Weeks after weaving through the overwhelming crowds of AWP, I finally got around to tackling the large pile of books I had acquired. Black Warrior Review (BWR), issue 38.2, was at the top, and I found it to be chock full of amazing work. So, instead of concentrating on one voice to represent the whole journal, I found three unique writers who came up with three individual stories, as distinct in setting from one another as war-torn Mexico is from the backwoods of the southern United States — different, but interestingly similar as well.
What these three writers have in common is a mastery of setting. They deliver their stories with the confidence only a native character born inside their storied worlds could give; they have the ability to say just the right thing at just the right time.
In “The Burial,” by Billy Longino, we meet an albañil whose son has just been killed, and who’s been given the mission of burying his son alongside his mother’s family, in a cemetery many miles away, in a village that was “abandoned when the silver mines closed and the maquiladoras opened in the city,” a dangerous city, a city so dangerous the priest refuses to travel to them and, instead, gives last rites over the telephone line. “The Burial” is as much about interring the child as it is about the place the child is being buried — and it is the author’s language that makes both the character and the place come alive.
Alex Taylor’s story, “Spare Parts,” is likewise connected to its scenery through language. He uses a language that is both of the junkyard and . . . other. Taylor intermixes junkyard jargon — “give him a dose of Keystone and then take him to the dirt” — and intelligent descriptions that are, perhaps, smarter than the narrator himself: “What he wants is a spell to get a peek at your wang. Lute is enamored with wangs. He peruses them. The reason for this is Lute’s own pecker is a deformed oddity pinched between two of his brown fingers, thin as a cowboy-rolled smoke, the head knotty and swollen.” The narrator relies on the junkyard, is a participant in that world, and yet, he gives us an experience of that place that makes the junkyard universally understood.
Another premise all three of these stories utilize is the source of silence, of Truth, of something — and this something torments the narrators.
Jenny Hanning’s “A Family Price,” describes this silent something as a misunderstanding in our brain. She calls it “The Blink Effect”: “Of the human senses, our most powerful is sight. The human eye sees faster than the human brain can process. . . . An average blink is two hundred milliseconds, eight hundred short of a full second, maybe the curl of the tongue in preparation of saying one Mississippi. A beat behind, the brain struggles, stutters, fills in the blanks base on familiarity or fears.” Miscomprehension occurs in Hanning’s story in the same way it does in Taylor’s and Longino’s: both literally and emblematically. Each story describes itself in a physical setting, staged gorgeously, and with a tangible climax, but each story also alludes to a silent something with which the main characters struggle.
Here’s what the authors had to say:
The Lit Pub: So you’ve all been published in the same issue of BWR. Have you read each other’s stories? What do you think of the issue, of BWR in general, and how did you go about choosing to submit your stories there?
Alex: I’ve read Mr. Longino’s story but have yet to set down with Ms. Henning’s. I was quite impressed with Mr. Longino’s tale and I am honored to be in a journal with as long and prestigious a history as the Black Warrior Review.
Billy: Alex’s language was fascinating to read, it’s very acrobatic. And I thought Jenny’s interjection of “The Blink Effect” was enviable. The reason I submitted to Black Warrior Review was just because they have a consistent, unique aesthetic, visually and in the work they select, that I greatly admire, which Alex and Jenny’s work fit very well.
Jenny: I have also read—and enjoyed—Billy’s and Alex’s stories. When I submit, it’s to journals that I like to read, so it was a real pleasure to be included in BWR alongside so much interesting work.
Literary journals can be hard to pin down at times; they can have hard-to-describe aesthetics — even after reading a few issues. However, after reading the three of you, I think I have a better sense of what the BWR editors (of this issue at least) were looking for. You are all three completely unique writers, and I think that is the very attribute that makes your writing attractive. You create unique worlds, and it’s only in these worlds, with their explicit languages, that the story can exist.
TLP: Can you comment specifically on the way your language (tone, word choice, etc.) connects to setting and character in your stories?
