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2014 Texas Observer Short Story Contest guest judge Elizabeth McCracken.
2014 Texas Observer Short Story Contest Guest Judge Elizabeth McCracken.

The rules for the annual Texas Observer Short Story Contest contain a clause that reads “No restriction on genre;  entries with a Texas setting or theme are encouraged.” Writers have taken this encouragement to heart. The majority of stories entered in our first three years of contests have boasted Texas settings, and all three winners have been steeped in Texana: Brian Allen Carr’s cowboy myth “The Last Henley,” set in Corpus Christi; the rural Texas of Larina Lavergne’s “Water Birth”; and Ashley Hope Perez’s 2013 winner “3:17,” which takes place in the aftermath of the 1937 New London school explosion.

But each year’s contest has also drawn stories from all over the globe, many featuring exotic (to Texans) settings such as New Zealand, Turkey, Egypt and South Korea. This year we expect more of the same: an inpouring of words from all corners of the world, some offering insight into rarely seen locales, some shedding new light on familiar places, and all of them telling new stories in new ways, old stories in new ways, or new stories in old ways. Hell, even an old story told in an old way can offer a fresh perspective.

This year’s guest judge, Elizabeth McCracken, is no stranger to the short story form, having earlier this year published a story collection, Thunderstruck, to great acclaim. When she’s not writing her own work, she serves as the Fiction Chair at the University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers, mentoring and teaching tomorrow’s acclaimed storytellers.

Asked what she looks for in a good story, McCracken borrows these words from William Boyd: “The great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and beguiling resonance about them—a complexity of afterthought—that cannot be pinned down or analyzed.”

“That’s what I want in any short story,” McCracken says, “that complexity of afterthought. When I finish a short story I want to feel as though my brain has been struck like a gong.”

So if you’re cooking up (or sitting on) a story you think may be up that alley, give us a shot. As always, the winner of the Texas Observer Short Story Contest wins $1,000, and will have his or her story published in our annual Books Issue, due out in October. The winning piece will also be published online, as will four finalists. Additionally, 15-25 honorable mentions will be identified by name (which makes great fodder for submission letters).

Go ahead, writers. Strike our brains like a gong.

CLICK HERE for all the relevant information, and to SUBMIT.

Cristina
Cristina Henríquez

 

Cristina Henríquez will read from The Book of Unknown Americans on June 18 at BookPeople in Austin; June 19 at Brazos Bookstore in Houston; and June 20 at the Dallas Museum of Art.

 

In a 2009 TED talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story,” Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie noted that “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” In Texas, at least, Mexican immigration has largely defined the Latino narrative, but Cristina Henríquez’s big-hearted second novel challenges this “single story” by exploring a wide range of Latino experiences.

Henríquez is specially qualified to weigh in on the particular dilemmas of migration, cultural identity and displacement. Born and raised in Delaware and now living in Chicago, she’s resided in Florida, Virginia, Indiana and Iowa. She spent summers in Panama, where her father was born, and lived in Texas long enough to be chosen as the state’s sole essayist for the 2008 anthology State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. Despite her stateside bona fides, the “Americans” of her novel’s title refers to both U.S. residents and individuals from the many countries of the Américas.

The Book of Unknown Americans opens with the Rivera family’s arrival to a modest Delaware apartment building after days of travel from their hometown in central Mexico. Desperate to help their beautiful teenaged daughter, Maribel, recover from a near-fatal head injury, Arturo and Alma Rivera have come to the U.S. so that Maribel can receive special education services not available in Mexico. Why Delaware, not Texas or California? A mushroom farm in nearby Pennsylvania is the one business that will sponsor Arturo’s work visa. (Like most of the immigrants featured in the novel, the Riveras have come to the U.S. legally.)

The Book of Unknown Americans By Cristina Henríquez Knopf $24.95; 294 pages
The Book of Unknown Americans
By Cristina Henríquez
Knopf
$24.95; 294 pages

Alma Rivera narrates roughly half of the novel, quietly assessing the precariousness of her family’s new life and communicating the particular flavor of her own homesickness, taking us back to the happy life the Riveras once enjoyed, before Maribel’s accident, in their hometown of Pátzcuaro. Language barriers make phone calls to Maribel’s school an ordeal, the taste of foods from home deepens Alma’s sadness, and the hard letters of English seem like miniature walls dividing words and worlds.

