October 12, 2015 § 1 Comment
By Travis DuBose
Early in Far Country: Stories from Abroad and Other Places, Timothy Kenny’s collection of essays about his time as a journalist in conflict zones, he recalls a conversation with an Afghan colleague in which a seemingly benign comment on Kenny’s part brings the conversation to an abrupt halt. “It is not the first time I have been chastened by not knowing what I do not know,” he reflects, offering a succinct encapsulation of the feelings of many who cross borders. In reading about Kenny’s own struggles to adapt, I remembered time I spent in Taiwan, asking cultural questions of the one person among my colleagues who seemed most willing to talk about practices and traditions that confused me.
I continued asking for explanations over the weeks that I worked with her, especially about the very public religious displays I passed on my way into work. Why the tables full of fruit and incense outside the stores? Why the big barrels of fire in the alleys? Eventually, she countered, “You ask a lot of questions.” It wasn’t unfriendly, but it didn’t celebrate curiosity, which she claimed was welcome. Sometimes trying to remove cultural ignorance is an alienating task, especially for those who do the explaining. Far Country gives a sense of the burden cross-border connection places on all parties.
The book’s centerpiece, a long essay on the author’s time in Kosovo’s capital, gives keen insight to the difficulty of short stints living abroad. His description of the wandering, listless feeling and weather that never seems to be quite right was instantly recognizable after my own time abroad. His description of his relationship with his Kosovar landlord is a perfect example of the alienating differences that separate an expatriate from both home and the place where he finds himself. Despite the temperature, his landlady refused to turn on the heat in his apartment, saying, “It is not time to turn on the heat in Pristina.” Kenny faces the frequent question of many who make their homes abroad: Am I being taken advantage of or do I simply not understand?
Beyond his meditations on connecting and crossing cultures, Kenny’s journalistic career has been astounding, having reported across Eastern Europe during the wars of the early 1990s and in Afghanistan during the American war on terror. His account of the siege of Sarajevo is harrowing and poignant, especially given how matter-of-factly he recounts the constant presence of sniper fire during his brief stay. From the tarmac to the hotel and back again, there was a constant threat of both snipers and mortar fire for both journalists and civilians. Kenny’s trip down Sniper Alley from the airport to the hotel is a microcosm of the absurdity of the entire conflict. The journalists’ car draws more fire rather than less, being labeled as a media vehicle. To reach the hotel the crew “crawled through a broken first-floor window…[It was] the safest way to enter or exit the building.”
Far Country is a brief book, but even so its final section, a reflection by Kenny on fatherhood, feels flat after the snap of the rest of the book. Though the stories are riveting, the essays sometimes struggle to keep the reader grounded in a particular time. In trying to cram a lifetime of stories in a short space, it’s sometimes difficult to tell “when” we are on the timeline. Kenny also has a penchant for similes that zoom wildly from one frame of reference to another. Even so, images from Far Country and, more importantly its moods, stick with me. Though I’ve never lived in a conflict zone, the difficulties and rewards of foreign life that Kenny describes are familiar to me, or at least as familiar as these sorts of things can be.
Travis DuBose‘s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Petrichor Machine, and Apiary. He teaches at Rutgers University-Camden where he manages the university’s Writing and Design Lab.
October 9, 2015 § 1 Comment
Lovers of the memoir genre will take pleasure in Talbot’s simple and highly addictive The Way We Weren’t. Addictive not because of the moments she describes from her struggle with alcohol, but because the reader is always close beside her, anxious to learn, Where does she go next?
Talbot leads the reader through the seven different states she has lived in over the past fifteen years in seven distinct sections. As she looks back at each locale, she remaps the meaning these places and memories hold for her and her daughter Indie.
When Talbot discusses her problem with wine, she does so like a poet sommelier, using a wine list, each glass or bottle describing a story, followed by a precise description: ”This offering is crisp,” she writes, “with hints of wet stone and yellowed pages.”
When she wants to examine metaphor, character, conflict, or form, she presents a mock-syllabus, a hyper-personal rubric for a class she covers in “The Professor of Longing,” a chapter that serves as the fulcrum of the book. “We’ll discuss stories, essays, and poems that remind me of my most recent misgivings, the words underlining my past,” she writes.
In a syllabus entry on Charlotte Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper,” Talbot writes: “Gilman admitted to altering her experience in her story, using ‘embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal.’” So, it’s no surprise that Talbot has done the same. In an interview with Marcia Aldrich in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Talbot explains: “I’ve never considered the ‘I’ in my work to be who I am. When I craft a persona on the page, it’s as if I’m turning up the volume on a particular emotion or aspect of my self. It’s a version of me, but it’s not me.”
