The masterclass will take place on June 13, 2016 in Washington, DC.

  • A group of crime writers in London is launching the first ever female-led crime writing festival. The Killer Women festival will be sponsored by Audible, the audiobook giant, and the accountancy firm HW Fisher. Killer Women is a collective of female crime writers co-founded by Louise Millar and Melanie McGrath with the purpose of bringing together writers. The festival will take place on October 15, 2016. Activities will include master classes with writers from the collective, workshops, and even panels with real-life detectives.

Review: THE MEASURE OF DARKNESS by Liam Durcan

measure of darknessThe Measure of Darkness
Liam Durcan
Bellevue Literary Press, March 2016
250 pp; $16.95

Buy; paperback | Kindle

After a traumatic brain injury from a car accident leaves Martin Fallon with amnesia and robs him of his ability to visualize space, his world slowly comes back into focus within the cloistered confines of a rehab center. Unable to remember the details of the accident, Martin, an architect, seems little concerned with either the extent of his injuries or his personal life. Instead, as he convalesces, he is obsessed with his memory of a single meeting that took place decades earlier with a man named Melnikov—the storied Russian architect who has long been his touchstone of greatness.

Convinced that his recovery is progressing at a rate that will allow him to return to working on the design of the Russian consulate, Martin plots a return to his professional life. Much like the Christopher Nolan film Memento, Martin dictates biographical facts into a micro cassette recorder.

I am Martin Fallon. Each sentence the laying down of tracks of a personality. I am fifty-six years old. I live in Montreal. I am an architect. I have two daughters. He listened to the voice talk about itself, the echoes of a newly born ghost, and it made him grimace.

In vividly rendered prose, Liam Durcan describes how at night, Martin shuffles around his room on his hands and knees—trying to comprehend both the space he is in, and the limitations of his mind after the injury. Continue Reading

The Lover’s Inventory by Cyril Wong

 

The Lover's Inventory by Cyril Wong

Cyril Wong’s latest book of poems, The Lover’s Inventory, begins with an epigraph by Emerson: “Poetry teaches the enormous force of a few words, and, in proportion to the inspiration, checks loquacity.” That this is the last book Wong may be publishing for a while is a pity but hopefully something that will prompt readers to turn back, in the light of this quote, to his existing body of work that deserves repeated readings.

His poems are among the most discussed in 21st-century Singapore poetry, and for a long time it didn’t seem that his publication would soon be checked. The experience of reading a Cyril Wong poem for me is that of picturing a scene with people and settings in clear physical relation to each other, their interactions, and most importantly, how they are framed and positioned by the speaker’s train of thought that is not always simple but always crystalline. When readers call his poetry “confessional,” it often seems uncertain whether they are placing such poems in the US literary tradition stemming from the ’50s, or simply rehashing their surprise at poems about personal and private experience as if they were a novelty in contemporary poetry. Is lyric poetry new to these readers? The cerebral challenge of reading his poetry seems to be forgotten once the label of confessionalism is tagged on, but we should attempt to take this rare offer up.Continue Reading

The 2015 Ploughshares Count

VIDA totals 2015 160325Last year, we announced our gender statistics following the release of the 2014 VIDA Count. We’re keeping with the tradition this year, and are happy to announce our count for 2015. The gender identity, race, sexuality, and disability disparities in the publishing industry are concerning, and we hope that making the Ploughshares demographic data transparent helps to emphasize the importance of focusing on leveling the playing field. While we have yet to find a fair way to collect all the demographic data VIDA includes in its annual Count, we wanted to release the information we do have.Continue Reading

Do-Overs: Worth doing?

bridge-452568_960_720It isn’t cool to like archetypes anymore. Utter a name like Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell out loud at your MFA program and you’re likely to get a healthy dose of side-eye. Or, a knowing look that says oh, cute. I remember when I thought it was that simple, too.

