Wednesday, August 17, 2016

August Notes

(photo: Dnevni Avaz)

1. At my core, I'm a stranger to passion. I've seen it in others: a passion for soccer or partying, for example. I've messed around with passion myself. Passion is another word for despair.

2. Commitment is what I know more intimately. I recognized it even as a child whenever I saw pensioners playing bocce or chess in the street. On that patch of dirt in the otherwise leafy park, heavy balls hardly moving, the players were calm and focused. On that folding table covered with a plastic tablecloth with a garish floral pattern, the only pattern the chess players saw was the checkered board and black and beige figures. That has always made sense to me.

3. Even though I only began teaching part-time at the age of 28, and full-time at 38, it's the line of work I knew I'd fall into one way or another. As I write this, I'm 42.

4. For the first 14 years as a teacher, every August, I'd write my syllabi and get excited about the semester to come. I knew my syllabi were fiction, a fantasy of a meticulously charted and (about to be) perfectly executed plan to help a group of strangers, teenagers who had just become adults, take control of language. I'd feel like teaching is my passion. This August, that feeling is finally gone.

5. For most of us, being a teacher involves thinking about teaching non-stop. That thinking is usually not in the forefront: it's more like a quiet but incessant background hum, like the sound of traffic behind closed windows and doors. I used to resent that.

6. For most of us, being a teacher involves knowing what your balance of money and time will be only one semester at a time. If there's enough money, that means you've strung together three or more part-time teaching jobs and will be able to pay for your health insurance, but will have no time to read anything other than student papers nor write anything other than feedback for those papers. (This is a problem when reading compelling books and writing the best work you can is the source of your mental balance.) If there's enough time, it means instant ramen and no health insurance. (The two can be a lethal combination.) I used to fear both scenarios.

7. This August, I feel no excitement, resentment, or fear. In their place, there's detachment.

8. What's the difference between resignation and detachment? In resignation, I'm frustrated and desperate. My ego is wrapped up with my day job, and it's never even remotely satisfied. At the same time, I plunge into a hobby—in my case it's neither a spectator sport nor partying, but that doesn't matter—with passion bordering on desperation.

9. But in detachment, I'm able to do my day job competently, and commit to my work of reading and writing and music with a sense of calm and focus. There might be a hum going on in the background: folders of papers, appointments and trainings, several work inboxes full of emails, ideas for future classroom activities, thoughts about the state of higher ed. So be it. Every day, I plug in my guitar with no other reason but to play it. I put lines on a page with no other reason but to convey images and ideas in a way that surprises me. I open a book for no reason but to experience images and ideas I am not able to convey myself.

Monday, August 3, 2015

A Poetic Trialog

After the anthology Wreckage of Reason II: Back to the Drawing Board came out in 2014, my fellow contributor Andrea Scrima, a Berlin-based US author and fine artist, asked Margarita Meklina, then-San-Francisco-based (now Ireland-based) Russian-American author, and me, a Chicago-based Yugo-American author, to engage in a conversation about what it means to write and experiment between languages, cultures, and geographies. We e-mailed back and forth for a while, and then edited the conversation into "Parataxis and Ponzi Schemes," recently published in The Brooklyn Rail. Here's a quote; click on it to read the whole thing:

Meklina: This is what the world is becoming now: all the artists I love are cross-cultural. They cross boundaries; they test limits. As for me, I’m part Jewish and part Russian, so for many of my relatives on my father’s side, Russian was a second language during the 19th and early 20th century, when they lived in a shtetl. Their first language was Yiddish! When I was young, I made mistakes in Russian, either due to my genes or the fact that I preferred to read rather than watch TV. I didn’t accent the words correctly; I still make these mistakes. And so my somewhat dubious position was determined by my biography: Russian people did not appreciate me being Jewish, and Jewish people didn’t consider me a Halachic Jew. This sense of being torn between my mother’s and father’s blood made me feel cautious and even hurt by both sides, and so coming to the US, where no one knew the difference between Russian, Ukrainian, or Jewish Russian, was a way to break free from all this and become who I wanted to be: a cosmopolitan.

Žabić: Margarita, you make me smile; I can imagine us being pen pals when we were little, fancying ourselves cosmopolitan intellectuals.

