Foreword | September 23, 2014

Violence in literature and entertainment continues to be debated, and for good reason. One does get tired of it being so casually depicted in every imaginable format, from television and games to novels. However, in this issue of TMR I notice a good measure of violence and pain, reminding me of a truism about this and other subjects in literature—that it all depends on the handling. Few contemporary writers offer up as much violence as Shakespeare. Romeo, thinking Juliet is dead, drinks his fatal potion; then Juliet wakes up and stabs herself, sinking onto her lover for her last (and possibly first) time. Mark Antony, Cassius and Brutus all commit suicide by falling onto swords. Hamlet’s jilted paramour Ophelia drowns herself, while his mother, Gertrude, drinks from the poisoned chalice; Portia of Julius Caesar and Lady Macbeth both kill themselves, as does Timon of Athens, who wanders off into the wilderness, unable to take any more of the foolishness of humankind.

And those are just some of the more significant self-inflicted deaths. Listing all the other deaths in Shakespeare by murder, assassination and combat would take a while. According to an article by Hannah Furness in The Telegraph, this spring’s performance of Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, Titus Andronicus, at the Globe Theatre caused several members of the audience to faint. The Globe spokesperson noted that staff members are “very well trained to look after people.” What really got to the audience wasn’t just the fourteen murders or the cannibalism scene in which Titus feeds his rival Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her sons baked into a pie, but when his virtuous daughter, Lavinia, walked out after having been brutally raped and having had her tongue cut out and arms chopped off—well, that did it. Five audience members had to be hauled out by the Globe’s very competent staff within five minutes.

That’s literature for you. In a more contemporary tour de force of violence, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, a youth gang of “droogs”happily go about town in a festival of orgiastic “ultra-violence.” Unfortunately, what’s hard to avoid in life becomes a fundamental subject in serious art.

Compared to Shakespeare and Burgess, Jane Gillette’s story “Trail of the Demon”is a piece of cake, even though it does describe a Washington, DC, woman who succumbs to the inclination to both revenge and racism after being mugged one evening. Dawn is a middle-aged woman who takes up running for fitness, who one day is grabbed and sexually threatened by a black teenager. Dawn’s response is not fear but anger, partly because as a teacher and neighbor she has led a long life of political correctness and community involvement. She runs after her attacker with a broken glass bottle but is unable to catch him. Afterward she is overwhelmed by her own racist response, which becomes a reflection on America’s problem with race.

The unnamed Indian narrator in Rav Grewal-Koch’s “Two Sentences”is a boy whose family fled from the violence of their native Punjab in the early 1980s, moving to Canada. The story is structured in two vignettes, each consisting of a multi-page single sentence, the first taking place in the Punjab, the second in Canada. The voice is a lyrical evocation of the narrator’s early life in India and later of his experience as a student at McGill University, where he experiences a more direct kind of ethnic violence when he and his friends are attacked and he is beaten up. The story illustrates the difficulty of escaping such violence and the way it can reshape individual lives.

Terri Shrum Stoor’s “A Bellyful of Sparrow”tells the story of Larson, an old rural Southerner who is dying of lung cancer but still lusts after cigarettes. Larson is colorful, blunt and colloquial, a pragmatic old man who understands why his son Steven is selling off a portion of his morphine pills for extra cash. He is amused that his friends and acquaintances have started confessing their misbehavior to him—and he’s sentimental about his late wife and his long friendship with his neighbor Sutter. In the story’s denouement, Sutter makes an unexpected move that he imagines is generous and kind but which in fact is yet another example of the casual projections that the living place upon the dying.

The omniscient narrative voice in Peter La Salle’s “Istanbul Nocturne, Three AM, Maybe Four”evokes the city of Istanbul and its Grand Hotel de Londres in the early hours of the morning, while the story’s two main characters, a young woman and her male partner, are asleep in room 505 of the hotel. Through descriptions of the hotel, its reputation, the surrounding city and the sleeping woman’s vivid dream of walking through part of the city, the story conveys the woman’s dissatisfaction with the course her life has taken and with her wealthy partner’s aimless traveling, as well as her grief over the premature death of her more talented, focused sister.

 

This issue’s nonfiction includes Mako Yoshikawa’s“The VeteransProject Number Two,” in which the author tries to understand her mother’s experience as an expatriate Japanese woman who was a child during World War II and naïve about the behavior of the Japanese during the conflict. The mother, Hiroko, is a writer who had previously published books about Western culture for a Japanese audience. When Hiroko learned in middle age about the wartime atrocities committed by Japanese, she was shocked and decided to interview men who had been Japanese POWs and write their story—again for a Japanese audience. Following the book’s publication in 2009, she embarked on a book in English, based on the stories of Japanese war veterans, with the aim of condemning war. After she asks her daughter to help her edit the manuscript, the two try to discern the truth about one of the most brutal veterans’narratives. It’s a layered essay in the voices of daughter, mother, and the violent interview subject, Yasuji Kaneko, who fought in the Japan-China War that preceded WWII.

“Brother Bomb”is Tom Ireland’s memoir of growing up in the early years of the nuclear age—Ireland was born at the time that the atomic bomb was being tested underwater at Bikini Atoll. It tells the brief history of early tests of atomic weapons, and the increasing fear and paranoia, through the 1960s, of nuclear threat. Later, when Ireland becomes a permanent resident of New Mexico, he again feels a kinship with the nuke. He writes about “the widely held perception of New Mexico as the land of the bomb.” The essay concludes with the essayist’s trip in 2005, with a group of interested individuals and a few celebrities, to extinguish the sixty-year-old fire from the first bomb dropped on Hiroshima (carried across the ocean by a group of Japanese monks). The flame was extinguished in New Mexico, at the original Trinity test site—a flame that had been alive, as Ireland points out, from about the time of his conception.

“Walter Jean”by Varley O’Connor is aconfessional memoir about O’Connor’s experience as a young, aspiring actress in the 1970s. The events occur in Boston, where O’Connor lived temporarily with an established older actress, Dora, and Dora’s son from a previous marriage, Walter Jean, with whom O’Connor developed a sympathetic friendship. The young O’Connor is trying to rid herself of a problem boyfriend and get her start in theater. In the process, she is sometimes “too much”for people to take. She’s so concerned with her own problems that she’s oblivious to the fragility of Walter Jean, whose life ends tragically. It’s an honest look at being young and awkward and intense, trying to find one’s way during a period of uncertainty.

In his interview with Michael Piafsky, writer Leonard Chang discusses his interest in crime fiction and the cross-influences between it and his writing for Justified, the TV series based on the novels of Elmore Leonard. Chang talks about the differences between the solitary work of novel writing and the collaborative work of writers for film and television, and he also speaks candidly about his frustration with the stereotypes of Asians in movies and television.

The poetry of this issue includes Lawrence Raab’s lyrical glimpses into the ways in which social systems and ideologies instill uncertainty and fear in our everyday lives, and how our desire for love and beauty struggles to rise above such permeating fear. Raab’s voice is conversational yet wise. Jill Reid’s group of poems focus on memories of her experience growing up in rural Louisiana. In her work, blending the past and present forms a protean space in which the dead return to comfort the living, and images of the bygone overlap and enrich those of the present. More than memories, Reid’s poems are also about the nature of remembrance, as well as about how where we came from remains part of who we are. The sonnets of Bruce Bond meditate on some of our classic human concerns—time, death, nature and the world here and beyond. Bond’s poems distinguish themselves with their visual acuteness and lyrical eloquence.

Kristine Somerville explores the work of German artist Hannah Höch in this issue’s art feature. Hoch was the only woman among the German Dadaists, when the movement formed in 1918 partly as a reaction against the chaos of war and the at-once thrilling and scary randomness of Weimar politics and culture. Höch was a potent explorer of roles of women, who wondered whether the New Woman was really all that different from the old. As well, she mocked well-known male politicians and military figures in her work. Hoch’s career would span six decades, as she was rediscovered during the era of Pop Art.

This issue’s Curio Cabinet discusses and sets forth some of the poems of New Orleans poet Everette Maddox. Maddox died in 1989 at forty-four from what he would admittedly acknowledge as too much drink, too many cigarettes and a lack of permanent work or address. Yet while he howled at life’s indignities, he also laughed at them and spoke with a unique and refreshing sense of grace and humor.

 

Speer Morgan

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