Let's Discuss! Iowa Review, Summer 2022
Lit Mag Reading Club discussion
Welcome to our Lit Mag Reading Club discussion!
So? What did you think of Iowa Review?
If you’re not familiar with this journal and hope to open it up and read about corn, democratic caucuses, state fairs, farm follies and tractor mishaps, you may be disappointed. (There is actually one state fair, but it’s mentioned only briefly and it takes place in Ohio.)
If, on the other hand, you’re seeking a broad array of voices examining weighty and complex issues, voices that represent both American and global perspectives, this journal’s got the goods.
For this issue (summer 2022), Editor Lynne Nugent states that she has sought to “[feature] voices that have not always been given center stage in literary magazines.” This stands in contrast to the magazine’s inaugural issue of 1970, in which, “From what I can gather from the context and biographies, the majority, if not all, were white, cisgeneder, heterosexual men.”
I don’t know what the content of that inaugural issue was like, but I’m guessing that the subject matter was also different from what you’ll find in the Iowa Review of 2022. The stories, fiction and poetry here do not shy away from thorny socio-political issues, dealing head-on with racism, domestic violence, sex work, gay rights, suicide, immigration, addiction, rape, the death of pets, oppressive totalitarian regimes, and Covid.
This is not to say there are not moments of levity, humor and playfulness here. There are. In fact, one of this issue’s strengths is the subtly wry humor that occasionally underlies these difficult topics. Another strength is the way history—personal and geopolitical—is meticulously stitched into the fabric of nearly every personal narrative.
This issue contains 7 stories, 7 works of nonfiction, poems by 8 poets, 1 set of letters from Donald Justice (one of the aforementioned men of the 1970 issue) and an array of photographs throughout.
Contributors come from a refreshing variety of backgrounds. One is a writer and professional dancer; one hosts a podcast and comes from “DC’s emocore scene;” one is a filmmaker; one is a cabaret performer; one is the creator of “a series of sleazy poems about childhood racism and adult sexuality.” Several of the contributors have published one or more books. All have at least a few publishing credits under their belts.
While a few of the pieces here allude to Covid, two of the stories tackle it outright. Pallavi Wakharkar’s “Simple Animal” and Rajnesh Chakrapani’s “Rewards and their delivery systems” both beautifully and at times humorously capture the dislocation and alienation of lockdown, and in particular the challenge of cultivating healthy romantic relationships during a time when physical contact is fraught. In both stories, the protagonists’ day-to-day hardships are compounded by other factors—racism and grief in Wakharkar’s story and the bureaucratic nightmare of immigration in Chakrapani’s.
“Simple Animal” begins with a striking metaphor—a set of eyes whose color is that of “skinned grapes.” Soon we learn that these are eyes seen on a screen, that the young protagonist Kajal is working from home (on a screen) and spending hours each day talking with her love interest (on a screen).
The story is full of witty observations that belie Kajal’s deeper sadness. It’s not just the pandemic that is causing her sense of malaise. Kajal also “lived in a neighborhood of charming brick houses loudly being replaced by ugly modern horrors that loomed, tall and thin and historyless as runway models.”
Then there is her relationship with her father, a man whose memory is starting to go. “The fact of his mortality was occurring to me with increasing regularity each time I spoke to him. As a result,” she confides to the reader, “I was tempted to speak to him less.”
In one particularly humorous moment Kajal walks through her suburban town and encounters a neighbor putting a sign up in his yard. It’s “the first time I’d seen anyone putting a sign up; most seemed to crop up unseen and unheard in the middle of the night, like a zit or new breasts.”
IN THIS HOUSE, its first line proclaimed, WE BELIEVE SCIENCE IS REAL. The neighbor, a white man in a polo, glanced at me as I passed. He gave a wave and a big grin, as if acknowledging my humanity. I waved back. WE BELIEVE BLACK LIVES MATTER, the second line declared. Each of the capitalized beliefs was written one after the other in a different color. NO HUMAN BEING IS ILLEGAL, it confirmed. WOMEN'S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS, it reminded me. LOVE IS LOVE. The polo man smiled at me again, then returned inside. That's one virtuous deed done for the day, he probably thought.
