Thursday, September 01, 2022

Sleepier Than Me

Sept. 1, 2022 -- A new work of short fiction in mixed-media form—a story I've been whittling away at for years now—has finally reached print. "Sleepier Than Me," which pays tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman in essaying the loss or near-death of people close to a ghostwriter named Benjamin, was published this summer by Western Humanities Review. An earlier version was included in my dissertation and won a creative writing award in 2020. Here is an excerpt from the story, which features archival photos and other illustrations:

In his 40s, his father began sending Benjamin postcards from distant places, some of which will come back to trouble the ghostwriter during the quarantines, on the eve of the same decade. Not the usual Mayan women at their looms, or the colored doors he knew from Antigua, but less familiar scenes. First there’s the glass-paneled stock exchange in Mexico City, where his correspondent has never seen so many Volkswagens, this whole army of miniature taxis for a population of 20 million. But that’s just a guess, writes his father, and if you think your aunt in Guatemala drives too fast, you should see these guys. Then there’s the fishermen balancing butterfly nets in Michoacán, where his father is talking to some nice people planting trees around a lake, to prevent soil erosion.

The last letter is from Buenos Aires. This is just before it happens, the ghostwriter imagines. The postcard shows a dark wall of ice spilling into another lake, a barren place where rodents from Europe have eaten away the trees. An impressive glacier in all its greatness, notes the caption.

Who knows, my son? Maybe I have some ancestors in Patagonia. The ghostwriter tries to picture the table where he’s writing. He tries reading these last words out loud, searching for small interruptions or other clues, but that is all it says.

Postcards from Patzcuaro, Mexico, and Patagonia

The next person young Benjamin lost was more or less anonymous. The ghostwriter didn’t learn the real story until much later, in the obituaries, when the pandemic began picking off certain survivors. For a time, Benjamin suspected it was his father writing, trying to fill in the details. The letters mostly arrived on fluorescent paper, part of a church program that had congregants exchanging messages across zip codes on Sunday mornings. Envelopes and cubbyholes in the narthex, like a couple of agents in Berlin. Every word was capitalized, as if his correspondent had lost patience with various conventions of their lingua franca. At first, all the boy knew was that this guy had daughters in volleyball and basketball and a son who preferred Boy Scouts. Check. He worked for a timber company and didn’t much care for California. Check, check. Benjamin’s father preferred wandering the creek behind the farm to Sunday services, but remained a suspect. […]

In January, his correspondent is very busy. He’s putting together a deal involving equipment and a warehouse and an employee union. He’s negotiating with the union, and must soon agree on the wording of contracts and how things will work and also “the economics” of the deal. “Money,” he adds with a parenthetical smirk. Around this time, the letters arrive handwritten, as if his correspondent can’t get to a computer. But the capitalization continues, with much scribbling and underlining. Then in February, it’s all over. Benjamin meets his correspondent over spaghetti in the church basement. He looks quite bald and excited and also a bit frail. Nothing like his bearded father, who in those days might have been mistaken for a Cuban revolutionary. Even now, the correspondent reminds the ghostwriter of a TV anchor Benjamin doesn’t yet know. His name is Samuel. Just call me Sam Donaldson, says the half-grinning man.

The next day, or what seemed like the next day, someone who signs her name as Mrs. Anderson writes to say that Sam said to say he’s really sorry. About something called chemotherapy. About the Lord calling him home. 

WHR 75.2 arrived in the mail just the other day here in Portland, with a preview available at the journal's website. My thanks to the other contributors and our editors for their work on this issue.

Thursday, October 07, 2021


Oct. 7, 2021 -- Another iteration of an essay I authored some 10 years ago—a braiding of conversations among young Iraqis visiting the U.S. along with personal reflections and fragmented reports from their homeland—appears this month in Quagmire: Personal Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan (University of Nebraska Press, Oct. 2021). The new anthology, edited by Donald Anderson, presents selections from War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities to mark its 30 years in print. It also happens to coincide, of course, with the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, that first chapter in the War on Terror that would lead somehow to the invasion of Iraq, the longest war in American history in Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of casualties to date, and millions upon millions of families across the globe displaced from their homelands, according to numbers compiled by Brown University's Watson Institute.

