Editor's Note: The Spine is a new book column covering the literary scene of the Bay Area in reviews, interviews, guides, event previews and more. Guiding us is award-winning writer Leilani Clark, who's contributed to Mother Jones, Civil Eats, Time Magazine, the Rumpus and the North Bay Bohemian, in addition to KQED. Running biweekly, The Spine is your smart check-in on what's happening in the region's book world.
Review: 'Better Than War' by Siamak Vossoughi
In the title story from Siamak Vossoughi's debut story collection, the narrator intones to an Iranian-American teenager who's come to him for dating advice: "You're going to have to be better than war."
Love, psychic and geographical distance, spirituality, and the different ways of navigating the experience of immigrating from Iran to America are the varied forcefields that surround the characters in Better Than War. It's a promising debut from San Francisco-based Vossoughi, filled with quiet and deep undercurrents about the basic goodness of people, the immutability of love, and the power of learning to create your own narrative.
The stories in Better Than War -- published this month by University of Georgia Press as winner of the Flannery O' Connor Award for Short Fiction -- are told by a series of erudite, heady narrators, the type that would likely trip on a crack in the sidewalk from staring at clouds, or at the very interesting man sitting at the bus stop across the street.
Vossoughi was born in Tehran, and many of the stories are embroidered with threads of the Iranian-American experience. In "Take Our Daughter to Work Day," the narrator, a former teacher in Iran, doesn't want to bring her daughter to the hair salon in the U.S. where she now works. She wants her daughter to see the mother who lived and worked in Iran, where she believes she left her true self.
And she thought of how her daughter would never see her where she had been most herself, where she could move with so much certainty, where she knew the ins and outs of everything -- the city itself and the school and relationships and family life. She would never see her walk with the city as her background as though it was hers alone, having earned it, having earned it from another day of aiming to be exactly who she wanted to be.
Yet despite its glum theme, this story, like many of the stories in Better Than War, ends on a note of optimism. While the mother cries at the thought of her daughter watching her sweep up other people's hair in a salon, and goes mute at the dinner table for about a week, she ultimately entertains her family once again -- like the passionate storyteller that she is, like the former teacher self she holds in such high esteem.
Though Vossoughi's writing veers towards the philosophical, with narrative structures influenced by the best of Russian literature, there are no murders of old women here, or suicides by train. On a whole, a sense of common humanity ties the book together, a sense that everyone is part of something one and the same. Strangers meet strangers and instead of feeling animosity, they embrace each other, include each other in their performances. At a bar, a man offers to fly another man to New York to see his faraway love, but only if the Giants win a particularly hopeless game. The Giants lose, and the man doesn't end up going to New York, but everyone, at least, goes home with a sense of having connected.
It's a sentiment best encapsulated by a moment from "The World is My Home," where a young German woman takes in two young Iranian men traveling through Dresden, treating them like her own family for the entirety of their stay. After the girl confesses her dreams of a life spent gardening, reading and visiting her grandmother, the narrator muses:
Sometimes the world felt too big to be his home. If there were girls wondering and dreaming like that in Germany, then they were doing so everywhere. He couldn't sit and listen to all of them. Even when he sat and listened to one of them, the world was just barely his home. It was the infinite depth of one person, more than miles they had traveled or distances between cultures -- that was the greatest obstacle to the world being his home. Yet somehow it was the greatest opportunity too.
Q&A with Vanessa Hua
Vanessa Hua, an Orinda-based freelance journalist and novelist, was announced this month as winner of a prestigious 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Guernica, and elsewhere. Previously, she was a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, and the Hartford Courant. She was a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing and a recipient of the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award for Fiction. She reads from her latest work on Sept. 20 at the California Institute of Integral Studies as part of the Hazel Reading Series.
Can you talk a bit about your writing background, specifically as it connects to the Bay Area?
I grew up in the suburbs east of San Francisco, and have been writing stories since I was a child. The Bay Area -- gateway to the Pacific Rim and perched on the edge of America -- continues to offer much inspiration and exploration.
How did you transition from journalism into fiction writing? Or have you always done both concurrently?
At Stanford, I majored in English with an emphasis in creative writing, joined the school newspaper, and interned at newspapers and magazines. After graduating, I focused on journalism for a few years, and was a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle when I began taking evening fiction workshops. I wrote fiction before work, on weekends, and at lunch. Eventually, I left daily news to earn my MFA at UC Riverside. These days, my focus is fiction, but I regularly freelance essays and features. I’ll spend months working on a short story, years on a novel, and I deeply enjoy the quicker turnaround of journalism. I cherish the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity, interview fascinating sources, and to shine a light on untold stories.
