Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Steve Woodward on Margaret Lazarus Dean & the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize

“Say the words out loud: Cape Canaveral. Say them in JFK’s voice, in John Glenn’s voice, in Walter Cronkite’s voice. The very syllables connote rockets and bravery, the countdown to zero, heroes in helmets, banks of inscrutable computers.” This was how Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight, Margaret Lazarus Dean’s book on the Shuttle era, announced itself to me as I trawled the submissions for the nonfiction prize. This was an opening that stood out for its confidence. The imperative in the first line immediately signaled that Dean had a passion for her subject—human spaceflight—and wasn’t afraid to let me know it.

I was intrigued with the proposal for the book not only because of this directness and passion but also because of the way she approached her subject: to put it simply, she was obsessed. And not only with tracing the history of spaceflight and of the closing days of the shuttle era in particular but also with those early chroniclers of spaceflight, Norman Mailer in particular. Dean was interested in how the rise of New Journalism dovetailed with our early forays into space. Even more important, she was haunted by the question of what it meant that the shuttle program was coming to an end. That kind of passion, that dedication to craft and subject, was clear to reviewers as well. The New York Times called Leaving Orbit “wonderfully evocative,” and said of Dean that she “writes with the passion of a lifelong lover of space exploration and an ability to communicate, with tremendous kinetic power, the glory and danger of its missions.”

The Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize exists for these kinds of writers: those who want to engage with the nonfiction form, to test its limits, and to see what it might hold. For Dean, that meant engaging with a tradition, asking questions that hadn’t been asked before. For other writers, that might also mean stylistic innovation, or formal experimentation. It looks different for every writer, and each year the nonfiction prize winners continue to redraw the lines of what is possible. Writers like Leslie Jamison, Kevin Young, Eula Biss, and Ander Monson have each been in a dialogue with what came before—reaching back toward the origins of their chosen form and yet still reaching forward for something new.

The nonfiction prize came about in part because Graywolf Press wanted to encourage writers interested in essayistic writing. That is, not just essays themselves, but nonfiction of all types that contained writing that was questing—always searching for the limits of the known. Writing that dares to act as discovery is in some ways always finding itself, and we love to be surprised by fresh approaches to a subject, a finely honed style, or great storytelling, whether in essay, memoir, or narrative nonfiction. The prize is also intended to support writers who are still fresh to the genre, or perhaps haven’t tried their hand at nonfiction before.


This year, submissions for the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize are open through Sunday, January 31, 2016. The prize, which comes with a $12,000 advance and publication by Graywolf, is awarded to the most promising and innovative literary nonfiction project by a writer not yet established in the genre. The winner will work closely with an editor to develop the project into a finished manuscript. Complete contest guidelines are available here. Before submitting your manuscript for the prize, please look at the books previously published as winners of the prize—Leaving Orbit, The Empathy Exams, The Grey Album, Notes from No Man’s Land, and more—for examples of the type of work that we are seeking. These are some of the writers, after all, that your own work will be in conversation with. And it is very much a conversation, an ongoing dialogue of our own making. As John D’Agata says in the introduction to his latest anthology, The Making of the American Essay: “Let the essay be what we make of it.”


Steve Woodward is associate editor at Graywolf Press and the coordinator of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. He teaches at Sierra Nevada College and lives in Minnesota.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Maya L. Kapoor on Helen Macdonald: M is for Mosquito

M is for Mosquito

A small paperback, H is for Hawk fits in most bags. For a time it turned up in my purse, my plane carry-on, my backpack, after I packed for some task or trip and it occurred to a secret part of my brain that I might want to bring those strong, durable, well-wrought sentences along too. I steadily attempt to foist this book upon friends and acquaintances. It’s not just the sentence-level craft that explains why I’ve read it three times since its 2014 publication. In a Salon interview about H is for Hawk—a book reviewers and sellers have been hard pressed to categorize easily by genre—Helen Macdonald says, “I think grief shatters narratives, and that’s what I was trying to do.”

H is for Hawk
has been described in reviews as “genre-defying, “nearly feral,” a “misery memoir.” It also has been described as environmental writing. I dislike environmental writing. In short literary biographies I identify myself as an environmental writer. My genre confusion stems from my problems with writing that valorizes a particular relationship with place. For centuries writers have interpreted the wild in ways that reaffirm their beliefs about themselves and their worlds. These interpretations have brought wonder, adventure, solace to countless readers. They’ve also hurt people—women, communities of color, and other marginalized groups—by imagining them, their stories, right off of the land.

