Tag Archives: Non-fiction

Awful Interview: Kate Sweeney

4 Nov

Atlanta, that wonderful time of year is descending upon us again. No – not the holidays! (Though I’ve been jonesing for a turkey leg ever since exiting this year’s Ren Fest.) The Letters Festival! I mean, holy smokes, we’ve got three days of Independent Literature about to descend upon our fair city. I’m swooning. You swooning? You should be.

So we’ve got a bevy of fun stuff to help get you riled up. First up to bat? A second round of Awful Interview with Atlanta’s own Kate Sweeney, author of American Afterlifeand all-around gem. We’re not sure why she was up for letting us awfully interview her… again. But boy were we glad to do so! Kate will be helping kick-off the festivities this Thursday evening at BURNAWAY’s beautiful office space, alongside Aaron Burch, Esther Lee, and Jason McCall. You can snag your tickets for all that literary goodness here. In the meantime, let’s get to this interview, shall we?

Vouched: So, Kate – it’s been almost 9 months since the release of American Afterlife. How many bizarre, unsolicited stories about death have you heard whilst promoting the book? What was the weirdest?

Oh, my. I’ve heard so many GREAT stories from people about their experiences with funerals and ways they chose to remember their loved ones. One of my favorites is the family who filled their pant-legs with the ashes of their family patriarch,  and then took a casual group walk through the football field of his college alma mater, allowing the ashes to spill out onto the field as they did so, like in “The Great Escape.”

Vouched: Record scratch – wait, what? I mean, i figured you would have weird stories, but that’s pretty out there. Do you have really epic notions for your own funeral now? (I would worry that that’s a morbid question, but I mean, you wrote a book about death rituals, so it feels like fair game.)

Actually, I do have more notions regarding my own funeral than I did when I began all this. I’ve even sat down and made a plan–something I never would have done as a regular, unleaded 30-something who had never heard stories from so many people who’d experienced epic memorials, horrible memorials, as well as exhausting memorials due to a total lack of pre-planning. It’s actually a great gift to those you leave behind to let them know what on earth you want before the time comes–and, almost more importantly, where key documents are. Because you don’t want to leave your significant other/sons/daughters/parents the burden of dealing with all this crazy minutia on TOP of mourning, too. And the hard fact is this: There is a lot of minutia and rigamarole involved. And we don’t know when we’re going to go.  Sure, it feels weird to have these conversations and make these plans, and it feels doubly weird in a society in which even thinking about death is considered to be weird–but it makes a huge difference to everyone we love.

Vouched: Wow, you’ve become quite the advocate! Would you be willing to share a bit of your plan, or is it a surprise? I have a perpetually late friend who wants to have his coffin arrive at the funeral parlor 15 minutes late when he dies (honestly, it would be out-of-character if it didn’t) … is that something that can happen?

That IS something someone could make happen, for sure. I love it! Folks have told me stories about doing traditional funerals with the hearses and the cemeteries and vaults, about opting for direct cremation with no service, choosing green burial, about writing funny or even bitter obituaries for their loved ones, having their loved ones’ ashes made into plant mulch, LPs and artificial coral reefs. (Not to mention our forebears from the 1800s, who made jewelry out of human hair and invented memorial photography! Now they were a party people.) Seriously, though: For every one of these types of memorialization, someone had a story about how scarring and awful her experience was, and someone else had a story about how this was absolutely the right decision, and how it was healing or cathartic in some way.

So, you know, I went into this experience with some prejudices–the kind we all have–about what’s right and what’s weird when it comes to memorialization. But having heard these personal stories, those prejudices have been stripped away.  And not to paint myself as some Grand Authority to whom everyone’s paying attention in terms of her opinions on memorialization, but it’s because I’ve learned this that I’ve actually decided not to speak publicly about what I’ve chosen, personally. I just don’t want to come across as having any sort of bias, because what’s right for me may not be for you, and I get that.

Vouched: Totally fair. Okay, so – I have to ask – is Six Feet Under your all-time favorite television show by default now?

Had there been no Six Feet Under, there would have been no American Afterlife. That is the literal truth.