Among the neighbors who help the Riveras adjust to life in Delaware are the Toros, a Panamanian-American family who live across the hall. Fifteen-year-old Mayor Toro is the novel’s secondary narrator, offering an insider’s view of the dynamics between the building’s residents and spot-on depictions of what it’s like to be the clumsy younger brother of a soccer star in a family where being “Latino and male and not a cripple” means he is expected to excel at the game.

Upon the Riveras’ arrival in Delaware, Maribel puts her clothes on backwards, forgets simple conversations held moments earlier, and struggles to wash her own hair. With time, however, her condition begins to improve. The teachers at her special school help, but readers may be inclined to give Mayor Toro more of the credit. Unlike Maribel’s parents, Mayor does not compare her to a “before” version of herself. To him, Maribel is simply Maribel: beautiful, fascinating, and—astonishingly—interested in him. The scenes between Mayor and Maribel are among the loveliest in the novel, with Henríquez perfectly coupling the awkwardness of their exchanges with their urgent quest for mutual understanding, that most basic and elusive of human sustenance. Ultimately, Mayor’s misguided efforts to cultivate their romance open the way to unwitting tragedy for both families.

If The Book of Unknown Americans has a flaw, it is that Henríquez, in her effort to overturn the “single story” of U.S. Latinos, sometimes verges on didacticism. When a character comments, “It’s like how everyone thinks I like tacos. We don’t even eat tacos in Panamá,” another Panamanian chimes in: “That’s right. We eat chicken and rice.”

“If people want to tell me to go home,” another character says, “I just turn to them and smile politely and say, ‘I’m already there.’”

There is a studied diversity to the handful of interspersed monologues from other Latino residents in the apartment building; characters including a busybody, a dancer, a photographer, a line cook with an anger-management problem and a poetry-quoting Vietnam vet hail from Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Paraguay and Puerto Rico. Nevertheless, their passages become monochromatic and rarely strike notes not already sounded more clearly in the Rivera/Toro narrative. Though a number of tertiary characters have monologues, Maribel does not. Her exclusion from the “unknown” Americans who get to speak their piece is hard to accept, mostly because it would have been a pleasure to see what Henríquez could do with Maribel’s point of view.

Henríquez is at her best when she trusts her own narrative powers, as when she portrays a wife’s grief as she browses through her deceased husband’s belongings, sucking on the bristles of his toothbrush and plucking his used toothpicks from the trash. Then she finds his hat: “I put it over my face like a mask, feeling the sweatband, soft as felt, against my cheeks. I took a deep breath. And there he was. The smell of him. I closed my eyes and felt myself sway. There he was.”

Passages like this reward a bit of patience, and The Book of Unknown Americans is a welcome contribution to a broadening literary conversation about Latino experience—a contribution that features immigrants from all across the Américas, and all walks of life. As Henríquez shows, theirs is a story composed of many stories.

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Most mornings I join tens of thousands of fellow commuters who live south of Houston for our daily slog along I-45. There are few sources of frustration greater than this dense traffic corridor, but thanks to the absence of zoning laws, there are also few resources better for slow reading. Rather than seeing this slice of highway as a valley of death, why not consider it as a valley of texts? Flourishing along the banks of this great, concrete Nile are elegant copses of signs for the (upscale) malls and weedy patches of decaying signs for the (downscale) strip malls. Among the billboards touting Texas-tough trucks and Texas-sized tacos, you can savor sly logos: “God listens,” boasts our local Christian radio station, while the convenience chain Buc-ee’s reminds us of their clean restrooms with “Don’t worry, P happy.” At other signs we simply shudder. Gentlemen’s clubs? Anything but, we tell our kids.

Welcome to my world of signifiers, where franchises sacred and profane, megachurches and malls, invite exegesis. Several years ago, the evangelical Grace Community Church, with locations in San Diego and north Houston, opened a new storefront not too far from my own neighborhood. With its vast hexagonal buiilding already dwarfing its neighbors—including a Lexus dealership and a former strip club known as Vixxen—the 18,000-member congregation planned to further advertise its presence with a 200-foot cross. That plan was thwarted when the FAA noticed that the proposed cross conflicted with nearby Ellington Field’s flight path.

In lieu of a giant cross, Grace has had to make do with bright billboards emblazoned with blond families plugging their churchly community, cable station and conception of the world. Yet the setback has not stopped Steve and Becky Riggle, the church’s founders and senior pastors, from remaining fixtures on the local news.

Tune in to any of our talk and news stations during your daily commute and chances are you’ll have heard about the city’s proposed anti-discrimination ordinance. In particular, the ordinance is aimed at any business that refuses service on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Paint stores, pawnshops and pulperias—just a few of the plethora of businesses along I-45—could not deny you their services. Should they try, they would be subject to fines as high as $5,000.

