This blog has moved to Please make a note, and I look forward to seeing you there.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A.B. Spellman, Things I Must Have Known (Coffee House)

Reviewed by Grant Grays

                  Fundamentally, A. B. Spellman’s book of poems, Things I Must Have Known, asks a rhetorical question: Who am I, and how did I become this way? Spellman explores this question through ruminating on his life experiences. These include love – platonic, romantic and parental – and life as a black man in America. While these themes are undeniably important, two strands inform the poetry in A.B. Spellman’s Things I Must Have Known: jazz music and introspection. As an author of books on jazz criticism and a jazz commentator on National Public Radio, Spellman’s use of language throughout this volume serves as a literary homage to the music Spellman holds so dear. Likewise, Spellman’s poetry reflects on and questions life’s various meanings. Specifically, he analyzes how external influences – importantly, the nature of the relationship between life and death – influence his existence as a poet and as a human being.                 

                  Music is of utmost importance in Things I Must Have Known, both in subject mater and in the musicality of the language used. For example, these uses of music are presented in “Dear John Coltrane”, in which Spellman juxtaposes the title person and Johann Sebastian Bach. While reading a book of poetry, Bach’s “keyboard concerto/in f minor” comes on the radio, forcing Spellman to

                  put (his) reason down

                  to trail the bach of endless line


                  through beauty, past knowledge, into

                  that state that shines too much

                  to be wisdom (....)


Compare this use of language when discussing the transcendental nature of Bach’s music to the metaphysical knowledge experienced when Coltrane fills his senses:

                  now, it’s your life that opens, & opens

                  & opens, & i’m flying that way again

                  same sky, different moon, this midnight

                  globe that toned those now lost blue rooms

                  where things like jazz float the mind


                  this view the one i cannot see with my eyes



                  i know the line i traveled was a horizon

                  the circle of the world. another freedom


Spellman closes the poem with an image of Bach and Coltrane swapping notes on music and partaking in a jam session somewhere past the astral plane. The author shows a great love for each musician but experiences them differently. Bach exposes him to beauty; Coltrane, to truth. If beauty is truth and truth beauty, as Keats observed, it is apparent that to Spellman both classical music and American jazz are intimately related.

                   A playful homage to jazz is presented again in “Groovin’ Low.” This poem is a riff on aging – Spellman no longer operates with the “hardbop drive” of his youth but “more of a cool foxtrot”. The music affects him differently. He has found that the backbeat can put him into a sweet groove: he’s “still movin’, still groovin’/still fallin’ in love.” He no longer needs to go into the high section; he’s not in the “staccato splatter of the hot young horn”. Instead, he walks with the bass line, considering the nuance of the music. He views aging not as a detriment but sees himself as an elder statesman. Spellman’s the cat “with the smug little smile/and the really cool shades”, and you feel you’re right there, cool struttin’ along with him.

                  Music and introspection often work together in Things I Must Have Known. In two particular poems, “On Hearing Sonny (“Newk”) Clark in the Park on a Hot Summer’s Night” and “Bobby’s Ballad,” Spellman reflects on his own mortality through the lyricism of Sonny Rollins’ and Bobby Hutcherson’s music. In “On Hearing Sonny...”, Spellman shows the aged man on stage “with worn hips barely support(ing) the horn” whose “sound is deep enough to live in.” This is followed by musings on the inevitability of death; Spellman envisions Rollins in his last days, holding onto his art, fighting to the end to create. He compares Rollins to Matisse, Count Baise and W.E.B. Du Bois, three creators who did not succumb to frailty in the twilight of their lives. This poem is an assertion to the self; Spellman will be like Matisse, like Rollins – he will “age anywhere/but the horn.” He will create until he cannot create anymore.                 

                  This marriage of music and introspection is presented again in “Bobby’s Ballad”. While watching Bobby Hutcherson perform, Spellman is transported back to the days of his youth, when he and Hutcherson were players on the Lower East Side jazz scene. Spellman ruminates on how the years changed his perception of self; while in the 1960s he and his contemporaries admired themselves for their hipster qualities, and vowed to never become squares, he realizes now the inevitability of time – he knows now the things he thought he knew. This poem ends with a recognition of truth in Hutcherson’s music; the truth of jazz has lead him to this revelation.

                  While ruminations on death are prominent in Things I Must Have Known, Spellman also offers musings on life. Nature plays an important role in these discussions. For example, “The Cruelest Month” acts as a celebration of existence. Spellman acknowledges that he cannot write a poem on spring without sounding cliché, so he rails against the pollen in the air, the “ejaculations of fornicating flora/attacking (his) sinuses.” However, despite his irritated respiratory system, he sits in awe of the emerging greenery. He is joyful for the lengthening of daytime. He breathes in the warmth of the air. This natural rebirth also reinvigorates Spellman: he notices women “so nubile that at the sight of them/the years retreat from this out-of-season body/that winter told me would not last.” This is an exploration of how Spellman fits into a larger frame of nature. As the earth is reborn, so is he.

