Interview.

When Everyone Is Lying, Fiction Tells the Truth:

Conversation with Eric Bennett

by Justin Goodman

 

Author Eric Bennett teaches at Providence College, the alma mater of Boston Accent Lit’s founder, which is how this book and interview were decided. Bennett’s 2015 novel, A Big Enough Lie, is a fitting homage to a post-9/11 America’s cynicism—but its tone is entirely out of sync with his playful intellectualism. In what people are calling a “Post-Trump” America, it seems eerily excellent timing to release this book review and interview, which remains largely unedited over the several days we communicated. This is not because I was lazy, but because it seems appropriate that, in a “Post-Fact” world (everything is “post-” these days), one should strive to maintain forthrightness in all its error and simplicity. This conversation, and Bennett’s A Big Enough Lie, are good reminders that these issues we face today are old and that the concerns we face are everywhere present. Hopefully, someone will find comfort or a few laughs herein.

 

Justin Goodman: I'm going to start from an unusual place because A Big Enough Lie is, I think, so conceptually diverse that it'll probably take much of the time for itself. Plus, I find the best way to learn about someone is to consider their future orientation. So, in that vein, you said in a Q&A with Deborah Kalb last December that the next novel you were working on was called Everybody Can't Be Naked, which you described as a novel with "tales of actors, photographers, musicians, and writers in a gothic city on the East Coast." Foremost, I want to ask how that project's coming along. Has there been much progress over the months?

 

But I also noted that you described the project as “tales” (suggesting concrete divisions), while also calling it a novel. It made me think of something like Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers. An urbane, multi-layered world engaged in constant fiction while invoking Theory and Aesthetics to defend their commodity fetishism and conspicuous consumption. I know you have a similar perspective regarding a style of MFA student. The Greater Than X boys from A Big Enough Lie, for example, or your descriptions of former Iowa Writing Workshop director Paul Engle as something like a writerly power broker. With that in mind, do you see Everybody Can't Be Naked as a continuation of this criticism of the (anti-)politics of the American art world?

 

Hopefully that wasn't too much at once. Sorry, if so. I'm trying to hold back as much as possible to start.

 

Eric Bennett: Since Deborah's interview last year, Everybody Can't Be Naked has come more and more to resemble a novel proper. An international Chinese artist creates an installation in the ruins of nineteenth-century mill buildings in a city in Rhode Island. The installation—a work of art—is a full scale replica of a factory you'd find in the Pearl River Delta in southern China—the kind of place that makes 80% of everything we own and wear. The “factory workers” are rich girls, the daughters of Communist Party higher-ups, playing labor as Marie Antoinette is said to have played milkmaid. American artists are hired to build out the “factory” itself—to do the wiring and hang the sheetrock. They think they're really building a factory. And they live fatly on the good wages from the Beijing arts council, or they do at least until the money runs dry. Much of the novel concerns the dreams, hopes, loves, and empty bank accounts of these American artists (the old “tales” that I mentioned). But thematic continuities with A Big Enough Lie and Workshops of Empire will probably be clear to anybody who's kind enough to read the three books. Our material reality depends on industrial activity we barely ever even think about, let alone see. That's a truth that belongs to the realm of economics and politics and ethics, or at best to memoir or journalism, and not in a lush, vivid, plausible novel. But could a lush, vivid, plausible novel contain it? We'll see.

 

Goodman: I hadn't realized in making the comparison how fitting it seemed. Down to the factories. I don't know if you've ever read The Flamethrowers, but I more than recommend it. I think you'd appreciate it. And I look forward to reading Everybody Can’t Be Naked.

It strikes me as unusual that you say the truth belongs to a realm independent of a “lush, vivid, plausible novel,” but could you elaborate on that more? Could you explain, particularly because I think it's a charged word here, how this might relate to the importance of the “plausible” nature of a novel?

 

Bennett: The Flamethrowers is one of my favorite recent novels. I feel like Kushner takes a lot from DeLillo but also adds a lot to him—it's an edgy, weird, fast, paranoid book, but also one full of feeling. (DeLillo's Americana is maybe the one most worth comparing it to; it has the same spirit of manic solitude).

 

Just to be clear, although I'm sure you got this: when I say “the truth,” I mean the particular truth about the invisible industrial underpinnings of how we live and not the “Truth” as in the Ultimate Nature of How Things Are. In my writing, I've been thinking through ways to combine a political impulse, or really an ethical reflex, with an aesthetic process. The political impulse/ethical reflex goes something like this: it’s obscene to lament personal misfortune on one scale (the emotional hardship of divorce, the crisis of loneliness or disconnection) when the preconditions for that misfortune, even if they seem impoverished, are comparatively lavish compared to life on a different scale. Some poor Chinese teenager made the shoes that the moping divorcee is wearing. In saying so I don’t mean to suggest that the divorce isn’t important.  If my heart didn’t bleed too easily for everything that ever hurt anybody anywhere, including me, I would have gone into business rather than fiction writing. Domestic grief and suburban malaise is real human stuff and belongs in the pages of books that people turn to to read about real human stuff. Domestic grief and suburban malaise is stuff I write largely about. But there’s other stuff, compelling, relevant, and crucial, that shows up far more often on the non-fiction shelf, in statistics and scholarship and journalism. Can that stuff fit into fiction? George Saunders makes it look easy—fits it right in. He captures this collective crisis of irreconcilable scales of consciousness in short stories like “The Semplica Girl Diaries” and “Brad Carrigan, American.”  So it’s not as though there aren’t writers working on problems of scale, like this. But vast swaths of American fiction since 1945 have concerned themselves with the single scale of the lives most of us live, as they feel from the inside. And even writers conscious of the problem of scale will often point at that problem rather than find (as Saunders finds) powerful ways to dramatize it. I greatly admire Ben Lerner's 10:04, which could not succeed more vividly as an account life as some of us live it. It also tries to do more. At one point in the novel, the narrator riffs on the strangeness of the course of events that leads a product's appearing on the shelves of a Whole Foods he shops at—imagines his way into the global network from which he's mostly alienated.  With this, Lerner gestures at breaking through to another frame of reference, but, at least for me, the gesture underscores the provincial reality of the narrator rather than effecting an escape. The Lithuania subplot in Franzen's The Corrections similarly never attains the level of dramatized reality. It doesn't hurt anything. But it doesn't do anything, either. To bring it back to Kushner, I find the interspersed episodes from the history of Italian Futurism remarkable—and successful within the emotional economy of the fiction.

