Thursday, September 24, 2015


On Sept. 14 I was at Princeton University for the symposium "Ferguson Is the Future: Incubating Alternative Worlds Through Arts, Activism, and Scholarship." There is a livestream if you want to check it out. There is a lifestream of black speculative art and thought, a living archive whose documents list authors like Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, Steven Barnes, Nisi Shawl, Andrea Hairston.

Eric Freeman and David Gelernter define a lifestream as follows:

...a time-ordered stream of documents that functions as a diary of your electronic life; every document you create and every document other people send you is stored in your lifestream. The tail of your stream contains documents from the past (starting with your electronic birth certificate). Moving away from the tail and toward the present, your stream contains more recent documents -- papers in progress or new electronic mail; other documents (pictures, correspondence, bills, movies, voice mail, software) are stored in between. Moving beyond the present and into the future, the stream contains documents you will need: reminders, calendar items, to-do lists.

The concept of a lifestream as a forward-moving arrow that begins with your birth certificate depends on a linear notion of time that conflicts with Afrofuturist thought. Afrofuturist creations, which draw on the past to imagine the future, represent time through a number of shapes--circles, constellations, nets--that all oppose the line. Consider the sankofa image in the center of the poster John Jennings created for the event:

The loops express a consciousness of time as cyclical and tangled, making space for the non-linear time conceptions of many African belief systems, making space to think about trauma, about the time-traveling flashbacks of post-traumatic stress, about the moment your heart will pound tomorrow for an event that happened yesterday, about bodies in time, steeped in the lifestream, floundering in it, drowning, swimming, stretching together, buoyant, changing course.

And so when I look at that definition of "lifestream" I see everything in it that rejects its own linear model. The diary reread and relived. The documents you create and the ones other people send you mingling like the thoughts that flew to and fro between adrienne maree brown and me as we discussed problems with our stories. Our unwritten stories do not yet exist, but they are documents in our common lifestream, they are moving away from the tail and toward the present. I think of the work the activists from Ferguson shared with us, work that is not complete, papers in progress. And all the materials stored in between--the films of M. Asli Dukan and Dennis Leroy Kangalee, the music of Be Steadwell and Colored Girls Hustle, those visual and aural signals that persist, reappear, ring in your head, inspire. Moving beyond the present and into the future I think of Walidah Imarisha's claim that all organizing is science fiction. I think of everything I will keep from that weekend. Rhythm. Gravity. Entanglement with others.

Every laugh, every hug, every conversation, every argument, every image, every sound represents a document in a shared lifestream--a stream of black life that persists. For yes, genocide can fail.

These are the documents you will needreminders of the past, calendar items to come, to-do lists.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

on Anabaptist Surrealism

These thoughts are inspired by the afterword to Jeff Gundy's book Walker in the Fog: On Mennonite Writing, a piece called "Heresy and the Individual Talent," which is obviously a response to T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," but also much more: a wry, prickly, passionate manifesto.


in which I read:

… it is this movement [surrealism], with its iconoclasm, its rebellion against the orderly, rational, disastrous European civilization that led to the calamities of the First World War, its nearly superstitious faith in chance and autonomous processes, its effort to transform or transcend prior categories and structures, that I propose now to fuse with the preternaturally clear, closely reasoned, wretchedly pragmatic spiritual efficiencies of Anabaptism as I know it.

this is not Anabaptism 

A kind of romp follows, a dance between earnestness and humor, statements that make fun of themselves, step forward then cancel themselves out, for Anabaptist Surrealism is "committed to progressive revelation, seeing through a glass darkly." There's a fantastic heterodoxy to the manifesto, a dedication to the fractured mess of Anabaptist history and experience. It's meant to be taken absolutely seriously and also completely laughed off, because it doesn't say anything, or rather, it says things and then unsays them:

All human beings, and all interested animals, plants and other creatures, are immediately declared both members in good standing of the Union of Anabaptist Surrealists and perpetually and simultaneously under its ban, as both eternally innocent and originally sinful. 

