November 26th, 2012
2012 has been a great year at Camera Obscura with the opportunity to publish some accomplished stories and photographs, but the Pushcart nomination process only allows for six, so here they are:
“The Selected Mugshots of Famous Hungarian Assassins” by Tamas Dobozy -Autumnal 2012
“Killing Castro” by Jennifer Spiegel -Autumnal 2012
“The Girls of Apache Bryn Mawr” by Abby Geni – Vernal 2012
“Lash by Lash” by Abe Gaustad – Vernal 2012
“Flowers of Gasoline” by Avital Gad-Cykman – Vernal 2012
“A Thirteenth Apostle’s Star” by Douglas W. Milliken – Vernal 2012
Congratulations to the nominees.
Looking forward to 2013
August 23rd, 2011
Shane Oshetski had the good fortune to ask Vincent Czyz some questions about his story “The Nameless Saint” which appeared in Camera Obscura’s third issue. This short story is also a chapter in a novel called THE UNLUCKY LOVES OF MILANA NODRAVNA, which is told in the form of 10 short stories/chapters and many have been or will be published (“The Three Veils of Ibn Oraybi” was published by AGNI ,”The Gypsy Charm” was published in March of this year by Louisiana Literature, and “Moon of Drunken Mists” will be published by Wasafiri (London-based) in March, 2012).
Czyz was born in Orange, New Jersey, “home to two world-class boxers I know of: Two-Ton Tony Galento, known as the Orange Nightstick (back in the ’40s he knocked down Joe Louis in his bid for the heavyweight title), and my older brother, Bobby, a two-time world champion.” In 1993, Czyz began visiting Turkey and since has spent a total of nine years in Istanbul. These two elements seemed to have had a role in the creation of “The Nameless Saint”, the story of a fighter’s search for his father through a country populated by Turkish tribes and Gypsies. I asked him about this along with questions about the writing life. What follows are his answers in their entirety.
Camera Obscura: One of the reasons I love this story so much is that it so successfully transports me into this place and time.
Vincent Czyz: That’s good to hear because I throw in with those authors who believe their primary task is to create a world. If that’s not a cliché by now, it should be.
CO: I was surprised to learn afterward that the country and the tribes here are fictional given the richness of detail and the mixture of real peoples like Gypsies and Slavs with fictional ones like the Taztas. Why did you choose this blending of the fictional and the real instead of writing about a real Turkic tribe in a real place or fictionalizing everything?
Czyz: The problem with writing about a real Turkic tribe is that there isn’t one to my knowledge that is still shamanic—and that is a key theme running through these stories. (There may be a few in Siberia, but that was not a setting that interested me.) The Slavs in this story are fairly fictional as well—they are not Polish per se, or Russian or Serbian, etc. It’s a generic label. This is because there is no single country that fit the geography and history that I needed as a framework for these stories. Instead, just as most characters in fiction are an amalgam of several actual people, my fictional country is amalgam of Eastern European and Balkan nations. Again, the idea is to create a world—not to write a history book. For me, this means making the world as believable as possible and adding accurately portrayed “real” elements is one means toward that end. There are of course several others.
CO: I’m assuming it took a great deal of work to imagine and build the countries and cultures these characters inhabit. Can you tell us about the process you went through in the creation of their world?
Czyz: Fortunately for me, I lived on and off in Turkey for a total of about nine years. This meant frequent trips to other Balkan countries as well as to Eastern Europe. Before I ever began writing these stories, I was immersed in Balkan culture and, during my travels, saw some of the effects of the clash between Turkic and Slavic cultures as well as between Islam and Christianity.
Once I started writing, I stacked up a dozen or more research books, including a history of the Russo-Caucasian Wars, first-hand accounts of Gypsy life (I could write a few of my own about Turkish Gypsies), and a history or two of Central Asia. I did thousands of pages of reading and while some readers have said, “Oh, this isn’t like that …” or “That isn’t like this …” that’s primarily because there are times when I took poetic license. It is not, as I said, a history book.
CO: What do you feel all this research gave you in the creation of this world?
Czyz: It gave me invaluable insight into the mentalities of the peoples I was trying to portray, numerous events and incidents to use as plot devices, and the details necessary to create a believable world.
CO: Is there something in particular that draws you to the clash of Turkic and Slavic cultures and/or the clash of Christianity and Islam?
Czyz: An abiding melancholy in both cultures, I think, is what piqued an artistic interest in their conflict. Curiosity about one’s ancestry is typical enough, and this is what first motivated me to explore Slavic culture (I’m part Polish). Both at the family level and on a national level, Poland’s history is in many ways, one of loss and lament. With Germany on its western border and Russia on its eastern, Poland was for centuries caught between the proverbial hammer and the anvil. And to make matters worse, the Mongols and the Turks swept westward, adding a new list of invasions. The hordes were at first brutally successful. But as the machinery of war changed, they suffered devastating defeats, and in the 19th century, the Russians were no less brutal in their conquest of Central Asia. This is the point in history where “The Nameless Saint” takes place; the Turkic nations are mostly under the Russian yoke. And so their songs take on deeper tones of melancholy as they grieve for their broken empire and wax nostalgic over the centuries when their armies were all but invincible.
