Let's Discuss! Pacifica Literary Review, issue 19.1
Lit Mag Reading Club chat for Pacifica Review
Welcome to our Lit Mag Reading Club discussion!
First, a bit of housekeeping: For those of you who would like to participate next month, we will be reading Cincinatti Review, issue 19.2.
The editors have generously offered a 40% discount to Lit Mag Reading Club participants. To get the discount, visit this page and scroll to the bottom.
Please do this asap in order to give the journal enough time to arrive! And, as always, let me know if you have any questions.
On to Pacifica Literary Review!
So, what’d you think?
This is a relatively small issue, as far as lit mags go. Personally, I appreciated the size. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when reading online magazines. There is so much to take in and without being able to make notes and engage with the content in a physical way, it can overwhelm. (Maybe I’m just getting old.) At any rate, I appreciated the simple and straightforward structure of this magazine, its visual elegance, clear and easy navigability and the editorial choice to provide quality over excess material.
There is also sex! Indeed, tucked into this elegant and quiet-seeming journal that evokes the cool air and open spaces of the Pacific Northwest, there is a section for erotic content.
Simi Monheit is the winner of the 2022 Bodice Ripper Contest with her short story “A Holy Union.” Here a woman goes a for nighttime swim in a lake, only to discover she is not alone. Chana-Malka is soon joined by a couple out for their own swim, a purification at the end of the woman’s menstruation cycle. The characters are members of an orthodox Jewish community, and the story titillates throughout by balancing tensions between the earthly and the holy, the physical and the spiritual, and the lustful alongside the tender.
In pursuit of capturing this erotic experience, not a word is wasted in Monheit’s short short piece. A screen door is “aggressive” yet “accommodate[s] her restraining hold,” then “closed with a sigh.” At the lake “she sunk her newly released toes into the coarse sand.” At the end, after watching the couple engage in vivid and astonishing naked intimacy, “The night sky was fully alive. Twinkling and vibrating.”
Pacifica Review does not distinguish between fiction and nonfiction, putting both under the category of “prose.” I’ll be curious to know the editorial choice behind this.
What I am finding interesting as I see this with other magazines (we talked last month about Conjunctions also laying out work in this way) is that it puts forth various questions for the reader. What does distinguish between these genres? What are the qualities of nonfiction that allow us to know that it is nonfiction? What are the qualities of short stories that allow us to recognize them as such? Does it even matter? Have we entered a “post-genre” age?
Stephen Haines’s “Topple” is a piece about a boy’s relationship to his eccentric and often absent father. The character development is rich and understatedly heartbreaking: “One year after my basketball team finished top three in the league, there was an award ceremony. Dad didn’t attend this event—like most events—but, really, he couldn’t, so he said. There was too much work to do back at the house.”
The piece has a present-tense narrator assessing the past and trying to understand who his father is and was, in the context of a larger landscape. When, at the end, Haines writes, “I lean toward him, forgiving everything else for just that moment,” I appreciated this narrator’s growth and arc toward compassion and maturity. I also decided this piece was nonfiction. I’d be curious to know what others think, and why.
Jason Hardung’s “Photosynthesis” seems to be definitively fiction. There is a compelling story here about a man struggling with opioid addiction who must go take a drug test to fulfill the obligations of his probation. This is the second story we have encountered of late that wrestles with this important and painful subject. (A story by Bryn Chancellor in the latest Southern Review immediately came to mind.)
Personally, I think we can’t get enough of these stories right now. They very much need to be told and shared. Hardung’s hero is sympathetic, his emotional arc is satisfying and his situation is full of sharp and cutting details.
There is, though, a moment in the story where I wondered about a missed opportunity. As Hardung is looking at a baby in the waiting room of the drug-testing facility, he reflects,
It’s not that I hate babies, I just know that they’ll become adults one day. The window of adorability isn’t very long….They may have bright futures, but they will surely do terrible things to arrive at those bright futures. They’ll steal ideas, money, drugs, love…Others will consider Joe Rogan a famous philosopher. They’ll idolize wealth, power and reality television stars. They’ll blame their problems on people with darker skin, people with different beliefs, people of different genders…They will reproduce, dumping more of themselves into an already fragile ecosystem…Babies fucking and gaslighting and robbing from other babies. Babies taking their first steps in the waiting rooms of the prison industrial complex.
The issues laid out by our unnamed narrator are certainly important. But might this space be better used to highlight concerns regarding the opioid crisis specifically? That would seem to be an area our narrator is uniquely qualified to offer perspective on. And it is a dark and troubling world that this reader, in particular, certainly wants to know more about. How did he get here? Was it a doctor who innocently recommended a drug thought to be non-addictive? How did the doctor get there? Who are the trusted authorities that allowed this crisis to take hold?
