Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Bit More from 2014

My round-up of 2014 was a touch premature, not in terms of my writing or its publication--what was slush remains slush--but in terms of my reading. My work is closed for the holidays, so I have gotten quite a bit more reading done, and quite a bit of it has been good.

First I need to remedy my oversight of not including Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates and part of Akashic Books' excellent place-noir series, in my list of good books for the year. Not every story included is great, but more are than aren't, and their cumulative impact was to remind me of the utter barbarity of this country's prison-industrial complex, in both its design and its extent.

Aside from that, I have four books to add from this past week to my list of recommendations, two fiction and two non-fiction. The fiction books are Paradise Lost by John Milton--no, I had not read it until now--and An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. The Milton, while its underlying metaphysics are utterly foreign and aporetic to me, has more passages of poetic grandeur than much of the rest of the Anglophone canon put together. I suspect that for many contemporary, secular readers, or at least those like myself who do not come from a Christian cultural/religious background, one spends much of the reading waiting for Satan to speak again. I still feel that any attempted theodicy is monstrous, which is another way of saying, God is a dick.

As for Gay, I cannot say with certainty that it was the best novel in the sphere of crime fiction to come out this year, but I suspect it might have been. It certainly was the best one I have read so far. I finished it in a single day, and slept very poorly that night.

The non-fiction books are The Politics of Wealth in Southwestern Nigeria: Why Ondo's Women Went to War by Elizabeth Anne Eames (full disclosure: I know and work with the author) and A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience by Emerson W. Baker (full disclosure: the author is an alumnus of the college where I work, though I did not know that until I read the acknowledgements). There is a peculiar connection between these books, in that both describe a cultural setting in which witchcraft is/was believed to be a real phenomenon, with attributes of both threat and protective power. The difference is that the Yoruba women whom Eames describes have institutionalized, though contested, power within their culture, whereas the Puritan women of the 17th century are far more consistently placed in the role of the subaltern (much as Milton would have it in his retelling of the Eden myth), and thus their actions and accusations were, in some ways, more disruptive than the ritualized resistance of the women of Ondo.

I finished the Baker book convinced that the witchcraft trials were in large measure a kind of white supremacist hysteria triggered by the colonials' traumatic losses, on the Maine frontier, to the last successful war of Wabanaki resistance. Baker makes a case for this, though more cautiously and as one of only several factors. The evidence seems to me more decisive, and there is more work to be done on the ways in which the witchcraft trials were formative, through both positive precedence and negative reaction, of future criminal jurisprudence in the U.S. Baker touches on one such influence, namely greater caution in the acceptance of women's testimony in the courts, with unfortunately predictable results in terms of rape prosecutions, but as I said, I think there is more to be done in the vein of critical legal theory and history. I also learned a great deal about Maine local history. It is easy to forget today, when Boston is a two-hour drive away and Mainers speak casually of "Massholes" and "people from away," that Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1820. Many of those involved in the trials, as accusers, accused, and officials, had Maine connections, so the Salem trials were very much part of Maine history. For example, I learned the names of the first two white men to "own" the land on which I now live. The second of those, Bartholomew Gedney, was one of the judges.

Eames' book, being a printing of her doctoral dissertation, touches on a historical episode that she was fortunate enough to observe as an anthropology graduate student doing field work in the city of Ondo, Nigeria. In short, officials of the state government attempted to levy a tax on women (and only women), in order to capture revenue from the informal sector trading in which they were engaged. Local male traditional leaders were suspected, with reason, of complicity in this demand. The women of the city engaged in an escalating series of public protests, referred to in the local dialect as "women's war," with the result that the tax was revised to apply only to the most successful of women traders. The retelling brings together development economics, household division of labor, an epistemological questioning of standard field work methods, structural analysis of Ondo's unique local institutions, oral tradition, linguistics, and the history of Nigeria, pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial, around this event.

Not recommended is this year's Best American Short Stories. The selection seems particularly weak this year, and looking at the author list in Best American Mystery Stories, I suspect the mystery anthology will be better this year than its more "literary" counterpart. I am working on a "Meta-Anthology" post similar to the one I did last year, and expect it will come out within the next week.

Some notes about other people reading my stories, in posts that I missed from earlier in the year:

And, on a final political note, the suicide of Leelah Alcorn and some of the online reaction to it inspired me into writing a linked series of tweets with some of my thoughts about queerness, individual vs. social responsibility, and the awesome challenges of being a parent. Had I known I would go on that long, it could have been a blog post in itself.

Monday, December 22, 2014

2014: Results and Prospects

I think it is safe at this point to assume that no further stories of mine will published in this calendar year. Here are some retrospective notes.

This year, five stories of mine were published for the first time, by people who had paid for the rights to do so. They were, in chronological order from first to last,

  1. "Hypothetical Foundations of a Quantum Theory of Familial Social Physics" (FLAPPERHOUSE No. 2, Summer 2014)
  2. "Bonfires in Anacostia," August 2014, Clarkesworld No. 95
  3. "Cold Duck" (FLAPPERHOUSE No. 3, Fall 2014)
  4. "Thirty-Eight Observations on the Nature of the Self" (Phantasm Japan, Haikasoru, September 2014)
  5. "The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine" (M: Horror & Mystery No. 2, November 2014, from Big Pulp Publications)

To summarize in terms of genre, then, two pieces of barely classifiable experimental writing ("Hypothetical Foundations..." and "Cold Duck", both in FLAPPERHOUSE); one piece of near-future science-fiction ("Bonfires"); one piece of philosophical fantasy ("38 Observations"); and a piece of crime fiction with an ambiguously fantastical element ("Jumping Frenchmen").

Were it not for my knowledge of how many stories of mine are loitering in slush piles or cluttering my metaphorical trunk, I would say that it was a very good year. From any objective standpoint, it likely was.

On the theory that, "if I am not for myself, who will be for me?" (Rabbi Hillel), I have, for the first time in my life, taken out a supporting membership in the upcoming WorldCon so as to be able to nominate & vote for the Hugo Awards. Choosing between "Bonfires" and "38 Observations" seems a bit absurd; the stories are so different. Yet I am putting my chips on "Bonfires," for two reasons. First, having appeared in a high profile online venue, it is likely to have been read by more people to date than "38 Observations," which is in print only, in an anthology. This also means that people are more likely to read it on a whim. The second reason is that the story appeared online just eight days before the assassination of Mike Brown by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. The story deals with many of the issues of race, class, police violence, the struggles of the oppressed, and the mechanisms of state power, that have rightly been taken up on the streets in the months since.

But my work is only eligible in the short story category, and there are many more categories than that. And, as Rabbi Hillel said, "If I am only for myself, what am I?" I definitely intend to nominate two of my fellow Phantasm Japan pieces in the novelette and novella categories: "From the Nothing, With Love" by the late Project Itoh for novelette and "Sisyphean" by Dempow Torishima for novella. I already sang their praises. Buy the book already! (To quote Rabbi Hillel again, "If not now, when?")

I've exhausted the Hillel theme, but still have more to say. Continuing on the topic of Hugo nominations, I reiterate my full intention of nominating Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven for the novel category. I cannot say with certainty that it was the best science fiction novel this year, but of the novels published this year that I read, it was one of the best written. I also plan to nominate Randall Munroe's What If? for "Best Related Work". It is basically hard science fiction pushed to the limits of the absurd--Asimov's "Nightfall" with stick figures. Plus, it gave me a chance to explain Avogadro's Number to my daughter. She still talks about "a Mole of Moles".

And I would be remiss if I did not mention that this is my first year of eligibility for the Campbell Award.

Awards aside, I read many good things this year that either are not eligible anymore for awards, because they are too old, or the awards they are eligible for are in fields I am powerless to effect. Here is a brief recap of them:


  • Daniel Alarcón, At Night We Walk in Circles
  • Dashiell Hammett, The Hunter and Other Stories (especially "Faith")
  • Hesiod, Theogony
  • Carl Hiaasen, Skink--No Surrender
  • Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse
  • Hisaki Matsuura, Triangle
  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia, This Strange Way of Dying
  • Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation


  • Hilton Als, White Girls
  • Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish
  • Jan Karski, Story of a Secret State
  • Christine Montross, Falling into the Fire: A Psychiatrist's Encounters with the Mind in Crisis
  • Luis Nicolau Parés, The Formation of Candomblé: Vodun History and Ritual in Brazil
  • Claudio Pavone, A Civil War: A History of the Italian Resistance
  • Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century
  • Shai Secunda, The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in its Sasanian Context
  • Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832
  • Mara Casey Tieken, Why Rural Schools Matter (full disclosure: I work with the author)
  • Christine J. Walley, Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago

If there were a way that I could nominate FLAPPERHOUSE for "Best New Electronic Magazine of the Year," I would. Certainly it's the one that, even when it's not publishing my work, most resembles my own twisted aesthetic.

As of now, only one piece of mine has publication lined up for 2015, "The Joy of Sects," due to appear in February 2015 in Unlikely Story No. 11, The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography. I await the verdict of the slush-gods on many others.

I am not sure how many stories I have actually written this year, since until a story is ultimately sold I revise it, multiple times. I can say with certainty that it is fewer than I wrote the year before. The reason for that is simple: In April my second child was born. And now, having thoroughly buried the lede, I bring this retrospective on 2014 to a close.