News & Updates 2013

What a lovely way to top off the year. I’ve received word that Editorial Presença, the publisher of Do Lado de Cá do Mar (the Portuguese-language edition of my essay collection The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon), will relaunch the book in 2014 (a “relançamento”), and with a brand new cover.


I was recently interviewed by journalist and author Samuel G. Freedman for his November 30, 2013 New York Times article on Oscar Hijuelos’s novel, Mr. Ive’s Christmas, titled “Through a Novel, a Window to an Author’s Beliefs.” I had been a reader of the novel manuscript and had helped edit the book, and Freedman’s article is a lovely appreciation of Oscar’s novel and his spiritual side.

My contribution to this article has also been noted in, of all places, The American Conservative.

My own remembrance of my friend Oscar, “My Mambo King,” can be found at this website, and another at the Ninth Letter website.


Our thanks go to Catherine Bolten, for her review of Braided Worlds in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (this sort of thing happens, writers, when you co-author a book with an anthropologist).

She writes: “Throughout Braided Worlds [Gottlieb and Graham] revise their assumptions about their interlocutors, and describe their misjudgements and potentially unfair portrayals of the people they introduced in Parallel Worlds. This is but one of this intriguing and original work’s contributions to anthropology . . . The book’s real contribution is in the admission that anthropologists cannot take for granted their presence in any cultural encounter, [and the authors] write honestly about questioning the convictions that had emerged clearly in Parallel Worlds. This book would be valuable in introductory anthropology classes, as an accessible and readable introduction to the wonders and perils of doing anthropology.”


Many thanks to poet and writer Miriam Sagan, for interviewing me and my co-author and wife Alma Gottlieb about our recently published memoir of Africa, Braided Worlds, on her website Miriam’s Well. Miriam’s questions asked us to dig deep into some of the book’s issues, including the nature of a writing collaboration; the complexities of representing the lives of African villagers; and parenting our then six-year-old son Nathaniel, who lived with us in the Beng village of Asagbé.

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You can read the interview, which includes a number of photos, here.


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The writer Joey Franklin was kind enough to interview me for his article “How To Be a Good Literary Citizen,” which now appears (print version only) in the latest issue of Poets & Writers magazine (November/December 2013).


This week Essay Daily features my essay on Roxane Gay’s wonderfully personal (and funny) essay on competitive Scrabble, “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically.” Her essay was originally published in Ninth Letter, a proud moment for our literary journal. Here’s the link to my appreciation.


My wife and co-author Alma Gottlieb and I travelled back to Illinois this past week, where we gave a reading from our book Braided Worlds, which was chosen by the University of Illinois’ Honors Program as their featured book of the year. Our audience was enthusiastic and had great questions, and later Alma and I were able to meet many of the students at the follow-up dinner. Thanks to everyone involved for hosting us so well. And while we were in town, how good it was to visit with friends, however briefly.


My essay “Silently, Side by Side: Reading with My Son,” appearing on The Millions website, tells the tale of my attempt to help my then twelve-year-old son navigate the shoals of more adult reading. With two copies of the same book, we read in the same room together and discussed Einstein’s Dreams, Things Fall Apart, and Slaughterhouse Five, among others. You can read the essay here.


Congratulations to Roxane Gay, Jen Percy, and Anna Vodicka, whose essays that originally appeared in Ninth Letter have been honored as “Notable Essays of 2012” by Robert Atwan and Cheryl Strayed, the editors of Best American Essays 2013. Gay’s essay “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically,” and Percy’s essay “The Guinea Pig Lady,” appeared in our Fall/Winter 2012 issue, and Vodicka’s essay, “As Seen on TV!” appeared in our Spring/Summer 2012 issue. As the Ninth Letter nonfiction editor for those issues, I couldn’t be more delighted for these three deserving authors!


“Using the Pauses and Whispers,” my interview with Harrison Candelaria Fletcher (one of my very first advisees at the Vermont College of Fine Arts), has just appeared in the latest issue of the ever-marvelous Brevity (issue 44/Fall 2013). We talk at length about Harrison’s beautifully haunting first book, Descanso for My Father: Fragments of a Life, which has recently won a 2013 Colorado Book Award for Creative Non-fiction.

Harrison speaks eloquently about the difficulty of finding a voice for his memoir: “Understanding my family language helped me find my writing voice. It allowed me to step back, distance myself from the subject, and listen to the story asking to be written – a story of spaces and gaps. Understanding my family’s constraints freed me from them.” You can read the entire interview here.


Many thanks to Lydia Pyne for her appreciative review of Braided Worlds at the NewPages website. She writes:

“In Braided Worlds, their ethnography-reflection-travel memoir, Alma Gottlieb and Philip Graham work extremely well with the metaphor of a braided narrative . . . They switch off as narrators, giving each other the opportunity to pull a different strand of their braid into its proper place in these narrative recollections. Moreover, and perhaps more significantly, it is abundantly clear that the authors want the reader to be able to have a sympathetic viewpoint and easily accessible window into the life and thinking of the Being–they explain, describe, and offer reflection about their time with the Beng without being apologetic . . . Braided Worlds does nothing if not highlight the ‘quest for cultural understanding [that] deepens and complicates in such a way that surprises are always possible.'”

You can read the entire review here.


The month of August has been a dizzy month of transition for everyone in my family. My wife Alma and I have moved for the fall to the Princeton area, where she will be a visiting professor of Anthropology at the university. We’re renting a lovely 19th century house that has its own babbling brook in the backyard. It comes with a bench, where I’ve been spending a good bit of time writing. This year I’m on leave from teaching and am working on finishing a novel and novella, both long in progress.

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Our daughter Hannah has just begun her freshman year at Sarah Lawrence College, where she will pursue her wide-ranging talents and interests in journalism, fashion design, dance and photography. She’s only been gone a few days and already we miss her immensely.

Our son Nathaniel, along with his wife Emily and their year-old son Dean, have just moved from Cupertino, California to New Mexico. Nathaniel, a software engineer at Apple headquarters for the past four years, will now work for the company remotely, and may eventually transition into beginning his own 3D printer start-up business.

So, the Gottlieb-Graham family has been on the move this month, and each of us face significant possibilities and challenges in the year ahead. Go team!


“It’s the Act of Storytelling That Redeems,” my interview with Bryan Furuness about his first novel, The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson, appears on the Fiction Writers Review website. It’s a special novel that captures an unusually wide range of family dynamics and has a canny, unsentimental take on the anarchic energy of adolescence. A great read. You can check out the interview here.


My review essay on the fiction of Mozambican writer Mia Couto is featured on the wonderful literary website The Millions. Couto has been one of my favorite writers since the early 1990s, when I first encountered his story collection, Voices Made Night, in a London bookshop. This year, Couto has received perhaps his greatest range of recognition yet, winning the prestigious Camões Prize in May (the Portuguese literary world’s equivalent of the Man Booker Prize), and this July he has been nominated for the 23rd Biennial Neustadt International Prize for literature. Anyone who can write “life is a web weaving a spider” deserves at least a few awards! You can read all about it here.


I’ve just returned from Lisbon, where I participated for the second year in a row as a faculty member in the Disquiet International Literary Conference. It was a lovely experience during those first two weeks of July, though perhaps the temperature could have been sketched down a couple of notches. At night, though, the city cooled, and as usual offered panoramic views if you knew where to look.

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While there, I led three jaunts through the Baixa neighborhood of Lisbon for the Fernando Pessoa Walk, which followed the haunts of the great 20th century Portuguese poet (one walk in 100 degree heat! I gave out cool, fresh figs to help us along); gave a reading of my fiction and nonfiction paired with the Portuguese writer Gonçalo Tavares; served on a publishing and editing panel with Catherine Tice of the New York Review of Books and Jordan Bass of McSweeney’s (I represented Ninth Letter); and taught a travel writing workshop with an extraordinarily talented batch of students.

I also attended a terrific grouping of readings, which included Jacinto Lucas Pires reading from his newly translated novel, The True Actor (recently excerpted on the Ninth Letter website), and singing a couple of songs with Tomás Cunha Ferreira, his collaborator in the rock group Os Quais (you can hear one of the band’s songs, the excellent “Quando Ela,” here).

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There were many first-rate readings throughout the conference, by Robert Olmstead, Denise Duhamel, Tayari Jones, Terri Witek and Cyriaco Lopes, Sam Lipsyte and Adam Levin, Patricia Portela, and a very impressive Open Mic reading by participating students in the program. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend every event (and my greatest regret was missing Katherine Vaz’s reading). Another highlight was the nonfiction reading of a trip to North Korea by the novelist José Luís Peixoto at the José Saramago Foundation (housed in the architecturally very interesting Casa dos Bicos).

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Somehow during all that I managed to have dinners with a number of dear Portuguese friends, and even attended the launching of O Suplente, a new novel by Rui Zink, one of my favorite Portuguese writers. After the launch, we eventually made our way to a tiny tasca in Rui’s neighborhood, where two young men with Portuguese guitars noodled away at the classic song “Verdes Anos,” friends kept dropping by, keeping the conversation (often about current politics) lively, and carafe after carafe of house wine kept appearing on the table.

Speaking of politics, virtually every day of the conference the streets of Lisbon hosted a demonstration against the devastating effects of austerity measures, and posters everywhere announced more.

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At the same time, government minsters resigned and then seemed to un-resign, and the president gave a speech announcing the eventual dissolving of parliament to be followed by new elections. Whether these changes help ease the suffering of the Portuguese people remains to be seen . . .


“Many Strange Depths,” my interview with fiction writer and former student Ted Sanders, appears in Fiction Writers Review. We talk about his Bakeless Prize-winning story collection, No Animals We Could Name, and his new venture into a forthcoming middle grade fantasy fiction series, The Keepers, recently bought up by HarperCollins, handing Ted a dream payday. You can read all about it here.


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I’m delighted to be able to announce that Dzanc Books will be reprinting my three fiction titles, the story collections The Art of the Knock and Interior Design and the novel How to Read an Unwritten Language, in their excellent ebook reprint series. Such marvelous company I’ll have in this series: Nadine Gordimer, Robert Coover, Aleksandr Solzenhitsyn, T.C. Boyle, Percival Everett, Carole Maso and Stephen Dixon, to mention only a few. And the series just reprinted one of my favorite story collections of all time, Black Maps, by David Jauss.

My fiction ebook reprints should be available in early 2014, and I am honored that they will include introductions from three of the finest contemporary writers working today: Kyle Minor for The Art of the Knock, Roy Kesey for Interior Design, and Alex Shakar for How to Read an Unwritten Language.


The new issue of Ninth Letter (Vol.10, No. 1) is out, and it’s a doozy. It’s the first of two issues that will be celebrating our tenth year in business as a literary/arts journal (eleven, if you count the initial fund-raising and organizing). And props to our guiding editor Jodee Stanley, for holding it all together so brilliantly! It seems impossible that we’ve been at this for a decade, but as they say, when you’re having fun . . .

Perhaps because this is an important year for the magazine, the Art & Design folks have gone all genius on us. I love in particular the way they’ve deconstructed the idea of a table of contents. This issue, they’ve created a “Texthouse,” five rooms and a hallway that represent various collections of the writing featured in the magazine. Each room is illustrated with a photo, and each photo is a mini-I Spy game: find the objects that represent the poem, story or essay that finds its home in the room. There’s much more, of course, in this special issue, but order or pick up a copy and find out for yourself.

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As for the nonfiction in the issue, well, it’s stellar. I co-edited for this issue with my creative writing colleague Janice Harrington, and our exemplary assistant nonfiction editor Roya Khatiblou and a dedicated staff, and we selected a varied and excellent batch of essays. Titi Nguyen (living room) offers an affecting and complex recollection of her Vietnamese grandmother, in “Chao Bà Ngoai.” Another essay to be found in this room is “A Secret Code I Could Never Understand” by Lydia Melby, who recalls a strange trip with her mother to reclaim a borrowed TV, punctuated by necessary bouts of narcolepsy. Moving on to the playroom, we find “Tag,” by Amy Bernhard, a quietly powerful essay that teaches the reader the sad difference between the children’s game and an adult version. Finally, in the bedroom we find “The Burning Bed” (of course!), by Thomas H. McNeely, an account of an impossible father and “his stiff, strutting walk.” Also in this room there’s “In Need of Assistance” by Daniel Story, a devastating memory of a sales associate at The Gap trying on clothes that will eventually be fitted to a corpse at a waiting funeral.

I’ll be on leave (sabbatical and a grant) from teaching for the next 16 months, to finish a novel (and with a little luck, a novella, too), and Janice Harrington will take over as nonfiction editor. She’ll do a great job. During my year+ off, though, I’ll be something called an “Editor-at-Large” for the website of Ninth Letter, and I’ll be looking for writing of all stripes that works best digitally, marvels that don’t easily settle on a printed page.

And when I return, in September of 2014, it appears I’ll be coming back as the fiction editor, happily searching for stories that delight . . .


Recently I gave readings with my co-author Alma Gottlieb from our memoir of Africa, Braided Worlds, at Garrison Keillor’s bookstore, Common Good Books in St. Paul, Minnesota, and at nearby Carleton College.

It was lovely to see Larry Sutin (a fellow colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts) and Mary Stein (a former advisee of mine from VCFA) in the audience at Common Good Books. The anthropologist Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg (who wrote a generous blurb for Braided Worlds) was our gracious host at Carleton. I also sat in on a fiction workshop led by the novelist and short story writer Gregory Blake Smith, who was kind enough to let me visit. I’m looking forward to reading his Juniper Prize winning story collection, The Law of Miracles.


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After all this time, another review of The Moon, Come to Earth has appeared, in this case for the Portuguese translation, Do Lado de Cá do Mar. It’s a long, enthusiastic appreciation by Vamberto Freitas, in the newspaper Açoriano Oriental (which is actually the oldest Portuguese newspaper, founded in 1835). If your Portuguese is up to par, you can take a gander here.


Philip & Alma

My co-author (and life partner!) Alma Gottlieb and I recently visited Bucknell University to give a joint reading from our two memoirs of Africa, Parallel Worlds and Braided Worlds. We also led a Writers at Work Colloquium, “Memory into Memoir: The Challenges and Rewards of Interdisciplinary Collaboration.” While there we sat in on two classes (one of which was reading Braided Worlds for the course), met with local writers, and in general had a thoroughly splendid time (even though, because of colossal airline fails, at the last minute we had to drive nearly 700 miles to Bucknell, arriving two minutes before our first event!).


“Moving the Mind into the Heart,” my interview with the writer Angela Woodward about her stunning short novel, End of the Fire Cult, appears in the Fiction Writers Review. Woodward’s novel, in my opinion, is a literary sleeper, a classic in the making: the dissolution of a couple’s marriage is chronicled through two imaginary countries the two have invented, interior “states” that echo domestic troubles. You can read all about it here.


A long and appreciative review/essay of both Parallel Worlds and Braided Worlds appears in Amherst College’s The Common, written by Julia Lichtblau. She writes of her own childhood, growing up in the diplomatic bubble of the then capitol of Ivory Coast, Abidjan, and her attempt as an adult to understand that experience through the African artwork her parents collected. Through that moving tale she folds in an appraisal of Parallel Worlds and Braided Worlds:

Parallel Worlds chronicled [Gottlieb and Graham’s] first stay in remote Kosangbé, an experience that left them feeling that the cultural gaps between them and the Beng were unbridgeable. Braided Worlds is a reconsideration. Having left and returned several times, they found their ties to the Beng were deeper than they realized . . . What make their accounts extraordinary are not only the intimate portrayals of a culture and its members, but the authors’ honesty in assessing their role . . . Reading Braided Worlds and Parallel Worlds reminds us how much we miss and to keep trying to understand what was masked, even after we come home.”

You can read the entire essay here.



FMagazine, the Chicago literary magazine that specializes in publishing excerpts from novels-in-progress, has newly expanded and revamped its website, and my novel chapter, “Bird with Stone,” originally published in issue #7 in 2007, is now available online. You can click here to read it or download a printable pdf version, if you so choose.

“Bird with Stone” is part of my novel-in-progress, Invisible Country, which is increasingly approaching its finish line . . .


The entries are in for the “Mystery and Memory” flash nonfiction contest, and I’ve completed my judging of the eight finalists sent to me by the good folks at Brevity. The three winners are:

1st place: Candace Opper, “The Old Lady in the Ditch.”
2nd place: Mary Collins, “Leap.”
3rd place: Ryder Ziebarth, “Distilled Memory.”

I enjoyed reading the work of all eight finalists, and as I mention in my brief commentary on the three winners, “The flash nonfiction essays of each contest winner share, along with beautifully wrought prose, an individual twist on the possibilities of memory. Ryder Ziebarth, in “Distilled Memory,” recalls a family evening fraught with possible dangers that don’t come to pass and wonders if her daughter’s memory of that evening, later in life, will be different, more innocent than her own; Mary Collins, in “Leap,” remembers her role in her bother’s near-fatal accident in childhood, a memory haunted by that brother’s later troubled life; and Candace Opper, in “The Old Lady in the Ditch,” returns to her childhood stumbling upon a body that turns out not to be a corpse, and thinks of her life that wasn’t then altered by a deeper, more terrible discovery. These three essays manage to capture a different shard of memory’s mirror, a shard that both reflects and cuts.”

Bravo to the winners!


“The Trickster Answers So Many Questions,” my interview with former student Rosalie Morales Kearns (she received her MFA from the University of Illinois in 2006) about her impressive and ambitious short story collection, Virgins & Tricksters, appears on the always superb website Fiction Writers Review. Besides being a fine writer, Rosalie is a wonderfully engaging conversationalist; you can find the interview here.


