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In 2004, the state of Texas most likely executed an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, for the murder of his three young children, who died in a fire in their family home. Arson experts later determined the fire was not intentionally set, and the story quickly became enmeshed in a political scandal involving Rick Perry. Interestingly, Willingham, who escaped with only minor burns, had such a poor reputation in the small town of Corsicana, Texas, that when PBS produced a documentary about his execution and probable innocence, many of the residents refused to accept he wasn’t guilty. One woman said he was a bad man, plain and simple, and it didn’t matter if he didn’t do it. He deserved to die regardless. Having worked with defense teams on over twenty capital murder cases since 2009, I’ve learned the most intriguing part of these investigations isn’t the whodunit part of the story, but how witnesses affect the outcome, how willing they are to lie to convict someone, to shape the story into a tale they want to believe.

In his latest novel, Late One Night, Lee Martin explores how a town unravels into gossip and accusations after a man’s wife and three of his seven children die in a fire that destroys their mobile home. Martin writes this tale as if he’s followed death penalty cases and investigations for years. For example, Ronnie Black, the accused, has a background similar to many of the men and women charged with capital murder: he was orphaned young and farmed out to one foster home after another. And he’s reputed to be “just mean and tricky enough to do some damage if the punching and gouging got going.” In fact, weeks before the fire, Ronnie throws lit matches at his wife until he accidentally catches her hair on fire. Ultimately, it’s just easier for everyone to believe in Ronnie Black’s guilt over his innocence.Continue Reading

Good Bad Women: Goldilocks

The Book of Knowledge 1912

We were discussing the character of teenage girl in a fantasy novel. “I like that the girl is not what you expect,” said one writer, “You expect girls to be sweet and innocent, but she’s strong and takes action,” he said.

Huh, I thought. Do we expect girls to be sweet and innocent? If you’re like me and you used to be a teenage girl, or, maybe you’re not like me, but you know someone that used to be a teenage girl, then perhaps you don’t expect them to be sweet and innocent. Based on your keen powers of observation and the belief that teenage girls are people, you expect girls to be diverse and complex, like the rest of us. Why then, if real girls have all the characteristics of real people, do we expect fictional girls to have few or none?

Marina Warner, in her critical analysis of fairy tales From the Beast to the Blonde, argues that the way we tell stories about women and girls serves a social project. That project is usually to reinforce the dominant power structure and to warn against challenging that structure. A closer look at the story of Goldilocks serves to illustrate this process.Continue Reading

We miss out when US publishers lag behind in adopting global titles: an Interview with Jim Pascual Agustin

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Why and when did you move from the Philippines to South Africa and how does one choose South Africa in particular?

The quick answer would be because of a girl I met on holiday in the mountainous regions Philippines of the north. When I flew to South Africa on 22 October 1994, I only meant to visit, to see her again. I always feel like a time traveler each time I try to explain how I ended up practically halfway around the planet from where my feet first touched ground. I go backwards and forwards, sometimes I get a clearer view, while at other times the weight of regret muddles the present, darkens the future. I knew close to nothing about the country before arriving, just Hollywood-manufactured images and whatever I gathered from books by JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Christopher Hope, and Dennis Brutus. The heart has its own logic, its own manner of making you do unexpected things.

In the end I didn’t really choose South Africa. Only after a few years of living here would I begin to see the land for its own captivating wonders and promise, even as I try to understand the dark past that haunts its people. You could say I left one troubled land for another. But now I have two homes, and it comes as both a gift and a burden not many may understand.

I ended up marrying this amazing girl who would change my life forever.

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When Parents Die: William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow and Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs

Mother headstone

Photo by Anathea Utley

Last week my friend’s mother died, with brutal speed, of cancer. Ten years ago, my father died of a neurological disease so drawn out and cruel that we all wished for its end. Parents die, usually before their children, andso long so both of these deaths were inevitable in one way or another. But as the narrator of William Maxwell’s novella, So Long, See You Tomorrow, says of his mother’s death, “the idea that kept recurring to me…was that I had inadvertently walked through a door that I shouldn’t have gone through and couldn’t get back to the place I hadn’t meant to leave.”

