Borders and Impermanence, Reflections where we come from, where we go, and what we leave in Swimmer Among the Stars

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Have you ever picked up a book because the title suggested something specific and desirable to you? Like when you smell something that suggests a certain meal and then crave that meal? How often have you been disappointed when the actual meal being cooked turns out to be something of a completely different taste; when the book actually comes in a completely different flavor? I admit that my disappointment in books selected on this criteria has been routine—far less reliable than my nose is at detecting the meal in preparation, at any rate.

Swimmer Among the Stars, by Kanishk Tharoor, came with back copy from Electric Literature that described the collection as, “Lush, playful, and intoxicated by history,” and I decided between that and the title, I had to have it. I picked it up at a writing conference where I did not hear the author speak, nor had I ever heard of him before I saw his book on the table. I picked the collection up this spring to read as part of my Annual Reading Challenge—”A collection by author you have never heard of before.”

I loved it. Every minute of it, I loved it. Tharoor has a global perspective that covers distance through time and space. The book opens with a quote from Italo Calvino, which in general I consider a good omen for what is to come:

Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreigness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.

—ITALO CALVINO, Invisible Cities

The first story, “Swimmer Among the Stars” is a meditation on language from the last speaker of a language, interviewed for academic posterity. The title comes from the last speaker’s efforts to render the concept of an “astronaut” into the dead language. As with any truly fine short story, it is layered richly, the theme of impermanence is interwoven with themes of family, assimilation, progress, and love. It is a stunning introduction to Tharoor’s language.

No, no. She waves them away. You’re not tiring me. It’s just… until you came, I never thought of my language as a burden, but that’s what it is, isn’t it? You want to take it from me so I no longer have to carry this weight.

It should not be just yours to bear.

Will you do me this favor? Whatever recordings you make of me speaking my language in the coming days, please put together a little package and have it played at my funeral ceremony.

The ethnographers want to hold her. Their words seem to come through a mist. We can do that, they say.

—”Swimmer Among the Stars”, pg. 11

The “Tale of the Teahouse” is a story of demise and the things that matter when faced with demise. Or maybe it is about all of the things we have to lose, the collection of intangibles that can be destroyed through many different types of conquest. It is about reveling in those things even as you will lose them.

It is an interesting contrast to “Cultural Property” in which an Indian immigrant and archaeologist loses love to steal a buried and rusted sword from the Anglo-Saxon site and spirit it away to India. A reverse of the colonizer-colonized role as we know it traditionally, but distilled to the base action, it is the same thing: cultural theft. In this case, the subversion of the usual roles elicits sympathy for the main character. His role in the theft compromises the relationship he is building with his fellow archaeologist and lover. One way or another it seems destined to fall apart and that inevitability seems to speak about the larger distance between the two, then either had anticipated.

One of Tharoor’s gifts is his humor. I can’t remember a story that made me laugh out loud as much as “Elephant at Sea” did. This was both in the situation presented as in the language in which it was shared. It’s hard to imagine ever writing something as funny as, “BRILLIANT STOP TOP PACHYDERM STOP.” Yet, everything about the story is both funny and endearing—and tinged with lost and longing. It is the tale of a diplomatic quandary that develops for the Second Secretary of the Indian Embassy to Morocco when he is told, quite without any useful context that the elephant is en route. What elephant? The one promised to the Moroccan princess when she was a little girl. Quite independently of the diplomatic struggle of the Second Secretary, the elephant, meanwhile, falls in love with the sea!

His humor is evident even in the bleak situations some of his stories present. In both “Phalanx,” a story about two veteran foot soldiers who die fighting the Romans beneath their own elephants, and “A United Nations in Space,” a story in the near calamitous future where climate change has rewritten the globe and the instability eradicates nations in flashes of violence, Tharoor makes room for both tender humor and audible chuckles in otherwise dire situations. Though thematically, these stories share only the same impermanence that each of the stories in the collection describes, and perhaps an added emphasis on the borders we draw and seek to hold down around ourselves as a race at large, the humor that they present is similarly moving.

