Book Review: Haw by Sean Jackson
Written by: Niche Lit Magazine

Reviewed by Al Maginnes

Haw | Sean Jackson | Harvard Square Editons | June 2015 | ISBN: 978-1-941861-06-6 | $22.95

9781941861066-PerfectHAW.inddIn the future, some literary critics will express wonder at the popularity of the dystopian novel in the early twenty first century. Why, they will wonder, would readers in a world beset by global warming, economies that tilt on the verge of ruin, a series of small wars, and religious and political extremism of all stripes want to read about the collapse of society? Perhaps for some, the fracturing of society is an inevitable outcome of the course we seem set upon now. Perhaps for other readers it is a comfort to believe that however bad things might be, they are not yet this bad.

However, Haw, Sean Jackson’s debut novel, alerts readers to what might be if these conditions are allowed to continue unchecked. The characters who populate Haw live in what remains of Raleigh, North Carolina, but not a Raleigh current residents would recognize. Pollution, a stratified class system—the very wealthy are known as the Hidden, the very poor are called citoyens—and indifferent policing have created a city as toxic as the pollutants that make the water undrinkable, the air all but unbreathable. For those in the middle, like Lucas, the book’s protagonist, and his son Orel, life is an unending struggle to achieve a semblance of normalcy without being assaulted, robbed or killed. “Crime is always in a state of flux,” Jackson writes as Lucas and his son secure themselves in their home for the evening. “But of late it is spiking terribly.” The pollution in the atmosphere has not only poisoned the city’s most vulnerable inhabitants physically, but mentally as well.

Lucas works for Water Purification, a department in which “there is never any good news.” The damage done to the city’s environment is so far-reaching that a final collapse seems all but assured. In one section of the novel, we follow Lucas to the far west, which has become a wasteland. The deep south, as well, has been all but wiped out by contaminants and pollution. Lucas, troubled about his son’s precarious future in such a world, realizes that their only chance is to escape.

The counterpart to Lucas is Gail, who oversees Lucas’s department and other, less savory aspects of the government. For Gail, “Humanity always loses.” He is the cynical product of bureaucracy and the harsh climate humans have created for themselves. If Lucas is trying to maintain a notion of order amidst of the chaos of the society depicted in Haw, Gail thrives upon that same chaos. A pathology such as Gail’s requires constant conflict, so he is constantly on the hunt for an enemy. When Lucas takes his son and some salmon spawn saved long ago and flees for a rural community, he becomes Gail’s next target.

It would be an easy task to paint the world of Haw in simple primary colors, but Sean Jackson knows better than that. The rural retreat, centered around Bynum, North Carolina, is no less menacing in its fashion than the city. And, inevitably, the problems of the landscape and the malevolence of Gail and his cohorts make the retreat from the city no less dangerous than remaining in the city would have been. Lucas and Orel’s rural escape is both short lived and fraught with danger, forcing Lucas and Orel, along with Orel’s boyfriend Nico, into the city.

61Mv03x6MML._UX250_There is little room for contemplation in Haw. The characters are so caught up in meeting their immediate needs that they have little time to ponder their current circumstances. Even outside of the city, the need for constant vigilance keeps the settlers nervous even in the moments when one suspects they might relax. When Lucas and Orel leave the city for the country, most of the people they see, even children, are armed. As for Gail, he is not built for reflection and demonstrates no inclination to think about how he came to be the man he is or in of how the world in which he dwells has shaped him.

To heighten the razor edge upon which this world—which is our world after all–Jackson keeps the dialogue brief, the descriptions eloquent but short. Here is a short passage describing Lucas and Orel’s flight from the city: “They will zoom for a stretch, winding around back roads flanked by twisted hawthorn trees and glazed quartzite the size of tents, as Orel waves vaguely at children standing in fortified yards, rifles clutched to their sides.” This brevity and matter-of-factness serves the bleak story well and heightens the sense that these are men and women truly trapped in circumstances they do not understand or control, but must survive.

Yet this brevity works against the story in a way. It took longer than it should have to be pulled into Haw, partly because the back story is so thin. We are told of the death of Lucas’s wife only in passing and it takes a while to understand Gail’s malevolent influence over the entire proceedings. A few passages devoted to these things, perhaps a face to face encounter between Lucas and Gail early in the book, and the conflicts might have been much clearer.

But these are small quibbles in the face of a strong debut. Sean Jackson has written a strong and all-too-believable novel about the world we are busy making. I stand eager to read whatever comes next from Sean Jackson.

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About the Author

Sean Jackson has published numerous short stories in literary journals, from the U.S. to Canada and Australia. Haw is his debut novel. He was born in Raleigh, North Carolina. He lives in Cary, North Carolina.

