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“Violence, Porn, Curses,” a review of THE POLYGLOT LOVERS in The Seattle Review of Books

14 May

For the The Seattle Review of Books, I reviewed Lina Wolff’s novel The Polyglot Lovers, translated by Saskia Vogel. I feel I should clarify that “curses” refers to hexes, not mere expletives. Here’s how the review begins:

When I reach for literature in translation, I’m hoping to learn something about another culture, gain a new perspective. So, when I cracked open Lina Wolff’s The Polyglot Lovers, I prickled against how much American culture was front and center, with an epigraph from Stephen King, a narrator, Ellinor, who is part of a fight club inspired by Fight Club, and her boyfriend named “Johnny.” There’s a terse animosity between Ellinor and Johnny that reminded me of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. And their sexual routine — Johnny staring at Ellinor while she lies naked on the bed, legs spread — reminded me of the much-mocked scene in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, in which a wife asks her husband to fulfill a fantasy of being stared at like that until she orgasms.

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Going to AWP Without Really Going to AWP: A Post-AWP Report

2 Apr

This past weekend was my sixth time attending the AWP conference. My first was in New York in 2008, an overwhelming affair of 8,000 writers crammed into a couple Midtown hotels. That year, I sat on the floor beside a woman from Texas Tech who thought my plan to wait five years before getting an MFA was absurd. The next thing I knew, I was working as a paralegal to save money for graduate school, and by August 2009, I had a full ride to the University of Washington and Michael and I moved cross-country to Seattle. You could say that AWP changed our life pretty radically.

Over the years, we went to a smattering of conferences, but each year I went to fewer and fewer panels, as they tend to repeat and I learned you can only soak up so much information. In 2015 in Minneapolis, I mostly had lunch and dinner with friends, a most pleasant experience, but I’d realized the conference fee had been a waste. Next time, I resolved, I would go to AWP without going to AWP.

Last year in Tampa, with my novel just out, I didn’t get to do that. But *this* year, in Portland, it finally happened, and I highly recommend it to folks who’ve been around the AWP block. I was more relaxed. More hydrated! I had time to stay on top of my online teaching, so less stressed.

Now for some highlights:

Wednesday night, we started at The Old Portland, a wine bar owned by Courtney Taylor-Taylor of the Dandy Warhols. They only serve old French wine; I misheard the description of the Corsican rosé as “foggy” and enjoyed it very much; Michael enjoyed a ten-year-old red Bordeaux. Then, the very Portland-y (more stoner than twee Portlandia) bartender said, “Yeah, we don’t like advertise or anything,” and showed us the Odditorium, the band’s 10,000-foot “clubhouse,” where they rehearse, record, film music videos, and the like. It was cavernous and quiet. Michael, a big Dandy Warhols fan, was in heaven.

“Ice Cream,” the mono-print I made at VSC when I was sad that the ice cream shop had closed and there was no ice cream to be had.

Thursday afternoon, we went to the Vermont Studio Center alumni happy hour. I’d finished a first draft of Daughters of the Air there back in 2007. Three former literary staff read poetry from their recent releases. A line from Nandi Comer’s American Family: A Syndrome: “If there is blood, the artist has chosen to omit it.” Ryan Walsh spoke of the connection between visual art and writing at VSC (I still cherish learning how to make a mono-print there) and vegetable poems. Zayne Turner read from “Her Radioactive Materials.”

Most of the other readings I attended featured numerous readers, so, forthwith, more of a collage:

Reading “Cauliflower Tells You

At Strange Theater: A Fabulist Reading, there were spiders and trousseaus and swans roasted in revenge and Japanese monsters and red rooms and porcine men and tyrants and cauliflower-fueled murder. A doll’s head was raffled off, among other trinkets; I offered a rare talisman of Cyndi Lauper’s trip to Yemen.

