Interview with 2020 Blue Light Books Prize Final Judge: Michelle Pretorius

2020 Blue Light Books Prize judge Michelle Pretorius speaks about home, the power of empathy, and the beauty of the short story.

A writer of many genres, Michelle Pretorius is the author of the debut novel The Monster’s Daughter (Melville House, Audible, 2011) and winner of the FAW literary award. She recieved her B.A in South Africa of the University of Free State in South Africa. She also has a M.F.A in Fiction Writing, and her Ph.D. in Creative Writing from Ohio University. For more information, visit her website.

  • Do you find you have writerly obsessions? What subject matter do you find yourself returning to, in your writing and reading?

I read across genres and a wide array of subject matter. I feel that opening yourself up to a myriad of possibilities allows you to make connections and that is an important part of creativity. Though I primarily write crime narratives, I love how crossing genre boundaries allows us to see the human experience from different angles, so I always try to open myself up to the possibilities a different genre can hold for what I want to say with a story. I do get obsessive – as I think all writers do – when I am working on something. Like all story ideas it usually starts with a thought, a “what if?,” which is usually followed by an excessive amount of research and a lot of living in my head – a lot of the story develops there before I ever put anything on paper. Because of my background, I find myself frequently coming back to themes of inequality and social justice. I also have morbid fascinations, which makes me deeply interested in the antagonist and the “why” of a situation as opposed to the “what” and the “how”, if that makes sense.

  • Your work frequently addresses our relationships to politics and history. Do you think this is a necessary part of writing today? Do you have any advice for navigating this space?

The society we live in, and to a great extent our identity and our experiences within that society, is a product of both history and the politics that shaped that history. I don’t think it’s possible to separate ourselves, and by extension our characters, from it. All writing doesn’t have to be a bold political statement, but having an awareness of the forces that shaped the social situation your characters find themselves in adds depth and nuance to a story. Much has been written about the power of literature to create empathy and understanding, and I want to add education to that. As humans we learn through story and I believe that creating a space in our work for readers to learn about other people’s experiences and struggles that they may not be familiar with, which in itself is political, is necessary. Maud Casey, in her book, The Art of Mystery, talks about how in our current political climate “empathy can feel like a radical act.” I think this is a good place to start. Approaching your characters, even the ones that hold controversial viewpoints, with a willingness to try to understand the forces that shaped their beliefs and motivations, opens the door to discussion. Amid all the shouting that is going on, I think discussion is a worthy goal.

  • Your book The Monster’s Daughter is set in South Africa. Can you talk about what it’s like to write about home, especially when you’re away?

The fact that I left home allowed me to be able to write about it. Sometimes you are too close to a situation to understand the forces at work, to see the bigger picture as it were. I had the experience of growing up in a country that was in the midst of political upheaval and where the cultural group I belonged to was the oppressor of other groups. I was socialized into a mindset that what was being done to others was justified. It’s the fish in water syndrome. It’s hard to understand the truth until you separate yourself from that reality and look at it from a distance. To recognize and acknowledge your role and culpability in the suffering of others is a hard thing to do, and I had to actively engage in my search for the truth through writing and researching The Monster’s Daughter. Writing became my vehicle to a deeper understanding of the forces of history and my place in it. I haven’t lived in South Africa for almost twenty years now, and visits are infrequent, so I find myself increasingly out of touch with the socio-economic forces and cultural nuances within the present-day reality of the country. I just completed a draft of my second book, which is also set in South Africa, but I doubt that I will write another unless I had the opportunity to go back for an extended period of time to immerse myself in the culture.

  • What writing projects are you working on now?

As I mentioned, I just finished a draft of my second book and I’m working on rewrites at the moment, but I have a couple of project brewing in the background and hope to start the research soon. One continues my interest in crime fiction as a vehicle for social commentary, and the other is speculative in nature and will undoubtably push me out of my comfort zone, which I find to be a very exciting prospect. Whichever one shouts loudest when I’m done with my current project will be my next obsession.

  • What do you look for in a short story collection?

Though I primarily write novels, I love reading short stories, and I’m very excited to read the submissions for this competition. Short story writing is an art form that confirms and subverts our expectations and understanding of the human condition in surprising and inventive ways. I gravitate towards work that pushes boundaries, and that challenges my understanding of the world we live in, even in subtle and understated ways.  In a collection, I look for stories that are strung together by a larger theme, or motif in the writer’s work, and how each of the stories work toward illuminating a different aspect or changes our understanding of that central idea and its effect on the characters and world of the story.

