Monday, April 25, 2016

Those Old-Timey Essays: A Conversation with Patrick Madden

Jacob Eckrich, Associate Creative Nonfiction Editor for The Normal School, talks with essayist Patrick Madden about his new collection Sublime Physick, humor, Montaigne, and the activity we call essaying.
Jacob Eckrich: One of the things that I noticed about the collection was that you have a really strong emphasis on the Classics. The essays seem to be a bridge of sorts between classical thought and art and contemporary life. So I’m curious as to where this interest and focus on classical humanities came from.

Patrick Madden: I do consciously try to write something that honors the tradition of the essay and participates in it. I’m in love with these old dead essayists largely because they kind of taught me how to write. A lot of people…I don’t know about you…how’d you get into creative nonfiction? Contemporary writers?

JE: It was actually mostly through humorists.

PM: Right. Like Ian Frazier, I know you like…

JE: Yeah, absolutely Ian Frazier, but more than anyone it was Woody Allen. So I actually came into—I hesitate to call what I write personally “creative nonfiction” as much as I just call them essays, because that line between fiction and nonfiction, particularly with humor and satire, is often fuzzy, and irrelevant in some cases.

PM: True.

JE: So I came in through humorists, and now, through the program, much more traditional nonfiction essayists. Definitely contemporary. It was a couple years before I read Montaigne or some of the older ones, but it was definitely through Ian Frazier, yourself, Ander Monson, and such.

PM: Me too. I didn’t have a really wide base, but I really liked certain essayists that I found in Best American Essays, all living essayists. But once I started in classes—I did a master’s degree at BYU and then a Ph.D. at Ohio—I started to read some of the older stuff, especially with The Art of the Personal Essay, and then I took classes from David Lazar, and we read tons and tons of these essayists. Primarily we read Montaigne, Hazlitt, and Lamb, but also a broad group of essayists that you don’t find much in the anthologies. I feel like that’s how I learned to write. I could do the basics before I ever read those writers, but my writing became a lot more interesting, at least to me, and I feel that it improved a lot, and that was the key for me. A lot of literary nonfiction is narrative based, it’s memoir—and there’re some great memoirs, works that are influential, and I appreciate them a lot—but I love thinking. I come to the essay wanting to have an intellectual experience as well as an aesthetic or emotional experience. If you read these old essayists, that’s what they’re all about. They do share some of their own lives, but their main focus isn’t to tell you something that happened. Like I said, my life is pretty mundane—though I do have six kids, which makes for some interesting experiences—but I didn’t have a troubled childhood that I overcame, I haven’t done anything extraordinary, so I really liked finding these essayists who likewise were just writing about regular life. Another key was discovering Scott Russell Sanders, who was doing a bunch of essays in the late 1990s and early 2000s that were just like the old essays: they had a one word titles, like “Beauty,” “Stillness,” “Silence,” “Fidelity,” etc. They were basically the same thing that the great dead had been doing. I said, “Oh, cool. You can still do that now.” So that’s when I started going full steam ahead trying to write thematic essays.

JE: That’s something that I really enjoy about your writing. Like you, that is why I really enjoy the essay, whether it’s a personal essay or more humorous/satirical essay, or whatever, but it’s idea-driven and less focused on narrative. With that said, as you mentioned, you do have narrative elements from your life in most of these essays, if not all of them. I’m curious, when you’re approaching a new essay is it a thematic idea first that you then scaffold and attach the narrative to, or do you begin with the narrative?

PM: It goes both ways. For instance, the essay “Entering and Breaking,” which is about my sons going missing for a couple of hours, that was certainly driven by an event that I wanted to write about. But I didn’t want to just write the “what happened.” I wanted to think from it. So I tried to do that and I overlaid some ideas from physics like wave/particle duality and quantum entanglement. I thought about how, in a way, I’m entangled with my children. But in other essays, the ideas take the lead. “Independent Redundancy” is an essay about originality, and that’s a question I’ve had for a very long time: what is originality? Or, why do we oversimplify the idea of originality to the point of creating a false concept? So it can go either way. If I do write something thematic, I look for experiences that speak to that theme, and even if I’m beginning from a particular event in my life, I try to add to it, so that the essay is not just a recounting from beginning to end.

JE: Right. One of the Montaignean aspects of both of your books is that you stray away from the “what happened” over and over again within a single essay.

PM: Intentionally.

JE: I love it. I remember when I read “Spit,” I got to the point where I stopped and thought, “Wait, what is the title of this essay again? Oh yeah, ‘Spit,’” and I kept going. It comes back around and moves, and your work does that a lot, which I absolutely love.

PM: Thanks. I don’t know if everybody does. Montaigne was jumping all over the place, too. For instance, “Of Cripples” doesn’t mention cripples until about nine-tenths of the way in. “Of Cruelty” doesn’t really get to speaking about cruelty until seven-eighths of the way through the essay.

JE: Yeah, well, that in itself can be considered cruel.

PM: Right? Maybe he’s demonstrating cruelty. So it could be a little bit frustrating, but once you get used to it and expect it, then it’s really pleasing. In “Of Vanity” he says, “It is the inattentive reader who loses my subject, not I.” So he throws the blame back on the reader, humorously. I think he understood that he was a wanderer.

JE: Yes, absolutely. I’m trying to expand this train of thought. I feel that your work definitely has a strong foothold in a very classical tradition of essaying, and this book is a stark contrast to other essay collections being published recently. Yours seem very classical in form as well as content. I think you reference Montaigne and Pascal and Johnson—a lot of older writers and painters. I was thinking about D’Agata’s anthology trilogy, too. A lot of contemporary essayists are leaping off of the work in The Next American Essay. But I feel that yours would fit very much in The Lost Origins of the Essay. So I was wondering, where do you see your work fitting in today’s literary essayistic landscape?

PM: I really like a lot of contemporary essayists, and I think there’s a broad range in what people are doing, and I’m really glad that people are willing to call themselves essayists. There’s no longer really a stigma attached to it, and that’s been a change even since I was in graduate school. I remember essay collections that, whether because of the author or the publisher, wouldn’t announce that they were essays. They’d hide the fact, probably for marketing reasons. Now you can see the word essays on book covers, even on the front. I like a lot of essayists who aren’t pulling in quotes from the great dead authors, but I think they are still consciously participating in the long tradition, and they know somewhat of the past. It always feels good to me when an author acknowledges where we all come from and the debt we owe, to Montaigne especially, but to the others as well. I think I would definitely fit on the revivalist side. It’s not just me, but the authors who are trying to be a little bit anachronistic in terms of phrasings, from the sentence level to the essay level. You don’t even have to read my essays to notice this; you can just flip open the book and it looks different from what many other writers are doing, because you just see the block quotes throughout. It looks like what the old essayists were doing. I get invited to universities or conferences I think in large part because I’m doing something slightly different from a lot of others and people trust that I have, in addition to my own writing, a kind of historical and theoretical knowledge that I can teach from or speak from when I’m talking to students or other writers.

JE: Absolutely. I imagine a lot of people who might be reading this interview may have not read the book yet. So I wanted to give you the opportunity to give a condensed version of your “not official/official” introduction to the book. What is it about the sublime physical? What does that mean?

