Tag Archives: Summer 2019

Friedrich Hölderlin:
Selected Poems and Letters

Friedrich Hölderlin
translated by Christopher Middleton
The Last Books ($27)

by Patrick James Dunagan

The work of German poet and singular visionary Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) embodies the essence of the poet-as-seer. His ethereally divined poetic compositions manifest themselves primarily in regard to the individual’s engagement with the natural world, albeit telescoped beyond the confining lens of historical time and place. In Hölderlin’s writings, myths intermingle with experience as distant lands become one with the world outside his window. In 1796 he tragically fell in love with a married woman, Susette Gontard, while serving as pupil to her sons, but aside from one or two brief periods, they were never to be alone together. In 1802 he trekked across Europe through the aftermath of the French Revolutionary Wars; reaching Stuttgart “he appeared among friends looking ‘deathly pale, very thin, with hollow wild eyes, long hair, and a beard, and dressed like a beggar.’ Gontard died shortly thereafter without his ever having seen her again; their love is both mourned and celebrated in his work. From 1803-06 onward, Hölderlin wrote very little, gradually falling in to a state of madness from which he never recovered.

In 1967 the University of Texas issued a slim collection presenting a selection of Holderlin’s letters accompanied by those of fellow poet-seers Arthur Rimbaud and Hart Crane. William Burford oversaw the selections of the latter two, while British poet Christopher Middleton (1926-2015) undertook the selecting, translating, and notating of the Hölderlin. Over the ensuing decades Middleton continued pursuing his interest in Hölderlin’s work: In 1972 he published Selected Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin and Eduard Mörike, and returned to translate further poems in later years, as well as penning critical essays regarding thornier intricacies faced when translating the poet. This new posthumous collection gathers all of Middleton’s endeavors regarding Hölderlin into one volume, making it ideal company for both the acquainted and unacquainted reader alike.

In an introduction, Middleton demonstrates a keen translator’s reckoning of language use by his subject, while also fully bringing it vividly to life for the reader:

Hölderlin is converting the involutions of German syntax into concentrated forms resembling Chinese ideograms. Certainly it is poetry departing from plain linear progression, or, to put it picturesquely, poetry as a field of vision crossed and recrossed by whirlwinds of fire. That, perhaps, is how Hölderlin experienced ‘ideas’: they crossed his mind like whirlwinds of formal sensation. One thus has to be careful when one asks what is the true axis of a particular word in its context, or what is its function in that context. One can intuit the radius of a word’s connotations, but one is hard put to define that radius. One has to allow for the fact that connotations valid then may not be perceptible (or translatable) now.

Middleton’s notes to the poems are equally indispensable. He describes how with poems such as “Patmos” (1803), he “opted for a freer layout” with the lines upon the page, breaking from Hölderlin’s original and aiming to “sharpen the profiles of particular words and phrases, and to invest the English with some of the glowing and vigorous rugosity which H. achieves by rhythmical turns, elliptical syntax, eccentric word order, and changes of key.” With the fragmentary later poems he also likewise moves into a freer layout, “prompted by the gaps and silences in some of the originals.” This is both startling and quite lyrically effective. For instance:

Wohl aber duftend den Jungfraun,
Und Biennen,
Wenn sie, vom Wohlgeruche
Der Frühlings trunken, der Geist
Der Sonne rühret, irren ihr nach
(from “Wenn Nemlich Der Rebe Saft . . .”)

is turned out as:

but fragrance
for girls
and bees
drunk with the scent
of springtime
when the spirit of the sun
touches them
possessed (131)

The result will likely rub the more purist-minded the wrong way, yet Middleton’s version is anything but stilted.

It’s remarkably edifying to have Middleton’s critical prose appended here to the poems and letters, as they detail his engagement with Hölderlin across the span of his mature writing life. His 1967 review of Michael Hamburger’s translation not only provides an inspiring openness to contrasting takes, but also allows opportunity to compare earlier versions of some lines as rendered by Middleton that he later revised when publishing his own efforts. Similarly, both “Syntax and Signification in Hölderlin’s ‘Andenken’” and “A Spirit Voice in Loose Alcaic Measure” are exactly the deep textual dives they sound to be. And when Middleton remarks in “The End of ‘Andenken’” that “Hölderlin hears first in the elements and then relayed into culture an infinite and terrible cry, such as Heraclitus and Yeats heard in the elements as a ‘clash of arms’, Milton as a ‘singing through all her [nature’s] works’, Boehme as a turbulence in the godhead itself,” we are left hungering for more from both poet and translator alike.

In this fine collection, the depth of Middleton’s knowledge of his subject is on full display, and his humble yet assertive authority is consistently revelatory. The Last Books thus not only delivers a fine tribute to Middleton, but also ushers into print an excellent introductory text to Hölderlin’s life and work.

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Sleep in a Strange House

Jessica Purdy
Nixes Mate Books ($9.95)

by Douglas Cole

There’s a beautiful mystery in Jessica Purdy’s poetry collection Sleep in a Strange House—it’s like we’re traveling through her dreams or watching a surrealist movie, the meaning of which lies just out of reach. Take the opening poem, “Architect,” for example, in which the poet creates a sort of house for “Everyone I know,” with enigmatic labels on their rooms: “I am a door. I am locked. / I am occupied. I am alone.” If in dreams a house represents the structure of consciousness, then what are these pieces of the poet, and what is the mysterious “staircase I didn’t build”?

In fact, there are many mentions of dreams and dream states in these poems: “the meaning of dead horses in dreams,” “The father dreams of being held down,” “In dreams I welcome prosthetic legs.” It offers a “blueprint,” if you will, one alluded to in “Architect,” as though the title were announcing the plan to come. But who is the architect, the poet or the unconscious?

Hence, it is interesting how the consciousness in these poems often seems disconnected from the scenes, like “the breath coming out of us in clouds.” The speaker, in fact, often feels like a reluctant inhabitant: “I don’t deserve my body. I should have/been born something else.” And it’s as if this consciousness were forever on the verge of leaving, whether in the petit mort of “Expiring in bed” or the invisible something that “makes you want to leave, / drive away in your car.”

As in the work of the great haiku poets, images of nature stand in for these layers of awareness: “How do the bugs know when to start work?” And like the haiku poets, Purdy fixates on the moon as the ultimate symbol of reflection, although her moon is “a square / framed by linear clouds.” We explore the subconscious with her like a “lurking burglar” about to stumble on a realization that will rip us from the world of sleep.

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Between Two Millstones
Book 1: Sketches of Exile, 1974-1978

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
translated by Peter Constantine
University of Notre Dame Press ($35)

by Jeff Bursey

The Publishers Weekly review of Between Two Millstones calls its author “a onetime giant in the world of letters.” There are indeed few figures like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008); among his major achievements, the three-volume The Gulag Archipelago revealed to the entire world the extent and purpose of the USSR’s penal system, and the novel cycle The Red Wheel revisits the origins of the Russian Revolution. August 1914 and November 1916, the first two books in this mammoth and compelling synthesis of disparate material, were recently succeeded in English translation by the first volume of March 1917, with three more volumes to follow, and the cycle will conclude with the two-volume April 1917.

