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INTERVIEW WITH 2020 CREATIVE NONFICTION PRIZE JUDGE, BASSEY IKPI

Indiana Review is accepting submissions for the Creative Nonfiction Prize until October 31st, 2020! In this interview with 2020 judge Bassey Ikpi, Nonfiction Editor El Williams invites her to talk about literary techniques and influences in her essay collection, I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying, and what excites her about creative nonfiction.

New York Times Best Selling author Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian-American, ex-poet, current writer, constant mental health advocate, underachieving overachiever and memoir procrastinator. She lives in Maryland and is working on various creative projects.

In your book, I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying, the POV switches from essay to essay, oftentimes changing from first to second person perspective in a single piece: What power do you feel shifting POV has on a reader’s imagination or emotional response?

I think it does a few things depending on the story being told and why: some of the stories needed to feel immersive. I wanted the audience to live in the experience with me. I also wanted them to be able to activate empathy by placing them as close to the experience as I could. There are essays where I’ve been told that the reader was exhausted after a certain point and, yes, I too was exhausted living it. I want you to know what it feels like for people who live lives with this longer than just between the pages of a book.  It also gives me the opportunity to tell a full story based on how I see it. For instance, I needed to tell the story as completely as I could. In the writing, I found myself telling myself the same lies and half-truths I’d always told myself, so giving myself permission to distance helped tell a fuller story. There were times when in the middle of the writing, a part of me would say, “You forgot to mention how…” and rather than editing those out or rewriting them once they were written, I kept them.  I would love to say that it was more deliberate than that but it wasn’t. Many of those essays were born out of free writes in the moment; me needing to find some grounding and centering as I was experiencing anxiety or insomnia or what have you. But once I saw how effective it was, I gave myself permission to write as it came instead of worry about making it standard. The plan was always to go back and change the tense and clean up the pronouns and make it look “normal,” but I tried to do that and it changed everything about what I wanted. It just didn’t work and it would have been a lesser book had I done that. 

Which writers inspire you and what does their work teach you?

A lot of writers inspire me, for this book: 

Lorrie Moore taught me how to tell a short story. 

Melissa Febos taught me that poetry can live in prose. She taught me that the truth can be told both unvarnished and beautifully carved. She taught me to tell the truth but edit with kindness. Melissa taught me about freedom in writing.

Megan Stielstra taught me that the “ending” of a sentence or a paragraph or a book didn’t need to be smooth. That a thought, or an emotion, can hang and sit with the reader while the writing has moved on. It was because of her book that I didn’t feel the need to write the “last essay.” I left when I was done and with the idea that there is more to the story than fits in the pages.

J. California Cooper taught me about beauty in brevity. She taught me that some of the most impactful moments can be contained in just a few short sentences.

Ntozake Shange taught me that my two loves, writing and dance, were lovers and I could have them both.

Toni Morrison taught me to write for myself and for my people. No matter who those people are.

Nana-Ama Danquah taught me about telling the truth despite the fear. Telling your story for the sake of the story and nothing else.

Kiese Laymon taught me to be fearless. He gave me permission to write the story ugly.

Many people taught me many things. I’ve learned a lot from a lot of people but these are what came to my mind when I read this question. I’m sure I’ll think of about 95 other people tomorrow and want to edit this. 

While reading creative nonfiction, what excites you the most and why?

Beautifully crafted sentences and brilliant, or clever, turns of phrases that take a moment I’ve experienced many times and turn it on it’s side, exposing something I’ve never seen. Or when I read something and say, “I didn’t know how to say that. I didn’t know what that was until I read it.” I love feeling like the author is showing me something that I forgot to look at. I love having my breath catch or escape with worry or compassion or anger or frustration. I want to live in it with the writer. I want to read something beautiful and ugly and authentic and lived in. 

I know your collection of essays was published last year and is still fresh, but what’s next for you or what are you most excited for that is happening in the near future?

I’ll be honest, I didn’t enjoy the publishing process or anything that came after it. It made me very tense so I’m not in any rush or hurry to write another book. I think this was the book I was meant to write and I don’t have much else to say. I couldn’t be happier with what I wrote and I think it’s okay to let it live.