About the Reviewer

Al Maginnes published ten collections of poems, most recently Music From Small Towns (Jacar Press, 2014), winner of the annual Jacar Press contest, and  Inventing Constellations  (Cherry Grove Collections, 2012).. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina and teaches at Wake Technical Community College.

 

Chats With Authors: Jean Kim
Written by: Katya Cummins

NicheCover5We are very pleased to, once again, welcome author, Jean Kim, to Niche. Her poems was published in the latest issue of Niche. You can download and read her poetry here.

Jean Kim is a physician and writer who currently works and lives in the DC Metro area. She received her M.A. in Nonfiction Writing at Johns Hopkins and has also been a nonfiction Fellow at the Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center of CUNY. She blogs for Psychology Today and has work published or forthcoming in The RumpusThe Manifest-StationThe Daily BeastBethesda MagazineLittle Patuxent ReviewStoryscape JournalStar 82 Review, and more.

NICHE: Starting at the beginning is always good. Can you tell us a little bit about how you started to write?

 JEAN KIM: I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing, even since childhood. At age 5 I would cut out and illustrate little books I’d written with simple rhyming lines like “The sky is blue/the world is true.” In middle and high school I would handwrite serial romance stories that I let some of my friends read. Due to limited time, I tended to write more poetry starting in college and have always been a language junkie. I’ve always leaned more towards flowery, ornate words, probably from reading too many Victorian novels while growing up.

NICHE: Some writers, such as John Irving, have said they dislike the short story form and have dedicated themselves to working solely on novels. Others writers, like Thomas Hardy, were  poets first and novelist second. I’ve known writers from the MFA who were brilliant at poetry but whose writing completely fell apart when given a creative nonfiction assignment. Therefore, I find it interesting when I discover writers whose bios say they were trained in one form of writing but have dedicated themselves in practicing other forms.  In your case, you got an MA in Nonfiction Writing from John Hopkins, but submitted some lovely poetry to us.  Can you talk a little about switching between creative writing forms? For instance, do you find one form of writing more difficult to write than another, or is the challenge of crafting the writing so its “good” the only thing you focus on when you sit down to write? 

JEAN KIM: I always liked poetry and fiction writing, and was more obsessed with creative expression and dramatic plots when younger. I majored in English in college and took some workshops in poetry and fiction there. But I went straight to medical school afterwards which occupied all of my free time, and that forced me to pretty much focus on writing short poems now and then during that period. It was a precious and necessary outlet during a period of being forcefed gobs of really dry scientific facts. I entered and won a couple national poetry contests for medical students which was encouraging. During my residency training, I barely had much time either, but did take a couple fiction workshops at the 92nd Street Y that I lived near in Manhattan. I had ideas and ambitions about bringing writing together with my medical experience, and I had heard nonfiction was an easier way to get published and had a larger market for exposure.  But for me, creative nonfiction was by far the hardest genre to write in, like writing with my left hand. At first I felt very married to the facts as is, reporter-style, as is also the style of writing medical notes. With fiction or poetry, you are free to put together anything you want from any reality you choose. You can’t just do that with nonfiction. So I made a conscious decision to get more extensive training in nonfiction writing and open up that “muscle” in my inventory of creative skills. I joined an intensive nonfiction program at the Graduate Center at CUNY, and then when I moved to Washington, DC, decided to join a part-time graduate writing program focusing on nonfiction. And I finally learned the magic trick behind creative nonfiction: using the facts to serve your story, picking and choosing events as the author in a literary way. It took a while to get used to it, but I feel fairly comfortable with it now. I still eventually would like to get back to my first love in writing which is poetry and fiction, but what’s funny is that as I get older, I prefer reading nonfiction moreso than fiction. Nonfiction feels more grounded and truthful and educational to read nowadays to me. I still love reading poetry.

NICHE: You mentioned this idea about picking and choosing events when writing creative nonfiction. Many writes have discussed how “truth” should be defined or handled when​ writing creative nonfiction. Have you ever found it difficult to choose events without sacrificing the emotional honesty of a piece? Or is it the other way around? As a writer, do you choose the events that will drive you towards the emotional integrity of the piece? How to find place between those two issues?

JEAN KIM: For me, this handling of truth is the most challenging aspect of writing nonfiction. In most cases, you can’t just write the facts as they are, because that is boring and no one wants to read it. In other instances, you do want to write the facts as they are, but for reasons of confidentiality or pissing off family members or friends or worrying about getting sued or just your personal discomfort, but you can’t do it even though the truth would be better than fiction. It depends on the situation. So the author’s challenge is navigating the story through these minefields, and still letting the themes and intent of the story shine through. One skill I have learned though through workshops and good teaching is how to pick and choose the details that do serve your narrative, that keep the reader’s attention and the emotional integrity as you mention in the story. You develop an ear for the resonance and deeper meanings of a particular moment or event, even if it seems relatively quiet or minor, and how to convey that to the reader. Or how to leave out details that just clutter the page and don’t really help the reader towards any insight. But as far as things I would like to write about, but feel like I can’t for various reasons, I feel like the only solution might be putting it into fiction or poetry.

