Tag Archives: Spring 2021

Music From Another World

Robin Talley
Inkyard Press ($18.99)

by Helena Ducusin

Tremendous progress has been made in the past several decades in the realm of LGBTQ+ rights and representation. Because of this, it can be easy for younger readers to feel disconnected from the history of overt discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. Robin Talley’s historical fiction novel Music From Another World engages present readers with its dynamic characters who navigate social pressures while grappling with feelings of isolation. Such desire for belonging persists in present time, and Talley’s novel resonates shockingly well, connecting readers to a history they may not know.

Music From Another World traces the letters of two teenage pen pals, Tammy and Sharon, as they decipher their identities in their surrounding religious communities. Tammy is a lesbian and has not told anyone, especially not her Baptist and actively homophobic family, while Sharon’s brother confided in her that he is gay and made her swear not to tell their devoutly Catholic mother. The girls are matched as pen pals through a school assignment, and at first, they’re exactly that. They exchange favorite TV shows, hobbies, and follow the list of questions on the assignment sheet. That is, until, Tammy suggests a pledge of honesty—no crossing words out, no rereading before you send, and no sharing with anyone else. Sharon agrees, and the two enter into a more intimate friendship.

As the book progresses, Tammy and Sharon each seek out places where they feel at home and people around whom they can genuinely express themselves. Their experiences are unique, so they are able to grow individually while sharing their experiences with each other. The author’s choice to alternate between their letters and entries in their personal diaries further enriches their characters and allows the reader to intimately experience the layers of secrecy each girl is grappling with. “The two ultimately show different ways of finding yourself when your surrounding community isn’t accepting of you.”

When Tammy and Sharon both become engulfed in the political campaign of civil rights activist Harvey Milk, they face the consequences of dissenting from their families’ beliefs. Similar homophobia and rejection is still very much present in some conservative or religious communities today, and presenting this dynamic to a young demographic is likely to enable queer and questioning readers to feel accepted and heard, even if their own communities reject them.

This novel continues Talley’s streak of writing captivating stories that depict the queer teenage experience and provide LGBTQ+ youth with complex, empathetic characters in historical settings not typically represented in mainstream media and education. Tammy and Sharon are characterized as young women who actively seek to understand themselves and their beliefs while forming meaningful friendships with people who support them and encourage them to express their true selves. Tammy writes in her diary a question that many queer people have wrestled with in their lifetime: “I want to be proud of who I am, the way you are, but how? How do you make yourself feel something when everyone around you believes the exact opposite?”

Talley’s novel emphasizes the universal desire for belonging, while also illuminating much-needed LGBTQ representation in historical fiction. Young adult readers are sure to be enthralled by the depth of Tammy and Sharon’s friendship, their active fight for equal rights within their communities, and their inner battles between the values of their childhood and their identities.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

What This Breathing

Laura Elrick
The Elephants ($15)

by David Brazil

In an interview about the 1979 film Alien, director Ridley Scott stated that he understood the events of that film to be set in the same world as the urban dystopia of Blade Runner. With such classics of science fiction and apocalyptic cinema feeling especially relevant during our pandemic times, this observation regarding the convergent catastrophes of corporate cupidity in deep space and the unlivable environments left to rot down here on earth feels like a key to reading Laura Elrick’s What This Breathing. The space of the book is one of multiple overlapping disasters through which we navigate. The title itself, stripped of a verb that would animate the fragment into a sentence, might be asking “What [is] this breathing,” what is the nature of life right now? But it might also be asking, in the manner of “What, me worry?” (the tagline of Mad magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman), “What, this breathing?”

The book’s first text, “Mouth Starts,” is titled in the table of contents but not on the page where it appears, signaling that it is intended as a sort of overture. With our mouths we breathe, speak, eat, and sometimes vomit:

tremblingly my muscled mouth my uncontrolled control

is ownerless, my botanies, when it arcs it

or actual my mouth

starts many-ownered over

From the start the poem stages the question of what belongs to us and what is common or taken away by degraded collectivities. The possessive pronoun “my” is obsessively repeated in the text, perhaps because the speaker perceives that it is both “ownerless” and “many-ownered.”

A similar drama attends the deployment of the first-person pronoun, which sometimes functions grammatically as though it were third-person: “I begins to dance?” or “just tell me how much I owes.” The speaker’s estrangement from a language into which we are supposed to fall without reserve (we aren’t supposed to think about whether we are “I” when we say “I”) makes the mask of even what should be the most intimate, evident. As the physical environment is polluted by industrial waste and nuclear disasters, so the linguistic environment becomes toxified by the degradations of language that are its analogues and concomitants: “to be the lie repeatedly, day after day.”

Having seen the world and the word smashed, and being ourselves smashed, it seems that the right response might be to smash back:

You say: the state, police state, patriarchy and its breaks, broken backs and the tanks, bank windows, white power networks, official and unofficial, pharmaceutical capitalists misogynists and terfs, excessive feelings of fear or vulnerability, refugee camps, excessive feelings of power and self-righteousness, museums, cartesian space linear time, putting the brakes on, no brakes and no breaks

Elrick’s voices—for these poems are speeches, as surely as Browning’s are—find the solace of “her whom I loved” even in the battery of an MRI chamber. And since poets are, as Shelley says, “mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present,” it’s no wonder that a text preoccupied with emergencies should prefigure much of the tonal center of pandemic life: anxiety, confusion, isolation and broken communication. There are even mysterious visitors “from the epidemic / Center.”

In a short poem, “Slurry Pump,” which may be the book’s ars poetica, the speaker takes a break from wading “through sludge, toward the hull of a rusting ship rent / in half” where they live, to reflect on a past whose “lessons (guppy, minnow, porpoise, shark)” (the grades in YMCA swimming classes) “could have prepared you / for this type of breathing. A poem for the future then.” It is a poem that remembers a world before the devastation and brings that memory into relationship with what breathing is now: airways choked by methane seas, respiratory contagions, and cops. “The Great Dying will nevertheless be lived through / An intersubjective space.” In the midst, the task of speaking and naming abides.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

The Island Child

Molly Aitken
Vintage ($16)

by Jane Ainslie

In The Island Child, Molly Aitken’s first novel, readers are taken to a barren, Irish island, where only America lies beyond the horizon. It may be the 1980s, but Inis is a place where idols of Jesus and the Virgin Mary live alongside tales of selkies and faerie children. When it comes to gender roles, the place also remains in the past: only boys get to experience the reckless freedom of childhood. Girls are shut away in the house until they are old enough to marry.

The story alternates between Oona’s childhood on Inis and her adulthood in Canada, where Oona settles with her husband Pat and raises their daughter. Oona’s childhood is poisoned by superstitious beliefs instilled in her by her mother and the crude moral carrots and sticks of her religion. The reader feels acutely how trapped Oona is in that hut with Mam, who uses religion to justify the hatred she feels for her daughter.

One of Aitken’s gifts as a writer is her ability to evoke a world, and the immediacy of the detail is at times astounding—the bed cover that is “smooth as a church window,” the broken umbrella flapping in a rainy Galway street “like a dead crow’s wing,” elderly Aunt Kate standing in the doorway with her smear of pink lipstick. It is often said, though, that a writer’s strength is also her weakness, and this is true when it comes to Aitken’s remarkable descriptive abilities. The prose is so packed with detail that it often leaves little room for the story to breathe, and the characters are not given the chance to inhabit Aitken’s carefully crafted settings as fully as they might. The constant transition between time periods is also an obstacle to becoming immersed in the story.

Still, there is much to be admired here. Besides her gift for atmosphere, Aitken also has a talent for revealing the invisible dynamics between characters. This is perhaps most poignantly demonstrated in the winding path Oona’s life follows; a girl who hated her Mam, she becomes a woman who puts up the same emotional walls between herself and her daughter.

