First, I tried to get someone else to make my book trailer.

When that didn’t work, I got other people to HELP me make my book trailer. As I writer, I don’t often get to collaborate on creative projects, and it turned out to be a blast.

But you should watch it first:

Now that you have seen the trailer and know that The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová is about a Czech fairy tale writer, you will understand why it is important that I happened to be in Prague this summer taking students on a study abroad trip. I was accompanied by my gentleman friend, whom I dragged around the city with a camera, and he helped me film moving shots of still statues (check out the opening pan up), and still shots of moving statues (Kafka’s swiveling head at minute 1:05!). We got footage on trams and of trams, on bridges and of them. We got a lot of footage.

Next, I wrote a script. Then rewrote it a few more times.

In the meantime, I contacted the Indiana University South Bend Instructional Media team and asked, “Can somebody please help me make a book trailer?” And they were like, “Sure, we can do it.”

Joel laid the ground rules. Joe would record the voices. Sky went to work on sorting through the video footage.

But we still didn’t have any background music to set the tone.

One night my gentleman friend and I watched a weird German movie, The Strange Little Cat, and we loved the music. So I did what you do: I googled the band and emailed the record company asking permission to use the music in my trailer. No answer. I wrote again. This time I got a response from Kim at Monotreme Records: “Yes, that should work!”

A few more email exchanges, a small fee, and the next thing I knew I had the rights to that hauntingly awesome music that plays throughout: “Pulchritude” by Thee More Shallows.

Meanwhile, we recorded the voices, which include my daughter (the first and last voice), my gentleman friend, and me. Sky was making great progress on the video editing, and the next thing I knew it was almost done. We just needed some audio for the credits.

Luckily, back in Prague, when I filmed Božena’s grave at the National Cemetery, I recorded the church bells as they rang and rang throughout the cemetery.

Did you watch all the way to the end? The bells are so beautiful.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová is now available for pre-order at Rose Metal Press. Free shipping!



You spoke of anything that has the power
“to surprise and enchant” us as “poetry.”


Dear René Magritte:

This is not a thank you note.

Or if you prefer, Ceci n’est pas une note de merci.

Only kidding! Of course it is—that’s just a joke based on La Trahison des Images, aka The Treachery of Images, aka “This is not a pipe,” probably about the millionth one. Are you tired of them yet? Or, since you were something of a lifelong jokester yourself, are you happy that people are still joking, inspired by you?


Thank you for being a writer’s painter.

That is to say, thank you for declaring often: “For me, a reproduction is enough! Like in literature, you don’t need to see a writer’s manuscript to be interested in his book!”

That is to say thank you for seeing your paintings less as precious objects and more as philosophical propositions: “It’s not a question of painting, but of thinking.”

Thank you, too, for being a painter who wrote.

That is to say, thank you for living up to your friend, the poet Guy Rosey’s statement in a letter to you that, “You are far from being the occasional writer you claim to be, but you are, in my eyes and in the eyes of many others, a poet who sheds an unforgettable light on himself and his painting.”

You died in 1967, well before I was born. I never got to meet you or your wife and model, Georgette, or your and Georgette’s shared series of beloved Pomeranian dogs, all called Loulou.  But I feel, now that I’ve worked on bringing your Selected Writings out in English, almost as though I’ve not only met but spent time with you all.

You thought in images, not novels or poems, but your paintings have always seemed to me very language-based, very narrative, very readable.

And you spoke of anything that has the power “to surprise and enchant” us as “poetry.”

Ren? Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009 øðä îàâøéè, áðå ùì àãí, 1964, øñèåøöéä ò"é ùîòåï éðåáéõ, 2009

The Son of Man, 1964, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009

And in your essay “Surrealism in the Sunshine” you offer this beautifully articulated strategy for living:

Life is wasted when we make it more terrifying, precisely because it is so easy to do so. It is an easy task because people who are intellectually lazy are convinced that this miserable terror is ‘the truth’, that this terror is knowledge of the ‘extra-mental’ world. This is an easy way out resulting in a banal explanation of the world as terrifying. Creating enchantment is an effective means of counteracting this depressing, banal habit.

