My NonfictioNOW 2017 by Genia Blum–Part II: Celebration and Humiliation

“This is a very friendly conference.”—Wayne Koestenbaum, Keynote Speaker NonfictioNOW 2017

“Life is now.”—Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, President of Iceland

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Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik, Iceland

Before NonfictioNOW 2017, I’d met only one of its four hundred delegates face to face: my mentor and childhood friend, Dzvinia Orlowsky; and emailed with just two others: Wayne Koestenbaum, about our interview; and Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir, the Conference Project Manager, to help convert her schedule to PDF. Every day, I consulted my own copy of the timetable (its color-coding rendered useless by a monochrome laser printer) to choose which events I’d attend and, later—due to fatigue and overstimulation—to decide which ones I’d skip.

After registration, during the drinks reception at the University of Iceland, I was still as fresh as Icelandic bottled water—the melted glacier ice, filtered through inert layers of lava rock, which I’d been drinking since my arrival two days earlier. Quaffing white wine now, I scanned the room for nonfiction heavyweights. Recognizing a trim figure in a bold shirt and heavy-rimmed glasses, I plowed through the crowd, and assailed Wayne Koestenbaum. He greeted me with warmth, grace, and a firm handshake. I’d already bumped into a friend of a friend, Bradley Wester and, through Orlowsky, met Kathleen Aguero, Richard Hoffman, Michael and Carole Steinberg, and Mimi Schwarz. I now introduced these new acquaintances to Koestenbaum, buoyant in a sea of writers from twenty different countries, in an atmosphere of friendliness and effortless communication that would prove typical for the entire conference.

Next day, I strode down a curved walkway in the Háskólatorg building to Room 102, where a panel, “My Roland Barthes,” with Wayne Koestenbaum, Rachel May, and Xenia Hanusiak was scheduled. Nervous about the impending interview with Koestenbaum, my handwriting was worse than usual, and my jottings about the session made little sense afterward. Yet, the images conveyed by the panelists lingered. May’s portrayal of quilts as stories, “textile as text,” were vivid, as were the elements Koestenbaum connected to “his” Barthes: precision in language, the mode of “recitative not aria,” kinship between words, mystification, glaze and patina, and the chestnut he’d found on Gertrude Stein’s headstone in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. There was much to process. In the end, I forgot to ask Hanusiak about her career as an opera singer and, with my brain in buffering mode, retreated to the cafeteria to stare through floor-to-ceiling windows at fast-moving Icelandic clouds.

* * *

After my videotaped exchange with Wayne Koestenbaum, I felt elated, inspired, and entirely incapable of absorbing anything but food and beer. Optimistically, I assured Koestenbaum I’d see him later in the Nordic House, and he divulged his plans for the Authors’ Evening:

“I think I’m going to read one of the notebooks from my recent book, The Pink Trance Notebooks, which is a series of diary poems, all taken from notebooks I kept in various states of trance … states somewhere between automatic writing and dreaming.”

I missed that reading, and those by Ariel Gore, Elísabet Jökulsdóttir, Tim Tomlinson, Vilborg Davíðsdóttir, and Gerður Kristný; also Heather Taylor Johnson, Fiona Wright, and Quinn Eades’ book launches; because, after dinner, while the sun didn’t set, I crawled beneath a large feather comforter and went out like a light.

The following morning, Hoffman, Steinberg, Schwartz, Hope Edelman, and Desirae Matherly participated in a panel, “When Writers Repeat,” while I stayed in bed with sinuses that demanded rest, and aspirin washed down with glacier water. By afternoon, I’d recovered sufficiently to attend “Memoir Time,” a panel with Barrie Jean Borich, Paul Lisicky, Amitava Kumar, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Ira Sukrungruang, and where I discovered Donna Talarico live-tweeting behind me. She’d arrived on Icelandair’s inaugural flight from Philadelphia to Reykjavík, with mayors of both cities on board (including the “hot” one), which had been diverted to Boston and delayed because of a “bad smell.” After the discussion, I forced a hug on her, threw myself at all five panelists, took photos with Lisicky and Sukrungruang, declared, “I’m a huge fan!” and “I want to submit to Sweet!” and, powered by adrenalin, ran upstairs to catch a ride to Ragnar Kjartansson’s vernissage. The affair was concurrent with Karl Ove Knausgård’s keynote address, and—shoot me—I chose Ragnar over Karl, art over memoir, and music over literature.

