When Pachinko by Min Jin Lee opens in Japan-occupied Korea in 1910 with Hoonie, whose cleft palate and twisted foot lead the village girls to avoid him, the significance of his physical appearance to the overall themes of the novel is not immediately apparent.
My article “Loving the Stranger Beside You: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian“ has been posted on the Ploughshares blog! I -loved- this eerie, beautiful book. Here’s a snippet of what I had to say about it:
In The Vegetarian, a collection of three linked novellas, author Han Kang creates and then protects an open moral space between Yeong-hye’s sudden conversion to vegetarianism and her family’s perception of it. Is Yeong-hye wrong to become such an extreme vegetarian that she eventually tries to subsist on nothing but sunlight and water? Is she crazy? Is she selfish? Are her family members wrong to respond as they do to her radical decision?
Each novella is told from a different point of view: Yeong-hye’s husband Mr. Cheong, then her brother-in-law, then her sister In-hye. What can be known of Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is pieced together little by little, from narrator to narrator: She has a recurring, violent dream of eating raw meat. She and her sister sometimes have flashbacks to violent moments in their childhood, such as the time her family killed and consumed a dog that bit Yeong-hye. Yeong-hye is diagnosed with schizophrenia, but the doctors don’t understand why she refuses to eat. Yeong-hye wants to turn into a tree. Yeong-hye doesn’t want to sleep with her husband because he smells like meat, but she will sleep with her sister’s husband when he paints flowers on her body. She believes trees hug the earth with roots like arms, so she, too, balances in a handstand for as long as possible, saying, “All the trees of the world are like brothers and sisters.” Continue reading…
Han Kang is a South Korean writer who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 for this book. I am looking forward to reading her latest book Human Acts, which continues to explore how societal violence is expressed in a single person’s life (in this case, the death of a student during a student uprising).
Ages ago, I submitted the first ten pages of my “Japanese Cinderella” story, Hai, for a critique by the Literary Work-in-Progress podcast. I recently found out my piece was selected for Episode 10: Tropes with Karen McManus of One of Us Is Lying. You can listen to the episode on iTunes here.
I am now agented (yay!), but it was still a lot of fun to listen to both the positive feedback and the critique! I was relieved to hear that 99 percent of the questions Caitlin, Kristen, and Cameron raised go on to be addressed in Chapter Two, which they noted might be the case. But I promise I also got the chance while editing my manuscript to fix other issues they raised, like my ultra-long sentences… /(><)\
I also appreciated getting their take on the balance of description, voice, and stakes in this opening chapter, along with their recommendations on how to make sure readers know early enough what the stakes are so readers know what’s worth their energy. For example, even though I know that my protagonist Hai’s glasses are extremely important to the story, readers only come to discover that little by little, so the careful description of them in Chapter One might seem unnecessary on a first read.
One member of the podcast (Caitlin, I think?), raised some cultural questions about the story, so I thought I’d elaborate a bit on that, for fun and interest’s sake. The stepfamily in my novel is pretending at being quite upper-class and yet their fascination with France is outmoded among Japanese elites, who by 1900 had moved on from emulating Napoleonic styles and were beginning to prefer Prussian fashion and civic codes. Of course, everyday Japanese people were oblivious to a lot of what the elites were up to, because the changes would have no relevance (yet) in their lives for decades. A great nonfiction book about the way Japanese fashion changed before, during, and after the Meiji era is Toby Slade’s Japanese Fashion: A Cultural History (Berg, 2009).
At the beginning of the Literary WIP podcast, Caitlin, Karen, and Cameron address tropes — when to use them, how to make sure they work effectively. As you can imagine, when I set out to write a Cinderella story set in a non-European, non-Western culture, I had to tackle all kind of problems around the usual Cinderella tropes!
For example, it’s one thing to insert a rotten and goofy stepfamily into a novel, but I had to be careful not to avoid common Western stereotypes of Japanese people while I was at it. I opted early on to make them over-the-top obsessed with Western fashions, but I also wanted to distinguish them from the earnest, well-intentioned work of other characters who grapple with industrialization and foreign intrusions into Japanese ways of life. So I also opted for the stepfamily to be too dedicated to their Western tastes, not unlike the Shinkawa family in Yukio Mishima’s Runaway Horses. And that was just one of several problems I encountered when I attempted to cast Japanese characters into their Cinderella roles in unique but historically plausible ways.
I’ll stop there, to avoid spoilers, but I want to thank everybody again at Literary WIP for reading the opening chapter of my novel and hosting such a lively discussion!
I am delighted to share that I am now represented by Julie Tibbott and Jill Corcoran of Jill Corcoran Literary Agency!
