Maintaining the ostensible focus of this Orange County-themed literary arts blog is easy this week when a fellow UCI Lecturer and literary pal shared a copy of a novella published by Black Hill Press aka 1888 Center, an outfit I have been remiss in writing about. Check out its handsome website, with elegant description of many (!) and various projects. Founded by self-described advocate, author and publisher Kevin Staniec, this small if impressively productive OC-based publishing house and all-around local creative hub has thus far published 36 novellas in just a couple of years, with lovely covers, and a youthful energy, passion and range of topics and authors. Its commitment to one singularly overlooked, neglected form - the novella - might further help it make its name locally, regionally and beyond though it's already a big deal. I was pleased to read one new novella published this year, a kind of gritty, political, near-noir bit of old-school literary naturalism by one Eric Z. Weintraub. The short book, easily readable in one sitting, is titled Dreams of An American Exile, and seems as good a way to introduce the BHP catalog as any.
Indeed, this long short story (my own best try at a definition of novella for now) builds on a winning and urgently topical premise, one perhaps familiar but here done to particular effect in its unshy embrace of detail, violence and, again, a kind of fatalistic hard-knocks loser narrative, if with empathy. By which I mean affect. There's a surprising and brave embrace here of blunt naturalism, the quotidian, of the mean side of the streets. The dark if gorgeous cover illustration of the gruesome US-Mexico border at night helpfully mediates the nonfiction vs. fiction elements of Weintraub's novella, the story of Rose/Rosa Quintero, an all-American Tucson college student with hyperbolic if completely true ambitions, the kind any slightly too-innocent young person might possess until, yes, her participation in a political demonstration inadvertently, indirectly and forever changes her status. Yes, her immigration status but also her existential state, our anti-heroine now stateless if now by default Mexican and not Mexican-American or "American" after having lived with the lie of her parents' totally familiar life journey as undocumented. The dream becomes a nightmare, and fast. Yes, like the famous and heroic "Dreamers," not to mention thousands of others who didn't make it to college, our Rose is subject to the immediate, brutal and impossibly Kafkaesque protocols administered to the deported and the dispossessed, often kids or young adults caught in the folds of the fabric of family history. In just the first few days and weeks of her incarceration ("detention") and ultimate release in Nogales, she encounters death, experiences a beating by ICE officers, witnesses sexual violence and a shooting, meets a coyote and rubs up against the narco cartels.
This is fast-paced, concentrated, scenic writing with a tough-guy attitude about a not very tough girl-woman whose maturation happens more quickly than anybody's should have to, a whole new lifetime in a few weeks, with a necessarily tough ending. I wouldn't have predicted this variety of stylized, sober, old-school prose from young writers, but it certainly suits the material. But then I surely could not have predicted this press or the 1888 Center, either, a welcome surprise. It's named to celebrate the City of Orange-Chapman University connection here, with founder Staniec and others in his stable of writers seeming to come from So Cal or Orange County, some graduates of the little liberal arts college in the historic old town with the nifty roundabout and fountain and 360 degree views of our county, established in the year 1888. Check out the archival photographs of Old Orange online, the Plaza, and be impressed with this new literary player's collective commitment to community, here a growing community of new, hungry, ambitious writers.
Thanks to biblio-pal Lance Langdon for gifting me a copy of the novella, and boostering its author and the work of BHP.
Dreams of An American Exile, Eric Z. Weintraub, Black Hill Press, 75 pgs, $12.00
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Andrew Tonkovich edits the West Coast literary journal Santa Monica Review and hosts the weekly Wednesday night books show Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.