Clarion 2014, week 3: Reaching for and seeing stars, and writing with them out

There it is, real life is already catching up. I’d been trying to write this post these last few days, but I was simply too busy with work and technological failures to do so. I think that after Clarion, the challenge is reconciling the disparate sizes of two different parts of your life: re-learning to see the beauties of your real-life while balancing the possibilities bursting the seams of the artist life. Both have their dark sides, of course; anything without a shadow is simply flat and lifeless.

No class picture for this week. It became increasingly hard to get all of us together for one photo, although we did manage in time for the last week. I kind of wish some of us insisted more. Oh, well.

 


 

Sunday

Leena threatened to eat all the sweets if the others didn't come up to the Common Room pronto.
Leena threatened to eat all the sweets if the others didn’t come up to the Common Room pronto.

We were up bright and early for the first breakfast with Cat (Geoff passed on this in favor of packing and getting ready for his flight). I Skyped with my boyfriend for the first time since arriving in UCSD and introduced him to my roommates. While waiting for the others, Leena and I discussed going to San Diego Zoo next week, as we were in sore need of animals to pet–I mean, I kept losing my shit every time I saw someone walking a dog (which was almost daily). We just needed to find another interested classmate with a car, as we were quite likely to lose our way even riding a bus.

I was chilling in my room after breakfast when I heard that Geoff still hadn’t left. Amin, Marian, and I knocked on the door of his room, which he opened just when we thought he’d gone. We gave him hugs and thank yous all around and he signed their books while I asked him to sign my notebook (this is the disadvantage of owning an e-book–the authors can only sign your reader, and I don’t even have that).

Emily Jiang of the 2008 Clarion UCSD class came by with a staggering amount of to-die-for cookies, brownies, lemon squares, and books for us in the afternoon. She also invited us to the book launch of her latest book. Two folks from San Diego came with her and promised Cat an ostrich egg later in the week–I didn’t think they were serious.

L to R: Emily Jiang and Cat Valente.
L to R: Emily Jiang and Cat Valente.

Cat told the story of how she and Seanan MacGuire were saying how they’d never win certain awards early on in their careers, and then they went on to win those awards just a handful of years later. She had each of us take a glass (or any kind of container once the glasses ran out), fill it with liquor, and say that thing we think we’ll never achieve but hope to in time. I am not a drinker, but I went ahead and toasted anyway. I didn’t get a chance to think about it deeply enough and said that I would never start my own small press for spec fic in my country–but what I should have said, perhaps, among the many things I wished for and only realized the next day, was that I’d never help start Clarion workshops in Asia with a friend someday.

Cat also had this great analogy: “Readers are banks and writers are trying to get credit lines from them.” First lines, first pages, first chapters, and first novels all serve to help get the reader through the next phase…but if they don’t like that particular book, they won’t buy your next one. No pressure at all.

We played one round of Cards Against Humanity with Cat’s set after that (Ryan brought his, too, but I had no idea what that game was until this week), and then I went to growl in frustration over work on my story for the week.

I fell asleep at 11 p.m. and woke up again at 2 a.m., which was when I decided to keep writing this damn thing until breakfast. I’ve read of so many Clarion blogs talking about that moment when you’re writing and writing until you just can’t write anymore and the end doesn’t look to be in sight then BAM! Something clicks. In this case, a plot twist typed itself of its own accord, at around 4 a.m. I probably sat on my bed for a full minute, staring at the unexpected line of dialogue, and went “FUCK IT!” and went right back to sleep until my alarm went off at 6 a.m.

Monday

Started to feel like my story was going nowhere, which was a sure sign of suffering from Middle Bit Syndrome. This was also when I began drawing in class. Well, inking the pencil doodles that had faded with time, to be precise.

Cat walked around campus barefoot the whole day because her feet had blisters. I remember thinking, man I wish I was bad ass enough to walk around barefoot here. And then I realized that if I tried that in Manila, I’d catch something awful and throw my salary away at salons with foot spa services. Yeesh.

Lockbox Words of Doom.
Lockbox Words of Doom.

In the 15 minute break between stories, Cat had us go to one of the grass patches in the middle of the walkway and had us do a theater exercise designed to help us understand body language a little more. She assigned each of us an animal (I got a lion) and then gave us situations in which we had to act out what those animals would do: sleep, play, mate, hunt (I may have forgotten or misremembered one or two). It was definitely fun hunting down everyone else, especially when I found out that they were animals waaaaaaaaaaaaay smaller than lions (iguana, dog, etc.). Ryan got a t-rex, so all he did was lie down. Hahaha.

The ice cream in the cafeteria up until this point was only so-so, but today was the first and last day I’d get to eat the best it had to offer: a chocolate-flavored popsicle. I made a complete mess of eating it as Nino, Zach, Kristen, Kiik, and I walked to a completely unfamiliar part of campus looking for where Kiik parked his car. He offered us a ride back to the apartments to save time, but the way there was actually much longer–full of twists and turns around more student housing, then actually trekking down a hill at some point. We joked that he may actually be taking us to a secluded spot for nefarious purposes, but it was an exciting adventure overall. We were only a couple of minutes late for the talk Cat was giving back in the Common Room.

More Lockbox Words of Doom.
More Lockbox Words of Doom.

Once we got to the Common Room, the rest were quietly writing in their notebooks. Bond paper with seemingly random words (examples included “family,” “flower,” “death,” and “love”) were taped to two sides of the wall. Cat explained that these were the Lockbox Words of Doom and that she was taking these words away from us and giving them back on Sunday, upon leaving. The point of this was to get us to write around the concept of the word, which she said she has tried in her fiction and which has often yielded some interesting results. We could use synonyms. We could use the words themselves and their equivalent in other languages (I got some dirty looks for asking that question, hahaha) provided that the story was taking place in that culture and that we were sure there was no other, more fitting word. Cat understood that this was the hardest for people who had stories up for tomorrow, and she left us some time to react violently to this.

Luckily, my story wasn’t going to be taken up ’til Thursday, although I had to finish it by Tuesday to give Amin enough time to beta read. I had fun finding all of the forbidden words and using their synonyms/rewriting the paragraphs even if I had yet to finish writing the rest of the text (maybe I enjoyed it because it was an excuse to delay the excruciating task of writing the ending), but it made me think about the implications of using a different language in a secondary world where I once used English. I sort of half made up new words and half cut up Tagalog words I knew and moved around a couple of syllables in order to get familiar yet unfamiliar combinations.

By the end of the evening, my brain was just going UGH SO COMPLICATED CRY that my roommates took pity on me. Amanda brought back an apple from the cafeteria and Ryan let me have some of his root beer. I have no idea where the chocolate chip cookie came from and perhaps it’s best that I try not to remember. I was told that Clarion was full of sleep deprivation; I did not know it would be full of food deprivation, as well.