On the last day of NonfictioNOW 2017, after a wind-chilled walk along Reykjavík’s harbor, I arrived at Harpa Concert and Conference Center just after Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s keynote address. People were milling about in the foyer, drinking coffee from lidded cups, and it was clear from their comments that I’d missed a memorable speech. I chatted for a while with Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir, who was as bright and communicative as on the first day of the conference, and, entering the auditorium, was greeted by an equally cheerful and relaxed Koestenbaum.

I took a seat in the front row just as a small delegation entered and, in a moment of reciprocal recognition, both President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson and I uttered, “Oh, hello!” He beamed winningly, as he’d done at Kjartansson’s opening. His spouse, Eliza Reid, wearing an all-over-print of white tulips or, perhaps, magnolias, filled the chair next to me. As co-founder of the Iceland Writers Retreat, she’d held the opening address at the other Authors’ Evening I’d not attended. Enthusiastically, I introduced myself as a fellow Canadian, but she seemed unimpressed by this riveting fact, and showed absolutely no interest in my amusing story of how I’d met her husband.

Onstage, Elena Passarello began her introduction: she connected Harpa, or harpa, to “harp,” “harp” to Harpo, and continued with a tribute to Koestenbaum’s The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, crediting the book for her motivation to return to literature after a decade in drama.

Wayne Koestenbaum took the podium and began with a tribute to Aisha Sabatini Sloan. He compared the essence of her keynote to what philosopher and conceptual artist, Adrian Piper, has communicated through her performances:

“Articulate the unspoken frame to politely, or impolitely, refuse the frame and step outside it.”

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Wayne Koestenbaum, Keynote, NonfictioNOW 2017

Koestenbaum then enticed the audience to follow him beyond the frame, into four dazzling parables or allegories, the short essays he wrote for Reykjavík, which disregard borders and classification. The first, “Annette Funicello,” contains this seductive sentence:

“There is no logical connection between Annette Funicello, a beach rose, an inquisitive bee, a beach’s cubicles, and the men who long ago stripped, under my inquisitive gaze, in the vicinity of weakly sputtering public showers.”

The second piece, “Allegories for Iceland,” describes enigmatic encounters with a leather-bracelet-wearing foreigner and a densely bearded stranger, spiraling into implied states of desire and uncertainty, which Koestenbaum guides into an anticipated present:

“A full century after Cubism, why am I trying to reproduce this afternoon’s reality in faithful sentences rather than present to you an askew distillation of the events, filtered through a presiding consciousness? Why is the consciousness overseeing the narration of this fable so lacking in discernment and discrimination? Why is this episode not announcing its relation to the professional gathering during which the tale will be recited?”

Before reading his third parable, Koestenbaum cautioned, provocatively:

“And now, we fall into the abyss. We leave the tether of the frame in search of the principles of the frame.”

Koestenbaum’s “Gaufrage and the Erotic Limitations of Capability Klein” is a collage of contrary components: Japanese woodblock prints, dildos, a mattress store, Lyme disease, a character who calls his sexual limitations “talking points,” and this captivating image of carmine clouds and skunks:

“Last night, in Cap’s backyard, we could see, wandering across the grass, three skunks, each accompanied by a carmine cloud. Carmine is not usually fluorescent. These clouds disobeyed the laws of carmine, and acquired an unnatural day-glow brilliance that wounded the eye lucky enough to gaze at their felicities.”

Before reading the last allegory, “The Sexual Translator,” Koestenbaum explained he’d “issued a call to myself, before sleep, for a dream that would respond to the emergency call of this conference. The dream arrived.” This piece features a figure named Abel Mars, a translator whose labors “sometimes took the form of naps,” and includes a riff on the word “frack” that is as enchanting as it is hardcore:

“‘Frack, frack, frack,’ went the translator’s pathetic litany, as he pushed his hard and then not-hard cock into mine, or onto mine, our two cocks overlapping and competing, never melding. I hypothesized that, by repeating this death-cry or love-cry of ‘frack, frack, frack,’ Abel was trying to intervene in the city’s ecological affairs; perhaps he wished to undo fracking, or to prevent fracking? Perhaps he had developed a speech impediment that turned the word ‘fuck’ into ‘frack’? Perhaps ‘frack’ was a fragment of Victorian slang, an argot I couldn’t understand?”

