Category Archives: Interview

The Decline—and Rise?—of LGBTQ+ Bookstores

Michael Lowenthal’s acclaimed novel, The Paternity Test, is now available in paperback. Lowenthal is our guest blogger today, the publication date of the paperback edition.

I came of age as a gay writer when LGBTQ+ bookstores were at their peak, with close to 100 in operation across the United States. Now only six such stores remain.

Publishing a novel with a gay protagonist feels entirely different in 2018 than it did when I published my first book, The Same Embrace, twenty years ago. On one hand, so-called mainstream culture has grown much more welcoming to a diversity of LGBTQ+ artists and stories; on the other hand, a once-thriving infrastructure that specifically supported LGBTQ+ literature has been largely erased.

I came of age as a writer—as a gay writer—in an era when the OutWrite conference for LGBTQ+ writers attracted 1,500 participants annually; when most cities in America supported a weekly LGBTQ+ newspaper that published robust coverage of gay arts; when “the Gay Book Boom” was a hotly discussed topic; and when LGBTQ+ bookstores were at their peak, with close to 100 in operation across the United States. Now only six such stores remain.

For her recent master’s thesis “LGBTQ Bookstores: Past, Present, and Future,” Emerson College student Stephanie Nisbet interviewed me about my experiences. On the occasion of the paperback publication of The Paternity Test, I’d like to share some of our discussion:

Stephanie Nisbet: What was the first LGBTQ+ bookstore you visited, and what do you remember about the experience?

Michael Lowenthal: Glad Day, in Boston, which at that time was located on the second floor of a building just across from the main branch of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. To get to the store you walked up a narrow stairway, and on the way up I had to squeeze past a man who was on his way down, and that moment of contact set the tone for the whole experience: thrilling, terrifying, full of sexual frisson but also a sort of bookish bonding.

At the time, I was a college student in a small town in New Hampshire, probably 19 years old, recently out of the closet, and I had never been to a gay bar or community center or pride parade. The only public gay gatherings I had been to were my college gay-student group meetings. So I was fantastically nervous (had anyone seen me walk into the building? I felt like I was glowing in neon) and at the same time giddy with excitement.

Once I was in the store, I could barely look anyone in the eye; I mostly kept my gaze glued to the books. But when I did look up, I saw that everyone else was glancing around in a way that seemed both furtive and, shall we say, quite friendly. The store was really small, with not much space between shelves, so there was a lot of nudging past people and close breathing. The back of the store had more porny stuff, magazines and videos, and I was too scared to go back there. Two queeny young bookstore employees were joking at the register, talking too loudly, almost as if they were making fun of the hush-hush atmosphere, and I wanted to get to know them. Or to be them. I think I bought an Edmund White book, The Beautiful Room Is Empty.

When I left I was exhausted from the tension. I couldn’t wait to go back!

SN: Is there any one LGBTQ+ bookstore you feel particularly connected to?

ML: Definitely Glad Day, since Boston was the city I visited most often when I lived in rural New England, and since I moved here in 1994 and have lived here ever since. In fact, when I was moving to Boston, the first place I went was to Glad Day, to look at the big bulletin board in the hallway outside the store, which was where gay guys tacked up “seeking roommate” notices. Answering those ads was the only way I even considered finding a living situation. (Remember, this was before Craigslist, before apps.) So that’s how I found my first place in the city.

When I became a writer, Glad Day was the first bookstore where I ever gave a reading. I became friends with John Mitzel, the longtime manager (who later opened his own gay bookstore, Calamus Books), who was a witty, brilliant (if troubled) old-school raconteur. Because I was a book reviewer, I got sent lots of books by publishers, and I would often bring stacks of them into the store to sell. Wanting to support a young writer, John would pay me way more than they were worth, in cash, and then take me next door to his regular bar, where he would drink me under the table (while discussing politics, literature, and sex, not necessarily in that order), even though he had two martinis for every one that I drank. So, Mitzel, and Glad Day, gave me a big chunk of my gay education.

Image Credit: AP

While I felt particularly connected with Glad Day, I will note that I have also been to gay bookstores in New York, DC, Baltimore, Rehoboth Beach, Norfolk, Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Arizona, Toronto, Paris, London, Berlin, Madrid, Taipei . . . and probably many more that I’m forgetting. In many of these stores, I gave readings. But in others I was just a visitor. It used to be that when I was traveling to a new city, the first obvious stop would be the gay bookstore, to meet locals who could tell me all the right places to go and things to do. The bookstore was a community center, travel agency, pickup spot, and so many other things, all rolled into one.

SN: As of 2016, Boston no longer has an LGBTQ+ bookstore. Do you believe there is still a place for another Calamus, for example, in the city?

ML: I do think there’s room for an LGBTQ store in Boston, but the concept would need to be adjusted and updated, I imagine. I think LGBTQ people are hungering for community right now, because there are so few places/occasions for us to gather. Most of the bars have closed, and with some of the key civil rights battles won (for now), there are very few public marches or demonstrations, aside from our once-a-year pride parade, which is now mostly reserved for banks, politicians, and churches. Most people don’t read a weekly LGBTQ newspaper, the way we used to. So there’s an empty spot where we used to share a common ground. Folks feel isolated, or connected only to their own small circle of friends. If there’s an upside to the Trump era, I think it’s that it’s reminded people of the power, solace, and joy of gathering together with likeminded strangers and neighbors in relatively public places. I think people are looking for spaces and ways to harness the kind of spirit that we see at the Women’s Marches and trans-rights marches and anti-Muslim-ban marches and anti-gun-violence marches and Black Lives Matter demonstrations. I think a new LGBTQ bookstore that not only sold books but also offered, say, a coffee shop and an evening events venue for story slams, would attract a lot of people and energy.

Michael Lowenthal is the author of three previous novels: Charity Girl, Avoidance, and The Same Embrace. He is a core faculty member in Lesley University’s MFA program in creative writing and lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

 

 

 

 

 

Talking about civilian complicity with the Pinochet regime’s violence

Civil Obedience: Complicity and Complacency in Chile since Pinochet by Michael J. Lazzara is published this week in the series Critical Human Rights. We spoke with Lazzara about issues raised by his book.

Q. Why is it so important to talk about civilian complicity now, more than forty years after the September 11, 1973, coup that put General Augusto Pinochet in power?

A. In the midst of the Cold War, the Pinochet regime (1973-1990) came to power as a violent reaction against democratically elected President Salvador Allende’s “Peaceful Road to Socialism.” Pinochet’s seventeen-year dictatorship resulted in the murder, disappearance, and exile of thousands of Chilean citizens who longed to build a more just and equitable society, as well as the torture of tens of thousands more. Throughout the 1990s, the early years of Chile’s transition to democracy, people almost exclusively attributed the Pinochet regime’s human rights violations to the military, the most egregious perpetrators. Yet we know that dictatorships are always supported behind the scenes by a cast of complicit civilians who play roles—major or minor—in perpetuating the violence and who, through complex processes of rationalization, manage to turn a knowing blind eye to the torture and murder of their fellow citizens.

The stark reality is that many of those who supported the Pinochet regime “behind the scenes” in the 1970s and 1980s remain active in politics, business, and other sectors today. Victims, their families, artists, academics, journalists, lawyers, and concerned citizens have struggled for decades to fight for memory and create a culture of respect for human rights. To a great extent, they have succeeded. But we can’t easily forget that memory and human rights constantly find themselves under attack from political and economic forces that still perpetuate certain violent attitudes fostered under dictatorship.

Q. Is the public discourse of these civilian accomplices relevant for thinking about the “post-truth” era in which we’re living?

A. Definitely! My book is not only about civilian complicity in Chile but also about how civilian accomplices remember and justify their past actions and commitments. I use the phrase “fictions of mastery” to talk about the vital lies (or partial truths) that such accomplices spin, both publically and privately, in order to live with themselves or to convince others that they were acting in the “best interest” of the country or out of a sense of patriotic duty.

Clearly, our contemporary scene is full of individuals who spin stories to advance particular agendas or maintain their hold on political and economic power. My book deconstructs and “outs” such self-serving fictions—and actors—while also advocating for a need for accountability (moral, ethical, and even judicial, when applicable).

Q. Your work provocatively suggests a relationship between complicity and complacency. How are these two concepts linked?

A. The question is important because it forces us to ask: Who is complicit? My book answers this question boldly, even somewhat controversially. It asserts that the spectrum of complicity is vast—that it includes not only those who participated directly in the dictatorship’s crimes but also those who knew what was going on but stood by and did nothing. Even more assertively, I argue that the vast spectrum of complicity in Chile may very well include certain people who years ago fought for revolutionary change and social justice and who now, decades later, wholeheartedly embrace the neoliberal model that the General and his civilian economists espoused. I call these revolutionaries-turned-neoliberals “complacent subjects” and wonder if their political stance, interested in protecting their own status and wealth, might be construed as a form of complicity with the dictatorship’s legacy.

Q. The Chilean dictatorship ended nearly three decades ago. Many analysts praise the country’s transition to democracy as highly “successful.” Why is it important that we continue thinking today about the legacies of the Pinochet regime?