I did enjoy recording the audiobook so I’m going to be doing some more around that later.

I can’t say too much about some of the other things but I’m excited to see what other shape this book can take. 

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What We’re Reading: Summer Spotlight

Summertime is all about kicking back in the warm sunshine with a good book to revisit lost worlds, meet new faces, and let nostalgia carry you through the afternoon. At least, that’s what the IR staff thinks! Here’s what we’re currently reading (when we aren’t reading your splendid 1/2 K Prize submissions, of course):

Alberto Sveum, Editor-In-Chief:

A couple years back, I had Paul Beatty’s The Sellout assigned in one of my courses, and I have not stopped thinking about it since. Lately I have been getting into an earlier one of Beatty’s, The White Boy Shuffle, which follows Gunnar Kaufman, the “reluctant messiah” in Hillside California. This is a book, an author, whose settings, characters, and dialogue are masterfully comic and ridiculous, and the 25 years since this book came out have only affirmed how astute and relevant Beatty’s witticisms on class, race, and culture remain.

Shreya Fadia, Associate Editor:

Lately, I’ve been craving truly immersive worlds, the sorts of books you can get lost in, in that flashlight under the covers, middle of summer, cicadas buzzing and glass of iced tea within arm’s reach kind of way. But I’ve also been struggling to commit to any one story, and certainly not to a whole novel. R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days and T. Kingfisher’s Jackalope Wives and Other Stories have managed to thread both needles. Narayan’s fictional Malgudi and its inhabitants are rendered honestly but tenderly, and in terms of craft, these stories are models of concision. As for Jackalope Wives, the collection (especially the title story) has just the right balance of strange and creepy and funny and magical and visually rich. Next on the list? If my attention span is up to the challenge, probably N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, and if not, Tananarive Due’s Ghost Summer: Stories.

Morgan Heck, Prize Intern:

I recently finished reading Maya Angelou’s first autobiography in a series of seven, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Since its publication in 1969, it has continued to endure and inspire. Angelou’s descriptions of her childhood are poetic, yet direct; painful, yet packed with strength and hope for a better, more just tomorrow. Her own experiences give a voice to the tragedies—racism, rape, etc.— and triumphs—liberation, self-discovery, etc.—many Black children have shared throughout American history. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a celebration of Blackness, of family, of dignity. Despite the trauma and hardships Angelou faces in her youth, she overcomes.

“We were on top again. As always, again. We survived. The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls” (184).

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Announcing the 2020 Poetry Prize Winner

We are excited to announce the winner and runners-up of the 2020 Poetry Prize, judged by Javier Zamora. Many thanks to everyone who submitted their work and made this year’s prizes possible!

2020 Poetry Prize Winner

“I Looked At You and I Said Yes” by Wo Chan

Javier Zamora says, “What draws me into a poem is tension, the very first opportunity for such tension being the space between title and first line, and then, first line to second line, moving all the way down the page. Sometimes I call this speed, force, duende. When you couple this tension/speed with surprise (be it in language, content, form, etc.), then, you have achieved something that the best works of art do: spark multiple emotions we didn’t know we had, or we weren’t aware we had, or, we weren’t aware we hid them.

‘I Looked At You and I Said Yes’ sparked so many emotions in me that I didn’t know what to do with their juxtaposition. Part Elegy, part Ode, part just shooting the shit, and throughout it, a confession of love, humanity, friendship. I smiled, I nodded, I frowned, shook my head, almost cried. The deeper I dug into the poem, the more it revealed the hardships, the fucked-upness of the world we live under. Let this poem be the beginning of some sort of change. Change we all know we need, especially now. Change some of us have known we needed for years.”

Runners-Up

“Corpse Pose” by Rachel Galvin

“HORS_” by Day Heisinger-Nixon

Finalists

Marissa Davis

Karstin Hale

Ae Hee Lee

Parker O’Connor

Clare Paniccia

Daniel Schonning

Stella Yin-Yin Wong

The winner will be published in the Winter 2020 issue of Indiana Review.

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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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.