Criticism & Features


Small Press Highlights, 2010 Edition

By Rigoberto Gonzalez

Is this the year of the small press or what? The Pulitzer Prize went to Paul Harding’s Tinkers, published by Bellevue Literary Press (yes, as in the Bellevue Hospital), which also publishes one of my favorite journals, Bellevue Literary Review. Get your subscription here!

The National Book Award went to Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule, published by McPherson & Company, a small but now-famous outfit from Kingston, NY. Another National Book Award finalist was Karen Tei Yamashita’s hefty 600-page tome I Hotel, from Coffee House Press–a press that has been publishing excellent novels these last few years, two of which I featured in the Small Press Spotlight series this season–Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions and Aaron Michael Morales’ Drowning Tucson. (Keep it up, Coffee House editors, each of your selections is a Minneapolis lion’s roar among the New York City meows we’ve been–kind of–hearing lately.)

Last year I selected “9 Divine,” this year I’m one-upping the list to 10. The following books, listed alphabetically by publisher, are ten more outstanding small press titles whose beauty and originality deserve a little more notice:

Ahsahta Press: Brian Teare, Pleasure: There’s a fine line between inhabiting Eden and becoming an exile of Eden, between pleasure and pain–the “luciferous kiss” of touch and neglect. Teare’s elegies are elegant and startling, they almost make me forget the grief that inspires them: “When I write butterfly, it’s not ironic. It’s a sweet name for a needle.”

BlazeVOX [books]: Urayoán Noel, Hi-Density Politics: No other poet can make music out of NYC’s white noise and stage a play using the “scenes from an apocalipsync” like the inimitable Noel–a poet who packs more energy into a single page than most can pack into an entire book. So what’s the book about?: “IT’S ALL ABOUT THE SLIGHT LIMPS, BABY,  THE ETHNIC FOOD  THE QUEER RAZA  THE SITUATIONALIST THEORY  THE MECHANICAL BULLS  THE INCA TEMPLES  THE LEATHERETTE GLOVES  THE STIRRUPPED CUTUPS  THE BAD BEATITUDES  THE STILLBORN MORNINGS  THE PARTIAL MEMORIES  THE UNDERWEAR HANGOVERS  THE S&M AT THE H&M…”

Graywolf Press: Tiphanie Yanique, How to Escape from a Leper Colony: The title story haunted me for weeks because it turns out the directive is literal–there is a leper colony. But whether a person can escape it, even after leaving it, is arguable. And so this gorgeous collection of stories about the varied citizens of the various locations along the Caribbean–St. Thomas, St. Croix, Guyana–they navigate the islands, even as they remain locked inside their fears, anxieties and desires. Yanique has received wide acclaim for this debut. Expect even greater things from this promising young voice.

Ig Publishing: Angie Chau, Quiet as They Come: What the works of Maxine Hong Kingston and Faye Myenne Ng did for San Francisco’s immigrant Chinese population, Chau’s book achieves gracefully for the Bay Area’s Vietnamese immigrant population. These eleven interconnected stories follow the everyday paths of elders and youngsters straining to define their new lives in a fast-changing multicultural landscape. Readers who come across these characters will echo one of the narrator’s wish when she watches crumpled newspaper sheets flutter down like parachutes: “I pray for each a safe landing.”

O/R Books: Eileen Myles, Inferno: Subtitled “a poet’s novel,” this book defies easy categorization as it breaks the boundaries between poem and memoir, fiction and testimony. The layers of hell are so closely tied to class, religion, gender, sexuality, art and profession, that there’s very little room to imagine the world of poetry as other than the paradise of the wicked (and the naughty). But the real treat in reading this book is encountering the absorbing, no-frills, tell-it-like-it-is guide–the poet–who leaves no brimstone unturned as she explores the climaxes of sex and literature.

Red Hen Press: Kurt Brown, No Other Paradise: If other poets examine the mysteries of our broken world, Brown excavates them, mining through the rubble of curiosity, confusion and contemplation to construct these haunting poems about the silence, the fleetingness, and the end of things. Here, “stars tremble like pebbles under moving water” and “children still in the womb will be born with bullets already searching for their heads.” And yet, this “mortality” lens also illuminates and we can see objects for the dark beauties they really are:

and we sang halleluiah! halleluiah!
while all around us real mountains filled with crows
black as ministers in their robes.

Tin House Books: Sarahlee Lawrence, River House: Writers like William Kittredge, Terry Tempest Williams, and Ann Zwinger have raised the bar of nature writing by shaping narrative styles that illustrate the inextricable link between people and the earth they inhabit. Lawrence is a promising voice of nature writing’s next generation as evidence by the rich and poetic language that matches the breath-taking scenery it describes. But in the end, the prodigal daughter must come to terms with her father and the family land through the construction of a cabin on her natural home: “I knew that little spot of ground, and I belonged there.”

U. of Arizona Press: Carlos Chao Romero, The Chinese in Mexico 1882-1940: Chao Romero adds a new dimension to Mexico’s complex immigrant history with this examination of the Chinese population that grew exponentially in Mexico after the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The inevitable intermarriage between Chinese and Mexicans resulted in genetic and linguistic changes that continue to resonate in present-day Mexico as the nationality now includes names like Pablo Chee, Santiago Wong and Federico Cham. But Chao Romero doesn’t romanticize the hard life and tough choices that many early Chinese laborers had to make in order to thrive in a Spanish-speaking Catholic country.

U. of Massachusetts Press: Ramola D, Temporary Lives: Winner of the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, this collection of short stories set in south India explores the lives of mostly working-class people confronted with the old ways in a contemporary culture where the recognition of choice and freedom challenges tradition. But these are also stories of perseverance and transcendence, where a woman in distress can somehow wake up to a new day and declare: “The morning came into the room, and I was singing.”

U. of Nebraska Press: Jon Pineda, Sleep in Me: Told in a series of vignettes, this touching memoir is the story of a brother and a sister whose lives are completely changed after one of them is left paralyzed after a tragic car accident. Adolescence, a burden for most, is particularly taxing for these image-conscious, rebellious Filipino teens who become house-bound because one can’t move and the other is anchored to the responsibility of care-taking. Pineda has built his reputation as a poet, but he expands his literary territory with this powerful portrait of love and loyalty between siblings.