Friday, February 24, 2012

Natural Wonders: Alexis M. Smith's "Glaciers"



I've mentioned this at least once in a previous post, but I rarely find myself on top of literary debuts. Given my reading schedule, it's difficult to squeeze in every new, noted novel, although there are rare exceptions (The Art of Fielding is the most recent example, but I read it many months after its initial publication). I'm still making mental notes to pick up Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife and Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists, just to name a couple recent examples. However, I bought and read Alexis M. Smith's debut novel Glaciers almost immediately after its publication, and for no good reason other than the fact that Tin House published it. It's one of my favorite literary magazines, and I figured that, even if I felt indifferent to the novel, I would be supporting an emerging writer in addition to an excellent publication. Instead, to use an adjective that sometimes throws up a red flag, I found myself reading one of the more beautiful pieces I've experienced in some time.

Glaciers is a novel about a day in the life of Isabel, a young, twenty-something woman living in Portland by way of Alaska. She handles damaged books in a small library, is attracted to a veteran named Spoke (this nickname is explained in harrowing detail), and has a penchant for collecting postcards in secondhand shops, imagining places she has not been, and concocting background information on the people whose notes grace the pieces of paper. Her best friend, nicknamed Loon, is an occasional, yet consistent presence in her world. Throughout this particular day, the usual will happen, along with the unusual. Isabel is a character whose brain and imagination are always active; she's just as comfortable observing the world around her as she is reflecting on her childhood, constant moving, and the divorce of her parents. These early memories, much like her day being normal and abnormal, are hints to her current state of mind, as well as seemingly random sketches of her observational skills, honed at an early age. One of the better examples comes early in the book, and manages to showcase Isabel's mindset, as well as giving a pretty explicit window into the book's title.

"The ferry from Seattle was crowded with other families, not Alaskan families but the kind of loose-minded travelers who pointed and photographed without really seeing.
Like other great creatures before them, the glaciers were dying, and their death, so distant and unimaginable, was a spectacle not to be missed. The ferry slowed where a massive glacier met the ocean; a long, low cracking announced the rupture of ice from glacier; then came the slow lunge of the ice into the sea. This was calving--when part of a glacier breaks free and becomes an iceberg--a king of birth (Smith 16-17)."

These observations on natural phenomena manage to link quite well to Isabel's current activities. There is a definite system at work, as Smith shows how everyday actions can be natural and sociological as well as "scientific." Isabel feels the pulse of both, especially when interacting with Spoke. Smith crafts their interactions very sweetly. It's an old-fashioned courtship, but the reader is still left wondering how it will play out.

"Good morning, Isabel, he says without looking up. He's reading the newspaper.
Good morning, Spoke, she says.
She turns to the cupboard and waits to feel his eyes on her. Waits, and pretends to look through the box for a tea bag, though it is right there, the Earl Grey she has every morning.
There is a physics to their relationship. She feels the attraction as a force, like the gravitational tug of celestial bodies in orbit; but it seems that to touch, one of them must crash into the other (Smith 43)."

Just like I wrote that "beautiful" is overused in book descriptions, I've also pointed out my disdain for describing passages as "poetic." However, it's impossible not to use that term in relation to Glaciers. And for all of the emphasis on "serious" subject matters, Smith's humor is reserved, yet evident. There's the occasional funny spark that adds to the emotional complexities.

"Isabel turns to the rack nearest her. The dresses are from the 1930s, some of them so delicate she can't imagine anyone but ghosts wearing them. Faded flowers, velvet trim worn down to the ribbon, buttons nodding at the floor.
She hears the shopkeeper tossing things around in her storeroom. Something falls and the lady curses, but it's a stifled, antiquated curse Isabel can barely make out. Something like bollocks (Smith 79)."



