The Oakland Renaissance: A Roundtable of Afro-Futurist Luminaries

Black creativity dances through Oakland, California, like sunlight through stained glass. We all know Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther film was part Wakanda, part Oakland. And we’re not Sorry to Bother You—rap artist and filmmaker Boots Riley’s film was one of the most acclaimed films of 2018. But in a city (or should we say the Town) where the homeless population is 68 percent Black, and gentrification and a wealthy tech industry have made affordable living space hard to find, then how do we keep our most innovative minds here? If Oakland is in the midst of a Black Artistic Renaissance, one fueled by local artists’ interest in technology, science, and science fiction (two Afro-futuristic legends, Ishmael Reed and Jewelle Gomez, live within 25 miles of Oakland), then how do we explore the future while preserving a historical legacy that includes the Black Panthers and social activism?

On Nov. 9, eight artists and writers whose work resounds throughout the city met at the Joyce Gordon Gallery for a conversation about the imagination, culture, and strategies for allowing speculative texts to engage real-world problems.

Roundtable participants included graphic novelist Alan Clark, author of In Search of the Black Panthers (Phantom Electrik, 2017); Jeneé Darden, journalist and author of When a Purple Rose Blooms (Nomadic Press, 2018); Michael James and Hally Bellah-Guther, AfroComicCon co-creators; Vernon Keeve, author of Southern Migrant Mixtape (Nomadic Press, 2018); Raina J. León, author of four books of poetry, including the award-winning Canticle of Idols (2008) and Boogeyman Dawn (Salmon Poetry, 2013); Dera R. Williams, co-author of Mother Wit: Stories of Mothers and Daughters (Mamm Productions, 2010) ; and Yodassa Williams, a writer and producer of the Black Girl Magic Files Storytelling podcast. Ishmael Reed, author of more than 20 books and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, and Dr. Lonny Brooks, an assistant professor at California State East Bay and Co-Principal Investigator for the Long Term and Futures Thinking in Education Project, joined us via email.

The Millions: Do you think Oakland is in the middle of a renaissance?

Ishmael Reed: I think that the trend among young Afro-futurist writers is exciting. Of course, I knew a lot of those people who are now icons, like Sun Ra. George Clinton bought the option to make a movie of my novel Mumbo Jumbo.

Dera Williams: I had this conversation with LaRhonda Crosby-Johnson [author and publisher of Where’s My Tiara]. We came to that conclusion—that there is a renaissance. A lot is happening art wise/literary wise with publishing, reading. This is our time. Back in the 1980s Oakland, there were Black writers and nonprofits, and some of those writers are still around. I always took for granted that there were a lot of creative people in Oakland.

Jeneé Darden: I do. I’m thinking of surrealism. I was born and raised here. It feels surreal because of gentrification. There is also homelessness… Oakland is experiencing part art renaissance, part dystopian Octavia Butler novel. So many new people moved here and are finding a voice here in Oakland. And it’s not perfect but that’s why people came to the Bay. There’s a real art boom. I’m a journalist. I cover this stuff. I cover change—I cover this surreal Octavia Butler science fiction novel.

TM: Ishmael, Dera, and Jeneé are long-term Oakland residents. Do people new to Oakland—who more recently started living or working here—feel the same way?

Raina León: I spend a lot of time walking around the Bay and thinking: where we
will find refuge? How do we recognize we’re living in tumultuous times?

Butler was a prophet in so many ways. I have been in the Bay area for eight years and have organized readings and workshops throughout Oakland. I have definitely felt myself deeply connected for transformation. What does liberty look like for our communities? We’re part of an exciting but not unchallenging struggle for change—we recognize that dialogue isn’t always present. There is this power of renaissance, of artistic awakening. I recently talked with [poet] Tongo Eisen-Martin about building an art school for people of color. In the Bay, there are so many intersections and I’m really excited about the possibility of ideas and futures that can be realized.

Yodassa Williams: I moved here five years ago. My family is Jamaican. I grew up in Ohio and was alienated from my culture. I felt really set apart. I remember growing up and seeing Star Wars’s Lando and Oprah Winfrey and feeling like the love child of Lando and Oprah. [Joyous laughter.] I was raised in a rich storytelling culture. I wasn’t seeing that in the world around me… Moving here five years ago, I felt like it was a homecoming for something I had been looking at for a long time—creativity and entrepreneurialism and upfront conversations about race and discrimination. Oakland has always been a place for people to find opportunities to raise their voice. If I weren’t here, I wouldn’t have found my voice creatively… If there is a Renaissance, I came at the right time.

TM: Michael and Hally started the AfroComic Con, and Alan, you’re a
graphic novelist.

Do you believe graphic arts and new media are
part of the Oakland’s Renaissance?

Hally Bellah-Guther: We’ve had two AfroComic Cons, and we’re excited to be part of these
endeavors. I was raised mostly in the area, and Oakland seemed desolate
compared to now. But with the Art Murmur Movement, Sorry to Bother You—things are exploding with art and social
movements. We started working on AfroComic Con and our mission is to help keep
alive the beautiful things that are happening.

Michael James: I’m a long-time Oaklander, born and raised. I lived in East Oakland and went to school in Berkeley. It’s nice to see the Renaissance kind of explode with Art Murmur [which showcases Oakland’s arts galleries]. I hear people say, “I came here to express myself through art.” For me, it’s important to see Oakland’s photography, the storytelling, books, and movies made here about Oakland culture. My mom went to school with Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton and other Black Panthers, so I think it’s always been here—people have been telling their stories. With comic book festivals, kids didn’t see images of themselves and felt left out… Growing up, I also didn’t see images of myself. As creators, we do a lot on our own, and a lot has happened in 15 years.

Alan Clark: I’ve been looking at other renaissances in the past and came to these conclusions: Within our culture, we see past eras where a particular personality has been expressed: with Atlanta, it was the “Black Mecca,” D.C. has been called the “Chocolate City.” Each city has a different personality trait, and for Oakland, that personality trait is rebellion… I’m not from here (I lived in Atlanta) but I’ve been studying the Black Panthers and Black migration patterns. So I’m thinking about this term “renaissance”—what specific qualities made the Harlem Renaissance vibrant? The renaissance may be short-lived in the Bay Area because Proposition 10 was defeated and artists cannot afford to live here. If you can’t make something of market value, you cannot exist. And people will make you poor if you decide to challenge this. This is the question: How do we as a Black creative entity survive?

Vernon Keeve: I guess what I feel is hopeful we’re still in the Bay, though rent protections were voted down. I’m nervous about a renaissance—it’s going to take a lot more activism, with artists going to the streets fighting like we’ve never fought before… I’m also studying Great Migrations and the migrations of Black people. How do we tell stories and keep stories alive? I see the ways Black and Brown students get stories from parents and home culture. There are a lot of stories that need to be heard.

TM: People in Oakland seem particularly interested in Afro-futurism. Is it part of our renaissance?

Lonny Brooks: I and this renaissance reflect and share a dream—to ensure that long oppressed racial minority and diverse voices can articulate themselves in the futures imagined… It’s not the color of our skin that matters as much as the articulation and content of the varieties of cultural imaginations, along with the rainbow hues of our queer allies included.

Williams: Most of my art is dedicated to liberating and empowering the mind… For me, Afro-futurism is the hope for African culture to thrive and survive and be part of the future. We have to be able to be agents of change.

Bellah-Guther: Everything you just said is one of our projects with Afro-futurism. I consider myself as a supporter and an ally. We’re trying to make a community where everyone is stronger and not competitive against each other.

James: We want to make sure everyone has a voice. We want to share and make
that happen. This is the only place where you can get this kind of diversity
and inclusion. People have been asking us to take AfroComic Con here, to take
it there, and people have been welcoming and creating new opportunities. We
need the support of everyone. You feel support when you give support.

Darden: With Black Panther, there is a pain when the movie ends. With Wakanda, I
wanted to be there. That movie can
inspire people. You may see more Black scientists because of that film—that’s
what happened with Star Trek. You can
see the hope and the future and this can create change. It is creating change.

Keeve: My dad was in one of the first audiences for the Star Trek show. My father told me, “I went from watching Star Trek to seeing it actually happen.”
You bring up what could happen because of Black
Panther—if we keep writing the Afro-future, we keep having it.

Reed: I think that celebrity Afro-futurists should tour the country with Black astrophysicists and other scientists. The Jim Crow media would have you believe that the only careers open to Black kids are pimping and athletics.

León: We have to create in defiance of our
disappearance. What does it look like for us to thrive? To be marvelous? It’s a
kind of science, a kind of magic—a blending of the two. Our bodies are vessels
for energy. When we write, we reach toward actualization.

Clark: Science fiction writer Octavia Butler does not get her recognition; we gave her dues and recognition too late. But her ideas were from a Black woman’s perspective. And most of what we appreciate of Afro-futurism is a white label of a Black presence in sci-fi. If the characters we applaud and who become part of the Black canon are the creations of white people, then Afro-futurism becomes an appropriation of white-extended thought. So we have nothing. Not even our own imaginations. And we can’t afford where we live… There are more people now than ever who think of themselves as creative. We need to make our own imaginative arts. And we can do better about connecting the Black art community.

TM: Do we have community here?

Keeve: We know some of the same people. I’ve been in the Oakland literary
scene for years, with a reading series, and people actively participate. I
think we should come up with a listserv that connects artists and writers of
color. I want to tear down walls.

Williams: We can do more to
connect Black artists, to write and learn about each other’s events.

Brooks: My colleague Ian Pollock and I created the Minority Reports as a model for forecasting Afro-futures. In our forecasting pedagogy, we ask students from marginalized working-class communities to reimagine their social, media and digital spaces into the year 2054—the imagined year for the film Minority Report.

TM: Any final thoughts about Oakland?

Darden: Oakland is not new! It has always been “in.” This place has been here since Stein said “there is no there there” in the 1930s.

Oakland Art Murmur Image: Flickr/Cathrine Lindblom Gunasekara

Ada Limón and Erika Sánchez Discuss Self-Care and a Life of Words

In the chaotic and often overwhelming world of publishing, I like to think there’s a subtle looking out for each other that happens among women writers. Even if you don’t know each other extremely well, there’s a rope that binds us, a safety net, a hand up, a knotted protection spell that’s always in the works. Of course, that’s not always the case, but I’d like to think we work in service to words and in service to each other. Though, Erika L. Sánchez and I have only met once or twice, I have been watching her exceptional career rise to new heights for some time. First I was a fan of her poems in the 2017 release of Lessons on Expulsion, and then I became a fan of her young adult fiction with her book I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter which was both a National Book Award Finalist and a New York Times Bestseller. In the interview that follows, the two of us finally had the opportunity to exchange our thoughts about, not only the nitty gritty of the writing process, but also how one navigates the joys and challenges of a living a life wholeheartedly dedicated to words. —Ada

Ada Limón: Erika, it’s such a pleasure to get the chance to talk to you here. I’ve been watching you and reading you for some time now. You are a star! Your young adult novel I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is just a year old and still doing so well (deservedly!). You’re traveling a great deal and speaking and reading all over the country. I’m positive you and I have passed each other in various airports at some point or another. Because we’re friends on social media, I just saw a picture of you with Judy Blume. Oh the company you keep. This might be a strange question to begin with, but the caretaker in me wants to ask you, how are you holding up? All of this attention for the work is always welcome, but it isn’t always easy. You’ve become a real icon and leader for young Latinx writers—how are you juggling your public persona and your personal life?

Erika Sánchez: Thank you for your kind words. It’s been such a surreal experience. I’m very grateful for the attention my books have received. When you publish, you hope for the best, but you just never know how your work will do out in the world. Part of the reason I wrote these books was because young Latinx women are rarely allowed to tell their stories. I grew up reading almost exclusively white texts. Thank goodness for Sandra Cisneros. Reading The House on Mango Street in high school was the first time I ever really saw myself in a book. I felt so invisible for most of my life, that it’s sometimes hard to believe that people actually care about what I have to say now. I’ve participated in many events, talks, and readings in the last year and a half. The picture you reference was from the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner where I received the 21st Century Award. My entire family was there and I got to meet two of my heroes. It was such an amazing night. I feel a great deal of responsibility with this new visibility. I use the platform to speak out about immigration, sexual assault, mental health, and racism, and to encourage young women of color to pursue their passions. Sometimes this work is exhausting, but I’m really grateful that I get to do this. When I’m not teaching or traveling, I’m usually at home recharging. I spend a lot of time reading in bed with my cat. I’m an introvert by nature, so I need a lot of time alone after my events.

This current administration and the consequent xenophobia is completely horrifying, but I see a definite shift in the literary world. People of color and LGBTQ folks are publishing books and winning major prizes. I can hardly keep up , which I find so exciting. I just saw you on the cover for Poets & Writers! How amazing is that? I see The Carrying everywhere and it also deserves all the attention it’s gotten. It’s truly stunning. I feel really haunted by it. The way you write about the female body is so devastating that I had to put the book down at times. Though I love writing more than anything, I know that the process of it can be so emotionally taxing. There are times that I even feel it physically. There’s an essay I’ve been avoiding for this very reason. I’d also like to know how you take care of yourself. How do you write about grief and stay healthy? How do you find that balance? And is there any advice you can offer women writers who tackle these kinds of difficult issues?

AL: Thank you, Erika. I am so thrilled to see you getting the
attention you and your writing deserves. It does my heart good. And the work
you are doing is important on many levels so I’m glad to hear you are able to
rest and recharge when you can. I agree that the act of writing is a physical
thing. It can be healthy to purge dark things, but it can also excavate old and
new suffering that needs to be attended to. The body can’t always keep up.
While I was working on The Carrying, my body was hurting quite a bit, my
vertigo was intense, and I had an overall feeling of sickness most of the time.
I feel better now and no one is entirely sure why, but the body is a mystery.
What’s interesting for me is that, regardless of how I’m feeling physically, I
really do feel my best when I am writing, it’s a place to be free, to be in the
body and the mind in a new way, to remember what being free looks like and
feels like. The best advice I can offer anyone is to do the work, but also not
to force it, not to drag it out kicking and screaming. Sometimes we sit down to
write the hard stuff, to burn shit down, to light it up and make our words a
bomb. Those explosions of rage and sorrow can be powerful, but we also have to
remember to be tender and kind to ourselves. That we are allowed happiness too.
A sense of peace. If we intend to own our suffering, we must also own our
power, our peace.

