Rumpus Blog

Notable NYC: 9/20–9/26

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Saturday 9/20: Amber Atiya, Keegan Lester, Emily Present, Cecily Iddings, Katie Fowley, Liz Clark Wessel, Lucia Stacey, Anna Marschalk-Burns, Alexis Pope, Amy Lawless, and Bridget Talone celebrate the latest issue of The Atlas Review. BookCourt, 7 p.m., free.

Paulo Scott, Katie Gerlach, and Eric Becker discuss Nowhere People (August 2014), Scott’s novel about a cross-cultural love story translated from the Brazilian. McNally Jackson, 6 p.m., free.

Christie Ann Reynolds, Lisa Ciccarello, JoAnna Novak, and Sasha Fletcher celebrate the release of Test From My Mom. Mellow Pages, 7 p.m., free.

Sunday 9/21: Diana Hamilton and Lyric Hunter read at The Floating Library pop-up, presented by Ugly Duckling Presse, along with Twins of El Dorado. The Floating Library, 4 p.m., free.
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Saint Friend

Saint Friend by Carl Adamshick

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There is so much empathy in Carl Adamshick’s Saint Friend—for the reader, for his multi-voiced characters, for the poetic form itself—that it seems the lines are not enough to contain its self-aware effusiveness. Luckily for us, we are not expecting them to. In his second poetry collection, Adamshick rampantly pushes forward the way emotion is neatly received, and displays how thoughts can jumble, jostle, and cross each other with expressive sureness.

Adamshick’s interest in people is the heart of the empathy. A man walking aimlessly through an airport, Amelia Earhart imagined as a practicing nurse during World War I, two lovers captured over the course of a month as physical destruction looms, are among the subjects that occupy his poems. But the empathy lies at the core of what makes us human, the internal struggle of trying to ration humility and mortality amid the quest for eternal meaning. Adamshick’s answer, I believe, is that meaning requires the sum of its antithetical parts, a way of culling these uneven histories together into the specter of the moment. And these are the moments that catapult Saint Friend to a special, almost discerning realm. Throughout the collection, fantasy converges with reality as in, “She told me her dreams/are water and bone, grief, ash and mold//She is fifty-four./Gray strands tangle in the white bedding./How do you collect the details of her,/the creases by the eye?” It’s a rhetorical question, meant to imply how unconsciously our perceptions are deluded by our dreams. We see through people often without seeing them.

Carl AdamshickThe lyricism in the poems is apparent despite the lack of form, a smooth and elegiac rhetoric that is more concerned with sonic repetition than it is flawless consistency. “The sadness isn’t their sadness./The sadness is the way//they will never unpack the russack/of happiness again,” and “again and again,/they will never surface.[,]” he writes in “Thomas,” the first of three consecutive poems meant for different people. These poems’ set-ups are that of odes, but Adamshick transforms that form’s purported seriousness into something more transcendental, unfastened. Even when he writes tired, recycled phrases like “My only wish/is that I die before you/so I don’t meet that pain/or court that suffering/or marry that awful hollowness.[,]” he transfers the activeness to the forefront of the line, accentuating the verbs with musical affinity, wherein the retort to them defiantly becomes, “So I don’t have a child with grief/that will open my breast/and drag a thread of loss/into the infinite pool of air.”

These lines are from “Near Real-Time,” the collection’s longest poem, an interplay of two voices that are madly in love with each other but are unaware of each other’s more menacing capabilities. Just as the two lovers are offset by acts cruel and unusual to them, so are Adamshick’s turns of phrases, which he writes with maddening rapidity in between domestic scenes. Perhaps my favorite: “Days kept passing./I remember now./We were drinking red tea./You were telling me about the stars/and all I could think was how your hat/was blocks away sitting/on a pile of raked leaves.” There is an Oppen-like simplicity to this verse, a subdued insinuation that is neither harsh nor didactic, but makes us more aware for reading it. What pile of raked leaves? Which hat?