When it comes to immersion in American culture, I, like you, find I’m less alienated and more liberated by the fact that even some of my closest friends don’t really know very much about where I come from. They’ll ask me, I’ll tell them, but they’ll forget by the time they see me again. And since the US maintains such hegemony, no American I know finds it objectionable that I moved here and that I write in English.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Three Questions to Three Women Writers, or Russians on Russian... in English (by Margarita Meklina)

My interviewees are three Russian women writers. Each of them – even if they agree to this statement or not – is known for excellent and highly original experimental prose or poetry.

Maria Rybakova, an Assistant Professor of Classics & Humanities at San Diego State University, was born in 1973 in Moscow but now lives in Southern California and writes and publishes her prose in Russian.

Olga Livshin, Head of the Russian Program at Boston University, was born in 1978 in Odessa but now lives in Massachusetts and writes poems in Russian and English.

Natalia Rubanova, who has been working as an editor for several major publishing houses in Moscow, was born in 1974 in Ryazan' and writes in Russian.

I asked these three Russian writers three questions and this is what they answered.

Margarita Meklina:

What is an “experiment” for a writer who writes in her own language but who lives surrounded by a foreign language in a foreign land…?

Maria Rybakova:

I would never attempt an experiment for the experiment's sake. I always seek a form that would be suitable for the content of the novel (i.e., for what I want to say). For example, when writing about love, I think the form of (unanswered) letters seems very fitting, since an attempt at communication is always central in the feelings of love. The life of a translator of an epic poem begs to be written in verse form. And so on. It is very important for me that the reader understands me, that the style does not overshadow the sense in any way. Unclear writing is bad writing, I think.

As for writing in a language different from the one spoken around me, I am a bit lost for an answer because I first became an author while living abroad, and it has never been otherwise for me. I am sure it plays a role, without a doubt. There is a sense of writing equalling remembering (the language, the people). I write in a language that I left when I was twenty. And in some way, when I write, I am reminded of how I was before I was twenty, sad and isolated and attention-seeking. Yet my everyday (non-writing) persona is pretty well-adjusted. That's just one split; there are probably many more. But each of us is many people at once, you don't have to leave the country you were born in to realize that.

Margarita Meklina:

Olga, I'm going to ask you the same question: what is an “experiment” for a writer who writes in a foreign language (English) but who hasn't forgotten her native one (Russian)?

Olga Livshin:

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that to experiment is to “discover something unknown,” but also, paradoxically, to “test a hypothesis or illustrate some known truth.” In my twenties, I was fascinated by the first meaning of the two. I thought mixing Russian and English within the boundaries of a poem was going to lead to a new and explosive language. It was like the Impressionists putting paint brushstrokes of contrasting colors next to each other on a canvas, which led them to a new esthetic. And then there was the notion that I came to this country as a teenager, without really wanting to be here, and although my English was serviceable, I felt a little out of place with my perceptions of things most of the time. It was constant work to try to repress or conceal these perceptions in order to fit in, and sometimes I just wanted out. That was another reason why I wanted to import some semblance of Russian into English into the text. To turn the tables on the mostly American, native-speaker reader: what is it like not to understand, to be the other?

Then I realized I was missing the musicality of poetry: Russian uses a different alphabet, so most readers wouldn’t have the vaguest idea of what certain parts of the poem sounded like. It also started to feel a little mean and condescending – imposing unreadable graphemes on the reader. I do like the second OED definition, the one that refers to illustrating a truth, or a hypothesis about what the truth might be. And the deepest truth of one’s emotions and thoughts is often a composite. I think of the psyche along the lines of Bakhtinian heteroglossia, a patchwork of voices we carry within us. Many of mine were or are Russian in origin, but I think it’s fine to translate them into English. (Or vice versa—I also write poetry in Russian). What matters are the vicarious presences of the people who left their mark.

A task that I think is especially urgent for bicultural writers is to uncover the lived truths of power imbalances, misplaced expectations and stereotypes, in our home countries as well as our new homes. The broad expectations of what people think you are as a new American alone are often so tragi-comical. Isn’t it wonderful how there are twenty kinds of soap in our grocery stores? Aren’t you grateful that we gave you a job? Why are you still speaking your native language? These human experiences might be silent or marginal, but they’re quite real. One author who writes about these kinds of issues with poignancy and naturalness is the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The discrepancy she shows is that people are so very similar despite national boundaries, yet immigrants are often treated as less than equal, even less than human.

