Postcards from Unexpected Places

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Like long handwritten letters and atlases, postcards descend from another world now deemed impractical. They belong to the world of Denis Breen in James Joyce’s Ulysses and Loyal Blood and his travels across the American West in Annie Proulx’s Postcards. Ruth, in Lorrie Moore’s story “Real Estate,” finds the form “so careless and cheap.” The genre prizes itself in brevity, in its ability to simply telegraph a person’s self-defined whereabouts.

In Amy Hempel’s road trip story “Jesus Is Waiting,” a woman drives away from home and sends postcards bought at a rest stop to an old lover. All the cards ask questions about symptoms of a mysterious disease, and, in the end, all questions are left unanswered. The narrator doesn’t have a destination and neither do the cards. “God, it’s an ugly road,” she says at one point. But the postcards only show the manicured version of the real thing.

For the 2009 Venice Biennale, Swedish-American artist Aleksandra Mir created a series of postcards of bodies of water all over the world, with “Venezia” in colorful lettering superimposed on the photographs. None of the photos showed Venice, but all of them showed Venice to the untrained eye. Mir’s project, titled Venezia (all places contain all others), reveals that water is just water, regardless of borders or tourist appeal.Continue Reading

It Never Rains on National Day: an interview with writer Jeremy Tiang

Jeremy Tiang's It Never Rains on National Day

Jeremy Tiang is a fiction writer, playwright, and translator from Singapore. His short story collection It Never Rains on National Day was published by Epigram Books in 2015, and is available at Epigram Books’ website. He lives in Brooklyn and was recently featured in the Singapore Writers Festival. We caught up in an email interview.

Xin Tian: What are some of your beliefs when it comes to craft?

Jeremy: I don’t have any beliefs, really. I’m tempted to just go “what even is craft lol”—or less flippantly, I think each story requires a set of tools to tell it, and you pick the tools out of a big bag that, sure, we could call “craft.” But I’m not going to be ideological about it.

X: What is your literal writing environment like, and do you have any working habits or rituals?

JT: I have a tiny room in my flat that is just mine—I think it was originally intended to be a walk-in closet, but I have filled it with white furniture and books. My desk faces the window. I go in there every morning and stay there till evening, apart from toilet breaks and forays for food. What I work on depends on what’s occupying my mind most at the moment and/or deadlines. I generally have several things on the go at once, and when I get stuck on something I move on to something else.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “How to Eat Chicken Wings” by Kristen Arnett

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Flannery O’Connor wrote, “The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it.” In her second-person flash fiction piece “How to Eat Chicken Wings,” (Tin House/The Open Bar) Kristen Arnett takes a long look at the object in her title, and what’s revealed is a story about overcoming and coming to terms with one’s past.

From the opening paragraph, Arnett’s narrator isn’t coy about her use of the chicken wing as both a metaphor and an organizational center.

“There’s a map bred in the bones of the bird. Before you ingest the chicken wing, you must know the vertices of its hinge, that place where tendons and gristle connect and shake hands.”

The narrator is interested in both physical (tendon) and conceptual (vertices) connection. Notice also the situational humor brought out by Arnett’s use of scientific words such as “ingest” and “vertices” alongside the everyday language of, well, eating chicken.

But this contrast of vocabulary isn’t only for humor’s sake. In the first scene of the story—titled “Origin,” a geometric plotting reference—takes us to a church picnic, where the fourth grade narrator is eating chicken and getting covered in barbecue sauce.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Golden Land” by Sunisa Nardone

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The ways in which we humans find our sense of community and identity—nationality, race, religion, class, family etc.—are often also what make connecting with people that don’t share our backgrounds more difficult. Sunisa Nardone’s “Golden Land” (Atlas and Alice) explores the many obstacles facing strangers struggling to connect while awaiting departure from a Bangkok airport.

In the first few sentences of the story, Nardone presents the narrator’s internal conflict, brought on by the appearance of a woman she meets at the airport.

“She couldn’t know anything about the Southern Hemisphere, dressed as she is. The feeling struggles in me, that flutter of judgment and shame, seeing my countrywoman dressed so—.

