Friday, November 30, 2007

Breaking the Sequence

Has this ever happened to you: You come across a passage or line in a book and think it brilliant, and are thrilled that you’re the first one to discover it, only to find that people have been talking and writing about that exact thing for years?

Much later than I should have, I read A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, and it happened to me. There’s a section in this amazing essay in which Virginia (Can I call her Virginia? I think she wouldn't mind) decides to evaluate a recent novel written by a woman named Mary Carmichael. She expects it to be sentimental and sappy, as most novels written by women at the time tended to be. But instead of long, flowing sentences, she found that Mary used short, abrupt ones, almost as if Mary were intentionally trying to avoid sounding sappy.

As she read further along, Virginia noticed that the plot, though set up to be a typical love story, turned out to be a story of the friendship and scientific careers of two women. Such subject matter was rather shocking in that day, as women typically were featured in novels as in relationship to men, not as characters interacting with each other. Virginia recognizes that Mary Carmichael first “broke the sentence; now she has broken the sequence.” Although the novel was not the best-written piece of literature ever penned, it still carried significant notability in Virginia’s estimation as it did something vitally important: it broke the pattern that women were confined to write certain types of sentences about certain types of subject matter.

I was truly amazed by this whole idea and overjoyed that I discovered such a thing. To my chagrin, as I related this finding to my friend, she said, “Oh yes, you should read this book of criticism about that; it’s right over there on my bookshelf.” Indeed it was, and the title was none other than Breaking the Sequence. Oh well, it still felt like a revelation to me.

And although I wasn’t the first to discover Virginia’s brilliance in discovering Mary Carmichael’s brilliance, I still feel like I’m part of the, well, sequence, of women discovering and building upon each other’s ideas. Isn’t that always the job of the artist? To recognize the sequence, the patterns and traditions, and break out of them into something new, undiscovered, significant? As long as, Virginia says, we do them “not for the sake of breaking, but for the sake of creating.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Facebook: Gettin Literary Wit It

With all you've probably been hearing about Facebook lately, you'd think the entire world is being taken over by an evil empire, intent on sucking out our souls, wasting our time, and invading our privacy. But maybe something good has come out of everyone's favorite social networking site.

The Facebook Review
is the first literary magazine that seeks to use Facebook as its platform to publish members' creative work. Set up as a group, users can join and then read and comment on the work. Submissions for poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and reviews are all accepted and decided upon by an editorial board consisting of the last issue's contributors, which is a pretty nifty system (called an "editorial train"). Submissions are made by sending a facebook message to the managing editor, and issues are posted as "news updates," with new installments going up daily.

Issue 2 features a pretty amazing short story titled "The Vegan Muffin" by Tao Lin, an up and coming writer who will be reading at Fringe's own "Dirty Water" reading on December 16 at Grub St, 160 Boylston St, Boston. Check it out!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Send Us Submissions About Ethnicity and Race

The Ethnos issue is coming, and we're still looking for submissions.

We're looking for writing that navigates the complexities of ethnicity, race, and identity, and are accepting work in the genres of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, criticism, and cross genre, as well as original artwork. Experimental and political work are always welcome. See the site for complete guidelines.

We have extended the submissions period -- it now closes DECEMBER 31, so there's still time to get your work in.

While we always judge your work on its literary merits alone (using a blind submissions process), we are are particularly interested in publishing minority writers, and intended this special anniversary issue to help us get the ball rolling.

Why wait? Send us your stuff!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Bettye LaVette

Here's a holiday recommendation for those with musically Fringey taste. I just got back from a trip to the West Coast that ended up being something of a vinyl binge, and picked up Bettye LaVette's 2005 album I've Got My Own Hell to Raise. LaVette is a soul singer who has somehow remained below the radar--possibly because her extraordinary voice is so evocative and high-octane it may make pruder listeners uncomfortable.
I've Got My Own Hell to Raise is a collection of LaVette's renditions of great songs by exclusively female songwriters. Most songs were originally performed somewhere in the intersection of country and folk (Joan Armatrading, Dolly Parton, and Lucinda Williams are all represented), and LaVette growls them up to red hot emotion. This is raw, relevant, profane soul.
You can listen to tracks on LaVette's website:
Posted by Katie, even though it says Sarah.

