The Future of Fiction

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I’m a bit behind the times but news of Lionel Shriver’s address on cultural appropriation at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival (early September, 2016) has recently come to my attention. I’ve had dark nights of the soul, of late, about my own fiction writing, and about the future of fiction in general.

It was in David Shields’ Reality Hunger that I was first introduced to the idea that fiction may be doomed. It seemed such a ridiculous concept that I dismissed it…mostly. Now, in addition to my own mixed feelings about the meaning and ramifications of cultural appropriation in fiction, I wonder if David shields wasn’t right. Or, as Lionel Shriver apparently said in Brisbane, “All that’s left is memoir.”

Let me first say that I am terrifically disappointed that Shriver chose to make her speech in a sombrero, and that reviews from many sources, including The New York Times, Financial ReviewThe Daily Telegraph, and the Wall Street Journal are characterized by a similar and unfortunate degree of snarkiness, regardless of which side of the aisle they represent. I like this comment (from the website The Conversation) at least as much for its content as the sober, serious manner of its expression:

Very few critics suggest that fiction writers limit their fiction to their own experience. Indeed, critic Nesrine Malik suggests this constrains understanding between people and the processes of empathetic engagement that can happen in writing and reading fiction.

Rather, writers in positions of privilege are encouraged to think critically about how this shapes their writing. Novelist Jim C Hines argues that engaging in a process of scrutiny actually creates better writers. Privileged writers could also consider how to support and help amplify the voices of diverse writers, who experience publishing bias and lack of access to writing opportunities.

I didn’t think (much) about cultural misappropriation while reading Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. If every writer achieved what he did in that haunting book, I don’t think we’d be having much of a conversation. And yet, in spite of this, I did feel compelled to research Johnson’s actual connections to North Korea. They are minimal. Similarly, when reviewing a book by an older white woman whose story included some Native American characters, I considered investigating if this woman did, in  fact, have any (real?) connection to Native American culture. Because she is a minor player on the fiction-writing stage, I couldn’t research this online, and would have had to ask her, in person…what? What exactly would I have asked her? Are you Native American? What per cent Native American are you? Do you have friends who are Native American? Even a question like How much research did you do into this particular Native American community? seems absurd, and like it misses the point.

So what is the point?

That’s the question. What exactly do we need to know to authenticate or validate a writer’s appropriation? The quote above from The Conversation suggests that we need to know the writer gave the question serious consideration. We need to feel confident the writer asked him or herself questions like, What is my privilege? and How does it shape my writing? 

It’s why snark has no place in the discussion. It’s why Shriver should not have worn that sombrero. It’s why stereotypical, easily-chosen, poorly researched names and behaviors are a fiction-writer’s doom. Do these things and you will, in my opinion, be judged as misappropriating, regardless of your intent. You will invite discussions of your privilege, and they won’t be kind.

Fiction writers can write what they want, but it better be good. And we all need to do what we can to foster the writing of people who have traditionally been subject to publishing bias and restricted opportunity. Which means buying and reading their books. Which will make all of our fiction better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Payback Time: Thanks for Your Support, Dale Gregory Anderson

 Intermedia Arts presents
Queer Voices: LGBTQIA+ Reading Series
September 27, 2016 | 7:30PM
At Intermedia Arts | 2822 Lyndale Ave South | Minneapolis
$5-25 Suggested Donation Supports the Series!
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 I got an email today from excellent writer and fine person Dale Gregory Anderson, a man who has been nothing but kind to me for as long as I’ve known him. Check out his website here. I consulted Dale several years ago about a story I was writing. He read it, suggested changes, and generally encouraged me to continue working on it. I did, and it became one of my best publications (“Seizure,” Spring 2014 Ploughshares, listed under “Other Distinguished Stories of 2014” in BASS 2015.)

Dale’s got two big events coming up, so I’d like to begin to return his many favors by letting you know about them. The first is an Intermedia Arts event publicized above. On Tuesday, September 27 at 7:30 p.m., Dale will be reading as a part of this distinguished series. Below is his bio and, and the here’s the link to the event.

