Kristine Ong Muslim - Rooms of unfinished lives. One hundred mystical flash fictions inspired by a specific painting: So trudging along, we bury the landscape underfoot. We move from one shell to the next, leaving by the side of the road a litter of colorful husks. We travel light, and everywhere we go, there’s an entire universe of abandoned dwellings
Kristine Ong Muslim, We Bury the Landscape, Queen’s Ferry Press, 2012.
"We Bury the Landscape is an exhibition of literary art. Ekphrasis, collected. One hundred flash fictions and prose poems presented to view. From the visual to the textual, transmuting before the gallery-goer's gaze, the shifting contours of curator Kristine Ong Muslim's surreal panorama delineate the unconventional, the unexpected, and the unnatural. Traversing this visionary vista's panoply of "rooms of unfinished lives," the reader unearths and examines and reanimates—revealing the transcendent uncanniness that subsists underfoot."
"Kristine Ong Muslim cultivates brilliance in her micro-fiction collection, We Bury the Landscape. Each of these mystical stories, inspired by a specific painting, have transformed into mesmerizing paintings themselves. Muslim delivers us into her own breathtaking museum with the extraordinary shifting shadows and light of dawn or dusk filtering into every piece–layer upon layer of thickly sculpted colors in language." —MEG TUITE
"We Bury the Landscape is a dynamic compilation of snapshot tales, each of which encompasses its own sensory-rich world and can be read in a few minutes or pondered for days. What's beautiful about the presentation here is that the collection is wholly nourishing and consumable in small, intense bites that intermingle on the palate and work together to fill the most intense literary craving." —JEN KNOX
"Kristine Ong Muslim is that rare combination of playful imagination and gift for language. The depth of these gems, short as most are, astounds the reader. Yet there is also much humor, often in the face of despair. We Bury the Landscape is a book that you'll want to read again and again. Muslim is a writer you'll never forget." —JAMES VALVIS
"We Bury the Landscape is an appropriate title for Kristine Ong Muslim's collection—the prose poems feel revealed. She has carefully hidden each poem for the reader to unearth: a treasure, startling and gorgeous." —VALERIE LOVELAND
"Kristine Ong Muslim, with her collection of short-short stories and prose poems, comes to the table with something wholly new and fascinating. When reading each of the individual pieces, a whole begins to emerge, a complete tapestry of haunting, surrealist imagery, which is much larger than one initially suspects. One moment you are reading about a woman trying to create a visual landscape of her own, strange creatures, or the man who sleeps with his eyes open, and the next, almost before you realize it, you are side by side with the man inside what I can only hope is a perpetual dream. And all of this makes sense because you have already been drawn into the universe where both the literal and surreal have equal sway with the governing laws of existence. Muslim is able to produce an entire world in these stories/poems and here, as it has been my experience with Muslim’s work in the past, her language is precise. Further, her use of imagery is marvelous in the best sense of the word and never is something expected or worn. Each story and poem is ekphrastic, based upon a painting, successfully pushing each written work to literally bridge the gap between the world and the visual landscape the narrator is trying to create." —JUSTIN EVANS
"Reading We Bury the Landscape by the intimidatingly prolific Kristine Ong Muslim is like ingesting some bioluminescent lozenge & descending a lopsided staircase that shifts & breathes increasingly with each step. It’s a precarious, hypnotic dance into the subliminal. Metamorphosis without metaphor. These ekphrastic prose poems are inhabited by a fairytale cast of elegantly macabre creatures: giant worms, plastic rabbits, murderous gryphons, carnivorous sunflowers, rubber Rapunzels, jars of aborted children, currency stashed in punctured skulls, honey seeping from severed wrists. There’s an almost casual acceptance of the onion-like levels of inhabiting that we become witness to: dreams trapped within minds, minds within decaying bodies, bodies within crumbling dreamscapes. At heart, these are off-kilter snapshots of impermanence & the private godless apocalypse that’s certain for us all. As we begin our descent, please keep your arms & legs inside the ride at all times." —SCOTT ALEXANDER JONES
"We Bury the Landscape is a collection of ekphrastic vignettes set against surreal backdrops fraught with eerie characters faking normalcy. Kristine Ong Muslim's visceral prose poems slash 'the air with the precision of a matador's sword striking bone’—no reader can plunge into her multiverse without kissing their comfort zone goodbye." —ARLENE ANG
