Thursday, March 27, 2014

ELIF SHAFAK:
Identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read and reviewed

The writer and commuter James Baldwin gave an interview in 1984 in which he was repeatedly asked about his homosexuality. When the interviewer tried to pigeonhole him as a gay writer, Baldwin stopped and said, "But don't you see? There's nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else that is not in me." When identity politics tries to put labels on us, it is our freedom of imagination that is in danger. There's a fuzzy category called multicultural literature in which all authors from outside the Western world are lumped together. I never forget my first multicultural reading, in Harvard Square about 10 years ago. We were three writers, one from the Philippines, one Turkish and one Indonesian -- like a joke, you know. (Laughter) And the reason why we were brought together was not because we shared an artistic style or a literary taste. It was only because of our passports.Multicultural writers are expected to tell real stories, not so much the imaginary. A function is attributed to fiction. In this way, not only the writers themselves, but also their fictional characters become the representatives of something larger.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE:
The Writer as a placeless member of the Society of the Imagination

Photo Credit: Ian Williams for The National Post

Henry Krempels has a great interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie over at Daily Beast. He is particularly interested in the ways in which the city of Lagos inspires her writing. Adichi shares that Lagos gives so much to complain about and at the same time, so much to love... especially for a writer. For example, she says gets annoyed about sitting in traffic entirely too much and at the same time recognizes the endless possibilities for stories to write about that very same experience. Who are the people sitting and waiting with you? What is happening in their lives? 

Do you think it matters where a writer comes from when considering their ideas? Does the idea of place still exist for a writer?
It's nice to imagine it doesn't but it does. If you are a writer from a country like Nigeria or Pakistan or Sudan or Bangladesh, you are much more likely to be aware of where you come from because you'll have trouble with travel - the process of applying for a visa would itself make a short story. And it belies the idea of the writer as a placeless member of the Society of the Imagination. 

I wish I could put her in conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

MOLLY ANTOPOL:
On the privilege of being American, on being nostalgic about dark times and the difference between writing about politics and writing political fiction.

The UnAmericans is Molly Antopol's first book and I say this with so much sadness because the moment I finished reading it, I wanted MORE. So, I went back and re-read my favorite stories from her debut collection. The three absolute stand-outs for me were The Quietest Man, in which a Czech dissident scrambles to make a living on adjunct gigs after the world has lost interest in his area of expertise (communism, communism's aftermath) and under the constant fear that his daughter will expose his poor parenting in the play she has just been commissioned to write. My Grandma Tells Me This Story is about Jewish resistance fighters in Belarus, a gaggle of teenagers who build a village and an army in an effort to survive. And last, but not least, I adored the closing story of the collection, Retrospective, in which an Israeli man travels back to Jerusalem for an art retrospective celebrating his American wife's grandmother. The journey is precipitated by difficulties in the marriage and complicated by the mystic figure of the grandmother and her extraordinary but not untroubled life. Of course, the moment I list these three stories as favorites, I start agonizing over my choice... because every single one of the pieces in the collection is just as powerful.

I talked to Molly via Skype in early March as she was taking a little breather from her book tour and I originally intended to transcribe and edit the conversation down to proper interview length. However, I had so much fun talking to Molly that I thought it'd be fun to share the actual conversation. The audio quality is not perfect but I think you will be charmed by the person as well as moved by the writer Antopol! If nothing else, PLEASE read the book!

***

The UnAmericans is wonderful for so many reasons and, definitely, subject matter is one of them. Antopol is interested in the ways in which politics and grand historic moments affect the day to day existence of ordinary human beings. In her McCarthy Era stories, she tells a story of a surveillance state but through the eyes of those being closely watched. In A Difficult Phase, the life of an Israeli reporter working in Ukraine is interrupted by the financial crisis in the United States. But the stories are not didactic and you will actually find yourself wondering about the political opinions of the person who wrote so compassionately about such a diverse set of characters.

Because the stories are so firmly grounded to actual historic moments and locales, I wanted to know more about Molly's family - where they were from and what they did - and her experience of living in Israel.



As you read Molly's stories, you get a very keen sense of the ways in which geography, place and history have an impact on the way people move in the world. For example, you become aware of the subtle ways in which being American makes it so easy for Americans to travel and slide right into place anywhere in the world. Does that have to do with nationality or something else? Class? Privilege?