Do you find the process of writing freeing? Or does
it feel like incredibly hard work at times? I’d love to hear more about your
writing process and how you shift between both your poems and your prose?

ES: Writing is what makes me feel the most connected to the world.
It’s an act of survival, because if I don’t do it, I literally feel like I’m
going to die. That’s not exaggeration. It’s freeing in the sense that I’m able
to take suffering and transform it into something beautiful. That’s the goal,
at least. Though I do love the act of writing, it is definitely work. As I
mentioned before, it’s physically taxing. Sometimes I get short of breath and
can’t sit still. I feel the grief in my body. I pace a lot and talk to myself.
When I wrote the bulk of my novel, I was recovering from one of the worst
depressions of my life and working an incredibly stressful full-time job as a
public relations strategist. I’d write all day for work then work on my novel
all evening. Whenever I had a free moment, I wrote. I felt possessed by it. It
really helped me heal. Poetry is very different for me. It requires much more
time and silence. There are poems that take me years to finish. They usually
come in pieces. I began the earliest poem in Lessons on Expulsion when I was a senior in college, so it was about a decade of
work. 

Sometimes I wish I were the kind of writer who wakes up at 5 a.m. every day and gets to work, but I don’t operate that way at all. I’m not a morning person and I’m pretty unstructured. Writing is the center of my life so it informs everything I do. I think about it always—when I’m running, cooking, shopping for groceries, or performing any mundane task. That’s why I carry a notebook and pen with me at all times. You never know when inspiration is going to strike. I write in bed, on airplanes, at the coffeeshop. I’m also constantly reading, which, of course, is central to the process. I just finished A Dream Called Home by Reyna Grande and it blew me away.

There is so much quiet yet searing beauty throughout your collection. You take what might be considered mundane and make it sing. There’s a description of a dead animal that made me gasp. That’s what I love most about Emily Dickinson. She found so much wonder and never even left her bedroom. I kept wondering about your influences in this book. Who were your spirit guides? Who do we see in The Carrying? This is your fifth collection, so how have your literary models evolved?

AL: Oh Erika, I feel the same, I wish I was as disciplined as some
folks to write at certain times of day or for a certain number of hours, or to
plunge deeply into something even when life is calling on you. I tend to be
similar in my work, there are long moments of silence and then suddenly I am
writing more than I ever have without realizing it. The Carrying does
have quite a lot of dead animals in it doesn’t it? I laugh that the all my poor
poetry animals are always dying or already dead in my poems. Except my dog, my
dog will always live forever no matter what reality tries to tell me. 

Let’s see, who is in my book? I think there is a great deal of Lucille Clifton in my book, that way she could be straight forward and searing at the same time. I think also of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and her honesty and courage in that book. Of course Lucille Clifton and Marie Howe were my teachers so their influence is with me. When I’m really writing, it’s often hard for me read poetry, I tend to read novels and non-fiction because I’m such a mimic, if I read a great deal of poetry, I’ll try to copy it! My biggest influence might have been Natalie Diaz since she and I were writing poems back and forth during this time (four of mine are in the book).

I know that I still suffer a great deal from self
doubt. There are mornings that I get up and think everything I’ve written is
horrible. I usually can claw myself back into a place where I acknowledge the
good work that I’ve done (and sometimes I really love my own poems!), but you
are who you are regardless of success. Do you think success has changed you in
any way; do you think it has changed your writing?

ES: I think hating your work is part of being a writer,
unfortunately. I have those days, too. I expect a lot from myself, and if I don’t
meet my standards or expectations, I can be quite brutal. Then there are times
in which I can appreciate what I’ve created, and that is such a gift. Sometimes
I look at my books and think to myself, I made these! And it blows my
mind that strangers all over the country are reading them. 

I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and I struggled for many years before I got any significant recognition, so it’s been a long journey. I’m so grateful for all the attention my work has received because there were times I seriously doubted myself and my life choices. I didn’t have many role models. I didn’t know any professional women as I was growing up. I do think success has helped my confidence. I’ve always been very outspoken, but knowing that people actually care about what I think now makes me bolder. Might as well use whatever influence I have to try to dismantle systems of oppression. I’m tired of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and classism—essentially, hatred in all of its forms. We are constantly faced with hate crimes now. This presidency has given people permission to act upon their ignorance and fear, and it’s truly terrifying. I’m not entirely sure what to do, but I know I won’t shut up about it. 

Also, I’ve spent a lot of my life either poor or broke, so it’s such a relief to have financial stability. I can buy myself things without falling into a spiral of guilt now. I live the way I want, and I know what a gift that is, particularly as a woman of color. The women who came before me weren’t even allowed to read or write. They weren’t permitted to move freely or live alone. They were expected to get married and be cared for by their husbands. I have traveled all over and I live by myself. “A room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf encouraged. Though I would eventually like a partner, I have really appreciated the time I’ve had to myself. 

You also live a life centered on literature. You
travel quite a bit and are very prolific. What has your writing provided for
you, especially as a woman? 

AL: Isn’t
it wildly lucky that we can have a life centered around our writing? I feel
grateful about it every day. When I was a kid, I could never really imagine a
“dream job.” I mean, I thought about jobs, but nothing sounded like
what I really wanted to do, which was to stay home and write and read and think
of things and then go out and talk to people about the things that I had
written. I assumed a job like that didn’t really exist. How could it? Because
my mother was an artist, and my stepfather was a writer, I had a model of a
creative life. But they also both waited tables. I always assumed if you wanted
to be a creative person then you also had to wait tables, or have some other
job that took the majority of your time (and energy). Or you worked in education
like my father. Who was amazing and inspiring as an elementary school principal
and as an administrator of instruction, but had very little time to write, play
the guitar, very little time to himself.

It wasn’t until 2010 when I became a full-time writer. I worked
for magazines for 12 years before that. And even “full-time writer”
is somewhat of a misnomer. I travel and teach and speak at universities. Like
you, I’m on the road a lot, but when I’m home, I’m fully home and my time is
very much my own. I am still amazed that I make my living through my creative
work. I’m also to the point now where I am able to say no to things. I think,
as women, we are convinced or guilted into thinking that we should give our
time, dedicate our time, donate our time. We get guilted and shamed into saying
yes to waving our speaking fees or yes to writing work that doesn’t pay. I’ve
just now started giving myself permission to say no. It feels powerful,
marvelous, like taking all my clothes off and running through a field, saying
no is a party, it’s like magical weapon, a tool I never thought I’d have access
to. This way, I get to say a big fat enthusiastic YES to my writing.

Speaking of, I have one last question for you and then I’ll let
you get back to your busy life and your exceptional writing. It’s been such a
pleasure talking to you and spending time with you here on the page. Before we
go, is there any advice you’d like to offer to a writer who is starting out?

ES: As
an admirer of your work, it’s been so great getting to know you better. Advice
for the youngsters… That’s a great question, one I get asked a lot. I always
tell them that they should only pursue a career in writing if they absolutely
love it. You have to take great pleasure in both reading and writing for it to
be worth it. (Personally, it never felt like a choice to me. I believed it was
the only thing that would ever make me happy.) It’s just such a hard career
that I really wouldn’t pursue it otherwise. (Of course, you can always
“write on the side” of whatever else you’re doing.) Also, make
friends with rejection. Not everyone is going to like your work, and that’s ok.
You can’t please the entire world. No matter what you do, there will be people
who don’t agree with what you’re doing. I’ve been rejected so many times, but I
kept going because I truly believed in my work. 

I also like what you said about saying no. I totally agree. We’re
often expected to work for free. I did when I was younger, but those days are
over. I volunteer my time or resources for worthy causes when I think it’s
necessary, but I still need to make a living and my time is valuable. I worked
really hard to get to this point and no one is going to make me feel guilty
about being compensated for my labor. 

Lastly, I think it’s so important to build community. You have to
support other writers. The act of writing can be lonely, but then spending time
with my fellow weirdos makes it all worth it. I’m grateful to have met so many incredible
people doing this work. This is the life I’ve always wanted. 

AL: Thank
you for your generosity, Erika. What a perfect place to end: on a living a life
that we have always wanted. Now, let’s go write.

Fate’s Brutality: The Millions Interviews Chigozie Obioma

Chigozie Obioma explores the thematic power and appeal of fate in his masterful sophomore novel, An Orchestra of Minorities. “I think it’s the question of fate’s unknowingness, its unquestionability, its irrationality, its madness, its unpredictability, its mercy, its brutality, its generosity, its elusiveness, its banality, its vitality, and all the things you can ascribe to it. It is the most metaphysical of all phenomena—if we can call it a phenomenon. I cannot conceive of a greater topic for great literature,” he said.

Narrated by a chi, or guardian
spirit, Obioma’s latest novel follows the life of Chinonso, a poultry farmer,
whose entire world changes when he comes upon a young woman named Ndali, who is
preparing to jump from a bridge. Soon, Chinonso and Ndali find themselves in
love. But, like most things, their relationship proves itself to be more
complicated than either of them could have expected. Burdened and blessed by
the weight of sacrifice, determination, and destiny, Obioma takes readers on a
journey that weaves from the physical world into the spiritual one.

Obioma and I spoke about classic
literature, Nigerian influence, and human limitations.

The Millions: When I
read your novels, I recall elements of myths, epics, and even Greek tragedies.
When you set out to write, do you know you’ll be telling your stories in a
style and language that is reflective of these forms?

Chigozie Obioma: My answer would be that I grew up consuming Greek myth and Shakespeare, and Igbo tales. Across them, there is a tight thread, woven into a knot, which makes it almost impossible to tell them apart from each other. The universality of the archetypes in these stories—whether it is of the murderously ambitious serviceman who becomes convinced he must become king (in Macbeth) or the murderously angry man who becomes convinced that his life’s duty must be to hunt down the man who killed his father (Oedipus Rex) or of the man who embarks on a far journey into the forest of the Living and the Dead to reclaim his male potency (the tale of Ojadili)—make some of the most fascinating stories I have encountered.

So when I write, I’m often drawn unconsciously to these. The only conscious choice I make in this regard is in picking my subjects. I’m more chiefly concerned with metaphysics of existence and essence as they relate to the Igbo philosophy of being. We believe that life is in essence a dialectic between free will and destiny. It is a paradox: that you can make a choice, yet, that everything is preordained? And it is in this space that I anchor my stories.

TM: Do you think
you’ll ever veer away and write another kind of novel?

CO: I’m not sure but I know, by the short fiction I’ve written, that I’m capable of doing that. The issue is, the subjects I have been choosing are often so vast, so expansive they demand to be told in new ways. It is a constant surprise for me, personally. In fact, when the idea of narrative structure of The Fishermen first came to me, I waved it off as crazy. But as I wrote the book, it demanded that Ben tell the story that way. For An Orchestra of Minorities, I resisted the very challenging task of creating the chi. But again, the subject and vision for the novel demanded this structure. We will see what happens in the future.

TM: Your two novels
are both set largely in Nigeria, and there is a clear love and respect of place
in your prose. Do you think of Nigeria as being a character in itself in your
work?

CO: Absolutely, in
both novels. The Fishermen has been correctly read as a metaphor for how
Nigeria was created by the chaos left in the aftermath of the encounter with
the madman (therein the colonialists who insisted we must become this specific
way). Nigeria has a more physical presence in An Orchestra of Minorities.
It is the land that sends its child—Chinonso the main character—away into his
great suffering and is also the mother that embraces him when he returns.
 This is my complex relationship with Nigeria even on a personal level. It
is at once the home that sent me away, out of it because of its lack of
provisions for me, and it is the home that embraces me whenever I return.

TM: From where did you
get the idea to write An Orchestra of Minorities?

CO: I had been thinking for a long time about writing a novel about the Igbo civilization, a cosmological novel that will document for posterity the complex systems of my people. I wanted, in essence, to do what John Milton and Dante Alighieri did for Western civilization. But I didn’t know how to go about it until I moved to the Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus and encountered a Nigerian man who was duped into moving to North Cyprus and, when he discovered he had lost everything, got drunk and died tragically after falling from a three-story building. That became the inspiration for Chinonso. I wrote about that experience for The Guardian in 2016.

TM: I have to ask
about the narrator of An Orchestra of Minorities. A chi, or guardian
spirit, is who tells of the story of Chinonso and Ndali. Is having a narrator
who isn’t restricted by human limitations more difficult to write because of
the unknown boundaries? Or does that sense of freedom make the chi easier to
voice?

CO: The answer would
be both, but I imagine that the latter category will receive precedence. This
is because of the nature of the chi itself and the journeys it undertakes. The
Igbo has a concept of the heavenlies, a place where the afterlife happens. But
various zones and places in the Igbo nation do not have a unified description
of what it looks like. And where the descriptions are present, they are not as
comprehensive as you’d have, say, heaven in the Judeo-Christian tradition. So,
I had to invent something as close enough to what our ancestors would have
believed Alandiichie must have looked like. Things like this were very
difficult to do. But also, as you noted, the chi isn’t restricted by human
limitations so one has some space to write it without any fear of logical
inconsistencies or logistics. But the chi is also limited by a central
cosmological belief of the Igbo people. And it is more than 700 years old, so,
its memory is vast and to keep up with its commentary on life and being, to
continuously give it consistent prelapsarian eloquence—which sometimes allows
it to function as both a first and third person narrator—was difficult.

TM: Most of the
chapters begin with Chinonso’s chi offering wisdom. In one of the early
sections, the chi says, “Fear exists because of the presence of anxiety and
anxiety because humans cannot see the future. For if only a man could see the
future, he would be more at peace.” Do you think that’s true for contemporary
life, too?

