“Important stories needed to be told.” Robert Miltner interviews Karen Schubert, Director of Lit Youngstown

I’m thrilled to share this guest post interview with Rust Belt Girl readers. What began as a Spotlight interview–between two of my favorite authors and people–for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) has been gifted to us here, and I’m so grateful.

We talk a lot about writing as a communal act at Rust Belt Girl and about finding that community where we belong. The first time I met Karen Schubert in person, I’d just driven five hours, home to Ohio, to attend a literary festival I’d never been to before. I knew a few names but no faces. And no one knew me, so I dutifully popped on my name tag.

Even before my nerves could kick in, here comes the director, Karen Schubert, with the most gracious greeting–as if I were the keynote or a fully-fledged author, and not an emerging writer and editor with a blog.

I belonged. Just like that. And I’ve returned to that annual literary festival every year since. Last year, I served on the planning committee to do my own small part in welcoming new faces to the community.

“How does she do it?” This is a question I often ask about Karen Schubert. In addition to being co-founding director of Lit Youngstown, a literary arts nonprofit with programs for writers, readers, and storytellers…

Lit Youngstown Co-founding Director Karen Schubert; photo credit: Melanie Rae Buonavolonta

Karen Schubert is the author of The Compost Reader (Accents Publishing), Dear Youngstown (Night Ballet Press), Black Sand Beach and Bring Down the Sky (Kattywompus Press), I Left My Wings on a Chair, a Wick Poetry Center chapbook winner (Kent State Press), and The Geography of Lost Houses (Pudding House Publications). Her poems, fiction, creative nonfiction, essays, reviews and interviews have appeared in numerous publications including National Poetry Review, Diode Poetry Journal, Water~Stone Review, AGNI Online, Aeolian Harp, Best American Poetry blog and American Literary Review. Her awards include the William Dickey Memorial Broadside Award, an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award in poetry, and residencies at Headlands Center for the Arts and the Vermont Studio Center. She holds an MFA from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts.

Thank you to Robert Miltner for asking “How does she do it?” here and to Karen Schubert for telling her story–and inviting us to tell ours.

Robert Miltner: Karen, you live in Youngstown, a midwestern rust belt city located within the Appalachian Ohio region. Your city was known for its blast furnaces and mills that, as Bruce Springsteen sings in “Youngstown,” “built the tanks and bombs that won this country’s wars.” In your poem, “Letter to Youngstown,” you write “Remember the world is full /of places like Youngstown, /and places nothing like Youngstown.” How does that reflect your sense of identity as the director of Lit Youngstown?

Karen Schubert: I’m not from here, although my mother’s family has been in the area since the early 1800s. I came to live in my grandparents’ farmhouse that I loved visiting as a child, and now I live in the city, in a five bedroom brick and frame house that must have been a stunner with its slate roof and cedar shakes. I bought the house on a teaching adjunct’s salary; that tells you what’s going on here. I think there’s a benefit in having been other places and having a sense of how things might work. But I’ve also been in Youngstown long enough to know what people might miss or seek, what our assets are, and who is doing amazing work. I once attended an AWP session on starting a literary arts nonprofit and someone said, “I can’t convince anyone to get behind what I’m doing because they don’t understand the concept.” I thought, that’s a problem I’ll never have.

Youngstown is economically poor yet arts rich…

Youngstown is economically poor yet arts rich—live music, performing arts—with an opera and two extraordinary concert halls including the original Warner Brothers theater, and several local theater companies. The visual arts are available through an outstanding American arts museum and a university museum. On the river, the shell of a steel mill came down a few years ago and a new amphitheater went up. In recent years, the city has hosted Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem, and Tarana Burke, as well as YoYo Ma through Kennedy Center outreach. Youngstown is also rich in literary arts. Lit Youngstown hosts readings at a supportive for-profit art gallery that champions local artists. While many community-based writers and writing program faculty stayed and enrich the community, like Christopher Barzak, Steven Reese, Will Greenway, and Philip Brady, others have left to great success, like Ross Gay, Ama Codjoe, Allison Pitinii Davis, and Rochelle Hurt. There is also a local culture that benefits from the immigrant grandparents who taught their children a profound love for the arts. 