                  Perhaps the greatest aspect of Things I Must Have Known is its accessibility. Both the untrained reader of poetry and those who have made this form of artistic expression can appreciate this body of work. Spellman’s poetry often reads as a collection of stories relayed by a favorite uncle, who has seen the world and is, instead of weary, excited for what has happened and what is yet to come.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Cris Mazza interviewed by Gina Frangello

Cris Mazza is many things: a short story writer, a novelist, a memoirist, a professor, an academic administrator—even a dog trainer.  She is also sometimes a provocateur, infamous for her writings on sexual harassment, her post-feminist sensibilities, and her frank explorations of gender politics and (sometimes “deviant”) sexuality.  Whatever Cris does, she does passionately.  Her FC2 edited Chick-Lit anthologies were the subject of NEA hearings, and recently, she guest-edited an issue of Other Voices magazine in which she appealed for an end of the glut of confessional-toned, first person fiction pieces that use the “I” voice as a kind of default point of view, without consideration for the story’s larger aims or aesthetics.  Though in person Cris is somewhat shy, not fond of crowds, and usually in a hurry home to let out her dogs—as well as being barely over 5’ tall and probably weighing 100 pounds soaking wet—she has a kind of intense energy that crackles when you get her talking about anything writing related, and her passion can be intimidating, contagious, or both.  Her long publishing career, which began in the 1980s when her novel How to Leave a Country was a PEN/Algren award winner, has seen the publication of more than a dozen books, including Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?, Your Name Here _____, Dog People, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian, and Many Ways to Get It, Many Ways to Say It.  She has been published by a wide array of esteemed (and sometimes controversial) independent publishers, from Coffee House to FC2 to City Lights to Red Hen to Soft Skull.  Among those who follow independently published fiction, it would be hard to swing a cat without hitting a fan of Cris Mazza’s.  She is also known by her students and former students as—if somewhat hard to please—one of the most fierce and loyal advocates of work she does believe in, and a dedicated mentor whose stewardship has led, both through creative guidance and more direct sponsorship and recommendations, to many of her former students’ books finding publication.  In short, whether as a writer, an editor, or a creative mentor, Cris Mazza is a literary force to be reckoned with, and in ways that are completely non-mercenary and non-market-driven.  She stands in my mind as an anecdote to much that currently ails United States publishing.

I met Cris in 1995, when I was beginning my master’s at the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Program for Writers (Cris is now the head of that department.)  What began as a professor-student relationship grew, over the next few years, into a more personal mentorship, and—after I left the Program in 1999—into a friendship that has seen us both through many career developments.  Over the years, Cris and I have had many ongoing dialogues, both over dinners and through emails, about writing, and I have often wished I could “bottle” her ideas and advice on many subjects.  On the release of her most recent novel, Waterbaby (Soft Skull), I at last took the opportunity to pick her brain “on the record” about the publishing industry, writers’ psyches, sympathetic characters, and the dubiously glamorous life of a successful indie-press icon... 

GF: So I recently wrote a series of essays for the blog “The Literary Outpost” about the state of publishing in the United States, and my conclusion was that the corporate publishing industry has gone to hell in a hand-basket in the aftermath of 9-11, economic troubles, war, and the neo-conservatism of the Bush administration.  However, when I think about your long career as an independent press writer, I wonder whether I may be suffering from that usual syndrome of glorifying a previous generation: imagining that publishing was somehow "better"—more literary and more serious—in the decades prior to my working as an editor and writing my own fiction.  Your first novel, How to Leave a Country, was published in 1992, so you would have some historical perspective on that.  The novel originally won the PEN/Algren award to much fanfare, but despite major attention from the mainstream media, it was never picked up by a corporate publishing house.  Can you describe your experiences with the corporate publishing industry at that time—nearly 20 years ago?  In what ways do you feel publishing has changed or not changed in the ensuing decades?

CM: I was never privy to the PEN organization’s mission for establishing the PEN / Nelson Algren Award, nor was I ever told the reason they discontinued it only a few years after I won the first one.  My best guess—based partially on the promotional info about the award in 1984, the year How to Leave a Country won—is that the award was meant to discover quality literary fiction in manuscript form which the NY publishers would then be interested in buying and publishing, due to the well-known literary authors who judged (Grace Paley and Studs Terkel).  Following the award ceremony in NYC, almost every corporate publisher who did fiction contacted me or my agent and asked to see the MS.  Needless to say, none of them found it would be a good investment; the prevailing reason for turning it down was “not commercial enough.”  (I do wonder if, 15 years later, they now try to couch this term, hide it in other rhetoric, not admit so openly that “commercialism” is what they're seeking.)  Following this, after that agent and I had parted ways, a NY editor who liked the MS actually tried to send it to some of her colleagues because the house where she worked only did mass market paperback fiction.  When she eventually gave up, she told me, “Someday I'll be at a hardback house and I'll buy everything you write.”  Well, it wasn't a contract, and years later, when she was at a “hardback house,” and after she'd rejected one or two novel manuscripts that followed How to Leave a Country, then unsuccessfully pitched a third at an editorial meeting, she sadly admitted to me that things were not as she would have liked or imagined.  In the years after that, when I was at the Coffee House Press booth pitching a newly released novel at the BEA (then ABA) convention, several corporate editors walked down the row of Consortium independent presses, and I heard one wistfully say, “You guys get to do all the good stuff.”  Those are my two peep-hole glimpses into the heart of corporate editors.  I've never had any peek into the hearts of those who hold the true power there.  Going back to the PEN / Nelson Algren Award and its cancellation not long after it was invented: I wonder if the reason for discontinuing the award wasn’t because the award was meant to discover new serious literary fiction writers and then the corporate publishing world wanted none of them.