Friday, we went to the PageBoy Magazine Happy Hour, featuring 17-word poems and prose. It was a fun afternoon of zingy one-liners and dreamy experimental works and Gertrude Stein jokes. Then we were off to Literary Bingo with Lilla Lit, a new Portland-based reading series; it was fast and furious with four-minute readings (a loud buzzer ushered off writers going over). Chocolate was pelted at every shout of “bingo!”; I caught a peanut-butter ball overhead with my left hand and won a copy of Jennifer Perrine’s In the Human Zoo. I also read a poem and someone won a copy of Daughters of the Air. All readings should have strict word and time limits and buzzers and prizes!

Saturday, we paid $5 to get into the convention center book fair. I had a lovely time chatting with Chicago-based folks in advance of our move (yes! big news tucked away over here; more on that in a future post), signing books at the Lanternfish Press table, and seeing fellow LFP authors Charles J. Eskew (Tales of the Astonishing Black Spark) and Andrew Katz (The Vampire Gideon’s Suicide Hotline and Halfway House for Orphaned Girls). It was also super cool meeting Carmen Maria Machado, who signed Her Body and Other Parties and Carmilla, an LFP reprint of a lesbian vampire romance that predates Dracula, with a Borgesian introduction and footnotes by Machado.

Fun!

We also picked up a whole slew of poetry in translation (from Romanian and Hebrew), essays on art, novels, short story collections. I can’t wait to read it all! Our last stop was the Northwest Micropress Fair at the Ace Hotel, where I signed copies of Sugar, my chapbook from Chin Music Press, and hung out with regional small presses, which felt like a special little send off before we leave the Pacific Northwest.

I heard that the conference had ballooned to 12,000 (15,000?) attendees. Amazing! Perhaps, perhaps, we’ll be in San Antonio next year, and if not San Antonio, Kansas City, and if not Kansas City, Philadelphia…?

Word Play Transformations: Original Music Inspired by Seattle7Writers

5 Mar

On Saturday night, members of the Bushwick Book Club Seattle performed music inspired by Seattle7Writers Laurie Frankel, Michael Schmeltzer, and me! It was quite an experience to see the cover of Daughters of the Air projected onto the big screen as three tremendously talented singer/songwriters performed music written in response to it. Some drew directly from the text, weaving my words into their lyrics, and others told the story in a new way, drawing from the emotional complexities of the difficult mother-daughter relationship and painful history. Fifteen years of work and 260 pages of fraught novel distilled into three beautiful songs! I got a little verklempt. You can listen to some of the songs from that night right over here.

Music Inspired by Literature

22 Feb

Yesterday, I got a sneak peek at a song Sean Morse is writing in response to Daughters of the Air for Word Play: Original Music inspired by Seattle7Writers. The theme of the concert (happening on March 2 at Hugo House) is “Transformations,” which is certainly fitting for the metamorphoses in my novel. But it’s also super cool to experience a transformation of one art form to another. And what a honor to have one’s own work transformed!

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DAUGHTERS OF THE AIR celebrates first birthday

5 Dec Published by Lanternfish Press

Daughters of the Air is a year old today! I’m celebrating with something bubbly tonight (cider? champagne? seltzer with a spritz of lime?) and feeling grateful for all the love my strange novel has received, from the crowd of smiling faces at my launch party at the Sorrento, to hitting the bestsellers shelf at Elliott Bay Book Company, to seeing my name on the Powell’s marquee, to eating my own face in cake form.

After entertaining a debut author’s wildest nightmares of being universally panned, or being skewered on Twitter, or just dissipating into the void unnoticed, discerning reviewers gave me such joy with their kind praise. I got a thrill learning that a library all the way in Australia owns a copy of my book. I got to travel to PortlandSpokane, Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Tampa, Walla Walla, and San Francisco in support of the novel. I shared meals with book clubs and video chatted with human rights students at Pace University. Readers have told me, among other things, that the book gutted them, or made them feel seen. Hearing from readers has been the best, the best, the best. What a dream of a year.

