Author Archives

Brittany Allen
Brittany Allen is a New York based prose writer, playwright and actor. Her essays and fiction have been published in Catapult, The Toast, Green Mountains Review, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @Britt_Kathryn.

Pages You Can Dance To: A Book List

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Brittany Allen  | Longreads | August 2019 | 10 minutes (2,730 words)

 

In 1974 Walter Thompson, a Berklee-trained bandleader, moved to Woodstock and made up a language. A fan of improv, Thompson initially designed forty signs for structuring a live composition. With one gesture, he could single out a group in his orchestra (like “Woodwinds”). With another, he could instruct said group to hold a long note (“Long Tone”), match one another’s phrasing (“Synchronize”), or tell players to dit dit dit out a series of staccato bursts (“Pointillism”). Wham, Blam, thank you ma’am: a new song, on the spot.

Forty years later, directors working with all kinds of performers — actors, dancers, and musicians — still employ Thompson’s conducting shorthand to devise material. The language has a name now: soundpainting, a term I find almost unbearably lovely. At my (blessedly experimental) college I studied soundpainting, stage pictures, lyric essays, many radiant paradoxes that suggested trespass between one mode of making and another. But soundpainting, this word lingers. What a pure reminder that our creative borders are porous by definition. That some of our metaphors ought to be mixed.

Either Martin Mull or Frank Zappa or Elvis Costello or someone else entirely once may have said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and meant this as a cut. But like Thompson, I chafe against the arbitrary border. In this reader’s opinion, there are some excellent books about music. But on the synesthetic end of the exercise, there are also miraculous books suffused with music, there are rhythmic books that dit dit dit a forever impression on your skull. A man in Woodstock believes you can paint with sound. Well, I know for a fact you can dance to pages. Read more…

Getting Tricked by Helen DeWitt

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Brittany Allen | Longreads | July 2018 | 7 minutes (1,809 words)

Different writers call for different verbs. With Mary Karr, I go galloping. E.M. Forster wants to waltz. I hopscotch with George Saunders and craft, as in beaded amulets, with Helen Oyeyemi. Elena Ferrante is usually trying to slap me, and Denis Johnson is plummeting: out of windows, out of planes. Reading Helen DeWitt is puzzling, but not the kind of puzzling that will eventually resolve and make some pretty picture on a box.

There is the urge to go spelunking through her books, to descend into the mad caves and walk the corridors and labyrinthine tunnels, in search of meaning (or…treasure? Uh-oh, here goes the metaphor). But I discovered — about five stories in to DeWitt’s bursting, bizarre new story collection, Some Trick (New Directions) that the most pleasurable way to be with her fiction calls for a verb that requires no gear. What you really ought to do with DeWitt’s prose is dance with it. But I’m not talking waltz: these words want a fast-paced, hectic, muscular dance. Picture a foxtrot, breakdance, 15-step. I had the most fun getting “tricked” when I elected, as a reader, to live for the flash of poetic symmetry in a DeWittian gesture, parseable in the middle of some huge, hectic movement — the revelation sentence, the left turn ending line, the belly laugh one-liner out of seemingly nowhere. Less joy came from digging through the dark matter and attempting to make some neat narrative from the many objects in this collection. In DeWitt’s case, it is best to simply follow this dizzy mind where it leads, and be delighted. Prepare to sweat on the journey, though. Read more…

Masters of Contradiction

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Brittany Allen | Longreads | May 2018 | 12 minutes (3,259 words)

A kind of cognitive dissonance occurs when your body is a political battlefield, but your body is also an ordinary meat-sack, worth love and attention and a good talking-to like any other flawed protagonist. In this reader’s experience, to be black, or perhaps more generally “Other,” in today’s America, is to dwell in this contradiction; it is to feel freighted by the harrowing historical origins of one’s existence, even as it is to know what every human knows — dailiness, murk, muddle, and tedium. Fiction writers who carry the burden of “Otherhood” must contend with this paradox on the page (not to mention in the marketplace). And when one is a Lorax, one may find oneself wondering how to treat the political heft of “Otherhood,” while creating characters and situations that feel true in the most mundane, human sense. Put another way: when you’re a Lorax, how do you write for an individual truffula tree without sinking under the weight of all their combined trunks? How do you render humanity when recent history and current politics — those arch and lumpy enemies to imagination — cast tall shadows over the lives of your chosen subjects?

I’ve met few fictions that really inhabit the murkiest corners of — say — black life in America, perhaps because rare is the author who gets to write (or feels free to write), about what and who is murky and daily when such an obvious historical tragedy defines us from the get-go. I’ve encountered few fictions that explore the maddening, difficult-to-name contradictions inherent to “Otherhood” (as I know it); few characters who feel like myself, or the people I love and know. Black folk who have wondered about their own individual responsibility to blackness. Black folk who struggle to name the pesky, omnipresent sensation that they are thwarted in some way that’s vaguely but crucially connected to their skin color. But this spring marks the arrival of two new collections that take on all the cognitive dissonance with compassion, insight, and unflinching honesty: Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man (Graywolf) and Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People (Atria). Read more…