MY QUEST TO RE-PHOTOGRAPH "SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY"

SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY IS a vintage black-and-white image of a black slave woman. The image was photographed outside. The slave woman’s eyes are downcast, as though in silent protest to having her picture taken without her consent. She is sitting outside in a rocking chair. Dignified. Her head is wrapped in white cloth. She cradles two babies, one at each breast. One black, the other white. Both suckling. In my series, “My Radical Camera,” I plan to depict this image.

In a letter to a friend, Van Gogh complained, “I myself am suffering under an absolute lack of models.”

I know exactly how he feels.

Initially, I thought I would continue the theme of race-reversal as I did for the image, The Help, which was featured at NOIR: Tulsa Performing Arts. In the image, I photographed myself, an African-American woman, with a white maid. Role reversal. A white woman would breastfeed both a black baby and a white baby.

I had no idea what a task it would be to find models for the shoot. Finding a white woman to breastfeed the black baby wasn't the problem. The problem was finding the black mama that was going to let you even give the remote appearance that her baby was breastfeeding from a white woman. They were down with the concept, just not their baby. The sisters were not having it.

When Your Free Spirit Fails You

I recalled that I had spoken to a recent photography client of mine who had twin girls who would be perfect for the shoot. They were dark-skinned and both had heads full of dark hair. A free spirit, I had photographed her during her pregnancy and then her newborn twins. It would be great if I could get both of the beautiful black babies onto white breasts at the same time, but the other benefit was that if one baby was fussy, the other could sit in. My client quickly called me back after I messaged her on Facebook.

“I am recreating an image called Southern Hospitality. In the image, a black slave woman is breastfeeding a white baby. But I want to reverse it. Make it a white woman with a black baby,” I said in a rush, talking way too fast. “Did you get all that?” I asked.

“No, I heard you,” she said. “Hmmmm, yeah. Let me check with their dad and I will get back with you. Okay?”

“Okay,” I said.

I have to be honest with you, she did not come across as the type that had to get permission for the children to participate in the shoot, but I respected the fact that she checked with the twins’ father. I had met the twins’ dad at the maternity shoot, and it had been clear that he was very comfortable in his skin. New Age, even. He was a rapper and had written books. I kept my fingers crossed that he would be okay with the twins modeling for the shoot.

The message I received read, “We are going to respectfully decline this time but keep us posted when you have other shoots.”

The dads were always ix-naying the idea.

I determined that I might seek a single mother who had sole decision-making power. I recalled that I had photographed a young single mother of two young boys who was pregnant with twins. I watched to see if and when she delivered the twins. I explained the concept and offered a family shoot in exchange for the babies’ participation. She agreed. Since she lived in another city, I elected to do a model call for my white wet nurse in the city in which she lived.

My wet nurse lives in a trailer on a large piece of land, which she rents to photographers for shoots. She makes me promise that I will not photograph her negatively. By “negatively,” I mean that she had some unnatural fear that a hair on her breast would show in the picture. She had a friend who had posed for a photographer and they had shown that friend’s breast hair.

“I would never do that,” I said into the cell phone.

“Are you sure?” she begged.

“Absolutely,” I said, “that would take away interest from what I am trying to convey in art.”

She then agreed to be the white wet nurse in the shoot.

When Your White Wet Nurse Arrives On Set Dressed Like a Smurf

Things seem to be falling together, right? Well, you are wrong.

When I arrived at the home of the white wet nurse, the first thing I noticed was that she looked nothing like the young, brown-headed professional photograph that appeared on her social media profile. In fact, she was considerably smaller than me and she had waist-length blue hair. She had on red cowboy boots and was wearing a sparkly outfit just because she felt like it. You know, like a Smurf. The mother for the shoot was on the way with the twins, so I quickly encouraged my white wet nurse with blue hair to put on her housecoat and wrap her head in cloth. Okay, good. She is in character and the only person who knows she has blue hair is me.

Just then, I see an SUV rapidly approaching the shoot location. Squinting my eyes, I notice a man is driving the SUV bearing down on me. “Dear God,” I pray, “Don't let this be the babies’ daddy.” The mother of the twins is sitting in the passenger side of the van. Whatever the relationship, she never said anything. Nobody says a word as they all get out the car. She drops the twins, still in car seats, next to my feet. I review the consents with them and the twins’ mother signs it.

Just then my white wet nurse comes out of her trailer.

“The reason I want to do this is because my grandmother was a racist. I know she would be ashamed of this, and so I know it is the right thing to do, and I am doing it to get back at her,” she says.

Oh, please, no. Not the classic “My grandparent was a racist, therefore I love black people” monologue. Not now. Dear God, no, I think. Please. Stop.