This tension on the human arbitrariness for borders, on instability inherent in any supposedly stable situation, is also evident in other stories, like the gut-wrenching refugee story, “The Fall of an Eyelash,” in which the strange retreat of moving forward with one’s life, is never detached from the ties to what is left behind, across the map’s lines. And crossing those lines is fraught with many dangers, both physical and existential:

It didn’t help that her work made her think at all times of her homeland. She studied and then taught the medieval poetry of her country. There was something unsettling in the sight of a blond student reciting with perfect meter and inflection a seven-hundred-year-old verse in her language. But why should I be unnerved, she thought, this poetry of love is not just for my people… it’s for everybody.

Even when we do not cross the lines to reposition ourselves, but visit to give faces to people “over there” we get entangled in unexpected ways. In “Portrait With Coal Fire,” the gritty and real portrayal of a foreign man at his work in his home country becomes a struggle for him about how he and his family are seen, or not seen, by the world. What he sees in the glossy magazine, in the filth of his labor, contrasts with the image he holds of his family—the posed portrait the photographer gifted him which lacks the “realness” of the candid “Portrait With Coal Fire” that became this unnamed man’s face to the world.

There is a novella length collection within Swimmer Among the Stars entitled, “The Mirrors of Iskandar” which is a reinvented mythology of Alexandrian romances from the Arabic tradition, hence “Iskandar.” Given Alexander’s propensity for controlling the narrative in his lifetime (we know the histories about Alexander written in his lifetime only through later sources—the historians of many of these executed by Alexander himself), we have always been struggling to find the history of his conquest amidst the mythology, which continued to grow and evolve long after Greece, let alone Macedonia, was relevant as anything other than a tributary to one greater state or another. It is a bold testament to man’s vain attempts to control their own legacy, and to battle the impermanence of their conquests with ever newly drawn borders. These stories range from charming as fuck to a dark eeriness that leaves a chill upon the reader.

The final story, “Icebreaker,” a play on the introductory games we use to meet and establish community in new groups is an unlikely story of telescoping aid intended to rescue the first water craft that gets trapped in the neutral ice of Antarctica, then the next and the next, creating a delightfully absurd game of cultural telephone as subsequent ships from different foreign shores are also trapped and cultural exchange comes piece by piece, ship to ship. It is the perfect ending to a collection that accounts for the struggles with man-made borders and the crossing of these same lines, sharing or losing the bits and pieces of ourselves with foreign peoples, whether in food as in both “Icebreakers” and “The Loss of Muzzafar,” or in other tangible things as in “Cultural Property,” “Elephant at Sea,” and “The Astrolabe,” or in stories as in “Letters Home” and “A United Nations in Space,” and whether these are freely given, stolen, or taken in violence.

But in “Icebreaker,” just as the swimmer in space, we are all on neutral territory, trapped apart, but still reachable. It is a surprising and humorous tale of hope contrary to all other expectations set by our lines drawn on maps, our inevitable impermanence, and the strange legacies we leave.

Visiting San Diego with The Radvocate, Issue 15

Posing with my copy of  The Radvocate , Issue 15, in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego.

Posing with my copy of The Radvocate, Issue 15, in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego.

I just got back from San Diego, marking it as the first city I have visited from which I bought and read a locally produced, contemporary literary magazine. For this challenge, I read The Radvocate, Issue 15. It is the last issue from the presiding founding editor Matt E. Lewis, who passes it on to Julie Dixon Evans, under whose future guidance it will continue with the backing of local non-profit So Say We All.

Because of this momentous occasion, his introduction is reflective.

In it’s infancy, The Radvocate was certainly no investment—it was a joke incarnate, a kind of send-off of the marketing of sub-cultures, barely worth the paper it was printed on. In time, support allowed it to grow into something else, a platform for writers and artists desperate to connect and share their work… The internet may have been a boon to sharing creative work, but it also made it twice as easy to commoditize. The Radvocate just wanted to fuck up your brain for a little while.

