Monday, June 20, 2016

on hospitality

As some of you know, I'm trying to write a book about, among other things, a migration of Mennonites from southern Russia to what's now Uzbekistan in the 1880s. In service to my obsession with this story, known as the Great Trek, I recently went on a Great Trek tour with the company TourMagination, which leads Mennonite heritage tours. We spent ten days following the path of the trek--Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva--ending at Ak Metchet, once the site of a Mennonite village in the old Khanate of Khiva.

To feel history. To walk there. The mosque in the village of Zerabulak stands on the site of an older mosque, where Mennonites once stayed on their way to Khiva. Several Mennonite families lived for a time in the mosque. They were invited to use it for their Sunday services. Some were baptized and married there.

The experience of hospitality. A descendant of the imam of Zerabulak, who once welcomed the Mennonites, welcomed us again. Tea and fruit. Bread and honey. One member of our group read a reflection by Elizabeth Stauffer, who had been part of a previous tour, and asked: Would Mennonites today invite Muslim refugees to use our churches and meeting houses?

To live there, sleep there, worship there? Syrian refugees? Would we?

Over 130 years ago, the Mennonites arrived at Ak Metchet, and still this hospitality doesn't end. A man laid out objects left by the Mennonites for us to look at. An iron, a pitcher, a sewing machine. This, too, this care, this willingness to set these things before us, is a form of hospitality.

We were taken to the khan's palace, where Mennonites constructed beautiful tiled stoves and parquet floors. To be invited to walk there, lift the carpets, touch.

Finally, the proposed "Mennonite Museum," which isn't even open yet. We got to go in, to look at photographs and a model of the Mennonite village. The people working on the museum project have reconstructed Mennonite clothing, working from photographs. Every stitch a gesture of hospitality.

This trip expanded my definition of hospitality, because I experienced it in so many ways. Yes, crucially, there was that first welcome to the exhausted travelers, the offers of food, shelter, money, peace. I don't think you can claim to practice hospitality unless you offer those things. But hospitality can stretch beyond that, too. It is also to care for the history of others. To preserve and share traces of them. To remember.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Russian literature

Last weekend I was at WisCon, where I gave a reading combined with an interactive workshop called "LOVEHATE: Sucking the Marrow from the Bones of Your Problematic Favs." One of my problematic favs is Tolstoy, who abused his wife Sonya and fantasized about killing her in The Kreutzer Sonata. I talked about the influence of War and Peace and Anna Karenina on The Winged Histories, especially the scenes of family gatherings and dances, and read an excerpt from Anna Karenina in which Kitty attends a ball beside the scene of Siski's first ball in The Winged Histories.

This is only one example of the effect of Russian literature on my life, and especially on the Olondria books. The after-dinner walks on the grounds of Faluidhen come straight out of Chekhov. The mellifluously-named estate of Sarenha Haladli is a fantastical translation of Yasnaya Polyana. The colonization of Kestenya is based not only on British and Italian imperialism in Somalia, but on nineteenth-century Russian views of the Caucasus, which I imbibed through books by Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Lermontov. Kestenya is mostly desert, like the Somali territories, but it's also mountainous in places, with bitter winters. Often referred to as "the great plateau," it's a kind of steppe. One Olondrian imperialist complains of its unruly people and climate: "In Kestenya there is no dog that is not a nobleman and no water that is not frozen."

