interview.

The Political Poet:

Interview with Nikki Giovanni

by Charles Bane, Jr. and Sarah A. O'Brien

 

Nikki Giovanni (born June 1943) is considered by many to be the dean of African American poets. Her poetry arose out of the fervor of the Civil Rights Movement’s progression from the late 1960’s onward, and has garnered her numerous awards, including the Langston Hughes Medal and seven N.A.A.C.P. Image Awards. The author of over twenty poetry collections, she is currently the University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech. The following interview was conducted on November 7, just prior to the 2016 United States Election. The final two questions were answered by Giovanni on November 15, 2016.

 

 

Charles Bane, Jr.: You’ve written that you did not dream of being a writer, but rather “my dream was to discover something no one else had thought of.” Has poetry fulfilled your original aims?

Nikki Giovanni: I think of my poetry as uncovering ideas and truths not yet seen. What I would love to discover is life on another planet. I’d love to recognize a new life form. After all, when my ancestors were bought to this country they were forced to see new people and create new communities. I’d love to do that in another Space.

 

Bane: How important is music to you as a poet? Do you listen to music while you're writing, or do you need silence?

Giovanni: I don’t need silence, but I often have it.

I listen to music when I cook and as I read. Music is very important to me because it is the backbone of my work. I love the Spirituals and try to think how they were created and why they offer us such comfort.

 

Bane: The late Shirley Chisholm was quoted as saying she felt more the sting of discrimination as a women than as an African American. Has that been your personal experience?

Giovanni: No.

 

Bane: A writer early dubbed you the “Poet of the Black Revolution.” What, for you, was the seminal moment of the Civil Rights Movement?

Giovanni: We are still working on that one moment. America has a lot of growing up to do, and that would include Lil’ Wayne. Don’t you just miss Tupac about now? What an election this would have been with ’Pac singing a love song/work song with Hillary!

 

Bane: You've won seven Image Awards from the NAACP.  Is acknowledgement of that magnitude fulfilling, or challenging?

Giovanni: I feel so fortunate. The Image Awards make me so happy! One day I’ll be a question on Jeopardy, and won’t that be grand?

 

Bane: Do you think American letters, including children's literature (which you've written), is becoming more diverse?

Giovanni: I hope we are doing better. Kwame Alexander is certainly adding to the stew and, as always, Langston Hughes illustrated by Ashley Bryan, as well as Ashley’s creative work, has moved us forward. Children are not dumb, so it’s time we stopped “Rudolph The Red-Nose Reindeer” and admitted it’s about bullying. It’s time we helped American children reach out to become. I read the Comics every morning and we are seeing characters of color in the strips now. Do we need more? You bet. Are we on a good path? I hope so. It is my hope that by the time you receive this Hillary is President and Trump is ushered back to his gutter. [Editor’s note: As of November 10, 2016, Trump was not ushered into a gutter outside Trump Tower, but rather was ushered into the White House to visit President Obama as the president-elect.]


Sarah A. O’Brien: What do America's 2016 election results mean for women writers and poets, especially writers of color living in America?

Giovanni: We who write, men and women, and we are all of some color, need to remember that our job is still to tell the truth. It is very sad to have something like Donald Trump as President, but for me it’s even sadder that people who should know better are saying, “Give him a chance.” Should the Jews have given Hitler a chance? 

Why in the world haven’t those who know better spoken out? I am very disappointed with Obama trying to be “Big” about this. I am sorry Clinton didn’t curse him out. The young people in the streets are right: He is not our president.

It is very sad to have something like Donald Trump as President, but for me it’s even sadder that people who should know better are saying, ‘Give him a chance.’ Should the Jews have given Hitler a chance? Why in the world haven’t those who know better spoken out?
— Nikki Giovanni, American poet and activist

O’Brien: In light of Trump's troubling plans (or lack thereof) for the nation and the way his campaign has emboldened racists and bigots, how can writers become activists and advocates for those in need? How will our role as writers shift under Trump's presidency? 

Giovanni: Our roles will not shift. We are here to tell our stories; to tell our truths. Nothing has changed except that we might find ourselves incarcerated or, if we are unarmed black men: Shot. The KKK changed their white hoods for blue uniforms. God Bless America.

 

 


Charles Bane, Jr. is an American poet and author, and the Nonfiction Editor of Boston Accent Lit. Read more of his work here.

Sarah A. O'Brien is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Boston Accent Lit, and an MFA candidate in Writing at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Read a poem of hers.

Book Notes.

If Not, Winter: Fragments Of Sappho, Translated by Anne Carson

by Charles Bane, Jr.

