Feelin’ Good: What ‘Green Book’ Got Wrong and ‘Period’ Gets Right

1.
We’re back to this. Or, more accurately, we never left it. Who is “allowed” to tell what story? Back in 2016, when the novelist Lionel Shriver delivered an address at the Brisbane Writers Festival wearing a sombrero, a heated debate ensued about cultural appropriation. Shriver is white and wore the sombrero as a dig at students of color at Bowdoin who’d taken issue with a tequila-themed party where students donned miniature sombreros. Shriver said: “The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats.”

Both “supposed to” and “allowed” miss the point rather spectacularly (not to mention Shriver’s omission that the miniature sombreros in question were vaunted on Instagram). Many have written/spoken about this in the years since Brisbane, myself included. Shriver’s and others’ fear-mongering pivot to the so-called tyranny of political correctness diverts attention from poorly executed portrayals of a culture or character of color, pointing instead to oversensitivity and intellectual inferiority when anyone questions the moral and/or aesthetic quality of these portrayals. In the end, I’ve found that the debate comes down to something rather ugly: a battle over who’s really being oversensitive and intellectually simple-minded.

With the controversy over Green Book’s Best Picture Oscar win, it’s tempting to say, Here we go again. The director, Peter Farrelly, is white, as is screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, son of Tony Vallelonga, on whom the main white character is based. The film has had a polarizing effect, with fans lauding its feel-good interracial friendship as the message of hope we need, and detractors criticizing its reduction of racism to a matter of moderately wonky individual attitudes requiring a few key adjustments—nothing a little quality time with an exceptional black man like the composer and pianist Don Shirley can’t fix. Further fueling the controversy is the fact that Shirley’s family spoke out strongly against inaccuracies in Shirley’s portrayal.

2.
But are we back to Brisbane? I think yes and no. Green Book evidences for me a different problem that’s emerged in recent years—both before and after Shriver-gate: white storytellers, recognizing that white-centricism is under scrutiny, rarely now write stories featuring all-white characters. In other words, the market for stories about white people who have no intersections or collisions with people of color has narrowed. While this may be a positive evolution generally speaking, a result is that the instinct to “just add color,” a thinly layered splash here or there, has pervaded many books and films.

Case in point: I recently served on a literary awards committee and was required to read some 60 to 70 debut novels. A significant number of books by white authors either took place in non-white countries and/or featured non-white primary or secondary characters. Most of these novels did not impress me: I found it was not difficult to distinguish between a story about significant relationships between people of different races and a story to which an author had “added color.” In some cases one could almost feel the anxiety motivating the story’s setup—I’ve got to have nonwhite characters—along with the inadequate if well-intentioned response—and here they are!

A crucial question is, why have you “got to?” I’ll defer (as I’ve done previously in interviews and conversations) to Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie, who points us to the fundamental element of motive: whatever is driving your inclination to write or investigate outside of your own culture or experience—anxiety or curiosity, commercial or moral interests, guilt or authentic engagement with power dynamics, savior complex or humility—it will show. The other thing that shows is the creator’s actual lived human relationships to/with the culture and/or character being depicted. To paraphrase the writer Danielle Evans, who tweeted eloquently on this subject in the aftermath of Brisbane, if you are white, who are the people of color in your life, and what is the quality/nature of those relationships? Start there, before imagining you can write well in this vein.

3.
No one but Tony Vallelonga and Don Shirley will ever know the true nature of their relationship. Which is why, in my opinion, Green Book is not the story of “a true friendship,” as advertised. Rather it’s the story of a white working-class family man’s exposure to a new (new to him) sort of black person—erudite, fastidious, a genius musical talent. Don Shirley is so unlike the black people that Tony knows that he is both surprised and miffed when whites in the South physically and verbally harass Shirley and enforce racial segregation. Tony’s oddball role as Shirley’s driver and de facto bodyguard during his concert tour through the deep south becomes a personal journey of reorienting his passive racism—the racism of Italian-American cultural provincialism—toward a more noble awareness of the indignities black Americans face and his obligation to act in the face of such indignities.

A film about “a true friendship” would have co-protagonists. Green Book has a lead and a supporting role. Here I disagree with Octavia Spencer’s assessment of the Don Shirley that Green Book presents—not a “person of color with agency” (per her statement as to why she executive produced the film) but rather a differently objectified figure. A non-stereotype, yet still an underdeveloped, alt-version of the “magical negro,” and mainly a vehicle for loveable, plain-spoken Tony to confront blind spots and work out, in attitude and action, his individual moral development.

The specifics of Don Shirley’s family’s objections to the depiction—as estranged from his family, a lone and pathologized figure—are thus utterly relevant: Why is Shirley embarking on this tour of the deep south if, as one of his trio’s musicians says, he doesn’t have to? What does he really want from his driver, and why does he pursue Tony of all people? The complexities of Shirley’s context, background, and motivations are unexplored and distractingly thin. All we know—all that matters in the film—is that Shirley becomes dependent on Tony to save him, repeatedly, in brutal and humiliating situations. The “friendship,” from Shirley’s side, thus becomes based on gratitude (granted, Tony is also grateful, for Shirley’s assistance in writing love letters to his wife; but the exchange is hardly one of equal stakes). At the very end of the film, Shirley’s gratitude reaches its climax when Tony and his loving Italian-American family “save” Shirley from his loneliness on Christmas eve: They welcome him to the family dinner, doing the heroic work of refraining from racial slurs and everything.

In short: Green Book is a white-framed story, by and about white people, that gives white people an opportunity to feel good about themselves in relation to white-on-black racism, and to which some interesting color has been added. The fact that Mahershela Ali brings his virtuosic talent to playing the colorful character adds gravitas and an illusion of depth and complexity.

In my initial considerations of the film, I intended to interrogate in a broader sense the “feel-good” value of art and entertainment—to propose that it’s natural to want to feel good, but that we need to weigh that desire against the consequences of comfy passivity. Now, I’m actually hoping anyone who felt good at the end of Green Book (I’m looking at you, Academy, along with millions of moviegoers who “liked” Green Book, in their hearts and on social media) will interrogate that they felt good—about a film that calls itself a “true” friendship story when, in fact, it “protagonizes” the white character and makes a prop of the black character, thus shrinking systemic racism into a tiny individualized package. What’s more, Green Book manages to both propose an over-simplified solution to racism, i.e., adjustments to personal prejudice, and distance the majority of white people from even that bit of work by virtue of its 1962 deep south setting: oh those bigots, weren’t they awful?.

But enough about Green Book. 

4.
For comparison, let’s look at the winning film for Best Documentary Short, Period. End of Sentence, through a similar lens. Who made the film, what is the frame, who are the protagonists, what is supposed to “feel good” and why?

Frankly, when Melissa Berton, a white woman who co-produced Period—a 26-minute documentary about the taboo and health risks around menstruation in rural India—stepped up to the mic on stage at the Oscars and exclaimed,
This film began because high school students here, and our great partners at Action India, wanted to make a difference, a human rights difference—
my skepticism antenna went up. Behind Berton stood four of those high school students (now college students)—white women who graduated from the Oakwood School, a private school in North Hollywood with a $40,000 annual price tag. Who will be portrayed as leading actors here, and who the supporting roles, I wondered.

In 2013, girls from Oakwood involved with Girls Learn International, with Berton as their faculty advisor, attended the United Nations’ annual Commission on the Status of Women and became aware that the majority of females in rural India had no access to sanitary napkins and thus suffered embarrassment, ostracization, and health risks while managing blood flow. Also, many girls dropped out of school shortly after they began menstruating. The Oakwood girls were appalled and wanted to “do something.” At the same time, they’d learned about a social entrepreneur in India named Arunachalam Muruganantham, who’d invented a sanitary-napkin making machine that could be operated by village women themselves. Berton and the Oakwood students raised money for the machine, materials, and—because they wanted their project to reach beyond the village itself—a documentary film. Working with the grassroots feminist organization Action India, they identified a village—Kathikhera, in northern India—where the machine could be put to use.

The optics at the Oscars and in relation to Berton and Oakwood concerned me, in large part due to memories of the 2005 Oscars, when British photographer and filmmaker Zana Briski’s Born Into Brothels—about Briski’s project of teaching photography to daughters of sex workers in Calcutta’s red-light district and trying to place the girls in European boarding schools—won for Best Documentary. The controversy around that film—its making, its aftermath, and its success—are best summed up by feminist/queer theorist and English professor Frann Michel, who wrote in 2005:
“Born Into Brothels” might seem to suggest that the residents of Sonagachi are without resources or collective organization, and that escape from the neighborhood is the only possibility for saving the children. In the film, Briski even describes the children as “doomed” in their home environment.
Michel goes on to detail the longstanding local activist efforts—establishing significant social, education, and health services—of the sex workers themselves, notable Indian artists, academics, and government officials, and local NGOs. And she concludes:
[T]o the extent that the film implies that Briski worked alone, without the assistance of local activists, it overestimates the powers of the crusading individual.

Moreover, the film’s emphasis on “good”—that is, boarding school—education exacerbates its focus on individual rather than communal solutions. Even if all eight of the children profiled in the film had been “rescued” by such education, the lives of other Sonagachi residents would not be improved… “Born Into Brothels” is a powerful film in its ability to tug at the heartstrings of westerners. But to the extent it suggests that the only solutions lie in individual outsiders rescuing individual children, it presents a misleading story and indeed an unnecessarily despairing picture of possibilities for change.
It would seem that the next generation of documentary filmmakers (and socially engaged white American girls) learned something from the conversation generated by Brothels’ success—a conversation that existed long before Brothels but came to the fore in 2005.  The Oakwood girls partnered with a 40-year-old local organization—the aforementioned Action India—and recognized that lasting change would only happen if the women of Kathikhera took ownership of the project and its development—making, packaging, and selling the sanitary napkins, and braving difficult conversations about what they are doing and why.
They don’t just want to donate money and buy the girls a pad machine. They want to go there. They want to speak with the women… They want to install this machine and make sure that we’re giving the power entirely to them to create these pads and to become empowered and independent.
Enter Rayka Zehtabchi (her words above), an Iranian American and recent USC film school graduate, who directed Period. When it came time to bring on a filmmaker, a film industry veteran and Oakwood parent named Garrett Schiff contacted cinematographer/editor Sam Davis, who in turn recommended Zehtabchi, his close friend and USC classmate. It would seem then a fortuitous accident that not only is Zehtabchi female (Schiff was explicit in expressing this requirement) but also a person of color. In a short video for the 2015 Kickstarter campaign for her narrative short Mataran—about an Iranian mother deciding whether to pardon, or approve capital punishment for, her son’s murderer—Zehtabchi said this:
I’m an Iranian American, and I’m very much aware of the Western viewpoint on Iran.  A lot of the negativity that is associated with that comes as a result of the political situation in Iran [which] has the second highest rate of executions in the world, behind China. And their method of execution is hanging.
While, by her own admission, Zehtabchi knew nothing about menstrual hygiene or cultural taboos around menstruation in India, she did know that acute awareness of “the Western viewpoint” (from a non-Western viewpoint) was crucial to any project made by Westerners about a non-Western culture. Specifically, Zehtabchi understood that certain non-Western cultural practices (in this case, the taboo around menstruation and managing periods with unsanitary cloths) would incite in Westerners a negative response—repulsion, condemnation, pity; and it was crucial that the film depict these realities and their contexts through the subjects’ points-of-view, not the Western gaze.

Period is also executive produced by Indian film industry veteran Guneet Monga, with interviews assistance from one of her company’s junior producers, Mandakini Kakar, and Action India. Whoever initiated these recruitment efforts, which would crucially determine who was “in the room” as key aspects of the project developed, should be commended.

And here in an interview from MoveableFeast, Zehtabshi, explains precisely why:
Before going to India, there was this idea of making a totally different film about the group of high school girls in Los Angeles who are starting this whole movement and working with a group of women in India [to] help start this sanitary pad business. Melissa Berton…got all the high school girls involved in this whole mission and got us communicating with…the inventor of the pad machine…when I went to India…to start shooting, the machine [had been] installed and it became very clear that the focus and the center of the story was specifically the women in this one village because it was so powerful to see how much this one machine was affecting all the people…
And once again we are back to white framing as default; primary and supporting roles; and the power and privilege to “protagonize.” Whose idea was it to make the girls the main characters?  To whom did it become “very clear” that the village women should instead be the focus? Were there some who needed convincing or enlightening? Who was in the room when that conversation occurred, and would this shift have been possible without Zehtabchi, Monga, Action India, etc. as prominent voices? We may never know the answers to these questions, but I dare say I have a reasonable idea; even as I hope I’m more wrong than right.