Youngstown State has been a part of the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts [NEOMFA]; in fact, it was founded at YSU, and we were devastated to learn that YSU has decided to sunset their participation in the consortium. We are still processing the loss that will be to Lit Youngstown and the community. 

Miltner: What inspired you to start Lit Youngstown in 2015?  

Schubert: I lived in Cleveland for a few years, and there were many literary gigs. The summer of 2013 I was a writer-in-residence at Headlands Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and talked to writers and artists all summer who were doing fascinating work. I began wondering what might be possible in Youngstown. 

Miltner: Did your experience as an AmeriCorps VISTA at a neighborhood development nonprofit influence your decision to start Lit Youngstown? 

Schubert: Yes, certainly. I was hired by Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation to write for the Neighborhood Conditions Report including data from every census tract in the City. Grim statistics: 40% of city land abandoned, jobs clustered in edge suburbs, and Black infant mortality rates similar to Guatemala. But I also learned that incredible things were happening, important stories that needed to be told. One day we were out interviewing residents and a woman invited us inside. She was a member of a Black women’s motorcycle club. They had filled a dining room with long tables, conveyor-belt style, and were packing stacks of to-go boxes with dinners for local residents who were struggling. This is an example of Youngstown’s story, its resilience and social weave. What I learned from the neighborhood development nonprofit is to be fearless: work hard, collaborate, research, and don’t buy the idea of staying just in your lane, because everything is connected. 

Miltner: How wide an array of literary programing does Lit Youngstown offer?

Schubert: We host a monthly reading series, writers critique group, book and film discussions, writing classes, a Winter Writing Camp for all ages, teen writers workshops, and a Fall Literary Festival. We also do many one-off events and collaborations, including an NEA Big Read grant with the public library and reading lunch poems with adults with disabilities at the nonprofit Purple Cat. One of our early projects was Phenomenal Women: Twelve Youngstown Stories. We interviewed Black women between the ages of 64 and 101 and published their stories and images from their lives. The collection is a rich archive of our city’s history, and the idiosyncratic details of the lives of these tremendously strong, intrepid and insightful women. One of the women worked in the War Room during the FDR administration. Many were tapped for jobs during the Civil Rights movement, to hold newly won ground. 

Also, in partnership with the YSU Art Department, the vibrant 150-foot Andrews Avenue Memory Mural along a retaining wall of a historically important corridor has just been completed. We solicited memories from the local community, and students incorporated images and pieces of those, and their own, memories. Memory is important and complicated in a place like Youngstown, a city that has suffered so much loss and is struggling to conceptualize an identity. I think it’s especially important us to offer this younger generation the opportunity to imagine a city they can believe in. 

A memory mural created in partnership between Lit Youngstown and the YSU art department; photo credit: Melanie Rae Buonavolonta

Miltner: Who are some of the writers you’ve brought in for your literary community?

Schubert: So many! We’ve had the privilege of hosting wildly accomplished writers including Philip Metres, Nin Andrews, Philip Memmer, James Arthur, Cody Walker, Kevin Haworth, Jan Beatty, and many faculty of the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts. We’ve also mixed it up with student essayists; storytellers; an international poetry night featuring poems in the original language and the translation; and a humor night one April 1. One December evening Mike Geither read his play Heirloom; it was so moving I found it emotionally difficult to come back to the mic to close the evening. In 2019, we partnered with the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County on an NEA Big Read grant and selected Into the Beautiful North. There were dozens of related events throughout the city for a month, like a mini film festival, immigrant narratives night, and ethnic foods potluck. Luis Alberto Urrea flew in to talk about the inspiration for the individual characters in his book. 

Miltner: In a community that is economically challenged, how do you develop funding? And who in the community, or local institutions, or from the state level, contributes?

Schubert: Our community has been incredibly supportive, as have the foundations. We have built up a funding structure that is a mix of support from community members, benefactors, local foundations and state agencies. Our yearly fundraiser is a raffle for a large work of art, typically a birdbath by a local steel sculptor. In all, we have received nearly $200,000 in grants from the Ohio Arts Council, Ohio Humanities, and local foundations. 