Tuesday

Cat lets her hair down for Cabaret's "Mein Herr."
Cat lets her hair down for Cabaret’s “Mein Herr.”

I gave Amin my story after class today. Felt pretty guilty about it, considering its length and how much we all had to read for tomorrow. But he was very gracious about it.

I am certain Cat had a talk today, but I don’t remember which one this was about. We did, however, touch very briefly on Farah Mendelsohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy in trying to determine the relationship the fantasy in one of my classmate’s stories had to the real world. The four categories were broken down as such:

  • PORTAL: A portal opens into a new world.
  • LIMINAL: The mode of most magic realism; real world, but inexplicable things happen or slightly different rules occur.
  • INTRUSIVE: The mode of horror; shit intrudes on our world.
  • IMMERSIVE: Secondary world fantasies.

Cat was careful to note that there may be other categorizations out there if we felt like our stories didn’t fit neatly into any of the four. This was just one way of looking at things.

Today may have been the day we did an exercise concerning endings after lunchtime–Cat gave us maybe around five situations and we had to write endings for them. The only ones I remember clearly were “haunted house” and “the Sun God statue just outside of the Biological Sciences building coming to life.” I remembered the last one because I wrote that it was chasing Harry and I until we were up against a wall. The glowing Sun God says, “Bitchez, why you runnin’ from me? I’m fabuloooooooous!” and Harry peels himself from the wall and goes, “Why didn’t you say so before? I’m fabulous, too!”

Probably the most energetic rendition of a Christmas song I've ever seen.
Probably the most energetic rendition of a Christmas song I’ve ever seen.

Karaoke was back! There were fewer of us than during the first night, though I guess that was expected. This was when we first started bringing our printed manuscripts for critiquing to karaoke. We’d read, cheer for the singer, get up to sing ourselves, then go back to reading.

I don’t know about the rest, but I saw this as one way of letting out steam; this was why I attended that time. I sang Kelly Clarkson’s “I Do Not Hook Up,” even though I was growing increasingly anxious about my own unfinished story and still had to read the other manuscripts a second time, and joined Leena in her rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” in honor of her shocking Santa Claus story the week before. Really enjoyed Ryan and Kayla killing “Handlebars” by Flobots.

I left for the apartment by myself at 9:30 p.m. and was dismayed to learn from Facebook a little later that everyone joined in for Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” and that Cat and Harry did a duet with “The Time of My Life.” Can’t believe I missed that!

Wednesday

At lunch, Cat gave a short lecture containing–what else–extremely useful tips about story nuts and bolts. For example, on structure:

“The best way structure works with narrative is to have both bursting at the seams. There should be 20 lbs. of narrative in a 5 lb. bag of structure.”

Titles were also taken up. If your title does not in any way connect to the first part of the text, it’s a weak title.

But most of all, she touched on beginnings. Before taking us through a line-by-line analysis of a story Nino was submitting for next week, she taught us some eye-opening stuff:

  • The accretion of information in the first part must be dense, but not overloaded.
  • The danger of starting with a flashback is that the reader will have no context and will be waiting to be kicked back to the story’s present.
  • Short, haiku-like beginnings in short stories grab attention.
  • First paragraphs should be dense in certain aspects, though not necessarily all (genre, character, voice, etc.)

After lunch, Amin came to the apartment and went over his notes on my story. He apparently didn’t get enough sleep thanks to all that reading–I apologized to him repeatedly. After asking him lots of questions, he handed me his notes and left. I did one more round of top to bottom edits before thinking “FUCK IT!” for the second time this week and uploading my story onto the Google Drive–all 8,062 words of it. It was starting to feel like I’d been in Clarion for 3 weeks and had only 1 story to show for it–not really a bad thing, but definitely not up to my personal standards.

Cat read her "White Lines on a Green Field," which also happens to be one of my favorite stories of hers.
Cat read her “White Lines on a Green Field,” which also happens to be one of my favorite stories of hers.

I went back and edited the file a couple of times to add the trigger warnings we all agreed we’d add (if there was a need), and then a warning in the first page that there were trigger warnings in the last page. It was only when I was sitting in Ryan’s car with Amanda, Harry, and Leena, on the way to Cat’s reading, that I realized I forgot to put the 5,000 word mark. DAMN IT. Already, jokes about the length abounded on our Facebook page.

Cat’s reading was nothing short of spellbinding. She read the entirety of “White Lines on a Green Field,” the first story in her latest short story collection The Bread We Eat in Dreams (I had brought my own copy for her to sign). Everyone stood rooted to where they were; when she finished, there was thunderous applause.

Bought Harry his birthday present a week early–fridge poetry magnets, Bitch-themed. My roommates and I had fun making bitchy phrases out of them in between writing stories and other stressful things.

I noted that, down the line of people who were having her sign their books afterward, there were quite a few who brought around 5 or more of her books. I had wanted her to sign my copy of The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, but it was too heavy to bring over. One other impressive thing about Cat was that she took the time to personalize each autograph. I picked up Deathless and Indistinguishable from Magic while I was at it. Sure enough, Cat was also presented with an ostrich egg in a box; she promised to cook it for us for breakfast on Saturday and I was like O_o

We only had to read 3 stories for tomorrow–well, 2 for me. Harry kept making jokes about how it felt like he had to read 4 stories because of the length of mine.

Thursday

Herbert the Ostrich Egg, before he became the Plotstrich!
Herbert the Ostrich Egg, before he became the Plotstrich!

First Clarion birthday today: Manish! They went out for beer and food truck adventures later in the afternoon.

Put on my purple sundress for the first time today. It seemed fitting, given that the design looks truly Philippine–fitting for my story–and that wearing my favorite color comforts me overall. But I do forget to bring Toothless along.

We got tips on how to retell fairy tales today. Giving the tale more specificity and planting it into a culture helps make it unique, for as it is passed down, we get images with their cultural meanings stripped away.

Mine was the last story in our roster of three that day. I learned of something upsetting during the 15-minute break and had a good cry about it in the bathroom. Marian and Sarena caught me at it and tried to soothe me; Marian later brought me tea and Sarena said there would be yoga up on the roof later. I calmed down a bit.

I was glad I saved this story for Cat’s week–“Song for My Brother,” 8,062 words. She told me I had a novel on my hands, that there was so much material to explore in that world, and that there were a whole bunch of little narratives I could put in or structure what I already had around should I think of expanding it. She also mentioned that she googled all the words that were foreign to her, and that’s when I realized (in the privacy of my head) that this world needed to be even more secondary world than it already was. I was in danger of appropriating the cultures of the different tribes by taking  bits that stand out and mashing them together. This was also when I realized that the remoteness and virtual unknown-ness of the Philippines as a whole will make any story I set there seem secondary world, whether this is my intention or not. I wonder if that’s something I should try to address, but maybe it’s not something to be addressed at all?

