Wonders of the Invisible World paperback giveaway

There’s a giveaway for trade paperback copies of my Stonewall Honor award winning novel, Wonders of the Invisible World, at Goodreads for the month of October. Click over through the link below to enter for a chance.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Wonders of the Invisible World by Christopher Barzak

Wonders of the Invisible World

by Christopher Barzak

Giveaway ends October 29, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

 

Brit Mandelo at Tor.com reviews Before and Afterlives

And another great review for Before and Afterlives comes in. This one from Brit Mandelo at Tor.com. Brit takes the collection and analyzes it in depth, by way of three particular stories that display three very different styles or approaches I take in my writing. Being able to perceive something like that is particularly available for a reader to notice in a single author, full length collection that spans a decade of a writer’s stories. Which is why I love short story collections. There’s a breadth of vision to story collections, rather than the depth of the immersive experience novels tend to provide. 

In any case, here’s a bit of what Brit has to say. But you should really click over to read the entire piece:

“What We Know About the Lost Families of ——- House” is in the vein of a gothic. It has a haunted house, grim family secrets, incest, murder, and most of the other accoutrements. Barzak, though, takes the typical gothic and twists it by giving the narrative through a communal voice: a voice that represents the town itself, the people who make it up and who have observed ——- House’s history. In a move familiar from Barzak’s other stories, which are often densely and carefully constructed, this piece relies on strong, detail-oriented prose with an engaging voice; however, it also relies on the audience’s familiarity with the tropes of the genre to offer a different avenue of exploration.

The story is not told from the point of view of the young woman who marries into the House to communicate with its ghosts, as I’ve mentioned before, so it’s not a typical gothic. Moreover, and more interestingly, though the town’s communal narrative is concerned with rescuing her by the end and with telling us her story as if it’s tragic, it’s impossible to read it the way the townspeople want us to. Their patronizing tone, their willful ignorance and their excuses, render the reader unable to sympathize with their point of view entirely, so we cannot believe or support everything that they do or say. As with the underbelly of resentment, neighborly knowledge, and gossip in any small town, the town in which ——- House is located is conflicted, uneasy, and often judgmental. (Of course, considering the ending, they are perhaps not entirely wrong to want to burn the House to the ground.) This sense of play with form and with tropes is common to Barzak’s short fiction.

And, of course, so are the ghosts: Barzak’s fantastic work is often concerned with the strangeness that lies just outside of everyday life. In Before and Afterlives, as the title implies, there are many sorts of hauntings, not merely of houses and not all of them unpleasant. There is a resonance to these pieces about death and lingering, or about leaving and loss, or all of the above, that makes them quite memorable—just as much as the generic experimentation and the investment in telling different-but-familiar stories with rich characters and settings…

On the other hand, “Plenty” is a different sort of story, one that represents another thread in Barzak’s body of work. It’s set contemporarily, it deals with economic impoverishment, the decay of industrialism, and the fantastic alongside one another, and it offers—more than a plot, though it has one of those too—a developmental arc or moment in a person’s life. “Plenty” and other stories like it in this collection are, in a word, intimate. They are character driven, observational, and often the narrative arc serves a greater provocative emotional arc. In this piece, where friends come apart and together based on differences in their personalities and life choices, a fantastical table that makes feasts—but only for someone so generous as to want to give them away—helps the protagonist to see what he had been unable or unwilling to see about his good friend’s inner nature. The other man is able to reconsider his own distant friend’s apparent selfishness through his gift of the table, his willingness to part with it and to keep its secret for the betterment of the suffering community. (Put like that, it’s almost a parable.)

These characters and their realistic, unfortunate misunderstandings and misapprehensions are the focus of the tale. When Barzak is studying people, telling us their stories, his work is powerful; these stories incite a great deal of consideration about others, their needs, and the functions of living in a world where industrialism in the West is decaying and whole cities are ground under by poverty. Barzak’s background in an Ohio city of similar experience adds a distinct level of solidity to many of the stories set in or around that milieu, and offers the reader a glimpse into the sort of survival that those places require…

Before and Afterlives reveals a series of confluences and concerns in his short fiction, and as such, works remarkably well as a coherent collection. It’s a thoughtful, pleasant, and lingering sort of book: many stories, many lives, and many deaths to consider—as well as how these things, and the people that power them, intersect and reflect reality in a fantastical mirror.

