Tag Archives: Writers

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

Nobody Actually Has Time to Write a Novel (But We Do It Anyway)

train-1November 1 kicked off the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, the long-standing tradition in which writers and readers alike decide to write a novel (or 50,000 words at least) during the month of November. The idea isn’t to have a novel finished by December 1, but to have written enough of a first draft of a novel (or memoir or novella even) to build on during the next year, something to return to and tinker with at a more casual, realistic pace.

Writing at a bout 1600 words a day, writers might finish. Most don’t. I’ve only finished once, and I was a very sleepless college freshman, full of ideas and not much else. Now, I’m a graduate student in English. Now, I’m full of ideas and stress, and not much else. I have deadlines to meet, books to read, authors to research, research to catch up on, and workshop material to write. I have classes to teach and a full 13 credit hours of graduate coursework to focus on, as well as graduate applications and a brand new hip flask to make proper use of. Do I really want to add the pressure of a novel to that?

The answer, of course, is no. But I’m doing it anyway. I don’t expect to finish, even if I write during all of Thanksgiving break. Even when I inevitably don’t meet the standard 50,000 words, I’ll still have a novel draft to tinker with in 2017. Like many writers across the globe, I’m enjoying more ambition than I can justify having, and the companionship of fellow writers struggling near me.

So, to my fellow November-long novelists, I wish you luck and sudden bouts of free time. Say goodbye to your loved ones and the prospect of having clean dishes. It’s noveling season.

-jk

A Public Apology From This Blog

FOE

It has come to my attention that there is a slight possibility that some readers of this blog might find my portrayal of writers to be unfair.

It was not my intention to portray writers as living in the excesses of caffeine, alcohol, or both, or as people who experiment with certain stimulants that some states have outlawed. I did not intend to give the impression that writers are difficult people who have trouble coping with rejection, or that they have limited social skills. I also had no intention of portraying writers as hyper-critical egomaniacs who write for revenge, and who publish unflattering stories about their friends and families when they feel resentful of their almost constant sense of rejection by publishers, friends, strangers, and that guy at the bookstore with the mustache.

Additionally, it was not my intention to portray writers as the kind of people who use creative writing workshops as a means to external validation by submitting work that has already been accepted for publication, to insist upon the value and merit of their submitted workshop material on the basis that it has been accepted for publication, while simultaneously engaging in pretentious, esoteric discussions of craft that have little, if anything, to do with the actual content of their peers’ work, leading their peers, instructors, loved ones, and Rick from the bookstore to question if they ever actually read their peers’ work and merely have a list of bland, useless comments that can easily apply to any written work, or as people who spend their time rubbing their toes on others’ property and rummaging through Rick’s medicine cabinet when he’s not looking, and who drunk text their lovers at 2:34 in the morning while standing outside Rick’s house and wondering why Marsha’s car is there, or as the sort of people who deliberately loan you their sunglasses when they have pinkeye and leave their beard shavings in your glove compartment.

It was not my intention to portray writers this way, but I can understand why some readers might think that I had such an agenda in mind.

While I’m at it, my lawyers inform me I should apologize for my portrayal of historians. Any interpretation of historians, based on this blog, as resentful, conceited, pretentious, hyper-liberal anti-social Harvard rejects who hate their countries and take pleasure in reducing anybody’s joy in holidays to a crime against humanity and who spend their free time burning copies of the U.S. Constitution in their backyards in their underwear in a massive green cloud of pot smoke, is merely a misunderstanding.

As always, I thank you for your concerns about my portrayal of people on this blog.

-jk

In the Company of Roses

Flower Last week, a man told me a parable about a lump of clay and some roses. He cited it as a Persian parable, but I did some research and found that it actually comes from the thirteenth century Persian poet Abū-Muhammad Muslih al-Dīn bin Abdallāh Shīrāzī, commonly known as Sa’di. He is one of the most influential poets in Islamic and Asian literature. In Iran, April 21 is celebrated as Sa’di Day.

While Europeans were busy killing each other in the medieval period, which they eventually termed the Dark Ages like a bad sequel to the Roman Empire, most of Western and Central Asia witnessed an artistic, philosophical, and scientific renaissance. Sa’di was only a part of this unique cultural era.

The poem I heard comes from the “Adoration and Preamble” section of Gulistan, or “the rose garden,” one of Sa’di’s most famous works. It reads something like this:

“I held in my bath a per­fumed piece of clay
that came to me from a beloved’s hand.
I asked it, ‘Are you musk or amber­gris?
Like fine wine, your smell intox­i­cates me.’