Remedios Varo, Creation of the Birds

A lot of playfulness here, and the serious work of nonsense (paradox being one way of expressing the inexpressible). What interests me most is how the essay starts out by proposing that surrealism and Anabaptism are not at all alike, that they need to be sort of forcibly banged together to create useful sparks, and how sparks do fly, but what flashes out in their light is not a "clear, closely reasoned, wretchedly pragmatic" Anabaptism but an Anabaptism that is totally weird and surreal. Gundy emphasizes this: the "surreal Christology" of Menno Simons, Jan van Leyden's "surreal nude race over the cobbles of Münster" (and to put these two men in the same list is a provocation in itself--think Dalí's The Sacred Heart with its inscription "Sometimes I Spit with Pleasure on the Portrait of My Mother").

(It's almost as though, by placing him in the same list as Jan van Leyden, Gundy is spitting with pleasure on the portrait of Menno Simons--and perhaps, as in a surrealist stunt, the idea is to crack a portrait that has been reproduced too often, allowing something like spirit to seep out.)

I'm reminded of something else I read recently: Al Reimer's Mennonite Literary Voices: Past and Present, which states that "from the beginning the Mennonite literary imagination seems to have been drawn to a gritty realism serving didactic purposes, as opposed to high fantasy or the free literary imagination." This is what Reimer calls the "plain style." (Gundy might call it "wretchedly pragmatic.") But also, a couple of pages earlier, Reimer has this to say about the accounts collected in the Martyrs Mirror:

As oral stories they had already received much of their literary shaping, tone, and texture beforehand--in a few cases stories had already been turned into full folk myths with imaginative touches of the poetic and the supernatural. While the historian may deplore such stories as lacking historical validation, the literary critic sees them as examples of the literary imagination at work.

And this is very interesting, because again the plainness and pragmatism of Anabaptist thought/faith/expression is being asserted and then denied. Our literary imagination is realist and didactic, but then it's also poetic and supernatural. The folk mythology recorded in the Martyrs Mirror is another stream that might feed Jeff Gundy's Anabaptist Surrealism, which of course doesn't need to be fed because it's not real, because it's the other side of realism, persistent in the face of all practicalities, refusing all refusals that would create schisms, all logistics that lock the doors, envisioning "grace, hope, faith, tenderness and generosity that will spring up like mushrooms from horse droppings," fomenting fantasies, outlasting the prescriptive, the pragmatic and the plain, like the flower in the hand of Leonhard Keyser, Anabaptist preacher of Bavaria, which along with his body would not be burned with fire.*

Keyser plucks a flower on the way to his execution

*I've been informed that Keyser was Lutheran, not Anabaptist, and slipped into the Martyrs Mirror by mistake--a true luminary of Anabaptist surrealism.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Tutuola two ways

Two views of the television-handed ghostess from Amos Tutuola's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts:


Certainly Tutuola must have been familiar with the magical practices and divination lore of his own tribe. And since we have reliable evidence that he created the television-handed ghostess without ever having seen a television set in operation, it is no doubt safe to assume that his fabrication of the ghostess's transcendental hand was inspired more by the Yoruba folk belief in the ability of professional diviners to magically tune in on a distant spirit world than it was by Western electronic technology. Tutuola was still operating entirely within a traditional African metaphysical system. … Amos Tutuola is a black writer who does not spew forth white culture. He may be a literary freak but he must be recognized as a thoroughly African one.

~ Bernth Lindfors, "Amos Tutuola's Television-handed Ghostess" (1971)


Tutuola's carceral Bush of Ghosts, like the Amazonian jungle or the Central African rainforest, is a distributed biocomputer, an example of [Kevin] Kelly's "massively parallel bioengineered adaptation. Natural evolution is a computational process of adaptation to an everchanging environment."