Cat’s style for the one-on-one conferences was to ask what you thought your weaknesses were and give you a challenge for next week to help overcome those. I told her that I had some problems with character and emotion, and that I tended to write and write and write until I cracked. She challenged me to try juggling two voices bouncing off each other to see if I could sustain characterization and voice for more than 2 characters. Sadly, I was not able to try this for the other weeks, but it’s something to think about in the future.

Le Plotstrich.
Le Plotstrich.

Because I still thought at the time that my challenge was writing in other genres, I asked her about how to approach science fiction (“It’s like fantasy but with a different vocabulary, and there is no reason for you not to use your fantasy voice in science fiction because it needs voices that are different”) and steampunk (“find the dark stuff, like anxiety about steam technology”). I also told her about my problem with “Filipinoness” and she told me something I’ll never forget (and that I had trouble clearing out of my mind during yoga later on):

“Some writers have their own agendas and believe that you should only be writing what they themselves write–which shouldn’t be the case. You can choose to fight against writing about Filipinos. That’s a legitimate choice. But you should also go with whatever lights a fire beneath you.”

This may sound strange coming from an online journalist, but this was probably the first time I felt like I had a voice and that it mattered. I also learned that being Filipino was not the be-all and end-all of my identity–but it sure is a big part.

The others planned an evening viewing of The Avengers using someone’s laptop and my speaker up in the Common Room. I told Harry and Amanda that I’d follow, that I’d just finish reading tomorrow’s manuscripts–but I do not, in fact, follow them; at 11 p.m. I was suddenly woken up by their return to the apartment. I went to bed properly, disappointed that I didn’t get to watch a movie with some of the class and hear Chris Evans and Tom Hiddleston’s assets get praised to high heavens.

Friday

By Friday night of Week 3: more people coloring in Kayla's "My Little Pony" coloring books.
By Friday night of Week 3: more people coloring in Kayla’s “My Little Pony” coloring books.

Heard from Marty that Cat requested I draw a Plotstrich. I had no idea how to interpret that and I stewed on it the whole day.

Cat had us go on the grass near the Bear for one last theater exercise. She had three girls and three guys volunteer for this exercise and paired us off. She instructed us to stand certain distances from each other and to try out different poses. Later on, she had us gather in a group and had us do leveling. She was teaching us to pay attention to physical gestures, as these determined how close or unfamiliar people were with each other. Also, a takeaway phrase: “It’s not how characters say it–it’s what they’re doing as they say it.”

While eating, we asked Cat about different aspects about the writing life: editing an online zine, publishing, handling panels in conventions. All that jazz. She always had awesome things to say.

While walking back to the apartments, I asked her how to tell a novel idea from a short story idea, as so many of us turned in stories that she said were actually novels in the making. She said it had to do with the number of plots, as well as a few other things:

  • The 2 threads in a story, narrative and worlding element, must each have their climax.
  • Short stories end with the worlding element closing off, not opening with a bang.
  • 3-4 major things happen with the other stuff you as an author know in soft focus.
  • Having a denouement after the climax to process what happened in the story and/or (literally) talking about endings help make it close off/end as a short story.
All hail! The plotstrich would prove necessary in getting through the pressure cooker that was Week 4, as Cat predicted.
All hail! The Plotstrich would prove necessary in getting through the pressure cooker that was Week 4, as Cat predicted.

Once I got to the apartment, I researched ostrich photos (moving and just standing) and drew about 6 cast-off ostriches. I also researched the basic plot elements and the basic plot mountain. In the end, I took the concept of the cartoon Word World and made the damn angry ostrich’s neck, body, and legs out of EXPOSITION, CLIMAX, DENOUEMENT, RISING ACTION, and FALLING ACTION. Luckily, Cat and the class loved it; Marian and Kayla wanted me to do a tattoo version, although I was not sure if the detail could still be seen if it were shrunk to a wrist tattoo.

Cat, Heath, and the class played Charades Against Humanity well into the night in the Common Room. It’s kind of the same as Cards Against Humanity, only we had to act out the phrases on the white cards. She also donated some of her books to the next Clarion class, although I swear, more than a few pairs of eyes were glittering when she laid her offerings on the table: The Bread We Eat in Dreams, both volumes of the Prester John duology, and the Fairyland books. If there was more, I didn’t see, for I’m pretty sure there was some spiriting away going on…

Saturday

Saturday morning was spent waiting for the other sleepyheads to show up, cracking open the egg (I forgot how we managed), watching Cat give it a Lion King moment before cooking it, and then eating that rich, herby concoction on bread and with a helping of two cheeses. There was almost none left when I finally elbowed my way to the bowls.

Afterward, Cat signed our books.  Earlier, I’d gone down with Kayla to her room to fetch her books and she came up with me to my room as I got mine. Felt sorry for Cat–she must have been tired, but she was so gracious about it. And she never ran out of creative dedications!

She also gave us all some awesome certificates that authorized us to use the Lockbox Words of Doom. But a few of us decided to put some of the words back in the Lockbox for next week.

Scrambled Plotstrich egg with nacho cheese and herbs on bread. Mmm.
Scrambled Plotstrich egg with nacho cheese and herbs on bread. Mmm.

A different set of relatives were gonna pick me up this time. I was brought to the Filipino area of San Diego–I all but screamed, “HEY A RED RIBBON!” in the car. They brought me to a Filipino grocery, where I ate actual food for the first time in weeks and almost cried at the sight of sinigang. Went shopping for my room because up until then, we hadn’t any dish-washing sponges and I wasn’t about to pay $12 for 7 sponges (I’m looking at you, Trader Joe’s). Also stocked up on the instant noodles, biscuits, Choc Nut, a bag of soft and steamy pandesal, and threw in a pack of chicharon before going to see my other relatives. We dallied in some of the places, which is how I missed the class’s plan to watch Snowpiercer.

I honestly thought that they were gonna watch it in replay because it had already shown in the Philippines around November last year. Turns out that it was getting a delayed and limited release in the US. I was hanging out and sharing food with those who opted out of the movie in the Common Room (Marian was so happy about the chicharon–“You even say it correctly!”) when the others semi-stormed in, decrying Snowpiercer as a bad movie (“What was with that fish?!”). I was really surprised because back home, lots of people whose opinions I respected called it a great movie. Looks like I’ll have to grab a DVD copy and see for myself.

