Huizache: The Biggest Little Secret in Texas

huizache3D_1As far as literary journal subscriptions go, I only maintain three. I’m one of those writers, and for my sins I mostly miss the great early pieces of writers I come to love years later. This is especially true of new Latina/o writers, who I think most people miss for various reasons, not least of which is the serious lack of hard-hitting journals that focus on new Latina/o work.

That’s not to say there are none though. Huizache, which is probably one of my favorite journals right now, has quietly carved out a space for Latina/o letters both old and new. Over the past three years, they’ve published work by Sandra Cisneros, Domingo Martinez, Héctor Tobar, and Lorna Dee Cervantes, almost without a blip on the literary radar.

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The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Come to Bratislava!” by Benjamin Reed

I knew I was into Benjamin Reed’s story “Come to Bratislava!” in Big Fiction when the main character, a forty-three year old man named Edgar, makes an observation about the phrase “You are my rock.”

I’ve never liked this way of articulating someone’s importance and essentiality—hearing it uttered usually prompts an eye roll from me. The phrase is shorthand, and that I understand, but I find it irritating anyway. Still, I wasn’t ever able to put my finger on what about it I found grating.

BF 5 full spreadAnd now I don’t need to because Reed has done it for me. In an early scene in the story, Edgar visits Naama, the employee he’s hired to help him run his rare-book store and the woman he likes: “‘You’re my rock,’ he’d say [to Naama], hoping she’d know he wasn’t joking, hoping also that she wouldn’t force him to elaborate. He could only imagine that she wanted more than to be someone’s heavy, reliable stone.”

Reed nails it—of course we all want to be more than a sure thing, an object used by another person to feel calm and grounded. Who wants to spend too much time around someone who reduces other people—especially those they claim to need—down to an object? (On my first read-through I jotted down in the margin, “YES. This makes me absolutely love this story.” Hey—you all know how I am with my margin notes.)

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The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Three Small Town Stories” by Dinah Cox

I’ve recently become friends with a new handful of people, and out of this group, one woman in particular. Then, over the last weekend, I got to see some old friends from grad school, and in talking about our lives and the new people we’ve met since we graduated, I got around to explaining what I like about this new female friend—she’s opinionated, loud, full of feelings, unabashed. I always know where I stand with her. She’s got attitude.

1451997_567675616661796_601252148_nIn short, I like me some sass. In my fellow humans, but also in stories, which is probably why I was so into Dinah Cox’s “Three Small Town Stories” published in the most recent issue of Salt Hill. This omniscient narrator has opinions! Lay ‘em on me, narrator. I’m ready to go.

The story is in three vignettes: the first, an account of the robbery of a Kentucky Fried Chicken, damaged by a tornado the year prior; the second, a shared afternoon between two high school sweethearts; and the third, a brief history of a man who killed himself.

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The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Creative Writing Instructor Evaluation Form” by April Wilder

Last week I came into the office where I work, sat down, ate an enormous bagel, and laughed so hard that the guy sitting behind me wheeled his chair over to my desk and said, “What’s so funny?”

american short fictionI pointed at my screen where April Wilder’s story “Creative Writing Instructor Evaluation Form” was up on American Short Fiction. I was only on the third bullet of the story, and already I was unable to keep my shit together enough to avoid disturbing the people around me. (I laughed through the remaining questions, too—sorry, deskmates.)

Wilder’s story is clever and quick. Each time I gave it another read, a new line made me snicker (or the same line did again, prompting another “What are you laughing at?” from a nearby coworker—apparently I laugh loudly and disruptively). I have to say, you guys: there are few things capable of charming me the way a funny story can, and this story? Totally charming.

Written in the form of a course evaluation for a creative writing course, Wilder’s story slowly reveals the relationships between the course instructor, the program director, the students, and finally one student in particular. The questions range from appropriate and expected (“The instructor is organized”) to inappropriate (“The instructor wears a bra to class”) to very specific (“How’d that feel, Pierce? You like that?).

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The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “We Are Here Because of a Horse” by Karin C. Davidson

In Issue 34 of Passages North, Karin C. Davidson introduces us to Tulsa, in her story “We Are Here Because of a Horse,” by writing that “Tulsa by night shines like a shattered gold watch.” I’ve arrived in Tulsa much the way her narrator and his wife approach the city here—late at night after traveling all day—and my first impression wasn’t as considered or fair. (Both times I was there I was overwhelmed by the strange combination of exhaustion and excess energy that comes after sitting in a car for ten hours.)

Issue34In fiction, the temptation exists to describe place and location as readers might imagine sight unseen. Many American readers (especially those of us hanging out on the east coast) think of mid-sized, fly-over cities as lacking aesthetic charm, grace, and ingenuity. It’s easy to rely on existing assumptions, and a lesser writer might be tempted to write this city, unfamiliar to the narrator, as a plain place, a means to an end, especially since Sam and his wife are here for one purpose—to pick up a horse.

