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Punctuate in Conversation with Ken Krimstein, Author and Illustrator of The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth

September 18, 2018

Ken Krimstein has published cartoons in the New Yorker, Punch, the Wall Street Journal, and more. He has written for New York Observer’s “New Yorker’s Diary” and has published pieces on websites including McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Yankee Pot Roast, and Mr Beller’s Neighborhood. He is the author of Kvetch as Kvetch Can and teaches at De Paul University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.

In a lively email exchange, Ken Krimstein communicated with Punctuate Managing Editor Ian Morris recently about his new book The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth, a graphic memoir of Hannah Arendt and the philosophy and history of her age.

Punctuate; Fans of your New Yorker cartoons will likely be surprised that The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt is a graphic history of twentieth-century European philosophy. What inspired you to undertake this project?

Krimstein: In addition to loving what we in the cartooning business refer to as “gag” cartoons, single panel “jokes,” with or without words (think Charles Addams, S. Gross, George Booth), I’ve always loved longer form comics. Sure, it started with Superman and Batman when I was a kid, but I also inherited from my great uncle many comics in a series entitled Classics Illustrated. You can imagine what they were—definitely not comics about men in tights. Comics of Moby Dick to The History of World War I. I loved them all. As I got older, I discovered the wonders of R. Crumb, and of course Maus, Persepolis, and on and on. In addition, I’ve always been a huge fan of both biographies and of philosophy.

One question has always intrigued me—how does a person’s life affect their art or thinking?

Now, add Hannah Arendt to the equation. She was always on my radar. I think I first tried reading The Origins of Totalitarianism when I was in middle school. And her later idea of “the banality of evil” seemed fresh and unexpected and important. I wanted to wrestle with it.

While working on my weekly New Yorker submissions, my agent said a publisher was interested in seeing “anything,” from me, whatever I wanted to do. I thought, “Aha! I’ll do that long-form comic treatment of the enigmatic Hannah Arendt.” And when I actually opened the biographies, I found at every turn the events of her life were completely compelling. Her character and her thinking always impacted me in a powerful way— I felt like I knew her. I couldn’t not do it.

Punctuate: You describe Arendt as “arguably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century.” Did you see it as a personal mission to call more attention to her life and her work?

 Krimstein: I really believe her thinking is profound. Now, understand, I am not a licensed professional philosopher, though some of my best friends . . .

In any case, as I dug deep into her work I saw how she took ideas in Continental Philosophy— phenomenology, existentialism, the inspired mélange of thinking that poured out of her great friend Walter Benjamin—and gave them a totally unique interpretation. In the place of living “unto death,” which was fairly widespread, she saw much of life’s meaning as arising “from birth—births.” She celebrated the creative force. What’s more, she questioned the contemplative life of the philosopher, and energized, if you will, the thinking I’d read from the likes of Sartre (and even Camus), and made it all very present, action oriented. These bold turns did completely new things with thinking. So much of what she lived and thought has been understood in headlines, often headlines people don’t really understand (truth be told, I’m not sure I understand all their nuances either, but what I get is powerful). I wanted to get beyond the headlines and follow her thinking wherever it led. And it led to some very thrilling places.

So, yes, in my opinion, she needs to be read and discussed and learned. A lot. Continue Reading


Amy Fusselman in Conversation with Punctuate

August 22, 2018

In Idiophone, Amy Fusselman’s fourth book of nonfiction, performances of The Nutcracker morph into magicians performing magic tricks which transform into the performative acts of being a mother and being mothered. It’s a slim book comprised of one book-length essay and yet it’s jam-packed with research and poetry; analysis and anecdotes; memory, critique, queer theory, and motif. Fusselman’s previous books include Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space and Risk for Americans Who are Nervous, Distracted and Afraid to Die; The Pharmacist’s Mate; and 8.

Fusselman is currently touring and Idiophone can be purchased here. The interview was conducted by S. Ferdowsi via email and was edited for length and clarity.

Photo Credit: Frank Snider

Punctuate: An “idiophone” is defined as an instrument that is struck or shaken, such as a triangle or a cowbell. What attracted you to the idiophone—in particular the Slit Gong at the Met?

Amy Fusselman: The rhythmic, staccato sound of the piece immediately announced itself as a major factor, and the idiophone of the title, the artwork at the Met, came to mind as an instrument that would make that sound.

P: How would you describe the form? When was it born?

AF: It’s an essay, a poem-ish essay. It had a long gestation period. It’s hard for me to say when it was born because it was brewing for so long

P: The book uses a lot of these quick, quick phrases that play with repetition, but it’s also infused with tons of research especially on The Nutcracker. What did your research process entail?