"Like some of the artists whose work inspired this collection, Kristine Ong Muslim is herself a masterful creator not only of landscapes or portraits, but of parallel worlds complete with a surrealist, yet also strangely tangible, cast. The author expertly moves between reality and could-have-beens, nightmares and dreams. She slips inside the painter's skin, then confidently sheds it in possession of an entirely different truth. We Bury the Landscape is ‘a barrelful of jack-in-the-box surprises,’ sketches aimed at head, heart, and gut." —MICHAELA A. GABRIEL
"After reading We Bury the Landscape, an ekphrastic flash fiction/prose poem collection by Kristine Ong Muslim, I’m convinced that voice is everything, and the voice in this book is both compelling and strong, unifying all the disparate, wonderful scenes. The writing is sure, a surrealist manifesto. Instead of simply reflecting the art, Muslim’s pen leads the reader through extraordinary worlds, created by such singular artists as Joan Miró, Julie Heffernan, Peter Marcek, René Magritte, Jean-Marie Poumeyrol, among so many. In “House and Men,” a work after Wind by Vladimir Kush, the Russian painter, Muslim writes, ‘we are all versions of staircases at various angles,’ a passage that gets at the brain of this stunning collection—giving life and breath to image. And she does that page after page." —SAM RASNAKE
"Reading Kristine Ong Muslim's work is like participating in an archeological dig. It is the landscape that draws us first, an unusual depression, that strange swirl of vegetation, a sudden, loamy softness in rocky terrain. And so we dig, trowel by trowel, micro-story by micro-story. We lose ourselves in the task of un-burying a bone fragment here, an artifact there. Posthumanism gives way to re-humanism. The inanimate breathes deep. Only when we have finished do we fully realize the skeleton we have unearthed is our own, reaching from the grave to touch our flesh, to feel the warmth we cast off so casually in our everyday lives. As entertaining as it is deep, We Bury the Landscape shines as an example of the flexible power of the micro-fiction form." - STEPHEN V. RAMEY
"If for one minute, I got lost in the galleries of Kristine Ong Muslim’s mind, I don’t know if I’d ever be able to leave. We Bury the Landscape is a collection of one-hundred ekphrastic works of flash fiction and prose poetry pieces that act as glimpses— better yet— conduits, into parallel universes constructed and inspired by a surreal, but brilliant, forge of one-hundred unique paintings. Visceral is a word that gets overused. But in this case, the text leaps off the pages, claws it ways onto your bones, gnaws and tears and embeds itself inside the cavities of your brain. Many of the stories are short and can be quickly read, but each of them lingers hauntingly as in, “The Taxidermist and the Girl Made of Dead Things:”
Something grew from the bruises and open wounds on their skin. Something with hands and eyes and a tongue and swollen lips. Something that would not complain when subjected to pain. Could not be killed by sharp objects or radiation. Something that would not break free.
It’s a fitting analogy for many of the stories that inhabit the collection. The prose is both blunt and subtle, sometimes making a strategic strike to draw you in, other times, setting up a premise that will be contorted around. “The Village of the Mermaids,” is a good example, starting with a description of Paul Delvaux’s work of the same name:
The golden-haired girls of this village do not blink. Their stoic gazes can be mistaken for either stubbornness or guilt.
The women seem harmless enough. But as most great paintings have texture, layers that can be stripped away (both physically and artistically), there are hidden themes that insinuate and dig their way in. These expose not just a tattered moment in dissolute time, but a peep show into the artist in relation to her subject. The curtain gets shredded and Muslim introduces her own twisted slant on the Village:
One of them sometimes forget to turn off the stove. One is hiding a body under the floorboards. One of them is indecisive regarding her will to die. One is blind and faking a vacant stare.
Every character has a secret, something buried in the landscape. Uncovering the deeper insight, or burying it under more layers, is in many ways the plight of humanity. We struggle for meaning, chase after idols while losing sight of the overall geography. The truth is an admirable goal as long as it’s someone else’s skeletons being revealed. As, “Abandoned Dwellings,” the piece that has the line from which the collection gets its name, explains:
We travel light, and everywhere we go, there’s an entire universe of abandoned dwellings.