The Next Big Thing

I was tagged by Charles Tan to take part in The Next Big Thing meme, which occurs every Friday, in which writers talk about their next book project. It’s an interesting meme, though the questions seem more pointed toward novels than any other kind of book, so I’ve tweaked some of the questions to better answer them for my next book, which is a full length short story collection. Some of the writers I’ve tagged at the end of the post for next week write poetry, not short stories or novels, so I hope they feel free to tweak this meme toward their own ends too!

So here’s my next big thing:

chris-barzak-front-cover

What is the working title of your next book?

I have something better than a working title for my next book. I have an actual title! It’s a full-length collection of stories, not a novel, though this meme seems made for novelists. I’m going to tweak the questions liberally to make them more open-ended for writers of various kinds of books, not just novels.

The collection’s title is:  Before and Afterlives

 

Where did the idea come from for the book?

A really novel-oriented question again, though there are short story collections that ARE conceived of first as a concept, and then the stories are written to fit that concept. Angela Carter’s brilliant collection of rewritten fairy tales, for instance, The Bloody Chamber, was written with the concept in mind.

But there are also collections that come together in different ways. Some by theme, some by voice, some by a shared setting between the stories. In my case, the stories in Before and Afterlives were written over a period of decade, the first decade of my career as a writer, and though they were not written with a specific theme or style in mind, after I had written a good number of them, I noticed that I had been working with what must have been unconscious obsessions.  Hauntings, mainly. Sometimes ghosts, sometimes imaginary friends, sometimes children who have vanished but continue to exist. Though the other previously unconscious obsession I had in writing these stories was the concept of turning points—the hinges in our lives where suddenly a door opens, and we walk through into a life quite different from the one we’d been living.

When both of these obsessions were realized, the collection was easy to put together, and the title for it came after I understood how they were all bound together by the themes of hauntings and turning points. Before and Afterlives was conceived in a process of discovery, which is my usual mode of operation.

I like to surprise myself.

What genre does your book fall under?

I might have already answered this in the description of how I conceived of the collection, but briefly: it’s a mixed genre collection. In this book you will find supernatural tales, dark fantasies, a few forays into science fiction, and contemporary fantasies (I prefer using the term contemporary fantasy to urban fantasy because some of my stories take place in urban settings, and others take place in rural settings.  Occasionally I write from suburban settings as well. Urban fantasy is just too limiting a term, I think.)

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Since there are 17 stories in this collection, with many characters in them. I can’t possibly answer this question without going a little crazy, I think, so I’m going to pass on this one.

I’ll say this, I guess:  If I were to pick out someone to play the part of Rose in the first story, “What We Know About the Lost Families of — House,” it would be Lana Del Rey.

Yes, Lana Del Rey. The story is about a young woman who falls in love with a house haunted by the history of the families that have lived in it over a hundred years, all of whom came to terrible ends. As long as Lana would act as troubled and unnerved as she does in many of the videos for her music, she’d be a great Rose.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Again, very easy to synopsize a novel, but a collection of stories is a different beast. How about a one sentence description from my publisher about the book:

These are tales of relationships with unearthly domesticity and eeriness: a woman falls in love with a haunted house; a beached mermaid is substituted for a disappeared daughter; the imaginary friend of a murdered young woman stalks the streets of her small town; a mother’s teenage son is afflicted with a disease that causes him to vanish; a father exploits his daughter’s talent for calling ghosts to her; and a wife leaves her husband and children to fulfill her obligations in the world from which she escaped.

Is it cheating that he used semi-colons?  Nope. He just knows how to use semi-colons.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

This is kind of an odd question, as these two things are separate things. The book will NOT be self-published. I DO have an agent, though an agent is different from a publisher. They sell your books to publishers. The book will be published by Lethe Press.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Another novel-oriented question. Since these stories were written over a period of slightly over ten years, I have to say it took about 11 years to complete the draft of this manuscript. How’s that for a long-term project?

