Tag Archives: Fall 2017

Discovery in Darkness: An Interview with Samanta Schweblin

photo by Alejandra Lopez

by Allan Vorda and Liliana Avila

Samanta Schweblin was born in Argentina in 1978. In 2001 Schweblin published her first book, The Nucleus of Disturbances; this was followed by Birds in the Mouth (2009), Rescue Distance (2014), and a collection of stories called Seven Empty Houses (2015). All of her books were originally published in her native Spanish. At the invitation of the German government she moved to Berlin for a writing residency; there, she finished Rescue Distance, which recently was published in an arresting English translation (by Megan McDowell) with the new title of Fever Dream (Riverhead, $25).

Fever Dream is a short novel involving a deathbed conversation between a woman named Amanda and a young boy named David. The story itself is like a fever dream that moves in and out of both time and reality. Something in the rural countryside, possibly water or pesticides, is making the people very ill. When David was sick, his mother, Carla, took him to a woman “in the green house” who healed him by “transmigration”—moving some of the illness to another person. David’s focus now is to make Amanda understand the “exact moment,” while Amanda’s focus is to maintain a “rescue distance” from her daughter to try and prevent her from getting ill.

For this interview, Allan Vorda wrote questions in English and Liliana Avila wrote questions in Spanish. Avila then translated the English questions into Spanish, and translated Schweblin’s answers to both sets of questions into English. The result below is a window into one of the most unique Spanish writers at work today.

Allan Vorda: You were born in Buenos Aires in 1978. What was it like growing up there and what was your educational background?

Samanta Schweblin: I was born in Buenos Aires but grew up in Hurlingham, a neighborhood that at that time bordered with more rural areas. The route, for example, that is very present in my books, I took it every morning to go to school. In the same block one could have a pharmacy with its large neon sign, and on the other corner a chicken coop and horses tied to a light pole. I think that something of this area where the countryside and the city come together has been very marked in my texts. It was a very free childhood; I could leave home alone since I was little, and I had gangs of friends. These are unthinkable things for a ten-year-old to do now in Buenos Aires, with the violent and insecure place that the city has become.

My literary training began on my seventeenth birthday, when I began attending literary workshops in the capital. I also enjoyed the fifty-minute trip to the city by train, the personal feeling of independence that let me go alone with that excuse. Then, I did the film career, which was also a great push for writing, because I specialized in the area of the screenplay. I kept going to literary workshops until I was thirty.

AV: Since you were born in Argentina, the country of the great Jorge Luis Borges, did his writing have any influence on you? What about other South American writers such as the Brazilian Machado de Assis, the Columbian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and any other writers?

SS: Of course. I always say that I fell in love with literature by reading the Americans. Borges has always fascinated me, but from the intellectual side, not so much from the emotional, which I believe is the one that penetrates deeper in my inspirations. I was fascinated by Juan Rulfo, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Julio Cortázar, María Luisa Bombal, Alfonsina Storni, Antonio di Benedetto. It is a tradition that I have learned a lot, and to which I owe my fascination for the strange, the unusual, and the dark.

Liliana Avila All of your previous works until Fever Dream have been published in Spanish. Before we get into Fever Dream perhaps you can discuss a couple of stories from Siete Casas Vacias (Seven Empty Houses). What inspired you to write this book? What do you want to convey to the reader?

SS: Several things. The loneliness and isolation that lead us to language, and how many times we fail to communicate what connects us. But I did not want a dense, dark book at all. Or maybe dark, but not a sad and painful darkness; rather the darkness to which one looks to discover new things. These characters have dragged their problems for a long time, and precisely because of the extreme situation to which they have come, each one discovers something like a “healthy location” that allows them to escape, or to heal themselves, or to think in a different way.

LA: In the first house, mother and daughter are lost in a neighborhood. Then they enter a house that they damaged a little bit with their car. Why does the mother not seem to care about this, yet is distracted admiring a sugar container? Why was the sugar container the point of her attention in all of the chaos?

SS: I think that’s part of what the story is about. These are decisions that I take from the intuitive, and I find it’s difficult to think from a more rational place. But perhaps, as readers, following these two women with this interrogation ringing behind our backs forces us to look at what happens with a different attention.

LA: It seems to me that in every house you try to reflect a situation of stress, such as when the inhabitants run naked through the house. This seems to be a daily situation. Why does the family see this as normal?

SS: The idea was to play a little with social and cultural boundaries. I think we live in a world where “the normal,” is just a cut that each society creates for itself, but leaves out a number of situations, thoughts, and events as part of what we catalog as normal. In this story, for example, it is considered acceptable for children to play nude. It is also considered acceptable that two old men—possibly with Alzheimer’s—run naked through the garden. But it is not considered acceptable that both couples play naked together. When the narrator sees his children and their parents playing naked, it seems to be the freest, most beautiful and sincere event that he has seen in a long time, but from the gaze of the rest of the family the situation is out of control, and the danger is imminent. Where is the limit then?

AV: What was the genesis for writing Fever Dream, which was originally called Rescue Distance (Distancia de Rescate)?

SS: Rescue Distance began as a tale of which I wrote dozens of versions, but it just did not work. It was in one of those many drafts that David’s voice appeared. When David spoke, he ordered everything. During my writing process, David asked Amanda “what’s important?” This is a question that is repeated throughout the book and that somehow I was also asking myself. Forcing me not to split, to advance as fast as possible but also attentive to every detail. I discovered that it was a story that needed a different time signature; I needed introspection, review, and the search that only an intense dialogue between two people could give me.

For me, even in the most subtle and introspective story, it’s all about tension: this is the thread that ties a reader to story, something in the rhythm and in the argument that hypnotizes and pushes us to read with great attention. As a reader, I love the storytellers who play with this, and as a writer it is something I always look for. I think I have learned to develop some of this in my stories, but Fever Dream was quite a challenge because I did not know if I would be able to keep that thread tense beyond the ten or twenty pages to which I was accustomed to working as a storyteller.

AV: The novel is set in a clinic where Amanda lays dying and conversing with a young boy named David. It seems in their conversations that the boy is more knowledgeable about the events they are recounting. Why is this?

SS: David is a boy who is only eight or nine years old. But at four years old he underwent a strong intoxication that almost took his life. Helped by a “healer” to which his mother took him (or perhaps by his own efforts to survive—I like to keep both possibilities open), David was able to survive. But something changes in him; he has been too close to death, maybe even touched it, and it is as if something of that darkness had been growing all that time in him. Now he is still a child, but seems to bring from that closeness with death some vital information, a knowledge that no one who has not travelled that route can have. That is why he is able to help Amanda, because the path she is making toward death is the same path he has made a few years back.

AV: And where did the idea of transmigration come from?

