The Good Art Friend

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The current Internet-fueled maelstrom ignited by the article “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?”—about two writers and the putative ownership of a “kidney story:” for one writer it was a lived experience; for the other it was something to render in fiction— in all its dizzying permutations, the details of which were further recast in a court case, made me wonder if the corollary, the Good Art Friend, must then also exist.

First, I have to admit I am not sure what an “art friend” is at all. Full disclosure: I am Facebook friends with both protagonists, as well as with the writer of the original piece. I’m also a little unclear how and where the adjective good/bad attaches (to friend? to art?).

Since the definition is up for grabs, I’ve defining BAF as someone who is on the whole deleterious to your art, but probably good to their own, and may or may not be a friend—if we define friend as someone who cares for you, shows up for you, and genuinely shares in your joys. The GAF is the good friend who helps you on your journey, often in ways you don’t expect and don’t appreciate until enough time has passed for hindsight.

For Sale/Kidney Story, Never Authorized was an insightful newsletter post by my erstwhile creative writing colleague Lincoln Michel. The post made me think about how no matter how solitary we are as artists, even Emily Dickinson grabbed the details of life including those of the people closest to her for her work. For me, my oldest art friend, besides my Royal typewriter,  is my hometown best friend, Patti. She is my art friend exemplar, even though, as a VP-CFO of an insurance company, people might say, she’s not an artist, which makes me say, how do we define art and is the “artist” solely responsible for—and the benefiter of—its creation?

Patti and I met, admittedly, in the most incredibly catty way, excusable because we were only 10 or 11: piano recitals. I suffered through years of piano lessons, every minute of which I loathed— the opening bars of “Für Elise” will be forever a trigger—plus the added misery of recitals and competitions, all of which took place in the basement of our public library, where I once took a karate class in hopes it would protect me from racist bullies.  In our small town we actually had three or more piano teachers, which meant sitting through interminable rounds of little kids picking out “Chopsticks.” In our cohort, I felt Patti was the most talented, but most of the attention went to a boy pianist (whom I won’t even refer to here, for our nickname for him will make him instantly recognizable) whom we felt received unnecessary and excessive praise from our teachers solely for being the rare dude.

We actually didn’t dislike Boy Pianist on a personal level, we just truly felt the adulation he received from our teachers gave short shrift to Patti’s talents. Patti was also being raised by a single dad, a miner, after her mother was killed in a car accident, and unlike me with my Asian Tiger parents and the other kids, she continued to play of her own accord and because of her talent. This was also my first lesson in how you can bond with a fellow artist by being annoyed at a third artist.

Patti was also the person who constantly pushed me to venture into new experiences, like the time before we had driver’s licenses when we tried biking to the next town, which required a short and terrifying stint on the highway. The sense of risk and being able to sit with uncertainty is essential for any art, and I don’t know if I would have developed it on my own. I also secretly thought I was a very humorous person, but without a sparring partner, how to develop those skills? Patti was and still is one of the quickest and funniest people I know. Imagine my delight as a child finally finding someone who shared my passion for MAD magazine. Not to mention that being the only student of color in our high school made me a magnet for bullies, and often I was too tired, too scared, too full of self-loathing to defend myself, but Patti never seemed to tire of defending me.

When I wrote my first novel, a YA story set in high school, a Patti-esque character figured prominently. It was easy to develop a fully realized character basically plagiarizing my colorful friend, including her telling off racist bullies. The novel did end up with race as a prominent theme, but much of my motivation came from feeling the experiences of youth slipping away and wanting to trap them in fiction.  In various drafts, the protagonist became more and more fictional: I was an avatar of a better and braver high school self, the racial and intergenerational themes became more prominent, while the Patti character largely remained Patti, with fictional details created or rearranged for plot.
When I pull up, her house is dark; her father doesn’t come home from the mines until late in the evening, so she doesn’t leave the lights on.

I’ve never met Jessie’s mom. One Thanksgiving, long before Jessie and I became friends, an Arkin High student killed her when he came barreling down the wrong side of the street in his pickup–apparently he’d been drinking while watching the football game

I stare out at the night. I won’t drive drunk tonight–or any night. No way.

Jessie opens the door to the car. “Hi, Ellen,” she said. As she hoists herself into the Blazer, the flowery smell of Sweet Honesty fills the car, followed by the slight trace of cooking smell—fried something.
In homage, I had even left the character’s name as “Patti.” How it changed to “Jessie,” I will explain.

While I was still working on the novel, I pooled all my vacation time from my day job and went to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, where I got to work with the late wondrous Nancy Willard. One critique she had was that the two characters, Ellen and Patti, were “too alike.” Maybe revise Ellen “up” and Patti “down,” she suggested. I still remember the hand motions she made. Up and down. So I indeed made Ellen even nerdier (and much kinder) than I was high school, and roughened the Patti character around the edges. However you want to look at it, these changes helped get the book into a publishable state.

When Houghton Mifflin bought the book, I giddily sent Patti the manuscript, excited to see what she’d think about the daredevil BFF character, modeled so closely on her that, not unlike what happened in For Sale/Kidney Story, I proudly used her real name.

I assumed she would be over the moon for me and be happy to see a fictional version of our friendship immortalized in print. And I inadvertently proved the truism one of our teachers used to use, that to assume makes an ASS out of U and ME.

She called to let me know she’d read the manuscript. Then she started yelling at me about how angry she was at what I had done, and then hung up.  I, confused and panicked, called back only to get various iterations of the loud hang-up. This was in the time of landlines and hang-ups were pretty emphatic. Finally, her husband answered the phone, and kindly said Patti didn’t want to talk to me and it would be better to just stop calling.

Of course I considered not publishing, but I comforted myself that although she had expressed her hurt over my “betrayal,” she never asked me not to publish. Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done if she did.

I did frantically call my editor to have the name changed to “Jessie.” I remember being in extremis to the point my editor said, “Wow, this makes me wonder how much else in the book is true.”

With fiction, it’s all true, and it’s all a lie. The relevant issue was whether I was being a Bad Art friend at that moment. It reminds me a little bit of Bob Dylan, who was also from our town. In his early post-Hibbing years, exploring the folk scene, many people would dig out their prized one-of-a-kind folk records only to find the next day they’d been swiped by Dylan because he so single mindedly needed them. That was an unequivocally rotten thing to do, and legally actionable, but now that Dylan is Dylan, no one called foul, everyone seemed glad for their small contribution to American arts and culture. Was that similar to what I was doing? Tearing single-mindedly into my project and hoping for forgiveness later? Would that require me becoming as famous and influential as Dylan as a justification?

I didn’t know, and maybe I still don’t know. All I knew is that I had set myself on a path that I wanted to follow, and did.

But I still missed her. I told her so, in various missives I would put in the mail every few months (I was too terrified to call). They were never reciprocated.

Until one day.

My second book, a middle grade novel set in junior high and completely Patti free, had just been published and had gotten some press in the Minneapolis newspapers, including mentions that I was in town. Patti, who had moved there shortly after our high school graduation, called me up without preamble, congratulated me on my new book, told me she had a coupon for a favorite restaurant, Ciatti’s (RIP), and would I help her fulfill the buy one, get one?

I was ready to leap into her arms when we met, but she clearly was not intending to resume where we left off. Conflict avoidant as always, I didn’t push. I ate my meal, we talked about my new book. I remember we laughed, sporadically, perhaps about how “cappuccino” at this restaurant was Sanka with whipped cream on top. The connection was still there.

We tentatively put each other on Christmas card lists. With social media, we friended and accepted the requests. We enjoyed spying on her former piano nemesis this way. Years later, she and another high school friend, Lisa, visited me in New York. Back at the apartment, she noticed my compendia of MADs and asked to borrow one. We still didn’t talk about “it.” The novel had gone out of print for a second time years ago, so it seemed we could just not talk about it forever.

Occasionally things go better than you expect—not often, even less often in publishing, but it happens. My novel had a brief second life at HarperCollins, then promptly went out of print again. But maybe 10 years later, an out-of-nowhere BuzzFeed article listed Finding My Voice as one of 15 YA Books From The ’80s And ’90s That Have Stood The Test Of Time, and set it on its third reanimation, with Soho Press.

This time, I resolved to be a better friend than artist.  During a visit to Minneapolis, I asked Patti—making sure to do it while we were driving in a car and at night so I wouldn’t have to look at her—if it was “okay” to republish.

“Oh my God Mawee,” she said, using my childhood nickname. “Of course it is.”

“But, um, you were kind of mad back then.”

“I was out of my mind then.”

She explained more about what she’d been going through at the time, and she said she felt she had acted inappropriately. I told her that the things she had said to me in anger—”You ripped out huge pieces of my life.” “Is that what you think of me?”—still stand. My bleating “But you were the hero in the book and in my life” was not a good defense on my part. I built a character on the details of her life I had gleaned as her friend, not someone doing an interview, something I now do routinely for research for my fiction.

Patti was sincere in her permission for this third go-round. Needing to reread it for republication, I was startled at how the novel now read like it had been written by someone else. Obviously, I could easily pick out where I mined the shared details of our lives, but  enough time has passed that I could see that the real/actual memories had been transformed beyond recognition–something I think Patti saw before I did. I remember writing that very first draft, being conscious that I was altering the “car accident” narrative to include alcohol, to make a character point that Ellen is aware she would not drink and drive—only to find the lived detail was Patti’s mother having a heart attack in the car, which I had somehow misremembered as a car accident. Thus, this detail in the book, which works in the text to provide characterization is still “inspired” if not “copied” from a real person’s life—and the most devastating event of that person’s life, at that. Is it okay to use it just for my “art”? I consider then the grace she extended to me despite my complete lack of consideration of her feelings when we were 28 and I was working so hard to get published. In late 2020, I casually informed my high school friends via group email about my virtual (COVID-19) launch for Finding My Voice, and I almost cried with joy to see her face in the Zoom panes.

Last, week, I did a book club visit to group of Korean American adults reading YA. All the readers, one by one, mused on how much better their high school lives would have been if they had had a Jessie  by their side. They were all amazed and somewhat envious when I explained Jessie was more or less my real BFF.  I know that I am lucky this way, now more than ever. Not just to have a viable writing career but to have a lifelong friend.

