Rumpus Blog

Shooting the West Bank

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Teju Cole spent his summer in Palestine, just before the latest wave of hardship. Viewing the country through his camera lens proved more affecting than not:

Photography cannot capture this sorrow, but it can perhaps relay back the facts on the ground. It can make visible graves, olive trees, refuse, roofs, concrete, barricades, and the bodies of people. And what is described by the camera can be an opening to what else this ground has endured, and to what its situation demands.

The White Review has posted his photos; they’re as close to illumination as we can hope to get.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Manuscript

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle left an original manuscript of a Sherlock Holmes story to his daughter, who in turn left it to the Nation of Scotland. Then the manuscript sat in a bank vault. Conan Doyle studied medicine in Edinburgh and wanted to leave part of his legacy there, but no museum was specified, leaving the manuscript’s final destination in limbo while potential homes vied for it. “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client,” first published in 1927, will at last be displayed at a new exhibition opening next month in London.

Mastering the Short Story

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…short stories [are] a venerable form, but it’s diabolically hard to master. There’s a lot of apprenticeship in writing stories. And sometimes a story can take such a long time to write — I mean, months and months. … It’s only 10 or 15 pages, but still you got to get it right.

Paul Theroux spoke with NPR about his new short story collection and just how hard it was for him to call it “done.”

The 24 Amtrak Residents

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Earlier this year, Alexander Chee tweeted about his enjoyment of writing on trains. Amtrak jumped aboard and decided to launch an Amtrak residency program granting writers free, multi-day train rides where they could write. Amtrak has announced the first 24 recipients of the residency. The Wall Street Journal sums up the program:

The writers will be able build their own travel itineraries from the 15 long-distance trips offered by Amtrak over the next year. They’ll receive free round-trip train travel in a private sleeping room—complete with a writing desk—and onboard meals in the dining car, said an Amtrak spokesperson. They won’t be compensated for additional travel between rides.

The Voice of Secondary Trauma

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In his review of Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here is Too Great, Jess Row writes about the trauma that’s influenced so many of Pakistan’s novelists:

Pakistan is a country where the fact of suffering is indeed irrefutable, whether we’re speaking of the horrific treatment of women and religious minorities, the use of terrorism — both insurgent and state-sponsored — as a tool of political strategy or simply the persistence of the most extreme poverty in a country that wastes billions on a state of perpetual war. From novelists in such a climate you might expect a response of escapism, or simply escape, but consider, for example, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie: What unites these very different writers is a stubborn insistence on, in Lipsky’s words, the reconciliation of joy and suffering in the texture of everyday life.

Notable Los Angeles: 9/29–10/05

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Monday 9/29: Steph Cha discusses and signs Beware Beware: A Juniper Song Mystery. 7 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore.

David Bezmozgis reads from The Betrayers. 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books.

Tongue & Groove presents Eat Write, with readings by Lilliam Rivera, Brandon Jordan Brown, and Lisa Segal. There will also be an open mic potion of the evening (three minute limit). Signups for the open mic begin at 7:30 p.m. At the Muddy Leek.

Tuesday 9/30: Naja Marie Aidt presents and signs Baboon. 7 p.m. at Book Soup.

John Darnielle reads from Wolf in the White Van. 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books.

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Weekend Roundup

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First, feel for Steven Kraan’s Lonely Circle.

Then, in the latest The Last Book I Loved, Chris Kubica shares his affection for Krabat, by the Czech writer Otfried Preußler. The story of an adventurous boy who discovers a mysterious, magical grain mill appealed deeply to the 9-year-old Kubica. Kubica’s relationship with his former 4th grade teacher enriches a heartwarming story that ends on a decidedly Preußler-esque note of suspense. (more…)

Black Lake

Black Lake by Johanna Lane

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To call a story set in an enormous castle “claustrophobic” feels odd, but that’s the first adjective that comes to mind when you read Black Lake, Johanna Lane’s hypnotic debut novel. Part of the claustrophobia is due to the plot: the Campbell family has lived in a castle called Dulough (Irish for “black lake”) for centuries, and can no longer afford to maintain it. Patriarch John will be forced to give the family home to the government, whereupon it will be turned into a museum. Philip, the Campbell family’s young son, is worried, and has every right to be. “He told himself that if he wanted to come back… he could. It was still his room. Dulough was still their house. Their father had told them so…” Later, Philip sees a KEEP OFF THE GRASS sign on his own (former) front lawn, and it feels so foreign that he leans back to the gravel, like a reflex.