CO: I think so, at least as far as I know. There is a constant quest to know the future, to divine into matters we do not know. This is an ancient, almost primal quest that humanity has been engaging in. This is why Americans go to the tea leaf readers and Nigerians to “Miracle Center” churches and traditional priests. Que sera sera—what will I be? Will I be rich? Will I get that job? How about kids, will I have them? Are you sure this is the right man or woman to marry? OK, well, when will I die? And etcetera. I dealt with this fear as the central inciting action in The Fishermen as well.  

TM: Thematically, this
novel looks closely at the value of sacrifice and the limits of love. However,
I want to focus on one theme that I think of most of all when thinking of An
Orchestra of Minorities: how fate shapes our lives. Chinonso struggles
constantly with the idea of his own life’s fate. Ndali and Chinonso’s chi do
too, but with some limits. What is it about fate that makes it such a compelling
topic?

CO: I think it’s the question of fate’s unknowingness, its unquestionability, its irrationality, its madness, its unpredictability, its mercy, its brutality, its generosity, its elusiveness, its banality, its vitality, and all the things you can ascribe to it. It is the most metaphysical of all phenomena—if we can call it a phenomenon. I cannot conceive of a greater topic for great Literature. As we speak, I’m writing an essay titled “Retreat from the Metaphysical” which looks at how great fiction has always tackled these questions and how modern fiction seems to be looking more and more at the self and to become more and more solipsistic because our vision of the scarcity of life is being obscured by the overwhelming abundance provided us by capitalism. Think of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Milton’s Paradise Lost which dealt with the question of foreknowledge and predestination—these are centered around the question of fate.

That said, fate is at the center of the Igbo-Odinani belief system. And if there is anything I have been trying to achieve in my work to date it is to center African philosophical ideas in the world discourse. Look around at the vast oceans of ideologies that mean anything today even to Africans themselves and none comes from us. The agelong erroneous belief that we had no complex systems of thought continues unchallenged, and today, even our intellectuals tramples on our cultural beliefs and philosophy. An Orchestra of Minorities shines a light on many strands of Igbo thought, and one of them is the essence of fate and its place in the cosmology of human existence.

TM: Chinonso is such a
complicated man. He saves someone’s life by sacrificing that which he values so
much. He loves. He tries to better himself. But he is also deeply flawed. He
does things rashly. He has a bad temper. He abandons who he is. I don’t want to
spoil too much, but what do you hope readers take away from Chinonso?

CO: I think this is open to the reader. I completely agree with you that Chinonso is very complicated and he is all of these things. But there is a line about him from the book that I always think about: “He has been vandalized by a spiritual politics into which he had been unwillingly conscripted.” This is my view of him. I think he is changed mostly by the things that had happened to him, and that test his humanity. And sometimes, when our humanity is tested beyond what we can bear, we can fail. This was the central theme of William Golding’s classic, Lord of the Flies.

But also, there is the element of
the physical politics that vandalize him: being defrauded by others and the
international racism he faces in Cyprus, which causes him to be unfairly
jailed. These things shape and reshape him, and his character evolves all
through the story till the last act in which he becomes, himself, a vandal.

TM: Readers fond of Homer’s epic Greek poem The Odyssey will likely view An Orchestra of Minorities as a contemporary retelling of sorts. How heavy of an influence was that text as you began writing? Did you always know your novel would have some similarities?

CO: In a way, yes. As I was plotting, it occurred to me that Chinonso’s journey would resemble that of Odysseus. So, I had him read the book as a child and use Odysseus’s story as a device to encourage him to continue on during times when it feels as though his troubles are beginning to sink him. But this is not a rewrite or re-imagining or retelling of Homer’s tale. There are just similarities.

TM: Book
recommendations are basically what I live for. There are a few weeks until An
Orchestra of Minorities is available, so I want to ask you something a
little different as we close. Are there any books you suggest readers check out
before they pick up your book? Ones that might help put readers in the perfect
place before they get to know the story of Chinonso and Ndali?

CO: I would ask them to read John Milton’s classic Paradise Lost, if they haven’t done so. I would also recommend Dante’s Inferno. For an understanding of some of the Igbo traditions readers will encounter in my book, I recommend Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God. But absent these, great contemporary books I have recently read and loved are Gun Love by Jennifer Clement and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean Dominique Bauby.

Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities is scheduled
to hit bookstore shelves on Jan. 8, 2019. Chigozie will be on tour to promote
his latest release. Be sure to check him out at one of his scheduled events:

1/8/2019, 5:00 PM: University of Nebraska/ Lincoln, NE

1/9/2019,
7:30 PM: Greenlight Bookstore/ Brooklyn, NY with Nicole Dennis-Benn

1/10/2019,
7:00 PM: Harvard Bookstore/ Cambridge, MA with Okey Ndibe

1/11/2019,
7:00 PM: Books & Books/ Coral Gables, FL

1/14/2019,
7:00 PM: Novel Neighbor with the International Institute of St. Louis and
WeStories/ St. Louis, MO

1/19/2019,
7:00 PM: Brazos Bookstore, Houston, TX

1/21/2019,
7:00 PM: Raven Bookstore/ Lawrence, KS

2/6/2019,
7:00 PM: Madison Central Library/ Madison, WI

3/3/13/2019,
6:30 PM: Indigo Bridge Books/ Lincoln, NE

Books Decide for Me: The Millions Interviews Ersi Sotiropoulos

Greek writer Ersi Sotiropoulos’s novel, What’s Left of the Night, is a lyrical and erotic reimagining of the gay Greek-Alexandrian poet C.P. Cavafy’s three-day trip to Paris in 1897. The book, which won the prestigious Prix Méditerranée Étranger, is dizzying, fevered and beautiful, and very, very horny. It’s also chimerical: Like Cavafy himself, it exists at a nexus of concepts—identity, queerness, modernity, making art, and Greece’s tortured relationship with Europe, which has come full circle since 1897, when foreign powers commandeered the nation’s finances.

Earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to review the book, and it was, without exaggeration, one of the most challenging things I have ever tried to write; I kept stumbling upon more questions with each draft. Fortunately, Sotiropoulos and her translator, Dr. Karen Emmerich of Princeton University, made time to entertain both my questions and slack-jawed observations. Over the past few weeks, we spoke by email and Skype while Sotiropoulos was in China. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

The Millions: Ersi,
I know that you learned about Cavafy’s 1897 trip to Paris while you were
working in Italy in 1984. Can you tell us a little bit more about that
situation and what you discovered? 

Ersi Sotiropoulos: That’s so many years ago. In 1984 I curated an exhibition dedicated to Cavafy at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome. While consulting the archives I came across references to his trip to Paris in 1897—the first and last holiday journey of his life. There was very little information about it, only a few memorabilia: copies of the review “L’Illustration,” a shirt maker’s card, etc., obviously gathered to show to his mother when he went back. Cavafy himself left no written trace, not a personal note, nothing.

I started thinking of that young man (whose future course we all know very well), his trip to Paris at a very special moment in time, his passion for writing, his anxiety to find his own voice, and how he was tormented by sexual desires forbidden back then. I started to imagine him at that unique crossroads: Alexandria in the background, both remote and cosmopolitan, further away Greece, humiliated and once more destroyed, and finally Paris, illuminated, at the height of its glory. Later, I wrote a documentary film about Cavafy for the French television series Un siècle d’écrivains (A century of writers), and the same questions kept coming back.

TM: What
intrigued you about this period in Cavafy’s life, and why did your interest in
those three days persist for the coming decades? 

ES: Writing for me is about obsession. I don’t start with a predetermined idea about a book. I don’t have fixed plans. Sometimes it’s just a fleeting impression, a voice heard in the street, someone talking in the darkness. And I have to dig into this nothing, to insist and persist. In Cavafy’s case, the void of information about his trip was the trigger. What did Cavafy do in Paris? Whom did he meet? Paris in the last years of the nineteenth century was a mecca for the avant-garde, the place where Marcel Proust, Erik Satie, and Edgar Degas were living and creating, where modernism was being born. What intrigued me was the encounter of Cavafy—reserved, awkward, oppressed in his personal life, tormented by contradictions and doubts—with this dazzling world.

In addition, the year 1897 has strange analogies with what
had happened to Greece recently: the Olympic Games of 1896, which flattered its
national pride for a very short time, and then once more and again a ruined,
bankrupt Greece which would suffer under international economic control for 80
years, from 1898 to 1978.

TM: From what
I understand, your novels have mostly dealt with contemporary people and
subjects, and What’s Left of the Night is your first piece of
“historical fiction,” although I’m not sure it’s appropriate to call this book
by that term. Why did you decide to take this turn in your subject matter
around 2009, at least for this book? Why was the story of Cavafy’s three days
in Paris, specifically, the one that you wanted to tell at that time?

ES: I didn’t
decide to take a turn. It’s the other way round. Books decide for me.

At any rate, I would like to point out that this is not a novel about Cavafy, the poet. Not a historical or fictional biography. It’s mainly about the making of the artist. One has to read the book as the three days spent in Paris in June 1897 by a young, aspiring poet from Alexandria. It is a pleasure trip and at the same time a process of initiation that the reader will follow alongside the man who will become the poet Constantine Cavafy. If we read Cavafy’s poems before 1897, the date of the trip, with a few exceptions they are poor, mediocre, clumsy. Then, a couple of years later, there is an immense leap forward in his writing.

What fascinates me, what fascinates us all, is how an
artist, a poet still incomplete at age 34, someone rather formal and
conventional, but possessed by the passion for writing, tortured by his desire
for men at a time when “coming out” was unthinkable: how does he make
this huge leap forward? How does he become Cavafy? These accomplishments don’t
happen in a void. They trail behind them many aborted attempts, failures,
despair, misery.

Working on this novel, I arrived at two conclusions, each of them related to the importance of the year 1897 for Cavafy as both a poet and a person. First, it’s only after that date, as I said before, that he becomes the poet we know and admire. He abandons lyricism, shakes off the influence of romanticism, and develops his own distinctive voice, in which complex meanings are conveyed in a bare, limpid form. As a poet Cavafy matured very slowly. He was obsessed with formal perfection. Just imagine that the poem “The City,” which is mentioned in the novel, took him more than ten years to complete.

The second concerns his private life. By 1897 Cavafy had
accepted his homosexuality, though socially he was a very formal and
old-fashioned person. But however tormented and secretive he may have been
about his desire for other men, Cavafy was coming to a point in his development
as a poet where he was able to write about that desire openly, in an
unapologetic, direct way, unifying his passion for the Hellenistic civilization
of the past and his passion for other men in poems that met his own rigorous
standards for publication.

TM: You’ve
spoken elsewhere about how this book took you six years to complete, and how
writing it was like “splitting your head in two.” From what I understand, these
were pretty rare circumstances for you: since 1980, you’ve published on average
one book every two years. What was different about writing What’s Left
of the Night? 

ES: I don’t
remember having finished a book in two years! Stories, shadows of voices,
backbones of novels, stay within me for years while I work on something else.

In this novel I was driven by questions. My sources were not only the Cavafy archives, but all sorts of information, books, letters, personal narratives, photos, documents: novels of the late 19th century, books on the political and economic history of Egypt, on the Greek community of Alexandria, on the artistic life in Paris, on the Dreyfus affair, on the Greek-Turkish war of 1897, etc. etc… And of course I visited Paris and Alexandria many times. Then, at a certain point, I had to confess myself that going further into this mass of documentation was an excuse for not starting to write. I hate writing. Many writers do. Each time the beginning of a new work is excruciating.

TM: I was really intrigued by how frankly you portrayed Constantine’s sexuality. He doesn’t seem repressed so much as scared: that his affections won’t be reciprocated, or that he’ll be disappointed by the reality of sex compared to his expectations. There’s one powerful paragraph where Constantine says, “he already knew that his desire was far greater than the satisfaction would be, that the satisfaction would betray the desire…that this immediate relief would only disappoint him.” Can you discuss the relationship between Constantine’s sexuality and his creativity in this book?

ES: What interested me from the very start was to capture the moment, that exceptional moment when physical desire turns into creative impulse. What happens is that, for Cavafy, erotic desire becomes a driving force. But what is at stake in art is how desire is represented, whatever this desire is—that is what differentiates an amateurish poem from a great one: how the desire unfolds, transcends the poet who wrote about it and turns into something capable of transmitting emotion to readers who do not share the same desire.

There is a poem of that period titled “Half an Hour”—one of
the “hidden poems” that Cavafy refused to publish in his lifetime—that
has always stayed with me, especially these lines:

But we who serve Art, sometimes with the mind’s intensity, can create—but of course only for a short time— pleasure that seems almost physical.

That passage has served as a sort of central thread for my book. Like [a lighthouse] during the long years of loneliness and writing.

TM: I read
this book as a long meditation on the writer’s “process” and the irony of
literary inspiration. How, if at all, did writing this book transform your
writing practice?

ES: Writing books transforms me—they are like persons. I live with them. But if by writing practice you mean my schedule, that I start working very early when it’s still night, and that I travel all the time, I did not change. I don’t travel looking for inspiration, I travel to be myself.

In this book I followed in extremis my idea of art, in whose ardent pursuit the profane is sacralized; of an artwork that seems raising from the dust. Where does art come from? That’s the question I ask in my book. Can art come from something tiny, from an insignificant detail? Can this near-invisible detail—a tiny hair, a little harder than the others, on the pubis of the lover—suddenly gain substance and flow into creation?

TM: You’ve
been writing professionally since shortly after democracy was restored to
Greece after the military dictatorship in the 1970s. Greece and its
relationship to Europe have changed several times in several ways in those
ensuing 40 years, most dramatically during the debt crisis. To what extent has
this affected what it means to be a Greek writer, especially during and after
the crisis? 

I ask this question
because I interpreted this book, in part, as a commentary on the (often unfair)
way that a writer is torn between global aspirations and national “duty,” for
lack of a better term, especially when their homeland or culture is being
internationally humiliated, endangered, etc. 

ES: Your comment brings to mind the famous line from George Seferis’s poem: “Wherever I travel, Greece wounds me.” This was true then, it is true today.