As the vote approached, the ordinance mobilized not just the LBGT community and its supporters, but also a number of local megachurches. Second Baptist Church, whose membership of 64,000 beggars the adequacy of the “mega” prefix, and whose several locations lie close along Houston’s major traffic arteries, came out against the measure, with senior pastor Ed Young declaring that the rights of the LGBT community end where the prerogatives of Christian morality begin.

While the Riggles made the same argument, their efforts were both more colorful and more candid. The color came mostly from Steve Riggle during a public session at City Hall a few weeks ago. In an exchange with Councilmember Ellen Cohen, Riggle alluded to the now-legendary predicament of the Oregon baker whose Christian principles led him to refuse to take a cake order from a gay couple. Would it be any different, Riggle asked, if a Jewish baker refused an order for a cake decorated with a swastika? Cohen suggested that it would be different: Nazi pastry connoisseurs are not, like gays under the proposed ordinance, a protected class. When Cohen then asked if a Christian baker could deny service to a Jewish client because Judaism is an affront to his faith, Pastor Riggle realized he was about to slide down a slippery slope and declined to answer.

Becky Riggle barreled down that same slope, however, when she made a separate appearance before City Council. Councilwoman Cohen asked the same question she had posed to Steve: Should a Christian store owner, troubled by a customer’s Jewish faith, be able to deny her service? To general astonishment, Becky Riggle replied: “Yes, I am saying that. But that is not the issue that we’re talking about today.” With a poker face, Annise Parker, Houston’s unflappable gay mayor, then turned to the next speaker.

Of course, many Houstonians—Jewish, gay and otherwise—disagree with the pastor. And her claim that religious faith trumps civil rights and justifies discriminatory practices is precisely the issue. But as I drive by these vast fortresses of faith on my daily commute, I think I can begin to see the Riggles’ view.

Megachurches like Grace and Second Baptist rise along our traffic corridors for the same reason that fast-food restaurants do: where better to advertise one’s merchandise than in front of a massive audience streaming past day and night? And where better to trumpet a transcendent faith than these polluted arteries lined with strip clubs, loan sharks, tattoo parlors, 24-hour video stores and Thai massage spas? Given the apparent corruption of this particular landscape, it’s hardly surprising that these churches become worlds unto themselves. The comfort of these faith-bound cocoons makes their members all the more vulnerable to culture shock. From pre-K to high school, fitness centers to financial advisers, concerts to cafés, members of these churches need confront the world outside the bubble only when they step into their places of work. Like a bakery. Or when they need to find a public restroom. Like at Buc-ee’s.

In fact, for Grace and Second Baptist, public restrooms are very much the issue. In a video released by Grace Church, the Riggles insisted that Houston’s ordinance, which covers transgender individuals, will transform women’s restrooms into hunting grounds for cross-dressing male predators. Rather than P happy, the Riggles warn, P afraid.

I am not so anxious. As I drive along I-45, the countless texts tumbling past the window reflect a world that is, to be sure, often disconcerting. But it’s also a world whose dissonance represents exuberance and tolerance.

Now that the ordinance has passed, I tell myself: P hopeful. And P certain that while the odds are long of finding a clean toilet along I-45, they are even longer of finding a bearded stalker waiting in the ladies’ room.

thetruthaboutaliceWe don’t cover an awful lot of Young Adult literature here at the Observer, premature fogeys that (some of us) are, but when we do, we tend to turn to Houston writer/schoolteacher Jennifer Mathieu. Jennifer covered last fall’s Austin Teen Book Festival for us, and then reviewed Austin author P.J. Hoover’s novel Solstice for our 2013 Books Issue. (She also wrote about the aftermath of Hurricane Ike for the magazine back in 2009).

Now Mathieu has her own first YA book hitting shelves. It’s called The Truth About Alice, and Mathieu will debut it at 7 p.m. tomorrow night, Friday, May 30, at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston.

She’ll also be on a panel of four YA authors at Austin’s BookPeople next month on Friday, June 27.

Go meet Alice, say hi to Jennifer, and tell her the Observer sent ya.

Cynthia Bond
Cynthia Bond

Cynthia Bond will talk about and sign copies of her debut novel, Ruby, at Blue Willow Books in Houston on Wednesday, May 7, at 7 p.m.

Cynthia Bond’s debut novel leaves the reader dirty, her words clinging to your eyes, your hands and your heart as if you have just stood naked, battered and raw in a dust storm of them.