Black Lake is the story of how the family comes to terms with losing their home, their way of life and, by extension, each other. The book is plotless. At times its plotlessness is frustrating. But it doesn’t take long for Lane to teach the reader what kind of novel this is, and brilliantly so: it’s not so much a structured, tightly-woven narrative as it is a well-observed family drama. Rather than loading her novel with standard plot devices (though the loss of Dulough serves as a handy MacGuffin), Lane carpets the book wall-to-wall with recognizable human moments as we watch the family weather this storm. Entire characters are established with smartly chosen gestures, like the government employee who gives his secretary “a look somewhere between brazen lust and fatherly scolding”. The most difficult-to-like characters earn our sympathy simply because Lane gives us access to their thoughts, as when John visits his now-empty bedroom for a pair of socks, knowing it’ll be empty, “in that strange duality that can exist in the mind, the one that allows us to make two appointments at three o’clock on the same day”.

Johanna Lane

Johanna Lane

Most importantly for a novel about strained family relations, the characters’ little moments with each other are at once comforting and disquieting, depending on how they (and we) read them: John’s wife Marianne puts her hand on his shoulder, and “he isn’t sure if that meant ‘It’s all right’ or perhaps ‘Calm down.’” The intricacies of the Campbell family are fascinating, a stunningly accurate portrait of a quartet of people stuck together for a lifetime by no choice of their own, who deal with this turn of events through routine, familiarity, and lies—the same way we all do.

The accuracy of the portrait is all the more impressive because we aren’t really granted access to the deepest, saddest, most complex of the family’s secrets until the final third of the book. Most of the novel ping-pongs between John’s and Philip’s viewpoints, and their third-person narration recalls Henry James. John’s sections are both distant and close, so that Lane gets away with an aside like “he realized he would be able to tell her then without any possibility of her reneging on their agreement—which was their marriage—and returning to the city.” And Philip’s sections especially, with their child’s-eye view of a complicated adult world falling apart, have a What Maisie Knew quality about them. But neither John nor Philip is willing to offer us much beyond his immediate observations, so the remainder of our information comes from documents: a found letter, a government contract, an in-depth history of Dulough which acts as the centerpiece of the novel.

An eleventh hour shift in the novel suddenly fills in all the gaps, and it turns out there’s been a masterful structure woven through these passages all along. The book opens in daughter Kate’s point of view, during the most recent events in the story, when mother and daughter have holed themselves up in one of Dulough’s many rooms and the pitch of that section gets increasingly heightened until it’s pushed to its furthest degree. The book ends, however, in the first-person voice of Marianne, a character who’s been a quiet enigma to her family and to us until then. John can’t understand his wife, and we’re told, early on, “he wasn’t sure when the balance of power had shifted… he hadn’t been watching because he hadn’t expected it.” That, and many other questions, gets beautifully, satisfyingly solved in the final stretch.

Like the Campbells themselves, the walls of this lakeside setting feel like they’re closing in on us until we’re unable to escape, hence the claustrophobia. “I don’t think people from warm places would want to swim in a cold Irish pool,” remarks one character. But Lane’s cold Irish pool of a novel is exactly the kind of place you want to visit again and again.

For Whom Amazon Tolls

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As the Amazon versus Hachette dispute drags on into its fifth month, Alex Shepard, over at Melville House, examines the conflict, and what it means for publishers and authors:

Traditional publishers can’t do what Amazon does; Amazon can’t do what traditional publishers do (and no, the fact that bookstores don’t carry books published by Amazon is not the only reason why this is true, though that’s a subject for another post). Traditional publishing needs Amazon to survive right now, but American culture needs traditional publishing. Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO, may want to destroy the publishing industry, but I doubt that Jeff Bezos, husband of novelist McKenzie Bezos, would want to live in a world bereft of traditional publishers (at least if there wasn’t anything to replace them which, again, there isn’t right now). I’m sure most Amazon employees would agree.