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts accelerates the "alien power of distributed being" into a medium, across which signals and frequencies crackle into electromagnetic ghosts. Tutuola opens a technology-magic continuum in which radio becomes an Invisible Magnetic Missive sent to you from Home. TV turns into a ghost medium haunted by the television-handed ghostess: "When she told me to look at her palm and opened it nearly to touch my face, it was exactly as a television."

~ Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (1998)

Sunday, July 19, 2015

2015: books so far

I always want to do an end-of-year book list of everything I've read, and it always seems too daunting. So I'm going to follow Elisa Gabbert's example and start early! Here's everything I've read so far in 2015 (I think--I may have missed a few). If there's a link, it's because I've written about the book somewhere. If it's in bold, it means I've read the book at least once before, so it's probably really good. To make things easier, I've divided the list into two sections: fiction/poetry and essay. Read! Enjoy!


In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman - Large, philosophical novel of male friendship. Kabul, Islamabad, London, New York, science, economic crisis, war. I wanted to love this more than I did. The experience of the raped woman whose voice is never heard hangs over it.

Tongue Screws and Testimonies, edited by Kirsten Eve Beachy - This is a collection of fiction, poetry, and essays, in which Mennonite writers respond creatively to the Martyrs Mirror. Harrowing, funny, and full of insights into what makes and sustains identity.

Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil - "It is psychotic to draw a line between two places." Partition, migration, and as always the utter beauty of Bhanu's writing.

Incubation: A Space for Monsters by Bhanu Kapil - The postcolonial woman goes on the road.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell - Listened to the audiobook, which is great. Had the same reaction I did to Cloud Atlas: I loved the realist parts and was bored and unconvinced by the paranormal/SF stuff.

Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey - Read it because a review compared it to two books I love (and reread this year!), Renata Adler's Speedboat and Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights. What happened? I don't remember anything, but I didn't remember a thing about Speedboat either after reading it for the first time, so…

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller - Like The Bone Clocks, this deals with apocalypse. In the aftermath of a superflu, a man struggles with harsh Colorado weather, memories of loss, and the hyper-masculine jerk who's his only companion. Quite lovely. Also the Mennonites survive y'all!

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee - MOAR APOCALYPSE. Also another good audio book. Best part: the narrative voice, a fascinating communal "We". Worst: a coincidence that saves the plot.

Promising Young Women by Suzanne Scanlon - Fragments of a young woman's life in psychiatric institutions. Shut the door and curl up with it.

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington - 1976 novel by the brilliant surrealist. Starts off weird, then goes completely off the rails. It's Alice in Wonderland for old ladies--who, by the way, as Carrington makes clear, are better than all of us.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill - A novel in fragments, a marriage in fragments. Riveting.

Speedboat by Renata Adler - Fierce, cool, funny, moving, shrewd--the art of anecdote at its best.

Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil

The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers by Bhanu Kapil - "The project as I thought it would be: an anthology of the voices of Indian women. … The project as I wrote it: a tilted plane."

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson - Myth becomes novel, novel becomes poetry.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi - Much has been written about this book, both positive (imaginative genetic engineering & mutations) and negative (stereotypical Thailand, rape porn) and it's pretty much all true.

Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delany

The Drowning Girl: A Memoir by Caitlín R. Kiernan - Mermaids, werewolves, ghosts. A deadly incantation of a novel. Also a love story. I think I've read it 4 or 5 times.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac - Somehow I had never read this book. I listened to an amazing audio version read by Matt Dillon while driving back and forth between Ventura and Fresno and it was horrible and grotesque and perfect.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese - Read it for book group. Wanted to like it more. There's nothing wrong with this story of twin brothers growing up on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, but somehow it felt heavily plotted to me, calculated, not quite alive.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka - Taught it in the spring semester. Still the best. Love u Gregor xoxo

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño - I'm that friend who couldn't get into The Savage Detectives or 2666 even though you were SURE I would like them, but I loved this brooding novella about art and violence and complicity.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters - Another book club book. Gripping! A tale of passion and crime in 1920s London. Reading it on the train, I forgot where I was.

Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders - Strange, cruel, often breathtaking collection. The little girls hanging on the wire in the yard like they're on a clothesline! No matter what the consequences, you have to help them get away.

The Revisionist by Miranda Mellis - Brief, lyrical, illustrated dystopian fiction. Yes, another apocalypse! The narrator works as a revisionist whose job is to "conduct surveillance of the weather and report that everything was fine." Everything, of course, is not.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell - Solid speculative fiction collection, except for the one where all the dead presidents turn into horses, what was that?

The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink - A 2015-so-far favorite. It's about ecoterrorists. Zany, funny, and unpredictable not just in terms of the overall plot, but also, magically, in every sentence.

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys - I've loved Wide Sargasso Sea for YEARS so I don't know why I'd never read this one before, but better late than never. Uncompromisingly bleak tour-de-force.

Nadja by André Breton - Surrealist classic. Famous last line: "Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all."

Fra Keeler by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi - A man in a house, a death in a house, a death--or a series of deaths--in a man. Utterly ghostly and weird. Another good one from Dorothy, a publishing project.

Binary Star by Sarah Gerard - "I am a dwarf star." Anorexia, alcoholism, disintegration, survival. A white-hot book--I read it fast, as if I had to tear through it before it burned up.

My Documents by Alejandro Zambra - A collection of stories that read as if taken from the author's computer files: unpretentious, economical, direct. I loved the title story. The one where the main character rapes his girlfriend, not so much. You can read "The Most Chilean Man" (which is neither of these) online.

Writers by Antoine Volodine

Her 37th Year, An Index by Suzanne Scanlon - A life compressed into short, alphabetical entries. Philosophy, feminism, longing, grief: all concentrated and aglow.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler - Completely lovely and funny and sad and animal and human.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi - The story of Snow White remixed into a drama of race in 1950s New England. I'm going to teach it this fall and I can't wait.

Five Spice Street by Can Xue

Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett - A compromised computer program runs a city in this science fiction debut. I interviewed Jenn for Strange Horizons.

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac - Where is Kerouac? Who's the idiot that wrote this book?

The Quest for Shar-i-Sabs by Philip N. Bier - A novel based on the historical Great Trek of Mennonites from Russia to Central Asia in the 1880s. I read it because I'm trying to write about the same event. The book's a bit clunky, but maybe, as the jacket promises, it will give you a "historically accurate and emotionally gratifying account" of my "sometimes mysterious yet fascinating people."

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote - Somehow I'd missed this one. Southern Gothic steeped in race and sex and queerness and youthful alienation.

The Kitchen-Dweller's Testimony by Ladan Osman

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick - Astounding novel from life, infused with life. I still don't know how she does it. "Sweet to be pierced by daggers at the end of paragraphs."


Icon, edited by Amy Scholder - Beautiful collection of essays on iconic women. Our adoration of star writers and other celebrities can be so intimate!

An Elemental Thing by Eliot Weinberger - A collection of interests and obsessions, a kind of commonplace book. Stars, tigers, seasons: all shine.

The Pushcart Book of Essays, edited by Anthony Brandt - Excellent. Here are some musings on one of the essays.

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Book Got Wrong by James Loewen - Mesmerizing and dreadful tour through high school American history textbooks. Boring, brain-killing propaganda. No wonder the kids hate it.

Heroines by Kate Zambreno - A study of the "mad wives" of literary modernism--Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien(ne) Eliot, and others--that's also a memoir. Vital, impassioned criticism.

Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas by Marcel Griaule - Poetic 1948 record by a French anthropologist. I first read it in college, and reread it to take myself back to that place when I was writing the story "Request for an Extension on the Clarity."

