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Current Issue: Winter 2016
Current issue: Winter 2016
Genre Convention is the Missouri Review’s new blog series exploring literary genres and subgenres, written by those who love or loathe them. Upcoming entries will include apocalyptic fictions, locked room mysteries, and gothic children’s stories.
“Hybrid Vigor”: Embracing the Fragmented Nation in Cuban Science Fiction
The first and last time I heard about my father’s family back in Cuba, I was seated at the dinner table with my parents and siblings, our mouths moved to unguarded speech by the copious amounts of alcohol being consumed. My father, in good spirits and seated at the end of the table, spoke late into the evening. Cradling a glass of wine, he spouted familiar stories about his father, his early married days with my mother, the time he visited Cuba and became so ill that he nearly shat himself on the plane ride back to the U.S. He rattled off his familiar greatest hits and then a never-before-heard deep cut, brief and revelatory: he revealed that he still had many relatives left in Cuba, many of whom were Afro-Cubans who had not made it over stateside with the other members of his family in the 60s. His words that night marked the first and only time that I would hear about this family unknown and inaccessible to me. There were no records or correspondences to examine, no stories to pick apart for their hidden meanings and disjunctures. On his side, I knew only a handful of his cousins, an aunt here, my abuela. The fact that a whole unknown clan existed on that not-so-distant island excited my curiosity about my lineage. That night forced me to negotiate the varying strands of what it means to be a Cuban-American without context, without a complete understanding of the various physical migrations and cultural intersections that produced me. For the first time, I understood the true nature of familial silences, of late-night revelations and whispered stories about primos and tíos that you weren’t supposed to talk about.
These silences are not rare in the households of many Cuban-American families throughout the country, or even just in my home of Miami-Dade County. Existing as a hyphenated Cuban often means tuning your ear to the quiet. My father’s story is not so different from the stories told and not told in other Cuban-American families, whose histories are often reduced to impossibly mono-cultural lineages. Family crests will speak of the great migrations from Europe to the island, but never of those many West African slaves, Chinese servants, and other transplanted peoples.
Ours is a story written time and again by Cuban-Americans in the curiously selective tales they tell about themselves, in the details conveyed as well as those left dangling. It is a story inscribed in the history of my family’s adopted home of the United States, where relations with Cuba were historically predicated on subordination to the homogenizing influences of empire: the protectorate scheme, the historical campaign of waiting until, as Louis A. Perez Jr. says in his essays on Cuban history, the island’s “ripe fruit…[leans] towards the North American Union.” In my home country the model minority Cuban–fully assimilated, politically conservative, light-skinned–emerges as a major aspirational figure, to the exclusion of mixed-race Cubans everywhere.
When these many cultural and familial silences are broken, the noise can be overwhelming. You can see it in Wifredo Lam’s Picasso-inspired depictions of Afro-Cuban hybridity, and in the writings of Cristina García, where familial silences are summarily broken and personal histories are recovered. In Cuban literature and art, there are as many celebrations of hybridity and difference as there are deafening consolidations of uniformity. Out of works like these emerge incisive studies of the fragments of identity and history we share, which are so often left without definite shape. And in these artists’ work, there appears the shape of a Cuban speculative tradition that speaks through the great silences of history.
When I entered Florida State University as a Master’s student in literature, I originally planned to focus on the great swaths of North American and European sci-fi that riveted me in my teens. I was fascinated by the social realist works of J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick, the epic military fiction of Robert Heinlein, and the newer crop of speculative fictionists like Tom McCarthy whose work skirted genre conventions. Not until the end of my first year did I even consider that I could study literature as a means of unpacking the disjunctures I observed in my family. When I heard my father’s words on that night four years ago, I slowly started to ask questions about relatives I had never met. I realized that in lieu of any solid knowledge about them, it made sense to delve into a literary tradition that could help me scrutinize their absence in my own life. In a roundabout way, I sought out Cuban science fiction because, like the works of those sci-fi writers I loved, I wondered if studying this genre could answer the fundamental questions I had about the split within myself.
