PLACE-READING

I have always loved places deeply.  The way that architecture can effect our actions is extraordinary.  I guess that’s why I studied archaeology & classics, to get closer to ancient places or maybe just to geek out about Socrates.  But even outside of history, the way our cities are built control much more than the way we walk, always turning at right angles and stopping at red lights.  In Pennsylvania, the hills always felt protective and at the same time sheltering.  In Indiana, the open prairies make me feel vulnerable and at the same time aware.

A story will be told differently depending on where it takes place and what actions the terrain makes possible.  When the character needs to move, can they easily take the sidewalk to get where they are going?  Do they need to rely on a bus schedule?  Have they ever taken an airplane?  How far do they have to drive to see a neighbor or can they not escape seeing strangers whenever they leave the house?  When a character looks out their bedroom window, what do they see?  What does that tell them about themselves?  What does it make them capable of or incapable of?

Ancient texts taught me to consider these aspects of characterization.  When a room full of archaeologists read Sophocles, we want to know what the characters had access to and how these resources compared to the rest of Ancient Greece.  We look at texts about one city to tell us something about the entirety of the ancient world.  Though I have not yet taken a literature class, I imagine these concerns aren’t considered as often.

When I travel somewhere, I love to bring a book about the place I am going, no matter how little of a distance I am travelling.  This winter, I brought home 2 AM at the Cat’s Pajamas and sat in a coffee shop on Rittenhouse, looking out the same window as one of the character’s might have.  It was chilling.  This spring, I found a book called Hoosier Folk Legends that should be an exciting read in Muncie.  But a book for pleasure can never compare to reading one of my favorite plays of all time.

After graduating college I joined an archaeological excavation in Thiva, Greece.  We were excavating the temple of Apollo on the Ismenion Hill and I’m pretty sure I cried every day out of happiness for where I was (this is not even an exaggeration, my roommate thought it was super annoying).  One afternoon I was sitting outside reading the Bacchae, one of my favorite plays because Pentheus flirts with Dionysus because he thinks he’s a woman.

Also because Dionysus is described as the beautiful, androgynous God that he is, instead of some old drunk dude.  Look at them tresses and weep.

Anyway, in the play Dionysus descends from a hill with all his sorority girls–I mean Maenads–and kegs in tow.  His descent from that hill marks the descent of Thebes.  The hill is called the Kithairon and is mentioned several times throughout the play.  As I was reading this scene, I called over one of the professors on the excavation and underlined the name of the hill with my index finger.  “Where is this?” I asked.

He paused for a moment in thought, looked up at the skyline and raised a finger to the tallest hill, not too far from the center of town.  “That would have to be it,” he said.

“The one Dionysus came from?”

He looked at the title of my book and smiled a nerdy classicist smile.  He knew the weight of his words: “It is.”

I can’t think of a better reading experience.  In fact, I think about that reading experience a lot.  It taught me the power of place in literature.

Has a space ever effected your reading experience (for better or worse)?  Have you ever written a story in a setting you have never been to?  Or one that you are very familiar with?  What kinds of places do you find most conducive to reading and writing?

COUNTERNARRATIVES by john keene

A Review of Counternarratives by John Keene

 

It is often said that history is written by the winners, and thinking back to my early education, my first conceptualization of what it meant to be American, I couldn’t agree more.  But we often underestimate how powerful of a tool history can be, especially when we identify more with the ‘winners’ of history than the ‘losers’.  Our concepts of modern morality were founded upon the nations and stories that we believe came before us.  People often argue that something is right because it is ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ or worse ‘how it has always been’, but these concepts only come from our sense of history.  Something that often times we owe more to history textbooks than to our own research.  Even if we do investigate historical events on our own, our version of the ‘truth’ can only be based on what texts have been translated into our native language and which documents have survived the test of time.  In his book, Counternarratives, John Keene provides an essential perspective on the history of the Americas with stories that span the Western side of the globe.