 

Before the advent of modern feminism, a woman's inner life was often spent in sharp, glass-like splinters: there were, for many, only glimpses of what their lives might have been if they had been able to access the opportunity to live independently, attend a university, or pursue a forbidden profession. Canadian poet Anne Carson translates the now-fragmented works of Greek lyric poet Sappho, whose bursts of poetry are gifted, so that today we can recognize Sappho nonetheless as the finest Western poet of antiquity.

Carson's translation, If Not, Winter: Fragments Of Sappho, published in 2003, has been reissued in paperback by Penguin Random House. As Library Journal noted in its original review, "The lyric poetry of antiquity is often as important to modern poets as it is to translators."

We know virtually nothing of Sappho; her body of work did not survive the transition from the archaic Greek in which she wrote to a more popular idiom. To make her seem conventional, rumors were spread about that she was likely married with children, which does not seem true. What is true is that, as Carson reveals in a sensitive translation, Sappho had an almost unnerving directness of poetic expression that she reserved for the women who were the objects of both her love and her lust. "You burn me," Sappho set down, urgently, as if mirroring the open talk between modern-day lesbians sitting together for a hurried coffee at Starbucks, and counting down the work hours until they can be alone.  

All Sappho could hope was that "someone will remember us," and Carson's brilliant work—including the original Greek on the opposite page of each English translationassures that we will.

 

  The Fire In My Soul . Copyright:  Kemal Kamil

The Fire In My Soul. Copyright: Kemal Kamil


Charles Bane, Jr. is the Nonfiction Editor of Boston Accent Lit. View his website and additional writings here.

C.F. Releases a New Photo Book

c.f. Publishes a Controversial Photo Book

An intimate reveal of emotions only the eye can see

 

Digital photography and Photoshop fails are considered normal in today’s society. With the over-glamorized need for perfection, photographer c.f. accepts the challenge of bringing back the natural beauty of a raw image. In a recent interview, the photographer discussed the reasoning behind the titling of his first photo book, Naked:

“The word ‘naked’ is synonymous with the human body being without clothes. However, the word can also have the meaning of feeling vulnerable or can even refer to seeing something with the ‘naked’ eye.”

With film as the medium, time and patience is needed to plan, shoot, and wait for development of the photographs. Once the image is captured, the results can vary; small imperfections, such as light leaks or color changes, are what make film so unique. Naked is thus an expression of c.f.’s recent interactions in life from the view of his lens.

 

  silent stranger (2).  model: Cintrena

silent stranger (2). model: Cintrena

Pricing and Availability 

Two versions of Naked are available now for pre-order at www.cary-fagan.com/naked. Pricing starts at $60 for the regular edition or at $75 for the special edition including prints featured from the book.

 

About Cary Fagan

The 25-year-old photographer, originally from Arizona, now resides in Houston, Texas. In recent months, he has taken more of his projects international. He is well known for his fine art photography and features in publications including The Huffington Post, Dazed, and C-Heads.

 

Contact

Cary Fagan

cf@cary-fagan.com

i @cary.fagan

t @caryfagan

  silent stranger.  model: Cintrena

silent stranger. model: Cintrena

 

The Beauty of Pedantry

By Justin goodman

 

By now, everyone has heard about the Supreme Court’s last three rulings prior to its summer recess. Likely what excited people most was the court’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which struck down two specific demands of the Texas legislature’s bill HB 2. Under this bill, abortion clinics were required to have both doctors with admitting privileges and architecture similar to an ambulatory surgical center (including, infamously, hallway-width), or risk being shut down. 33 of 40 did. Perhaps these same people have also seen (on Facebook’s news sidebar and other go-to sources) the bribery case, McDonnell v. United States, and the domestic violence/gun ownership case, Voisine v. United States. To those less interested, they are simply legally binding determinations of an unknown value. But these rulings are guided by the core principles of great writing: an attention to words, not merely as sentence and cadence, but as discrete units of reference. Pedantry to some, necessity to all.

If you’re rusty on the proceedings: after a case is brought before the Supreme Court (SCOTUS), it issues a majority opinion that is then signed onto by agreeing justices; generally, there’s a dissenting opinion, sometimes a concurrence with its own points to make, and sometimes multiple of each. SCOTUS’ majority decisions set precedents for future courts, becoming case law, which even the future Supreme Court must then consider. The concept of an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to an abortion, as referred to in Whole Woman’s Health, for instance, was established as precedent for abortion cases in 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Writers will have similar experiences in either reconsidering old phraseslike Max Porter's Grief is the Thing With Feathers, in homage of Emily Dickinson's "Hope," or with words like Lilliputian (from Jonathan Swift)invoking context. Whether one might see this lexical intensity as either mystical or lilliputian, it remains true that every word creates mental structures that great writers consciously depart from. It’s how Porter and Swift confront the world in satire and aesthetics. All a writer does, after all, is appropriate.

