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The Usual Suspects

February 28, 2017

teslaimageA new story of mine, “The Usual,” has been posted in Literary Orphans.

Go here to read the story, and here for the issue’s TOC and links to other great stuff, including the explanation of why the issue is called “Tesla.”

Editor-in-Chief Scott Waldyn’s introduction to the issue concludes with this note pertinent to our times:

There are days where it may seem like we’re losing the war, but sometimes the path ahead isn’t always a step up. Like Nikola Tesla, we just need to keep at it and play the long game.

Yeah. #WritersResist.

curiouscoverI’ve been meaning to write about a book I read last year, A Curious Land (University of Massachusetts Press, 2015; paperback, 2016), a volume of fiction by Susan Muaddi Darraj set in Tel al-Hilou, a Palestinian village near Ramallah. This task has lingered on my to-do list for a while, but a couple of recent developments have spurred me to it: the paranoid and mean-spirited attempts by the White House to cleanse the USA of immigrants, and the president’s openness to a Mideast “one-state solution,” a phrase I’ve never understood because a solution is supposed to solve something—and what in the world (even our distorted Twitterworld) would this one solve?

As American politics becomes curiouser and curiouser, it’s a good time to ground ourselves with some fine fiction. A Curious Land consists of connected short stories, a form Muaddi Darraj has made very much her own. Her previous book of fiction, The Inheritance of Exile, also made up of linked stories, focused on young Palestinian American women growing up in South Philly. (I wrote about it in July 2010.) The new book takes us to Palestine itself, tracing the lives of fairly ordinary people through several generations, across most of the twentieth century. A Curious Land won the Grace Paley Prize, the Arab American Book Award, and the American (no qualifier) Book Award, and yet I feel it’s underappreciated.

I should say, first of all, that I’m not interested in A Curious Land merely because liberals like me who believe in diversity love to promote books about foreign or minority cultures. In fact, my reading preferences tend toward old white folks, both those who are dead and those who might as well be. And when I see an author who represents “diversity” being lauded despite sloppy or sentimental writing, I get annoyed (as well as jealous). So, yes, I think Muaddi Darraj’s work can promote a better understanding of Palestinian communities—an understanding we sorely need at the moment—but I wouldn’t focus on it for that reason alone.

The most important reason to discuss A Curious Land is that Muaddi Darraj is an excellent writer, with a precise yet moving and poetic style, an eye attuned to nuances of feeling and an ability to create well-fleshed characters. I’ll quote a bit from the long final story, “Christmas in Palestine,” one of a few pieces in the book that venture far from Tel al-Hilou. Adlah, a young woman from the village, has gone to the USA to study, has married there and now (1998) is struggling to get pregnant, torturing herself with injections and suppositories prescribed by her fertility guru. She hasn’t returned home in a decade, even skipping her father’s funeral last year because of the baby-making routine. Now, though, she’s offered a chance to visit Tel al-Hilou as a translator for an archeological team, and she accepts, to her husband’s dismay. Shortly before she leaves comes this scene:

The 18th was their eight-year wedding anniversary, and they ate dinner at the small French place in Midtown where he’d proposed. It used to be their annual tradition, but they’d not dined there in some time, and Adlah could see that the décor was changed—new, sparkly chandeliers and long curtains, but she didn’t mention it to Ken. He was too angry, and had barely spoken to her on the drive over. He’d spent the last two weeks sulking, since she told him about the assignment. Strangely—and it scared her—she didn’t care. It was too tiring to muster up some indignation or mount a counter-argument. Now, as they sat and sipped their drinks—he had some Pinot Grigio and she sparkling water—he barely looked at her, just hunched over his menu.

“It’s almost like you’re not trying,” he said finally.

“I am.” She felt sick at how he was beginning. “In 45 minutes, I have to go to the bathroom for the 7 p.m. injection.”

“I know.”

“Christ, Ken.”

“But this trip—you don’t need to do this.”

She didn’t answer, not sure how to explain it to him. For two years, her life had been consumed by this thing. Two years of solid failure. Everything on hold, don’t change the house, don’t buy new furniture, keep the same car. Their lives were frozen in place, awaiting a blue line on a white stick, the symbol of success. Her arms, her stomach were blue from needle marks. And when her father died eighteen months ago, she didn’t go because they’d just done an embryo transfer. It had made her sick, to grieve alone—here in New York, while everyone back home comforted each other. She’d consoled herself with the idea that, if it were a boy, she’d name him Muneer [after her father], and Ken agreed easily, trying to help her deal with the injustice of it. She’d even convinced herself that her father would bless her from heaven, and make things right, make that cycle “the one.” And, like a cruel prank, it hadn’t worked.

