What do artists, actors, photographs, writers--and all of us-- do in a time of oppression? We paint, we write, we photograph, we bear witness. We never ever give up. Scoundrel Time is a brand new journal to bring light to dark times. Please support it in any and all ways you can. I am.
Paula Whyman is the author of You May See a Stranger, a linked story collection that won praise from The New Yorker and a starred review in Publishers Weekly. Paula’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ploughshares, VQR, and The Washington Post, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. Paula teaches in writers-in-schools programs through the Pen/Faulkner Foundation in Washington, DC and The Hudson Review in Harlem and the Bronx, New York. She is a fellow of The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and The Studios of Key West, and a member of The MacDowell Colony Fellows Executive Committee. Paula has been awarded a 2017 Hawthornden Fellowship. A music theater piece based on a story from her book is in development with composer Scott Wheeler. Before earning her MFA, Paula edited books for the American Psychological Association on topics ranging from the study of personality to PTSD among refugees.
Mikhail Iossel, the Leningrad-born author of the story collection Every Hunter Wants to Know (W.W. Norton) and co-editor of the anthologies Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States (Dalkey Archive, 2004) and Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia (TinConcordia University in Montreal House, 2010), is a professor of English/Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada and the founding director of the Summer Literary Seminars international program. Back in the Soviet Union, he worked as an electromagnetic engineer/submarine demagnetizer and as roller-coaster security guard and belonged to the organization of samizdat writers, Club-81. He came to the US in 1986 and started writing in English in 1988. Among his awards are the Guggenheim, NEA and Stegner Fellowships. His stories, in English and in translation to a number of other languages, have appeared in NewYorker.com, Guernica, The Literarian, Agni Review, The North American Review, Threepenny Review, Interia, Boulevard, Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere.
I am so honored to host both Paula and Mikhail here, and to have written an essay for them. You all should, too.
What was your “why now” moment when you decided to launch this journal?
Mikhail: Because now is the ultimate “if not now, when” moment. We are all trying to make sense of the changed and still rapidly changing circumstances of our shared life as Americans, and as American writers. Writing, generally, is a solitary process, but there are times when joint free-writing feels like a necessity. It is an exercise in not being silent together, because silence is not the absence of sound, but the absence of us.
Paula: In the days after the election, like so many people, I was in shock. I couldn’t write fiction. I couldn’t sleep. Fiction requires imagining what happens next, and I was not yet prepared to do that. When Mikhail proposed a journal in which artists could address what was going on, I offered to help right away. I felt the need to do something in response to the situation. The only other thing that seemed viable was drinking heavily, and that is notably less sustainable.
What do you hope this journal will do? And how can it reach--and teach--the people it really needs to? How can it not just be "preaching to the choir?"
Mikhail: Preaching is antithetical to literature, and the choir’s essential purpose is to sing, rather than hearken to sermons in silence. Voices spread through the air, words permeate the cyberspace. Writers write, readers read, and frequently those two capacities are interchangeable, since by the act of reading reader gets transformed into a co-author.
Paula: I’m not out to teach anyone anything. At least, we’re trying to get people thinking about the different ways our lives may be affected by what’s happening here and around the world. I want to help people to remember who they are and how interdependent we are. I want to build empathy. I want people to hold onto their humanity.
One way to get there is for more people to know about us, of course. I’m pleased to say that we are already beginning to hear from some well-known artists who want to help us reach a wider audience. Writers like you, Caroline, who have a platform, help draw attention to the talented but perhaps lesser-known artists who are telling compelling stories that we would like everyone to hear.
How do we discover and keep meaning in these dark times? Are you talking about the concrete things that people can do every week, or the things to keep us all from being so terrified we cannot move?
Mikhail: I like this quote from John Ashbery: “In the increasingly convincing darkness/ The words become palpable, like a fruit/ That is too beautiful to eat.” The condition of gathering non-freedom accelerates the mind, enhances one’s search for meaning, and elevates the role of writer as an alternative source of truth-telling in gaslighting-addled society.
Paula: My hope is that people will find something to connect with in the creative work we publish. I think meaning can be discovered through art. Many of my colleagues have expressed that it has been difficult or impossible to create since the election. I think that’s beginning to change. It’s like working through stages of grief. I have a feeling that once more artists begin working again, we are going to see a flood of exciting and innovative projects.
