Who Speaks How

Dunhuang_Mogao_textile_embroidery

I love when people ask my friend Jenny and I how we know each other, because long before we co-taught a queer theory elective and drove cross-country and made parallel moves to Pittsburgh, she was one of my first writing teachers. It was in her Xeroxed handout of eclectic love poems that I first read Stanley Kunitz’s 1971 “After the Last Dynasty”: what would become my first truly beloved poem, which itself begins with a transformative event of reading.

Reading in Li Po
how “the peach blossom follows the water”
I keep thinking of you
because you were so much like
Chairman Mao,
naturally with the sex
transposed
and the figure slighter.
Loving you was a kind
of Chinese guerrilla war.

This being the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, I wanted to observe this poem: to submit how it works and what it means to me as anecdotal evidence of poetic capacity.

The summer I found this poem, I was 16 years old. It was my first time studying at the Young Writers Workshop, an immersive alternative to sports camp then housed in an un-air-conditioned freshman dorm in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was, to borrow the hyperbole of that particular moment, a transformative summer. Emboldened by critical pedagogy and a lot of Ani DiFranco, I wrote love poems for my camp boyfriend, ekphrastic poems for seventeenth century paintings, slam poems (I know) for men who’d harassed me on the metro.Continue Reading

On Building Believable Characters in Fiction

bw-934485Before I picked up a copy of Offshore last month, it had been years since I read Penelope Fitzgerald, a British author who didn’t start writing until she was in her sixties. But the characters in this Booker Prize-winning novel caught my attention and I soon became completely emerged in Fitzgerald’s cleverly constructed world. Set on the Thames River, multiple houseboat dwellers share their stories of connection, loss, love, and confusion, all with a wry dose of Brit humor. This text might be nearing forty years old but the characters are dimensional and compelling. Reading through it, I discovered why they felt so contemporary: they were as present, conscious, and complex as real people are.

By the second page, a character named Richard reluctantly heads up a group of neighboring houseboat dwellers to discuss a communal problem. As the meeting is in full swing, Richard thinks, “Duty is what no-one will do at the moment.” The omniscient narrator’s voice in a following statement gives the reader details on why Richard might draw this conclusion:

Fortunately he did not have to define duty. War service in the RNVR, and his whole temperament before and since, had done that for him.

Later, when Richard has an encounter with a pushy associate who works in real estate, the narrator guides us once more:

Richard wondered why living on largish boat would automatically make him interested in small ones.

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Women in Refrigerators

Chivalry 1885

Fifteen of us were watching Colin Farrell talking fast and sweet at a woman who communicated almost entirely by lowering her head, raising her eyes, and simpering. This was a few months ago and I was in a playwriting seminar with a well-known playwright that I had never heard of before. Huh, I thought, Colin Farrell is doing all of the acting while the woman is being all of the scenery. After about ninety seconds Colin Farrell’s character punches the woman in the nose, robs her, and then gets chased by cops. The last shot we see of the woman, she is wide-eyed and covering her face with her blood-coated hand.

The well-known playwright paused the movie and turned the lights back on. We’d just watched the opening scene of 2003’s Intermission, and wasn’t it shocking, he said. He kept saying how shocking it was and how surprised we were all supposed to be. He was certain no one could see that punch coming.

But here’s the thing: if you’re like me, a woman, or maybe you are not a woman but you happen to believe that women are people, then perhaps you’ve noticed the way women are often deployed in fiction. Frequently they are victimized, killed, or otherwise depowered early in the story which then serves as both the inciting incident, and the emotional thrust, for a male protagonist’s journey. This pattern, called “Women in Refrigerators,” was first written about by Gail Simone in 1999. Though Simone was writing specifically about the portrayal of women in superhero comics, this trope is certainly seen in other genres and formats of fiction as well.Continue Reading

Out of the Blue and Onto the Page: How Translation Rekindled My Passion for Writing

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When my mother, born in America to Israeli parents, first met my father in Tel Aviv, she said she knew he was right for her because he was an American living in Israel. As a young woman who grew up in transit—constantly being moved around between the two countries—she recognized in him a kindred spirit: someone who spoke, lived, and loved both ways.