Miltner: What recent programming has been successful in your literary community?

Schubert: This year’s Fall Literary Festival was successful in the quality of presenters, and the engagement of participants. It’s always so great to see local writers talking with other writers, educators, editors and nonprofit administrators, asking questions and learning more about the literary landscape. 

Miltner: The 2020 Fall Literary Festival was held as a videoconference. How was it different from an in-person conference?

Schubert: Well, to begin with, we had a virtual cookie table! I made Allison Pitinii Davis’s aunt’s Greek cookie recipe from the Youngstown Cookie Table Book published by Belt Publishing. Featured writer Janet Wong found cookies in the back of her pantry and described their staleness in hilarious detail. Zoom awkwardness aside, people were wanting to feel a sense of connection. I think they did, but one missing thing was conversations that spill into the hallway and coffee shops.

And we were back in person this year and I was surprised how rusty I felt. I made clumsy organizational mistakes. More importantly, I think feeling connected was also very important this year, and even though there were masks and fewer hugs, the comradrie was everywhere. There are many very fine conferences, so I always ask folks why they come to this one. They consistently say it is the connections they make here. 

Miltner: How has the festival impacted your community?

Schubert: It’s the only Youngstown conference for adult writers. The English Festival at YSU, for middle and high school students, draws thousands each year, so there is local context for such an event among literary arts enthusiasts. But previously, adults would have to drive to Cleveland, Columbus, or Pittsburgh to attend in person, which we encourage them to do, but it’s also great to have a conference here.

…they come to hear contemporary work, talks on literature and bringing literature into the community for healing and cross-cultural connection.

Another benefit to local writers is meeting and engaging with writers from throughout the U.S. Really feeling part of something bigger. Of course, some of our attendees are not writers, but readers, students, educators, administrators, and they come to hear contemporary work, talks on literature and bringing literature into the community for healing and cross-cultural connection.

Those who attend from a distance appreciate the low cost of the conference, which makes travel and lodging more possible. And we are fortunate that Youngstown State University partners with us, because this allows undergraduate students to attend free, and some faculty members require their students attend. If YSU follows through with their plan to sunset the NEOMFA, leaving only an undergraduate minor in creative writng, I don’t know yet what that will mean for the conference. 

Miltner: Would you share a project Lit Youngstown is currently working on?

Schubert: We had cancellations with the lock-down, including Whitman & Brass, an event that pairs staged readings and a brass quartet playing the music of his day. I was hoping to make this into a series, and was thinking next we would pair James Baldwin and Nina Simone. So Whitman & Brass has been rescheduled for March. 

During the lock-down, we sent out an extensive survey to our community, and one consistent point of feedback is that some writers are looking for more in-depth continuity. So this month, we kicked off a series of nine monthly daylong Poetry Intensive workshops. In the morning we’ll talk about books, chapbooks, journals, submissions, presses, readings, things like that. Each afternoon, a different poet will come to talk about different aspects of poetry, and we’ll look at participants’ poems through that lens. For example, when you come, Robert, we’ll talk about the music in these drafts. I’m crazy excited. 

Miltner: If an anonymous donor gave you a major gift for Lit Youngstown, what is the dream project you’d immediately implement?

The Big Dream is to buy a large building and begin a writing residency.

Schubert: First I would step up the development of our outreach program. We are inspired by the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State and Director David Hassler who has been a great mentor to us. I’d like for us to be doing outreach with immigrants, veterans, retired residents, patients in medical care, and sexual assault survivors. I love Literary Cleveland’s Essential Worker narratives. Our Outreach Coordinator Cassandra Lawton is currently working in the expressive therapy program at Akron Children’s Hospital and will soon begin a study on writing with cancer survivors.

The Big Dream is to buy a large building and begin a writing residency. In Youngstown, many historic buildings are languishing empty and selling for relatively low prices. I love the model of the Vermont Studio Center, putting studios into a former fire station and school, supporting an indie bookstore, creating links between artists-in-residence and the local elementary school and college. 

