Challenging Cultural Norms: Contemporary British Women Authors

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It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I realized what I’d been searching for all along. An avid reader, I absorbed a variety of books during my childhood and adolescence. These were carefully screened by my well-meaning but stifling folks, who paled at the thought me reading about sex and infidelities, teenage love, rock music, and rebellion. When I struck out on my own, I was eager to leave those parameters behind, along with jaded, one-sided narratives so censored they became different stories all together.

But wandering my way through the literary world I didn’t find the heroines I had expected. I read Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Camus and Kafka because that’s what smart people read. I concluded it was men who changed the course of the literary world, while looking in vain for female voices who wrote strong female characters, role models in a sense, to look up to. Jilted love, motherhood, affairs, suicide, and self-sacrifice seemed to be the choices allowed female characters in many of the texts I read by American authors, male and female.

But I wanted more from fiction. I wanted realities that didn’t leave women with two options: physical death, or self-denial.Continue Reading

Trying Anything Else

The nineteen year old that I work with setting up the Hydration Stations on the Lakefront path told me that this was her second job ever and that she wanted to do really well because she saw a future with the company. I scoffed at her in exactly the same way I’ve scoffed at people in the past who told me that they wanted to marry the first person they had sex with.

It just doesn’t work like that in the real world I wanted to tell her, but didn’t because it was super-early in the morning and no one likes to have their life plans shattered until after at least 10 am.Continue Reading

#GurneyEssay – The Trending Topic that will Topple Kitten Videos

I want to claim that I have invented a new form of essay.

It’s easy and fun and with the uptrending in retirement age demographicals in the USA regionality, it might just become the dominant form of essay writing in the next decade. It’s possibilities for depressing content are unlimited! Take that kittens.

It’s called Gurney Essays. Or dare I say #GurneyEssay ? An example from my very own experience is linked at the bottom, but before that, here are the rules for your own chance to get in on this Kardashianesque thrill ride of Carly Rae Jepsen meme-tastic meme-ery.

The rules are simple.

1)   A) Get injured.

2)   B) Go to a hospital

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Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?

At my job working the early morning Hydration Stations along the lakefront path serving Gatorade to Chicago-area runners, I work with a 19 year old who also works at the duty-free at the airport (she’s the one who looks at your ticket and tells you that you can’t shop at her store unless you’re on an international flight.) I am twice her age, getting paid the same, so my wounded ego has reconfigured itself so that I tell myself I’m a kind of Dian Fossey. She is my ape. I chart her vocalizations and behaviour.  I tell myself I’m studying her to learn about her, rather than studying her in order to discover new ways of talking about myself.

I tell myself things like this all the time.

She’s saving up for a Louis Vuitton purse. We get paid ten bucks an hour so I have no idea how many hours she’ll have to work in order to buy it. She says that she already has a knock-off of the purse she wants and now she wants the real thing.  She says it’s the quality of the leather that lets you know it’s real.

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THAT LIT, LIT LIFE (with global characteristics) 4 (of 14)

Shades of pink at Café Gray’s bar where I met the omnipresent Nigel Collett for drinks. Nigel fits comfortably into my lit, lit life. For one thing, we’re contemporaries. As much as I love writing “this younger writer,” as I did last blog, it’s reassuring to bump into others on this same journey who actually remember Neil Armstrong (R.I.P.) on the moon because we weren’t still in a womb (or awaiting conception) somewhere on the planet.  

For another, we both live lives that let us age slowly because we simply need more time to get everything done!

Shades of Dorian and Wilde — in whose shadow we all live a little.

Armstrong was a modest man, a former military man, like Nigel (military and modest, that is) who has led his own brand of a remarkable life. Not only has he lived all over the world, he learnt about a gazillion languages (Nepalese, Pakistani, Baluchi, to name a few, and when I say “learnt,” enough to produce dictionaries). Then, he leaves the military and writes a startlingly readable biography of Reginald Dyer – The Butcher of Amristar.

Which is how our paths crossed a few years back. Okay, I’m not normally a reader of biographies or military history, but in the interest of supporting the Tongzhi Literary Group (TLG) which Nigel founded, I read his book. And simply couldn’t put it down.

