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<i>Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life</i>. By Yiyun Li. Random House, 2017. 224p. HB, $27.

Unsettled

In 2011, the writer Yiyun Li and I were both asked to judge a fiction contest for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. I panicked, that certain swoon-panic of the fellow author who is a fan, at her name next to mine. I was enamored of all her abilities, from mechanical to aesthetic—a certain gelid elegance, sharpness in syntax and diction, fluidity of theme in dark and light with such self-possessed strokes. And I—in my head and sometimes truly with my pen, an impulsive maximalist-stylist, always straddling rough and rougher—studied her register but found it impossible to emulate. So when we judged that contest together, I tried to calmly and coolly interact with her without a stutter. We both had agreed on the same winner almost instantly. I completely agree with you, Porochista. It’s my favorite too, so let’s go ahead with it? she wrote, words I held on to for months. Eventually I realized we had even more in common than I dared suspect: her East Asian immigrant to my West Asian immigrant, English as a second language, nuclear physicist fathers, and California as home.

Illustration by Corey Brickley

Dixon

A star-smeared night, the usual briny and humid haze of the brush country in August, and Dixon was hauling twenty cases of stolen toys up from the Rio Grande valley. If the border patrol at the Sarita checkpoint asked, he’d claim a delivery mix-up.

Illustration by Corey Brickley

Keepers

You hate the way the goats look at you, like you’re a stranger. Even when you walk up with buckets of grain for the last meal of the day. With your mother, they would huddle close and gnaw at the grass stains on her boots. But you are an outsider to them. The old ones retreat, their black hair matted with dust. They prefer that you leave the food and go. The pregnant one stays in the shadows of the pen. All you can see are her paranoid eyes, round yellow stones. She’ll stop acting so crazy after birth, but you remind yourself you won’t stick around that long. You won’t be the one bottle-feeding the baby like a little brother, swathed in cotton blankets. Umma can do that. That’s the choice she’s made, this is where she wants to trickle out the rest of her years toward a tasteless end. You won’t stick around for that, either. By then you’ll be in Seoul, with Jun. He’ll teach you the taste of Jamaican coffee; he’ll take you shopping for fur in the middle of July. You’ll come back to visit Umma, of course, every harvest holiday and new year. But when it’s your turn to grow old and die, you’ll be wrapped in Siberian mink.

“How are they?” Umma asks when you come back from feeding. “Did they eat enough? Is everyone there?”

“They’re great,” you tell her, even though you forgot to count.

You hate the breakfast Umma makes, brown rice wrapped in perilla leaves that scratch the inside of your mouth. But you chew and chew, under the sweet spot of the ceiling fan, surrounded by pots and pans turned over on the floor to dry—next to the chili peppers spread out on newspapers to dry, which are next to the thick blades of grass laid out on more newspapers to dry. Remember to stack the pots when they finish drying. Remember to collect the hay and mix it into the feed tomorrow. Remember to count the goats next time, instead of rushing out the gate.

In the morning Umma gathers her prayer beads for her walk to temple. You hate how she spends all her time and money on the goats, on the monks, everyone but herself. More and more, she refuses to bother with the rituals of civilization. Her fingernails grow until they break off. Her toothbrush is always dry. She no longer wears underwear under her house skirt. When she grows old, really old, no one will be able to tell her apart from the goats.

Once in a while the weather forces her to stay home. Every August, the monsoon comes strong enough to knock dragonflies dead out of the air. The two of you will usually sit by the window together, watching the summer flood. Through the closed windows you can hear the goats bleating for dry land. Sometimes the rain crashes so hard it bounces off the cement path, but even then you can still hear them.

 

Illustration by Corey Brickley

Location

The camp was deserted when they trekked into it. The tall canvas tents were zipped and the big table in the midst of the glade was clear but for a monkey that looked up when Simon approached. The monkey bared its teeth and screeched. Simon stepped back. One of the creature’s eyes, he noticed, was partly closed. A line of scar tissue ran from brow to cheek, over the corner of the eyelid. Rayyan picked up a branch and jabbed at the animal until it climbed off the tabletop and loped in the direction of the trees on toes and knuckles. “Bad monkeys in this park,” said Rayyan. He took a cloth from his pocket and wiped the table before he invited Simon to sit. It was a rough wooden table, made of felled saplings knotted together. They sat opposite each other in canvas chairs and resumed their conversation about Rayyan’s favorite topic: Manchester United. “Antonio Valencia,” Rayyan said. He exhaled and shook his head slowly and sadly. “Always they put him in the wrong position.”

Illustration by Anna Schuleit Haber

Johnny Bill

On the front porch he lit a cigarette, thinking he’d quit when the baby was born. His neighborhood of Newport appeared peaceful at night, the yards neatly aligned, illuminated by dim streetlights. A slight hum filled the air, its source indistinct, as if all the houses emanated the sussuration of comfortable life. 

Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens: Reportage. By László Krasznahorkai.  Translated by Ottilie Mulzet.  Seagull, 2015. 320p. HB, $30.

Hungary’s Bounty

On two occasions, during the preparation of this piece, people stopped me in cafés, pointing to the stack of Krasznahorkai’s books on my table, expressing their enthusiasm for his bleak comedy and particular brand of absurdity. The conversations ended in starry-eyed camaraderie, akin to the sparks between thrill seekers who’ve both traversed Machu Picchu. 

The Story of My Teeth.  By Valeria Luiselli.  Translated by Christina MacSweeney. Coffee House, 2015. 184p. PB, $16.95.

The Art of the Steal

As we discussed some of his favorite authors—from Heinrich von Kleist and Virginia Woolf to Jack Kerouac and Jayne Anne Phillips—Doctorow asked: “What can you steal from these writers?”

Illustration by Gosia Herba

Other People’s Birthdays

Whatever it took to make it an arduous trip, and of course you couldn’t say the obvious, you had to smile and say there were worse problems blah blah blah. The mediocre glass of wine for thirteen dollars at the airport bar was one of them. The candy bar she ate on top of that, an hour later, made her sick. 

André Løyning

Knausgaard’s Triumph

All of this is surprisingly interesting, even addictive, as has often been pointed out in reviews. But no one can pinpoint precisely why. A striking element in the praise of Knausgaard—and he has garnered almost uniform praise in the English-speaking press—is the recourse to vocabulary not normally considered complimentary. “Boring” comes up an enormous amount.

Illustration by John Ritter

Blood Nation

Truth is the goal of the memoir—or at least of its preface. Such authenticating devices are ways of gaining trust in a distrustful world. And yet such a disclaimer comes up against the problem encountered by a fabricator coming clean: “To tell you the truth, I am a liar.”

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