 

In A Big Enough Lie, I wanted to put two cultural moments into the same book: George W. Bush, draft-dodger, landing an aircraft on an aircraft carrier and standing before a banner saying "Mission Accomplished" (and getting a relative pass from the media for the charade); and James Frey, author of a harmless entertainment, getting shamed on Oprah for fibbing about how long he was in jail. The former was a non-event, the latter a scandal. Which types of falsehood inspire American outrage? Clearly not always the larger falsehoods. This discrepancy between magnitudes of deception, and the political relevance of that problem, is still very much with us, not least in the horrific contrast between the grotesque bogusness that is Donald Trump's very essence and the hysterical attention that Hillary Clinton's emails have received.

 

Why does any of this matter? There's the hedonistic answer and the civic answer.

Hedonistically, I'm most exhilarated, in my own reading, by works that fill a full canvas. I'll take Toni Morrison over Mary Karr, William Faulkner over James Salter, Ralph Ellison over Richard Ford. Civically, our crises are crises of scales of consciousness: individual gun ownership v. a national gun epidemic; driving to Whole Foods v. climate change. If the majority of three generations of American novelists have concerned themselves only with the local, the personal, the private, in the pages of their work, they've added to the narrowness of vision that contributes to our crises—even, and that's in italics, even if they're staunch advocates of gun control or garden-tending hippies who bike everywhere. Of course, plenty of people will doubt that novelists even matter that much. And those doubters will seem saner than you and me, who refuse to believe it, even if we believe it.

This discrepancy between magnitudes of deception, and the political relevance of that problem, is still very much with us, not least in the horrific contrast between the grotesque bogusness that is Donald Trump’s very essence and the hysterical attention that Hillary Clinton’s emails received.
— Author Eric Bennett

 

Goodman: I'd largely agree with the analyses you've given of those books—although, with Lerner, his project seems less related to effecting an escape than trying to determine if escape is possible when confronted by one's alienation from collectivity—but there are three things that struck me in your response that I want to mull over.

 

You go far enough to imply blame is on the majority of three generations of American novelists for our literary myopia, possibly our cultural one. This is a classic topic that leads certain people (myself included now) to mention American genre fiction. For instance, you've praised David Mitchell in an interview with Booktrib for what you call his "inspired borrowing," but it's important to mention he's a genre writer too. Half of Cloud Atlas is dystopia and post-apocalyptic fiction. There's a laundry list of great works that question the political/personal like Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness or Asimov's Empire series. I'd say the genre's MO has been one focused on collective action—I could go as far back as Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, which features a scene where the telepathic detective protagonist is at a party with other telepaths whose thoughts and feelings aggressively collide with his. So when you talk about a "plausible" novel with "dramatized reality," do you use these words in a looser sense than some are accustomed to taking them?

A shorter, vaguer question with a longer answer: what do you see as the ethical demands of a novelist specifically, or an artist generally?

 

And, to A Big Enough Lie crises of scales of consciousness. It's directly related to this lack of perspective, I suppose, but I'd like to hear about the almost compulsive sexuality of your characters. Heather and John, as the protagonists, are constantly engaged in a state of jouissance. This seems like a way to characterize young adults, sure, but there's also an exceptionally Freudian sense to it where there exists a 1:1 correspondence of social futility to sexual frustration. John himself considers himself as suffering from "the nothingness of feeling and the nothingness of action" and Heather's only poem is titled "Blowjobs in the Interregnum"; meanwhile, she can't fit in with her sex-addled classmates. How much does sexuality/impotence play into your notion of political/collective action? 

 

 

Bennett: To see my words come back at me like that (and it's a fair paraphrase)—"blame is on the majority of three generations of American novelists"—makes me want to scrap the whole way of talking. But of course I can't. The thing that seems impossible to say in a way that sticks is that you can both love Richard Ford's writing (or whomever's, but I really enjoyed The Sportswriter and Independence Day) and take issue with the Richard Ford-ness or Mary Karr-ness of American letters, in the same way that you can both thrill at driving a well-engineered automobile on an empty Utah highway and wish that automobiles had never been invented and that the first nations of Utah hadn't been shot by Mormons. Polemics, or how polemics come across on the internet, force us to love something or hate it but not both—even in the realm of literature, which is supposed to include lots of room for complexity of emotional response. In any case, it's the pervasive lack of an eagerness to imagine alternatives that is above all the object of my attack. A kind of comfort with what we've got. I don't doubt that I'm a little too nostalgic for the high modernists and too forgiving of their fascistic tendencies (have you read John Carey's book on them? The Intellectuals and the Masses? I loved it!) but what was appealing in that generation was the radicalness of their repudiation of what they found fault with. The repudiation got expressed via intense preoccupations with both literary form and social structure.  And those writers managed to fuse the two concerns, formal and societal, into novels, poems, and essays that still, for all that ambition, continue to scratch the itch of reading for pleasure.  That generation took itself so so seriously. And, as far as I can tell, Marilynne Robinson is the only first-tier American novelist writing these days who can take herself that seriously and not be subjected to chronic ridicule. Why can't we have two dozen of her, instead of just one? E. L. Doctorow was another along her lines. But the scene is largely a blitz of smirks and personal affront. James Wood and Jonathan Franzen have achieved eminence enough that nobody seems to want to feel sorry for them. But I certain feel sorry for US, that our impulse, in the face of their opinion-rife eminence, is to make lame bogeymen of them. I'm not clueless about the gender politics of all this, and that the attacks, not on Wood but on Franzen, are informed by the aftermath of a twentieth century full of Mailer, Roth, and lots of men trying to be like Ernest Hemingway. But, even so, I sense within the blowback against Franzen and Wood a blowback against seriousness itself. We're offended by high ambition. It's a distilled form of a general flavor of contemporary shamefacedness. The only brand of seriousness that gets a pass is the personalistic brand. If your claims are small enough, your seriousness is welcome. People take their own voices seriously, but not the weight of history and the catastrophe of current conditions. "People? Which people?" I know I'm generalizing offensively. Thank you for letting me generalize offensively.