A. Many people, especially economists outside of Chile, have called Chile an “economic miracle” because its economy did relatively well when compared to other countries in the region. This may indeed be true by some measures. But we cannot forget that Chile’s economic strength has its origins in a dark history of torture, disappearances, and murders. We also can’t forget that, despite its economic growth, Chile remains one of the most unequal countries in the world. Moreover, socioeconomic inequality has sparked massive protests and deep disenchantment with political elites from across the ideological spectrum.

The past does not go away. Anyone who goes to Chile today can see and feel signs of the dictatorship’s legacy everywhere. It’s palpable! The political and economic class that sympathized with the dictatorship is now back in power, and the dictatorship’s constitution, penned in 1980, remains in effect. There are still families who have not located their disappeared loved ones. And despite the valiant efforts of those who have struggled to create a culture of human rights and justice, every so often people in positions of power appear in the media denying past human rights violations or explaining them away. Schools avoid talking about the recent past, particularly at the primary and secondary levels. Lots of families remain politically divided. For all of these reasons, it is just as important now as it was in the 1980s and 1990s that we continue the fight for accountability, truth, and justice.

When I began researching Civil Obedience, eight years ago, almost no one was talking about civilian complicity with the South American dictatorships. The topic was complete public taboo. Over the past five or so years, important works of journalism have started to address the subject, and it is now commonplace to hear people in Chile use the term “civilian-military dictatorship” (dictadura cívico-militar). I hope that my book will help fuel an honest debate about the uncomfortable ways in which Chile’s brutally violent past still maintains a hold on the present.

Michael J. Lazzara is a professor of Latin American literature and cultural studies at the University of California, Davis. His several books include Chile in Transition: The Poetics and Politics of Memory and Luz Arce and Pinochet’s Chile: Testimony in the Aftermath of State Violence.

Critical Human Rights
Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus, Series Editors 

 

BOB SMITH: ON RELIGION, NATURE, LIFE WITH ALS, AND HIS NEW BOOK ‘TREEHAB’

Treehab book coverToday is the publication day of TREEHAB: TALES FROM MY NATURAL WILD LIFE by comedian and writer Bob Smith. Christopher Bram interviewed Bob Smith for the Lambda Literary Review, and we excerpt a portion of that interview here. Go to the Lambda site to read the full interview

BOB SMITH: ON RELIGION, LIFE WITH ALS, HIS LOVE OF NATURE, AND HIS NEW BOOK TREEHAB

by Christopher Bram   September 20, 2016  Lambda Literary Review

In the wider world of pop culture, Bob Smith is known as a stand-up comic. He was the first openly gay stand-up to appear on the Tonight Show. This was followed by many other appearances, including a special on HBO. He toured the country for several years in the groundbreaking comedy trio Funny Gay Males, performing with his buddies Jaffe Cohen and Danny McWilliams. His smart, wry, low-key comedy monologues, which you can see on YouTube, are unique in tone and full of memorable lines. Years before I met him, I often quoted (with attribution) such Smith bits as: “My high school had a Head Start program for homosexuals. It was called Drama Club.”

But in the smaller world of book readers, Smith is known as a writer. And he’s a wonderful writer. This should be no surprise. Good writing is full of the same attention to detail, originality, and surprise that powers the best stand-up comedy.

Smith’s newest book, Treehab: Tales from My Natural Wild Life, is another collection of essays but with a wider, richer range than his first books. It’s a glorious achievement, one that has already earned high praise from Kirkus, Stephen McCauley and Armistead Maupin. This is The Portable Bob Smith. There’s a lot of Smith to carry, but the book carries it with ease. We hear about his love of nature, of rocks and minerals, and Alaska. He tells stories of his career as a stand-up, as well as what it’s like to be the sperm-donor dad of two children. He talks about his dog Bozzie and his four best friends, the men he calls his “Nature Boys,” which includes his life partner Michael Zam. And he discusses his experience with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neuro-degenerative disease that affects the motor neurons. It can work quickly or slowly. Stephen Hawking has lived with it for years. Luckily for Bob its progress has been slow. He was diagnosed with ALS twelve years ago and has been able to keep working. The first thing he lost was his ability to speak. In the early stages he assured his stand-up audiences that his slurred speech didn’t mean he was drunk, only that he had a neurological disorder. When Bob could no longer perform, he concentrated on his writing.

I recently spoke with Bob about his new book. He’s temporarily lost the use of his hands and can no longer type. He now spells out words with his feet, pointing at letters on a Lucite board. But Bob expresses himself better with his feet than most people do with a fully functioning set of fingers. Also present was Bob’s best friend, Eddie Sarfaty, a brilliant stand-up comic and fine writer in his own right, author of Mental: Funny in the Head. Eddie is now working on his own novel.

Eddie knows Bob well enough that he can often finish his answers once Bob begins them, but not always. We sometimes put words into Bob’s mouth in what follows, but he always agreed with what we attributed to him.

Do you have a favorite essay [in the book]?

Bob Smith

Bob Smith

“Nature Boys.”

Eddie: Because boys and nature are his two favorite things.

It’s a wonderful portrait of your best friends, four gay men who are bound together by their love of wildlife and the great outdoors. You are full of love, Bob. You love so many things: birds, books, friends, your partner Michael, your two children, Maddie and Xander, Alaska, of course, and Henry David Thoreau. But you also have the healthy gift of anger. Who are some of the people and things that make you furious?

The Koch Brothers. Donald Trump. Climate change deniers. People who don’t believe in evolution. The Koch Brothers. (Again!) Soy milk. The NRA. Unfunny comedians.

Do you want to name a few unfunny comics?

(He smiles and shakes his head.)

Who are your heroes?

Thoreau. Mary Leakey. Verner Wilson [a Yupik storyteller and environmental activist from Alaska]. Lily Tomlin. W. C. Fields. Maude Lechner [the daughter of friends, who shaved her head to raise money for ALS when she was eleven].

Who are your favorite writers? You’re the man who turned me on to P. G. Wodehouse, for which I am eternally grateful. Who else do you love?

Evelyn Waugh. Dawn Powell. Charles Dickens. Stephen McCauley. Armistead Maupin. Jane Austen. Ronald Firbank. Tolkien.

That’s right. You’ve been a huge fan of Lord of the Rings from an early age.

(Bob nods eagerly.)

You have not been able to talk for five years now, but you can still type. Did this make writing harder for you?

No. Good writing is always difficult.

Did your words become more concentrated when you couldn’t say them aloud but had to save them for the written page?

Yes. I think my writing became better.

I think so too.

Eddie: I agree.

This is a stupid question, but how badly do you miss the laughter of a stand-up comedy audience? Is there an equivalent for a book writer?

(Bob sadly shakes his head.)

Eddie: But you get letters from your readers. Often for books years after you wrote them.

But it’s too bad I can’t do stand-up anymore. Because ALS is hilarious.

******************

Go to the Lambda site to read the full interview.

 

Ovid Repeats Himself

Variation within repetition is common in Latin epics, but Ovid is the undisputed champion of its usage.

Fulkerson-Stover-Repeat-Performances-cLaurel Fulkerson and Tim Stover conversed recently about how the genre of Latin epic poetry lends itself to repetition. They explore a distinct form of repetition in Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the new UWP book they’ve edited. Repeat Performances: Ovidian Repetition and the Metamorphoses is published in the longstanding University of Wisconsin Press series Wisconsin Studies in Classics.

Laurel  Let’s start at the beginning: we had an idea for a conference on Ovid. The Classics Department at Florida State University, thanks to a generous bequest from the George and Marion Langford family, is able to host one or two conferences a year. Tim is a scholar of Latin epic, and I’m an Ovidian, so we thought it made good sense to focus on the Metamorphoses. One of the things we both had been thinking about was the ways Ovid seems to be doing a slightly different thing in his epic, in terms of how he structures episodes. That’s an immediately obvious feature of the poem, but we wanted to pay more attention to it, and we hit upon repetition. Many of the stories in the Metamorphoses are so similar, and there are innumerable cross-references back and forth between episodes.

Tim  Repetition is certainly a feature of later epic as well, so we wondered if there was a kind of repetition that was particularly Ovidian. We wanted some of our contributors to identify and elucidate the Ovidianism of post-Augustan epic’s repetitious gestures. A systematic study of Ovid’s influence on Flavian epic and beyond is a critical desideratum for our field. One of the exciting things about this book is that several of its papers demonstrate how deeply Ovid influenced later writers of epic, while also pointing to new avenues for research on the reception of Ovidian repetition specifically. Perhaps the most salient example of the latter is the use by Neil Bernstein of Tesserae, a web-based interface for exploring intertextual parallels in Latin literature. It’s a strength of this volume that it brings together more traditional approaches to Ovidian repetition and newer cutting-edge technology on intertextuality.

Laurel  And, of course, epic itself is a repetitive genre. We say in the introduction that we think it’s more repetitive than many other genres. All of literature is necessarily repetitive, but the body of epic material becomes codified so early on; the whole Homeric cycle is predicated upon the notion that everyone already sort of knows these stories.