AF: I have been thinking about The Nutcracker for years. It was a pretty organic process of following my interests and going down little rabbit holes of information. I was also very grateful to find Jennifer Fisher’s book Nutcracker Nation, which is a very engaging history of the ballet and which I highly recommend.

P: How did you balance the brevity of the form with all the exhaustive data about the ballet’s history? How did you keep track of all the threads?

AF: I didn’t try to tell the entire story of the ballet or to offer the essay as a piece of scholarship. A lot of it was discerning what was relevant to the piece. In terms of keeping track of the threads, I didn’t write the book by thinking it. I wrote it by letting go of thinking, and that was very freeing.

P: I love that! I find it’s really hard to turn off the compulsion to always be thinking while I’m writing. How were you able to let that go and access this freeing space? Did you have any rituals?

AF: I probably could have used some rituals. I didn’t have any except for the enthusiasm about the material as it was unfolding.

P: Was the revision process similar? Did you revise after writing?

AF: Yes, many revisions. But they were mostly micro revisions.

P: Along with The Nutcracker, the concepts and lived experiences of gender, sexuality, and queerness are also investigated, and your overall body of work also seems interested in exploring these themes as well. Do your ideas on gender, sexuality, and/or feminism change after each writing project? If so, how?

AF: I have a few subjects that are so far always interesting to me: creativity, womanhood, children, motherhood, art-making, process, consciousness and sex. Maybe there will come a time when I’m no longer interested in one or all of these but I’m not there yet.

P: Do you remember when you first became interested in gender and womanhood? For me, it was when I was in middle school and addicted to this Young Adult series about a young woman going to boarding school in Victorian England. It’s silly, but it was the first time I had opened my eyes to see how patriarchy operates.

 AF: I don’t think that’s silly at all. And I’m struck that you were alone in that discovery. I would love to see parents take that on. Maybe we can reframe “The Talk” to mean the discussion you have with your children about the patriarchy. Although the patriarchy talk would surely have to come earlier than the sex talk. For myself, those interests are rooted in the childhood experience of being raped and then discovering later that my mother had also been raped.

P:  This reminds me of your McSweeney’s piece “How to Make Rape Lemonade.” I was struck by how the essay’s dual modes of being light-hearted and tackling heavy subject matter really cracked open another way of dealing with trauma for me. Did the discovery of your mother’s experience alongside your own lead to this essay?

AF: That piece actually grew out of my trying to write a rape joke. I think the primary thing it does well is not dramatize rape, and not apologize for not dramatizing it. I think the drama can be a way of other-ing it, and I wanted to push back at that.

P:  I like your take on the death of the Mouse King: “He is no longer dead, he is “dead,” and in this meta move, he reminds the audience that he is alive and that this is a performance. In the same vein, I feel that the queerness in your book serves as a reminder that heteronormativity is performative.

AF: Absolutely, yes. I was also interested to discover that Tchaikovsky himself may have been struggling with revealing his sexual identity. The Nutcracker as well as its sibling piece, the opera Iolanta, are so much about the longing to fully see and be seen.  

 P: Do you think the relationship between writer and reader operates in a similar way? Does a writer long to fully see and be seen?

 AF: I think it depends on the type of writer. All humans feel the need to be mirrored and understood. But I find that a lot of writing operates, in a way, like advertising. It aims to get your attention and hold your attention and sell itself. I like a good ad as much as anyone but I want to make art that resists that as a mode of construction. I believe in the reader; I think the reader is brilliant. I want to give them more.

P: You mentioned art-making earlier and, in Idiophone, you included an interview with Annie-B Parson about the art of dance. Do you think there are parallels between writing and dancing?

AF: Certainly in this piece. Dance isn’t usually associated with writing because it’s nonverbal but I feel a lot of kinship with what dance is doing. And I loved Annie-B’s quote about dance’s relationship to “the word,” and how dance, as a province of women and of bodies, has been relegated to a lesser status in theater. I felt that had a connection with what I was thinking about in relation to writing as a handcraft, and to “women’s work.”

P: Motherhood is also a major topic in Idiophone and you include some really cool anecdotes with your children, like taking a boxing class together—do you tell them whenever they’ve made a cameo?

AF: I tell my kids about their appearances in any work before it’s published, and I do ask for their approval but it’s tricky because they aren’t old enough yet to really be capable of consent. My daughter and one of my sons—my sketches of them—appear briefly in Idiophone. My kids are aware of my renderings and they’re OK with them but we’ll see what happens. Parenting is a long game. Like writing is.

P: Can you elaborate on that?

AF: It’s hard to tell if something is going to be successful in the short term. That’s true for human beings and it’s true, I think, for art. It also depends on what your definition of “success” is. I think children are here to complicate matters for parents, not to make things easier. Children are here to challenge us and survive us. And I think good art—or at least the art I like—does that, too. And that type of art doesn’t always get a warm reception immediately.