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The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Operating System” by Carol LaHines

This week after reading “The Operating System” by Carol LaHines, I tried to think of the last time I made a big mistake—or thought I did—and was forced to wait out the consequences. Our minds do strange work when we need an answer and aren’t allowed to have it. Our desire to know is so strong that we reflect, we gather evidence, and we try to fill in the gaps of the story, so that we can anticipate what might happen next and try to account for it.

front28LaHine’s story in Fence takes place on a late Friday night as Edward, a ninth-year associate at a law firm, sits in front of his computer at the office, waiting for the in-house network to come back online. When the story opens, Edward has just sent an email to a client and his boss only to realize that instead of attaching a memo about toxic tort cases, he may have sent out an excerpt from his journal, intentionally mislabeled in order to avoid discovery by the firm’s IT department but saved with a filename vague enough that he may have confused it for a legitimate document. To make matters worse, as soon as Edward sent the email, the firm’s system crashed, leaving him to wonder whether he sent the wrong attachment and to speculate what will happen if he did.

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Writing is Not Like…

For the past year or so, I’ve contemplated the ways that writing is like many other everyday tasks we undertake. In that time, I’ve reached for some unlikely comparisons. (See baseball, cooking, going on vacation.) As the year comes to a close, I’d like to reverse course and think about what writing isn’t like—besides badminton and motocross, of course.

photo by Bohman

photo by Bohman

Writing is not like magic.

They say everyone has a book in them, and this may well be true. But it’s not really a book until it’s on the outside, and that’s where the writing comes in. Having a good idea, feeling inspired, setting up your desk just-so: all of these can contribute to happy writing. But the only way to write is to write. Sit down and stare at the blank screen for a while and eventually begin.

At the end of every semester, I ask my undergraduate students to start a novel and think about outlining the whole book. Often they are surprised by how fast they shoot through their initial concept and into unknown territory, and how much the story they’ve imagined changes as they write. The writing process depends on thought and creativity, not muses, the right chair, or a killer concept. This stark fact may be why so many people you meet on airplanes have books that remain unwritten. There are no spells or potions; just deep thought, hard work, and the willingness to get it wrong before you get it right.Continue Reading

The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Dream Scenes” by Renée K. Nicholson

When I was a kid, I really wanted to be a dancer. Instead, I played softball and soccer—but that fascination with dance never really went away. So last week, when I found “Dream Scene” by Renée K. Nicholson in Issue 5 of Banago Street, my inner-ten-year-old was immediately hooked.

issue5_art3Dream Scene” is about a ballerina, Cassie, a trainee at The Conservatory of Southern Ballet Theatre. In her late teens, Cassie lives with her grandparents in Palm Beach, Florida, and spends her days in classes and her time outside class hoping for a relationship to materialize with a fellow dancer named Stephen. Her closest friend, a girl named Fiona, dances with her, but Cassie’s friendship with her feels topical, removed and competitive. She understands the dancers in her company and classes by their ability to perform, and doesn’t have the capacity or need to see them beyond their skills.

Nicholson knows how to release information in the narrative to build tension and reveal Cassie gradually: her wounds, her quiet ambition, and her longing to live somewhere more like home, where the seasons change and the frozen winter ground stings the bottoms of her feet when she walks. Cassie’s desires are difficult to pin down—we open in a scene where she’s in variations class and the stern Lucinda Gates gives instruction. The opening of the story feels dreamlike. We don’t get a physical description of the space nor many of the other dancers—there’s only the voice of the instructor, the backstory of her history with the company’s principal dancer, and the way Cassie felt in her own performance in another ballet, one that made her feel spectral. And so we’re introduced to Cassie’s life—a life that feels, in many ways, unfocused, shifting, and still undecided.

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The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Man Who Couldn’t Give It Away” by Scott Bradfield

When I used to teach intro fiction classes, I noticed that students often turned in stories that featured omniscient third-person narrators, and I can remember doing this when I started writing fiction, too. There’s something very alluring, especially when you first start writing, about being able to access the thoughts of multiple characters, since we’re never allowed this in real life.

black_clock_17_cvr_v11The appeal of the omniscient narrator is that it seems to offer an answer to all of our questions. What is this other person actually thinking? What do they want? What are their true motivations? What’s the real history to this place, this person, this circumstance? Who is right? Who is justified?

By entering other characters’ perspectives, we seem to get a fuller view of the narrative. We’re offered different vantage points and therefore feel as if we have access to a more objective view. We can see things clearly. Less is hidden, and we take this to mean that we’re closer to the truth. I like this tendency of ours. I appreciate it. Humans are curious and we want the world around us to be concrete. We like order. We like to define and categorize, and we like it when others agree with our definitions. We want to know that there is the whole story out there somewhere, even if we don’t always have access to it.

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