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On Writing

Reading Highlights

Everything Under
 by Daisy Johnson

I've been living in a Daisy Johnson world after reading her collection of stories, Fen, and her first novel, Everything Under.  It's a world where the landscape is active, one where reason and logic are always subservient to imagination, where dreams and intuition rule.  Fen, her story collection, is raw and ragged, and even when the stories are less successful, it's not for a lack of boldness.  The women in these stories often identify with animals and nature while the men are possessed by a need to dominate both.  The female characters in these stories are cunning and smart, and they either overpower, slip away, or confront.  


These themes continue in her first novel, Everything Under, a retelling of the Oedipus myth through a gender-fluid, time-fluid story of a daughter seraching for the mother who abandoned her.  It's set in the lawless houseboat communities on the English canals where shifting reflections and murky depths confuse the characters' lives, and soon, the daughter and a trans son, independent of each other, are searching for the same woman.  Despite having two point of view characters and many shifts in time and place, Johnson is a brilliant guide, teaching the reader how to navigate this restless narrative.  The story unfolds in the only way a dream-like story should, in bits and pieces, setbacks and revelations, with a mix of reality and myth.  The title is perfectly descriptive for a novel that illuminates the deepest, inchoate desires of our primal selves, the two characters groping in the watery darkness, looking for the mother who brought them into her secret world and then tosses them out, over and over.  Johnson's great accomplishment here is that she creates a formal narrative with a cohesive, logical structure and all the signposts necessary for a reader to find her way, but nevertheless feels evolving, casual, urgent and immediate.  These are all the elements of a good mystery, but this one has its own peculiar and wonderfully strange narrative force, a result, I think, of characters who were taught a secret language and eschew rational, goal driven lives.

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Johnson, Daisy, Everything Under, novel

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Greer, Andrew Sean, Less, novel

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Parker, Michael, Prairie Fever, novel

Lee, Jonathan, High Dive, novel

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Shattuck, Jessica, The Women in the Castle, novel

Salvatore Scibona, The Volunteer, novel

Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone, novel

Susan Straight, Take One Candle Light A Room, novel

Esi Edugyan, Washington Black, novel

Jamel Brinkley, A Lucky Man, stories

Deborah Eisenberg, Your Duck Is My Duck, stories
Louisa Hall, Trinity, novel
Joan Silber, Improvement, novel
Melanie Finn, The Gloaming, novel
Rebecca Lee, The City is A Rising Tide, novel
Rebecca Lee, Bobcat, stories
Robin Romm, The Mother Garden, stories
Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda, novel
Moshin Hamid, Exit West, novel
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Tonight we celebrate the achievements of the class of January, 2018. Thank you to the families and friends and partners who have helped the graduates reach this moment. We know there have been many sacrifices and we're grateful for your belief in their work and your support of your graduate at moments of doubt and fear and tiredness.


There was much tiredness.


What I'd like to say to you is that it's not over. This part is over, yes, but this is only the beginning. As you enter the free world, that is, a world free of packet deadlines, annotations, three week increments of productivity, you'll take us with you. You'll remember the words of faculty and peers and you'll take with you our encouragement and the ongoing assistance of the friends you've made in this program. All of this is necessary because it's not easy out there.

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First published in Rain Taxi, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring 2010

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I was the keynote speaker at The Alfred Literary Festival, held at Alfred University on May 2010. It featured readings by poet Jim Shephard and fiction writer Rahul Mehta. My reading was the final reading and these are my introductory remarks:

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