Ruby By Cynthia Bond Hogarth/Random House 352 pgs; $25.00
Ruby
By Cynthia Bond
Hogarth/Random House
352 pages; $25.00

Set in the small East Texas town of Liberty, Ruby is the tale of the titular Ruby Bell and the man who loves her, Ephram Jennings. Ephram and Ruby meet as children in 1940, when Ruby comes to Liberty to visit family, and though decades pass before they see each other again, Ephram cannot and does not forget Ruby. In 1963 she returns and moves into the woods that border the town, becoming feral and seemingly insane, a figure of scorn in the local community. Bond describes this version of Ruby on the book’s opening page: “She wore gray like rain clouds and wandered the red roads in bared feet. Calluses thick as boot leather. Hair caked with mud. Blackened nails as if she had scratched the slate of night.”

Ruby, like Ephram, has suffered all her life from what Bond, herself an East Texas native, refers to repeatedly as “The Lonely,” as if the emotion were alive and taking up space in the world. One gets the feeling that The Lonely is a common companion for Southern African-Americans born and raised in the era of Jim Crow. When Ruby is a child, her mother is raped by a white man the same night her aunt is murdered by a posse of 11 white deputies, all members of the Ku Klux Klan, the aunt’s sin being that a white man had left his wife for her. After her mother runs away, 6-year-old Ruby is sold into sexual slavery. As a teen she flees to New York to find her mother, but when the bottom falls out she returns to Liberty, where her demons—haints, a dybbuk, ghosts of murdered children—are waiting for her.

Ephram’s own past is plenty rocky. His mother is declared insane and disappears forever into an asylum, his father is lynched when Ephram is 13, and his Bible-thumping older sister Celia has raised (and coddled and oppressed) him ever since. By 1974, the novel’s present setting, Ephram’s body is broken, his bones so brittle he must use a cane.

Ruby is a complicated portrait of a seemingly simple place. Bond tells the story of Ruby and Ephram’s lives and their relationship with unflinching honesty and a surreal, haunting quality, especially when she describes Ruby living alone in the woods with only nature and her demons keeping her company: “She felt the small ghosts who were still hidden in her body. The ones she had yet to give birth to. They turned and shifted within her.”

Through Bond’s lyrical prose, we see how intertwined the body and the mind are, and how easy is the slide between reality and nightmares.

Ruby also illustrates how the harshness of racism and the ever-present vestiges of slavery use, and use up, black bodies, especially black women’s bodies, and yet Bond shows that those same bodies hold within them the ability to protect, to connect and to survive.

Ruby’s is a story about angel cake and the importance of food; about sexual violence so omnipresent it becomes just another moment to be suffered through; about the mix, and its consequences, of Christian religion and old-world Voodoo that floats through many black Southern towns; about the sounds of life both harsh and melodic, from the screams Ruby unleashes each night to the duet of snapped green beans hitting a bowl while Andy Williams croons on the radio; and about the power of becoming and of knowing, and how both processes are always in motion.

This is an evocative, affective and accomplished first novel. Cynthia Bond challenges the reader to watch even when we don’t want to see, and to keep reading even when it seems too much. By the end we are left with an understanding of what one character means when he says, “Hell, ain’t nothing strange when Colored go crazy. Strange is when we don’t.”

"Boy in Winter" by Texas Contemporary Artist Henry Catenacci
“Boy in Winter” by contemporary Texas artist Henry Catenacci

The diverse work of 12 artists who call Texas home went on display at the University of Texas-San Antonio’s Institute of Texan Cultures May 3, and will remain up through Oct. 26, constituting the final exhibit of the 5-year Texas Contemporary Artists Series. These artists’ works range from stone sculpture to painting to photography, and each installment of the series has helped to complete a picture of what contemporary art in Texas looks like.

Curator Arturo Infante Almeida has designed and organized the series for the past half-decade, selecting artists and working with them to mount individual solo exhibits. Now, as the series comes to a close, he says he’s excited to bring all the artists together for a group exhibition. “This is the way to tell their stories about where we live,” Almeida says. “They each will have their own space. When you come to see the exhibit you’re going to see a kind of scrapbook on one wall that will have photographs of [each] opening reception, and the original works that they had.”

Works on display at this final exhibit are all new, and come from both seasoned artists and newcomers to the gallery spotlight. “It was a great opportunity for me to showcase local and regional artists and emerging artists, and then introduce artists to a larger audience,” Almeida says.

