Monday, March 30, 2015

Podcast No. 15: 'Where Are All the Black People?' A Conversation with Jennifer Marie Brissett

Jennifer Marie Brissett’s first novel, Elysium, or the World After, portrays a fractured world, one whose seemingly irreversible destruction does nothing to dampen the survivors’ collective will to live.

Brissett showed similar determination in writing the book, whose non-traditional structure places it outside the mainstream. Fortunately, her approach has been validated, first by her teachers at Stonecoast Creative Writing Program at the University of Southern Maine, where she wrote Elysium as her final thesis, and later by the committee that selected Elysium as one of six nominees for the Philip K. Dick Award.

“I wasn’t sure there was a space for me in this writing world. And to a certain degree I still sort of wonder. But the idea that I could write and that my stories are worthy of being told was something [Stonecoast] really helped to foster in me,” she says in her New Books interview.

In some respects, Elysium is simple: it tells a story of love and loss between two people. But Elysium is also complicated because those two people morph from scene to scene changing from two brothers to father/daughter to husband/wife to boyfriend/boyfriend to girlfriend/girlfriend.

When imagining the future, conventional science fiction often focuses too much on gadgets and not enough on people, Brissett says. “We think [science fiction] is about … the new machines we’ll have, the little gadgets that will make our lives easier … but I think the civil rights movement is one of the most science-fictional things that could have probably happened, because all of a sudden this entire group of people that was totally ignored showed up at the table and said ‘We want in.’”

As a child, Brissett found the Wonder Bread future depicted in The Jetsons frightening. “I remember watching as a kid the Jetsons and thinking ‘That is an absolutely terrifying vision of the future. Where are all the black people?’” she says. “The future belongs to everybody. It doesn’t really belong to any one group. And yet when you see visions of the future, it’s usually mostly white heterosexual people wandering around.”

In the early 2000s, Brissett owned an independent bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she experienced the publishing industry’s struggles firsthand. Rather that discourage her from becoming a writer herself, the experience seems to have solidified her desire to tell stories in the way she wants to tell them. “You have to love this field to be here. If you’re here for money, you are certifiably crazy,” she says.

Spoiler Alert

From 6:45 to 10:24 we talk about a major part of the plot, which is revealed on the book jacket but doesn’t actually emerge towards the end of the book so people might want to skip this part (and not read the jacket copy) if they want to approach the story as a mystery whose answer lies in the book’s structure.

Related Links

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Toys on a Church Fence (Harlem, New York)

The cross on the tree and the proximity of a church suggested to me that there might be more going on here than meets the eye. Is it a memorial for a child? A monument to childhood? A resting spot for lost toys?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Everything Looks Smaller from Here

Some friends just moved into a new apartment building with a roof deck that offers views of ... everything.

The Morning Mews

My vision was filled with cats as soon as I opened my eyes this morning.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Weddings+Snow=Spring in New York City

My friends John and Vincent got married today. Like my husband and I, they've been together for nearly 30 years (29 in their case, to be exact), so in a sense, the wedding was putting a bit of legal icing on the cake of their relationship (a horrible metaphor but weddings make me think of cake, I guess). I was honored and joyful to serve as a witness, and I also got a kick out of seeing once again the clockwork machinations of the Manhattan Marriage Bureau. There were hundreds of folks there when we arrived, each group waiting for their number to be called.

It was the first day of Spring, a typically fickle time weather-wise, so it seemed appropriate that by the time we left, snow had begun to fall.  By late afternoon, the trees in Riverside Park were thoroughly (and beautifully) covered.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Noah Baumbach

I saw a screening tonight of While We're Young, Noah Baumbach's new film, due to be released in 10 days. It's a funny, fast-moving film peripherally about documentary film-making but mostly about aging and the poignant allure of youth (in this case a young Brooklyn hipster-y couple) to those entering middle-age (in this case a childless, somewhat directionless couple whose biggest thrill comes from Googling information on their iPhones).

In answering the question "How do other films influence your work?" he explains in the clip I filmed below that the black socks with brown shoes worn by Robert Redford's character in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN had "a real impact" that influenced his film THE SQUID AND THE WHALE. He doesn't explain the impact further but the comment elicited a chuckle from the crowd.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Capital(ist) Improvements

I know countless people have photographed the many statues of Tom Otterness' Life Underground installation at the 14th St. & 8th Ave. subway station, so there's no real need to add to the gazillions already spinning through the internet. One of the many charms of the little statues scattered throughout the station is how they're smoothly integrated into the environment of the station. In this instance, this little guy, who looks like a close relation of Monopoly's Rich Uncle Pennybags, appears to be  waiting patiently for the next subway, presumably so he can take the sack of money he's clutching to the bank. This day, however, he enjoyed a brief respite from his perpetual waiting as transit workers installed a new pipe within his line of sight, and I felt that this break in the ordinary course of events was worthy of capturing with my cell phone camera.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Snow: the Good & Bad

New York has two faces when it comes to snow storms. There's there the beautiful moment when the snow is fresh or even still falling, and the flakes collect on branches and sidewalks, softening sounds and conveying tranquility. The calm and beauty is especially evident on side streets, like 43rd between 10th and 9th pictured.

Then there are the days post-snowfall, when the white turns gray. Sometimes, at busy intersections, the gray appears instantaneously, especially when the new snow combines with old snow. Such was the case a few minutes ago in Times Square, where a man was trying to squeegee away a huge puddle of slushy snow from the corner of 42nd and 8th Avenue.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Podcast No. 14: 200 Years after the Luddite Revolution

While science fiction often seeks to imagine the impact of new science on the future, Rod Duncan explores an opposite: what happens when science remains frozen in the past.

In The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter, the Luddites prevailed in their protests 200 years ago against labor-replacing machinery, leaving science and culture stuck for generations in a Victorian-like age.

Against this backdrop, Duncan introduces Elizabeth Barnabus, who outmaneuvers the restrictions placed on her as a single woman pretending (with the help of quick-change-artist skills) to be her own brother. “Gender identity and gender presentation is a theme that runs through Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter because in order to do certain things in her world she needs at times to cross-dress and do it in a convincing way,” Duncan says in his interview with me on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Elizabeth’s mastery of disguise—and her knowledge of deception acquired from her circus-owning father—allow her to earn a living as a private investigator and accept an assignment that brings her face to face with agents of the International Patent Office.

In January, The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, validating Duncan’s decision to take a stab at science fiction. “I like to let ideas play in an imagined world and see what happens,” he says.

Asked if he found it difficult to write a first-person narrative in a woman’s voice, Duncan points out that all writers must overcome countless barriers to fully enter the minds of their characters.

“The book is about illusion and any writer trying to write from the point of view of someone different from themselves is trying to pull off some kind of illusion; they are trying with smoke and mirrors to seem as if they are realistically that person. Now sometimes that person may be different in all kinds of … ways from the writer.”

Duncan explains that he is dyslexic. “So for me is it a bigger challenge to write from the view of someone who is not dyslexic or is it a bigger challenge to write from the point of view of someone who is from a different time or someone who is a different sex?”

In the end, Duncan says that all writers, like his protagonist Elizabeth, are cross-dressers “in a psychological sense because we have to put ourselves into the minds of other people.”

Related links:
The interview touches on the conjuring illusion "the bullet catch" from which the book derives its title. Ned Ludd and the Luddites also come up.
The conversation concludes with a mention of Duncan’s role in the movie Zombie Undead. The trailer is on Rotten Tomatoes and the entire film in on YouTube.