Thanks for saying that and thanks, through your images and through your words and through your life, for doing your best to counteract the banal and the depressing.

Please send my love, too, to Georgette and to Loulou.

Your friend & admirer in the mystery that you always said elucidates knowledge,



[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

krasmagritteKathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. With Eric Plattner, she is co-editor of René Magritte: Selected Writings (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), and her second novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2017. @KathleenMRooney

René Magritte (1898–1967) was an internationally renowned Belgian Surrealist painter who also wrote prolifically on art and other subjects.

Thank you for tracking in fascinating ways the labyrinthine lives,
inner and outer, of girls and women, insisting that their lives
are worthy of scrupulous attention.


Dear Muriel Spark:

A few years ago I watched a documentary about you that was part of the BBC archive of modern writers.  Just yesterday when I tried to access the site again I discovered that the documentary had been “removed for copyright reasons.”  That was a blow.  If I remember correctly, there was a moment, wonderfully goofy and vulnerable, when you clowned for the camera and put something over your face or near your face.  Was it a mask? I can’t remember.  I  wish the documentary was still available.  Now that you’re in paradise and have God’s ear, can you fix that?

No doubt you’ve received many acknowledgments of gratitude. I hope you won’t mind more, for while many of us are grateful, what we’re grateful for no doubt varies among us. You admired brevity and so I’ll try to be brief.

Thank you for arming yourself with an uncompromising attitude, claiming your authority as a writer with a stalwart defense of the human right to be prickly and different. Thank you for curdling the pretentious with your prose. Thank you for the flawed, vulnerable characters you created. Thank you for spotlighting a valiant and self-congratulatory shamelessness and preserving certain personalities in brine and in the ultimate compassion of accurate assessment. Thank you, too, for tracking and revealing your characters’ fates at surprising points in the midst of their battles, preempting our expectations and forcing our recognition of the fragility of any life, including our own. Thank you, that is, for showing even petty squabbles against the backdrop of eternity.

jeanbrodiecoverThank you for tracking in fascinating ways the labyrinthine lives, inner and outer, of girls and women, insisting that their lives are worthy of scrupulous attention. Thank you for presenting the experiences of those “girls of slender means” who struggle against tedious jobs and the terrors and surveillance visited upon their bodies, as well as the numbing effects of a culture that relegates them to secondary roles in their own lives. Thank you for the dryness of your prose that allows for uneasy revelation and fierce moments of poignancy.

Thank you for your sentences, lithe and with fine detailing, and stinging with an acid that burns away falsity. Thank you for sentences that, however short, make us do double-takes. (Two favorites of mine that I’ve quoted repeatedly: “I didn’t sleep with him for his prose style” and “I could kill him…But would that be enough?”)  Thank you for the tart taste of your sentences, and their piercing humor. Thank you, by the way, for having so much fun writing about hypocrites.

In the same documentary I mentioned earlier you held up notebooks filled with your novel drafts written in longhand. You said, proudly, that you hardly ever needed to change a word. Thank you for giving us a vision of effortless, fluid delight.  To imagine the capacity to write with such headlong momentum brings me vicarious joy.

And thank you for sparing us any potentially dull moments in your fiction. For instance, I admire the way you dispatch the contents of a letter in Loitering with Intent:  “The letter went on, very boring.”

Thank you for being generally discreet about your own life, for insisting some things are none of our damn business.

The Greek poet Callimachus declared, “A big book is a big evil.”  Thank you for sparing us  from that particular evil by writing so many short novels.  Thank you too for refusing to spare those who practice evil: after your enemies attempted to shame and trivialize you, thank you for skinning and baking them into your novels, apparently lightly disguised.

Thank you for assessing your accomplishments to an interviewer in 1995: “I have realized myself. I have expressed something I brought into the world with me. I believe I have liberated the novel in many ways, showing how anything whatsoever can be narrated, any experience set down, including sheer damn cheek. I think I have opened doors and windows in the mind, and challenged fears—especially the most inhibiting fears about what a novel should be.”  Thank you, in addition, for elsewhere asserting that your novels are a form of poetry—and thus thank you for extending the possibilities of poetry.


