Rumpus Blog

A Puzzling Gender Gap

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When I was twenty, I submitted a puzzle that [Will Shortz] rejected. He cited MALE GAZE among the entries he found unworthy of publication. I don’t doubt that a woman or a younger editor might have deemed that entry an asset as opposed to a demerit.

For The American Reader, Anna Schechtman writes about being a woman in the male-dominated world of crossword puzzles.

The Bookstores Will Survive

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A bright spot in the midst of all the back-and-forth in the Amazon battle—Kate Brittain, at The Morning News, writes about the state of independent bookstores:

I began my search in a nervous mood. But as I entered name after name into the database, wandering virtually into every store I could discover between our shining seas, I ceased, slowly, to worry. A conviction took hold in my heart: that whatever the outcome of this corporate kerfuffle, the bookstores—and so, too, what they support: books and writers and their communities—will survive this perilous moment.

Walking Along Brighton Beach

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As soon as Ashley came down the stairs from the subway, which rattles across a bridge over Brighton Beach Avenue, it all came tumbling out: who he really was and that he was married. Every time a train passed overhead it drowned out what he was saying and he would have start over.

Short, but affecting and a little haunting—on the London Review of Books blog, Peter Pomerantsev recounts a story about a short-lived romance, set on Brighton Beach in 1982.

The Four Words for Home

The Four Words for Home by Angie Chuang

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In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Chinese-American journalist Angie Chuang was charged by her editor with putting “a human face on the country we’re about to bomb.” What began as one of Chuang’s signature human-interest stories, albeit one made more urgent by geopolitical catastrophe, quickly catapulted her into the midst of a family—a tribe really—and then a country that were not her own, and yet, to her surprise, felt intrinsically so. For four years, as her own immigrant family splintered under the rising pressure of her father’s deteriorating mental health, Chuang embedded herself in Afghanistan’s charismatic Shirzai family, seeking a story not only for her newspaper, but for her own life. The result is The Four Words for Home, winner of this year’s Willow Books Grand Prize in Prose.

The Four Words for Home, the “memoir of two families” that grew out of that newspaper profile, is populated by a large, far-flung cast of characters. The portrait of the Afghan family in particular is rich, compassionate, and compelling. Take, for example, this scene in the Shirzais’ compound in Kabul, where with one gesture a young woman reveals much about sex in a country that cuts the steamy scenes out of western movies:

“You’re nervous today,” I said. “And pretty.”

Inginir,” [Rochina] said, using the family’s nickname for her husband—the Pashto word for “engineer” was used to describe an educated man—“is coming home today.”

Then, turning to me so only I could see it, she took her delicate hand, balled into a fist, and bit down on her pinky knuckle. She gasped softly, feigning breathlessness, grinned at me, then returned to stirring the stew.

This was sexier than all of the deleted scenes from the [Afghan version of] Titanic combined.

Almost spontaneously, Chuang finds herself in sisterhood with the women who live behind veil and curtain.

Once Chuang gets to know Shirzais on both sides of the world and across gender and generational lines, there is no settling for one human face to represent Afghanistan. The family includes the bachelor-patriarch Daoud, who brings six teenaged nieces and nephews from the old country to live with him in the U.S., where he raises them with the help of two younger brothers and the crisp English of Peter Jennings. Opposite this first Shirzai to emigrate to the U.S. is the last, Laila, a graduate student struggling to navigate a top-secret relationship with a lapsed Catholic named Tim. Also set in contrast to one another are two male cousins, one raised in the U.S. (an aspiring playboy who makes a move on the author), one raised in Afghanistan (a man with whom protocol requires that a female reporter not make eye contact, and yet they share an electric-for-being-illicit gaze through a camera lens). For the author, who, having long since abandoned journalistic convention, openly longs to be a member of this family, such encounters with eligible Shirzai bachelors are hardly casual. Meanwhile, opposite the living Shirzais is the palpable presence of Mohammed, Daoud’s disappeared brother, whose political role in Afghanistan’s history underscores the point that, while this may be a personal book, interested with interpersonal relationships, it is no less political for it.

