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Magda Szabó’s THE DOOR

28 Jun

I’m so glad I finally read Magda Szabó’s The Door (trans. Len Rix), which Michael has been urging me to read for years. Set in Hungary after World War II, The Door is a rich exploration of the complicated friendship between Magda, a writer, and her formidable housekeeper Emerence. The mysteries that surround Emerence and her past give her a witchy quality. She almost never allows anyone inside her home where there are nine cats and, Magda guesses at one point, furniture and china looted from a Jewish family during the war. Here is Emerence bottling cherries for winter as she and Magda discuss the recent suicide of Emerence’s friend Polett:

The stream of cherries tumbled into the cauldron. By now, we were in the world of myth—the pitted cherries separating out, the juice beginning to flow like blood from a wound, and Emerence, calmness personified, standing over the cauldron in her black apron, her eyes in the shadow under the hooded headscarf.

The slow revelation of Emerence’s life before and during the war is balanced with a clash of personalities as Emerence foists her ways upon Magda’s life, such as throwing a bit of hot mulled wine at Magda to get her to drink it when she is distraught over her husband’s surgery. She is an infuriating, fascinating character, one of the most complex I’ve encountered in recent memory.

There is something about Emerence’s strong personality and guarded history that reminds me of my great-grandmother from Budapest, who I didn’t know very well and who I wrote about in my piece “Threads of Memory” in Jewish in Seattle. There is something about the metaphor of the door that has me scrabbling at it, anxious to understand so much that I never will. It’s the sort of anxiety that fills novels; one day when it is safe to travel to Budapest I will do so, if only to be physically in that city, to be closer to that which I can never fully understand.

“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Chicago” in Another Chicago Magazine

24 Apr
Self-Portrait inside of “My soul and I love you” by Belkis Ayón

So, my first Chicago-based publication is about life here as an immunocompromised person during the COVID-19 pandemic…I wrote the piece a month ago, and it’s a snapshot of my last day in the “normal” time of moving freely about the city, taking public transit, going to a medical appointment, going to a museum. A silver lining is I get to mention the work of Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón, which I encountered at the Chicago Cultural Center. You can explore more of Ayón’s work here.

Here’s how my piece in Another Chicago Magazine begins:

I was sitting inside an airtight booth with my nose clipped shut, inhaling and exhaling into a tube with all my might.

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Going to AWP Without Going to AWP: Virtual Edition

6 Mar
Neither of these are the physical book fair, but they are *both* at the #AWPVirtualbookfair!

Last year around this time, Michael and I traipsed about Portland for AWP, skirting the conference itself, simply enjoying off-site readings and the book fair on Saturday. It was a lovely way to round out our time in the Pacific Northwest.

This year, because of our move, I never had any intentions of going to the conference in San Antonio, but because of the coronavirus, lots of folks, including my publisher Lanternfish Press have cancelled their trips. Because small presses depend on AWP each year for sales, a virtual book fair has been set up as a Google Doc by Trevor Ketner, publisher of Skull + Wind Press, inspired by poets G. Calvocoressi, Dana Levin, and Greg Pardlo. Now folks can browse from afar, and check out the many beautiful books and journals on sale here at #AWPVirtualBookfair. In random scrolling through the virtual book fair, I came across this intriguing book of poetry, Goodbye Wolf, by Nik De Dominic. Most discount codes are good through Sunday. Lanternfish Press is offering 30% off all of their books (including Daughters of the Air); use the code AWP2020.

Another press I love that has cancelled its trip to San Antonio is Fairy Tale Review. Their newest issue, back issues, subscriptions, and the complete set of issues are 20% off. Use code AWP20. The title story of my in-progress story collection, “More Like Home Than Home,” is in their Wizard of Oz-themed Emerald Issue. It’s set in Brooklyn in the 1980s and is a potpourri of the Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and Twelve Dancing Princesses.

But what is a book fair without getting to pick up a book and open it at random? Below is random page from Daughters of the Air (you can read the opening over at Tin House). Beneath that, a taste of what all is in FTR’s Emerald Issue.

Stay healthy out there! Enjoy yer book browsing & book reading!

Cross-Country Drive in Lists, 10 Years Later

5 May
In the Badlands in 2009

In 2009, Michael and I drove west from Brooklyn to start a new life in Seattle. I was beginning the MFA program at the University of Washington, and we were ready for a new adventure in a region neither of us ever thought we’d live in. I documented that first cross-country drive in a list of lists here.

