Tuesday, February 2, 2016

book reviews in the form of letters

Dear Carmen,

I've just finished your book Texas, and I can't stop thinking about spectacle.

A book full of sun and blood--blistering, ruthless. I felt you were directing this fantastical western film with a giant cast, you were both director and scriptwriter, and you didn't care if everybody was dead by the end of the film, in fact death, as in the classic western, was the main character. Through the many figures in the book who are shot, strung up in trees, beaten with rifle butts, etc., you trampled all over Texas and tore it with your teeth. The whole time you were smiling. A western film is outrageous, a farce. Your book has made me reconsider the uses of spectacle.

I almost wrote "the uses of trash," and maybe that's what I mean. How one might speak of a broken country using the shreds of old movie posters.

Recently I read an interview with the Kazakh director Arkady Amirkulov. He was asked why he appeared in one of his films, behind the camera, shooting--was it some kind of Brechtian device? And he said that the film was so disturbing, the material so difficult, that "we wanted to make it more optimistic at the end, just to remind the audience that no one was dead and no one was killed."

I think in Texas you want to remind us that everyone is dead and everyone is killed. All the little people.

Please thank your translator Samantha Schnee for her work. If I met her, I'd ask what sort of heart she thinks this book has.

If I met you, I'd talk to you about genre, detective novels, science fiction.

Is history one of those books with the lurid covers?

Dear Joanna,

I've just finished your book Hotel and it made me love the entire "Object Lessons" series, these small black books with matte covers that almost fit in the palm of the hand. This little paperback draws attention to itself as an object. And inside it, a whole series of hotels. The book introduces itself as small, compact, yet conceals a series of lobbies, devastatingly huge.

Your writing also introduces itself as small. "There was a time in my life when I lived in hotels." It's transparent, like a story I think I remember from your book Vertigo, in which I think there is also a woman in a hotel, and a sea. The woman in the short story has a companion; the woman in Hotel is alone; both of the women are alone. And the sea reflects everything. I feel like you're doing something important with these pieces: loneliness, gathering places, reflective surfaces, the work of shining.

The book is also deceptive, labyrinthine, like an unfamiliar hotel. One keeps running into Freud's Dora in the corridors. There she is, subtly choking. Hotels are luxurious, impossible spaces, one feels, reading your book. Luxury is some kind of impossibility, like desire.

If I had the chance to talk to you, at a conference for example, I would probably be too shy to say anything, but I would try to overhear things you said, and I would be wondering, without asking of course, whether you are interested in photography, and if you have made--other than Hotel, I mean--any documentaries in black and white.

Dear Enrique,

I experienced your book Bartleby & Co. as a drug that causes paralysis. Fortunately or unfortunately for me, the effect was temporary! But I thought it would be so great to become one of your "writers of the No," your Bartlebys, those who give up writing. I have actually been interested in quitters for a long time, and some of my best friends, who are also the writers I most respect, are quitters. I'm always afraid that these friends of mine, who seem to be constantly on the verge of giving up writing altogether, will do so finally--what a loss for everyone, especially me! But then I think it's their intuition to stop, erase their blogs, cancel their speaking engagements, and lose themselves in romance novels or television serials, that constitutes their greatness as writers. What a fantastic paradox! Thank you for investigating it with such care.

Please say hello to your translator, Jonathan Dunne. I wonder if he's a writer of the No. Translation is such an excellent way of not writing, I imagine. You invent, but in the guise of copying. You can disappear behind the author.

I also want to thank you for including so few women in your book! What a compliment! If, as Kafka (one of your favorite Bartlebys, and mine) wrote, "there is no more beautiful fate for a story than to disappear," what can be more sublime than the fate of the women who stopped writing and did not even get mentioned in your book as having written in the first place? Bartleby & Co. helped me understand the destiny of women who, even before they quit, write under the sign of zero. Anyone who reads your book closely will grasp how you have elevated these twice-disappeared women as the greatest writers of the No.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

when an academic clocks her hours

In 2015, I had two New Year's resolutions. The first was to keep track of everything I read (which I did here and here). The second was to clock my hours.

I work as an assistant professor at California State University Channel Islands. Full-time at my institution means teaching eight classes a year and serving on committees to keep the place running. I'm currently in my third year. Last year I decided to keep track of my work hours, even though I'm not really fond of numbers and statistics, because I wanted to understand what was going on. How much was I working? What does it really mean to "have the summer off"? What exactly was I doing with my time? My job entails working at weird times, late at night, weekends, and I felt frazzled. I found myself thinking wistfully of other jobs I've done, the ones with timecards.

So I clocked my hours for a year. I recorded my work hours in the three areas where I need to succeed in order to get tenure: teaching, research, and service.

Some things to note before I go on: I chose to do a calendar year in order to figure in the summer, when I don't teach. Also, my numbers are not quite perfect. I didn't record the time I spent reading 14 books for the Crawford Award as a member of the jury--I should have counted that as service toward my profession. I didn't count time spent getting places: the on-site business of walking across campus to classes, meetings, and the lot where I parked my car. I didn't count some of the work I do as an author, such as updating my website, and I feel I should have found a place for that somewhere.

Still, although the numbers aren't perfect, they are instructive. I found that I work an average of 35 hours a week.

35 hours!

That's all?

It definitely felt like more than 35 hours a week! And of course, during the semester, it was. Last May, for example, I worked an average of 46 hours a week. But this is what I wanted to find out by doing this experiment. It turns out that, yes, the semester is hectic, but with the slow summer, things do work out all right.

The next question, and the one I most wanted to answer, is: is this a good job for a writer?

Here things get a little more complicated. During the academic year, there were months when my "research" category sank to one hour a week. Worse, "research" doesn't just mean writing: it means reading, editing, working on grants, trying to set up meetings with the campus research officer, going over proofs, working on my author bio, and so on. The time I was able to spend actually writing was often abysmally low. Moreover, the nature of this job is that it's full of interruptions. The day gets chopped up into tiny pieces: meetings, quick stops at the scanner, phone calls, hallway chats, library runs. It's hard to keep your train of thought long enough to read something properly, let alone write.

Overall, I spent half of my work hours on teaching, a quarter on research, and a quarter on service. This doesn't sound too bad to me. The only problem is that almost all the writing happened in the summer--in fact, mostly during the second half of May, when my kids were still in school and my semester was over.

I am VERY glad I clocked my hours, and I recommend it to all academics. I confirmed that the stress of the semester is just that. Also, although I work every day, including evenings, weekends, and holidays, I work a very comfortable number of hours. This has made me realize I need to look elsewhere for the source of the problem that most weighs me down: a lack of time. I have enough time. But for most of the year, I don't have large chunks of time in which I can write. And I don't have time every day.

Can a person become a different kind of writer? One who writes in the crevices of the hours?

Is it possible to put a project aside for months and then get back into it? Is that just how academics work?

Is the received wisdom--"write every day"--different for academics?

What would it mean to begin to think of writing as something occasional, rather than a practice, a way of life?

Friday, January 22, 2016

how to write literary criticism


In the summer of 1926, Marina Tsvetaeva corresponded with Rainer Maria Rilke. In December 1926, Rilke died. In 1929, Tsvetaeva wrote: "I don't feel like writing an article about Rilke." She wrote:

An article about Rilke is all the more useless because he didn't write articles about others, and didn't read ones about himself . . . To reveal essence is impossible, approaching from the outside. Essence is only revealed by essence, from within--inward--not investigation, but absorption. Mutual absorption. Allow the thing to absorb you and--thereby--absorb it. As one river flows into another. The point where the waters merge--but it isn't ever a point because--the meeting of the waters--is a meeting without parting, for the Rhine--takes the Main into itself, as the Main does the Rhine. And only the Main knows the truth of the Rhine (its own truth, Mainian, just as the Moselle--knows the Mosellian; the whole truth of the Rhine--of Rilke--is not given to us to know). Like a hand in a hand, yes, but even more: like a river in a river.

Absorbing, I am absorbed.


In 1952, C.L.R. James was interned on Ellis Island as an illegal immigrant and political subversive. There he wrote a study of the American classic Moby-Dick. In the final chapter of the book, he shifts from a discussion of Melville to an account of his detention on the island, describing his illness there, the treatment of the prisoners, and the structures by which both prisoners and security officers were entrapped, much like the men aboard the Pequod. He included his record of prison life in the study on Melville because, he wrote, "the book as written is part of my experience. It is also a claim before the American people, the best claim I can put forward, that my desire to be a citizen is not a selfish nor a frivolous one."

James sent a copy of the manuscript to every member of Congress, asking for $1 in return to put toward his legal costs. His efforts to gain citizenship failed; he was deported in 1953.

"I believe my total experience should be told," he wrote.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

publications: 2015

Recently my story "A Brief History of Nonduality Studies" appeared on the long list for the British Science Fiction Association Award. I'm very honored, but the story, published in Jalada last year, was a reprint: it was first published in Expanded Horizons in 2012. ("eNGAGEMENT" by Richard Oduor Oduku, also published in the Afrofuture(s) issue of Jalada, is on the list too, and it is eligible!)

So, what original work did I publish in 2015?


Galen Dara's art for "The Closest Thing to Animals"

Meet Me in Iram, Guillotine

The Closest Thing to Animals, Fireside Fiction

Tender, OmniVerse

Request for an Extension on the Clarity, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet 33

Those, Uncanny Magazine


Maggie Meshnick's art for "The White Goddess"

The Noble Torturer, Bluestockings Magazine

A Visit with Morgan le Fay, Liminality

The White Goddess, Bluestockings Magazine


Photo of Camarillo State Mental Hospital published with "Skin Feeling"

Broken Glass, or They're Killing Our Artists, Artists Against Police Brutality

Skin Feeling, The New Inquiry

Spectacle of the Other: Recreating A Thousand and One Nights in Film, Fairy Tale Films Beyond Disney: International Perspectives

Different Shades of Green: African Literature, Environmental Justice, and Political Ecology by Byron Caminero-Santangelo (The Journal of Ecocriticism)

Writing Queerly: Three Snapshots, Uncanny Magazine

Double Take: On Carmen Maria Machado, LA Review of Books

The Spaces Between Objects: On Weird Fiction and the Interstitial, Weird Fiction Review

Friday, January 1, 2016

2015: books read (conclusion)

This is part 2 of "tiny reviews of everything I read in 2015"--I did part 1 back in July. My 2015 New Year's resolution was to keep track of everything I read, and I think I did it! (Well, it was one of my resolutions. I kept the other one too. More on that later.) If you see a link, it's because I wrote about the book somewhere. If it's in bold, it's because I've read it more than once. There are two sections: fiction/poetry and essay. Six months of reading. Here we go.


Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated by Roland Glasser - High-energy debut novel set in an unnamed African City-State. I interviewed the author and translator for BOMB.

Vertigo by Joanna Walsh - Brief and haunting. Read one of the stories.

The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg by Sibusiso Nyembezi, translated by Sandile Ngidi - First published in South Africa in 1961,  this novel was apparently out of print for decades until this new translation. It's a humorous story about a crook trying to steal people's cattle, shadowed by the fact that it's set in the time of compulsory culling of African livestock under Apartheid.

questions i asked my mother by Di Brandt - Brandt's first book of poetry. Powerful and bravely critical of her conservative community. She is, as she puts it, "writing coming home."

All Our Pretty Songs, Dirty Wings, and About a Girl (The Metamorphoses Trilogy) by Sarah McCarry - Sex, drugs, rock n' roll, and Ovid. I interviewed Sarah about her lovely YA trilogy at Tor.com.

Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha - An important collection showcasing the influence of Octavia Butler's work on a variety of artists and activists.

AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers, edited by Ivor W. Hartmann - Landmark collection of African SF. The standouts for me were "To Gaze at the Sun" by Clifton Gachagua and "Proposition 23" by Efe Okogu.

My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels) by Elena Ferrante - You've probably heard of these, and rightly so. Lila, the narrator's best friend, is one of the greatest characters of all time.

LAGOS_2060: Exciting Sci-Fi Stories from Nigeria, edited by Ayodele Arigbagbu - Futuristic takes on the city of Lagos, imagining what it might look like 100 years after independence. The anthology grew out of a writing workshop and offers a snapshot of issues of our time, possible issues of the future, and the growing Nigerian SF scene.

The Last Lover by Can Xue, translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen - Marvelously surreal. Characters moving through unnamed spaces: Country X, the mountains, the south. Read this great conversation between the author and her translator.

Nigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun - Nigeria calls its expatriates home in a "brain gain" in order to start a space program. With a plot that zips around the globe (Stockholm, Houston, Cape Town, Abuja) this thriller is less about outer space than navigating the space of our own planet.

Spoken Among the Trees by Jeff Gundy - Wistful, heaven-seeking, earthbound poetry collection. From "Late Psalm":

Abandoned, like the site of an ambush. Or the last camp on the way to the
ambush. Or the place where a few hungry people stayed afterward, no water, no
fire, just a place to lie down in the snow.

Tasting the Dust by Jean Janzen - "Our stories are too big/ for our bodies." Poetry direct and ringing.

Somewhere Near Defiance by Jeff Gundy - "What if the language of home is foreign to you?" I read a lot of Jeff Gundy this year and he was a delightful companion, always questioning and always seeking a stillness beyond questions.

The Shunning by Patrick Friesen - Lyric narrative (later a drama) about a Mennonite farmer who questions his religion and pays for it. A crucial work of Mennonite literature and a gorgeous piece of writing. I will read this again.

Flicker and Hawk by Patrick Friesen -

your garden blossoms in the rain beneath your umbrella you're
leaving home again

Snake in the Parsonage by Jean Janzen - Keen observation and slowly swelling power. You may have noticed that I read a lot of Mennonite literature this year! I kind of gave myself an informal course in it, because despite having gone to Mennonite schools (high school and college) I missed a lot. Janzen's work seems very central to me, not only because it's strong and critically acclaimed but because it combines two key features of Mennonite literature so far: poetry and a type of very simple yet luminous language.

Man Under a Pear Tree by Keith Ratzlaff - I continued my exploration of Mennonite literature with these fluid, image-rich poems.

Lines from the Provinces by David Wright - Did I mention Mennonite poetry? Wright's collection focuses on place, and on the everyday.

Sleeping Preacher by Julia Kasdorf - Okay if you are going to read one work of Mennonite poetry it should be this one. And The Shunning. Read two.

The Bottle and the Bushman: Poems of the Prodigal Son by Mohamud Siad Togane - Togane is also a Mennonite poet, and a Somali poet as well. This raw, exuberant collection from 1986 examines themes of alcoholism and migration.

Flatlands by Jeff Gundy - "What are these stories, anyhow?" If I think of Jeff Gundy as my "companion" this year, it's partly because of this voice that seems to be taking the reader for a walk in the nearby woods.

A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry, edited by Ann Hostetler - Reading this, I thought a lot about how anthologies create traditions. This is a good place to see how a poetry community is being formed in the 21st century.

Peace Shall Destroy Many by Rudy Wiebe - Such a classic! And I'd never read it! Beautiful, solemn, and accomplished, this story of a rural community reminded me of Willa Cather.

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu - Sweeping epic fantasy, likely to appeal to fans of the genre. Liu calls it "Silkpunk": "I take the technology inspirations of classical China, like kites used for military endeavors and signaling, very powerful mechanical vehicles of various sorts, all these inventions that are described or imagined, and blow them up, turn them down an evolutionary path I think they would have taken if they were allowed to develop."

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Michael Emmermich - Light, melancholy love story haunted by heavy themes of kidnapping and life in a cult.

Things We Found During the Autopsy by Kuzhali Manickavel - Ugh, she's so good.

Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer - You can keep The Savage Detectives. I have found my Bolaño.

10:04 by Ben Lerner - Very readable and I liked the stuff about time and the movie Back to the Future, but this did not stick with me like Leaving the Atocha Station.

Dead Boys by Gabriel Squailia - Debut fantasy set in the underworld. The characters are corpses, quite literally falling apart! Recommended especially for weird fiction readers. I'm curious to see what this writer does next.

My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard - Compulsively readable giant blog.

Cinema Stories by Alexander Kluge - Fact, fiction, and film compressed into 38 shimmering stories. "I dedicate these stories," writes Kluge, "to this beloved hybrid that consists of chance, earnest character, brilliance, incompetence, and luck."

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson - Fantasy by a gifted newcomer. Very interested in where he goes next.

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse - If you've never read this, do. Literature doesn't get better.

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware - A middle-aged loser reunites with his dad in this graphic novel. So much happens on every page, so much family history, paranoia, sadness, and grossness, that it's hard to describe. Maybe you're in Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" eating off a dirty plate.

Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven by Antoine Volodine, translated by J.T. Mahany

My Struggle: Book Two: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard - Did I mention "compulsively readable"?

Back, Belly, and Side: True Lies and False Tales by Celeste Rita Baker - Debut collection of mostly fantastical stories. You can read my favorite one.

Garments Against Women by Anne Boyer - Read this excerpt, then get the book. Lyrical politics flow out of a Kansas City apartment where a mom is teaching herself to sew.

A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement by Anthony Powell - I read Powell's whole novel cycle years ago and really enjoyed it, especially this first part, which includes the novels A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer's Market, and The Acceptance World. Unfortunately, while the characters are still great (especially Widmerpool and Stringham), the magic has faded for me. Maybe I'll just watch Downton Abbey.

Distant Star by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews - After reading By Night in Chile and Antwerp I decided I was maybe a shorter-works-of-Bolaño type of person. I did like this a lot, though not as much as Antwerp. Favorite lines: "This is my last communiqué from the planet of the monsters. Never again will I immerse myself in literature's bottomless cesspools."

Unearthly Horses by Patrick Friesen - Rather than a portrait of a community (as in The Shunning), this collection offers a portrait of a family. Includes the devastating "pa poems."

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins - Creepy, fantastical thriller about kidnapped children who are gods--or maybe demons.

The Daughters by Adrienne Celt - An opera singer struggles to balance motherhood, career, and a family curse in this fantasy built around the myth of the russalka.

Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer - Another recommendation for the epic fantasy fans out there: magic, music, romance.

The Devourers by Indra Das - Out now from Penguin India and coming to the US in 2016, this is a werewolf novel painted on a very broad canvas: 17th-century Mughal India to present-day Kolkata. It's also a brutal and disturbing family story, vividly imagined.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson - A tale of lovers, fighters, and monsters, set in an imagined landscape reminiscent of the Sahel. Wilson's characters speak a language full of African American expressions, which might seem jarring in the fantasy setting until you remember that Tolkien's trolls said "Blimey."

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley - Light fantasy with steampunk touches set in Victorian London, concerning a telegraph operator, a physics student, and a mysterious Japanese watchmaker. Yes, a mysterious Japanese watchmaker. Cultural topics--especially the differences between English culture and Japanese culture--are often mentioned, unfortunately without much nuance.

Updraft by Fran Wilde - Charming coming-of-age fantasy set in a city of living bone, where people glide between the towers on mechanical wings.

A Collection of Uzbek Short Stories, translated by Mahmuda Saydumarova - Short anthology of twentieth-century Uzbek fiction.

The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes - Hughes' first poetry collection. A classic of literary modernism and jazz aesthetics.


The Body and the Book by Julia Spicher Kasdorf - She thinks so hard and so thoroughly about everything--art, faith, life. "I would like to abandon this work," she writes, but fortunately for us, she didn't.

Walker in the Fog by Jeff Gundy - Essays on Mennonite writing. I especially liked the ones on humility, and the fantastic essay "Heresy and the Individual Talent," from which I took the idea of Anabaptist surrealism.

On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry by William H. Gass - Superb meditation on blue and its meanings. "It's not the word made flesh we want in writing, in poetry and fiction, but the flesh made word."

The Ghosts of Songs: The Art of the Black Audio Film Collective, 1982-1998, edited by Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar - Wonderful essays and interviews on the creators of my favorite video essay The Last Angel of History, plus other great films. Aaaaaa BAFC, I love them.

Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts - Roberts examines the history of state control of black women's bodies in the U.S. Published in 1998, it's still terrifyingly relevant. A classic of black feminist scholarship.

Songs from an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace by Jeff Gundy - Published nearly a decade after Walker in the Fog, this book tries to figure out, and help create, a growing tradition of Mennonite writing,

Fatal Intervention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century by Dorothy Roberts - Roberts' latest book looks at how the notion of biological race is being reified by the science, politics, and industry surrounding genetics. New science; old story.

Rewriting the Break Event: Mennonites and Migration in Canadian Literature by Robert Zacharias - A really excellent new book on Mennonite writing in Canada: both an impressive piece of scholarship and a pleasure to read.

Entering the Wild: Essays on Faith and Writing by Jean Janzen - Janzen's essays, like her poetry, seek to understand and tell "This story of yearning for the other and the Other and to be held."

Migrant Muses: Mennonite/s Writing in the U.S., edited by John D. Roth and Ervin Beck - More essays on Mennonite literature! With a bonus wonderful introduction by Denise Levertov.

Mennonite Artist: Insider as Outsider by Priscilla Reimer - This book accompanied a 1990 exhibit of the same name in Winnipeg, Manitoba. As its title suggests, it emphasizes elements that come up over and over in discussions of Mennonite art and writing: the individual, the community, the inside, the outside, the border.

Soft Subversions: Texts and Interviews 1977-1985 by Félix Guattari - Lively and insightful. "It is a question of rewriting the past unashamedly into the web of a clear future."

Why I Am a Mennonite, edited by Harry Loewen - A collection of short essays from the '80s by Mennonites who were born into the faith or chose it. Lois Barrett: "To become a Mennonite is to step into a flowing river, with many currents--many ways of being part of the river."

Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture by Felipe Hinojosa - Important new book on the history of Latino Mennonites up to the 1980s. Particularly inspiring: the story of black and brown Mennonite solidarity and activism in the '60s and '70s. Particularly depressing: the story of their disempowerment through integration.

Acts of Concealment: Mennonite/s Writing in Canada, edited by Hildi Froese Tiessen and Peter Hinchcliffe - Like Migrant Muses, mentioned above, this collection of essays grew out of a conference. I especially enjoyed the transcript of the closing panel.

Black Quantum Futurism: Theory and Practice (Volume 1), edited by Rasheedah Phillips - A brief, powerful collection of Afrofuturist essays. Part history, part physics, part user manual.

On Photography by Susan Sontag - "Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern."

What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles by Eliot Weinberger - Documentary prose poetry on the Bush years. So appalling, so good.

Can It Really Be Taught? Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy, edited by Kelly Ritter and Stephanie Vanderslice - A variety of perspectives on teaching creative writing. Might help you understand what you're doing, and what you want to do, in the classroom.

The 3 A.M. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley - "Uncommon writing exercises that transform your fiction." These are fun. Lots of useful ideas for teachers.

Letters: Summer 1926 by Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak, and Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Margaret Wettlin, Walter Arndt, and Jamey Gambrell - Exchange of letters between a young Pasternak, an exiled Tsvetaeva, and a dying Rilke. Very moving. Tsvetaeva's personality is a revelation.

The Personal History of a Bukharan Intellectual by Muhammad Sharif-i Sadr-i Ziya, translated by Rustam Shukurov - Diary of a poet and judge, 1880-1920. Obviously of historical interest, as it deals with a major change (the Emirate of Bukhara becoming a Soviet republic), but it's also a memoir dealing with grief and loss, and includes fascinating moments like the sight of the Great Comet.

Teaching Creative Writing to Undergraduates by Stephanie Vanderslice and Kelly Ritter - A handbook for beginners. Graduate students who are about to teach creative writing for the first time should have this!

Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin - You may remember Dworkin as an uncompromising feminist (or intolerant, depending on your view), but do you remember her as a brilliant writer? Return to this book.

Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network by Caroline Levine - This 2015 book is a breath of fresh air. Insightful, persuasive, wide-ranging, and readable, it will help you approach narrative form in more interesting ways. Also it concludes with an analysis of The Wire. A+.

Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human by Alexander Weheliye

Classic Essays on Photography, edited by Alan Trachtenberg - From Joseph Nicéphore Niepce's "Memoire on the Heliograph" to John Berger's "Understanding a Photograph," this anthology is totally splendid.

The Travel Narratives of Ella Maillart by Sara Steinert Borella - I looked into Ella Maillart because she visited the Mennonite colony in Uzbekistan I'm writing about, and now I am a bit obsessed with this extroverted and introspective 20th-century traveler.

The Sands of Oxus: Boyhood Reminiscences of Sadriddin Aini, translated by John R. Perry - Rich and fascinating memoir of a major Tajik writer (1878-1954).

Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In by C.L.R. James - I read this because Alex wrote about it in Habeas Viscus and was blown away, not by the analysis of Moby-Dick but by the way James includes the story of his own detention on Ellis Island during the McCarthy era.

Turkestan Solo by Ella Maillart, translated by John Rodker - In which Maillart travels around Soviet Central Asia, 1931-32.

The Spectacular State: Culture and National Identity in Uzbekistan by Laura Adams - Analysis of the production of national culture in the '90s, focusing on state-sponsored holiday extravaganzas in Uzbekistan. Interesting argument about how Soviet-era ideas about national identity have both shifted and persisted since independence.

Evading Reality: The Devices of 'Abdalrauf Fitrat, Modern Central Asian Reformist by Edward A. Allsworth - A study of Fitrat's use of ambiguity and humor to avoid censure by both conservative Muslim and Soviet authorities. Includes translations of three of Fitrat's works from the 1920s.

Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things by Jane Bennett - Erudite and engaging investigation of the way nonhuman things--electricity, metal, trash, etc.--participate in events. I pretty much loved it, though it was hard to understand why a discussion of vital materialism, which, as Bennett explains, grew out of an awareness of global connectivity, should limit itself to a western archive.

The Cruel Way by Ella Maillart - An account of Maillart's trip from Geneva to Kabul with fellow writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach, whose losing battle with drug addiction complicates the journey. Part travel book, part memoir of a friendship. Look at them OMG.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015


Reading Alex Weheliye's Habeas Viscus I thought about Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The scene where Marlow tries to get away from the din of a railway construction site, and he finds himself in that still and mournful grove where people are dying, they have crept away from the site in order to die. Earlier Marlow described the bodies of these enslaved Africans as "raw matter." Here they show themselves at their most raw. They might be instances of "bare life"--the concept of Agamben's that Alex engages in Habeas Viscus--"life exposed to death." Here is Conrad:

They were dying slowly--it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. These moribund shapes were free as air--and nearly as thin. I began to distinguish the gleam of the eyes under the trees. Then glancing down I saw a face near my hand. The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs which died out slowly.

Died out slowly, dying slowly. This gleam of the eyes, the whiteness--is it life or death? It is a "flicker," but "blind," "vacant." I think of the "fixed and round" eyes of the porters described by the Belgian senator, Edmond Picard, who visited the Congo Free State in 1896:

Unceasingly we meet these porters… black, miserable, with only a horribly filthy loin-cloth for clothing, frizzy and bare head supporting the load--box, bale, ivory tusk… barrel; most of them sickly, dropping under a burden increased by tiredness and insufficient food--a handful of rice and some stinking dried fish; pitiful walking caryatids, beasts of burden with thin monkey legs, with drawn features, eyes fixed and round from preoccupation with keeping their balance and from the daze of exhaustion. They come and go like this by the thousands… dying along the road or, the journey over, heading off to die from overwork in their villages.

One of the important things Alex does in this book is to return race to the figure of the Muselmann: a term for the most degraded, worn down and lost people in the Nazi camps, those who were on the point of death. Here is Primo Levi’s description:

Their life is short, but their number is endless; they, the Muselmänner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand. They crowd my memory with their faceless presences, and if I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of thought is to be seen.

Head dropped and shoulders curved. Not a trace of thought. Conrad:

Near the same tree two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing in an intolerable and appalling manner. His brother phantom rested its forehead as if overcome with a great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence.

What happens in Habeas Viscus is that the word Muselmann ("Muslim") is returned to itself as a sign with racialized meaning in the European context. This allows us to see the Nazi camps, not as the ultimate case of a factory for stripping the human from the flesh, but as part of a set of processes for the production of Muselmänner: this raw matter, the caryatids, the bundles of acute angles, in their thousands, the black bones, the non-men.

The relationship of this flesh to humanity--to Man as represented by Marlow--is uncanny. Wrongly positioned. "I saw a face near my hand." The face is not an expression of a soul. It’s a piece of flesh, like a knee or an elbow. Agamben: "beyond the Muselmann lies only the gas chamber."

But what's most powerful about Habeas Viscus is the next step: how Alex uncovers desire in that flesh, desire for survival and relation: that is, politics. He looks at recollections by people who knew Muselmänner and by former Muselmänner themselves--and the fact that "former Muselmann" is a possibility already means that it's not true there is "only the gas chamber" afterward. This is a state one moves into, and can move out of. And even in this state, the state of being Muselmann, there are signs. A former concentration camp prisoner remembers: "The Muselmann used his very own jargon by constantly repeating what came to his completely confused mind. The sentences were often incomplete and were illogical, stopping abruptly at random points."

A white flicker. A thread. Marlow describes a dying man: "He had tied a bit of white worsted round his neck--Why? Where did he get it? Was it a badge--an ornament--a charm--a propitiatory act?" A sign of something, but incomplete, illogical, his very own jargon. Blind and white like the gleam of an eye.

Also: desire for survival, for food and drink. It is still there. From Habeas Viscus: "Because the Muselmänner no longer possess humanity, dignity, control, willpower, and are barely holding on to what remains of their mere life, the imaginary relation to all that is edible and drinkable becomes the defining feature of their being." This seems obvious: starving people think only of food. It's important, though, because of the blank passivity attributed to the Muselmänner, the emptiness, the absence of suffering, what Conrad calls the "complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages." Habeas Viscus engages a black feminist tradition that can see something within that nothing: "a radically different political imaginary that steers clear of reducing the subjectivity of the oppressed to bare life."

Conrad: "While I stood horror-struck one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees and went off on all fours towards the river to drink."

Monday, November 23, 2015

kerouac, knausgaard, and me

First the good news! It's publication day for my Guillotine Press chapbook with Kat Howard. In this beautiful object called GUILLOTINE FANTASTIQUE (front and back pictured above, but which is which?) you can read Kat's story "Those Are Pearls" and also my story "Meet Me in Iram."

I told Sarah that once the chapbook was out I would reveal the sort of appalling thing I discovered, which is that I am Jack Kerouac reincarnated. I discovered this listening to On the Road, which I'd never read before, last March, after I'd already turned in the story to Sarah. I listened to the book in my car on the way to Fresno, alone, first across the mountains and then through the hanging dust, probably the best conditions for absorbing that novel, which by the way is very brilliantly read by Matt Dillon. And then last month I read the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, and I had to revise my interpretation of what was going on. It turns out I am not Kerouac reincarnated. Rather, Kerouac and Knausgaard and I, and maybe you too, who knows, are linked by this weird childhood fantasy.

From "Meet Me in Iram":

I remember when I was a kid, on long car trips, I’d imagine a giant saw was attached to my side of the car. The saw could cut through anything. It sliced fences, it sliced trees. The fences gave a swift groan and exposed the hollow insides of their poles. The trees went snick and fell over with juicy ease, the tops of the stumps left gleaming moist and pale, like a wound before the blood comes. I was leveling the whole country from my seat in the back of the car. I don’t know why it gave me so much pleasure.

From On the Road:

I told Dean that when I was a kid and rode in cars I used to imagine I held a big scythe in my hand and cut down all the trees and posts and even sliced every hill that zoomed past the window. "Yes! Yes!" yelled Dean. "I used to do it too only different scythe — tell you why. Driving across the West with the long stretches my scythe had to be immeasurably longer and it had to curve over distant mountains, slicing off their tops, and reach another level to get at further mountains and at the same time clip off every post along the road, regular throbbing poles."

From My Struggle, Vol. 1:

Another fantasy I had at that time was that there were two enormous saw blades sticking out from the side of the car, chopping off everything as we drove past. Trees and streetlamps, houses and outhouses, but also people and animals. If someone was waiting for a bus they would be sliced through the middle, their top half falling like a felled tree, leaving feet and waist standing and the wound bleeding.

I could still identify with that feeling.