 

 

 

Would you like a copy of Daughters of the Air? You can buy it from: Your local independent booksellerLanternfish Press  * Barnes & Noble* Amazon * Powell’s.

Did you read Daughters of the Air? Let others know what you think on Goodreads or Amazon or on Twitter or Instagram or…or…you know, word of mouth is a wonderful thing. Thank you so much!

Sugar at the Chin Music Press shop and online

19 Nov

On Friday, I stopped by the Chin Music Press shop in Pike Place Market to sign copies of Sugar, my new chapbook, and Daughters of the Air. You can pop in to pick up copies while they last! (Also, get yourself a treat. I enjoyed a sesame red bean ball: crispy, glutinous, gooey, delightful.) Not in Seattle? You can order Sugar from Chin Music Press online right over here.

Set scene by poet & nonfiction author Michael Schmeltzer. Thank you, Michael!

Umami by Laia Jufrese

23 Aug

Snapseed 5I first came upon Laia Jufrese’s Umami (translated by Sophie Hughes) thanks to the Seattle Public Library’s personalized recommendation system, Your Next 5 Books. Of the five books recommended, Umami zoomed to the top, as I have a soft spot for precocious 12-year-old narrators and an inclination toward foodie things. (You can see the whole list they recommended to me here.)

Umami is not a food novel in the sense of Like Water For Chocolate (which is not a criticism of either book and is just an observation) and it doesn’t just follow the travails of Ana, the Agatha Christie-gobbling, traditional Mexican-gardening tween. There are five narrators in this achronological story, each grappling with grief. Ana is creating a milpa in her parents’ underutilized garden, part of the mews in which they live. Doctor Alfonso Semitiel, an anthropologist who studies pre-Hispanic food systems and brought the term “umami” to the Western world, owns the mews and lives there too. He named each of the houses of the mews after each type of taste: Sweet, Bitter, Sour, Salty, and Umami.

Alfonso is a widower, Ana’s little sister Luz mysteriously drowned two years before the novel opens, and Ana’s friend Pina (named after the contemporary dancer Pina Bausch) and Pina’s father Beto have been abandoned by her mother Chela. Ana, Alfonso, and Luz all narrate their own chapters in the first person. Pina and Marina, another resident of the mews who babysits Ana and who suffers from depression, are narrated in the third person. There’s a lot going on here, and it took me a while to get into the flow of the book. Though I enjoyed Pina and Marina’s chapters, Ana, Alfonso, and Luz were more compelling to me. Their wordplay was snappier (though Marina invents names for colors, like “obligreenation…Green out of obligation”), their interests more idiosyncratic. It’s hard to feel close to every narrator, and the voices were not wildly different. Ultimately, what pulled me through was the mystery of Luz’s drowning, gradually revealed through her narration, using the fairy tale-ish perspective of a five-year-old. The other hook came somewhat late in the book, two creepy AF dolls, one of which can breathe.  The fabulist in me was charmed by this surprise, and they become quite a heartbreaking addition, in the end.

 

Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi

16 Aug

Snapseed 2I adored the film Persepolis, based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir of growing up during the Iranian Revolution. So when I stumbled upon Chicken with Plums (trans. Anjali Singh) in a Little Free Library, I knew I hit Little Free Library gold. The title, too, is tantalizing. (Some of you may be familiar with my obsession with plums.)

Set in November 1955, Chicken with Plums is the story of Satrapi’s great-uncle Nasser Ali Kahn, a pre-eminent tar player. (The tar is a string instrument from the Caucus region.) It’s a heartbreaking story—I nearly burst into tears by page 36—about love, loss, and longing. (Apropos of love, loss, and longing, what would a tango played on a tar sound like? Is that possible? Please comment with links or research leads!) Nasser’s beloved tar breaks, no replacement will do, and he loses the will to live. I read this book just after Anthony Bourdain committed suicide, so this may be why I found it particularly affecting. But Nasser finds some comfort in his brother and a beloved childhood dish, chicken with plums. (Here’s a recipe. The author of the recipe calls saffron “the world’s most expensive Prozac.”)

