Resistance Writers: An Interview with Autumn Brown

As societies around the world dip their toes in authoritarianism, we’d like to elevate authors of speculative fiction who imagine alternatives or help us demand the impossible futures of our dreams. In the Resistance Writers interview series, we’ll hear from a handful of writers from the 2015 anthology, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. Each writer elaborates on sources of inspiration and how activism informs their work. Our hope is to provide a source of guidance for aspiring writers of visionary fiction.

Thomas Chisholm (TC)

What was your inspiration for “Small and Bright?” I believe it’s the first chapter in a novel you’re developing—how far along is that project? Was the novel in development before you agreed to participate in the Octavia’s Brood anthology or did that work inspire the novel?

Autumn Brown (AB)

I never set out to write science fiction. This story first came to me in 2010, and it really inhabited me. I felt that the story was insisting on being written, particularly my protagonist Orion. I never felt like she was a character I created, more like she is a real person, whose story needs to be told, and she chose me as the channel. To be honest, when the story first came to me, I tried to ignore it and resist it for several months, but it wouldn’t let me go. She wouldn’t let me go. So, I began writing, and truly I did not know what I was doing. I had never written anything with this kind of narrative scope.

It was months later that I was invited to submit a short story to Octavia’s Brood, and I decided to submit the first chapter of my novel. I had to adjust the chapter significantly in order for it to work as a short story, and it was still several years between when I submitted the chapter as a story and when the anthology was ultimately published in 2015. But I feel, especially now (ten years since I began writing “Small and Bright” and five years since Octavia’s Brood was published), that the publication of Octavia’s Brood, and the reception of the anthology, helped me believe more deeply in myself as a writer. I always believed in the story, but I think the way it was received and continues to be received by readers helped me believe in my ability to write it.

And I’m still writing it. I finished a draft manuscript in 2019, and then I went through a major life transition that required me to set the work aside and really protect it from the chaos and pain and trauma of my actual life. So, I only just picked it back up recently, and I am revising it. As a working mom, it’s really tough to find time to work on a long, complex project like this, so I really have to carve it out for myself. It’s like stealing time, in a way. But right now, I am feeling confident that the final manuscript will be ready by the end of 2020. And hopefully, I’ll find a publisher willing to take a risk on what is, honestly, a pretty experimental narrative, even for a work of science fiction.

TC

What kind of impact have you seen Octavia’s Brood make since its publication in 2015? What role do you see visionary fiction playing in today’s political climate?

AB

I still receive messages from readers at least once a month expressing the impact of this anthology on their lives and political work. It seems that the influence of Brood’s vision has only grown as global political circumstances have become decidedly more apocalyptic. This makes sense to me; the anthology was published while Obama was president, and only a year later we had the election of Trump. And with it the revelation that the insidious white supremacist underbelly of our political and economic systems had never actually gone anywhere.

Even as a student and teacher of the history of white supremacy, I was shocked and numbed by the 2016 election. But looking back I think we can all see that the signs were there, at every step of the way, pointing to this as the bleak outcome, the culmination of a hundred-years-long political project underpinned by the ideology of violence and subjugation. That’s why visionary fiction is so important. As we Brooders say in our visionary fiction writing workshops, we are in an imagination battle. In that battle, we must both examine the underlying assumptions and beliefs of our current landscape, and we must be vigilant in producing and reproducing a different vision, a different set of assumptions and values, that culminate in a different outcome. I think the cultural work of visionary fiction is more critical now than ever because the current conditions are grim and terrifying. There’s no question about that and we have to be pragmatic about that. But it is from within that pragmatism that we must acknowledge this truth: it has always been through art and cultural work that societies transmit themselves, claim or reclaim traditions, and express a yearning for something that cannot yet be seen. And it is when it is darkest that we most need to believe in that which we cannot see.

TC

In the current climate in the United States, I see a lot of people (myself included) criticizing the powers that be, while taking little or no direct action. How did you find your voice, and your place within activist circles/movements? How have those experiences shaped your writing? What guidance might you give to aspiring artists/activists? 

AB

Armchair activism arises in a climate where people lack a sense of agency over the conditions of their lives. I think it’s really important to remember that the political system we have, which is rooted in white supremacy, rooted in subjugation, is designed to elicit those exact feelings in us. When you don’t believe in your own power to change the world, it is much easier to have opinions about what is happening than to take responsibility for what is happening. Easier to distance yourself from the ultimate impact of what is happening. And oh how delicious it is to feel like a victim of our circumstances instead of a driver of our lives. I don’t think we are honest with ourselves, sometimes, about how much more we would prefer to be powerless than to take responsibility for changing these conditions. That’s why activism is really a rigorous practice. It’s a spiritual practice and requires spiritual rigor, and a willingness to, as Mary Hooks says, “be transformed in the service of the work.” That change is an embodied change and it really ain’t a game.

Maybe some of us would rather point fingers at how everyone else is doing it wrong, and that’s a place. That is a place, for sure, and I’ve been there. But only because I wasn’t willing to look at myself, and my own individualism. The ways I had internalized the values of white supremacy, in order to survive it. We’ve all done that, and we all have to undo it, from within, to be of use, and to be of service.

And we have to be unafraid of making mistakes because that’s how we learn. I always tell folks that there’s absolutely no shame in admitting that you are wrong and that you don’t know. It’s only after being socialized and, really, ground down inside of white supremacy, that we believe we can only succeed by constantly projecting our rightness. But you look historically at our most important political leaders and thought leaders, the ones who were able to advance the most visionary goals, and you pretty consistently see humility and an orientation to service, a willingness to be moved, a willingness to take risks, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.

And you see an orientation to the collective. I was lucky to have been introduced to activism through collective and consensus-based work from my earliest experiences as a student organizer; that meant I was required to confront my desire to individuate head on. And I still want to be a star most of the time, and I think a lot of us do. It’s natural to want to be the center of your own life, the hero of your own story. The difference is that now I am honest with myself and others about it, and then I can work with it, see where it’s healthy and where it’s not. I can look at my own patterns and say, okay, how is this actually about me, and then how am I trying to make it about me? There’s a difference. And it takes rigor to know the difference.