Meanderings like these are natural to a poet’s oeuvre. Indeed, the collection’s first lines prompt a thematic meandering, the invocation of the other unto the self, and the forbidden places our thoughts and people go. Adamshick writes, “They keep paging Kenneth Koch at the airport./Someone should let the announcer know/he is dead, that there is no city he can go to,/that no one is expecting him. Once, I applied/to be a horse.” It’s a comical opening, but the airport scene that follows proves the multifarious destinations thoughts can go within a single setting. The result is sensory, deafening, transfixing. Adamshick writes these pages with such flair and speed that we are lost times over, only to realize that nobody is expecting us either. And that is the point. We give Adamshick permission to jump between ideas simply because we trust he is not leading us to a single destination, but rather a multitude of places, each stranger than the last. That is rewarding.

But the uncertainty has shape, too. There’s philosophy in these poems, fostered by a quaint levity. In “Happy Birthday,” he writes, “As long as you are living/it is your birthday. And maybe,/even if you are not./So, happy birthday.” The mood seems sarcastic here, if only because the poet has to justify the space between a singular event and future events to come. It’s scary, so what is a poet to do? Fill in the space, naturally. But as many details, images, and symbols fill up Adamshick’s poems, they are only the precedents for the distillation of moods he’s relaying. He cares that we feel them, too. That is empathy.

Writing Tomorrow Better

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Find yourself at the New York Times for Nick Bilton’s most recent article, a piece on the ways in which the sci-fi of the past has affected our real-life present. Moreover, Bilton highlights a recently formed group of writers, aware of literature’s future-shaping effects, interested in writing more auspicious future fiction:

One thing writers are pushing back against in particular is Hollywood’s depiction of the future. You know, where robots roam the earth killing puppies and enslaving humans. Take “Transcendence,” an action film this year starring Johnny Depp, who plays a brilliant scientist who is resurrected as an artificial intelligence program that becomes evil. Or “12 Monkeys,” in which a man-made virus wipes out most of the planet’s population.

Michael Chabon’s Punk Rock Days

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[The] Bats were a fine little band, a unique assemblage of diverse strengths and quirks, anchored by one of the most rock-solid drummers ever to grace the Pittsburgh scene, and hampered only by the weakness of their goofball frontman.

That’s a quote from Michael Chabon, novelist, screenwriter, and “goofball frontman” of 80’s Pittsburgh punk band, the Bats. The Pittsburgh-Post Gazette has the full story.

This Week in Short Fiction

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On Tuesday, Margaret Atwood released Stone Mattress, a collection of “wonderfully weird short stories.” Stone Mattress is Atwood’s eighth collection of stories, not to mention her 14 novels and other formidable volumes of poetry, children’s literature, and nonfiction. Reviewers across the boards are heralding this most recent work as “wise, sharp,” and “rich.”

Let’s look at the title story of the collection, published by the New Yorker back in December 2011. Take the absurd world of cruise ships, this one bound for the even-more absurd location of the Arctic region, then give us an aging, slightly narcissistic widow of at least four, and send in the man who raped her as a young girl. It’s probably no surprise that, with ingredients like these, you get a tremendous story. But even better, you get a tremendous Atwood story.

Perhaps beyond even that, you can’t help but feel this might be an Atwood story in conversation with a Munro story. (more…)

Notable Chicago: 9/19–9/25

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Friday 9/19: Claire Zulkey’s getting the original lineup of Funny Ha-Ha back together at The Hideout for an evening of storytelling, reminiscing, and hilarity. Mark Bazer, Kevin Guilfoile, John Green, Nathan Rabin, and Amy Krouse Rosenthal join Zulkey. 6:30 p.m.

Beatriz Badikian-Gartler stops by Women and Children First to read from her new collection of poetry, Unveiling the Mind. She’s joined by poets Mike Puican, Yvonne Zipter, and Natalia Taylor. 7:30 p.m.

Curbside Splendor is on a hot streak of publishing great indie-lit books, and that streak continues at the Empty Bottle, where they’ll celebrate the release of Losing in Gainsville, Brian Costello’s second novel. There’ll be a bunch of bands to back him up. 9 p.m. 

Saturday 9/20: Mike Birbiglia tells jokes through storytelling. He’s been on This American Life, starred in the film Sleepwalk With Me, and this week, he’ll stop at the Chicago Theatre on his “Thank God for Jokes” tour. 8 p.m.

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Little Jack’s Love Letters

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I shall worship her with quiet dignity. I shall draw her attention to me by exploits, success, and possibly a small measure of fame,” wrote a young, romantically inclined Jack Kerouac to a friend in one of a cache of letters by the Beat author that has come to light.