JeanpensivephotoNICHE: This next question is similar to the last. Before you submitted to our online magazine you submitted a brief craft essay that explores the relationship between writers and their painting. Do you paint yourself?

JEAN KIM: Actually I suck at painting! I’ve tried it once on a whim during residency but didn’t get very far. My younger sister (who is also a doctor) is the painter, and I’m the writer.

NICHE: I’ve noticed that your poetry deals subjects that are both personal and political in nature. You’ve also written opinion pieces in the past.  In your opinion, does poetry have to extend beyond the writer in order for an outside audience to connect with the piece emotionally?

JEAN KIM: Not necessarily. Those are the topics that drive me to express myself and color my experiences, but I don’t think each and every work has to incorporate those themes to be meaningful or deep. Each person’s lived experience will provide the important themes they need and want to express for themselves, if they’re tuned into it. There’s even a risk that a poem will be too literal or heavyhanded if it’s too focused on overtly political themes or too sentimental. But every good writer has their own voice and has the potential to make it work. I do think a work has to reverberate beyond itself though; the meanings have to resonate beyond its surfaces.

NICHE: I’ve read some of your creative nonfiction pieces. It might sound weird but you write very clean and very beautiful sentences. I have also notice that you have a talent for imagery and turn of phrases. Do you have any advice to aspiring writers as to how to prefect their own images without straying into the cliche? 

JEAN KIM: I really appreciate your kind words! I think reading as much as possible helps your vocabulary even on a subconscious level, so when you are faced with expressing something, your mind can string together pearls from the deep, and it just comes out unique. I think a background in poetry is important as well, even for prose writers, to learn how to make those original and creative, abstract ways to express oneself, and explore the full potential of language.

NICHE: As you might know, Niche occasionally runs spotlights with published authors who work in professions outside of academia. You are also a working psychiatrist. You write for The Daily Beast and blog for Psychology Today. Of course the writing you do for these venues are more directly linked to your profession than poetry. But I was wondering if your career informs your creative work too, and if so, how?

JEAN KIM: Well medicine and particularly psychiatry has been rich fodder for writers in the past and there is a great tradition of doctor writers like Chekhov, William Carlos Williams, and more recently writers like Ethan Canin, Oliver Sacks, and Abraham Verghese who mine important material out of the life-and-death and illness-and-suffering-based questions that medicine always grapples with. Psychiatry out of all the medical specialties interfaces directly with each person’s life story and relies on the context of the person’s experience to make more accurate and helpful diagnoses and treatments. So some of the experiences I’ve gone through and witnessed as a physician hearing people at their most vulnerable and intimate moments do influence my writing. The dilemma for me is processing and expressing some of those issues without betraying people’s privacy and confidence, but also trying to help the general public have a greater understanding of these important issues. I’ve been very cautious so far in monitoring those boundaries. Sometimes it’s easiest then just to use myself as fodder for those themes.

NICHE: What are you working on now?

JEAN KIM: Just writing essays on various topics, ranging from opinion issues to more creative meditations or memoir pieces. I’m always devoted at the core to really beautiful language and turns of expression, and stark themes about life, morality, and mortality. I have some ideas for a longer work about my psychiatry training, but am debating whether to write it as fiction or nonfiction.

NICHE: What are some of the benefits of writing personal experiences as fiction as opposed to creative nonfiction? Does it have to do with keeping intimate details private, as you say?

JEAN KIM: As I noted above, yes, fiction has more freedom and flexibility for the author. You can write any scene or any character or any event you want without worrying about real-life people going after you (although of course they sometimes still do if they think your fictional character is based on them, but they have a lot less ground to stand on, and less potential damage to themselves). The only issue is to make fiction sound reasonably plausible, especially psychologically. Or just go all out fantasy-mode. (And even then, the characters still have to be psychologically riveting.) So if you want to explore the sequelae of something that happened to you in real life, fiction is a great outlet to do so without feeling as bound to the bond of truth as in nonfiction/memoir. But for some, fiction may start to lack some of the immediacy to the reader, that instant intimacy and tension that develops when you know you are reading life as is, that makes nonfiction and memoir so appealing to read. So for me, writing truly good, engaging fiction is in some ways harder than nonfiction, although it may be easier to write at first.

NICHE: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?

JEAN KIM: Writing is such an important outlet and valuable way for people to process and move through life.  I hope that an ever wider range of voices gets out there about topics people tend to shy away from and don’t discuss.

