Let's Discuss! Conjunctions, Issue 79
LIT MAG READING CLUB discussion of Conjunctions
Welcome to our Lit Mag Reading Club discussion!
So? What’d you think of Conjunctions 79?
This is a packed issue, perhaps even a defiantly celebratory one, as the magazine came close to being shuttered last year by Bard College. Thankfully, after public outcry, the magazine stayed in operation, and issue 79, themed “Onword,” is a whopping 330 pages of fiction, nonfiction, photography and poetry.
In his Editor’s Note Bradford Morrow writes:
I titled this issue Onword so it could work either as a farewell—onward and upward, as we say when bidding goodbye—or a celebratory continuing forward—on with the words. Deep gratitude goes to all who helped make the latter the true meaning of the title.
Among the contributors you will find a few writers with just a handful of publishing credits. Most contributors have at least one book published. Several are literary heavyweights, such as Julia Alverez, Peter Orner and Russell Banks, who sadly passed away earlier this month.
The editors do not distinguish among genres. I’m not sure why some magazines do this. Is it meant to suggest that there really is no difference between fiction and nonfiction? Is it meant to call attention to the arbitrary nature of classifying forms of literature? Is the reader to have fun trying to guess? For me, as a reader, this wasn’t a big deal. I was just curious about the rationale for this editorial choice.
In most instances, it’s clear early on what genre you’re reading. Though in a few pieces, one might wonder. Alyysa Pelish’s understated yet gripping piece, “The Four Notes,” has the straightforward first-person narration that one finds in memoir. Yet the piece has a tidy narrative shape and haunting element that suggests it is likely fiction.
Melissa Pritchard’s “City of Paris” is also narrated in first-person and covers the span of a woman’s life, beginning with her relationship with her mother, meeting a seminal teacher, then finally to her lover. The piece, with its strong characterization and rigorous self-examination, could be a memoir or a short story:
I would come to understand that at the heart of my emergent longing for the Circean, the unattainable, was an early contempt, my first turning against that cherished white city—Mother—from who I would separate myself, again and again, ashamed.
Minna Zallman Proctor’s “Julia” offers a similar ambiguity. Here in a rambling, near-breathless yet imminently warm and down-to-earth voice, we learn about the narrator’s best friend, Charlotte, who “went to Portugal on a mission to indulge herself, understand who she was as a female person in the world…” and then “died there.” Proctor recounts their friendship, the times they spent with their babies, marital problems all in the long, winding sentences of a chatty, perhaps slightly nervous friend:
We laughed about how much better I had it, even though I was officially a "‘single mom,” which should have made things harder but the truth is that it’s always harder when you have to negotiate everything, two people being more complicated than one, because it’s not even as simple as two being more than one; it’s two plus their dynamic as a couple, so marriage is like navigating three complex systems.
Fiction or non-fiction? Does it matter?
Perhaps Peter Orner captures the essence of the question when he writes in “Four More Stories,” “I’ve become less and less interested in invention. Don’t we have enough sorrow already? Why concoct more? But facts don’t make any of this the truth.”
Undoubtedly, Conjunctions relishes in these upendings of norms. The magazine describes itself as a home for “innovative writing,” a space that for nearly half a century “has challenged accepted forms and styles, with equal emphasis on groundbreaking experimentation and rigorous quality.”
Indeed, for evidence of this claim one need look no further than this issue’s cover. I mean, take a moment and really look at it.
I love it.
Of all the content here, four works particularly stuck with me. Each one shows characters wrestling with circumstance, defying stereotypes in important ways, struggling to live up to their ideals and ultimately relishing in all this messy and complicated business of being human. Though each narrator and situation are vastly different, there are unifying threads that allow us to glimpse how very connected to one another—conjoined—we all ultimately are.