Speaking of careers driven by conflict, what happens if your entire life is defined by a conflict and then the conflict is gone? Can you be nostalgic about dark times? (These questions seem especially relevant in the context of various political conflicts we are baring witness to. Could Putin be missing the Cold War? Yeah, we lived in fear but we were relevant, weren't we?)



In the next clip, Molly Antopol talks about the research she did for The UnAmericans, traveling to Eastern Europe and Israel to learn about the people and places she was writing about and filling in the gaps when the person/location was no longer there. We also talk about the difference between researching facts and discovering truth. Bonus footage: Molly's dog Rocky makes an appearance and our dogs Lyudmila + Hamlet begin barking at him. Dog party! P.S. So sorry, Jennifer DuBois, for totally blanking out and forgetting your name. I adored Partial History of Lost Causes!

 

The next question is for the writers among you, I was really curious about Molly's writing process and given the diverse subjects and settings of her work, in particular, if she worked on a single story at a time.



Stylistically, what I love about Molly's stories is how novelistic they are. They span generations and locales, cover conflicts personal but also political... The stories really caught me off-guard because I really didn't know that short stories could be and do that. So this is the point in our interview where I had to admit my ignorance and just ask Molly if that was a common approach to short story writing. What I got was a fantastic answer and discovered a fellow lover of a good back-story AND a reading list. Get your pen out, you would want to write this down.



Since Molly mentioned it took her about 10 years to finish her book, I was really curious to know if in the process of writing, her stories would change. What happens to a story when you take a long time to write it? Do you come back to it to find that in your absence your characters have completely changed?



Here are Molly's thoughts on the difference between writing about politics and writing political fiction, a distinction that is important to her and really comes through in her work.



And here are some final notes on the upcoming translations of The UnAmericans in Europe, on saying good-bye to her characters and her next book project.



Thank you, Molly!
Thank you guys for reading!

Friday, March 7, 2014

INTERVIEWING MOLLY ANTOPOL

Photo CreditWenjun Miakoda Liang for Interview Magazine 

On Sunday I am interviewing Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans and total literary badass. I am not nervous at all. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

KATE ZAMBRENO's Heroines:
When she experiences it, it's pathological. When he does, it's existential.

Photo Credit: Jean Rhys, 1974 by Bill Brandt

Over the weekend, I devoured Kate Zambreno's book Heroines. The project is difficult to describe as it's quite unusual in terms of structure and genre. Some people have referred to the book as a critical memoir, which I suppose, is the most accurate way to talk about it. The book is a critical exploration of the "wives and mistresses" of the modernist area: their work and circumstances, their (often aborted) careers. Zambreno examines the biographies of Vivienne Eliot (T.S. Eliot), Zelda Fitzgerald (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Jean Rhys (Ford Madox Ford) to conclude that in many ways they have been diminished, pathologized and (almost-)plagiarized by the genius men they associated with. 

Zambreno approaches her subject through a very personal lens, weaving her own obsession with these women through the narrative and using it as a jumping point for reflection on her own relationship with her admittedly supportive husband and with her own writing. I align myself with a genealogy of erased women, she writes, which is the least convincing point she makes. Not because I don't believe her. The book makes it quite clear that she does. I am just not so sure why... as the autobiographical details lead me to more or less conclude that Zambreno has had a comfortable childhood in middle class Chicago, has received an excellent education (she says her journalism degree from Northwestern is "useless"), she is close to her parents who have supported her through her journey in sorting out her mental health issues and have encouraged her writing. So has her husband who sounds like a entirely decent human being and whose main flaw seems to be that he has chosen to work in academia. To borrow from her, it is difficult not to leave with the impression that she is being melodramatic and that she is pathologizing her own biography. Which is not to say that I don't absolutely agree with her contention that in the case of her modernist muses BUT also so much so today, still, anxiety often seems to be interpreted through gender: When she experiences it, it's pathological. When he does, it's existential. Have truer words been spoken?