5.
Maybe in the end I am indeed interrogating the vital implications of “feel-good” when it comes to films engaging with social issues. As Americans, what we have historically and continually failed to recognize is the feel-good power of humility. There is an important distinction, for would-be liberal do-gooders, between self-congratulation—Look what we did! Isn’t it inspiring?—and self-evolution—Look at what the rest of the world has to teach us. The hard pill for many to swallow is that, in 2019, white Westerners with the best of progressive politics and intentions are as susceptible to the pitfall of privileged protagonizing as are 1960s bigots of yore, or even MAGA Trumpians. [Side note: while a comprehensive analysis of another 2019 Oscar contender for best short documentary, Lifeboat, is not the focus here, I encourage you to watch it for yourself and examine the ways in which the esteemed, experienced director hews uncomfortably close to white-savior/huddled masses tropes and images in this film about the global refugee crisis.]

I appreciate Zehtabchi’s artistic talents, but without her evident essential humility, her talents and good intentions could easily, unwittingly effect more harm than good. When asked in an interview with Ms. Magazine, “What was the most shocking or surprising thing that you learned throughout the filmmaking process?” Zehtabchi said:
I think it really taught me a lot about myself. I grew up sort of thinking I was always mature and worldly in a lot of ways. And I think I realized when I went to India—when I was exposed to this whole issue—that I really don’t know anything about the world…
A foregrounded humility is especially crucial as Period’s influence on mainstream conversations about global issues for women and girls increases. “The Pad Project”—the nonprofit that grew out of the Oakwood student’s efforts—promotes their mission with the tagline, A period should end a sentence—not a girl’s education. It’s a catchy, motivating slogan that elicits applause and makes us all feel good; but in fact the relationship between lack of menstrual hygiene and dropping out of school is more associative and anecdotal than rigorously evidenced. And this distinction matters. In an interview with NPR, researcher Marni Sommer said that hard research has yet to be funded or conducted on menstrual hygiene’s impact on education; in small focus groups, girls around the world identified menstruation as “‘one of many issues that makes engaging in and participating regularly in school problematic.” This, surmises the NPR reporter, is “a far cry from proving that the barriers to menstrual hygiene are causing educational harm.” Likely, multiple converging factors end a girl’s education and make managing periods difficult—including, for example, lack of running water to wash your hands and toilets with privacy locks on the doors. Says Sommer, “The studies out there are not looking at toilets…no one finds toilets sexy,” and the suggestion that a pad-making project will solve the problem worries her.

A final frustration with the tagline is the implication that addressing menstrual hygiene is urgent only insofar as it impacts education. Sommer feels strongly that being able to hygienically and unashamedly manage your period is a human right: “We shouldn’t have to justify that girls are deserving of an environment where they can just meet their basic bodily needs.”

6.
No one is suggesting the film shouldn’t have been made or that it hasn’t had a net positive influence. “The benefit of this movie,” says Sommer, “is that it opens the conversation.” And again, here, I appreciate Zehtabchi’s humility: the filmmaker herself, as far as I’ve seen, has not touted the tagline, and instead said of the film’s value:
it’s always been a wonderful conversation starter and we have a lot of interest from schools and universities and organizations that would love to eventually screen the film. That was the goal of the whole project in the first place—let’s start conversations about periods.
In this vein, I am happy to protagonize the girls, The Pad Project, the faculty advisor, the filmmaker, the producers, the parents who contributed money, everyone involved: Look at what they did: they started a conversation about a complex, ongoing issue. And yet, first and foremost, look at the women and girls of Kathikhera—Sneha, Rekha, Preeti, Shushma, Roksana, Preeti, Gouri, Shabana, Sulekha, Ajeya, Suman, Shashi, Usha, Sushila, Anita—protagonists in their own stories, their families, their communities, their economies, their complex and evolving lives—from whom the rest of us have much to learn.

Does Size Matter? A Conversation with Three Filmmakers

Lately I’ve been thinking about the size of art—specifically short forms across the genres. In literature, compression and brevity—aesthetic experiences as “bursts” of meaning, capsules of experience—have always excited me: The writers I most admire all work masterfully in the short form. Every word, every phrase, every image counts; every moment does “triple duty” in working to resonate layers of meaning.

As writers, we are always immersing ourselves in other art forms for nourishment. For me, film in particular has been a mainstay. As both viewer and fellow storyteller, I learn enormously from films—about narrative structure, emotional texture, visual and aural detail, dialogue, characterization, et alia. Here at The Millions, you’ll be hearing more from me about film and TV, starting with this conversation with three accomplished filmmakers—a documentarian, an animator, and a fictionist—about the short form.

The Millions: As both makers and viewers of short films, what do you think the short form can do better/more compellingly than (or perhaps just differently from) the long form?

Cecilia Aldarondo: Great shorts are these little gems that can sometimes make their mark on us precisely because of their concision. As maker and viewer, I am attracted to shorts because they enable us to dip our toes into an idea without having the burden of too much elaboration. As a filmmaker, I can treat a short like a game. There’s a low-stakes lightness to the process. With a feature, the pressures of fundraising and distribution can really tax the creative process. With a short, I don’t even have to worry if anyone sees it. I feel the luxury of experimentation. I also like to treat shorts as opportunities for collaboration—I can say to a busy friend, hey, let’s make this thing over a weekend or a week or whatever, and this low-pressure situation enables me to remember that art-making is supposed to involve play, failure, and elasticity, and how rewarding it can be to be new at something.

Sometimes, though, I do find the short form too slight, or too simple, for me to really tackle something. One of the current documentaries I’m making—a feature exploring the aftermath of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico—began as a short film. Very quickly I realized that I couldn’t do justice to the seismic nature of this disaster in a short form. It just didn’t work; the short was cacophonous and didn’t hang together. I also think sometimes filmmakers are more susceptible to triteness in a short; I feel like I’ve seen a lot of shorts fall back on cheap tropes that reinforce unhealthy stereotypes. I actually think it can be harder to be original in a short.

George Griffin: “Does Size Matter?” What is it, this short form, besides length?

My position is temperamental: I worship the letter, analogous to the drawing, the frame, the most elemental piece of motion picture film. Look at the letter G. It contains hints of an unjoined circle, itself hinged by a straight line. It exists alone, on a plinth, glanced at or holding my focus while I wander around it, close up or from across the room. Maybe it’s a clean Swiss font, or there are scratchy marks, drop shadows, curlicues. I draw it a certain way, maybe after numerous stylistic revisions, erasures, alternating colors.

Letters build words, which could arrange themselves into sentences, often leading to paragraphs clumped atop each other into stories. And that’s it. I can’t see anything longer through the fog: too far away. Well, not quite. Just as a longer form can contain more than one story, there can be a dialectic of story and counter-story. I have made both cartoons and what I’ve called “anti-cartoons,” and on two occasions have combined them into a single, somewhat longer film.

Just as early cartoons often arose from comic strips, perhaps the size/length issue will continue to be affected by the graphic novel. And maybe the cliché “poetic,” so often used to describe short film, can evolve into a real dialogue.

TM: George, how then do you think about “story?”  There is certainly a sense of narrative in your more recent films “You’re Outta Here” and “It Pains Me to Say This.” Do you tend to begin with characters and narrative, or does image or shape or color come first?  Is it different with each film?

GG: Since the ’80s, when I lost interest in “self-referential” art, I’ve returned to cartoons (even abstractions) which are drenched in narrative or at least memoirish detritus. “Outta Here” was a commissioned film/music video, for the singer/lyricist Lorraine Feather. I think it came out of her confusion/anger over a break-up. Maybe relief too. So, maybe a story can grow out of deep feelings; nothing new there, nor is humorizing the pain.

Another recent film, “Coal Creek,” has two stories loosely woven together. One is a fanciful documentary about John Kasper, a follower of Ezra Pound who left his bookshop in the West Village to fight against school integration in the ’50s. The other is a memoir of my liberal teenage years growing up near the specific school that Kasper targeted in Tennessee. The only on-camera narrator is the school’s janitor who had bravely walked to the all-white school as a kid. He says, “I saw Kasper. Oh, he looked a little like you!” My research also led to Kasper’s black girlfriend whom he had left behind 60 years before (she didn’t want to be part of the film). Imagine, “Coal Creek” could have been a mixed-form, anti-doc feature, not a 10-minute short.

Julian Kim: Where feature-length films invite people to a world, I think short films invite people to an idea. A short film is like a parable. It packages a simple message that is intended to inspire, provoke, reproach, and move those who watch it. But also, it gives room for the viewers to create their own narrative. Much of what is unspoken—backstory, setting, relationships, motivation—is completely up to the viewer to create. My favorite type of short films are the ones where the story lives on even after the credits roll. When the images flash before you as you lay yourself to sleep, you try to digest what you have watched. There’s an appeal in telling a story with a blank canvas for each viewer to contribute to and finish on their own.

TM:  Julian, who are some of your short-film filmmaking inspirations?

JK: I really enjoyed Martin Rosete’s “Voice Over.” Even though it has been about 5 years since I first saw it, the visuals and concept still resonate. Rosete did an amazing job utilizing one small incident and creatively expanding it into something so large and engaging.

I also found Andrew Ahn’s “Dol” inspiring. I love how he captures Korean-American culture without explicitly spelling it out. He subtly presents us the pain and internal conflicts experienced by the character. The story lingered with me for quite some time.

TM: As filmmakers, you all have a distinct set of economic/pragmatic factors to consider: One needs significantly—often prohibitively—more resources to make a feature-length film. That said, if resources were not a consideration, would you still make short films? Why/why not?

CA: Yes, I think so. The constraints on filmmaking aren’t always monetary—sometimes our biggest hurdles are creative. The stakes are higher with a feature not just because of the money involved, or the stakeholders we might have to answer to, but because of the time, energy, and risk we’ve expended to make it. Features take years, shorts can be made in days. Of course, some shorts require painstaking effort; brevity isn’t always the best measure of the risk, commitment, or suffering a project may ask of us. But in general, I feel that I will likely turn to shorts whenever I want to play or learn something new.

One catch that nobody tells you: It takes just as much work—sometimes more—to distribute a short. The festival applications are the same, the deliverables are the same. It can be a huge amount of work to get a short seen.

GG: I am not forced to make short animated films because of external pressures like economics. It isn’t a pragmatic choice. Again, it’s temperament, perhaps inherent, held aloft by reactions (both negative and positive) from other people. I can’t resist mocking the “why” question by answering, “why not?”

JK: My motivation as a filmmaker is to tell stories that can uplift our community and society. I am first and foremost a storyteller. Short films or feature-length films are just various sizes of a blank canvas.  I believe certain art pieces call for a bigger canvas to be on full display; confident, loud, and tall. On the other hand, certain pieces call for a more-humble canvas—intimate and personal.

It’s hard to pick either/or.  But if budget was not an issue, I’d definitely be motivated to make more short films, because it challenges me as a creative person to constantly think of a new world, a new narrative, and a new message. Short films push me to be more fluid as a storyteller.

TM: Julian, tell us a little about your Flushing Web Series and your recent short film  “Call Taxi”— both your artistic vision, and how you approached distribution/audience building.

JK: My collaborator Peter S. Lee and I started the Flushing Web Series because we wanted to highlight stories that were hidden in our community. While Flushing, Queens, has gained a reputation for diverse food offerings, it was still under-appreciated and overlooked as a major producer of culture and art. Our mission was to tell authentic and relatable stories. Through sharing with the public what growing up in Flushing was like, we were able to define our own identities both as Asian-Americans and as filmmakers.

“Call Taxi” was birthed after a tearful heart-to-heart conversation I had with Peter. I had shared with him my struggles as a son of immigrant parents who were growing old and physically weak. At the end of their “career” of dry cleaning, they had no real retirement plan. Their real retirement plan was to lean on me and I would have to dutifully take on that burden. I felt it unfair, but knowing my parents would not take a cent from me, I was simultaneously met with so much regret.

We posted our series on YouTube because of the breadth and reach of the YouTube community. It was the best way to get viewers. The response was overwhelming, and the community “liked” it and shared it. I remember even the older generations sending links to our film via text to other family members overseas. We were both thrilled and humbled that people were able to connect with the film, and that it stirred up conversations about their respective experiences upon watching it.

