“One-Armed and Dangerous”

“Yellow Mama,” Alabama’s retired electric chair, so named after its distinctive paint job

I’ve got a new crime story, “One-Armed and Dangerous,” out today in YELLOW MAMA WEBZINE, issue 87. The story includes body horror, class struggle, and loyalty–three issues I’ve been mulling over a lot these days. Yellow Mama takes its name from Alabama’s infamous electric chair (pictured, right), nicknamed that due its distinctive paint job. And that name sets the vibe for the zine.

One of the best parts about Yellow Mama is that they illustrate every story and poem, pulling as few punches in the art as they do in the tales. I won’t post it here–go on over at the link above & check out the tale–but “One-Armed and Dangerous” got a killer illustration by Darren Blanch. Check it out along with rest of this killer issue, all free to read online. Enjoy!

-Z.

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As Summer Races By

I hope you’re getting out & about this summer, fully vaccinated but still being careful. We’ve all suffered enough loss the last 16 months; take care of yourself.

I’ve had a few more stories either published or accepted in recent months, so I’m taking the opportunity to mention them to write a post before this site gathers dust like our forgotten interview suits in the back of the closet:

Old hippy on Mt. Adams

QUAKING ASPENS, a hiking horror story, is up in the summer issue (#8) of Blind Corner Literary Magazine. A lot of good stories in there. This link is to the current issue, so after #9 comes out, look for #8 in the previous issues link. The zine is a PDF download, suitable for printing and leaving in the glove compartment or backpack for reading emergencies.

Yellow Mama will be publishing my hard-boiled crime story ONE-ARMED AND DANGEROUS in their August issue. It’ll be free to read online as are all Yellow Mama stories, poems, and artwork. Excited to share this one, inspired by true events.

My story EGG ON HER FACE will be included in this autumn’s BLOODROOT: BEST NEW ENGLAND CRIME STORIES 2021. Getting published in this annual anthology has been a goal for several years, & I’m thrilled both to have made it and to share a table of contents with so many friends and mentors.

In the meantime, summer races by. Play hooky. Have a campfire. Cast a line, open a book, and hope nothing actually bites…

See you in the woods.

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Review: Burying the Newspaper Man

Cover picture of "Burying the Newspaper Man." Shows a car with an open trunk near a San Diego beach.
Novel cover image

In his 2021 debut novel, San Diego-based crime writer Curtis Ippolito took a dive from the highest platform in tacking the trauma of childhood sexual abuse from the POV of an adult male survivor. The title “Burying the Newspaper Man” is pitch-perfect as a guide to where this story is going: protagonist Marcus Kemp, now a tight-lipped San Diego street cop, setting out to bury the past by confronting it.

We learn early on that Kemp was victimized as a preteen by a trusted adult, the editor of a small-town newspaper where his father insisted Kemp take a summer job. Bullied by the man into silence at the time, the lingering shame, confusion, and self-doubt form the bedrock of Kemp’s secret inner life. When Kemp accidently discovers the murdered body of his former tormenter in the trunk of an abandoned car, he can no longer suppress his feelings, and vows to do whatever it takes to make sure his own monster’s killer gets away with it. This, of course, is at odds with Kemp’s chosen profession, which is also soon put at risk by this decision. In Kemp we find a sympathetic man and a skilled investigator forced to choose between two versions of justice, neither of which is perfect, and both of which bring risk.

Ippolito’s prose is precise and direct in the best tradition of crime fiction, and this fast-moving story is free of filler. If you aren’t familiar with Ippolito’s name and work, check out samples of his short stories, free to read here and here on Shotgun Honey, to get a taste. Ippolito doesn’t shy from showing us what Kemp suffered though or the ease with which an experienced predator can isolate and coerce a child, but he never crosses the line into voyeurism or exploitation. This is an extremely difficult topic to write about, and Ippolito does it with a skill all the more unexpected in a first novel. Difficult as the topic is, it’s also an important one, both in bringing more perpetrators to justice and for reaffirming to victims they have no cause for shame, embarrassment, or feelings of inadequacy because someone they once trusted violated that trust.

Kemp’s detailed investigation, in which he simultaneously tries to find the killer (to thank them) and thwart the SDPD’s attempts to catch them, also makes for a first-rate mystery. What Ippolito shows us is crime-writing at its best–a reflection of our greatest fears and a catalyst for social change packaged as damn good entertainment.