Yay, I can use the Lockbox Words again! But I guess it's a mark of how much we'd improved that some of us decided to put a few back in the box even after receiving this awesome certificate.
Yay, I can use the Lockbox Words again! But I guess it’s a mark of how much we’d improved that some of us decided to put a few back in the box even after receiving this awesome certificate.

Nora arrived around 7 p.m. or somewhat later and was equally surprised that lots of the class didn’t like Snowpiercer. She was tired and jetlagged, but she brought honest-to-goodness cannolis for us from New York–I’d never even heard of cannolis until that moment, but I had two of them and my god, my stomach was in heaven–and she joined us on the roof for Cat’s last task for us. Cat gave us all a line or paragraph from Donald Barthelme’s “The Great Hug” and we each read the line in a circle under the starlight. At the end of this, Cat encouraged us once more and told us to keep writing no matter what’s going on in our leaves, good or bad, ideal conditions or no, successes and failures aside–to “Write With Your Stars Out,” as Salinger wrote in his “Seymour: An Introduction.”

Hung out a bit more with Cat and the smokers after that, until 9:20 guy came (thought you’d heard the last of him, huh?). We moved to Zach, Marty, and Manish’s apartment for more chatter and oven-heated pizza. Cat wasn’t sleeping because she had an early flight out anyway.

It didn’t feel like we’d reached the halfway point yet, but we had. So ended Week 3…and if we thought we’d hit the wall in all ways possible during Geoff’s week, we were sadly, hilariously mistaken. There was still Week 4.

 

**Thanks to Tamara for correcting me on a few specific names.

Clarion 2014, week 2: Ready? Let’s dial everything up to 11

Every day this week, I’m going to blog about a week in Clarion (which honestly feels like a semester each).

I took the least amount of pictures during Week 2 (also, my phone malfunctioned before all of the pictures it lost could sync to my Facebook account), so I’m just going to pepper the post with photos from 3 or 4 days. I thought I also did the least amount of extracurricular activities, but apparently, this isn’t true. It’s just that the whole class was really busting our chops the whole week, what with juggling writing, reading, critiquing, and extra readings and lectures. In some ways, I remember the stories more than I remember what actually happened.

 


 

Sunday

Last breakfast with Greg. I think the teenagers did something raucous again.
Last breakfast with Greg. I think the teenagers did something raucous again.

We had one last breakfast with Greg at 7 a.m., then gathered down by the grounds of the apartments when he came down with his luggage for one last hug all around.

Some of my relatives drove down from LA to pick me up and take me around San Diego. They were a little late, so I went back to help Harry and Amanda sort out the laundry we did before I got ready. Dressed up in my Steampunk dress, tights, and boots because I figured that it’ll be time for the Steampunk Tea when I got back. My relatives shocked me by hooking up a smartphone to the car stereo and choosing YouTube videos for karaoke.

We settled for a restaurant with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and South East Asian buffets. I made a beeline for the Japanese stuff, but nothing quite beats Filipino desserts (leche flan and gulaman). Then they brought me to the Gaslamp Quarter real quick to buy boots for my mom; what made Gaslamp exciting was seeing all those Comic Con posters strung up under the gaslamps, as well as some 20-30s style buildings and one awesome piece of street/graffiti art of kids supposedly climbing down the window of a parking lot all the way to the ground.

Sure enough, when I got back to campus, I saw Amanda, Harry, Leena, Marian, and Nino walking across the parking lot and heading for the library, where the Tea was gonna be held. I was about to walk with them the whole way and to just forego the rest of my costume, but Amanda and Nino dressing really snazzy (pocket watches, vests, pageboy caps, bow ties) made me envious. I had to put down the bags and the little cakes my relatives told me to give my roommates anyway.

After a 20-minute walk full of pedestrians and summer groups staring at the tiny girl in tattered fingerless gloves and a corset, I made it to the library, where a Steampunk orchestra of sorts was well underway. Audience members were holding different doohickeys and sounding them whenever the host pointed to them. Geoff ran around trying the instruments, just like an excited little boy. 😀 There was also an exhibit of Steampunky paraphernalia, featuring an assortment of bowler hats, statuettes, and paper half masks that were designed with illustrations of eyes. My favorite was the paper theaters. These had candles and paper dolls of Victorian women, but I don’t think those were for demonstration, sadly (or I missed it entirely).

Some of the Steampunk instruments. Anastasia is the lady with green ringlets.
Some of the Steampunk instruments. Anastasia is the lady with green ringlets.

The host acknowledged our class and Steampunk pins were handed out to us. Then Anastasia, the head of the Steampunk Society, gave a talk on the society’s history and background, and possibly why Steampunk is so popular. When the talk ended, we broke up into little groups. A few of us met and spoke with science fiction author David Brin without knowing whom we were speaking to, and Anastasia gave us a few tips about how to run conventions and how to make them last for years–and which ones to avoid.

David Brin called us “Athletes of the Imagination” and told us, “You’re training to be industrial-grade magicians. Remember that what you do is the only form of true magic left in the world today.” I don’t know if I believe that, but I’ll take Athletes of the Imagination and Industrial-Grade Magicians any day.

Later, Ryan introduces me to Trader Joe’s Butter Waffle cookies and I end up asking him what sorcery those things were. They’re gone in two days (and it wasn’t just me, I swear!).

In the evening, Geoff gave us his instructor’s introduction, handed us reading packets per apartment, and asked everyone to sign up for one-on-ones separate from our actual conferences. He wanted to interview us all pre-session. I decided to drop by that very night. Geoff asked me how old I was, what I did for a living, what did I write, what did I want to accomplish writing-wise, why was I at the workshop–the last few very deep questions that everybody should think about but probably don’t on a conscious level.

We ended up talking about telling (as in, the telling part of show vs. tell) and how he thinks that you can judge how good a writer is by the way they tell, how much authority their voice has. He noticed that a bunch of people–me included–did not submit something last week and so makes me promise to submit something this week. Not feeling very confident about that, I promise anyway.

No karaoke this week, as Geoff wasn’t into it and we were all busy anyway. 😦 It’s the first time Harry lets me take the extra bed in his room, as my clothes were still damp even with time in the dryer. Maybe we shouldn’t lump our clothes together too much. Harry offers me earplugs because he says he snores loudly and I tell him it’s okay because my own dad snores really loud, but I put the plugs on anyway. Sure enough, when I wake up, one of them is on the floor.

Monday

Geoff laid down more rigorous guidelines for the workshop, including holding one-on-one conferences on the same day as the author’s session and a time limit per critique. We experimented with…about 2 minutes and 45 seconds? This time will eventually get whittled down throughout the next few weeks. Sent the boyfriend what I had on my story so far; in the evening, he got back to me and said it wasn’t really his thing. This rattled me a bit because, since he’s not as voracious a reader as I am, he was my gauge as to whether something worked or not.

