Category: Lit Hub

What is the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write?

Arundhati Roy for Literary Hub
arundhati-roy

Arundhati Roy’s essay ‘What is the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write?’ – originally given as her W. G. Sebald Lecture on Literary Translation, delivered at the British Library on June 5, 2018 – considers the politics of language and translation in India:

At a book reading in Kolkata, about a week after my first novel, The God of Small Things, was published, a member of the audience stood up and asked, in a tone that was distinctly hostile: “Has any writer ever written a masterpiece in an alien language? In a language other than his mother tongue?” I hadn’t claimed to have written a masterpiece (nor to be a “he”), but nevertheless I understood his anger toward a me, a writer who lived in India, wrote in English, and who had attracted an absurd amount of attention. My answer to his question made him even angrier.

“Nabokov,” I said. And he stormed out of the hall.

The correct answer to that question today would of course be “algorithms.” Artificial Intelligence, we are told, can write masterpieces in any language and translate them into masterpieces in other languages. As the era that we know, and think we vaguely understand, comes to a close, perhaps we, even the most privileged among us, are just a group of redundant humans gathered here with an arcane interest in language generated by fellow redundants.

Only a few weeks after the mother tongue/masterpiece incident, I was on a live radio show in London. The other guest was an English historian who, in reply to a question from the interviewer, composed a paean to British imperialism. “Even you,” he said, turning to me imperiously, “the very fact that you write in English is a tribute to the British Empire.” Not being used to radio shows at the time, I stayed quiet for a while, as a well-behaved, recently civilized savage should. But then I sort of lost it, and said some extremely hurtful things. The historian was upset, and after the show told me that he had meant what he said as a compliment, because he loved my book. I asked him if he also felt that jazz, the blues, and all African-American writing and poetry were actually a tribute to slavery. And if all of Latin American literature was a tribute to Spanish and Portuguese colonialism.

Notwithstanding my anger, on both occasions my responses were defensive reactions, not adequate answers. Because those incidents touched on a range of incendiary questions—colonialism, nationalism, authenticity, elitism, nativism, caste, and cultural identity—all jarring pressure points on the nervous system of any writer worth her salt. However, to reify language in the way both men had renders language speechless. When that happens, as it usually does in debates like these, what has actually been written ceases to matter. That was what I found so hard to countenance. And yet I know—I knew—that language is that most private and yet most public of things. The challenges thrown at me were fair and square. And obviously, since I’m still talking about them, I’m still thinking about them.

The night of that reading in Kolkata, city of my estranged father and of Kali, Mother Goddess with the long red tongue and many arms, I fell to wondering what my mother tongue actually was. What was—is—the politically correct, culturally apposite, and morally appropriate language in which I ought to think and write? It occurred to me that my mother was actually an alien, with fewer arms than Kali perhaps but many more tongues. English is certainly one of them. My English has been widened and deepened by the rhythms and cadences of my alien mother’s other tongues. (I say alien because there’s not much that is organic about her. Her nation-shaped body was first violently assimilated and then violently dismembered by an imperial British quill. I also say alien because of the violence unleashed in her name on those who do not wish to belong to her (Kashmiris, for example), as well as on those who do (Indian Muslims and Dalits, for example), makes her an extremely un-motherly mother.

How many tongues does she have? Officially, approximately 780, only twenty-two of which are formally recognized by the Indian Constitution, while another thirty-eight are waiting to be accorded that status. Each has its own history of colonizing or being colonized. There are few pure victims and pure perpetrators. There is no national language. Not yet. Hindi and English are designated “official languages.” According to the Constitution of India (which, we must note, was written in English), the use of English by the state for official purposes was supposed to cease by 26 January 1965, fifteen years after the constitution came into effect. Hindi, written in the Devanagari script, was to take its place. However, any serious move toward making Hindi the national language has been met with riots in non-Hindi speaking regions of the country. (Imagine trying to impose a single language on all of Europe.) So, English has continued, guiltily, unofficially, and by default, to consolidate its base.