Read Burying the Newspaper Man as soon as you can, and get ready for Ippolito’s NEXT novel, which can’t be long in coming.

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The Revenant Publishing World

While off to a seemingly slow start, I’m happy to already have half a dozen commitments to publish my short stories this year. With writing, as with everything else in this The Year of Our Covid, virtually no one has been able to keep up with the schedules they previously maintained and committed to. Even if everything went right for an individual–one didn’t lose one’s job or have to work from home while taking care of kids, overseeing online funerals, or caring for the more vulnerable and dependent–things decidedly did not go well for others. As the joke meme goes, we really DO live in a society.

Things are bouncing back, but slowly. If you’re submitting, I think it’s safe to assume every publisher and agent’s stated response time is still double or more what’s posted on their website. But keep telling your stories. The world needs them. (But this is not the time for anyone to expect writers to forego simultaneous submissions, esp. if they’re six months behind in their responses. Flexibility is required from all sides.)

I’m especially eager to hear back from a couple submissions about a novel I’ve completed about rural Wisconsin in the early 1990s, 1993 to be exact, a seminal year for many things in America from music to political realignments to…the mink industry. Hopefully I will have more news on that last bit soon (crossed fingers waved over the grave of the revenant publishing houses…)

Below now are links to two very different kinds of short stories–one a flash–I’ve had published this year that I hope you’ll enjoy and share. Both are available for free to read online. I like publishing online. You don’t get paid as much (at least I haven’t figured out how to be) but you do get to share your words more widely, which is a plus.

CARLA COLLECTS HER INVOICE is the first story. It’s about a 5-minute read. Anyone who’s ever been jilted or pursued by the jilted should relate to it. It was published by Dead Fern Press, a site I recommend you bookmark & visit often for the excellent fiction and poetry they publish.

AMBUSCADE ON THE APTUXET TRAIL is the second story, a “Pilgrim Noir” western set in 1629 Massachusetts, back when the East Coast represented the “frontier,” at least from the English perspective. It’s published by Close To The Bone, another publisher with great taste in the stories they put out. For history buffs, “Ambuscade…” is based on true events. In the mid-1620s, a colorful character named Thomas Morton founded a colony of a very different character than Plymouth, one that could have set a very different tone for the country to be if he were the “Founding Father” we celebrated instead of Myles Standish, William Bradford, & the rest of what historian Sarah Vowell has dubbed those “Mayflower-cruising, Jesus freak corn rustlers,” AKA, Pilgrims.

Morton would agree with Vowell’s characterization. For the story, I read his autobiography, The New English Canaan, which he published in 1637 to rip the “Separatists” of Plymouth a new one. It was immediately banned in Massachusetts, making it the first banned book in North America. His colony, called “Maremount” or “Merrymount” is on the site of modern-day Quincy, MA, where the Pilgrims accused Morton of unfair trade practices, e.g., paying the Natives a fair price for furs, devil worship, and worse. (If this sounds vaguely familiar, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a story, The May-Pole of Merry Mount, about the whole venture. His is more romantic in character, while mine focuses on the barbaric penal code of the 1600s as well as on revenge.

For AMBUSCADE ON THE APTUXET TRAIL, most of Morton’s dialogue is quoted directly from his book, though used out of context to provide imagined conversations. One quote of his is from Othello, written about 1603 and which Morton conceivably saw at the Globe.

I hope you enjoy both stories & those to come. Just keep punching.

-Z.

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Poems from the Dark Side: Valzhyna Mort, Cynthia Pelayo, and J.B. Stevens

We read a lot of poetry around our house, reserving Monday nights after dinner as the time each member of the family shares one or two poems that struck them that week with the others around the table. Perhaps not surprisingly, the dark subject matter satisfies a wider audience and age range. The following three recent collections by Valzhyna Mort (2020), Cynthia Pelayo (2020), and J.B. Stevens (forthcoming in 2021) all resonated especially well. If you like poetry that pulls you out of your comfort zone in both image and topic, these three are guaranteed to arrest any listener’s attention.

Music for the Dead and Resurrected (FSG 2020) by Valzhyna Mort, an immigrant to the USA from Belarus who writes in Belarusian and English, evokes the history of propaganda over the past hundred years, a century of harvested humanity when not only blood and treasure but so much emotion and ritual were conscripted into the service of the state.

