Maggie Smith’s poems speak of the dangers and beauty, the tragedy and sadness, and the unforgiving joys of the world. Her poems recall the past with reflection and nostalgia, while looking through a fierce lens at the present and hoping wildly for a future, with nuance and precision and the kind of rhythmic breath that runs down a spine. And they call for attention, serious attention, to the proximity of perils, hopes, fears, dreams, desperation, lost girls, unclassified stars, motherhood, home, nature, and death. Shaping her collections to deliver warnings and reminders, memories and re-imagined myths and fairy tales, Smith constructs dwellings from her words, spaces originating in nature, in domestic life, and then shakes out their meanings so that we understand so much more than the words ever intended.
The stories of Seth Borgen’s debut collection “If I Die in Ohio” (New American Press, 2019), winner of the 2017 New American Press Fiction Prize, are stretched with strands of humor and sadness that surprise, that leap about, leaving the reader laughing, sighing, nearly crying, and then laughing all over again. One moment J.D. Salinger—humor edged with something quirky, unsettling, even tragic—and the next moment Eudora Welty—precision and sleight of hand balanced with a situation of unease, all lakeside on a summer’s day—the writing calls out and creates compassion and understanding. It becomes clear that no one else but this author could’ve written these characters, assigned their different measures of vulnerability and daring and kindness and confusion, as well as their circumstances. There are stylistic notes here that might recall previous writers, but in the writing they have shifted into a new narrative approach, one that is distinctive and bold. Endings become beginnings; men who have nothing in common have everything in common; borders crossed lead to a love that was there all along; the realization that what is feared lost was lost long ago. With this collection come stories that beckon and tease, that persuade and enlighten. To read them is to be astonished.
In his short story collection “Sweet and Low” (Blue Rider/Penguin, 2019), Nick White writes of love, trouble, family ties, and queerness, all wrapped in the heartbreak and lyricism of country songs and storytelling. Set mostly in the small towns and farmlands of Mississippi’s hill country and wide-open delta, these tales are layered with the language of the South and its complicated structures of masculinity. The reader finds herself inside a modern version of Southern Gothic, the softness of the stories here turning crystalline and then hard and brittle, as the characters contend with each other, their endings and outcomes always unexpected.
Award-winning fiction writer, food writer, freelance writer, and copy editor, Sherrie Flick is the author most recently of the short story collection “Whiskey, Etc.” (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2016). Gardens, women, and music made wild; places and prospects made uncomfortable, but where one wants to linger; pie and tea and bourbon; cruel women who like men, but prefer solitude; dogs and cats and possums; moments, moods, couples, desire, and loneliness—these and more infuse energy and attitude into the 57 stories of “Whiskey, Etc.”
Margo Orlando Littell
Margo Orlando Littell’s debut novel, “Each Vagabond by Name,” is an Appalachian tale of longing and loss, belonging and isolation, desperation and deliverance. Its characters confess the truth of life in the small coalmining town of Shelk, Pennsylvania, their simple, hardworking existence threatened by a band of thieves who have pitched camp in the nearby hills. Zaccariah Ramsy, Vietnam veteran and local bar owner, and Stella Vale, librarian and Ramsy’s once-and-eventual lover, establish the novel’s tone as townspeople who remain outside the spoken and unspoken rules of what it is to belong and not belong.
Winner of the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, Anne Raeff’s “The Jungle around Us” is a collection, honest and rare, its quietude and intimacy leading to unspoken, unforgotten places where insects roar, sirens sound, and “scratchy, old 78s” play. It is clear the author cares deeply about the characters in these stories. To read this collection is to be immersed in their lives, to become caught up in their thoughts and actions, their climates and countries, their memories and dreams.
I'm thinking about dance, music, and writing these days. A year has passed since last reading and thinking on the words of Zadie Smith, and in this leap year, on this leap day, Zadie reappears. And she is leaping and dancing toward a new novel.
From The Guardian:
Swing Time is “a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them”, said Hamish Hamilton [ZS's publisher]. Set in north-west London and west Africa, it will follow the lives of two girls who both want to become dancers, but only one of whom has talent.“The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early 20s, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either,” said Hamish Hamilton, which described the novel as “dazzlingly energetic and deeply human”.
In the last moments of this gifted day that comes every four years, I'm grateful for Zadie Smith's take on the world, her leaps from here to there, resting in heightened realism, in multiple viewpoints and urban, racial, and social class differences, and in the rhythms and rituals that bring us together.
Recently, I've been flat out, seriously prone, lying on the day bed in my study with a mess of old lit journals and poetry collections and trashy mags. So, yes, I've been reading a lot, grabbing whatever I can reach, mostly the old New Yorkers and Oxford Americans strewn around the room. And that's how I came across a Winter 2013 New Yorker issue that was marked to Zadie Smith's story "The Embassy of Cambodia." The story involves Fatou, an Ivory Coast immigrant who works for a well-off Pakistani family in London's Willesden suburb and becomes curious about what - beyond the never-ending badminton game, shuttlecock continuously in motion - goes on behind the high brick walls of the Cambodian Embassy. Structured in 21 parts, the story, as Smith states in her "This Week in Fiction" interview with Cressida Treyshon, "is scored like a badminton game" and considers the idea of how "people win and lose in life."
The story reminds me of why I love Zadie Smith's writing: her aesthetic, her brilliantly honest characters, and her ability to paint the London world she loves to revisit with strokes that don't prettify and cover the truth, but uncover and examine it. In the interview she speaks of the origins of this particular piece and of how, when she's writing, "everything is basically spontaneous… I have a vague idea one day… sometimes a tone, or a single image." Within a smaller world, the curiosity about a wider one can open up the writing, creating something expansive for the characters involved. This question of how her characters reach beyond their own scope of understanding reveals how Smith strives for "imperfect knowledge" in her fictional worlds.
How incredible to read this, even in my seemingly endless horizontal state, to understand once more - this time through the words of an author from whom I continue to learn - the true responsibility of the writer. To get the words down; to create characters that ring true and have as many imperfections as, say, you or I; and to follow those characters into the unfolding story.
To write freely.