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

This is a good question. The books I would compare it to would be other mixed genre collections of speculative fiction like Joe Hill’s Twentieth Century Ghosts, or Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. Jeffrey Ford’s collection Crackpot Palace.  M. Rickert’s Holiday. Jonathan Lethem’s collection from an early part of his writing career, The Wall of the Eye, the Wall of the Sky. Theodora Goss’ collection, In the Forest of Forgetting.

You should read all of those collections, by the way.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Each of the stories has their own inspiration, which is difficult to list here, but I’ll say I’m inspired by people in my life who have marked me in some way, family and friends and people I’ve been in love with.

I’m inspired by places where I’ve lived or where I’ve spent a significant amount of time, too.  In this collection, some of those places are the beach towns of southern California, the small rural town where I grew up, Kinsman, Ohio. The nearby post-industrial cities of Warren and Youngstown, Ohio. Pittsburgh. San Francisco. The Allegheny Mountains.

And I’m also inspired by other writers like the ones whose collections I’ve compared this one to. Along with them, writers like Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, Graham Joyce, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin (oh how I am inspired by Ursula K. Le Guin!). Jonathan Carroll. Carol Emshwiller.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Many of the stories inside it have won or been finalists for awards like The Nebula Award, The James Tiptree Jr. Award, the Spectrum Award, and have been reprinted in a variety of Year’s Best anthologies, like those edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror), Jonathan Strahan (The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year), Steve Berman (Wilde Stories) and Stephen Jones (The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror).

So in essence, a lot of people have thought many of these stories were something people should read. I hope you do read the book when it comes out on March 18, 2013. And I hope you agree.

Thank you!

And in the tradition of tagging other writers for this meme:

Nin Andrews

Colleen Clayton

Karen Schubert

Richard Bowes

Alan DeNiro

Advanced Reviewers Wanted

Dear Readers (specifically, dear book review bloggers),

As a lead-up to the release of my first full-length collection of short stories, I’ll be giving away an advance review PDF copy to book bloggers who promise to write an honest review of the book in the months prior to the release date.

Before and Afterlives will release on March 18, 2013. I’d love to give away enough advance review copies that would enable a book review per week between the months of January and late March. If you review books regularly, and aren’t back-logged, and would be able to read and write a review of the collection within that period of time, please contact me at christopherbarzak AT gmail DOT com.

I’m excited for this collection to appear.  Here are the two initial blurbs from the authors Jeffrey Ford and M. Rickert:

“Although Christopher Barzak is now better known as a novelist, I’ve always been an admirer of his short stories. His new collection, Before and Afterlives, will make you one too. This generous offering of his best work displays impressive range, depth of feeling, a sharp sense of humor, and a fantastic imagination both lyrical and dark.”

-Jeffrey Ford, author of Crackpot Palace and The Physiognomy

“How to conjure souls? Resurrect the past? Speak to the dead? Christopher Barzak has a talent for ghosts. In a world composed of more than its material aspects, Barzak seems to know that the things unsaid are what haunt us most. He offers his considerable gift of story as a talisman. Before and Afterlives is a generous contribution to the art of being human.”

-M. Rickert, author of Map of Dreams and Holiday

I’d love to have reviewers join into the conversation about the book as it gets nearer to launch date. So please send me an email with a link to your book blog to join in.

Thanks very much, and feel free to link to this post in your own networks.

Writing with Leonora Carrington

After I was finished discovering Remedios Varo’s life and life work, I returned to the artist who had introduced me to her:  Leonora Carrington.  What had started out as a seeming fluke was becoming something slightly bigger to me.  A friend of mine, Maureen McHugh, who is also one of my former writing teachers, once told me that writers write about their obsessions, when they’re doing it right.  The things that consume them.  And these artists and their work had begun to seem a bit like an obsession to me.  The worlds they created resonated with me, and I wanted to find a way to live inside those worlds for a longer period of time than I could simply by looking at their paintings.  So writing stories became the way I could engage with them more fully.