The deadline for the 2020 Blue Light Books Prize is October 31st, 2019 at 11:59 p.m. Click here to send in your submission.

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Soundscapes Folio: Special Call for Submissions!

In addition to accepting works of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction for General Submissions starting September 1, Indiana Review is calling for submissions to our SOUNDSCAPES FOLIO.

For so many of us, the idea of place is a complicated one. The occupation of space is contested, both in the physical world and in the mind. We’d like to hear you give voice to the places most difficult and dear to you. How can sound help us define a space?

For a special folio in our Summer 2020 issue, we’re calling for short stories, poems, and essays that invoke sound and place. Send us your characters who make music, or just plain noise. Make us understand a world through its sounds. Is there an important difference between natural and man-made noise? What are the sounds that invoke home, invoke you? We like weird noises, hybrid genres, thought experiments on the relationship between sound and space–we want writing that makes us hear in unexpected ways. This is your sounding board. Make some noise.

SOUNDSCAPES FOLIO SUBMISSION GUIDELINES:

General and Special Folio Submissions are open from SEPTEMBER 1 until OCTOBER 31 (11:59 p.m. EST). We will only accept submissions during this submission window.

There is a $3.00 reading fee for all non-subscribing submitters.

To be considered for publication in our Special Folio, please be sure to select “SOUNDSCAPES Folio – appropriate genre” when submitting.

You may only submit to ONE of the following: General Submissions or the Special Folio. 

Stories & Nonfiction: We consider prose of up to 8,000 words in length, and we prefer manuscripts that are double-spaced in 12-point font with numbered pages. Submissions should be formatted as .doc files.

Poems: Send only 3-6 poems per submission. Do not send more than 4 poems if longer than 3 pages each.

Translations: We welcome translations across genres. Please ensure you have the rights to the translated piece prior to submitting.

If you have been published in IR, please wait two years before submitting again.

All submitted work must be previously unpublished, which includes works posted to personal blogs, online journals or magazines, or any part of a thesis or dissertation that has been published electronically.

IR cannot consider work (other than book reviews, author interviews, or blog posts) from anyone currently or recently affiliated with Indiana University, which includes those who have studied at or worked for Indiana University within the past 4 years.

We look forward to reading your work! To submit, please click here for our Submissions page.

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MICROREVIEW: STELLA VINITCHI RADULESCU’S A CRY IN THE SNOW, TRANSLATED BY LUKE HANKINS

Review by Roxana Cazan

           A Cry in the Snow published by Seagull Books posits that the only way to navigate personal and cosmic traumas is to ponder carefully the experience of our emotion in the tranquil space of reflection, where serenity and repose allow us to “distill” our emotional experiences, as translator Luke Hankins puts it. This distillation is presented as fragmentary images that recall the past and reinvent it by chiseling the output language. The space that forms between the recalled experience of trauma and its rendering through linguistic production is a space for reflection, the “space of a cry surrounded by space surrounded by nothing” as the epigraph by Lorand Gaspar—Romanian-born Hungarian-French poet—at the very beginning of the book indicates. Vinitchi Radulescu’s intellectual approach to poetry writing situates her in the same tradition as modernist poets with the Romanian Ion Barbu, the French Arthur Rimbaud, and the American W.S. Merwin.

           “first mornings” offers such an assemblage of visual and verbal textualities that allow for the experiences evoked to be transformed and transforming:

 
at the break of dawn
juncture of the seasons    the earth warms
 
the text is read on one’s knees
 
the sea kneeling between stones
 

           The poem draws on an original experience of hurt, one that requires the speaker to undergo a transformation in order to come to terms with. The speaker needs to be reborn at the “juncture of seasons” out of the sea and into the “house of flesh” (3). This rough rebirth compares to the beginning of a war whose victory would allow the speaker to read the text on her knees, that is, to reflect upon the past with ataraxia, tasting “what is written on these lips” (3). The advancement into daylight represents a transformative moment of clarity, of maturity of vision because only when one starts “at the break of dawn,” can one eventually face one’s destiny or “meet [one’s] li[fe]” (3). The poem describes the process of arriving at revelation through an intellectual rebirth.

           Other poems conflate the idea of Bergsonian time as duration with memory which “keep[s] still” (“memory keep still”). For Vinitchi Radulescu, memory is this duration. In the poem “definition,” “the memory of the stars / conjugate insomnia of coming nights,” which is the “story of us / history in ashes” (8). In “children of the fog,” the years are “stained / black with forgetfulness” (9). In the poem with the same title, “the earth begins” with “the memory of another land / which has just left us” (11). Just as Bergson posited, the reader of Vinitchi Radulescu’s poetry is allowed to see only fragments of memory that are impossible to arrange in a full-fledged narrative tapestry. However, through intuition, the readers can grasp the contours of the image that the palimpsest of memory reveals.

