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Two writing updates

  1. I have a new short story that aired on BBC Radio 4 – you can give it a listen here.
  2. I wrote a personal essay about exotic animal pets in Colombia that aired on BBC World Service’s Cultural Frontline program – you can listen to it here.

    (I REALLY WISH they would correct the spelling of “Columbian,” but what can ya do. My sister says she finds typos in the NYTimes all the time.)

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Happy UK Publication Day!

Happy UK Publication day to “The Lucky Ones“!

🇨🇴🍃🐰💉🎂

Everything in the world feels awful and like it’s going up in flames, but fuck it, I’m proud I wrote a book that is pro-welcoming of EVERYBODY, of all backgrounds and circumstances. I like how one of the final sentences is the following:

“If a party was held tomorrow, everybody would be invited, nobody made to wait on the other side of a locked door.”

Fuck locked doors! Come one come all–that’s my motto (and I think it becomes the book’s too). Here’s to rebelling against fascism, hate, fear, and ignorance. My god what a time to be alive. Time to get to work.

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Armadillo Man

I’m very excited to have “Armadillo Man,” a short story from The Lucky Ones, up at Granta! Check it out.

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(And check out that photo… as my sister said, “Armadillos are hairy?!” Apparently so…

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The Secret History of Costaguana

The Secret History of Costaguana (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)

Colombia is a play in five acts that someone tried to write in classical verse but that came out composed of the most vulgar prose, performed by actors with exaggerated gestures and terrible diction.

It took me three attempts to read this book in full but I’m so glad I did. It’s definitely very rewarding. A knowledge of Joseph Conrad and of Panama-Colombia history would be useful, though that being said it was fun to read this and have no idea what was true and what wasn’t (I definitely want to know if the anal abscess story is true!).

What can a famous novelist have in common with a poor, anonymous, exiled Colombian?” With this opening question, the book is propelled forward, and as readers we remain curious throughout as to how the narrator, Colombian exile José Altamirano, ends up encountering and sharing his lifestory with the rising writer Joseph Conrad, who goes on to use Altamirano’s story as the basis for his novel “Nostromo.”

In telling us about how he came to meet Conrad, Altamirano also ends up telling us about his journey to Panama at age 21 to meet his estranged father, who is working as a reporter. The tale is digressive, as Altamirano informs us at varying points about how his mother and father met via Simón Bolívar and Manuelita Saenz’s love affair (I loved the throwaway comment about Saenz meeting Herman Melville; can this possibly be true?? Probably not, but that’s what makes fiction so delicious), and how his father came to be excommunicated and exiled thanks to a mummified Chinese railway worker’s hand. This digressive style is one of the book’s real pleasures, and encompasses one of its main themes: that of everyday life versus History, or as Altamirano puts it, how “the small incident had been obliterated by the Big Event.” As Altamirano tells us the story of his family, he is also telling us the story of the Thousand Days’ War in Colombia, of Liberal-Conservative fighting (The regular massacre of compatriots is our version of the changing of the guard: it’s done every so often, generally following the same criteria as children at play (‘It’s my turn to govern,’ ‘No, it’s my turn’), and of how the U.S. came to secure both Panama’s independence and a hundred-year lease on the canal zone (I remember feeling embarrassed when learning about this in middle school, and likely had to resort to apologetically insisting to my classmates that “I’m half-British, not all gringo, don’t resent me, please!!”)

There are traces of The Informants and The Sound of Things Falling here with the father-son theme, as Altamirano’s father becomes famous for publishing enthusiastic journalism about the Panama Canal, journalism that is far more fiction than factual (it’s hard not to see echoes of contemporary events here). It’s interesting to contrast the father’s writing about reality vs. Conrad’s fiction: which is a more “true” version of Colombian history? Or as Altamirano puts it at one point, “There are good readers and bad readers of reality; there are men able to hear the secret murmur of events better than others.”

Other echoes with Vásquez’s novels include the impossibility of keeping your loved ones safe (Yes, yes, yes, we’re safe, no one can touch us, we have stationed ourselves outside of history and we are invulnerable in our apolitical house) and the form and style of rhetoric. On this latter point, Anne McClean’s translation (as is per usual for her) deserves heightened praise, for translating the book into such a readable and engaging style.

Part of what made this book a bit hard for me was all the names, but at a certain point I was just like “well, I’m just going to keep reading and not be too fussed if I don’t know who everyone is,” and that ended up working really well for me. Overall, what I admired most about this book is the angle it took towards writing historical fiction, with its focus on juxtaposing, interconnected stories that underly the bigger ones:

Stories in the world, all the stories that are known and told and remembered, all those little stories that for some reason matter to us and which gradually fit together without us noticing to compose the fearful fresco of Great History, they are juxtaposed, touching, intersecting: none of them exists on their own… Here is a humble revelation, the lesson I’ve learned through brushing up against world events: silence is invention, lies are constructed by what’s not said, and, since my intention is to tell faithfully, my cannibalistic tale must include everything, as many stories as can fit in the mouth, big ones and little ones.