Perhaps this is going out on a limb, but here's a recap of some of Isabel's traits: she lives in Portland, frequents thrift stores, works in a library, and has a taste for vintage dresses. Just based on these ideas, and without referencing the novel, it's possible that someone would assume Isabel is a hipster. However, I find this to be another way in which Smith turns around the usual expectations. Isabel is not jaded or sarcastic; she's truly fascinated and consumed with these elements in her life, and even when she remains distant, it's a mark of her true personality. IFC's Portlandia is the best satire of West Coast subcultures, but in Glaciers, these collections are not meant to be typical, since Isabel's journey and thoughts are fiercely personal. The last thing on her mind is getting "cool points" from anyone else, and her Portland is her home, rendered as both contemporary and representative of classic urban scenes:

"Outside at midday, Isabel feels the last breath of summer on her skin. The hum of the library is still in her ears, but drowning now in the noise of the city. She smells the food carts from blocks away, the hot oil and garlic and roasting meat that flows through the air every workday, mingling with the rank warm sewers and the burnt-oil musk of the buses and delivery trucks, and under that, when her feet tread the grass under the trees, the smell of damp bark and vegetal decay (Smith 71-72)."

Glaciers , in essence, is a novel of discovery. The actions point toward a party that occurs at the book's end, and the realization that Isabel has her own story to tell. Her life is a series of discoveries, and while they all add up to make her who she is, there's a sense of her being guarded to the point of preferring other people's stories when she definitely has her own to tell. However, she's never truly at fault for this, since her actions and love of remnants and historical pieces (both physical and intangible) are not presented to cover anything up; rather, it's a lead-up to her vocalizing the many stories that she has inside. Smith provides some closure to the characters, but leaves plenty of necessary ambiguity. This is a single day, not the culmination of an entire life.

Via Twitter, I've devoted more than a few posts to how much I enjoyed this work. It delivered much more than I anticipated, especially since I picked it up solely out of respect for the publisher. With that in mind, Tin House has succeeded: the journal put its efforts behind a new novelist, and let the work speak for itself, to the point that I was consumed by the words, not the presentation. This is an incredibly moving piece of writing, and Alexis M. Smith is worthy of the attention she is now receiving. She's an acute storyteller, and her attention to details is nothing short of stunning.

Work Cited:
Smith, Alexis M. Glaciers. Copyright 2012 by Alexis M. Smith.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Public Defenses and Prosecutions: "Arguably" by Christopher Hitchens



Like some people in my generation (and mindset), I first discovered Christopher Hitchens via his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I loved his arguments and style, but what captured me the most was his fierce passion for the subject. Arguments, style, passion: generic terms, yes, but it's difficult to refute their application to his words. Last September saw the publication of Arguably, easily the biggest, most diverse collection of his essays, collected from a variety of publications and spanning all of his major subject matters: literature, politics, words, and religion. Sadly, the book's release seemed to be clouded by his imminent death; indeed, he passed from cancer two months ago. However, upon tackling the enormous volume, I never got the feeling that it was published to capitalize on his expected passing, and I would have felt the same had it debuted after his death. The essays are fascinating, sometimes dense, and never on the fence, so to speak. No matter what opinions one had about his opinions, nobody can deny his convictions.

My introduction above might seem to be a hyperbolic personal eulogy, which wasn't my intention, and while I was tempted to read Arguably right after his passing, I decided to wait until the news releases, links, and thoughts had quieted down. Having finished it, I realize how little I knew about the diversity of his writings. It opens with many of his book reviews, and his literary criticisms are varied and professional. Few journalists have the face and name recognition that Hitchens enjoyed, but as a book reviewer, his persona is hidden, and the emphasis is on the subject matter. His literary acumen was stunning, and some of his best passages are both entertaining and intellectually stimulating. A good example is the opening to his review of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. He combines opinions, backgrounds, and a segue into the heart of the topic.

"Probably no two words in our language are now more calculated to shrivel the sensitive nostril than 'socialist realism.' Taken together, they evoke the tractor opera, the granite-jawed proletarian sculpture, the cultural and literary standards of Commissar Zhandov, and the bone-deep weariness that is paradoxically produced by ceaseless uplift and exhortation. Yet these words used to have an authentic meaning, which was also directly related to 'social' realism. And the most fully realized instance of the genre, more telling and more moving than even the works of Dickens and Zola, were composed in these United States (Hitchens 47)."