Tongzhi 同 志, or “comrade” in CCP (Chinese Communist Party) discourse, actually means the same will or purpose. It has been coopted as the term for the Chinese LGBT community. The TLG is the first literary group in Hong Kong to successfully and continuously embrace a bi-lingual (English-Chinese) literary ethos. You would think this latter emphasis a no-brainer in this tri-lingual city (Cantonese, English and Mandarin) but nooooooo, not if you’re a former British colony (Nigel is rolling his eyes here) given to separation of the races.

Nigel tells me his new book will be out soon, an unauthorized biography of the actor-singer Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing張 國 榮 (1956 – 2003) – still alive to his fans worldwide, long after his sad suicide.

* * *

But on history and contemporaries, Memory Lane. (Nostalgia, yea – beware o younger writer, ye too shall age) In my thirties, before I published my first book, I met a slightly older American writer – Robert (Bob) H. Abel – who first found his way to China back in 1987, after having published several books and won the Flannery O’Connor award for fiction. We became literary pen pal for years, until email killed our correspondence, but I saved every one of those letters that arrived by post.

That used to be the tenor of the lit, lit life across the globe. Yes, yes, I know, paper, trees, etc., but, but, but.

Neverrrminddd, as Roseanne Rosannadanna of Saturday Night Live fame used to say, alias Gilda Radner (1946 – 1989), another star, sadly, extinguished too soon.

But back to Bob, who is alive, semi-retired (although who on that lit, lit life ever “retires”) and busily producing these amazing silk-screened images. As one who has remained engaged with China, he makes an interesting note about language on his website:

“What has fixated my interest in China, however, goes past the politics, economics and history, and even the language (which I have been struggling to learn for 10 years with minimal success) to the people I have met there and through their generosity come to know – to the degree that such relationships can be forged across cultures, personal histories, differing perspectives, and the ever-present dangers and drama inherent in translation.”

His novel Riding The Tiger graces my bookshelf and is one of the most profound and deliciously wicked satires of China. A romp of a read.

Curious, the machinations of memory. I had not meant to recollect and memorialize but I did love Leslie Cheung and Gilda Radner. These passions keep you going.

 * * *

I was reminded of Bob on my way past North Point, where he once stayed during a visit to Hong Kong. That district is also the site of Oil Street where several local artists once created a thriving colony, only to be removed for “development.”

The problem with global characteristics is how often you’re reminded of the razing scythe of globalization and its ability to obliterate the maps that guide us.

Not always though. We still have words (and music) to break the bones of that Gray-Grey shaded side of life.

* * *

So now, a musical interlude from the recesses of memory, Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

Monty Python, a weekly pleasure of teenage life back in that British colony.

* * *

Pythonesque, it’s taken an unconscionably long 15 years for the Ang-Am (Anglo-American, what else??) lit world to catch up, but finally, an English translation of the novel Atlas by leading Hong Kong author Dung Kai-cheung 董 啟章

Atlas goes on the bookshelf as one of the next must-reads.

* * *

 But I promised the story of the revenge of the Garuda, didn’t I? For now, here at least is the shadow of the Garuda as he flies past the coast of the Americas, headed undoubtedly to Asia.

I sighted him on the way to French oysters and New Zealand chardonnay with John Stewart, the Sri Lankan oysterman (not Jon who broadcasts news on Comedy), when I briefly looked up from the pages of The Collective by Don Lee. As Nigel says, such lives we lead. He heads to Bangkok soon; I join “Women on the Move” in Singapore from where I’ll blog in next.

Yours in Pink.


Gatekeepers Part Four-point-One: on why the [red] pen is mightier than the sword (and other politically useful clichés)

Nearly ten years ago, when I was a twenty-year-old baby-poet with a sense of self-importance even more inflated than it is today, I organized a “Poetry in Protest” reading in Amherst, Massachusetts to demonstrate against what became, a couple months later, “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

My work screening manuscripts for this event forever changed the way I understood what it meant to be an editor. Increasingly, I viewed every editorial choice as a fundamentally political decision that went far beyond an assessment of aesthetic quality—not just in terms of selection based on a diversity of aesthetics, identities, and literary intentions, but also the much more taken-for-granted criteria we use to decide whether a piece of literature is good or bad: chief among them the notion of “accessibility,” the very idea of “cliché,” the truism “show, don’t tell,” the widespread use of qualifiers like “sentimental” or “didactic” to justify why a poem or story fails, and the general reticence to ignore an author’s biography or lived experience in favor of evaluating the author’s work “independently.”Continue Reading

Small Press Spotlight: Canarium Books

As I said in my previous blog post about the most intriguing small presses publishing poetry, I really think small presses are publishing some of the really interesting poetry out there right now.  I had the good fortune of speaking with Joshua Edwards, the editor of Canarium Books.  He seems like a really fascinating person and I enjoyed our conversation.