Keene’s book is a collection of short stories and novellas written in various formats: letters, footnotes, newspaper columns, and traditional short story form.  The stories and novellas are not linked by characters, but rather by concept.  All of them aim to disturb our traditional notions of both fiction and history.  To challenge the concept of fiction, Keene utilizes various appropriated forms to shake our idea of what makes something a ‘story’.  While reading through this collection, I felt like a historian sorting through newly discovered documents, trying to join these new narratives with the narratives I had known before opening this book.  It made the book feel like it was an artifact, a great advocate for why we still favor physical books over online publications–this is a book you want to hold, a book that makes you take on a certain role as you leaf through it.

Along with challenging form, Counternarratives also challenges our perceptions of history.  All of the accounts in the book are centered around people of color whose voices have been ignored or silenced by the white narrative.  The very first story, “Manhatta”, tells the story of Juan Rodriguez, the first non-native to set foot on the island of Manhattan.  Rodriguez was born in Santo Domingo (what is now the Dominican Republic) to Portuguese and African parents. He was hired by a Dutch ship as a translator and became part of a crew sailing to America.  Typically we think of the first settlers in America as Europeans, but Keene gives emotion and voice to this factual account and troubles our long-held notions about the first settlers.

My favorite story from this collection is called “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon” which takes place in a monastery in Brazil.  The narrator is sending a report in the form of a letter about the ongoings of a monastery in Alagoas, hinting that the monastery is guilty of deceiving the addressees of this letter.  Through the letter, Keene is able to build both plot and characterization while still maintaining the formality of a report:

“That is, I shall now tell of that series of events, unforeseeable at least to some of those who lived them, that inverted worlds, bringing those whom you knew, or thought you knew, intimately, northward in retreat to Olinda from the south, just as you bore only the clothes on your back and your Bible in your departure south for the capital city of the Savior.  How do I know these facts, their recounting never having passed any man’s lips?  This, as with so many other things, I shall reveal in due time.”

Complex discoveries of history and identity are intertwined with every aspect of this collection.  But mostly, I feel this collection gives voice to identities that have often been silenced in our current versions of history.  The voices that tie the collection together by the end of the book are two characters in the short story “The Lions”. This story starts with an epigraph from Ludwig Wittgenstein: “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him”.  This comes from Wittgenstein’s second book, Philosophical Investigations, and I remember exactly where I was when I first heard this quote.  In a stuffy classroom my professor explained it to us, a group of senior philosophy majors who had just learned that every other author we’d studied now stood in the shadows of Wittgenstein’s new solutions.  My professor explained, “Even if a lion could speak, he would be looking at life from an entirely different frame of reference than a human.  If language is created based on commonalities and a lion has nothing in common with a human, then we would not be able to understand each other.”

“The Lions” is a story where, much like the others in this collection, having the background knowledge of the history or the form, adds exponential layers to the reading experience.  The form of this story is written in the style of Wittgenstein’s work, almost a call and response type of dialogue.  Two thinkers express ideas on leadership, betrayal, and power, with an ellipses between each thought.  In contrast to the other stories in the collection, “The Lions”, documents two leaders unafraid of using violence and greed to maintain positions of power, unaffected, it seems, by the oppression that sits side by side with the other stories in this collection.  Here, we listen to the thoughts of two dictators, two voices that history often chooses to ignore because we do not want to understand their language, how they are capable of such acts. This story is a perfect example of the theme that runs throughout Keene’s book–narratives that push against what we have been taught to accept as ‘history’.  The collection not only challenges old schools of thought, but also asserts that concepts of queerness, blackness, and gender identity, have always played a role in our foundations and will continue to do so as long as history continues to be written.

LARP AS FICTION

Before I called myself a ‘fiction writer’, I called myself a ‘LARPer’.  This isn’t to say I never wrote fiction before this year, I just never felt confident enough to own up to the title or worse, make it my profession.  When I think about what changed between the time I was stapling together handwritten stories and crayon illustrations and when I started submitting to literary magazines, I think LARP played a major role.

But first, what is LARP?  The acronym stands for Live Action Role-Playing and I often describe it as a cross between theatre, reading, and video-gaming.  Just like there are many genres of books, there are many genres of LARP.  There are horror LARPs where the main point is to kill zombies and survive.  There are tournament LARPs where the focus is on fighting and/or recreating historical battle scenes.  There are psychological LARPs where you are locked in a room with your colleagues and interrogated until one of you cracks and betrays the others.  There are social LARPs that look like a noble’s dinner party from the 1700s filled with gossip, romance, and intrigue.  Though the themes vary, the essence of LARP can be broken down into three roles:

Players: If you are entering a game as a player, you will typically play as one consistent character that you have written a backstory for and that you will eventually level up (add new skills/abilities).

