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Lost & Found: Rachel Riederer on E. F. Schumacher

 

Lost & Found

A timely reminder that the economy is not just a math problem, from Tin House #55: This Means War.

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We’re used to ideological wars in economic and political thinking: small government versus big government, the 99% versus the 1%, vouchers versus public schools. But one idea that seems to bind together economists and politicos of all stripes is the notion that economic growth—all economic growth—is necessary and good. In this context, adherents to “postgrowth” ideologies—those who believe that there is good growth and bad growth, who recognize that a finite planet cannot produce infinite wealth—are zealots, radical and rare. One of their founding fathers is E. F. “Fritz” Schumacher, whose 1973 essay collection, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, made Schumacher, an economic advisor to the Britain’s National Coal Board, into an unlikely patron saint of small-scale, local production and “voluntary simplicity.”

“Today,” Schumacher writes, “we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of giantism.” When Schumacher started work on the book in the 1960s, this “giantism” must have seemed new. In 1959, McDonald’s operated over one hundred restaurants, all within the United States; Walmart did not exist and neither did OPEC. By 1970, McDonald’s had opened restaurants in Canada and Puerto Rico, OPEC had grown to include ten members, and the Walton family’s chain of thirty-eight stores was about to become a publicly traded company. Schumacher’s essays were a diagnosis, one that still holds today: we’re burning through irreplaceable resources, our work is becoming more automated and less fulfilling, and we’re calling this “progress.” As a cure, he offers an entirely new way of thinking about economics. The book is a call to abandon the “monster economy” in favor of “a lifestyle designed for permanence.”

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Schumacher writes about economics as a religion, a field that not only measures human activity (like other social sciences) but also provides it with an end goal: infinite growth. Instead, he asserts, the goal ought to be “the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption,” because the goal of never-ending growth presents two enormous problems–one practical, one metaphysical. First, we simply don’t have a never-ending supply of resources, and acting as though we do can only lead to crisis. Second, the pursuit of growth makes us measure consumption not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. “The modern economist is very difficult to understand,” writes Schumacher. “He is used to measuring the ‘standard of living’ by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is ‘better off’ than a man who consumes less.” When put that way, it’s clear what a silly idea this is—yet measuring “standard of living” in amount of goods consumed is a core tenet of economic orthodoxy.

Schumacher’s essays are thick with such elegant takedowns of economic sacred cows. “The market is the institutionalistion of individualism and non-responsibility.” Cost/benefit analysis is “a procedure by which the higher is reduced to the level of the lower and the priceless is given a price.” And perhaps most famously: “The substance of man cannot be measured by Gross National Product.” Schumacher would have turned one hundred in August of 2011, a month and a day before the Occupy Wall Street protests began. He died in 1977, and I wish that he’d lived to become a centenarian so we could have seen the signs he might have brought to Zuccotti Park.

Schumacher’s most radical idea was that business and technology ought to exist on a human scale, at a scope that people can actually understand. “There is wisdom in smallness if only on account of the smallness and patchiness of human knowledge,” he notes, and also because small groups of people take better care of each other and of communal resources than do “anonymous companies or megalomanic governments which pretend to themselves that the whole universe is their legitimate quarry.” It’s still a radical idea. Buying local food, growing a community garden, making or purchasing items made in small batches—these activities have become trendy, but they are viewed more as stylistic choices than as the result of revised economic thinking. Even as artisanal products and ultrasmall businesses become more popular, they’re considered pet projects. The idea that bigger is always better, or at least more efficient, is still too deeply ingrained in our culture—economies of scale! Costco!—to see small-scale enterprises as anything but twee. And so making the tiniest possible batch of pickles and selling them within bicycling distance of a kitchen factory designed for employees’ well-being as well as efficiency must be a manifestation of hipster nonsense rather than a thoughtful and rational choice.

And okay, it’s hard not to caricature companies like Brooklyn’s Mast Brothers Chocolate, which imports its cocoa on a handcrafted sailboat. Its employees all eat lunch together and there’s a piano in the warehouse. Last year [2011 at the time of this article’s first printing], New York Magazine profiled several similarly committed small businesses and smirked that Mast Brothers is “like a child’s dream,” using the condescending tone reserved for kooks who dare to think outside the big-box store before moving on to pose the all-important question: Can it scale?

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I like to imagine a good-natured but slightly impatient Schumacher responding to this. Schumacher might also poke fun at the way we’ve fetishized the tiny and the local. He warned that the key to all things is balance; he was pushing for small-scale enterprises because of the dominant trend toward enormity; he might have done the opposite if the world had a “prevailing idolatry of smallness.” Still, I think Schumacher would smile on any business based on the truth that a worker—even a manufacturer—ought not to feel like an automaton. And as for “Can it scale?”—that’s simply the wrong question. Instead, one might ask if the employees enjoy their work, do they receive health insurance, how much fuel does wind-powered shipping save, and do the workers have fun playing and listening to that piano? But this is not what we’ve been trained to do, laments Schumacher: “Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be ‘uneconomic’ you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper.” Continue reading

Posted in Lost & Found

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Between Two Worlds: The Backdrop of The Long Room

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At the end of the 1970s and during the first year of the succeeding decade, I lived on a boat on the river Thames at Chelsea. It was scorching in summer, freezing in winter, somewhat basic by way of plumbing in all seasons, but undeniably romantic. The Thames is a tidal river and runs swiftly; although the boat was permanently moored, it rose and fell by twenty or so feet twice daily on the ebb and flow, lurching and creaking on the water. When I lay in bed at night, with only inches between me and the river, and the small boat straining against its fetters, it was easy to imagine taking off and heading out to the North Sea. There were estuarine scents on the air always: salt water, mud, and marshes; and water sounds mixed in with the city sounds of traffic, sirens, voices.

I didn’t see it at the time but now I think that boat, that home, which hovered somewhere between land and water, which had a postal address but no mains drainage, was an apt symbol of a stage that was transitional for me. I had recently graduated from university and was working in London; those were the years of learning to be adult, of trying to make my own way, of finding out about life, and falling in love. Only a few years later, love having swept the sensible alternatives out of the way, I left my job and London, not knowing that I would never return to live there.

Looking back, I also recognize that those years were a watershed for Britain too. It is only in hindsight that we see how and when things change; while we are in the midst of them, it’s hard to discern a pattern. The moments when the living know, absolutely and at the time, that their world has changed, are very rare. (In Britain we had one of those this year, when we woke to the result of the vote on leaving the European Union.) And of course, the past has multiple strands. To pluck one thread out of the complicated tangle and to say that it defines a time is to simplify absurdly. And yet, I think we can say that in Britain life did change as the ’70s became the ’80s.

Broadly speaking, postwar Britain chugged its way through the ’50s and ’60s without dramatic changes of direction and with a general consensus on such matters as the provision of public services, the value of a mixed economy, the role of trade unions, and defense. But the election in 1979 of a Conservative government, led by Margaret Thatcher, inaugurated a shift in societal attitudes. It was not immediately apparent, and it was not simply driven by politics. Yes, the free-market counterrevolution was part of it, with the privatization of industries that before had been state-owned, and the battles between government and workers, but there was something else, a sort of energy perhaps, that over the next decade transformed this country, for better, on the whole, although in some respects for worse.

My novel The Long Room is set in London in December 1981. I chose that year for several reasons: it was genuinely pivotal; there are certain parallels today; and because I remember it particularly clearly. There were riots that spring and summer in South London; angry people tearing through the streets, looting shops, setting fire to cars, and hurling petrol bombs at the police. In the mornings, the stench of scorched rubber, the shop windows boarded up, and everywhere an eerie quiet, after the rage of the night before.

There was a lot of anger, pent-up or released. The jobless figures soared. So did inflation. Mrs Thatcher authorized the use of water cannons, rubber bullets, and armored vehicles on Britain’s streets. The Yorkshire Ripper was found guilty of the murder of thirteen women and the attempted murder of seven more. A boy fired six blank cartridges at the Queen. And, month by month, through much of the year, IRA hunger strikers died in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland, ten of them in all.

That year, a bomb exploded outside the Chelsea Barracks, killing two and injuring fifty. It was a war, of sorts. Another war, the Cold War, was still being fought in the background of our lives; there were military citadels buried under London and “mutually assured destruction” remained a phrase on people’s lips. By then, it may have seemed that the gravest dangers of that war had already been averted, but it was an age pervaded by a constant level of anxiety nonetheless. As we now know, that anxiety was justified; as late as 1983 the Soviet leadership mistook a routine NATO exercise as cover for imminent nuclear attack.

Continue reading

Posted in Essays, From Tin House Books, Nonfiction

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Thanksgiving

 

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Fictional writers got more than they bargained for last week. They sparred with disgruntled protagonists, relived their memoirs, and reckoned with that minor character they killed off in Chapter One. Congratulations to the winner of Week Three, Carolyn Oliver, whose poignant “Thanksgiving” reminded us the story is never over. 

Check out this week’s prompt here

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Sarah Park appreciated the new dentist’s sensitivity. Unlike Dr. Stewart, who, while Sarah’s mouth was full of metal instruments or toothpaste, loved to ask her the kinds of questions whose answers her publicist sent out with advance copies of her books (“Where did you get the idea for this one?” “How long did it take to write?” “What are you working on now?”), Dr. Williams betrayed not the slightest interest in Sarah’s novels. Instead, she kept up a steady stream of quiet commentary on Cleveland’s resurgence and the weather outlook for Thanksgiving, asking questions that Sarah could answer with a slight tilt of her head.

“You hosting Thanksgiving at your house? Turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green beans?”

Sarah nodded, stretching the corners of her mouth into what she hoped was a smile. The dentist’s voice, soothing and somehow familiar, covered her instruments’ scraping sound.

“Now me, I make all that—well, my husband, he helps too, especially with the vegetables—but there’s this one thing I make that no-one else does. Pumpkin pie trifle.” At Sarah’s raised eyebrows, she went on, “It’s an English dessert. Usually cream and jam and custard and cake, but mine has gingerbread for the cake, pumpkin custard, whipped cream with maple syrup, and toffee instead of jam. Gives it a good crunch. Can’t believe I’m carrying on about sweets, but there’s just something about you that makes me want to tell my secrets—you can go ahead and spit now.”

As she turned to rinse her mouth with water from the tiny blue cup, the diamond pattern flexing with the slightest pressure, Sarah’s eye caught Dr. Williams’s left hand. The third finger of the glove was empty, pressed down to her palm with paper tape.

She nearly choked on the faintly medicinal water.

Thirty years earlier, she’d written her first novel about a girl from Cleveland with nine fingers and one abusive English boyfriend. She had never settled on an afterlife for Jasmine, who she’d left in the spring of her first year at CSU, working weekends at Tommy’s and pregnant with the boyfriend’s baby, about to ask her mother for help. She’d wanted the reader to draw her own conclusions.

