It’s July: we’ve crossed the halfway point in the calendar year, and we’re in the thick of all that summer is. This week, let’s write a little ode to July, and what it brings.
Qi Wei Fong, Exploded Flower Red Garbera, from Exploded Flower series. Photograph. www.fqwimages.com
Colin Blakely, Recollection of the Battles Fought Maintaining the Home Front, from Somewhere in Middle America series. Photograph. www.colinblakely.com
Helena Wurzel, Poolside, 2014. Oil on canvas. www.helenawurzel.com
I’m spending the summer reading books that aren’t by straight white American males. It’s actually really easy! And it’s been fun to consciously steer my brain around and do research on authors. Here’s what I’ve finished so far.
Imperial Woman by Pearl S. Buck (John Day, 1956)
This is the kind of book HBO could be making into a show. Imperial Woman is full of sexual politics, invading armies, portentous omens, and moral quandaries. However, it’s also full of female agency, three-dimensional antagonists, and the consequences of violence.
Imperial Woman is based on the life of China’s last Empress, Tsu Hsi. Faced with a dying emperor, a corrupt son, an internal rebellion, and aggressive European and American invaders, she balances carefully between alliances and betrayals in order to keep her empire and their culture intact. Throughout it all, Tsu Hsi remains an admirable (if not always likable) character.
Through it all, a range of femininities are shown: caring mothers, ruthless politicians, gentle lovers, and everything in between. Despite this, Tsu Hsi and those around her constantly worry over her status as a woman. Advisors tell her that she’s too smart to be a woman, and she wonders if her aggression and decisiveness place her somewhere between a man and a woman. As traditions crumble under foreign assault, though, the empress doesn’t retreat to a traditionally feminine role (even if she yearns to). She sticks with the choices she’s made.
Which isn’t to say that Tsu Hsi is a victor or a purely noble protagonist. She fights dirty, she acts on false information, and there are times when she’s purely hurtful. But she carries on, and she reassesses her standards, and at her best, she tries to live for others. Imperial Woman ends up describing a life similar to the ones I see around me.
All That’s Left by Maggie Eighteen (Metropolarity, 2014)
All That’s Left is a collection of short, interconnected fiction that the cover calls a prototype packet. The stories focus on a cast of dystopian cyborgs, skipping through time and across POV characters. Despite the physical dangers implicit in the setting—science gone awry, class warfare, dwindling resources—Eighteen rarely dwells on (or even shows) them. It’s the fallout from these dangers that matter. Characters acknowledge these troubles, but there’s an acute focus on the emotional work the characters do to maintain their identities and relationships. Eighteen’s dialogue comes out like a fencing match or a shootout but with one key difference: all of the characters have been traumatized, and no one wants to “win” these battles. Unlike so much science fiction where physical victory equals moral victory, the characters of All That’s Left only win when consensus is reached.
The prototype packet is a format I’d like to see more of. The stories are acknowledged as works in progress (and they can all be read online), and I think it’s important for writers to have an arena to drift around their ideas and create iterations. There are certainly a few textual tics I’d massage in the next draft—for instance, an abundance of adverbs (“he smiled nervously”) instead of just showing a character is nervous—but the prototyping allows Eighteen to create discussion around All That’s Left and decide which parts of the prose are bugs and which are features.
Videogames for Humans by Merritt Kopas (editor) (Instar Books, 2015)
This is a hefty book full of annotated playthroughs of Twine games. (Twine, for those who don’t know, is a programming language for text-based games.) I can envision a lot of potential layout issues with a project like this, but the book is clear and easy to follow; the games’ texts are reproduced well and clearly set off from the reviewers’ texts.
Kopas draws games from across genres, and the people playing them are likewise from different industries and backgrounds. While readers might come to Videogames for Humans to celebrate games, it also works as a celebration of criticism. The approaches to interacting with the games are manifold. Some are minimal, like watching a movie with a friend—side comments and a short wrap-up at the end.
Other playthroughs are much more detailed and much more structured. In Naomi Clark’s look at Horse Master, she shoves her hands deep in the mechanical workings of the game. It’s never dry, though—in fact, it brilliantly mirrors the unfurling of the setting and story of Horse Master.
In juxtaposing such a range of approaches in interacting with games, Videogames for Humans validates all of them. Different games work better for different approaches, and there could be games out there for everyone—for all the humans.
Do you ever put limits on your pleasure reading? How do you make yourself branch out from what you’re used to?
Hello, Monday. Or rather, goodbye Monday. I’m calling it a day already, and hanging up my sign: Gone Fishing. Join me?
Katie Kehoe, Fishing at PS1 Contemporary, Long Island City, NY, 2010. Performance art. www.katiekehoe.com
Unknown illustrator, Meiji period (mid-19th century). Japanese book cover design, lithograph.
