Sarah Schulman on Publishing

In a new article in Slate, author Sarah Schulman talks about how U.S. publishers are taking on very few lesbian novels. Back in the nineties, Schulman could see how the culture was becoming more conservative. In her 1998 book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, she discussed the ways in which the straight mainstream was both appropriating and excluding the work of lesbian writers.

For more of Schulman’s perspective on the book business, visit the Wikipedia entry for her. Make sure to scroll down to the heading “Unpublished Books.” There you’ll find a list of recent work that Schulman completed but couldn’t get published. Judging from the short plot descriptions provided, I would love to read all of these books.

Update 5/22/2008: The “Unpublished Books” section has changed at the Wikipedia entry mentioned above. In the updated version, one book is listed instead of several. The section now reads: “[Schulman] is currently working on The Twist: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, a book establishing Familial Homophobia (a phrase she coined) as a fundamental social dynamic in the lives of everyone who lives in a family.”

Originally posted in Fall, 2007

Lore Segal’s Other People’s Houses

Like her first book Other People’s Houses &#8211 a novel that reads like a memoir &#8211 Lore Segal’s newest work Shakespeare’s Kitchen has an unusual, shifting form. On the surface, it seems like a collection of short stories about an immigrant from Vienna, Ilka Weisz, and the friendships she develops while teaching at a think tank associated with a college in Connecticut. Ilka comes to the Concordance Institute from New York City where she has been living since she came to the U.S. She is alone and determined to find friends or “elective cousins” (Segal’s twist on the German word Wahlverwandschaften, commonly translated as “elective affinities”).

Ilka’s need for these “cousins” is connected to loss. She left Austria because of World War II and no longer has her extended family near her. But the narrative of her search for friends is often light because of Segal’s approach to her material. In an author’s note, she refers to Ilka’s quest for a new social group as a “sometime-comedy.”

The humor of the comedy is both dry and quick, especially in “An Absence of Cousins,” the second story in the book. In it, Ilka finds herself calling up strangers who live in Concordance. The phone numbers she’s dialing come from various friends and acquaintances back in New York. And one of the numbers is from a man whose name Ilka can’t recall: “[She] was dialing the number of the woman who had dated the man whose name Ilka was never able to remember, so she was relieved when they didn’t answer.” Still she persists. “She dialed the number Leina Shapiro had given her. They didn’t answer. She dialed Jacquelyn Rosen’s number and when they didn’t answer, Ilka felt snubbed.”

Soon her efforts pay off. As she starts to find her “cousins” at the institute, the stories in the book come together like chapters in a novel. These chapters are connected like a small group of witty friends: they keep mentioning the same people, the same events. Ilka starts spending time around Leslie Shakespeare, who heads up the institute, and his wife Eliza. Guests in the Shakespeare’s home tend to gather in the kitchen where Eliza cooks and “keep[s] conversation flying like some high-wire act.”

Segal is remarkably honest in her fiction. Her characters have common flaws which the author renders matter-of-factly. The result is brave, fascinating fiction that makes the characters in most other novels look like prim, false things around the edges. Segal discusses her frankness in a recent interview in Bomb magazine in which she tells playwright and novelist Han Ong: “I believe in a community of rottenness and a community of goodness. There’s nothing I can tell you about myself to which your understanding does not have access.”

This “community of rottenness” rears its head after some minor thefts occur at the institute. Leslie Shakespeare calls a meeting of the faculty to discuss the problem. One solution offered is to rebuild an old wall that surrounds the college. “Put a layer of cement on it and embed broken glass,” suggests a police officer present at the meeting. The idea is to keep people who live in a nearby housing project off of the campus. (The wall also would keep these people from easily getting to the supermarket.) The talk that ensues is like broken glass with people making small, cutting remarks. “Something had to be done about the project,” someone says, which prompts another person to say, “I always wanted to fund a project project.” Here we find the same wit that enlivens the Shakespeare’s home but now it seems like glass embedded in the concrete reality of class prejudice.

Ilka argues against putting up a wall. Unlike Eliza Shakespeare, who has a sharp tongue and a lack of compassion, Ilka is a sympathetic character, at least in the first half of the book. In the second half, she is transformed by the people around her. Segal draws upon Goethe’s novel Elective Affinities to show how the attraction between people in a group can be a powerful force. It can pull apart marriages, rearrange couplings. Acting upon Ilka and the people around her, this force simultaneously creates and destroys. By the last story, the attraction that initially drew Ilka to her group of friends is pulling her apart.

