Sunday, April 26, 2015

poetry is a way of life

Poetry is a way of life, not a career. A career means you solicit the powerful and the famous. A way of life means you live where you are with the people around you. A career means you become an authority. A way of life means you stay a student, even if you teach for a living. A career means your life increasingly comes from your art. A way of life means your art continues to arise from your life. Careerism feeds off of the theoretical, the fancified, the complicated, the coded, and the overwrought; all forms of psychological cowardice. A way of life is nourished by the practical, the unadorned, the complex, and a direct approach to the mysterious.

                                ~ Marvin Bell, "Homage to the Runner: Bloody Brain Work" (1993)

Monday, April 13, 2015


I've been reading Hélène Cixous' collection Coming to Writing and Other Essays & I'm sort of taken with the idea of "decanting" from the introduction by Susan Rubin Suleiman. Suleiman is discussing H.C.'s concerns (she calls her H.C.)--writing, exile, foreignness, loss, death, gender. And she says H.C. has been working on these ideas her whole life, "but they have become, over time, by dint of repetition and fidelity, reworked, refined, at once complicated and decanted--I would be tempted to say 'purified,' were that word not so heavily overlaid with spiritualist and antimaterialist connotations, many of which I do not accept."

"Decanted"--I love that.

The collection contains the great essay "The Last Painter," in which H.C. is amazed by painters, especially Monet with his repetitions. More than thirty paintings of Rouen Cathedral. And she quotes one of Monet's letters: "my sleep was filled with nightmares:  the cathedral fell down on top of me, it appeared either blue, pink or yellow."

She also refers to Genet's writings on Rembrandt and the idea of "gilding," which also involves burning, so another process from the chemistry lab, like decanting. "[T]he trajectory of Rembrandt's works began by gilding, by covering over with gold, and then by burning the gold, consuming it, to attain the gold-ash with which the last paintings are painted."

Do you repeat yourself? Obsess over certain subjects? Did you just paint the same cathedral 30 times? Maybe you're decanting, or burning off your gold.

"It is only at the end of a superhuman human-going-to-the-depths-of-the-fathoming-of-life-and-back that one will be able to cease gilding everything," writes H.C. "And then one can begin to adore."

She also quotes the painter Hokusai, who drew over 200 lions. "I continue to draw hoping for a peaceful day."

Sunday, April 12, 2015

i lost my

I lost my interest in clubs. I lost my desire to move with a pack. I lost my fake smile. I lost my "you scratch my back I'll scratch yours."

I lost my tolerance for writing that is almost good or might be good if you read it quickly or while listening to music. Sorry but I lost my ability to read this stupid book. I lost my willingness to waste another second.

I lost my patience. I lost the energy it takes to forge an identity out of the words I have. Just take what's here or go.

Some of these lost things will return in time. Others will not.

Remembering Said S. Samatar: Death Prevents You from Thinking

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


What can I say in addition to what I've already said? We clamor for the right to opacity for everyone.

A friend writes to me that Ben Okri's Guardian piece may have been "a cry for help." Yes, perhaps. A cry to be read otherwise, to become something other than artifact. Artifact, with its archaeological connotations: an object indicating a world that has disappeared. A thing that means "something is missing." Absence. Lack. I've said before that this is how African literature is received globally, as the literature of nothing. This process is not random. An artifact is "something created by humans for a practical purpose." The literature of nothing is created for the practical purpose of keeping black literature and thought in the realm of zero.

I think this has to be fought everywhere. Blogs, universities, magazines, your school, your street.

The literature of nothing is not created by writers. This zero of a literature arises when the work is read in a particular deadening way, when it's reduced to certain desired content (war, poverty, etc.) and kept strictly within that boundary. There is a reason that it is easy to read War and Peace and say well, yes, it's about war, but really it's about character! and not so easy to say the same thing about Half of a Yellow Sun, not easy to say this is a love story, this is a story about passion.

There are different ways of reading. We learn them, repeat them, pass them on. We learn to read Tolstoy for character. We learn to read Adichie for the history of the Biafran War.

Some people are mad at me for blaming readers. "How dare you!" But well, I do, I blame the professional readers most of all, the creators of study guides and reading group guides and guides for teachers, the summarizers, the marketers, the critics. I blame them, and I wish I could just stop, and say, who cares? After all, they touch so little. This subset of black and African literature we're arguing about--the literature of nothing--this literature that is nothing'd out of existence--it's only that tiny amount, that handful of books, that gets promoted to a wide, Western-dominated audience, that gets reviewed in places like the Guardian. Who cares?