Feed the Hungry with Good Vocabulary

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I discovered a cool new site, via my aunt by way of my mother. It's called FreeRice.

The site gives you a vocabulary quiz that is quite hard -- my best level was a 46 -- and featured words like "scintilla," "veld," and "decollate". Word difficulty increases with every question you get right. For each correct answer, the site donates 10 grains of rice to a starving country via the UN -- site advertisers foot that bill.

FreeRice's sister site, keeps a grim death toll of people dying from hunger each minute.

Do something that's good for your vocabulary and for the starving -- check it out.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The First Page

So these days reading slush for Ploughshares and Redivider, as well as working for Fringe, I'm reading a lot of pour-water-over-my-head-to-wake-myself-back-up, clamp-jumper-cables-to-my-nipples-to-wake-me-back-up, boring-as-rust first pages. Lizzie talked about cover letters a gazillion posts ago; I thought I'd do a sequel. Here's some thoughts on the first 300 words, because really, an editor can tell from page one whether the story is going to be good or not at least 90 percent of the time. So print this out, crumple it up, and eat it--that's supposed to work for memory. Three simple rules:

1. do something new.
2. start the story arc.
3. write a brilliant sentence.

Why? Because (1) editors are sleepy and they've probably already read 20 stories by the time they get to yours, (2) the most tiring thing in the world--more tiring than Thanksgiving--is waiting for a story to begin, and (3) the editor carefully reading your opening sentences should be given a reason to continue doing so. I think if I don't get two of these three things in the first page, the monster under my bed ends up finishing the story. He likes to eat paper too, but not for memory. He likes it because "it tastes like smart."

Saturday, November 24, 2007


In the Prologue to Strange Pilgrims, Gabriel Garcia Marquez talks about a dream where he goes to his own funeral and sees all his friends there, but when he wants to leave with them, he's told he's the only one who can't go to the after-party. (That's right, in dreams there are always after-parties.) Well, Marquez relates this being-left-behind to expatriation and isolation. Sounds heady, I know, but as a minority and an adoptee, isolation is all up in my writing's business, so I thought I'd talk about it. I thought I'd talk about setting as well, so be prepared for the following mess.

So here's what I'm thinking. Sure, Marquez uses the unfamiliarity of the setting to isolate his characters. Why not? They're pilgrims, after all. But when they really feel isolated is when they run into things that should be familiar to them but aren't. Like when the Prez in the opening story runs into people from his home country who lie to him about their motives.

Marquez also uses the ole pathetic fallacy, where the Prez's thoughts are mirrored by the weather and place. This is okay if you're going for the magical realism thing. Yet what is it Charles Baxter says about the pathetic fallacy--that a setting can be stronger when it doesn't rely on the character? I think there's something damn good to say for that. The character should experience isolation in spite of what's around him. I'm just saying, it gets a little tiresome to see rain when someone's sad, sunshine when happy, no one around when the character feels lonely. Why not let your characters feel lonely when they probably shouldn't? It's more lonely when you're sitting next to someone and still feel alone.

Depressing and serious. I'll try for something more ridiculous in my next post, I promise. Let's just say my dreams are about dinosaurs and The Paris Review. Don't ask.

Friday, November 23, 2007

November 23 is Buy Nothing Day!

Come all ye fair and tender shoppers
Be careful how you spend your dough
It's like a puddle after a rainstorm
It first appears, then there's no more
Tralala, it's Buy Nothing Day! If you're in the US or Canada, that is; in other countries it's November 24. Buy Nothing Day was founded in 1992 to help us think about how we consume; it's no accident that it falls on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. There's a lot of potential for preachiness with something like this, so I reckon it's best to approach it in the spirit of having fun and raising awareness. Adbusters has some good ideas for stuff to do, as well as posters you can print out.

Adbusters also makes ads for BND every year, and then tries to get big networks to run them—with varying success. I like this one, which involves mittens (though the music, well, ...).

