On Reading Dark Corners by Reuben “Tihi” Hayslett

I first encountered Tihi and his writing in a Portland coffee shop on a dreary, drippy afternoon the day before the start of the 2019 AWP Conference. Running Wild Press had organized an offsite open mic and my friend Sakae was going to read a poem so of course I was going to go. 

At the reading, I heard BA Williams light it up as she always does. I heard Sakae read “Oakland,” a poem that paints a poignant portrait of an East Bay childhood (dear to my heart because I grew up not far from there) and that was published by Dryland Lit. And I heard Reuben read a short piece of fiction.

The story Reuben read from, “Hope It Felt Good,” begins thusly: “This is what happens when your man fucks Celia Washington.”

I was hooked from the beginning. An exploration of a jealous, seething mindscape. A queer male author inhabiting the persona of a vengeful woman. The physical, mental, and spiritual transformation caused by something as simple as adultery. These combined into a charged and hilarious fable that turned in interesting, unexpected ways. 

When Sakae, Rachelle Yousuf (another BookSwellAdvisory Group member), and I began to plan an event for Lambda LitFest 2019, we asked both BA and Tihi to read and join the discussion. In September, at the Intentional Intersectionality: Amplifying Queer Voices of Color reading and discussion at Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, Tihi read from “I Want You,” a story that centers on an HIV+ man who goes on a rare night out.  

Last week, in the midst of sweeping public health announcements and adaptations, I read and re-read all the stories in Dark Corners. They move in surprising ways. They contain telling details and entertaining mysteries of unfolding. They reward sustained attention.

To give you a bit more flavor of the collection, here are my quick takes on each story:

  • “Funkier than a Mosquito’s Tweeter” is a modern day feminist fable about the siren song of incipient sexuality.
  • “2016” documents a family unraveling amidst tragedy and social unrest.
  • “Localized Politics” is a dissociative portrait of a political campaign worker fractured by stress.
  • “I Want You” looks at the ways we we struggle against isolation.
  • “Money Men” is a disturbing take on sex work and the choice of political activism or apathy.
  • “Death and Taxes” charts a father-son relationship before and after a fatal illness.
  • “Hope It Felt Good” is all about what happens when your man fucks Celia Washington.
  • “Super Rush” is a speculative story that asks in literal terms if you love yourself, what then?
  • “Denial Twist” explores the tragic consequences of hate crimes and how we do and don’t recover.
  • “A Step Toward Evolution” is a twisted revenge reenactment of intimate biological warfare.
  • “Come Clean” is a horrifying tale of violence and its ramifications, told from a child’s perspective.

What I appreciate about Tihi’s stories could fill pages. In this limited context, I’ll say what I value most is the boldness of his stories to venture into taboo territory, the way extreme conditions beget extreme emotions, and how they move page by page into stranger, darker, speculative territory while keeping a realist grounding. 

Maybe you want a light read in these troubling times–but if you’re willing to venture into Dark Corners, you’ll come out of it changed.

— Cody Sisco, a fan of Tihi’s

Read & Relate: a BookSwell vidchat salon

April 2, 6 pm Pacific

The stories and dreams we share with each other are ever-evolving. The ground shifts beneath our feet. We return to familiar corners and find ourselves out of place and time. Made in L.A. Vol. 3: Art of Transformation explores interior states of emotional drift and the evolving place we call home.

This anthology series showcases a diverse range of voices and genres. Like the City of Angels where these stories were born, nothing is off-limits. Literary or contemporary, fantasy or science fiction, each story in this volume invites you to view this urban landscape through a different lens.

Vol. 3 contributors include: Noriko Nakada, Andrea Auten, Erik Gonzales-Kramer, DC Diamondopolous, AP Thayer, Karter Mycroft, Lenore Robinson, Roselyn Teukolsky, AS Youngless, Barry Bergmann, Nolan Knight.

At this Read & Relate, we’ll be discussing the LA settings we miss visiting right now and how LA inspires our fiction.

