chaotic and/or exuberant

mark haber & mauro javier cardenas discuss the revolutionaries try again, language, etc:

For me Latin American English doesn’t simply mean sequencing words from both languages but tilting English to sound like my strand of Spanish such that, for some natives, the language will sound chaotic and / or exuberant, while for Latin Americans living in the USA the language will scan. Carmen Boullosa, the first Latin American who read my novel, picked up on my Latin American English immediately. I hope there will be more readers like her in the years to come.

( full Q&A here )

review: UMAMI by laia jufresa (translation: sophie hughes)

This review was originally published at The Rumpus on 9/8/16

Dr. Noelia Vargas Vargas, MD explains it like this: “There are two basic human conditions, being a child and being a procreator.” Inhabiting both conditions, see, makes you two people—a daughter and a mother. Dr. Vargas Vargas chose, for much of her life, to be “only” a daughter—an eternal offspringhood, as she liked to tell her husband Dr. Alfonso Semitiel, PhD.

It is 2002, and if Dr. Semitiel’s life were a photograph, its caption might be “Sabbatical as Grief: To Be a Widow Is To…”

It is 2003, and Marina Mendoza starts going to therapy to learn how to get angry. She takes her medication, smokes her cigarettes, and makes names for colors that don’t have names: blacktrick for electric black, scink for “the pale pink after you pull off a scab,” briefoamite for “the ephemeral white of sea foam.”

As translated by the great Sophie Hughes, Mexican author Laia Jufresa’s debut novel Umami is a kalaeidoscope. In four parts, five characters tell the story of the last four years within their hovel of Mexico City, the Belldrop Mews. The millennium arrives and leaves trauma in its wake: Pina’s mother leaves, six-year-old Luz drowns on a family vacation, and Dr. Vargas Vargas, famed cardiologist, dies from pancreatic cancer.

But Umami is not a dystopian treatise or hipster metafiction. It is not one of those books about a group of people who come together and decide that life is good because they laughed at the same joke at some picnic. The Belldrop Mews folk—though they see each other every day, though they share their separate grief—are not a family. They are fragments of four separate families struggling through their own fog.

The book starts with Ana in 2004. She is twelve and has negotiated her way into staying at home in Mexico for the summer. Per an agreement with her parents, she will plow, plant, and tend the yard—the goal is to build a traditional milpa—while her brothers are in Michigan at “camp.” Camp, here, is not kids in cots getting eaten to death by mosquitoes, but more “just a coded way of saying that my siblings and I spend two months with [Mom’s] stepmother, Grandma Emma, swimming among the weeds and feeding pebbles to the ducks in the lake by her house.”

It is three years since Luz’s death, and Ana’s mother Linda Walker still won’t leave the house. “She gets worse in the summertime,” Ana writes. “Like a dirty river carrying trash, the summer drags the anniversary of my sister’s death to our door. She was the youngest.” Luz, in her own chapters, is the little one who speaks with honesty, her voice rough like a dog tongue: “They all start talking weird when we come to the lake. And that’s why I’m not going to speak English. I’m never ever going to speak English.”

The book contains two mysteries. One, it seems, is for Jufresa’s audience: What are The Girls, mentioned in Dr. Semitiel’s chapters (and in one of Ana’s)? The other is for Jufresa’s characters: Why did Luz drown if she knew how to swim? English is a constant source of tension. Marina wants to learn and takes lessons from Walker for a brief time. Ana judges her parents on whether or not they can hide their accents when they speak their spouse’s mother tongue.

“English takes the edge off things, makes them feel less serious, a bit like scribbling mustaches on photos,” Marina thinks. She is distraught when her favorite bands are “changed from abstract poetry to random nouns.” To her, “translation simplifies, it schematizes: something that seemed potentially profound falls from grace and lands on its head, turning out to be nothing but a doodle.” As for the people who speak English? “Bilingualism confirms what she’s always suspected,” Jufresa writes. “If gringos were drawings, they’d be drawn with markers.” In other words, they are childish, not lasting, meant to be outgrown.