But it was also through the research into their own lives that I began to see a pattern emerging.  A pattern where women artists were excluded from surrealist art circles, except as romantic attachments.  But even then, attached as a girlfriend or wife, they weren’t seen as equals, regardless of the superior work they were producing.  They were seen as hobbyists.

One of Carrington’s most famous paintings is known by various names. “The Giantess,” or “The Baby Giant,” and (my personal favorite), “The Guardian of the Egg.”

In the painting, a giantess with a cherubic face shrouded in golden wheat stands within the confines of a rustic village with the ocean tumbling behind her, Viking boats riding the waves. She appears to have just arrived on the scene, and within the cup of her comparatively small hands she holds an egg. Below her, villagers have arrived to combat her with pitchforks and guns. She’s clearly seen as a threat to their way of life, though she bears life itself—the egg that she holds—as its guardian spirit.

This was the image that I wanted to work with from Carrington’s prolific collection of paintings.  And unlike Varo, I didn’t get a sense of continuity in terms of “world story” from Carrington’s work, so this was the lone painting that I intended to work with.  It set me up for quite a different process in story-making.  Unlike Varo’s work, where individual paintings provided me with protagonist, antagonist, setting, sub-character, etc, I would need to draw all of my story resources from one painting alone.

It made me think about my approach differently.  I needed to think of the painting as a question.  What’s occurring here?  What does this scene depict?

The painting demonstrates the wealth of metaphoric imagery that Carrington used to explore her own strict and restrictive upbringing in an upper class industrialist’s household, where her father did whatever he could to obstruct her path to becoming an artist, which Carrington would always see as an obstruction particular to her being a woman who wanted to pursue a career that would lead her away from the manners and mores of her family’s way of life. But the painting also represents a broader concern with the generally small-minded, old-fashioned, rustic “villager” mindset, which holds fast to traditional roles for men and women. The appearance of the giantess on their shores is a perceived threat to their lifestyle, which has surely prepared them more to expect the appearance of a god rather than a goddess. But there she is, unable to be ignored, larger than life, right in front of them.  In every single way, this painting felt like a metaphoric icon for Carrington’s own battle as a female artist within a culture that would confine her to pre-approved and pre-arranged social roles.

But she was too big for that.  Way too big.  If you look into her back story, she was quite the heroine of her own life.  She ran away from home to join the surrealist circles in Paris at a young age, took up with Max Ernst, was listed as a dissident by the Nazis and fled Paris to Spain, where she was virtually imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital by her parents and treated with drugs that were later banned by authorities.  A few years after her release from the hospital, she wrote down the experiences in a small book called Down Below.

Knowing a bit about Carrington’s life and how she reworked her autobiography into visual metaphors of magic, I decided to explore the arc of her story–a young woman who grows larger than life, larger than the roles that are available to her in her constrictive community–as a modern tale.  So instead of rustic villagers meeting the goddess with their pitchforks and guns as she comes ashore, I wrote a story about a seventeen year old girl who is confronted by the many small minds of her suburban American community as she begins to grow into a Giantess and eventually reveals a secret to her brother, the narrator, about her true purpose in life.

I linked to that story in a previous blog post, but I’ll do so again here, in case you’d like to read one of the stories for free:  “The Guardian of the Egg”.  If you like it, I hope you’ll get the book and enjoy the other two stories, and the essay at the end.

In the near future, I’ll be posting about the third artist in this triptych:  Dorothea Tanning.

Birds and Birthdays Availability

Just a quick note to let everyone know that my new book, Birds and Birthdays, is available at the moment directly from the publisher, Aqueduct Press.  The book will be available via other outlets in the near future, and will also be available as an e-book, but if you’re looking to get a hold of the physical copy now, you can procure it by way of this link to the book’s page on the publisher’s website.

I’ll be back around when the book is out in full force and making the rounds.  If you’re a reviewer interested in reading the book for review on your website or blog, please feel free to contact me by e-mail (christopherbarzak  AT  gmail  .  com).  I only have limited copies, though, so requests from reviewers with larger readerships will have to take precedence.