“The Professor of Longing” is a chapter that can and has stood alone as an essay, yet is more powerful once you read Talbot’s story in its entirety.
After her syllabus, in the next chapter, the tone—the volume of her chosen persona—changes. It’s as though Talbot gets up, walks into the other room, takes out a bottle of Chardonnay, looks out the window, and silently performs a one-woman show.
“Reader, I can’t stop…,” she writes, looking back, looking forward, looking for something. Toward the end, we see how far Talbot has come with her daughter but how little has changed. She is always a single mom. She is always alone. When she tries to call Kenny, knowing he’s no longer there, her loneliness echoes with each ring.
In the second-person section of her memoir, Talbot shares the stage with Kenny. We hear him tell her not to leave. We see him come into the story like a silent shadow, sometimes drinking or playing guitar. Talbot shows us the letter Kenny wrote requesting an amendment to the court order for child support, where he finally speaks, but only to say, “I don’t feel like I should pay alimony because I’m not part of this child’s life.” In these scenes—where Kenny becomes the main character—we hear the story told in his voice, his point-of-view—one that directly competes with Talbot’s. He has become another villain, competing with her other antagonists: loneliness and addiction.
Talbot, a poet as well as a memoirist, has a remarkable gift for language, and by the end of The Way We Weren’t, the reader might feel herself gripping the book not only to see where Talbot and her daughter Indie end up (spoiler alert—she moves once more after the book is published) but also to eat up her delectable prose.
Patti Wisland is the managing editor of New Ohio Review.
October 8, 2015 § 5 Comments
At Kirkus Reviews, Debra Monroe mourns the passing of what used to be called “autobiography”:
I miss the big genre I first fell in love with.
Fifteen years ago, I read The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard, Truth Serum by Bernard Cooper, A Romantic Education by Patricia Hampl, The Color of Water by James McBride, Mountain City by Gregory Martin, and that pioneering exemplar first published in 1977 as “autobiography” because no one called them memoirs yet, Stop-Time by Frank Conroy. I apologize if I’ve failed to mention your favorite memoir that predates the recovery memoir. These are mine. Filled with dramatic scenes and nearly aphoristic insight about the individual’s relation to history, culture, and community, they delivered exciting new reasons to read.
Yet within a decade, the ordinary person’s memoir—which in the 1990s appeared as a new rendition of a genre once reserved for celebrities and statesmen—became the recovery memoir.
Monroe doesn’t decry the memoirs of addiction, of abuse, of trauma–but she questions why memoir has become so inextricably linked with traumatic experience.
Somewhere in the journey from famous-person’s-diary to anyone-can-memoir, we’ve lost sight of the idea that unique experience–or universal experience well-told–can be interesting enough. That our genre isn’t Queen For A Day. That it’s OK to be a wordsmith, a world-quantifier, an insight-generator, rather than primarily a sufferer.
Monroe mentions that “most afflictions have been covered now,” and she’s right. How many more journeys do we need through addiction, through childhood sexual abuse, through sex work?
Yet this is not to say OFF LIMITS to certain topics, just because they’ve “been done,” often more than once before. Rather, if we are writing our trauma, we must look for what we have to say that’s new. The “so what” factor is stronger than it used to be for the recovery memoir. The craft needed to sell the story is at a higher level. The reader’s need is for the author’s unique perspective, the author’s ability to generate insight in partnership with the reader.
As Monroe argues, “While the best memoirs I know depict hardship, hardship is a station or two on a longer trek.”
October 7, 2015 § 6 Comments
A guest post from Samantha Tucker:
Though I am only eight I know instinctively my grandpa is full of shit. I am a logical child, and I devour Nancy Drew and Goosebumps and write my own stories about Big Foot, but I pride myself on knowing when something isn’t real, is made up, no matter my visceral desire to accept the bizarre as truth.
I am curious but cautious, and when my grandpa tells me, “Sam—I saw a man rip a bull’s heart out,” I want to ask: Does the bull fall over? What does the matador do with the heart? What movie have you stolen this from, Grandpa? Why do I imagine the matador takes a bite out of it, the blood dribbling down his chin like juice from the reddest apple?
Like juice from the reddest apple.