Dr. Williams was just leaning out the door to ask the secretary for a copy of Sarah’s x-rays. Sarah took her in: just the height she’d imagined, same strong arms. Softer in the middle, but then, so was she.

“Are your kids coming home for Thanksgiving?” she asked before the dentist brought out the tiny mirror to check her work.

“Oh, two of them are here already. My oldest is out in California. She’s almost thirty, and this is the first time she’s bringing her girlfriend home. Lucky it’s not her father’s turn to see her. I can’t wait. Let me fix that bib for you—there. Isn’t it amazing how our children turn out?”

Her eyes above the mask crinkled with the grin Sarah couldn’t see.

Tiny-House

Carolyn Oliver lives in Massachusetts with her family. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Slush Pile Magazine, Midway Journal, matchbook, and Free State Review, among others. Links to more of her work can be found at carolynoliver.net.

The prompt that inspired Carolyn’s winning story about the story was: {A}, a novelist, meets personally in real life a fictitious character from one of his stories. 

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTSIn the 1920s, dime store novelist William Wallace Cook painstakingly diagrammed and cataloged his personal writing method—“Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict”—for the instruction and illumination of his fellow authors. His efforts resulted in 1,462 plot scenarios and Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots was born. A how-to manual for plot, Plotto offers endless amalgamations to inspire limitless narratives. Open the book to any page to find plots you may never have known existed, from morose cannibals to gun-wielding preachers to phantom automobiles. Equal parts reference guide and historical oddity, Plotto is sure to amaze and delight writers for another century.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays, General

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Tender

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From This Means War (Issue #55)

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TENDER

Dear patriot

Dear catastrophe

None of this means what we thought it did

 

Dear bone fragments

Dear displacement

Dear broken skin

I am in over my head

 

Dear prisoner

Dear, dear wounded

You have earned our respect

 

Dear glad hands, curbed dog

Dear perfect object

The same night awaits us

 

Dear put upon

The day folds over and begins again

 

Dear bad animal

Dear caged thing

There was something about you

 

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Camille Rankine  first full-length collection of poetry, Incorrect Merciful Impulses was published by Copper Canyon Press in January 2016. She is also the author of the chapbook Slow Dance with Trip Wire, selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s 2010 New York Chapbook Fellowship. The recipient of a 2010 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize and a finalist for The Poetry Foundation’s 2014 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship, she was featured as an emerging poet in the fall 2010 issue of American Poet and the April 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

Posted in General, Poetry

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The Long Room: An Excerpt

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Stephen slots the unlabeled cassette into the machine. He doesn’t have great expectations of this tape. Helen is rarely at home during the day in term time and, in the evenings, the calls that she receives or makes are too often of the practical, brief sort: Can she fit in an extra lesson tomorrow? Cover for Mr. Burbage? Collect her watch, now ready, from the menders? Meet outside the theater for a play that starts at half past seven?

It is only when the arrangements and the diary engagements involve the subject that Stephen must record them. And he does. He writes them down in meticulous detail on each day’s report sheet, cross-referencing where necessary, adding information if it might be useful, making carbon copies as required.

 

8 December 1981:

Subject of interest and wife expected at Greenwich Theatre on Tuesday 14 December, 9:30. (To see production of Another Country—cf. tape dated 6 December, which details provisional plan made by subject’s wife and her friend Laura [Cummins, q.v.].) Tickets now booked. Probability of restaurant dinner later, location not yet known. John Cummins also attending theater. No one else expected to be present.

 

When he writes these things, he pictures Helen looking forward to her evening, getting ready, getting dressed, and later coming home, in a taxi, half-asleep. He prefers to see her living her life alone.

He knows that Helen is busy. She teaches music to young children at a school in Knightsbridge; she is sociable and often invited out. But even so, she is a kindly friend and a loving daughter. She makes time to telephone, she remembers birthdays, she asks after health and happiness, and she regularly telephones her mother.

Her mother lives in a village by the Suffolk coast, called Orford. When he first heard Helen name the village, Stephen looked it up in the atlas kept in the Institute’s library; it is not far from Aldeburgh. She has a gentle voice, just like her daughter, but with the faintest trace of Irish in it, and she evidently lives alone. That’s another bond that he and Helen share: elderly mothers on their own.

He presses the play button and the tape begins its smooth transit from one spool to the other. Recording is activated by incoming and outgoing calls. In a Bravo-level investigation such as this one, where the product is delivered daily, the tapes are often short.

As this one is. One incoming call, at 17:54, unanswered. An outgoing call at 20:17: subject to his father.

“Dad? Hello, it’s me. How are you? Just to say we’ll definitely arrive in time for supper. That is unless there’s a massive holdup on the motorway; you know how bloody it can be getting out of London on a Friday evening. But I can push off a little bit early, and Helen has a half day, so with luck we’ll beat the lemming rush.”

His father is pleased. He informs the subject that his guns are cleaned and ready in the gun room. Harry’s Saudi millionaire, it now appears, won’t be down till Sunday, which comes as a relief. He and the subject’s mother are looking forward to seeing their sons. The forecast’s good. Should be ideal conditions.

The subject and his father had talked about these plans before. Rollo Buckingham already knows that he will be at his family home in Oxfordshire and that the party will be joined by an Arab businessman (who had been easy to identify, from information already given on the telephone to the subject by the subject’s brother Harry). Rollo had not thought there was anything unusual about a weekend’s shooting or that extra surveillance measures should be taken. The subject’s father was formerly Her Majesty’s Ambassador in Buenos Aires, Dublin, and Vienna, has a knighthood, and now sits on the boards of several leading companies, including the brewery that Stephen knows to be the source of Rollo’s fortune. He is also a personal friend of the Director. There is no way the Director would consent to a covert surveillance operation at that house, even if there had been any point.

The subject was saying good-bye and was about to hang up when his father asked:

“Could you possibly talk Helen into giving it a go? Quite honestly, I sometimes think she sounds like that advertisement: I haven’t tried it because I don’t like it . . . And it’s an awful shame to miss out on such good fun.”

“Really, Pa, I think she made her mind up long ago. But I will try to talk to her again tomorrow, when we’re driving down.”

“Ah well, I suppose it could be worse. I mean at least she’s not a vegan. Your mother and I were only saying that the other day apropos of Christmas. Mamma’s bought her a really rather super leather purse.”

Stephen ejects the cassette and flings it across the room. It strikes one of the metal cabinets that are lined up against the wall opposite the windows, and falls to the floor with an audible crack. He retrieves it and sees that half the outer plastic casing of the cassette has sheared off. In a moment of confusion, as there is no option on the pro forma envelopes for deliberate damage, he slips the tape into his trouser pocket.

Now for the second tape. The orange label is there to show that no one has tampered with it between collection and delivery to the designated listener. Stephen unpicks an edge and peels the label slowly off.

Continue reading

Posted in From Tin House Books

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On the Election

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—Langston Hughes

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All of us at Tin House are enraged and saddened by the election. Now, more than ever, we believe in the power of story, in empathy, in inclusion, and that all voices have the right to be heard. Don’t give up hope. Fight back against racism, homophobia, isolationism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and the lie of the single story. Fight back with action, and words. We will keep fighting alongside you. —The editors of Tin House

Posted in General

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See You On The Other Side

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We are off to drink away the pain of this campaign watch the results.

See you tomorrow. We hope.

Posted in General

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Tin House Galley Club: The Long Room

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Tin House invited a select number of early readers to read award-winning novelist Francesca Kay’s The Long Room.  The Long Room opens during winter in London in 1981. The IRA is on the attack, a cold war is being waged, another war is just over the horizon, and Stephen Donaldson spends his days listening. When he first joined the Institute, he expected to encounter glamorous, high-risk espionage. Instead he gets the tape-recorded conversations of ancient Communists and ineffectual revolutionaries–until the day he is assigned a new case: the ultra-secret PHOENIX, a suspected internal leak. The monotony of Stephen’s routine is broken, but it’s not PHOENIX who captures his imagination; it’s the target’s wife, Helen.  

We surveyed our galley club members—here’s what they had to say.  

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Francesca Kay’s first novel, An Equal Stillness, won the Orange Award for New Writers and was nominated for the Authors’ Club First Novel Award and for the Best First Book in the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Her second novel, The Translation of the Bones, was longlisted for the Orange Prize. She lives in Oxford. 

Posted in From Tin House Books

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Beneath the Red Cap: An Interview with a Hillary Hater

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“Thanks for taking the time to sit for this interview. I’d like to ask you some questions about your belief that Hillary Clinton is untrustworthy, and I want you to answer them out loud. Not in your head, out loud so you can hear yourself.”

“Wait–wait–before we get started I just need a baseline. Do you believe in global climate change?”

“And evolution?”

“Finally, do you hear voices?”

“I mean, for example, does God ever say speak to you, say through a pet or former pet, maybe a guinea pig once named ‘Dick Biscuit’ who now goes by the name of ‘Ronnie’?”

“I have to ask these things. No, no one told me anything.”

“Can we get started now? Why don’t you trust Hillary Clinton? Say it out loud, please. I want you to hear your answers.”

“She wants it too much?”

“She’s too ambitious?”

“Too ambitious?”

“Is that a problem for someone running for president, to really want to be president?”

“Okay. She lies?”

“Yes, I know about Benghazi. No, that was four people and as for a conspiracy—”

“Yes, let’s talk about that email scandal. Let’s do that. Do you know what an email server is? No need to be ashamed. Not everyone has a ten-year-old at home, like I do, who can explain it in under a minute.”

“Right, private just means personal. I don’t know why they don’t say personal either.”

“What is the first word that pops into your head when I say, personal?”

“Business? I was thinking, grooming. Also: hygiene. What is the first word that pops into your head when I say, private?”

“Property. Got it. For the record, the Bush Administration used a private email server set up by the RNC. It worked well and that’s why Secretary of State, General Colin Powell suggested Hillary do the same. You might remember that the Bush administration…seriously?…deleted 2 million emails from around the time of the Iraq—”

“Take your fingers out of your ears.” Continue reading

Posted in Fiction, General

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Rust

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Ghosts. Talking plants. A sense of self. Just a few of the (sometimes hazardous) surprises in store for last week’s protagonists as they took took up quarters in a vacant house. Congratulations to the winner of Week Two, Annesha Sengupta for her story “Rust.” The more times we read it, the eerier it gets.

Check out this week’s prompt here!

Tiny-House

The walls sit warm around her like a hot blister of skin. There’s a splinter in her finger and she holds tight to the pain. Sonali has always believed that women live out the opposite of their names. What burst of cruelty caused her to blurt out, on that blood-soaked hospital bed, the name Ananda for her daughter? Ananda. Happy.

