Amy McDaniel

Amy McDaniel helps run the Solar Anus reading series in Atlanta, where she was born and raised. By writing and teaching, she provides for herself and her dog, Annette. She co-edited From the Second Line, a collection of her students’ essays about Hurricane Katrina.

Tiny Linguistic Maps of My House

By now you’ve probably seen the linguistic maps of the United States that depict how oddly people speak outside of the South. Loyer? What? Recently, I’ve been working on a similar (though much larger in scope) project mapping the speech patters in my household, which is made up of me and Laura Relyea of Vouched Books. By tracking the usage and pronunciation of the two members of the household, I was able to create graphical representations of linguistic differentiation in a Southern urban domestic setting. Theoretically, I leaned heavily on Wittgenstein in analyzing my data. Here are some of the results.

Caramelize map


Aunt map


affluent map



Chambray map



Forward map



Laura map



Beer map


Random / 4 Comments
June 8th, 2013 / 4:42 pm

Stop Saying Realistic

I’ve devoted some time to determining whether a sound is rain, wind, or traffic. Maybe old people, or at least old monks, can accept a sound without an apparent source. Because the source does not change the sound itself. A reality check is a more serious thing than a wake-up call.

Nor, as it pertains to the arts, is “realistic” an at-all useful descriptor of a work. There was a period of art and letters called Realism, but the Modernists and Post-Modernists who rejected the Realistic mode were not rejecting the attempt to record reality; they rejected the way the Realists thought they were doing it. They thought the Realists didn’t get the representation of reality right. Hence fragments, streams, layers and meta-layers, lists, cuts.

When people say, “I don’t like realistic novels,” I can’t figure out what they mean. What kind of novels are they talking about? I would put it to you that they don’t know, either.

The fundamental error in the thought and literature of the West is the conception of dreaming as the opposite of reality. Dreams are not metaphors, wishes, or fantasies. They do not contain symbols or hidden truths. More to the point, reality is not accessible to us; our senses filter and ferment it, and organize it so that we may survive. Dreams, we experience in total. What we perceive in a dream is the dream itself.  READ MORE >

Power Quote / 24 Comments
June 26th, 2012 / 1:54 pm

How I Turned My Life Upside Down to Move to Bangladesh and Became Embroiled in an International Fiasco

Update 3/1/13: A former colleague who still teaches at the Asian University for Women reports that the new Vice Chancellor “has put AUW back on the path” that it was on when I enthusiastically joined the faculty. This is wonderful news. Kamal Ahmad is no longer involved in the daily running of the school, and Ashok Keshari is no longer employed by the university. These factors, along with the Vice Chancellor’s very secure position of leadership, lead me to believe that AUW is now able to fulfill its promise of becoming a leading liberal arts university for women in Asia. I have the highest hopes for the future of its students and faculty.

It was definitely an adventure.

This is what I tell people when I don’t have the inner resources necessary to describe what really happened in Bangladesh. Or when I don’t have the time.

Sometimes, I elaborate slightly on the experience of leaving everything behind to teach writing seminars at a small college called The Asian University for Women, with plans to stay at least two years, maybe more, working with some of the brightest students (from 12 different countries) whom I have ever encountered — only to be so emotionally ravaged by the (in my mind, illegitimate) administration of Kamal Ahmad and Ashok Keshari that I left after only one semester (though it felt like much longer), unable to cope with the stress-induced hair loss and the nightly crying jags, knowing that every minute I spent in the classroom was vitally worthwhile but also knowing I would crack if I stayed any longer. I might elaborate like this:

A week after I arrived in Bangladesh, before I’d even recovered from jetlag, my boss, the provost, an academic of international repute who made the school the great place it was, was terminated and barred from re-entering the country. New faculty orientation was cancelled because her replacement, Ashok Keshari, could not be bothered to return to campus early. Two weeks later, the founder, Kamal Ahmad, who had carried out the coup against her, offered me a 20% raise and promotion to a position above the eminently worthy faculty member who interviewed and recruited me (including an incredible Bengali cooking lesson) and became a fast friend, and who was not offered the promotion even though she already was responsible for half of the job description. Clearly, the offer to me was based not on merit, but on Kamal Ahmad’s suspicion that he could manipulate me because I was new and unversed, and, possibly, that he could set me up to take the fall for something. So I declined, against the urging of colleagues who thought I could stand up to Kamal Ahmad from that position. At around the same time, I along with several other faculty members had to take it upon ourselves to organize class registration because every administrator with enough institutional knowledge to do so had resigned in protest.