Russell Banks’s “Kidnapped” spans forty-seven pages, and concerns the kidnapping of an elderly couple, Frank and Bessie Dent. Fans of Russell Banks will recognize the narrative style from his novel Affliction, in which a first-person narrator has a (perhaps suspiciously) keen interest in the horrors of other people’s lives. Commonly recurring themes of his work might also be recognized, such as drug-running, poverty, addiction, hollowed-out communities, rural life, masculinity and race.
The story is riveting. What begins simply enough—“I took my afternoon walk with my dog”—soon becomes an un-put-downable drama in which two elderly people, Frank and Bessie Dent, are kidnapped. The kidnappers are clumsy, the victims are frail but cunning. Nothing ends well for anyone.
The fault for all of this lies with the Dents’ daughter-in-law, a recovering addict who embroiled their grandson (her estranged son) in a drug-dealing scheme. She botched the job, leaving the kidnappers on a mission to recover the drugs, which are worth millions of dollars. Failing that, they intend to hold the elder Dents until they get their ransom.
Several times in the story, Banks makes a point of letting the reader know these characters are Trump supporters. Amy Dent tells her son, “Trump might be a bastard, but he’s our bastard, right?” At another point, “Frank felt oddly naked. He squared his red MAGA cap on his head and felt better.”
From a more ideologically-motivated writer, the characterizations might come across as heavy-handed. Yet because this is Russell Banks, whose skill as a writer has always derived in part from his sensitive approach to thorny subjects, and because the purpose of this story is decidedly not to promote stereotypes or stoke partisan resentments, the Dents are far more than symbols in our nation’s ongoing electoral battles. We worry about them. We root for them. The moment that Frank realizes that “his pride and vanity had contributed to the death in Iraq of his beloved son” is tragic. Even more so as, “He wanted to share these feelings and thoughts with Bessie. But he couldn’t say them aloud to her in front of these men. He could barely say them in silence to himself.”
Amy is also redeemed by the end, as we come to learn that this entire ordeal (which will result in a court case, arrests and several people murdered), was caused by her desire to change her life. In her attempt to be the good mother she never was, a whole lot of lives get ruined. To some extent, even the kidnappers are worthy of sympathy, as Banks makes it known how they are operators within a larger grinding machinery, not unlike “bankers buying and reselling mortgages.”
In fact—and here I’m reminded of his unsettling 2011 novel Lost Memory of Skin, where the reader’s sympathies are continuously shifting—the character I came away with the most questions about is the narrator. Who is this person who has such a special interest in this kidnapping case? And exactly how did it come to be that he knows quite so much about these individuals’ private lives? Just what is really going on here?
In Yxta Maya Murray’s “Bakersfield,” we also encounter Trump supporters. But like Banks, Murray handles these characters with a touch so affectionate and fond that it’s clear that electoral politics is not the main point. Who they vote for is important only insofar as it highlights something larger about these characters and the corners they’ve been boxed into.
The story’s heroine, teenage Alejandra, is caught between perpetually opposing forces. She wants to be good. She wants to be virtuous. Yet her family’s farm is drying up and she has no money. Besides, she’s not always convinced of the kind of virtue being imparted upon her.
Of being at church Murray writes,
I felt the spirit fill my soul. I wanted to be that girl, the one holding Jesus’s hand while the sand sank around me. Wanted to stand on that solid rock. I’d sure as hell like to lay it all down so a man could pick it up. Well, I was still going to have to buy that fucking stolen water but after my almonds I would repent.
On mask-wearing at church:
Except for Pastor Ben, only like five people in the place wore masks. Well, I wasn’t wearing one either…I know I should have been wearing one now, but shut up, because if you grew up watching your people get dead from Roundup and combine accidents and tap water and la migra and valley fever and jail and OD’s since you been born then you get sick of it.
If the tone of the writing here seems snappy and sharp, that is because it is. This story is wise, witty and hilarious. How could you not love a narrator who observes about her land, “Outside the window the dust fell on the rows of almond trees, which stood firm and helpless like a field trip’s worth of seventh graders”?