Thanks so much!  More soon!

 

News for a new year

I am as always a spotty blogger on this website, but I try to pop in when I have something I feel compelled to say (as per my last blog post today) and when I have some news to deliver.  This post is some news.

If you follow my Facebook or Twitter pages, you’ll already know the first bit, which was announced a couple of months ago now, I think:

In August I’ll be publishing a very short collection of three stories (plus one essay!) called, Birds and Birthdays, which will be produced by L. Timmel Duchamp at Aqueduct Press, a press I’ve always loved and for which I never thought I’d have a project that fits their mission, and then I surprised myself with a small book that does fit in.  Birds and Birthdays collects three stories–“The Creation of Birds,” “The Guardian of the Egg,” and “Birthday” all of which are my fictional narrative responses to the surrealist art work of the painters Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, and Dorothea Tanning, respectively. Along with the tiptrych of stories will be an essay entitled “Re-membering the Body: Reconstructing the Female in Surrealism” that provides a context for the women surrealist artists who were working in the Modernist period of Surrealism, when the men were exhibited but the women were excluded from public showings and thought of as mere attachments to their artist boyfriends or husbands or friends.

These artists have been a huge, huge influence on my writing, despite their work being visual, for years now.  I am so happy to have these three stories collected in one place finally (two had been published in separate anthologies in the past decade), along with the essay, as they were intended.

My other big news is that I’ll be publishing a full-length collection of short stories called, Before and Afterlives, with Lethe Press in March of 2013.  The table of contents will most likely collect around twenty stories I’ve published over the past decade, all of which revolve around characters just on the precipice of great change in their lives, or afterward–sometimes long after, beyond the grave.

I started out writing short stories before ever trying to tackle a novel, and the short story is still a favored form for me.  I am so grateful and excited to bring these two collections out in the coming months, after many years of endeavoring to make them.  I hope they’ll find a warm audience waiting for them.

Thanks,
Chris

Life on the lowest setting

On his blog, my friend John Scalzi has recently posted about the privilege of the straight white male in American society by using a decidedly clever metaphor to describe what is often invisible to others, especially to those who hold the most privilege:

Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?

Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.

Please read his entire post, because what I’ll be doing here is furthering some of the conversation John raised, and which my friend Meghan McCarron already furthered (after she and I nitpicked with certain aspects of John’s argument on Twitter, and John said he’d be happy to have other folks take the ball and run with it).

One of Meghan’s additions to John’s metaphor for privilege in the game of life was this:

Finally, at the end of the post, Scalzi points out that one doesn’t “choose” one’s own setting – it’s chosen by the computer, and that receiving the easy setting is a stroke of luck. That’s a powerful message – that we did nothing to deserve our privilege, and the fact that we have it is in fact meaningless – but ending there strikes me as a missed opportunity to explore an essential aspect of privilege: its invisibility to those who have it.

All too often, Straight White Men do not see that their setting is easier, and they assume that those struggling against bigger challenges are simply poorer players. At first this is innocent – the Straight White Men are focused on surviving the game themselves, after all. They didn’t design it. But the “easy” setting’s invisibility breeds arrogance, not the humility necessary to acknowledge that you’re “winning” the game because a. the game is easier for you and b. the game itself is designed to benefit you most. The fact that privilege robs us of empathy and humility is nearly as poisonous as the advantages it brings, because humble, empathetic people would not gleefully skip through difficulty while leaving others to suffer.

I wholeheartedly agreed with Meghan’s furthering of John’s metaphor.  Part of the problem with privilege is that, when you have it, it’s almost invisible.  The same way you might not realize what your voice sounds like until you hear it played back in a message–it seems like it belongs to someone else, unless of course you’re used to hearing your own voice played back to you.