Among the 12 featured artists are Lauren Browning, a former NASA geochemist who quit her job to pursue stone-sculpting full time; painter Pepe Serna, who’s best known for his acting career (including roles in Scarface and The Rookie); and Franco Mondini-Ruiz, a former lawyer who paints and maintains a San Antonio compound of cultural artifacts. There’s also Luisa Wheeler, who graduated from UTSA and pays homage to her Mexican heritage through photography; abstract painter Carmen Oliver, who was born in Mexico City but now calls Texas home; and San Antonio native Luis M. Garza, who captured a year of life in Texas and abroad with 365 photographs.

Each artist’s connection to Texas is different, and the diversity of their artistic representations of Texas culture was integral to Almeida’s selection process.

“Diversity is so important, because everybody has their own statements,” Almeida says. “I was very fortunate to meet all of them and to work with them, to kind of visit their world and see what they had to give. It’s very exciting and very beautiful at the same time to share that.”

The exhibit is free and open to the public. An opening reception where attendees can visit with the artists will be held on May 15.

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Considering the conservative mania that has defined the Texas political landscape for the last two decades, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when a Democrat—a female Democrat, no less—was governor of this bizarre state. For those not old enough to remember the great Ann Richards, even the possibility of her seems mythic—a bedtime story liberal parents tell their kids to give them some small shred of optimism in a seemingly hopeless world. Even in light of Wendy Davis’ current mini-insurgency, the idea of a progressive woman at the head of Texas state government feels like a fairy tale. Thank God then for All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State, a new documentary about the whip-smart, acid-tongued former governor that premiered on HBO Monday night, and will screen again tonight, April 30, at 7 p.m. CST (and be available on HBOGo and OnDemand thereafter). The doc is here to remind us that it wasn’t all just a dream, that Ann Richards really happened, and that therefore, by inference at least, something decent could someday happen again in the halls of Texas Capitol.

Directed by Keith Patterson and Phillip Schopper (capably, but with little of the flair, fire or charisma of their subject), All About Ann is the story of an iconoclast and an anomaly, a woman who refused to accept the world she’d inherited or her place in it. When Richards first started creeping onto the Texas political stage in the early 1970s, the state was a divided and exclusive place where white men and good old boys ran everything and women, African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities were ignored and/or relegated to second-class status. Before Richards was elected state treasurer in 1982, no woman had held statewide office in Texas for more than 50 years. And there have been precious few woman elected to statewide office since she left the governor’s mansion in 1994. Which makes Richards’ career essentially an era unto itself.

poster2For one shining decade there in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Ann Richards dragged the state of Texas out of darkness into something approximating the 20th century. As state treasurer, she brought minorities and women onto her staff and opened up business possibilities for people who had the misfortune of not looking like the kind of people Texas had done business with or hired before. As governor, she quickly set about closing the influence gap between regular people and hired-gun lobbyists and promoting an ethos of inclusive government—a revolutionary idea in Texas back then (and, apparently, unfortunately, even now). She pushed for environmental accountability and better schools and drug treatment in prisons. She was a one-woman political movement, a force of nature bringing a taste of progressivism to a radically conservative state.

Richards’ time in the political sun, and the dream of political possibility and optimism that fueled it, were destroyed during her 1994 re-election campaign by the ultimate political cynic, Karl Rove, whose slanderous whisper campaign turned a popular sitting governor into an enemy of the state and basic human decency both. Such attacks would become the blueprint for George W. Bush’s march to the White House over the unfairly maligned reputations of John McCain, Al Gore and John Kerry. Still, the Richards legacy lives on—in expected places, like the campaign of Wendy Davis, who also made her name standing up for women against a paternalistic state government; and unexpected ones, like the meteoric rise and fall of Sarah Palin, who, despite her decidedly un-Richards-like political views, nevertheless came to national prominence in much the same way Richards had: by giving a star-making speech at a national convention that was equal parts biting and folksy.

What continues to fuel the Ann Richards legend eight years after she died of esophageal cancer is her charismatic stubbornness, her refusal to believe that the world she was born into was the world as it had to be. Watching All About Ann, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the defining trait of history’s most remarkable people is their belief that the world is there for the remaking, that there’s nothing that can’t be changed. Born a small-town girl in a man’s world, Ann Richards took the worst of what the white-male-conservative establishment threw at her (first exclusion, then dismissal, then vitriol, and finally slander) and kept knocking on the door until the door fell down. Despite the dire circumstances in which Texas finds itself today, we are living in a world that Ann Richards helped make, and if she were alive she’d doubtless be taking our heads off (with a joke and a smile) for allowing ourselves to despair over the current state of affairs. She was living proof that despair is a fool’s game, and that impossibility reigns only until the moment when someone comes along to turn it on its head. All About Ann is a reminder of that when we need it most.

