Cross-Cultural Couplings

First off, let me say that Currency officially hits the streets right about now. Dear visitor, I beg you not to judge this book on the absence of a dedicated web site. It is a hundred times better than its web presence, and although there’s little excuse for that in this day and age, isn’t it preferable to the reverse? Currency is exciting yet thoughtful, sexy yet serious. Yet fun! For real, you will want to take this book with you on vacation. But don’t take my word for it, you can read this review, or this advance praise. Or watch this book trailer. Etc. The following blog post was brought to you by the above shameless self-promotion!

Speaking of: I’ve done a few promotional interviews recently (one with myself, up at The Nervous Breakdown), and in them I’ve talked for the first time about the liaisons I had with Thai guys when I was traveling, and how they influenced the book. Up until now, although I’ve written about how loaded can be the attraction of tourists for local people in much poorer countries and about my awakening to the charms of Thai men, I’ve kept pretty quiet about my actual affairs.

There are lots of reasons for this reticence, I think. For one thing, I was involved with someone back home at the time; we had not promised monogamy, but still. Then I met the man I would marry, and it no longer seemed cool to go on about past lusts. But I think the crux is that I was embarrassed by these relationships. I was embarrassed that there was more than one, that they started to become a pattern. I was embarrassed by the disapproving looks that came from many quarters—from people who had seen the pattern play out, or who thought someone was taking advantage, or who simply found the combination of the two of us unsavory for any number of reasons. I could imagine quite a number of reasons.  Now, trying to sort through stuff, I wonder if these embarrassments weren’t sharper because they reminded me of a racially-charged situation in my junior high years, and also because my attraction to Asian men might have a connection to something even further back, and sticker. I could probably write a whole memoir unpacking this stuff like a set of old dishes, wondering over the continued, solid existence of things I haven’t seen for so long and reading the newspaper the items were wrapped in, amazed by the prices of years gone by, or by the wars that waged then, and so absorbed in the past that I wouldn’t notice my hands pricking from the dust until they were on fire.

Over the years, to feed or understand my fascination, I’ve sought out fiction about cross-cultural relationships, ones that include a difference in race and privilege. There’s The Lover, of course, and The Quiet American—I love The Quiet American. Less well known is When Mountains Walked, by Kate Wheeler, about a woman who has an affair with a revolutionary in Peru. I highly recommend it. And The River Sweet, by Patricia Henley—she writes so well about guilt-ridden Americans and other countries.

But the best book on the topic I think I’ve read is The Pickup, by Nadine Gordimer. That novel just dissects—so lyrically, so incisively; well, she’s Nadine Gordimer—the currents between a well-off South African white women and the Arab man she takes up with, an illegal immigrant. The needs of both, the hungers of both, the anger, the role of family and future and sex. It’s pre-9/11 but it presages 9/11. It’s one of those books I can read again and again, just in wonder that anyone could know all that, and say it so perfectly.

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My Great Editor, Interviewed

Now that CURRENCY has been published, a number of people are asking me tactful versions of the question How come this took so long? and Why with a small press? In this excerpt from an interview with Leah Tallen, Other Voices editor Gina Frangello explains better than I ever could. You can see the full interview at Knee-Jerk, and if you read it you’ll see that patience reaps rewards, and that I just might win the prize for having the world’s most passionate and talented editor. Gina has a new short story collection out this spring, SLUT LULLABIES, and we’re going to be promoting our books together in Chicago, New York, LA, Iowa City, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, and elsewhere. Shameless self-promotion time. Come to see us! Become a Facebook fan! Buy a book!

OV is getting ready to release a new book this month, right? Can you talk a little about Zoe Zolbrod and her first book Currency?

This novel has been a long time in coming, and I’ve been acquainted with it since the late 1990s. I fell in love with it in a writing group when I was still in grad school. I thought Zoe was going to make a million dollars and become a rock star with Currency, that’s how much I loved it and the other people in our writing group loved it. But the publishing world being what it is, that’s not what happened . . .