TM:  The Millions is a literary site, so here’s a genre-comparison question for you all: The short story is sometimes considered the highest form, associated with perfection of craft; other times it’s treated as the industry stepchild. Is there a similar ambivalence for the short film in your genre? Do you think this has changed/is changing?

Also, true or false: You can buy short story collections and read short stories in magazines; you can download singles from iTunes; you can enjoy/purchase small paintings. It seems harder to find/enjoy a short film as a consumable unit of art in its own right. If you agree, why do you think this is?

CA: I don’t think I can answer this question about a film’s aesthetic value without reminding myself that no matter how radical or formally bold they profess to be, at the end of the day films (like all culture) are commodities, subject to the vagaries of capitalism. Right now the internet is dramatically changing the landscape for shorts and often privileging shorter runtimes over longer ones. The voracious screen culture we live in—and the rapidly shrinking attention spans that come with it—prizes brevity. Traditional media outlets such as The New York Times, the Guardian, The New Yorker, and Condé Nast have all radically expanded the number of short documentaries they produce and acquire. Some documentarians I know welcome this shift and have found themselves making more shorts than before because of it.

But this explosion of content has come with no regulation or standards. Filmmakers are regularly being asked to hand over their films for next to nothing—or nothing at all in exchange for “a wide audience.” There’s no transparency about what filmmakers are actually being paid, and this shift is further contributing to already rampant freelancer precarity. On top of this, media outlets frequently expect filmmakers to surrender creative control, and I feel that I’m constantly resisting the transformation of documentary into mere “content.” These changes have steadily diminished the question of craft, to the point that it seems scarily at risk of extinction.  (One major exception to these trends is Field of Vision and Firelight Media’s  “Our 100 Days” series, which commissioned a documentary I directed last year called “Picket Line.” FoV funds shorts with real budgets, and ensures directors have final cut of their films.)

TM: In the literary world too these days we often say it’s easier to get published, but harder to get paid. Is there any chance this is a positive change, or maybe zero sum—if artists are no longer linking creation with paycheck? We lose time (as we earn money otherwise), and cultural respect (people stop expecting to pay for art); but the capitalist commodification is problematic too, isn’t it?

CA: The union organizer in me is having a moment right now. I’m definitely not saying we should always be monetizing our work (that’s the other dark side to this era, in which we are all becoming brands). I’ve had some incredibly frustrating run-ins with mercenary artists who turn everything into a financial transaction. It’s awful. I’m constantly trying to circumvent the economics, in fact. I love nothing more than to barter favors with friends I like to work with—you scratch my artist’s back, I scratch yours. But the reality is that most creative people lack the ability to make art for its own sake. This is especially true for working-class filmmakers, and filmmakers of color. It’s an incredible privilege to make work without thinking about one’s bills. Part of what I’ve observed is that many organizations will use this “art for art’s sake” rhetoric to justify asking financially vulnerable artists to make work, give time, teach, mentor, all for free. We’re experiencing an unprecedented casualization of creative labor, and that makes me want to hold the line on making sure people who need to get paid get paid.

GG: It’s much harder to find individual or even collections of short films. Maybe we aren’t aware of the many genres of short forms produced by “content providers” that tumble chaotically, incessantly, out of our devices: movie trailers, music videos, advertising and public service spots, pleas for political support, YouTube videos of funny pets. Yes, most viewers see the short film as a stepping stone to feature films, a kind of proving ground, grudgingly honored at the star-studded Oscar awards ceremony. (There is a perennial rumor that the category will be exiled to the technical awards dinner.)

Compared to other short forms, including painting and sculpture, which can be read/viewed/reviewed at one’s own speed, continuously or episodically, all films, short and long, must be viewed exactly as projected on a bright screen in a darkened room. These involuntary, pre-determined conditions are both a strength (exciting tempo, spectacle, illusion, propaganda) and a weakness (boredom), abetted by the sonic envelope of music, lyrics, dialogue, or silence.

Compared to mass entertainment (including gaming), short films live in a cultural niche found in international festivals specializing in documentary, animation, identity affirmation, narrative, even preceding feature films at the local art cinema. Also check out retail sites, museum programs, and public library media sections.

TM: Literary writers too often express that reading literature has become a rarified, niche activity, and serial television is where would-be readers now immerse themselves in complex story and character. George, do you think there is an analogy for short films? You mention gaming: Is this a place where creative talent is finding its audience and industry? Are there other short-film filmmakers you admire who are finding their way into more mainstream outlets?

GG: The world of gaming, television, and serial streaming entertainment is too far off my map to be of much help to this discussion. I do like the dialogue and art direction of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” yet could never see the characters as really animated; they are already cartoons. Certain animators have moved from shorts to features through the conventional route: directing, animation supervising, designing, storyboarding, all as part of a studio team financed within a mass-market context. The other “road not (often) taken” involves a narrower, more personal, formally experimental journey. The most successful example is Bill Plympton, whose main strength is roughly penciled grotesquerie, wildly irreverent humor, often delivered in short doses. Nina Paley’s mastery of line and character in motion was bound together with the music of Annette Hanshaw in “Sita Sings the Blues.” And Signe Baumann’s “Rocks in My Pockets” described her, and her family’s, history of depression, rendered in a dead-pan pictorial design and monotonous, uninflected narration, all quite informative and mordantly hilarious. All three artists have funded their projects through crowd-sourcing, and as they don’t have (to my knowledge) major distribution, the audience is unfortunately limited to festivals and perhaps specialized tours and cinemas. Baumann’s subject enabled her to find audiences among therapeutic networks: patients, academics, and practitioners. Her current feature project is focused on marriage.

Finding a cinematic analogy to the novel is less likely among animators than live-action/narrative filmmakers. But when we throw in mixtures including documentary, widely-used (and misused) techniques like rotoscoping, glued together with compositing, then one never knows…There are surely many more animators who have brought their features to the festival circuit and moved to wider audiences. Critics like Amid Amidi and historian-artists like John Canemaker would have a deeper, more up-to-date view.

JK: Short films were always considered unprofitable because distribution for them was hard…until the Internet happened! The way we view “films” is changing. We are now in a world where 15-second vertical stories are the way we consume storytelling. I feel like the people of the new generation are on YouTube more than they are in theaters. They watch gamers stream, rather than watch a sketch comedy show. For a traditionalist like myself, I find it unfortunate that an increase in viewership is directly related to a mere strong thumbnail and a compelling first six seconds. It ruins the artistic merit of filmmaking, where pacing is so important. However, I’m sure there is a different side to that, especially to those who embrace this new wave. I think there is a demand for short films in this current market, but I personally do not see most content as the highest form of filmmaking.

I believe great short films as a consumable unit of art exist out there, but I agree that it is harder to find them. I do think content on the web is created specifically to capture the ephemeral attention of the audience so it’s hard to find a calming or powerful short film beyond all the noise of makeup tutorials, vine compilations, and music covers.

TM: Julian, tell us about a great short film you’ve been inspired by, and also how you discovered and encountered it.

JK: Some years ago, I fell upon “Kung Fury” and “POWER/RANGERS” on YouTube and was amazed by the sheer production scale. I also enjoy light-hearted and easily consumable content produced by Wong Fu Productions and Jubilee Projects. Much like how you can find a great novel or good read by spending significant time in a library, taking the time to browse YouTube increases the probability of encountering good video content.

TM: I’ll end with a question—for Cecilia—about a “happy medium” form. Tell us about your documentary “Memories of a Penitent Heart”—about your uncle, a gay man who died of AIDS amidst the disapproval and denials of your Catholic Puerto Rican family—which played on PBS’s POV. What is the nature of this middle length—analogous to the novella, perhaps?

CA:  “Memories”’s theatrical length was 72 minutes long—already lean for a documentary feature. For the TV broadcast, POV asked us to cut the film down to exactly 53 minutes, or what’s known as a broadcast hour. This is another instance of industry forces rubbing up against creative impulse. I had zero desire to cut the film down, but since it was my one shot at a TV broadcast, I basically closed my eyes, handed the film to my editor, and said, “Do your worst.” She’s such a damn good editor that the broadcast hour worked—but in my opinion, we sacrificed breathing room and lyricism. For a film about loss and memory, this is really significant. Hundreds of thousands of people saw it when they otherwise wouldn’t have, and that’s the Faustian bargain a lot of filmmakers make, but my film is a lean and lyrical 72 minutes—and it’s on iTunes!

Image Credit: Unsplash/John Moeses Bauan.

A Year in Reading: Sonya Chung

This year was a year of catch-up reading: I found myself busy with books that I really should have read years ago. But without a doubt, when it comes to adventures in gorgeous and transformative literature, better (much better) late than never.

Top of my list is Fools by Joan Silber. Silber’s first novel, Household Words, won the PEN/Hemingway in 1980, but I—many of us younger writers, I think—didn’t come to know her work until Ideas of Heaven, her fifth book and a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award. The “ring of stories” form rocked my world back then, and Silber’s ability to inhabit first-person narrators of such widely diverging identities, time periods, and voices was a revelation. With Fools, that same form, now sometimes referred to as a “story cycle,” is intricately crafted, and the stories are arguably even more satisfyingly, thematically linked (When is it wise—or not—to be a fool for something?).

For me though, what caused a Silber-reading marathon (Household Words, The Size of the World, Improvement, Lucky Us) is the wisdom embedded in each story, each character’s journey: These are stories about—simply put—the deep and wide messiness of a life’s arc. People are complicated, and life happens to us and at us more than we ever hope/imagine when we set out as young people. There are no cheap seats in life, and even so, it’s all meaningful, and it matters, and those are the echoes I most want vibrating in me when I put down a book.

Two short novels that seem to me under-read specifically because they were ahead of their time: Ed Lin’s Waylaid and James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. In the department of literature by and about people of color, the challenges and pitfalls are too often framed in terms of the either/or versus both/and conundrum: Is the book primarily “about race/racial identity” or about human beings living whole human lives inside their skin in a specific American setting? Both these novels so clearly do not concern themselves with this artificial question.

Beale Street, published in 1974, is a love story: Tish and Fonny are a young woman and man whose circumstances and racial identities make it extremely difficult for them to live happily ever after, and the journey toward that possibility is entangling and profound, much larger than just the two of them.

Waylaid (2002) takes place in the ’80s and features a 12-year-old Chinese-American, male protagonist who lives in and manages his parents’ seedy motel on the Jersey Shore: His first and ostensible problem is that he desperately needs to get laid, but really he’s figuring out how—as a big-for-his-age, smart, horny kid and the only Asian-American kid around—he’s going to grow into a manhood that is his own and find hope in humanity while surrounded by sad, lonely adults (his immigrant parents included). Both Waylaid and Beale Street render powerfully this truth: For people of color, racism is everyone else’s problem; we are just trying to live the fully human lives we are entitled to. The freedom to write character-driven stories that engage racial experience as essential but not essentializing may seem basic to us now, but as an Asian American writer-friend said to me recently about Waylaid: “No one was writing Asian Americans like that back then.” And the same could be said about Baldwin/Beale Street in the ’70s. (Note: I’m mad excited about Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation, but I also encourage all to read the book first if you can!)

I’ll close with two poetry collections—The Wilderness by Sandra Lim and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker. I tend to read poetry in a more sensory than cerebral way and am not very good at writing “about” poems or poetry collections. So I’ll just say that both these are provocatively and aptly titled and hope you’ll be thus compelled to immerse mind and senses in the work of these fierce, gifted poets.

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Summer Playlist: Beyond the Cyclical

It’s summer, which means it’s time for a new playlist.

Instead of seeking out new music, I decided instead to play through the songs in my current music library, combing for old or undiscovered gems. If you’re like me, you’ve accumulated music over the years from who knows when or where (The Afghan Whigs? Gloria Gaynor? Massive Attack? Who knew?). Or you’ve listened to albums only partially or half-heartedly when you get to (maybe even skipping over) the lesser-knowns.

To get started, I set my 3,496 songs (some of you music heads are thinking, That’s all?) to shuffle—in the car, on the subway, on dog walks, while washing dishes or cleaning house. My strategy: When a lyric hit me, I paused, replayed, listened again; if it really hit me, then I played all the way through and, nine times out of 10, tapped “add to playlist” (occasionally, a lyric out of context went in a direction that lost me).

