election anxiety countdown

71 Days: Teeth

Over the weekend I finished reading Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth. By the end, the story of the book’s creation was as exciting to me as the narrative itself.

Luiselli was invited to write a piece for the catalog of an exhibition at Galería Jumex, an important contemporary art collection in Mexico City tied to the wealth of the Jumex juice company, whose factory is next door. The book’s story takes place in the juice factory and its surrounding neighborhoods. It was written in serial fashion: Luiselli wrote an installment, sent it to be to be read to a group of the factory workers, and their response informed her next installment (more on Luiselli in Day 91).

I’ve long been interested in participatory, community-driven, socially-engaged art like this practice Luiselli employed, but have not always found it easy to adapt these ideas to literary practice. Most examples that I have followed or been involved with are performance or visual art. Literary practice is more often a solo endeavor, if only because writing is sharpest when it comes from a single voice rather than a committee.

My own fiction about the future of D.C. has drawn from conversations on city busses, on walks, and in cafes and bars. Sometimes participants in these conversations knew we were generating ideas for stories together, but more often I was observing and taking notes on mundane conversations and happenings and imagining how something might change or remain absurdly the same in fiction.

Writing is participatory in less orchestrated ways, though. These paragraphs are in dialogue with Luiselli and with other socially-engaged artists and writers. And my stories about the streets around my apartment are in dialogue with Edward P. Jones stories in Lost in the City, and Dinaw Mengestu’s fictional The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, and Ruben Castaneda’s nonfiction/memoir S Street Rising. Each contains a version of my neighborhood wearing the costumery of another decade, another writer’s voice.

And stepping forward in time, 730DC’s has recently been publishing speculative fiction about D.C. too. Theirs is set in 2120 and (so far) has no major conflicts with Future Cartographic’s timeline of 2215 (though perhaps the impact of climate change is less severe in their telling). I like to imagine that all these stories past and present are part of a single timeline. And for readers who know any of these works they can’t help but inform each other.

Luiselli’s book is in dialogue not only with Jumex workers and the present day residents of the Ecatepec neighborhood around the factory, but also with the dozens of writers referenced in her text, and with her translator Christina Macsweeney, who became a collaborator and added a final section to the book in the form of a timeline aligning fictional happenings in the story with its literary and historical ties of the same years. Scanning it had me adding dozens of entries to my reading list and thinking I should build out such a timeline for the D.C. stories I’ve been collecting. And that timeline would in turn be in dialogue with Macsweeney’s timeline. And the cycle goes on…

How can I bring more voices in to the monologue of this series you are reading? Books and film have been the primary avenue: artists/writers living and dead. I’ve also written about my imagined readers — writing in dialogue with friends and with the mythical undecided swing state voter who might stumble upon the site. But perhaps I should just ask you for your thoughts directly, dear reader. My contact info is in the website footer.

Thanks for reading!

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