Controversial in life and in death, this “onetime giant” doesn’t attract readers now the way he did in the 1970s. While we can’t hold dead writers responsible for the company that keeps them, invariably we look askance at them when we see them held up by those whose philosophy or ideology we don’t share. If someone unfamiliar with Solzhenitsyn decided that because conservatives touted him that this meant he was a cranky Orthodox Christian, a fascist, a czarist, or a traditional novelist—and therefore not worth reading—then this would be a lost opportunity to hear a distinct humane voice, like Dostoyevsky or Vollmann or Akhmatova.

Serialized in a Russian journal from 1998 to 2003 and revised by Solzhenitsyn in 2004 and 2008, Between Two Millstones, a memoir newly translated into English, is loosely structured so that two main topics can be covered: his life in Switzerland after he (and eventually his family) is removed from his homeland, and his search for a new place to live so he can work in peace on The Red Wheel and other projects. The former citizen-prisoner (he refers to the USSR as “the whole Great Soviet Prison”) had his life turned upside down by exile and the world’s attention. Though Solzhenitsyn describes what he’s going through with his usual directness, one can only imagine the impact of such a traumatic and abrupt separation, with no known future, from country and kin. He “emerged from a great tumult” within a repressive regime where he had to hide almost everything he did and guard almost everything he said; in an apparently welcoming world, reporters endangered his family while they were still in the USSR by hounding him for pronouncements on international affairs. Cautious, bewildered, and off-balance, Solzhenitsyn made missteps, and he often voices this refrain, with variations: “from the very outset the Western media and I were not to be friends, were not to understand one another.”

The five chapter titles summarize the strain of these first four years even after his reunion with his family: “Untethered”; “Predators and Dupes”; “Another Year Adrift”; “At Five Brooks”; and “Through the Fumes.” Solzhenitsyn felt overwhelmed by sudden fame. In Zurich, where he lived first, any stranger could open the gate of his garden and come knock on his door. Not all wished him well (“the police of two countries had already warned me that I was on the hit list of international terrorists, as I knew well enough; and these terrorists were trained and supplied by the Soviets”), but for a man accustomed to working discreetly and persistently, even the best-intentioned visitor could usurp his writing time—as did invitations, appeals, and messages from abroad that filled his house with mail. Alongside his painful adjustment to Western manners is a presentation of successive errors that started in the USSR and continued for some time after his exile, when he dealt with strangers, translators, publishers, and lawyers. “In the USSR, that hard and unforgiving land, all my steps turned into a series of victories,” Solzhenitsyn writes. “Yet in the West, with its limitless freedom, everything I did (or did not do) ended up in a string of defeats. Did I ever fail to make a mistake here?”

Of great interest to read about are the arguments Solzhenitsyn had with Andrei Sinyavsky and Andrei Sakharov, his suggestion to Vladimir Nabokov on subject matter, the KGB assassination and smear campaigns (also involving his ex-wife), and how he was praised or criticized by Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger, and Jimmy Carter. The book’s appendix contains letters and other documents that show how such public figures, as well as institutions, wished to honor him, use him for political purposes or, in the case of media outlets, transform his words and actions into stories that could be sober or sensationalist. Solzhenitsyn resists the allurements offered by various people, in part due to a well-honed suspicion of motivations—though as the book amply proves he was not infallible, nor did he think of himself that way. At times he comes across as overbearing, but this is understandable; to survive the carceral environment of the USSR demanded from him, apart from strength of character, a high self-regard and a pugnacious ego. In this first volume of Between Two Millstones (one more is due out next year), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who spoke out for the many who survived or perished in the camps, tells an engaging tale of his initial exposure to Western ways.

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The Faun's Bookshelf
C. S. Lewis on Why Myth Matters

Charlie W. Starr
Black Squirrel Books ($16.95)

by Ryder W. Miller

Early in C. S. Lewis’s enduring fantasy The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, young Lucy meets the faun Tumnus, who takes her to his abode in Narnia. He cries there because he is now ruled by the White Witch, who has made all of Narnia winter, with no hope for Christmas. Lucy, a daughter of Eve, has now entered a Fairy kingdom she could not have fully imagined. And Tumnus has some interesting books on his shelves, some of which will have us view reality differently.

Charlie W. Starr, a C. S. Lewis expert, reads these titles as the faun might have, and goes on to tell us of their relevance to our times and situations. The titles listed by Lewis and explored by Starr include The Life and Letters of Silenus, Nymphs and Their Ways, Men, Monks and Gameskeepers, and Is Man a Myth? These titles have no authors, but Lewis and Starr have written of their significance as subjects and as mythology.

Lewis sought to keep Christianity relevant in an age which championed rationality and science over subjectivism, religion, and myth. Inkling friends and colleagues J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson helped convince him that the story told in the Gospels was a myth that had become a reality. Missing something in life and fearful of the horrors produced by modern science, Lewis found that he was longing for such a mythology.

Starr does a wonderful job exploring these subjects, showing that reading religious philosophy can be a captivating and inspiring experience. Centuries of thought have gone into some of these arguments, which puts "flesh and blood" on lessons that have existed for millennia. The book begins with literary explorations of Lewis's famous fantasies, an approachable starting point for readers who have not also read his philosophy, theology, religious apologetics, autobiography, and literary histories. There is explication here of the use of mythology through the ages, and though the book is brief—less than 150 pages of text—it covers a lot of ground.

While accessible at the outset, the book does become a bit more difficult as Starr delves deeper into puzzles of literary and philosophical exposition. There is a struggle to define mythology without the embrace of postmodernism, for example, which argues that there are no grand historical narratives. Lewis was also interested in more than just Christian beliefs and faith. Still, secular readers here are given an inside view into one of the great religious thinkers of the recent age, one who puzzled over questions that are still relevant to billions. Those who are filled with human longing and curiosity may find a remedy in myth, as Starr showed Lewis did.

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The Beginning of His Excellent
and Eventful Career

Cameron MacKenzie
MadHat Press ($21.95)

by John Wall Barger

The leaves ran along my ears as I moved deeper into the dimness of the rows, and as I ran I heard the shouting of men around me, frightened and desperate to find a crazed killer, a demon boy. . . . The sky then opened simple and blue above me, my horse grazing peacefully in the adjacent field. I saw no man cutting stalks and I saw no man collecting wood and neither was I seen by them. Not ten minutes later I was high on a ridge, my belly flat on the warm stones, looking down at the comedy of the men I had left alive.

The “demon boy” of the passage above is Francisco “Pancho” Villa (1878-1923), long before he becomes the famous Mexican revolutionary, and he is hunting the man who raped his sister. From the first pages of The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career, when the above scene takes place, the reader is struck by Cameron MacKenzie’s dexterity with language. Long serpentine lines embellished with alliteration abound. MacKenzie not only takes pleasure in the music of his lines, but trusts the aural reverie so fully that at times in his novel, as in poetry, sound precedes sense, deliciously. And this music becomes intertwined with the unrelenting violence it describes. For example, listen to the galloping polyphonic prose, the consonance, and the knifelike simile from the line that precedes the ones above: “The remaining gunman panicked and turned, kicking up dirt onto the writhing bodies of his fellows where they clutched at their guts and moaned like calves.” MacKenzie’s use of music can be compared to Ennio Morricone’s score of Once Upon a Time in the West: Both melodies, however sweet on the surface, soon become inextricably linked with the shattered psychology of the characters, or with violence itself.