Staffers: If you are a staffer, you have attended weekly meetings to put together open-ended plots for the players to experience.  During the game, you will typically play as anywhere from 4 to 10 characters per weekend event, and you may have had some hand in writing the rulebook for your game.

Cast members: If you are attending a game as a cast member, you are an on-hand actor who will take on various roles in the open-ended plots that staff has written for you.  You may also fight players while dressed in a various monster costumes, or help set up decorations, or plant hidden items for players to find.

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And when you write the rules you can write “gender roles don’t exist” into your world.

My experience with LARP lies mostly in social/psychological/combat games, as both a player and a staffer.  The games that I hold closest to my heart are both in Central Pennsylvania, both professional non-profit businesses created by two groups of students from my undergrad.  As a player, I am the town’s priest/vice mayor (aka their power-hungry church and state) and as an Assistant Director, I like to write psychological and social plots that test a character’s morality (I guess that philosophy degree is good for something).

The people who I typically LARP with come from all sorts of backgrounds.  We do have a couple of self-identified fiction writers, but we also have engineers, lawyers, EMTs, veterans, teachers, cashiers, actors, models, zookeepers, and librarians.  When we write stories, we have a lot of different backgrounds coming together, each advocating for different perspectives and considerations.  It is this diversity that has really aided my fiction-writing.  Rather than sitting around a table of twelve people who have always studied fiction, LARPing has allowed me to gain feedback from people who have actually experienced the worlds I am writing about.  A veteran can tell me if my character with PTSD feels real enough, an EMT can tell me how the wounds my character received would most realistically be healed (and no, not all LARPs heal with “magic spells”).

With that group of diverse voices as my workshop audience, here are a few things I learned from LARP that I feel apply to fiction:

  1. Audience feedback: When writing a plot, I first run my ideas by staff, and eventually they will be launched for the people playing the game.  Once I send my plot out (let’s say, a sassy Baron asking players to help him spread rumors about his rival), players will participate in it, and then after the event they write feedback to staff letting them know what could have been done differently.  This has really helped me figure out how much information a player/reader needs in order to understand things like motivation and background.
  2. Collaboration: Having a workshop group of diverse professions has certainly helped me with realism, as mentioned above, but even more so it has helped me writing plot.  Have you ever read an author whose books have become predictable (“oh, it’s a George novel, of course that character isn’t the gender I expected them to be”)?  The fact that I never write 100% of anything that goes out allows for stories to become unpredictable and therefore more interesting.
  3. Comprehension: I will admit, I think I wrote about 1 paragraph of my game’s 100 page rulebook.  I hate numbers.  But I did still sit through the process, and what it taught me was clarity.  If a player is depending on your text to understand how to use their props correctly in game, then you need to go through several drafts, fixing even the smallest words to make sure your language is clear enough on the first read.

If I ever do get to a point in my life where I teach Creative Writing, I would love to teach a LARP writing class.  I think there is so much that creative writers (and others!) can learn from creating a world collaboratively and also for a group of reactive audience members.  Have you ever had a non-traditional genre influence your writing?  If so, how?

ISAAC CAMERON HILL by ammi keller

Inspired by the recent #translit chat on Twitter, I decided to review my favorite piece of trans literature from 2015.  The short story “Isaac Cameron Hill” by Ammi Keller was originally published in American Short Fiction, but I discovered it in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015.  As a trans-identified writer myself, I have often searched for stories with main characters who share my identity, only to find the same tragic, transition-centric novels (usually written by cisgender authors).  Keller’s short story is not that.  Keller’s short story allows the transgender characters to be more than their identities and yet not completely unchanged by them.

Over the course 13 pages, Keller paints small brushstrokes of the main character, Isaac, ultimately building to a larger portrait of who Isaac is today.  We see Isaac reading erotic novels as a kid, moving through the US and Europe in his twenties, and coming to terms with his gender identity in San Francisco.  Over time we are able to piece together the glimpses we receive of Isaac to fully understand his character and the narrator’s character in relationship to him:

“Being a man is a rougher life, but it’s far easier to be left alone and this suited him.  Having been raised a girl caused Isaac to act in ways that seemed, for a man, gracious.  On visits to the city, in his truck stinking of motor oil and whiskey and mud through so many layers of army canvas, he was more beloved than ever.”