Sonali looks older than she is, with skin that unfurls from her cheeks in limp curtains. They flap slightly in the summer breeze as she rises from the corner of the house in which she was sleeping, her bedding lined with newspaper. The windows are cracked with grime, but Sonali takes a corner of her jacket and rubs until a ray of sunlight slithers into the room. She can see the road now, the picket fence, the For Sale sign on the lawn. Yesterday, she had a scare; two real estate agents in pencil suits came to apprise the house’s value. She had to grab all her things and roll-dive into the backyard.

“Smells like someone’s been living in here,” she heard one of them laugh.

 

Across the street, Sonali’s daughter, Ananda, is getting her kids ready for school. Their outlines flicker through translucent curtains, they look to Sonali like shadow puppets. When she closes her eyes, she can hear them speak perfectly and ordinarily; “PB&J, or grilled cheese?”

The kids come out wearing tutus and Iron Man masks. Ananda lets them do whatever they want. Sonali fights the urge to tsk, remembering the mornings she pinched Ananda awake, then slapped her red-blue for refusing to wear the high-collar button-down salwar Sonali had chosen.

“We’re in America, Mom.” Two more slaps; one for America, another for Mom. She couldn’t abide that word, the stretch of the jaws around the central vowel like a snake heaving down prey. M-A-W-M.

In Ananda’s driveway, the car reverberates. Sonali sees the children’s fuzzy heads bob up and down in the backseat as her daughter carefully drives away. She closes her eyes.

 

Sonali lives alone in a state two hours away. She has a neighbor housesitting and feeding the cat. She has sprinklers on timers and lights above the garage door that blink in case of an intruder. She has tenure and a well-stocked fridge. She has everything but a daughter who will return her calls.

So she’s here, now, sleeping on the floor and hiding from real estate agents. Drinking sludgy water from plastic faucets and listening to raccoons scratching under the crawlspace. She thinks several times a day; I should go back to my life. But Sonali means gold and she was meant to rust. She will wait until the day she is flaky and red, she will wait until the act of vanishing. Then she will come out of the house and kneel down in front of Ananda.

“I am sorry for your name, I am sorry for everything.”

Tiny-House

Annesha Sengupta is an undergraduate student at NYU studying English and Creative Writing. She edits the Minetta Review. 

Here’s the Plotto prompt that inspired Annesha’s story: {B} has taken up her quarters in a vacant house.

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTSIn the 1920s, dime store novelist William Wallace Cook painstakingly diagrammed and cataloged his personal writing method—“Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict”—for the instruction and illumination of his fellow authors. His efforts resulted in 1,462 plot scenarios and Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots was born. A how-to manual for plot, Plotto offers endless amalgamations to inspire limitless narratives. Open the book to any page to find plots you may never have known existed, from morose cannibals to gun-wielding preachers to phantom automobiles. Equal parts reference guide and historical oddity, Plotto is sure to amaze and delight writers for another century.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

Comments: 0

Wordstock Week: Kevin Young

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This week, we’re proud to feature work from some favorite Tin House contributors who’ll be appearing at Wordstock, Portland’s book festival, on November 5th. Catch Young on the panel Tales of Two Americas: Inequality in the United States with Karen Russell, Richard Russo, and John Freeman. “Ring of Fire” first appeared in Tin House #37: The Political Issue.

Tiny-House

RING OF FIRE

At the strip
club we come

for the ladies but stay
for the buffet.

In Vegas we feel paradoxical
as jumbo shrimp–

Everything here is for sale
& what’s not

for sale is free.
In walks Dennis Rodman

hat pulled low, wearing a disguise
in hopes

of getting recognized. Between dances
they announce him

over a microphone
like bingo.

When we return
to our hotel, dawn

has long gone
& the pool slowly fills

with fools drained
like us.

We brown our already
brown bellies

& I ask my buddy
Think anyone

would guess us black
boys are a doctor

& a professor?
It’s not that folks can’t

imagine it, just
they don’t even bother

to consider us
at all. Unlike us,

our drinks are expensive
& too strong. All night long

at the Hold’em table
we’ll gamble it all

like tin men hoping
for hearts.

Tiny-House

Kevin Young is the author of ten books of poetry, including Book of Hours, winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets and a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award; Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, winner of a 2012 American Book Award; and Jelly Roll: A Blues, a finalist for the National Book Award. He is also the editor of The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink and seven other collections. His book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, and won the PEN Open Book Award. He is currently the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Creative Writing and English and curator of both Literary Collections and the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University.

Posted in General, Poetry

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Tasting Onigiri: An Interview With Kelly Luce

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Everything I know about Japan I’ve learned from books, films, and having watched every episode of the anime Naruto at least two times. I’ve never traveled to Japan. I don’t speak the language. So when I started researching Hiroshima for a new novel project, I quickly found out that I was working from a deficit. 

Fortunately, I’ve known Kelly Luce since we met at the Tin House Summer Workshop in 2011. Kelly chose Japanese settings for the stories of her first book, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail. The stories deftly avoid the pitfalls of over-interpretation and generalization that are easy for an author to stumble into when writing about a culture not her own. Kelly’s brand new novel, Pull Me Under, is also set in Japan, and as soon as I read it, I knew that I wanted to talk to her about the rewards and risks of writing about a culture that we both love but to which we don’t belong.

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Zach Powers: Why Japan? What about this novel made Japan the necessary setting?

Kelly Luce: As you know, I lived in Japan for a few years. The idea for the novel came out of my experiences there; the story-seed I became obsessed with (obsessed enough to spend years writing a novel about) happened to be a uniquely Japanese one.

Specifically, I wanted to write about the phenomenon of kireru, which in Japan means “to cut or snap,” and is the term used to describe young kids, often pre-teens, committing horrifically violent acts for no apparent reason. And not just boys—girls, too. While I was living there, a number of these crimes occurred and were reported in the news. I was teaching junior high at the time and couldn’t help but think: Could one of my kids do something like this?

Which led to the question: What could push a child to do this? Why does this occur in Japan, an otherwise peaceful and relatively crime-free country? I also wanted to explore the point of view of a mixed-race narrator in Japan, one of the most homogenous countries on the planet. There’s a stigma attached to being haafu or hapa (“half”), and though there’s been social progress on this front, one need only look at the backlash against mixed-race women winning national pageant titles during the past two years to know the ideal of racial purity is alive and well in Japan. I’ve always been interested in the connection between heritage and identity—I’m the one in my family who’s always trying to dig up information about where my ancestors came from and when, to learn their stories.

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ZP: I’m glad you mentioned your narrator, Rio. She has an American mother and a Japanese father. So while she’s an outsider in Japan, she’s enough of an insider to relate parts of Japanese culture that might be unfamiliar to Western readers—the concept of being haafu, for example. Can you talk about the role of the narrator (and your responsibility as writer) when writing about Japan for non-Japanese readers? How do you balance interpretation with storytelling?

KL: The role of the narrator in any story, whether it’s set in space or Middle-Earth or modern-day Topeka, is to relate events and ideas in a way that lets readers in. They need to be immersed in the world of the story. So that’s one responsibility of the writer, to make sure readers have enough information to feel comfortable. But you want this information to be embedded. A novel isn’t a lecture. Interpretation and storytelling should go hand-in-hand. With regards to Pull Me Under, a book being published in the U.S., this means allowing Rio to subtly explain certain aspects of Japanese culture and language on the page that aren’t part of the general American knowledge pool about Japan.

I strove to make these “explanations” feel natural, and I think they do, because after having been away from Japan so long, Rio is also explaining these things to herself. When she eats that first onigiri on the bus from the airport, she doesn’t pull out of her mode of narration to give the definition of onigiri. Through her description of unwrapping it and biting into it, anyone who’s never heard of onigiri can now feel and taste one. The same thing with the concept of haafu. In that case, I also used the other characters’ reactions to Rio being haafu to show the different ways people approach people of mixed race in Japan.

The second important responsibility of the writer is to place itself. It’s like being a guest and a host at the same time. In cases like this one, where the setting is a real place unfamiliar to most readers, I was very aware of the responsibility to Japan and its culture and its people to get it right.

ZP: As I get deeper into my own research on Japan, I’ve also become concerned with the risks authors take when writing about cultures outside their personal experience. Fortunately, there are a lot of great conversations right now on that subject (here’s a recent example). One essay that stuck with me was actually about comic books, in which the author makes a distinction between writing a story set in another culture versus writing the story of that culture. I think Pull Me Under succeeds because it narrows in on individual stories, and doesn’t coopt the broader experience of being Japanese. Were you conscious of that sort of distinction while crafting the novel?

KL: Well, no, it wasn’t something I consciously thought about because I never considered the novel about “being Japanese” (or Japanese-American). It’s about being human. Maybe that sounds trite. But everything I write is driven by this passion for human connection. For empathy, as Brandon Taylor says. Isn’t that why we read? That’s why I read. And the best way I know to showcase and explore humanity is to delve deeply into the life of an individual.

That said, I tried to remain as aware as I could of possible missteps. Did I make damn sure details of Japanese culture and language and tradition were correct? Absolutely. But getting the facts right of a place and culture is different than getting the story right on a humanity level. It’s the difference between accuracy and truth.

The hours and years I spent on this book, imagining the characters and scenes, were hours and years spent remembering and reliving experiences I had in Japan, and people I met there. All the feelings and memories came back, for better or worse. I could never set a story in a place where I haven’t spent significant time. I need to be imprinted by a place before I can conjure it in my imagination.

This leads me to something I’ve been wanting to ask you, actually. I’m curious about the novel you’re writing. It’s set in Hiroshima, a place you’ve never been. Obviously, Hiroshima has a unique and important history, but so do many cities. So, why Hiroshima? Why a place you’ve never been to? And do you plan to go there? Do you think it’s necessary, like I do, to have spent time in a place in order to set fiction there?

ZP: Many of my early stories and my first novel manuscript were set in a nameless, made-up city. I always thought of it as something like Superman’s Metropolis, a near infinitely malleable setting that I could adapt to the needs of a given story. In the novel, for example, there’s a giant Godzilla-type monster who that emerges from a bay, but that bay didn’t exist until I realized I needed it. So I craft setting in service to other narrative considerations. A giant monster has to come from somewhere.

For the Hiroshima novel, I’m writing about the city as it was on August 6, 1945 at the moment the atomic bomb was dropped. I actually chose the bombing almost casually, and it wasn’t until I got deeper into my research, as the abstract concept of this massive tragedy became more concrete in my mind, that I realized the responsibilities I would shoulder with such a heavy topic. While I’ll never be able to live in historical Hiroshima, I do plan to visit, funds permitting, and I want to treat the city and its people with as much respect as I can muster.

So is it necessary to have lived somewhere to write about it? I don’t know. I think there’s a critical mass of understanding that empowers a writer to write about a subject, but I hope that kind of understanding can come from second-hand sources as well as direct experience, at least for fiction. With fiction, if I need a particular setting, I’m just going to make it up, anyway.

One final question. If someone finishes Pull Me Under and wants another book set in Japan, do you have any personal recommendations?