But no matter how much I elaborate, never have I really felt able to convey what is happening at the Asian University for Women under Kamal Ahmad and Ashok Keshari.

For there is a violence within words, one that can only be felt and absorbed, that narratives can’t expose. One that facts and documents carefully skirt.

Yet I will keep trying, probably forever. With that in mind, I provide below two emails. Before you laugh at the awkward phrasing of the first, remember that Ashok Keshari is in a position of real authority over approximately five hundred young women. What might seem silly in its idiomatic bizarreness seems less so when you consider that Ashok Keshari’s decisions have actual consequences for actual, wonderful people.


Random / 8 Comments
February 13th, 2012 / 5:50 pm

6 Books: Deb Olin Unferth on Nonfiction

In this week’s installment of 6 Books, Deb Olin Unferth, author of the brilliant, laconic memoir Revolution, recommends 6 nonfiction books. Here are her picks:

To After That (Toaf) by Renee Gladman

It’s a book dedicated to a book she has written: what is a cooler premise than that?

Parrots for Dummies by Nikki Moustaki

Yes, from the Dummies series, a simple how-to book: feeding, cleaning the cage, etc., but stay with me here. I found the book very moving. Her portrait of the parrot is of a tragic figure in a cage—it feels almost Kafkaesque. She captures the personality of the parrot as a beautiful, complex, panicky person who you’d do anything for in hopes that it’ll fall in love with you. And there’s also the sadness of the author, who you can tell is struggling: she has to write about clipping, though she mostly hates it. She has to talk about breeding though she thinks it’s a terrible idea. She includes pictures of birds flying in the Amazon—there, isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that where they belong? They fly a hundred miles a day out there, while here they can move only a few feet. Which is better for them, do you think? she wonders.

Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith

This book has shown up on so many lists now that it’s almost like putting Consider the Lobster on this list. But I’m including it here because you know what? Zadie Smith is a badass.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein

This may be my favorite book of all time. This is the book that made all my short shorts possible, that made my memoir, Revolution, possible. I first read it riding a train to Chicago and I’ve never been the same. How to write about war and make it funny. How to write about furniture and make it sad.

A Giacometti Portrait, by James Lord

For Lord—who agreed to sit for a portrait for Giacometti—what initially seemed like a pleasant afternoon turned into an existential nightmare, as Lord discovered just what “finishing” a portrait meant to Giacometti.

Atlas of Remote Islands, by Judith Schalansky

How can descriptions of islands far, far away—islands that I’ll never visit, islands that the author has never visited—feel so lonely?

Author Spotlight / 5 Comments
June 2nd, 2011 / 5:09 pm

6 Books: Maggie Nelson on Nonfiction

This is Part III in a series where I ask writers I like for 6 book recommendations according to some loose guideline. Part I is here; Part II is here. This week is another installment on nonfiction, this time brought to us by Maggie Nelson, author of Bluets (Wave Books), the forthcoming The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (Norton), and five other books of poetry, criticism, and essay.

1. My Parents, Herve Guilbert, trans. Liz Heron
The back of my book calls this a blend of fiction and autobiography; I read it simply as a great example of what some non-Americans would call “life writing.” Guibert—a French writer and photographer who died of AIDS at 36—here gives an astonishingly weird account of how his parents “divided up the ownership of [his] body.” “Something about this story is not right,” he says about his aunt’s faulty account of his circumcision—and indeed, Guibert’s book is blessedly not right in the most compelling of ways.

2. The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art, Eileen Myles
A tour de force of major and minor nonfiction jewels by Myles, one of the world’s most important living writers. Not only a rocking example of what art criticism, or “vernacular scholarship,” could be, but also a radical, casual act of canon/world re-creation, one which includes Nicole Eisenman, Sadie Benning, Peggy Ahwesh, Daniel Day Lewis, Ann Lauterbach, William Pope.L, and Bjork, among others.

3. A Place to Live, and Other Selected Essays of Natalia Ginzburg, trans. Lynne Sharon Schwartz.
I’m utterly entranced by Ginzburg’s style—her mysterious directness, her salutary ability to lay-things-bare that never feels contrived or cold, only necessary, honest, and clear. Her 1944 essay “Winter in the Abruzzi,” a 6-page account of the months she and her family spent in exile, directly before the torture and murder of her husband by Fascist forces in Italy, is a punch-you-in-the-stomach-with-grief-and-beauty masterpiece.