Thank you for seldom looking like the same woman in any of your photographs, as if even your face resisted a single impression.

Thank you for not minding (I hope) that I am guilty of characterizing you here in ways that you might dislike.  Although, frankly, I can’t imagine you would mind at this point. Yet I realize that declaring that you wouldn’t mind suggests a hard limit to my own imagination.  And so—why not?—I’ll imagine you as irritated, having wasted some of your eternal time on reading this letter when it seems you hardly wasted a moment on earth in your eighty-eight years, with twenty-two novels and innumerable short stories and poems and plays and other works behind you, including biographies of your kindred spirits, Emily Brontë and Mary Shelley. How heroic and hard-working you were. How you must have labored to claim your life against the odds as a woman born in 1918, and now, even in our unheavenly lives, how your example may stiffen our spines with courage.


[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

Lee Upton, May 2016, Easton PALee Upton’s most recent books are Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center (2015); The Tao of Humiliation: Stories, winner of the BOA Short Fiction Award, finalist for The Paterson Prize, and named one of the “best books of 2014” by Kirkus Reviews; and the novella The Guide to the Flying Island from Miami University Press.  She is also the author of a collection of essays, Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition, Boredom, Purity, and Secrecy, from Tupelo.

The Scottish author Muriel Spark, born in 1918, was a prolific writer of novels, including the widely admired The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  Along with writing novels, often as many as one a year, she wrote plays, short stories, essays, criticism, and biographies. Her experiments with narrative structure and authorial voice continue to be influential.  A convert to Roman Catholicism, she published her final novel, The Finishing School, in 2004 and died two years later in Florence, Italy.

Mexico City Magic

August 3, 2016 — 2 Comments

I’m just back from three weeks in Mexico City, where I studied some Spanish, worked on a new project, visited old loves like Leonora Carrington and Frida Kahlo, and found new loves like Lilia Carillo, the painter, and Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god.

Here’s Leonora Carrington’s Cocodrilo on Paseo de la Reforma (and my quick watercolor sketch of it):

I almost didn’t go to Frida’s Casa Azul again (here’s a link to my 2014 visit), but I’m so glad I did:


I love her amazing collection of retablos, amateur paintings made to thank the Virgin of Guadalupe for interceding at life-threatening moments:


These influenced some of her most famous paintings, and the museum juxtaposes small reproductions of her actual paintings with the retablos that inspired them:



At the Museum of Modern Art, I got to see Dos Fridas in person for the first time:


This painting was made after one of her breakups with Diego and represents two sides of herself, one as a comfort to the other. She is dressed in European attire on the left and in her classic Tehuana dress (which Diego preferred) on the right.

In all my times of viewing the painting online, I’d never noticed that the heart on the left is gray and withered:


And I discovered the beautiful abstract paintings of Lilia Carrillo:

We saw an outdoor film at the Monument of the Revolution:


about this guy, Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god:


…who was removed from his original site in Coatlinchan and relocated to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The film, La Piedra Ausente (The Absent Stone), tells the amazing story of the removal of the stone amidst the town’s protests and its celebrated/contested arrival in Mexico City.

[More Mexico City magic: The night before the film, we went to a birthday dinner for a friend and met a woman named Sandra. After we’d talked for a while, she said, “I made a film; it’s screening tomorrow night at the Monument of the Revolution. You should come!” So we did. It was awesome.]

At the Palacio Nacional, we saw the journals of the artist Francisco Toledo, which were part of an exhibit of — get this — art that Mexican artists give to the nation as payment for their taxes:

These inspired a couple of my own journal sketches:

I thought I saw a Dirty Dancing sculpture, but it was just a strange sculpture that happened to have an ad for Dirty Dancing, The Musical behind it:


Finally, I should mention that there was a tree hanging in the center of our airbnb apartment building:


You suffered from Still’s Disease beginning in childhood. You never married or had children. You never served in the military or participated in combat or marches or sailing. But I suspect you knew pain. I suspect you knew longing.


