Reading and Writing in the Time of COVID by Chris Swensen
Friday, 18 September 2020
Perhaps influenced by the sometimes-apocalyptic news it is not always easy to simply settle down to read—never mind writing! But so it goes and there is no rest for the wicked, or worse yet, writers and book worms.
As a now editor of The Greensboro Review, and second year student of UNCG’s MFA program, there has been plenty of homework to do. Homework that consists of reading short story collections. This has included the special final issue of the print Tin House (rest in peace), and other such endangered lit journals ( a further rest in peace to Glimmer Train, even if I was never fond of baby pictures) that go extinct every year like butterfly’s and brightly colored toads in far off places. There has also been plenty of best of collections, like the most recent Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. From that harvesting of our beloved “little magazines” are many obviously wonderful stories and poems, but I can’t help but especially think of the non-fiction piece “The Human Soup” by Maureen Stanton. It’s simply about the joys and history of public bathing. It’s an informative narrative piece that covers everything from Roman bath houses to hotel hot tubs. It frames itself around the writer’s own discovery of empathy for fellow bathers at their local Y, and how her own tour of baths and spas throughout her life taught her about empathy and leisure in America. It’s a piece that is both unexpectedly interesting and vibrant, but also in post COVID times feels like it may as well have been discovered on the walls of Pompey. There will for our generations be art that is from before now, and the time after. It will be a difficult and interesting thing to navigate as artists and readers.
On a lighter note I am a bit of a slow poke so I am still catching up on some of last year’s books. One of the biggest I was looking forward to is Karen Russell’s Orange World. There’s a funny trope when blook blurbs and reviewers talk about magical realist collections, that long list of funny conceits and premises; A math teacher transforms into an ant colony, a bus driver discovers he can talk to badgers, a chef discovers her cabinets are a portal to 17th century Italy, etc. etc. The same strategy could be used here but instead I will try to succinctly sum up the book like so—It’s an imaginative and sometimes touching fabulist collection about the relationships between women. For example its titular story “Orange World” has a new mother dealing with a devil that extorts her for breast milk—or the baby gets it. But the chief relationship in the story is not mother and child, but mother and her new mothers support group who provide advice on everything from sleep deprivation, to milk obsessed demons. They ultimately help her plot against the milk obsessed terror, lying in wait in a van like one-part support group and one-part elite animal control task force ambushing a hellish possum. Ultimately our heroine confronts the monster as a way perhaps of confronting the anxieties of motherhood. It’s a story that like most in the collection is often imaginative and funny, combining its fabulist conceits with real human anxieties and desires for connection. Another stand out is “The Gondoliers,” a story about a mutant girl who navigates a post-apocalyptic and flooded Florida with a small boat and bat like echo location. Yet behind its conceptual imaginings is ultimately a story about sisterhood and the self-destructive tendencies we often have in common with family. In short, the collection is excellent.
Another book I read at the behest of a colleague at The Greensboro Review is Sabrina and Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine. This collection takes a more realist approach to its stories of Latina women and they all take place in or nearby Colorado. The titular story “Sabrina & Corina” has a young Corina tasked by her family with applying the wake makeup to her deceased cousin Sabrina—a victim of masculine violence. As the layers of cosmetics are applied layers of history, tragic neglect, bad decisions, abuse, and desperation are revealed with a tenderness and grace that is at times reminiscent of works like Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine. Though my personal favorite in the collection is the story “Sugar Babies.” The story follows Sierra, 10-year old girl who has long ago been abandoned by her young mother to be raised by her father. At school she is tasked with raising a “sugar baby,” a sack of sugar which she doodles a cartoon face on. One of the best images in the book is when at the height of familial drama and frustration she kicks the googly eyed sugar sack and sends it spiraling into a new excavation of ancient indigenous bones. More debris of the American abandoned and forgotten. Fajardo-Anstine’s collection is filled with such imaginative and loaded moments. She is a talent to watch.
And so that sums up my share of reading for the past month. I now return to the privileged work of justifying art in a time when the country, like the subject of a John Donne poem, is simultaneously burning and drowning. My hope is that at the very least we find some small respite in our often seemingly useless little endeavors of reading and writing, the very things that we can at least hope help make life in difficult times worth living and enduring.
Chris Swensen is an MFA candidate in Fiction at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro where he currently serves as the Fiction Editor of The Greensboro Review.