 

You put your finger right on the chasm on my reading list, the authors who employ genre conventions to push back against what a Marxist would call bourgeois illusions and delusions.  My affection for writers who straddle the line a little (Mitchell and also Pynchon, Atwood, Samuel Delany, Vonnegut, and DeLillo) makes clear that I've got a lot of alternative worlds to look at. I'd never heard of that Bester title, which I look forward to looking at. You probably agree with me (or feel even more strongly than I do?) that the line between "literary" and "genre" fiction is overstated and overplayed. If I insist on "plausible" fiction and "dramatized reality," it just means that I want the magic to work—want to read about alternative worlds imagined in a way that allows me to believe in them. How does that happen? Well, it seems to depend on their being created by, well, smart people. Not just like Richard Powers smart—my affective response to Powers's fiction is never strong enough to propel me to the end of his books—but 360-degree smart, whatever that means. My best friend from way back is not a literary guy, although he'll occasionally read "literary" fiction to keep his finger on the pulse. But he's always urging pulp fiction on me. And as much as I want to like it, whenever I look at it, I always think, "Oh. Some guy is making shit up." And I can't get through books where the middling powers of the author are more real to me than the ostensible reality.

 

I'm going to dodge your big question about the ethical demands.

 

Goodman: Fair.

 

Bennett: And as far as sex in A Big Enough Lie goes: hmm. You might have discovered another chasm, the chasm of my awareness of my relation as a writer to sex. My answer feels post hoc to me - something I arrive at by thinking about the question, and not that existed in mind as I was writing the novel. But the thoughts I have now relate to the other stuff we're discussing, so why not? Sex has always been a major territory for politics. A century back, John Sumner and Anthony Comstock suppressed anarchists by persecuting literary journals on sexual grounds. And the 1920s and the late 1960s were two moments in American history when a coherent and not-purely-academic coordination of sexual and political freedom seemed to be at play. Since the 1980s, literary scholars have loved to talk about sexual subversion, the queering of texts, and so forth. But the revolutionary emancipations heralded by such scholarship are almost purely limited to our domestic lives. (And frankly Modern Family has probably done more for same-sex marriage than Judith Butler; although I say that in praise of Modern Family and not disparagement of Judith Butler). There's an analogy here with what I said about domestic malaise and suburban alienation, about fiction about divorce. This stuff matters! Hugely! To good friends, to people I love and want to see happy! But, even so, it's important to remain aware of how much it matters, just how much, and in what way, and in relation to what other concerns.    It strikes me as dangerous or at the very least unconscionable if an educated elite mistakes their privilege to sleep with and live with whomever they please as a sufficient democratic watershed.  It's a necessary one, but not a sufficient one. I tend to buy David Harvey's formulation in A Brief History of Neoliberalism: both sexual variety and multiculturalism are easily coopted by a market logic that leave fundamentally unchanged the economic reality that leads to class stratification. We're given a sop to justice that doesn't hurt an unjust global order any and might even help it. You now have persons of color among your high finance crowd. You now have gay and lesbian couples living in the heart of Manhattan, helping it brand itself as a center of global culture. And yet you still have endemic problems of class stratification. The investment bankers of color and the same-sex couples are like progressive legislation passed in Norway when you're living in Kentucky or Oakland. But yes, sex in A Big Enough Lie is kind of hollow, yeah?

 

P.S. Junot Díaz also manages to be serious without getting made fun of. I forgot to mention him, and God bless him.

 

Goodman: Haha, that's a wonderful answer that makes me think of this essay from Electric Literature. I think this is what people are generally saying when they lament the ubiquity of "identity politics." It's necessary to talk about race and gender and sexuality, but not sufficient since it ignores the powers of class stratification. And where is that in our literature?

I would argue it can partly be found in A Big Enough Lie, in Marshall Stang. Stang is a mysterious figure in the novel despite his prominence—he's the centerpiece of John Townley's identity, the focus of Emily White's book, and nominally a fetishistic object for Heather. Yet none of the characters provide a qualitative reality to him, and he's largely absent near the end. He's also the only distinguishably lower-class character while tending to also act as the repository of other people's fantasies. With John Townley alone he's seen as "truly transcendent and righteous." This seems allegorical in how we treat the poor—from Algier's rags-to-riches narratives to fighting meaningless wars in foreign lands. Was there another goal in drawing Stang out as you did in the novel? Relatedly, where did you draw Stang's mannerisms from? I'm honestly curious because of his nickname for Townley.

 

I'd like to look at Trump for a moment. [Editor’s Note: Justin did not mean this literally. Nobody likes to look at Trump in the literal sense.] "We're offended by high ambition" and "the only brand of seriousness that gets a pass is the personalistic brand. If your claims are small enough, your seriousness is welcome." When you look at Trump and his popularity, this seems the exact opposite situation, no? Running for president with legally unattainable goals while using his heavily-branded name as a trumpet. Of course you meant artists who are criticized for ambition, but looking from this angle, it becomes a question of what artists are doing differently that they face the dismissal and sometimes scorn of the populace (if you're A.O. Scott and don't like The Avengers). You suggest "a distilled form of a general flavor of contemporary shamefacedness." About what, do you think? Could you elaborate? Because if it's also the case that "people take their own voices seriously, but not the weight of history and the catastrophe of current conditions," it would be hard to be ashamed about what bruises they've left on other people's histories. Or do you mean it in the same vein as Steinbeck's supposed "Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires?"