Miltner: What advice would you offer to someone who might want to launch a community literary program in their city?

Schubert: Collaborate on everything. Keep thinking of new people to bring to the table, to help plan and run events, to shine a spotlight on other community work. For example, when I read Mark Winne’s Closing the Food Gap, a book about food policy, I recognized that it had a lot of relevance to what was happening in Youngstown, a citywide food desert. We partnered with a local co-op on our first book group series and, along with many community development partners, we brought Winne here.

I like to see the literary arts, in addition to creative expression, as a means to understand and work toward solving problems. During the lock-down, I was thinking about the kids at home and parents and teachers looking for literacy enrichment. So we wrote grants and purchased over $10,000 worth of wonderful books for nearly 800 children in Head Start. We also purchased high quality books for children in YSU Project Pass, a program that pairs education students with city 3rd graders who would benefit from reading skills support. Each year we send a $100 donation to a literary arts nonprofit we admire, and this year we selected Black Boys Read, a local initiative. 

Miltner: You are yourself the author of several chapbooks and a full-length book. How has your being a writer yourself shaped your role in leading Lit Youngstown?  

The Compost Reader (Accents Publishing), 2020, by Karen Schubert

Schubert: As a student, I went to conferences where I met writers like Bruce Bond, Denise Duhamel, Kimberly Johnson, and former NEA director Dana Gioia. I gained much from classes on how to edit, submit work, and shape a manuscript. From classes and conferences, I met writers who are now lifelong friends. Part of my work is trying to recreate those great experiences for those in our literary community. 

Miltner: In your poem “Youngstown Considers the Future,” you write, “We are tired of our Titanic metaphors— / can’t decide if we’re patching up the hole, / steering toward warmer waters, or / arranging the deck chairs.” It seems to me that your dual role of writer/director is encapsulated in these lines. From your perspective, what fresh metaphor would you offer instead? 

Schubert:. How about the metaphor of a mural: we’ve cut back the vines, purchased more primer than we knew we’d need, and now we’re ready to create a design harvested from memory and shaped by the young. How’s that for what community building looks like?

Learn more about Lit Youngstown and Karen Schubert by following the links.

~~~

photo credit: Molly Fuller

Robert Miltner is a writer, editor, and scholar. His books of poetry include Hotel Utopia, Orpheus & Echo, and Against the Simple, the short story collection And Your Bird Can Sing, and a collection of creative nonfiction, Ohio Apertures. He has received and Ohio Arts Council Award for Poetry, an Ohio Arts Council Writing Fellowship at Vermont Studio Center, and was Poet-in-Residence at the Chautauqua Institution in summer 2021. A professor emeritus from Kent State University Stark and the NEOMFA, and Editor of The Raymond Carver Review, Robert has been a member of AWP since 2012.

~~~

Read my interview with Robert Miltner for Rust Belt Girl here. Like this interview? Comment below or on my FB page. And please share with your friends and social network.

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Check out my categories above for more interviews, book reviews, literary musings, and writing advice we can all use. Never miss a post when you follow Rust Belt Girl. Thanks! ~Rebecca

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Reality, layoffs, and all the rest, bite: Discover Prompts, Day 11

Photo credit: Erik Drost / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

What doesn’t bite? A surprise gift. One of my favorite surprise gifts I received this past Christmas was a book (shocker, right?): Cleveland Then and Now by Laura DeMarco, with Now photography by Karl Mondon.

The large-format book celebrates the storied history and vibrant present of my home city of Cleveland. (Granted, I grew up in Cleveland’s hinterlands, but Cleveland–and especially its Playhouse Square, where I danced with the School of the Cleveland Ballet–has my whole heart.) Having left home at 19, I now have lived longer away from Ohio (and below the Mason Dixon, God forbid) than in Ohio. Still, I consider it home.