Non-Americans in the 1980s often told me how much alike they thought American and Soviet mentalities were. It was an easy, cheap comparison to make, but they had a real point about the messianic self-image of both regimes and the absolute certainty with which our respective citizens repeated our unexamined national myths. For instance, determine which of those two countries Mort is describing here:

“One by one, streets introduced themselves

with the names of national

murderers.”

(Excerpt by “Bus Stops: Ars Poetica”)

Her poems focus on family; lies and hidden ciphers passed through nods between generations no longer able to speak openly. One of her most poignant poems describes a grandmother who cried both when the secret police disappeared her son, and again at the death of Stalin, the man who’d empowered those same thugs to kill her child. I am sure there were many such people.

Mort’s vivid imagery captures the wonder present even in times of horror, as when village women flock out to see a tank roll through the streets, a tank sent to terrorize them, but now only an object of glee to their numbed and narrowed lives:

“Once a tank drives through a street here.

Like an elephant,

it waves its trunk

from right to left.

An elephant in our village!

Instead of hiding, women run to look.”

(Excerpt from “Little Songs”)

The book’s introduction states that Mort’s work asks, “How do we mourn after a century of propaganda?” Having the awareness to ask that question is as important as finding its answer.

And speaking of Stalin: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”

Chicago-based poet Cynthia Pelayo’s volume “Through the Forest and All the Way Through: A collection of true crime poetry of missing and murdered women” turns this apocryphal quote by Uncle Joe on its head, demonstrating that the sheer magnitude of violence surrounding us becomes an additional tragedy in its own right.

Pelayo’s book contains 100 individual poems for 100 missing and murdered women. The poems are as unique as each victim, but in being forced to view them in the aggregate they weigh heavier and heavier, alerting us that it’s not just 100 murders, not just 100 irrevocably unanswered mysteries, that are stalking us.

Instead, the numbers demand we stop averting our gaze from a system of injustice, from a culture of misogyny, rape, and murder in which we swim as blissfully unaware of our medium as fish are of water.

A high percentage of the missing are minority women, and many especially are Native women, who face overwhelming odds against safety and justice in this country. Pelayo, who researched active police case files for her subjects, treats the class and racial disparities among victims as the indisputable fact it is, but never wavers in considering each individual as her own person.

“Case:

They say she left on her own

She did not leave on her own

They say she will come back

Home, it’s been months and

Newspapers won’t print her

Name, television won’t show

You her face, the internet is

Burgeoning with irrelevance

And yes, detective, I have

Called all of her friends, and

She is not a runaway or any

Of those other names that

Are said to discredit the value

Of their lives…”

(Excerpt from “A Woman of Color Has Gone Missing, in Three Parts”)

You won’t read this book in one sitting, it takes several. Pelayo’s individual portrayal of each murdered soul is too complete to allow moving on from page to page without reflection. The missing are arranged by state, and that’s how I ended up reading them, a state or two a day.

These poems are sad, and this volume in brutal, but it’s essential that more of us take this trip through the dark if we’re ever going to summon the collective will to reach the other side.

The third volume that’s been raising the hair on our necks around the dinner table isn’t out yet, but is available for preorder (ebook now, paperback coming). This is J.B. Stevens’s deeply personal chapbook of war poems, “All the Violent Memories.” These reflections on his time as a junior officer in the US Army infantry fighting in Iraq (and more recently in law enforcement) read like a journal set to rhythm. I was lucky enough to score an advance copy, and this is one I did read all the way through in one sitting, and then again in a second.

“The first patrol was short,

The first patrol was a letdown.

And it will forever feel unfinished.”

(Excerpt from “I Left the Wire”)

I almost called Stevens an Iraq War veteran, but that wouldn’t be quite accurate since the post-9/11 war has never been declared, and the theatre of war for the past 20 years has been partially Iraq, partially Afghanistan, partially everywhere and nowhere, but mostly out of sight and out of mind among the Western public who’ve funded it and in whose name it’s still being fought. But people on many sides continue to die. Stevens’s book is not political, is neither a glorification of war nor a screed against it. It’s rather exactly what the title says: a poetic rendering of battlefield memories that followed him home and refuse to excuse themselves.

Among other topics, PTSD and veteran suicides figure large in Stevens’s post-war memories, reminding us that war scars every generation sent to wage it:

“Logan died in a single car accident,

On a clear day.

On an empty road.

On a dry road.

On an easy drive.

