Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘writing’

Almost by accident, I picked the perfect book to entice me back into regularly blogging. I had a very early train ride this morning (to go listen in on a translator friend’s lecture on translating “time” (tenses) from French into Japanese – which was excellent for a nerdy language type like me), and as I raced out the door, I grabbed Ivan Vladislavić’s little book, The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories* (Seagull Books, 2014, and which includes a series of excellent illustrations by Sunandini Banerjee). Forty-five minutes later and I almost stayed on the train and missed my friend’s lecture. This tiny little book is very hard to put down and I’ve kept it with me all day, finishing it a few hours ago in a café beside my daughter’s drawing class.

The collection is comprised of ten essays, divided into two brackets of five that embrace the book’s centerpiece: the titular short story, “The Loss Library.”

This very short fiction describes a man guided by a mysterious librarian through the shelves of The Loss Library – a museum arrangement of books that were never written (arranged by the author’s type of death), books that were destroyed, books that were forgotten, and so on. I won’t go into details because it would spoil this wonderfully imaginative story for anyone who hasn’t yet read it. It also breaks Vladislavić’s collection so perfectly in half.

The rest of the book’s essays each take one of the author’s unfinished ideas and describe it, annotate it, discuss the research that went into it, as well as muse upon why the idea was never completed. The result is a series of complex and touching reflections upon writerly and readerly inspiration, upon those mysterious synergies of thought and observation that result in the creation or non-creation of art. The essays reach both inward toward and outward from the writer, braiding memory and literature and happenstance. The effect is meditative, thoughtful, and sometimes humorous. My overall feeling is the delight of seeing how an incomplete idea can become fertile ground for a different kind of art and reflection altogether.

I would be hard pressed to choose a favorite from this slim volume – each essay adds something unique to Vladislavić’s evolving perspective. But a single line won’t let me go – I read it this morning about 25 minutes into my train ride, and I was still thinking about it as the sun set outside the window of that small, overheated café:

All fiction is the factual refracted.

The line comes from the essay entitled “Mrs B”, about Vladislavić’s unfinished idea to write something about Mrs. Burden, the wife of the American naturalist W. Douglas Burden. That essay is about so much more than just the transposition of event or fact into fiction – it touches on a variety of issues related to colonialism, on narrative inspiration and the way a character develops or not out of the writer’s mind – but this single idea, and the choice of the word “refracted” has stopped me; in it I can see angles of light, variations of focus, broken perspectives and the multiplying possibilities of deflection. It’s genius and I’ll be considering it for some time to come.

I’ve not read any of Vladislavić’s fiction but am now very intrigued to see what I make of it…

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As keeps happening, this blog has been sorely neglected lately. I don’t want to let it go, but I need to find a way to make it work and keep it going. I’ve never wanted my website to be a landing page with links to my publications – I like writing about books too much, and I like the discussions that still crop up. But I feel scattered these days across several social media outlets and many book conversations are reduced to photos and one-liners. I am as guilty of this as everyone else.

Sigh.

In any case, I am thinking very hard how to keep this book blog running. I find when I am not writing about the books I’ve read, that I forget them all too quickly (I’ve had to comb through various messages and posts to even put this list together).

Here is what I’ve been reading this autumn:

  • Day for Night – Frederick Reiken (a reread)
  • The Girls of Slender Means – Muriel Spark
  • The Plains – Gerald Murnane
  • The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
  • Push – Sapphire (a reread)
  • The End of the Affair – Graham Greene (a reread)
  • The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin
  • The Accidental – Ali Smith
  • Imagine Me Gone – Adam Haslett
  • Over Sea, Under Stone – Susan Cooper (reading the 5book Dark is Rising series with my daughter)
  • The Master of Go – Yasunari Kawabata
  • Kudos – Rachel Cusk

My beloved book group and a novel class I’m teaching this fall have dictated most of these choices, but it’s been a rich reading period nonetheless. I already wrote about a few of these here.

