by Dennis James Sweeney
As the word “hybrid” comes into more frequent literary use, it has become important to figure out what the term means for contemporary writing. Without such attempts at definition, the term stands the chance of becoming a coverall applied to any and every work of literature that defies genre boundaries. Relatively speaking, this result would not be disastrous; it would, however, lead ideas of genre (primarily the categories fiction/poetry/nonfiction/drama) to become even more firmly entrenched while what falls between those categories remains amorphous, ephemeral, only vaguely “hybrid.”
Rose Metal Press’s new anthology, Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres, edited by Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov, works against that flattening of the term in two ways. In her preface, Sulak does the necessary work of disassembling the idea of genre, noting that genres are merely “a critical mass of reproducible structural patterns,” and, more interestingly, that the original source of literature was itself “hybrid,” the distinctions between genres having arisen only when they became politically and culturally useful. She goes on to acknowledges the inherent contradiction in labeling writing that transcends labels; as Eileen Myles put it in a personal email to Sulak, “It seems old fashioned to coin a term and worse to stick to it to describe a new diasporic state in which all genres are inadequate and fail.”
But the real work of the anthology occurs in the division of its creative pieces into eight sections: lyric essay, epistolary, poetic memoir, prose poetry, performative, short-form essay, flash fiction, and pictures made of words (i.e., writing that uses or consists of graphic elements). Each category features excerpts of five or six authors’ hybrid writing, preceded by an essay by the author on their own work. Sulak makes sure to note that these categories aren’t meant to be definitive in any way; instead, they’re to serve as “a place to start when we gather to examine the energies that are released when various genre fields are used and combined.” This is the second way the anthology works to enrich the term “hybrid”: by distinguishing between and examining some of its many manifestations.
It seems to me that this promise is fulfilled more in the creative excerpts gathered in the anthology than by the craft essays that precede them. Julie Carr blurs appropriation and prose poetry in her extremely topical 100 Notes on Violence. An excerpt from Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker’s excellent Home/Birth puts both collaborative writing and a mix of political and poetic goals on display. Khadijah Queen’s truly strange verse play “Non-Sequitur” takes the dramatic form to its limit in order to encourage “more awareness of (unconscious or conscious) participatory roles we all may take on in our own lives.” And Craig Santos Perez uses the unique layout of his writing on the page both to depict and to work against the violence done to his home’s traditional storytelling techniques by colonialism. The range of forms across the book is truly impressive; the diversity of its entries alone recommends this anthology.
But the majority of the essays that accompany these excerpts seemed to focus less on “the energies that are released” by particular hybrid forms and more on the energies that generate such forms. That is, the essays seem to focus more on what it is like to write hybrid work than what it is like to read it. This is reflected in their order: essay first, then creative work. Marcela Sulak even emphasizes the importance of the process of creation to hybrid writing in her preface: “Because authorial intent is such a large factor in determining hybrid affiliation…our representative authors are given nearly as much space for their artistic statements as they are for their art.” I worry that such a claim, and particularly the identification of the essays as “artistic statements,” tends toward a somewhat insular representation of hybridity.
For me, the anthology’s best essays were those that sought to explain artistic choices on the basis of the effect they would have on the reader. Craig Santos Perez, for example, alternates between (in Roman type) a discussion of Steven Edmund Winduo’s views on hybridity in Pacific Islander literature and (in italics) a personal story of what it was like to grow up in Guam, eventually applying Winduo’s discussion to his own story. Though Perez talks at length about his own life in his essay, he makes it clear that his ultimate goal is “to make the traces of our stories visible.” Khadijah Queen, as I mentioned before, writes that her “Non-Sequitur” intends to bring about a certain awareness in the reader of his or her own performativity. And Joe Wenderoth discusses the relationship of his Letters to Wendy’s with “a variation on a particular comedic skit…: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” He speaks with remarkable impartiality about his own work, and eventually describes the comedic effect such a sketch has on the reader. All three of these writers manage to explain the intentions of their creative work in terms that are relevant primarily to its audience, and not only to other writers.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with talking about craft, and certainly this tendency makes the anthology even more useful in the creative writing classroom. But to direct the book toward writers—even to presume that authorial intent is a central factor in distinguishing what hybrid writing is—runs the risk of rendering the term “hybrid” useful only for those who also write. Again: not a disaster, relatively speaking. But as many excerpts from this anthology show, hybrid writing is often in essence political; if we are to challenge readers’ assumptions not only of genre but of the world around them, we must recall (or at least hope) that our audience is not only ourselves.
All of this said, Family Resemblance is an ambitious and profoundly varied document from a press that has been publishing and advocating hybrid writing for nearly ten years. The book will be especially useful in the classroom, and to those who hope to discover writers who work outside of traditional genre distinctions. It is hard to find unity in hybridity. Sulak and Kolosov have done the opposite: identified the tremendous diversity of a term, “hybridity,” that is so often used to give a (false) sense of unity.
Rose Metal Press (2015): $17.95
Dennis James Sweeney’s stories and poems have appeared in places like Crazyhorse, DIAGRAM, Indiana Review, and Passages North. He’s the Small Press Editor of Entropy and author of the chapbooks THREATS and What They Took Away. This year, he lives in Malta.