TC

What kinds of fiction and which particular authors have shaped your thinking? When writing fiction, what comes first: the concepts and ideals you want to explore, or the characters? Do you write with a political goal in mind?

AB

I am a hardcore science fiction reader. I absolutely love the presence of science in the work, I’m a real sucker for that, so I love books like Neuromancer and Idoru by William Gibson. And also, I love work that drops you into the middle of the world and forces you to find your way via context and character, without a ton of exposition. Writers like Sofia Samatar, Kim Stanley Robinson, and China Miéville . . . I can just disappear for days inside their work. And then there are the visionaries who are intentionally working with power and oppression in their work, but who know how to do it without skirting on the heartbreak and heroism that is at the heart of what the reader is longing for. I want to be taken on a journey! So that’s where writers like N. K. Jemisin and Octavia E. Butler, and their masterpieces of world-building and imagination and real character work, inspire me and thrill me and I mourn the end of the story.

In my own work, as I shared regarding “Small and Bright,” I often feel more like I am channeling than creating. I do a lot of archetype work with my characters and I actually interview them when I am writing; and more often than not, I do know the entire arc of the narrative before I put pen to paper, and I am trusting the characters in the story to teach me how to tell their story. Phrasing is important to me, and experimentation with phrasing and the way the text itself sits on the page to be read is something I am exploring more and more. I prefer to drop the reader in the world and let them find their way and signpost without a ton of exposition, but I’m relatively early in my career as a fiction writer, so I’m still learning how to do that well.

My politics show up in my writing where I challenge myself about ideology in the writing process itself, both in the way I am writing my characters and in the way I understand what it is they actually want, what motivates them. For instance, in “Small and Bright,” as Orion’s character has unfolded over time, it’s been important to me to steer clear of typical tropes for heroines. Often, and especially in science fiction, the heroine doesn’t know her true power or purpose until another character or group of characters, usually men, help her to see it. Usually, her journey is about learning to believe in herself; in a way, it’s about her self-actualization, vis-à-vis the gaze of others. That pattern is satisfying for the reader and it makes a good story, and certainly, I love to read those kinds of stories, but it’s not a pattern I wanted to reproduce in my book. I am asking the question: can the reader fall in love with a character whose arc is not about self-actualization, and where the gaze through which the reader sees and understands her is her own? What if the story is actually about her grief? What if the most important action is internal? I still want the reader to root for her, but for different reasons.

TC

From your facilitation work, I can tell consensus building is important to you. How did that organizational method come to resonate so deeply with you?

AB

I was lucky to be introduced to consensus and trained in consensus while I was studying abroad as a twenty-year-old. It fundamentally changed me and changed how I understand my role in political work. In a way, my discovery of consensus and my discovery that I am an especially gifted facilitator gave me a role and a purpose in social justice and movement work. I believe I am of best use in supporting organizers and social movements through this skill set because the work of consensus is about helping people find the most visionary path forward together; it’s a path that they can only find together, and not separately. Consensus makes more possible, in part because it requires us to be rigorous about our ideas, and it requires us to orient collectively towards the best idea, rather than the smartest person.

Consensus is how we survive; I really believe that. It forces us to acknowledge our inherent interdependence.

TC

You and your sister adrienne maree brown have hosted a podcast, How to Survive the End of the World since 2017. The first half of season four premiered earlier this year. Was the “Apocalypse Survival” miniseries inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic? How did it differ from previous end of the world themes? What’s in the store for the rest of season four?

AB

The apocalypse survival miniseries had been in the works for months prior to the pandemic. It was something that we had wanted to do from pretty early in the life of the podcast; and when adrienne went on sabbatical in 2020, it felt like the perfect timing, in part because this subject area is of special interest to me.

So we had put a lot of thought and planning into the way the series would unfold, and we were about to launch it when the pandemic hit the US. So, while the series wasn’t inspired by the pandemic, the pandemic shaped the series in every way. Every conversation I had with every guest was happening in the context of a live, global crisis that touched everyone and every aspect of human life, so it wasn’t theoretical at all. We were, for instance, talking about the skill of squatting and creating livable homes out of abandoned spaces, in a context where people were losing jobs and getting evicted from their homes, and in a context where safety inside the pandemic requires safe, livable, private spaces.

My producer Zak and I felt a high level of responsibility for the content, and the speed of production given how urgent the conditions were, so we also released the miniseries weekly, which isn’t the typical speed for our show. It was one of the most grueling projects I have ever worked on, and I feel so deeply proud of what we accomplished.

We are on break now but we are about to head into the second half of season four. adrienne is back from her sabbatical, and we are going to spend the rest of the season in deep conversation with one another, with just a few interviews uplifting some of the most important ideas we believe can lead us through the difficulty that is coming. So it’s really going to feel like a return to the intimacy and magic of our very first season.

TC

What else are you currently working on, politically and/or creatively? 

AB

Staying alive! Haha.

In addition to my science fiction writing, I am working on a memoir and an album.

In my political work, I am trying to translate the work on whiteness and white supremacy that I’ve done over the last decade plus, into a body of work that can be transmitted to a new generation of facilitators. I’m trying to be the best partner and lover I can be to my beloved. And I’m preparing for another season of distance learning with my three brilliant, resilient children, so I’m trying to be an excellent mom. Which is really just about staying present and paying attention.

I’m trying not to plan too far ahead, and just stay nimble. I think we all need to be preparing for the chaos and uncertainty that lies ahead and preparing ourselves to shape that chaos into the future we want.

F(r)iction #16 Cover

Meet Our Fall 2020 Interns!

If you’ve ever met one of our wonderful F(r)iction staffers, you’ll quickly learn that almost every one of them was once an intern in our Publishing Internship Program.