PM: Well, first of all, it’s always difficult for me to describe what my books are. I just came from the Tucson Festival of Books. This is a gigantic gathering and all sorts of writers are there, from Terry Brooks, who did The Sword of Shannara, and Jared Diamond who did Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Maureen Corrigan, the book reviewer from NPR’s Fresh Air, and there were a lot of mystery writers. Anyway, over 100,000 people came through, and there I was. So a lot of people asked what my book was about. Other essayists or people who are aware of creative nonfiction can get what I’m doing and they can decide whether they want to read it or not, but for the general audience, I find it very difficult to describe. So I’m glad to be speaking to you, going to Essay Daily because the people who read Essay Daily know what we’re talking about, which is good. In any case, to tell this story, let me go back to my first book, Quotidiana. I was researching Amedeo Avogadro, the Italian chemist from the early 19th century who’s best known for his molecular theory—he figured out that you could determine the number of molecules in a certain volume of gas—it was a constant no matter the gas—and this allowed chemists to determine atomic weights in ways that they never could before. So later chemists named Avogadro’s Number after him. That’s the 6.02 x 10^23 that most of us remember. I learned that Avogadro was appointed by the Pope to be chair of the department of Fisica Sublime at the University of Turin in Italy. I read that phrase, fisica sublime, and I thought, “What a strange oxymoronic term!” I loved it. Those words seem to be opposed because sublime is that which is beyond the realm of the real world, the abstracted, the idea, the spiritual, whereas fisica is the physical world, things that you can touch. So “fisica sublime” is kind of like a concrete abstraction. As with a lot of oxymorons, it’s not just that the words oppose and obliterate each other; they oppose and create a friction that can then give you new ideas that you may not have thought of before. I started thinking about how essays perform that oxymoronic function, they take the physical world, whether things or experiences, stuff that you’ve lived, stuff that you’ve touched, and the essay, by processing experience through the mind, sublimates or gets to the relevant idea, abstraction, spirit. So in the introduction in the book, I started thinking about all of the different ways that essays can be described by that oxymoron. I’m hoping that my essays are doing that very thing. Another particularity is that I studied physics as an undergrad, I got a degree, and I’m still very interested in the implications of physics even if I don’t do the lab experiments. I use some physics concepts in the book metaphorically as a different take on my experiences.

JE: I feel that your essays are in a way your lab experiments.

PM: That’s a good way of thinking of it.

JE: On the page you are testing these theories with personal experience, I guess you could say. Another question I had: because you present a lot of physics theory as well as some philosophy, there’s that line that’s hard to tread for a lot of essayists of how much into a complex theory or philosophy can you go and still effectively contextualize and explore what you’re wanting to without getting too heady and losing the reader. I guess what I’m asking is, when you’re composing these essays, do you find yourself adding more theory or do you find yourself weeding a lot of stuff out in the revision process?

PM: I don’t know if I’ve really found the sweet spot on that because—well, when we say “the reader” of course there are a lot of different readers and the vast majority of readers in the world will never pick up this book. That’s fine, but I want to speak to a nonexpert educated reader, someone who’s interested in a philosophy of ideas but also likes art made from language and is willing to work a little bit. In my first book I had passages of equations and things, and I got some feedback that people just skipped over those. They saw equations and their brain went to a different mode and jumped to a place where they could find some words again. In this new book there are no equations at least, so maybe I’ve learned a thing or two. And sometimes I figure that you don’t need to catch the theory all of the way to feel what it’s trying to do within the essay. I’ve been thinking about this with “Moment, Momentous, Momentum.” It’s a short essay about my daughter getting hit in the head with a swing, and in it I’m thinking about my brother-in-law who pulled a pot of boiling water on himself when he was a toddler. These were the two experiences at its core, and my great fear in the essay is that you can’t protect your children from everything, and I think that people can get that whether or not they have their own children. I’ve also overlaid on it questions of momentum and of weight versus mass. The last paragraph says, basically, that you can get along in this world with a basic knowledge of physics that you attain through your sensory experience. You can ride a bike without understanding the equations of gyroscopic motion that allow you to balance on two wheels; you can do it by feel. But people often confuse mass, which is measured in kilograms, with weight, which we measure in pounds, because our everyday experience is inextricable from gravity. Behind all this, I’m considering a story I read about exit interviews with college students who’ve taken a physics class, but they’re still confused about some basic physics concepts, like conservation of energy or the uniform acceleration of gravity. Even though they’ve learned the correct principles, they revert to an Aristotelian sensory understanding of the way the world works. But that’s not essential to the essay. I think you can still understand the way that I try to use the word gravity in its double sense: not just the force the Earth exerts on our bodies or the way any two masses exert force on each other, but the emotional gravity of a situation, which is what the essay is about. So, in general, I think I’ve scaled back a little bit and I’m not so heavy on those kinds of concepts. I’m trying to allow them to work as metaphor. Can I ask your experience reading those parts? Do you have a science background?
JE: I have my general education and I took advanced science classes in high school, and I enjoy the essays. I don’t know if it’s just me as an individual or me as the kind of lay educated reader that you mentioned, but I found them very accessible and enjoyable.

PM: I’m glad to hear it, because I do worry about that. I don’t worry about that enough to completely obliterate that aspect of my writing or to hide it, but I try to find a balance so that someone whose background isn’t quite my own can get what I’m saying, at least sufficiently.

JE: Something else that I feel separates your essays from most other contemporary essays is that in both of your books you include a lot of images, photos or diagrams, and I was wondering—well, in a very simplified way of asking—why? In certain essays I could make a direct connection between the images and the text. With some images, I had to think a little bit more. I was just curious as to why you choose to purposefully include not just images, but a catalog—you have the references and the source material for each image—so everything is accounted for.

PM: I have a rather uncomplicated reason that I could complicate a little bit, but the straightforward answer is that I love W. G. Sebald’s books. Are you familiar with his work?

JE: I am not.

PM: Well, then you have a treat awaiting you, because I think he’s one of the most interesting writers I’ve ever read. His books are highly essayistic but maybe not utterly nonfictional. You were talking about how you want to call your work essays because in humor there’s a kind of tall-tale exaggerative effect that fictionalizes, if you have to name it. Well Sebald is not telling tall tales, but he’s accommodating reality, I think. In any case, his books are peppered with these images that are sometimes illustrative, like when a picture shows what he’s been writing about, and sometimes they’re more enigmatic, so they create a counterpoint to the text or even challenge what the text is saying. Other times it’s not entirely clear why the image is there, what the purpose is behind it. His images are like mine—they’re black and white, there’re many photographs or clippings or things like that—and they’re just printed in line with the text. Another author who has influenced me similarly, but in a slightly different way, is Eduardo Galeano, especially The Book of Embraces, which is illustrated. He took old-timey etchings and drawings and he cut them together into strange combinations like an octopus-headed schoolboy or a gun firing a bird, things like that. I’m not doing that, though. I’m doing more the Sebaldian style. And I want the images to be counterpoints to the text the same way that the block quotes are. The block quotes are in conversation with the text; they’re not really supporting my points or anything—at least I hope they’re not. Sometimes I want them to be a challenge. For instance, there’s a picture of Gleek, the space monkey from The Wonder Twins, and on the page right around it I say something like “I’m not going to go look this up.” I have this image in my mind of an eagle carrying Gleek carrying a bucket of water but I’m not going to go check because I’m just not keen on The Wonder Twins anymore now that I’m grown up. But then there’s this picture of the exact thing I said I was not going to look up, so I hope for some readers that’s going to be like, “What a minute, what’s that doing here?” It’s intended somewhat facetiously to undermine me a little bit. There’s another where I quote from an Aries zodiac sign bookmark that I had as a kid, and then there’s a picture of that bookmark, and if you pay attention, what I quoted is not exactly what it says on the bookmark. So there again I have undermined my credibility a little bit. The fact is that I wrote it as I remembered it, and then later I found the actual bookmark. Great! So I decided I was going to put that in there but noticed that the bookmark didn’t say exactly what I had remembered, and I thought, “Well, I’ll leave this little Easter egg for readers who have time on their hands and nothing better to do. They might enjoy this.” Or now they’ll read this interview and know that it’s there. I’m always trying to be a little bit playful, trying to rub against the essays with a different mode. The thing that I would love to do that I can’t do in a book like this, but I might try to do something online, is to provide music, sound files, YouTube clips, for an essay like “Independent Redundancy,” which relies heavily on musical examples. If I get the energy I’ll get that online someday.