Coming to Writing and Other Essays by Hélène Cixous

Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy by Graham Harman - Literary criticism meets speculative realism. Harman's writing is entertaining, his passion for Lovecraft endearing, his attempt to deal with Lovecraft's racism pretty halfhearted. He does make a good case for why philosophers should be interested in weird fiction and its representations, necessarily hazy, of the unknowable.

Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era by Paul B. Preciado - Like Heroines, this is a theory book that is also a diary and utterly brilliant. Journey into testosterone. I compared it to the film Ex Machina.

The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten - Notes on academia and how to live there now, inspired by the black radical tradition. Theory as practice.

The Address Book by Sophie Calle - In which an artist finds an address book on the street and decides to get to know the owner, not by contacting him but by contacting all his friends and relatives. Slightly creepy, wholly engrossing.

The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults by Joyelle McSweeney

The Red Parts: A Memoir by Maggie Nelson - Nelson investigates and meditates on the murder of an aunt she never met. It was weird, maybe even an error, to read this without having read Jane: A Murder, Nelson's previous book on the subject, but anyway her writing, even when it's about death, is life.

Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination by Avery F. Gordon - The uncanny is social. A brilliant, convincing argument worked out through readings of Luisa Valenzuela and Toni Morrison.

The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning by Maggie Nelson - An exploration of cruelty in the arts--Plath, Kafka, Abramovic, Ono, more. Nelson really wants to know how to interact with cruel works in an ethical way; if you do too, read this book.

Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947 - 1963 by Susan Sontag

The Trouble with Being Born by E.M. Cioran - Aphorisms of a philosopher who realizes that birth is the first disaster. I found it strangely comforting, even uplifting, full of beautiful insights on writing. "A book is a postponed suicide."

The Unsealed Prophecy of the Prophet Daniel and the Meaning of the Revelation of Jesus Christ by Claas Epp, Jr. - Predictions about the end of the world from the late nineteenth century. I read it for research.

MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions and MennoFolk 2: A Sampler of Mennonite and Amish Folklore by Ervin Beck - Two volumes of stories, jokes, crafts, and traditions. Interesting not just for the content, but because you can watch a research area being created.

Dancing Naked: Narrative Strategies for Writing Across Centuries by Di Brandt - A collection of the poet's essays over a period of ten years. History, memory, trauma, feminism, environmentalism, poetics. Wonderful generosity in every piece.

Mennonite Identity and Literary Art by John L. Ruth - I found these 1978 lectures fascinating. Bonus weird critique of Ebony magazine.

American Canyon by Amarnath Ravva - Spare and gorgeous memoir in words and photographs. Faith, migration, loss, and a powerful juxtaposition of the terms Indian American and American Indian.

Monday, July 13, 2015


Reborn: the first volume of Susan Sontag's notebooks, covering 1947-1963, edited by her son David Rieff. On the first page Sontag is fourteen and on the last she is thirty. The final words--"Intellectual 'wanting' like sexual wanting"--encapsulate these private notes, which are about reading and sex and the struggle for all kinds of knowledge, especially knowledge of the self.

I don't know what my real feelings are.

Some parts of Reborn remind me of Carole Maso's AVA, one of my favorite books. Snapshots of life interspersed with criticism, reading lists, philosophy, cries. In these notebooks Sontag investigates her sexual identity and her identity as a writer: she explores and creates what she wants to be.

That quality of openness--terrifying--unforced writing that is the highest genius.

What is the secret of suddenly beginning to write, finding a voice? Try whiskey. Also being warm.

How to make sadness more than a lament for feeling? How to feel? How to burn? How to make my anguish metaphysical?

In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do in person; I create myself.

