Farsickness

Four Questions on Farsickness
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Four Questions on Farsickness is an interview series with creative writers for whom place is essential to their work. Each writer answers the same four questions—and featured this week is award-winning travel memoirist and short story author, Alden Jones.

1. Share a little about where you’re from. When you were growing up, what place—real or imagined—most fascinated you, and why?

I grew up in New Jersey, so of course the most fascinating place in the world was Manhattan. But, like most voracious young readers, I traveled via books. I was as fascinated by the Dollangangers’ attic as I was by the plains of Siberia. I was drawn to any setting that wasn’t safe, predictable suburban America. Any place a book could transport me so fully that I would look up from the book and forget, for a second, that it wasn’t my life I was reading about.
Later, because I started studying Spanish at age ten and found it incredibly fun, I wanted to go where I could speak Spanish. I studied abroad in Spain as a high school student, but was always drawn to Central America. So after college and more Spain and more Europe, I found my way to Costa Rica as a WorldTeach volunteer English teacher.

2. What travel has been a particular inspiration to your work?

My first book, The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia, is an exploration of the ethics of travel and covers fifteen years of my life as a traveler. I didn’t include every trip I took during those fifteen years, but all of the travel I did inspired the book. The Blind Masseuse begins during my year in Costa Rica, follows my travels as a backpacker and then a teacher in Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Cuba, and as a professor on Semester at Sea, mostly in Asia. But I was also much affected by a summer I spent in Paris, my first experience teaching travel writing in Italy, a research trip I took to Brazil, and I had quite a few (mis)adventures as a trip leader in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. Why didn’t those experiences make it into The Blind Masseuse? I had to kill my darlings and do what made sense for the narrative, but as for the question of inspiration, every moment I spent as an American abroad contributed to the study of ethical travel. Especially the worst moments!
My second book, Unaccompanied Minors, is a collection of stories, two of which are set in Costa Rica. I was very motivated to write stories set in Costa Rica, because during and after my year there I could find so little literature that explored Costa Rican culture. Plenty on birds and beaches, of course, but almost nothing about what life was like for the people who lived in Costa Rica. I felt there was a real gap and I wanted to help fill that gap.

3. Where do you “escape to” to recharge creativity?

Provincetown, any artists’ colony, tropical tourist hotels in the off season. Now that I have three kids under five, nothing says “escape” like three uninterrupted hours in my home office.

4. Where would you most like to travel to next?

The novel I’m writing now is partially set in Cambodia, where I spent two days during my Semester at Sea travels. For some reason Cambodia really hit a chord for me and I’ve been obsessively plotting to return there once my kids are a bit older.
In the more immediate future, I’m excited to return to Cuba, where I spent three summers from 2001-2003. My friend and fellow writer Tim Weed and I are launching the Cuba Writers Program in spring 2016. I haven’t been there in over a decade. Almost every Cuban friend I had has moved to Canada or Spain or the US, so it will be strange and a little sad. But Cuba, as everyone knows, has a tendency towards preservation, so I’m curious to see how it’s changed and how it’s stayed the same, especially with the recent lifting of restrictions on the US side. I’m someone who loves nostalgia. There’s a lot of that in Cuba, for me personally, and in general. Some people travel to see new places and get focused on the next place, and the next, but I love revisiting places that hold memories.

Unaccompanied Minors at Grab the Lapels

Unaccompanied Minors at Grab the Lapels
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Deep appreciation to Melanie Page at Grab the Lapels, who wrote a thorough and thoughtful review of Unaccompanied Minors that posted today. Some of her kind words:

“Jones waves her wand and does some of the best world building I’ve ever encountered in short fiction. No piece was noticeably weaker than another, no piece failed to pull its weight. These stories often touch on themes of sexual orientation and the fairly simplistic exteriors of adolescents who have dark interiors. A few of the stories are set in Costa Rica. Frequently, there is a lot going on inside of a narrator that the reader is privy to, but the other characters never see…

The way Jones flips simple ideas on their heads and makes them new was sheer pleasure for me. I was reminded of the artist David Hockney who draws one chair from every angle, which results in an odd final picture; you can tell the image is a chair, but you’re forced to look at it in new ways.

Alden Jones’s collection was incredibly immersive. Some moments were so visceral, such as a character heaving deep breaths while climbing a mountain, but pretending that she isn’t out of breath so she doesn’t seem weak, which only makes her breathe harder. Each story builds a new and unforgettable world that I could see and experience, and each character had an emotional depth that made me worry about each and every one of them. I also felt helpless, scared, and ignorant. For an author to make me feel like I’m supposed to do something for fake people…that’s a skill for sure.”