Angie Chuang

Angie Chuang

More nebulous than the richly rendered Shirzais are the members of Chuang’s own immigrant family. As Daoud Shirzai did in Afghanistan, the author’s father grew up “can’t-afford-shoes poor” in Fujian, China, and then Taiwan. He so distinguished himself academically that he, like Shirzai, was recruited to the U.S. for graduate school. The author and her brother were subsequently born and raised across cultural lines, from Chinese schools to top American colleges. But the Chuang family’s efforts at living out the American dream are complicated by the pendulous mood swings—likely bipolar disorder—that her father refuses to acknowledge or address. His increasingly erratic behavior, countered by the need to keep up appearances (mental illness, Chuang explains, is taboo in Chinese culture), isolates the family from relatives in both the U.S. and Taiwan and from one another. This sense of estrangement is how Chuang explains her impulse to seek out a new sort of home for herself and her initial infatuation with the Shirzais.

Chuang’s own identity and her unique vantage point as a woman of Asian heritage make her as intriguing as the other characters in The Four Words for Home, and engender a triangulation of perspective as well as privileged access. From the U.S. to Afghanistan to Taiwan, gender and ethnicity afford Chuang access to places another writer simply could not go—namely behind the curtain of Islamic gender protocols and into rural Afghanistan, which at the time of her reporting was becoming increasingly distrustful of outsiders generally and Americans specifically. (Even so, her presence results in threats to the family.) Not only can Chuang empathize through her own cross-cultural experience, she can “pass.”

This notion of passing is crucial to the book: passing, or almost passing, for an Afghan in Afghanistan; for a member of the Shirzai family; her Chinese-American family’s efforts to pass for living out that American dream; her father’s failure to pass as stable; her efforts as a reporter to pass for objective once she feels personally attached to the family; and others. Taiwan as a whole is depicted as a country trying to pass for another, having “borrowed and improved by imitating China, Japan, and most of all, the United States, both a paragon and a foil.”

The Four Words for Home is an immigrant story concerned with assimilation, immersion, affectation, simulation, and, of course, as the title promises, translation. With its large cast it embodies a sense of exclusion from the new country and estrangement from the old, a study in longing and belonging.

“Coming to Afghanistan, I had begun to know the boundaries between seeming and being,” writes Chuang. “I had been grasping for the knowledge of exactly what it was like to lose Mohammed, as if it would finally seal my insider status with the Shirzais. The grapevine could stubbornly cling to the apple tree in the courtyard until the two were nearly indistinguishable, but they would always be two, not one.”

There are many reasons to read this engaging book, not least among them the persistent historical imperative for people in the U.S. to better understand Afghanistan. But I pose this as the most crucial: Angie Chuang’s The Four Words for Home is precisely the sort of book the literary community is referring to when diversity of voices comes into question. This isn’t a book written about the immigrant experience, or about the female condition in post-Taliban Afghanistan, but an empathetic and lived experience of a writer situated uniquely at an intersection of one and another, of here and there, of insider and outsider. There are too few books like it.

Books about Books

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In 2011, Phyllis Rose read every book on the LEQ-LES shelf in the New York Public Library and wrote about the experience in an essay collection called The Shelf. In doing so, Rose joined the long tradition of “bibliomemoirs”—a blend of autobiography and literary criticism. In the Guardian, Rachel Cooke examines this tradition and the value of the genre.

Seeing is Reading

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For those of us who haven’t glanced at e.e. cummings since high school, it’s easy to forget that literature is a visual medium. When we think about reading, our minds often go straight to content. But rockstar cover designer Peter Mendelsund’s masterful work of phenomenology, What We See When We Read (Random House), minces popular conceptions of reading into scattered piles of type. Maddie Crum of HuffPo Books previews it here – aptly, with PDFs.

Distress Calls

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There’s hardly an American who can’t find a helpline, unless that American’s a pedophile in remission. Convinced that the lack of said resource is dire, needed, and far from forthcoming, Luke Malone investigates the grisly alternatives; in an essay at Medium, Malone interviews Adam, a self-admitted 16 year old pedophile:

I spoke with experts and asked around online. I came across a site for self-described pedophiles who acknowledged their attraction and wanted help dealing with it. But the men I met were in their 50s and 60s, and I’d hoped to speak with someone younger, someone still coming to terms with what he was learning about himself. I asked them if they knew anyone like that, and a few weeks later I received an email.

“My name is Adam,” it read. “I’m 18 and non-exclusively attracted to boys and girls of all ages (particularly very young ones). I am the leader of a support group for non-offending pedophiles around my age… I would be very happy to talk with you.”

