Tag Archives: Spring 2021

Are Translators Ventriloquists?

On Reviewing Literary Translations

by Eric Fishman

Literary translators love to gripe that critics neglect their work. Peruse any online forum for translators and you’ll come across exchanges in which we vie with one another for the coveted title of most painful review, featuring entrants from reviews that neglect to mention that the work is translated at all, to patronizing single-phrase mentions of the translator, to “gotcha” reviews, where a critic will choose a single sentence to check in the source language—completely out of context—and determine that the translator has not done a word-for-word translation.

As a translator myself, of course I share these frustrations. Translation is a subtle art, and translators deserve to be evaluated for their craftsmanship alongside authors. Yet reviewers who neglect to discuss the translation do a disservice not only to the translator, but also to the author and the reader. Critics have an obligation to engage with the translated nature of books they review.

Metaphors for translation abound in both popular and scholarly discourse, but I recently came across one that surprised me, because it was in the midst of a review of an American novel, written in English (John Wray’s Godsend). James Wood, in discussing how Wray depicts the speech of Afghan characters, asserts the following:

Wray might see his task as very much that of a translator . . . He must decide what would constitute respectful ventriloquism, and what would constitute brash overreach.

At first, Wood’s metaphor of “translator as ventriloquist” makes sense. The translator is attempting to embody the voice of the author, “performing” the text for the target language audience. But the comparison soon turns strange. The task of the ventriloquist is to create the impression that the puppet is alive, by both secretly manipulating the puppet’s mouth and body as well as “throwing” their voice to make the puppet appear to talk. Ventriloquists are illusionists, animating a lifeless figure with their hands and voice. The puppet has no choice but to conform to the ventriloquist’s choices. Wood’s metaphor implies—perhaps accidentally—that, without the translator, the text and author don’t exist, that it is the translator who conjures their book into existence.

This metaphor uncovers the enormous power that translators wield over texts, although this power is often invisible to the reader. The puppet is not really speaking; it’s the ventriloquist’s vocal chords that are vibrating. Similarly, the translator’s voice is always present in the texts they create, and this voice may or may not resemble the voice of the author. Translators have their own identities, and with these identities come particular aesthetics, values, and cultural perspectives which manifest in their work. The translator’s influence is pervasive; in many cases, translators are the ones choosing which books “deserve” translation. This is particularly true in situations where the origin countries or languages of the text have less institutional power, and therefore fewer cultural organizations to advocate on their behalf, as well as fewer Anglophone editors with access to their literatures. For translators, these decisions of selection are often fraught with unglamorous practical considerations, such as which projects get grant money, and which projects seem like they would appeal to publishing houses.

Once the project has begun, translators are constantly presented with aesthetic, ethical, and cultural conundrums. Some of these revolve around the text itself: which are the most important features of the text to bring into English? Should the rhyme scheme of the poem be altered to align with Anglophone literary conventions? How will the dialect of a particular character be represented in order to capture their particular voice, as well as the class implications of this dialect in the country of origin? What should be done about bigoted language in the original text? Additional questions may have to do with an imagined Anglophone reader (or editor): what background knowledge can be assumed about the foreign culture, and what will need to be explained? Are there features of the text that will be perceived as “too foreign” or “not foreign enough”?

These are essential conundrums for critics to engage with in their examination of translated works. Without these examinations, the Anglophone reader, unless otherwise informed by a translator’s introduction, may go along with an assumption they are essentially reading the author’s own words, rather than an interpretation of the foreign author’s work, created by someone else.

One of the challenges, of course, is that many English-language critics may not speak the languages the books were originally written in. However, there are fairly simple questions that critics can ask in order to clarify the role of the translator in translated texts—even in situations where the critic doesn’t speak the original language. This is by no means a complete list, but perhaps it provides a point of departure.

  1. What are the values implicit in the translator’s choice of this author and this text?
  2. Does the translator articulate a clear vision for their goals in this translation (perhaps in a critical introduction, perhaps elsewhere in an interview)?
  3. Does this vision align with what critics and scholars have identified as the most important features of the author’s work? Does it align with what the author themselves has identified as most important? Although it’d be best to talk directly with those who have expertise in this author’s literature, using Google Translate to facilitate access to original language reviews, scholarship, and author interviews can be a reasonable substitute.
  4. Is the translator’s vision borne out in what they’ve produced? Have they succeeded relative to their own goals? Have they succeeded relative to what the author and source language readers deem most important about the text?
  5. How does this book fit into other works by this translator? Does their approach in this translation mirror the approach they have taken with other pieces, suggesting they may not be adapting their approach to the demands of different texts?
  6. If there are previous translations of this same text, or of this author, how does this translation compare to these other efforts? How does this translator’s approach diverge from the other translators’ approaches? What are the effects of these differences on the experience of the reader?

Translators are themselves critics: their critical work is embedded in the texts they create. The reviewer has the ability bring the translator’s hidden work of interpretation to the surface. When critics choose to make the act of translation central to their reviews of translated literature, they provide a crucial perspective for readers. No longer should the ventriloquist perform in the shadows.


Thanks to Luke Leafgren for his perspectives on earlier drafts of this article.

Eric Fishman (ejp.fishman@gmail.com) is a translator, writer, and educator. His writing and translations have appeared in AGNI, Asymptote, Poetry Daily, and elsewhere. His most recent translation is Outside, a collection of poetry by André du Bouchet (Bitter Oleander Press, with Hoyt Rogers). He is currently translating a volume of poems by the Martinican writer Monchoachi.


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

Rough Song

Blanca Varela
Translated by Carlos Lara
The Song Cave ($17.95)

by John Bradley

Peruvian poet Blanca Varela had an auspicious life, one in which she befriended Andre Breton, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Henri Michaux, Alberto Giacometti, and Octavio Paz. Paz helped her find a publisher for her first book in 1959 and wrote the introduction to it. Varela went on to become the first woman to win the Federico Garcia Lorca International Poetry Prize. How is it that Rough Song is her first book to be translated into English?