We were told that there was gonna be an ice cream social at the LGBT Center. Excited to get away from Canyon Vista food, some of us go with Geoff to check, only to learn that it isn’t until tomorrow. That’s 30 minutes of lunchtime gone, but hey, at least we knew where the center was and the walk back to Canyon Vista was scenic.

Steampunk Paper Theatre.
Steampunk Paper Theatre.

Geoff had his first lecture at 7 p.m., after everyone returned from dinner. His style was to have us read first, then we analyze what we just read together, with Geoff leading the analysis and asking questions.

Our first piece was Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” that famously dialogue-heavy story about abortion, the one that got bandied about in freshman lit classes in college. I never did take this story up, but I read it in a World Literature book at a secondhand bookstore, already knowing it was about abortion–but even then, I still didn’t get how any of it pertained to abortion. Or how anybody could come to that solid a conclusion without Hemingway outright stating it. I concluded back then that my teenage brain was too stupid to get it and that Hemingway is brilliant but pretentious.

But I liked the way Geoff taught this story. We went over it line by line, and he’d have some of us volunteer to read them aloud. We learned about  subtext that night, something that watching plays taught me better than any lit classes ever could, up until that night, when I realized that subtext was being taught all wrong where I came from. “Hills Like White Elephants” is the kind of story where the reader is their own theater crew, where they have to work really hard in order to understand what is going on while also bringing their own interpretations to the text. The dialogue is the plot and is probably a masterclass in plot movement.

I also learned the term “gaslighting,” which is a form of abuse in which one person makes the other think they’re crazy, and that dialogue is not about what a character says–it’s what they do while they say it.

We also discussed Litfic vs. Genre. Genre’s progression over time is this: the first, original subject –> then as a marketing tool –> then devolves into tropes. A mature genre provides a set of reading protocols, according to Samuel Delany. Genre is characterized by sparkling verbs, a strong point of view, thoughts and names, sensory details, and an emphasis on setting and worldbuilding for to make things more real. Meanwhile, Litfic demands a certain kind of distance all the time. It values subtlety, ambiguity, clarity and flow, and a very bland surface.

If I didn’t believe Clarion was an MFA squeezed into 6 weeks the week before, I did now.

Tuesday

I was late to class because I experimented with a shortcut (and ran into Geoff, who was also running late) and took a wrong turn somewhere. When I get to the classroom, everyone is helping lay down rigorous guidelines for the workshop: submission guidelines, scheduling which days you’d like to get critiqued on, delineating the 5,000-word mark and giving the others a choice whether to go on or not, Instructor Reading Wednesdays as 3-story days in order to lighten the load. I wondered if this discussion was my fault; I asked Geoff’s permission the day before if I could already put my name down for Friday even if my story wasn’t ready yet. He obliged. In class, he told us that it was good that we could set our own deadlines.

My costume. Photo by my lady-in-waiting, Haralambi Markov. I am also his lady-in-waiting, actually.
My costume. Photo by my lady-in-waiting, Haralambi Markov. I am also his lady-in-waiting, actually.

Stories today were awesome–honestly, they were always going to be awesome, even if they weren’t The Best Thing The Author Could Come Up With. That’s just a testament to brilliant my classmates are; talent leaking out of their ears no matter what they write.

Before Tuesday, I knew that Noah and I were the last ones to submit anything, and somehow, not being alone in this made me feel more comfortable. I jokingly told him before this day, “If you submit something before I do, I will cry.” But that’s not what happened during the 15 minute break in the middle of the session; Noah finally said that he had a story now, he just needed to edit it. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I put out an offer to beta read. Didn’t know if he’d take it, but it’d be fine either way.

The ice cream social we’d all been hearing about finally happened today. Apparently, our class saved the social, as very few other people showed up.

Up until this point, I’d been questioning the structural integrity of the cafeteria bananas, which were some of my closest links to home–every time I got to the last bite, it would fall off and roll away. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had mango-flavored popsicles at the Center; this was great, because mangoes figured prominently in the story I wanted to submit, and I’d all but forgotten how they tasted like (mango popsicles were no substitute, but it was enough to jolt my sensory memory and make me just a little bit homesick). We also had a group picture, though I still don’t know whose camera it was on.

Marty, Kayla, Amin, Tamara, and I buy lunch at a coffee stand nearby. Geoff joined us for a bit, and we admired all the dogs (whose photos were erased from my malfunctioning phone), some of whom would rather sit next to us and smell our food than go with their owners. I decided to go with Marty to the library and work some more. He managed to coax me into telling him what my story was about, since I mentioned I wasn’t sure I was going to make this week’s deadline. I told him about two parts of it and mentioned I was retelling two Philippine myths about mangoes, and he said that it might be better to save it for Cat’s week, as she’d definitely be up for talking about that sort of thing. I mulled this over until just before I went to bed.

First time I ever took an afternoon nap in Clarion. I woke up aghast at myself and at the time I could have spent reading the stories for the next day, but Ryan said that I probably needed that.

We discussed Donald Barthelme’s “Jaws” at the evening lecture. Geoff discusses plot, POV, dialogue, and character, but the most interesting point in the lecture, for me, was made about names. In science fiction, it’s better not to make up the names–but when you do, make sure they have a sound palette.

Wednesday

Geoff at his reading.
Geoff at his reading.

While telling myself that maybe this week is my lesson in revision (apparently, I’d learn that lesson during Week 3, too), I pull out two flash pieces with three years’ distance between them, the second of which I wrote in answer to the first. I completely rewrite the first piece, which I experimented to death on with different lengths during my undergrad thesis, put them in the same document, and show them to Harry, who expressed a wish to beta read for me the week before. He finishes the two during the 15 minute break between the sessions, just like I thought he would, and tells me that the two need something to tie them together. This I accomplish when we go to the library together and write side by side.

Noah also handed me his manuscript during the break. After finishing up at the library, I come over to their apartment and go over the manuscript with him up until we have to leave for the reading. There were 4 stories for tomorrow, and I think this is when we start thinking about making Thursday a 3-story day, too.

Majority of us went to a brewery before the reading, but I’m disappointed to learn that they do not have root beer, which I’d developed a taste for starting when Ryan bought this really nice, smoky kind from Trader Joe’s some days ago. Nino and I crossed the street to buy some Mexican, but for some reason, crossing the freeway doesn’t feel as dangerous as playing Froggie’s Revenge with the vehicles on Manila’s streets.

The people at the bookstore asked us how we were before the reading began. There was something ominous about the way they said we looked like we were holding up well.

