Jane Eaton Hamilton

"I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” – Lillian Hellman

Tag: JEH

Would You Like a Little Gramma On Those?

photo: Jane Eaton Hamilton 2020

above/ground press in Ottawa has begun a series of prose chapbooks and I’m happy to say that publisher/editor Rob Mclennan chose one of my stories, ‘Would You Like a Little Gramma On Those,” to join several other wonderful stories by the following authors in his initial run. Despite all my books, this is only my second chapbook ever (the first being ‘Going Santa Fe’ from League of Cdn Poets)! I’m very excited!

Here is the press release and following that a link to above/ground’s blog:

Leaning up to the press’ twenty-eighth year of production, Ottawa’s above/ground press launches a prose imprint, “prose/naut,” and announces its first four chapbook titles, which will each become available over the next few weeks: 

Amanda Earl, Sessions from the DreamHouse Aria (September 2020) 

Jane Eaton Hamilton, Would You Like a Little Gramma On Those? (September 2020) 

rob mclennan, Twenty-one stories, (September 2020) 

Keith Waldrop, from THE LOSS FOR WORDS (October 2020) 

Why a prose imprint? With more than one thousand poetry-specific publications produced over the past nearly thirty years, why branch out into prose? I suppose the straightforward answer is that there appear to be fewer possibilities for publication for lyric prose than even there were five ago, despite the wealth of materials being produced. There is some incredible work being done, and my own frustrations as a reader has brought us, one might say, to this.

The series hopes to include single-author chapbooks of prose, from fiction to other forms, all of which will be included as part of the regular above/ground press annual subscription package. Review/media copies will also be available upon request (while supplies last).

If you wish to pre-order all four titles, I would be open to that: $20 for all four (add $3 postage for American orders; add $10 for international). 

If you would rather, you could simply subscribe to above/ground press RIGHT NOW and all four would be included: 2021 annual subscriptions (and resubscriptions) to above/ground press are available: $75 (CAN; American subscribers, $75 US; $100 international) for everything above/ground press makes from the moment you subscribe through to the end of 2021, including chapbooks, broadsheets, The Peter F. Yacht Club and G U E S T [a journal of guest editors] and quarterly poetry journal Touch the Donkey [a small poetry journal].

Just what else might happen? Currently and forthcoming items also include new poetry chapbooks by Julia Drescher (two this year!), Billy Mavreas, ryan fitzpatrick, Sarah Burgoyne and Susan Burgoyne, Paul Perry, Jérôme Melançon, Ava Hofmann, Alexander Joseph, David Miller, Sa’eed Tavana’ee Marvi (trans. Khashayar Mohammadi), katie o’brien, Nathanael O’Reilly, Amelia Does, Andrew Brenza, Genevieve Kaplan, Geoffrey Olsen, Franco Cortese (four over the next few months), Zane Koss, Dennis Cooley, Barry McKinnon and Cecilia Tamburri Stuart as well as a whole slew of publications that haven’t even been decided on yet.

Why wait? You can either send a cheque (payable to rob mclennan) to 2423 Alta Vista Drive, Ottawa, Ontario K1H 7M9, or send money via PayPal or e-transfer to rob_mclennan (at) hotmail.com (or through the PayPal button at robmclennan.blogspot.com). 

For further information, email publisher/editor rob mclennan at rob_mclennan (at) hotmail.com, or follow the myriad of links at http://abovegroundpress.blogspot.com/  

Stay safe! Stay home! Wear a mask! Wash your damned hands! 

 

above/ground press

Every Wednesday, a new virtual reading at Event Magazine!

Folks, there’s a new reading every Wednesday for the next month posted at Event Magazine for your listening enjoyment. Join John Elizabeth Stintz, Rose Cullis, Tawahum Rice and me! Honoured to have been chosen and to be in such great company.

Torso

Covid-19 has stolen my voice. I went silent in March and am still mostly silent. I live alone so not seeing people makes this more severe. I’m struggling to write. Maybe I don’t believe there’s a reason any longer, though one could certainly argue that there’s never been a more vital time to lift your voice. I am trying every day to lift mine.