Writers often find interest in great authors’ early work—to compare to, to learn from. Follow this link to the Guardian for Alison Flood’s article on a stack of Jack Kerouac’s teenage love letters, recently excavated, going up for auction.

Once in the West

Once in the West by Christian Wiman

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Kevin Young, editor of The Art of Losing, writes “One modern aspect of elegy is the way in which death seems our one certainty, and yet the one thing we cannot easily discuss.” This is when—this is why—we turn to poetry.

The speakers and people populating Christian Wiman’s Once in the West suffer the loss of lovers, childhood friends, family, and even a landscape made nostalgic by time and distance (West Texas), but Wiman offers more than lines of longing and absence: he looks at his own mortality, the pain rising from all gradations of unknowns and imminence, and then subverts the elegiac from memorial to electricity.

Too many elegies elevating sadness
to a kind of sad religion:

one wants in the end just once to befriend
one’s own loneliness,

to make of the ache of inwardness—

something,
______music maybe. . .

In the margins of this poem I wrote “or poetry!” next to “music maybe.” It is why we go to art: not only to make something of inwardness, but to look (as directly as possible) at inwardness and its implications. Throughout Wiman’s work, in both his poetry and prose, mortality confronts art, the human condition of limitation and finitude challenging aestheticism. And vice versa; art confronts our condition. This poem especially, but throughout Once in the West, Wiman embraces loneliness, that nuisance we seemingly always want to reject, dismiss, even annihilate. But it is in us, stubborn, sometimes dormant, sometimes eruptive, but often quiet and steadfast. Not to be anesthetized. We survive our solitude, our interiority of experience, by embrace and by touching that inchoate thing that connects us to all other creatures with hearts beating in their own insular ribcages. We are apart together.

“Music Maybe” ends with a child watching a bee bang against glass “like an attack of happiness.” The energy, the activity of relating, brings us to our most felt selves, not the perceived success of having done so. It flees, and in a blaze leaves only its burned impression on the back of our eyelids. Memory takes over.

In “Rust,” a title connoting the slow, unseen progression toward decay, memory is slow, subtle imitation—the movement away from the present. We are always falling into a new present, the past an exponential collection of elegy: “Is nothing pure? / Is it the soul’s treason to think so?”

Wiman avoids memorialization; Once in the West refuses monument, as that would not honor the activity of memory, the chaos of both the living and the no longer living. So, what then of art, which by its very nature makes a subject an artifice? “And art? // When the rocking stops. / A sense of being henceforth always after.” In another poem aptly titled “Memory Mercies” it is gently explained that “Memory’s mercies / mostly aren’t.” Wiman then inculcates the rest of that poem with images of temporality: “like a lucky / rock / ripping / electrically over // whatever water / there was.” And later “when it plunged // bright as firefly / into nowhere, // I swear.” Note the only adamancy comes from the poet and his language in “I swear.” What more do we have, as poets, but mostly has human creatures, than our shared language born from shared experience? In “Keynote”:

I had a dream of Elks,
antlerless but arousable all the same,

before whom I proclaimed the Void
and its paradoxical intoxicating joy,

infinities of fields our very natures
commanded us to cross,

the Sisyphean satisfaction of a landscape
adequate to loss.

When we fully inhabit our creatureliness—Sisyphean sweat dripping from our brows—we fully inhabit that which is fraught with anxiety, suffering, doubt. But also (paradoxically) love, introspection, and sensitivity. Joy lays in the confluence. In another poem titled “My Stop is Grand”: “I have no illusion / some fusion / of force and form / will save me.” The speaker, standing in the dark rut of an el station as the train hurls by, witnesses a fast shower of sparks, an ignited moment shared among strangers. Severe loneliness occupies Wiman’s lyricism. We are humans sharing the human experience, and yet each of us is contained in our unique experience. We cannot transcend ourselves. We are always just out of grasp of the other.

a grace of sparks
_____so far out and above
the fast curve that jostled
and fastened us
_____into a single shock of—
I will not call it love.

Though, of course, refusing the word in the last line only reinforces that “love” is the sole signifier he can get close enough to. His language resists, but doesn’t reject. Strangely, because of this I trust more readily than if he were to fully embrace, to call it outright, “love.”