Jenny: I think that place and identity are inseparable. Where a person is from influences who they are in a million nuanced ways, some obvious and others not, but all equally defining. So, to me, character is an extension of setting—or a product of it?—and vice versa. It’s a goal, though maybe not one I succeed at, to represent a place, and through that, the people living in it, accurately. Life changing events happen without markedly changing daily life.
Billy: I agree. In my work at least, I think language is inseparable from setting. The way language presents the setting must come naturally out of the setting itself, otherwise it feels disjointed—unless, of course, that’s the point. But in “The Burial,” the bleakness of the landscape is totally consumed by the language and presented to the reader, or I hope it is anyway.
TLP: The language of your landscape, Billy, does exactly what (I think) Jenny is talking about when she says the representation of a place brings out the people of that place. The way you describe the open dessert, with the whipping sand and wind, makes me think of the hard work a man must commit himself to for the journey across that space. Your main character is exactly that man — the albañil, the bricklayer. What were your thoughts behind choosing that name?
Billy: I don’t really remember my initial thoughts. I think I might of wanted a character whose job was something old, almost Biblical, but also something day laborers still do. As for being nameless, people like the albañil are always nameless in our daily lives.
TLP: The Burial reminds me of the language in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and maybe a little of Silence by Shusaku Endo, but unlike your characters, both these writer’s main characters are foreigners struggling with a language barrier. How do you see the intermixing of Spanish and English working in your story?
Billy: I don’t believe that any actual barrier exists between the United States and Mexico beyond the metaphorical, and I think, at least, the languages represent the illusory nature of the border in their spillover. Being white and a native English speaker in the neighborhood and town I grew up in, I was a minority. To me, Spanish has always been symbiotic with English. They seemed inseparable. It’s just what I heard every day of my life. So, for me, the intermixing of the two languages represents the complex cultural connections between the U.S. and Mexico that are largely ignored by certain political elements in this country — the same politicians building that fence-simulacrum across empty desert. Language merging is a force of intercultural systems, to which no borders exist. Sorry, I’m a little obsessed with this.
TLP: Interesting. So the Spanish wasn’t so much an insertion into your work, rather, the mixture of the two languages was native to your landscape?
Billy: Right, to think of the Spanish as being inserted is to think of it as something that doesn’t belong, when in actuality the English is really what doesn’t belong in this story, as the only one who speaks in English is the man in the church, unless you count the narrator too. But to answer the question, Spanish shouldn’t be something seen as alien in our culture, or our literature, or something inserted, which implies a sort of invasion, but something that is an intrinsic part of the daily lives of many of us in this society. Spanish and Spanish speaking people shouldn’t be seen as living on the margins of American narratives.
TLP: Alex, “Spare Parts” has a language all its own as well.
Alex: I write about people whose common everyday idiom is infused with poetry. However, it’s the poetry that has either been neglected or maligned as being evidence of ignorance. I am influenced by Zora Neale Hurston, who saw the value of the common speech patterns used by the poor and uneducated. Further, my characters often employ language that is inseparable from the rhythms of the natural world. They are noticers. They observe the metaphors inherent in the land and speak accordingly.
TLP: That’s a gorgeous way to see language. Can you recommend a work by Hurston we should all read?
TLP: I mentioned before that your narrator seems both of the junkyard, and aware of the world outside it. He seems uncomfortable with the situation at the junkyard, and at the same time he seems familiar with the whole scene. Can you explain his inner conflict?
Alex: Well, he’s trying to be absolved of his past sins by returning to the junkyard that’s operated by a man he tormented as a boy. I think a lot of my characters tend to wrestle with guilt. I don’t view it as an entirely unhealthy emotion, guilt. Rather, it seems to indicate a richness of soul.
All good characters have complexities.
TLP: Jenny, let’s talk about this Blink Effect you got going on. Two pages into “A Family Price,” you pause to give us a definition of it before continuing on. How do you see this specific explanation working in the story?
Jenny: I think that the pause and explanation needed to be there for the story to track. And, it’s interesting, to me at least, that we say, “Seeing is believing,” when we can’t trust our own eyes, or, on a larger level, our initial perceptions. It’s disorienting when you misinterpret something, respond to the misinterpretation, then have it corrected, and have to re-sort your reactions. It reminds me of how memory operates.