Reading about the origins of its Xeroxed zine days, spilling almost accidentally into a platform for artists to have the opportunity “to fuck your brain up for a little while,” told me exactly what to expect from the pages that followed. The essays, stories, and poems, many of them runners-up and winners to The Radvocate’s in-house contest were dark, strange, and marked by differences or Otherness in a hundred little ways. Birthed as a zine and now backed by a non-profit that operates to amplify the voices in the city of San Diego, I sense it has retained its soul from the days when each black and white copy had to be “printed” and stapled by hand.

The issue ranges from a defiant fist in the air as in the last essay from Skyler McCurine’s “Black. Woman.” and the poetry of Yvonne Higgins Leach, to many a middle finger pointed at various conventions, such as David Henson’s description of human connections faltering in a near-future, increasingly automated world in “The Tinder Men” and Elaine Gingery’s grasping of a different kind of tenderness that eludes those dying in “Six Months, Max.”

It is casually filled with deviant behaviors as in Jed Wyman’s “Sparks” in which a substance-driven, thrill-seeking B&E results unexpectedly in the theft of a beloved town drunk’s brain; or the exceptionally bizarre and unsettling murder escapade of “Summer of ‘76” in which Alex Bosworth’s 10-year old protagonist helps murder and dispose of the body of his brother’s 3rd grade teacher’s husband; and the easy law-breaking of bohemian artists and punks in “Echoes,” Pouya Razavi’s story about a renegade artist mother and her daughter.

It includes the ominous, like Paul Douglas McNeill II’s “Arctic Sounds,” the dystopian, like Steve Tague’s “The Farm,” and the mysterious, like Toni Martin’s “Fool’s Gold.” Amidst these stories are ordinary experiences of Marisa Crane’s stubborn, faltering couple in, “That’s Why They Have Coats On,” and the daily reality of anxiety and maybe young gay love in Gerardo de Jesus Gurrola Jr.’s “Gibbous.”

While it may be a polished and bound volume, this issue at least held onto the wide-flung artistic visions of a punk’s bohemian zine. As Lewis wrote with his last words from his farewell introduction to Issue 15,

What you hold in your hands now is a result of the support of you, the reader, and people like you who believe in things that shouldn’t work but do. I dedicate this issue to you, and all those that would fly in the face of convention one goofy Xerox at a time.

Conversations and Connections - Barrelhouse Magazine's 2019 DC Writers Conference

I feel like I need to open with a disclaimer, which is namely that I am currently participating in Barrelhouse Magazine’s Short Fiction Boot Camp, so this conference was also a chance to meet instructors, and one classmate, from the program. Do what you will with that and all the praise I am about to heap on this conference.

I suppose I shall open with my criticisms. They are frankly few. So, Barrelhouse team pay attention to this part and not all of the nice stuff I’m going to add below (unless, you are having a bad day, then maybe you need a boost and you should just skip ahead).

  1. On the schedule provided in the programming, or on a separate bundle, please provide the names, bios, and social media contact information for all of the cool people you brought into the conference. At least their names.

  2. Please, provide an area to congregate or tables or something similar for us to mob the featured authors and poets after their session so we can get autographs and mingle without them signing books on their thighs and clogging up the space where a subsequent workshop is scheduled.

However enjoyable other conferences are, however extensively I’ve been able to network at them, however many great connections I have made, taking all the howevers into consideration of many other enjoyable writer conference experiences, I think this one delivers the most return on the conference fee. I deeply appreciate that.

I don’t think I have been to a writing conference, yet, and felt like it was a waste of time and money. I have a stack of signed books from authors I deeply admire and authors I was introduced to for the first time at conferences; I have pages of notes I’ve taken at workshops and panels; I have a stack of business cards, and a clutch people who occasionally notice me on Twitter, acquired from conferences. Afterwards, I am energized and excited to get back to writing. I am following new authors and literary magazines on social media platforms and excited to see what they have to say and more importantly what and where they’re writing. Literary conferences are awesome. Go! Learn! Enjoy! Get energized! Expand your network!

So, they’re great, but I think Barrelhouse Magazine may have put together the winner. Because however enjoyable other conferences are, however extensively I’ve been able to network at them, however many great connections I have made, however many great new reads I’ve purchased—-taking all the howevers into consideration of the many other enjoyable writer conference experiences I’ve had and will continue to have, I think this one delivers the most return on the conference fee. I deeply appreciate the value they place on my cash.