This program is run by our parent nonprofit organization, Brink Literacy Project. While our publishing internships are a great way to get a crash course in the literary industry, they can often provide a path to what can become a long and rewarding professional relationship. For more information, please visit the internship page on the Brink website.

Aoife Lynch 

What is your favorite place to read?  

I love to read outside in the city, especially when it’s chilly. I bundle up in a big coat and scarf and sit outside on a park bench for as long as I can bear, usually with a flask of tea. Reading outside, anything can happen. A bird might arrive and want some of my lunch, or some kid might race past and jump into a pile of leaves, or I might catch a few minutes of rare sunshine on a gray day. All my best conversations with strangers happen during my bench reading time—talking to a gardener about the Virginia Woolf books we’ve read and the ones we’ve given up on, or chatting to a tourist about the best bookshops in the city. I love it all, especially the occasional curious look, and the inevitable “is it any good?” that follows. 

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead? 

How could anyone resist opening a mysterious door in the side of a mountain? When I open the door, there’s a passageway cut deep into the stone. Naturally I’m curious, so I take a couple of steps inside. It’s dark, and pleasantly cool, and it smells earthy in a nice way.  

The door closes behind me. I’m left in total darkness. I’m momentarily terrified—I hate the dark. But the door is right behind me, and I’ve only walked in a couple of steps, so I turn around and push it open. Simple as that, I’m back on the mountain path—a little shaken, and a little dazzled by the sudden sunlight, but no harm done. 

It’s only when I’ve been home for a few hours that I realize something has changed. Things in this world are different. Strange. Mysterious. Unnatural . . . And I love it! Cups of tea don’t go cold no matter how long you leave them, and tea from the teapot is never too weak. I’ve entered paradise, probably. 

Also, there are no odd socks. 

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.    

I don’t drink coffee, but I love tea. My favorite beverage ritual is sharing a pot of tea with people I love. Always Irish Breakfast tea, loose leaf if there’s any in the house. The best kind is tea on a Saturday or Sunday morning at breakfast time. I take down the nicest mugs from the cupboard. We make the pot of tea (heat the pot first, then four spoons of loose leaf, then the water, and then the tea cozy to keep it warm), we wait for it to draw, and as soon as it’s finished, we make another pot. 

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language? 
  
My favorite English word is murmuration, meaning a flock of starlings. I like it because it’s a rare word, and because it feels nice in my mouth, and because “flock of starlings” doesn’t do justice to the strangeness of watching a murmuration making waves and patterns across the sky when the light is fading in the evening (they usually happen right before dusk). It’s a wonderful word too because murmurations are so visually spectacular, but they also have a strange auditory dimension. It’s a rushing, ebbing sound of lots of wings and birdsong, a sort of fluctuating murmuring. 

I also love the phrase “ruaille buaille”, which is an Irish phrase that’s been adopted into the English that’s spoken in Ireland. It means, a fun sort of commotion. 

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

I’m choosing Have One on Me by Joanna Newsom as my album. It’s got sad songs and strange songs and songs to dance to, and it’s two hours long which is a definite plus if I’m indefinitely stranded on a deserted island. She’s also a wonderful lyricist, so it would almost be like having a second book with me.  

For my book, I’m tentatively choosing Paul Muldoon’s Selected Poems. I’ll need something that’ll keep me occupied, and I find his poetry equally frustrating and rewarding. There are short poems and long poems which will give me a bit of variety depending what I’m in the mood for, and his poetry is great to read aloud. It’s also playful, and I think I’ll need some levity settling into my island existence! 

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be?  

The shallowness of many of the efforts to build a more diverse industry. It’s not enough to hire BIPOC in entry-level roles. Especially within the major publishing houses, it’s an industry internally dominated by a white middle class, which caters for a white middle class readership. Grand statements about the need for more diversity and the power of literature to build bridges and enable compassion mean nothing without proactive, anti-racist, systematic change at all levels of the industry. A literary industry that remains built around white middle class tastes can never hope to be truly diverse. 

Cassandra Perez

What is your favorite place to read?   

In a comfy chair next to a large window, optimally when it’s raining (which happens very often in Florida).  

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead? 

I absolutely open the door because I distrust winding, wooded paths on principle. It leads to somewhere flat and open, like the beach. And wow! There’s already a lounge chair, umbrella, and book laid out for me.  

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.    

Typically cold, sometimes hot, always Cuban. I take it with honey, cinnamon, and some sort of non-dairy creamer (my go-to is Silk’s Original Soy Creamer).  

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language?   

My favorite English word is ergo because it sounds funny and has the ability to elevate the tone of a sentence with minimal effort—a lot of power for such a small word when you think about it. My favorite word (technically, phrase) in Spanish is ¡Ay bendito! because it’s multifaceted; you can use it to express happiness, sadness, or (my personal favorite) annoyance just by the tone you say it with.   

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

The Essential Dolly Parton (which is probably cheating) because I can’t imagine a world without Dolly Parton, and The Count of Monte Cristo because it’s my mom’s favorite book and I never understood why. I’ll definitely have time to figure it out.  

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be?  

Positive steps have been made recently, but I’d like to see a sustained effort to diversify the people who make up the literary industry, which in turn paves the way for more books about and by members of marginalized communities to reach our bookshelves.  

Miki Schumacher

What is your favorite place to read?    

I love reading in bed, especially with the lazy afternoon sun filtering through the blinds. I usually put in some earbuds to muffle any outside noise because I get distracted by sounds easily. There are so many piles around my room of books I’ve started but have yet to finish. It’s the perfect environment for both reading and napping—two things that I think go hand in hand!   

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead?  

This would be so exciting! The mountain path is quite mossy, and the door is almost imperceptible. The only indication that it could be a door is the white mushroom handle. I carefully twist the handle and push, only to realize that it’s actually a pull door. After my second try, I wipe the moisture off on my pants and enter into a dark cavern. My eyes slowly adjust to the darkness, and I feel something small bump into my leg. Then, I feel something else jump onto my shoulder. I turn my head and discover a frog sitting there with a tiny hat. It jumps off as I yell in surprise, and I take a closer look at the ground. The cave has thousands of frogs! I back away slowly and close the door, giving them their privacy. Little do I know that another has hitched a ride on the side of my pants . . .  