Margarita Meklina:

Natalia, here’s a question for you: what is an “experiment” for you, for a writer who writes in her own language and lives in a country where you were born?

Natalia Rubanova:

I never got immersed into “experimental” prose on purpose, even though some literary critics consider it experimental because of their [backwards] mentality and love for a so-called “tradition” based on a bleak, boring realism. Luckily, my texts do not fit there: they are a specificity of my brain, a physiology of soul, if one can say so. To write as one feels. I never think what “label” these “text workers” would attach to my texts.

Margarita Meklina:

Olga, could you please list the pluses and minuses of anthologies which put together writers based on their gender or sexual orientation or community (e.g., “Appalachian prose” or “Poems from Russian provinces”)?

Olga Livshin:

Wait, there is an anthology of gay provincial Russian women who immigrated to Appalachia? Seriously, I think it’s the power of the authors to sweep us away into their worlds that makes a difference between a not-so-great anthology and a terrific one. If we are taken into the universes of today’s downtrodden, or those who the world believes to be fine but they are not – that is great. Still, even in the case of writers who have a strong group identity, it’s the imaginative stories they tell, not the label or slogan, that give credence to the group. The label is familiar and uninteresting. It’s the stories that break out. They give the group a kind of rough, gleaming texture, something the reader might hold on to and care about.

Margarita Meklina:

Natalia, and what's your opinion about such anthologies?

Natalia Rubanova:

Frankly speaking, I see no pluses – any “highly specialized” anthology narrows down the audience and inadvertently labels its authors in a certain way.

Margarita Meklina:

Maria, do you agree with Natalia's statement? What do you think?

Maria Rybakova:

If it gives new writers some sort of exposure, then perhaps it is a good opportunity for beginning authors to be published. Although I am not sure who reads that sort of anthologies. I am afraid they may be just gathering dust on bookshop shelves. A more reasonable tendency is to organize anthologies focusing on a literary movement: say, an anthology of Beatnik poetry or something. Or a collection of ghost stories, or true-crime writing.

Margarita Meklina:

And now my third question to the three of you. Let's assume what you write can be characterized as “women's experimental prose.” What do you lack to succeed (e.g., time, inspiration, conversations with someone who shares your desires and writing style, money, bookstores to give readings at, positive examples, etc.)?

Olga Livshin:

I think it’s so interesting that writing can populate all of those places of lack you listed. When I was pregnant, I dragged my feet to work, an anti-nausea lollipop sticking out of my mouth while teaching (Russian 101 / Morning Sickness 1,000). I thought the writing life was done for an indefinite period of time. Then Scott Turner Schofield, a wonderful performer who directed my first play, suggested that I could do a poetry performance about pregnancy, and I did, at the Spenard Jazz Festival in Alaska where I was living. I was carrying a son – which I thought meant, among other things, that for a short time in my life I was simultaneously both sexes. So I danced with a onesie that had a man’s tie painted on it, and I serenaded my yet-unborn son as I danced. This was so light-hearted and jubilant… I was high on love.

Then, when I had him, the labor was complicated and I was sick for a long time afterwards. But somehow poetry started puttering sometime around when Nathan was four months old. I guess I was getting used to the idea my child and I might start enjoying a close, adoring relationship without the medical shadows hanging over, at least some of the time. In tough times you have a certain amount of darkness and quiet. I sat in our puffy, broken, fake-suede-upholstered rocking chair at 2 AM and wrote lines in my head about Nathan while rocking him to sleep. I don’t think I was thinking anyone would read these poems. They came because of this hiding, and grief, and uninterrupted love. Obstacles can be interesting places to visit.

Margarita Meklina:

Maria, what's your view on the obstacles?

Maria Rybakova:

If there is anything that prevents me from writing more, then it's laziness. Although, of course, if I could quit my day job, I would quit it immediately. But part of me thinks that hating one's day job may be a good thing for writing, actually. I think it's a good thing to hate everything except writing. Not because writing is so good, but because the world and people are so god-awful. Anger is a very inspiring emotion, I find.