After a brief question and answer session, Rúnar Helgi Vignisson, NonfictioNOW co-chair (with Robin Hemley, its founder), introduced President Jóhannesson, who read his witty and poignant speech directly from an iPhone, sometimes going off script, yet always following a red thread. A writer and historian, his thoughts were highly relatable not only to the genre of nonfiction, but also to the conference:

“We cannot only rely on sources that remain from the past, or what we can find in the present. We need to add our own interpretations, our own descriptions, and we must allow ourselves to imagine what might have been, when the sources do not exist or are hard to find. Those who control the sources, they will also control history as well, and that cannot be.”

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President Jóhannesson

He quoted from David Lodge’s novel, Small World: An Academic Romance, to emphasize that the real goal of literary conferences is not academic discourse, but human interaction:

“It’s this kind of informal contact, of course, that’s the real raison d’être of a conference.”

Guðni Th. Jóhannesson’s speech flowed into my still-fresh memory of Wayne Koestenbaum’s address, and infiltrated a specific sentence in his answer to a question from the audience:

“I always tell my students that if you wake up in the middle of the night feeling horrified about what you’ve written, it’s a very good sign.”

After the conference, my sentiments needed time to merge and emulsify, and only when this process was complete, did the following paragraph write itself:

I leaned toward Eliza Reid, not gesticulating, as I usually do, and complimented her on her husband’s speech: “That was very moving.” There was no verbal response, only fabric flapping, sleeves waving, two palms striking. I clapped too, but in a different rhythm.

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Blue Lagoon

NonfictioNOW 2017 ended, and Karl Ove Knausgård and Lidia Yuknavitch remained as elusive as Björk. Farewells looming, Dzvinia Orlowsky and I unwound at the Blue Lagoon, afloat in geothermal bliss, extending time beneath silica mud masks. After two more white nights, I flew home, with a single regret: that I hadn’t interacted with even more amiable writers.

I’d met Amy Gigi Alexander, but sailed past Quinn Eades and Sam van Zweden; didn’t see or didn’t recognize: Bob Cowser, Joanna Eleftheriou, Ariel Gore, Leslie Hsu Oh, Anna Leahy, Patrick Madden, Desirae Matherly, Lance Olsen, Laurie Stone, Julija Šukys, Nicole Walker, Amy Wright, Arianne Zwartjes—and a few others with whom I’d already bonded on social media, or would do so later. We now foster our virtual friendships, and wait for another conference to bring us together and, until then, connect through a book, or a page, or a few well-chosen words.

***

Follow Wayne Koestenbaum on Twitter.

GeniaBlumBorn in Winnipeg, Canada, Genia Blum has lived and worked in Europe for over forty years and resides in Lucerne, Switzerland, where she is the director of a ballet school, Dance Art Studio, and presides over a dance foundation named in honor of her Ukrainian ballerina mother, Daria Nyzankiwska Snihurowycz. Her work, for which she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has appeared in or is forthcoming from Solstice Literary Magazine, (b)OINK zine, Creative Nonfiction Magazine (Tiny Truths), and Sonora Review. She is currently working on a memoir titled Escape Artists. She haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum

 

My NonfictioNOW 2017 by Genia Blum–Part I: Celebrity and Humility

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Genia Blum and Wayne Koestenbaum

Three weeks before the start of the NonfictionNOW 2017 conference in Reykjavík, I emailed the keynote speaker, Wayne Koestenbaum—poet, writer, painter, musician, author of several celebrity-based books and a literary celebrity in his own right—with a request for an interview:

“As a former ballerina writing a memoir, I’ve lived and worked in Europe for almost forty years, danced in ballets, musicals and operas, including three seasons at the infamous Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. Besides themes of writing and memoir, I would love to talk art and theater with you.”

Five days later, Koestenbaum emailed back:

“Apologies for my slowness in responding to your gratifying email! Yes, I’d love to participate in an interview/conversation with you. Thanks for the invitation. I look forward to our meeting in Iceland, and to our chance to speak about affinities.”

Affinities! Wayne Koestenbaum! My first interview!

It was also my first conference.

***

In the Seventies, pursuing a European dance career, I left North America on Loftleiðir Icelandic Airlines (“We are the slowest, but the lowest”), and took advantage of a bargain-price stopover in Reykjavík that included tours of thermal springs, mud formations, lava fields, waterfalls, and geysers. I lost and regained my balance near a volcanic crevasse, came close to being scalded by escaping steam and, overwhelmed by a fish-heavy dinner buffet, mistook a chunk of whale blubber for cheddar. It’s a wonder I didn’t confuse the entire country with cheese—Iceland’s otherworldly landscape was as alien to me as the far side of the moon.