I initially approached Cuban sci-fi by reading some of the first greats of the genre. Many early Cuban science fictionists like Agustín de Rojas and Ángel Arango wrote about the project of nation-building, often advancing parables of future worlds where people were bound by their duty to the collective and to the enterprise of national belonging. Though these writers developed their own essential interpretations of science fiction, it is truly after these initial waves that my interest really grew, with the works of writers like Yoss, Michel Encinosa Fú, and Daína Chaviano posing maps of Cuban history and identity that seemed to reflect the conflicted intersections I saw within myself. I truly became a fan of the genre through the work of Yoss, a writer whose singular status as the reigning master of Cuban cyber-punk bridged the gap between my favorites of the West and this body of literature that was previously unknown to me.
In Yoss’s recently released collection of short stories, A Planet for Rent, the author mirrors the contemporary political disenfranchisement and meager economic standing of Cuba in his futuristic rendering of an alien-conquered Earth. Made a “galactic protectorate” by invading extraterrestrials (there is mention of a brief war that, mostly due to human resistance, ended the lives of 80 million humans in a matter of hours), the Earth is re-developed into a major intergalactic tourist hub, a kind of living museum in which many-limbed Cetians and other alien creatures converge, take in the sights, and occasionally assume human surrogates called body spares. In “Social Worker,” the titular figure, a woman named Buca, agrees to be impregnated by an alien (a Grodo called Selshaliman whose “shiny, grayish chitin exoskeleton” gives him the appearance of a “[man] wearing medieval armor”) in exchange for a ticket out of Earth, with the mixed child she will bring to term becoming a larger symbol for the vast, hyper-real intersections of culture and biology representative of the new mestizo of Yoss’s stories. A Planet for Rent is filled with remembrances of an Earth that, as Buca notes, once contained “Greece and Rome and the Aztecs and the Incas and Genghis Khan and the Mongols and the pyramids and the Great Wall of China,” only to be replaced by the mono-cultural instruments of Earth’s subjugation: the “microworld of the astro-port” and its touristy artworks and attractions that reflect an Earth whose history has been summarily erased.
In the collection’s other stories, like the Grand Guignol theater of “Performing Death,” Yoss again speaks of a past filled with cultures and peoples long gone, this time in an artist’s performance piece that sees his body exactingly ripped apart by machines whose timed mechanisms strategically strip flesh from bone and cause geysers of blood to spray in artful streams. The subject of the performance, an Earthly artist named Moy, delivers a monologue about Earth’s erased history and its great contributions to literature and art, only to find a crowd indifferent to his message, but nevertheless entertained by the spectacle of flesh severed from bone and limbs exploded. By performance’s end, with his body fully destroyed, Moy is cloned back to life and finds that he must repeat his performance with far more violence and cruelty in order to pay off his enormous debts. His transmission of history is ultimately lost, and his performance only further realizes his inability to restore the historical erasures that haunt him.
In Moy and Buca, Yoss articulates characters whose voices can never fully speak the history they know to be true. They recognize the poly-cultural landscape of post-Contact life in the many migrations of alien species, and in the inter-breedings that produce their mestizo counterparts. The Earth, though, remains a uniform and “backwards” space to their alien conquerors, a dejected sphere where the hybridized intersections of culture and history that once occupied its lands are now forgotten fragments of history.
In the stories of Michel Encinosa Fú and Daína Chaviano, a similar strand of revisionist critique speaks through the silences of history and memory. In the former’s “Like the Roses Had to Die,” the heroine, a half-wolf/half-human freedom fighter, attempts to topple an oppressive dystopian regime, only to find herself betrayed by one of her hybrid brethren who is subsumed by the oppressively mono-cultural forces he was meant to fight. In their fight against a repressively uniform future, Encinosa Fú’s characters bring their marginality to the fore and fight through the silences that contain them to direct a larger criticism at a society unable to consolidate its difference.
Daína Chaviano’s “The Annunciation”–less hard sci-fi than a speculative reimagining of religious myth–similarly reinterprets the story of Christ’s incarnation as a rebuke of organized religion’s homogenizing silences. After telling the Virgin Mary of her ultimate purpose as the mother of humanity’s savior, the angel Gabriel laments, “It’s a shame that you and yours cannot understand us better…You haven’t understood the half of our moral teachings. Instead of applying them, you have converted them into religion.” That sly observation informs the novel differences Chaviano proposes in her retelling, as in the emphasis on Mary’s own sexual awakening in the ecstatic grace she experiences through the angel Gabriel, or in her articulation of the Virgin Mary as not merely an object of history who quietly and obediently accepts her fate.