In addition to being heartbreaking, Chicken with Plums highlighted so many things about the history of Iran that I just didn’t know much about, such as the nationalization of the oil industry, which led to the U.K.- and-U.S.-backed coup in 1953. To paraphrase my high school English teacher Mr. Faciano: if you read literature, you get everything—in this case history, politics, music, gastronomy—plus a compelling story, gorgeously told.

Review of Alicia Kopf’s BROTHER IN ICE in The Seattle Review of Books

8 Aug

Brother-in-ice-WEBI’m happy to have my review of Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice (translated by Mara Faye Lethem) over on The Seattle Review of Books today. Here’s how it begins:

If you’re a fiend for story, Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice (translated by Mara Faye Lethem) will not necessarily scratch your itch. But if you crave novels that put the “novel” back in novel — here mashing up research in arctic exploration with travelogues, diary entries, diagrams, photographs, text messages, and the economy of Facebook likes — come a little closer, friend.

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Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel

2 Aug

Translation as Transhumance by Mireille GanselOn WA-20 west toward the Anacortes Ferry Terminal, Michael and I found a Spanish radio broadcast with news relayed at a curiously slow pace, so that even we, with our limited Spanish, could understand. It was a multicultural station based in Vancouver. We got news of sex trafficking in Buenos Aires, corruption in Brazil, and an interview about traditional foods in a certain town in Mexico whose name eluded me: horchata tamarindo, pavo, taquitos fritos, plus socializing at church. There was mariachi music, then a pan flute.

In the next hour, the language switched to something I couldn’t recognize. Something Scandinavian? South Asian? I had no clue. But then bhangra music came on, so maybe it was Punjabi?

At the ferry checkpoint (we were on our way to Victoria, British Columbia), I lowered the radio, as if customs would find foreign sounds questionable. Once we were on the boat, I switched my phone to airplane mode and concentrated on Mirielle Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance (trans. Ros Schwartz), which Michael found at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco, when I was there on book tour in April.

It seemed appropriate to read a memoir and philosophical treatise on the act of translation while crossing into Canadian waters. Gansel’s family survived the Holocaust; she grew up in France and remembers the special occasions when a letter would arrive from Budapest and her father would solemnly translate it aloud. Some of her memories remind me of visiting Freiburg, Germany with my grandmother, who spoke a mishmash of Romanian and Hungarian with her cousin and uncle (they saved Hungarian for dirty jokes), and where the cousin’s husband spoke German and their children spoke English to me. Here is the lovely excerpt which prompted my reverie:

IMG_4968

In the 1960s and ’70s, Gansel went on to translate poets from East Berlin and Vietnam. Something she touches upon which I would like to research further is the “de-Nazification” of German and the attempt to translate Vietnamese poetry without exoticization. She mentions Bertolt Brecht de-Nazified Hölderlin’s translation of Antigone without comparing examples. But she does offer this translation of poet To Huu (translated into English, in turn, by Ros Schwartz–oh, the layers!):

Casuarina forests,

Groves of green coconuts,

The shimmering of the white dunes

where the sun trembles,

garden of watermelons with red honey!

Gansel quotes Nguyen Khac Vien, who invited her work to on an anthology of Vietnamese poetry in translation: “Exoticism arouses simply a sense of foreignness, without being able to communicate the emotions, the deeper feelings that inspire a work.”

On that notion of digging for deeper feelings, Gansel shares her approach to translating the entire oevre of Nelly Sachs, a Jewish German-language poet who lived in exile in Sweden. She ended up rewriting the work four times, using the Bible’s four levels of meaning, according to the Jewish tradition of exegesis: Peshat (literal meaning), Remez (allusive meaning), Drush (deeper meaning), and Sod (secret, esoteric meaning).

I could go on and on and on about how much I love this slender volume about exile and empathy.  This book has opened so many doors for me.

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