The narrator is ten when his mother dies of influenza during the epidemic of 1918. It’s an event from Maxwell’s own life. The story of her death is told in chapter two, and the narrator is defined by it. His father and older brother are distant and never speak to him about their shared loss. The book is ostensibly about a lurid murder that occurred in the narrator’s town, committed by the father of a boy he once knew. But his mother’s death permeates the novella. He spends half the book imagining the story of the crime, but in the final chapter we find him lying on an analyst’s couch.

I relived that night pacing, with my arm around my father’s waist. From the living room into the front hall, then, turning, past the grandfather’s clock and on into the library, and from the library into the living room. From the library into the dining room, where my mother lay in her coffin. Together we stood looking down at her. I meant to say to the fatherly man who was not my father, the elderly Viennese, another exile, with thick glasses and a Germanic accent, I meant to say I couldn’t bear it, but what came out of my mouth was “I can’t bear it.” This statement was followed by a flood of tears such as I hadn’t ever known before, not even in my childhood.

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“I know that reality and truth are not always the same thing”: An Interview with Christos Ikonomou

Christos Ikonomou
Christos Ikonomou is the author of three short story collections, including Something Will Happen, You’ll See (Archipelago Books, trans. Karen Emmerich, 2016), for which he won the National Short Story Prize. Something Will Happen, You’ll See, a devastating and sparingly written collection of stories about the Greek crisis in working class neighborhoods in Athens, is his first book to appear in English. Ikonomou was born in and is based in Athens, and has just returned from a two week tour in the US with Archipelago Books.

Maria Eliades: Your writing is very sparse. Does the writing start out that way or do you pare it down? I read in one interview, for instance, that you rewrote “Mao” 30 times.

Christos Ikonomou: Yes, I’m doing writing all the time. I don’t write. I rewrite. But yes, most of the times, the first drafts are a little bit larger, bigger, wider, and then I’m starting to trim them down. I’m writing painfully, slowly, so I need a lot of time to get where I think I want the writing. It’s a very slow process for me. I’m writing very slowly.

Most of the stories’ first drafts were somewhat more expanded, and then as I’ve said, I don’t like using many words. I’m trying to be as brief as I can be in order to convey the spirit of the story so to say.Continue Reading

Erotic Parodies of Women

A writer and I were on the sunny plaza outside the Nobel Museum in central Stockholm and she was telling me about an erotic parody project she’d collaborated on. The project was called Fifty Shelves of Grey and involved a dozen or so British authors doing erotic rewrites of fifty classic books, all published under the pseudonym Vanessa Parody. However, amidst all that bodice ripping, partner swapping and heavy breathing, there arose a very real problem for those salacious scribes—finding works of literature that had two or more female characters that were not blood relatives. Though there were plenty of male/female and male/male relationships to uncloak; female/female relationships were almost exclusively between sisters, and mothers and daughters. The relationships of unrelated adult women are nearly invisible in literature. This absence is not only a hindrance for aspiring erotic parody writers, but is quite possibly a symptom of a larger erasure of the lives and experiences of women across literature.

Last year writer Nicola Griffith published a survey of the gender representation among the winners of half a dozen major literary awards. She looked at competitions from the last fifteen years and found that nearly two-thirds of Pulitzer winners were written wholly from the perspective of a man/boy, while zero were written wholly from the perspective of a woman/girl. The Man Booker fared slightly better with a total of two books of the last fifteen written wholly from the perspective of a woman/girl. So, it seems that stories that center on the lives of women are rarely elevated to the highest echelons of literary praise. It should then be of little surprise that relationships between women are nearly invisible in literary fiction.Continue Reading

Preserving Intent: What’s Lost in the Cinematic Translation of Mrs. Dalloway

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I like to follow up my reading of a text with its cinematic counterpart. After finishing Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, I rented the DVD of the same name with great anticipation. But after the credits rolled, I was unsatisfied: while the cinematic version of Woolf’s novel provides a touching and well-acted rendering of her vision, it fails to recognize and execute some critical themes from the hard copy novel.

