Buy me in new places

That sounded dirtier than I intended. What I intended to say:

My first novel, SWEET, is now available on NetGalley: https://store.interludepress.com/collections/olympia-knife-by-alysia-constantine

My upcoming novel, OLYMPIA KNIFE, comes out on November 2. It’s a magic realist novel about a woman in a traveling circus at the turn of the century. You can pre-order it at most major booksellers, but I suggest getting it straight from the publisher–support small presses when you can (most booksellers take a cut of their profits): https://store.interludepress.com/collections/olympia-knife-by-alysia-constantine

Now, go read something.

(Oh, yeah, and if you’re in NYC and looking for something fun to do on November 5, stop by Bluestockings Bookstore from 7-9 for the book release party for OLYMPIA KNIFE. There will be cotton candy and other swag, a raffle for some good stuff (including books), a live performance by Circus Amok founder Jennifer Miller, a reading, and your chance to browse a fabulous feminist bookstore while eating a brownie.)

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What Use Is Violence?

I’m here to contend that not all depictions of violence are equal, and the distinction between them has a lot to do with purpose. There is a real difference between relishing violence and bearing witness to it, but the difficulty is that in art (poetry, fiction, visual art, music, dance, film, etc.), witnessing is often bound up with pleasure and the two are hard to tease apart.

In her article about violence in The New York Times Magazine (“Battle Cry,” 8/20/17, p 9-11), Amanda Hess suggests that how violence is presented makes a big difference, too. Context matters, she says, as in cases ranging “from those who express extreme positions in polite tones [like the white nationalist Richard Spencer, who calls for ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’] to those who express reasonable positions in impolite ones” (11) like Black Lives Matter protestors have been accused of doing. The conclusion at which Hess arrives is that “[f]etishizing civility has a way of elevating style over substance” (11), so that we pay attention to the apparent politeness of the speech and not its incendiary content. She asks, essentially: should one be expected to politely answer to someone who’s calling for one’s extermination?

The implication here is that not all violence is equal, that there are more forms of violence than the physical (the verbal threat of violence is violence, too, as is hate speech in general), and that violence in many forms can be a necessary tool of resistance.

In the early 2000s, a travelling exhibit and subsequent book of postcards and other memorabilia commemorating the lynching of Black people in the U.S. (Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America, ed. James Allen) caused a ruffle of objections and questions wherever it went—photographs showed lynched Black bodies and their proud, rowdy white audiences. Should one look, or look away? Is consuming these images the same as participating in the violence? It was disturbing, to say the least, and heartbreaking. As a professor, I told my classes about the online version of the exhibit and warned them that what they would see if they looked was racist and violent, extremely hurtful and most likely indelible (this, of course, only seemed to entice most of them to look).

I’m thinking about this today, so many years later, because the question of violence and its representation has surfaced for me again, though in a much smaller way: my novel Olympia Knife contains several depictions of violence, and there was some discussion between the publisher and me about how best to handle this. The novel takes place in America in the early 20th Century and is concerned with the lives of those misfits who run away with the circus. There is a Black Creole fat lady who, as a child, saw her father lynched by white men. There is a white bearded lady who, as a young woman, was the victim of attempted sexual assault (which she successfully fended off by kicking her assailant). There’s the murder of a violent and dangerous person (I won’t give away who). None of these events are given more than a paragraph or two of prose, and none of the violent events are described graphically or pleasurably, but they are troublesome for me nonetheless.

I know many people are disturbed by such violence depicted in art, and many seek to avoid it. Of course, this is always a person’s choice to do, and only the individual can determine what’s best for them. But sometimes, I think, one needs to be disturbed. It’s dangerous to look away, to sequester oneself in constant, pillowy safety. Many of us, due to our identities (as LGBTQ people, women, POC, disabled folk, immigrants, or other marginalized people) do not have the option to avoid violence. As a queer, disabled, fat woman, I’m subjected to violent speech frequently, occasional threats of physical violence (once, a guy driving a van suggested he might run over a fat woman like me with no problem because I had ample “cushion”), and several occasions of seriously wounding actualized physical violence. I don’t speak, in other words, cavalierly about this subject. And I’m far luckier than many folks in this country, for whom violence is more seriously or more constantly waged, or institutionalized in our very social/governmental structure. It’s a difficult subject I don’t take lightly. It’s life-and-death for many of us.