Retired from ballet, I returned in June 2017 as a writer and a first-time NonfictioNOW delegate. Iceland appeared far more familiar now: tourism had boomed, English was spoken everywhere, and Reykjavík had its own Dunkin’ Donuts. It was my new persona and the opportunity to meet other writers that seemed exotic, more so than a volcanic island and its midnight sun. I’d never even worn a nametag before. After “Memoir Time,” a panel session with Barrie Jean Borich, Paul Lisicky, Amitava Kumar, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Ira Sukrungruang, I approached Lisicky, proffered my identification, and was thrilled when he recognized my name—though it wasn’t through any familiarity with my extremely slim body of published work, but because I was the fan who’d retweeted and “liked” so many of his posts on Twitter and Instagram.

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NonfictioNOW 2017 Opening Reception

Even off-conference, my nametag was the flying wedge with which I connected with everyone and anyone. At the opening of Ragnar Kjartansson’s first museum show in his homeland, God I Feel So Bad, I searched two crowded floors of Reykjavík Art Museum for the artist I admire. When I finally spotted Kjartansson, he was surrounded by an impenetrable wall of well-wishers. Nearby, a tall, handsome man in a black suit radiated charm—in my direction, I thought. Pulling its black neck lanyard taut, I extended my NonfictioNOW ID, almost grazing his nose when he bowed unexpectedly.

“Hello!”

“Hello, I’m Canadian.”

He beamed, “My wife is Canadian.”

“Oh! You must be the President of Iceland!”

Regrettably, Eliza Reid, the First Lady, wasn’t in attendance, but the star of the evening was still in my line of sight. I pushed the small talk toward an entreaty:

Please, introduce me to Ragnar Kjartansson!”

With an authoritative wave and a loud whoop of “Ragnar!” Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson summoned Kjartansson and his entourage. I swooned and stuttered. Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson, the Mayor of Reykjavík (a title journalists often prefix with modifiers like “hot” or “sexy”), also joined us, as did his conspicuously attractive wife—and our group turned into an Icelandic VIP gathering. Only Björk was missing.

The day before, Wayne Koestenbaum, NonfictioNOW 2017 keynote speaker, had spoken to me of the inspiration he receives from minor fame:

“In my writing, even in my lounge act songs, I need to take a word or a phrase which creates an emotional situation for me. It’s often a star’s name, particularly a minor star’s name, a cultural particular.”

We’d met for an informal exchange in the Háskólatorg building of the University of Iceland, in the large foyer which houses the student cafeteria and bookstore, above the lecture rooms where the conference panels were held, in front of a curved white wall we both agreed was reminiscent of New York’s Guggenheim Museum. I’d confided in Richard Hoffman that I was anxious about my first interview, and he’d calmed me with an anecdote about one of his own “firsts.” Now, Hoffman winked encouragement from across the room, while next to him, Michael Steinberg, no longer discomfited by my telling him he was a legend, smiled benevolently. Sitting vis-à-vis from Koestenbaum, with my multicolored shawl in serendipitous correspondence with his brightly pattered shirt, I was starstruck.

For his NonfictioNOW keynote address, Wayne Koestenbaum had composed four parables, or allegories and, for one of these, he’d taken a minor 1950s and 1960s TV and movie icon as a starting point:

“The words ‘Annette Funicello’ arrived half an hour before I started writing. I repeat ‘Funicello’ again and again in every sentence, like a chant, ‘Funicello, Funicello, becoming Funicello …’ I was very aware, when I wrote my four allegories, that the first one was nonfiction. I felt it had a kind of ornateness and roundaboutness that pushed against the straightforward narration of a couple of incidental encounters I’d had. I was aware, with the next two, that they crossed the line into fiction. Not because I wanted to flee nonfiction, but because of the humiliation issue. The thing I want to write about at this moment, I cannot just start talking about in public. I need to disguise to some extent, and universalize. I don’t have the distance or the wish to confess on that kind of level. It’s just too self-sabotaging. I was aware I had recourse to something like fiction, and I felt this certain amount of guilt, because of course it’s a nonfiction conference. But I try to think about that in the pieces.”

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At a panel discussion earlier that day, Koestenbaum’s virtuosity in weaving together seemingly disparate anecdotes and ideas had mesmerized me, yet the simplicity of one statement stood out:

“Write what turns you on.”

Wayne Koestenbaum “turns me on.” His books are vibrant compositions, segmented into complementary and juxtaposed sectors, a style also common to his artwork. Humiliation offers variations on its title in fugues that reflect on embarrassment and regret—themes that resonate with the sense of degradation and insufficiency that imbued my classical ballet training. Another book, The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, examines opera and queerness, and is dense with reflections on the art form, summoning up recollections of my own intense fascination for the music and its history when I first began performing together with opera singers and musicians. I asked him about Verdi’s Aida, which he describes in The Queen’s Throat as the first opera he saw as a child, mentioning that my mother had made her stage debut in Aida before World War II, as a young ballet apprentice at the Lviv Theater of Opera and Ballet.

“My father is from Berlin, but I think his father’s family came from Lvov—Lviv. I remember Aida, but I don’t remember my response to the singing. I have a visual memory, and I remember the color of the blue sky above the Nile in the third act, and I remember the height of the stage and the blueness. I had a couple of opera records, and was obsessed by the bilingual thing. I remember looking at the opera librettos. With Aida, I remember looking at the column of Italian words, and I’d never seen Italian. In particular, I remember the plural definite article and thinking it was so strange, gli, g-l-i … It was a cluster of opacities that fascinated me, with a wish to untangle them and kind of carve my way into a feeling relationship. There was deep mystery, and I remember vividly the sense of opera as an unknown, and that the unknown was desirable. When I paint, I respond very intuitively to color, relationships of color, ‘feeling toward’ the color.”

The subject turned to Switzerland, where I live. Koestenbaum mentioned Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage and its Swiss-themed suite, as well as a book about Robert Walser, Walks with Walser, by Carl Seelig. My very superficial familiarity with Liszt’s piano oeuvre, and Swiss literature and geography—Vallé d’Obermann is neither in Germany nor is it the origin of the name of a popular dog breed—threatened to embarrass us both. Navigating past the awkwardness, we remained in Switzerland, but returned to art. I mentioned the Rosengart Collection in Lucerne, which displays works by Klee, Picasso, and other modern masters. Koestenbaum continued:

“Are Picasso’s paintings fiction, or nonfiction? Obviously, for me, that’s a term that comes from a literary genre and not painting, but you could say that … Picasso’s paintings represent an emotional and optical truth, a cognitive truth. The transmission of energy from much of Picasso’s work is unmistakable, and it has a certain violence and aggression. I talk about Picasso in one of my allegories, actually, and I talk about his body and my body.”

More and more people drifted into the foyer. A baby started to cry, with the pitch and intensity, perfected through evolution, that ensures no infant’s distress can be ignored.

Lying on a table in front of us, a small video camera had recorded our conversation. An iPhone, meant to function as a second microphone, was on my chair, where it pressed into my left buttock, the slight discomfort balanced by my willingness to abase myself for a literary luminary.

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I joked about the wailing baby, “Better here, than on the plane going home!”

Koestenbaum’s response was both touching and generous:

“But it’s cute! It’s very affirming, to know that there’s a baby here at the conference, and maybe the baby is the child of writers, who will teach it to love literature and language. May the children grow up to be happy readers and writers!”

The baby fell silent, and forty-five fluid minutes of insightful conversation also came to an end. Koestenbaum and I would meet again in two days, at his keynote presentation in Reykjavík’s futuristic concert hall, Harpa.

I leaned forward and tipped sideways, removed the iPhone, and switched it off.

***

Follow Wayne Koestenbaum on Twitter.

GeniaBlumBorn in Winnipeg, Canada, Genia Blum has lived and worked in Europe for over forty years and resides in Lucerne, Switzerland, where she is the director of a ballet school, Dance Art Studio, and presides over a dance foundation named in honor of her Ukrainian ballerina mother, Daria Nyzankiwska Snihurowycz. Her work, for which she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has appeared in or is forthcoming from Solstice Literary Magazine, (b)OINK zine, Creative Nonfiction Magazine (Tiny Truths), and Sonora Review. She is currently working on a memoir titled Escape Artists. She haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum.

Sam van Zweden on “Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger,” by Fiona Wright

Writing the body is tough. As a thing with defined borders (like skin), and further borders within those borders (those we’re socialised to obey) that we dare not trespass against, it’s particularly tough to write the body in an open, curious, and freeing way. In attempting to write my own body, I constantly bump up against roadblocks – attitudes I dare not bend, taboos I fear to breach, assumptions I need to acknowledge before I can move past them and into something meaningful. It’s confronting territory, and possibly the highest stakes thing we can write about – that vehicle that allows us to be.

Compound the difficulty of writing the body by adding the controlling behaviours typically seen alongside eating disorders. The stakes become dangerously high. It’s no small feat, but Australian writer Fiona Wright manages to recreate this tension between control and chaos in her essay collection, Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger. Echoing the open and closed written modes of Wright’s identity as both a poet and a critic, this work manages to strike a balance.

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These essays take a variety of stances on hunger, as experienced through Wright’s own anorexia. Essays about travel explore the way encounters with the broader world have informed the author’s guilt and ambiguity towards eating, while other essays consider the ways that eating disorders are portrayed in the work of well-known and much loved Australian authors such as Carmel Bird, Christina Stead and Tim Winton. Wright’s pathology is reflecting in the writing as some of the obsessive detail-oriented thinking that is part and parcel of Wright’s experiences of hunger.

What makes this collection so exciting is Wright’s ability to effortlessly engage with theory, dipping in and out of ideas that might otherwise come across as quite heavy. While the subject matter is hefty, and rightly so (I’m not suggesting anyone approach eating disorders jovially), there’s an element of playfulness about the work. Curiosity is the driver.

There’s no doubt that writing eating disorders is fraught. Wright herself acknowledges this in her essay, ‘In Hindsight’, describing how her fellow patients refer to books like Portia de Rossi’s Unbearable Lightness and Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted as ‘how-to manuals’ and ‘triggering as fuck’ (respectively). As a woman writing on the topic of eating disorders and hunger more generally, Wright must have been aware of the generic specificity of her subject matter. Eating disorder memoir = misery memoir, is the expectation. Cataloguing pathologies and redemptive recovery narratives seem to be the norm for other books on the topic. It’s clear from the get-go that this isn’t the kind of book Wright wants to write. She calls in theory from a number of sources – literary, scientific, historical – and at this point it would be easy to wield these things as weapons in the battle to beat down any possibility of her work being ‘misery memoir’ or ‘sick lit’ – but, with a huge amount of grace, this isn’t what Small Acts of Disappearance does. Instead, Wright holds the theory she employs lightly. That’s not to say that she doesn’t take it seriously, because at times the book feels like a metaphysical and psychological puzzle. Rather, Wright experiments with various sources of possible explanations for the unexplainable, and she does so with curiosity, in a written mode that is distinctly female, and fiercely strong for it. Wright’s uncertainty about that experience is a weapon in its own right.

Small Acts… approaches the body and hunger with the openness of a poet, with the rigour and insight of a critic. It breaks open borders at the same time as it wrangles something unspeakable into a sensible shape.

It would be too easy for a voice like Wright’s to slip between the cracks in the Australian reading climate. Broadly, ours is not a readership (or reviewing culture, or publication culture, or award culture…) that deals well with hybrid forms. We prefer neat boxes. Our nonfiction comes overwhelmingly from older white men and tells our colonial history. Wright is part of a new generation and sensibility among nonfiction writers: the self matters. The small, mundane self matters. Hybrid and experimental styles offer something that ‘historical’ accounts and comfortable generic boundaries cannot. Small Acts is making its mark in the Australian nonfiction landscape, too – shortlisted for the Stella Prize, the work is object of plenty of discussion not only in literary circles but in mainstream publications, too. The dynamic is shifting: It’s okay to write things that tell humble (but deeply important) stories. It’s okay to write things that don’t fit cleanly into genre boundaries. It’s okay to write about yourself. Wright’s work is one of those leading this shift.

***

SAMVANZWEDENSam van Zweden is a Melbourne-based writer interested in memory, food and mental health. She has written for The Big Issue, The Victorian Writer, Killings, The Wheeler Centre and others. In 2015, she was a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship and Melbourne City of Literature Travel Fund recipient. Her work-in-progress, Eating with my Mouth Open, was shortlisted for the 2015 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. She tweets @samvanzweden and blogs at samvanzweden.com.

 

 

 

 

 

A Moveable Feast #PorteOuverte by Jen Palmares Meadows

When you hear of the Paris attacks, you read what you can from your computer, of the urgency to apprehend shooters, to save hostages, to care for victims. You have never known war, but know that in instances of despair, stories of hope and heroism will begin to emerge. You search for them amongst the carnage, and they come, without fail. A man pulling wounded from Bataclan Concert Hall. Taxicabs shepherding people home without fare. Parisians offering shelter to strangers, with the hashtag #PorteOuverte, meaning ‘open door.’

You don’t know anyone in Paris, nor have you ever been. In your mind, Paris is breathtakingly beautiful, but what you know of it is croissants and berets, and the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Still, because you are a narcissist, you imagine yourself in Paris, imagine the absolute fear. As a writer, as a human, this is often the first step one takes towards empathy, towards understanding…

Her tweet would have read:

27 rue de fleurus. My salon is open. #porteouverte

Gertrude Stein would have opened her doors to you. Her voice would have carried in the darkness, her thick hand pulling you inside, leaving only a moment to slide locks into place. “Come away from the windows,” she might say, motioning you deeper into her salon, where others have sought shelter.

“Don’t let them in. They might be one of the terrorists,” a shadow calls from behind a hat stand.

“Are you mad?” Another voice. “We must let them in! We must!”

“Here,” Ms. Stein says, pointing to the wall farthest from the street, and you join those huddled on the floor. Ms. Stein hands you a coat, one she says was left by a patron. It is itchy and durable, smelling like oranges and the sea.

In the dim light, some read news updates on their phones, and text their mothers. Others use their phones to illuminate the pages of books they have taken from Ms. Stein’s shelves. You see her collection is massive, having grown over many decades. There are new works, you had not expected, but should have known would be there: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Eula Biss’s Notes From No Man’s Land. And there is work from Svetlana Alexievich, Junot Diaz, Carole Maso, Sherman Alexie, Chinua Achebe. Books, so many books.

You pull from the shelf, A Moveable Feast. You first read Ernest Hemingway’s short memoir, of his years as a struggling, young, expatriate in the 1920s, when you were in graduate school, and you loved it then, loved wandering Paris with Hemingway and hobnobbing with Gertrude Stein, Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald.a-moveable-feast

In the safety of Ms. Stein’s salon, you read, and your heart is with Hemingway and Paris. You drink with him at La Closerie des Lilas and watch fishermen along the banks. Looking over the water, Hemingway tells you, “We should live in this time now and have every minute of it.” And you agree, because this Spring cannot be everlasting.

You chat with Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company, and borrow books from her lending library. You “ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.” You attend horse races, drinking champagne, and calling obscenities from the stands. Hemingway displays much of his famed chauvinism, sharing odd conversations with Fitzgerald and Ford Maddox Ford. His overt sexism is obnoxious, particularly when he describes his falling out with Ms. Stein.

“There is not much future in men being friends with great women although it can be pleasant enough before it gets better or worse, and there is usually even less future with truly ambitious women writers.”

After that, you wonder why you are on this walk with him at all. Despite countless oysters, countless bottles, with Hemingway, your thirst and hunger is never assuaged. You and he wander Paris with a lasting dissatisfaction, an endless hunger, so common to the lost generation to which Hemingway belonged.

Shouting from the street frightens you. A look around Ms. Stein’s salon reveals that many others have begun to read A Moveable Feast as well. Now, they too ramble along with you and Hemingway, a veritable Parisian cafe crawl.

Of the crawl, there is much to enjoy, much to learn about writing. Hemingway shares his theory of omission, in which, “you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” You see merit in his theory, see how it applies well to flash fiction and micro essays.

“What is that?”

“You would like it.”

“I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel,” he admitted. “It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.”

There is comfort in this.

And throughout, Paris is with you, its trees and its rivers, its landscape. When Hemingway describes a Paris spring threatened by rains, you become silent:

“Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat [Spring] back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life…But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.” (Here you begin to cry.)

“In those days, though,” he went on, “the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.”

Later, A Moveable Feast will make the French bestseller list, a half century after its publication. Adam Biles, the current manager at Shakespeare and Company, will call A Moveable Feast, “a symbol of optimism…a symbol of Paris as Paris should be. It’s a symbol of cafe culture. It’s a symbol of literary culture…It’s everything that, in many ways, was attacked.”