They married and had me, and whether they’d planned it or not, I came to embody this combination of the two of them: an American-Israeli and an Israeli-American. I grew up in Israel, spoke a semi-intelligible mixture of both languages, read books in Hebrew and English, watched movies without subtitles, and sported a funny accent.

I also wrote from a young age. Darkly dramatic poetry in Hebrew as a child, then short stories in English as a young adult. But as I grew older, writing became harder to do. Anxiety and self-doubt took the place of simple pleasure, and I had to psyche myself into creating new things. I still read a lot and dreamed of a career as a writer, but some of the magic was missing. The reading was slow going, doing any kind of artistic work was a struggle, and I looked around for different paths.

Then, out of the blue, I found translation. I say “out of the blue” because even though the notion was always inside of me, a seed of meaning that formed and informed my life, it hadn’t occurred to me to make it my livelihood until a coincidental encounter landed me my first small gig. I then sought out part time work at a translation company while completing my bachelor’s degree in literature and art at Tel Aviv University, working from Hebrew into English and from English into Hebrew. When that company closed, it was simple and natural enough to keep going, self-employed. I translated legal and business materials for newspapers and companies, and experimented with translating short fiction for a workshop I participated in at the University of Haifa and just for kicks. The sensation of bringing a bit of beauty from one language to another was exhilarating: English into Hebrew was fun because it let me share writing I loved (such as short stories by J.D. Salinger and Jonathan Safran Foer) with my Hebrew-speaking friends. Hebrew into English was a new, more foreign world: I could deliver some of my favorite things about Israel outside of the country. One day, I decided, I wanted to translate an Israeli novel into English.Continue Reading

When We Are Given a Feast of Flesh

Sunday_Book_Market,_Daryaganj,_Delhi

How do I remember spaces? Bedrooms, beaches, backseats, bazaars. The time between dreams. Night. The no-man’s land of a twelve-hour flight. I remember the world as words.

I spent my last few weeks in Delhi hunting for books. For relatives, for friends, but, finally, for my own sake: to call back India when I was back in the states, when I was back in the spaces that were so familiar they faded into blurred backgrounds. Reading often works as incantation: in a second I am summoned back to the bookshop where I first flipped through a novel or the waiting room in which I finished the final page.

A place is defined by what I read when I’m there, the words wrestling for attention before memories awake. My months in India involved a mix of glum history, map-filled guidebooks, critical theory with cracked yellow spines, and poetry. So much poetry, in fact, that I bought another grey duffel to check to ship it all back. “What’s in here? Bricks?” asked a friend, hefting one of my bags as we headed to the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Bricks of books that weren’t yet architectures of recollection, reminders of cows crowding the street, cars hugging curbs and honking hello, city skies shot through with smoke and sun.

Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh by N.D. Rajkumar took up only a little space in my grey duffel. The volume, at barely one hundred pages, contains poetry translated from Tamil by Anushiya Ramaswamy and is bookended by a critical essay examining the history of Dalits in India and their literature.

I bought the Rajkumar at the Oxford Bookstore in Delhi. At the time, I thought Oxford was affiliated with Oxford University Press, and I shrank at the idea of supporting a historically colonial enterprise with my purchase of “alternative” Dalit poetry, a poetry that rallies against caste and hierarchical Brahmin values. The Oxford Bookstore chain actually shares no affiliation with the Press, nor is it even based outside of India. The colorful and clean stylization of the bookstore’s orderly insides betray the ecstatic violence and vulgarities of Rajkumar’s verses, where “I watch the old woman in the moon / Clinging to her walking stick / Bend, spread her legs / And piss into the moon” (50). The next poem ends: “I strike the master in his heart.” Perhaps Rajkumar sings of insurrection, but could I even begin to approach this song in this place that sold expensive infused teas and cappuccinos? “If anyone not our kind / Happens to read this manuscript: / Heads will roll,” Rajkumar raises as an omen in the third song. The poems of Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh are not named, but numbered, like tallies struck against a maker.Continue Reading

Etymology as Pedagogy: How Words Teach Me to Live

mapWhen I learned, not long ago, that the word “daisy” comes from the Old English word “day’s eye,” referring to how the petals open at dawn and close at night, I was delighted. Here was proof that the English language can be governed by a beautiful logic. It was a happy reminder, too, that what I thought belonged to me did not. The words I use have been elsewhere, passing from mouth to mouth, me just a mouth in between.