I find solace in making art. I’ve been doing a month-long art journal for the first time since I was in art school, when I would sometimes keep one for a particular class. It’s been instructive. This torso reminds me that creating torsos was an original love of mine and probably what I would have worked on if I had expanded into sculpture.

 

Fresh Art

 

5″x7″ canvas board, ink, acrylic, etiquette book paper, collage, watercolour pencil, marker

I’ve been doing a series of mini 5″ x 7″ paintings on canvas board, and I’ve put some of them up on my visual art page here, and publicly on FB. Enjoy!

Visual Art

 

Weekend. It’s still the perfect summer to read it.

Amazon

Best Canadian Poetry

Happy to say that a poem of mine, “Game Show,” which was published at The Puritan has been chosen for Best Canadian Poetry 2020, edited by Marilyn Dumont and published by Biblioasis. Thank you and congrats to everyone!

Here are some reviews for the series:

“The wide range of writers, forms and themes represented here make it a great jumping-off point for readers who might be interested in Canadian poetry but are unsure about where to start.”—Globe and Mail  

“Buy it, or borrow it, but do read it.”—Arc Poetry Magazine

“A magnet, I think, for the many people who would like to know contemporary poetry.”—A.F. Moritz, Griffin Poetry Prize winner

“The Best Canadian Poetry series offers an annual sampling of voices and experiences—a little slice of Canadiana that may be appreciated beyond borders as well.”—Examiner.com

“An eclectic and diverse collection of Canadian poetry . . . a wonderful addition to anyone’s bookshelf.”—Toronto Quarterly

“Bits of eternity, arranged alphabetically.”—Merilyn Simonds

“Canada’s most eloquent, profound, humorous and meditative writers, ranging from the seasoned and well known to the new and upcoming.”—Broken Pencil

 

I won the Event non-fiction contest!

Event is a great litmag here in Canada. I am so happy that I won their non-fiction contest today with an essay about guns in Canada and the time I went to a shooting range to combat my fear of them, “The Dead Green Man.” Thank you to the judges, the final judge, and congrats to the other winners! At the start of the year, Gay Mag cited my essay “The Pleasure Scale” as one of their 2019 faves; an EU periodical Queen’s Mob Review of the Decade picked an essay “The Nothing Between My Legs” as one of their best of the decade; recently I was long-listed in the Mogford Food and Drink contest and a few weeks ago, I won 2nd place in the Writer’s Digest short story contest with “The Pride,” a story about a lion researcher who lost her husband in a terrorist attack. It’s all been a relieving start to the year.

In other news, we are in a global pandemic of COVID-19; on this continent we are in the “keep your distance” stage of trying to flatten the curve and slow the growth. Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, wife of our Canadian Prime Minister, has tested positive, and Justin Trudeau is isolating. I wish them well. I wish everyone well as, together, we go through this. Thinking of you all.

“Game Show” at The Puritan

Many thanks to the eds! A poem of mine is up at The Puritan!

Queen’s Mob journal names the best essays of the decade

 

So fortunate to have had an essay included in Queen’s Mob Review of the Decade. It was The Nothing Between Your Legs, which appeared in Autostraddle and Medium and was later a Notable in Best American Essays (2019). I look forward to reading the ones on this list I’ve missed!

 

 

Gay Magazine’s Best of 2019

I’m delighted to announce that Roxane Gay has chosen my essay “The Pleasure Scale” as one of Gay Magazine’s favourite essays of 2019. Congrats to everyone!