Since Meghan had brought up what had been, for me, a salient defining point about privilege that had been left out of John’s metaphor, I was not going to write my own blog post about it.  Well done, Meghan!  But then today I came across an update from John on his blog, in which he further discusses his definition of privilege by way of responding to some of the general reactions various commenters on his blog post shared.  John is always spot on with so many things–he’s a smartypants, for sure–but one piece of his extended discussion of the Life on the Lowest Setting blog post was a sticking point for me.  Here it is:

3. Your description should have put wealth/class as part of the difficulty setting.

Nope. Money and class are both hugely important and can definitely compensate for quite a lot, which I have of course noted in the entry itself. But they belong in the stats category because wealth and class are not an inherent part of one’s personal nature — and in the US particularly, part of our cultural sorting behavior — in the manner that race, gender and sexuality are (note “inherent” here does not necessarily mean “immutable,” but that’s a conversation I’m not going to go into great detail about right now). You can disagree, of course. But speaking as someone who has been at both the bottom and the top of the wealth and class spectrum here in the US, I think I have enough personal knowledge on the matter to say it belongs where I put it.

This is where he sort of lost me (only partially, and on this one issue, to be specific).  John had been defining privilege and how some people start out in life (or the roleplaying simulation game) with various benefits due to race, gender, and sexuality, which is all true.  We don’t have terms like “the glass ceiling” to describe women’s perpetual inability to break through to the top of their various professions as easily as men for no reason, and we know that women still generally make less than men for doing the same work in many professions.  We know that many GLBTQ people are not protected in their workplaces (or outside of them), and we know that systems like Affirmative Action were created to combat an entrenched system of prejudice and bias that had withheld opportunities for people of color.  These are no-brainers (except for, I’m sure, people who have their ideological blinders on–hello, Privilege).  But John’s dismissal of wealth/class as categories that affect one’s privilege because wealth/class in his estimation is not part of our “cultural sorting behavior” which might determine whether a person receives more privileges in the game of life than others.  He discounts wealth/class because it is not “an inherent part of one’s personal nature.”

But this is not true.

First, I need to take apart John’s wealth/class hybrid category.  These are two different things.  Wealth is material goods and knowledge resources and access to social networks.  Class is a cultural identity steeped in more than resources such as those, though it is intimately connected with those items that define wealth.

Class is something different than wealth.  It’s a cultural identity that is connected in some cases to wealth but is not defined entirely by wealth alone.  Socioeconomic identity is constituted by various social class values, attitudes, and mannerisms.  It is something that we are judged on every day, just as an African American or a GLBT person or a woman faces judgments based on their identity every day.  I know this because I come from a working class background, and though I have “risen” into the middle class, I do not feel as much a part of the middle class because I have a certain amount of money in the bank or more social networks at my fingertips as I do a part of the working class, which defines how I see the world.  Though I crossed out of my working class background into a middle class life, the way that I learned to see the world, and to think of how the world saw me, is still with me.  Rings on a tree don’t go away just because new layers grow over them.  They’re there, inside, the heart of the tree really.

I have a friend who once told me about a study her Harvard classmate once participated in, where the social scientists observed the differences between working class educational institutions and private upper middle or upper class institutions.  One of the clear differences, she told me, was that in the private upper middle and upper class institutions, the students were being taught how to conceive of ideas, how to execute them, and how to direct others in helping you execute your plans.  But in the working class institutes, the students were being graded on how well they followed directions.  Or, in essence, they were being trained to be the followers–the worker bees–for those students learning how to direct them.

That story was told to me probably a decade or more ago.  In the years after I heard it, I finished a Master’s degree at the same university where I received my Bachelor’s degree–a university that is technically labeled as a research institution but generally behaves as a community college, because of the nature of the region in which I grew up:  mostly working class, unprepared for college life.  Youngstown State University offered (and still offers) heaps of remedial course work that most research institutions leave to community colleges surrounding them to do, because there were few other educational institutes in this region that could fill that role at the time.  It’s odd, really, for a person to receive both undergrad and graduate degrees from the same institute–if you’re planning on being an academic, it “looks better” if you move from institute to institute, which can broaden your knowledge based on each institute being different from one another and offering different tracks and themes of study.  But I had done both, because I didn’t know that at the time, and because I believed that I couldn’t succeed at another university–as a student, I’d overheard some professors talk about the nature of the working class student body, and how they’d never do as well in other settings.  This hurt, but I do think there is truth to it, due to unpreparedness many working class students face.  We haven’t been taught to be active learners, after all.  We’ve been taught to follow directions.  To do what others tell us.