 

It's definitely the case that the genre/literary binary is antiquated and, other than its current practical use in conversation, should be set aside. I warn you now that Bester is not a great stylist, or even a great writer, a condition which, as you noticed, traditionally plagues many a genre author. What I think fiction has come to learn from genre, however, is the need for a plot to be involving—"the magic to work," as you put it. Faulkner was influenced by Rex Stout, a crime novel author, which explains how he managed to rivet drama into his spiritual horrors. I'd always recommend Philip K. Dick, just as I always take recommendations (I'll have to find a copy of John Carey's book). But, of bourgeois illusions and delusions, do you think the seeming increased interest in genre has anything to do with an increased consciousness of class politics? Do you think that, at least in literature, there is in fact an increased focus on histories and social orders?

As soon as African Americans and women at long last join the imperfect project of American democracy, angry white men gear up to shit all over it. It has become politically viable to threaten journalists, praise autocrats, rough up protestors, invoke penis size, and so on. I know the like has happened since the beginning...But it’s never been this ugly in my lifetime.
— Author Eric Bennett

 

Bennett: The PLOT in Faulkner is always what makes it work, even though it's buried under the eschatalogical mists of verbiage.  I'd never heard about Rex Stout. Worth reading?

 

Trump [was] the least serious major party candidate for President of the United States in living memory (and probably much longer) in the sense that I'm using serious. By serious I mean considering yourself to be in intellectual and ethical company with other human beings at other times who have tested the limits of the field and feeling some kind of obligation to their afterlife (even if it's to overthrow it with equal and opposite seriousness). Testing yourself against what has been done by people who probably, at least according to future editions of the Modern Library, will always dwarf you. Upholding a kind communally constituted but intrinsically enforced standard. Instead of "limits of the field" I almost typed "genius" or "excellent" or "aptitude," but it's so easy to sound 1) reactionary and 2) covertly gunning for your own career with such language. I wish you could admire "genius" or "excellence" or "aptitude" in a field, by the way, and call for more of it, and not sound like a narcissist projecting. But that's precisely what I mean by the shamefacedness. The more full-throttle a writer is, the more likely his or her tail is going to be tucked between his or her legs. This is in part because of how small late capitalism makes everybody feel. But it's also largely because the very nature of the project of writing great books has only gotten, in the market and in the cultural prejudices that fosters it, more personal. Whereas Joyce's epic ambition, even while drawing upon autobiographical material, seemed to take as its subject Dublin and the English oppression of the Irish and the diminishing legacy of inherited memes and the charismatic vanity of commercialized and disposable culture, the average ambition of a writer today centers on the adequate promotion of a small square of personal territory. A writer like Knausgaard (to take one of the more pseudo-epic examples) has made that small square as vast as possible, and to occasionally mesmerizing effect. But that's so different from Woolf's handling of England in Between the Acts or Orlando or Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. Clinton [was] the more serious candidate, in this race, because she actually knows things about other countries and, presumably, about the history of this one. The analogy between that and our literary conversation may seem glib, but the seriousness of a writer can be gauged by her awareness of other times and places and other ways of putting books together. Such awareness gives (or can give) thickness to books in a way that makes them durable, and, well, beautiful—transcendent in both the sense of lasting and of really fucking awesome. Invisible Man, good even if you don't know Dostoevsky or Joel Chandler Harris, is only better if you know Dostoevsky or Joel Chandler Harris. I know I'm a stone's throw from shaking my cane and invoking the lost value of tradition. But when I watched the campaign this year, I found myself wishing the old mores of American democracy still pertained. (As soon as African Americans and women at long last join the imperfect project of American democracy, angry white men gear up to shit all over it.) It has become politically viable to threaten journalists, praise autocrats, rough up protestors, invoke penis size, and so on. I know the like has happened since the beginning. The KKK sold like hotcakes in Indiana in the 1920s. John Birch mattered for years. But it's never been this ugly in my lifetime. But, to say one more thing about shamefacedness: Lerner and David Foster Wallace, both ambitious, have woven their ambition into a kind of apologetic fabric. It's important, it's a report on the condition, that need to apologize, but viscerally I prefer Mitchell, because there's so much life, and so little Mitchell, in Mitchell. He has found a way to write with ambition without writing about himself. (Fredric Jameson seems to think so too—The Antinomies of Realism is pretty great, and it ends with a laudatory reading of Cloud Atlas).

 

Where's Stang from? Really? Are you asking me if my fiction is autobiographical?!

 

Justin: I phrased my question poorly. Let me try again. Stang made me think of Jacob, from Woolf's Jacob Room, in how his identity is always the substance of other people's thoughts and dreams and ideas. Did you have this project in mind (of making Stang a surrogate for others) when writing A Big Enough Lie? Was it intentional that this type of essentially voiceless character was of a lower class/economic background? It ties rather nicely to your political sentiments.

 

It's also funny that you censored yourself, seeing as your novel revels in narcissism and grandiosity to the point that Townley is disappointed he missed "inhaling the terror, witnessing [the]history]" of 9/11 while Heather sleeps with Townley-as-veteran hoping "she could become a war poet of a kind" through him. You've highlighted how far is not far enough with Lerner and Wallace, but I'd like to know at what point the "serious" project of an artist goes too far?

 

On the issue of race—since we're talking about Trump and angry white men shitting on minorities—race is incredibly understated in your novel. There's passing mention (mostly in the book's pseudo-memoir, Petting The Burning Dog) of J'Million and Antoine's being African American, and cruder references to race by Stang. There's Petting the Burning Dog's campy stereotypes of the wise Middle Eastern man and jocular Italian. Largely, that's to say, these characters are caricatures (the exception being Greep). This is easily traceable to Townley, the white middle-class man with sexual frustrations, who wrote them into being. This seems to exactly mirror the 90s and 00s, when neoliberalism patted itself on the back so hard it knocked the conversation of racial injustice out its own mouth.