Gay’s Best of 2019

Just a fun pic from my garden

Frog in Daylily; Jane Eaton Hamilton 2019

About Us: Essays from the NY Times Disability Series

 

I’m happy to say I have an essay coming out in this fall collection on disability. You can pre-order now. Here is the link to the book at Amazon.ca. Here is the link for Amazon.com. Here is the Publisher’s Weekly review:

“In this exquisite collection drawn from the Times essays series started in 2016, disability is, refreshingly, seen as a part of daily life, even as the contributors discuss facing a “world that does not expect us and is often not made for us.” Ona Gritz, who has right hemiplegia, a form of cerebral palsy, recalls asking a literary agent who suggested she write a memoir, “Would I have to be disabled on every page?” Coeditor Garland-Thomson, having learning her asymmetrical hands and forearms are caused by complex syndactyly, an exceptionally rare genetic condition, no longer feels like an “orphan” but part of a “world of disability pride and advocacy.” Similarly, the late Oliver Sacks finds value in his disability, an increasing loss of hearing, enjoying how “in the realm of mishearing… a biography of cancer can become a biography of Cantor (one of my favorite mathematicians)… and mere mention of Christmas Eve a command to ‘Kiss my feet!’ ” The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act comes up often throughout, making fully clear the turning point it represented. Demonstrating, above all, the value of persistence, Catapano and Garland-Thomson’s anthology merits a spot on everyone’s reading list for its brilliant assemblage of voices and stories. (Sept.)” Publisher’s Weekly

Kirkus Review calls it “A rich, moving collection.”

New essays up at Medium!

image by Jessica Poundstone for Gay Magazine

I’m moving some of my essays onto Medium for your reading pleasure! Here’s what’s there so far:

The Pleasure Scale, Gay Magazine, about how, as a near shut-in, I find pleasure

The Preludes to Assault, about a short encounter with Jian Ghomeshi, and sexual violence

The Nothing Between Your Legs, about my non-binary life as a girl in the 1950s; first published in Autostraddle

A Night of Art and Anti-Art, about a walk on beach one evening with Liz

The Pleasure Scale, Gay Magazine

illustration: Jessica Poundstone

“The Pleasure Scale,” my contemplation on disability, pleasure and pain, is up today at Gay Magazine. Be forewarned that it is sexually explicit.

I realize there’s so much more to be said about pleasure, mine, and, of course, that found by others.

“I want to feel my body opening in the way it can open, like it is split, and is yawning in two pieces like a knifed watermelon, when it can take not only a fist but a globe, it can take every war, every famine, every mining disaster, every broken child behind bars, every river of tainted water into itself and it can turn water clear and take the broken children onto its lap and cause weapons to be laid down and corpses to rise and people to laugh again.”

More spring flowers

all photos: Jane Eaton Hamilton; do not copy or reproduce

Happy spring from my garden to yours!

photos: Jane Eaton Hamilton 2019

 

New Painting

Happy to unveil a new painting, so far unnamed, from a series I’ve started of dancers, acylic on canvas:

An interview with Ellis Avery

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 2.36.28 PM

Ellis Avery

This interview was first published in 2015. Today, on Feb 15, 2019, Ellis Avery died. We will miss her and her contributions to literature, so much.

The interview:

The only writer ever to have received the American Library Association Stonewall Award for Fiction twice, Ellis Avery is the author of two novels, a memoir, and a book of poetry. Her novels, The Last Nude (Riverhead 2012) and The Teahouse Fire (Riverhead 2006) have also received Lambda, Ohioana, and Golden Crown awards, and her work has been translated into six languages. She teaches fiction writing at Columbia University and out of her home in the West Village. She is also the author of the 9/11 memoir The Smoke Week and the recently arrived memoir-zine The Family Tooth.

I want to thank Ellis Avery for her generous contribution to the interviews on this blog. It’s been my pleasure to receive such thoughtful, informative answers to my questions.

Ellis Avery’s scintillating, gorgeously woven The Last Nude (Penguin, 2011) was written about art deco artist Tamara de Lempicka, a bisexual painter in Paris during the Jazz Age, from the point of view of her American muse, Rafaela.  It is a nuanced, complex book about Parisian politics in the Jazz Age, about painting, about love and queer power dynamics.  Her writing style is sumptuous and supple. People have compared Avery’s sentences to brush strokes and as a painter (and a once-teenaged painter’s model), I felt this acutely.

