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Paula Carter in Conversation with Sadaf Ferdowsi

November 28, 2017

Paula Carter is the author of No Relation, a collection of flash essays that details her experiences helping to care for, and then leaving, two boys from her partner’s previous marriage. Incorporating prose poems, fairy tales, metaphors, and vignettes, Carter creates a mosaic of love and loss, longing and belonging, as she searches for the true meaning of family.

While No Relation is Carter’s first book, she also has essays published in The Southern Review, Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, and other journals. She is also a company member with 2nd Story, one of Chicago’s most prominent live lit events.

The interview with Carter was conducted over cups of coffee in her charming apartment in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood on an August afternoon.

SF: Nonfiction is a genre that is not so easily defined—especially when we consider the multiple subgenres that challenge its boundaries. Because No Relation is characterized as a collection of flash essays, I was wondering how you would define a “flash essay” in your own words?

PC: I think for me a flash essay is something that walks the line between prose and poetry in a way where the writer takes one significant moment—no matter how small it may be—and uses it to make larger connections to more universal themes. In this way, a certain theme is explored within a very short space and the subject matter becomes more immediate and crystallized for the reader.

SF: I really like that you used the term “crystallize” because it evokes the experience of how I read your emotions. In the book, you don’t overtly describe your emotions; instead, we catch these “glints” of an underlying emotional depth growing beneath the pressure of your prose. How did you write these crystallizing moments despite the extremely personal and emotional nature of the subject matter?

PC: When I began writing the book, I had written some standalone flash essays so I felt that I understood the tools of the form or, rather, the parts of the form. I had also read Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas which is written in these flash nonfiction moments and is also an amazing, beautiful piece of writing. I had all these feelings I wanted to express and when I read her book, I thought “This is the way I can do this,” because it allows me to share moments and construct scenes without a lot of explaining or exposition, which are great things in a regular essay, but, with this form, readers are asked to make certain connections themselves. I feel it leaves more space for reflection and interrogation. Also, without having too much exposition, I was also able to explore the power within my different relationships—with my ex-partner and with his two sons—in a more discrete way.

SF: What motivated you to take this dual experience of falling in and out of love with a romantic partner while also parenting his two children and turning it into a book of essays?

PC: The first impetus was that I had so many thoughts and feelings I wanted to express. I was so deeply affected by building my relationship with the boys and then having to leave them after my partner and I broke up. However, the second impetus was that I noticed there were not many books written from the perspective of a non-biological parent, or from someone who was in my position. When I was grieving the end of my relationship with my partner and his two sons, I was looking for books to help me cope and all I could really find were books in the self-help genre or books on how to create a successful blended family. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find many things written in a more creative genre or from the step-parent’s point of view, which led me to write my own essays about the experience.

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Interviews

 Punctuate Interviews Shawn Shiflett

November 28, 2017

Shawn Shiflett is a Professor in the English—Creative Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of the novels Hidden Place and, most recently, Hey, Liberal! He was recuperating from a knee injury and slid gingerly into a chair in the Punctuate offices on a fall afternoon to talk about the sixties, his professional influences, and the lines between fiction and nonfiction.

Punctuate: Simon Fleming, the main character of Hey, Liberal!, is a white thirteen-year-old attending a mostly black high school in Chicago shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King. He’s placed there out of idealism by his socially motivated parents. Given the way the events of the novel unfold, are the readers to think Simon’s parents are naïve, delusional, or both?

Shiflett: That’s a question that comes up a lot.  When does naïve enter into delusional? My parents have both apologized to me, though I don’t think they have anything to apologize about. I would not trade my experience of attending Waller High School for anything. You know, maybe it’s the whole country that’s delusional and not my parents. I mean, how are we supposed to rectify things if we aren’t even willing to get out of our segregated boxes? So in terms of parenting, sure, they were naïve, but in terms of American citizens, they were ahead of their time. I don’t have any anger towards them. I think it’s one-sided, and doesn’t see the complexity of how the legacy of genocide got us to where we are today to simply dismiss my parents as delusional. The paradox is that I wouldn’t put my son or daughter through a similar experience as the one I went through at Waller High. That’s the contradictory dichotomy within me now, and I don’t have a problem admitting it.

Punctuate: So you would answer neither?

Shiflett: I would say that my parents were naïve as far as parenting goes, but not naïve politically or in the grand scheme of things.

Punctuate: The novel is set almost fifty years ago, an era you experienced as a young person. What did you learn looking back on those days that you were unprepared for? Continue Reading

Semi;Colon

Comrades of Our Past and Future

November 28, 2017

Last week, an article in the New York Times described the opening of a time capsule that had been placed in a monolith in the town square fifty years ago by the children of the city of Cherepovets, Russia (then the Soviet Union). The occasion of the placement of the capsule was the fiftieth anniversary, in 1967, of the Soviet Revolution, with the expectation that its message would be read aloud by the “Comrades of the Future” on the one-hundredth anniversary of the USSR in 2017. The message read in part, “Stay true to Communism’s ideals, and fearless in the fight for welfare of the working man.” The fact that this month’s ceremony occurred almost two decades after the fall of Soviet Communism did not diminish the solemnity of the event. On the contrary, Matthew Luxmoore, the author of the piece, writes that this message “Elicited not a single smirk.” Indeed, the current residents of Cherepovets replaced the message from 1967 in the monolith with one of their own, boasting of their historical importance and current industrial production, that would have made Stalin smile. For a vision on our future, we need only look to the past.

This month, we at Punctuate are celebrating the first anniversary of the publication of our first print issue with the publication of our second print issue. Among the features in our online offering for November is an interview with novelist Shawn Shiflett, whose autobiographical novel, Hey, Liberal! is set in Chicago in the months following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. In her essay, “What to Eat When You Are Rich,” Japanese essayist Kaori Fujimoto looks back two decades to the lean years of her twenties in New Mexico. Paula Carter reflects upon her memoir No Relation about step-families and lost relationships in an interview with Sadaf Ferdowsi. And, on our Semi;Colon blog, assistant editors MacKenzie Trowbridge and Ishah Houston opine on the writer’s self and her perception in the world.


Ian Morris, Managing Editor

Essays

Kaori Fujimoto

November 27, 2017

What to Eat When You Are Rich

I spat out a slice of fresh tomato one morning in Honolulu. That was how my journey to New Mexico began in the late 1990s. I didn’t feel sick, but no solid food would go down. I was hungry. I tried to eat bread, but my tongue pushed it back. I attempted to force down a leaf of lettuce with tea, but it stuck to my palate. I rushed to the phone to call Lynn, a masseuse in Honolulu I’d met a few months before through our mutual friend.

Although her trade was to relax her clients’ muscles, her knowledge went beyond that. When I mentioned I’d just gone on the pill because I had terrible cramps, she frowned.

“If you have a vulnerable womb, that means you aren’t good at expressing your emotions. Going on the pill won’t solve your problem.”

She was correct in assessing other physical problems I’d had before (“Pimples on the neck? You thought you were in an unfair situation, didn’t you?”). So, when my instinct told me that doctors couldn’t help the problem I had that morning, I turned to Lynn. Continue Reading