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Memory and Imagination at Hugo House

14 Jul

There are just five spots left in Memory and Imagination, my one-day generative class at Hugo House. Join me for a Saturday afternoon of writing from memory and the senses! Wisdom from Rikki Ducornet, Jorge Borges, and Vladimir Nabakov will offer insight in the process. And here’s Umberto Eco on the subject, in The Name of the Rose:

“This, in fact, is the power of imagination, which, combining the memory of gold with that of the mountain, can compose the idea of a golden mountain.”

Class meets Saturday, August 13, 1-4 pm. You can register here.

“Mapping Imagination” in Airplane Reading

16 May

photo (21)I just got my contributor copy of Airplane Reading, an anthology about air travel edited by Christopher Schaberg and Mark Yakich which includes my essay “Mapping Imagination,” about traveling to Argentina to research my first novel.

I’m honored to be in some pretty outstanding company:

Lisa Kay Adam * Sarah Allison * Jane Armstrong * Thomas Beller * Ian Bogost * Alicia Catt * Laura Cayouette * Kim Chinquee * Lucy Corin * Douglas R. Dechow * Nicoletta-Laura Dobrescu * Tony D’Souza * Jeani Elbaum * Pia Z. Ehrhardt * Roxane Gay * Thomas Gibbs * Aaron Gilbreath * Anne Gisleson * Anya Groner * Julian Hanna * Rebecca Renee Hess * Susan Hodara * Pam Houston * Harold Jaffe * Chelsey Johnson * Nina Katchadourian * Alethea Kehas * Greg Keeler * Alison Kinney * Anna Leahy * Allyson Goldin Loomis * Jason Harrington * Kevin Haworth * Randy Malamud * Dustin Michael * Ander Monson * Timothy Morton * Peter Olson * Christiana Z. Peppard * Amanda Pleva * Arthur Plotnik * Neal Pollack * Connie Porter * Stephen Rea * Hugo Reinert * Jack Saux * Roger Sedarat * Nicole Sheets * Stewart Sinclair * Hal Sirowitz * Jess Stoner * Anca L. Szilágyi * Priscila Uppal * Matthew Vollmer * Joanna Walsh * Tarn Wilson.

 

 

Netherlandish Birds

15 May

bosch-pond

Thanks to the tremendous generosity of the Artist Trust / Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award, I spent the earlier part of this month in the Netherlands, researching my third novel. M came as my trusty research assistant, furnishing highlighters, snacks, and sweaters with alacrity. There’s a lot of information crammed in my skull right now, which I am organizing as best I can, hoping it seeps into the crevices of my subconscious fruitfully.

What struck me on our trip: the birds! (I know, I know, put a bird on it.) Egrets, loons, swans, geese, ducks, grouse, crows; white-breasted, brilliant blue, long-tailed, plump and shimmery; raucous, trilling, warbling, chortling. Fact: the first painting acquired by the Rijksmuseum features a bold, angry swan.

Jan_Asselijn_-_De_bedreigde_zwaan;_later_opgevat_als_allegorie_op_Johan_de_Witt_-_Google_Art_Project

In the moat by the citadel in ‘S-Hertogenbosch, an egret bullied ducks until a trio of geese chased the egret to the boardwalk where it loomed. This continued on a loop for a while. A seagull swooped down to chase the egret further and when the egret returned, the geese trailed it, sinister and slow. Sinister, at least, until we realized there were goslings near.

In a canal in Rotterdam, three loons had a lovers’ spat. Slapped wings, held heads beneath the water–murderous! Not far from there, we strolled past the “swan bridge,” soaring and modern.

On our last night in Amsterdam, we stayed at a fanciful b&b on the Western Canal Belt. Our hostess could not greet us when we arrived. She hid our keys in a flowerpot. Up two steep, narrow flights of stairs, we flung open the door. The lights were on, the doors and windows open, a gust of wind coming from the terrace, which led to another room with another open door, and the flutter and chirp of green and yellow parakeets, in a big cage looking down upon the Keizersgracht canal. Old books stacked everywhere, art on the walls and leaning upon the books, a laptop left on a long wooden table, half open, as if our hostess had left in a hurry. It had the feel of that computer game Myst, where mysterious rooms, empty of people, always suggest a presence, a place quickly abandoned. We did meet her late that night and in the morning at breakfast the birds flew freely about the room and she would call to them and air kiss them and talked to us about Argentina and Barcelona and photography and her love of Amy (Winehouse).