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.     

I’m not a fan of coffee, but I drink tea with almost every meal! One of my favorite drinks is mixing half a cup of cold oolong tea with half a cup of coconut milk. This usually helps get me through my afternoon slump. 

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language?    

My favorite English word right now is ephemeral. I love how the consonant sounds are broken up in this word; it feels like the vowels are drawn out and the word can be sustained. This seems a bit ironic, considering the word is used to describe things that last for only a short time.  

My favorite word in Japanese is 木漏れ日, or komorebi. This refers to how the sunlight shines through the leaves of a tree and speckles the ground with light. I think about it when I’m out for a walk through the forest and see the small circles of light dancing on the ground as the leaves sway in the wind. It’s a very peaceful feeling for me to think of this word, and I’m reminded of good memories and left with a sense of nostalgia. 

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

This is such a hard question! For the album, I’d have to choose Mitski’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek purely for the song “First Love / Late Spring.” I could listen to this on repeat forever. This album pulls on so many different emotions for me, and her lyrics feel like the best kind of punch. 

For my book, I would have a copy of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I recently finished this novel, and I find myself going back over and over again to different sections. This book keeps calling back to me, and I love discovering something new each time I read! I highly recommend this book if you’re interested in fractured narratives. 

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be? 

For the literary industry to truly serve its audience, the institution of publishing needs to be able to support editors with diverse backgrounds. Publishing continues to fail to represent what society looks like—this is especially true with children’s literature. If I could change anything, I would create more opportunities for people to write their stories, and I would make the editing world more accessible as well.  

Amber Sullivan

What is your favorite place to read?   

My favorite place to read is outside in a comfortable deck chair during crisp hours—early morning, late night—with a nearby table to hold my tea.  

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead? 

Before I open it, I roll an insight check to look for runes or other markings, like maybe claw marks. I’m opening the door regardless; I just like to check for clues. 

Behind the door is a staircase that leads down, deep beneath the mountain. Two torches light the entrance, but the path descend far beyond their reach. The air is damp and warmer than I expected. Something rumbles from the depths. The torches cannot be removed from their posts, so I continue down into darkness.  

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.    

I drink my coffee black, but I’m really a tea person. I love a good pu’er, but I always end up steeping the tea too long because I forget about it while interneting in the morning.  

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language?   

Instead of my favorite word, I want to share my favorite quote about words: 

“Change. Change. Change. Change… Change. Change. Chaaaange. When you say words a lot, they don’t mean anything. Or maybe they don’t mean anything anyway, and we just think they do.” 

– Delirium of The Endless, The Sandman  

But If I had to pick a word, it would be whangdoodle because it’s really great. 

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

As delightful as a deserted island sounds right now, I’m assuming I didn’t plan for this to happen. 

Book: The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin. Why? Because it’s the book I’m currently reading, and I forgot to bring my Forager’s Harvest on this doomed vacation.  

Album: Rhythm of Youth by Men Without Hats. Why? So that I can tell which strangers are safe because if they don’t dance, well, they’re no friends of mine.  

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be? 

That the medium of comix is not analyzed or appreciated from a literary standpoint. Graphic novels and comics are becoming more valued but are still largely marketed to children or niche fan bases. I think incorporating comix into school curricula at all reading levels is an excellent way to bring the literary value of comix forward.  

Carissa Villagomez

What is your favorite place to read?   

I like to read anywhere that is quiet and isolated, which often means I read in my room late at night. I love to immerse myself in a book, so the experience is always better when I have the adequate time to really savor what I am reading. 

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead? 

I open the door! Excitement, challenges, new worlds all await, and I am not letting my chance to indulge in my own transformative bookish adventure get away from me. I approach the door, my mind buzzing with all the possibilities. Door in the side of a mountain automatically makes me think of dwarven kingdoms made up of spiraling stone and fantastical caverns where beasts with hearts of gold lie in wait. I grip the carved wooden handle, blood abuzz with opportunity as the world shifts beneath my feet. I take a deep breath and open the door to be greeted by the sight of infinite darkness. I frown and lean slightly forward. The darkness bends for a moment and then golden light particles snap into existence, multiplying and racing outward to coalesce into four dazzling pathways of stars. Each road extends out into the darkness and leads to a window. The first window to the left peers into a world densely populated by verdant green trees. Elaborate houses are built into their branches and families of hybrid humanoid bird creatures bustle about inside warmly light rooms. A creature that looks like a mix between an elk and a zebra quietly munches on grass and gives me a look as if to say, “What are you waiting for?” The second window looks out into a cloudy sky where a clan of navy eyed figures ride lightning strikes to deliver medical supplies to airships. One of the figures looks up at me and quirks an eyebrow. In the third window, I stare into the back of my own head as I watch myself authoritatively gesticulate to a person made of smoke. A tendril of vapor forms into a hand that waves me forward. In the fourth window lies a world made of fractured glass that hums, each shard holding an alternative reality for all the choices I have made. I briefly look over my shoulder back to the mountain path, then face forward once again. I smile and leap into the dark. 

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.    

I don’t drink coffee or have any particularly interesting liquid ritual. I’m quite content drinking a nice glass of water while I ponder my severe lack of beverage ingenuity. 

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language?   

It’s difficult to think of just one word as my favorite. Perhaps encapsulate because it always has my back when I need a word that really captures everything and nothing at the same time. Solivagant holds a special place in my heart as well, as wandering alone is compatible with my consuming introspection but, more importantly, it also suggests a freedom and quiet self-assuredness I yearn for.  

As for other languages, I would have to say either the lovely cognate interactuar in Spanish because using it has made me sound more competent in certain situations or the Yaghan word mamihlapinatapai because it perfectly encapsulates (ha!) an interesting moment of nonverbal communication.  