Thirty-one years old and sharp of mind,

He was going to the VA for a counseling appointment.

He still had a single car accident.

It is much easier for families to accept,

And insurance payouts to come,

When it is not a suicide,

Or so I’ve heard.”

(Excerpt from “Logan”)

The speed and pacing of many of the poems about moments in combat read like frenetic action sequences from a Gus Van Sant movie, or, as likely, from the nightmares they’ve caused. They’re tight, spare, and lean in language, with Stevens recreating the heart-pumping moments of danger with rare skill. Many of the poems of near escapes, combat, and police raids are funny if only for the ridiculousness of the scenes they describe, and from the realization that these Boschian horrors make up the ins and outs of many people’s lives, or careers:

“The first warrant was a meth dealer who made masturbation videos of himself while smoking crystal and wearing a Scream movie mask.

It was a Thursday night.

How do I explain that to my wife when she asks how my day was?”

(Excerpt from “War is Great”)

Stevens’s “All the Violent Memories” comes out March 26, 2021, and in my opinion, builds a perfect base along with Mort’s and Pelayo’s poems to examine the violence we do to ourselves and each other, violence that is, hopefully, not without end.

I highly recommend fans of dark and cutting poetry explore all three of these fine artists.

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Thriller Magazine Vol 3 Issue 2: A Review

Thriller Magazine Vol 3 Issue 2

We are truly living the Golden Age of a Pulp Fiction revival. Thriller Magazine editor-in-chief Ammar Habib plays a big role in that, “Bringing you the best in established and new voices in the thriller genre!

Thriller Magazine Number 6 (Vol 3, Issue 2) is out now in Kindle and print format. It includes an adventure story of mine, “Canis Interruptus,” about a bowhunt that goes downhill fast & keeps rolling. I wrote it as an old-fashioned, first-person, present-tense adventure of the sort Tim Cahill gently mocked in his book “A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg!” I hope you like it.

One thing I really like about Thriller Magazine is the poetry, and Habib selected three for this issue:

John Grey’s comic poem, “The Wolf,” considers the psychological fitness of Little Red Riding Hood’s antagonist; “On Finding the Man,” by Holly Day conveys the eschatological musings of a dog and the liturgical rites of grubs; and “Private Eye” by Brent Spencer is an ode to Philip Marlowe. It’s fun to read these out loud.

ADVENTURE POETRY –WE NEED MORE OF THIS!

In addition, the 11 flash and short stories run the gamut from adventure to horror to crime noir to psychological romance and political thriller. It was hard to pick a favorite, but the lead story, “Buried Treasures” by Eddie Fogler, was deeply creepy, made doubly so by being told in the child’s voice of the narrator who leaves it for the reader to figure out what he’s actually seen. Great kick-off!

Fingers Through Dirt” by Stephen J. Golds captures the eternal truth of war and the wounds it inflicts on even the survivors. Which anthologies ISN’T Stephen J. Golds in this year? The guy’s everywhere–and for an excellent reason: he’s very, very good. Fingers Through Dirt conveys as much pathos in a brief two pages as many full-length novels. Definitely follow this guy.

Another stand-out is Nikkia Rivera’s haunted house story, “Those who Dwell Below.” Rivera’s lyrically gothic prose and tension shows why there’s always a new spin on the haunted house genre (and why you’d best check every door before you sign the deed.) Hard to believe this polished, atmospheric piece is her first published work–keep an eye out for this writer!

In Joe Giordan’s “An Afternoon in Brooklyn” the author brings the borough to life through excellent details. The hapless Tomasina’s first clue something’s up is when his land-lady demands his rent money early. What does she know that he doesn’t? We soon find out.

Other stories in this fine & fun collection include:
“Feingold Gets Wet” by David Rachels. A hitman in the rain tracks his victim’s habits, and sticks to his own.

“Deadly Guests” by Chris Fortunato tells THE story of 2020, the story of a family cooped up together for too long! (Can you relate?): “Art was the weapon he used against her. Art no longer inspired her. Just the thought of it upset her.”

“Taking Care of Business” by John H. Dromey. Two casino debt collectors bite off more than they can chew when they arrive on a job in a hick town that isn’t as impressed with them as they’d expected.

“Metoo Culpa” by Michael Mallory is a timely political thriller. Some things will always be true: the guilty deny their crimes better than the innocent, and politicians are always dirty.

