Portrait of a Lady: The Mermaid

Taige Kussman, the mermaid, prepares for her transformation and dip into the Puget Sound.
Taige Kussman, the mermaid, prepares for her transformation and dip into the Puget Sound.

On a hot and sunny Saturday morning in early August, families wearing shorts and baseball caps basked in lawn chairs on the grassy knolls above the rocky beach flanking Salty’s restaurant on Alki and wielded binoculars to better glimpse the formations of the Blue Angels soaring across the Puget Sound. Clusters of fledgling divers stumbled across the pebbles, clunky in their thick, black suits and encumbered by their shiny tanks, and dipped forwards and backwards in the rolling water like ducks. Schools of yellow kayaks and white paddle-boats slowly glided by in the near distance.

Taige Kussman chain-smoked with one hand and teased her ratty, tangled hair extensions with the other. The hair, already braided with shells, has become more and more mermaid-like after multiple days of filming in Anacortes. After retiring from the set each day, she was supposed to untangle and hang up the hair to dry. More often than not, exhausted, she forget them in the plastic shopping bag tossed into a corner of the bathroom, where they sat and crusted. Saturated with salt water and more smelly and sticky then ever, they lend authenticity.

Somewhat shielded by two friends, Taige undressed her upper half and Evelyn Osborn, cinematographer, applied flesh-colored glue to the delicate skin around Taige’s neck and left breast. Synthetic gills and plastic, fish-tank reef followed. A discussion struck up about whether a mermaid might have her right nipple pierced. Yes, everyone agreed, because it’s like how the mermaid braids debri into her hair. Only, too bad that it’s too risky to use a real fish hook in place of Taige’s metal stud.

Tousled, glued, and tinged with blue from the waist up, Taige stretched and descended down the beach towards the water. She dipped her toes in, not to actually adjust to the frigidness of the Puget Sound so much as to mentally prepare for the imminent, inevitable shock of it. She dragged from a last cigarette and gazed over the water into the distance. Alone, she was neither here nor there. No longer herself, not yet a mermaid.

Elizabeth Schiffler, director, pulled the shiny, green fabric out of another old shopping bag and coaxed Taige out of her reverie. Taige untied a red shawl from around her lower half and quickly pulled up the familiar, stretchy scales, as salt-saturated as her extensions. No one envied her as she then carefully shimmied to the water’s edge, dipped and lay in the shallows, grimaced, and braced herself as Elizabeth attached the fin.

Fully transformed, Taige shivered violently but flopped her tail playfully. She dragged herself deeper into the shallows and took deep, purposeful breaths while the underwater crew adjusted the settings of their camera and tanks and submerged.

Evelyn called for action and, remarkably, the frozen grimace immediately slipped from Taige’s face. She swam fully into the water and ran blindly through a few underwater takes. With every resurfacing for air, Taige was all the more aquatic. She flopped her tail, twisted and kicked, and playfully draped seaweed over her hair and face. She drifted on her back to better absorb the sun, not for the warmth, but because it was there.

Only when the final shots were wrapped was it again apparent that becoming the mermaid had taken its toll. Removed from the water, Taige started shivering violently again, her teeth clattering, her limbs spasming. Her arms were bruised and scraped from the rocks and barnacles carpeting the shallows. Elizabeth and Evelyn hurried to remove her tail and wrap her in dry towels. Despite their collective stress and palpable fatigue, they embraced and grinned ear to ear with elation.

Becoming Mermaid was on its way to editing.

Taige drifts on her back between underwater takes.
Taige drifts on her back between underwater takes.

Becoming Mermaid is a short film by Elizabeth Schiffler, Evelyn Osborn, and Taige Kussman. Taige plays a mermaid who finds herself beached on the shore with an unexpected companion and is forced to reconcile that she belongs to neither land nor sea. The film’s first screening and Q&A with the cast and crew will take place at Arundel Books (209 Occidental Ave S) from 6-8pm on Tuesday, September 1st. For more information about the film, visit the website. For more information about the screening, visit the Facebook event page.

Elizabeth and Taige embrace after wrapping up the last of the filming.
Elizabeth and Taige embrace after wrapping up the last of the filming.