In Macdonald’s book, environmental writing means something different. Macdonald does not write nature as paradise lost, nature as spiritual journey, nature as adversary. She writes the city park. The stubbled farm field. The thorned brambles. The wild places she encounters while flying her goshawk, Mabel. One evening, as Macdonald walks home with Mabel, she encounters a retired couple she knows. They chat about the lovely landscape, the herd of fallow deer that have just fled across the chalk landscape below into the forest. The kindly-seeming older man asks her, “Isn’t it a relief that there’s still things like that, a real bit of Old England still left, despite all these immigrants coming in?” The deer were introduced by the Romans, but that’s not what disturbs her about the man’s comment.

Old England is an imaginary place
, she writes.


I read H is for Hawk for the first time at a biological field station in northern Arizona. Outside, hummingbirds zipped between pine trees growing above tawny grasses. At night I read by light of my headlamp in my sleeping bag on the bottom bunk of a knotted pine bed in the corner of the women’s quarters. At lunchtime, on warmer days, I scooted a plastic chair into the sun and read through my sunglasses. Shotgun-peppered road signs. Air-delivered nukes inside grassy tumuli. Wet fens and parched sands. Halfway through the first page, which is all one paragraph. Nothing much has happened. Macdonald’s describing a landscape she loves. I’m tangled in her grassy tumuli. I look up tumuli.

I’d traveled to the field station to write for a few weeks. I was writing about desert organisms, but the inferno where I lived—Tucson in the summertime—made it difficult for me to want to have anything to do with the desert. What’s more, the uninvited organisms inside my home—mosquitoes—were driving me crazy. Adding insult to injury, one of my essays in desperate need of revision was about mosquitoes. I was out of ideas. I’d done the right things: observations, interviews, historic and current research. The interviews included one with a renowned expert on climate change and mosquito-borne disease epidemiology. The observations were acute, personal, bloody. The research was thorough, including both moldering personal journals by famous explorers in mosquito-infested tropical jungles and academic papers on modern-day globalization and disease transmission. I studied The Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence. I wrote about the slave trade. I wrote about my apartment. The essay was a shambles. I’d run out of things to say, but all I’d really said was: Mosquitoes were driving me crazy, and they’d driven some other people crazy a while back, too. And, in case you were wondering, if you lived in Tucson you probably wouldn’t get dengue fever.

Tucson, in its own way, is an imaginary place. Tucson’s identity politics are complex. In writing about mosquitoes, and in other essays, I delved deep into local history. Who imagined the Tucson where I lived? Whose story did I tell when I wrote about Tucson in one way and not another? Whose stories were impossibly tangled with that of the mosquito?

Still, I could find no resonance from which to build an essay about mosquitoes—until I read Macdonald’s meditation on falconry. Questioning the meaning that rare animals can have for humans, when all they are associated with is rarity, Macdonald explains that interacting with Mabel makes the hawk real for her in a way that wild creatures are not. I did not experience a paradigmatic shift in my compassion levels for mosquitoes after reading this. But I did consider what mosquitoes could mean to me in the larger framework of my life. I thought about the past few years of my life, chronic illness, an inability to leave town, a garden overrun by mosquitoes, confusion about how to make contact with unpaved landscapes. I searched an invasive bloodsucking species in an urban desert environment as a clue into the most tender truths of my life. And then I revised again.


Maya L. Kapoor holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona and an MS in biology from Arizona State University. She is writing a collection of essays about nature in the urbanizing West.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Nora Almeida: Moscow


People are lost to velocity.
                        -Bernard Cooper, Futurism

Because my father is in Moscow, I am no longer able to see him. Of course, I reason, he is really no more remote than he was during the difficult years of my adolescence when we lived under the same roof. Or during the decade he spent in the small, dilapidated house in Molokai, Hawaii, which I had visited and knew. And I do see him, when he comes “home” (as he still calls it) once a year, in the confines of the New England suburb where I grew up—a place where my father and his life are wholly imaginable. The trouble is Moscow, as strange to me and as removed from time as the moon is.

A place which composes itself now as a strange amalgam of video footage from the 1969 Apollo landing, static (or is it snow?), a Soviet flag, a little doll inside of another little doll inside of a spacesuit, the smell of winter, and a Dostoevsky staircase—coiled like a conch.