The way he tells it, he is there in the arena, so close he’s nearly the matador himself. The embroidered jacket hangs heavy on his shoulders, the beads glittering, swinging like pendulums at each nimble flick, swish, of the capote, the marooned matador cloak; his shoulders reach like monuments, the thickness of the fabric accentuating his swagger, his dance around the arena and out of reach of the snorting bull. The arena and the bull breathe as one, deep panting breaths moving in, out, a steady swelling tide of air, of need, of hunger.
But the matador does not breathe. He has stopped breathing. He waits. The bull scrapes the mud off his hoof, a threat, a promise, the ultimate truth, and charges the man, this jowled, scowling, matador-by-extension, sitting across the kitchen table from me. Just as the horns reach him, he drops to one knee and thrusts his gathered fingers, his clawed fist, right into the bull’s chest. Now the crowd, the bull, they stop breathing, and it’s the matador who is panting, all white rage and triumph as he rips the bull’s heart out and raises it, dripping, to the sky—a new red sun.
Except, of course, that’s not the way he tells it—the way he told it. My Grandpa grew up poor on the streets of Pittsburgh, was bald for as long as I knew him, and may have never been to Spain. He was loud and ungracious, a ruddy Vietnam vet sporting a Pin-up tattoo on his forearm, an incessant talker, so much so that my grandmother began talking to herself to maintain sanity, her dam against his relentless stream of chatter. He was blunt in demeanor, but sharp in mind—smart and well-read, always reaching past his working class life with gruff, appropriated ideas (often prejudiced, always grandiose), holding court at his kitchen table, pontificating over his weary, loyal family. A bull’s heart, he insists.
But he’s not the only one bullshitting. The new red sun, the flick, swish—my words stand in for his, add shine, the story all mine now. My version of his version of whatever it was—tall-tale, embellished truth, outright lie, lifted from some book or movie. My version is embellished, too. He never described what the matador wore, did he? What if the beads were just glittering fabric? Did he even mention a crowd? What if the arena was empty because the townsfolk turned their backs on the aging bullfighter, because they refuse to see their legend undone?
Perhaps the last metaphor was a step too far. But was it his doing, or mine?
“Now, Sam, in my day the bullfighting wasn’t protested by all these tree-hugging, liberal crybabies. This was a sport. I’m telling you now—raised hand for emphasis—this bull was big. He had these horns! And that bullfighter was just waiting for him to charge, just moving around and waiting for him to charge. And I tell you what, when that bull charged, the man fell to one knee and he thrust his hand in and pulled that heart right out. Like this—raised fist with fingers bunched together in a single point—and just reached in and pulled that heart right out. Put it in the air so we could all see.” He laid his hand flat on the table then, patted the table once, to emphasize the end of the story and the validity of it, too.
This, the trick of storytelling, of inheriting and recording family histories—uncovering where the emphasis lies. I mean both lies and lies, both untruths and where the intentions land in finality. I could spend too much of time sorting the reasons my grandpa claimed stories that may have not been his. The kind of hard-scrabble life he led was more pained than adventurous—is it so wrong he made his life anew? Magicked so many fictions into biography?
He told many stories, most of them repeated, but I am near certain he only told us about the bull’s heart once, at the kitchen table, with the sun coming through the flowered curtains, my grandma bustling from the oven to the sink to the fridge, my siblings and I sneaking incredulous glances. Told just once, but this is the story endured.
And what of my own need to record and add a final flourish? Did you notice that change in verb tense, the desperate, italicized told? Grandpa died in March 2014. I’ve lost the chance to interrogate him about the bull’s heart. I don’t know that I would, anyway. At his end, the biggest, loudest man I ever knew shrunk. His stomach flattened, and he got so damn quiet. Our last Christmas together, not long before his first stroke, he stood, his stomach still rounded over his spindly, eighty-year-old legs, and bellowed a polka song over the shreds of wrapping paper: “Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun! Roll out the barrel! We’ve got the blues on the run!” We rolled our eyes as one, our family. Grandpa was a hard man to love, a man full of difficult love. He was telling us this was his last Christmas; he was antagonizing us. We didn’t correct him, though he dared us to. It turned out he’d been telling the truth all along.
Samantha Tucker is a Colorado native. She currently lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she is a creative writing MFA candidate at (The!) Ohio State University. Roxane Gay recently chose two of Sam’s essays to be among the first published on The Butter. Sam has also written for Guernica, has work forthcoming with Ecotone, and she recently graduated from the nonfiction MA program at Colorado State University. Sam’s first collection of essays, The American Dream Starts Here, is ready for a publisher. www.theamericandreamstartshere.com
October 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
A note from our friend Sarah Wells:
I’m excited to announce the launch of a new trade publication, Beyond, the magazine of Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Beyond is a tri-quarterly print publication that will also have a prominent and active web and social presence. The first print issue is scheduled for release in early winter 2016. Issues will be distributed in February, June, and October.