In a novel that is so wholly Mexican, in philosophy and setting, it is both comforting and disconcerting when totally American art appears. Marina’s favorite bands include Smashing Pumpkins, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Cranberries; Dr. Semitiel names his laptop after Nina Simone; Pina’s mother Chela plays Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” during the last family car ride Pina can remember.

Grief, though, is neither defined by culture nor constrained by time. Yes, Jufresa could have written Umami the “normal” way—a single perspective in chronological order with first person the whole way through—instead of this backwards telescope, alternating voices and switching perspectives between first and close third. That version of Umami would be a dark, bitter thing, like molasses in the coffee grounds. Instead, Jufresa and Hughes offer a version that is complex without weight, a saffron purée. Dynamic and delicate, Umami draws our attention without pretense.

Q&A w/ laia jufresa, sophie hughes

This interview was originally published at BrazosBookstore.com on 9/12/16

How to stump me as a bookseller: come into the store and ask me for a funny, happy book where nothing bad happens. Because the truth is, I will fail you, one hundred percent of the time. The flip side? People ask me about my favorite books and often, I can see their eyes glaze over as I mention rape, suicide, addiction—as if those books can’t also have moments that are funny and happy.

Laia Jufresa’s debut novel, UMAMI, is such a book. In a hovel nested inside Mexico City, three families lose a mother, a daughter, and a wife. One leaves, one drowns, and one dies. However, Jufresa is not interested in that. Instead, UMAMI focuses on the next four years, and the way the neighbors inside the Belldrop Mews wade through their grief. Each character speaks in the present tense from a different year, between 2000 and 2004. Together, their accounts make a portrait of the ways we learn (or refuse) to cope.

Jufresa and her translator Sophie Hughes were kind enough to answer questions about the novel via e-mail.

*

Brazos Bookstore: UMAMI, to me, feels rooted in Mexico, even though the characters rarely leave their cloister. How do the Belldrop Mews and its tenants reflect the larger Mexico City? What is missing?

Laia Jufresa: Over 20 million people live in Mexico City. It’s a chaotic place that somehow manages to function and which, despite its unambiguous name, is more like many different cities at once. So this story, which takes place mostly inside an enclosed space of only five houses, does not portray the city (nor was that my intention). However, I agree with you in that the novel is very rooted in Mexico, but perhaps this happens not out of some sense of place as much as through the language, the atmospheres, the day-to-day of the characters and the tone of the relationships between neighbors and family members. I have lived in Mexico City, but only for about a third of my life, so in my heart and imaginary it remains a place made of emotional ties and singular expressions more than concrete streets and corners. So perhaps that’s what came through when I used it as a setting.

Sophie Hughes: I’ll only add that this novel touched me because it is universal. UMAMI brims with Mexico, but not the one I’d ever been sold in documentaries, articles, or movies before I moved here. I don’t read books set in foreign lands to see how exotic and foreign they are, but rather to hope to find in them common facets that define human nature. That’s the key for me. That’s why literature must be translated: so that books like UMAMI can come along and be brilliantly, movingly, entertainingly self-aware and honest in their observations about a place we may have a dubiously warped outsider’s vision of. Laia rips any narco-lit or magical realism label off a truly indefinable city.

BB: Why tell a story over five years through five voices?

LJ: I wanted to write about grief not in a melodramatic or immediate way, but by paying attention to its many ripples over time and as felt by different members of a small community. This interest led me to strive for a polyphony. Long before I had the story clear in my head, I was working on the different voices. I had the voice of a little girl who dies, and the voice of her sister seemingly finally over her period of mourning. This meant I needed a chronological structure that would allow those voices to coexist. I didn’t want to write a novel where the dead speak, so I needed the novel’s time span to allow me to include those two realities. Ditto for the other characters and their different losses or absences.

BB: There are two mysteries the characters want to solve—Why did Chela leave? How did Luz drown if she knows how to swim?—and another that is a riddle for the reader—What are “The Girls” that Alfonso is always on about?