So, to rephrase my previous question, and revisit an older one, this seems to get to the heart of what are the ethical demands of an artist, no? It seems from what you've said, and from the purposeful stereotype dependence of Petting the Burning Dog, the artist has to write while respecting the storied history of others. You can't just write other characters without seriously respecting them. As Townley's boss—and later the Middle Eastern academic—say, "not one big picture, a thousand little pictures." Would you disagree with that?

 

Bennett: No, you phrased the question really well, and I chose to crack a joke instead of answering it. So I appreciate the second chance to answer it. A precocious middle school or high school student in a nowhere place can have this double consciousness regarding the students around him—can perceive and envy their superiority, which is location-specific, even as he knows that he's bound for elsewhere, where his own relative inferiority will vanish. It was this mutually asymmetrical dynamic that I mostly was trying to get at with Stang: the triumph and tragedy of the location-specific alpha-male. But then Stang gets thrown into a kind of non-location-specific alpha maledom—into celebrity—and that original seed of novelistic interest ended up as something else entirely. Your reading of it—Stang as blank surface onto which elites project fantasies—is flattering.

 

Last night I was thinking about our email exchanges so far, and returned to the same question you've returned to, that of the ethical demands of an artist. Fiction, I really believe, is a tool we should use, among other purposes, including pleasure, to think our way into others' experiences.  Not my idea, and, well, obvious, but also not uncontested as a belief. And a big question for me is: should I only think my way into others' experiences by reading accounts of experience by people who actually lived them? This is the dominant twenty-first century trend, and by its logic James Frey should enrage me and even Faulkner and Woolf look dubious. Or, am I allowed to enjoy and believe the work of writers who stretch beyond the bounds of their biographies by thinking their way into other minds? If the latter is the case, then, as a WRITER, rather than a reader, what are the limits of that propriety? Can writers also get outside themselves? Or only by reading? Do I get to write about Iraqi archealogists and black soldiers and jocular Italians? A Big Enough Lie only does so under the cover of falsehood. But I wanted to think that question through within fiction itself. There are certainly limits to how much you can vicariously or by proxy walk in another person's shoes. You are you; I am I. But I think these days we underestimate those limits and make a business of that underestimation that's by turns both angry and sanctimonious. In your question, you've already answered the question I'm working through, and answer it with the word "respect." I wouldn't have put it like this at the time, but I think I wanted to think through that concept fictionally, and in light of a political climate, a social milieu, and a war, none of which were very much replete with respect.

 

Goodman: I think this just demonstrates your point about how the internet—to go further than specifically polemics—creates a unilateral landscape. Poe's Law strikes again. Besides, in an uncomfortable way, one could say that A Big Enough Lie is about the possibility of second chances. I think the two readings go well together in that regard, though, and it's what I think I was thinking of. All the characters seem to depend on the Gatsby Effect, of being reinvented or of reinventing. But "The American Dream" leaves them in a state (I think) worse off than Gatsby. Instead of being dead, they're merely husks. A particular line from Petting the Burning Dog, perhaps one of the only self-conscious lines written by Townley, struck me in that way: "Without God, only TV cameras." I'm not religious, and your novel doesn't seem heavily motivated by faith in any typical sense, but all this seems to suggest to me that the ability to function requires a grounding/preserving force. "There was no continuity, and without continuity it seemed impossible for there to be sympathy," Townley writes, as Henry Fleming. Which, speaking of continuity, maps to something you wrote in "The Pyramid Scheme": "Texts worth reading...coordinate the personal with the national or international; they embed the instant in the instant's full context and long history." Does that sound right? Could elaborate on "full context" and "long history" in this sense?

 

Your response very much makes me think of Kamila Shamsie's "The Storytellers of Empire." It's a fantastic essay in Guernica on post-9/11 literature. In particular, she says:

The stories of America in the World rather than the World in America stubbornly remain the domain of nonfiction. Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t. The unmanned drone hovering over Pakistan, controlled by someone in Langley, is an apt metaphor for America’s imaginative engagement with my nation.

 

Her entire point being your point about an increasing concern over "appropriation." And while I think it's used liberally and for polarizing purposes, I think there's also a lot to be said here that are valid concerns. Shamsie in the paragraph just before this one points out how Updike's Terrorist, "the figure of the young Muslim seemed such an accumulation of stereotypes that it struck me as rather poor writing." And Sinan Antoon, in an essay about Brian Turner's Here, Bullet, notes how Turner reverses the image of civilian and soldier so that "the occupier is a victim trapped in a foreign landscape, fighting a war in an incomprehensible place." I guess the question would be, did you feel an obligation to read through first-hand accounts before writing the book? Do you feel an obligation with this second novel? Or, as regards to the idea of "full context" and "long history," do you feel that to study an individual you need to study their context and history extensively?

 

 

Bennett: I said above that the seed of A Big Enough Lie was the contrast between James Frey and George W. Bush, or between the handling of their mistruths by the media.  But in another sense I simply wanted to see how close I could get to the Iraq War as a mere civilian, as somebody without the motivation to go there as a soldier or the opportunity to go as a freelance journalist. This felt like an ethical undertaking—a challenge to engage with the disastrous foreign policy of the nation I'm a citizen of in a more meaningful way than simply posting my anger on Facebook. This meant, for sure, reading everything I could find about the war. In 2007, there were far fewer titles available than now, but still plenty. I also drew on my experiences living in desert places and traveling in poor ones.

As far as current events go, a writer, if finances permit (which can be a crippling "if"), always has the option to travel and behold face to face what he or she is writing about. Shamsie is right that people need to get out more. That's a good thought experiment: if the money that goes annually to summer writing conferences in the U.S. were spent to deliver those same writers to the far corners of the globe: how would that affect contemporary American literature? I've never seen mainland China, which I'm treating in the new novel, but I spent the summer in Hong Kong in 2010, and those weeks have been proving crucial. Memories of how it looked, sounded, and smelled, plus excellent recent nonfiction and fiction about contemporary China, have given me purchase on the materials I need for Everybody Can't Be Naked.

 

In another sense, I simply wanted to see how close I could get to the Iraq War as a mere civilian...This felt like an ethical undertaking—a challenge to engage with the disastrous foreign policy of the nation I’m a citizen of in a more meaningful way than simply posting my anger on Facebook. This meant, for sure, reading everything I could find about the war.
— Author Eric Bennett

The question of "full context and long history" are closely related. As soon as a writer writes about events that are not current—and most of them aren't—the only real resource is text. Or the major resource is text, along with visual media. So unless we want to declare the whole of human history sympathetically inaccessible, unless we want to declare as meaningless everything but what's happening now, we need text. I teach at a conservative Catholic college and am not Catholic and would not call myself a conservative. But one of my most conservative colleagues, in resisting the formulation of diversity requirements within the curriculum, pointed out that the cultural differences dividing medieval Europe from contemporary America are far vaster than even the vastest cultural differences amongst us as citizens now. That argument doesn't change my attitude toward diversity requirements (which thank the Lord my college has more of than it did when I started teaching at it), but whatever that colleague's intent in making that argument, I agree with the argument. As hard as it might be for me to put myself in the shoes of Colson Whitehead or Maggie Nelson, it's far harder for me to read Edmund Spenser and think my way into his weird, obsolete reality. But even THAT I can do. It just takes more work. This may seem like trivial role-playing, or some kind of escapist make-believe, but the relevance to the contemporary world is profound. The material and psychological similarities between, for instance, the British who experienced industrialization in the 1830s and 1840s or the Americans who experienced it in the 1870s and 1880s and the Chinese who are experiencing it now are astonishing. Modernity destroys value systems and replaces them with other value systems that soon come to seem like the only thing possible and (to some) like the only thing that has ever been. So Dickens not only provides for me great tricks of the trade—elements in plotting and crafting a novel—but also an account of another place and another time when economic exploitation and environmental degradation wore the melioristic mantel of progress and liberalism. There won't be anything explicitly related to Dickens in the new novel, but it would have been a different book without him (and without Eric Hobsbawm and Raymond Williams and Edward Bellamy and more authors on seemingly unrelated topics than I can name).

 

Let me say just a little bit more about diversity, so that that point doesn't come across as inhumane, reactionary, or tin-eared. It's not that I don't think that our local American differences are enormous, vile, and at the heart of many of the problems that need to be solved. Class is stratified along racial and ethnic lines; men out-earn women; social networks matter crucially to wellbeing; and so on. But the diversity I was invoking above pertains to what the moral philosopher Charles Taylor calls hyper goods—the largely unspoken values that structure what most people consider to be a good life. And, regarding hyper goods, were mostly much alike. If you interviewed the least advantaged people living on the South Side of Chicago and the most advantaged ones living in San Francisco, many of their assumptions about the Good Life would be similar—not similarly within reach, of course, but similar in conception. And, in my view, overcoming socioeconomic divisions such that our recognized hyper goods can be achieved with greater parity is the most pressing immediate work for our politics.

 

But there also exists the even more difficult work of genuinely being able to make sense of human beings who don't share our hyper goods. Some but by no means all of the residents of Baghdad, probably only an educated minority, shared the hyper goods that went without saying in the Iraq war (liberalism, free markets, democratic enfranchisement, religious tolerance); few people attracted by the worldview motivating ISIS share those hyper goods. In domestic politics, reading about life on the South Side of Chicago is a good way for the person living in San Francisco to liberalize himself. But in international affairs—or even in some of the wider cultural differences within our own country—the intellectual work concerns not just policies but an ability to grasp the discrepancy between foundational values, whole systems of belief, which is philosophical or intellectual historical work, and not political work. For that, the past is a great resource. It has left huge traces of (now, to us, strange) permutations of belief and other ways of living.

 

I realize, too, that I'm downplaying the differences, in terms of hyper goods, that divide Americans. Devout Mormons differ cosmically from black Southern Baptists from New York Jews. But even my staunch communist friends own smartphones: the majority effect is far more homogeneous than the human record as a whole.

 

 


Justin Goodman is the Assistant Fiction Editor of Boston Accent Lit.

Book Notes.

A Big Enough Lie: Review by Justin Goodman    

There had been no better moment to highlight ethical concerns about storytelling than a decade ago when, amidst America’s invasion of Iraq on false grounds, Oprah Winfrey confronted James Frey about the veracity of his memoirs. You know that truth was a central concern because USA Today’s coverage of the Frey episode begins with just two words: Truth matters. Yet, despite its universal capacity, the truth is sensitive. How we perceive truth’s light, and the ways in which the truth can be slanted have worried artists for as long as such light has provided insight. What we see and convey can be a product of our desire to see and convey these things; sometimes, even, our memory is a convex mirror that dulls our perceptions to vague, warped forms. Seven years after declaring that “truth matters,” Newsday would publish a reflection on how the Iraq War itself had been warped by misdirection.

            With the Iraq War and the James Frey controversy, Dr. Eric Bennett, writer and associate professor at Providence College, decided that he had enough material for his debut novel.

            A Big Enough Lie, published in May of 2015 (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press), draws from this recent history with an unabashed cynicism. In equal parts, however, it builds from Bennett’s continued critique of MFA programs as “effacement[s] of collective modes of thinking...an aesthetic universe that’s all about self-branding” (Bennett, MFA Vs. NYC). Nothing seems to be going right in America at the onset of Bennett’s book; that is to say, led astray by Neoliberalism and capitalism, Frey and Oprah are models of the dangerous market-mindedness of writers and readers. Bennett’s bitterness is clear from the novel’s epigraph, borrowed from Petronius: “The world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived.” When the mirror confirms our expectations, why shouldn’t we love it?