Lots of places will have skillshares and other events, so if you want to get involved, check your local weekly to see what's happening near you. And if taking your folks to the potluck at the anarchist bookstore sounds implausible, consider designating a surrogate Buy Nothing Day for yourself later in the week--that's what I'll likely end up doing.

For more info, consult Treehugger. Everybody now:
Oh stuff is handsome, stuff is charming
And stuff is pretty when it's new
But so much stuff is made of plastic
And unlike money, it will never go away even when it is no longer useful or appealing or lovely to view

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Leaving the Country to Give Thanks

Five years ago I met my Canadian girlfriend, M. I’d like to tell you that we met reaching for Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language in our favorite independent bookstore, but we met in typical college fashion, in a gay bar across the river from campus. An athlete and later coach, M always worried about her visa status even though by the end of last year, she’d been living in the country and paying taxes for nearly a decade. Like other naïve Americans, I found it hard to believe that a successful and educated Canadian citizen would have problems immigrating to the United States. I would recall to M how easy it was for my friends and me to cruise beyond the Canadian border in High School to take advantage of the lower drinking age in Thunder Bay. That’s what the border had meant to me…that is, before meeting M.

The fluidity of the border also shifted dramatically post 9/11 as M left graduate school and entered the professional public, landing a coaching position at Harvard University. But even Harvard couldn’t provide visa security and despite having three job offers after leaving, M had to pack up and ship out because no one it seems could convince the government that M deserved working status in America. Of course, if I or M were a man, it would only take a trip to Vegas and a marriage certificate, to keep us together this Thanksgiving.

So, this year, I’m leaving the country to give thanks. Yet, it’s difficult to give thanks when your nation is tearing so many families apart.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Amazon Kindle - Wave of the Future or Overpriced Tech-toy?

In this morning's "Around the Water Cooler" segment of Good Morning America, I learned about the new Amazon Kindle. It's concept isn't new -- it's a wireless reading device that can hold up to 200 books, can display current newspapers and can even connect you to over 250 blogs. It's a s thin as a pencil and only costs...$399.00!

Forgive me for saying so, but I like to be able to take my books on the train with me, throw them in my bag, hand them off to my friends when I am finished, and read them on the beach. I remember the e-reader craze of the early 2000s. They never caught on. What makes Amazon think that these e-readers will be different?

I may be old-fashioned, but I still like the idea that people can stroll into the library, produce a card they got for free, and have access to books. I like the fact that when my friend is finished with "the book that changed her life" she can hand it to me and not worry that her life-savings is suddenly in my possession.

I admit that the idea of Fringe readers downloading the latest issue to their e-reader to take with them on the bus or train appeals to me, but part of our manifesto states that we want to be accessible. Isn't that what online magazines and blogs are all about? You don't need anything but a public computer with Internet access in order to partake in the discussion. You certainly don't need $400.

What do you think? Would you carry one of these around as your exclusive reading material?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Taking a Bite Out of Rape

South African Sonette Ehlers is taking women's defense in a new direction - vaginally. The former medical technician has developed Rapex, a version of the female condom that is beefed up with teeth to stop would be rapists, or at least to slow them down enough for intended victims to get away. My first thought: won't the rapists be angrier, and find some other way to hurt these women? After all, it causes no lasting damage - seems like it'll be more likely to piss them off. And as Kira Cochran of the Guardian points out, "it places the onus for stopping rape not on the perpetrators, but on women - entirely the wrong way around. It implies that rape is an inevitable part of human culture and that women need to adapt accordingly." Some have even claimed that using the device is just an act of vengeance toward the rapists.

I'm sorry, say that again? Maybe it's just an old eye-for-an-eye judgment on my part, but I think rapists deserve much worse than a few pricks that aren't permanent (excuse the pun). The fact is rape is all too common in South Africa (and many other places, too) - perhaps it will anger the would-be rapists, but it seems better to have some chance of getting away than none at all. Is it just a bandaid slapped on a larger problem? Of course it is, but someone please explain to me how we ought to go about changing the way a rapist's brain works so we can stop him from hurting women. And then make sure to change all rapists' brains. I think it's more empowering for women to have some option of defense.

