News & Updates 2019

This December, Alma Gottlieb and I visited Roger Williams University (gloriously parked along the shore of Narragansett Bay), where our two co-authored books, Parallel Worlds and Braided Worlds, were being taught. The professor, Jessica Skolnikoff, tried an interesting tactic on her students with the two books: one half of the class read Parallel Worlds, while the other half read Braided Worlds. It made for an exhilarating conversation, on ethnography, subjectivity, and the craft of writing.

Our honoraria were donated to the Beng Community Fund, our NGO founded to support development projects for the Beng people of Côte d”Ivoire.


My continuing research for a projected book about the cove (working title: Cove. Of course!) near my home continues at an enjoyable pace. As I walk along the cove daily, in the spring and summer I’ve watched the honeybees flit among the flowers by the shore.

Now I know where they live: in the backyard of our neighbors at the other end of the cove, Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban and Richard Lobban (both anthropologists who also share a love of bees). Recently I helped them gather the fruits of their honeybee colony by “spinning” the frames of honey collected from the hives (to remove incidental bits of bees, schmutz, etc). Hard work! But Richard and Carolyn rewarded me at the end of the task with a jar of the very honey I’d help spin.

Carolyn has recently written about this annual gathering in an article titled “Spinning Honey at Harvest Time,” in The Bridge (Fall/Winter 2019, V.46 #2). Included is a photo of Richard and me taking a brief break from work.

My future book on the cove will include a look at those bees, and honey spinning, and this quite interesting tidbit that honeybees know how to swim (an important skill when you’re gathering nectar near water on a windy day).


Miriam Sagan, Santa Fe literary legend (and the founder fifteen years ago of the celebrated Santa Fe Literary Review) is running an ongoing feature at her blog, Miriam’s Well: Poetry, Land Art, and Beyond, of what various folks are reading these days.

I gave it a shot, and listed five recent favorite books: three memoirs (A Place to Stand, by Jimmy Santiago Baca; Medicine and Miracles in the High Desert: My Life among the Navaho People, by Erica M. Elliott; The Walk, by William deBuys), a novel (The Memory Police, by Yoko Ozawa) and a poetry collection (New and Selected Poems, by Wistawa Szymborska). I also added short paragraphs on why I love those particular works. Interested in a good read? You can check out my list and commentaries here.


I am a great admirer of the fiction of Bryan Furuness, and I recently interviewed him about his latest novel, Do Not Go On, which is a wildly inventive thinking person’s thriller. Our conversation, touching on suspense, the pleasures of plot, and character development and interiority in genre writing, appears in Fiction Writers Review, which you can access here.


My latest article for Street Sights RI is now running in the November issue, “Passing It Forward: An Interview with Yvette Kenner.”

Yvette is the Administrator of McAuley House, a South Providence community center that is a part of the Sisters of Mercy Ministries. McAuley House provides meals for at risk families and individuals, and offers programs and services to those in the local community seeking help and guidance. The interview with Yvette developed into her telling me stories of how her morning had gone so far, and what a doozy of a morning that was! You can read about the excitement here.


This October, I was invited to visit the Santa Fe Community College by my former student Kate McCahill, who is now the Director of the Creative Writing Program there. My wife Alma was also invited, to help share her perspective as an anthropologist. Together we attended an editorial workshop of the Santa Fe Literary Review (Kate is the current Editor of this excellent literary journal), and then we gave presentations to students at a creative nonfiction class. Both events sparked lively discussions on the process of writing, the “truth” of nonfiction,” and the intricate moral pathways of writing about others.

That same week, the cover story for the Santa Fe Reporter celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of the Santa Fe Literary Review and included strong excerpts from the writing in the latest issue. You can read all about it here.