KL: If you like crime/mystery novels with female protagonists, Natsuo Kirino’s Grotesque or Out are great; she has a wonderfully dark sensibility. For something short and nostalgic and sweet, try Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat. Suzanne Kamata’s Gadget Girl: the Art of Being Invisible is an excellent YA novel about a girl with cerebral palsy. On the non-fiction side there’s Essays in Idleness, written in 1330 by a monk named Kenkō, and Junichiro Tanizaki’s tiny volume, In Praise of Shadows, which is on Japanese aesthetics. Tanizaki’s passionate commentary on Japanese toilets as places of spiritual repose is worth the read alone.

ZP: Thanks, Kelly! Pull Me Under was such a pleasure to read, and I can’t wait for everyone to get a chance to pick up a copy in November.

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Kelly Luce grew up in Brookfield, Illinois. After graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in cognitive science, she moved to Japan, where she lived and worked for three years. Her work has been recognized by fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Ucross Foundation, Sozopol Fiction Seminars, Ragdale Foundation, the Kerouac Project, and Jentel Arts, and has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Salon, O, the Oprah Magazine, Electric Literature, Crazyhorse, The Southern Review, and other publications. She received an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin in 2015 and lives in Santa Cruz, CA. She is a Contributing Editor for Electric Literature and will be a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies during the 2016-17 academic year. Her debut novel, Pull Me Under, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Zach Powers lives and writes in Savannah, Georgia. His debut story collection, Gravity Changes, won the BOA Editions Short Fiction Prize, and will be published in spring 2017. His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Forklift, Ohio, PANK, Caketrain, and elsewhere. He is the co-founder of the literary arts nonprofit Seersucker Live (SeersuckerLive.com), and he leads the writers’ workshop at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home. Get to know him at ZachPowers.com

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Lost & Found: Samuel Annis on Christopher Manson’s MAZE

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When I was a child, I was given a book that was not really a book at all.

It tricked me at first. I believed anything with pages to turn, words, and pictures was a book, but as I turned this object’s pages, read its words, looked at its pictures, I felt myself in the presence of something fantastically different than the other books scattered throughout the house. In a book, I began at page one, moved to page two, and by this way eventually found myself at the end. No matter what occurred on the pages, if I kept reading I would eventually reach the final sentence, whether I wanted to or not. The thing disguised as a book, on the other hand, did not take me from page one to page two. “This is a building in the shape of a book,” it said. It elaborated, told me it was a maze and that by traveling through the rooms I might find my way to the center. Clues lay hidden in each room to suggest where to go next. Not all the clues were going to help me. Some would try and get me terribly lost. Unnerving as this was, it was also irresistible, and I spent many hours on my stomach, the maze before me on the carpet, as I wandered through the rooms, trying (unsuccessfully) to untangle the clues, and continually opening a door leading to a room that was pitch black except for the dozens of eyes staring at me. A room where I died over and over and over and over and over again.

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The title of this work that consumed large chunks of my childhood is MAZE (with the flavorless subtitle, Solve the World’s Most Challenging Puzzle). It is one of a handful of works written and illustrated by Christopher Manson, and though his others are similar in their use of fairy tale and mythic elements, MAZE alone possess a hypnotic power, transcending its binding and reaching toward something else.

Each double-page spread depicts one of MAZE’s 45 rooms. The left page contains between seven and thirteen lines of text while the right page features a lush pen-and-ink drawing of the room itself, eerie as a de Chirico with its impression that either someone has just left or will shortly arrive. Manson loosed his prodigious imagination in the creation of these spaces, crafting each room with a general theme and them cramming most of them with a mix of baroque furniture, shrubs manicured into geometric shapes, exotic birds, Kafkaesque machines, musical instruments, trap doors, lamps, crumbling porticos, strange glyphs and signs carved into the walls. Or, instead, a room may be empty except for a fire raging inside a hearth whose cavernous depths are crowned by mantle carved to look like a gaping mouth. Inside each room are doors, and each door will take you to another room. You are challenged to find a way to room 45 and then back to room 1 using the fewest steps possible. Furthermore, a riddle is hidden in room 45, and the riddle’s solution is tucked away in the other 44 rooms.

What sounds simple at first becomes morbidly, maddeningly difficult. Rather than not having enough information, the challenge becomes one of over-saturation as each elaborately arranged room and block of narrative text provides numerous pointing fingers (sometimes literally) without there being indications as to which are more valuable than others. Will the solution to a particular room become clear only after you turn the room upside down? Is a face hidden in the carving over the door?  Should you rearrange the letters in words spoken by the characters? As you move from room to room you find yourself going in circles, collapsing back into already experienced scenes, and you can’t help but wonder, as though this were really a book by Robbe-Grillet, whether or not something obscure but crucial has changed.

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Of course, things have changed. As you reenter a previous room, the returning images—an umbrella leaning against a doorway or the shadow cast by a bowling pin—become new in light of something else recently seen. Each room builds on your lexicon of figures, signs, and your MAZE language. Your perception deepens, and so, to adapt the Zen koan, you never enter the same room twice.

In the attempt to unravel MAZE’s devilishly hidden secrets, a possible solution something greater presents itself. If we can take something away from this work—other than an appreciation for cross-hatch shading technique and unsettling dialogue—it is the idea of repetition as a path towards sublimity.

Room-41

Our lives are, it seems, composed of a few recurring acts and motions, such as making dinner and falling in love. Once these repetitions are noticed, it can become difficult to see anything but constantly overlapping patterns tying your birth and death together in a bow. The patterns become avenues towards disquiet, the sense that we are now and will always be stamping over the same worn ground. And this is true. We are now and will always be stamping over the same worn ground.

MAZE’s major triumph lies in urging us to recognize the inexorability of continual repetition, something that becomes even more crucial in our increasingly labyrinthine world. We live with the expanding illusion of different and unique rooms, each seeming to offer momentary justification for our existence. We bound through chambers of experiences and believe ourselves to be continually ascending towards…what? Enlightenment? God? A consciousness-shattering orgasm?  But the elaborate approaches to fundamental anxieties are not new rooms so much as rearranged furniture. The rooms are the same, a fact we don’t realize until we suddenly recognize our surroundings and think, “how is it possible I am still here dealing with this?” We hold the proof of our varied and wild experience, but proof does not equate with meaning, and the awareness that our hands are gripping shrinking fistfuls of sand begins to feel like the darkest moment of our lives.

Room-22

MAZE recognizes our learned desire to progress and then creates an environment where such progress is almost impossible. “You haven’t spend nearly enough time here,” MAZE seems to say, “keep looking.” At first this can seem like a punishment. We want to move upwards and onwards! How dare someone deprive us of our right to ascend! But, and this is a beauty of the printed page, MAZE does not respond to our rage. It sits patiently on the shelf until our curiosity bests our petulance and we take it down again. Then it continues from where we left off: at room number 1.

Of course, the 31 years since the book’s publication gave people a chance to solve most—I hesitate to say all—of MAZE’s puzzles. If you want, you can simply Google the answer. You will find websites and podcasts dedicated to MAZE exegesis and emulation, where fans of the work debate the meaning of symbols drawn on a scroll or the importance of an apple partially hidden in shadows. They will also tell you the identity of the narrator and how to reach room 45. However, I will caution you: knowing the solution to the riddle or the shortest path through MAZE will not unlock the secret of the work.  That can only happen by accepting the puzzle as it presents itself, in all its opacity, in all of its chaos.  Anything less is—to use a key MAZE theme—a red herring. You may think you’ve reached the center, but in reality you will have only skirted around the outer rim, never allowing yourself to be swallowed whole.

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I have never reached the 45th room, which means I am always starting and continuing through MAZE. I’ve stopped expecting I’ll find the shortest route, and I can’t even think about solving the riddle. Now I enter primarily to breathe the strangeness of the spaces and to show friends who haven’t ever heard of MAZE: Solve the World’s Most Challenging Puzzle. Because I always follow the rules and enter with disbelief suspended there are several rooms I haven’t ever seen. I’m sure I’m missing something obvious, and maybe this should bother me, but I am content to wander through the rooms whose surroundings I recognize and provide continual delight. In room 7 an abandoned toy duck looks up at me.  In room 20 a tortoise crawls across the carpet. In room 26 several devils perform a play. In room 42 a small bear holds a sign reading “saints that way sinners this way.” And in room 45? That’s something you’ll have to find out on your own.

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Samuel Annis is a writer and bartender in Madison, Wisconsin.

Posted in Lost & Found

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Hey Neighbor

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Week One of PLOTTO: THE MASTER CONTEST OF ALL PLOTS brought in an overwhelming array of great stories. We found ourselves in busy train stations, fish markets, and test labs. Strangers passed each other cryptic letters, time-travel talismans, howling babies. And then they vanished, leaving us eager for more.

Congratulations to last week’s winner, John Lawton, whose hauntingly funny “Hey Neighbor” has us eyeing our Nextdoor accounts with extra suspicion.

The prompt for Week Two can be found here. See you next week!

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The posts on Hey Neighbor fell into three buckets: Prayer Group, Lost Dog, and Suspicious Individual(s). Miller hated Hey Neighbor.

His wife Jennifer read the post “Saturday Picnic” out loud. “This sounds fun.”

“Sounds like work.” It was probably a search picnic for the Crandalls’s beagle Dixon.

“We’re going,” she said.

“I miss Louisville.”

“You hated Louisville. You missed Denton, once we got to Louisville?”

“Fine,” he said. “I’ll make my potato salad.”

The picnic was in Coolidge Park, along the river. Long tables were set up in a U-shape and blankets were scattered about. Miller scanned the faces, trying to match each with a Hey Neighbor post. His potato salad had been a hit.

Miller got up to use the restroom. He spotted the woman in the greasy blue fleece seconds before she plowed into him. He apologized. She was young–twenty maybe. Her hair was matted and oily, like she’d slept under a car.

She looked at Miller, her eyes wide. “I shouldn’t have looked.”

“What?”

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” She thrust a small tube into his hands and broke away. No one noticed.

The tube was a rolled up document. Not paper, it was like thin worn leather, soft.

He flinched as Jennifer came up behind him.

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know.” He knew enough not to show her.

 

That night Miller waited until Jennifer was asleep and went to the porch. He unrolled the tube–the pink surface was a crudely drawn map of his street. Without lifting his eyes he slowly made his way to the sidewalk. He looked up at the McNeil’s house across the street. When he looked back at the map the words “Hates his son for eating the last piece of cake” appeared over the house. Miller thought he was imagining it but looked back down and there it was.

He stepped out into the street and the map shifted. He looked at the next house—“Steals from tip jars.” Miller smiled; a bit more than prayer groups were happening here.

He picked up his pace. He hadn’t moved like this in years. He stood in front of a two-story house with the state flag in front—”Pees in the sink.” A green shingled house with a screened in porch—“In love with her brother in law.” Miller ambled along, losing track of the hours. “Happy his brother got fat.” “Pretended to cry at her mother’s funeral.” “Fucks his wife’s shoes.” “Poisoned Dixon.”