I thought a lot about this back when I was debating how to address with my college classes the exhibition of the lynching photographs, and came to the conclusions that (1) I believe it’s important to confront the violent realities in which many people are forced to live, (2) it is a disservice to paper over the depiction of that violence with civility when many people have to live through it, but (3) such violence must be addressed carefully to avoid as best one can promoting voyeuristic entertainment from the suffering depicted (promoting, in effect, emotional tourism) and (4) other people may disagree with these ideas, and so there must always be the opportunity to decide not to look.

At the end of his heartbreaking film Bamboozled, director Spike Lee included a montage of his own collection of “mammy” dolls and other racist toys and decorations set against striking monochrome backgrounds and a mournfully beautiful song by Steve Winwood. It’s disturbing and painful (as is the film itself), but entirely necessary for the moment. The film also contains genius performances by Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson in a modern minstrel-type show, and the juxtaposition of pleasure at their humor and talent against the horror of taking pleasure in a racist show is part of how the film intentionally hurts its viewers. But Lee does this for a very good reason. It’s the pain that’s produced alongside the pleasure, and being asked as a viewer to confront how I can enjoy those quietly, politely violent things, that teaches me about locking myself mindlessly into pleasure at the expense of others and gives the film its meaning, its ability to convince and to affect me so deeply.

Too often, in art that attempts to depict the wounds of racism and other dangerous institutions like it, the racism becomes an abstraction. Through depictions of violence, it becomes real—it makes a real, physiological effect on the body: you cry, you go cold, or you shake, you cringe, it produces pain. Because I taught about horror film for so many years, I cannot stop myself from explaining that this very idea is what underlies the workings of many horror films—the combination of psychological and physical reactions to its contents (you jump and shiver, as well as worrying), ensures you are affected deeply and intensely.

A 1922 poster included in the Without Sanctuary exhibit quotes the NAACP: “To maintain civilization in America, you cannot escape your responsibility” (http://www.cnn.com/2000/US/01/18/lynching.photography/index.html?_s=PM:US). In light of frequent police violence against people of color, one strategy in recent years has been for bystanders to observe and even film police interactions, to make clear they will bear witness to anything that takes place.

Violence and repression, in other words, happen more effectively in the dark and in silence. Denial is powerful (see, for example, how effective Holocaust deniers can be; 16 countries have laws against Holocaust denial and even more have more general laws against denying genocide). It is our responsibility to bear witness, to others and to ourselves. It’s part of the reason repressive political regimes often quickly silence the press and arrest or kill journalists before doing anything else (or they may simply ban the press from the White House, as a more recent and local example).

In my aesthetic, joy is political and vital—these days, I’ll take it when I can get it. But just as vital are struggle and displeasure. Art must not be an escape from pain and difficulty, it should be our way to confront it. Finding joy must happen in the midst of grief, not in ignorance of it. Responsibility can only be shouldered by those who are willing and able to bear it, of course, but for those who are up for the fight, art is a way of bearing witness and—through that—salving one’s wounds. Respectfully, I urge that one must choose, as a way of being socially responsible, to look and to see.

 

 

 

REVIEW: The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths and Magic by F T Lukens

The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths and Magic by F. T. Lukens (September 7, 2017); 256 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

If I were a gawky teenage boy and had to climb the side of a house to get a job working for a weirdo Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-Watcher-Type-Guy who got smelly-slimed by trolls frequently and had a 1960s-ish nutjob secretary and a couple of junk-food-obsessed pixies living with him, and this job put me in situations in which I was chased by gore-furious unicorns and nearly killed by unfriendly mermaids, then… I don’t know what. I guess I’d be the star of this book and my name would be Bridger. Unlike the star of this book, I probably wouldn’t have the fortitude and determination to press on after that first mermaid attack.