I’m happy to announce that a literary anthology I’ve been curating and editing for the past several months, “A Chance to Unite: New Voices in International Writing,” has just launched on the Ninth Letter website. Eight young writers from around the world, eight distinctive voices: Pablo Baler (Argentina), Theodora Bauer (Austria), Nathan Go (Philippines), Sacha Idell (U.S.), Jo Langdon (Australia), Taymour Soomro (Pakistan), Chiara Valerio (Italy), and Sofie Verraest (Belgium).


My sixth and latest article for Street Sights has just been published, “Celebrating the Sunflower.” It tells the story of Sister Joan, who for forty years was the director of McAuley House, a remarkable haven in Providence for the homeless, and for abused and single mothers. Sister Joan suffered a stroke last fall, but this July she returned for a celebration of her many years of service, and she was surrounded by a host of people whose lives she had changed for the better, including State Representative Grace Diaz. I’m always impressed and moved by the people I write about for Street Sights, but this event brought me to tears.


My wife Alma and I are members of the World Affairs Council of Rhode Island, an organization that once a month offers lectures and discussions on topics of international interest and concern. As part of our participation in WACRI, Alma and I have hosted salons in our home for visiting writers. Last year we hosted the Cape Verdean-American poet Jarita Davis, who read from her first collection of poems, Return Flights. The Cape Verdean restaurant Ten Rocks catered the event, and everyone who attended received a free copy of Jarita’s book.

This June we hosted the fiction and nonfiction writer Xu Xi, who read from her latest collection of essays, This Fish is Fowl. The salon was catered by Apsara, our favorite Asian restaurant in Providence, and again, every lucky attendee received a free book. These salons take place in our living room, questions are encouraged, and we love the intimate energy that gets generated. We already have our eye on possible writers for next year’s salon . . .


I live a two-minute walk from a park with a sheltered cove facing Narragansett Bay, and my wife Alma and I take a stroll along the shore every day. There’s a salt marsh on one end, and a yacht club at the other. From that snazzy club you can see a few miles north to the beginning of the Port of Providence, where members of the longshoreman union are mainly working-class Cape Verdean-Americans. At least a few times a day, cargo ships and tugboats go by in the distance, and airplanes on international and national flights will pass overhead on their way to the nearby T. F. Green airport. Meanwhile, in the waters of the cove ducks, geese, herons, swans, egrets, cormorants and gulls live peacefully amongst each other. The wind carries the scent of mussel beds at the edge of the water. Across the bay, a lighthouse perches on a small rocky island. And the cove itself contains a wealth of stories, most of them invisible to the casual passerby, stories from the Revolutionary War, the transatlantic slave trade, the last days of silent movies, devastating hurricanes of the 20th century, and more.

As if I’m not busy enough with my various writing projects (I’m looking at you, novel), I’ve added to my list a book-in-progress about this cove. When I’m not reading about ship containers, or tugboat history, or bird behavior, or how to read the patterns of wind and light on water, or what history gets told and what languishes in silence, I’m also getting my hands a little dirty. Recently Alma and I took a quahog digging class. We skimmed through silty sand beneath shallow water, and later brought our shellfish bounty home to dinner.

We’ve also volunteered to help local biologists (of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management) in their annual banding of flocks of Canada Geese. These geese molt their flight feathers for a few weeks in summer, and so are relatively easy to round up and then identify via aluminum bands. To accomplish this, folks have to enter a pen of clustered geese and attempt what is called “goose wrangling” before banding can begin. I gave wrangling a try, and it wasn’t as hard as I’d imagined (the geese didn’t seem to mind too much, and we released them quickly back into the water).

What writers won’t do for the sake of art.

To this end I’ve also managed to channel my old sailing experience (I crewed one summer on a 80 foot staysail schooner, at the tender and quite long-ago age of nineteen). On a friend’s recommendation, I agreed to crew on a 48-foot recreational trawler for a three-day trip from the southern coast of Rhode Island to Norton Island on the northern coast of Maine. The captain was Steve Dunn (not the poet), who owns Norton Island, where he’s run a writer and artist residency for the past twenty years. Steve has been ailing, and so needed someone to come along on the trip and help out.

We had some good weather, some not-so-good weather. At one point the trawler plowed through the ocean and out of internet range for about fourteen hours, eight of those under a clear moon-lit sky. What a pleasure to come within sight of the Maine coast just as the sun rose and technicolored the clouds.

We made it to the island in one piece just a few hours before the first haul of residents, who arrived wide-eyed at the beauty and isolation of an island where they’d be spending the next two weeks working on their art and writing.

My next bit of research? I wanna take a ride on one of those tugboats I see every day, and a brief hitch-hike on a huge container ship wouldn’t be so bad either. And then there’s a visit to that lighthouse . . .


Many thanks to Swissfamilytravel for her Instagram shout-out to my book, The Moon, Come to Earth.

She’s taken a photo of herself holding her Kindle, which displays the cover of the book, as she faces the Largo de São Carlos in Lisbon, where the book’s cover photograph was taken. A lovely, trippy homage. And thanks to her kind words, too: “This book accompanied me on our trip through Portugal, The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon—by Philip Graham—which turned into much more that just a memoir of his year stay with his family in Lisbon. Just love a good travel memoir with plenty of life lessons thrown in.”


The May issue of Street Sights Rhode Island is out, and it includes a profile I wrote about Darrell Waldron, the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Indian Council. The organization was founded by his parents, and he continues their hard work of community support. His agency’s jurisdiction encompasses several New England states, helping support Native peoples throughout that area, and he is especially proud of RIIC’s educational scholarships that bring Native American students from around the country to study at Rhode Island colleges and universities. Darrell Waldron is an impressive man doing impressive work, and you can read my profile about him here.


Back in the summer of 2018 I was the keynote speaker for the Sozopol Literary Seminars in Bulgaria, an annual and heady cultural and literary mashup of Bulgarian and English-speaking writers from around the world. In the nine months since then I have been working on an anthology of contemporary Bulgarian writing, and now, this April, Ninth Letter has launched this feature on our website: “Some Kind of Second Heart.”

The anthology features ten selections, from seven Bulgarian writers: Teodora Dimova, Zdravka Evtimova, Petar Krumov, Rumen Pavlov, Vladimir Poleganov, Georgi Tenev and Albena Todorova. Excellent work by all! The title of the anthology comes from Teodora Dimova’s essay, “The Tragic Act,” when she says, “writing is penetrating into yourself, reaching some kind of second heart and remaining beside it in silence.”

I am a giant fan of contemporary Bulgarian writing and think it is one of the most vibrant of today’s European literatures. As I mention in my introduction to this web anthology, “Take your time as you make your way through these selections, as writing from a country that you may know little about appears to know a great deal about you.”

My many thanks to Jodee Stanley, the main editor of Ninth Letter, for helping in the preparation of the anthology, and also for her support though the years of my work as an Editor-at-Large for the magazine. My thanks also to Elizabeth Kostova, Milena Deleva, and Simona Ilieva of the Kostova Foundation, which has done so much to bring Bulgarian writing to the attention of the wider world.


Immediately after our presentations at Pomona and Pitzer Colleges (see below), Alma and I flew to Santa Fe for a month-long stay in our new one-bedroom condo. Yep, we are now something approaching a bi-coastal couple–though New Mexico has no coast, it’s sufficiently far enough away from our home in Rhode Island (which does have a coast) to qualify us for that designation!

We’ll spend a month or so each spring and autumn here, happily close by our son Nathaniel and his family, who live in nearby Rio Rancho. Can’t get enough of those grandchildren. And when we’re not spoiling them, Alma and I will be imbibing the cultural riches of our new town. We’re a short walk away from the Santa Fe Plaza, so it’s easy to take in whatever is on offer. We’ve already been to a few poetry readings, one in a Canyon Road gallery, and we discovered a movie theater at the Center for Contemporary Arts whose lobby boasts a telepoem phone booth! It’s an old 1970s style booth, with a rotary phone (remember those?). In the booth’s “phone book,” you can pick a poem you’d like to hear, dial up the number, and a recorded voice of the author will read his/her poem to you. A great way to linger in a lobby while waiting to see a movie.

And when we’re not roaming about, we can always hang out on our second floor balcony overlooking the condominium’s enclosed courtyard, and get some reading and writing done.


This April, Alma Gottlieb and I traveled to Claremont, California to deliver a series of presentations at Pomona and Pitzer Colleges. Alma gave talks on ethnographic fieldwork ethics and the anthropology of the “maternal instinct,” we together visited a class studying selections from our co-authored memoir of Africa, Braided Worlds, and I gave a talk on the craft of writing and literary publishing to the creative writing students of Jonathan Lethem.

We had a lovely time, and many thanks to our gracious hosts, Tobias Hecht, Claudia Strauss, and Jonathan Lethem.

During our visit, spring broke out all over on the beautiful complex of the Claremont campuses, and I was amazed to walk past hundreds of sometimes fantastical plants and trees I’d never seen before. I mentioned to one of our hosts, Claudia Strauss, that it all looked a little Dr. Seuss-ian, and she replied that Dr. Seuss had grown up not far from Claremont! And so I learned that one of my favorite childhood authors was as much a realist as a fantasist.


Once again I have judged the nonfiction literary contest sponsored by the Disquiet International Literary Program.

This year, I chose the essay “Paloma Negra,” by Xochitl Gonzalez. Her essay, emotionally honest and beautifully written, extends the hard-earned wisdom of empathy toward someone whose self-destructive pain once upended her life.

The essay is so powerful that Gonzalez has been named Disquiet’s Grand Prize winner, and will receive free tuition, airfare and accommodation at the program’s 2019 conference. Ninth Letter will publish “Paloma Negra” on our website in conjunction with the conference.

Congratulations to Xochitl Gonzalez! You can read her superb essay here.


This March, the University of Massachusetts Press/Tagus Press published Chiquinho, by Baltazar Lopes, the first English translation of perhaps the greatest novel of Cabo Verde–a major work of African literary art.

I mention this because I had the honor of assisting the translators, Isabel Rodrigues and Carlos Almeida, with the English translation. I read an initial draft of the manuscript, and then later the final draft, and offered advice on literary style and usage in English. I spent a lot of time going back and forth between my Portuguese dictionary, my English dictionary, and the manuscript, and in doing so found myself increasingly impressed with the labors of the translators, and with the difficulties of the art of translation in general.

An article about this process has been published in O Jornal/The Herald News, which can be accessed here.

Ninth Letter has also published an excerpt from Chiquinho, a remarkable chapter about ghosts, spirit possession and the art of storytelling.


Way back in June of 2017, I presented a paper at the Nonfiction Now conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, and one of the panels I attended while there was an extraordinary presentation on new Trans writing, featuring the authors Ryka Aoki, Colette Arrand, Cooper Lee Bombardier, Grace Reynolds, and Brook Shelley. They had cut up their individual essays into discrete paragraphs, mixed them all up, and placed them in a hat. Then, at the conference they each passed the hat, picked a strip of a paragraph, and read it, whether they’d written it or not. Somehow, it all worked out, the chance choosings creating a coherent, multifaceted portrait of the complexities of being a Trans writer. After the panel I discovered that the proceedings had been recorded, and announced I wanted to publish a transcription of it all in Ninth Letter.

And now, finally, here it is: “More Like This Than Any of These: Creative Nonfiction in the Age of the Trans New Wave.”

Our Ninth Letter main editor, Jodee Stanley, was so taken by the power of this feature that she and I decided to do something never before done at Ninth Letter: publish a feature simultaneously on our website and in the print edition. And so you can also find “More Like This Than Any of These” in our Fall/Winter 2018-19 issue (vol. 15, #2). The issue itself is quite a work of art: four individual booklets held in a handsome cardboard slipcover.

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