Once in the West is populated by noise, chaos, things that recede and undulate. There is fire, burning, dawning, electricity, climbing—constant movement, though it isn’t always linear, momentous, or climatic. Religion is a system straining against this chaos; and Wiman fights religion and its failure to answer its own silence. God is in every poem, rejected in every poem, and therefore deconstructed. The false god of religiousity is dismissed for the greater unknown. God is presented variously as silent, insufferable, meaningless. And yet none of these qualifiers are negatives, or negations. “We lived in the long intolerable called God. / We seemed happy.” But later “Lord if I implore you please just please leave me alone / is that a prayer that’s every instant answered?” This poem, titled “We Lived,” ends abruptly with “Dear God—” There is no conclusion to prayer. Or to poetry. The end is really a beginning: the act of calling out, interminably.

Once in the West begins with a poem called “Prayer” that extends itself to readers, inviting those “blurred // by anxiety / or despair” to these pages and, maybe, “find / here // a trace / of peace.” Wiman joins in centuries of raised voices seeking peace amidst pain, joining those constrained by anxiety, those both endeared to and fearful of their loneliness and finitude. Throughout the book, “prayer” surfaces always in confliction, disappointment, frustration, always in its guttural origins. But Wiman’s call to prayer receives only silence, again and again. In one poem, “I will not violate my silence with prayer.” And in another “I tried to cry out in the old way / of thanksgiving, ritual lamentation, rockshriek of joy. / There was no answer. Had there ever been?” The guttural origins descend from our ancestors, but our methods of expression innovate themselves. Not unlike poetry.

wimanSo much in Once in the West collapses in on itself, is unlearning, un-becoming and therefore, paradoxically, becoming a fuller—perhaps more original, pure, Platonic—version of itself. In one poem “believe in nothing but the fact of absence.” And elsewhere “a purity // of emptiness you had to admire.” Or simply, “I felt nothing.” Antitheticals are bound to one another: “whisper-rupture” and “feathery detonation.” Definitions obliterate themselves: “too meaningful / to mean.” Forms become their original forms: “sun before sun: undawn.”

Everything is paradox and that paradox, if it wasn’t so evasive and even ethereal, might be or offer or explain god. The unmeaning, meaninglessness of our lives is so intimately infused with moments of intense meaning. “Meaning” defines itself in an instant—this matters. But often that’s all we’re given, little synaptic, surging introspections that fire and abandon. Why it matters escapes us simultaneous with asking “why?” Temporality, presence, a flash and spark and light quickly waning in darkness. Wiman calls this grace. Memory proceeds out in imitation, gradations. It serves us, but mostly it fails. What else do we have though?

So much life in this poem
so much salvageable and saving love

but it is I fear I swear I tear open
what heart I have left

to keep it from being
and beating and bearing down upon me.

Poetry is prayer. Is the act of calling out, bearing witness, exposing our groan so as to share in the universal groan, which is both pained and loving. “This cry I am inside / is not mine.” Language is an act of hope rising out of its limitations, its human origins. Language is that atom of grace and the extrapolating imitations and memorials.

“Coming into the kingdom / I was like a man grown old in banishment, / a creature of hearsay and habit, prayerless, porous, a survival of myself.” But before there is kingdom, there is soil, Sisyphean sweat, skin. There is no conclusion, no transcendence, no revelation. Instead, an act of rebellion, a refusal to transcend and to instead remain in a moment that matters, that is: human connection. “Like the constellations / of kinetic quiet // that bound us beyond us . . . And I held your hand.”

A Sentimental Translation

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Although A Sentimental Novel, the final work from Alain Robbe-Grillet, was published in French in 2008, the English translation didn’t follow for almost another four years. Partially, this was due to the book’s content: a lengthy series of Robbe-Grillet’s sadistic fantasies. For the New Yorker, Elisabeth Zerofsky interviews the mysterious translator behind the English edition.

The Non-Fiction Dilemma

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Ever wonder how to write about other people without getting sued? Well, here are some answers.

Another flavor of invasion of privacy is called false light. Suppose you post a photo of a criminal arrest. Jane Doe, a bystander, appears in the picture, a true fact. If the photo creates the impression that Jane was arrested and you do not take reasonable measures to dispel that impression, Jane could sue you for portraying her in a false light.