JEH: Ellis, I think you know what a big fan I am of your novel The Last Nude. Both as a book that goes deeply inside the life of a painter, and in literary terms, but also, and in particular, as a lesbian writer and painter.  Can you please tell us about its inception, and then how you managed to bring it to fruition?

Ellis Avery: I’m honored by your words, and grateful for them.

If The Last Nude is a Jazz Age Girl with a Pearl Earring, then my Vermeer is the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, who was particularly active in Paris in the 20’s and 30’s.

Tamara De Lempicka’s most critically acclaimed painting, above, which the New York Times called “One of the most important nudes of the 20th century,” was a 1927 oil on canvas called Beautiful Rafaela. When I saw this painting at the Royal Academy in London show in 2004 it literally made me weak in the knees, it’s such a sexually forceful image.

And just as startling for me was the fact that on the wall, in prim curatorial presstype, was the information that in 1927, while in the throes of a bitter divorce, de Lempicka met Rafaela on a walk in the Bois de Boulogne and took her home. Rafaela became her model and her lover, and their relationship lasted for six months to a year. I wasn’t so much shocked to learn that lesbian cruising existed before 1990 (okay, maybe a little) as I was to see the story right there in black and white in a major art museum. Suffice to say, I found this story hair-raisingly sexy. What I found moving was to discover that fifty-some years later, in 1980, the painting Tamara was working on when she died was a copy of Beautiful Rafaela.

My novel, The Last Nude, tells the story of Tamara and Rafaela’s affair in 1927, from the model’s point of view, and the story of the last day of Tamara’s life, spent working on the copy of Beautiful Rafaela, from the painter’s own point of view.

JEH: When I was staying in Paris in 2014, you helped situate me with a link to an essay you wrote when you got back. I lived a couple of blocks from one of Tamara de Lempicka’s homes. Can you link here so readers can enjoy it, too?

Ellis Avery: Postcards

JEH: How much of the novel is factual?  Did you, for instance, know that Rafaela was American and in the Bois looking for men when Tamara cruised her?  Is it documented that they had an affair, or just known or assumed de Lempicka got involved with all/many of her models?

Ellis Avery: After seeing Beautiful Rafaela at the Royal Academy show in London, I wanted to write about her, but I had to set the idea aside for a couple of years, and it wasn’t until 2008 that I could really get going. In the intervening time, I read as much as I could about inter-war Paris and Tamara de Lempicka, including the Catalogue Raisonée of her entire oeuvre, which had assembled by Alain Blondel of Galerie Luxembourg, the curator responsible for launching the revival of interest in de Lempicka’s work in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the very last painting Tamara was working on when she died was a copy of the painting that had inspired my book, a painting inspired the girl she met in the Bois du Boulogne half a century beforehand! I get goosebumps just thinking about it even now.

Between 2004 and 2008, I also wrote about fourteen miserable pages of the book that would become The Last Nude, all the while wondering if I’d ever be able to write a book again. But I was reading, thinking and taking notes, and on a May afternoon in 2008, half under the spell of one of those epic writer naps that seize me when I’m working best, I wrote the scene that becomes the climax of my book, the scene in which Rafaela lands in the Seine. That scene was so exciting to write and gave me so much hope for the book.

From June to December of 2008, I had summer break followed by leave from my teaching job. That period began and ended with artists’ residencies, one at Yaddo and one at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. For three months in the middle, I was able to stay in Paris, accompanying my partner on a sabbatical semester. During those seven months, I wrote a thousand words a day, five days a week, and at the end of that time, I had the first draft of my novel. The craft surprises that occurred during that blessed first-draft period were the discovery that I could borrow formally from Henry James’s Washington Square to write my ending and the realization, after I thought I had finished my draft, that I needed to write the book “again,” as it were, from Tamara’s point of view. Eighty-two-year-old Tamara’s voice came to me all in a rush, and it scared me. She is based on the real Tamara de Lempicka, as described by those who knew her in Laura Claridge’s excellent biography. She is also based on my grandmother, who died at the beginning of that year.

