Against Her Mother or God Himself

March 16, 2019 § Leave a comment

Last August, at Bread Loaf, I was privileged to share a workshop with Kelli Jo Ford, a writer of sharp-edged prose about Cherokee women and families. And I got to read a portion of her novel-in-stories, Crooked Hallelujah, about a family of hard-bitten women in Oklahoma and Texas and the men who love them and let them down, balancing the older generations’ connection to things earth-bestowed against the youngers’ comfort with modern America’s blighting institutions. It’s all written in the snappy language demanded of the exhausted and the fighting, where the sentences tumble over one another like a rolling plain and divert at unexpected places like rivers.  A story from that collection, “Book of the Generations,” was published last year in The Missouri Review:

Lula held herself something like together with a religion so stifling and frightening that Justine, the youngest and always the most bullheaded, never knew if she was fighting against her mother or God himself, or if there was even a difference. Still, her father was a betrayal of the knife-in-the-heart variety—something far beyond all their fighting—and here he was on a cool spring evening, right between them.

“He’s in Texas. Near Fort Worth,” Justine said. She bit her lip. “He asked me to go to Six Flags with him. Just for the weekend. He has a little boy now, I guess.”

She almost hoped Lula would hit her, but Lula stared into the hills. It wasn’t clear she had heard, so Justine’s mouth kept moving.

“Six Flags is an amusement park. With roller coasters. I know you might think it’s too worldly, but I can wear a long skirt on the rides and all. It’s sort of like a big old playground!” Justine forced a smile. She pushed a strand of hair back into her bun, waited. “I’m sorry, Mama.”

And another story from that collection, “Hybrid Vigor,” was published in The Paris Review earlier this year and was just awarded the Plimpton Prize (a merit that earned the attention of Lyle Lovett). This is going to be a sensational book, raw and honest and riveting, and important.

The Words That Stay With Us

January 20, 2019 § Leave a comment


A few weeks ago I received a copy of Black Warrior Review in the mail, and in a strange convergence of my life as a writer-reader and my day job, I noticed a nonfiction piece by Krys Malcolm Belc entitled “First Seen in Print in 1987, According to Merriam Webster.”

It’s a 13-page piece in 11 sections, with each page headed by a different word from that year, followed by a short essay obviously prompted by that word. The words tie in to an overall personal narrative, written in the second person by a transgender man to his lover.

Here’s an excerpt from the part under the heading ‘BFF’:

Where we went to school the library was always crowded, even on a Friday night. People watched me visit you at work. You’ve always loved to work the latest shift, making money while others relax. Running out the door in your scrubs while I give the kids their after-dinner baths. Saying goodbye as I say goodnight.

At the BWR website, Belc explains in a craft essay how he was inspired to write the piece, describing his birth certificate from 1987, which of course details the birth of a person he no longer is: “The world happened to me as the person on the paper, not the person I am today, for nearly thirty years.” Belc selected words that Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveler feature identified as showing their dates of first use as his birth year. The other words include beer goggles, messenger bag, degenderize, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor.

Time Traveler has become very popular since we introduced it a couple years ago, and I like to think of it as a sort of fossil record for words. Scrolling through, you see trends: depression words in the 1930s, space-age words in the ’60s, words pertaining to AIDS in the ’80s, etc.

Reading his piece, I was struck by how Belc used the selected words essentially as memory triggers to chart out his own story, as he puts it, “to map myself onto my former self, and to use a form that organically allowed me to do that.”

As someone who defines words for a living and then writes creatively in my off hours, I have always thought of my relationship to words as two-sided: while some days I am trying to shape them, force them to do new things, others I must retreat and observe them candidly. But to look at a word candidly, and to tell its story candidly, requires ignoring the memories you attach to that word. I remember learning the word ‘come’ in nursery school. I remember pointing to it on the blackboard for the teacher. I remember how I learned the word ‘squalor’: not from Salinger and Esmé, but from the news article about a friend who murdered his mother and younger brother.