            A Big Enough Lie relies at first on the expectation of the waifish protagonist, John Townley, whose Florida childhood is a mixture of domestic stupor and stuporous rebellion. An emotionally-stunted Dorian Grey, Townley breathes his religious parents’ air while living wholly within the aesthetic world of his prose--“a sneering, sniveling, florid, arrogant, brightness of style.” Alternating with this kunstleroman, Bennett writes the memoir of formerly-MIA Iraq war vet, Henry Fleming. Titled Petting The Burning Dog, and styled in a self-conscious yet serious manner, the metafiction echoes Townley’s life in both nuance and detail. Mostly because Townley is Fleming. Of course, as the novel weaves and wefts their symmetries together, the verb “is” becomes complicated. Where does Townley end and Fleming begin? Contrary to the fears of a young John Townley enthralled by his worldlier cousin--“she could do on paper what she could do in person while he had done on paper what he had done in person”--Townley’s writing, written in the first-person, is less intimate (ergo more cliché-riddled) than his third-person life. In his prose, he lives floridly and brightly.

            By no means is John Townley a likable character. It’s clear that, in fact, although he’s more distinct for a reader as "John Townley," what he pretends to be is more lovable and whole than the inimitable half-self he perpetuates throughout his life in his timid imitation of war heroes.

            Punchline: Townley enters an MFA program.

                                                            ***

            Bennett has spent considerable time dissecting the history of MFA programs, specifically focusing on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and its director from 1941-65, Paul Engle. This is in fact the subject of Bennett’s 2015 book, Workshops of Empire, whose title reflects precisely how he perceives these programs in light of their Cold War roots. In an interview with the USC Center on Public Diplomacy about the book, Bennett goes as far as to say that Engle’s later founding of the International Writing Program “purified the propagandistic logic of the domestic workshop.” Which is to say, what a young John Townley almost realizes in his momentary epiphany following 9/11: “what, for a brief time, felt like a fusion of John’s private life and the epic drama of history, slowly revealed itself to have been a projection of preposterous self-importance.”

            This “preposterous self-importance” is Bennett’s true subject of criticism in A Big Enough Lie, and it’s angled directly at the literary culture that was spawned (suggests Bennett) by Cold War history and the professionalization of creative writing. Under this umbrella are a number of arguments familiar to our culture, literary and otherwise, regarding the ethics of fiction and the possibility of originality. In a separate interview with Booktrib, Bennett fuses these issues, saying, “Samuel Johnson would have gotten kicked out of college if he’d matriculated in 2012.”

            As a rebuke of “the writing life in the U.S”--to be shown in full force shortly--the novel captures a spirit of conservatism that, fitting to Bennet’s evoking of Samuel Johnson, comes across as somewhat curmudgeonly.

            Take, for instance, that the central motivation of each character is one of sexual urgency. John Townley’s obsession with “crafting a second self in prose” stems from his attraction to his charming urbanite cousin Emily whose writing “smirked gorgeously on the pages, not in jest but almost in flirtation.” Emily eventually becomes the author of the biography of Townley’s friend, Marshall Stang, but not before sleeping with him. Heather Kloppenberg’s narrative at the beginning of the novel’s second part introduces her as body-centric: “she knew she was very pretty if not beautiful.” Not to mention that Heather’s closest friend in the program never appears without talking about “fucking” another student in the program.

            More than an attack on sexuality, the rampant references in A Big Enough Lie symbolize a perception of sex within American culture. Which is to say, the “enlightened” liberality in America that never escapes the conservatism it pretends to be greater than. Neoliberalism, in a word. Hence why Petting the Burning Dog hews closely to Townley’s life and, for that, never escapes stereotyping foreigners: Adnan Antoon, an Iraqi guide to the fictional Henry Fleming, an embodiment of an Anglicized Easterner (wearing a “tie and shirt...sharp and fresh against the dusty tweed”) whose narrative purpose is to have near-mystical knowledge of history. The tent in which Fleming finds Antoon is even described as having “an aesthetic.” Townley must fake it to make it. A very similar concern plagues Frey’s memoir in the need to lie to pretend to truth.

            How is this a conservative position? In Bennett’s own words, he’s criticizing creative writing programs because of their role in the “effacement of collective modes of thinking.” He espouses the same position that Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie does in her essay for Guernica, “The Storytellers of Empire.” American authors, she asks, “why is it that the fiction writers of my generation are so little concerned with the history of their own nation once that history exits the fifty states”--she even goes on to add, in the same peeved tone as Bennett and Johnson, that “I’m inclined to blame the trouble caused by that pernicious word ‘appropriation.’” In our self-obsession, we are equally self-censoring, is the suggestion. The remedy for Shamsie, and presumably for Bennett, is to write against the “neoliberal norms” and towards the Other.

            So, again, what is conservative in this class consciousness?

***

            A Big Enough Lie, despite its best intentions, is a bit like WebMD in that it provides symptoms whose cross-section is several different maladies without the ability to assign blame to, or prescribe medicine for, any particular one.

            With Heather Kloppenberg’s introduction--as another narcissistic writer who parallels John Townley in self-obsession--we are provided the mirror of the narrative. Embodying this are the two post-sex scenes. After Townley’s one-night-stand in Part 2, he tells his life story to his lover, Nerissa. She predicts the petty obsessions and questions the seriousness of the melodramatic twists that plague his uninteresting, middle-class Floridian life; at one point she says, “It sucks that she didn’t like you back...But ‘horrific’? Really?” Heather, as the querying female, however, becomes passive in the face of Antoine Greep (a veteran and squad member of Fleming’s whom Townley portrays as similar to Marshall Stang). Heather's only diegetic comment a shell of the next sentence: “So you joined the army,” she says.

            “So he dropped out and joined the army,” the narrative confirms. Her predictions are like Nerissa’s in their familiarity with the story’s arc. However, Heather is obeisant to the teller. One gets the sense that these writers are bound to their stories by their seeming significance--but trapped by their ubiquity.

            It’s at this point that Bennett shows exactly how rigorous the novel’s structure is. Heather Kloppenberg, an equally rural and childish figure, is Townley’s equivalent. A budding writer with crippling self-doubt and an intense self that doesn’t fit into the (at times cartoonishly) pedantic and upper-class ambiance of the MFA program they’re in; a writer with intimations of inferiority driven toward authenticity through sexual obsession and second-hand character. The longest scenes of the novel take place when Kloppenberg and Townley tell their lovers the story of their lives--interrupted and foretold by the lovers themselves.