Tim  Precisely. The point of the cycle seems to be in telling the same stories in a different way, so that what is deemed  “innovative” in any new version is not the basic plot of a given story, but rather what kinds of material will differentiate it from its predecessors at a microcosmic or atomic level. This practice is foundational for later poetry, but is most pronounced in epic and tragedy, two genres that over time cross-fertilize each other in complex ways. That’s another angle explored in our book. Variation within repetition is a key factor of all of Latin epic, but Ovid is the undisputed champion of its usage, as the contributors to this volume reveal. Ovid’s example then sets repetition on a new and exciting path, which is discernible in the specifically Ovidian nature of the repetitiveness of post-Ovidian epic.

Laurel  Or so we think; you’ll have to read the book to make up your own mind.

Fulkerson at WadhamLaurel Fulkerson is a professor of classics and an associate dean at Florida State University. She is the author of The Ovidian Heroine as Author and No Regrets: Remorse in Classical Antiquity.

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATim Stover is an associate professor of classics at Florida State University and the author of Epic and Empire in Vespasianic Rome.

Contributors to the book are Antony Augoustakis, Neil W. Bernstein, Barbara Weiden Boyd, Andrew Feldherr, Peter Heslin, Stephen Hinds, Sharon L. James, Alison Keith, Peter E. Knox, and Darcy Krasne.

Why silence is key to understanding the past

In postdictatorship Argentina, insight into what remains unspoken

We spoke with Nancy J. Gates-Madsen about how the role of silence in postdictatorship Argentina is essential to understanding the crimes of the past. Gates-Madsen is an associate professor of Spanish at Luther College. She is the cotranslator of Violet Island and Other Poems by Reina María Rodríguez, and author of Trauma, Taboo, and Truth-Telling: Listening to Silences in Postdictatorship Argentina, recently published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

How did you become interested in the topic of silences and taboos in postdictatorship Argentina?

I was reading a lot of novels and plays written after the return to democracy, and I kept noticing the prominent role of silence: characters who would or could not speak, unspecified yet sinister horrors, and a fragmented or indirect language that called attention to the difficulty of expressing crimes against humanity. While existing scholarship alluded to the importance of silence, few critics had attempted to unpack its meaning. At the same time, the rhetoric of human rights was often couched in terms of speech versus silence: one must break oppressive silences in order to voice the crimes of the past. Yet it seemed to me that the myriad silences in cultural production were more than simply negative states to be broken. The strong silence of fictional torture victims who refuse to offer information to their captors, for example, belies any interpretation of silence as unequivocally negative. The more I began to explore fictional and testimonial narrative with an ear to silences and taboos, the more I realized that understanding the interplay between silence and speech (in particular, paying attention to which stories are not being told) was critical to understanding the complex postdictatorship period itself. I also discovered that taboos do not pertain solely to the realm of the military and its apologists; the rhetoric of human rights organizations also perpetuates certain taboos regarding the portrayal of victims and perpetrators.

It sounds like a sensitive topic to study.

It certainly is. This came out particularly in the review period of the manuscript. One chapter in the book analyzes stories of babies born in captivity and appropriated by families sympathetic to the military regime.

Many of these individuals have grown to adulthood with no knowledge of their biological origins or the crime committed against them during their infancy. The chapter explores which aspects of the complicated questions of identity that surround these youngest victims of the dictatorship come to the fore and which remain taboo. Of all the chapters, this one generated the most commentary from UW Press’s peer reviewers, due to its discussion of the rhetoric employed by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a prominent human rights organization that has been searching for these missing children for decades. Given the delicate nature of identity restitution, the readers’ responses did not surprise me, but it was a constant reminder of the way in which as a researcher I needed to be sensitive to the admirable work of human rights organizations yet unafraid to signal the limits that seem to govern the tales of the postdictatorship. In many representations of the trauma of torture or appropriation, unpalatable truths regarding victims and perpetrators remain consigned to the shadows, but a more complete picture of the legacies of the dictatorship only emerges when one examines both the stories that are being told and also those that remain taboo.

Listening to silences offers unexpected insight regarding postdictatorship Argentina, for even stories that struggle against forgetting may conceal as much as they reveal.

Any final thoughts?

Listening to silences offers unexpected insight regarding postdictatorship Argentina, for even stories that struggle against forgetting may conceal as much as they reveal. The overt silences of the military (such as the refusal to account for the fate of missing victims) are complemented by more covert silences in tales of victims of human rights violations (such as questions of complicity or betrayal in the torture chamber). Although the insights gained by exploring silences may prove troubling, identifying and unpacking the lingering taboos can help articulate the depth and breadth of the painful legacies of the dictatorship.

Trauma, Taboo, and Truth-Telling: Listening to Silences in Postdictatorship Argentina is published in the University of Wisconsin Press book series Critical Human Rights, edited by Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus. Find all of the books published in the series to date here.

 

A vision for a modern, democratic Muslim nation

An interview with James Rush about Hamka’s Great Story: A Master Writer’s Vision of Islam for Modern Indonesia 

Just published, Hamka’s Great Story by James R. Rush explores the life and work of of an influential Indonesian thought leader, his vision for his emerging nation, and his lasting influence on Muslim religious culture. It is published in the University of Wisconsin Press series, New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies.

By immersing myself in his prolific body of public writing, I sought to see Indonesia through his eyes instead of through my own. This was my first goal.

Hamka’s Great Story focuses on a single individual. What drew you to Hamka? And what’s the big picture? I am first and foremost a historian of Indonesia. I went to Hamka to understand Indonesia better. By immersing myself in his prolific body of public writing, I sought to see Indonesia through his eyes instead of through my own. This was my first goal. But because Hamka was such a widely read and influential thought leader, I felt that seeing Indonesia through his eyes could also help us understand the large and important Muslim Indonesian subculture from which he spoke and to which he spoke. This became my second goal. I believe that this is immensely valuable for those of us who are interested not only in modern Indonesia, but also in national identities everywhere, and how religious ideas and identities are enmeshed within them.

If Benedict Anderson was right that nations like Indonesia are imagined communities, we should be asking: What sort of community, exactly, is being imagined for Indonesia? And by whom? To Hamka and other members of his generation (including seminal figures such as Sukarno) fell the remarkable opportunity of “imagining” the nation of Indonesia in the very moments of its historic formation as the Dutch East Indies gave way tumultuously to the Republic of Indonesia. Hamka’s Great Story is exactly this: Indonesia imagined as a modern Muslim nation.Indonesia

Who was Hamka? Hamka (Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, 1908–1981) was a prodigious writer with a popular touch. He wrote beautifully in the Dutch colony’s lingua franca, Malay, which was also adopted in the 1920s as the aspirational national language for Indonesia and called Indonesian. Hamka’s early magazines, books, and novels found readers throughout the far-flung nation-to-be. What gave them their traction, aside from Hamka’s easy style and good stories, was their message. We are living in an age of profound and destabilizing change, he said. We can embrace this change hopefully if we embrace Islam as our guide. Islam can shape our new society and provide its values. Indonesia, our dreamed-of nation, can cohere around it. This positive message touched the zeitgeist. Hamka embellished it prolifically throughout his lifetime, which eventually stretched from the colonial era well into the life of the Republic.

What sort of Islam did Hamka propagate? Like the vast majority of Indonesians, Hamka was a Sunni Muslim. But as a self-described modernist, he declined to identify with the traditional schools of law, or madhhab (Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafi’i), and claimed “the Madhhab Salaf, being the school of the Prophet and his companions and of the ulamas who follow his footsteps.” In this, he followed Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida and other reformers based in Egypt, whose ideas he streamed into Indonesia. Like them, he rejected many traditional Muslim practices as superstitions and sought to reconcile Islam with the modern sciences and political advances of the West. Our country, he told his readers, can be both thoroughly modern and thoroughly Muslim. He envisioned a literate, prosperous, democratic Indonesia in which the values of Islam permeated the society at large and provided the basis for ethnic and religious tolerance. In his imagined Indonesia, monogamous marriages would replace polygamous ones, strong nuclear families would supersede shambling extended ones, and rationality and knowledge would overcome myth and ignorance.

Was Hamka an original thinker? Hamka was a brilliant synthesizer of facts, ideas, and arguments that he gleaned from the works of others, most significantly (as he often remarked) from modern Egyptian writers and intellectuals whose work he read in Arabic. Even the plot of his most famous novel was borrowed. Yet, in transposing all of this to Indonesia, he created something new. We can say that the master narrative that underlay his entire body of writing—what I call his Great Story—is both original and unique in its depth and complexity. Its ubiquity in the public sphere in the form of his multitudes of books, pamphlets, newspaper columns, novels, interviews, and, eventually, radio and television programs and audio cassettes made his Great Story a foundational frame of reference for generations of Indonesian Muslims.

Was Hamka’s vision for Indonesia contested? Very much so. Indeed, it was part of a huge public argument about what sort of society and nation Indonesia should become. His ideas comported with the views of the modernist mass organization Muhammadiyah, of which he was a leading figure and popular theologian. But they stood in contention with the more conservative views of Indonesia’s other mass Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama. Moreover, Indonesia’s much smaller community of Christians found Hamka’s assertive propagation of Islam overbearing and, at times, threatening. And its communists, who surged intermittently during his lifetime, belittled Islam and religion altogether. Hamka played a key and sometimes controversial role in this contest over the fate of the nation, which came to a bloody head in the 1960s in a bitter culture war that ended in the massacre of the country’s communists and rule by the army. As all of this played out, he spent more than two years as a political prisoner and, subsequently under the new military government, served ambivalently as head of Indonesia’s first national council of Muslim religious scholars.

