Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


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Help save Volumes Bookcafe

If you’re feeling generous, or you’re one of those actually benefiting from the pandemic, wondering how best to share your resources with those in need, I hope you’ll consider donating to Volumes Bookcafe. Click here to access their GoFundMe page.

Volumes holds a unique place in Chicago’s cultural scene. Situated in the heart of Wicker Park, only blocks from Nelson’ Algren’s former home, the bookstore sprung up to become, virtually overnight, an institution in Chicago’s literary community. Bookish but not highbrow, nerdy but not lame, Volumes welcomes absolutely everyone, and sells books, beers, pens, magnets, puzzles or muffins to suit virtually every taste.

When independent publishers Tortoise Books picked up my novel, The Fugue, back in 2016, I faced the daunting task of marketing it with virtually no budget, few leads and limited knowledge of marketing or salesmanship. I looked at a map of Chicago’s bookstores, and decided to walk in to each one to talk about holding some event, or leaving books on consignment.

A lot of bookstores in Chicago aid writers of all stripes. However, the support I received from Volumes was particular in its warmth and openness. They did not look at me like a  formal business partner, or a token that allowed them to claim support for small artists. Because their goal was to create community and foster cultural activity, Volumes welcomed me to a space that felt nothing short of family, and allowed me to access readers I never would have reached without their help. They seemed unaware of how strange, even exotic their habits were. It was just the way they went about selling books.

Well, we’re at risk of losing them. Yes…we’re at risk of losing so much…but saving Volumes is a noble goal, not only for the city: tourists from around the world buy books here, drink coffee here, and feel as welcome as I did when I came to say, “Um, hi. I’m an obscure writer with holes in my pants. Can you help me?”

They helped. Let’s help them.

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Readers ask: Have you seen Joker?

In the weeks following the release of my recent memoir, Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen, three readers asked me (in different places, unaware of each other) exactly the same question: “Have you seen Joker?” These readers wondered if I identified with Arther Fleck, The Joker.

The short answer is yes, I did identify with that character. Obviously, it’s complicated, and I have a lot to say about this question. I’ll try to keep it spoiler-free.

Todd Phillips’s Joker provokes the audience to sympathize with a remorseless killer. Along the way, it considers a number of interconnected issues: income inequality, urban decay, the disintegration of personal and collective morality, the abandonment of the unfortunate, and the experience of mental illness. Socio-economically, Gotham doesn’t seem to have a middle class, just an über-class of politicians and financial sector cretins, then a massive working class of single moms, shopkeepers, random commuters and clowns. With few exceptions, most everyone is deplorable.

Arthur Fleck, the Joker, is a victim of child abuse. He suffers from a cocktail of mental illnesses. His tic is a joyless laugh that seems to hurt his body. He can barely function, even in a job—he’s a “professional” clown— that does not require him to do much besides wear a disguise. Most people abuse, berate, isolate or laugh at him.

Gotham’s citizens are exhausted from struggle but quick to sneer at others. Fleck ends up on television when a recording of his flop at an open mic is sent to a talk show. The host publicly ridicules Fleck. No one shows him any real affection. The person nicest to him, another clown, is merely civil.

The film tries to provoke a brand of sympathy that’s part of a primitive, pathological and cult-like ethos: it asks for whole acceptance of Fleck. Another filmmaker could leave us empathizing with a man who descends to madness following an abusive childhood. But Phillips either dares or invites us to feel good about Fleck’s murders.

After all, his targets are the people we love to blame: grifters, influencers, privileged douchebags, abusers and liars. His first killing of a “financial sector cretin” can pass as an act of self-defense, but subsequent murders are acts of fury against “the awful.”

Fleck asks, without any irony, why the masses care about the people he has killed. One of Fleck’s victims tries to reason with him: not everyone is awful. In the context of the film, the words ring hollow: the few characters who fit that description—a single mom and a dwarfish clown—are merely innocuous.

When Fleck tells this victim, “You’re awful,” the man says, “You don’t know the first thing about me, pal.” It’s true. The film doesn’t explore that victim to any nuance. The audience joins Fleck in ignorance.

As part of the film’s cult-like ethos, its moral system is binary: there’s a massive group of awful people fighting among themselves. Their divisions are not based on any ethic or value system; they’re merely haves and have-nots who look down on the opposite side as society’s true filth. Then there’s a microscopic group that’s withdrawn and mostly powerless. Fleck is a socially mobile character in the film, and his means is violence. When he starts killing, he moves from the latter group to the former.

He desires love and attention but feels noticed only in destruction. His “awful” targets are not just the elite: they include family members and former co-wokers. The risk the film takes is to leave things arbitrary: is Fleck a symbol representing Todd Phillips’s amoral world view, or is he a cog in an aesthetic that’s critiquing society? 