Nearly ten years later, we felt the pull to come back east; in April, we packed up our things and now we’re in Chicago, starting the next chapter of our lives. But of course! We had to take another cross-country drive, partly retracing our steps but also seeing lots of new things. And herein is a list of lists for our second crossing:

  • Mileage: Approximately 2400
  • Days: 9
  • Start point: Seattle
  • End point: Chicago

Parting image of the Pacific Northwest: Wet roads, sopping dark evergreens.

Cities stopped in to eat and/or sleep: Ellensburg, WA; Spokane, WA; Missoula, MT; Bozeman, MT; West Yellowstone, MT; Jackson Hole, WY; Rock Springs, WY; Laramie, WY; Cheyenne, WY; North Platte, NE; Lincoln, NE; Omaha, NE; Des Moines, IA; Iowa City, IA.

Detour: Petrified Ginko National Forest

Notable Spokane radio: Developing a trauma-informed perspective, on Native America Calling

Rivers crossed: Cle Elum, Columbia, Coer D’Alene, Clark Fork, Boulder, Jefferson, Missouri Headwaters, Madison, Gallatin, Snake, Buffalo, Hoback, Little Sandy, North Platte, Medicine Bow, Laramie, South Platte, Platte, Blue, Missouri, West Nishnabotna, East Nishnabotna, South Raccoon, North Raccoon, South Skunk, North Skunk, Guernsay, Iowa, Cedar, Mississippi, Fox.

Fauna spotted: bald eagles, hawks, bison, elk, alpaca, orioles, cardinals, starlings, geese, hundreds of horses, thousands of cows.

Best smelling city: Still Bozeman, ten years later. This time, instead of pine trees, it smelled of apple and smoked pork.

Most public service announcements about meth: Still Montana, ten years later. “Ask Me How My Gun Went Off.”

Most fun billboard: “Rock Creek Testicle Festival,” also in Montana.

Most awe: Western Wyoming.

Aw!

Best business name: Pickle’s Discount Mattress in Rock Springs, WY.

Promising overheard dialogue in Rock Springs: “I used to listen to Morning Joe, but I can’t anymore. I just wanna know what’s going on. Don’t rant at me!” This jived with our similar feeling of watching Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC for half a minute. Maybe we can turn it all off? Then again…

Notable Nebraska radio: Christian homeschool radio on social media and the “Pakistinian-Israelite Conflict”

Scariest downtown on a Sunday: North Platte, NE, mostly boarded up and closed, save for Hometown Cash Advance, Cash n’ Go, and a dollar store.

Scariest Victorian home to visit at dusk when no one’s around and the horses across the street are all staring at you: Buffalo Bill’s home, also in North Platte.

Notable Iowa radio: Agritalk. Regarding leaving the TPP: “Was the juice worth the squeeze?”

Happiest lunch spot: cheeky Gazali’s in Des Moines, IA, where we ate garlicky chicken shawarma after several days of burgers burgers burgers.

Unicorn in our Iowa City hotel room, with an excerpt from The Glass Menagerie

Best town name: What Cheer, IA.

Most adorable stop: Iowa City.

Most roadkill: Illinois 😦 Intestines coiled in the street like giant fusilli. My next novel will be a horror novel.

Notable Chicago radio that filled me with glee: Cardi B. on Polish-American Radio. Brr!

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.

“Sneaking into Dr. Zhivago” in Confrontation

22 Jun

I’m excited to have a new short story, “Sneaking Into Dr. Zhivago,” in the spring issue of Confrontation. It’s an honor to be in a journal that’s published the likes of Cynthia Ozick and Joseph Brodsky! Here’s how the story begins:

If not Paris, Vienna. That’s where I should have landed. My father sent my brother to medical school in Vienna, and I, I was being groomed for the Sorbonne. I would have studied history. And literature. Between the wars, many of my cousins moved to Vienna, London, New York. Children of my seven uncles.

Below you’ll find a photo of the first page of the story so you can get more a taste of it. If you’re intrigued, you can order a copy for just $12!

Notes from #AWP18, Part I: “Difficult History,” a panel on Jewish fiction

15 Mar

Flowers in Delray Beach

Flowers in Delray Beach

I’m back home after a whirlwind book tour that ended with AWP in Tampa. Michael and I drove up from Delray Beach through the Everglades, hoping to spot alligators, and though there were none, pelicans abounded.

We arrived in time for me to catch one panel Thursday afternoon, “Difficult History: Jewish Fiction in the Alt-Right World,” which began with brief readings from each panelist. Emily Barton read from The Book of Esther, an alternate history in which a Turkic Jewish warrior state that disappeared in the Middle Ages existed into August 1942. Simone Zelitch read from her novel Judenstaat, another alternate history, this one set in 1980 in the Jewish sovereign state established in the province of Saxony in 1948. Amy Brill read from Hotel Havana, about Jewish refugees in Havana in the 1930s and ’40s, highlighting the fresh pain German Jews felt compared to Polish Jews, since Polish Jews had always been considered Jewish rather than Polish, whereas German Jews had thought of themselves as German. And Irina Reyn read from a work-in-progress ending on this note: “A Russian woman doesn’t wait. A Russian woman acts.”

On the question of what is Jewish fiction, Zelitch quoted a character of hers: “We don’t bow down. We cross borders. We remember.” Reyn recalled her unhappy Jewish day school experience as a Russian immigrant who never felt she belonged (I totally related to this, being neither a “real” American or Israeli at my elementary school); she said, “Jewish fiction is constant negotiation: where do you belong?”

Brill remarked that as a reform Jew who went to Sunday school and never really understood her bat mitzvah asked: how do you handle writing a character that is either less than or more than your own religiosity? Barton said that for The Book of Esther she generated 90 questions and found a rabbi willing to discuss them all with her; then she showed the finished manuscript to another rabbi. She said that after revision and publication she still got things weirdly wrong. Oy! On the question of how much to explicate for the reader, Barton said she wants Christian Americans to know what’s like to be a religious minority: “I looked up pentecost; you can look up havdallah.”

Barton also made a point I feel strongly about (and have written about in Salon and Jewish in Seattle): it is important to revisit history and re-enliven it. Alternate history, she suggested, is one way to get around Holocaust fatigue. Zelitch added, “Judaism has to be more than the Holocaust and Israel,” that we should look to the international Jewish experience and the refugee crisis. Reyn then touched on “diasporic anxiety,” the need to be more Jewish than you really are in order to connect with Jews in a new place (again, something I totally relate to since moving to Seattle from New York, and touched on in an essay for The Rumpus). Zelitch added that today dystopian fiction seems like a cop out and the challenge is to write engaging utopian fiction, that we need to see powerless people taking power and people need to lose themselves in this kind of story. Before opening up the discussion to audience questions, Brill said: “The arc of justice is not necessarily moving on its own. We need to push it.”

It was certainly an invigorating panel! One or two more posts to come…

“Scrolling Through the Feed” in Cascadia Magazine

30 Jan

Eric Carle's illustration of "Big Klaus, Little Klaus"

Eric Carle’s illustration of “Big Klaus, Little Klaus” in Seven Stories by Hans Christian Andersen has haunted me since childhood. When I imagined the bandits in “Scrolling Through the Feed” doing something nefarious in Interlaken Park, I pictured them in smudgy colors like this.

Over the summer, while immersing myself in Jess Walter’s fiction in preparation for interviewing him in December (you can now watch his Word Works talk on time, and the Q & A,  here on YouTube), I reread his story “Don’t Eat Cat” and felt compelled to write my own zombie story. And, because it’s me, it’s a bit a fairy tale-ish. “Scrolling Through the Feed” went online this morning in Cascadia Magazine, a new publication focusing on the Pacific Northwest, from British Columbia to Oregon. I’m happy there’s a new venue gathering long-form journalism, fiction, and poetry from the region, and one that that thinks beyond our borders.

It feels somehow appropriate for the story to go up on the same day of the State of the Union, which I will not watch. Thankfully, I’m reading tonight at the Literary Happy Hour at Capitol Cider, alongside Bill Carty, Jarret Middleton, and Jekeva Philips, hosted by Josh Potter. It runs from 5-7 pm. In line with their “drafts and drafts” theme, I’ll give a micro-craft talk on one of the earliest inspirations for Daughters of the Air.  Speaking of which, this is your last chance (ever?) to enter to win a free copy of the novel on Goodreads.  Go get it!

“Street of the Deported” Wins Lilith Magazine’s Fiction Contest

20 Dec

IMG_3698.jpgI’m excited to share that my story “Street of the Deported,” part of my in-progress story collection More Like Home Than Home, won first place in Lilith Magazine’s fiction contest. You can read the story right here, or pick up a copy from your local newsstand. Over on their blog, I spoke with fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the story, Daughters of the Air, fairy tales, and food. You can read that Q & A here. Hooray!

Monkeybicyle’s If My Book

12 Dec

I’ve written an If My Book column for Monkeybicycle, wherein I compare Daughters of the Air to weird things. Here’s how it begins:

If Daughters of the Air were fruit it would be blood orange and pupunha.

If Daughters of the Air were cheese it would be Roquefort. Also: Kraft saved from a dumpster.

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