litcrawlsOn Thursday, April 24, a slew of Austin artists, writers and performers will take the stage at The North Door for a performance of the comedy show “Way Behind the Music” to benefit Lit Crawl Austin. The show, pioneered by San Francisco’s Litquake Festival in 2010, features a series of bizarre and presumably hilarious excerpts from the autobiographies of musicians including Justin Bieber, Flavor Flav, Jewel, Barry White, David Cassidy, Liberace, Miles Davis, George Jones, Vince Neil, and many others.

Austin’s “Way Behind the Music” cast includes author Owen Egerton, writer and performer Jodi Egerton, KGSR radio personality Andy Langer, performer Annie La Ganga, songwriter and actor Nakia, Austin American-Statesman culture writer Joe Gross, and musicians Jesse Dayton, Nick Tangborn, Kathy Valentine, Carolyn Wonderland, John Wesley Coleman, and Akina Adderley of Akina Adderley & the Vintage Playboys.

Austin Lit Crawl, which takes place October 25, is a collaborative effort on the part of the Texas Book Festival and the Litquake Foundation to take literature to the streets and put writers into conversation with readers and each other. Tickets for “Way Behind the Music” are $10. You can buy them here.

 

thunderstruckElizabeth McCracken will be at Austin’s BookPeople at 7 p.m. tonight, Tuesday, April 22, to speak and sign copies of her new book, Thunderstruck & Other Stories. McCracken holds the James Michener Chair of Fiction at the University of Texas at Austin, and is the author of one previous collection of short stories (Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry), two novels (Niagara Falls All Over Again and The Giant’s House), and the memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination.

McCracken’s new book contains nine stories that explore family, love, loneliness and loss. “Property,” which details a young man’s grief after his wife’s death, was selected for The Best American Short Stories of 2011 anthology. In the title story, a mother and father struggle to be good parents. And in “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey,” the subject of said documentary revisits the filmmaker’s house and comes to terms with his betrayal.

McCracken’s writing is often heralded as both magical and askew, and Kirkus Reviews has called Thunderstrucka powerfully if quietly disturbing volume.” Thunderstruck also marks McCracken’s return to short fiction after 20 years, and demonstrates her power to, as Publishers Weekly puts it, “transform life’s dead ends into transformational visions.”

 

mozartrequiem

 

Austin’s Fusebox Festival will begin with a sort of anti-elegy, a zombie score. “Mozart Requiem Undead”—a re-imagining of Mozart’s “Requiem” comprising new compositions by indie artists including Glenn Kotche (Wilco), Caroline Shaw, DJ Spooky, Justin Sherburn (Okkervil River) and Adrian Quesada (Grupo Fantasma)—will be performed by a full orchestra and a 150-person choir. Graham Reynolds and Peter Stopschinski of Golden Hornet Project will lead the piece outside the French Legation Museum.

The directors call Fusebox a “hybrid art festival,” because it plays host to music, theater, performance art, documentaries, artist talks and round-table discussions. Additionally, Executive Director Ron Berry has begun referring to it as a “festival about festivals,” i.e., an opportunity to measure the impact of a festival on it host community, especially when that community is as festival-happy as Austin.

The performance of “Mozart Requiem Undead” will launch the 10th anniversary installment of the two-week festival (April 16-27 at venues throughout the capital), as well as a new Fusebox initiative called “Free Range Art.” That’s a branded way of saying that all festival events are free. Registration and the schedule are available online at fuseboxfestival.com.

The Observer caught up with Berry to find out why Austin needs a hybrid art festival, what Fusebox can teach about festivals in general, and why, after a decade, Fusebox has moved to a free model.

Matthew Irwin: How would you describe the Fusebox Festival to someone who has never attended or been to the website?

Ron Berry: It’s a 12-day festival of adventurous artists and projects from around the world working in a variety of different art forms. The festival takes place in about 20 different locations around the city. We view the festival as a platform for conversations and ideas.

MI: Can you provide some background on Fusebox?

RB: A lot of the work that was being made in Austin was happening in a vacuum, and we were really interested in creating a platform for that work so that you can live in Austin and make that work and have that work be seen by a much larger audience, and seen around the world, so we wanted to find other artists and other curators and presenters from around the country and around the world to come see the work. Then we also wanted to inject some new thinking into the local community by inviting artists from around the country and around the world.