One important life lesson from these decades of career, ambition, writing, and friendship is that change is real and it’s happening all the time despite our attempts to deny it. What both Art Friend stories show is that there’s no one way to be an artist, and there’s no one way to be a friend. The who-what-why changes over time, as do the boundaries of what is moral, ethical, allowable. What is appropriation, what is theft, and the big question: Is the artist solely responsible for her art (for praise or opprobrium, including the legal kind)? I think the only remedy is to resist our very human urge to adjudicate sides: Who’s right? Who’s the bad one here? This is a toxic path that can spiral forever, with nothing resolved, feelings continually hurt, nothing generative, and only the lawyers and the third-party chronicler (in Bad Art Friend’s case) profiting. If there’s one thing being Buddhist has taught me, it’s that once you let go of attempting to impute value—win/loss, good/bad—to whatever it is unfolding in front of your face, you can actually be open to what the moment is. And that by just being actively kinder, defaulting to the kinder impulse is spiritually profitable for all. In my defense, my version of our friendship is also mine to tell, and it is my blind spot to not consider others’ feelings while I work that actually allows me to create; in fact, I consider such focus a help, not a hindrance as far as my writing is concerned. Furthermore, we see that no one actually owns memories, and even these change with time and perspective. For Patti and me, the very same event that was “bad” back then has proved to be “good” today. But the whole time, the only thing that mattered and still matters is our connection, in art and life.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Seeing the World More Clearly: The Millions Interviews Maggie Smith

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I first met poet Maggie Smith when we were both in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I was born and raised in the Midwest and tend to seek out fellow Midwesterners—I would say more than half of my New York writer friends are actually originally from the Midwest—and at a resident reading I saw her casually drinking beer straight from the bottle, which reified my judgment, even before I learned she was from Ohio. Her poetry also had that straightforwardness, say of a neighbor you really like who is both kind and an astrophysicist. Smith’s poems refuse to show off, can be brilliant by combining familiar objects from a landscape tinged with nostalgia for childhood, and use Twitter as a springboard all at the same time.

However, poetry tends not to take up much space in our cultural landscape, especially during the last few years, which have been dominated by the simplistic rhetoric of divisiveness and bombast. Perhaps, then, it was not such a surprise to see her 2016 poem “Good Bones,” (published in Waxwings, then in the collection of the same name in 2017) suddenly appear on a an episode of Madam Secretary in 2017, as if such an assault on language and sensibility engendered an equally strong counterpunch. Her newest collection, Goldenrod, was just released

The Millions: Can you tell me about your collections of poetry?

Maggie Smith : Goldenrod (2021), my fifth book and my fourth collection of poems, in the words of poet Ellen Bass, “brims with a fervent love for this gorgeous and wounded world.” These poems celebrate the present moment, and the ways we seek—and find, again and again—the extraordinary in our ordinary lives.

Good Bones (2017) My third collection of poems about motherhood, memory, and finding light in the darkness. The titular poem was published online the week of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando and the murder of MP Jo Cox in England, and went viral internationally. Now I call that poem my “disaster barometer:” whenever tragedy strikes somewhere, it is shared widely.

The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (2015) Ten years passed between the publication of my first and second books. I point this out to reassure writers who are worried about their productivity and their trajectory. Some books take longer to write. Some books take longer to find the right home. Here’s to tenacity and patience.

Lamp of the Body (2005) My first book, which began as my MFA thesis, won the Benjamin Saltman Award. I wrote these poems in my early- to mid-20s, and it’s fascinating to look back on them and see the seeds of poems that would grow later.

My first book of prose, Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change, was published in 2020 and to my surprise became a national bestseller. It’s a collection of essays and quotes (I call them notes-to-self) about reimagining your life—and yourself—when faced with difficult changes.

When we met at VCCA in 2011, I was working on poems for The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, but it was there that I also began writing poems that would appear in Good Bones. I met Baltimore-based paper artist Katherine Fahey there and began writing a series of poems inspired by her work, and I think of that series of poems as the structure for Good Bones. Those poems are the load-bearing beams in the book. (A quick plug for writing residencies: the artistic cross-pollination and friendships made at places like VCCA can be magical.)

TM: How did you “decide” you wanted to become a poet and who are some of your influences?

MS: I don’t think I ever “decided” to be a poet—I just started writing poems and never stopped. If you write poems, you’re a poet; whether you try to make some sort of career from writing is a different thing entirely. I began writing as a teenager, as many of us do, probably because it’s a time of questioning and testing boundaries and learning about yourself. The first books of poems I owned and read were by Marge Piercy, Sylvia Plath, Diane DiPrima, Donald Hall, Nikki Giovanni, Anne Sexton, and Robert Hass. I gravitated toward poems with apt metaphors, poems that described things, places, and feelings in ways I could not quite articulate myself. I still do.

TM: Do you write prose?

MS: I do! Keep Moving is prose—quotes interwoven with essays that are lyrical, rooted in metaphor, and relatively brief. They’re the essays of a poet. I’m working on some longer-form prose projects, too, and that has been an invigorating challenge. Even my poems tend to be on the shorter side, so I’m enjoying stretching myself across multiple pages, experimenting with pattern and structure, and resisting the sonnet-lover’s urge to invite the reader into the room and then quickly shuffle them out the door. I’m like, “No, please, sit down, get comfortable, stay a while!” 

TM: Walt Whitman aside, it’s rare in America to have a poet become a cultural figure — I’m not counting Amanda Gorman because her career is just starting. Since I’ve known you, you were a poet who’d beaten the odds by getting published—I don’t think non-poets realize how difficult it is to get a poetry collection published. Then your poem “Good Bones” became truly a cultural phenomenon, as did Keep Moving, which is in a totally different vein. What was that like? Did it feel at all like a natural evolution of the work you were doing—or?

MS: Keep Moving does feel like part of a continued conversation I’ve been having with readers—and with myself, on the page. Each book—each poem, easy essay—is different from the previous one, but I do think there are more similarities than differences. I can look back through the five books, four poetry and one prose, and see similarities between them, because they’re mine. I see thematic overlap: memory, family, how we know what we know, how language sometimes fails us, how we find beauty in a broken world. I see craft elements repeating as well: metaphor, imagery, attention to rhythm and sound in the word choices and syntax.

TM: How do poets make a living, especially if they have families?

MS: Most of the poets I know also do something else: they teach, they work in publishing, they freelance as writers or editors. Some work in healthcare or tech. After my MFA, I worked in children’s book and educational publishing for years, before striking out on my own as a freelancer in 2011. I’ve been self-employed for the last 10 years, cobbling together a professional life from writing, teaching, editing, copyediting, and traveling for readings, workshops, and speaking engagements. No two days are the same. What I gave up in stability (and benefits) I gained in freedom and flexibility, and to this point the trade-off has been worth it. I have so much more time with my children because I make my own schedule.

TM: You have a new collection, Goldenrod. Has your new fame put undue pressure on creating something legible to a larger public? Do you feel different (or have to shield yourself) from the idea that people are looking at you, when your job is more to be an observer?

MS: After “Good Bones” went viral, I had a (thankfully brief) crisis: How do I write the next poem? Are people expecting poems like that from me now? As a poet, I’d felt very free from the idea of audience expectations up to that point—and frankly, free from the idea of much of an audience at all. Poetry has a relatively small but discerning and loyal readership compared to, say, fiction. But I knew I would not—could not, and didn’t want to—write another “Good Bones.” I joked that there would be no sequel, no “Better Bones” or “Good Bones 2: This Time It’s Personal.” In order to keep making poems, I have to tune out the static that comes from the outside world—both negative and positive noise. I need to be able to have a quiet, focused conversation with myself on the page. Goldenrod is a book that came from a place of stillness and observation. It’s hard to encapsulate what a collection of poems is “about,” but many of these poems are about seeing the world around you more clearly.

TM: What poet living or dead have I probably not heard about but should read?

MS: I don’t want to assume anything about your reading habits! You seem to be someone who reads widely and has eclectic taste. I bet you’ve read poems by some of my favorite living poets—Carrie Fountain, Vievee Francis, Victoria Chang, Natalie Shapero, Michael Bazzett, Catherine Pierce, Jericho Brown, Ellen Bass, Caroline Bird, and so many others. But there are certainly some poets who deserve a wider readership, and someone who comes to mind is the terrific Eloisa Amezcua. Her first book, From the Inside Quietly, is gorgeous. I’m really looking forward to her next book, Fighting Is Like a Wife, which portrays boxer Bobby Chacon and his wife, Valerie, and is due out in spring 2022.

What the Literature About Contemporary Korean Women’s Lives Illuminates About Our Own

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There was an infamous flasher who lurked around the school gate. He was a local who’d been showing up at the same time and place for years…On cloudy days, he would appear at the empty lot that directly faced the windows of the all-girls’ classroom eight. Jiyoung was in that class in the eighth grade.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

The recent Jeffrey Toobin “incident” of his masturbatory penile exposure during a work call with colleagues at The New Yorker enraged me. And while it was welcome news that The New Yorker has fired him, though not citing a reason—the lack of professionalism during a work call should be obvious. His other employer, CNN, where he serves as head legal analyst, said that following the “Zoom incident,” Toobin “asked for some time off” and that the network had granted it. He will be just fine.

My anger has to do with not just the incident itself but also the subsequent jokey “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I” responses from the pundit lad-o-sphere, steamrollering over the fact that most women first involuntarily encounter the weaponized penis as children. I was 11 in rural Minnesota when first exposed to a flasher on the street who also threatened me with a broom handle. The response by the male adults in my life to my tears and upset were gales of laughter. The flasher, a drifter, lurked around our small town for days, unbothered by police or other authorities, until he tried flashing a well-built woman who got in a physical altercation with him and he was driven from town. Just a few years later, when I was barely an adolescent, I tried to place an ad in our town newspaper to sell my horse. My parents grabbed the phone out of my hands when they heard me shouting, “I don’t know how long a horse’s penis is, my horse is a mare!”—me not understanding that the man with the trustworthy, inquiring adult voice was not interested in purchasing my horse but was assaulting me via phone. A quick survey of friends suggests my experience is not unique but rather very typical, how this hostile atmosphere begins when girls are still children, continues with everyday misogyny (including impossible standards set by advertising), and proceeds when the weaponized penis enters the workplace. Working for years at an investment bank, a call asking a trader about price/earnings ratios would often devolve into the equivalent of horse-penis talk. For example, when pictures of a colleague’s a new baby were met with a vulgar observation by our section chief about how big the newborn’s penis was. Or when an announcement of new female analysts featured Playboy centerfolds instead of employee pictures. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hang up. Instead I had to endure this just to do my job—and it was clear I was being docked invisible points for being “overly sensitive.”

In economics, this concept of negative collateral effects of an action is called “disutility.” The poisoning of the environment and climate change would be a disutility of the energy sector. Which is why disutility is often never looked at. And when it is, it is relegated to less-than exciting (to the self-described “alpha” trader), marginalized fields like economic sustainability. It’s something I encountered only because of my interest in global developmental economics—because it comes up as a lone STEM-voice of dissent in discussions of why not just send all our old toxic iPhone trash to undeveloped countries and pay them (minimally) for the inevitable cancer they will get (See also: Theory of Competitive Advantage).

