A Few (Too Many) Words from Austin

The AWP Conference has been such a flurry of activity so far that I've not had any time to detail any of it here, but that may be a good thing, because I'm not sure I've got much of anything to say that wouldn't be utterly dull to anyone other than me, because much of what I've been doing is catching up with people I haven't met in person before, or haven't seen in years. Nonetheless, and risking repulsive narcissism and/or utter soporificity, here are some highlights...

Jeff VanderMeer and I had a nice lunch on Thursday with Eric Marin (of Lone Star Stories) and Rick Klaw (author of Geek Confidential). Rick works at Half Price Books, a large and extraordinary place, where, while touring the rare book room, I managed to prevent myself from buying a first British edition of Calder Willingham's first novel, End as a Man for $95, and Jeff managed to hold back and not buy a vintage copy of the proto-Ambergris novel Mushroom Town by Oliver Onions. I did, however, get a couple of cheap paperbacks by the Strugatsky brothers, which was quite exciting, as I've rarely encountered their books anywhere.

I spent a lot of time in the vast Book Fair of the conference, which is like being in an airplane hangar filled with tables where smart, interesting, and creative people hold court over piles of marvelous books. I got of copy of the first issue of Public Space, a new lit journal that includes, among other great things, a story by Kelly Link. I haven't had a chance to really read anything in it yet, but the production values are quite high, and so the journal feels nice to hold and look through. I stopped by the table of Hobart, a fun new journal I've been keeping my eyes on, and introduced myself to editor Aaron Burch, who seems much too nice and friendly to be an editor. (How does he reject people? Actually, I'll probably find out soon...) I also spent some time with Thom Didato, editor of my favorite webzine, Failbetter.com, who, as promised, was selling Failbetter beer steins.

The most interesting discovery of the day, though, was Visa For Avalon, a novel by Bryher, first published in 1965 and brought back into print by Paris Press. The description intrigued me too much to let it go:
In this chilling futuristic novel, five men and women attempt to immigrate to legendary Avalon after "the Movement" threatens the liberty and comforts they have taken for granted. Visa for Avalon takes place in an unnamed country and an unnamed time. As ordinary life comes to a standstill, escape is the only hope. But is Avalon truly the safe haven that it is rumored to be?
In the evening, a bunch of us headed over to BookPeople, an amazing bookstore, where Brian Evenson, Gavin Grant, Kelly Link, Michael Moorcock, Jeff VanderMeer and I all read stories to celebrate the publication of ParaSpheres , a huge anthology published by Omnidawn that has a phenomenal table of contents.

The reading went well, and the audience was appreciative. Nobody took pictures, as far as I know, but we all looked great. (You just haven't lived till you've seen Jeff VanderMeer in a pink feather boa.)

Today I went to a lot of panels, the best of which were "The Surrealist Landscape as Text" and "Arab American Novelists". The first featured presentations by Judith Johnson, John Bradley, George Kalamaras, and Patrick Lawler, none of whom were particularly familiar names to me, but all of whom had insightful things to say, particularly Patrick Lawler, who gave easily the most memorable presentation I've ever seen at a conference or convention. He talked about surrealism as a kind of literary/artistic ecotone, using in particular some works by Marcel Duchamp. What made the presentation so good, aside from all the various and poetically-expressed ideas, was that Lawler did it in the third person, opening with something to the effect of, "Patrick Lawler would like to discuss the work of Magritte, but he is, unfortunately, obsessed with Marcel Duchamp. Magritte is the artist of ecotones, but Patrick Lawler insists that we talk about Duchamp." And continued from there. It was hilarious and also somehow beautiful and instructive. "I forgot to write a manifesto," he said, quoting either Duchamp or himself (my notes are incomplete), "and now I suffer." Here are the ends of my notes on the presentation:
A proliferation of energy. The ecotone btw question & answer. Performance, personae. The borders between what I had to say and what I didn't have to say, between what I had to say and what I needed to say. "Marcel Duchamp, you make my penis weep." To enter the glass not as reflection, but as participant.
The other very good panel, "Arab American Novelists" was rather more down-to-Earth. The panelists were Gregory Orfalea, Patricia Sarrafian Ward, and Naomi Shihab Nye. Orfalea opened by saying that, to his knowledge, this was the first time the subject of Arab American novelists had been given its own panel at a conference that was not a Middle East-specific one, and that this is a sign of real progress. He then gave an overview of Arab American fiction, illustrated with some photographs included in his The Arab Americans: A History, and discussed some of the potentials and problems of defining "Arab American novelists" at all, and the use such a definition can serve in our current society. Patricia Sarrafian Ward discussed some of the influences on and inspirations for her novel The Bullet Collection, and Naomi Shihab Nye discussed young adult novels about Arab Americans and Middle Eastern people and situations, then read from her novel Habibi. There was time at the end for some questions from the audience, and the topic of "hyphenated writers" came up -- do they accept the hyphen, do they resent it, etc. Gregory Orfalea said that he doesn't put a hyphen in "Arab American", because to him Arab is the adjective and American is the noun, and most of the time the American holds sway. Naomi Nye said that in the current situation of the world, she now identifies her Arab background more, because of the need to be visible, to show ways of having a positive relationship with the Middle East and Middle Eastern people. An audience member, an Iranian-American (or Iranian American) said the hyphen can be a way of counteracting being "the other", to be proud of her self and to communicate a humanity beyond being a generic "foreigner". Patricia Ward noted that the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee puts "American" before "Arab" to show the need for unity first. (Plenty of other fascinating things were said, but I wasn't able to write fast enough to make a complete transcription, alas.)

While I don't think I have any other news of even potential interest, I do want to note here that Kelly Link highly recommends Vampires, Burial, and Death : Folklore and Reality by Paul Barber. She's been showing it to everybody she encounters, and it does, indeed, look fascinating.

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