Voisine v. United States centers around two men with charges of domestic abuse charged with violating legal code §922(g)(9). This resulted in banning individuals convicted of “a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from owning firearms. As Justice Kagan, writing for the majority, explains:

In Castleman, we initially held that the word “force” in §921(a)(33)(A) bears its common-law meaning, and so is broad enough to include offensive touching. See id., at ___ (slip op., at 4). We then determined that “the knowing or intentional application of [such] force is a ‘use’ of force.” Id., at ___ (slip op., at 13). But we expressly left open whether a reckless assault also qualifies as a “use” of force—so that a misdemeanor conviction for such conduct would trigger §922(g)(9)’s firearms ban. See id., at ___, n. 8 (slip op., at 11, n. 8). The two cases before us now raise that issue.

A previous ruling, United States v. Castleman, defined the word “force” and avoided clarifying the meaning of the word “use” in regards to intention. The following 10 pages are meant to clarify the relationship between intention and “use” through precedent and context (For the curious, the central analogy is of a husband and a dish: If a man who just washed his hands drops a plate and the shards of which then cut his wife, he hasn’t “‘used’ physical force in common parlance”; it counts when an angry husband throws a plate at his wife because there is an “awareness of a substantial risk of causing injury”).

***

Maureen McDonnell, wife of the mayor, asked the Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams for a $50,000 loan and a $15,000 gift for the wedding of Maureen and Robert’s daughter. A year later, Williams gives a Rolex to Maureen to give to Robert as a present. Depending on who tells you the story, the mayor either knew about it or didn’t know about it. Depending on who tells the story, the mayor went on to push for studies on Star Scientific’s (Williams’ company’s) nutritional supplement, anatabine. Without FDA approval granted from such a study, it could not be sold as an anti-inflammatory. When it was first brought before Dr. Hazel, Virginia’s Secretary of Health and Human Resources, they had sufficient doubts to warrant assisting the necessary studies in getting done. This was before the $65,000 and before the watch, when the most Williams did for the McDonnells was lend his jet for the campaign trail and offer to buy a gown for Maureen McDonnell (who was advised not to take the gown).

Inevitably, the federal government arrested them on bribery charges. They were accused of committing five “official acts” which, reduced to their bones, were: “arranging meetings,” “hosting, and...attending events,” “contacting other government officials,” “promoting Star Scientific’s products and facilitating its relationships,” and “recommending senior government officials meet with Star Scientific executives.” Maureen and Robert were convicted by a jury on these grounds. SCOTUS heard the case on appeal.

At stake is—much like “use” in Voisine—notions of what constitute “official acts” defined under 18 US Code §203 as “any decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.” Chief Justice Roberts, writing the unanimous opinion of the court:

None of this, of course, is to suggest that the facts of this case typify normal political interaction between public officials and their constituents. Far from it. But the Government’s legal interpretation is not confined to cases involving extravagant gifts or large sums of money, and we cannot construe a criminal statute on the assumption that the Government will “use it responsibly.”

If it sounds unreasonable to be under suspicion of bribery because you’re “arranging meetings” between the state Secretary of Health and a local health product businessman, that’s because, as Roberts says, it is. He further borrows a phrase from the referenced case, United States v. Stevens, that really hits home to how aesthetically pleasing the precise metaphor can be— “a statute in this field that can linguistically be interpreted to be either a meat axe or a scalpel should reasonably be taken to be the latter.” It is with the very same linguistic considerations that a writer should craft a sentence. When is your word choice butchery, and when is it surgery?   

“As part of a system of language, one may say, the sentence has life. But one is tempted to imagine that which gives the sentence life as something in an occult sphere, accompanying the sentence. But whatever accompanied it would for us just be another sign.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue Book

***

Many of the justices admit to linguistic pet peeves.” This NPR story (while not useful news in itself) is significant because it illustrates that to connect jurisprudence with literature is to identify the relationship between semantics, syntax, and the contexts regulating the morality implied by it. That’s why I love Justice Breyer’s clarity in the Whole Woman’s Health opinion. The disagreement between the justices in this case centers on The Restatement (Second) of Judgments wherein “material operative facts occurring after... with respect to the same subject matter... may be made the basis of a second action not precluded by the first.” Breyer’s example is as follows:

Imagine a group of prisoners who claim that they are being forced to drink contaminated water. These prisoners file suit against the facility where they are incarcerated. If at first their suit is dismissed because a court does not believe that the harm would be severe enough to be unconstitutional, it would make no sense to prevent the same prisoners from bringing a later suit if time and experience eventually showed that prisoners were dying from contaminated water… Factual developments may show that constitutional harm, which seemed too remote or speculative to afford relief at the time of an earlier suit, was in fact indisputable.