I was struck, then, at a number of recent novels set in Korea looking at the cost of sexism baldly and directly. In fact, what has been described as the Korean #MeToo movement began as a grenade that went off in the insular Korean literary community: in 2017, the Hwanghae Literature ran a feminist issue; in it a poem, “Monster,” by Choi Young-mi accused “En,” a fictional character of sexual misconduct. The details of “En” match up directly with Ko Un, arguably Korea’s most famous poet and novelist, oft-cited as Korea’s best hope for the Nobel Prize and whose work appears in most middle school and high school textbooks. Other Korean women quickly reified this accusation, suggesting Ko had gone decades unpunished for such conduct, for using his stature to sexually harass young female writers . Ko responded in a nuclear fashion, suing Choi for one billion won ($886,500) for defamation. But now that Pandora’s box has been opened, the spotlight has also shined on the movie and K-pop industry as well. Even the mayor of Seoul, who received unequivocal praise for his handling of the Covid crisis, became embroiled in his own sexual harassment scandal, and committed suicide after the allegations were made public.

The novel Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo, translated in its elegant minimalism by Jamie Chang, tells a story of a young housewife who seems to be going through a nervous breakdown and extreme depression. But, in some ways, when we see her extremely typical but psychologically and physically violent coming of age, in a dispassionate narration that not only makes the horror more total, it seems less a breakdown than a normal response to being a girl and then a young woman dealing with everyday misogyny. In the case of the flasher in Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, when the adults brush it off, some bolder girls jump the flasher, tie him up, and bring him to the police station. Jiyoung is a tentative person and it doesn’t escape her notice that the girls who rise up to defend themselves are then punished by their school. She manages to get into college, gets a boyfriend, but overhears her male friends describing her as “spat-out gum” because her boyfriend broke up with her. She is similarly dismissed when seeking employment. It seems clearer and clearer to her that taking a stand or resisting societal norms doesn’t get the rebels anywhere. She is cognizant of and frustrated by her lack of options, and half decides, half falls into marriage and childbearing, holding out hope the conventional route will get her some modicum of satisfaction. She even gives up her job, which gave her a level of independence and self-actualization, even though she didn’t like the job per se, which she realizes only once she’s quit. But she finds out later that even work was sullied: shortly after she’d left, a scandal erupted when it was discovered that the male security team set up spycams in the bathrooms, uploading images to a porn site and to male coworkers. Thus, the routes of possible escape or alternatives fade away.

Cho, a television scriptwriter, said in an interview that she wrote the book in two months because her own life, basically, provided the entire backdrop she needed. The book hit a nerve in Korea and became a bestseller—not just in Korea but internationally; it’s been translated into 18 languages.

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) is another bestseller with a wide audience in the English-language world. More atmospheric than plotted, it centers around a Korean housewife who suddenly stops eating meat after having a disturbing dream. Her indifferent and unloving husband tries to adapt, but at a family gathering her refusal to eat meat becomes insulting to her father, who goads her husband and brother into force feeding her meat. She fights back and ends up institutionalized; her husband, the narrator, is left pondering her putative delusions and the mental instability of a woman who won’t submit to the behavior men want to see from her.

If I Had Your Face by Korean American author Frances Cha follows a group of young women who happen to live in the same building as they navigate lives in Seoul, a glittery place of neon and high-rises, and a place that is widely known as the plastic surgery capital of the world. A place where an estimated one in three women will elect to have a procedure before the age of 30, and where it is impossible to merely take the subway and not see ads promising life transformation—for men and women, but more for women—everywhere). The exquisitely beautiful, cosmetically enhanced Kyuri works at a “room salon,” a fancy place where men pay a premium to consort only with the “prettiest” women. Her roommate is a natural-faced artist dating the rich son of a chaebol family. Down the hall is Ara, a mute hairdresser, whose plain-looking roommate Sujin has a dubious dream to undergo expensive and painful plastic surgery to achieve Kyuri’s looks and work in a similar salon. Sujin’s quest for a beauty she feels will make her happy and financially stable is long and painful. Somewhat more peripherally, the women are aware of the young mother Wonna, on the first floor, who is swimming against not just impossible standards of beauty and sexism but also a cutthroat economy, which was memorably limned in Bong Jun-Ho’s award winning Parasite. These obstacles may make the college dreams she has for her children just an illusion.

Looked at it one way, these novels share a depressing commonality of women ground down or driven “crazy” by an unescapable patriarchy where misogyny is not just baked in, but baked into older women’s (i.e., the in-laws) non-support of the younger. Adding to the collection of fiction, Choi Seung-ja’s newly released poetry collection, Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me (translated by Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong), declares poems “short as a shriek,” both witness and battle cry that reminds us that canons full of male authors gloss over societal structures that have kept women largely silent in literature as well as politics and culture via a strict and narrow set of rules of what is “acceptable” behavior–and art–by women. Korean poetry is often marked by the pastoral, and poetry by women comes with expectations to be lyrical and decorous in subject. Choi, then explodes that idea. For instance, Korean culture reveres the seasons, autumn is often considered the most attractive season for its vivid colors infused with melancholy because of the nearness of winter. Choi’s “Dog Autumn” begins with:
Dog autumn attacks.
Syphilis autumn.
And death visits
one of twilight’s paralyzed legs.
Spring, the season of renewal, is also considered an attractive, tender season, with flowers like azalea and cherry blossoms representative of its beauty and ephemerality. In Choi’s hands “Spring” is
…of the lonely, unmarried thirty-three-year-old woman…
In the spring, plants and grass bloom,
and even garbage grows fresh.
The trash pile grows bigger in my mouth.
I cannot swallow it or vomit it up.
Readers would be shortchanging themselves to think of these books as a kind of anthropological look at a Confucian society that favors males. These books fit in perfectly with contemporary English-language narratively inventive novels looking at women’s lives, recent examples that come to mind includes the comedic (but ultimately serious) Fleishmann Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a novel that also uses the wife’s absence to make points about the structures of matrimony and sexism. There is also a hard-to-classify novel about motherhood, Helen Phillips’s The Need that uses tropes of horror (a great choice) to examine motherhood and female agency.

These works, however, tend to not overtly reference the structures of patriarchy and misogyny the way the Korean novels do, drawing straight lines from these societal structures, that are largely out of women’s controls, and showing that even recognizing and resisting them isn’t a clear path to equality (or even equity). In the end, withdrawal, absenting one’s self from normal existence in the most disruptive way possible, is one of the few “effective” strategies to draw attention to these women’s stories. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 in particular unselfconsciously emphasizes its themes, unafraid of seeming didactic. With mini essays about gender statistics and rates of labor force participations, embedded with footnotes referencing Pew and Guttmacher type statistics, this is a novel through its narrative inventiveness fusing fact and fiction (not unlike Melville’s digressions on the whaling industry), we can see Kim Jiyoung’s story placed within a context of an entire country, for what are individual data points, but actual individuals?

In the end, Ko Un’s billion-won suit against the poet Choi Young-mi was dismissed, for, as the Korea Herald reported, Choi’s consistent testimony and that of other witnesses convinced the Seoul Central District Court that she was telling the truth. Choi thanks the judiciary for “bringing justice,” but the truth is, while fending off Ko’s power-play of a public lawsuit, she was still charged the disutility of the damages she suffered from Ko, to her career, her time and peace of mind. Similarly, for every woman who’s had to put up with a hostile workplace—like a man masturbating during a work meeting in front of his female colleagues—this is a kind of tax that, like gender pay disparities, should be reconsidered and compensated. But as Cho Nam-Joo writes in her novel with men continuing to hold the reins of power, it’s no surprise what women do continues to be undervalued. Kim Jiyoung gives it all up to be the best mother, only to be called a “mom-roach” by some young office lads having coffee in the same park where she, buckling with fatigue, is taking her baby out in the stroller, the damages she’s undergone woefully and forever unacknowledged: “Probably because the moment you put a price on something, someone has to pay.”

A Project of Defiance: The Millions Interviews C Pam Zhang

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C Pam Zhang’s first novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a thrilling, lyrical take on the harsh and beautiful landscapes of the American West, and its muscular writing shows that even these seemingly ironclad narratives—the white, American cowboy—are actually more fragile than they seem, if not entirely breakable.

The story centers on two Chinese American siblings on the lam after their sometimes abusive father dies, leaving the two orphans to do whatever they have to do to survive. The story takes place in a kind of dreamscape that both feels in and out of history. For instance, we all know the story of the forty-niners, but trying to follow the chronology in a literal way initially confused me. The sister who is the narrator tells the story of the sister whose gender is more fluid—in this layering, the novel also becomes a look at the stories we tell ourselves about other people who are close to us. Part of the book is narrative by a ghost. There is gold, and also tigers. But the narrative about the West has always been a myth, and myths are open to reinvention.

The book was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and Zhang was nice enough to answer some questions.

The Millions: Why the West—can you talk a little about your intentions (conscious or unconscious) to revise/rewrite the iconic, white-centered American West?

C Pam Zhang: I suspect that most writers have two answers to this question, and I appreciate your trying to unearth them.

My original intention was simply to have fun, to plunge into the joy and possibility of language. I wanted to mix the rangy cowboy poetry of pulp Westerns, the pidgin Mandarin of my childhood, and a game of trying to avoid gendered pronouns. Language itself was the entry point into this sound and rhythm of the world of the book, which is one of adventure, harshness, beauty, speed. I wrote several drafts of the novel before the subconscious intentions unearthed themselves. I grew up reading stories of the American West as my own family moved westward. The loneliness, starkness, and epic qualities of this landscape were imprinted on me through the Little House books, John Steinbeck’s oeuvre, Annie Proulx, Larry McMurtry. But eventually I realized that none of the people in those books reflected myself or my family. My project was one of defiance, in a way.

TM: The novel takes place in XX42 and XX67; dates with the XX in the century is usually the reverse of how it’s done; is this referring to a different calendar system?

CPZ: I borrowed the idea from Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. The idea is one of stepping just outside the boundaries of our world.

TM: How about the research? Did you feel like you had to confirm the actual possibility of tigers, or how did you proceed?

CPZ: The tigers, the XX in the dates, and the epigraph “This land is not your land” all function as signposts. Something like Here there be dragons on the margins of old maps. I was aware of readers’ tendencies to see this book as realistic, straightforward historical fiction, and I wanted to mark the novel as something different.