While I don’t always listen primarily for lyrics, this playlist, it would seem, is decidedly “literary.” I’m only about one-fourth of the way through my library; so far, the playlist consists of 34 songs. Here’s a sampling.

“All Alone (No One to Be With)” by Slick Rick

As a recovering evangelical, I’m bound to be hooked by any song that starts with, “As a youth each Sunday, Dawn went to church.” Virtuous, love-hungry Dawn gets involved with a young man, at “mad high cost”; she gets pregnant, and her heart broken:
She cried, for no longer knew which way she’s headed
Once dreamt of actually wearing white at her wedding
and really being pure
Now she thought she’d die without
Still she finds strength to continue with her life without love
(All alone, no one to be with)
Without love
(All alone no one to be with)
Without love
(All alone no one to be with)
Without love
(All alone no one to be with)
Good God, the repetition is inescapable and brutal and sad. But Dawn persists:
She decides to have the child because she doesn’t want to sin.
Props to the girl although ahead hard times;
Was Hell finishin’ school and working part-time.
Yet Dawn did it though her youth went to waste.
Little help from the government, she got her own place.
Hard for an independent woman and a kid
And as soon as she could get off the assistance, she did.
Without no man who she once thought she’d die without

Still she finds the strength to continue with her life without love…
(All alone no one to be with)
Life without love…
Dawn works two jobs, her son grows up, starts cutting school, then, “tired of seeing his poor mother suffering,” he starts selling drugs, gets caught, and off to prison—“nine hours on a bus to go see him.” And Dawn, again:
Without no man who she once thought she’d die without
Still she finds the strength to continue with her life without love
(All alone no one to be with)…
The song risks all the tropes and stereotypes of the “strong black woman” (pair with Melissa V. Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen, specifically her chapter on the dangers of this idealized and constraining stereotype), but what saves it, I think, is its focus on Dawn’s love life. Good on Slick Rick for foregrounding Dawn’s loneliness as her essential tragedy—not just the relentless strength required to live as a black woman in America, and heartbroken over a son’s incarceration, but the fortitude, and pain, of living (and not dying) without the fulfillment of love and partnership, “no one to be with.”

“All I Really Want to Do” by Bob Dylan
I ain’t looking to compete with you
Beat or cheat or mistreat you
Simplify you classify you
Deny defy or crucify you

All I really wanna do
Is baby be friends with you
Another male-authored song that strikes me as awfully insightful on the subject of love and coupling, and resonates, I think, with a female perspective. Dylan’s waltzy guitar rhythms, his playful yodeling and folksy harmonica riffs, draw us into the song’s whirly twirly lightness. But the lyrics home in from the get on the rough-and-tumble of fragile, passionate, independent egos trying and failing to converge in intimacy (truth is, I listened to this song in the car, driving 78 mph north on the Thruway, away from domestic life, for a brief respite).
I ain’t looking to block you up
Shock or knock or lock you up
Analyze you categorize you
Finalize you or advertise you

All I really wanna do
Is baby be friends with you

I don’t want to fake you out
Take or shake or forsake you out
I ain’t looking for you to feel like me
See like me or be like me

All I really wanna do
Is baby be friends with you
I don’t know what the little giggle after “feel like me” is about, but I’d like to think Dylan has figured something out—about the folly of ego clashing—by the time he gets to that stanza. Consider also what he means by “friends”—something much more dimensional and full than the word’s most common meaning today.

“Amsterdam” by Coldplay

I only started listening to Coldplay, like, a month ago. And yeah, that song “Yellow” is moody and romantic and the kind of song Ellar Coltrane likes to listen to in Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, but this song, whose title is a pleasing mystery (I’ve never been to Amsterdam, but I do live on Amsterdam Avenue, so that’s also pleasing), feels somehow like it was written for grownups.
Come on oh my star is fading
I swerve out of control
If I, if I’d only waited
I’d not be stuck here in this hole

Come here oh my star is fading
And I swerve out of control
And I swear I waited and waited
I’ve got to get out of this hole
I love the movement here from depression (“oh my star is fading”) to desperation (“swerve out of control”) to regret (“if I’d only”) in the first stanza; then the pivot to solicitude (“Come here”) and defensiveness (“I swear”) and determination (“I’ve got to get out”) in the second. So much going on, like all the stages of grief at once. Then comes a voice—an inner voice? An external one?
But time is on your side
It’s on your side now
Not pushing you down, and all around
It’s no cause for concern
Who is addressing whom? I don’t know, but it feels to me like a shift to second-person narration, self addressing self. In any case, the voice offers what the tormented soul didn’t even quite know it needed: the assurance of time. There’s enough time. With time, you can find your star’s brilliance, settle down and straighten the wheel; you can dig deeper for the patience you didn’t have before, and you can climb your way out of the hole.

“Make It with You” by Bread (Dusty Springfield version)
Oh hey, have you ever tried
Really reaching out for the other side?
I may be climbing on rainbows
But baby, here goes . . .

Dreams they’re for those who sleep
Life it’s for us to keep
And if you’re wondering what this song is leading to

I want to make it with you
I really think that we could make it
For me, the first half of the song—what grabbed me on first listen—was all about reaching for rainbows and living life (as opposed to sleeping and dreaming through it). Yes, carpe diem! But then the whole thing turns—retreats, but in a good way—toward a kind of essential humility:
No you don’t know me well
And every little thing
Only time will tell
But you believe the things that I do
And we’ll see it through . . .

I’d like to make it with you
I really think that we could make it
As someone who married naively in my early 20s, then divorced at 30, I think a lot about the crazy things people promise, with such impossible certainty, during marriage ceremonies. “You don’t know me well” and “Only time will tell” are two of the wisest love-song lyrics I’ve ever heard. Along with “you believe the things that I do” and “I really think that we could make it,” this hopeful realism makes me think this song should be everyone’s wedding anthem.

“Jericho” by Weekend Players
Come fill my senses up with you
You’ve turned the jaded into new
Come fill my senses up with you
Love would be senseless without you
Come fill my senses up with you
You, you, you, you, you, you
OK, people, this song is not about the lyrics, really; it’s all about sultry bass and rich string arrangements and smoky, silky vocals. It’s all about the sensorial, sensual reality of human aliveness and intimacy; the renewal that comes from breathing in—smelling, hearing, tasting, touching—a beloved. Words schmerds.

“You Won’t Let Me” by Rachael Yamagata
I don’t want to say good-bye
I just want to give it one more try
And I’d do anything
Yes I’d do anything
If you’d only let me
I’ve just read bell hooks’s truthtelling and uplifting—and let us recognize just how hard it is to be both of these simultaneously—Communion: The Female Search for Love (the third in hooks’s seminal trilogy on love). While Communion was published in 2002, its insights about the persistence of patriarchal norms in so-called progressive heterosexual relationships (let alone overtly oppressive ones) speak as loudly as ever.
When I began working on these chapters about men and discussed issues with women friends…the question they often asked was “Are there any good men?” My response is “Of course there are.” Since many of these women are in midlife, they often encounter men who are what I call “unreconstructed,” who have not yet converted to feminist thinking in their private lives. These men may grudgingly or happily accept women as equals on the job but when they come home, they often want old sexist gender roles to be in place…[On the other hand] Males who have been raised to be holistic, to be in touch with their feelings and able to communicate them, have more satisfying personal relationships than men who are emotionally closed and withholding.
hooks goes on to write that women of her generation—baby boomers who came of age during the heady days of consciousness-raising and sexual liberation—seeking male partners who are “wholeheartedly committed to feminist thinking and practice” often find themselves attracted to men who are gay, bisexual, or under 35. But young women these days do not find themselves in necessarily better situations: Rachael Yamagata (b. 1977) sings often about heartbreak at the hands of men who just couldn’t “handle” her—emotionally, artistically. Here she sings about the yearning to help “reconstruct” a man, who’s ultimately a horse that can’t be forced to drink:
If you’d only let me
I could show you how to love
Take our time, let it all go
If you’d only let me
I could show you how to cry
In your darkest hour
I would lead you through the fire

But you won’t let me
You won’t let me …

If you’d only let me …

But you won’t let me
You won’t let me
Rachael, I hear ya. You’re a dreamer and a romantic, and so am I. We’ve all been there. You can see it, the better version of him—fuller, freer, evolved—that he can’t see. And to this, bell hooks would say, “I decided to choose men whom I did not need to convert to feminist thinking…when a man changes to please a woman rather than from his own inner conviction, the changes are likely to be superficial.” She would say, I think, Move on.

But I think she’d also encourage us to keep envisioning a new world of fully reconstructed, nonbinary mutuality, where we all have both emotional intelligence and quiet strength.

“Do Something” by Macy Gray
Get up, get out and do something
Don’t let the days of your life pass you by
Get up, get out and do something
How will you make it if you never even try?
Get up, get out and do something
Can’t spend your whole life trying to get high
Get up, get out and do something
’Cause you and I got to do for you and I
It’s summer, and for me that means that the temptation to let the weeks pass too quickly, unproductively, looms. I’m always working, but I’m not always doing something in the way Macy Gray means—she’s singing about underachiever’s syndrome here, the fear of failure, the fear of even trying (why not just stay home and smoke weed, after all?). She’s singing about taking risks, getting “out” beyond the familiar and predictable and cyclical.

All righty, then. Happy summer, all. Let’s do this.

Honorable mentions:

“The Man Who Never Lied” by Maroon 5
“The Makeup” by Cody Chestnutt
“Jamais Seule” by Loane
“Just Like a Woman” by Bob Dylan
“Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson
“All I Want” by Joni Mitchell
“Just My Imagination” by the Cranberries

Image: Flickr/Andrew Malone

A Year in Reading: Sonya Chung

It’s been a somewhat slow, muddy-brained reading year for me—likely due to the intense distractions of both ugly news media and challenging life happenings. But thankfully and nonetheless, some wonderful books got read (intentional passive voice, enacting the struggle here via syntax). In fact, since I needed a strategy this year—to battle the muddy distractedness—a handful of books even got read twice.

Two unexpected favorites were Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, both of which I began reading as if venturing into a musty basement, pinching my nose and bracing myself for dead rodents. In other words, I went in with all the baggage of a latecomer (to the hype), primed to find these seminal autobiographical novels both overrated and so socio-politically regressive that I would be unable to read them without a screen of irony. But in fact, nothing, not even cultural evolution, can stamp out beautiful writing; and one thing I’ve been most drawn to in fiction these days is a palpable sense of an author’s skin in the game.  With both Plath and Miller, one cannot deny the precariously and deeply lived lives incarnated in these pages.  In addition, Tropic sent me off to read Anaïs Nin’s gorgeous diaries (the years when she and Miller were intimates) which then sent me back to re-read Tropic.

Two other so-called classics I loved this year were The French Lieutenant’s Woman—John Fowles’s wonderful narrator, breaking the fourth wall and recounting the story of Victorian sexuality as much as that of Charles Smithson and Sarah Woodruff—and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  Of this pair, it was the D.H. Lawrence that got read twice—once in print, once via audio (you’ve just got to hear Mellors’s Derbyshire dialect, as read by Emilia Fox, in your ear).  Next up, to square the circle, I’ll be tracking down Anaïs Nin’s D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study.

I am deeply grateful for Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which I felt was written for “people like me,” who are, unfortunately, legion: we know this-and-that about the vast injustices of mass incarceration but needed Alexander to write the book that would coherently map out the cause and effect and thus activate us more concretely (I hope to have more to say/write about this next year).  Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy ditto—a book that, in addition to educating you, will do that impossible thing: remind you that good, smart people set themselves to the hardest uphill life work imaginable and do this work regardless—regardless, that is, of all the shit that paralyzes people like me.

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life made such an impression I can hardly talk about it.  This one, too, I began rereading the minute I read the last word.  It’s puzzle-piece, helix-like form left me in awe, and I dare say it is the most truly feminist novel I have read in a long time.  It might take me a while to figure out what I mean by that, but I’m comfortable putting it out there.

Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn deserves every ounce of praise and honor it’s received.  I’ve been telling people that if you liked the Elena Ferrante books, you’ll love Another Brooklyn.

Oh, and did I mention I was a judge for the Center for Fiction’s first novel award?  This meant reading cartons-full of debut novels this summer—which was a great privilege, and also rather brain-breaking for this slow reader.  You can see the shortlist here, but I’d like to shout-out a few that did not make the list: Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People (a tour-de-force of raw originality), Matthew Klam’s Who Is Rich? (characters you will love to hate and maybe even just love), and Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling (devastating, unflinching; a young-writer-to-watch).