The last section solves two of these puzzles and both revelations are mesmerizing! How do you create a universe in which these things are possible and also taken seriously?

LJ: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I don’t think there’s one answer. In a way the whole book is my answer to how you would do just that—combine the serious and the absurd sides of real life—for this particular story.

I think one big important thing for me is achieving a sort of straight-forwardness with the voice, a place where I feel the voice is speaking truthfully, and then the story itself can be about anything at all. So perhaps it’s not so much about things being possible and taken seriously, as much as achieving a narration that makes things (anything) feel plausible, and feel as important to the reader as they do to the characters. But that building takes time and that’s why the last section seems to reveal so much.

The other key, I think, is the word you used: a universe. I think UMAMI is a book it takes a while to get into because it’s so far from the One Hero Journey roadmap that permeates so many of today’s narrative. I’ve read reviews that say things along the lines of “stick with it, it will be rewarding!”, and I sometimes cringe at this, thinking it is a flaw, perhaps one typical of first novels even, that I didn’t manage to fully hook the reader from page one. But other times I think what came through is that deep down I like books and characters—and people—that you have to get to know a bit before falling in love because there’s more to them than meets the eye. Building a universe, setting it up well enough—yet with only very minimal descriptions—so that the reader can leisurely move inside it, that’s something I’m really interested in. And I think perhaps building the Mews was the only way I could wrap my head around that task. Perhaps when you have closed walls you have spots where those mysteries and their many implications can bounce off or slowly percolate, whereas if the story was placed in an entire city as we discussed earlier, these very subtle nuances would get lost, and these puzzles that are so dear to the characters would seem meaningless.

BB: In this story, the female characters are bold while the men are passive and/or the ones who are left (either by death or by choice). Was that a conscious decision?

LJ: Not really. But so little in my writing process is a conscious decision…If it didn’t come naturally to me, though, I think this probably would be the one thing I’d make a point of attempting: to build complex multi-layered female characters. They’re rare where I come from. Not in life, of course, but Mexican literature, so rich in many other aspects—form, language, the mix of humor and seriousness, etc.—has taken so long to catch up to life in this one truth: that women are humans. I didn’t use to care but it bothers me more and more, somehow, to read book after book never finding a woman in it that isn’t a glaring stereotype—the whore or the mother. So yes, after this rant I’d say it probably was a decision, albeit an unconscious one, in that it’s something that matters to me. Not as a cause per se, but just because I find it ludicrous that something as rich and open as literature would be denied something as rich and endless as women’s inner worlds and daily acts of all sorts.

SH: This didn’t occur to me when I first read the book, but it certainly became clear as I translated it. I think Laia writes multi-layered characters whether they’re male, female, or inanimate reborn dolls. And I think when you read this book it’s not a glaringly obviously female targeted, if such a novel exists. Having said that, as a woman, I will never look at motherhood the same way again. Laia’s character’s decimation of society’s response to her having chosen not to have children is vital and brilliant, without ever moralizing. Of course, like any good novel, UMAMI doesn’t wear any moral or political messages on its sleeve, but it does pose some very pertinent questions about the human and female condition (and those terms themselves).

BB: Always, there is this sentiment from the characters that English dilutes everything in a way that is almost unforgivable. Bilingual characters are judged on whether they can mask their natural accent when using their second language. How did that attitude affect the translation process?

LJ: I’ll let Sophie get that one but I’ll just share that when my friend Carmen Cáceres, an Argentinian writer, read one of the first drafts she said to me, “This book is SO Mexican! They’re all obsessed with English!” I was taken aback. I would have named many other very Mexican features the book has before hitting upon that particular one. But then I thought about it and had to accept she was absolutely right.

SH: It wasn’t so much the attitude as the nitty-gritty “Gah, how will I get this outsider’s view of this English word across if the text I’m writing is in English?” Often, precisely because she’s so fluent and interested in English as a native Spanish speaker, the point of Laia’s jokes are at risk of being lost in English translation. To give an example: teenage Ana’s dad is Mexican, and her mom English, and she’s grown up bilingual.