You cheer for Alejandra, even as you sense that her material circumstances may never change. At least, by the end, she has made a kind of peace with the contradictory nature of her life, noting how “The chemicals made rainbows” and “the grit shone like a sprinkling of diamonds.”
A hilarious kind of struggle appears again in Deb Olin Unferth’s “Uncrowd the Planet.” Here a woman has committed to a quest in which she and several others will go out to the desert and commit mass-suicide. They will “do our part to hasten the uncrowding of our species from the planet.”
What could be a righteous tale of self-sacrifice and the perils of climate change, the reader soon learns, is nothing of the sort. As it turns out, our narrator is wonderfully unsure, delightfully self-doubting. She relates, in a long and magnificent near-page-long paragraph:
What have I gotten myself into? I could turn around and go back, but I’d never make it alone. It’s the sort of project where you have to be all in or all out, and what am I? A waffler, that’s what I am…Our sort, we can’t make up our minds. We hover in a state of perpetual unease…I got my reputation as a serious radical by my sheer proximity to the seriously radical…
Of course, the narrator isn’t all passive indecisiveness. One bold and clear observation, for example: “Then there’s the sun, that bitch.”
My favorite feature of this story is what lays at its core, that even in the face of urgent global crises, we are simply unable to shed our own messy minds and conflicted hearts. The world is imperfect. We are imperfect. But I agree wholeheartedly with Unferth when she writes, “Even this, I’ll take it. I’ll take it, I’ll take it, I’ll take it.”
Finally, Barrie Jean Borich’s piece, which is almost definitely an essay, is a refreshing look at various kinds of struggle. Here, the narrator wrestles with her own contradicting impulses and opposing internal and external forces. She writes,
After these years of pandemic time I’m not as self-aware, more gray blond, my body less supple. I walk now to pull myself back into history, into this city made of damage and desire. I walk to get that spiritual awakening feeling I used to find at my favorite AA meetings, the feeling I was looking for when I drank. It’s a kind of dissolving I’m talking about here, by which I mean who I am and where I am becoming one.
A brick serves as a recurring and surprisingly poignant object through which Borich examines everything from the usefulness of protests, physical damage some protests cause, walls that block connection, relationship patterns and ways of seeing ourselves which remain cemented in our lives until at the end “the brick sits on the shelf…as public memory, or as defense…or ballast in the bottom of your pot, to keep you blooming.”
There is so much more to this issue that I can’t possibly cover here. But all in all, I enjoyed this issue immensely. I hope other readers did too.
What did you think, dear readers?
There are poems and stories I did not mention here, or could not go into more deeply for lack of space here and reading time. So please, tell me, what spoke to you? What did I miss?
What was educational, interesting, exciting?
What inspired you, made you think, made you reflect?
What did you enjoy?
Please don’t be shy to weigh in! I want to hear what you think! Even if you only read one story, one essay or poem. What did you think of it?
Thoughtful criticism is also welcome. But please keep it constructive. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to a writer in a workshop with you.
Thanks for being the thoughtful, engaged, understanding and passionate readers and writers you are.
We will be speaking with Managing Editor Clare Shearer on Monday, January 30th at 1:00 pm est. All are invited to attend and ask questions. The video will be made available for anyone who can’t attend in person. Register here.
Regarding the premise – fiction versus non-fiction – I like this quote from Storyscape Journal’s mission statement: “It totally matters whether it’s true or invented, because I need to know if I should run around screaming based on the information you gave me or just imagine myself running around screaming.”
(Becky – Based on a brief search, it appears that Storyscape may be another fallen warrior in the lit mag world.)
I write non-fiction but sometimes employ tiny bits of fiction to avoid beatings and lawsuits. I suspect a lot of what passes for fiction is memoir in a witness protection program.
I’ve consumed three entries of this massive journal so far (Kidnapped, Four Notes, Poker Night). I remain surprised at what the stories are and are not about by each half-way point, leaving my first impression unresolved and the new one wondering how it’ll end (answer: abruptly). Looking forward to the live discussion this week.