Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts from the ‘Michelle Latiolais’ category

The narrative perspective in Widow (Michelle Latiolais, Bellevue Literary Press) is what strikes at first—a third person close which mostly functions as a kind of gentle wrapping (a shroud or veil is the image that comes to my mind) to what appears to be autobiographical writing. There is this feeling that all of these pieces are actually a first person narrative, and even more, that they are casted retellings of the author’s personal experiences, if not of distinct memories than of the emotional charge of real events but then recreated in new fictional surroundings.

Usually all that matters to me is the way the fiction works, how each piece creates its effect—but part of the effect of Widow involves this tension between fiction and memoir, involves the reader’s awareness that we’re reading an individual’s intensely interior negotiation of a series of events. That awareness is quite spellbinding.

The “event” (which remains almost completely off the page) is the unexpected death of a husband. And the stories alternate their focus between an unnamed “she” (the widow) and an unnamed “young woman” (an earlier self). As the stories connect and are juxtaposed, the collection creates a fuller portrait of a life and a marriage, of the transformation of a young woman into a widow, and what both those labels actually mean.

Most of the stories are quite short and the collection itself finishes out at around 150 pages, but the collection as a whole embodies the notion of intensity that most shorter work should—the stories do not move slowly into their crucial moments but begin at a place where the reader must work somewhat to keep up, and Latiolais’s language is rich in the sense that the vocabulary is elevated and the imagery often sophisticated.

To see what I mean, take a look at the quote I posted the other day from what is probably my favorite story in the collection, “Pink.”

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the collection is Latiolais’s willingness to let the reader remain unsure of meaning and message. This is where her writing reminded me of Christine Schutt, in the way that there are hints but not full resolution, in the way that the created atmosphere often informs the reader’s understanding more than a linear or plotted narrative telling. I love this kind of sideways entrance to the appreciation/understanding of story.

On the whole, this is a beautiful and unique collection. For the most part the stories work splendidly together and there is only one outlier that bears mentioning—the last piece is a first person story/essay that confirms the autobiographical nature of the collection, but it was, at least to me, somewhat unnecessary. The essay in and of itself is strong, but I suppose I preferred the hinting and the tension that the rest of the stories worked around. And the very last fiction piece in Widow is incredibly strong—a layered memory-type piece called “Burqa” about motherhood, about living alone, about letting our children go—and it would have been lovely to simply end with the last lines of this story:

Who was that solo act, that sui generis, that singular who had then hoodwinked entire civilizations with such stunning propaganda? At least she had made art, beauty, a boy’s fine limbs.

Just a quick word on Bellevue Literary Press for anyone unfamiliar with their work. This is an independent press founded by the New York University School of Medicine, and their entire mission is to publish literary fiction that deals with science and medicine in some way. They have a very good-looking fiction catalogue (which I plan on working slowly through) and it includes a novel by Michelle Latiolais called A Proper Knowledge. It also includes a former Necessary Fiction writer-in-residence as well, Tim Horvath, with his collection Understories.

From “Pink” in Michelle Latiolais’s Widow:

She liked cathedrals better this way, liked churches better this way—as an entering into herself, into a circuitry of reproduction, not a system of birth or production, but of reproduction, the seeds in the dark ovarian caves, dropping one here, one there, a constancy of possibility happening and happening and happening—like ocean tide, that hydrolic loyalty grinding cowrie shells, all those little vulvae, until they were sand, were clay, were taken up newly plastic and made into porcelain shapes and fired, become teacups, becomes the intimacy of lips, of his lips upon her own. She would tell him all this.

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Some Writing

Between January and March this year, I had the very real pleasure (and subsequent immediate self-doubting anxiety) of seeing several short fiction pieces, and one translation, published around this beautiful lit-loving internet:

In January the exciting and new Sundog Lit published the first of my Elemental stories, “miner’s daughter.” These are very short pieces that I’ve been playing with as I work on a longer cycle; they are also auxiliary pieces to the novel I’m slowly writing about a woman who discovers a naturally-occurring nuclear fission reactor (and abandoned mine).

PANK just recently published a second one, called “Mining.”

In March then, Two Serious Ladies, which is an online journal that has published some of my favorite contemporary writers, included a short piece I first wrote over 10 years ago and have been re-writing ever since.  “Gongneung subway, 1.am”

Also, the always-beautiful Cerise Press included my translation of Ramuz’s “The Two Old Maids” in their spring issue. This journal does such wonderful work and this issue hosts a number of really beautiful translations as well as essays. Two of my favorites from this issue are Mary P. Noonan’s essay on Beckett and Jacqueline White’s on Mata Hari.

The Ann Arbor Review published a very tiny poem called “For September.” This poem is the perfect example of something I wish I could re-write now that it’s been published – an ongoing war with my inner poet.

Finally, at Necessary Fiction, I was very happy to be involved in a Round Table Discussion on Kate Zambreno’s Heroines with fellow writers/readers Helen McClory, Joanna Walsh and Christine Cody. This book has continued to stimulate some very interesting discussions around the web, and I highly recommend it.

Some Reading

My reading has been very much all over the place for the last few months—a mixture of contemporary titles, classic and contemporary Japanese novels, and back to Virginia Woolf’s Diaries. I’m also about halfway through Lyndall Gordon’s biography of Woolf and thoroughly immersed—Gordon filters all auto/biographical information about Woolf and her family and peers with lengthy discussions of Woolf’s fiction and other writings. It’s all extremely compelling.

I have discovered a handful of writers this winter worth looking further into. The first is Michelle Latiolais, whose story collection Widow was published by Bellevue Literary Press. She has a novel as well, which I will read soon. And I’m going to write a full post on Widow, but will say quickly here that it was an exceptional collection—the combination of emotional and cerebral that I absolutely love, with narratives just a bit inscrutable but which attain a high emotional resonance. She reminded me of Christine Schutt in many ways (and indeed, Schutt blurbed the book). The second is Mariko Nagai, whose collection Georgic I wrote about here.

I’ve also read two quite different francophone women writers, neither of whom has been translated into English but who were both incredibly well-published in their lifetimes and who walked along the periphery of the “nouveau roman.” The first is Hélène Bessette who was French, and the second is Clarisse Francillon, from Switzerland although she lived for most of her life in Paris. Imagine my delight at finding at small back room at the public library in Vevey that houses the Francillon collection—all of her own work plus the library she donated to the city when she died in 1976. Imagine my further delight when I learned I could check anything out and that it wasn’t restricted to use on site. I toddled home with a tall stack of her novels and am getting acquainted. Her novel Le Carnet à Lucarnes (The Skylight Notebook) is described in the Dictionnaire Littéraire des Femmes de Langue Française in this way:

L’héroine y incarne au féminin trois archétypes de l’imaginaire occidental: Hamlet, le tourmenté, Don Juan, l’insatisfait et Faust, l’orgueilleux.

[In this book, the heroine represents a feminine personification of three western archetypes : Hamlet, the tormented, Don Juan, the unfulfilled and Faust, the proud.]