-How would you describe your background beyond the typical bio to someone like me who has never met you?  Said another way, what would your friends and enemies say about you?

If I ever write a memoir, it’ll be about other people. The most interesting things about me are my friends and family, and I’m sure I’ll someday be a footnote in some heavy biographies—I might even get a chapter or two in books about my Canarium co-editors, Nick Twemlow, Robyn Schiff, and Lynn Xu. I met Nick and Robyn a decade ago in Oregon, and they’ve been my mentors, confidants, and collaborators ever since. For six years before we started Canarium Books, we ran a magazine called The Canary with our friend Anthony Robinson. In one issue we published an amazing poem by Lynn, who I met years later and now she’s my better half. Not only because of the fortuitous ways I met Lynn, Tony, Nick, and Robyn, but for lots of reasons, my friends would probably say I’m a very lucky person and that I’m often at the right place at the right time. They might also say that I’m always on the move. I was born in Galveston, raised in Clear Lake Shores, and I’ve since lived or spent a good amount of time in Eugene, Boston, Ecuador, Kansas City, Mexico, rural Washington, Nicaragua, Tuscaloosa, Philadelphia, Ann Arbor, New York, Chicago, China, Germany, and Berkeley. At the end of September, Lynn and I will move back to Germany for a year, after which we hope to settle in Marfa. My enemies may say I’m geographically elusive and too lucky by half.Continue Reading

The Writing Life: Five Things My Third-Grader Taught Me

1. Writing is fun.

In one of my favorite films, Chariots of Fire, Harold Abrahams explains his motivation for running:

I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; four feet wide, with ten lonely seconds to justify my whole existence.

The film goes on, of course, to contrast his statement with Eric Liddell’s:

I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.Continue Reading

Five for Eduardo C. Corral

Eduardo C. Corral

Rather than do a long, drawn out interview with a poet, I want to try in this blog to interview a few poets (Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith is next) by asking them only five questions based on their latest book.

I first read Eduardo C. Corral’s poems in Poetry and was knocked out by them. I then found out that Carl Phillips had chosen Eduardo’s first book “Slow Lightning” as his inaugural choice as judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize (the first Latino poet to ever be so honored) and e-mailed Carl for Eduardo’s contact info, so I could write him a fan note. I’m old school. I always write fan notes, or letters, or e-mails, to writers whose work gets to me. I asked Eduardo for a copy of his book so I could review it and got a galley of “Slow Lightning” a couple of months ago (the book was published in April). It’s a great book: inventive, lyrical, hypnotic and magically realistic. Continue Reading

Poetry, Hip Hop, and Academia: A Discussion with Camille Rankine, Patrick Rosal, and Tracy K. Smith

From left: Camille Rankine, Patrick Rosal, Tracy K. Smith

Move with the crowds underground to take the A train uptown on a quintessential Manhattan evening in late April, the clouds having opened up the sky to all those glorious industrial gases from across the Hudson that can turn the western horizon an ink wash of pastels. Step onto West 4th Street in the Village, and if, like me, it’s poetry you’re after here in the historic sepia heart of beatniks, bongos, and berets in hip cafés, my friend, you’ll have to bump that copy of Howl or No Direction Home to the top of your Netflix queue, light up a French cigarette, and a dream a little dream of postwar counterculture on your own dime, because tonight the Village belongs to the poetry of a new millennium, brought to you by the good people of Cave Canem Foundation, who in 14 years of awarding a first-book prize to African American poets have introduced the country to a number of poets who have gone on to achieve significant reputations, including two Pulitzer Prize winners in Natasha Trethewey and Tracy K. Smith, one of the poets I’m off to see in The New School’s Wollman Hall.Continue Reading