Each of the one-hundred stories is an abandoned dwelling that deserves exploration; that dilapidated shack on the corner as well as the skyscraper crumbling from years of recession, smelling of spray paint, piss, and homeless eclectics. It’s a question of introspection, the honesty to be candid with oneself, to delve into the attics and basements we’d all willingly forget. The darker properties resonated with me personally, but there are happier dwellings in the lot as in, “Rain of Men:”
It poured men that day. From afar, they looked the same, although some had mustaches. Or cigars in their mouths. Or even stained teeth.
And one particular line I appreciated in, “What Better Lure,” was:
A man in a gray suit watches his future unroll: … And there in the middle is a framed architectural plan, the rough sketch of a wonderful life that remains unfinished.
Many of the stories seem like they could go on, a tantalizing preview to which Muslim invites the reader and then quickly proceeds, an artist in full control of the pace of her show. Any gallery undergoes countless hours of debate, which angles to highlight, which portraits to under-light or flood with electricity. Some of the images are disturbing and had me squirming uncomfortably in my seat. It’s never an easy task to ask to recreate the feeling of writhing anguish. But Muslim gives us that and something more; empathy for the characters she weaves. No matter how horrifying a creation, there’s an air of melancholy, even pity to their actions. The greatest artists and writers are the best psychologists, and each of the profiles contained within the book can be expanded into a journey, epic, bizarre, gleefully strange.
In, “The Collage Artist,” we get an idea for Muslim’s role as curator:
With her veiny hands, she scissored each red-paper cutout to fit the frame, adorned it with torn-up maps and split-ended strands of hair. She juxtaposed familiar objects with strange terrains. Patched-up lonely hearts on canvas, grattage on the right edge to simulate texture.
I’m still wandering the gallery of Kristine Ong Muslim’s mind. I just reread the, “Boy With a Propeller Head,” and wish I could fly away with a propeller of my own sticking out of my head. I want to discourse with, “The Great Architect,” based on Salvador Dali’s Surrealist Architecture. The rooms intertwine, a labyrinthine maze of recurring enigmas. I look at the paintings accentuated by centuries of movements, use We Bury the Landscape as guide to navigate. I’m lost, but then again, I’m in no hurry to leave. A painting is sucking me into the canvas. Don’t worry. Just bury me with all the others." - Peter Tieryas Liu
"It isn’t everyday a book offers two very different ways of reading. The first: intensely personal, sometimes bewildering and yet rigorously demanding in terms of creative participation, and the second: intellectual, research-based and analytical, but also a call to a communal multi-genre artistic experience. These two different methods are on offer in Kristine Ong Muslim’s collection of micro fictions We Bury the Landscape, an assemblage of very short ekphrastic pieces.
Ekphrasis is an intellectually rigorous form in that it requires engagement in two mediums, the art object that inspires the writing and the writing itself. Ekphrasis is most often a form of homage, but involves explication and adding nuance. It can also be subversive, a way to transform a generally accepted understanding of a work of art into something novel or contrary. In this sense it becomes a form of translation and interpretation.
What is interesting about Muslim’s collection (and no doubt the result of a logistical consideration) is that the original pieces, the art that inspired each fiction, are not immediately available to the reader. Depending on the reader’s artistic background, some, or even many, of the pieces may not be easily called to mind. This separates the piece from its ekphrastic purpose. Forces it to stand alone. A first method of reading the book.
For example, here is Muslim’s “Rivalerne and Shelving:”
We do not know what they are, yet still they insist that they are just beautiful girls having their time in the sun. When girls evolve into wooden cupboards with long legs and perfect breasts, this is not the time to complain. So we let these girls be. Their wooden torsos creak when they walk, crack along the grain when they race to catch the train. They do not ride elevators. All the stairs and ladders in the world bend under their weight. Sometimes, they catch fire and are beyond help. Sometimes, their salvageable contents spill before the flames can reach them. As we watch them die, we imagine rearranging their tangled red hair, putting something on their empty, slowly burning shelves, inhaling the sawdust of their last breaths.