To “consciously depart from” previous notions is not to disagree. I emphasize this here, not because it is a last-minute thought, but because Breyer’s rendering of the The Restatement is not a disagreement. “Departing from” is the same act regardless of whether you’re departing from a distant country or from your own; it is always leaving and always moving towards, irrespective of direction. What Breyer models is referential consciousness. Why discuss “a group of prisoners” in a case about abortion facilities? Both are villainized, and both are trapped within a dichotomy. You’re either hard on crime or soft on crime, either pro-choice or pro-life; literary critic Fredric Jameson might call this broken dialogue or “the prison-house of language,” which he examines in his book of the same name.

The ironic nature of writing: The closer you are to the end of a sentence, the fewer meanings there are available to that sentence. Yet, on a larger scale, as much as it discloses certain meanings (Breyer’s), writing refuses them too (Alito’s dissent, which Breyer calls “simply wrong”). It is important to remember that a sentence is not merely words, but also the constitutive value that those words are given by their abundance of contexts. A writer’s impossible task is to parse this infinity for a universal code.

With that dour prescription that is itself limited by every factor of lived life that exists to pressure us into sailing between dualisms, given that even the value of this essay is dependent on a word or two you may find too pretentious, too coy, too wheedling, I want to conclude with Notorious RBG’s concurrence in Whole Woman’s Health. It is so full of certainty and power that, regardless of where you stand on qualifying language, it is brilliant. It is, in her own words, the precarious and brilliant light of “rational belief”:

Many medical procedures, including childbirth, are far more dangerous to patients, yet are not subject to ambulatory surgical-center or hospital admitting-privileges requirements... (all District Courts to consider admitting-privileges requirements found abortion “is at least as safe as other medical procedures routinely performed in outpatient settings”). Given those realities, it is beyond rational belief that H.B. 2 could genuinely protect the health of women, and certain that the law “would simply make it more difficult for them to obtain abortions”... When a State severely limits access to safe and legal procedures, women in desperate circumstances may resort to unlicensed rogue practitioners, faute de mieux, at great risk to their health and safety.

 

 

Justin Goodman is the Assistant Fiction Editor of Boston Accent Lit. Take a look at his website here.

Review.

Notes from a Tinier Island:

A Review of Maria Turtschaninoff’s Maresi: The Red Abbey Chronicles

By Rashi Rohatgi

 

I’m pregnant; I sleep all the time, until my neighbours wake me up. Usually they are yelling about football. This morning, they were yelling “Leave! Leave! Leave!” as though gleefully conducting a banishment. No, they were just town-crying: they had secured their Brexit.

Expecting—whether a child or political upheaval—is a good excuse to think back to the stories that have shaped you. Some require mental gymnastics: there was a time when Britain, for me, was wholly drawn by Enid Blyton, which meant loving childish feasts more than the possibility of poor Anne ever getting the chance to do anything exciting. Others require less, especially Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, the feminist fleshing out of Arthurian legend centered on an island that was a strong argument for geographic Safe Spaces if ever I read one.

The Red Abbey Chronicles, of which Maresi is the first, and thus far the only one to be translated from Finnish very finely by A.A. Prime, gives all of us missing Avalon a new female-only, Goddess-worshipping island. Its raison d’etre echoes the fear that led many on June 23 to vote for insularity: the island, and the Red Abbey upon it, serve as refuge for women from all over the surrounding lands. Some come simply to be educated, while others—like Maresi, the protagonist—come to escape from crushing poverty, and still others—like Jai, her closest friend—to escape from patriarchal oppression. Once at the abbey, the girls grow to be women and are called to a vocation. It is a haven of an island, and as islands that advertise self-determination so often can, it tempts us to believe that a watery border can give us control. 

