Saturday, April 23, 2016

guest shelf

I did a guest shelf for Green Apple Books! Stephen Sparks asked me to suggest ten books, and I thought I'd share them...

Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake: The second book of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy is a Gothic fever dream. No need to read Titus Groan first—you’ll catch up on the plot in the deliriously beautiful opening pages.

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: Vampires, pyramids, and superhero conventions: Link’s latest collection shimmers with her unique and unpredictable energy. I didn't know this when I added it to my shelf, but it's also A PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST.

The Physiognomy by Jeffrey Ford: Welcome to the Well-Built City, the hallucinatory metropolis of this World Fantasy Award-winning novel. Read the first paragraph; you’ll be hooked.

The Drowning Girl: A Memoir by Caitlín R. Kiernan: An intricate ghost story told by a seductively unreliable narrator, this novel is an unforgettable siren song.

Humanimal: A Project for Future Children by Bhanu Kapil: Part history, part memoir, all poetry: Kapil’s meditation on the Bengali “wolf girls” traces the links between humans, animals, and the monsters in between.

Memoirs of a Porcupine by Alain Mabanckou, translated by Helen Stevenson: Narrated by a murderer’s animal double, this novel delivers an eerie tale with a weird, breathless lyricism.

Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials by Reza Negarestani: This theory-fiction follows lost archaeologists and ancient gods, investigating an occult substance: oil, the fuel of war in the Middle East. A brilliant and timely work of speculative philosophy.

Event Factory by Renee Gladman: The first book of Gladman’s Ravicka trilogy, this is the story of a linguist in a city eroding due to a mysterious crisis. Poetic and philosophical, it’s a novel of slow disintegration.

Leena Krohn: Collected Fiction, by Leena Krohn, with nine translators: A landmark collection of the Finnish author’s bizarre and marvelous tales, available in English for the first time.

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih: In 2004, the Arab Academy of Damascus named this the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century. Written in the 1960s, this story of doubles, murders, and postcolonial anguish still glows in a superb translation by Denys Johnson-Davies.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


1. Translation

I've been translating--just for myself--Haytham el-Wardany's wonderful story "The League of Incomplete Literature." It's been three years since I had the time to read anything in Arabic. Surely one of the oddest feelings is that of returning to a language. Where does language hide? Why is it that I can recognize words but would not have been able to produce them? Dormant somewhere in my brain, the words stand up when I see them on the page. Others, buried deeper, have to be fished out with a dictionary. I absolutely know I "know" them, but can't remember what they mean. Weirdest of all is the way in which reading or looking up certain words resuscitates others--even though these words appear totally unrelated. Having looked up the word for "ignore," I can recognize the word for "fragile." After "withdraw" I know "gradually." By the time I reach "excerpt" I'm certain of "shabby." It's as if I've tugged at a thread in the dark and slowly, with a feeling of amazement, pulled toward me an entire carpet.

2. Dreams

Have you ever noticed that reading about dreams makes you remember your own? Maybe this happens when you listen to other people talk about their dreams, too--I don't know. I do know that if you want to have wild dreams, and remember them when you wake up, you should pick up Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams.

In The Art of Flight, Sergio Pitol records a series of wonderful dreams. After reading them, I thought wow, it's been a while since I remembered a dream. That very night I dreamt that our friend Kim was sitting on the couch in my office. She had adopted our cat and was complaining that her new pet wasn't a "love-bug." All I could do was agree. Using my phone to map the way to Kim's new house, I realized that it was practically next door, that in fact, looking up the hill, I could see the three houses and fenced-in lot that were pictured on my phone. The phone kept making a pinging noise and wouldn't stop until I opened my texts. Someone named Sharif Samatar had sent me his poems. Cleaning the tub, I found it easy to scoop up all of my fallen hair. Yes, it was gross, but I was pleased with how heavy it was.

3. Lizard et Luc

To me this one is the strangest of all! I read a poem by Kevin Killian in Animal Shelter. It's called "Eyes on the Prize: Maxime le Forrestier." In the third line there's a list of names that ends with "Liza et Luc," which immediately reminds me of a song I learned in my ninth grade French class. My eyes skip back to the beginning of the poem: "San Francisco." That was the name of the song. Quand San Francisco s'embrume, quand San Francisco s'allume. As I go on reading I find the word "brouillard," which seems familiar. The end of the poem makes it all certain: "Sylvia, attendez-moi." This poem is responding to the song, to my French class, to my childhood! Of course this is a song that exists in the world, but I would never have dared to look it up, to detach it from ninth grade, from Madame Wund's class, the blackboard, the scratch of the record player. What makes childhood seem so irrevocably sealed off, as if locked inside a fairy hill? I would have thought--had someone suggested I look it up--that the song could never be found. It must have been totally obscure. It had such a sixties sound to me, as if already old back then. In fact, I've found--now that the poem has given me permission to look it up--that "San Francisco" is an extremely famous song by Maxime le Forestier. I'm happy to find that it's not "Liza et Luc" but, as I remembered, "Lizard et Luc." That was my favorite part. A person named Lizard!

Monday, April 4, 2016

2016 reading: feast or famine (part 1)

Last year I kept track of my reading for the first time, and I really enjoyed it (feel free to browse my 2015 reading, part 1 and part 2).

I broke it into two parts to make it more manageable, but the lists are still pretty long, so this year I thought I'd try quarterly reading wrap-ups instead.

I'm also going to categorize the books differently this year. Last year, I divided my reading into two categories: fiction/poetry and essay. It was fine, but so often those categories fail to capture what's important about books or the reading experience. I want to experiment with different categories, to talk about reading in different ways. (I'm kind of inspired by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick here--her argument that sexuality can be configured in so many ways other than homo- vs. heterosexual orientation. "Some people spend a lot of time thinking about sex, others little. Some people like to have a lot of sex, others little or none...") So this year I am dividing my reading into the categories of FEAST and FAMINE.

Under FEAST you will find instances of linguistic richness; books of explosive content, stimulating theory, sprawling plot; books to chew on, laugh over, argue about, share with friends; splashy books, blockbusters, culture makers.

Under FAMINE you will find thin books, spare books, books that went under the radar, accounts of indisposition and sadness, books to be sick with, books that feel unfinished, diaries, whispers, and notes.

As usual, if I've written about the book elsewhere, there is a link; if it's in bold, it's because I've read it more than once.

Here's my first three months of reading!


Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields - I started 2016 with a return to this lively, sprawling collage of thoughts and anecdotes on the desire for reality (memoir, reality TV, etc). Still provocative, still inspiring.

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente - Part Hollywood noir, part interplanetary fairy tale, all delicious.

The Railway by Hamid Ismailov, translated by Robert Chandler - This novel tells a multitude of stories of people in a small town in Uzbekistan between 1900 and 1980. The town itself is a train hurtling through the changing landscape of history. A typical character is Mullah-Ulmas-Greeneyes, ex-soldier and survivor of the Gulag, who has had to learn to speak not only Russian, Greek, Serbo-Croat, Khakass, Buryat, Evenk, Nivkhi, and Inuit, but also "one other language whose name was known to no one at all."

Texas by Carmen Boullosa, translated by Samantha Schnee

Technologies of the Self by Haris Durrani - This debut novella may be small, but it's packed with the sights and sounds of crowded apartments, larger-than-life uncles, Dominican-Pakistani-Muslim life lessons, and oh yeah, a time-traveling space knight.

Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR by Adeeb Khalid - Large and detailed scholarly work on the origins of Uzbekistan. Adeeb Khalid argues--convincingly--that it wasn't primarily a product of Soviet intervention, but of a cultural revolution by the local intelligentsia.

Cinema in Central Asia: Rewriting Cultural Histories, edited by Gulnara Abikeyeva - Excellent collection of essays for those with a mild-to-serious obsession with Central Asian movies, from Uzbek "chopping block" films to the Kazakh new wave.

The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami - Lalami takes a historical footnote--the name of a Spanish conquistador's slave, Estebanico--and builds an American epic. Estebanico's position as the slave of a conqueror acts like a prism dispersing insights on power, history, and what it might mean to be Moroccan in the U.S.