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BookSwell Statement on the Coronavirus Pandemic

Dear BookSwell Fans,

We’ve been paying close attention to how writers, publishers, bookstores, literary organization, and public health officials sare adapting to the coronavirus pandemic.

Here’s what we know about the current situation:

  • Federal, state, and county health officials are canceling large gatherings and closing public spaces. They’re also recommending social distancing to prevent the spread of illness. 
  • Many local book event venues have canceled or postponed their upcoming author events through the end of March and beyond. 
  • The writers and readers we support come from marginalized communities and may be particularly vulnerable.

Actions we’re taking to support the local literary sector:

  • Re-orienting our daily email newsletter and social media posts to share information and chronicle how the literary scene is adapting to challenging circumstances.
  • Revising our weekly email newsletter and social media posts to highlight books and authors with canceled events and directing readers to local bookstores.
  • Moving our podcast recording sessions online rather than in person.
  • Offering discounted rates for recording and hosting online literary readings and panels.

Stay informed by visiting:

As my writer friend AS Youngless put it recently, “coronavirus can’t stop art.” We’ll continue to connect readers and writers. Stay safe out there.

Sincerely,

Cody Sisco

On Writing Careers: The Legacy of Joan Didion

“She makes it look so effortless,” said contributing essayist Monica Corcoran Harel during the February 2020 publication party at Chevalier’s Books for Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living and Writing by Joan Didion’s Light. Harel was speaking of Didion’s writing and of her style. Didion’s choices about clothing and accessories big and small (bright yellow muscle cars and dark sunglasses) are celebrated, as is her ability to frame herself within her surroundings, especially while posing for photographs. The word “icon” came up more than a few times during the event that featured a rich conversation about the new anthology of Los Angeles writers examining her legacy.

Monica Corcoran Harel at Chevaliers Books

At the event, anthology editor Steffie Nelson presided at the podium introducing the contributors, four of who were female, a testament to the ground Didion broke while writing for The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, and The Saturday Evening Post during the 1960s. Her career skyrocketed from there.

Steffie Nelson at Chevalier’s Books

I listening to the discussion among contributors from the second row, feeling embarrassed and discomforted by the white wine seeping into the crotch of my pants. In trying to get a selfie showing the standing room only crowd, I’d spilled a very modest pour into my lap. It felt like a gallon. The selfie came out slightly blurry; a combination of genuine excitement and disappointed exasperation appears in my expression. Effortless? Definitely not.

Cody Sisco and Jay Fennelly at Chevalier’s Books

That is the point, however, to much of Didion’s writing. Her work may look effortless, but periods of writing droughts and doubts accompanied her productivity and success. As evidenced by the scope of contributors to Slouching Towards Los Angeles, Didion inspired generations of writers to pursue careers in journalism and creative writing; she never promised it would be easy. Her writing attests to the very opposite.

Among other topics, Didion’s essays explore both the siren song that attracts many writers to New York, the inevitable souring when New York no longer entrances, and the refuge that LA provides. Contributors Ann Friedman and Christine Lennon each trace their journeys following this well-trodden path, both ending up, as Didion did, in Los Angeles. Friedman writes, “New York was someone else’s story that I halfheartedly inhabited because I was painfully aware that I hadn’t yet written my own.” When asked during the event if any of Didion’s lines stuck in her head, she said, “Of course,” and echoed the classic line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Lennon described her journey driving cross-country, and said the inspiration for her essay came from a photograph of the writer-icon that hangs “in her powder room.”

All this talk of Didion’s migration reminded me of my own fraught, brief relationship with New York. Like Didion, I was born and raised in Northern California and moved to New York as an ambitious young adult. But I was not yet committed to what I perceived as a financially nonviable writing career, and I knew internships at literary magazines couldn’t cover my expenses. While my stint lasted only a single year, that one New York winter provided vast portions of discontent and misery for this California native. Whereas Didion regretted staying at the party too long, perhaps I arrived too late.

Upon my graceless return home to the San Francisco suburbs, I began to climb out of a slump of depression, failure, and self-doubt. I should have read more Didion in that moment instead of returning to my formative narrative refuges of science fiction and fantasy, which I re-read between moments of staring at the cracks in the ceiling of my old room in my parents’ house, wondering how to reboot my life.

Some things I learned from that period of recovery: a good diet, physical exercise, and a benign climate can do wonders for lifting one’s mood. So can fully embracing the literary impulse as I learned while taking creative writing classes at San Francisco State University. What is it about the act of writing that we find comforting?

In Heather John Fogarty’s essay, “On Keeping a Cookbook,” she investigates Didion’s notes about food prepared and served to a bevy of guests in her Malibu, Hollywood, and Brentwood homes. Fogarty ascribes the habit of note taking to a desire “to create a sense of order and connection to time and place… There is safety to be found in nostalgia, even if that safety is imagined and memory parts ways with the reality of the moment.” My own experience with note taking suggests that its potency lies in helping making sense of chaos at the time of writing, rather than to fuel nostalgia sometime in the future.

Heather John Fogarty at Chevalier’s Books

During the period of my recuperation, I threw away all my high school journals, a decision I knew would be consequential. The journals were full of painful memories, vividly rendered and perhaps not distant enough in time to be safe, yet they also captured details I can never recover. I suspected one day I might want to read my notes but decided instead that I needed to move forward, to create the life I wanted to live without being trapped by the records I kept. Not everything worth remembering fits well within the confines of a page or a photograph.

The question of how we reconcile our past now that we’re grown was raised explicitly by the lone male contributor present, Joe Donnelly, in his exploration of his evolving feelings toward two versions of The White Album: Didion’s essay collection and the Beatle’s album.  During the event Donnelly sat apart, or more accurately, stood mostly to one side and apart. A small detail that alone signifies little. But—if I’m able to analyze the situation with a fraction of Didion’s meticulous insight—throughout the evening he commanded more than his share of attention.

It never occurred to me in the moment to stand up and point to my wine-dampened crotch, grab some attention, and connect myself to the proceedings. If only I had the gumption to not care what anyone thought about me, my writing, or the spectacle-of-me, I might be writing memoir. I could fill a book with dozens of stories covering decades of adventures, but I’ve never wanted to create a spectacle of myself. But there was Didion, lurking in the frame, or just outside of it, as she spun stories about California and Los Angeles that were much bigger than they first appeared.

Reading Didion now, in light of how she impacted other writers as talented as those featured in Slouching Towards Los Angeles, puts me in a mind to expand the trajectory of my writing career and to excavate some of the stories buried in my memory. Studying the approach of the contributors to this anthology has opened some doors of possibility as surely as psychedelics open the doors of perception. I’m grateful to Nelson for exploring the byways and deep reservoirs of inspiration that Joan Didion has bestowed on us. I’m looking towards the horizon and imagining what might be coming our way to be born.

2019 BookSwell Gift Guide for the Holidays

We polled our favorite authors and literary community organizers for their reading recommendations this holiday season. They responded with titles across a range of genres. There is something for everyone in the list below.

Lynelle George says…

I’m midway through “Olive, Again” by Elizabeth Strout and have “Red at the Bone” by Jacqueline Woodson on deck.

Listen to BookSwell Intersections podcast episode #4 featuring an interview with Lynell George.

Tori Eldridge recommends…

“Rage” by Jonathan Maberry, a Joe Ledger action thriller that kicks off his new International series

“Land of Shadows,” by Rachel Howzell Hall, the first book in the Detective Elouise Norton series

Listen to BookSwell Intersections episode #11 featuring an interview with Tori Eldridge.

Carla Sameth had this to say…

Loved:

On her to-read pile…

“Black Wings” by Sehba Sarwar “which had temporarily disappeared and magically reappeared this week on my bookshelf.” Tis the season for book magic!

Rachelle Yousuf says…

“I’m a huge fan of anything by local author Attica Locke. She’s a superstar already but always deserves a shout out.”