AWP in Chicago

If I met you, I’m glad. I met a lot of fiction writers and liked them all (a first for me).

If I didn’t—well, next time. I liked Chicago, especially The Art Institute, the Magnificent Mile, and the Chicago Tribune building.

The streets are wider and grander than in New York. The buildings, many of them, are more interesting, more ambitious. It also still has what Manhattan tore down: an elevated train wending through the downtown avenues, neon lights, and not-so-special bars that cater to just-so folk. A lot was gone, though—there were vacant lots surrounding around my hotel, an area where Capone once had his office—but it felt like more of the past was present than in Manhattan.

It has history: countless labor riots; Prohibition-era gangs; police and mayoral corruption; Chicago ’68. It feels like a city once inhabited by giants.

But the cold! The wind! Never going to move there.


Start Your Own Magazine: What do You Need to Know?

It’s going to be a lot like an AWP panel (but without your having to fly to Chicago, fight the crowds, and eat bad hotel food). Find out how to start a literary magazine of your own—and how to make it last—at this presentation/reading/Q&A.

Details from the Guernica site:

Guernica Inside & Out: A Talk at Fordham University-Lincoln Center

February 15th, 7 pm
Fordham University-Lincoln Center
113 W. 60th Street (at Columbus)

When writer William Saroyan told H.L. Mencken he wanted to be an editor, Mencken sent this letter to Saroyan:

“I note what you say about your aspiration to edit a magazine. I am sending you by this mail a six-chambered revolver. Load it and fire every one into your head. You will thank me after you get to hell and learn from other editors there how dreadful their job was on earth.”

But if you insist, we’ll help. Writer Matt Bell (also an editor at Dzanc and The Collagist) will read and participate. Guernica Daily Editor Rebecca Bates will read nonfiction selections from the magazine and talk about editing the stories.

Other editors—Fiction Editor Meakin Armstrong, and Founding Editors Michael Archer and Joel Whitney—will be in attendance.

If you happen to be in New York City, we hope to see you there!

Breyten Breytenbach in Guernica

Breytenbach is a South African poet, novelist,  and human rights activist who spent seven years in jail for fighting apartheid.The selections in Guernicawhich read like flash fiction, but are a part of a novel—are astoundingly beautiful, but searing, too. I think it’s some of the best stuff I’ve ever edited. He also provided the illustration.

Here are the first few lines:

It was the evening before Xmas. White. Even the beards of trees were white. Wind walks sniffing over the snow. A thin wind. The trees shake their frozen arms the snow falls ploof in the snow. A rind of ice covers the Danube. Continue reading Breyten Breytenbach in Guernica

Blogging About Sustainability

I’ve been hired to blog about sustainability issues for The Atlantic. It’s a lot of work, of course. And complicated. I’m posting twice a week until the end of the year. I’m also “vlogging” (god, I hate that word) twice a week.

I’ve learned that my footprint is already low—I ride a bike everywhere and otherwise use public transport. But I’ve been finding out there are so many small ways that we can change things—and how difficult and complex the issues are. Like the Jevons Paradox: saving energy might make us use more of it.

I Interview Craig Thompson of “Blankets” and “Habibi”

I spoke with Craig Thompson for Guernica, and I asked him about his new graphic novel, Habibi, and why he chose to set it in the Middle East.

I didn’t mention it in the piece, but during the interview, I was inundated by the sounds of an ice cream truck right outside my door. “Sounds like a circus!” Thompson said. It kind of was.

Here’s how the interview is described in the deck for the piece:

“The author of the lauded graphic novel Blankets discusses the influences behind his new book, the effect of 9/11 on his work, and the decline of the superhero in comics.”

We also ran an eleven-page except from Habibi



Chinua Achebe, excerpted on Guernica

You probably had to read him in college—Chinua Achebe, the author of Things Fall Apart.

I certainly did and I remember not looking forward to it. I didn’t like the book cover, which was a confusion of yellows, browns, and burnt orange. It was exhausting just to read the title. Yes, I judged a book by its cover.

I was also lazy: I didn’t want to read yet another assigned book. I grumbled and moaned and put off reading it.

But I loved it.

In fact, it blew me away.