“I’m not leaving till after the transfer on Thursday.”

“Flying can’t be good—”

“There’s no proof of that.”

After their plates were slid onto their table and their drinks refreshed, when they’d eaten in near-silence, she ordered a glass of wine, her eyes locked on Ken, daring him to oppose it. He sighed and raised his glass, clinking it gently against hers. The stem looked so fragile, like an icicle in his large hands.

“Happy anniversary,” he said softly. “I love you,” he added, and the words stung her because he sighed as he spoke them, like it was an exertion of effort.

Tears sprang to her eyes, and without even taking a sip, she stood and picked up her purse.

“Well—what’s … what is it?”

“Seven o’clock. I’ll be right back.” She walked quickly to the restroom, sliding between tables of couples too engrossed in one another to notice her.

Though I might quibble with small stylistic points, such as the multiple uses of “barely” and “some” in the first paragraph and the fact that Adlah feels “sick” twice in a short span, I admire the quick flashes of emotion, the undertones of anger and frustration revealed in the way a person looks at a menu or gets up from the table. The story then takes Adlah “home” to Palestine, where Ken’s absence doesn’t automatically make her heart grow fonder. Her marriage is tested when she meets a handsome, wealthy, educated Palestinian who comes on to her, but the tale doesn’t turn out as expected; this author won’t settle for a simplistic, “one-state” answer to Adlah’s quandary.

Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays a role in these stories—how could it not?—Muaddi Darraj doesn’t stress political divisions, or religious ones for that matter, though the villagers are Christian in a Muslim and Jewish land. Rather, she’s interested in the everyday lives of her characters. Whatever the political situation, people have to live with it. They fall in and out of love, quarrel, engage in family feuds, leave the village and come back. They get sick or get well. They change as they age, or they fail to change. Characters we knew as young people show up in later stories as elders, as memories or as village legends. The links are important, but so are the breaks between stories; as one reviewer put it, the use of separate, connected pieces creates a “sense of contingency within the unfolding narratives. There are few definite endings or neat resolutions—or if there are, we hear about them tangentially, decades later, as an aside” (Sarah Irving, “Memory, Home and Belonging in ‘A Curious Land,’” The Electronic Intifada, June 13, 2016).

This effective use of the connected-story form is another reason I wanted to discuss A Curious Land. Other contemporary examples of linked stories include Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Orla McAlinden’s The Accidental Wife, now a hit in Northern Ireland though mostly ignored in the USA. The form goes way back, of course; any English major will think of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. All of these books have a unity of place—centering on a small geographical area—and characters that reappear in multiple tales, allowing us different perspectives on their personalities and behavior. In all of them the links among the stories deepen and enrich the book’s impact. None, though, is as tightly structured as a traditional novel.

To me, and I suspect to many others as well, this looser form feels more appropriate for our era of fragmentation and uncertainty than a novel with a firm central plot intersected by one or more carefully angled subplots. Of course, the novel itself has always been an extremely flexible form, allowing for organizations as loose as that of Moby-Dick (clear main plot with hundreds of pages of non-narrative essays that do little to advance the story) and 2066, Roberto Bolaño’s mammoth posthumous work whose multiple plots and semi-random incidents seem to explode outward, sending tracers disappearing into space. Still, most readers who pick up a book called a “novel” will expect to find, in some sense, a unified arc of events, and writers facing the chaos of our world may be reluctant to offer that neatness.

Generally the linked-story approach has been well accepted by critics. Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz are two others who’ve won praise for it. Too often, though, publishers have been eager to label such efforts “novels in stories,” a promotional ploy that leads the reader to expect more cohesion and unity than actually exist. This marketing trend provoked novelist and editor William Giraldi to pen a stern diatribe against the so-called novel in stories (“The Mysterious Case of Novel-in-Stories,” The Rumpus, May 27, 2011):

Every story should rightly achieve its own destination, so a novel-in-stories ends up having several, whereas a novel can have only one. To say you’ve fashioned a novel from stories is to say you’ve fashioned an adult by standing one child on the shoulders of another.…

This cannot be stated enough: a novel is as different from a collection of stories as a truck is from a tricycle: they both have wheels, yes, and will get you where you need to be, though in decidedly dissimilar fashions and with dissimilar degrees of alacrity.