Guilt in this case is an unhelpful sentiment. India as a country, a nation-state, was a British idea. So, the idea of English is as good or as bad as the idea of India itself. Writing or speaking in English is not a tribute to the British Empire, as the British imperial historian had tried to suggest to me, it is a practical solution to the circumstances created by it. Fundamentally, India is in many ways still an empire, its territories held together by its armed forces and administered from Delhi, which, for most of her subjects, is as distant as any foreign metropole. If India had broken up into language republics, like countries in Europe, then perhaps English could be done away with. But even still, not really, not any time soon. As things stand, English, although it is spoken by a small minority (which still numbers in the tens of millions), is the language of mobility, of opportunity, of the courts, of the national press, the legal fraternity, of science, engineering, and international communication. It is the language of privilege and exclusion.

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Beyond Lyric Shame: On Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson

Ben Lerner for Lit Hub
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For Lit Hub, Ben Lerner reconsiders prose poetry and the ‘lyric I’ through the works of Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson 

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Language poetry’s notion of textual difficulty as a weapon in class warfare hasn’t aged well, but the force of its critique of what is typically referred to as “the lyric I” has endured in what Gillian White has recently called a diffuse and lingering “lyric shame”—a sense, now often uncritically assumed, that modes of writing and reading identified as lyric are embarrassingly egotistical and politically backward. White’s work seeks, among other things, to explore how “the ‘lyric’ tradition against which an avant-garde anti-lyricism has posited itself . . . never existed in the first place” and to reevaluate poems and poets often dismissed cursorily as instances of a bad lyric expressivity. She also seeks to refocus our attention on lyric as a reading practice, as a way of “projecting subjectivity onto poems,” emphasizing how debates about the status of lyric poetry are in fact organized around a “missing lyric object”: an ideal—that is, unreal—poem posited by the readerly assumptions of both defenders and detractors of lyric confessionalism.

It’s against the backdrop that I’m describing that I read important early 21st-century works by poets such as Juliana Spahr (This Connection of Everyone with Lungs), Claudia Rankine (Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric and, very recently, Citizen: An American Lyric), and Maggie Nelson (Bluets). I mean that these very different writers have difficulty with the kind of difficulty celebrated by Language poets in particular and the historical avant-garde in general. Their books are purposefully accessible works that nevertheless seek to acknowledge the status of language as medium and the self as socially enmeshed. I read Rankine and Nelson’s works of prose poetry in particular as occupying the space where the no-longer-new sentence was; they are instances of a consciously post-avant-garde writing that refuses—without in any sense being simple—to advance formal difficulty as a mode of resistance, revolution, or pedagogy. I will also try to suggest how they operate knowingly within—but without succumbing to—a post–Language poetry environment of lyric shame or at the very least suspicion.

I call Rankine and Nelson’s books works of “prose poetry,” and they are certainly often taken up as such, but their generic status is by no means settled. Both writers—as with many Language poets—invite us to read prose as a form of poetry even as they trouble such distinctions. Rankine’s books are indexed as “Essay/Poetry” and Bluets is indexed as “Essay/Literature.” Bluets is published, however, by Wave Books, a publisher devoted entirely to poetry. Rankine’s two recent books are both subtitled “An American Lyric,” begging the question of how a generic marker traditionally understood as denoting short, musical, and expressive verse can be transposed into long, often tonally flat books written largely in prose. On an obvious but important level, I think the deployment of the sentence and paragraph under the sign of poetry, the book-length nature of the works in question, and the acknowledgment of the lyric as a problem (and central problematic) help situate these works in relation to the new sentence, even if that’s by no means the only way to read them.