Ultimately the form of Shakespeare’s Kitchen is charged with the energy of its dynamic subject. In her author’s note, Segal says that when she started the book, she had “a theme in search of a plot”: she wanted to write about the human need for a “circle made of friends, acquaintances, and the people one knows.” From this beginning, she ended up creating a masterful collection of short stories held together by a charge, an affinity, that draws the reader toward the book’s surprising end.

And sometimes too the book reads like a novel, the story of a woman, being pulled apart.

Originally posted on 8.29.2007

Maureen Webb’s Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World

George Bush is fond of saying, “9/11 changed everything.” Hidden beneath this expression are the specific ways in which the U.S. government has transformed since the twin towers fell. In her book Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World, civil-liberties lawyer Maureen Webb takes a look at some of these changes. In clear, direct language, Webb reveals what Bush is not so fond of talking about: how the U.S. government is now practicing torture and spying on most of its citizens.

Webb is detailed in her treatment of her subject. She names the locations of many U.S. prisons around the world and discusses the specific ways in which detainees are tortured. Her descriptions can be harsh in their simplicity. At one point, the book provides a sidebar in which methods of abuse such as “torture with a chair” are defined. The U.S. government, in effect, is using these techniques by sending people to countries that permit torture, a practice known as “extraordinary rendition.”

Webb examines one of the most well-known cases of extraordinary rendition, that of Canadian citizen Maher Arar. U.S. officials apprehended Arar while he was waiting for a connecting flight at Kennedy Airport. Denied access to a lawyer, Arar could not find out the charges being brought against him. He was sent to Syria where he was forced into making false confessions. Webb says: “Among other things, he was told to write that he had attended a training camp in Afghanistan. When he objected, he was kicked and threatened with torture with the ‘tire.'” For ten months, Arar suffered abuse, never learning why he was being held. The truth was that no reason for his detainment existed. Webb writes: “Neither Canada, the United States, nor Syria ever had any evidence that Maher Arar was involved in terrorism or any other crime.”

Webb explores the connection between such abuses and U.S. policy under the Bush administration. She talks about how after 9/11 the administration became concerned with “‘preempting’ or ‘disrupting’ terrorist plots before they happened.” She believes that this focus on the “preemption of risk” has caused a “profound policy shift in law enforcement and security intelligence.” The concern has become less with “specific risks” that entail “specific leads on specific suspects.” Instead, the government is taking sweeping measures that violate the rights of the individual. She cites Bush’s domestic eavesdropping program as an example of such a measure. She reminds the reader that, under the program, the government is “essentially wiretapping the majority of people in the country.”

But the wiretapping program brings up questions about the casual relationship between 9/11 and a more invasive government. Bloomberg reported in June of 2006 that the National Security Agency (NSA) wanted to start wiretapping domestically before September 11. The agency contacted AT&T about setting up the program seven months prior to the attacks. This information goes against Bush’s claim, which Webb cites, that he conceived of the program as a way of preventing another strike against the U.S. Webb doesn’t mention the Bloomberg article.

She also neglects to say that the U.S. used extraordinary rendition before 9/11. She only refers to this fact implicitly near the end of the book when she quotes a CIA agent named Bob Baer. Baer covertly worked in the Middle East up until the mid-1990s when Clinton was still in office. Webb quotes him as saying: “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear &#8211 never to see them again &#8211 you send them to Egypt.”

Certainly, September 11 ushered in more illegal surveillance and torture, but the U.S. government was having problems obeying the law, especially in its dealings with Al-Qaeda, prior to the attacks. Webb doesn’t talk about these problems, but she does say that 9/11 has brought about changes that “law enforcement and intelligence agencies have been wanting for years.” She says that the attacks brought about “preventative policing and secret service work on steroids.”

She also warns us that the government is only planning on increasing surveillance in the coming years. Her chapters on new forms of personal ID show a future with even less privacy. She talks about Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips, which quite possibly could make their way into future passports and other kinds of ID. These chips can be read from far enough away that the government “may soon be able to track us wherever we go and scan us wherever we meet together.” And the U.S. government is showing an interest in tracking people. “Among the ideas being tested by the Department of Homeland Security is a technology that would allow the scanning of up to fifty-five passengers on a bus passing through a border point at about fifty mph.”