(Read the complete review.)

Grab the Lapels is a place where Melanie reviews books by women as a service, without getting paid for her work, because she sees that it needs doing.

Righteous.

Interview with Lidia Yuknavitch

One of my Favorite Living Writers

Amercian writer Lidia Yuknavitch in Paris, France on Wednesday, September 4, 2013. Photo: Andrew Kovalev (ckovalev.com) for Les Editions Denoёl

Amercian writer Lidia Yuknavitch in Paris, France on Wednesday, September 4, 2013. Photo: Andrew Kovalev (ckovalev.com) for Les Editions Denoёl


I had the great pleasure of interviewing Lidia Yuknavitch about her new book, The Small Backs of Children, for The Rumpus. Lidia’s memoir, The Chronology of Water, was my favorite book of the decade. What an honor to converse with its visionary author. Read the interview here.

I Love My Job
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For the past three summers I have taught Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emerson College. I have been extremely lucky, during my fifteen years at Emerson, to teach courses I love – creative writing, Exoticism in Literature and Art, The Literature of Photography – and to talk shop with some very fine minds. (A sampling of fine minds in the photo above.) Somehow this class always feels like the easiest to teach. Because it’s basically about our world and learning how to articulate what is happening in it. The official demise of DOMA…the UVa/Rolling Stone debacle…the new Mad Max movie…a feminist reading of what is playing on the radio. A large part of the course is reacting to what appears in our newsfeeds, and giving it language.

For three years now I have been formulating a character who becomes more and more vivid when I am teaching this class. At a certain point I realized it was inescapable that my next book, a novel, will have a male protagonist. As someone deeply committed to the female and non-dominant perspective, this has been an interesting challenge. But spending six intense weeks a year talking about the gender binary, the fine points and varieties of privilege, and the different ways we move through the world based on what the world thinks of us has given some real flesh to this character.

Best case scenario, teaching college is walking into a room of smart people and talking about things that matter. Am I lucky.

The Lambda Literary Awards

The Lambda Literary Awards Ceremony
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Kate Clinton killed it. Susie Bright presented, braless in a beige dress, her date in see-through plastic. Liz Smith killed it, presenting an award to John Waters, who killed it. I sat three seats down from Allison Bechdel but was too timid to introduce myself. I finally met Lucy Bledsoe, one of the key readers for University of Wisconsin Press responsible for seeing The Blind Masseuse into print. I slept over Michael Carroll and Ed White’s apartment. I left behind my gift bag, which was apparently stuffed with books by young trans authors. I ate a lot of chocolate. I experienced the familiar anxiety of New York literati parties. I missed New York. Unaccompanied Minors didn’t win a Lammy. But that was more than okay. It was an honor to be a finalist.
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NewPages Review of Unaccompanied Minors

newpageslogoorangeblackNewPages Review of Unaccompanied Minors

This reviewer at NewPages seemed to like all the stories in Unaccompanied Minors save “Shelter,” though she did say “Shelter” was “Reminiscent of Dorothy Allison’s project to represent the lives of young poor women from the South, [but] less angry.” I’ll take that! Also, my characters are “misfits and miscreants.” You can read it here.

Literary Pride

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Join us during Pride week at an event sponsored by the Boston Literary District:

Literary Pride: LGBT Writers Talk About Their Work
June 11, 2015 | 6:30 pm – 7:45 pm | Free

Five celebrated writers will participate in a Literary Pride Panel as part of Boston’s Pride Week Activities, courtesy of a collaboration between the Lit District and Hostelling International. These writers’ books have won awards ranging from the New American Fiction Prize to “one of the 10 best indie YA novels of 2015” and are also being turned into major motion feature films starring celebrated actors. The panel, moderated by Neil Miller (In Search of Gay America, Banned in Boston), will feature Boston Globe television critic Matthew Gilbert (Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park); Alden Jones (Unaccompanied Minors); Jennie Wood (Flutter and A Boy Like Me); Annie Weatherwax (All We Had); and Judah Leblang (Finding My Place: One Man’s Journey from Cleveland to Boston and Beyond).

IPPY Silver Medal for Unaccompanied Minors

Unaccompanied Minors wins an IPPY
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Well I am just tickled that Unaccompanied Minors has won the silver medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards in the category of short fiction.