But Bridger, like many a hero of young adult novels, is stronger and more determined than I. He bumbles into a job helping someone who’s charged with ensuring the world’s myths (like the Loch Ness Monster and a unicorn and a manticore) remain in their proper places (that is, hidden from “regular” folks) and the world’s humans are safe from their magic. Lovely enough for the reader, but unfortunately for poor Bridger, those mermaids, that manticore and all the other myths are pretty dangerous—that unicorn is definitely NOT a My Little Pony hearts and rainbows sort. Bridger discovers there’s magic in the world, but it’s not the fantasy magic he read in storybooks—it’s real, terrifying, and the only way the “normal” world stays in balance is if it remains ignorant of it.

This is an adventure story (Bridger, and many of the other characters, have quests and Joseph Campbell-like arcs to complete) and a love story (Bridger falls for football hero Leo) and a tale of chivalry (Bridger must rescue not only the world, but Leo, so that he may ride off happily into the sunset with him, and the two rescues are in direct conflict). The novel is knowing, and softly humorous at the same time that it’s gripping and tense. It puts me in mind of Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time quintet—believably weird, starring outsider teens who come into their own through intrigue with odd creatures and helpful-but-strange mentors.

 

 

Go on, get it.

Friends, my second book, Olympia Knife, is available for pre-order. Though you won’t get your book until it’s officially released on November 2, you will be guaranteed the price and the immediate copy. Because reading a magical-realist novel about a lesbian in an early 20C travelling American circus from which acts are mysteriously disappearing cannot wait.

(I am actually being half serious, since the repressive thumb under which the United States is currently being squished could potentially make The Art of the Deal and Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America the only books one can legally read.

You can pre=order the book straight from the publisher here (if you pre-order the hardcopy book before its release on November 2, you’ll get the e-book package free).

Or from Amazon here.

It’s Heeeeere!

Friends, I am very happy to announce that my new novel, Olympia Knife, is now available for pre-order at Interlude Press!

The novel will be released on November 2, but if you order a hard copy before Nov 2, you will get a free e-copy (multiformat package: Kindle format, EPUB file for all manner of e-readers, and a PDF for other kinds of computers… or, I suppose, you can stare at the thumb drive you put it on, but that won’t do much for you).

(My first novel, Sweet, is also available at Interlude Press–check out their great catalog when you visit the site!)

To get in on it, please go to Interlude Press website here.

OK_front (online only)

(PS, I adore this cover design by Choi Messer.)

REVIEW: Blended Notes by Lilah Suzanne

REVIEW: Blended Notes by Lilah Suzanne (August 17, 2017); 275 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Nico and Grady are back at the center of the narrative in the third book of the Spotlight series, and they’re getting maaaaarried. If you haven’t read Broken Records or Burning Tracks, you can still read Blended Notes and understand everything going on, but why would you skip those other two books? Broken started us off with Nico, a stylist to the stars, meeting Grady, a star country singer, and, well, hitting it off. Burning moved the focus to Nico’s business partner Gwen and her life with her wife Flora, and added focus on famous country singer Clementine, who reminds me a bit of a young Lucinda Williams (at least I picture her that way—smart and feisty and full of everything). Blended swings back to Nico and Grady, but Clementine is there, and Flora and Gwen are there, along with their wee son Cayo, who’s there with all of his drool and joy.

(I should make a special note here: Cayo’s in it, but it’s not a fawning, baby-focused thing in which even his diapers are cute. He’s there for realness.)