Here and throughout Illusions of Security, Webb unflinchingly returns the stare of the U.S. government and reports on what she finds. Usually, it’s invasiveness. In the case of what happened on September 10, 2001, it also seems to be either incompetence or an inability to deal with the amount of information that was being gathered at the time. Webb writes: “The Al Qaeda messages that were reported intercepted by the NSA on September 10, 2001 (‘Tomorrow is zero hour,’ ‘The match is about to begin’), were not translated until days later. Three years after the attacks, more than 120,000 hours of recorded telephone calls had yet to be translated by the FBI.” Webb leaves the reader with the impression that what the U.S. government needs is not more surveillance but a better understanding of its enemies.

Originally posted on 6.14.2007

Simin Daneshvar’s Savushun

Wanting to learn more about Iran, I decided to read a novel by an Iranian author and had the good luck of choosing Savushun by Simin Daneshvar. Originally published in 1969, this historical novel takes place during the Second World War when the British and the Soviets were occupying Iran. The Allied forces were using the country as a passageway to get supplies into the Soviet Union. While the movement of goods over Iran’s eastern border helped the Soviets in their fight against the Germans, it devastated the economy in Iran. The occupying forces bought up much of the country’s grain, leaving many Iranians to starve. But as Daneshvar shows, not everyone in the country suffered from these shortages. She opens her novel with a wedding scene in which a large loaf of bread sits on display. The daughter of the governor is getting married, and the heroine of the novel, Zari, is in attendance with her husband Yusof. Zari thinks of the bread: “What a mound of dough! How much flour they must have used! And, besides, as Yusof said, ‘At a time like this!'”

Yusof is an outspoken critic of the government, while Zari remains silent out of fear. At first it’s not apparent how much of this fear is habitual and how much is actually warranted. What happens to those like Yusof who take a stand against the government? Daneshvar takes her time answering this question, letting the plot slowly unfold while keeping the narrative limited to Zari’s point of view. Many of the larger themes of the novel are political, but the scenes in the book are almost all domestic because of the nature of Zari’s existence. She spends most of her time in her beautiful home in Shiraz where she worries about her husband and three children. The narrative gains a dreamlike tension as the difficulties of the outside world start to seep into her confined, affluent life.

Also lending the novel a surreal quality is the volunteer work that Zari does at a mental hospital. She started going to the hospital soon after giving birth to her son Khosrow. She brings food to the patients as a part of a vow of charity that she made in the hopes of easing her labor pain: “For Khosrow’s delivery, the agonizing pain had led Zari to make a vow to take homemade bread and dates to the mental patients.” Zari has come into this hospital because she is a woman, and the sense of isolation that she feels within its walls soon becomes palpable. After one of her visits, she asks Yusof, “Why should there be so much misery?” She goes on to explain about how one of the patients, a midwife, mistook her for a woman who died in childbirth years ago. Zari always has viewed the patients with detachment and some measure of sympathy too, but as the novel progresses, the distance between her and the people whom she’s helping begins to break down.

Through the character of Zari, Daneshvar creates a dynamic narrative that starts to change as the heroine shifts from fear to bravery, from detachment to engagement. Zari’s point of view is complex and often poetic. “Time stood still, as if it had gone to sleep under the heavy quilt of the sky.” It is nighttime when this thought comes to Zari, and as usual, she is worried. She is thinking about her son, who has gone off somewhere. “She wished the wind would blow, or that, like the wind, she herself would stir up the people and the trees.” As usual, Zari is quiet and thinking in this moment. But she is such a strong presence, one feels this brilliant novel – the world of it – moving through her. “She wished the sky would clear up and become a garden with millions of eyes. She wished the trees would open their chattering lips and begin to talk.”