Both Bluets and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely open with a mixture of detachment and emotional intensity that simultaneously evokes and complicates the status of the “lyric I.” In the first numbered paragraph of Bluets, quoted above, a language of impersonal philosophical skepticism—the “suppose,” the Tractatus-like numbering, the subjunctive—interacts with an emotional vocabulary and experiential detail. The italics also introduce the possibility of multiple voices, or at least two distinct temporalities of writing, undermining the assumption of univocality and spokenness conventionally associated with the lyric. “As though it were a confession”; “it became somehow personal”: two terms associated with lyric and its shame are both “spoken” and qualified at the outset of the book—a book that will go on to be powerfully confessional and personal indeed. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely opens with a related if distinct method of lyric evocation and complication, flatly describing what we might call the missing object of elegy:

There was a time I could say no one I knew well had died. This is not to suggest no one died. When I was eight my mother became pregnant. She went to the hospital to give birth and returned without the baby. Where’s the baby? We asked. Did she shrug? She was the kind of woman who liked to shrug; deep within her was an everlasting shrug. That didn’t seem like a death. The years went by and people only died on television—if they weren’t Black, they were wearing black or were terminally ill. Then I returned home from school one day and saw my father sitting on the steps of our home. He had a look that was unfamiliar; it was flooded, so leaking. I climbed the steps as far away from him as I could get. He was breaking or broken. Or, to be more precise, he looked to me like someone understanding his aloneness. Loneliness. His mother was dead. I’d never met her. It meant a trip back home for him. When he returned he spoke neither about the airplane nor the funeral.

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Interview with Ocean Vuong

Lit Hub interview the award-winning writer
Ocean-Vuong

Ocean Vuong on his most reread books, current projects, and being part of  ‘a great river of language’:

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Is there a book you wish you had written?

No, if it’s good and beautiful and already made, what difference does it make if I had written a certain book or not? I have been trying to interrogate the notion of art-making as possession and conquest. This idea of creation as possession can lead to envy and bitterness—which is a total buzzkill to creativity.

As a writer, I feel more potent and powerful when I see myself working in a great river of language, one that has been running before me and will continue after me. In this window of time we call a life, I get to add to that river. That’s kind of cool I think. To walk into a party (sorry, new metaphor), say a bunch of super emotional stuff, then be like: “Thanks for listening, guys, but I have to go feed my dog, Susan—he’s diabetic,” then climb out the window, down the fire escape, and fade into the night.

What’s the book you reread the most?
One Big Self by C.D. Wright, Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral, and Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson.

Name a classic you feel guilty about never having read?
Pride and Prejudice. And like 50 others.

What’s the new book you’re most looking forward to?
Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here (Coffee House Press, 2018) is a book I brace for, in awe and relief. His work is so tight, searing, and unabashedly sharp and full at once. His poems turn me into a horizontal entity. Reading them, I have to lie down. They remind me of gravity, how it pins me to the world without ever touching me. Hieu’s work is like that. A kind of force. Or better yet, a force of kindness. 

What are you currently working on?
I’m writing a novel composed of woven inter-genre fragments. To me, a book made entirely out of unbridged fractures feels most faithful to the physical and psychological displacement I experience as a human being. I’m interested in a novel that consciously rejects the notion that something has to be whole in order to tell a complete story. I also want to interrogate the arbitrary measurements of a “successful” literary work, particularly as it relates to canonical Western values. For example, we traditionally privilege congruency and balance in fiction, we want our themes linked, our conflicts “resolved,” and our plots “ironed out.” But when one arrives at the page through colonized, plundered, and erased histories and diasporas, to write a smooth and cohesive novel is to ultimately write a lie. In a way, I’m curious about a work that rejects its patriarchal predecessors as a way of accepting its fissured self. I think, perennially, of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée. This resistance to dominant convention is not only the isolated concern of marginalized writers—but all writers—and perhaps especially white writers, who can gain so much by questioning how the ways we value art can replicate the very oppressive legacies we strive to end.

I’m also working on riding my bike with no hands. I’m getting really close. The other day I made it half way down my block without touching my handlebars. My goal, by the end of the year, is to ride my bike to a friend’s house while carrying, with both hands, a pink box of vegan cupcakes. I’m optimistic. But who knows—we’re in the Trump era after all.

This all sounds terribly pretentious (no-hands cupcake delivery included). But I believe in it. So I’m gonna try my best.