And I think the teeth should be bigger.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Blogging through the Culinary Underbelly

This year, for the second time in my writing life, I thought about participating in Nanowrimo.

When I did Nano before, in 2003, I wrote an awful 50,000 word genre novel. I didn't pretend it was serious work, but I was proud of the accomplishment. There's something intimidating about a novel--all that time, and all those words, namely--and in a month I had created one.

This year, working upwards of 60 hours a week, Nano just doesn't seem feasible, at least if you are also trying to get some sleep.

While I spent the last week of October stressing about logistics--Could I do it? How would I carve the time out of my schedule to write? What shape would the novel I had in mind take, and how would I link its disparate pieces together?--I allowed an even larger, scarier question to form in my mind.

Was it still the best way to get my writing out there? Is the novel, in our current society, a valuable product? Is it the best use of my time, of my reach? Hardly new ideas, I know. While we've all been talking about print culture being dead and how no one ever buys novels anymore, we're still waiting for the rise of e-books and their ilk, and we may wait a while more.

About a month ago I was sending out a piece of flash fiction to online journals. I'd worked over the piece and was fairly happy with it, but couldn't shake the feeling that it wasn't "worth" sending out to print journals. I submitted the piece to over a dozen journals and within four days it was accepted. I'm not saying this to brag, but because the experience was just so shocking. Another writer in my writers' group, Jamey Genna, shared that she's also been getting a lot of flash fiction placed recently. There seems to be an energy around the form that isn't present around longer stories. What we want to hear, what we have time and space to hear, is it changing? Where do you read, and what do you read? If what we are after as writers is to affect other people, or to get out stories out there, how do we make the novel relevant and critical, and not an artifact?

This time, these questions are coming out of my experience as a blogger. Some time back I started an anonymous food-writer blog (and subsequently became un-anonymous), and while it's audience is not large by any means I do have some readers, many of whom are also in the culinary industry. An old Emerson professor of mine Pamela Painter always stressed the importance of giving your characters a good, unusual job because the wealth of useable details was such a gift to your story. By becoming a pastry cook halfway through my course in Emerson's MFA program I essentially gifted myself. While there are many food blogs out there in the blogosphere, the voice of the chef is still rare.

As inimitable Bay Area pastry chef/writer Shuna Lydon wrote in a guest-post on writer Michael Ruhlman's blog, what it means to be a chef is still a story largely created not by us, the people in the kitchen. What really happens behind those doors is not Top Chef and it's not represented accurately. I have a unique story to tell now, and I have a voice that tells mostly true stories, and I have learned a little something along the way about appropriate content.

Chef culture finds its way into my fiction, and this Nano novel that I wanted to write would have taken chef culture as its focus. But it seemed more important to blog. To write flash fiction. The food blogging sphere is being mined for book deals. Maybe you've heard of Julie Powell's Julie and Julia, but do you know Gluten-Free Girl? Confessions of a Restaurant Whore? Conversely, authors such as Maryusa Bociurkiw, whose novel Comfort Food for Breakups is by turn both funny and wrenching, are turning to blogging as a promotional tool once the novel is published.

There are different kinds of stories we tell in blogging and in print. There is an immediacy at play in blog posts that does not translate well to the slow pace of fiction. But somehow, as I've let a part of my writing work be through blogging--and writing about the work I do, in which the voices of women and of queers are hardly well represented--is informing and changing the writer's work I do. Blogging is no longer a sidebar to my work. It is part of my writing identity. Perhaps, troublingly at times, the most important and far-reaching part.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Car Accident and a Baby

So it has been a while since I've posted, but when you hear my story, you'll forgive me.

I am pregnant with my first child (due April 30th), and though I am utterly thrilled, my husband and I didn't exactly plan the pregnancy. Being the crazy person that I am, I decided that I would get a second (third??) job and work as hard as I could for as long as I could to make some extra cash..afterall, we all know how expensive babies are! So I was happily working an extra 15 hours a week for TripAdvisor, bringing in some dough, and feeling proud and capable.

But these things catch up with a person...especially when the first trimester of pregnancy makes you extremely tired all the time. I was walking home from the subway, rushing to be home in time to start my second job. It was dusk. I was using the only 10 minutes I'd had free all day to call a friend, and...dun, dun, duuuuun...I was hit by a car while crossing the street.