The Last Nude is dedicated to my partner, Sharon Marcus, but it is also dedicated to the memories of Elaine Solari Kobbe, the grandmother I mentioned, and Austen scholar Katrin Burlin. a beloved professor from my undergraduate years, who died in 1998. She is the professor who shaped my thinking most radically by asking the deceptively simple question, what if we posit that the fruit of female creativity is “art”? That is, why are paintings “art,” but quilts “not art?” Why is sculpture “art,” but cooking “not art?” I was surprised to discover, as I worked, that I was trying to write the kind of novel I would have first encountered in one of Katrin’s classes, one that not introduces the reader to the dazzling work of a half-forgotten woman genius, it also takes to task the notion of genius itself.

JEH: Does The Last Nude resonate with today’s issues?

Ellis Avery: One important plot point is that Rafaela falls in love with Tamara, and when Tamara accuses her of wanting to get married, Rafaela realizes that was, in fact, what she’d most wanted. “Was it so impossible, to want what I’d wanted?”

JEH: Talk to us about the myths of the artist, particularly as they played out in Paris and in The Last Nude.

Ellis Avery: One of my working titles for The Last Nude was The Artist and Its Discontents. My novel both expresses a debt of gratitude to modernist giants Woolf, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Stein, and introduces readers to de Lempicka’s brilliant paintings. At the same time, it also explores my distrust in the Romantic myths of the artist—as genius, as holy innocent, as solitary, inspired creator of art for art’s sake—which continue to underlie so many novels about artists and writers published today. Instead, the painter in my novel is not only a woman who has not been canonized by the art establishment, she is a woman who was neither independently wealthy nor pretended to be above material needs: in fact, she only foundered as an artist when she no longer needed money. The author in my novel never becomes an author. The artist who finds happiness and fulfillment in her work is instead Rafaela, the model who leaves the painter to open her own dress shop. The art she makes is not permanent, but ephemeral. She does not work alone, but with colleagues. Her imagined critics are not men, but women. Her work does not project the illusion of existing for its own sake autonomously from its viewer, but is created in conversation with its wearer. The day of Katrin Burlin’s untimely death—at her desk, of an aneurysm, while translating her mother’s memoirs—before I got the news, I was thinking about something she’d said in class: “the female bildungsroman tends to get stuck in the bedroom.”   That’s like complaining that coming-of-age novels by people of color get hung up on racism, I was arguing with her in my head when I got the news. I still miss her so much. I still want to show her my work. I still want to argue with her. But at the same time, her contention turned out to be the reason it was important for me to end the Rafaela section where I did, not with the end of her love story with Tamara, but with the beginning of the story of Rafaela coming into her own as an artist. I use the demoted and trivialized art of clothing design to juxtapose Rafaela’s story of talent, ambition, and fulfillment with that of frustration and depletion that characterizes the stories of the fine artists she loves. In doing so I hope to valorize a more egalitarian perspective on art, art-making, and art appreciation.

JEH: Tell us about your relationship with research and your subject while in Paris.

Ellis Avery: Although I love Paris—who doesn’t? –it’s easy to get stuck in the rut of one’s favorite things, so I dealt with that during my three-month Paris sojourn in 2008 by giving myself a conceptual art task. After writing my thousand words, not only did I have to write my daily haiku, as I’ve done for the past eleven years, I also had to 1) Drink a cup of coffee in a different Parisian plaza every day, and 2) Eat a different French pastry every day. On the one hand, I was living my Paris fantasy adventure; on the other, I found I didn’t like the experience of constant restlessness. Never settling into a favorite café or pastry shop, never developing a routine and the relationships that build out of it— never being “a regular” anywhere—turned out to be a fast-track to expatriate melancholy, even if over very superficial things.