Hamka died in 1981. Do his ideas matter today? Some of Hamka’s books remain popular today and his thirty-volumes of commentary on the Qur’an are still widely read. More significantly, however, Hamka’s modernist formulation of Islam for Indonesia underlies much of the discourse about Islam in Indonesia today, even though his role in shaping this discourse has been obscured by the passage of time. As Indonesia struggles with the surge of angry and exclusionist Islamic movements that have found so much traction elsewhere—and, to a degree, in Indonesia, too—his complex, inclusive, and hopeful vision, still so prevalent, makes it harder for the ideas of extremists to take root and grow.

James Rush

James Rush

James R. Rush is an associate professor of history at Arizona State University. He is the author of Hamka’s Great Story, as well as Opium to Java: Revenue Farming and Chinese Enterprise in Colonial Indonesia, 1860–1910, The Last Tree: Reclaiming the Environment in Tropical Asia, and numerous biographical essays about contemporary Asian activists, humanitarians, and public intellectuals in the Ramon Magsaysay Awards book series and website.

 

A Polish American recalls war, exile, and Stalin’s gulag

Urbikas-Donna-2016-c

Donna Solecka Urbikas is the author of My Sister’s Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin’s Siberia, published by the University of Wisconsin Press. We talked with her about some of the personal details of her family, childhood, writing process, and experiences as a mother that relate to her memoir.

What inspired you to write this story?

I grew up with these stories because my mother, Janina, never stopped talking about what had happened to her and my sister, Mira, during World War II. They were taken by Soviet secret police from their farm in Poland and sent to Siberia to be forced laborers. Their eventual escape to freedom was a terrible ordeal as well. I had some friends in Chicago with similar backgrounds, but their parents did not dwell on their war experiences. My mother’s intense recollections frightened me as a young child, then annoyed me as a teenager. As a young adult, I became more engaged with my mother’s stories and realized that these war experiences were something people in America knew very little about. It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that my mother finally agreed to let me write about all that had happened to her. I think then she trusted that I would understand her journey.

When did you decide these stories should become a book?

Back in 1985, I started writing only about the war experience—Urbikas-MySister'sMother-cmy mother’s and sister’s deportation from eastern Poland in 1940 to a labor camp in Siberia, and my father Wawrzyniec’s capture and imprisonment in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp. He was a Polish Army officer who had barely escaped being among the 22,000 Poles murdered by the Soviets in the Katyń Forest massacres in 1940. I felt it was important to tell the Polish war story, because in the 1980s Poland was struggling to regain its independence from Soviet control. I had family members in Poland dealing with all that, so I was well acquainted with the struggle, and it seemed like a painful reminder of what my parents had gone through. But I couldn’t finish writing the story until about ten years later.

How much older is your sister?

Mira was five years old when she was deported with my mother in 1940. I was born several years after the war, so there is a fifteen-year difference between us.

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Janina and Mira in India

What does the title of your book mean?

My sister knew our mother before all the horrible things happened to them during the war, whereas I knew only a woman who was haunted after the war. My mother saved Mira many times from starvation and disease. It was really a miracle that my sister survived at all, as most children under the age of five died in those harsh circumstances. My mother used to say that she took her (my sister) in her teeth and saved her. Mira grew up in what was eastern Poland, then in the forced labor camps in Siberia and Russia, and then in resettlement camps in Iran and India. I grew up in the comfort of 1950s America, far from any direct experience with war. Thus, the title, My Sister’s Mother.

How did your family happen to come to America?

My parents had met amidst all the turmoil in Russia after Germany attacked Russia in 1941, and Russia became an ally with Britain and France. With the Polish government in exile in England, there was pressure on Russia to release labor camp deportees and army prisoners. Of course, the Soviets didn’t want to release those workers because they were needed for their hard labor on a very small salary, so my mother and sister escaped. They tried to find the Polish Army, which was re-forming from all the prisoners like my father. They initially met the man who would become my father in the first army camp in Tatishchevo near Saratov. Later they met again in Uzbekistan, where my mother and sister were trying to find their way out of the Soviet Union. My father helped them during a very critical time when they were completely destitute, since the Polish soldiers donated portions of their rations and money to the civilians who were following them. After that, my father went on to fight the Germans with General Władysław Anders in the Middle East and Italy, while my mother and sister ended up in Tehran at a temporary resettlement camp. The British had been helping the Polish Army and Polish refugees. Later, Janina and Mira went to India, where my mother worked as a Red Cross nurse, and my sister attended a convent school. After the war, neither my mother nor my father wanted to return to Communist Poland, so as it turned out they each went to England, and there they met again and married.  I was born in England, in Coventry. The conditions in England were abysmal, though, because the British were struggling to recover from the war. So, my parents, sister, and I immigrated to America in 1952.

That history is not well known in the United States. How did you feel about it when you were growing up?

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The Polish Army forming in Tatishchevo in 1941, after release from prisoner-of-war camps in Russia and Siberia

As a child, I assumed that everyone had gone through these things, so it surprised me when I encountered American friends who were totally unaware of Poland’s history. It was not history taught during our American education. I only learned about it at home and at Saturday Polish school and Polish scout meetings. Polish history is very complicated, and even today many people do not know that Soviet Russia had attacked Poland only two weeks after Germany attacked on September 1, 1939, starting World War II. When I first began writing the book, people thought I was writing about the Holocaust and Germany’s attack. They were totally unaware that Russia had invaded Poland as well, or that hundreds of thousands civilians like my mother had been deported from what was then eastern Poland to Siberia, for essentially slave labor. My mother had to work in timber operations in the middle of harsh Siberian winters while my sister had to be left alone in the labor camp to fend for herself getting food. Mira’s father had been imprisoned and was not with them.

This story is a romance, too, amidst the terrors of war.

Yes, it is a romance—that two people thrown together in the midst of horrible circumstances would somehow find each other after the war and have another child. They hoped to regain at least some of what had been lost to them in Poland.

Poland did not exist as an independent country during its partitions by Germany, Austria, and Russia for 123 years before World War I. After World War I, Poland regained its freedom. My parents’ generation who grew up between the World Wars was uniquely, stubbornly patriotic and always longed for the Poland that was no more. After World War II, Poland had become the spoils of victory for Soviet Russia in the rush to end the war. It became a completely different country, one in which my parents would not be welcome. My mother’s farm was no longer part of Poland, but was now in Belarus. She had lost all her documents during the turmoil of her escape from the Soviet Union during the war. My father, as a former Polish Army officer, would have likely been deported back to Siberia, where some of his officer friends ended up.

It would be only in 1989 with the fall of Communism in Poland that things changed again, and Poland emerged as an independent country. Though my book is a memoir, readers will learn much Polish and World War II history.

In writing the book as a memoir, you had to face some of your own challenges as well. What were they?

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Mira and Janina in Tehran

I really didn’t want to write about myself at all, but the teachers at the University of Chicago classes convinced me that I could not write my mother’s memoir, that it would make a much more interesting story if I included myself. By then my parents had passed away and my children were almost grown, so I began to reflect on how these war events and my mother’s constant reminders of them had affected me. I began to see parallel stories from my own life. My teenage son’s battle with cancer reminded me of how my mother had tried to save Mira so many times throughout the war, and later when Mira suffered from mental illness. The conflicts I had with my mother as I was growing up began to make sense, as I began to understand her from the perspective of being a mother myself. I began to appreciate my parents’ longing for a simple farm life away from the intrusions of city life and their wish to find a connection with life in Poland before the war. I began to understand my internal conflicts with religion, and what it meant to be an immigrant in America, the tug of culture and identity that was being lost in my own life as well as in the lives of my children. I began to forgive my mother for all her craziness, to appreciate what she had gone through. In the end, it was a catharsis for me, as it was for her, to know her story would be told.

What would you like readers to take away from your story?

Certainly, I would like them to know and appreciate the struggles that Poland has had to endure over the course of time and how people like my parents emerged from the turmoil of World War II. It is a struggle that continues, a lesson still to be learned: the effects of war do not end, often affecting subsequent generations in ways that are not easily recognized until it is too late.


Donna (Danuta) Solecka Urbikas was born in Coventry, England, and immigrated with her parents and sister to Chicago in 1952. After careers as a high school science teacher and environmental engineer, she is now a writer, realtor, and community volunteer. She lives in Chicago with her husband. You can visit her website at http://danutaurbikas.com/

 

Slade House in Review(s)

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A new novel from David Mitchell, Slade House, was published in October 2015. Following up on a 2015 special issue  of the journal SubStance devoted to Mitchell’s extraordinary works of fiction, Paul Harris and Patrick O’Donnell previewed Slade House in a pre-publication discussion. Now that the novel has received its early critical response, Harris and O’Donnell review the reviews.


 

Paul Harris

Paul Harris

PAUL HARRIS: As we suspected, the reviews of David Mitchell’s Slade House seem quite cleanly divided between two types of responses. Either the novel is a “devilishly fun … fiendish delight” fit to devour in a single sitting like the twins sucking down another soul, or it is dismissed as “soul-sucking mumbo-jumbo” registering too high on the “wackometer” to enjoy, let alone take seriously.

