Damp & splotchy


The splotchy thing above is a detail from a finger-painting my son did. He has no idea he created it. He just made it and brought it home from school before disappearing beneath a pile of Legos. I pinned the painting up by my desk at work and there it hung for many months until I noticed the intricate webbings inside the mess, and snapped a photo last week. Not sure why, and I’m probably overthinking it a bit, but it feels like I’m supposed to learn something from that somehow. Or not. I just like it.

Meanwhile, I was very happy in May to have two stories in The Brooklyn Rail. They are both very short stories, and appeared in print and online, so if you need a quick read, they’re on the same webpage. One is about death, and the title even says so: “Particles of Death.” The other is about love and is called “The Breath of Life.” I’m grateful to Donald Breckenridge for publishing them.

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Does reading translated novels put a twist on #readwomen2014?

I’m only reading books by women this year, and today I was wondering: How is this resolution affected by my other focus, reading translated novels?

Is it okay, that is, does it “count” as a book by a woman if the original author is a woman, but the translator is a man? And if I were to read a book translated by a woman, but the original author was a man, would that mean I’ve broken my resolution?

The answer to that for me is yes in both cases. Thus far, I’ve just been focused on the original author’s gender when choosing books by women to read. And I’m not really worried in any way, or looking for an “out” to try and read a book by a male author.

The question of this twist on my #readwomen2014 resolution is for me partly about the build-up to the reading experience. How a book is recommended: the channels it goes through to reach me, my interpretation of a book’s possibilities during the selection process, all the things I hear on Twitter, or from a publicist–these things all affect the experience before I begin to read.

Considering the translator’s gender could be another factor in the thinking that comes before we start reading a book. It’s also a way to read critically and look for bias. Though I’ve yet to concentrate on this while reading, wondering if the translator’s gender alone affects the overall quality of a translation. Though it must, in a way, when we really get down to matters of word choice and interpretations. Translators who work closely with the author can of course make sure they’re getting it as right as possible (as “right” as any translation can be), but author and translator can’t confer on every choice (or any choice, if the author is dead).

It’s interesting to consider what these things might mean to me as a reader. And there must be people out there who have fine-tuned their #readowomen2014 resolution to include, where translations are concerned, only books where both the author and the translator are women.

A few thoughts on #MyWritingProcess

Last week Kateywrites kindly invited me to take part in the ongoing discussions people are having about #mywritingprocess, answering four questions about themselves and their work. I’m still new to blogging and I’ve never written about this sort of thing before, but wanted to give it a shot. So here are my answers. Thanks for reading, and be sure to check out Katey’s writing at the link above!

1. What am I working on?

I’m at work on a novel called “The Designer,” based on this short story published last year by Corium Magazine. It’s about three friends who, at age 40, decide to leave San Francisco and move to Berlin using money they inherited after the death of their parents. It’s about love, expats, mirror-writing, art, grief, translation, and mysterious party guests.

In nonfiction, I’m working on an experimental review for the Irish literary magazine, gorse. Experimental how? It continues the narrative begun here at 3:AM Magazine last year. I’m also working on a review about Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My fiction tends to include fantastic or improbable elements in order to create an original story and try to put characters in situations that show human behavior in a new light. A perfect novel to me would be a blend of Tove Jansson, Virginia Woolf, and Amelie Nothomb.

In nonfiction, I’m devoted to the #readwomen2014 movement (which I discuss a little bit in this article for The Guardian). So I’m only reading and reviewing books by women in 2014. As a literary critic, I’ve been focused on translated literature for a while now, and I tend to like shorter, more experimental books or novellas. By choosing these kinds of books it definitely affects the tone and tenor of my criticism, as an attempt to look at sexism both in publishing and society.

3. Why do I write what I do?

This novel is definitely based in part on my interest in travel and art and displacement, which crosses over into personal territory as well: grief, anxiety, friendships, hope through creativity, and more. My reviews are part of an effort to celebrate translated literature, of which little is published in the U.S., and add something to the broader discussion about literary culture. This effort tends to keep me focused on small presses and independent presses. And focusing on books by women, deliberately ignoring the mass media coverage that tends to tout books by men, I hope to write about authors I might not otherwise discover.