Pink light filtered through the trees as Miller made his way home. He knew he was going to have to look. Things hadn’t been easy for them over the last two years: he hadn’t wanted to move again.

He got to his yard. It really was a nice house. Jennifer was right about the camellias. They made the yard come alive. He held the map in front of him. Without her they’d be out on the street with all the lost dogs.

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John Lawton is a writer living in Chattanooga, TN. A graduate of the MFA in Fiction program at NC State University he is currently putting the finishing touches on a series of stories set in the fine state of Rhode Island and is working on a novel that revolves around the Newport Folk Festival. He’s also considering doing a podcast from the shed behind the house, because what else could it be there for?

Here’s the Plotto prompt that, er, prompted John’s story: {A}, proceeding about his business and caught in a crowd, is confronted suddenly by a strange person, {BX}, who thrusts a mysterious object, {X}, into his hand and, without a word, disappears.

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTSIn the 1920s, dime store novelist William Wallace Cook painstakingly diagrammed and cataloged his personal writing method—“Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict”—for the instruction and illumination of his fellow authors. His efforts resulted in 1,462 plot scenarios and Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots was born. A how-to manual for plot, Plotto offers endless amalgamations to inspire limitless narratives. Open the book to any page to find plots you may never have known existed, from morose cannibals to gun-wielding preachers to phantom automobiles. Equal parts reference guide and historical oddity, Plotto is sure to amaze and delight writers for another century.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays, From Tin House Books

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Wayward Heroes: An Excerpt

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An excerpt from the forthcoming release from Archipelago Books.

Translated from Icelandic by Philip Roughton

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THE SWORN BROTHERS had their men fish, hunt, and forage, and they berthed their boat in little inlets in the evening. They never strayed far from the boat. They took great pleasure in the sport of searching cliffs for seabirds and their eggs, lowering themselves on ropes from the brinks of the cliffs and ransacking the ledges and crevices for spoils. The cliffs that men descend for seabirds can often be a hundred fathoms or more, and those who forage them feel safer after they have abandoned their footholds entirely and dangle freely in the air than they do inching themselves over their edges. This task is one of the most enjoyable of any done on Hornstrandir.

The men kindled fires beneath overhangs and sometimes under the open sky, for plentiful firewood was found there on the beaches, and they slept in tents on the land when the weather was fine. When the weather took a turn for the worse, they went to farms and offered to fight for lodging, though the farmers would give up their beds to them without a word. Young men stared at the heroes, captivated, and in their presence, other men seemed of little moment. Young women stared as well; some offered to wash the heroes’ clothing, and others to rub their heads with soap. As for slaughter and plunder, they achieved little, for the farmers had a natural defense in their poverty and paltriness.

The sworn brothers often sat on bright evenings in calm weather on the grass-grown clifftop of Horn, which looks northwest over the sea toward the end of the inhabited world. They watched for the wakes of great fish on the surface of the sea, and the columns of spray from the spouting of whales. Dolphins leapt and seals frolicked, and a pod of porpoises headed due north to the heart of the ocean. More than once, they discussed how any man with the strength to capture these creatures, and to take their blubber and tusks, would have the means to trade for a longship and make war on more people than those who inhabit Hornstrandir. Swans would also fly in from the sea, stretching their necks and sounding in flight. Then the heroes would sit silently, for they knew that these were the dísir of the Lord of Hosts, women superior to any other, who select champions for Valhöll and turn their backs on cowards. The sworn brothers declared it the highest wisdom in the world to be able to understand the din of such birds and to interpret their flight.

One day as they sat at the edge of the clifftop, watching their men fishing at the base of the cliff, their conversation went as follows. Þormóður asked:

“Are there any two men in all the Vestfirðir who live as contentedly and cheerfully as we?”

“That I do not know,” said Þorgeir. “It seems more remarkable to me that no one has ever heard of two equally doughty men sharing such fraternity, either in the Vestfirðir or elsewhere – and may the hour never come when either of us begs for life or mercy from any man.”

Þormóður Kolbrúnarskáld said: “Can a better place exist than the one we inhabit now? None dare oppose us, and all as one give us whatever we demand, without a word, while women ask us our leave to hunt out our lice.”

Þorgeir said: “I think that any place where we might make enemies worthy of death at our hands, or of cutting us down with their weapons, would be better than here.”

“Yet it is hard to forget that Egill Skallagrímsson, the greatest hero ever to have lived in Iceland and its best skald, died in his kitchen in the company of crones,” said Þormóður.

“No man is a hero who is well married and has beautiful daughters, as Egill did,” said Þorgeir. “A hero is one who fears neither man nor god nor beast, neither sorcerer nor ogre, neither himself nor his fate, and challenges one and all to fight until he is laid out in the grass by his enemy’s weapons. And only he is a skald who swells such a man’s praise.”

Þormóður said: “Are there two men living anywhere whose friendship is so strong that nothing could ever diminish their concord and sworn brotherhood?”

Þorgeir replied: “Truth to tell, there is no firmer friendship than when two men are such great champions that neither need look to the other in anything, until one of them is slain – at which point the other shall do all he can to avenge him.”

Growing on the cliffs that rise from this sea – the outermost of all seas – high up on their faces, on narrow, hard-to-reach ledges, is a certain herb, whose like in fragrance, nutriment, and healing potency is not found in hayfields or gardens. This herb has a hollow stalk nearly as tall as a man, and its upper part is pliant and sweet and a cure for most ailments. Due to this herb’s enticing sweetness, heathens have named it “cravewort,” whereas Christians have given it the Latin name angelica, after the angels and archangels seated nearest the throne of Christ in Heaven.

In late spring, the sworn brothers often climbed down to cliff ledges to gather cravewort. One fair-weather day as they were enjoying themselves in this task, Þorgeir was cutting stalks so enthusiastically, yet heedlessly, that the edge of the narrow cleft where his feet were wedged crumbled beneath him, and he lost his balance. The cleft’s surface was so loose that all it took was the weight of one man to break it. Since the hero had not yet been claimed by Hel, however, he was able, as he fell, to grab hold of a cravewort stalk growing out from a tuft of grass in a crevice in the cliff face, and hang onto it. Below him was a drop of a hundred fathoms, whereas above, only a few fathoms separated him from a narrow path leading to the cliff’s brow.

On the cliff face where Þorgeir now hung, there was neither a shelf nor a spur nor any other toehold, nor any chink or handhold by which he could heave himself up. His only life-thread now was one pitiful stalk of cravewort.

As for Þormóður, he had clambered down onto another ledge to gather this herb, and lingered there doing so for quite some time. He and Þorgeir could not see each other. Upon cutting his fill, Þormóður tied what he had gathered into a bundle, placed it on his back, and hoisted himself to the top of the cliff. The weather was calm and the sea still, and the sun shone in a clear sky.

Þormóður lay down on the overhang to wait for his sworn brother, but the cries of the seabirds lulled him to sleep. In fact, the sworn brothers were not that far away from each other – if Þorgeir had called out even a little loudly, Þorgeir could easily have heard him. Yet on this, the old books all tell the same story: nothing could have been further from Þorgeir’s mind at that moment, hanging as he was from the cliff, than to call his sworn brother’s name only to beg him for help.

Þormóður, the books say, now sleeps soundly on Hornbjarg, eventually waking late in the day. He wonders about his sworn brother, and starts calling to him from over the brink. Þorgeir does not answer. Þormóður climbs down to a ledge, whence he shouts loudly, startling birds into flight all over the cliff. Finally, from down below him, Þorgeir replies: “Stop scaring the birds with your shouting!”

Þormóður asks what is taking him so long.

Þorgeir replies, saying: “It matters little what is taking me so long.”

Þormóður asks if he is finished gathering cravewort.

Þorgeir Hávarsson then gives the reply that has long been remembered in the Vestfirðir: “I think that I will be finished when the one in my hand comes out.”

Þormóður begins to suspect that not all is as should be with his sworn brother’s cutting of cravewort, and he clambers hastily down to the cleft from which Þorgeir has fallen. He peers over its edge and spies his sworn brother hanging from the cliff. The cravewort stalk is quite frayed, and on the verge of breaking. Þormóður tosses a rope to Þorgeir and manages to pull him up to the cleft. They then climb the narrow path to the top of the cliff.

Þorgeir Hávarsson did not thank his sworn brother for saving him, nor did he express gratitude for it in any other way – in fact, it seemed as if he harbored some sort of grudge against Þormóður for the incident, and things grew colder between the sworn brothers from that point on.

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Halldór Laxness (1902-1998) is the undisputed master of modern Icelandic fiction. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955 “for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland.” His body of work includes novels, essays, poems, plays, stories, and memoirs: more than sixty books in all. His works available in English include The Great Weaver from Kashmir, Independent People, The Fish Can Sing, World Light, Under the Glacier, Iceland’s Bell, and Paradise Reclaimed.

Philip Roughton was born in Colorado and lives in Iceland. His translation of Iceland’s Bell received the American-Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prize in 2001 and second prize in the 2000 BCLA John Dryden Translation Competition. His translation of Halldór Guðmundsson’s The Islander: A Biography of Halldór Laxness was recently released in the United Kingdom. His translation of The Heart of Man won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize for book-length literary translations in 2016.

Posted in Fiction

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A Brief Episode In Music History

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First, music went from ephemeral—song as performance, never sung exactly the same way—to physical object. Through records, cassettes and CDs, we captured songs; then, finally, came the Internet. Music has been returning to the ephemeral ever since.

Cassettes consisted of a case and two spools wound with magnetically-coated tape. They came pre-recorded or recordable, “blank.” Each represented different possibilities; each offered a way of preserving a particular moment in time.

Cassettes were maligned for their low fidelity by our parents, but they were important to us. We thought our technologies would last. After all, records had lasted; people still play records to this day. And if eight-tracks hadn’t, they’d vanished so neatly that we—the cassette tape generation—barely knew they had existed.

Tapes were easy to copy, and durable. A beloved tape—Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All, for example—could be forgotten on the floor of a car, shoved in the pocket of one’s faded black jeans, or stuffed in a backpack with one’s undone homework and comics and an uncapped tube of black lipstick, and suffer no damage. Tapes could survive heat, cold, neglect. Though they eventually wore down with use, they did so gently: The playback warbled, faint, as if the sound travelled from a greater distance as time passed.

Through tapes, underground music penetrated the Iron Curtain. Tapes were also instruments for musical education amongst American teenagers, who recorded artful mixes. A teenage girl might cherish her friends’ mixes nearly as much as the friends themselves: An Ozzy mix from Steve, the coworker she crushed on who said she seemed like “someone who could appreciate Ozzy;” Pink Floyd from Eric, who took her to see Star Wars. She might keep these, long after abandoning her other tapes. They might occasionally turn up in boxes while unpacking moves in her twenties.