I had a delicate relationship with research. I was able to write the first draft of the book without research because I spent a good chunk of my life in the California public school system, and had foundational knowledge about the Gold Rush and the presence of Chinese workers. That misty place between the facts and my memory of them was the place of mythology that I wanted to occupy. In later drafts, I combed through dates and historical events—sometimes to use them, often to ponder how I wanted to deviate from them. Historical research is important, but in fiction it’s just as important to allow your imagination room to breathe. I mentioned defiance above. I have a somewhat defiant, combative relationship with the historical record, which is deeply political, written largely by and for white men. There are so many stories of women, people of color, indigenous people, immigrants, queer folk, the impoverished, and the dispossessed left out of written history. As a woman of color, I take it as my task to let my imagination expand into the spaces of erasure.

TM: What writers or other cultural producers were your influences?

CPZ: All the writers above, as well as Angela Carter, Michael Ondaatje, Anne Carson, Marilyn Chin, and, most profoundly, Toni Morrison. She was my first teacher in having the audacity to tell your story and trust the reader to follow your voice. Beloved is a reminder that you can let the surreal into the real, and that an emotional truth can have greater impact than mere facts. I would be remiss if I didn’t, at this particular point in history, acknowledge how great a debt Asian-American writers and other writers of color owe to Black writers. They have expanded so many boundaries in literature, and taught us to reclaim space previously thought of as marginal. I would not exist without Morrison and others like her.

What was is like having your first book come out during the Covid-19 pandemic?

My book came out right as California was sheltering in place. The pandemic has lent a surreal air to the whole endeavor; I still haven’t seen my book in a store and have had a hard time feeling like I’ve crossed the finish line. I’m not one for the limelight or public speaking, so I didn’t mourn the loss of a 15-city book tour as much as I might have. I mourn that tangible sense of finality.

My overwhelming experience, however, is one of great gratitude for the bookstores that have provided so much support as they themselves struggle. An incomplete list of bookstores people should support so that I, selfishly, can visit after this pandemic ends: Green Apple Books in San Francisco, Point Reyes Books in Point Reyes, Bookshop in Santa Cruz, Changing Hands in Tempe, Greenlight in Brooklyn, Solid State in D.C., Literati in Ann Arbor, Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg, and Bookmarks in Winston-Salem.

TM: What’s your current/next project?

CPZ: I’m pretty superstitious, but suffice to say it is the complete opposite of this first novel. No more child protagonists, no more history. Lots of twisty adult fun.

Bonus Links:
—Correcting History: On C Pam Zhang’s ‘How Much of These Hills Is Gold’
A Year in Reading: C Pam Zhang

A Year in Reading: Marie Myung-Ok Lee

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Every year is a great year for reading; 2019 was no exception.

One of my favorites this year was Helen Phillips’s The Need—part parenting book, part horror, part thriller, part literary fiction—actually none of these descriptors do it justice; narratively inventive in a Jenny Offill Dept. of Speculation way, it requires close reading, with a big and tender and surprising payoff at the end.

Jean Kwok’s literary thriller, Searching for Sylvie Lee, put the literary back into literary thriller; a fast-paced but surprisingly emotional novel that takes place across countries and generations.  

Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay is another literary thriller that takes on the violence of the L.A. Riots and examines the simmering communal dynamics that led to the clash between the African-American community and Korean storekeepers.

Grace Talusan’s memoir, The Body Papers, was a marvel, combined with a new look at the essay collection, combined with astonishing writing about very tricky subjects.

Lauren Mechling’s How Could She, about three 30-something Toronto-ites tripping into the belly of the Conde Nast-esque beast, the shifting alliances amongst the newly ambitious, learning too separate the gilt from the actual and true, the romance and heartbreak that is dating and basically everything in NYC—this witty, super-smart dissection of female friendships cements Mechling as today’s Edith Wharton.  

My most recent reading in the last months of 2019 was related to the unexpectedly great news that my first novel, a young adult novel called Finding My Voice, is being reissued. It’s a coming of age story about an Asian American teen growing up in the Midwest. Apparently books about racism and immigration are seriously back in demand, and this also prompted me to take a dip back in the current pool to see what’s new and look at a few more recent classics.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas was a perfect novel, YA and otherwise. An African-American teen getting a ride home from a party with her crush, then a traffic stop ending with her friend being shot in front of her begins this story that is complex, fresh, and explores fraught subjects with real heart, humor, and really sharp dialogue.

I really related to Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, as her protagonist is an artsy child of immigrant parents who have sky-high expectations for her—expectations that may be at odds with her own dreams.

Foundational Asian-American author R. Zamora Linmark is back with The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart, a tender, funny gay coming-of-age drama that includes being ghosted by real ghosts.

Permanent Record by Mary H.K. Choi—this novel practically fizzes: super-fast plot, super-snappy and right-on dialogue. It’s contemporary but in a way that doesn’t feel like it’ll be dated in a few years: There’s a careful deployment of technology that’s necessary for the fame component of the plot, but it’s done in a way that will keep it flexible enough for the coming years rather than cementing it into place. Pablo Neruda Rind is an infuriating, hilarious intensely real character, a 20-year-old mixed-race guy trying to find his place in a shiny, distracting world.

Pet: I just started this, but what a perfect coda to 2019 reading. Novelist Akwaeke Emezi’s novel in its opening scenes reveals something futuristic, but also a parable with lots of Octavia Butler grace notes. Jam is a teen who mostly signs, selectively speaks, and lives in a world that has gotten rid of monsters and replaced them with angels—and libraries still exist! I’m only in the first half, but Emezi’s big ideas and elegant prose have me hooked:

No revolution is perfect. In the meantime, the angels banned firearms, not just because of the school shootings, but also because of the kids who shot themselves and their families at home; the villains who thought they could shoot people who didn’t look like them, just because they got mad or scared of whatever, and nothing would happen to them because the old law liked them better than the dead. The angels took the laws and changed them…

Dear Someone: On Asian-American Writers and Letters as Storytelling

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1.

I’ve recently noticed a spate of work by Asian-American authors in epistolary form.

Correlation is not causation, and there may be nothing to this trend other than a cluster of coincidence. But historically, the Asian-American story has been ignored, erased, overlooked. Asians in America have worked in government, grown the nation’s food, healed the sick, fought in wars, built the very infrastructure of the transcontinental railroad, yet too often we’re pushed out of the picture, seen as perpetual foreigners, regardless of how much history we have with this country.

Asian Americans have our own experiences of racism, experiences that often get lost or minimized by the model minority stereotype. We want to have our stories heard but not fall into the trap of competing in an “Oppression Olympics” with other minorities. Our stories are distinct, and thus the idea of a letter as storytelling vessel is a tantalizing one. At its simplest, a Dear Someone letter demands to be read, as is the case with this one, in which former New York Times editor Michael Luo addresses the racist woman who told him and his family to “go back to China.”

The word epistle comes from the Latin espistula: letter. The first epistolary novel is thought to be Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, published anonymously in 1684. Epistolary literature often utilizes multi-character correspondence or varied documents (think: Bram Stoker’s Dracula) to drive action and deepen characterization, including the brilliant use of the email form in Maria Semple’s novel Where’d You Go Bernadette.

The following works are epistolary in a singular way. They all take the form of a Dear Someone letter, a one-way correspondence that illustrates the simultaneous power and powerlessness of the epistle as literary form. That is, the Dear Someone letter already has a clear reader in mind. But if that intended reader will actually read the epistle is not in the author’s power.

No Good, Very Bad Asian is an epistolary novel by Leland Cheuk, “authored” by stand-up comedian and reality star Sirius Lee—divorced dad, the no good, very bad Asian of the title—to his 7-year old daughter Maryann. The letter becomes a vehicle to fill his daughter (and the reader) in on his backstory, and through his voice, provide a portrait of a guy trying and hoping to be a better person while often failing and lying to himself. It is funny but also sad, and runs at a kind of breakneck speed through different stages of comedy and a disillusioned man’s life. The incidents of subtle and not-so-subtle racism (such as everyone thinking he’s a different Asian comic) are swept away by the breezy tone, yet we can feel the hurt linger, in an experience many can relate to.

The Millions: Why did you choose to write this novel as a letter?

Leland Cheuk: I felt like I had to give the reader some sort of emotional hook into Sirius’s life story. For better or worse, bringing the reader in as part of Sirius’s family was my way of doing it. In an earlier draft, it was just written as a comedian’s memoir but there are so many brilliant comedian memoirs from real comedians—why wouldn’t the reader just pick up Born Standing Up by Steve Martin or Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People instead?

TM: Do you think, given that a spate of Asian-American novels have used this form recently, that there’s something particularly Asian-American, immigrant, diasporic about the form itself?

LC: It’s very possible. I read as many Asian-American novels as I can, but I can’t say I’m an authority on the category. I do think that the epistolary form speaks to a certain failure to communicate between generations due to cultural and language barriers that can easily be attached to the Asian-American experience.

A letter is one-way communication. In the case of my book, it’s communication that comes too late, after the point when either party can do anything about their estrangement. The irony in the book is that while Sirius’s failure to connect with his parents is related to their cultural and language gaps, Sirius’s failure to connect with his daughter has more to do with his own mistakes.

TM: Did you consciously create a character —“no good very bad” Asian who goes against basically all Asian stereotypes?

LC: I’d say some of the choices were very conscious. I didn’t want Sirius, for instance, to go to a good college and come from a life of privilege hard won by high-achieving immigrant parents, which is my background. I’m not gonna lie: I’m pretty good at math. I just tried to make Sirius’s life—and rise to and fall from fame—plausible within the pop culture of the last two decades. And that naturally required him to not be the “good Asian” who might be your doctor or accountant.

TM: What was your idea or inspiration for the book. Any other writers influence you?

LC: I started the book so long ago, I’m not even sure I remember. I’ve always been a fan of stand-up and my other writing is often comedic. Stand-up is a perfect art form to use to explore themes of identity and self. There are very few other endeavors where you’re standing in front of a crowd and receiving a judgment for what you look like and what you say every 10 to 15 seconds. Perhaps I could have written a similar book about being a famous Asian-American male model. I’m influenced by a lot of writers, but with this book, I was going for what authors like Paul Beatty and Mat Johnson go for in their novels.

2.

Vietnamese American Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is also written as a letter: “Dear Ma,” it starts; the first chapter was also published in The New Yorker as a personal history titled “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read.” Vuong told Lithub of his choice to use a letter:
Because I knew I did not want to write a 600-page tome, the epistolary mode allowed me the quick detours and returns, while still retaining the vital urgency and vulnerability of a direct address. In this way, the voice, the letter itself, became the main plot, the digressions in memory, cultural investigations, and vignettes its tributaries. And the whale, ever fleeting, out of reach, and finally impossible, is the mother’s readership of the letter.
Yiyun Li’s memoiristic collection of essays, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, is a straightforward address to readers—and takes its title from a line in Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks. The essays, which span topics like reading, writing, and science, circle around a difficult period in Li’s life, ruminating on the sometimes unremitting darkness she feels, but also why she wants to continue writing: that “the books one writes—past and present and future—are they not trying to say the same thing: Dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life? What a long way it is from one life to another, yet why write if not for that distance, if thinks can be let go, every before replaced by an after.”