But I do care, because to be made nothing in a global context, to be the nothing of the literary world: this is to be made less human.

It's when you're exhausted by these debates that you sense the bitter vitality of Yambo Ouologuem's Bound to Violence (Le Devoir de violence), a book crammed with overwhelming subjects, conquest, slavery, mass murder, a book that, far from downplaying these subjects, rushes at them, seizes at them, devours them. How I hated this book the first time I read it! I thought it was horrible. Now I find it more alive than most other books--rich, confrontational, dazzling. It's a book without piety, a book that observes no niceties of any kind, a book that holds nothing back, that attacks, cheats, and steals. What is the future of such a book? Will it endure? And how? I think of Ouologuem's sneering send-up of the artifact-collecting anthropologist "Schrobenius," a figure of bumbling power, both duped and duping, and I think of the cover of the novel, in French and in English, yes, there it is, the artifact.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

my 10 best reads of 2014

Claudia Rankine

Read an excerpt. Read Rankine's interview "Blackness as the Second Person." Now read the book.

A Project for Future Children
Bhanu Kapil

Like Citizen, this book is a hybrid, thriving somewhere between poetry and prose. Appropriate, as its subject is the "Bengali wolf girls," human sisters raised by wolves and discovered/captured/kidnapped in 1921. Missionaries tried to rehabilitate the girls. Kapil, working on a documentary film about them, gives us far more than a documentary in this fierce, harrowing book. Humanimal came out in 2009, and I read it this year for the second time. Still one of my best reads. "Each feral moment is valuable."

In the Time of the Blue Ball
Manuela Draeger

translated by Brian Evenson

I wrote about these post-apocalyptic children's stories, which still haunt me. Those strange, cold-hearted, happy flying girls! The book came out in 2011, from Dorothy, A Publishing Project. Everything they do is magic.

Things We Found During the Autopsy
Kuzhali Manickavel

I wrote a review of this one. Angels, voluntarily homeless youths, drugs, sex, Indian dads in cold foreign countries, vomit, boys, girls' hostels, girls, and more. Weird, cruelly humorous, scalpel-sharp.

White Girls
Hilton Als

"I see how we are all the same, that none of us are white women or black men; rather, we’re a series of mouths, and that every mouth needs filling: with something wet or dry, like love, or unfamiliar and savory, like love." Read an excerpt from this provocative and dazzling collection of essays. If you don't want to read the whole book, I can't help you.

Living with Music: Ralph Ellison's Jazz Writings
Ralph Ellison

Ellison's writings on jazz were collected and published in 2001, and I read them this year. What a rich, surprising, wonderful read! The essays on music are here, along with letters about the subject, and short stories and excerpts from the novels that show how Ellison engaged jazz and blues in his fiction. There's something really exciting about seeing the essayist, letter writer, and fiction writer, all living with music through words, all in the same volume. Ellison is observant, critical, passionate, absorbed, bewitched. The introduction by Robert G. O'Meally is also a treasure.

Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire that Never Was
Angélica Gorodischer
translated by Ursula K. Le Guin

This book was published in 2003 by the inimitable Small Beer Press. I wrote about it at and honestly just go there and read the first sentence.

Get in Trouble
Kelly Link

Freaking Kelly Link. What do we even say. Well, for starters, read this story from her new collection! "When the sex tape happened and things went south with Fawn, the demon lover did what he always did. He went to cry on Meggie’s shoulder." I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads giveaway even though I never win anything, and I read every word even though, when I was halfway through, my cat peed on it. There is something about winning a book and then having your cat pee on it that feels like a Kelly Link story. She will get into your life. She'll get you in trouble.

2500 Random Things About Me Too
Matias Viegener

You know that "25 Random Things About Me" thing on Facebook? Well, this guy did it a hundred times and now it's a book and it's really great. Published in 2012, it's been described as "possibly the first book to have been composed entirely on Facebook" (which please where are the other ones?). Naturally, it provides insights, simply through its form, about life in the digital age, but what struck me most about it was Viegener's worry, at different times, that he wasn't being random enough. It's hard to be random. We really are creatures of narrative. The desire for randomness, which reads as a desire not to be a constructed Facebook self, a "brand," is as poignant as anything in the book.

