Rumpus Blog

How A Neighborhood is Made

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For The Towner, Chantal Clarke muses on the in-betweenness of her childhood home of Pelham, New York and “the day-to-day policing of boundaries” that make up the seedy work of orchestrating a neighborhood—how it was not New York City; not Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx; not a suburb in the vacant, car-dependent sense; and not quite grouped in with the other towns on its elite Metro North route. And how its whiteness was not accidental, but an extension of that boundary-drawing:

The way that trees are deployed in Westchester could be seen as the flipside—or an aesthetic extension—of these racist housing practices: green-lining, if you will. Dense foliage to make clear which areas of the county were for rich white people, concrete for everyone else. Both red-lining and the building of these quaint villages were planned and deeply unnatural; both served to make existing practices seem like an uncontestable part of the landscape.

Bound/Unbound

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Edie Meidav interviews writer-activist Quintan Ana Wikswo for Conjunctions on her novel of text and image, The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far (Coffee House), and her unusual biography. The conversation ranges from Wikswo’s childhood spent mostly alone and exquisitely engaged in nature, through epilepsy, and the power of writing the transgressive. “Suffering can be an event that breaks apart the codes… what I’m inching toward is the value of an epoch in our lives when we aren’t normalized,” says Wikswo.

No Mystery

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The books we read in childhood don’t always hold up to our memories of them. Sometimes it’s just a matter of juvenile or bad writing, but other times, it’s the author’s prejudices that turn us off as adults—and classic detective stories can be particularly troublesome:

Chesterton’s glorious evocations of light, landscape, and unnerving, lurid strangeness remain compelling. But his frequent use of racial stereotypes now slams me repeatedly out of his text. References to “the yellow man”, “a big white bulk … but with the needless emphasis of a black face”, “the fashionable negro … showing his apish teeth” – even the intrinsic evil of a “Turkey carpet” – leave me feeling that the padre’s much-touted broad-mindedness boils down all too often to mere mistrust of any skin-shade other than white.

Radiohead’s Latest Cartoon

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Radiohead’s new music video “Burn the Witch” has debuted, and uses imagery reminiscent of a classic British children’s cartoon to render its very unsettling message about the spread of hate in (we’re just guessing, but trust that the allegory is quite strong) contemporary nativist politics across the West. The video employs a stop-motion technique and aesthetic much like the program Trumptonshire, which aired in Britain in the ’60s. Read an analysis of the politics here and watch the video for yourself after the jump. (more…)

Maybe-True, Half-Hearted Hemingway in Havana

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Papa: Hemingway in Cuba is a recently released film from director Bob Yari following the maybe-true misadventures of the late Hemingway and his years in Cuba, where he lived, drank, and complained after winning the Nobel Prize for fiction. A young author travels to Havana to learn from his literary idol and a tortured bro-mance blossoms with the Cuban revolution stirring in the background. At Flavorwire, Jonathon Sturgeon braved the whole film, and writes of its disappointingly flat depiction of the author and the country:

Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, with its strangely descriptive title, its depthless portrayal of an overexposed cipher for bewildered manliness, its palm trees and rum and old cars, is just another example of how America abstracts its writers into personalities.

Remembering Jenny Diski

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At n+1, philosopher and writer Justin E.H. Smith remembers Jenny Diski, and shares their correspondence. For Diski, death was always the subject, the knot to admire, wryly, and attempt to untie:

…the year before her diagnosis, Jenny invokes the bleak wisdom of Beckett’s line, “Birth was the death of him.” She wonders with Nabokov why we do not worry about the infinite abyss a parte ante, before we were born.

Notable Portland: 5/5–5/11

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Thursday 5/5: Slamlandia hosts its inaugural slam. The slam will be two rounds with 3-minute time limit. Hot Lips Hawthorne, 6 p.m., $1 suggested donation.

Robert Hill reads from his latest novel, The Remnants. Another Read Through, 7 p.m., free.

Joe McDougall reads from her new book, The Undiscovered Room. Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, 7 p.m., free.

Friday 5/6: Local author and artist Marilyn Stablein shares work from her book, Splitting Hard Ground. Another Read Through, 7 p.m., free.

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When Computers Choose Which Novels to Publish

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We’re used to Amazon producing recommendations alongside books we buy, but are we prepared for a world where computerized data also picks what gets published? Inkitt, an electronic publishing platform, has announced that they will be utilizing algorithms to pick novels to publish in the interest of “fairness and objectivity” that can’t be found in this world of “literary gatekeepers.”