The most positive reviews see it as an entertainment given substance by the “human warmth” of its characters or the philosophical questions it raises: John Boyne calls it “a highly effective, creepy and witty ghost story, designed to unsettle the reader and raise questions about what all of us might do in our quest for immortality.” The most negative assessments see Slade House as a letdown, or even a betrayal: for Scarlet Thomas, the novel moves Mitchell from exemplary author (“what would David Mitchell do?”) to one “writing [his] own fan fiction.” Thomas criticizes Mitchell for moral and political disingenuousness: the novel sounds “hefty themes” but transfers “meaning and purpose” from the real to the “supernatural” and ends up offering only a “Bill and Ted philosophy” that we should all “be excellent to one another.”

 

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Patrick, do you see a third alternative to these views, an excluded middle that gets us out of the muddle of either seeing Slade House as a lite fictional funhouse or a shrill failure without much value? In considering this question myself, one avenue that I’ve thought about is genre. Reflecting on the many reviews I read, I realize how critical the lens of genre is in the reader’s reception of Slade House. The novel has garnered ubiquitous comparisons to Henry James’s Turn of the Screw for giving the ghost story a new twist, while also being lauded for its Lovecraftian integration of horror and science fiction. Others, though, diagnose Slade House as over the top in its deployment of genre(s) and heavy-handed in explaining or laying bare the rules of its fictive world.  I found science fiction writer and critic Paul Kincaid’s review the most informed, persuasive take on this issue. Though the novel as a whole sounds the horror note, Kincaid points out that in each section Mitchell “sets up genre expectations and then upends them in a very deliberate and calculated way.” This pattern is what makes Mitchell so successful: Kincaid concludes that Slade House “works, as all of Mitchell’s novels have worked, because we start out reading one thing and end up reading something very different indeed.”

Mitchell both explodes the boundaries of genre (by refusing to stay within the confines of distinct classes of fiction) and implodes them (by miming a genre and then turning it inside out).

Kincaid’s review made me appreciate Mitchell’s constant upending of expectations, but it also made me wonder whether the game can reach a point of exhaustion. Mitchell’s fictional arcs can abruptly shift dimensions, it seems, because it is all fiction—it’s all made up, so you are free to make anything up and keep changing the rules; once this is the case, ultimately there is nothing that can be trusted and nothing that cannot be done.

Slade House seems to assert this view of narration or fiction most explicitly or literally. The twins have infinite fiction-creating power dressed up in Lacuna-Operandi-Orison stagesets, but they SO free to compose the scene and inhabit characters that there are no rules left. Behind the world being constructed is an omnipotent wizard who can wave a wand at any time, without any need to justify matters. The orison of the Fox and Hounds pub featuring Jonah commandeering Fred Pink in the novel’s penultimate section felt the most contrived; the sudden shift left me more ticked off than tickled. This reversal then sets up the final turning of the tables, at yet another level of abstraction, when Marinus’s powers prove even more infinite than the Grayers, and time enters the Lacuna. As readers, we should be able to see this coming because that final section is narrated by Norah, and each section has shown the destruction of unsuspecting narrators who think they are in one world with one set of rules but turn out not to know who or what they are up against.

Returning to one strand of our previous discussion, I am left wondering what Slade House tells us about the house of fiction. If the rules of conjuring have no rules, or all genres and conventions can be flouted at any time, then there is not enough suspense or tension left to warrant our entering into a state of suspended disbelief—put differently, with nothing to believe in, there is nothing not to believe in, and hence no disbelief either.

What are your thoughts about this very basic but also encompassing question of the rules for constructing houses of fiction?


 

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O’Donnell

PATRICK O’DONNELL:  Like you, I am not terribly surprised by the bifurcated responses from the reviewers, though I think those that regard Slade House as a minor entertainment really miss the mark. Many of the responses that you cite proceed from a set of expectations regarding both David Mitchell (a major novelist in mid-career) and the fictional genres that he characteristically engages—or rather, the fictional sub-genres (as they are often viewed) of  fantasy, science fiction, horror.  The combination of “major novelist” and “sub-genre” poses a dilemma for reviewers who have a hard time putting together the notions of serious literature and popular genres, despite much important Anglo-American fiction since the 1960s closing the gap between “high” and “low” art.”

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I’ll simply note in this regard that one of Mitchell’s fictional mentors, Haruki Murakami, received a similar set of binary responses to 1Q84. Reviewers, in the main, weren’t particularly happy with that novel’s engagement with what they perceived as a chaotic mix of realism, mysticism, fantasy, and various shaggy dog pyrotechnics.

There seems to be an equal amount of difficulty with the expectation that each succeeding novel by an acknowledged, important novelist and prolific writer must somehow “top” everything that has come before, or offer some kind of visible, steady advance (“the best David Mitchell novel yet!”) in an ever-rising career trajectory.

I’m quite sure there is a large excluded middle between viewing Slade House as either a delightful (but minor) entertainment or a “fan fiction.” There are many ways seeing the novel that do not rely so much on the expectations I’ve mentioned.

I’m in complete agreement with you that examining what Mitchell is doLost in the Funhouseing with genre in Slade House, and throughout his fiction, offers one way of getting at what is at stake in this newest work. Some of the reviewers seem to suggest that nothing important is at stake, particularly those who are disappointed that Mitchell seems to be trading off his investment in the “big themes” of human greed, exploitation, colonialism, mortality, historical inevitability, or historical change, etc., for sheer fun, fantasy, and entertainment (or lack thereof).  And, I think you are quite right in suggesting that the novel is constantly turning the tables on itself and on the expectations of its readers by positing that its own fictional rules are constantly changing and subverting their own tenancy. I’m reminded of the line in John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse: “for whom is the funhouse fun?”

For you, it seems that the suspension of belief in the rules that undergird the suspension of disbelief results in a kind of mise en abyme of infinite play and a loss of semiotic power that, for those unhappy with certain putative versions of postmodernism, signals a dead end of sorts.

I’d like to pose another possible way of seeing all of this.  The novel—quite seriously, I think, for all of its esoteric claptrap, as well as its fractality and generic hybridity—poses the questions of who is making the rules, and what are the hidden or manifest agendas of their making?

How do those in power (the rule-makers) stay in power, and what do power-mongering and rule-making—which in Mitchell’s fiction has everything to do with the enforcement and construction of a supposedly orderly and stable “reality” that enables those in power to remain empowered—have to do with our sense of what constitutes human identity?

Michel Foucault has performed for us the crucial work of explaining how power operates in relation to knowledge: he poses and answers a series of complicated epistemological questions. But he doesn’t get at what power has to do with us ontologically, and I think that is what Mitchell is trying to get at in his work, including Slade House, with its soulsucking semi-immortals and its rebirthed “saviors” like Marinus, who operates not as a deus ex machina but as a last-ditch interventionist embodying the unforeseen good luck of those who will not be destroyed by the Grayers in the future (though that’s not to say something else won’t come along to take their place). The novel might then be seen as extending the fantasy of empowerment, perhaps to its absurdist limit, enabling us to ask some key questions: what happens if everyone is in on the lie of this fantasy that disguises the real fragility and vulnerability of the empowered? What happens if we see that power, with all of its seductions, is the opposite of what constitutes (or should constitute) life and being? What if the construction of reality is put into the hands of the multitude and not the hands of the one per cent?

Let me put the ball back in your court, Paul: How do you see Slade House in relation to Mitchell’s previous fiction: as an advance, an extension, a repetition, a refutation—or, if none of those, how can we regard it?  Is there any way to tell where Mitchell goes from here?


 

PAUL HARRIS: Pat, you just hit the refresh button on Slade House for me: I look forward to rereading it to watch how empowerment is linked to world-making and see how it plays in these terms. You’re right to remind Mitchell readers that, just as he collapses serious and popular genres, he also sounds heavy themes in seemingly light stories.

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As for how Slade House relates to Mitchell’s previous work, in form and structure it most clearly resembles Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas, and Bone Clocks. All these texts are divided into discrete sections with different narrators set in different decades/centuries. The obvious difference is that Slade House takes place at one setting, while the episodes in the other novels span the globe. Just as the spatial setting doesn’t change, Slade House also generates a more static image or concept of time than those other novels. Even though its episodes move forward nine years each time, each plays out the same scenario, so there is not the same kind of plot advancement as in the other texts.

The game afoot is to defy mortality: the Grayers persist in a Lacuna where time doesn’t pass, and they consume engifted souls to keep themselves from aging.  The narrative time thus progresses in a recursive loop; each nine years a new narrator enters a new Orison, but the modus operandi remains the same. The novel’s temporality reminds me a bit of a video game, where a new player enters and tries to beat the villains. It is reminiscent of the film Run Lola Run (explicitly framed as a video game sequence, run three times through), except that not all characters remain the same through the iterations of the game-time. As in that film, here there is Run Lolalearning, or shared information, that accumulates in the game’s iterations: knowledge and weapons are passed forward. For the reader, each section makes us increasingly familiar with the plot routine (enter the house, consume Banjanx, go upstairs, soul is consumed). So, as we make our way through it, the novel seems to become more and more suspended in the ghostly time of its fictional house. Of course, like all Mitchell novels, it ends with a new beginning. Instead of Norah’s death closing the deal, she transverses into a fetus and vows revenge on Marinus—and surely we can anticipate seeing this confrontation in a future novel.