What Keller does here (as well as in other parts of the story), shows a true expertise on the subject of trans identity.  Too often when writing about marginalized characters, authors will listen to the stories on the news rather than the voices of people within the marginalized group they are writing about.  This leads to the bulk of trans literature looking like this: characters who are rejected by their families, characters who are unable to maintain a relationship throughout their transition, and characters who are almost always portrayed as being physically or sexually assaulted.  While these stories are unfortunately very common and by all means important to discuss, the trans literary community needs a diversity in subject matter that reflects the diversity in our community.  Keller’s descriptions bring out the mundane yet unique aspects of being transgender, creating a balance that allows Isaac to feel distinctly trans and yet does not force his identity to permeate every single one of his actions.

In addition to journeying through Isaac’s gender identity, the story also takes us to various places in the US and Europe.  We watch the characters’ attitudes change towards themselves as they simultaneously change their attitudes towards the places they live in:

“I told him America did not want us, that we should go to Barcelona or to Mexico City, which I still had faint, fond memories of, notwithstanding my current estrangement from my parents.”

Keller gives us a lot to think about by the end of this piece.  There are themes of sexuality and attraction, gender identity and isolation, and threaded through everything is the question: what does it mean to find home?  Do we find home in our bodies, our lovers, or the places we live in?  “Isaac Cameron Hill” looks at these universal concepts through a lens that is not often celebrated in the literary community which is why this story quickly became one of my favorites from 2015.

 

 

YOUR BRAIN ON BOOKS

I recently read an article by Blake Ross on his experience with aphantasia, a condition where someone does not have a “mind’s eye” and is unable to visualize things that are not there.  Many people when asked to visualize, say, a calming beach would see an image projecting in the back of their brain, usually a moving picture, sometimes complete with sound, smell, and touch (though some of these senses are more difficult for people to recreate). When someone with aphantasia is asked to visualize a calming beach, they will logically list things that would appear there: waves, sand, cliffs, seagulls.  They will not, however, reconstruct those items visually because their brain doesn’t function that way.

Aphantasia can lead to a different experience of the words “daydreaming” and “memory”, but one thing that struck me in this particular article was Ross’ brief explanation of his reading habits.  He used to worry that he was “doing reading wrong” since he always skipped descriptive language in novels.  If you think about it, what good would descriptive narration do for someone who cannot add it to an ongoing picture in their mind?  As a writer himself, Ross talked about how this has affected his writing style.  Where one author might write an excessively descriptive line about the physical attributes of a character, Ross might write something like “there was an assassin”.

This got me thinking about taste in literature and why we write the way we write.  At it’s core, the goal of writing is communication.  How effectively you can transfer a thought from one mind to another.  But what if your mind is wired differently than your reader’s, what happens then?

If I take a look at my own reading style or “my brain on books”, I am an extremely logical reader.  I focus on motivations, chronology, and movement.  While I don’t think that I have aphantasia by any means (I can recreate audio, visual, and usually smell on command), I think the way that I read books is non-visual.  When I read a book, I actually hear the characters talking much more often than I see them.  I’m a big fan of skipping ahead to scenes with dialogue in books because they have the most “noise”.  The only visual aspect I do often play out in my mind while reading is the blocking (movement) of a scene with dialogue.  This may be because I was raised on theater and in stage productions we always learned the blocking of a scene before memorizing our lines.  They would have us walk around the stage, mentally charting where we stand and sit, and then two weeks later, we would add in the memorized dialogue, the sounds.  Maybe that was ingrained into me, who knows.  But now when I read I match the character’s words to their movements, even if an author doesn’t tell me them.  If a character starts to get sad, I think to myself, “she would logically sit down here”.  But if you ask me to tell you the color of the sofa the main character just sat down on, well, I probably skipped that paragraph ages ago.

As a result of this reading style when I write fiction there is a lot of noise.  I like to tell people what sounds are happening in the scene, as if I were creating one of those old time radio shows that families would gather around in their living room.  I love dialogue–Hills Like White Elephants?  Magic.  Also 80% dialogue.