4. Ventrakl, Christian Hawkey
Is Ventrakl nonfiction? “Documentary Poetics”? Who cares—and I would hesitate to cast about for magic-stealing phrases which might detract from Hawkey’s rich investigation of the life and work of German poet Georg Trakl. Hawkey approaches his subjectfrom every angle under the sun, ever-deepening the stakes of identification and translation, ever-reveling in the glory of strange & beautiful language.

Author Spotlight / 31 Comments
May 25th, 2011 / 4:03 pm

6 Books: Kevin Sampsell on Nonfiction

This is Part II of a series where I ask writers I like for 6 book recommendations according to some loose guideline. Part I is here. This week, Kevin Sampsell, editor of Future Tense Books out of Portland, Oregon, doyen of Powell’s Books, and author of the wildly excellent memoir, A Common Pornography (Harper Perennial). To give you an idea of the goodness of Kevin’s book, I’ll confess that the first copy I had didn’t make it through my ravenous reading of it and I had to switch to another.

I asked Kevin to recommend 6 nonfiction books, old or new. He obliged, and then some:

Black Box: Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts of In-Flight Accidents by Malcolm MacPherson

I’m fascinated with this book and the way these transcripts reflect the collected calm of airplane pilots and then their sudden confusion, panic, and tragedy. An eerie and morose reading experience.

I Remember by Joe Brainard

Whenever I go talk to a writing class about memoir, I always point out this book and read a little from it. Then I have the class write a few of their own “I Remembers.” It’s such a non-threatening and easy way to access parts of your life that you think are uninteresting and trivial, but turn out to be engaging and universal.

Time Out of Mind by Leonard Michaels

Besides his fiction and his essays, this book is a bit of an oddity because it’s more like disjointed journal entries. It took me a few pages to lock into Michaels’s groove, but once I did, this book turned into a thing of uncut beauty. I would have to say that Leonard Michaels is the author I’ve been most obsessed with for the past year since I read his novel, The Men’s Club.

Oedipus Wrecked by Kevin Keck

This book is so dirty and hilarious, but also sweetly heartfelt. For fans of Jonathan Ames and other straight-faced pervs.


Author Spotlight / 20 Comments
May 17th, 2011 / 6:32 pm

Alan Moore on Magic and Art

Excerpts / 6 Comments
May 13th, 2011 / 6:30 pm

6 Books: Dinty W. Moore on Memoir

This is the first installment in a new feature where I ask a writer to recommend 6 books, old or new, sometimes according to some roomy guideline. In this case, I asked Dinty W. Moore, editor of Brevity and author of the memoir-in-essays, Between Panic and Desire, to recommend 6 memoirs. Here’s what he had to offer.

Narrowing my list of representative memoirs down to six was an agonizing task, because there are so many solid examples.  To keep the undertaking manageable (barely), I’ve limited myself to the last twenty years or so, and instead of a ‘favorites’ list, I’ve chosen six examples that I think show the range of what memoir can do.

My concise description of memoir is “the truth, artfully arranged.”  Now we can argue about the meaning of the word truth for weeks, but I’d rather not.  I think – despite all of the weakness of memory (and for that matter, observation) – that sophisticated readers understand that the truth they are given in memoir is the author’s subjective truth.  There is no hope of objective accuracy, nor would that be as interesting to read.  But you go after your truth, with honest intent.  That means that an author who is willingly, consciously subverting what he remembers is not writing memoir, by my definition. Cross that line, and you are writing fiction.  Which is fine, but it is another project entirely.

So I’ve pulled these six memoirs down from my shelves to illustrate how a life can be presented artfully. Starting with:

This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff (1989): Wolff’s memoir is the first that I remember reading.  I had read autobiography, of course, and long-form journalism, but Wolff’s brutally-honest, cinematic childhood memoir was the first to give me what previously I had only found in novels: the ability to escape into someone else’s life and another world, another time. Wolff wasn’t the first to write memoir in this way, but This Boy’s Life remains a touchstone to me and many other writers.  I love the opening note to the reader: “I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology.  Also my mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome.  I’ve allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell.”

The Kiss, Kathryn Harrison (1997):  Like many people, my first introduction to this book was the wave of denunciation that followed its release: denunciation of the author’s life (she engaged as a young woman in an incestuous relationship with her estranged father), and denunciation of the author’s decision to speak of it in this book.  Thank goodness I eventually read The Kiss.  Harrison’s restraint, her precision, her shocking honesty, and the chilling detail combine to create an unforgettable psychological portrait.  Should victims remain silent?  Hell no.  (Random House is reissuing The Kiss next month.)