“Watching Someone Sleep” by Richard Risemberg is as creepy as the title suggests. Sometimes the most frightening knowledge in the world is that other people have the same thoughts we do.

The collection finishes with Fred Anderson’s funny “Jaxon Square” in which a freshly sprung jailbird tries to figure out how to get revenge on the guy he’s sure cheated with his girlfriend (who bailed him out) while he was away without her finding out. Creativity just demands the right incentive…

Fun stuff. Again, it’s hard to believe there is so much wonderful, fun and creative fiction out there. The Internet has been a mixed blessing in many ways, but in letting authors and publishers find each other in this big wide world, it’s been a definite win.

BUY SOME DAMN BOOKS!

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Review: Rock and a Hard Place, No. 4, Fall/Winter 2020

Rock and a Hard Place magazine, #4, Fall/Winter 2020 is a winner.

At $12.95 for the paperback ($2.99 Kindle), its 18 stories (plus art) can be had for less than a dollar each, & I’d encourage lovers of short stories & noir to get this aspirational issue. Much, but not all, of the content is crime fiction, with a smattering of horror & even two romances: Michael Chin’s “Wedlock” about love and marriage on the pro-wrestling circuit, & Susan Kuchinskas’s “Gator Baiter” about the things we give for love…

The production quality is high, the editing solid, & the stories cover either unique topics or the seemingly familiar in creative ways, e.g., Jason Mykl Snyman’s haunted house story “Even the Monstrous” about a voyeur obsessed with a suicide-inducing hotel is downright gothic in all the best ways.

Every story in this anthology is good, as are the foreword by managing editor Jay Butkowski–on what RAHP & noir in general are trying to accomplish, and should be–and the essay by EIC Roger Nokes on power imbalances in society that led RAHP to suspend publishing pieces with protagonists in law enforcement (worth a read & food for thought). The maze is good, too. More zines should have mazes, word searches & “what’s wrong with this picture” puzzles. Because reading can educate us, but damn it, sometimes it should just be fun!

For me, other eclectic standouts in the issue are:

Jane Young’s “7-11, True, and Just” about a heroine willingly bound by the obligations of filial piety & the man who would free her from them.

Thomas Pluck’s “88 Lines About a .44 Mag” is a paean to the over-powered, slow-to-draw American-smelted steely-dan-in-a-holster that says much more about the user than they probably wanted you to know. Comic relief amidst the grim.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s “Pink Aviary” takes on an insidious form of trafficking: when does a friend cross the line between hooking you up & hooking you out?

N. B. Turner’s “Fingerprints on the Razor” is an open-faced look at cutting disorders, a hidden epidemic in America, particularly among young people. Turner handles his topic with great skill here.

Jay Bechtol’s “Off the Furrow” portrait of alcoholism is perhaps the most true-to-life portrayal in issue 4. It brought back detailed memories for me of a relative who should still be with us, but isn’t. Sometimes all you can do with such people is understand them.

In this issue RAHP definitely lives up to their tagline: “A Chronicle of Bad Decisions and Desperate People.” Perfect for a long winter’s nap.

“Buy Some Damn Books!”

-Z.

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Econoclash Review #6: “Quality Cheap Thrills”

For me a perfect day in this summer of our discontent involves getting a new book in the mail, thinking about it all day as I bang on the keyboard at the kitchen table, and then devouring it after dinner. The pulp/noir anthology ECONOCLASH REVIEW #6 from Down & Out Books [buy it HERE] came in the mail recently, and became tonight’s after-dinner dessert reading.

J. D. Graves’ foreword included his grandma’s mantra “If YOU READ it, you Must REVIEW it” (really, J. D.? My Nana’s favorite saying was “Wish in one hand and piss in the other, and let me know which gets wet first”), so I figured I’d accept the invite. Here’s my quick take on the nine stories in this issue, which include Sci-fi, serial killers, hit men, and drug dealers (natch), batty biddies, and supernatural and all-too-human-horror tales, before ending up with a genuine “sports-car western” of the modern variety that follows the old rules.

Econoclash Review bills itself as “Quality Cheap Thrills,” which is a perfect description. Here now, is my slightly longer Econoclash Review #6 one:

The fun begins with Daniel Marcus’s JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTORE. Suppose now that some church lady over in Plano, TX, sees His face in her tuna casserole, setting off a local competition in Jesus-themed merchandize, theme parks, and optimized customer experiences. How do you make your own Christ complex ribbon ceremony stand out amidst that crowded Golgotha? With a Special Guest of His honor, naturally. One of the funniest stories I can remember reading.