Also, in the days following the election, Mikhail noticed that a lot of Facebook pages had sprung up focused on organizing for marches or readings, signing petitions, responding to proposed legislation or nominees, and so on. I was at a talk where a representative from the ACLU explained that hope requires action; he quoted Cornel West: “Action leads to hope.” This is so true. We need to work together for the same primary purpose: to keep our democracy, to keep what rights we have and push for equal rights. Maybe that sounds trite and obvious, but sometimes people get lost in the weeds, or focus on searching for perfection in our allies, and forget that we’re all really talking about the same ultimate goal.
We will have an editor who runs a page we’re calling “Actions,” where current actions like those I just listed will be posted. That page will be updated frequently.
But our primary focus will be on presenting creative works from a range of voices, with, we hope, a global perspective. Our plan is to post new pieces a couple of times each week.
Will you also be giving voice to say, Trump voters, who are beginning to feel they were lied to?
Mikhail: Unlike in Trump-world, there will be no off-limits topics and non-grata categories of people in “Scoundrel Time.”
Paula: No. They had their voice. Look what they did! They should all go stand in the corner.
Just kidding. Sort of. We would be glad to see work from people who are questioning, who have changed their minds, from former “true believers.”
Mikhail: Of course, the hateful people, the racists, those willfully wallowing in vileness, unrepentant in their ironclad ignorance, the determined scoundrels, will gain no access to our pages -- not that they would likely be interested.
What can everyone do to support this? And how can we really help one another?
Mikhail: One can support us by supporting us, in every sense of the term!
Paula: We are a 501(c)(3)—that is, a tax-exempt nonprofit. We accept donations, and your donations are tax deductible. Anyone who would like to donate, please contact us. Please consider donating! We are all volunteers. We hope donations will enable us to start paying our contributors. As a fiction writer, I feel strongly about that.
We launch on January 30th. We will accept work through the Submittable platform, and we won’t charge for submissions. Before you submit, I urge you to read the journal, of course. It will be free, and it’s online (as of Jan. 30). Couldn’t be easier. We won’t open to general essay submissions right away, but if you have an idea for an essay, please pitch me through the mailbox on our website.
Can you give us an example of the kinds of things you are looking for or that you have accepted?
Mikhail: I, for one, would be especially interested in the sheer geographic dispersal of literary voices, throughout North America and beyond.
Paula: I’m especially interested in seeing more humor writing. We have a humor piece in our launch issue that I love, along with an essay about how much demagogues hate humor. Keep it coming! I’m also interested in cartoons, comics, and graphic work in different genres.
We seek fiction, poetry, and visual art. It doesn’t have to be overtly political, but perhaps, to paraphrase our poetry editor, Mark Svenvold, work that engages with the contemporary political and cultural situation in direct and indirect ways we hadn’t anticipated, without necessarily arriving at an answer or solution. Maybe a carefully observed moment of beauty, of humor, of attention. As our fiction editor, Karen Bender explains, we look for work that humanizes, that surprises, that uses humor, that is both traditional and plays with form. We’re not opening to CNF submissions yet, but if anyone has an intriguing idea, please pitch me through the general mailbox on the site.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Who is contributing?
We have so much great work! Tremendous work! (Sorry, I can’t stand the way language is being debased these days…)
Some of the work we plan to include in the, uh, inaugural issue:
Poems by Daisy Fried, Terese Svoboda, Jim Daniels, Regie Cabico, and Bob Holman;
Fiction by Ben Greenman, Tracy O’Neill, David Ulin, Paul Lisicky, and Carolyn Ferrell.
Look for an essay about humor by South African novelist Tony Eprile; an essay about asylum by Peter Trachtenberg; a premonition by Timothy Denevi, who has followed the election for Lit Hub; a commentary on Caligula by novelist Valerie Block; an essay by none other than Caroline Leavitt about stories we tell ourselves; and a dispatch from Kenya about our election by Tony Mochama; and a dispatch from the UK by fiction writer Carole Burns. Plus photographs! And video performance art!
Mikhail: Can’t think of one. There already are too many unanswered and, at this point, unanswerable questions floating all around us.