I made a list of my top ten books from the slipstream for the Red Bridge Press blog. It’s totally subjective and might be different on any given day, but all of these books are fabulous and have had major influence on me as a writer and a human being.
I am now the Managing Editor at a new small press, Red Bridge Press, based in San Francisco, CA.
We’ve launched with a call for submissions for an anthology of writing that risks (deadline: October 31, 2012), and we will open for book-length submissions in winter 2013.
After publishing the franco-american ‘zine Louis Liard for six years, I took several years off from publishing. I’m excited to be back at it, working with Liana Holmberg to develop a new publishing model using social networking and new technologies to create a great experience for both authors and readers.
Red Bridge Press publishes books that take risks for readers who want to be surprised, delighted, and challenged. Join us!
Today, June 5, is the Transit of Venus, a celestial event that occurs only twice a century, when the planet Venus passes directly between the Sun and the Earth. Each century, two transits occur as a pair separated by 8 years. The last one took place on June 8, 2004, and after today’s transit, there will not be another until 2117. (The Exploratorium has a great site devoted to the Transit of Venus, and they’re webcasting it live from Hawaii today).
My women’s a cappella choir, Conspiracy of Venus, organized our end-of-the-season show at The Makeout Room in San Francisco this past Saturday, June 2, around the Transit of Venus – since we are, after all, named after the same diety as the planet. I was asked by my choir-mates to write a “mythology” for us surrounding the Transit. We staged a pageant in which members of the choir acted out the story as I read it aloud. The evening also included a performative interpretation of The Birth of Venus by the fabulous Ginger Murray, Founding Editor of Whore! Magazine, as well as a performance by the Lemon Twist Drill Team, a set by Carlos Forster, Mike Coykendall, and Kelly Bauman, and, of course, a full set by Conspiracy of Venus.
This was a wonderful evening to be involved in, and it was a good occasion for a fun writing assignment, which I post here for your enjoyment:
The Transit of Venus – An Irreverent Mythology
Welcome, friends, to the Celebration of the Transit of Venus, the highest of Venusian high holy days – after, of course, the Birth of Venus. The Transit of Venus occurs twice every century, as a pair of events eight years apart. We celebrated the first transit of this century eight years ago, when Venus made her first pass between Earth and the Sun. Tonight, we gather to celebrate the culmination of the holiday, when Venus again travels between Earth and the Sun, by retelling the story of the first Transit, as our mothers told us and their mothers told them and so on back into the ages before recorded history.
As legend has it, the peace-loving residents of Venus loved gardening, playing with children, throwing potlucks, deriving equations from the spirals in snail shells, inventing mythologies to explain their place in the universe, and making music. These Venusians were eager to catch a glimpse of their closest celestial neighbors as the first Transit of Venus drew near. Many of them gathered to make the beautiful, ethereal music with their voices for which Venusians are famed all throughout the galaxy, as a gift to the Earthlings.
Venus began her passage with a dance, shaking her hips, trailing ribbons of brightly colored gases, putting on a celestial show that reflected the joyous lives of her inhabitants. The Venusians looked down in great anticipation at the Earth. To their surprise and dismay, they saw a scarred, polluted planet. Worse, the Earthlings were not even looking up at Venus, because they were too busy killing each other. Even worse, no music came from Earth. The Venusians shuddered in horror.
In the eight years between that first transit and the second, the Venusians feared that the violent Earthlings might plan to blow Venus straight out of the sky with a giant killing machine on her second pass. The day of the second crossing, some Venusians hid in their basements or in specially built shelters. Some gathered in groups to prepare for the annihilation. But most simply strained to get a glimpse of what was going on down there on Earth. As Earth came into their line of sight, the anxious Venusians saw that, while some Earthlings were still pillaging the planet and killing each other, many, many more were doing something they had learned during Venus’s previous passage: they were making music. What’s more, they had invented something new by setting words to music, which had never been done on Venus. The Earthlings were so excited to communicate with their neighbors that they had even made signs in honor of the Transit of Venus. Astronomers held diagrams detailing what they’d learned about the solar system from observing the first Transit. Painters held up lovely likenesses of their neighboring planet. Children raised their hands and waved. “They did notice us last time!” exclaimed the Venusians, and waved back enthusiastically. The wise old women simply smiled and said nothing. And everyone rejoiced.
So every century, as the two planets observe each other under the Sun’s benevolent beaming gaze, we celebrate the power of music to keep violence at bay, to bring out our better selves, and to unite people across cultures, languages, and some 261 million kilometers of space. In honor of this sacred day, we have prepared a special performance of songs with words by some of Earth’s greatest songwriters – performed with decidedly Venusian flair – to celebrate the art we have created together in the spirit of peace and interstellar understanding.
It’s a joy to discover a writer I’ve never heard of, especially a woman who lived, adventured, and wrote over 100 years ago, whose voice speaks today with the immediacy of a living breathing person. Browsing in a used bookstore over the weekend, my eye was caught by a slim, battered volume published by City Lights in 1972: The Oblivion Seekers by Isabelle Eberhardt, translated from French by Paul Bowles. The cover image is a black-and-white photo of an Arab man and woman walking down an old street in North Africa. A quick glance at the preface told me that Eberhardt was a Russian Moslem born (1877) and raised in Switzerland, who spent her adult life traveling through North Africa in male garb and writing stories and articles about what she saw. She was killed in a flash flood in 1904. And Paul Bowles had translated this volume? I was sold.