Giraldi agrees that part of the blame for “novels in stories” lies with publishers:

the concept was cooked up by the nonliterary minds in New York marketing who, on the one hand, wanted to sign young writers fresh from the M.F.A. mill and, on the other hand, didn’t want to wait for those young writers to learn how to write a novel.

He goes on to assign blame as well to Americans’ inability to appreciate the short story for its own merits, as “a form perfectly suited to modernity’s fundamentally Freudian method of accessing phenomena: in segments”—and a form, he also argues, that American writers have mastered far more than the novel.

Hugo van der Goes, THE PORTINARI ALTAR, late 1400s (from Wikimedia Commons)

I accept much of what he says. Yet, in this essay at least, he seems unwilling to grant that the connections among related stories can be valuable enough to make a whole greater than the sum of the parts. In a book like A Curious Land the stories interact with the same grace and subtlety as the panels of a Renaissance triptych. Each piece benefits from the others. Muaddi Darraj even throws in a little surprise at the end (hinted at on the cover) to loop the tales together.

Those who’ve read my own book The Shame of What We Are may suppose it falls into this category. I do see it as a novel, however: unlike most books of linked stories, it has a single protagonist, a single point of view and a steady chronological progression; moreover, the gaps between stories are used deliberately and strategically to reinforce the themes. When I had to label the book for publication, though, I felt the phrase “novel in stories” had been discredited by publishers’ dishonesty, so I chose “a novel in pieces,” a phrase I hoped would offer a clue about the content as well as the structure.

I consider the other books discussed here as something different, related stories that support each other but do not constitute a novel and should not be shoehorned into that category. It’s really an insult to the writers to pretend such works are novels or to talk as if they should be. The linked-story collection is a form in itself, and if we’re seeing a genuine trend toward it, perhaps we should come up with a catchier name. “Storvel” sounds like an eccentric wading bird, so my best suggestion at the moment is “story cycle” or “story sequence.”

Whatever we call it, A Curious Land is a fine exemplar, and if it serves a socially important purpose as well, all the more reason to read it.

Later note: On March 3, 2017, Michael Knight’s article in Publishers Weekly recommended “The 10 Best Interlinked Story Collections.” Though I hate top-ten lists, his is a good introduction to the form that he, too—despite having published such a collection himself—doesn’t know what to call.

Shocked!

February 19, 2017

Change Seven magazine has posted a guest blog entry of mine about surviving a (Trumpian) shock to the system. Here’s the link.

The general theme, in keeping with the magazine’s name, was “change,” and I started to ponder how our former ideas about change seem both still-relevant and terribly quaint. The old term “future shock” popped into my mind—which was kind of like reading a letter you wrote as a teenager and realizing that, back then, you understood far more than you do now.

The original gerrymander in Massachusetts

The original gerrymander in Massachusetts

At the second meeting of the #WritersResist group in Philadelphia, I learned about Fair Districts PA, a group determined to convert Pennsylvania to a nonpartisan redistricting process before the 2020 census.

Every ten years, after the national census, states redraw their district lines — both for the state legislature and for the U.S. House of Representatives. Under the current system in most states, those in power in the legislature gerrymander the districts to make sure they stay in power. We get districts shaped like this (from the U.S. Department of the Interior via Wikipedia):

pa_uscongressionaldistrict12

 

Besides perpetuating one-party control, the “safe seats” contribute to gridlock on both a local and a national scale. If lines are drawn to make sure that those with certain views get reelected (and reelected and reelected and reelected), they have no need to listen to any dissenting voices or consider any compromise.

Although the USA is not the only country to allow gerrymandering, the practice is particularly egregious here, and the Supreme Court’s rulings on the subject have been indecisive.

I’ve long bemoaned Americans’ lax voting habits. There are two principal ways to influence politicians: money and votes. Most of us don’t have the first, and too many of us throw away the second.

Obviously, one way to encourage voting is to make the districts fairer. If we eliminate automatic winners, people will be more inclined to think their votes count for something.

So do check out Fair Districts PA or a similar group in your own state. And vote!

(I’m still fuming at my friends who didn’t bother to vote last November.)

 

Dogs Welcome

January 26, 2017

It should be obvious from the picture at the top that dogs are already welcome on this blog—in fact, they run our operation, compensated with the occasional biscuit—but the heading of this post refers to a story of mine, “Dogs Welcome,” that has just been published at Change Seven.

Here’s a link directly to the story. I’m billing the piece as a useful escape, totally irrelevant to contemporary political concerns. It never once mentions President Twitterman. On the other hand, it features a character who shows a bit of compassion for others, so perhaps that’s not untimely.