Read in a void, without access to a reproduction of the original painting, Georg Broe’s Rivalerne, the reader is drawn inside this surreal landscape—the enigmatic description of these girls, the curious metaphor of transformation, the beauty of that last line, the whispered bewilderment/awe of the communal narrator. This is already an intense and full reading experience. This speculative land of wooden women, susceptible to instant conflagration is a mystery worth considering.
But by looking at the original—a blue landscape with strolling surreal figures—we discover that Muslim has worked a subtle explication in her piece, has given a life to Broe’s strange women, but she has gone further than explication, she has written a future for them, even created a death unforeshadowed by Broe.
In another instance, between Muslim’s “Abandoned Dwellings” and Vladimir Kush’s piece of the same name, the connection is somewhat more tenuous. Muslim avoids explication here and uses Kush’s piece solely as inspiration. The result is obviously less dependent on the reader having any knowledge of Kush’s original piece:
What we always leave behind is an unrecorded catalogue of the things that went wrong. There’s the depression of a window on the unpainted side of a house. There’s that book filled with bluebird, filled with woodchips, filled with nightmares, filled with burned-out lamp bulbs and mismatched socks. And if we have said something in the past, we have said nothing at all. So trudging along, we bury the landscape underfoot. We move from one shell to the next, leaving by the side of the road a litter of colorful husks. We travel light, and everywhere we go, there’s an entire universe of abandoned dwellings.
I’m not trying to suggest that either way of reading these pieces proves more satisfactory than the other. Some of these fictions are more dependent on seeing the original, some stand completely and breathtakingly alone. The double exercise is fascinating, however, because it offers a three-way collaborative reading: the reader responds to Muslim’s textual creation, the reader engages with the original art, and finally, the reader is invited to make connections between the two.
The reader will undoubtedly have her own reaction to each piece of art, so what Muslim gives us is the start of a conversation. And she gives us one hundred of these vibrant and extraordinary little worlds, one hundred openings for discussion with her and her fictional response.
The mention of “bury the landscape” from the second example provided above should not go unnoticed. Here is the reference piece for Muslim’s title, a fitting description for a book that takes its genesis from a collection of surreal and enchanting landscapes. Muslim is, in a sense, burying these original pieces beneath new structures of words and images. There is a feeling of reinventing the artist’s supposed intention, a daring, even risky endeavor, but one that Muslim accomplishes with much grace.
The variety of emotional experience is broad. Some of these micro fictions are dense and serious, others light. Some inspire curiosity, others elicit an immediate emotional response. Some pieces are even delightfully opaque. The minimalist “Bathyscaphe,” for example, inspired by Jacek Yerka’s painting of the same name:
We dream of fish that are invisible and can never be caught. We dream of seas, too. Waters too perilous to allow the invisible fish to exist.
There are several layers of impossibility in these three lines. A sliver of prose poetry to be read, pondered and untangled. A look at the original confirms Muslim’s insightful eye as she has based her piece on the single most baffling, wonderfully inscrutable element in Yerka’s painting: the potential of the perfectly ordinary bed.
This is not a book to be devoured in one sitting but best savored slowly. Take these a piece a day, one hundred days of fantastical word creations, one hundred reasons to consider/reconsider a piece of art. One hundred conversations just waiting to begin." - Michelle Bailat-Jones
"Most of the time, I don't necessarily "get" art. I enjoy it and find reasons why it's pleasing to me. I find a piece of art and look at what the artist has to say about what they were trying to do and it's always something way different from what I see. For example, one of my friends is an artist and I have one of her paintings in my home. I see a wine bottle with darkness around it, possibly representing the deepness of a red wine, or maybe even a higher level of the dark things drinking can do. She tells me she didn't even mean to paint a wine bottle and still doesn't see one. But that's what I see.
Anyway, the reason I loved this book is because Muslim gave me such amazing stories about each painting, stories that made sense to me and were creative and inspiring. I was unfamiliar with most of the art, so I looked each painting up and gave it good hard look before reading the story. Her stories reminded me of an imaginative person sitting in an art museum making up fantastic histories to each painting, something that I might do. And when some of those paintings that I looked up had some artist commentary, it was always something that I didn't "get" and Muslim's stories made more sense to me, despite the fact that they are fiction. I don't think I could pick a favorite piece of art and corresponding story in this book, but perhaps the first one, Landscape with Grenade, would be it. I love it because I don't know what the artist was trying to say with that and I'm sure it's probably something about society, but Muslim wrote about a landscape with a giant grenade in it and what the people who lived there might think if they saw it. It was so refreshing and creative and interesting. I love some of the post-apocalyptic stories she wrote about some of the surreal paintings, too.