Farewell, “Casa Azul Cripple,” and Other Voices Querétaro 2015

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Today marks my last day as the editor of the Sunday Rumpus, and I’m honored to celebrate it by publishing one of my favorite writers working today, Emily Rapp, with a stunningly powerful and complex essay, “Casa Azul Cripple.” I was thrilled to first introduce Emily’s work to The Rumpus three years ago, and this, one of her finest essays, could not be a better swan song for my treasured time here, and for what I think The Rumpus offers to the literary community in terms of digging in deep, defying easy taglines, continuing to embrace long-form personal and political and cultural essays that go places it is simply impossible to reach in 650 words. “Casa Azul” is one to bookmark, to savor, to return to for pleasure or to teach, to digest slowly over morning coffee and evening wine … I hope you will find yourself as shaken and transformed and exhilarated by it as I am. (more…)

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Notable NYC: 9/27–10/3

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Saturday 9/27: Dylan Landis reads Rainey Royal (September 2014). BookCourt, 7 p.m., free.

Anselm Berrigan, Sapphire, and Katrin Tschirgi celebrate the release of the latest issue of Washington Square. NYU Creative Writers House, 7 p.m., free.

Sunday 9/28: Melissa Adamo, Alex Norcia, Melissa Swantkowski, and Dana Jaye Cadman celebrate the two year anniversary of English Kills Review with prose and poetry, hosted by Ian MacAllen. Mellow Pages Library, 7 p.m., free.
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Citizen

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

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In a recent article on Grantland, staff writer Rembert Browne dialogues his impromptu visit to Ferguson, Missouri in mid-August. In opening the essay, he admits: “I don’t know what made me buy a plane ticket to St. Louis at 1:15 a.m. on Tuesday. Maybe it was remembering that feeling of helplessness and guilt after learning of the Trayvon Martin verdict while embarking on a carefree cross-country road trip.”

Claudia Rankine’s new book, Citizen, effects a similar experience. Citizen requires the reader to enter that realm: the realm of being privileged in an otherwise deprived society; of relaxing while watching others work; this antiquated idea of modern civilization. Of an encounter as eyewitness to the experience of victimization. Of pure helplessness while knowing you have an aid to offer. In Rankine’s world, we, as audience, are both the spectacle and the representation. We are both the protagonist and the antagonist. We are both the eyewitness and the victim, the armchair and the television. Of watching, from the armchair, the television blaring with what Guy Debord hails as how “the whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become a mere representation.” Here the accumulation of spectacles requisites first an acknowledgement of the individual as citizen, as Rankine bears witness: “your friend refuses to carry what doesn’t belong to her.” She teaches us that in this situation, we are both the you and the friend. She teaches us that to be a citizen means to embrace the agonizing struggle of the self in society.

In Citizen, Rankine debunks and deconstructs what has been called our “post-race” society. In doing this, the lyricism of her prose asks us to redefine our obligations (racial and otherwise) by investigating and probing the definitions of the titular “citizen.” She goads: “to know what you’ll sound like is worth noting” and relinquishes: “all urgency leaves the possibility of any kind of relationship as you realize nowhere is where you will get from here.” And through this use of the second person she forces us to question what it means to be her reader, to be American, to belong to this country, our nation, our people, and also begs us to extend the margins of what it means to be her reader, to be American, to belong to this country, our nation, our people.

Citizen is a remembrance—sometimes personal, sometimes communal. Here:

And still a world begins its furious erasure—

and here:

You are not the guy and still you fit
the description because there is only one guy
who is always the guy fitting the description.

Shortly after Rembert Browne visited Ferguson during the heat of the riots, poet Jason McCall took part in Rattle’s “poetry in the news” series; his poem, entitled “Roll Call for Michael Brown” ends:

Someone will ask,
‘Michael Brown? Is Michael Brown here?’
and we will all have to answer.

And Rankine, too, instructs us that we must stand up to answer, as we all are citizen in this respect, for, as she notes, “appetite won’t attach you to anything no matter how depleted you feel.” The “you” of Citizen is middle ground. No matter our appetite, we can’t appease it without first attaching ourselves to the cause.

We must all serve as witnesses. We must all answer to the responsibility of self as citizen. And we all must defend our citizenship, as well as that of those around us.

Rankine, here, acknowledges the operation of memory, and locates that operation within a cultural memory in which we can’t not, in which we shan’t not, forget. At the beginning of the book we proceed with her through a series of self-referential anecdotes written in the second person. We then move on to a broader examination of circumstances that contextualize the anecdotes. Rankine takes us, sometimes guiding, sometimes forcing, down a river of these roll calls: she meditates in memoriam for certain tragedies of the last decade—we venture with her collectively through Serena Williams and Caroline Wazniacki, Hurricane Katrina, the World Cup of 2006, the Hackney riots, Rodney King’s beating, the Trayvon Martin shooting, and as we move through we all have to answer. We grapple with Rankine grappling with the intake and processing of this information.