In August 2016 I began drafting what I nicknamed my “Japanese Cinderella” novel (working title, Hai) in a writing workshop led by Danny Stewart at The Cabin, a center for readers & writers based in Boise. I continued working on it through another workshop with Heidi Kraay, also at The Cabin. Since then, I’ve had the help of many fantastic critique partners and beta readers, plus the support of friends in my local writing community as well as online, to write the strongest manuscript I could.
Overall, since I know other writers are often curious about this, it took around 70 rejections, 6 full requests, 3 partial requests, and 2 major revisions (i.e. with changes to more than 25% of the manuscript) to reach this point. Then, much to my happiness, Julie and Jill said yes!
What’s the novel about? I’ll be able to share more about it in coming months, but it is a Young Adult Historical Fantasy about a seventeen-year-old engineer nicknamed “Hai,” whose long days toiling on Tokyo’s first railway are disrupted in a big way when he crosses paths with Kano, an imperial prince whose obsession with inventing a submersible has his parents worried he’ll enter the sea one day and never return.
I look forward to sharing more book news in the future! In the meantime, I am about halfway through drafting another manuscript. That’s the fun thing about writing: there are always more stories to write.
My essay, “From the Ghosts’ Point of View: A Brief History of Seven Killings” is now available on the Ploughshares blog. Thanks for reading! Related: the featured image on this blog post comes from David Burnett’s gorgeous photo essay found here, from the same era during which the events in A Brief History of Seven Killings take place.
In a book that promises by its very title and opening lines that many characters will be expected to die, the author has to do some coaxing to convince readers that they can invest emotionally in the story. Marlon James achieves this in A Brief History of Seven Killings by breaking the sound barrier of the grave. Readers often don’t know whether a character is still alive or dead until after the character has already been talking for a while. That very open-endedness makes it possible to empathize with these characters even after the (more than) seven promised killings take place.
Marlon James is unafraid to confront death from the first page onward and then invite readers to care anyway. Clues to practically every death in the 686-page book appear in those first few pages: “fifty-six bullets,” “a burned cockroach,” a scream that “stops right at the gate of his teeth.” In sharing this, I’m giving away nothing that James himself doesn’t already give away. Reader, you’ve been warned. But, reader, don’t shy away. This is a story with heart.
From the moment the first narrator, Sir Arthur Jennings, announces in his opening lines that ghosts “never stop talking” and that “when you’re dead speech is nothing but tangents and detours,” readers cannot be certain they are listening to someone alive or dead. The readers figuratively take the role of the living who “sometimes hear” the dead speaking when they are half-awake or near death themselves. Continue reading…
Since reading A Brief History of Seven Killings earlier this year, this book shot up to my “top 5” favorites list. It is an incredible accomplishment, driven almost entirely by voice rather than by a traditional plot. Needless to say, I am now dying to read his forthcoming African fantasy trilogy, which also let’s the cat out of the bag about a death, while still inviting readers to care:
“The very, very basic plot is [that] this slave trader hires a bunch of mercenaries to track down a kid who may have been kidnapped,” he told the US magazine in an interview. “But finding him takes nine years, and at the end of it, the kid is dead. And the whole novel is trying to figure out: ‘How did this happen?’”
My two poems “Elijah” and “The Arrival” have been published in Issue 4 of Heartwood Literary Magazine, which is run by the MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College.
Sere bends the light
where no dew pearled
and won’t the next—
Whatever it is,
hold it like the pope
is bleeding in Constantinople,
in the hungry hours.
Both of these poems are part of a larger project of retelling early Christian apocrypha, myths, and so on, which someday I hope will become a full book of poetry. “The Arrival” was drafted in one of the poetry workshops I attended at The Cabin in Idaho, inspired by my visit to Pompeii back in 2008 during my Fulbright year. Thanks, as always, for reading and supporting my work!
My poem “Grass Fire” was published today in Kettle Blue Review with amazing poems by Maggie Smith, Francine Witte, and other poets I admire! To say I’m pleased to feature in an issue alongside them is an understatement.
Ovid should have written into his heavens,
how fire gathers wind
fiber, thread, and strand
and snaps it rhythmically in taut cords over chastened fields,
an industrial grade cat-o-nine
hissing through the atmosphere…
This poem is based on an actual grass fire on my mom’s farm. The photo on this blog post is also from that fire, which was terrifying. Never underestimate how quickly a fire can move! Thankfully my mom didn’t lose her house, in spite of the damage done to the rest of the land around it.
I am beyond delighted to share that my poem, “The First Jews of San Antonio,” is among those selected for San Antonio’s 30 Poems for the Tricentennial poetry contest. The selected poems will be interpreted into 2D works of art by local artists and designers to be installed in the City of San Antonio’s Culture Commons Gallery for a special exhibit. The winners also receive a $250 prize and publication.
Thank you to judges Rodney Gomez, Patricia Spears Jones, Urayoán Noel, and Sasha West for choosing my poem!! I’ll let everybody know where they can read the poem along with event details as soon as I have them.
What if true love was a curse in a bad contract that forced you to live with the most dangerous mafia family in New York? That is the premise behind off-the-wall Rapunzel retelling The Uncrossing by Lambda Literary Fellow Melissa Eastlake — and I loved it.
I spend a lot of time championing adult literary fiction, but young adult fiction (YA) is a rich and exciting genre in its own right. As a side effect of drafting two young adult novels over the past year and half, I’ve found myself reading a lot more YA, especially fairy-tale retellings. There are phenomenal books in this genre, especially for readers looking for more diversity, and The Uncrossing joins books like We Are the Ants by Shaun Hutchinson that handle both mental illness and the real struggles of gay teens with sensitivity, insight, and a light magical touch.
Jeremy Kovrov is the Rapunzel in this alt-New York shaped by the turf wars of magic-wielding mafia. His adoptive brothers Sergei and Alexei love him and have done their best to raise him under the circumstances, but nothing can help the fact that Jeremy is trapped with the Kovrovs until true love’s first kiss releases him.
The problem? True love is “fairy-tale logic” — an impossible clause that closes off every other possible means of escape. And it’s getting in the way of Jeremy’s real romance with Luke Melnyk, a local Ukrainian-Creole twin who has the unique power to “uncross” curses. Can Luke untangle this particularly nasty curse? And does Jeremy really want him to play the role of rescuing prince?
In my last blog post, “Disgust and Tenderness in Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You,” I talked about how the narrator’s father cruelly associates foulness and disgust with his own son through pointed body language. The Uncrossing could be read as a healing antidote to this sort of treatment. Jeremy and Luke’s families are not perfect — racism and homophobia rear their ugly heads at certain moments in the plot — but they fiercely love their boys and are rooting for them to find a way around this curse. In fact, without both families’ involvement, they wouldn’t have a chance.
As an adoptive parent, I really appreciated that this novel treats Jeremy’s adoptive brothers as his real, loving family without in the end feeling the need to rediscover his lost birth family. At the same time, the novel respects the importance of Jeremy’s birth family in shaping who he is (hint: it has a lot to do with his magical abilities!). This is different from most Rapunzel retellings, and I was more grateful than I can say.
Thank you to Entangled Teen and the Chapter by Chapter blog tour for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for honest feedback.
My essay “Disgust and Tenderness in Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You,” was published today on the Ploughshares blog! You can read it here.
Garth Greenwell’s debut novel What Belongs to You is a beautiful and heartbreaking meditation on how we learn to fill the emotional space between ourselves and others. The unnamed narrator is an American teacher in Bulgaria whose coming-out experiences as a teenage boy in the South indelibly shape his relationships with others later in life.
Yet, it would be falsely reductive to label this book as somehow limited in its interests to gay experience; the loneliness and the struggle to reach out, to touch other human beings, belongs to all of us. Indeed, one of Greenwell’s successes in this book is the ability to subvert common tropes of shame and disgust around homosexuality, and expose an original tenderness, a vulnerability underneath, that we all share.
In the opening chapter, after the narrator experiences his first small betrayal by a younger Bulgarian man named Mitko, he reflects, “There’s something theatrical in all our embraces, I think, as we weigh our responses against those we perceive or project; always we desire too much or not enough, and compensate accordingly.” But romantic attraction is only an entry-point into this question for Greenwell, who guides his narrative gracefully through the narrator’s strained memories of his father, meandering walks through the Bulgarian landscape, and encounters with strangers in a hospital and on a train. Continue reading
There is so much I love about this book, and I was only able to write about a sliver of it. I hope you’ll pick up a copy and read it next time you wander through the bookstore!
My curious little prose poem, “Notes on a Modern Cinderella,” has been published in concīs today! You can read the full poem — and hear me read it aloud! — by clicking here.
This version will not be as ugly as poor Berlioz who slipped on sunflower oil at the turnstile, the one who fell under the train steered by a Komsomol girl. Let’s say worse than the Grimms’ toes but not so horrendous as heads. … continue reading
This was a poem composed in workshop with the lovely Kerri Webster, who challenged us to write a meta-poem about another writing project of ours. Thank you as always for supporting my work and one of my favorite poetry sites!