MI: You mention what you call the Austin vacuum. In your experience, do some of the other communities you visit have a similar experience, if they’re not major artistic hubs?

RB: I think Austin has a pretty rich tradition in both music and film, but I also think that both of those art forms travel a lot easier. You can find a song and download it the same day. I think in regards to the live art—theater, dance, performance, any visual art, things you really need to be in the room with to experience—it is hard to engage with these things unless you’re traveling to New York, Berlin, Buenos Aires and Paris. I don’t think Austin is unique … that’s just inherent in those art forms.

MI: So over the last 10 years, what kind of exchanges have you witnessed by bringing diverse communities together through Fusebox?

RB: We’ve brought in artists who have been in residency here, so you’ve been able to take classes or workshops with them, and some who take the workshop with them actually build the project up with them, and there’s been opportunities for some hands-on work with these artists. There have been artists that we’ve featured that have done gigs that have toured outside of Austin because a curator came, saw their work, and then wanted them to do their work elsewhere—so that was something that was very exciting for us. It helps make Austin a more valuable place to live in as an artist—that you don’t necessarily have to go to New York or L.A. to have your work seen by people.

All of this to me is laying the groundwork [for] switching to a free model, especially if you take from the underpinnings of the festival this idea of exchange and encountering ideas and perspectives from outside of your immediate sphere. We felt like, when we were charging admission, that we were unmistakably targeting people we felt would want to buy tickets, and it would become this very insular conversation and exchange that was happening. We have a core audience, but they go see everything and engage with the festival very deeply, but aside from that, when people aren’t familiar with these artists and we are charging for each head, the likelihood of people going to see anything—because there’s more than one thing—is very low, so we felt like this was a smarter strategy for welcoming these people into the festival. And for me, that’s one thing I really love about this festival—that it’s kind of a place of discovery and you can discover artists that you’ve never heard of. I feel like Sundance, in the early days … was a place to discover independent thinking and voices, so I really love that about our festival and want to encourage people to take a chance on projects and artists.

MI: How might the festival be a place to have this conversation about what it costs to put on a production or hang a show?

RB: Yeah, I think that was another facet of this Free Range Art initiative, that we did want to talk about the economics of this work. Some of the artists I know are generally subsidizing their own work. Ticket sales are 10 percent of our budget, so in the first conversation about deciding to go free, pretty much the first question that everyone asked was, well how can you do that? And we’re like, really, ticket sales are a very miniscule part of our budget, and we needed all that, but we actually might make more money this year by going free. [In addition to private donations and grants, Fusebox successfully crowdsourced funding specifically for Free Range Art.] Or we’ll certainly be able to cover that amount. It’s very low-risk. We’ve actually already hit that number, so financially we’re totally fine… [W]e wanted to separate out the actual art and say, here’s this art that we believe in, we think it’s really important, and we think that everyone should have access to it, but at the same time let’s talk about the real cost of making this work. It’s not free, but it’s also not the $10 or $15 bucks that we usually charge. It’s much more than that, and we felt like in a way the ticket price was obscuring what was really going on.

MI: What does the real cost include?

RB: Our costs of presenting the work. The cost that the artist has put into filming the work, you know, months, years. It’s a real big question that we haven’t quite found the answer to, so it’s something we should talk about and look at.

A lot of this was inspired by a foundation in Brazil whose whole sort of mission is based around access. In São Paulo, they focus on three particular areas: the arts, athletics and dentistry. No one has dental coverage there. So they have this amazing center that runs a theater, an art gallery, they have a swimming pool there, and a basketball court, and a dentist office there. To me that was kind of hilarious, profound and amazing what it’s saying about arts and culture, and that it’s the same thing as going for a walk, or getting your teeth cleaned, brushing your teeth. To me that was such a radically different portrait of the arts in my mind, or understanding of the arts, positioning of the arts. It’s something that I really believe in as sort of the central part of being alive and healthy in the world, to have access to these things. Anyway, that struck me as profound, it was really about the proximity of those things all being in one complex.

MI: So how might Fusebox specifically address some of these issues or start this conversation?

RB: We want to have a sort of public forum there at the festival to talk about these things. One of the hopes is that along with this year’s festival we’re going to have a lot of information and a lot of data that we can compile and report back to the world—like here’s this big experiment that we tried and this is what we’ve found and this is what we think it means, at least in our particular situation.

MI: But will you have some things in the program specifically for table conversations?

