A Literary Tourist’s Fruitless Search for the Canadian Dissident Novel

You are a tourist to Canada in the season of book awards and writers’ festivals.  You have timed it this way.  You are a literary tourist, or a book lover, at least.  The kind of traveller who seeks out immersive cultural experiences.  Wherever you go, you do your homework.  It is a trip to Anglophone Canada, so you have brushed up on your English (which was pretty good to begin with).  You study maps.  You read up on the history, current events, and controversies.  And now you will go deeper.  You are looking for literature in situ.  You will talk with some Canadian readers, meet some Canadian authors, perhaps.  You will ask big questions and really get inside the soul of this country.

For the most part you get what you came for.  You find some good reads.  Books you will take home and really savor.  You will get inside the Canadian experience, for sure.  You find an enticing rural family saga.  Some nice books about identity—quite a few.  And some of the anxieties-of-the-bourgeoisie style books you find so charming.  They seem beautifully written, and you look forward to making time for all of them.  So you are satisfied—but not satiated.  There is something else you are looking for.  Another kind of story, by another kind of author.  A dissident novel, by a dissident author.  An overt challenge to complacency—or to the state, even.

coverAll throughout this journey you have found it hard not to think of a particular novel—not the one you are seeking, but one that serves as analogue for your experience in Canada.  And it isn’t even a Canadian novel, perhaps not even one that could be written by a Canadian—as you have lately, tentatively, concluded.  Time and time again, you are reminded of Event Factory, by the American author Renee Gladman.  It is a strange and challenging book, and you think of it because it seems to depict the situation in which you find yourself as a literary tourist.

Event Factory takes place in the fictional city of Ravicka, and its protagonist—just like you—is a visitor from afar, with a goal to immerse herself in the local culture.  Like you, she has studied the host society and language and is ready to converse with the locals.  But immersion proves elusive.  Among a variety of other things, she is seeking—just like you—an important text and its author.  It is not, in her case, a dissident text, but a book nonetheless.  And like the book you seek, it proves elusive.  Are the locals being evasive in response to her enquiries?  Or is it that she misses some component of the language to make her desires understood?  It is not clear which.

Your trip to Canada feels much the same way.  You have asked for, but still not found, your dissident novel by a dissident author.  You are not sure why.  Certain events in this country—contentions, protests, and catastrophes of the past decade—have not escaped your notice.  But they seem not to have found their way into the literature; or rather, they haven’t found their way into the novels you see on short lists or book festival display tables, anyway.  What you are looking for is something edgy.  Something from the counterculture.  About someone blocking a pipeline through unceded territory, maybe.  From anyone who writes in opposition to power, or writes about people who take chances.  You ask around, and a few suggestions come up—quite a few, actually.  They are all novels by Canadian authors, to be sure.  But they are about people taking chances in other countries.  No—that’s not what you’re looking for, you say.  You want books about people taking chances in this country.  In Canada.  You are directed to some nonfiction titles, but that’s not what you want, either.  You say it has to be a novel.  A creatively imagined, perhaps contrarian response to whatever turmoil has happened in this country.

You try to be as specific as possible.  You would be happy with some critical satire, at least.  Each country surely must have its satirists.  A Kurt Vonnegut, or a Michel Houellebecq—someone taking liberties at the expense of his own countrymen.  Vonnegut gets some understanding nods, but it seems few have heard of Houellebecq.  So you tell your Canadian interlocutors that even an earnest, disgruntled Marxist will do.  Doesn’t every nation have one of those?  A Takiji Kobayashi, for example.  Someone taking on their own society in their own present age—as Kobayashi did, a lone voice against Japan’s paramilitary intelligence service.  Alas, no one has heard of Kobayashi.  It is hard to convey a common point of reference.

Eventually you find a bookseller advertising arcane knowledge of even the most obscure titles, au courant of the contemporary novel.  By this point you are desperate, so you spill your guts.  You know what’s been going on in this country, you say.  You have been following events.  That man, you say.  That last prime minister.  The one who wanted to sabotage all the climate negotiations.  Yes, she knows about him.  And the new one, who lobbied to send the oil down south.  She knows about him, too.  And that day—the day when 900 protesters were jailed in a single scoop.  And the people who turned off the pipeline valves.  The grandmother who went to jail.  Those people up north—First Nations people—the ones crammed into shacks who can’t get clean drinking water.  These are all dramatic stories, are they not?  Surely they must have made their way into Canada’s novels.

The bookseller hears you out, but remains silent.  She looks pensive, but you can’t read in what way.  Perhaps she is thinking about a book.  Or perhaps she is insulted that all you seem interested in is Canada’s dirty laundry.  So you tell her you like that other stuff, too—the family sagas, the identity stories, the midlife crisis stories.  It’s all great stuff, you say.  But you want to see the other side of Canada, too—through another kind of Canadian novel.  The dissident novel.  Perhaps, you venture, there could be a Canadian Dostoyevsky.  A political risk taker.  You tell her you imagine there must be at least one Canadian novelist like that.  There must be someone like that right now, all things considered.

The bookseller maintains her reticence, and finally you say this: “I am a professor of dissident literature.”  It is a lie, but how else can you encourage her to bring forth the novel you desire?  “My interest is purely academic,” you say.  “In every country I visit, I seek out dissident novels, dissident writers.  That is all.  I have no political motive.  Simply, I wish to return home with a research sample—with an example of the dissident Canadian novel.  Or having had a conversation with a dissident Canadian novelist.”  The bookseller asks whether, because you mentioned Dostoyevsky, you would like a crime novel.  And so you leave her shop empty-handed.  And soon you leave Canada, too—on your scheduled return flight home.

Perhaps if you had had more time, you think, you might have found that obscure, dissident novel.  And you wonder if it was some fault of your English—your lack of facility with the Canadian dialect—that prevented you from finding it.  Or was it that the Canadians you met were being evasive?  Had you insulted their national pride by asking for some contrarian—perhaps, in their eyes, “anti-Canadian”—literature?  Or could it be that no such book, that no such author exists in Canada?  It would be incredible, you think, that such a thing could be true.  It would be very strange, indeed.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Footprints in the Snow

1.This will delete all the media and data, and reset all settings, my phone warned me.


Are you sure to continue? All the media, data, settings will be deleted. This cannot be undone.

Yes, I know. I’m also aware that my phone hasn’t been backed up for three months, because my free iCloud library is already full. Which means when I get a new phone and restore the data from my cloud, my phone can only remember what happened until this May. It will be greeted with few recollections of what happened and a strong sense of emptiness. Three months’ memory mysteriously gone, buried deep in an inaccessible corner of the old phone, only to be either completely pulverized when the unusable hardware is crushed or split into pieces when segments are recycled. The memory will become the shadow of someone else’s, a heart pumping for another body.

What about me? How about my three months’ memory? On which date does the clock of my memory stop ticking?

I visit the store and get a replacement. My new phone looks exactly the same as the old one. If I were willing to pay for a bigger cloud storage, I would be able to retrieve all my data from the cloud and my transition between phones would be seamless. But I’ve lost three months’ worth of memory. When I stare at the screen of my new phone, I feel like I am looking at a familiar face, as if I am watching a slightly younger self in last year’s birthday photo. The layout looks a little different: some apps are missing, the photo library is empty, my favorite songs, calculated by the music player, look slightly different. I have gone through some minor changes during those three months, but exactly how I can no longer recall. Clumsily, I download Netflix and a few photos from another cloud server in an attempt to piece together a semblance of the new self that I’ve become. But I am no longer the “I” I would have become if I hadn’t absent-mindedly spilled half a bottle of water in my bag and ruined my phone.

Is it true that my data—the pictures I’ve taken, the history of my search engines, the music I’ve liked—have become my new memory, or, at least, a new form of access to my memory? When I am holding the dear dear phone in my hand, am I actually holding my life, my brain, and my soul?

What an unsettling thought.

A few years ago, I can’t remember the exact date, I went on a two-day trip to Suzhou with my best friend. We’d known each other for seven years by then, but we had drifted apart as we stepped into adulthood. To patch things up, I suggested (or was it she?) that we revisit Suzhou together.

There are two Suzhous—one restrained and fragile, a dreamy reflection of history, the other shambling and disjointed, a cacophony of instinct and irrationality. As we rode our rented bikes along the streets and across the bridges, hundreds of steely bicycles, electric motorcycles, and fuming motorbikes screeched past me like arrows. I felt like I was a character in a video game whose rules I had yet to grasp. But my friend was fearless: she pedaled hard, with every step, I could see her calf bulging beneath her jeans. Sunglasses pushed high up on her forehead, her black long hair floating in the wind, in no time she was at least a mile ahead of me, all I could do was gasp for breath and pick up my speed yet again, following her to make turns and dive into streets and lanes whose names I didn’t have time to remember. And then all of a sudden, the bustling vehicles receded from me and it seemed we had entered a quiet boulevard; there were old yellowing plane trees stretching out on both sides. Under the soft daylight sifting down through the web of leaves and branches, my small, powerful friend slid down the slope, and I could feel the breeze pouring into me.

I’d love to take a picture of this moment, I remember thinking to myself.

The idea grew along with the realization of its impossibility. A car could rush around the corner any minute; it would be dangerous to call her to turn back. My phone and camera were inside the tote bag tucked in the bike basket; what’s more, we were moving forward, in the middle of the “present.” In that fleeting moment, time overwhelmed me with its irresistible will to move on.

Well, then I will remember it really hard, with my best effort, I thought to myself. I’d like to remember it for the rest of my life.

Every time I try to recollect this moment now, I remember not only the soft and warm canopies against the sky, the back of my friend’s blouse wrinkled by movements, but the ardent desire to grasp the scorching moment and brand it into my memory.

I had a dream this spring. In the dream there were a few peach trees in full blossom, and I was somewhat younger, urging someone in the dream to take photos of me in front of the trees. This is something I would do and have done in real life, asking people to capture an ordinarily beautiful or beautifully banal moment. Smart phones have made it so easy: they squeeze slices of time into brightly colored cans and stack them in a vending machine. In my dream, I checked the photos and was satisfied with several of them. The elation felt so real: I took more delight in having taken the pictures than having seen the flowers. And then with a mild spasm of joy, I woke up.

You understand that I had to check my phone first, don’t you? My mind was still fogged by the illusion, and I still felt a glimmer of hope that I could find the photos in my photo library. But as I reached for the cold metal, my dream was sucked back into invisible pipes and, drop by drop, it returned to the dark pond of unconsciousness.

coverA strange feeling rose in me, disbelief and disappointment. Before this dream, the abstraction and physical inaccessibility of dream or memory had completely escaped me. For a second, utterly shocked, I sat against the headboard, awed at the seemingly elastic but utterly unyielding line between the concrete and the abstract, the physical and the spiritual. That I couldn’t export my dream photos sounded ridiculous in my brain, as if someone had played a prank on me. Last winter I re-watched The Ghost in the Shell, a famous Japanese sci-fi animation film featuring a female cyborg, Motoko, who is engaged in a seemingly hopeless search for her identity. I guess watching engineers plugging colorful wires into the little round holes on the back of Motoko’s neck influenced my way of thinking, and I subconsciously thought this fictional imagination had already become true. Far from being wary of devices, I welcome the things they could do for me. I find myself toying with the ideas of implanting microchips or flash disks into my body, or even sticking my head into photocopiers. Needless to say, my understanding of the accessing of memory, even my understanding of memory itself, has been shaped by my relationship with machines. If I have learned anything from living with these silent creatures, it is that they are highly accessible, reliable, and, above all, accurate.