Both black parents of the twins look at me.

I look around the group, nodding, smiling. “Things are going great. Okay, let's go ahead and go to the back and get this shoot started.”

“Who is he?” I side-whisper to the mother.

“He ain’t nobody,” she responds back with a side-smile.

Dear God, please don't let Jerry Springer show up on this set, I think as I begin to wonder what have I walked into.

The twins’ mother quickly gathers them, and I scoot them all to the area I had set up for the shoot. I inform the gentleman that, due to the nature of the shoot, I thought it best that he remain on the other side of set.

He still says nothing.

I indicate to the white wet nurse that I need her to show her tatas and assume the football position twin hold.

Mom hands me one baby. My white wet nurse puts the other baby close to her breast, then does a double-take and screams, “There is a hair on my boob!”

Quickly moving back, I look through my viewfinder. Seeing the babies at her breast in camera, I think, “Dammit, these babies are damn near white.” Just then, I get them in focus and press the shutter.

“OH MY GOD! They are actually trying to latch on!” she yells, loud enough for the babies’ daddy to hear.

Mom quickly assists me with removing the second twin from the scene.

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“Two years old.”

“She should be dark enough,” he said.

“She most definitely is. She has pigtails and everything. She will be perfect and she is still breastfeeding,” I tell him.

“You know, this is very different than the original image and your concept for this shoot,” he said.

“I know. I know. I just have to see what I get.”

“Okay, just make sure you don't get arrested.”

Bug arrived with a cherry lollipop that had chewing gum in the middle. I explained the shoot to her, along with her mother. It would only look like she was breastfeeding. This was not a problem since she was still breastfeeding and knew what to do. She agreed to participate. Her mother signed consents, and I gave the wet nurse and Bug some time to get to know one another. Watching the two bond was beautiful. They played ring around the rosy and, as is my style, I shot documentary fashion.

The set established. Southern genteel with flowers. Burgundy tufted couch. It would be an outside shoot. The shoot went smoothly, and then Bug put on her Dora the Explorer boots and grabbed her bag of candy from me and went home with her mother.

After the shoot, my mentor texted me and asked how things went.

“There is no way this child is two years old. She is tall especially, when compared to your petite, pregnant model. People might assume that something kinky was going on. I think it takes away from the story because in present time people are appalled to see children her age breastfeeding. I am not judging it, but it gets lost in translation and as artists we must always be cognizant of that. Show several people, whose eyes you trust, the image and see what they have to say. Sit with it.”

Back to the drawing board.

What were the elements that made the first image I photographed for this series acclaimed as edgy art?

What am I trying to convey?

I am still in pursuit of Southern Hospitality.


GAY PASLEY is a graduate student at the Oklahoma City University Red Earth MFA Program. Her photography and writing seek to capture the under-reported experiences and challenges of what it is to be a working-class woman of color.

ALWAYS REMEMEMBER: Malleable Memory in Dan Chaon's Ill Will

RUSTY TILLMAN LOOKS like a man who’s done time. He has a jailhouse tattoo on his neck and it marks him like a cattle brand. The tattoo was supposed to say REMEMBER, but he wasn’t paying much attention when his cellmate was at work, so what it actually says is REMEMEMBER. That tattoo gives us Dan Chaon’s wicked new literary thriller, Ill Will, in a nutshell. Rusty was convicted for murdering both his adoptive parents, an aunt and an uncle, but, after decades in prison, he’s been exonerated and released. Everything everyone knows about the man had been undermined. What’s clearly remembered isn’t necessarily true.

Recent work by psychologists like Elizabeth Loftus demonstrates how malleable can be. What we remember vividly, clearly and consistently may not be what happened. And if our identities are defined by our experiences—or rather how we remember those experiences—what happens if we loose faith in memory?

Welcome to the unsettling world of Ill Will, where we follow a handful of characters in the present who are trying to grapple with what they think they know about the past. Thirty years ago, an adopted son—Rusty—was convicted of killing the adults in his family while the children slept in a driveway camper. Each surviving character has his or her own clear memory of what happened, but when the convicted killer is exonerated, all those versions of the past are called into question. 

Dustin Tillman, especially, is pulled into his own rabbit hole of recollection. As a kid he was instrumental in convicting his older brother, but now—a clinical psychologist practicing on the fringes—his version of the past is demonstrably untrue. All his default assumptions about the world are undermined, so he flails about for any sense of certainty. But there’s no solid ground underfoot, no matter where he runs. 

“[T]here have been fragments of things,” Dustin at one point muses. “Contradictory images. The truth—my real memories—had been infected by fantasies or daydreams; the two things kept flipping, shifting, so I had never been certain what was being recalled and what was being imagined.” Ultimately, he’s sucked into one of his patient’s elaborate conspiracy theories.

