“Hector Tobar is our new hero,” a close friend of mine, a well known Chicano writer, proclaimed to me last week. I was back home in Austin. We were at the Whitehorse. He said it as if it were up for discussion in the first place. “I’m totally with him,” he said. This conversation in reaction to a quote Tobar gave to the Latin Post in an interview earlier this month:
“I really believe we are living through the beginning of a Latino Renaissance that will one day be compared to the Harlem Renaissance. Having said that, every literary culture produces mediocrity. Our mediocrity is populated by Isabel Allende imitators and lots of magical realism rehash written by authors who sell a vision of Latinos as colorful people of simple (and predictable) pleasures, a kind of shallow exoticism. I think our readers are way ahead of the game in their tastes, which explains the popularity of novelists like Roberto Bolaño, who a decade ago would have been seen as a fringe writer.”
The quote not only hit on the third rail of contemporary Latina/o literature. It struck it with an iron sledgehammer.
“The problem with latino letters after 2000,” my friend said, “is that it’s all written with so much heart. So much heart; so little substance.”
“Where is the virtuosity?” he asked. “The hard-mined narrative grit? The incredible research? The complex latina/o characters that aren’t cardboard victims? And this is really gonna hurt,” he said. “Where is the editing?”
It was as if he’d sliced the air in two. Or shattered crystal glass on tile. Or asked my mom out on a date. And then said he was going to be my dad.
“Are you simple or something?,” I said to him.Continue Reading
Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems
Random House, October 2013
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Three thousand miles away from my library—most of it translated literature, most of it tortuously postmodern—I turned in a lonely hour to my dad’s hardcover copy of Billy Collins’ Aimless Love. I’d never read much of Collins, and what I’d read I hadn’t read seriously. Collins is enjoyable, and I distrust joy on principle. The Concerned Readers of Serious Poetry know that Collins isn’t a true poetic genius because 1) we can understand what he’s saying and 2) his books actually sell.
Yet Collins’ poems were, on the whole, far more fulfilling than I’d expected. They exemplify not just a powerful poetics that can actually move people emotionally but a literary politics that find myself agreeing with.Continue Reading
As anyone paying even the remotest of attention to the news this past week, we all know this is a sobering time for journalists, satirists, publishing professionals, and supporters of free speech. The brutal murder of staff and police at Charlie Hebdo magazine offices by Muslim extremists, along with violent ricochets all over the greater metropolitan area of Paris in following days, has spurred a complex discourse around the issues of freedom of expression, satire, and inter-religious/cultural relations.
The discourse has volleyed from simple displays of solidarity (using #JeSuisCharlie hashtags) to more nuanced (using #JeSuisAhmed tags, which reference the French Muslim police officer who responded to the scene at the Charlie Hebdo offices and who died responding to the aid of those journalists who, as many pointed out, mocked his culture and religion). The latter spurred many to recall the oft-attributed Voltaire quotation, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.” It also reminded many of the quotation attributed to Salman Rushdie, an Indian author who had an Iranian fatwa put upon him for his book, The Satanic Verses: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”Continue Reading
There aren’t many books that are the best. I have favorites; we all do. Awards committees and English departments do. There are classics and The Best American Short Stories and all the rest, but how many books can you say, without second-guessing yourself, without blushing or adding, “I think,” are the best of their type? It takes a very specific type, as far as I can tell. The Western novel, for instance. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, is the best Western out there, and I’m going to write about it soon enough. But this is my first Literary Family, and I want to start with books about families. Well, Mafia families. And no one has ever written a better Mafia novel than Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.
The writing is beautiful, first of all. Every sentence is clear and elegant, not a word out of place. Second, the characters are wonderful, and very well drawn. I’m the only person in the modern world who read The Godfather before I saw it, and when I finally watched the movie my first thought on seeing Al Pacino in his army uniform was, I know you. But here’s why The Godfather is not just good, but the best: Mario Puzo takes all the big themes of American literature, all the contradictions of the American dream, and makes them an exciting read. The Godfather is about religion and immigration, family and money, tradition and change. It’s about service and loyalty, and it’s about getting what you want and fuck everyone else.Continue Reading
Pacing, suspense, and flashbacks are just a few of the topics covered in The Art of Time in Fiction, Joan Silber’s insightful reference for writers who wish to better understand the technique of arranging time to narrative effect. Yet I am just as interested in the art of time in reading, particularly the conceptual timelessness that results from moments of deep engagement with text. I believe that there are unique benefits to the childlike, imaginative play that reading inspires, and much to be gained by ‘getting lost’ in a book.
I recently encountered Anne Carson’s lyrical “Short Talks” in an anthology of contemporary fiction. The narrative spanned ten pages, and took me over an hour to read. Please do not misunderstand me: I more accurately mean I was reading and rereading, running the dense, resonant sentences through my mind over and again, considering their meaning from multiple perspectives. My attention became fixed but also fluid: flowing over the lines, absorbed by the page. Said Mary Gaitskill of a similar experience reading Dickens: “It’s like these waves crashing over you—you get it on a mental level, then you get it on an emotional level, then you get it on a deeper emotional level, then it comes and knocks you out of the picture.” An oceanic feeling of not being there.Continue Reading
In Richard Bausch’s classic short story, “What Feels Like the World,” the looming grief over a mother’s death is conveyed through an impending vault at an elementary school gymnastics demonstration. In Amy Hempel’s classic, “When It’s Human Instead of When It’s Dog,” the tragic death of a spouse is portrayed through a carpet stain that refuses to be cleaned. Similarly, in Angie Kim’s “Optimism”—from this winter’s Sycamore Review (Volume 26, Issue 1)—when the protagonist suffers a terrible loss, the trauma is shown masterfully through the concrete and mundane elements of day-to-day life. What’s created is a rich, devastating subtext.