Thanks to editor Sheryl Monks and other members of the Change Seven staff, and also to members of the Working Writers Group, who helped me see what was wrong (a lot!) in an earlier draft of the story.

The magazine invites contributors to do a guest blog post on the subject of change, and mine will be up soon. In the meantime, check out Katrina Denza’s post called “This Is What Democracy Looks Like”—a reflection on the Women’s March in DC.

 

Writers ResistYesterday in Philadelphia, an event called “Writers Resist: United for Liberty” filled to overflowing a 300-seat auditorium for more than two hours of readings about freedom of speech, racial justice, economic justice, and more. It was linked in spirit to the New York event sponsored by PEN America, but it had a uniquely local flavor, with passages from historical speeches and writings set in Philly. The organizers (and who knew writers could organize so well?) were Alicia Askenase, Stephanie Feldman, and Nathaniel Popkin.

There’s a good write-up at Philly.com, and many ongoing comments on the Facebook site and Twitter feed (@ResistPHL), as well as photos and videos. Most important, the plan is to carry on with further events and actions, beginning next month.

I can’t add much to the eloquence of the other voices, so I’ll simply quote three passages that I found most moving—ones that didn’t have specific connections to Philly but shared a universal resonance.

The program concluded with poet Tom Devaney reading Langston Hughes’s stirring poem “Let America Be America Again,” which includes these lines:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

A dream that’s never quite fulfilled but that we can, we must, keep aiming at—that states it perfectly.

Valerie Fox read a translation of Bertolt Brecht’s poem “When Evil-Doing Comes Like Falling Rain,” a reminder not to let ourselves be anesthetized by the quantity of outrages:

The first time it was reported that our friends were being butchered there was a cry of horror. Then a hundred were butchered. But when a thousand were butchered and there was no end to the butchery, a blanket of silence spread. When evil-doing comes like falling rain, nobody calls out “stop!” When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.

Finally, here’s a quotation that connects with my frequent screeds about American voting behavior. Kelly McQuain read this passage, among others, from Elie Wiesel’s 1999 speech “The Perils of Indifference”:

In a way, to be indifferent to [human] suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony, one does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it. Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response.

Let’s say that one more time in capitals: INDIFFERENCE IS NOT A RESPONSE.

 

Twitterman Landslide!

January 3, 2017

The results are in from our runoff poll! Our incoming president has his proper moniker:

2,469 votes for “President Twitterman”

1,389 votes for “President Pootinesca”

That’s an overwhelming margin—one might say a mandate—for Twitterman. Henceforth the orange fellow in the White House shall be known by that name.

kremlinhack4However, some members of the Gridleyville Board were disturbed by anomalies in the voting.

For one thing, this blog has a known readership of 11 souls. Even though individuals were allowed to vote multiple times, it’s a bit surprising that 3,858 ballots were cast.

Second, Twitterman’s total amounted to 64%—eerily similar to the percentage won by Vladimir Putin in 2012.

Third, more than 3,000 of the votes have been traced to keyboards using the Cyrillic alphabet. We do have Russian speakers in the USA, but the sheer volume of Cyrillic-flavored votes has raised suspicion.

Finally, our agents have confirmed that one of the Cyrillic keyboards was connected to a monitor with the following sentence on its screensaver:

Умереть, капиталистические собак!

which, loosely translated, means “Die, capitalist dogs!”

Although the evidence is merely circumstantial, we can say with high confidence that certain high-ranking officials in the Kremlin deliberately intervened to sway the election. Apparently they conceived a deep hatred for the name Pootinesca. Perhaps they objected to the conflation of Vladimir Putin’s surname with the noise typically made by old fat men after a heavy meal. Or, if they themselves are fine diners, they may have recognized the similarity to puttanesca, the popular pasta sauce whose designation literally means “in the style of a prostitute.” Whatever the motive, they programmed their system to cast thousands of ballots for Twitterman and approximately half as many (as a cheap cover-up) for Pootinesca.

After deep deliberation, the Gridleyville Board has therefore approved sanctions against the Kremlin. Once each day for the next month, we will send the following stern message to Moscow:

Плохие русские, плохие русские, пло-o-o-o-хо!

which, loosely translated, means “Bad Russians, bad Russians, ba-a-a-a-d!”

Yet—it should go without saying—as true Americans we must honor our democratic process, however corrupted it may be.

Therefore, long live Twitterman!

With dedication and good luck, he may well become the greatest Twit ever to occupy the White House.