TLP: Some people might say memory has a way of attaching itself to the landscape as well, just as much as language might. What do you think?
Jenny: I agree, absolutely. A place can hold an experience, and when it’s revisited, what happened there can feel just as fresh or raw, even years later. That may be a cliché? — but it’s true! Sensory details, I think, play a large part in a landscape’s ability to recall events. All the unique qualities of a place contribute to how it’s remembered and become triggers for memory.
TLP: That’s definitely the way in which I see landscape, by how I’ve seen it before, what I was doing then.
Alex: The place I come from is burdened with memory. A friend of mine was riding over his farm one day and spied two bobcats sitting on a log at the edge of a field. A rare and exciting scene, as bobcats are notoriously elusive. As he was recounting the moment to me, he said, ‘If I hadn’t spent all my life looking at that piece of ground I wouldn’t have noticed those two cats.’ This is indicative of the attention my people pay to their surroundings. They stare long and hard at things as seemingly mundane as fallen oak trees, and they learn to remember the lay of their land so that any change is noticed immediately. I call it a burden, this looking and this remembering, but that may be inaccurate, in so much as ‘burden’ indicates hardship and toil. Perhaps what I mean is my people are wardens of memory. They are tenants of recollection, working on shares for the place that has held them close and kept them safe.
Perhaps our memories trap a place in time as much as they enhance the landscape.
TLP: The pause you give, Jenny, to explain “The Blink Effect” isn’t the only time we hear that tone of voice. We also here about the way deer pause in headlights, and how we mistakenly call the smell of gunpowder cordite. These explanations seem to be a function of the narrator. Why did you decide to narrate this story from a bystander’s perspective?
Jenny: I hadn’t thought of it like that, but I can see what you’re saying. In my mind, those asides or pauses are the same narrator as the “I” in the story, trying to give context for his experience, rather than a true bystander perspective. We describe things through comparison to clarify them, but how do you describe something that defies comparison?
You definitely wouldn’t have been able to work with that idea of the indescribable if you were to put it in the brother’s perspective. It’s interesting how the same story can be told so differently through point of view. I think it’s that silence — that miscomprehension — at the end of your story that really sticks with you.
TLP: Billy, there’s a certain stages-to-silence that happens in your story as well. In the beginning, the albañil tells his son about God. Then, once the son is killed, the albañil refuses to talk about God. Lastly, in the end, the man in the church puts a finger over the albañil’s lips and prevents him from defending God. What do these stages of silence represent?
Billy: I’m not sure I can begin to comprehend what silence means in Mexico these days. Silence is sanctuary; silence keeps you alive. But silence terrifies us; we think it’s unnerving or whatever. There is a paradox there that is sad and beautiful. Then there is the act of being silenced and what that means. The albañil couldn’t even tell God what he had witnessed. The son is silent through the whole story because he is dead. And, of course, God is silent, too. I hadn’t really thought of this before. It’s interesting.
TLP: Maybe that’s the point of stories like the three of yours, they leave you something to ponder in the silence after reading.
Billy: Thinking-in-silence is something everyone needs and do not seem to get enough of in the information age. That’s the great thing about short stories, as opposed to TV shows, you’re not immediately bombarded with more stimuli as soon as it ends, except what’s coming from your subconscious. Thankfully there’s no algorithm to implant an advertisement for low cost tombstones after my story in BWR.
TLP: Thank you all so much for sharing your thoughts with us! Any last comments or reading recommendations?
Alex: Thank you for your time. Everyone should read Suttree by Cormac McCarthy and A Childhood: The Biography of A Place by Harry Crews, and I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down by William Gay. Both Mr. Crews and Mr. Gay passed away recently. I hope their work becomes more widely known in the future.
Jenny: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about BWR, and writing. I’d love to make to recommendation: “Hot Damn” by Martha Stallman. It was the winner of this year’s Playboy College Fiction Contest, and is one of the most simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking stories I’ve ever read. It’s definitely worth tracking down.