Belc’s stunning piece reminds us that there are words in our life stories that mark moments, words that lodge in our consciousness in a way that prevents them from ever being neutral, so they can no longer ever be “just words.”

The Year in Reading, 2018

December 15, 2018 § Leave a comment


I got away from writing about the books I read and enjoyed this year, so here is a list in digest form as I shared it on Twitter.

Probably my greatest literary achievement was attending the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in August, where I met about a half-dozen of the authors mentioned here and either bought and read their books in anticipation of meeting with them or in the months following.

THE IDIOT by Elif Batuman. A look inside the mind of an inquisitive Harvard freshman becomes a thorough meditation about the apartness of worlds and lands, the fractured nature of language, and the perplexity of love.

THE SPORT OF KINGS by C.E. Morgan. A novel about legacy, horse racing, and race relations spanning generations of a Kentucky family, vast in scope yet with scenes sculpted with delicacy and a playfully expansive vocabulary.

CLASS A by Lucas Mann. A chronicle of the 2010 season of the Single-A Clinton, Iowa LumberKings, and the dynamic that exists between athletes with their eyes set on major-league gold and the fans who cling to small-town hopefulness.

MARLENA by Julie Buntin. About navigating the waters of a volatile friendship ending in tragedy and the haunting of one’s psyche into adulthood.

FLÂNEUSE by Lauren Elkin. A a fascinating and whimsical tour through Paris and other literary cities through the eyes of the resilient women (writers and characters) sauntering through them.

FARMER by Jim Harrison, a quiet book about manhood and loneliness and the search for fraudulent ecstasies amid restricted promise.

HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson. A strange story born out of a mysterious place, “chastened …by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.”

THE EMPATHY EXAMS by Leslie Jamison. Wise essays exploring, among other things, pain and how we react to it in ourselves and in others, along with a generous engagement with the strange that reminded me of the best of Didion.

THERE THERE by Tommy Orange. A tense and layered story about the contemporary Native American experience, the struggle to belong, and the violence undercurrent in lives torn between identities.

NIGHT AT THE FIESTAS by Kirstin Valdez Quade. Stories set in the American Southwest that look at the spaces between families and generations and the challenge of faith and traditions among them.

SICK by Porochista Khakpour. An honest memoir of illness and its bafflements both natural and institutional, set against the larger story of one writer’s search for herself through cities, relationships, friend circles, and her own artistic ambitions.

IMAGINE WANTING ONLY THIS by Kristen Radtke. A graphic exploration of places buried, ruined, and abandoned, and uncovering the stories smothered underneath, prompted by the unexpected death of the author’s beloved uncle.

SIGNS AND WONDERS by Alix Ohlin. Richly drawn character-driven stories about the complicated and often damaged relations among intelligent creatures and their families.

STEPHEN FLORIDA by Gabe Habash. A lucidly crafted portrait of a college wrestler in North Dakota, and a darkly rendered critique about the constrictions of competition and obsession.

INSURRECTIONS by Rion Amilcar Scott. Wisely crafted stories in a range of styles that forge links between generations and neighbors in the black community of a Maryland town under the shadow cast by its history.

HOMESICK FOR ANOTHER WORLD by Ottessa Moshfegh. Stories featuring humans unafraid to peel their scabs and revel in the bloodiness of their wounds as a means of escaping the confines of the body and their own angst.

ONCE I WAS COOL by Megan Stielstra. Confessional essays at once chatty and thoughtful about testing boundaries, responsibilities, and the warped evolution of the adult self.

THE STORY OF MY TEETH by Valeria Luiselli. An imaginative tale as impressive for its wicked topography and seamless integration of philosophical theory as it is for the raconteurial wanderings of its memorable protagonist.

Honorable Mention for Robert and Adele Schiff Award in Prose

November 13, 2018 § Leave a comment

I am delighted to discover that I am listed for an Honorable Mention for my submission to The Cincinnati Review’s 2018 Robert and Adele Schiff Award in Prose.

Congratulations to Tori Malcangio, who won the award for her story “See What I Mean” (chosen by Michael Griffith), as well as to Maggie Millner, who won for her poem “Cherry Valley” (chosen by Rebecca Lindenberg).

