A Writer’s Insight: Arianne Zwartjes

Arianne Zwartjes’s essay “These Dark Skies: Seeking Refuge on Europe’s Shores” appears in the winter 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Arianne read an excerpt of the essay in our audio gallery and read more about her thoughts on proximity, the challenges of volunteerism, and where to find hope under “dark skies” below. The entire essay is also available online at Catapult.co.

Megan Feifer: You make an interesting point about the relationship between proximity and care when it comes to the U.S. media and world issues. In particular, you use the term “geographic isolation” to describe the way in which “news from other parts of the world … unspool[s] in a distant reality.” Can you expand on this?

Arianne Zwartjes: In the summer of 2014, I visited Cyprus and Turkey. This was during the time that Israel was unleashing a really brutal bombardment of Gaza, in retaliation for the Israeli settlement teenagers that had been killed. And while we were in Cyprus—where my spouse had lived for seven years prior to us meeting—we stayed with friends, we went to the beach, we ate Lebanese meze . . . and I just kept feeling, so potently, this sense of proximity to what we were seeing on the news, what was happening in Gaza. We were eating the same foods, listening to the same music. The same sea we were swimming in—only 130 miles away was Beirut; Gaza was only 240 miles away. That’s barely more than driving from NYC to Boston, or LA to San Diego. And there I was, drinking a beer on the beach, while across just a little bit of sea, people were getting bombarded, their homes and schools and hospitals flattened. Those four little boys were killed on the beach, playing soccer, by an Israeli airstrike. And then when I returned to the U.S., the news media here was barely showing any images of what was happening in Gaza, barely covering it, in contrast to the European and Middle Eastern channels we’d watched while abroad. Most people here seemed hardly aware it was happening. Partly because it’s geographically far away, and partly because of our relationship to Israel.

So that’s what I mean by proximity—I mean, the things that happen affect you directly, they feel close, they’re in the news regularly, you could hop in your car and drive to where they’re happening. Whereas here in the U.S., we have these vast oceans all around us, separating us from what’s happening, especially in the Middle East and the subcontinent—Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, these places seem so remote, so far away to most of us—but also from things like the refugee crisis in Greece, or the situation in Venezuela, or the ongoing brutality in South Sudan. And, of course, the U.S. itself is geographically huge—and all these factors amplify our tendency to look inward, rather than outward.


MF: As a reader, I appreciated your honesty and vulnerability around your personal struggle with the decision of how to get involved. You definitely make transparent all of the complications that arise around volunteering, including the savior complex, draining resources, and further complicating relations. In the essay, you worry about these “pitfalls” before your trip. What is your current take on volunteerism? Are these “pitfalls” avoidable, real, or can they be mitigated?

AZ: In college, I attended a four-year-abroad program called Friends World (now called LIU Global), and I wrote my senior thesis critiquing “international service learning” and exploring the pitfalls of that sort of volunteer work. Not that that makes me an expert, by any means, but this is something I’ve thought a lot about, and experienced some. I don’t think the pitfalls I mentioned are ever completely avoidable—the pitfalls, that is, of going from one culture into another to “try to help,” but especially of going from a wealthy country like the U.S. into another, less-wealthy country and culture, and doubly so as a white person who has that additional layer of having been told by a global culture that they are worthy, civilized, and merciful. But having a high degree of awareness of them, and what they look like, helps. Going into any volunteer situation with a high degree of forethought, research, carefulness, awareness—and with some actual skills to offer—helps.

Also, having a longer amount of time helps. I knew I didn’t have that extended time to offer, and one of my goals particularly in light of that was to try to write as much as I could about what I saw and experienced there, to try to raise awareness in the U.S.—to that end, I also recently published a piece in the social-justice-oriented Christian Century, and another piece on my Medium page about how to support refugees in the U.S., and I’m working on a book about seeing the refugee crisis unfold over the course of the year I was living in Europe. I also worked to try to continue supporting the Special Immigrant Visa applications of several people I met in the camp. And I’ve stayed in touch with the Greek solidarity-network folks who were coordinating most of the volunteer work at Malakasa. But it’s never enough. It’s never, ever enough.


MF: The essay is framed with the critical question of “Why is it, how is it, that we live in a world with so much meanness, so much ugliness, so much sadism and injustice and indifference?” Did you find the opposite of this in your work at Malakasa? Can you expand on an instance of compassion and hope you witnessed?