It’s not that simple, but I would contend that archetype is still worth mentioning. Like it or not, we live lives dictated by the simplest of structures: birth, coming of age, connection with other humans, expression of faith in principles, procreation, and death. Life is, itself, organized into a basic narrative pattern. We are driven by common impulses ranging from healthy to destructive. We fear the other, the beast hiding in the dark, the loss of our station in life or the loss of our loved ones. It makes sense, then, that stories, which Didion so famously said we “tell ourselves in order to live,” appear in repetitive patterns. But as in life, there’s as much interesting storytelling in the rejection of structures—or the departure from the historic, the patrimonial, the exclusionary, or that which we think we can assume—as there is when we follow the pattern.

The problem—and why I think archetype gets such a big groan—is when we can’t let the pattern evolve.Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Stillhouse Press

stillhouse press

Founded in January 2014, Stillhouse Press has one book out of the hopper, five more slated for publication in 2016, and the press is poised to take the literary scene by storm. Stillhouse was founded by novelist Dallas Hudgens, who also began Stillhouse’s sister imprint, Relegation Books, and the press operates as a collaboration between Northern Virginia’s Fall for the Book festival and students from George Mason University’s creative writing programs.

Stillhouse’s first book, Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories, is a Helen86_Final Cover.inddwonderfully sardonic collection of stories by the late Wendi Kaufman, author and professional champion of authors through her work with Alan Cheuse’s NPR show “The Sound of Writing.” The title story of Kaufman’s collection appeared in the New Yorker, and the rest of her book is equally as strong, with a terrific cast of women narrating their navigations through the modern world at various stages of life. Stillhouse’s other titles, which are slated for release throughout 2016, look to be an exciting mix of poetry and prose by new and established authors.

Currently, Stillhouse accepts submissions of poetry, literary fiction, and creative nonfiction, asking a mere $5 reading fee through Submittable. Stillhouse also awards the Mary Roberts Rinehart prize—$1,000 plus publication; the Rinehart prize alternates between nonfiction and fiction each year for a literary manuscript of 60,000-90,000 words. The 2015 winner is Jacqueline Kolosov, whose manuscript Motherhood, and the Places Between, will be published in September of 2016.

For Ploughshares, Editor-in-Chief Marcos L. Martínez elaborates on the genesis of Stillhouse and shares the essentials of what readers and writers need to know about this exciting new press.Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Tupelo Press

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Founded in New England by Jeffrey Levine in fall of 1999, Tupelo Press made a splash with its first five collections of poetry, primarily by emerging writers, and it hasn’t looked back since. Tupelo quickly established a reputation for poetry collections that were both exacting and exciting, published to the highest design and production standards. Housed in North Adams, Massachusetts, Tupelo’s most recent titles include Ye Chun’s Lantern Puzzle, a “self-translated” collection of poems that effortlessly move between cultures, countries, and time itself; Soldier On, a collection of smart, conversational poems by Gale Marie Thompson; and, most recently, Fountain and Furnace by Hadara Bar-Nadav, exquisite poems that are deceptively minimal and powerfully deep.

In addition to publishing more than 150 titles thanks both to poetry contests and open submission periods, and expanding their list to include prose, Tupelo also hosts intimate writing conferences in California, New Mexico, and Maine and sponsors two online poetry-writing marathons. First is a 30/30 project where poets volunteer to write and post a new poem every day for 30 days and second is “The Million-Line Poem,” where, thanks to contributions of poets around the globe, a poem currently is growing couplet by couplet, until the final product will be celebrated with readings across the country.

Finally, Tupelo Press has established a Teen Writing Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, offering workshops and camps to high school aged students. Poet Jeffrey Levine, founder and editor of Tupelo, shared with me how the press has managed to grow so quickly while maintaining its level of excellence.

KF: With its conferences, teen center, and online presence, Tupelo has greatly expanded since your five titles from 2001. How do you juggle so many concurrent activities while maintaining your high publishing standards? Do you see the conferences, online projects, or teen writing center as venues for discovering new Tupelo authors?