           The second section of the book incorporates Vinitchi Radulescu’s poetic prose sequence Journal aux yeux fermés (Éditions du Gril, 2010), in English translation. This section takes the readers back into the poet’s childhood, in her native Romania. Vinitchi Radulescu’s poetic prose harnesses the elemental aspects of forced migration and the painful departure from home.

           If remembering begins as a fairly linear narrative, soon the speaker’s trauma breaks down into emotional fragments. We learn that “they assemble us in The Square,” “decorated in red, flags and portraits,” that “a truck has arrived during the night,” and that the speaker’s friend “looks at me, the faceless woman, I can sense it, but I can’t see her eyes… She’s moving away. I want to get closer to her, or at least for her to speak to me….I realize I’m the one moving away, I’m taking steps, huge steps in the other direction” (52-53). The readers also learn that “this is my distant childhood. We had to cross a river, someone took me in their arms,” and that “I’ve just come home from school, I’m running, soaked, especially my shoes. What will I wear tomorrow? I make it home. The evening speeds by. Mama isn’t back yet” (52-56). The more painful the memory becomes, the more fragmentary its rendition into verse: “In black there is every color…The sun draws bars in the air through which birds enter and exit. Invisible. But I sense them. They fall… There were jonquils, and then there was a great sadness. In people’s eyes… Snow—the only whiteness of that time” (58-65). It is the poet’s job to “untangle these letters, gather them from the sand, it’s my job, I’m the one who has to do it, I know it” (57).

           The collection ends with a shorter section entitled “Fragments of Life and Death.” These poems celebrate being alive despite the obstacles and the extraordinary ability to navigate deaths, silences, and separations. Vinitchi Radulescu explains that “to write is to forgive. My poems are so proud of forgiving silences for their silence” (82). Vinitchi Radulescu’s ending poem explains that this process of writing one’s future can only happen if the narrative remains incomplete, if we “don’t finish our sentences, / sweet absences, / the trembling of vowels” (93). In that syncope alone can the future be formulated, can the hope for ongoing endurance be articulated. This silence is not sterile, but throttles rather with potential. It nurtures the bonds that keep us moored to this shore, despite hurricanes past and present.

Seagull Books, 2018. $21, 93 pages.

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MICROREVIEW: CARMEN MARIA MACHADO’S IN THE DREAM HOUSE

Review by ethan pickett

VIOLENCE  

            We are forced to consider violence every day. We are confronted by it, made to sit with its implications. We have strong ideas about who is violent and who can be violent. We pretend we know what it looks like.

            There is a dramatic shift that happens when someone we thought we loved (or could love or want to love or, unfortunately, continue to love) commits an act of violence against someone else; when we have to come to terms with the proximity of such a harsh world to our small and seemingly safe communities. I know firsthand what it feels like to lose love over a dispute none of us want to relive. To have a community violated in such a way— that is, from within— is a poignant sadness unmatched by any other. To be on the receiving end of inter-communal violence is devastating.

            These are, however, hard truths. The lack of representation that this type of brutal act sees is, in a way, demeaning to those who have been required to steep in its effects. Representation not only matters, but is vital to reaching understanding.

BUILDING

            Using bricks of association to build a house out of memory which may be confusing, but is certainly a waking nightmare. She uses the clarity of the present as a lens through which to process. She knows this is a story that needs to be told. She knows there are people that need to hear what she has to say. She knows these narratives of the past are still becoming, still filling themselves out as time passes. She knows there are still people struggling to find voice in the cacophony of social pressure, even when it can be masked as freedom. She knows all of these things as she lays her foundation and piles memory on top of it, brick by brick.

PLACEMENT

            She refuses to be tokenized, to be used as a representative for a whole, to be the archetype. She asserts herself as a person with something to say. Someone whose story can help other people understand. Someone who has empathy, complicated relationships with people and with memory, and a comprehension of her own placement in the world. She is not a symbol.

VOCABULARY

            You are stunned by the beauty and the simplicity existing simultaneously, and that’s just in the words. More, you are placed in this moment from the very beginning where you are asked to consider the mere existence of a text such as this one in “How do we right the wronged people of the past without physical evidence of their suffering?” that comes along in a string of questions begging you to understand what the implications of this work might be.

