In the May issue of Harper’s, Joe Kloc tells a story about a community of people called anchor-outs, who live “on abandoned and unseaworthy vessels” in California’s Richardson Bay, “doing their best, with little or no money, to survive.” The story is compelling, the prose unfussy and clear—and the photographs, by Therese Jahnson, are the perfect complement—but there is more going on here. The real miracle is how the article resists, gracefully yet firmly, the temptations of this kind of reporting, the very real traps it could have fallen into. It would be easy for an outsider to impose a straitjacket of meaning on this community, as writers have done for generations, or to see himself as a savior patronizing them with the boon of his voice, as more than one writer has seen himself; Kloc does neither. Gently, he suggests another way of looking at our world, maybe scarier but more honest, and another way of looking at those with whom we share it. —Hasan Altaf Read More
“Why all the middle-aged men, Mike?” my writing professor asked me one afternoon during my junior year of college. She was curious (concerned? baffled?) why, in the two semesters we had spent together, my stories were often about white men twice my age. While my peers wrote about college and high school kids doing college and high school things, I veered toward chronicling the failures and half-measures of middle-aged men. My professor asked whether I had ever thought to write about my own life, my unusual background—my mother is Korean and my father is Appalachian. I remember feeling squeamish at the thought. It had occurred to me, but I wasn’t ready to write about it. I told her maybe I would when my parents had passed on, but that wasn’t the only reason. In many ways, I had never fully felt half Korean, which is an odd thing to say, to be fully half of something. But what I mean is, I identified then as mostly white and Appalachian and my being half Korean, though undeniable in my features, seemed secondary. What seems extraordinary about our lives to others is often ordinary to ourselves. I could see why my professor might see the fertile ground in such stories, but they held little appeal to me.
Around this same time, I came across a short story set in India in a national magazine. I disliked the story and thought that the only reason it had been published was because of its unique setting. It was as if our struggles back home, all the poverty and hardship in Appalachia, were givens, not worth reading about—surely not the stuff of the stories that the New York publishing world seemed to crave. In the late days of the twentieth century, at the small state college I attended in Bowling Green, Kentucky, there was not a lot of talk about agency, representation in literature, or appropriation. I could have been wrong about the exoticism I perceived in that story in the magazine, but I don’t think so. It made me think that if I wrote about my parents, myself, what it had been like to grow up half Korean in a town with an ugly racist past, my stories would be published only for that content and not for their prose. I feared that if that happened, I would be trading on my heritage and exploiting it. So I hunkered down into white male characters and the white male writers who taught me how to write about white men.
Context is what appears when you hold your attention open for long enough; the longer you hold it, the more context appears. Here’s an example. In the first year that I really got into bird-watching, I used The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. The book has a checklist in the back where you mark the different species you’ve seen. That many birding books have such a list tells you a lot about how people tend to approach this activity; in its most annoying form, bird-watching potentially resembles something like Pokémon GO. But this was somewhat inevitable for me as a beginner, learning to pick out discrete, individual birds. After all, when you learn a new language, you start with the nouns.
Over the years, my continued attention began to dissolve the edges of the checklist approach. I noticed that certain birds were in my neighborhood during only part of the year, like cedar waxwings and white-crowned sparrows. In the winter, my crows came by less often. Even if they stay in the same place, birds can look different not only throughout their life but during different seasons, so much so that many pages of the Sibley guide have to show different ages, as well as breeding and nonbreeding versions, of the same bird. So, there were not only birds, but there was bird time.
Then there was bird space. Magpies abounded near my parents’ house an hour south, but never here. There were mockingbirds in West Oakland but not in Grand Lake. Song sparrows had different songs in different places. The blue of scrub jays got duller as you went inland. Crows sounded different in Minneapolis. The dark-eyed juncos I saw at Stanford had brown bodies and black heads (the Oregon subgroup), but had I traveled east, I would have seen variations. Read More
In our column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This week, Claire Schwartz is on the line.
I’m in a stable tumultuous relationship. I love my partner dearly, and she returns my enthusiasm. Some of the time. There are days when I feel love radiating off her, and others when I could not buy a kind word or any showing of support. I realize all relationships have ups and downs, and I’ve come to accept and respect my partner’s moods. Still, I find it very difficult to cope with things when I am on her bad side, especially if I myself am suffering. I try my best to communicate this to her and not to be so sensitive. Despite knowing that things inevitably will revert to normal, I feel very abandoned and unloved in the moment. I’m not sure if I’m being unfair or overly needy or what.
Confused in Love
In his new biweekly column, Pinakothek, Luc Sante excavates and examines miscellaneous visual strata of the past.
The more empty the photograph, the more it implies horror. The void that dominates an empty photograph is the site of past human activity. It presents itself as a hole in the middle of the picture. The beds, tables, chairs, lamps are not the subject; they are the boundary. Some empty images tease the eye, suggesting clues that may dissolve upon closer examination. More often the scene is as near to a blank canvas as it can be without fading into nothingness. But then we, as habituated viewers, tend to brush a dramatic gloss upon such pictures. What we see cannot be as perfectly banal as it seems. The lighting and composition awaken unconscious memories of crime-scene photos; the drama comes from what is missing. It’s a bit like Sherlock Holmes’s dog who did not bark. What is missing is an apparent reason for the picture to have been taken.
Every time I’ve attempted to start this side-winding meditation on Matthew Porter’s airborne muscle cars, cars that are things and also backlit silhouettes of things, I end up scrolling the new version of the old Autotrader, online, and looking at models of cars I’ve always wanted and haven’t yet owned, and also their silhouettes.
If I had a hundred grand to drop right now, this morning, which I don’t, I could buy a 1969 GTO Judge, mint. But really it’s not my style. A ’67 GTO and its classy cigar-box lines is what I always wanted. The ’69 is a novelty item, like roller skates or a leather shirt, and anyhow I get bored of the color orange. I’d love a GTO but I don’t need a Judge, even if there are certain days—Tuesdays?—when I feel like I need a Judge.
For a Sunday drive I want a Stutz Blackhawk; doesn’t even have to be the one Elvis owned. I’ll humbly accept some other Stutz, but the more I research who owned Stutzes—Dean Martin, Wilson Pickett, George Foreman, Muhammad Ali, Willie Nelson, and Barry White, just to cherry-pick from the longer list of celebrity owners—I get mad that I haven’t yet myself acquired the pink slip for a Stutz. Even if I could afford one, there aren’t very many, and today none are listed for sale.
There’s a 1965 Mercury Marauder, I always liked those. Even if the lines are a little square, the fastback makes up for it, although it’s a car that has to have sport rims or forget it.
Why is 1965 the chicane through which all American car design went from curved to boxy?
Nineteen sixty-eight was another chicane, which led to puffy quarter panels, and even outright blimpage. Read More