4. How does my writing process work?

I like writing in the morning, but will use any free moment I can get. I do most first drafts and note-taking by hand. There’s something about putting ink on paper by hand that is still very magical for me. Then I type things up to read and edit on-screen, but will still print things out and scribble them up by hand as stories develop. I find taking a red pen to a printed document lets me distance myself from the work, reading things out loud, hearing how certain passage resonate within the whole idea of where a story or review is heading.

Since I have a toddler, work full-time, and edit a section of the translation journal, Asymptote, I rely on small bits of time to keep my short stories, reviews, and the novel moving ahead. I try (and usually succeed) not to get too anxious or upset when it feels like I don’t have large blocks of time to write like I used to. If I get a little window to work I’ll tinker with an outline or revise a couple pages of something, or re-read an important chapter in a book I’m reviewing. Those small things add up and overlap: research for a novel will illuminate things for me in my criticism, and revising part of a short story can give me a better appreciation of what I see other writers trying to accomplish. So I guess I like having multiple projects going on at once, though it does feel overwhelming at times. Taking a day off from writing is very nice, too. Just reading or getting away from words altogether. Being a father, husband, and taking care of an old rowhouse in West Philly provide plenty of chances to get away from all that!

Many thanks again to Katey for telling me about this and inviting me to participate! Here’s a link to her post about #mywritingprocess.

Asymptote in Philadelphia

On March 29, I hosted the first-ever Asymptote event in Philadelphia. It was part of the journal’s worldwide celebration for its third anniversary and a large and enthusiastic crowd braved the rain on a Saturday night, making for a wonderful time at the Asian Arts Initiative.

Thanks to everyone who attended, and the four readers and musical guest who donated their time! Special thanks to Ann Tetreault of The Spiral Bookcase who did a superb job organizing books sales at the event.


Author Hilary Plum (They Dragged Them Through the Streets) read a poem by Kym Hyesoon, “My Free Market” (trans. Don Mee Choi), and a new piece of her own fiction, “Cage.”


Author Ken Kalfus (Equilateral, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies) read in Russian and English a poem by Aleksey Porvin, “A Dark House is Quietly Collapsing” (trans. J. Kates), and from his short story, “Coup de Foudre,” which appears in the April issue of Harper’s.

Seven members of The Philadelphia Women’s Slavic Ensemble sang three songs from Bulgaria and one from Croatia. It was stunning!


Author Katherine Hill read an excerpt from Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva (trans. Stefan Tobler), and from her novel, The Violet Hour.

Translator Vincent Kling read a series of excerpts from his 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize-winning translation of the late Swiss author Aglaja Veteranyi’s novel, Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta. (Kling’s translation of Heimito von Doderer’s Die Strudlhofstiege is forthcoming from New York Review Books.)

Ann Tetreault, right, of The Spiral Bookcase provided books by all four authors who appeared at the event.

A focus for 2014: My reading resolution

This is my first post. New year, new things! And to start things off I’m actually going to repeat myself: My reading resolution for 2014 is to read only books by women.

I wrote about this on Dec. 30, 2013, at Asymptote’s blog. A snippet:

A couple of weeks ago I was looking for a book at home and my eyes kept being drawn to big books: 2666, The Emperor of Lies, Ulysses, The Satanic Verses, Stone Upon Stone. Thick books with titles and author names in large font—and I noticed all by men. And what about women? I’d studied literature, helped judge the Best Translated Book Award a couple times, and I review books, so I assumed I had lots of big books, a good balance of literary work by everyone from everywhere. In a few minutes’ time though I counted eighteen big, 500-plus-page books by men and just one by a woman: Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.

The post at Asymptote links to similar writing projects and since it was published Joanna Walsh created the #readwomen2014 hashtag. Read her essay about it here.

Welcome to the blog! Curious to see where this goes.