Geoff is a wonderful reader; he tries to embody his characters as he reads. Harry and I sat together on the floor and came up with strange phrases using magnets on a magnetic board; I was delighted to learn that there were different boxes containing different themes: Bitch, Zombies, Edgar Allan Poe, Vampires, and Shakespeare. A bunch of us fooled around some more with the bookstore merchandise, which include tentacles that you can wear on your fingers. Ryan and Manish put some on and it was…well, they could become very popular with a certain kind of audience in Japan.

We had some McDonald’s burgers and fries–it’s a step down from last week’s Inn n Out, but I have this thing where I want to check the McDonald’s branches of the countries I travel to so that I can see what’s so different about them. The original American McDonald’s has, apart from a wider selection of humongous burgers, salad and yogurt. It is funny how they’re still pretending to be healthy. I cannot finish the large fries without help; Harry bought himself a milkshake that will figure very prominently later on. We also stopped at Trader Joe’s and I did a little more grocery shopping until Harry was ready to yell at me because I was taking so long–but I refused to leave without two boxes of those damn good Butter Waffle cookies.

What happens when you give me and Harry magnetic poetry.
What happens when you give me and Harry magnetic poetry.

In the middle of critiquing the 4 stories for the next day, Ryan asked Harry and I if we’d like to watch Look Around You, a show parodying British educational science videos for elementary students, each episode 10 minutes long. We watched about 3 episodes, laughing and going “WTF IS THIS?!” the whole time. Looking back, this is probably the first time I had to force myself to take a break for my own sanity.

Honestly, I didn’t understand why having this many readings in one evening was proving difficult. It’s not like I didn’t get piles of readings 2 inches thick when I was in college; when I was doing my thesis, it got worse when I had to add my thesis writing in between all that. But perhaps Clarion’s difference is that 1) it’s much shorter than a sem, and 2) you have to critique your readings at the same time, which requires more brain power than just regurgitating your facts during recitation.

Thursday

Harry told me that he had a fever the night before (“The fever took me”), partially due to the seasonal changes and partially due to that milkshake, probably. I joked that we could have sued McDonald’s while he ate some of my cereal. We walked to class together and for the first time came across the two fat corgis and rubbed their bellies like crazy. Harry was worried that we wouldn’t make it to class in time, but I reassured him; I have, at this point, sprinted or brisk walked to class in under 20-30 minutes several times. I think it was also at this point that I could wake up without an alarm going off every 7 a.m.

Kiik brought cookies and everyone went gaga. He’d bring sweets to all of his sessions and we’d always joke, “Mm, Kiik’s story’s really good!” (although his stories really were good.) I think we didn’t go completely crazy after six weeks of cafeteria food due in part to his random food offerings. Thank you, Kiik!

Get a room, plz.
Get a room, plz.

Sarena had been holding yoga sessions on the roof since the week before, but I only got to join in on this day, alongside Kristen, Marty, Sarena, and Tamara. I begin to feel the heat of the San Diego sun on my face, though it’s a dry and at times grating heat. Geoff joined us later, although he might have had a harder time, having had no yoga mat to protect him from the warm concrete. He later had to remove his rubber shoes and the things jangling in his pockets.

Geoff’s lecture that night centered the first chapter of Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things.” He touched briefly on character (every time you add a character, you add 500 words) and novel ideas vs. short story ideas (you start with a very visual idea that your audience can get right away).

But what he really talked about was plot; specifically, Story vs. Plot. Plot is a series of related incidents moving through the arrow of time via cause and effect, while Story is how you present the plot, not necessarily in chronological order. A good plot is character-driven and has good motivation. Meanwhile, if you establish your storytelling method early enough, the reader will get used to it. Geoff also said that chronological writing is a symptom of lying; you know your plot when you can recite it backwards.

When you smash up a plot, you smash up causality and culpability. We all tend to view the end of the chain of events as the meaning, but that is not what Arundhati Roy wants her readers to do when reading “The God of Small Things.” We all paired up (I was with Kristen this time) and had to order all the events mentioned in the first chapter chronologically–in short, figure out the plot. Kristen was in charge of recalling the events because she’d read the whole book, and I was in charge of finding the events as they were ordered on the sheets were given (and there were a lot). When we heard other groups saying they’d gotten up to 40+, I felt my stomach falling. But it was a good exercise.

Friday

CORGIS <3
CORGIS ❤

Fourth of July! But I was more into celebrating how I was finally going to be workshopped at last. I brought Toothless with me, as he served as the Comfort Dragon.

Harry told me he wasn’t going to class in order to fully heal from the Milkshake of Doom (which he said tasted funny, in hindsight), but he headed out to breakfast first. I spent more time reading the day’s stories and finishing up my critiques. Halfway to the cafeteria, I got a raging stomach ache and I couldn’t even pinpoint why. Harry found me holding onto a fire hydrant for support. I suppose to passerby, I looked pretty scary/weird: a girl the hood of her dark jacket up, dark floor-length skirt blowing in the wind while she’s doubled over a fire hydrant. Harry eased me to a bench and decided to stay with me until I was well enough to walk to the cafeteria and have enough tea to soothe my aching stomach (with Toothless’s wings as my umbrella; Kiik thought I had a bat on my head).

Sarena asked me if I was nervous about my session. I told her that at this point, I just wanted to get it over with.

But when we do get to the classroom, we discover that it’s locked and that either no one has the key code or it doesn’t work at all. I think it was Ellie who offered to kick the door down, but we sadly do not go with that offer. We go back to the Common Room and hold the session there. I forgot it was Shelley or Laura’s husband who brought so many pizzas to the Common Room. He got such a round of applause when he got there.  Harry appeared in time for both the pizzas and my session, wholly well.

I was last on the list of those to be workshopped that day; we were so hungry and the pizzas smelled so good. Geoff asked me if it was okay if we ate before my session and I responded by saying that I am getting hangry myself. They laughed and someone said that I don’t want hangry people critiquing my story, either. My session seemed to go over well; this was “The Politics of Ink: A Love Story,” which was 1,319 words long. It raised some questions about using food words to describe People of Color (although we could all agree that the male writer in my story was an asshole) and the gravity of different types of abuse. You’d have thought I would’ve been on top of the food adjective stuff, but I had never had to consider this in the context of white people before. Proves that I still have so much to learn.

This is similar to what we tried to do, only on an Agatha Christie mystery.
This is similar to what we tried to do, only on an Agatha Christie mystery.

“Dead Men’s Path” by Chinua Achebe was the story for Geoff’s final lecture, which was mostly about language. Geoff demonstrated how a good writer–like Achebe–will end a sentence or paragraph with the punchiest word. Two more things he talked about: the Buggeration Factor, in which the event occurring is still a coincidence but the readers will believe it because it is the worst that can (and will) happen; and that story climaxes are different for readers and writers.