Many of these works pose critiques of societies that seek to erase the essential differences that define us, bringing to the fore the various ethno-cultural intersections that constitute a nation. In reading these authors, I discovered the keys to breaking silences I had long known only unconsciously, and I realized that there was a heuristic developing that depended as much on my conceptions of nation as it did on my conception of self.
As my master’s thesis began to take shape, it became apparent that these stories were speaking truths I had long known but did not possess the words to speak. They elaborated on the constricting conceptions of self and nation that, for me, were simply waiting to be defined. Through these writers, the split in my consciousness had finally been given a name and a voice. I saw in these stories various confrontations with the uncontainable ruptures that inform our relationships with larger structures of identity and national belonging, whether in Chaviano’s revisionist critiques of religion, or in those directed at the repressive forces of imperialism found in Yoss’s and Encinosa Fú’s texts. My thesis became far more than a study of a literary sub-genre: it personally transformed me.
In the works I studied, I felt as if I had found some way to conquer the silences I had long known, and to work toward some inclusive, potential vision of culture that could take shape from outside the exclusive terms history dictated. For the first time, I could fully see the fundamental trap we Cubans fall into when we pose ourselves as a unified people who, ironically, share in everything but the markers of our own racial and cultural difference. I realized the trick of belonging to a culture that often seeks to repress its own divergent strands of being. For me, Cuban sci-fi provided a way to conquer the deafening consolidations of uniformity that distanced me from the larger truths I shared with other Cuban-Americans. Significantly, I felt that I had found a way to exist with context.
Hector Mojena is a writer and editor currently based in Miami, Florida. When not working or sleeping, Hector enjoys playing the drums and singing the praises of the Velvet Underground to anyone who will listen. He also occasionally writes fiction and short essays, with previous work appearing in zines like the South Florida-based Strangeways Magazine.
Genre Convention is the Missouri Review‘s new blog series exploring literary genres and subgenres, written by those who love or loathe them. Upcoming entries will include Cuban sci-fi, locked room mysteries, and gothic children’s stories.
All writing does not, but perhaps should, begin with a confession. Here is mine: I don’t particularly like fairy tales. It is not because they are often dismissed as literature for children, for certainly adults have enjoyed and continue to enjoy them. Nor is it because they are flat and formulaic and full of logic that makes you want to tear at your eyes sometimes: that is actually why they’re so enjoyable. Rather, it is because I am afraid of them. They are a tool, a narrative rifle, and I am afraid for the one who wields them and devastated for those at whom they are aimed.
These stories came to me as they often did for my generation: through Disney. Long has passed since women whispered them to one another and men sat at the edges of the circle and wrote them down: now, we witness their whimsy through technicolor and HD. Occasionally, we go back to the books. Regardless of the medium, we (like to) believe in once upon a time and we believe in happily ever after, even though it would be more accurate to think of them as once upon now, and we continue on, ever after.
On the surface these stories are deeply appealing: the poor boy becomes rich and the princess, while already rich, defeats an ogre (or, more likely, it is defeated for her by the poor boy) and she finds true love. Talking animals hiss warnings and coo advice, and old women may eat you if it takes their fancy, but they might also help you navigate the primeval forest. Little boys slaughter one another for game, and girls grow out their hair to use as rope, and their tears can ward away evil. These are not safe stories. They are presented as if they have the keys to navigate our world.
Sometimes, I think they do more than that: they cut back into our historical body and lay out what we used to be. And what we still are.
Maybe they do, as Jack Zipes said, reach down into our gut of collective desire, or as Franz Ricklin claimed, act as wish fulfilment: Who doesn’t want to be beautiful, clever and rich in a world which values beauty, wit and wealth? Yet if that is the case, then these stories are less thin plots with bare-boned characters and more like small mirrors that we hold up to our faces to see the grime in our pores. While their goal may be to socialize us unto our culture, more often, they reflect our anxiety back at us.
Depending on what that anxiety is, we might be in for a deeper understanding of our own selves. Since the characters of fairy tales are traditionally vague, sometimes getting no more characterization than “girl” or “beautiful” or “red lips”, it is easy for us to slip into their skins and see our experiences played out in the tale. The wolf, perhaps, is not only a talking beast but the banker who denied us our loan, or the man at the bar who gazed too long that one night and followed us to the door. The stepmother could easily be our own mothers or our fathers, denying us what we desire. These are flexible tales, but what about when these tales make the wolf look like a stereotype, and the mother all women?