The Many Faces of Sylvia Plath

Kelly Coyne for Lit Hub
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Kelly Coyne explores how, in focussing too much on her death, we miss Sylvia Plath’s capacity for life:

In October 1957, she wrote a “Letter to a demon,” in which she says, “I have a good self, that loves skies, hills, ideas, tasty meals, bright colors. My demon would murder this self by demanding it be a paragon, and saying it should run away if it is being anything less… So: a stoic face. A position of irony, of double-vision.” The in-between space is what characterizes Plath’s work. And I think our cultural hang-up with Plath’s suicide is linked to the difficulty of reconciling all of these complexities and personas, a desire to write her off, therefore absolving us from having to reckon with the many contradictions she confronts in her fiction and poetry.

My concern with writing on true and false selves in Plath’s work is that it gives attention to her suicide, which already dominates the conversation around Plath. When I went to Plath’s archives at Smith College, her alma mater, I discussed this with Karen Kukil, the editor of her Journals, co-editor of her new book of letters, and curator of the Mortimer Rare Book Room, where Plath’s papers reside.

We went for lunch that day, and as we climbed and slid over the crunchy dirty snow in the dim afternoon light of mid-January Northampton, we talked about the feeling of dissonance that arises when caught in a conversation about Plath, like when, at an awkward academic reception, someone asked me what I was writing my master’s thesis on, and my answer—Plath—was met with the statement, “I should call your gas company.” Or the play Plath., which paints her as a flat depressive, devoid of the energy and joy and color that led me to love her. It isn’t the Plath we know. Public emphasis on the darker self so often overshadows the lust for life Sylvia expresses in her Journals, her voracious appetite for food and people and sex and travel, her relentless drive for self-actualization, the constant begging: “Nothing is real except the present, and already, I feel the weight of centuries smothering me. Some girl a hundred years ago once lived as I do. And she is dead. I am the present, but I know I, too, will pass. The high moment, the burning flash, come and are gone, continuous quicksand. And I don’t want to die.”

She was all of the things, and she can be all of the things. She was resilient, and she was sensitive, and she was ambitious, and she was a perfectionist, and she had flaws. Her Journals show an ability to reach—and capture—an ecstasy I had never seen on the page as a college student. That is what drew me back to her. For all of the sadness accompanying the facets of Sylvia Plath’s life and work that have been obscured—the burned journals at Hughes’ hand, the edited letters at her mother’s, by the public focus on her as a tragic figure, and even by her own complex masking of herself—there is an upside: over 50 years after her death, we have layers of her unfolding before our eyes; we are still getting to know her.

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Ralph Ellison’s Tragicomic Soul

Alejandro Nava for Lit Hub
Ralph-Ellison

In an essay for Lit Hub, Alejandro Nava uses the rhythmic balance of tragedy and comedy in Ralph Ellison’s works to elucidate his concept of ‘soul’:

Although there is an extraordinary, Gatsby-like capacity for hope exhibited in Ralph Ellison’s work, optimism is certainly the wrong word for it. In fact, Ellison’s version is propped up by the flying buttresses of both tragedy and comedy. It swings wildly between the two, like the swinging rhythms of jazz in Stanley Crouch’s eloquent description:

‘What I refer to is the expression of sorrow or melancholy in a melodic line that is contrasted by a jaunty or exuberant rhythm, that combination of grace and intensity we know as swing. In jazz, sorrow rhythmically transforms itself into joy, which is perhaps the point of the music: joy earned or arrived at through performance, through creation.’

In identifying these oscillations of sorrow and exuberance in jazz, Crouch taps into what Ellison named “soul.” Crouch essentially parses and explains Ellison’s grammar of soul, noting the way a high-spirited rhythm can transform a melancholic line into a stirring and uplifting performance.

Here and elsewhere, Crouch takes cues from Ellison on when and how to add tragic and comic elements in the right proportions. An excessive focus on one element could ruin the rhythm. If tragic lessons are erased from memory, we end up with banal and artificial sounds, like elevator music, a ditty for advertising, or the most trifling forms of pop music; at the same time, without the comic sense we will be left with cheerless and drab sounds, music that turns the living soul into stone and causes it to sink and drown in gloom. For the soul to grow to its fullest temple-like potential, Ellison required elements of each: the comic sense would be a leavening grace to lighten the gravity of suffering, allowing the American soul to rise to its fullest potential. With both ingredients in the right balance, soul is attained, a kind of multigrain bread of life.