The Post-Wounded Woman

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Leslie Jamison‘s The Empathy Exams coins the phrase “Post-Wounded Woman,” referring to women who “are wary of melodrama so they stay numb or clever instead. Post-wounded women make jokes about being wounded or get impatient with women who hurt too much.” Catherine Lacey‘s debut novel Nobody Is Ever Missing embodies this ideal, writes Daphne Merkin at the New Yorker.

In this sense, the novel is very contemporary, I suppose, but it is also classical in its delineation of the youthful impulse to define oneself; among other things, I was thrilled to read a book in which the main character doesn’t own a cell phone and no one writes emails. Mostly, though, I was excited by its sustained attunement to the disjunctive universe its protagonist inhabits, and the way the writer nimbly hop-skips around, cutting squibs of arresting dialogue into the meditative sections and gimlet-eyed details (“The front desk sent flowers and a balloon and a stuffed bear—the string noosed around his neck”).

Notable Los Angeles: 8/18–8/24

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Monday 8/18: Richard Bausch discusses and signs Before, During, After. 7 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore.

DTLAB by Writ Large Press and Ricochet Editions present Harmony Holiday. 8 p.m. at Traxx.

Tuesday 8/19: Jim Ruland presents and signs Forest Of Fortune. 7 p.m. at Book Soup.

Carrie La Seur discusses and signs The Home Place. 7 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore.

DTLAB by Writ Large Press presents Indie Press Cartel featuring Les Figues Press. 8 p.m. at Traxx.

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(Un)death in Venice

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Do you know what year the word “zombie” first stalked the English lexicon? Do you think you can provide your kids with a “psychologically safe context for contemplating a collapsed world”? Did you read the CDC’s memo on zombie preparedness tips? Neither did we. Allow us to direct you to Clair McLafferty’s very highbrow meditation on YA zombie fiction in the LA Review of Books.

Ferguson, Personally

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Rembert Browne flew to Ferguson last week. Out of interest in the town’s newfound notoriety, the crowds contesting it, and the general ennui surrounding Contemporary Black Youth, the usual-sports writer compiled the meat of his thoughts in an essay for Grantland:

The history of being black in America is the history of nonviolence versus “fight back.” Of wait versus now. Of a turned cheek versus self-defense. Suddenly, this was becoming the latest chapter in black America’s “what next?” history. And on the steps outside of the church, each group had its Martin and its Malcolm. They all wanted the same thing, but the answers provided in the church weren’t enough for a consensus.

Browne also riffs on Eric Garner, his own mother, and the casual anonymity of the African American church.

The Girl in the Road

The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

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Let me disclose two things up front. This past year I was an editorial intern at the Frances Goldin Literary Agency, working for, among others, Monica Byrne’s agent. I also, like Byrne, went to Wellesley College, though she graduated seven years before me. While I have yet to meet Byrne through either of these channels, I heard a lot of buzz about her debut novel The Girl in the Road and could not wait to read it as soon as it came out. Just as one of the heroines of The Girl in the Road, Mariama, develops an infatuation with a goddess-like woman named Yemaya, I became obsessed with Byrne from afar before her book was even published. My feelings have only magnified since finishing her novel.

First things first: Byrne can tell a damn good story. Too often it seems contemporary literature becomes caught up in lyrical prose or heady contemplations, while nothing actually happens. In Byrne’s book, plenty happens. Her story captivated me within the first chapter. Luckily, at the time I happened to be waiting for a flight that was delayed four hours, so nothing prevented me from reading the novel straight through.

The Girl in the Road follows two parallel stories. In 2068, Meena, a young woman in her late twenties, decides to run away from her home country of India on the Trans-Arabian Linear Generator, also know as the Trail. A metal path running across the sea from Mumbai to Djibouti, the Trail conducts energy from the waves and is operated by a mega-company called HydraCorp. Mariama, a seven-year-old girl, is also running away, but her story takes place several decades before Meena’s, and she is coming from Western Africa to Ethiopia, riding illegally in a truck that transports oil. In these two stories, Byrne creates a world that feels entirely plausible. This is not the science fiction of faraway galaxies with spaceships and light sabers, but a realistic future 54 years from now, with politics, technology, and environmental issues that seem likely given the current state of the world. Byrne’s book is in the same vein as The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker or 1984 by George Orwell. In Byrne’s version of 2068, America has lost its superpower status to India, and the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa is the next urban metropolis. Everyone has a computer chip embedded in their arm to track their location and send and receive information in the cloud, scanners are used to pay for goods, and each person is surrounded by a Facebook-like-profile and unique ID in a visible aura of information called an aadhaar. Glaciers have melted so much that many coastal cities have been wiped out, and people brace themselves for regular typhoons and cyclones. Byrne’s world feels so near that it seems less like she is making things up and simply sending dispatches from the future.