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We Are All The Same; Our Fates Are Not: On Matthew Weiner’s ‘Heather, the Totality’

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

1.
The buzz around Matthew Weiner’s debut novel, Heather, the Totality, began nearly a year ago, with the news of its acquisition by Little, Brown.  Such is the advantage of debuting as a novelist after having created, helmed, and written many episodes for the cultural phenomenon that is Mad Men.  What we learned last year was that the novel’s inception traced back to a note in Weiner’s notebook about an unsettling interaction he’d observed while walking in Manhattan: “It was a little story where I was like, ‘I wonder what that is; maybe I’ll use it sometime.’”  The “little story” involves Mark and Karen Breakstone, an affluent couple living on the Upper East Side; their daughter, Heather, as she grows into adolescence; and Bobby, a young man from a poor area of New Jersey, recently released from prison.

It’s interesting to consider that, apart from TV, Weiner has written mostly poetry and plays; and to note Little, Brown editor-in-chief Judith Clain’s comment that “He’s really literary.”  I myself have written and spoken about Mad Men’s “novelistic” qualities—how we follow a large cast of characters over time, witnessing both the external (cultural) transformations and internal (psychic and emotional) ones that make for a satisfying dramatic experience.  And yet, with Heather, we see Weiner exercising alternative creative muscles: he crafts story and character using primarily a narrative tool unavailable to or little used by the TV writer, poet, or playwright; and that is interiority.

What’s more, Weiner uses this tool with such balletic intentionality—the effect of which is as unsettling as it is compelling—that my consciousness of him as “award-winning TV writer Matthew Weiner” fell away quickly as I read.  Heather, the Totality—a slim volume that moves swiftly through time and incisively into the minds of its four principle characters—totally absorbed me.

2.
I suspect however that mine may not be the unanimous or even prevailing experience; it would not surprise me, in fact, if responses to Weiner’s debut were somewhat polarized.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am no book reviewer.  Which is to say, I like what I like when I like it.  I also change my mind and cannot imagine otherwise/would be terrible at the job of making definitive pronouncements about the quality of a work and imposing those pronouncements authoritatively upon The Culture.  When recently I was asked to judge a literary award, I accepted on the basis that there would be four others (and thus I could judge unapologetically as myself—as we all would, I presumed).  During the process, a friendly conflict arose among us: the basic question of what makes for “excellent prose”—what makes a sentence arresting (or even competent), how does the writer wield language for optimal effect.  Some of us were drawn to and praised terse, plain prose. Others found this prose flat and amateur.

It is a large nose which cannot be hidden.  In addition, his teeth are bad.  Are these good sentences?  Bad ones? I think they are rather virtuosic—teeming with tension and narrative presence via an exterior glimpse.  They plod along and surprise us, despite ourselves.  (Why would a nose need to be hidden?  If it cannot be hidden, the wearer of it must be at some disadvantage, a particular vulnerability.  “In addition” puts a nail in some sort of coffin; what sort of death are we talking about? What permanent status of badness, of denial or dissatisfaction?) Both sentences beg the question, “From whose perspective?”, which is the real mastery here: the reader is inside the layered perspectives of character, narrator, and author all at the same time.

These are not sentences our committee judged, nor those of Matthew Weiner; but rather they belong to the late James Salter, to whom Weiner presented the PEN Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.  Weiner said of Salter, “His investigation of the desire or the ambition to be better, to be honest, to find love, to kill one’s enemies, to not be alone, is unflinching and brave.”  I am struck by how aptly these words apply to Heather, and by the ways in which the prose styles of both authors—with their plain, seemingly flat surfaces—both efface and suggest so much.  And as is the case with both Salter’s and the prose our committee judged, Weiner’s ostensibly homely sentences may excite both passionate fans and ardent detractors.

3.
This intentional flattening is evident also in Heather’s structure: narrative shifts from character to character, along with movements forward and backward in time, occur in a seemingly lateral manner: transitions are not marked or flagged other than by a new paragraph.  In addition, paragraphs are uniformly half-a-page to a page in length, mostly expository.  The “camera” pans smoothly, along the perimeters of a quadrilateral story frame and dipping into each of its four character’s viewpoints.
Before they left [Mark and Heather] quickly made a beaded necklace for Karen so she would not feel left out. Mark and Karen got drunk and did it [had sex] again that night while Heather slept in the next room and it was somehow less, but followed by a whispered conversation about how long they’d been together and what a miracle Heather was.  The last day the three of them sat far from the breakfast buffet, overlooking the man-made lagoon, so conspicuously happy that a passing woman insisted she take a picture for them.

While the Breakstone family was on vacation, Bobby was laid off from the lumberyard.  He was told he would get his job back and they had let everyone go for a few weeks only to rehire them to avoid some labor laws and he was happy to spend some of the money he’d been earning or maybe go somewhere.  But his Mother had broken up with her latest and Bobby agreed to give her a loan so she could feed her habit, knowing full well he would never see the money again. It didn’t matter because where would he go anyway and wandering around Harrison and Newark would be fine in the spring before it got sticky.
Here the narration contrasts The Breakstones as a unit with lone Bobby; more typical in the novel are longer sections narrated through the eyes/emotions of Mark, Karen, and Heather individually, as in Bobby’s second passage above.  But in this brief example we see Weiner’s method of flat surfaces—dispassionate clauses belying emotionally loaded statements, and strung together by conjunctions. Weiner also achieves interesting prose textures by dipping into characters’ voices—melding and layering third-person and first-person narration: what a miracle Heather was; where would he go anyway.

In the language of writing classes, Weiner is constantly “showing” us his characters’ deepest disturbances, but in the guise of “telling” us what’s happening externally or what characters are feeling in the most simplified terms.  Shades of Ernest Hemingway, yes; but it’s the four-perspective, merry-go-round effect that not only reminds us, but creates an actual experience, of just how distant we are from each other when we are ostensibly very much “together.”  These slides from perspective to perspective demand the reader to keep moving, to participate actively in both pivots and permeability.  One can imagine an editor asking the author to go easier on the reader, provide signals or chapter breaks that allow for full stops and restarts. I like to imagine Weiner refusing absolutely.

4.
The Matthew Weiner of Mad Men makes himself known in Heather via sharp and complex character insights. Weiner’s eye for fine, particular details transforms the Type that each character initially incarnates into a real human being.  Mark Breakstone is an above average corporate banker, disappointing (insufficiently athletic) son of a high school football coach, lean bodied and chubby faced, with a dead sister (an anorexic who starved herself) haunting the edges of his existential solidity.  His ambition is to make “at least enough [money] for a country place and one of those awards people got for being generous.”  Mark wins over Karen—a good catch who “had no idea how beautiful she was”—on their first date by saying, earnestly, “People don’t get me sometimes.”  In addition to beautiful, Karen is professionally capable: “Deeply behind the scenes, she booked travel and appearances for authors and editors and after once covering for her boss with a perfectly purchased apology of handmade chocolate and ash-striped cheese, she began to design themed gift baskets so specific and exquisite that many urged her to start her own business.”  Karen has limited enthusiasm for her work however, and,
Unlike her boss, she was incapable of shaking her suburban manners or showing sudden charm to strangers with her sunglasses on her head and thus upon realizing that Mark might insist she change her profession to wife and mother she was pleasantly excited.
Karen likes that Mark makes big money.  She also does like Mark.  Weiner is careful, with both Mark and Karen, to hew the line of messy motives when it comes to love and money: we understand that they both have and have not built every aspect of their lives, and their marriage, on the assurance of wealth.  As with all the characters in Mad Men, it is tempting but not-so-easy to either judge or dismiss them.

Bobby—who in the second half of the novel joins the construction crew that renovates the Breakstones’ apartment building—comes from poverty, neglect, and addiction.  Bobby’s character manifests a precarious if familiar cocktail of intelligence, inflated self-perception, and pent-up physical intensity.  In the case of this outsider figure, Weiner presents the facts of his transgressive behaviors matter-of-factly, but also details Bobby in a way that destabilizes both the reader’s, and the other characters’, inclination to dehumanize him: “It was the first time Bobby was in jail and he kept to himself and even got some antibiotics for where the ashtray cut his head, which was already infected.”  At a moment toward the end of the novel, when the reader has likely written Bobby off as villainous and unhinged, obsessed with possessing/vanquishing teenage Heather, we get:
He could never go back to school but was good at saving money and he could get Heather a house, no a home.  She was born rich, so her parents would never want to see her go without and so they would help them out, and happily, because Bobby would be working his hardest and everyone respected that.
Weiner does risk failing to transcend Type with each character—Bobby’s down-and-out backstory, Karen’s Manhattan-mom vanities, Mark’s wounded masculinity, Heather’s millennial do-gooder perfection—and at times he falls a hair short.  There are moments when the authorial voice limits characters to their prescribed corners of this squared universe.  But what saves these moments from addling the novel as a whole is the way in which Weiner’s flattened structure and style begin to pay off thematically: if characters themselves feel intermittently flat, the depiction (I believe) is part of the larger intention, i.e. to expose our shared, primal tendencies to self-preserve, oversimplify, take the shortcut, project and misunderstand, possess others for our own needs and purposes.  We recognize the essential democratizing force of the novel’s form when it comes to “the desire or the ambition to be better, to be honest, to find love, to kill one’s enemies, to not be alone.”

5.
Tensions mount as Mark’s paternal-protector instincts morph perilously into energized irrationality; Bobby and Heather misread each other in perfectly, dangerously inverse fashion; Karen’s self-absorbed (arguably “feminist”) concerns about Mark shoot so far off the mark, she misses the signs that lead them all to climactic disaster.  Our path to this climax exposes perhaps a bit of Weiner’s TV-writing impatience. We sense for example there is more to Mark’s inner makings and outward journey that would knock him so far and so fast from civilized man to all-instinct brute; and I craved this deeper, slower development.  The nature and degree of disconnection between Mark and Karen too—as parents of such a beloved child, potentially in danger in these final pages—strains credibility.  In its swiftness and manipulation of key moments of character intersection, the ending’s big events, their chilling finality, fall just shy (an itchy, so close kind of shy) of a satisfying inevitability.

But the facts of the ending—each character’s fate—resonate resoundingly and along multiple vectors of complexity.  In Heather we see clearly, disturbingly, how universally fluid and messy is human development and moral character, across social class and background.  Weiner’s scalpel-like access to each character’s interiority reveals their civilized and uncivilized selves, trading and warring from moment to moment: here, Bobby both fantasizes and enacts violence, there he dreams reasonably of the placid, domestic future anyone deserves; similarly—too similarly—Mark and Karen each oscillate between reaching for some version of noble love on the one hand and indulging the persistent underside of possession and self-compensation on the other.  Heather’s equalizing form speaks volumes toward its moral center—we are all essentially the same; our fates are not—thus the novel’s success lies in its deceptive orderliness. The story disturbs, sentence by sentence, with incisive intention.  Based on Weiner’s existing fan-base, one can anticipate its likely audience, i.e. those who would seem to share more in common with the Breakstones than with Bobby.  In this sense the novel transcends the status of a mere sleek, domestic thriller, and contributes meaningfully, unexpectedly, to resistance.

Find Your Lane, Stay Ready: The Millions Interviews Cole Lavalais

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

Cole Lavalais’s debut novel, Summer of the Cicadas, had me from page one; more accurately, page two.  “She sharpened Cecilia’s preferred poultry knife until the mildest touch to its edge yielded a perfectly formed line of blood across her fingertip.  The bathtub sat half filled with water.”  What follows is a scene both graphic and spare, alarming and lucid.  There is something awfully familiar about this opening scene, and yet somehow I knew I was about to read something I’d never read before, enter a world and encounter a character I needed to understand better.  “Vi wasn’t a Carver, couldn’t care less about the interworkings of her high school or the leagues of Ivy that would follow.  The only thing Vi cared about was Cecilia …”

Cecilia is Vi’s mother.  Vi and Cecilia are very close — in some ways troublingly close — and yet deep secrets and misunderstandings separate them.  Now, miles will also separate them as Vi — who survives the first pages both scarred and reborn — leaves her home in Chicago for college at Florida’s A&M, an historically black university.