Marginalia for Stone Bird by Rose Lemberg

My Struggle Book 3 by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett - A journey into our hero's childhood. There is something mesmerizing about Knausgaard's giant memory project.

My Struggle Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett - He's teaching middle school in this town in the middle of nowhere. Endless banal drinking parties. One would think this would be boring. Maybe it is? Looking forward to Book 5.

La Folie Baudelaire by Roberto Calasso, translated by Alastair McEwen - This was my introduction to Calasso. It's a Baudelaire cornucopia: not only the poet's work comes to life here, but also his milieu, his favorite painters, his city, his apartment, and his mom (but, weirdly, not his mistress).

Plain Fear: Forsaken by Leanna Ellis - This is an Amish vampire romance. I didn't know where to put it! I guess under Feast? It's about eating! I livetweeted my reading of it, leading to this Storify. Deepest apologies.

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson - Big book, broad vision--a classic colonization-of-Mars story. I liked the physical problems--how to grow a garden, how to construct an elevator--better than the psychological ones.

Light by M. John Harrison - I listened to the audiobook of this one (excellent) and was both riveted and disoriented by the black and white cats, leaps in time, virtual adventures, serial murders, ancient aliens, bewildering physics, and foaming, rushing, annihilating light.

The Scofield Issue 13: Dambudzo Marechera and the Doppelgänger

Songs of a Dead Dreamer/Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti - Rich brocade meets steaming blood in this collection of artful horrors. Ligotti's world resembles that of the Surrealists as described in his story "The Lost Art of Twilight": "twisted arcades where brilliant shadows are sewn to the rotting flesh of rainbows."


Hotel by Joanna Walsh

Pamela: A Novel by Pamela Lu - A student, P, moves through San Francisco with others all indicated by letters: L, R, C. Like these names, everything is stripped down. There's a kind of flaying of identity here, which is related to the heaviness of the identities of young people of color. "Instead of answering the question of ourselves then, we produced a vast supply of commentary on the question of ourselves, and on the question of what was going on in the world."

Looking at Pictures by Robert Walser, translated by Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Middleton - I almost put this under Feast because of the vivid little pictures that make this into an art book. But Walser's is such a delicate voice, so wavering, so much on the verge of disappearing, that I feel it's more of a Famine book--a book for an artist, but a convalescent one.

Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Jonathan Dunne

The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha, translated by Robin Moger - A document of a secret Egyptian poetry society of the nineties, heavily haunted by the Beat poets, Bolaño, Jim Morrison, and the real Egyptian writers of the nineties. Told in 405 brief numbered passages, it's slim, suicide-laced, and occasionally brilliant. I can't tell whether this novel's blinkered masculinism is its downfall or its own secret poetry--the direst possible commentary on the dead hopes of Tahrir Square. "What terrifies me most," the narrator says, "is that this exploitation is all there is."

K by Roberto Calasso, translated by Geoffrey Brock - Having tasted Calasso in La Folie Baudelaire, I went back for more. This book is a treasure. Intense distillation of Kafka's mournful energy. If La Folie Baudelaire gives off exuberance and spectacle, this book turns inward: it's compact, glacial, and stunning. A dwarf star.

The Complete Stories and Parables by Franz Kafka, translated by Clement Greenberg, Ernst Kaiser, Eithne Wilkins, Willa Muir, Edwin Muir, Tania Stern, and James Stern - The only possible response to reading Calasso's K is to read some Kafka, and this collection shows him at his most frustrating and wonderful. A compendium of truncated gestures.

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Michael Emmerich - A love story so gentle and hazy it's barely there at all. I wanted more from it, but this seems to go against its nature.

Distant Star by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews - How poets disappear under dictatorship. "This is my last communiqué from the planet of the monsters. Never again will I immerse myself in literature's bottomless cesspools."

Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil - I can't stop reading this. A notebook on fire. (Side thought after writing about Rakha & Bolaño--why is it that some writers, like Bhanu and W.G. Sebald, can write about real-world horrors in a way that is never reductive, yet feels transcendent?)