But it’s not just that I enjoy dialogue.  I actually get angry at description.  I remember trying to read Tolkien and getting so frustrated.  I remember thinking, “Why is he describing this table for two paragraphs?  This is useless!”  But it wasn’t.  Not to someone who is a heavily visual reader.

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Dorian Corey will “visually read” you any day, honey.

 

So when we say the word “reading”, we’re not all talking about the same thing.  Some of us are describing letting our minds carry us to new worlds populated with intricate architecture, beautiful food, and I guess really elaborate tables.  Some of us “read” by following a story logically, mapping out emotions and motivations that follow around the main characters.  Some of us hear a radio show in our head, distinct tones and pitches that weave us in and out of dialogue.

My question to you is: how do you describe your reading experience?  Do think it relates to your preferences in any way or even how you define “good” literature?

 

 

LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION

Compared to the rest of the world Americans have a track record for not reading foreign books.  Our global reputation for being self-centered only adds to this I’m sure, but there is something that we can do as readers and writers to change the stigma against international books.  In 2015, only 570 translated books were published in the U.S.  This number comes from University of Rochester’s translation press, Three Percent, which is named after the margin typically associated with the number of translated books published in the US (although LitHub estimates the number is around 0.7% for literary fiction and poetry).  Why are Americans uninterested in translated fiction?  Why do people often claim they want to read a ‘real’ book instead?  What does our lack of interest in foreign authors convey to the global literary community?

Let me be clear that readers are not the only ones at fault here.  In my hunt for translated books, I have rarely seen them advertised and even less often seen them in stores.  There is definitely a systematic problem at hand here.  However, despite the additional difficulties that translated books may present to a publishing house or a marketing team, I believe that we as readers have the power to influence how frequently translated books make it into our country and onto the bookshelves.  If more Americans were to actively read translated fiction, we could change the stigma against it for the betterment of our community at large.

I started to take an interest in translated books in my first creative writing class when our professor asked us how many of us read non-American authors.  She said, “If you think the publishing world is intimating now”–and as seniors and grad students preparing to face ‘the real world’ we certainly found the idea terrifying–“imagine how difficult it would be to publish a book to the English-speaking world if your writing wasn’t in English.”  This idea sat with me for a long time.  I realized that I couldn’t recall a single author from outside of the US or Western Europe.  I realized that I couldn’t recall a single story I’d written that took place outside of the US or Western Europe.  Both of the universities I had attended emphasized how they were turning us into global citizens, but in that moment I didn’t feel like a global citizen at all.

This realization was particularly puzzling because it felt so against the reason most people give for reading books: to escape.  If readers crack open the cover of a book looking to be transported somewhere else, why do we tend to only read authors who look, think, and speak like us?  If so many Instagramers are filled with wanderlust for new places, why don’t they let books take them there?  Why have writers exhausted the ‘Americans travelling abroad’ trope, yet writers who live in other countries rarely have a voice in our fiction?

There are some readers who have responded to the lack of ethnic and cultural diversity in our literature in fantastic ways, like the organizations Words Without Borders and World Literature Today.  One reader and writer, Ann Morgan, recently completed a challenge she set for herself to read one book translated from every country in the world.  Last year she completed her goal and during her journey, her idea was received so positively that some countries even sent her books for free.  Though I doubt I can carry on at the same rate as Ann Morgan, I have begun my own challenge of a sort by trying to read at least 2 translated books a year.  Next month I’m excited to start Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan translated from Indonesian to English by Annie Tucker.  If you’re interested in changing the current stigma against translated books, I highly encourage you to invent a similar challenge for yourself.  And if you do, please let me know in the comments what translated book you plan on checking out next!

 

LITERATURE AS EMPOWERMENT

For a long time, I didn’t read.  When I was younger, I didn’t know “who” I was, but I certainly knew that I wasn’t on the cover of any of the YA novels my friends would read on the bus.  While the lack of diversity in books affects all of us, it especially affects young people trying to understand their own identities.  Young people learn by example, but when there is no one to serve as an example, what does that do to a growing mind?  It stops it from exploring possibilities.  Literature is a form of empowerment, for better or for worse.  Seeing a character who looks like you, thinks like you, or loves like you, can mean the world.  On the other hand, not seeing any characters like you can send the message that people like you don’t exist or can only exist in one role (the best friend, the villain). There is so much everyone can learn from reading about new perspectives, but those of us who rarely see ourselves reflected in our culture’s heroes are the ones who need diverse books the most.