Writes Danielle Evans: “Cole Lavalais brings Viola’s journey to us with her gift for language that is at once sharp and soothing, asking from the very first page that we not look away from what hurts, and that we not stop asking what might heal it.”  It’s one thing to “ask” the reader to not look away, it’s another to captivate us — intellectually, emotionally, even physically — with said gifts.  Lavalais’s rich, concise, confident writing mesmerizes; and Vi’s inner world of truthful confusion and yearning, as she seeks to understand her mother’s trauma and her own emotional and historical untetheredness, seizes us wholly with its intelligence and honesty.  As Lavalais drops the reader into the world of A&M, our immersion in Vi’s perspective becomes our lifeline.

The Millions: I was so immersed in your prose style — the voice of the novel — which I would describe as “propulsive” —  compressed and staccato, while also densely imagistic and at times lyrical.  For example, right from the beginning:
The air in Tallahassee didn’t move.  In Chicago she’d fought to stay on her feet.  Lake Michigan’s winds blew hardest through the South Side, pushing one way and then the other, rendering movement agentless.  But in this new place, nothing pushed. . . In this new place she would either be self-propelled or static. Her limbs chopped through the thickness like a toddler on new legs.
Can you talk about literary influences that may have shaped or inspired this narrative voice? Who have you been reading throughout your formal literary education, and before that?

Cole Lavalais: The first piece of literature I can remember reading is James Weldon Johnson’s The Creation. The memorization and recitation of the poem was an integral part of my mother’s Southern education, so it became a part of mine. I’m not sure how old I was, but I had to memorize and recite it for my mother.

The poem was in an anthology called Black Voices, which was chock full of poetry, short stories, and essays by all sorts of black writers, so it really was my first lesson in the depth of black literature, and I instantly fell in love with Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks’s love letters to the black community. One of my favorite fiction writers is Gloria Naylor. Her novel Mama Day changed the way I read. The way she rendered multiple points of view, magical realism, and setting as character was genius to me. I would return to it time and time again, and always, always, the narrative would extend a new and glorious gift to me as both reader and writer. So very early on in my writing journey, I did my best to emulate her, even though I didn’t completely understand how and why she made the choices she did.

At some point while I was working on my M.F.A. at Chicago State University, my mentor and teacher, Sandra Jackson-Opoku, encouraged me to work to separate my own voice from my influence. I was finally able to do that, years later, while working on Summer of the Cicadas. My voice really was honed out of frustration in my Ph.D. writing workshops. I didn’t feel heard, so I stopped needing to be heard, and thus was able to discover my own voice.

TM: Can you say a little more about the nature of that frustration with those writing workshops?

CL: You may have heard of night blindness. It’s an inability to see in darkness or at night. Those workshops were night blind. Anything featuring black people, they reacted as if they needed a seeing-eye dog or special guide to walk them through it. It was really frustrating and tiring. The things I needed them to focus on — plot, point of view, setting — you know, the elements of fiction — came second to their need to know about the “type” of people I was writing about, or the “type” of place. They refused to let themselves enter the particular “fictive dream” I was creating because they were unfamiliar with the surroundings.

TM: You founded the Chicago Writers Studio: what do they do differently/better than the workshops you’d participated in previously?

CL: The Chicago Writers Studio is dedicated to helping a writer fulfill his or her intention, not the instructor’s. My job as a writing teacher is to help writers tell the stories they want to tell, not to censor those stories. No experience is treated as foreign or anthropologized.  That doesn’t mean we don’t challenge writers to move past stereotypes and cliché. Those types of shortcuts don’t get you closer to your intention; they move you further away. What it means is that we don’t question use of another language because it’s not English, and we don’t demand explanation for cultural references. I tell my workshops if you don’t need mashed potatoes and gravy explained, then don’t ask for an explanation of eloté. Google is your friend. Use it and keep reading the story.

TM: A central thematic and existential idea in Summer of the Cicadas is legacy. Your protagonist — an African-American college student named Vi who was raised by a single mother — is propelled by the question, Where do I come from?  Who are my people?  This question has been explored in stories about African-Americans before, but often in a white-America context, i.e. the legacy of fractured lineage via forced migration and slavery.  Tell us about the decision to explore the people/no-people divide within an African-American context, via the varied backgrounds of students at an historically black university.

CL: It really grew out of my tendency to explore the mother/daughter trope. It took me a while to realize how much of my work circled this relationship and the idea of a daughter’s obligation to her mother. And I guess I just took that idea and worked the metaphor for all it was worth. At the center of it, that is what privileging history is, this belief that we owe the past something.  Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, but in reality, the jury is still out that knowing actually stops anything. And as a fan of Freud, I’m also really interested in repressed memories, why we repress memories, and our society’s insistence on uncovering everything. And the HBCU just becomes the perfect lab to experiment in. History is like a God in African-American Studies and the HBCU.  What the African-American people were before our “erasure” by the Middle Passage and everything that came after sits at the center of educated blackness.

TM: What did you, personally, discover in the process of exploring head-on this question of whether knowing your history changes anything/prevents repeated mistakes? 

CL: I discovered that it is all very complicated, and there are strong arguments to be made on both sides, and it depends on the particular situation and particular person. I do believe that there is a reason that memories fade and stories are lost. It’s difficult to move forward if we carry every pain and microaggression forward with us, and for black people in America that pain is massive. Sometimes forgetting is the greatest act of self-care, but forgetting can also be the greatest act of self-destruction. So it’s all very complicated.

TM: Without giving too much away (and hopefully to create some intrigue and suspense for readers)…Vi’s search for a resolved, more whole sense of self via her history does not yield what she thought or hoped.  And at the end, the reader learns something that Vi never does — a sort of “key” to her search’s misguidedness.  Tell us about your decision to reveal historical reality to the reader, but not to the character.

CL: I struggled with adding the historical information. Part of me felt as if the audience should be left in the same position as Vi and feel the same sense of fragmented knowledge, but I also know the novel is a very specific art form, and it seemed “coy” to deny the audience that small bit of information, especially in my debut novel.

TM: A related question — you do not at all “explain” the culture of an HBCU school, and the non-black reader has the sense of being a sort of voyeur and an outsider.  An example is the slave auction event: this seems to be a tradition at the college, with a deep and complex history, to which the non-black reader is not privy; and so it feels both intriguing and unsettling to witness it. How much, if at all, did you think about audience as you wrote?

CL: It’s funny that you chose that scene, because I believe auctioning off eligible bachelors is something I’ve seen dozens of times on white television shows, but when the bachelors are black, it changes everything. Everything. And I had fun exploring the intersectionality of what most would see as a harmless and fun charity auction if the bachelor were white. In terms of audience, there is no universal black audience, so I just tried to leave enough room for anyone to climb into the experience and get next to Vi, if they are willing; but I refused to Other Vi or any of the other characters. I wanted to make sure the audience would have to do the work to get to know her, not the other way around.

TM: Can you say a little more, then, about audience-consciousness while writing?  In recognizing there is no “universal black audience,” pre-empting what you call “Othering” a character, and being aware of the work the reader must be willing to do, there does seem to be some idea(s) of potential audience at work for you.  What does it mean to write for “everyone?”  And have you received any interesting/surprising feedback from readers?

CL: In terms of audience consciousness, I guess I can go back to my graduate workshop experience. It made me resolute and steadfast in my vision. I was conscious of audience in the sense that I ignored them. I wrote from the position of an insider to an insider, but I think that’s what most white writers do, and it’s never questioned. Does Hawthorne explain? Does Twain explain? Does Poe explain? Nope, but that’s the invisibility of whiteness. For me blackness is invisible. I don’t see stereotypes. I see people. I present a world, an experience. It’s up to the audience, be they black, white, or brown to allow themselves to enter or not.

TM: In the acknowledgments, you refer to “Vi’s story in many of its incarnations.” Can you share with us what some of those incarnations were?  What were your greatest challenges in telling Vi’s story? And related to that, how long did Summer of the Cicadas take you to write?

CL: Because I was working, had a family, and was in graduate school, there were long periods of time when I didn’t get a chance to work on Summer.  I finished the first draft in about a year, then I went to graduate school, and realized it needed some work, so I finished another draft or two while working on my Masters. Then I finished another draft while working on my doctorate, so from first to final draft it was probably 10 years. Because I was forced by life to take so many long breaks between drafts, each time I returned to the novel, I had grown as a writer, and it was almost like beginning again each time.

TM: Are you working on another novel?  Is the process similar, or are you able to work more consistently this time around?  If the latter, is that a better way of working in terms of character development and revision?

CL: I prefer consistency because I’m always growing and changing as a writer, and for a novel I believe a consistency of vision is important. I am currently working on a novel and two short story collections. It’s much better for me to completely immerse myself in the world I’m revealing. Right now, I’m prewriting. I’m thinking about structure and plot and backstory. I’ll be taking a couple months off this winter to start writing the first draft of the novel.

TM: I would guess you work with a lot of young writers.  Do you have any thoughts about what it meant for you to debut after the age of 40, versus what it might have looked like to launch a book-length work into the world, say, 10 years earlier?

CL: I actually have more over-40 writing students than under-40. Actually most of my students are over 50, and it doesn’t surprise me at all. I never really thought of my age as a defining factor in my writing, and I hope others don’t either.  I wrote a book when I was ready and published it when it was ready. My age was not a factor. I have an aunt who just self-published her first book, and she is a woman of a certain age. I’m not sure who decided 30 to 40 was the prime time to write or publish your first book, but it’s all bullshit.

TM: There are so many battles to fight right now since Trump took office.  Or, perhaps there aren’t any more than there were previously, it’s just that now they’re more visible and polarized?  Do you feel any more, or less, devoted to novel-writing given the time, focus, and energy they require to write?

CL: I’m a big believer in the old adage “If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” Constant access to news and social media makes us reactive to each new battle and distracts from the war. There is nothing happening that hasn’t been happening for centuries. Find your lane and figure out how to integrate your talents and access every day. Don’t be distracted. I’m focused on writing and teaching. It’s what I have to give. It’s what I’m best at. With every word I write and every would-be writer that I’m able to encourage or strengthen, I’m changing the world.

Laird Hunt Grapples with the Past: The Millions Interview

1.
I read a lot, and so do you.  We read books, and we read about books.  Still, with surprising frequency, a writer comes across your screen, and you’re surprised you’ve never encountered his or her name or work previously.

This was the case for me with Laird Hunt, whose seventh novel, The Evening Road, was published by Little, Brown last month.  Having followed the controversy around Lionel Shriver’s remarks at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference last fall (and having commented myself on the process of writing across race and gender in interviews), when I learned that Hunt, who is white and male, has written three novels featuring female first-person protagonists, two of whom are black, I took notice. And wondered why I hadn’t come across consideration of his work in this context earlier.  In an interview about his 2012 novel Kind One, a Pen/Faulkner finalist, Hunt had said:
My approach to writing about people who are, in different ways, unlike me…is to speak of not for. In other words I’m not talking about appropriation here, but about acknowledging and actively advocating…a larger, truer, more exciting sense of our shared humanity.
Five of Hunt’s novels were published by the venerable and very indie Coffee House Press in Minneapolis (only recently has he published with a corporate house); this struck me as possibly contributing to his quietish presence in the literary media.  In any case, with the release of The Evening Road, Hunt’s work may begin the shift to center stage.

2.
Seven novels.  In addition to being specifically interested in the above-mentioned two, I am struck by Hunt’s range — subject matter, setting, form, voice, conceptual and moral interests — over a long career.  The earlier novels — The Impossibly, The Exquisite, and Ray of the Star — form a loose group: experimental in form, set in current times and urban environments, engaged in relational and conceptual puzzles.  Laird himself suggested such a grouping in a 2006 interview, and included his second novel, Indiana, Indiana, an elegiac, Midwestern family saga:
I think of The Exquisite more as a brother or sister of The Impossibly, rather than as a son or daughter. Looking at it that way, I might suggest that Indiana, Indiana is a cousin of those two texts, a cousin that would have had more fun playing with The Exquisite than The Impossibly…even if The Exquisite wouldn’t, I imagine, be caught dead with it.
The Evening Road and Kind One are set in the periods of Jim Crow and slavery, respectively.  In Kind One — inspired, says Hunt, by Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, which plumbs the little-known history of black slaveowners in the antebellum south — a white woman named Ginny Lancaster narrates her past story as both abused and abuser; we hear later the first-person voice of Zinnia, one of two slave girls (sisters) whom Ginny tormented, directly and indirectly, and who subsequently revolted, shackling Ginny in a shed without food for long periods.  Neverhome features a nontraditional female — a married woman who pretends to be a man in order to soldier for the Union during the Civil War. In The Evening Road, we hear two distinct first-person accounts — by a white woman named Ottie Lee and a 16-year-old black girl named Calla Destry — of events surrounding a lynching in a fictional Indiana town called Marvel.