  • WRITERS: When the outcome becomes the most inevitable
  • READERS: When the story is the most dense

Afterward, Geoff, Nino, Amin, and Marty go out to buy more drinks and the others clear out of the room. Kayla, Marian, and I are left behind; that’s when I decide to introduce my portable speaker. I hooked up my phone to it and Kayla and I had a private Disney-themed karaoke session. I do believe we scared off Marian at some point, just before we moved on to the pop songs. Harry came in just in time for Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women,” but we had to cut it short in order to watch the fireworks on the roof…which happened pretty far away and were very small, according to Harry’s critique of them. When it was over, I called out from the platform, “HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY, AMERICANS!”

We also found out about pterodactyl porn. The costumes…are very lifelike. Amin, Marian, and I sit together and show each other photos of our cats; Amin and I talk about the sicknesses and surgeries we’ve had, who we were when we were teenagers, the Philippine and Australian school systems, our art (I draw, he sculpts), our jobs. Some of us stay up late in the Common Room talking about anime shows and exceedingly gross movies (that aren’t necessarily horror but are still horrific) and recommending favorites to each other and Harry disturbed the crap out of all of us when he sat on one of the high chairs and said, complete with hand gestures, “I have two words for you: Newborn. Porn.”

Saturday

Mmmm, fries.
Mmmm, fries.

Decided to hole myself in the apartment and work on my story. The following week, I will realize that I only had about half of it down on this day–but I rewrote that one-half from top to bottom until my brain wanted to explode and it was time for dinner (well, merienda). Turned out that Zach and Nino were cooking–there was some chipotle and tortilla chips on Nino’s table, and some steaming cheesy (chipotle?) fries. Nino also had some kind of meaty stew simmering in a vat, and Kiik brought some yogurt thingies. Overall, my stomach was really happy.

Zach’s lovely girlfriend Liz came by for a visit, too.

Leena, Harry, Tamara, and I sat in one corner and showed each other music videos ranging from corny to cheesy to downright terrifying from our own countries. I did not want to win that one, but dammit, I won it with the official music video of the “Otso-otso.” To rub salt into the wound, some news blows up on Facebook feed about Imelda Marcos being the guest of honor at a scholarship dinner at my university, and I retire to my room for a while in order to process my disappointment and to write just a little more in my story.

There should be a Tumblr for all of these goofy faces.
There should be a Tumblr for all of these goofy faces.

As such, I was not mentally prepared for Cat’s arrival. I processed too late that she was coming and had no time to keep it cool. As such, as we were looking at the stars (and mistook an airplane for a planet), as Cat and her husband Heath and the others got acquainted, and as Cat was telling some fascinating story about her time in UCSD and I leaned too far back into a chair and almost toppled Kristen and myself (“Jesus, Vida, you’re gonna kill us all!”)–I was losing my shit. Harry had to hold me. But luckily, Amanda was there to lose her shit with me.

We brought Cat and Geoff up to the roof to hang out. Cat got us all spellbound by more tidbits about UCSD and a little bit about her time in Japan as a Navy wife–we couldn’t help sit on the ground and listen. She and Geoff retired early; Geoff to orient her about the class.

So ended Week 2, which was rough and rigorous and still amazing. Cat would later say that we had thousand-yard looks in our eyes upon first meeting us.

Geoff ceding the class to Cat on his last night and her first. We're not complete here and it was truly very dark out.
Geoff ceding the class to Cat on his last night and her first. We’re not complete here and it was truly very dark out. Photo by Liz

Book Review: ‘Ventriloquism’ by Catherynne M. Valente

The cover of the author's rare, out-of-print first collection of short stories. Image taken from SubterraneanPress.com via EvilHat.blogspot.com
The cover of the author’s rare, out-of-print first collection of short stories. Image taken from SubterraneanPress.com via EvilHat.blogspot.com

Reading Catherynne M. Valente’s writing is both like taking in a slow breath and being unable to do so. Her words spiral upward, outward, then close in on you, and you will grow dizzy simply trying to keep up with the barrage of living, breathing, sensual ideas.

At least, that’s how her first-ever collection of short stories made me feel. The rare, out-of-print Ventriloquism encompasses six years’ worth of tales, six years’ worth of experimentation both failed and wildly triumphant. And I must say, whether you love or hate her work, this is one hefty, heady mix.

I didn’t read everything, however, having encountered many of the stories in The Melancholy of Mechagirl or in Troll’s Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales. Maybe it’s just me (and it very likely is, as I often pick apart her writing even as I read a story–especially if it’s one of her form-heavy pieces), but I would have preferred it had the stories been arranged according to year published. Part of the joy of reading Ventriloquism was watching/reading someone whom many already consider pretty great improve again and again, even if the story just didn’t do it for me.  There is something about reading her poetic prose, which straddles opulence and unreadability simultaneously, and then recognizing how she scales it back for particular stories, especially toward the end.

I am thinking particularly of the last nine stories in this 35-story oeuvre: “How to Build a Ladder to the Sun in Six Simple Steps,” “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew,” (which is going to be a novel in 2015, yay!) “Oh, the Snow-Bound Earth, the Radiant Moon!,” “Golubash (Wine-Blood-War-Elegy),” “Secretario,” “The Harpooner at the Bottom of the World,” “How to Become a Mars Overlord,” “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica,” and “13 Ways of Looking at Space/Time.” Minus the last one (which I’d read in Melancholy) and throw in “A Delicate Architecture” and “The Ballad of the Sinister Mr. Mouth,” and you have my favorite stories of this collection.

What do they have in common apart from all having been written by Catherynne M. Valente? I…don’t know. Figuring out what particularly attracts me about her stories is like throwing dice. Whether it’s a detective story of sorts (“Secretario”) or a science fictional elegy about wine and war (“Golubash”) or a retelling of a fairy tale/epic or a narrative encased strange forms (an auction guide, a segment of a collection of folktales, the transcript of a seminar), Valente does not fail to enthrall at best, to pique interest at least.

“Here an author throws her voice—and a family of strange dolls speaks, as if by magic,” reads the intro on the jacket flap. But it’s not just dolls. She can make cities and mirrors and video games and practically anything else she puts her mind to speak, sing, scream. And while she’s at it, she’ll give you incisive insight into human nature, into the nature of story. She’s really good at dissecting patterns then flipping them on their heads for her own purposes.

The only issue I have with a few of them is that a handful feel like novels-in-waiting–and indeed, some of them did turn out so (“A Dirge for Prester John” = The Habitation of the BlessedPalimpsest; and now “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew” will be coming out in 2015 as Radiance). I’ve read in a lot of places that some people actually have novel ideas behind their short stories and that one must learn how to differentiate one from the other. Valente manages sometimes, and other times, she doesn’t. I am of the belief that her comfort length is that of the novella (have you read Silently and Very Fast? If you haven’t yet, you should).

