Thank you so much!

Or rather, very much! I’d like to be proper about this and not trendy at all. I’m thinking acknowledgements, or rather, acknowledgments, which should have a lasting quality after all, as befitting print. Tone is all important. Who would want to SO thank the anonymous peer reviewers at journals X and Y? Much better to VERY thank them. Very thank them all.

And so: very thank YOU all. Very thank so you all. In the South this’d probably be very thanks so y’all. A couple of isoglosses  further — or rather farther — south and it’d blossom into bery tanks so y’all, but by then yer practically speakin’ Spainish, so you might as well go for it and expound muchas gracias, or rather muchisima gracias, or, hm, muchisimas gracias, or, aw hell, so gracias, so so very very gracias!

In sum: all a yous so bery bery tanks! Tanks a yous, book she’s a comin’! Bery tanks so so bery.

This book again

We’ve launched a new magazine, Em Dash. Here’s the pithy content description:

In its first issue, there is poetry by Taejoon Moon, translated by Christopher Merrill and Won-Chung Kim, a Q&A with AHB’s senior editor (me), and an excerpted essay from Children of the Monsoon, by David Jimenez, translated by Andrea Rosenberg. Jimenez is the Asia Bureau Chief for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo and has been reporting from Asia for nearly twenty years. His book is a compilation of essays on young people from Afghanistan, Mongolia, the Philippines, North Korea, China, Indonesia, and more. It is a terribly good book.

The piece Sarah has chosen for Em Dash‘s first issue is called “Vothy,” which is the name of a delightful little Cambodian girl with AIDS. Her mother is with her in the hospital. She is sick, too. Here is an excerpt:

VothyPic“Sokgan has never understood how that scrawny, feeble man who promised her a new life in the city could have the strength after an arduous workday to pedal another eleven kilometers to the brothels of Svay Pak, on the outskirts of the city, to spend his day’s earnings there. But it’s too late now for regrets. She is lying naked, too weak to feign modesty about the body she no longer recognizes as her own, in a room on the third floor of the Russian hospital in Phnom Penh.”

The essay and the whole first issue of Em Dash is available here: (scroll down to “from the magazine”). The book comes out next month.

Writing for your friends

I remember a translation exchange that was put together by Iowa’s International Writing Program some years ago, in which several French poets and several American poets got together and exchanged their work, the French translating the Americans into French, and the Americans translating the French into English. One of the Americans, David St. John, on being asked how he imagined the audience for this work, said he didn’t — he wrote “to the language,” not to any imagined people. I thought this was a fascinating position to take for a poet, but a questionable one for a translator. I’ll probably write more about this another time because it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I wrote it down here because each time I’ve thought about the audience for this blog, I’ve run into a similar strangeness. I sort of don’t know and I sort of don’t care who the audience might. Why is that?

I have a deep suspicion that the idea for this blog sprang from leaving friends behind when we moved. My friend David said he left good friends behind when he moved to Iowa from Michigan, where he’d been in grad school, and he never quite made the same kind of friends again. This makes perfect sense. You’re a student in one place, a worker in another, a lover or a spouse or a parent or child, and so on, and so your friendships are shaped differently depending on your own shape, your time, commitments, engagements.

My understanding was of a superficial, intellectual sort at the time. I see it differently now. It’s not just that you make different kinds of friends in different places; it’s that some friendships are unique and authentic and you can never replace them no matter how you shape yourself somewhere else. These need to be cherished.

A blog is a sorry replacement for friends, but missing your friends is not a bad motivation for a blog. While I am not writing to them, I am writing for them. But for them, I would not be writing.

Writing not lovely

A writer came through Iowa City — they do that — probably in 2011 or 12, when I was still living there. He had published a couple of memoirs that had been well received, or at least that’s what his bio said. He couldn’t have been more than thirty-five or so, and how one writes two memoirs by that age is a little unclear to me, but that’s not what I want to write about.

He used the word “lovely” a lot, and the bulk of his advice — this was something like a workshop — to the under-35-year-old aspiring memoirists (I exclude myself from this category because the years have caught up with me) was to hustle, publish lots and lots, including, especially, little fragments from one’s memoir/s in a variety of venues, and never turn down an interview or publicity request. Also, you needed to tell everyone who did anything for you that she or he had been lovely, absolutely lovely.

I found his presentation really fun and lively and pretty much empty of content. I suppose it was, like his use of lovely, rather vapid. I haven’t been able to remember his name, I’m afraid, so I don’t know what his memoirs are like. Maybe they’re really good, which would mean, contrary to his usage, not lovely at all.