            Bennett has admitted that he admires Don DeLillo’s way of writing (what can only be described as) banter. Yet this, and this is the crux of A Big Enough Lie’s trouble, is too sardonic for the novel. Even in a novel as embittered as Mao II, there is a lingering sense of comedy and leery-eyed hopefulness that Bennett refuses to extend to his narrative. The novel’s conclusion, returning to the Winnie Wilson show of the beginning, is a prettied-up version of a Jerry Springer knockdown, drag out brawl. Kloppenberg appears on the show to expose the fabrications of Townley and Greep by marketing her own book, followed by a sinister and winking:

She hadn’t asked Winnie for permission to say hi to Tyler, but she heard herself saying hi to Tyler, too.

“Tyler?” Winnie asked, with raised eyebrows.

Heather blushed and smiled and turned her head happily away from the sightlines of the audience. “My editor,” she said, which was true enough. Then an ad for trash bags came on.

 

            With the embittered juxtaposition of Heather’s coyness with her commodification poetically implying she is in some way trash, the scene gives a new sense of meaning to the idea of being “white trash.” It is hard to claim that one is extending a hand to the Other when they refuse to recognize that the Other is not simply skin, but is class as well. By making fiends and fools of the four major protagonists--each from a lower-to-middle class background--Bennett exposes the conservative side to the modern era’s attempts at incorporating all groups. It is class consciousness filled with scorn, and open arms barbed in cynicism. 

Purchase your own copy of A Big Enough Lie here.

Read Boston Accent's interview with the author here.


Justin Goodman, Asst. Fiction Editor of Boston Accent, graduated from SUNY Purchase with a B.A. in Literature. His film, book, and music reviews have been published in Red Carpet Crash, Cleaver Magazine, and InYourSpeakers, respectively. Find more of his work online here.

 

interview.

Writing History's Wrongs:

Conversation with Ibram X. Kendi

By Charles Bane, Jr.

 

Ibram X. Kendi is an assistant professor of African American History at the University of Florida. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, was released by Nation Books. Described as "engrossing and relentless," Stamped was recently featured in The Washington Post’s summer reading list. Kirkus billed Stamped as “magisterial” in its starred review. Kendi also authored the award-winning book, The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972. He has received research fellowships, grants, and visiting appointments from a variety of universities, foundations, professional associations, and libraries, including the American Historical Association, Library of Congress, National Academy of Education, Spencer Foundation, Lyndon B. Johnson Library & Museum, Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis, Brown University, Princeton University, Duke University, University of Chicago, and UCLA. Before entering academia, he worked as a journalist. A frequent public speaker and writer of op-eds, Kendi lives in Gainesville, Florida.

 

Boston Accent: You've won the 2016 National Book Award For Nonfiction for Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History Of Racist Ideas In America. Can you describe your feelings about the recognition and what it represents?

Ibram X. Kendi: I was pleasantly surprised. I never even dreamed of winning the National Book Award. But when I did I was elated, not only for myself but for all the personal and intellectual communities I come from, like Black Studies and History and the University of Florida and Black Millennials, as well as my alma maters, Florida A&M University and Temple University. To me, it represents the serious journey many Americans are on to understand this country's racist past in order to forge an antiracist future, a future that is possible despite the recent election.

 

 

BA: The book has a huge narrative drive.  Were you determined to write a non-academic work?

Kendi: Well, I would not say that the book is a non-academic work. It is possible to write a seriously researched and carefully thought out academic work that is accessible; that everyone can read. And that is precisely what I set out to do. I decided to write a scholarly history that could be devoured by as many people as possible because racist ideas and their history have affected all of us. It was my job as an academic and writer to convey the complexities in a manner all of us can understand. Historians have started to write more histories on the masses of Americans: what we call social history. But historians need to start writing more histories for the masses of Americans.

 

BA: What does it say about racism that it was so carefully honed by American intellectuals?

Kendi: There is a reason that racist ideas have been the common sense of generations of Americans. There is a reason that even in our time so many Americans are still consuming racist ideas that blame Black people instead of discrimination for the nation's racial problems, for racial inequities and disparities. And that reason is that these racist ideas were carefully honed by some of the finest American minds. So many brilliant Americans have crafted racist ideas that were believable, that could rationalize the unequal status quo of their eras.  And so many consumers of racist ideas have been manipulated into thinking something is wrong with Black people by some of the greatest American intellectuals. This shows that intellectuals can be a force for opening or closing the door of human reality.

 

BA: There have been over 400 reported incidents of hate crimes since the Presidential election. Is America establishing a new racist template?

Kendi: Yes, and no. In Stamped from the Beginning, I chronicle racial progress and the simultaneous progression of racism. The hate crimes that followed Donald Trump's election, just like the hate crimes that followed Barack Obama's election and reelection, are indicators of the progression of racism and bigotry in America.

 

BA: Can you share some thoughts about your nearly-completed Black Apple: A Narrative History Of Malcolm X And Black Power In New York, 1954- 1974?

Kendi: Not yet.

 

To me, it represents the serious journey many Americans are on to understand this country’s racist past in order to forge an antiracist future, a future that is possible despite the recent election.
— Author Ibram X. Kendi on his 2016 National Book Award honor

 

BA: What can readers expect from your planned sequel to Stamped from the Beginning?

Kendi: Stamped from the Beginning central shows our common conception that ignorance and hate is causing people to express racist ideas, and it is these racist people who create racist policies is largely ahistorical. My research into the motives behind the production of racist ideas actually shows the opposite: racist policies leading racist ideas. I narrate how racist ideas came out of the need to justify and defend racist policies, especially their products: racial disparities. So, I often suggest that if Americans truly want to rid the nation of racist ideas, then they should focus on ridding the nation of racist policies. And so, I am thinking about narrating an American history of racist policies from their origins to the present.

 

 

 

 


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

 

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.