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

If I knew that there was a possibility of me being alone on a deserted island before embarking on the journey that landed me there, then I would prepare by carefully combining all the pages from favorite and currently unread-but-owned books into one giant, spiral bound volume. I know that’s skirting the question, but it’s an impossible one to answer. I’ll concede at least one title that I would include in said creation, which would have to be . . . The Last Uncharted Sky by Curtis Craddock because it is so fantastical that I would surely forget about being on the island in the first place.   

The album would be Where I Go When I Am Sleeping by Casey because listening to it while completely deserted would allow me to more thoroughly reflect from all the anxiety induced by the machinations and troubles of society. Prompted by the band’s unique lyrics and my detached surroundings, I would reconsider all the experiences I have never had, the nature of self-perception, and all the overlooked nuances of human interaction with a different perspective. 

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be?  

The literary industry has multiple areas in which it needs to be improved. If I could change it, I would make it more responsive to change and more active in challenging its past traditions of exclusivity. Publishing often seems as if it is one step behind the flow of events as major companies are often slow to respond. Literature not only responds but can also anticipate and initiate new actions/discussions to get them into more mainstream consciousness. I would want to make the entire industry more energized, empathetic, and respectful of all voices. This vision also includes addressing the often-overlooked aspect of mental health in the industry, so that those in the industry are more active in publishing more nuanced portrayals of mental health. 

September Staff Picks: French Rap, Queer Historical Fiction, and Superheroes

Chase Bailey

The past few weeks I’ve been big into French rap, especially an album—Amina—by Lomepal. I’d already been a fan of another one of his albums but decided to try out this one out. I ended up listening to the album on repeat (again and again and again and . . .) while working on a puzzle (re: waiting for a COVID-19 test). There’s a story of a quarantine puzzle scandal for another time, but just know that I spent hours that turned into days listening to this same album.

However, those hours I spent subconsciously soaking in those words did make me realize I was getting better at picking out certain words and lyrics. It was a feel-good moment of “Now see, that minor wasn’t for nothing,” and it gave me a little jolt of renewed interest in studying French post-college.

My favorite on the album, by far, is “Flash” (it’s very calming to me), but some other honorable mentions are “Trop beau” (instrumental version!), “Montfermeil,” “200,” and “Ma Cousin” (live acoustic version!!!––important!).

I would be remiss if I also didn’t mention High Highs to Low Lows by Lolo Zouaï and Nuova Genesi by GAIA as two language-inspired albums I’ve recently etched into my eardrums.

If you have recommendations for me, tweet me (@ChaseBailey1). I will NOT engage in Spotify/Apple Music discourse, but I will graciously and thankfully accept links to either platform.

Carolyn Janecek

Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg is a magnificent queering of historical fiction, right down to the harmony between form, content, and characters. The author’s use of footnotes? Divine. Confessions of the Fox make up the fictional memoirs of Jack Sheppard, famed thief and jailbreaker of eighteenth-century London. Dr. Voth is the professor who discovers the lost memoirs and transcribes them. In the footnotes, we begin with just the historical context, move into cheeky remarks, and eventually piece together Dr. Voth’s own struggles in love, academia, his resolution to protect Jack Sheppard’s story, and his connection to Jack as a trans man. Jack’s journey through indentured servitude, falling in love, transitioning . . . made it so difficult to put the book down.

I also have to mention Bess, who is so much more than just a love interest of Jack’s. She is a survivor, a sex worker, a philosopher, and an activist who dreams of reclaiming her indigenous way of life in the midst of Britain’s colonization. Rosenberg encourages his readers to interrogate what authenticity means, what it means to respect a manuscript, and a person’s life behind it. Maybe no story remains completely unaltered, but sometimes, that could be for the best.

Emily Brill-Holland

I am so behind the ball on this one, but I’m loving The Umbrella Academy. Based on the comic series of the same name, written by Gerard Way the lead singer and lyricist of My Chemical Romance. I slept hard on this Netflix series and am slowly working through it. I’m on Season 2 now! (I can’t Google it to give you any further information because I will not cope if I accidentally read a spoiler; I’m already struggling with the angst and tension and not spoiling it for myself). Basically, it combines orphans, superpowers, and a dead dad who both raised the adopted siblings yet also broke them at the same time. Oh, and the apocalypse. You know—those pesky little things.

Thomas Chisholm

I’ve been listening to the new Brockhampton mixtape, Technical Difficulties. At the end of April, the boys started a series of weekly live streams. They ended up releasing nine new songs, which make up the mixtape, as well as previewing a huge swath of unreleased material that will presumably make up the band’s (imminent) sixth studio album. The material released here was made mostly on the fly while the group was under a self-induced quarantine. It’s real rough around the edges, yet it’s the most fun-sounding music the boys have put out since the Saturation days. I have to shout out Matt Champion for upping his game on these new songs. He stole most of the tracks he’s featured on. My favorite songs are probably “Downside” and “Chain On/Hold Me” featuring JPEGmafia. There are samples on some of these songs that aren’t cleared, so don’t expect to see any of them on Spotify.

I’ve also been stuck on the Navy Blue album Àdá Irin from earlier this year. I checked him out because of his features on the last two Earl Sweatshirt projects. If you were a fan of Earl’s 2018 album, Some Rap Songs, than you’ll likely love Àdá Irin too. It features a similar jazzy aesthetic with chopped up samples and a healthy aversion to hooks. The sLUms collective and Navy Blue actually developed this sound that Earl’s record popularized. Àdá Irin features a lot of horns, which really gives the album its own sound. My favorite song is either “Ode2MyLove” or “To Give Praise!” for the aforementioned horns.

Jaclyn Morken

Roseanne A. Brown’s incredible debut, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, is right at the top of my “recommended” list. It’s everything I want from a YA fantasy and then some. In the great city of Ziran, on the eve of a massive festival, we find Malik and Karina. The former is an Eshran refugee risking everything to find work in a city that hates and oppresses his people. The latter is the rebellious princess, stubbornly dreaming of escaping the city walls, but still reeling from a trauma that destroyed her family years before.

Ancient magic, political intrigue, gladiator fights, meddling spirits, deadly pacts—this book has it all. But what really drew me in were these two main characters prepared to give everything to save the people they love. This book does not shy from the debilitating consequences of trauma, prejudice, and widespread injustice, and its central conflicts are so effectively layered and woven together. And at the heart of this novel are characters who feel so real, who draw on their own strengths to struggle through the obstacles—both internal and external—before them. “Abraa! Abraa! Come and gather—a story is about to begin!” I mean, how could I not love a book that opens like that?

A Captivating Tapestry of Family: A Review of The Book of Jeremiah by Julie Zuckerman

Published May 3, 2019 by Press 53

From parents to parenting, mischievous youth to playful old age, Julie Zuckerman picks out and points at well-chosen moments in the life of Jeremiah Gerstler: a boy-turned-man growing up in the mid-1900s. Juxtaposing Jeremiah’s highs and lows, Zuckerman creates a rich tapestry of life, from family careers to the messy throes of loss and love. Through each story, Zuckerman is aware of her readers—she does not punch the point home with a heavy or high hand. She lets things stay complicated, gives details as you need them, and allows you to put them together at your own pace.

Despite its title, The Book of Jeremiah is by no means a religious book. Rather, religion is a layer in each of the characters’ lives. For Jeremiah, being Jewish is a simple, distant fact of life. It is more of an obstacle—in his career and public life, as he enters adulthood at the height of the second world war—than a fixture in his daily routine. For his mother Rikki, a first-generation immigrant with a young family, religion is community. It’s her rituals and routines—from Yom Kippur to the dishes she cooks each night. But it’s also the constant undercurrent of guilt that colors her life, especially when things go wrong. When her child has misbehaved or when a dish burns she believes she’s being punished. Her religion hovers in the pressure to be the “right kind” of good in her roles as a neighbor, wife, and mother. That feeling of always being watched and judged is ever-present in the pages that follow her.

For Hannah, Jeremiah’s daughter, a third-generation immigrant a few degrees removed from a traditional Jewish upbringing, religion is “family gatherings, chicken soup, and chopped liver on Manischewiz crackers.” It’s the smell of her grandmother’s kitchen. Though Judaism is a fact of her life, it is more of an afterthought than an overwhelming presence. Yet Hannah is able to find meaning in her tenuous religious ties when she confronts them.

As a non-religious reader, following these varied experiences across characters and time periods made Zuckerman’s stories fascinating and accessible. And it’s not all sugar and honey.

The Book of Jeremiah moves through a patchwork of experiences, settings, conflicts, and critical moments in Jeremiah’s life. We see him bend and crack, and sometimes break. In “A Strong Hand and an Outstretched Arm,” Zuckerman reveals a touching story about a mother learning to see the charm and brilliance in her son’s mischievous behavior. In a text that is, at times, steeped in religious guilt, Zuckerman takes us through the thinking behind a mother choosing to hit her child—while maintaining, somehow, our empathy (but not forgiveness) towards her. In “Three Strikes,” our gut wrenches along with Lenny’s as he realizes, so early in life, just how serious the consequences of his actions can be.

“Gerstler’s Triumphant Return”is perhaps the most emotional and satisfying story in this collection. Zuckerman conflates Jeremiah’s insatiable need for external validation with his desire for heroism. In one of the most heroic acts of the book, he sacrifices one (external validation from an authority) for the other (creating a lasting, meaningful moment). It causes him some consternation, but Jeremiah reconciles his conflicting emotions to protest on behalf of his daughter. And while he gives something up in front of his old colleagues—his political stance, professional dignity (in their eyes), and rational sense (also in their eyes), things that to him are exceptionally important—he gains something else he’s been searching for his whole life. Something the reader has been aware of since he was still a twelve-year-old boy in the first story: “A Strong Hand and an Outstretched Arm.” He surprises and impresses his daughter, someone whose opinion is important to him, and becomes the hero he always believed he would in one simple gesture.

In the end, Jeremiah learns he doesn’t have to be an important, dignified government employee, or a spy in the second world war, to be a hero. Reading “Gerstler’s Triumphant Return” is a reminder that, though this is a series of short stories, the book is a comprehensive, singular story too. Interconnected to a point, each story informs the others in a complicated web that debut author Zuckerman has cracked. If there is a climax in this collection, it is here.

With critical, insightful observations on themes like parenting, religion, and aging—“If the Frisbee player portended things to come, Jeremiah would soon become unseen, an obstacle in some younger person’s way” (124)—Zuckerman reveals her strengths as a writer. The Book of Jeremiah is complex, nuanced, and complementary, a truly triumphant first step for Zuckerman’s burgeoning career.

Not the Sum of Its Parts: A Review of The Baudelaire Fractal by Lisa Robertson

Published January 21, 2020 by Coach House Books

I love the publisher Coach House Books. Their quirky tomes fill my shelves and always make me think about things in a different way. So when I noticed The Baudelaire Fractal was publishing, I knew I had to read it. (I may have actually waited for the ARC on the porch a couple of times…) The Baudelaire Fractal is acclaimed poet Lisa Robertson’s much-anticipated debut novel, published on January 21st, 2020.

As expected, I’m not quite sure what to think. I’ve been trying to come up with cohesive thoughts for this review, yet I sort of think that the point of this book is its uncertainty. It can mean something a little bit different for everyone, as I think all great poetry does.

Poet Hazel Brown wakes up one day in a strange hotel room and realizes that she has written the complete works of Baudelaire. The character isn’t sure why or how, but she knows it like she knows the back of her hand—she has authored these words.