Apropos of birds, on the flight back, I finished Noy Holland’s debut novel Bird, a raw gorgeous thing. Here, I leave you with an excerpt:

She was hungry again and gorged herself on chicken fried steak and skittles, on vermilion faces of canyons, cliffs you could dig with a spoon.

 

Women in Translation

25 Jun

August is Women in Translation Month (WITMonth), designed to encourage readers, reviewers, publishers, and translators to explore more books in translation by women. If you’ve been following the VIDA count, then the grim statistics around women in translation (gathered diligently by Meytal Radzinski) is, unfortunately, not a surprise: women writers comprise only about 30% of books translated into English. As I’m passionate about cultivating a diverse literary ecosystem, this is a project near and dear to my heart. And though I’m happy WITMonth is an annual event, I’m getting started right now. Because there are SO MANY good books and I’m sure there are SO MANY MORE out there waiting to be picked up by a publisher and gobbled by readers.

I immediately pulled all the books from my shelves that fit the bill. I made a read pile and a to-be-read pile. Of the read pile, I’d like to make some recommendations, for those of you who’d like to join me in WITMonth. Read these books! And I’ll be diving into the to-be-read pile and writing about the gems in that pile in August. Read those books too! Let’s talk about ’em!

Recommended Books

Tasty pile of books in translation

Tasty pile of books in translation.

Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from Catalan by Martha Tennent (Open Letter, 2009). A gorgeously written and harrowing novel about cruelty among humans and violence in nature.

Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2005). A dark, slender novel about a woman abandoned by her husband spiraling into terrifying psychological territory, with a helpful dash of absurd humor and redemption. After devouring this book, anything else was VERY difficult to get into. So good. This brief review in The New Yorker is spot on. I have not cracked open her more recent Neapolitan series, but it is definitely on the docket.

The End of the Story by Liliana Heker, translated from Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger (Biblioasis, 2012). Another dark novel. I’m sensing a trend? This metafictional work explores Argentina’s Dirty War. I reviewed it for Ploughshares.

Death as a Side Effect by Ana Maria Shua, translated from Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger (University of Nebraska Press, 2010). As I note briefly in my review of Heker’s novel, Shua‘s is “dark and wry and screwed up in the best possible dystopian way.” Is it weird to quote myself? Oh well.

Dreams and Stones by Magdalena Tulli, translated from Polish by Bill Johnston (Archipelago Books, 2004). I adore Archipelago for focusing on translation and producing truly beautiful books. Dreams and Stones is probably the least dark book on my list, a kind of treatise on cities and imagination.

Mile End by Lise Tremblay, translated from French by Gail Scott (Talon Books, 2002). I read this novel a few times, starting in a class in college on literary Montreal. It’s set in the neighborhood I lived in while at McGill, which may be part of my attachment to it. And, yes, yes, this is another dark story, about an obese pianist at a ballet school teetering toward psychosis.

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller, translated from German by Michael Hoffman (Metropolitan Books, 1996). Muller, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature, paints a grim picture of life in Romania under Ceausescu. The language is highly poetic, and I’ve been working on an essay about it (among other things) for quite some time. In fact, the assignment I’ve given myself for the next few weeks is to cut that essay up paragraph by paragraph to figure out how to keep going with it.

Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi, translated from German by Vincent Kling (Dalkey Archive Press, 2012). Told from the point of view of an unnamed young woman, this is the story of Romanian refugees who travel through Europe as circus performers. Yes, yes, dark. But also with absurd humor. (Some criticize Muller for being humorless. I say, bah. Read her still. Not everything is funny ha ha.)

Phew. That’s a lot of recommendations. There are more in my pile. I may write more about them. More likely I will tweet my favorite bits from them in August. But not just August. Probably all year. WITForever!