Originally published in the West Seattle Herald on 08/31/2015.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Smoke

West Seattle HeraldHaving been born, grown up, and lived in Seattle for the majority of my life, I am both familiar and comfortable with a cloudy sky. Where transplants from sunnier states can find the rain oppressive and are disconcerted by the enduring swathes of dull to bright grey blanketing the sky, I am comforted by the introspective mists and the silver depths of the clouds rising above. I can breathe.

Last Sunday was different. Last Sunday was something I do not remember seeing in all my twenty-eight years. It was a weird, dry, harsh, cough-inducing haze—like fog, but the opposite of fog.

“It’s really L.A. out right now,” Colin observed in the car on our way home from running errands.
“What do you mean?” I asked, squinting.
“I mean, the weather, it reminds me of Southern California.”
“All the weird dust in the air?”
“That’s smoke, babe.”

My heart clenched, probably in the same instinctual way that a field mouse’s heart clenches when it senses the same thing: smoke. Fire.

Reality check. Wildfires are, actually, a necessary function of a healthy ecosystem. In a forest, fire recycles the build-up of flammable brush and debri competing for nutrients in the soil into fertilizer for the surviving species. Like with floods, windstorms, and landslides, healthy ecosystems evolved to exploit and depend upon wildfire. The fields and forests east of our Cascades are no different.

What is different is that this is the second year in a row that Washington State has seen record-breaking wildfire “complexes.” According to the NWCC, this year’s Okanogan Complex consists of five wildfires collectively burning through 292,512 (and counting) acres in North-Central Washington.

Over the weekend, winds from the East brought the vast quantities of smoke from these record-breaking wildfires over the mountains to settle over Western Washington, resulting in the unfamiliar haze and less-than-healthy air conditions. To this Seattleite, the dry side of the Cascades never seemed so close, and so encroaching.

As the work-week opened, winds from the Southwest pushed that smoke back easterly where it came from. Even as we breathe easier over here, the smothering smoke keeps firefighting efforts grounded over there, and those winds from the Southwest are expected to feed the flames. Better would be if the forecast for thundershowers turned up more rain and less lightning.

In the meantime, according to King 5, Okanogan Complex incident commander Todd Pechota confirmed, “This fire remains the No. 1 priority fire in the United States.”

And we are not alone. This year lays claim to one of the worst fire seasons in recent history nationwide. According to the NIFC, 7,697,292 (and counting) collective acres have burned already this year. This is almost three times the acreage that burned by this time last year.

Back in May, Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared a statewide drought, citing record-low snowpack, falling river levels, rising temperatures, and warned of the wildfires that were to come. Because our rain-based reservoirs have protected us against suffering water shortages at home, like perhaps one or two fellow Seattleites, I only really took notice when the warm winter devalued my season pass for the mountains.

In terms of real human cost, the entire Okanogan county is under general fire evacuation order and over a thousand residents have so far been displaced. According to NWCC, 5,140 residences are directly threatened by the fires and ninety-four have been confirmed destroyed. Sixty-three other kinds of structures have been reported destroyed. Four firefighters have been injured, including one in critical condition, and three have lost their lives.

This side of the mountains, the smoke settled and unsettled me. A creature of the rain, I’m out of my element, and I wonder if we of the Pacific Northwest are on a course to be displaced of the very nature of our home. Comparatively safe as I may be, the fire is too close for comfort.

Originally published in the West Seattle Herald 08/31/2015.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Star Wars and Rediscovering the Familiar

West Seattle HeraldWhen I think about watching Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, I remember cuddling up with my mom and sister in Mom’s big (or so it seemed at the time) bed after popping the VHS into the built-in slot of a chunky, 32” TV perched on her dresser. Warm in our fleece pajamas, we passed between us a freshly microwaved bag of extra-butter popcorn and endlessly sucked on our salty, oil-stained fingertips. After the previews, a conspiratory hush settled, and I tempered my giddy anticipation in order to dutifully recite the opening crawl, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

Last Monday, cheers and clapping lit up the mainstage at the Triple Door Theatre downtown. STAR WARS burst onto the familiar, starry backdrop and smiles were exchanged between me and my coworkers. We sipped beer and wolfed down shared plates of pad thai and satay chicken skewers. “When was the last time you saw this in theater?” asked Gregg, for whom it had been ages. Dean and I exchanged a look. “I think we’re too young to have ever been able to see it in theater,” I grumbled, remembering the decidedly less-awesome Episodes I, II, and III that came out in my own time.