G.C. Clutton, Ethel King colouring a mounted specimen of a Queensland Groper, 1926. Photograph. Australian Museum, Sydney, Australia.
I’ve had this book on my shelf, waiting to be read for a long time now. Part of that waiting was because I have a never-ending pile of books to read, but I also think part of me wondered if I could relate to a book about pregnancy, when I have never been myself. The verdict? I’m happy I finally picked it up to read.
Nestuary isn’t quite a poem, yet isn’t straight prose — it’s hybrid form of lyric essay in fine form. Sutton Kiefer needles at the acts of becoming and being pregnant to childbirth from countless angles, both in reality with pills and doctor appointments and an unwanted C-section; but also in the format of her prose. This is the weapon she knows best: language, mythology, and poetry. The changing form throughout makes the sometimes difficult subject matter easier to digest and relate to. Some sections are written as straight prose; an account of a doctor’s visit, an explanation of PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome). Other sections read more like standard poems; some are formatted as imagistic snapshots labelled “fig 1″ and “fig 2″; yet others are formatted as dictionary entries:
n. doctor tells patient, pointing to the screen: chocolate chips in a cookie
adj. this seems too domestic
n. distended with air, elongated capsules
n. a crypt; a cul-de-sac or lacuna
n. botany: a dry seed pod, splitting at maturity only along the front of the suture, as in larkspur or milkweed
n. a crypt; a cul-de-sac or lacuna
v. altered: two centimeters or more and it morphs in name; see cyst
Origin: a shell, a bag, a day at the beach. A ship passing into port, a barrel of wine, an elongated telescope, a shoulder, a name whispered into the night.
Sutton Kiefer doesn’t spare any details. This isn’t a pretty pregnancy story, or an easy one. It’s about shy ovaries, morning sickness, and the wonderment/disgust with the human body. Shame and failure of the female body is a reoccurring theme that Sutton Kiefer grapples with, telling another narrative of pregnancy not so often told in mainstream narratives. (In the second section of the book, she even tells other traumatic birthing stories of women who died giving birth, whose bodies were kept alive just long enough to deliver their babies.)
In choosing to tell this narrative, to put all the vulnerabilities and questions and difficulties of her pregnancy out in the world with this book, Sutton Kiefer is opening her arms and creating a support system for other women and their partners who experience similar challenges in their pregnancies.
Sutton Kiefer isn’t alone even in the pages of her book. Of course there is her husband, ever patient with his “infinite tolerance”. Yet the writer is also accompanied by a collection of literary companions: Greek mythology is used as often as medical terminology, which is used as much writerly references to Sharon Olds, Naomi Wolf, Gillian Conoley, and many more.
Failure begets shame, a kind of powerful, pumping horror. I needed hope, curled against me.
Camille Roy writes, “The relation fo baby to body will be ripped apart and then organized by shame.”
Toi Derricotte writes, “I couldn’t tell where my shame ended and his life began. It was as if my body betrayed me, became evidence against me.”
I felt I had wronged her, somehow. This wasn’t supposed to be our story, was it?
As I read, post-birth, swaddled in absorbent pads that could engulf my newborn’s diapers, my body weeping with fluids, the doctor pushing a cotton swab into my deeply infected Cesarean scar, I discovered I wasn’t alone.
The book is divided into three sections; the first is mostly pre-pregnancy, the second is the pregnancy and birth, and the final is largely post-birth of both of her children. Yet despite this chunking of phases, the prose doesn’t necessarily follow a linear path. The book is more of an immersion into the fluid experience and reflection, a comprehensive and holistic depiction rather than a straight narrative. This is one of the reasons the book worked for me; the format fits the experience, and allowed me as a reader to be in that experience next to Sutton Kiefer, if only for moment.
In the end, Sutton Kiefer shifts from the “failures” of her body pre-pregnancy, to learning the everyday truth of how essential she and her body is to the very existence of her children. The following passage towards the end talks about nursing, and the challenges surrounding her son and daughter’s need for her:
This, my liquid gold. It’s hard to feel this way—valuable—as I listen to my daughter wail upstairs; I have disrupted the family bed. I feel selfish—all three are waiting for my return. What if I stayed down to write this, or, better yet, what if I walked out that door, into the streetlight, naked as I am?
In Nestuary, Sutton Kiefer continually puts herself out in the open, naked and honest about the disgusting, amazing, defeating, awe-striking process of creating, giving birth to, and raising children. She tells a brave narrative, one that sits in my belly contentedly digesting, not because of it’s beauty or perfection, but because of how it finds poetry in the muck of reality.
What other writers have written powerful (and necessary) alternate narratives, departing from mainstream messages of pregnancy, or other experiences?