My To-Be-Read Pile. Stay tuned for reviews & more !

Another tasty pile of translated books.

Another tasty pile of translated books.

Walking to Write

6 Jun
Little donkey I found on a recent walk

Little donkey I found on a recent walk

Just in time for those real long summer wanders I love, my seventh set of writing prompts for the Ploughshares  blog tackles the wonders of walking and the importance of place, with wisdom from Luis Urrea. The uber-talented Melanie Masson was very generous in lending a few of her gorgeous landscape photographs to the post.

As I’m nearing the half-way point in this year of blogging about writing prompts, I’ll just put it out here: any requests for particular topics? So far I’ve covered portraits, eavesdropping, architecture, objects, dance, and music. I have other topics lined up, but I’m open to suggestions. Leave a comment here, tweet at me, or send me an email. And thanks!

Parking Signs to Power Lines

6 Mar

Last month, I took an afternoon class at Richard Hugo House with Shin Yu Pai called “Maps for a Narrative Atlas” to, as it were, tickle my psychogeographic fancy. After some discussion of Denis Wood’s Everything Sings and Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite CityShin sent us out into Capitol Hill to map some specific, observable aspect of the neighborhood and then try to transcribe what we found into text. I decided to focus on everything visible between parking signs and power lines, plus any sounds. I ended up with a catalogue of mostly tags and graffiti animals, an “urban bestiary” as one of the workshop participants noted (incidentally, this is a topic for another post I’ve been meaning to write as well as the title of a fascinating forthcoming book).

Here’s that catalogue.

E. Olive Street, from 11th Avenue to 12th Avenue

shoes

crows

propeller affixed to pole, swaying

crows

parking sign: Hellawasted, Action for Animals, sad ghost

bright yellow bits of a torn flier

crows

fuzzy green tree buds

Z overlaying U

Nasty Nate Comfy

faded blue outline of a skeleton

Lost Cat: Adult Male Mostly Black with a White Belly. Will Give Generous Reward if Found and Returned to Owner. Contact Arlene.

bright yellow flier, intact: Our Neighborhoods Under Attack! scary black towers descending upon single family homes with crash-pow comic book bursts

Notice of Public Meeting

fuzzy green tree buds

police car siren

12th Avenue

shoes

crows

guttural other-bird song; rattle and click

11th Avenue from Howell Street to E Olive

crows

parking sign: Hello My Name Is Nick Nack Records

4 hour parking sing: No Big Deal, smiling prehistoric fish with wings, Nasty Nate Comfy, Blink

children squealing

stick man with a briefcase and devil horns apparently going to hell

4 hour parking Valid Here: love birds

night owl with steaming cup of something

shoes

The Zoo

2 Jan

I’m honored to have my story “The Zoo” included as one of four stories in Washington City Paper’s D.C.-themed fiction issue .  Here’s how the story begins:

The Zoo

That’s what my brother calls it. The quarantined room at the end of the hall. It has two sets of windows: one looking into an air lock, where two white bunny suits hang on the wall, then another looking into the room kept pristine for the most fragile.

Continue reading

Writing Nonfiction to Think Through Fiction

27 Jul

One of my former professors from UW, Shawn Wong, advised us to write essays on topics related to our fiction projects whenever we felt stuck. After working through many drafts of my first novel, I’ve come to really appreciate this advice. Not only does it give you a new angle on your material, enabling a return to the fiction with fresh eyes, but it can also build your confidence about the research you’d done so far and raise new questions that enrich your understanding of your project. Writing essays can also make it easier to talk about your project with authority and maybe answer that dreaded question, “So, what is your novel about?” with less trepidation.

Earlier this month, my friend SK invited me to speak to the creative writing classes held at UW’s Robinson Center Summer College about travelling to Argentina to research my novel. Though my novel is written for an adult audience, the students in these classes are 5th and 6th graders. It was an enjoyable problem thinking about this different audience and really fun to just address the hands on, primary research I did: walking down Buenos Aires’s wide boulevards and narrow alleyways,trying to get a whiff of the city’s unique scent (note to self: “city scents” as future post), talking to locals who’d lived through the period I was writing about (1978), and uh, gorging myself on dulce de leche. The students had a lot of awesome, thoughtful questions, like what point of view did you write in, did you ever want to give up in the years that you worked on it, did you ever get stuck and what did you do to get unstuck?