SS: That was my invention. As the healer explains, if you can migrate part of one body to another, you can also divide intoxication, and then, divided now into two bodies, intoxication loses strength, and could be neutralized. But the “healer,” “the woman of the green house,” is not an invention. In my childhood, I met many women like her, even in Argentina where I always lived in the city. And in the field these figures are even stronger. Our health system leaves us exposed to the most humble workers—especially those who work around the soybean areas—and these women are a great incentive, sometimes the only one they can access.

AV: Nina answers her mother, Amanda, in plural to what David says, “I like that. About the plural.” This seems to suggest the plurality of existence between David and Amanda.

SS: That’s right. It is a very subtle nod for the most attentive readers. But there is a sort of circularity in history, or perhaps a certain fatality in the destinies of these characters, which makes the idea of ”the plural” already in Nina even long before their migration is made.

AV: Amanda says to David, “I think about you, or about the other David, the first David without his finger.” Who is this other David?

SS: Amanda says this by recalling the strong sentence of Carla, David’s mother, who in her first conversation in the garden of Amanda’s house confesses that this David is no longer her son. The previous David was an angel, but the transmigration has not left anything of that child, and now it’s a “monster.”

AV: David wants Amanda to focus on the “exact moment,” which he says is: “It’s something in the body. But it’s almost imperceptible, we have to pay attention.” Why is this so important for David? Also, since Amanda is dying, then why can’t Amanda have the woman in the green house to do transmigration on her?

SS: David and Amanda try to understand together what has happened. That’s why we thoroughly review Amanda’s last days over and over, trying to see each step in more detail. The exact moment is when the disaster begins to unravel, the moment when the rescue distance is cut off forever. Amanda cannot do the transmigration because she is in the emergency room, very far from the green house. Besides, Amanda does not believe in those things. And finally, the woman in the green house is at that moment attending Nina—which Amanda discovers with desperation, in her own delirium of death.

AV: The story goes back and forth in time, which parallels the fever dream where Amanda has a hard time remembering everything. What made you think of using this device, and was it difficult to write scenes like this?

SS: It was a difficult structure to handle, not only for the three times, but also because there are three voices narrating each of those times: David, Amanda, and Carla (through Amanda’s memory). I knew I was building a complex text, but I didn’t want it to be complicated. I accepted its complexity, but I needed it not to be confusing at any time. So it was a very hard job of correcting, rewriting, and re-reading.

AV: Amanda says there is “a can of peas of a brand I don’t buy.” Amanda later states, “the can has an alarming presence. This is important, right?” To which David replies, “This is very important.” Can you tell us anything about this bizarre scene?

SS: Well, it’s a dream, so there’s no strong logic here. But I wanted to play with the symbolic: the idea of a mother who finds inside her house a product she would never choose to feed her family. The whole story is crossed by a landscape and a town that suffers the dire consequences of living near soybean fields, genetically modified soybeans, fumigated by strong agro-chemicals. This lethal combination leads to the tables of many families a dangerous diet. It’s a type of food that a well-informed mother would never choose for her children.

AV: At one point Amanda recalls Nina saying, “I’m David.” To which David replies to Amanda, “Is this a joke? Are you making this up?” And Amanda says,” No, David. It’s a dream, a nightmare.” Amanda later says to David that if Nina “won’t talk to me in your voice, there will be no perplexing can of peas on the table.” Now it appears that Amanda knows what is going on and David is not aware of the transmigration between him and Nina. Can you explain this?

SS: I do not think Amanda knows more than David knows. It is simply a reflection of Amanda, the idea that as long as she is able to feel the weight of her daughter in her hands, then she will have the certainty that what happens is not a dream. Perhaps the dream frightened her too much, and she does not want to confuse sleep with reality again. She is frightened and needs to escape, so she concentrates on the real, the concrete, and the only certainty she has at that moment is the weight of her daughter in her arms.

AV: There are numerous cases of deformed and dead children who have drunk the water. Why doesn’t the water bother Carla and her husband? Why haven’t the local people and authorities done anything to fix the water problem?

SS: There are many things at stake in that question. To begin with, at least in my imagination, it is not clear to people that poisoning comes from water (in fact, this is the case in many communities in rural Argentina). But in relation to these pesticides that the big companies use to fumigate—and that later contaminate the waters—it also happens that a great part of these communities work in those fields, and they cannot or do not want to denounce them.

AV: You are now living in Berlin—what made you move from Argentina and how long do you plan to stay in Germany? Will you continue to write in Spanish?

SS: I moved by an invitation from the German government, a one-year residence for foreign artists. In fact, it was during that year that I finished writing Fever Dream. But then, once the stay was over, I was invited to give some creative writing workshops, and soon I was already working, with new friends and, above all, in love with the city. It was very easy to stay. I feel comfortable and at the same time strategically isolated for writing. I think I’ll be here for a couple of years. But I will always write in Spanish; it is the language in which I think and in which I read.

AV: What can your readers look forward to with your next work of fiction?

SS: I’m afraid to answer this question, because I do not want to limit my next steps in any way. But I’m sure I’ll continue to write, and I’m sure I’ll also be very attentive to how tension is built and maintained in a story. I think this curiosity is the heart of all my texts, and it’s something vital that I also seek in everything I read.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017


Ahmet Altan
Translated by Alexander Dawe
Europa Editions ($18)

by Garry Craig Powell

Turkish writer Ahmet Altan has been in prison for over a year, accused in President Erdogan’s crackdown on the media of “sending subliminal messages” to encourage the planners of last year’s failed coup. Endgame, his first novel available in English, is a bold metaphysical thriller, critical not only of ruthless politicians, but also, arguably, of God himself.

The plot is a classic murder mystery in the style of Chandler or Hammett, except that instead of a private detective, the protagonist is an unnamed novelist who has gone to a small town to write “a book about murder. And so what if I turned out to be the killer?” This is an unusual twist—not until the end do we discover whom he has killed and why—but for the rest, it is the familiar story of an outsider whose lust leads him into a sinister web.

First he becomes involved with Zuhal, the girlfriend of Mustafa, the megalomaniac mayor (with whom she is still in love). In the seemingly idyllic seaside town there is an ancient church, which some believe is the resting place of Jesus, and which everyone believes is the site of hidden treasure. The narrator doubts this, but as Mustafa tells him, “This church is what makes this town. Even if there isn’t a treasure, well, there is as long as we believe in it.” He becomes friends with Mustafa, who doesn’t know he is sleeping Zuhal, and when the mayor asks him to write a speech justifying his decision to close the church to everyone, the narrator agrees but understands that he will be seen as his accomplice. Nevertheless, Mustafa’s rivals court him too: he is offered protection by Muhacir, Raci Bey’s tame gangster, and is seduced by Raci’s wife. He is now sleeping with the women of the two most powerful men in town. When the inevitable conflict starts, the narrator understands that he is in danger and resolves to leave, but the opportunity to have sex once more with one of his lovers changes his mind.