PARTY BUS by Preston Lang begs the question: When your life is complete shit would you still trade some rando’s life to save yourself? Or wouldn’t you? The driver on the Mexican booze-bus run has to decide.

Serena Jayne demonstrates why she’s showing up in more and more top noir magazines with her CHET-SHAPED LURE. Say you exaggerated a bit–okay, LIED–on your online dating app bio, so, in return you’re willing to give your date a little wiggle room when it comes to a different set of kink than she listed. But why does she keep calling you by that other name? Creepy as fuck!  Jayne’s story made me physically squirm.

THE GOON SQUAD. This next one gets pretty meta here, but…John Kojak preemptively wrote a story about the 45th president of the US putting together an extrajudicial enforcement squad to “proactively” stop people…but not just from legally protesting and not with “merely” non-lethal means. Too believable.

Donald Jacob Uitvlugt’s sci-fi thriller THE NIGHT JAKE ADDISION SAVED THE WORLD is such an original concept, I won’t give any spoilers, save to say when two monsters meet, it’s the one that first recognizes the other for what it is that will have the edge. Great execution, so to speak…

Robb T. White’s THE CURSE OF THE TEMPLE TOPAZ is a classic heist piece with the dialog to match: “I love disgruntled employees,” Sean said. “They make everything so much easier.” Remember though, there’s only one way three men can keep a secret.

THE SEVEN FLUTES is a poetically lyrical, heart-pumping gothic horror by Paul McCabe. Sometimes a loss rips such a gaping hole in us that our grief has to pull in something else–anything else–to fill it.

Editor/author J. D. Graves’ flash piece DON’T PANIC reads like the opening to a James Crumley novel, if Crumley had started a book with a couple of crazy old biddies freaking out at the Dollar Store. Fun story!

This sixth anthology collection finishes with Chris Fortunato’s YOU WILL BE VERY HAPPY HERE, essentially a western set in modern-day Costa Rica. As Jimmy Buffet sang in “Banana Republic”:

First you learn the native customs
Soon a word of Spanish or two
You know that you cannot trust them
Because they know they can’t trust you

The best noir is eternal. Also, I gotta give a shout out to ToeKeen’s luridly wonderful cover art and Duane Crockett’s story art, which enhances every tale and is something I wish every anthology would include.

That’s it. “Buy some damn books!

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When They’re Paid to Think You’re a Spy

The ongoing trend of Russian political activists and journalists dying by falling out of windows has got me thinking back to the year I lived in the collapsing remnants of post-Soviet Central Asia. No doubt Putin is a large part of Russia’s current problem with dangerous windows; but he only cultivated that seed, he didn’t plant it.

I think the death-by-window culture partly exists because the security apparatus of the Soviet Union (and before that of the Czars) is a self-sustaining force, much like the way the incarceration industry in the US under slavery mutated into Jim Crow and eventually the War on Drugs and now persists by locking up migrants for profit, especially children. In each country, the same people got paid by making themselves indispensable, and the “system” never really changed.

So, here’s a little taste of the Czarist/Soviet/CIS police state as I encountered it in 1993. My experience is all very mild, but hopefully illustrative. I secured a gig teaching English at a newly minted university in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan soon after the USSR had officially crumbled. I’m not sure why I went, it just seemed a good idea at the time and a way to fill in the “Here Be Dragons!” lacunae found in most western maps and my own mind regarding Central Asia.

I got housing in an apartment block that seems to have housed mostly people working in the security services, though nobody would admit it. For instance, one morning soon after arrival, I watched a guy in my dvor (courtyard) dressed in a 3-piece suit get into a luxury car while carrying a hunting rifle—it was that kind of place.

I should note that my level of haplessness at the time was extreme. There is no way any trained intelligence officer could possibly have thought I was a spy because not even the best spy could have maintained the façade of guileless naivete that I exuded then without slipping up at some point. It was too total to be an act. Which made what happened next extra strange.