Ultimately, the soft angst of Irish motherhood is at the heart of The Island Child. It hangs in the corners of a room, in the shadow of a lace curtain, and in Oona’s fingers as they trace the curves under the wooden table where she hides from her young daughter in a heartbreaking role reversal of mother and child. The story shines most in these quieter moments, when we are allowed to feel what remains unspoken between two people.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

The Magic Fish

Trung Le Nguyen
RH Graphic ($16.99)

by Stephanie Burt

The Magic Fish is everything.

Or—in a less colloquial, wordier way—The Magic Fish is everything I want at the moment in a graphic novel, especially in one meant for both kids and adults to read. This first narrative work from the accomplished Minnesota-based illustrator Trung Le Nguyen folds European and Vietnamese fairy tales (among them “Cinderella” and “The Little Mermaid”) into a braid that also includes realist stories about a second generation immigrant childhood; about parents who do their best and still sometimes fall down; about middle-school friendships that (amazingly) work out; about modern and wartime Vietnam; and—not to be forgotten—about kisses, love stories and happy endings, some of which are gay as all get out. And that’s without even mentioning the line art or color. Nguyen’s debut flew—or swam in the air—from my hands to the very small shelf of all-ages graphic novels I buy in multiples and give to everybody, alongside Laura Lee Gulledge’s Page by Paige and Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam. Like them, it’s a thing of surpassing, sweet, credible beauty, at once realistic in its treatment of human emotions and out-of-this-world in terms of what readers can see. Its happy endings (and there are several) could warm up a frozen room.

The Magic Fish begins as a pair of alternating stories. One, told in black and white line art with red backgrounds, follows thirteen-year-old Tiên Phong, who attends middle school with his best friend Claire and their jock friend Julian in 1998. At home, Tiên reads fairy tales to his hardworking, kind, attentive mom, who wants to improve her English; she came to the U.S. as an adult, and now works at a costume rental (modeled on Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater). Tiên has—Claire realizes—a big crush on Julian: will Julian reject him as a friend, return his love? Can Tiên ever come out to his immigrant mom, and will he get in trouble as a gay kid at their Catholic school?

While panels in red follow Tiên’s story, panels in black, white, and indigo follow the fairy tales that Tiên reads. All concern mermaids or magic fish, and all concern girls magically tied to the sea who make their way, and fall in love, on land. One is “Cinderella,” another “The Little Mermaid,” and another still has debts to “The Juniper Tree.” The first and longest concerns a girl in a Shakespearean boy-disguise and the boy who wins her love. All involve children and grandmothers, aunts, magic helpers, and older antagonists; all speak to the ocean, and to the generation, that separates immigrants both from their culture of birth and from their more Americanized children. They also evoke the spells, the determination, and the compassion that come with the right kinds of love.

If The Magic Fish were nothing but what its first third promises—red realist childhood stories and blue fairy-fish stories—the book would end up good enough to recommend, not only for its sensitive storytelling pace, its lovely, expectant faces and tender poses, but for the way that Nguyen deploys ink and monochrome color. One particularly expressive panel where Claire comforts Tiên uses at least five intensities of red, from Claire’s dark skin to the pale-pink of Tiên’s much-mended and plot-relevant jacket. Nguyen’s line art, meanwhile, is its own pleasure: his many sinuous curves and filigree traceries bring exceptional beauty to long hair, fish fins and tails, waves, and showers of magic stars from a twilit sky, but he is also more than capable of following them with cartoony middle school kids, whether they’re credibly happy or quietly angsty or, in one case, sweaty.

And yet—for all the delights its first segments delivers—The Magic Fish is far more than that. There’s a third storyline colored in tangerine: yellow-orange panels, beginning less than halfway through the book, denote flashbacks, mostly to Vietnam and the days when Tiên’s mother and her new husband became refugees. Now that the Phong family have become US citizens, Tiên’s mother can go back to visit her family, and once there, she learns other, Vietnamese fairy tales, linked by motif to the Western versions her son has told her before. These tales, in turn, illuminate Tiên’s coming out story at home and his wish for a romantic happy ending. That wish finds support in the way that his mom, her relatives in Vietnam, and, by extension, Nguyen himself self-consciously tweak, transform, and reinvent matters of heritage so that they can inform, rather than contradict, modern, queer lives.

Nguyen keeps these optimistic, queer-positive, kid-friendly claims aloft not just through his plots, but also through deft nets of elegant symbols. Mending clothes—as Tiên’s mom does all the time—is like adapting folktales. Patches are like peaches. Adapting folktales is like translation. Translating is like baking, but also like what Claire does at school, serving as a trustworthy go-between. And all these enterprises are like the larger enterprise of fixing a life, picking yourself up after a rent or a tear or a disaster—say, a war—and learning to go on. Fantastic visions meet their counterparts in the careful realist stories that link Nguyen’s generations, that link the troubles of immigrant parents to the emotional questions tweens (and not only gay tweens) try to handle. “I feel,” Tiên tells Claire, “like everybody’s problems are so much bigger than mine.” He’s not wrong. But his problems are real.

artwork from The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

As the braided tales inform one another, fairy marine princess to immigrant mom to stressed-out, crushed-out kid, the colors do too: in one of Nyugen’s signature effects, single objects and then panels on pages with one color incorporate another—first the red peaches in the blue tale of Alera, then panels of tangerine or indigo inside pages of red. Asking “How can I return to a place I’ve never been” about the fierce ocean, looking brave and vulnerable in her blanket and cloth cap, young Alera echoes Tiên’s questions about his own relationship to Vietnam. His mom’s resolution, like Alera’s Happily Ever After, proves worth the wait.

Astonishingly beautiful all on its own, Nguyen’s story will still make sense to kids who have read few or no graphic novels before. It’s likely to be the first long story with an Asian, and especially Southeast Asian, protagonist that some of those kids have perused. Comparisons to the deservedly über-popular Raina Telgemeier, to Tillie Walden, or to Jen Wang’s also-elegant The Prince and the Dressmaker might prove hard to avoid.

Comparisons to the best-known comic about insecure Asian kids—MacArthur Fellowship winner Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese—show a welcome variety of difference. Graphically, panel by panel, the two are nothing alike (and, if it needs saying, China is not Southeast Asia). Structurally, they resemble each other. Nguyen’s volume, like Yang’s, brings together multiple narratives, one about a kid and one built from folktales. Yang tells an emphatic story about accepting the heritage, and the body, you’re given. The Monkey King comes all the way from legendary China so that Yang’s protagonist can stop his fits of self-hate, his futile attempts to be someone else (someone white), someone other than what he was at birth. It’s a perfectly told and deservedly famous story, but it can hit trans kids and artsy kids and kids who require assistive technology in very much the wrong way.

Nguyen hits us the right way. “It feels as though I’m not whole,” his Little Mermaid figure tells her elaborately drawn, marine-magical grandmother, who cautions the girl: “This is transgressive. Your yearning desire to be other than what you are may well be your undoing.” But, as we know and Tiên learns, that desire might instead build your best self. Your wish to dress different, to look different, to change your friends or your habits or your body or your pronouns, might be a culpable wish to run from yourself (as in Yang) but it also might be your way to become who you need to be, who nobody else knew you were. Self-acceptance can also be self-transformation, and that’s a lesson everybody—not only middle school second-gen kids—could use.