RB: Yeah, I would love to do that. I mean, we have to do that. And we want to sort of touch on this conversation frequently, and also start the conversation around the reservation process and how people are learning and reading about the festival schedule. [The work is] not really free, so “free” is a problematic word, [but] it starts the conversation that it’s being paid for by someone else. So it’s almost like it’s a gift, and so there are other ways that we’re going to frame it so that we’re constantly reminding our audience that the attendance part is free … but there’s a whole process of how this conversation came into being and how these artists came into being in the same place and in this city together, and the whole thing is not actually free.

MI: Well, for me, a natural place to go when you start talking about free programming or free attendance is how the funding then determines what art is available, how that creates its own curatorial process.

RB: In many ways, it completely liberates it from any source of constraint. I mean, we’ve always been able to program pretty much anything we want, but when you’re relying on ticket sales, you have one or two shows that you really need to be your box office hits … We’re liberated from having to program these audience-pleasing projects. Not that we’re not pleasing our audiences, but it’s really about ideas and possibilities, and investigation, inspiration, all these things. We really love small, intimate projects and usually have a handful of these, but then you tie up all your ticket sales on projects only 16 people at a time can go see. But those are often some of my favorite experiences, and I really believe in creating the sort of tangible relationship with the work. So hopefully, with this particular model, we are liberated even more.

MI: I want to spend a minute on Fusebox as a festival about festivals idea.

RB: So this is something that we’re very aware of, like last year, I think, there were four or five other festivals going on while Fusebox was going on. It’s crazy. In some ways I think for years there’s been an exploration of a festival as an idea, as a thing, and what can a festival do that other things can’t? Specifically, what can our festival do that these other festivals aren’t? So that’s been central to our mission, and a joyous process.

MI: What, then, is Fusebox’s place in Austin, a city of festivals?

RB: One of the things that we’re doing aside from the specific programming that I think is unique to Austin, is we’ve been interested in using the mechanism of festivals to explore place; so we’re not just doing stuff in Zilker Park, and we’re not just doing stuff in clubs, but we worked with a composer to write a piece of music for his entire neighborhood. He went to the library and checked out a map, then you’d walk through this neighborhood and listen to this piece and the individual instrumentations of the piece were housed in different locations, so like the cello would be in someone’s study and then you would walk a couple more blocks and hear the violin. It was a unique musical experience, and it was also a way to encounter this neighborhood in a way maybe you never encountered it. So that’s an example of using the festival to investigate and encounter place that feels pretty different and unique from a lot of other festivals.

We’ve also been interested in food and the role that food plays; we’ve found it a really creative industry. We’ve partnered with a lot of chefs and bartenders who get really creative with it. Food and drink are such natural facilitators of [conversations]. So how can we use food and drink in organic ways to help facilitate more conversation? Often when I go to a conference or festival, maybe I see something that I really love, but often my favorite part is having a beer with a couple of people that I met and talking about the world.

MI: You talked about gathering some of this information and giving it back, and at the last Fusebox, at one of the round-table discussions, was this idea of what is a festival: Is it just a one-shot, or is there year-round programming? How much have you thought about these things in terms of how you program or organize Fusebox?

RB: That’s a great question. More and more this defines a different sort of relationship between artist and audience. I really do view all of this work as an ongoing conversation. And so the festival is a moment in a timeline where we can provoke and facilitate a lot of questions and conversations, and ideally these conversations continue after the festival and leading up to the next one. I think this is one area that we need to do more work on and put more resources toward helping to facilitate that conversation year-round.

MI: You know Austin is Richard Florida’s favorite town, and in his model, festivals are the jumpstart for the “creative economy,” and they may or may not continue in whatever forms, but the idea that they jumpstart a local culture—how does that line up with your own view?

RB: I certainly think that festivals play a huge part in the cultural landscape and help make Austin an exciting, attractive place to live. But the number, quality, atmosphere, I think, plays a part in the growth of Austin. To me, festivals are particularly exciting in that they provide an opportunity to encounter a bunch of different ideas and perspectives in such a concentrated period of time. They are inherently good at that, in many ways that’s what they are. Even if you’re just looking at a music festival, even at a genre music festival, there are still different styles and personalities and a different sort of message within that festival, and that’s exciting.

MI: I was just thinking that one of the things that I really enjoyed about Fusebox is that you don’t feel like the city is turning itself over to the festival, like with South by Southwest or the Austin City Limits Festival.

RB: We love that about it too. We also like this notion that we have these sort of hubs where we invite people and let the artists hang out, so as an audience member you can hang out with the artists, and I think that’s really cool, and definitely part of what we’re wanting.