Toward the end of the book, the exposition gives way to one more personal anecdote: we see Rankine worrying after her brother has left the house “to go to work, to buy groceries, to work out…to walk the dog” when suddenly “on the car radio the dead sentence begins ‘A black man in his . . .” We see her desperate for a name, then we feel “the same bitter relief when you exhale.” And we do exhale. We exhale with her. And we exhale because we aren’t her.

Through moments like these, Rankine reminds us we also, as citizens, have a cultural conscience. And it’s a harsh truth, Rankine notes, that we have made an archetype of the spectacle of racially motivated violence. That we have forgotten an archipelago of archetypes like this. It’s too easy for us to refuse to carry what doesn’t belong to us, because in claiming oneself a citizen, one accepts the offer to carry the credo of the label citizen—and thus everything in which we stake claim belongs to us: our state, our nation, our country, ourselves.

The static televisions of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely helped demarcate an idea of audience, of surveillance, of accessibility to action, whereas the artwork throughout Citizen calls us to direct confrontation with artists such as Glenn Ligon, Hennesy Youngman, Carrie Mae Weems. We here are an audience that must be aware of itself, and must locate ourselves in the space of the text as a participant, rather than simply audience, passive observer in the dark of our own.

But even with this recall of wake up, she makes it clear that:

All our fevered history won’t instill insight,
won’t turn a body conscious,
won’t make that look
in the eyes say yes, though there is nothing

to solve

even as each moment is an answer.

She has given over the detailed endnotes of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, which codify and amend the experience of the text after the thought, seemingly the moment of answer, to the image credits of the direct and unavoidable pieces that interrupt the text of <emCitizen. What she leaves instead is a resonation with images, and her uncanny use of the second person to torrent the reader through them, rather than flipping to Rankine’s edification thereof. And here again she imbues her audience in the question, rather than the answer: what does it mean to be citizen?

claudia-rankineToward the end of the book, Rankine interrupts herself with dates unattached from events—such as the one upon which we end: February 15, 2013. We still, though, as readers, are isolated from the authoritative meaning of this last date’s suggestion, which we then connect to race, to gunfire, to maltreatment, to our own embedded guilt as citizens with an appetite for connection, reason, understanding. The you is no longer a we. We, here, are alone. The you can be disorienting.

A quick Google search of headlines from this date reveals these major events: DA14, a 50m diameter asteroid comes within 27,700 km of Russia; a mark of the 10th anniversary of protests against the war in Iraq; Senate Republicans block Democratic nomination for Secretary of Defense; a story about a teenager killed by police during protests the day before in Bahrain; a report releasing that the Obama administration has been prosecuting far fewer weapon charges than the Bush administration.

In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine wrote:

The sadness is not really about
George W. or our American optimism; the
sadness lives in the recognition that a life can
not matter.

This book was published in 2004, and ten years later, we find ourselves musing over the same issues—the same ideas and quests are at stake. It’s not that we forgot that makes her, or us, sad—it’s the loneliness that comes as a result of forgetting.

Rankine both embeds us within her you, and excludes us from it by forcing us to identify with ourselves, and then forcing us to dissociate from our former position as readers. As she writes:

the worst hurt is feeling you don’t belong so much

to you—

In allowing us, as readers, as audience, to subject ourselves to this hurt, we experience this authorship of being alone, of the desperation and demand for the basic instinct of the retrospective. We are coerced into questioning how we come to live as a citizen, not simply of our state or country, but also as a citizen of our humanity. We must reconcile our inevitable failures and fuckups and misgivings, and grapple with those in this state of belonging to and of belonging of. And we must understand the difference.

She demonstrates, through gorgeous anecdotes and blunt recall that citizenship comes from an obsession with memory and history and what, damaging or not, results from the interworkings of these collective memories.

In Citizen, Rankine forces us to sit longer with what Debord has foretold us: “In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood.”

Rankine ended Don’t Let Me Be Lonely with this admission: “In order for something to be handed over a hand must extend and a hand must receive. We must both be here in this world in this life in this place indicating the presence of.” And through the ever-elusive you of Citizen, she puts pressure on the weight and bearing of her message once again by admitting to the audience that even if perhaps we have let her down, even she doesn’t “know how to end what doesn’t have an ending.” She extends her hand to us, without any qualification, and the reader must put out her own hand to receive it, and acknowledge this as a moment of truth among the falsehood.