Dear Ms. Sutcliff,

Right off I’ll say that it doesn’t seem right for me to call you “Rosemary.” First of all, you’re British, which suggests a certain formality. Also, you’ve been dead for nearly twenty-four years and you were born in 1920, so you’re much older than I am, and the polite, Midwestern boy inside me just can’t bring himself to call an elder by her first name. But the real reason for the formal address is simple—I’m not your equal. You’re so far above me as a writer—and probably as a person—that we can’t really be on a first-name basis. We just can’t.

You’re probably wondering why I’m bothering you. (If you can be bothered at all. You may be “experiencing” eternal nothingness, and this letter will never reach you. That scares me quite a bit actually, but I think I’d be better served by having that conversation with my therapist.) Still, it might seem odd that a middle-aged, suspense novelist—a guy who writes contemporary stories about missing people and weird crimes and unsolved murders set in middle America—would choose to write to a deceased British historical novelist who primarily wrote about Roman Britain, and whose work was often classified as young adult (although I think that label, like all genre labels, is limiting.) So why am I bothering your eternal rest, Ms. Sutcliff?

Simple. I think you’re one of the best novelists I’ve ever read.

About five years ago, a movie was made based on your most famous book, THE EAGLE OF THE NINTH. The movie was simply called THE EAGLE, and it starred Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell. (You probably don’t know them unless you’ve become omniscient in the next life, but the former is dreamy, the latter is no relation to me.) I occasionally read historical fiction, and I’d heard your book was excellent. So I bought it. At the time, I was in a bit of a reading slump. Nothing sounded good. Nothing I picked up grabbed me. I just wanted a good story, one with full-blooded characters and rich writing, a story that had everything—love, war, a father-son relationship, honor, duty, regret. I wasn’t asking for too much, was I?

Well, you delivered. Big time. It’s a simple enough story. Marcus Flavia Aquila is a Roman soldier who is haunted by the disappearance of his father—also a soldier—in battle. Not only did his father’s entire legion disappear without a trace north of Hadrian’s Wall, the legion’s standard—the eagle of the title—disappeared as well. This was a big deal to the Romans, sort of like when your rival high school steals your school’s mascot and spray paints it with their colors…except much, much worse. No other Roman legion had ever lost their standard. When Marcus Aquila is severely wounded in battle and mustered out of the army, he decides to risk everything by travelling in disguise north of the wall—where no Roman went anymore—accompanied only by his faithful slave, Esca, in order to find the lost standard and restore his father’s honor.

Is a story published in the 1950s and set in the second century A.D. still relevant to modern readers? Yes, if you live in a country with a number of wounded veterans returning from war haunted by their experiences. And, yes, if you think it’s worth questioning whether a powerful country (empire) might have overextended itself in an attempt to bring “light” to every corner of the earth. Yes, if you think a child can be plagued by the mistakes of a parent long after that parent is gone. Yes, if you’ve ever been young and in love. And, yes, if you’ve ever had to leave someone you love behind.

And, Ms. Sutcliff, I’d like to point out that I’m even more impressed that you wrote all these books from a wheelchair because you suffered from Still’s Disease beginning in childhood. You never married or had children. You never served in the military or participated in combat or marches or sailing. But I suspect you knew pain. I suspect you knew longing. And your imagination and understanding of the human heart make up for all of it.

I’ve bothered you long enough. I hope you know your books are still alive where we live. Even if you are in perpetual nothingness, your writing lives on. And your writing should, and probably will, live on for a very long time. Some things are eternal.


David Bell



[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

613ldubmo3l-_ux250_David Bell is the author of Cemetery Girl (2011), The Hiding Place (2012), Never Come Back (2013), The Forgotten Girl (2014), Somebody I Used to Know (2015), and Since She Went Away (2016), all published by NAL, a division of Penguin Random House. Originally from Cincinnati, he is an associate professor and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Western Kentucky University.

Rosemary Sutcliff wrote more than 40 historical novels for young adults-including The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, The Sword and the Circle, and Black Ships Before Troy-five adult novels, and several books of nonfiction.

Would aliens have the same reaction to your work as some of your contemporary critics, who were humans?

How does it feel to continue to be suppressed, now in space?