One surprise from my time in Paris came from getting to see Tamara de Lempicka’s homes. For reasons of plot I moved her first apartment from a posh arriviste neighborhood on the Right Bank to an older, more aristocratic neighborhood on the Left, but I got to see those apartments with my own eyes, both the real place and the fictional one. Better, I got to find the studio she designed in the Fourteenth Arrondissement. Although I didn’t get to go into the building, even seeing it from the outside—shabby and as it has become—was thrilling. They should put up a plaque. Here’s a description of the building, based on what I saw; it’s from a portion of the novel that I cut:

Tamara crossed into the Fourteenth. The ubiquitous five-story apartment buildings of Paris lined Arago, but I noticed that while some of them were clad in golden limestone pierre de taille, some were faced in stone only up to the first story, and then faced in cheaper brick the rest of the way up. Some were faced entirely in brick. I saw a long bank of newish artists’ studios, built to look like a series of Swiss chalets. I saw the high sinister wall of the old prison. What a neighborhood! I breathed a sigh of relief as we turned down a smaller street, approaching the gentler, more abbey-like wall of the Cochin hospital, the garden and graceful dome of the Observatoire.

If that was the Observatoire, then we weren’t actually that far from the Luxembourg Gardens, but the quarter still had a lost look, its smaller streets squeezed between noisy boulevards and the walled complexes of hospital and prison. Mixed into the street of apartments facing the Cochin Hospital, I even saw one or two buildings that could have been warehouses.

At first glace, 7 rue Méchain looked like a respectable but low-rent apartment building, plain-faced and shuttered. The 19th-century doorway, however, had been ripped out and replaced with a Deco one, an aperture limned only in sleek subtle curves. Two stained glass windows, round as eyes, looked out from either side of the door, each patterned with overlapping rectangles of black, white, and gray. The floor of the foyer was carved into a spare Mondrian grid of slate and inset doormatting. “I designed this entrance, and then the house in the cour is all mine,” Tamara explained.

I followed her through the shallow foyer, across a good-sized courtyard, and into a small back building. Inside, I entered a small palace of velvet, zinc, and glass: a wide, shallow room bathed in light from windows facing both the courtyard in front and a garden in back. “Northern light,” I noted grudgingly.

“All I could ever want,” Tamara said. “And set so far back I get no shadow from the building in front.”

A black staircase, glossy as lacquer, swooped up one wall toward a mezzanine that extended over the back half of the house. We stood in the high-ceilinged front half: a cold bright room we shared with only an easel and a couch. The lower-ceilinged half housed a sleek chrome-and-gray living-room set and a long dining table, on which sat two huge vases of calla lilies, lit from beneath by electric bulbs.

“Nice place.”

While I was in Paris, in addition to on-the-ground research, I kept up my reading and internet research as well. One day, while doing an online search to find out how much a houseboat might have cost in late 1920s/early 1930s Paris, I accidentally discovered my villain, Violette Morris.   My description in The Last Nude hews closely to Morris’s real biography: “A professional soccer player, she had also become the French national champion boxer in 1923, after defeating a series of male opponents. Her hobbies included motorcycle racing, auto racing, and airplane racing, and her lovers, it was rumored, included women as well as men.” Morris, who regularly cross-dressed as a man, got a double mastectomy in order to fit into her racecar more easily, which provoked so much revulsion in her boyfriend at the time that he fed the names of her female lovers to the press, which resulted in her having her membership in the French amateur athletic league revoked. This meant she couldn’t participate in the Olympics. Angry, Morris turned on France, and became, as I relate in my novel, a Nazi collaborator. “She went to the ’36 Olympics in Berlin as Hitler’s personal guest. Before the invasion, she gave Germany the plans to the Maginot Line, and she taught them how to destroy French tanks. During the Occupation, she spied on the Resistance, and she turned in Jews…When the war was over, the Resistance shot her in the head.” Learning Violette Morris’s story was one of those magical truth-is-stranger-than-fiction experiences that make all the lonely hours and blind alleys of the research process worthwhile.