Michael D. Jackson, of the Harvard Divinity School, has written a deeply appreciative review of Braided Worlds for the anthropology crowd, which appears in the latest issue of American Ethnologist (vol. 40, #1), saying, “The book [is] an eloquent testimony to how far a Westerner may go, using ethnography as both pretext and medium, in not only understanding a rural African lifeworld but also in becoming a part of a family, embroiled in its networks of obligation, its life crises, and its interpersonal stresses and demands . . . Gottlieb and Graham impart a political meaning to their image of braided worlds, and . . . [i]f truth is a matter of whether or not a ‘belief’ enhances the life of a community, then an obsession with identifying it gives ground to a concern for humanizing it. This is the accomplishment of this elegant work of cross-cultural and conjugal collaboration.”


Writer Julia Lichtblau has a terrific essay appearing in The Common, “Reading the Wrong Book on Vacation,” which includes an account of a memorable bus ride in Bogota, Columbia while trying to read The Age of Federalism. She also kindly quotes me about some of my own reading experiences while abroad: reading an Icelandic saga in a small West African village, and years later reading the adventures of Tintin to my then six-year-old-son in another village.


The first 2013 issue of Brevity is out, and my craft essay, “The Ant in the Water Droplet,” appears there (reprinted from the craft book The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, edited by ever-effervescent Dinty W. Moore).


The reprint, however, comes with an expanded writing prompt, which serves as the basis for a Brevity writing contest. Here’s the prompt:

First, read Graham’s craft essay. Then, think of a memory, even a familiar one that you haven’t looked at closely in a long time: the lie you once told, the one whose memory you still flinch from; a conversation or argument you were part of or overheard that you’ve saved in memory but aren’t sure why; or a fraught incident from your childhood that you can’t seem to relinquish. Whatever the memory you dredge up into the light of the present, write a flash nonfiction essay (500 words or less if you plan to enter it in the Brevity contest) and examine the memory as if with first sight, its familiar shape transformed by something hidden. If you take the long pause and dig into the moment, perhaps you will find your memory’s “floating ant.”

The deadline is February 14, 2013, and I’ll be judging.


The latest issue of Ninth Letter (Vol. 9, No. 2) is out, and while the entire issue is a stunner, as the Nonfiction Editor I’m especially proud of the nonfiction selections. Roxane Gay gives us a savy insider’s look at the world of competitive Scrabble, “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically” (I especially love the line “Competitive Scrabble is both word chess and word poker. You need a game face and you need to wear that game face hard”); Brandon Davis Jennings, in his essay “Airman Jennings the Impaler,” portrays with serious wit the labyrinth of post 9/11 paranoia; in “Piaf and Roadkill,” Edward Kelsey Moore views, with self-deprecating humor, the difficulties of removing a dead animal from the front grill of a car as a window into the ironies of sexual identity; and finally, Jen Percy, in “The Guinea Pig Lady,” hilariously recalls the trauma of raising a guinea pig for a 4H show.


Besides the magazine’s excellent fiction and poetry and awesome design features, this issue of Ninth Letter comes with a little toy that transforms the look of selected pages. What’s that? Order a copy and find out . . .


My interview with my former student William Gillespie (from way back in 1990!) about his new novel, Keyhole Factory, appears in Fiction Writers Review, with the controversial (for some) title “Zombies Are Not Real,” and you can read it here.

The interview includes a photo of the last page of a 36 page single-spaced story William once turned in to me as an undergraduate, along with my written comments; a photo of a cake in the shape of his novel (baked for the occasion of his book launch); and some odd typographical back and forth between us, inspired by the typographical fun that can be had in William’s novel. Which, by the way, was chosen by Fiction Writers Review as a “Book of the Week.”


What better way to greet the first day of a new year than with a rave review?

My co-author Alma Gottlieb and I offer our many thanks to reviewer Regie Episale who, in the January 1, 2013 issue of the creative nonfiction literary journal Hippocampus Magazine, gives Braided Worlds a 5 out of 5 stars, saying, ‎”Not only does Braided Worlds tie two cultures together with their differences and similarities, it also braids the very different perspectives of Alma and Phillip as they each write about their personal experiences. While living with the Beng they candidly discuss views on child rearing, the value of being calm, and the effects of grief, guilt and resentment on the health of the mind and body. They also recognize that two cultures cannot meet without both of them being changed.

“The writing is clear and readable; the emotions are honest and accessible. This book is a fascinating study of cultural differences which develop in response to variations in need and circumstance. By introducing us to real people living real lives, it also portrays the universal experience of being human and the absolute equality of individuals and societies that bridges education, science, politics, and wealth. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know what it’s like to live somewhere else, in a world unlike our own, with people who are very much just like us.”


News & Updates 2012

News & Updates 2011

News & Updates 2010

News & Updates 2009

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