Perhaps because it's what I've been thinking about recently... but I don't think that's why... I thought that Zambreno's most important questions are the ones she raises about the lived experience of being a writer and an artist. What does it mean to paint seriously, to write seriously? It is all about self-identity, and discipline, this audacity to believe that what one could possibly create is worth sharing with the world. And in doing so, she brings up a series of issues that have to do both with the daily labor of creating written work but also, of how it is received. For example, why is it that so very few female writers choose to write humongous doorstop-type thousand pagers? What does it mean to be published by a big publishing house versus a smaller, experimental press? How many major publications review books by women but also, beyond numbers, HOW are women's books reviewed? (And because Zambreno mentions she arranges her bookshelves by literary gossip, I have to admit how much I loved a section in the book that she discusses a conversation she has with a guy she'd messed around with, in which she casually-on-purpose mentions that her first book is about to come out and it's a novella with a small feminist press and he says, yeah, mine too and it turns out the guy in question is Adam Levin, whose debut novel The Instructions was published in 2010 to much critical acclaim and who's already beeing compared to Roth, Salinger, DFW and the like. I just wish I could give her a hug!)

So, I am telling you to read this book not because I liked it, which I did. I didn't love it but I liked it very much. I am telling you to read it because it will leave you with so much to ponder, so many questions to try and answer, so much evidence to seek. It will also leave you with a reading syllabus (a long one) and, in my case, a to do list:
• Start a diary, focus on describing the minutiae of daily life: needs to be remembered
• Look for novels based on fictionalized portrayals of actual historic figures: re-read Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife?
• Read all of Joan Didion: especially fiction, for narrative infused with style/fashion without being superficial.
• Read Muriel Spark
• READ JEAN RHYS


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE:
I dress now thinking of what I like, what I think fits and flatters, what puts me in a good mood. I feel again myself.

Photo Credits: Sunday Alamba for the Associated Press
Fan-girling on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie today. Again. Adichie wrote a lovely piece for Elle.com, asking the seemingly obvious question of what's wrong with being a smart woman and loving fashion at the same time. I adore Adichie! She is smart, observant, emotional and passionate but not at all sentimental! In my wildest dreams, I even imagine us being friends. BUT one thing I have got to say about her and it's something that comes across through her writing but especially during her interviews: she is frighteningly sarcastic. In the Elle piece she shares an anecdote from a writing workshop in which a fellow (unpublished at the time) writer says about the instructor: “Look at that dress and makeup! You can’t take her seriously.” Adichie admires the woman and she finds her both brilliant and very graceful but hears herself quickly agreeing with her fellow-student. Yes, indeed, one could not take this author of three novels seriously, because she wore a pretty dress and two shades of eye shadow. Snort

This part here, though, just kills me: 
I am now 36 years old. During my most recent book tour, I wore, for the first time, clothes that made me happy. My favorite outfit was a pair of ankara-print shorts, a damask top, and yellow high-heel shoes. Perhaps it is the confidence that comes with being older. Perhaps it is the good fortune of being published and read seriously, but I no longer pretend not to care about clothes. Because I do care. I love embroidery and texture. I love lace and full skirts and cinched waists. I love black, and I love color. I love heels, and I love flats. I love exquisite detailing. I love shorts and long maxidresses and feminine jackets with puffy sleeves. I love colored trousers. I love shopping. I love my two wonderful tailors in Nigeria, who often give me suggestions and with whom I exchange sketches. I admire well-dressed women and often make a point to tell them so. Just because. I dress now thinking of what I like, what I think fits and flatters, what puts me in a good mood. I feel again myself—an idea that is no less true for being a bit hackneyed. 
I like to think of this, a little fancifully, as going back to my roots. I grew up, after all, in a world in which a woman’s seriousness was not incompatible with an interest in appearance; if anything, an interest in appearance was expected of women who wanted to be taken seriously.

To my Eastern European sisters reading this, is it time to bring back up the conversation about green eye shadow and red hair again? I think so. 


Friday, February 7, 2014

A LITTLE BULGARIAN KID AT A WAFFLE HOUSE IN RURAL GEORGIA


When my husband and I first moved to Memphis five years ago, we would always get introduced this way: Kyle is a professor at Rhodes College and his wife Petya here is from Bulgaria. Every. Single. Time. I did not like that. I remember thinking… oh, please, I am a strong, outspoken woman. I am educated, I have opinions, I have excellent taste. Surely, there is SOMETHING else you can say about me. But, no, Kyle works at Rhodes, Petya is from Bulgaria. Ugh. 
Over time, however, I have stopped being bothered. I still give my friends a hard time about it but I really don’t mind. Because, I realized, this introduction is not only helpful, it’s also necessary! 