One last “research surprise,” one that occurred after I came home from Paris, during the rewriting process, was my experience visiting Jill Anderson’s dressmaking atelier in the East Village. In a longer version of this novel, we get to watch Rafaela open her own dress shop with fellow students from couture school. Getting to spend a few hours in the workshop where all my favorite clothes are made was a profoundly rich experience, both in terms of the wealth of detail it offered for my novel (Jill keeps her patterns locked in a closet! Pushes a rotary cutter through ten layers of fabric at a time! Keeps buttons in jars affixed by their lids to the underside, rather than the top of, their shelves!) and in terms of the quiet, focused way that time passed as Jill and her two assistants worked. It reminded me of the way time passes while I’m writing, or, because I was watching rather than acting, the way time would pass when I modeled for a painter girlfriend many years ago. Tamara is not based on my long-ago girlfriend, but Tamara’s dog is based on her dog.

JEH: How well did the book sell in Europe?

Ellis Avery: It was translated into Polish and Romanian, and seems to have done well.

JEH: How was it to have such a thoughtful and enthusiastic overall response to your novel?

Ellis Avery: Immensely gratifying!  And not a given in my experience with publishing, so I’m all the more grateful.

JEH: I read your memoir of 9/11 called The Smoke Week which took me far into the NY tragedy.  I used to work in the Towers when I was very young.  The book is quiet and nuanced and simple  Why did you take the approach that you did?

Ellis Avery: Thank you for the lovely description.  I didn’t feel obliged to state the official news or take an ideological position.  I was certain that readers of the future would be able to find out anything they wanted about the 9/11 tragedy, both news-wise and in terms of the opinions that circulated after the attacks.  What they might not know was how ordinary people lived through the attacks and the weird, suspended, heartbroken days that followed– the millions of us New Yorkers who didn’t lose anyone personally but were nonetheless devastated.

JEH: Tell us a little about your first novel The Teahouse Fire, still on my bedside table of books-to-be-savoured.

Ellis Avery: Think Japanese Tea Ceremony and you probably picture a willowy kimono-clad woman swishing across a tatami floor. This was my image when I began five years of weekly lessons in tea ceremony, an art form that is part ritual dance, part sacramental meal, part opportunity to handle and use priceless antiques.

One question, however, confronted me early in my studies: why were all the historical tea people men, when almost all my fellow tea students were women? Until recently in its four-hundred-plus-year history, I learned, the Way of Tea was in fact the province of warriors and well-off men, with women welcome infrequently, and often expressly forbidden. Doing research, I discovered one of the two heroines of my first novel, The Teahouse Fire: a woman named Yukako.

Based on a real 19th century figure, my fictional Yukako is the daughter of Kyoto’s most prominent tea ceremony family, whose luck plummets as Japan enters a period of intense Westernization. Yukako, like her historical counterpart, changes the fate of tea ceremony in the 1880s by getting it included in the curriculum of the newly formed girls’ schools, breaking down the barriers to a male-centered discipline and shrewdly weathering the sudden devaluation of Japan’s traditional arts.

As much as The Teahouse Fire is Yukako’s story, it is also the story of its narrator, Aurelia, a nine-year-old American girl Yukako takes under her wing. The orphaned child of missionaries, Aurelia is Yukako’s first student, embraced and rejected as modernizing Japan embraces and rejects an era of radical change.

JEH: What are you current projects?

Ellis Avery: My memoir, The Family Tooth, is coming out as a zine this month and as an e-book in February of next year:  The Family Tooth

Six months after my mother’s death, in 2012, I was diagnosed with a rare uterine cancer: I was given a hysterectomy and a 26% chance of five-year survival. Going off my arthritis drugs seems to have kept the cancer from returning, but by the beginning of 2013, I was stuck in a mobility scooter, crippled by an autoimmune condition called Reiter’s Syndrome.  The Family Tooth is a cancer story sandwiched inside a grief-and-food memoir, but more than that, it’s a story of hope and, ultimately, triumph: it’s an account of the medical and psychological sleuthing that enabled me, a year later, to walk again.

The thread that pulls this book of essays together is food, both in terms of the dietary changes that helped me out of the scooter and onto my feet, and in the way I came to recognize my mother’s appetite in my own. At the time of her death, I was not sympathetic to my mother’s alcoholism. Over the course of the year that followed, as I learned both that I could control my arthritic pain through diet and that not eating what I wanted (day after day, eleven hundred meals a year) was perhaps the hardest thing I’d ever done, I discovered a deeper compassion for my mother than I had previously imagined.

