Rabih Alameddine & Juan Gabriel Vásquez talk about fiction teaching empathy and guarding our memories

December 6, 2016, by

Rabih at podiumOn November 21st, the Alley Theatre was already decked for the holidays. A grove of themed trees in the lobby welcomed the Inprint Margaret Root Brown Reading Series for the final performance of the year. Inside, Rabih Alameddine and Juan Gabriel Vásquez read from their novels on the dormant set of A Christmas Carol, and artificial flurries escaped from their rigging throughout.

Though the theater looked towards Christmas, both Alameddine and Vásquez spoke towards the gratitude and displacement so many of us experience on the Thanksgiving weekend, whether or not we return home or reconnect with loved ones. Their words were melancholy and reflective. Alameddine’s The Angel of History spoke of loneliness and makeshift family; the narrator tells his lost love, “you left me roofless in a downpour.” Vásquez prefaced his reading by explaining the words he would read were not his own, and while he thanked his translator, compared the experience to reading someone else’s work. Continue reading

Aja Gabel, UH Creative Writing Program alum, sells first novel to Riverhead Books

October 24, 2016, by

Aja GabelAja Gabel, University of Houston Creative Program PhD, Class of 2015, has sold her first novel, In Common Time, to Riverhead Books, where it will be published next year. We caught up with Aja in the calm before the storm of her literary debut. Some of you may know Aja as the recipient of the Inprint C. Glenn Cambor/Fondren Foundaiton Fellowship, winner of an Inprint Donald Barthelme Prize in Nonfiction, and winner of an Inprint Alexander Prize in Fiction. Aja also taught writing workshops for Inprint and was one of Inprint’s beloved live tweeters.

MAT JOHNSON: Congrats on placing you first book with the prestigious Riverhead imprint of Penguin Random House! Can you tell me, what’s the novel about? Did you start this book at the writing program, or after?

AJA GABEL: Thanks! The novel is about a string quartet, and how they manage their personal relationships as they battle for professional success. Each member desperately needs the quartet to succeed, but for very different and secret reasons, and along the way they navigate heartbreak, death, birth, marriage, injury, failure, and more. It’s told from all four of their perspectives and covers about 25 years. I played cello for 20 years, and I’ve always been fascinated as to how professional ensembles make a living together while also maintaining relationships with each other. It seems like it must be full of all kinds of turmoil and drama (hence, the novel).

I came up with the idea in the very first workshop I took with Chitra Divakaruni, when she forced us to pitch novels, and I panicked. That synopsis I pitched back then was so silly, but the general idea stayed with me. It took me a few years, but eventually I figured out how to actually make it into a novel that didn’t sound like a Lifetime movie. Hopefully.  Continue reading

Another Country, Near and Far: Henríquez and James Read in H-Town

April 28, 2015, by

RM3_7327Once again, I am running late, headlights mocking me as I creep up 59.  But then, a break, and I fly to Louisiana Street and head to a restaurant for Inprint’s Books & Bellinis, a young professionals mixer, before the Inprint reading.  My Multicultural Literature students are coming tonight, too.  We are all excited: we do not know these writers reading tonight.

What I mean is that we don’t know them yet.

I meet some new friends—or writers I know from Facebook–in person, and let me tell you, in person is better.  Two of my friends win books at the party and I feel happy for them:  what is better than a new book, by a new writer, that you have never read?

Well, not much.

I walk with my friend Elizabeth to The Wortham Center and see my students.  They look so grown up to me—we have read a lot of books together.  Some of them are graduating in May.  I am not sure if I am ready for it, not sure if I am ready for them to emigrate from the benevolent despotism of my classroom to The Next Big Thing.  No wonder people stay in college forever.  There are worse countries to visit, hang around, linger.  Everyone migrates somewhere; even the suburbs of Houston seem like independent states sometimes, each a new country, with languages that I cannot recognize at times.  That is because so many people from so many different countries come to Houston:  it is ever changing, kaleidoscopic, never boring. Continue reading

An Interesting Stranger

October 11, 2011, by

In his reading at the UH Moore’s Opera House last night, Michael Ondaatje deftly collaged a variety of scenes and moments from his most recent novel,The Cat’s Table, to take us on a voyage across the oceans, through time and space. Before reading, Ondaatje addressed the question of the mix of autobiography and fiction in the book. While both he and the main character (also named Michael) took a journey on a boat called the Oronsay from Ceylon/Sri Lanka to England in the fifties when they were both 11 years old, he mentioned that in fact all he remembered of the voyage was the ping-pong table on the ship. Paradoxically, for him, this lack of memory freed him up to invent a new story, to create something more wild, more meaningful and more thrilling than reality could ever possibly have been. As he said, quoting Ornette Coleman about music, “What you begin with is the territory, what follows is the adventure.”

And adventure we did, as he began with the boys’ youthful highjinks on board then lead into a description of a proper Sri Lankan man, Dr. Fonseca, on his way to England. Ondaatje described him as “tentative and languid” with “a serenity that came with the choice of the life he wanted to live”—this serenity that the narrator had seen “only among those who have the armour of books close by” (and I couldn’t help but see a bit of the author himself here). Then Ondaatje skillfully took us to the deck of the ship during a storm, through the Suez Canal and then on to London years later as he attempts to reconnect with Cassius, one of his co-conspirators on the Oronsay. Ondaatje’s voice was surprisingly soft and gentle, a soothing monotone with clipped consonants and rapid flow. His tale was ethereal, carefully paced and surprisingly comforting. It turns out that Ondaatje’s focus in The Cat’s Table is not only crossing from Ceylon/Sri Lanka to London, but also traversing the smaller lines drawn across the ship itself, like the border he mentioned between the First Class and Tourist Class or like the silences between the characters themselves.

In the question and answer section with writer and UH professor Chitra Divakaruni, Ondaatje alternated between serious reflections on writing and quite funny anecdotes. A question from Divakaruni about the melding of non-fiction and fiction yielded the funniest one-liner of the night, as Ondaatje quoted famed Texas gadabout Kinky Friedman saying, “There’s a fine line between fiction and non-fiction, and I think I snorted it in 1976.”

On a more serious note, he also declared that, beyond jazz, the greatest artistic invention of the twentieth century was the collage. Its impact, he said has been felt across the arts from film to painting, from literature to music, and he spoke insightfully about his own process of writing his first book The Collected Works of Billy the Kid as a collagist approach. First, he wrote fifty poems, then the prose pieces and finally worked to collage them all together, creating connections between the different texts on the page, adding photographs and writing fake interviews with Billy himself. He contrasted that collagist writing with his more recent approach to The Cat’s Table, which, despite its chronological ebb and flow, was largely written straight from the beginning to the end.

There’s an evocative line in The Cat’s Table that seemed to sum up the evening for me: “We came to understand … our lives could be large with interesting strangers who could pass us without any personal involvement.” Hopefully, you had a chance to witness this particular interesting stranger last night. And if not, the armor of his books are a wonderful substitute.