AZ: Honestly, the biggest basis for hopefulness that I witnessed was the incredible generosity of the Greek people, writ large, to the refugees. Bearing in mind that Greece has in many ways been brought to its knees by the German-led EU austerity policies over recent years . . . it was really impressive to watch, and read about, people’s generosity, from a place of—for some of them—having almost nothing for themselves. People who drove hours to bring food to Piraeus or to one of the camps; a woman who basically took a family into her own apartment so they could shower and do laundry; an elderly man who took the bus for several hours to deliver food he’d made to a camp. Fishermen on the islands who basically stopped working—and thus earning an income—to help rescue, day after day, people who would have otherwise drowned in their attempt to cross the Mediterranean and get to Greece.

At Malakasa, people from nearby communities would send medicines, clothing, whatever they could, with the volunteers. One day a woman showed up with a car full of apples from her orchard, and after a long period of arguing, they finally talked the soldiers in charge into letting them give the apples to people in the camp (the army was afraid someone from outside would try to poison the people in the camp, so they mostly didn’t allow outside food in). A couple of times while I was there, I saw Greek soldiers walk through the camp to find one of the volunteers, and pull them aside—they had brought food from home to give to people in the camp, but they didn’t want their superiors to see them doing it.


MF: I know you wrote this essay over the summer, and the landscape has shifted again. Has that changed your conclusions or commitments?

AZ: If anything, my conclusions are even more irrevocable: this is a political problem, with immense, enormous, tragic consequences on human lives. For the EU to decide, for instance, that Afghanistan is a “safe” country to return people to—this is unforgivable. There are already stories from Malakasa about people or families who chose to be returned to Afghanistan, rather than continue living in the very difficult conditions at the camp, in a state of total uncertainty about their future, who were killed upon their return. So many of the people in Malakasa, at least, were Hazara, a group that’s been directly targeted by the Taliban, and many others worked for the U.S. military, and had their lives or their families’ lives targeted for violence because of it. The U.S. has been slow to give out what are called Special Immigrant Visas (This American Life just produced a powerful episode about them) to Afghans and Iraqis who basically risked their lives—and those of their families—to work for us and beside us on the ground in those countries.

And in general, what you still have, in Greece, is a lot of people stagnating in camps as Europe very, very slowly begins to “process” them. I’m still in touch with the Greek people I met working in the camp, and they’re really frustrated with the situation. And then, of course, people continue to try to get to Europe through different routes.

To me, a significant part of this is about decades- or centuries-long foreign policies on the part of the U.S. and of Europe that have led to deeply intractable conflicts in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. We’re now seeing the results of all that, and again, the human cost is so incredible, and so devastating.

And this is clearly a difficult time to make political change, as we are seeing the continued up-spiral of anti-refugee, white nationalist politics in the U.S. and in Europe, and a continuation of terrorist acts and the xenophobic reactivity they provoke.

The hope I hold on to right now is for the immense power of small communities of people all over the world—acting on a local level—to offer compassion and refuge to those who, in this moment, desperately need it.

Arianne Zwartjes is a poet and essayist who recently relocated from the Netherlands to the mountains of Colorado. She is the author of the lyric nonfiction project Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy, from which a selection won the 2011 Gulf Coast Prize for Nonfiction and was named a notable essay in the Best American Essays. Her writing can be found in Ninth Letter, Fourth Genre, and DIAGRAM.

Megan Feifer is a doctoral candidate in English with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. She received her MA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in English (Modern Studies). She is the cofounder and president of the Edwidge Danticat Society.

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PEN America award winners announced

We would like to offer our congratulations to Crystal Hana Kim! She is a winner of the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers for her story “Solee”, which appeared in the winter 2016 issue. The prize is awarded to 12 emerging fiction writers for their debut short story published in 2016. All of the prize winning stories will be collected and published in the PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2017 book, available in August.

You can listen to the author read her prize-winning story in our SoundCloud audio gallery.

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A Writer’s Insight: Ryan Teitman

Ryan Teitman’s poem “An Essay on Criticism” appears in the winter 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Ryan read the poem in our audio gallery here, and read more about his thoughts on defying, and defining, genre below.


Kathleen Boland: What inspired you to write “An Essay on Criticism”?

Ryan Teitman: The inspiration for this poem came from working as an editor at a community weekly newspaper after I graduated college, and then as an editor for Indiana Review when I was in graduate school. At the Indiana Review, we got hundreds of review copies of books in the mail, even though we were only able to review about a dozen in every issue. I thought a lot about the books that just sat on the office shelf, just like I thought about the hundred or so nonnewsworthy faxes—destined for recycling bin—that we’d get each day at the newspaper.