For example, during WWII, Hitler’s propaganda machine was inclined to swallow anything it could deem useful and churn it out, and Grimm’s had those fears burbling already. You won’t see a Disney production of it (only, I believe, because the old man is dead) but there are a handful of tales where a racist rendition of a Jewish man is tortured by being forced to dance in a thicket of thorns or hung when he is discovered to be a thief. Though the Nazis did bend the tales a little – and these tales are very flexible – by making Cinderella so pure, so Aryan, no one would mistake her dog-like sisters for her, and having Red Riding Hood be stalked through the forest by a wolf with stereotypical Jewish characteristics (only to be saved, in the film version, by an SS huntsman), they didn’t have to bend that much. That ugliness was there all along, as much as there is an ugliness inside us: it only needs one hand to brush the villains into something we were taught to fear, and the other hand to pull the trigger and shoot them dead.
The history of these tales is riddled with a power dynamic: though women may have whispered them to one another and their children, taking delight in imagining their lives as princesses even if only in their minds, they were written down – solidified – by men who listened in or just made up their own version: the Grimms, Anderson, Calvino, Basile, Perrault and others, which is how we know them now, divorced from the voices who used to speak them. In locking the stories down they gave root to our anxieties: stepmothers are unnatural women who will kill the blood children of the father, the beautiful are pure because the divine loves them so, and any who act outside of the order of how things should be are put down. Even the peaceful are violent when they are met with one-note evil: The Scarecrow of Oz weeps when any little thing is harmed, but he does not shed tears for the Witch’s army of crows whose necks he snaps with abandon.
We’re not weeping either: why would we? We were told they were evil. The pure shed tears only for the pure. That is why we do not cry when Cinderella’s cruel sisters cut off pieces of their feet to fit into a shoe: after all, weren’t they foolish in the first place for doing such a crazy thing for the love and financial stability of a rich man?
The fairy tale is not an understanding place. If fairy tales are sometimes considered tales for children, then it is because children have a difficult time indulging in nuance, and there is little room for that in these tales. The thing is, they often operate on a moral binary, and any-thing or any-one whom you want to demarcate as “good” will be Good, and anything else is Bad News, which is why when the NRA recently rewrote the tales with guns as the hero, well – their nature is malleable to our politics. Be careful what you read, and more careful still what you let sink in.
The ones that brought me to my knees were the ones that held up the mirror, laughed at what it reflected, and pierced the assumptions behind the gaze. Of course, Angela Carter did that first, teaching me that mothers fight tigers in Hanoi and young girls lay down with wolves when they choose to, giggling all the way at their own private jokes. Begin with The Bloody Chamber, but find your way to the others: Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples” with his righteous wicked stepmother and necrophiliac prince; Joyce Carol Oates’s “Blue-Bearded Lover”, the one wife who will outlast her blue husband, because she is exactly like him, or anything by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya and Kate Bernheimer, whose delightful tales prick at the small hairs on your neck. Read Alissa Nutting’s Juniper Tree tale, the one that does not allow the father off the hook for his buffoonery, or Marissa Meyer’s Lunar series, because cyborg Cinderella is going to be fact one day.
The fairy tale is timeless not because it has some intrinsic essential understanding of being, but because it is so supple that it can be reshaped to replicate our culture, no matter what time period. Even Disney has caught on to our growing critique of voiceless, white princesses and gave us Tiana, the frog princess. And while that story had, somewhat predictably, a racist caricature for a villain, we are a part of the change. Just as much as wolves in business suits are and a girl in a red hoodie torturing a pedophile.
Don’t limit yourself: read them all, each any every single one you come across. They’re so perfect for recognizing what we were afraid of before, what we continue to be afraid of, and where next we’ll point the barrel.
A.A. Balaskovits is the author of Magic for Unlucky Girls (SFWP 2017) which won the Santa Fe Writers Program Awards grand prize in 2015. Her work appears or will appear in Indiana Review, Smokelong Quarterly, The Southeast Review, Wigleaf, The Madison Review and many others. She is the Social Media Editor for Cartridge Lit.
Please join us in congratulating the winners and runners-up of this year’s Miller Audio Contest! Winners were selected in collaboration with our guest judge, Andrea Silenzi, Senior Producer of The Gist with Mike Pesca, a daily news show from Slate, and host of the podcast Why Oh Why, a show about relationships. Stay tuned for these pieces to be released as featured podcasts on TMR‘s Soundbooth in June and July.
1st Place Winner in Prose:
Ingrid Rojas Contreras- “Two Worlds”
Runner-up in Prose:
Dennis Funk & Maya Goldberg-Safir- “The Sitter Dispatch”
1st Place Winner in Poetry:
Marcus Wicker- “Watch Us Elocute”
Runner-up in Poetry:
Fable the Poet- “Picasso Baby”
1st Place Winner in Humor:
Colleen Pellissier- “Yoga Dogs”
Runner-up in Humor:
Nathan Blanchard- “Bek Mekages: The Mystery of Sunny Delight (Part 1)”
1st Place Winner in Audio Documentary:
Ibby Caputo- “Crying Dry Tears”
Runner-up in Audio Documentary:
Julia Duba- “South Florida’s Graffiti Problem in the ‘90s Had an Emblem: Crook Crime”
Special thanks to judge Andrea Silenzi; Contest Assistant Editor Hannah Cuthbertson; our contest interns Jen McCauley, Traci Cox, and Emma Taylor; and the rest of the TMR staff. It was a record-breaking year for submissions, and they were a pleasure to listen to. If you didn’t place this year, we hope you will consider submitting in 2016, and again, a big congratulations to our winners!
Today, the Missouri Review presents our fifth installment of Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by Genese Grill, whose essay “Portals: Cabinets of Curiosity, Reliquaries, and Colonialism” won the 2015 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in nonfiction and appears in our Spring 2016 issue.
“I thought you already finished,” a friend, who is not a writer, will invariably say whenever I boast that I am finally done with an essay or a book. I am finished again, or still, because finishing is not really a definitive moment, but a long process, from the first and second drafts, to the third, to editing, to editing again, to rewriting sections, to changing the title; maybe there is an index, then there are proofs and proofs again. So when I say I just finished my book, you will understand that it will be finished a few more times over the course of the next year, but that I still feel I have some cause to celebrate. But finishing also feels bad. Not only does it mean the end of a very long relationship one has had with a complex of ideas or characters or a place, but it also requires that one make peace with imperfection and, paradoxically, incompleteness—since there is so much, always, that one has left out, and so much, one thinks, that could be better said, or said differently, or arranged in another way. At best it feels like a sort of fulfillment of a vision; but no matter what there is a loss. And one has to figure out once again who one is, and what one is supposed to be doing with this life, without the project that has defined one for so long.
But how does one know when something is finished? Robert Musil, whose experimental novel The Man Without Qualities was never finished, has been a dangerous mentor for me; his sense of infinite possibility and experimentation with alternate versions is very seductive. But I am, for better or for worse, somewhat impatient and not a perfectionist. I spend a good deal of time meandering around among all the notes, questions, sources, sometimes making gigantic idea-maps and asking myself over and over what the point of the whole thing is (reminding myself what Emerson said about how the writer often leaves out the most important part, since it has become so obvious to him in the long rumination). I go forward and then I go back, constantly making small progress and then retreating again. It is completely inefficient, completely organic, completely frustrating, but exciting too. Anyway, despite the infinite-seeming strands of my projects, I do eventually weave them together in some fashion, finish, and move on to something else. But the completion always comes as somewhat of a surprise, as if the endless-seeming tiny steps start to accelerate before I can even catch up with them, and something takes over and finishes for me. But how do I know?
The Pre-Raphaelite painter Burne-Jones said that one had to ruin a painting a little bit before one knew it was done; and perhaps there is something to that. Maybe it is more like a tarnishing than a ruining; or like the fuzz being rubbed off a peach. Or it is as if the first romance between an author and her ideas has given birth to a baby who learns, by the time the book is done, to walk by itself. One doesn’t love the toddler any less than the newborn, but it is more autonomous, and one can observe it from the outside, as something one knows one made, but does not quite know how. One can begin to pay attention to other things, other births.
When something is far from finished it makes me feel ill. It is as if a mess of jagged shards of glass are crossing inside my stomach. These are all of the disordered ideas, the doubts, the things I once thought were related to each other but can’t yet remember why; these are the nagging contradictions I might try to suppress because they don’t fit smoothly into my conception. They may well be a reflection of the chaotic jumble of the world itself, before an ordering mind selects out and arranges pieces into some bearable, legible form. Until I have ordered the shards into a clear and pleasing mosaic of words, ideas, and images, I feel deeply uneasy. And when I do arrange them, or—rather—when they seem almost magically to fall into place under my fingers, after many hours and weeks of struggle and despair, I really don’t know how it happened.
My essays tend to contain more ideas and subjects than would seem advisable. The essay “Portals” is about people who collect things, medieval reliquaries, iconoclasm, primitive gift exchange, colonialism, Descartes, the discontents of civilization, ornamentation in the Viennese Secession, relationships, ex-patriots, and walnut oil. What was I thinking? When I arrived at The MacDowell Colony for a four week residency, I had planned to finish the one final essay in my collection. But on the first day I surprised myself with reasonableness, acknowledging that the one essay needed to be broken up into two. I just couldn’t possibly fit social construction theory, genetics, the blank slate, the categorical imperative, Poe’s “imp of the perverse,” Nietzsche’s sojourn to Torino, Goethe’s Italian Journey, the crisis of language, and the difference between the aesthetic individualism of Gabriele D’Annunzio and the fascism of Mussolini into one essay. But I did manage to fit that all into two, which may not have been wise— my brain may have gotten sprained— but at least I am finished again. Very tired, but finished.
And now, with my last week in residency, and a new project in my mind’s eye, I am faced with something even more difficult than finishing: beginning.
Genese Grill is an artist, writer, translator, and independent scholar living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (Camden House, 2012) and translator of Robert Musil’s Thought Flights (Contra Mundum Press, 2015). Her essays and translations have been published in the Georgia Review, Numero Cinq, Fiction, and Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics.
Today, the Missouri Review presents the fourth installment of Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by Thomas Swick, whose essay “My Days with the Antimafia” appeared in our Winter 2011 issue. We celebrate with him the publication of his new book The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them.
Travel Writing Before the Writing
I started out as a feature writer at the Trenton Times in my home state of New Jersey. Every week or so I would head out of the newsroom and spend time with someone engaged in work far removed from my own: a woodcutter, a tobacconist, a harness racing driver. I gained entry into specialized worlds and became a short-term expert (and no doubt bore) on a growing number of subjects.
My dream was to become a travel writer, and feature writing seemed the next best thing, providing me with new experiences and insider knowledge, all within a day’s drive of home.
Twelve years later I became a newspaper travel editor and even people who didn’t know me told me I had landed a dream job. But travel writers understand that there is a catch. The nature of our work necessitates that we disobey one of the oldest rules of the game: write what you know. Journalists (with the exception of feature writers) have beats – cops, schools, food, movies – that they develop a deep understanding of over time. The beat of a travel writer is the world, and even cosmopolitan expats who speak a few languages have to start from scratch whenever their passports receive a new stamp.
Thanks to my time as a feature writer, I was already familiar with the repeated cluelessness and inescapable presumptuousness that came with my new profession. But it was the process of feature writing that helped me the most.
The inherent handicap in travel writing – that you’re frequently writing about what you don’t know – is offset by a great advantage, which is that the experience that is to be your subject has yet to take place. When novelists, memoirists, essayists, or poets sit down to write, almost all of the material they will call upon – the vast trove of life experiences – has already been amassed. There is not much they can do at this point – outside of using their imaginations – to make their personal histories more interesting. (Which might explain the number of fictionalized memoirs.) The works of travel writers are also colored by the great grab bag of the past (it’s the fate of anyone with a keyboard), but most of our stories are lived and shaped with the knowledge that they’re going to be put into words. This adds to our feeling of doubt a paradoxical sense of control.
It’s why, when I teach travel writing, it takes me a while to get to the writing. I start by talking about the importance of preparation, which primarily consists of reading: guidebooks, of course, and travel books (though nothing too recent; I don’t want somebody else’s aperçus preempting my own), but also novels, biographies of famous sons and daughters, poems, essays, and maps. Reading about a place, especially reading its literature, gives you atmosphere and insight as well as things to talk about when you get there. I also recommend watching relevant movies, listening to music, studying the language, eating the foods–immersing yourself in the culture as best you can before you leave. Who knows? Your waiter may have an uncle back home who’d like to meet you.