JEH: What’s next?

Ellis Avery: After writing a memoir about grief and illness, I’m treating myself to a pair of projects for adults who love YA fiction.  One is loosely based on the Fukushima disaster, but with a dragon instead of a nuclear reactor.  The other is– in part– about how cats came up with their own internet long before we did.  Stay tuned!

JEH: Do you, in the meantime, have any shorter work that my readers might puruse to whet their whistles?

I have three essays selected from The Family Tooth available through the Kindle Singles program on Amazon:

The Sapphire and The Tooth
A jeweler with a law degree, for decades Elaine Solari Atwood fought crippling arthritis with hard liquor until she died of a brain aneurysm at sixty-eight, leaving two daughters in their thirties and a lifetime’s worth of unfinished business. Forced as a child to play nanny to five siblings, she grew up to become a mother who loved her girls as tenderly as her stifled pain and anger allowed. By way of telling the story of selling her mother’s jewelry in New York’s Diamond District, The Sapphire and the Tooth offers a searing portrait of alcoholism and difficult love.

On Fear
After three years on a drug called Humira, prescribed for a crippling autoimmune condition, I was diagnosed in 2012 with leiomyosarcoma, a rare uterine cancer, and given a 26% chance of five-year survival. When I learned that there was no evidence to show that the radiation and chemo I was offered would save my life, I turned down treatment. But even brave decisions can be terrifying: suddenly, I had to learn how to cope with constant fear – that I’d made the wrong choice, that my doctors would call with bad news, that my time was limited. On Fear, the second essay in a series on Kindle Singles, tells the story of how I learned to live one moment at a time, from meditating to singing in the shower to befriending a black cat named Fumiko. While most readers will never face leiomyosarcoma, the essay offers hard-won wisdom, tools, and hope.

Goodbye, Ruby
Getting one’s first period is a rite of passage, but one’s last period? Most women don’t know it at the time. I mark this unusual milestone in an essay about undergoing a hysterectomy at the age of 39 after being diagnosed with a rare uterine cancer. A wrenching account of my attempt to keep an ovary—and with it the semblance of life before cancer–Goodbye, Ruby offers a fond and funny farewell to a quarter-century of menstruation. Of course it’s also about beauty, fertility, aging, sex, my mother, Hilary Mantel, and Michelle Tea.

Other essays from The Family Tooth can be found on Buzzfeed and The Morning News:

Buzzfeed

The Morning News 1

The Morning News 2

 

Best American Experimental Writing 2020

I’m delighted to announce that editors Carmen Maria Machado and Joyelle McSweeney have chosen one of my pieces, Battery, for the 2020 volume of Best American Experimental Writing. Battery was chosen by George Saunders as the winner of Lit Pop 2015. He said, “I admired and enjoyed the wit, clarity, and compression of this story. It’s fast, funny, precise in its language. The author is really using language as a tool of persuasion. The story also has real heart – the narrator manages to make us sympathize for both chickens and executioners. The details of the operation are chilling and terrific. The story is beautifully shaped and minimal – the writer seems to recognize that the essence of making a work of art is choosing. The story makes us face a certain harsh truth, but without any sense of preaching, and even a sense of wonder. Above all, the story is musical – it zings along, making a world as it goes, with its confidence and its sense of curiosity.” —George Saunders

Joyelle McSweeney says this about the compilation on Twitter:

“I agreed to guest ed BAX 2019 only if I could undo every word in that title: our re-imagined antho that is defiantly anti- ‘Best’, de-prizes the category “American”, is not always ‘Experimental’ & or even ‘Writing’! It’s up to the series eds and authors to shape what’s next-“

Indeed. Should make for an exciting anthology!

The little bubbles of a short story for your reading pleasure

 

This short fiction Phosphorescence about love, pregnancy and beluga whales from Room Magazine’s Queer issue, now online.

Phosphorescence

%d bloggers like this: