Tag Archives: reading

Reading and Road Trips

Crested ButteTwo weeks ago, I graduated from UNL with a Master’s degree in English. It is the result of two years of reading, writing, and writing about what I read. More importantly, I had the pleasure of spending time with the friends and colleagues I worked with this past year. To celebrate the end of the semester and our program, several folks in my graduate cohort took a vacation by driving from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Crested Butte, Colorado, for a weekend next to a river. Soon, we will scatter and go our separate ways, and the slice of time we gave one another without responsibility, without the need to work for someone else, without tasks to fulfill, was a small slice of heaven (which is, as we all know, a place on Earth).

Right now, I have a summer of road trips planned ahead of me. I have been accepted into the MFA program at the University of Idaho, in Moscow (the fun Moscow). I’ll be driving there from Lincoln soon with part of my family, then through Montana and Idaho to visit a variety of relatives, then back to Flagstaff, Arizona, before driving back to Montana and Idaho a month later. I’ll be spending a lot of time in a car.

When a handful of English Majors go on a road trip, they take books with them, and for me it’s always been that way. As long as I can remember, I’ve taken long road trips every summer from Arizona across the Rockies to Montana, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and California, and I’ve always taken a book with me. One summer, I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Another summer, I read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. On this most recent road trip, I read The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara, and to continue my step in the left direction through summer reads, I think I’ll take along Terrorism and Communism by Leon Trotsky, which I hear is a pleasant beach read.

I’ve spent the last two years reading more books than I expected, various novels, historical texts, books on theory, books on the Russian Revolution of my own volition, craft essays, and several Nigerian plays. It is telling that, on my first break from grad school, I continued to read. The same is true of my friends who went to Crested Butte.

I have a lot going on this summer, much to look forward to and much to fear. I could blog about going to a new graduate program in creative writing or the college-industrial complex after surviving it for two more years or moving to a new state again. But right now the only things I want to do are read and spend time (reading) with my friends. I even hear talk of a Kafka/Marxist reading group in the making.

-jk

All the Great Writers I Don’t Want to Be

Stay in Designated AreaNaturally, writers compare authors’ works to one another. This is useful in workshops, reviews, and literary criticism, and I think it’s inevitable. Writer friends of mine draw inspiration from Ernest Hemingway, others from Cormac McCarthy, and others from detective fiction, and I can see this inspiration in their writing, not as plagiarism but as influence.

More and more, stories I’ve written have been compared to writers I have never read. At a recent conference reading, my nonfiction was compared to Stephen Wright and George Saunders, and I had to embarrassingly admit that I was unfamiliar with their work. Multiple friends, whose opinions I love and respect, have compared my prose to that of David Foster Wallace, another I have never read.

To my surprise, nothing I’ve written has ever been compared to those who inspire me. Maybe that’s a good thing. I know the writers I love, but peers haven’t identified that influence, even when I’ve quite consciously imitated their styles.

My earliest literary influence was Douglas Adams, whom I read in middle school and spent the next four years mildly stealing from. I’ve also been inspired by Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Lately, I’ve found inspiration in short story collections like Monique Proulx’s Aurora Montrealis, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, and Pamela Painter’s The Long and Short of It. I also draw inspiration from John Steinbeck and David Eagleman, who blend science, philosophy, and fiction, and the science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke. Tiphanie Yanique’s How to Escape from a Leper Colony never ceases to inspire me, and neither does Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.

It’s not that I want to be compared to these writers. Such a request would be too pretentiously egocentric, even for the pretentious ego-driven beast I so obviously am. But I am surprised.

I’m also distraught by the frequency with which my work is compared to David Foster Wallace. I don’t want to be compared to yet another depressed white male author who died by suicide, because it’s too close to home for me. What will I get from a writer I’m apparently so similar to? If I read Infinite Jest and hate it, what will that say about my own writing? Even worse, what if I love it without question? I want what I read to challenge my style, not reinforce it.