Vouched: WHOA! I’ve stumbled across interview gold! Would you elaborate on that, plz?

Sure! I was obsessed with that show. It was the first show I ever binge-watched and which moved me to have imaginary conversations with the characters while, say, walking my dog or driving to the store. So naturally, I read everything I could get my hands on about it. One story I came across was an article about a green burial cemetery in California, written by Tad Friend in the New Yorker. The cemetery had served as a setting for something that took place on the show, I believe. Almost as a footnote, the story mentioned that the nation’s very first green burial cemetery–which began the trend of ecologically-friendly burial spaces in the US–was in South Carolina. I was really intrigued, and it looked like no one had written a major feature article about the place, so that’s what I did. Oxford American published the story in its Spring 2008 issue, and things snowballed from there. Suddenly everywhere I looked, there were fascinating stories about how we Americans remember our dead, from third-generation funeral directors, to roadside memorials, to all the stuff we’re doing with ashes, to our Victorian forebears who made jewelry from human hair. I had to write about them.

Vouched: Six Feet Under really is one of those shows where you miss the main characters after it’s over. At least that’s how it was for me. Say, if you could pick one character from Six Feet Under to attend your reading at the Letters Festival, which would it be? And why? What would you say?

Oooh, good one. Well, clearly, it’s the father. It might be kind of unnerving, but I’d love to see his ghostly presence standing in the back, laughing and shaking his head at some of the  stories from the book. I think that in the end, I’d simply shake his hand–if you can do that. Can you shake a ghost’s hand?

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: An Assessment of Fast Food Hamburgers in the Southeastern United States by Joseph R. Worthen

4 Jul


In my nearly quarter-century of existing as an American, specifically a Midwesterner (and Hoosier if you wanna get technical), I have eaten maybe, possibly five McDonald’s hamburgers.  Maybe. (What an un-American thing to confess on our nation’s birthday, I know.)  And no more than ten fast food burgers period.  Even this is probably an overestimation, as I have no recollection of eating a fast food burger in the past decade–in fact, I have exactly two somewhat hazy memories of eating them ever.  Red meat makes me nervous, and breaded chicken is my downfall.

This is one of several reasons that, when reading the first of four installments of Joseph R. Worthen’s “An Assessment of Fast Food Hamburgers in the Southeastern United States” in Hobart, I could not help grinning like an idiot all over my insides and outsides.  Now, thanks to Worthen, I can be intimately familiar with the all-American experience of consuming a fast food hamburger without spending the requisite money or feeling like a pile of vomit.  (At one time I could beat just about anyone at the gallon challenge but alas, now I’m a gastrointestinal wuss.)

Worthen’s observations are deadpan and hilariously, pitifully honest; nothing and no one, not even himself, is spared the “scientific” lens of his scrutiny:

I unwrapped my tiny hamburger. It smelled like McDonald’s, a warm salty smell, like the breath of a healthy German Shepherd. The bun was smooth, immaculate, and pliant. It held my caress like memory foam. The burger consisted of a thin strip of meat, mustard and ketchup, two tangy pickles and some chopped up shit that was probably onions (speculation). I took my first bite. I didn’t taste hamburger or meat. I tasted the wonderful flavor of salt. I experienced a sudden clarity. The McCafe was not a restaurant at all but a shrine where people of all races and creeds could go to worship sodium and check their email.

Despite these facts, my mood was extremely good. Respectable, attractive people surrounded me. They all looked so sharp and professional that I even started to consider my own career choices. I found the inner fortitude to consider night classes in computers, medicine, or business. My work ethic surged. I believed in McDonald’s. I believed in myself. I experienced pride, ambition and the bittersweet arrival of a partial erection.

Worthen’s documenting of his own oft-conflicting physical and psychological reactions to his experience are tragicomic and totally familiar, providing the–I’m so sorry for this–meat of his “assessments.” The “celebrated Worthen Burger Index (or WBI)” by which every burger is judged provides further interest, especially in Wildcard Points, in which any number of factors (partial erections, for one) can contribute or subtract from the burger’s overall numerical value.  Also, the worded interpretations of said scores are a treat–seven out of fifteen earns a “VERY NARROWLY BELOW AVERAGE” title.