This summary fails to evoke the metaphysical and indeed theological flavor of the novel: imagine The Trial, but with less subtlety. In many of the chapters, the novelist-narrator ponders God’s nature and the problem of theodicy: “And why worship God if he granted me the power to kill? . . . You created us so you could taste emotions that you would otherwise never know.” The narrator never doubts God’s existence but many Muslims would consider his questions blasphemous. “Is the sinner more sinful than the creator of the sin?” he asks. “Is God a sinner? . . . And if God didn’t create sin, is there something in this universe that he doesn’t know? Is there a limit to his power?”

Such reflections may not be wholly original, but they become more engaging as the novel takes a metafictional turn worthy of Paul Auster. The narrator compares his novel with the book being written by the Creator, and increasingly the two are confounded. For example: “Who can condemn me for murder in a novel that I have written?” There are further narrative complications too: Zuhal helps him write the novel, based on their affair. When she visits a fortune-teller, who shocks her by knowing all about her life, she wonders whether their fates are sealed. The narrator answers:

God . . . rewrites destiny every day . . . sometimes he changes the ending he had in mind at the start . . . imagine yourself as a character in a book . . . characters in novels still have the right to speak up for themselves . . . after a point the characters determine what the writer will put down on the page . . .

Such musings may irritate readers who prefer their thrillers neat, and the novel has other weaknesses. Whole chapters are devoted to online chats between Zuhal and the narrator, which we are told are erotic, but which often seem trite and solipsistic, as in this example: “i constantly miss the feeling i have when i’m with you . . . it’s the feeling of someone pulling you out of the bottom of a well . . . the feeling of emerging from yourself and setting off on a journey . . .” None of the characters really comes alive, which may not be a great fault in a potboiler detective story, but surely is in such an ambitious novel. In the end, its greatest shortcoming may be that the philosophical underpinning is just not innovative enough. Still, Endgame is an entertaining book, seems ably translated by Alexander Dawe, and affords English-language readers the chance to read the work of a brave writer who has been imprisoned for his writings.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Eduardo Paolozzi

Edited by Daniel F. Herrmann
Whitechapel Gallery ($50)

by M. Kasper

Since his death in 2005, Eduardo Paolozzi’s reputation as one of postwar Britain’s most versatile, productive, and celebrated visual artists has been further burnished by a stream of specialized publications and posthumous art exhibits. Of the former, mention should be made of the brilliant duet The Jet Age Compendium: Paolozzi at Ambit (2009) and Eduardo Paolozzi at New Worlds (2013) by David Brittain, both of which are about the artist’s literary contributions and collaborations in the 1960s and ’70s. Among exhibits, the Whitechapel Gallery’s early 2017 show was the second of two big retrospectives and its catalogue, as well as representing the show, is itself a significant addition to Paolozzi studies.

Paolozzi is often called a founding father of Pop Art, though the Dada revival he helped initiate in Euro-America in the late 1940s was closer to the Pictures Generation, more intellectual and more self-consciously avant-garde, than most American Pop. That, and the enduring spookiness of his Brutalist bronze cyborgs from the ’50s, along with the techno-psychedelic screenprints from the ’60s that so influentially forecast pixilated graphics, keeps him relevant.

In the scene-setting first essay in this Whitechapel catalogue, exhibition curator Daniel F. Herrmann thoughtfully lays out the artist’s life and long career: his difficult childhood in an Italian immigrant family in Edinburgh, his brief internment as a teenager during World War II, the focus and drive that led him to pursue a comprehensive art education in schools and out, his alignment in London in the early ’50s with the proto-Pop Independent Group, his bronze then aluminum sculptures, his technically inventive and richly evocative serigraphs from the ’60s, and the large public commissions of his later years.

The catalogue essays that follow, for the most part, consider unfamiliar biographical byways and lesser-known bodies of work from the artist’s fifty-plus years of prodigious output. They’re organized in four chronological chunks corresponding to distinct parts of his career. Standouts include Hal Foster’s treatment of the sources and ideas around Paolozzi’s early bronzes; insightful as always, Foster characterizes one of Paolozzi’s ambitions as “not to bring high art low in a parodic critique, so much . . . as to reposition both high and low in a horizontal continuum of culture.” Beth Williamson’s summary of Paolozzi’s pedagogical thinking and practice from his time teaching art to children in the ’50s is noteworthy as well, as is Lisa Maddigan Newby’s even-handed account of Paolozzi’s curation of “Lost Magic Kingdoms” in the mid-’80s at the British Museum, an ethnographic-Surrealist show that combined Museum holdings with works of his own and created a critical furor. Also, Anne Massey’s succinctly informative piece on the 1963 artist’s book, The Metallization of a Dream, and Elly Thomas’s on “repetition and recombination” in Suwasa, an outdoor metal sculpture that began life as part of a playground commissioned by Terence Conran, are among the sparkling one-page essays scattered in the catalogue. Using short-prose—that quintessentially experimental genre—is a wonderful editorial stroke, unusual but apt for an exhibition catalogue devoted to an avant-gardist.

The book is copiously illustrated, the quality of reproduction is high, and the picture selection is excellent. Especially, the inclusion of complete sequences of some of the print portfolios, notably all forty-five sheets from the 1972 edition of Bunk, will be widely appreciated. But too many of the reproductions are too small; that’s a particular problem with images of Paolozzi’s large screenprints, which are crowded with detail that gets lost in these reductions. Unfortunately, too, the book is marred by typos, and if you want to track down references in the introduction’s final ten footnotes, forget it, they’re missing. Despite those flaws this is an essential monograph, especially for libraries, full of fascinating new research about a prodigious artist whose full range is still being measured.

Click here to purchase this book
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Antígona González

Sara Uribe
Translated by John Pluecker
Les Figues Press ($17)

by Gabrielle Civil

At a time when the discourse of “bad hombres” and “building a wall” has poisoned U.S. society, Mexican writer Sara Uribe’s Antígona González emerges as an anti-toxin and prescription. A brilliant meditation on the wages of violence in contemporary Mexican society, the text takes up the classical figure of Antigone to speak out, remember, and reclaim the dead:

Me llamo Antígona González y busco entre los
muertos el cadáver de mi hermano.

My name is Antígona González and I am searching
among the dead for the corpse of my brother.

Translated with aplomb by John Pluecker, the text arrives in a fine bilingual edition, and was longlisted for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award. Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Antígona González can be read as a lyric essay or series of prose poems and fragments. Originally commissioned by actress and director Sandra Muñoz in 2012 for premiere in northern Mexico, it is also a subtle performance text.