The clash between Islam and Christianity in the vicinity of Eastern Europe is best embodied by the history of the Russo-Caucasian Wars—still going on really in Chechnya. The stories and actual events that come out of these wars, including the kidnapping of two Georgian princesses and the untimely death of Russian author Mikhail Lermontov, put to shame the plot of the typical pot-boiler. I think it’s fair to say I was spellbound by the heroism on both sides though appalled at the loss of human life and the suffering inflicted.
CO: Along with the larger world, I also loved the smaller world of bars and bar fighting in this story. Your brother is a two-time world champion boxer, so did you draw upon experience to create the fighting culture in the story or did you have to invent that as well?
Czyz: Very little invention there. I was an amateur boxer for about five years, and, as kids, my brothers and I grew up in a rough section of East Orange, NJ—in fact, all of East Orange is pretty rough. The fighting sequences are based mostly on my experiences in the ring, at ringside, and to a much lesser degree, on some of the street fights in which I’d been involved.
CO: Action is difficult to do well in fiction and the fights in this story are exquisitely rendered. I assume you know a thing or two about fighting in general, but can talk about your process of writing Brosnik Yelenich’s fights?
Czyz: Very glad you enjoyed the fight sequences. There is no question in my mind that without having actually boxed, I would not have been able to do the fight scenes quite so believably. With the exception of the first brawl, Brosnik’s fights are matches with rules. For the most part, therefore, I gave him opponents with distinct styles and of course he has his own style as well. From there it was a matter of imagining two fighters with these styles—and some were certainly drawn from memory. The Old Mongoose that Brosnik faces was based on a boxer named Jose Cruz. Everyone in the gym called him Mantequilla (Butter) because he was that smooth—very hard to hit. He had a way of rolling away from punches that I never forgot. Nikusi is a classic tall, rangy, boxer-puncher—the kind that always gave me the most trouble. As a fighter, however, Brosnik is not modeled on me at all; he’s actually a version of my younger brother, who was also an amateur fighter.
CO: There has been a lot of debate if the often given advice that writers should ‘write what they know’ is good advice at all. As a writer who draws from experience but also from research and imagination, do you feel you ‘write what you know’?
Czyz: “Write what you know” is advice for writing 101, that’s about it. Once you find your voice and figure out how you want to tell your stories, it doesn’t matter if you know the topic or not. Of course if you’re not familiar with your subject matter, you will need to do research. But if you can’t write what you don’t know, you’re a craftsman, not an artist—someone fit to write instruction booklets, not novels or short stories.
CO: Were there any authors or specific works that inspired this story?
Czyz: No particular authors, no, but the misery of the lower classes is certainly inspired to some extent by Dostoyevski’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, a book that I found valuable as a document of the Russian psyche but which I did not enjoy reading. I like to say writing it was the crime, and reading it is the punishment. I’m joking of course—it’s a great work of literature.
CO: How about your writing in general? Who do you count among your influences?
Czyz: Samuel R. Delany, William Gass, William Gaddis, Paul West, Julio Cortazar, Jorge Luis Borges, Guy Davenport, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are the main ones.
CO: On your website (http://www.vincentczyz.com) you say you gave up your job and tried to live off your fiction and, “Boy did I learn”. For those of us fool enough to think this might one day be a possibility, can you tell us what it is you learned?
Czyz: I would be happy to because I cannot stress this enough: you will NOT make a living from writing literary fiction any more than you will one day walk into a deli and pick up the winning Powerball ticket. Theoretically it’s possible, but it’s sheer irresponsibility to base any decision in your life on making a living writing serious literature. My first novel, Ghost Dancer, received a rejection from Michael Pietsch (he acquired and edited David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest) that offered so much praise, my agent and I were sure it was a matter of time before Ghost Dancer was picked up for publication. Quite a few more rejections came in, many so good they could’ve been used as backcover blurbs, and yet several agents and quite a few years later, it is still waiting.
Another example: In 1989—yes 22 years ago—I submitted a story called “Straightsville” to Esquire Magazine. An editor wrote a very long rejection in which he informed me that it had made it to the final editorial meeting but in the end had been voted down because it was not deemed “New York enough” (this is ironic because at the time, and for years up to it, Esquire had insisted “Literary excellence is our only criterion.” Or maybe it was “merit” …?) The editor who wrote the dissenting opinion was angry or I would never have known what had happened. “Well,” I thought, blithely enough (a pun on the name of the editor at the time, Will Blythe), “if I missed by a hair with Esquire, someone else is sure to go for it.” Nope. After 22 years it is still making the rounds—and while it often gets commented on, I think it’s racked up around 40 or 50 rejections.
The moral of the story? Don’t quit your day job!
CO: So if a job is a good idea to sustain yourself as a writer, then what do you feel is necessary to sustain your fiction?
Czyz: My former publisher, Gil Roth, answered this question so well, I’ll quote him: “If you can quit writing fiction, you should.” In other words, if you are not obsessed with writing, you may as well move on to something else. If you can’t quit fiction … then it’s an addiction you can’t get along without, and you don’t need to contrive schemes to “sustain” it. I have never understood writers who have to force themselves to write. If you have to force yourself, you should be doing something else.
