FPP Interview: Alexander Chee

160201_BOOKS_Alexander-Chee.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2FPP spoke via email with author Alexander Chee whose recent novel The Queen of the Night is a national bestseller. We spoke of what fame meant for his maverick female protagonist, what kind of community can be created at literary readings and via social media, and life in his Sugar Hill sublet back in 1996. Read Chee’s interview then plan to hear him read on Tuesday, May 9th, with Terry BlackhawkSonya Chung, and Deborah Emin at Shrine World Music Venue (2271 Adam Clayton Powell between 133rd and 134th streets) in Harlem.

Your latest book, The Queen of the Night, is a historically rich novel that tells the story of an American orphan turned courtesan turned opera singer in 19th-century France. You’ve mentioned that feminism informs the book. Can you talk about your choice to write a female protagonist, and to show a kind of “survivor’s feminism” through Lilliet’s story? 

1453787257096The novel is the result of a kind of feeling I followed, first to this character and then to the life I thought Lilliet, my main character, would lead. I was drawn by the apparent freedoms women like her had then–as celebrities–freedoms that approximated those given to men, but which mostly vanished as their fame did. The result being that their fame was this atmosphere that they manufactured to live inside of, through intense work, self-sacrifice, self-defense, even crime, petty or deadly, and inside of which they survived “at any cost”–a phrase which glosses over what that means, I think, all too often. There’s something Katie Roiphe has called A Stylish Woman Adrift novel–Renata Adler, Joan Didion, Jean Rhys–that I meant to unpack. Those women are describing the problem of being a woman and expecting to be treated as human, and instead being treated as a woman. That all comes from somewhere and that was part of what I was after, the root of that.

So George Sand, for example, who influenced a generation of writers during her lifetime, was the first woman to divorce in France and she did so to be a writer. The decision to include things like Sand’s idea of the New Woman, then, was pretty natural to me, and followed out of my opera singer heroine being taught voice by Pauline Viardot-Garcia, Sand’s good friend–the first woman director of the Conservatoire in Paris and one of the first women opera composers. I set out to imagine being someone who didn’t even know they wanted to be like these women, and meeting them for the first time. I rooted Lilliet, and her adventures, here.

You write Lilliet’s story from the first person singular point of view. Even so, was there a sort of collective “we,” a collective feminist identity, that you felt you tapped into for this novel (for example, by reading the work of other female courtesans, such as Celeste Mogador)? If so, how did this “we” manifest in your thinking about the novel?

I wouldn’t say that exactly, because it’s hard to explain how alone these women were then. Lilliet, my narrator, passes through a series of women who act as her teachers in her pursuit of the freedom she feels sure she must be able to find and which is never offered. A freedom she decides to take for herself. I did read extensively into the lives of women of the period in pursuit of this story, though, and populated the novel with some of the real women I found. So there are these tiny biographies inside the novel as a result. My acknowledgements page has details for the interested.

You’re savvy online, and a particularly effective Twitter user. You once tweeted that a lot of writers are on Twitter because “–surprise– text-based communication is fun for writers… Writers have traditionally published their notes, diaries, letters, marginalia, juvenalia–social media is only different in format.” Do Twitter, and social media more generally, provide you with a sense of literary community? How do you manage the balance between the stimulation, outlet, and inspiration that social media can provide, and the over-saturation that can also occur when one spends a lot of time online?

I live in a rhythm with it that I think is like the one most people do, but with accommodations to being a writer.  Twitter to me feels like text messaging the world. Instagram is like my visual diary. Facebook is a wedding toast contest–I don’t like it much–or a bulletin board. But I’m always manufacturing a story that is the story of doing my work, a kind of live action literary autobiography/biography, even as I participate in what I see as a community, or communities, really, of supporting writers–friends and colleagues from all over the world. And these communities are really what I love about this most. Nerds who photograph a favorite quote, complain about their process, or just talk books. And I’m on it for the book recs, basically.

We don’t live so much in the world where writers struggle with whether to be on social media anymore. I think we live in the world now where people are on social media, and then they become writers. And if you don’t know how social media works, increasingly, I think you don’t know how people live, and I think you’d have a hard time writing about their lives.