“According to Dad, on principle you should distrust any language that uses the same word for libre and gratis.”

Here I had to trust that English readers have just enough of an awareness of (or subconscious link to) the Latin roots underpinning their language that even if they don’t speak Spanish, they’ll get the joke. If you don’t find any humor in UMAMI, you can be certain it’s because I’ve failed at my job.

BB: What projects are you working on now?

LJ: I just finished my first movie script. Hardest thing I’ve ever written, by the way. But now it has a director and a producer and if they somehow find loads of money, it will perhaps be a movie someday? In the meantime, I’m having a baby in a few months and striving to learn German so I can properly howl at the people in the delivery room when the time comes. (Because I live in Germany, not because I find that classier.)

SH: I’ve just translated a good chunk of LA RESTA (2015) by Alia Trabucco Zerán. Searing, intelligent, breathless, brave, uniquely crafted: you’ll definitely see this novel in English one day. And by chance, I translated a sample for a friend of hers, Guiseppe Caputo, who’s written a novel EL MUNDO HUÉRFANO that’s flying off the shelves in Colombia. I really want this book to find an English-language publisher. The setting is a kind of Baz Luhrmann Romeo and Juliet beach wasteland/fairground. The relationship between father and his gay son one of the most tender I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The descriptions of the young man’s sex life are beautiful and brutal. I hope we get increasingly used to seeing literary novels that include homosexual sex in our bookshops. How can we hope for new novels to speak truthfully, as indeed Laia puts it, if we suppress what shocks us in its novelty or seeming inapplicability to our personal lives?

BB: What are recent works in translation you would recommend? What authors or works would you like to see translated into English?

LJ: I just found out Samantha Schweblin’s first novel (DISTANCIA DE RESCATE) is coming out in English! Do Not Miss It. It will be called FEVER DREAM and it’s translated by Megan McDowell.

And I wish Jorge Ibargüengoitia and Fabio Morabito were more available in translation.

SH: I wholeheartedly agree with Laia on Schweblin. I’m interested to see the reception. She may divide readers, but isn’t that what good books do—prompt discussion? FEVER DREAM appeals to me because it paints a dark, dramatic underbelly of motherhood. The same appeal as UMAMI had, in fact, although they are two very different novels. This is a good time for Latin American literature in translation. Mario Bellatín, Carmen Boullosa, Álvaro Enrigue, Verónica Gerber, Julián Herbert, Yuri Herrera, Laia Jufresa, Valeria Luiselli, Emiliano Monge, Guadalupe Nettel, Eduardo Rabasa, Daniel Saldaña Paris, Carlos Velázquez, and Juan Pablo Villalobos are contemporary authors recently or about to be published in English from Mexico alone! Just because no one (thankfully) has put a name on it yet (i.e. the Boom, the Crack) doesn’t mean something significant isn’t happening in front of readers’ eyes. I get the feeling at Brazos I’m preaching to the converted, though…

review: YEAR OF THE GOOSE by carly j. hallman

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 3.11.16

Many children grow up reading Aesop’s fables. With cute animals illustrating life lessons in short, minute-long stories, what’s not to love?

Slow and steady wins the race.

Please all, and you will please none.

Better no rule than cruel rule.

In her debut novel Year of the Goose, Carly J. Hallman investigates whether or not unbelievable amounts of money can, in fact, buy happiness. (No. The answer is no. And here’s the other thing: in this story, the goose is evil.)

Set in a stylized version of China, Goose follows a series of rants and confessions from a rainbow of outrageous characters: the heiress to Bashful Goose Snack Company, China’s most successful corporation; China’s most innovative organic hair farmer, now in hiding; the soul of a monk now inhabiting the body of a turtle; a prized hair model, who has recently decided to leave the industry and pursue something—anything—else. Each story is more earnest and strange than the last.

Take Kelly Hui, for example: twenty-four, only offspring of Papa Hui, founder of Bashful Goose Snack Company and China’s richest man. With an Hermès bag in one hand and a degree from USC in the other, she is sick with the type of ennui that only plagues the ridiculously wealthy. To prove to her father that she is fit to continue the family legacy, she asks him to sign the check to sponsor a government-sanctioned Fat Camp, which she aims to run. What better way for Bashful Goose to appease the public than to sponsor this altruistic activity?