What role does Asia and the diaspora play in your writing?
As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, I have long been fascinated by the complicated relationship people hold with their ancestral and adopted homelands. My fiction builds upon my years of reporting about Asia and the diaspora. I have rolled dice with factory girls in China, dined with a teenage prostitute in Burma, and flown kites with Chinese diplomats in Panama. I tailed guerilla reporters in South Korea, chatted with rebellious kitchen ladies at a dim sum palace in San Francisco, and investigated a Chinese-American fundraiser for campaign finance violations, which led to the resignation of the California Secretary of State. Motherhood has also opened my heart and my writing in ways I didn’t foresee before having my twins. More vividly than ever, I can imagine the generational and cultural conflicts of my characters, the clash between self and society, tradition and change. In my novel-in-progress, a Chinese factory clerk travels to America to deliver her baby, giving the child U.S. citizenship. After her married lover betrays her, she flees, setting off a hunt for her and the baby. The novel chronicles the lives of Chinese immigrants and the American-born who straddle the Pacific.
What will the Rona Jaffe Foundation award enable you to do?
This generous grant will allow me to pay for more childcare and scale back my freelance work while I complete my novel. Half of this year’s six winners cited childcare as an expense that the grant will cover. I’ve had many conversations with writers who are mothers of small children, about our ongoing struggle to carve out time and space. I’m extremely grateful to the Rona Jaffe Foundation and am humbled and honored to be counted among past winners who include luminaries such as ZZ Packer, Eula Bliss, Rachel Aviv, and Lan Samantha Chang.
What do you love best about being a writer in the Bay Area?
I love the Bay Area’s amazing community of writers, who are supportive and whose compelling work inspires me every day. I am fortunate to have trusted friends with whom I trade manuscripts, tips, and advice. We commiserate and celebrate successes. I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in reading series such as Writers With Drinks and Babylon Salon, and events such as LitQuake and the Oakland Book Festival. The seed of my novel was published in ZYZZYVA, a Bay Area literary institution, and I’ve attended local creative writing conferences at Squaw Valley, Napa Valley, and Voices of our Nation (before its move to Miami.) The support of the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and the Steinbeck Fellowship at San Jose State has been vital to this project. I also work and teach at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, a wonderful group of writers, journalists, and poets.
What books, articles, or other publications have inspired you lately?
Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account, which artfully fills in the gaps in history, bringing to life the first Arab explorer in America. Julia Scheeres’ chilling exposé about a religious cult in Pacific Standard magazine. Jennine Capó Crucet’s Make Your Home Among Strangers, a poignant and funny debut novel about a first-generation Cuban American college student. Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, an entertaining and thought-provoking collection of essays. Mia Alvar’s In The Country, haunting short stories about the Filipino diaspora. For research related to magazine assignments, I’ve been reading oral histories collected by UC Berkeley and Voices of the Manhattan Project that provide an illuminating look at America during World War II.
Not-to-Miss Author Events: Sept. 16 - 30
Petaluma-raised Brooklynite Kathleen Alcott is the special guest at the release party for ZYZZYVA's fall issue at Diesel Bookstore in Oakland. Other readers include Mauro Javier Cardenas, Molly Spencer and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Caille Millner... Elizabeth Egan's debut novel A Window Opens is a compulsively readable glimpse into the life of a middle-class mom who leaves her part-time book editor position at a women's magazine to work at a creepily sadistic and monolithic online company that bears a striking resemblance to Amazon. Egan appears at Book Passage on Sept. 22... If you haven't read Ann Beattie yet, get thee to a bookstore! And why not make it Kepler's, which celebrates its 60th (!) anniversary this month, and hosts the prize-winning short story writer in conversation with Nick Taylor on Sept. 23... On Sept. 24, Aunte Lute Books presents 'Our Indigenous Flesh,' a reading with LeAnne Howe and Ire'ne Lara Silva. The two writers will read from their newest books, followed by a discussion of indigenous literature, indigenous queerness, and the 'mystique of women of color writers'... That same night, legendary short story writer Joy Williams appears at Green Apple Books' Ninth Avenue store to celebrate the release of The Visiting Privilege, a story collection spanning her entire career... And finally, Lauren Groff's latest ambitious novel Fates and Furies has received accolades left and right. The New York Times recently called her -- rightfully so -- "a writer of rare gifts." Groff reads at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Sept. 27.