No sooner has Kajal finished reading the sign (and quietly making fun of its owner) than another man pulls up in his car beside her. Where, he wants to know, does Kajal live? In the purported interest of keeping their neighborhood safe, his casual interrogation only reminds Kajal of how unsafe she actually feels.
In the end, when Kajal leaves the home of the love interest she has finally gone to see in person and “slipped out of bed as the sun rose…lifted my face to meet the wind,” there is a complicated sense of both hope and despair for this young woman. Kajal will drive westward, but she is heading toward “the brink.”
Chakrapani’s “Rewards and their delivery systems” took me some effort to get into, but once I was inside the story and its unique code, I was engrossed both by the narrative and this charmingly discombobulated narrator.
Here is another character who is adrift during Covid lockdown. Yet in this case we feel our narrator’s fragmented sense of identity in the narratorial style itself, the use of a voice that at times feels robotic or else jumps from one idea to another. By the end I was completely endeared toward this narrator, a man who seems to be increasingly dysfunctional in a world that is itself is entirely failing to function.
N comes at me with an intensity I am familiar with. This is where she accuses me of lacking intelligence, or losing some intelligence during the coronavirus. “I speak a lot about feelings and missing you and you don’t say anything,” she says.
To which the narrator doesn’t say anything.
When N has trouble getting her visa, our narrator and his sentences seem to completely unravel, along with the unraveling institutions around them:
Several events exacerbate the situation... In 2016 a new administration brings restrictions and delays for immigrant visas. A global pandemic shuts down most U.S. embassies. Which brings me to the topic of the next essay hoarding.
This story’s ending is abrupt and anticlimactic—“Everything works out all of a sudden.” Somehow, though, there is the lingering question of whether anything will go on to work at all. It’s a fitting end for the narrator as well as the reader, who likely has similar questions of their own.
Ernesto Barbieri’s “Animal Shelter” seems at first like it will be a story of a young couple, their struggles as they find a way to live together and manage the dead mice appearing in their home, mice that Grace “buried…like scandals, fast and dirty, a choke of water sending them underground…”
But as we move deeper into the story, Grace’s backstory emerges and deeper troubles come to the surface. Barbieri reveals this backstory in an interesting stylistic departure from the rest of the story. Any writer who struggles with working backstory into fiction might want to take note. Here is a series of sentence fragments locked in a dense block of text that begin with “After…”
After a week and a half at the shelter, after a month crashing with a friend named Gordon. After Gordon tried to rape her on his couch...After she went back to the shelter and got into a screaming match with a girl over a blanket. After she called her mother from a pay phone behind the 7-Eleven and begged her to wire her some cash so that she could check into a motel for the night….(“I won’t send you drug money, sweetie. But let’s keep the lines of communication open.”) After she bumped into Zach at the Gas N Go…
The story ends on a note at once lovely and chilling, as Grace and Zach get into an argument about a dead pet and Grace reflects on the sounds of cat purring, how it’s a comforting sound yet which might just “be something darker,” the “mimicry of birds’ cooing. The luring of a trap.”
One essay in this issue does, in fact, take us into the culture of life in the American Midwest. Christopher Kempf’s “So Many Saturdays” begins with a reference to Elizabeth Bishop’s classic poem, noting that the poet “was right—losing isn’t hard to master, at least in Ohio.”
In a style that is clear, direct and unadorned, Kempf writes about various losses both personal and political.
Accompanying its litany of sports woes during this period, Ohio suffered too the deleterious effects of economic deindustrialization, losing skilled Rust Belt labor to bucolic campuses in Sub Belts, Silicon Valleys, and New Souths.
Kempf takes us beyond media stereotypes, mockery from celebrities and “side-eyed contempt” in order to explore the real humanity at the core of sports fandom in this place. There is a profound and welcome compassion that underlies this essay as Kempf notes that “it is easy to smirk at” sports fanaticism. But rather than smirk, why not attempt to understand? Heck, why not even enjoy it?