“What’s Moscow like?” I asked my father on the telephone when he first moved there.
“It’s cloudy today,” he said, “probably 50 degrees, warmer than I expected. It rains a lot but it isn’t raining now.”

“No, dad. Not the weather, the city. What’s the city like?”

“Oh. It’s a big city but it feels different than New York,” he said, “older, more spread out.” “People here…” my father paused and I could almost see him, squinting as though trying to make out an image more clearly, “ride bicycles on the sidewalk.”

“Oh, yes,” he continued, remembering something, “I keep getting lost but I’ve invented a new system for reading Russian signs.”

“You’re learning Russian, you mean?”

“No. I just think of a word in English that the Russian names remind me of. Like the name of the subway station near the Embassy reminds me of the word ‘barracuda’ and I have a map that I write the English words on.”

I google “metro station near the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.” The station is called Баррикадная or anglicized, Barrikadnaya. Barracuda.

As he talks, I conjure up ornate facades, iron windows, a lonely garret, gilded stitching on the hem of a dress. On Google Maps, which are censored in Russia, Moscow is shaped like an oyster upon which my father, a superimposition or a virtual pin, stands among paper snowflakes, Tsvetaeva’s golden headed churches, the glint of foreign syllables, disembodied leg of a dancer, waterways, battlements, and a puffed up soviet chest.

Moscow, where my father lives in 1916 along a hillside.

“Moscow!” people say, “what on earth is your father doing there?”

“Plumbing,” I say, as I picture him in the basement of some bell tower rapping on a copper pipe, “but I can’t imagine what else.”

Though I do imagine him, imperceptivity aged since I saw him last September, wearing an old coat, perched on the banks of the Moskva, leaning into the wind. He is smiling because he is being photographed and because he is surrounded by a language he doesn’t understand, as always, a little harsh, tuft of breath, visible, it is cold, and his large callused hands are holding his camera out to a stranger, a Russian man. “Photo?” my father says indicating the button. “I speak English,” the stranger says and it is likely enough. Then my father doesn’t say anything, he just grins until his face hurts. And until the flash goes, he is frozen and imaginable, a real man in an unreal city.

I sometimes worry that my father, now that he is in Moscow, is becoming less real.

“Yes,” my mother confirmed when she learned that he was moving to Russia, “it is obvious that he has abandoned reality altogether.“

Consider the ontology of reality, not just of words, father, to use a recent example, but being itself. The fatherness of my father. What exactly constitutes that?

“Your father,” my mother calls him, as though he belongs to me.

It occurs to me that as my father perhaps I am responsible for maintaining his reality in some way. I wonder if I should consult my sister in order that we might form a more objective father, one whose reality is enforced by the two of us.

Other times, I decide that my real father belongs to the past. It is true that lately, when I see my father, I often don’t recognize him. My real father has coal black hair and wears work boots and drives fast with the windows open.

Certainly, he is not also this old man whom I meet at the Port Authority bus station with gray hair and an old backpack, who mutters to himself and doesn’t watch the traffic when we start across the intersection.

“I’m moving to Russia,” my father announced suddenly on the telephone one afternoon. He was in Hawaii, where it was still morning, and I was walking through downtown Brooklyn on my way home from my job at the library.

“What?” I said, “why?”

“Moscow.” He said with some definitiveness, “I always wanted to travel.”

“Moscow,” I repeated.

It occurred to me that my father was returning to some fork that he had seen in the road of his own life, before he was my father. It wasn’t a do-over exactly, but it was, perhaps, his last chance at a futurity not prescribed by the life he had led thus far, a life, instead, informed by an image of the person that he thought, as a young man, that he might someday like to become. All of this knotted up in the memory my father has now of the aspirations of his younger self. Perhaps the fork only visible from this present vantage. But regardless, the idea being: to travel, back, to the fork, and then forward, as though we, my mother, my sister, Hawaii, all of it, had never really happened.

Futurity, a term wrapped up in both idealism and death, is the precept that underlies fiction, a product of imagination that informs and is informed by the past. “Futurity…what we are to be, determined by what we have been,” wrote Horace Smith, a nineteenth century British poet and parodist of Lord Byron. Contemporary literary theorist, Amir Eshel, characterizes the “various expressions of futurity” in literature as modes of “redescript[ion]” and ways of processing and giving shape to history.

Eshel cites Kafka’s “Little Fable” as a quintessential example of the kind of existential conundrum—the choice between being stuck or swallowed—that precludes futurity.