KB: The poem’s title implies that the poem is also an essay, and the content of the poem is a commentary on criticism. Could you explain why or how this poem took its form? What is the commentary, if any, of a prose poem about criticism?

RT: For a while now, I’ve been exploring the question of what makes a prose poem a prose poem—as opposed to a piece of flash fiction or a short lyric essay. I don’t know that I have an answer to that question, but I do like to see what happens when you start blurring the lines between these boundaries. This particular piece is a poem, but maybe that’s only because I called it a poem when I sent it out. The boy in the poem does the same thing with his “reviews.” They’re reviews because he calls them that—he doesn’t know the conventions of the form, so that lets him do something completely different.

KB: The book reviewer likes the boy’s reviews because “they’re honest”; he also lets the boy keep the books because they “belong to the boy now.” What’s the definition of honesty in this poem?

RT: I think the honesty in this poem is the boy following his artistic impulse. He doesn’t know what he’s really supposed to do, but he manages to make something surprising, and funny, and even a little bit beautiful. The old editor sees that, and even though he’s not going to run the boy’s reviews, he knows the books will fuel the boy’s creativity.

KB: In your opinion, what would the most honest book review have to include or describe?

RT: First off, I think an honest review should understand what the book is trying to do, as opposed to what the reviewer would rather it do. Second, a review should appreciate that it’s also a piece of art. I read criticism by writers like Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal, Kathryn Schulz, and Wesley Morris because I value their insights about culture, but also because I love their writing as literature.


Ryan Teitman is the author of the poetry collection Litany for the City. His poems have appeared in New England Review, The Threepenny Review, and The Yale Review, and his awards include a Stegner Fellowship, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.

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AWP in Washington, D.C., and the Winter 2017 Issue

With the holidays seeming a distant memory at this point, we are making final preparations for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference in Washington, D.C., February 8–11. All of us from The Southern Review will be at the conference, eager to talk with both old and future friends, so we encourage you to stop by bookfair booths 608 and 610, where the journal and LSU Press will be. There you can browse our publications and show your support for great literature by taking advantage of the special offers we will have on subscriptions and individual issues. Coeditor and prose editor Emily Nemens, business manager Leslie Green, graduate assistant Kathleen Boland, and I will be at the booth throughout the conference if you’d like to talk shop or just say hello.

Emily and I both have additional events at the conference. Emily will be reading her fiction along with seven other writers as part of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop event at Upshur Street Books (827 Upshur Street NW) on Friday, February 10 at 5:00 pm. I will join journal editors Sumita Chakraborty, George David Clark, and James Smith on the panel, “The Craft of Editing Poetry: Practices and Perspectives from Literary Magazine Editors,” which is moderated by Anna Lena Phillips Bell on Thursday at 9:00 am in room 209ABC, Washington Convention Center, Level Two. I’m looking forward to hearing how other journals work with submissions, edit poetry, and generally shape their publications.

More than anything, though, I enjoy being at AWP because it provides the opportunity to talk with so many writers and readers about literature and what we are doing here at The Southern Review. Our latest issue will be available for sale, as will some recent back issues, and all are filled with great writing. The winter issue shines with a story from previous contributor James Lee Burke. Set primarily in South Louisiana, “The Wild Side of Life” is replete with infidelity, murder, corruption, and oil field workers, all wrapped in snappy dialogue and vivid detail of the Atchafalaya Basin and Gulf Coast. We also have a story from new contributor Qais Akbar Omar that is set in northern Afghanistan. “The Small Statue of Lenin’s Head,” takes place while the town awaits the arrival of the Taliban, and the story brims with the tension of mistrust and fear both among and between neighbors. In addition to these and other stories, we have essays about running, the refugee crisis in Europe, and, from Nicole Cooley, a love she shared with her grandmother for clothes.

And, of course, there is plenty of poetry from writers who are new to our pages as well as previous contributors. Jessica Goodfellow makes her The Southern Review debut and opens the winter issue with three poems from her series about an uncle who died while climbing Denali and whose body was never recovered. Another newcomer to the journal, Joelle Biele, has two poems from her forthcoming book from LSU Press, Tramp, about female hoboes along the rail lines in the early twentieth century. And in “Twelve Pieces of a Concubine,” first-time The Southern Review contributor Aza Pace revisits a tale from Judges, in which a concubine is raped and, as punishment to the men who raped her, is cut into pieces by her owner and distributed throughout Israel. The poem presents retribution: “While the men slept, we sewed her back together,” so that she could return to the living and “haunt / their shattered sleep,” and stresses the importance of telling “her story” so that “she may never die.”