As for women's writing, I never felt a part of that, because I never felt as a woman. I have a woman's anatomy and I have sex with men, but I never felt as a woman (or a as man for that matter). I always felt neither female nor male, but just some sort of a vague “person.” It suited me just fine. I never spent much time with other people, and so I never felt any need to define myself.

Margarita Meklina:

Natalia, and what about you, “women's experimental prose” and obstacles?

Natalia Rubanova:

This is a funny question. “Women’s experimental prose.” Why “women’s”? There is just prose, and there is just literature… Uzh skolko raz tverdili miru (the world was told this so many times)… Is it normal to divide prose for F and M? Isn't this similar to signs on bathrooms? My prose is not an experiment for me… and what do I lack? A publisher who is a soul mate and who is ready to invest not only in my prose collections, but also into at least some minimal PR: nowadays, to announce and sell a new book without PR and promotion is quite unrealistic.

Margarita Meklina:

And that's why we are working here, on this Tumbler, on our own PR, promoting ourselves and the women writers' anthology Wreckage of Reason II where I'm one of the authors. About myself: I was born in Leningrad in 1972 and came to the US right in time to celebrate my 22nd birthday, but – as my short story “Jump” from WORII clearly shows – I'm still torn between English and Russian, between the United States where I’ve spent the past twenty years and between my country of birth.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

NYC Launch of Wreckage of Reason II and Katabasis Rewritten

(pic above: "a book selfie" by Lillian Ann Slugocki)

Wreckage of Reason II: Back to the Drawing Board was launched in the anthology's hometown of New York City. Check out Lillian Ann Slugocki's post about the launch and then read her interview with Elizabeth Bachner. Here's a little bit of it:

Elizabeth Bachner on her story "How to Shake Hands with a Murderer": This piece is a katabasis, a hero's trip into the underworld (and maybe back?). The protagonist is a girl separated, heartbreakingly, from her love, her best friend--she's lost him to various literal and metaphoric deaths--he's become a rock star, or a junkie, he's far away and they can't find each other, he's died and been buried, they've both transformed in ways they can't understand, he was a boy and now he's trapped in her memory, or lost in the dark adult world. Any katabasis is also a story about the process of writing, about where you have to go, and what you have to do to yourself, to get the unspeakable into words.

Read all about it, thanks to Karen Lillis and her series Writer on Writer!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Rhyme Circle: Ja imam sarene oci / novac nece doci / medjutim ovisnik o moci / na kraju nece dobro proci

Although Koja has been a part of my consciousness seemingly my whole childhood, the first time I remember being fully engrossed in his music was when he appeared with his band Dicsiplina Kicme on TV and did "Novac nece doci." I think Koja burned some dinar bills then, but I couldn't find a video of that. Here is a non-video of a kick-ass live performance:

His latest is a rhyme throwback to that song. Twenty-nine years later, the current lineup of Disciplin A Kitschme releases "Ovisnik o moci."

In my silly translation:

"Novac nece doci" (1985):
My eyes are kaleidoscope
Will I get cash? Nope!

"Ovisnik o moci" (2014):
However if power is your dope
Will you fare well? Nope!

Monday, April 21, 2014

REPOST: Writer on Writer: E.C. Bachner Interviews Lillian Ann Slugocki

Note: I am simply reposting Karen the Small Press Librarian's blog entry from April 20, 2014. All hail Karen Lillis! Be sure to check out her blog and the other interviews from the Writer on Writer Series.

This installment in the Writer on Writer interview series has a twist: Instead of asking the participants to read a whole book, I asked two writers involved in the same anthology to read each other's anthology piece. The anthology in question is one I'm proud to be included in as well. Wreckage of Reason Two (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014) is the sequel to Wreckage of Reason (Spuyten Duyvil, 2008), and both anthologies feature contemporary women writers experimenting with prose. This week's Writer on Writer features E.C. Bachner and Lillian Ann Slugocki, two New Yorkers whose bold narrative voices pop off the page. Today E.C. (Elizabeth) Bachner interviews Lillian Ann Slugocki about Lillian's story, "Streetcar Deconstructed."