Ali Wong’s ribald, humorous memoir, Dear Girls, is addressed to her daughters who are still too young to read and understand the book. Wong’s first book, it has a kind of literary flair that separates it from her stand-up—and from those comedian memoirs that are a stand-up act reformatted into a book. It’s a perfect pairing with No Good, Very Bad Asian, covering some of the same ground, including the idea of a parent wanting to give her children a fuller, more complex idea of who they are as individuals. Also, Wong is a wonderful writer. I was fascinated to read in The New York Times that she tests new jokes in front of live audiences by using a robotic “monotone voice where there’s almost zero performance in there, to see if the material holds up.” This is similar to the writer’s internal process: Does this sound right? Does this sound wrong? Wong looks to see if the crowd laughs despite her emotionless delivery. “Sometimes, I have a joke I know is funny, but I haven’t found the right word, and when I do find it, it’s so satisfying.”

Image: David Pennington

Why We Need to Read the Literature of Incarceration

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1.
At my university, I once attended a dinner to help support first-generation students. This was a varied, singular group of students, undergraduates and grad students, who had overcome all sorts of challenges in order to land, and thrive, at Columbia.

The next day, I attended a ceremony celebrating a graduating senior in the Directly Impacted Group, a university-wide organization comprised of students who have been incarcerated or who are impacted by incarceration via family members. Many of the bright, shiny, brilliant students I’d met the day before were in this group as well.

My own family has been affected by incarceration, and none of this actually should come as a surprise considering that fact that the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, including China and Russia. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the U.S. holds five percent of the world’s population yet nearly 25 percent of incarcerated people.

Put another way, if the population of people in prison and jail were a city, it would be a city somewhere in size between Phoenix and Houston. If you added people on probation, the number rises to 7.3 million—somewhere in size between Los Angeles and New York City.

Tandem to the rise of “Supermax” prisons that are often for-profit and constructed solely of solitary confinement cells, is the rise of using local jails and private prisons to confine migrants and asylum seekers. New documents have revealed the widespread use of solitary confinement, often with no reason, in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. Given the numbers of people being incarcerated, the outward radiating effects in the community, and that our tax dollars are paying for it (including private prisons, which often merely take the state budgets and rejigger them for profit), the prison problem should be a concern of every American.

2.
Incarceration exists from the very beginning of America’s history. In 1675, just after the start of King Phillip’s war, 500 Native Americans were imprisoned on a barren strip of land off of Boston Harbor called Deer Island. Half died over the winter, the same Native Americans who welcomed the English to America’s shores in 1621. In the 1880s the site became a concentration camp for Irish fleeing the famine, then it became an actual prison, and is now a sewage treatment plant.

The early 19th century saw the rise of more codified systems, specifically the penitentiary system, also known as the Pennsylvania system, which was rooted in an optimistic idea of social rehabilitation (the “penitence” in penitentiary) versus the “Auburn” system that emphasized prisoners laboring together in silence and physical punishment. The Philadelphia penitentiary system in particular relied almost exclusively on solitary confinement, which resulted in catastrophic mental damage to inmates, causing the system to be abandoned.

The U.S. leads the world in its use of prolonged incarceration and solitary confinement despite bleak statistics that show the ineffectiveness of such a system: a Bureau of Justice study showed that five of six state prisoners were rearrested within nine years, a rate of 83 percent.

The 2019 memoir Solitary, by Albert Woodfox, addresses the prison industrial complex and dangerous overuse of solitary confinement—and has just been longlisted for the National Book Award. Woodfox was held in solitary confinement in a six-by-nine foot cell for more than 40 years—longer than any American. He’d entered the prison system as a teen accused of various crimes, culminating in his arrest for robbery. He escaped from jail, and fled to New York, where he became acquainted with the Black Panther Party and their ideas of organizing and education. He was arrested and extradited to the Orleans Parish Prison where he helped organize a strike that eventually forced the prison to improve its conditions. As punishment, he was sent to the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola, named after the slave plantation that formerly occupied its ground (the plantation itself was named for the African country that was the origin of many slaves brought to Louisiana).

In 1972, when a prison guard was found stabbed to death, Woodfox, despite no evidence linking him to the crime (the guard’s widow would eventually testify that she believed he was innocent), was framed for the murder. He was placed in solitary (also euphemistically rebranded as “closed cell restricted,” CCR) for 44 years and 10 months. In his book he describes it:
We were locked down 23 hours a day. There was no outside exercise yard for CCR prisoners. There were prisoners in CCR who hadn’t been outside in years. We couldn’t make or receive phone calls. We weren’t allowed books, magazines, newspapers, or radios. There were no fans on the tier; there was no access to ice, no hot water in the sinks in our cells. There was no hot plate to heat water on the tier. Needless to say, we were not allowed educational, social, vocational, or religious programs; we weren’t allowed to do hobby crafts (leatherwork, painting, woodwork). Rats came up the shower drain at the end of the hall and would run down the tier. We threw things at them to keep them from coming into our cells. Mice came out at night. When the red ants invaded they were everywhere all at once, in clothes, sheets, mail, toiletries, food.
His case (along with two other Black Panthers, collectively known as the Angola Three) attracted the attention of Amnesty International and other activists. Eventually the murder conviction was overturned and Woodfox was released on his birthday in 2016.

I spoke with Mr. Woodfox, now 72, about how he constructed his powerful memoir.

The Millions: Can you tell me how you started writing the book, and also how you got the physical writing materials at all?

Albert Woodfox: I always knew I would tell the story of what happened to me. But when I was in, I didn’t actually write. People smuggled in writing materials to me, just like we got books. There were ways. In my mental space, I had to stay optimistic and not think about what might happen if I stay in here for the rest of my life. In my mind that would be me wondering if I was ever go free. So I didn’t think about things that deeply. I just took notes. I took notes for 27 years and managed to get those notes out to my brother. But then they were stolen out of his car!

But that’s why I am very open that I wrote this book with [journalist] Leslie [George]. She helped me go through my memory and put the things together.

TM: What was the most difficult part of being in solitary?

AW: I couldn’t go to my mother’s funeral. They don’t let people in solitary out even for that. First thing I did when I got out was have my brother drive me to the cemetery, and because of a delay in my processing, it was closed. The next day, we went to a store and bought out all the flowers and I brought them to my mother’s grave.

Many countries have banned solitary confinement as torture, and the work of psychiatrist and former Harvard Medical School faculty member Stuart Grassian suggests that humans are such social beings that being deprived of contact in solitary confinement causes irreversible mental and emotional damage to set in almost immediately.

The Angola Three have filed a civil lawsuit on the grounds that being locked down 23 hours a day violates Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Their case is still pending.

3.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander examines how the carceral system rose from the dregs of slavery to control and exploit labor from the black body: A person could be picked up not just for “loitering” but also for “suspected loitering,” and then taken into a prison and put to work via the convict lease system or “chain gang.” Angola prison is literally on a former plantation that named itself for the African country from which its slaves were stolen; one does not need a huge amount of imagination to draw the lines from slavery to the prison system. The “new” Jim Crow aspect of her book shows how the “War on Drugs” has concentrated on the black community, and how—in ways reminiscent of ICE—law enforcement has been able to operate outside the law, often trampling the Fourth Amendment that protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The myth of the missing black father is born out of this war. When politicians and cultural figures—not just right wing pundits but also former President Barack Obama and comedian Bill Cosby—lament missing black fathers, none of them note (nor does the media) that many of these father-child separations are due to arrests for minor infractions, for example, marijuana possession or selling loose cigarettes, as was the case with Eric Garner.

City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 by Kelly Lytle Hernández is a good complement to The New Jim Crow in its examination of the rise of incarceration in non-slave states. The book looks at how histories of native elimination, immigrant exclusion, and black disappearance are behind the rise of incarceration in Los Angeles, which built one of the largest systems of human caging in the world to remove marginalized groups ranging from itinerant white “tramps and “hobos” to Chinese immigrants, African Americans and Mexican immigrants.

In American Prison, journalist Shane Bauer, who himself was held in solitary confinement in Iran, went undercover as a prison guard at a private prison (also in Louisiana) and wrote a widely praised feature about it for Mother Jones. This book exposes not just the shocking conditions of the prison (for guards and inmates alike) but also charts the rise of the private prison system: At a Republican presidential fundraiser in 1983, an executive of the Magic Stove company daydreamed that privatizing prisons would be “a heck of a venture for a young man to solve the prison problem”—i.e., overcrowding from the flood of new, disproportionately nonwhite inmates via the war on drugs—“and make a lot of money at the same time.” Thus the Corrections Corporation of America was born; its first project: converting a motel into an immigrant detention center in Texas. CCA went public in 1986. Thomas Beasley, one of CCA’s founders, told Inc. “You just sell it like you were selling cars or real estate or hamburgers.”

American Prison takes an in-depth look at the roots of the idea of incarcerating people for profit: how in the 1990s CCA actually built prisons without state contracts, betting (rightly) on a massive increase in the prison population, and how private prisons make for a system deliberately opaque and shielded from public accountability—they are businesses, not government entities. It’s disturbing to think that early investors included Marriott-Sodexho and a venture capitalist who helped create the Hospital Corporation of America. The book’s historical view makes an important point: Using private prisons for immigrant detention is not something new to the Trump administration but dates back to the 1980s and Ronald Reagan.

4.
Another fundamental but surprising fact about incarceration in the U.S. is that 4 percent of the world’s female population lives in the U.S., but the U.S. accounts for more 30 percent of the world’s incarcerated women. “Total” prison statistics have often obscured the fact that on a state level, women have become the fastest growing segment of the prison population—even to the point where the growth of their populations is significant enough to counteract reductions in the men’s population, i.e., too often, states have an incomplete commitment to prison reform by ignoring women’s incarceration.

Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room—a novel for which the author went undercover with a group of criminology students—provides an immersive look at life in a women’s prison. The book’s fictional Stanville Prison is a composite of various women’s prisons, including Central California Women’s Facility, the largest women’s prison in the U.S., and the only one in California to house a death row. The novel follows several characters, including a white GED teacher and an incarcerated cop, but is mainly the story of Romy, who is serving a life sentence for murdering a john who was stalking her. She is very much representative of the female prison population, coming in with a history of trauma, abuse, and drug use, and, like the majority of the women in prison, the mother of a young child who will be deeply affected by her incarceration. Further, she spends significant time in and out of solitary confinement, here rebranded as “administrative segregation,” or “ad-seg.”