Yet there we were, and not by accident. Since October 2012, when Disney purchased the rights to create a third Star Wars trilogy, there has been a flurry of activity to rekindle the nostalgia for the original trilogy in anticipation of the December 18, 2015 release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

Before I knew that Episodes VII, VIII, and IX were in the making, I noticed that Pet Co. had stocked, overnight it seemed, an inordinate quantity of Chewbacca-shaped chew toys. But seeing as my local petfood dealer is, like myself, a Star Trek fan and offers a variety of Star Trek-themed pet paraphernalia just for the fun of it, I wondered if someone at the Pet Co. corporate office was gratuitously expressing a similar personal allegiance. I only starting figuring something was up when I noticed T-shirts with the blueprints of AT-AT Imperial Walkers (the big, spindly-legged ones from the ice world in Episode V) hanging up at Target. My suspicions were confirmed when I read news that GIRLS star Adam Driver was going to play a Dark-side-of-the-Force-wielding Knight of Ren (whatever that is. Sorry fans!).

Back at the Triple Door, the conjured nostalgia was gleeful and palpable. Our fellow viewers were not quite in Comicon mode, but many had donned their Star Wars T-shirts for the occasion. Like a well-rehearsed chorus, this room full of strangers seemed to know by instinct to silently observe, absorbed, as Luke maneuvered down the trench towards the target of the Death Star, and to collectively cheer when Obi-wan Kenobi urged, “Use the Force, Luke.”

An altogether very different experience of viewing Episode IV than what I was familiar with. It occurred to me that I was, in fact, experiencing a whole new dimension of Episode IV—that something old become something new—that odd, beautiful, and sometimes disconcerting experience of rediscovering the familiar.

It made me think about how the present moment is both ever new and ever changed because it is an accumulation of all my present moments now past. It is a reminder that every present moment, however mundane, is unique. And this is a reminder that every present moment can and should be observed and appreciated for the uniqueness it offers.

The present moment is also subjectively unique. My present, even when shared with you, is colored by my own personal accumulation of past moments, just as yours is colored with yours. The scene where Darth Vader tortures Leia for information is going to strike a slightly different chord for every person who witnesses it, because diverse connotations are invoked by our diverse past experiences with abusive authority, male-female power relations, pain…

It’s something special when so many strangers can come together, and everyone—no matter where they’ve come from and where they’re going—can agree that Chewbacca would make a brilliant first mate. Also, alas…they hooked me. While I’m not about to go buy out the paraphernalia and overdose on nostalgia-squeezing consumerism (however tempting it might be to dress up my sassy girl cat as Darth Vader), I am looking forward to seeing Episode VII. In the meantime, this Monday the Triple Door is showing my personal favorite, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Can I still pull off Princess Leia’s side-of-the-head buns?

Originally published by the West Seattle Herald 8/24/2015.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Column-writing and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores

West Seattle HeraldAs I take up the reins of Kyra-lin Hom’s weekly column, I am riding a warm wave of romanticism after reading the story of another columnist of a local paper, albeit a fictional one—the unnamed protagonist of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores.

It is a credit to Marquez that he could inspire a feminist like myself to feel butterflies when the novella’s premise is so repulsive. The opening words are the protagonist’s: “The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.” Standing on the upper landing of the bookstore, pausing in the process of shelving a stack of fiction titles to read this line, my eyebrow rose in the way a cat’s back-fur bristles. “Oh, really…” I thought.

I also couldn’t help but smile. This is not my first Marquez. A few Christmases ago I was the recipient of Love in the Time of Cholera. It is, among other things, the story of inappropriately passionate Florentino Ariza, who in his seventies pursues the love interest who spurned him in his twenties. The magic is that Ariza’s is a case of puppy love that does not extinguish itself, as it normally would (should?), when unrequited. Memories explores the same love, but from the perspective of an old man who experiences it for the first time only in his nineties.

I don’t want to give too much away because Memories is a quick and easy read (only 115 pages) whose rewards far exceed its demands. It is also Marquez’s last work of fiction, published ten years after his penultimate fictional work (Of Love and Other Demons), and after he survived cancer. The half-serious, half-just-for-fun wisdom offered by Memories’ protagonist may have been inspired by those Marquez’s particularly mortal years: “When I woke alive on the first morning of my nineties in the happy bed of Delgadina, I was transfixed by the agreeable idea that life was not something that passes by like Heraclitus’ ever-changing river but a unique opportunity to turn over on the grill and keep broiling on the other side for another ninety years.”