Till some­one set me down beside a rose,’
it said, ‘I was a loath­some lump of clay.
My companion’s scent seeped into me.
Oth­er­wise, I am only the earth that I am.'”

Apart from talking lumps of clay, I love this poem because it reminds me that I am defined by my proximity to others more than I realize.

Artistically, I am the product of the writers and poets I read: Billy Collins, Sylvia Plath, Douglas Adams, John Steinbeck, Dunya Mikhail, Jamaica Kincaid, and Pablo Neruda have made me the writer I am. Aesthetically, the Southwest made me an experimental, avant-garde magical realist. Socially, I am shaped by my friends, family, lovers, mentors, and the two or three enemies I keep around for good measure. Professionally, I’m a workaholic, being the son of professors who know education is a religious devotion serving the many at the expense of the few, the happy few.

I’m honored to live in the company of roses. I surround myself with those who inspire me. It took me a while to figure out how miserable one can get surrounded by those who are negative, over-critical, dishonest, manipulative, and toxic. I don’t mean I’m in the company of the perfect; all roses have their thorns. But for what it’s worth, I’m glad to let my friends rub off on me. It makes me a better person (and apparently more appealing to bathe with) to walk with roses.

-jk

Banned Books, Incarcerated Poets, and a Week of Moral Exhaustion

Rad Lit

Today marks the end of Banned Book Week, a movement to recognize and counter the censorship of books and celebrate the value of literature. For me, though, the week brought what felt like an endless parade of bad news and ugly incidents: men going out of their way to make loud sexist and transphobic comments in a grocery store; discovering the frequency with which people of color, my own professors, are pulled over by cops here in Lincoln; a public lecture on human trafficking and modern slavery (about 21 million people are believed to be enslaved, mostly by businesses forcing them to work in sweatshops, on farms, or in fishing), and the tragic shooting in Oregon. It was a brutal week, emotionally and intellectually, making the censorship of books feel like a relatively petty issue.

Of course, banning books is a very serious issue. School districts have, at one point or another, banned authors ranging from Mark Twain to Kate Chopin to Toni Morrison. This issue is important, but in the United States, one’s life and liberty are not at risk while reading a banned book. This week has proven that the average American’s life and liberty are put at risk because of the failures of legislatures to protect students from violence, and the failures of those with privilege to refuse to participate in institutionalized sexism and racism. I can read To Kill a Mockingbird or The Tempest without fear of being imprisoned as a consequence.

For Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami, this is not the case. In 2010, al-Ajami was recorded reading a poem while in Cairo, where he was studying literature at the time. The poem made it to the Internet, and a year later, he was arrested in Qatar. Testimonies varied, the charges were vague, and some contend that a later poem about Tunisia and the early days of the Arab uprisings were the cause for his arrest. In either case, it was clear that al-Ajami was arrested because the regime believed his poetry posed a threat to their power. He was arrested when protests erupted across the Arab world, in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria. Originally, he was dealt a life sentence, but it was later reduced to fifteen years.

Fifteen years in prison for reciting a poem. Nevertheless, censorship is much messier than Banned Book Week advocates tend to portray it. This week also saw the CairoComix festival, a festival of comics and graphic novels in Cairo. Earlier this year, the Cairo Book Festival likewise celebrated numerous authors. At the same time, the Egyptian junta has allowed people to burn books supposedly belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. Writers have ample opportunity to express dissenting ideas about the regime, and the regime has ample power to suppress them. Writers could be thrown in jail if the regime disapproves of their work, or simply destroy the work, so writers will rely on scrupulous methods to write. Censorship is complex, and the writer-regime relationship is equally baffling, creating a space in which books are simultaneously heralded and demonized. Sometimes, however, regimes focus on the mere idea of an idea, rather than the idea itself.

The protests in Syria escalated because the Assad regime arrested fifteen children caught using a slogan used in the Egyptian uprising. Children were sent to prison for using a simple phrase: “Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam,” or Down With the Regime. In the U.S., we can say that. Here in the U.S., I can proclaim that same sentiment without fear of arrest: Down with the United States! Down with the Republic! Start over and draft a new Constitution! The U.S. has failed to bring equality, so I say let’s shake it up!