Beyond publishes stories of businesses and business leaders that exemplify the use of design for innovative approaches to management as well as exemplars of business as an agent of world benefit, thus advancing the principles of business management pioneered, taught and practiced by the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.
The magazine’s web presence features reader-submitted articles, supplementary interviews, podcasts, inspirational quotes and other goodies for the savvy, sophisticated, and successful businessperson. The magazine will launch its web contents in January 2016.
There are four columns open to submissions, all related to work. I’m looking for great stories written well. Three of the columns are writing (two brief prose, one poetry) and one is art/photography.
A Case of the Mondays
This humor column looks for the funny in the workplace. Word limit: 250.
Above and Beyond
Share what has inspired you in your work life that makes your work not just bearable but enjoyable. Word limit: 250.
Work in Verse
Beyond will publish one new work-related poem a month on the website and will include one poem in each print issue.
Share photographs of inspirational/aesthetic elements that inspire you in your workspace. Can be submitted via our submission system or using the #BeyondInSight on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.
Beyond will offer $40 for work published online and $100 for the pieces that are selected for the print publication.
The submission system is now open!
Visit https://beyond.submittable.com/submit for complete guidelines. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.
Sarah M. Wells
Weatherhead School of Management
Case Western Reserve University
October 5, 2015 § Leave a comment
By Kristin LeMay
I’ve long harbored the suspicion that what’s best in Montaigne is untranslatable. His essence seems to me embodied in a diction, orthography, and syntax as unsubstitutable as any individual. To borrow Emerson’s praise for Montaigne: “Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.”
My prejudice dates to a summer when my husband and I undertook to read all of Montaigne’s Essais during an extended stay in Paris. Each day we’d set out with our respective volumes, my much-prized Pléiade—fat despite its onion-skin pages—rubbing against the shedding, leather spine of Eric’s translated edition. Before long, I’d be snorting or smirking at the man I was encountering on the page. Eric’s brow would furrow. “What’s so funny?” We’d compare passages. And every time, I’d find that the persona I so relished in the original French—the irascible man wheeling through the sixteenth-century prose—was somehow lost in the transfer. My Montaigne was not in his book.
That experience of reading comparative Montaignes primed me for After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays (University of Georgia Press, 2015). Twenty-four of today’s essayists rewrite Montaigne’s essays. What would these interactions reveal about the essay, in his moment and in ours? And what would these writers capture of the man who seemed—to me, at least—to live in the specific moments of language that, taken together, comprise his genre-founding work?
As After Montaigne’s subtitle suggests, editors David Lazar and Patrick Madden couch the interaction between each source essay and its contemporary rewriting as a musical “cover.” They explain, “Like an album of cover songs paying homage to an influential band or composer, these essays attempt to re-envision Montaigne’s topics through a contemporary sensibility.” And what, after all, is a cover, but a form of translation in which one musician puts a fresh spin on the lyrics and melody of another? Elvis Presley translated “Blue Suede Shoes” from the style of Carl Perkins into the style of Elvis Presley, just as, in 1603, John Florio translated Michel de Montaigne from French into English (adding a fair dose of Florio along the way). So After Montaigne promises to reveal twenty-four translations of Montaigne: Montaigne by way of Gornick, by way of Koestenbaum, by way of Purpura. And yet it also occasions a more surprising, ineffable mode of translation, one that runs the other way: Brian Doyle by way of Montaigne. As much as I was eager to see who these essayists would make Montaigne out to be, I was equally fascinated to see who they would become when they essayed under the banner of their forebear.
The anthology’s diversity makes for a lot of translations, so one of its most satisfying elements is the brief coda that follows each contribution, “explaining the process through which the essayist translated, transfigured, reimagined, or rethought some of the essential ideas, figures, and motifs in Montaigne’s original.” The contributions turn out to be as diverse as you’d expect from an array twenty-four writers wide. While Bret Lott sees his essay as an “offering . . . paying homage to M. Montaigne,” Shannon Lakanen finds herself surprised, on sitting down to write, “to argue against him.” José Orduña finds in his source essay from Montaigne a “sharp edge that ruptures,” and so his response is characterized by “challenge,” “discarding,” and “struggling,” while Elena Passarello goes at Montaigne more playfully, grafting “The Ceremony of the Interview of Princes” onto interviews with the musical artist Prince. “I thought it would be fun,” she riffs, “to score one man’s persona to the other man’s ‘music.’”