On the other hand, you mentioned, in the 10 Minute Writer’s Workshop Podcast, that you can’t stand emails, because of their never-ending treadmill-like nature. How do you deal with this as a writer? For example, do you limit the amount of time each day you spend answering/writing emails?  

John Freeman has written about email as the task list you don’t choose and that’s just so true for me. Melissa Febos wrote a great column at Catapult about the importance of being a little unreliable on email and I think that’s healthy. The problem becomes when you’re like me and you have potentially hundreds of people relying on you professionally, former students and editors, and so you can’t flake out much. So I just try to schedule everything. Emails at this time and never this time, writing at this time, reading at this time, walks and exercise at this time, class at this time, conferences at this time, cocktails at this time, food at this time and sleep at this time, etc. And while a friend has used Google invites for setting dates for sex, I haven’t done that yet. But we’ll see.

You curated your own reading series: Dear Reader, at the Ace Hotel in New York. What can a reading series offer to the community—both the literary and the expanded/public community—that other forms of literary engagement, and online communication, cannot?

When I curate a series I am not picking writers, to my mind, as much as I am putting communities into conversation.  With the Ace Dear Reader series, each year I tried to paint a picture of New York. The first year was a way to honor the different literary communities of the city. The second was about Who Belongs, and featured a mix of writers of color, queer, immigrant, refugee and native New York writers. I also always want to show that you can have a kind of programming that went past token gestures toward diversity–too often diversity means white majority with one of each “other kind”. I want to have more than one of each, as it were. Ace was very supportive of this, and we had fun. Great work happened in those hotel rooms. Still does.

You’ve taught at Columbia University in Harlem, and lived many years in Manhattan. What are your experiences with, and what is your relationship to, Harlem? Can you describe your experiences, impressions, sights, of this neighborhood?

I lived in Harlem, Sugar Hill, near 145th and Amsterdam, back in 1996, in a sublet that lasted three months. I was a steakhouse waiter working on my first novel and the rent was 200 a month for my room. It was a hot summer and we kept the windows open for the breeze as we didn’t have AC, and clothes at home were sometimes a burden. I remember the neighbors who never drew their shades, a kind of night theater of nonchalance in the heat. I also remember finding out not everyone was like this–and accidentally flashing a neighbor who kept her shade closed toward me after. I felt guilty about this until I left. Some windows are closer than others.

Back then I kept moving every month or three months, my things mostly in storage, as I worked to earn a deposit on a place of my own, and I lived up and down the island and in Brooklyn as I did so. That period of moves was my education in how the city works. A lot of my friends live in Harlem now, and I love going up to see them, and to see what’s new and what’s the same. Harlem is one of the neighborhoods where New York still feels like New York to me. So I’m grateful whenever I go–and I very much looking forward to the reading.

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Announcing the Tuesday, February 3rd Lineup at Shrine Harlem!

With great happiness and anticipation we present the Tuesday, Feb. 3 lineup for the First Person Plural Reading Series: poets Jason Koo, Marc McKee, and Montana Ray; prose artist Melody Nixon, and short film Semiotics of Islam by filmmaker Fouzia Najar.  We’ll wrap up the night with a special set by DJ Lady DM.  Join us at 7pm at Shrine, located at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell (7th Ave) between 133rd and 134th in Harlem.  By subway: 2/3 to 135th, or B/C to 135th.  As always, admission is free.   Bar is cash only.

Koo-Tang Jason Koo is the author of two collections of poetry, America’s Favorite Poem (C&R Press, 2014) and Man on Extremely Small Island (C&R Press, 2009), winner of the De Novo Poetry Prize and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award for the best Asian American book of 2009. He has published his poetry and prose in numerous journals, including the Yale Review, North American Review and Missouri Review, and won fellowships for his work from the National Endowment for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center and New York State Writers Institute. He is an assistant professor of English at Quinnipiac University and the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets.

unnamed-1Marc McKee received an MFA from the University of Houston and a PhD from the University of Missouri at Columbia, where he lives with his wife, Camellia Cosgray. His work has appeared in several journals, among them Barn Owl Review, Boston Review, Cimarron Review, Conduit, Crazyhorse, DIAGRAM, Forklift, Ohio, LIT, and Pleiades. He is the author of the chapbook What Apocalypse?, which won the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM 2008 Chapbook Contest, and two full-length collections, Fuse (Black Lawrence Press, 2011) and Bewilderness (Black Lawrence Press, 2014).