As always, it’s a pleasure to have familiar names return. This season we have poems from David St. John, Wendy Barker, Chloe Honum, Joe Wilkins, Charles Simic, and many others. All of this fine writing is accompanied by Sally Mann’s photographs of Cy Twombly’s studio. Finally, I’ll note, for a midwinter treat that is sure to warm you, visit our audio gallery to hear contributors read their works. I hope you enjoy this season’s offerings and that, if you are attending, we will see you at AWP.

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A Writer’s Insight: Gbolahan Adeola

gbolahan-adeolaGbolahan Adeola’s short story, “The Neighbor Woman Who Knew Things” appears in the autumn 2016 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Adeola read an excerpt of his story in our audio gallery here; read more about his process of crafting the story, as well as his own frightening neighbor nightmare, below.

 Kathleen Boland: What inspired you to write “The Neighbor Woman Who Knew Things”?

Gbolahan Adeola: I came up with Antar’s character in a cycle of stories about death and grieving. My intention was to write several pieces from the points of view of family and friends who knew Antar prior to his death. In one story, his younger son Femi, now in his early twenties, reflects on his father’s death and the rituals that surround the funeral. Femi is five when Antar dies; when he recalls the role that Mama Ibeji played following the tragedy, he thinks of her as “a woman who knew things.” I don’t know that I’d planned to write a story about the neighbor woman before that, but I became interested in this characterization of her as a seemingly omniscient (and somewhat meddlesome) presence. It seemed like a good opportunity to tell a story about the unique ways that neighbors can know (and not know) one another. I found that her “knowingness” had unexpected ramifications as the story took shape.

KB: In this story, Mama Ibeji is referred to as “the neighbor woman” by the narrator; similarly, Samuel becomes “my husband.” How does naming operate in this story? What do these names, or titles, signify for these characters and the narration?

GA: Names and naming are really important in Yoruba culture. I’ll refrain from giving an entire lecture on how some names are thought to be “brought from heaven” so that babies born in certain circumstances get predetermined names. The names we choose (or are permitted) to call a person are strictly guided by status, age, or familiarity. Like all things preoccupied with status or position, naming can often have a relegating effect. For the neighbor woman, there was a sense of equality to call her husband by his first name, Samuel. Having then to refer to him as “my husband,” a “respectful” indication of his status, eliminated that degree of closeness. The narrative’s insistence on referring to Mama Ibeji as “the neighbor woman” functions in a similar way, I think. The refusal to address her by a name or title is a small act of marginalization, a reminder that, despite the influence that she would come to have on Antar’s family, she is still merely “the neighbor woman.” Hopefully this also highlights how bizarre it is that she should be so important in their lives at all.

KB: Both the narrator and the characters have various expectations that are upended by the close of the story. Did you always plan for this inversion in the story, or did it come naturally while writing and exploring these characters?

GA: A lot of it was unplanned. In my earliest conception of the story, Patricia was just as vacuous as Mama Ibeji believed her to be. But the story felt unfair to Patricia, and her character demanded more complexity. I was glad to see how a more nuanced exploration of Patricia forced the other characters in more interesting directions as well.

KB: What’s the strangest or most memorable thing you have ever witnessed a neighbor do?

GA: When I was a child I lived across from a huge duplex with an upstairs balcony that was visible from my house. One night, probably after eating too much sugar or watching some television show I shouldn’t have, I had this really strange nightmare in which there was a white-clad ghost sitting in that balcony. At some point in the nightmare, the neighborhood gets invaded by a horde of machine gun–wielding men who get into a fight with the ghost. I have this lingering image in my head from the nightmare of the ghost sitting in the balcony, bleeding, long after the men have left. I never actually met the people who lived in that house—they were probably perfectly nice people—and I suppose this doesn’t quite answer your question. But, if I’ve had any kind of odd neighbor experience that might account for my fascination and mistrust of neighbors, it’s that nightmare and the feelings the duplex evoked afterward.

Gbolahan Adeola is an MFA candidate in fiction at Brown University. His work has appeared in Transition Magazine and The Common. He was born in Ibadan, Nigeria.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.

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