What I do want to give away is what I learned from Memories, and Kyra-lin Hom, about column-writing.

The protagonist of Memories admits that in the decades prior to his first love, his regular and persistently formulaic column had been relegated to page eleven, and “younger generations launched an attack against them as if they were assaulting a mummy from the past.” Despite the evidence that his words were not reaching the hearts of his readers, and only really appeased the pride within his own, he doggedly trudged through, week by week, sans brilliance.

That all changed with belated puppy love. “Disoriented by the merciless evocation of Delgadina asleep, with no malice at all I changed the spirit of my Sunday columns. Whatever the subject, I wrote them for her, laughed and cried over them for her, and my life poured into every word. Rather than the formula of a traditional personal column that they always had followed, I wrote them as love letters that all people could make their own.”

Kyra-lin Hom is unafflicted and unweathered in comparison. She is certainly more sane, though she does write with a similarly candid spirit. She wrote from 2005-2015, during a decidedly developmental decade of her life. She treated the column like a conversation with a good friend, and discussed everything from Chinese-language summer camp to college applications, long-distance relationships to television. She wrote reviews and responded to reader feedback. Her column was the coming-of-age chronicle of the average West Seattle high-schooler.

The Marquez and Hom models strike me, above all, by the power of their voice. Voice because the columnist is writing in the color of her own speech. Voice because the columnist is writing about subjects that are at the heart of her own subjective experience. If columns are meant to reach people, then I understand that a column of my own should less reflect the formula and more reflect the person and the present, where she is most curious and moved. By describing myself in my own voice, I may access interest and meaning in someone else. It’s not hard news. It’s soft, personal, and simmering.

It is a unique opportunity. I tip my hat to my predecessors and look forward to now sharing my own thoughts and experiences.

Originally published in the West Seattle Herald 8/17/2015.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Genuine entertainment at ArtsWest Theatre’s After Hours with Mathew Wright

West Seattle Herald

ArtsWest Theatre’s 2014-2015 season saw new faces—both on and off the stage—and record attendance. The production team, lead by new artistic director Mathew Wright, earned their traditional summer break between seasons. Instead, it’s cabaret!

Wright had this idea. Back in college, he and his friend Adam used to buy a case a beer on a Friday night, break into the Fine Arts building on campus, sit down at a piano, and sing show tunes into the night. It didn’t matter that Wright was a self-taught pianist, not classically trained. He banged merrily away and retains a fondness for those kinds of moments that exemplify the reason he taught himself to play the piano in the first place: to hear the music.

Also back in college, Wright watched repeatedly a DVD entitled, The Leading Ladies of Broadway, featuring beloved Broadway stars, like Ethel Merman, performing as themselves.

These experiences were the inspiration for ArtsWest Theatre’s current production: After Hours with Mathew Wright: The Leading Ladies of Seattle. There are two parts to the show: in one, Wright accompanies his ladies on the piano from show tune to show tune. In the other, Wright guides his ladies through interviews about the course of their careers. Over the course of the evening, Wright intermittently moves between these two show pieces.

Audiences can look forward to the genuineness of two performers stripped of character and dramatic context. Glamorous they may be, but their interaction is so casual that the audience comes away more with the feeling of having glimpsed two kids playing dress-up and belting out their favorite singles. Those two kids also just happen to be highly talented and practiced professionals.

It’s a performance that exposes the artists as artists, in the best way possible. Song to song, you can see the shift in the performer’s expression, hear her round or sharpen her voice to the character of the song. It’s an impressive act to see, and at the same time has an air of vulnerability. The first leading lady to perform, Sarah Rose Davis, admits, “Having performed for years now, this has been one of the few things that still makes me nervous. And being nervous is good. It brings you in tune with your work.”

“I see theatre as sharing,” Wright explains. “Now that I’ve been here for a year, I’ve come to see our audience as friends and conversation partners.” And what better to connect than converse about the craft itself?

One show out of five down, After Hours is a hit that has already inspired requests from the audience. The Leading Gentlemen of Seattle is tentatively scheduled for the fall, and Wright is also thinking about a Leading Couples.