Stay tuned, as always, for the second part of the interview, when Lillian will ask Elizabeth about Elizabeth's story, "How to Shake Hands with a Murderer."


Elizabeth Bachner: I'm obsessed with the idea of whether there are differences between a character and a person, an author and a self, and I love the brilliant and playful way your feminist deconstruction of A Streetcar Named Desire approaches these questions. What are your ways of thinking about autobiography versus fiction, "real" versus imaginary or invented? How do you use yourself in your work? How does your work change and shape your life?

Lillian Ann Slugocki: My life is like this scrapbook of stories, and people, and cities--and I look at it, dispassionately, as the raw material for my work. But having said that, there are many layers over and under the autobiography. I layer myth--my current obsessions are Leda, Orpheus, Eurydice and Leander--as well as narrative structure--e.g. a conflict and its resolution, as well as intertexuality. I use echoes of T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Angela Carter, plus all the lit crit I studied at New York University: Judith Butler, Thelma Shinn, Gayle Green, Mircea Eliade, Luce Irigaray, Julie Kristeva, and Audre Lord. The result is that the I, first person, in my work is me, but not me--an amplified version. Stronger, wiser, certainly more flawed, and certainly more interesting.

People who read my work are usually very quick to assume that it’s straight up autobiography, like when they read The Blue Hours, my novella about the sexual disintegration of a marriage. But real life can be very boring. I’m convinced that even memoirists are not unlike novelists--they use plot arcs, they deconstruct, compress, they add and subtract in similar ways--because it’s all in service of telling a story. And real life doesn’t contain those structural elements. There is an art to choosing where to begin a story, and where to end it, amongst all the hundreds of possibilities. The writer makes those choices, whether the genre is fiction or non-fiction. And I tend to write stories about the things that are of concern to me at any given moment. It could be identity, it could be sexuality or the female body, it could be history--and in writing them, I think I better understand the context of my own life.

Elizabeth: In your deconstruction of Streetcar..., there are so many different ways that you approach and confront Tennessee Williams as a writer, his characters, the fact of playwriting, the fact of theater, the canon. There's parody, lots of wit and fun and adventure, and definitely deconstruction--but primarily I'm left with a feeling of love for both works, yours and his. Could you say a little about your experience of this process?

Lillian: Oh God, I do love that play. I’ve seen so many versions of it-- theatrical and cinematic. Ivo van Hove directed it at New York Theater Workshop, and it was a stunning deconstruction. Life-changing. No sets, no scenery, no props, no costume changes--just a large claw-footed bathtub, stage left. Filled with water. And Blanche, played by Elizabeth Marvel, is naked in that bathtub, submerging and rising up, over and over, splashing water all over the stage and the audience--I got drenched! The spine of that production was the bathtub and the naked woman.

This is the detail the director chose as his point of departure from Williams’ text. And I knew I was going to deconstruct it, too--but it took ten years. It wasn’t until I was reading all of the above-referenced lit crit, primarily in my own ongoing search to define and categorize and reinvent the female narrative, that I thought it was time to revision Blanche. And like van Hove chose the bathtub as the point of departure, I chose the white moth, which is a relatively small leitmotif in the play. But it gave me a point of entrance--it opened the door, if you will, to her revisioned character. In my version, Blanche has a Master’s Degree from NYU (like me), and has read all the same theory, and at that point, the piece practically wrote itself. And I am making fun of the canon, as well as academic culture, of which I am a proud member, but a culture nonetheless that deserves to be made fun of. The canon, as it stands, is ridiculously outdated.

Elizabeth: When you're working--and/or reading and thinking about your own work--how do you think about your readers, your audience? Do you often have readers in general, a particular type of reader, or a particular reader in mind as you work?

Lillian: Initially, I have a word or a phrase or an image in my head that won’t go away. Like the image of the white moth on a hot summer’s night. And at that point, I’m not at all concerned about my audience. I treat my first drafts as letters to myself. It’s not until I’m on the second re-write that I become concerned with issues like: what is the story I’m telling, what is the arc, where does it begin, and where does it end, what is the through-line, what are the sub-plots, is everything resolved by the end of the story. I think my readers are people like myself; intelligent, driven, transgressive, definitely subversive.

