Love Letter to the Weird Things

May 21st, 2015

When you have a job in books, you read all the time. And it’s true: I spend literally every single day of the week reading manuscripts on one or two computer screens, hands hovering over the keyboard, usually poised on the seat of my chair in something like a crouch or a perch; a chiropractor’s nightmare. People ask if I get tired of reading.

Where the work happens.

Where the work happens.

First, I have a really easy job. Nobody’s sick. Nothing is going to fall on me, and nobody is shooting. I work in a cozy office at home, with the cat and both dogs snoring on the rug. Yes, I started this business and worked hard to make it viable, but it still feels like a guilty privilege. I take it as seriously as possible and devote myself the part of it that matters most–offering helpful, effective advice to writers who are staking a major chunk of their future happiness on the chance of publishing novels. I know how this feels because when I’m not editing, I’m writing, too.

That said: I do get tired of being critical. The most delicious thing in the world is a finished novel that isn’t in need of an opinion. At the end of the day (literally) I want to be something more important to writers–simply, purely a reader.

When almost two months go by without reading anything for fun, burnout is imminent. I think of my imagination as a jazzy, colorful pet, and if it starves to death, what good am I to writers? The ability to run loose in somebody else’s fictive dream is part of both the job of being an editor and the joy of being a reader. And what good am I to myself, or anybody I love, without an imagination, and everything else that flows from it–a sense of humor, a sense of fun?

All of this is context. Right now, my desk is surrounded by science fiction. In a sort of remedial frenzy, I scooped up Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, Ferrett Steinmetz’s Flex, Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, and Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. In short, it’s a speculative buffet for the little imagination creature: sci-fi, urban fantasy, political spec-fic, YA dystopian, and fantasy. Something about Divergent‘s simplicity turned me off after the first few chapters, but I admired Leckie’s respect for her readers’ intelligence, and I loved Steinmetz’s caper, which transforms OCD into beautiful magic. I’m reading Lagoon right now, and loving the setting (Lagos).

 

Speculative fiction is superfood for the imagination. It’s full of weirdness and wonder. You can be as precious as you like about the craft of writing, but without imagination, where’s the depth? What’s the point? That’s not to say that all fiction should be written about invented worlds, but having encountered many writing teachers and editors who crinkle their noses at speculative fiction as if it’s as the red-headed stepchild of novels that are Worth Our Time, well, to them, I merely point out that we fun people are sitting at this table here and the Picky Eaters Club is over there, next to the really big bowl of plain lettuce.

In short, editing doesn’t ruin the pleasure of reading–not one bit. Knowing how to change a bike tire hardly destroys the pleasure of riding it. Editing is just a way of interacting with my imagination, articulating how the fictive dream wobbles. But first and always, I’m a reader. Reading is a temperament, a lifelong habit, or a bit of both, and I get a near-ridiculous amount of comfort from the knowledge that even if I live to be as old my centenarian grandmother, I will never run out of good books to read.

 

Shubbak Festival

April 26th, 2015

I’m beyond excited to be attending this year’s Shubbak Festival in London. It includes a weekend of events related to Arab Literature. The highlight, for me, will be the panel “Science Fiction in the Arab World.” (Haven’t I been saying this is a thing?) I can’t wait to bring my notes and ideas home to share, along with book recommendations.

What: Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture

When: July 24–26, 2015

Where: The British Library, London, UK

If you’re planning to be there, or have a question you’d like me to ask, let me know! In the meantime, I’ll be busy preparing in the most fun way possible (for a bookworm): digging into a pile of exciting novels, graphic novels, and other literature whose authors will be presenting at the festival.

Project 2015 Is Underway

February 17th, 2015

I mentioned earlier that I’m giving this year the big, open-ended, grandiose designation of Project 2015. Mainly, it’s a reminder to me that every day is what you make of it, good or bad. You can pay attention to things that go wrong and stew in your worries, or you can wrap your arms around your big plans, not knowing where they’ll take you or whether they’ll work out. This includes but is not limited to getting pregnant, publishing ROOM 100, and continuing to grow my editing business of thirteen years, The Threepenny Editor. Being ambitious, they are necessarily long-term goals; and I, not being a masochist, realized that it is preferable to spend the journey in a positive frame of mind.

I’m sure I’ll write more about the first two goals soon. In the meantime, here are the first three installments of the #Project2015 series on how to improve your fiction. As always, I’m open to new clients. If you know of anyone, send ’em my way.

Part 1, “Scaffolding, or How You Build Something Out of Nothing

Part 2, “Make Your Voice Original by Getting Rid of ‘Received Text’

Part 3, “‘Strong Protagonists’ Remind Us How to Feel

More soon!

Shoplifters Will Be Shot

February 4th, 2015

In the heat of the Ferguson protests, it was hard to look at Darren Wilson’s corn-fed, supposedly bruised face and not suspect you’re looking into the eyes of white privilege. Or flat-out racism. If anything, the months since the verdict–verdicts–have showcased the ease with which an individual can become a synecdoche, an effigy, or a martyr.

Darren Wilson bruises

Darren Wilson displays the worst of his injuries.