The crisis weakened the already vulnerable status of the Greek writer. Arts, the book market, were among the first victims. Crisis has impregnated everything. It doesn’t have a face, it is a complex of crisis. And what interests me as a writer is to see how, besides its devastating impact on people’s lives, financial crisis has been corroded by a deeper crisis, an existential, ethical emergency, and how menacing those little symptoms can become, that at a first glance seemed totally superficial and inoffensive. “We don’t know anything, we don’t know we’re all sailors out of work,” Seferis wrote. Once again, in this country, the poetic word is more substantial and true than the words of the politicians. And much more clairvoyant too.

What is Greece? What does being Greek mean? I tried in the book to render the very particular, and not limited or nationalist, position of Cavafy in this matter. He was the opposite of a chauvinist. He said, “Είμαι κι εγώ Ελληνικός, Προσοχή, όχι Έλλην, ούτε Ελληνίζων, αλλά Ελληνικός” (impossible to translate) [I tried anyway: “I am, also, Hellenic, mind you, not a Greek national nor a colonized foreigner who has adopted a Greek identity, but Hellenic.”] The hellenism of Cavafy is like an embracing movement—Marguerite Yourcernar gives us a vivid image—it passes through a complex series of Greeces more and more distant from what appears to us the golden age of the race, but where persists a living continuity.

TM: The value that international critics have put on Greek literature in the past decade seems to have been pegged to its mimesis of life under austerity. It’s as if they’re saying, “Greek literature is only interesting if it’s giving us a glimpse of what it’s like to be in Greece during the crisis.”

ES: I think
that’s just idiotic. Whenever foreign journalists come to Greece, one of the
first questions they ask is: What are you doing about the crisis? What can the
writer do to help? That’s bullshit! All the writer can do is write. 

I remember once I was talking with Nanos Valaoritis, a poet of the old Surrealist group, and he told me how, during the years of the German occupation—when the situation was infinitely worse than it is now, people were starving to death and the streets of Athens were littered with corpses—poetry helped them survive. Poems such as “Amorgos” by Gatsos and “Bolivar” by Eggonopoulos and many of Elytis’s best poems—which did not describe the horror of the war, but an unprecedented lyric ecstasy—were written then. Those poems were not miserable or mournful, they were full of an orgasmic greed for life. 

[A writer] does not have to be a mirror for his time. This
is very silly, I think. And, always, you [a writer] have to step back a
little, to observe from a distance. I, personally, take distance. All
my friends, everybody I know, keeps asking me: Are you going to write about
China [where ]? I don’t know. Perhaps I will, perhaps I won’t. I mean, you
need to live things first. And then maybe they will come
back to you, in a way. 

TM: Karen,
building off this last question, how has the international interest in Greek
literature changed over the course of the past decade, thanks to the financial
crisis or for other reasons?

Karen Emmerich: I can only speak to Anglophone markets, since I don’t know much about other linguistic spheres in which Greek literature is circulating. But to tell the truth, I don’t really see much of an impact in terms of quantity of books coming out—perhaps because the numbers are just so small to begin with. Certainly we’ve had several anthologies of poetry that use the crisis as a focal point—including Theodore Chiotis’s Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis and Karen Van Dyck’s Austerity Measures—and have gotten a fair amount of press. And perhaps the kinds of books publishers are willing to get behind are different: If literature from other languages is often used as cultural commentary, showing something true about that other place, Greece (in the Anglophone imagination) is no longer the place of quaint village and donkeys; it’s gritty, impoverished, urban. The extensive reviewing of Ersi’s novel has little to do with all that, of course—but Cavafy is always a draw.

TM: You’ve really been instrumental in bringing many Greek writers, especially Greek women writers, to English-speaking readers, who most likely only think of male names when they think of contemporary Greek literature: Kazantzakis, Seferis, and, of course, Cavafy. Has the crisis had any specifically adverse effect on the translation of Greek women’s writing?

KE: I hope that eventually some new names will start to fill out that list! Not only women, but more contemporary writers in general. It’s been more than 50 years since the last of the writers you named died, and that’s five decades of literary production that deserves attention. I think the crisis has had an adverse effect on the translation of Greek writing by anyone, frankly; there used to be some very limited state support for translations, and those programs shut down with the austerity measures. There has also been, as Ersi says, a decline in publishing in Greece, again because of the crisis—and if things aren’t being published in the first place, we’ll never know what literary treasures are out there that could be being translated. But again, the market for translations from Greek is so small to begin with that it’s hard to talk about the statistical significance of any changes we’re witnessing.

I would note that there are perhaps more translations of works by contemporary Greek women than by men: Jacob Moe’s outstanding recent translation of Maria Mitsora, Pavlos Stavropoulos’s translations of the wonderfully bizarre Ursula Foskolou that have been appearing in online journals, Patricia Barbeito’s translations of Amanda Michalopoulou, whom I have also translated. It’s an exciting moment, I think, for Greek literature in translation precisely because of this new crop of translators getting work out. Just imagine what could happen if we could rustle up some funding from a foundation to help support translation work!

TM: I know
that you’ve written at length about Cavafy and the difficulty of translating
his work. Briefly, what are some of the biggest challenges?

KE: They are neverending, which is why they’re so much fun to talk about. Many people who read Cavafy in English think of him as a prosaic writer, one who eschews literary devices as customarily understood. But in fact, he is a master of what Roman Jakobson and Peter Colaclides called “grammatical imagery,” using rhythm, rhyme, and even grammar itself to enact in his poems the very things he’s writing about. It’s astonishing, the tight complexity of the poems in Greek—and not just Greek as a singular language but Greeks, plural, a range of different idioms. Katerina Stergiopoulou has written brilliantly on this issue, including on Cavafy’s use of ancient Greek in epigraphs and within the texts of his poems themselves, and then of course there is the issue of Cavafy’s Alexandrian Greek, and Byzantine phrases as well. It’s a very rich linguistic tapestry, and rich in a way that English just isn’t. So the translator has to find other means, the means of the language she’s writing her translation in.

TM: How did
you and Ersi collaborate to get the tone and vocabulary of the English
translation just right?

KE: We went back and forth several times with the translation. She and I don’t always see eye to eye, since she’s reading the translation alongside the Greek and looking at the level of the word, whereas I’m trying to work on a level far larger than the word, but I have to say the collaboration was invaluable in many regards. I don’t know if the translation is just right—she’s a stickler in her own writing for every word being in place, and in order for me to feel that way about my translations I would need six years, too. Which most publishers don’t allow, unfortunately! Or perhaps fortunately—because otherwise, if everyone felt the same as me, we’d never get to read anything in translation at all!

TM: With the crisis
now “ended,” what is your outlook for Greek literature in translation,
specifically literature by women? 

KE: The “crisis” is anything but over. I think it’s heroic of people to keep on keeping on—as writers, as publishers, as creators, as readers, as engaged humans, as humans period—given the current situation in Greece. I can’t give you an outlook, but I can give you a desire: for greater support for writing of all kinds in Greece, writing that helps hone our understanding of the present, the past, and the future. If some of that support could come in the form of book deals abroad, or royalties for struggling writers, or grants for writers and translators, then that would be a positive step. If anyone’s reading this who’s in some position of power and authority with discretionary funds to think about setting something up, my lines are open!

I Don’t Want So Smooth a Shape: The Millions Interviews Laura Adamczyk

Laura Adamczyk’s stories are not for the faint of heart. Her stories involve sisters and estranged fathers and young men and women attempting to remake themselves, those “who commit to no life even [their] own,” there are lovers both potential and unrequited who are truckers and Lincoln scholars and La Quinta managers. They are filled with adults who are preoccupied with their own affairs or who aren’t to be trusted, and who fail or die regardless. Their children are forced into weighty situations and who, despite shared experiences, emerge with divergent memories and traumas.

Hardly Children‘s stories read as innocuous enough at first—yet as they unfurl this becomes questionable, ominous, the fissures become wider. These aren’t redemption narratives. Rather, they’re keenly observant and aware and unapologetic for this. Their narrators attempt to control their relationship to disappointment, to eke out a space and identity to call their own, however idiosyncratic. It’s as if entering American Gothic, you emerge from Saturn Devouring His Son. The stories in this volume have lingered with me long after most fictions do, haunting my psyche in unexpected ways. I spoke with Laura via email about her stories, their intricate structures, their ‘terrible characters,’ discomfort, and the new dirty real.

The Millions: With regard to writers, who are your idols, compatriots, agitators, influences? What short stories or collections do you return to again and again?

Laura Adamczyk: Édouard Levé, Lucia Berlin, Toni Morrison, Joy Williams, Diane Williams, Borges, early Michael Ondaatje. Denis Johnson’s short stories, Because They Wanted To and Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill, Esther Stories by Peter Orner. “The School” by Donald Barthelme, “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates.

TM: I’ve recently been deeply immersed in the works of Ali Smith, and in her book Artful she remarks that short stories are about brevity and the shortness of life and in this way their sense of time is elastic, while novels are about continuance and attached to the trappings of their time. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on stories and time, especially with regard to the way your stories will make striking leaps in time and perspective that refract and shift the reader’s awareness of the central action.

LA: I think I agree with what Smith says, as hesitant as I may be to make any overarching pronouncements about what one can and cannot do in stories vs. novels. But because of their brevity, short stories do have more of a mandate to make sharp turns if an author wants to expand the scope with regards to time. There’s no expectation that a story will have as encompassing a blanket as a novel.

I can’t say these leaps in time are something I think about intentionally while first writing a story—say, as in “The Summer Father” or “Girls.” It’s much more associative to the story’s prevailing timeline, but once I realize what I’m doing, I make it more strategic. Jumping forward here and there, but not everywhere. It works better as an accent, I think. Equal parts past and present, or present and future, would make things too even. I don’t want so smooth a shape. It’s a nice little trick, really. It often seems like the freedom of writing novels is that anything at all can be included—it’s a freedom of excess. With stories, that anything-goes sense must happen more pointedly. I can make big moves in stories, but maybe only once, and quickly.

TM: Perhaps this is part two of the above: You and I have discussed writing short stories versus the endeavor of writing novels and as I recall you had some very smart things to say about the ways story writing differs from novel writing, especially when it comes to structure. Do you consider yourself an architect of your stories? Are you methodical in configuring them? And to what extent do urgency and abandon come into play?

LA: Form and structure take more control in some of my stories than others. It’s nice when that happens because structure can be something I struggle with. It’s a relief when I come upon something like the conceit for “Gun Control,” for instance. That was maybe one of the most fun stories in the collection to write, despite the subject matter. I did a lot of free associating, just writing down whatever as it came—the opposite of how I usually write. In that story, a pattern eventually emerged, and I went back and shaped it. But it’s often hard for me to get into so free, so playful of a space. For other stories, the form and structure feel a lot less intentional, like I’m stacking one thing on top of the other until it’s as tall as it needs to be but solid enough not to fall over. Sometimes it’s just like, Am I done? I think I’m done. But I’m always working under the mandate that the story should never be longer than necessary. Like reducing fractions—get it all the way down.

TM: Hardly Children is such an apt title for this collection. The title comes from a story about children who are becoming adults in a time when boys in the community are being murdered by bands of men—at first this premise seems a bit mythic (and reminiscent of Stephen King’s It) but then a protest scene becomes anchored as the list of dead boys’ names are called out. At that point the scene changes utterly, evoking the Black Lives Matter protests and the ever tragic and growing list of boys and young men killed by police. Children don’t find refuge in these stories—there’s always fear or terror or some unnamed unknowable danger or loss lurking just beyond and the adults have ambivalence towards children too. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about the children in these stories and what the title means to you.

LA: For me, the title points to two things: children thrown into adult situations, into peril, and often stunted adults acting in childish ways, in a manner that we might not consider fully adult. I think the ways these children and adults overlap has to do with language. There’s often a threat lurking, even if it’s as yet unknown. But neither the children nor the adults form language around their trauma or fears: the children because they are not yet able, and the adults because they’re too afraid to do so, because they’d rather ignore or bury those fears.

In the context of that story, “hardly children” is also a way to disparage those victimized, the same way young black victims of police violence or young (often) female victims of sexual violence, for instance, are made to seem older than they are, more dangerous, more adult, and therefore somehow deserving of their terrible fates. They’re hardly children, hardly angels. It’s an attempt by those in power to justify the horrible things they do to vulnerable individuals.

TM: Tolstoy’s adage, that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” applies to your stories in the most delicious ways: the tensions and refuges of sisterhood, the experience of being a child captive within a family and its circumstances. The precision with which this dystopia is captured is unique—like in “The Summer Father,” where the middle daughter fleetingly feels joy and of wanting it “so bad but knowing it as something that will peak and then flow away.” Also, in that story, the youngest sister is consoled by sleeping with a tiny (and I imagine unwieldy) toy vacuum. What draws you to exploring the boredom, despair, hatred, affections, and airlessness even, of these circumstances?

LA: Most generally, I think what draws me to these circumstances is that family is not chosen. You have absolutely no control over who your parents are, who your siblings are, etc. Later in life, people can certainly seek out and create their own, separate families—friends, lovers, co-workers, political comrades, etc.—and can shed their biological families if they want to, but most of your childhood isn’t up to you; your family, for good and ill, isn’t your choice. It’s interesting to me to see how those people relate to each other over time, the way they can move closer together and further apart. More specifically, more personally, I’m drawn to such circumstances because, well, I’ve had those circumstances. I have two sisters with whom my relationship has transformed and shifted. And I have a lot of specific memories of and with them to draw from. Camping and bickering and dancing and talking and not talking, etc.

TM: The narrators of these stories are always onlookers, often grasping—through memory, interjection—to understand their circumstances and/ or claim their distance. Perhaps what I’m drawn to most is how your female protagonists are self-aware and uncomfortable and are utterly unapologetic for this. What role does discomfort have in your fiction, in these depictions of family, and is it a source of feminine strength?

LA: I once heard that those who can’t act observe. That might sound reductive, but it’s at least partially true for some of these characters. A lot of them either can’t act or don’t feel like they can, so they see, they notice. It’s adaptive, to become a sort of supreme noticer, and I believe there is a certain power, and yes, a feminine power, in that—to see and try to make sense of what you see. Because women are so often expected to be caretakers, to keep their distance, to let the discomfort lie, is a way of rejecting those expectations. But that’s also a generous way of seeing some of these characters. Many of them just can’t handle engaging more fully, so they seek out spaces of their own, which often tips them into isolation.