What I admire, and what is simultaneously difficult, about The Evening Road is its portrayal of the contradictions that riddle human nature and that ultimately fuel systematic acts of violence and injustice. White characters condone, participate in, find “festive” the spectacle of a lynching, while at the same time digress from that sanctioning in moments of more evolved humanness.  There is a critical scene in which a group of white characters steals a wagon from a black family, and two of the white characters express their sincere regret:
He had served in the war and seen cornflowers [black men] fresh up out of Africa stand up and fight the kaiser with their bare hands and American cornflowers stand up to fight when no one else would…No one ought to have taken a wagon and left folks trying to get to a prayer vigil to set in the dark by the side of the road.
Yet those characters go along and board the wagon, and their giddiness about the lynching returns soon enough.  It’s an affecting portrayal of sincerity and complicity together, disturbing — and too familiar — in its plain accuracy.  In addition, these white characters have painful stories of their own: Ottie Lee, the white female narrator, was the strongest voice for stealing the wagon, and we learn shortly after that as a child she was nearly killed by her mentally unstable mother on multiple occasions.

Laird’s recent novels remind us that within the tradition of historical fiction, approaches to telling historical stories are diverse.  A review at Vulture of The Evening Road describes the novel, admiringly, as “More bonkers Americana than straight historical fiction.”  In a New York Times review, Kaitlyn Greenidge — whose NYT Op-Ed piece about the Lionel Shriver controversy last fall became a lucid and important rallying voice for many writers of color, myself included — criticized The Evening Road for being unrealistic; specifically for “attempt[ing] to prettify the violence” of a lynching, for example inventing terminology  — “cornflower” — for racist epithets (Hunt has spoken about this particular choice as both part of his writing process and ultimately an expression of the novel’s “alt world ontology”). Greenidge’s critique implies a belief that a novel concerning true acts of injustice — acts that have been systematically minimized or ignored in order to dehumanize entire groups of people — has a responsibility to the hardest of hard facts.  And while Greenidge doesn’t say so explicitly, her critique raises for me the question of whether that responsibility is heightened when the writer is a member of the racial group who committed and has benefited from the acts.

Hunt is a white man more or less from Indiana. His varied, peripatetic background — stints and partial education in Singapore, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Indiana, The Hague, London, and Paris as a youth and young adult, then New York, where he worked for the United Nations, and on to Denver for most of his adult life — amounts to an unusually heterogeneous map of influences.  For five years, he worked as a press officer for the United Nations.  As a translator, French is the non-English language most in his ear, yet a crafted, lyrical 19th-century American dialect(ish) makes the music of four of his novels.

Hunt engaged in this robust exchange with me, in the midst of a busy tour schedule.  We talked about inventing literary language, whiteness and complicity, historical surrealism, and the dual challenges of reviewing and being reviewed. 

The Millions: Your seven novels cover such a wide range of subject matter and style.  I’ve suggested — as have you — that your work might be “grouped” into two phases.  When you consider your novelistic journey, what do you see in terms of continuities, kinships, pivots, departures, etc?

Laird Hunt: My split trajectory as a writer is absolutely informed by my split trajectory as a person. I did seventh grade in London and eighth in rural Indiana.  Even after I had settled in then, on my grandmother’s farm, I spent my summers in Hong Kong, which is where my stepmother is from and my younger sister grew up. When I set to writing seriously I kept going deeply into the distinct archives my mind had built around these two sets of experience.  Still, just as I was keeping my hand in with Indiana during the years I was mostly publishing city novels set in something much like now, I am continuing to draw on my lengthy and varied urban experience in projects that are growing up quietly but insistently as I spelunk in the shallower and deeper pockets of the past of rural America.

At a reading last night in Denver I announced, in a sudden moment of exhaustion, that with the publication of The Evening Road I had finished this exploration I undertook, for better or worse, of crucible moments in individual and national life. Almost as soon as I said it I remembered that the novel on witches I am currently completing, which is told by a female narrator and touches on questions of race, erasure, agency, and rebellion, will make me a liar when/if it is published.

TM: Coffee House Press published your first five books; with Neverhome and The Evening Road, you’re with a larger corporate publisher, Little, Brown.  Some might perceive this as a “promotion,” but I wonder if you do. What has this pivot/departure meant for you — professionally, creatively — if anything?

LH: Coffee House is one of the most amazing literary presses on the planet, and I wouldn’t trade my years of having had the honor of appearing on their lists for anything.   The move to Little, Brown has been exciting and in all ways quite seamless. I am still writing exactly those books I feel I need to write and am being fully supported as I do so. Support of course means receiving tough edits and essential feedback off the page too. Having friends in Minneapolis AND new ones in New York is an awfully pleasant side benefit.

TM: In response to an interview question about Kind One and writing female characters in a context of racial injustice, you said: “[I]t’s time to do better. It has been time for a good long while now.” Four years on, and in the midst of heated cultural-political polarization — are we doing better?  Worse?  Both?

LH: We are far, indeed very far away from where we need to be as a country. I believe very deeply that we stand a better chance of getting there, if individually — with care and determination — we do our best to grapple with our past. And to own up to what we inherit from said past and how we perpetuate it. I do these things with fiction. Others do it other ways. Or plough some intriguing middle ground between essay, poetry, history and fiction.

Do I think we will get there? Wherever there is? I am somewhere between “I don’t know” and “I do.”

TM: Whose work in particular would you cite as inspiring?

LH: There is a great deal of passion and brilliance at work out there. See Renee Gladman’s recent Calamities. Or John Keene’s Counternarratives. Or Karen Tei Yamashita’s Circle K. Cycles. Or a curious little book like The Correspondence by J.D. Daniels.

TM: Given your wide and varied background and work as a translator, tell us about your sense of home, and language, and the voices in your writerly ear.

LH: At just this moment the voice, so to speak, of the pianist Girma Yifrashewa is in my ears and rare is the occasion that I don’t have something equally extraordinary and transporting coming through headphones or earbuds as I write.  This has been the case for me almost since my earliest days as a writer, and I’m certain it has impacted on this question. Also, I went through a long period of reading a lot of poetry and even publishing work that wasn’t quite poetry (let’s be very clear), but had some linguistic charge, in poetry magazines, so some residual sonic eddies live on in my ear.

Add to that the fact that I spent years living in places surrounded by people who didn’t speak English the way I do or speak English at all, then went to live with someone who had a very marked Central Indiana accent. My best friends during the five years I spent working as a press officer at the United Nations were from Kenya and Guyana, and just about everyone in the English press service (colleagues from Ghana, Nigeria, the Gambia, the Netherlands, England, New Jersey, the Bronx, Brazil, etc.) had their own way of shaping English. Which is to say the meaningful layers have accumulated as they do for all of us. When I’m digging in on voice it always feels like there is a lot to draw on. And it should be stressed, especially in the case of these three most recent books, that because the voices are composites and constructions, rather than faithful imitations of actual speech patterns from the past, it is useful to have more than just one way of getting things said in my ear.

TM: Is there a sense, then, that you are creating a language/vernacular — not so unlike what, say, Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings?  Tell us a bit about that approach, as opposed to actually attempting to imitate speech patterns?

LH: There is a precursor to the voices I am working with in these novels in the character of Opal in Indiana, Indiana. We know her in the novel as the great love of the main character, Noah, and get direct access to her mainly through letters she writes him. These letters are adaptations of prose poems I wrote years ago in the wake of traveling to San Francisco and Paris. Something about their almost giddy, forward-rushing quality and the melancholy hiding in their corners, made them perfect for Opal.  Still, you wonder if you have gotten something right.

In this case I had a kind of answer when I visited a museum attached to the Logansport State Hospital, the real-world equivalent of the hospital where Opal is for many years in the book. One of the exhibits was comprised of the letters of a brilliant young woman, an aspiring composer, who found herself at the hospital in the early 20th century.  The letters are not Opal’s but, wow, they were awfully close both in tone and content and even in some of their constructions.  It wasn’t the same but it felt the same.

All this to say you can get to something that richly evokes the past for the 21st-century eye and ear by going at it otherwise. I have rarely felt more sunk in the past than I have in the pages of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, and they are extraordinarily unlike the past as we would encounter it by reading diaries and other documents from that time. Then there is an approach like Paul Kingsnorth’s in The Wake. Kingsnorth creates what he calls a “shadow tongue” that is neither modern nor old English and the resultant hybrid brings the world most vividly to life. This is the sort of thing I am going for, trying for, failing better at.

TM:  White characters like Ottie and Ginny are compelling in their human dimensionality, and also disturbingly complicit in racial violence.  Is your ultimate vision of white conscience a dark one?

LH: In one of the scenes in Kind One, the ghost of a murdered slave returns to the narrator, Ginny Lancaster, as she lies in a misery of her own making. Before Ginny, the ghost dances a terrible dance in which eyes and ears and mouths sprout in frightening profusion from his body. He calls this dance “The Way of the World.”  In the wagon-stealing scene in The Evening Road, Ottie Lee makes an awful, self-damning choice that speaks pretty loudly to this “way” and to how unambiguously she is a part of it and is perpetuating it.  This doesn’t mean, and it almost never does, that she isn’t capable at other moments of compassion and doing the right thing.  Her companions are all stretched along this spectrum and slide back and forth depending on the situation.

I don’t know how we get off this road of whiteness and onto some other. I do know that it’s real and we can’t afford abstractions when we discuss it and think about it and fight it.

TM: In these combative times under this new political regime, some on the progressive left would say that empathizing with oppressors — trying to understand where Trump supporters are coming from — is folly.  Tell us about your specific hope/interest in alternating between white and black narrators in these novels about slavery and its legacy.

LH: I think more than “folly,” as you put it, what I have heard or at least understood from the progressive left, of which I am a part (so we’re not all the same) is that it’s best not to undertake this sort of endeavor at all.  As in just don’t do it.  As soon as I start to hear proscription of this sort, especially around the arts, I want to get in there and see what’s going on.  How much great work would be gone if its author had not tried to go into the bad as well as the good?

Think of all the characters in Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad who would have to be zapped because they are flawed, complex, and on the wrong side of things.  Even some of the worst of the worst in that novel, the relentless slave catcher, say, are allowed a story, a narrative, a past.  They aren’t just unexamined caricatures. Their dimensionality doesn’t let them off the hook: to the contrary. It’s just that instead of being told they are bad, we readers get to understand the textures of that badness and draw our own conclusions.

TM: You’ve been writing in the tradition of historical fiction for some time now. How would you describe your fiction’s relationship to historical truth?  Is Kaitlyn Greenidge correct that certain situations would have been much more dangerous for black people in 1930s Indiana than is depicted in The Evening Road? Are the benign, sometimes harmonious encounters between black people and white people fantastical creations born of “a sort of reconciliation fantasy?”

LH: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren; Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier; Octavia Butler’s Kindred; Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior; Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber; George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo; Paul Beatty’s The Sellout; and Whitehead’s already mentioned Underground Railroad are just a very, very few of the novels that have effectively used the tools of fantasy, sci-fi, fable, allegory, satire, and humor to look at very serious subject matter.  These are the kinds of sources of inspiration I have gone to as I have written or considered the implications of my own recent novels. I would have thought The Evening Road, with its giant pigs; corn-based vocabulary; impossible prayer vigils; flag forests; a town called Marvel at its middle; hallucinations in foul beauty parlors; conversations with angels over breakfast; and bloodhounds wearing neckties, would have made clear its method and its lineage very quickly. Just as, to greater or lesser degree, the previous two novels did.

I do the work I do then put it out there. Others get to critique it.  I review more than enough to know how much time and effort goes into writing a thoughtful take on something. That’s an act of generosity. If someone has taken the time to read one of my books, and has issues with it, I’m always ready to listen.

Better Late Than Never: On Blooming as a Reader

I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel at the Center for Fiction.  The topic was “Modern Family,” and the moderator posed the question: “What literature influenced you as a young person?”  My fellow panelists — the amazing Alden Jones, Min Jin Lee, and Tanwi Nandini Islam — named beloved, important books and authors.  My answer — which I think came as a surprise to most — was that I hardly read as a child and youth.