The Face: Cartography of the Void by Chris Abani - A tiny, powerful mirror reflecting the world of a face: family, ethnicity, cultural heritage, the father. Somehow dwelling on the surface of the face is not reductive--in fact, the surface works as an antidote to oversimplifications like "mixed-race experience" and "Nigeria."

Aliens and Anorexia by Chris Kraus - Alien abduction, Simone Weil, failed movies, S/M, brilliance.

How to Disappear by Haytham el-Wardany, translated by Jennifer Peterson and Robin Moger - Part fiction, part theory: a succinct meditation on Cairo, sonic experience, revolution, and the everyday.

The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse - Four stories that keep opening beneath your feet, dropping you into deeper histories. Here are lost men, lost industries, lost homelands, entire lost generations, revealed with the utmost sorrow and restraint. I put this in Famine, then in Feast, but in the end it wound up back in Famine, where--in homage to the notebooks of Ambros Adelwarth and Luisa Ferber--I think it belongs.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

the other mysterious landscape

Rereading The Wanderer (Le Grand Meaulnes, 1913) by Alain-Fournier, translated by Françoise Delisle. His goal, said Alain-Fournier, was to "insert the marvelous into reality." He was completely unconvinced by literary realism. "I don't see how we ever could have been taken in by such a crude theory," he wrote.

"It is ... of that world at the same time past and desired, mysteriously mingled with the world of my life, mysteriously suggested by it, that I wish to speak... Nevertheless, I do not think that it is the sole mystery of one will, one divinity, but rather of a life remembered with my past life, of a landscape which the actual landscape makes me desire. I shan't find, like Gide, words on the actual landscape which suggest the mystery, instead I'll describe the other mysterious landscape."

In the introduction, Fredrika Blair writes: "He had the vision of a poet and the impartiality of those medieval illuminators of Books of Hours who show peasants binding sheaves and the Virgin in the clouds above them, both with the same air of miraculous bright clarity."

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Scofield I.3: Dambudzo Marechera & the Doppelgänger

"III" by Oluseye

The third issue of The Scofield is devoted to the iconic Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera. This was my introduction to the magazine--I found it because I follow news about African literature. I'm in love, not just with this issue, but with the whole approach of The Scofield, which combines the passion of someone trying to make you read their favorite book with the intellectual energy of a really good conference and the beauty of a collage.

The Scofield is named after Scofield Thayer, editor and publisher of the literary journal The Dial from 1920 to 1926. Like The Dial, it packs in a lot of content: art, fiction, poetry, essays, reviews. But The Scofield also has unifying elements: each issue concentrates on an author and a theme. One of the most exciting things about it is the way it brings together original works and classics; this makes it feel like an amazing bookshelf in somebody's house, a slice of a real person's reading life. From the About page:

Each issue will be an ordered chaos or a chaotic order. Each issue will hopefully work as some sort of patchwork quilt, made of various fabrics, and, most importantly, fraying a bit at the edges. Each issue will also focus on an author who we deem underappreciated and worthy of further exploration and exposure. In doing so, we will also dive into a particular theme that the issue’s featured writer wrestled with throughout his or her career.

"I think I am the doppelgänger whom, until I appeared, African literature had not yet met," said Marechera. The magazine teems with doubles: the ape in the mirror in Marechera's "Burning in the Rain," the sinister twin of his story "The Writer's Grain," the horribly familiar shadows of Brian Evenson's "Seaside Town," the surreal series of matching bureaucrats in the excerpt from Helen Phillips' novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat. There's a wealth of material on Marechera: a bibliography, recommendations of specific works by writers like Tendai Huchu and China Miéville, interviews with people who knew Marechera and writers influenced by his work, essays on his politics, his language, his obsession with the doppelgänger, and what it's like to play him in a film. The issue is also a doppelgänger anthology, including a brief primer on the subject and some of the most influential literary works about doubles. You get Heinrich Heine's doppelgänger poem, Poe's "William Wilson," excerpts from Dostoyevsky's The Double and Conrad's "The Secret Sharer." You get Jekyll and Hyde. You get Freud. 