* We are providing the first half of Vincent Czyz’s The Nameless Saint, which includes a section missing from the print version (due to an oversight during production) with apologies to the author. Please enjoy this excerpt and considering picking up a copy of Volume 3.
January 14th, 2011
Shane Oshetski had the pleasure of a conversation with Scott Nadelson, the author of “Backfill” which appears in Camera Obscura Journal’s second issue. The story follows a man working on a construction crew, so I thought I’d ask Nadelson about work within this piece as well as the often hard labor of writing stories.
Shane Oshetski: Part of what stuck me about “Backfill” was that it put the characters job in the forefront of story, something fiction doesn’t seem to do often. What lead you to write about work?
Scott Nadelson: It’s true, a character’s job is often background in stories, something to provide context for conflict, but in this case the job is the conflict; Robert’s identity is tied so closely to his work that his struggle over who he is has to foreground the job. The job and the character have become inextricably linked.
Most of my stories begin with some nugget of autobiography, but this one was different. Much of the credit for “Backfill” goes to my brother-in-law, who used to work in underground construction. When my wife and I first got together, he would come home from work and tell stories about the job, and I was fascinated first and foremost by the specific language he used, a kind of code that seemed so particular to this kind of work: “backfill,” “mainline,” “pipe-layer.” It was all vaguely sexual, even homo-erotic, but even more, it gave these guys a way of distinguishing themselves, almost like an insider handshake. I was also intrigued by the images he described, and the constant presence of danger that was a buzzing undertone to the daily grind. As soon as he described the former rock quarry filled with all kinds of refuse—some of which had the potential to cause real harm—I knew I had to write a story about this world. The image was just too rich with metaphoric as well as physical possibility for me not to find a way to use it, even if I didn’t know how.
SO: Robert is a college graduate who chose to work construction and to me, the story doesn’t just use work as a lens though which we get to know the characters, but it seems concerned also with the meaning of different kinds of labor. What interested you about this?
SN: This is really the key to the story, I think. My first few attempts at writing it didn’t get me anywhere, in part because I couldn’t quite access this blue-collar world. I’ve done very little manual labor, skilled or otherwise, and couldn’t quite imagine the life of someone who knows he wants to work in a construction job from early on. But as soon as I discovered that Robert is really a white-collar kid who longs for the perceived “realness” of a working-class life, I had his number, especially when part of his motivation is to impress a girl from a similar background. This longing is an emotional state I not only can access but can inhabit quite easily. And once I understood that Robert is simultaneously outsider and insider in his working world, then the story became about how the character defines himself, how he constructs his identity on somewhat false premises, and then finds that he has become someone he no longer wants to be.
And yes, there are different kinds of work at play in the story, and Robert is good at some and not so good at others. He works hard at his job but not at his marriage; when presented with the hard work of relating to and empathizing with other people he often fails, or doesn’t try. He wants the simplicity of numbers and straight lines and can’t deal with the messiness of emotions. I wasn’t aware of it while I was writing, but now I can certainly see that I was influenced by Philip Levine’s poem “What Work Is,” which is one of my favorites.
SO: Speaking of the hard work of emotions, there is the scene between Robert and Lisa at dinner where he tries to present himself as someone she might take back into her life. Their dialogue contains an amazing range of emotions and intimacy. What did it take for you to be able to inhabit both of them deeply enough to write this?
SN: Compared to the rest of the story, this scene came out fairly easily, though not in one shot. In early drafts, Lisa was entirely closed off to Robert’s attempts to win her back all the way through the scene, and it ended up being pretty flat. In subsequent drafts I spent a lot of time imagining what might bring her closer to seeing him the way she’d seen him in the past, what might shake her resolve, and in understanding her more deeply I saw that it was his physicality more than anything else that connected her to him. Above all, he was a body to her, a smell, a source of laughter, but now she wants something richer, more complex. She’s still drawn to his physicality, enough to waver in the scene, and that makes it all the more painful, I think, when she gathers herself at the end of it and remembers what she wants. The drunk high school girl was in the scene from the very first draft, but I didn’t really know what she was doing there; in the end, she becomes the trigger for Lisa remembering that she has grown up in recent years, that she wants a more mature life than the one she can have with Robert.
SO: The scenes on the jobsite with this crew are wonderfully detailed. What kind of research did you have to do in order to write them or is this drawn from your own experience?
SN: Again, I mostly credit my brother-in-law. He’s a good storyteller, and when he’s interested in something, he can talk about it in incredible detail (you should hear him talk about Burning Man, which he attends every year). I hardly had to ask any questions. I thought about shadowing him on a jobsite, but once I had an idea for the story in mind, I decided instead to let my imagination fill in the gaps. By then I knew I wanted to set the story in New Jersey, where I grew up, rather than in Oregon, where we live. So I thought a lot about the people I knew growing up who would have worked on construction crews, imagining how they would speak, and also picturing the kind of neighborhood they would have been digging. When I was a kid, there was a lot of construction in my area of New Jersey; the suburbs kept expanding westward, and I spent a lot of time walking around newly cleared areas that were soon filled with enormous homes. Once I was able to picture the place clearly, and had a few voices in my head, along with my brother-in-law’s details, I was able to start piecing the world together. It took a lot of drafts, though; maybe fifteen or twenty to really fill it out.