Expecting—whether a child or political upheaval—is a good excuse to think back to the stories that have shaped you.
— Rashi Rohatgi, Fiction Editor

Of course, it doesn’t last. Maresi, though she comes from the same crushing poverty as Katniss Everdeen, is a softer hero, but her story joins the crush of recent female-centered YA fiction, in which growing up and finding victory in battle involves a blossoming discernment between selfishness and sureness. It is sparer—there is no underlying Arthurian legend or American analogy, just soul-crushingly familiar violence against women of the type that Brexiteer Nigel Farage discounted when he exclaimed that Brexit had been won “without a single bullet being fired.” Turtschaninoff, a bestselling author in her home country who grew up on C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, didn’t let Farage’s remarks go by without tweeting a correction, either. 

Maresi should be the next teen blockbuster franchise, though without a love triangle or much screen time for male characters, it may take awhile to get there. Those still hoping every mist leads to Avalon, and that islands can be havens, read Maresi. My child’s not born yet, and I’m impatient to talk about how heartbreaking this story is.

 

Maresi: The Red Abbey Chronicles is published in its English version by Pushkin Press and can be purchased here.

Rashi Rohatgi is the Fiction Editor of Boston Accent Lit. View her website here.

These Journals Know What's Up

In the wake of the tragedy at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, many in the literary community have responded with works honoring the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) community. Read one of these powerful pieces, by Roy G. Guzmán, here. Several journals are hosting themed or special issues to give writers in this community a platform from which to share their stories, reactions, and experiences.

Boston Accent Lit has compiled the following list of publications that we believe are making great efforts to spotlight voices of those who are too often silenced. Major props to all of the wonderful artists, writers, and editors who are behind these journals, and to their brave and talented contributors.

Badass JOURNALS & RESOURCES:

 

Raspa Magazine (It was Latin Night at Pulse when the attack took place. This journal focuses on the queer Latino perspective.)

Educe

qu.ee/r Magazine

Polari Journal

Assaracus, Adrienne, and Jonathan (Three separate journals by Sibling Rivalry Press!)

RFD Magazine

The Gay and Lesbian Review

Plenitude Magazine

bluestockings magazine

BLOOM

Lambda Literary (Check out Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color!)

Lavender Review

Apogee Journal

Arktoi Books

THEM

Blithe House Quarterly

Hello Mr.

Gertrude Press

Sinister Wisdom

St. Sebastian Review

Luna Luna

Chelsea Station

BACKWORDS Press

Drunken Boat

Wilde Magazine

PUBLIC POOL

Creating Iris

Ocho

Heart Online

GUTS

Crab Fat Magazine

Lumen

Headmistress Press

Muzzle Magazine

Digitus Indie Publishers

Mary

Queen Mob’s Teahouse

Trans Lit Mag

WUSSY

 

This list is far from comprehensive, and we encourage you to submit your favorite LGBTQIA-supporting journal or writing resource to be added. We would also love to hear from you and read your creative work. Email us at bostonaccentlit@gmail.com.

Also remember, as artist Niki Smith has adopted as her personal motto: "Life is beautiful!" And so are you.

Short Fiction Contest

The Accent Prize for Emerging Writers

contest held annually by Boston Accent Lit

This annual prize is awarded to a short story written by a self-identifying woman of color writer from the US (including overseas territories). As per Boston Accent Lit’s focus on daring works and underrepresented voices, entrants must not yet have published a short story collection or a novel.  

The winner’s story will be published in Boston Accent, along with an interview relevant to the submission. In addition, the fiction editors (Rashi Rohatgi and Justin Goodman) will provide comments on three other short stories of the winner’s choice. Shortlisted authors will have their names displayed on the Boston Accent Lit website.

Boston Accent believes that entry fees can prohibit writers from submitting work, so The Accent Prize is free to all entrants. Of course, we do depend on donations to stay live online and active in the literary community, so we would greatly appreciate contributions of any amount if you feel so inclined. (Shout-out to our donors!)

To submit work, please make the following note in your fiction submission to Boston Accent Lit: [*Please consider my piece for The Accent Prize.] While all submissions will be considered for publication in the journal, please keep in mind that we cannot accept simultaneous submissions for The Accent Prize.  

The Accent Prize submission period runs from September 1 to November 1, and the winning story will be published in our 1st anniversary issue (Feb. 2017).

Be sure to follow our standard submission guidelines, and send your entry to bostonaccentlit@gmail.com.

We can’t wait to read your work!!

Interview.

Conversation with Fiction Writer Jacob Appel, by Boston Accent's Justin Goodman

Jacob Appel is a physician, lawyer, bioethicist, NYC tour guide, and writer. He’s an athlete of the academy, with two novels, an essay collection, and four short story collections under his belt. A very impressive man who could take himself to court over medical malpractice and struggle the entire time about the decision, if it was called for. We interviewed Appel over email after he contacted us about reviewing his most recent collection, Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, a quirky and acute series of romantic failures and successes amid, among other things, climate change and resurrection.