True to Coach House style, this book introduces readers to a new kind of literary depth and challenge. A fractal is “any of various extremely irregular curves or shapes for which any suitably chosen part is similar in shape to a given larger or smaller part when magnified or reduced to the same size” (Merriam-Webster). In other words, a fractal is a small piece of something that effectively represents a larger whole. So, it’s aptly named: written in fractal-like poetic prose, the form of the book itself mimics Baudelaire’s works. Even the cover is disorienting, confusing, and beautiful. Robertson’s form meets its function flawlessly; this book looks exactly like it feels.

So, when a work is confusing, how are readers guided through it? Robertson’s book does a beautiful job of using imagery to help a reader situate themselves in a specific time period and place. This was very helpful since, when I started reading, I had expected a more clear-cut narrative. Clothing imagery in particular was plentiful throughout the book; the protagonist consistently references fashion as a way to span various time periods, which really helped me place myself in the story. In true Baudelairean style, however, the book is ethereal, written in a slightly disorienting way. Just when I thought I could place myself in a specific time period, or a specific location, what I thought I knew slipped through my fingers.

Part memoir, part literary fiction, and part magical realism, this book feels like a genre in and of itself. Its content and form both transcend time. Whether the narrative focuses around Baudelaire, around Hazel, or around the works they both explore, the same themes emerge again and again; I wasn’t left with a feeling of closure or understanding.  Though this would ordinarily frustrate me, this book can’t end with a feeling of closure. Paradoxically, that would go against the very nature of the fractal itself—if there was one, overarching sense of finality, the individual pieces of the story, or fractals, would not be able to stand on their own and represent the themes of the whole.

Fans of historical fiction, poetic prose, and literary fiction will enjoy this thought-provoking novel, but if you are looking for a simple beach read, maybe leave this book on the shelf. Robertson’s style is beautiful and disorienting, often (intentionally) unclear. If you are looking for a challenge, and some captivating imagery, I would definitely recommend it.

Truth from Blasphemy: An Interview with Sarah Sousa

Church of Needles is an astounding collection of poetry that recollects the Civil War, childbirth, the uncertainty of motherhood, and a re-imagining of the relationship we have with the world around us. At the heart of this collection is a desire for unity and meaning in the world, despite an inherent lack of connection.

NOTE: This interview was recorded by phone, so any errors should be attributed to a less-than-reliable connection. Enjoy!

What first inspired you to write poetry, and later a book of poetry?

church-of-needles-full-cover-email-copy

I don’t know originally why I started writing poetry; I know I started fairly young. I read a lot of Emily Dickinson and I loved the power of her voice and the power she achieved through poetry, and I think I always wanted to achieve that power. It’s kind of a quiet power but it was definitely evident.

Now I am inspired by all things history: vintage photos, diaries, letters, and extinction. What inspired me to write the book? I think it’s a culmination for every poet. I had a lot of collected poems but nothing that came together so I went to start my Master’s degree in writing at Bennington College where the goal of the program was to write the book.

You’ll see different subject matters throughout that book because of how long it took to put it together. For example, in 2007 I found an antique diary that I used to inspire an entire section of the book.

Can you describe the process of putting this book together?

Church of Needles was my first collection, so it was different from putting together the second, which is coming out this fall. The experience of putting this first one together was a little bit haphazard. Many of the poems were written during the MFA program at Bennington, though some predated that.

It also did undergo several transformations during the 4 ½ years after I graduated, submitting to contests and different publishers. I tried to tighten it, cut and added parts I never thought I would—it is kind of a challenge to put a book together because you want your strongest poems in there but they have to hang together and create a larger story.

It was in this process of editing that some of the themes of motherhood, mortality, and spirituality/religion emerged. I’m not a religious person, but I do address God and that…issue. Also, the book became very tied to landscape. I was living in Maine when I wrote most of the poems and was in Maine most of my adult life, though I grew up in Massachusetts. But I was always on a New England landscape. When I was living in Maine, I had farm animals, and lived in a small cabin (without electricity at one point), so it was very costal land, very hard-scrabble and sort of like it was for most of its history.

The historic poems about the diarist and other poems about figures from the 1800s also deal with the hardships of the land, and those ended up kind of meshing with more contemporary poems in the book.

What do you try to achieve with your poetry? What makes good poetry?

You know when you’re writing it what you feel is right. Some poets call it the heat in writing and you go towards that. You figure out when you’re writing what’s working. So I think for me identifying truth, some nugget of truth in things—you know when something is ringing true, and that you’re getting deeper than just surface descriptions of something, of an event, or a feeling. You’re hitting the truth-nerve, if there is such a thing. And a lot of that comes out without your cooperation, sometimes. You just sit down and get into it and things will kind of pop out at you. I think that’s what I go for.

That also goes for when I’m reading. I enjoy playing with language, I enjoy leaps in poetry, and when you’re not quite sure what’s coming next—when it’s not following a straight line. It’s hard to put your finger on, but you know when you can see it.

What are some of these “truth nuggets” that you find yourself uncovering in this collection?

I think “The Art of Flying” would be the best example. The last lines in that poem: “that earth is a myth created by birds that would kill for a rest”. I didn’t work for that. I was working on a poem and then that kind of popped in and I knew it was perfect for the end. It has a sort of torque, you know? It’s like, birds creating the death of these humans who want to fly but needing the earth to land on because they don’t want to keep flying all the time. There are deeper things there, but there was just something that I knew was truthful in that.

Another example: there’s a newer poem that I’ve been working on for the next collection about women stitching. And on the surface it’s them stitching quilts and exchanging certain stitch techniques like the fan-wheel stitch, or the lover’s knot—but there’s kind of an undercurrent in it of women stitching each other from injury (actual physical injury or metaphysical). And in the last line I say “they make beautiful scars.” I had been thinking and reading about genital mutilation, which happens a lot in other countries, and learned that other women performed it. I felt really conflicted because I was working on this poem at the time and I was trying to get across this idea that women are healers but they can also be destroyers and injurers at the same time. And so how truthful would I be if I don’t acknowledge both sides? And so I left it alone and ignored it for a little while and then that last line just came to me and it was perfect because it gets at that idea that the act of stitching something creates a scar—it both heals and mutilates at the same time.