Elizabeth: I love the way that bodies and sexuality come into the work of yours that I've read. What inspires you to work with erotic themes?

Lillian: One way to answer that question is to say, I’m obsessed with the intersection between the sacred and the profane. Another way to answer that question, goes to back to my issue with today’s canon. I believe women have to create their own narratives, and female sexuality has been, with a few notable exceptions (Anais Nin, Colette), written through the male gaze. That just has to change, and it is changing--erotica written by women has exploded, some of it is badly written, some of it is really well written, Angela Carter comes to mind. But good or bad, it’s good to see it out there in the world. I think that means that eventually women can reclaim their own sexual identity. Right now, we don’t own it, we haven’t written that definition, or told that story yet. Even as the fourth wave of feminism rises up, female sexuality is still primarily a male trope. And that informs everything. It informs Anna Karenina, it informs Blanche DuBois, Eve, Lilith, Mary Magdalene, Cinderella. Images of women in even the most stable of texts are informed by this trope.

So that’s what it is with me and erotica--it’s another way of reframing or renaming the female narrative. It’s like saying, I've got control of this now, and the story is going to be very, very different from what you’re expecting. And I’d like to think it’s honest and authentic, even if it might be a bit hard to swallow (pun definitely intended). I think a person’s sexual identity is the still point of our turning world. It is foundational, and I’m not even talking about how a person self-identifies--straight, gay, lesbian, bi, whatever--sexuality is a driving and undeniable force in our lives. And it is definitely political. The female body is still a wild and uncharted territory, but again, this is changing. I think of performance artists like Julie Atlas Muz, Deb Margolin, writers like Erin Cressida Wilson, and yourself, Elizabeth--female artists, who, in my opinion, write beyond the ending, who write beyond the white picket fence, beyond happily-ever-after.

Elizabeth: Another of the Wreckage of Reason 2 contributors, Robin Martin, wrote that she was glad panelists discussing the anthology at AWP raised the question of what makes prose experimental. "I don’t think my work is clearly experimental," she wrote, "By that, I mean I feel my work is still very accessible. Perhaps I like the term innovative writing better. Innovative writing has a smaller audience in mind, no pre-determined formula, and exists outside of easily defined narrative conventions." I'm really interested in this question. Do you consider your work experimental? Innovative? Or do you like some other word?

Lillian: I like both words, I like experimental and innovative. Whether I’ve written for the page or the stage, my work definitely “exists outside of easily defined narrative convention.” I pitched a series once to the Director of Artistic Programming at NPR, and when he received the first episode, Earth Sinking Into Water, he said, “This shouldn’t work, but it does.” And even though I was working with an excellent dramaturge and director, Erica Gould, I didn’t understand why it worked, either, except that it did. It was non-linear, it was progressive, but still it packed a strong emotional punch at its conclusion. Now I understand that it worked because it was structured like a piece of music. And today when I’m considering a long form piece, the narrative borrows many elements from the hero’s journey, as in Joseph Campbell's call to adventure, or the refusal of the call, mentors and guides, demons and conflicts, crossing the first threshold, the supreme ordeal. Or the way back, but not the same anymore--transformed, perhaps bearing gifts. I can work with this--it makes organic sense to me.

I just finished writing a novella, How to Travel with Your Demons, and the process began with a formal question: Could I tell a story about a protagonist traveling from Point A to Point B, and leave one central question unanswered which would create narrative tension? And I could. I did. And once I established that framework, then I could create the music around it, establish motifs, smaller conflicts that all circle around the central narrative. When an editor friend of mine read it, he called it "experimental structure with accessible prose." And I thought, yes. That’s exactly what I was aiming for. And I like breaking rules, too. The story is written in shifting points of view--first person, second person, third person. Time is fluid, non-linear, circular. I know the rules, and so I can break the rules, and still tell a story. So in that sense my work is experimental, but I can’t tell a story within the traditional confines of established narrative structure. It doesn’t make sense to me as a writer, it feels foreign and strange. I love it as a reader, but that’s not the same. And I love what you wrote [in our forthcoming interview], Elizabeth, that your Wreckage of Reason Two piece, "How to Shake Hands with a Murderer," is “a katabasis, a hero's trip into the underworld (and maybe back?).” Using powerful ancient storytelling techniques in contemporary stories of transformation is something I love doing with my own work. This process is really exciting to me, and maybe the katabasis will be my next method in my own search for the female narrative.