P: I think we’re living in a broader cultural moment that is bogged down by information and misinformation. And as a result, media outlets and online sources tend to explain major ideas in simple terms, or in lists, or even as memes. But in your book, readers really have to do the work themselves of seeing the connections and seeing how their meanings emerge and evolve as the book progresses. I loved that. I found it really challenging but also delightful. Do you think your book can be considered as a resistance to our current information-heavy moment?

AF: I didn’t think of that but I like it. And I’m glad you found that aspect rewarding. I generally don’t like art that explains itself too much. I like it when I feel like a piece of art has just appeared like it’s from outer space: somehow it got here, and it’s a miracle, and you’re just standing there with your mouth open, like what the fuck. “What the fuck?!” is actually my favorite response to have to a work of art. I am always so grateful to the artist when I see a piece like that.

P: Finally, the book-length essay seems to be gaining more popularity. I’m thinking about Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God, and Etel Adnan’s Paris, When It’s Naked. These books are all written by authors who identify as women; do you think there is something there that connects women to book-length essays in particular or it’s just a coincidence?

AF: That’s an interesting observation. I think women, already operating at a disadvantage, have less to lose by trying new forms, whereas men have to think about the 300-page-novel father. And killing him.

S. Ferdowsi is Punctuate‘s reviews editor. She is also a contributor to New City and Rumpus.




Nadine Kenney Johnstone in Conversation with Punctuate

May 24, 2018

The Chicago Writers’ Association Book of the Year for 2018 was awarded to Nadine Kenney Johnstone for her book Of This Much I’m Sure. In this memoir, Kenney Johnstone reflects on her Chicago upbringing, the first years of her marriage, and the challenges she faced while undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Her other work has been featured in The Moth, PANK, The Magic of Memoir, among others.

Kenney Johnstone earned her MFA from Columbia College Chicago and currently teaches at Loyola University. She also serves as a writing coach and can be emailed at for more information.

The interview was conducted with Sadaf Ferdowsi for the one-year anniversary of the memoir’s publication. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Punctuate: When was the moment you decided your first book would be a memoir recounting your experiences undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF)?

Nadine Kenney Johnstone: Back in 2012, I went to a writing retreat in Guatemala, and the instructor encouraged me to write about my nine frozen embryos. This inspired my essay “Nine Babies on Ice,” which got published in the parenting issue of PANK that year. Writing it felt so scary and freeing that I knew I had a lot more to say on the topic.

Punctuate: While it is very much about the journey of pregnancy and birth, Of This Much I’m Sure is also driven by the relationships between you and your mother, you and your sister, and you and your husband. What challenges existed to incorporate these (sometimes-complicated) relationships into your narrative and how did you overcome them?

Kenney Johnstone: When I started writing about our journey to conceive, I realized that it affected all of my important relationships. I also realized that when I moved to Massachusetts to be with Jamie, I neglected the people who were most important to me back in Chicago. I had to write about it all because it was so intertwined. And in order to do that, I had to write like no one would ever read the manuscript, otherwise, I’d have censored myself based on what I thought everyone’s responses would be.

Secondly, I thought of this as the opportunity to really expose all of the roles I had played in the demolition and rebuilding of the most important relationships in my life. Any time I wrote about a tension I had with someone, I asked myself how I had contributed to it, and that helped me write what I hope is a fair depiction of those experiences. My mom, sister, and husband all read the final manuscript before it was published and we had some really deep, connecting conversations about the struggles we had been through. Continue Reading


20 Questions for Peter K. Steinberg

May 24, 2018

Asked by David Trinidad

What is your first memory?

Out my childhood bedroom window, winter 1998.

I have some co-first memories. I don’t know how real they are. But first is being dropped; falling. My mother was carrying me from the living room into our “play room.” There is a step down. A toy left out and she stepped on it and dropped me. She caught me, but the first memory is of falling. I was told, too, that once I fell down the basement stairs. I guess I know what’s wrong with me! Another early one is being at Virginia Beach and getting absolutely wiped out by a wave. I was wearing a white T-shirt with the outline of George Washington’s face in electrically bright colors of orange and green.

You’ve written a biography of Sylvia Plath, co-written a book (with Gail Crowther) about working in the Plath archives, and co-edited (with Karen V. Kukil) two volumes of Plath’s letters. What drew you to Sylvia Plath?