But I’m getting away from my initial claim. So let me call your attention to the striking, Art Nouveau-ish, transoceanic beauty on every page of The Magic Fish, which also tells sweet and credible stories about a girl in disguise and her peach tarts, a spectacular mentor who can’t leave the ocean, a mom and her kid and their family in Vietnam, a kid and his dad and his crush and their best friend. Ultimately, though, you have to read it yourself, because The Magic Fish is everything.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

Hommage à Moï Ver / The Ghetto Lane in Wilna: 65 Pictures

Sigutė Chlebinskaitė, Mindaugas Kvietkauskas, and Nissan N. Perez, eds.
Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore, Vilnius (€34)
by M. Kasper

Exquisitely designed, printed, and slipcased, this two-volume set includes a hardbound facsimile of The Ghetto Lane in Wilna, a masterpiece of book art from 1931, along with a companion paperback of bilingual essays. Deservedly, it was on the shortlist for best exhibition catalog in Aperture’s PhotoBook competition last year.

The heart of the matter is the little facsimile. The work, still so fresh and original, first came out as one in a series of inexpensive photobooks issued by a left-wing publisher for middle-class and working peoples’ self-education. A total of 12,500 copies were printed, with the texts in three bi-lingual versions: English-Hebrew, German-Hebrew, and German-Yiddish. A slightly enlarged reproduction of the German-Hebrew version was published in Berlin in 1984. This new facsimile, of the English-Hebrew edition, is much more faithful, truly duplicating the size, binding, and feel of the original.

Both the original and this edition are modest in appearance and format, measuring just 7¾” x 5⅛”. Counting the cover, there are 65 black-and-white “pictures” (some with a single photograph, some with several) of streetscapes and people in the old Jewish quarter in Vilna, Lithuania. Each image is accompanied by a brief title or caption, usually simply descriptive, but sometimes grander (“Man and Architecture”). The work was inspired, probably, by the Yiddish playwright An-Sky’s project to archive the dying Jewish cultures of the Russian Pale, earlier in the century, but the Wilna photos were shot, cut, combined, and placed on the pages in ways that make it much more than merely documentary.

The sequence of images hints at narrative. It’s as though we’re strolling through the neighborhood, looking up at architectural details on the rundown buildings, then down into puddles on cobblestoned streets, and then observing people—mostly old, poor, and threadbare—as they go about their business. Ten years before the pictures were taken, 80 had died there in an anti-Semitic pogrom; the celebrated Yiddish author Zalman Shneur’s sentimental preface to The Ghetto Lane in Wilna mentions neither that, nor, indeed, much of interest about the images that follow. The pictures more than make up for any lost background, however. They include brilliant collages and montages in the manner of the times, but even more surprising and memorable are the photos cropped by the artist into geometric discs and slices, or curvy shapes, and laid out with lots of white space around them. Above all, this is unique and noteworthy page design.

Although The Ghetto Lane in Wilna is only occasionally mentioned in histories of photography and collage, it was widely admired in European avant-garde circles before World War II (when most of the print run was destroyed) as a vibrant, distinctive album of exotic imagery and innovative, cinematic mise-en-page. Leafing through it now, the cut up pictures have an even deeper, more sorrowful significance as an eerie prefiguration of the Nazi dismemberment of European Jewry.

The prefiguring artist was Moyshe Vorobeychik (1904-1995), a young Jewish Bauhausler then resident in Paris who was studying photographic technique. In 1929 he went home for Passover and took the photos with his new Leica. Emil Schaeffer, the adventurous owner of the publisher Orell Füssli Verlag, saw some on exhibit at a Zionist convention in Zurich, and brought the book out in 1931. It was credited to “M. Vorobeichic,” a variant transliteration of his name.

That same year, a second stunning photobook by Vorobeychik came out, entitled Paris. Larger in format than Wilna, with an introduction by the famous painter Fernand Léger, it’s another album of urban images, but different from its predecessor. The pictures are semi-abstract, almost tactile montages of places, people, and traffic, multiple exposures and sandwich prints mixed into an engrossing, evocative portrait of a big city on the go. Paris was credited to “Moï Ver,” a short form suggested by André Malraux so Vorobeychik’s name would be easier to pronounce.

There was a third album, Ci-contre (Facing Page), compiled soon after, for Franz Roh’s Fototek books, but, as Vorobeychik wrote laconically in a note to a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1974, “it was not edited because of Hitler, etc.” The paste-ups, thought lost, resurfaced decades after World War II, but it took further years of effort by the artist and his family before Ci-contre was finally published, posthumously, in 2004.

Much information about the artist’s life and context is available in the elegant, illustrated companion volume to the new Wilna facsimile. In the first of two lucid essays of bio-criticism in both English and Lithuanian, Nissan Perez (who curated the Moï Ver retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius, which this publication commemorates) summarizes Vorobeychik’s career and analyzes his artistic environments. In the other, Mindaugas Kvietkauskas digs deep into Vorobeychik’s early art education in Vilnius, before he left to attend the Bauhaus. Both scholars have mined family papers in Tel Aviv and Montreal, among other sources, for fascinating background details, to which they’ve added insightful commentary. These articles add a great deal that’s new and useful to the sadly meager literature on Vorobeychik.

Also included are a comprehensive chronology, as well as previously unseen photographs and copies of documents—including, most marvelously, Vorobeychik’s contract with Orell Füssli for The Ghetto Lane in Wilna. “The publisher hereby acquires the rights for all editions and issues,” it reads, “but if obligations remain unfulfilled, the publisher is authorized to find a substitute and deduct its cost from the publisher’s fee.” Thankfully for us all, the artist delivered.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

Homage to the Beats:
An Interview with Gerald Nicosia

Interviewed by Lawrence Welsh

About twenty-four years ago, an English professor in West Texas named Tom Casey gifted me his first edition copy of Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac by Gerald Nicosia. I knew of the book, but I had never read it. Over the years, I’ve pored over it time and time again. It’s a seminal text and a touchstone into the world of the Beats and Kerouac.

A few years later, Lummox Press out of Southern California started publishing my work in its magazine and would eventually publish two of my books. Through Lummox, I met a wide range of writers, including Nicosia, whose “Remembering Bukowski on the Fourth of July” recently appeared in a Lummox anthology called Last Call, Chinaski! An Homage to 70 Years of Bukowski’s Influence on Culture and Writing.

On a whim, I contacted Nicosia over Facebook, and he wrote back. We’ve enjoyed an epistolary relationship ever since, so it was easy to conduct an interview regarding his latest work, Beat Scrapbook (Cool Grove Press, $19.95). In essence, Beat Scrapbook provides a powerful portrait of a wide range of voices that Nicosia knew. Many of these were not only steeped in Beat and post-Beat culture but also became touchstones for both a social and literary revolution.

Lawrence Welsh: Of all the Beats in your Scrapbook, who has returned the most in dreams?

Gerald Nicosia: I haven't dreamt of many of the people in Beat Scrapbook; I was able to count only six that have appeared in dreams. So I'll recount a little bit about those six. The most interesting dream story is of Jack Mueller. Jack was in the generation between the Beats and the post-Beats—he was born in 1942, and my arbitrary cutoff for the Beats is people born before 1940. The post-Beat writers were mostly born in the 1950s, though a few, like myself and Neeli Cherkovski, were born in the later ’40s.

Mueller deserves his own book—he was a very brilliant and innovative poet, tall and balding and with spectacles, with the look of a German mad scientist. He had been in India in the Peace Corps, he'd taught sailing in New Orleans, he was a man of innumerable gifts, but when I knew him he was supporting a wife and baby daughter by selling hats at a kitschy North Beach storefront called the Schlock Shop. Jack had more influence on my early poetics than almost anyone, but the thing he taught me most forcefully was that a writer has to keep an open heart toward everyone.

In the 1990s, our lives went separate ways. I moved to L.A. with my first wife, a lawyer and art dealer. Jack moved down to Texas to direct a museum, so that he could care for aged, ailing parents. I eventually got back to San Francisco with a second wife, but Jack stayed in Texas until both his parents had died. That allegiance to his parents was all the more remarkable since his father was a devout Christian minister, and Jack was an atheist! His marriage more or less fell apart with that long residence in Texas, and he ended up retiring, afterward, to a little shack in the Colorado mountains. We still corresponded occasionally by email.