SO: That is a lot of drafts. Do you often write so many?
SN: Not always that many, but usually anywhere from five to thirty. It often takes me dozens of false starts before I find my way to the end of a draft, so by the time I’m finished with a story I may have re-written the opening fifty times or more. I have come to really love the revision process, which for me is a process of filling out a skeleton with muscles and skin, etc. On each subsequent draft I know the story better, so my timing gets sharper, my details more precise; I know where to linger, where to hold back. It’s what I imagine it must be like for a musician or an actor reworking the same piece on stage night after night; you start to internalize it, become part of it, so that it comes out more naturally with each new rendition.
SO: Something I really enjoyed about this was how much we get to know about the individual lives of this crew even though their roles in the story are relatively small. What compelled you to give us their lives in detail?
SN: I’m glad it comes across that way. This is something I’ve spent a lot of time focused on over the past few years: to make my minor characters feel as real and fleshed out as possible even if we can’t access their thoughts and even if they don’t spend a lot of time on center stage. Especially in stories with a central character who is stuck in his own internal conflict the way Robert is, minor characters can be incredibly effective at creating drama. But they can’t just be tools of the writer, props that serve a purpose. If they’re really alive, and have their own agendas separate from the central character’s, then they can be dynamic forces in the story. I knew early on that Walsh was going to needle Robert and bring out an ugly side of him, but the big surprise for me as I wrote was the role Teo ended up occupying; his loss and his anger parallel Robert’s, and in the end it’s really Teo who nudges Robert into a new understanding of himself, his marriage, his identity.
SO: You are a creative writing teacher at Willamette University, how has your job influenced your writing?
SN: Teaching writing has made me a more astute reader, which in turn makes me a better writer. Because I have to stand up in a room in front of eighteen eager undergrads who will ask thoughtful and unexpected questions multiple times a week, I constantly have to rethink my assumptions about fiction and take each piece I read on its own terms. After having done this for a number of years now, I’ve gotten pretty good at being able to figure out the basic structures of a story on a first or second read, and even with stories that are far from realization, I can see their multiple possibilities fairly quickly. This has been incredibly useful in my own drafting process; my early drafts have gotten messier, because I now trust that I’ll be able to figure out what to do with them in the revision process, as long as I pay close enough attention to what possibilities the draft has put into play.
My students’ energy and enthusiasm also just feeds me on a daily basis, and when the writing isn’t going well, they help remind me how much I love engaging with literature, both as reader and writer.
SO: You are already the author of two collections of stories, are you working on another or is there a different project in the works?
SN: I have a new collection, Aftermath, coming out in September. All the characters in this collection—which includes “Backfill”—are living in the wake of momentous events—the rupture of relationships, the dissolution of dreams—and the stories focus on their attempts to move on with their lives and adjust themselves to their new circumstances. I’ve also been finishing a collection of autobiographical essays that explore longing, failure, and the construction of identity.
SO: Short story writers often hear (or are told) not to expect to publish collections these days and if they want to be read, to write novels. Since you are now on your third collection, how did you manage to stick with the form?
SN: It’s true, there’s a lot of pressure to write novels, which I find frustrating, particularly as it’s a pressure that comes from a market-driven idea of art-making. If the same principles applied in visual art, artists would only paint large, decorative, abstract paintings, because those are what sell most. At times I’ve forced myself to work on novels, in order to satisfy these outside pressures, but in recent years I’ve come to accept that my material and my temperament are best suited to the long story and the novella, so that’s just what I have to do, even though those aren’t what most agents and publishers (and I suppose readers) want. And these are forms I really love. My favorite stories are those that have the expansiveness of novels—James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Peter Taylor’s “The Old Forest,” Eudora Welty’s “June Recital,” Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”—and my favorite novels are those that have a story’s compression. Mostly, I have been very fortunate that the publisher of all three collections—the wonderful Hawthorne Books—has generously put up with my devotion to the short form, despite its harm to their bottom line.
December 17th, 2010
Congratulations to Chan Kwok Hung for winning the National Geographic photo contest with his striking image “Buffalo Race.” This image was also selected as a finalist in the Camera Obscura photography Competiton and is featured in our second issue along with more of his work and the photos many other great photographers. The complete list of finalists for all Camera Obscura’s competitions can be found here.
“Buffalo Race” by Chan Kwok Hung – Copyright © Chan Kwok Hung
I would also like to congratulate Henriette Lazaridis Power whose novel Clean Monday will by published by Ballantine Books. Clean Monday follows a young Greek/American woman who travels to Greece during the abandon of Carnival to collect a family inheritance, only to discover her estranged mother’s role in the family’s misfortune during WW II. Henriette’s story “Uruguay” appears in Camera Obscura’s Winter issue.
November 30th, 2010
We were honored to publish some great stories this year. For 2010, which includes both issues, Camera Obscura Journal has nominated the following stories for the Pushcart Prize:
“214” by Nani Power
“Sanscript” by Kane X. Faucher
“Backfill” by Scott Nadelson
“A Way out of the Colonia” by Rosebud Ben-Oni
The photography competition for the spring 2011 issue is now underway. The Winter Issue will be available in mid to late December.
