Janine Kovac’s Spinning

Janine Kovac weaves the stories about premature birth of her twin boys with experiences from her professional ballet-dancing career with the difficult path of learning to write about these experiences — and the result is a very effective and moving narrative, and a kind of a writers’ guide that might do more good than lots of more technical craft manuals.

Leaning against the bathroom door, I’m trying to breathe and at the same time I’m trying not to breathe. I watch myself from above–a woman with dark hair in a light green hospital gown and an enormous belly stretched taut. I can’t see my face; I can only see my back. There’s a tug–as if gravity is pulling me to the ground, reaching inside, and sucking life out.

Everyone thinks that an out-of-body experience means watching yourself from the rafters. That’s just the visual perspective. There’s also the feeling of being deeply rooted inside your vital organs, as if your heart were the center of the universe. In the same breath you observe from the outside and feel from within.

Check out Janine’s website and buy the book.

Sick Babies out in Confrontation

My story “Sick Babies” is out in Confrontation. Here’s the opening:

The baby’s sick. The mom brings him to the park every day, in late afternoons, and he sits limp in his stroller, dazed, unsmiling, eyes expressionless, pupils without any depth. The mom doesn’t seem to be aware of his condition. “Say hi to the gentlemen, Jacob,” she directs, rolling the stroller by the bench where we’re playing checkers. The baby doesn’t bat an eyelid. “He’s a little sleepy,” the mother apologizes. “It’s the weather we’ve been having.”

This afternoon, she parked the stroller right beside us, dropped her tattered backpack on a bench on the other side of the path, and took out a pack of cigarettes. She lifted the canvas canopy over the baby’s head, as though this were protection enough, and smoked one cigarette after another in rapid succession. We averted our noses, but, luckily, the wind blew the smoke in a different direction. True, some of us used to smoke in our youth, but it’s been long since that we’ve kicked the habit. The woman’s entire person showed signs of wear: unwashed hair going gray at the roots, tattoos on her arms looking ashen and flaccid, countless runs in the black hose. The baby stared right at us with his unseeing eyes.

Among ourselves, we’re convinced that the baby’s autistic, or worse. “Shouldn’t he be in some kind of an institution?” we debate.

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Feminist reading list

During my interview with Seville artist Anna Jonsson, I asked her about her sources of inspiration. I ended up having to cut this thread in our conversation from the essay that recently went up on Electric Literature–it was a tangent in the scope of that essay–but it’s a fascinating list of artists and writers, and I want to leave it here.

Anna Jonsson wrote,

“Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren—of course. All of her books and her illustrators. Tove Jansson and her Moomin stories and her drawings. Gitta Sereny, Oliver Sacks, Salman Rushdie, Bodil Malmsten, Claire Bretecher and her drawings, Linda Nochlin and her photograph ‘Buy My Bananas’ made an impact on me. Lately, I’ve been reading and crying and reading and crying over Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘War’s Unwomanly Face.’”

Jonsson’s list struck me as specific to her background and training. It was also a useful guide to an aspiring feminist art and literary critic. Some authors had achieved international fame; others had been less well translated. Astrid Lingren and Tove Jansson were two names I’d been familiar with since childhood. Oliver Sacks, Salman Rushdie; Svetlana Alexievich had recently won the Nobel prize for literature, and I’d been reading extended excerpts from her books, though still working on my stamina to hold as much pain as is necessary to read them cover to cover.

I looked up Linda Nochlin’s 1972 photograph “Buy My Bananas.” It turned out to be a take on a late 19th Century photograph in which a female nude is depicted with a tray of fruit, in a pose that suggests that both she and the fruit are for sale. Nochlin’s model is a male nude, photographed in the same pose. The effect of this gender reversal is both ridiculous and outrageous.

I was able to track down one other lead from Jonsson’s list. Bodil Malmsten’s memoir about moving from Sweden to France, was published in 2005 by Harvill, in Frank Perry’s translation, as “The Price of Water in Finistère.” A Swedish poet and a novelist with more than dozen books to her name, Malmsten wrote with wisdom and humor about starting life anew, at fifty-five, in an unfamiliar place, with only a cursory knowledge of French. Malmsten plants an elaborate garden that she describes in detail, drawing from these descriptions elegant metaphors about writing. “Like the first fifteen days for a plant, the first fifteen words of a story have to contain everything the story needs to survive.” Finding my way back to creative writing after having a baby, I found in this book just the right kind of inspiration.

Essay on Electric Literature

My essay about a trip to Spain, motherhood, Seville sculptor Anna Jonsson and Spanish suffragist Clara Campoamor is up on Electric Literature. Here’s the opening:

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My husband, baby, and I were on vacation in Andalusia. The thirteen month-old napped in the car while we drove to the next destination, the historical city center of Seville, then put him into a pack and tried to take in a site or two. We needed food. A recent rain had emptied most outdoor tables. We dove inside a restaurant on the Plaza de la Pescadería. The baby refused to stay put. He couldn’t yet walk, and his attempts at crawling his way across dirty floors to cobblestone squares made me nervous. I gulped down my meal, and, while my husband ate, carried the baby to a window. A few neighborhood kids were chasing a ball through the puddles. Baby was mesmerized — for five whole minutes.

Soccer. My eyes rested on the ball, tracing its movements. The kids pushed it between the empty café tables, using two of them as goalposts. One team took charge and ran the ball toward the pedestal of a small statue….

Read the rest of the piece here.

Lisa Capps and Elinor Ochs, Constructing Panic

In this pioneering books, researches Lisa Capps and Elinor Ochs look at the narrative on a woman suffering from agoraphobia and study the way she authors her narrative and the way her narrative comes to form her reality.

The linguistic shaping of sufferers’ narratives has been generally glossed over, with the result that the therapeutic effect of telling one’s life stories with another person remains largely a mystery. Psychoanalysts tend to look through narrative rather than at narrative to identify underlying emotional dynamics and formative experiences. How a teller sculpts her tale–the grammatical form and the sequencing and intertwining of pieces of setting, enigmatic experiences, and outcomes–is not a focal point but rather a medium for exposing a deeper story.

We share the view that stories can offer a powerful medium for gaining insights not fully accessible to the narrator. Indeed we endorse the perspective, held by a number of philosophers and literary critics, that narrative creates stepping stones to self-understanding. To borrow the words of Vaclav Havel, narrative allows us to confront ourselves, “to return in full seriousness to the ‘core of things,’ to pose the primordial questions again and again, and from the beginning, constantly, to examine the direction [we are] going.”

Annie Ernaux’s Shame

A powerful little book that begins with an analysis of a single episode from the writer’s past, an incident that happened when she was twelve. This book breaks so many writerly rules — in such a satisfying, rewarding way. The translation is by Tanya Leslie.

The quote is from the end of the first section.

Naturally I shall not opt for narrative, which would mean inventing reality instead of searching for it. Neither shall I content myself with merely picking out and transcribing the images I remember; I shall process them  like documents, examining them from different angles to give them meaning. In other words, I shall carry out an ethnological study of myself.

(It may not be necessary to commit such observations to paper, but I won’t be able to start writing properly until I have some idea of the shape this writing will take.)

I may have chosen to be impartial because I thought the indescribable events I witness in my twelfth year would fate away, lost in the universal context of laws and language. Or maybe I succumbed  to a mad and deadly impulse suggested by the words of a missal which I now find impossible to read, a ritual which my mind associates with some Voodoo ceremony–take this, all of you, and read it, this is my body, this is the cup of my blood, it will be shed for you and for all men.

Karolina Ramqvist’s The White City

I heard this author read during Litquake and bought the book. Part heist novel, part a novel about becoming a mother, it blends the genres so effortlessly that, having finished the book, I’m convinced that motherhood is a kind of a heist. Translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel. A beautiful edition by the Black Cat imprint of Grove Atlantic.

The baby’s named Dream. (What a cool name!)

 She put one arm over the baby, who had gone back to nursing, and rested her head on the other, trying to unwind and sink into the sofa. She focused on her body, one part at a time; she noticed her teeth clenching and opened her mouth all the way. Opening and shutting it and working her jaw from side to side to relieve the tension.  …

Dream downed the milk, swallowing while nuzzled into her white breast. Round as the baby’s cheeks and head, round as the areola that peeked out because Dream hadn’t gotten a proper grip on her nipple again. Round and round, rounds and rounds. The milk dribbled out of the baby’s mouth and ran down her breast, leaving a sticky trail on her skin and a wet stain on her robe.

Does the body keep producing breast milk after death? If something were to happen to her, if she choked or a blood vessel burst in her brain or if someone were to break in and take her out for good, it would probably be a while before anyone would miss her. But if she had enough milk in her breasts, then Dream might have a chance of surviving until someone showed up.

She tried to concentrate on the softness.