To be sure, many people are incarcerated because they have committed horrific crimes. But as a shocking video of a woman giving birth in her cell, scared and alone shows, incarcerated persons are some of the most voiceless and forgotten people in our society. Incarcerated or not, they are still human, they have families, and some will return to society, and as our tax dollars pay for their care (one year in prison costs the same as a year in law school), it is our business to understand how they are being treated—and if they should be incarcerated in the first place.

Image credit: Unsplash/Carles Rabada.

A Year in Reading: Marie Myung-Ok Lee

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Almost exactly  year ago, I wrote a list of books to read to understand late-stage capitalism for this site, because so much of what’s going on in the world today—Trump, endless wars, climate disasters, the migrant crisis, extreme income inequality—can be tied back to capitalism and yet we have so few books that examine its effects on us who are living in this frenzied late-stage capitalist epoch.

I would have added Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success to the list, but it hadn’t been published yet. On first reading it as a literary novel, the “rich-hedge funder-goes-on-a-journey-suffers-hardship-like-the-Greyhound-bus-bathrooms-returns-having-learned-a-thing-or-two” was a bit of a let-down. The frenetic satirical voice, the similar plot of his older work, Super Sad True Love Story with the older secular Jewish man and the younger Asian woman, grated on my nerves a bit. While other reviewers had praised Lake Success as  a radical departure from the previous, since it dealt with an American-born not immigrant character, I still couldn’t get over the similarity in tone, down to the fact that the older Jewish American narrator, previously “Lenny,” is now “Barry”—which of course rhymes with “Gary.”

But sitting back and taking it in as a whole, and situating it amongst our current cultural and political climate, I realized it is possible to write a novel that seems not fully functional in a literary sense (including with somewhat generic unlikeable characters), but its dysfunction can be, inadvertently or not, precisely the point.

It reminds me, glancingly, of Ha Jin’s masterful War Trash, a “diary” about a Chinese soldier who becomes a POW in a U.N. detention camp during the Korean War. The novel’s deliberately clunky voice (a shock after the lyrical Waiting) made the reading difficult but in the end faithfully convey a non-native’s voice further occluded by the stream-of-consciousness form of  the diary entry written by a traumatized soldier during a war.

Shteyngart’s previous novel, Super Sad True Love Story, was putatively a love story, but I admired it for its look at techno-futurism, eerily predicting the smart phone, skinny jeans, Internet sites like Hot or Not. It was a funny Black Mirror long before there was Black Mirror, and, for something totally esoteric, the author’s a correct and nuanced and untranslated use of the Korean word gijibae (“brat”—used only for women and girls) was pretty cool.

Lake Success, in contrast to Super Sad, dwells not in the near-future but in the real time of a Trump election cycle, rooted in the seeming unending nightmare of our present; to use a contemporary word, it feels like “streaming.” It starts with Barry, the head of a hedge fund, eschewing a private helicopter or other hedge fund modes of transport to head to Port Authority, on the lam from his marriage, his son’s autism diagnosis, the feds who are closing in on him for some shady trades. He hops on a Greyhound and ends up traversing the country with nothing but some cash and a suitcase full of his beloved expensive watches and the vague goal of reuniting with his college girlfriend, with whom he has not kept in touch basically since they broke up after college, when he chose high finance over their relationship. Much of the middle of the book is a picaresque tour of America’s Triumpian interior. Shteyngart ups the stakes of his modern Odysseus journey by subtracting Barry’s phone and credit cards until he lands in a cash-poor situation (at one point begging with a cardboard sign and cup) not dissimilar from that of the average Greyhound bus passenger, citizens of all colors who are sharing the bus ride with him and act as a kind of Greek chorus.

Barry is about as deeply an unlikeable narrator as they come. He judges women on purely superficial bases (his first contact with his wife-to-be is when she admonishes him for ogling her breasts). He is so underdeveloped emotionally it seems he has no Pavlovian responses to anything except thoughts of sex (but not with his wife, now) and money, which, since he has so much of it, he mainly uses to buy extremely expensive rare watches that he dithers over while barely paying attention to his son.

The finance aspect of the novel is that Barry is being chased by the feds for his shady positions his hedge fund takes in “Gastrolux” and “Valupro,” which seem inspired by  the fraud and price gouging of hedge funder Martin “Pharma Bro” Shkreli and the Galleon Group’s Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri Lankan immigrant to whom a director at Goldman Sachs passed insider information. Barry is cheater on his wife and on SEC regulations, but he isn’t so much a Bonfire of the Vanities Sherman McCoy Master of the Universe as a clueless doofus, even though sloppily racist (he thinks his friend Jeff Park is Chinese—a joke recycled from Super Sad True Love Story with the young Korean American woman, Eunice Park: “Chinese women are so delicate”). The only thing Barry knows in his heart is making money (which he continues to do despite the feds) and while he tries to love his three-year-old son, it seems the only way he can do this is through saving his son, who can’t tell time, a special watch to inherit. As he abandons his family and cuts off communication, Barry knows something’s a bit off with him; there are clues he feels might indicate he is “autistic” like his son.

Barry’s world of high finance frequently references Goldman Sachs, where I once worked; Goldman has indeed become part of pop culture, if anything for indelibly fomenting the mortgage crisis of 2008, but I didn’t find Barry convincing as an ex-athlete finance bro. Barry’s default modes are sheepish and full of shame, which are usually not part of a finance bro’s emotional palette, evidenced in how Goldman conducted part of its business at strip clubs and on golf courses. Most of the finance people I worked with were too self centered to have that aching Barry angst or his need to please because they were convinced they’d already “won” via their acumen and merits and the spoils of income inequality.

What makes Lake Success a notable book for this year is less characterizations and plot. Despite the fact that this novel is pushed as a departure from his earlier immigrant novels, it’s almost like each novel has a version of the same protagonist going through different situations, and that his books merely skim the surface of technical and scientific issues while utilizing jargon (China-pegged currency arbitrage, genetic modification, mortgage-backed securities) but in some ways this refractory, superficial style is precisely what makes his work so interesting and original, especially at this time.

While Shteyngart’s “Barry” characters (I’ll call all his anti-hero protagonists  Barry) grope (sometimes literally) their way into their futures, dystopian and not, in between the gross jokes (Barry burps up beer and Domino’s pizza while simultaneously trying to navigate a touching moment with a friend) that rise from the basic—in all senses of the word—plots (love story, road trip story), in Lake Success, we readers can squint to look at the glinting of the over-the-top glass and chrome of these billion-dollar apartments and see, mercilessly reflected back, the attention-deficient, capital-obsessed, atomized, ever accelerating FOMO society that we have become. Even Barry’s liberal-leaning wife, a lawyer-turned-stay-at-home-mom, rationalizes the good living afforded by Barry’s rapacious capitalism and uneasily deludes herself that, as Dawn Powell characterized certain New Yorkers in the ’30s, that with her phalanx of cooks and nannies and doormen, she is still “not idle rich, but busy, good-living, intelligent idling rich.”

What this novel has carved out, as if with surgical scalpel, is the feeling of malaise that in our weird late-stage capitalist epoch, even someone worth 30 billion dollars can feel. Jeff Park the “Chinese” financier peevishly complains that the top of his Ferrari “used to go down in fourteen seconds…but now it takes eighteen. Everything’s a scam.” Barry, likewise, can’t believe it when he finds his ridiculously expensive watch has lost a few seconds. It’s a funny and sad (and maybe super-sad) realization for these one-percenters that money can’t buy them a perfect universe, that having the means to overspend on a consumable good like a watch still does not guarantee its quality—it is a scam—nor does thirty billion versus fifteen billion make a difference in death. Here is where, through a sea of financial jargon sometimes inexpertly applied (and maybe the goobledy-goo of financial jargon is precisely the point), we hit gold.

The feds do catch up to Barry, but it gets resolved in a paragraph or two (no spoilers, here), and Barry’s free to go and he’s not even barred from the industry; at first this seems like “too easy” a plot point, the galloping narrative merely running out of gas. But it continues as an eminently plausible and expected resolution (art imitates life and back again). It therefore makes in a paragraph the point that a thousand studies from the Roosevelt Institute outlining the costs of rescinding of Glass-Steagall (a Depression-era banking reform law) never could, about how we got here, and how we are unlikely to learn from our mistakes, as long as the money-laden people stay in charge.

That pretty much all the upper-income  characters in Lake Success are mild-to-moderately loathsome illuminates the hypocrisies that the people on the “good” side of income inequality have little motivation to change it, even when they are, like Barry’s wife, uncomfortable with some of the moral aspects of it. Barry considers himself a Republican but “socially liberal,” but sees nothing wrong with gouging dying patients for an essential drug because profit and shareholder value is his lodestar. Jeff Park’s father actually needs that drug, and so Jeff is mad at Barry because of it, but Jeff is also glad he, too, is a rapacious Lamborghini-driving financial swell because that way he can afford the heavily-price-inflated drug for his father. Talk about a model minority.

It’s a radical updating of The Great Gatsby as we see Barry smashing up people’s lives, while his cross-country journey gives him plenty of time to think about it and even meet the people impacted by what to him was merely moving numbers around. In our current culture, we privilege business, even though it doesn’t make sense—why do we focus to the exclusion of arts and other sciences, on economic value measured in piles of paper while we despoil the air and water that we depend on to live? Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” isn’t rational and impartial, it’s about maximizing profit; as evidence, as Americans, we might want to consider why all other countries in the world are smart enough to not base their healthcare systems on ours, and the majority have some kind of universal insurance while we, in the so-called land of consumer choice, don’t even had a public option for it. Further, in classic economics, profits would be zero; in a perfect capitalist society because of transparency in costs of production that essential pharma drug should be priced near what it cost to make. Barry succeeds by subverting all of that

The Lake Success of the title is actually a place as well as a metaphor in the book. It is Barry’s green light at the end of the dock, his East Egg, his Rosebud and his White Whale all at once. Why not pack it all into one narrative? Late stage capitalism’s name suggests excess, and also that we are approaching a terminus, as presaged in the title of the excellent early-late-stage capitalism novel (2006), Then We Came to the End. That unless we pivot drastically (“a course correction,” as Barry might say), there’s a black hole waiting as a consequence of our pollution of our environment, of our prizing lucre over life, our worship of paper, of using technology to get rid of inefficiency then discovering that human relationships are remarkably inefficient as well.

Lake Success does take a drastic pivot at the very end (no spoilers!), with a burst of lyricism verging on sentimentality that suggests both beauty and love—and an end.  The way Barry lives is clearly not sustainable, and this is what we learn. In this, the novel succeeds wildly, for what is the role of artist if not to reflect back society to the reader—even, and perhaps especially, if we aren’t going to like what we see?