The collection's title, notes Philip Beidler in his foreword, "says exactly what it means: that a post-Vietnam War America, having extricated itself toward the end of the twentieth century from the morass of Indochina, at the beginning of the twenty-first actually found it possible to create a new military and geopolitical quagmire in the desert."

Perhaps this mirrored reality makes it doubly hard for we Americans to comprehend the nature and scale of the violence that the wars have visited on so many lives. Our collective "ignorance about Afghanistan," in retrospect, "was as pervasive as it was sixty years prior regarding Vietnam—but that was not the cause of failure and defeat in either country," argues one review of a contemporaneous volume, The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War (Simon & Schuster, Aug. 2021). Such critiques and investigations point instead to high-ranking moral failures, like queries from a decades-long echo chamber: "Why were they willing to continue killing men, women, and children, and to imperil more of their own citizens, knowing that no clear-cut victory could ever be achieved? It is a haunting question."

No less haunting, for this writer, are the stories we find in Quagmire. Some accounts call to mind W. G. Sebald's soul-ravaged characters, as in this line from the narrator of The Emigrants (New Directions, 1996): "I gradually became convinced that Uncle Adelwarth had an infallible memory, but that, at the same time, he scarcely allowed himself to access it." Indeed, to quote from Beidler's foreword once more:

The work included here is generally so powerful as to reduce one to appalled silence. … from the horrific to the banal … a true literature of witness. Something changes radically in the lives of those who have looked upon the face of battle. To borrow from Donald Anderson, the phrasing "the voice that knows" says it all.

To read Anderson's prologue and other front matter, browse Potomac Books, an imprint of UNP, or preview Quagmire in Google Books. And to join me in bearing witness to these enduring stories, kindly ask your local library or bookstore for a copy.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Transmigration and the Fictional Essay

Over the weekend, RBM delivered a craft talk on W. G. Sebald and genre adapted from The Land of Infinite Variety: Stories and Other Prose at the Western Literature Association's 55th annual conference, held virtually this year due to the pandemic. Here is an audio clip from his remarks—an excerpt from the artist's statement that opens his dissertation:

In opening and concluding his talk, RBM read from "Sleepier Than Me," a new short story from the not-yet-published collection. At a Friday night awards ceremony, the story received WLA's annual creative writing award. In 2014, RBM received an honorable mention from the association for another work of short fiction later included in Infinite Variety and published by Drunken Boat. As in the collection, a series of archival images punctuates each of these works. A few more slides from Saturday:

RBM extends gratitude to this year's conference organizers and selection committees, congratulations to other WLA award winners, and appreciation to our plenary speakers and honorees: former U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, author Stephen Graham Jones, teacher and poet Natalie Diaz, and comic artist Arigon Starr.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

'The Land of Infinite Variety: Stories and Other Prose' Now Indexed on ProQuest

July 19, 2020 -- The arrival of a first-class envelope at my doorstep here in Portland over the weekend took me back about 10 years. It bore the seal of the university I've attended as a doctoral student for much of that time, and in the corner, the words DIPLOMA—DO NOT BEND. Amid the uncertainties of the global pandemic, like so many other newly-minted scholars and professionals exiting graduate programs in 2020, I'd been waiting for this materialization, some real-world sign of the terminus of my studies. This was it, complete with tissue paper, faux leather, and the digitally-rendered signatures of various officials.
Forget about commencement. The impersonality of the white envelope and its carefully-wrapped contents carried me back, instead, to memories of the Peace Corps and my smoke-filled exit from southern Kyrgyzstan via the Manas Air Base outside Bishkek, which I've narrated in previous posts. (The writer Jia Tolentino, also from K-18, our doomed volunteer class of 2010, has chronicled parallel experiences and argued for agency reforms meant to prevent other kinds of violence.)
Months after the evacuations of many in K-18, an unmarked truck with a U.S. government plate deposited a similarly-shrouded parcel at my doorstep in Fort Collins, Colorado, where I had returned to complete a master's degree in English at Colorado State. Inside the package I found assorted dictionaries, notebooks, travel guides, novels, and dusty personal effects that had survived the looting of the Melon Revolution. In other words, the rhetorical artifacts of my tenure abroad as a university educator—some 100 days of living with host families, preparing to co-teach English with local instructors, and beginning the journey toward fluency in one of Central Asia's dozens of Turkic languages. It had all ended in waves of violence that swept through the Kyrgyz provinces in mid-June 2010, for reasons still not well understood, resulting in hundreds of thousands of families displaced. And some 2,000 deaths—including the reported killing of two fixers hired to ferry my own team of American volunteers out of the chaos of an ancient city in flames.
Writing and reflecting on the broader systems of violence and colonization in which I found myself implicated that summer—and on what it means to arrive "home" in the American West—has taken the better part of a decade. And that work of self-examination (personal, fictive, familial, rhetorical) is far from finished. But this summer, along with my doctoral diploma, I can point to another kind of materiality: the assemblage, in manuscript form, of a book of stories and other prose now available on ProQuest (metadata only, for the near future). Below I'm sharing the abstract and table of contents for The Land of Infinite Variety, and offering thanks to the many generous souls who have guided this work and its author thus far.
For another window into its composition, here is a brief excerpt from my dissertation's artist's statement, which draws in part on a critical review by Patrick Madden, "W. G. Sebald: Where Essay Meets Fiction":
For Madden, then, the essay as a form is not limited to conventional genres of fact. His thought experiment maintains that Sebald’s first three translated “novels” can actually be read as nonfiction, while the fourth, Austerlitz (The Modern Library, 2001) “performs the actions of an essay” (174). In response, I might propose that we place Sebald’s works along a spectrum of essaying as a mode of discourse, rather than unnecessarily divorcing The Emigrants, for example, from the canon of literary fiction by applying the “non” prefix. More generally, however, my work asserts support for Madden’s thesis. Sebald’s and similar volumes of under-recognized “essays”—ranging from Brian Kiteley’s “novel” Still Life with Insects (Graywolf, 1989) to emerging works perhaps best captured in the title essay of Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (Houghton, 2018)—have been remarkably influential in composing certain stories at the heart of Infinite Variety. “The events of your life like an empty field . . . Invent something,” Chee muses, “that fits the shape of what you know,” then tell the story of this thing through “a character like you, but not you” (246). As of late, we find works fitting this mold in almost every kind of experimental fiction. From the lyrical fixations of Lydia Davis and Rita Bullwinkel to wartime cycles such as Phil Klay’s Redeployment (Penguin, 2014). From the New American anthologies of Ben Marcus to Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School (Farrar, 2019), with its chapters culled from essays, autoethnographic stories of therapy, fictionalized memories of high school forensics, and appearances of Duccio’s Madonna and Child, “a real painting,” in places that do not correspond with real time. Such anachronisms, explains Lerner in the back matter, work to signal his social novel’s “unstable mixture of fact and fiction” (285).
Turning to my own work, “A Fictional Essay On or About the 100th Meridian, Alphabetically Arranged,” for example, borrows its title and underlying structure from Dinty W. Moore’s enduring “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: An Essay on Fatherhood, Alphabetically Arranged,” which found its way from Crazyhorse to Harper’s. Moore, also a former journalist, catalogues some two dozen images of fathers (from classic television, the natural world, academia, genetics, and so on), beginning with “Allen, Tim,” then gradually intersecting with more personal entries such as “Vasectomies” (49-52). In my fictional essay’s examination of 26 scenes from a line of demarcation with “great significance” in the American West, an opening section titled “Adventure” introduces the cultural memory of “three fair-skinned, French tourists” paddling southward into the bowels of the high country. Their journey is followed by more personal “Echoes”:
It’s the same storied meridian many American families deserted—propelled less by adventure than desperation—in the year before the voyagers arrived to the land they called the Far-West. Might Antoine’s journal somehow call into question the writer’s own nostalgia for the late frontier—built on his grandfather’s late memories (1928-2013) of the Dakotas? . . . How many echoes, and how much dissonance? What of the parallels in these perpendicular lines of flight? (123)
. . . In this wayward manner, [my] work unfolds with parallels to what Sebald once described to a New Yorker interviewer: “Not even my Ph.D. research was done systematically. It was done in a random, haphazard fashion. The more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way—in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field” (qtd. in Madden 170).

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

#AWP19 Roundup

Join RBM and friends for this year's Festival of Language 2019​ offsite readings, 5-8 p.m. tonight, March 27, Ford Food & Drink​, 2505 SE 11th Avenue, Portland, Oregon. Raul will deliver the closing reading, just before 8 p.m.

Along with other working writers based on the West Coast, Raul will present a panel discussion, "Selfish, Sleepless, Self-Deprecating: Parents on Children and the Writing Life," at 3 p.m. on Thursday. Beyond the panel, connect with Raul and local colleagues at Bookfair​ tables T1002 (Clark College) and T10107 (Salmon Creek Journal​). See you there, #AWP19!

Later this week, friends are invited to another offsite reading, "Voices from Across the River," hosted by Clark College on Saturday evening at 1122 Gallery​ in Portland's Montavilla neighborhood. Please see below for details.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Flash Prose Nominated for Pushcart

Along with other compositions, "Blowfish," a work of flash prose by RBM published earlier this year by Salmon Creek Journal, has been nominated by the journal for a Pushcart Prize. More on the nomination process can be found here. Please enjoy an excerpt:
The Dakotas have probably crossed the county line. The Dakotas are not the kind of boys you’ll find in a Walmart parking lot. So why this careful study of Entrance and Exit? Of tired woman and wailing would-be piano man? Inside there is Grocery and there is Pharmacy. Centers Garden, Vision, and Photo, and 1-Hour Photo. Where would the Dakotas hide? Sporting Goods? The walk-in cooler?
For the rest of this and more works by writers and artists from Washington State University Vancouver and other corners of the Northwest, please visit the journal's archives. (Submissions are currently open to the public and close Jan. 11.) Thanks to the hardworking SCJ staff for this kind recognition.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Fastwrite: Election Night

Nov. 9, 2016 -- This month, on the campus where I teach English, we're studying "living sources." Fieldwork, et cetera. Today I asked students to write for 10 minutes in a notebook about something or someone you've overheard in the past 24 hours. "Give your topic a face," Bruce Ballenger urges his curious and not-so-curious researchers. Here's what I got down.
North Portland. November 9, 2016. Corner bakery, big windows. 
The man sitting down the bench from me is on his phone. I can't make out the caller. His mother, maybe. He loves her very much—that much is clear. What's also obvious? This morning, this man is nearing some breaking point.
"You don't understand," says the man. "You're a white, straight American and you can't understand what this means for me. It's a nightmare. For someone who's gay, I mean. I'm gay, remember?" 
The man has curly brown hair and big headphones wrapped around his Adam's apple. Up-down, up-down. 
He's working, he told his sad friend earlier, for a little paper company off Mississippi. They're trying to convert a Craftsman into office space. Free beer, sans wireless. So he's working from the bakery today.
"You don't understand," the man repeats, his whisper beginning to crack. "I'm fine, I'll be fine. But I have friends in North Carolina. I'm worried sick about them. For their safety, I mean. They don't understand.
"And listen, when I get back, I don't want to hear about this. Nothing. Not at Thanksgiving. Not now. They don't understand, and you don't, and I don't either."
And I don't either. But that's what I heard today, I told the class. Who's next?

Update -- Another version of this piece appears in the 2017 issue of Salmon Creek Journal.