I'm not ashamed to admit that I have not read a lot of the authors he discusses in his reviews, but, a sign of sound writing, I found the essays to be thought-provoking, and more than once I made a mental note to investigate a given writer. Hitchens had the ability to bridge the gap between readers familiar with a topic and those (like myself) who are new to the subject. While he keeps himself "hidden" for the most part, his personal literary essays feel just as objective. In discussing his falling out with Gore Vidal, it's commendable to note how Hitchens engages in genuine analysis, not stooping to the level of nitpicking. His words are fierce and unabashed, but still maintain dignity and wit. Even at his most vitriolic, he was never argumentative for its own sake, but rather because it was necessary.

"For some years now, the old boy's stock-in-trade has been that of the last Roman: the stoic eminence who with unclouded eyes foresees the coming end of the noble republic. Such an act doesn't require a toga, but it does demand a bit of dignity. Vidal's phrasings sometimes used to have a certain rotundity and extravagance, but now he has descended straight to the cheap and even to the counterfeit. What business does this patrician have in the gutter markets, where paranoids jabber and the coinage is debased by every sort of vulgarity (Hitchens 92)?"



While I've been consistent with my praise, a notable aspect of Hitchens's work is that even his biggest fans do not agree with him on everything, and even within some of these disagreements, there are two sides to the arguments. Hitchens supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, not on the grounds of the Bush administration's rhetoric, but on the basis of removing a despotic leader. He lambasted the Islamic insistence on burkas and veils as representations of controlling and demeaning women, and today, it's still a very controversial subject, overlapping authoritarianism and the women who wear them out of personal freedom in certain countries. I fantastically disagreed with his essay "Why Women Aren't Funny," a piece that acknowledges the controversial claim and attempts to back up the argument with scientific claims (men are funnier because of evolutionary genetics; it's a way to attract women). While it's an insult to women, Hitchens was not misogynistic, as further essays decry the lack of freedom women have in certain Middle Eastern countries.

The political essays are pretty evenly mixed between historical analyses and personal voyages, of which the latter proved to be the most fascinating. Hitchens made several trips to the Middle East, and his accounts are a blend of travel narratives and cultural observations that sometimes read like fiction, in the best of ways. Take this account of encountering a swastika at a market in Beirut. There are other, more solemn words, but this passage was so gripping, so gleeful, and such an excellent representation of his views.


"Well, call me old-fashioned if you will, but I have always taken the view that swastika symbols exist for one purpose only--to be defaced. Telling my two companions to hold on for a second, I flourish my trusty felt-tip and begin to write some offending words on the offending poster. I say 'begin' because I have barely gotten to the letter k in a well-known transitive verb when I am grabbed by my shirt collar by a venomous little thug, his face glittering with hysterical malice (Hitchens 514)."

In all reality, an essay collection of this scope is generally beyond the realm of being "reviewed." There is simply too much material, of such varying topics, that a true, complete analysis would be much longer than the actual book. Therefore, highlighting some of the more representational passages is the best way to go. Amazingly, his atheistic writings, for which he received the most attention, compose the smallest selection in the book. Perhaps the implication is that readers know where to go to review these pieces, and as a fitting, final tribute, Arguably is meant to showcase the diversity of Hitchens's intellect. His fights for secularism were among the most sound arguments against religious hypocrisy and abuse, but at the same time, that wasn't his only love. He was a true man of letters, as this volume showcases, and it's a fitting representation of one of the best international journalists of the last century. This might not be my most "journalistic" post, nor is this a standard review, but I'm grateful to have read his many sides and arguments, and it's rare to finish an essay collection and realize there was so much more about a given writer than I previously knew. I really wish I could have had the chance to meet Mr. Hitchens, and while this might seem like a trite cliche, it's comforting to have access to his writings. For such a public figure who mastered many forms of discourse and media, his best power, and his legacy, is the written word.