GF: What about the independent publishing world?  Has it substantially changed over that same time period?  Is it stronger as a movement, or larger but also more diffuse?  Do the "indies" do things differently than they did then, and do different writers fall under their auspices than was true at that time?

CM: There are probably more independent presses now (I haven’t done a census), although there is only the same amount—or less—grant money to go around.  Possibly technology has streamlined production enough to reduce that investment, but warehousing and distribution is more expensive.  But beyond expenses, the major changes have to do with: 1) the demise of the independent bookstore, 2) chain bookstores only buying from one or two major (corporate) distributors, 3) severe cutbacks of newspaper book review sections and other book media, 4) bookstores only keeping a new title in a store a few months before returning, 5) bookstores only displaying books whose publishers pay for the privilege with major publicity campaigns.  Possibly all of these issues have been worsened simply because there are more titles being published by more independent publishers.  But certainly writers who might have been corporate midlist novelists, or had their first novels published commercially, are now, more and more, releasing their books with independent publishers.  The positive developments include internet book review websites, literary blogs, internet reading clubs, etc.

GF: You're known predominantly for your novels and short stories, but you've also written a substantial amount of creative nonfiction, both in freelance essays and in your memoir Indigenous: Growing Up Californian.  Can you speak a bit about why you've generally favored fiction over nonfiction, but why nonfiction occasionally lures you?  In what ways have the two forms complemented one another, or attacked the same aim from different angles?

 CM: Fiction allows my imagination to take experience, either my own or what I’ve observed, and ask dozens of questions about it, and try dozens of hypothetical alternate scenarios, exaggerate, focus, enlarge … as well as completely veer in angles away from remembered experiences to live a different vicarious life while I develop a different jumble of cause-and-effects.  I admit, though, there is one period of my past that has fueled many of my stories and maybe half of my novels because it is a period that I am still struggling to understand.  I can admit I’ve been fairly obsessed with this particular period of about 5 years in my mid-to-late 20s.  I explored it in fiction (many times) because my obsession was my bewilderment and continued agitation over it.  What I personally got out of writing those books must be (and I hope is) quite different than what readers got out of them.  Readers can see this common “inspiration” in many of my books as a thematic motif, because the stories themselves, and the characters, are sufficiently different.  Finally, though, my most recently completed novel manuscript is one that treats the material a little more directly than the others, and I told my agent, “call it 1/3 a true story, but we won’t say which third is true.” And yet I still didn’t feel finished with the material.  So I decided to write a nonfiction book about the same jumble of events, “the real story,” so to speak, although I've already begun to question the “realness” of any remembered story, especially one I've already partially re-rendered and re-conceived in various fictional forms in portions of at least 3 previous novels.  Working with the material over the past 25+ years, you tend to rework your memory as well.  I do have seven completely-filled-with-pencil-handwriting spiral bound journal notebooks from the years-in-question, which I'm going to have to try to make sense out of in order to attempt to not just create a narrative but a form and a structure that strives to make a larger statement (or at least ask a larger question).  The point of it being assuredly not “you need to know about these things that happened to me,” but that upon realizing that this tangle of (somewhat related) events has gnawed at me for literally decades, I've been drawn to examine and wonder why it was so vitally important to the person, and the novelist, I became.  I've probed the material in fiction from enough angles, one could argue, spiraling closer and closer—but closer to what?  Truth?  What does that mean?  All I know for sure is that now the only way I have to continue to seek understanding (or personal resolution) is to probe the question of why the experiences remained so crucial to me, but using the new context of conscious retrospect (which I discovered and used in writing the last novel which uses the same material).  By letting cognizance of the changes in society since then, the changes in my maturity and understanding about gender relations, and even my knowledge of changes in laws, remain consciously with me as I narrate past events, the book can possibly reach beyond being “about me’ and toward social commentary, at least significant social questions. 

GF: What you say makes me think about Milan Kundera, a writer I love, who has essentially explored the same themes in almost his entire body of work—the same could, of course, be said of many writers.  I wonder if the things that obsess us never entirely change, and the writer’s task is merely finding new angles and avenues of exploration.  In your case, those obsessions seem to be sexual/gender politics, as well as the way memory continues to haunt and drive people years after a traumatic incident occurred.  Do you think those demons, literary or otherwise, can ever be fully exorcized? 