New Readers Report Theme: “Haunted”

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We’re hungry for more writing from Rumpus readers, so we’re now accepting submissions for our next Readers Report!

This time, we want you to tackle the theme “Haunted.”

Please send your submissions, maximum 400 words, to Susan Clements, silentjoy2001 AT yahoo.com. We’ll choose the best ones to run as a feature on the site.

All submissions are due by midnight on Thursday, October 2nd.

The Oregon Trail, Gen Two

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Caulk your wagon. One of your oxen has died. You are only able to carry 200 pounds of meat. You have died of dysentery. Press spacebar to continue. Compared to the hurly-burly fantasia of contemporary video games, the pixilated challenges of the early-version Oregon Trail may seem beyond twee. But at the time, the game proved nothing less than revolutionary for making history accessible to children.

Among a large group of nostalgia-ridden wanderers, Emily Grosvenor braved the Oregon Trail. Not the real Oregon Trail, of course—not even the 80s game—but a live-action reenactment of the game put on in Salem. See Grosvenor’s retelling of her experience trekking as well as her reflection on the 8-bit game’s significance, as educational, as surprisingly didactic, as “the antidote to the self-esteem movement” of the Me decade.

Next Letter in the Mail: Padma Viswanathan

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We’re getting ready to send out our next Letter in the Mail, and it’s from writer Padma Viswanathan! In her letter, Padma writes about her aim as a writer and why writers write, empathy and compassion, and whether literature has the ability to make people better.

And, Padma has included a special surprise along with her letter. To make sure you don’t miss out, subscribe to Letters in the Mail now!

Notable Chicago: 9/26–10/2

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Friday 9/26: It’s Banned Books Week, and City Lit Books celebrates in a big way by inviting local writers and high school students to read passages from banned masterpieces. Some of the readings will be accompanied by music. 6:30 p.m.

Unabridged Books hosts “Exploring Creative Nonfiction,” an evening of reading and discussion with three practitioners of the genre, Megan Stielstra, Dmitry Samarov, and Wendy Ortiz. Wine and light refreshments will be provided. You can also go to their Facebook page and request Red or White. 7 p.m.

Amina Gautier comes to Women and Children First Books to read from her second short story collection, Now We Will Be Happy. Gautier has won numerous awards for her short stories, including the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She’s the real deal. Come catch her before she goes back to her teaching job at the U. 7:30 p.m.

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Literature’s Smiles

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For Electric Literature, noting that character shrugs and smiles are usually crutches in fiction, Matt Bell analyzes Cormac McCarthy’s use of smiles in Outer Dark, providing “a good reminder that very few rules hold up everywhere, and that great writers are constantly breaking or disregarding the guidelines that get parroted so often in our writing classes.”

Next Letter for Kids: Melanie Crowder

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We’re sending our next Letter For Kids from Melanie Crowder, author of Parched. Melanie write about her “dogter” and her move to Colorado, where she meets the friendliest horse in the world. And she needs our help to give the friendliest horse the best name!

For more information on Letters for Kids, click here. Click here to subscribe now. And, Letters for Kids is now on Facebook, so visit us and like our new page!

This Filthy Stuff

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The New Republic has re-published a 1930 interview with a government censor, and it provides an interesting look into the mindset of the man charged with keeping “pollution” out of the hands of “innocent” New Englanders:

Why, sometimes it’s the contact of innocence with this filthy stuff that sinks a boy into foul habits for a lifetime. Naturally the government steps in here; and that’s my job. I don’t let anything get by me if I can help it. I act in my official capacity and there’s an end to it. But I just wanted you to know I’m a human being.

Fiction is Threatening

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Hilary Mantel wrote a story imagining the death of Margaret Thatcher. Predictably, people went nuts.

Luckily The Daily Mail was on hand to remind us all of the real values of Britain. The newspaper described how Mantel’s story has “provoked fury across [the] political spectrum”, more so, we can imagine, than any debate about the Middle East or say, last week’s Scottish Referendum. It innocently wondered how Mantel could “concoct so nasty and dangerous a fantasy”, with no regard to its own journalistic concoctions, and helpfully provided a video of “Classic speeches of Margaret Thatcher’s political career” to bring us back to what really mattered.