The first installment weighed the merits of burgers from McDonald’s and Sonic; Hardees, Wendy’s, Burger King, Cook Out and Five Guys will be scored in the next three installments. I can’t wait to see how the next five fare, and will stick to chicken fingers in the meantime.

A Collision of Urgency and Infinity

26 Jan


Legs Get Led Astray
Chloe Caldwell
168 pgs.
Future Tense Books

Legs Get Led Astray caused such an intense reaction, I considered walking to the title address of one essay, Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable (156 India Street), at well past two o’clock a.m. on an empty stomach and a bottle of wine. I finished the collection soon after, straight through.

I recommend you sift through however many books necessary until you find the most relevant one and read it. I recommend you read a book straight through whenever possible. I recommend you read Legs Get Led Astray (when said seemingly appropriate time comes).

As a line, every line was a hot iron and as a collection, the collection made me feel young and old and vulnerable (“Life felt gargantuan.”). These essays drove my desire to give myself wholly to myself. Like a hangnail that won’t be ripped off without some blood, Legs Get Led Astray prepares for just the right amount of regrowth.

Visitors: Sheila Heti — How Should a Person Be?

31 May

Visiting us this month at Vouched is Adam Robinson, editor of Publishing Genius Press and author of Adam Robison and Other Poems and Say, Poem.

* * *

How Should a Person Be
by Sheila Heti
Fiction, 320pgs
Henry Holt and Co.
$25 (hardback)

This is the last day of May, which means it’s the last day of my Visitorship here, something I’ve enjoyed even if I haven’t posted in the last couple weeks like I meant to. But the last day of May means tomorrow is the first day of June, which is the month that brings us Sheila Heti’s amazing, vivid and vital novel How Should A Person Be? It comes out on the 19th, and you’ll want to bring a sleeping bag and camp outside the bookstore for this one.

The thing that is so remarkable about it, I think (as if there is just one thing), is its structure. The chapters don’t necessarily follow each other in a linear way. It’s like an umbrella — straight until you open it, then you see how all the parts were touching all the other parts all along. The novel, which is both fiction and non-fiction, and dubbed by the publisher “a novel from life,” really revolves around the titular question. It addresses it not just through the engaging story, but with deliberately philosophical and critical insights. For instance:

… the three ways the art impulse can manifest itself are: as an object, like a painting; as a gesture; and as a reproduction, such as a book. When we try to turn ourselves into a beautiful object, it is because we mistakenly consider ourselves to be an object, when a human being is really the other two: a gesture, and a reproduction of the human type. One only has to travel on a subway during rush hour and pull into a station and see all the people waiting to get on and off to be struck by how many of us there actually are in the world.

It takes a writer of extraordinary abilities to comprise a novel from nuggets like that. What’s more, there’s a sort of fatalism in that quote, I guess, but as a whole the book doesn’t come across as hopeless. Maybe the gist of it could be summed up by cutting “how” from the title — a person should be. We are given that should. It’s remarkably hopeful, the distinction between “a person is” and “a person should be.”

My copy of the book is scarred with underlinings and the margins are blackened with stars — and I make it a point NOT to write in books. I practically read the 300 pager in one sitting. The unique way the novel works makes it difficult to contextualize things, or I would type out a few more of my favorite passages. Instead I’ll just offer my strongest recommendation that you take Amazon up on their discount. It’s currently $16.50 for the hardcover.

The Roles We Play vs. Who We Really Are

3 May

In our culture there are certain life-events that have a tendency to rob us of our depth. For women, two of those moments include the rolls of “Bride” & “Mother-to-be.” After enduring it once already in her engagement, Aubrey Hirsch takes this convention head-on by addressing the effect it has on her own pregnancy and, in consequence, the relationships with those she holds dear.

I can feel it happening again, the disappearing. Already excited friends and family have written over “Aubrey” with “Mother-to-Be.” I’ve got a book coming out this year and no one’s asked about it since I told them I was pregnant. Of course it’s silly for me to think I can dictate the topic of every conversation. And again, these people are nothing but generous and kind. Their priorities are different than mine, and I can respect that. But sometimes it hurts.