I wrote the story and performed a shorter version of it at The Memphis Monologues, in support of Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

PREVIEW OF 2014
BOOKS FOR EXPATS, IMMIGRANTS AND OTHER VAGRANTS

Photo Credit: Phoebe Autry
I am trying to nurture some of the good habits I picked up in 2013, one of them being to read organically, without too much planning or fuss. There is something so beautiful about letting one book lead you to another. BUT. There are several books that have either recently come out or are scheduled for publication that I am really hoping to read. The list below is based on The Millions' Most Anticipated preview and only covers the first half of the year. {I am using this list because it is generally regarded as one of the most comprehensive}. It already looks like 2014 will be a great year for immigrant literature!

The UnAmericans 

by Molly Antopol 
I am currently reading Molly Antopol's debut short story collection and, to be honest, only three stories in, I am kind of shaken by it. More soon. Antopol is one of the National Book Foundation's 5 under 35 finalists for 2013.

Little Failure 
by Gary Shteyngart
This is Shteyngart's much buzzed about memoir of immigrating to the States from the USSR in the late 1970s.

The Scent of Pine 
by Lara Vapnyar 
This book's hero is a Russian immigrant academic who is feeling disillusioned with her life in America. She escapes her faultering marriage and shacks up with a colleague at a cabin in Maine where she remembers a Soviet children's camp she attended 20 years ago. People are calling the book "Russian Scheherazade". Ha! 

On Such a Full Sea 
by Chang-rae Lee 
A dystopian futurist novel in which immigrants are working in self-contained labor colonies. Oh, America.

An Unnecessary Woman 
by Rabih Alameddine 
A book about a "reclusive seventy-two-year-old Aaliya Sobi, who lives alone in an apartment in Beirut and spends her time translating books into Arabic and then stowing them away, never to be read."

Europe in Sepia 
by Dubravka Ugresic 
A collection of essays by Ugresic so that we know what to think about what's going on in Europe right now. 

All Our Names 
by Dinaw Mengestu 
Mengestu {of MacArthur, 5 under 35, 20 under 40 fame} writes a love story about two African men separated by a political revolution. The story "dramatizes the clashes between romantic idealism and disillusioned practicality, as well as between self-preservation and violence, all while blurring the identities of those who can move on, those who stay behind, and those who simply change." Fuck, yeah.

Family Life 
by Akhil Sharma 
“Life is extraordinary until tragedy strikes."

***

I have also promised {myself} to make an honest effort and read:
  • More literature in translation.
  • More southern literature. 
  • All of Adichie, Didion, Mengestu. 
  • Contemporary Israeli writers.
  • More short stories.
If you have recommendations that fit any of the above mentioned categories, please let them be know.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The MIGRANT BOOKCLUB'S
2013 BEST BOOKS FOR EXPATS, IMMIGRANTS AND OTHER VAGRANTS

Image via Awesome People Reading

2013 was a fantastic reading year for me. It was a year of fewer titles but deeper reading. I put blogging on the back-burner and thus allowed myself a less focused approach to choosing what to read. I followed no agenda and read for joy and pleasure. I read older titles by writers I've loved, I read multiple titles by the same author and stayed away from BOOKS-OF-THE-MOMENT (with some notable exceptions). It paid off. It was a very satisfying year!

Thus, The Migrant Bookclub's 2013 Best Books for Expats, Immigrants and Other Vagrants is a rather short one. The rule for such lists is that they only include books that came out this past year. There are only three titles on the list but they are books that I loved and adored and I am recommending with my whole heart. These are books that not only get at the core of the migrant experience but books that truly capture the anxiety and exhilaration of losing one's sense of {metaphorical} home. These three, more than anything else I read this year, reminded me why I love reading: to be moved and transported. To lose and then find myself and be whole again.

***

The Book of My Lives
by Aleksandar Hemon

Hemon, for me, has been a hard one to love. As I've mentioned before, his story in so many ways feels like my own that I can't help getting irritated with him when he gets things wrong. When I've read his earlier work – The Lazarus Project, Love and Obstacles – I have been quite upset by his arrogant style and put-on air. Many of my American friends have told me that they don't get that, they see his confidence, they say, they like his sense of humor. But it's not sense of humor, it's thinly veiled East European machismo... pretending to be self-deprecation. And I love him for it, but I also can't stand him and every time he's got a new book out, I feel nervous. But this one – The Book of My Lives – broke my heart in so many little pieces. The clear standout of this collection of autobiographical essays is The Aquarium in which Hemon documents the horror and painful isolation of being a helpless witness to his 9-month-year-old daughter's battle with cancer. However, the book as a whole felt like a break-through (break-down???) to me as Hemon's characteristic arrogance is gone and what is left is a warm, authentic and vulnerable account of an intimate personal journey. There's a tenderness to this collection that, to me, felt almost physical and somehow managed to capture an immigrant experience that is very close to mine. The experience of being welcomed, banged around and somehow saved at the end without any bitterness and just a little bit of sorrow.