November 24th, 2010
Meredith Doench recently had the opportunity to ask Rosebud Ben-Oni some questions about her work. Her answers are included in their entirety below. Rosebud Ben-Oni’s story “A Way Out of the Colonia” has been awarded the Camera Obscura Journal writer honorarium for the second issue due out in mid-December.
My first reading of Rosebud Ben-Oni’s “A Way Out of the Colonia,” a selection from her novel entitled The Strange and Sad Disappearance of Oni Montoya, left me nearly breathless with the sheer panache of the language and images. Here’s a teaser from a section where Oni, a young child, observes her family:
“Since her mother had fallen ill, she noticed changes in her grandmother: how she stayed out most afternoon and evenings visiting friends as the sick woman tried to sleep, wheezing and moaning softly, forgetting that she could be heard in the desperate, despairing quiet that had fallen over their house. A viscous silence that trembled and stiffened with every cry and moan, and chased everyone away from each other in that household and the old woman could no longer bear it. It was a silence that even her grandfather, the guts and guardrail of the family, could not penetrate, wiggle past its congealing borders with his knowing fingers, which, that morning, could catch only a fatal ray of light from the gloom and shine it, dully, into Oni’s eyes.”
Doench: Why did you choose to set “A Way Out of the Colonia” in Matamoros, a border town ?
Ben-Oni: The identity of a Mexican bordertown is problematic; the transience, violence and instability of its character are sometimes romanticized and often demonized. But it is also a place to live in the lyrical, as well as find inspiration and affirmation of the human will.
Before the rise of the drug cartels, to those living in the states from California to Texas, the bordertowns of Mexico took on two faces: daytime trips to eat at restaurants and shop the markets for families and to go clubbing and bar-hopping at night for teenagers and college kids. Often, bordertown s aren’t thought of as the “real” Mexico, as these are places one is otherwise passing through. One rarely thinks about those who live in the bordertown s, perhaps those from the interior of Mexico or other Latin American countries, who hoped to cross into the United States, looking for a better life. Instead, certain U.S. companies decide to bring the work to them by constructing maquiladoras– those industrial factories which employ mostly women whom these companies believe are more likely to show up to work on time and less likely to complain or form unions.
When the maquilas came, so did the colonias, these rickety, makeshift neighborhoods that are not recognized by the Mexican government. Rarely if ever do they have access to running water. Electricity, when and if acquired mostly through illegal means, often starts fires. If instability, chaos and desolation thrive in bordertown s, then their nucleus is the colonia. Here the periphery of the periphery is the heart. And yet when writing of the colonia I also wanted to show how imagination and the need for the sacred also thrive. By the sacred I really mean a profound belief in the lyrical. To not only have a voice, but for that voice to have a wide octave range, to experiment with language, to play with words and context itself. To appropriate the mundane and re-envision its place in an ever-changing, ever-challenged/-ing environment. Each colonia could be gone tomorrow, either by a hurricane, an electrical fire or sudden action by the government to tear it down (as it happened to Oni’s mother and her family).
So in that physical is temporary and precious, and only by remembering, reinterpreting and understanding the colonia’s instability in such an unstable place like a bordertown can we then understand these people who are themselves affirmations of life. Because while in the U.S. most have grown used to adapting their environment to suit them, Oni, her family and the others in the colonia still must adapt to the colonia. And in writing the story, this family, in doing so, actually becomes more lyrical because adaptation calls for imagination and invention.
Doench: As I read the story, I was completely taken by Oni; the child’s perspective and voice allowed me to see Matamoros through her eyes rather than a political lens. What struck me is that Oni is surrounded by conflict and loss. Why did you decide to tell the story from Oni’s perspective?
Ben-Oni: Bordertown s like Matamoros– especially the poorest sections like the colonias– might seem like no places for the lyrical or children, but where else does imagination thrive most than children? Oni, because she’s the daughter of a gitana (Spanish Gypsy) and an unknown father, is an outsider among the already marginalized. Pale, knobby-kneed, with legs and arms too long for her body, she physically stands out. And then on top of that her family feels that they are above living in the bordertown ; for instance, her mother won’t wash her clothes with the other women in the canal, and Oni isn’t allowed to swim there with the other children, either. The residents are somewhat suspicious of the family because their Spanish is different, they dress differently, and like most gitanos, they want to remain a raza (race) apart. On top of that, Oni looks different from them (they are tall, dark and robus), which makes her stand out even more. While Oni’s whole world is her family, she knows that she does not belong completely to them, or to the community, or to the land beneath her feet. Her entire identity is wrapped up in being on the defense, and this creates a state of heightened awareness, sensitivity and understanding. Circumstances force Oni not to grow up too quickly, but to become a sort of introspective, outlaw poet who uses her voice to navigate the perilous ways in the colonia, and hopefully, one day, out of the colonia.
Like most children, though, as the youngest member, she is the family’s hope and future. Her family, particularly her mother and grandfather, want to impart hope for a better life. In the rest of the novel, her mother envisions her daughter by going to the U.S.in search of opportunity, and yet as one finds out in this particular story, the reason why the family is in the situation that they are in is in part due to what the U.S. has done to the border. In a day, Oni learns this very quickly, among other realities possibly awaiting her, and it was very interesting to write from her perspective, especially in the changing relationship she has with her grandfather whom she thought of indestructible. That, of course, changes too.