But it doesn’t just effect her immediate loved ones, it effects the way she interacts with society as a whole: her government, her doctors, and her career:

In our society, pregnant woman are public property. Non-pregnant women are fast becoming public property, too. I’m not interested in being part of that. It’s making me want to wall myself off completely until I’m not pregnant anymore. Maybe even longer if politics keep moving the direction they are.

I could go on and on about the value of this essay: how it pushed so many of my own questions, fears, and resentments to the surface, or the invaluable conversations it has led to with my sister and my husband. The truth of the matter is, you need to read it for yourself at The Rumpus. Even if you’ve already had children or if your views don’t completely align with Hirsch’s, we can all agree this is a conversation that does not take place as often it should, and we will be better for having done so.

What Burns In the Pit; Ashley Ford at The Rumpus

17 Apr

I don’t often vouch for the work of my contributors outside of the occasional round up, mostly for fear of the “circle jerk” label getting tagged on the reputation of our blog, but when something of one of ours shines this bright, I can’t help but use Vouched Online to get the word out about it.

Rumpus Original Art by Jason Novak

Over at The Rumpus, our own Ashley Ford has an essay up reflecting on growing up with her grandmother, apart from her mother who had a life she needed to pick up before she could manage the kind of kindness necessary to who Ashley needed her to be.

I’ve heard Ashley read this essay a couple times now, but it’s such a different experience seeing it on the page, being able to interact with it instead of just letting it pass through me, being able to sit with the terrible beauty of the images, the exact perfect scenes she culls together from her childhood to make this essay so powerful and necessary a read.

I spent my free time exploring our land, roaming farther than I should. Too dumb to be scared of them, I made a game of sneaking up on and catching snakes by the tail. I caught them fast enough to shock them, and then dropped them before they caught my skin between their fangs. I’d been bitten once. After the garden snake released me, I’d closed my eyes, leaned against a tree. I soothed myself by speaking directly into my punctured hand.

“It don’t hurt, Ashley.”

I cradled the stinging hand with its opposite.

“If it hurt, you’d die. You won’t die.”

Read the full essay, “What Burns In the Pit,” at The Rumpus.

Confessions & Whereabouts: Tuscaloosa According to Oliu and Others

12 Apr

Tuscaloosa Runs This
Anthology, 260pgs
$12 | Broken Futon Press

I got to spend the better part of last week skirting around the South with Brian Oliu, Tyler Gobble, and Matt Bell on our Over the Top Reading Tour. We read first at the Green Bar in Tuscaloosa, and spent the next day taking in the city, relaxing before we set off for Atlanta the next day. That afternoon, Tyler and I went to Bowers Park for a round of disc golf, our drive unknowingly taking us through a part of Tuscaloosa still working to rebuild itself after the tornadoe that tore through the city last year.

I want to tell you all the news: about the rubble that still sits in piles and the trees still recovering their leaves, their limbs. But that’s really not what Tuscaloosa is. It never was.

After the tornadoes were gone, Brian went to work on an eBook project called Tuscaloosa Runs This full of Tuscaloosa writers writing about Tuscaloosa. In Brian’s own words, “The quality of the people of Tuscaloosa is only matched by the quality of their writing. Here, we have some amazing work from amazing people—all with our city on our minds and in our hearts. Some of the work has been written long before late April, other pieces written shortly after the storm.”

Recently, with the help of some local businesses, that eBook was released in a beautiful print version, which seems particularly appropriate, similar to the new shops and houses and storefronts rising up from the idea of rebuilding, here is this tangible object, this book, from the ideas and hearts of these Tuscaloosans. Proceeds from the book go to support the rebuilding.

While gathering and organizing the book, Brian wrote an incredible reintroduction to it, which you can read in its entirety over at PANK, and which I highly encourage you to do.

Before that, let me tell you about ways in. The doorways in Tuscaloosa are small, smaller than anywhere I’ve ever lived, small to the point that my shoulders brush against them if I am not careful enough, small like the sides of a metal detector at the airport, small to the point where every doorway reminds me of leaving. When do I stand between the doorjambs? The tricks of disaster escape me: bathtubs? lie on the floor? get in a closet? As I spill soup, as I watch lights flash in a stadium where it is after dark, I watch it on the futon—a mess of metal wires and lacquered wood, like sitting on a knocked down fence, a taupe pillow on top that has thinned out from sitting here, day after day typing, eating, watching football, pressing buttons to swing our sword.