CM: The stuff my memory is haunted with is gender/sexual politics, but it took a while for me to even name what it was.  That period of my past I’ve been obsessed with: those approximate 5 years correspond with the court cases that tested and began to implement sexual harassment laws.  At the time it was happening, though, no one had even heard of “sexual harassment.”   The first court case bringing charges of sexual harassment was in 1977; then sexual harassment was defined by a court in 1982.  Those are the years when, as an undergraduate and then graduate student, I worked for two male bosses, apprentice-taught under a male master-teacher, and played a musical instrument that had been a male bastion.  And yet, years later, knowing the new laws, I couldn’t look back and just say “So that’s what was wrong; there’s the sexual quid pro quo.”  It was like I participated in a confusing turmoil of gender relations gone awry, none of which even resulted in a sexual relationship (but came close) or anyone getting this for that.  In fiction, I kept trying to replay the relationships, the events, put them into different contexts, to try to come to some conclusion about what was going on, why I was so filled with terror and rage when little was happening to me.  On the one hand, just looking back—any of us of my generation—at what we were doing and how we behaved (and how men around us behaved) in pre sexual-harassment years is interesting, fascinating, mind-bending.  But to still be perplexed by it all, 25 years later, it became a full-blown obsession.  What broke it open, further, and caused me to write one more novel, and now a nonfiction book, was the discovery, 2+ decades after the fact, that the master-teacher I’d been apprenticing under, and who’d been hovering around the periphery of leading me (willingly) into a sexual relationship, had been having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student at that same time.  Her attempts to have him arrested 25 years later brought a whole new whirlwind of bewilderment to my thoughts on what had been occurring, on gender relationships and what exactly is harassment, including catching myself actually asking why her?   After I finish my next book, if I come up with an answer to whether these demons can ever be full exorcised, I’ll let you know.

GF: About a decade ago, you were involved in a small scandal involving the National Endowment for the Arts over a book you edited for FC2.  Can you describe what happened?  Do you think arts funding suffers more or less now from this kind of "Big Brother" morality than it did at that time?

CM: The book was an anthology called Chick-Lit 2 (No Chick Vics), which might take too much explanation to put into context!  Suffice it to say it was not in any way similar to the urban-girls-looking-for-love “chicklit” that the corporate publishing word began marketing some time after the anthology came out (and they co-opted the title).  So in 1996, when Chick-Lit 2 came out, there was a review of it in a large city newspaper, a review which pointed out that some of the stories involved lesbians.  The review also mentioned that the publisher was supported by the NEA, and suggested that Jesse Helms might have “a conniption fit.”  So that’s exactly what happened.  Except that nothing happened next, after Helms had his fit, after the NEA was spanked, after artists (mostly actors) came to DC to speak on behalf of the NEA (but the editors of Chick-Lit 2 were not invited to anything), nothing happened … except the corporate publishers appropriating the title.

GF: Your current novel, Waterbaby, [reviewed by Elizabeth Burns on this blog] published by Soft Skull Press, is a real genre-bender, encompassing elements of ghost stories, historical fiction and experimental fiction, to name a few, all in one novel.  Has this kind of cross-over among genres been an asset to the novel's marketing or a challenge—or both? 

CM: It certainly was an asset in creating Amazon “tags” … I could list this novel under more than a dozen tag headers, from lighthouses to swimming, from post traumatic stress disorder to epilepsy, from ghosts to genealogy.  It was reviewed on a “haunted lighthouses” blog and mentioned in a sidebar for an article about encountering ghostly sensations in cemeteries.  At yet there wasn’t a single paranormal occurrence in Waterbaby, so how and why people keep calling it a ghost story, I don’t know.  I also don’t know if it has caused any marketing challenges, if it was passed over for review because the press release might have insinuated it was a “ghost story.”  But at no time did either the publisher or I call it “experimental,” since, for me, it’s not a characteristic I consciously try to apply to a novel.  The various forms and layers in Waterbaby are all there because, organically, they came from the story and the character. As soon as you start applying labels, any labels, you start cutting away part of your potential audience.  Just like calling it a “ghost story” might discourage people who dislike paranormal stories (as I generally do), calling it “experimental” or “historical” could be a turnoff to certain readers.    

GF: Over the years, we've had many conversations about the risks—from a publishing perspective—of women writers writing about characters who are not traditionally "sympathetic."  What do you think the mainstream publishing industry deems a "sympathetic" heroine vs. what a literary writer (or more literary readers) might view as giving them sympathy with a character?