My parents are immigrants — English is not their first language — and neither are they readers or cultural mavens.  We did not have many books in the house, and I was not read to as a child.  I do recall a Disney picture book involving a scroogey Donald Duck character that I liked to read over and over — something about soup made from a button.  Once I started school, there were of course books assigned, and I read them obediently if not enthusiastically.  Mine was a somewhat typical suburban childhood: I watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Doritos.

The first book I read out of inner compulsion, as opposed to externally-imposed obligation, was Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  This was my junior year of college — relatively late for someone who now writes and reads “professionally.”  Reading Dillard was (and continues to be, in fact) a truly ecstatic experience — I must have reread every single page as I went along, pausing to stare into space or jot things down in my journal or just shake my head in awe — and it took me quite a long time to finish even as I couldn’t put it down (by the end, incidentally, I had decided I had to be a writer; or die trying).  Where had this kind of reading been all my life?  I realized for the first time that there is reading, and there is reading.  The kind of reading that counts, that really matters, is what I’d call whole-soul reading.  In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes about “mystical susceptibility,” the experience of books and language as “irrational doorways… through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, [steals] into our hearts and [thrills] them.”  I’m so grateful to have had that intense conversion moment — because I have brought that expectation and susceptibility with me to every book I’ve picked up since then.

It’s true that I have often felt at a disadvantage for embarking on my reading life so late.  I wrote about this a few years ago — the project of frantically “catching up” with my peers once I set myself on the path of literary life.  But mostly that underdog status has been a positive motivation.  I am an omnivorous reader and have not lost that addiction to mystical thrill — in James’s words, “states of insight and depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect… illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain” — when reading.

In 2016, thanks to a semester sabbatical, I read more than usual.  Canonical books I read for the first time — “catchup” reading I’ll call it still — captivated me utterly and reminded me that, truly, there is never a “too late” (in fact, there may be a “too early”) when it comes to the reading life.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.  Raymond Chandler said it best: “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley … He wrote for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life.  They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there . . . He had style, but his audiences didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinement.”  I was struck especially by the female characters Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Effie Perine: just when you thought you were going to have to excuse this old-fashioned author’s concessions to gender stereotypes, both the characters and the plot (by which I mean Hammett, of course) would subvert that concern.  Incidentally, I also read The Big Sleep but didn’t take to it as much as Hammett.  I’ve just started reading The Glass Key (on Chandler’s recommendation) and may be starting on a Hammett binge.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  Of course this is a book I felt like I’d read because I know so much about it.  At some point I may have half-watched on an airplane the film that stars Winona Ryder.  I was sure I’d identify with Jo — if you’re reading the book at all, you’re Jo! — but was surprised (and not a little dismayed) to see a lot of myself in Amy.  It was also interesting to recognize that the novel is as much about money as it is about being female — a reminder of the inextricability of economics and gender.

 

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence.  You know, it’s all relative I suppose, but given our enlightened times, wherein heterosexual relationships are more holistic and less physically driven, I found the sex here — four score and a decade later — still pretty racy.  Perhaps our advantage as modern readers is that none of it is shocking, and so the novel’s themes — social class, integrity, the relationship between love and lust, human wholeness — have room to come forward.

King Lear, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare.  I wasn’t actually sure if I’d read King Lear previously; again, I knew the story so well, in an ambient, abstract way.  But once I started actually engaging the language, I knew that even if I’d “read” it, I definitely hadn’t read it.  Here I offer another mode of reading, which is via audio: because Shakespeare is intended to be performed, an audio reading experience, sans visuals, is actually a spectacular way to immerse in Shakespeare’s dramatic and linguistic brilliance.  Yes, I would sometimes need to rewind and relisten to confirm who was speaking, but all the better.  I continued on with audio readings of Othello and The Winter’s Tale (irrational male jealousy is a theme I hadn’t ever before associated with Shakespeare, hmmm) and am ready, I think, for the historical-political plays — Henry IV is currently on deck.

Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin.  At a different time in my life, I might have read the former as a categorical rejection/denouncement of Christianity.  But I was struck by Baldwin’s stunning feats of compassion — for Gabriel, the character based on his strictly religious, and hypocritical, father, especially: “Then, he began to cry, not making a sound, sitting at the table, and with his whole body shaking…finally he put his head on the table, overturning the coffee cup, and wept aloud. Then it seemed that there was weeping everywhere, waters of anguish riding the world –”  (Also, we do well not to divorce Baldwin from religion, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to our best spiritual writers.)  Giovanni’s Room as a kind of personal and artistic experiment — Baldwin writing about love, sex, desire, identity, money, integrity, and family without writing explicitly about blackness — inspires me and, especially in this moment of controversy over cross-racial writing, stirs so many questions.  I’m still asking them.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin.  Another oldie that struck me as relevant and very now.  Women still struggle to be “selfish,” which is to say centered around one’s creative and sensual imperatives.  Chopin’s/Edna’s attraction to heterogeneous culture — cultures of color, of mixedness, of social fluidity and possibility — is arguably a little icky, yet not so removed from what we today call “gentrification”: affluent whites from homogeneous backgrounds wanting to increase their quality of life by stirring up their privilege with urban history, cultures that emerge from struggle, intersectional experience (I live in West Harlem, can you tell?). Chopin’s descriptions of Edna’s nascent self-centering resonated with me over and again: “There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested…Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”

Chopin provides a definition of mystical experience — those moments when the inward life questions — that James himself may have appreciated.  The Awakening is an adult coming-of-age story in its pursuit of integration — collapsing the outward and inward existences. I love the notion of every book we read — whole-soul read — being a part of this process: a quiet, private evolution, toward a more complete self, and in a world we must all work to make more hospitable to such evolution than was Edna Pontellier’s.

Image credit: Wikipedia

A Year in Reading: Sonya Chung

In August of this year, my president, Barack Hussein Obama, wrote:
We need to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive, that criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear. We need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs.  We need to keep changing the attitude that permits the routine harassment of women, whether they’re walking down the street or daring to go online. We need to keep changing the attitude that teaches men to feel threatened by the presence and success of women…And yes, it’s important that [Sasha and Malia’s] dad is a feminist, because now that’s what they expect of all men.  (Glamour, August 4, 2016)
Sigh.

This year my Year in Reading selections are themed: fathers and daughters. The topic is close to home: the father-daughter relationships in both my novels — Long for This World and The Loved Ones — are central.

Not all the following fictional father-daughter bonds are as beautiful or evolved as the first family’s, but they are all complex and memorable. These fathers and daughters are flawed, some painfully so, yet there is an honesty and a messy striving in these depictions that I find compelling.

The 1955 novella Bonjour Tristesse — a delicious, devastating anti-coming-of-age tale written by Françoise Sagan when she was 17 years old — tops my list. Cécile (also 17), her father, and his mistress du jour take a villa on the Mediterranean for the summer. In her own words, Cécile’s father Raymond, a 40 year-old widower, is
a frivolous man, clever at business, always curious, quickly bored, and very attractive to women. It was easy for me to love him for he was kind, generous, gay and fond of me.
Father and daughter are similarly flawed — self-centered, hedonistic, driven too much and too often by a need for “physical charms” at the expense of intelligence or moral depth.  Thus Cécile “cannot imagine a better or more amusing companion.” American readers in particular — now as then — will judge Raymond harshly, as indulgent and inappropriate and oblivious to fatherly responsibility. For these very reasons, I confess I find Raymond, Cécile’s relationship with him, and the narrative perspective on both (Cécile’s retrospective but not fully illuminated first-person point-of-view) not just refreshing, but persuasive.  In an era of helicopter parenting and an oppressive parenting industry, the absence of all that striving by this duo to be anything but themselves means an implicit bond/trust between them that one can’t help but give its due: it’s them against the world.  Both do behave badly, and others suffer seriously as a result.  The brilliance of the novel, I think, is its power to reflect back to the reader how much you care about the damage the pair causes versus the assertion of their essential selves.  Diane Johnson, in her introduction, implies that the reader unequivocally does, is meant to, read through the narrator — assess her failures from a wiser, morally superior vantage point — and internalize a cautionary tale of weakness of soul. I’m not so sure, myself; ambiguity teems in the subtext, and as far as I’m concerned, herein lies the elegant technical achievement of a prodigy’s debut — the first of Sagan’s 30 novels to come.

Our own Hannah Gersen’s debut novel, Home Field, shows us just how tragic the unbridgeable gap between a father and daughter can be, when connection is desperately needed and the disconnect no one’s fault.  Under the best of circumstances, Dean and his teenage daughter, Stephanie, would fail to connect: he is the high school football coach, a hero in a small town and wholly absorbed in his devotion to his players, while Stephanie doesn’t much care for the sport at all.  When Dean’s wife/Stephanie’s mother, Nicole, commits suicide, all bets are off as each family member is sent reeling into remote grief.  Stephanie goes off to her freshman year in college, which lets Dean off the hook, sort of.  In the short-term he reaches for another woman, as well as a kind of unconscious replacement for Stephanie in his niece.  Then, when Stephanie suffers a bad acid trip while at school, and he isn’t home to receive the emergency call from Stephanie’s roommate, Dean’s uselessness comes into stark relief. Gersen doesn’t tidy any of this up easily. Her novel has been compared to the TV series Friday Night Lights, but whereas the show — of which I am a huge fan — leans YA in its goodness-prevails outlook, Home Field allows characters to scatter and come together more quietly: the violent loss hits each family member uniquely, and in the end it’s mere proximity and watchfulness that they can offer one another: “Dean got a glimpse of what [Stephanie] would look like when she was older, and for the first time he could picture her in the world, the adult world.”

In Rion Amilcar Scott’s “202 Checkmates,” my favorite story from his powerful debut collection, Insurrections, a 12 year-old girl and her downtrodden father find absorption and shared passion in the game of chess: “We both hunched over the board. There was no world outside the both of us, outside of this game.”  The layering of a coming-of-age, working-class, black family struggle, and the complicated, aching need children have to both admire and conquer their parents is beautifully done here.  The mother character is somehow both backgrounded and heartbreakingly blaring as she whisper-harangues her husband for encouraging their daughter toward chess instead of schoolwork, and for spending money on a marble chess set when he is chronically underemployed. Father and daughter reach together toward something beyond mere survival — toward mental vitality and mastery and delight.  The tension that builds toward the story’s end anticipates the reader’s conflicting investments perfectly, and the resolution satisfies just as well.

One stunning father-daughter portrayal this year came not through a book but across my screen, via French maîtresse-filmmaker Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum.  Here — as in her wonderful earlier film U.S. Go Home, which focuses on a brother-sister relationship — Denis explores her interest in the romantic shades of familial love. Lionel — a widowed métro train driver and West African migrant — and his daughter, Josephine — a university student in anthropology whose mother was German — might be seen as a working-class version of Sagan’s Raymond and Céline: they have a special intimacy, it’s them against the world, and they’re each fearful of imagining life without the other.  Unlike their privileged, indulgent counterparts, however, Lionel and Josephine see that they must try harder to connect with humanity, and their own hearts’ desires, beyond the safety of their love.  Denis — a master of complex emotional layers in the guise of simple stories — seems to laud that effort while simultaneously rendering its emotional cost and the uncertainty of its result.

Re: Daniel Paisner’s A Single Happened Thing, published this past spring, I’d like first to set the record straight: despite its cover art and the characters’ extreme passion for the sport, it is not “a baseball novel.”  Not solely or primarily, anyway. (Paisner and I share a publisher, which is how I came to read the book, and I’m thankful, since, given its basebally veneer, it may otherwise have passed me by.)  Rather A Single Happened Thing is a poignant and whimsical story about a man, David Felb, stalled at middle age, who anxiously doubts then gives himself over to the possibility of a fantastical visitation upon his unremarkable life. The central question Paisner asks via Felb’s story is, What happens when you are carried into a nether realm of anything-goes, and your loved ones are not willing to come along with you?  In David Felb’s case, it is his wife, Nellie, who becomes wary of him; but his daughter, 15 year-old Iona, hitches her heart to her father’s leap of faith.  Paisner’s novel walks the sad, beautiful line that children walk when they love both parents and know that “sides” are forming; it also allows us to feel for Nellie all that Felb himself feels — love, longing, disappointment.  Iona’s evolving originality and girl-power intelligence leap off the page, reminding us that parents often pour the best of their own remarkableness into their children; and that ain’t nothin.

Plus, if the same happens also to apply to Sasha and Malia Obama vis-à-vis their parents’ best, then look out, world: we absolutely do have hope for the future.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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