TM: Considered together, the stories in Hardly Children echo some kind of Dirty Realism—definitely the female and finer half (like Bobbie Ann Mason, Angela Carter, and Jayne Anne Phillips, who were included in Bill Buford’s genre-defining issue of Granta). In Buford’s intro he quotes Phillips to say their stories consider “how things fall apart and what is left when they do.”  In this case perhaps Hardly Children is next-generation dirty—saucier, dirtier, and darker, not just witness to, but unafraid to protest? To what extent have the dirty realists shaped your thinking for or against the short story? I’d like to say these stories are also riddled with something like Lispector’s passion and Kristeva’s abjection. In what ways do you hope to break open the form?

LA: There are times when I can remember exactly what I was reading when I wrote something, but short of that I have a hard time either directly placing myself alongside or diverting from other writers. So frequently the challenge is just to get something down that means something to me and that might mean something to others. It’s hard to see yourself sometimes, you know? That having been said, I read a lot of those writers as I was coming up, and have absorbed that style to such an extent—I put a similar value on the dirt and the gunk, the specific detail—that it’s very much a part of me. It’s like a French cook trying to verbalize the influence Julia Child had on their food. For so many, she’s the standard. I told a friend I wish I could strip away specific memories and experiences so that I could view my work more objectively to see what I really think of it. But objectivity is impossible, especially if you’re the object.

TM: What lure does the Midwestern landscape hold for you?

LA: Even though it’s a cliché, I appreciate the blankness. I like the feeling of characters being left with only their terrible selves.

The Future Is Coming, That’s a Fact: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore and Sarah Schulman in Conversation

Sarah Schulman and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore are both iconoclastic queer writers known for their activism and analysis (and their activist analysis), their fiction and nonfiction (and everything in between), their instigation and experimentation (all or nothing). Sycamore first became aware of Schulman’s work in the early ’90s while coming of age as a radical queer in San Francisco, looking to Schulman’s already extensive history of writing against the grain, her activism with ACT UP, and her journalism of the time as incisive examples of interventionist queer troublemaking. A decade or so later, she invited Schulman to contribute to one of her anthologies, That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (published in 2004), and the two became friends.

This past fall, Schulman and Sycamore collaborated on several East Coast book release events for their new novels—Schulman’s Maggie Terry, hailed by Oprah as one of “18 Brilliant Books for Fall,” and described as “off-kilter neo-noir,” and Sycamore’s Sketchtasy, described by NPR Books as “not just one of the best books of the year, it’s an instant classic of queer literature.” Here Schulman and Sycamore talk about the problem of nostalgia, the writing process, the gentrified gaze, a collaboration with Marianne Faithfull, linear time, a political history of ACT UP, film adaptations, the creative impulse, the theater, Todd Haynes, Palestinian solidarity, a Baltimore artist, Boston’s queeniest tower, Seattle’s suburban imagination, an elevator in New York—and, the future.

Sarah Schulman: I don’t want to talk about the past because I am sick of repeating myself. So let’s focus on what we are making now that has not yet been completed.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: I love this idea, but can we talk about the past for just a second first? Specifically, nostalgia. At the risk of repeating myself, I want to talk about why I hate nostalgia. To me, talking about the past is a great idea, as long as we’re learning something. But a nostalgic lens replaces all the lived experience, the nuance, the contradictions, the daily struggles, and the heartbreak with a whitewashed product ready for mass consumption.

SS: Well, your new novel Sketchtasy is about Boston queens in the 1990s, but it is also about reaching a revelatory level of craft as you are able to evoke, rather than describe basic experiences—dancing, getting high, freaking out about imminent death—making canonical 1995, the year before the protease inhibitors allowed people with AIDS to live, but the characters in the book don’t know that the corner is about to be turned. So, turning to the future, is the subsequent unpublished book, The Freezer Door, also set in the past?

MBS: For better or worse, I am generally stuck in the present. The Freezer Door, my next book after Sketchtasy, is set in current-day Seattle, and is part sexual diary, part social criticism, and part rumination on the creative process. I’m trying to figure out how to have an embodied self in a world that doesn’t allow it—in a gentrified city where people walk around with a white picket fence in their eyes, where the suburban imagination has a stranglehold over city life. Where the sexual culture that exists for me only exists if I minimize everything that makes me alive, and what violence does this enact, over and over. What happened to the dream of the city as the place where you meet everyone you never imagined? The dream of queerness as ending borders rather than creating them. I know these are themes that come up in your work as well.

SS: My past work. Old, old! That’s the problem with being ahead. Why is it called The Freezer Door, a title I love, and what can you say about the writing?

MBS: It’s funny, Sarah, because you want to talk about the future, but I find myself thinking, wait, aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves? Because we both have new books out now, and here I am planning the West Coast book tour for Sketchtasy, paying such close attention to every element of the process that it’s hard to focus on anything else, although I do have the manuscript for The Freezer Door right next to me, so of course I am focusing on other things too, and I’m thinking about something a few people have said about Sketchtasy in reviews, that past, present, and future merge, right, and that’s trauma, that’s drugs, that’s the queen’s vernacular, but also it’s the suspension of linear time, which I always dispense with when not absolutely necessary, to move toward feeling, and one thing I can say about The Freezer Door is it is a quest for feeling, for connection, for self-expression and intimacy. Against all odds.

So it’s an intensely personal interrogation of culture—dominant culture, counterculture, gay and queer cultures—the ways all of these cultures end up limiting the possibilities of the body, or of connection, or of self-expression and communal possibility—in my life, anyway. I would call it a lyric essay because I’m trying to move through the gaps between analysis and feeling. And there are times where the text literally breaks open because of the disconnection, so, for example, at one point it becomes a conversation between an ice cube and an ice cube tray. And when the ice cube tray says, “Open the freezer door,” this is the invitation of the whole book—the invitation to feel, to risk, to experience everything.

I know that you don’t want to talk about the past, but isn’t it true that you are now writing very specifically about the past, in a new book about ACT UP?

SS: I have two book-length manuscripts right now—a political history of ACT UP called Let the Record Show, which right now is running about 800 pages. And a novel I have been writing since 2003 called The Rise and Rise of Jamie Robbins, of which I only have 153 pages. It is about the history of psychiatry, the death of Carson McCullers, and a closeted lesbian actress named Jamie Robbins. It is the slowest thing I have ever written.

MBS: Sarah, Let the Record Show is the perfect title for a book about ACT UP. The original ACT UP piece using that name was a call for accountability by Gran Fury 30 years ago with the slogan “Silence = Death” in neon, right? What will your call for accountability look like now?

SS: Let the Record Show is not really a call for accountability, more of an analysis that coheres ACT UP’s strategies and tactics in a way that will be helpful to activists today. But, moving along from books—what is happening right now is that I am starting to be able to bring my novels to screen—which would be very new. About half of my novels have stories that would be exciting for film/TV but the kind of lesbian perspective and how far left I am just kept it all from happening. However, I am hoping to break the curse with my current detective novel Maggie Terry, which came out this year. Nothing is a better antidote to stress than losing yourself in the fun of a pulp novel, enough with the gravitas. And Maggie is very suited to television. So, hopefully I will have some good news about that soon. What about your work, what do you imagine when you think of your novels on screens?

MBS: I generally don’t think about that much because most film adaptations are so unbearably awful, but I will admit that I do keep thinking that Sketchtasy would be fantastic as a movie, I mean it’s already written in scenes, right? It’s intensely visual, and it already has a soundtrack, because music comes up so much in the book, and changes the narrative. When I was reading from Sketchtasy in Boston, where the book takes place, I kept walking around, and seeing the exact angles of the buildings that would make perfect shots. I mean there’s one building in particular that keeps coming up in the book, the John Hancock Tower, which the narrator, Alexa, a 21-year-old queen, renames Jeannine Hancockatiel because she thinks the building is the most glamorous queen in Boston, and I could see it all. And, if we really want to get meta, there are scenes in the book where Alexa watches movies of the time, particularly Todd Haynes’s films Safe and Poison, so wouldn’t it be great if Todd Haynes made the movie? Todd Haynes, are you there?

SS: Did you know that I got Todd his first review? Jim Hubbard and I showed Todd’s first film, Assassins, at an early MIX Festival, and I chased down the gay experimental-literature critic at the Village Voice, Elliot Stein, and Jim and I gave him a private screening in Jim’s studio with Jim’s projector. I remember Todd was still a boy. He said, “What should I do?” and I said, “Send him a thank you note.” But that is THE PAST.

MBS: Sarah, I love that story about Todd Haynes—and, strangely, I’ve never heard of that first film. I thought his first film was Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, and I remember when it would show every week at the 99-cent Queer Video Fest in San Francisco in the early ’90s, in protest of the lawsuit by the Carpenter family that banned the film from showing, but I would always miss it because I was at ACT UP meetings. But I know that’s the past—and, before I get really weird and mention that for my senior page in my high school yearbook I used a T.S. Eliot quote—yes, the one about time present, time past, and time future. OK, just for a second: “If all time is eternally present / All time is irredeemable.” Sorry—what could be more past than the dead white men of the literary canon? Tell me about the future.

SS: The other things I am doing now are plays. I just had a reading of my play Roe Versus Wade at New York Theater Workshop and I am waiting. My play Between Covers was in New Works at The Goodman Theater in Chicago and I am waiting. The play is about what happens when corrupt institutions are terrified of liability suits stemming from sexual harassment. Marianne Faithfull and I are doing a stage collaboration, The Snow Queen, that is being commissioned by John McGrath, an old East Villager, at The Manchester Factory, and Elyse Cogan, from the Theatricals Division of Marianne’s music publisher BMG. At least they decided, now we are waiting for dates for the workshop. And my passion project love of my life, my movie about Carson McCullers, Lonely Hunter. What is the book you are writing now, after The Freezer Door?

MBS: I’d love to tell you about Touching the Art, the next book I’m working on now, which loosely is about the creative impulse, trauma, legacy, and what art can and cannot provide, but first I want to pause here because you’ve just mentioned all this great news in the theater world—so, you’ve written a musical with Marianne Faithfull, and two of your plays were just workshopped, and some people might not know that you are a theater queen, so to speak. Before I tell you more about Touching the Art, tell me what it is about theater that speaks to you so much.

SS: To quote Jeff Weiss, “The theater shows that we are all living in front of each other, at the same time, together.” Now, your next-next book is about painting, and a painter. Have you ever painted?

MBS: I painted as a child, in my grandmother’s studio. And art class in grade school was always my favorite place to escape. But for some reason words ended up speaking to me more than visual art, as the way I could express my place in the world, and its failings. So Touching the Art is about my relationship with my grandmother, who was a visual artist from Baltimore.

As a child, spending time in her studio was a rare time when I could dream in the actual world—I could imagine a creative life, because I was living it. She gave me that. But as an adult, she tried to take all of that back, to get me to follow the narrow path of upward mobility that was everything that would destroy me. And that’s one of the contradictions that I’m exploring in this book—how this woman who was so nurturing of everything that made me different, and queer, as a child—my creativity, femininity, empathy, softness, inquisitiveness—once I became an adult, and was creating work on my own terms, to her, my work was vulgar. Why are you wasting your talent, she would say, over and over. I realized that what truly mattered to her, at least in terms of my life, were the same things that mattered to the rest of my family, educational attainment and class status, and all of that I needed to reject in order to search for a place in the world without violence. Of course I’m still searching. What about you?

SS: My future is Palestine Solidarity. I am on the board of a think tank called RAIA (Research on the American-Israeli Alliance). Our Director, Eran Efrati, authored a mind-opening report called Deadly Exchange, in which he shows through extensive documentation that U.S. police have been doing exchanges with the Israeli military, using their tactics here at home, and also using Israeli weapons and surveillance equipment. I am also on their advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, whose brilliant director Rebecca Vilkomerson has grown the organization to 15,000 members at this point, and has been activating that information in their Deadly Exchange campaign aimed at the Anti-Defamation League’s role in facilitating these programs. So more of that in days to come. For myself, I really need an apartment with an elevator. My friends are getting too old to visit me on the sixth floor. Fortunately I have some younger friends. Where would you like to be living in the future?

MBS: I have absolutely no idea.

Discovering Ourselves: The Millions Interviews Well-Read Black Girl Glory Edim

Reading Well-Read Black Girl, an anthology of essays by Black women writers, is like finding your favorite books compiled in one place and then getting to see the radiance and sorrow and joy that went into their creation. Glory Edim’s book includes work by Jesmyn Ward, Marita Golden, Tayari Jones, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Dhonielle Clayton, Gabourey Sidibe, and Jacqueline Woodson, to name a few. Each contributor offers a personal account of her literary journey, how it felt growing up without Black characters on the page, and/or the joy of finding themselves mirrored in literature. They describe how their own reading and writing weaves into their larger community stories.

Before she published Well-Read Black Girl, Edim had developed an enthusiastic following of readers who eagerly lap up her book club recommendations and participate in her annual festival celebrating literature by Black women. I had the good fortune to catch up with her at Washington, D.C.’s Busboys and Poets. Glory had just come from visiting the elementary school where her brother teaches. The students there wanted to become writers, and sought her advice on finding literary agents (!).

Glory was appearing in conversation with acclaimed DC-based writer Marita Golden. Among a lifetime of marvelous literary contributions, Marita founded the Hurston Wright Foundation, which supports emerging and midcareer Black writers and preserves and disseminates the rich legacy of African American writing. Marita’s essay in Well-Read Black Girl, “Zora and Me,” is a poignant journey through her own literary maturation:

Like Zora I lost my mother at a young age and warred with a father I loved, it seemed, more than life. Like Zora I stepped over the ashes and debris of loss and struck out on my own, carrying grief and anger on my shoulders.Zora’s mother told her to jump at the sun. My mother told me that one day I would write a book.

Marita pointed out that book clubs are part of the Emancipation story. Following the Civil War, African-American women played a huge role in keeping books in print; books were an important social and economic force.