Originally posted on 5.11.2007

Peter Conners’ PP/FF

In his introduction to the 2006 anthology PP/FF, Editor Peter Conners sets out to explain the title. It turns out that the letters are more than an abbreviation for the two forms that this book, at first glance, appears to contain: prose poetry and flash fiction. Conners begins his explanation by talking about these two forms. Quoting writer Michael Benedikt, he says that prose poetry is “characterized by the conscious, intense use, of virtually all of the devices of verse poetry” except for rhyme, strict meter and the line break. Conners goes on to say that prose poetry cannot offer too much plot or else “it becomes fiction.” The extremely short story, or flash fiction, runs a similar risk of turning into prose poetry if it fails to “follow a narrative arc.” For this anthology, Conners selected much work that lies near to, but outside of these parameters. He refers to this writing as “PP/FF,” and he believes that it is vital. In fact, he calls it “so contemporarily important as to define a zeitgeist.”

He does not support this statement with further explanation, which he should be able to provide. Not only is he an associate editor at BOA Editions – a publisher of poetry – he is one of the founding editors of Double Room, an online journal specializing in prose poetry and flash fiction. While his introduction is sketchy at points, the writing that follows is often alive with detail, and as Conners suggests, many of these pieces fall in between established modes of writing in exciting, creative ways. On the line that separates memoir from pure fiction, for instance, lies “Sister Francetta and the Pig Baby” by Kenneth Bernard. In it, the first-person narrator repeats a story that he first heard from his childhood teacher, a nun named Sister Francetta. She had many stories but this one was different from the others in that “it had no moral.” The tale was short: as a child, Francetta once looked into a baby carriage and saw an infant “with a pig head.” The narrator analyzes the symbolism of the baby with dry brevity and says about the story in general: “it was just there: there had once been a baby with a pig’s head.” Bernard’s story too is just there, displaying a curious blend of traits, much like the pig baby. It is both fantastic and seemingly honest.

Other pieces in PP/FF such as Joyelle McSweeney’s “Apolegit” and Arielle Greenberg’s “The Amityville Horror” explore boundaries both in and through language. McSweeney’s narrator moves through roles like an actor seen on a bright screen of words: “I practiced my Jackie Gleason in the spoiling sodium light. My gut arose. I never got home that night or any, I wore the mark of cane like a gold golf club’s shaft above the eye.” This voice sometimes asserts its legitimacy with blithe hostility, making remarks such as: “I thumbed and kicked through the flut Seminoles.” He also describes a town as being “preserved in its ruined, ha-ha, state.” It’s hard to say who is really laughing in this last line since the person speaking is playing a role and this role keeps changing. On the next page, he – or she – takes on a part much different from that of the lone traveler: “I was an ingénue again. I was folded frilled and strategically in and out of the doorjamb.” Now the joke appears to be on the speaker whose body, like everybody and every place in this piece, is foldable nonsense, existing solely as a polished style on the page.

Physical boundaries and borders have more meaning in Arielle Greenberg’s “The Amityville Horror.” They also are harder to discern, at least initially. Greenberg punctuates her writing with long lines that seem mysterious when they first appear in the opening: “Hey, Eloquence. Stardust. &#8212&#8212&#8212 all about the common currency.” The horizontal line appears to mark a place where words have been excised, but it’s not obvious what sort of phrase is needed to complete the sentence “______ all about the common currency.” Soon Greenberg gives us sentences that better lend themselves to this game of Mad Libs: “One night &#8212&#8212&#8212 walked until night was gone, a neighborhood of very new houses.” What’s missing from this sentence is its subject. All we need to know is who was walking, but while we are trying to fill in this particular blank, the prose suddenly quickens, and Greenberg draws us into these long lines so that we are the ones walking down this street; we are encountering what has been silenced in this neighborhood. Soon inflammatory phrases start to appear. Right before we hear of how “&#8212&#8212&#8212 father drove &#8212&#8212&#8212 home in a scotch glass,” we read of “the abnormal smear of &#8212&#8212&#8212 lynched sex.” A few paragraphs later, Greenberg writes: “&#8212&#8212&#8212 religion is a velvet cloak someone else will sew for &#8212&#8212&#8212 to wear to the rape fair.” The prose starts to elicit a visceral horror, recalling the movie and book that gives this piece its title.

“The Amityville Horror” is one of many effective pieces in PP/FF, a book that is an essential read for anyone interesting in cutting-edge writing. If Conners’ description of the work that he has collected is sometimes unclear, it’s because much of the book is hard to describe, a point that he himself addresses at the end of his introduction. He says that the writing in PP/FF “resists definition” and “often challenges readers’ assumptions about genre, form, style, and content.” It is a book in which lines are drawn, explored and crossed.

Originally posted on 2.24.2007