NAJAR-Semiotics2Fouzia Najar is a Kashmiri-American filmmaker and multimedia storyteller from Buffalo, NY. She recently earned an M.F.A. in Integrated Media Arts from Hunter College and before that studied history and media at Carleton College. She has worked for award-winning production companies Kartemquin Films and Jigsaw Productions, and has works broadcasted on major networks, including The Weather Channel, ABC News and CNN. Fouzia most recently examined the death penalty in America for a nonfiction television series and is currently developing a documentary on post traumatic stress disorder in South Asia.

On Semiotics of Islam: Inspired by Martha Rosler’s second-wave feminist film “Semiotics of the Kitchen,” this experimental nonfiction short reveals the politics of (mis)representation in today’s media.

MelodyNixon_MAIN_400x386-1Melody Nixon is a New Zealand-born writer living in Harlem. Her essays, fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in ConjunctionsCura Magazine, VIDA Web, Midnight Breakfast, No, Dear Magazine, Hoax Publication and The Appendix, among others. She is the Interviews Editor of The Common and Co-Founder and Editor-at-Large of Apogee Journal. Melody is an activist for LGBTQ, women’s, and migrant rights. She has provided front line abortion clinic defense in the Bronx, taught an introductory “Artivism” class at Columbia University, and is currently a creative writing workshop leader for the New York Writers’ Coalition.

Maria pic2Montana Ray is a feminist writer, translator, scholar, and mom. She is the author of 4 artist books and chapbooks; her first full-length book of concrete poetry, (guns & butter), will be available from Argos Books this spring.

 

 

DJ Lady DMWith roots stemming from the legendary musical island of Jamaica in the Caribbean, Mackenzie Largie a.k.a. Lady DM describes herself as a ‘musical expat’, an apt description for her fearless take on crossing genres of dance-able music.  Lady DM’s story begins in 1995, in NYC as a host on FIT’s radio station, by day; and avid regular at parties like Theo Parrish’s SugarBabies by night. Two years later, she begins her ascent of the city’s DJ circuit proper, a regular at venues like the Limelight, Orchard Bar, and The Cooler. While based in Europe from 99’-10’, Lady DM regularly hosted radio shows in Zurich, and Berlin, while jetting around entertaining crowds at legendary parties like Amsterdam’s Mazzo Club, Zurich’s Lethargy festival, Milan’s Cox 18, Munich’s Muffathalle, and Berlin’s WMF. In Berlin, Lady DM also curated events, with Berlin’s then up-and-coming artists, including Peaches, Dixon, Jamie Lidell, & Gonzales.  She now calls Harlem home.

The Grand Finale of the FPP Season – Sunday, March 9 at Silvana in Harlem!

Please join us for an afternoon of arts both literary and theatrical in the downstairs performance space of Silvana in Harlem at 4:00pm on March 9, 2014.  We will begin with a staged reading of Karinne Keithley Syers’ My Address Is Still Walton: A Play For The Set of Charlie Rose, directed and performed by Johanna McKeon, Caleb Bark, and Lacy Post, then we will hear poetry and prose writers Nicole Cooley and Randall Horton.  For this season finale, we will be in a new space, at the relatively new Silvana cafe and bar at 116th and FDB, across from Harlem Tavern.  Plan to eat delicious Israeli food and drink whatever suits!  As always, admission is free.

n_cooleyNicole Cooley grew up in New Orleans and now lives outside of NYC. She has published four books of poems, most recently Breach(LSU Press) and Milk Dress (Alice James Books), both in 2010, and a novel. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Feminist Wire, The Nation, and Poetry among other venues. She is currently working on a non-fiction book, My Dollhouse, Myself: Miniature Histories, as well as a new collection of poems, Of Marriage. She is the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College-City University of New York.