In spiritual Jewish literature, there is this word luz. I first learned it in Spanish as “light,” but according to Rabbinical legend, it is an indestructible bone somewhere located in the body. I like the duality of this word crossing languages as the stalwart qualities that Oni believed both her mother and grandfather to have becomes undone in a matter of a day and yet in the light of this realization of who they are– outside the identities of mother and grandfather—shines a new light on what Oni must see (and therefore do), herself, outside of her family, as young as she is, in the action of bathing her mother.
Doench: The scene where Oni bathes her sick mother brought tears to my eyes. How does the role reversal of mother and child speak to the theme of the story?
Ben-Oni: Oni’s mother is the kind of woman who’d send her own death before a firing squad. She’s not the type to cling to life, which in itself is an act of courage. She’s comes to know continuous struggle itself as a way of life. But rather than becoming dispirited or giving up, she will fight to the very end with everything she’s got—and she’d rather do it alone. Her father— Oni’s grandfather— mistakes this kind of tragic dynamism for stubbornness, and a matter of pride. But at the heart is a woman who has come to believe in the eternal struggle and rising against it—as both the means and the end. These are the cards that she has been dealt, although she doesn’t want that same hand for her daughter.
But Oni is a strange, melancholic child. She’s greatly affected by her environment. She’s very sensitive to her environment. I recently read Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, in which he describes the melancholy of the city in the terms of huzun. It’s a Turkish word, with an Arabic root, which Pamuk has taken from Sufism as undergoing a profound spiritual loss while simultaneously maintaining a sense of optimism. I myself render it as a similar theme: the assertion of the will, of life itself, while acknowledging that through this assertion, something equally precious will be lost.
This reminded me the Cale ideas of duende and pena negra. It is deeply-rooted in Cale culture—and I use “deeply-rooted” somewhat tongue-in-cheek— this idea of land and pain. After the Cale were more or less forced to settle in Spain, broken from their traveling ways, they found they were forced onto a land which really did not belong to them. So, in response, they created cante jondo, the Deep Song, in which one laments the loss of land and love as well. Often, it comprises a singer simply singing ‘ay’ or a like-sound in a harsh, grating voice that is the opposite of anything melodious. Most people find true cante jondo—which is not performed before a paying audience like flamenco, but usually among family and friends, and on the spot, spontaneously— hard to listen to, and harder to watch, as the face is contorted in ways that you simply have to see for yourself. While Oni is not in Spain but Mexico, I believe that she’s in the same predicament concerning a land that does not really belong to her. Unable to locate a sense of home and identity, as young as she is. So home becomes the family. It must be. Even as it is crumbling all around her. In the impending loss of her mother, who wants her to be strong and take charge, she engages in the ultimate act of both love and betrayal, as her mother, again, doesn’t want help. The idea of the colonia itself, in transient a place as a bordertown nonetheless, is huzun, as even in the most hopeless places, life springs forward, most unconscious that it is doing so. But this is what Oni’s mother wants her to be conscious of, to see, and in wanting her to see, it is both the passing of her knowledge of life—perhaps too soon, but she doesn’t have time— as well as an assertion of a tremendous will. Oni, for her part, because of her innate melancholy, understands her mother’s message only when she imposes her own will on her mother in an act both terrible yet intimate, tender yet forceful. For a child to see a scar where her mother’s breasts have been, and bathing her, takes away both the power and the pain of a woman near the end. Their roles are reversed; Oni is better for it, but there’s also a sense of tragedy that she finally sees what her mother both wanted and feared for her to see.
Doench: Another issue I found intriguing about this story is that the setting works as its own character. There are so many references to the approaching storm and the way Matamoros appears to Oni. How does the setting propel the story forward and open it to a wider framework than just this family?
Ben-Oni: If you’ve ever experienced a hurricane or a coastal storm, it seems as though it is a living organism. The ocean itself, which I write about in some detail in the novel, also becomes a character. The storm is both metaphorical and very real as it approaches and then simply hangs over the bordertown, sprawling its grey clouds without releasing a drop of rain. It’s been coming for some time and yet it never arrives. It’s a time of inaction, restlessness and yet urgency, as well. Oni’s mother knows her own end is approaching fast; she does not want to it to come, and yet it cannot come fast enough. When she tells the family “the sky has left us nothing but its bones,” she means that there’s not much left of her own life and body. It’s time for her to show Oni a way out of the colonia, and how she does it is not by showing her the actual way, but how she and her family first came in, where they lived which is no longer a place. Storms, like people, can erase whole passages of history; if one is not around to say “I was here”, then that moment in which she or he lived there will not be remembered. In fact, it might as well have not even happened. Oni’s mother is fighting the impending storm much in the way she’s fighting her own limited time.
Doench: How does this piece fit into the framework of your larger writing project?
Ben-Oni: “A Way out of the Colonia” is an excerpt from a novel I’m working on called The Strange and Sad Disappearance of Oni Montoya in which after her mother dies, Oni disappears. According to Oni’s childhood best friend (and more or less her only friend), Xiomara Villegas, her mother’s final wish was to be burned and have her ashes scattered off the coast of Oaxaca. It was there, Xiomara claims, that the child died in the sea, trying to save her mother from leaving her forever. When the grandfather returned to Matamoros, he came back alone, inciting even more rumors from a town already suspicious of his family and motives.