This book

Children of the Monsoon Cover 150 dpiIt’s a different one. Not one I’ve written but one I’ve edited, on its way out, translated by Andrea Rosenberg from the Spanish original by David Jimenez. The title is Children of the Monsoon. It’s a difficult book, not something you pick up in an airport, unless you’re of a serious bent, not traveling for pleasure. If you pick it up like that, you might not only not like the book, you might cut your trip short. If there is something that is the opposite of travel literature, this would probably qualify. Travel lit often makes one feel like traveling. Not this. At least not for me. My response in reading the book was to feel guilty about all the traveling I’ve done.

Why? Because these are clear-eyed portraits, not the sorts of things one sees in one’s dreams of traveling to far away places. Here you see people up close, especially young, vulnerable people. This is why I find it hard to read. But sometimes hard things are important. I felt these hard stories were important and worth reading. Jimenez has a sincere voice, a careful eye. He seems to have a good heart. Rosenburg has done a fantastic job in making the voice sing in English. It’s a really good book, and it has taught me things about the world that I didn’t know before. I am grateful that we got the chance to publish it, and I hope many people will find it compelling and beautiful. I think it is both.

The Woman in the Window

This is the title. I struggled with it for a long time, but in the end, this seemed best. It’s got a subtitle, but I’ll write about that later. This is like Fritz Lang’s film, I realize, and my book is about that only indirectly. Oh, I suppose it’s hard for a book not to be about male fantasies on some level or other, and reflections of oneself in commercial store windows, and dreaming about other possible lives from the one you’ve lived, and all that. Okay, maybe it’s centrally about this and I just didn’t realize it while I was writing it.

Lang’s film is based on a novel called Once Off Guard, by J. H. Wallis, an Iowa writer, I believe, Bennett'sWomanInWindowand I took a look at his book in Special Collections at the University of Iowa library some years ago. The character played by Edward G. Robinson is a psychology prof in the film, but he’s of course an English prof in the book. This, I think, makes a difference, and is akin to the transformation of Prospero’s magic from The Tempest into the collective id that destroys the civilization of the Krell in Forbidden Planet. Both are products of mid-20th century Freudianism. At least they made the Walter Pidgeon character (Dr. Morbius) a philologist.

The Woman in the Window snuck up on me as a title, after about nine years of writing or so, when I realized she was in all the books and all the films I was writing about. How could I not call the book that? She seemed to be insisting on it.

That book

There’s a scene in Anna Karenina where Levin’s brother, who is always referred to by his last name, Koznyshev, finishes a book he’s been working on for a long time. He is acknowledged as something of a public intellectual figure in the two capitals, a prominent person, so the book he’s writing seems to be an event of sorts that people are waiting for, or at least that is the impression that Kozynshev has. Tolstoy gives the impression that Koznyshev’s long-awaited book will be the definitive word on some subject or other — it doesn’t really matter what, because this part of AK is not at all about what Koznyshev has supposedly been writing about, it’s about this type of situation and this type of character.

A person has focused on something, and it has come to occupy a lot of his time, to the point of crowding out other aspects of life. But it’s not a question of devotion. It’s a social situation, where you’ve basically said, “I’m working on this,” for many years, and people have heard you, acknowledged this work of yours somehow, maybe by listening, maybe by asking questions or offering their own opinions (which they hope might be reflected in your book and attributed to them), maybe even by paying you money to continue on the path you’ve been following.

Then the book comes out, and what happens? In AK, not much. Koznyshev waits for the response to his (it turns out, rather subtle) provocations and historical interventions for a day, a week, two weeks. I think he gets a review or two. It’s not the drama he anticipated, and Tolstoy is clearly skeptical of the value of the whole enterprise. Oh, and there’s probably something anti-academic in his portrayal of the specialist Koznyshev too wrapped up in his work to be able to relate to the world, real life — that is a Tolstoyan bias. Fine.

But I’ve been working on a book, telling people for some time I’ve been working on it, being paid in effect to continue along the particular path that should, in principle, lead to its completion, and this for some twelve years. It’s mostly an academic book, too. Mostly, though one hopes, Koznyshev-style, that the things that have interested one for all this time will also be of interest to others, that one’s subtle interventions and clever readings will be recognized in all their detail if not as ground-breaking, then at least as, well, subtle and clever. I’m now remembering a panelist at the Melbourne NonfictioNow conference in 2012 mocking such wishful thinking, which is usually accompanied by references to the “general readers” who are likely to be interested. “You can count,” he said, “the general readers likely to be interested in that with the fingers on one hand of a leper.”

So there is still doubt, but doubt can, in the best of cases, lead to depth. I am hopeful that my own doubt has given greater depth to my project. It took me a long time to come to this understanding. I hope the book reflects it and invites readers to share something of it, too.