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Dave Eggers (2000):  Not my favorite book to read, frankly – it goes on too long in places, seems too clever by half in others – but Eggers shook up the form, opened possibilities, brought younger readers into the genre, and I tip my hat to him for the chances he took.


Author Spotlight / 12 Comments
May 10th, 2011 / 12:00 pm

Collectors versus Aesthetes

I’ve been reading, finally, The Orchid Thief, the first third of which, at least, is about a collector and other collectors like him. Of orchids. These collectors have this life- and body- and marriage-overtaking urge to hunt for the most, the weirdest, the most unusual, the most hidden. When a hurricane hits Florida, some orchid lovers there think hardly about the devastation and wonder instead what seeds have blown in from the tropics, what odd variety will bloom next in some remote corner of a swamp, and will they be able to find it first. The main guy in the book, John LaRoche, first collected turtles with the same ardor, dropped those, and started something new until he finally arrived at orchids.

If I had a garden (and I do), it could be filled with the commonest things as long as it were beautiful.

For I’m not a collector and I never will be, not of anything tangible, though on many days I wish I were. Collecting requires zeal for something so great that endless, mostly fruitless tedium can be endured in its pursuit. Collecting requires the acquisition of so much knowledge–it is after all not for the novitiate to know what is rare–so much that thinking of it makes my eyes hurt. There is a kind of ruthlessness, too, that I find whenever I read or hear about great collectors, whether it’s orchid thieves who will kill or be killed rather than surrender their finds, or used-book dealers elbowing and scratching one another when they spot a rare jewel at a book sale. I lack the zeal, the thirst, the ferocity.

I’m missing out. Walter Benjamin, a more famous collector than LaRoche, writes, “How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” Whereas if you wander aimlessly, with no object in mind, everything remains misted, hidden and dull. The best things don’t happen when you least expect them; the best things happen when you are stalking some other prey.

There’s no prey that taunts me that hasn’t already been shot down. This is why I can’t be a literary scholar. For what would I say? I love all the writers whom so many others already love. I couldn’t endure navigating some lesser, less-known terrain. So, mightn’t I find a new angle? This isn’t possible either: what I love about Austen and Nabokov and Woolf is what others love about them. It’s just that I think my love overpowers theirs.

This is what separates collectors from aesthetes. [Confession: I’m adapting/expanding this whole post, and especially the following two sentences, from something I posted on twitter last night.] Collectors prize what’s rare, and convince themselves that the rare is beautiful. Whereas aesthetes prize what’s beautiful, and convince themselves that their love is rare. I mean this last clause in two senses: they believe their love=the beloved is rare, in that sense of “as any she belied with false compare,” and they also believe the quality of their love=their own feeling for the beloved is rare, as in, more potent than the feeling of their rivals.

Both, of course, are softly deceiving themselves (ourselves) [see photo], and I would hazard that each has reason to envy, miserably, the other. I can’t know for sure, as it’s always near-impossible to find the enviable in one’s own sorry state.

Random / 26 Comments
April 28th, 2011 / 12:15 pm

Recipes for Writers: An ‘umble bean soup

I’m all for seasonal cooking when it counts, but some days, especially good industrious days when I’ve expended as much as I can, I want something homemade and restorative, but there’s nothing much in the larder except dried beans, a can of tomatoes, a dried crust of bread, and a few staple vegetables–carrots, onions, celery.

And so bean soup. It is a lovely thing, that lasts. I made one last Monday and ate on it all week, and it’s Monday again and I’m already tempted to put another pot on. For someone who has as short a culinary attention span as I, that’s saying a lot about the simple rightness of this soup.

What I did was, I dug up this 20-ounce bag whose label said “15 Bean Soup.” But it wasn’t soup, it was 15 kinds of dried beans (and a paper envelope labeled “Ham Flavor” that I discarded). I brought half the beans (so, 10 ounces, and this was everything from lentils to cranberry beans to something even bigger, so any kind of beans you got will work) to a boil with enough water to cover by an inch, turned off the heat once it boiled and let them sit covered for about 45 minutes. This, instead of soaking them all night. I’m told by people who know that beans don’t need to soak or even pre-cook, but this soup was so delicious that I want to give it to you just as I made it.


Behind the Scenes / 4 Comments
April 25th, 2011 / 11:31 am