Anyway, I never dreamed of him until December of 2016, and then I had a very strange and vivid dream of him. He and his wife and daughter were having a picnic on a blanket in the middle of Washington Square Park in North Beach—the park Richard Brautigan is pictured in, in front of the Benjamin Franklin statue, on the cover of one of his early books. Weirdly, there was a train track running through the middle of the park, which is not there in real life. A locomotive engine was suddenly rushing at us, and Jack helped pull me out of the way.

The dream came with a strong feeling that Jack was in danger, and I felt I needed to get in touch with him right away. But his email address no longer worked, and none of the mutual friends I contacted could give me his address or phone number. A few months later, I read of Jack's death in the San Francisco Chronicle. I subsequently got in touch with his daughter Kristina and learned that he had collapsed at the end of December, on virtually the day I had dreamed of him. He was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with lymphoma, which killed him at the end of April.

I've been something of a psychic all my life, but that dream, which I wrote down in my journal, is one of the strongest proofs I can offer that human beings are capable of extrasensory perception.

In one of the poems in Beat Scrapbook, I write of a recurring dream about my mother and myself—a dream I still have sometimes, in slight variations. My dad died when I was 22, and for many years I lived with my mother, and we were always moving between Chicago and California, because she was terribly lonely in her later years (she was 40 years older than me). Between substitute teaching and freelance writing, I never had much income, and her pensions kept the rent paid, but we were always financially struggling. That dream records the desperate need for a real, permanent home we both felt, and the sense that the world is a cold and dark place, from which love and companionship are the only real refuge. I've now lived in the same home for 27 years, but that fear of homelessness, fear of living in an alien world, can still chill me deeply in dreams.

I've dreamed a few times of Jack Kerouac, whom I never met in actuality, but the dreams are a measure of how much he has haunted my adult life. When he appears, I'm always excited and relieved, maybe even overjoyed, and my overriding feeling is a kind of exclamation: "So now I'll finally know what you're really like!"

Jan Kerouac, whom I loved, appears in dreams from time to time. She's always very much like in real life: gentle, troubled, perpetually in need of help. In a few of the dreams we're having some kind of romance, which was cut off quite early in real life. Back in our twenties, when she saw me starting to exhibit serious feelings toward her, she warned me quite bluntly, "You're not my type—you're too nice. I don't like nice guys! I'm a bad person, and I chase guys who end up abusing me." The only thing that was really bad about her was that she hurt herself a lot. She felt she didn't deserve love or happiness because her father had rejected her. It was only at the very end of her life that she began to blame him, justly I believe, for the disaster her life became.

Ntozake Shange, whose biography I'm working on, appears sometimes—needy and lost and asking my guidance, as she did in real life. Like most of these others in my dreams, she was someone who touched me deeply, not least because she was so self-deprecating, so unsure of her own worth, when it was clear to me and a lot of others that she was a stone-cold genius.

Finally there's Charmaine, who was a lover of mine—totally wild, unbelievably brilliant, and drop-dead beautiful. The actual details of much of her life would be cause for indictment and arrest, though like that character in Vanity Fair, she eventually made her way to wealth and respectability, and (as far as I know) now lives on an estate in Hawaii. We haven't communicated in years, yet when I dream of her, we're still in the midst of a passionate and troubled love affair. Funny thing is that in my dreams her hair is still jet-black and her face is still that of a woman in her early twenties, though in real life she's now a senior citizen.

LW: Which dead and undervalued Beat is most worthy of new scholarship and reassessment?

GN: That's a fraught question, because there are so many wonderful Beat writers who got lost in the shadows caused by the bright light shone on the central writers such as Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Philip Whalen, Ray Bremser, Janine Pommy Vega, Lenore Kandel, Jimmy Ryan Morris, and Jerry Kamstra are just a few of the scores of absolutely original writers inspired by the Beat movement. But of the core Beat writers, I'm most astonished by the scant attention and critical scholarship accorded to Gregory Corso. I consider him the greatest poet of the Beat movement, and Ginsberg also considered him as such. He was, as you will gather from my poems about him, the quintessential bad boy, 86-ed from more bars, restaurants, and friends' homes than most people enter in a lifetime. But it's hard to account for the neglect of Gregory's work just because of his obstreperous conduct and nasty tongue. Even while he was alive, he realized, and complained of the fact, that people were not taking his poetry seriously. Maybe, ironically enough, there was still class and status bias operating in the Beat ranks, or at least among the people who study them. Gregory was a true street kid and an ex-con who'd spent three years at Dannemora State Prison in New York, while Kerouac and Ginsberg, for all their antics, had gone to Columbia University, and Burroughs had graduated from Harvard! To Kerouac's credit, he compared Corso with Caruso and Sinatra in his introduction to the first edition of Gasoline—which for Kerouac was high praise.

LW: Many of the Beats sought transcendence through daily rituals of meditation and prayer. Do you follow a spiritual path or paths? If so, what is your practice and how does it interact with your writing?

GN: I was raised Catholic, and though I have many differences of opinion with the Church, I am still deeply Christian. I don't see how anyone who's read Church history can believe in Papal infallibility, though I like Francis a lot. Pope Francis, in his concern for the poor and for outcasts, does honor to St. Francis of Assisi, my favorite saint. I don't go to Mass anymore, but I still like to pray in Catholic churches, especially when they're mostly empty, and I still light candles for the living and the dead. I like what Kerouac said, that all writing is a form of prayer, or should be.

LW: Who is the most important Beat scholar, and what have they done to help further the discourse?

GN: I take it you're excluding me? I'm not wholly joking, since in all honesty I don't know a great many scholars who have devoted a lifetime to studying and promoting Beat writing to the degree that I have. There are some people who have devoted a lifetime, or half a lifetime, to making money off the Beats, and in a Christian spirit I'll forego naming those people. But I think to do important work on the Beats, it helps to share their spiritual dimension, their heartfulness, and also their creative dimension—and not a lot of people can fill those shoes. It also helps, if one wants to explicate or promote the Beats, if one can write. Nothing I detest more than academic gobbledygook—that's one of the reasons I left academia.

A scholar I really admire—and the guy can really write—is Gregory Stephenson, an American who's spent most of his life teaching in Denmark. His book The Daybreak Boys is one of my all-time favorite books on the Beats. The late Bruce Cook's book The Beat Generation is still one of the best overviews of both the Beat movement and its key writers. And Tim Hunt, who wrote Kerouac's Crooked Road, has done some of the most original textual study of Kerouac.

Curiously, all of those critics moved on from the Beats in their later work. But maybe one has to take a break from the intensity of the Beats, which, after all, killed many of the Beats themselves before their time. I shifted at least part of my own focus, for two decades, to veterans, who have their own intensity.

One scholar who's been almost completely forgotten is Joy Walsh, who gave an incalculable boost to Kerouac study by publishing an informal Kerouac journal called Moody Street Irregulars for about fifteen years, from 1980 to 1995. She threw open her pages to everyone from punk musicians and unknown street poets to highly-honored academics, and the result was a publication that actually gave a well-rounded portrait of that most complex man and writer. I hope someday somebody will publish the collected issues of Moody Street in a single volume.

LW: Why is Jack Kerouac still relevant and important?

GN: Now you're asking me to write another book! There are as many reasons to read Kerouac as there are readers. No writer has ever given such a complete record of a human life from birth to the brink of death. Nor is there a better picture, I think, of what it meant to be alive through the Great Depression and the aftermath of World War II than in the many novels of the Duluoz Legend. And, of course, if you're a poet, there's an endless tutorial in modern poetry in Mexico City Blues. In prose, Kerouac's spontaneous bop prosody is one of the main streams that fed into the river of postmodernism. And then there's the whole thing of Kerouac's sort of pop psychology guide to individualism and finding one's true identity. I am still running into people who tell me, "Kerouac changed my life" or "Kerouac gave me permission to be who I am today."

LW: Your father was the child of Sicilian immigrants who settled in Chicago, and your mother's father was an immigrant from Czechoslovakia. What hold, if any, did the old world have on you? Does it still affect your life?

GN: I still swear in a combination of Sicilian and Czech—that ought to tell you something! A foreign language was spoken in many of the households of friends and family when I was growing up. My Sicilian grandmother, who lived with us till I was six, never learned to speak English. There were parts of Chicago, probably still are, that were like suburbs of Warsaw. Chicago was one of the great U. S. cities built by immigrants. I guess you could say that of a lot of U. S. cities, but the thing about Chicago was that the immigrants still held fiercely to their original identity. There was Greektown, Andersonville (where the Swedes lived), and the Italians clustered in Hell's Half Acre around Taylor and Halsted. When you'd start to tell somebody about a new friend you'd made, the second question you'd receive—after, "What's his name?"—would be, "What's his nationality?" All that is still with me, a world of us and them, of inside and outside. I'm sure that point of view helped prime me for the Beats, who celebrated their role as outsiders, and who constructed their identities out of being different rather than fitting in.

LW: Tell us about your writing routines over the decades. Have they changed? Do you employ different practices for poetry and nonfiction? Do you work on a typewriter or computer? What is your relationship to paper, pens and pencils?

GN: I came to computers late, in 1990, out of necessity—when it became clear that whether you were writing for newspapers or big publishing houses, everyone wanted digital copy. Memory Babe was written on an old Smith Corona electric typewriter. I still have my IBM typewriter and sometimes write letters on it. I also still write letters by hand—I like pen, preferably a gel pen or rollerball, not pencil. And I've kept a handwritten journal for going on 55 years. Prose comes more easily to me on a keyboard, but I prefer writing poems by hand. I like the communication of hand with ink and paper. I like the feel and smell of paper, the sound of a pen scratching out words. Writing is still partly a tactile art for me, but it's also a sound art. I read my work aloud, to myself, especially when I'm revising. The sound of what I'm writing, the way the words fit together, is important to me in prose as well as poetry.

LW: What advice can you give to new or struggling writers who are trying to come up in the life?

GN: I think of what Ntozake Shange told me: "You'll never become a serious writer if you start out expecting to make a living from it." She said she knew from the start that she'd need to have a way of making a living that was separate from her art. It was because she gave herself the freedom to write noncommercially that she was able to write a masterpiece like For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf, which eventually brought her a small fortune. That's pretty much the same as Kerouac's "vow of poverty." If you want to be a writer as your career, fine, there are plenty of companies that need people who can write. But if you want to be a serious writer, you write for an audience of one, yourself. Odds are you won't ever make a living from it, or at least much of a living, but you will know the joy of entering a new world every time you sit down to write. It's what Bukowski meant when he wrote, "if you're going to try / go all the way / there's no other feeling like that. / you will be alone with the gods / and the nights will flame with fire."

LW: Can you tell us about one of the most difficult periods of time you faced as a writer and how you overcame the challenges?

GN: Again, this requires writing a book. And I did write one, Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century. My support for Jan Kerouac's right to reclaim her father's estate got me blacklisted by the people who had stolen that estate, as well as by the publisher, the biggest one in the English-language world, that publishes material from that estate. For years I had a major literary career—I was published by Grove Press, Viking, Penguin, Random House, Carroll & Graf, and University of California Press, among others. Then I was blacklisted, and I ended up with tiny publishers like Host Publications and Coolgrove Press, and eventually I had to self-publish most of my work. It's been a long fight to keep my work as a writer available to the public, and that fight is still going on. There is no secret, or if there is, it's just in the words of a great painter I knew in San Francisco, Robert Newrock, who lived in the Tenderloin most of his life, and relied on the charity of his friends to survive. He told me a long time ago: "Don't ever give up!" I wrote a poem about him called "The Ghost of Swade Bonnet," which is in my first book of poetry.

LW: What place or spot in America speaks the deepest to you?

GN: Chicago will always be my home, and West Flournoy Street, where my father grew up with his widowed Sicilian mother and three siblings, will always be sacred ground to me, even though the original buildings are gone and it’s mainly public housing now. The Church of Notre Dame is still there, where my father collected water that had been dribbled over stones from Lourdes in France, from which he expected to see miracles. I feel those miracles under my feet every time I walk on Flournoy Street.

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When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through

A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry
Edited by Joy Harjo, LeAnne Howe, and Jennifer Elise Foerster
W.W. Norton & Company ($19.95)

by Mike Dillon

In 1890, the year of the Wounded Knee Massacre, the US. Census bureau announced the closing of the U.S. frontier. Manifest Destiny had done its work. The American narrative, which “began in perfection and aspired to progress,” as historian Richard Hofstadter wryly noted, now incorporated the myth of the vanishing race: Native Nations would slip away as unobtrusively as the act of forgetting.

A brilliant new book edited by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo and a stellar cast of supporting editors, and containing the work of 161 poets from more than ninety Native Nations, When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry continues the hard labor of dispelling this ingrained myth. Along the way, it necessarily challenges the U.S.’s rose-tinted assumptions about its own history.

Spanning four centuries, the anthology features leading figures in the contemporary American poetic canon, including Louise Erdrich, Gail Tremblay, Sherman Alexie, Simon Ortiz, Natalie Diaz, Layli Long Soldier, and N. Scott Momaday. Simultaneously, the editors have given new life to vivid, mostly-forgotten voices from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and they have spotlighted younger poets clearly destined to assume eminent roles in years to come.

Pulitzer Prize winner Momaday, with the opening lines of the book’s invocation, “A Prayer for Words,” foreshadows the sacramental weaving of past and present found in the poems that follow when he writes, “Here is the wind bending the reeds westward, / The patchwork of morning on gray moraine.” Harjo’s introduction, at times beautifully incantatory, also provides vital context:

Our existence as sentient human beings in the establishment of this country was denied. Our presence is still an afterthought, and fraught with tension, because our continued presence means that the mythic storyline of the founding of this country is inaccurate. The United States is a very young country and has been in existence for only a few hundred years. Indigenous peoples have been here for thousands upon thousands of years and we are still here.

When the Light of the World Was Subdued is divided into five sections: Northeast and Midwest; Plains and Mountains; Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Pacific Islands; Southwest and West; and Southeast. Each section contains valuable introductions by contributing editors and writers. Readers may also be surprised to find an additional bonus: the inclusion of poets from Hawaii, Guåhan (Guam), and Amerika Sāmoa. Manifest Destiny, after all, didn’t stop at continent’s end, but took to the water.

The Northeast and Midwest section opens with Eleazar (?—1678), tribe unknown, who entered Harvard in 1675 and died of smallpox, likely before graduation. His elegy for one Thomas Thacher, written in Latin, is modeled on classical forms—“I will try to remember and retell, / with sad grief”—bringing in the names of Apollo, Achilles, and Christ along the way. The last poem in that same section, by b: william bearheart, born in 1979, concerns an Andy Warhol painting of Geronimo in a Las Vegas art gallery. Eleazar and bearheart serve as section bookends—a surreal, historical arc somehow achingly American.

In one of the introductions to the Pacific Northwest section, poet Cedar Sigo, born in 1978, writes:

I have come to think of Native Poets as warriors/prophets that can move (almost routinely) beyond our own bodies. We are hovering, scribing entities, free to drop back into our trenches as needed. . . . Becoming a better listener is also such a huge part of becoming a more complete poet, to always leave ourselves open to new frequencies.

One of those frequencies is a magical realism which just might be true, as in “Mind Over Matter,” by Louis Little Coon Oliver (1904-1991): “My old grandmother, Tekapay’cha / stuck an ax into a stump / and diverted a tornado.”

Some of the poems reflect the conventions of 19th century poetry inculcated in white schools, as exemplified in the last stanza from a short poem by William Walker Jr., who died in 1874.

Long have I dwelt within these walls
And pored o’er ancient pages long.
I hate these antiquated halls;
I hate the Grecian poet’s song.

Jennifer Elise Foerster, born just over a century after Walker’s death, reflects his poignant, clear-eyed bitterness when she remembers what her grandmother told her in “Leaving Tulsa”: “When they see open land / they only know to take it.”

Among the eclectic range of poetic styles are masterpieces of satire. In “Sure You Can Ask Me a Personal Question,” Diane Burns (1957-2006) sends up a condescending interlocutor:

Yeah, it was awful what you guys did to us.
It’s real decent of you to apologize.
No, I don’t know where you can get peyote.
No, I don’t know where you can get Navajo rugs real cheap.
No, I didn’t make this. I bought it at Bloomingdales.

There is also a range of tones, as when, in her poem “The Wall,” Anita Endrezze, born in 1952, takes aim at Trump’s wall—“Let it be built / of guacamole so we can have a bigly block party”—before ending on an all-too-recognizable tragic note: “Make it a gallery of graffiti art, / a refuge of tumbleweeds, / a border of stories we already know by heart.”

To read this 458-page Norton anthology at a time when this country’s darkest pathologies walk in broad daylight only intensifies the book’s importance. More than 130 years after the “closing” of the American frontier, these poets have a thing or two to say about our common history. And so these poems come through to us, shining from the mysterious fluid of time.

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A Certain Hunger

Chelsea G. Summers
Unnamed Press ($26)

by Eleanor Stern

“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft,” wrote M.F.K. Fisher. It’s no coincidence, then, that Dorothy Daniels, the food-critic-turned-murderer narrator of A Certain Hunger, labels Fisher her hero in an uncharacteristic moment of straightforward admiration.

For Dorothy, food is lethally inseparable from the usual topics of serious literary inquiry, especially heterosexual love and sex. But when she begins to kill, cook, and consume a string of lovers in increasingly baroque ways, her acts aren’t rooted in metaphor. Food, to Fisher and Daniels alike, is relevant to everything. But it never stands for something else, and to let it would be an insult—unfaithful to the honor of Dorothy’s craft as a critic. Rather, eating deserves consideration in and of itself. As Dorothy narrates from prison, she waxes nostalgic about “cut tomatoes oozing their sun-warmed guts” and “the crackling skin of a roast chicken spitting hot fat into my mouth.” The images are erotic, as Dorothy will happily admit (she calls Italian truffles “a course in erotics for your mouth”). But they don’t coyly suggest sex. They comfortably contain it, and a great deal more besides.

It’s possible that Chelsea G. Summers intended none of this, and that, for all of A Certain Hunger’s wildly descriptive prose about food and eating, she really wanted to employ food as a way to talk about “serious” topics—sex, gender, hating your mom. One does get the sense that the book would like to wring more metaphorical resonance and heartbreak from Daniels’ personal relationships: with her long-dead mother, with the agoraphobic best friend who ends up testifying for the prosecution at her murder trial, and of course with the men she eats. Some of those relationships are plenty interesting, but on the level of characterization, they feel more like obligatory scaffolding (“I once had thought I had loved Giovanni,” Dorothy muses, causing me to scribble “really?” in the margin). Watching Dorothy wrench a swollen tongue out of a dead man’s mouth or taste her way around Rome is simply more of a reason to read this book than any sexual, platonic, or familial power struggle.

Dorothy eats the men she fucks, but she does not transform the liver of an annoying vegan fling into pate because she wants to assert dominance; she mostly does it because she loves pate. When she performs an elaborate kosher slaughter on her longtime lover, a married Jewish butcher, her intentions have nothing to do with ritual purification. If she’s doing it out of a desire to consume and possess the one man who will never wholly give himself to her, that motive is secondary and fairly uninteresting. Watching her puzzle out the “theatrics of butchery,” it becomes clear that she loves to kill and cook and eat because these actions hold a challenging beauty for her. “I should have liked, if only to slice again, to do it again; reverse it and do it again and again. Gone. Here. Gone. Here. Gone,” she explains, relishing the feeling of slitting a throat. Dorothy is first and foremost an artist, albeit one without a very active conscience. Earlier traumas (a bad maternal relationship, rape), the book hints, may be explanations for the exquisite detachment-bordering-on-disassociation that allows Dorothy to kill so calmly. Flashbacks to these scenes certainly display early instances of that disengagement. They are not, however, a convincing basis for revenge here, largely because Dorothy feels so tender towards her victims—and because she seems to view culinary transformation as a kind of gift, a token of love or at least attachment. After the kosher slaughter, she thinks “It was his heritage . . . How could I have killed him otherwise.”

Still, the revenge explanation lingers as a sort of red herring. In a back-cover blurb, Jude Ellison S. Doyle asserts that the book has an “unassailable core of female rage” and that Dorothy is “the monster I didn’t know I wanted.” Such readings situate the book in a certain tradition of male-tears-mug feminism, and it’s a worldview that Summers slyly deflates early in the novel. A Certain Hunger, for all its archetypal motifs of murder and cannibalism, takes place in the twenty-first century, and our contemporary media landscape plays an outsize role. Dorothy’s murder trial is a piece of our true-crime obsessed world, where the kind of well-funded storytelling that Dorothy used to do for the fictional magazine Eat and Drink has slipped away. Indeed, Dorothy spends a great deal of time lamenting the downfall of these print glossies. In their place, we have our current environment, packed with listicles and instant celebrities.

Dorothy, on trial, is perfectly suited to become one such celebrity. “Vulture hung on my trial, rated my outfits, made GIFs of my face . . . you read the tweets and you liked them, stabbing that tiny red heart with your forefinger in a hot dopamine rush,” Dorothy intones. Indeed, her ostensible reason for writing down her memoirs is a desire for the kind of immortality that only print offers. She doesn’t want fifteen minutes of fame, she wants to be a legend. Meanwhile, any denizen of the internet can live for the murderer-du-jour’s outfits, watching a drama of death and betrayal and delicious pate with total detachment. Dorothy watches the world enjoy a “hot dopamine rush” at her expense, elevating her to a semi-ironic icon while diminishing the cruelty and utter genius of her crimes. She sees in the gifs and tabloid covers an echo of her own artistic detachment, one with less blood and less artistry.

While it may be satisfying to elevate a sexy killer into a pop-feminist hero, Summers swats those narratives away; they wither beside her descriptions of fresh-caught human tongue, served with olives and Roma tomatoes. She does so not for the sake of a more-serious feminism, nor in order to share a prudish moral lesson, but because this simplification is so heart-stoppingly boring. It’s feminism-as-flattening, turning women into unserious arbiters of truth helplessly borne along by trauma, driven to madness so that they can finally lose control over their own actions and do something interesting. Dorothy Daniels isn’t a metaphor for how women feel—she’s much worse, and much more fun. She’s an artist, getting what she can out of her muses before she leaves them for dead, and making readers uncomfortably hungry as she does it.