And then there are those frayed edges--places where the subjects of Marechera and the doppelgänger spin out into social media, South African poetry, Hitchcock movies, Mulholland Drive, kids breaking into celebrities' houses, dead authors' opinions on Donald Trump, the works of Petina Gappah, cocktails, soap, the secret languages of twins, Hungarian writers in China, Beer in the Snooker Club, Afghanistan, literary ghosts, and Marechera's spirit presides over it all, so that by the time you get to the concluding piece, Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias," the poem is transformed by Marechera, infected with his radiant hubris and despair, and the world is Marechera's world.

Standout pieces for me:

  • "Me and Dambudzo," personal essay by Flora Veit-Wild
  • "Beyond 'Beyond Knowledge': Fragments from a Thesis," amazing smashed dissertation by the doubles Creon Upton and Geoff Downton
  • "Blood on the Wall," beautiful memoir/essay on Marechera by Scott Cheshire
  • The excerpt from Loquela by Carlos Labbé, which came out in an English translation by Will Vanderheyden late last year and looks incredible
  • "Dambudzo," a poem by Nhamo Mhiripiri
  • The excerpt from Marechera's "The Writer's Grain"
  • "I'm Not the Character in the Movie: Doppelgängers and Fame, an Exploration" by J.T. Price
  • Tobias Carroll's review of Fiston Mwanza Mujila's Tram 83, because Tram 83
  • All the paintings by Duncan Regehr

Duncan Regehr, "Doppelgänger IV"

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

the winged histories

Dear friends, my new book is officially here! Also as an ebook!

If you like, you can read an excerpt right now.

What to say about The Winged Histories on its birthday? It's a companion to my first novel, A Stranger in Olondria. It's the second half of the Olondria project, which I have always envisioned as a two-book adventure. (The books do stand alone, so if you want to jump in with the new one, go ahead!) When I started this project, I was 26 years old. Now I'm 44. OMG. Writing takes so long. The Winged Histories marks the completion of the project. Never say never, of course, but I do see this book as my farewell to epic fantasy.

In this book I try to say everything about my love-hate relationship with "epic" or "high" or "heroic" fantasy, with epics, with hierarchies, with heroes, with women warriors, monsters, maps, genealogies, archives, journeys, cults. I write into the lines that are drawn by the epic: the lines between us and them. I write about disappearing people, women, extras, nobodies, the displaced. I write about flight the way Hélène Cixous writes when she says "she flies," elle vole. Elle vole means both "she flies" and "she steals."

The Winged Histories has four parts. Each concerns a particular flying, stealing woman. Here is a little bit about each of them:

Tav: Completely honorable. A warrior trapped in a ballgown. Later, in snow, she tries to cut her way through to another life. If only she could get back to the dusty plain where she grew up! If only she hadn't grown up there as a stranger, an oppressor.

Tialon: You may remember her if you read A Stranger in Olondria, in which she plays a minor role. She is the scholar in the black dress who haunts the scented halls of the palace. In place of a past, she has a pen. She writes to live.

Seren: A singer in a time of war. She is the one who asks the question: What is music? She investigates the epic, the boast, the battle in verse. Is there a place for her here? Tell me: What is women's music? In her lamplit tent, she sings of girls transformed into desert birds.

Siski: Impeccably dressed, with jewels of paste--she has gambled her real jewels away. Sometimes she thinks her heart is also made of paste. She will fall from a terrible height, thinking: Once we were small, we played in the fallen leaves, and everything was simple. She will discover what monster means.

This is the dedication in the book! This book is for you! It's in the world now. Dear reader, give me your hand.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

super annoying yet potentially inspiring

The many experiments that Europeans have made with African Negroes, making them draw from nature, have proved that the Negroes always take from form that only which impresses them from the decorative point of view, that is to say, that which represents an abstract expression. For instance, in drawing an individual, they give principal importance to such things as the buttons of the clothes, distributing them decoratively, in an arbitrary manner, far different from the place which they occupied in reality. While they appreciate abstract form, the abstract line is to them incomprehensible, and only the combinations of lines expressing a decorative idea is appreciated by them. Therefore what they try to reproduce is not form itself, but the expression of the sentiment or the impression, represented by a geometrical combination.

                                      ~ Marius de Zayas, "Photography and Artistic-Photography," 1913