This brings me to the other question you posed: what direction Mitchell might take from here. Mitchell is particularly fun to play this game with, because he keeps defying expectations and exploring new territories. In imagining Mitchell’s career trajectory, I don’t think about his work as a single arc or linear process. I’ve written before that it seems more fitting to imagine his texts as iterations in a fractal imagination. The recurring characters, themes, and genres prompt me to picture his “übernovel” as a sort of strange attractor; each text marks a recursive movement—both returning to familiar sites and opening new terrains—that simultaneously fleshes out and fills in more and more of his fictional universe. With each textual iteration, the overall shape and contours of his übernovel become increasingly clear and its constituent parts more densely interwoven.

If we conceptualize Mitchell’s work this way, then speculating where Mitchell’s work will go next would entail running the strange attractor simulation through its next iteration. Stanislaw Lem actually thought about authors’ work in this way in his brDostoevskyilliant “History of Bitic Literature” thought-experimental essay published in 1973. (Lem is a “Prescient” if ever there was one!) Lem imagines computing machines capable of “bitic mimesis,” machine-written imitation of writers. He describes a novel by Pseudodostoevsky, created by a computer processing all existing Dostoevsky novels as information in “the space of meanings” and modeling his corpus as “a curved mass, recalling in its structure an open torus, that is, a ‘broken ring’ (with a gap). Thus it was a relatively simple task (for machines, of course, not for people!) to close that gap, inserting the missing link” (58).

At first sight, it seems much harder to model Mitchell’s writing in that way than Dostoevsky’s; the latter seems to have an internal stylistic and generic consistency that Mitchell purposely eschews. But with each successive novel, his corpus seems to gain coherence and consistency, assuming some sort of discernible shape. If I tried to model Mitchell’s work, I wouldn’t start from “the space of meanings” in the words, but rather I would list a set of recurring elements—island or city settings, cats, types of characters (angry writer, gifted rebellious teen)—and a template for form, such as every ending a beginning, stand-alone episodic stories serving a larger plot, etc.

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Putting aside this digressive line of speculative unreasoning, one could make a more educated guess at predicting the shape of Mitchell’s future work by following the clues he himself has laid down. In her excellent piece about The Bone Clocks, Kathryn Schulz reports that Mitchell mapped out his next several several texts: “These include further adventures with soul-eating villains, a trio of linked novellas set in New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a return to historical fiction (different hemisphere this time), and a fictionalized biography of an 18th-century person you’ve probably heard of. The final installment of the Marinus trilogy will follow all that. Mitchell is also toying with an idea for what will by then be his 12th novel. It is set 250 million years in the future.”  It will be interesting to see if Mitchell adheres to this plan or if he cannot stop his restless imagination from going in other directions. Regardless of what Orisons Mitchell sends from his Operandi though, I confess that I’ll always eagerly eat the Banjanx he serves up, as long as my psychovoltage holds out.

I have suggested that Mitchell might serve readers well by publishing serially rather than in novels. Wouldn’t it be great if we could ‘subscribe’ to him, and receive his novels in installments, rather than waiting for the whole work to be done and consuming it all at once?  This would make reading Mitchell much more fun; not only would we endure shorter breaks between new Mitchell texts, but we would also stay in suspense much longer when one section ends, and have time to wonder what is coming next. This would also prevent book reviews from spoiling the surprise of reading his novels, the problem we attempted to mitigate in our first exchange.

I find reading his books now comparable to binge-watching seasons of a TV series. Just playing with this scenario, if the storylines of several novels are already set, one could even imagine a point where Mitchell could hire ‘writers’ to execute textual episodes in the ongoing übernovel saga. This turnabout on himself would even be fair play in some way.  Mitchell has been a kind of authorial noncorporum who infiltrates the minds of narrators, styles of authors, and conventions of genres, and speaks through them. He does more than allude to other writers; it is like he dons their modus operandi and produces a new version of them: number9dream is like Murakami as done by Mitchell; Cloud Atlas is like Mitchell does Defoe, Melville, Nabokov, Hoban, etc.  So why not see if talented writers could ‘do’ Mitchell?

David Mitchell book tour

David Mitchell

Of course, I don’t imagine or expect that Mitchell would ever outsource his stories to other writers. But I do think that he and his editor/publisher/agent might consider alternative delivery systems beyond print novels. He has already migrated into twitter; why not break new ground in publishing fiction?  I actually suggested this to Mitchell a year ago; he simply responded in conventional terms, saying that he would continue to follow the existing process. This occurred at a book tour stop for Bone Clocks, so maybe it wasn’t the right context for him to consider other options.

So, I’ll bounce it back to you—where do you see Mitchell going from here, and what do you think of his moving to some sort of serial publication, adapted to the contemporary historical context?


 

PATRICK O’DONNELL:  Thanks, Paul, for this lively speculation on where Mitchell might go from here. I completely agree that his fictions, as they unfold across the time of their writing, are “iterations in a fractal imagination”—that’s a terrific way of viewing his work incrementally. Doing so, as you suggest, leads to many interesting possibilities for reading him in the future (as well as considering what his writing in/of the future might look like).

There are “personalities” like Marinus to consider, who appears to be an amalgamation of tendencies or projections, a wavering needle on the scale that runs from protagonist to antagonist.  Then there are all the atomistic shapes and designs of Mitchell’s work, taken fractally as a non-totalizable totality—rooms, islands, fortresses, cities, avenues, pathways, landscapes, artifacts, assemblages of all kinds. One finds all of these and more in any novelist of Mitchell’s encyclopedic demeanor, but in observing these iterations across—now—seven novels, we definitely get the sense that each of these shapes and designs bear striking similarities but are radically different from novel to novel.

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One of the pleasures taken by many of Mitchell’s fans is playing “Where’s Waldo?” with his novels as they appear, focusing on the transmigratory characters of the novels. It’s rather like spotting the various manifestations of Tom Hanks in the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas (which, by the way, despite some dismal reviews, provides to my mind a compelling and precise visual rendering of Mitchell’s sense that civilizations across time are made up of transmutable identities, forms, and objects in continuous collision with each other). But to play “Where’s Waldo?” with the novels largely misses the point, because doing so overdetermines character as the primary element of his fiction.

I know there are some who read the repeated/rebirthed characters of Mitchell’s novels as generating some concept of transcendent human identity, or as a comment about the survival of “the human” over the reaches of time and amidst the collapse of civilizations and cultures, but I don’t quite see it that way. The repeated identities of his novels, to me, are simply one set of elements among many that circulate molecularly through his fiction: his game is terrain, not identity, and thus he is always moving—at times sequentially, at times randomly—between generated worlds always in the process of formation. This is another reason why I think the Wachowskis/Twyker adaptation of Cloud Atlas was so successful while being true to its materiality as a visual experience:  while probably difficult to understand “thematically,” especially for those not familiar with the novel and thus challenged to follow the intertwined plots of the film, visually, it captured perfectly Mitchell’s sense that history “happens” in a fragmented, non-linear fashion, that cultures and identities evolve fractally, and that the “whole” of reality is an illusion for which we generate partial narrative patterns and signifying chains as compensations.

David Mitchel ghost

David Mitchell

Given all of that, I agree entirely that the future “Mitchell” may well try out different forms and kinds of writing made available as the digital age progresses. As we know, writing and thinking are being radically transformed by the advent of social media, and there are several contemporary writers beginning to experiment with those forms in interesting ways.

The origins of Slade House in Twitter certainly indicates that Mitchell may well be moving into this territory. It will be interesting to see what happens along these lines given that, predictably, he will continue to be strongly tied to the notion of the book and the narrative traditions that have emerged in the post-Gutenberg book culture. (For many, “the book” is done, though not, I think, for David Mitchell.)  As you suggest, Mitchell may well move into a form of serial publication that somehow replicates both the novel’s traditional seriality (think of the apocryphal crowds waiting on the Brooklyn docks for the arrival of the latest number of The Old Curiosity Shop in the nineteenth century, and yielding up a universal moan when readers collectively came upon the death of Little Nell) and the new serialities of the digital age: semirandom, occasional, serendipitous, wherever Google takes us.

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But I think as well that Mitchell may in the future be exploring both other media and new ways of viewing how human cognition and behavior work, made available by the fast-moving advances in neuroscience and genetics currently taking place. The two indicators of this for me are his recent collaborative work with his wife, KA Yoshida, on the English translation of Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump, and the “3-D film-opera,” The Sunken Garden, with Michel van der Aa. I think it’s quite possible that Mitchell will be engaging in future collaborative projects that mix media (as he does genres in his novels) or that involve collaborative writing projects of some kind.

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David Mitchell and Michael van der Aa

And—given Mitchell’s fascination with childhood and adolescence (revealed most fully in blackswangreen but visible throughout his fiction), combined with the cognitive and learning processes of children that he directly engages with personally and in the act of co-translating the memoir of an autistic teenager—I would not be at all surprised to see Mitchell writing young adult fiction, or, in another dimension, exploring the ways in which narrative operates cognitively for different minds. In this, as in all of his work, I believe his focus will be not upon the universal, but upon the differences, the fractures in the surface and the gradations in the terrain, however we stumble upon them.