But what is memory, if not a bundle of errors, a poem covered with edits? Let me try to remember the act of “remembering.” As if someone has switched up a film projector, a scene is cast into my mind, a scene to which I find myself frequently returning. I remember that day when a plum-flavored candy got stuck in my throat. I was five, or maybe younger. My parents and I were living in an old classroom at the back of the campus where my mother worked, waiting to be relocated. Several classrooms aligned in a row, facing a makeshift brick wall. A candy was luxury in those days. I let it linger on my tongue, rolled it greedily, until it tumbled down and ended up between the tender walls of my throat. I must have gasped for help, since my mother immediately came and grabbed my ankles. Before I realized it, I was dangling upside down from her wrists, following her instructions to cough the candy out of my mouth. But these are nothing but a logical deduction, based on what I see when I try to remember the episode: a collage of pictures, superimposed upon one another. Somehow they look like a series of footage shot from different angles and by different cameras: The dark glimmering concrete floor feints and parries the thrust of my face. Sweat beads my mother’s forehead. Through the colored windows of the classroom, a woman can be seen dangling a child as if she’s emptying a schoolbag. Wait a second: Whose eyes are observing us through the colored windows? Who is the wordless third party in this scene?

It’s me. I am the person standing outside the classroom by the wall. In my memory, I have become the intruder, the Peeping Tom, the spy. Who is this ageless, genderless “I?” Intuitively I recognize this person as the fusion of my present and past selves as I attempt to remember. It is a projection of repeated remembrances. Remembering is like stepping onto an impeccable snow field; you can never visit it without leaving footprints. Neuroscientists have proved that memory-making process “needs new proteins … (and) requires some cellular construction,” that “every memory begins as a changed connection between two (isolated) neurons.” Remembrance takes place on an empty ground known as “synaptic clefts;” every connection is a makeshift project, an imitation of the last one with varying degrees of loyalty. When it comes to remembering, our brain is designed to blunder.

Last winter, in a class with students from a design and technology concentration, a girl nicknamed Chao introduced me to her project, a user interface featuring an intelligent personal assistant. I have forgotten its name. Let’s call it Harry.

Chao had recruited dozens of volunteers to participate in her project. She told them they were communicating directly with Harry, in fact it was her who was chitchatting with them. She wanted to see whether it was possible for human beings to develop an attachment with an AI.

For the first few days, Chao said, Harry would aim to build trust with participants, inviting them to share jokes and personal anecdotes, even their saddest memories with her.

coverLike the movie Her? I said.

Exactly. What I am looking for is a workable plot: in the end, the system, that is to say, me, will inform the participants that due to a bug or whatever, Harry suffers a total loss of memory and won’t be able to recollect any conversations with the participants, even to recognize them. I want to know, Chao looked at me, with her perfectly-lined eyes, will they feel upset, disappointed, even hurt a little bit by the amnesia of the machine?

What does the memory of the machine look like in the first place? An artificial intelligence, after talking to thousands of interface users for over 10 years, will have what we humans consider to be a mammoth quantity of materials. When it recalls someone it has talked to, the AI will be indiscriminative, remembering each and every user with equal clarity, whereas we always remember someone better than another, our memory colored by preferences and biases. The memory of the machine is one-dimensional—Emma Bovary’s eyes will have only one color, and we will know for sure where Albertine’s beauty mark lies—it has neither perspective, nor depth.

Nowadays, I remember not the meaning of a word but its location on the Internet. Instead of paragraphs of notes, I remember key words for the search engine and its rank on the result list. My relationship with the world has shrunk from excerpts of a dictionary to excerpts of a table of contents; my memory has been replaced by a list of hyperlinks. When I try to recall the silhouette of Manhattan in sunset, I shiver a little, as a string of fluid ghostly shadows flow past my mind. Then the location of a photo capturing that very scene occurs to me, and I rest assured, as if I have recovered a piece of myself, so I stop remembering. It is true that revisiting the snow ground of the past incur damages with scrambling imprints, but if you stop visiting it altogether and take satisfaction in gazing at the picture of the snow, you will never be able to find your way back to the place.

What I find most intriguing about Chao’s project is that she is trying to think like a machine. The conversations have to be perfect; they shouldn’t be too human, I remember her emphasizing. Yes, you are right, there has to be a quality of machine-ness, I nodded, but I was also thinking: in the beginning, we build machine to imitate human brain, and what we are doing here, is the imitation of the imitation.

Chao wants to gauge the possible attachment between machine and human, but for me, it looks like she is trying to find out how much damage it can bring us. A child throws stones into a well out of the desire to know how deep it is, and how badly it will hurt if one falls down to the bottom.

Erasing the data on my phone actually felt like a dramatic moment, the climax of our relationship. (When I brought it for the technician to examine, he joked: Actually two weeks from now it will be your first year anniversary.)

Do you want to delete all the media and data, and reset all settings?

Do you want to delete all my memories?

Do you want to delete all our memories?

Do you want to delete yourself?

The tip of my heart fluttered like a hummingbird. I knew what would happen to my phone, but I didn’t know what would happen to me, how my life was going to be altered, or whether my future would be rewritten. And I didn’t know how to face a loss like this.

My fingers tapped out the password, and clicked “Yes” several times.

Image Credit: Flickr/Andrei Niemimäki.

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In Which a Susan Sontag Fan Learns to Love Her Fiction


Most serious consumers of culture are, in one way or another, indebted to Susan Sontag. More than a decade after her untimely death in December 2004, it’s difficult to deny the resonance of her essays, whether it’s “Against Interpretation,” the 1964 ur-text that would solidify her reputation as a public intellectual; On Photography and Illness and Its Metaphors, with their trenchant takedowns of how we take photographs and live with cancer; or her last major work, 2003’s Regarding the Pain of Others, in which she lays bare our own culpability in viewing images of suffering. One cannot read a Susan Sontag essay and not come away unscathed about the modern world: how we see it, how we capture it, how we live and die in it.

covercovercoverOne marvels to imagine, were Sontag alive today, what she would think (and write!) about our hyper-connected, Instagram-and-Twitter, President-Trump, ISIS-threatened world. Then again, this is one of the defining characteristics of a great thinker, a great polemicist: You wish she or he were still around to illuminate our present moment, to help us make sense of the whole damn mess.

For me, Sontag is, first and foremost, a cultural gatekeeper. It was through her essays and think pieces that I learned not so much about her aesthetic arguments as about the works supporting them: the novels of W.G. Sebald and Victor Serge; Jean-Luc Godard’s tragic Vivre Sa Vie and Ingmar Bergman’s hallucinogenic Persona; Virginia Woolf’s “Three Guineas”; Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Andre Gide’s The Immoralist. I am forever indebted to her for introducing me to an entire canon of work I’d likely never have encountered without her guidance (or, admittedly, her name-dropping).

Then there’s another canon of work I’d never know of were it not for Sontag’s essays and her intellectual mystique (the furor of her cultural passions, the near-impenetrability of her writing, that skunk-white stripe in that black mane): her fiction.

When we say we love someone, what’s implicit in that statement (if we mean it genuinely) is that we love the person with all their faults. We love the best of them and the worst of them. So to say I love Susan Sontag’s writing means I must come to terms with the fact that much of her fiction just isn’t that good.

covercoverIt’s a personal judgment I’ve struggled with ever since I first decided to plow my way, like an icebreaker, through novels I’d been warned were cold and impenetrable; fiction too frozen in ideas to allow characters to live and breathe. What saved me from giving up at the start, I imagine, was starting in reverse, with her 2000 National Book Award-winning novel, In America, and, after it, 1992’s The Volcano Lover. (Her earlier fiction being hard to find in bookstores, I had little choice to but to read backwards.)

I didn’t understand what the problem was. Where others saw limp narratives, I saw historical novels in which time and place were the reason to keep reading. Where others complained about Sontag inserting her own thoughts, wedge-like, into the prose, I relished a writer daring enough to poke her head out from behind the curtain of history. I’d never before read contemporary historical fiction where the author begins her book with a “Chapter Zero,” in which she eavesdrops on a 19th-century dinner party in Poland and, in essence, walks us through the process of how a novelist transforms history into fiction. Or an author who’d step out of time, breaking a dramatic moment in which an 18th-century diplomat stands on the lip of a volcano for an aside on public suicide in the streets of 20th-century Manhattan.

I still consider The Volcano Lover and In America two of my favorite novels. I’m in love with their strangeness, their mixture of romance and critical thought, their language and style, the beguiling ways they flirt with our expectations of how a historical novel should sound and read. I stumbled away, awestruck, from my first reading of these two books certain I’d encountered not just a good novelist but a great one.

covercovercoverThen I read the first 50-odd pages of Sontag’s first novel, The Benefactor. Then I read an excerpt from her second novel, Death Kit. Then, for fear of ruining the taste of Sontag’s last two novels, of my entire conception of her as a fiction writer, I decided to call it quits.

The recent release of Debriefing: Collected Stories by Sontag’s longtime publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (which brings together the stories in Sontag’s 1977 collection, I, etcetera, as well as several standalone pieces), spurred me to rethink my stance on Susan Sontag’s fiction. Yes, there was a selfish opportunity to re-read The Volcano Lover and In America, but there was also a reason to finally make my way through the bland and baggy early works. It was a chance for me to figure out, as someone unashamedly in love with Sontag’s work, what exactly went wrong. 

It starts, I found, with reading her fiction chronologically. To do so transforms the mission from a search for what went wrong into a search for what went right; a chance to witness a writer’s skill grow over the years instead of wane. Nearly 40 years passed between the original publication of The Benefactor in 1963 and the publication of In America in 2000; in that span of time, it’s clear just how much Sontag transformed as writer of fiction. If one places the stories collected in Debriefing at the center of this, what emerges is something of a triptych in which the stories, many written during this span, act as the central panel on either side of which is Sontag the apprentice and Sontag the master.

No one reads The Benefactor for pleasure. Instead, one reads it out of a sense of duty, out of the desire to be comprehensive. A complete reading of the novel—memorably slow, memorably arduous—reveals what I understood the first time I flipped through its pages: the book is just plain dull.

One can argue the pros and cons of novels that rely too heavily on a character’s dreams, but in The Benefactor, dreams are really all there is. The entire novel is structured around a series of highly detailed dreams that haunt the cultural libertine Hippolyte: the “dream of two rooms,” the “dream of the unconventional party,” “the dream of the mirror,” to name but a few. We spend the novel following Hippolyte as he mingles with fellow enlightened Europeans and labors over the philosophical implications of his dream life. At one moment, Hippolyte proclaims, “What a promise the dream is! How delightful! How private! And one needs no partner, one need not enlist the cooperation of anyone, female or male. Dreams are the onanism of the spirit.”

Indeed, a novel in which dream leads to dream leads to dream leads to dream soon become masturbatory, to our detriment. (Alas, Hippolyte, you require the cooperation of one person to tolerate your dreams: the reader!) In the context of Sontag’s essays, The Benefactor reads like a way for Sontag to play with concepts she writes about in pieces like “The Aesthetics of Silence” (one of Hippolyte’s lines: “I am looking for silence, I am exploring the various styles of silence, and I wish to be answered by silence.”) and “Against Interpretation” (Hippolyte again: “Let nothing be interpreted. No part of the modern sensibility is more tiresome than its eagerness to excuse and to have one thing always mean something else!”). This is less a novel of ideas and more an idea of a novel, something just as cold and sterile and obscure as one of the narrator’s nighttime fantasias.

Death Kit, published four years after The Benefactor, takes these dreams to such an extreme that the entire book reads like one long, uninterrupted dream. It, too, like a dream, fades away as soon as the reader awakes.

Our libertine is replaced by a humdrum advertising executive named Dalton “Diddy” Harron, a man Sontag describes as a mere “tenant” in his life (the ghost of an early suicide attempt hangs over his head). On a business trip to upstate New York, Diddy might or might not murder a railroad worker in a Raskolnikovian attempt at shattering societal norms. While some of the novel is dedicated to pursuing this mystery, the majority of it is spent following Diddy’s daily life (often in strange indented asides and bizarre shifts in tense). It’s slightly fantastical, deeply Kafkaesque, but undermined by the novel’s impossible length.