I don't have a cover image for this one BUT you can click the link and read it! This is Allison Parrish's NaNoGenMo project--NaNoGenMo being the programmer's version of NaNoWriMo, in other words omg this book was written by a computer. The text comes from a dream dictionary by Gustavus Hindman Miller (1857-1929; according to Wikipedia, "a prominent merchant, manufacturer, financier, capitalist farmer, author and public spirited citizen of Chattanooga, Tennessee"). It is immensely strange and poetic. It's best for dipping into, rather than sustained reading--I enjoy it most when I read a few lines that feel dense and concise, like the memory of a dream. This is probably because Parrish's computer was able to do what Viegener could not: create a text that is, or at any rate feels, truly random.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

towards a grand unified theory of female pain

For a long time I have hesitated to write my thoughts on Leslie Jamison's essay "Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain," which appears in one of my favorite books of the year, The Empathy Exams.

The essay is about wounds and wallowing and the iconography of gendered pain. Most importantly, it strives for "the possibility of representing female suffering without reifying its mythos," of acknowledging the pain of girls who get their period, have abortions, cut themselves, etc., without becoming creepily fascinated with the pain and falling into the danger of perpetuating it. I am completely on board with this project. My problem is that the essay uses the word "women" to indicate white women.

"Women have gone pale all over Dracula," Jamison writes. She quotes Susan Sontag on the development of the image of the suffering woman in the nineteenth century, an image linked to tuberculosis and melancholy: "a racking cough, a wan pallor, an emaciated body." During this same nineteenth century, bell hooks tells us, the image of the black woman was being developed precisely in opposition to this (yes, very messed up) "ideal": black slave women, doing "men's work" in the fields, were viewed as "masculinized sub-human creatures." We could also talk about the broad body of the mammy figure in contrast to the narrowness of the corseted southern belle, but I'm sure you get the idea, because these images, as Jamison shows in the case of the consumptive white nineteenth-century heroine, are still with us.

Of the dominant images of black women Melissa Harris-Perry analyzes in her recent book Sister Citizen--comforting Mammy, lascivious Jezebel, aggressive Sapphire--none is glorified in her pain. Mammy cries for others, for her white charges when they scrape their knees or go away to college. Jezebel and Sapphire do not cry at all. These figures have none of the glamour of the wounded white (and, as Jamison does add, aristocratic) idols of the nineteenth century, nor are they "post-wounded"--a term Jamison uses to describe the world- and self-weary, sardonic girls of Girls (Season 1). The black figures do not possess enough interiority to be either wounded or post-wounded. I mean think of the bewitching wreck that is Caddy Compson in The Sound and the Fury (I thought of her when I read Jamison's essay, because Jamison is excellent on the misogynist ethos that makes Caddy so immensely interesting). Now think of Dilsey.


My point here is not to trash Jamison's essay or accuse her of "white women's tears," in fact I have hated that expression for a long time, because people throw it around without any consideration for what Accapadi was talking about in that article, and mash it up with the idea of "white people problems" or "first world problems," also hateful terms, so that it becomes a way of dismissing tears out of hand, and even worse, reinforces the pernicious idea that women of color in general, and black women in particular, do not cry. My point, rather, is that there might actually be a grand unified theory of female pain, but it would have to consider different ways of being female. This is something I've barely even started to touch here, though I hope I'm pointing toward it. While the slave economy makes the black/white opposition in American culture really formative, there are of course other female images to take into consideration (the fiery Latina, for example, or the submissive Asian woman) and the problem with Jamison's essay is that it doesn't even open the door to that kind of work, it leaves the door shut and hangs a curtain over it so you can't even see it, and this curtain is called "women."

It's upsetting. It hurts. It wounds.

I'm thinking of Ani DiFranco, one of the "damaged sirens" Jamison grew up listening to ("More than anything I wanted to be killed by Ani's 'Swan Dive'), and how DiFranco was going to hold a retreat at a former slave plantation last year, and there was so much pain over it.

To separate these histories is to wound. The history of white. The history of other.

I think of the narrator of Sapphire's Push, a young black girl who is raped by her father. The way her idea of the suffering female, the girl who feels pain, is white. "My fahver don’t see me really. If he did he would know I was like a white girl, a real person, inside."