Is this poem going to be in the next book? Will we get to read it soon?

No, that won’t be in the next book. That was kind of a one-off, but I did include it in a chapbook manuscript that I sent out a few times. They’re very women- and girl-centric poems.

Right now it is floating around in the prize circuit. I’ve sent it out to a few publishers but so far, nothing. I have a problem with chapbooks because I always want to make more out of them! And I may go on to make it something bigger.

Back to your current book: it has been described as being “absent of god,” even though there is a tone that calls for unity and meaning. And you even described one of your major themes being spirituality, even though you aren’t religious. Could you speak more about that?

I didn’t really grow up religiously. I mean I was a Sunday school teacher for a little while but… I think the reason why God is absent in a lot of the poems is that that’s how I experienced God. You know, a yearning for someone to be on the other side to offer a little help, yet no one seems to be there. In prayer I always felt like I was being thrown back on myself—like it was kind of a cruel joke. So that’s something that I definitely felt and came out in the poems, this sense of reaching and trying to find that connection and not really finding it.

And yet, I feel like I’m kind of a mystical type of “believer.” I definitely believe in mysteries but I don’t think I want them all solved. I think I like that there’s a mystery in there and I like to poke at it.

I think of Emily Dickenson when I think of my own “belief” because she was taught at a religious school and was surrounded by people who were accepting faith and she couldn’t. She made some comment about how she would like to believe, but she just can’t. And I think that I am the same way—I can’t just accept something and go with it, I always have to question and question.

So poetry is very spiritual for me because I can poke and question but it’s not something that I have to accept and understand. But it feels spiritual because I can just write and write and things come to my mind and I just don’t know where they came from, and so I feel like it’s a kind of connection.

Sometimes I feel that we’re all talking the same language—religion, spirituality, artists and our process.

I think many people would agree that the act of writing or creating art is a kind of reaching for connection.

Definitely! And it’s really all artists I think. It’s all just finding that truth and making connections. And you know I think it’s connecting with your viewer or your reader that’s hard about writing.

To speak more technically about your writing, how do you find yourself structuring and pacing your poems? Many novice writers set out to write about a certain thing or an idea and get stuck on surface level or not fleshing out their thoughts enough. So what would you be your advice to new writers on how to create good poetry?

I totally know that feeling. New writers (all writers, really) have something to say and they want to get that across but a good writer is willing to be open to the process and allow things to change as you write. So while you’re writing and re-writing and editing, you find new meaning and end up going deeper than your first thought.

So my advice to aspiring poets would be: keep writing, keep experimenting with your voice and your style. Find out what your strengths are. Sometimes what people might tell you is a weakness you find is something that is peculiar to you and you can capitalize on that. You should read a lot of poetry—both classics and contemporary. And also, just be creative when you write! People in other mediums still play with their work and I think that especially because poetry has such a reputation for being stiff that you need to be playful with your work. Writers, especially new writers, get intimidated thinking that poetry is very serious business, and that can kill the whole creative process.

People also tend to hate revision—think it’s an evil, creatively destructive monster—but really it is important and can be just as creative a process as the first draft. I myself have come to really love revision. At a certain point, everyone knows their strong and weak spots and you just have to accept those in order to revise and improve.

I had to learn that during my undergraduate years. I got a poem back with red ink all over it, saying, “fix this” or “make this better,” and I honestly didn’t know what that meant or what to do. So be willing to both accept advice but also not accept advice. Once you reach a certain level of writing it becomes someone else’s opinion about your work that may not be necessary. You have to learn what you think is relevant advice about the poem and not take what you don’t think is relevant. When you’re in a workshop class with ten different people who all want to change one little thing you can’t take all their advice because then it wouldn’t be your poem anymore.

In TBL’s last quarterly issue, we republished three of your poems from this collection, “The Art of Flying,” “Scrying,” and “Lullaby.” Since they all seem to have such a personal feel, could you tell us more about them?

The most “from life” piece in that group is “Lullaby.” It was pretty much about the birth of my first son and how a mother can be more than just the nurturer, but also someone who could be dangerous. A lot of power rests in her hands.

“Art of Flying” I’ve already talked a little about. “Scrying” was interesting because it was kind of a mix of real and historic things. Part of it is based on where I live now and the barn that is on our property. The barn has lots of writing inside from the early 1800s, so they have things written about how many bushels were picked one year and of course the kids would write down their names and the dates and such. So I used that, I put character’s names from the antique diary and put their names on the wall for the poem. I think I took a lot of poetic license with that one. But that poem was generally about my obsession with history. It reflects the sad fact that history is more than I’ll ever understand, so I added voices and characters and half-truths that brought me closer to the real truth of all this leftover history.

At TBL we talk a lot about book publishing and story publishing, but what is it like to get poetry published? How does someone go about publishing a book of poetry?

Well, from when I first put the book together (right before I got my master’s degree) it took about four and a half years before Red Mountain Press picked it up. And before they did I sent it to dozens and dozens of contests I didn’t even keep track of. It’s such a heartbreaking process because it takes so long. This book was especially difficult because it went on to become a finalist for a number of pretty prestigious book prizes, but never won. You send it out in September and no one even gets back to you until March. So you end up sending it out everywhere you can think of and when it comes back and you get close…

I remember at least half a dozen times just crying when I get the rejection letter back saying how close I had come and just thinking, this is never going to happen. On top of that, I’m 41 and I’m just now publishing a book. To me that’s really late, because I’ve been writing all my life, since I was really young and writing seriously since I was in my early twenties.

I think what helps me the most (and I’m about to talk about first books on a panel at the Berkshire Women’s Writer’s Festival in March) was moving on to a different project. It was wonderful–it just took all my attention away from the rejection and allowed me to move on from those heartbreaking years of coming close but never making it. It also allowed me to grow, because after those four and a half years of editing and submitting I learned how to put a book together. The project I moved on to while I was submitting Church of Needles actually got picked up really quickly—in fact in about three and a half months of submitting instead of years.