Friday Round Up: Best Thing I’ve Read All Week

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“When I think about the political unconsciousness of masculinity, it’s queerness.” That’s Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz discussing masculinity, science fiction, and writing as an act of defiance, in conversation with Hilton Als, theater critic for The New Yorker, part of a series of conversations that took place at The Strand, New York’s legendary independent book store, and I’ve been thinking about this  all week.

In reading about the sort of racism Diaz grew up with (“My entire family, they’re like, ‘Racism? I just don’t like niggers.’), I see shades of some of my own extended family–in particular, my Guyanese cousins who grew up in the Bronx, whom I’ve heard say almost exactly the same thing. It has always struck me as ironic that people who’ve grown up in one of the most diverse cities on the face of the planet would perpetuate that kind of attitude, but there it is.

And when Hilton Als replies, “My brother is very light-skinned, and my West Indian grandmother would tell me to get out of the sun,” I can practically hear my Guyanese grandmother telling me the same thing. (She also told me to avoid wearing dark colors, as they would make me look darker). Als notes that the fine gradations of privilege corresponding to fine gradations in the color scale in Dominican and Haitian cultures “can be very wounding.” As far as I can tell, this kind of discrimination is quite common throughout the Caribbean.

Diaz, I believe, is something approaching a bona fide genius, and in this interview, he strikes me as a kind of miraculous person as well: one who threw off both the racism and homophobia he grew up with to become one of our most thoughtful critics of the same.

Here’s the link to the full interview:

Works in Progress: Relics

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I’ve been drafting a new short story for the last month or so, in between revising chapters of Kublai, the science fiction novel I wrote via dictation last year. This short story is entitled either “Relics” (or “In Blackwater Woods”–I haven’t decided yet), and I’m experiencing that great creative high that comes with finishing the first draft.

In part because this is the first story I’ve written that’s set in the tilted version of West Michigan that I’ve had in mind for so long, in a version of the hippie farming community I had the good fortune to grow up in. As kids in this community, we always had our own particular, slightly slanted version of the world that we lived in, which lends itself well to magic–or at least, the suggestion of magic.

As these things go, I had to write a few pages before I was able to get to the beginning of the story. That’s part of what you see with the handwriting in red on this page, about what kind of a story this is (though this might make it into the story later on). (See also: My creative process at the moment.) That line at the bottom, I think, is where this story really begins.

Here’s the whole opening paragraph of this early draft:

“Our dungeon master hung himself from the hay loft the week he was home on leave from the Navy. Really, he was our storyteller–what we played had not been Dungeons and Dragons in a very long time–but to call him that would be to imply that we were not capable of telling stories ourselves, which we certainly were, and would certainly need to, now that he was dead.”

Next step: Type it up! (And revise.)

Monday Muse: Monica Drake

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I’m kicking off a regular series here at The Big Idea called Monday Muse, in which I’ll share what I’m drawing creative inspiration from each week. And what better place to start than with The Folly of Loving Life, the latest from one of my very favorite writers, Monica Drake?

I loved The Stud Book, Drake’s last novel, and so much of what I loved in that book figures heavily here.

The characters who populate these linked stories feel like my friends, family members, and acquaintances here in Portland; the settings and scenes speak to this moment in history, this place in the world, in such a specific and satisfying way; and though these stories never quite go speculative (I would argue that “The Arboretum,” one of my favorite stories in this book, could pass for a ghost story), there’s that delicious sense of a tilted world, the feeling as a reader that you couldn’t possibly predict which direct any given story is going to go in.

The final story, “S.T.D. Demon,” is a tour de force–I feel like it rearranged the wiring of my brain, not unlike a talk the poet Mary Reuffle once gave at the Tin House writers conference.

As far as inspiration goes, as far as I’m concerned, you can’t do better than that.

Murmuration, Part 2

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How can a group of birds, flying en masse, so closely resemble the shifting forms of a wave?

And if this beautiful phenomenon is a fact of our world, what does it mean?

Sometimes I suspect that certain forms, certain shapes, are strange attractors in space and time. That the shapes characteristic of fluid dynamics are found in water and wind and flocks of birds because small things, moving together in accordance with a few local rules, are and always will be drawn to make them. That when Homo sapiens branched off from Homo erectus and developed longer legs and a more upright head, it was, in part, because our species was drawn into the spiral of the Golden Mean, Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man.

Also, like most writers, I’m fond of the different names given to groups of different animals. How lovely that a group of starlings arrayed in flight is not a flock but a murmuration, for the sound of their wings.

A whisper, maybe, of our collective potential.