I can type these words, stuff them onto the Internet the way al-Ajami’s poem was, and I will be safe. Maybe, if I’m lucky, the government will pick up on it, follow my blog, spike my stats, and put me on a list of people to watch out for. I can even type much more threatening things to the authoritarian regime I call home:

The U.S. is guilty of war crimes, for its airstrikes have killed innocent civilians in Afghanistan! The U.S. deserves to be put on trial for human rights violations! The TPP is a violation of basic human rights! It will dismantle national sovereignty and allow corporations to sue governments! It is a moral failure to let it pass! The Citizens United case creates corporate oligarchy! The regime has failed to combat climate change, another human rights violation! Down with the regime! Down with the regime! DOWN WITH THE REGIME OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!

And you continue to read these words, and I continue to write them, with no fear or hope of consequence. The relationship between a subversive writer and an oppressive state is defined by the audience between the two. Al-Ajami was arrested because his supposedly radical poem went on the Internet, where everybody in Qatar could hear it. It could motivate anybody, and clearly the regime has anxieties about its people’s attitude toward their rule. Unlike Qatar, the United States is not populated by people who want to shake up the government and end oppression.

I can easily get away with denouncing the U.S., partly because the U.S. is significantly less oppressive of its own citizens. There’s a reason Syrian writer Zakaria Tamer and Iraqi writer Dunya Mikhail, and many others, relocate to the U.S., Great Britain, and other western countries; for all the sins we’ve committed, we’re not burning books or imprisoning poets (based on the presidential debates, all that will change if we elect one of a dozen ignorant bigots). But the U.S. government won’t be afraid of subversive writers because there is simply no audience for them. Americans are too apathetic to pay attention to subversive poets, or angry writers. Americans do not quantify an audience that is willing to be swayed by authors trying to draw attention to very real problems, which is why I can identify so many and know, to my great sadness, that nobody will walk away feeling any different. Poets will only be incarcerated if there is an audience they can change, and sadly, American audiences are hostility resistant to change. For the love of God, we’ve had yet another shooting, and Americans are still unwilling to acknowledge the need for any changes!

The problem with Banned Book Week in the U.S. is that it allows us to take our liberalism out for a walk, brag to our friends about how radical we are, and then return safely to our communal, private silences. Meanwhile, a poet will remain in prison for a decade, because he recited a poem. Banning books is irrefutably bad, and reading those books can likewise be an exercise in resistance. But all too often, it’s a resistance of distraction; a resistance that keeps us from having to confront larger structural problems in our own regime; a resistance that makes us think real change will come from simply reading, when the truth is that reading is only the first step, and there’s a hell of a lot of work to be done.

I will not give into cynicism, though. Please do not mistake me for a cynic. To me, cynicism is a privilege. It’s emotionally expensive, and only those who can afford the extra emotional toll required to be a cynic can look at the world with hopelessness. I’d rather spend my emotional energy on compassion. It’s like the difference between freshly picked berries and a can of creamed corn. Compassion is simply healthier for you; hopelessness, like creamed corn, makes me want to puke. Even if hope is unrealistic, it’s a fixture of the kind of motion necessary to work harder to improve ourselves.

I am struggling to improve myself, forever and always. I internalize the suffering of others well, sometimes too well, and the result is overwhelming guilt. That guilt is good. It fuels compassion, and it continually forces me to reconcile my shortcomings, my complicity in institutional oppression, the ways I benefit from modern slavery in the products I purchase. I’m proud that I struggle to improve myself, that I a strive to define my actions, my writing, my mannerisms, all that I do by compassion. I do so through literature, which saves my soul, but also through investigation and inquiry into what I consume, into where it comes from, into who benefits and who suffers in production.

I implore you, I beg you, I order you to do the same.

-jk

A Brief Note About the Best Weekend of the Year*

*or, That Time I Went to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs 2015 Conference in Minneapolis

Conference 1

“Listen to the language you start with in the first paragraphs. That will shape the rest of the story more than you are aware.” –Pamela Painter on first drafts.

Every year, thousands of writing programs, small presses and literary magazines, publishing companies, writers new and old, writing teachers, and students flock together to share their books, writing programs, new releases, and innovations in the literary community. Thanks to the NAU Honors Program, I joined several friends in attending the conference, and it was one of the most beneficial experiences of my academic life.

“The MFA program is useful because it’s a break from the capitalist shitstorm. It lets you work without giving you black lung, and lets you focus on writing. The problem is that it doesn’t prepare you for life back in the capitalist shitstorm after it’s over.” –Claire Vaye Watkins.