Around the same time that I was preparing this talk, I was also working on a short essay for a website called Airplane Reading, which collects “storytelling that can animate, reflect on, and rejuvenate the experience of flight.” This essay, “Mapping Imagination,” gets at some the anxieties I struggled with in writing and researching the novel and is featured there this week. Having worked on both a short talk and short essay, I’m feeling ready again to continue with all the work that goes into getting the novel out into the world.

SK delivered a stack of thank you cards from her students a week after my talk. Some of the details they remembered from the talk and included in their cards were kind of incredible. One student wrote, “P.S. I love food too,” which made me plotz, one student made the card in the form of a paper fortune teller (I learned from it that I will write 1000 more short stories in my lifetime), and two students made an elaborate card in which the Argentine flag opened to a diptych with their messages. It really made my week.

Vegas, Maybe

20 May

Hoover Dam. Photo by M.

M and I went to Las Vegas last week. We spent Mother’s Day there with our fathers. (Obviously, we’ll do something motherly on Father’s Day. ) My dad goes there quite often, on business; the last time I’d been was about twenty years ago, when we combined one of his business trips with a family vacation. Then, we rode the Canyon Blaster at Circus Circus and shuffled from 112 degree heat to the cool of Caesars Palace; I thought the ladies dressed as Cleopatra were pretty neat. We hiked Red Rock Canyon at sunset and drove through Death Valley, where I thought that if we opened the car door, we’d immediately crumple or explode.

On this visit, I felt unsettled by all that excess in the middle of the desert. M and I wondered why the city had to be built so far from Lake Mead.  I found myself wondering how much longer Lake Mead has and why the casinos and hotels aren’t totally clad in solar panels. (Happily, Las Vegas City Hall is.) I spent some time hiding from hotter-than-usual-even-for-Vegas heat on a comfy chair at the Bellagio, reading Diana Abu-Jaber’s Birds of Paradise, a novel which, among other things, explores urban development in Miami in the face of climate change and worsening hurricanes. Of course, it *is* an exciting city that is “going for it,” so to speak, which is what makes it so attractive for so many people. I just wish it was “going for it” in a way that is more obviously sustainable.

Speaking of birds, my short story “Raven in a Jar” received a Special Mention in the Salem College International Literary Awards’ Reynolds Price Fiction Prize, judged by Kate Bernheimer. Yay!

The Kobe Ropeway

21 Apr

My third and final post about our trip to Japan.

The Kobe Ropeway, I learned from Wikipedia just now, is nicknamed – quite appropriately-  the “Kobe Dreamy Balloon.” Surely, it is a place where happiness is made. I took a half dozen pictures of the adorable mural beside the entrance to this aerial tramway, possibly the most cheerful mural I’ve ever seen. And then, silently, we zoomed 400 meters up Mount Rokkō , inside the little sleek black and red car, precariously attached to the cable by a tiny metal hook and swaying ever so slightly in the wind. Below us: lush trees, then the white-brick, gray-brick, and blue-glass city, then the glittering harbor melting into the milky horizon. Above us: the Nunobiki Herb Garden, an Alpine-style rest house, a concert hall, and a museum of fragrance. In the aromatherapy room, we made soap scented with lavender and geranium and tinted with turmeric and rosemary. Outside, snow whirled over snapdragons, white roses, a whole riot of springtime flowers. We wandered down the hill through the herb garden to a greenhouse with an exhibit on spices, smelling jars of cloves, saffron, anise, cardamom – essential, enlivening olfactory research!

Out of the garden and hiking back down Mount Rokkō, we passed many tiny shrines nestled into the hillside, and a few waterfalls. J pointed out this habitat as a likely home for kappa, a mythical amphibious animal notorious for stealing cucumbers and, when provoked, ripping out livers via the anus. How incredibly specific!

Here are some more pictures from the mural (click to expand):

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