 CM: I think of this in really basic terms of interest and caring.  Am I interested in a character, and do I care what happens next?  To be interested in a character, I like to see that her troubles and problems are at least in part, if not a large part, caused by herself: her fears, longings, anxieties, obsessions, habits, etc.  I’m not interested in victims of fate.  I think that a flawed character with limited self-awareness creates true “sympathy,” if we must use that word, or true interest, because stories of self-realization—characters who have to come to grips with their complicity in their own traumas—are more satisfying.  Mere stories of “recovery” only go so far, but when what we have to recover from stems from our own weaknesses, when true self-evaluation is part of a resolution, then, I think, readers feel (even if unconsciously) more hope about themselves and their lives.  Part of the divide between what I view as interesting and what popular fiction might view as sympathetic is in that word, “weakness.”  There’s this conviction that readers need “strong characters.”  As though characters in novels should be role models.  Instead of meaning memorable or loaded—that kind of strong—too often they mean people with no flaws who can handle anything fate dishes out.   The other area of disconnect is in where I (and other literary writers) tend to end books.  I usually end a book at a point where the main character has finally gotten a new glimpse at the world and at herself, a new perspective, or a dose of plain old self realization.  At that point she’s ready to find resolution, make changes, find a new direction, etc., but I’m not interested in detailing out all the changes and resolutions and giving the reader a “one year later” sort of happy ending.  I was told, on one occasion, that by doing this, I had a book with “no hope,” as though to have hope you have to spell out exactly how a person uses their new perspective. 

GF: In these days, when publishing may be more competitive than ever before and so many writers are "left out" in the cold, there must be many people—students, those you meet at conferences, etc.—who imagine that you, as a highly successful writer of many acclaimed books, lead a very glamorous existence with no career obstacles.  What have some of your experiences been regarding the disparity of people's expectations about "the writing life" vs. its realities?  And do literary fiction writers have to internalize different measures of "success" than, say, writers of genre fiction or nonfiction?

CM: I don’t know of anyone—not anyone with any sense—who believes I lead a glamorous life.  But I know there are people who don’t believe I can (or am allowed to) have insecurities or career frustrations.  I do still feel I haven’t fulfilled something.  And that something, frustratingly out of reach, has to do with things out of my control.  My agent tells me 90% of this whole business is luck: to be lucky enough to have the right reviewers pick up your galley on the right day, or the right editor pick up your MS on the right day and have the right idea for how to pitch it at the right time in history.  There are many tales, we all hear them, about the one-in-ten-million-chance string of events where someone sells a self-published book to the movies and then Random House brings it out in hardback.  These stories only tease any of us who live and work by the usual rules of anonymity, luck (usually not good luck), the hard humiliating work of self promotion, the disinterest of the media in literature, the growing trend among indie publishers to look for what’s cool, hip and young, and the constant pushing of ourselves to have ideas that are more relevant, more timely, more probing, more controversial … without even knowing if that’s what anyone wants.  But we still do it.  We can’t stop.  And a good sentence, a spot-on paragraph, a crackling piece of dialogue can still make me feel heady, and as though I’ve accomplished something, all day.  Ready to start over the next day.    

[Gina Frangello is the author of the novels My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006) and London Calling (forthcoming in Spring 2009 from Impetus Press.)  For many years she served as the Executive Editor of the literary magazine Other Voices, and co-founded its fiction book imprint OV Books in 2004, where she is now Executive Editor of the Chicago office.  Her short fiction has been published widely in literary journals, including StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Swink and Clackamas Review, and in anthologies such as Homewrecker: An Adultery Reader; she also guest-edited the anthology Falling Backwards: Stories of Fathers and Daughters (Hourglass 2004.) She has been a freelance journalist for the Chicago Reader and a book reviewer for the Chicago Tribune, and currently she teaches creative writing at Northwestern University’s School of Continuing Studies and in Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing Department.]

Friday, August 15, 2008

Interview with Lily Hoang, author of PARABOLA

The simple act of a butterfly flapping its wings, and our journey begins. A tracing of modern day mythologies, PARABOLA weaves through genres, mathematical formulas, and photographs, all while following the curve of a parabola, stopping at various points to pick up strands of intersections or stories. Lily Hoang's debut novel offers readers tender snapshots of an Asian-American girl coming-of-age juxtaposed with the Pythagorean belief in numerology placed right beside a physical manifestation of dark matter contrasted with interactive IQ, personality, and psychological tests. Smart, challenging, sad, and kind, by the end of Parabola, you will have moved through every emotion, and you will end right where you began, with that simple act of a butterfly flapping its wings.

Your novel is quite visual. Do you have some background in the visual arts?

I have no experience in visual arts. I was a musician all through high school & college. A violinist. My father is a painter though. I have a romanticized view of the arts. I think it's because I wish I could be a painter or visual artist that my book has such a strong visual component. It's also the way my mind works. I would love to write something long & continuous, but I'm stuck with writing these small pieces that I hope connect. I think that as I create these small pieces, bits of other things fall in too. I do my best to create a dialogue with these strands of things as they fall into place, which hopefully, they do. 

While reading the book I was fascinated by the juxtapositions between histories of astronomy, first person narratives, and seemingly private voices that we may find in a journal (among others). Am I correct in observing that you are playing with the similarities and differences between the close and the distant? 