If the giant houses, extended families, and social rituals of nineteenth-century Russian literature appealed to me as expressions of a great cultural empire, the depictions of nomads struck me as the other side of that empire, and as something strangely close to home. With their tents, livestock, clan politics, and resistance movements, the nomads of the Caucasus seemed akin to Somalis. Lately I've been reading about Central Asia, Russia's other exotic other, and finding that outsiders write about people there in a similar way. Of the Kyrgyz, the British travel writer Colin Thubron says: "They could speak their genealogies far back into the patrilineal mist, and that was their country." Personally, I can only speak my genealogy five generations back into the patrilineal mist, but I have ten written down somewhere, so I can brush up before visits with uncles who might test me. The idea of the clan as a powerful nexus of belonging is familiar to me, and has been weirdly entangled with writing since I was thirteen, when an uncle gave me a blank journal inscribed with the daunting prediction that I would become "the best wordsmith of my clan." Still, a clan is not a country. You can't sleep there, and nothing can graze on it. The observation that the clan is one's country, which you can read approximately one billion times in descriptions of Somalis, Kyrgyz, Nogai, Roma, and no doubt many other groups, is both a recognition of an important form of socio-political organization, and a romantic and/or sneaky way of declaring that nomads don't have countries, don't need them, and don't deserve them. This is the idea behind the Olondrian conquest of Kestenya, which leads, in The Winged Histories, to war.

Tomorrow I'm going to Uzbekistan for two weeks. Right now I'm reading Elif Batuman's wonderful book The Possessed, which is subtitled Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, and also contains the best engagement with Uzbek literature that I know of in the English language. Batuman, a student of Russian literature, goes to Samarkand to study Uzbek. While there, she has a recurring dream about penguins. In the dream she's studying the penguin language, and discovers that it has two branches: "one epic-narrative and one lyric-folkloric." This, it seems to me, expresses the entire problem of the novel--certainly the Russian novel, certainly the fantasy novel. How to unite these two languages? Batuman's dream is a nightmare. "I was jerked awake," she writes, "by the pounding of my own heart."

Monday, May 16, 2016

they spoke only about their hypochondria

I've been reading about the visionary Austrian artist Alfred Kubin in Phillip H. Rhein's book The Verbal and Visual Art of Alfred Kubin. Kubin, writes Rhein, met Kafka on a visit to Prague in 1912, but the two "spoke only about their hypochondria."

From Kafka's diary:

September 26. The artist Kubin recommends Regulin as a laxative, a powdered seaweed that swells up in the bowels, shakes them up, is thus effective mechanically in contrast to the unhealthy chemical effect of other laxatives which just tear through the excrement and leave it hanging on the walls of the bowels.

Kubin himself: very strong but somewhat monotonous facial expression, he describes the most varied things with the same movement of muscles. Looks different in age, size and strength according to whether he is sitting, standing, wearing just a suit, or an overcoat.

In his autobiography, Kubin wrote: "I should also have liked very much to provide illustrations for one of Franz Kafka's novels, which touch me so intimately."

Alfred Kubin, The Moment of Birth, 1903

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

reading Octavia Butler in California

The Desert Garden at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA.
Octavia E. Butler's papers are housed in the library.
While reading Octavia Butler in California, I thought:

- that Octavia Butler's prose is spare like the desert

- that you could also say Octavia's prose is carefully economical like people who know they might run out of water

- that California is in many ways an extreme version of the U.S. as a whole, extreme inequality, extreme segregation, extreme incarceration, and that Octavia Butler wrote the stories of these extremes

- that in a dry landscape it is difficult to hide

- that my friend here in California, after reading Parable of the Sower, told me that he understood it in a special way because he drives every day on the 101 Freeway, and explained how it gave him a shock to think of people walking on such a road, of humans overcoming the traffic

- that Octavia Butler was a pedestrian in California and used public transportation, and that I also did this in California for one month but I couldn't keep it up so I bought a car

- that Octavia Butler wrote about power laid bare, something she no doubt witnessed daily

- that there may be a connection between the Patternists and celebrity culture

- that many of Octavia's writings stage what could be called a drama of access--access to power, to knowledge, to pleasure, to resources, to space--and that this is a very Californian drama

- that I drove on the 101 today and will drive on it again tomorrow

- that Octavia Butler's vision of California is completely different from Ursula K. Le Guin's vision in Always Coming Home, in that Octavia's landscape is in no way mythologized or beautiful, rather it is a survival setting

- that Octavia wrote down her goals with a kind of chant in the margins ("So be it! See to it!"), and went on to achieve these goals, and that this combination of hope, determination, self-help, and vague mysticism is very Californian

- that in Patternmaster there is no weather

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.