Good preparation is essential to good travel writing. A magazine once sent me to Venice on 24 hours’ notice, thinking, apparently, that an uninformed writer would produce an interesting story. I did get a decent story, but only because I’d purchased a guidebook hours before departure that told of an organization whose meeting I crashed.
It was a four-day visit, so everything was accelerated. A more deliberate approach produces better results: wandering – especially in the first few hours, when everything appears fresh and new – and then sitting, which allows you to observe the people – how they walk, how they dress, how they greet one another – in a way that’s not possible when you’re part of their parade. You can order something if you’re at a café – eating is the easiest and one of the most enjoyable ways to absorb a culture – or take out your notebook, which sometimes has the unintended benefit of improving the service.
After a day or two of observation, you try to participate in the life of the place. This is the most difficult part of a travel writer’s research – people are busy, you may be shy – but the most gratifying when it happens. To that end, you extricate yourself from the tourists’ world – hotels, museums, Lonely-Planet-approved restaurants – and enter that of the locals: concerts, readings, sporting events, church. You hang out in dives. You call up the uncle.
There are writers like Annie Dillard who can arrive in a place and simply by sniffing the air divine its truths. But most of us – even brilliant interpreters of landscape like Jonathan Raban and Colin Thubron – need the help of the people who live there. The more folks you talk to, the more you learn, obviously, yet there are places where meaningful communion with a single inhabitant is all you can get. It’s still better than none at all. That person becomes another character in your story, sometimes the character, taking the spotlight away from you. This need to find a character is a leftover, a gift, from my days as a feature writer; it relieves my stories of the monotony of my voice and peppers them with the words of people who know infinitely more on the subject than I do. I don’t feel it’s sufficient to show readers a place through my eyes only; I need to reveal it through the eyes of its residents, or at the very least one of them.
One of the beauties of travel writing is that the people you meet in the course of your work sometimes become friends. This can happen with subjects of feature stories, but it’s rarer because the dynamic is different, the situation more structured. A feature writer conducts interviews; a travel writer has conversations. Some of them, if you’re lucky, take place in a kitchen where dinner is cooking. A bottle may be open on the table. You are a writer (at least in your mind) in search of a story, but to your new companions you’re a guest, the chosen recipient of their hospitality and warmth. The emotion you feel will inform every word you eventually write.
Thomas Swick was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel from 1989 to 2008. He has worked in a food hall in London, on a farm in Alsace, and at an English language school in Warsaw, an experience that served as the basis for his first book, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland. His new book, The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them, explores, through personal essays and nonfiction narratives, what he considers the seven fundamental pleasures of travel.
Today, the Missouri Review presents the third installment of Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by Jacqueline Kolosov, whose omnibus review “The Novella: Four New Collections” appears in our Winter 2015 issue.
On the Spacious Discipline of the Novella
“What I love about the novella is this: it can have the reduced essence of the short story but with the spacious reach of a novel, like a really compelling old person talking on a wide, open porch. And you can read all of it after dinner before bed.”
–Andre Dubus III
Last week in sunny, polluted Los Angeles, some 10,000 writers converged on the convention center for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference. At 4pm on Friday, I found myself on the patio of some upscale commercial hotel talking to Andre Dubus III about getting the ego out of the way in writing, the necessity of empathy for one’s characters (and for each other), wild blueberries, and Toyota’s well-made trucks. Along the way, the conversation turned to his novella collection, Dirty Love, which I reviewed for the Missouri Review in the Spring 2016 issue.
When I asked Andre about the genesis and evolution of that collection, I expected him to tell me that when he sat down to write, he had a sense, very early on in the process, that a piece would evolve into a story or a novel or that jewel, the novella. But what we expect is not necessarily what happens—thank god, right? “Marla” and “The Bartender,” two of the novellas in Dirty Love, grew out of what he called a “failed novel.” In the failed novel, he envisioned a predator character. Marla was to be the predator’s victim (and to an extent she is, given the relationship the novella depicts). The protagonist of “The Bartender” was to be the predator’s father. “So what went wrong?” I asked of those hundreds of pages he shelved and mined over a period of six years. The predator character was forced, Andre said. (And Dubus III can write superlatively terrifying predators as his body of work evidences.) But Marla came alive, as did Robert Doucette, the protagonist of “The Bartender,” and so this economical writer salvaged them from the wreckage of a much larger project. The surprise of Andre’s answer prompted me to rethink and recast a lot of what I’d intended to write about the novella here.
A length of 60 to 120 pages seems to be the most obvious element of the novella. In the words of Henry James, it is amenable to the “idea happily developed” to its own “ideal length.” So a novella has a much tighter focus than a novel. Meaning, it’s about one thing and one to two characters. Place, too, may be circumscribed or unified, and here it’s worth singling out the central sense of place in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and the title novella in Andre Dubus III’s Dirty Love. In his introduction to The Granta Book of the American Long Story, Richard Ford approaches the novella form from another angle, focusing on its distinction from the short story. Whereas the story requires restriction and intensity, the novella “may have intense effects but wider implications.”
Those wider implications still require economy. And economy is a form of discipline. I am a poet who also writes prose, both nonfiction and fiction. And I’ve written three novellas, but I only consider one to be truly successful. In“Locks,” I wanted to write about Susan, a woman from a lower middle class background who finds herself “trapped” in her marriage to a man who is raising his much younger brother as his own son. The brother/son has a severe form of Asperger’s, and Susan finds herself in the position of caretaker to this boy. She also has a beautiful, troubled daughter who has become sexually active and recently has had an abortion. Susan’s one “hope,” if I can call the child that, is her eight-year-old daughter, also her husband’s child. This child ultimately pushes a Muslim child off some playground equipment and calls her an ethnic slur she picked up from her father, who has racist ideas. I’ve included the complex family dynamics of “Locks” here in order to demonstrate why this novella, unlike the other two, has been successful. To paraphrase Henry James, Susan’s story—her unfulfilled desires and all the ways in which she’s forced to compromise—is “the one idea [un]happily developed to its own ideal length.” The novella form allows me to explore the lives of the son with Aspergers, the troubled teen, and even the husband, but the reader perceives them in relation to Susan’s experience. In a novel, these characters would need, I think, more breathing room independent of Susan.
I’ll conclude by stepping out of craft and into the economics of the novella form. The August 2013 issue of Forbes includes the article “The Novella Economy: Making Novellas Profitable.” Here, author Isaac Marion, who wrote the best selling Warm Bodies and its prequel novella, The New Hunger, acknowledges the ease with which novellas work in a digital age, not because of the convenience of reading them on a tablet, but because page numbers aren’t visible. “The Old Man and the Sea, Fahrenheit 451…many of our most enduring classics are novellas and would probably be rejected by today’s publishers who are constantly pushing the needle from art toward commerce.” It’s a grim admission, one that turns on the belief that many readers who plunk down $16 for a book measure that book’s value in terms of heft—the length of the reading experience—rather than quality.
Maybe. Although many call the novella the perfect narrative form for the time-pressed digital age, big, fat, contemporary novels like Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog or The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, a 608-page contemporary retelling of Hamlet and Oprah’s Book Club selection, do superbly well. A remarkably long novel, by any standards (including the Victorians), is debut novelist Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which took a decade to write and weighs in at 1024 pages. Intriguingly, a seven-part adaptation of the book debuted on the BBC in May 2015. As much as contemporary audiences love their movies, they love their mini-series adaptations (as in the six-hour version of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth). It seems to follow, then, that the on-the-move, harried reader might prefer a novella she can read on her smartphone or tablet. But, given the proper allowance of time, she might choose to curl up with a big fat novel that takes days and days to read. The good news: despite all the other forms vying for our attention, we continue to read.
Jacqueline Kolosov is coeditor of Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres (Rose Metal Press 2015). Her poetic memoir, Motherhood, and the Places Between, won the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award selected by W. Ralph Eubanks, and is forthcoming from Stillhouse Press in September. She has published three full-length collections of poetry, too many chapbooks (a form she loves for reasons akin to her love for the novella), and several YA novels. Jacqueline’s stories, poems and essays have appeared in a range of venues including Poetry, The Southern Review, Terrain.org, The Sewanee Review, and Bellevue Literary Review. She is Professor of English and serves on the creative writing and literature faculty at Texas Tech. Find her at www.jacquelinekolosovreads.com.