Work Cited:
Hitchens, Christopher. Arguably. Copyright 2011 by Christopher Hitchens.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Quitting Time: Half-Notes On "Of Human Bondage"



As I mentioned in my first post of the year, I keep an annual tally of the books I complete. Since 2009, I've averaged around twenty-five titles per year, and while the ultimate goal is always quality, my 2012 pace has been sputtering lately. This understatement has been highlighted, at least in my mind, by the Twitter feed of writer Matt Bell. In addition to having one of the more insightful/unique literary accounts, Bell has been updating his book completions of 2012, and recently noted his eighteenth book of the year. Even if half of these titles were started last year, or are slim volumes, it's an impressive total. In a given year, I may read one or two "long" books; again, length has nothing to do with quality, but works over 500 pages in length are time consuming and can skew one's annual total. So far this year, I've read two +500 page books (The Art Of Fielding, and the recently published Christopher Hitchens compilation, Arguably). In between these two, I devoted time to W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, an attempt to catch up on a lot of the older classics I have not read yet. It might seem pointless to devote words to a book I gave up on, but my bailing out highlighted more than a few literary issues.

I bought a used copy of Of Human Bondage last year and finally pulled it off my shelf a few weeks ago. When two separate co-workers in two separate instances asked me what I was currently reading, both said "Why?" when I mentioned the title. Going in, I had little if any knowledge of Maugham's style, life, or literary designations. I simply knew the name and the fact that a lot of his works tend to fit into the usual canon of classic literature. The skepticism at my reading filled me with two distinct emotions. One side of me felt relieved, since I had spent hours digging through dense, tiresome prose, hoping to hit the switch from "ordinary prose" to "holy shit, this is fantastic and the pages are flying by." The other side of me was determined to see it through, to find themes and passages worthy of discussion and critique. I closed the book for good on page 138 of the Bantam Classic edition, on a paragraph that perfectly sums up my frustration with Maugham's prose:

"Philip did not believe in the accuracy of the Careys' statements. All they distinctly remembered was that Miss Wilkinson had not got her hair up the last time they saw her in Lincolnshire. Well, she might have been twelve then: it was so long ago and the Vicar was always so unreliable. They said it was twenty years ago, but people used round figures, and it was just as likely to be eighteen years, or seventeen. Seventeen and twelve were only twenty-nine, and hang it all, that wasn't old, was it? Cleopatra was forty-eight when Antony threw away the world for her sake."

This section comes in a chapter devoted to the flirtatious Miss Wilkinson, who has just beguiled Philip Carey with a not-so-veiled story of having sex with a young man in Paris. Philip is attempting to come to terms with her age and her designs on him, and while this above passage isn't long at all, it does seem worthy of reduction or editing. Maugham's tendency, at least in the first quarter of the novel, is to build up layer upon layer of intimate detail, reveal a potentially scandalous or still-contemporary issue, and then quickly move on to repetitious details. I won't devote too much energy to a plot synopsis, especially since I'm not writing about the entire work, and since a general synopsis of such a well-known work is easy to find online. Philip Carey, a club-footed orphan (a metaphor for Maugham's own stuttering problem) is sent to live with his uncle, a cold and distant fundamentalist vicar. There might be other twentieth century novels that are better at lambasting religious suffering, but Maugham does succeed in this area:

"Philip got up and knelt down to say his prayers. It was a cold morning, and he shivered a little; but he had been taught by his uncle that his prayers were more acceptable to God if he said them in his nightshirt than if he waited till he was dressed. This did not surprise him, for he was beginning to realize that he was the creature of a God who appreciated the discomfort of his worshippers."

Also, even with the time period in mind (Of Human Bondagewas published in 1915), Maugham is fairly bold in depicting the obvious sexual attraction between Philip and other men. These scenes are presented as intense platonic friendships, but even if one could manage to read them without a contemporary lens, the true meanings are obvious. I remember one of my former professors delicately cautioning against "queer readings" of every text. He didn't mean this in any discriminatory way, but rather his implication was that revisionist readings can sometimes take writings out of context. But given Maugham's own sexuality, it's impossible not to read between the lines.

"Soon they grew accustomed to the two walking into chapel arm in arm or strolling round the precincts in conversation; wherever one was the other could be found also, and, as thought acknowledging his proprietorship, boys who wanted Rose would leave messages with Carey. Philip at first was reserved. He would not let himself yield entirely to the proud joy that filled him; but presently his distrust of the fates gave way before a wild happiness. He thought Rose the most wonderful fellow he had ever seen....He thought of Rose all through the holidays, and his fancy was active with the things they would do together next term."



Despite these almost startlingly contemporary issues, gripping narratives in the novel are too few and far between to sustain interest. Instead, readers have to wade through needless details and structures, as if Maugham were afraid to leave out even the most casual or distinct atmospheres. Architecture, gardens, emotional states, boarding school tedium...yes, these are imperative for the story, but Maugham took "the devil is in the details" to a suffocating extreme. Had the emphasis been more on the sociological rather than the literal, which I find to be Maugham's strongest gift, I'm sure the text would have flowed more, and I might have even finished the work. Again: why am I devoting a post to this? I've started many novels before, only to give up after a few pages, but I can't remember getting this far into a work before stopping. It proves the point that every work of art has its detractors, and labels such as "classic" or "canon" are not always to be taken seriously, or rather they shouldn't always be assumed. Getting back to my notion of "the sociological," the general realization is that Maugham's personal life was much more gripping than his prose. This was driven home by two supporting essays, one of which stressed this idea unintentionally.

In her introduction to the Bantam Classics edition, Jane Smiley's attempts to laud the book are tedious, but through no fault of her own, since the majority of the introduction is a fascinating look at Maugham's biographical details. But when it comes to Of Human Bondage, she writes:

...[It] did not at first look like a success. Some British reviews were admiring but bemused. One reviewer, unable to actually form a wholehearted judgement of the book, wrote, 'I am not sure he has not written a highly original book. I am not even sure he has not written almost a great one'...but Of Human Bondage got a second chance for commercial success with a long and enthusiastic review in The New Republic, written by the American realist novelist, Theodore Dreiser (xiii)."

Smiley then quotes Dreiser's ridiculous gushing over the work ("a symphony of great beauty," "priceless texture"), with only the occasional glimpse as to why the book is important. Despite being ahead of the times, an introduction should do more than make a passing reference to Maugham's "interest and candor" about sexuality; virtually everyone has an interest in the subject. If his prose was lambasted, censored, or a part of a genuine sexual revolution, then this would be noteworthy. By the end of Smiley's introduction, the overall feeling is that of "well, everyone says this is a great work, so that must be the case." I'm not at all doubting Smiley's appreciation of it, or her literary background, but my feeling was that of someone hastily defending a maligned book, not an assured rebuttal to critics or a genuine appeal to casual readers.

Christopher Hitchens's 2004 essay "Poor Old Willie" is a much more explicit take on Maugham's literary shortcomings. Hitchens was never shy about his appreciation or distaste for a writer or a novel, but this piece is a genuinely sympathetic look at someone who potentially received more attention than was necessary.

"Just as he was a character in one of his best-known novels, so Maugham worked assiduously to create a persona for himself in life. And the life was, according to [Somerset Maugham: A Life by Jeffrey Meyers], a good deal more exquisite, dramatic, torrid, and tragic than any of the works (Hitchens 243-244)."

As with Smiley's introduction, we're treated to the fantastic details of Maugham's life, one of society and wit, mixed with not-so-quiet sexuality and secrecy. After reading these companion pieces and imagining the few personal details that made their way into the beginning of Of Human Bondage, I would have much preferred to know Maugham as a personal essayist rather than as a novelist. Of course, I'm basing these ideas on merely a few pages of one title in a vast bibliography. There are worse prose writers out there, both past and present, but it's obvious that Maugham infused his fiction with the sort of intense details that would have been out of place in his own non-fiction. But it confuses me when certain titles are lauded without any real explanation (returning to Dreiser, it shows that critics wielding too much influence has been an issue for longer than we realize). Maugham is endlessly fascinating, but as Hitchens states to close his essay:

"Despite his exile and his increasingly distraught public and private life, Maugham eventually received an honor from the Crown--but it was for 'services to literature,' rather than for literature itself, and this distinction represents all the difference in the world (Hitchens 249)."

Works Cited:
Hitchens, Christopher. "Poor Old Willie." From The Atlantic Monthly, 2004. Reprinted in Arguably. Copyright 2011 by Christopher Hitchens.

Maugham, W. Somerset. Of Human Bondage. 1915. Introduction copyright 1991 by Jane Smiley.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Cultural Transitions: An Instafiction Interview With David Yost

As I've mentioned many times, one of the best benefits of working on Instafiction is the element of random discovery. In many hours of story research, there's a fluctuating mix of tedium, dead ends, and stories that seem promising but turn out to be the opposite. In August of 2011, I happened to come across a story called The Counterfeit, a 2010 piece in Asia Literary Review. What seemed like a standard mystery/crime tale turned out to be a stunning layer of contemporary criminal justice in foreign countries and a study of a cultural divisions that yield frightening implications. After the story was featured, we received a very thoughtful e-mail from the story's writer, David Yost. It was one of our first communications from someone we featured, and was therefore an indication that the project could effectively bridge the gap between a daunting number of readers, writers, and publications.

Out of curiosity, I did more research on Mr. Yost, and his work and publications are nothing short of impressive. He has been published in a variety of journals, including American Short Fiction and The Minnesota Review, and has done work with the Peace Corps and Amnesty International. His stories explore a wealth of international ideas, with an emphasis on cultural differences and immigrant transitions. This last idea is prevalent in All Their Riches (featured by Instafiction on December 26th, 2011), a Sun Magazine story about Karen immigrants in Milwaukee. After visiting his website and finding out more about his life and work, I contacted him via e-mail to request an interview. He graciously agreed to answer my questions, and his answers provided genuine insights into his work and creative process. He was also kind enough to share details of his forthcoming novels and translations, and the breadth of his work combines the rare dual threat of entertainment and education.



Jamie Yates: Jeremy [Bushnell] posed this question to me over the summer, and I find it to be an effective ice-breaker: If you're comfortable sharing, can you describe what you would consider to be the worst piece of writing you've done?

David Yost: I can give you the exact sentence: “But in the rainy season, the landmines slid and shifted in the mud, transforming the hills of Karen State into a smorgasbord of death.” But of course, the magic of writing is that nobody ever has to see these boneheaded rough-draft sentences but you.

JY: You've previously volunteered with the Peace Corps, and you're active with Amnesty International. Since your short fiction draws heavily on international politics and the plight of refugees, did your work inspire you to write fictional takes on these issues, or did you just combine two passions?

DY: My interest in writing came first, actually, but after I made my first trip to the Thai-Burma border, I knew I’d be writing about that for a long time. I worked there in a hospital for victims of the ongoing Karen State conflict, and I could hardly believe the things that I saw and heard: forced labor, mass rapes, whole villages destroyed, children dying of landmines and preventable diseases that have been eliminated in almost everywhere else on earth. And yet despite having gone on for six decades, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced, despite the region having the highest mortality in all of Asia and the most landmines per square mile in the world, no one talks about this war; most people don’t even know it’s happening.

Getting to know people from a conflict zone changes your life. It’s one thing to see something like that on the news and say, “Oh, how awful.” Meeting them in person forces you to acknowledge that they’re as human as you are, and that the destruction of their hometown is every bit as terrible as the destruction of your own hometown would be. And once you’ve acknowledged that, how can you not help? It’s an experience I want to bring home to readers however I can.

JY: In your story The Counterfeit, a young man faces a harrowing ordeal with a foreign police system. What was your inspiration for this piece?

DY: The usual hodge-podge. One night, a friend told me about his nervousness exchanging money for his students; it was such an obvious “What if…” that I had a finished outline figured out before I’d even finished walking home. I’d once had a development colleague who had gone overseas to put Kantian theory into practice; bits of him went in, too.

JY: Do you feel that immigrant experiences vary depending on the region or country, or is it a generally collective experience?

DY: I suppose you can draw broad similarities between any cultural transition experience, but things vary widely between nations, groups, and even individuals. Karen immigrants are portrayed in immigration office handbooks as a group that has particular difficulty in adapting to the US because of the comparative modesty of Karen culture, particularly the strictures on asking for help. Yet I’m still in touch with friends and former co-workers who have adjusted quite smoothly.

