Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Broken Records: The Playlist, or, The Three Brunettes

On or around March 21, 2016, punctum books released my hybrid memoir/discography Broken Records, in which I recall what it was like to be a teenager, and then a 20-something, and then a 30-something during and after the break up of Yugoslavia, and all the wars, secessions, and nation-building, from about 1991 to about 2008. As ridiculously huge and heavy as all that sounds, the memoir is less than 190 pages long.

To mark the anniversary, here's my YouTube playlist with all the 49 songs from the book. It's possibly the most random playlist ever, but it will all make sense to my readers.

The opening song of the playlist, by the one and only Sabrina, isn't mentioned in the book directly, but it's an example of Euro disco pop which I do reference as the garish musical wallpaper of my childhood.

The very last song, "Because the Night" by Patti Smith, is the song I sang in Belgrade as NATO missiles were about to strike their first targets on March 24, 1999, when I was 25. Again, my readers find all this completely reasonable.

Monday, March 13, 2017

My New Yorker Life, March 13, 2017

On the day I turned 43, I retyped 43 sentences from the first 43 pages of the March 13 issue of The New Yorker. I didn't want any sentences with names, titles, or place names, and so I'd just read until I found a sentence on each page that fit my criteria. This both a lot like and very different from My Life by Lyn Hejinian, and anything by Conceptual Writers.

How refugees escape to safety. She is working on a novel. As if we need data to prove that human reason has its limits! Create something personal for your home with one of these needlepoint kits. He has already rethought the cavernous 808 drums of his city’s sound. It blends the romance between the son of an oyster farmer and the daughter of an aristocrat with a criminal investigation into the disappearance of several tourists. The comic action – set against the backdrop of war and chaos sparked by governmental folly – involves traumas and comas, grief and anguish. Best show on television. Dance music, with its easy beat and ever-expanding appeal, has influenced all kinds of musicians, banging sounds and styles into rigid form while working through new tones in real time. They changed the face of a nation. Who said there’s no more music on television? We’re bringing you art + ideas that inspire and provoke. It is time to rattle the cage. And the cast was charged with obscenity. We’re in the late eighties, with appropriate music cues.

Just when you thought you’d seen it all. Best of the year! Its curiously symmetrical composition has a flattening effect. Opera and dance have a long history as bedfellows, though since the late nineteenth century they have been more or less estranged. The tall man puts on the chignon and the little voice again. According to the legend, the impish goblins like to materialize in dark, humid corners, mostly after dusk, and sometimes when the air moistens with rain. My no. 1 color combination – as featured in my collections dating back to the 1960s and now revisited here in spring 2017. See: museums, monuments and memorials. Catch the blossoms. The month-long celebration of international cultures offers two embassy open houses. We’re familiar with the contours of the story.

A man of few intimates, he often cites acquaintances. We’ve been told that a few of the ticket holders are planning to cause trouble. But I’m a human first.

If nobody comes here, it’s not the land of the free. A dozen or so people show up each day, looking for advice, protection, and a place to sleep. My life here is so hard and dangerous. The accommodations are clean, if rudimentary: creaky wooden floors, clanking radiators, leaky bathrooms, and steel-framed beds. Behold, as I guide our conversation to my narrow area of expertise. The real story, in real time. Does this feel calm? I am going for the unknown. I don’t have enough money in my wallet. More people are making hasty decisions. Is this normal? I always have my own rules, and I can bend them if I want. Like heaven.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Packingtown Review: Volume 8

I helped found this Chicago mag back in 2008. It has taught me how to edit serious literary works. It's been introducing me to writers from around the world, and it's teaching me how to code. Volume 8 is up.

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.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Stars on Fire, the World in Flames

In my brain, there is a video file. If I hit play, I see two married couples--my parents one of the couples--and a single dude in a car. (I wasn't there; my brain simply filed away a story I heard as a child.) My dad is driving, the single dude is in the passenger seat. In the back seat: my mom, her friend, and her friend's husband, also a close friend. They're crossing a bridge after an evening out. It's a broad, gorgeous concrete bridge over the Danube, somewhere in the Pannonian part of Yugoslavia. As they're driving across the empty bridge in the middle of the night circa summertime 1978, the radio is playing an old-timey, waltzy song. My dad pulls over, opens the door to the small Fiat-ish car (but made in Yugoslavia and thus called simply Fitcho), and the song spills and trickles all over the concrete bridge like syrup in a 3/4 time signature. On cue they all exit the car, and my mom's friend and my dad begin waltzing all around the car.

The brain file is a reworking of a story nobody remembers. But I remember my dad telling that story and commenting how the single dude--a foreign friend, it turns out--who was hanging out with them was a bit shocked that two friends of the opposite sex who were not married to each other would hold each other and dance. The foreign friend had came to Yugoslavia from another country to study. He had to learn the language from scratch in order to become an engineer. He made friends, such as my parents and their friends. But he never drank and never danced with a girl. My dad and his friend danced to show him that it wasn't a big deal. I remember that story and I remember feeling embarrassed for my parents and their assumptions about this foreign friend, who I hadn't even suspected, for a long time, was a foreign friend, since I had little concept of countries. But, having learned he was a guest in "our" country, my gut told me it just wasn't proper host-like behavior for my parents and their friends to make assumptions and try to educate their friend who had just obtained his medical or engineering degree.

This friend was, I understand that now, from one of the Arabic countries that had joined the Non-Alignment Movement, along with Yugoslavia, India, Indonesia, Ghana, and Egypt, back in the 60s. Instead of studying in his own country or in the West, he ended up in Yugoslavia. Perhaps he later married a Yugoslav and stayed in the country. Or perhaps he settled back in his homeland. Or found a third country. Perhaps he had to flee and become a refugee in 1991 or 1992 or 1995 or 1999. Or 2016. 

Perhaps he remembers that evening on the bridge, that waltz, the feeling of lightheadedness, the laughter, the certainty of a bright future in the summer night. Perhaps he remembers looking up at the sky, at all the same constellations he'd see back in Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria. (I still don't know where he was from. I was too young to grasp geography back in the 70s.) Perhaps he remembers his provincial, well-meaning friends dancing on the bridge, and perhaps he remembers his punk rock friends in Belgrade jumping around to this crazy record called "Non-Alignment Pact" by Pere Ubu that was new at the time. They sang:

I wanna make a deal with you girl
And get it signed by the heads of state
I wanna make a deal with you girl
Be recognized round the world
It's my nonalignment pact
Nonalignment pact
Sign it!

At night I can see the stars on fire
I can see the world in flames

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.