Ellison defined soul as such: “It is its ability to articulate this tragic-comic attitude toward life that explains much of the mysterious power and attractiveness of that quality of Negro American style known as ‘soul.’ An expression of American diversity within unity, of blackness with whiteness, soul announces the presence of a creative struggle against the realities of existence.” As we can see here, Ellison’s concept of soul is born from the conjunction of tragedy and comedy; it skates and slides between the two like the careening legs of James Brown, carrying us from the Apollo Theater to the church, from barrelhouses to the bedroom. In the process—one of the many lessons of the resilient history of black music in America—it displays, even flaunts, an existential toughness and ability to survive no matter the troubles it sees. It’s no wonder that Ellison speaks of an “apprenticeship” when educating us on soul: “Here it is more meaningful to speak, not of courses of study, of grades and degrees, but of apprenticeship, ordeals, initiation ceremonies, of rebirth.”

As an apprenticeship and initiation by fire, soul cannot be achieved in a scholastic manner; it requires the kind of verve, daring, courage, resilience, and shrewdness shown by the main character in Ellison’s Invisible Man. Though the protagonist is a scholarship recipient, his real education occurs outside the walls of the university, in the course of the numerous “battles royal” and contests of nerve that mark his life. He ends up living in an underground room—he speaks of being “clubbed into the cellar,” in point of fact—and must find his voice and perspective in this confined basement.

The narrative begs for allegorical elaboration. Whether one is driven into the underground like this young man or ingested by a whale like Jonah, Ellison implies that being black in America automatically puts one in the darkest dungeons of life, so that the gestation of soul will have to occur in Sheol-like spaces, in the face of death. Thus, there is a sepulchral or mausoleum-like quality to the cellar that Ellison’s invisible protagonist must enter and endure before he can be reborn, as if he were a seed that must fall and sink into the earth before germinating and blooming. (Early Christian baptisteries were shaped like mausoleums with this exact logic in mind.)

Besides possessing this phoenix-like ability to raise black lives from the ashes, Ellison’s concept of soul also casts a dark shadow over the American psyche. By speaking from the American underground, Ellison adds a blues-like color and prophetic edge to his concept of soul; it is a force of dissent against vain and jingoistic versions of American greatness. Ellison’s “soul” is not unlike biblical understandings—vital spirit, life force, or essential self—but he clearly adds the particular shibboleths of black history and culture to the religious account. Consistent with many romantic portraits, “soul” is accordingly a vital spirit and life force but now applied to African American traditions, a symbol of the “spirit of a race,” to quote José Vasconcelos (1882–1959).

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Pursuing the Artfully Naked “I”: The Myth-making of Kathy Acker

Chris Kraus for LitHub
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An extract from Chris Kraus’s new book After Kathy Acker appears in LitHub:

The trauma of the disappeared father is a theme Kathy Acker pursued throughout her writing, from The Childlike Life to her last published novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates. In The Childlike Life,

My mother tells me my “father” isn’t my real father: my real father left her when she was three months pregnant and wanted nothing to do with me, ever. This husband has adopted me. That’s all she tells me.

The story is told exclusively from the daughter’s point of view in all its many iterations. But then again, perhaps the greatest strength and weakness in all of Acker’s writing lies in its exclusion of all viewpoints except for that of the narrator. As William Burroughs wrote, with great precision, in his blurb for Grove Press’s 1983 publication of Great Expectations, “Acker gives her work the power to mirror the reader’s soul.”

How does she do this? Acker had no shortage of female contemporary writers throughout the 1970s. Outside the downtown New York scene, Jayne Anne Phillips, Margaret Atwood, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, Janet Frame, and dozens of others published semiautobiographical novels with strong female narrators. But, shaped by their interactions with others in naturalistically described situations, the presence of their narrators was wholly relational. While these women were widely respected for their achievements as writers, they never sought or attained the iconic status of Great Writer as Countercultural Hero that Acker desperately craved. Until she achieved it, no woman had.