Was David Foster Wallace a perfectionist like me? Did he worry that he would die without making an impact, like me? Did he secretly resent himself for being a writer because such a profession requires both ego and humility, both of which are difficult for an introverted perfectionist to simultaneously possess, like me? I don’t know. I don’t want to know.

I also don’t want the comparisons to stop, because I want my friends and colleagues to be honest about my work. But so many comparisons to a writer that some of my heroes love and others hate has made me want to avoid reading anything by DFW. I can’t change what others see in my writing, but I know what writing I find pleasure in, and so far I find the most pleasure in being surprised. Maybe I’ll sit down and chug through Infinite Jest, but it won’t be anytime soon.

-jk

Regional Writers in a Globalized World

pen

“When I speak of writing from where you have put down roots, it may be said that what I urge is ‘regional’ writing. ‘Regional,’ I think, is a careless term, as well as a condescending one, because what it does is fail to differentiate between the localized raw material of life and its outcome as art. ‘Regional’ is an outsider’s term; it has no meaning for the insider who is writing about life.” -Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story

When I write, I try to pay close attention to where I write and where I’m writing about. My nonfiction so far has focused on Arizona and the American West, where most of my life has occurred. But I had never thought of myself as a regional writer until a nonfiction instructor encouraged me to look into my university’s Place Studies program. I don’t think of myself as a regional writer, but I can understand how someone could read the hundreds of stories I’ve written about how great Flagstaff is and think I’m a regional writer.

I’m guilty of this too. From my vantage point, Ted Kooser, Mohsin Hamid, Eudora Welty, and Michelle Cliff are regional writers because they focus on places (Nebraska, Lahore, the American South, Jamaica) which I have few, if any, firsthand experiences with.

Eudora Welty offers a more useful observation when she writes, however briefly, about the perspective of the insider. She points out that the term “regional writing” is useful only for readers who are outside the writer’s perspective. Decades after she penned those words, the literary community has become wholly global, working in physical and online spaces. No one writer’s insider perspective is independent of outside influences.

Globalization’s consequences are rapidly becoming more visible for those who do not experience it directly. Climate change, free trade agreements, military investments, and world trade organizations force more and more people to emigrate. Similar forces are behind the reactionary anti-immigration ideologies that have proliferated or, more accurately, become more active again. Many writers are aware of this fact; many writers and even more readers are immigrants or the children of immigrants. One of the limits of defining writers regionally is that, more and more, literature is transnational.

Sometimes readers refuse to acknowledge this. Sometimes readers use their lack of experience with a given writer’s region as an excuse to exoticize and categorize. Doing so risks reinforcing a kind of literary colonial gaze, making a spectacle of subaltern writers for the colonial center to consume and monitor, shelving authors based on place of origin (nationality, immigration status, religion, race, ethnicity) rather than subject matter, genre, or form. Again, I have also been guilty of shelving authors this way.

More than ever, literature is a transnational affair. Many writers have inherited a multitude of regions. Their lived experiences, their insider perspectives, often reflect the broad expanse of roots these writers claim.

Eudora Welty adds that “whatever our place, it has been visited by the stranger, it will never be new again. It is only the vision that can be new; but that is enough.” If this is true, then no truly regional writer exists. In a globalized world, no region is isolated enough for a writer to inhabit it independently.

This is not to suggest the literary community is a global village or that writers should act as free-floating clouds. I could not have written Fatimah Asghar’s wonderful poem “If They Should Come for Us” or Ted Kooser’s collection The Blizzard Voices or Reyna Grande’s memoir The Distance Between Us or Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist or any of the hundreds of short stories and essays published in 2017 so far by authors both rooted and rootless. I cannot write to inhabit another person’s space; to do so is to be a tourist because I can return to the safety of my own region the moment it becomes convenient. It is better, as Welty implies, to write from the murky inside I inhabit now, not for an outsider’s diet but for the global readership that any published work has the potential to reach.

-jk


Welty, Eudora. The Eye of the Story. Vintage International, 1990.