Byrne’s version of the future is fascinating, even if it occasionally overwhelms the plot. The government dynamics and environmental problems of Byrne’s world are enormous and stressful, and sometimes there are too many thoughts crammed into The Girl in the Road. Then again, that is how the world is – too much to take in all at once, already exhausting and overwhelming. I cannot comprehend how much more intense that constant flood of information will be in 54 years.

But it is the internal, emotional plot of the two characters—more so than the politics and technology—that drives the book. I believe in both characters, but I care about them too. Meena has been attacked and wounded in India, and she seeks the Trail in a soul-searching journey to come to terms with the murders of her parents at the time of her birth. Mariama is fleeing a sinister, frightening past and hoping for a better life in Addis Ababa. Though Byrne’s novel is categorized as science fiction, she spins an addictive mystery as the reader begins to understand how the two plot lines connect.

Monica Byrne

Monica Byrne

Beyond its genre categorizations, The Girl in the Road is a feminist manifesto. As Byrne writes, “the real show here is the divine feminine.” In some ways, Byrne’s 2068 has solved many problems for women. There has been another sexual revolution, this time in India, and now people are out as trans*, polyamorous, bisexual, and homosexual without a second thought. Meena has had relationships with men and women – her most current partner was a transwoman named Mohini – and her sexuality is commonplace in the world of the novel. Additionally, by 2068, all STDs are treatable by nanobiotics, and both men and women are automatically given birth control upon reaching puberty, which can be easily deactivated if and when the individual wants to start a family. For many women today, this sounds like a dream world.

What is troubling in The Girl in the Road are not the things that are different in 2068, but the things that have remained the same. Class differences between the poor and the wealthy are still extreme. Terrorist attacks continue to be common, even if the warring groups have changed. Humans are still trafficked into slavery. And, even 54 years from now, women are the regular victims of physical violence and rape.

Before setting out on the Trail, Meena worked at a women’s clinic. Women are still taught to be ashamed, not proud, of their bodies. Women are still beaten and raped and left to die on the side of the road. Women are still sold into sexual slavery. Women are still seen as lesser than men and, as Meena angrily thinks on the Trail, “I fucking hate it when anyone assumes I’m harmless because I am a woman.” Women still excuse the violence they experience as normal: “He just needed to get his frustration out of his system.” I was moved by Byrne’s book because of her willingness to honestly address the horrors that women face – women of all ages, races, and classes, across the globe. Byrne does not shy away from brutal truths. “We’re all children of rape, somewhere in our lineage,” Meena’s girlfriend Mohini tells her at one point. There is one particularly painful scene of child abuse in a hotel room. Byrne talks about that scene on her blog (spoilers there) and about the backlash to it: “I was told several times, by prospective agents and editors, that I needed to ‘dial it back’ or ‘tone it down.’ One of the reasons I chose my agent was that he was the only one to confirm my instinct: that I was telling the truth, and needed to leave it be.” Byrne has been accused of condoning child rape for writing this scene, but like those who think of Vladimir Nabokov as a pervert for creating Lolita, some readers, as Byrne writes, “confuse reportage with advocacy.” Byrne is actually showing how childhood trauma can affect an individual for the rest of her life.