Muslim wrote short stories for each piece of art, but it read like poetry. Her writing was descriptive and had a flow and rhythm to it that I enjoyed a lot. I would definitely read her other work and look forward to doing so.
This book was a bit different from what I normally read, but it was refreshing and wonderful! " - Megan Monell
"This is such an unusual book! Is it fiction? Sometimes. Is it non-fiction? Maybe a little. Is it poetry? Definitely. Is it also prose? For sure.
Essentially, Kristine Ong Muslim has given voice to the thoughts that traipse through your mind when looking at art. While sometimes her words are literal interpretations of the visual, more often they tell a story of what is lurking just outside the frame. From heartbreaking backstory to inspiring monologue, these vignettes delight and give each piece new dimension.
I am not terribly well versed in art, and I admit to reading the book sitting at my computer so as to look up each piece before I read the accompanying story. This made the reading take much longer than it otherwise would have, but I think it was the right way to do it. It became almost a meditation – find the artwork, study it, read the piece, study the artwork again, frequently re-read the piece and re-study the art – sometimes I’d spend 15 minutes or more on an individual story of only a few sentences. In each case, I was rewarded. I was also introduced me to new artists I’d never heard of, like Julie Heffernan, whose work I am now a little obsessed with. I’m also looking forward to my next trip to a museum or gallery, so that I can try my hand at this new way of viewing art." - The Joy of Booking
"I received this book from the author for the review and I accepted because I was really intrigued by it. The premises of it was very interesting. This is an unusual book, it’s both poetry and prose. Its both fiction and fantasy.
Collection of short stories/poems about paintings. Most of the painting that were selected were from the twentieth century; some of the them I was familiar with and some I had to look up. Author tells a story about each painting, a story that might run though your hear when you stand in front of the painting. I love art, but sometimes I do not get it. Sometimes when I talk to people about painting and you ask them what do they see. They tell you what they see and I am usually left confused because that is not what I saw. I guess art can be whatever you want it to be, however you as an individual perceive it.
There were number of different stories/poems in this book that were very entertaining and humorous. I looked up few pictures that I was not familiar with before I read the story that was linked to it to see what I saw. Is it the same as what the author describes? And no it is not. But when I read the story/poem about the painting I was able to see what the author was seeing as well.
Overall this very well written and very imaginative book. I am glad that I accepted it, it is though provoking and gives you another POV on some of the paintings. It is always interesting to see what others see when they look at art." - What... more books
"I was offered the chance to review We Bury the Landscape by the author, and whilst it's not the normal type of book I would normally read, I was definitely intrigued by its concept. I think that it's always interesting to see where author's gain their inspiration from, so receiving a book of 100 short stories and poems that are all based on different paintings definitely appealed to me.
I'm not a great lover of art (in this sense), yet I can appreciate the hard work and passion that goes into a painting, as it is very similar to the hard work and passion that goes into a novel. As I'm not that well-versed in art, I had to look up each painting before reading the accompanying piece. This was time-consuming but well-worth the effort. What I loved about discovering all these new pieces of art was the fact that whilst I may have interpreted a piece to represent one idea, the author interpreted it to mean another, and because of the stories, I was able to understand her interpretations as well.
So many of these stories were poignant to me as well. The story that the title is taken from, Abandoned Dwellings, (inspired by Vladimir Kush's painting of the same name), really connected with me, especially as I flicked between painting and prose. Landscape with Grenade was possibly my favourite story, as I loved the idea that had been taken from the art, and I could actually imagine the people in the painting re-enacting the story.