Once or twice in my life, I’ve had what I can only described as a pleasant nightmare—an unsettling and pulse-quickening dream that I’d be happy to return to. Somehow Chaon has found that sweet spot with Ill Will. It’s a nightmarish mash up of the Satanic Panic of the 80s, the Smiley Face Killer conspiracy theory, the myth of recovered memory and a host of other pop-culture vestiges of the X-Files. It’s a heady, creepy read that blurs many lines—including the one between genre fiction and serious literature.

NOT SO INNOCENT: THE BYSTANDERS IN JOANN CHANEY’S WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

Jacky Seever, the notorious serial killer, is safe behind bars, selling his prison-house paintings and biding his time in the dimming spotlight of his atrocities. Years ago he was a news sensation, one of those monsters who somehow capture the public’s imagination—think Johan Wayne Gacy and his crawlspace full of corpses. But that was seven years ago, and new horrors have eclipsed the killer in the local papers and on the late news.

Joann Chaney’s new novel What You Don’t Know isn’t really about Seever and his crimes; it’s about three people who were left floundering in his wake and what happens to them when a series of similar crimes erupts in the same Denver neighborhood.

First there’s Hoshkins, the detective who solved Seever’s case. In the ensuing years he’s grown irritable and impulsively violent—a clear case of PTSD. And his career has suffered; he’s been relegated to thumbing through cold-cases in a lonely precinct basement, while his flamboyant former partner remains in homicide.

Then there’s Sammie, the newspaper reporter who rose to prominence covering Seever’s case. She managed to get all the inside scoops, mostly because she was having an affair with Hoskins. But now she’s pushing cosmetics in the local mall, trying to figure out how to get her career—and life—back on track.

Finally, there’s Gloria, the murder’s wife, who is just trying to survive under the suspicions that have surrounded her since her husband’s. How could she not have known? How could she have been ignorant about all those bodies buried under the house? All she wants now is so be forgotten—although she counts on income from her husband’s gruesome paintings to make ends meet.

Chaney’s novel is a welcome departure from the flinty cynicism of noir crime fiction. This isn’t a story that plays gore for gore’s sake. The gore allows us watch the reactions of humans in the face of the inhumane. Don’t get me wrong: The new series of murders—and who is responsible for them—makes for a suspenseful plot, but readers will be more rooted in Chaney’s revelations about what it means to be a not-so-innocent bystander when horror happens

No Hugging, No Learning: Lindsey Lee Johnson’s The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

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In an epigraph to her new novel The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, Lindsey Lee Johnson quotes Jim Stark: “Nobody talks to children.” The central character of the novel, young first-year high-school teacher Miss Molly Nicoll, is an exception to Stark’s rule. She desperately tries to talk to her students, to enter into their world, and to be a help to them. The novel poses the question whether such an admirable moral undertaking is, in the end, actually worthwhile.

The novel is beautifully written and inventively arranged. The opening chapter tells of a tragedy that befalls a group of eighth-grade students in an affluent California junior high.  Obese, gifted, misfit Tristan finds the courage to write a love note to the girl he adores from a distance. Though Calista Broderick is pretty, and on the fringes of the popular crowd, Tristan believes there is something different about her. “You might not think that anyone in this School sees you but I do. I mean sees you really,” Tristan writes.

Tristan is not entirely wrong about Calista. She is different from the rest of the girls. We come to see that had he waited, perhaps until high school, they might have been friends. Instead, in eighth grade, when Cally reads the letter to her best-friend Abigail Cress, and when Abigail says it is “nasty” and “gross,” and when they decide to show the letter to the beautiful Ryan Harbinger, and when Ryan and his best pal Damon Flintov decide to expose and bully Tristan on Facebook…we know that Tristan’s fate is sealed.

The rest of the book explores, in turn, the high school lives of each actor in the tragedy. It is a display of moral luck, of how our futures are taken captive by decisions we made when we did not know what we were doing. The feeling is of a star exploding: in eighth grade the characters are tightly entangled; by graduation they have drifted beyond one another’s reach.

Interspersed between each chapter on a different student—The Striver, The Dancer, The Pretty Boy, etc.—are interludes depicting the first years of young Miss Nicoll’s teaching life. The feeling in these chapters is the opposite of a star exploding; Molly is trying to burrow deeper and deeper, straining to discover the core of brokenness and desperation she senses in her students’ lives. As a teacher, Molly’s story reminded me of my own youthful idealism, and also of the many reasons such idealism is hard to maintain. Despite her care and effort, Molly mostly fails to make the profound connections and dramatic interventions that fill her daydreams and her journals.