(Attractive) Debut Novelists Earn Millions

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Emma Cline received $2m advance for The Girls, due out in June, which puts her near the top of a growing list of first-time writers with advances in the millions. Last year, City on Fire earned Garth Risk Hallberg a $2m advance. The allure of debut novelists isn’t always an economic issue:

Given the amount of books a publisher needs to sell in order to make a profit, it’s possible that none of these novels will actually make money. But Random House publisher Susan Kamil believes that the honor of having a sparkling literary talent on your list can offset any financial loss.

Publishers are paying for great writing, editors like Knopf’s Claudia Herr insist. (more…)

A Curious Land

A Curious Land by Susan Muaddi Darraj

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Susan Muaddi Darraj’s short story collection A Curious Land takes readers on a journey through the Israeli-Palestine conflict. As in her previous collection The Inheritance of Exile, Darraj tells dynastic stories. But while her first collection followed generations of Palestinian and Palestinian-American women who settled in South Philadelphia, A Curious Land tells the story of the Palestinians who either stay or return. In the West Bank village Tel al-Hilou, men and women leave to escape death threats and unwanted marriages, to escape provinciality. They also leave to seek better prospects in the city or overseas. Some return prosperous and invest in their village, helping to modernize it, while others return broken, seeking to lick their wounds and to heal.

“The Journey Home” begins in 1916 with a resurrection. Darraj tells the story of a wandering caravan whose members have been traveling and hiding for over two years to elude and escape the war waging around them. Written from the point of view of the fifteen-year-old Rabab, whose burgeoning adolescence coincides with the caravan community’s shifting power, this story manages to depict Rabab’s approaching womanhood tenderly while being unflinching about the ravages of war, starvation, and butchery:

The fact was that they had all been starving for two years now. Rabab felt that she existed in a constant state of hunger, alleviated only twice a day by a small ration that she received. It happened in waves—sometimes her stomach felt a peace, dry but settled, then a headache would sweep over her, followed by a gnawing pain.

After Rabab saves the life of a man left for dead, they become a type of Adam and Eve for Darraj’s collection, the two people from whom the other characters spring. The nine stories in the collection take their cue from this initial one, all stemming from the chance encounter between these two characters.

We see many characters again and again in Darraj’s collection as they move from front-and-center to the margins—aging, hidden in the shadows of their secret lives, later brought to light. A man left for dead in one story appears as a prosperous and respected village elder in another. A golden bracelet, used to bribe and barter in one story, reappears as a treasured heirloom several generations later, the story of its original owner drifting into myth and legend. The aftermath of an accidental shooting is felt generation after generation. Older parents whose offspring have moved overseas regret their loss.

[A] family is only a family if it can survive together in the worst time when the wells are dry and the clouds completely obscure the full moon and it feels like God has forsaken us. That is when you draw your children close to you, so you can hear their stomachs rumble, when all you can do is keep them warm under your heart.

Susan Muaddi Darraj

Susan Muaddi Darraj

The village church, with its crumbling statue of the virgin, features prominently in many of the stories, highlighting the importance of religion in this predominantly Christian enclave of the Tel al-Hilou village. The lives of Darraj’s characters are arranged around attending religious and social functions, surviving the growing conflict, and waiting for peace. Behind the rounds of social gatherings, the numerous cups of coffee, and the visiting back and forth, the shadow of war looms. Darraj’s touch is light. She portrays her characters with dignity and complexity.

Each generation of Tel al-Hilou’s inhabitants reveals the growing Israeli-Palestine conflict. Decade by decade, Darraj shows how conflict spreads, how it figures into and overshadows the daily lives of her characters. Simple things that one might take for granted—like driving from one’s village into the nearby city—take meticulous planning because of soldiers and checkpoints. Short trips become all-day excursions as people are continually stopped and detained, with families having to carefully decide which member will make the trip. Are the guards least likely to detain women or older passengers? Who is likely to make it back safely? The political strife is understated but ever-present. Checkpoints go up with increasing frequency until the entire landscape seems barricaded, villagers imprisoned in their homes by soldiers-turned-snipers who occupy their rooftops and abuse their hospitality. The strife appears in the form of cracks on a widow’s wall, a shattered picture frame, the exorbitant price of pineapple in a city market, the reduced numbers of young marriageable men in the village.