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We Need to Destroy the Blurbing Industrial Complex

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In 1856, an obscure-ish writer, frustrated by the non-recognition of his newest self-published oeuvre, took matters into his own hands. He sent copies of his book of poems, unsolicited, to the literary luminaries of his day. One luminary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, replied with a polite thank-you note.

“‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career.’ —Ralph Waldo Emerson” was quickly appended—in blingy gold letters—to the back of this book.

This is widely considered to be the first book blurb in the English language, as we’ve documented on the site before. Without it, perhaps Walt Whitman and his Leaves of Grass might have stayed obscure forever (Emerson, however, objected to this manipulation of his private correspondence). Besides poetic genius, Whitman had the marketing instinct of a P.T. Barnum; of course, today we think of him as an American bard, but at the time, he also penned his own blurbable reviews, anointing himself the “American bard at last!” pulling off what Jerome Loving, in his biography Emerson, Whitman, and the American Muse, viewed  “as a slick promotion scheme, done by a man with little sense of propriety.”

Blurbs, the quoted testimonials of a book’s virtues by other authors, are now so ubiquitous, readers expect them, first-time authors stress about getting them, booksellers base orders on them. A blank back cover today would probably look like a production mistake. But while readers heft books in their hands and scrutinize the praise, it should be noted that blurbs are not ad copy written by some copywriter; they are ad copy written by a fellow author. “Ad copy” might be a bit harsh, but maybe not. The “flap copy,” the wordage on the inside flap of the cover of a hard cover, is written by the publishers, to tell potential readers what the book is about but also, of course, to spur a purchase. Blurbs are also there for promotional purposes only, their bias similarly implicit. “Why is this even a book?” I saw in a book review for a tepid memoir that I read in galleys and enthusiastically thought the same thing about. But such an honest negative assessment is not going to make it as a blurb, nor does an author’s effusive praise guarantee that the book has been read. Random people I interviewed for this piece didn’t know what blurbs were—when I asked about their persuasiveness/necessity, most said they thought they were necessary, but then I realized they were referring to the “flap copy” on the inside cover. Most readers I spoke to casually, including my niece, a college student who can’t leave a bookstore without at least 50 pounds of books, seemed pretty agnostic-to-meh about blurbs and mostly ignored them while browsing.

My spouse worked as an editorial assistant at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in the time before email and the internet, and much of his workday was spent sleuthing ways to get books to authors, sort of like how the court server jumps out from behind the potted plant with the summons. Now, it’s so easy to get ahold of people, manuscripts and bound galleys are flying. It’s not uncommon for well-known writers to receive more than a book a day “for which we hope you will comment,” i.e., blurb. I’ve seen friends’ apartments made small with towers of books, academic colleagues have to do a systems dump, rejected blurb requests piled outside their offices next to a big FREE sign. To put another way, there are around 600,000 to a million new books published per year (depending on what statistics you want to use) but it’s clear this creates a beast that constantly needs to be fed blurbs, which need to be gotten fresh every time; Rick Simonson, a bookseller at Elliott Bay Books, told me about a publisher using “a nice Susan Sontag quote for John Berger long after she’d passed away”—and that wasn’t super effective. Nor, he said, was using general all-purpose blurbs. A book needs a blurb and a good one. Feed me, Seymour!

The publishing industry thus runs on the fuel of free writer labor from authors often unrelated to the publishing house—i.e., unlike the flap copy writer who is paid by said publisher, the blurbing author is contributing to the book but is not the one getting published and paid, all because some guy made a funny promotional jacket for his book in 1905. As a writer whose last novel came out more than a decade ago, I feel like I am Rip Van Winkle-ishly stepping back into a world that has utterly changed—a new industry of independent publicists, the rise of social media—because of the speed at which things happen, short attention spans, distraction from other forms of media, the insta-data of Amazon algorithms, and just as the Grinch would say: noise, noise, noise.

Before I parse the motivational civic/karmic duty of blurbing, let me take you through a blurb process, at least mine. They fall into roughly three categories.

The ideal: the editor (or author) emails or calls to ask if I’d be interested. If I say yes, she promptly gets me the manuscript, gives me a deadline a few months in the future. I get a big thank you when I turn it in, and months later, the published book arrives with my blurb on it. It’s kind of cool.
The okay: usually a smaller indie press wants a blurb for the book and the ARC (advanced readers copy); being less organized/staffed, they give me the impossible deadline of a week. I will do the blurb but have already missed the first deadline, so there are bad feelings and disappointment already attached to the project.
The terrible: the editor calls and if I assent, informs me they need the blurb right away, like in a day or two. That tells me they are getting closer to publication date and panicking because the author doesn’t have enough blurbs or the hoped-for famous blurbers fell through, so they are asking a novelist who hasn’t published a novel in a decade—i.e., I am being called from the B- or C-list bench (it makes it worse when they effuse—”You would be such a get”—I’m not Jodi Picoult), then exhorted to blurb really fast, and that’s irritating on all fronts and often burdensome. These requests are also historically the ones most likely to end up with my blurb not being used, either because of disorganization or maybe a last-minute famous person came through. Add to the spiritual trouble if I don’t even get a copy of the book I went to a lot of trouble to blurb.

The value of the labor of blurbing is not as trifling as the word “blurb” would suggest. Thomas Mann opined that writers are those for whom writing is more difficult than for other people. I worked for years in research at a big investment bank, and even while needing to express in mathematics how the price/equity values of one company versus another made it a buy/sell/hold, I couldn’t bear to leave a dangling participle or a superfluous comma for a dependent clause.

Reading a book to blurb is of course much more fun. I find writing blurbs, like writing student recommendation letters, to be a joyful and simultaneously fraught task. Primarily, it’s nice to be asked, it’s a joyful thing to have a book come out, it also feels a bit like a civic duty to expend whatever social capital one has (it’s free!) to help another author along.

The fraught part has to do with the scarcest of resources for all of us: time to do our own work. See, I’m not an ad-copy writer, but I must write a squib that will make the book sound exciting, not give up any spoilers, explain what the book is about in a dozen words, and most importantly avoid blurb clichés—”passionate, heartbreaking”—because those would signal insincerity and thereby make the blurb and all my hard work useless. In other words, I have to deploy some of my best writing chops for a blurb. I am not alone. Poetry books need blurbs, too, and poets have an attentional relationship to language that makes blurb writing even more fraught. Poet Adrienne Su tells me, “I read the whole book and think about it a long time, and it’s still a struggle not to sound generic. Being a poet—at least, being in the majority of poets, who aren’t famous—involves too many sacrifices to put your name on anything without care.”

Further, a nuclear arms race in blurbing is building. Besides the plain blurb, there is now the “pre-blurb” that goes onto the advance readers copy and is used as a kind of literary chum to attract more blurbs. There’s even a pre-pre-blurb for a manuscript to wear when it goes out to the market. That’s a lot of blurbs for one book making it through the system.

Yet what’s up with the blurb writers? Who is the Author Lorax who speaks for them?

Back when my physician father still held out hope that of his four children, I would be the one to become a doctor, I questioned the ridiculousness of the days and days of no sleep during internship and how it didn’t make any sense, for the interns or for their patients. The best he could come up with was that he did it, so I, and other young doctors-to-be should, too.  An unconvincing blurb is not the equivalent of a fatal drug interaction prescribed by an overtired intern. But without examination, the beast grows and needs more food more frequently, and is anyone keeping track of what’s happening? At what point will it be deemed ridiculous, at the pre-pre-pre-pre-blurb stage? And who will be doing it?

Who are these authors, the blurbers? Many are simply friends of the author with the forthcoming book. There are generous authors who blurb a lot of strangers, but, given time constraints, don’t read the books terribly carefully. Then there are the super-generous authors who take many hours of reading and writing to craft a blurb; these fastidious authors are driven by a pride in their blurb work. I also read the books in their entirety, but I’m driven more by fear there’d be some literary Rickroll inside the book, precisely at the place I’d skimmed. Or I’d call it “a gripping tale of World War I” when it was actually a novel about World War II, and my mistake will be public as long as the book is in print—you get the gist.

But for either kind of generous stranger-blurber, time is a problem. Some people might run out their lifespan if they actually read every book they blurbed. Gary Shteyngart is the Joyce Carol Oates of blurbing, but he’s quite candid in telling me that he does not carefully read every word or even finish the books he’s been asked to blurb, but avers anyone who does “should be given medals and grants.”

Yet other authors feel it’s part of the social contract to read every word before providing a blurb—but there’s no ethical guidelines about this at all. Some readers feel that having an author’s friend or teacher blurb (e.g., they can see the name come up again in the acknowledgments) is cheating, reflecting a perception that blurbs should be somehow pure, unbiased endorsements for a work. They might be interested in the story of an author who told me that he’d been thrilled to secure the promise of a blurb from a famous writer—who then, because he was a busy and famous, asked the author to Walt Whitmanishly write the blurb himself and he’d affix his name upon it. These readers who presume purity do not realize that blurbing is largely driven by connections and that blurbers may gush about a “book of the century” while merely operating within the loose confines of “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Some people say if an author blurbs too much, this reduces the “value” of the blurb. Shteyngart good-naturedly tells me I can call him a “blurb whore.” But I think of it more in terms of overblurbers and underblurbers. The overblurber is generally just a generous person who wants to help other writers; most overblurbers I spoke to had clearly set standards for commitments: e.g., student work, authors of color, underappreciated authors and presses, which all but guarantees a heavy blurbing schedule. The underblurber, however, can be an author with some social capital who could help other authors with a blurb but pointedly refuses, even for what I would call a slam dunk case, e.g., a student—often because he blurbs “up” but never “down.” It’s a free country, but I also give up my seat on the subway for the elderly even though I am not contractually obliged to.

In general, I will say that blurbs are a blight on the publishing industry, both for people seeking blurbs and the writers asked to blurb. I’m thinking of the swath of time and productivity of editors, agents, publicists, writers being sucked into the blurb machine. And while it can drive sales, as it’s meant to, it doesn’t necessarily do readers a favor. When I am asked to blurb, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking, “Is this book worth the readers’ money?” Even if I wrote an honest blurb—”Save your money and buy some Raymond Carver instead of this lukewarm imitative collection”—the publisher isn’t going to use my PSA.

On the other hand, when I genuinely love an author’s work, or even if it’s problematic, or not fully formed, or I just hope to see more in the future, blurbing is a material way to donate my time to help a fellow writer eke out a living, especially if they are a debut author and/or publishing with a small press. Novelist Chris Castellani goes so far to say he thinks of it as “a sacred act—you are putting your name on a work of art, and your name will forever be associated with that work. So it’s a big responsibility.” But he has also encountered the downside of acting as a cog in the grinding wheel of the blurb factory, “which is why I have to say I do get frustrated when I write one, and I get barely a thank you from the author or the editor. It’s a certain kind of entitlement”—one that many writers find difficult.