"Alas," said the mouse, "the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into."

    "You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and ate it up.

To lose sight of futurity is to confront the hopelessness of the inevitable (ie. death), and to reside in a place (or a time, rather) where the past can’t be made meaningful and “the future, that reliable horizon, might be forever lost.”

Futurity is also the title of a contemporary musical in which, “two people try to imagine their way out of impossible circumstances.” Set simultaneously in 1864 and 2015, the narrative centers upon a highly fictionalized Ada Lovelace—the visionary British mathematician and daughter of Lord Byron—and Julian Monroe, a wholly fictional American civil war soldier. During the course of the musical, Julian and Ada invent a machine they call the steam brain. The machine is the product of pure mathematics, is morally neutral, and has the capacity to imagine—but not quite perpetuate—an alternative, peaceful future.

The steam brain becomes an improbable beacon, a technological singularity, and a metaphor upon which the future of civilization hinges.

There’s a fiction that folds all my failures and frailties into powerful triumphs of will. Julian sings of a past reconstituting itself.

There’s no problem not solved by the twist of a nob, Julian sings, in 1864, in 2015, amid the echoes of an occasion we cannot rise to.

Our family was a late adopter of the PC. Too expensive, my father thought. My mother was worried we would stop playing outside and when we finally got one, in 1996, an ancient Dell with dial-up, I was disappointed when nothing drastic happened.

But slowly information trickled in, like sand, gently pulling apart geography. Or perhaps it was time? Replacing all the people I’ve ever known with photographs, dates, facts. On the other side of this screen: my father on holiday in Siberia, land of disappeared persons, on the banks of the Baikal, a bottomless lake, waving.

“We could skype, dad,” I’ve offered, picturing him at the computer plucking out letters with two index fingers; he’s still never really learned to type.

“Hello, Nora,” my father says into my answering machine, “is this a bad time?”

A singularity pulses in the night sky and my mother, in New England, returns to her dark, empty house.

Here, in Brooklyn, in the library, I am peering into the corners of the internet. At this fork where the past and the future intersect, obliterating the present. Where everything is possible and nothing is actually happening.

And you will rise, happened of / wonderpowers, Tsvetaeva writes in her Poems for Moscow.

“It isn’t real,” my mother insists, in a conversation about our lives online. “Algorithms, all of your personal information floating around out there. I don’t know, it just doesn’t feel like actual life.”

What does it mean that these conversations never really happened? That I need to redescribe the past this way. And that these exchanges feel more honest than what really happened: silence, a slow erosion, resentment, then the vacuum of Moscow.

From my hands—take this city not made by hands, Tsvetaeva writes.

Is this the future we imagined? Or perhaps the façade of one? Filtered and gilded, almost real but not quite.

Hi Nora, my dad writes in a rare text message, how are you? It’s been more than 2 months since we’ve spoken.

And then,

Been thinking of you, the
Russian government is
working hard at
controlling and
restricting information
and media (in a different w
ay so does ours). Not to
mention the internet
biggies and their pre-
selected “news”
Libraries are more
important than ever.
Keep up the fight! Love,

I wonder how to respond. Not because I don’t have anything to say but because my father would never write this. But he has, I remind myself, he just did.

“Is morality made of information?” Ada asks Julian in 1864, in 2015.

Is reality?

By the end of the musical, Ada and Julian have finished building the steam brain and the civil war soldiers, all dead, are part of it—victims of futurity. Or recast in light of it: illuminated and in motion.

And I was in the second row, inert, in the dark. Watching the present imagine the past imagine the future.

And today I am here, on the internet, in my apartment in Brooklyn, imagining my dad in dirty coveralls in the belly of a government building in Moscow, his hands black from grease and almost indistinguishable from the boiler he’s fixing.

What would I say to him if I were standing beside him now? I wonder if he would be happy to see me or if he would even recognize me.

And if I would still be myself, or if anyone is, in Moscow

Nora Almeida is a writer and a librarian. Her work has appeared in The Normal School, Diagram, No Dear, Caketrain, and other journals. She lives in Brooklyn.


Eshel, Amir. Futurity: Contemporary Literature and the Quest for the Past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

“Futurity.” The Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 12 Nov 2015.

The Lisps. Futurity. 2012. MP3.

Tsvetaeva, Marina. “from Poems for Moscow.” Dark Elderberry Branch. trans. Ilya Kaminsky, and Jean Valentine. Farmington, Me: Alice James Books, 2012. Print.