Roll tide!

Gone by MariNaomi

10 Apr

Excerpt screen captured from The Rumpus.

I stumbled across this gorgeous literary nonfiction comic over at The Rumpus and had to share. MariNaomi‘s drawings enhance every scene, legitimizing the words and thoughts without over-explaining. We all have some doozy exes we look back on and wonder how the hell we dodged that bullet when we were willing to stand right in the line of of fire for so long. Many of us empathize with the gunman long after they’ve gone. We wonder “what happened to…” even after we stop wondering “what if we…”

MariNaomi captures that feeling here. The embarrassment of what we’ve put ourselves through, coupled with the hope and longing for the ones who put us through it.

Check it out.

Eulogy of a Bookstore by Aaron Burch

28 Mar

Quick vouch today because work is whoa damn kind of busy, but over lunch I read this essay by Aaron Burch about how working at a Barnes & Noble in college basically woke him up to how much he loved literature. In fact, he admits to not even really reading much before getting that job.

I know it’s cool to hate on big box bookstores, but this is a fantastic read about finding yourself someplace you never really expected because of something as simple as needing a summer job.

For the next couple of years, this job was how I paid for rent, for food, for all the cheap beer you drink almost exclusively only when in college. It saved me money on textbooks that we normally wouldn’t carry but that I ordered for myself through the distributor program and then bought with my employee discount. It supplied me with books to read for pleasure; I met my college girlfriend. Her being an English major confused me, both because, what was she going to do with such a degree but also because I was still all kinds of undecided. School was something I was doing so I could finish and be done with and then figure out what I wanted to do, while she had a senior seminar class entirely focused on the work of one contemporary author I’d never heard of, which seemed kind of cool but also not like a real thing.

Read the full essay at The Rumpus.

Different Racisms for Different Races

21 Mar

I’m at Ball State today for the InPrint Festival, an annual event celebrating authors and their first books. The 2nd night of the event is a panel where BSU invites an editor as well to discuss the process of editing, of selection and creation. I’m the editor, of sorts. In about 40 minutes, I’ve to stand in front of a class and talk about Vouched Books and why it’s important. That’s somewhat terrifying.

I have some down time right now, and instead of preparing anything for the presentation, I chose instead to read an essay by Matt Salesses, “DIFFERENT RACISMS: On Jeremy Lin and How the Rules of Racism are Different for Asian Americans,” at The Rumpus, which I saw all over my twitter feed yesterday.

Coincidentally, poet Gleen Shaheen who is also taking part in the InPrint Festival was just speaking to a similar point at lunch, how at times in his writing education he was told not to write about his Arabic heritage, that to do so was “cheating” on some level. Salesses mentions a similar barrier to his own early writing in the essay:

I know many Asian American writers who refuse to write about Asian Americans, out of a fear of being typecast, or a fear of being seen as “using” their ethnicity, or a fear of being an “Asian American writer,” or something. And really, I understand that. I have been one of those writers. This may not come as a surprise, at this point in this essay, but for a long time, I wrote only about white characters. I wrote about them because I grew up with people like them, but also because they were the people in books and because I, too, feared the label, or at least told myself I did. What that fear really is, it seems to me now, is a fear of not being taken as seriously as the White Male Writer, who has so long ruled English literature.

The essay is fantastic and eye-opening and altogether aching. Salesses uses the backdrop of the Jeremy Lin-sanity to highlight how flagrant racism against Asian Americans really is, how even positive racial stereotypes (Asians as hard-working, respectful, kick ass ninjas) are still stereotypes, still a form of racism.

It is hard to call someone who thinks he is complimenting you a racist. But the positive stereotypes people think they can use because of their “positivity” continue (and worsen) the problem. Thinking you can call an entire race “respectful” is thinking you can classify someone by race, is racism.

Read the full essay at The Rumpus.