Over the years, the bordertown, particularly Oni’s colonia, has clung to the story of Oni’s disappearance. In the novel the colonia is named Valor y Ánimo, which means “Courage and Spirit.” Like many colonias in Mexico, it arrived at its name out of both irony and optimism. And it can be traced to so many, to maquila workers and their unemployed husbands who let their children play on a playground close to the colonia until it was discovered it had been built over toxic waste (and this really does exist in Matamoros.)
Xiomara, who’s since become a local singer, becomes a sort of guardian of his story. Though notoriously unstable and usually drunk-by-five-de-la-tarde, Xiomara ,who finds herself falling prematurely into rag-face years due to the hard life she lived in the colonia and the choices she made, performs in local bars and sings these stories about the child who became immortal. She also constructs a shrine within the colonia so that Oni Montoya becomes a kind of unofficial saint. A cult. In fact, the people in the colonia rarely refer to her as Oni Montoya but La Gitana Tilica de La Frontera, the unofficial patron saint of those from untraceable origins, for those who live in a place largely without hope. She is a saint for those whom no other saint, for those whose own stories can only struggle, float through the ephemeral melodies, whose family roots are wrought, twisted, and pulled apart. For those who lives the next rush of the maquila’s shift-changing bell, to come home to their fleeting homes of cardboard and tin, until they are taken by coming hurricanes and returned to the open-air landfill from which them came, and they have to rebuild over again. For stories that reflect Valor y Ánimo itself, made up of many things that never made a complete thing. Fragments of lives that do not fit into a cohesive landscape.
And just as Xiomara’s health begins failing her, two things happen: it is discovered that Oni Montoya is, in fact, very much alive and living on the other side of the border, which angers the residents of the colonia, and on that same day, members of a drug cartel approach Xiomara, wanting to take over her shrine and make her their own patron saint. When she refuses, the insult is too much for them to let her get away with it. Suddenly Xiomara has everyone looking for her– and already at the end of her rope, she decides she will try to cross the border and find the woman who was once Oni Montoya– a way out of the colonia, perhaps, for good.
But of course, as we can see in the story excerpted here, the colonia is not easy to escape…
Rosebud Ben-Oni is a writer for New Perspectives Theater, which is producing her play *Quimera on the Pedernales,* and has been the recipient of a Horace Goldsmith Grant, given so she could complete her first novel, which deals with her experiences as a Jew of mixed race. She has had recent work in *Slice Magazine, J Journal, Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of Contemporary XXperimental Prose by Women Writers, Arts & Letters, Identity Envy— Wanting to be Who We Are Not* and *The Texas Poetry Review*. Recently produced plays include Owless of Santa Clara (Snorks and Pins, Roy Arias Studios, July 2010), Nikita (Shotgun Theater Festival, the Gene Frankel Theatre, Jan 2009 and Thespian Productions, Producer’s Club, May 2009); Nary a Bodega (Leah Ryan Benefit, Producer’s Club, November 2009);
The Amaranthine Thread (Leah Ryan Benefit, Producer’s Club, November 2009 and Where Eagles Dare, February 2010). She is currently finishing her first
novel which is entitled *The Imitation of Crying.*
August 30th, 2010
Camera Obscura’s most recent addition to the Winter table of contents, “Uruguay”, by Henriette Lazaridis Power, warrants a second read immediately after the first, if for no other reason than to enjoy the carefully wrought language again, or to discover one of the many details hidden within the folds. The story begins:
“In the time it took to curl his toes over the edge, his reasons not to jump became the reasons he should do it. And that was what his friend—a man he hardly knew before this trip—shouted to him now. “Do it!” Two simple words, echoing, taunting, allowing. Against those syllables, the rest of it had no chance. Children. Family. Career. It was all extra. Extravagant, even. What mattered was this pure moment above a blue bay. What mattered was that he should jump.”
Henriette Lazaridis Power is a Greek/American writer whose work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Salamander, the New England Review, The New York Times online, The Millions, and the blog Beyond the Margins where she is a regular contributor. A Rhodes Scholar and a Ph.D., she taught English literature at Harvard for ten years. Power is the founding editor of The Drum Literary Magazine, an online literary magazine publishing short fiction and essays exclusively in audio form. Power is currently finishing a novel set in remote Northern Greece.
We also added a haunting short-short by Amanda Yskamp called BTU that begins:
“The crackling of flames translated to the arc of a Tesla coil in my dream – a line of blue barbed with sparks, the sound of voltage showing its fractures , until the siren shook me loose.”
Amanda Yskamp’s work has appeared in such magazines as Threepenny Review, Hunger Mountain, Caketrain, Redivider, and The Georgia Review. She lives with poet Doug Larsen and their two children on the 10-year flood plain of the Russian River.