A few weeks after moving in, I started getting phone calls on my landline for the US embassy. LOTS of calls. Nonstop. I’d never been to the US embassy and had no reason to go, but it didn’t matter. Of course, once I began speaking in American-accented English my callers were doubly convinced that I had to be the embassy and some got really pissed off when I insisted I wasn’t. The problem corrected itself eventually and things appeared to be normal until one day I picked up the phone and the dial tone had been replaced by Chinese pop music. It wasn’t unpleasant music and the phone still worked, but still, why? The Chinese embassy was pretty close to where I lived, so I figured the same thing had happened with both the US and Chinese embassies: the local security services tasked with tapping my phone had literally gotten their wires crossed. As with the calls asking for visas and green cards, the Chinese pop music eventually disappeared and evidence of bumbling secret agents on my tail faded into the background.

I don’t know if I was under surveillance the whole year I was there or not. I probably was to some extent, if only by the ever-present, ever-watchful babushka in the courtyard who reported back to who knows who. The amusing thing is that I was under surveillance in the first place. Mind you, the watchers did nothing to interfere with your life—virtually every westerner I met that year was mugged or burgled at least once or twice; one fellow American was actually “mugged” by the police, who surrounded him, demanded his wallet and then confiscated, i.e., stole, most of his local currency, telling him he had “a prohibited amount.” So, since they didn’t actually DO anything, why we were they watching?

Job security. And habit. Mostly habit. They had nothing else to do to justify their salaries than to manufacture “threats” and then monitor them. The security services created way back in the day (under Peter the Great? Ivan the Terrible? Batu Khan??) had persisted more or less unchanged ever since. At least that’s my view, as someone who lived it rather than studying (and I readily admit I’m no Russian expert—if there was a secret-police-free stage of Russian history, please share it.)

But I think the economic explanation holds up, and that the economy network underlying the security apparatus has more to do with sustaining it than any “cultural” explanation of Russia’s continuing struggle with people falling out of windows or any sly “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” comment Putin might make. Because the surveillance state isn’t “vestigial.” It’s too many people’s bread and butter to ever go away without a fight.

Given the silliness with my house phone while I was there, it’s fair to assume that somewhere in Central Asia there’s a file on me and my activities, my phone calls, my contacts, and my trivial daily routine. And it’s there not because I was a threat, but because someone got paid to produce it.

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Subconscious Biases in Author Naming Conventions

“Hello. My name is ___.”

As someone who’s been copyediting professionally for two decades, I’ve constantly seen subconscious race and class biases seep into writing via an author’s naming conventions. So, let’s talk about names in both fiction and nonfiction writing and how those express both biases and microaggressions, because, yes, this is a thing.

Suppose you’re writing biographies of mathematicians Katherine Coleman Johnson (no relation) and John Forbes Nash, Jr. Once the antecedents are stated, how do you refer to them? As Johnson and Nash? Katherine and John? Katie and Junior? I can’t tell you how many authors I’ve copyedited who would reflexively use the last name for any white male and the first name or even a nickname for any female or POC. Even if the two were coworkers with the same job title. Often in the same paragraph or even sentence.

These slips also show up to expose an author’s class biases–the CEO is Mr. Bigg or just “Bigg” while the perceived low-status or low-paid worker is just “Joe, the gardener” or “Suzie, the retail associate.” In nonfiction reporting, it’s sloppy; in fiction, it’s also a sign you aren’t fully developing your characters; but in both cases it’s telling your readers more about YOU than you may have realized.

A friend of mine used to quip, “There are two kinds of people: those with their name on their door, and those with their name on their shirt.” Disagree with the justice of this or not, we have to recognize these biases are reinforced daily each time we shop (shirt) or visit our banker (door). Make sure this worldview isn’t creeping into your writing unless it’s intentional. (And while we’re at it, if you run a business where people have to wear nametags, why not use last names? It’s a small thing, but it matters in the way people are perceived and treated by customers.)

Now, how are these unconscious biases also microaggressions? Simple: imagine being consistently addressed by your first name or a diminutive of your first name while a peer or even supervisor is consistently addressed by their last name. It’s a clear expression of perceived value and worth tied to perceived status. What would your opinion be of the person doing that to you? Do you want people to view you that way? Do you want people to see your art through that lens? Probably not.

We like to pretend otherwise, but the truth is we live in a very race- and class-conscious society, one in which racial and class biases frequently overlap and in which subtle contempt for either can be expressed in similar ways. Names are one of those ways. If you’re trying to have characters in a story express conscious or unconscious class/race bias, then their use of names is a great way to do it without other exposition. However, if your omniscient narrator voice is doing it, then you need to check yourself.

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