Judging from this novel, his debut, MacKenzie’s literary forebears include Melville, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy: authors who tell a story of America, with enormous scope and music. In particular, the reader hears in MacKenzie some of McCarthy’s old testament King James Bible timbre, slathered with blood and mud. In McCarthy’s books, violence seems to emanate out of nature itself, as in this passage from Blood Meridian: “The sun was just down and to the west lay reefs of bloodred clouds up out of which rose little desert nighthawks like fugitives from some great fire at the earth’s end.” McCarthy’s use of language is both simple and shockingly effective. The savage force within the language itself—as if the “great fire at the earth’s end” were speaking on its own behalf—seems to simultaneously emerge out of and obliterate both the illiterate kid of his tale and everything else it touches.

MacKenzie lets his own illiterate kid, manifested by Villa, speak a first-person version of this desolate poetic tongue. Villa talks with the blood-soaked voice of the land itself. In placing such formal, archaic, wise language (e.g., “The day was high and clean and the sky so depthless a blue as to hint at the pure black which lay in silence at the tip of its vault and to which all of this bent as though it be its imagining or its dream”) in the mouth of a child, MacKenzie is not trying for verisimilitude—he does not want to imitate that child’s voice. And how could he, 150 years later, in another country, in a language other than Spanish? The voice and characterization are not realistic, nor should they be. Rather, the child speaks for the land itself, and the land comprises violence, power, fear. For MacKenzie, as for McCarthy, violence is an inextricable part of human life, and must be faced. Certainly there is no way around it for young Villa. He must deal with the “comedy of the men,” or fall like those around him. It’s worth mentioning that, in this world of male violence, MacKenzie—unlike McCarthy—provides us with a number of powerful female characters, like Señora González, who acts a don and frequently challenges Villa.

The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career is divided into four sections, spanning about twenty-five years, from when Villa is a child until the Mexican Revolution begins in earnest, in 1910. The first two sections describe Villa’s years as a ruthless thief in Durango and Chihuahua. The last two sections describe the slow civilizing of Villa into a politician: as a general, gaining in power, negotiating with leaders like Madero, and fighting in the north against the forces of President Díaz. The structure of the novel is such that Villa seems to be stepping into focus, into the “light,” out of the blur of hearsay and legend.

As the years pass, in the first two sections, we watch the bandito Villa commit atrocious crimes, killing and raping without cause. We ask ourselves, who is Villa, and what does he believe? MacKenzie, to his credit, leaves these questions complicated; he walks us into very dark ethical terrain without reaching for spurious morality or for sentimentality, and lets readers decide for themselves what to think of every scene. For example, a seemingly innocuous episode in which Villa watches his mule slip off a mountain pass, turns out to be telling: “And even as its hooves scraped in agitation on the rocks for purchase its black eyes remained as they were and absent of fear. The animal went on to tumble over the edge and out into the air below us, quite without sound, its pack releasing its baubles and skins as though unfurling some new and horrible shape.” This, we are beginning to realize, is how Villa watches everything: impassively, without bias. MacKenzie excels in such passages, shining a light onto an event which is not in the history books. As well-researched as this historical novel is, the book finds liftoff the further it strays into liminal, non-biographical spaces. The hauntingly intimate details of the mule (“its hooves scraped . . . its black eyes remained as they were”) make us feel, uncomfortably, that we have actually witnessed the event.

We also ask ourselves, “What kind of human being watches a mule fall off a cliff without trying to help it?” Villa later says of himself, “I have never feared a man, nor could I, for no man could know me, for I am beyond men as men would be. I am a new man, newly made by my will, and none may touch me where I lie in my rectitude and strength.” So Villa imagines himself as an Übermensch; a creature of the new Mexico; a missing link between the agrarian farmers of the nineteenth century and the capitalists of our modern age. But it is frightening to think of Villa as “a new man,” since we are unable to really gauge where his morals lie. Is he a nihilist? Our disquiet is well-founded, as we discover, just moments after the mule falls, when Villa murders his best friend, Refugio Alvarado:

I removed my rifle from its holster in the saddle by my thigh and leveled it and fired once into his face. For some time, and I do not know how long, I looked at the space in the air where he had been. His face. I sat my horse and looked at his horse where it stood and I looked into the air. The day stretched out for ten thousand miles, ridge upon ridge and the brown plain beyond turned up like a table that would spill its careful contents upon the floor.

At this point, still in the first section, we’ve been on the fence about Villa. We know that he is a murderer, and that he will later become a figurehead in the Mexican Revolution, but we don’t know for sure if we dislike him. We ask ourselves, “Is he redeemable?” When he kills Refugio, we understand that he is past hope. MacKenzie often pauses after such violent episodes (“I looked at the space in the air where he had been”) to allow a certain silence in, as if inviting us, or daring us, to place ourselves into the scene with our sense of humanity intact. It is bold for a novelist to remove the likeability of the main character—it means we are wading into murky waters—MacKenzie delights in such waters, happily wading in further still.

No character in the book epitomizes ethical murk better than Villa’s enforcer, Rodolfo Fierro. A loyal soldier of the revolution who is actually a psychopath, Fierro emerges as the horrifying “hero” of the second half of the novel. We can read about Fierro’s misdeeds on Wikipedia, but MacKenzie takes us far away from history and uncomfortably close to this lunatic, sculpting a character as weird and riveting as Conrad’s Kurtz or McCarthy’s Judge. Fierro has free reign to act as he likes, as long as he follows Villa’s orders, but becomes increasingly unpredictable and unhinged. He transcends traditional description. A blood-soaked trickster emerges in the form of Fierro, wearing a tattered white suit and speaking with cryptic poignancy (“There are times when the imbecility of others would occlude even the most patient of designs”). In one of the book’s most memorable scenes, Fierro has taken a series of prisoners into the desert to be executed, with a few soldiers. Without warning he orders a soldier to cut off the soldier’s own little finger, lets the prisoners go, and vanishes into the dark. We’re not sure where he’s gone, but days later, he appears before the prisoners:

The man was nude. He was dark. He wore a ragged straw hat and he squatted on his haunches on the flat top of the stump some three feet above the ground, his scrotum resting simply on the jagged wood. He watched the two men walk across the distance toward him, his dark hands loose around his knees. At their approach he doffed his hat, not without some ceremony.

The soldier sees him, at a distance, vanish into the desert with the prisoners: “They walked west, unhurried, hand-in-hand like children.” Now a fully-realized archetypal villain, Fierro simply steps out of the frame of the novel, into the murk.

In Part III, the Villa of yore emerges, as if called forth by our collective pop culture imagination. Now in his thirties, he wears military attire, jackboots, a dusty sombrero, two bandoliers, and sits behind a desk in a big chair, smoking cigars, deciding the fate of each citizen dragged before him. Armed men guard his door. The mandate of the revolution is the redistribution of land to peasants, and the removal of the greedy dons, the “great families,” and President Díaz. To some extent, Villa seems to be a simple appendage of the revolution, taking from the dons and giving to the poor, crossing Chihuahua in search of new patriotic recruits: “We spoke to them,” he says, “of pay and food, of rifles and horses. We spoke to them of killing rurales, marauders and roadmen. We spoke to them of uprooting the dons from the valleys where they grew fat on the labor of honest men like themselves. We told them that each soldier would get what was fair to him and at this they rejoiced.”