Conference 2

Despite our travel plans going wrong, we made it. Because Arizona does not acknowledge daylight savings time  (but Greyhound does), we missed our bus by an hour. We decided to take a shuttle to Phoenix and ended up taking two different shuttles an hour apart, but eventually gathered in Sky Harbor with enough time to bankrupt ourselves from airport food. By late afternoon and with much applause, we landed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, amidst rain and snow.

“One of the hardest things for an Arab to accomplish is to live apolitically.” –Hayan Charara on whether or not writing should be political.

The conference has two features, an exhaustive list of panels and a colossal book fair. I spent most of my time in the less popular conferences, and tried to explore as rich and diverse a selection of topics as possible:

conference swagLiterature from communities in diaspora, featuring Vietnamese-, Korean-, and Arab-American writers; a reading of flash fiction, from six-word memoirs to 1,000-word short-shorts; a reading from Cuban poet Víctor Rodríguez Núñez and a signing of his newest collection With a Strange Scent of World; a set of memoir readings from U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; a discussion on translating Brazilian minority poets; a lengthy discussion from MFA teachers about the usefulness of seeking an MFA in Creative Writing in the first place; a panel on the usefulness of historical fiction and the rules one can break with it; a beautiful poetry reading from Iranian Farzaneh Milani, Syrian Mohja Khaf, and Iraqi Dunya Mikhail plus a list of historical women poets in the Arab-speaking world; a panel on writing as advocacy; and a reading of creative nonfiction about the value of speculation in nonfiction works.

“The ‘other’ for the writer is simply everyone.” –Elizabeth Kadetsky on the relationship between writers and the world.

The conference reinvigorated my love of writing, but unmasked a great many myths and expectations upon which I had previously built my understanding of the writing life. I now understand that the MFA racket is not all it’s cracked up to be; though certainly useful if applied correctly, MFAs are neither necessary nor financially sustainable if one wants to be a writer. I now have a greater appreciation for the need for good translators, and how deeply politicized translations can become when meaning and identity are at stake crossing the thresholds between languages. Flash fiction is more than an exercise in economizing language but a growing form of art itself.

Lastly, and most importantly, being a lone writer, while romantic, is terrible; good writing can only ever come from the experiences a writer internalizes and interprets, so I must accumulate as many experiences as possible, good, unpleasant, awkward, funny, humiliating, beautiful, terrifying, or calming. Time is not what I need as a writer; a community of friends, loved ones, people who inspire me, are what I really need. This trip generated more ideas for stories than anything I’ve done inside a classroom, and it is to my friends that I owe my ability to write, if I can say I possess such an ability in the first place.

friends

-jk

A Nation of Writers

Irish Books

In a few days, I will depart across the Atlantic and spend a month in Ireland studying its history and literature. In many ways I’ll be a fish out of water. I willingly admit that I know very little about Ireland. The authors I have read have mostly been from the Americas, and the history I’ve studied has mainly been twentieth century conflict and the Cold War. Apart from a small ancestral connection, Ireland has not played a major role in my studies or my life. So naturally I decided to spend five weeks there, because among the few things I know about Ireland, I know it’s a nation of writers.

Four of Ireland’s writers (William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney) have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Countless other Irish writers have left the world with outstanding literary works. A handful of the Irish writers includes James Joyce, Elizabeth Bowen, Oscar Wilde, John B. Keane, Brian Friel, Sean O’Casey, Johnathan Swift, Edna O’Brien, Molly Keane, and numerous others. In contrast to the rich literary tradition, there are few major Irish painters, sculptors, and composers. There is a longstanding oral tradition, and in the past century a theatrical tradition has developed. The essential form of artistic expression in Ireland is the written word.

Ninety years ago, Ireland was engulfed in sectarian violence along religious and geopolitical lines, similar to what is seen today in parts of the Arab world and parts of Africa. A violent uprising and civil war began in 1916 accompanying the First World War, and the country split in two. Meanwhile, the Irish wrote poetry, novels, and plays amid the chaos. Their history is no different from the history I have studied. The Irish have suffered colonialism, violence, and poverty, and have expressed themselves through art and literature the way Russians, Afghans, Indians, Syrians, and Chileans have. I hope to immerse myself in the literature in its original context, to know the ins and outs of literature as thoroughly and intimately as I can.

-JK