Jamison quotes Simone de Beauvoir: "For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on woman. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new." Well, the claim that women of color have been left out of the definition of "woman" is not new either. Lots of people have made it before now. When will it be old?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

what i wrote & how i'll vote

It's the most wonderful time of the year: when all the SFF writers put up lists of their awards-eligible stuff! So if you vote in the Nebulas or other SFF awards, here's my eligible work from 2014:


How to Get Back to the Forest, Lightspeed
Ogres of East Africa, Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History
A Girl Who Comes Out of a Chamber at Regular Intervals, Lackington's
Walkdog, Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories


Long-Ear, Stone Telling
The Death of Araweilo,
Make the Night Go Faster, Liminality

And here are some things I'm voting for:


The Angel of Losses
Stephanie Feldman

I'm a judge for the Crawford Award this year so I read A LOT of debut fantasy, which is great, but it also means I didn't get around to reading some of the fabulous-looking non-debut fiction from this year. (I still have not read Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy. I haven't even read the first one--that is how fast he writes. Chill, Jeff. I haven't read Genevieve Valentine's The Girls at the Kingfisher Club either, which is The Twelve Dancing Princesses AND THEY ARE FLAPPERS. Station Eleven? Haven't read it. The Bone Clocks? Currently listening to the audiobook. I'll catch up! Eventually!)

My novel vote, then, is a debut: Stephanie Feldman's The Angel of Losses. It's a lovely, complex family story about inheritance, immigration, and faith, with strong Jewish folklore influences and an academic treasure hunt! I tore through it almost in one sitting.


Mary Rickert, "The Mothers of Voorhisville,"

The things you have heard are true; we are the mothers of monsters.

Mary Rickert is one of my favorite writers. She's completely terrifying. Small town, multiple voices, multiple versions, winged babies--a tale of motherhood and mass possession.

Short Fiction

(5 stories in no particular order, numbers are just to keep track of things)

1. Amal El-Mohtar, "The Lonely Sea in the Sky," Lightspeed

Discovery and exploitation of a possibly sentient substance, scientists, poetry, song lyrics, diamonds, love story, battle between scientific discourse and lived experience, betrayal, journal entries, I love it SO MUCH.

2. Rose Lemberg, "A City on Its Tentacles," Lackington's

First, Lackington's is just a great magazine, my new favorite place for speculative prose. Second, as I've said before, Rose Lemberg is an amazing writer of prose and poetry, editor, and general hard worker on the SFF scene, and somebody you should keep your eye on. Third, THIS STORY. Undersea city, mother-child connection, storytelling that both saves and shapes lives. On some level, this is about the "work-life balance" we talk about all the time, but expressed so poetically you absorb it in a completely different way. As if, instead of telling you their thoughts on work-life balance, somebody played them for you on a cello.

3. Bogi Takács, "This Shall Serve as a Demarcation," Scigentasy

What if somebody wrote space opera, with all its usual hallmarks--distant planet setting, conflict, advanced abilities, technology, literally this is taken from the space opera wiki--and imbued it with deep issues of love and belonging and betrayal and power? OH LOOK SOMEBODY HAS. I especially love the meditation on service that's happening in this story: what does it mean to decide to serve an institution, an underground organization, a lover, a planet?

4. Carmen Maria Machado, EVERYTHING

Carmen is ridiculous. How are we supposed to pick something when she splashes incredible fiction all over the place? Also Carmen, if we can have a quick heart to heart, how are you going to win a Nebula if you're so good that the ballot is peppered with your stories and your votes are all split up? BE WORSE. Anyway, let's try this again, I'm nominating two Machado stories this year:

4. Carmen Maria Machado, "Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead," Help Fund My Robot Army; Lightspeed

This was originally published as part of an anthology of stories in the form of crowdfunding pitches and it's so funny and sad and great. Read it! Donate!

5. Carmen Maria Machado, "Mothers," Interfictions

Surreal story about two women who are lovers: it moves from "Thank god we cannot make a baby" to "We made a baby. Here she is." Features a baby that behaves like an actual baby, in other words a pretty bad baby, plus bad mothers, bad lovers, and a lover named Bad. Gorgeous. Oh question, since I'm an Interfictions co-editor, even though I do nonfiction and poetry so I obviously didn't edit this story, was my choice influenced by the fact that it was published in "my" magazine? Yes, duh.

I also could have voted for Carmen's stories "Observations About Eggs from the Man Sitting Next to Me on a Flight from Chicago, Illinois to Cedar Rapids, Iowa" or "The Husband Stitch." Seriously, she must be stopped.