In Sophocles’ original play, Antigone seeks a proper burial for her brother Polynices, in defiance of her uncle King Creon’s decree. Here, Antígona González (identified as Sandra Muñoz, Sara Uribe, and others) still operates in defiance of the state, but she has no body to bury. Instead, she remembers her brother Tadeo, and this memory must serve as a hedge against oblivion:

Tadeo . . . te pienso todos los días, porque a
veces creo que si te olvido, un solo día bastará para que
te desvanezcas.

Tadeo . . . I think of you every day,
because sometimes I think if I forget you, just one day
would suffice for you to vanish.

Throughout the text, memory operates as an urgent holding place, a site of both bittersweet nostalgia and urgent personal/political resistance. Ultimately, memory mobilizes action as the individual becomes collective:

Vine a San Fernando a buscar a mi hermano.
Vine a San Fernando a buscar a mi padre.
Vine a San Fernando a buscar a mi marido.
Vine a San Fernando a buscar a mi hijo.
Vine con los demás por los cuerpos de nos nuestros.

I came to San Fernando to search for my brother.
I came to San Fernando to search for my father.
I came to San Fernando to search for my husband.
I came to San Fernando to search for my son.
I came with the others for the bodies of our people.

Working in the style of documentary poetics, Uribe comes to report on an entire landscape of violence. She incorporates language from news bulletins, blogs, e-letters, and first-person accounts to link the personal and systemic and to showcase the lost and found:

Ciudad Altamirano, Guerrero. 22 de abril
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . encontraron a tres jóvenes
ejecutados, justo en las faldas de un cerro.

Ciudad Altamirano, Guerrero. April 22.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
three youths were found
executed at the base of a mountain.

Her project encompasses documentation and reclamation, not just of those lost, but also the people who loved them:

: No quería ser una Antígona
pero me tocó.

: I didn’t want to be an Antigone
but it happened to me.

This powerful sentence appeared posthumously in the journals of Columbian activist Diana Gómez, who also called herself Antígona Gómez. These words demonstrate how the identity of Antigone, truth teller and seeker of justice, is not an aspiration, but a tragic consequence.

The timeliness and timelessness of Antigone becomes another facet of Uribe’s text. As revealed in a copious notes section, Uribe references famous Latin American productions of the play and weaves in fragments from Judith Butler’s Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death, María Zambrano’s La tumba de Antígona [Antigone’s Tomb], Marguerite Yourcenar’s Fires, and more. In his excellent afterward, Pluecker also discusses his integration of various English translations of Antigone to mirror Uribe’s praxis.

Pluecker writes: “Translation allows both for difference to continue to exist and for us to work alongside each other as neighbors, people deeply implicated in a shared story.” This ethic of recognition and cooperation models the work of the U.S. reader and reinforces the overall message of Antígona González.

No, Tadeo, yo no he nacido para compartir el odio. Yo
lo que deseo es lo imposible: que pare ya la guerra;
que construyamos juntos, cada quien desde su sitio,
formas dignas de vivir; y que los corruptos . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . pudieran estar en mis zapatos, en los zapatos de
todas sus víctimas aunque fuera unos segundos.

No, Tadeo, I wasn’t born to share in hatred. What I want
is the impossible: for the war to stop now; for us—for
each of us wherever we find ourselves—together to
build ways to live with dignity; and for the corrupt . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . to be in my shoes, the shoes of
all their victims, even if only for a few seconds.

May these powerful words be part of our cure, in the United States, in Mexico and beyond.

Click here to purchase this book
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017


Mai Der Vang
Graywolf Press ($16)

by John Bradley

Make me the monarch / morphed from suffering” states a section title of Mai Der Vang’s debut book of poetry, Afterland. She’s referring to the suffering of the Hmong due to the Vietnam war, or more specifically the “secret war” in Laos, where many Hmong lived. The author, a Hmong-American, explores in this book the deep emotional turmoil of displacement, exile, recovery of the past, and the difficulty of inventing a new home in the “afterland.”

One poem in particular, “Dear Soldier of the Secret War,” focuses on the devastation of war and the betrayal of the Hmong by their allies, the Americans. The fate of the Hmong soldier left behind with a destroyed village is vividly contrasted with the American who left Laos: “Do you think of the American returning / to the coffee cup, // new linens / in a warm bed, // pulling into the driveway.” Vang does not downplay the horrors of war, as can be seen in this passage of the poem, which describes what happened when the Pathet Lao captured the Hmong soldier and his brother:

It was scalpel that day they captured
you both. They sliced off
and boiled his tongue,

forced it down your throat.

That the author feels a responsibility to tell the story of the Hmong can be seen from the first poem in the collection, “Another Heaven”: “I am but atoms / Of old passengers // Bereaved to my cloistered bones.” The unusual choice of the word “cloistered” reflects the poet’s need for solitude as well as for communal connection with those “passengers” who fled the war.

Two poems to the author’s grandparents, “old passengers,” carry the deepest emotion in the book. In “Matriarch,” we see the collision of memory and American culture as it attempts to define what happened in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. “She points at the television as if she could translate / Rocky, make sense of Rambo,” the poems begins. Perhaps the grandmother can’t translate the films, but the narrator can: “Rambo / Is carnage cloaked in her homeland mud.” There, in this Hollywood war fantasy, can be found the soil of the homeland, and while Rocky and Rambo merge, their eyes can be read; they resemble “dead stars” and speak of “A man omitted.” This the grandmother understands well, the poem tells us.

Much later in the book, in “Your Mountain Lies Down with You,” we hear the author tenderly address her grandfather. “You will see Mount Whitney is as beautiful as Phou Bia,” she promises him. But this beauty, this substitution comes at a cost: “The moon is sharp enough to cut your eat as the one from your village.” The poem closes with these moving lines:

Grandfather, you are not buried in the green mountains of Laos
but here in the Tollhouse hills, earth and heaven to oak gods.

Your highlands have come home,
and now you finally sleep.

The use of the word “home” brings comfort, as it means the grandfather’s geography now surrounds him, even as it contains the “oak gods” of another land.

While these poems reveal the emotional undercurrents of Afterland, they don’t convey the author’s bold linguistic play. In a recent interview for the Fairy Tale Review, she offers this advice to poets: “Bend. Risk. Distort. Create rupture.” Advice which she wholeheartedly embraces. Here are some of the lines that beautifully bend, risk, and distort: “The sky sleeps quilted in a militia of stars.” “Ants are spies for the dead.” “The dead cannot be reborn in metal.” “I go to funerals / to keep.” Vang is a skilled practitioner of the declarative sentence, her statements leading us to surprising discoveries. Take the last statement: We expect to hear “weep” but she withholds this, yet the similar sound of “keep” carries with it the emotion of weeping. The sentence doesn’t reveal what she keeps, but the poem suggests that the funeral allows her to keep memories, to keep stories of the past, to keep a culture alive, even as individuals die. Even as the task of carrying on the culture shifts to the next generation.