I am so pleased that I was given the opportunity to read this book. I doubt I would have ever picked it up otherwise, and I would have really been missing out on all these wonderful pieces of artwork, and the fantastic poetry and prose of Kristine Ong Muslim." - Music, Books and Tea
"Some roses disguise themselves as roses; they want to be misunderstood. Some roses covet what other flowers have. Some roses wither as soon as you say their name. -from Some Roses and Their Phantoms (after Dorothea Tanning's Some Roses and their Phantoms, 1952), in We Bury the Landscape
Kristine Ong Muslim's We Bury the Landscape (Queen's Ferry Press, April 2012) is a gallery walk through a modern art collection; an immersion in surrealist whimsy; a fantastical, surprising, Mary Poppins-journey deep into the interior of a sidewalk painting - and popped - just as quickly - right out again.
The tiny stories in We Bury the Landscape are inspired by selected works from artists such as Julie Heffernan, Otto Rapp, Joan Miro, Rene Magritte, Vladimir Kush, Odilon Redon, Salvador Dali, and many others. Discovering the art was, for me, part of the great joy of reading. Throughout the opening half of the book, and particularly with artists or paintings that were unfamiliar, I couldn't help but google each inspiring work as I read. (Muslim has since helpfully compiled links to all the paintings on her blog.)
Muslim not only has an eye for seeing in the art some of the details an average observer might miss, but also the skill to craft charming stories that can stand alone in their own right. Above all, her imagination is stunning: In these stories, she takes us absolutely everywhere, from the minds of crumpled roses on a table, to an ill-fated hike on a trail, to the inner life of a misunderstood spider-boy, to a girl-sphinx, to a world in peril, and beyond.
For some of us more linear-thinking, slower to transition readers, the effect of so much fantasy in such brief stories can be a little overwhelming. I enjoyed We Bury the Landscape best at a leisurely pace, as if meandering through an actual art gallery, lingering over a few paintings and stories at a time, savoring one, and then another. The creativity in this collection is a wonderful antidote to any kind of a rut, a surplus of reality, or an artistic deficit. Recommended for readers who love daring art and inventive short stories." - Books, Personally
"These one-hundred stories were inspired by real pieces of art -- but you don't need to be familiar with any of the images to enjoy these stories. Muslim's jumping point -- a painting -- ends with wonderful crafted story, poignant and sharp, sad and humorous. I read all the stories first, image unseen, then went to Muslim's website where she links to every image. Then, after checking out the images, I reread the stories.
I'll be honest: in many cases, I rather enjoyed the story more before seeing the image. Sometimes, Muslim's story is a literal description of the painting; when the image was unfamiliar, I savored her descriptions, but after seeing the picture, I preferred my mental image over the reality.
Described as 'flash fiction', these short stories are, in some cases, simply a paragraph -- but the length doesn't detract from the wallop of imagery and emotion. At 169 pages, this volume is easy to race through: I would read on, potato-chip reading, as I described it to my wife, inhaling one story after another, unable to stop myself. Some of the stories are darkly humorous; others, creepy and grotesque. Many of the stories have a surrealist feel to them, reminding me of Aimee Bender, Ben Loory, and Catherynne M. Valente -- helped by Muslim's choice in art. Ranging from well-known artists like Dali and Miro, she also picks contemporary artists who were new-to-me, and the spectrum of art styles was exciting and interesting. (I recommend checking out Muslim's essay on Necessary Fiction to learn more about her process for writing; I read it during my reading of this volume and found myself appreciating the stories even more.)
Even if you're not a short story fan, consider this collection: the pieces are so interesting, odd, dark, and twisted, they're like literary amuse-bouche, or a sampler flight of strange fiction. A unique way to dip your toes into odd fiction." - Unabridged Chick
Research Notes: Kristine Ong Muslim
"These five exquisite micro-fiction pieces, “Man in a Black Suit,” “Time Transfixed,” “Townscape,” “The Apartment Building Before it was Torn Down” and “City of the Dead,” are all inspired by paintings. Tell us about how you came up with this brilliant idea for your amazing collection, “We Bury the Landscape.”
- I’ve always loved ekphrastic writing. Edward Hirsch’s “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad” turned me into a big fan of literature that’s inspired by paintings. So I made a book-length version in prose form.
How many pieces are in the collection? We’d love to hear more about the collection and when it’s coming out.