Yes and no. I don't necessarily see a difference between the two. I consciously chose the subject for each chapter more as things I considered to be mythologies than questions of distance and closeness. 

(See above for the parabola that serves to form the plot of the book.) Many of my favorite authors use geometric shapes as the basis for plots. The Brazilian Osman Lins, for instance, works with a spiral in his novel AVALOVARA. What interests you in the geometric shape of parabolas? Is this related to your interest in various 'scientific' tests that purport to measure intelligence, personality, and so on?

I first conceived of this novel as one that would explore the occult & religion as mythologies, but as I started researching, I found a lot about numerology and mathematics. Since I was little, I wanted to be a scientist or a mathematician (I'm not quite sure why I'm not, to be completely honest!) so I decided to use the superficial constraint of the form of a parabola to shape this text. Again, while researching, I came to understand that there were so many more mythologies out there than just the occult & religion. As such, I expanded the scope of my novel. I wanted to create a work that dialogued within itself.  As for the shape of the text, I wanted to mimic the traditional triangular structure of a novel, but I wanted to invert it. A parabola was a perfect fit!  I love interactive novels. I think the various tests that appear throughout the text add a new level of interactivity. Ideally, readers would actually take some of the tests. Additionally, I know many people (myself included) who put a great deal of weight on personality tests, IQ, and psychology. I see these as modern-day myths, a new form of "religion" and a method of categorization. To me, IQ seems to be especially troubling, particularly because of the mass sterilization in the early to mid 20th century based on the Army Beta IQ test. I based some of the questions on my test on that original test. 

At each point of the 'X' axis, there are two different stories, one as we come down the left side of the parabola and one when we go up the right. Many of the two points are in direct dialogue, most particularly number 5, which is a continuation of the same story. Sometimes, however, there does not seem to be as much dialogue. For instance 9 juxtaposes a history of astronomy with what appears to be an actual intelligence test. How do you see the interaction of the 'X' and 'Y'?

As for Chapter 9, personal equation is one of those really fantastic scientific truths that has a whole mythology to it. First off, I should explain what it is for your readers who haven't read my book. Personal equation essentially says that everyone sees things slightly differently because of our reaction time to light. The whole myth or story to it is that an Astronomer Royal fired one of his assistants because his data was incorrect. Quite a while later, it was discovered that the assistant's data was, in fact, correct. The slight aberration in numbers came only because he had a different reaction time to light.  Then, as I was researching personal equation, I found a great scientific article that tied reaction time to a person's IQ. I came up with the thesis that IQ then has something to do with reaction time, which is almost arbitrary, if that makes any sense. So both chapter 9's are in fact related. I actually thought that the chapter 9's had more of a correlation than some of the others.  I did my best to have each chapter reflect its opposite chapter. Some of the reflections are harder to see than others, which I can readily admit is my fault. 

I was charmed by the many places where you worked stories into stories, almost like the wooden Russian dolls. I am thinking most specifically of the second Chapter 3. Is this related in any way to your interest in layering text (scene here to the right)?

I'm not quite sure I understand about stories within stories. I can say, though, that I work best with little pieces. Especially now, I feel like I have a hard time writing anything more than 500 words long. But when writing Parabola, I was working on my MFA, and it was expected that you would produce "short stories," as one would traditionally think of short stories. Most of the chapters in here are my attempt to "cheat" the system by putting little pieces next to each other & seeing what that juxtaposition does.   As for the layering of the text, I used it twice, well, three times technically. The first two instances, with short shorts inside geometric shapes, were my attempt to show how easily truths are covered & to mirror the jumbled nature of this world. It's hard to distinguish what is what. I simply wanted to reflect that feeling of almost helplessness. The third instance--the dark matter story--should be fairly obvious. I tried to have as much fun as possible with this chapter, once I came up with the basic conceit. I have to give all the credit to Tom Philips's A Humument though. It was his idea to create a new text by highlighting an original text. What I found, however, was that by covering 95% of my original Chapter 6 did create an entirely new text. Again though, I was just having some fun!

There are obvious connections between your biography and portions of the book. How biographical is it?

Well, there are many autobiographical bits in here. It's undeniable that many of the narrators are Vietnamese American & so am I. My father did have a stroke. My mother did have colon cancer. There are bites of truths in here, but it's fiction. There are exaggerations and just as many understatements. I suppose that like so many young writers, this book reveals my autobiographical angst, but it's not all real, if that's what you're asking. There are many things I added for the sake of "good" fiction, things that simply could not have happened.  Funny story actually. A friend of mine called me after she'd read the book & asked me if I really tried to lay an egg. I laughed because yes, I really did try to lay an egg & not only did I try, I did! What didn't happen was that I didn't figure it out until I was quite a bit older. I must have been in high school before I realized that I couldn't really lay eggs. I'm quite naive in many ways. 

I appreciated how demanding and challenging this book is. It places demands on readers that a 'normal' book does not. Who is your ideal reader in terms of biography, education, and so on?

You.  No really though, I think most anyone can find something worth reading in this book, even if they don't like the whole thing. At the very minimum, I think there's value in at least some of the chapters. I know, for instance, that many people have really enjoyed my Asian American coming-of-age story-chapters. Those, in fact, may have been my strongest catering to the "market" and/or MFA workshops. Those were good for me to write & again, it seems as though those are the most popular. For the more adventurous readers, I have tests that you can fill in as you read. For the middle-of-the-road readers, I've got chapters that straddle that line. & if you're bored by my writing & the book in general, you can take a break & do a word search, which is conveniently placed as Chapter 2 on one side of the parabola. I joke about it, but I really did take time to think about reader enjoyability while I was writing this. A lot of experimental/conceptual/whatever word you want to use fiction is easily dismissed as heady, pretentious, or trickery. I've heard a lot of that criticism. I wanted to write a book that wasn't that. Whereas I can acknowledge that perhaps the overall constraint was "heady," there is something in this novel for everybody. 

This is the big question, but your book I think demands it: Some will probably claim that your book does not cohere. How would you answer such a criticism?

I could go into all the small way this novel coheres (please do keep in mind that this book won the Chiasmus Press Un-Doing the Novel Contest), but I'm not sure it's really necessary. There are themes that tie this together, and the mathematical structure of it makes coherence a lot easier to achieve.  I think the more interesting question would be why it's a novel & why I've chosen to call it a novel. & I suppose I'll turn it back over to you now, readers. Do you think it's a novel? Does it cohere? Should it cohere? & finally, what exactly is coherence & should that be a function of a novel? 

Could you say something about your family life (siblings, parents, etc.), where you were born, and your early relationship with language and/or literature?

Family. Wow. What a place to start! I've been trying to deal with the issue of family since as long as I can remember. My first two books chronicle the basic struggles of growing up Asian American, with overbearing — but loving — parents. Instead of speaking about my family, I'll tell you a couple anecdotes that should give you an idea of my family. 1) While I was doing my graduate work at Notre Dame, my mother asked me to go some place better for my PhD because Notre Dame doesn't have the same cache as Harvard or Yale in Vietnam. In Vietnam, people haven't necessarily heard of Notre Dame. (This was after, of course, I explained to my mother that I don't need a PhD.) 2) My mother, to this day, reminds me that I would make a great ambassador. Besides, a lot of people who study English are ambassadors. 3) My father reminds me, to this day, that I could still go to medical school, if I really wanted to make them happy. This makes my parents seem like horrible people though, which they aren't. They're simply not acclimated to American life. They want for me to be the best parts of American & the full part of Vietnamese. It's an impossible task, but they don't seem to understand that. They don't understand my writing, nor do they really respect it. (I'm sure this is something many writers deal with.) They do, however, understand the value of my name in print. This is getting depressing so I'll move on to the other parts of this question. I was born in San Antonio, TX. Because both of my parents worked when I was growing up, I spent most of my time at a family friend's house. (In many immigrant communities, there will be a place where children are cared for. For me, that was Me Thu's house. She was a second mother to me. Me in Vietnamese is Mother.) I was the youngest under her care. As such, I grew up truly bilingual, since the other kids were already in school. I didn't know the difference between languages, and when I started school, I actually spoke a Vietnamese-English hybrid. It wasn't a great way to make friends, let me tell you. So growing up, I didn't have a strong bond to language. It was more of something to be embarrassed about than anything resembling the love that many writers have experienced.

What were some of your favorite activities as a child?

My parents tell this great fairy tale about me. When I was little, I had these storybooks that were in both English & Vietnamese. My mother would read them to me. One day, as she was reading, I read along. It was a trick I'd learned. So they showed me off to all their friends — a two-year-old who could read! Of course, I couldn't read. I'd simply memorized it, but I learned from a very young age that precociousness gets you far in life. But really, I didn't have many friends. I had the whole language barrier, but aside from that, I was an awkward little kid who was a show off. My parents instilled this fear in me that I had to be better than everyone else in order for anyone at all to like me. (Again, I'm painting my parents in a less than favorable light here, but they're not that bad. Really.) As a little kid, I read the dictionary & did long division. For fun! I watched a lot of Chinese movies (something akin to telenovellas). I also loved Potato Head Kids, not Mr. Potato Head!

What do you remember in terms of your early relationship to the written word, both as writer and as reader?

Again, growing up, my relationship to the written word was more one of reward than anything else. I understood the basic formula that if I said things that adults considered "smart," I would be rewarded with attention. I should clarify that I only started writing because my roommate in college was a writer. She was cool & I wanted to be cool so I followed her lead. Before then, I'd never written a word creatively. I'd written plenty of things for school, but up until then, I was sure I would fulfill my parents' dream of my being a doctor. I do wish I had a better story as to how I became a writer, but that's the truth of it. I should also mention that she's a fantastic poet, much better than I could ever be.

I also want to take the time to thank you, Jeff, for putting this whole shebang together! I hope you & your readers enjoy!