Stay tuned for the next edition of the paperback, with this pretty silver seal on it.

Publishing Triangle Awards

I Didn’t Win the Edmund White Award

But I got to sit next to Edmund White at the Publishing Triangle Awards Ceremony.
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And that was the best. What an honor to be a finalist for an award named after one of my most important teachers. Ed taught the Advanced Fiction class I took at Brown as a sophomore. He has since been a model for me, not just as a writer, but as a literary citizen, an activist through fiction.

The night before the ceremony, I read along with eight other Publishing Triangle Awards finalists read from their work at the Bureau of General Studies – Queer Division. IMG_4429Surrounded by photographs from a project about the Meatpacking District before gentrification. Surrounded by provocative books. And friends. IMG_4427Kate, 37 weeks pregnant, actually got to accompany me on one of my New York trips. It was an all around special two days.

See you again, New York, for the Lamdba Literary Awards on June 1!

The Sweetest Review

This is the sweetest review I’ve ever gotten. Love you back, Jane Tompkins.
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THE BLIND MASSEUSE BY ALDEN JONES
Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

The other night I was lying in bed unable to sleep. I began thinking about the book I’d been reading and realized I wanted to get up and read it some more. It was The Blind Masseuse, by Alden Jones, a young woman who loves to travel, loves the adventure of being in foreign places and writes about her experience with insight and panache. She’s not just a person who recorded what she did on the road and managed to get it published. Her book was a finalist for the 2013 PEN award in non-fiction. Deservedly so.

Over a period of several years, Jones travelled to Costa Rica, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba, Cambodia, Burma, Italy and Egypt. Mostly, she led student groups or taught English while she was abroad. What a great life that would have been, I thought: to take students to far-off places, to live and teach in some of them, returning home from time to time, only to set off again for foreign parts. What’s most appealing about the book is not so much the people and places the author encounters as the way in which she uses her experience as a springboard for getting to know herself. As a result, we get to know her, too.

When Jones is in Cambodia and Burma, she takes a lot of pictures with her new Nikon D200. She’s possessed by a desire to use it, even if she uses it in the wrong way. She shoots through the window of the tour bus and later exhibits the fuzzy results. She chases three naked Burmese boys who don’t want their picture taken and takes it anyway. She photographs young female dancers in costume as they rest between performances; they see her taking their picture and resent the intrusion. Watching herself doing these things, Jones doesn’t approve but she doesn’t beat up on herself, either. She simply notes what happened and then somehow manages to be both critical and generous toward herself at the same time. I admire her for this. As an inveterate self-critic I envy her buoyancy and spiritedness in the face of her own shortcomings. She treats herself good-naturedly. It tells me she’s a safe person to be around.

And that’s the best part of this book: the author is game and fun to be with. The focus is not on the history of the country she’s in, its politics or architecture—though these can and do enter in. It’s her experience we get, which is generally interesting and lively—her visit to a zoo created and then neglected by the Sandinistas in Leon, Nicaragua, where the alligators have moss growing inside their mouths; being met at the airport in Cuba by her friend Darwin who’s holding two beers–he still can’t leave the country and has started drinking again. There are no detailed portraits of landscape or interiors, but enough description to put you right there with her wherever she happens to be–in the courtyard in Leon drinking coffee with her Spanish teacher who loved revolutionary poetry; enjoying white wine and TV in her room in the San Jose Marriott after sleeping on the floor of a shack with twelve people for a month. In those moments, I know what it felt like to be her. Just thinking about her book as I lay there in the dark made me want to get up and write. She energized me. Her book had an aura that I wanted to live and move in for as long as possible. When such books end, I go through something like withdrawal. Jones had been such an excellent companion, her writing full of verve, her self-observation keen and her attitude mellow; I’d become addicted to her company.

I got up and re-read first one chapter, then another and another, ostensibly to see if I could decipher the title’s meaning and get straight the author’s relationship with her boyfriend Andres (it was not exactly what she’d thought). But the real reason was that I wanted to spend more time hanging out with Alden. On the third reading of the chapter on her visit to a blind masseur I did figure out the title. The answer is in the last paragraph of that chapter. It’s about blindness—not physical blindness, but our reluctance to give up clinging to ideas we absolutely KNOW are right, no matter what the evidence. I leave it to you to find out the rest. Curled up on your sofa when the thermometer’s in the 20s and it’s dark at five o’clock, you’ll be happy you did.~