JL: Certainly, the conferences and the Tupelo Quarterly bring us into contact with a rich pool of talented writers, some of whose books we’ve already solicited. But our secret is an extraordinary team. Continue Reading

Was This Review Helpful to You?

one star

Oh, where to even start? I wanted so badly to like this book. The New York Times called it “a trenchant masterpiece,” and it has blurbs from three Nobel Prize winners. So I had sky-high expectations. I anticipated a book that would change my world, that would help me lose twelve pounds and make clear the meaning of life and cure my husband’s erectile dysfunction. This book, while excellent, did none of those things. Threw it across the room on page 20. Ugh. Will not be reading this author again.

one star
The paper was rough to the touch, and after just three weeks the back cover ripped. Also, the book was “like new,” not “new.” Regret ordering from vendor BookXPress314. Do not recommend!!

one star
The author, a known Liberal, has a clear agenda here in including an African-American neighbor and a “lesbian” boss. I read to be entertained, not to have someone’s politics shoved down my throat. I was going to pass this on to my sister, but instead I recycled the book.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Know-It-All” by Jeff Spitzer

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Some narrators announce their unreliability in the opening sentences of a short story (see Matt Sumell’s “All Lateral”), and in this way their skewed vision of the world serves as a stylistic lead, drawing readers in. In “The Know-It-All,” from the latest New Ohio Review, Jeff Spitzer creates a narrator whose reliability is revealed slowly, aiding the development of a satire as hilarious as it is terrifying.

We meet this narrator as he’s debating with his wife whether to attend a New Year’s Eve party with his co-workers, whom he considers “…fellow academics, the least redeemable bores in human society…” But the real reason he doesn’t want to go is Charlotte Roon, a wildly successful professor with a penchant for lording it over her colleagues. We discover that at the same party, two years ago, she’d shamed the narrator, who drunkenly quoted a stanza to Whittier.

“A surprised silence. People stared oddly in my direction as I halted, my glass poised before me.

‘Whitman,’ said Charlotte Roon.

‘Pardon?’

‘Whitman wrote it. Whittier could never have written it.’”Continue Reading

Do-Overs: A Little Leary

Empire

Fox’s Empire really wants you to know it’s so King Lear. In the pilot, Lucious Lyon—music mogul, owner of Empire Entertainment and father to three sons—gathers his kids in the board room to talk about how he won’t be able to run things forever. “What is this? We ‘King Lear’ now?” his son Jamal asks, obtusely. Empire equals Lear, or so we are told. But how Lear is it?

Lear works well as a framework for a contemporary story. It’s territory that’s been covered successfully before, notably in Jane Smiley’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres. Smiley sets her novel on an Iowa farm, opening with a powerful father divvying up his land between three daughters. As with Empire, the tenets of Lear are obvious immediately: the overbearing patriarch, the refusal of one of the king’s heirs to play a game of sycophancy, the misinterpretation of actions and whispering about intentions, and the spiraling downfall of the family. The richness of Smiley’s novel is in how she plays against readers’ expectations about plot and perspective. Smiley uses Shakespeare’s five-act structure as a platform, not a hard-and-fast rule.

It isn’t totally clear yet if (or how) Empire will follow suit. What is clear is that it’s a compelling soap-opera of magnanimous, megalomaniac characters. Everyone is plotting, everyone has something to lose. The magnetism that we saw between Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard in Hustle & Flow is alive and well. Is Empire kind of Lear? Learish? Sure. Its classification as such lent Empire some gravitas before the premier. And the soapy-ness of it all isn’t out of line: Shakespeare wasn’t above the draw of baser scenes and jokes to fill seats—or more accurately, to fill the standing area for groundlings whose excitement would rouse the elites staring down from the balconies. Each time Empire pushes sex, innuendo, violence or scandal, it’s right in line with the Bard.Continue Reading