Angelheaded Hipsters Burning

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And we are, aren’t we, us fiftysomethings? We’re the pierced and tattooed, shorts-wearing, skunk-smoking, OxyContin-popping, neurotic dickheads who’ve presided over the commoditisation of the counterculture; we’re the ones who took the avant-garde and turned it into a successful rearguard action by the flying columns of capitalism’s blitzkrieg; we’re the twats who sat there saying that there was no distinction between high and popular culture, and that adverts should be considered as an art form; we’re the idiots who scrumped the golden apples from the Tree of Jobs until our bellies swelled and we jetted slurry from our dickhead arseholes – slurry we claimed was “cultural criticism”.

In other news, British author Will Self thinks that it’s his generation—and not those Millennials—who are to blame for the golden age of Hipster. He explains why over at the New Statesman.

The-House-in-Sønderfeature

Spotlight: Bue Bredsdorff’s “The House in Sønderhå”

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“The House in Sønderhå” is the first from a series of mini comics about places cartoonist Bue Bredsdorff has lived. The comics are multiplatform and have been published as posters as well as books and webcomics. The printed book version of “The House in Sønderhå” was nominated for best Danish comic debut The Ping Prize in 2014.

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Click image to enlarge.

The House in Sønderhå

Song of the Day: “Let Me Be Mine”

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It’s hard to imagine rocking out for more than twenty years, without much of a respite, but that is exactly what Spoon have done. The difficult-to-label rock group that formed before Kurt Cobain’s death recently released their eighth studio album, titled They Want My Soul. This is a record that refuses to compromise artistically with the demands of so-called stakeholders: not the public, not their peers, and not the record industry either. This integrity suffuses “Let Me Be Mine,” the second to last track on the album, and gives it its audible authenticity. Vocalist Britt Daniel caps off that sentiment and offers advice in response to the album’s title: ”Auction off what you love/ it will come back sometime.”

Notable Portland: 9/18–9/24

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Thursday 9/18: The Reed College English department welcomes novelist and short-story writer Lynne Tillman for a reading. Reed College, 6:30 p.m., free.

Laila Lalami reads from her latest imagined memoirs of the New World’s first explorer of African descent, The Moor’s Account. Powell’s City of Books, 7:30 p.m., free.

Friday 9/19: Poets Tyler Atwood and John W. Barrios celebrate their latest book release by reading alongside Emily Kendal Frey and Robert Lashley. IPRC, 8 p.m., free.

Saturday 9/20: Poets Zachary Schomburg, Joshua Nathaniel, Covington White, Nathan Wade Carter, and Ryan Mills read for the latest Bone Tax Reading. Ford Food & Drink, 7 p.m., free.

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Patriarchy’s Slow Unwinding

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For the New York Times Magazine, A.O. Scott argues about the “slow unwinding” of patriarchy in American culture, drawing on modern television, history, and literature. In part responding to Ruth Graham’s essay at Slate, in which she urges against adults reading young adult fiction, Scott offers a different perspective:

Instead, notwithstanding a few outliers like Henry James and Edith Wharton, we have a literature of boys’ adventures and female sentimentality. Or, to put it another way, all American fiction is young-adult fiction.

Guantanamo by Frank Smith

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“We are going to ask you some questions,” an interrogator in Frank Smith’s Guantanamo says, “so we can better understand your story.”

This is a seemingly innocuous statement, even a sympathetic one. But it is a dangerous one, because in its tone and intention, it radically upends the relationship between the storyteller and his listener. The power structure ought to be very simple: the storyteller possesses the tale, and imparts it to an audience. One has the original, and the other creates, upon hearing it, a copy in their own minds. In a way, this is how a community is formed: through a sharing of stories.

But the dynamics of an interrogation result in a complete power shift: a story is no longer something to be shared or accepted, but something to be coerced, questioned, tested, and enslaved. With power now located in the interrogator’s hands, how can the speaker redeem himself? Tell the truth, or convince the interrogator. It will never be clear whether those two goals are identical in execution, or mutually exclusive. The punishment for failure would be torture. And without knowing the facts, it is unclear whether we as bystanders should trust the skeptical interrogators, or trust the exhausted detainees of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

Guantanamo is a strange book. Like its author, Frank Smith, it is not actually English. Notwithstanding his Anglo-Saxon name, the author is originally French, and wrote the original text of Guantanamo by translating and transforming and interpolating declassified Pentagon documents into French. The result is a new kind of original that bears some traces of its English origins, but remains deeply French in its particular syntax and vocabulary. Following in the same vein, Vanessa Place’s translation of this book is not a restoration of the original text. “Smith provided me with copies of the interrogation transcripts that he had worked with,” she explains in her Translator’s Note at the end of the book, but “I decided not to look at them.” In so doing, she made her translation process into an interrogation not unlike the ones enacted in the book’s pages. One can almost imagine her facing the French text in a small and windowless room, trying to bring forth a logical English text in the absence of any reality or original.

