News & Updates 2015

This week my wife, Alma Gottlieb, and I gave a reading of and presentation about our co-authored memoirs of Africa, Parallel Worlds and Braided Worlds, at University College London. We were invited by the anthropologist Hélène Neveu Kringelbach (who taught Braided Worlds this past semester), and she was a gracious host throughout the evening. The audience was quite welcoming and we enjoyed a lively Q and A afterwards.

This reading was a special one for Alma and me–the UCL campus faces one side of Gower Street, and the other side of that long street features bed and breakfast establishments, some of which we had stayed at during our honeymoon over 38 years ago. Even better, our daughter Hannah was in the audience! We’re visiting her during her break from the fall term of her studies at Oxford University (she’s studying art history at Oxford’s Wadham College for her junior year abroad).

After the Q and A, Hélène snapped a photo of the three of us, and then off we all repaired to a nearby Japanese restaurant!

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The latest issue of Ninth Letter is out (Fall/Winter 2015-2016), and once again it’s chock full of literary goodness, and wrapped up in yet another glistening production, care of Matthew Peterson and the Art & Design geniuses on staff (and, once again, they mess around with the idea of an ordinary table of contents–I love it when they do that).

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First off, as the magazine’s fiction editor I’m so pleased that we’re featuring in this issue a short story by the Chinese avant-garde writer Can Xue, who many in the know (Robert Coover, Susan Sontag, among others) have expressed support for her someday winning a Nobel Prize. The story we present in this issue, “The Swamp,” takes the reader both through China’s present and past via a search in a growing city for a mythical swamp. Many thanks to Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping for their excellent translation.

Next up is Gwen E. Kirby’s story “Inishmore,” set on an island in Ireland, yet also set in the fraught emotional landscape between two sisters. We fallible editors actually passed on this story at first, but found that we couldn’t get Kirby’s story out of our minds. So we wrote back to her and asked, shamefaced, if we could please have another look. The rest is history, displayed on page 70. “Puppy, with Child,” by Daniel O’Malley, tells a unsettling tale of a child whose treatment of the stray dog she’s found echoes, it seems, the way she’s being raised by her mother. In “Close to Kansas,” by Reem Abu-Baker, a daughter remembers her mother, an immigrant from a distant culture who finds herself in rural America and more lonely than anyone in her family can comprehend. Christopher Marc Pascucci, in “Space,” does a neat trick reversing a reader’s initial expectation of which character is emotionally dangerous and which is not. Finally, we’re all so pleased to be able to print another story by Bryan Furuness in Ninth Letter. This one’s a doozy: Sinon, a Greek soldier “whose only real skill was bullshitting,” starts up an unlikely love affair with the city of Troy’s Cassandra.

Oh, and then there’s the fiction winner of our 2015 Literary Awards, Kristen N. Arnett, for her marvelous short story, “See Also: A History of Glassmaking.” Congratulations!

And my many thanks to Katherine Scott Nelson, who served as an absolutely first-rate Assistant Editor in fiction for this issue, and to the rest of our hard-working editorial staff.

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I’ve just returned from an exhilarating one month-long adventure in China, where I was a member of Sun Yat-sen University’s first International Writers’ Residency.

All told, the residency was made up of fifteen writers (as well as two documentary filmmakers–John Hughes and Wei Donghua–recording the whole thing) from eleven different countries—the Philippines (Ricardo de Ungria), India (Arjun Raina), Egypt (Khaled Alkamissi), Canada (Madeleine Thien), Australia (Catherine Cole and Jeanine Leane), New Zealand (Lynda Chanwai-Earle), China (Zhang Jimo and Dai Fan), Belgium (Lieve Joris), Mexico (Roberto Frías), England (Eileen Pun and Philip Langeskov), and the U.S. (Patricia Foster and yours truly). My fellow writers were and are an amazingly talented bunch, and somehow, we all got along famously—quite an unlikely achievement for a residency that lasted a month.

The residency took place in three main (and dreamy) locations: the mountains of Yangshuo; the campus of Sun Yat-sen University, in the city of Guangzhou (which is the third largest city in China, fourteen million and counting); and the hot springs region of Jiangmen.

In Yangshuo, the residency was housed in a hotel smack in the middle of an imposingly beautiful region of karst mountains (limestone mountains that weather in peculiarly individual ways). Notice how teeny that hotel looks?

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Within a walk of mere minutes from our digs the Yulong River passed by, reflecting the gorgeous mountains—a perfect way to take a break from hours of writing!

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It took a certain steely will to resist taking too many walks.

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Here I stand, be-hatted, on a bridge over the Yulong River with fiction writer and journalist Khaled Alkamissi, the fiction writer and translator Roberto Frías, and the Wiradjuri aboriginal writer and scholar Jeanine Leane. For writers, we look a little too happy.

Writers and Yulong River

After two idyllic weeks of writing (and meetings with local calligraphers, artists and traditional “mountain singers”), we all took a high-speed train (which zipped along at 245 smooth miles per hour) to the city of Guangzhou and the campus of Sun Yat-sen University, which was hosting the residency. And what a beautiful campus, which looked as if someone decided to plunk a university into a huge garden.

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There, over the course of a busy week, we each gave a lecture and a reading to the students in the university’s Creative Writing in English program (the only one of its kind in China). Throughout the residency we were able to meet with students from this program, an extremely impressive bunch of young people.

After our busy week, we then spent the fourth week of the residency with a return to writing, in the midst of more beauty—the hot springs region of Jiangmen. There, we stayed at two resorts nestled among rolling hills, where dozens of hot spring pools awaited—again, a reward after long hours at a desk (in my case, grappling with revisions for a novel). Here is an example of my steely (though quickly eroding) will:

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I’m giving just a bare boned account here—the detail necessary to give a full portrait would take pages upon pages, and that’s something I will have to save for later, once I better internalize this remarkable experience.

For now though, my thanks go out to Dai Fan, the director of the SYSU Creative Writing in English program and the organizer of the International Writers’ Residency, who pulled off something of a miracle. And of course my thanks to the other writers in the residency, for the wisdom of your work and your personal kindness—I now count you all as friends.

Tip: clicking the six images above will give you much more detail . . .

And if you click here you can find a Ninth Letter special web issue featuring the work of all my fellow residency writers, “Opening the River Up to the Sky,” which I had the great pleasure of curating and editing.

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I’ve just received in the mail my copy of Dinty W. Moore’s hilariously wise Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals. Dinty kindly asked me to submit a question for the book, and his expert advice is priceless (and comes with a very helpful chart).

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I’m in great company, too. Other writers who submitted questions include Cheryl Strayed, Phillip Lopate, Sue William Silverman, Michael Martone, Ander Monson, and Roxane Gay.

Thanks, Dinty!

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A number of my current and former MFA advisees are burning up the literary landscape.

Roya Khatiblou has published her story “Open Your Heart” in Hobart, and “Assemblage” is forthcoming in Passages North.

Amy Sayre Baptista has published “Lard: the Origin of Remedy,” the first of a series of new flash fictions, at The Toast.

Kristin Walters has just published her story, “Gong Bath,” in R.kv.r.y Quarterly Literary Journal.

And Caitlin McGuire has recently published two nonfiction essays: “Once I Had Brains and a Heart Also” in Passages North, and “In Other Words” in River Teeth. Her short story, “The Radium Girl’s Undark,” has been included in the Best of the Net Anthology.

Congrats to all!

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A new essay of mine, “Something You Can Use: the Writer’s Self-Healing Wound,” has been published at The Millions. This essay suggests that the wounds of life, particularly those of childhood, can be healed by using one’s art to embrace those very wounds.

The essay has already been reprinted in The Daily News (“Sri Lanka’s National Newspaper Since 1918,”), and received a generous shout-out by Jake Slovis at The Rumpus, and another on the Brevity Facebook page. Many thanks!

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A new book review of mine, on the fiction of of the great Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi, appears at the always vibrant literary website Fiction Writers Review: “I am the Deepest Side of You: the Short Stories of Antonio Tabucchi.” Tabucchi was a great admirer (like me) of Portuguese culture and literature, especially the work of the poet Fernando Pessoa, and that admiration suffused his entire literary output.

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I’m so pleased to be able to announce the arrival of the new issue of Ninth Letter (12.1, Spring/Summer 2015), which comes with quite an attractive cardboard slipcover sleeve.

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And there is a lot of good stuff inside, too! This issue marks my return as the fiction editor (after serving last year as the editor-at-large, bringing some exciting, unusual work to the magazine’s website), and the four stories we chose are as varied as they are excellent. “Neck Bones,” by Ron A. Austin, tells the story of a son who tries to reunite his warring mother and sister through one of the recipes of his departed grandmother, a legendary cook; hilarity (and sadness) ensues . . . . “Minding the Heavens,” by Olivia Wolfgang-Smith, is an intriguing–and pitch-perfect–epistolary historical fiction about the often overlooked Caroline Herschel, sister of the astronomer William Herschel. “Radio Down,” by Terrance Manning, Jr., starts with a shocking logging accident and moves deep from there into the narrator’s charged and sexually ambiguous past and present. A short fiction by Elvis Bego, “The Mnemosyne,” is an insinuating, post-apocalyptic tale, set on the high seas and told by a very unreliable narrator.

Also of note are the three inserts tucked away in various locations in the magazine, which are part of the strange and beautiful Libraries project by Ander Monson.

Finally, many thanks to Kristin Walters, who served ably as the Assistant Fiction Editor for the issue, and to the entire hardworking editorial crew.

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My review of Christine Sneed’s terrific new novel, Paris, He Said, has just appeared on The Millions, one of my favorite literary websites. In “Trouble Using Light: the Complications of Art in the Fiction of Christine Sneed,” I take a look at how Sneed isn’t content to only explore the drama of how artists (of all stripes) make their art, but also how that art making affects the lives of the people around them.

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I first encountered the fiction of Roy Kesey in 2003, when I accepted his remarkable short story “Fontanel” for Ninth Letter. Since then I’ve followed his career closely, reading and admiring each new book as it appears. My recent interview with him about his work, “Unlikely Means: An Interview with Roy Kesey,” has just appeared on the ever-vital Fiction Writers Review website.

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My wife Alma has just discovered a review that was published 17 years ago (thank you, World Wide Web) of our 1993 co-authored memoir, Parallel Worlds, in a Brazilian journal, Africa: Revista do Centro de Estudos Africanos, by Elizabeth Uchôa (Sâo Paulo, 1997/1998). It’s a long, gracious and enthusiastic review that I can’t help quoting from:

Parallel Worlds is a remarkable account of a deepening encounter between multiple universes . . . The work of A. Gottlieb and P. Graham is characterized by respect, by an acute perception, a rare sensibility and solid honesty . . . We need such pieces of work. We find here not only a combination of anthropological and literary constructs, but more fundamentally a narrative that bridges parallel worlds.”

Our many belated thanks, Professor Uchôa!

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I’m just back from an intense and rewarding AWP conference, which this year was held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a lovely city that, in mid-April, offered Almost Spring (speckled with a few snow flurries).

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I was part of two panels that were filled with spectacular fellow presenters, I managed to meet with several old friends and colleagues and former students, and at the huge book fair I got to hang out at the tables of two of my publishers. Plus, the sky walk.

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The first of my panels, “Far Out:Travel as Research for Fiction and Poetry,” was moderated by Josh Weil, a fiction and nonfiction writer whose collection of novellas, The New Valley, is downloaded and on my to-read list. And what a stellar group of fellow panelists: Beth Ann Fennelly, Peter Mountford, and Tiphanie Yanique. I spoke about how my experiences living in small villages in West Africa have influenced my fiction, especially the novel I’ve recently completed, Invisible Country. The writer Samuel Snoek-Brown kindly offers an appreciative account of this panel on his website.