Tapes varied in length. 120, 90, and 60-minute tapes were common. It was perhaps a 60-minute tape that played in the car on a road trip that began in Maryland and ended in Massachusetts; three girls in the car, one leaving home for the first time. They smoked Marlboro Reds; they drove fast with the windows down. They had only the one tape, with songs by Marilyn Manson, Siouxsie Sioux, and My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult. Also, inexplicably, Taco’s “Putting On The Ritz.” After several hours, they decided not to play it again for the remainder of the trip.

Tapes included protection to prevent accidental erasure: They had tabs that could be snapped off so the indentation triggered sensors to prevent recording. A beloved mix might thus be afforded some protection. But if needed, sticking adhesive over the indentation bypassed this prevention. Tapes were durable, but nothing is indelible.

Sometimes mechanical problems also occurred. Tapes suffered “wow and flutter,” frequency wobbles from playing speed fluctuations below or above the 4Hz sweet spot. Or a player might rotate the supply spool faster than the take-up, or not release the heads, and the tape would spew out of the cassette and tangle in the player. Tape players sometimes “ate” tapes, destroying them altogether.

In Massachusetts, a teenage boy once painstakingly rewound an eaten tape for his girlfriend because it was her favorite, a mix that reminded her of her Maryland home. He rewound the spools and re-sealed the tape ends. Afterward the player lurched as the adhesive daub passed through, but the tape played fine. The girl would long remember this kindness, how carefully he had treated something she treasured.

Cassettes peaked in the 80’s and were overtaken by CDs—the return to ephemeral was primed to begin. Perhaps it began on an elementary school bus, 1987, on the last day of school. On the bus, a boy held a cassette in his hand.

He snapped the tape inside, as a girl next to him watched. Holding the end of the tape, he flung the cassette out the bus window. The tape unfurled, flying out behind. It sparkled, seal-gray and nearly weightless, fluttering, suspended there, before finally it dropped onto the road. The girl felt troubled by the boy’s wastefulness, but it was somehow tragic and exhilarating in equal measure.

The tape ribbon sparkled in the sun as the bus turned a corner and then, just like that, it was gone.

Tiny-House

Elizabeth O’Brien lives in Minneapolis, MN, where she earned an MFA in Poetry at the University of Minnesota. Her work—poetry and prose—has appeared in many journals, including New England Review, The Rumpus, Diagram, Sixth Finch, Radar Poetry, PANK, Cicada, and the Ploughshares blog. Her chapbook, A Secret History of World Wide Outrage, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications.

Posted in Flash Fidelity, Nonfiction

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Standing with Standing Rock: An Interview with Waniya Locke

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In September, my nine-year old daughter and I went to the Standing Rock Reservation, where we joined the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a 1200-mile pipeline set to carry fracked oil under the Missouri River and through the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois. For the last few years, I have been working on a book that combines found poems “mined” from a book about geology with poems written in the voices of indigenous ancestors. What began as a project of experimental poetry turned into an awareness of how mining—and our dominant culture’s exploitive relationship to the land—underwrote the genocide of Native peoples and attempted the erasure of their culture and stories. The work sometimes felt like exhuming voices, and it took me to the Dakotas several times where I entered into humble friendships with Lakota elders from the Pine Ridge and Standing Rock communities.

This time, I wanted to talk to Waniya Locke, one of the four women who began the protest in early 2016. Waniya is not an activist, but a mother and teacher who uses social media with uncommon clarity and intimacy. In her Facebook posts, she gives statistics about fracking and pipeline leaks. She shows peaceful protestors being attacked by mace and guard dogs. Sometimes she cries. I knew that I wanted to interview Waniya, but I had no idea if or how I would meet her. The camp had grown to thousands of people by the time we arrived, and many leaders had moved on to Iowa to try to halt construction of the pipeline there.

For those of us who love the earth or are environmentalists, it has been difficult to see what our dominant culture calls “progress” as anything but a wrenching narrative of loss. Loss of land and entire species of animals and plants, loss of consciousness of connection, loss of the old stories that taught us more deeply about place, loss of woods and marshes for the same Walmart or Big Lots or Buffalo Wild Wings. But even that first night in Standing Rock, I could feel a sense of return, a kind of cycling that was going to put remembrance in touch with itself. If one elder remembered a verse to a song, and another elder remembered another, and if they taught that song to a child, what more could be connected? What would change if we made our decisions with this child and her grandchildren in mind?

The next morning, we woke to shy sunlight and steam rising from the tents and cars. We ran up the hill that had been dubbed Facebook Hill because it was the only place in camp where people could get a signal and use cellphones and social media. There were a handful of people there that early—campers and journalists, looking out. It seemed almost miraculous to me, but when I got to the top, I realized that the one woman there was Waniya herself, doing a post before she left for Iowa. I asked if I could interview her, and we walked down the hill to our camp, where we sat down at the fire circle.

• • •

Rachel Jamison Webster: Waniya, one of my hopes in coming out here was that I would get to interview you. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

Waniya Locke: First of all, I am one of many women. It is important to understand that, that I am one of many. It was women who initially opened camp up. It was all done by prayer. We went and had ceremony done first, where were given very specific directions that we couldn’t use violence, we couldn’t use weapons. That was specifically told to us. They told us to trust the Spirits and to allow them to guide us.

So again, I’m one of many. Continue reading

Posted in Interviews

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Lost & Found: Andrew Engelson on Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz

Contrary to what Orson Welles asserted in The Third Man, the cultural output of Switzerland amounts to more than the cuckoo clock. As anyone who’s enjoyed Paul Klee’s playful paintings or read the subversive stories of Robert Walser knows, the Swiss have contributed their share to the arts.

Like Swiss wines, the writers this tiny country produces aren’t well known beyond its borders. Most of us, for instance, have never heard of the twentieth-century novelist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. I only learned of his existence while spending money.

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I was living in Switzerland, trying to complete a novel I’d been working on for five years. My partner had taken a job with a global health nonprofit and we’d moved our family from a posting in Hanoi to Geneva. I was the trailing spouse, at home typing on my laptop like a hermit. The village we lived in was an orderly suburb where rough-timbered barns have been converted into apartments for bankers, diplomats, and employees of acronym-laden organizations. My daughters were enrolled in local schools, where their nimble minds soaked up the new language like sponges. I wrestled with my manuscript and bought groceries.

While paying for my gruyère and Cheerios, I glimpsed Ramuz’s worried face on the Swiss 200-franc note. A quick Google search provided scant information: Born in Lausanne in 1878, Ramuz was a poet, essayist, and experimental novelist whose formative years were in Paris, where he befriended the likes of Andre Gide and Igor Stravinsky. In 1914 Ramuz married the Swiss painter Cécile Cellier and returned to Switzerland after to the outbreak of the First World War. From 1930 until his death in 1947 he lived in a stone house overlooking the vineyards near Lausanne, where he wrote deeply existential books. Most have never been translated into English.

Intrigued, I bought one of Ramuz’s early novels, La Grande Peur dans La Montagne (Terror in the Mountains) and attempted to read it in the original French. Let’s just say I have a complicated relationship with the language. Enamored of Foucault and Deleuze in college, I studied French for a semester, but it never took. During my three years in Geneva, I chose to learn by osmosis rather than taking classes. It was not a successful experiment. While my daughters became fluent, my studies were limited to the checkout lane at the supermarché: I know my aubergines from my courgettes, but any time I utter complete sentences at home, I’m mocked mercilessly by my children.

With the help of a dictionary and Google Translate, I muddled through to the end of La Grand Peur. It’s a tale of misfortune set in a village high in the mountains of Valais. Imagine Heidi rewritten by Cormac McCarthy.

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Five impoverished men decide to lead their cattle to summer pasture in a remote alpine meadow. The village council, however, forbids them because the place is subject to a centuries-old curse. Defiant, the herdsmen guide their cows to the rich green fields. Cooped up in a tiny cabin, the men begin to argue and bicker. Vague, terrifying noises penetrate the starless night. One of the men is killed by a malfunctioning rifle. Another, a twitchy teenager, flees down the mountain in terror. One herder, a superstitious old codger, keeps a mysterious paper tucked in his threadbare coat, confident it will protect him. But the cattle contract an unnamed, contagious disease. The president of the village council, accompanied by a veterinarian (who in his black cape resembles the Grim Reaper) condemns the men to exile. One of the herdsman, who is in love with a girl in the village, flaunts the order and attempts a secret rendezvous. He’s discovered, and as the accursed band attempts to descend from the high country, a group of vigilantes assembles to prevent them from returning. A gun battle ensues in the town graveyard. It doesn’t end well.

Ramuz, who was a poet before he was a novelist, doesn’t concern himself with anything resembling a plot. The strength of the book derives from a mood of dread, sustained by Ramuz’s surprising imagery. In one scene, the pine needles of a forest floor are “embroidered with golden sunlight.” In another, a man’s bloody hand is held aloft like a lamp. And in the most striking scene in La Grande Peur, a man ventures to a lifeless place of rock and ice to prove he possesses the tiniest tincture of will:

“It seemed that no one had come here since the creation of the world and nothing had ever disturbed it, except for at that moment a man proceeded to write the evidence of his existence as if here were placing letters, one after the other, one phrase and then another, disturbing the first page, that beautiful blank page, with his footsteps.”

Passages like this resonate deeply with me, as I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains, whether in the Olympic range near Seattle, or among golden larches at the foot of the Matterhorn. Even so, living in Switzerland I felt like an outsider. I began to feel guilty about not fitting in. With all its beautiful scenery, precise train service, and fantastic quality of life, why couldn’t I love Switzerland?

  Continue reading

Posted in Lost & Found

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La Grande Guerre

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A parasol and a stone seawall and a polished lady clad all in white: ostrich feather hat, fringed purse, silk gloves. Her posture lovely, her coiffure tight. But Mag has planted a flower in front: a blue hydrangea pom-pomming preposterously. Star-shaped blossoms facade what Georgette would most like to see: is the lady’s face as pretty as her dress? But Georgette confesses to Loulou the Pomeranian that she likes that her husband has denied them that.

The three of them are on a walk to get groceries in the morning after a gray spring rain. The air is hung with a purple smell: lilacs. Some petals on the ground, some still attached. Hydrangeas, though gorgeous, have no scent.

Some people, some climates, can be too nice, oppressive in their mildness, a mildness unto death. Her husband has a wildness. A perversity without which the conditions of their marriage could become adverse. He can be terse and steady, but he is not without temptation.

In line at the butcher’s, they hear a woman ask for “Two nice kidneys, please,” and Magritte whispers to Loulou and Georgette, “I’m tempted to ask for two horrible ones.”

Georgette’s father was a butcher. As a butcher’s daughter, she grew used to the slaughter of animals for food. “Would you ever eat me?” Loulou had asked when he was a puppy. “Of course not!” Georgette had said. “Forget about that.” But she understood why he’d wonder.