I started taking books seriously when I was in high school, and believed myself to be a straight ally to the LGBTQ community (ah, the dark days).  However, I wasn’t just a straight ally, I was an incredibly passionate (read: annoying) straight ally.  By the 11th grade, I had read every book by or about the lives of Oscar Wilde, E.M. Forster, and Christopher Isherwood.  Name a historical figure and I could have told you a theory about how that person was actually gay.  I would carry books around like accessories, advertising my identification with these authors to the world. I daydreamed of some mythical queer-history-expert high schooler who would stop me in the hallway to ask about the book in my hand or who would recognize the green carnation I made my prom date buy me for prom.  This mythical high schooler and I would strike up a coded conversation about these queer authors, all the while knowing the true subtext behind our words.

Unfortunately for my high school self, that hero never came along and instead of waiting for them, I began experimenting with dating.  At that time, I dated a few people of various genders, but there was a common thread among them all: we exchanged books.  We exchanged queer books.  In courting each other, our hands would exchange David Levithan and Stephen Chbosky, and much like the subtlety of Oscar Wilde’s green carnation or Forster’s references to the Symposium, our sexualities went unsaid.  We let the books, the symbols of our identity, do the speaking for us.  With those books and handwritten post-its that said, ‘Tell me what you think of this one!’, we were saying, ‘See the way these two characters care about each other?  Is that how you feel about me?’

Why did we do this?  Why books and why not music, movies, or TV? Like most teenagers, we were deathly afraid of our parents having any window into our personal lives, especially our sex lives (or lack thereof).  Much like the history of queer identities, we needed to be subtle, and books were exactly that.  I remember getting in trouble for watching the Ellen DeGeneres show after school, but what parent could say no to their child reading Plato?

As I read through those books, I still never found a character who lined up with my own gender or sexual identity, but for a high schooler, I got close enough.  I got close enough to lift my eyes outside the scope of my hometown and see that people like me existed.  Somewhere.  After describing my sexual identity to my closest friends and being laughed at or after describing my gender identity to my teacher and having him tell me, “all teenagers hate their body; one day you’ll get better at accepting the one you’re born in”, these books were telling me something that no one else in my life could at that time: hang in there.  And since they were subtle, they could be ubiquitous.  They could reassure me on family vacations at the beach, in a lonely study hall period, or on a train ride to visit my grandparents.  I could take them anywhere.  And I did.

Books have an inherent ability to empower others, but for those of us whose identities fall within the margins, we have to work for access to that empowerment.  It took a lot of research to find queer books as a kid, and I can imagine I wouldn’t have read most of them if I didn’t live near a city library.  As I got older, I would purchase books just to highlight one paragraph that proved a famous Greek hero, Hercules, had a male lover.  Even the smallest reference, the briefest sub-plot, still makes me feel glad to be included in a book’s narrative, but some days I am not satisfied with being confined to the backdrop.  We need diverse books because they provide us with examples and possibilities, allowing us to create our identities in the face of stereotypes.  We need diverse authors to represent these characters accurately, to speak to those who are most hungry to see themselves in literature, to those who might cling to good books and good representations a little more closely than we’d like to admit.


In my next post, I plan to talk about the lack of cultural diversity in literature especially in regards to translation and representation of writers outside of the English-speaking world.  For now, here’s my list of queer stories I grew up reading, and note that I do recognize they are nearly all white men, which is something I will address in my next update.

