My essay “Bedtime Stories for Ghosts: Reading Aristotle to Coco Chanel and Other Encounters in a Massive Art Installation” is up on Electric Literature today! This piece has been in the works since the beginning of the common S E N S E, Ann Hamilton‘s show at the Henry Art Gallery in October 2014, evolving as the show evolved and growing stranger with each of my visits. It draws on Aristotle and J.A. Baker and Mercè Rodoreda and Rikki Ducornet and humming birds and egret capelets and more. (Not incidentally, the Coco Chanel egret capelet makes an appearance in my story “Cauliflower Tells You,” over on Monkeybicycle.) I’m excited to have my work in Electric Literature and am thankful to Kelly Luce for taking it on.
I’m grateful to have caught “How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth?”, Geoffrey Farmer‘s exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery this weekend. I had never heard of Farmer, and I was entranced. “The Last Two Million Years” is a collage sculpture that takes up an entire room, comprised of hundreds of figures meticulously cut from a found Reader’s Digest encyclopedia of the same title. I was awed not just at the amount of work that went into the installation, but the impulse to pin down layers of ephemera–not only tiny details in a vast history that feels impossible to contain but also the fleetingness of the found book itself, which stands eviscerated as you exit the room.
“The Surgeon and the Photographer” gathers images in a similar though more surreal manner, creating Dadaist characters from used books salvaged from a closed down used bookshop as well as fabrics. The sculptures are called puppets, suggesting one might inhabit them, give them voice and stories, and they’d be rich and complex stories indeed. Somehow this piece recalled for me a bizarre puppet movie I once saw as a tiny person, sitting alone in the attic in front of our old knobbed television tuned to a UHF channel. Faceless wooden mannequins sat chained in tubs of water and turned their heads, vaguely squeaking but unable to talk. I was utterly mesmerized and alarmed and had no idea what I was looking at.
The most thrilling installation for me was “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” — an eerie room filled with moving sculptures made of old movie props (lion heads, snakes with blue light bulb teeth), a haunting soundscape (bells, chimes, wind), and lights that shift from green to red to blue so that when it finally becomes white, the colors of the objects are almost a shock. The room is programmed to last the duration of an entire day, and I was very tempted to try and experience it for that long.
Alas, we did not spend the entire day there. After leaving the museum, we encountered a zombie-themed wedding and wondered if the square outside Vancouver Art Gallery has a similar function to New York’s Union Square. On the beach by English Bay, at sunset, we saw someone make enormous soap bubbles that shrieking children and adults alike chased to pop. We found a wonderfully curated independent bookstore called Pulp Fiction (I picked up The Dud Avocado and M picked up Wanderlust), and we watched a man train an enormous pit bull puppy on Kitsilano Beach with the help of beautiful red husky, and we gorged ourselves on Ukrainian, Malaysian, and Italian food. We also found time to just sit still and read. And, thanks to Geoffrey Farmer and all kinds of other stimuli, I wrote a poem, possibly the first I’ve written that I actually kind of like. Maybe I’ll even send it out. Art wins!
Diorama, by Rocío Cerón, is super rich and multilayered. Her long poem “13 Ways To Inhabit a Corner,” under the subtitle “Pinhole” speaks particularly to peering into something very closely. The looking is so careful, the sensual details so packed in, the poem demands and rewards multiple rereadings. Each of the 13 sections builds a particular atmosphere. In section I: “In the midst of a stampede, a hand rests on the arc of a kneecap. Cigar and smoke. Rosy cypress sleep.” And, in section VII: “Hills, clouds, boreal forest. Woman undressing on a frozen bed. Beneath the folds of her clothing a constellation of sleet.” As her translator Anna Rosenwong points out, the work is associative and hallucinatory. Other poems are more political. “DIY Instructions or the National Telluric” includes the line “civil disobedience breaks out but still the dead pile up” — a line that made me sit up out of the intense dream state of “13 Ways to Inhabit a Corner.” Diorama won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award, and it’s no wonder. It’s the sort of beautiful, meaty book you need to settle into, chew on, and revisit.