Late in the novel a veteran teacher named Beth interrupts Molly’s futile efforts to save her students from the futures already contained in their pasts. “Molly, listen to me now,” Beth says. “These are not your kids. These are your students.” “But isn’t our job to care?” Molly asks. “Beth smiled pityingly. ‘Of course not. It’s our job to teach.’” Part of what makes The Most Dangerous Place on Earth an honest novel is that we are left not knowing who to pity, Molly or Beth. I can only say that, pitiful or not, I love Molly, and Lindsey Lee Johnson loves her too. 


Kent Dunnington is the author of Addiction and Virtue. 

DARK CHRYSALIS: Camilla Grebe’s The Ice Beneath Her

A DEAD, UNIDENTIFIED woman is found in the empty Stockholm house of a major clothing retailer’s CEO. Her severed head seems to have been posed deliberately upright on the floor to witness the killer’s escape. Jesper Orre, the executive who owns the house, has also gone missing. With those first few pages, Camilla Grebe’s new thriller, The Ice Beneath Her already has you snared.

The story is told from the alternating points of view of three central characters, each of whom is fully fleshed out, with their own compelling backstory. There’s Peter, the workaday police detective who’s struggling with his own terrors of intimacy and commitment. There’s Hanne, the retired profiler who’s slipping into dementia and finally trying, as she begins to lose her identity, to gain some kind of freedom from her domineering husband. Finally, there’s Emma, a salesgirl in one of Orre’s shops whose secret affair with him has gone inexplicably off the rails. She finds herself bereft and broke now that Orre’s vanished from her life, and all she wants are some answers.

One of the novel’s central motifs is a caterpillar kept in a jar by a youngster. The keeper watches while the larva spins a cocoon, and waits, watching to see what will emerge from the chrysalis. That’s a fair picture of the novel’s suspense as we readers wait to see what metamorphosis is at hand, whether what emerges after each characters’ transformation is benign or monstrous.

Grebe’s work falls clearly into the Stieg Larson, Henning Mankell school of snowy, urban Scandanavian thrillers, and it has the same engagingly bleak tone. This is Grebe’s first solo novel, her three previous novels were co-written with her sister, Asa Träff. At heart it’s a straight-ahead thriller, so if you’re looking for twists ahead, you’ll probably see them coming, but with well-drawn characters and a keen eye for human foibles, this novel goes well beyond the tropes and trappings of genre fiction.

The book is translated by Elizabeth Clark Wessell, one of the editors at Argos Books. She once wrote a New Yorker piece called “Translate this Book!” It was about a list of books in most urgent need of translation into English. We should be glad Grebe’s book made her personal list.

Both Microscope and Telescope: Looking More Closely in Annie Dillard’s The Abundance

Annie Dillard’s latest collection of essays is called The Abundance.

No lesser word could describe it.

Dillard here collects old and new essays—though the reader must refer to the index to determine which are which, as none in the bunch feels less polished or insightful than the others. It’s easy to be impressed by the grace of Dillard’s writing, but what always brings us back to her work is her hungry exploration of the magnificent in all things—internal and external, mundane and ethereal—on display throughout her body of work. Wherever she looks Dillard sees wonder, and invites the reader to share the vista.

The book opens with a goose-bump-vivid account of a total solar eclipse. The writing is brilliant, but the essay is honest enough to remind the reader that even beautiful words are overshadowed by the experience itself. The focus of the other essays in this collection is rarely so cosmic; Dillard is more likely to mine the sublunary for sublimity, and her digging never fails to uncover the extraordinary. She seems incapable of pondering anything—weasels, skin, family jokes, Disney tourists—without finding in it an echo of the infinite.

She is also unable to blind herself to the natural world in all its messy fullness. She reports on both the beautiful and horrific, side-by-side. The selections reprinted here from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek are as likely to make you shudder as swoon. (If you’ve never read her account of the giant water bug—my vote for the quintessential Dillard passage—I’ll not spoil it for you.)

No less wild than eclipses, tsunamis, and arctic explorations are Dillard’s glances at herself and her family. Alarm at nature’s indifference turns out to be like a kid’s alarm at recognizing her own humanity; both truths tempt us to abandon hope, neither justifies it.

She seems incapable of pondering anything—weasels, skin, family jokes, Disney tourists—without finding in it an echo of the infinite.

The hardest hitting essay, “Old Stone Presbyterian,” is a mere four pages, a quick note to remind readers what a problem the problem of evil is—especially when we first comprehend it. It would be unfair to neglect mentioning how often Dillard handles such dark and complicated topics with charm and humor. She’s writing to illuminate, not to blind.