Dear Monsieur Charles Baudelaire,

Let me just start by telling you that I’m not one of your devotees. I’ve read some of your poems, and I’ve felt their raw power, that pumping vein in them, but I never tried to claim you. I like decadence, it’s tolerable enough, but it’s not for me.

I struggled for a while wondering if I should even write this letter to you. There are plenty of other authors involved with the Golden Record—the collection of sounds, images, music, and greetings that were attached to the two Voyager scientific probes and then launched into space more than a hundred years after your death. The message on the record is there in case either of them are ever found, by future humans or some other form of life. There is Carl Sagan, most importantly; the record was his brainchild. But I feel as if I talk to Sagan frequently. My entire book The Voyager Record feels like some form of contact with him. The record also involves Jimmy Carter, a former president of the United States, an author of many books. His contribution to the record, coincidentally, is a letter. It won’t get an answer, and neither will mine: he addressed his letter to life forms that may not even exist, I’m writing this one to you, someone who doesn’t exist anymore.

What does a dead author want to say to the universe?


I ask because—you may not be aware of this, I may be the first to write to you about it—one of your poems appears on the record. A part of one of your poems, actually: the first two stanzas of “Élévation” from Les Fleurs du mal.

The selection was not made by the committee Carl Sagan put together to curate the record’s contents. It was chosen to be read by the French delegate from the United Nations Outer Space Committee, Bernadette Lefort, as one of the greetings from Earth to potential extraterrestrials. I suspect she read “Élévation” (translated here) because of its description of flying free of the confines of the known world, and loving every second of it.

Au-dessus des étangs, au-dessus des vallées,
Des montagnes, des bois, des nuages, des mers,
Par del
à le soleil, par delà les éthers,
Par del
à les confins des sphères étoilées,

Mon esprit, tu te meus avec agilité,
Et, comme un bon nageur qui se p
âme dans londe,
Tu sillonnes gaiement l
immensité profonde
Avec une indicible

But there is a complicated hitch. The recording of your poem is not the full first two stanzas of the poem: the last line of the second stanza has been truncated. Cut in half. At exactly the point where the poem’s undeniable erotic content reveals itself. The full last line of that stanza—“Avec une indicible et mâle volupté”—does not appear.

You were the kind of poet to invoke “unspeakable masculine joy.” That probably means fucking, right? I am going to go with that reading. It’s explicit content such as that which led many critics to denounce your work, to the point where some of it was even officially suppressed by the authorities.


“The Yellow Scale,” a painting of Baudelaire by Franz Kupka

I think that kind of knee jerk reaction is why the recording of the poem cuts short at that point. It’s very specific. Without that line everything that comes before can be read only as an analogy for flying through space, not for having sex. The “love with the immensity” could be no other immensity than space. Not a body, not a space between bodies.

I read the poem this way and hear it disappear as Lefort’s voice is suddenly silenced. It feels like a frantic cut. A nervous move. This was probably ass-coverage: the material on the Voyager record were being highly scrutinized for sexually explicit content since the record and Voyager were something of a follow-up to the earlier Pioneer 10 & 11’s plaque. This plaque included a depiction of a fully naked man and woman, an image that many people did not find appropriate to send into space. Some people even wrote letters to NASA.

It’s also ironic that something you yourself call “unmentionable” or “unspeakable” is never read out loud.

You are a dead author more than some other authors are dead. You get taught in schools now, by people who have tenure, and you died broke, and I think you wouldn’t want to be taught if you could sit in on a class covering your own work. You would be a nightmare to have in a class. That is death for the dead, I think, living on as someone else’s thesis.

Would aliens have the same reaction to your work as some of your contemporary critics, who were humans? It would be a testament to the strength of your work if among all the contents of the Voyager record your poem would be the one to raise their ire. How does it feel to continue to be suppressed, now in space?

You’re not the only poet to appear on the Golden Record. There’s Harry Martinson’s poem “Visit to the Observatory” too. Unlike your poem however, Martinson’s appears in its entirety. This is a poem that is wholly about the science of space. I don’t think the poem’s wholesomeness and its wholeness are unrelated. Martinson was also a winner of a Nobel prize in literature. It’s an honor that, even if it had been given out during your lifetime, you would never have won.