In the film, the omission of a consistent concept of time was immediately recognizable. Yet, the novel is divided by eleven panels of time. The film occasionally shows Big Ben chiming the hour, but fails to highlight how Woolf saw the theme of time as absolutely critical to shaping the individual’s everyday experience. Entirely absent from the film is the concept of deep time, a reading of time that pre-dated conventional 24-hour time. One of her journal entries confirms her desire to produce such a concept in a work like Mrs. Dalloway: “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect…” This primordial illustration shows Woolf’s need to portray a sense of movement that simultaneously spans the modern convention of time, yet remains timeless. Although the film does shift between scenes from Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway’s childhood and the present, this sense of “time before time” is absent.

The “beautiful caves behind her characters” in Woolf’s novel lack complexity in the film version. Poignant scenes are cut, weakening the cinematic version. As in the novel, there’s a film scene where Mr.Dalloway is shown trying to decide what to get his wife for her birthday. But the angst Woolf writes into his action—buying his wife red roses—is completely passed over.Continue Reading

Indigenous Taiwanese Lit: From One Island Comes Global History

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The deeper you go into reading indigenous literature the greater your understanding of the human condition. Such is the case with Indigenous Writers of Taiwan: An Anthology of Stories, Essays and Poems. In these contemporary and compelling pieces we see beyond skin color, religion, and geographic location by placing Taiwan at the center of our literary map.

Taiwan has nine indigenous tribes divided into eight mountain groups and one non-mountain group, we learn from translator John Balcom. Balcom, who co-edited the anthology with Yingtsih Balcom for Columbia University Press’s Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan series, explains that their populations range from 4200 to 122,800 and they occupied Taiwan as far back as fifteen thousand years ago. As we progress into the book and discover similarities and differences among the tribes, we find work that ranges from the personal to the universal and contains truths that parallel myths and legends. We find ourselves pondering our own Natives while discovering how the Han Chinese, the Japanese, and Western imperialism have molded Taiwan.Continue Reading

Fiction Responding to Fiction: Anton Chekhov and Joyce Carol Oates

ocean-90054_1280Joyce Carol Oates’s story “The Lady with the Pet Dog” is a clear response to Anton Chekhov’s classic story “The Lady with the Little Dog.” Almost 75 years separate the two stories, and Oates, though her modifications, clearly modernizes the story, retelling the story through a feminist lens.

Chekhov’s linear story is written from the point of view of the man, Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov, who is having an affair with Anna Sergeevna, the lady with the dog. The point of view is relatively close to Gurov; we see the world and Anna through his perspective. There are moments, however, where Chekhov pulls back somewhat, so that we get a fuller perspective which encompasses both characters. This clearly happens at the end of the story, when the couple realizes that they wish to be together:

And it seemed that, just a little more—and the solution would be found, and then a new, beautiful life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far, far off, and that the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning.

Oates tells the story through the point of view of the woman—Anna, as well—and responds to the circularity at the end of Chekhov’s story by employing a cyclical structure throughout her story. We begin at a concert—a point midway through the chronological story—where Anna spots her lover. We return to the concert two more times over the course of the story, learning and seeing a bit more with each return. From the start at the concert, we move back in time, to where the couple leaves Nantucket, where they have met, and then we move back in time again to when they first meet. The exact midpoint of the story is the moment that they meet. Throughout the story, Oates plays with this circular structure, often referring to it in the text, in Anna’s thoughts and words: “Everything is repeating itself. Everything is stuck.”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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