A little later I learned that the word “squirrel” comes from Greek words meaning “shadow-tailed.” More delight. This was evoking in me, I realized, the same adolescent wonderment of discovering that my parents were not parents all their lives, that they were proud participants of the sexual revolution and also shoplifted more than once. What I thought belonged to me did not. It became clear that words are very much like people.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Stop Fearing the Business of Writing

don't fear biz Last week, Guernica published an interview with art critic Ben Davis, which begins with Davis questioning the premise that “the central tension of the art empire is that between creativity and money.” Davis says there can obviously be tension between what sells and what an artist wants to express, but he argues that money also funds innovative creative work. “If things were as simple as the equation ‘success = corruption,'” he states, “then you wouldn’t need [art] criticism.”

The same misguided equation has long haunted the writing world. It’s with trepidation and/or resignation that writers dip their toes into Literary Business, and it’s often with suspicion that readers observe the marketing tactics of writers we love. Why? Mainly because we’ve been told for ages that financial success implies selling out, and that any desire to make money from literature (or even to amass readers!) is indicative of having devalued Lit for the sake of consumerist advancement. We assume that “business”–a fast-paced, bottom-line-focused enterprise–is fundamentally opposed to the slow-paced, journey-is-the-destination mentality required of deep reading and serious literary engagement.

Fortunately, none of this is necessarily true.Continue Reading

Back to School Special: Thoughtful Imitation

"Mimicry in South African Butterflies - chromolithographic frontispiece of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, 1890" by Edward Bagnall Poulton - own scan of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, 1890. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mimicry_in_South_African_Butterflies_-_chromolithographic_frontispiece_of_The_Colours_of_Animals_by_Edward_Bagnall_Poulton,_1890.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Mimicry_in_South_African_Butterflies_-_chromolithographic_frontispiece_of_The_Colours_of_Animals_by_Edward_Bagnall_Poulton,_1890.jpg

Mimicry in South African Butterflies – chromolithographic frontispiece of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, 1890. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I didn’t study creative writing as an undergraduate; it wasn’t an option. When I enrolled in the MFA program at University of Washington, what I craved more than workshop (which I’d experienced a few times in continuing education settings) was the elusive “craft” class: reading analytically not to make an argument about literature (which I also enjoy) but to learn how another writer achieved an artistic effect. One of the most enriching classes I took at UW was such a class, taught by David Bosworth.

We looked at everything from aphorisms and fables to stories by Joseph Conrad and James Baldwin and Mavis Gallant and Marguerite Duras, among others. Students chose additional stories they wanted to dissect for the class and brought in Flannery O’Connor, George Saunders, Roberto Bolaño, and more. I felt little gaps in my novel-heavy education filling. We imitated, we analyzed, we explored choices the writers did and did not make. The one thing we were not allowed to do was write parody, a rule for which I was grateful. Allowing parody, I think, could have opened the door to being a little less thoughtful, a little less open to learning from what all of these writers offered.Continue Reading

Writers with Responsibilities: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Children_about_to_board_the_school_bus_(Thibodaux,_Louisiana)Perhaps, you’re one of those people who cry on the first day of school. For those of you putting your eldest on the kindergarten bus for the first time, I’ll give you a pass. For the rest of you, get real! The first day of school should bring the same wonder and joy you experienced traipsing down the stairs in your feety pajamas to see what Santa left under the tree. The endeavor warrants nothing less than a small jig.

A word to the wise: Your exuberance must be internal, lest you be accused of not truly loving your brood. (Been there, done that!) Those of you that home school, I admire your dedication and question your sanity, but this is a joy you’ll never know. And I am sorry for that.

Each school year marks the passing of time—small-kid problems get bigger, life gets more complicated. For me there is also another clock. It began ticking when my daughter, Claire, was in third grade and lamented the fact that her parents weren’t cooler. “Finn Haney’s mom is an artist and his dad makes movies,” she said. Claire felt more than gypped.Continue Reading

Writers With Responsibilities: Damn the Dog Days!

4th of julyDear Sally:

In June, when I was running around from school picnics, to award ceremonies, graduations, lacrosse jamborees, school plays and concerts, I longed for the dog days of summer and no morning routine. But now summer is here and I can’t wait for school to start. Help.

Your friend,

If only the grass were greener.

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