Not that I would want this story to hit the pause button and go into a long history of the opioid crisis. It’s just that this particular moment seemed like a good place to dig deep into the very particular issues faced by this particular man, for him to reckon more directly with the people and institutions that failed him, and to bring some of this to light for the reader.
The story that most stuck with me was AJ Strosahl’s “Bandrui.” This one definitely felt like fiction, based on its pacing and character development. Though it certainly has real-world resonance. As a mother who distinctly remembers those early days of wanting to protect a fragile, delicate and perfect newborn creature from the rough barbarism of the outside world, I related to every single word here. Were I not reading it in a cafe surrounded by strangers, its pitch-perfect ending might have caused me to burst into tears.
Here is a mother who is so fiercely protective of her child that she keeps her apart from the world. But how can she ever fully do that, really? (This too is a theme that came up in several stories in Southern Review. So far as I am concerned, this never gets old, as there are so many ways to tell this story and ask this question.)
Here, the narrator raises her child on her own in the woods.
“Every night, I whisper to her:
We do not fear, for we live in the heart of the gods.”
The narrator here is also unnamed, yet the daughter’s name is Artie. (No doubt this is a conscious choice on the part of the writer, which speaks volumes about their relationship as well as motherhood in general.) Over time, the narrator must let Artie go. To school, to friendships, to a husband. To the mall for “stretchy black jeans” and, eventually, “a pink mobile phone.”
Over time we also learn the conditions of Artie’s conception, a harrowing experience that certainly justifies the narrator’s view that visiting town is “like visiting a strange and hostile planet.” Yet still, the mother must let her daughter go.
What so struck me about this story is not only the tender parent-child relationship but also the self-implication of the narrator throughout. This mother is not proud. She is not righteous. She never holds herself up as superior to the world around her. If anything, she is weakened by her desire for the impossible: to be the sole protector of her child forever. She knows she must perform the feat of every good parent, namely, let her child loose into the world to fend for herself. The struggle in the story is quiet, but evident.
When, at the end, the mother gently compares her daughter’s faraway voice on the phone to something so luminous, beautiful and distant as the moon, well, my friends, you’d better have some tissues handy.
There is more to this issue. There is an additional short story as well as six poems.
This is just the beginning of our discussion.
Now, you tell me what you thought.
What stood out for you?
Were there themes or styles you picked up on?
What was your overall impression of the journal aesthetically? Its layout, its navigability?
Were you surprised by anything here?
What moved you and why?
Reminder: We will be speaking with Editor Matt Muth on Monday, February 27th at 12:00 pm est and you can register for that chat here.
Great post, Becky. This: "Pacifica Review does not distinguish between fiction and nonfiction, putting both under the category of “prose.” I’ll be curious to know the editorial choice behind this." All praise, Pacifica Review! I think the genre hangup is mostly pure crap, something created by the capitalist system to divide and conquer. A *really important magazine* was on the bring of accepting one of my pieces, but demanded to know if it were nonfiction or fiction and when I refused to say, they said no. Why did I refuse? Because it was a bit of both and what difference would it have made to the reader if it were one thing or another? Truth lies in all kinds of writing, so unless we're reporting from Ukraine or writing history, genre in literature is pure subjective bunkum, in my opinion. I recently dared confronting an important agent about his belief that English-language readers are not interested in what he calls "conflict fiction". I explained to him that great literature is great literature and appeals or fails based on how well it portrays the human condition, not on some kind of made up genre. And anyway, if work from countries that have suffered generations of conflict is all rejected as work in translation because it's "conflict fiction", we will never hear from those writers! Amiright? Thanks again for another excellent post.
I agree with Bruce that the categories of nonfiction and fiction should be preserved. Sure, all categories are merely constructs, and the two genres often overlap (especially when it comes to memoir). Yet the two diverge from the point of conception, the allegiance of the fiction writer being to the story, that of the nonfiction writer being to their lived experience. The fiction writer opens out to the world of possibility (Flannery O'Connor said fiction begins where knowledge leaves off), while the nonfiction writer looks closely at what already is. (Tim O'Brien contrasts the "story truth" of fiction with the "happening truth" of nonfiction.) Ultimately, do the two merge? Well, sure, everything ULTIMATELY becomes part of the same oozing blob of existence, but in the meantime, I hope we don't, during these increasingly wanton days, abandon distinctions that are useful, for both reader and writer, distinctions that actually enhance creativity rather than hamper it.