I also read quite a few short stories over the last two months, jumping around between different collections like: David Hayden’s Darker With the Lights On, Shusako Endo’s Stained Glass Elegies, Grace Paley’s Complete Collection, Lispector’s Complete Stories, and What We Do With the Wreckage by Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum.

For some strange reason I did not finish Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, so I’m going back to that right away.  And I know I read something else while traveling through the US in October but I cannot recall what – hence the need to get back to writing, even a little, about each of the books that I read…

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My second novel, Unfurled, comes out next week, and I’ll be traveling around the US for the next few weeks for some readings and other events, and then back home to Switzerland – if I’m coming to your area, please come and say hello.

Unfurled Events flyer

How easily the world splits. How simple it is to get everything wrong. I thought I’d worked out long ago who was the villain and who was the hero.

It’s exciting to be able to say that Unfurled will be published in October, exactly four months from this week. This also means that the book can be pre-ordered and this is a great way to show support for both my publisher Ig and the book itself. You can read more about the book at Ig and on Goodreads. 

I also wrote a bit more about the book when I announced it here.

p.s. isn’t it a lovely cover?

To pre-order:

US: Indiebound can help you track down your nearest bookshop and they can order it for you. Ordering from your local bookseller is a great way to help a book find its way farther and wider in today’s publishing world.

Switzerland: Books Books Books in Lausanne will be happy to take your pre-orders, and your orders when the time arrives.

Elsewhere: Always worth asking local bookshops, and of course the book can be ordered at Barnes and Noble, the Book Depository, Powells, and Amazon, too.

I look forward to sharing Unfurled with you soon.

In May I spent a lot of my time sharing quotes from Katja Petrowskaja’s beautiful book, Maybe Esther. I was very taken with this book and it’s project of retracing 20th-century Europe through the stories of Petrowskaja’s family, but because of the nature of the book’s wordplay and linguistic focus (shifting constantly between Russian, Polish, and German), I was equally interested in the work that went into its translation into English. I had the opportunity to interview Shelley Frisch, who masterfully translated Maybe Esther and that interview is now published. Frisch answered my questions in great detail and it was a wonderful discussion of a unique book. Here is just a small taster:

In both form and content, Katja aimed at foregrounding the fragmentary nature of her quest to piece together her family history, and the jagged use of language that comes with foreign language proficiency acquired later in life is part and parcel of that fragmentation.

You can read the entire interview here at Necessary Fiction.

I’ve also written a review of Maybe Esther that will be published on Monday.

And just a quick word on the title of the interview and this blog post – Shelley mentioned the first two lines of an Emily Dickinson poem in the context of our discussion but I cannot stop thinking of this line as the best description of translation I’ve ever heard:

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Of the three writers I interviewed for BIBLIOTOPIA, Xiaolu Guo has the largest body of work – and she is a filmmaker as well. I was not able to read all of her books in time for the weekend, but I managed four of them and am so glad that I did. Her work is a complex mix of biography and fiction, and she’s interested in issues of displacement (both within a culture and between different cultures) as well as sexual expression and feminism. She was also generous and engaging in person, a real delight to meet and discuss books with.

Village of Stone is the story of Coral, a young woman living in Beijing with her lover, a man named Red. One way to describe Coral would be to say that she is frozen, or stuck, and it’s only when a mysterious package arrives from her far away hometown that she begins to tell the reader the story of her childhood, giving us a chance to understand what has made her the way she is now. The book flips between the past and the present, revealing the tension that holds the two together. Coral was raised in the “village of stone” by her grandparents – two people who hated each other and lived on separate floors of their home – and she essentially lived as an orphan in a village of families, all of them at the mercy of a wild and merciless sea. The book is very much about loneliness and escape, about surviving trauma, and it plays endlessly with ideas of language and silence. (p.s. The title of this post is a line from Village of Stone.)