In the process of reading some great stories. Much more to come. We’re hoping to get the Winter Issue out the door on Dec. 1 (Hmm, sounds like a great holiday present)
August 18th, 2010
Given its philosophical underpinnings and esoteric nature, almost to the point of mysticism for the uninitiated, mathematics can be a great tool around which to build a story. However, despite my personal mathematical leanings, I would be leery of any suggestion to begin a story with an actual mathematical equation. Slated to appear in the Winter 2010 issue of the Camera Obscura Journal, “The Wolf’s Choice” by Peter Tieryas Liu, excerpted below, is an exception that I will gladly make.
” v= Hd was the equation for the rate at which galaxies sped away from one another, the H standing for Hubble’s Constant, the v, for the vapid volume of velocity. The third variable was d, representing distance, the diametrical disposition of difference. And somehow, these three digits summarized the universe into a trinity of letters, simplicity exemplified. It struck me, when I first learned the variables, how it would have taken a thousand times more energy to resist change than to accept it.
I’d spent eight months wandering through the honeycomb of Asia, shifty Bangkok, grand Beijing, contemporary Shanghai, futuristic Tokyo, all convicted in the nexus of modernization and unshackled faith. I was adrift, tugged and pulled by the gravity of solitude, a festering hunger driving me like a relentless martinet.”
Peter Tieryas Liu has recently had short stories accepted for publication in the Binnacle, Gargoyle, Prism Review, Quiddity International Literary Journal, and ZYZZYVA. He’s worked as a technical writer for Lucasfilm and is a character technical director for Sony Pictures where he’s worked on features like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and I Am Legend. This story is dedicated to Leza.
Much more to comes as the issue unfolds – MEP
July 22nd, 2010
The topic of the US-Mexican border is hard to escape in recent headlines, and border towns themselves often tell a visible story of the disparity of life on either side of the imaginary line, emphasizing the difference between those who have and those who don’t. Camera Obscura Journal is lucky to be able to include in its next issue, the beautifully rendered story, Rosebud Ben-Oni’s “A Way out of the Colonia” excerpted from her novel in progress entitled The Strange and Sad Disappearance of Oni Montoya.
Excerpts from the story:
“The child could no longer sit in her mother’s lap without causing the woman pain, and had already forgotten the warmth she’d once felt there. Now she looked bewildered and frightened as the woman declared that the sky had decided to leave Matamoros.”
. . .
“Year after year, the trunk of the sapodilla tree had thickened around the middle, its color blanched by the sun to a dull brownish-grey. As if it was an old man who’d spent his life in the fields and found his soul in the very work that thickened his skin. Such men are rare, he told Oni as he shaved off the deep groves of the branch. There are very few people who reap the beauty of life from survival alone, and can wear it so visibly.”
Rosebud Ben-Oni is a writer for New Perspectives Theater, which is producing her play Quimera on the Pedernales, and has been the recipient of a Horace Goldsmith Grant, given so she could complete her first novel, which deals with her experiences as a Jew of mixed race. She has had recent work in Slice Magazine, J Journal, Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of Contemporary XXperimental Prose by Women Writers, Arts & Letters, Identity Envy— Wanting to be Who We Are Not, and The Texas Poetry Review. Recently produced plays include Owless of Santa Clara (Snorks and Pins, Roy Arias Studios, July 2010), Nikita (Shotgun Theater Festival, the Gene Frankel Theatre, Jan 2009 and Thespian Productions, Producer’s Club, May 2009); Nary a Bodega (Leah Ryan Benefit, Producer’s Club, November 2009); The Amaranthine Thread (Leah Ryan Benefit, Producer’s Club, November 2009 and Where Eagles Dare, February 2010). She is currently finishing her first novel, which is entitled The Imitation of Crying.
Many thanks again to everyone who has supported the journal in one fashion or another!
June 28th, 2010
Every art form has, and — if we are lucky — will continue to have, an ongoing discussion about what differentiates artistry from craftsmanship, about what works characterize the current movement and what emulations are merely defined by it. At the center of this debate, the green behemoth lounging between the two camps, is the notion that artistic values somehow logarithmically decline with an equivalent increase in commercial success, leaving a grumbling bevy of frustrated artists wishing they had enough money to pay bills and create art flanked by a legion assiduous professionals dreaming that someone would appreciate their contribution to the arts.
The Professional Photographers of America, the world’s largest nonprofit association for professional photographers, every year offers its 20,000 members in over 54 countries an opportunity to compete for such recognition in a print competition that is widely considered the gold standard for international judging of photographic images.
According to the PPA guidelines, photographs are judged against the following twelve elements (all of which must be addressed for an image to merit): impact, creativity, technical excellence, composition, lighting, style, print presentation, center of interest, subject matter, color balance, technique, and story telling. The specific criteria for each may be found here. PPA describes the use of these 12 elements as a way to connect “the modern practice of photography and its photographers to the historical practice of photography begun nearly two centuries ago.”
Camera Obscura Journal would like to offer a huge congratulation our photography editor Kate Parker who has been awarded 2010 Silver Photographer of the Year by Professional Photographers of America for demonstrating “excellence in her craft and earning tremendous achievements in PPA’s 2010 International Photographic Competition.”
The silver award is achieved by having three merit prints accepted into the PPA General Collection and one print selected for inclusion in the prestigious International Loan Collection, which is a traveling exhibition that exemplifies the finest work in the current world of professional photography.