The Millions: Can you tell us how you got started reading and writing?

Glory Edim: My parents are Nigerian. They came here in search of a better life. I think about how life could have been completely different if they had taken a different path. I grew up in Washington, D.C., and being here is like a homecoming.

After my parents divorced, my father moved back to Nigeria, and we traveled back and forth every summer. Those travels are so much part of who I am.

My mother was a huge influence. She took us to the Smithsonian museums. She would ask us to find a painting that we would like to put on our living room wall and have us talk about it. She took us to all kinds of D.C. cultural events. D.C. was our playground. She read to me every night. Reading aloud is to witness ourselves.

I went to Howard University and was incredibly inspired to be around so much Black excellence in a space that was like love. A big part of my book is trying to recreate the feeling I had at Howard.

After Howard, I worked at the Lincoln Theatre in D.C., where I saw many wonderful plays, and began to think about dialogue in novels. That work made me think about what pulls a reader into a book. What generates an emotional response? I found that it’s important to think across art forms, and study great works of art for their structures.

TM: Tell us about the origin of Well-Read Black Girl, the persona.

GE: My partner gave me a tee shirt for my 31st birthday that said “Well-Read Black Girl.” By then I was living in New York. When I wore it, all kinds of people stopped me to talk about books they loved and ask for book recommendations. The level of interest inspired me to start a book club. More than anything, I wanted to make connections and foster relationships. I saw that people in New York were craving community.

I have a special interest in debut novels. I invited Naomi Jackson to our first book club to talk about her debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill. She brought along her friend Natalie Diaz, an incredible poet who just won a MacArthur Genius award. Things went from there.

I was lucky to have a job at Kickstarter, which is filled with techies who read and are engaged in other creative pursuits. I was able to use Kickstarter to launch the Well-Read Black Girl Festival in 2017, which is a cultural event, meant to promote community.

Timing is everything. My work coincided with the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, and online organizing was catching on quickly. Social media is an important part of what I do. Still, there is nothing like holding a real paper book in your hand; there’s nothing like reading a book from the library. One reason for this collection is to take the conversation offline and onto the pages of a book.

TM: Readers are always interested in process. Can you talk a little about that?

GE: I read widely and deeply. I’ve always been curious about the stories of writers. Who inspired them to write? When did they first declare themselves a writer? Beginnings have a significance. In the anthology, we discover how it began for each writer.

When I read for the book club, I read both as a facilitator and as an editor. These are two different roles. I am a lover of art; I study how people put things together.

TM: How did you decide to organize your collection?

GE: I organized it according to my personal taste. I considered my own literary memories and pulled from there. The essays are meant to feel like a conversation. As I prepared to invite contributors, I returned to the pivotal work of Toni Morrison, Cade Bambara, Zora Neale Hurston, and Audre Lorde. The essays I selected are heartfelt, precise, and genuine. Whether you are 16 or 65, I want the reader to be hit with a sense of nostalgia. My hope is that the collection encourages readers to share their own stories.

TM: How did you reach out to other writer/contributors and what was their response?

GE: I had a relationship with a majority of authors—as mentors, book club authors, or fans on social media. Each contributor was generous with their time.

TM: What’s next for you?

GE: You mean beyond growing our community?

I am working on a memoir with my mother. She was severely depressed while I was in college. The whole family came together to help her. Since this was a deeply private experience for her, she is the only one who can tell that story. But it is so much about my family’s legacy that I hope to get it on the page.

I’m always reading. Have you read Dr. Imani Perry’s Looking for Lorraine? It’s about author and playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry. It’s a must read!

I Don’t Trust Images: The Millions Interviews Ottessa Moshfegh

I interview Ottessa Moshfegh at Caffe Vita, in Silverlake, earlier this month. Her novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation has been lauded as one of the best books of 2018. Her first novella, McGlue, will be reissued in January. I previously met Ottessa at USC for one of her readings, during which she defined herself “an overeducated egomaniac.” Then she specified: “But I don’t go around saying that I’m a genius. I work really hard. I just try hard and I do it. You just keep doing it and you get there. This is the secret.”

The Millions: I’m interested in this fact that you were a pianist. You said that once you were playing Chopin in a sentimental way and your teacher told you: “You don’t put sugar on a cake.” I think that this tells a lot of what your taste is when you write.

Ottessa Moshfegh: I think so. I mean, she taught me a lot of things. But I think voice, the subtlety of the voice, crafting a voice in the way that it translates to the ear is the same as music as it is and narrative writing. So that was huge part of the foundation of my taste and sensibility as a writer.

TM: In Europe we say: “Du sublime au ridicule, il n’y a qu’un pas,” which means: “From the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s nothing but a step.”

OM: I love that expression, that’s perfect, I love
it. That makes totally sense.

TM: You use a lot this word “tacky,” which is also the word I use the most since I moved to Los Angeles, and in your last book you write, “The more you try to be fashionable, the tackier you’ll look.”

OM: I moved to New York when I was 17 but I grew up in a suburb of Boston. Living in New York is such a rite of passage. The visual world there… I mean, it’s an education, about so much. Style, human behavior, culture, individuality, money, so many levels of adulteration and appropriation and being blasé. People move to New York and they’re wearing certain things and you’ll see them three years later and they’re talking different and have a totally different sensibility about what they look like. Even their faces can change.

Maybe that happens in every place, that you adapt and rise to the visual conversation that you’re living in.

I don’t know. New York in a way is a such visual place. It is a runway and it is so interesting. It would make sense that my character would be sort of superficial. Both the protagonist and her friend, Reva, they are sort of obsessed with the way that they look, in very different ways, but in both of them their obsession with the outside is a way to dodge the interior emotional landscape of their lives.

TM: There’s one scene where the protagonist decides
to clean up her life from all the superficial things, she gives away all the
expensive clothes and goes to Goodwill. So my sensation is that in a way she’s
stronger than Reva.

OM: Maybe more willing to step into who you are
instead of trying to be an invented person. Embracing humanity is it something
that people do very often in a way that is prescribed by commerce. I mean, even
like yoga. Things like this are supposed to be connecting with your body. There
is a certain culture of yoga studio. It’s a commercial institution.

TM: Of course, it’s like church in old society.

OM: Yeah. There’s something, kind of privilege, in
the attitude that poverty is cleaner than wealth. And I think that the book
sort of plays with that.

OK, so she gave all her shit away and now she’s wearing secondhand clothes, stuff from the 99 cent store. It’s a little bit delusional to think that just doing that, you know… only a rich person would see that as freedom.

TM: Right. And that’s why this book is so
successful. When I talk about it with my friends, maybe we grew up in Paris, or
Rome, or Florence, but we have the sensation to connect with this story, because
the society you describe is now everywhere. And now we have an additional
problem with social media. What is your approach?

OM: Social media makes me really anxious, and it makes me really hate people, so I just don’t use it. And it also feels like a real invasion of privacy, like a willing, I mean not even just this cyber privacy. It doesn’t really make sense to me that we can show so much of ourselves on the internet and then wandered around so we’re totally invulnerable. There’s something inherently dishonest about it, this friendliness. People aren’t really that friendly, I just don’t trust it. And I think that we’re all kind of getting to that point. Ultimately, what it’s best for now is for businesses, commercial entities, or a celebrity: to be able to advertise market to the masses for free.

TM: Right, because that’s what they are in the end. Celebrities reached a point where they’re commodities. And there’s this general attitude you described perfectly when Reva goes to pick up the protagonist’s expensive clothes bringing the shopping bags from Manhattan’s stores. You write, “I’d seen housekeepers and nannies do the same thing, walking around the Upper East Side with their lunch in tiny, rumpled gift bags from Tiffany’s or Saks Fifth Avenue.” And with social media we have the extreme form of this. A new kind of pornography. The representation of reality becomes more important than reality. Not only with clothes, but even with books. The fact that you post the picture doesn’t mean that you read them.

OM: Yeah. I mean it’s all about images. I don’t
trust images.

TM: About McGlue, you said that it’s the book you loved the most. Do you still think it, and if yes, is it because it’s set in the 19th century and so you could write it outside of this dynamic of extreme capitalism, or are you referring more to the style?

OM: I think it was the process of writing the book that felt the most spiritual. But I think it’s also more comfortable saying that that’s my favorite book because it’s the least like me. I mean I don’t know. I like all my books. McGlue has a special place for me because I don’t really know where it came from. I think it came from a place that I’m not so easily in touch with. So it was a difficult book to write, and felt kind of miraculous at the time.

TM: Did you write the book before having an agent?

OM: Oh, yeah. I was in graduate school when I wrote
the book. I’ve barely published anything. I had the freedom of that kind of anonymity,
like nobody was going to care. I could really do whatever I wanted. Not that I
can’t do whatever I want now, but there is just a difference pressure. I know
that if I write a book right now, it’s not just me. Other parts of the world
become involved.

TM: I think that it’s kind of funny that everyone
always refers to your writing as noir or stuff like that.

OM: I think people talked about Eileen as noir because they’re sort of playing with that noir novel genre, in its formalities and with some of the elements of the story. But I’m definitely not a noir writer. I don’t think anyone who reads my short stories would say this is a noir collection.

TM: I love how you’re always able to find a voice. You
have your personal style but actually everything is always different.

OM: I feel that is the challenge. That is the project. I’m in the voice of that particular story. And I know what you mean. I think stories are about people wanting to change. Whether is change in a misguided way or more profound.

A lot of writers might disagree with me, but I think that stories are
illustrations of transformation.

I don’t want my character to be the same on page one as page 250 or else haven’t given the reader something. I like artwork that I feel like I’m different now that I’ve experienced something.

TM: I think that some readers don’t like your
stories because they make them uncomfortable and put them in the condition of
question themselves, and not everyone is open to this kind of process.

OM: There were times in my past where I was really interested in making the reader uncomfortable because I felt so removed from the reader. When I was writing Eileen and some of the stories I was so nervous that I wasn’t going to be allowed into the world, financially speaking, to have a life as a writer that I was kind of angry. So my approach to writing was like a little bit volatile. Sort of like “fuck you” what drove a lot of my creativity—sometimes, not all the time, but I can identify that.

TM: You said that in your writing you balance
satire and sincerity and regarding your characters that you both relate and
make fun of them. And I think that the reader can agree or disagree with you
but they know that what they’re reading is authentic. The truth, at least your
truth.

OM: Or the truth of the character. I think it’s more challenging to hold onto a sort of old philosophy when you’re working on something really different. This book that I’m writing now is about a Chinese teenage girl from the early 1900s and she kind of came to me as a spirit, like “I need this book. You’re going to write this book.” I can see her sense of humor, but I don’t see anything satirical about her. I have no interest in exploiting her vulnerabilities, whereas in my last novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation I was really interested in doing that.

TM: I know that you don’t like to define yourself
as a female author.

OM: You know, if it’s a male author we just call him an author. So having to qualify my identity as a female author is silly. I think we know what it is. We’re at the beginning of a kind of movement and when things change the pendulum swings to an extreme. I feel a little bit like, maybe I caught a good wave and if I had been writing 20 years ago maybe people wouldn’t be as interested in me, but it just corresponded to the times that someone named Ottessa Moshfegh, people would for socio-political reasons feel pressure to pay attention to her. But also I think people do respond to my work and not because I’m a woman or because I have a weird name. Nobody wants to be successful because they’ve been pigeonholed.

TM: Absolutely. But unfortunately, still, at your last reading the boy came out with, “How could you write from the male point of view?” You would never go to a male author’s reading asking how could you write from the female point of view.

OM: I disagree. I thought that was a fine question and I answered him sincerely, but it seemed I was making fun of him. And that’s why I think people were laughing, but actually it’s a good question, like, how do you write from another person’s point of view.

TM: Yes, but my point was more that you would never go to a male author’s reading asking that because you’re just used to it. Even back in time, nobody has never asked to Flaubert how could he write from Madame Bovary’s point of view.

OM: Yeah, I take your point and maybe there’s a little bit of that, but I didn’t think that. Who knows why he asked that question. He seemed very nervous.

TM: Yes, and very young and nice. It’s not about
him.

OM: Maybe I’m wrong but I think that is a very good
question. I mean the answer is always really stupid: I tried my best, so I
observed and imagined what it was like to think as another gendered person.

TM: I don’t think writers or artists really have a
gender.

OM: I do. I think the female and male minds work
very differently in their biology, the way that language has developed over the
last how many thousands of years was part of the patriarchal system. Written
language is inherently more male logic linearity. Femininity is more in the
realm of emotional intelligence and intuition. That’s why it’s very difficult
to argue between the gender. Mostly women learn how to argue like a man. So I
do think that writers, maybe it’s different for visual artists, whatever
everybody’s brain is different, but I do think that women writers have a
different experience and sensibility than male writers, because by their very
nature. I think maybe part of this whole movement for equality try to suggest
that we are the same, which we are not. The work we need to do is to learn how
to value both genders for the things that they’re given us.

TM: I saw this interview where you were joking about the fact that female characters in literature are always described as “the magic source of drama.” And it’s true. I read this year Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms and I was horrified by Catherine Barkley. I mean, there’s the war, people die around them, and she keeps talking about the fact that she wants to be skinny so that he can love her again.

OM: I mean, Hemingway, I don’t know how self-aware he was, but I have to give every writer the benefit of the doubt, that these are just completely blind self-presentations. I didn’t read A Farewell to Arms but I have to believe that a writer isn’t necessarily as stupid as his character might be in your assessment. So maybe there was a deeper intention, I don’t know, we make decisions. Getting back to your point of human being impetus for spiritual change, it makes perfect sense, because maybe one of the only things that can disarm the male ego is romantic love and sexual desire. So I don’t think it’s necessarily stupid, but I do think that it’s not very creative. It’s kind of boring when that is the thing in a book or a movie, “This magic girl!” You’ve seen the movies all the time. It’s like there’s a very cliché—like, the hair and slow motion closeup on her mouth from the way that she moves her eyes and she’s looked at. But you know, she doesn’t have a will or an intelligence unto herself is where the things start to be problematic.