In Great Expectations, Acker worked deeply under the influence of such Beat-era icons as William S. Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi and the French modernist writers and thinkers Georges Bataille and Pierre Guyotat. Sometimes described as “philosopher-artists,” these writers conveyed their narrators’ internal lives with startling primacy. And so, by extension, whatever pain and emotion they felt was not theirs alone. They offered themselves as receivers for cosmological information transmitted via their works. “In my writing I am acting as a map-maker, an explorer of psychic areas,” William S. Burroughs wrote.

Defending his work at the 1962 Edinburgh Writers’ Conference, Trocchi proclaimed himself “a cosmonaut of inner space.” Written against history and time, Trocchi’s 1960 novel Cain’s Book dispassionately records a few months in his life as a remorseless heroin addict. His narrator states, “When I write I have trouble with my tenses. Where I was tomorrow is where I am today, where I would be yesterday. I have a horror of committing fraud.”

A special issue of Sylvère Lotringer’s journal Semiotext(e) devoted to Georges Bataille appeared in 1976, and Harry Mathews’s translation of Batailles’s 1928 classic Blue of Noon came out with Urizen Books the following year. Acker and Lotringer were close friends and lovers between 1977 and 1980. Years later, she would credit him widely for introducing her to French theory and “giving her a new language” through which to explain her existential and literary sense of fragmentation, multiplicity, and disjunction. Lotringer taught Georges Bataille in his Columbia University “Sex and Literature” graduate seminar; no doubt he and Acker discussed Bataille’s work and thought.

The first line of Bataille’s Story of the Eye could easily have been written by Acker herself: “I grew up very much alone, and as far as I recall I was frightened of anything sexual.” I don’t write to express anything, she’d write in a 1979 self-interview in the French literary magazine Dirty, named after the “Dirty” character in Bataille’s Blue of NoonEverything is material. . . culture is more and more a rag-bag. . . I use material that is commonly described as “autobiography.” There are lots of emotions to draw from, and I love working with emotion because I love shock. Acker was the first female writer to so relentlessly pursue the artfully naked “I” of French modernism. In fact, she’d go on to “plagarize” Bataille in Great Expectations:

I never wanted you, my mother told me often. It was the war. She hadn’t known poverty or hardship: her family had been very wealthy. . . My father, a wealthier man than my mother, walked out on her when he found out she was pregnant. . .

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A Report from the First-Ever Asian American Literature Festival

Kyle Lucia Wu for LitHub
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Kyle Lucia Wu reports on the first Asian American Literature Festival for LitHub, and talks of how important it is that it exists:

“No one is immune to the fantasy of authenticity,” Paisley Rezkal said. It was the last panel of the second day at the first-ever Asian American Literature Festival. I’d already gotten my tarot cards read, spoken on a panel, participated in a speed-mentoring session, eaten too many carbs, and slept in a dorm room that resembled, as a friend said of the picture I texted her, a World War II hospital. I probably should have wanted to take a nap, but I was leaning forward with my chin in my hand, quite literally sitting on the edge of my seat, because I felt like she was talking to me. Over the course of the whole weekend, I felt like people were talking to me more directly than they had in a very long time.

The festival, which focuses solely on Asian American literature, is the first of its kind. It’s put on by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center in collaboration with a number of organizations, including Poetry Magazine, Kundiman, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. The initial day was held at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, the second day at The Phillips Collection, the last at the Library of Congress. The fact that it’s called a festival, not a conference, is demonstrative of its communal, celebratory spirit.

Though the general spirit felt lighthearted, the words and intention were weighty. This kind of nurturing environment is rare, which I mentioned to Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, the curator of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and editor-in-chief of Asian American Literary Review. “We are not living writ large in a welcoming space,” he said. “Many of us move through violent spaces all the time and are subject to all kinds of awful treatment and conditions, so it’s our responsibility to work against those and to create caring spaces.” It sounds both natural and difficult, but either way, the intentionality behind the festival shone through.