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Brick City Vanguard: Amiri Baraka, Black Music, Black Modernity

James Smethurst
University of Massachusetts Press ($26.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Poet Amiri Baraka belted out revolutionary truth to counter political bullshit, his sharp critique always blistering listener’s ears unlike any other. If it has, at times in the last four years, felt like some stringent poetic analysis has been missing, there is good reason. Baraka passed away just before the disastrously embarrassing turn one New York City (supposed) billionaire took as leader of the Republican Party. He was ever the poet of the people (his people) and the African American core of American culture. With Brick City Vanguard: Amiri Baraka, Black Music, Black Modernity, Baraka scholar James Smethurst cogently charts a clear path through the center of Baraka’s poetics, exploring the intricacies tying his personal development with the larger political as well as social shifts (particularly via Black music) taking place across his lifetime.

With a zeal for Marxist analysis that is never overbearing, Smethurst focuses on an implicit emphasis throughout Baraka’s work. Namely, “the meaning of black music and its role in helping shape an African American people and a black working class that became the heart of the black nation, as well as music as a sort of index or history of the material, psychic, and ideological development of black people.” His first-hand account of how broad a swath of the local Black community turned out for the poet’s memorial in Newark, NJ, offers an intimate look at how Baraka’s commitments in this regard were recognized. Smethurst further demonstrates how elemental this focus proves itself to Baraka’s perspective as a whole, providing a natural grounding for Baraka’s revolutionary principles. As Smethurst accurately depicts, Baraka is ultimately best seen as “a Marxist activist artist, critic, and scholar for the majority of his career,” and that we must remember “he wanted to change the world, not merely study it.” His Black poetics of engagement within/against a white world, no holds barred, remain as alive as ever, not closed to future development, evading any final summation.

Smethurst posits “Revolution, after all, is a process of becoming, not an end in itself,” a statement that mirrors Baraka’s own ever-evolving self-identities, both creative and political. These identities are tracked throughout Smethurst’s study as he traces Baraka’s eventual “evolution as a Marxist artist whose work sounded an analysis of class and nation,” effectively demonstrating “ways that black speech in all its registers can be integrated into poetry.” Baraka continually sounded out this evolution in his work, effectively mining it in order to elevate the concerns of Black communities, especially those of Newark, his birthplace and home both in his early formative years and the later decades of his life.

Going through Baraka’s tremendous output (which, in addition to poems, includes his monumentally foundational study Blues People, liner notes, critical articles, interviews, fiction, plays, and, perhaps most notably for Smethurst, performances/readings), Brick City Vanguard casts fresh light on a vital creator of our time. Smethhurst argues that “Baraka is among the most productive and influential Marxist cultural critics in the history of the United States, if not the world,” a claim of massive weight that feels justly defended here. Smethurst allows, “I see this study as only furthering a discussion” and he has provided abundant evidence pointing to numerous directions ahead—for instance, an unfinished study of Coltrane—for engaging with this remarkable poet and figure. Baraka deserves the attention of this study and the many more that are without doubt yet to come.

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The Likely World: An Interview with Melanie Conroy-Goldman

by Zhanna Slor

What does it mean to be Jewish in the modern world? This is a question I found myself asking while reading Melanie Conroy-Goldman’s debut novel, The Likely World (Red Hen Press, $18.95), which I discovered in an online Jewish writers’ group last fall. The book, which deals with familiar themes about Jewish identity while also maintaining a compelling story, is grittier than most Jewish novels (crime and drugs abound, for example, and the plot leans more mystery than literary); it also deals with Jewish topics that are less trodden, since the focus is only obliquely on the characters’ Judaism and the most “Jewish” thing that happens is that they all meet at Jewish camp. The culture of Judaism fades into the background, which is sort of unusual in itself, and worthy of discussion.

Conroy-Goldman’s novel also delves into other fascinating topics, including attraction, addiction, motherhood, memory, and more. Driven by its strong protagonist Mellie, a single mother hooked on the drug “cloud,” The Likely World is an extremely compelling first book, and I was pleased to discuss it in depth with the author.

Zhanna Slor: I kept thinking of cloud as The Cloud—as in, smartphones. I felt like a lot of what cloud does to Mellie is what phones do to people: they make you super anxious to check all the time and get your dopamine hit, make you unable to function without them, make you unable to be in the moment, make you forget what you did for three hours. Was this your intention?

Melanie Conroy-Goldman: Yes, and I'd broaden it out. The modern condition to me feels deeply enmeshed in the present. We're absorbed by the 24-hour news cycle, by constant entertainment, over-scheduling, overwork. The disastrous nature of 2020 illustrates the barrage of the present, but if you think to the news of school shootings, for example, we live in an age of such incessant disaster. We can barely retain anxiety for one thing before it’s erased by the next. The internet is a part of it, but the cloud also references obliquely the environment, our inability to see outside of the now. The irony is that our absorption in the present not only erases the past, but also obscures the future and makes it difficult to envision a better way.

ZS: The other way I see cloud is as an illicit version of an anxiety medication. She takes it whenever she gets anxious, it seems, especially when it comes to her own sexuality and lust towards Paul.

MCG: I was definitely thinking about both anxiety and our culture's tendency to medicate difficulty. I have been enormously helped by medication, and I know for many people it's a lifesaver, but it's also a capitalist solution—an expensive product, accessible only to those who have insurance. We tend to reach for a thing when we're worried or unhappy. I do wonder what we would do, what we might change, if we shifted the model. If we took action, if we reached for a person or a community instead.

ZS: What is it about Paul that she is so attracted to? I didn’t really get what she liked about him. Is it just a physical attraction? And why is Mellie so daunted by it?

MCG: This is interesting. Different readers have responded to Paul and Mellie's passion for him in different ways. He's smart, pretty, and wounded. That's definitely a type some people get, but it's also surely an immature attraction. I liked sad boys when I was a teenager because they went along very nicely with my angst and the perpetual soundtrack of The Smiths, The Cure, Billy Bragg, etc. that formed my idea of love. Cloud addicts don't mature, are frozen in this teenaged time. This paralysis is part of why she can't let go, but it's also another form of addiction. Mellie is addicted to Paul. It may not be rational, but how many of us love rationally? Indeed, we realize that the Paul we see through Mellie's eyes is as much a projection as it is real. He needs to be let go, for himself and for her, but she clings in a way that damages them both.

ZS: Does it have something to do with Jewish parents' inability to talk about sex or bodies with their kids? (I know that is an overgeneralization, but from my perspective, it seems like something that’s not really discussed)

MCG: My parents were actually pretty good on this. I grew up in the 1970s, and my folks were pretty feminist. I had a well-read copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. But I think a lot of my education was anatomical in nature, i.e. “This is how you get diseases, this is how your body works.” Though that's probably important, it didn't turn out to be what's critical. I think Jews are pretty family-oriented, culturally. And I suppose my models just fast-forwarded to married life. There wasn't a narrative about desire or dating, or the navigation of the murky space before you partner up for perpetual Shabbats with your children around you. I wrote a bit about twentieth-century Judaism's inability to discuss female desire in an article on Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar, in which sex absolutely destroys the protagonist's soul and dooms her to a life of disappointment. I think there's a lingering shadow of that, even in a culture that's apparently evolved. Marjorie also falls for a guy who no one thinks she should stay with, by the way.

ZS: Another thing that struck me was the title, how every time “The Likely World” is mentioned, it’s used as a negative way of looking at life, of having this idea of a perfect reality, maybe one that you come up with when you are a teenager and haven’t seen much of anything. People are always telling Mellie to try and live in this world, the one in front of her. (I saw this as a modern version of “Get your head out of the clouds!” which is another way that the drug name really hits the spot.) Why do you think Mellie was so incapable of doing that? Did her fear of failure overwhelm her so much that she sabotaged herself with this drug addiction, or did she not intend to sacrifice her ambition at all, and it just slowly crept up on her?