Alas, things unravel in ways she did not anticipate:

Yes, if any one of these campers had looked up, her or she would have watched in horror as Kelly and Zhao successfully stuffed [Camper] Nine away in the storage closet, and then returned to the boys’ dormitory building, where they emerged mere minute later dragging the corpse of another of their fellow campers, Camper Fourteen, and then rolling him too across the courtyard where his body would meet the same fate….”

How many of the campers die? The first death is a genuine accident: Camper Fourteen slips in the shower. “He lay there for many minutes,” Hallman writes, “and in one of those many minutes, his ghost left his body.” Camper Fourteen’s bunk-mate Camper Nine is the one who finds him. He screams until Kelly and her camp partner Zhao arrive, until they make him stop:

Camper Nine shut his mouth and then opened it again, releasing the beginning of what would’ve surely been another long scream had Zhao not tackled him to the ground, pulled a small club from his pocket, and whacked him in the head.

No, Year of the Goose is not for hearts with paper armor but neither is it an ode to violence, or a skewering of China. Rather, it is a critique of decadence in all its forms. In one section, an official in Macau can comprehend nothing but the feast in his presence, not even his Rolex or his Armani suit:

No, he thought of food, just food, of the platters of sashimi before him, of these elegantly-displayed, beautifully cut pieces of raw fish, of the drool that pooled around his gums.

All of it is there—naan, hair crab, dim sum, “platters and plates and pots and spreads as far as the eye could see.”

Loud and lush and laugh-out-loud funny, Hallman does well leading the circus of her own making. Year of the Goose is an addictive, delightfully dark novel.

review: YEAR OF THE GOOSE by carly j. hallman

This review was originally published at BrazosBookstore.com on 1.4.16

Crawl before you walk, they say. Break through then follow your muse once you’ve got everyone’s attention. Carly J. Hallman wants none of that. Her debut novel, YEAR OF THE GOOSE, takes us to a version of contemporary China where tycoons are throwing tantrums, obese children are getting slaughtered to improve the country’s overall demographic, and UFOs are taking over night clubs. The talking goose is talking and one of China’s finest organic hair models has gone missing. It’s hilarious. It’s insane.

There is a certain charm to it, though, like when you’re the only sober person at your boyfriend’s friend’s New Year’s Eve party. You shuffle from room to room and strangers pull on your arm and tell you stories, each one more outrageous than the last, and you start to wonder how these people even came to be at the same party—is it even the same party?—until, at midnight, everybody comes together to count down from one year into the next. With GOOSE, each section of the book is one of those party goers unloading his or her woes (this happened to me, this really happened). In lieu of the countdown, there is the final section of the book, where all the characters meet and the chaos switches from the past to the present.

It’s a lot to tackle but becomes easier to talk about—and construct, I imagine!—when framed under the guise of a fable: once upon a time, there was a magical goose who gave China its most successful corporation, Bashful Goose Snack Company, and it was not a blessing.


Hallman received her degree in writing and rhetoric from St. Edward’s University in Austin but has lived in Beijing for the past four years. When I ask her via email whether it was a conscious decision to write about her second home for her first book, she reports that it was a mission a long time coming. “I first visited China in 2006, and since then I knew I wanted to write a book about the place,” she writes. “It pulses with life; there are stories, familiar and strange, everywhere you turn,” despite that “in the western media, China is always painted as this very foreign, almost alien, place.”

But just as the American experience isn’t completely contained within the context of the American Dream, a concept that Hallman tells me motioned a movement in China a couple years ago called the Chinese Dream campaign, Chinese citizens “aren’t regularly running their mouths about the Tiananmen ‘incident’ or anything.” Instead, history functions more as an ongoing discussion: “Among every grouping of families and friends, there are countless anecdotes and stories that challenge, directly or indirectly, every part of the ‘official’ narrative.”