            You are impressed by the clear-eyed confrontation of social inferences and willingness to combat those pressures, screaming unabashedly about queerness, finally investing in “helping queer folks understand what their experiences mean.” You feel a movement away from—in Machado’s words—the eternal liminality of queer women. You see the doors open.

VISIBILITY

            You wonder about the ways such an exact fear can be captured. You learn how to walk with the weight of memory hanging from your limbs, making each movement an exercise. You learn about the origins of the gaslight, about abuse scholarship, about queer trauma. You’re being educated while your heart is breaking. It is a rare feeling.

            You sit on the floor of a house—much like the one you’ve been invited into by the pages of the book you may or may not feel qualified to read—which happens to be in the same midwestern college town, while pursuing the same dream as the one in this memoir you are poring over that feels so close to your own memory, but offering new perspective in identity. You cry. The tears come not because it hurts (it does), but because you feel so seen. This was made for you out of necessity.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf Press, 2019)

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MICROREVIEW: CHRIS DOMBROWSKI’S RAGGED ANTHEM

Review by Noah Davis

            In Chris Dombrowski’s latest poetry collection, Ragged Anthem, the poet asks America what song it now sings, examining the raw issues of towns staggering toward extinction, places where the flag was once stitched in factories before being drawn up the pole at the town square. Wrapped in these broader questions, however, is the pressing matter of who we return to, who we share our bed with, our home with. For this reason many of the poems include the poet’s wife and children, and in their faces the nation’s troubles and concerns are reflected.

            While writing this book Dombrowski lived in two places: his birth state of Michigan and his long-adopted home of Montana, both are in regions where neglect created the ache of fear and obsolescence in the citizenry.

In his poem, “Bull Elk in October River,” the reader listens to his confession

 
My own worry
remained vague though it tracked me
through winter, constant as current, though I had no name
for it, perhaps because I had no name for it.

Without the ability to name the thing that stalks him, the poet is left as prey, taking to the banks of rivers, to the brush country of upland Montana, to the pressures of debt and parenthood and the possibility of failure.

            While many of the narratives in the book are firmly situated in the human world, Dombrowski—a renowned fly-fishing guide who lives deliberately in concert with the natural world—argues that the primacy of natural selection, the predator-prey relationship is the very foundation of our existence, although most contemporary humans willfully ignore it or are simply ignorant of it.

            The poet not only suggests that fear is a natural reaction, a healthy response that keeps us and so many other species alive, but that we may also find balance, an ever-shifting center, in this very space. The closing lines of the poem “Bird in My Boot” highlights the need for humans to remember our most basic selves:

masked eyes looking past
my human to the one that aches to survive—
it lit ultimately in a blur of gray-orange,
leaving its mark to billow as it disappeared
into that country owned by the winged,
upon whose constant intercession I depend.

            Living in the shifting world of climate change, an alteration of the natural cycles that has sent much of the world into a state of anxiety and shock, Dombrowski replies to the question of “What will come next?” through his children. Whether it be the empathy his son displays toward a pheasant the family plans to eat: “I’m sorry. But as a runner I cannot cut the legs / from another animal”, or his youngest daughter saying the word “moon” for the first time as they walk together, alone on the shores of Lake Michigan, it is the possible intimacy with other humans and the more-than-human world, the possible transformations that such intimacy might provide, that offers a negotiated hope for the poet.

            Despite his deep devotion to nature, Dombrowski does not ignore human culture. An array of contemporary musicians, including Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, and Jeffrey Foucault, make appearances in person or in quoted lyrics. This dialogue with popular music creates an intertextual conversation that ranges from the poet sending a text to his friend Jeffrey Foucault as he hunts snow geese, to the borrowing of Bruce Cockburn’s arresting line, “Like a pearl in a sea of liquid jade,” as a title to introduce Christ walking on water.

            The closing poem, “Tablet,” is one of instruction and direction, affirming a path toward wholeness and transcendence. Yet the transcendence of which the poet speaks is not a leaving of the material world but a further immersion into it. “[R]est your cheek on the shoulder of the mountain,” the poet says. Go and pick the last apple from a tree near the river and “eat it in three / juice-spilling bites.” Like a Bitterroot Mountain Moses, the poet has come down from the mountains and written a series of commands on a tablet. But rather than a collection of prohibitions, Dombrowski encourages his reader to embrace the sumptuous bounty of this world: to catch a brook trout and cook and eat it, to feed the few remains to the ants, to climb “into / the small boat of those remaining bones, / fold yourself. Then row.”

Wayne State University Press, 2019. $16.99, 67 pages.