I’m not here to settle that question but to admit that, to my own discomfort, I identified with Arthur Fleck, at least to a point. While I wished he might stumble into someone who could love him, I knew only a masochist could do it. His traumas are beyond repair, certainly in this version of Gotham City.

My memoir, Relief by Execution, reveals my struggle with PTSD. While I say quite a bit there, I don’t get into a lengthy description of that moment, experienced by many who’ve suffered childhood traumas, when defense-mechanism amnesia or disassociation breaks. It’s the moment when you remember, “Oh no, that happened!” You had forgotten whatever that is; your brain pushed it away for your own good. Returning to those memories can be like stepping into a room you always knew was in the house but never bothered entering. You find the thing that should never have been found, so it paralyzes you.

That’s the mild version of this experience, of course, because it can also be like turning a corner on a familiar neighborhood street to get assaulted by a flame thrower.

At the moment Fleck realizes the abuse he suffered in childhood, the force of this memory levels his identity as a riot would burn a city. The result is madness.

Some people kill themselves at such moments. In a harrowing scene, Fleck chooses to kill someone else. The eruption of near-limitless rage and hatred overwhelms the compassion and introspection necessary to heal. His new identity, the Joker, is less a disguise than a madman’s reality show, whose definition of humor is a lack of remorse.

Fleck’s transformation into (or adoption of) the Joker persona brings up important questions about the nature of human agency, and what capacity people have to choose actions when confronted by harrowing circumstances.

Few of Fleck’s feelings were foreign to me. While I explore chronic self-pity and blame in Relief by Execution, I don’t reveal any particular revenge fantasy, though I’ve learned they are normal (and dangerous) symptoms of conditions like PTSD, best handled with care. Mine were so frightening that I feared even writing them down on a sheet of paper that I might shred or burn.

Of course, unlike Fleck, I had therapists and friends (and a city) who did not abandon me for falling apart. Despite the people and support, I often felt alone, powerless and inconsequential; my anxiety was an ironic system, wherein my desire for love and affection transformed into self-important paranoia: the perception that most everyone loathed me when in reality I hardly crossed anyone’s mind.

So, it’s terrifying to imagine how someone truly alone and abandoned could collapse completely, lose all remorse, and find a sense of agency in violence. However, I don’t feel one needs to have suffered from PTSD to get to that point. People say our prisons are full of such people

Curiously, I was thinking about these social issues as I left the cinema to walk home. And I recalled something Fleck says right before committing his climactic murder.

When he describes killing men on a subway train simply because they were awful, a group of people boo him, and he wonders, “Why is everybody so upset about these guys [I killed]? If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me.” 

I found Fleck’s observation to be meta. If he were dying on the sidewalk, we’d walk right over him. In the same way, Would we have this discussion about mental health and societal decline if the film weren’t about the Joker?

Imagine it were about some random guy in New York who suffers abuse, loses his mind, descends to self-absorption, dances on stairs in The Bronx, and takes to crime. We’d probably pass by that film in the same way we’d pass by Fleck dying on the sidewalk. The studios know this. The only way to pull us in to a conversation about these issues—and to leave us introspecting over questions of who is responsible for an individual’s behavior—is to offer up the comfort of the stories we think we know, the comic books we find worth our time.

Some people are suffering because society isn’t interested in the experiences they’re having. From their point of view, society seems much more interested in who is having the experience. If Fleck is right about anything in the film, perhaps it’s this. If not about a Batman character, Phillips’ film would be obscure art house cinema, discussed by cinephiles and college professors.

This might help explain why so many people feel Todd betrays their morals—their sensibilities and expectations—even as they de-emphasize the suffering his film represents, focusing instead on its nihilistic outcome: a horde of clowns worshiping a remorseless madman, one who arose out of the gutters of a city that seems incapable of supporting its citizens.

That outcome won’t do. It leaves us uncomfortable.

Well…shouldn’t it

Joker_(2019_film)_poster

Photo from Wikipedia.


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Forthcoming essay

I’m excited to announce that my essay, Marquette Park: Members Only, has been included in an anthology: Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook, available in September of 2019. Fans of urban prose and Chicago history, and those readers interested in questions of race, ethnicity, nation and cultural identity will find this anthology provocative and entertaining.

My essay deals with the racial tensions in Marquette Park in the 80’s and 90’s, and the curious question of why so many residents worried about encroachment from African-Americans but didn’t seem to have any trouble with the Nazi headquarters on 71st Street.

You can pre-order here.