JE: I’m sure Ander Monson would love to help you with that.

PM: Maybe I’ll ask him for some help.

JE: I have one simple question to follow up: When you buy books or browse books on Amazon, it always gives a recommendation like, “If you like this book you might like these other books.” So if you could be Amazon and somebody is loving your work, what would books would you recommend?

PM: You know, Amazon does a pretty good job with this by tracking what people actually buy together or what they look for together. We were talking before about essayists who are directly plugged into the classical form of the essay, and of course David Lazar, whom I studied with, influenced me a ton, and he writes in a similar way. Unsurprisingly, his mentor, Phillip Lopate, too. I really love Mary Cappello, who does book-length essays on interesting topics. She’s got a book coming out this fall on moods called Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack (you can see that we share an affinity for archaic –ck spellings). I remember when I first encountered her work, about a decade ago, her website said she’d been working on a book on moods, and I remember thinking, “I can’t wait for that book!” It’s taken this long (though she published two other books in the meantime), so it’s one of the books that I’m anticipating probably more than any book ever. I’ve heard her read from it, and it’s tremendous. Chris Arthur, an Irish essayist, and I come from different backgrounds and are slightly off in generations, but we’ve kind of reached a similar place where we both love these classical-style essays. I’ve already mentioned W. G. Sebald and Eduardo Galeano, whom I love. Some essayists who aren’t so much like my writing but who I really appreciate: Elena Passarello, Joni Tevis, and Amy Leach. They’re all beautiful lyrical stylists. I mentioned Ander Monson, who’s a quirky, very cool essayist. Your own friend and advisor, Stephen Church, is doing a lot of essayistic essays, too. Essays that don’t just telling you what happened but think about it overtly. Kim Dana Kupperman and Matthew Gavin Frank, too. I love essayists who are a little weird and have a distinct personality. You could pick up a new essay and if you knew their other work, you’d recognize them based on just the writing style. As we’ve been talking about, I want to see somebody thinking on the page, and all of these writers do that. There are other writers as well. I’m certainly forgetting somebody important who I owe a great debt to, but those are a bunch there. Who are some of your favorites?

JE: Let’s see, obviously Ian Frazier, as we’ve already mentioned. Have you read Veronica Geng?

PM: No.

JE: She’s somebody you might be interested in. She was a contributor and an editor for The New Yorker for a long time. She was Philip Roth’s favorite editor. She wrote essays, though at the time, in the late ’80s and ’90s, they were called stories. She was a good friend and mentor to Ian Frazier.

PM: Oh, cool.

JE: Also, George W. S. Trow. He’s most famous for Within the Context of No Context, and My Pilgrim’s Progress. Those are both book-length cultural studies essays about the media, but he also has a collection that’s out of print, but you can get it online, titled Bullies, and again it’s one of those ones that’s called a collection of stories, but I think if it were published today it would probably be called essays. I love Dinty Moore, Elena as well. I love Elena to death. And John D’Agata.

PM: I think he’s brilliant.

JE: In one of Steven Church’s classes, he had us read Halls of Fame and I enjoyed it, but it was also very challenging. It challenged a lot of my understandings of what the essay is. On Looking by Lia Purpura did the same thing for me in terms of challenging the notions that I had of what an essay is and what it should be.

PM: Yeah. Lia Purpura’s doing these rich, poetic, lyric essays, but you feel like she’s also participating in the tradition of the essay.

JE: So many writers are essaying now, either as full-time essayists, or poets, fiction writers, and playwrights taking up the essay to explore what the mode can do. I’d be interested in your view on current the trend of essaying and the diversity of work being done with the essay. What is exciting to you about the state of the essay today?

PM: As I’ve mentioned, I’m very happy that the term essay seems now to be a badge of honor, something to shout from the rooftops instead of to hide or to hide from. Now there seem to be enough savvy readers who really know and like and purchase essay collections. I’m also very happy that more people are trying their hand at essaying, even those working primarily in other fields. I’m a little protective of the term, though, and I wish that we’d never used it to describe the five-paragraphy assignment that teachers use to test their students’ knowledge and rhetoric, and likewise I wish we’d call stories stories and essays essays, whether they’re fictional or nonfictional. In other words, if a writer tells a true autobiographical story, narratively, with no reflection or association, I don’t think that’s an essay. If it doesn’t essay anything, then it’s not an essay. I feel we owe this to the spirit of Montaigne. Still, I’m excited that writers are trying essays, and that they’re borrowing forms and experimenting with styles, pushing the genre in ways that Montaigne himself never tried, but that I imagine he’d be proud of.

Patrick Madden is the author of two books, Sublime Physick and Quotidiana, both essay collections. He also co-edited After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays and co-translated the Selected Poems of Eduardo Milán. He teaches at Brigham Young University

Jacob Eckrich is an MFA candidate at Fresno State. He currently serves Associate Creative Nonfiction Editor for The Normal School. The manuscript for his first book, (A)musings: Essays, will be finished soon-ish.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Who You Are, Where You Are: Amy Wright on Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder, The Great Clod: Notes and Memoirs on Nature and History in East AsiaBerkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2016
Over dinner once, Will Hearst asked his friend Gary Snyder what attracted him to China as a young man. The question was innocent enough to prompt an answer that surprised Snyder who replied, “I got interested at an early age in East Asia. But for the wrong reasons.” The inevitable follow-up, “Wrong in what way?” went unasked except by Snyder himself who tucked his curiosity into the back of his mind where it seeded an essay, as defined by Paul Graham as something you write to try to figure out. [1]
     His book-length answer will interest longtime fans of this Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, but what gives it appeal beyond Snyder scholarship is how he traces the question of what makes any of us the way we are through Japan’s and China’s complex relationships to nature, which is to say the paradox inherent in the process of civilization.
     Dedicated to Burton Watson, the PEN-Prize-winning translator and scholar of Japanese and Chinese literature, this book is a conversation as well as a work of Montaignean self-education. A landscape in itself, Snyder sweeps at times with a broad brush across this long cultural history, drawing as it does on a variety of influences, including “the great strengths of Neolithic-type culture: village self-government networks, an adequate and equal material base, a round of festivals and ceremonies, and a deep grounding in the organic processes and cycles of the natural sphere.” [2] Other times, he paints the “plum rain” and winter storms in Japan, characterized by their unusual share of lightning superbolts, with a brush as fine as those made with mouse-whiskers. [3]
     In the process, Snyder comes to recognize and to make readers aware too that from around the Ming dynasty (1368 on), landscape paintings that were designed to propagate a love of wilderness were increasingly created by people who had “never much walked the hills, for clients who would never get a chance to see such places.” [4] In this way The Great Clod feels timely, though Snyder calls on a decade spent in Japan in the 1960s and a trip to Hokkaido in the summer of 1972. But then so is his 1990 essay collection, The Practice of the Wild, still relevant to current climate conversations, even as the wild has been subjugated out of existence. What environmental discussions may in fact need now in order to evolve is Snyder’s willingness to be wrong, paired with his close examination of the complex reasons why.
     Still, Snyder is far from prescribing a path forward. After all he ranks Daoism, a philosophy that honors the way that cannot be named, as “one of the world’s top two or three” worldviews. [5] What he offers instead is a long timeline of Far Eastern progress and its ramifications on a planetary scale. His conclusion though, ending as it does with a line of poetry, refuses to draw a hard line about what to make of these “Notes.” Again recalling the gesture of Montaigne’s Essais, he leaves readers to do the same puzzling over cause and effect he has done himself.
     Take the word “civilization,” which he points out in Chinese is wên-ming, meaning “understanding writing.” The author of twenty-two books might know something about that. Snyder is not merely playing with semantics either, since the “tool of the poet and painter, the inkstick (even more essential to the Chinese administration), was responsible for much deforestation.” [6] One of humanity’s highest accomplishments—the ability to communicate with each other and to express ideas—depended on emitting carbon.
     He follows this stream of ink forward. Those pines burned to produce soot were mixed with glue and fragrance then ground with a brush-softening stroke in what amounted to “a meditation on the qualities of rock, water, trees, air, and shrubs.” [7] To understand writing, he demonstrates here, is to understand civilization. The act and this ancient method are ennobling but want less environmentally taxing means. A scientist-humanist in the eleventh century made one such effort that Snyder relays. As an alternative to burning pines, Shen Kua experimented with using naturally occurring petroleum as ink. I can imagine that black lacquer filling reams of books instead of engines, eons-sequestered carbon remaining stable instead of going up in smoke.
     The Great Clod, though, is not a tale of what might have been. Snyder’s rue for what is has been tempered with far too much acceptance for regret. Had his reasons not been wrong for pursuing the East Asia of his imagination he would never have learned more and come to better understand a nation he made home for over a decade. His failure to write the article that commissioned his travel to Hokkaido in 1971 at last became his inspiration to do it the justice of depicting the island in its historical context. The need to correct himself led him to research the habitat of this region 45,000 years ago and to trace forward the meeting ground of the Arctic bear and the shorter-haired black bear that fostered the Gilyak, a paleo-Asiatic people. The result is a mind map of East Asia, following the trajectories of the Hsia dynasty to the Shang, Han, T’ang, and more.
  At times the history lesson can grow tedious, as when one learns, for instance:
“A decade after the fall of the Northern Sung capital K’ai-feng to the Juchen (Chin), the town of Lin-an, at the rivermouth was declared the new capital. The émigré emperor, his court, and crowds of refuges of the northern ruling class settled in. The name was changed to Hang-chou.” [8] Snyder repays one’s perseverance, though, with a poet’s penchant for often overlooked details, as when he describes the blue-glazed brick of the Thunder Point Buddhist temple pagoda or a girl’s song about “gathering fennel on top of Sunny Point” from the Shih Ching, “Classic of Songs.”
     The real strength of these notes though is what has long made Snyder the writer he is—the allegiance to “one ecosystem/ in diversity/ under the sun” he pledges in Turtle Island. Forty-one years later, he augments that celebration of difference with a studied reflection. With the saving grace of humility he demonstrates the danger of romanticizing any culture or region, for one might stop at the surface layers of dissimilarity and miss the deep underlying common ground. Or, one might leap to commonality without appreciating centuries of accrued variegation, striking as canyon walls and subtle as leaf shades. From such apologias turn the great clods of earth and matter that we cultivate and reap, depend on, and are. Naturally, resolutions and solutions are born of them.