Much of my Christmas afternoon was spent poring over the landmarks in this book. There’s Cleveland’s most beautiful building, the historic Cleveland Arcade (pictured below), where my dad worked for a time; hippie haven Hessler Road, where my mom lived when in college; Little Italy, where my parents married at Holy Rosary Church; the Cleveland Museum of Art; Playhouse Square, the largest center of performing arts between New York and Chicago; the Streamline Moderne Greyhound station, which I rolled in and out of on trips home from college in Virginia; and much more.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

The book’s author: arts and culture reporter and editor for the Plain Dealer–Cleveland’s newspaper of record–a reporter who specialized in local history and lost landmarks in the city. As many newspapers have, my hometown paper has seen its share of layoffs in recent times. Then, just last month, the news about more layoffs started coming fast and furious into my Twitter feed. Or more aptly put in this article with all the ins and outs: it was a “gutting” of a newsroom and a sure blow to journalism and journalists the Northeast Ohio community relies on. When remaining journalists were faced with losing their beats and told they would no longer be able to cover the city, a round of resignations yesterday included that of DeMarco.

Since the coronavirus reared its ugly, spiked head, journalists, writers, and bloggers have found ways of making sense of pandemic-havoc by telling the stories of our communities. While my platform is small, my community, my “beat,” during this isolation, is my family. And so I’ve been using these daily prompts to tell our stories: there’s Isolation Lent; Reviled Remote School; Close-Proximity Parenting (if my kids say to me, “OK, Boomer,” one more time, I might lose it); Extended Family Worries, and all the rest.

I’m keeping it together as best as this (ahem) Generation X-er can, which, according to DeMarco, might be pretty OK. In a piece she wrote last month, she notes that our Reality Bites generation is getting this isolation thing right: “While millennials and Gen Z kept partying and going to the beach, and boomers who didn’t want to recognize they are not so young anymore kept brunching, Gen X stood up and took action — and stayed in.” In this fun piece, she highlights the voices of several local Gen X-ers. The story brought to mind my own time in Cleveland with my best Gen-X girlfriends…dressed like we’d shopped at a Depeche Mode garage sale…drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes…watching the skaters outside Arabica on Coventry…acting all moody, sorta like isolating even when not alone.

Yeah, today’s reality–and it’s far-reaching impacts on our society–bites, and my heart goes out to all who are suffering from job loss and worse. What can we do? It is a very small thing, but today I’ll tell it like it is and hope for a better tomorrow. I hope you’ll join me.

I’m chronicling our isolation with the help of WordPress Discover Prompts. This post was in response to Discover’s daily prompt: Bite. Care to join in? Read others’ responses here. My other Prompts responses:

Like what you read? Check out my categories above, with author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more.

Not that curve: Discover Prompts, Day 8

Interior: figurative artist Rick Casali’s studio.* See more at rickcasali.com

When a sculptor lives across the street, you get these kinds of curves. You get to see them form. And, yes, when your little kids visit the artist’s studio, the boys get to enjoy a different kind of anatomy lesson than the kind they get in school.

This afternoon of isolation, some of my boys’ science schooling is happening in the yard, where they are helping my husband plant a hydrangea bush. After some exercise and vitamin D, they’ll complete their science projects on the skeletal and muscular systems of the human body. As they were introduced to these systems, I marveled at their inter-dependency–both the systems’ and the boys’.

You would think they’d get sick of each other, my little guys, weeks into our isolation at home; yet, they don’t seem to. They have known each other–curving into one another, entangling their limbs–since the womb. And they still do this. The horseplay and wrestling–those are embraces. They’re not fooling me.

I’m grateful they have each other, and that I have them. And I’m hopeful that before too long our world will open back up again–to experience art and everything else.

For now, please check out Rick Casali’s art at his website, on FB, or on his YouTube channel. And thanks, Rick! *Image credited to the artist and used with his permission.

I’m chronicling our isolation with the help of WordPress Discover Prompts. This post was in response to Discover’s daily prompt: Curve. Care to join in? Looking for more to read? Check out my categories above, with author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more.

From Architectural Afterlife: “This Cleveland Church has Sat Abandoned for 27 Years”

Interior of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo and story credit: Johnny Joo, architecturalafterlife.com

Maybe old buildings are in my blood. For forty years, my dad worked as a draftsman and designer for structural engineering firms, drawing up plans by hand. On trips into Cleveland for the art museum or bagels, Dad would point out the buildings he’d had a hand in. His job: ensuring they would stay standing.