My schedule for the first day included a talk on Vietnamese diasporic literature featuring Vu Tran, Linh Dinh, and Cathy Linh Che, a reading by queer Asian writers Wo Chan, Peggy Lee, and Rajiv Mohabir, a fiction reading by Don Lee and Akhil Sharma, and the Poetry magazine summer issue launch. There were stations set up from various organizations, from Kaya Press to Bamboo Ridge to AAWW, in the ‘literary lounge,’ where attendees made self-care cards, memes and child-to-parent letters.

The following day offered one-on-one mentoring sessions with Nicole Chung and Jennifer Chang, and though I’d neglected to sign up, I heard that Nicole had an opening and was lucky enough to sit down with her in a bright side room at the museum. I had just read Nicole’s latest essay online and was thrilled to meet her and talk about representation, fiction vs. nonfiction, and literary community in person. “I always love the chance to talk with writers at all levels, young writers especially,” she told me about the mentoring sessions that day. “A lot of writers need just a little bit of encouragement—honestly, I know I still need that—so it’s a privilege to be able to offer that feedback and that kind of encouragement.”

After that, I saw Kazim Ali and Franny Choi give a literary address with a large audience squeezed into the bookshop of the Phillips Collection, inverted umbrellas hanging overhead; Writer-Scholar speed dating went on nearby in the Carriage House. The AAWW Margins Fellows for this year (myself included) then read our work. One of the fellows, Yanyi, said it felt amazing to read in a space where his poems related one of many diverse Asian-American experiences. “I didn’t have a second thought about whether the audience would ‘get’ what I was writing about, nor did I have to worry if I was speaking for anyone but myself,” he explained.

Following that, Ryan Lee Wong moderated the Kundiamn/AALR Mentoring Reading, which featured Alexander Chee, Paisley Rekdal, Grace Jahng Lee, and Justin Monson; he began by asking us all to take a collective deep breath. I was particularly struck by something Alexander Chee said about what he would like to pass along to his students:

The idea that the white imagination is the only thing that’s limitless is this idea that we’re always fighting, if not in ourselves, in other people. When I was presenting my manuscript to publishers, I felt like I wasn’t legible to them because they had never met anyone like me. It was like they couldn’t believe I existed, much less that this book had been written that was in front of them. That cured me of any idea of that imagination as limitless—it was so incredibly limited that I was shocked. But what I did understand completely from that experience was that they felt they had the power to define what was real and what was not. That was what I would be trying to take back from them for the rest of my career, so when I think about what I’m trying to pass on, it’s a sense of confidence to face that.

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What I Learned Editing Hunter S. Thompson

Terry McDonell writing for LitHub
HunterS.Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson’s editor Terry McDonell writes about the author and the origins of “gonzo” for LitHub:

There are conflicting stories about the first use of the word gonzo to describe Hunter’s journalism but all credit fellow journalist Bill Cardoso. Maybe it was on the press bus during the 1968 New Hampshire primaries, maybe it was in a letter praising Hunter’s 1970 Kentucky Derby piece, maybe it was just one night in a bar, but it was definitely Cardoso who used gonzo first, and he and Hunter agreed on that. It came to mean more than the lack of objectivity in the amped-up first-person voice that Hunter’s work personified, but Cardoso would say only that he meant the word scatologically—as in crazy shit—and that he had used it many times before he applied it to Hunter’s journalism.

Cardoso rose at the Boston Globe to edit its Sunday magazine, quit to open a jazz club in the Canary Islands, then returned to journalism and famously become the most unfamous practitioner of the New Journalism among the New Journalists. I wish that sentence were as sharp as it is true in the way Cardoso wrote that the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day in Pasadena was “the meeting ground of Babbitt and Costello.”

Cardoso and the journalist and promoter Harold Conrad painted layers of polish on the word hipster—or, as Cardoso sometimes put it when describing himself, wordhipster. Conrad was less unfamous, since his friend Budd Schulberg had based the cynical fight press agent in The Harder They Fall on him, and Humphrey Bogart had played him in the movie. Conrad introduced Cardoso, Thompson, George Plimpton and Norman Mailer to Muhammad Ali, and put them in ringside seats. His idea was that if you get important journalists to cover the fights, the rest takes care of itself—especially after a toke or two.