Once Upon a Time in the East is Guo’s most recent book, written in English, and published last year. This is her memoir, and many of its stories were achingly familiar after reading Village of Stone (which draws heavily from Guo’s own experiences). Here they are given more concrete detail and Guo’s own interpretations. The book also goes further, showing us when Guo meets her parents for the first time at the age of 7, the very fraught relationship she had with her mother, her family’s story during the Cultural Revolution and its lingering effects, as well as what happens when she leaves for Beijing to attend film school, and then when she travels to England and eventually stays. This book has a marvelous focus on what it means to create art, to write, from within a culture of censorship (which creates an equally strong self-censorship), and she talks a lot about how she was able to define herself outside of China, using English because for her it represented a switch from the patriarchal Chinese system and gave her a chance at equality. There is a lot about families here, too.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is the first book that Guo wrote in English, and it accomplishes a very neat trick. She was learning English at the time, and so she used her unsteadiness in the language as the very basis of the book. It is written in broken English, a broken English that would be spoken by a Chinese immigrant. It’s a love story, as the title suggests, but it’s also a kind of travel narrative, and a book of self-discovery. There is nothing cheesy or simplistic about the novel but the directness of the language almost masks what is a lovely, careful story about losing one’s culture and oneself and trying to find a sense of wholeness again in a new place and a new language. That last sentence is the kind of sentence that gets so overused from a marketing standpoint, that I almost regret writing it, but the book very seriously and thoughtfully asks questions about what it is to love someone – physically, emotionally – and how loving someone else teaches you what loving yourself feels like. It is a deceptively light-seeming book with a much more serious heart.

20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is the first novel Guo ever wrote. She wrote it when she was still in China, and she wrote it in Chinese but according to Western novelistic narrative conventions, a style that was newish in China at the time. She writes in her memoir that a first-person story with a continuous narrative arc felt modern and strange. 20 Fragments is about Fenfang, a young woman who travels from the countryside to Beijing hoping to become an artist. She dates all the wrong men and has a lot of rotten luck. Again, there is a certain false lightness to the book that belies the seriousness of Guo’s subject: the real struggle of a young woman to make it on her own in a big city without family connections or support, and in a professional setting that is mostly hostile to women. An interesting footnote to this book is that the English version is probably very different from the original Chinese version. Guo writes in her acknowledgements that the ten-year gap between the publication of the original and the translation brought her to make some changes to the text, mostly because her vision of that young woman had changed, but also because, “The translation needed to capture the speech of a young Chinese girl who lives a chaotic life and speaks in slangy, raw Chinese.” I’m also curious if the English version is more overtly critical of elements of the Chinese system and culture than the original – something she may not have been able to do when the novel was first published.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time you will already know that one of my favorite things to do is read an author from start to finish. My experience with Guo over the past few weeks was like a compressed version of that, and it was interesting to read and study the way the margins blurred between her biography and her fictional project. Village of Stone fictionalized her childhood, 20 Fragments fictionalized her early experiences in Beijing, and A Concise Dictionary fictionalized her own immigrant experience in the UK and Europe. The actual memoir, Once Upon a Time in the East, added a ton of interesting nuance to those other stories.

I was not able to read UFO in her Eyes, I am China, or Lovers in the Age of Indifference (a collection of stories). I will eventually read those three as well, and I am particularly keen to read I am China because one of its characters is a translator who pieces together a love story based on letters, and also because it deals with modern issues of asylum. It’s also maybe the only novel of Guo’s that is written in the 3rd person and I’m curious how she’s made that shift.

I’ve gone on and one here, and I feel like I could still say a lot more. I’m delighted to have been introduced to Guo’s writing and films, and I look forward to follow what she does in the future.

I am absolutely delighted to be able to share some book news. My second novel, Unfurled, will be published this fall with Ig Publishing. I’m incredibly incredibly incredibly excited.