What Appel isn’t widely known for, and perhaps should be more so, is his activism. Particularly in regards to the African country Eritrea, where “the rule of law has been replaced by the rule of fear” (NSFW) due to the leadership of president Isaias Afwerki who actively tortures the press, writers, and other dissidents. While we hope you enjoy the interview, we equally hope you familiarize yourself with the Kim Jong Un of Africa, whose country is torn and whose residents contribute to the refugee crisis and, perhaps, should Appel’s wit and sincerity affect you as it did us, you can help to make this violation of human rights an issue that ends in 2016.  

 

Boston Accent: Without fail, you're asked in your interviews about your degrees (which are many), your publication credits (which are many), and your ontological condition (which remains unverified). While I enjoy the answers, I'm counting on your Appel charm to appear regardless, so I'll skip the Turing test. Appropriately, I want to start off with your sense of humor. You obviously love jokes and, in fact, stories like "Sharing the Hostage" (Einstein's Beach House) and "Measures of Sorrow" (Miracles and Conundrums) end on O. Henry-esque rim shots. And you described your stories for Einstein's Beach House as “comedy of manners,” poking fun at urban socialites. But Miracles and Conundrums has a different, distinctly Jewish, sense of humor—comparing the aforementioned stories is enlightening. What is your relationship to your Jewish background, if any? How seriously do you take humor?

 

Jacob Appel: Humor has served the Jewish people well for centuries: It disproved the blood libel, undermined the Inquisition, staved off countless pogroms, saved Anne Frank, and prevented the Holocaust. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an embellishment. (You didn’t think you’d get an Anne Frank joke in the first minute of this interview, did you?) But for a people whose cultural lifecycle recently consisted of eating root vegetables and being chased around the Pale by Cossacks, a good joke now and then never hurt. And jokes are free. As you many know, during the Middle Ages, the only two occupations open to Jews were usury and comedy—and my ancestors weren’t good at math. However, I read somewhere that all Ashkenazi Jews are first cousins within thirty generations, which lets my mother boast to gentile friends about Cousin Freud and Cousin Marx and Cousin Einstein.

I do take humor very seriously. Far more seriously, my former Hebrew school teachers will tell you, than I take Judaism. After all, you can be a good comedian and still enjoy shrimp. Many of the great novelists of the twentieth century—William Styron, Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene—used humor to leaven deeply powerful social commentary. Even Melville shared a whale joke now and then. I fear today, with some notable exceptions, literary authors are becoming an earnest and dour lot. I can think of several recent, blockbuster novels, which I shall not name, that are about as much fun as a date with Adlai Stevenson. Who was Jewish, by the way.  Or, at least, he was circumcised, which means you can never rule it out for sure…

 

BA: What's comedy without a little Anne Frank, right? But I find that interesting in particular because you have a reputation for espousing non-traditional views (assisted suicide, genetic modification of diseased embryos, bestiality, and so on). Remarkably serious topics that would be hard to fit a joke into, especially as a physician who deals with people suffering from them; "Invasive Species" (a story as much about assisted suicide as about the extremes of grief) doesn't end on a funny note, but a hallucinatory one. And this is a trend in your stories. As Cohan says in "Invasive Species," "Today, we've come to view invasives as a threat, but that hasn't always been the case." None of your conclusions are conclusive. They tend to balance the "today" and the "hasn't always been" to imply that something will change. Do you find this inconclusiveness lends itself better to social commentary?

 

JA: When I taught bioethics at Brown University, I had a reputation for neutrality; even though my views drift toward the left of the spectrum on many issues, I was always delighted when, at the end of a semester, conservative students—often a minority at top universities like Brown—would wonder whether or not I shared their opinions. Of course, my teaching wasn’t neutral at all; rather, my bias presented itself in how I set the agenda. The same is true of ideas in fiction. Writing a story about assisted suicide that creates ambiguity around the issue is in itself an act of social commentary. That being said, I am not a fan of novels or stories “of ideas.” A few brilliant writers, like Dostoyevsky and Camus, manage to pull off the idea-driven novel, but in the hands of most mere mortals, idea-driven work falls flat and reads as propaganda. The last thing I want is to write a short story more suited for placement under someone’s windshield wipers. Rather, the goal should be to tell good stories, and sprinkle in a few dangerous ideas like arsenic.