As at other conferences, you will meet authors, editors, publishers, etc. As at other conferences, you will find panels that provide insight into the business of being a writer, discussions of craft, and the inner workings of authorial approaches or best practices. As at other conferences, you will have an all-conference session with awesome authors.

So much you expect; but the team at Barrelhouse offers more. As part of your conference fee (a fairly standard $75 for a single day conference based on my experiences) you get the following:

  • A literary magazine subscription (choose from a selection of four)—I selected Barrelhouse

  • A copy of one of the featured author’s recent published work—I selected Gabino Iglesias’s Coyote Stories, because Ivelisse Rodriguez had already signed a copy of Love War Stories at the Slice Literary Conference (and then I bought Randon Billings Noble’s Be With Me Always and Kyle Dargan’s Anagnorisis).

  • One 10-minute speed date with a lit mag editor—I was matched with Marisa Siegel from The Rumpus—and participants could spend $5 to go on more speed dates with other editors. The literary magazines get the cash.

  • And finally, not entirely unheard of but I think infrequent, in each time slot there was at least one workshop in which attendees participated in a guided writing activity and actually produced written work—I attended Kate Finegan’s workshop on description and had a fruitful writing session.

Now, I didn’t take enough pictures at the event because I was learning too much, thinking too much, and having too much fun, so content yourself with the photos above from the featured authors—the readings and Q&A were fantastic!

Here concludes the unironic superlatives.

Room for Magic

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For their first issue of 2019, RoomIssue 42.1, the editors made a call for magic and their submitters conjured tales and spells that did not disappoint. The resulting literary magazine has one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen (I re-upped my subscription immediately upon seeing it previewed online) by Lan Yao. Between the covers, editor Arielle Spence explains, the issue makes room for all of the various interpretations of magic from the writers who submitted and was delighted.

My focus this year is on writing short fiction, so while I read the poetry and non-fiction in the lit mags I am reading, that is not where my attention concentrates. Having said that, there is no better occasion than the occasion of magic to read poetry. While some brought the whimsy of fae moments, others are deeply weighted by the subjects with which they grapple. And, Emily Urquhart’s personal non-fiction essay was surprising in its somber and beautiful connection to the theme, an incredible account of miscarriage.

Yilin Wang’s interview with Janie Chang about her fiction and speculative fiction’s power to reimagine and restore narrative power was an engaging read about the power of magical stories (and made me want to read everything Chang’s written). Admittedly, Chang is writing from a similar place where many of my ideas stir, but from a different cultural perspective than my own or that I have studied deeply—how can I not be excited about an author entwining historical fiction with the speculative? If anything, my lack of experience with the eras of Chinese culture Chang writes about, only makes it more appealing.

The issue’s short fiction offered such variety on the theme. It made for a delightful and beguiling read.

The first short story was “Museum” by Kess Costales, a magical realist exploration of the way that forcing heteronormative expectations on our youth damages everyone involved, and that release from that expectation—the only moment in the story when the magical is withdrawn from the narrative—can be the first moment of magical connection that closeted queer youth, too often grow up training themselves not to expect or believe they deserve love, experience.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s commissioned piece, “Alicia Dreams the Sound of Footsteps in Her Wake,” is a tale of haunting. Whether there are actual ghosts haunting the characters or their own present shackled to failed dreams and disintegrating relationships from their youth, is the reader’s question to answer. I am excited to read more of her characters and her places.

Cody Klippenstein’s “Becoming” is set off the coast on an island with superstitious sea folk. Following the mysterious deaths after an enormous fish beaches and dies on their shores, an enterprising young fellow from the mainland’s university comes to make his name, planning to take his turn with the main character, Celine, whom he finds unready to accept his humiliations, but totally prepared in her transformation to devour him for herself.

In “Wards”, Lynne M MacLean describes the hereditary dragon that plagues her family, following them over with her grandfather from the Old Country. She is not unprepared for this menace, however, and takes every step to protect her young family from its appetites.

Finally, there is a more heart-wrenching tale of a transwoman finding her way for her ill mother and herself, working extra shifts to cover the expenses as “The Snowplow Driver.” Gaëlle Planchenault’s story describes the different technical words for snow that she plows through the midnight shift and the strange hallucinations she observes in her exhaustion. When released from the real people in her life, either in rejection or death, Paula goes out on her night off to explore where the phantom creatures bid her to follow.

As ever, Room makes space for brilliant women and non-binary authors, to share compelling narratives and this issue is one my favorites.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, A writer's reflection on the exhibit

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." With these words the Oxford professor J.R.R. Tolkien ignited a fervid spark in generations of readers. From the children's classic The Hobbit to the epic The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien's adventurous tales of hobbits and elves, dwarves and wizards have introduced millions to the rich history of Middle-earth.

A Quick Reflection on the Exhibit Itself

*No photographs in the exhibit

*No masks, wizard staffs, scepters, axes, bow and arrows, or swords are permitted

I attended the Morgan Library’s special exhibit, Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth, on Saturday, March 30th. I went as a fan and a writer. I went with friends; I took the train up from Baltimore; I had a great lager and a delicious pizza and my favorite Dough donut (hybiscus-flavored); I took a nice walk around Manhattan with a Spider-man gamer on his first visit to NYC, who excitedly pointed out various in-game fights he had on the roof tops of the buildings we passed. It was a fantastic experience—I love New York City! But I also thought a deeper discussion of the exhibit is merited as it is relevant to writers.

The exhibit was originally in Oxford and this is the only American showing for a collection gathered from “the Tolkien Archive at the Bodleian Library (Oxford), Marquette University Libraries (Milwaukee), the Morgan, and private lenders, the exhibition [includes] family photographs and memorabilia, Tolkien’s original illustrations, maps, draft manuscripts, and designs related to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.”

I will discuss the layout of the exhibit and what it contains in a general sense, first, then talk more deeply about how it reveals Tolkien as author and world-builder.

1.       Early Life and Family

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s childhood began in colonial South Africa, but his father died while he and his brother Hilary were young. The exhibit featured family photographs and Arthur Tolkien’s obituary, torn from a newspaper. His mother moved the boys to England and the bucolic setting of Birmingham from his childhood was the fertile material of the Shire.

When his mother also died, the boys lived with a local priest. In his care, Tolkien met the woman who would eventually become his wife, though the priest forbade him from seeing her until he turned 18 years old. Already, he had started to work in visual art, capturing the scenes in the countryside.

Before she died, Mabel Tolkien instilled a love of languages (and a unique penmanship that seems reminiscent of many of his artistic works). He left to Exeter College of Oxford to study classics.

2.       University Life and Abstract Art

He was an indifferent student early on and in the exhibit was an account book, by which hours of study earned kisses from the love of his life, Edith Bratt. In his third year, he switched his course of study to early English literature, language and comparative philology, which allowed him to study Norse and Germanic languages and mythology.

This is when the languages that would become the foundations of the cultures of Middle Earth came into development. It is also when he began to experiment with more abstract artwork. Some already suggest the struggles and scenes from the books—a lone individual, suggestive of Gandalf, walking into an abstract scene of darkened trees, branches like claws reaching for him. His 1914 attempt to rewrite the Finnish Kalevala was his beginning of the legendarium.

World War I broke out and he completed his studies and joined the war effort, later confiding in his son that many of the original roots of the project had their genesis in his service to that war.

3.       Doodles and Letter Designs

This was the transition from his college years to his adulthood. His doodles were gathered from the newspaper articles he sketched over as he worked through the paper’s crossword puzzles. Separately, were minor art projects that sometimes played into the ethos of the worlds he built.

4.       The Hobbit

The art in this section of the museum included the various paintings, inked illustrations, and the book jackets he designed, virtually all intended for publication. I had seen all of these in print in various editions, but I was in particularly struck by the Eagle in this part of the exhibit. While it would be difficult to pick a favorite, being able to see the sun-kissed clouds and fog at close of day from the Eagles’ aerie in person was special.