Lest you think Blended Notes is only about the fantasy of getting married, there is much more to be had (I’ve written about this before—not all gay folk, or folk in general, burn only for a straight-style wedding and marriage or care much about it, except for the significant financial and legal equality it delivers in many parts of the world… in short, a wedding alone is not enough to sustain an interesting narrative in my opinion). (And I recognize that this, on the heels of my “a baby is not all cuteness” thing probably makes me seem like the bitterest old lesbian ever, but I swear that’s not it. I like both weddings and babies, but I also recognize there’s more in a person’s life, or at least there should be, and those two elements are usually cheap and easy story devices to lend motive and pathos to characters. But that isn’t the case here.) The wedding here is neither central (I mean, who wants to read about picking out napkins for more than a paragraph?) nor is it the point. It’s there, but only as an impetus for other things to happen. Also going on: Grady comes out about his love for Nico (well, “him”) in a song, his record company censors him, and he must make the decision about whether to sing from inside or outside the closet, and Nico must figure out how to support him.

The writing is well-paced as usual—and perhaps in this book, even better than before. It might have something to do with the tension created when wedding plans and homophobic record labels and snooping press all begin to make things go awry and one’s never sure whether the wedding—or Nico and Grady’s relationship–will go forward or not. Grady sees Nico sneaking around with some guy, and then Nico wants to cancel the wedding, and it just can’t be what it seems to be, right? (One more page, one more page, I kept saying, which is how I found myself still reading at 2:30 AM more than once.)

All in all, it’s a really satisfying way to wrap up a series of books which follows the lives of some very likeable, interesting characters. I, for one, am particularly partial to Clementine, Grady’s compatriot country singer—she’s been by turns vain, compassionate, weird, complex and interesting in this and past books, and I want to be her friend. On the whole, these characters are not, by any means, perfect, but they are all people you root for despite that (or maybe because of it).

 

 

REVIEW: Absolutely, Almost Perfect by Lissa Reed

Absolutely Almost Perfect by Lissa Reed (August 3. 2017); 256 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.
 
The third book of Reed’s charming Sucre Couer series, Absolutely Almost Perfect returns to the love story of Alex Scheff, a nervous and acerbic American photographer, and Craig Oliver, a level-headed British ex-pat baker, though this installment leaves behind all the previous settings (the Sucre Couer bakery, Seattle) for the Oliver household in England when Craig brings Alex home to meet his family and celebrate the wedding of his brother.
 
But things, as they often will do when family is involved, do not go perfectly. (You know this; the title hints at this.) To start with, Alex must deal with meeting the family of his love. Anyone who has done this knows how terrifying it can be—probably more so when visiting that family also means having to navigate a foreign culture. Plus, Craig’s very attractive ex is floating around, still in the family’s good graces, and Alex is going to have to contend with meeting him, too. But wait, there’s more! Craig gets along with all his family (his feisty mother, his steadfast father, even the younger twin girls who, like most teenagers, are, well teenagers) with the glaring exception of his oblivious-to-mean-spirited prankster older brother. They’ve had a contentious, bitter relationship since Craig was born, one that has only gotten worse with time.
 
To top it all off, there’s a wedding in the mix, with all the stress and family weirdness that tends to bring on.
 
As I began by saying, the books in this series are charming. The characters—especially, but not only, Alex and Craig—are completely realized and so well-drawn I feel as though I know what they’ll say and do next (I usually don’t, but the feeling itself is significant to me). Craig himself is charming (Alex more closely harmonizes with my taste for the acerbic and sweetly bitter—being a native of the US East Coast will make a person distrustful of the effusiveness or polite restraint preferred in other regions… put that way, I now see that our taste in coffee (strong to the point of bitterness) reflects our social tastes as well).
 
Great characters aside, what really grabs one about this book is the plot—once I started, I was heroin-level hooked by the drama and urgency of the goings-on. At the heart of this book is love, with dose of reconciliation. Though Alex and Craig are certainly the center of gravity here, it is how a family comes to fit together that matters: anger, jealousy, forgiveness, joy, care and protectiveness all wrap around them and sometimes, as it often is, it’s an ill fit, but it still manages to hold.
 

REVIEW: Grrrls on the Side by Carrie Pack

Grrls on the Side by Carrie Pack (June 8, 2017); 230 pages. Available from Duet Books/Interlude Press here.