Newly minted MacArthur fellow Kelly Link, who runs Small Beer Press with her husband Gavin Grant, has insights from both sides: “As a writer who has greatly benefitted from the word of mouth that pre-publication blurbs can provide, as an editor and publisher who hopefully sends out galleys of books that I adore to writers that I adore in the hopes that they will have the time to read and say something, as a reader who is sent far too many excellent books in galleys and feels both an obligation and a feeling of dread because of the tight deadlines that blurbing often requires … it’s immensely gratifying to be given the chance to read new writers, and to have a chance to say something about how much I’ve loved their work. But it’s also impossible to keep up.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen is Shteyngart-level generous with his blurbs, but I asked him, as an academic, fiction and nonfiction writer, contributor for the New York Times op-ed page and others, a mentor, a in-demand speaker, a parent, etc., how he does it all, especially as he makes the commitment to read through every book he has agreed to blurb. Blurbing time indeed cuts into artist production time: “I get very little of my own reading done, which is to say books that I think will help me with my own writing. This is distressing to me.”

Besides the macro effect on the literary output of those luminaries who are called upon to blurb, there is another aspect invisible to readers in the game of blurbs: The playing field is highly skewed toward certain subsets of writers: people who know people, people who live in New York and actively participate in its literary/publishing scene. Also, graduates of MFA programs, as they have well-known writers as faculty to ask for blurbs, this baked-in aspect of MFA programs (which themselves have hierarchies) becomes a system of exclusion in itself. And people who have powerful agents and editors of course have many more avenues of access. This uneven system is mired in issues of race and class and thus can be part of a self-perpetuating cycle that is deleterious—and invisibly so—for the less well off, the less connected, and those far away from the city.

Kelly Link, who is a delightful presence on twitter (@HasZombiesInIt, also @SmallBeerPress), tells me that even for books she loved in galleys, she often couldn’t make the blurbing deadline, and “I’m much happier just recommending books to readers on Twitter when they [Twitter followers] ask for something to read and tell me the sort of thing that they like.”

Maybe readers (and publishers) could declare not an end, but maybe an armistice, in the arms race of blurbing. I, for one, would rather have another Kelly Link short story instead of a blurb. The writer Geraldine Brooks, herself a generous blurber, said, “I stopped asking for blurbs after my first novel, preferring just to go with pull quotes from reviews about previous books”—clearly, her career has not been hampered by this restraint.

Of course, the system can’t change overnight. Bookseller Pamela Klinger-Horn of Excelsior Bay Books and Valley Bookseller says that bookselling “is such a tough market that anything helps. I don’t see blurbs going away anytime soon.”

As an author, however, I can make decisions about my book. Will I have the courage to lessen the load for my brethren and go through publication blurb-less?  Would my publisher even let me?

Image credit: Pexels/Magda Ehlers.

Trump’s Got Mail: About Those Great Love Letters from Kim Jong Un

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At a campaign rally in West Virginia over the weekend, Donald Trump alternated between bluster over the Brett Kavanaugh nomination and starry-eyed musing over his surprising new relationship with North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un. “We fell in love,” Trump said. “No really. He wrote me beautiful letters. They were great letters. And then we fell in love.”

Trump’s declaring love for one of the world’s most notorious dictators is another first, but the idea of receiving magical and strange letters from North Korea is nothing new.

One of my memories growing up was of receiving letters from North Korea.

Both my father and mother are from what is now considered North Korea, my father from the capital city of Pyongyang, my mother from a smaller village further north called Pukchung. Although the North/South Korea split is easily accepted as a given by Americans, my parents grew up in a unified Korea. One that, also, didn’t split itself. The defeat of Japan by the Allies meant that Korea was freed from being its colony. But instead of allowing Korea to proceed as a sovereign nation, U.S. officials, after a half-hour’s pondering without even a map in the room, decided to split the peninsula roughly in half at the 38th Parallel, handing over control of the top half to appease Russia.

Stalin installed Kim Il Sung, the originator of the dynasty of dictators; Kim Jong Un is Kim Il Sung’s grandson. In South Korea, the U.S. military installed Syngman Rhee, the Princeton-educated strongman. This haphazard division placed 16 million Koreans in the American zone of “South” Korea and nine million in the Soviet zone of “North” Korea. The Korean War, which started only five years later, separated families further, especially with the establishment of the Demilitarized Zone, a buffer zone, 160 miles long and extending about one and a quarter miles from the Military Demarcation Line on each side. The city of Kaesong, for instance, was in South Korea from 1945 to 1950, but then ended up on the north side of the new Military Demarcation line and is in North Korea, even though it is below the 38th Parallel.

Today, we have families wrenched apart at the U.S. border with Mexico, itself also a line resulting from a U.S. war. Trump’s new infatuation with Kim Jong Un reminds us that more than half a century ago, another American-led partition resulted in something for which a new word had to be invented in the Korean language: i-san kajok, “separated and scattered families.”

The letters my father received were purportedly from his brother, who had remained in North Korea after the war. I remember that after they arrived, my father would often be moody and gloomy for days. American-born, I had little conception of what Korea, North or South, meant to me. My older brothers, who loved to play Risk, excitedly reveled in the mystery of how these letters found us in tiny Hibbing, Minnesota. Even more, the handwriting was unfamiliar, the voice in the letter strange enough that my brothers remember it today, paraphrasing: “Hi Dr. Lee, this is your … uh … brother. How are you??? Can you send some money?” Once, there was even a picture enclosed, but the picture was so blurry, it was impossible to discern if that really was his brother. If it indeed was, he, the younger brother, looked 20 years older than my father. The letters perennially asked for money—which my father sent, even though my mother didn’t want him to.

I wish these letters hadn’t become lost (we’ve never found them after my father’s death) because I was so young at the time I didn’t realize the weight of what those letters contained. In my childhood years, my parents preferred to never speak of Korea at all, no matter how much I badgered them or even used the excuse of a school project; both parents would say some version of “You were born in America—you are American.” Korea became for me an imaginary planet, and given the obvious discomfort from both parents whenever it was even mentioned, this planet orbited a disreputable past. I wanted to know about Korea so I could understand why we were so different from the blond Scandinavians in our town—like when a cat also raises a baby raccoon amidst its litter. Something so strange has to have a big story behind it. The kids (and some adults) called us Japs and Chinks, but even my parents never suggested we stand up and say, “No, Korean!”

“How’d your parents end up in northern Minnesota?” When I went to the East Coast for college, people seemed equally curious and startled by my background. I’d have to shrug and say, “I don’t know.” I knew my parents had come to America as Korean War refugees, and that’s about all. The best I’d ever gotten out of my father was the Korean proverb, “When whales fight, the shrimp gets hurt.” This didn’t quite jibe with the Horatio Alger/model minority story that had been fed to me my whole life, not necessarily from my parents but from admiring teachers and other adults. We were the American Dream.

My parents similarly had little conception of themselves as “North” or “South” Koreans. Koreans had always been People of the Han Kingdom. The White-Clad People. The Land of the Morning Calm. Not unlike the migrants of today, shortly after the partition, my mother as a teen was sent south by herself for safety, where she became permanently cut off from her immediate family; my father’s parents sent him to Seoul for his education and he was to some degree stuck there with onset of the Korean war. My mother’s cousin, still in their village in North Korea during some of the worst fighting, hopped a transport to the south at his mother’s behest to keep from being conscripted. He left promising he’d return in a week when the fighting in the area died down. He never did. You can multiply this story by hundreds of thousands of families who never asked the U.S. to split their country but have to live with its consequences, every day.

What is the result for the American-born daughter? I know my father’s mother’s name, Ahn Kyung-sook. But my mother says she can’t remember her mother’s name. I don’t know if she means she can’t or won’t. That it means something to her that she won’t share with me, or maybe a Pandora’s box so tightly sealed it should never be opened. It makes me think of all the family tree projects in school where my classmates had grandparents and great-grandparents. My tree had a single leaf.

My parents were “North Korean” not by political affiliation but by geography alone. They would have been happy to live on with their families in their homes; that they are immigrants has less to do with the pull of the U.S. than its rude push, the establishment of this line that made them refugees not once but twice. The line that has kept them from ever seeing their families.

That is why these letters, while almost silly to us kids in their fakeness, to my father were something else. It was the only tangible representation of his family that he had, whether its authorship was fake, or not.

When I was a Fulbright Fellow living in Seoul, my father had made the third trip trying to go back to North Korea with a medical group. Conceptually, I understood that he had to fly via China, not Seoul. But it seemed so odd to already be here, 35 miles away from the DMZ, while my father had flown from Minnesota all the way to China.

As the one non-white doctor in his entourage, and a Korean no less, for the third time he was mysteriously denied a visa even for charity medical work. The other doctors flew on to his hometown, Pyongyang. My father showed up at my apartment in Seoul much earlier than expected. He was completely dejected—drank a lot, insisted on going to tiny, out-of-the-way restaurants that served a specific kind of spicy noodle dish with sliced skate on top—North Korean style. He died at his own hand a few years hence, broken in many ways.

In 2009, despite the news of two journalists being detained in North Korea and the various missile tests, I jumped at the opportunity to accompany an academic group into that place that had been the background of the biggest mysteries of my childhood. Through some sleight of hand with our visas, I even managed to bring my elderly mother along. I hoped to finally get some more clues about this part of my background, especially through my mother’s eyes. But it turned out not to be possible. Pyongyang, like Seoul, had been bombed into oblivion during the Korean war and had been rebuilt in the grandiose Stalinist, not Korean, style. My mother, also, had grown up in a town further north and hadn’t ever been to Pyongyang until now; the college students in our group looked to her eagerly, expecting her to reminisce about “North Korea,” but there wasn’t anything to reminisce about. It would be as if the U.S. had been split into north and south along the Mason-Dixon Line and then people excitedly wanted to ask me what memories being “back” in the North, in Des Moines or maybe Toronto, were like.

Almost coquettishly, Trump keeps the contents of his letters from North Korea a secret. The letters to my father represented sorrow, hope, and, probably saddest of all, a willingness to suspend disbelief. When I was in high school, I recall my mother talking about how very distant relatives in China had passed on word that the brother in North Korea had passed on. Again, there was no way to confirm this. And not long after, yet another letter in that strange handwriting arrived, asking his dear brother for money to buy a TV. These letters continued coming for years. And yes, my father kept sending money into the void. My father did it for love. I’m not sure what this “love” for Kim Jong Un is that Trump is talking about. But he might want to consider, also, the ambiguities of where his letters might be coming from, who wrote them, and why.