You are One of Them
by Elliott Holt

Elliott Holt's debut novel was the novel I was most excited about in 2013. I knew it was coming out and I waited so impatiently for it – I badgered Holt's publicist for gallies, I read whatever little bit I could find by/about her online and researched the backstory to her novel. I was so impatient, in fact, that several times I really wondered if I was entering stalker territory. But the thing is, every once in a while, a book comes out that feels like it was written specifically for you – and not in some vague way, say, because it captures the mood of your generation or it takes up an issue you've always struggled with. No. This book for me started where my bookshelves end and where my reading list paused and my last Firefox tab closed and was colored in the Kodachrome colors of the almost-hallucinatory visions of the book I am trying to write. You are One of Them is the story of a friendship between Sarah Zuckerman  and Jennifer Jones. The two girls become incredibly close after Jennifer moves into the house across the street from Sarah in a Washington DC of the 1980s. The friendship falters when Jennifer becomes a minor celebrity after having written a letter to Andropov and travels to the USSR as a good-will ambassador. Many years later, Sarah will visit post-Soviet Russia to look for work, adventure and the ghost of her long lost friend who continues to haunt her. You know me, I am sucker for a good Cold War story but what I loved the most about Holt's book is how seamlessly it interweaves the political sentiments of its period with the interpersonal relationships of the characters. Geopolitics are not a mere Potemkin village of a device to give flair to an otherwise all-American story. In the novel, the D.C. of Holt's childhood is alive and brimming with suspicion and possibility that penetrate the lives even of children. However, Holt is her strongest when she transports us to a newly democratic Russia of the early/mid-1990s where both newly emancipated Soviets and opportunistic Westerners are trying their damnest to act like most of the XX century never took place. What is so strange, unusual and wonderful is that in the midst of such bustling and cosmopolitan setting, Holt tells a story that is so touching and tender that you will feel almost like an intruder for reading it.


Americanah
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This book is the very last one I read in 2013 and it is probably my favorite. The book's main character is Ifemelu, an outspoken and ambitious young woman from Nigeria who comes to the States for college. What she leaves behind is her love, Obinze, her family, her HOME. Her immigrant story is the story of many of the people reading this website: the story of an international student that struggles at first – How did they know when to laugh, what to laugh about? Or, ever more poignantly – ... all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they did not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty. Ifemelu comes to reject the America that has been offered to her and claim an Americah that is a spirit, more than a physical space. In addition to telling an immigrant story that is less bombastic than the ones we often hear but not any less truer, nor authentic, Adichie tells a sophisticated story about race in America and describes a reality of being black that she herself only discovered after leaving her native Nigeria. You will be charmed and repulsed by fantastic, complex characters that defy stereotypes in the most natural sort of way to the point of making you think that said stereotypes are not just harmful but really... just ... silly. Her strong, unforgettable women are at the most amazing when they are annoyed. And, behind it all... a love story that is raw and sweet  and reminds you why a story of love is the best story ever told.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A FUNNY STORY ABOUT DONNA TARTT AND A COUPLE OF SNAKES

Photo credit: Gilles Peress

My friend Kelly Robinson saw Donna Tartt read at Burke's Books here in Memphis a few years ago. She was in town promoting her second novel, The Little Friend, and Kelly was so incredibly excited to meet her, that he really wanted to bring her a present. He agonized over it for quite a while and eventually settled on a plastic snake. (The book is about faith healers with snakes.)

Tartt accepted the snake quite graciously, placing it beside her at the signing table as a totem for the evening.

Later that evening and quite pleased with himself, Kelly shared the story with a friend of his in Denver who was attending another Donna Tartt reading a couple of days later. I have a plastic snake too! she said.

When presented with a second snake, this time in Denver, Tartt paused, clearly a little rattled, and said This is becoming a thing. 

Kelly hasn't been able to find his copy of the book but but she drew a snake in it for me.

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