TM: Yes, because they focus on the ideal of the perfect woman as society trained them to think.

OM: Men and women play that game. I mean I think that’s the difference between dating and sleeping around and then falling in love. When you’ve fallen in love with someone, that person has to become your best friend. So you’ve got to get to know them. They can’t just be some kind of anachronistic fantasy.

TM: I don’t think beauty exists in general.

OM: What do you mean?

TM: Ideal beauty changes with society. During the Italian Renaissance women had to look like Botticelli’s paintings, now they have to starve to be super skinny. But even when you fit in your society’s standard the truth is that beauty is about personality.

OM: Yeah, I understand. I think photography has
changed a lot of things to capture the way that someone looks in a way that is
beautiful but there is no living beingness in their beauty. With painting it
was probably different because you had to sit there for hours and there was a
relationship that took up time with the artist. Photography just becomes this
thing like you can take a photo of someone and they don’t look like themselves
at all. And now with technology you don’t even need to look like yourself. You
just have a Photoshop.

TM: I think you’re right. Beauty is when you’re
yourself.

OM: Yeah. I think that health is the first source of attraction. Beauty and attraction. I mean we’re attracted to what we find beautiful, it’s subjective. But looking healthy… that’s what makeup has been for in many ways. The history of makeup is really long and very very interesting but one way that it was used was to hide the disease of prostitutes so that they could continue to work. Isn’t it weird that aesthetic got like that Kim Kardashian, Avatar-type makeup style which makes people look like cartoons? It is so attractive now when it’s actually like a mask.

TM: That is what I was referring before when I said
a new kind of pornography. Even though they’re not naked, it’s even worse. I
don’t think nudity itself is vulgar. You can be naked and elegant, and be all
dressed up that way and be really tacky.

OM: I think that Kardashians are really important
cultural family for digital media. They look like Avatars and you can you can
only see them on TV.

TM: Or social media.

OM: Right. They come through your phone or
television or computer and they’re fielding some new sense of what a person is
in this weird way. A person is an emoji, a person can be an emoji and then they
can also have a baby. It’s just weird.

TM: You said that you’re not intimidated by
inspiration and that you just sit and work.

OM: I don’t know, maybe it’s the thing that I was just raised to do. If we’re given something, you take it and you do it. When I have an idea for a book it doesn’t feel like “Oh I’m so smart.” It feels like actually that idea has come and landed on me and it’s my job now to execute it, so you better do it.

TM: Can I ask you about your astrologer? Because since I read your interview in The New Yorker, I’ve been telling to all my friends this story about the astrologer and your fiance.

OM: [Laughs.] I really trust this one type of science, part of my belief system. I consult her about a lot of different stuff. I started talking to her, maybe, five years ago.

TM: Do you feel it as a sort of destiny?

OM: Yeah. It helps me to see the larger framework
of reality.

A World without Adults: The Millions Interviews Jeff Jackson

Since 2014, when Jeff Jackson and I roamed the AWP Writers Conference together, I’ve read everything he’s written—that I know of, anyway. Jeff’s style is a grab bag of tricks from the journalist, the diarist, the theorist, the historian, and the artist of high letters. The beauty of his work lies in that he can range so wide, plunge so deep, and roar so high, and still be not merely readable but compulsively, achingly sensitive.

To my great pleasure, his latest offering, Destroy All Monsters, has been hailed pretty much across the board for the brilliantly dangerous book it is. The New York Times calls it “a wild roar of a novel” that is “predatory and seductive.” The Los Angeles Times says it is “formally complex, experimental, poetic, puzzling … beautifully written and just plain daring.” NPR notes that the work “forces readers to ask all the right questions … while telling them a beautiful truth,” and, that, with a nod to Led Zeppelin, that hierophant of sex and drugs and rock and roll, it’s “the bustle in your hedgerow.” And yet few of the notices I’ve seen range much past the novel’s patent focus on gun violence and music, nor, really, do any of the novel’s blurbs, wonderful as they are.

The “epidemic” of killings that lies at the core of the narrative, where we see musicians of every stripe murdered as they perform, is to my mind a sophisticated trope through which to consider DAM’s host of other themes—our society’s decline into violent psychopathy, the jeopardy of culture in the hands of the mediocre, corporate greed and corruption, and the untenable position of the artist in these conditions, to name just a few. The musicians in this story, the best of them humdrum at most, are proxies for a phalanx of contemporary artists whose work relies almost entirely on content and hype, if that, at the expense of aesthetics and thought. The musicians’ killers are sentinels not merely outraged by the corrosion of principals and taste across the arts, but driven past the extremes of reason—ostensibly, we presume, because reason doesn’t hold much more weight anymore than do aesthetics and thought—into a frenzy of violent purification. If it seems the action’s least gesture is sodden with a spirit of the apocalypse, that’s because apocalypse in the world of this story can’t be anything but imminent.

The book’s two “sides,” “My Dark Ages” and “Kill City,” each of which, in an alternate telling of the same events, contradicts the other, bolster this sentiment: There’s no longer any way to make sense of our lives because there’s no longer any point of reference we can agree on from which to determine falsity or truth. Opinion has become fact, fact fiction, fiction a detestable mirage. In a world so far gone, suggests the fable that is DAM, there’s little promise for rehabilitation, reconfiguration, reconstruction, or renewal, much less of repentance. Beyond the scant moments of tender connection we find in the ruins here and there, our best hope lies in a sort of afterlife, the one we’ll get only—maybe—if we can burn it all down while solemnly remembering that before we did, “there was blood on the wall.”

The Millions: You’re not “just” a writer, but an accomplished musician and artist as well. And when you’re not making all the cool stuff you do, you’re talking about the stuff others make. Given you’re bona fide critic of literature, music, film, painting, and performance art, among others, it’s tough for me to imagine I’ve conjured from whole cloth the interpretation I just offered of your book. Can you speak to whether, ahem, I’m on target here, and, if so, to what extent?

Jeff Jackson: I appreciate your expansive reading and you’re definitely on target. DAM is using music as a lens to look at the larger death of culture and loss of consensus that I worry we’re living through. What happens to an art form (like rock music) when it seems to have outlived its relevance? How did we get to the point where money is a key arbiter of artistic value, where a film’s opening-weekend grosses capture people’s attention more than the movie itself? Where many artists feel like they have to curb their imagination to fit the marketplace or they’ll be shut out from it? Where polished middle-brow work is routinely praised as high art? It’s not just our political values that are upside-down right now.

You’re right that in the novel, while society certainly feels broken, the characters find ways to solace and connection. Sometimes it happens in the middle of an engulfing forest fire. Other times it appears with a quiet gesture of empathy in an empty parking lot.

As you point out, the novel’s two sides each pose a reality that cancel out the other. Some critics have read this as representing fresh hope, but I like your suggestion that it undermines certainty and reinforces the sense of ruin. That said, DAM is meant to be an “open text,” leaving readers maximum room to form their own conclusions. That quality is important to me both for aesthetic reasons (it makes for a more satisfying story) and political ones.

You can have “woke” content, but if your narrative is telling people what to think and actively manipulating their emotions, you’re still enacting the same repressive structures that encourage people not to think for themselves. And it’s this control mechanism—even at the level of narrative—that needs to be dismantled.

TM: One of the ways I feel you powerfully address these concerns in the book is through the old dichotomy of man vs. nature (or life vs. art). As we’ve both noted while you were revising the work, large sections of it—as much, perhaps, as half—take place in the woods surrounding Arcadia, the town where the story unfolds. When I was thinking of topics to explore in this conversation, it struck me that Terrence Malick deploys this strategy in just about all of his films. I see it most blatantly in The Thin Red Line, with jump cuts from scenes of brutal warfare to tranquil images of the wildlife just beyond the battlefields. The opening shot of the crocodile sliding quietly into its river, for instance, haunts me regularly, fraught as it is with the tension between the creature’s present calm and the ferocity we know is soon to come. The sections in DAM called “The Birds,” each at the end of the first four chapters, create a similar effect by compelling the reader to make sense of the elemental simplicity of singing sparrows and the terrible complexity of a boy who for reasons he can’t explain has just slaughtered a group of musicians. There are many other such moments, actually, as when two of the characters spy a white-tailed deer gliding through the trees surrounding the freaky homeless encampment they’ve just passed through. What else are you hoping to accomplish with this ploy, and why?

JJ: I wanted to add another dimension to the novel—outside the insular scene of clubs and practice spaces. For me, the woods have always been a place of mystery and secrets, refuge and loneliness, wonder and danger. There were wooded sections throughout the suburban New Jersey town where I spent high school. Entering those spaces, I felt a heightened sense of sharing the world with other creatures. It was a place I simultaneously belonged to and didn’t.

Both birds and deer play an important role throughout the novel. The bird showcases a pure form of communication, but there’s also something alien about it. We project our own meanings onto those sounds, not fully understanding them. Also, “The Birds” sections are narrated by a character who never physically appears in the novel. There’s a metaphysical element to her observations of the sparrows she’s describing.

There were lots of deer in the town where I grew up because we were near a large nature reserve. I vividly remember the hunts that took place when the deer population grew too large. Supposedly it was necessary, but it was horrifying as well. So the novel is wrestling with the idea of culling—and its cost.

I love the way Terrence Malick juxtaposes nature and war throughout The Thin Red Line. One thing that strikes me about his movies is how radically the content is shaped by his editing, how meaning is created through the musical way he strings together sequences of images, juxtaposing and rhyming them. That approach was definitely on my mind while working on Destroy All Monsters.

TM: The vision expressed in all your work is decidedly dark. While Mira Corpora features a sick and broken mother, on the one hand, and a psychopathic pederast, on the other, the rest of your stories, to my recollection, present only teens and adolescents who, if they haven’t been discarded by their families, have run away from them. Family does loom a bit larger in DAM—one character has a memento mori, for instance, his mother’s initial tattooed on his arm—but on the whole, family is so far from the minds of your characters that few of them even mention their families, much less miss them. And the ecoscapes they inhabit—where they live and under what conditions—are frequently as dire as their psychoscapes: abandoned buildings in collapsing cities and raggedy encampments in the hinterland woods of collapsing cities. In a word, the milieus in which these children subsist are dire to the extreme, if not, as in Novi Sad, outright apocalyptic. Can you speak to the ways these settings and the children in them reach toward a larger statement about the world as it “really” is, whatever “really” is (if it is)?

JJ: It often feels like we’re living in a world without adults. As the planet is faced with the calamity of climate departure, many of our so-called leaders are behaving like spoiled infants, throwing tantrums and thumbing their nose at oncoming catastrophe. Our world is really at a precarious tipping point. The apocalyptic has been part of the human imagination since Day One, but there’s scientific reason to believe we may soon experience disaster on a scale that’s beyond anything in recorded history. My books are channeling those potential realities, registering those seismic ripples. Maybe they’re accentuating the darkness of the world to make it more visible.

And you’re right—family is something that has been mostly lost. The characters still try to make connections, but they’re navigating a world that’s increasingly unknowable. My books are slightly hallucinatory and employ dream logic in an attempt to capture the rapidly fraying texture of modern life. So-called realism doesn’t do the job anymore. Even our sense of time is radically different now—we’re bombarded by so many dire events and conflicting reports that it’s hard to maintain any memory.

Some readers see the broken lives and landscapes in my books as metaphors; others experience what’s described as a recognizable reality. The city of Arcadia in DAM functions as a realist post-industrial city that’s undergone hard times and a heightened space for the action of the novel. The reality is both.

TM: The plots of each side of DAM are relatively simple. And yet the way these plots unfold is on many levels quite complex. And with both Sides A and B presented through a lapidarian construct of prologues, preludes, and parts, themselves at times divided by chapters, we often find ourselves on wonderfully nebulous ground. Moreover, in tandem, each side’s plot renders the other desperately ambiguous. But since neither side is mutually exclusive—they aren’t two separate books, but two parts of a single book—we can’t escape reading the events of the whole they make as comprising what I’d call a master anti-plot.

It’s no surprise, of course, that I love all of this. My own work ethic relies on a number of basic assumptions, among them the truism that context is everything. Meaning is fickle. Our imaginations are draconian. The way we perceive any given narrative moment is inextricable from the moments before and after. This is why, typically, the success of any plot is in my opinion always contingent on the power of its structure. It’s not just what a story tells that matters, but when each of its parts are told, as well. DAM’s anti-plot, however, throws the bunch of this out the window and asks its reader to make sense of events that, in the end, we can’t with true confidence say are “real.” Earlier I spoke of the wobbly state of facts in today’s world, of how, remarkably, opinion seems to have usurped them wholesale. How do these considerations play for you in this book, and what were you hoping to achieve with it overall?

JJ: It was an interesting challenge writing a novel with two possible beginnings and endings. I think it’s ideal to begin reading from Side A, but I constructed the stories so that either way a sizable surprise awaits you when you flip the book over. Each side works on its own and creates its own dramatic tensions, which later find echoes in the opposite side.

The book is definitely questioning ideas of reality. Today it often feels like we’ve lost all stable points of reference, that narratives keep getting scrambled and remixed, that, as you just suggested, facts have become subjective prejudices and opinions are weapons. It’s no accident the novel’s two sides are connected by various trapdoors the reader can tumble down—the drop is disorienting.

Because of all this, it was important that the stories themselves have a lot of momentum and the reader is eager to keep turning the pages. Ironically, all the scenes are written in “real time.” On Side A, each chapter takes place over a few hours, and you’re moving alongside the characters. There’s no opportunity for flashbacks and hopefully no reason to pause. On Side B, the main chapter takes place during a single night that starts at a funeral home and soon devolves into a dangerous drunken bender.

As the two sides converge, there’s also the feeling that the alternate realities may connect in a metaphysical sense, that there’s another way to “see.” But ultimately what do the two plots add up to? Maybe a third story emerges from the collision, one that exists only in flickering glimpses in the reader’s mind. Or maybe it’s closer to one of my favorite quotes from Tom McCarthy, who says literature “creates a zone of noise where everything and nothing is said at the same time.” Since DAM has no definitive beginning or ending, the act of flipping from one side to the next generates a feedback loop of ambiguity that speaks to this “noise.”