Whereas Diorama is experimental and gorgeous and challenging, Rilke Shake,by Angélica Freitas is more fun for everyone. Playful, energetic, and irreverent, Freitas takes references to poetry greats (Rilke, Keats, Gertrude Stein, etc.) and popular culture, and simply shakes. The work is sonically chewy: “I think about stravinski / and the beard of klaus kinski / and the nose of karabtchevsky / and a poem by joseph brodsky” she writes in the poem titled “what passed through the head of the violinist as he hurled toward his death against his black hair clutching his stradivarius in yesterday’s great air disaster”. She imagines bathing with Gertrude Stein, who “lets one loose under the water” and asks in “i can’t read the cantos”: “shall we free ourselves from ezra pound?” The poems do have poignant moments, such as in “sioban 4” where the speaker wonders: “does she think of me / does she also ask what happened // to the good girls of sodom, the ones who / always // kissed on the stairs / vanished in libraries / preferred to turn to salt?” I will be pushing Rilke Shake on many people. It’s too good to be missed.
I’ve been thinking a lot about affordable housing, as, I think, many others in Seattle have been. I think about it because I’m a writer with writer and artist friends, and I think about it because my husband manages an affordable housing program for more than 3,500 households in Seattle, and I think about it because I think it’s an all around important issue for everyone. I’m not going to rant about the need for more affordable housing–the need is obvious. But because I keep thinking about it, and because I know it’s hard to find and navigate, I gathered a few links to resources that are available right now:
- If you are single and make up to $40 k a year, check out these 100 buildings. Rents for studios run up to $1020 including utilities as fees. And income limits and rent restrictions vary by family size and unit type. Here’s a chart. More information about how the program works here.
- $1020 a month for a studio might still be too much. If the apartments above are out of your budget, check out Bellwether, Capitol Hill Housing, Central Area Development Association, Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association, Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority, SEED Housing. More here.
- If you are looking for artist live / work space, check this and this out. Also this and this.
- If you must leave your current apartment because your landlord is renovating, demolishing, or converting to condos, and if you income qualify, you are entitled to apply for tenant relocation assistance.
If you find this helpful, please do share this with anyone who needs it.
10:30 on a Summer Night operates at a slow boil. The noir-ish 80-page novella follows a French couple, Pierre and Maria, on vacation in Spain with their four-year-old daughter Judith and their friend Claire. The story opens with talk of a murder in the small town where they’ve landed, their plans to get to Madrid thwarted by a storm. Rodrigo Paestra, having killed his wife and her lover, is on the run. With that crime of passion in the background, tension between Pierre, Maria, and Claire builds, complemented by the landscape’s moody weather:
“The afternoon’s dark blue, oceanlike mass moved slowly over the town. It was coming from the east [….] The water that ran between their feet was filled with clay. The water was dark red, like stones of the town and the earth around it.”
Maria drinks manzanilla after manzanilla. Customers in a local cafe talk about the horror of Paestra’s crime while “eating, more or less heartily.” Like many tourists stuck in the town for the night, the family and Claire must sleep in a hotel hallway. In Maria’s wooziness, her thoughts drift between Paestra’s whereabouts (they say he’s on the rooftops), and the possible budding infidelity between Pierre and Claire. Her restlessness tears her from the claustrophobic hotel hallway, out into the wet night, looking for Paestra:
“He had gone around the chimney. Maria kept singing. Her voice clutched her throat. You can always sing. She couldn’t stop singing once she had started. He was there.”
The novella twists and turns into scarier and scarier landscapes.The extreme weather of the lightening storm is followed by extreme mid-day heat of the open country. Maria wonders, “What would you save, if you took Rodrigo Paestra to France?” The double love triangle leads to a bizarre chain of events I have no intention of spoiling. But the last image of the three adult travelers at a night club, finally in Madrid, watching a man with a “chalky laugh” singing with “loving, langurous, nauseous drunkenness,” evokes the complexity, the utter tangled thorniness, of this story.
I picked up Alexandra Kollontai’s Love of Worker Bees at Boneshaker Books during the AWP conference in Minneapolis. Usually, I skip a book’s introduction, dive right into the fiction, and read the introduction afterwards. Kollontai’s work is a rare look at the Russian Revolution, and since I’m also reading Dr. Zhivago, I wanted to get some background on her. This may have marred my reading experience.