Hallman’s argument? If the Chinese experience varies at an individual level—because of course it does!—then our (Western) art about it, by extension, should reflect dimension and diversity as well. The issue is that “a lot of the literature about China that’s written in English by westerners is either an Amy Tan type story—someone with Chinese heritage writing a family saga—or nonfiction by a white guy who goes to China and has some cultural misunderstandings.” Not that Amy Tan can’t write, but Yu Hua, Mo Yan, Murong, and Shen Keyi are out there, too, writing “hilarious and brave and surreal and badass” books that inspired Hallman to attempt to “widen the scope of what we (westerners) write about when we write about China.”

Always, always Hallman remembers that she is an American in China, an important distinction that shapes not only how she moves through the world but how GOOSE represents both countries and their peoples. In Hallman’s novel, America is the country that is far and foreign but it never reads as though America is the Promised Land and China something ridiculous. Flipping that scenario, GOOSE never presents itself as a story that takes place in America but uses Asian-sounding names and take-out boxes to say, “Hey, look, we’re in China!”

Yes, it’s stylized, and yes, there’s hyperbole all over—when I ask her about it, Hallman says that she “loves [hyperbole] more than anything in the whole wide world”—but “much of what’s in the book is rooted in reality, believe it or not.” According to Hallman, while modern China has opportunity, glitz, and endless possibility, it also has the pollution, corruption, and unchecked greed to match.

“Visit real China and I promise you’ll see childhood obesity and corporate decadence and old ladies selling turtles on the roadside and rich kids with amazing haircuts cruising around in half-million dollar cars,” she writes. “That stuff is all 100% real.”


So, what kind of publisher rallies around a book like this? GOOSE is one of those punks with a half-shaved head and piercings in places that are meant to make you (the onlooker) feel uncomfortable. GOOSE is loud as hell and not at all sorry. GOOSE is the December title from our friends at Unnamed Press. Since our introduction to them back in May with Gallagher Lawson’s THE PAPER MAN, we have followed Unnamed as they offer titles about pica, works in translation, and now GOOSE.

How did this pairing come to be? With the casual air that you might tell a girlfriend about your first date with a new potential lover, Hallman jumps right into it: “I was dawdling in bed one morning, scrolling through Tumblr on my phone because I didn’t want to go to work…” In her feed, she came across about “a new publishing house that focused on international fiction with unlikely protagonists and voices,” the seeming perfect match for her quirky, homeless manuscript. “A few days later, I worked up the courage to send them an email query,” she writes. “A few months later, I had a book contract.”

GOOSE’s official pub date was December 22—a great date if shoppers want to use it as a holiday present, or a death sentence if it’s one that gets lost in the whirlwind of year-end lists and upcoming books for next year. Since we put it on the tables, though, Hallman’s spunky debut has been the former; it was our number one best-selling title the week after Christmas.

Maybe it’s best to say it like this: When I ask Hallman about her favorite snacks—the Bashful Goose runs China, after all—she says, “I think my absolute favorite kinds of snacks are those that contain a combination of sweet and salty (best of both worlds!).” If GOOSE is the salt, Hallman is the sweetness. But not sweet like a macaron. Sweet like a raspberry, delicate but not without edge.

interview w/ wendy s walters

This interview was originally published on BrazosBookstore.com in August 2015

“Lonely in America,” the first essay in Wendy S. Walters’ MULTIPLY/DIVIDE, begins like this: “I have never been particularly interested in slavery, perhaps because it is such an obvious fact of my family’s history.” Whatever the reason, the idea of a woman with slavery in her bloodline having little interest in her history intrigues me—especially when compared to someone like my friend Rachel, whose distant relative’s involvement in the Nazi movement caused her to question her own identity. Who chooses what we care about, or how we assess our personal histories against larger world histories? In “Lonely in America,” variations of this question eventually lead Walters to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where “eight coffins and the remains of thirteen people were removed” from beneath the city streets. Walters reports that “at least four of the remains in questions were of African ancestry, most likely slaves buried there in the 1700s.”