MCG: I think you've located something important in the idea that young people dream perfect futures for themselves. As you mature, you realize you can't be both an astronaut and a famous ballerina. This is a loss, yes, but not necessarily a tragic one. Just an astronaut is pretty good. But if you can't absorb change, can't choose among your possible futures or accept that you may not get each and every thing you want, then you can become paralyzed and end up with nothing. Like Mellie, I wanted to be a politician as a teen. That would have been a terrible career for me, and I have a job and a vocation that I love. We have the Disney version of childhood dreams, where the best outcome is to follow through, but that's for kids. As we grow, change, learn more of the world, I think we find out who we are, and what makes sense for us. Addicts don't get to do that, don't discover. So I see Mellie's journey as less a failure of ambition as a failure to evolve.

ZS: I agree that it’s a sign of immaturity to be unable to decide a path for yourself and stick to it. My husband is a professional sax player, so I’ve been a witness to how difficult it can be to have an unusual or highly challenging career path, like Mellie’s political aspirations—and of course, writing is no easy vocation either. It requires a lot of sacrifice and perseverance. Do you think something in Mellie’s life stunted her ability to mature properly, other than her addiction? Like Paul, she seems stuck in the past, in a very teenage mindset. I thought, for example, as I was reading that it might have to do with her lonely childhood. Her mother is a little bit absent emotionally, her dad is not around, and her friends are kind of jerks. I felt bad for her that she didn’t have any positive influences in her life!

MCG: When I think about this, I guess I think in terms of preconditions. Mellie was primed, by parental absence, to be vulnerable to addiction. By the time people show up who can offer her a hand (there's a teacher in college, and her grandmother, we learn, is a special presence Mellie simply can't or won't connect to), she's already in the grips of the drugs, and the drugs freeze her in time. But I also think there are societal preconditions. The way we sexualize young women, the so-called double standard by which girls are both pressured to be sexual and also shamed for it. Mellie needs love, I think. She tries to win it through sex, and then through suppressing her selfhood in order to be appealing. But I don't know that I believe she needs love more desperately than other girls her age. I could be wrong. Maybe I was weird in this and other young women had their heads on their shoulders, but I just wanted boys to like me—to love me—like in a rom com. I wanted it so completely and entirely. When I recall the extreme anguish I felt about objectively kind of goofy boys who I didn't even really know very deeply, it astonishes me. That I managed to do schoolwork, eat, try out for the play, all the normal teenaged stuff, with these just monster feelings and desires in me seems unbelievable. My girls (12, 17, 19) seem generally much less insane on the topic. Have times changed? Or are they just sharper young women? I can't be sure.

ZS: I can definitely relate to that, as a very boy-crazy girl myself. If I had actually received attention from boys, maybe I would have been less obsessed with it? I don’t know. I was a lot like Mellie actually, but I didn’t have access to drugs, so I turned all those big feelings into paintings of Kurt Cobain. Speaking of art and artistic teens, because of my own background I really identified with Mellie’s constant flirtation with poverty working in the arts and how this is not a very typical portrayal of modern American Jews. I think the stereotype is always that Jews must be rich. (I too went to Jewish camp on a scholarship, as I believe Mellie did.) Part of why I enjoyed your book so much was that it strayed away from this typical Jewish suburban upbringing in its portrayal of Mellie. Jews are not all the same after all; immigrants from the USSR, for example, come here with almost no money, and even if they become middle class later in life, their kids are not always raised this way. And plenty of others struggle financially too, I’m sure. Were you thinking about breaking through these stereotypes while writing this book?

MCG: I love this question. In the 1970s, many Jews were recent immigrants, because of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which facilitated immigration from Soviet Russia, where, as you know, Jews were very marginalized, prohibited from career paths, and forbidden from practicing. I think the Jew of the popular imagination derives from a subset of people who had deeper roots in this country, and thus more resources (but it's still a stereotype, and therefore exaggerated and rooted in anti-Semitism). Many of us are/were poor. It never made it to the final draft, but originally, there was a lot of conversation about this particular demographic—recent immigrants—in earlier versions of the book. Because many of these recent immigrants weren't practicing, they were doubly alienated from both their heritage and from their new country.

On the other hand, Judaism has a kind of precedent for genteel poverty. I think this tradition has manifested in a kind of comfort with an artistic or intellectual life rather than the pursuit of wealth. If this representation works against those bad stereotypes, even in a tiny way, I'd be very glad of it.

ZS: My book also portrays Jewish characters in the lower rungs of society, and sometimes drugs are involved as well. Did you get any pushback from the Jewish community about this?

MCG: There were definitely venues that didn't want to review or feature the book. I had a panic attack literally the day before I finalized publication, in which I was gripped by a fear of what the Jewish community would think. I wanted my relatives to read redacted versions. So, totally. I think you always worry, as a part of a minority group, about representation, and feel a burden to present your people in a positive light. But writers aren't in the business of public relations. And, as others in the same position have said before me, and better, to portray people as individuals, flawed humans who have as much right and capacity to fail and succeed as any other people, is also an intervention against bias. Like everyone else, we are people with bodies whose appetites and needs can betray our better instincts.

ZS: What do you think would have happened to Mellie if she never tried cloud?

MCG: This question makes me sad for her. I don't think she really would have been a politician. There's a scene with a professor, a mentor who gives up on her, and I guess I imagine if she'd been well, she could have accepted this offer of help, and gone on to be a scholar. She's actually studying Soviet Immigration at the time, so maybe she would have been able to offer some insight or serve as a bridge between immigrants and their new country. Or maybe her artistic side would have won out. But her daughter is the inadvertent gift of her bad choices. And I see Juni as being worth any loss that might have occurred on the way. Mellie is a mom, and the most hopeful thing for me is if she can figure out how to live up to that.

ZS: This reminds me that I never brought up Mellie’s motherhood. I totally agree that Juni is worth all the missteps. I have a daughter almost the exact same age as her, so as I was reading, I was actually filled with quite a bit of anxiety about the poor baby. I have similar moments, where I’m really involved in something else, like writing or working, where I am not giving my full attention to my daughter, and afterwards I feel like I was so lucky that nothing happened to her while I was distracted. So, I think that is really relatable even for those who do not struggle with addiction. Do you have kids, and did you feel nervous writing a character who can come off as neglectful?

MCG: I'm a mom of one, and stepmom of two. I know for some readers, kids in peril are just a no-go. One of my writing group members—a Jewish mom, like me—said she really had to push through that part. My own daughter, when she was just over one, began to lose weight precipitously. She lost four pounds between 12 and 18 months. It was terrifying. We saw the department heads of three different specialties at Children's Hospital in Boston before a very careful, smart intern finally found the problem. It was simple, in the end, and she's a healthy twelve-year-old preparing for Bat Mitzvah now. So, that's what I drew on to write about that. Even if I wasn't neglectful, you feel like a terrible mom when your child won't eat or can't eat. Maybe especially for a Jewish woman, for whom feeding is so central to motherhood. I know moms who joke about their kids' scant appetites. Not me! Even so, I do think there's a universal experience embodied in the neglect: a parental anxiety that we will fail our children in some fundamental way, fail to protect them or prevent their pain. And universally, we do fail, we do fail to prevent it. So, even if I lost some tender readers for whom child peril is too hard (and I get that!), I felt it was important to explore this territory.

Most people tell me they find the character sympathetic—they root for her. I guess part of my project with her was to consider the most unforgivable transgression: harm to a child has to be it, in my book. I wanted to know if a person who has done that kind of harm can be redeemed, can redeem herself, can earn a reader's forgiveness. The risk in that project is that some readers won't forgive, but I think that response is still a meaningful one, even if it's not what I intended or how I feel about the character.

ZS: I found her quite redeemable! Many women in her place might have just given up, and she didn’t; that says a lot about her character.

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