Tag Archives: Minneapolis

“Sisters” by Alexandra Kollontai

13 Aug

Love of Worker Bees by Alexandra Kollontai, translated by Cathy PorterI 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.

Notes from #AWP15 in Minneapolis

13 Apr
Milwaukie Ave

Historic Milwaukie Avenue in Seward, Minneapolis. The first row houses outside of NYC, built by the railroads as worker housing.

This year, AWP has been schmoozier, in a pleasant way, as I spent more time with readings, receptions, and lunch/coffee/dinner dates and less time with panels and the book fair. We took a break from the conference Friday night to see Mr. Burns at the Gutherie Theater, an apocalyptic play spanning from the near future to 75 years into the future, in which the surviving population tries to retell and recreate episodes from The Simpsons (particularly the “Cape Fear” episode) as a way of coping. Over time, The Simpsons evolves into totally weird, wonderful, and scary mythology. I highly recommend it!

The two panels I attended were excellent, and I’m posting my notes right over here:

Small is the New Big: Working with Independent Presses to Build a Literary Career

Moderator: Michelle Brower, agent at Folio Literary Management

Panelists: Molly Fuller, Production Editor of Coffee House Press; Ethan Nosowsky, Editorial Director of Graywolf Press; Erin Harris, agent at Folio Literary Management; and Cal Morgan, Executive Editor of Harper and Editorial Director of Harper Perennial.

  • Access to early and frequent publication (such as online) has allowed an enormous amount of creativity. Adventurous small presses are publishing successful works, and big houses are discovering writers earlier as a result.   -Cal Morgan
  • Small presses take on books that might not seem readily marketable from a big publisher’s perspective, but can maximize those books’ audiences.                    -Ethan Nosowsky
  • Small presses can facilitate reviews that build the writer’s readership.     -Erin Harris
  • The reputation and backlist of a small press have cultural capital.                           -Molly Fuller
  • Small presses are also an opportunity for seasoned authors to try something new. -Michelle Brower
  • Many authors who work with both small and big presses are big supporters of new writers and facilitate connections.                               -Cal Morgan
  • It was a relief to hear all the panelists are avid readers of small press books!

Examples of successes:

  • Eiomear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, published by Coffee House after the author spent 10 years trying to get it published and being told the publishers loved it but thought readers wouldn’t enjoy it. You may already know the book is enormously successful. 
  • Erin Harris found short story writer Stacy Tintocalis after reading her collection The Tiki King, published by Swallow Press, an imprint of Ohio University Press, and discovered Brian Furuness, author of The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson (Dzanc) after reading two of his stories in literary magazines.
  • Graywolf Press published a 20-year retrospective of Geoff Dyer’s essays and was able to do so  successfully based on its backlist of essay collections.
  • Cal Morgan discovered Blake Butler after publishing his short stories in the blog Fifty-Two Stories; he went on to publish three books from Butler, and Butler connected him to more authors.

It’s a Crime to Skip this Panel: Approaches to Crime Fiction

(Nb. The authors on this panel have multiple books out–see the link above for a more expansive list.)

Moderator: Michael Kardos, author of Before He Finds Her.

Panelists: Joy Castro, author of Hell or High Water; Chris Abani, author of Secret History of Las Vegas; Christopher Coake, author of You Came Back; Lori Rader-Day, author of The Black Hour.

  • Much of great literature (Beloved, The Great Gatsby) spins around a crime. -Michael Kardos
  • Joy Castro explores the chasm between the ideal of legal justice and its reality. She asks: whose law? To control whose bodies is the law written? Who is permitted to get away with crime? Who isn’t? How does the aftermath manifest?
  • The best suspense comes from characters: embed them with contradictions and set them loose. Don’t choose a main character who knows everything.    -Joy Castro
  • Misdirections and clues should all arise from point of view: different characters will pick up on different things. -Lori Rader-Day
  • Think of pacing as interval training, alternating between intense, fast-paced, action-packed scenes and more quiet, emotional scenes. -Joy Castro
  • Every story is a riddle. Stories trace an outline for the riddle of living. We don’t care about characters who are not fucked up.       -Chris Abani
  • Good art sets out to do something and does it. That’s all there is. There are no genres. -Chris Abani
  • Finding the voice of the novel is key to finding the novel. -Joy Castro
  • Structure is the skeleton of a book. Voice is its soul, its reason for existence. -Chris Abani
  • If you’re a surgeon and remove the wrong kidney, that’s bad. You have so many opportunities to get your book right.                             -Michael Kardos

On research:

  • Read two books then close your eyes. -Christopher Coake
  • Write the book before you do research, then research what you need to know. -Lori Rader-Day
  • Research a lot then forget it. Don’t write with your notes open; the divine details will come to you. -Joy Castro (My preferred approach…I love research and tend to pick stories that require it.)
  • The only question you need is “Why?” -Chris Abani

Book Fair Loot!

I sprinted through the book fair in the last 45 minutes on Saturday. I managed to get something from every genre, as well something from every “genre” of book fair stuff: freebies, cheapies, full price-ys, a notepad, bookmarks, and even an adorable pinwheel from Pacifica Literary Review, fashioned from pages of poetry.

I’m also happy to discover that Twitter *can* work for authors. Shulem Deem, author of the memoir All Who Go Do Not Return (Graywolf Press) followed me on Twitter several months ago; I was intrigued by the premise of his memoir, which is about leaving the Hasidic Jewish community; and his was the first book I bought at the fair. Can’t wait to read it.

See you in L.A. in 2016!

bookfairloot

Grand Plans for AWP 2015 in Minneapolis, Minnesota

24 Mar

Every year around this time, my post on finding a literary agent at AWP gets more hits. And thus I’m reminded that I will be attending the conference again. I love the Twin Cities, and Mike and I are doubling up with a visit to his dad, so my approach will be considerably chill. I probably won’t have time to visit the Walker Art Center, one of my favorite museums (in the world?), but my chief goals include: multiple visits to Cecil’s Deli for Jewish food and a fleeting drive-by glimpse of the Paisley Palace. The Minnesota Center for Book Arts is also well worth another visit.

Blintzes, books, and Prince–what could be better?

I do have some literary events:

  • Thursday night at 8:15 pm at The Nicollet, I’m reading at Literary Wilderness, a benefit for prison writing programs around the country. The theme is is WILDERNESS, so be prepared!
  • Saturday afternoon, 3-5 pm at Boneshaker Books, I’m reading with the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop, which accepted a batch of my writing prompts into their CREDO Anthology.

And a number of panels caught my eye:

Thursday

Friday

Saturday

For last year’s book fair, I had a laser beam focus on small presses to submit my first novel to. This year, I don’t have that particular laser beam, or any particular laser beam. I’m sure I’ll come home with an unwieldy pile of books and I’m sure I’ll pile up their spines in a picture, right here, just for you.

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