Chats With Authors: Jahla Seppanen
Written by: Katya Cummins

Alien GirlsWe are very pleased to welcome author, Jahla Seppanen to Niche. Her short story, Alien Girls, was published in the latest issue of Niche. You can download and read her wonderful story here.

Jahla Seppanen was born and raised off the grid in Madrid, New Mexico. She received her B.A. in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Last year she completed her first novel. Jahla enjoys Puerto Rican rum and listening to the Ramones.  Her stories have been published in Fourteen Hills, The Bookends Review, Used Gravitrons, and Turk’s Head Review.

NICHE: Can you tell us a little bit about how and when and why you decided to peruse writing?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: It was in my senior year of college that I first understood writers are people, and I could do it too. Not that I am living off my fiction writing, but it became clear that it can and is done. This came from a professor of mine, Junior Burke, whom I still hold as the greatest mentor I have ever had. He showed me that it’s simple. Every day you have to sit yourself down and write. If you do, you’re a writer and you want it. If you don’t, then well, you don’t want it enough. He also taught me that good writers will never be great, and great writers will never be extraordinary. He made me trust in the simplicity of my words.

NICHE: What were some of the challenges you faced, if any, when composing your short story, Alien Girls?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: Sorting memories. And doing so with the restraint of deciding what to tell. In the end, it was everything. I have always been bad at keeping secrets.

NICHE: Technically speaking, your story is a difficult one, in that, you employ first-person present tense, but the narrator is re-calling past events. Those who know a little bit about writing technique know that first person, present tense is difficult to maintain and keep coherent throughout. You do it very well. Can you speak to your choices? Why first person and why present tense?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: I believe in writing what is consistent with how I envision the story and characters. Sometimes truth does not conform to rules. It rarely does. But you have to know the rules to break them. Most writers go directly for unconventional or “edgy” writing, but that is all crap. The rules are important.

unnamed-3NICHE: In Alien Girls, the narrator is almost a secondary character. That is, the focus of the story is entirety on Sonia. However, the narrator is important. Readers know her very well by the end merely because we get to experience how she describes her sister, and how she describes her sister tells us a lot about her. Without her acting as a filter, readers wouldn’t understand Sonia at all.  Was this a conscious decision on your part or did this develop organically as you drafted?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: Yes, the narrator is nothing but a ghost limb of Sonia. I cannot speak to whether readers will understand or know Sonia, because I know her and the narrator does, and there is an intimacy there. This intimacy is love and fear and cannot be backed away from. It is my hope that readers feel close to that. Maybe to the point of feeling uncomfortable, because that is what exists between the lost and the living. We all have sadnesses in our lives. And if you don’t, you will.

NICHE: The other wonderful aspect of your story is that the language is what I would describe as “lush.” I’m defining lush as sentences that hold a level of interest or evidence of “having been there”—which does not mean the story is creative nonfiction. It merely means that you’ve used images effectively. What I like, however, is that your images are not overwrought or overly lyrical. They are very much tied to the real. I believe it is because you’ve used images in this way that your story manages to not veer into the overly sentimental, which is difficult to accomplish with a story that deals with a death. I know it is very difficult but can you describe to our readers how you go about choosing the details or images you use in a story? Do you have to struggle to find them, or do they come to you naturally as the story develops?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: I write from how I see little scenes in my head. Like the narrator, I always dream at night. Bright, vivid, sharp dreams. There is no way to share these images by using flowery language. Flowery language does nothing but wilt. Words should be simple. Adjectives should be burned. Sentiment is adjective. And it’s funny because death is the most simple thing in the world.

I have always hated writing that is overly lyrical. I believe it is self indulgent, if I’m putting it nicely.

I choose my writing based off details that have the exact right word to describe them. Of course it is a struggle, or more of a hunt, but when the right word comes I can feel it all down my body. Even before the story goes on the page it has a breed. Sometimes it can be as simple as the sound of a word that makes it a terrible fit. But you can’t include it.

NICHE: What advice would you give aspiring writers about the revising and editing process?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: Read your work out loud, because flow is everything. And kill your darlings. It is an emptying feeling when I revise and realize the story is terrible. But you have to know that you can either work through the sludge for hours on end, or trust that the story does not need to be told.

NICHE: What can you tell us about the novel you completed? What are you working on now?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: I completed a novel, The Sage and Sound, about two lovers on a nocturnal road trip from Texas to New Mexico. It centers around the dependencies of being in love, and how we are influenced for better and worse. I had a couple agents look at the manuscript but nothing stuck. The first half is very good, but the second needs work. I hope it can be published one day, but I am not ready to return to that world yet. It is entrapping, like the landscape of the desert and the feeling of being completely in love.  For now my heart can only handle short prose. But it needs writing. Oh it needs it.