Nevertheless, Villa remains elusive, complex. We wonder, after watching him murder Refugio, if he cares about anything, or if he is just a psychopath. What does he really think of the revolution? Told he will advance to the rank of captain in the revolutionary army, Villa concedes, “These were strange moments for me, for they sounded at once upon the bottom of things. I admit freely that in these early days of the fight I feigned a conviction that only came upon me at intervals, and never quite the whole.” We now strongly suspect that Villa’s war with Díaz, the grand revolution, has simply been a continuation of Villa’s accumulation of power, a natural progression from his days as a bandito. Although he seems to speak in the voice of the land itself, we do not quite trust him. Or perhaps it is the land itself—which speaks the truth, always, but whose sense of justice is frighteningly barbarous—we do not want to trust:

I say that the revolution is not a series of events. I say that battles are not fought in return for battles which have been fought before. In the time of the revolution the betrayals are perpetual and the injustices flatten out into a mural of humiliation forever in need of bloody correction and all the facts have been lost.

Toward the end of The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career, MacKenzie allows the story to divide into fractured legends, splintered accounts of the infamous “Pancho” Villa. The first person narration slips. MacKenzie does not correct the accounts, or privilege one history over another. He refuses to help us decide whether Villa is, finally, a murderer, patriot, nihilist, or lover. Villa—palpably bewildered by the action around him—sometimes steps out of the frame to speak to us directly, soliloquizing, like Iago:

This is what I know of it. As you can see, it is a story. A story perhaps with even some truth, because that truth is one that speaks to the nature of its protagonist who is such only in the service of another, that other being myself. I am here a name alone, and one that stretches across this country . . .

MacKenzie provides us with an X-ray of human nature: Perhaps it’s meant to be a caveat against autocratic, charismatic leaders whose lust for power goes unchecked—perhaps he is telling us that it’s futile to struggle against the violent forces of nature. Like all art worth its salt, MacKenzie’s novel offers no definitive conclusions. I can only recommend that you visit his weirdly haunting visionary nightmare landscape yourself, and that you go unarmed.

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The Social Fabric:
An Interview with Valeria Luiselli

by Allan Vorda

Valeria Luiselli was born in Mexico City, but spent many of her younger years in various countries as she traveled with her father, who was a diplomat and businessman. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, she moved to New York City, where she studied dance, worked as a librettist for the New York City Ballet, and received her PhD in Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

Luiselli’s first books were written in Spanish, although she now writes in English. Her works of fiction and nonfiction include Sidewalks, Faces in the Crowd, The Story of My Teeth, and Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, all of which have earned crucial accolades and awards. Her latest book, Lost Children Archive (Knopf, $27.95), a novel that brings the immigration crisis to heartbreaking life, was published this year to great acclaim, cementing her reputation as an essential writer of the 21st Century.

Allan Vorda: You were born in Mexico City, but left Mexico at the age of two when your father moved to Wisconsin to complete his doctorate and became a diplomat. From there you lived in a number of countries. What effect did this have on you at such a young age to be exposed to so many different cultures?

Valeria Luiselli: We left Mexico to move to Wisconsin, but we returned to Mexico after a few months. Then, shortly after the 1985 earthquake in Mexico, the three of us moved to Costa Rica. My father worked for an NGO there. We then moved to South Korea, where my father worked as a diplomat. He was later posted to South Africa and I went with him. When my father and I moved to South Africa, my mother went to Chiapas. Later on, I moved to India on my own, where I finished high school, in a boarding school.

It was in my early childhood in which linguistic dissonance became one of my main emotional concerns and a marker of my identity. I left Spanish as a language when I was five years old when we had moved to South Korea. The language spoken in the streets was utterly foreign, and the language spoken in school–English—was also foreign. The process of being silenced, of uncommunication, was a difficult one, but I also attribute my decision to become a writer to those childhood months. I learned to inhabit a solitary, liminal, and observant space. I learned how to be an observer, and to always remain situated between cultures and spaces, a little phantasmagorical if you wish. I’ve always carried a feeling of being there and not being entirely there. I sometimes feel, having been eternally displaced, that the place I occupy is always an in-between. I learned how to read and write English when I was in South Korea. English became the language of my instruction, the language of my reading and writing, and the language in which I thought and expressed myself most coherently. Spanish was reduced, for many years, to a vacuum-packed language, a language spoken only at home.

When I moved to Mexico for a short while, as a teenager, between South Africa and India, I felt utterly foreign in my city and in my language. This is when I started to a take a different interest in my writing. I started writing in Spanish and trying my mother-tongue for the first time. When I wrote my first book, Sidewalks, it was set in Mexico City and I decided to write it in Spanish. It was a decision to write myself into a language and culture and city that had never quite been my own. Linguistic identity, though, is a problem that I have not solved. My last two books were written in English, and I now write in English more than Spanish. I often wonder what long-term effects this new distancing from my mother-tongue is going to have, but I hope all of it comes together in a way that is fertile for my writing. Maybe it’s not a problem at all, and simply the pre-condition of my work as a writer.

AV: When you were in South Africa you met Nelson Mandela on two occasions. What do you remember about these encounters?

VL: I was a child when I met him, so I remember Mandela as a formidable storyteller. The first time I met him, I was part of a delegation of foreign children that had just arrived in South Africa, and we were invited to his home to meet him. Mandela had us sit down in his living room while he sat in his armchair, and he began telling us stories of his imprisonment. I remember a story where Mandela was in jail talking to a cockroach in order not to lose his sanity. I remember the impact the image made in my mind. I still think about that story: about the place of storytelling in circumstances of absolute isolation, as well as about language and communication in spaces of incarceration. I also remember Mandela’s deep, deep grey eyes, and him asking me, I think the second time I saw him, what I wanted to do as an adult. I told him I wanted to be a prose writer, and he said, “Well, then you need to read a lot.”

AV: During this time of travel your mother left the family to join the Zapatista movement in Mexico. I have to say I admire her decision to do what was important in her life. How did this tumultuous decision affect your family? Were you concerned for her safety and did your parents ever reunite?

VL: She worked in a women’s collective, a non-profit, that supported the Zapatistas, particularly Zapatista women and their children. I admire her decision now, but I think I grew to admire it. When I was ten years old, it was difficult to understand why she would choose politics over family, or her commitment to a community and a social transformation in southern Mexico over her kids and our own process as a family. It took me years to forgive and understand her decision. Now as an adult I understand and I admire it. I think she has been an important influence in my life, in terms of how to remain free from the constraints of social expectations, remain connected to a community with whom you work, and knowing how to integrate that work into your life. She comes from a family of women who were very active in indigenous communities in Mexico. I also feel part of that lineage of women who have been strong, committed and free.

AV: Does your mother speak Mixteco, as seen in the movie Roma—and did you like the movie Roma?

VL: Roma? I think it is a masterpiece. But no, my mom doesn’t speak Mixteco, which is a language mostly spoken in Oaxaca. My maternal family was originally from Pachuca, and my mother’s grandmother spoke Otomi (Ñañú). Unfortunately, as happens in Mexico so often, Spanish erased Ñañú in my maternal family line. Part of assimilating to an urban middle class meant erasing your indigenous background as much as possible. There are still 68 indigenous languages in Mexico –many of them in danger of disappearing forever.

AV: When you were nineteen you enrolled at the National Autonomous University of Mexico where you received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. What philosophers influenced you, and did philosophy give you a different perspective when you started writing?