Don't miss the New York launch party for Wreckage of Reason Two, at KGB Bar on Tuesday, April 22 from 7-9pm.

Monday, April 14, 2014

UIC's Program for Writers Reading Series Celebrates Wreckage of Reason II (Striped Tops Encouraged)

(l-r: Snezana Zabic, Lyndee Yamshon, Brooke Wonders)

The walls in the back room at Jak's are painted apricot, contrasting the dark brown paneling. The very basic metal-pedestal tables are covered with long white tablecloths, and the floor's whitish tiles have seen better days. A cracked mirror ball hangs above it all, perhaps a survivor from one of the previous century's original discos. The decor at Jak's might be charmingly outdated, but the food and drinks are both carefully prepared and low-priced, and the management has always welcomed writers, letting them hold events for a nominal fee or no fee at all.

It's the first Monday of the cruelest month, and the University of Illinois at Chicago's Department of English is hosting a reading to celebrate the fact that three of its recent or soon-to-be graduates appear in the anthology Wreckage of Reason II: Back to the Drawing Board (WoR2): Brooke Wonders, Lyndee Yamshon, and Snezana Zabic (yours truly). To make the coincidence stranger, our professor Cris Mazza and our classmate Megan Milks appear in the first installment of Wreckage of Reason. In fact when I submitted, I assumed I would not get picked because I figured (on top of all the regular contingencies), what are the odds?

It's a bit past 6 PM, and our classmates, professors, and friends fill the room. Due to the tight schedule of the Program for Writers Reading Series, the reading takes place as planned, even though the anthology has not officially come out; this is actually my first time hearing Brooke's and Lyndee's WoR2 pieces. I do know from our past encounters that the three of us share a tendency to play with genres and resist easy classification as either fiction or nonfiction writers. Our evening's MC, poet Tyler Mills, has us go in the alphabetical order, our last names squished right there at the end of the alphabet, missing only an X.

First, Brooke reads her completely fictional short story titled "Memoir," a fable starring a talking, living book and her owner Lucy. "The Book" not only self-records the owner's most embarrassing moments, but also passes itself down the matrilineal line generation after generation against the recipients' will.

Next, Lyndee regales us with "Frankly Fucked Up In E-Town," a humorous snapshot of an unemployed drama school graduate forced to move back into her old room in her overbearing parents' upper-middle-class home in Evanston, IL. The audience relates immediately, because we all know what it means to be infantilized by our parents as we and they age, regardless of the economic and geographic circumstance.

So, we've got a fable and a satire. What else is missing? A haibun, of course. My piece, "Failing Haibun" grabs the Medieval Japanese form and stretches it to fit an episodic narrative that travels from a humble tube radio in a kitchen in Yugoslavia in 1979, to a transatlantic plane stranded in Brest, France in 2001, with the 1990s Yugoslav Wars squeezed in between.

Afterward, Tyler delivers a few parting words, this being the last reading of the Series for 2013/2014. It's Brooke's birthday, so we sing, and then the crowd slowly migrates to Jak's main room and beyond.

As I write this, I wonder about the subtitle of the anthology and the effect it has: An Anthology of Contemporary Xxperimental Women Writers. Is there something inherent in our gender that makes our writing experimental? Of course not, and the term "xxperimental" is purely tongue-in-cheek, lest anyone think all this comes from some essentialist impulses. Rather this anthology is a political statement.

Just a final thought--in the past two decades, on both sides of the Atlantic, the only spaces that were open to me as a writer were the "innovative," "experimental," "non-commercial," "non-marketable" ones. And yet, my writing is quite accessible, as is Brooke's and Lyndee's and, I have no doubt, our fellow anthology contributors' work. Yes, we play with form and language, but all in the service of crafting compelling writing for a broad literary audience tired of formulaic prose. So what gives? Do the politics of patriarchy, racism, and capitalism collude or collide? And how do writers fight? Well, to be continued...

Meanwhile, keep up with all the contributors' adventures on the WoR2 superblog!