So, it feels like a personal affront to watch buildings–especially beautiful historic places–go to ruin, abandoned.

I’ve talked on the blog before about “Ruin Porn,” a type of photography that glorifies falling-down structures, often in post-industrial places, like my native Cleveland. I’ve said before, that to me Ruin Porn looks like the American Dream on its knees with no dreamer in the scene. (I wrote a three-part essay you can read here, here, and here.) So, what do we do? How to salvage falling-down places?

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The Sunshine Blogger Award: Woot (if tardy)!

Thank you to Writer Side of Life for nominating me for this award (ages ago). If you haven’t yet checked out Kim’s blog, please do. There you’ll find engaging posts about books and the writing life, inspirational interviews with New Zealand authors, lessons learned from “dragging” her kids to France for a research excursion–and much more.

So, as I said, I am tardy, actually more than tardy, to my own award presentation. Imagine one of those big show venues, with all the glitz, glamor, and champagne–after it’s stripped down. The place echos with emptiness, and next up for the venue is, I don’t know, the opposite of glamor, maybe a taxidermy show.

Welcome, folks, to my stuffed dead things award presentation. (See what tardiness gets you?)

Award rules:

1. Thank the person who nominated you and provide a link back to their blog so others can find them.

2. Answer the 11 questions asked by the blogger who nominated you.

3. Nominate 11 other bloggers and ask them 11 new questions.

4. Notify the nominees about it by commenting on one of their blog posts.

5. List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award logo on your post and/or your blog site.

My answers:

What is your favourite place in the world? (“Favourite” spelling Kim’s)

I have extolled many of the wonders of my home city of Cleveland, Ohio, here on the blog. For those who don’t know, Cleveland has long been the butt of jokes, and while it might have lost a little of its sheen from its Gilded Age, industry-fed glory, C-town today is where you want to go for sports, arts, outdoors, and popular culture when you’re in the Midwest. List of major attractions here. From the home of the Cleveland Browns (who won yesterday!) to one of  the premiere art museums in the U.S.; and from the Metroparks system to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, there’s no place I’d rather be. And…Paris is also nice.

What do you want people to get out of your blog?

I hope my blog helps people come to know and appreciate the literature–poetry, fiction, memoir, and more–coming out of the U.S. Rust Belt, generally, and Ohio specifically.

Cat person or dog person?

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Finding Fantasy…

img_09111
Author Lesley Nneka Arimah reads from her debut story collection, What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, at Lit Youngstown’s 2018 fall literary festival. The reading was held in the stone sanctuary of St. John’s Episcopal Church. (Photo credit: Courtney Kensinger)

in literature, of course.

Ahem.

So, I don’t know…maybe fantastical literature fell under the heading of “books and games to be avoided”–along with Dungeons & Dragons–in the C.C.D. program directed at us Catholic middle school kids. Or maybe it was my mom, for whom a talking spider and talking mouse, in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, respectively, were fantastical enough.

Whatever…it took me a long while to appreciate fantasy, or magical realism, as the genre is called among the literary fiction set.

It wasn’t until I had my kids that I began to really like fantasy–because those stories were the ones that kept my restless elementary-age boys rapt at bedtime, that kept them from becoming distracted enough by their bodies to turn to wrestling each other, thereby gaining a second wind that would keep them–and me–up past my bedtime.

The Chronicles of Narnia served as our gateway children’s fantasy. Lately, Susan Cooper stories featuring ghosts are our typical m.o. And on their nightstand at the moment: Endling #1: The Last by Katherine Applegate. Myth and mystery… The maybe-end of a rare species of dog-like creatures… A wobbyk named Tobble. (Hello, alliteration!) Really, I enjoy the characters and language as much as my kids do; but what I really love about the middle-grade fantasy I’m now exposed to…

The world-building.

Of course, as a fiction writer, I’ve been building worlds for a long time–even if they look and act like our world. But I’d never called it that. I constructed settings for scenes, putting a character in a concrete time and place. However, because those places were  recognizable, I didn’t give this process enough attention. It was scene-dressing.