[Bio: Lily Hoang's Parabola won the Chiasmus Press Un-Doing the Novel Contest. She's also the author of the forthcoming novels Changing (Fairy Tale Review Press, December 2008) and The Evolutionary Revolution: A Real History (Les Figues Press, 2009-10). Her eBook Woman Down the Hall was recently released by Lamination Colony. She currently teaches & lives in South Bend, Indiana.]

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Interviews with members or associates of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music:

In the middle 1960's a group of black, mostly working class men and women from Chicago formed a musician's collective for the purpose of creating original, often avant-garde music. And, against all odds, they succeeded. 

George Lewis' fine new book A Power Stronger Than Itself, tells the story of the collective in a highly readable, even lyrical manner, while at the same time making the case for further academic investigations into the group. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) is still a strong, vital institution today. Contemporary artists such as Nicole Mitchell and Jeff Parker continue to make startlingly original music.
Members of earlier generations of the AACM have 'succeeded', according to standard measures: Anthony Braxton and George Lewis (the author of the book) are MacArthur Fellows. Henry Threadgill has won the Downbeat composer's poll a number of years. And the AACM's most famous group, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, is still making great music after 40 years, in spite of the death of two of its original members, Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors Maghostut.

What sets many of the AACM musicians apart from other avant-garde musics of the latter half of the 20th-century is the use of silence, space, and percussive flexibility. While Cecil Taylor and the late John Coltrane pulverized musical space with all-out intensity, the AACM members offered an equally challenging, but less aggressive type of music that places a lot of emphasis on composition, group interplay, and collage techniques.

Over the next several months, I will be posting interviews with members or associates of the AACM in celebration of the book's publication.

While I hate lists, I realize their importance for guiding people new to a subject . What follows is a list of  AACM recordings that would be the start of a good collection of the challenging music coming out of this collective. I am listing albums from the whole of the collective's years, rather than simply focusing on so-called 'classic' works. I am not "rating" these recordings, I am merely helping new listeners to get their feet wet.

Anthony Braxton - For Alto
A solo alto saxophone album, this still-controversial album developed a 'new syntax', according to Braxton, for the saxophone.

Roscoe Mitchell - Sound
The first AACM album. It is still fresh, even shocking at times, 40 years after its recording.

Joseph Jarman - For Song
Brilliant album full of dramatic crescendoes and intense, even at times scary, passages.

Muhal Richard Abrams - Levels and Degrees of Light
For years the de facto leader of the AACM, Muhal Richard Abrams here shows the
connections of the new so-called 'jazz' music to history and tradition. 

Art Ensemble of Chicago - Bap-tizum
If you have never heard these guys, you have not yet lived. They have a distinct sound which, at the same time, allows for plenty of flexibility so that most songs sound unique.

Amina Claudine Myers - Salutes Bessie Smith
Beatiful, gospel-influenced vocals and superb piano playing.

Henry Threadgill - Easily Slip Into Another World
This may puzzle some people, but for decades I have loved this album like no other by Threadgill, including his work with Air. As far as Air goes, I would suggest Air Time.

Philip Cohran & the Artistic Heritage Ensemble -
Philip Cohran is an old-time Chicago artist, who worked with Sun Ra when he was there in the 50's. These are some recordings from Cohran's legendary 'beach band'. They would play at of Lake Michigan. A point of interest: band members went on to play with Miles Davis and, ee gads, Earth, Wind, & Fire. They were probably the only AACM members to make real money.

George Lewis - Solo Trombone Album
Lewis is, hands down, my favorite trombone player.

Douglas Ewart & Inventions Clarinet Choir - Angles of Entrance
The most formidable line-up of clarinet players ever: Mwata Bowden, Anthony Braxton, J.D. Parran, Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, Edward Wilkerson, Jr., Don Byron

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble - Hang Tuff
Led by percussionist Kahil El'Zabar, this band develops some of the directions opened by the Art Ensemble: emphasis on world music (especially African), the use of a bevy of little percussion instruments, development of more 'open' compositions. The unique aspect of the group is it often does not use a bass: the rhythm is based almost entirely on the percussion.

Malachi Thompson - Buddy Bolden's Rag
Brilliant and highly versatile trumpet player, composer and arranger. We lost him way too soon.

8 Bold Souls - Last Option
Led by Ed Wilkerson, Jr., this is a classic band.

Ernest Dawkins New Horizons Ensemble - Jo'burg Jump
I hope this won't get me in trouble, but this fine band is, I think, one of the more conservative groups to come out of the AACM. They usually play advanced hard bop with plenty of room for improvisation.

Nicole Mitchell - Black Unstoppable
The 40-something Mitchell is flutist with tremendous conceptual abilities relative to music. She is now the co-president of the AACM.

Sticks & Stones - Sticks & Stones
A young group: Matana Roberts, Joshua Abrams, Chad Taylor. I believe that only Matana Roberts is a member. She also has a solo album released in 2008: The Chicago Project.