The introduction made me crave reading more history, and perhaps Kollontai’s nonfiction. Her fiction served to illustrate the feminist causes she fought for, and so in reading the short story “Sisters” I felt biased against the artistry of the story, about “a deserted wife and a prostitute who find a common bond.” (Let me back up and say I think if the explicit aim of the writer is to illustrate a political cause, it would be more effective to write nonfiction. That isn’t to say fiction must be apolitical. Pretty much all art is political. I believe a fiction writer should make story primary. The politics arising out of the story tend to emerge in a more complex, satisfying way when you don’t set out to illustrate a specific agenda. Let the story drive.)
Set in the 1920s, “Sisters” is a frame story in which someone at a “delegates conference” is being confided in. The storyteller has left her husband, has nowhere to go, and fears she may have to resort to prostitution. After her daughter’s illness, she was laid off from her job. Her husband, an executive in a government trust company, has taken to coming home drunk. She would like to work and he would like her to stay home. Things get worse when their daughter dies; he brings prostitutes home. The woman is horrified, humiliated, ready to run the second prostitute out of their house–but she sees a desperation in this sad young woman’s eyes, and as they talk, realizes she is an educated young woman without money or shelter, starving, anguished. The storyteller realizes that if she hadn’t been married, she’d be in a similar situation. She leaves her husband and…is at risk at being in the same situation. The story illustrates a pressing issue that Kollontai had to fight for relentlessly, that women’s rights are an essential part of the revolution. She ended up in diplomatic exile for much of her adult life.
The story is affecting, in the way that if someone you met told you that story you would care and be concerned, and want to do something. So in this way, the story achieves a goal. However, the story is mostly told in summary, in the way that someone might relate their tale in real life, not told in scene, with the kind of sensory detail that draws you closer to the humanity of the characters. It feels one step removed. And so I didn’t love the story, and I wouldn’t press it upon anyone unless they were digging into the subject matter–the issues of feminism and Communism, the struggles of people living in Russia after the Revolution. I’ll add as another caveat that is the third piece in the book. I did not read the first two and do wonder if the book is “front loaded” with stronger stories. So take my lack of enthusiasm with a grain of salt, check it out if it intrigues you, and let me know what you think.
This series on Women in Translation continues next week with a Duras novella and will finish at the end of August with a couple surprise books of contemporary poetry, review copies I was delighted to receive in the mail.
Autumn, that busy literary season, starts a bit early for me, with three readings coming up this month, and more to follow September through December. As I promised on King 5’s New Day Northwest (!!!), I will channel a young Jack Nicholson in at least one reading this year.
- Wednesday August 19, 7:30 pm: Family Affair is a family-themed cabaret at the Rendezvous in Belltown. Jack Straw fellows Clare Johnson, Matthew Schnirman, Bernard Grant, Ross McMeekin, Jeanine Walker, and I will regale you with all things family.
- Thursday, August 27, 7 pm: Dock Street Salon at Phinney Books in Phinney Ridge/Greenwood. I’m reading alongside Angela Fountas. Prepare for a dark fairy tale.
- Friday, August 28, 7 pm: Jack Straw at the University Bookstore. Ross, Matthew, and I take on the U-District. After party on frat house row not included.
- Thursday, September 10, 6 pm: An extra special Jack Straw event at the It’s About Time Reading Series in Ballard, themed around Jack Straw, a leader of the English Peasant Revolt of 1381. These insurgent peasants traveled throughout southern England, gathering followers, opening prisons, killing lawyers and telling stories. As I’ll be reading an excerpt from my novel-in-progress Paralegal, I’ve been tasked with covering the “killing lawyers” portion of the evening. Martha Kreiner will give a craft talk on opening prisons. L.J. Morin and Clare Johnson will gather all the followers and tell all the stories.
- Thursday, October 22: Lit Crawl Seattle. Bazillions of writers take over the city. I’m excited to read at Alice Blue Books’ Shotgun Wedding event. Details TBA.
- Saturday, November 2, 2 pm: Jack Straw at the Central Library downtown. All 12 Jack Straw Super Stars read poetry and fiction nuggets of gold.