A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood

Maurice – E.M. Forster

Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin

The Symposium – Plato

The Argonautica – Apollonius of Rhodes

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

Orlando – Virginia Woolf

Death in Venice – Thomas Mann

Queer – William Burroughs

Our Lady of the Flowers – Jean Genet

The Perks of Being A Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

M or F? – Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tebbetts

The Realm of Possibility – David Levithan

Maledicte – Lane Robbins

CATACOMBS by jason zencka

When I first started learning German my teacher told us, “When you have your first dream in another language, that’s when you’ll know you’re fluent.”  I’ve yet to experience my first dream in German, a language I quickly abandoned after my first glimpse at Ancient Greek letters in the Argonautica.  But, I still do think about the way my teacher said this, and I remember wondering what it would be like to even think in two different languages.  To this day I am not fluent enough to dream in any language other than English, but Jason Zencka’s “Catacombs” is what I imagine bilingual dreams would feel like. By blurring conversations of Spanish and English, “Catacombs” challenges genre conventions in order to address subjects of grief, place, and sexuality.

In 23 pages, Zencka tells the story of a Midwestern family that has taken a vacation in Acapulco, Mexico.  Through the narration of George (who can go wrong with a name like that), we bear witness to his eight-year-old perception of the city and his grappling with the Spanish language.  We follow his thirteen-year-old brother, Winnie, as he struggles to figure out independence and sexuality in a new city.  Zencka splices narrative time to give us the story of these two brothers in a way that I have never seen before.  The way George works through his experiences in Acapulco feels like meta-narration, saying things like, “Have I said I loved this boy?  Of course, I didn’t realize he was a boy then, and it’d be years and years before I did.”  He uses the narration to surprise us, chronologically and intellectually, telling us exactly what to expect over the course of the story, but still making us eager to see it unfold on the page.

Zencka’s debut publication gives us a glimpse into our own psychology: how we work through grief and how we work through being far away from “home” for the first time.  He challenges conventions in a way that brings about raw characterization, yet still allows Zencka’s craftsmanship to shine through.  If you are interested in his thought processes behind the story, check out his Q&A with Hanna Tinti at One Story, where you can also purchase a copy of the story.

 

 

 

 

MY LITERATURE PHILOSOPHY

Admittedly, the question of what makes literature “good” comes to mind more often when I write than when I read.  Until very recently, I had not allowed myself to question what publishers deemed “good” literature–if it was on a shelf, in a magazine, or had its own url–I believed that someone, somewhere had already put that piece of literature through the “is this good” test.  However, I am starting to realize that a large percentage of my feelings toward what makes a book “good” come from marketing–I really do judge books by their covers or by how they were presented to me by high school English teachers.  In reality, I haven’t read that many books in my life.  Maybe 100.  I only read what I like, and as it turns out, I don’t like very many books.

In a Platonic sense, I do believe there is a “form” for literature, that is to say there is an essence of “literature” and when new books are created they fall somewhere on a spectrum between “good” or “bad” representations of this form.  However, it goes without saying that this form is entirely subjective.  The things I admire in literature by no means have the power to make something “cannon” or “classic”.  Simply put, we like what we like, and there’s no point in asserting that my criteria for good literature are better than anyone else’s.

Some of the criteria I have for good literature are: clarity, specificity, and innovation.  To me, literature is about communicating new ideas.  There are two important aspects to this definition: audience and relevance.  Whether literature is addressing a culture, a specific person, or the author themselves, what makes literature “good” is how effectively it communicates to its intended audience.  Secondly, and just as important, is relevance.  Good literature should not be reiterating the ideas that have come before it, but instead building upon those ideas, adding in new questions and new perspectives.  Good literature should be queering our reality, challenging the things we think we know.

Much of my writing is based around characters and cultures that have been erased or misrepresented throughout history.  In my writing, my primary goal is to challenge representations of gender identity, sexuality, racial and ethnic identities, ability status, age, and so on. To make an elevator pitch out of my writing, I usually call it “queer historical fiction”.  This results in my writing often being called political, but I don’t see my writing as political, just as I don’t see my own identities as political.  There is no question as to whether or not queer people existed throughout history–we did and do exist–but we need to write ourselves back into the history books that have erased us.

The reason that I focus so much on writing with a historical lens is because I believe history shapes the validity of our identities.  I hear so many people call queer identities a “phase” or a “trend”, but looking back into the histories of the Greeks, the Chinese, the Egyptians, we have documentation of same sex couples, transgender and intersex people, polyamorous relationships, and various other forms of queerness that have existed and in some places flourished.  I want to use my literature to rebuild our identities from the ground up and show that queer themes and relationships have always held a place in society.