29 April 2010

The generous and talented Edan Lepucki, fellow novelist and Millions contributor, has interviewed me at The Millions.  Read the interview here.


28 April 2010

Firstly, thanks to Karen Tei Yamashita (author of three novels and the just released I Hotel, a collection of 10 novellas about the birth and rise of Asian American arts/activist movements) with whom I shared the stage at the Voices from the Asian American Literary Review Symposium this past weekend — for reminding me of the Galeano quote that is this week’s “quote of the week.”  Here is the full quote:

Why does one write, if not to put one’s pieces together?  From the moment we enter school or church, education chops us into pieces; it teaches us to divorce soul from body and mind from heart.  The fishermen of the Colombian coast must be learned doctors of ethics and morality, for they invented the word sentipensante, feeling-thinking, to define language that speaks the truth.

— “Celebration of the Marriage of Heart and Mind,” from Galeano’s The Book of Embraces

When I started this blog, over a year ago now, I found the whole “online presence” thing to be obligatory, awkward, and a bit burdensome.  But I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve missed posting here while on the road doing book events.  I very much write to put my pieces together

Ed Lin and Srikanth “Chicu” Reddy, yukking it up on stage

The Symposium was terrific, and I was honored to spend the weekend with not only Karen, but six other writers whose stunning work and generous spirits inspired me:  so thanks also to Ed Lin, Peter Bacho, Srikanth Reddy, April Naoko Heck, Kyoko Mori, and Ru Freeman.  I hope you’ll google these folks and check out their work.  (And let me add here Marie Mutsuki Mockett, intrepid novelist-traveler, who came down from NYC with 4-month old baby boy, and whose work appears in the inaugural issue of the Review.) Our fearless leaders and moderators Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis, Gerald Maa, and Terry Hong also deserve a round applause.

Hyphen Magazine did a nice, and detailed, blog report on the event, read it here.

Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis & Gerald Maa, Co-Editors of the
Asian American Literary Review

Karen Tei Yamashita, giving a multi-media presentation on I HOTEL

Ru Freeman, novelist and essayist, author of A DISOBEDIENT GIRL


By the time the Symposium events had ended, I was pretty pooped out.  I had three classroom visits ahead of me, and I confess that a part of me wondered why the heck I’d agreed to do all of these appearances — did I think my introversion would somehow melt away and that some kind of literary-adrenaline would kick in?  Not to mention the fact that transporting oneself around the DC area is kind of a nightmare; every Point-A-to-Point-B journey involves traffic, significant distance, expensive gas, parking, ugh.  Spoiled New Yorker, I am.

But I am happy to report that each of the three visits — one to Montgomery College, two to the University of MD — was encouraging and energizing.  I met revved-up and deeply caring teachers; smart, engaged students; bright-eyed, aspiring writers.  A highlight was visiting a class that had read Long for This World and spent two full class sessions discussing it (my visit was to the second session).  Hearing a group of intelligent, interested students talking, and even arguing, about the novel’s themes, intentions, meanings, as well as the characters’ motivations and transformations — was such a treat.  I loved especially hearing students express conflicting allegiances to the characters.  That’s exactly the kind of experience I would have hoped for the reader — to feel ambivalent about the characters, to understand them as both victims and perpetrators (and everything in between), to be immersed in the complexity of a polyphonic, polycultural family.

The report on Part 2 of my visit — the Border’s reading in northern Virginia, where I read for an almost-all-Korean audience! — forthcoming.

21 April 2010

Joyce Carol Oates writes in The Atlantic about mourning the loss of her husband, Raymond Smith, in 2008 after 48 years of marriage.  It’s a beautiful essay, and I was particularly struck by her revelation of the way in which teaching — her alternative life, her non-personal life — became a way of getting through that painful time.

Devote myself to my students, my teaching. This is something that I can do, that is of value.

For writing—being a writer—always seems to the writer to be of dubious value.

Being a writer is like being one of those riskily overbred pedigreed dogs—a French bulldog, for instance—poorly suited for survival despite their very special attributes.

Being a writer is in defiance of Darwin’s observation that the more highly specialized a species, the more likely its extinction.

Teaching—even the teaching of writing—is altogether different. Teaching is an act of communication, sympathy—a reaching-out—a wish to share knowledge, skills; a rapport with others, who are students; a way of allowing others into the solitariness of one’s soul.

“Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche”—so Chaucer says of his young scholar in The Canterbury Tales. When teachers feel good about teaching, this is how we feel.

That writing as a vocation is a kind of teetering on the edge of regular-life survival… I am only at the beginning of this journey, so given Oates’s prolific output and long teaching career, I am heartened by how she puts her finger on it and articulates it so honestly.   Yes, I thought as I read; this — not just the stable income — is why writers keep teaching.

20 April 2010

There’s a new film that will premiere at Film Forum in NYC next week — THE DUEL, based on the eponymous novella by Chekhov.   It’s one of my favorites (the novella, that is) — although, with Chekhov, it’s hard to say what’s a favorite, because everything he’s written just seems miraculous to me.

I’ll attempt to write more about why Chekhov inspires me — as a writer, and as a flawed and ridiculous human being — in a piece for The Millions.  For the moment, I’m chewing on the film, which I just saw (sneaky preview).

Something about the film makes me ever more appreciative of the humor in Chekhov’s stories, and also has me considering how The Literary Absurd works.

Chekhov’s talent strikes me as being of a piece with his humanity, i.e. he doesn’t “do” what he does in his stories, but rather he somehow “is” this intelligent, compassionate, incisive, bathetic, hilarious view of humankind.  John Gardner writes about how bad writing is born of  bad character; and someone else recently said, “What’s wrong with your story is what’s wrong with you.”  Ouch.

More soon.  Read the novella, go see the film (opens April 28) if you can; then let’s talk about it.

15 April 2010

I’m working on a syllabus for a seminar course this fall called “The First Person.”  It’s been fun to pull together a list of books that use first-person narration in interesting ways.  Here’s what I’ve got so far (this is the brainstorm list):

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Everything in This Country Must by Colum McCann
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Ours: A Russian Family Album by Sergei Dovlatov
Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolano
A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
Our Kind by Kate Walbert
And Then We Came to An End by Joshua Ferris
The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
“Notes to my Biographer” by Adam Haslett
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
King by John Berger
Any Human Heart by William Boyd
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Additions?  Comments?  Memorable first-person narrators that come to mind? Why are there so few women authors on this list?!  Help, my friends.

14 April 2010

I have something to say: which is really just that Deborah Eisenberg has something to say.  When Deborah Eisenberg calls a novel “perfect,” it seems we’d do well to pay attention.  About the novel Skylark, by Hungarian writer Dezso Kosztolányi, she writes:

“This short, perfect novel seems to encapsulate all the world’s pain in a soap bubble. Its surface is as smooth as a fable, its setting and characters are unremarkable, its tone is blithe, and its effect is shattering.”

Read the full review, at the New York Review of Bookshere.  (Skylark is a recent NYRB Classics release.)

13 April 2010

I’ve started a few different posts here but can’t seem to finish anything.  Something about this book touring experience does deplete.  What exactly is depleted I’m not quite sure.  No perspective on it yet.  I want to compare it to Broadway actors, performing the same show over and over (though it’s nowhere near that demanding, of course); and I wonder what the wisdom is among those actors, about finding your center, your energy, your will, to externalize, night after night.  From whence comes the nourishment, the repletion?

All this to say that I do feel a weird responsibility to pop in here and say Hey, I’m still here, but somehow explain my present inclination to retreat and speak not.