Ig does wonderful work and I’m thrilled to join their catalog. Check them out if you don’t already know them.

And for a little bit about the book…

Book blurbs and cover text are an impossible art – everything sounds like the description for a daytime TV drama. If you don’t believe me, test my theory: I just went and checked the back covers of three of my favorite understated, quiet novels and all of them sound like 19th century advertisements for miracle remedies. So I won’t give you that text here – it will come in its own unavoidable time.

But I will tell you a little about the book…

I live in Switzerland now, but I grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and (my heart is often still there and) Unfurled is set in a neighborhood that runs alongside and overlooks the Puget Sound, a beautiful place of mountains and ocean. The book is about a difficult woman – because I love writing them and because they are true. The book is about grief – because I cannot get away from this subject. It’s a mother-daughter book in a sneaky way because it’s pretending to be a father-daughter book. It’s a book about mental illness, about abandonment, about fear. It’s a book about the fine line between imagination and the more dangerous form of that gift, delusion. Finally, it’s a book about the daughter of a ferry pilot, about the ocean, about sailing and deep waters.

I look forward to sharing the book when it’s ready.

Unfurled by Michelle Bailat-Jones, Ig Publishing, Fall 2018.

 

 

 

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**Below is the post I wrote when my first novel, Fog Island Mountains, was published in November 2014. Everything you need to know about the book is here.**

 

With so much traveling last week, I didn’t get a chance to properly mention the actual publication day of Fog Island Mountains. Officially, on November 4th—while I was somewhere 30,000 feet up between Geneva and NYC and reading several wonderful novels—the book came out. It is extremely exciting to note the publication of my first novel. This is something I’ve waited and hoped for, and I’m extremely grateful in terms of the book’s road to publication with Tantor and Audible through the Christopher Doheny Award from Audible and The Center for Fiction. I had the chance to learn more about this remarkable young man while I was in New York and I’m really touched that the judges thought he would have enjoyed my book, but also that they felt it was a suitable tribute to his life.

I read from the book last Thursday at The Center for Fiction. And there are some photos of that event. The Center for Fiction is a beautiful gem of bookish goodness right in the middle of Manhattan. If I lived anywhere near New York, I’d be spending as much time as possible here. That night was also special because I finally got to meet Rebecca from Of Books and Bikes. We’ve been blogging friends for years and it was such a treat to finally meet her. (She is as smart and kind as we’ve all suspected all these years.)

And on Friday evening, there was a reception at Audible with Christopher Doheny’s family and friends. It was so wonderful to hear stories about him—my favorite being that he set up a program at Audible to curate books from the small/independent presses to be made into audio books. He was an early champion of Paul Harding’s Tinkers, an exceptional book and one of my all-time favorites. I left that evening wishing I’d had a chance to meet him, I think we would have had much in common.

Beth Anderson at Audible conducted a small reading and interview with me that evening, but one that is also a wonderful tribute to Christopher Doheny and the award that will continue on in his name.

The book is out in the world now, and there are reviews popping up here and there. I’ll be sure to link to them for anyone who is interested. On Thursday morning I spent about six hours talking to twelve different radio stations. This was a fascinating experience – to hear how people are approaching the book and to get the chance to discuss it and answer questions. I have been stunned at the kindness and curiosity of so many people. Some of my favorite questions were about the book’s structure, about how the book dealt with cultural issues, and just simply about the setting in rural southern Japan.

One of the best parts of this experience with the radio was three hosts who read out parts of the book, passages they had marked. It is a little strange (in a good way) to hear my own words read back to me, and it was neat to see which parts they really enjoyed. I’ll finish up here with one of those passages:

Now the floor trembles without his taking angry steps; this is how the mountain releases its own tension, little earthquakes, shudders of rock against earth against rock, mild displacements—all reminders of the steam and heat beneath the rocks, beneath our feet.

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Well, a pilgrim is like a Nō play. Each one has the same structure, a question mark.