After I finished my MA, I moved to Japan for a couple of years to teach English.  This was a huge event in my life.  I had lived for a short time in Southern California and for a couple of years in Lansing, Michigan, but the majority of my life had been spent in the general region where I’d grown up.  I’d moved from the country to the town, but the town was an old, dying steel town, and it was small.  A decent stepping stone for a kid who grew up on a farm learning how to break beef cows to lead behind him with a rope halter.  It provided me with something different, but not completely out of my realm.  Going to Japan, though, changed my life in incredible ways that I hadn’t even understood were possible, and most likely I didn’t understand those possible changes because I had grown up in such an isolated working class environment, and one of the things about that culture is this:  we don’t tend to travel.  Some people say it’s because we don’t want to leave what we know, and there is some truth in some cases to that, but it’s also because travel costs a lot of money, and working class people don’t have a lot of that.

So how could I have known just how much travel could change a person’s life, since I hadn’t done a whole lot of it, and what travel I had experienced had been minimal and in not-so-different-places in the U.S. from what I knew (Lansing, Michigan, for instance is an old industrial town that lost a lot of its industry too)?

While I was in Japan, I finished a novel, started a second one, learned a second language, and through the good fortune of having been a published short story writer that a Japanese translator of fiction recognized when I began to blog about life in Japan, I began working part time for a publishing company in Tokyo.  The translator had reached out to me through email and brought me to Tokyo for dinner and conversation, and eventually he began finding work for me in his company.

This is all necessary background, trust me.

One evening, late into my two years in Japan, my friend Jodi and I went to a town festival, where we met a group of other ex-pats who were teaching English in nearby towns, and we hung out with them for a while.  One of these other foreigners was a 23 or 24 year old African American male who had just graduated college and moved to Japan. We got to talking.  He’d grown up upper middle class in Cincinnati, gone to a private school in New England, then did his undergrad degree at an Ivy League university, Brown.  At one point in the evening, he told me he’d really come to Japan not to teach but to eventually get a job in a Tokyo publishing house.  He had a plan, he said, and figured he could find work in one within a year.  His dad knew someone who worked in publishing there, he said.  He had an in. And also, he said, there’s always a Brown student who worked at this one company–they sort of held the position for a Brown student, in his description, which for all I know could have been completely inaccurate, but how would I know?  No positions are reserved for YSU students, but maybe they are for Brown students?  Or for students from other Ivy League schools.  When I eventually told him that I was working part time for a Japanese publisher, he seized on me and shook me down for any information I could supply him, and asked whether or not I could get him work.  I told him what I could, and said that I’d see, but that I was mainly only working by way of my personal contact.

Later, when Jodi and I went home, I grew upset and started to rage and storm a little bit about that guy.  Jodi got me to talk about why I was so upset.  Before I’d started talking, she was feeling me out, trying to see if she could touch on what I couldn’t say.  She assumed it was because I thought all of the things that guy had received as he grew up seemed unfair.  But really it wasn’t because of that.  It was because I realized that night that he expected so many things with great confidence, and talked about his achievements with a grandiosity that was completely foreign to me.  I didn’t expect much out of life.  I was worried, by all accounts in my blog records of that time, that I couldn’t ever return to America because I hadn’t been able to find work there prior to leaving (I left America not because I had some kind of geek-on for Japanese culture, but because it was where I could find work), and I expected that that would never change.  What I realized that evening that upset me so much was that I HAD achieved certain things in my life, but I discounted them all as good fortune that had befallen me, or as hands-up others had extended me.  I didn’t see any of my achievements or successes in life as belonging to me, being rooted in my own endeavors, in my own inherent abilities.  Here was this other guy living in Japan, doing the same thing I was doing, teaching English, but he’d chosen to go there because of his interests, whereas I’d gone there because I needed work and couldn’t find any back home.