I got a concussion, some stitches in my face, a bruise on my hip and some nasty swollen, strained knees, but the little one was fine...protected by my belly and by the amniotic fluid.

But all of this is just background for my amazing revelation...I just don't need to do everything by myself. I am looking at the last 6 months of my life where I'll have time just for myself, where I'll be able to lie on the couch all day watching movies on Sundays if I want to, where I'll be able to go out to a movie with my husband without finding a babysitter. So damned if I am going to waste it working 60+ hours a week for a few extra bucks.

If you need me during the next 6 months, you can find me reading (I am currently reading The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coehlo, and it is fabulous), knitting (check out my newest endeavor, which I found on, catching up on my sleep, and enjoying alone time with my (existing) baby (a.k.a. my husband Andy).

Yay for selfish Julia. She deserves at LEAST 6 months of my life, right?

Friday, November 2, 2007

What is Feminism?

What is Feminism? Can Christians be Feminists? Can Conservatives? Can “Pro-Lifers?” Non-white women have often been marginalized within feminist discourse; poor women are nearly non-existent as valiant voices. Also, many issues have divided feminists like sex work or lesbian rights. About five years ago, I listened attentively with my Intro to Women’s Studies class as Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, authors of Manifesta and leaders within Third Wave Feminism, preached to the choir at a neighboring university. Our class was trying to define feminism (so cliché right). We got as far as “feminism is the idea that women are equal to men and thus should be allocated equal rights and opportunities.” But, how do we define “woman?” Feminist theorist Chandra Talpade Mohanty importantly questions the overgeneralization of women’s experiences and the emphasis of placing gender at the center of oppression without complicating it with race and class. While working at a feminist magazine where all of the content was written by and for girls, I came across the same question when an intersex person sent in a piece for publication. What is a woman?

The existence of “pro-life” people who claim to be feminists, also begs the question of what is a feminist and what is a woman. I just had to ask Baumgardner and Richards: can you be “pro-life” and a feminist? Surprisingly, their answer that day was explicitly yes! They cited a list of ways “pro-life” and “pro-choice” people could work together to make a change in our world, like making education and contraceptives available. But, because the idea of personhood is the root conflict for “pro-life” and “pro-choice” people, a definition of feminism remains in limbo. In an age where technology proliferates and ideas over what is “natural” are debated, who decides what defines a person? Or more precisely, who has the power to decide?

Outrage at a Catholic College

As this is my first official post, allow myself to introduce...myself. Ok, no more lame jokes. I'm a student at Emerson College in Boston, pursuing my Masters in Publishing and Writing. Emerson is a far-cry from Holy Cross , the small liberal-arts college in Worcester where I got my Bachelor's degree. For example, I don't think anyone with pink hair or sleeve tatoos attended Holy Cross (at least while I was there...). That's not where the differences end.

The Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy held its annual conference at Holy Cross, the oldest Catholic college in New England, on October 24. Though no students or faculty were involved in the Conference, the move sparked an outcry from alumni and the Catholic community. The College's President, Michael McFarland, SJ, defended the College's decision to rent space to the organization. In an official statement, McFarland said, "It is the College's position that providing rented meeting space to a conference of professionals from a variety of Massachusetts organizations discussing the safety and care of at-risk teenagers does not represent a disregard of Catholic teaching."

While Holy Cross, as a Catholic institution, is officially opposed to abortion and contraception (I was surprised to find open distribution of condoms on the college campuses of friends I visited, since they could not readily be found anywhere on the HC campus), it is also a progressive institution devoted to the open exchange of ideas. It is shocking that even today, certain groups can remain so closed-minded. Given the response of some communities, you would think the College was setting up abortion tables in the dorms rather than renting space to an organization that promotes awareness and responsible family planning for vulnerable teenagers!

I respect Fr. McFarland's choice to defend his decision and stand up for the rights of Massachusetts teenagers to be aware of their options. It makes me proud to call myself a Holy Cross Crusader (ok, so maybe they have to work on their mascot...)