Dive past those first two stanzas and your poem is less and less about space, and more about what it is to think like a poet: to be bored with the failure of the world, to think that you can hear things that no one else can. Self-centered. Dirty. But it’s a human self-centeredness, and a human desire for more of the world.

It seems like something an alien life form might like to know about us. It seems like the kind of thing that we have poetry for.

Yours truly,

Anthony Michael Morena


[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

210a56_ad839d2428b140498087c92fada0238dAnthony Michael Morena is a writer from New York who lives in Tel Aviv. In 2015 he received his MA in creative writing from Bar-Ilan University. His poetry and prose have appeared or will soon in The Normal School, Ninth Letter, Flapperhouse, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. He has also been a guest editor for The Ilanot Review and a regular reader for Gigantic Sequins, a good-looking, biannual, black & white literary arts journal. The Voyager Record: A Transmission (Rose Metal Press 2016) is his first book.

Charles Baudelaire was a 19th century French poet, translator, and literary and art critic whose reputation rests primarily on Les Fleurs du mal; (1857; The Flowers of Evil) which was perhaps the most important and influential poetry collection published in Europe in the 19th century–an excerpt of which was sent to outer space on the Golden Record.


I have still probably read more of your work than that of any other writer, a calculation that I now make with alarm and slight nausea, as if I’ve just figured out how many total gallons of Mountain Dew I have consumed in the past 44 years.


Mr. Clavell:

Given that you and I do not know one another—and, owing to your death in 1994, never will—I trust you will either appreciate or forgive the formality of my salutation. It is, after all, something that I learned from you, or more precisely from your 1981 novel Noble House, in which you depict British residents of Hong Kong wincing at the presumptuous overfamiliarity of visiting Americans. The rules of style and decorum that we learn in our early teens shape us for life, and today, more than thirty years after I read the book, I still always hesitate to use first names in professional correspondence—even though I’m no longer certain whether your intent was to critique the cloddish Yankees or the stuffy expat Brits.

I’m not sure how well I understood it at the time—the time being the mid-1980s, for me the end of junior high, the beginning of high school—but these sorts of cross-cultural frictions and flirtations were your great subject, one that you pursued in a confident, energetic, entertaining, trashy, reductive, and extremely problematic manner over the course of about 6000 mass-market-paperback pages, from your 1962 debut King Rat to your 1993 career capstone Gai-Jin. I confess that I pulled the plug after the excesses of 1986’s Whirlwind—wherein over the course of eight or nine pages you memorably introduce a character, set out his elaborate backstory (which includes distant familial connections to characters in your other novels) and then kill him off, never to mention him again—but it terms of total volume I have still probably read more of your work than that of any other writer, a calculation that I now make with alarm and slight nausea, as if I’ve just figured out how many total gallons of Mountain Dew I have consumed in the past 44 years.

Shogun coverMy route in was the same one taken by most others: the 1980 NBC miniseries adaptation of your 1975 novel Shōgun. Given the many warnings of mature content with which it was garlanded when it originally aired, my parents didn’t let me see any of it, although I’m pretty sure I heard most of it from an adjacent room, which was probably even more captivating. When NBC reran it a few years later, I was deemed old enough to watch, and watch I did, as it aired and again on videotape. My father had the paperback—which I imagine he, like an estimated 2.1 million other Americans, purchased during the original broadcast—and I psyched myself up to tackle it: the first novel written for adults that I can remember reading without being assigned to do so.

Though the miniseries was appealing to me in the same way it was appealing to pretty much everyone—i.e. as a lavish and lurid production, set in a vividly-evoked world—it held a more specific attraction, as well. To one such as me, who had proven less than adept at navigating the social rituals of my own clan, the narrative of John Blackthorne’s gradual metamorphosis from scurvy English sailor to respected samurai was an encouraging reminder that culture is a choice (although not one that all are equally free to make, to be sure). Your portrayal of this individualistic and willful bucking of convention—pitched, like all your work, somewhere between T.E. Lawrence and Ayn Rand—found a very receptive audience in teenaged me.