Good Brown Girl from the Barrio

October 6, 2018 § Leave a comment


If House on Mango Street cut me open, the poetry of Cisneros shattered me. I was expecting more of Esperanza, the narrator of Mango Street. Instead I got Sandra Cisneros herself — wild, raw, and vulnerable on the page in ways that left me buzzing. She wrote of her family, of violence, of travel, of sex, of lovers, of chaos, of loneliness, depression, and obsessive love. She wrote of all things a “good brown girl” from the barrio should not experience, much less put down on the page. When I read her poem “Christ You Delight Me” from Loose Woman and came to the last stanza — Suckle vines, I have to hunker//My cunt close to the earth,//This little pendulum of mine//Ringing, ringing, ringing — I couldn’t believe it. A Mexican-American woman, talking like that?

At Bustle, Lizz Huerta, my wonderful friend from the Misfit Crew at Bread Loaf, writes about Sandra Cisneros and how a writer is born when she finds herself on the page.

On Andy Capp at Ploughshares

September 23, 2018 § Leave a comment

Capp 01

At the Ploughshares blog, I wrote about the comic-strip character Andy Capp, created by Reg Smythe. Despite a history of domestic violence, misogyny, and hostility to the role of the domestic citizen, the character continues to maintain a minor following and be used as a spokesman to sell popular line of snack foods.

Andy’s abuse of Flo was such an indelible part of his brand that it informed the marketing copy employed by Fawcett in paperback collections of the strip published in the 1960s and ‘70s. That he survives serves, to me, as an example of how our ugliest and most tired characters are granted new pathways for reinvention in spite of their inability to speak to modern sensibilities.

Curbside at Ghost Town

August 7, 2018 § Leave a comment

Issue 10 of Ghost Town, the online lit magazine of California State University-San Bernardino, has been released this week and I’m happy to have a new story in it called “Curbside.”

Anyone can see your shit. They see your cheats, your workarounds, your porn fetishes, your tricks for remembering your passwords—and you have passwords for things you shouldn’t need passwords for, like catching up on whole seasons of The A-Team on Netflix because that’s what you’re good for now.

We used to do things, Duke. We used to have dreams.

That’s what Linnie told him. Or what he remembers her telling him. It was one of her speeches where she pivots subjects midway through. He was holding the remote like a thumbs-up, and before he knew it she was thunking her roller bag down the stairs.

It’s an issue with an impressive cast of poets and prose writers to celebrate the magazine’s 10th anniversary. Many thanks to editor Chad Sweeney and fiction editor Devin Almond.

The Sock Gnome at Juked

June 26, 2018 § Leave a comment

Damien’s paintings had razor wit and were executed flawlessly, but Julianne sensed some hesitation in the timing. She felt compelled to ask if he had ever thought about working on a larger scale, cautiously tossing out the suggestion that while celebrity wreckage (Natalie Wood, Frances Farmer, Amy Winehouse) might seem like a hot subject now it wouldn’t age well, and there might be room for more of him, and he didn’t take it like an uptight asshole when she said this. In fact, he told her he appreciated the critique. That kind of candor is hard to come by in a crowd like this, he said, circling his finger.

It’s probably not a good idea for a writer to have a favorite piece that they’ve produced, but “The Sock Gnome”—published this week at Juked, might be mine. I had a lot of fun writing this story, and I hope it shows. Thanks to Ryan Ridge for giving it a nice home.

Heading to Bread Loaf

May 22, 2018 § Leave a comment

Last week I received the thrilling news that I’ve been accepted as a General Contributor in Fiction to the 2018 Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Middlebury, Vermont.

It’ll be my first time at the conference (this was the first year I applied) and I’m excited and can’t wait for August.

Bad Dates with Mediocre Men

April 14, 2018 § Leave a comment


For a few days at the end of last year, people talked about a short story the way they talked about Stranger Things or American Vandal, by which I mean as part of the seamless cloud of conversation; you became identified, momentarily, by whether or not you had read Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” in The New Yorker. You wondered if you got it, if other people took away the same reactions as you. You imagined the point of view of Robert, or a whole universe-sequel breaking out surrounding Tamara, the roommate. You tried to think of the last time you ate, or even saw a box of, Red Vines.

I had only seen a few links—as in three, maybe five, from writers on Twitter whose taste and judgment I respected—before I sat down to read “Cat Person,” and by then I had already been signaled for aspects to look out for.  What jumped out to me was the natural ambivalence on the part of Margot, about fourteen years younger than Robert but in many respects more mature. The story’s momentum is kept up not just by Robert’s persistence but Margot’s embrace of the attention and her willingness to keep the joke afloat. There’s the psychological up-and-down of her feeling like she’s winning or losing:

When Margot returned to campus, she was eager to see Robert again, but he turned out to be surprisingly hard to pin down. “Sorry, busy week at work,” he replied. “I promise I will c u soon.” Margot didn’t like this; it felt as if the dynamic had shifted out of her favor, and when eventually he did ask her to go to a movie she agreed right away.

And then there’s all the energy one has to spend in thinking up texts, choosing emojis—anything that makes sure the line doesn’t go dead. When characters in fiction send emojis and the writer describes the emoji in words (“Robert sent her back a smiley-face emoji whose eyes were hearts”), then I am not sure what we are doing as writers, but I sure don’t have any better solution. Relationships have always required an ability to read faces and translate code, but now the faces aren’t in front of us and the codes are made up of actual code.

The line that crackled the most, in my humble opinion, came after the bad sex:

Then, out of nowhere, he started talking about his feelings for her.

Out of nowhere, as though we were enjoying the quiet, as though the contract were settled.

“Cat Person” got people reading short stories again, for a while. Poor Zadie Smith, New Yorker stalwart, had to follow Roupenian’s act like Mitzi McCall and Charlie Brill going on Ed Sullivan’s stage right after the Beatles, attaining nowhere near the same level of virality. Sadly, the buzz that “Cat Person” generated seemed to last only as long as the one story, bumped from Internet ubiquity by that plums-in-the-icebox meme, but it did help land its author a seven-figure book deal.

I happened to be in the middle of reading The Best American Short Stories 2017, edited by Meg Wollitzer, toward the end of last year when “Cat Person” showed up. There are two hookup stories in BASS ’17, each told from the perspective of an ambivalent female. It was hard not to read them without thinking of “Cat Person,” given that part of the explanation for the effusively laudatory response to “Cat Person” was that it gave acute insights into modern male-female relationships with a refreshing sensitivity to the burdens that women carry in handling and reacting to delicate male personalities.

In Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Gender Studies,” the male personality is a shuttle driver who chats up the protagonist, a professor in the title subject, after she lands in Kansas City for a conference. He indicates himself as a Trump supporter (“You would never catch me voting for Shrillary”) and comes to the hotel of Nell, whose boyfriend recently dumped her to elope with his young graduate student, after she can’t find her driver’s license.

I recognized in “Gender Studies” the same focus that “Cat Person” devoted to the microcalcuations of conversation. The driver asks Nell if she has a husband, then a boyfriend, and when she tells him no she “immediately regrets it—he gave her two chances, and she failed to take either.”

The driver, names Luke, is a predator. He wangles his way into having a drink with Nell, arriving after his shift in street clothes, including a sleeveless hooded shirt that “makes her cringe.” He orders a Jack and Coke and, to convey that a deal is taking place, tells her, “You ask me, you’re getting a bargain.” He chats her up, and she talks herself into being interested: “Beyond her wish to get her license back, she feels no fondness for the person sitting across the table, but the structure of his life, the path that brought him from birth to this moment, is interesting in the way that anyone’s is.”

There hovers over the story a shadow of threat and submission. Luke refuses to hand over the license until they go up to her room, and in the elevator he nuzzles her neck and “it feels really good; when they are configured like this, it’s difficult to remember she’s not attracted to him.” The reader senses that Luke is up to no good, has too little to lose, and that some internal compromise needs to resolve itself within Nell, but she plays along for a good chunk, right until they’re engaging in oral sex in her hotel room.