The protagonist Laura loses her toddler Jimmy to a terrible accident. Soon after, she purchases a “computerized doll that looked and cried like her two-year-old son” and begins to re-enact the events that lead up to and followed the tragedy. She repeats these actions, with slight variations, again and again.Continue Reading
Zoologies: On Animals And The Human Spirit
Alison Hawthorne Deming
Milkweed Editions, October 2014
As children, many of us felt instinctually connected to and curious about animals. Maybe we even found solace in imagining our personal dinosaur counterparts. Alison Hawthorne Deming’s book Zoologies: On Animals And The Human Spirit reawakened that in me.
In this collection of essays, Deming shares fascinating animal behaviors and the incredible history of humanity’s relationship with animals. Biology is the study of living things, and she does it justice by truly digging in to the meaning of life.
Deming travels all over the world seeking to understand the human and animal condition. She explores the forests of Oregon, the isles of Maine, the villages of Brazil, the plains of Tanzania, and the Sonoran desert of her current home. She describes the surplus killing enacted by hyenas, the companionship of crows, the post-traumatic stress of elephants, and the transgenic experiments of the spider-web-producing goat and the glowing rabbit. She goes beyond asking how to ask why, what it all means, and where it will lead us. Such is the nature of her mind and her writing. “This bestiary for the twenty-first century,” she says, “is my gratitude, my reverence, my penance, my secular prayer for the beauties and beasts of Earth.”Continue Reading
Queen’s Ferry Press, based out of Plano, Texas, since 2011, is the brainchild of Erin McKnight. While it’s hardly the first independent press with the lofty goal of printing and promoting the best literary fiction, in just a few short years Queen’s Ferry has managed to attract an impressive stable of writers at the top of their fiction game—Sherrie Flick, Sarah Van Arsdale, and Phong Nguyen to name a few. As Queen’s Ferry has grown its catalog, it has garnered awards and accolades along the way for its wonderfully eclectic range of titles. Queen’s Ferry ventures also include the imprint firthFORTH, which publishes fiction chapbooks, and The Best Small Fictions, an annual anthology compiling the best short fiction in a calendar year. The inaugural collection, to be published in 2015, will be guest edited by Robert Olen Butler. Tara L. Masih will serve as series editor.
Publisher Erin McKnight shares with Ploughshares the key to Queen’s Ferry’s success, and what’s in store for readers and writers in the New Year.
Ploughshares: Between Queen’s Ferry and firthFORTH, you’ve published more than two dozen attractively produced and well-received books in the past three years, with no sign of slow-down. Both presses also accept submissions year-round. How do you do it?
Erin McKnight: As trite as it sounds, I enjoy the work. The press is deeply personal, so emotional investment is high; making a manuscript into a book feeds my soul as well as my career ambition. Within the past few months, the masthead has also filled out—we now have marketing, editorial, reading, and social media roles—which has made my job far easier; it took me a long time to accept help, but this assistance was worth the wait.Continue Reading
I love art from other art. Ballets inspired by narratives. Garments influenced by architecture. Paintings that translate sound into color. Recognizable connections light up our synapses. We like things that remind us of other things, particularly if the connections are clever. (How else do you explain the popularity of “Weird Al” Yankovic?) Inspired work honors its source, but often it also begins a conversation. Many of the best literary examples don’t just use an original plot for a model, but reanimate the language of the older work to create something new. When an author uses work this way, the tension between two texts adds gravity to them both.
We see this most notably in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Cunningham uses Mrs. Dalloway as archetype, but he forms his own language out of Woolf’s sentences. As Cunningham inhabits Woolf’s disjointed, digressive voice, he allows us to float between each protagonist in her respective time.Continue Reading
On December 30th, 2014, acclaimed independent publisher Melville House released a print copy of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s “Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program”—also known as the Senate Torture Report. Though the material is in the public domain (has been since December 9th, is only a summary of the actual several-thousand-page Report—which remains classified—and runs at about five-hundred pages) the publisher sold out of its first print run, a considerable fifty thousand copies, that very same day.
When I first heard this news, I paused. I mouthed to myself, possibly even said aloud, “Holy crap.” I hadn’t heard of something like this happening before—this sort of treatment and release. I didn’t even quite know what to make of it. But soon I couldn’t stop thinking about the role of the print book at large, our pledged allegiance to physical copy, the responsibility of a publisher, and the ineluctable importance of vision—because it takes a seriousness of vision to do something like this.
In The New York Times’ coverage of this, Alexandra Alter mentions that this approach to re-release is not an isolated case. “Other government reports,” she writes, “like the 9/11 Commission Report and the infamous Starr Report detailing President Bill Clinton’s sex scandal, have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.” So it’s not necessarily a surprise that this report, so momentous in its public release, has garnered so much attention, and so quickly. The Times also aptly captured the Report in labeling it “a portrait of depravity that’s hard to comprehend.” A mere fifty pages in—pushing past the many blacked-out words and phrases, the tiring lurch of long footnotes—I already found myself overwhelmed by the hard fact of that sentiment.Continue Reading