In retrospect, Richard Chamberlain’s performance as Blackthorne was probably broadcasting on yet another, more subtle channel—presenting a queerish fantasy of escape from a crass and brutal homosocial shipboard environment into a realm of disciplined aestheticism and clean silk kimonos—that was very compelling to a kid like me: straight, but not performatively so. There is, of course, a longstanding association between orientalism and queerness, with the former providing a frame and coded language to discuss the latter, but to the extent that that’s at work in the miniseries, it seems to be absent from your printed pages. While your books—particularly your first and best novel, King Rat—do depict ambiguities of sexuality and gender, they pass over them fairly quickly. For all your concern with difference, you rarely dwell on any kind of ambiguity at all. Yours is a world of steady certainties and Gordian-knot solutions.

And that’s pretty much where you lost me. Over thousands and thousands of pages, what finally became wearing were your functional, essentialist characterizations: the simplicity of your psychological machinery. This is as true for your “Western” characters—your stoic Englishmen, your bold Scots, your brash Americans, your scheming Portuguese, your earthy Dutch, your hearty Finns . . . there seems to have been no nationality you couldn’t harpoon with a single adjective—as it is for your Asian ones; this, more than anywhere else, is where your conservatism becomes apparent. But when an Anglo-American writer assumes the authority to capture non-Western cultures in a few very broad strokes, that writer is participating in a tradition that carries a ton of nasty baggage, even—maybe even especially—if that writer comes to the subject with sincere fascination and admiration.

ch9l1vww0aevhveAnd yet I still can’t quite disown you, or condemn your project in its entirety. Partly this is because you seemed aware—particularly in your early novels—that you could and should do better than your predecessors. Although Brits are your heroes and your point-of-view characters, and although you often feint toward the tradition of depicting white men as decisive leaders riding in to straighten out the backward Asians (e.g. Blackthorne is building a warship for his patron, Lord Toranaga, in order to challenge the naval dominance of the Portuguese), you generally flip this tradition on its head and show it as a manifestation of your protagonists’ hubris (e.g. Toranaga, who is playing a longer diplomatic game, burns Blackthorne’s unfinished ship). That said, while you may undercut the apparent superiority of your white protagonists, your own authority to depict remains unquestioned within the books themselves.

The idea that I can’t seem to shake—the one that leads me to revisit my young-adult binge on your work, the one that I will now advance with some trepidation in this letter to you—is that there might be something redeemable in the orientalist impulse: not praiseworthy, surely, but forgivable, even potentially beneficial. Without a doubt, orientalist fictions like yours are guilty of infractions for which they should be held to account, their blithe instrumental appropriation of complex human experience foremost among them. But at the inarticulate root of this impulse there is perhaps a motive that can be redirected toward positive ends: a certain xenophilic thrill, an attraction to what is different. In keeping with the undercurrent of much orientalist art, I am tempted to apply a sexual analogy: while the most successful and desirable pairings-off are prompted by a shared compassion that’s immediate and profound, many couples of long standing are initially drawn together by a superficial erotic connection, and love and respect emerge over time. Eros is not as sustaining as philia and agape, but we still call it love.

Whenever I find myself on the verge of disavowing our past affiliation, I take a moment to recall the subject of your first book, and what seems to have drawn you toward Asian cultures: the fact that you were a Japanese prisoner during World War II. You very easily could have reacted to your captivity and harsh treatment by developing enmity toward Japanese culture, or by simply ignoring or avoiding it, but you chose instead to immerse yourself in it and embrace it—initially, perhaps, to master the thing that had mastered you, but ultimately, I think, from a genuine desire to connect with dissimilar humanity. A key task of fiction is to explore and imaginatively inhabit consciousnesses that are unlike our own; therefore I choose to credit you with acting toward this end, and to forgive—but not forget—the ways in which you were unable to make good on its full promise.

May you rest in peace,

Martin Seay


[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]


Martin Seay’s first novel, The Mirror Thief, has just been released by Melville House. He lives in Chicago with his spouse, the writer Kathleen Rooney.

Born in Australia as a British subject and later naturalized as an American citizen, James Clavell (1921–1994) was the successful screenwriter of films including The Fly, The Great Escape, and To Sir, with Love before he became a best-selling novelist.