Getting Over the Beats

on-the-road

“We’re all golden sunflowers inside, bae.” -Allen Ginsberg, probably

In high school, I took a creative writing elective, and the teacher assigned numerous Beat Generation authors. We read sections of Dharma Bums and “Howl” and numerous Jack Kerouac poems. It turns out that the influence of the Beats on a youngboredsmallwhitemale is that he starts wearing black button-up shirts and fantasizing about expensive liquor. After reading On the Road the following summer, I spent a great deal of time fantasizing about drinking absinthe on road trips through the desert at night while listening to something called bop. I bought used jazz records that I listened to once, maybe twice.

I thought about rebelling, but I was convinced that the key to rebellion was originality, and just about everything had been done before. I learned the value of originality from the Beats, who were apparently the very first people to realize that dharma and karma fall under the category of “hip.” I learned more from various articles summarizing the Beat Generation that I found online to save time, and it was there that I discovered how powerful single  arbitrary out-of-context half-cited quotes can be, even with no subsequent explanation. I thought about growing out my hair, learning how to sculpt with metal, driving a motorcycle, making out with trees, but they had all been done before.

As time went on, I encountered other writers and poets who influenced me in more nuanced, healthier ways. Had I kept up with my Beat fixation, I might have grown up to the kind of person who uses Kerouac quotes to make myself feel better about spending fifteen dollars on one local IPA at a bar I frequent only because the regular server is an aspiring country saxophonist named Cynthia. Or I could have become the kind of teacher who wears skinny dungarees and Pink Floyd T-shirts with holes in the front and sits on the desk telling his students that Jesus and Steinbeck were both Zen masters who shared some sweet flashbacks to one another.

I still dig the Beats sometimes, but that scene has passed. I’m still not sure what kind of writer I am, but I can’t be a Beat, or any other writer from the past. It’s better to write for and from the present. I’ve almost entirely moved on, man.

-jk

Running Into Foucault at the Supermarket

cash stash

So there you are at the supermarket deciding whether or not it’s a macaroni and cheese week or more of a spaghetti week, and you turn a corner and there he is, Michel Foucault, judging wine in the wine section. You stare for a moment; his basket is mostly bread and wine and a pair of binoculars, and then he sees you, and it’s too late. He’s going to ask you if you’ve read his books yet. There’s no escaping it. You smile, he smiles. You ask him about the wine. He’s polite enough when you tell him no, not yet, but it’s in your reading list, you promise. You apologize, so he’s probably not hurt. Right?

It doesn’t help that Jacques Derrida is backing up the cash register with all his cheese cakes. He asks you how it’s going, but reads more into your answer of “fine” than you thought he would. You smile and ask him how Bourdieu is, but Derrida just keeps going on and on about how Foucault ruined his dinner party, and he’s throwing another one this evening with a book signing and everything, and you’re welcome to come of course, and you say no, so he guesses correctly that the subtext of “no” is actually “I’m so sorry but I still haven’t gotten to your work, please forgive me for being the skunk-flavored latte that I am.” You buy your spaghetti in silence.

You drop by the bank on your way home. While waiting in line you get bored, so you get on Tinder, and then there he is, Foucault, looking all smug in his first picture. Casually, you read his bio, which is the most Foucault you’ve actually read. “French writer and critic up for whatever. Let’s be visible together.” Your only common interest is wine; you swipe left after a moment’s hesitation.

You make it home, put away the spaghetti, and start working on your laundry. At the laundromat, you see Foucault again, leaning over a table with a pile of dark clothes, some of them folded. He is on his phone, his thumbs padding on the screen furiously. He doesn’t see you, thank God. You dump your clothes into a machine fast, cram in the quarters, and realize you’re one short. You turn around; Foucault is gone, clothes and all.

You should have said hello; he might have spared you a quarter. You begin crawling on the floor to look for a quarter someone might have dropped. You try, perhaps desperately, to remember where you left Foucault’s book on your shelf, with your unread Freud or your unread Butler. Sometime you’ll get to it all, but you are still short by a quarter. You think, “You will always be short a quarter,” but can’t remember if that’s existentialism or postmodernism or something else altogether. Either way, you are now covered in dust and you still don’t have a quarter. Like always.