A big theme throughout is the story of individuals versus that of Big Historical Events, and what gets forgotten as opposed to remembered. One of my favorite sections that best exemplified this was one that focused on a single rifle and who used it. Although the novel comments early on (and very knowingly so) about the mechanisms of magical realism (this is not one of those books where the dead speak, or where beautiful women ascend to the sky), the rifle section stands out not only for its examination of how do objects “speak” to us, and its haunting question of “what do rifles know of us?”, it is also serves as a sad eulogy (among many) about the constant presence of violence in Colombian history. “It is 9.30 when its shot perforates the right lung of Miguel Carvajal Cotes, chicha producer; it is 9.54 when it blows apart the neck of Mateo Luis Noguera, a young journalist from Popayán who would have written great novels had he lived longer.” At another point, Altamirano says “The things we don’t see tend to be the ones that affect us most,” and it’s passages like the rifle one–where the book tried to show us who and what often gets lost/ignored/”disappeared” from history–that affected and impressed me the most.

All in all, major respect for this book. Another fine addition to the author’s canon, and highly recommended for all lovers of historical fiction (especially Borgesian-style). There is much food for thought in here.

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A few poems

Good Bones

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Maggie Smith

***********************************************************

Station Island – XII (excerpt)

and suddenly he hit a litter basket

with his stick, saying, ‘Your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you do you must do on your own.

The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike  your note.’

Seamus Heany

***********************************************************

And It Came To Pass

This june 3
would be different

Time to draw lines

I’ve grown into the family pores
and the bronchitis

Even up east
I get by saying goddamnit

Who was that masked man
I left for dead
in the shadow of mt. shadow

Who crumbles there

Not touching anything
but satin and dandelions

Not laid his eyes
on the likes of you

Because the unconnected life
is not worth living

Thorntrees overtake the spot

Hands appear to push back pain

Because no poet’s death

Can be the sole author
of another poet’s life

What will my new instrument be

Just this water glass
this untunable spoon

Something else is out there
goddamnit

And I want to hear it

C.D. Wright

***********************************************************

Isn’t there something

Isn’t there something in me
like the dogs I’ve heard at home
who bark all night from hunger? Something
in me like trains leaving,

isn’t there something in me
like a gun? I wanted to be
loud squirrels, around the trees’ feet,
bees, coming back & back

to the wooden porch,
wanting something–and wooden planks,
wanting something. To go back into
a tree?

Jean Valentine

***********************************************************

Are all the things

Are all the things that never happened, OK?
–The wide river at dawn, the hippo’s lifted face
–The slow, violet curtains of Antarctica light
(Hide you under the shadow of their wings)

And all the things that came–
The awful, and then love on earth, OK?
my own friend?          where you are?

Jean Valentine

***********************************************************

Lo Fatal

Dichoso el árbol, que es apenas sensitivo,
y más la piedra dura porque ésa ya no siente,
pues no hay dolor más grande que el dolor de ser vivo
ni mayor pesadumbre que la vida consciente.
Ser, y no saber nada, y ser sin rumbo cierto,
y el temor de haber sido y un futuro terror…
¡Y el espanto seguro de estar mañana muerto,
y sufrir por la vida y por la sombra y porlo que no conocemos y apenas sospechamos,
y la carne que tienta con sus frescos racimos,
y la tumba que aguarda con sus fúnebres ramos
y no saber adónde vamos,
ni de dónde venimos!…

Ruben Dario

***********************************************************
My Life Was the Size of My Life

My life was the size of my life.
Its rooms were room-sized,
its soul was the size of a soul.
In its background, mitochondria hummed,
above it sun, clouds, snow,
the transit of stars and planets.
It rode elevators, bullet trains,
various airplanes, a donkey.
It wore socks, shirts, its own ears and nose.
It ate, it slept, it opened
and closed its hands, its windows.
Others, I know, had lives larger.
Others, I know, had lives shorter.
The depth of lives, too, is different.
There were times my life and I made jokes together.
There were times we made bread.
Once, I grew moody and distant.
I told my life I would like some time,
I would like to try seeing others.
In a week, my empty suitcase and I returned.
I was hungry, then, and my life,
my life, too, was hungry, we could not keep
our hands off our clothes on
our tongues from

Jane Hirshfield

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Still Writing

What a lovely, inspirational book! I really appreciated its honesty, and its gentle, helpful tone. The way it’s divided in readable, short segments. The non-sentimental way it blends memoir with advice. Its direct confrontation of relevant 21st-century struggles (the internet! Self-hatred! Monday mornings! Self-scheduling! How to make routines, form habits!). It’s definitely something I’m going to pass from hand to hand among my graduate school cohorts. I love writing-themed non-fiction, I love self-help written in incredibly kind, compassionate voices, and this book combines the best of both worlds.

Here are some of my favorite passages:

Here’s a short list of what not to do when you sit down to write. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t look at e-mail. Don’t go to the Internet for any reason, including checking the spelling of some obscure word, or for what you might think of as research but is really a fancy form of procrastination. Do you need to know, right this minute, the exact make and year of the car your character is driving? … Can it wait? It can almost always wait. 

Sit down. Stay there. It’s hard–I know just how hard–and I hate to tell you this, but it doesn’t get any easier. Ever. Get used to the discomfort. Make some kind of peace with it. (10-11)

What I do know–what I’ve spent the past couple of decades learning about myself–is that if I’m not writing, I’m not well. If I’m not writing, the world around me is slowly leached of its color. My senses are dulled. I am crabby with my husband, short-tempered with my kid, and more inclined to see small things wrong with my house… If I’m not writing, my heart hardens, rather than lifts. (13-14)

We have to learn to be kind to ourselves. What we’re doing isn’t easy. We have chosen to spend the better parts of our lives in solitude, wrestling with our deepest thoughts and obsessions and concerns… And so, when the day turns against us, we might do well to follow the advice of the Buddhist writer Sylvia Boorstein, who talks to herself as if she’s a child she loves very much. Sweetheart, she’ll say. Darling. Honey. That’s all right. There, there. Go take a walk. Take a bath. Take a drive. Bake a cake. Nap a little. You’ll try again tomorrow. (81)

This may be the most important piece of advice I can give you: The Internet is nothing like a cigarette break. If anything, it’s the opposite. One of the most difficult practical challenges facing writers in this age of connectivity is the fact that the very instrument on which most of us write is also a portal to the outside world. I once heard Ron Carlson say that composing on a computer was like writing in an amusement park. Stuck for a nanosecond? Why feel it? With the single click of a key we can remove ourselves and take a ride on a log flume instead. (159)

The agony! The nagging sense of what might have been! There is always someone who, at this very moment, has more. More acclaim, more money, more access, more respect… I see this even when I watch my son with his middle school friends. There are girls in full bloom–girls who are the envy of their classmates, girls who are at this moment as pretty and popular as they will ever be. Boys who’ve had growth spurts and are practically shaving, who are envied by the smaller boys and wonder when–and if–they will ever grow. Observing them, from the sidelines of ball games and dances, I want to jump up and shout: This isn’t it! You think this is it, but it isn’t! your whole lives are ahead of you with ten thousand joys and sorrows. Of course I say nothing. My son would kill me. But I think about this–about myself and every adult, writer or not, who makes the all-too-human mistake of comparing one life to another. (216-217)

When I first learned of Buddhism’s eight vissictudes–pain and pleasure, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute–I was taught that it is unskillful–that gentle Buddhist word for fucked up–to compare. We will never know what’s coming. We cannot peer around the bend. It is our job to pursue our own dharma and covet no one else’s. (217)

I also liked this list by the poet Jane Kenyon that she quotes at one point (207-208):

Be a good steward to your gifts.

Protect your time.

Feed your inner life.

Avoid too much noise.

Read good books, have good sentences in your ears.

Be by yourself as often as you can.

Walk.

Take the phone off the hook.

Work regular hours.

Disable the Internet [Shapiro’s addition]

I also liked her quotes from the Gnostic Gospels (If we bring forth what is within us, it will save us. If we do not bring forth what is within us, it will destroy us) and the Bhagavad Gita (Better is one’s own dharma through imperfectly carried out than the dharma of another carried out perfectly). (201)

Oh, and this oft-quoted quote by Martha Graham also makes a lovely appearance (118):

It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even need to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others. 

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Choice Quotes from Kafka’s Journals

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“Great antipathy to ‘Metamorphosis.’ Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its very marrow. It would have turned out much better if I had not been interrupted at the time by the business trip.” (January 19th, 1914)

“What an effort to keep alive! Erecting a monument does not require the expenditure of so much strength!” (March 9th, 1914)

“What will be my fate as a writer is very simple. My talent for portraying my dreamlike inner life has thrust all other matters into the background; my life has dwindled dreadfully, nor will it cease to dwindle. Nothing else will ever satisfy me.” (August 6th, 1914)

“The beginning of every story is ridiculous at first. There seems no hope that this newborn thing, still incomplete and tender in every joint, will be able to keep alive in the completed organization of the world… However, one should not forget that the story, if it has any justification to exist, bears its complete organization within itself even before it has been fully formed; for this reason despair over the beginning of a story is unwarranted; in a like case parents should have to despair of their suckling infant, for they had no intention of bringing this pathetic and ridiculous being into the world. Of course, one never knows whether the despair one feels is warranted or unwarranted. But reflecting on it can give one a certain support; in the past I have suffered from the lack of this knowledge.” (December 19th, 1914)