“This is a love letter to Paris,” the woman next to you says, clutching the book to her chest.

Still reading, you rub the wet from your face, and agree.

***JanPalmaresMeadows

 

Jen Palmares Meadows writes from northern California. Her work has appeared in Brevity, The Rumpus, Denver Quarterly, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Memoir Journal, Kartika Review, Essay Daily, and in other places. She is currently at work on a collection of Vegas stories, where she writes about sex, gambling, and church, not necessarily in that order, but sometimes all at once.

Wangari Maathai’s “Unbowed”

The story in Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed is beautiful and inspiring, but the writer in me kept gagging at comments like “I knew the sky was the limit” and “I knew I could do anything I put my mind to.”  I know the book’s purpose is inspiration, that her audience is looking for her to show how she achieved what she did, that it’s important for her to establish that she’s nobody special, that what she’s achieved is the result of curiosity and perseverance, that anybody could do what she’s done.  That, I admire.  But the crafting of the memoir—which tends more toward autobiography than memoir for me—was like nails on a chalkboard.

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Wednesday Writers to Read: Global Edition

Yesterday, our intrepid Advisory Editor Jim Rogers sent me an article on the Irish essayist Tim Robinson (I’ve written before on how much I adore Robinson), in which Robinson moves into the “third half” of his life, beyond the writing of Aran and Connemara that has consumed and fueled his life for the last several decades.

It is as if, as he approaches his 80th year, Robinson is drawn from the micro- to the macroscopic at a time when most of his peers might be moving in the opposite direction. “My work before was a study of the individual’s relationship to the landscape,” he says. “Now I really want to write about the material individual’s relationship to the rest of the universe, so I am beginning to do this, not systematically but almost following an arbitrary initial set of words.”

I’m trying to be (mentally) supportive, even as everything inside me is freezing at the thought of losing the Robinson work that is so vital to nonfiction, to Irish nonfiction, and beyond. Very few Irish nonfictionists are writing essays. There’s something in the water that leads to memoir, rather than other forms of nonfiction–which fascinates me on many levels.

This article is particularly timely, given the next stage of our In the Classroom initiative. The syllabi bank is growing nicely and it’s giving me the dual reaction of wanting to take all these classes as well as teach them. I’m really enjoying seeing how different people at different types of institutions teach similar classes, different texts. Love it. We launched our weekly blog series on “My Favorite Essay To Teach” and Sarah Einstein’s contribution on Amy Monticello’s “Playing the Odds” was a great way to start.

The next stage is to work on a database list of global nonfictionists. Who is writing nonfiction, outside of the United States? Who should we be reading? Who should we be teaching? Your suggestions do not have to be writing in English; they can be writing in any subgenre of nonfiction. Comment on this post, reply to us on Twitter, comment on Facebook with the name of the writer, country of origin, titles of the books or individual pieces, and a publication date. Multiple entries for a writer’s many works are most welcome. I can’t wait to see how this list grows!

-Karen

Be Still, My Literary Heart: Irish Essayist Tim Robinson Honored by NUI-Galway

It’s just good luck that in the last two days, my two favorite essayists have showed up in my News Feed. One of them comes from Doug Carlson, assistant editor for Georgia Review, who wrote a blog post on the Minnesotan essayist Paul Gruchow. Those of you have visited our About Us page know that our journal’s name comes from a Gruchow quote, so I make no claims to being unbiased when it comes to his work. Also, my Earl Grey tastes particularly good this morning, so I’m full of energy.

This morning, a friend posts an article on Tim Robinson, the Irish essayist, being honored for his work. Very, very well-deserved honors–and again, I make no claims towards any hope of being unbiased. Jim Rogers, one of our Advisory Editors, introduced me to Robinson’s work in 2003-ish and the rest is history. I’ve read everything that man has written and even in rereading, it still sets my world on fire and reminds me why I am a writer. I have his map of the Aran Islands on my office wall (his Connemara map is still folded on my shelf). I visited him at his home in Roundstone in 2007 and even at the age of 75, he still out-hiked me up Errisbeg. (I wished I’d planned better, because he and his wife were preparing for their annual Roundstone Regatta party–and the Regatta was happening the next day, when I was flying home.) I may or may not have turned into a fangirl incapable of coherent speech, but meeting him still ranks very high on my list of favorite life experiences. Nobody does sentences like Robinson.  Continue reading