[1] Klaus, Carl H. and Ned Stuckey-French. Essayists on the Essay. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press (2012), 174.
[2] Snyder, Gary. The Great Clod.  Berkeley: Counterpoint Press (2016), 30
[3] Ibid. 11, 123.
[4] Ibid. 130.
[5] Ibid. 34.
[6] Ibid. 65.
[7] Ibid. 124
[8] Ibid. 85


Amy Wright is the author of the prose chapbook, Wherever the land is, published in 2016. She is also the Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press, Coordinator of Creative Writing at Austin Peay State University, and author of two forthcoming poetry collections. Her writing appears in Brevity, Kenyon Review, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and Tupelo Quarterly, among others. More information at 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Minnesota Melancholy and Masculinity

Maybe it’s something in the water. That would make sense; Minnesota is water-rich. The Dakota words that form our state’s name are “minni,” which means water, and “sotah,” which means sky-tinted or cloudy. Maybe it’s male insecurity clouding the water.

We love our water. Our license plates read, “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” which is some classic Minnesota modesty, rounding down the actual number. We’re home to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness: a national park consisting of over 1,000 lakes on the Canadian border—where my father and I used to go every summer to paddle and portage, still one of my favorite places. Lake Itasca: headwaters of the Mississippi River. Minneapolis: literally named city of water, with its Chain of Lakes described in 1884 as “a necklace of diamonds in settings of emerald.” Minneapolis grew around Saint Anthony Falls on the Mississippi, and flour companies like Pillsbury and General Mills prospered thanks to the waterwheels those falls turned. Minnehaha: a creek in Minneapolis with a 53-foot waterfall on its way to the Mississippi; the name Minnehaha means water of the falls—mistakenly translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to “laughing waters” due to the “haha” portion. The elementary school joke went: “I bet you can’t say Minnehaha without laughing."

I remembered this schoolyard joke when reading Kirk Wisland’s chapbook Melancholy of Falling Men, which won the 2015 Iron Horse Review chapbook prize judged by Roxane Gay. Wisland grew up in Minneapolis and received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona, a program I currently attend, and he precedes me in a strange legacy of Minnesotans piped down to the Sonoran Desert to write about what it means to be a man.

In the opening essay of Wisland’s chapbook, titled “Johnny Cash Died,” Wisland writes a breathless single-sentence essay, including an anecdote where he storms down to Minnehaha Creek with a tire iron raised like a Cro-Magnon in pursuit of the hooligans who have egged his car, resulting in a broken nose and a story he can perhaps use to impress his tough-guy farmer grandfather.

With the Minnesota to Arizona connection at my disposal, I decided to track down this fellow traveler to ask him what it is about Minnesota that makes us want to scrutinize masculinity. I found that Wisland currently resides in Athens, Ohio, pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Ohio University. After a few friendly emails where we discussed the nature of life in the Twin Cities and our communal status—in Wisland’s words—as “long-suffering Timberwolves fans,” we arranged a phone interview.

On February 9th, when Minnesota was dealing with a 17-degree day, I parked my Chevy Malibu south of 6th Street and comfortably strolled in jeans and my favorite blue-checkered short sleeve button-up to the University of Arizona library through the bright, 76-degree Tucson air. I rented a private study room and set myself up with two notebooks for questions and answers respectively. When I dialed, Wisland answered with “That’s a real Minnesotan, 11 o’clock on the dot.” I chuckled and said I was trying to be timely. I started with a Minnesota Nice question, asking how the collection came together. Wisland said he was trying to find a home for these pieces, saw a thread of melancholy among them, and entered the collected essays into the Iron Horse Review chapbook contest. He won, impressing Roxane Gay to blurb:

Melancholy of Falling Men is a meditation, of sorts, on modern masculinity and the Midwest. There is so much ambition and risk-taking in this collection of essays that defy any sort of tidy description. From the first word to the last, these essays will leave you feeling utterly exhilarated and wanting to spend the rest of time roaming through the writer’s mind.

I have to agree with Gay; the collection is solid and made me want to spend some more time with this man’s mind. More recently, I got to meet Wisland face-to-face at AWP in Los Angeles, and I attended an Iron Horse Review reading where Wisland shared two short essays from Melancholy of Falling Men: “Future Weight of This Regret” and “A Crack in the Façade.” The first essay is about witnessing a break-up through a diner window in Tucson and the second a reflection on Wisland’s grandmother while he stood in the San Miniato church in Florence, experiencing an “absence of anxiety, the acceptance of mortality.” It’s interesting to hear a writer’s voice audibly after encountering it on the page, and Wisland’s reading was strong. Afterward, Wisland and I chatted Minnesota and the finer points of ESPN’s film The Fab Five.