This stunning collection is not only the debut of a poet with a startlingly original voice; it also reminds the reader how long the legacy of a war lasts. The U.S. left Southeast Asia in 1973, and even now struggles to understand what that failed military engagement means. One sign of this struggle is the new documentary on the Vietnam war by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which will be shown this fall. Another sign is our nation’s current questioning of our international role, and specifically our role in Afghanistan. For Mai Der Vang, the cost of war is not about abstractions of policy or theories of power. In “The Spirit Meal,” she writes, “Now the dead come to dine / in my kitchen.” No doubt they will find nourishment in Afterland, as will readers looking for poetry steeped in history.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Created Identities: an interview with Elvira Navarro

Interviewed by Jorge Armenteros

Elvira Navarro, born in Huelva, published her first book, La ciudad en invierno, in 2007. In 2009 she published La ciudad feliz, which won the Jaén Prize for best novel and the Tormenta Prize for best new author, and was published as The Happy City in an English translation by Rosalind Harvey (HispaBooks, 2013). Her work has appeared in magazines such as El Cultural, Ínsula, Turia, and El Perro as well as the newspapers Público and El Pais. In 2010, Navarro was selected by Granta magazine as one of the best Spanish-language writers under the age of 35. Her latest novel is La Trabajadora (A Working Woman), forthcoming in English translation by Christina MacSweeney from Two Lines Press.

This interview was conducted verbally this past spring in Madrid, Spain. A corner café near the CaixaForum museum provided the perfect setting for the exchange of ideas. I was looking for the author described by Enrique Vila-Matas as the “true avant-gardist of her generation.” And after the conversation unfolded, I knew I had found her. I later transcribed the interview and edited the content for length and accuracy. Once edited, I translated the interview from Spanish into English. The result follows below.

Jorge Armenteros: The story in your novel, La Trabajadora, takes place in the periphery of Madrid. The city is shown as a solitary and hostile urban populous, unleashing an “impression of a barren plateau.” Did you intend to include the city as if it were a main character in your novel?

Elvira Navarro: Yes, it’s the first time that I decided to include a city as a main character in a novel. I had been working on a blog for a while that’s called Periferia (Periphery) where I told stories about my walks through different neighborhoods in Madrid. My two previous novels, La ciudad en invierno (The City In Winter) and La ciudad feliz (The Happy City), already have an enormous urban presence, specifically in Valencia from my childhood. The books have The City in their names because they consist of stories that come from very specific streets. The first thing I visualize before I write is an urban setting. Ergo, my lexicon is directly related to urban landscapes.

On the other hand, due to the Internet and the strong presence of audiovisual stimulation, I have heard that the idea of a literary narrative taking charge of urban spaces doesn’t make any sense. This is due to the fact that we have an infinite amount of images of these spaces at our disposal and we even have the possibility to virtually stroll through any inhabited region on the planet. It is said that in the 19th century, Flaubert had to tell stories about Paris because not everyone could visit the city or see what is was like. Now we no longer need the type of 19th-century narrator to explain what a city is like. We have thousands of images of Paris and any other place. However, those who say that it doesn’t make sense to narrate these settings have forgotten something essential. Narration of urban settings is not a mere scenario or a transposition of a real place. It is make-believe. In a book, a place’s description is another fictitious fabrication, and has narrative functions: The space becomes impregnated by the tone, generates a certain atmosphere, and sometime acts as a metaphor . . . On the other hand, fiction normally leans towards recognizable spaces with landmarks, and I’m interested in unrecognizable spaces, like neighborhoods in Madrid, that rarely appear in works of fiction, and when they do, they are represented with stereotypes. I was living for a while in Carabanchel, in southern Madrid, a very rough neighborhood; this neighborhood is the inspiration behind La Trabajadora.

JA: In a certain way, Elisa’s inner world reflects the same qualities as the city, internal desolation. In reality, who influences whom?

EN: The city is merely a reflection of Elisa. Elisa is the one who sees something a certain way and creates that city. In reality, that city doesn’t exist. It only comes alive inside the character’s head, and yes, it is a type of barren plateau. The concept of the barren plateau is very interesting to me because Madrid is in the middle of a plateau. Despite the fact that there are mountains to the north and south, Madrid is rural, poor, and is more similar to Castile La Mancha, Don Quixote’s homeland. If you look at Madrid, the colors come from the plateau. If you look at the dryness of the streets, that dryness is the plateau’s dryness. The heat that radiates from Madrid is also the plateau’s heat. It is a very La Mancha city and lives off of La Mancha asceticism. The Castilian plateau, both “Castillas,” due to being historically poor, have transformed into involuntarily spiritual places. The people have had to suffer and get by with very little. This is learned from living with both scarcity and immensity: You look around and you can see the horizon everywhere. The land and the sky. The essential things.

JA: How did your own reality make its way into your novel?

EN: This story comes from a text that I wrote in 2003, when I was living with roommates in Carabanchel and looking for work. I saved the text and had a feeling that I would revisit it later on. Years later, when I was working as an editor, I hadn’t been paid for six months, and that’s when the idea of a novel about precariousness became especially intense. At that time, I had seen my horizon of middle-class expectations fade away and not only noted that my difficulty finding work during an era in which media outlets and then-president Aznar constantly exaggerated the idea that “Spain is doing well,” but also the gap between what the Spanish economy needed from working professionals (basically engineers for the brick industry) and what I had studied (Philosophy).

JA: Thinking of Borges, who once wrote “reality likes symmetry,” Susana and Elisa reflect each other like some kind of mirror trick. Does Susana become essential to Elisa and vice versa?

EN: I think the mirror trick works best in the case of Elisa reflecting Susana, but not Susana reflecting Elisa. Susana mirrors Elisa and plays with this power, with knowing her mirror. I wanted to make Susana a character that was conscious of the fact that identity is a made-up concept. For example, we do not know if her psychotic outburst really happened. For Elisa, Susana is a mirror that terrorizes her. However, for Susana, Elisa is a game. She doesn’t take herself too seriously and maybe in this way Elisa is also Susana’s mirror.

JA: In the novel, we see an unsustainable situation that makes us feel like everything is going to go wrong. Do you feel comfortable writing and being at the center of such anguish?

