“Foreign countries exist.” – Geraldine Brooks, The Best American Short Stories of 2011
In her introductory essay to The Best American Short Stories of 2011, guest editor Geraldine Brooks provides the above-captioned direct advisement. She takes the statement one step further to conclude: “[Go] as far as you can, for as long as you can afford it. Preferably someplace where you have to think in one language and buy groceries in another.”
Brooks’ aesthetics are not new. American literature, as the emissary of the mid-century’s so-called melting pot, has often concerned someplace else. This issue of The Southern Review reflects a broad sensibility that captures such a literary philosophy (or subject politics), without being contained to a required subject matter and, at times, unleashing the magnificence of the ordinary. Take J. David Stevens’s short fiction “Ubernanny” where surrealism is delivered in an almost classical mode. The story alludes at times to a Ray Bradbury science fiction, such as “The Veldt” (1950), with a modern approach and fabulist conclusion suited for a world where the positions held by parental (and even child-familial) roles are essentially interchangeable.
To Brooks’s prescription, The Southern Review is conversant in worlds beyond American simplicity, but, from my reading, the stories told in these pages are not outside of the Southern experience. In fact, by metaphor, love in French Canada, language in Polish Americana and designer suits, and Muriel Spark in Scotland, the stories are not so strange to a Southern diaspora, a member of which might use different words and observe different customs than her Northern counterpart. The journal is excellently edited to achieve the universality of this approach—it succeeds in pairing works that echo each other and also suggest (to me) a kind of parallel to the separate world of regional character.
For an example of the concept of cultural translation for a kind of new geography where origin is essential, try Chelsea Rathburn’s poem “Acquisitions”:
Having learned each other’s bodies and habits,
we turn, improbably, to Polish,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But language comes less easily
than love, which is difficult enough
but does not have seven cases.
Rathburn may be more remote in locale than Karen Kovacik’s translations of Agnieszka Kuciak, also in the journal, but I admire her reach across the ocean in the inverse of the Polish American story, which usually goes in the opposite direction.
You find the same reversed path in Jane E. Martin’s short fiction “Jumelage.” Martin’s elegant prose opens a story not just of national or ethnic identity but also a fresh vantage into a character also seeking to express a sexual identity. In Martin’s words: “For a moment, Maggie feels like the best of New York and Montréal and Paris combined, as though her new friend’s loveliness will never be redirected elsewhere.” Martin’s story is a love story but also a meditation on the webs that unify and separate in many dimensions. It is not unlike Susan McCallum-Smith’s nonfiction essay “Tartar” in terms of seeking meaning in a place or tradition, eking out a half-way point between experiences that lead to considerable growth. McCallum-Smith’s essay is careful and compelling, providing insight into a family, the London fashion world, and the literature that McCallum-Smith weaves through her essay as a way of expressing connections in shrewd and lyrical analysis.
The Southern Review also addresses faith and culture in an evolutionary context, so that vectors are neither leaving nor going, but simply changing. Eric Weinstein’s poem “Instructions for the Proper Disposal of Holy Books” directly follows Dina Nayeri Viergutz’s short fiction “A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea.” The Viergutz is mesmerizing—a gathering in Iran of the young with their potential to change amid traditional leaders. The storytelling power is so overwhelming that I was moved by the characters more than the political philosophy, but that, too, resonated, inseparable elements in a compound that was at once a kind of rebellion, a personal Tehran Spring, but also about love and friendship that transcends place and politics and a yearning for something else.
Weinstein’s poem is measured and spartanly beautiful. I hate to quote the ending out of context, but it is worth repeating: “it will find you singing a psalm of thanks // for the timbre of wind, for the smell of earth, / for the pang of sunlight?”
Paula Closson Buck’s fiction “The Sea Grass Icons” was a great look at a poet emerging beautifully into prose. I enjoyed thisperspective on Greece and all of what a particular seaside life would be like, couched in the beauty of Buck’s prose, even if it were just the simple flag of a lovely fable.