All of the writers mentioned above wrote careful, crafted pieces that came in clean. Unsurprisingly, not Hunter. Likewise those same writers helped to speed the editing process while Hunter turned it into theatre, saying that there were far fewer good editors than good writers, and that he had learned some nasty lessons from their incompetence. He had a riff about it, about how he would suck editors into his pieces as conspirators, all of us wanting to prove ourselves good enough—hip enough—to edit him.

(…)

Maggie Shipstead on Being Alone (But Not Lonely) in Paris

Maggie Shipstead for LitHub
cleo

Extract in LitHub from Maggie Shipstead’s text in the edited collection A Paris All Your Own:

I sat motionless at my desk, breathing shallowly, my fingers resting on my laptop’s keyboard. He knocked again, waited, knocked a little louder, waited. Under the apartment door, his feet cast shadows on the dark green linoleum. I didn’t make a sound. Finally, he went on his way, footsteps receding. After a minute, the hall lights, which were on a timer, clicked out, and there was only darkness under the door.

The phone had rung a few times the previous day, and I hadn’t answered. I knew who was calling. It was the same man who had just knocked: not a stalker or a creep, actually, but the Swiss composer who lived across the hall, an affable, fortyish guy with a mop of dark curls. I’d met him in the elevator earlier in the week. According to Google, he composed operas—not just any operas: underwater operas. (In related news, it turns out there are underwater operas. The world is a marvelous place!)

I had no friends in Paris and no reason to turn my nose up at someone who might or might not have been part humpback whale, but friendship, at the time, wasn’t something I was after. In fact, when faced with a friendly overture, I was capable only of evasive maneuvers. I was alone, you see, which for me isn’t a moment-to-moment condition, easily changed, but a way of being. Solitude is a well I fall (or jump) into from time to time and don’t try to climb out of. I sit down there and enjoy the quiet.

This was the end of January 2012. I had been in Paris for almost a month, with two more to go. The Swiss composer and I were both residents at the Cité Internationale des Arts, a complex of 270 live/work studio apartments for artists in the trendy 4th arrondissement neighborhood of the Marais. Most of the apartments, or ateliers, were underwritten by arts organizations or universities or entire nations that also chose the residents, though a small number were managed by the Cité directly. Mine belonged to Stanford University, where I’d spent the previous two years on a writing fellowship, but the plaques on the other doors along my hallway mostly identified chilly European countries not known for garrulous people: Norway, Finland, Austria, Switzerland. Being the standout hermit in such company was, I think, something of an achievement.

(…)

Post Identity

Carmen Giménez Smith for LitHub
CARMEN GIMÉNEZ SMITH

Excerpt from a new poem by Carmen Giménez Smith on LitHub.

am I reclaiming separatist
or redefining epithets
fiction fable or fact
a shift or a sharing
who leads this tango
the thief or the judge
the huckster or the king
can I trust the momentum
or is it pure performance
will I be claimant or
defendant there
plough or oxen
is this like any other insistent
duality are we going to get
ahistorical because of
the thing with the thing
covered up with things
quashed and censored
unnameable inexpressible
untame hard to pronounce
things better left in the past
sounds like shrimperial
I could just leave the grid
leave it behind me
for some tentative exile
but what island might
I become where would
my allegiance be
and how would I construct
reasonable interventions
into culture or where might
I occupy where might I find
the suitable therefore inferior
slot meant for this labor
and could I live there
interminably and how
civil would I have
to perform like arboretum
or like the city public statue
of a settler or like skate park
or sanitarium or fallow field
with a pile of burning tires
and then how would you define
what I was or if I was
what you had hoped true
erotically or temperamentally
therefore intrinisically
how should I transfigure
and where should I locate
the self because it’s loose
and hot and deranged
it’s hot and ill-tempered

(…)

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