And therein lies the problem whenever I review her work: I always end up talking about her range, assessing her breadth, unable to speak about her work on a micro level because I think to do that would take an entire thesis and a dissertation, and then some. The bottom line is, her fiction takes my heart in its lavishly decorated, well-manicured claws, rips it apart, then presents it again to me whole, but never quite the same.

And I cannot wait to read The Bread We Eat in Dreams.

Book Review: ‘The Melancholy of Mechagirl’ by Catherynne M. Valente

I came to know Japan through its anime and manga culture, through Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay “In Praise of Shadows” and Akira Kurosawa’s film Dreams and the music of Yuki Kajiura, through the brutality of its soldiers toward the Philippines and other nations during World War II, through an array of sushi restaurants of varying quality, through statistics of its suicides, wacky game shows, offbeat products, gruesome urban legends, and Shinto creation myth.

Image taken from CatheryneValente.com
Image taken from CatherynneMValente.com

It will take several lifetimes to scratch the surface of Japan, but reading Catherynne M. Valente’s newest collection of (Japan-centered and Japan-tinted) short fiction and poetry, The Melancholy of Mechagirl, one gets the sense that—while by no means an in-depth look at the nation—she knows more than the average anime-addicted, J-pop culture-savvy gaijin ever will.

It is hard to talk about this collection of science fiction and fantasy without talking about the author’s two-year experience as a lonely young army wife in a rural military town in Japan. Valente seemed to know this as well, judging from the afterword in which she artfully summarized that experience and established it as the anchoring point of any of her even remotely Japan-related fiction. I read this afterword first because I was genuinely curious about her fascination with Japan, having first encountered and fallen in love with her work in the Orphan’s Tales duology and the Fairyland series. But nobody else need read the afterword first, as it won’t affect the reading of the nine stories and four poems, many of them about a lonely foreign girl—often a writer, too—stuck in a strange, fascinating country.

I’ve got to be honest, though. While Valente is at the top of her game in this collection, it’s her stories that manage to pull back or balance the lonely foreign writer girl situation that really strike a chord. Sometimes, the pain becomes too raw, too engulfing, and maybe at times too specific, as I can’t put myself in the shoes of any character imbued with this sort of angst? I find myself wanting to read more about, say, Kyorinrin and Tsuma rather than Kyorinrin’s roughly-imagined girl Akemi in the semiautobiographical, metafictional story “Ink, Water, Milk,” which is unique to the collection.

Or sometimes, Valente manages to emulate the neatness and the strangeness of Japan a little too well, like in the aforementioned story or in “Fifteen Panels Depicting the Sadness of the Baku and the Jotai.” Maybe I have Victorian sensibilities, but I can’t seem to grow used to the idea of supernatural beings making love to inanimate objects (or inanimate objects making love to other inanimate objects, for that matter).

“Ghosts of Gunkanjima” is a sad story about the inhabitants of the abandoned factory-island of Gunkanjima, but I know Valente is capable of the kind of sadness that makes you stop reading for a little while and try to even out your breathing. The award-winning “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time” was gorgeously written and a fun read (even if the scientific terms went over my head) because of the comparison of different creation myths and certain points of rebirth in the life of a science fiction writer, but I felt there was still something missing from it.

The collection begins to pick up with “One Breath, One Stroke,” however. The dazzling parade of supernatural creatures somehow reminded me of a scene about walking into a kitsune wedding from Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. There was something poignant about the struggle of Ko the old man and Yuu the calligraphy brush, who share the same body, trying to leave a house they can’t leave—the House of Second-hand Carnelian, whose one half is in the human world and the other in the supernatural world.

The kitsune wedding party catches the boy watching their procession. Screenshot from the movie. Image taken from LoqueCoppolaQuiera.blogspot.com
The kitsune wedding party catches the boy watching their procession.
Screenshot from the movie. Image taken from LoqueCoppolaQuiera.blogspot.com

“Story No. 6,” which is unique to the collection as well, is not your conventional story in that the plot is not in trying to catch the elusive Kami haunting old black-and-white reels of Japanese films, but in what happens to the characters and audience members that she takes along with her, never to be seen again. Also, it made me want to Google the films mentioned and find out if they really do have missing scenes and characters.

I don’t go looking for science fiction to read, but sometimes, the stories I do come across are good fun and not at all like the jargon-heavy, techno-savvy stuff that make up much of the genre. “Fade to White” is one such story. I enjoyed the post-apocalyptic USA where everything down to gene and marriage pairings must be regulated, as well as following the story of Martin, who dreams of becoming a Husband, and secretly part-Japanese Sylvie, who would rather not be a Wife. You don’t get to find out what the amusing corrected TV commercial scripts interspersing the narrative are about until the end, but it’s well worth it.

“Killswitch” is novel in that this is my first encounter with a piece of fiction dealing with video games, even if this one is about a near-unplayable game that terminates itself once the end of one of the playable character’s storylines is reached. With only 5,000 copies available, the said game has become an urban legend and people will do anything to crack the code.

The four-part novella “Silently and Very Fast” earns all of its commendations. It will take a little patience to get through the beginning, as readers are immediately introduced to the strange world of Neva and her highly-evolved artificial intelligence, Elefsis. The novella follows Elefsis’s entire life, beginning with his/her/its creation as a less sophisticated Jarvis of the house of celebrated computer programmer Cassian Uoya-Agostino, and his growth as he/she/it is handed down from one vastly different family member to another over hundreds of years. Neva is a lonely girl here, but combined and complemented with the loneliness of Elefsis, it’s a loneliness that circles you until it becomes a nest you can safely, comfortably get warm in. This novella definitely kicked me in the gut. I highly recommend it.

The novella's original cover as a standalone piece of fiction.
The novella’s original cover as a standalone piece of fiction. Image taken from CatherynneMValente.com  

 

I wish I were qualified to talk about the poetry, but I am not. I will say, however, that I enjoyed the titular “The Melancholy of Mechagirl” and its rolling bubblegum-pop scientific jargon. “The Girl with Two Skins” was highly affecting (and probably my absolute favorite among the four poems), and “Memoirs of a Girl Who Failed to Be Born from a Peach” both sad and amusing.

“The Emperor of Tsukayama Park” is probably the most “Japanese” of them all in that it uses a lot of nature imagery and evokes that sense of neatness and ephemerality that the Japanese prize and are known for. In that sense, it is also the one I understood the least, perhaps because it is the one poem less like fiction than all the others.

All in all, The Melancholy of Mechagirl is a lot like wine and a lot like Japan itself—a heady, acquired taste. But once the taste is acquired, I definitely don’t mind getting tipsy with it.