Chicago_Neighborhood_Guidebook_540x

Here is the complete table of contents:

Introduction

Martha Bayne

WEST SIDE

Austin: Austin and Division
Shaina Warfield

Austin: Cakewalk (poem)
Rasaan Khalil

West Humboldt Park: Queen of the Tunnels
Lily Be

Garfield Park: Perspectives (photo essay)
Gabriel X. Michael

North Lawndale: Interview with Alexie Young, MLK Exhibit Center
Amanda Tugade

Little Village
Emmanuel Ramirez, Gloria “Nine” Valle, and Zipporah Auta with Yollocalli Arts Reach

SOUTHWEST SIDE

Garfield Ridge: Comeback Kid
Sheila Elliot

Back of the Yards: Books and Breakfast at the Breathing Room
Miranda Goosby

Englewood:  Interview with Tamar Manasseh, Mothers Against Senseless Killings
Kirsten Ginzky

Marquette Park: Members Only
Gint Aras

FAR SOUTHWEST SIDE

Ashburn: That’s Amore
Tim Mazurek

Mount Greenwood: Growing Up In, and Reporting On, Chicago’s Poster Child for Racial Tension
Joe Ward

Beverly: How to Integrate a Chicago Neighborhood in Three (Not-So) Easy Steps
Scott Smith

FAR SOUTHEAST SIDE

Roseland: They Killed Him and His Little Girlfriend
Raymond Berry

Pullman: Pullman and Ideal Communities in Chicago, the Rust Belt, and Beyond
Claire Tighe

Hegewisch: Pudgy’s Pizza
Josh Burbidge

East Side: Something About the South Side
Mare Swallow

SOUTH SIDE

South Shore: Between the Lake and Emmett Till Road
Audrey Petty

Woodlawn: Memories of Obama
Jonathan Foiles

Hyde Park: Quarks and Quiche on the Midway
John Lloyd Clayton

Bronzeville: Black Metropolis
Alex Miller

NEAR WEST SIDE

Bridgeport: The Community of the Future
Ed Marzsewski

Heart of Chicago: Sketches
Dmitry Samarov

Pilsen: The Quietest Form of Displacement in a Changing Barrio (photo essay)

WEST SIDE

Austin: Austin and Division
Shaina Warfield

Austin: Cakewalk (poem)
Rasaan Khalil

West Humboldt Park: Queen of the Tunnels
Lily Be

Garfield Park: Perspectives (photo essay)
Gabriel X. Michael

North Lawndale: Interview with Alexie Young, MLK Exhibit Center
Amanda Tugade

Little Village
Emmanuel Ramirez, Gloria “Nine” Valle, and Zipporah Auta with Yollocalli Arts Reach

SOUTHWEST SIDE

Garfield Ridge: Comeback Kid
Sheila Elliot

Back of the Yards: Books and Breakfast at the Breathing Room
Miranda Goosby

Englewood:  Interview with Tamar Manasseh, Mothers Against Senseless Killings
Kirsten Ginzky

Marquette Park: Members Only
Gint Aras

FAR SOUTHWEST SIDE

Ashburn: That’s Amore
Tim Mazurek

Mount Greenwood: Growing Up In, and Reporting On, Chicago’s Poster Child for Racial Tension
Joe Ward

Beverly: How to Integrate a Chicago Neighborhood in Three (Not-So) Easy Steps
Scott Smith

FAR SOUTHEAST SIDE

Roseland: They Killed Him and His Little Girlfriend
Raymond Berry

Pullman: Pullman and Ideal Communities in Chicago, the Rust Belt, and Beyond
Claire Tighe

Hegewisch: Pudgy’s Pizza
Josh Burbidge

East Side: Something About the South Side
Mare Swallow

SOUTH SIDE

South Shore: Between the Lake and Emmett Till Road
Audrey Petty

Woodlawn: Memories of Obama
Jonathan Foiles

Hyde Park: Quarks and Quiche on the Midway
John Lloyd Clayton

Bronzeville: Black Metropolis
Alex Miller

NEAR WEST SIDE

Bridgeport: The Community of the Future
Ed Marzsewski

Heart of Chicago: Sketches
Dmitry Samarov

Pilsen: The Quietest Form of Displacement in a Changing Barrio (photo essay)
Sebastián Hidalgo

Greektown/Maxwell Street/Little Italy: UIC: Chicago’s Past and Future
Ann Logue

River West: Cranes of River West
Jean Iversen

CENTRAL

South Loop: Michigan and Harrison
Megan Stielstra

The Loop: Life in Chicago’s Front Yard
Rachel Cromidas

Gold Coast: The Alleys of the Gold Coast
Leopold Froehlich

NORTH

Lakeview: On Belmont and Clark
Emily Anna Mack

Lakeview: The Blue House
Eleanor Glockner

North Center: Signs in Bloom
Kirsten Lambert

Ravenswood Gardens: Chicago River Life
Rob Miller

FAR NORTH SIDE

Uptown: A Trip to the Argyle Museum of Memories
Vitally Vladimirov

Andersonville: The Precarious Equilibrium
Sarah Steimer

Edgewater Glen: Trick or Treat
Kim Z. Dale

West Ridge: Rebel Girl
Sara Nasser

West Ridge: Paan Stains and Discount Vegetables (photo essay)
Stuti Sharma

Albany Park: Edge Zone Chicago
Benjamin Van Loon

NORTHWEST SIDE

Portage Park: Six Corners, Many Changes
Jackie Mantey

Hermosa: Holy Hermosa (poem)
Sara Salgado

Logan Square: The Best Burger on the Square
Nicholas Ward

Wicker Park: milwaukee avenue (poem)
Kevin Coval

Humboldt Park: Along Pulaski Road, From Irving Park to Humboldt
Alex V. Hernandez