This is a great risk for any translator to take, but it serves this particular book well. Much is withheld. In some sections, who is asking and who is answering are clearly marked. In others, only paragraph breaks distinguish one voice from another. And then there are chapters that break away from the question-and-answer format of interrogation documents into a strange sort of disindividuated poetry:

We are the interrogator, we are the interrogated. / We ask a question, we answer the question asked. / We ask a second question, we answer the second question asked . . . / We ask questions, we do not answer questions. / We interrogate the interrogated, the interrogated answers the interrogator. /The interrogator questions the interrogated, we answer the interrogator.

Vanessa Place’s translation shifts among various ways of referring to people: by their labels as “interrogator” or “interrogated,” as “we,” as “they,” as “he” or “she,” as “one,” sometimes with no pronoun at all. In French, as the text on the left-hand pages shows, all of these manners of reference often appear as the same French pronoun: “on.” Her decision to translate that single word—which mostly reads fluidly and logically in the French text—in so many different ways is a decision to defamiliarize language’s most fundamental components, and to break apart the divide between “us” and “them.” As we keep reading, this manner of translation draws attention to the inability of language to accurately express reality.

Frank Smith

Frank Smith

There are moments when the text becomes truly foreign, when we realize we are looking at a copy of a copy of a copy. Most memorably, a translator’s voice suddenly appears during an interrogation: “Translator: Excuse me, could I clarify this? Because yesterday, someone said ‘military,’ but meant to say ‘police’ . . . [The translator determines that this was police training, not military.]” It is an intrusion that reminds us that, even if we considered the government-issued transcripts an original, they would themselves be records of a conversation that happened half in English and half in translation from another language—most likely in Arabic or Pashto. It is a subtle but crucial detail, one that recurs when it is noted, near the book’s end: “[The detainee answers this question in good English.]” In such a light, attempting to pin down a person based on their words and in the absence of any verifiable reality becomes even more fraught with possible mistakes.

If we were to perceive Guantanamo as an exercise in language and translation, it would be interesting in its own right. But its title, which in this day and climate carries as much political baggage as “Hiroshima” or “Ferguson,” indicates that Frank Smith’s aims are much broader and much sharper. Guantanamo was published in French by Editions du Seuil in 2010, eight years after the Guantanamo Bay detention camp was opened. The declassified documents he worked with had been created several years prior to publication, and Barack Obama moved to close the camp in 2013—but little has changed since then. Earlier this month, the New York Times published a scathing exposé on the prison’s decaying condition and the government’s refusal to move these prisoners to safer (and higher-security) prisons—not to mention the three-million-dollar annual price tag for each prisoner housed there. Some prisoners have lived there for the entirety of the prison’s twelve-year existence, and their medical concerns have become a serious issue.

This extraordinary cost is even more astonishing given that is not even clear whether all the prisoners at Guantanamo ought to be there. The interrogations presented by Smith, although interpolated from multiple transcripts concerning six detainees, suggest that there were many men being held at Guantanamo who were not involved in terrorist activities at all. One of the detainees asks, exasperatedly, “How could I divide my time? Work to feed my family and, at the same time, receive military and terrorist training for the war. It’s impossible.” Another responds to a question: “I’ve already told you this a hundred times in prior interrogations, but I don’t see any harm repeating my story to you.” Most chillingly, a young detainee responds to a list of charges and claims with clear denials, finally declaring: “I am 26 years old, and up to now, I have never experienced war. I have never touched a gun. I have never suffered from war.”

