TNB Book Review: Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of Eight Hybrid Literary Genres, reviewed by Agatha FrenchBy TNB Fiction
January 14, 2016
One of my favorite lines in the thorough, inspiring, and often challenging new anthology Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres, appears not in any of the myriad prose poems or lyric essays or flash fiction included there, but in the preface. The sentence begins: “Jacqueline had been experiencing a…crisis of genre faith.” So much about this anthology – its writers, its editors, and presumably its target audience – is contained in that phrase, “a crisis of genre faith.” This is a book for those of us that pray at the altar of literature, and as such, both study its many holy tenets, and occasionally (or frequently) question their holiness, prompting us to seek new, expanded ways of renewing our commitment to The Word. Yes, sure, it’s also a book for college students, but don’t let that deter you. Most of its entries are ten pages or less, making this an anthology that can easily be dipped in and out of, should you wish, or slowly nibbled through in little tastes, sampling its offerings like dim sum.
But let’s get back to Jacqueline. Disenchanted with genre, as so many of us are, she turns to hybrid forms and finds solace in them, which raises the question: what exactly is a hybrid form? How do you define something that by definition defies being defined? Family Resemblance views genre as “an affiliation, rather than a fixed point of identification,” and adopts Ander Monson’s description of hybrid form as “a thing that’s not entirely comfortable with the container it’s placed in.” Broad and elliptical definitions, certainly, which means that the anthology cover massive territory, divided into eight categories, as follows: Lyric Essay, Epistolary, Poetic Memoir, Prose Poetry, Performative, Short-form Nonfiction, Flash Fiction, and Pictures Made of Words. This order is itself interesting: at first I thought the categories were intended to become progressively more challenging, and yet short-form nonfiction and flash fiction, which may be the most familiar of these genres to many of us, came towards the end. With that said, I was thankful to the editors for this apparent reversal. A little flash fiction was a welcome reprieve, or buffer, between some of the more “difficult,” albeit electrifying, excerpts, and the very last chapter, a visual collage that challenged even my own, by traditional standards, permissive understanding of what qualifies as writing at all. (Why, I wondered, is this not visual art? “Be cool,” I heard hybridity reply, and indeed I did find myself enjoying that entry once I relinquished my instinct to label and interpret it.) Although I did enjoy wrestling with the pieces that busted beyond all known bounds, I also hankered for something straightforward after reading them, like craving a hot dog after a gorgeous, yet unidentifiable dish of micro greens. Reason again to approach this anthology in bite-sized portions, allowing enough space to digest each entry before moving along.
Within each hybrid genre category, a process essay describing the author’s approach to the work precedes every entry, and these pairings are one of the chief pleasures and virtues of the anthology as a whole. In the process essay discussing her lyric essay “Oscar’s Cars,” Sarah Vap describes attempting to pull “the strands into different documents and (develop) them apart from one another,” before settling on the inclusiveness of hybridity. For aspiring writers, this glimpse into her process feels genuine, and, quite frankly, encouraging. (Experimental writers: they’re just like us!) David Shields discusses his strategy of composing a piece of writing as a letter to a friend, another peek into the nuts and bolts of how work actually gets written. (It is interesting to note that despite this revelation, his entry, too, is categorized as a lyric essay, and not as epistolary. The editors encourage readers to question what other categories a particular entry might fit into, and I did find myself tetrising pieces into various other chapters as I went along.) Some of the process essays delve deeply enough into craft that I made note of them for possible writing exercises, and indeed there are exercises explicitly detailed in the afterward, which serves as a general teaching guide. Occasionally, I excitedly anticipated a piece after the author’s introduction only to discover that I didn’t feel it lived up to the hype, conversely, certain essays felt dry or academic to me, while the work that followed them was anything but. The former, I noticed, were most often excerpts, which, when standing alone, do not always achieve the power conferred by accumulation. An example of the latter: the essay that precedes the excerpt from Joe Wenderoth’s “Letters to Wendy’s” did not particularly spark my interest, but the subsequent epistolary poems were so surprising, disquieting, and funny that I googled the author and bought the book immediately. In fact, outside of a very few, I was unfamiliar with almost all of the writers anthologized here, and I now have a lovely long list of books to order, small presses to research, and authors to peruse. Sarah Gorham’s nonfiction book Study in Perfect and Sabrina Orah Mark’s prose poetry are on the top of my list, but I can imagine that engaged readers will find their own favorites within each hybrid form to champion.
As for the rest of its potential audience, I don’t think Family Resemblance is going to win over any staunch genre-defenders; nor is this the book to recommend to friends who demand a plot, or a linear narrative, or a so-called yarn spun. Or is it? As Susanne Paola Antonetta states in her introduction “part of our new artistic drive toward hybridity has to do with changing cultural attitudes.” In other words, dissolving strict, often arbitrary boundaries imposed on genre is a natural response to, and extension of, dissolving these boundaries in life. Because, really, isn’t this one of literature’s highest aims? To reflect not only our world back at us, but our hopes for a better one? “Distinctions between “history” and “myth,” or “memoir” and “folk-story” are…used to bolster particular versions of the “truth” that disenfranchise, incarcerate, or otherwise subjugate people of color and their personal and cultural narratives,” editor Marcela Sulak says, just as “a belief in genre manifests as a belief in gender – they are rooted in that same impulse: that a body (or text) must ‘behave’ according to the social rules that govern it,” notes Kazim Ali, in his process essay. Change, progress, and inclusiveness will demand the same of the written word, and while highly stylized hybrid forms may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the breadth of this ambitious, demanding, and thought-provoking anthology makes a good case for admiring not only their technical courage, but their aims. “I think it’s the wave of the future,” says Sarah Vap. We can only hope.
AGATHA FRENCH is a Los Angeles-based writer, reviewer, and editor. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gigantic, NANO Fiction, Burrow Press Review, Everyday Genius, and Selfish, among others. She is deputy editor of the online literary magazine Coda Quarterly; co-creator of Four Eyes Project, set to launch in spring 2016; and food editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.