VL: I think philosophy gave me a different approach to reading. You can’t skim philosophical texts. You have to read the texts over and over until it sinks in, whether it’s a paragraph or a single sentence. It’s like reading poetry. It’s a different way of reading and I’m happy I chose that path. I became a reader thanks to my professors and the texts I was exposed to in my late teens and early twenties. To be honest, I was more than influenced by philosophy—I was obsessed. I thought that anything that was not philosophy was trivial. I liked everything, from the pre-Socratic aphorisms that would make me sit down and think for a long time, to philosophers that wrote about the contemporary world, like Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin, to the more dry, analytic philosophers, like W.V.O Quine or Gottlob Frege. I read Hume with a lot of interest, as well as Gadamer. I tried to like Heidegger, but there was a baroque-ness in the language to which I never quite connected. (Perhaps it was the way he was translated into Spanish.) Wittgenstein was one of the philosophers that I read the most. At the time we were reading Wittgenstein, we also had very rigorous classes in logic and set theory, the more mathematical side of philosophy. I preferred the sparseness of Wittgenstein. Unfortunately, we read very few women. I read Maria Zambrano, a Spanish philosopher who arrived in Mexico as an exile. She was the only Hispanic woman that I was reading as a philosopher. Rarely did teachers move away from the canon.

AV: Would you consider yourself religious or nonreligious?

VL: Unfortunately, I’m not religious at all. I think I have moments in my life where I can connect to spirituality. For instance, reading Simone Weil—it’s hard for me to read her work because my brain has to perform a constant operation: I need to replace the words “god” with “spirit” or “reason” when I read her sentences, if I want to embrace her very lucid thoughts. Nevertheless, thanks to a writer like Weil, I think I have had moments of a deeper connection to a sense of spirituality. Weil also has one of the most lucid essays on pain.

AV: Your previous book, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions (Coffee House Press, 2017), can be seen as a prelude for Lost Children Archive. What was the inspiration for Tell Me How It Ends?

VL: It’s interesting that Tell Me How It Ends will always be read as a prelude to Lost Children Archive. It came out several years before Lost Children Archive, and it may serve as an explanatory backdrop of the political crisis that is unfolding within the pages of Lost Children Archive. But I started writing Lost Children Archive first in the summer of 2014, during a road trip with my family, long before Tell Me How It Ends. When we returned to New York, I became more deeply involved with the crisis within the space of the immigration court in New York. I started screening and translating in court for children who had just been put on the priority docket. They had just been bumped up in priority for cases being addressed, which means they had less time to seek lawyers. They used to have one year, but now they only had twenty-one days to find a lawyer. Many volunteers had to help screen and find lawyers for the kids so they wouldn’t get deported.

I became involved with this kind of work while I was writing the novel, and what happened is I started using the novel as a space in which to pour all my angst and fury and political frustration and emotional sense of stalemate. But I slowly started to realize I wasn’t doing justice to the novel by trying to turn it into that kind of vehicle for my politics, and I wasn’t doing justice to the subject matter itself, either, because I was trying to thread it into this fictional narrative. So I stopped writing the novel. Then, John Freeman, whom I’d worked with as an editor in different projects, suggested I write a non-fiction piece on what I was witnessing in court. I kept saying no, I can’t, because I don’t understand immigration law well enough, I’m too caught up, I can’t write this, etc. And as good editors do, he insisted and insisted, until I gave in. I’m now very thankful that he encouraged me to write that essay. I wrote the first version of Tell Me How It Ends as a short essay, and he published it in Freeman’s Journal. Once I had done that, I was able to go back to the novel and not feel the responsibility of directly covering the crisis. I could focus on other issues and allow the novel to breathe with fictional lungs, so to speak.

AV: Some of the statistics you mention are shattering: 80% of migrant women and girls are raped and 120,000 migrants since 2006 have disappeared. In which countries do the rapes take place? Of the missing 120,000 what do you think happened to them?

VL: Most of this takes place in Mexico, which is shattering and fills me with shame as a Mexican. Central American kids come out of horrific circumstances only to come into deeper horror in Mexico. They eventually make it into the United States, if they make it all the way, where there is still more horror awaiting them.

The train routes known as La Bestia became one of the most common modes of transportation for migrants moving across Mexico. Along the routes of La Bestia, drug lords, gang members, policeman, and military started abusing these migrants. The rapes and disappearances have a lot to do with the collusion between these different forces, with no accountability. People can disappear, and then reappear in a mass grave, and there is no one that is going to be held accountable. The trend in Mexico and the U.S. has been towards criminalization and incarceration. The governments either violate a person’s right to due process or they are incarcerated while they await due process—if it’s going to happen at all. The difference in the U.S. is that incarceration is part of the industrial prison complex, and it’s profitable.

AV: In the Columbia Magazine (Winter 2018) you said, “I’m not interested in intertextuality as an outward, performative gesture but as a method or procedure of composition.” Can you elucidate on this and how it applies to Lost Children Archive?

VL: There are these concepts that come up again and again, mostly in interviews, when I talk about my writing. I’m often asked about intertextuality and autofiction and meta-literariness. I think my qualms with those labels are that they often serve as a dike to an otherwise potentially interesting flow of conversation. It’s like they place a label and there is just no more to say about a book. Maybe a text is intertextual but how so? How does it incorporate other references and place different books within a constellation to create interesting tensions? Often, labels like those end a conversation rather than begin it.

Intertextuality, for me, is just the process by which I work. I write with books all around me. Often a sentence or image I’m working on might remind me of something I read ten years ago. So I go back to that book and try to unearth it, and it makes me think of something else, so I go to another book, and so on and so forth. All these things speak back into the book I’m writing. I’m interested in relationships, method, and how the method imprints itself in the final result. I’m interested in shortening the distance between the method and the result, and by this I mean allowing the method to leave fingerprints of itself in the final result. In my case, books are in conversation while I’m writing.

AV: Lost Children Archive tells the story of a family driving from New York City to Arizona to do the husband’s sound recording project while the wife tries to find two missing Mexican migrant girls. Early on the daughter is swimming in a pool and the worried mother states, “a friend of mine calls this ‘the rescue distance.’” Your reference to Samanta Schweblin’s novel Fever Dream (originally called Rescue Distance in Spanish) is a good analogy. There is also a video of both of you being interviewed about literature and the importance of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo. How much of an impact have such writers had on you?

VL: Rulfo is a writer that Schweblin and I have surely discussed as a major influence. Pedro Paramo is this tiny, but monumental novel in the Spanish-speaking tradition that really broke with the linear conception of time and space which is pervasive in most novels. Rulfo did something that was completely different, in a way that gave all his readers and following generations a sense of freedom. Yet to say one is influenced by Pedro Paramo is like being a musician who says he or she is influenced by Bach.

AV: What about Borges and Cortázar?

VL: They were very influential to my generation, that was our canon—Borges, Cortázar, García Márquez, Rulfo . . . Most of us came of age reading very few women writers. We had to go out and actively find them. I would say the current Latin American generation of writers is primarily a female generation. While there are some great male writers, the ones who I admire, seek out and read the most are women.

AV: “All I see in hindsight is the chaos of history repeated, over and over, reenacted, reinterpreted, the world, its fucked-up heart palpitating underneath us, failing, messing up again and again as it winds its way around a sun. And in the middle of it all, tribes, families, people, all beautiful things falling apart, debris, dust, erasure.” This negative view of the world propels the mother to action: “I am not sure how I'll do it, but the story I need to tell is the one of the children who are missing, those whose voices can no longer be heard because they are, possibly forever, lost.” Did you have an epiphany like this to write Lost Children Archive?