Despite the lateness of its recognition by the English-reading world, or perhaps because of it, Rough Song is a most welcome discovery. It offers twenty-six of her poems, ranging in length from two lines to six parts, in a bilingual format showcasing the carefully crafted translation by Carlos Lara. Given her relative obscurity, however, an introduction to Varela and her work would have been most helpful. While there is a biographical note on the back cover, more is needed, especially when introducing a poet as elliptical as Varela.

Not many poets dare to write a poem of just two lines; Varela was unafraid of the challenge. Here is “Railing,” which opens the book: “which is the light / which the shadow.” Without any end punctuation, the poem offers only the starkness of its minimal text, the very words feeling like shadows. Varela enjoys paradoxes, mysteries, unstated presences, and uncertainties. This can be seen in “Game,” another two-line poem: “within my grasp / the angel burned.” Just what “game” is this? What is our speaker going to do with the angel? Could the poem be a reference to the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling the angel? Could the speaker in the poem, like Jacob, desire a blessing before letting the angel go?

Varela’s longer poems are just as mysterious. In “Flowers for the Ear,” she creates a spring scene in an unnamed city:

walking toward the street
being jackhammered apart
I felt the horror of spring
of many flowers
blooming in the air

What is “the horror of spring”? Is it the uncontrolled fecundity seen in the flowers? Is it the loud human activity? The last stanza of the poem offers no answers: “I know one of these days / I will end in the mouth of some flower.” This presents another mystery. It could be read as another “horror,” or a merging with the beauty of spring.

In his “Translator’s Note,” Carlos Lara describes the difficulty in translating Varela’s poems. Even the title of the book, a translation of Canto villano, proves challenging. Lara explains that for him “rough” “expresses the undecidability within which Varela seems most comfortable.” “Rough,” though, might imply these are unfinished or unpolished poems, when they are anything but.

May Rough Song be the first of many more translations of Blanca Varela, a poet with the nerve to tell us “annihilate the light / or create it.”


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Winter Counts

David Heska Wanbli Weiden
Ecco ($27.99)

by Julia Stein

A stunning crime novel, Winter Counts offers a fascinating snapshot of life and Lakota culture on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It’s a place where only the federal government has jurisdiction over felony crimes, but they ignore most crimes besides murder. The book’s hero, Virgil Wounded Horse, thus has a compelling purpose: he is an enforcer who punishes other criminals, as we learn on the opening page when he beats up a rapist.

Virgil has been divorced from traditional Lakota values since his father got cancer and traditional prayers failed to save him, but he does remember his childhood, when he and his sister made “winter counts”—a traditional Lakota calendar with a picture of the most significant event that year. After his sister dies, Virgil raises his 14-year-old nephew Nathan, who also eschews traditional Lakota beliefs. Nathan begins using heroin and is eventually charged with felony possession when oxycodone pills are found in his locker, pills he claims have been planted. This sets into motion the events that propel the narrative.

Author David Heska Wanbli Weiden gives a brilliant portrait of the Rosebud reservation; he’s especially skillful at depicting settings like the shack that Virgil and Nathan live in, the community center that looks like a squat gray bunker, and the town’s three restaurants—all of which serve bad food. A deep contrast is drawn when Virgil reconnects with his ex-girlfriend Marie and goes to dinner at her parents’ big, modern house (once owned by a white ranching family, who, like many whites, had gotten reservation land in the 1890s); it’s heavily emphasized that their family is one of the few that live like this.

Virgil struggles with how to get justice for Nathan and how to honor his community. Despite his disavowal of tradition he visits medicine man Jerome, who tells Virgil that Lakota justice means “healing the community” and that he should tell his nephew not to be like the magpie that “fouls its own nest.” Virgil and Marie also begin to connect with Lakota traditions together, since Marie is learning how to cook traditional Native American foods.

Winter Counts offers readers not only a fast-paced thriller, but also teaches them about Lakota culture and even a bit of the language, such as the word toksa which means farewell (but not goodbye: Virgil notes that the Lakota believe “we are forever connected”). As the book careens toward a riveting ending that includes heroin dealers, a yuwipi ceremony, and a daring rescue, Virgil learns “that there was mercy for me and for all the wounded and the lost.” Ultimately, Weiden's work is a cross between a novel and a winter count: the tale of a period of time that, like the traditional Lakota calendar, gives a picture of the most significant event of the year.


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

The Productive Procrastination of Robert Stone: An Interview with Madison Smartt Bell

Interviewed by Allan Vorda

Madison Smartt Bell was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, and graduated from Princeton University. He has published a total of twenty-two books, more than half of them novels. He is perhaps best known for his trilogy of historical fiction works focusing on Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution; All Souls Rising, the first of the trilogy, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and it ultimately won the Anisfield-Wolf Award for the best book of the year dealing with matters of race. He and his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires, teach at Goucher College.

Bell’s latest work, Child of Light: A Biography of Robert Stone (Doubleday, $35), reflects his lifelong love of the work of that novelist, and inspiration Bell has drawn from Stone and his contemporaries. We discuss the biography in the following conversation, held over email in recent months.


Allan Vorda: You have produced the definitive biography of a great American author. Walk us through the origins of how you got started on this project. Did you have full access to Robert Stone’s manuscripts and letters? Did his widow give you permission to discuss Stone’s alcohol and drug issues, as well as their open marriage?

Madison Smartt Bell: Yes, I had extraordinary support from Janice Stone, and couldn’t have written the book without that. I was good friends with her before Bob’s death but working on the project together deepened that friendship a good deal. At the time of his death, there were twelve crates of papers in the Stones’ New York apartment scheduled to go to a Stone archive at the New York Public Library. Janice delayed sending them so that I could have the convenience of working on the material at her place. (Later I also worked with the Stone archive already housed at NYPL, whose staff was wonderfully helpful.)

Early in the discussions of the biography I called on Janice at the Stones’ house in Key West, and said I needed to know two things: how frank she wanted to be about drugs and about other women. She thought for a bit (Janice has no fear of silence) and said that she wanted the whole truth told and believed that Bob would want the same. Early on I interviewed her a couple times about the early period of Bob’s life and sent her questions by email. Janice eventually responded by writing her own memoir, sending it to me serially; that was an amazing asset to have, as any reader can see from the amount that I quote from it. Gerry Howard, the editor at Doubleday, worried about that; he said, reviewers are going to quip about your having a co-author. I said I don’t mind if they do. It really was a partnership.