The Leading Ladies will be performed at ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery (4711 California Ave SW) Monday nights from July 20th through August 17th at 7:30pm. General admission is $25 per show or $100 for the series. Eleven tables for two, featuring complimentary San Pellegrino, cookies, and flickering candlelight, are $75 per show or $300 for the series. Tickets are on sale at the box office or at http://www.artswest.org/theatre/buy-tickets/

Originally published in the West Seattle Herald 07/23/15

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

West Seattle Street Fair 2015

The weekend before last I had the pleasure of taking a day to vender-browse and people-watch at the annual summer street fair of the neighborhood I grew up in, West Seattle. While there, in between running into old friends, eating ice cream, and trying on floppy hats, I found myself dog-watching as well. I tried to render their experience of the day, which seemed to be particularly characterized by the heat, smells, joy, and human feet.

Dog Eye 1

 

DSC02493

 

DSC02498

 

DSC02485

 

DSC02530

 

DSC02499

 

DSC02554

 

DSC02559

 

DSC02542

 

DSC02479

 

DSC02549

 

 

DSC02507

 

DSC02480

 

DSC02570

 

DSC02511

 

 

Posted in Personal | Tagged , , , | 31 Comments

Purple Haze Lavender Festival 2015

I’m grateful to have been able to spend the weekend at the Purple Haze Lavender Festival in beautiful Sequim, WA with my friends Sunny, Josh, and Krista. I soaked up some sun, drank gallons of lavender lemonade, and helped tend the booth for Sunny’s herbalist shop, The Hidden Alchemist. I also took pictures:

Sunny's hair

Master herbalist Sunny Savina, eyes on the road.

Joshua's shirt

Journeyman Joshua in his festive shirt.

Krista wind

Apprentice Krista, the wind in her hair.

Lavender perfume

Lavender perfume by the Hidden Alchemist.

Product

All-natural, hand-made tinctures, teas, elixirs, and lotions by the Hidden Alchemist.

Lavender syrup

Journeyman Joshua pouring samples of lavender syrup by the Hidden Alchemist.

The Hidden Alchemist

Master herbalist Sunny Savina and her apprentice Krista of the Hidden Alchemist.

Ferry music

Also, music…

Ferry hugs

…hugs…

Fairy people

…and fairy people.

 

Posted in Personal | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

Keep fighting for your innocence

The first time I attended the Innocence Network Conference in 2014, I had to be coaxed into going. Greg Hampikian, director of the Idaho Innocence Project, informed me that not only was the conference going to be held in Portland, Oregon — a mere three-hour drive from where I lived in Seattle — but it was also about time that I met the crew. It’s all love! Hampikian promised. But I wasn’t sure.

The notoriety of my case made me feel claustrophobic. Could I handle walking into a room full of hundreds of people who might judge me? More importantly, I was not yet exonerated. I had, in fact, been very recently re-convicted. Did I even belong? At first glance, the conference was not only a nerve-wracking ride I had never been on, but I didn’t know if I met the height requirement.

The Innocence Network, it turned out, had a term for this: “still fighting.” That is, not “officially innocent.”

Unlike me, there are many innocent people who do not find the clear, satisfying justice of exoneration. Sometimes, a prosecutor can be made to see that there were deficiencies with a conviction, but may not believe — or want to admit — that the conviction was wrong.

In such cases, the Innocence Project can help people achieve freedom only by reaching an agreement with the prosecutor short of full exoneration, such as for “time served.” If the client agrees, she is freed, but she faces, as I was facing, the prospect of having to suffer indefinitely the disparity between a recognized, official verdict of guilt and the unrecognized, unofficial fact of one’s innocence.

Convinced by Hampikian’s optimism, I did attend. And I’m so glad I did because he was right: the people involved in the Innocence Project are incredible. They embraced me as a little sister. They assured me I was safe, that nothing was expected of me, that everyone was just pleased to finally get to know me.

I found a community brimming with love and understanding. That community has supported, and continues to support, me and countless others wrongfully convicted. The innocent individual who has not yet been exonerated — even more than the exoneree — is the symbol of the Innocence Project, because before the world can make your innocence official, someone must fight for it.

At the time of the case against Raffaele Sollecito and me in Italy, there was no Innocence Project in Italy. There was no organization that championed individual cases of actual innocence and advocated — through research, education and legislation — against the causes of wrongful conviction. The Italian Innocence Project exists as of 2015 and consists of just two legal experts, for now.