VL: Damn, I was in a dark place. I don’t think one could feel otherwise in the context of what I was seeing. What we are seeing, all around us. Pockets of fascism and extreme right-wing politics sprouting across the globe, along with a growing intolerance to different points of view, even within the so-called left. And then surveillance, be it the NSA or the companies that rule our lives. And also, of course, the current global exodus of people in search for conditions that make life livable. Not since the end of World War II has there been a global exodus like the one in these past few years. And the response of countries to which people migrate is usually inhumane, even brutal. The USA, in particular: mass incarceration of asylum-seekers is now the normal procedure here.

In any case, I wrote this novel while being very angry and disappointed. I was thinking about ways of documenting and of telling a stories that might restore in us a more compassionate, lucid, and reflective understanding our way of being in the world. We’ve become voracious agents of mass consumption, entertainment, Netflix series, and health products. But we’re losing touch with our fundamental human values. We are losing touch with a sense of community, and mutual responsibilities. I know it sounds a little naïve but I really do think we need to slow down, and detach from some of these things that are sold to us as vehicles to happiness, but which do not really create any lasting, deeper bonds between us. What I do think creates more lasting and deeper bonds is sharing stories, communicating, talking to each other, listening, and understanding. And I do think literature has played and will continue to play a crucial role in keeping the social fabric together.

AV: There is an emotional scene in which the mother sees migrant children in New Mexico being put on a plane to fly back to their home country. Did you see something similar to this?

VL: No, I’ve never witnessed a deportation. I’ve seen people at airports in custody of border patrol or ICE, I’ve been in detention centers, and in border-crossing points along the existing portions of the southern wall, but I’ve never seen a deportation like the one I described in the novel. I read about a deportation while I was driving through New Mexico, and it created an impact on me, but I didn’t witness it. I think it probably happens often in my work that people read it as a memoir, or a blurring of the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. I guess I am writing documentary fiction—fiction that comes from documenting, but is nonetheless fiction.

AV: When you start the “Deportations” chapter, you switch narrators from the mother to the son. Why did you do this, and was it difficult to write from a ten-year old boy’s perspective?

VL: It was difficult to write from a ten-year old boy’s perspective, but it was also a very liberating space. I don’t write linearly. It’s not like I wrote the woman’s thread, then the boy’s thread, and then the elegies. I wrote them all together. They all splintered from a common gravitational center and grew in different directions. Because it’s a novel of echoes, there are echoes between different scenes and threads. I would often write a scene in one voice and then have an echo in another voice. The boy’s voice, in that procedure, felt like a playground, kind of a sad playground at times. It would always get at me, but it was also freeing to have that rhythm to go back to from time to time.

AV: “Echo Canyon” covers about twenty pages in a Joycean stream-of-consciousness, even using Joyce’s repetition of the word “yes” just like at the end of Ulysses. The chapter’s climax is where the supposedly “real” boy and girl meet with the fictional Elegy children. It’s like a parallel universe where reality meets unreality. Can you extrapolate a bit about what you are trying to achieve with this interesting literary concept?

VL: That was the hardest part of the novel to write, as you can imagine, because it required a difficult, delicate architecture. Not only is it a run-on sentence, but it changes narrators every time one of the narrators focuses on the sky above the valley; yet the children are moving towards each other, unknowingly. Every time a narrator looks at the sky in which thunderclouds and birds are gathering, it switches to the other narrator. Joyce of course was in my mind, but I was also thinking of Juan Rulfo, Jerzy Andrzejewski, and László Krasznahorkai.

I don’t want to offer an interpretation of that passage, though, because when authors do that they kind of drown the possibility of other minds coming in and offering other interesting interpretations. Let me just say that that part of the novel –that is spoken by the boy into the recording machine, and then passed to the sister as a version of their story—is a culmination of all the stories the boy has been listening to: his mother talking about the crisis on the border, his father talking about the Apache wars; the books they are reading, among which are the elegies of lost children. It all comes together in the same way that books become part of our own experience without us necessarily having lived those experiences. Literature is like a prosthetic memory. There is a Borges story called “Shakespeare’s Memory,” in which a scholar receives a ring which supposedly will give him access to Shakespeare’s memory. It will implant Shakespeare’s memory in his own mind. The story follows what happens in his mind as Shakespeare’s memory enters and mixes with his own. Ricardo Piglia, a brilliant Argentinean writer and scholar, interprets that story as an allegory about literary memory, about how we incorporate experiences that we have read, and how they become part of the webbing of our own lived experience.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Talk Across Water:
Stories Selected and New

Merrill Gilfillan
Flood Editions ($17.95)

by Garin Cycholl

After running into an old acquaintance in a northern diner, the narrator in Merrill Gilfillan’s “Landscape with Frog” sets up the problem. He asks, “As I drove from town, the epistemological vertigo hit me. My God, I thought, how does it all keep going? How does the spoken world hang together in any form at all under such a built-in rule of memory-bumble and involuntary shape-shifting?” Feeling this “vertigo,” Talk Across Water, Gilfillan’s latest selection of stories, takes its own measure of the northern Plains—its sense of collective distance and memory, how language and narrative test the human limits here. The author gathers these stories from “certain looks on certain faces, hearsay overheard.” These subtle details feed a sense of shared solitude that propels the journeys here.

The characters within Talk Across Water often seem to inhabit these wide spaces as ghosts. Travel is circular; memory is an essential quality to the traveler, recalling the small human turns and movements that define a distinct American landscape, spaces where the boundaries have dissolved, much like at “sundown, when the colors faded and the lavenders took over.” In this dissolution, Gilfillan’s stories offer an alternative world, a reconsideration of how human beings can inhabit the Plains’ beauty and distance. As the narrator of “Cold Hands, High Water” puts it, “Like many American highways, know it or not, that stretch of Interstate in central Wyoming has a shadow route paralleling it.” Gilfillan’s travelers move through back roads or along railroads; they encamp near rivers or within itinerant gatherings. As they do, these “shadow routes” also move through them as travelers, and the only possible response is a shared but narrated silence. The tensions developed within these stories are a measure of how the characters inhabit that silence.

In this regard, the stories in Talk Across Water sometimes feel like something leftover from a previous century. Place is a recurrent focus; though a day’s journey seems sufficient, characters hearken to the distances here. Encamped along the river, they might feel secure near “the Missouri . . . dependable as a dog . . . its bulldozer sureness.” Still, they also sense some nearby or oncoming world. In “Victrola-Man,” an Assiniboine girl attends a gathering. She watches as her grandmother responds to traces of an old song being sung across the camp. The grandmother laments, “Nobody sings those real songs anymore . . . Nobody knows the words.” Looking for the singer, the girl tours the camp but finds it all “too loud, too harsh.” She’s shadowed by a group of boys who “snicker and cringe.” She crosses the space where sellers have set up shop—offering “things once living full-scale in the world and now playthings shrunken up small with time-distance.” Finally she locates the singer and convinces him to sing for her grandmother. As the man sings his “otter song,” the girl listens and looks “down into the bushes at nothing solid in the world.”

Gilfillan’s exquisite sentences take their measure of the Plains’ shared solitude. They catch the Plains’ drift and distances. They test the resilience of memory through stories—less routes here than traces. Resounding the silence of the place, they sound human movement in plain sight.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Sly Bang

Larissa Shmailo
Spuyten Duyvil ($18)

by Jefferson Hansen

Larissa Shmailo’s Sly Bang is written with tremendous energy and moves at an exhilarating pace, yet it dwells on depraved characters and actions. Almost nobody is nice in this novel about serial killers, mad scientists, FBI agents and evildoers.

The plot centers around Nora, an FBI agent with telepathic and scientifically grounded superpowers, who is hunted by Ouspensky, a scientist, satanist, and Nazi who wants to destroy the world using nuclear colliders. Among Nora’s defenders are Michael, a serial killer, and Andrew and Aubrey, fellow FBI agents who seem to be the only characters without obsessions, perversities, and obscene desires.

Indeed, the book reads like a psychotic episode. People die and come back to life. The line between dream and reality is not entirely clear. Mind-reading is possible. Strange, advanced technologies propel the action at times. Some characters have superhuman abilities: Most of the men have extraordinary strength and beat up a slew of other people to prove it. They can even break their way out of manacles.

And that is where the satire lies. The book, while it portrays horrific actions, makes fun of superhuman male figures and the traditional ideal man. Their activities are so outlandish that readers may find themselves laughing out loud and cheering as Nora outlasts most of them through her grit, pluck, and resilience. As she contemplates being saved by a man, she writes “hey, this damsel in distress thing really turns them on . . . subconscious hostility that they want me to be harmed?” The book takes direct aim at the fantasies of some males, making them so extreme that their absurdity becomes crystal clear.

Sly Bang’s satire on the whole is extreme—it begins with a scene of Nora masturbating under command while being remotely surveilled. She is alone, sleep deprived, and very scared. Serial killers lurk blocks away, pretending to be friends, and attempt to confuse her through remote communications. She needs to fight the depravities of the males, who are lampooned in their aggressiveness and inability to treat Nora straight. And Nora has her own issues. She treats men badly by manipulating their feelings, loving them and leaving them, cheating on them, and so forth. It may be a kind of visceral revenge.

To top it all off, Nora and her “friends”—neither she nor we are entirely sure who is or isn’t on her side—need to save the world from Ouspensky’s attempt to destroy it just for kicks. The comic book element makes war itself seem cartoonishly absurd, driven not by a desire for territory or money or power, but to dominate women in a psycho-sexual manner.

This is a hilarious and horrifying novel. It depicts the worst humanity is capable of, but what keeps Sly Bang from becoming overwhelmed by the depravity it describes is the writerly energy of Shmailo. Wise cracks and madcap scenes burst one after another in a buoyant fashion—so it goes down easy in spite of the horrors it describes.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

The City in the Middle of the Night

Charlie Jane Anders
Tor ($26.99)

by Chris Barsanti

As far as unfair comparisons go, a blurb like “this generation’s Le Guin” on a dustjacket is pretty high up there. That doesn’t mean that a gloriously rich voice such as Charlie Jane Anders, author of 2017’s prizewinning All the Birds in the Sky, does not deserve some strong accolades. But while Anders has as grand an imagination and skill for world-building as Le Guin, the comparison establishes the wrong kind of expectations, in the same way that any director should be allowed to file a lawsuit against those who would call them “this generation’s Spielberg.”

Anders’ latest, The City in the Middle of the Night, is precisely the kind of novel that benefits from being called speculative fiction rather than science fiction, which can still seem pejorative to some readers. So far, “speculative fiction” seems not to scare off genre-unfriendly readers, meaning Anders may attract the kind of broad readership she deserves with this bristling and vivid book.

The planet of January is a splendidly imagined world of terror and beauty. Humanity seems to have ended up there out of apocalyptic necessity many centuries hence in this millennium, following the launch of a desperate last-minute Earth-escaping ark. The ride over was a rough one:

By the time the great city-states of Earth were building the Mothership to escape a ruined planet, Zagreb was in steep decline from its worldwide supremacy back at the start of the Brilliant Age. . . . the Zagreb contingent made sure to bring everything from musical instruments to cooking spices to beautiful handcrafted furniture to great works of literature—everything you’d need to re-create true civilization.
But after the radiation leaks, the explosive decompression, the Hydroponic Garden Massacre, and all the tiny wars, the Zagreb stock ended up ruined. They arrived with nothing.

With all the residual tensions left over from that bloody birthing, what’s left of humanity on January is not doing well by the time the novel opens. The planet is no paradise but an alien place in the truest sense of the word, divided between blasting sunlight and freezing dark, with two radically different cities—one chaos and the other control—barely hanging on in the day-night border region.

The city of control is called Xiosphant. Protected from the sun by massive shutters and fed by fantastical Ferris Wheel-like rotating crop contraptions termed farmwheels, it’s characterized by baroquely layered linguistic conventions, mind-numbing conformity, and a rigidly authoritarian bent that regulates every second of its citizens’ lives. Like most dictatorial regimes, total control is sold as means of survival; in a world so inhospitable to humanity, nothing can be left to chance. So the population sets their lives by a dizzyingly complex set of time conventions (“4 Wander before Blue” is one that Anders throws out without bothering to explain) and fears change.

Anders’s reluctant hero is Sophie, a college girl from the (literal) dark side of town who is infatuated with her rich, beautiful roommate Bianca, who appears to share her revolutionary views. After taking the fall for Bianca’s petty thievery and being exiled from Xiosphant for her troubles, Sophie returns to town as something of a ghost, without a place in a densely ordered society and looking for a purpose.

That’s where Mouth, another vagabond who falls in love too quickly and leaps before she looks, comes into the story. Part of a smuggler band with the phenomenal name the Resourceful Couriers, Mouth has her own infatuation—with her smuggler partner Alyssa (they pair off for survival in the horrors of the deathlands between Xiosphant and its sister city Argelo) and some foolhardy plans that will end up with Bianca and Sophie on the run. Laced into the love-amidst-danger plot is Sophie’s run-in with some of January’s original inhabitants, frightening-seeming creatures who are derisively termed “crocodiles” by the humans, but who may hold the key to everyone’s survival on a planet that seems to be getting more uninhabitable by the day.

The plotting and dialogue of The City in the Middle of the Night are somewhat haphazard, though the chaos has its own momentum—such as when the action shifts to the nightclubs and souks of the gangster-run Argelo, a place that feels like Mogadishu and the Mos Eisley spaceport crossed with Prohibition-era Chicago, or pirate battles on the Sea of Murder, whose name requires no further explanation. Anders even dashes the action with some blackly comic absurdity, including the scene in which two combatants in a knife fight have to use one hand each to hold up a metal plate to shield them from a deadly acid rain. She has a deep, impassioned attachment to her characters, writing of their desires and fears with a fierce urgency (“I would burn everything to fine ash, both cities, the world, to keep you with me”).

As a onetime editor of the website io9, Anders knows her way around the science fiction genre and then some. It is possible that imbibing so much in the field left her with a surfeit of ideas, which seem to spill out of her novel’s pages. Elements of The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness seem to flutter through this work, which also shares a lot with China Mieville’s linguistic obsessions and even Sherri Teppers’s nose for the power structures on far-off planets. But Anders remains a fiery original, a perilously rare thing in today’s remake and remix culture. For that, she must be celebrated all on her own.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Siblings: Four Recent Poetry Titles
from Singapore’s Math Paper Press

by Greg Bem

Based out of Singapore’s independent bookstore BooksActually, Math Paper Press is a cornerstone in the publication of Singaporean and Southeast Asian literature, its catalog featuring a blend of diverse poetry and prose titles by many individuals. The press and its collection bring new and emerging voices into one place and one canon, while also reinforcing established figures already active and vocal within the Singaporean literary community at-large.

While a mission statement isn’t readily available to the public, readers will find in Math Paper Press voices of writers from diverse backgrounds and varied writing styles who focus on their individuality, their own history, as well as the worlds that surround them. The press covers much range, and includes different ethnicities, aesthetics, subject matter, and tones. From publications by individual authors to entire anthologies, the press goes far.

I had the chance to read four recent poetry titles from Math Paper Press, each of which feels like a sibling to each other, and yet holistically different from each other. The books are compact in size and concise in impact.


The Woman Who Turned Into A Vending Machine

Natali Wang
Math Paper Press ($16)

The Woman Who Turned Into A Vending Machine (2018) by Natali Wang defies the rigidity of genre to approach folklore and mythologies through experimentation. Wang writes of her own experiences of love and relationships, matching them with famous, historical records. From the selkie bride myth to the Ramayana to various Greek and Chinese myths, Wang’s poetry has its roots and inspirations scattered across the globe. These works are a rearrangement of the perceived reality of history and the present; they are mythological, and they also speak to contemporary love and strife. In Wang’s writing transformation is both literal and allegorical; in “(Painted Skin)” she writes: “Her favourite time of the day is when she gets home and climbs out of her skin, splitting it at her nape and peeling it down the rest of the body.”

Written in both prose and verse, Wang’s poems are surprising and contain moments of curiously grotesque epiphany and charm. In “After Sodom,” Wang reinterprets the story of Lot fleeing Sodom: “I sprinkled some of mother / into our soup, wondering what she would think / of me, of us.” Here, as in many other poems in the book, a spellbinding and ritualistic capacity for understanding is as distinct within the text as imaginable beyond.

In Wang’s words there are elements of truth that come much further into our shared, contemporary relationships than the ancient texts would have us believe. They are painful. They are full. They are artistic. In Wang’s debut book of poems, they are free to read and inspire our own relationships with allegory and metaphor.



Werner Kho
Math Paper Press ($16)

Another debut collection in Math Paper Press’s current catalog is Werner Kho’s Afterimage (2018). As the title would imply, the book homes in on themes of loss, the remaining substances, and the reimagining of the past to inform the present and future. What is the image that comes after the action, after the result of decision and happenstance? In “Dark Room,” the poet writes: “I am feeling / for the negatives: shadows // tangling in our confusion / of tongues, unclaimed spaces // of exposed longing.” Kho explores these ideas of periphery and possession both mournfully and methodically, exposing the fade of our experiences and the trajectory of the fade.
These poems read as inscriptions, as challenges, as internal and introspective reflections. They represent memories. They represent work the poet must do for relief. Afterimage thus offers not merely an image or sequence of imagery, but a story that is explored, traversed, endured.

Often this story is told by Kho with visceral descriptions and, as with the work by Wang described above, transformation. “Prying your tongue / from the roof / of your mouth, I find / my name decaying inside / like a cavity. Peel away / my lips and you’ll find / that I was always singing,” he writes in “Translation.” The body and the ephemeral are conduits for understanding those experiences long-passed. The bodies together form the story, and a resulting catharsis. A focus on the brutal, the estranged, the repressed is both shadowy and relieving; the book’s pages reflect the swollen core of a mortal humanity, of how we each exist through interpretations of how to remain once the story is over.


footnotes on falling

Joshua Ip
Math Paper Press ($16)

Beginnings and ends and aftermaths are dominant forces in footnotes on falling (2018) by Joshua Ip. The most conceptual in form and experimental in grammar of the four books reviewed here, footnotes is concerned with awkwardness, scattered thoughts, and a shuffled existence revisited. It is a book about shame and failure, strangeness and wonder. Its poetry is carried along by revelation and commentary and translation and the art of drawing conclusions, as exemplified in “The Letters”: “let’s say we let / this slide. let / pressure bleed. let / time tell. let the children / come to their / p000own conclusions.”

Often Ip writes with overt, intentional exertions of description and implication. The poems contain edges of subjects based on specific, intense experiences that spread across larger contexts. There is a generality that serves as a poet’s canvas. Language gets in the way—it’s bulky, cumbersome, even unwieldy at times. The result is a book that may not be easy to experience, a book that concerns the flutter of pages and the act of falling into the well of this poet’s knowledge and writing.

It would be remiss not to mention the elements of absurdity within these poems as well. While the poet’s seriousness creates a blanket of linguistic wordplay that coats and covers the book’s motifs, underneath that blanket is the hilarity that accompanies those moments of shame and failure that can only be hyperbolized, exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness. “put down the phone, you said / in the same slow even tone of voice / that one would say, put down the gun, / put down the knife, maybe the baby,” begins one poem. This cinematic and comedic wordplay unfurls into the body of the poem, into the body of thought that the poet explores. Enthusiastic in its extremity, Ip’s work binds together the morbid curiosity of our sourest livelihoods and the relief of wordplay. It is a joy to watch the poet’s mind explore both itself and the world that surrounds it.


In These Curved Spaces

Andrea Yew
Math Paper Press ($16)

The three-part In These Curved Spaces (2019) by Andrea Yew provides another form of exploration: the phenomenon and process of sequence. Basing many of the poems on familial experiences and situations both recent and distant, Yew explores these spaces in logical ways. “An entire family sprang from the obliteration of another,” she writes. “The Prayer Poem” dictates the framing of logic and construct within Yew’s world. It is as maddening as it is filled with clarity, structure, and organization.

Often this organization is also about instruction: “begin with / two mattresses / hauled over small / shoulders,” begins an early poem in the collection, “How to Build a Fort,” in which the poet recalls the early, tactile process. “This is how you know it’s sweet. / This morning, love is a watermelon / and this market // is not a market” meanders the book’s first poem, “In the Fruit Aisle.” A balance between stoicism and captured emotion, these poems thread the needle between sorrow, joy, and intellectual understanding.

As we burrow through the first two parts of the book to the final third, these lenses of investigation and explanation open up into spaces of intimacy and more exquisite sensations of attraction—they move into the space of the self and the other. The dualism is uncanny and intensely passionate, and is padded with metaphor: “What we are is an animal / sticky in July heat. / It scratches the back of our throats, / rattles the windows with its fever,” goes “Would You Like a Raisin? How About a Date?” The book’s final poem serves as a manifesto, and curiously matches all of the books contained within this review:

In this dream, you think it is enough to write your history with words. Without history, you are a word without legitimacy. You are without baggage. You are without comfort. Your words have no etymology. You think that if you write enough, your words will write you a history.

Much of the work in Yew’s book, as well as in the books of Ip, Kho, and Wang, concerns history and its necessity, its contributions to art and to life. As a suite, a micro-collection of the Math Paper Press canon, these books are spotlights as well as vast tunnel systems pointing toward illumination, echo, and the attempt to meet truth through individuality. Each of these books approach humanity fully and differently, their identities capsules of their authors and their authors’ imaginations. In other words, the latest offerings from Math Paper Press are impressive, unique, and encouraging. They deserve a readership all over the English-speaking world.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019