A foreigner would no doubt mistake her for young and foolish but as a Thai woman myself I can tell that this long-limbed girl is actually in her late 30s, just about my age. Up-cut shorts showing a crescent of ass flesh befits no respectable lady. And here we are at the gate for Thai Airways to fly us to Melbourne in June, hot season in Bangkok but the beginning of real winter Down Under.”

The narrator is concerned for the woman’s well-being—she’s not dressed for the cold—yet she’s also irritated that she’s not dressed more respectfully. The rest of the passengers take exception as well; we find later that they “…won’t socialize with her…”Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Davenports and Ottomans” by Stefanie Freele

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Throughout our youth we’re hard-wired to look to the adults in our lives for ideas of who we want to be. Who we are, though, often seeks to establish itself in spite of those desires. Stefanie Freele’s flash fiction piece “Davenports and Ottomans” (Tahoma Literary Review Vol. 2, No. 1) explores this tension through a young protagonist at a party she can’t wait to leave.

When we meet Maribel, she’s uncomfortably dressed and on her best behavior at a family get-together, in a house with stairs that “smell like mold and rain, a confining smell.” She’s not just confined by the smell. “She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense.”

Then there’s the rules. Great Aunt Agnes has dishes of candy on the shelf, but Maribel’s not allowed to have them. But notice how Freele sneaks in an impulse that nicely contrasts with Maribel’s desire to disobey her great aunt.

“Quite badly she wants to touch the wrapped candies and line them up in groups of color or in rows of big to little. She wants to unwrap one of each color and shape, sniff them and make a line from tastiest to yuckiest.”

Maribel wants what she can’t have, but notice what she wants to do with them: put them in order…a different order than her great aunt had them, but an order nonetheless. We get the sense that though she may hate what her mother and great aunt are putting her through now, Maribel might not be as different from them as she might at the moment feel.

The contrasts continue, as we discover who’s not invited to this party: her aunt Vickie, who after a Thanksgiving dinner “fell asleep in their front yard, right by the mailbox, in the snow, and Maribel’s mom and dad had to carry her in after a neighbor called…” The reality behind what most likely happened – Aunt Vickie passing out – are lost on young Maribel. She imagines how wonderful it might be to sleep in the snow.

“She often considers building her own bed in a snow bank and if she wore her snowsuit, the purple mittens and her favorite boots, she discerns that she’d be warm enough to spend the entire night.”

Again, Freele juxtaposes the urge to step out of the ordered world Aunt Vickie feels free to break, but in doing so, that urge is accompanied by other, much less reckless desires. She wants to sleep in the snow, but while wearing her choice mittens and boots, and she’s planning ahead, concerned with her comfort throughout the cold night.

As the story careens to a close, the question at hand is one of identity. Maribel is presented with role models. Who will she align with? Aunt Vickie? Her mother? Great Aunt Agnes?

“If the room gets any warmer, Mirabel is certain she will rip off the tights and spring out into the snow before someone grabs her little wrist and says sit down. Although she is constraining herself with an effort she wasn’t even aware she had, an effort that seems inhumanly colossal, it is becoming more and more impossible to keep her body still and quiet, like a dusty reliable piece of furniture.”

She’s still at the party, she’s discovering more and more how much she can stand, but at the same time, she can’t wait to get out. Freele presents Mirabel as unknowingly stuck between her elders—it’s easy to imagine that these same competing feelings will plague her for the rest of her life. We’re all a mess of desires. Somewhere in the middle, Maribel may not find peace, but perhaps she’ll find herself.

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Day Trip” by Noelle Catharine Allen

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There’s a wonderful history of short stories where a character’s physical ills work as a metaphor representing larger problems, both personal and societal. For instance, in Julio Cortázar’s “Letter to a Lady in Paris,” the protagonist regularly vomits live rabbits, a reality we come to realize not only provides the reasons why an apartment has been destroyed, but an explanation for why the protagonist’s life has spiraled. In Noelle Catharine Allen’s “Day Trip” (Hunger Mountain 19), we meet a character who also regularly vomits live rabbits, but for reasons very different from the story to which it owes its literary conceit.

We begin when the protagonist Noelle and her son, Matthew, get stuck in a massive traffic jam outside of D.C. She takes stock of her belongings, among them a syringe. “I sent up a thank you prayer—to whatever deities I didn’t believe in—for the syringe…I always take a backup syringe in case something goes wrong with the injection.” It’s clear she’s ailing, but unlike Cortázar—who reveals the situation quickly—Allen chooses to keep the nature of her protagonist’s illness secret from the reader.

Allen does drop subtle hints over the next few pages, as the traffic jam stretches out over multiple days. “I hadn’t missed an injection in almost a year, so it was possible I might be OK…but if the rabbits came, I’d rather they did during the night.” Rabbits? we wonder. Is that some kind of metaphor? Readers familiar with Cortázar might hazard guess at her illness, especially after the protagonist makes a brief reference another of Cortázar’s stories, “How to Wind a Watch.” But the setting of the stories couldn’t be more different—traffic jam vs. apartment—and the causes of the protagonist’s illness diverge as well.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Miniature Lives of the Saints” by Anthony Wallace

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Physical beauty is like an innate talent or gift in that it can provide wonderful opportunities to its possessor that aren’t as easily available to others, if at all. But every blessing can also be a curse. In “Miniature Lives of the Saints” by Anthony Wallace (Missouri Review 38:1) we meet a protagonist struggling with a beauty that has come to both define her and hold her captive.

Wallace reveals his protagonist’s struggle with identity early on. Though her given name was Kathleen, “Everybody knew her as Gretchen…That was just what her brother Tommy called her—had called her one time when they were teenagers—and it had stuck.”

Her whole life she’s taken what she’s been given and hasn’t sought out more…and those who are physically attractive are offered a lot. In the present, though she knows her looks could easily help her find her better work, she remains behind the counter of a CVS, and lives in an apartment above her mother’s restaurant. Meanwhile, her husband is in jail, and her brother’s friends hit on her incessantly—while Tommy just laughs.

“Yeah Tommy, that’s real funny, your sister is truly a remarkable piece of ass, the one thing in this world she still had…she was a strikingly beautiful woman. Only men smart enough and brave enough to become convicted felons were good enough for this raven-haired beauty!”

Notice what fuels the self-loathing of the last line: the perceived irony of her beauty. She’s not comfortable with her looks, but at the same time goes to great lengths to preserve them. Wallace tells us that she wears expensive, stylish boots even though they are painful to wear and she feels stupid in them. Like her looks, “The boots were perfect in every way, except they just didn’t fit.”

At an AA meeting she regularly attends, Gretchen deftly judges the other attendees based on her own preoccupation: appearance. But compared to their stories, hers is lacking when it comes to a sense of purpose. Notice a few of the phrases she uses to describe her life when it’s her turn to share: “That’s where we always ended up.”; “I just fell into life with him.”; “I didn’t really want to do that, but I ended up doing it anyway. I just drifted into it.” The verbs are almost all passive, outlining her resignation to the will of others.

Prodigies, whether in music, sports, spelling—or auctioneering—notoriously struggle with identity later in life. Who am I outside of my gifts and talents? Wallace presents physical beauty as justly capable of causing those problems.

So what does Gretchen do? After the AA meeting. she visits a local pizza parlor, and while there, adopts a prayer of Saint Brigid—a beauty herself—and begins destroying the boots.

“`Make me ugly,’ she said, and she began stepping on her boots, kicking and gouging at them, one with the other. `Make me ugly,’ she said a second time under her breath. She dug the heel of her right boot into the top of her left until she felt the leather begin to tear. `It’s all I’m asking.’”

We live in a culture that either associates being physically attractive with happiness and fulfillment, or dismisses it as shallow, meaningless, and only skin deep. Wallace gives us another narrative. Physical beauty is something whose power must be reckoned with. To be content and beautiful is far more difficult than it might appear.