EN: I believe that without conflict, there is no story. It makes us talk about what we don’t know how to resolve. That is why we talk, that is why we try to resolve things with words. Even though I would never talk about anguish, but I would talk about fear in every phase of fear: fear of precariousness, fear of loneliness and madness. Anguish is merely a form of expression.

JA: Both characters face an abyss of insanity and an abyss of reality. Which abyss is more dangerous?

EN: I wanted to bring the framework of both insanity and reality to light, because I believe that what we classify as real is merely a result of consensual fiction. That means that I don’t believe in an unequivocal reality; instead I believe in a perceived reality. I don’t mean that there are no facts, but what we call reality is much more complex than a mere confirmation of actions and facts without reason—it’s tormented by interpretations and beliefs that coincide with our perception. Then what is madness? I suppose that if we were all crazy, that would be normal. Madness is used in a metaphorical way in this novel. My intention was not to write the novel about some crazy girls, but instead it was to talk about the construction of their identities. Susana plays around with hers and Elisa perceives reality as a threatening monster, because she’s in the middle of an anxious process in which the world is turning into a monster because her perception is controlled by fear.

JA: However, Susana is able to reinvent her life—she redeems herself through art. Would Elisa be able to save herself with her writing?

EN: I don’t know if Susana redeems herself or not because we don’t know what happens to her at the end. What I want to highlight is that she achieves something because she isn’t actively looking for anything.

JA: If the forces of madness and fiction were interlaced, would there be redemption?

EN: Why do we have to be redeemed? The word redemption infers that you’ve been guilty of something. I don’t believe in guilt, I believe that it’s possible to see and do things a different way.

JA: And to evolve, perhaps?

EN: To stop believing and stop wanting to be in control.

JA: Was the novel’s structure planned ahead of time or did it happen spontaneously?

EN: Spontaneously. I don’t usually plan anything. That doesn’t mean that I don’t know where I’m going. I know more or less where I’m going, but I’m open to changing my initial plans and accepting what happens along the way if I like it. Basically, I don’t get attached to my initial plans.

JA: That also allows you to have a certain degree of freedom and the power to explore without feeling married to a previous idea, which must be very exciting.

EN: Yes, for me that is the best part about writing, that it has an element of discovery.

JA: Do you think that La Trabajadora is an anti-novel?

EN: If we think about the novel using 19th-century standards, it could be an anti-novel because it doesn’t have uniqueness, totality, or linearity.

JA: If we take into account that classic realism is nothing more than an illusion, should the novel implement a calculated demolition of all things conventional and simply take flight?

EN: An illusion is everything, right? Classical and non-classical as well. We’re not going to debunk one myth so we can create another.

JA: What do you think about the modern day literary canon?

EN: It is very influenced by the market and, secondarily, by academics. In Spain, we read a lot of translated English language literature. My canon is forcefully being changed due to imperialism and cultural colonialism. They decide what non-English language writers become “canonized.” Bolaño has had a lot of success in the English-speaking world and this had made his work recognized worldwide as literary canon.

JA: This also indicates that what is available, what fits into this superior category, goes through a filtering system. It all begins with books that are written, then what is popular, what is translated . . . little by little everything is filtered out. It’s like a vast ocean that only gives us three or four drops of water.

EN: It certainly is a vast ocean. Of course, this brings up an interesting question. You would have to study every case individually. Obviously, it is very clear with mainstream literature and literary literature where the unknowns are, because there are so many good things that get left behind.

JA: What alternative narratives do you like to put out there as a writer?

EN: My alternative is that you don’t have to ask me about alternatives. Everyone is free to do as they please!

JA: I suppose that depends on whatever the project you’re working on requires of you.

EN: Exactly, every text comes with its own rules. You need to let the text speak for itself. I don’t impose anything on the text.

JA: What languages have your novels been translated into?

EN: My full-length books have been translated into English, French, and Turkish. Some other stories I have written have been translated into Swedish and Italian

JA: How will you know that the translation of La Trabajadora is faithful to the source material? Or as Borges said, is the original faithful to the translation?

EN: I have no way of knowing either way. I don’t speak English!

JA: What contemporary North Americans novelists are you most interested in reading?

EN: I’m more interested in short story tellers, like Lydia Davis, for example. When it comes to living novelists, I’m very enthusiastic about Siri Hustvedt. They both tell stories in such an unorthodox and intelligent way.

JA: What risks do you think come with writing non-traditional or experimental literature?

EN: Risk is a very excessive word to me. I suppose that you risk not being well understood, but in reality, you never know what type of luck a book can have.

JA: Could you comment on the end goal or intention of fiction writing?

EN: I don’t think there is a universal end goal. I think that every person writes fiction for different reasons. In my case, it has to do with not knowing how to express myself well when using oral language. For me, literature is necessary for self-expression.

JA: Speaking of expressing yourself through books, what is your next project? What’s keeping you busy these days? What can we expect from you in the future?

EN: I just finished a short story book and I might publish a book that contains chronicles about Madrid, based on my blog, Periphery.

JA: Tell me a little about the blog.

EN: I started it in 2010, and I wanted simply to narrate the city as just another passerby, taking advantage of the fact that I love to walk.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Chinese Poetic Writing & A Little Primer of Tu Fu

Chinese Poetic Writing
Francois Cheng

Translated by Donald Riggs and Jerome Seaton
New York Review Books ($19.95)

A Little Primer of Tu Fu
David Hawkes

New York Review Books ($16.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Chinese poetry first hit home for me with poet Joel Oppenheimer’s recounting of the mythic tale regarding poet Li Po’s (701-762) accidental drowning after a festive night of solitary wine drinking. As Oppenheimer puts it: “one night on the way home from a wine tavern, he decided finally to make it with the moon and he sat down at the edge of the river, left it under a rock with his clothes and dove in to screw the moon, literally, the reflection in the water, and drowned.” I was enthralled by the lush Romantic grandeur of such an act—talk about a dedication to a poetry of the Real! As Oppenheimer says, “you have to love, you know, a guy like that.”

I picked up a Selected Poems of Li Po and avidly read away, paying especially close attention to any mention of the moon and wine—of which, not surprisingly, there were several. At the time, a doomed lunar love affair sounded awfully tempting. However, as my reading broadened in both depth and scope over ensuing decades, I developed a more intensive appreciation for all that Chinese poetry offers. My admiration has been reignited and further enriched by two recent New York Review Books reissues of contemporary classic collections under their Calligrams imprint, François Cheng’s Chinese Poetic Writing, translated by Donald A. Riggs and Jerome P. Seaton (1982), and David Hawkes’s A Little Primer of Tu Fu (1967).

Several poems of Li Po appear in Chinese Poetic Writing, where he’s acknowledged by the non-Romanized version of his name, Li Bai; he’s also a dedicatee of several poems by Du Fu (Tu Fu) which appear as well in A Little Primer of Tu Fu. The two poets were friends, the slightly older Li Po serving as mentor to Tu Fu, who frets over his elder’s well-being in two poems, “Dreaming of Li Po” and “Thoughts of Li Po at World’s End.” This leads Hawkes to remark: “In view of the obsessive preoccupation with water and drowning found in all of these three poems about Li Po, it seems to me very likely that a rumour had reached Tu Fu in Ch’in-chou that Li Po had been drowned while on his way to exile.” As with so many details related to ancient Chinese poetry, this is mere conjecture, however like all of Hawkes’s interjections it is one worth bearing in mind as perhaps the earliest occurrence of the many precursors to the mythic tale of the famous poet’s fate.

Hawkes’ stated intention is “to give some idea of what Chinese poetry is really like and how it works,” no matter whether readers “know no Chinese at all or know only a little.” Indeed, approached together these two titles offer an inviting nuts-and-bolts introduction. Every Anglophone reader interested in the working mechanics behind Chinese poetry will find these texts to be endless resources worth returning to again and again. The books take independent yet complimentary approaches, overlapping at times while never quite duplicating information regarding similar material.

Chinese Poetic Writing offers a richly informative look at the ordering principles implicit in Chinese language and thought. After an opening essay breaking down the component pieces of Chinese poetry under three separate headings—Passive Procedures, Active Procedures, and The Images—Cheng gives us an anthology of T’ang Poetry (600-900, generally acclaimed as the greatest era of Chinese poetry), including nearly three dozen poets with their works separated out into the four classic styles of Chinese poetry forms: Quatrains, Regulated verses, Ancient-style, and Lyric. The poems are presented in Chinese characters accompanied by English verse translations.

A Little Primer of Tu Fu offers thirty-five poems by the poet. In a short introductory note Hawkes explains his reasoning behind key decisions regarding the selection of poems (he relied entirely upon Tu Fu’s representation in Three Hundred T’ang Poems, “the gateway through which generations of Chinese schoolboys were initiated into the pleasures of poetry”) and his use of Modern Chinese (Mandarin) for transliteration of individual lines and Pin-yin for spelling (Mandarin is the form of Chinese recognized by the majority of modern-day native speakers and Pin-yin is both easiest and most ‘official’ standard system in use today). Each poem is first presented in Chinese characters with the Mandarin transliteration interfiled line-by-line. This is followed by four separate explanatory descriptions of the poem’s 1) Title and Subject and 2) Form. Then comes 3) Exegesis, giving word-by-word direct translation from Mandarin into English, as well as additional commentary on occasion. Finally, there is 4) a prose translation of the original poem into English by Hawkes.

Cheng’s opening essay thoroughly demonstrates how a Chinese poem’s images and descriptive phrases mirror or parallel each other in order to achieve a patterned balance between individual lines. On a drastically simplified level, this is a reflection of yin-yang theory: if there is “moon” then there is also “sun” and the presentation of the two achieves a balance which reflects the universe of daily appearance. This provides a broad understanding of the overall patterns governing a poem’s composition. Hawkes also points out such patterning in a more condensed manner, as in his exegesis of the Tu Fu couplet “Fragrant mist cloud-hair wet / Clear light jade-arms cold”: “Notice the parallelism in this couplet: ‘fragrant mist’ parallels ‘clear light’, ‘cloud-hair’ parallels ‘jade-arms’, and ‘wet’ parallels ‘cold’.” This paralleling has obvious effects upon translation. Compare the same couplet as found in Chinese Poetic Writing: “Fragrant mist, moist cloud of your hair. / In that clear light, your arm jade cool.” Moving between the two texts to seek out such comparisons is but one example of how these works unlock a scintillating, rich toolbox for any working poet.

Cheng additionally explores the inherent Chinese “link between poetry and cosmology,” laying out a clear argument “that the Chinese poetic language, in its structure, embodies the very laws which rule cosmology as it was conceived of in Chinese thought.” Zhong Hong’s poetic treatise Shi Pin is enticingly cited: “song is a light which illuminates the Three Spirits (Man-Earth-Heaven) as well as the ten thousand creatures. Thus, it constitutes an offering to the spirits, and makes manifest the hidden mystery. For upsetting Heaven and Earth, for moving the Gods, nothing equals poetry.” This mounts a strong argument for just how inseparably entwined poetry and spirituality are for the Chinese, representing a holism between poet-text-world that is embedded directly into the language: “To suppress the gratuitous and arbitrary at all levels of the system, a semiotic system founded upon an intimate relationship with the real, so that there is no rupture between signs and the world, and hence none between man and the universe: such would be the constant direction of the Chinese.”

Although aimed as being introductory in nature, both A Little Primer of Tu Fu and Chinese Poetic Writing nonetheless forefront the presentation of the poem in Chinese characters, clearly emphasizing the importance of the original language in fully understanding any poetry. Cheng goes so far as presenting a few poems without attempting any translation at all, although individual elements of these poems are utilized in his essay as examples of Chinese poetic devices. This is an exciting challenge to our Anglo-centric culture; the Anglo-prone reader is forced to step beyond the comfort of isolation within their own language. Hawkes also expresses the wish “to have given the reader a gramophone record of the sounds” and encourages that one finds “a Chinese speaker who will make the noises for him.” This is sage advice. Bill Porter, aka Red Pine, recently recited some Chinese poems at a memorial reading for the late Joanne Kyger and the sound was like a mellow creek crisply tinkling its way over and through small rocks—an incredible music full of human emotion.

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Tell Them I Said No

Martin Herbert
Sternberg Press ($24)

by Michael Workman

It's not difficult to conceive of the classist, sexist, and racist machinations of the international art world responsible for "art's transmogrification into a backcloth for the power plays of the prosperous," so readers of Tell Them I Said No might expect to find an indictment of those ills in this slim but forthright volume of essays on artistic withdrawal. Sadly, it doesn't quite deliver that indictment, and at times blurs the thin line critic Martin Herbert gives himself to navigate what qualifies as distinguishing "the needs of the artist and the needs of the art world."

Herbert is an admitted regular at august art-insider publication Art Review, and among the achievements of his essays collected here is how they provide a guidebook, a testament to the aspiration for "tools-down nonparticipation" that he posits as "exasperated reaction to the intolerability of the art world, to the limits of political potential, to gender bias, profiteering, the presence of repellant personalities, and neon egos."

Many of the artists Herbert discusses maintain gallery representation and have accepted museum exhibition of their work, so the measure of these artists’ overall reactions to the art world should be taken as a kind of distancing from its less desirable segments. He traces a variety of ways that artists have attempted this distancing, looking at figures such as Agnes Martin, Laurie Parson, and Trisha Donnelly—the last from whom the title of the book is taken (it was her response to a request by the author for an interview). Much of the idealism portrayed here is of the kind these artists desperately struggled to defend out of a sense of reverence for their own and others’ respect for the revelatory nature of the artistic inspirations that drove them, regardless of medium.

Emblematic of this idealism, for instance, is the chapter on Christopher D'Arcangelo, who died much too young, but while he was alive made an art of intervening on institutional art spaces out of a genuine anarchist impulse, suffering more than a few scuffles with authorities for it. Another is Stanley Brouwn, who died this year, his life almost a primary case study in this collection's analysis of willful anonymity's capacity to conjure artistic apotheosis. His series This Way Brouwn, a collection of hand-drawn maps of directions given him by strangers, echo his artistic trajectory out into silence, save for these little artifacts of his movements in the world.

While perhaps never quite achieving a depiction of the logic that defines the "tools down nonparticipation" set out at its beginning, Tell Them I Said No does provide a welcome glimpse into the impulse to resist the neo-liberalization of art in the interest of maintaining human dignity—and to defend the right of art to exist, despite the world. It may help to separate the political potential of this argument from the rest of these framing mechanisms, given the lineage these artists follow out of the historical avant garde. In our culturally revanchist times, Herbert's book, despite its shortcomings and very much because of its attempt to meet worthwhile aspirations, provides hints that there's hope for a better direction.

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Since I Laid My Burden Down

Brontez Purnell
Feminist Press / Amethyst Editions ($17.95)

by Greg Baldino

For as long as there have been small towns and big cities, men and women of a queer inclination have made whatever excuses they could to move from the former to the latter in pursuit of who they knew themselves to be and who they sought to love. In Brontez Purnell’s Since I Laid My Burden Down, DeShawn escapes his hometown to San Francisco to become the self-declared slut he wants to be. The death of his uncle drags him right back to his starting point, however, and he begins to confront the lives and loves that have shaped and scarred him.

The style of the novel is ambitious in its unconventionality. DeShawn’s time back in his hometown after years away is charged, chapter after chapter, by the memories of his origins as an adult. Narration springs back and forth between the immediacy of the past and the subjective ambiguity of the present. Even the most casual encounters with family and neighbors are laced with meaning as he revisits the struggles between his teenage self and sexuality and the environment in which he was forced to acclimate.

Most of those struggles are with men, in any number of roles. Burden is a text ultimately concerned with how one’s masculinity is shaped by the presence and absence of other masculinities. From the prologue, when DeShawn is informed of his uncle’s passing, DeShawn is driven to remember the men who shaped his life, and how they left him. There are deaths and abandonments, from absent fathers to Kurt Cobain. In some way or another, the men in his life are defined by their departure. What they left behind in DeShawn’s life was, ultimately, DeShawn.

In one scene, while babysitting his young nephew outside, DeShawn recalls his adventures in the bathhouses of San Francisco. There are the fears and excitement of his first time, and shades of mortality as he reflects on some of the older patrons. The cry of his nephew, stung by a bee, yanks him back into the immediate, right as he begins to raise the question of just what love is. Attending to the boy’s pain with salve and affection, DeShawn becomes a male figure in another boy’s life who will, in some way or another, leave him in turn.

An artist of many talents, from writing to dance, Purnell shows in his debut novel a strong control of language coupled with a willingness to take risks. It’s a book that can sit comfortably next to Mairead Case’s 2015 debut, See You In The Morning, while resonating with some of the themes and ideas of Samuel R. Delany’s later novels. It is, first and foremost, a work of storytelling; DeShawn comes to life in Purnell’s narrative voice. The worlds of small-town Alabama, where everyone knows everyone, and the callipygian labyrinth of San Francisco coexist as one world within the story. Beginning in death and memory, and ending in revelation and healing, Brontez Purnell’s debut novel is a whirlwind journey for both its protagonist and the reader.

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Historians of Redundant Moments

Nandini Dhar
Agape Editions ($16)

by D.M. Aderibigbe

Nandini Dhar’s Historians of Redundant Moments has originality as its primary ingredient. The poems in this novel-in-verse will almost lead you to believe that the author exists in a world several silences away from the rest of the literary blocs. Take this line for example: “In Ghost Uncle’s eyes, shadows of mimeographer’s ink-heavy, dye-wet fingertips.”

Talking of silence, the opening poem of this book introduces the reader to a poet who is here to give voice to the silences before her: “A harmonium abandoned in the middle of an empty factory / cafeteria: a doll hanging by its head from the clothesline.” But why exactly are these silences (redundant moments) necessary to document, or historicize?

The answer to this is not far-fetched. These moments are important not just to the poet, but to her entire race. The unfortunate thing is that these moments have been made redundant by the historians who came before the poet, as one can see from poems like “No History Books Would Give Us these Stories”:

. . . We would have loved

to peek in, breathe through the rustling stories.
Yes, there were trains without passengers. Yes,

there were nipple-tips without women. And,
we are gobbling up their rustling remains.

But that was a long time ago—a termite-eaten
photograph, a trivial anecdote

that refused to be translated into the language
of facts. We never learnt to cook

in our grandmother’s skillets. For there
were none. No famines.

No food riots. No rallies. No clandestine
meetings. No Slogans. No protests.

Similarly, it isn’t only public history that is redundant (silent) here. A whole bunch of private histories have been left long untold:

Mother goes around the house boxing things.
The attic is clustered with old junk that we

children are not allowed to touch—suitcases wrapped
in white sheets, each with a label. 1943.1948.YEH

NAXALBARI LAL SELAM. 1977. Mother moves

around the house on tiptoe, brooms and rags in hand . . .

Indeed, as the book progresses, silence takes a different form, and becomes much more than redundant moment; rather, it begins to serve as a lens through which various events in the book come to the reader. “. . . princesses hardly / possess a line, do not swirl their canoes anywhere. / Do not have bows slung across their backs, do not / sharpen arrow-tips, let alone aim them anywhere.”

Dealing with a subject that has more to do with suspended actions than active ones, “with the heaviness of last night’s / rain in between our toes,” the author employs inventive use of sentences to construct strange but superb images, metaphors that bring about such actions or inactions:

Our grandfathers did not whittle this city into being. Nor
our fathers. Or uncles. Neither did the city write itself.

All our men could do was read it: an incomplete
tableau. Afraid their touch would shatter the city

like an old beetle wing. A broken line on a broken wall.

In all, Historians of Redundant Moments is much more than a work of reclamation. It is a book that dwells on love, family, trauma, joy, peace, and unrest, among others. It is thus safe to say that this book is a brilliant conglomeration of most of the things that make us human.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017