How to make sense of all this essaying? I found a useful lens for understanding and sorting the contributions once again in the realm of translation. Friedrich Schleiermacher pronounces that there are actually only two modes of translation (modes which, in fact, match the two primary tacks a contemporary essayist might choose in responding to Montaigne’s source text): “Either the translator leaves the writer alone as much as possible and moves the reader toward the writer, or he leaves the reader alone as much as possible and moves the writer toward the reader.” Schleiermacher advises against mixing the two modes. Any mingling, he predicts, will result in a confusing muddle that illuminates neither the original text nor the new audience’s context.
After Montaigne confirms Schleiermacher’s view. Its strongest, most memorable essays are those in which the contemporary writer has traveled the furthest toward adopting Montaigne’s style or, conversely, those in which Montaigne has traveled the furthest toward the contemporary writer. Mary Cappello’s “Of Thumbs” is the volume’s prime example of a writer becoming like Montaigne. Her coda clarifies her aim: “An essay like ‘Of Thumbs’ wishes for more contributors . . . I tried to ‘channel’ Montaigne . . . I tuned my writerly voice to meet the pitch of his.” The result is a lively, delightful continuation of Montaigne’s short essay. For an essayist who brings Montaigne all the way to her, look to Kristen Radtke. In “Against Idleness” she pulls Montaigne into the graphic mode for which she is best known. In Cappello’s essay, Montaigne might easily recognize his influence; in Radtke’s, he would likely wonder at the strange new world his work inspired. As a reader, I’m grateful for both.
So what new light do these “covers” shine upon Montaigne and the essay? Perhaps the most startling answer comes from Robert Atwan’s response to Montaigne’s “On Some Verses of Virgil.” He opens with the observation, “Personal essayists continually test the boundaries of shame and embarrassment.” This very testing is Montaigne’s most enduring legacy, since he inaugurated the naked, unadorned exploration of the self in his Essais. All of the contributors to After Montaigne write after that legacy. But Atwan’s essay also reveals how familiar, even commonplace, Montaigne’s once-revolutionary mode has now become. To mirror Montaigne’s embarrassing self-disclosures on sexuality and old age, Atwan must take recourse to quoting his own (self-professedly) bad poetry. He rightly senses that prose—even prose like Montaigne’s, confessing to a small penis or failed affairs—will no longer shock today’s readers. We’ve become desensitized to personal confessions in the personal essay. So Atwan’s contribution, in moving beyond the genre of the essay to achieve its ends, reveals both the lure and limits of Montaigne’s legacy in our moment.
Montaigne forged the essay into a genre for personal revelation and, for this innovation, he now inspires anthologies like After Montaigne. Yet paradoxically, this anthology—through both its most and least compelling pieces—hints at how the essay might now need to move beyond Montaigne’s style of confession and digression in order to channel his innovative spirit and, once again, feel “vascular and alive.”
Kristin LeMay’s book I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson is available from Paraclete Press. Her translation of François Bovon’s Last Days of Jesus was published by Westminster/John Knox Press. Her writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, Essay Daily, Harvard Theological Review, The Cresset, and other magazines.
October 3, 2015 § 6 Comments
From our friend Erica Trabold:
45th Parallel, a literary magazine affiliated with Oregon State University’s MFA program, seeks nonfiction submissions for its premiere issue. Submissions will remain open until December 1, 2015, and selected pieces will be published in spring 2016.
What’s the 45th Parallel? The 45th Parallel, the halfway point between the Equator and the North Pole, marks the Earth’s in-between space. 45th Parallel, too, indulges in in-betweenness — the convergence of seemingly disparate content, forms, genres, and styles. Great art tends to reject strictly defined categories. Great art is what we’re after.
What kind of nonfiction do you hope to publish? 45th Parallel considers all forms of creative nonfiction, previously unpublished, between 500-5,000 words. Researched or personal, memoir or essay, hybrid or true to form, our editors are especially interested in reading your obsessions, your edges, your prosy darlings—nonfiction with a sense of the in-between.
What’s your earliest childhood memory? Crammed into a back booth in a wooden bar talking about how we should start a lit mag. There were pretzels.
Where can writers submit work? Here, of course: http://45thparallelmag.com/
Do you charge a fee? No fee. Completely free.