- Thursday, December 3, 7 pm: Pay Dirt at the Rendezvous in Belltown. To celebrate my 4Culture grant, I’ll be reading from my novel Paralegal alongside fellow Jack Straws Emily Bedard, Matthew Schnirman, Bernard Grant, and Martha Kreiner. We’ll dig up the dirt on art, money, desire, and making a living.
(No, I didn’t shamelessly tag a zillion things in this post…Okay, yes I did.)
For Women in Translation Month, I’m reviewing three novellas right here on this blog, as well as tweeting poetry in translation daily. The first of the three novellas is “Love in a Fallen City” by Eileen Chang. Stay tuned for a selection from Alexandra Kollontai’s Love of Worker Bees and Marguerite Duras’ “10:30 on a Summer Evening.”
Eileen Chang has long been on my to-read list. So when I learned about Women in Translation Month I put her at the top of my agenda. You may know her through Ang Lee’s adaptation of her 1979 novella Lust, Caution. Born in Shanghai in 1920, she straddled two radically different worlds. Translator Karen S. Kingbury writes in her introduction to Love in a Fallen City that “Chang’s worldly form of the sublime was achieved […] by viewing her father’s [aristocratic, traditional] Qing world from her mother’s [modern, Edwardian] perspective, but with an artist’s compassionate detachment.” This straddling of eras is apparent from the start of “Love in a Fallen City.” Liusu, a twenty-eight-year-old divorcee, struggles to live with her stifling family in Shanghai. Their clocks are literally one hour behind the rest of the city to “save daylight,” and, “The Bai household was a fairyland where a single day, creeping slowly by, was a thousand years in the outside world.”
When news of her ex-husband’s death arrives, her family tries to convince her to return to his family as his widow–thus relieving themselves of her burdensome presence. Rather bleakly, her elderly mother says, “Staying with me is not a feasible long-term plan. Going back is the decent thing to do. Take a child to live with you, get through the next fifteen years or so, and you’ll prevail in the end.” A matchmaker suggests Liusu find a new husband or become a nun and eventually convinces the Bai family to allow Liusu to travel with her to Hong Kong. There, the major conflict unfolds, when it becomes clear that Fan Liuyuan, “an overseas Chinese” had contrived to have Liusu come to Hong Kong. He wants “a real Chinese girl,” “never out of fashion,” and when she calls him a modern man he replies, “You say ‘modern,’ but what you probably mean is Western.” Their uncertain budding relationship takes Liusu into territory as ambiguous and unsettling as being a widow in her mother’s home, but with the frightening freedom of being more or less alone in a huge, unknown city.
Chang’s writing is intensely visual, influenced by modernism while maintaining sparkling clarity. On Hong Kong’s waterfront:
“it was a fiery afternoon, and the most striking part of the view was the parade of giant billboards along the dock, their reds, oranges, and pinks mirrored in the lush green water. Below the surface of the water, bars and blots of clashing color plunged in murderous confusion. Liusu found herself thinking that in a city of such hyperboles, even a sprained ankle would hurt more than it did in other places.”
Her binocular vision (to borrow the the title of Edith Pearlman‘s collection, another straddler of worlds) is the kind of perspective I find endlessly fascinating. The invasion of Hong Kong has serious repercussions for Liusu and Liuyuan’s future together. It’s the sort of widening out, from the deeply intimate to the global, that I love to encounter in fiction and strive to achieve in my own work. I’m so glad I finally got to this novella and look forward to reading the rest of the collection. “The Golden Cangue,” another novella in the volume, is translated by Chang herself–it’ll be a real treat to get a sense of how she viewed her own work and how it should feel in English.
For more Women in Translation Month goodness, check out Meytal Radziniski’s wonderful blog Biblibio.
- All Talk: Dialogue Intensive, a one-day class, meeting September 26, 1-5 pm.
- Second Helping: How Food Improves Your Fiction, a one-day class, meeting October 24, 1-5 pm.
- Visual Inspiration, a six-week class at the Henry Art Gallery, meeting Thursdays, 6-8 pm, September 17-October 29 (no class October 22–that’s Lit Crawl!)
I’m also happy to offer writing coaching. If you’re interested, email me at anca (dot) l (dot) szilagyi (at) gmail (dot) com, and tell me what you’re working on and what kind of coaching you are looking for, and we’ll go from there.