And here we see the chief problem with Sontag’s early novels: there’s not enough going on to warrant the real estate of a 300-page novel. While her intellectual ideas condense well into digestible essays (that, nevertheless, require fervent chewing beforehand), packed inside characters we’re expected to follow for hundreds of pages, they’re impossible.

covercoverAnd yet where Death Kit succeeds is at its close, where we get a glimpse of Sontag’s narrative style at its best. Walking through a train tunnel in an effort to prove to his blind wife, Helena, that he really did murder a railroad worker, Diddy finds himself, alone, in a surreal series of chambers, like the Catacombs of Paris, packed with corpses. Sontag’s frequent obsession with lists (see numerous entries in her two volumes of journals and notebooks, Reborn and As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh) here takes on the shape of a macabre inventory of American history.

The earliest specimen Diddy could find belonged to the seventeenth century: a Pilgrim with a broad-brimmed hat, round stiff collar, breeches, and buckled shoes. But nearby, many modern types. A banker in a top hat and striped pants and cutaway coat. A boy in his Cub Scout uniform. A registered nurse. A policeman, one of New York’s Finest…In another room, only firemen. Decked out in their uniforms, with rubber boots to the tops of their thighs. Many with the huge, red, oval-brimmed hat that’s their trademark. Cocked on their skull; not so much rakishly as awkwardly, since the head, with or without meat and hair on it, tends to slump forward…Over there, a catcher for the San Francisco Giants—if one can trust the evidence of the uniform and the mask whose metal bars cover the dead man’s lean, contorted, well-preserved face.

It goes on. And on. And on. Restraint is something Sontag won’t discover until her last two novels. Taken as a piece on its own, however, this conclusion to Death Kit illustrates the strengths of Sontag’s shorter fiction.

According to Benjamin Taylor in his woefully brief introduction to Debriefing, Sontag’s short stories are “where we go to know Sontag most intimately.” It’s an apt word, considering that much of her short fiction feels of a piece with Sontag’s journals and notebooks.

Several stories, in fact, look and feel as if they were assembled from Sontag’s private scribblings, using diary entries, daily logs, and notes as methods for organizing narrative information. “Project for a Trip to China” tries to create a story from sparse notes and phrases and jottings (“Consider other possible permutations.”, “Chinese patience: Who assimilates whom?”, “Why not want to be good?”). So, too, does “Unguided Tour,” in which we find the source of that most iconic (and overused) of Sontag quotes: “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” “Old Complaints Revisited” takes the form of secret messages by an unnamed narrator intent on defecting from a cult-like organization. “Baby” is divided into one-sided conversations during therapy sessions between two parents and a psychologist in which they vent their frustrations with a son who appears to be both old and young at the same time. While these and other stories are as obscure as Sontag’s first two novels, it’s their brevity that gives them power, that allows the reader to more willingly engage with Sontag’s intellectual preoccupations.

Debriefing opens and closes with what, either deliberately or coincidentally, are two of Sontag’s most memorable, accessible, and human stories. The first, “Pilgrimage,” recounts a moment in Sontag’s youth when she and a friend paid a personal call to the German giant of letters Thomas Mann, then living in exile in southern California. There’s a humor in which Sontag retells the story of being in “the very throne room of the world in which I aspired to live.”

And Thomas Mann continued to talk, slowly, about literature. I remember my dismay better than what he said. I was trying to keep myself from eating too many cookies, but in a moment of absent-mindedness I did reach over and take one more than I had meant to. He nodded. Have another, he said. It was horrible. How I wished I could just be left alone in his study to look at his books.

Then there is “The Way We Live Now,” Sontag’s most well-known story (and rightly so). Built around a series of conversations between a group of friends in which the gaping hole, given no voice of his own, is the one friend ill with AIDS, “The Way We Live Now” strikes the perfect balance between formal inventiveness and emotional force. It’s appropriate this story comes at the end of a collection in which form and feeling appear at odds (with form usually winning the day). Here, feeling triumphs. Life triumphs. The story’s last line: “He’s still alive.”

Both The Volcano Lover and In America are the only two Sontag novels where characters feel like human beings instead of automatons. They’re also, curiously, the only two Sontag novels to fully entrench themselves in the female voice, to engage with women who feel alive with lust and rage and agency.

While the body of The Volcano Lover belongs to “the Cavaliere” (Sontag’s stand-in for the famed British diplomat and collector Sir William Hamilton), its spirit belongs to women, specifically his second wife, Emma (the future lover of Horatio Nelson, here simply “the Hero”). The Volcano Lover leaves no question that it’s concerns are about more than just Enlightenment masculinity, Enlightenment ideology. The magisterial final section of the novel, after the death of Hamilton, belongs to the voices of four women who were previously background characters: the Cavaliere’s first wife, Catherine; Emma’s mother (posing as her maid), and Emma herself. But it’s the last monologue, written in the voice of Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, the revolutionary Italian poet executed by the restored Bourbon monarchy, that reads like an act of rebellion. It’s a scathing indictment of the story’s anti-republican heroes that leads up to the novel’s haunting final lines.

Sometimes I had to forget that I was a woman to accomplish the best of which I was capable. Or I would lie to myself about how complicated it is to be a woman. Thus do all women, including the author of this book. But I cannot forgive those who did not care about more than their own glory or wellbeing. They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.

In America’s Maryna Zalenska, a stand-in for the Polish actress Helena Modrzejewska, emigrates with her husband and son and several other compatriots to Anaheim, Calif., where they aim to start a commune. Typical of most commune-set novels, the utopian adventure doesn’t turn out as planned, and Helena leaves to rediscover herself as an actress in defiance of the trappings of her gender’s expectations. “Will American audiences accept the idea of a woman who leaves her husband and children not because she is wicked but because she is serious?” Maryna’s husband, Bogdan, asks himself late in the novel. (Even as he, in this new world, unearths his suppressed love of the male body.)

The obvious connection between these two late, mature novels is their reliance on history. Speaking to Charlie Rose in 2000 about In America, Sontag noted her use of history as “a trampoline” to “tell a great story that’s very resonant.” One gets the sense that, with the structure of the narrative already provided, Sontag was finally free to invent and reinvent at will while still satisfying the demands of a traditional story. The reader, too, feels this palpable freedom, this spirit of adventure, when reading The Volcano Lover and In America.

Sontag, with her typical self-awareness (or, critics would argue, her typical self-absorption), knew she was on to something with what would turn out to be her last novels. In that same Charlie Rose interview, she notes that most writers tend to do their best work in the first third or half of their writing careers. “I think my best work is now,” Sontag says. “I think these books are better. I think I’m freer. I think my writing is more expressive. I don’t think I’ve changed, but I think my access to myself has changed. I think I was going through a kind of narrow door, and now I’m going through a big wide gate.” She goes on to describe her younger self not as a storyteller so much as a ruminator; someone more interested in the process of consciousness than in making that consciousness accessible to those of us who live outside her mind.

We are grateful that Sontag changed and that we have for posterity these two powerful examples of her storytelling potential. Our only sadness about these novels (and this, too, is the measure of a lasting writer) is we won’t get any more.

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Behind Every Great Woman Writer Is Another Woman


It’s easy to buy into the classic image of the isolated female author: the eccentric Brontë sisters, wandering the moors; lofty George Eliot, sequestered in her London villa; a melancholic Virginia Woolf, loading her pockets with stones before stepping into the River Ouse. Male writers, on the other hand, often come in pairs: Fitzgerald and Hemingway on their riotous drinking sprees, Wordsworth and Coleridge hiking together through the Lakeland hills, Byron and Shelley encouraging each other’s sexual escapades.

As two modern-day writers, we’ve long found it intriguing that legendary male authors are cast as social creatures while their female counterparts are remembered as cloistered figures. We became close friends more than a decade-and-a-half ago when we were taking our first tentative steps on the long path to publication. In the years since, we’ve supported each other every step of the way: commenting on countless drafts, sharing details about literary agents and competition deadlines, and offering a sympathetic ear when the going got tough. Our experiences as struggling young writers suggested to us that history’s best-known female authors would also have welcomed a literary friend, especially, perhaps, during those difficult early stages of their careers.

But if these women had enjoyed relationships like ours, we realized that such bonds had rarely made it into the annals of literary history. And so, our interest piqued, we set out to investigate.

The case of Jane Austen particularly captured our imagination. She devoted 24 years to writing before securing her first publishing deal—a feat of endurance that put our own experiences into perspective. Could she have forged a friendship with a fellow writer, we wondered, who gave her the strength to keep going?

A fleeting reference in a biography provided the first clue to a hidden creative alliance that would eventually take us to old census records, volumes of unpublished diaries, and our discovery of two previously unknown Austen family documents. It turned out that Anne Sharp, a governess to Austen’s niece, and a household playwright, was a dear friend to Austen. Despite the gulf in their social positions, their shared status as amateur writers functioned, for a time, as a kind of leveler. Ignoring the raised eyebrows of Austen’s relatives, the two women enjoyed lengthy conversations, acted together in one of Sharp’s theatricals, and went so far as taking a six-week vacation together.

covercovercoverBy the time a publisher finally brought out Sense and Sensibility in 1811, Austen had been working on the novel intermittently for 16 years. Even after Austen’s books had become fêted by high society, attracting admirers as powerful as the Prince Regent, she continued to value the insights of this unpublished working woman. When Emma came out in 1815, Austen set aside one of her 12 precious presentation copies for Sharp—the only friend she singled out for such an honor. But Austen continued to seek Sharp’s appraisals, and the governess remained happy to oblige. While sharing her delight in the character of Mr. Knightly, for instance, Sharp admitted that she was not convinced by Jane Fairfax, who dreads the future mapped out for her as a governess. It’s a telling criticism, since Sharp was so well placed to judge. On a later occasion, when Austen asked for feedback on Mansfield Park, Sharp again summed up her thoughts on its strengths and weaknesses. “As you beg me to be perfectly honest,” she concluded, “I confess I prefer P. & P.”—a view shared by many readers over the centuries to come.

In 1817, Austen would pen from her sickbed her last ever letter to this “excellent kind friend.” After Austen’s death, Sharp received three deeply personal mementoes: a pair of Austen’s belt clasps, her silver needle, and a lock of her hair. And yet, when, half a century later, the great author’s descendants penned her first full biography, they excluded even a single mention of Sharp.

By expunging any trace of this class defying friendship, Austen’s relatives maintained their carefully crafted image of her as a conservative maiden aunt, devoted above all else to kith and kin. This kind of omission is all too common. The important literary friends of Charlotte Brontë, Eliot, and Woolf have all suffered similar fates.

covercoverThe Brontë sisters are rarely envisaged away from their father’s moorland parsonage, but Charlotte in fact ventured far from her Yorkshire home. In the early 1840s, the 25-year-old—encouraged by her old boarding school friend, the future feminist author Mary Taylor—traveled to live and study in Brussels. Taylor, who believed in female financial independence, was certainly a force to be reckoned with. She pushed Brontë to pursue her dreams of publication, and ultimately shaped the radical elements of her friend’s novels such as Jane Eyre and Shirley. Taylor’s important impact on her friend’s career, however, is rarely acknowledged.

covercoverThe studious neglect of Eliot’s literary friendship with Harriet Beecher Stowe is even more surprising given the towering stature of each author. Despite never having the opportunity to meet, the two literary legends maintained an 11-year, transatlantic correspondence that came to an end only with Eliot’s death in 1880. In deeply personal missives, the two discussed their families, scandals that befell them, and, of course, their work—with Eliot’s final novel Daniel Deronda bearing the imprint of Stowe’s whirlwind bestseller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But this historically important alliance has been seriously overlooked by biographers.

Unlike the literary allies of Austen, Brontë, and Eliot, Katherine Mansfield’s name has frequently been paired with Woolf’s—but for all the wrong reasons. While they regarded each other as important friends, the competitive nature of their relationship has led to the widespread assumption that they were sworn enemies. Woolf’s burning literary drive, it is too often assumed, must have extinguished the possibility of friendship with another ambitious woman.

By contrast, all the great male writing partnerships involved large doses of rivalry and yet the likes of Coleridge and Wordsworth, Shelley and Byron, and Hemingway and Fitzgerald are regarded as rambunctious comrades.

When the two of us began our research, we were propelled by curiosity about whether our literary heroines had female writer friends at all. But, having soon discovered that behind every great woman was another woman, our focus shifted to the question of why these crucial influences are so little known.

We initially wondered whether these writers themselves had contributed to this obscurity by guarding their privacy—an understandable stance in the days when a woman could court controversy simply by attempting to publish her words. But, through the process of uncovering a veritable treasure trove of female alliances, we came to the conclusion that there are also more troubling reasons for the disregard shown towards these crucial relationships.

Persistent images of isolation can be used to weaken female power by giving the impression that there are no tried-and-tested models of intellectual collaboration between women. A one-off genius, set apart, is an aberration who poses little threat to centuries of patriarchy—as is the ambitious woman, cast as the enemy of her peers. Especially in today’s uncertain climate—when women are fighting for control over their own bodies, and when their contributions are so often dismissed—we must resist such insidious tactics of divide and rule. The rich history of sisterhood offers a shaft of light during dark times: it is imperative to turn to the example of female forebears—women who always knew that they could best achieve greatness by aligning themselves with other women.

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How It Feels When Another Writer Beats You to the Punch


When I heard the news that a novel called Barren Island by Carol Zoref had been long-listed for this year’s National Book Award for fiction, my first reaction was Oof! Had another writer beaten me to the punch?

There can only be one Barren Island, I told myself. It’s a wafer of sand and scrub in New York City’s vast Jamaica Bay, so named by the early Dutch settlers for the bears that may or may not have roamed there, and later destined to live up to its Anglicized name when it became the final destination for the city’s garbage and for its dead horses and other animals that were brought there by barge to be skinned, dismantled, boiled, and turned into fertilizer and glue in the ghastly factories of Barren Island. Those factories were manned mostly by immigrants from Eastern Europe, Greece, Italy, and Ireland, and by African-Americans up from the South. Diphtheria and typhoid epidemics were frequent visitors. The stench and filth and vermin were appalling. “Horrors,” recalls one man who grew up there.

I happened to know this obscure history because for the past dozen years or so I’ve been gathering string, off and on, for a novel I am (was?) hoping to set on Barren Island. Its central character is based on a schoolteacher named Jane Shaw, who rode the trolley from her home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to the boat that carried her to Barren Island every Sunday night. She then spent the weekdays teaching the children of the immigrants who worked the factories. She brightened their lives by helping them plant vegetable and flower gardens, sew curtains, dress up homes that were little more than shacks. She bought a piano with her own money, gave lessons, held dances. On Friday nights she returned to her Brooklyn home, where she invited her eighth-grade graduating class to a proper tea every year, the first time many of them set foot off their isolated island. She did this from the end of the First World War until 1936, when the city’s ruthless master builder, Robert Moses, evicted the residents and bulldozed the settlement to make way for his Marine Park project. Jane Shaw got Moses to agree to let her students finish the school year before the bulldozers moved in. The people of Barren Island revered Jane Shaw, which gave me a working title for my novel: The Angel of Barren Island.

So I opened Carol Zoref’s novel with a feeling of—no other word for it—dread. On the very first page I learned that, yes indeed, there is only one Barren Island, and Carol Zoref had beaten me to it. The novel is narrated in the first person by 80-year-old Marta Eisenstein Lane, who is looking back on her coming of age on Barren Island’s smaller, fictional neighbor, Barren Shoal, where her father, an immigrant from Belarus, works in the factory dismantling horses and other dead animals so they can be transformed into such valuable commodities as glue and nitroglycerin. Marta’s tale unfolds amid horrors, tenderness, and beauty that have the iron ring of truth. One day Marta’s mother fails to save Marta’s infant sister from drowning in a washtub full of scalding water. Another day there’s a devastating explosion in the factory. Marta also experiences grace notes, fishing and picking berries, witnessing a rally at Union Square, seeing Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera, tasting first love and watching, from a distance, as the Depression grinds toward another World War. Jane Shaw even makes a cameo. This is Zoref’s first novel, and there is some implausible dialog (and a few unfortunate typos), but it’s an assured and deeply felt work. By the end of the book, my initial dread had given way to delight—that another writer shares my belief that stories from a forgotten place, a blend of the made-up and the real, can be worthy of telling.

After I finished the book, I phoned Carol Zoref in her office at Sarah Lawrence College, where she teaches creative writing. (She also teaches at New York University.) First, I asked Zoref how she became aware of Barren Island. “A long time ago I saw an article in The New York Times about a book about the trash of New York, and it mentioned Barren Island,” she replied. “The article had a picture of a guy who had grown up on Barren Island, and I thought that was an extraordinary thing. So I bought the book and read it. And I had a question: what would it have been like to live there on Barren Island? It’s one thing to work in that sort of setting, but to actually live there as a child, to grow up there, so close to the city and but so far from the city—I just couldn’t imagine what that would have been like.”

coverAmazing. That newspaper article was my introduction to Barren Island, too. It was written by Kirk Johnson and published on Nov. 7, 2000, under the headline “All the Dead Horses, Next Door; Bittersweet Memories of the City’s Island of Garbage.” I, too, read the book mentioned in the article, Benjamin Miller’s Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York, the Last Two Hundred Years. That book spawned a fascination with the city’s waste that’s still alive today. I asked Zoref, “What kind of research did you do? Did you do a lot of archival stuff? Was it mostly imagining?”

“There was no archival research,” she said. “In fact, I never saw a photograph of Barren Island until the spring of 2016, when the book’s jacket designer and I started talking about what the cover should look like. The public library of New York had just digitized its collection, so I was able to see what the place looked like. Much to my relief, my imagination had served me well. As far as the rest of it was concerned, it was a combination of flotsam and jetsam stuff that I knew but wasn’t exactly sure when it happened. A simple timeline helped. Then looking at photographs, programs on television about the Depression, descriptions of the flora and fauna of Long Island. When I started, I knew the bookends would be 1929, when the stock market crashed, and 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland. What happened between the World Wars? I ended the book a little after Barren Island was actually closed because the coming of World War II is present in the novel the entire time. People are escaping Europe because things are lousy for Jews and they need to get out. People are working these jobs on Barren Island because they’re working any jobs they can get. People are picking through the garbage because they’re starving. Those smokestacks and those rendering plants certainly are waving a flag saying the death camps are coming, and a different kind of oven is coming.”

“What was the appeal of this spot and these people to you as a writer?” I asked.

“The appeal to me had to do with power and powerlessness, and the ways in which the awfulness of quotidian life can’t be escaped. Each of these characters has their own lives and ambitions that aren’t that different from our own in the 21st century.”

One of my favorite characters in the novel is Miss Finn, who teaches in the one-room schoolhouse. “Did you model her on Jane Shaw?” I asked. “Where did she come from?”

cover“I knew Jane Shaw existed and I knew she stood up to Robert Moses, who I’ve always found an interesting character. I read The Power Broker and I thought, wow, what a brilliant crazy wonderful horrible human being—all those things rolled into one. We wouldn’t have parks if we hadn’t had Robert Moses, but we also wouldn’t have the Cross-Bronx Expressway running through the middle of people’s lives. I couldn’t believe Jane Shaw stood up to him and won. Nobody did that again until Jane Jacobs. Somebody teaching in this one-room schoolhouse could have a tremendous amount of influence. A lot of stuff got tucked into Miss Finn. What happened to these teenage girls in her classes? Well, girls got pregnant and had abortions—long before abortion was legal. It was dangerous and complicated. Miss Finn seems quiet and humble, but she’s worldly in her own way. Her sister was the doctor who performed abortions.”

It was time for me to make an admission. “I read that article in The Times and I read Benjamin Miller’s book,” I said, “and I became totally fascinated by Barren Island. Now I’ve got my own Barren Island box. But I got busy with other things, and my idea of writing a novel about the place went on the back burner. When I heard that a novel called Barren Island was nominated for the National Book Award, my heart dropped into my shoes.”

“Sorry!” she said, with a laugh.

“So I got your book, and as I read I felt uplifted. Somebody else out there sees the potential of a story about a place, about a moment like this! It’s been an uplifting experience. I guess what I’m trying to say is thank you.”

“Well, thank you. I think there’s no place or no story that exists that wouldn’t be written about differently by different writers. And that’s fine. That’s good. As obscure as things can be, so what? Everyone’s interest comes from a different feeling.”

And I have a feeling, a surprising feeling, that The Angel of Barren Island still has a pulse.

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The Poetics of Running

There has long been an interest in “running” writers. The Atlantic, The New York Times, Runners World, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker have all published pieces exploring why so many writers enjoy lacing up their running flats. For the most part, these articles focus on the ways in which running relates to their writing process. For example, Joyce Carol Oates sees running as distinctly poetic, likening the experience to dreaming. In comparison, Malcolm Gladwell sees running as primarily an opportunity to solve “writing problems” and Andre Dubus valued running for its “cathartic” qualities.

Yet with all the focus on running writers, few publications have explored “how” running is used as a device in literary works. And as an avid runner, I can’t help but notice a few distinctions between the way writers talk about running and the way running is used in literature. Many authors note the mental clarity and routine that running affords them when it comes to their creative work. But the act of running in fiction often symbolizes an attempt to flee the chaotic conditions of a character’s emotional life. Such chaos might take shape as a difficult home life or financial stress. It may be because of a broken relationship, the loss of a friend, or the need to escape the emotional realities of the present.

Take “O Youth And Beauty!” by John Cheever, where running is used to clarify the internal conflict of the protagonist Cash Bentley. Cash, a former track star, is obsessed with proving that he is still young and able. His motives are fairly clear—he is in financial straits and seeks to control his life by taking on the impossible task of fighting his aging body. This is expressed by running laps around the interior of houses during cocktail parties. As he runs, Cash hurtles over living room furniture while the rest of the party guests cheer on the spectacle.

For Cheever, running becomes the ideal metaphor to encapsulate one of the story’s themes: you can’t run from time. Ultimately, it’s Cash’s desperation to find the fountain of youth that leads him into a spiral of depression, and at the end of the story it’s this depression that brings him to his untimely death. The juxtaposition between death and physical health are likewise paramount to the story’s running theme, as it highlights the certainty that sooner or later our bodies are no longer able to perform, and in this decline, Cheever exposes Cash’s helplessness.

coverLinking physical ability to control is of course not exclusive to Cheever. In John Irving’s The World According to Garp, sport makes up a crucial component of T.S. Garp’s life. Whenever placed at a moment of crisis, Garp turns to sport to remove himself from the present through “mindless” activity. Although wrestling is Garp’s primary sport, running also becomes a means of escape in order to find control through pattern, repetition, and routine.

Interestingly enough, it is Garp’s routine that links the way he uses running to the way many of the aforementioned authors talk about running. Like with Gladwell, Garp even turns to running when faced with a “writing problem,” as he is a novelist. However, where Garp’s motivations differ from Gladwell’s utilitarian approach is that his runs are strongly tethered to moments in the narrative where his career is at a crossroads. In this case, running to solve “writing problems” is merely the superficial motive, as sport is primarily used to ground the reader in Garp’s anxieties, particularly at moments when he feels emasculated. Running therefore becomes a physical example of his discontent, and is indicative of a search for comfort in his physical body.

If there’s a common idea in run-centric stories and the way writers discuss the subject in interviews and articles, it’s that running has an inherent physicality to it. In the article “To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet,” Joyce Carol Oates discusses how the mind “pulses” in conjunction with the “feet and the swinging of our arms.” In an essay for The New Yorker, Murakami describes his “pounding heart” and “shaking body” after his first experiences as a runner, and how continued practice led to changes in his physical being.

However, describing the body is not the only way to emphasize such physicality. In some instances, a similar effect can be created in stories by placing emphasis on the tangible world surrounding characters. This can be useful when establishing setting, as seen in Andre Dubus’s story “The Doctor.”

The story begins in late March during the transition from winter to spring, as the weather fluctuates between cold and warm. It is on one of these warmer days that Dubus’s protagonist Art goes for a jog. Here’s a description of what he encounters:

About a mile past the brook there were several houses, with short stretches of woods between them. At the first house, a family was sitting at a picnic table in the side yard, reading the Sunday paper. They did not hear him, and he felt like a spy as he passed. The next family, about a hundred yards up the road, was working. Two girls were picking up trash, and the man and woman were digging a flowerbed. The parents turned and waved, and the man called out, “It’s a good day for it!”

In this case, Dubus uses running to generate a feeling for the layout of Art’s town, and likewise provides a sense of the types of people who make up of the neighborhood. Very little attention is paid to the action of running, but rather, the actions of those Art encounters. This allows Dubus to both imply Art’s movement through space and establish a sense of the community.

Beyond clarifying physical space, Dubus uses running to set up the conflict of the story. As Art runs, Dubus describes his warming body as a metaphor for the changes in the physical landscape as winter gives way to spring. Furthermore, Art’s rising body heat brings us nearer to the crisis, as it’s only when Art leaps into a sprint that we realize the story’s primary conflict: a boy is drowning in a once frozen brook after a slab of concrete from a footbridge falls and traps him beneath its weight.

Like with “O Youth And Beauty!”, death serves as a counterpoint to the able-bodied in “The Doctor.” However, for Dubus it’s the boy trapped under the concrete slab who dies, and it is Art’s inability to lift the slab that demonstrates his failure. In both stories, tragedy occurs because the protagonists overestimate the body’s limitations. This idea is underscored at the conclusion of “The Doctor,” when Art realizes that if he had instead tried to rig up a snorkel from a garden hose near the brook, he could’ve saved the boy’s life. The message: brains over brawn.

Attaching the physicality of running to a mental experience is one of the more common themes in both the way writers talk about running and how it’s used in literature. In an article for The Washington Post, running writer Amanda Loudin says that for both writing and running “you need to consistently show up and practice. You need the mental focus to improve. You need to take risks and face potential failure. And you need to get comfortable with all of the above.”  And while the “comfort” Loudin mentions is not a term readily used in association with characters like Cash Bentley or Art, Loudin’s comments do help explain why these stories are effective. It’s because they are stories about the relationship between mental and physical wellbeing, a relationship that keeps coming up time and time again in run-centric texts.

Image Credit: Flickr/Josh Janssen.

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On Setting and Craft

The professor slides the chalk in his long fingers, then taps it on the desk, raising a faint cloud of yellow dust. “Setting,” he says, “isn’t really one of the important craft elements. Not even close to character and plot. Don’t worry about figuring out your setting until you’ve at least got one main character nailed down.”

I nod. The man’s hair is gelled to a gleam and his black, ripped-at-the-collar t-shirt is simultaneously chic and casual. He’s got an acclaimed novel under his belt and is finishing up another. I have a secret crush on him, as do most of the women in the room, I later discover.  His teeth are just so white.

I mentally cross setting off my list. The word itself has an unimportant feel, reminding me of the long rolls of butcher block paper that we’d tempera-paint with branchy trees and turquoise skies that would crack when they served as a backdrop for the school play. The real action happens elsewhere.

But when it comes to writing my next story, I can’t get Golden Gate Park out of my mind. I have no real clue who the characters are, whether we’re in first-person POV or third, or even if this is fiction or nonfiction, but boy, can I picture Golden Gate Park. And not just any old place in the park, but its historic merry-go-round. I’m hearing the music, the tinny notes that pull my child body across the long sweep of grass toward a spinning blur of color—promising not only lions and tigers and dragons, oh my!—but also the salty sweet pink popcorn that my grandmother always buys me after the ride. She had lived in San Francisco with my mother in the ‘30s before moving back to Sonoma County and reuniting with my grandfather. But she loved to take grandkids to the city. Writing, I’m transported to a place I haven’t been in decades.

When I bring this story to the MFA workshop, a classmate comments, “I’m not sure what the piece is about, really. Whose story is it? Maybe that’s the problem.” Another adds, “I don’t get the main character. What’s motivating her? But the setting details are cool. I like that description of that carousel music. Haunting…in a good way.”  He smiles at me, but it feels more like consolation than compliment.

The prof agrees. “The setting details are great, though the plot’s got a few holes. But nothing you can’t fix,” he says, flashing me a toothy grin.

The story morphs over the next several years. The plot—about a brother who seems to vanish into thin air and the newly married couple who can’t stop searching—expands and contracts, only to spill over again. I title the story “What You Do When You Don’t Know What To Do” (a good description of my writing process, too), then “Brother, Brother,” and finally “Bigger Than Life.” A first person narrator comes and goes, and the piece becomes solidly fictional, though its meaning remains elusive. But in each successive draft, the verdant places of Golden Gate Park keep calling me, reminding me of my childhood self who so badly wanted what I could only half-see.

Other seemingly random setting details accumulate, the hollow look of fall sycamore leaves pressing against the window when the couple first learns the brother has gone missing, the diesely sound of the husband’s pickup gunning it up Broderick Street, the silver beams of the Bay Bridge floating overhead on their way home.  Some details—the briny smell of Fisherman’s Wharf with a dollar crab cocktail in your hand, for instance—are memories of a San Francisco long gone. Many of these images never appear in the story itself, but all of them offer a way in.

I do not abandon this piece, as I have done with so many before it, but keep working. As the environment fills in, the characters feel fleshier, as if at last they have a place to throw a backpack, or set down a coffee mug. By now I know setting reveals character, that’s Fiction 101. But strangely, setting details also suggest some sort of narrative arc: the brown-edged sycamore leaves show up as thick-veined and green at the story’s end. Not that the piece has a happy ending. Far from it. But whatever shape I can find I relish, because this story does not fall within the conventional conflict-crisis-resolution pattern. In fact, it seems the dénouement could just last forever. An underlying meaning surfaces, too—as slowly as a Polaroid developing –when a person goes missing, nothing can be neatly contained or expected.

The prof goes on to teach at other universities and publishes a second novel, widely praised as gritty and redemptive. The characters are indeed powerful and act out their struggles inside cars and bars and bathrooms, walls that trap not expand them. I take other workshops, always heavy on the craft elements, because how else can you get your hands solidly around something as elusive as creativity? I notice that “setting” is always stuck somewhere in the middle or end of the course, as if to say, now we’ve got the meaty subjects out of the way, let’s turn to others. Some courses don’t touch on setting at all.

covercovercoverThe books on writing I read reflect this lack of emphasis. Stephen Koch in The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop warns, “…unless you’re writing a travel book, it [setting] will never get you where you want to go.” John Gardner’s The Art Fiction asserts, “plotting…must be the first and foremost concern of the writer.”  In the Table of Contents of other books—Julie Checkoway’s Creating Fiction and Sarah Stone and Ron Nyren’s Deepening Fictionsetting falls in the long shadow of characterization and sensory detail. Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction does not mention setting in his “Alphabet for Writers of Fiction,” though character, dialogue, plot, point of view, and narrative appear.

So is my experience with “Bigger Than Life” a one-off? I wonder.  It’s not that I find character and plot and structure unimportant. It’s that, for me, they’re deeply intertwined with place. The smell of pine needles crackling in a living room fireplace, a blue-brown mountain appearing around the curve of a narrow highway, a parking lot full of battered and broken San Francisco Muni buses, these images open doors to worlds of other stories that come.  These details are not simply “germs,” as Gardner would put it, but at the heart of the story itself. And none of them belong to places I now inhabit.  It seems I can bring these images forth only long after I’ve gone. After several years, I’ve completed seven stories based in and around San Francisco. A good chunk, but hardly enough for a collection.

If the books on writing I come across don’t reflect the importance of place, many of the stories I read do. James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” could not exist outside 1950s Harlem; its shadowy light and dark are keys to meaning. In Charles Baxter’s “Snow,” we focus on the ice of Five Oaks Lakes threatening to crack under the weight of a teenager’s Chevrolet. John Cheever’s narrator, Ned, in “The Swimmer” makes his way through the pale green and gold waters of a series of swimming pools, his life falling apart over what he perceives as a single afternoon.

When I finally receive my MFA—a year later than everyone else in my class because I’m such a slow writer—I’m lucky to land a job teaching writing in Berkeley. Instead of paying attention to my own experience, I dutifully take my place in a long line of creative writing instructors and cover “setting” somewhere in the middle of an introductory creative writing course.

Sometimes a student looks annoyed when I ask where the story takes place. “In New York City,” one replies. “I put that on page two.”

“But where in New York City? It’s pretty big. What do the streets look like?  Do they smell like roasted chestnuts, or bus fumes?”

She frowns. “Setting’s not all that important in this story.”

coverMy own stories push ahead at a glacial pace, as I begin work, put it aside, then circle back again.  I add a couple to the seven I’d gathered. But if there’s a book ahead, I can’t see the finishing line. Frustrated, I find myself thumbing through John Truby’s The Anatomy of a Story because a writer friend swears by it. Flipping to the Table of Contents, I notice that “setting” doesn’t appear, but “Story World” does. There Trudy writes, “Meaning is embedded in all kinds of forms and spaces, from shells to drawers to houses.”  From Truby’s point of view, “creating a unique world for the story…is as essential to great storytelling as character, plot, theme, and dialogue.”

At last, I feel the flicker of recognition. Truby’s right, there’s no hierarchy, just an intimate connection between people and place. I feel a new license with the details that keep rising in my mind, a freedom to let them take me where they want to go. Many of the places I visualize no longer exist, destroyed by the wrecking ball to make way for high-rise apartment buildings and supermarkets. But many—Benjamin Franklin’s statue in North Beach’s Washington Square Park, the rose garden in Golden Gate Park, Dewy Monument in Union Square—remain. The pace of my writing picks up, but not all that much. Writing, no matter how you cut it, is hard. What changes most are the words I use. No, not setting, not backdrop, I tell students and myself, but world. A word with seemingly endless possibilities, a word you could walk around in, climb a tree, or float from a cloud, then maybe settle down and finish a book.

Amazingly, two years later, I do.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Can Literature Make Us Better People?

In 2012, the novelist Toni Morrison gave a lecture titled “Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination” at Harvard Divinity School. Prompted, she says, by the response of the Amish community to the 2006 school shooting (in which a young man lined up 10 girls along the blackboard in a small, one-room schoolhouse, and shot them), Morrison set out to understand the nature of goodness, particularly the role goodness plays in literature. For Morrison, the community’s “silence following that slaughter, along with their very deep and sincere concern for the killer’s family, seemed to me at the time characteristic of genuine goodness, and so I became fascinated […] with the term, and its definition.”

What follows in Morrison’s lecture is a familiar discussion of theories of altruism and goodness: goodness as taught and learned; goodness as a form of narcissism and ego-enhancement; goodness as genetics, as instinctual love of one’s group. Her innovation is to refract and reimagine these definitions through the prism of literature and its uses. For Morrison, the great failing of contemporary literature—and this seems especially convincing to me—is the way in which its opposite, evil (in all its legion disguises), is the object of far more sustained attention:

Evil has a blockbuster audience. Goodness lurks backstage. Evil has vivid speech, and goodness bites its tongue […].

Evil grabs the intellectual platform and all of its energy. It demands careful examinations of its consequences, its techniques, its motives, its successes, however short-lived or challenged. Grief, melancholy, missed chances for personal happiness, often seem to be contemporary literature’s concept of evil. It hogs the stage; goodness sits in the audience and watches, assuming it even has a ticket to the show.

I begin with Morrison’s discussion of goodness because her claims describe and clarify a problem I have felt keenly as a reader and critic. Afraid, at times, to balk at a text simply on account of its manifold perversities and essentializing narratives about humankind’s inevitable ugliness (afraid, that is, of being caught doing something like moralizing or finger-wagging), I see in Morrison’s words an opening: a way into narrative that takes claims of goodness seriously.

coverAt the end of Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, Claudia—the young narrator of much of the novel—reflects on the failure of marigolds to flower that year. In the novel, marigolds stand in for the broken and abused Pecola Breedblove, who bears her own father’s child, and yearns impossibly for the beauty and saving promise of blue eyes:

I even think now that the land of the entire country was hostile to marigolds that year. This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers; certain seeds it will not nurture; certain fruit it will not bear. And when the land kills of its own volition we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live. We are wrong, of course. But it doesn’t matter. It’s too late. At least, on the edge of my town, among the garbage and sunflowers of my town, it is much, much, much too late.

Claudia’s insight—while not blind to the ravages of a very real and enduring evil—is not a trivial one. Claudia and her sister have spent the entire novel surrounded by an internecine racism of assured ugliness that is rehearsed by their community, and reinforced by the broader culture. By the end of the novel, Pecola’s swollen belly ensures her separateness: she operates as a locus for the community’s own self-loathing and learned forms of self-disgust. But despite these social pressures, Claudia comes to understand that it is not the failure of the marigolds—and thus not the failure of Pecola—but instead, it is the soil that is bad. It is much too late for Pecola, of course. But not for Claudia.

This moment of realization—which is really the slow accrual of understanding that morphs into a kind of witness—provides an example of Morrison’s particular understanding of what must be involved in the production of goodness in literature: that is, the acquisition of self-knowledge. Morrison ends her lecture with these words about the closing paragraph of The Bluest Eye:

Expressions of goodness are never trivial in my work, and never incidental in my writing. In fact, I want them to have life-changing properties, and to illuminate decisively the moral questions embedded in the narrative. It was important to me that none of these expressions of goodness be handled as comedy, or irony, and they are seldom mute. Allowing goodness its own speech does not annihilate evil, but it does allow me to signify my own understanding of goodness: the acquisition of self-knowledge […]. Such insight has nothing to do with winning, and everything to do with the acquisition of knowledge: knowledge on display in the language of moral clarity, of goodness.

Recognizing Goodness

coverIn the last few decades, theorists of literature have begun (again) to take seriously the ways in which we, readers, use literature. According to Rita Felski in The Uses of Literature (2008), “more and more critics are venturing to ask what is lost when a dialogue with literature gives way to a permanent diagnosis, when the remedial reading of texts loses all sight of why we are drawn to such texts in the first place.” The goodness of Morrison’s work—the seriousness of its aims, and the quality of its expression—does not exist solely within the text itself, but operates experientially: something happens to us as readers when Claudia has her moment of genuine self-realization. And what is that seemingly inexpressible thing that occurs when these consciousnesses that we inhabit as readers are irrevocably changed? Our dialogue with literature is, of course, multiple, and complex, and liable to give way under the weight of manifold pressures. I don’t believe reading should be viewed as merely transactional, where the text operates as a kind of bank from which we withdraw forms of knowledge. (The Bluest Eye does not exist to tell us what racism was like in prewar Ohio, for instance.) But our identification with Claudia—our inhabiting of her perspective—is not incidental to understanding what literature does. The acquisition of self-knowledge—Morrison’s hopeful vision of goodness—is a felt reality in the moment of reading.

Felski’s term for this “felt reality” is “recognition,” which she admits may invite derision. She writes that any engagement with this category of feeling is often “spurned as unseemly, even shameful, seen as the equivalent of a suicidal plunge into unprofessional naïveté,” adding that we “risk trivializing and limiting the realm of art once we start turning texts into mirrors of ourselves.” But recognition, for Felski, is vital for understanding the complex and “mobile interplay of exteriority and interiority” that reading entails, where “something that exists outside of me inspires a revised or altered sense of who I am.” It is possible to think about the closing lines of The Bluest Eye as something more than bleak resignation. Claudia’s self-knowledge—the goodness in striving to apprehend Pecola apart from the ugliness of her situation; the recognition that systems of racial oppression are rooted in the soil of America—is a knowledge formed within a consciousness that is dense, and fully realized, and with which my own interior life has been—for a time—intermingled. The goodness of this moment is revelatory and hopeful: for Claudia, but also, in some sense, for me.

Thinking about the recognition of goodness—both its artistic seriousness in literary expression, and its felt reality—isn’t exactly familiar ground for me as an academic working in the field of literature. It doesn’t always seem possible to be rigorous about something as invisible as a “felt reality,” while also avoiding the trap of didacticism: here is what you must learn from this work. And all the worse when it is something as saccharine, sentimental, and unlikely as goodness. But Morrison’s fiction substantializes goodness, making manifest what might elsewhere appear as hopefulness or naïveté, depending on your position: the possibility that people can grow more expansive through genuine and generous connection with the other, even when that other is imagined. Indeed, especially when that other is imagined. In an essay titled “Imagination and Community,” the novelist Marilynne Robinson writes that community (by which she means any community “larger than the immediate family”) is largely comprised of “imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.” This imaginative love, for Robinson, comes close to expressing the wordless exchange that occurs in the act of reading:

I have spent literal years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of—who knows it better than I?—people who do not exist. And, just as writers are engrossed in the making of them, readers are profoundly moved and also influenced by the nonexistent, that great clan whose numbers increase prodigiously with every publishing season. I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.

coverTaking Morrison’s valorization of goodness as my starting point—and conceding the possibility that reading such texts might be generative of that selfsame goodness—I want to highlight one striking instance in George Saunders’s first novel, the Man Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), where the literalization of recognition leads to the possibility of goodness. Saunders has received an impressive amount of media attention in the last few years—including guest spots on late shows and the requisite viral commencement address video—and, particularly in the wake of a much-shared piece on Trump for The New Yorker, the writer has accrued a kind of oracle-status: a generous, self-effacing public figure who can be relied upon to articulate what is unalterably wrong about America, while also pointing to ways in which art might provide a way out of the mess. In a recent interview with Zadie Smith (whose book-cover quote for Lincoln in the Bardo labels Saunders “a morally passionate, serious writer), Smith notes that “if he [Saunders] were just a vicious satirist, he would still be enjoyable, but what sets him apart is his willingness not only to go into the heart of darkness but to suggest possible routes out.” Like Morrison, Saunders’s work never papers over forms of violence, nor sentimentalizes systemic injustices, but instead offers a more generous vision of human fallibility. Those “possible routes out” are not always in the form of salvation for his characters—who are, generally speaking, socially or economically on the periphery—and often they reinforce the ever-widening gap between those on the inside and those without.

In one such story, “Puppy,” a trailer-park mother is reported to Child Services for tethering her disabled son to a tree. The story swerves between the narrative perspectives of two mothers: Callie, a poor woman living out in cornfields on an interstate, whose solution to her obviously-cherished son’s proclivity to self-violence is to fashion a harness to keep him safe; and Marie, a newly middle-class mother of two on the way to purchase a white-trash puppy, whose memories of her own impoverished childhood fill her with righteous indignation and pity at the sight of the chained boy. At the end of story, the perspectives converge and report on the same event—first Marie and then Callie—and Callie’s obliviousness to Marie’s intentions imbues her final words with brutal irony:

The boy came to the fence. If only she could have said to him, with a single look, Life will not necessarily always be like this. Your life could suddenly blossom into something wonderful. It can happen. It happened to me.

But secret looks, looks that conveyed a world of meaning with their subtle blah blah blah—that was all bullshit. What was not bullshit was a call to Child Welfare, where she knew Linda Berling, a very no-nonsense lady who would snatch this poor kid away so fast it would make that fat mother’s thick head spin.


Like Bo wasn’t perfect, but she loved him how he was and tried to help him get better. If they could keep him safe, maybe he’d mellow out as he got older. If he mellowed out, maybe he could someday have a family. Like there he was now in the yard, sitting quietly, looking at flowers. Tapping with his bat, happy enough. He looked up, waved the bat at her, gave her that smile. Yesterday he’d been stuck in the house, all miserable. He’d ended the day screaming in bed, so frustrated. Today he was looking at flowers. Who was it that thought up that idea, the idea that had made today better than yesterday? Who loved him enough to think that up? Who loved him more than anyone else in the world loved him?


She did.

Saunders offers no simple solution to this chaotic meeting of consciousnesses—the mother will in all likelihood be reported; the puppy is unbought and left shivering in the middle of a cornfield—but what is generated in the reader through this fusion of perspectives is something akin to Morrison’s vision of goodness as self-knowledge. Faced with two compelling and richly articulated inner lives, judgment of either mother gives way to a stunned silence: they were both right, both wrong. In the world of “Puppy,” these two points-of-view are irreconcilable, but our inhabitation of each perspective affords us the rare chance to genuinely perceive—and live within—competing ways of seeing the same moment. Felski notes that while we already possess the knowledge that people such as Marie and Callie have rich inner lives—and thus have more complicated reasons for acting as they do—recognition in reading involves re-experiencing, and often reevaluating, what we know:

Recognition is not repetition; it denotes not just the previously known, but the becoming known. Something that may have been sensed in a vague, diffuse, or semi-conscious way now takes on a distinct shape, is amplified, heightened, or made newly visible.

coverSaunders’s attention to the inner lives of his characters—and the ways in which these points-of-view oscillate within his stories—operates as a kind of formal device for producing recognition in the reader. Joshua Ferris—in his introduction to Saunders’s first story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline—writes that this quality of Saunders’s writing produces an unusual expansiveness in the reader:

He teaches us not only how to write but how to live. He sets the bar and also the example. He hopes we might see the possibility of our better selves and act on it. He seems sent—what other way to put it?—to teach us mercy and grace.

A Haunting Sense of Goodness

But it is in Lincoln in the Bardo that Saunders gets closest to communicating fiction’s unexpected capacity for producing goodness through these moments of recognition. Saunders’s first novel is characteristically strange, inventing a novel-form that draws on a gamut of historical texts that interweave epigraphically with the narrative’s multiple voices. Provoked by a story about Abraham Lincoln cradling the body of his dead son, Willie Lincoln, Saunders repurposes historical sources as literary voices that tell the “true story” about the death of the president’s son. These epigraphs make up around half the narrative, a multiplicity of voices long since deceased, but revocalized through Saunders’s telling. A countervailing narrative is told from the perspective of the plaintive and unassuaged ghosts of the unwilling deceased, voices from the Bardo (a strange, liminal space between life and death) who live out the repetitions, failures, regrets, and self-deceptions of their past lives, and who are startled into action by the the extraordinary and unimaginable affection Lincoln shows to his son’s body:

To be touched so lovingly, so fondly, as if one were still—

roger bevins iii


hans vollman

As if one were still worthy of affection and respect?
It was cheering. It gave us hope.

the reverend everly thomas

We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.

roger bevins iii

It is not simply the polyphony of competing voices that opens up the possibilities for comprehending goodness in Lincoln in the Bardo. Rather than locate the reader within these multiple perspectives, Saunders unmoors the speaker and the speech act, attributing dialogue from one character to another’s voice, as well as ventriloquizing the many voices of his historical sources. But it is in one extraordinary formal invention that Saunders invents a mode of writing that literalizes the experience of becoming a multitude in the act of reading. It is this invention that I believe has the capacity to generate goodness in the reader off the page, though it is difficult to articulate. Saunders’s ghosts learn that in inhabiting the body of the living, they become them, to a degree: it is not merely that the living person’s thoughts are revealed, but also something more fundamental about their being. When two ghosts—hans vollman and roger bevins iii—enter together into Abraham Lincoln, this is what they describe:

There was a touch of prairie about the fellow.

hans vollman


roger bevins iii

Like stepping into a summer barn late at night.

hans vollman

Or a musty plains office, where some bright candle still burns.

roger bevins iii

Vast. Windswept. New. Sad.

hans vollman

Spacious. Curious. Doom-minded. Ambitious.

roger bevins iii

Back slightly out.

hans vollman

Right boot chafing.

roger bevins iii

This inhabiting works as a kind of radical empathy—identification that blurs self and other, where feeling with another shifts into feeling as the other—and before long the ghosts speak in union, shifting from first to third-person narration. Upon leaving Lincoln, this blending of selves lingers, and each ghost—at one point in the novel it is a multitude—finds themselves irrevocably altered by the experience:

My God, what a thing! To find oneself thus expanded!

hans vollman

How had we forgotten? All of these happy occasions?

the reverend everly thomas

To stay, one must deeply and continuously dwell upon one’s primary reason for staying; even to the exclusion of all else.

roger bevins iii

One must be constantly looking for opportunities to tell one’s story.

hans vollman

(If not permitted to tell it, one must think it and think it.)

the reverend everly thomas

But this had cost us, we now saw.

We had forgotten so much, of all else we had been and known.

roger bevins iii

But now, through this serendipitous mass co-habitation—

the reverend everly thomas

We found ourselves (like flowers from which placed rocks had just been removed) being restored somewhat to our natural fullness.

roger bevins iii

Saunders’s ghosts concretize the experience of recognition that Felski theorizes, where the exterior and interior give way to the possibility of radical alteration. And this is an alteration that Morrison would describe as goodness in the form of an acquisition of self-knowledge. These ghosts, previously trapped in a solipsism of dread or self-deception, are liberated from the Bardo state, freed through a profound moment of self-knowledge that is achieved through this multiplicity of selves. This liberation strikes me as the literalizing of that moment of expansiveness that we sometimes, if only graspingly, achieve, as readers. As works of art pass through us, or us through them. In a recent talk, Saunders reflected on the possibilities of this kind of response to art in the Trump moment:

I’m sure many of you feel, as I do, that the best person you have been been […] is when you are in the thrall of some beautiful work of art. Suddenly you are not just you: you are everybody. […]. We have to fight against the sort of aggressive banality that seems to be so current. And we have to stand up for this thing that we have known in our best moments is the best of us.

Reading, as Saunders explores in Lincoln in the Bardo, operates as a kind of possession: inhabiting the perspective of these imagined and imaginative communities—and, likewise, being inhabited by those selfsame perspectives—opens up possibilities of transformative identification, not only within the work of art, but also off the page. If, like Morrison, we take seriously the claims of goodness that works of literature make—claims that needn’t divert from ugliness, and indeed often illuminate systems of injustice—then our time spent in fictional spaces is hardly wasted. Alteration is not inevitable, of course. Identification can devolve into narcissism. But, like Claudia in The Bluest Eye, we are offered—through reading—new and more generous ways of seeing others, and our world. We hope that it isn’t too late.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Who is Greek?

Last week, Greeks and people of Greek descent around the world commemorated the events of October 28, 1941, a day not remembered as a revolution or victory, but a day of saying no—literally. Called “Oxi Day,” the holiday memorializes the fateful moment when Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas curtly said “No” to Mussolini’s plans to invade Greece.

In saying no, Metaxas sent his country to war with Fascist Italy, whose army underestimated the tiny but furious Greek military. The Greeks, exhaustion and embittered by recent defeat, rallied and soon astounded the world and routed the Italians back to Albania—a blow that dealt the Axis its first defeat of World War II. Astonished and inspired, the Allied leaders poured forth encomiums on the Greeks, with Winston Churchill famously saying that henceforth, “We will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks!”

Fiercely proud of this day (and of Churchill’s quote in particular), Greeks around the world hold parades and other formal events. For the first time, this year in Athens an Afghan immigrant carried the flag at the front of the Athenian parade—a symbol of the sea change to Greek demography after years of global instability and subsequent waves of migration. But his carrying the flag shouldn’t be surprising and it should be a cause to celebrate the Greekest of Greek things—of voyaging out and coming back and going again.

Since antiquity, cultures upon cultures have passed through the sieve of Greece, which subsumed them all under a mantel of “Hellene” that’s come to mean so many different things in its three millennia of history. That sieving has never really stopped, certainly not in the last 40 years when Greece became firmly European and, thus, a destination for migrants from Africa, the other Balkan states, and now the Middle East (and Turkey and China, mostly on “golden visas”). At the same time, “ethnic” Greeks have left the country in droves, often unwillingly, to find work.

From this perspective, it seems appropriate that this young Afghan boy should be at the helm of the Oxi Day parade. Yet it was bound to be a flashpoint from the beginning: for decades, Greek nationalists like the fascist Golden Dawn party have fumed at “non-Greeks” carrying the blue-and-white, such as when an Albanian student was given the honor, on account of being top of the class. For these fascists, but also for other Greeks who cling to a unitary, essential Greekness, it is unconscionable that a non-Greek would carry the flag on this Greekest of days. After all, Oxi Day was a triumph of Greekness, as Churchill said.

In saying so, Churchill inadvertently apprehends a paranoia, a simultaneous pride and shame, a yearning placelessness, a paradox that haunts global Greekness, and that perhaps come into focus in the modern mythmaking of Oxi Day. In the literature of the Greek diaspora, particularly the Greek-American diaspora, these forces come into being clearly, and corroborate much of my own experience.

As a queer third-generation Greek-American, I’ve lately felt particularly under the assault of oxi. For one, Australia’s gay marriage plebiscite has dredged up the deeply held but discreet homophobia of some people in the diaspora, a significant portion of which has ties to Australia. That silt thickens the already sludgy waters I’ve waded through my whole life, and, most recently, when I turned to my ancestral Orthodox church for aid in the aftermath of abuse, despite its apathy (or in Russia, outright aggression) toward anyone who isn’t cisgendered and straight. Last month, this apathy became antipathy in Greece when the progressive government simplified the process for trans people to change their legal genders.

This double marginalization puts me beyond an Albanian front of identity politics, where I’m quartered with ever more people who are pushed out by the oxi of an essential Greekness. It adds to the experience of being extraneous that I had growing up. I didn’t have the stereotypical Greek-American childhood—the one that comes with supplemental Greek language school, Greek vacations each summer, and spit-roasted lamb spinning in my backyard on Easter Sundays. So when I went to college (one I picked deliberately because of its Modern Greek language program), I committed myself to making up for lost time, and I immediately joined the Greek American Student’s Association, intent on acquiring the Greekness I didn’t really grow up with

To mark my debut, I signed up to celebrate Oxi Day with all of the other Greek-Americans, most of whom were, unlike me, the full-blooded, fluent-speaking financiers- and physicians-in-the-making that comprise much of the third and fourth generation Greek diaspora. Together, we painted a mural of the Greek flag on the off-campus wall designated for things like that, embellishing it with quotes and taking selfies while the older students and “off-the-boat Greeks” chatted in fluent Greek I couldn’t understand. No matter to us that other eager student groups would paint over this mural by the next day, at the latest. What we were doing nevertheless had the weight of a sacrament, of summoning up and solemnly honoring Greekness itself.

This essentialism—a belief in something like a Platonic form of Greekness—inflects all the received wisdom about who and what is considered Greek. Oxi Day, in particular, operationalizes this idea by turning Metaxas’s rejection of Italy into an outstanding example of an essential Greek spirit—one fatally devoted to the fatherland and to the cultural heritage it generated.

A deeper look at the metaphor finds that the first cause of Greekness itself is the land – and not just the territory of the modern Greek state, but also the ancestral possessions across western Anatolia, the Black Sea, Alexandria, and even as far north as the Danube. Nostalgia for the artificially, aggressively erased Greek presence in these places—for example, the city of Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey)—and bitterness at the blunders that led to it ache through Greek Diaspora literature.

coverThe best example of this tendency is Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, in which the “Asia Minor Catastrophe” is the pretext of the whole story. Calliope/Cal Stephanides’s grandparents (brother and sister) are refugees of the disastrous Greek-Turkish War of the early 1920s, which forced them from their ancestral Anatolian village and straight into the Aegean, where they board a ship as the city of Smyrna burns. Throughout the book, Calliope/Cal comes back to this tale and its implications, and at various points, mentions returning to Anatolia to come full circle, but never does.

More specifically, Cal refers to his intersex gene coming full circle, of wanting “to get it down for good: this rollercoaster ride of a single gene through time.”  The synecdoche shows a fundamental split between being a Greek body and being a Greek subject—a symptom of a mythologized essentialism that makes the task of determining one’s Greekness into one of making maps (identities) fit onto territories (bodies).

This synecdoche also shows up in some of David Sedaris’s early work, specifically in the essay, “I Like Guys.” One summer, he travels with his older sister and a gaggle of other young Greek-Americans to a summer camp on a Greek island for “instruction in such topics as folk singing and something called ‘religious prayer and flag.’”

There, he planned to “re-invent” himself and perhaps find a girlfriend, putting paid to his emerging gay desire. In reality, he ended up with constipating anxiety, perhaps on account of the performative masculinity of his male roommates, writing he “never once had a bowel movement” during the month-long trip. He also encounters another emerging queer, Jason, who spites David after a too-close-for-comfort bit of tumbling. Joining forces with the other guys, Jason torments David, and then gets a girlfriend himself, “cured.”

At the surface, it’s just a funny story of a backfired first foray into gay adolescent sex, but to a Greek-American reader, its coded in a way that almost perfectly inverts Greek-American tropes. The summer camp young David attends with his sister in Greece is almost undeniably the “Ionian Village” summer program, which the Greek Orthodox archdiocese administers for Greek-American kids up through age 18. Here, then, is an instance of the Orthodox Church—a de facto steward of ethnic Greekness—processing the pubescent bodies of diaspora Greeks into idealized Hellenic youths, fed and watered with Greece’s own famous sea and summer light.

If that’s its aim, then Ionian Village tends to achieve it, based on what I understand from friends (I never attended). People I know praise it, gushing about how it pulls Greek-American youth together around their shared identity, and I don’t doubt it has influenced more than a handful of alumni to marry one another. In Sedaris’s subversive rewriting of the tale, a queer diaspora Greek body goes to this same place only to awaken an unambiguously homosexual eros that was, prior to the trip, still sealed in the proverbial wine cask like the Aeolian winds. Arriving home, he stares at himself: “I like guys. The words had settled themselves into my features.”

The question lingers: did the trip arouse what it was intended to suppress? So while the Greek Establishment effectively said oxi to young David’s queer-bodied Greekness—in the form of marginalization, unrequited love, and prolonged constipation—at the Ionian Village, in writing his story, he too, says oxi to the Establishment contours of Greekness, writing a new possibility for Greek diaspora identity into discourse.

The ongoing renegotiation of Greekness in these texts plays out in the lived politics of Greekness, too. For most of recorded history, Greek identity was conferred on Greek speakers who lived a Greek way of life, until it became a slur for pagans and pretenders to Roman glory during the 1,000-year era of the Byzantine Empire. After the Fall of Constantinople, it became a collective term for any Christian Ottoman subject. Even in 1923, when the League of Nations brokered the biggest mass population exchange in history between Greece and Turkey, ethnicity was by and large equated with one’s religion.

In the almost 100 years since, this reification along linguistic and religious axes left a legacy that still, today, limits the field of Greekness. Ask any diaspora Greek, and you’ll find that “Greekness” almost automatically implies an inherited knowledge of the Greek language and initiation into the (Greek) Orthodox Church. In light of this history, Greekness was already a complex category of identity whose interstices were aggressively policed with negations and denials—with oxi—well before the modern Greek state came into being in 1830 (for the first of several times up through 1974).

As the diaspora grows, thanks to the hopefully slowing but still severe brain drain from the neoliberal impact-crater of the Greek economy, its members increasingly come under attack as not Greek enough, even though they—and the support they send back to Greece—have been deemed essential to the economic recovery of the country.

Even within the diaspora itself, it’s easy to encounter one arbitrator of authentic Greekness or another, someone who’s eager to say oxi to your claim to a part of your identity you never asked for, but that’s there all the same—one that you might even love. Often these oxis come down to one’s mastery of the notoriously difficult and poorly standardized Greek language, to one’s number and intensity of immediate family or business connections to Greece, and even to one’s genealogical Greekness. Whatever the goalpost may be, it seems to be migrating more often than not.

All the instability and policed permeability of modern Greekness manifest distinctly in Oxi Day. The event that’s today celebrated as a shining moment in Greek history starts to break down with a sober look at the facts of what actually happened in 1941. It’s true that historians mark the event as the first Allied victory for the war, and credit it with averting the German army from an early attack on Russia. In retrospect, then, it’s tempting to read Oxi Day as the day a strategic Iphigenia was sacrificed on a Greek altar. However, at the time, Metaxas’s choice to say no made for a particularly brutal period in Greek history that’s still paying dividends.

While the German army was surprised by the Greek resistance (Adolf Hitler later commended the Greeks for putting up the best fight so far), the Germans eventually broke through the Greek front and ultimately established control over the rocky little country. Installing a puppet government in Athens, the Germans instituted a brutal regime of reprisal killings for extortion, and contributing to the loss of 10 percent of the population by the end of the war—the highest of any state in Europe.

In that sense, Metaxas’s defiant oxi was a Pyrrhic victory, a catastrophic election of principle over expediency whose consequences are still visible in Greek demands for German reparations, which still float to the surface from time to time. Furthermore, it was not the valiant attempt of a good-hearted philosopher-king to shield the embers of democracy from fascism. By most accounts, Metaxas himself was a fascist who admired Mussolini’s strong-man politics and who was also an aspirational führer who seized absolute power over Greece through maneuvers more commonly associated with Hitler himself.

Neither was the Greece he ruled at the time a haven of democracy. First of all it was a monarchy, and had been so (off and on) since its liberation a century earlier, when a Bavarian boy-king became the first head of the new Greek state. The monarchy had recently been restored, and in 1941 symbolically ruled through Metaxas over a crippled Greece still reeling from the loss of ancestral Hellenic territory in 1923.

By 1941, it had become a tiny synthetic nation swollen with Anatolian Greeks who spoke different dialects of Greek, and perhaps no Greek at all—far from the golden Hellenic homeland rhapsodized in the mythology of Oxi Day. What’s more is that he never even said oxi on that morning. Speaking in French, he tersely stated, “Well, we’ll have a war,” and it was only later that outraged citizens began chanting oxi in the streets.

Today, in other streets and other countries, under the essential Greekness that’s paraded on Oxi Day there is a complicated, contradictory identity constantly in a state of panic, an ongoing oxi volley between self and other. While these dynamics don’t do much in the way of distilling an original, essential Greekness, I do think there is something essential to Oxi Day.

It’s not so much an innate Hellenic spirit as it is the mutative mythmaking that’s made it possible for people of all kinds to be able to call themselves Greek across the millennia. The details of Oxi Day congeal into a myth that points to something more than memory or fact. By virtue of this power, myth might be the greatest legacy of the Greeks and the most productive of Greek ruses: it motivates the search for truths, essences, Platonic forms of things like Greekness.

Those searches bear material fruit in the form of art and cultural artifacts, like the complex literature of the Greek diaspora, some of whose writers wrestle in their stories with the myth of Greekness, working out an answer on the queer bodies of characters who identify as Greek differently from how they are supposed to. When confronted with the rubric of mythic Greekness, they respond firmly with oxi, opening up space in the sprawling field of Greekness for another new identity.

In doing so, they show how Greekness’s longevity never came from its essence, rather, from its porousness. This seems poignant, and perhaps emblematic: at the site of ancient Delphi, the omphalos, the “navel of the world,” a wall of oddly shaped polygons, interlocked without any mortar, had endured earthquakes and the erosion of centuries. Almost everything else has been crumbled or carted away to museums, where, for Greeks and non-Greeks alike, they signify the things we used to have, but don’t anymore.

Image Credit: Wikipeda

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Books Out of Place

The house vomits everything a family has accumulated over three decades. Appliances, utensils, tchotchkes, forgotten photographs, important documents—everything has to be packed away. Everything impinges on them, whining to be replaced, put back out of sight, left alone.

coverAs we make piles to help my partner’s parents sort through their effects the day before their kitchen will be demoed, his father stumbles across a basket full of books—Native Son catches my eye. Uncle, can I have it? He glances at the book, wondering why he’s still holding onto it. My partner’s parents have reached the end of their patience. It would be simpler to throw everything away, rather than figure out what’s worth saving. As more books resurface, uncle says, Rajat, you want this; I’m not sure whether it’s a question.

The next day, my partner bristles at the books I cart home from the Performing Arts library, a few blocks from our apartment. I hold them the way my school librarian showed my third-grade class—palm cupping the spine, spine facing down. I set them in a cubby near my desk, next to books they may never have met or brushed up against before. My goal is to reorganize them, remove them from the system of classification inflicted upon them by the library. The essay I may write using some or none of these books feels like a dinner party I’m hosting—which books will play nice with one another? Which books will start up an argument?

More books? my partner asks. So dusty! He’s resigned to the fact that I’ve never taken to using the iPad he gave me years ago. I once saw a booger fall out of a library book when I was a kid. Now I’m traumatized, he says.

I roll my eyes—our little joke. I apologize for the lean of our shelves, which the previous tenants had affixed to the walls, a lean that seems to get more precarious each week. Without any shelf space these days, I try maintain tidy piles of magazines, printouts, and books, on the floor, piles that grow taller by the day. I know when I’m ready for each book I acquire. I touch it and feel it. But until then, the stacks become shakier. All the while, I pretend they’re not on the floor.

The Old English word “dustsceawung” means, literally, “a contemplation of dust.” It’s an understanding not of what’s been lost, or the transience of things, but of how the past persists in the present. To consider dust, however, is also to consider the work left to do with things that impinge on us. Dust collects because I haven’t circulated in a book’s ideas, or had a chance to let their words inhabit me.

What is it about books left on the sidewalk that makes me weep? As Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “In the highest civilization, the book is still the highest delight.” I take it upon myself to pluck used books off a stranger’s stoop or from a trash can lid. This is how they sneak into my life, crawling with traces of the people who held them in the past, who touched them, who were touched by them. Strangers, like germs, cling to the pages of the books I steal for myself.

Books don’t belong on the floor, my mother always said to me. For South Asians, the logic is twofold: books are considered sacred objects, as vessels of knowledge; and two, our feet are considered unclean. We keep books off the ground, above where our feet travel. This responsibility toward books confers on them a quiet dignity. Accidently grazing a book with my foot today makes me shudder—I instinctively reach for it, touching it to my forehead as if to offer an apology, a little idiosyncrasy I’ve even performed in public. I promise myself I’ll treat books well, for they’ve done the same for me.

Books left on the street are contaminated on account of their not belonging there. For the anthropologist Mary Douglas, writing in 1966, “dirt” is that which a society considers out of place. What we deem dirty demonstrates how we draw the boundary between what we think of as sacred and profane. Accordingly, things became polluted because they find themselves existing outside of a neat category. We avoid pollution for its potentially threatening effects on us. Douglas’s idea maps neatly onto the South Asian construct of dirt that I grew up adhering to.

Most Saturday mornings, I’m woken up by the sounds of the garbage truck as it churns outside my building. Glass bottles shatter as they’re crushed, and the truck lets out a low grumble, its belly full on the things that have exhausted their value, that no longer give us pleasure. As I climb out of bed and see the stack of books on my nightstand, I wonder whether any books have been left downstairs, and what future awaits them. No one would leave a book to be thrown away and compacted, would they? The sanitation workers are attentive and considerate. They wouldn’t let such a fate befall a book.

In the afternoon, my partner and I pass long tables on Broadway piled high with bargain books. I wonder where they all came from, and why I don’t spend more time sifting through them. They’ve been spared the violence of dumpsters and compactors. Kind Haitian men sit next to them, never interested in helping you finding what you’re looking for, but always available for a friendly chat. I’m not even sure I’m looking for anything in particular. I twist around myself that I cannot approach these tables and locate anything for myself. The books lack order, or at least the curated appearance of a bookstore. The burden falls to me to scan everything, or walk away empty-handed without trying.

September 1 feels like the most popular moving day in New York. Thousands of people either bid farewell to this city with a sigh of relief; arrive with trucks and boxes and high hopes to be welcomed here; or are simply—not so simply—moving from one part of New York to another. This new neighborhood will be more bearable than their old one as long as it feels fresh.[1] For days before and after September 1, the traces of our neighbors’ lives get tossed out and left behind. Near trash cans sit anxious heaps of books. I feel lucky that they aren’t discarded so much as displaced.

A friend who was visiting my partner and me asked me, one night, Who in New York is your person? Who can you count on for anything, even just for being lazy with on the couch? Her question pricked me. I realized I’ve spent almost a decade in New York with only one or two or three relationships like this. Some friends have moved away, others are near and we’ve let time fill the gaps between us. That night, my friend stirred something within me I didn’t know I yearned for.

Discarded, possibly contaminated books seem precious—even if I’ve never heard of the titles. They are the “unconsoled,” Arundhati Roy’s word—ever whining. But the possibility that books might rescue me is why I pluck them off the street. I protect them so that one day, they may save me.

Somewhere on the Upper West Side, I walked away from what must have been a decade of National Geographic magazines, with their canary-yellow spines neatly fanned out, catching the sunlight. The shade of yellow varied subtly from issue to issue, as if time in the sun had faded some issues left out on coffee tables and not others, the ones toted around in New Yorker canvas bags. I left them all behind, however, and walked away. If I couldn’t cart away all the issues, how could I choose just a few? I realized, a block later, that my logic was flawed: this treasure didn’t represent the full material output of the magazine since its founding. I should’ve just rescued what I could and let the rest go. I couldn’t save all of them.

A year later, on my way to the hair salon, I passed a handsome leather armchair in good condition that wouldn’t take much effort to bring home, with help. By the time I stepped out of my appointment, freshly shorn, a white boy was sitting smugly in my armchair. I presumed, with indignation, that he was waiting for a friend to give him a hand to get it off the street. Half an hour ago, it was trash. Then it was mine. Now, it disgusted me that I saw a stranger with his butt in something I’d wordlessly laid claim to.

covercovercoverBooks were never mine to buy. Still, I grew up in a house of books—a double-volume of Grimm’s’Fairy Tales in pistachio green and gold-flecked pages stands out in my mind. Even if I never saw my parents open their copy of The English Patient or Sons and Lovers, I came to respect books, never mishandling them, or casting them aside. I spent a summer with Vikram Seth’s 1,500-word tome A Suitable Boy, humbled to have borrowed something I didn’t own—both book and time; humbled to immerse myself in 1950s Delhi, the world my parents were born into, a world I’d never experience. Even the Yellow Pages had a place in our home, with its supple shape, its soft, onionskin pages bearing thousands of inches of digits. Parents who leave the South Asian subcontinent teach their children, a world away, an epoch later, how to save everything for an era to come. Kitchen countertops and coffee tables spill over with reading material. They teach us who we’ll become.

The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes of the mnemonic power of smell to conjure up childhood. With just a sniff, our past selves come flooding back to us. And the French noun sillage, from the verb meaning “to trail behind,” literally means the drift of perfume lingering in the air after a person departs. More poetically, perhaps, sillage is the subtle impression a person leaves behind. If a body can leave this trace, cannot the smell of an old book do so, too? Can selves pass from one body to another?

Hinduism may have taught me to treat books with respect, keep them off the floor, never throw them away. But according to Hindu philosophy, the soul lives many lives during its journey toward self-realization. During these rebirths, a soul passes from body to body until it’s eventually released, freed from the material world. How stirring, then, to consider books as liberated from their dusty covers, their words sent into the ethers. What could this mean other than the disembodied, sanitized iClouds that my partner urges me to pull my books down from?

Books represent our fundamental unwillingness to dispose of knowledge, as well as our desire to connect with one another. Do books ever wonder whether they’re going to better homes from the ones they came from? Do they delight in being chosen from a random heap? Do they smile when we crack open their pages, gazing on sentences we’ve never read, or sentences we’ve loved for years and they get to show us again, as if it were the first time?


[1] Since the days of colonial New York, May 1 used to be considered “Moving Day.” On this day, all leases in the city expired at 9 a.m., causing thousands of tenants to change their residence at the same time.

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