My second panel had a super-catchy title (supplied by LeAnne Howe): “King Kong vs. Godzilla: The Art of Revision in Fiction and Nonfiction.” Again, I got to hang out with a crazy-talented bunch of panelists: LeAnne, Michele Morano, John Griswold, and Sarah Dohrmann (whose long article on prostitution in Morocco will appear this coming July in Harper’s Magazine). I felt like a fanboy, filled with admiration for each first-class presentation, and I tried my best to tread water by speaking of how, in revision, memory is your friend in nonfiction, and your enemy in fiction.

And thanks to Dinty W. Moore, for introducing me to Richard Hoffman!

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I’m delighted to be able to report that I have been invited to Sun Yat-sen University’s International Writers’ Residency. This 28-day annual event will kick off its inaugural program in the fall of 2015, running from mid-October through to mid-November. Aside from five days of readings and workshops, the majority of the residency will be reserved for “reflection and writing” in one of the most beautiful areas in China, the karst hills region of Yangshuo.

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I might write something worthy while there, or I may just collapse from Natural Beauty Overload.

I can’t wait to meet the dozen or so other international writers who will be a part of this residency. My many thanks to the organizer of the conference, Dai Fan, who is the director of Sun Yat-sen University’s Center for English-language Creative Writing.

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This year I once again served as the nonfiction judge for the Disquiet Literary Conference (Aimee Bender served as the fiction judge, and Brenda Shaughnessey as the poetry judge). Out of an extremely talented crowd of contenders, I chose Samuel Autman’s emotionally and dramatically wise essay, “Invisible Nails.” We’ll publish Samuel’s essay in Ninth Letter, and he also gets a well-deserved free ride to this summer’s Disquiet conference, held in the breathtaking city of Lisbon. Congrats, Samuel!

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The novelist and short story writer Ellen Akins has written graciously about one of my short stories, “I Dreamt about You Last Night (from the collection The Art of the Knock) at the Reading Notes section of her author’s website.

In her posting, Akins kindly praises “the wonderful crafty conceit of the story (lies the husband’s told his wife, which she’s painted on the walls of their house on her way out, leaving him with their child; painted over, the lies pulse through the story as they’re remembered & revealed one by one, cruelly informing what’s happening).”

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My thanks to John Warner, wonderful writer and internet literary impresario, for his mention of me in his blog, Just Visiting, for Inside Higher Ed. “Teaching is Collaborative” (February 22), is a typically smart essay on the ins and outs of teaching writing. John kindly refers to me as an undergraduate mentor who “was the first professor to make me believe all students are worth investing in.”

Back atcha, John! John is one of the organizers of and commentators for the now legendary Tournament of Books, held each March, just like that little competition about basketball. Missed the literary action? You can still read everything you missed, beginning here at The Morning News.

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My many thanks to Christine Sneed, for mentioning me in her recent entertaining article for the Printers Row Journal of the Chicago Tribune (January 18, 2015), “Orwellian Wordcrimes.” In her article she discusses the bracing rigor and logic of several essays in George Orwell’s A Collection of Essays, and quotes his caution against any use of “ready-made phrases.” They will, he says, “construct your sentences for you–even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent.”

Sneed then asks a few contemporary writers (Aviya Kushner, Pegger Shinner, Julia Sweeney, Paulette Livers, and me) to vent about our own pet peeves about the misuse of language. Mine? The phrase “he thought to himself.” As Christine Sneed quotes me, “this phrase wins the approval of the Redundancy Department of Redundancy. To whom else could he think? We have no access to the thoughts of others, nor they to ours.”

I should also mention that Christine is my new colleague here at the University of Illinois, and we are all so pleased that she is now part of our writing program. I just finished reading an advance copy of her new novel, Paris, He Said, forthcoming from Bloomsbury Books this May. It’s a brave book that eschews any easy melodrama and instead accretes one quiet dramatic moment to another to another, leading to a devastating conclusion.

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