Entering my junior year of college last century, I was dumped by my first love. I decided to take an introduction to poetry course as I had been writing poems and lyrics. All bad. In the course we started with Anonymous and ended after the Confessionals. It was in reading “Lady Lazarus” that I felt, for the first time in weeks, that I’d get over losing the girl. When I asked my professor for more information about Plath, he tried to dissuade me from it, which I felt was an odd thing. Luckily, a friend knew about Plath and helped me find her books in the library. Another professor was very supportive and helpful, but she said Plath would be a phase. Twenty-four years later . . . Continue Reading


Online Survey for the Editor of an Anthology of Borrowed Form Essays

April 25, 2018

This survey was sent by Jenna McGuiggan to Kim Adrian, editor of The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms, published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Except for the book’s foreword, by Brenda Miller, and the source acknowledgements, everything in this anthology has been written using borrowed forms, including Adrian’s introduction, all of the essays, and the postscript by Cheyenne Nimes. There’s even an essay hiding in the list of contributors.


Your answers to the following questions will help us to understand how this anthology of work by 30 writers came together. Your feedback on these topics is invaluable. Thank you for taking the time to complete this survey.

1) Which of these factors was most important to you when deciding to create an anthology of borrowed form essays?

A. The fame and fortune that only essay anthologies can offer
B. A postmodern distrust of traditional literary forms
C. A lifelong passion for crustaceans
D. Other (please specify)

Finding the right form for a given piece of writing is a huge but normally hidden part of the writing process. One reason I like to read and write essays that borrow their forms from elsewhere is that they put that aspect of the writing process front and center. To me, this anthology is ultimately less about this very narrow sub-genre, the so-called “hermit crab essay,” and more about looking very closely at the relationship of form to content.

2) In her foreword to The Shell Game, Brenda Miller explains how she came up with the term “hermit crab essay” in 2001 to describe lyric essays that take on the form (or “shell”) of another kind of writing. If the term hermit crab essay should fall out of favor, what other trickster of the animal kingdom has the necessary qualities to fill this role? Please consider the potential threats and predators that such a specimen would have to overcome.

A. Honey badger (“don’t care!”)
B. Ostrich (head in sand)
C. Possum (playing dead)
D.Chameleon (changing colors)
E. Octopus (master of camouflage)
F. Other (please specify)

I think the honey badger makes a great mascot for all serious writing. It’s tenacious, a little insane, it gets the job done, even if it almost dies trying. But most of all, it “don’t care.” That’s so key to writing well—outrunning your own demons. Finding a way out of their grip. Getting back up if you get knocked down, again and again. Continue Reading


Dan Chaon in Conversation with Timothy Parfitt

March 22, 2018

Dan Chaon is the author of three short story collections, including Among the Missing, which was nominated for a National Book Award, and three novels. He lives in Cleveland and teaches at Oberlin College. His latest novel Ill Will, a New York Times bestseller, was just published in paperback.

When in town for the Columbia College Chicago Reading Series, he sat down with former student, and current nonfiction MFA candidate, Timothy Parfitt. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

 Punctuate: Ill Will builds off of factual events like the Satanism hysteria in the 80s and the conspiracy theories around the Smiley FaceKiller. When you’re building out your imaginative worlds, how do decide when to let your imagination run free and when to stick to fact?

Dan Chaon: I think of everything as fiction. There are images that come from real life, but I don’t think I used any of the details of the factual cases. They become more of a conglomerate or collage of real stuff and made up stuff. So I didn’t feel tied to either of those events. There were several “Satanic Panic” cases that I used as touchstones, like the famous West Memphis Three one. And with the Smiley Face stuff, that’s so nebulous. I think there was one image I used that is pretty close to the real image which was the kid in the Native American outfit. But generally, I reset it in Ohio, there haven’t been any Smiley Face killings in Ohio, and I just used the template of the “killing method” as my jumping-off point. Continue Reading


An Interview with Camille T. Dungy

December 20, 2017

Photo courtesy of the Poetry Foundation

Camille T. Dungy is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascade. She has also edited a number of anthologies, including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. She is a professor at Colorado State University. Her latest is the essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History.

When Camille T. Dungy visited Columbia College Chicago for a reading this fall, she sat down with Punctuate assistant editors Ishah Houston and Taylor Mel. The interview was edited by Mariel Tishma.

Punctuate: Given the fact that history is a constant force within your work, do you feel yourself trying to understand those who are gone, but whose echo seems to heavily influence your work?

Camille T. Dungy: I think writing offers me a kind of experience and time travel, where I get to be in lots of different moments simultaneously. I don’t know that we have yet invented a mechanical object to allow us to do that, but writing does it. So I can be right here, but I can’t walk around Michigan Avenue in Chicago without remembering myself as seven years old. I was here every summer. I’m right here, but I’m also back there at the same time. The moment I do that, I think back to my grandparents’ past and their history and what brought them to Chicago. What they left to come to Chicago. I’m in that. I am in all those places and with you. Here and now but also in some other times, and those people who’ve lived in other times are always with me. You might think of them as ghosts, but I’d like to think of them as guides. Continue Reading