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Thank You For the _______” by Becky Adnot-Haynes

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Some stories get their complexity from the weaving of plot twists, some from the myriad of possible outcomes facing a character making a tough decision. Some—Raymond Carver’s “Fat” for instance—gain their complexity by the layering of different stories on top of each other. Becky Adnot-Haynes, in “Thank You For the ________” (Hobart 15), is one of the latter. Throughout, her protagonist uses a series of seemingly unrelated stories to try to get at an elusive truth that she just can’t explain, creating a collage of images that add up to a cohesive whole.

We meet the protagonist in a motel room she’s sharing with her husband because bedbugs have infested their home. They’re watching a show on cable in which “a woman … donates her kidney to her mother and then asks for it back when she finds out she was adopted.” While her husband says that that’s only fair, the protagonist argues that you can’t take that kind of gift back, even if you wouldn’t have made that decision if you knew what you know now.

“They can’t just go their separate ways,” I say.
“It’s the thought that counts,” he says, “is basically what you’re saying.”
“No,” I say. “That’s not what I’m saying at all.”

From this misunderstanding springs the second attempt at explaining why taking the kidney back isn’t feasible. She begins telling a story from her childhood about giving a gift of facial cream to a friend who had bad skin—and not realizing until after she’d given away the gift how inappropriate it was. But instead of tying this into the original argument—the ethics of gift-giving—Adnot-Haynes leaves the thread dangling. The protagonist seems to forget the original line of thought. They begin talking over the movie about other matters and much like the movie they are watching, “the plot has dwindled.”Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Know-It-All” by Jeff Spitzer

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Some narrators announce their unreliability in the opening sentences of a short story (see Matt Sumell’s “All Lateral”), and in this way their skewed vision of the world serves as a stylistic lead, drawing readers in. In “The Know-It-All,” from the latest New Ohio Review, Jeff Spitzer creates a narrator whose reliability is revealed slowly, aiding the development of a satire as hilarious as it is terrifying.

We meet this narrator as he’s debating with his wife whether to attend a New Year’s Eve party with his co-workers, whom he considers “…fellow academics, the least redeemable bores in human society…” But the real reason he doesn’t want to go is Charlotte Roon, a wildly successful professor with a penchant for lording it over her colleagues. We discover that at the same party, two years ago, she’d shamed the narrator, who drunkenly quoted a stanza to Whittier.

“A surprised silence. People stared oddly in my direction as I halted, my glass poised before me.

‘Whitman,’ said Charlotte Roon.

‘Pardon?’

‘Whitman wrote it. Whittier could never have written it.’”Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Dark Season” by Maya Sonenberg

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Over the last few decades, it has become more and more common to find mythical narratives such as fairy tales alongside realist fiction in academic and mainstream literary journals and magazines. More publications have also opened up to stories that blend storytelling elements that previously were dismissed as “genre” into the style du jour, realism. Maya Sonenberg, in her story, “Dark Season,” from the latest issue of the Pacifica Literary Review, does a masterful job of weaving together elements of both fairy tales and realism in order to create a new, hybrid reality that in ways feels more true to contemporary life than perhaps either style could aspire to on its own.

When we meet the protagonist—under a section subtitled, “The Dungeon”—he is referred to only as “the boy” and his father as “the king.” Not naming characters is an accepted technique of fables and fairy tales, and we’d be firmly in that mythical tradition, except that woven into these approaches to characterization and storytelling are contemporary details, which push the story elsewhere:

At recess, he kicked a ball around the school yard with his buddies and when it found the back of the net, he shouted, ‘GOOOOAAAAAAL,’ the way he heard the announcers do on the Spanish language soccer broadcasts he listened to at night. He didn’t know where the voices came from…His father, the king…sometimes told him of such places, even claimed to have come from one himself.

The play-by-play reference situates us firmly into contemporary life through content—soccer—as well as style—the spelling and capitalization of the announcer’s cry. Where characters referred to simply as “the boy” and “the king” invite the whole tradition of fairy tales to help provide their characterizations, the soccer descriptions draw their power from the their relation to the present milieu.Continue Reading