 

PAUL HARRIS: Patrick, this has been a great pleasure.  Thank you for contributing your perspectives on David Mitchell to SubStanceI look forward to reading more of your work and perhaps resuming this conversation when “Season 8” of Mitchell’s übernovel comes out.


 

Paul Harris

Paul Harris

Paul A. Harris is a co-editor of SubStance and a professor of English at Loyola Marymount University. He served as president of the International Society for the Study of Time from 2004-2013 and edited the recent SubStance issue David Mitchell in the Labyrinth of Time.  His current project is The Petriverse of Pierre Jardin.

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O’Donnell

Patrick O’Donnell is a professor of twentieth- and twenty-first-century British and American literature at Michigan State University; he is the author and editor of over a dozen books on modern and contemporary fiction, most recently, The American Novel Now:  Reading American Fiction Since 1980 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and A Temporary Future: The Fiction of David Mitchell (Bloomsbury, 2015).  He is currently working on a book about Henry James and contemporary cinema.

 

Not a review of David Mitchell’s new novel *SLADE HOUSE*

Previewing the book without preempting the pleasure of reading it

A conversation with Mitchell scholars Paul A. Harris and Patrick O’Donnell

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The University of Wisconsin Press journal SubStance published a special issue earlier in 2015, edited by Paul A. Harris, devoted to the extraordinary fiction of David Mitchell. A new novel from Mitchell, Slade House, debuts October 25, 2015.

Traditional book reviews of novelist David Mitchell’s writing inevitably spoil the pleasures of discovering what turn this genre-bending author’s latest work has taken; even a cursory account of plot, characters, and structure tells many Mitchell fans things they’d rather not have known. Here, Mitchell scholars Paul A. Harris and Patrick O’Donnell engage in a critical conversation about Slade House, in the hopes of piquing readers’ curiosity without making them feel piqued or PO’d.

This conversation will resume in early November, when Harris and O’Donnell will assess and respond to reviews of Slade House after it appears October 25.

PAH Patrick, I am delighted that you agreed to discuss Slade House prior to its imminent arrival (October 25) in bookstores and the mailboxes of Mitchell fans. I cannot help but point out that the opening lines of your own book on Mitchell (A Temporary Future: The Fiction of David Mitchell) fit his next novel perfectly: you cite W.G. Sebald character Austerlitz’s belief that “all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive at a certain house at a given 9781441171221time.”  Since those lines seem almost literally accurate in describing Slade House, I have to wonder what your immediate reaction was when you finished the text.  Did it seem like what you would have expected of his next novel, or does it break new ground?

For my part, I have to confess that at first the book left me a bit flat; it felt like The Bone Clocks ‘lite’ (in terms of both literary density and weight). As I read the novel, I kept anticipating/imagining the negative reviews it seems likely to receive from canonical- and avant-garde-minded critics alike. But as I flipped around in it and thought more about it, I concluded that Slade House is even more successful than Mitchell’s prior books at managing to be both accessible and complex, popular and academic. It’s a really fast read that keeps you engaged, but on reflection it seems meta-literary in complicated, interesting ways.

POD Thanks, Paul, I am delighted to join in this conversation with you about David Mitchell’s newest novel. As  you suggest, it is no surprise that Mitchell would write a novel about a house—in this case, a haunted house. The interior spaces of Mitchell’s novels are typically freighted with the past, the history of the events that have taken place therein, the memories or remnants of the characters that have inhabited them. I think Slade House is in many ways an intensification of Mitchell’s interest in the ways that time and space intersect, or perhaps a better way to think about it is that his “global” interest in those intersections has been given a specific location in a London back alley. Indeed, many of the stories that circulate through Slade House will seem familiar (if inevitably uncanny) to Mitchell’s readers as we encounter motifs and figures writ large in The Bone Clocks and percolating through all of the other novels. But I completely agree with you that what is happening here goes well beyond a continuation of the same esoteric narrative about the wars of the atemporals. I’d be interested to hear more about what your views about the metaliterary tropes and ideas of the novel.9780812976823

PAH Let me return to your unexpectedly apt introductory words in A Temporary Future. You wrote that “The ‘certain’ house at which one arrives in reading Mitchell—the novel one holds in one’s hands—is typically composed of many parts and genres, the architecture being neither carpenter’s gothic nor that of the sedimented multinovel, but a capacious assemblage of narratives connected to each other in differential patterns. Those patterns, detected by readers through variable acts of attention, can shift and fluctuate depending on the circumstances of one’s reading, the narrative thread that draws one’s notice at a given moment, the emergence of a sequence that compels one to recall something in a given novel’s ‘past,’ or something that seems to be lurking in its ‘future.’” These words not only apply literally to Slade House, but could also describe Mitchell’s ‘house of fiction’ as a whole. Simply put, one could say that Mitchell’s ‘house’ (Slade House and oeuvre alike) has only an ambiguous physical location and elusive materiality; one could say that it doesn’t exist in space but rather persists in time. I suppose that on one level this is true of all fiction; what would you say makes Mitchell’s work different in this regard?

POD  I really like the notion of the house of Slade House as analogous to Mitchell’s “house of fiction” as a whole, and the idea that this house persists across multiple genres and temporalities but, in effect, floats in space. We could compare Mitchell’s house of fiction to the famous figure Henry James put forward in his preface to The Portrait of a Lady, where he says that the house of fiction “has in short not one window, but a million—a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life.”  James’s figure is primarily epistemological and perspectival: reality is complex, and we perceive it, and know it, via multiple apertures, each framed by the position of the viewer and her/his “will” or capacity to see what is out there. Mitchell’s house is, by comparison, ontological, an incarceration of time and space that frames the condition of our being-in-the-world. I think one of the great attractions of a novel like Slade House is that Mitchell is enable to dramatize the immensely complex relationship between time, space, and being through an array of popular narrative genres and highly readable stories. The stories do not simplify the philosophical issues involved, they illuminate them, as light through a stained glass window illuminates religious mysteries.

But that brings me to a question for you that I think the novel raises as a continuation of the “Shaded Way” narratives that 9780375724503have been circulating in Mitchell’s novels since they were first hinted at in the Mongolia chapter of Ghostwritten: what do we make of Mitchell’s ongoing interest in the connection between science and religion, or science and the “other-natural” (as compared to the “supernatural)?  Any thoughts?

PAH Pat, thank you for bring in the very apposite James passage; I completely concur with the contrast you draw between his perspectival-nuance view and Mitchell’s constructive-ontological narrative poetics. I would add that it feels like James is always looking over the shoulders of his characters; that he gives us the world from their viewpoint but he is constantly “piercing” their windows onto the world, and actually he has difficulty allowing a character’s “individual vision” or “will” to take over the narrative. Mitchell, by contrast, seems to have full-blown voices in his head that he transcribes onto the page. He is invested in getting speech, language, allusive details, and tone exactly right for the multiplicity of characters he creates, the figures who become the reader’s guides through the global tours of his books. At the Los Angeles stop of his Bone Clocks book tour, when two young aspiring novelists asked him what one should do to become a better writer, his immediate response was to listen to people, to hear acutely and precisely how people speak—the locutions and accents and diction. I remember thinking, yes, one sees that in his books; it’s just easy to forget how quickly he immerses us in his characters’ voices, because when we think about his texts, it’s the innovations in form, settings, and intertextuality that stand out, plus the philosophical/cultural questions he raises (mortality, power, genocide, predation). There are inevitable echoes across his different voices—I recall one reviewer somewhat snarkily stringing together similar-sounding quotes from characters across Bone Clocks—but the passages were all the kind of pithy riffs/aphoristic formulations that Mitchell excels at and understandably (in my view) cannot resist writing. It’s not the case that all his characters speak in similar voices in general.

To me, Mitchell’s ability to transcribe voices onto the page operates in an interesting way—sometimes I think he is a ventriloquist; at other times it seems as if he’s the dummy.  This connects to the question you posed, because I remember that my first response to the noncorporeal intelligence of the Mongolia chapter in Ghostwritten was that it was a simple, literal embodiment or allegory of narration—particularly Mitchell’s narrative mode, ‘transmigrating’ from one mind to another as he changes chapters.  In Temporary Future you neatly characterize that character’s consciousness as “an assemblage of overlapping and differentiated cognitive maps, languages, fragmentary memories, and partial histories,” and read it as a metaphor for connections among strangers across time and space, as well as a figure for the fractured nature of identity in Mitchell.  I agree with this and by comparison what I saw is quite basic—the transmigration is a map of the narration’s itinerary, an image of Mitchell’s own constructive, creative journey from one person-place to another.