When they walk by the American consulate on the way home, Mag is tempted again: “Maybe I’ll go in and ask them to do the necessary paperwork to make me the King of America tomorrow.”

The image is called The Great War, and the glory of the woman’s attire conflicts with the violence of her not-so-long-ago era. If Magritte were king, then Georgette would be queen, and Loulou would be both heir and court jester. They have, in their family, a defiance of common sense.

Mag seems staid, Georgette knows, to people outside their isosceles triangle, but he’s got his darkness and he’s got his edges. He suffers from what he calls “the bizarre affliction” – the source of his ills and his melancholic progress: ennui. As their friend Suzi has said, he lives it as a metaphysical condition, and about his pursuit of painting he at times manifests “an almost constitutional dislike, feigning something between boredom, fatigue, and disgust.”

Georgette imagines that if you took the hydrangea away, you’d find the woman to be blind. She looks like the kind to say Pro Patria, and to shut her eyes, stop her ears, and sing a popular song. “Right?” says Loulou. “Like, La la la, everything’s sunny and nothing’s wrong.” Ugh.

Tiny-House

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. Co-editor of René Magritte: Selected Writings, she is also the author of seven books of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, including, most recently, the novel O, Democracy! and the novel in poems Robinson Alone. Her second novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2017.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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A Writer Is Not Smarter Than Literature: An Interview with Eliot Weinberger

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Essayist, editor, translator, political commentator, and occasional poet—Eliot Weinberger is one of this century’s busiest literary polymaths. Whether cataloging the translation history of a single poem, or tracing the influence of classical Chinese poetry on the European avant-garde, or even reading George W. Bush’s memoir through the critical lens of Michel Foucault, Weinberger brings a fierce erudition to bear on each of his varied subjects. His essay collection The Ghosts of Birds—newly published alongside a reissue of his now classic Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, a close reading of different English translations of a single Wang Wei poem from the Tang Dynasty—is a sprawling record of found poetry, cultural encounters, and historical anecdotes, all of which Weinberger, ever the modernist, makes something like new again. 

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Hal Hlavinka: Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei was originally published three decades ago, when literary translation was still very much an activity at the margins of the market. Were there any specific developments in the translation community— methodological, cultural, social; or perhaps a fight or two—that you considered when drafting the new section of the book?

Eliot Weinberger: It’s true that since the book was written in 1979 (and published in book form in 1986) there is now a greater recognition of translators, excellent presses devoted to translation, and an academic industry (which I avoid) of conferences and works of translation theory. But when it came to expanding the book for the new edition, none of this mattered. What I found interesting is that the English translations in recent decades are all written with an awareness of the original book—that is, of the many previous translations of the poem. So there’s a pressure to come up with something new, which isn’t easy. (And, for those who remember the old book, the new one has more wacky stories about my nemesis, the Furious Professor, the one who accused me of “crimes against Chinese poetry.”)

HH: The combination of fragments, translations, and poems that make up An Elemental Thing—the serial essay which comprises part one of The Ghosts of Birds—are striking in how disparate yet oddly comfortable they seem when set aside one another. What draws you to a particular piece that ends up in the project?

EW: The idea was to write a serial essay, in the manner of the American open-ended serial poem, which can go on forever. The subjects keep changing from essay to essay, but images and even phrases repeat. Maybe that’s why they’re “oddly comfortable.” I’m glad you think so. I always want my books to be a kind of couch. You read a few pages in the late afternoon, fall asleep, and have a memorable dream.

HH: Several of the essays and pieces you originally wrote for exhibition catalogs. How does your compositional process change when you’re collaborating with another artist, particularly when you’re bringing text to accompany a visual medium?

EW: I love collaborating with visual artists, but the understanding is that I will not write directly on their work—I’m not an art critic—but rather will write something somehow inspired by their work, a kind of parallel text. In this book are collaborations with two artists: the Cuban-American Teresita Fernández and the Maori painter Shane Cotton, both of whom contacted me out of the blue. In Teresita’s studio, I saw crates and crates of rocks that she uses for her installations and a work in progress of 31 small gold-plated metal rectangles, partially painted over in black ink, which were intended as a calendar. So I decided to do a calendar of stones—ordinary stones, not precious ones. But mine is a lunar calendar, with 28 sections, and the whole thing waxes and wanes: the texts grow longer up to #14 and start getting shorter after #15. In the case of Shane Cotton, I incorporated some of his imagery of birds, rock cliffs, and Maori translations of the Bible into my text. But mainly his work sent me into Maori bird lore and the stories of various birds that no longer exist, that now are ghosts.

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HH: Your essay “Béla Balázs’s Chinese Dreams” begins with a glancing definition of one of modernism’s goals: “In the first decades of the 20th century, a committed modernist had two ambitions: to make something new and to recover something old.” This strikes me as an apt description of your own work. Do you think of your project as an extension of a modernist aesthetic?

EW: Yeah I’m just an old-fashioned modernist, not very happy with postmodernism, whatever that is. Modernism always played with the tension between sincerity and irony, between making connections and severing them. Now, at least in the avant-garde—whatever that is—it’s all irony, which I find tedious. A writer is not smarter than literature.

HH: I found myself often overwhelmed by the odd historical details you find, which stick out in the mind long after reading. I’m thinking of things like the bone from Josaphat’s spine that closes “That Impostor Known as the Buddha,” or the grandfather clock without a pendulum or weights in “William Sharpe,” or the anecdotal shape of “The Wall.” When you’re reading or researching, what is it about a specific detail that clicks for you—that you know it might echo loudly in a piece?

EW: I try to write my essays like poetry, listening to the sound, trying to include telling images. There are no rules or general description for these details. They hit me when, in my research, I discover them and, as a writer, I hope they’ll hit someone else.

HH: Your work has a restless, world-devouring quality that’s hard to pin to any specific critical genealogy, perhaps aside from Pound. Who would you estimate looms the largest behind the recent work in The Ghosts of Birds?

EW: Well, no one. There are cases where a certain writer is tremendously influential on another, but I don’t think that’s a universal rule, and it has been vastly overrated—as has anxiety. (I, for one, feel anxious about everything except writing, which I find oddly calming.) When I was a teenager, DH Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature and the writings of Artaud first opened my mind to the possibilities of the essay, but obviously I don’t write like either. My model for the narrative bits of my essays is the Icelandic sagas. My models for condensing large amounts of information are Lorine Niedecker and Charles Reznikoff. And everything else comes from poets.

HH: Aside from the stories and fragments that you clearly take in by the hundreds, are you a collector of any kind? Rocks and minerals, perhaps? Or maybe you’re a birder? Everyone’s a birder these days.

EW: I don’t collect anything, except dust, even books—in the sense that my books are for reading, and are not acquired because of their rarity. I love watching birds, but am not a bird-watcher. (I once said this to Jonathan Franzen, passing the time as we coincidentally were waiting by the luggage carousel in the Sydney airport, and he looked at me with utter disdain.)

 

Catch Eliot Weinberger in conversation with Justin Taylor this Sunday, Oct. 23rd,
at 7:30 at Powell’s in Portland! 

Tiny-House

Eliot Weinberger has published books of literary essays and political commentary, anthologies of poetry, and translations of Latin American and Chinese literature with New Directions since 1976. He is the series editor of Calligrams: Writings from and on China and the literary editor of the Murty Classical Library of India.

Hal Hlavinka is a writer and critic living in New York City, where he works as the event coordinator at Community Bookstore. His work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, Music & Literature, and The Quarterly Conversation, among other places.

Posted in Interviews

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Field

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Field

The plaque said this was the oldest wall in the state.

It was stone, set by hand, and ran the length of a field,

splitting an unused road from incongruous grasses.

It was no less true to say the wall bisected the field.

(I could draw a diagram if provided paper.)

Let me start over:  The wall sat along a field and an unused road.

It bisected them.  Its line was shared by a mangled hedge,

or the suggestion of one.  A jug of bleach, emptied and faded,

was jammed in there, in the wall, where maybe a stone had been,

where a stone once was.  That doesn’t matter much

because here’s the thing:  The field was glowing,

its busted patchwork woven with light from who knows where.

The weather-beaten stone, the mangled hedge, the incongruous

grasses:  All glowing.  Something was broken with this field,

like a mess of florescent tubing fallen from a busted sign box.

But I could’ve been wrong.  Either the field was glowing

or I was full-on making this shit up, failing to see

the field as it was, as it would’ve been without me.

You want to take in the world plain, to know it clear,

to see so clean it’s like a thought.  Like with this

felled wall running the disused road or the grass

like a busted patchwork.  If I’ve yet to say it without adornment:

this field was teeming, totally lit up.

The field was blushing up on me.

I was blushing, full-on girlishly engrossed.

Like my merely standing there was gossip.

Like if I were here I shouldn’t say so.

Like if I was here it was wrong to know it.

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Brandon Kreitler is the author of Late Frontier, selected by Major Jackson for the Poetry Society of America’s National Chapbook Fellowship, to be released in the spring.  He’s from Arizona and lives in New York City.

Posted in Broadside Thirty, Poetry

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Coastal Craft: Michelle Wildgen

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As we continue to take applications for our upcoming Winter Workshops (SCHOLARSHIP DEADLINE IS TOMORROW!), we check in with a few of our faculty to discuss their own classroom experiences. 

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Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience (as a participant)?

Michelle Wildgen: I’m not sure I remember my first workshop, which would have been when I was 15. But I do remember the feeling of it, how exciting it felt to realize what writing could be like, the feeling of being happily overwhelmed at how much there was to read and to learn about it.

TH:What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?

MW: Too many to pick out only one favorite. I have lucked out and had one amazing teacher after another. But here are some: Anything that frees you from fear of changing your drafts.

One thing that is so obvious, yet I had to be told, so I tell other people: Save separate numbered drafts and you feel free to tear into a story or novel and experiment. You can go back if you need to, but I rarely do.

Also: stop freaking out about cutting this little paragraph or that precious page! You’re a writer. You have more great writing in you.

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TH: Strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?

MW: I was in a workshop in which one of the other students would try to chat with her neighbors at full volume during the actual workshop. Just a sidebar commentary, but really loudly. It’s not like she was even way at the back of the room, either. We were all around a small round table.

TH: We tend to listen to a lot of records during the workshop weekend. Do you have a favorite “at the ocean”album?

MW:A winter ocean is a whole other ballgame, so I guess it can’t be too shiny and poppy, and yet it feels important that it be something we can drink red wine to and that won’t make us all stare Plath-ily into the blank gray ocean.

TH: A favorite winter poem, story, or book?

MW: I love returning to Jane Eyre in the winter. It feels cozy to me, which may be perverse, given the consumption and madness and whatnot.

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Michelle Wildgen is a writer, editor, and teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to being an executive editor at the literary journal Tin House, Michelle is the author of the novels Bread and Butter, But Not For Long, You’re Not You , and the editor of an anthology, Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast. Her fiction, personal essays, and food writing have also appeared in publications including The New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, and anthologies such as Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, Best New American Voices 2004, and Best Food Writing 2004 and 2009.

