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.


I’ll be Giving a Reading on the 17th

The people at InDigest have curated a reading on Nabokov. I’ll be reading an essay about visiting Nabokov’s childhood home in St. Petersburg (where I went on a scholarship to a writers’ conference).


From Indigest:

April 22nd is Vladimir Nabokov’s 112th birthday and, to celebrate, the InDigest 1207 Reading Series is throwing a party. Why? Because Nabokov is awesome, that’s why.

The celebration will feature readings from Nabokov’s work and original pieces inspired by him. Readers include Nicole Callihan, Sasha Fletcher, Meakin Armstrong & Dave Haan.

The party starts at 7 PM on Sunday, April 17th at The Gallery at LPR. Come down to eat some cake, have a drink, and help us commemorate the birth of everyone’s favorite multilingual Russian novelist/short-story writer/literary critic/lepidopterist/chess genius/synesthete.

Constantly Thinking of Japan

Like a lot of people with ties to Japan (I grew up there, and my father still lives there as a retired diplomat) I’ve been having a difficult time with thinking of anything other than what’s going on over there. I wish them my best. And I worry.

I don’t have much more to say than that. I wish the American cable networks were many levels less hysterical. I wish journalists were more specific in their coverage. But Americans like to be outraged and worried. We want some good TV from their Lay-Z-Boys.

This thing is real. 50 workers are right now doing their best to contain the reactors. And millions more are quietly getting by and doing their best, with incredible dignity.

Caine Prize Winner Olufemi Terry on Guernica

Olufemi Terry, whose “Stickfighting Days” won the 2010 Caine Prize for African Writing, is in the current issue of Guernica. The story is brilliant, and it shows how if won Africa’s mst prestigious literary prize.

But it’s looong. . . can the Internet support long fiction? I hope so. It has to.

Any suggestions on how to feature long-form fiction? Send me a note if you have an idea. I’m committed to long fiction.

AWP Assessment: I slept in the Best Whorehouse in Minsk

I’ve just gotten back from AWP, held this year in Washington, D.C. AWP is an annual conference, a gathering of writers from every skill level, jumbled together like a rat’s nest in DC’s Marriott and Omni hotels. The beginners and the pros–hundreds of them, clogged the lobbies, on the way to panel discussions and meet-and-greets.

It was tiring, but also valuable: I booked a few writers for upcoming issues of Guernica, and found some magazines that say they’d be interested in my own work. I also had a reunion with many of the my fellow 2007 Bread Loaf waiters.

But now: I’m truly exhausted. Read more about the AWP experience elsewhere, such as on Electric Literature ‘s blog.

My own hotel room was so hilariously awful, that I can’t not comment upon it: high stairs were required to enter the bathroom (it was some 3 feet about the floor for some reason, and jammed against the ceiling.

My room was also raised above the floor (and forced up against the ceiling). Furnishings: brown tones, accented with chrome. The bed was crammed into a tiny alcove.

Overall, the place was like a whorehouse (that is, how I imagine one to be) in Minsk. But is was the best one, I decided, because it was (thankfully) clean, and far away from the madness of AWP.

New Fiction on Guernica: Melissa Ann Chadburn

Guernica‘s fiction intern found this story (she gets the credit, not me, although she says she’d rather remain nameless). I accepted Melissa’s “Loose Morals” for publication, because liked how it was confrontational from the get-go. And how it’s certainly nontraditional.

Sometimes, we (or rather, I) can get caught of in that traditional stuff, wherein there’s an epiphany of some sort at the end of the piece. The epiphanic style is my usual choice for Guernica, but sometimes, you know,  you’ve got to break boundaries (and so on).

Anyway. . . this story will wake you up, right in its first sentence.

New Fiction on Guernica: Michael McGuire

Michael McGuire, who often writes about life on the American border, has one of his best pieces, ever, in Guernica called “Rosa de la Rosas.”

Michael is the author of a short story collection, The Ice Forest (Marlboro Press), named one of the “best books of the year” by Publisher’s Weekly. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, The Hudson Review, New Directions in Prose & Poetry, and elsewhere.

His plays have been produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Mark Taper Forum of Los Angeles, and at other theatres. They are published by Broadway Play Publishing.

Faulty Plug-ins and Fiction Editing

A faulty plug-in crashed my site and left it a total wreck. It was awful, but all is fine now.

In the intervening period, I’ve been editing a short story collection from a Canadian writer that’s set in the area just north of Detroit.

I’m also preparing for a new job: writing a piece about a Renaissance family that’s far more interesting “family” than New York’s Colombo Crime Family; compared with them, the Five Families look like the Brady Bunch.

Blogging Again for The Atlantic

I’ve been working on a sponsored blog for The Atlantic, where I find links, write, edit, and so on. I’ve been finding out about such topics as cloud computing.

The experience reminds me of my first job: I was an editorial assistant/proofreader at PC Magazine, way back when it was still a print publication and the latest system was (I think) Dos 4.1. I used to go home with my head swimming with such terms as ROM, C> Prompt, and 8086. Now it’s a bunch of acronyms and terms such as BPM, Network IPS MQ, or just plain IT.

Fiction | Nonfiction