And thus begins our seventh-fifth number.
Seventy-five is certainly a milestone, but I have learned much from Grandma Huang about age. It was a blessing to live within driving distance of my maternal grandmother during the first few years of my time in Southern California. Not just the crashpad in Little Tokyo, for one who drove from Irvine to Los Angeles for everything not school. Nor even the free, gated, and reserved parking spot in her retirement unit on Central and Second, which means, yes, I spent a number of Friday and Saturday nights in my thirties sleeping on my grandmother’s floor. There were, of course, the stories. Thinking now, up to eighty percent of my banter in those years was simply telling folks what was happening with this tiny, stubborn, opinionated, irascible, and, ultimately, lovely matriarch of a human being. Even though these happenings are no longer a basic element of my current environment, there are the stories.
One day, in that first slow hour of wakefulness, between sleep and her first smoke, we talked about her birthday (Halloween), which was now in sight. I took the occasion to ask her how old she was. I never really know with certainty any count of years, what with my sieve of a memory and my clumsiness with numbers. She said, I’ll be eighty-eight, but that means, you know, ninety in Chinese years. She went on to explain that in China one is born into the world as a one-year-old, since they count the time of gestation into one’s age. Wouldn’t that be eighty-nine Chinese years? I asked. Eighty-nine is an inauspicious number, too close to ninety, she remarked, which also meant that it is not ninety, she implied. I’ll be ninety. It is a number so saturated with beauty and harmony that it proves irresistible.
I’ll admit I haven’t been diligent in determining to what extent any of these statements and decisions are idiosyncratic to Grandma Huang or part of a larger cultural milieu. Either way, what’s laughable about the anecdote is how brazenly Grandma broke perhaps the fundamental social pact, time-keeping, for superstition and personal fancy. (I should note that when I asked my mother last week how old Grandma was when she died, I was shocked, but not surprised, when she said that her freak heart attack—her first—killed her “sadly two weeks before turning ninety.” Shocked, because that part of the narrative had eluded me; not surprised, because Grandma always insisted on being right.) But, having just passed one marker for a new year, with another just weeks on the horizon, it goes without saying that markers of time are ultimately established arbitrarily. To the question “What, then, is time?” a wise man once said, “If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.” Time we treat like nature, but, in reality, time as we know it is a social phenomenon. We inevitably fail when we try to naturalize our time markers. Every calendar ever conceived, whether pegged to the sun, the moon, or any other natural sense of time passing, has required intercalary time, time we insert regularly into a calendar to bring an inexact reckoning of the year back on track with its natural cycle, like, for us, 29 February. Thus, time is especially powerful in reminding us that there is an unbridgeable gap between nature and human society, in large part because the passage of time feels so natural. Tomorrow I turn forty, and at that time, everybody—myself included—will know that my life will have been half over by then, whether I die at forty-one or one hundred and one, and I can act accordingly.
I’ve never not celebrated simply for artifice. So what, then, are we celebrating when we celebrate a journal’s seventy-fifth? (I admit to confusion over whether to crown the seventy-fifth number, and thereby the seventy-fourth anniversary, or the seventy-fifth anniversary, and thereby the seventy-sixth number, but given the current situation—i.e. pandemic—we’ll throw our especially big party next year.) Well, there’s the simple answer that it’s old. More specifically, we are at an age at which we are undeniably what T. S. Eliot would call an institution. In a 1950 letter to then-editor of Poetry Karl Shapiro, Eliot declared that a defining feature of a little magazine is a life span that does not exceed the founding editor’s tenure. Beyond that, a periodical becomes an institution. Coming from the man who wrote “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” this feels like perhaps a slight condemnation, especially since Eliot points to his own Criterion as an example of a little magazine.
Well, it doesn’t take much to persuade me to think against Eliot, but let me go with and against. As is the case with the aforementioned essay, literature here, as Eliot defines it, is the product of nothing but individual names. What is fundamental to Eliot’s categories is that the readers of a little magazine are pegged to an authorial name, which in this case is the editor’s. (Another of the four criteria is that a little magazine is run by one editor, which flies in the face of the conventional understanding of movement-based publications, such as Dada; this too we don’t meet, given our various and primarily collective modes of editorship.) One way to think about our status as “institution” is that the Georgia Review reader, properly speaking, should be unmoored from any given editorial name. Granted, I can draw readers in and keep them here (or drive them out), for the time being. And, yes, the presence of any given editor is not negligible. As Marianne Moore puts it in an essay about her tenure as the editor of The Dial: “As growth-rings in the cross section of a tree present a differentiated record of experience, successive editorial modifications of a magazine adjoin rather than merge.” But our readership does not stand flush with my name, a somewhat common case. So the dynamic between reader and journal is less harmonic than melodic, less static than on-the-go, not so much the simultaneous sound when reader and editor are arrested at any given moment, but rather the music that takes as readerships and individual editors overlap, start and drop, one always chasing the other until the very end.
In this issue you can see how literary conversation begets conversation, most prominently in Julie Iromuanya and Virginia Jackson’s writings on Claudia Rankine’s Just Us: An American Conversation. You can also find a little feature that provides for many an introduction to a duo of Japanese women poets, Toshiko Hirata and Hiromi Itō, whose friendship and respective work have collectively changed Japanese literature since the late twentieth century. T Cooper, Emily Pérez, and Patrick Phillips give us a nice cluster of work about fatherhood, with work by Nikki Wallschlaeger, Debra Nystrom, and C. M. Lindley another cluster about girlhood.
From around the office:
• The Loraine Williams Poetry Prize is open for submissions until 1 May. This year, the judge is the National Book Award–winning poet Arthur Sze.
• The spring season of Georgia Review Books is officially here! The Bauhinia Project’s Hong Kong without Us, Anne Goldman’s Stargazing in the Atomic Age, Hannah Baker Saltmarsh’s Hysterical Water, and David Woo’s Divine Fire are all available for purchase. Buy them directly from our website for GR customer service and free shipping.
• Don’t forget to check our online platform GR2 for original content, including a recent in memoriam for Barry Lopez, audio and visual for the 2020 Loraine Williams Poetry Prize winner and featured finalists, and a feature on Dorinda Dallmeyer’s film about William Bartram, the famed eighteenth-century naturalist of the American Southeast. You also won’t want to miss conversations with Maud Casey and with Anne Goldman. GR2 reviews include Franny Choi on the recent winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize, Bhanu Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart; Gary Kerley on Alice Friman’s Blood Weather; and Darby Walter’s discussion of Lawrence Wright’s The End of October, which examines what the pandemic has taught us about literature’s importance to understanding disease.