Back when Riot Grrrls were active, I no longer qualified as a girl, except perhaps to a certain breed of older person who would probably still call me a girl at 46. Still, I remember the movement and the excitement and hope that went with it. It was a good time, with particularly good music.

Grrrls on the Side takes place in the 1990s in the US, at the height of the Riot Grrrl movement. It follows the growth from girl to grrrl of Tabitha, who finds her bisexuality, and then finds Riot Grrrl. She’s fat (as a fat woman myself, boy, howdy, do I hate the word “chubby” or other euphemisms like “of size”… I’m going to use “fat” here, because it’s what I call myself), she’s white, she’s sheltered, and she’s a teenager still in high school. Life, in other words, is a combination of tough and easy, which all changes when she finds a Riot Grrrl group—the tough stuff gets easier and the easy stuff gets tougher. She finds support, but also must figure out how to support others (along the way, confronting the implacable whiteness of much of the mainstream feminist movement). When her support system—her friends and new girlfriend—hit the road to tour as a new band, Tabitha is left to figure out how to be independent while still depending on support from others.

The novel’s focus isn’t politics, per se, though if one understands “politics” to refer to the workings of power, politics are certainly sewn in there. Instead, it focuses on the experience of Tabitha, learning to accept herself, find her own power, and work it out with others. (In other words, it’s a very apt story for a young person, since that’s what most of us spend our youth doing.)

Told in the first person present tense, Grrrls on the Side is interspersed (epistle-style) with short excerpts from the various zines the Riot Grrrls write, and as a result, there are several narrations represented here—in other words, the novel wants to bring together all these different voices and let speak everyone who usually doesn’t get to do so.

 

REVIEW: Cherry Pie Cure by M. Jane Colette

Cherry Pie Cure by M. Jane Colette (June 15, 2017); 291 pages. Available as either ebook or paperback at Amazon here.  And from Kobo books here. (See the author’s website at https://mjanecolette.com/ for more buying options.)

Susan is a mid-divorce, middle-aged woman with a petty, selfish and unfaithful estranged husband John and a couple very loving fully-grown sons, plus a small cadre of other supporters (the fiercely loyal girlfriend of one son, a local bestie, and several online supporters). At the advice of her bestie, as a kind of therapy she begins a blog about her experiences with said petty, selfish and unfaithful estranged husband and her search for self. While blogging, she picks up several followers who support her, sometimes challenge her, and form a sort of unharmonious Greek chorus to her narrative. Cherry Pie Cure is told entirely through Susan’s online essays and the resulting online comments of this chorus (actually part Greek chorus, part peanut gallery).

The story begins in Susan’s struggle to be okay and to process her husband’s actions, which include dating “Jewel of the Not-So-Spectacular Boobs” and trying to turn her adult sons against her, but quickly moves into Susan’s infatuation and courtship with Reza, a dreamy stockboy at the local grocery store who pitches woo like… well, like something that pitches amazing woo. But this story doesn’t merely revolve around whether or not the girl gets the guy: Susan also develops a deepening relationship with her son’s girlfriend, Nika; is pushed and stretched by her friend Marcella (I think of her as a door-opener here); is encouraged to love herself (in more ways than one) by her sex toy-selling online friend FemmeFataleFun (who sends care packages), and is challenged, encouraged and supported by a couple seemingly-on-the-prowl younger men online. In there, she also starts baking cherry pies as a kind of therapy, but those pies wind up garnering her loyalty, interest and love.

This is more about those friendships than the love affair—though there’s the central narrative of falling in love (tenuous flirtation, insecure interest, deepening romance) for those who want it, there’s more to be had. For me, the story is about the ways in which Susan’s friends support her, the ways in which Susan supports other people, the ways in which love is a community event as much as it is a private thing.

Plus, you know, the story is funny, too. Ha-ha funny, I mean. Susan’s clever, and hearing the tale through her voice makes it all the more fun. She’s wry and smart and afraid-but-brave. The story itself hooks you in—a good narrative, told in pieces like this (we don’t see the action directly, but only hear what Susan will tell us about after the fact), can be (and is here) so addictive.