The other reason many of my stories are inconclusive is because, at heart, I am a wishy-washy person. What easier way to protect oneself against criticism than to avoid taking a stance? Once I’ve mastered this approach with fiction, I intend to pursue national office. My followers are going to model ourselves on the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s. We’re going to be the Know Less Than Nothings. We’re going to make Donald Trump look like Paul Wellstone. Do I have your vote? 

 

BA: If you plan on re-instating the entirety of the Alien and Sedition Acts, then you can count on my vote; I love dangerous ideas. However, speaking of aliens and creating ambiguities, the piece from which the new collection draws its name stands out to me. Not because the characters discuss the issue of abortion directly, or because it’s probably the closest to romance you get. It's not even that "Red Ziggy" is an alien; that's actually the least strange since, I assumed, this was inspired by David Bowie. These are weird.

But Red Ziggy seems closest to how you've described yourself as a professor. He has a reputation of neutrality and people tend to think he agrees with them, but his opinions drift towards the left. This is getting into the tricky territory of autobiographical detail, but, to boldly go where everyone has gone before, do you find yourself most reflected in Red Ziggy? For him, the miracles and conundrums seem to be the impossibility of full understanding while somehow implicitly comprehending love and life (that "the simplest of earthly life forms might contain mysteries grand enough to defy an eternity of painstaking observations"). As a scientific, lawyerly, and literary individual (all of which rely on observation and notions of factuality), does this improve or conflict with those responsibilities?

 

JA: You’ve outed me. Like Red Ziggy, I’ve also been sent by the denizens of a distant planet to observe the moral quirks of earthlings…. Okay, that’s not exactly true, but sometimes I feel that way. I do think there is a part of me in Red Ziggy, also in the protagonist in “Measures of Sorrow.” They are psychological outsiders, befuddled by their fellow human beings even when they are in the thick of the action. (Sort of like the governesses in nineteenth century British novels.)

I think the catharsis for many of my characters occurs when they stop trying to figure out the ways of the world and accept that some mysteries are beyond understanding. I do not mean this in a religious sense, merely that they develop a fundamental awe of the inexplicable. The most talented figures in law or medicine are able to recognize and accept that some matters defy concrete explanation. Any medical or legal code that doesn't account for the power of love or the fear of death is bound to fail. (Or, at a more concrete level, try explaining to a stranger why you love your spouse. Or describe your deceased grandparents to your children. In both cases, nothing you say will prove adequate.) That being said, I think the world could learn a lot from folks like “Red Ziggy”; if I do run for President, he will likely be my ticket mate. 

And I’m not sure what benefit there would be in enacting the entirety of the Alien and Sedition Acts, because I believe at least one (and possibly both) contain the proviso that the laws will expire in 1801. (See, Mr. Rothschild, I was paying attention in eleventh grade history!) 

The last thing I want is to write a short story more suited for placement under someone’s windshield wipers. Rather, the goal should be to tell good stories, and sprinkle in a few dangerous ideas like arsenic.
— Jacob Appel in Boston Accent Lit interview

BA: We resolved your ontological condition, after all! I'll alert the other lit mags right away. Speaking of "Measures of Sorrow" first, though, you've described your writing as (at least) absurdist, which, naturally, makes me think of the master of absurdism, Samuel Beckett. The narrator's thesis in "Measures of Sorrow," quoted below:

According to Beit Hillel, the precise number of tears to be shed before the messiah's arrival was fixed. Those not wept in one generation would inevitably pour forth in another. A second school, Beit Shammai, rejected this interpretation. These rabbis maintained it was the volume of tears, not their number, that was predetermined.

is even seemingly crafted from one of the most memorable lines from Waiting For Godot, said by Pozzo: “The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere another stops. The same is true of the laugh.” 

Pozzo, though, is generally referred to as the antagonist of the play. Perhaps the same could be said of your narrator. He looks down on Ollie, tries to cut his Caribbean identity into a neat shape (like with the thesis), and there's the moment near the end when he wants to watch Ollie talk to the girl because of an implicit hope for Schadenfreude. The same argument could be made about every narrator; Red Ziggy is removed from the abortion conversation and "The Resurrection Bakeoff”’s narrator is cruelly skeptical of his mother-in-law's hopes. I'm inclined to think the notion of being a psychological outsider isn't necessarily a good thing; what does it mean to you to be a psychological outsider, Mr. President?   

 

JA: You don’t ask easy questions, do you?  If you’d like to become a psychiatrist, I’d be glad to write you a recommendation.