But the Innocence Network, the cooperative conglomeration of state-by-state Innocence Projects here in the United States, has existed since the first project was founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City in 1992. Since its founding, 329 people have been exonerated in the United States, 20 of whom were on death row. The Innocence Project was directly involved in 176 of those cases. Equally important, it has helped to find 140 real perpetrators, bringing justice to the victims.

The Innocence Project not only works to overturn wrongful convictions of individual innocents, but also analyzes the causes of convictions that have been proven wrongful. It works to implement best practices and legislation that would help prevent future wrongful convictions, including: allowing convicts to carry out post-conviction testing, such as DNA testing; preservation of evidence; reforming eyewitness practices; recording interrogations to protect against false confessions/admissions; and abolishing the death penalty.

Finally, the organization works to pass legislation that would provide financial compensation to the victims of wrongful conviction who, along with their freedom, lost their financial security to years of debt and inertia.

The victims of wrongful conviction are deserving of justice and help. The dedicated persons involved in Innocence Projects throughout the United States, and now throughout the world, provide the necessary resources for those wrongfully convicted to be set free.

They also provide the crucial network of support for those set free to reclaim their lives in freedom—something I was reminded of when I attended the recent Innocence Network conference in 2015, fully exonerated and eager to give back the support I have received to those who are still fighting.

Originally published on 06/23/2015 by CNN Opinions here.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , , , , , | 69 Comments

After War of the Encyclopeadists: An interview with Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite about what comes next

Christopher Robinson & Gavin Kovite

Gavin Kovite (left) and Christopher Robinson (right) cuddling with a copy of War of the Encyclopeadists.

I think there were four kinds of scotch. The reason I’m not completely certain about that number is because I am certain we each had a glass of each. Discussing characters, conclusions, and the measure of literary success degenerated into comparisons of Star Trek: The Next Generation to Moby Dick, a trip to QFC for roast chicken, a roof-top hang-out overlooking the Space Needle, and finally, a quiet meandering back to our respective Capitol Hill apartments in the wee hours of the next morning. This was the context of my interview with Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite about War of the Encyclopeadists, published May 19th. What follows is what fans can look forward to next:

Kovite: We’re going to write a book about Amazon in Detroit.

Why?

Kovite: Detroit because Detroit is super interesting. And also Amazon is super interesting. And Amazon is developing drones, right? And because of the plight of the economic issues in Detroit right now…The idea is that, in the near future, somehow Amazon gets the FAA of Detroit and Michigan to carve out a few blocks that so they can do a beta testing.

Robinson: They’re only like a year away from actual deliveries. It’s set near enough in the future that we’re going to have to be open to revising the concept as the future catches up. We want to be topical. We want to deal with race and class and the internet economy and the efflorescence of arts cultures. These things are combined in this complicated nexus in Detroit right now.

Who are the characters you’re grounding the reader in?

Robinson: We have a couple characters who are not based on anyone in particular. We’ve got one vet character who’s probably the closest hold over [from War of the Encyclopeadists] to this book, who’s just getting out of the army, who’s a Detroit native who comes back home and gets a job as an EMT and his wife just left him with a young baby and he has visitation with his kid. His best buddy from high school has been dabbling in petty crime. Nothing much has been happening for him and he’s competing in the local Mixed Martial Arts circuit. There’s a group of art hipster kids who move into a foreclosed house and start up an art colony. They have a rotating cast of artists and residents coming though. There will be some urban farmer types connected with them.

Kovite: There’s the Amazon drone nerds and the program head who comes over, who may or may not be based on my friend who works at Amazon. Which is cool because we live in Seattle and have access to people who work at Amazon. Although, Amazon is really secretive. My friend told me that there’s so much security in the company that people in one program don’t know what people in another program are doing and they’ll only find out from regular news, because there are these firewalls between the groups. It’s almost like the army.

Robinson: Our main Amazon character is this woman who’s a VP of some kind, and she’s responsible for spearheading this new Amazon program, Amazon Sports. They have their own TV network now, and they’ll have the NFL, but Amazon only.

Kovite: Well, it’s like lacrosse. Pingpong.

Robinson: It starts with a golf open. They pay a bunch of money to a bunch of golfers to do this four-day tournament and it’s broadcast only on this Amazon streaming service.

Kovite: And curling and arm-wrestling. Stuff that doesn’t have a big league already.