I think a lot of editors in New York were spooked by the fact that half the novel is narrated by a Thai man, Piv, whose English is not perfect and has a heavy Thai flavor. I mean, it’s a big chance to take, I admit. Publishers might think, What if this isn’t authentic? What if it offends someone? What if some reviewer says they don’t buy it and suddenly that is the party line? Editors at the big houses have shareholders to answer to and they’re not big on risk. They don’t live by their guts anymore. But I felt like I knew Piv in a way that transcended politically correct rules like that. He was one of the best characters I’d ever read in contemporary fiction. That’s not to downplay Robin, his American lover, who is an extremely strong and complicated character herself. But I felt like Piv was someone I had never met before on the page. When Zoe’s novel started getting rejected and agents started walking away, I was stunned.

At that time, I ran a magazine, not a press. Then later, when I launched the press, we published books of short fiction exclusively. Only a little over a year ago did Stacy and I decide to launch the Morgan Street International Novel Series, and we kept getting all these submissions . . . but I couldn’t get Piv out of my head. I hadn’t even seen Zoe in a couple of years, and Stacy had never read the novel, so I was terrified of getting Zoe’s hopes up and not coming through—I knew she’d been through enough with this project. But I had to ask her for the manuscript so Stacy could read it. I think I was as nervous as she was, waiting. Luckily Stacy fell as deeply in love with this work as I had, and that was that.

How does Currency represent OV’s mission statement?

The Morgan Street International Novel Series grew out of an anthology we did in 2007, that Stacy edited, A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection. That book featured thirty writers from all over the world, some published for the first time in English and others already major writers like Josip Novakovich, Nathan Englander, Etgar Keret. In that book, we made an explicit point of defining “culture” through relationships—in other words, while Nepalese culture may be very interesting to an outsider, it is not exotic or even always thought of as “culture” per se, by people in an insular community within Nepal, if that makes sense. A lot of books have explored this-or-that culture, which is important, but we wanted to explore culture as a more shifting, active thing, defined by people interacting and realizing their differences, in both positive and negative ways, and grappling that to figure out who they are. Zoe’s novel fits in with that way of exploring culture perfectly.

At the magazine, we’d always had an interest in international fiction, but through the anthology project we really realized we wanted to keep going with it—that we didn’t feel like the dominant publishing industry was offering enough fiction set outside the United States, only a few heavily promoted titles a year that became “the” Indian novel or “the” Afghani novel, etc. We wanted to provide more options, even if in a limited way given the size of our list.

CURRENCY’s first review

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It’s a crazy-ass thing to want to publish a book. The work it takes. The struggling to figure it out, to process the criticism, to make it better, make it better, make it better yet after the umpteenth person has said “not quite right for us” or just “not quite.” And then if you’re lucky enough, and the manuscript gets set and bound, some reviewer—should your luck hold out and you garner one’s attention— might dismiss all your efforts in a few sentences. I think I was most terrified of this happening to me in the Chicago Reader, which has been my paper of record for the twenty years that I’ve lived in this town, and which is not always nice. So—whew—a weight lifted off my shoulders when I read this review. What if there had not been a “but” after the “maudlin”? What if there had not been a “rather than” before the “irritating”? But there was. Thank god. Thank Julia Thiel. My hopes are that this “but” and “rather than” will shield me from any darts that may yet come my way.

And now, some shameless self-promotion: Join the Facebook page! Come to see me read when I’m in your town!

CURRENCY

Zoe Zolbrod

OV Books, $16.95

“Part of my job is to read your face,” says Piv, a young Thai man who befriends travelers and sends them to local businesses in exchange for a commission from the owners, at the start of Currency. Zoe Zolbrod’s debut novel alternates between Piv’s perspective and that of Robin, a young American itinerant who can’t bring herself to leave Thailand even though she’s long since run out of money. When the two meet and decide to go into business together, buying jewelry in Indonesia and reselling it in Thailand, it briefly seems plausible that both their business and their budding relationship will work.

But then Robin discovers that her credit cards are maxed out. Her first move is to ask her dad for a ticket home, and Piv’s instinct is also to cut his losses. He solves the money problem, though, by convincing an acquaintance to involve them in an international smuggling operation. Their work becomes progressively more dangerous, but the real tension in the story is always rooted in whether Robin and Piv can trust each other. Even as they fall deeper in love, each expects a betrayal. The conceit could easily become maudlin, but Zolbrod’s deft character development and graceful writing avoid the pitfalls. Even the fact that Piv’s narration is riddled with the small grammatical errors and odd turns of phrase common to nonnative English speakers comes across as appropriate rather than irritating. —Julia Thiel