Byrne wrote recently for The Atlantic about the dangers of “writing what you know.” Since privileged, white men have dominated the English literature scene for so many centuries, it is privileged, white, male characters who have been the heroes for as many years. “Despite a liberal upbringing and an education at a women’s college,” Byrne writes, “it didn’t occur to me that my identification with male heroes had damaged me in any way—that is, until I became a writer, and found myself weirdly reluctant to write a woman hero. This wasn’t an accident.” In The Girl in the Road, Byrne has written two woman heroes with brown skin. With my own liberal upbringing and education at the same women’s college, I am wary when a person of privilege decides to speak for someone without, but Byrne is self-aware and has grappled with her decision. She understands that it is not perfect, but she hopes it is a start: “As an American able-bodied, middle-class, mostly straight cis white person, I lack privilege in just one dimension: being a woman,” Byrne writes. “But I can summon experiences of that non-privilege—the daily reminders that I’m a special subset of human, rather than human, full stop—to make me understand who, by omission, literature instructs me to dehumanize.”

And so Byrne has created Meena and Mariama—both female, Indian and African respectively—who are not the stereotypical Strong Female Characters. Both are strong, yes – they could not survive their respective journeys without strength – but both are weak, vulnerable, and jealous too, and much affected and abused by the world around them. In short, they are people: two female characters who are as multifaceted and three-dimensional as the male characters that have populated the English canon for centuries. The Girl in the Road battles a giant and succeeds in inflicting a small wound. I hope Byrne will continue in this direction and other writers will follow her lead. If they do, we will begin to see more Indian and African writers dominating English literature. Until then, writers with privileged need to examine their own biases and motives. “Humanization—the recognition of the ‘other’ as equally valuable as oneself—is foundational to giving and receiving love and compassion,” Byrne has said, and not just literature, but the whole world, needs more of that.

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Worn Stories Book Trailer

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The trailer for the new collection, Worn Stories, a collection of stories about clothing and memory that has been edited by Emily Spivack since 2010. Contributors include Marina Abramovic, Greta Gerwig, Heidi Julavits, John Hodgman, Brandi Chastain, Andrew Tarlow, Piper Kerman, Maira Kalman, Sasha Frere-Jones,and others.

A Rumpus exclusive, after the jump: (more…)

Notable NYC: 8/16–8/22

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Saturday 8/16: Natalia Sylvester reads her debut novel Chasing the Sun (June 2014) about a kidnapping in politically tumultuous 1990s Peru. BookCourt, 7 p.m., free.

John Thomas Menesini, Karen Lillis, Jason Price Everett, and Moon Temple read at Full Bookcase. Mellow Pages, 7 p.m., free.

Tuesday 8/19: Matthew Thomas discusses his debut novel We Are Not Ourselves (August 2014), a multigenerational family epic, with Joshua Ferris. McNally Jackson, 7 p.m., free.

Marni Fechter reads from her debut novel Royal Entertainment (May 2014). B&N 82nd Street, 7 p.m., free.

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Literature at the Ritz-Carlton

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At The Millions, Tracy O’Neill deconstructs the Ritz-Carlton’s new “Six Word Wows” ad campaign. The hotel chain calls for guests to describe their stay in six words or less, using the hashtag #RCMemories, and claims to be ““Paying Homage to a Classic Ernest Hemingway Line.” O’Neill frames her essay with Thomas Frank’s assertion that, since the mid-90s, corporations have targeted consumers by playing up their nonconformity, creating the “Culture Trust: a corporate America that deploys the sensibilities of counterculture for profit.” However, O’Neill goes a step further, wondering if the campaign works, perhaps, because it gives patrons “an authorial role” and allows them to describe what they see as their extraordinary vacations.

This Week in Short Fiction

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The news of Michael Brown’s death cannot be ignored. When one of our young people dies from shots fired by a police officer, there will be sadness and confusion. There will inevitably be questions, and questions left unanswered will lead to anger.  This is a week, perhaps, when we need fiction and art to help us try to make sense of who we are and where we go from here.

I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out his name, spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside.

These are the opening words of James Baldwin’s much-anthologized short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” which he wrote in 1957 and published in his 1965 collection Going to Meet the Man. (more…)

Submission Strategy

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Writers don’t always use their time efficiently when it comes to submitting to literary journals. Luanne Castle, writing at The Review Review, explores strategies for improving the submission process:

I began to focus on quality rather than quantity. To find the quality journals that are right for my poetry, I had to do what I’d seldom done in the past, what so many of us writers seldom do. I had to read these lit journals and find out which were the right for my poems.

Notable Chicago: 8/15–8/21

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Friday 8/15: Quimby’s celebrates the second printing of Jeff Zwirek’s self-published graphic novel, Burning Building Comix. Slate called it “the most inventively made comic of the year.” 7 p.m.