5.       The Lord of the Rings

Tolkien labored over what was supposed to be a sequel to The Hobbit, but would eventually become the epic Lord of the Rings for twelve years. The beautiful colored pencil drawings of Old Man Willow and the Moria gates were not likely meant for publication as the stunning watercolors had been for The Hobbit. These, along with the Dwarven rune inscriptions, the pages from the Book of Mazarbul left by the doomed dwarves of Moria, the forest of Lothlorien, the gates of Mordor, and more, were world-building exercises for the author. He did however design the book covers.

After the close of the Fellowship of the Ring, the cast of characters embark, willingly or no, on their own unique quests spawned by the betrayal and fall of Boromir. Tolkien’s orderly mind drafted daily accounts, charted alongside each other, for each of these. The chart is a variation of one that I have seen from other authors, though it is not tied to chapters, but to days counted out from the sundering of the Fellowship.

6.       The Silmarillion

It had been his initial ambition to publish The Lord of the Rings alongside The Silmarillion. But the latter was quite unfinished, and would only be published posthumously by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, who was the keeper of his literary estate until 2018.

In The Silmarillion, however, Tolkien had worked out the history of Middle Earth, the cosmology, and the great glories and mighty sins that preceded the adventures of Frodo and Sam, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, Gollum, and the others. He created detailed maps that grew with the story and when seen in person are simply magnificent—his working map shows the world from the fall of Feanor up through the cataclysm that destroyed Beleriand. He drew sigils of the houses of Numenor, he painted the scenes of Valinor and the myths that inspired the men, elves, and hobbits of the later ages. He wrote the songs of their great deeds, including, of course, the story of Beren and Luthien—a love story so dear and coupled to his own relationship with his wife that a reference to it was included on their head stone.

7. Family Man and Professor

Finally, the exhibit included the scenes of his family life. There were photographs of the family at different ages. An entire display was allotted to his Father Christmas letters, which began simply as letters to his kids for the holidays but grew, as his children did, to become much more involved stories about Father Christmas and his jolly, if clumsy, polar bear companion. There were photographs of Tolkien in his study at work or telling his children stories. And the exhibit concluded with his Doctoral academic robes.

World Building with Professor Tolkien

Before the story of Bilbo became known around the world through the The Hobbit, Tolkien had a three-dimensional world. And it was peopled with different cultures, who had unique languages and practices. It had a creation story, geography, and a cataclysm induced by the clashes and failings of powerful individuals and lesser deities. There was a unique ecology and bestiary—much of it crafted by the Valar in the early ages with a purpose in mind (in some cases beneficent, in others malignant)—and a unique sense of the sacred and profane. There was a history, stories of love and strife and legendary deeds.

I don’t mean to suggest that the Tolkien had everything worked out before he wrote his first book—or even The Lord of the Rings—and it is worth recalling that The Silmarillion was never finished by JRR Tolkien, but rather published posthumously by his son Christopher Tolkien. Also, he did quite a bit of work between the publication of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But, clearly, much of the most important features of his world were already established before his formal writing began and Bilbo was still a bedtime story the professor told his children.

Tolkien built out this world with languages, visual arts, and maps. He credits the importance of starting with a map—a map of the Shire, made to scale, and a system of measuring distances, based on the length of a Hobbit’s stride; a map of Beleriand before it was lost; a map of Middle Earth in the Third Age—and fitting the story to its geography. The leaves of the trees cultivated uniquely in Middle Earth, the Gates of the Moria, the valley of Rivendell, the pages Balin’s dwarves left behind in Moria, the Trolls’ campfire and more are all painstakingly recreated. Some of the more legendary figures began as figures out of the Norse and Finnish stories that had so early inspired Tolkien.

On the one hand, it explains a great deal about the success of his stories, but it also explains why so much of his work was gathered and published posthumously and why in the end his published works are comparatively few. It was his in life’s blood, as he put it, and completed it with “time already mortgaged,” but it was also a vast intellectual pursuit to fashion the world as wholly as he did.

It is hard to identify the exact lesson other authors might learn or adapt to their own practice, though, as with most things, there is not going to be a single answer for every author or work of fiction. Nonetheless, it was rewarding to see such a talented artist’s commitment and devotion to his world-building.

Exhibit is at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City

Showing: January 25 through May 12, 2019