Posted in Craft

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Get Up Every Day and Do an Unseen Thing: A Conversation with Nicholas Mainieri

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I first encountered Nicholas Mainieri’s fiction in those great baseball issues that Hobart used to put out every spring. His first published story “The Tools of Ignorance,” which appeared in the spring of 2008 and was titled after an old nickname for a catcher’s gear, carried itself with such authority and deep-in-the-grain understanding of our national pastime that it stuck with me for months afterward. Later that same year, I accepted a two-year position at The Southern Review at Louisiana State University, and, knowing Mainieri lived nearby, I looked him up and we began to meet regularly to watch baseball—my beloved Phillies won the World Series that fall—and talk about writing stories, including a novel he was just beginning to formulate. Back then, his book had a sort of Heart of Darkness sound to it.

When I got the chance to guest edit an issue of The Southern Review devoted to stories, essays, and poems about baseball, Mainieri may have been the first person I reached out to. (Other contributors included Pat Jordan and Witold Gombrowicz.) His story in that issue, “This Game Do That To You,” contains what remains one of my all-time favorite lines in a work of fiction, in which a less-than-charitable clubhouse attendant refuses to console a player who strikes out to end a low minor-league game: “‘Not your fault tonight, big fella,’ Leroy say. ‘Blame the fucking scout what signed you.’”

In the years since then, I’ve watched Mainieri’s voice and his vision grow even sharper and more nuanced, more fluent in different vernaculars and capable of deeper emotional resonance. His stories have appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Salamander, Sou’wester, and he now appears to be part of the house band at The Southern Review, with three stories in those esteemed pages. The arrival of his star-crossed, coming-of-age debut novel The Infinite (Harper Perennial) signals the next step of an already marvelous career. Emailing with him about it in early October felt like old times, like the sort of conversation we used to have along the first-base line at Alex Box Stadium at LSU.

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Andrew Ervin: Tell me about the route you took from your first published story “The Tools of Ignorance” to having copies of your first book arrive at your door.

Nicholas Mainieri: Thinking about it now, it was eight years, just about to the day, from that story’s publication online in a Hobart baseball issue to a box of The Infinite galleys showing up at my house. You and I became friends because of that story, man! It was published alongside your great “Phillie Phanatic” story. The phrase “the tools of ignorance,” in baseball, describes catcher’s equipment—the implication being that catchers, were they any smarter, would play another position. As a former catcher, I like the phrase. It can be tongue-in-cheek, but it also suggests something about the hard work of existing at the game’s heart. And it seems to me now that toiling in the dirt and getting the crap kicked out of you for little glory provides a good analogy for the route from first published story to debut novel—or for the writer’s life itself. Work really hard, focused on whatever seems most essential. Experience a lot of rejection. Major successes occur mostly in obscurity (appreciated, if you’re lucky, by your family, and the writer-friends you’ve made, who understand). But, in general, “success” only means that you get up every day and do an unseen thing. It takes a long time to finish a novel and a long time to find a home for it. Someone might glance at those solitary years of work and wonder why in the hell you’d want to do that. I can take pride in that, and hope that I’ve made a thing that will be useful to someone somewhere. Anyway, hefting that box full of copies of the real thing was just really cool.

AE: What was the hardest part of writing the book?

NM: I don’t know how you or other novelists feel, but I found rewriting a novel to be especially hard—in both practical and intellectual ways. I get all screwed up when I try to edit a piece of writing in an existing document. When I rewrite I literally have to retype. Physical, marked-up manuscript on desk, new blank document on screen. By the end of this novel, I had retyped the complete draft from start to finish nine times. Inefficient, maybe, but it was the only way I could get it done. It was also best from an intellectual standpoint, however. Writing a story requires one really long sustained thought, one trail of logic—if this then this, over and over. But there’s a spirit hidden in there, too, somehow. The characters’ experiences become a kind of proof for ideas only understood through the rigor of repeating (rewriting) that complicated sequence again and again.

AE: I’m not letting you off the hook that easily. What I want to know is: what were the challenges specific to your story?

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Everyone

BG-Flash-Friday-2015

This isn’t one of those stories where someone has cancer. In this story, everyone has cancer. Everyone is sitting in a room with an old friend, while the sunlight fades behind a stretch of Victorians and old oaks, and the room goes dark and only the candle light illuminates their faces, and they talk about cities in Eastern Europe that they haven’t been to, but have seen in pictures and dreamed of like the invisible cities of Calvino. Everyone in this story is in a hospital room, watching the yellowed water in a vase of flowers — fat-headed sunflowers, bunches of pink yarrow, lilies, and sprays of indistinct white flowers with small, plentiful blossoms.  Everyone is looking out the window at the rain falling fast on a brown hillside, pooling in the low places that used to be channels for a river. Everyone in this story is calling a loved one, or thinking about calling a loved one, and regretting the time they said they didn’t love their mother, their father, the Mets, the Thanksgiving turkey, a family trip to Arizona; made an idle remark about the Grand Canyon being overrated, which wasn’t even true. It was a wonder! Everyone in this story is sitting beneath a tree’s yellow and orange leaves on a picnic blanket reading a story in which someone, maybe a child, has cancer, or a pig that needs to be slaughtered, or a dead parent, or a series of obstacles to overcome in order to achieve adulthood, which is, upon reflection, if the book went on, not all it’s cracked up to be with the bills and mortgages and children who build train tracks and then abandon them without having once pushed Thomas beneath the series of intricate bridges. Everyone in this story is laughing at a gif, warming a sleeping child on their stomach, waking up for a short swim, a long run, or to call someone who is living briefly in an Eastern European city. Everyone in this story is conflicted about the nature of their lives, wondering what philosophy to follow, what show to watch, thinking that they’ve heard good things about The Wire, but who knows, wondering what hobby to take up or start doing again, wondering about their wives and husbands their children and their lovers, whether they’ve loved or been loved as they wanted. Everyone in this story just got a call letting them know that their life is going to end someday. Fuck. Fuckity fuck. Everyone in this story is taking the car in for an oil change, changing the light bulb in the garage, masturbating to a picture of an ex on Facebook, crying in the front seat of a car at a funeral, a wedding, stopping off on the long dusty road sheltered by a copse of trees and thinking about a day when they were very young and their father, now dead, took them to the zoo and held them on their heads when they were tired of walking. Everyone’s father holding their chubby white legs as if they would never let them go.

Tiny-House

Andrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, DC. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in more than thirty publications including: The Three Penny Review, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, Sierra Nevada Review, Apt, OxMag, Prick of the Spindle, Bayou Magazine, Catamaran, and Isthmus. He is currently a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast.

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Shelter in Place: An Interview with Alexander Maksik

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Natalie Bakopoulos and Alexander Maksik met at a book festival in 2013, after Bakopoulos reviewed Maksik’s second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, for the San Francisco Chronicle. Since then, they have continued a conversation about books and writing. This interview took place over email in September 2016, regarding the publication of Maksik’s third novel, Shelter in Place.

Tiny-House

 

Natalie Bakopoulos: Several years ago in The New York Times, Katie Roiphe noted that the “youngish” generation of male novelists writes sex with a “convoluted, post-feminist second-guessing.” She argued that “the current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex.” I am happy that Shelter in Place does not follow that path, but your sex scenes do subvert the paradigm of previous generations (Mailer, Roth, Bellow, and so on). For one, they do not privilege bravado and conquest in the matter to which so many feminist critics have objected. Your work is always focused on the sensual. What is essential—and extraneous—for you in a sex scene? What do you shy away from?

Alexander Maksik: To begin with, I’m not much interested in writing about sex as a form of conquest because I’m not much interested in people who approach sex that way. Or maybe I’m not interested in writing about men who do. And to be honest, that’s not because I’m such an evolved or righteous person. More than anything, it’s because I’m so repelled by certain clichés. And what’s duller than a man whose identity is wrapped up in collecting women? So while I certainly consider myself a feminist, my primary objection to writing about those men is literary. Of course, the two things can’t ever be separated. The idea that men are one thing and women another is as terrible for the world as it is for art.

As for sex scenes in particular, the very notion that writing about sex is somehow separate from any other kind of writing is anathema to good fiction. What is essential in a sex scene is the same as in any other and I want to write every scene well. I do notice, however, that a lot of contemporary fiction seems to treat sex as farcical and/or disastrous. Disastrous sex is particularly popular. Terrible sex. Humiliating sex. Or, worse yet, it’s ignored altogether. Young urbanites embrace in the yellow light of a bodega and the next thing you know someone’s making a very specific blend of coffee in a very specific vessel, and they’re talking about whatever malaise happens to be haunting them that morning.

Personally, I’d prefer less about the origin of the coffee beans and more about the sex. There’s a real prudishness there, an underlying terror of giving offense. A cuddle is a hell of a lot safer than whatever you believe its opposite is and that instinct toward safety is born out of fear. I find all that disconcerting.

Who becomes an artist out of a desire for safety? The aversion to writing about real intimacy is symptomatic of what I see as our growing cultural aversion to sincerity. And far more frightening, is a growing atmosphere of caution. Since when have good writers been cautious? Are we so afraid to offend? To use the wrong language? To run afoul of the professionally outraged? To fall subject to an increasingly popular and powerful ad hominem moral criticism. Those who’ve taken it upon themselves to tell us what we may and may not write? I think the answer, too often, is yes. That fear is ubiquitous and dangerous. It’s a dry rot and it not only affects writers, but editors and prize committees, and critics who are so often terrified of backing the wrong writer, of being caught supporting the wrong book. And this obviously extends far beyond the subject of sex.

I don’t understand it. I have always been drawn to art because it is an utterly lawless world, limited only by a person’s courage and imagination. So what do I shy away from? Cowardice. I revile cowardice in art. I revile the idea that we should be writing benign and careful books.

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NB: Rage, particularly female rage, is a key element of the book. And Tess is one of my favorite characters of recent fiction: restless and compassionate, driven by principle and anger, enraged by cowardice, with intense moments of both vulnerability and power. Like all the book’s characters, she resists gender stereotypes. How do you see her as emblematic of the book’s larger preoccupations?

AM: I’ve been struck by how divided readers are when it comes to Tess. There are those who adore her and those who abhor her. People see her as brave and powerful, or careless and cruel. My sense, though, is that if she were a man she’d be a far less polarizing character. We have a vastly greater tolerance for men who possess the characteristics she does. And indeed, what you describe is really a description of the same old male hero we’ve seen repeated in a thousand novels and films. All those tales of restless men, angry and driven by principle, who set out to slay the dragon, solve the crime, seek revenge, fight the good war, who return, bruised and bloodied, along a rose-strewn path while at the end of it waits a patient maiden smiling on the porch, bosom heaving.

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