Robinson: And then they branch into MMA. The goal is maybe one day they’ve got MLB. So this MMA guy in Detroit is one of their first fighters in one of the fights they’re going to have at the Amazon Sports League. The Amazon VP moves from Seattle to Detroit to supervise this project. And there’s also someone doing the drone delivery program there. There will be some hacker kids in Detroit who capture a downed drone and reprogram it and use it. There’s a social activist, aspiring rapper girl who’s one of the black characters. There’s going to be a fair black-white divide, I think, between the Detroit natives and the immigrants.

Kovite: We’re going to Detroit for a month to get into the community.

Robinson: In Detroit, do you remember what the percentage is?

Kovite: It’s something like 80% African American.

Robinson: So most of our Detroit native characters are going to be black. And most of our arts colony kids and Amazon workers are going to be white and there are going to be tensions over that.

How are they going to come into contact?

Robinson: In a bunch of small ways. Things like the Amazon drone crashing and these kids finding it and reprograming it. Or like the aspiring rapper girl finds out that the arts colony kids have built a recording studio in their foreclosed house and they come together that way. Or this Detroit native guy who’s dabbling in crime who gets recruited to be part of the Amazon Sports League. So it will be…I don’t know if picaresque is the right word…It’s very grounded in characters, but not in plot. War of the Encyclopeadists was already a little like that, and this is pushed even more in that direction, where there’s even more characters and even less plot.

Robinson and Kovite spoke to me on the eve of their departure for a War of the Encyclopeadists reading tour across the country. The tour will come to end at the Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park on June 22nd at 7:00pm.

War of the Encyclopeadists is a thoughtful, touching, fun novel about two millennials coming of age via love triangles, grad school, and the Iraq war. You can purchase the novel on Amazon.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , | 29 Comments

War of the Encyclopeadists by Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite a hilarious and heartbreaking investigation of youth and truth

War of the Encyclopeadists

After reading Chris Robinson and Gavin Kovite’s debut novel, War of the Encyclopeadists, I find myself wishing I could write about it in their narrative voice. I too want to be clever and sensually-aware and write lines like, ‘he drifted back to a sort of mental hand-wringing,’ and, ‘she moved in an invisible cloud of woman-smell.’ I too want to be as insightful and eloquent as the line, ‘life is just a string of ends, none of them simple, all of them seeds,’ suggests about these two young writers/friends.

Here’s another: ‘They had no real artistic talent, but they had a knack for carrying stupid jokes to their absurd conclusions.’ This is page one, and comes across as an explanation for each successive page to come, a challenge to the legitimacy of their own literature. Except that this is a novel about Halifax Corderoy and Mickey Montauk, who are and are not Chris Robinson and Gavin Kovite. What’s true? None of it. All of it. It might as well be.

In the story, Corderoy and Montauk hit it off in the best way two bachelors with bachelor’s degrees can. But then Corderoy screws it up with an object of his affection he’s not ready for and ships off to grad school. Montauk does as he’s told and ships off to Baghdad. Psychological and emotional implosions. Physical explosions. Lives that intersect with and mirror each other.

Robinson and Kovite write with directness that is not arrogant, cleverness that is not boastful, honesty and insightfulness that promises that wisdom has been attained and life has progressed past the final pages of the written story. You can tell they are poets because of the way lines proceed rhythmically and the way ideas and actions are juxtaposed for exponentially more emotional impact. You can tell they are hipster-millennials because they relish ideas and moments of beauty-ugliness, irony, unconventional perfection, and meaningfully loose ends.

And then, in the end, the reader is ultimately reminded—through language like ‘he might have been saying’—that the story is not real. Or otherwise that it is more real, even, than what came before it, because the story takes on a life of its own, and ultimately belongs not to those who have had a privileged glimpse into it, but to those who created it.

What’s for certain is that War of the Encyclopeadists is not a stupid joke with an absurd conclusion. Rather, it’s a serious, both hilarious and heartbreaking, investigation of the truth of two lives through fiction. ‘We needed to know the truth, and no one would give it to us, so we made it up as we went. We authored our lives in real time.’

Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite are from Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington. Robinson went on to get his MFA from Hunter College. Kovite served in Iraq and became an army lawyer. War of the Encyclopeadists was published on May 19th.

Originally published in The West Seattle Herald 05/28/2015

Photo courtesy of GoodReads.com

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments