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The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller

24 Aug

HungerAngelAfter I read The Land of Green Plums a few years ago, Herta Müller joined a short list of authors whose work I want to read all of.  I am not the sort of reader who methodically works through an oeuvre; I crave different voices. But this list includes Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Mavis Gallant. (It used to include Angela Carter; I adore her short fiction, but actually found trying to read her novels like trying to eat an entire chocolate mousse cake.) Müller’s fiction is poetic and harrowing and sheds light on the country my family comes from.  For me, she is a must.

For my third installment of  Women In Translation Month, I tackled The Hunger Angel. This novel tells the story of Leo Auberg, a young German man in Romania deported to a labor camp in Russia in January 1945. I was surprised to learn that this happened: all Germans living in Romania and from the ages of 17-45 were forced to “rebuild” the Soviet Union. Indeed, as Müller explains in her Afterword, this was something shameful that Germans in Romania only discussed among themselves, if they discussed it at all. (Müller emigrated to West Germany after being persecuted by Ceausescu’s secret police.)

The Hunger Angel meditates on objects. Life in a gulag is tedious, so in lieu of a tight narrative arc, the first two-thirds of the book move laterally from things like cement and coal to yellow sand and firs. There’s a weirdly loving chapter about a kind of shovel known as “the heart-shovel,” which, by virtue of its design, allows Leo to forget himself as he works in ways that other tools or tasks don’t.

And, of course, as the title implies, there’s a food problem. With just one piece of bread a day and two bowls of cabbage soup, and no mid-day meal, the hunger angel emerges an antagonist who skews how prisoners perceive their world and how they behave. But memories of food from childhood buoy Leo and his prison-mates. One day, every summer, his mother would take him to the Café Martini where he could gorge himself on sweets:

We could choose among marizpan truffles, chocolate cake, savarins, cream cake, nutcake roll, Ischler tartlet, cream puffs, hazelnut crisps, rum cake, napoleons, nougat, and doboschtorte. And ice cream–strawberry ice cream in a silver dish or vanilla ice cream in a glass dish or chocolate ice cream in a porcelain bowl, always with whipped cream. And finally, if we were still able, sour-cherry cake with jelly.

As if being in a gulag is not challenging enough, Leo is in the closet. When men and women dance on Saturday nights (who knew they had dances, albeit sad dances, in gulags?), he remains off to the side. Men and women couple in the barracks; he does not. Though he observes: “Half-starved humans are really neither masculine nor feminine but genderless, like objects.” Over the course of the novel, this meditation on objects also becomes a larger meditation on loneliness and longing and trying to stay alive.

Leo has a poet’s eye, and it is that vision, that attention to language, which makes reading this essential book bearable.

“Home Is Where the Pickled Cabbage Is: Searching Seattle for Authentic Romanian Food” in The Stranger

26 Jul
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The sarmale–stuffed cabbage–at Sunset Bistro, graced with a burn-off-your-tongue chili pepper and a polenta-and-sour-cream antidote.

My third piece for The Stranger takes me to Belltown’s Sarajevo Lounge, Bitter Lake’s European Foods, and Renton’s Sunset Bistro in search of Romanian food. It’s just a four-hour walk to Renton along Lake Washington, so one of these Saturdays I’m going to lace up my sneakers and return to Sunset Bistro ready to feast. You can read the article here.

“Spam: The Mystery Meat That Continues to Inspire Feelings of Agony and Ecstasy” in The Stranger

14 Jun
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Foreground: The Blahlah Special at Kauai Family Restaurant, including saimin, Portuguese sausage, Vienna sausage, and, of course, Spam.

My second piece for The Stranger is an essay on how I came around on Spam–the edible variety, not the annoying junk mail. I discuss, among other things, dishes from Cheeky Cafe, Super Six, and Kauai Family Restaurant. I understand Kauai Family Restaurant’s cakes cause people to weep: I will most certainly return at some point, hopefully soon, after I’ve eaten a decent amount of kale. You can read the article here.

This is my third essay drawing on a single two-week family trip to Romania in 1995. The first was “Used to be Schwartz” in The Rumpus, which (not incidentally?) also touches on a troubled relationship with ham. (But hey–to quote my great-grandmother, “If it tastes good, it’s kosher.”) The second was “Dark Fruit: A Cultural and Personal History of the Plum” in The Los Angeles Review of Books. I’d love to go back to Romania sometime, not just to see how the country has changed (and of course to see family and family friends), but to see how my perceptions of the place have changed and to explore stories I couldn’t have possible looked for as a 12-year-old. Ah, someday!

Winter Class: Writing About Place

14 Dec

pieter_bruegel_the_elder_-_hunters_in_the_snow_winter_-_google_art_projectPieter Bruegel the Elder – Hunters in the Snow (Winter) – 1565

This winter, I’m teaching Writing About Place at Hugo House. In this six-week class, we’ll read stories by Flannery O’Connor, Louise Erdrich, and Ursula LeGuin, among other illustrious authors. We’ll write about places we know, places we don’t know, and places that exist only in our imaginations. And, we’ll talk about memory, research, and world building.

 

Class meets Wednesdays 5-7 pm from 2/22-3/29. Hugo House is located in First Hill, an easy-peasy trip from downtown and right next to the always-free Frye Art Museum. Speaking of place, if you’ve not been to the Hugo House’s temporary home, you’re in for treat, with a light-filled atrium and mysterious winding hallways.  Registration is now open. The scholarship deadline is 12/16 and there’s an early bird discount until 12/19! Hope to see you there.

“Dark Fruit: A Cultural and Personal History of the Plum” in Los Angeles Review of Books

6 Oct
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Italian prune plum galaxy

I’m thrilled to have my essay “Dark Fruit: A Cultural and Personal History of the Plum” appear in the Los Angeles Review of Books today. It collages personal stories with discussions of Tolstoy, Herta Müller, Gregor von Rezzori, ancient Chinese poetry, visual art, horticulture, superstitions, and more. I’m grateful it found a home in such a fine venue!

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Jacopo Ligozzi (Italian, 1547 – 1627 ), A Marmot with a Branch of Plums, 1605, brush with brown and black wash, point of the brush with black and brown ink and white gouache, and watercolor, over traces of graphite on burnished paper, Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, Purchased as the Gift of Helen Porter and James T. Dyke 2007.111.121

“Threads of Memory” in Jewish in Seattle

4 Feb

I wrangled some complicated family history into “Threads of Memory,” a short personal essay for the February/March issue of Jewish in Seattle. The opportunity to write about my family’s immigration story and relationship with Judaism brought up a lot more material than a single piece can contain, so stay tuned for more!

Here’s how the piece begins:

Family lore says my great-grandmother Margaret — we called her Mami — survived the Holocaust by hiding under a pile of bodies. She was not known for her pleasant demeanor but for her steeliness. continue reading

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.

“Come Dance with Me,” a song inspired by “More Like Home Than Home”

6 Oct

A while back, I shared a YouTube video of Bradford Loomis performing his song “Come Dance with Me,” which was inspired by my short story “More Like Home Than Home”. This August, he released a new album with Beth Whitney, Banner Days, which features a gorgeous recording of the song. Check out the song and the whole album–they are so, so talented. You can read “More Like Home Than Home” in the Emerald issue of Fairy Tale Review.

CoCA Seattle’s 21st Art Marathon

15 Nov

Yesterday and all of last night and into 9 am this morning, the Center on Contemporary Art hosted a 24-hour art-making marathon at their Ballard location, the Shilshole Bay Beach Club. One of the 21 artists participating, John Osgood, wanted to collaborate with other artists during this frenzied event, and last month, I was invited to submit some of my writing. I sent John a couple short stories, and didn’t know what would happen until I arrived at the marathon yesterday (of course, pretty much simultaneously with his other collaborators Amir Farhad, Robert Hardgrave, Stephen Rock, and a last minute fifth collaborator which added to the frenzy). John told me he’d chosen to work with my story “Skitter” and would paint a parade scene from it. He proposed that I paint text on the canvas and he would layer colors on top of that. I loved the idea, though I was nervous about painting, even if it was in my realm of text. After I decided what text should go on the canvas, he showed me how to use a paint pen, and I practiced as much as I could so that it didn’t look like a 3 year old or drunk person had written it, though I suppose that’s not necessarily a bad thing. John spray painted over my first layer of text, then wrote over the same excerpt with a red paint pen, using his infinitely cooler handwriting. Then he spray painted it again and handed me a calligraphy brush and more liquid black paint and asked me to write the text again in smaller letters, trying not to cover over the other two layers but getting between them. John is probably taking a well-deserved nap right now, seeing as he painted 5 new pieces, collaborating with 5 different people, all between 9 am yesterday and 9 am today. The works (and there was a ton of other fantastic stuff being made by 20 other artists) will be auctioned off tonight during CoCA’s fun-n-fancy gala dinner, which is, I understand sold out. Of course I am eagerly awaiting the final product from John’s take on “Skitter” — above are a few photos from documenting the process. Special thanks to John Osgood and to Nichole DeMent. It was a fantastic night!

***

Update:

Here it is, the final product, “Harush,” by John Osgood & Anca Szilagyi:

Harush

Bradford Loomis lullaby inspired by “More Like Home Than Home”

27 May

For the APRIL festival, The Furnace teamed up with the Bushwick Book Club Seattle, asking three musicians to create original music inspired by the three pieces presented by the series so far. Bradford Loomis wrote “Come Dance With Me,” an enchanting lullaby inspired by my story “More Like Home Than Home” and full of so much tender longing and hope.

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