JY: You write as an American inhabiting the role and feelings of contemporary Karen immigrants in All Their Riches. Is there a contemporary Burmese writer whom you feel serves as a spokesperson for the people?

DY: Wendy Law-Yone is probably the most acclaimed Burmese writer on the world stage, and her Coffin Tree is excellent. I’m not aware of any Karen authors writing fiction in English, though Zoya Phan’s recently published memoirs are an excellent first-person look at the conflict.

JY: The Last Days Of Menilek II has traces of politics, but is one of your more explicitly historical pieces. When writing, do you think in broad thematic terms (such as "political" or "historical"), or do you put more emphasis on a more concrete plot idea?

DY: I usually start with an accumulation of raw material that catches my interest, and trust that a theme will emerge later. I read about the electric chair he had imported to Ethiopia, and that got me started reading more about his life; I probably read seven or eight biographies just to write those four pages. When I had enough interesting details—the bizarre treatments of his international medical staff, the strokes that caused a secession crisis, the rumors of witchcraft—I started drafting, later whittling down to only my favorite details.

JY: You're working on a translation of Massa Makan Diabaté's The Lieutenant of Kouta. Is this your first translation? If so, what themes or plot points do you feel will speak to English language readers?

DY: It is my first translation, and I’m happy to say an excerpt from it just appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review. I think The Lieutenant of Kouta is, quite simply, one of the funniest books I’ve ever read; it’s raunchy, fast-moving, and ruthlessly satirical. Yet it also asks some serious questions about cultural conflict, as its Malian protagonist finds himself caught between the French colonial government, the traditional Malinké aristocracy, the town’s imam, and the colony’s growing independence movement.

JY: Aside from colloquial and structural differences, what is the most challenging aspect of translating a novel?

DY: Translating anything into a synonym-rich language like English is a time-consuming process. I’m lucky to have found a skilled (and far more fluent) co-translator in Shane Auerbach, and he and I can sit and argue about the precise difference between, say, “struggled with his conscience” and “wrestled with his conscience” for hours at a time.

Another unique challenge of translating The Lieutenant of Kouta is that Diabaté himself is writing in French instead of Malinké, and so he’s already translated these idioms and cultural concepts into one foreign language. To give a small example, a hangar-like shade roof called a gwa is a common outdoor structure for Malian households. Diabaté usually calls this a hangar in his French novel, but to avoid confusing readers, Shane and I bypassed the French to give a clearer English description of a gwa, a “shade roof”.

JY: Would you be willing to share any thoughts on your own novel in progress?

DY: Sure—it’s called The Altruist’s Children, and it’s the story of two well-intentioned American volunteers who travel to the Thai-Burma border, only to find themselves pulled into the violence of the civil war. It’s based in part on a series of interviews I conducted while working there, and I plan to donate any proceeds to the Mae Tao Clinic, the Thailand refugee hospital at which I used to work.

JY: Are there any people or regions you wish to explore further in future novels or short stories?

DY: Too many for one lifetime! Right now the story I’m dying to write is about the Australian “Emu Wars”, in which the Australian government sent armed soldiers to eliminate its growing emu population. But I’m also got pieces in the works about Satchel Paige’s stint with the white religious commune/traveling baseball team “The House of David”, and Swedish explorer S. A. Andrée’s disastrous attempt to cross the Arctic Circle by balloon. My second novel, which is also in progress, is the story of a voluntarily homeless Karen immigrant who becomes an unwilling media sensation when he saves the deputy mayor of St. Louis from a mugger (tentative title: A Kingdom Lost for a Drop of Honey). Lastly, I have some research on 1960s Uruguayan resistance fighters left over from The Altruist’s Children that I’m interested in building on. But in all honesty, if you close your eyes and pick a country at random from the map, I probably want to write about it; researching new topics is my favorite part of being a writer.

*****
On behalf of Instafiction, I am very grateful for David Yost taking the time to answer these questions, and I am looking forward to his future projects.