In the midst of the war and the worry, Darraj plants the seeds of love—romantic love, familial love, and cultural love. In “Rocky Soil” a young man who is deemed not good enough to marry the woman he loves finds inspiration in his rejection. He becomes industrious. Skipping church to working extra shifts, he decides “[H]is new religion promised him that his saving and his labor would pay off, would set him apart from the rest, would validate his dreams that he not become a layer of dried dust on a dirty floor but something more.”

Darraj’s writing is neither overly moralistic nor didactic. There is a no judgment or anger in the stories. She shows us one side of a decades-long conflict, with characters struggling for the peace and happiness we all want for ourselves.

Don’t Judge a Book…

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In the Court of Po Biz, I tend to relate to the jester.

Over at Entropy, John Yohe does some quick name-checking and decides, a little cynically, by the blurb, that Robyn Schiff’s new book, A Woman of Property, is going to be “Serious Poetry.” He finds himself happily corrected, and surprised: Schiff, unaffected, lets us right in to a sense of meaning both larger and more personal.

Mapping the Brain

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Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley published a new study about brain activity in people listening to podcasts, the New York Times reported. “Using novel computational methods, the group broke down the stories into units of meaning: social elements, for example, like friends and parties, as well as locations and emotions. They found that these concepts fell into 12 categories that tended to cause activation in the same parts of people’s brains at the same points throughout the stories,” the article said.

Embodying Memory

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For Electric Literature, Melody Nixon interviews Ruth Ozeki about what it means to write “embodied prose”:

I find that whether I’m writing fiction or memoirish essay, whatever you want to call it, the key to any kind of literary writing is being able to tap the body’s memory: to enter the writing through the senses, and through the body. If we’re able to do that then the writing itself becomes embodied. We are all human bodies; for the writer to be able to enter a scene or a piece of prose that way I think necessarily invokes a similar response in the reader. I’ve always written with the idea that writing is not just something one does with the mind, that you have to write embodied prose in order to elicit the same kinds of strong, physical, emotional responses, from the reader.

Notable San Francisco: 5/4–5/10

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Wednesday 5/4: The program in Creative Writing at St. Mary’s presents faculty member Brenda Hillman with alumnus Andrew Kenower. Free, 7:30 p.m., St. Mary’s College.

Green Apple Books hosts Speaking Volumes’ “Breaking Ground Tour” of Black British writers, featuring readings by Bernardine Evaristo, Colin Grant, Diran Adebayo, Gabriel Gbadamosi, Jay Bernard, Johny Pitts, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Nick Makoha, and Roger Robinson. Free, 7:30 p.m., Green Apple Books on the Park. 

Thursday 5/5: Thursday’s at Readers presents Barbara Paschke and Jorge Arguetta. Free, 6:30 p.m., Readers Bookstore at Fort Mason.

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Long-Distance Writing

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Over at The Collapsar, Brian Oliu pens a stunning essay on writing, running, and changing one’s perception of both the body and the prose:

This, to me, is what a successful essay does: it confesses before the writer is ready–instead of looking back upon a moment in one’s life and trying to compartmentalize it into a narrative, it is very fluid and of that moment–I am going to talk about these things that I am not an expert on in hopes that I come to a greater understanding about myself & the world that surrounds me.

Telling Your Own Truth

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The art of storytelling is largely about choosing what is to be conveyed and—most importantly—what is to be left out.

For FSG’s “Works in Progress,” Guillermo Erades, author of the just-released Back to Moscow, writes about the persistently bedeviling give-and-take of fiction of nonfiction. By comparing Hemingway’s bookend works, The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast, he shows us that what makes a book successful, even beautiful, is its honesty to its own coordinates.

The Lives of Others

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We’ve always been fascinated by the possibility of understanding the person behind the work. For Lit Hub, Heller McAlpin examines a long tradition of writing about writers:

There’s a special frisson of pleasure in reading about writers’ early struggles when you know what the future holds for them—which in the case of most of these authors is posthumous literary acclaim beyond their wildest dreams.

Lost Labor

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Certain ways of avoiding a childbirth scene in contemporary fiction have become almost predictable, as clichéd as the clothes scattered on the floor in a movie rated PG-13: the frantic car ride to the hospital, followed by a jump cut to the new baby; or the played-for-laughs episode of the laboring woman screaming at her clueless husband, followed by a jump cut to the new baby. What happened to what actually happens?

Over at SlatePamela Erens considers why descriptions of labor and birth have disappeared from contemporary literature.