But before the face-to-face niceties was our initial interview back in February, and I had one central question for Wisland. I asked what it is about Minnesota that makes us want to talk about masculinity. He thought for a moment, then said:

In general, we don’t have that kind of exuberant masculinity that a New Yorker has or a loud southerner has. When you think regionally, like when you say east-coast hyper-masculinity, I immediately think: Tony Soprano—Italian, Jersey, gold chain. Like a big blaring neon sign saying, “I am a man.” In the Midwest in general, but particularly Minnesota, we’re just not like that. Our masculinity and just our basic nature is so much quieter. Head down. Don’t stand out from the crowd. It’s a cliché, but there is something about that Germanic, Scandinavian quiet. I remember the first time I went to New York just being kind of amazed by how verbose and kind of boisterous people were. The weird thing is now, the older I get, I appreciate that a little more if I think it’s honest. Sometimes I think there can be kind of ridiculous, over-the-top personas. But that New York version in some ways is more honest than the Minnesota version. We have this politeness that we like to congratulate ourselves for, which is true, but it’s also like “I would never outright say that I think I’m a better person than you, but I’ll quietly think that to myself.” Whereas there’s something refreshing about the Tony Soprano type who you know he either likes you or doesn’t like you.

I confess, I haven’t been to New York. I have a kind of Old Testament fear of the city—it’s a mix of respect and a worry that the city would smite my tender, corn-fed nature. But I get what Wisland meant about the honesty of verbosity, and I think he hit on something important: maybe we as Minnesota men scrutinize masculinity because we’re afraid we’re being dishonest. We want to speak up, to discuss what truly makes a man a man.

Personally, I grew up feeling that I needed to remain a boy as long as possible, that one day, without noticing, I would transform from precocious to predator. When I was little, my mother would often roll her eyes at displays of masculinity from my father or other men, and she would turn to me and say, “Don’t grow up to be a man.” She was joking in that way you do when you think a child won’t understand, but I listened. I’m wary of sharing this quote from my mother because I know it hurts her to remember, and I don’t blame my mom for my awkwardness. I bought into the idea behind why she said what she said: that to be a man is to be bad. I’ll own my acceptance of such an attitude. For years I did my level best consciously and subconsciously to sabotage my progression into manhood, yet I became a man anyway. Not in a sudden, werewolf-and-the-moon, Jekyll-and-Hyde moment, but somewhere along the line I at least stopped looking like a boy. Although, even once I identified as grown, I still distrusted and disliked most men, feeling we were the cause of so much evil in the world.
I started to see that there is more to masculinity than aggression or the patriarchy while working with a therapist and reading the book Iron John: A Book About Men, which my therapist recommended. I specifically sought out therapy at the time to try to figure out why I couldn’t “act like a man,” and I asked my dad for help. He suggested that I see his guy, Adam, to at least get a referral for someone else. Adam and I hit it off, and with my dad’s approval, Adam became my therapist too. It also happens that Adam is a Minnesota man who wrote his graduate thesis about the psychology of masculinity. I’m telling you, there’s a pattern here.

Robert Bly, author of Iron John, is a former Minnesota poet laureate, translator, leader of the mythopoetic men’s movement, and generally another Minnesota man writing about masculinity, perhaps the most widely known. In our interview, I asked Wisland if he had read Bly’s book, but he said he hadn’t, though he had heard of Bly. Iron John is an analysis of a German fairy tale of the same name, and Bly uses the story to mine lessons from mythology, psychology, and elsewhere about how we progress from boyhood to manhood. It was an important text for me as I started facing the fact that I am a man.

I thought about how I used to harbor such fear and distrust of men when on the phone with Wisland, and, my Minnesota pride getting the better of my Minnesota politeness, I gently countered his claim, saying that the Minnesota version could be honest, saying that it was a shift in my life when I realized that my dad—who is the stereotype of the stoic, hardworking, Emersonian self-reliant man—was really being himself. For my dad, it wasn’t an act. I couldn’t exactly relate to him, feeling like I was lazy or an emotional creature, comparing my insides to my father’s quiet, composed exterior. It’s weird. I would silently berate other men for being what I typically considered manly, but I would also internally beat myself up for not being man enough. I think that confusion is why I’m interested to hear from other men like Wisland who have similar struggles. But from talking with my therapist who also knew my dad quite well, I started realizing that maybe some men just fit the Minnesota mold. Maybe some men are aloof and manly, and good.

Wisland responded:

My stepdad in particular is exactly that type. The stereotype of the hardworking, honorable Minnesotan. He’s retiring this year, but I mean he graduated high school, started working on the production line of a factory, went to Vietnam for a year, came back. He will have worked for almost fifty years. And I remember he said that, that he has worked full-time for fifty years, and I thought “I am almost the exact opposite.” Recently I started compiling all the jobs I’d ever been fired from. And I realized between age fourteen and forty, I think I only had two jobs that I didn’t get fired from. So I was contrasting that and thinking “How did I grow up in a household with a dad who was so nose-to-the-grindstone and end up being the person who just floated along paycheck to paycheck?”

I laughed. I’ve asked myself similar questions. And Wisland led me to another topic I wanted to discuss with him: humor.

My family, and the Midwest in general, loves dry humor. A deadpan delivery plays into the impassive, quiet persona and both ascribes to and violates that carriage. My mom’s full-blooded Norwegian dad, Ray, had a sense of humor where, if you didn’t know him, you might have to wait for him to crack up to know that he was joking. He would say something he knew would rile up my east-coast uncle, and then Ray would just quietly sit there, looking down with a twinkle in his eye during the ensuing tirade, and he’d shoot a quick glance at me to show he knew what he was doing before busting a gut. Ray was another man who honestly filled the stereotype of the stoic, hardworking Midwestern male—living his whole life in rural Western Wisconsin. Yet he was also an alcoholic and could be very sad at times and very funny at others. I asked Wisland what he thought about the role of humor in masculinity, particularly when feeling melancholy. Wisland said:

Humor is a double-edged sword. You almost need it to get by. Unless you’re one of those people who enjoys the routine of life, humor is almost a necessity to survive. But I suffer from an excess of self-deprecating humor. I’ve realized that I am constantly undercutting myself, and often in professional situations. I’ll make a joke at my expense and think, “That was kind of a stupid thing to say.” I put so much thought when I was younger into getting people to laugh. Someone pointed out to me once that there’s a little bit of the self-defeating clown that seeps in. It’s a self-defensive verbal tick that I have to consciously be aware of, and I’ll actually have this little voice in my head in a pressured moment or professional setting that wants to say something funny to break the tension. I’ll have to put a gag on my interior monologue. And there’s this defensiveness about writing. There’s sort of this idea that writing is not a real job. Even I fall prey to that still, thinking, “Oh, I’m just a slacker. Just stumbling along. Teaching a couple classes.” My parents will say these things with such pride that I’m going to get a Ph.D. And I’ll think, “No, no, no. It’s not a real doctorate.” You know? I have kind of bought into my own self-perpetuating myth that I should feel vaguely guilty for not being an upstanding citizen. Really ought to just give up on this silly dream and get a nine-to-five job.

I can relate. Accurate self-appraisal is difficult, and sometimes that Minnesota politeness can turn into humility as a defense mechanism, self-deprecation to beat others to the punch. It’s like we feel we’ll be cut down if we build ourselves up, so we preemptively cut, which keeps us from standing up straight and taking the blame and the credit when it’s warranted, which again sort of feels dishonest. I guess since I’ve been around these Minnesota, Midwestern types all my life, I feel like I can see when their humility is real and when it’s someone saying what they think they’re supposed to say, like an athlete addressing the media. For the latter circumstance, I know what the person says is scripted, and I cut them some slack for not wanting to air their dirty laundry or step on other people’s toes. But then I also kind of respect the honest, heart-on-their-sleeve reaction of guys like Cam Newton, who was criticized for pouting after the Panthers’ loss in this year’s Super Bowl, because, really, what do we expect from someone who cares enough about winning to make it their living? I suppose that’s where levity and humor come in; humor can keep the withholding nature of a stoic persona from being cold, but humor also prevents full disclosure and sometimes gets used to mask fear or pain.