 Dale Gregory Anderson has published short stories in North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, The Greensboro Review, and other journals. He earned an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona and has received a number of awards for his work, including a Loft Mentor Series award, a SASE/Jerome award, a Jerome Foundation travel grant, and the Jack Dyer Fiction Prize from Crab Orchard Review. He is a fiscal year 2016 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. 
This Intermedia Arts event is a kind of “pay what you can” situation. But there’s another event being conducted by Dale that’s ABSOLUTELY FREE: a class he’s teaching at the Walker Library in Minneapolis on revising your fiction. I tried for about an hour to reproduce here the cool flyer he’s prepared, but I had to settle for a kind of cut and paste. You get the idea:
 TAKE YOUR FICTION TO THE NEXT LEVEL

Saturday, October 15, 2016, 10 a.m. – noon Walker Library, Calhoun Meeting Room 2880 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN55408

Join Minneapolis writer Dale Gregory Anderson for a free class on revising fiction. Whether you write short stories or novels, this class will explore many of the techniques writers use to develop characters with the emotional complexity and motivation needed to drive a work of literary fiction. All you need to bring is a pen and paper or a laptop. While we won’t have time to critique individual manuscripts, participants will have a chance to ask questions.

This is a wonderful opportunity made possible by a very talented friend of mine. You’ll only be sorry if you miss it.

 

 

Another science love letter

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Continuing my love affair with Natalie Vestin’s and EA Farro’s Science Love Letters, I was particularly entranced by EA Farrow’s August 24 letter, Under the Microscope. Consider, for example, the beauty the image above (from an entirely different website). According to its caption in an article titled “Beautiful Data: Cell Biology Yields Microcosms of Art,”

Neon-colored cells divide in a cell culture. Wendy Crone and graduate student Suehelay Acevedo are looking at how the mechanical properties of their surrounding might influence cells during division. The green stain marks centrosomes, which are one of the main mechanical components involved in cell division. The blue marks cell nuclei, and the red marks the DNA of dividing cells. Images by Max Salick

In her August 24 love letter, EA Farrow writes, among many other things, about how she fell in love with a microscope as a child. About the microscope as a tool to her better understanding the “forests of 8,000 years ago,” research of which has been a part of her scientific career. And then she talks about introducing her microscope to her young children:

I pulled out my scope this morning, touched it like I would a lover. I introduced it to the boys like it was an old friend. I felt the urge to dive in, leave off. But what we had to look at was bits of our neighborhood: oak leaf, dirt, kale, onion skin. I could see without looking the cell walls, reaching vein structures. As if once you see, you cannot forget the level of detail in each bit of life.

My husband is a pathologist, the only other person I know to use the near-to- affectionate word “scope” for microscope. We’ve purchased a few, one a long time ago when we could ill afford it and yet it is the microscope and my husband’s keen eye that has made most things in our life possible. It is why those good eyes of his have gone myopic and why his body wishes he wouldn’t sit so much. It is what has helped him recognize disease: inflammation, infection, cancer. He has saved lives–many, many lives–with his scope.

He told me yesterday about a remote place in the world where surgery for cancer occurs, but there are no pathologists. No scopes to find detail in tumorous cells that might help make a diagnosis, which predicts a prognosis, which directs a clinician to treatment. Life saving treatment, but not without a scope. Without a scope, without a pathologist with a keen eye looking through a scope, people in these small and remote villages sometimes purchase a container (from container-selling vendors who set up shop near surgery clinics) in which to place and preserve, with the appropriate chemicals, the tumors removed from their loved one’s bodies. Families take the tumors (and, presumably, their loved ones) home, and wait until they can raise enough money to later bring the preserved tumor to a setting where a pathologist practices.

Only then do they get to see the tiniest details in this bit of life (and possibly death) of the people they love. Only then do they benefit from the keen eye of a pathologist, as s/he looks through that miracle of science, the microscope, to the miracles of science, ourselves, our cells.