“Just now read the beginning. It is ugly and gives me a headache. In spite of all its truth it is wicked, pedantic, mechanical, a fish barely breathing on a sandbank.” (February 9th, 1915)

“Insoluble problem: Am I broken? Am I in decline? Almost all the signs speak for it (coldness, apathy, state of my nerves, distractedness, incompetence on the job, headaches, insomnia); almost nothing but hope speaks against it.” (October 7th, 1915)

“You have the chance, as far as it is at all possible, to make a new beginning. Don’t throw it away. If you insist on digging deep into yourself, you won’t be able to avoid the muck that will well up. But don’t wallow in it. If the infection in your lungs is only a symbol,… then the medical advice (light, air, sun, rest) is also a symbol. Lay hold of this symbol.” (September 15th, 1917 – the first entry he made after the medical confirmation of his tuberculosis)

“The strange, mysterious, perhaps dangerous, perhaps saving comfort that there is in writing: it is a leap out of murders’ row; it is a seeing of what is really taking place.” (January 27th, 1922)

“More and more fearful as I write. It is understandable… The only consolation would be: it happens whether you like or no. And what you like is of infinitesimally little help. More than consolation is: You too have weapons.” (June 12th, 1923 – final entry)

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Snuff

Wasn’t super impressed by this one. I like the idea of Vimes investigating drug smuggling. I also liked the social commentary that Pratchett had going on, with the goblins being compared to slaves, undocumented immigrants, and so on. However, the climatic scene on the boat felt confusing to me; I was never exactly sure what was going on (maybe I was just reading it too quickly, to be fair). The biggest issue in this book for me was that I never felt like anything was at stake. Vimes, his family and his henchman Wilikins (a character I really liked) seemed too invincible to me; I never had to really “worry” that they would fail or that something bad would happen to any of them. One theme I did like in the book was that of how Vimes can connect so personally with killers and murderers. I wish the book had explored this “dark” side of Vimes a little more, as opposed to just letting him, well, always coming out on top. I mean, one of the reasons I liked “Going Postal” and “Making Money” so much was because the main character was unsympathetic to a certain degree; he wasn’t this totally clear cut, good character. I wish that Vimes’ flaws or potential for darkness had been explored a little more–the theme was definitely there; I just wanted it to be taken to the next level, just to shake the books up a little bit so that the Vimes books aren’t always in this trap of “oh Vimes saves the day and everything turns out hunky dory in the end.”

I REALLY would be interested in reading a Discworld book in which the Patrician is killed or offed. Like, what would happen?! Whatever happened to that whole storyline of Carrot being the rightful king? I’m really sad how Carrot has disappeared into this totally non-existent character (at least in this book). Maybe I’ve been watching too much of Games of Thrones but I think Discworld is in time for a major shake up. This makes me really sad to say, but considering that Pratchett’s writing time might be limited (thanks Alzheimer’s–God, so depressing, I don’t want to even think of it), it’s like, what has he got to lose at this point? I vote for something totally crazy and unexpected happening. I’d be interested in seeing where it goes…

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Delectable Bolaño from “Beyond Parentheses”

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No one in the world is as brave as a poet. No one in the world faces disaster with more dignity and understanding… Behind these shadowy fronts are probably the toughest people in the world, and definitely the bravest. If I had to hold up the most heavily fortified bank in America, I’d take a gang of poets. The attempt would probably end in disaster, but it would be beautiful. (117)

My friend says that the secret is to stay relaxed and read a lot and work constantly. But don’t you ever get sad? I ask him. Sometimes I get sad, he says almost in a whisper, but I’m always happy. (120)

The joy of being alive with no further discussion. (124)

The thousand lotions, the sunscreens. They smell of democracy, of civilization. (130)

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poems to close out the year

let it go – the (ee cummings)
let it go – the
smashed word broken
open vow or
the oath cracked length
wise – let it go it
was sworn to
go

let them go – the
truthful liars and
the false fair friends
and the boths and
neithers – you must let them go they
were born
to go

let all go – the
big small middling
tall bigger really
the biggest and all
things – let all go
dear

so comes love

The Real Work (Wendell Berry)
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Karma Repair Kit: Items 1-4 (Richard Brautigan)
1. Get enough food to eat,
and eat it.

2. Find a place to sleep where it is quiet,
and sleep there.

3. Reduce intellectual activity and emotional noise
until you arrive at the silence of yourself,
and listen to it.

4.

from “Sabbaths 1998, VI” (Wendell Berry)
But won’t you be ashamed
To count the passing year
At its mere cost, your debt
Inevitably paid?
For every year is costly,
As you know well. Nothing
Is given that is not
Taken, and nothing taken
That was not first a gift.

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