Guantanamo is clearly designed to instigate further interrogations by its readers. The sheer mass of white space on the pages leads us to wonder what was not set down. A detainee insistently asks: “This young woman, with her five or six charges, I’d like to ask you, where did she dig up this information? Does she have the slightest bit of proof?” Many pages later he receives an answer, but it clarifies nothing: “the clerk presented it on behalf of the government. We do not know exactly where it came from at the moment.” The answer feels particularly unfair because we know that the President of the Tribunal’s evasions will not be punished. If the detainee were to resist providing a clear answer, however, he could suffer the torture that civil-rights lawyers have denounced since the Bush years—including waterboarding.

Is it possible that some of these transcripts were taken while the detainee was being waterboarded? It is a chilling idea, but one that cannot be easily dismissed. The pages of this large book are spare, and include no physical descriptions; nor do the transcripts from which Frank Smith worked. In the book’s second section, there are four times when the interrogated man apparently “Does not respond to question.” We see the next question asked, but we have no way of knowing how these people felt, what they did, how much time passed in between each question and each answer.

Ultimately, the book’s format leads us as readers to sympathize with the detainees and their struggle to convince their interrogators of their innocence. There are no transcripts here from the detainees accused of having aided in the 9/11 attacks; Frank Smith is more interested in the murky area where the interrogated might be equally as innocent as the interrogator. The line grows increasingly blurred between the two camps: “We state that they reportedly said that we served as governor of the Narang district while the Taliban was in power.” (The French is even murkier: “On dit qu’on aurait declaré avoir office comme gouverneur . . .”)

Who actually holds the power in the interrogation room? “We are going to ask you some questions,” the interrogator asks. But the interrogated is free not to answer, or free to lie, or free to tell the truth. If he knows the rules, he can shape his fate howsoever he wishes. In the book’s final section, the detainee mysteriously says, “I would like to go to the United States. To go to the United States, this is what I wish for most in the world.” The statement is at once sincere and ironic: sincere in the detainee’s wish for freedom, and ironic, because the detainee already speaks on American soil, under the care of the American government. Beyond sincerity and irony, he is asking for sympathy.

How strange it is that this sympathy should come through the careful translation and rearrangement of a French author’s words. It is as if we had to become like these detainees, taken away from our homelands and held in unfamiliar places, buoyed only by our hope that the truth might bring us back home.

The Essayist Must…

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Despite the horror and hopelessness (see below) that moves through the world, the essayist must have, even if it is well-buried under the most convincing costume of misanthropy, a deep and abiding love of humanity. Essayists set up beacons, send down ladders. They hold the belay rope, the flashlight, and sometimes even the first-aid kit. The best writers listen for humanity’s heartbeat, and write out the beat of it—sometimes in their own blood, and sometimes to a tune hard to follow, but with a listener in mind.

In Passages North, Chelsea Biondolillo writes about the imperatives of the essayist.

Sharing Our Words

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Writers often overuse a few unique words, creating a linguistic fingerprint. Vocabulary words are also exchanged between social groups. Some people contribute new words, while others adopt them. The process is not entirely random, though:

Diana Boxer, a professor at the University of Florida who specializes in sociolinguistics, says that when we find ourselves in a situation where someone uses language differently than we do, or words we’re unfamiliar with, we usually respond in one of two ways. “We either start to mimic them in some way, or distinguish ourselves from their usage,” she says. “This has to do with how we want to portray our identities. If we identify with them, want to be like them, we’ll start speaking like they do.”

Word of the Day: Woofits

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(n.); an unwell feeling, particularly in the head; a moody depression; c. 1918, from Nevil Shute’s The Rose and the Rainbow

The archetype of the mad genius dates back to at least classical times, when Aristotle noted, “Those who have been eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia.”

“Secrets of the Creative Brain,” Nancy C. Andreasan

F. Scott Fitzgerald. Virginia Woolf. Kurt Vonnegut. David Foster Wallace. These are only a very few of the long list of literary masters whose struggles with despair are well-known and well-documented, through their own words as well as through the words of others. (more…)

Young Adults Still Go to the Library

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The Pew Research Center recently released a report about younger Americans’s (ages 16-29) attitudes toward libraries. As it turns out, young adults still read books, they still visit libraries—at least as much as older Americans—and many use library services. There are some key differences between younger and older generations when it comes to libraries—younger patrons, for example, are less likely to say a library closure would significantly impact them—but the findings still suggest libraries play important roles in communities.