- 100 flash fictions and prose poems make up the collection. Each microfiction in We Bury the Landscape corresponds to a piece of art I’ve indicated in the book. It’s not the most original of ideas, but I loved working on that book. While I was preparing the manuscript for Queen’s Ferry Press, I realized that those little stories were not based on those artworks at all; they more or less intimated on what I want those artworks to represent. The book will come out March or April, 2012.
Is there a general theme you found when putting together this collection?
- Oh, yes. I did not plan it, but when I was assembling all the individual pieces into a full-length manuscript, I was surprised that most of them deal with issues about identity and end-of-the-world scenarios. The bulk of the pieces were written around the same time period, thus the predominance of certain themes.
You’re an incredibly accomplished and prolific writer. Do you have a writing schedule you adhere to?
- Thank you for your kind words, Meg. I don’t have a definite writing schedule. I write whenever I feel like it, and fortunately (or unfortunately), I am almost always in the mood to write.
What books are you reading?
- On my bedside table are Charles Freeland’s excellent Deviled Ham and a Picture of Jesus and Through the Funeral Mountains on a Burro, a 2009 back issue of Third Coast, and Peter Moore Smith’s Raveling – all of them in partly read stages.
Any recent books that have really inspired you that we should know about?
- Most recently, I finished reading Strange Things and Stranger Places, a book of short stories by Ramsey Campbell. I’ve read almost all of his novels, and seeing how he does his short fiction is making me want to find out whatever it is that he smokes so I can get a little bit of his genius. His stories were always too ambitiously original, too risqué even for hardcore horror. And the prose – simply incredible.
What project are you working on at this time?
- A book of short stories set in the fictional town of Outerbridge." - Interview by Meg Tuite
Kristine Ong Muslim, Insomnia, Medulla Publishing,
"Kristine Ong Muslim is a contemporary goddess of poetry. She compels us to enter unique realms of metaphorical magnanimity to spaces—here and now—of sociological profundity. Her style is varied yet marked by manifest visions. Muslim's verse exudes a distinguished type of deliverance that exalts the reader into an enlightened being of reprieve."
“The ocean is an oversized boat, which is also a ripple, which is/also a memory of a submerged continent.”
“This girl collects shipwrecks and coffee mugs,/green bottles and bone folders—things which/cannot be inherited.”
Kristine Ong Muslim, Night Fish, Elevated Books
"Nightfish is a collection by the accomplished author Kristine Ong Muslim. Her poems explore the existence possible in between the realities of times: past, present, future, and between solid form and phantoms."
"Night Fish is a 13-poem chapbook written in the language of a hypothetical (future) reality. It opens with the title poem, submerging the reader in a world without landmass. Everything that once stood on high ground is reduced to the level of the sea. Despite the uncertainties accompanying a watery life, humans learn to adapt (“Everyone will learn to paddle towards the nonexistent shores.”) and form an aquatic community, an emergent race of water people. Kristine Ong Muslim, the poet behind these lines, has imagined an alternate environmental habitat in which sea level rise is the state of nature and adaptation to an extreme environment is the way of life: "The sound of oars cutting the water clean will be the most familiar sound in the universe."
The universe of Muslim's poems exists, as another poem ("Hypergraphia") puts it, in some “watery city of typography”. It is a city where the boundaries are fluid and meanings dissolve at the edges of bodies of water. "Hypergraphia" is a poem about a lake which "opens its doors the way a detective pries and yanks wooden floor" to find the murder weapon(!):
Sometimes, this door is mishandled and someone drowns. Sometimes, too, it allows grief to run its course, gets a novel written by some stranger inside that glass lakehouse. Lake water laps at the shore, gravel and silt sliding in and out. A watery city of typography. All the pebbles are letters desperately forming into words. The handwriting is not quite legible yet.
Grief is taken as inspiration for novel writing. The interfacing between shore pebbles (land) and lake water straddles writing and grief. The lake as possibly the liquid symbol of tears. The land trying to make sense of the murder or drowning in the lake, its source of sorrow.
A key poem that acquaints the reader to a general idea of the whole collection is “Heat Stroke”, a condition where moisture has left and hellish grief has triumphed. It is in direct contradiction to the watery city, this time the severe heat wave razes the landscape. It is also again an elegy for someone who may have died: "what remains and what we remember is / someone else's absence, the slam of the doors."