Epilogue: The Last Days of Rezkoville
Ryan Smith

Greektown/Maxwell Street/Little Italy: UIC: Chicago’s Past and Future
Ann Logue

River West: Cranes of River West
Jean Iversen

CENTRAL

South Loop: Michigan and Harrison
Megan Stielstra

The Loop: Life in Chicago’s Front Yard
Rachel Cromidas

Gold Coast: The Alleys of the Gold Coast
Leopold Froehlich

NORTH

Lakeview: On Belmont and Clark
Emily Anna Mack

Lakeview: The Blue House
Eleanor Glockner

North Center: Signs in Bloom
Kirsten Lambert

Ravenswood Gardens: Chicago River Life
Rob Miller

FAR NORTH SIDE

Uptown: A Trip to the Argyle Museum of Memories
Vitally Vladimirov

Andersonville: The Precarious Equilibrium
Sarah Steimer

Edgewater Glen: Trick or Treat
Kim Z. Dale

West Ridge: Rebel Girl
Sara Nasser

West Ridge: Paan Stains and Discount Vegetables (photo essay)
Stuti Sharma

Albany Park: Edge Zone Chicago
Benjamin Van Loon

NORTHWEST SIDE

Portage Park: Six Corners, Many Changes
Jackie Mantey

Hermosa: Holy Hermosa (poem)
Sara Salgado

Logan Square: The Best Burger on the Square
Nicholas Ward

Wicker Park: milwaukee avenue (poem)
Kevin Coval

Humboldt Park: Along Pulaski Road, From Irving Park to Humboldt
Alex V. Hernandez

Epilogue: The Last Days of Rezkoville
Ryan Smith


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Art is resistance

It’s always an exciting step when your publisher tells you the cover of your book is finished. Here it is.

Relief Execution Cover final

The release date is October 8th. Pre-order begins on Amazon and Barnes and Noble some time late next week, February 21st. Follow Liquid Ink to keep up with the details, including news about the launch party, scheduled for October.

Here’s what Mikhail Iossel, the founder of the Summer Literary Seminars, and a samizdat writer born in the USSR, had to say after reading it:

This short text packs a powerful punch. A searingly raw exploration of one’s roots, one’s original milieu, one’s upbringing and one’s own conscience. At times difficult to read, it is nonetheless entirely engrossing. Hard to look at yet impossible to look away. A remarkable piece of writing.

From the back cover:

Between the years of 1996-1999, Gint Aras lived a hapless bohemian’s life in Linz, Austria. Decades later, a random conversation with a Polish immigrant in a Chicago coffeehouse provokes a question: why didn’t Aras ever visit Mauthausen, or any of the other holocaust sites close to his former home? The answer compels him to visit the concentration camp in the winter of 2017, bringing with him the baggage of a childhood shaped by his family of Lithuanian WWII refugees. The result is this meditative inquiry, at once lyrical and piercing, on the nature of ethnic identity, the constructs of race and nation, and the lasting consequences of collective trauma. 

Fussweg


The writer who doesn’t read books

I was at a book sale and signing event recently, sharing a table with another writer. The bookstore, located in a place with virtually no foot traffic, was near-empty, and the only people who came to our tables were interested in getting our signatures so that they could use them to enter a raffle the store had organized. My table partner and I spent the time talking about the usual things: book marketing strategies, the publishing industry and our current projects.

Eventually, I asked the guy, “What are you reading?”

He shrugged and said, in a tone so casual to be almost dismissive. “Eh, I don’t really read books. I’m just not really into them right now.”

I had no way of preparing myself for this. The guy was young, in his mid-20’s, right at the age when I had discovered writers who would remain favorites for the duration of my life, whose influence on my writing will never evaporate. He was at the age when I—no children or frightening responsibilities in my life—read between two and three hours each day, towers of books on my nightstand, desk and toilet tank. To this day, I don’t ever leave the house without a book in my bag, so I simply couldn’t hide my shock. “You don’t read?”

“I mean, I do research for projects. I like to study, mostly, so I get stuff from the internet. But I just don’t read books right now.”

I started stuttering. Perhaps I appeared offended. The experience was painful, stinging, unfathomable, inexplicable…I felt strain in my stomach and was overwhelmed by an urge to clench my teeth. “So, how do you work on craft without looking at stuff written by people who are better than you?”

“Eh, I get feedback. I’m in a writer’s group.”

“And…these writers. Do they also reject books? Do they ever tell you things like, ‘Your writing reminds me of such and such?’”

