Tag Archives: Devin Murphy

Big Loves: Devin Murphy on Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children

DevinMurphy-300x200Every so often a book I have yet to read makes me nervous. I think this is a self-defense wall my writer-self intuitively constructs to steer wide of new voices that may influence me when I already have my own narrative voice locked into a project. This is why I circled Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children on my shelf for a while before I picked it up. I was afraid it would contain some sort of tick-like voice that would burrow under my skin. When I finally opened the novel, I knew I was right to be cautious.

This book makes us all culpable. We consume news, culture, and images that touch us but we swipe them away, or turn the page. We have our own lives. The image of some other life in the news may be poignant, but on the other side of the world, they seem so far removed it may as well be fiction. These photos may even become iconic but rarely cause us to act. Think of the naked girl in Vietnam running after napalm stripped off her clothing. Or the stirring green eyes of the Afghan girl on the cover of National Geographic whose life had been upturned by invading Russians. These images keep coming. In The Small Backs of Children, the central image is a picture of a girl in Eastern Europe being uplifted and tossed from an explosion at her back, an explosion that atomized her family and thrust her into a cold, brutal life.

Small Backs of ChildrenWith this upheaval we begin to see the world this girl is thrust into. Yuknavitch writes, “This is a world of men. They come into your country, they invade your home, they kill your family. They turn your body into the battlefield—the territory of all violence—all power—all life and death.”

The girl also enters into the consciousness of a woman on the other side of the world who is dealing with the paralyzing loss of a stillborn child. The grieving woman cannot let go of the image of the girl launched into the air and is so empathic that she is willing to sacrifice and act because of the photo. She looks at the fire-rimed girl and feels hurt. The woman decides the image is worthy of trying to make another’s existence less tragic, and sets out to save her.

Yuknavitch’s novel does not let us turn away from this image. She is fearless in her gaze and delves into all the cultural and personal culpability such an image masks. In doing this she slips into the grotesque, overtly sexual, and dislodged longings of her characters. The characters don’t have names. We know them as The Girl, The Writer, The Photographer, The Widow, The Poet, The Playwright, The Filmmaker, and the Writer’s Husband. Maybe real names bring accountability and hold us back from revealing our vulnerabilities, our deep, dark truths. Those truths are what this author spills onto these pages.

Boat Runner

This is at times a shocking book. Though what shocks us these days? Pictures of dead children don’t seem to. Bleeding children? Angry white men hoisting old Confederate flags? Black men being choked to death? It is all at our fingertips. We have a smorgasbord of suffering to tune out, to block away. Yuknavitch confronts us on this: “All the artists we admired from the past came out of the mouths of wars and crises. Life and Death. We come out of high capitalism. Consumerist monsterhood.”

Reading this book, we realize that it cannot be good for us to harden and remove ourselves from the lives of others outside our lanes. This book wants to swerve in and out of that mindless traffic, to disrupt, to raise the heartbeat of everyone nearby, to remind us that we are human and messy and so are those depicted in flat images we so easily swipe away. This is a book that aims for a difficult goal: To make us really see.

Devin Murphy‘s debut novel, The Boat Runner, is out now with Harper Perennial/Harper Collins. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University. His fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, The Chicago Tribune, New Stories from the Midwest, and Confrontation, among others. He lives with his wife and children in Chicago.

For original poetry, fiction, interviews and art song, visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Wendy Oleson’s Anticipated Books of 2017

Writing this list reminds me, at a time I so need it, that there’s much to look forward to—particularly emerging voices from small, independent presses. There are many talented writers who coming to us with urgent messages, and we are desperate to hear them.

educationriveraThe Education of Margot Sanchez, Lilliam Rivera (Simon & Schuster, February)

Rivera’s debut, a YA coming-of-age novel described by the publisher as “Pretty in Pink comes to the South Bronx,” reminds us of the danger against blanket boycotts of publishers—even when they’ve recently made very dubious choices. Rivera, who won a Pushcart Prize in 2016 and has published work in Tin House, The Los Angeles Times, and Bellevue Literary Review has written about the “many Latinx voices being launched” in contemporary publishing, and the influence of her own coming of age in the Bronx.

thingsfreemanAmong Other Things: Essays, Robert Long Foreman (Pleiades Press, February)

Winner of the 2015 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, Robert Long Foreman’s essays disarm us with their honesty and directness. Contest judge, John D’Agata calls the collection “a delightful reminder of how satisfying it can be to watch a single mind roll over the folds of its own thinking.” I first read Robert Long Foreman in Copper Nickel 20; in his essay, “Why I Write Nonfiction,” Long Foreman’s voice is a mixture of vulnerability and irreverence. Then, I found his Weird Pig stories, which I’ll only describe as “Bojack Horseman meets factory farming.” Long Foreman’s strange and flexible mind is not to be missed.

Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf, October)
I found Carmen Maria Machado while lying on a pleather couch post dog walk, tired and sweaty, broken A/C unit heaving. My thighs fused to the pleather while Twitter buzzed about a short story in Granta called “The Husband Stitch.” I clicked the link and read that story on the couch on my cell phone in one unbroken breath. This, I thought. THIS. A Clarion alum, Machado twists horror genre conventions with literary prowess to spare. Experimental structures make for explosive originality, as in “Especially Heinous,” described by the publisher as the novella “in which Machado recaps every single episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, dropping Benson and Stabler into a phantasmagoria of doppelgängers and girls-with-bells-for-eyes.” I can’t wait for this collection. This collection. THIS.

Dead Girls, Emily Geminder (Dzanc Books, Fall)
Winner of the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize, the title of Geminder’s debut collection nods to Kim Addonizio’s poem of the same name, a reminder of the dead girl’s narrative power: “a dead girl can kick a movie into gear…just by lying there.” I first read Geminder in American Short Fiction, her darkly comic short-short runner up in the 2015 fiction contest. I then found Geminder’s marvelous essay in Prairie Schooner 89.2 Coming To: A Lexicology of Fainting.” Just weeks ago, I spotted Geminder’s prose poem in the KR Online, “Interior with Ghost,” proving she’s talented, prolific, and a triple-genre threat.

Other Notables:
Common AncestorJenny Irish (Black Lawrence, January)
Swimming Lessons, Claire Fuller (Tin House, February)
South and West, Joan Didion (Knopf, March)
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky: Stories, Lesley Nneka Ariman (Riverhead, April)
The Gift: A Novel, Barbara Browning (Coffee House Press, May)
The Worlds We Think We Know, Dalia Rosenfeld (Milkweed, May)
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Roxane Gay (Harper, June)
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown & Co., June)
We Are All Shipwrecks: A Memoir, Kelly Grey Carlisle (Sourcebooks, Fall)
The Boat Runner: A Novel, Devin Murphy (HarperCollins, September)
The Impossible Fairytale, Han Yujoo, translated by Janet Hong, (Graywolf, October)

Looking to 2018:
Ponti: A Novel, Sharlene Teo (Picador/Simon)
The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays, Esme Weijun Wang (Graywolf)

Wendy Oleson’s forthcoming chapbook, Our Daughter and Other Stories, won Map Literary’s Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Award. In 2015, Wendy received the storySouth Million Writer’s Award and was a fiction fellow at the Vermont Studio Center. Her poetry, prose, and hybrid works appear/are forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Normal School, the Journal, Copper Nickel, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction online for the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at http://www.memorious.org.

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