I was self-effacing, which is a trait of many working class people.  No, no, not me.  Please don’t pay attention to me.  I’d been taught to be invisible, and whatever I have I have by the grace of god or my benefactors/employers, etc.  I had absolutely no confidence in my ability to change my life purposefully. Any good thing in my life “happened to me,” in my worldview.  It’s not for nothing that working class people generally rack much of their lives up to fate, luck, chance, or other religious/cosmic forces.  There’s a lack of agency for most working class people’s personal natures, and that is built into their identities culturally.  It’s as inherent as a boy performing what his culture expects from male gender performance, in order to fulfill his identity as a male, etc.

What I’d like to add to John’s and Meghan’s furthering of Life on the Lowest Setting, the metaphor of privilege as a function of how easy or difficult life is based on character aspects, is that class does indeed count.  If you’re a highborn mage instead of a lowly farmer’s son who happens to have a small knack for casting magic, you’ll receive all the best teachers, all the best training in the arcane arts, will have access to all of the materials you might need to cast a spell, which can be quite expensive.  Or likewise, if you’re a highborn knight, you’ll receive all the best armor and weaponry and training in arms and defense, whereas the pub master’s kid will mainly know how to throw a punch and will swing wild without any really access to training.

Those are material considerations–the wealth aspect, or knowledge resources–to which a person of a certain socioeconomic identity generally has little access.

But class cultural considerations can also severely restrict some people, by learning your place, by taking direction because that’s what you were rewarded for, rather than learning to plan and set goals, rather than being among people who value reading and education or even networking beyond one’s own family in order to have greater opportunities in the warp and weft of our social order.  And these are inherent to one’s personal nature if you have grown up in those conditions.

We judge people by the way they talk.  Most people where I grew up say, “I seen,” instead of “I saw,” for instance.  And are judged to be rubes by others because of it.  The style or manner of appearance is different–the deeply casual is the mark for most working class people.  I still cringe at putting on a suit and tie, and in fact didn’t learn how to tie a tie until I moved to Japan, where I had to wear one every day at the school where I taught.  Even simple things like that cannot be taken for granted as we suit up for our various roles in the game of life.

Class does matter.  Wealth does, too, but class is an identity, an invisible identity in some cases, like mine.  Many of my friends now say that they can’t imagine me having grown up on a farm, that I once took part in a 4-H contest to catch a greased pig when I was eleven, that I seem too intellectual and worldly for a background like that.  They can’t put my past and my present together, because I’ve crossed over into their world, and I’ve learned their language and mannerisms, much as I learned how to speak Japanese.  I can switch codes from the academic circles I work within to the circle of service industry oriented childhood friends who are waiting tables and retailing and fixing cars.  And all of those features are part of my inherent personal nature, a personal nature that was nurtured in a working class environment in my formative years.

I’d add class to that list of identity categories that determines privilege.

Me at Better World Books

Another short post that actually points you to a longer post I wrote for Better World Books, a truly revolutionary online bookseller with an important mission. Several months ago, Better World Books featured my first novel on a list of books for readers who want to “travel around the world” via books.

 I was surprised and excited to be named on a list that also featured Steinbeck and Fitzgerald!  In this blog post at Better World Books, I meditate on why place is so important to my writing. Here’s an excerpt of the blog post:

Place, I think, is the reason why One for Sorrow might have been selected for the list.  As a writer, I’m inspired by the places I’ve lived and those I visit for any length of time that allows me to sink my roots into the soil for a bit, to draw on the stories that surround and infuse any particular patch of earth.  My second novel, for instance, The Love We Share Without Knowing, is set in Japan, where I lived for two years teaching English in rural elementary and middle schools.  If I’d never lived in Japan for that long, I might never have written a story set there.  Some writers can write about anywhere, but I don’t think they always capture the feeling or spirit of a place as a writer who has been somewhere in particular, or especially lived somewhere.  They capture a setting, but not the place, and these are two different degrees of narrative, I think.

To read the entire post, click here.