Saturday 8/16: Lauren Francis-Sharma is at 57th Street Books to promote her first novel, ‘Til the Well Runs Dry, featuring a 16-year-old single mother of two in north Trinidad. Chicago book critic Donna Seaman starred it in Booklist. 3 p.m.

You’re Being Ridiculous continues the August theme “Fear” at Mary’s Attic in Andersonville. Performers include David Allen, Randall Colburn, Kelly Duff, Kestutis Nakas, Jeremy Owens, Allison Shoemaker, and Steven Strafford. 7:30 p.m.

The Dollhouse Reading Series is a poetry salon at an apartment, so don’t show up expecting to be all rowdy. This month there’ll be readings by Janaka Stucky, Nuria Sheehan, Julia Cohen, and Patrick Samuel. 7 p.m.

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The Theory of Trickle-Up Literacy

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One does not pass from lower to higher. On the contrary one might perfectly well fall from the higher to the lower, or simply read both, as many people eat both good food and junk food, the only problem being that the latter can be addictive; by constantly repeating the same gratifying formula (the litmus test of genre fiction) it stimulates and satisfies a craving for endless sameness, to the point that the reader can well end up spending all the time he has available for reading with exactly the same fare.

The New York Review of Books refutes the idea that starting on “lesser” fiction inclines a reader to progress to more “advanced” fiction.

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The Holy Ghost People by Joshua Young

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I regret that Joshua Young is a poet who has only come to my attention recently. The discovery of his work has been a catalyzing force for my writing and teaching, and I have a hunch I am only beginning to discover the effects his unique approach to poeming will have on my literary life long-term. After reading The Holy Ghost People, Young’s most recent play in verse, I could only sketch inside the back cover book flap, “Where has this poet been all my writing life?”

The answer, as it turns out, is not very far away at all. We both grew up in the Pacific Northwest in neighboring communities. We are part of the same generational and regional cohort. And, perhaps most exciting of all, we are invested in many of the same themes—among them, religious dogma and identity formation. Not surprisingly then, our first meeting in May 2014 was an auspicious one. Both alums of Western Washington University, Young and I, along with fellow poet-alum Joshua Marie Wilkinson, were invited back to Bellingham to give a joint reading and to participate in a writing-and-publishing panel.

One highlight of this trip was hearing my new acquaintance, approximately ten minutes after we had been introduced, commence a reading (more aptly described as a “channeling” or “poetic inhabitation”) from The Holy Ghost People. I know I am not alone when I describe the collective experience as spellbinding. On what could have been a sleepy Friday afternoon in the sun-drenched classroom, more than fifty people looked on—eager, rapt—as Young transported us into “a small city neighborhood of brick & small lawns. There is an empty highway, an abandoned car. There is an empty beach. There is an empty playground. There is a nearly deserted mall parking lot. There is a small brick church with a garden surrounding it. There is a farmers’ market. There is an apartment building. There is an empty bar.” This could have been Bellingham following a zombie apocalypse.

Who are these “Holy Ghost People”? I suspect you’ll want to know. They are described this way in the dramatis personae: “a group of men & women who claim to have traveled through space & time to share the true word of god with the people of earth. they walk around in white flowing cloth. the holy ghost people distrust what the people of earth claim to be god & they mistrust what the people of earth claim to be science. they claim to know, & to have been sent by, the real god.”

Now I don’t know for sure what you’re thinking, but when I started to read, I thought, “Oh, an allegory about contemporary religious fundamentalism.” I would be interested in such a project, no doubt, but Young’s “Holy Ghost People” are much more mysterious and compelling than a thinly disguised, time-traveling version of the Religious Right. They don’t trust what the “people of earth claim to be science” (shades of the creation v. evolution argument, and more recently, controversies surrounding climate change), but—notably—they don’t trust what the “people of earth claim to be god” either.

So the Holy Ghost People aren’t mere caricatures of a particular social group or movement, despite certain resemblances. They are challengers to two different kinds of received truth: religion and science. False prophets though they may be—though they almost certainly are—they provoke our curiosity and set us on edge from the first page of this enigmatic poem-play to the last.