I don’t know that I’d choose the term “open marriage,” since it was not really in use before the early ’70s. By then, the Stones had been married more than ten years and had passed through the Kesey orbit. I believe Jane Burton said, “everybody was in love with everybody” and they all expressed that fully. What Janice told me, while Bob was still living, is that they’d agreed to cut each other some slack in that area since they had married so young and then entered the gigantic cultural upheaval of the 1960s; she felt that this leeway made it possible for them to stay together, which is what they both wanted. You might say that their arrangement prefigured the open marriage trend, but I wouldn’t say it was part of it.

AV: Can you briefly describe Stone’s upbringing regarding his mother, his Catholic education, and his joining the Navy?

MSB: Gladys Grant was a single mother, so single that Bob never knew his father; nothing is known of Homer Stone beyond the name on Bob’s birth certificate. In Bob’s early childhood Gladys maintained them fairly comfortably on what she earned as a school-teacher. But she lost that job, probably thanks to mental illness, and that early stability went with it. Still a small boy, Bob spent a few good years as a boarder at St. Anne’s School on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, a school run by Marists which took in supernumerary children from large Catholic families. Bob was a student there through high school, and was in and out as a boarder for several years, but more in than out during his young boyhood. Gladys next tried to move them to Chicago, where they stayed less than a year. On their return to New York, they were briefly homeless, then shared a single room in various SRO hotels, with Gladys earning money as a maid or by stuffing envelopes.

In his teens Bob had some involvement with a street gang (and also an incipient drinking problem), but he was a good enough student to get a top score on the Regents exam as a senior at Saint Anne’s, and to win a scholarship to NYU. Around the same time, however, Saint Anne’s expelled him for coming to school drunk and (worse) talking a classmate into renouncing Catholicism. Street life in New York was becoming more dangerous; Bob was involved in one fracas where someone was fatally wounded with a knife, and heroin use was becoming more common in this milieu. No doubt he was also ready to get out of his mother’s single room, so he took advantage of a Navy program that allowed a seventeen-year-old to make a three-year enlistment.

AV: Stone met Janice, his future wife, while both were students at NYU. They later dropped out of school, got married, and then moved to New Orleans in January 1960. How did this move affect Stone’s writing and lay the groundwork for Stone’s first novel A Hall of Mirrors?

MSB: Well, first she got pregnant and then they got married. Bob had taken up his NYU scholarship at the end of his Navy enlistment, but he had to be a full-time student to keep it, and he couldn’t sustain that while also working at the Daily News full-time. He’d promised Janice a European tour (having seen a good deal of Europe while in the Navy) and New Orleans was as close to that as they could manage at the time. They got decent jobs as census canvassers at first; Janice having to conceal and work around her pregnancy until she gave birth to the Stones’ eldest. When the census finished, Bob tried factory work, briefly, and sold Bibles in the boonies, briefly and unsuccessfully. Finally, they returned to New York, where Janice could at least get some support from her family.

New Orleans furnished the setting for A Hall of Mirrors—Rheinhardt and Geraldine live in the Stones’ French Quarter apartment (later to be reconstructed as a set for the movie starring Paul Newman). And the Stones got around all over town, what with Bob’s various short-term employments, and most importantly the census work—that took Bob into the Black community, an important factor in the novel.

AV: Would you agree the most momentous event in Stone’s life was being granted a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford? Pretty amazing since he only had a GED certificate and less than three full semesters of college; yet this seemed to help propel him on the road to a writing career.

MSB: It was certainly a life-changing event, especially since Bob had never assumed he would go to college—his childhood produced the expectation that he’d enter the workforce after high school, like most of his peers, although his restlessness opposed that prospect. He would not have applied for the Stegner if not pushed to do it by Mack Rosenthal, an NYU professor who’d seen Stone’s promise from some early stories written for Rosenthal’s class. On the other hand, Stegner had invented the program to serve students who fit Bob’s profile: young men leaving the military after World War II, with incomplete educations and uncertainty about what they could or should do.

A byproduct of Stone’s zigzag path through conventional higher education is that though in maturity he was encyclopedically knowledgeable and immensely well-read, he was also very much an autodidact and so had little traffic with received ideas.

AV: While at Stanford, Stone was working on his manuscript for A Hall of Mirrors, but this is also where he met Ken Kesey. Tell us about his relationship with Kesey—which included taking LSD, being part of the Merry Pranksters, the parties at Perry Lane, and going to Mexico.

MSB: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had recently come out when the Stones arrived in California, making Kesey the biggest star to have come out of the Stegner. The Perry Lane scene was a Petri dish for the enormous cultural changes on the way, with free love aplenty and many doors of perception being kicked open by mescaline, psilocybin, and LSD. At the same time, most of the people living there were much like the Stones: young couples trying to take care of babies while also finishing novels or dissertations. Kesey had some gravitational force in the community, but was not yet the quasi-cult leader he would become once he moved up to La Honda.

Bob was extremely enthusiastic about any and all hallucinogens on offer. He and Kesey were good, close, life-long friends, but Bob was always resistant to the cult-building aspect of Kesey’s charisma (and Janice even more so). The sense grew that Bob’s novel would never be finished if the Stones stayed in Kesey’s orbit. The Stones were back in New York by the time the Merry Pranksters moniker was coined. Bob was still working on the novel, in a more disciplined manner than before, when the Prankster bus rolled in for the 1964 World’s Fair. The Stones rode the bus around town with their friends, but they were not really “on the bus” in the cult sense of the phrase.

Kesey fled to Mexico in 1966 to avoid drug charges, taking a handful from his inner circle with him, including Neal Cassady. Bob had finished A Hall of Mirrors, and didn’t yet have a good start on a second novel. He got an assignment from Esquire to write a piece on Kesey’s Mexican camp—unlike most other reporters, Bob knew how to get there. He eventually wrote nearly a hundred pages of a piece which addressed the whole Kesey phenomenon very astutely, but Esquire passed on it. Bob shared the material with Tom Wolfe, and eventually published a much shorter version in The Free You as “The Man Who Turned on the Here.”