Bio Pic GtownRandall Horton is the recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, the Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award and most recently a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Literature. Randall is a Cave Canem Fellow, a member of the Affrilachian Poets and a member of The Symphony: The House that Etheridge Built. Randall is Assistant Professor of English at the University of New Haven. An excerpt from his memoir titled Roxbury is published by Kattywompus Press. Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press in the publisher of his latest poetry collection Pitch Dark Anarchy. He currently lives in NYC.

karinne-300x163Karinne Keithley Syers is an interdisciplinary artist and publisher of plays and performance texts. Her work spans dance, writing, sound, animation, essay, video, and projection, and has been seen in and out of New York since 1995. Recently her solo show Another Tree Dance premiered at The Chocolate Factory Theater in Long Island City after a workshop performance at Mount Tremper Arts. Her chamber operetta/museum installation Montgomery Park, or Opulence, won a Bessie Award for Outstanding Production in 2011, after its 2010 run at Incubator Arts Project. Her work has also been seen at Danspace Project, Dixon Place, La MaMa E.T.C., Tonic, innumerable installations of Catch, several Little Theaters, The Ohio Theater’s Ice Factory festival, Surf Reality, and Ur, and has been supported by residencies and workshops at the MacDowell Colony, Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab, St. Ann’s Warehouse’s Puppet Lab, Silo, and Mount Tremper Arts. She has collaborated as a performer with David Neumann, Young Jean Lee, Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson, Chris Yon, Sara Smith, Melanie Rios Glaser, Paul Matteson, and Yoshiko Chuma, as a sound and video designer with Big Dance Theater, Sibyl Kempson, Kate Weare, Ivy Baldwin, Chris Yon, Melanie Rios Glaser, Monica Bill Barnes, as a choreographer with The Civilians, Talking Band, Johanna McKeon, and Theater of a Two-Headed Calf, with whom she has also been a librettist. She founded 53rd State Press in 2007, and now co-edits it with Antje Oegel. They recently published their 19th book of performance scripts. She studied the dark (playwriting) arts at Brooklyn College with Mac Wellman, and is spitting distance from completing her Ph.D. in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her long-running audio serial The Basement Tapes of the Mole Cabal can be found on fancystitchmachine.org, along with her treasury of ukulele covers and stop motion animations.

walton

The FPP Interview: Jericho Brown

We spoke with poet Jericho Brown, author of Please, about his relationship with the “we”, about sitting on beds in street clothes, and the poems he’d read to all of Shreveport, Louisiana if he could. Brown will read with Khadijah Queen, Rachel Sherman, eteam, and DJ Lady DM at the 2012-2013 First Person Plural Reading Series season finale on April 1 at Shrine.

When do you feel most “we”? When Al Green gets played in a public place.

How comfortable is “we” to you?  I’m either a team player or a man with too big an ego because I actually think “we” whenever I make a decision that is actually “I.”  To read the rest of the interview, go here.

The FPP Interview: Keya Mitra

FPP spoke with Mitra about the risks and rewards of the first person plural voice, tensions with the “we” while in India on her Fulbright, and the freedom of fiction.  Mitra will read with Margo Jefferson and Justin Torres at the First Person Plural Reading at AWP on Friday, March 8 in Boston.

What are the rewards of writing in the first person plural voice?  The risks? The rewards of the first person plural voice are that the author and readers, however momentarily, feel a sense of community and can experience both the beauty and immense pain of being part of that whole.  To read the rest of this interview, go here.

The FPP Interview: Michael Thomas

FPP asked acclaimed novelist Michael Thomas about the risk of memoir, who is mad about his forthcoming book, and what urgent advice he’s given young writers.

Photo by Angel Franco.

Please tell us about your forthcoming memoir The Broken King. It’s a 6-part memoir about Thomas men. Each section contains a central event, commentary, and meditation.

Are their risks in telling these stories?  Yes: you could hurt those you love, or, simply, tell the stories poorly and injure your readers.

How would you describe the memoir-writing experience? Awful. It nearly ruined me.

To read more of this interview, go here.

The FPP Interview: Mackenzie Largie aka Lady DM

January 28 marks the first night we will open and close our reading with music, and spinning for us will be Mackenzie Largie, aka Lady DM.  We spoke to her about being a DJ’ane, Europe v America for black girls, and the Norwegian night she made headline news.

Zurich, Switzerland 1999

Would you share the origins of Lady DM? Lady DM stands for devotee of the Divine Mother. My guru is Amma. My vision is to heal people through music, as I’ve been healed as a kid growing up under very unfortunate circumstances. Music and dancing saved my life.  To read more of this interview, go here.