Foreword | July 14, 2015
Once while visiting a park on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, I observed what appeared to be anarchic behavior among a group of squirrel monkeys. More than twenty of them were clustered together on a limb, fussing, fighting, biting, examining each other’s genitals, having sex and pushing each other to different limbs. They seemed to be engaged in endless conflict. I later learned that what looked like chaos was in fact the maintenance of a certain order, albeit at a speedy metabolic and behavioral rate. Squirrel monkeys live in large mixed-sex gatherings of females from the same natal group, with immigrant males among them that are typically kept on the periphery despite their frequent, often frustrated attempts to take different positions in the community. Males that grasp and examine females are apparently seeking olfactory cues to the female’s reproductive state; much of the fussing, biting and pushing I observed are efforts to defy and test social and sexual order, blended with actions maintaining that order in the quest for strong sexual mates.
Their crazy but oddly logical monkeying around was almost like a cartoon of evolutionary genetics reflected in behavior. Conflict, failure and the occasional moments of harmony are at the heart of evolution. A similar kind of change happens over time in human culture, including the arts and literature.
The best new voices often defy the accepted in the quest for new themes, subjects and possibilities of form. Beethoven composed music so complex it almost threatened to become disorder, with density and stylistic variety and a mingling of the inordinately sophisticated with the childishly simple. In art, Picasso disassembled “realistic” imagery—which he was quite adept at imitating—in his quest to see and embody the abstract elements of form, color and movement.
Artists who defy the accepted, either in form or in subject, may not be fully appreciated until they are either dead or near the end of their lives. Jane Austen is now so widely admired that her work is thought of as a standard model of the novel. However, during her lifetime, because she was an innovator who challenged both novelistic themes and the accepted roles of women, she was largely unknown outside a small realm of family, friends and opinion makers. The novel was not yet widely considered to be an art form. It was questionable for women even to be writing novels, especially when they so vividly portrayed the shaky position of their gender in a world where security was contingent on a “good marriage.”
In subjects and themes, this issue is replete with testing and defiance. Robin Romm’s story “What to Expect” depicts a thirty-nine-year-old film editor who has decided to have a child by artificial insemination. She is now pregnant but feeling unsure about how she will manage single motherhood. She impulsively makes friends with a couple who are also seeking a child by the same means and despite her pregnancy begins an affair with the man, who is a filmmaker. The story is an interesting look at the scariness and uncertainty of deliberate single motherhood and the challenge of cultural norms.
“July Sun” by Aamina Ahmad is a story about how vicious some societies can be toward those who defy convention. A young Pakistani man, newly and happily married, sees his wife’s unmarried best friend engaged in a tryst. He is shocked by the impropriety and soon learns that the young woman and her lover have eloped. The tragedies that ensue include the murder of the young woman and the wreckage of the couple’s own marital happiness. Ahmad’s story highlights the destructiveness of intransigent cultural norms, where breaking certain rules is met with simple extermination and a shared poison lingering among survivors.
“The Prodigal Daughter” is the second story we have published about M. G. Stephens’s Irish protagonist, Eileen, a recovered drug addict and former wife of a Cuban jazz musician. Eileen has returned to Ireland to see her mother, who is dying. Eileen has a tense interaction with her sisters, who have lived “better” lives than she—no drugs or wandering or dissipation. The mother announces that she is proud of them all. But what she finally tells the sisters shocks them all, including Eileen, with what it reveals of her feelings about convention and safety versus adventure, about making mistakes and taking chances.
Mitch Wieland’s story “Snow Angels” concerns a teenaged son whose mother has committed suicide and whose father moves them to Japan, where the mother was born. The boy, still lonely and grieving, makes friends with an eccentric Japanese girl whose father is dead and whose whole family was displaced by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The girl is a brave and compelling nonconformist who flouts the ruthlessly cliquish expectations of her classmates, especially a group of girls who single her out for harassment. They go on a quirky adventure that breaks several rules, including venturing into the Fukushima exclusion zone to scatter the mother’s ashes in a graveyard. The zone is now both a ghostly and strangely auspicious place—at least in the lives of these defiant young survivors.
Jeff Wasserboehr’s essay “Possess Stonewall” also concerns a young visitor to Asia whose family is troubled—in this case by Jeff’s father, who is mentally ill and alcoholic. Jeff makes friends with an elderly Korean teacher, Mr. Lee, who has his own problem with alcohol. Mr. Lee serves both as Jeff’s unlikely confidant and teacher about what it is like to live with the threat of a hostile neighboring North Korea. Mr. Lee offers him paradoxical advice, saying that hate is too easy, too much of a reduction; yet, despite this belief, the country should be punished partly because retribution and penance are strong cultural beliefs in Korea. This and his other Korean experiences somehow offer Jeff the courage when he returns to the States to defy his father and deal honestly with him for the first time.
“Hobart Dreams” by Dave Zoby is a comic memoir about Zoby’s experience in high school working as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant where his brother also worked, before leaving for college. In his brother’s absence, Zoby begins acting out, lying and plotting with a friend to host an illicit party at a local hotel. The party plans go badly awry as the young Zoby learns a valuable lesson about how far he can go in breaking the rules.
Miriam Bird Greenberg’s poems take us to places distant and close—an old earthquake site in Northern California, wartime Mexico during Octavio Paz’s childhood, the constellation Ophiuchus, and a rain-hemmed room. Those places, dreamed and imagined, blur boundaries and blend into one another. Greenberg’s poems not only resist the constraints of spatial locations but also defy any static notion of identities. At one moment, our speaker is a mechanic working at a telephone box, and at another she is putting on “a black lace bra” or breaking an animal’s neck. She at once dreads finding herself poverty-stricken—“trash picking, tearing / corners from a twenty”—and is afraid to lose the freedom of being lost like a runaway. Jennifer Barber’s poems gaze on small details and fleeting moments: bird nests in early spring, the first autumn rain, fallen pears in the grass, a deserted railway station. Sparse but astute, they resist any sense of finality or closure. Through the use of silence and white space, they cause the seemingly insignificant and transient to both enlarge and linger.
Doug Ramspeck’s poems are haunted by memories of his childhood—his father falling from the barn roof, his mother nudging him to pray, his father dozing off beside him, old men with “the smoke of the clouds to keep them company” and bats set loose from a cut hickory tree. Here, past and present experiences and perceptions bleed into one another. They grow intense with each remembrance and re-envisioning, defying erasure.
David Naimon interviews novelist David Mitchell about his award-winning novels. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Mitchell’s newest novel The Bone Clocks has been selected for the 2014 long list. It is a book about mortality and in some ways a kind of defiance of death. Mitchell says in the interview, “What’s going on is I’m middle-aged. My relationship to mortality needs a reboot. This young guy that I’m used to seeing in the mirror is no longer there. You need to handle that, to think about it. It’s serious stuff. Mortality is no longer an abstract thing over the horizon anymore. It’s in your kneecaps, it’s in your back, it’s in your lungs.”
This issue’s Curio Cabinet. “Living Energy: The Paintings of Michael West” describes the career of one of the women artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement during and following World War II. Abstract Expressionism is described by some art historians as the first art movement in which America plainly took the lead in Western art. Michael West and her fellow painters Hans Hoffman, Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky shared the belief that style, inner compulsion and spontaneous gesture defined subject and were the wellsprings of creativity.
In her feature on Jacob Riis, Kristine Somerville focuses on his photographs of New York’s slum children. Riis was a pioneering photographer and Progressive social reformer whose own rags-to-riches story trumps anything written by Horatio Alger. Born in rural Denmark in 1849, he came to America during a wave of European immigration to make a better life for himself. He experienced firsthand the horrors of poverty, only to defy the odds and become a successful reporter and author of the bestselling photojournalistic investigation of New York’s poverty, How the Other Half Lives. With the book’s appearance and his tireless speaking tours, the public could no longer ignore the plight of those at the lowest rung of society and the staggering inequality that existed during the Gilded and Progressive eras.
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