The other dating story in BASS ’17 is “Gabe Dove,” by Sonya Larson. “Gabe Dove” is told in the first person from the point of view of Chuntao, who meets the title character “when [she] was sad and attracting men who liked [her] sad.” The sad dates leading up to Gabe Dove are characterized as “some opening acts. Some vaudeville.” A friend sets her up with Gabe Dove, from her church: “And I guess—because Angela and because church—I was expecting a white guy.”

In fact, Gabe Dove is Burmese, and one of his first questions asks Chuntao, “So, what kind of Asian are you?” He is a doctor who still lives cheaply and a little slovenly, but seems excited to have Chuntao around as a person to eat gourmet donuts (from a bakery down the street) with. He takes her to his tiny apartment and they drink Campari:

But I tell you: it was nice. The refrigerator humming at my back, the jittery ceiling fan, and me thinking, I don’t even have to speak, I can just keep lowering this syrupy red medicine in my mouth. Things will happen.

There’s a sharp contrast here to “Cat Person” and “Gender Studies,” not just in reception but mood: Gabe Dove turns out to be a mostly nice guy with some quirks, but perhaps too intense for what Chuntao wants. The same burden placed on Margot from “Cat Person” and Nell from “Gender Studies” is not placed on her (“I didn’t even have to speak”). After sex, Gabe awkwardly apologizes for being hasty:

But I wasn’t sorry: I had wanted him to hurry up. I wasn’t sure what to make of him holding my waist like this, easing the glass from my hand and lowering it to the nightstand. He thanked me. “Thank you,” he said, bending to kiss my shoulder. “Thank you for being here.” For being here? I didn’t know what to say.

The relationship that was never supposed to be a relationship heads south when Chuntao’s self-destructive tendencies get the better of her. That breakdown is what the story is ultimately about, which means that it doesn’t put as much thought into the careful wagers of self-worth that “Cat Person” and “Gender Studies” do.

Part of the wager of “Cat Person” is Margot’s resolve not to let Robert spread outside of the mental compartment he occupies. Even the flirtation is laid out in work-hours:

…over the next several weeks they build up an elaborate scaffolding of jokes via text, riffs that unfolded and shifted so quickly that she sometimes had a hard time keeping up.

And then, after a few dates and some mediocre sex and then out-of-nowhere talk about feelings, Margot asks Robert how old he is.

She could sense him in the dark beside her vibrating with fear.

“No,” she said. “It’s fine.”

“Good,” he said. “It was something I wanted to bring up with you, but I didn’t know how you’d take it.” He rolled over and kissed her forehead, and she felt like a slug he’d poured salt on, disintegrating under that kiss.

She looked at the clock; it was nearly three in the morning. “I should go home, probably,” she said.

“Really?” he said. “But I thought you’d stay over. I make great scrambled eggs!”

The horror of the story comes with the simple fact that Robert can’t take a hint. He keeps texting, needily snarking, as though he and Margot have a thing, and with that assumption, Margot somehow bears some kind of responsibility for his feelings. I think the story went viral precisely because this depiction of a fragile male ego is accurate and familiar and went absent in fiction for so long. Neither Luke nor Gabe Dove are given the same chances by their respective creators to embarrass themselves, because Nell and Chuntao do the work of discrediting themselves first. For all their uselessness and insufficiency, Luke and Gabe at least get the message that their time is up.

Some readers characterized “Cat Person” as a horror story, and on reflection it has all the rhythms of good horror, including the manipulation of psyches and the impossibility of true escape. There’s a filmic presence in these stories: Margot meets Robert at a movie-house concession stand, and Gabe Dove and Chuntao take in a cheesy horror movie. Roupenian, in addition to the lucrative book deal, has also recently sold a script for a horror film to A24 (the production company behind Lady Bird and Moonlight), a work that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, “script shows heightened sensitivity to character development and social dynamics in a subversive way.”