“Maybe they like books, but we don’t talk about it. The group is all about writing, so we focus on that.”

I sat with his answer for many minutes, feeling the silence stretching between us like a bungee cord about to kick back with the force of a falling elephant. I imagined the guitarist who did not listen to guitar, the painter who did not look at paintings, the doctor who rejected convalescence, the teacher who had nothing to learn. On any level, in any environment, the sculptor who had no use for sculpture would be considered a buffoon. If a singer came to a singing coach to reveal she had no interest in listening to song, the coach should send her packing. Yet this young man sat cocksure and certain of his intrinsic talent. Reading would be an admission of either weakness or incapacity.

I finally asked him, “How do you rationalize selling books to people when you don’t want to buy or consume books yourself?”

“Yeah, I get that point. I mean, it’s true, I guess, kinda. But I just got so many things on my plate. I don’t need to read someone else’s stuff to sell my own.”

I realized I was the only person to have ever asked this man that question. His education and culture must have reinforced his position as reasonable and rational. Still, I’d have a much easier time with the pharmacist who knows her wares are poisons just as I could get my head around the grocer who sold high fructose corn syrup without ever eating it himself. But…dude…these are books.

Books.

In America, in the 21st century, it’s not just the president and his followers who don’t read. Some writers have also joined their ranks.

The_House_of_Leaves_-_Burning_4

Photo of a contemporary book burning from Wikipedia.


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Readers ask: Does The Fugue make allusions to Lolita?

Well, someone finally noticed this, so I feel I should respond. “Hey, Gint,” a reader asks, “What’s with the age gaps between the lovers in your books? Is Lita Avila an allusion to Dolores Haze?”

The reader has noticed that both Finding the Moon in Sugar and The Fugue depict lovers with a notable age difference. Perhaps naturally, they’re wondering if I have some kind of fetish.

Audra and Andy from Finding the Moon are probably more than a decade apart. Andy, born in 1986, claims he was never able to figure out Audra’s true age and puts her birth date somewhere between 1977 and 1972. Of course, Audra’s vain and a liar, so her email address, audra1974@zuikis.lt might be set up to make her seem younger than she truly is. Dazed and confused, the stoner boy Andy never notes the year in her address as evidence for anything. If Audra is truly born in 1974, it means she and Andy are twelve years apart.

Yuri and Lita of The Fugue have a wider gap. Lita’s just a teen when they meet, and they are almost two decades apart. Neither character seems to think much of this, and (minor spoiler) Lita’s family are all either dead or gone by the time her initial crush on him evolves to something more mature.

When I wrote and self-published Finding the Moon in Sugar, I thought The Fugue was a dead project that no one would ever read. I was definitely conscious of the repeated age gap—that makes it a motif, right?—but didn’t worry too much about it. Once I knew The Fugue would be published, I figured the only way someone would catch it would be by reading both books, which would be wonderful if they did. To me, Lita and Yuri’s relationship is a rich construction that reveals so much about both characters and also the nature of trauma. I had no intension of tampering.

Now…did I have Nabokov in mind when I chose the name Lita (the character’s full name is Angelita Avila)?

Nabokov’s Dolores (Lolita) Haze is Humbert Humbert’s victim. Humbert is not merely her abuser and rapist but also her legal guardian. And while Hum suffered the tragic loss of a child-lover while a kid himself—an experience that leaves him searching for a surrogate or an incarnate…an avatar, if we will—he admits that he deserves to be tried and sentenced, even if he does beg readers for leniency and forgiveness.

Yuri is not victimizing Lita. For much of the time after first leaving prison and returning to Cicero, he is hardly able to interact with anyone, so shell-shocked that he imagines buildings that aren’t there, and he can’t  know how to thank Lita for her gift of a broken bicycle. He later sculpts her portrait not out of a desire to possess or control her but as a way to release his affection, which is probably discomforting, though not necessarily because of Lita’s age: Yuri has lost almost everyone he has ever loved, and now a stranger has given him a gift.

It’s true that Lita’s portrait is crossed with his memories of other women—Lita’s is not the only portrait he has sculpted. And Lita, young and self-conscious, never imagines he has sculpted her portrait. When she guesses it represents some other woman, she’s partially right.

Honestly, when I thought of the name Lita, I was also thinking of names for other characters. So my concern with the name Lita had less to do with Nabokov and more to do with its similarity to Alina, Yuri’s interest from his teen years. I wanted names that seemed shades of one another…variations, if you will. (In an early draft, Alina’s name was Lina.)

I was reading a lot of Nabokov at the time, so it probably did things to my mind. But I didn’t see Yuri and Lita’s relationship as taboo or profane, and I didn’t think of Lita as Lolita’s literary variation, at least not consciously.

I should probably say that I had several crushes on older girls while still a 13 and 14 year old at summer camp. One of those girls turned out to be a lifelong friend. I’m sure the intensity of such feelings and experiences evokes itself in my writing all on its own, without me needing to do very much.