The poem then provides a way to read its contents, a way to cope with the rising temperature and the sense of death all around, through its own navigation of heat:
We ultimately learn to slice impressions,
separate them according to texture.
Smooth-skinned on top. Rusty underneath.
Grit and cruelty crammed in the middle.
Heat presents itself in the form of waves
melting the world away. Squandering nothing.
This poem, like everything in Night Fish, is very brief, and each rereading reveals an ambivalent voice of a prophet. When language and image liquefy in short lines, meanings condense in a small space, “squandering nothing”. Every image, every texture ("smooth-skinned", "rusty", "grit and cruelty") is contained in the simulacrum of transience, meanings arising from grief brought about by floods and heat waves, extreme conditions that challenge the homeostasis of the human organism.
The rest of the poems display a consistent interest in night times, bodies of water, and desert-like environments. They evoke the edgy atmosphere of noir science fiction, through nocturnal meditations, not in a speculative mood but in terse meditations about an altered future landscape and the place of man in it.
The structure of the lines – in prose or short clipped lines – usually enact the very ideas they profess. The self-reference gives way not to a metafictional consciousness but to an awareness of the limitations imposed by the fictional artifice. (I tend to emphasize 'fiction' in these poems, perhaps a way to underscore the essentially narrative content in Night Fish.) For example, the way the last line fades out at the end of the second poem (“Night Swimmer”) – "Sometimes, one plunge is enough / to cut the water clean, the splash / merely an afterthought" – trails like an afterthought itself. The final stop is an inevitable punctuation of a thought that meandered beyond boundaries. Similarly, the end of "Art", the penultimate poem, gives itself away when it declares that art is not "[s]ome flimsy rowboat that can be disassembled into exactly nine pieces". A puzzle that alludes to the nine full stops in the poem, corners that don't exactly define its boundaries. In fact each piece, sentence, or line resists the kind of objective deconstruction that puts a poem in a box (or bowl) resting on the table. Hence, "Art is repulsion floating in a bowl of soup. / Sometimes, it is the soup."
The primordial liquid in which Muslim's poetry is soaked in is the puzzle (or riddle) of existing in a mirror world. An ecological interpretation of the poems can be: that they are cautionary poems – not in a hard-science fiction way – that give us hope that poets will not give up and will ensure that poetry will still be written when the worst of climate events runs its course. Poetry, in fact, appears as a viable strategy to adapt to climate change. Even if the lines can be disturbing or unsettling, they can teach us ecological resilience and resistance. As with any literary hypothesis, this interpretation is valid only in the imagination.
Another theme of Muslim's that one could detect in some of these poems is that of stray souls and "random ghosts". But that is another work of fiction.
This cold has taught me
about the nature of souls.
Although I have known
a long time ago that the body
is meant to be a sieve for
the soul fermenting inside,
I am still surprised by the fog
of breath coming out of my mouth.
So dense. It seems that I am not the only one
who is exhaling in this frozen yard." - In lieu of a field guide
Kristine Ong Muslim, Age of Blight, Unnamed Press, 2016.
In this collection of speculative, horror-tinged stories, human cruelty, in all of its abundant diversity, compels humanity toward the final stages of the Anthropocene: the Age of Blight.What if the end of man is not caused by some cataclysmic event, but by the nature of humans themselves? In Age of Blight, a young scientist's harsh and unnecessary experiments on monkeys are recorded for posterity; children are replaced by their doppelgangers, which emerge like flowers in their backyards; and two men standing on opposing cliff faces bear witness to each other's terrifying ends.
Age of Blight explores a kind of post-future, in which the human race is finally abandoned to the end of its history. Muslim's poetic vignettes explore the nature of dystopia itself, often to darkly humorous effect, as when the spirit of Laika (the Russian space dog that perished on Sputnik 2) tries to befriend a satellite, or when Beth, the narrator's older sister, returns from the dead. The collection is illustrated throughout by the charcoal drawings of RISD artist Alessandra Hogan.
In haunting and precise prose, Kristine Ong Muslim posits that humanity's downfall will be both easily preventable and terrifyingly inevitable, for it depends on only one thing: human nature.