The superlative moment of Young’s performance that afternoon in May was his recitation of a litany of earthly things the Holy Ghost People find profane. I was so caught up in the incantatory effects of his voice and the steady rocking that accompanied his words that I misremembered the context of this passage. I remembered the Holy Ghost People listing a series of offensive earthly things, but in fact, it was the Speakers, the earth-dwellers the Holy Ghost People have come to enlighten, who were discussing the peculiar aversions of their challengers: “the holy ghost people find the strangest of things blasphemous: bibles, crucifixions, dalmations, great danes, orange cats, nikes, paleontologists, hair braids, cocaine, mirrors, horses, snakes, egg shakers, egg beaters, diet soda (except pepsi), pickup trucks, red pens, paper cuts, dogs smaller than 10 lbs, people who don’t believe in time travel, gold, silver, red light bulbs, energy saving light bulbs, hybrid suvs, parkas, flip phones, thongs (both kinds), smoked salmon, alloy bats, the sci-fi channel, alt-country, nu-metal, bark in playgrounds, dead pigs…” The list is a funny kind of profound, full of unexpected juxtapositions, and the audience roared when Young hit the parenthetical aside “(both kinds)” after a perfectly timed pause.

I like that the incredulous Speakers are mulling aloud, trying to understand the baffling ideology of their rivals. I like that I entered this book assuming I would identify with the Speakers easily and whole-heartedly, yet here I am feeling for the Holy Ghost People, too: “the claustrophobia of time travel. it takes something out of you & puts god in there, but we are strong. we love to feel pieces of him kicking at our rib cage. we have a mission. [they pause, look around, like they’re waiting for something].” I admire their passion and their vulnerability and the way Young has made the language sing in new ways to render them convincing, if also unbelievable: “buckshot nebula. there are 47 planets orbiting a superstar & they pass within 3000 miles of each other & it’s hell to get through it—planetary orbit-shake & the way a planet unhinges flight plans—but getting around it would take years. see, it was a test from god. he wanted to see if we could make it through it—no it is not like the disciples & jesus. this had nothing to do with the bible or sons or doves—this is about god testing us.”

And then there’s the mystery of Sylvia. Is she an analogue for the Virgin Mary? Is she some version of a sci-fi Mother Ship? The Speakers, in their hunger to know, grow adamant: “who is sylvia? you people keep talking about sylvia & she is not here. can you conjure her again? show us! bring her back!” I like how the Hoy Ghost People respond when pressed. It is the most eloquent articulation they can muster, and yet, as with all forays into Cosmic Questions, the answer remains opaque, shrouded in the what-cannot-be-named: “we will not conjure sylvia. we cannot. you have made it un-so. sylvia is not a person, not a being, but an idea. sylvia is the doubt we have. sylvia allows our faith to multiply, build in us. sylvia is that sliver of thought questioning the holy ghost people, sylvia is the thing that turns us back to the real god. not your god or any god you worship.”

Not since I read the title poem of Sharon Olds’ electric first collection, Satan Says, have I been so mesmerized by the power of a poet to inhabit and alter religious imagery to explore essential human truths—among them, the yearning for knowledge, the persistence of uncertainty, the limitations of language. If the artist is not a mere transcriber of life’s experiences, but one who translates experience into another form, a creation we would call art, then Young is an exemplary artist indeed. He has rendered the WHAT IS of our times—perhaps a WHAT IS of all times—through the WHAT IF of this rich, mythical world. We recognize settings, characters, even products (Nike and Pepsi among them), and yet our familiar world has been made new, a funhouse reflection of itself, the deep strange of a dreamscape.

Joshua YoungRecently, one of my intro students asked, with no sign of tongue in cheek, “Why are poems so often weird?” I like this question because it is hard to answer and because it points to something true about poems that more experienced students may think but never say. Poems are weird—the best ones anyway, the most memorable and provocative ones. You won’t find many collections weirder than Joshua Young’s The Holy Ghost People, but I consider this the highest form of praise. “Weird,” to me, means we haven’t seen it all before, not this way, and yet there are traces of something we know by heart, something perhaps we’ve even wished we knew how to say.

At the heart of life and literature is always quest, a hot pursuit, a journey both literal and more than literal. I have never heard it more weirdly or meaningfully described than here by the Holy Ghost People: “everything billows. we moved through star clusters for you. the breadcrumbs of photographs of stars—we will find our way back, but there will be nothing left, till something new forms between the dark matter.” This book is one such something new.