 

 

Serving Up a Memory: A Science Love Letter

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Dear Dad,

It may seem odd to some that in a love letter to science, I’m writing to you, since you’ve been gone now for over three years. But today you came back to me, and if it wasn’t through science I don’t know how it happened.

Your namesake grandson is home, as you may know–I’m not about to go all “I know you’re watching from on high,” although I refuse to eliminate the possibility. Anyway, he’s home for a few weeks before he moves to his apartment. The other day he made a pasta salad and I liked it so much I thought I’d try to replicate it today. In preparation, last night I grilled him on the ingredients–how much pasta? How much salami? Any must-have other ingredients? Yes, he said. Mushrooms, artichokes and roasted red peppers.

I think I may have made pasta salad on occasion when he was a kid but I’m certain I never used roasted red peppers, because various other food-consumers in the household do not like peppers, thank you very much. So I haven’t opened a jar of roasted red peppers in…well, in a very long time. And yet there I was today, pulling those beautiful red peppers, quite tightly packed, out of their little glass jar.

And there you were, too.

You were at the kitchen table. It was lunchtime on a Saturday, and on the dining room table were a host of delicious, familiar ingredients: a long loaf of crispy Italian bread, deli-paper-wrapped slices of salami and provolone, and you, fishing (with your oversized fingers) for roasted red peppers out of the jar.

You made this “better keep myself from drooling over this uber-tasty food” sound, and you made this face I can see as clearly as if you were sitting next to me, today: wide-eyed, purse-mouthed, anticipatory. All for our entertainment, of course. All out of a true love for salami and provolone and an even truer love for a weekend lunch, together.

I don’t know exactly what memories are–like what they ARE, in the world. But they seem to me to be some extension of consciousness, which is the world’s best science question, right? What is the biochemistry of consciousness?

And what triggers a memory? If you’re lucky, and I am, it’s love. And then it’s something else, too: a smell, the reach of fingers into a small jar, the taste of a Saturday afternoon.

Thanks for stopping by today, Dad. Come again soon.

Love.

Welcome

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In Sunday’s Minneapolis Star Tribune there was an excellent article by writer Mila Koumpilova, Years with no nation, 90 days to become a Minnesotan. I read it with great interest, not only for the story it tells about the remarkably difficult passage of recently immigrated Somalis to the Minnesotan/American mainstream, but because my daughter has done similar work in Utah for the past several months.

Here in Minnesota, the caseworker’s name is Katia Iverson and you should click on the link simply for the opening photograph (which I unfortunately couldn’t reproduce here) of Katia standing by as several children of the Abdullahi family experiment with turning on an electric lamp. The simple phrase “their first home visit” immediately brings to mind the many phone conversations I’ve had with my daughter, who worked (continues to work, even as she returns to her academic teaching and research position this fall) tirelessly to find landlords willing to rent to immigrant families new to Utah, people with no credit rating and who often do not speak English. As you can imagine, that’s not an easy task, but workers (angels) like Katia, my daughter and some open-minded landlords seem to be making it happen, and places like Minnesota and Utah are welcoming families like the Abdullahi’s.

I would so much prefer you read the article I’m going to make this short today. Milo Koumpilova is wonderfully understated in describing the experience of the Abdullahi family as they transition to life in the United States. If you’ve ever thought “These people have it made, coming here,” please read Years with no nation, 90 days to become a Minnesotan. If you’ve thought recent immigrant experiences are comparable to your own family’s century-old immigration story, please read Years with no nation, 90 days to become a Minnesotan.

If you think there are no people left in the world willing to sacrifice everything they know and love for a better future for their children, please read Years with no nation, 90 days to become a Minnesotan.

And please keep Katia Iverson and my daughter and every person in each of the families they’ve worked to settle here in your prayers. May these families be safe until they are comfortable, hopeful until things start to go their way, proud of their courage and resolve, always. And may all of us do our best to welcome them.