For a moment, sports hold out an alternative world to those who most need one. For a moment, sports provide a glimpse, as if to imagine it into existence, of a fairer civilization, a society based on communal belonging, equal competition, and the traditions of body and spirit that bind us together in time and place.
There are so many other works here that similarly bind us in time and place. Alison C. Rollins’s personal essay “‘The Men in Chicago Are Soft’ or Self-Portrait as Queer Black Bear” ties together multiple threads of race and sexuality, often in admirably revealing details, while returning to the bear as a literary motif. Rollins notes, “Lacking the sex to be a credit to my race and the race to be a credit to my sex, I am forced to identify with the bestial.” Later, she writes: “Come night, my hands are a blues song. Bare naked. I’m held together by the warm fur at my center.”
Lisa Argrette Ahmad’s essay weaves an inherited painting through a narrative that looks at her own childhood, spent partly as “privileged kids raised on air conditioning, integrated suburbs, and East Coast private schools” and partly with her grandparents in rural Mississippi. She goes on to carry this divided self into her marriage. “I was unapologetically Black. But my husband wasn’t. And, neither were our biractial children.” This marriage “to a man of another ethnicity raised uncomfortable questions.”
Understanding one's identity in relation to larger cultural pressures and political forces is a theme for several additional works here. Xujun Eberlein's "Ms. Daylily" provides a fascinating account of her parents' lives leading up to and during China's Cultural Revolution. Kenneth Tanemura’s short story “Every Day I Write the Book” takes a more comical approach to this theme, working in a kind of universal adolescent mortification of one’s parents even as it specifically addresses this protagonist’s unique conflicts.
Lindsey Drager’s short story “Solastalgia” also takes place during a crisis, but the particular crisis is not specified. There are hints, though, that the crisis is a climate-related one. The narrator notes the mysterious disappearance of birds and is “starting not to recognize the sky.” Later the narrator “got out my telescope and tried like hell to see the stars but the light pollution and smog were too severe.”
The story also alludes to what might be interpreted as America’s ongoing political divide, but in a way that feels amusingly disengaged from it:
“We call it the Demonstration now,” I tell her. “Sure. The Demonstration. "Do you remember participating?" "Course. Been going on as long as this town has existed..." ..."Maybe it will be over [one day]." "Used to think that myself," Luz says. "But these days I wonder if it's simply in the blood of this town to disagree."
Perhaps, though, perpetual disagreement is not their fate after all. Later, in an especially poignant passage, the narrator observes,
We rise very slowly—this is all very slow—and we carefully direct each other around the space material, the fields of rock and burning gas and human-made debris. There are NO people holding the hands of YES people and there are the three tiny humans I grew inside my body and there is the woman who taught me friendship and the person who taught me curiosity and we are rising. And then, released from the Earth’s crust, on the other side of the sky, we stop and I tell everyone to look. “Look!” I say. “See,” I say. I point away from Earth. It is the stars, the naked cosmos. It is a million other universes, pulsing and breathing. it is the wonder of infinite galaxies straight through the retina of the eye.
This isn’t the end of the story, but it felt like an end of sorts. Or at least, a satisfying acknowledgement of all that there can be found in this world. The Yes people, the No people, the many voices, stories and experiences that come together into a single enterprise in order to share pieces of themselves with the world.
Everyone, together in one place. Rising.
What did you think?
What moved you?
There is so much here I didn’t mention, including the poetry. Tell me what you thought of the poetry!
What made you wonder, think, laugh, question, dream, consider?
What surprised you?
How did you find the physical layout of the journal?
How did you see the works speaking to one another?
Let’s talk all about it!
We will be speaking with Editor Lynne Nugent about this issue this Friday, April 28th at 11:30 am est. Whether you’ve read some, all or none of this issue, you are welcome to come out and join the conversation. Registration for subscribers can be found here.