-jk

 

Reading Terry Tempest Williams in Zion

Zion 2This week, I had the pleasure of joining one of my best friends for a trip through parts of southern Utah, starting in Moab and ending in Zion National Park. We went for the usual reasons (viewing nature, camping, hiking, burning a dictionary and cooking quesadillas over it). After hiking the Wildcat Canyon Trail (a good ten miles of limb-crunching views), we went to our campsite and read our selected book in the fading light, both collections of short pieces on the Southwest and West, Getting Over the Color Green and Northern Lights.

In Northern Lights, I stumbled upon an essay by Terry Tempest Williams, “The Clan of One-Breasted Women.” Williams grew up in Utah in the 1950s when fallout from nuclear testing in Nevada drifted beyond the test sites. As a result, many people downwind of the tests, including her family, suffered from radiation. Williams meditates in her essay on the many women (many in her family) downwind of the test sites who developed breast cancer from the radioactive fallout.

 

At the peak of the hike in Zion, I could see far, far out into the distance. I was surrounded by a place brimming with life; the whole area is a complexity of ecosystems overlapping, intertwined: red and tan oceans spotted green or lush with ponderosa and aspen or colored with sand and pale sunlight. Much of the Southwest doesn’t look alive to the untrained eye. Deserts play tricks on us by hiding their life, but life is always there. Overlooking Zion, I was overwhelmed and haunted by its history.

Zion

In the 1860s, Mormon pioneers founded a town near Zion, Springdale, and named the nearby canyon Zion. To Mormons, Zion refers to a gathering place for the faithful, and naming the canyon was an act of claiming the land for Mormon culture. But while pioneers were in the process of colonizing the area, the region was home to Southern Paiute communities pushed out by U.S. settlement. Like much of the Southwest, Zion is part of overlapping histories and state-sanctioned narrative revision.

The place was shaped by geologic hands, the fingers of rivers, a mind of clouds and rain, then engulfed with diverse flora and fauna, indigenous communities, overrun by Spanish colonization, Mexican statehood, Mormon expedition, and U.S. authority that ignored all previous layers by deeming the Southwest an absolute desert, a place so deserted they could safely test nuclear weapons there without harming anyone or anything worth mentioning. But Williams contests, as many do, that all of it is worth mentioning, worth respecting and preserving and revering.

After reading Williams’s essay, I stargazed with my friend in the desert where the stars are aggressively visible. The Southwest is misleading to those unfamiliar with it. The stars are brighter here, the air is heavier with scent, the land is rougher, and the going can be tough. Zion, a place of peace, a place of eternity, may be an apt name. The whole Southwest may be a kind of Zion, a refuge for wanderers and romantics. Its beauty is rare and atypical, taking on strange shapes and colors, rich sounds and haunting narratives. Its beauty is misfit and misleading, but in its presence it’s impossible to miss.

-jk

Dear Harper Lee,

TKAMBWhen I heard of your passing, I went to my bookshelves to find my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, to flip through your words, your characters,  your gracious writing. I was surprised to find it was absent from the novels. It was nowhere in my shelves. Somehow, I’d forgotten to bring it with me when I moved.

I dearly wish I’d brought it. Long ago, I was one of the many high school freshmen who read To Kill a Mockingbird, and I couldn’t put it down. I returned to it again and again in high school and college, reassessing the meaning each time. Your characters still speak to us in ways we never seem to expect.

Literary canons are uncontrollable, amorphous little creatures regularly consuming or abandoning texts, but your place in the American Canon is, I think, difficult to dispute. You’ve shaped my idea about the novel as a form, and you’ve shaped so many other great writers. You’ve also shaped my idea of how to be an American citizen when it seems that so little has improved over the decades. There is gentleness in your writing, something so absent in today’s literature and today’s America. In Atticus, Jem, and Boo Radley, you gave us a refuge for gentleness.

My bookshelf is incomplete without To Kill a Mockingbird. There is, and always will be, a place on my shelf for you, Harper Lee. You are one of the reasons I am not a complete cynic (as I’m still only three-quarters a cynic).

Rest in peace, Harper Lee.

-jk