I started writing about this in the midst of it the original protests, but return to it now because people keep getting shot in my neighborhood. Backstory: Last summer I moved from a middle-class neighborhood in Oakland to one where unemployment is high. This was to purchase a house in a place we could afford, because real estate in Oakland is not much cheaper than it is in San Francisco. However, illegal stuff happens on my street all the time. Most of it–casual drug dealing by the mild-mannered guys who live in their vans–doesn’t bother me. Yet the neighborhood has its paroxysms of sketchiness, and sometimes outright scariness. Last week I called the cops three times in 24 hours. That Friday, three people were shot a few blocks away, on a bike route I often use. This came at the end of a two-week period in which our streets were shut down three times for police raids. We woke to the sound of helicopters, smoke grenades, and K-9 units, and seeing men with drawn guns run past the house. The police presence around our new home is huge.

Two blocks away on Jan. 9, OPD tried and failed to serve a high-risk warrant.

Two blocks away on Jan. 9, OPD tried and failed to serve a high-risk warrant.

So it is fair to say that I listen closely when people talk about crime, being black, or the police, because though I am white/Arab, my home is not.

graffiti threat

Creepy graffiti on our fence.

Yet since December’s spate of protests that shut down freeways around our house, popular discourse looks less like dialogue than it does street marches that turn violent; or whole bristly ideas jammed together in a tweet and hashtagged (#fuckthepolice #blacklivesmatter), ideas that rub shoulders in discourse but which are practically antithetical. The most useful material I’ve encountered so far are personal essays about racism and an art project connecting everyday people in Manhattan with ones in Tehran.

It feels like nonsense. It’s almost as if there are no words. And maybe that’s just how it feels to encounter the system. The reason this is on my blog and not tidied up as an essay for Salon or somewhere is because, like so many others, I have nothing to add except more doubt. Yet it almost physically hurts to not talk about it at all.

The protests leave me uncomfortable, albeit not as sad and angry as seeing systemic racism played out in predictable ways at unpredictable times. It makes sense to me that this is a relevant Occupy issue. Yet in trying to sort out what I think of it all, while it’s happening, I am unable to dig very far through this rocky soil before hitting a number of questions that make me feel stuck anyway. Yes, today’s Mike Brown is yesterday’s Oscar Grant, but do we really think we can accomplish something in a society that can’t even prevent school shootings? Does someone, somewhere, have a way of talking to one another instead of over one another? Is there a way to make it better?

And by mitigating or replacing capitalism, will we really solve systemic issues? I answer this bookishly, by turning to the moral center of my literary world, Ursula Le Guin. In her anarchist novel, The Dispossessed, the hero struggles with the same flaws in human society despite living in an otherwise successful anarchist colony. Le Guin is no fan of capitalism, but even she seems to recognize that short of creating Humanity 2.0, some problems just don’t go away. They have to be solved over and over again at the individual level, in everything from your own ethical choices to how you raise your kids.

Or how you train your police, as it were.

#

Yesterday a woman was shot about a half-mile from my house. A helicopter almost directly above my backyard brought me to the window. Wondering what was happening, I went to Twitter. A few people had already posted photos from the fringe of the crime scene: a 25-year-old black woman named Yvette Henderson confronted security guards after shoplifting in Home Depot and ran away, encountered Emeryville police officers, and following about seven gunshots, she was dead. They recovered a gun from her body. A witness on a passing bus cast doubt on the report, saying she was waving for the bus to stop and held a purse in her other hand. Cop cars, bystanders, and news crews gathered at the scene all afternoon. By nighttime, Yvette Henderson was a hashtag, and protestors shattered a window at Home Depot. Someone tweeted that her body had “been left in the street for hours.” The news crews posted the story, a brief repackaging of the police statement.

tweet about emeryville cops

It all happened RIGHT THERE. But a fog materializes around the events anyway. It is reflexive to doubt everyone. Of course her body was left in the street for a while–it’s evidence. And how does shattering the Home Depot window help? What does that have to do with anything here? But also: “Police recovered a weapon.” In its calm neutrality, the statement seems undermine itself. A lawless, cynical voice that I had no idea existed in my head silently adds …that these same police planted on her. And more cynicism: tweeters and candle-holders only appear for the memorial services in semi-gentrified neighborhoods, so are those the (lost) lives that matter more? Are these memorial services undermining their own point?

A frequent bike route in my own neighborhood is as far away as Ferguson. But the truth feels like it is on the tip of my tongue. What really happened? Some lady shoplifts and goes running down the street, but rather than end up in jail for the afternoon, she’s dead?

It is wrong, and it is happening every week.

A reminder to self and others

January 21st, 2015

Orwell died this day in 1950. Here’s Knopf’s form rejection of a “stupid and pointless fable” called Animal Farm:

Orwell's rejection

“Damn dull.”

Likewise, in a spirit of defiant optimism, I’m calling this year Project 2015. It’s going to be a year of positive thinking, hard work, laughing at old rejections, and readiness for the future. Read all about it over on my Threepenny Editor blog post, “How to Build Something Out of Nothing.”

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