I think being a psychological outsider is the condition of perpetually being unable to lose oneself in the moment. So, at the most reductive level, you go to a friend’s wedding, and while you watch the ceremony, you reflect of the couple: They love each other… but they could easily have fallen in love two different people and been just as happy…. and they have a 50% chance of getting divorced…. and will she really visit him in the nursing home every day if he grows old and sick before she does? You get the picture. A more sophisticated version involves living on the constant lookout for the blind spots of others—seeing their foibles, even if they don’t, cataloging their futility in your mind. If you do that all the time, you’re well on your way to being a psychological outsider… and possibly a competent short story writer... albeit a painful date and a helluva rotten babysitter.

I am sincerely surprised, by the way, to learn that Beckett pinched that bit about the tears from me. I genuinely thought he was above that. I suppose that’s what one gets from trusting foreigners.

 

BA: Beckett's unscrupulous, I suppose. I like to consider myself a painful date. But the questions get easier from here, promise. Miracles and Conundrums was unlike your previous writing in its use of genre: Sci-fi, cli-fi, (religious) fantasy, and arguably gothic ("The Orchard"). It makes sense, given that you've described it as "being unable to lose oneself in the moment," that these stories don't really focus on the genre aspect. What inspired the transition from literary realism though? Do you read "genre fiction," as it is dubbed?

 

JA: “It gets easier from here, promise,” is what we tell the patients in psychiatry before we shock their brains, so forgive me if I’m wary….

I don’t read “genre” fiction, at least as far as I know, but I suppose it’s a matter of perspective: If one writes westerns, my stories about East Coast suburbanites are genre. But I have to confess that Miracles and Conundrums does not reflect a break with the past, but is rather an artifact of organization. Many of these stories appeared in literary journals long ago, before some of the stories included in Einstein’s Beach House, but I’ve collected the less traditional stories in this volume. In fact, “Shell Game with Organs” (1998) was among my first stories published in a major journal. Way back in the days when I thought that publishing a handful of great stories would win me glory, power, and a date with Sophia Loren. Since then, I’ve realized that it will take me a lot of great published stories to garner a date with Sophia Loren. Glory and power may require another novel. 

Wait—the above is a lie— I actually did write a mystery novel a few years ago. Wedding Wipeout. It's a mystery with a Jewish theme, and I wrote it because my nonagenarian grandmother (who is still with us at 95 years) primary reads Jewish mystery novels, and I wanted to dedicate a book to her that she might actually enjoy reading. Does that count? 

 

BA: Absolutely. Although I don't doubt the public good of a date with a matinee idol, Aristotle probably said something about that, and People Magazine is fairly comforting for some people. You'd make headlines without a date with the whole "cleaver murderer" thing, however, with someone probably comparing you to Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York

Was Miracles and Conundrums similarly formed? It came together only after you started preparing it? And if your research is that extensive for short stories, I'd be curious to know how it is for novels. I believe you have at least two novels waiting for a publisher. Was it the same process for them, and for your published novels, The Biology of Luck and The Man Who Wouldn't Stand Up? Or was it more intuitive?

And, while I'm flattered, I don't want to be too relentless an adoptee grandson. Makes me sound like the one no one invites to Thanksgiving. So, on a closing note, what was the strangest thing you decided to research that you think more people should look into and know about? 

 

JA: I actually have three novels waiting for a publisher. If you know a commercial publisher interested in buying them, I suspect my agent will offer a buy-two-and-get-one-free discount or something similar. I also have a completed non-fiction book waiting to see the light of day. I’m optimistic I will place them all eventually; my only fear is that it may be posthumously. Incidentally, neither of the novels you mention required much research. The Biology of Luck is about a day in the life of a New York City tour guide and I happen to be a New York City tour guide; The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up is about a self-righteous curmudgeon and I happen to be a self-righteous curmudgeon.

You’ll forgive me if I end on a heavy note. I don’t want to squander an opportunity to draw people’s attention to overlooked human rights violations, such as the brutal torture of dissidents and writers in the so-called country of Eritrea. Your audience should research the dictator, Isaias Afwerki. (And then write to your Congressperson to urge the CIA to kill him.) Unlike Anne Frank, this is not funny, because it is ongoing. I try to mention it in every interview because nobody else seems to care.  

 

BA:  I'll make sure to include this information; an admirable goal. And unfortunately, I know no such publisher, but if I bump into one then I'll certainly mention you.

Thank you for your time and humor throughout this interview. Do you have any last words? Either of wisdom or of wit?   

 

JA: It has been my pleasure. I ask only that people say of me what Leo Rosten once said of W.C. Fields: "Any man who hates dogs and small children can't be all bad."

 

Check out Jacob Appel's website here