I also asked Wisland what he thought about the role of melancholy for the modern man, why it seems to be so prevalent:

There is something going on in terms of a kind of sea-change of what it means to be a man over the past thirty years or so. The shriveling up of the American Dream. It’s interesting, yesterday I reread Seymour Krim’s “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business,” which is great, it’s forty-three years old, but it reads like something that you could have written yesterday. It’s basically just talking about how we’ve internalized this open expanse of the American Dream. We’ve internalized the idea that we can be anything, which for a lot of people ends up being kind of a false dream. It’s talking about all the people who wake up one day and they’re forty and they’ve had ten different jobs and ten different things they’ve tried to be. It’s a great piece; I highly recommend it. I was thinking about how that relates to some of the stuff that I’ve written. The long roundabout answer is I think that melancholy is inherently tied into the mourning for all those lost opportunities. Those little mistakes. I think particularly for men of Gen X on up, I think we almost had too much freedom. I look at my dad or my grandfather and think they really had what I would think of as limited choices. And I think, “God, I’m so glad that I grew up with this idea that I could be anything.” But the flipside is that I wasted a ton of time. Trying to figure it out. What do we want to be? I look at my dad, and I envy his seeming lack of existential angst.

This existential angst comes through in many of Wisland’s essays, but it’s particularly strong in “A Generation of Worthless Men.” He opens saying:

Watching and waiting.
Making nothing. Building nothing. Planting no seed.
What do we know?

Wisland then relays the things this generation knows: drugs, dancing, raves, boozing, fucking, profanity, abortion, how to break things, not how to fix things, the horror the horror (like Kurtz) of excessive information via the internet, isolation. These men, thinking of joining the Marines in the era “between Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom,” deciding instead to be artists. “Watching and waiting, wasted and wasting.”

I see in this not nostalgia exactly, not a desire to go back to the way things were. I see a desire for a straightforward purpose and an acquiescence to the complexities of modern living. It’s, as Wisland told me, a mourning for the American Dream. A meditation on the excess of freedom squandered. The fear that it’s your fault, that you’re the problem. It’s honesty. A plea for men to speak and share and improve. I relate deeply with this. We put on the old trappings of a man, but it doesn’t seem to permeate. We feel like pretenders.

In my favorite essay of the collection, “The Flying Lantern,” Wisland slow-motions us through a moment when he watched a man chuck a “mass-produced, faux-gothic porch lantern” into the sky and saw it smash in the middle of the street. In the essay, Wisland recalls sitting at “Bob’s Java Hut on the corner of 27th and Lyndale” in South Minneapolis with his “cool-rooster friends” when the lantern chucking took place. Despite first finding the coffee shop with his then girlfriend, Wisland writes that he stuck around because he was “hungry for the company of men.” Again, I relate. Just one block north, on 26th and Lyndale, I used to spend nights at the CC Club. I partly went to the CC because it’s a quality dive bar with just enough grime and edge to make it cool, but also based on a referral from Slug of the Minnesota hip-hop duo Atmosphere, who says on the song “Aspiring Sociopath,” “Maybe he should just go get a pitcher at the CC. Find a stool at the bar where he can stare at the TV.”

At the CC I drank Jameson and Grain Belt with guys who seemed to have the quiet cool of Minnesota masculinity ingrained in them, and I tried to steal some manliness for myself. I asked Wisland why we surround ourselves with these kinds of men, why we seem to collect them:

At its simplest level for me it was a lot of insecurity about my status as a man. I think it’s funny, I started hanging out at Bob’s Java Hut by accident. It was that a woman I was dating at the time would go there, and then I started hanging out. And I was immediately aware of feeling like I’m on the lower end of the testosterone scale. Sitting there and there’s forty motorcycles parked outside, and lots of leather and chain smoking. And I remember in the late ‘90s sitting there and feeling a little bit like a kid, like I am a little boy among men. I had a couple friends there, one of whom basically held my hand as I got my first motorcycle. And I remember thinking that this guy was like my Han Solo. He was my ticket to this cool world, you know?

I do know. And I think Wisland’s distinction that he felt like a kid or a boy rather than a woman is important. This anxiety around masculinity isn’t about disparaging femininity. It’s about wanting to be confident and wise and mature, to not be a scared little boy. And for some reason we need guides into that mature world. Bly writes in Iron John that such initiation and guidance are exactly what men require to be healthy and happy, and exactly what stunted, angry, aggressive men have missed.

In “The Flying Lantern,” Wisland’s guide was named Darryl, “who sauntered with the confidence of a guy who’s taken his share of hits, who knew he punched above his weight.” One of mine was named Shane. Shane was an east-coast biker, had run in gangs, tattooed up to the ears and down to the knuckles, scrawny but scrappy, chopped his long hair off for a high-and-tight, sustained piercing eye contact, called his drug of choice either crack or “cocaína,” claimed it was what made his goatee prematurely gray.

I met Shane at a men’s recovery meeting, and then again at a Buddhist Twelve Step group in Southern Minneapolis, not too far from Bob’s Java Hut and the CC Club. Shane and I bonded over our desire to stay sober, and our need to be around guys who wanted the same. He invited me to a private men’s meeting he and some friends held. They met at a Thai restaurant called Supatra’s on West 7th Street in Saint Paul, and then rolled on motorcycles or in contractor’s pickups or in Shane’s industrial painter’s van to the basement of a guy who had done years in San Quentin for meditation and sharing.

It was such an interesting set-up because I was a nerdy feelings guy, and these men with all the dressings of bad-asses were also feelings guys. But I remember thinking a few months in, after the first time I cried in front of them, how in active addiction or as kids we probably wouldn’t have hung out. As kids, they would have been the guys skateboarding and riding BMX bikes off jumps they built, and I would have been the guy flailing uncoordinated Pumas at a hacky sack at church youth group. But at this stage in our lives, as we were trying to be grown-ups, honesty and tenderness were valuable. The chains on their wallets, which weren’t just for show, rattled as they hugged me and slipped back on their bandanas and leather jackets. I buttoned my pea coat and oddly felt like I belonged.

For some reason this pull to challenge and reframe masculinity is strong in Minnesota men. Minneapolitan Slug of Atmosphere often raps about what it means to be a man, including the 1997 song “Ode To The Modern Man,” which contains one of Slug’s best lines: “I could fill your head some more with metaphors, some cute catch phrases filtered through accessible themes. But if I don’t stay sincere to love and hate, how do I differentiate between chasing C.R.E.A.M. and chasing dreams?” I feel like Slug is talking about that same fear of dishonesty that Wisland mentioned in our phone call. And both Slug and Wisland seem to err on the side of truth.

Garrison Keillor is a Minnesota institution, and in 1993 he published The Book of Guys. He says, “Years ago, manhood was an opportunity for achievement and now it’s just a problem to be overcome. Guys who once might have painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling are now just trying to be Mr. O.K. All-Rite, the man who can bake a cherry pie, be passionate in a skillful way, and yet also lift them bales and tote that barge.”

Perhaps it all stems from Robert Bly, who gave us Iron John: A Book About Men in 1990, where he says, “The journey many American men have taken into softness, or receptivity, or ‘development of the feminine side,’ has been an immensely valuable journey, but more travel lies ahead.” I think Bly is right: we’re progressing, but we’re not done. We want to be sensitive and honest, but we also want to be grown men. Wisland is embarking on the kind of travel Bly describes, and he’s adding himself to the list of Minnesota men we can turn to for guidance.

Wisland’s Melancholy of Falling Men weaves together the insecurity and thoughtfulness of modern masculinity, disclosing these musings in order to connect to his reader. He’s testing our masculine tropes, trying to filter truth from cloudy waters. I value that Wisland is willing to show his insides so that we don’t have to compare our interiority solely to the stoic exterior of Minnesota men. Near the end of my phone call with Wisland, he said:

People are always telling me there’s still an absence in masculine writing. There are not a lot of male writers who are willing to take big risks. There is an opening for men who are willing to write emotion and write about painful things, for those of us who are willing to lay ourselves bare.


Kirk Wisland’s work has appeared in The Normal School, Creative Nonfiction, DIAGRAM, Paper Darts, Electric Literature, Phoebe, Essay Daily, Bending Genre, Fiction on a Stick, and Proximity. He lives in Athens, Ohio, where he is a doctoral student in Creative Writing at Ohio University.

Caleb Klitzke is new, but he’s giving it hell. He is a nonfiction candidate in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Arizona. Caleb loves Minnesota more than is reasonable to love a patch of land largely defined by the rivers that separate it from other areas.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Blogging oneself out of an essay, Or blogging oneself out of a life: Avijit Roy's last Ekushey Book Fair

Did you get confirmation of the Bangkok-Dhaka flight?  If so, forward the info to me. This portion of your trip still makes me nervous. Mom

Mother’s language arrives only when I can connect to a wireless local area network. For a few weeks, Phnom Penh is my local area. Then the local area pivots. To Kampot, to Battambang, to Bangkok I go, mother’s language apprehending me always. Before my flight to Dhaka, I forward my mother the details:

            FROM BKK
            TO DAC
            FLIGHT BG 0089
            GATE C5
            DATE 21 JAN
            BOARDING TIME 17:40

It is exactly one month before Ekushey February, or International Mother Language Day. While it is a worldwide observance meant to “promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by people of the world,” it stems directly from Bangladeshi history. On this day in 1952, student protestors at Dhaka University were slain as they rallied to promote Bangla to an official state language of the bygone East Pakistan. 

In an email, my correspondent Dr. Fakrul Alam reminds me that my stay coincides with Bangladesh’s largest book fair, the month-long Ekushey Boi Mela. Also known as the Book Fair of Immortals of the 21st, the day is dedicated to those who were martyred by the Pakistan Army. I think of how, when flying to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference each spring—to Chicago, to Boston, to Seattle—I am inevitably seated among other writers. We chat about our lives as writers, about our thoughts on genre, the projects we’re working on, the projects we’re not working on. We muster personal anecdotes about this year’s keynote speaker. At 600 miles per hour, we converge giddily on this conference devoted to the written word.

I wonder if anyone on my flight to Dhaka plans on attending Ekushey Boi Mela. I speak to the man beside me, a contractor from Eastern Europe. “I have directives to build another floor,” he says. He works for his brother-in-law who owns a garment factory. “I have attempted to build,” I had written in the first draft of my aesthetic statement (April 2013), “a narrative about Bangladesh that cannot be found elsewhere.” Two weeks after I submitted my MFA thesis to my mentors, the Savar building collapsed at Rana Plaza, killing 1,130 Bangladeshi garment workers. In Bangladesh, I have attempted to build where there is often collapse.

Green auto-rickshaws with black leather roofs are lined up on the airport’s curb. A driver selects me, clenching my wrist, escorting me to an open cage door. I utter my destination aloud, “Asiatic Society of Bangladesh?” Without affirming whether or not he knows the place, the door clangs shut. Only after he’s accelerated toward the dim megacity, he asks for a snack. “Do you have any chocolate?”

It takes an hour to find the guesthouse. We pass a city sign that forbids public demonstration. There are no words, just a megaphone with a line through it. The driver circles the Shaheed Minar (Martyr Monument) several times. It appears and reappears. Its columns are well-loitered. This is Shaheed Minar at its shabbiest, and it’s not too shabby. In one month, the columns and dais will receive their annual washing.

Bangladesh has an online newspaper you may want to check out: 

It talks of torching of vehicles--not sure if it was bus or train. Bomb threat on a politician's home. Closing of a university because of violence. Please check with… the professor [about] some of these issues in order to ensure your safety.

The Islamic meetings have started (Jan 9-11) and (Jan 16-18). Sounds like this is a religious/congregational meeting, but the number of people is just scary. It is called the Bishwa Ijtema, World or Global Islamic Congregational Meeting.


On my first night, I listen to explosions from my bed. Molotov cocktails screech and burst, landing indiscriminately in vacant bus windows. Elsewhere, groups of protestors lug rubble onto train tracks with hopes of future derailment. Indeed, across the country, men have taken it upon themselves to do the bidding of the opposition leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Khaleda Zia, imposing a nationwide transportation blockade by firebombing buses, lorries, and boats. Zia is confined to her office with security forces forming a cordon at all exits, insisting that she reverse the hartal

As far as I can tell, I am the only visiting scholar staying at the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh. In the bathroom, I fill a mint-green bucket full of cold water and drench myself bowl by bowl. I wash and shiver, noticing that a few floors beneath me a group of university students is playing badminton on a dirt court. The rhythm of their play is comforting. I lean my elbows against the marble edge of the iron-barred windows and air-dry. I watch them for at least an hour, listening to the taut plink of the rackets, listening to their taunting and tallying, to alternating hilarity and exasperation as bombs detonate nearby. One of them shouts at the bombers in Bangla. His response is so automated that it must be idiomatic. He cracks his friends up.

I watch as the teams reconstitute, altering the group's chemistry and revealing the most talented player. He is tall and quiet, his name repeatedly called out: Sahib! Sahib! Sahib! Sahib! I am entirely dry and entirely nude when I hear the security guard ascending the stairs. Wrapping the towel around my waist, I feel like I've been a reverse voyeur. I thank the guard for checking in on me and assure him everything is satisfactory, that I’ll be going to bed shortly. Before visiting with Dr. Fakrul Alam, I reread his last email to me.

As for the protests, I have encountered political unrest of one kind [or] the other for most of my life, and feel that you will have to factor in the unpredictable in any visit to our part of the world, although nothing can affect you adversely for long if you are determined to come! And till now, no foreigner has been attacked in our country's long history of unrest!

I arrive at his apartment on campus, drink tea and eat rice desserts. His wife tells me to tell him he should retire and write a novel of his own, but he deflects. “You should send an excerpt for us to publish in Six Seasons Review.” He leaves the room and returns with a literary journal, Bangladesh’s only one in the English language. “I will send something,” I promise. Before leaving, Dr. Alam draws directions to the nearby (on-campus) grave of Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangladesh.

There are flowers on Nazrul’s grave. I stand alone with the “Rebel Poet.” I am perpendicular to him. _|

I can’t say why, but for those first moments, I suspect his grave is empty. I read to him to prove he is there. Opening the only text I have with me (Six Seasons Review, Volume 1, Issue 2), I read Seema Amin’s line over and over: “Everyone on earth blew the whistle / Everyone on earth blew the whistle / Everyone on earth blew the whistle / Everyone on earth blew the whistle.” When traveling alone, it is a guilty pleasure to inflict my out-loud voice on private pockets of public. Near the end of the issue, I encounter an enigmatic poem by Sudeep Sen that reads: “I am hungry… / for a story essaying endlessly—words.”

Of all the questions asked during my thesis defense, Manuel Muñoz’s was most difficult. “Why fiction?” I realized immediately how I had taken genre for granted. Even as I fabricated the answer, I knew that this was my novel’s biggest flaw: it was not yet an essay.

I know I have found Dhaka University's Jagannath Hall because of the preponderance of bindis and monastic robes. A residentially segregated campus, Jagannath Hall houses all minority (non-Muslim) students. Three Hindu students sit on a concrete wall and gesture for me to join them. Vivek, who has just purchased a guitar, asks if I’ll teach him to play something. I’m not sure how he knows I play guitar. I take hold of his index finger and slide it along the fret board while I pluck the ‘E’ string for him. In no time, he’s playing The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” on his own. I ask if the students if they intend to go to the book fair next week.

Rather than RSVP for himself, one student discusses the possibility that Bangladeshi-American essayist, Avijit Roy, will be in attendance. Roy’s name doesn’t sound familiar to me, but when the student says Mukto-Mono—the name of the secular blog Roy founded in 2000—I become aware of the significance of the student’s comment. After the 2014 book fair, Roy faced death threats; now, this student is speculating about whether or not Roy will return in 2015.

Later that day, I take an auto-rickshaw to Gloria Jean’s Coffee in Gulshan Circle. It is the most reliable local area network I’ve been able to find in the city. I sit among NGO workers and Bangladeshi elite as I read through Roy’s posts on Mukto-Mono. A few months after my trip, the Center For Inquiry publishes an essay in which Roy discusses the Islamic fundamentalist backlash to his book, Biswasher Virus (The Virus of Faith) in an eponymous article:

As soon as the book was released, it rose to the top of the [Ekushey Boi Mela] fair’s best-seller list. At the same time, it hit the cranial nerve of Islamic fundamentalists. The death threats started flowing to my e-mail inbox on a regular basis. I suddenly found myself a target of militant Islamists and terrorists. A well-known extremist by the name of Farabi Shafiur Rahman openly issued death threats to me through his numerous Facebook statuses. In one widely circulated status, Rahman wrote, ‘Avijit Roy lives in America and so, it is not possible to kill him right now. But he will be murdered when he comes back.’

Roy is self-aware of his provocation. For example, he opens the essay with an epigraph from Salman Rushdie, which reads, “Religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms.” Roy explicitly draws upon Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene for metaphorical inspiration. He even goes so far as to compare lines of the Holy Qur’an to the parasite that hijacks a grasshopper’s brain (Spinochordodes tellinii), making it suicidal.

Roy recalls an incident in which the online bookseller,, withdrew Biswasher Virus from its virtual shelf because the same extremist, Rahman, incited his “Islamist friends” to attack Rokomari's office. Roy defends his prose from this unwarranted commercial withdrawal by stating, “Most of my writings deal with modern science and philosophy and include proper references to journals, newspapers, and academic literature.” He echoes Rushdie’s diction by calling Rahman's influence on Rokomari “medieval.”      

At this year’s AWP Conference in Los Angeles, I attended panel F243, “Who Reads Us?”. Deconstructing the panel's title, one panelist dubbed it an existential question, one which we (as writers) must ask ourselves from time to time. My colleague, Nicole Walker, claimed that she renamed her blog "Nikwalk" because she did not want to face professional punity for the original name, which featured the word "butt." "I feared my butt wasn't professional," Walker said. During the Q&A session, my friend Stacy asked the quartet of panelists if they feared they might ever “blog themselves out of an essay.” It was a compelling question, implying 1) how precious, how perishable experiences are to essayists and 2) that the essay has more capital (artistically and professionally) than a blog post.

The book fair sprawls across the grounds of Bangla Academy. With nearly 500 publishing houses in attendance, their stalls overstuffed with new releases and backlist stacks, not to mention the makeshift stages constructed for dialogues between important cultural critics and a placid corner memorializing Nazrul, Ekushey Boi Mela makes the AWP book fair feel comparatively sedate. Because of limited space in my backpack (already stuffed with still-unread books I’d purchased in Cambodia, plus the copy of Six Seasons Review), I limit myself to just one purchase. I stumble around the academy like I’m at the State Fair at the Cal Expo, unsure if I’ve already slalomed this aisle of vendors, or this one. I buy my book: Essays on Ekushey, the Language Movement, 1952. Hugging it to my chest, I yield to throngs of ecstatic readers who ripple taka notes in booksellers' faces. Mehul Kamdar, Avijit Roy’s associate at Mukto-Mono, has written that the biggest impediment to free thinking in Bangladesh is the “major problem of illiteracy which makes it easy for fundamentalists from outside the region to spread hatred and false propaganda. When people cannot read critical texts questioning this propaganda,” Kamdar writes, “they are more easily deluded.” While I know illiteracy persists in rural Bangladesh, I can’t help but think that Dhaka’s month-long love affair with literature is at least an urban antidote. Though it does seem problematic that an individual like Rahman can bully a bookseller like Rokomari into preventing the sale of certain critical texts. 

Before leaving the country, I stalk the rectangular terminals of Zia International Airport, past small prayer rooms, a coffee stall with a massive decal of a Bengal Tiger, and an unmanned bookstore. I read the backs of the books written in English, including one well-stocked title written by a leading Muslim cleric. At this store, I purchase my last book abroad. Edited by Rifat Munim of The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s largest newspaper, Bangladesh in Wikileaks is a compendium of diplomatic cables articulating U.S. policy toward Bangladesh. The cables “generally expose the rife-strewn local political scene. And quite a good number of them lend valuable insights into our political realities,” Munim writes in the introduction. Here, the editor seems to welcome U.S. perceptions of Bangladesh. I read the “Classified” and “Secret” cables, each by each, nearly finishing by the time my flight lands for the layover in Abu Dhabi. Collected together, the cables start to essay. Following Henry Kissinger’s presumption of Bangladesh as a “basket case” (1971), the diplomats of the cables recycle certain political themes, weaving them throughout these files spanning 2004 to 2010. The tone trends toward paranoia with occasional inflections of condescension.

I return to California just before International Mother Language Day. Not long after, I awake to a text message from my mother who informs me (via a link to an article), on February 26th, freethinking essayist Avijit Roy was hacked to death by meat-cleaver-wielding Islamists at the Ekushey Boi Mela. His wife was hacked too, but survived. I feel an incredible weight of grief as I imagine the book fair attendees dispersing from the meditative Nazrul corner. It is five days after Ekushey February, two days before the end of Ekushey Boi Mela. What bothers me most is that the text message itself feels like a casual way for my mother to say, “I told you so.” I also sense she means, This could have been you.

A few days before Roy was slain, Mukto-Mona suddenly went offline in Bangladesh. The blog hackers and body hackers worked in concert to snuff the writer and his words, knowing them to be effectively coextensive.

I reimagine Stacy’s question—not for AWP, but for the makeshift stages of Ekushey Boi Mela. “Are you ever afraid that you might blog yourselves out of a life?” What if the answer to the question of "Who reads us?" is simply: the people who will murder you.

A few weeks after my trip to Bangladesh, Dr. Alam reminds me to send an excerpt of my novel for consideration for Six Seasons Review, and I oblige. On April 9th, the editor responds with two edits. The first is small. “And secondly," he continues, "the editorial board would like to change the spelling of the [novel’s title] to ‘Assalamu Alaykum.'"

I am not one to resist a hard-working volunteer editor, but this was not some small thing. This was about the title of the novel I had been working on for the past four years. I wrote back:

... As for [Asylum Alaykum] vs. [Assalamu Alaykum], the former spelling reflects the title of my novel. It's a lyric double entendre relating to my protagonist's experience with immigration. He arrives in America as a political asylee/climate refugee and is forced to grapple with his Muslim identity… due to American Islamophobia (which drives him mad).

I never hear back from the editor. Instead, an email from Dr. Alam.

Dear Lawrence,

An appeal--please agree to the Arabic spelling for the title. Keep the title for your novel but what we have to worry about in Bangladesh at this point of time is the militancy that can make any change in the Arabic look like an insult. Our publisher, I should add, does not want to get into trouble with fundamentalism. I hope you will understand and allow us this change, although I consider it unfortunate that we have to request you thus.

With all best wishes,

Nazrul once wrote in a quasi-chorus to a poem, “Don’t be afraid, O human soul!”  In a third iteration of her question, I imagine Stacy asking, “Are you afraid it will never be sated: your hunger for a story that essays endlessly?” In a fourth, “Are you afraid, at all, of language?”

Lawrence Lenhart earned his MFA from the University of Arizona. His collection of essays, The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage, is forthcoming from Outpost19 this Fall. His work appears or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly ReviewFourth GenreGuernicaGulf CoastPassages NorthPrairie Schooner, Wag's RevueWestern Humanities Review,, and elsewhere. He is a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM and a professor of fiction and creative nonfiction at Northern Arizona University.