In terms of the question of the ‘other-natural,’ it does seem puzzling that Mitchell repeatedly disavows belief in anything beyond the material or natural, yet repeatedly returns to fantastic elements in his fiction that suggest otherwise.cover_sub  I think it might be possible to sort of invert the question: it is precisely the ability of narration to move magically, fantastically, across time and space, to inhabit other minds, to bring them to life and let them expire, or to have them hop into another head instead—‘other-natural’ elements or dimensions would just be an extension of these powers of narration. When I asked him about this issue in the interview for SubStance, he said:

“Maybe it’s worthwhile to note that a novel is a zone of near-infinite possibilities, where contradictory elements can co-exist, including temporal ones. The Bone Clocks is about mortals like us . . . as well as pseudo-immortals like the Anchorites . . . as well as the Horologists, who have a ‘Serial Repeater’ time-scale; and that’s okay, assuming you think the novel works. If The Bone Clocks was an astrophysics dissertation, I’d have my academic ID revoked and be escorted to the campus gate by security, and quite right too. Because it’s a novel, I get away with it. The other handy thing about novels is that while they explore, they don’t have to arrive at tidy conclusions.”

So, to me, Mitchell’s work invokes the ‘other natural’ as a possible world as a function of fiction’s power to produce infinite possible worlds. Maybe I am just using Mitchell’s ducking of the question to duck the question. . . . Bringing this back to Slade House, I felt that the way that the antagonists construct characters and the house clearly maps to Mitchell’s sense of the unlimited powers of the author to make up anything at any time, and to change the game as he or she sees fit.

After all that, then, I can only echo your unanswered question back to you: what do you make of Mitchell’s ongoing interest in the connection between science and religion, or science and the “other-natural” (as compared to the “supernatural)?

POD  I’m really intrigued by your statements about Mitchell’s ventriloquism, and I quite agree that he has an amazing capacity to capture and throw an assemblage of voices in his novels. This reminds me of Dickens, who knew a good deal about ventriloquism in the nineteenth century, and who was observed by his daughter, Mamie, to be “practicing” the voices of his characters before a mirror. Like Dickens, the convincingness of Mitchell’s voices have to do not just with matters of pitch and locution, but also with location—the planetary spaces that Mitchell is able to evoke both in the past and in the future. One of the things that would distinguish him from a Charles Dickens—picking up on your point about Mitchell’s character—and worlds-hopping—is his invocation of multiple worlds in adjacency, the multiple realities or, as Ursula Heise would put it, “chronoschisms” that Mitchell’s readers are encouraged to inhabit as stories and as formal structures. In a sense, both James and Dickens are after a kind of mastery—James (especially late James) to represent the totality of a consciousness or perspective, Dickens to trace the master plot behind all of the subplots and seemingly disconnected narratives of urban cacophony. I think the difference in Mitchell is that, as an author, he is not interested in mastery: as you elegantly put it, he brings plots, worlds and characters to life and allows them to expire, often in medias res. This may be going a bit out on a limb, but one of the great attractions of Mitchell’s narratives is their stories, made up in a very traditional sense of compelling characters and interesting, suspenseful plots; however, as an author (and of course this is something of a trompe d’oeil) he is far less anxious than Dickens or James about forsaking his authority over them; he seems not particularly worried about the form of singularity that we term “author,” though of course he has attained great visibility and, even, celebrity status despite his self-effacing authority. In other terms, he generates multiple, partial worlds and stories that make room for readers to connect, recall, and retell; in effect, he forsakes his authority, or alternatively, he allows readers the sense that they are co-authoring the work.

Bringing this back to Slade House, you’ve already suggested a number of ways that we could view this novel as a series of stories that entail metanarrative consequences for Mitchell’s own “house of fiction.” Not too fancifully, I think, we could consider all of Mitchell’s novels as “slade houses” (with the obvious pun on “slade/slayed”) through which his living-dying characters circulate in time. While, as devotees of “the Shaded Way” (adding a third resonance to “slade/slayed/shade”), the antagonists of Slade House seek immortality via the obscene consumption of souls, they fail over time—time itself is their enemy—as do the vampiric “immortals” of The Bone Clocks, Cloud Atlas, and Ghostwritten; in the end, they die, every single one of them. And the protagonists in this metaphysical battle, the Atemporals, also can and do die; in fact, death is essential to their being, as is the case with Marinus, who makes his/her reappearance as a psychiatrist from Toronto in Slade House. I think through all of this that Mitchell sees mortality, the fact of death that comes to us all, as the primary condition of being human, and all of our attempts to circumvent death (and time, for that matter), as the engine behind the construction of empires, the accumulation of wealth, the quest for power, and the recurrence of war—as if, in the latter, we can defeat death by incurring it everywhere.

And this then takes me to responding to your call out on the question of the relation between science and religion in Mitchell. I couldn’t help laughing at Mitchell’s saying that if The Bone Clocks was an astrophysics dissertation, his academic ID would be revoked and he’d be escorted to the exit by campus security. Yet if you read some of the material with which Mitchell is clearly acquainted on quantum physics, the concept of black holes or the many-worlds interpretation would sound no more outlandish to skeptical ears than the idea of an ongoing war between two semi-immortal factions taking place in a parallel universe that, every so often, encroaches upon human individuals in the “real” world. I think Mitchell is interested in the deep connections to be perceived across history between religion and science, both disciplines premised upon systems of belief that offer the potential of extended life or life after death. I can hear the empiricists scoffing at this, but what else is behind the multilayered and extending scientific quests that inform cybernetics (replacing mortal elements with mechanical parts that last longer following an infinite logic of substitution), astrophysics (in the attempt to understand the origins of the universe and the limitations on its near-infinite expanse), mathematics (in the abstractions infinite numbers), or genetics (in the attempt to create a complete DNA map and thus genetically produce individuals who can live longer, and perhaps even be reborn after death through cryogenics). I think Mitchell in his fiction is particularly attuned to how driven we are to find a way to cheat death. Authors do this in their writing (which they hope will live well beyond them in future generations of readers); Mitchell generates a form of writing which takes as a principle theme the good and bad consequences of this “life-drive.”

Paul Harris

Paul Harris

Paul A. Harris is a co-editor of SubStance and a professor of English at Loyola Marymount University. He served as president of the International Society for the Study of Time from 2004-2013 and edited the recent SubStance issue David Mitchell in the Labyrinth of Time.  His current project is The Petriverse of Pierre Jardin.

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O’Donnell

Patrick O’Donnell is a professor of twentieth- and twenty-first-century British and American literature at Michigan State University; he is the author and editor of over a dozen books on modern and contemporary fiction, most recently, The American Novel Now:  Reading American Fiction Since 1980 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and A Temporary Future: The Fiction of David Mitchell (Bloomsbury, 2015).  He is currently working on a book about Henry James and contemporary cinema.

Christina Stoddard talks about poetry, Mormonism, feminism, gang violence, and revenge

Christina Stoddard is the author of the poetry collection HIVE, for which she is the winner of the 2014 Brittingham Prize in Poetry. Hive has just been published by the University of Wisconsin Press. We spoke with Stoddard about this fierce debut collection of poems about brutality, exaltation, rebellion, and allegiance.


Stoddard-Hive-c

I needed to write a poem that was absolutely boiling over with rage.


Where did the title of the book come from? Why Hive?   Beehives are actually an important symbol in Mormon culture, and have been dating back to pioneer times. The exact reason why is not known for sure, but there are a few theories. One is that honeybees embody many qualities that the Church teaches its members to prize: harmony, industriousness, order, communal labor. Everyone performing their assigned role and everyone working together for the common good. Bees are cohesive and single-minded, not individual. Bees don’t deviate from the path they’re given—and thematically that is perfect for my book, which is about a teenage girl who is doing exactly that: deviating from the path she’s supposed to follow. Utah’s nickname is the Beehive State—even though they don’t really raise bees there and Utah doesn’t produce a lot of honey.

I gather from the book that you did not grow up in Utah, however.   No, I didn’t. I was born in the Pacific Northwest and grew up in Tacoma, WA, which is where the book is set. But my father is from Utah, and we visited relatives there often, so I’m familiar with a few cities in Utah.

How long did it take you to write the book?  That’s a little difficult to answer, because I spent many years

Christina Stoddard

Christina Stoddard

trying to write it and mostly failing. Originally what I produced weren’t poems, they were more like polemics. I was a very angry person in my teens and twenties, and I had to work through that anger first. A few of the poems have existed in some form for more than a decade. But most of the book was written over a period of three years, 2010 to 2013, after I had taken some creative writing workshops from poets Claudia Emerson and Ellen Bryant Voigt. Those women gave me the keys that unlocked everything else.

What sorts of keys?  I took a summer workshop at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, from Claudia Emerson, and when she read the group of poems I had turned in for class, Claudia basically told me that it seemed like I was phoning it in. She said I wasn’t pushing myself in either form or subject matter, and she challenged me to do better.

Really?  Yes. That hurt at first, certainly, but I decided there were two options: I could either give up and go sulk in the corner, or I could fling myself off a cliff of experimentation and see what happened. I chose the cliff. I started trying to write lyric poems, whereas previously my style had been very chatty, straightforward and plain, very rooted in story, what are often called narrative poems. A narrative poem has a beginning, middle, and end, and there’s usually a lot of context about what’s going on.

I took that new lyrical work and applied the next summer to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I had no idea if the poems were any good—they were way outside of my comfort zone. But I got accepted, and I took a workshop with Ellen Bryant Voigt. Ellen once  . . .  Full interview continued here Continue reading