Still, in future novels, what lovers I surmise will all be around the same age. I feel like I’m done exploring these age gaps and that my fiction has expressed what I wanted, even if I can’t say what that is.

 

photo-on-9-22-16-at-10-54-pm

 


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Readers ask: What’s your religion?

I’ll reveal that this question comes from students. I think it’s worth saying a few things about it on my blog.

Obviously, I write a lot about religion. Religion is a powerful force in the game of human fate, with tentacles in everything from political systems to educational institutions, nations’ customs and individuals’ identities. I’ve studied religions both formally and informally, and I’ve read a lot of the sacred books, including the Bible, Bhagavad-Gita and others.

I’m in the school that says you can’t really study Western Civilization without knowing the Bible, and you’re at a massive disadvantage as a student of literature if you don’t know at least the plots of the major Bible stories, including lessons in ethics like the Book of Job, the Sermon on the Mount or Paul’s letters. This isn’t just because every book of note will be packed with allusions to the Bible, but also because certain cultural assumptions trace themselves to a Judeo-Christian understanding of reality.

This is an evasive way of saying I’m neither Christian nor Jewish, but that I have deep reverence for the ethics and lessons of those traditions. Granted, I was raised Catholic, which is a lot like saying you used to be a cop or a member of the Latin Kings. Once you’re in, your mind will forever be affected. You can pawn your badge or burn all your black and gold, but the way you see the world remains. I have an easier time remembering the Act of Contrition than all the passwords I use on the internet.

I don’t identify as Catholic. Beyond that, my personal spirituality is a private matter.

Readers of this blog know I belong to a Zen center. I’ve written about mindfulness and trauma on multiple occasions, and I’m quite open about my meditation practice. Zen practice was as effective, if not more effective at treating my PTSD —at least after a certain period of time— as talk therapy. I stayed on because, frankly, it’s a sensible way of looking at the contemporary world, and I’ve also met wonderful people at the center.

What does a Zen Buddhist believe? My advice to anyone who wants an answer to that question is to try meditating. That’s the answer. While Zen has its set of ethics, it does not offer a list of rules that need to be followed. With the exception of meditation, there’s not really a set of beliefs or behaviors that equal Zen. What’s there to believe, and who’s in position to believe it? That’s a Zen question.

Still…this probably doesn’t satisfy the readers’ question. If I’m going to do something besides evade it, I should probably make an offering. What I’m willing to do is to present a list of questions that currently make up what I like to think of as my spiritual journey. I don’t have answers for them:

  • Is time a line, a circle or some other shape?
  • Is consciousness the result of the brain or is the brain the result of consciousness?
  • Will the individual please stand up?
  • What must be done in order to count beyond one?
  • Where is the past?
  • Where is the future?
  • If Jesus truly believed in paradise, would he have raised Lazarus?

 

IMG_2549

Photo: 9/11 Memorial, New York City 


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Video: live interview

This is about a 24 minute video of me answering moderator Amy Danzer’s questions following my reading at The Looking Glass Bookstore in Oak Park, Illinois on February 18, 2016. Yes! That gorgeous bookstore in the background is right here where I live. It’s worth visiting just to see the decor (and to  buy a bunch of books, obviously).

In this video, I answer questions about why I’d want to write a literary fugue, what place setting plays in my writing, how art helps with trauma, and what audience I had in mind while writing.

Enjoy, and do share.

Also, be sure to check out my fledgling YouTube channel. It’s sure to grow as I gather more videos.


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Are author interviews boring?

The reason I’m asking this question is because The Next Best Book Blog has run an interview of me today (click here) . It’s a series called Would You Rather, and the header asks a rhetorical question: Bored with the same old-fashioned author interviews you see all around the blogosphere? I had a load of fun answering those questions and I hope you’ll check it out.

I got to thinking during the interview. I’m not like those authors who want to cut themselves when they hear “Where do your ideas come from?” or “What are your greatest influences?” As I blogged yesterday, I often forget my influences, but I also feel a bit ashamed about them; so many are the usual books writers are “supposed to know”. Still, if I had to pick from among cliches and sentiments, I’d rather answer questions like, “Does an artist have a responsibility to society?” or “Is there any way to bring back the noble hero?”

Asking a writer where ideas come from is obviously loaded,  and to certain parties can be a put down. What do you mean where do my ideas come from? They come from me. I know a lot of people assume they “lack ideas” (they don’t, and more about that in a moment), and ideas must “exist somewhere”. But how would we feel if we asked a writer, “Hey, where do you get your ideas?” and s/he answered, “A vending machine outside Hammond, Indiana.” Would we seek out that machine? Would the art be interesting, then, if you could buy it for a quarter?