I have to admit that I don’t read many texts written before the 20th century, and most things I read were written post-1920’s. So I wasn’t sure that Eberhardt’s writing would be my cup of tea. But I plunged into the small book and ate it up within two days, transported to another world seen through eyes whose gaze felt contemporary. The collected stories in The Oblivion Seekers are short and have a modernist flavor that seems ahead of its time. Some of that may be Bowles’ translation, but I suspect that a lot of it is Eberhardt’s original style: spare, tight sentences that deliver lush descriptions reminiscent of Hemingway (I couldn’t help but recall the opening line of A Moveable Feast – “And then the rains came” – when I read the opening sentence of Eberhardt’s story The Rival: “One morning the melancholy rain ceased to fall,”) but with a decidedly female weight to them: “The pale wheat, the brown barley, lie piled on the earth’s flanks, and the earth herself lies back, exhausted by her labor pains,” she writes in the opening story of the volume, Outside. The precision and economy of Eberhardt’s language lend these stories a timeless, almost fabular feel, while transporting the reader to another world in vivid detail.
I love fiction’s ability to engage the reader in historical or current events in a way that critical writing can’t. This small collection of stories tells us more about French colonial Algeria than a lengthy history would, because it transports us directly into the skins and lives of people – both Arab and European – navigating its shifting sands. The story “The Criminal,” only a few pages long, can be read as an analysis of the still-present tension between a colonizing power and the native culture. The tensions between European and Arab are portrayed simply but subtly and one feels, reading these stories and having lived in France for years, that not much has been overcome in the last century.
Eberhardt was a Moslem and loved the Arab cultures in which she made her home, but her perspective is not uncritical of her adopted land. The writer’s stance itself is problematic, because she traveled through Algeria and Tunisia dressed as a man, thus gaining access to places and experiences that were denied the women in their own culture; for example, she became initiated into the Sufi cult of the Qadriya, reserved for men. Eberhardt’s gender bending also makes her interesting from a contemporary standpoint; while passing as a man allowed her the life of freedom and adventure she longed for, it was her father who imposed boy’s clothing on her from a young age and had her pass as male in public. Whether her adoption of male garb and mannerisms is read as simply another oppressive role imposed upon her by the patriarchy, or as a liberating choice made by Eberhardt herself (and the reality was probably a little bit of both), her position as an outsider – or rather, as a dweller of the liminal space between definitions – man and woman, European and Arab – allows Eberhardt a critical distance from both the European and Arab cultures that infuses her writing with the tension that makes good fiction.
While Eberhardt’s heart seems firmly grounded in her adopted Arab culture and religion, she is critical of its gender roles; the short story “Achoura” tells a tragic tale of an Algerian woman who refuses to conform to her society’s expectations. Eberhardt takes a matter-of-fact tone about the social oppression of her female character that resonates with the contemporary reader: “Locked into the house, and bored with an existence she should never have had to undergo, Achoura suffered the pain that comes with longing for freedom,” she writes of her character’s life after she is married off, according to custom, at a young age to an older man. Achoura goes on to seek freedom on her own, and suffers for it, but ultimately remains free.
The theme of freedom and self-liberation is the one that comes through most in these stories, and it is undoubtedly why I love them. Eberhardt, a wanderer who traveled alone in the desert and visited war zones, writes about the intellectual and emotional freedom that can be achieved when one un-tethers herself from society’s expectations. Her staunch resistance to the shackles of either of her societies, her need to see and describe the world for herself, her insistence on total freedom, prefigures writers like Virginia Woolf and Hélène Cixous, who have carved out rooms in which we may dwell, and openings in the ceiling through which we may fly to our freedom. As a contemporary read, Eberhardt’s writings can be seen as a manifesto for personal freedom, whether from the shackles of sexism, colonialism, or internalized oppression.
Her voice comes to me through the years, beckons me to the adventure of free thought and imagination: “Long and white, the road twists like a snake toward the far-off blue places, toward the bright edges of the earth.” And I set my feet to that road to walk another day, with one more traveling companion in my book bag.
Here is the piece, which is an excerpt from “Restless Before Migration,” my novel-in-progress:
I’ll go down to the Saloon tonight, despite the fact that I don’t feel like drinking, and even though Jenny and Amanda are staying home. There are rumors that the Outlaw Wingless Mick has been sighted in these parts, putting both winged and wingless alike on edge. Jenny implores me not to go out, calls me foolish, and I tell her, like the tragic heroine of some old-time story, Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. No one will notice if one more wingless girl goes missing.
I’m going to the Saloon to see you play guitar in the mariachi band that hit town six months ago and still hasn’t left. And you’ll be magnificent in spite of the ridiculous costume, the tassels that jiggle on your chest as your hips move in time with your strumming, wings furled ever so slightly to frame your lithe, dark body. You’ll have a smile for me, and maybe a wink while you play, and some kind words between sets as you grimace down a whiskey, straight up.
You’ll eventually blow town with the band, when the bandits start really closing in, or just when the winter calls you south. Tonight you’ll partner some dark-eyed beauty on the dance floor, flirt wing-to-wing as she perfectly anticipates your every move. She’ll be at home in her body as you are in yours; you whom I spied flying hoops just outside town, in spite of the danger of enemy arrows; you who celebrate the miracle of your body with each gesture: your muscles sing.
I know my going to the Saloon is silly, bound as I am to the ground, clumsy with the missing weight, daring not to wear bare-back dresses like she can, ashamed of the scars incurred when I was a child: my parents were starving. I don’t harbor any illusions about you thinking our afternoon conversations in the cornfields can replace the body’s grace, nor do I believe you might ask me to dance. In any case, I don’t dance, unbalanced as I am, though my fibers, too, long to stretch, to feel the weight of the music animate them. My body, too, secretly desires to give flight to some awkward expression of inner grace; my body too secretly desires, and desires much.
But I don’t dance, except for my eyes as they follow you, dancing.