“[Portsmouth] is a really lovely town,” Walters tells me over the phone, “but beneath the city streets, there’s this history that’s really not part of the public identity of the city,” meaning that New England’s history with segregation often gets buried—literally, in this case. She was fascinated by the idea of “people [living] their daily lives on top of this cemetery,” not knowing what lay just below the surface. In this essay, and throughout the book, Walters searches for ways to keep herself awake, alert, and present. “There’s…a lot of pain in history and present context of America,” she tells me. “[MULTIPLY/DIVIDE], for me, is an attempt to figure out where the pain is located in these historical moments and historical records that we are familiar with.”

The story you remember from history class is not, should not, cannot, be the only story.

The overarching question Walters spent years contemplating was: “How functional is our democracy?” And beneath that was yet another question: “What makes someone visible or un-visible?” By “un-visible,” Walters doesn’t mean “invisible”; rather, she refers to the people we have the ability to see, but whom we choose not to recognize. All of MULTIPLY/DIVIDE centers around this distinction. “How do I become visible or not visible to people in my day-to-day experience?” Walters asks herself throughout this book. “How [do I make myself] more open to seeing people that I may have dismissed, ignored, or written off as a character of a trope of something I thought I understood? How do I make it so I learn to see better?”

Keeping a sharp eye becomes even more vital when one considers the number of race-motivated murders in America, and the disturbing or absent coverage of the deaths of black men and women in the mainstream media. The onslaught of violence grew all the more visible to Walters when she became a mother while writing MULTIPLY/DIVIDE. “I don’t know if [my newfound motherhood] was any more remarkable than anyone else’s,” Walters says, “but it certainly was one of those moments [when my] thinking was reset.”

In her “attempt to bring to light some of the contradictions about American identities and aspiration,” Walters employs a mix of genres. In fact, the introduction outlines which essays in the collection are fiction, nonfiction, and lyric essays, “a form that blends poetry and prose, memoir and reporting, actual and imagined events.” Why the combination? Why not just all fiction or all nonfiction? Why not poetry, like her previous books TROY, MICHIGAN and LONGER I WAIT, MORE YOU LOVE ME? “I make [these] categorizations because I think they are important,” Walters writes. “But I also make them with a bit of pause, because the border between nonfiction and fiction—while seemingly clear as black and white—is often porous enough to render the distinction as irrelevant.” Since the same could be said about the real and the surreal, as Walters points out, she hopes to address “nuances as they unfold place by place, argument by argument, and story by story,” rather than limit herself or her subject to a single genre. “I’m of the mindset that I just try to write down what I’m obsessed about and worry about how it fits into the larger puzzle later,” Walters tells me.

Sarabande Books, Walters’ publisher, frequently releases works of formal complexity. When I ask Kristen Radtke, Sarabande’s managing editor, about the form of MULTIPLY/DIVIDE—whether people will understand once it’s a thing out in the world—she says, “It’s easier to market things if you can say, ‘This is exactly what this is about,’ [but] what’s interesting about [Walters’] book is that it’s associative in the way our minds are.” It’s not one of those books that’s easy to pitch, but the writing itself will make its difficult subject matter more digestible. “You never really feel like you’re being preached at, but you feel like you’re living her experiences with her,” Radtke says. “She’s really talking about a lot of issues that we’re all thinking about, the way Americans need change.”

Radtke says that giving a bold but largely unknown writer like Wendy S. Walters a home “makes her feel like she’s succeeding.” Plus, “most of our authors that move on to larger houses still remain friends to Sarabande.” It truly seems like a family, especially when Radtke tells me that “we are actually a staff entirely of women,” which is unicorn-rare for the industry. “It’s kind of an amazing gift to be part of a team of forward-thinking, progressive women,” Radtke says. “It’s something that I never thought would be possible.”

What both women—Walters and Radtke—seem to be advocating is that we should not keep our biases about what is or isn’t possible buried, but that we should dig them up and hold them to the light. The hope? That acknowledging and assessing the mistakes in our own thinking can help craft better futures.