Any time I hear a piece of beautiful music or read an amazing book, I’m stunned by the artist’s creation. It’s shocking to think there existed nothing, but then an artist came around and released a symphony or an epic poem or a monumental sculpture straight out of empty space. It must have a source! Where? Tell us where!

That hope for a source is worth investigating.

I had a neighbor once tell me—most writers hear something like this—that, despite never having written a thing, she should write a book about her life. I asked why. Oh, she said, my ex-husband cheated on me, and I had a tough childhood, and my eldest daughter is in therapy over my ex-husband’s affairs, and I used to work in hospitality but I quit because I thought I’d raise a family.

She felt the weight of all this experience, all the sadness. I could sense it. But was it all that different from what anyone else has ever felt? Who knows. The book she imagined doesn’t exist. She never found (or carved out) time to sit and write.

Curious things happen when you force people to sit and write. I see it among my community college students. Most of them—perhaps 90% of them—believe they lack ideas. They’ll prove it to you: ask them to write a regular old college essay and it will drip with “say no to drugs” and “it’s unfair to be judged” cliches high schools dump into young brains. But when you make them freewrite—just keep pen to paper for ten minutes without pause and allow whatever comes to come—all kinds of intimate surprises appear.

If you want to know where writers’ ideas come from, try freewriting. When you see what’s there, what came from you, ask yourself which of those bits you’d be willing to develop and share with strangers. That’s what a writer is. We share the bits most people pack away while wondering where the good ideas are.

glue

 


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The novelist and his PTSD

This is a blog version of the story I told on December 14th at Is It a Thing, a monthly spoken-word series here in Chicago. I’m dedicating it to my good friend Kerri Smith Majors, who asked me to write it. Note: the post contains excerpts from The Fugue.

Here’s the question posed in this entry: What did editing a manuscript I had not looked at for more than a half-decade reveal about my PTSD?

I’ve already blogged about the 15 year path that led to the publication of The Fugue. The first words came in 2000. Once finished, I failed to sell the manuscript and put it away in 2006, later beginning work on a new project, what eventually became Finding the Moon in Sugar. I considered The Fugue a failure and stopped trying to get anyone interested.

A short time after I self-published Finding the Moon in Sugar (2009), I ended up diagnosed with PTSD. Its onset came after* I got caught in a convenience store robbery, which I blogged about in this entry titled Gunpoint. To summarize: I was certain the robbers were going to kill me that night, and I accepted my death while watching the robbery unfold, reflected in store windows.

I obviously survived, but not unscathed. Within a few days, I started having PTSD symptoms. My PTSD was (and sometimes still is) like a bad and incessant acid trip, complete with phantom sensations, memories of voices, unusual sounds, smells, flavors and inexplicable visions. The visions can be hallucinogenic and dreamlike or frighteningly realistic. I’ll write about them some day.

Doing something as simple as brushing my teeth or making a cup of coffee often brought on confusing sensory overload. My body experienced “phantom pains”, especially in my face and ribs, and my throat would constrict. I’d want to run and hide but could only sit somewhere and trip balls. I’d get lost in neighborhoods I’d known all my life, the street signs resembling electronic tickers, letters of all languages flying in them at unreadable speeds.

I soon figured out that the robbery had triggered childhood memories, which I wrote about, in part, in an essay titled Baptism Party, later republished by The Good Men Project under a different title. I’d learn soon enough that the effects of child abuse are not unlike the effects of war, at least in terms of what happens to the brain.

In order to heal, I had to make dramatic changes to my lifestyle. With guidance, therapy, a commitment to health, mindfulness and Zen practice, and the help of many loved ones, I eventually learned to manage my symptoms, even to neutralize or eliminate some altogether. Writing helped. So did telling my story in public.

***

In 2014, I was reading from Finding the Moon in Sugar in a bar. During that reading, I met Jason Pettus, the owner of The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. He asked if I could send him some material to review, and soon enough he offered to publish The Fugue.

I had last looked at the manuscript sometime around 2008. When Jason and I started editing, I was shocked by some of the things I found. The main character, Yuri Dilienko, grows up in a dysfunctional, abusive family, its members traumatized by war and other events. He also ends up in prison for over a decade, found guilty of arson and parricide.

Early in the narrative, a character suggests Yuri might have PTSD. Of course, I had completely forgotten this. Then my descriptions of PTSD “in the moment” left me thunderstruck.

In this excerpt, Yuri’s just been released from prison, has moved back to his hometown and is thinking of getting a job in a bar. The reason he hesitates showing his hands is because they’re dotted with scars suffered in childhood:

                                                                       —

He noticed a “Help Wanted” sign hanging behind the bar, so low that only people at the bar could read it. Maybe this was some kind of subtle joke, because people who sat at bars usually needed help. Yuri imagined working there. Most of the men were only drinking beer, and if they ever wanted something different, scotch and soda, Yuri was sure he could mix it.

“I’m sorry.” Yuri spoke to a bearded man. “Excuse me. I’m sorry.”

The man perked up. “What for?” He lit a cigarette.

“That sign there. Below. The Help Wanted.”

“The sign? Oh, for the job?” He rattled and stuttered: “Yeah, that’s…that’s for the job.” The man coughed into a loose fist. “Hey, Sonia!” She stepped over from the bar’s other end. “If you want the job,” he told Yuri, “Sonia’s gotta read your palms.”

All the other men now seemed interested.

“You wanna job?” asked Sonia. “Is por bartender. We have the day position.”

Yuri shrugged. “Daytime? You mean what? Noon?”

Sonia smiled at him. “I see your hands. Both hands.”

Yuri hesitated. The whole bar was watching him, some of the men grinning. He wanted to take his cane and tell the people he was very sorry, it was a big misunderstanding, because he had to go. While looking at their intense faces, pockmarked skin, lopsided mustaches, Yuri felt surrounded by the most violent men—grotesque and incapable of compassion, their eyes the color of mortar. His mind began racing, as it did often when he found himself confused or surprised. Strong, hard hands grabbed at him from all around and a shiver buzzed over his entire body, electric over his chest. He was powerless and could only give in, curl up, let the blows come, let them pass, then bury rage and fear deep in his center, deep into his pelvic bones and base of his spine.


                                                                         —

 In this next scene (slightly edited), Yuri is working in a butcher’s shop. It’s only days before the house fire that will take his parents’ lives:

                                                                     —

A powerful force in his center, like a glass sphere packed with the molten heat of a red sun, wanted to charge up his throat.

At the end of the workday, Reikel smiled to Yuri as he left, said, “See ya Monday.” On the way to the bus stop, Yuri threw up his lunch…popcorn, salami and apple juice. This was the third time he had thrown up, the onset of nausea unexpected, gone as soon as he had vomited, since he had shown Reikel his hands. Nobody ever saw Yuri vomit.

Cicero had become a ghost town surrounding him. Hundreds of sparrows were chattering in a small yellowing elm. Their bickering and chirping grew so loud and overwhelming that Yuri stood entranced until a woman exited a nearby car.

On 12th Street, he saw his bus lumber away without him, so he went to a diner to rinse his mouth in the bathroom and wipe his face and chin to be sure he was clean.

Once home, he couldn’t sculpt. Every idea and sketch seemed pointless and stupid. He was always hungry, although nothing tasted good and no drink quenched his thirst or whet his constantly dry mouth. The hardest place to be in all of Cicero was home. While he sat in his kitchen, it felt as though parts of him were gradually disappearing. Yuri felt extreme nervousness, a shifting fuzziness in his periphery, and that powerful glass sphere inside him.

Everything required hands. At Reikel’s, his hands seemed to do what he asked them, but at home they refused to obey. Everything required hands. Warming up a plate of leftover macaroni and cheese. Washing himself, his entire body…before he could wash his body he’d have to wash his hands. Flipping through the sketches on the table seemed such a chore. When Lars used his hands, music came so easily, like air through a wide open door. Yuri could tell that Lars never thought about borrowing hands or finding new ones, and he didn’t have nightmares that his hands were left wrapped up in aluminum foil at the bottom of a paper bag…

…Whenever he awoke, he had trouble knowing what day it was. He found busses running on the Saturday schedule. Weekends were the worst because he had so much time to sculpt but found plenty of excuses, shopping for things he didn’t need—paper clips and deodorant—always walking to the largest stores on 22nd with the biggest crowds. Among these people, nobody knew. Sometimes Yuri walked out on the yellow lines in the middle of 12th Street’s busiest traffic and felt completely invisible.

                                                                    —

These are only two scenes among many more that describe what it is like to have PTSD. The sudden nausea, throwing up, the nightmares. The feeling of disappearing, of being invisible, even in traffic. The daydreams of beatings, and the simultaneity of rage and confusion, the constriction of the throat. How could I have known it to this vivid detail?

My wife thinks I have always* had PTSD, or an anxiety disorder of some kind, that the robbery just cranked up the volume. I might agree with this theory if, prior to writing the novel, I had known how it felt to “crank up the volume”.

Composing the book, I had very little information about PTSD, had read a few articles, knew some stories about veterans’ issues. I never intended this book to be a portrait of a sufferer and don’t remember thinking very much about it. Perhaps the way I imagined PTSD might be influenced what form my PTSD took. PTSD is, at least in part, a condition of the imagination, a disorienting fusion of memories and fantasies, delusions and recollections, their tone depending at once on the nature of one’s fears and experiences.

I can’t answer how this happened, except to say that I found it fucked up, a mystery of the creative mind. Obviously, plenty of characters in The Fugue experience things I never did—all novelists imagine experiences they’ve never had; we depend on observations or overheard stories to narrate them. But this brand of premonition, if that’s the word, left me fascinated. It’s a layer in the book I could never have anticipated but now can’t deny.

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