AV: Right—Stone wasn’t actually on the Further bus except briefly, when it arrived in New York City, but he had been exposed to Neal Cassady while in Mexico. When I interviewed Stone in 1990, I asked him about Cassady, and he said: “He was a walking cautionary tale about speed. If you wanted to think of one hundred reasons not to take speed, then Cassady could provide you with at least eighty of them.” Can you add any other insights about Cassady?

MSB: That’s a great line about Cassady. I don’t think I can top it. I never knew the guy and he has been well mythologized by other writers. Bob did once tell me that Cassady had achieved a sort of immortality in the form of his parrot, who could say a lot of Cassady dialogue in a perfect impression of Cassady’s voice, and who may still be doing it somewhere, given the longevity of parrots.

AV: If getting the Stegner fellowship was not the most important, life-altering event in Stone’s life, then working as a journalist in Vietnam had to be right up there. Stone stated: “I realized if I wanted to be a ‘definer’ of the American condition, I would have to go to Vietnam. In many ways it changed my life.”

MSB: Bob went to Vietnam from London, where the Stones had been living for quite a while, increasingly cut off from the American scene. Bob was struggling with a second novel set in the U.S. He agonized terribly about making the trip, but he was so stuck in the novel that in the end he felt he had to go. Getting killed in Vietnam would be no worse than atrophying in London. He spent most of his time with the fringier Anglophone journalists in Saigon, but he did manage to come under fire once and that was certainly a key experience—one that he gives to John Converse, a protagonist of Dog Soldiers.

I think that before the trip he had a suspicion that Vietnam was such a key factor in the American experience at the time that you couldn’t write anything that didn’t somehow include it—Dog Soldiers is the expression of that idea. Vietnam is omnipresent in the novel, though mostly offstage.

AV: Stone was given a teaching position at Princeton (despite having no college degree) where he slowly churned out the manuscript for his second novel. It is amazing to think he didn’t know what he was doing when he began writing Dog Soldiers, since it is one of the great American novels of the twentieth century, but this is what Stone said about writing the book that would win him the National Book Award: “I didn’t really research it. I didn’t know what I was doing when I began it.”

MSB: Princeton had one of the first undergraduate creative writing programs in the country (one reason I went there a few years later). Bob got on board at a moment where the main qualification to teach in that field was achievement in the craft as proven by publication and recognition; degrees didn’t matter so much.

My sense is that he was unable to get any real start on Dog Soldiers before going to Vietnam; he was, among many other things, a great procrastinator, but I also think that he began with a very inchoate sense of what he wanted to do, and that his Vietnam experience somehow unlocked the problem for him.

AV: Do you think Ray Hicks in Dog Soldiers was based on Neal Cassady—and, if so, in what ways?

MSB: Not much, although Hicks’ Zen death march scene is probably inspired by Cassady’s having died while walking a Mexican railroad track in 1968. Hicks isn’t a speed freak (speed was one of the few drugs that didn’t much appeal to Bob recreationally, although he did sometimes take Ritalin to write), and he doesn’t have Cassady’s manic, non-stop-jabbering personality.

I think, rather, that Bob did here what he often did: split aspects of his own personality to create two separate characters for a story, which in some ways opposes them to each other. Hicks is what Bob might have become if he hadn’t married, had gone from the Navy into the merchant marine (he had a brief encounter with the latter at the end of the New Orleans stay) and drifted into a life a few steps outside the law. Hicks is a man of action, not entirely unreflective but far less reflective than Converse, who’s a writer with problems completing his work, who shares much of Bob’s ironical insight, and whose ability to imagine the worst that can happen makes him far more timorous than Hicks.

AV: Fans of Robert Stone probably wish he had written more novels. It seems Stone would always procrastinate while writing, and he even referred to himself as a “slothful perfectionist.” What are your thoughts on Stone’s productivity?

MSB: It’s a very solid body of work, and I think one of Bob’s novels is worth three or four of most of his contemporaries’. We occasionally talked about a difference between him and me: I write with facility and have a good time doing it. For me, it’s almost never not fun. For Bob the writing was often a painful experience, especially in later stages when he would push himself further than most of us do, to make every scene and every sentence diamond-hard. Completing each of his best novels was a more taxing experience for him than it is for most of us, so he might not have been quite as eager to turn around and do it again as the average novelist. It’s also true that he was very amenable to distraction and inclined to be a rolling Stone in the gathers-no-moss sense.

AV: In Child of Light you write, “In the summer of 1983, my mother handed me a paperback copy of A Flag for Sunrise. We were on our way to spend a few weeks with friends in the Roman Campagna and a couple of other places. It was my first trip to Europe; my first novel had been published a few months earlier. Before I got on the plane, I had never heard of Robert Stone. By the time the wheels touched down in Rome, he was the writer I wished I could become.” What other recollections can you share about being captivated with Stone’s work and how it affected your own writing career, which has now spawned twenty-two books?

MSB: Stone is one of the few contemporary writers (along with Cormac McCarthy, Mary Gaitskill, William Vollmann, and Eudora Welty) that I can read many times over and still get more out of it. And I’ve read the great Stone novels so many times I’m sure I just internalized them, and at that point one stops being aware of the influence. I think there’s some bleed of Stone’s style into mine, although not so much that many people have noticed.

During the years of our friendship, Bob was very admiring of my work, particularly the Haitian novels, which was nice but also felt a little weird; I’d be thinking, “you’re 2.5 times the writer I’ll ever be—what are you talking about?” I mean, I don’t take a back seat to practically anybody, but to Stone I do. I think maybe the fact that I did it easily impressed him, perhaps excessively, and surely more than it does me—it’s lucky in a way, but I don’t consider it a virtue.

AV: There is an interesting and sublime metaphor in A Flag for Sunrise when Holliwell is scuba diving; fear overtakes him as he imagines he is being watched by something unseen, probably a shark. The symbol of fear is also evident when Heath declares, “I’m the shark on the bottom of the lagoon. You have to sink a long way before you get to me. When you do, I’m waiting.” It seems that fear was ingrained in Stone’s consciousness on the day he went out on patrol in Vietnam. How do you think fear drove Stone in both his life and his writing?

MSB: Proverbially, it’s easier to be brave if you’re stupid—or maybe unimaginative would be a better word. Active imaginations project bad outcomes, which are hard for courage to overcome, and sometimes those outcomes materialize. I think Stone’s experience under fire was not symbolic at all, but a primal, visceral experience, a self-annihilating nadir he was always aware of afterward.

AV: Pablo Tabor from A Flag for Sunrise is a scary character for me as a reader. Every time a passage occurred with his name, my antenna came up anticipating some horrific act of violence. Pablo has been referred to as an “institutional personality” and as an “affectless sociopath”; he’s certainly one of Stone’s most fascinating characters. I wonder if you see any similarities between him and Ray Hicks.

MSB: I think both are in some ways there-but-for-the-grace-of-whatever self-portraits. Bob had a very evolved idea of the institutional person as someone whose character, in the absence of much in the way of parenting, is shaped by orphanages, juvey, prison, and the military. His childhood and youth gave him the opportunity to become that person, but he didn’t. Pablo did.

AV: Stone had a lifelong battle with religion and the existence of God, nurtured early on due to harsh Catholic school discipline, against which he rebelled, eventually being expelled due to being “militantly atheistic.” As you note, Stone seems to espouse various philosophical concepts, including atheism, Heidegger, and even psychedelic mystical beliefs. This struggle seemed to weigh heavily on him as he was older and nearing death. How do you view Stone’s concept of religion?

MSB: He told some interviewer somewhere that you can’t stop being Catholic any more than you can stop being Black. He also wasn’t always fighting Catholicism; he had a period of intense devotion in his early teens before adopting the posture of apostasy that got him kicked out of Saint Anne’s.

Catholics who renounce the faith and become atheistic live in opposition to what they’ve renounced, which defines them as much as if they hadn’t renounced it. Bob understood that and avoided it. He had instead a much more open-minded kind of skepticism, which you might call agnostic, though I don’t think that’s exactly right. He had a religious sensibility which is always felt in his work, one way or another. For Damascus Gate he got very involved in Kabbalah and was attracted to the idea that Creation was a sort of Big Bang event that scattered tiny sparks of God all over the universe, leaving humanity the task of reassembling them. At the end of his life I think his attitude toward divinity was a sort of hopeful “maybe.”

AV: There is sometimes a question of whether a writer is more productive with a wife and children as opposed to not having them, but Stone’s productivity does not seem fathomable without Janice. You state: “There’s a Janice avatar somewhere in almost every Robert Stone novel.” How important was Janice to Stone, not only as a wife, but one who gave balance to his life and even helped with his editing?

MSB: Hugely. Michael Herr called her “the patron saint of writers’ wives.” It’s not an exaggeration. Janice was muse, assistant, secretary, logistician, travel agent, manager, editor, and continuity person for the later novels. Bob knew how important all those roles were, having asked her to quit her job in social work to assist him full-time. (I got the benefit of many of her skills myself, while working on the biography.) Their marriage was founded on love, with the troubles love is heir to, but also on tremendous respect. The Janice avatar in the fiction is there to straighten the protagonist out, and if the protagonist ignores that, it can be fatal. From a childhood where his only family was his mother, Bob derived the idea of “two against the world.” In adult life the two were he and Janice. The sexual straying is trivial compared to that; their first and strongest loyalty was always to each other.

AV: Do you think Children of Light was a drop in terms of quality from Stone’s first three novels, and if so, can this be attributed to the great amount of alcohol and drugs under whose influence Stone wrote it? Your biography gives incredible insight for the decades-long battle Stone had with drugs and alcohol. By chance, I was looking at my interview with Stone in 1990 (after Children of Light had been published and right after Stone had completed the manuscript for Outerbridge Reach) and I asked him about taking drugs and his response was: “I never became addicted to drugs. I don’t think drugs particularly interfered with my life. Obviously, around the electric scene described in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test drugs were taken. I don’t know how different my writing would be without drugs. I certainly don’t write in a state of intoxication of any kind. I do not take drugs or drink in order to write. I don’t write stoned in any way.” This seems to contradict what your biography reveals, and I can only assume Stone was lying to cover up his addiction.

MSB: Doubtless there was an element of classic addict’s denial (and wishful thinking) in what Stone told you. I’m sure he imagined a self that could take it or leave it alone. But also, I heard him say the same sort of thing in other contexts and for a different, more practical reason. He depended on teaching for a stable income and for most his teaching career drug use was classed as “moral turpitude,” for which tenure can be revoked, etc. I saw him get baited about drug use in public; he’d have to deny it, for the reason given.

Meanwhile I think Children of Light stands with the best of his books, although, like many, I was disappointed when I first read it. Aficionados of A Flag for Sunrise wanted another big, world-historical novel about grand sociopolitical struggle, and Children of Light didn’t look like that . . . at first. I was reading it for the sixth time when I thought, hey, there must be something about this book that I like. In the end, it’s very seriously about good and bad faith in the making of art—a topic as important as any Stone tackled. And the protagonist is the most complete self-portrait Stone ever put into fiction: abjectly addicted, yes, but also possessed of a lethal wit and a kind of real brilliance (at least sometimes), whose self-destructive impulse is matched by a capacity for redemption.

AV: There is a quote from Gordon Walker in Children of Light, essentially echoing Stone’s own inner voice, about squandering his vocation: “If I was that good, I would never waste a moment. I’d be at it night and day. I’d never drink or drug myself or be with a woman I didn’t love.” What a great statement and yet how ironic.

MSB: Heartbreaking too, because if Walker’s never really that good, Stone most definitely was. Maybe he just didn’t believe it, or not strongly enough.

AV: What do you make of the critics who compared Stone to Hemingway, Graham Greene (“whom he consistently loathed”), and especially Conrad, whom he often mentions as an influence?

MSB: Conrad is, as you say, an influence that Stone avowed; he frequently quoted Conrad to students. Certain statements Conrad made about the practice of writing were crucially central to Bob, particularly this one:

To snatch in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time, a passing phase of life, is only the beginning of the task. The task approached in tenderness and faith is to hold up unquestioningly and without fear the rescued fragment before all eyes in the light of a sincere mood. It is to show its vibration, its color, its form, and through its movement, its form, and its color, reveal the substance of its truth—disclose its inspiring secret: the stress and passion within the core of each convincing moment. In a single-minded attempt of that kind, if one be deserving and fortunate, one may perchance attain to such clearness of sincerity that at last the presented vision of regret or pity, of terror or mirth, shall awaken in the hearts of the beholders that feeling of unavoidable solidarity; of the solidarity in mysterious origin, in toil, in joy, in hope, in uncertain fate, which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world.

Being grouped with Greene under the rubric of “Catholic novelist” irritated the hell out of him, for fairly good reason. Even as Catholics they are dissimilar: Bob a lapsed cradle Catholic, Greene a vigorous convert—a difference strongly expressed in their work. The far-flung settings of their novels are another superficial commonality. Bob detested Greene’s personality, as he understood it; that’s expressed in his preface to a late edition of The Quiet American—though alongside some serious respect for the work.
Comparisons to Hemingway are also superficial—two bearded adventurers with abodes in Key West and a taste for world travel and international narratives. I do think they share a strong interest in the meaning of human suffering. Bob probably thought more deeply about Hemingway than about Greene, given this interesting line in a letter to Sven Birkerts: “I think a lot about Hemingway. His work is the best argument I know for the principle that style represents moral perspective.”

AV: Conrad can be categorized as a writer who writes fiction with a moral purpose, which writers such as Stone and John Gardner subscribed to as well. You mention John Barth in Child of Light on several occasions, whom Gardner castigated in his nonfiction book On Moral Fiction. It appears Stone was not on intimate terms with Barth when they were both teaching at Johns Hopkins. What are your thoughts about their relationship? What is your opinion of Barth, whose early fiction was exceptional, but who is now in his nineties and sadly almost forgotten by the literary community?

MSB: First wave metafictionists, (Barth, Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, et. al.) generally went past me. Reading Barth’s early work felt to me like watching a magic trick without the magic. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. C’est pas mon truc, c’est tout. I never read his long novels either, it would be fair to say, and perhaps unfair to say that the reason was that they bored me. He published a couple of collections of stories while I was teaching at Hopkins and those I thought were wonderful, so go figure.

I didn’t know Barth well when I was teaching at Hopkins, but he was always cordial. He gave good weight (precisely measured) as a teacher. A nice precision was built into him, perhaps. If someone had set out to design two personalities to abrade each other at every point of contact, Stone’s and Barth’s would have filled the bill to perfection. In theory, Stone was hired to replace Barth; they should have overlapped by only one year, but Barth changed his mind, resulting in a new situation in which Stone and Barth would share not only the theoretical throne but also the physical office. Barth had a very ambivalent attitude toward retiring from Hopkins and did it in very slow motion. Stone was caught in the consequences of Barth’s last second thought. Co-existing with Barth ad infinitum was not something he could tolerate. That Stone’s work and Barth’s were completely opposite in motive and intention was also a factor, I’m sure.

John Gardner was a really good novelist who might have been a great one had he lived, but On Moral Fiction is a self-serving work, not to be taken seriously except for the good bits, all cribbed from Tolstoy. In that vein, Stone’s “Reasons for Stories,” published in Harper’s in 1986 as part of a public argument with William Gass (representing the first generation metafictionists) is a lot better, and doesn’t suffer from being a lot shorter.

AV: Will anything ever appear from Stone’s manuscripts of Opus 5/Opus 6/Charlie Manson’s Gold and Arcturus, the latter of which seemed to have great potential?

MSB: Who knows, but I doubt it. Very little was actually written of Arcturus, though somebody might play off Stone’s truly amazing plan for the work (that would be on the order of my long-ago fantasy of writing Dostoevsky’s unwritten novels). Janice and I actually joked about the notion of my finishing Charlie Manson’s Gold, which, at 200+ strong pages, should have been over the hump. Those pages show an aspect of Bob’s personality that he never really put into any other fiction, and there’s a much larger role for the Janice avatar than usual; those are two reasons I wish he had finished it, and also why I don’t think anyone else could.

AV: Bay of Souls is likely Stone’s least effective novel, but Death of the Black-Haired Girl was a good read. One wonders what he could have written without having so many physical issues. You saw him in the later stages of his life and this must have been difficult for you to see. I can only imagine how Janice coped with everything.

MSB: I’ll still say that Bob Stone’s worst novel is better than most people’s best. Bay of Souls has got problems—he almost died during the writing of it, and in some places that shows—but still eminently worth reading. The last scene, in particular, is remarkably strong.

But more importantly, he was determined to come back from that low. There were a handful of books he wanted to write and he was determined to live long enough to write them (he told me that in person, one day we ran into each other in Paris). And he fought to live, not only via the trips to rehab, which improved things for a spell even if they didn’t stick long-term, but also in doing everything possible to fight off his COPD, which is what actually killed him in the end. He didn’t live to finish all the work he wanted to, but Death of the Black-Haired Girl and Fun with Problems do show that the effort was worth it.

AV: Finally, I was wondering who your favorite character is from Stone’s novels, your favorite novel, and how should Stone be remembered?

MSB: I don’t want to play favorites with either characters or novels. But I can say that even minor Stone characters, as Ford Madox Ford recommended, are so real you can smell their breath. If you put yourself in the mind of God, how can you love one more than another?

I think Robert Stone is the writer of his generation who, like the great nineteenth century novelists and those of the early twentieth, pushed the possibilities of realistic fiction—the representation of who we are in the time we live in—as far as they can go.


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The Sculpture Of Ruth Asawa: Countours in the Air

Second Edition
Edited by Timothy Anglin Burgard and Daniell Cornell
University of California Press ($45)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Ruth Asawa’s life and work sets the consummate standard for being an engaged public artist in a city. Establishing her household in San Francisco was a key development in her “remarkable life journey” alongside her “groundbreaking sculptures” and, as Daniell Cornell remarks in the newly revised The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air, she remains “beloved by San Franciscans for her work, community projects, and tireless advocacy for public arts education.” This robust gathering of essays, including several newly added to this edition, all fully illustrated, along with color reproductions of works in the original 2006 exhibition, is a definitive collection of material on and about the artist.

Many of Asawa’s fountains dot San Francisco, but her wire sculptures rank among her most well recognized works; since 2005 a variety of them have been on permanent display in the lobby of the De Young Museum’s Hamon Observation Tower in Golden Gate Park, where they are suspended at varying heights about the concrete space. As Cornell describes, to enter the room is to be vividly confronted by “the relationship between transparency and shadow, a seemingly paradoxical play that turns negative space into positive line and displaces forms to the floors, walls, and ceiling.”

In front of the De Young, surrounding the walkways and fountains of the large musical concourse, is an abundant grove of pollarded (pruned) plane trees. These are featured in lithographs Asawa made in 1965 as a fellow at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles. Colleen Terry wagers this period has relevance with the rest of Asawa’s works, even if lithography never became a central feature of her art. Terry sees “the conceptual underpinnings” of Asawa’s wire sculptures in the lithographic works and describes how they are “informed by the primary principles she had learned nearly two decades earlier at Black Mountain College.” Asawa’s time at the experimental arts mecca in rural North Carolina in the late 1940s—especially “her enduring commitment” to the teaching of Josef Albers, her primary instructor at the college—played an integral role in setting the course of her life.

Her experiences at Black Mountain led her to thrive in San Francisco professionally as an artist as well as personally as a Japanese American woman raising a racially mixed family. It was there she met her husband Albert Lanier, an architecture student, whose future employment with a San Francisco architectural firm, along with local ties to several fellow Black Mountain alumni, brought them to the city in 1949 and established the financial footing for their household. From the beginning of their life together, Lanier and Asawa managed to negotiate balancing family life with civic participation centered on artistic practice. Cornell shares how Asawa later “claimed that the most valuable thing about her education at Black Mountain College was that it was not about learning a subject but about learning to think.” Making their life together work wasn’t an easy achievement; it took thoughtfulness combined with steadfast determination.

Mixed race marriages were more than just irregular at the time. As contributor Mary Emma Harris reminds us, “When they became engaged in the summer of 1948, they could not marry in California, and it was only later that fall that the Supreme Court of California in Pérez v. Sharp struck down prohibiting interracial marriage.” Harris also relates that for both sets of parents, the young couple’s life partnership posed serious hazards to their future in the face of racial prejudice. She cites Asawa’s description in a letter to her future in-laws about how her own parents shared their apprehension, yet “though it is a sadness to them, they do not say ‘no,’ nor do they exclude me from the family for what we are about to do.”

Their marriage did have the support of Black Mountain faculty. Josef Albers, for instance, told Asawa that she “would make a good mother,” but not without also being sure to tell Lanier “Don’t ever let her stop her work.” In Asawa’s words, “he advised us very well. We got both things covered.” In addition, Asawa’s wedding ring was designed by faculty member Buckminster Fuller: a black stone encased in “a silver setting based on the tetrahedron.” For the artist-bride the sets of overlapping “tetrahedron” shape of bars on the ring were noteworthy because “Asawa saw in it the three A’s in Asawa.”

Harris’s essay on Black Mountain also includes a humorous moment regarding notes Asawa took during a Charles Olson class discussion of poet Ezra Pound. In addition to some “doodling,” which provided “an important means of exploring design motifs, into which she often integrated the subject matter being discussed” (in this case she has sketched an interlocking series of lines raying out in a pyramid of antenna-like branches beside handwritten comments such as “Art Agent Social Change Catalyst”), Asawa has scrawled “Vaudcism” above “Pound,” penciled in an enlarged Gothic script. No doubt this was a mishearing of the Worcester-born Olson’s working-class brogue pronunciation of “Vorticism,” the 1914 art movement Pound was involved with alongside Wyndham Lewis.

Black Mountain also showed Asawa’s capability for assuming roles of organizational responsibility, as when “students chose Asawa to be student moderator. As such, she was the student representative on the board of fellows and a member of the faculty (without teaching responsibility or financial liability). She had a vote in all matters.” This tendency of hers did have its downside, as Lanier described in a letter to his parents: “Ruth has been there too long . . . become too much the servant, too indispensable to the place and the people.” Yet this was a role that she also found continually useful.

As she raised her own family in San Francisco, Asawa embedded a strong civic relationship within her art. This was especially true in regard to arts education in the public schools, culminating most prominently in the founding of the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of The Arts, an audition-based public school alternative. As Asawa recalled when reflecting on her time at Black Mountain, “we were in a way inventing things, but at the same time we were exposed to a lot of things, to students who were not accepted . . . we felt free.” Her marriage was a natural continuation of the freedom found at the college where she laid the groundwork for the practical-minded yet committedly artistic San Francisco household that became the core of her art and life.


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SPRING 2021

Check back as we add more features and reviews in the next months!

INTERVIEWS

“This Anxious Present”: An Interview with Ben Ehrenreich
Journalist and novelist Ben Ehrenreich’s newest book, Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time challenges readers to take a side as we stand anxiously between erasures of the past and the uncertainties of the future.
Interviewed by Benjamin P. Davis

The Productive Procrastination of Robert Stone: An Interview with Madison Smartt Bell
Acclaimed novelist Madison Smartt Bell discusses his definitive biography of the National Book Award winning author Robert Stone, highlighting key aspects of the author’s work and life along the way.
Interviewed by Allan Vorda

FEATURES

Are Translators Ventriloquists? On Reviewing Literary Translations
Let's explore the promises and pitfalls of describing translators (often ignored in reviews of translated works) as ventriloquists—at first it makes sense, then the metaphor goes very strange.
By Eric Fishman

Remembering Clayton Eshleman
By Pierre Joris
We commemorate the passing of poet and translator Clayton Eshleman with an obituary written by fellow traveler Pierre Joris, along with links to writing about Eshleman and an invitation to readers to send their own thoughts about this influential writer.

Pandemic Reflection: Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot
by Kiran Bhat
Having been stranded in Australia during the pandemic lockdown, Kiran Bhat describes how the pause on travel led him to journey into the country’s literature instead, starting with its sole Nobel laureate.

POETRY REVIEWS:

Rough Song
Blanca Varela
Peruvian poet Blanca Varela was well-respected among an auspicious group of writers, including Octavio Paz and Jean-Paul Sartre; we can now see why in her first collection of poems to be translated into English. Reviewed by John Bradley

FICTION REVIEWS:

Winter Counts
David Heska Wanbli Weiden
A stunning crime novel, Winter Counts offers a fascinating snapshot of life and Lakota culture on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Reviewed by Julia Stein

NONFICTION REVIEWS

Coolidge & Cherkovski in Conversation
Clark Coolidge and Neeli Cherkovski
Edited by Kyle Harvey
Swapping stories and memories, ranging across topics and poetic encounters from the 1960s to the present, this transcribed conversational collage between two poets offers a fascinating look into their creative lives. Reviewed by Matt Hill

ART REVIEWS

The Sculpture Of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air
Edited by Timothy Anglin Burgard and Daniell Cornell
This robust gathering of essays, including several newly added to this edition, is a definitive collection of material on and about a renowned San Francisco sculptor. Reviewed by Patrick James Dunagan

Pandemic Reflection: Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot

Patrick White
NYRB Classics ($24.95)

by Kiran Bhat

I have been stranded in Australia due to the lockdown regulations, and curious to re-assess my opinions on the country’s canonical literature, I found myself returning to the author Patrick White. I do not regret this decision. If you’re looking to get a taste of Australian literature, White is one voice above all that must be read; Henry Lawson comes close, Christina Stead even closer, but among White’s many novels, story collections, and plays are at least four books of literary importance, which puts him a cut above the rest. There’s a reason why he won the 1973 Nobel Prize in Literature, and why he remains so critically appreciated.

White’s novel Riders in the Chariot, available in the U.S. via the NYRB Classics series, offers a good example of his work. Riders in the Chariot details the lives of four very different Australians in an imaginary suburb of Sydney: a crazy heiress, a German Jewish refugee, a devout housewife, and an Aboriginal artist. All four are united because they have imagined a horse-drawn chariot. Each character interprets their vision differently, but the Biblical undertones of the vision are almost always in the background as the characters continue to live their lives.

Few writers combine mysticism and modernism as well as White. Of course, there is Faulkner, who wrote about the problems of the American South in a Biblical sort of register, and obviously Tagore, who came from a mystic literary background. What makes White different is landscape—he came from the rigid red soil of the Australian bush, and that is the territory he must unearth.

White also came from an Anglican background, and the combination of his inquiries into faith and the roots of his Australian culture combine beautifully in Riders in the Chariot. The book questions our perception of the infinite in a way that is neither dogmatic nor intrusive. The genuine curiosity White has towards the faithful recalls the great novels of Russian literature, but done in a hollow tone and desiccated language that only the Australian outback could have inspired.


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Coolidge & Cherkovski in Conversation

Clark Coolidge & Neeli Cherkovski
Edited by Kyle Harvey
Lithic Press ($17)

by Matt Hill

To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.
—Samuel Beckett

This fascinating book offers a transcribed conversational collage between the poets Clark Coolidge and Neeli Cherkovski. Swapping their stories and memories, ranging across topics and poetic encounters from the 1960s to the present, “these poets recall: A lifetime’s worth of friendships, amazements, assessments, and straight up happy-to-be-there goodtimes buoyed by powers of poetry,” as Patrick James Dunagan puts it in the Introduction. The book comes rounded out with two appendices, providing some personal history and thoughts on poetics and the trajectories of the poets over the years.

The tenor of the exchanges serves as our baseline while we listen in on Coolidge and Cherkovski, absorbing their anecdotes and imagining the gesticulations of their hands cutting through the air. Readers will get a palpable sense of being seated there in Coolidge’s living room while the conversation flows along. Replete with the lore of two very disparate poets’ unique encounters throughout their lifetimes, this recorded afternoon “serves as a valuable archival document for younger generations of poets,” as Kyle Harvey says in the Preface.

“Restlessness makes me a poet,” says Cherkovski. “My ear is attuned to many influences. Federico Garcia Lorca, is, perhaps, the poet I think of more often than others when I sit down to write. . . . I’d be remiss if I did not mention Rainer Maria Rilke. Whenever I travel his work goes with me.” Cherkovski also talks some about his teaching at The New College in SF: “I ran an MFA program . . . They [the students] were in it for success. I remember telling them, I said, ‘Boy, you’ve come to the wrong place with me, because I don’t really like that altar.’” The talk veers around to minutia involving Stein, Ginsberg, Olson, Creeley, and Bukowski; Coolidge discusses his friendship with the artist Philip Guston, while Cherkovski mentions his North Beach days with Bob Kaufman, Jack Hirschman, and Philip Lamantia, as well as his time prior to that in LA. Coolidge relates a story of how Philip Whalen upstaged Olson and Duncan at the Vancouver Poetry Festival in 1963, a particularly extraordinary anecdote.

Regarding poets and their influence upon each other, Coolidge says, “Sometimes you could see a little phrase or something that you might like—I mean, we all stole from each other. Like hell, I mean, who was it? Tom Clark said, ‘Nobody owns the words.’ And of course, we don’t.” We hear about everything from Pound, Eliot, and Williams, to the lack of a poetry “scene” in LA, to movie guys like Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell, to staying away from the academic life. Coolidge says “I just couldn’t imagine spending all that time, really, explicating. . . . your mind is being spent in that other room. That other space, which is all about explication, not creation.”

The differences that come up between the two poets are equally fascinating. Cherkovski confesses, “I’m a narrative, linear poet—I mean, [Charles] Bukowski was my teacher. You know, it took me years to get out from under that, to develop my own thing. Coolidge, meanwhile, casts himself as a “process guy”, careening around in his recallings of the jazz scene in NYC, or what was and was not being read or talked about at Brown University in the ’50s. These exchanges permit both poets a free-flow of stories as they trigger and bounce off each other.

Perhaps what becomes most manifest listening to these seasoned poets is that they have no need to self-mythologize their writing, or even to ego-cize their life trajectories through the decades. Both are still publicly reading fresh work, and in Cherkovski’s case, posting his poems on social media. As such, and as we endure these fraught times, when temptations lurk to let the creative fires burn out, these two poets shine like beacons across the dark waters, inspiring those of us coming up to believe in our own poetic process, and to “blast the rules” so that we may move forward into the unknown.


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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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