The other day when I was looking through the books of short stories and essay collections—some half-unread, some completely un-read—on my shelves, I found, in a Best American Essays 1988, an essay by Anne Carson entitled, “Kinds of Water.”

It obviously went on my list.

This essay was scheduled for my reading on the 6th of December; I only finished it this morning five days later. And I read it again a second time—moving, without realizing until after I sat down, into the quietest, most private space in my home. I read the essay again, confirming to myself that here was a piece of writing I would have to read again and again. And again.

“Kinds of Water” is about a man and a woman walking La Compostela. It begins on June 20th in St. Jean Pied de Port and ends, 35 magnificent pages later, on July 26th, in Finisterre. It’s about pilgrims of all kinds, about wolves, about water, about photographs and poetry, it’s about longing and power relations and hard walking, it’s about bread and rocks. About journeys.

It is probably the single most interesting piece of writing I have read all year.

I feel unable to write properly about it until I’ve read it several more times, so I won’t say much here and hope that in a few months, when I’ll read it again, or maybe next year, when I’ll read it a fourth time and a fifth time, I’ll find some way to describe its movement and content.

There is no question I covet that conversation. There is no question I am someone starving. There is no question I am making this journey to find out what the appetite is.

Or maybe I won’t, because maybe this is the kind of essay I can only keep for myself. And the only way to do that is not to talk about it.

Today, I’ll just leave a hint of it for you:

Down.

Gorge after gorge, turning, turning. Caverns of sunset, falling, falling away—just a single vast gold air breathed out by beings — they must have been marvelous beings, those gold-breathers. Down. Purple and green islands. Cleft and groined and gigantically pocked like something left behind after all the oceans vanished one huge night: the mountains. Their hills fold and fold again, fold away, down. Folded into the dens and rocks of the hills are ghost towns. Broken streets end in them, like a sound, nowhere. Shadow is inside. We walk (oh quietly) even so — breaking lines of force, someone’s. Houses stand in their stones. Each house an empty socket. Some streaked with red inside. Words once went on in there — no. I don’t believe that. Words never went on there.

Down.

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I read the following few paragraphs today, from Annie Dillard’s essay « Death of the Moth” which was published in 1976 in Harper’s. It is now one of those things I can never unread, and now I am different for having read it. That is the very best kind of reading. This essay was published with a new title, “Transfiguration” in her book Holy the Firm:

Two summers ago, I was camping alone in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I had hauled myself and gear up there to read, among other things, James Ullman’s The Day on Fire, a novel about Rimbaud that had made me want to be a writer when I was sixteen; I was hoping it would do it again. So I read, lost, every day sitting by my tent, while warblers swung in the leaves overhead and bristle worms trailed their inches over the twiggy dirt at my feet; and I read every night by candlelight, while barred owls called in the forest and pale moths massed round massed round my head in the clearing, where my light made a ring.

Moths kept flying into the candle. They would hiss and recoil, lost upside down in the shadows among my cook pans.  Or they would singe their wings and fall, and their hot wings, as if melted, would stick to the first thing they touched — a pan, a lid, a spoon — so that the snagged moths could flutter only in tiny arcs, unable to struggle free. These I could realize by a quick flip with a stick; in the morning I would find my cooking stuff gilded with torn flecks of moth wings, triangles of shiny dust here and there on the aluminum. So I read, and boiled water, and replenished candles, and read on.

One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when the shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspread, flapped into the fire, dropped abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled, and fried in a second.  Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of pine.  At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time, her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burnt away and her heaving mouthparts cracked like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs. Had she been new, or old?  Had she mated and laid her eggs, had she done her work? All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax — a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool.

And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth’s body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into a flame, a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like an immolating monk. That candle had two wicks, two flames of identical light, side by side. The moth’s head was fire. She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.

There is an interesting essay here on the entire piece and how Dillard came to write it.

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