That’s changed.

At Lit Youngstown’s fall literary festival, author Lesley Nneka Arimah read a few stories from her debut short story collection, titled What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky: Stories. Arimah’s gift with language–she crafts  sentences that are graceful and slyly, darkly witty at the same time–and her knack at exposing the tender underbellies of familial relationships are enough to make for truly memorable tales.

For me, what sets her fiction apart is the use of fantasy. She builds worlds we know–the stories are set in the U.S. and Nigeria. (Arimah was raised in the U.K. and Nigeria and moved to the U.S. when she was a teenager.) But these worlds are slightly tilted, set off kilter through the introduction of myth or fable or superstition.

Being born under the wrong star, as the main character was in the story, “Glory,” is much more than a young woman having a run of bad luck. Still, the main character operates in a place we can recognize, a Minneapolis call center where she listens to an endless litany of foreclosure complaints from distraught homeowners. Here we have familiar, realistic world-building. Likewise, in many of the stories in this collection, the “magical” in the realism isn’t in the setting.

Not so in the stunning titular story. In “What it Means…,” Arimah creates a world of the future, a time riven by natural disasters and wars between the classes. The solution this society has devised to create order: a mathematical formula to fix people, even those who have suffered tremendous losses, by allowing some specialists to devour others’ grief.*

“When things began to fall apart [Chinua Achebe nod?], the world cracked open…into the vacuum stepped…[a mathematician] who discovered a formula that explained the universe. It, like the universe was infinite, and the idea that the formula had no end and, perhaps, by extension humanity had no end was exactly what the world needed.”

Then, the formula faltered…and I’ll let you read the rest for yourself.

At her literary festival reading, Arimah spoke about her literary influences. She talked about the trips she took to the library as a kid and the reading she did: across all book types and genres–and absolutely voraciously.

So, here’s to fantasy, even in the uber-realistic Rust Belt. (I am currently reading Stephen Markley’s novel, Ohio; do story elements count as fantastical if they’re drug-induced? That’s a question for another day.) Here’s to inventive play in all the elements of story.

Thank you to Lesley Nneka Arimah for allowing me to post her picture and feature a snippet of her story. Please visit her author site for more information, and go buy What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky at your local bookstore.

Do you write fantasy or magical realism? Do you blog about it? Do you read it to your kids?

 

*As I schedule this post, my heart is heavy. Condolences to the people of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where on Saturday 11 people were killed when a gunman opened fire in a synagogue in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Prayers for the dead and for the grieving, today and everyday…

 

 

Rust Belt Girl guest: Maresa Whitehead with “Layers”

Screenshot_2018-10-24 Just another WordPress site

What’s this? A guest spot?

Yes! I am thrilled to introduce you to Maresa Whitehead, a talented writer and poet I met at Lit Youngstown’s Fall Literary Festival last month. From her website:

Maresa writes poetry which explores the beauty in darkness and dark images, particularly as they relate to nature and place.

Maresa currently lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing–Poetry from Chatham University. I count myself so very fortunate that Maresa agreed to share with us her wonderful Rust Belt-inspired poem. Whatever season you’re experiencing where you live, I’m sure you too will appreciate the unfolding and discovery going on here:

Layers

Once, this city forebode,
dormant, suppressed
by charcoal snow,
glaciated, atrophied,
bitter as if poisonous
until thawed.

Now, defrosted,
it’s pungent as it ripens,
unfurls petals, entreats
pollination from swarms
which spread its seed.

Each season peels its rind,
extracts the pulp of Pittsburgh,
succulent, unexpected
like the creamy black-specked
marrow eclipsed at first
by the green-tipped pink
husk of the dragon fruit.

          by Maresa Whitehead

Thank you again to Maresa for allowing me to publish your poem here at Rust Belt Girl!

All, please help me share her voice far and wide—on the social networks of your choice. Visit Maresa Whitehead’s site for her complete bio and more of her writing.

Have a favorite seasonal poem? One that celebrates all you love—or don’t—about your town? Share in the comments!