Most of the essays here are single-sitting reads, but Dillard wisely concludes with two lengthy pieces, “An Expedition to the Pole” and “Sand” that blend history, theology, philosophy, and her own luminous lifetime of experience into meditations on the sublime, the absurd, and the abundance in between. This abundance comprises everything she, or we, could ever encounter. 

This collection is a wonderful encapsulation of Dillard’s career as essayist, compressed into to something flawless. The Abundance is both microscope and telescope—and, somehow, a mirror as well. When I turned the last page I couldn’t at first articulate the rediscovered desire to see farther than I thought I could. To look more closely at everything. To know the world better, without shortchanging any one of its mysteries. To know myself more fully and less vainly. To love others. To love the worthwhile wherever it is found, and to love it abundantly.

Ecco/March 15, 2016/$25.99


Joel Buck lives and writes in the Los Angeles area.

The Long, Long Fuse: The Art of Making Us Wait in Jonathan Lee's High Dive

In October 1984, a strong explosive detonated at the Grand Hotel, a Victorian luxury hotel in Brighton, England. The target of the bomb was the entire conservative party conference, including Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher. The Provisional IRA planted the bomb. Five people, including two important party members, were killed in the blast. More than 30 were injured.

Jonthan Lee’s new novel High Dive—his first to be published in the US—imagines the events leading up to that explosion. Lee tells his story from the points of view of three focal characters, and the novel, skips between them as they go about their lives—all while the bomb’s long fuse burns down.

Moose Finch, the middle-aged hotel manager has scored a coup by booking the party conference. If this high-profile booking goes flawlessly he feels sure he’ll be promoted to better things. A once-promising platform diver, his life hasn’t quite worked out as he’d expected, but he wants desperately to shape a better future for his teen daughter, Freya, and this seems like a good first step.

We know the bomb’s coming as we turn his pages—but most of the story’s characters don’t. So we see them struggling, worrying, hoping—all as though they had a future.

Freya, a smart and witty adolescent, is just beginning to seriously consider her future, and in her flirtations and alliances we see the yens and yearnings of someone on the cusp of self-discovery. She works behind the hotel desk and watches the parade of possible lives tramping across the carpet in front of her.

Dan is the IRA man sent to check into the hotel and assemble the bomb. His lot is to rig the explosive and then walk away. But then he finds himself having to endure the ensuing days until the bomb goes off—if it works at all. All the while he frets over his political alliances, his mother’s lot as a Catholic living in a Protestant neighborhood, and that young, funny teen girl behind the hotel desk whose face he can’t quite bring himself to forget.

For me the book was seamlessly engaging, and Lee’s deadpan dialogue was whip-smart. And, in one subtly self-aware moment, Lee even tips his hand about his own most important choice in how to tell his story. His character Moose is fruitlessly in love with a wise and lovely Argentinian, Marina, who works for him at the hotel. In one of her conversations with Moose, she offers us a meta-moment, when she talks about how stories are put together:

“…I was going to do a disaster movie, too. An earthquake in Buenos Aires. But instead of an earthquake happening at the start of the movie, like every other disaster movie, and people fleeing and some dying and others recovering, you know—instead of what would happen at the end.”

“Why?”

She was silent for a moment. “Because sometimes the before is more interesting that the after, no: Heading towards the impact. What is beautiful about the dive? It isn’t the splash, is it?”

It’s a smart way for Lee to talk about his own wise choice as novelist. We know the bomb’s coming as we turn his pages—but most of the story’s characters don’t. So we see them struggling, worrying, hoping—all as though they had a future.

Our secret knowledge illuminates their petty harassments and hopes with an odd and aching beauty. In one slant of light, our dull daily lives don’t amount to much, but lit from another angle they are the world of everything there is.

Borzoi Books/March 2016/$25.95


Paul Buchanan lives and writes in the Los Angeles area.

Monuments and Cultural Heroes: Kent Twitchell Talks about His Murals

Kent Twitchell has celebrated many major LA and world events with his looming murals: runners for the Marathon, Loretta Claiborne and Rafer Johnson for the Special Olympics, Nelson Mandela to commemorate the Berlin Wall’s dismantling. But not everyone cares for his behemoth celebrations of conventional American life. They’re neither subtle nor complex, these towering figures of local heroes and TV icons, painted realistically. They’re quick-reads, like billboards—designed to be glimpsed and not studied. 

On a Thursday afternoon, I make my way through Downtown’s always-in-progress construction and workday rush to Kent Twitchell’s studio. He told me to find it by the massive “Blue Jeans” sign advertising the store below.  Above the crowds and trash and blue jeans store, his studio is austere—large and white and silent. I want to ask him, how does he hope his works affect the city? Why the large familiar faces?

The obviousness, the naiveté, he says, is the point of his murals, the reason they’re successful. He wanted to paint the people and experiences in his life he found meaningful, and hoped others would find them meaningful as well. “It wasn’t fashionable to be doing realism in the late sixties, early seventies,” he says. “They thought you were painting puppies and kittens.” But if the art world found him unfashionable, many standard, hard-working Angelinos found him relatable.

“I grew up on a farm,” Twitchell recalls.  “In the forties and fifties it was very, very small farms all over. Like The Waltons, my grandmother lived with us until she died. I just wanted to honor her. I wanted to do something that was really naïve.” He painted “Freeway Lady” in 1974, overlooking the 101. It’s an image of his grandmother looking kind but imposing, carrying a blanket she crocheted for Twitchell. He hoped others would connect with the image, and they did. “It was on the covers, in the front pages of newspapers. People loved it,” he says. Part of the appeal might come from the comfort the image offers its viewers, just as the grandmother offers the crochet blanket. But although it’s designed to resonate with every viewer, it takes white Midwesterners as the norm. His paintings of celebrities—like Steve McQueen, Ruby Dee and Dr. J—tap into the same naiveté. “I call them ‘Monuments to American Cultural Heroes,’” he says.

“Freeway Lady” is naïve precisely because Twitchell is giving viewers an image whose meaning they already know, without further comment or complexity. 

While Warhol invested the mundane with new significance—soup cans, Brillo boxes—Twitchell merely capitalizes on the meanings already built into an image. “Freeway Lady” is naïve precisely because Twitchell is giving viewers an image whose meaning they already know, without further comment or complexity. Viewers connect with the image not because of any significance Twitchell has given it, but because of the associations they already have with an image of a grandmother. And this image is sorely in need of comment, of a new presentation, as it is almost dismissible in its familiarity. Warhol knew we had seen Marilyn’s image so many times it was emptied of meaning. Twitchell’s “Freeway Lady” does not acknowledge that we may have seen so many images of kind, blanket-bearing grandmothers that there is little left to think about.

Twitchell’s naiveté conflates the sacred and the celebrated, blending the two meanings of icon until they are indistinguishable. From 1977 to 1978 he painted a mural on a county building called “The Holy Trinity with the Virgin.” For the figure of God, he chose the Lone Ranger. “Who else but the Lone Ranger?” he asks.  He remembers years listening to the Lone Ranger’s voice on the radio, and the confusing moment when he first saw him, played by Clayton Moore, on a brand new TV.  The wonder he felt for his childhood icon seemed to make him a natural choice for the figure of God.  In painting the Lone Ranger, Twitchell hoped to paint not only his own childhood icon but someone many American children grew up idolizing. 

If a new generation of Angelinos hasn’t grown up with the Lone Ranger, many of them have grown up seeing Twitchell’s murals as they go to school or take the freeway downtown. Of the “Holy Trinity with the Virgin,” painted on what is now an elementary school, Twitchell says, “The principal of the school loves the mural. She was a little girl when I was painting it.” Twitchell’s large murals, as public art, not only represent a familiar cultural identity, they create it.

Twitchell favors the monumentality of mural art because he hopes to create with it the same sense of wonder he felt for the Lone Ranger. When Twitchell was in the Air Force, stationed in London, he befriended a young Ivy Leaguer from his battalion.  Twitchell describes him, saying,  “He was so smart and so cultured, and he was sort of a nerd. Nobody liked him, but I was a young guy, and I just took to him.” They’d drive around in Twitchell’s new Volkswagen on weekends, and the friend would explain to Twitchell everything they saw.  One weekend they drove to the Salisbury Cathedral.  “In the British Isles, there’s always this tumultuous weather going on, with dramatic clouds, which I loved,” Twitchell says. “You look up at the spires and clouds are rushing by. You feel close to God.”  The experience of a cathedral is the same experience Twitchell hopes to evoke with his murals. “I wanted my works to have that monumentality,” he says. “I wanted people to have to look up in their faces like a child looking at their parent.” This response of wonder that people feel towards parents or religious icons Twitchell relates uncritically to celebrities.  In this way, his murals create a sense of shared cultural identity because they reaffirm traditional values and celebrate the already celebrated.

Twitchell hopes to lift up not only people’s minds, but LA’s architecture as well.  This doesn’t mean, he tells me emphatically, that every building should have a mural on it. He likes to paint on plain buildings, on the backs of movie theaters for example. “You want a building that needs you,” he says.  “Some buildings don’t need you.  Don’t force yourself on the world.”


Kelly McBride wishes she lived in the mountains with large dogs.

Loving the Limits of Language: Jhumpa Lahiri's In Other Words

Imagine reaching the peak of your profession, your rookie year. Your first book Interpreter of Maladies—a collection of short stories, first published as a lowly paperback original—wins the coveted Pulitzer Prize.

Your three follow-up books all turn out to be commercial and critical successes. They are The NamesakeUnaccustomed Earth and The Lowland—in other words a major motion picture, the winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award.

Where do you go from there?

Jumpa Lahiri decided that one way to mix things up creatively was to present herself with a possibly insurmountable challenge: to reinvent herself as a writer by switching languages. She abandoned the English that served her so well and embraced Italian, a language to which her only connection was aesthetic and intellectual.

Lahiri's In Other Words is published as a bilingual work on two sides of the page (In Altre Parole being the original Italian title). It recounts her attempt to immerse herself in a language she adopted by choice, or, more idealistically, by a linguistic love affair of her own invention.

In this book, Lahiri not only abandons her native language, she replants herself in the unaccustomed earth of Rome. It’s a testament to her resolve that she chooses not to translate this book herself. Having been inspired to take the risk of writing exclusively in Italian, Lahiri feared her facility with English would reveal the limitations of her abilities, and possibly undermine the entire courageous undertaking. (She trusts the translation to Anne Goldstein, who has brought Primo Levi, Alessandro Barricco, and a slew of Elena Ferrante’s novels to English.)

In this book, Lahiri not only abandons her native language, she replants herself in the unaccustomed earth of Rome.

In short chapters that read as vignettes about her immersion in a new “primary” language, Lahiri allows herself to be pointedly allegorical, relying on analogies in her adopted language that, in another context, might have fallen flat in her native tongue.

The first chapter, "The Crossing," begins with the image of a small lake she feels compelled to cross. She explains that in her 20-year relation with Italian she has always been guilty of "hugging the shore" of English, afraid to go deeper. The straightforward analogy reminds us that Lahiri is taking on a language that has produced world masterpieces, that she is entering a conversation with the language of Ovid, with the linguistic heritage of Dante Alighieri—and that, like Alighieri, she too is now a writer in exile.

Despite such gestures, Lahiri's claims are more modest than her famous Italian predecessors. Lahiri, who has proven her skills at description and setting in her fictional works, relies at times on the tropes of travel writing, and such moments here draw readers into the Eternal City. Of greater interest than these deft slices of local color are the author's musings about linguistic vulnerability, of backsliding by leaving Rome for a month, and realizing how uncomfortable she felt back home in America.  

One chapter, "The Exchange," is her first short story written entirely in Italian. Highly metaphorical, it is unclear how well the story would have succeeded in another context, but it helps lay the stakes in play: nothing less than complete immersion in the Italian language will do.

Another chapter, "The Wall," brings issues of racial identity and language to the forefront. Lahiri recounts how, despite her facility with Italian, many natives continue to address her in English. They assume that a non-local Asian woman couldn’t possibly understand the nuances of the language; she just doesn't look the part. 

Lahiri’s fans, or anyone interested in how a highly successful author can continue to mature through self-imposed limitations, will find Lahiri's In Other Words much more than a young prodigy’s vanity project.  Jhumpa Lahiri's latest effort succeeds as a compelling meditation on language, culture and the ability to scale the complicated wall of linguistic expression for the sheer joy of the new vista it offers.

Marc Malandra holds both an MFA and a PhD in literature from Cornell University. He is also much taller than you.


Knopf/February 9, 2016/$26.95

Telling and Telling: A Review of Graham Swift's Wish You Were Here

It’s long been popular to criticize the proliferation of writing MFA programs in the US. And it’s easy to dismiss the overly processed, cookie cutter fiction they often shape. But these programs tend to teach those aspects of writing that are actually teachable. They focus on the “show don’t tell” school of writing—a kind of visual story that’s constructed of discrete scenes composed of dialogue and gesture. It’s the kind of fiction that feels closest to cinematic. But there are other kinds of writing, many of them unteachable.

One example of another approach—an approach that feels distinctly British—is Graham Swift’s new novel, Wish You Were Here. Rather than being built out of scenes that add up to a plot, Swift’s novel is built of echoes, and it adds up, for the patient reader, to a whole and complicated man. The man at the core of this book is Jack Luxton of Jebb Farm in Devon. The farm has been the family business for generations, but it has been ravaged by mad cow disease and the simple attrition of Luxtons—Jack is the last of his line—so he has left the land behind for a different less-rooted life: running a caravan park on the Isle of Wight with his wife.

Jack’s only sibling, Tom, fled the dismal farm life decades ago on his 18th birthday to enlist in the army, and, as the novel begins, he has returned from Iraq in a flag-draped coffin. Jack’s journey home to bury his brother prompts all the looking back that comprises this novel. The motifs that reverberate throughout Jack’s life are various—a sentiment scrawled on a postcard, a tarnished medal, a scarred oak, a Remembrance Day ritual—but as they echo again and again, each builds a kind of resonance.

In defiance of the “show don’t tell” school of fiction, Swift’s novel tells and tells and tells.

In defiance of the “show don’t tell” school of fiction, Swift’s novel tells and tells and tells. Many pages go by without a scene or spoken word. Many passages don’t happen in any particular place or time. It is full of dizzying shifts in point of view. A visible narrator leans in at times to tell us what none of the novel’s characters know. This novel defies most of the teachable MFA precepts of novel writing that have come to embody the vast majority of American fiction—but it is artful and heartfelt.

One of the novel’s most chilling and pungent scenes involves both brothers and their flinty, taciturn father. It’s time to put down the ancient family dog, and the father chooses one brother to come with him in the pickup, with the shovels and the shotgun and the old dog wrapped in a blanket. The other brother is left behind alone to listen for the echo of the shot. The scene is full of dread and regret and family politics, and its repercussions never quite fall silent throughout the rest of the book. Only on the final pages do we sense that Jack might, at last, lay that day—and the rest of his complicated history—to rest and move on. 


P J MORKAN got an MFA in writing and sees no reason to be ashamed of that fact.

Lizards and Lepers: The complicated world of Russell Banks' Lost Memory of Skin

A little over three-hundred pages into Russell Banks’ new novel Lost Memory of Skin a character from one of his earlier novels arrives in the story.  It’s Delores Driscoll, the small-town school bus driver from The Sweet Hereafter—the woman behind the wheel when fourteen children were killed in an accident that was probably her fault.  In the new novel she is remarried and living on the edge of a Florida swamp.  No direct reference is made to the great tragedy that looms in her past.  It’s a beautiful touch, since the principal characters in Lost Memory of Skin are people haunted by histories they can never escape.

The centerpiece of Banks’ novel is a sex-offender shantytown under a causeway overpass, on the outskirts of a city that looks an awful lot like Miami.  The registered offenders cannot leave the county, but they also can’t live within 2,500 feet of any place minors might congregate.  It’s a geographically impossible mandate, and, though this encampment is their only legal refuge, no one wants them there. 

The Kid, a 23-year-old virgin, is one of the offenders forced to live under the bridge. (A craigslist ad about his pet iguana led him by degrees into an increasingly explicit email exchange with an underage girl, whom he eventually plotted to meet.) The Kid has been released from prison and must spend the next decade recharging his ankle monitor and contemplating the leper-like stigma his conviction carries.

The Kid’s unlikely benefactor is a morbidly obese sociology professor who is doing research on homelessness and recidivism among sex offenders.  The man is a celebrated genius, but he’s hard to read, and his intentions are seldom clear to the Kid.  All the Kid knows is that he can’t afford to reject the Professor’s generosity and help. When a hurricane sweeps through the encampment, lies are pulled apart, secrets are dredged up, and everything we thought we knew about Banks’ characters vanishes into a cloud of uncertainty.

Banks frustrates our need to vilify, file, and forget people like the Kid. On the one hand, the Kid is guiltier than we hope we’ll ever be, but at the same time he’s as guileless as we wish we were.  

Banks, at his best, is a master of capturing the complexity of a situation and the psychological nuance of each character.  In this case, we hear everyone’s reasons—or rationalizations—for what he’s done, and yet we suspect everything we hear.  We’re left with the uneasy task of judging the characters from a position of uncertainty.  We want to think in terms of truth and lies, guilt and innocence, but Banks forces us to honestly entertain the complicated alloys of both that dominate our lives and behavior. 

 “Everyone has a story that proclaims his innocence,” one of the book’s least sympathetic characters tells the Kid.  “It’s human nature.  I’m a lawyer, Kid.  I’ve heard them all.” But the Kid refuses to succumb to reductionistic cynicism; he’s too basically honest to allow himself off the hook that easily. Likewise, Banks frustrates our need to vilify, file, and forget people like the Kid. On the one hand, the Kid is guiltier than we hope we’ll ever be, but at the same time he’s as guileless as we wish we were.  

Anyone can make a terrible mistake in a moment of impulse or inattention. Delores Driscoll knows this, and when she arrives in the novel she’s a lonely voice of compassion. She embraces the Kid, despite his stigma, and she gently chastises her husband for his natural mistrust and suspicion.  In doing so, she makes us wonder by what inscrutable logic we choose to dole out second chances.