I am a lazy diarist and Sontag makes me want to do better. It seems so smart, suddenly, to keep careful notes on reading. I tend to write about what I'm reading here, or sometimes in reviews, but Sontag's journals illuminate the value of private notes. Like it or not, few of us are completely honest in public (and how she castigates herself for a quality she calls "X"--"the desire to place myself under the other's protection"--"being a moral coward, being a liar, being indiscreet about myself + others, being phony, being passive." This sinister X looms larger and larger toward the end of the notebooks, people are "X-y" or "un-X-y" or "X-prone," things give Sontag an "X-feeling," she reacts "X-ily," she despises a man in the faculty dining room "X-ing all over the place." "Think of Blake," she writes. "He didn't smile for others."). The private notebook is a space for the harshest criticism: absolutely severe, unforgiving, even stupid, unfair, wrongheaded. And maybe this is necessary for each of us to find our way.

To trust my skin.

To write, my profound joy!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

21st-century speculations

Excited to teach a course on these searching, striving, playful, experimental, sly and enchanting books this fall.

Roberto Bolaño
By Night in Chile

Helen Oyeyemi
Boy, Snow, Bird

Can Xue
The Last Lover
Kuzhali Manickavel
Things We Found During the Autopsy

Karen Joy Fowler
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Friday, June 19, 2015

dancing on a sheet of ice

I just finished the novel Five Spice Street by Can Xue. It's the story of Madam X, who sells peanuts, stares into a microscope, completely loses her sight and hearing (maybe), gets them back (if relevant), creates miracles, attracts devotees, has an affair, or many, or none at all, and is adored, reviled, deified and trashed by the people of Five Spice Street.

Can Xue is "the only woman associated with the male-dominated avant-garde school that emerged in China around 1985." She cites Kafka, Calvino, Borges, and Dante as inspirations, and has written about all of them. She has published at least three novels, fifty novellas, 120 short stories, and six books of criticism (those numbers are from 2009). She describes her thirty-year career as "an experiment without an escape route."

Madam X spends a lot of time at her microscope, yet she's struggling to get away from it. "I sometimes think: why don't I create a miracle? Creation would be much more interesting than research!" Madam X creates miracles without trying and also by trying extremely hard. Her relationship to Five Spice Street is that of an artist to the public. They think she's disgusting, alluring, a sex maniac, a corrupter of youth and morals, and also "the wave of the future." Meanwhile Madam X muses: "Just think how fragile people are: how is it possible to be a genius?"

Madam X jumps up on the table. Her eyes shoot beams of saffron light. Asked to give a speech, she threatens to turn somersaults, and when people insist, she does in fact turn somersaults.

A long, convoluted, hallucinatory novel, full of commentary from people with half names or no names, from Mr. Q, Dr. A, the widow with the ample body, the young coal worker, the widow with the felt hat. A feeling of being unmoored, adrift among these characters without character, in a story that builds in such a weird way that it seems to be going nowhere. But who is more utterly adrift than Madam X? In the chapter called "Madam X Is Up a Creek," her feet are stuck to thin, cracking ice in a kind of dream. "Must this drama end? Finally, do I--this woman who sells peanuts--have to grit my teeth and hold out until the end, and flip my body--wounded all over by arrows--into the sea? Wait, I still want to do something whimsical: I want to dance on this sheet of ice. It's so bright! So bright!"

A novel that's off-putting and mesmerizing at the same time. Into a commentary that seems to go on almost forever in the service of almost nothing, a surreal image falls like a thunderclap. Madam X's sister remembers X as a child:

"My sister used to be a charming, gentle little girl. The peach blossoms were brilliantly red. Then, suddenly, she threw Mother's spectacles into the mountain stream. Afterwards, we ran and ran until she leapt into the air, and I heard only her footsteps--tita, tita--overhead. In private, Papa and Mama said she had two calcium carbide lamps for eyes. Sometimes, her slender fingers would turn into a hawk's talons--very sharp and truly frightening. Mama was always grabbing her and cutting her nails until her fingers bled."

Can Xue is a pseudonym that means both "the purest snow at the top of a high mountain" and "the dirty snow that refuses to melt."