I’m so proud that he’s now in Guernica. How did we get him? Because at Guernica, we often feature African writing. We’ve won awards for it. And why? Because we came to love African writing through Achebe.

“Because Arab American fiction IS American literature”

I’d wanted to put together an Arab American fiction section for several years.


The section remained a no-go for some reason though, but maybe it was for the best: Randa Jarrar, who guest-edited the section, did an amazing job for Guernica.

I’d published Randa about year at Guernica. I remember thinking that her writing was  evocative of Arab American culture—yet also very American (if such facile labels can be given; such labels are annoying, I know).

Read her opening essay on Arab American writing and read how, as she says, “Arab American fiction is American literature.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Look for work from these authors in the section:

The Oracle, by Diana Abu-Jaber

East Beirut, 1978, by Patricia Sarrafian Ward

The Bastard of Salinas, by Laila Halaby

Secret Boyfriend, by Youmna Chlala

Girls on Ice, by Alia Yunis

Been Blogging About Coffee (While Drinking Tea)

I just finished a short-term gig blogging for Starbucks.

Primarily, my blog was concerned with the environment and shade-grown coffee. While working on the project, I learned that when coffee growers preserve the trees on their land (rather than rip them down) migratory birds are able to congregate and feed.

Other trees—the ones elsewhere in Latin America—are rapidly getting destroyed, so the coffee plantation trees provide a vital service.

Drinking coffee is actually good for the world, now. And you can also use the grounds to grow mushrooms—see this video.

Too bad I’m a Darjeeling drinker (hating coffee is such a handicap, when you love caffeine).


Last Night’s Reading

On stage, I normally I read from my own fiction. I have read nonfiction pieces before—at Freerange Nonfiction and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood—but the pieces there were essays from my life. The one I read last night started out as though it were, then veered into travelogue territory.

Here’a a bit of it, about the Nabokov Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia:

.  .  .  They had Nabokov’s typewriter, under glass. I found myself staring at it stupidly for several long moments—hoping, I suppose, to witness sparks. It was an ancient well-worn thing, an upright L.C. Smith with Cyrillic keys. I soon realized I was only staring at a thing, a typewriter. It was what the Roman Catholics consider a relic of the second class. I didn’t have any visions of greatness or a sense of how Nabokov wrote. I did notice, however, that he must have hit the spacebar in a heavy, almost brutal manner because it was badly bent. There were also his papers: he wrote on index cards, much as he had described the poet as doing in Pale Fire. The cards didn’t have scribbled corrections on them, however—there wasn’t the sense of a writer at work; each note was a little finished piece, encased in Nabokovian precision, confirming his reputation as the world’s preeminent fussy man. I learned he played Scrabble and imagined what a terror he must have been to play against—and how petulant he would have been, had anyone beaten him in that game.

Visitors aren’t allowed upstairs to see his former bedroom nor are they allowed in any of the areas where the family lived and slept. The upper floors were a newspaper office and supposedly little of what was up there was original. We trapped in the Nabokov family reception area—it was as if we had handed our visiting card to the butler and had been told that young Vladimir wasn’t “at home.”

But isn’t that the way it should be—what exactly is there to see at a writer’s house? Upstairs, we wouldn’t have seen Vladimir’s teenage writer dreams, unless of course, there had been dioramas of them at the Museum of Dreams. [My note:There is such a thing in St. Petersburg; it’s referred to earlier, in the essay] With writers, there isn’t an opportunity for a Hard Rock Café equivalent: a writer has a few dreary notes and a dirty typewriter or laptop. It’s what in writer’s words where the great sights are, not in the things one would hang on the walls of some third-rate restaurant.

And what is there to learn from typewriters and a discarded Scrabble board? The only thingness we require of writers is their bound books—and perhaps not even that, as works are being transferred to the Kindles and Nooks.

I think Nabokov would have agreed. After all, he wrote in Speak, Memory “How small the cosmos (a kangaroo’s pouch would hold it), how paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection, and its expression in words!” . . .

. . . and so on. In the audience, I met a man who said he’d read Pale Fire 17 or 18 times. I’ve only read it twice. And not in years.

Anyway, I think the reading went well.


Fiction | Nonfiction