TM: There’s a moment near the end of Side A in which two of the characters encounter a teenager who has just shot a young doe, one of countless deer being slaughtered after the local government has determined that “the habitat can no longer support the overpopulation of deer [throughout which] disease is spreading.” At first it feels merely odd that we sense a connection between the plot’s simultaneous holocaust of animals and artists. Our suspicion is soon further provoked, however, when one of the two characters considers that the young hunter “has the same expression as the other shooters. The so-called zombies.” When the hunter himself shortly confirms this—“I can see the sickness that’s ruining these creatures,” he says. “It’s a gift I got. Somebody has to put them out of their misery”—we can’t help considering the relationship outright.

The killing en bloc of paltry musicians is proclaimed by the media to be an “epidemic.” The slaughter of deer, though, is the result of an epidemic. It’s almost as though the second orgy mirrors the first to render unmistakable another of the novel’s dreadful ironies: the true epidemic at the heart of DAM isn’t one in which bad artists are killed but in which bad artists are killing. Like a spreading disease, they have infected the culture at large to the extent that, in the minds of a small few—“the destroyers”—nothing can save us from the blight these artists have become but their total extermination. This moral dilemma—a bramble at best, an inescapable quagmire at worst—harkens back to the postmodernist obsession with the nature of objective reality and absolute truth. Who is to determine what constitutes “reality” and “truth,” to say anything of “real” “art”? And for those who believe themselves the lawful arbiters of these matters, what is the source of their authority to eliminate from the cultural landscape the people and work they’ve deemed so bad? Or then again, is there perhaps a middle ground somewhere here, a liminal zone from which to contemplate these matters with greater detachment, absent the pressure (or even obligation) to endorse any given case, however compelling?

JJ: In a perfect world, it would be possible for artists to detach one way or the other, but right now I don’t feel we have that luxury. Art is in my opinion under attack from would-be dictators and capitalist forces that prefer anodyne and unquestioning work. There’s no choice but to engage.

The culling of the deer does function as a sort of fable within the fable of the book, replaying the epidemic in different terms. The deer are innocent creatures, but the government believes their sheer numbers will lead to the destruction of habitat and the spread of disease. Because it wields power, the state gets to make this drastic decision.

In the novel, Xenie feels some of the same urges as the killers and believes they’re trying to thin the herd of bad musicians. Like them, she thinks there’s too much music, and yet she doesn’t follow their path. Her solution is to silence herself: She simply refuses to sing, renouncing music out of her reverence for it. This isn’t done lightly or without cost. In some ways, she’s following the tradition of artists like Rimbaud and Duchamp, who walked away from art.

Who qualifies as the arbiters of “real art” these days is a tough question. We live in an information-overload society, but instead of granting critics more space to grapple with art in this challenging context, there’s less room than ever. By necessity, most reviews can only skim the surface. It’s better than nothing, but it often cheapens our sense of art and its meaning.

The characters in DAM might expect too much from music, though I think that’s because they can feel something has gone missing—or, maybe better put, been stolen. There’s graffiti in the story that says, “Break up your band.” But perhaps a better slogan is a Situationist one from May ’68: “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” Through violence, or silence, or constant rehearsal, they’re trying to reclaim a world where the sounds they make actually matter.

Anita Felicelli and Huda Al-Marashi Discuss Diaspora, Breaking the Rules, and Reality vs. Likability

In 2014, Huda Al-Marashi and I met at a writers’ meet-up. Afterward, we kept up with each other’s writing on social media. By reading each other’s personal essays, we discovered we shared similar cultural concerns as hyphenated Americans, and we have even more in common now that we’re both writers with three children each—it’s a great solace to know another writer who is a mother. I first heard Huda read from her memoir at Hazel Reading Series in San Francisco, and I was impressed by her skillful weaving together of humor and deep insights about her Iraqi-American family. How did I not know how funny she is? I was excited to get my hands on a galley of her debut memoir First Comes Marriage,  published this November, just after my debut short story collection Love Songs for a Lost Continent.

First Comes Marriage is a tender examination of love and virgin sexuality from an Iraqi-American perspective. It shatters the Muslim monolith by painting Huda’s Iraqi Shia family in glorious specificity, while also doing the same for other Muslim families within the scope of her love story. Hadi Ridha is a boy she’s known since she was 6 years old. Huda details their relationship from their first meeting to a difficult prom arranged by their mothers, from the istikharas her family did to determine whether she should marry him to their tumultuous year in Mexico early in their marriage.

The characters in the 13 stories that make up my debut short story collection Love Songs for a Lost Continent are almost congenitally rebellious. Nonetheless, there are a number of overlapping themes between our books. The collection is about the stories we tell ourselves about our identities, the murky quandaries of a grayscale world, and what Huda calls “the fictions of love” in her memoir. Many of my characters are Tamil and Tamil Americans from the Indian subcontinent.

Anita Felicelli: I think you did a beautiful job excavating the complexities of your own love story. In your book, you mention how, as an adolescent, you loved Victorian love stories and then realized, “I would have never been the protagonist of one of these stories. I would have been the Mohammedan, the exotic Oriental or the native savage.” When did you know you wanted to write yourself into literature?

Huda Al-Marashi: Growing up, I read Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series. In Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, the girls venture into Little Syria, and they meet this little girl and her family who should have been the closest I’d ever come to seeing a kid like myself represented in a book. But at the time, I saw myself in the protagonists, Betsy and Tacy, and their encounter of the other. It wasn’t until college when I was researching the first wave of Syrian immigration to the United States that I remembered Betsy and Tacy’s visit to Little Syria, and I realized that my entire life I’d been inserting myself into stories that only had room for me in the margins.

But it never occurred to me that I could actually write my own story until years later when I was sitting in this haze of the post-9/11 years and the Iraq War. I feared that war and global terrorism had taken over our narratives, and while these stories are vital and necessary, they also make it easier to write off a group’s suffering, as if it’s their destiny only to die. And, I felt this pull to tell a story that reflected an Iraqi family in their daily lives, preoccupied with everyday concerns, like love and weddings.

One thing I love about your collection was seeing your characters preoccupied with mundane relationship concerns but also against the backdrop of what one of your characters calls the –isms, colonialism and imperialism. Particularly, I’m thinking about Tarini in “Once Upon the Great Red Island,” and her struggle to see herself in the colonial past she inherited as both the daughter of Tamil immigrants in the U.S., and now, as the girlfriend of a man who descended from colonizers and who has returned to essentially recolonize Madagascar through his new business venture. In what ways, if at all, has that colonial legacy played out for you? And, as a writer, do you think it’s something we can rectify by centering ourselves in our stories?

AF: I’ve had similar thoughts about the Syrian girl in Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill. But unlike my upper-caste Hindu character Tarini, I grew up in a multi-caste, interfaith household, and I was hypersensitive to different contexts and perspective shifts early on. The more research I did as an adult, the more I realized colonialism was atrocious, but it impacted castes and regions of India differently. When upper-caste Tamils fought for freedom, they were fighting for absolute power, but it was Brahmins, the highest caste, who also most readily adapted to British Victorian culture. The situation of lower caste people and Dalits fighting for freedom was complicated. The British strengthened and manipulated caste tensions, but their presence also resulted in lower-caste people gaining benefits. My grandmother’s family, for example, converted to Catholicism to escape caste discrimination from fellow Tamils. I intensely love fiction, but I don’t know that we can rectify power imbalances by writing our own stories. Maybe for the world to change, those with power need to read those stories, and make the active, painful decision to truly see us in our equal complexity, beauty, ugliness, and humanity.

On that topic of seeing ourselves with complexity, at one point, you and your husband disagree about whether you should wear a bathing suit and you explain, “I’d assumed we shared such a similar background that our religion and culture were going to be the conflict-free areas of our lives, but here we were, one of us willing to bend the rules, one of us not.” It’s interesting how we might attribute differences we have with our partner to culture, rather than individual personalities.

HA: Culture was such a crutch for me in 20s. It was the easy answer to everything—where I went to college, why I got engaged, and, of course, this bathing suit argument. But writing this memoir after over a decade of marriage, I had insights into my spouse’s character that I didn’t have access to as a newlywed, and it made me look back on my younger self with pity for my own ignorance. Now I know that my husband just doesn’t mess around with rules. He makes a full and complete stop at stop signs every single time. There is no unfastening your seat belt in his car until he is in park. And at the time of that scene, he was a young man, too, and someone had taught him these were the rules for privacy, and he believed in them for himself, too.

But these disagreements came as a shock to me because I was convinced that as long as I married another Iraqi who was born in the U.S., rather than abroad, then we’d share the same “Iraqi-American culture” and we’d agree on everything. I think that’s a fairly common tendency among children of immigrants, to perceive a division between those people in their community that were in raised in diaspora and those who were raised in their country of origin. You captured that tension so brilliantly in several of your stories. We see it between cousins, lovers, and friends. Do you believe there’s an irreconcilability between say, in your case, a Tamil person raised in India, and one raised in the U.S.?

AF: I do think there’s irreconcilability between diasporic Tamils and Tamils in India—migration and geopolitics discombobulate the power in relationships. In “Snow,” the character Devi grew up in India believing she’s entitled to every success as a fair-skinned, middle-class Tamil Brahmin, a privileged status in India, but her top dog entitlement is very painfully, unjustly challenged when she immigrates and is confronted with the harsh realities of race in America. Meanwhile, her cousin, Susannah, grew up understanding herself as polluted, inferior because her father is Dalit. She’s ostracized due to diasporic caste prejudice. She’s an invisible, reviled brown girl who grew up in an underclass in America. Yet, like a lot of Americans, Susannah is obnoxiously, offensively blind about how relatively lucky she’s been in the global scheme of things.

Speaking to that challenge of properly contextualizing your own experience, I really liked your discussion of how, in some instances, you’d conflated religion with rules that were specific to your family. Of your mother, you realize: “I attributed so much to our religion and culture that I rarely allowed her the everyday motivations of instinct and fear.” The memoir is full of deep insights that parse what’s individual, what’s cultural and what’s just human. Has writing this memoir been a process of discovering those sorts of insights, or did you know beforehand your conclusions?

HA: It was a mixture of both. I came to this with the sense that I’d woven this tight knot about culture and religion’s role in my marriage, but I didn’t know where I’d applied that bias too liberally. Writing forced me to unravel which of the many restrictions I grew up with were from my religion and culture and which were my parents trying to keep me safe. And I hadn’t realized just how much of my life was shaped by mom’s anxieties and a traumatic childhood where she had lost her mother and then her stepmother before the age of 15. However, I do think some of that tendency to filter everything through the lens of culture and religion is a consequence of this outsider’s gaze that you can’t help but pick up living in diaspora.

You conveyed that tension so poignantly in the title story where your unnamed narrator is pursuing an academic career studying his own Tamil history and folklore. Would you agree that being raised in the U.S. and educated under the white gaze is what allows him to see the value in the mythology that his own father and other elders dismiss? And do you think there is anything exploitative about your narrator’s interest in his cultural background?

AF: Oh, interesting! That interpretation works, but in my own mind, I was examining a man’s search for something tender and real, in contrast to what his Silicon Valley upbringing offers. His father dismisses the folklore because he’s culturally Tamil Brahmin—Tamil Brahmin culture tilts in favor of Sanskrit, as well as British cultural and educational standards.

In contrast, Komakal’s lower-caste family arises out of indigenous Tamil culture, but like working-class parents worldwide, her parents believe the narrator should be making money in a “real job,” not conducting esoteric research. I don’t find the narrator’s fascination with folklore exploitative since it’s his only maternal inheritance. But I can see how the ethics of his documentary film—that aestheticizes the mythology of poorer, lower-caste people to whom he’s linked by blood, but not really a part of—might be questioned. On the other hand, he’s also alien in Silicon Valley. So where’s his place? Perhaps nowhere.

I love the character of Mrs. Ridha, your mother-in-law! She says at one point, “We did not expect you to listen to everything we said.” It makes you realize you’d been viewing your community’s code of conduct as a matter of life, death and God, but your parents had been trying to protect you, and even understanding you might break rules. I admire your willingness to really reveal yourself, to make yourself real before “likable.”

HA: I’m relieved to hear that because I consistently got feedback that I wasn’t likable in certain parts of the book, and I struggled with how much weight to give those comments. It’s a story of an evolving worldview more than it is about action, and who is likable in their own mind? Who has censored, wonderful thoughts? Our minds are where we are ruthless and cruel to ourselves and those we love. But I didn’t think it was fair to apply that same kind of scrutiny to my loved ones in the book. I made a conscious effort to hold them in my mind’s eye with love and generosity as I was writing about them. And I think being loving doesn’t mean you paint someone glowingly. Rather, you render them alive and fully human.

Which is something I think you’ve mastered in your book. Your characters are so endearing even though they are not always doing the nicest things. They leave lovers without any closure, make promises they don’t keep, and fling cocktail glasses at bartenders. Were there any moments, while writing this, where you struggled with the burden of the representation and the need to paint your community in a positive light?

AF: During revisions in 2016-17, I did worry. I understood America was falling apart, that pluralism as a value might seem quaint. But I didn’t think about social justice concerns while drafting. Fiction should work at a subterranean, not a prescriptive level. Characters should be complicated and even problematic. As humans, we’re always falling short of our ideals; sometimes our ideals are awful, too. Why should white American writers get to corner the market on complex characters? Of course, some readers will believe I’ve taken my penchant for complexity too far in these characters: a little girl whose lie costs someone her job, a casteist cokehead, an affluent folklorist who betrays his lover, a Galatea-like hitchhiker reinvented as a con artist. Still, trouble is vital in fiction.

Any books you’re looking forward to reading in the coming year? So far, I’m especially excited to read Kavita Das’s forthcoming biography Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar; Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias; and Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread.

HA: There are so many! Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable, Devi Laskar’s The Atlas of Red and Blues, Cameron Dezen Hammon’s This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession, and my close writing-friend, Laura Maylene Walter is one to watch. Her book is going on submission soon, and I’m excited to see where it’s going to land.