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Broad, Substantive, and Deeply Humanist: Lit Mag Digs Deep

Review of Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2016 by Rebecca Schwarz


Here’s one of the best general literary magazines you may not have heard of. The Virginia Quarterly Review (its cover now sports the more hip and hashtagable VQR) was founded by the University of Virginia in 1925. Still supported in part by the university, this quarterly magazine features a variety of topics both national and international and a uniformly high level of writing regardless of the subject. I would say more than half of the material falls under various nonfiction categories such as memoir, essay, interviews, reporting, and criticism. Clocking in at nearly 200 pages, there is something for every kind of reader here. The overall impression is of a broad, substantive, deeply humanist endeavor.

The cover story and centerpiece of this issue is “Out of the Sea,” a photo essay by Jason Florio. He spent two months in the Mediterranean Sea aboard the Phoenix, a ship that is a Migrant Off-shore Aid Station (MOAS), and part of an NGO dedicated to saving the lives of migrants at sea. The introductory essay states that Florio wanted to create a “humanizing counterpoint to the images that have dominated the narrative” of the Middle Eastern refugee crisis. While I don’t entirely disagree – I find all of the images of the frightened and heartbroken people arriving on Greek shores humanizing – what Florio has done here is give his subjects dignity. While there are some photos of migrants crowded in quiet misery on inadequate boats, there are far more black and white portraits of individuals taken after they were aboard the Phoenix. They look at the camera open faced, proud, many smiling. Individuals, pairs of friends, couples, parents with their children; people from all walks of life simply trying to migrate to a brighter future. The photo essay ends with a picture of an old wooden fishing boat, now empty and abandoned. It’s painted a bright blue that almost matches the rich blue of the Mediterranean Sea on which it floats, above it an expanse of lighter blue sky.

Rowan Moore Gerety’s in-depth profile of Esono Ebale, a comic book artist from Equatorial Guinea, continues the international feel of this issue. The piece provides background about his nation and it’s president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who is one of the longest-serving dictators in Africa. The comic book, Obi’s Nightmare, is a subversive commentary on his homeland and its leader.

There are two long pieces are about men navigating gender roles in our society. “Outside In Father,” by Tracy O’Neill, chronicles a gay man’s years-long struggle to adopt a child within a system that does not generally recognize single fathers as fit parents. “Vertical Descent,” by Elisabeth Donnelly, is about the world of synchronized swimming and one of its top swimmers, Bill May, who because of his gender, is barred from competing in the Olympics.

The rest of the issue is filled with shorter but also substantive pieces on a variety of topics. “Good for You” by Scott Korb, is about a couple unable to have a second child. It is filed under essay but is deeply personal blurring the line between essay and memoir. My favorite in this category was Jen Choi’s “Total Loss,” which chronicles her sister losing her house and all her possessions in a devastating fire. Choi uses this event to explore loss and family as she recalls their shared childhood moving from house to house with their nomadic mother.

The criticism was especially strong. “Dog-Seeing Eye,” by Michelle Orange, is an approachable review of Laurie Anderson’s HBO documentary, “Heart of a Dog,” about her beloved rat terrier Lolabelle. Orange brings just enough of her own personal experience to bear in order to tease out insights for this “digressive, experimental, [and] personal” film, ultimately inspiring me to put it on my to-watch list.

Susan Koven’s, “Poor Historians,” explores the curious sub-genre of medical memoir:

Not only good material, illness may be an auspicious state in which to write. For all its many downsides (to say the least) illness often removes a person from the usual duties and concerns of daily life, slows down time, makes one hyper observant and acutely present.

She claims, “The best illness memoirists are the worst historians, rejecting standard medical narratives and creating their own.” She effectively illustrates this point with examples from several excellent memoirists including Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face), Eve Ensler (In the Body of the World), and Oliver Sacks whom she calls a serial memoirist.

Dovetailing with the theme of writing through illness, Debra Nystrom reviews Claudia Emerson’s final book of poetry, Impossible Bottle. This extensive critical essay looks back on the poet’s earlier work to provide context for this final collection of poems that Emerson penned after her cancer diagnosis.

There’s an interview with Rita Dove, former U.S. Poet Laureate and current U of Virginia faculty, about writing and poetry. Maybe because this magazine originates at a university there is a fair amount of space devoted to writing and the creative process. I found plenty to please both writers, and devoted readers here.

There are less than ten poems in this issue but they represent a broad range of forms; some have an international flavor like Susan Eisenberg’s “Poems About Gaza by Jews,” others more intimately personal like Chelsea Rathburn’s “Introduction to Statistics.”

There are four pieces of fiction, all strong. “Holding,” by Jamie Quatro, explores family, both past and present, and the narrator’s faith, which seems mostly consigned to her past. The narrator is working on a teleplay while trying to manage her teenage son’s crisis and her fragile marriage. Fragments of the script show her life bleeding into the stories she creates. “Renovation,” by Rachel Farrell, uses a father’s business installing suburban pools as a powerful metaphor for their family’s precarious relationships before and after divorce. All the fiction deals with individuals in the context of ever-changing family relationships. I found all of the stories accessible and literary in the sense that they were primarily concerned with small, but deeply meaningful moments and the interior lives of the characters.

All an all, this is a top tier magazine looking to engage with global issues along with exploring deeply personal experiences and examining how we express ourselves with word and image. I was pleased to find that the contributors were evenly divided between men and women.

Though their guidelines state that they are looking for new talent, the contributor bios were stacked with MFAs, prestigious awards (such as the MacArthur Fellowship), and previous publications at other big name literary journals (The New Yorker, Kenyon Review) and publishing houses (Knopf, FSG). There’s lots of experience here and that’s not a bad thing.

Their submissions are open and there are no fees. They do have rolling reading periods. As always check their guidelines before submitting, and be sure to bring your A game.