Zoe Zolbrod’s CURRENCY

My ol’ pal Zoe Zolbrod has a novel out, Currency, from OV Press, and she’ll be in NYC next week to read from it!

I was thrilled to be able to blurb the book, and this is what I wrote:


"Currency
is a dance and duel, a literary thriller with a serpentine twist. With extraordinary imagination, Zolbrod evokes both partners of a star-crossed couple: Piv, a small-time Thai hustler, and, Robin, a questing American backpacker. Based in the seedy rooms of Bangkok’s Star Hotel, the action in Currency ranges from the tranquil mountains of Pai to the traveler haven of Khao San Road, from the heart of Singapore to the scrubby outskirts of the Philippines’ Cebu City. Along the way, the reader confronts walls of every sort — international and cross-cultural barriers, and obstacles to trust, and, ultimately, love."

Zoe will be at Piano’s (158 Ludlow Street, Manhattan, Upstairs Lounge) on Wednesday, May 19, starting at 7pm, where she’ll be one of four readers. A band will be part of the fun. And then on Sunday, May 23, starting at 5pm, Zoe will be reading at Word Brooklyn (126 Franklin Street, Brooklyn), also appearing with some other authors. Try to make it to one of the two events and support Zoe and her thrilling debut novel.

Zoe Zolbrod's Currency

Burmese massage

On Saturday, after the final day of workshops and the exhibition, we all — Émile, Badoux, Blake, Fanny, Fabrice (the French counsel), and I — have dinner. Then we follow Fanny to a massage parlor she knows, on the sixth floor of the Excel Building. (Massage is big in that part of the world. Real massage, not always that other kind.)

The six of us don pajamas and lie on beds. Our masseuses enter, mine a lovely long-haired girl who sits on the bed with me. She bends my limbs this way and that until they seem like they’re no longer part of me — I am watching them being manipulated from somewhere above. It’s strange, and yet strangely normal, to have this Burmese girl with three words of English sitting on my bed, touching me with her delicate, strong hands. I fall in love with her, but it’s the love a child feels for its mother. Later, she walks on my back and squeezes the breath out of me in strangled grunts. It’s marvelous.

As we all shyly put our clothes back on, we exchange notes on the experience. We all got the most of it, except, it turns out, poor Émile. “She walked on my willy,” he remorsefully explains.

Mob Comix, or “Of Mr. Bean and Buddhist Monks”

Exquisite corpse

Our last two activities as part of the “International Week of Graphic Novels” were group affairs. For the Friday “amateur” session at the Alliance Française, Émile, Badoux, and I arranged another “exquisite corpse” exercise, much as we did with the professionals earlier in the week. Once again, the three of us started up the narrative, and then the Burmese participants joined in. As the story developed, page by page, we taped the results up on the board. I had been worried that the activity would be boring for all those except the person who was drawing, but surprisingly the activity proved to be a real crowd-pleaser. Everyone gathered around the person at work, laughing as the picture took shape, and often throwing in words of advice or encouragement.

During my stay in the country, I had come to feel that one of the most discouraging things about the state of comics in Myanmar was how isolated the comics practitioners seemed to be from each other. I’ve always been aware how fortunate I have been during my comics career to have ready access to a large group of fellow cartoonists, as well as generous, older mentors. And that was something that, other than a few exceptions evidenced among the morning session professionals, seemed to be missing from Burmese comics culture. But I was happy to see during our Friday afternoon exercise that the older, professional artists in the group were encouraging some of the more tentative or less skilled participants, and that some form of mentoring really was happening. My hope is that some of that cross-generational energy continued past our visit to their country.

Saturday, our last day of “official” business, was a bit less intensive than the preceding four days. Émile, Badoux, and I each presented our work at the Alliance Francaise — Badoux and I using slideshows — for an audience of workshop participants and the public (including the German ambassador and his family, who seemed really into comics). Much of the Alliance’s outdoor area had been transformed into an exhibition space of the various exercises we had done — both professional and amateur — during the previous week. It was really nice to see everything displayed in such a loving and celebratory way. I really have to hand it to Fanny, the Alliance employee who did much of the hard work putting the “International Week of Graphic Novels” together.

That was followed by a live drawing demonstration, the idea for which Émile again came up with. Similar in spirit to the exquisite corpse exercise, the idea was to do a group drawing on a long roll of paper. As the crowd gathered in the outdoor café, an artist drew something in an approximately two-foot-wide area. Then the drawing was covered up — except for a two-inch sliver on the edge. The next artist, sight unseen, continued the picture by connecting their drawing to that sliver, guessing at what it depicted. The audience, seeing it all take place in front of their eyes, had a good time laughing at the strange results. The game went on for about an hour, with about twenty artists (including Émile, Badoux, and myself) taking part; the final picture was unveiled to much surprise and amusement for whole gang at the very end.

As the crowds dispersed, many kind words were exchanged and pictures were taken — my favorite one is us three “international” artists and the Buddhist monk.

Alliance Francaise café

The week's work on display

Badoux at work on the exquisite corpse exercise as Émile Bravo looks on

The exquisite corpse is unveiled

Cheese!

Let us pray

A little postscript about the monk: He was a pleasant, quiet sort of guy, so I quickly got over my nervousness about having such a spiritual person in my class. And the other students didn’t seem intimidated by him either, so everything went fine in the amateur workshop he attended. He wasn’t the most accomplished or imaginative artist, but he could hold his own with the other amateurs. And I liked that he eagerly took part in the last two group sessions. But Badoux told me a hilarious story about the monk, from his workshop earlier in the week. According to Badoux, the monk carried around a little sketchbook, much as artists do in the West. So Badoux asked to see it, and was mildly taken aback to see it was mostly filled with sketches of buxom and “sexy” women. A little odd for a chaste Buddhist, but whatever. But what really threw Badoux for a loop was when he turned the page to find a loving depiction of the British comic character Mr. Bean… with breasts! (Man, I wish I had a picture of that page from the sketchbook.) Obviously, after hearing that story, I never looked at that little monk in quite the same way again.

Iron Cross

On Friday, after our last full day of workshops, we planned a late night, knowing we’d be able to sleep in the next morning. We’d heard of a live outdoor concert by the Burmese all-star band Iron Cross, and we didn’t want to miss it.

Getting into the stadium for the concert was like passing through a cattle gate. We were squeezed into three entrances, felt up by the security people, and herded through at a trample-like pace.

Iron Cross features a rockin’ guitarist and five solo singers, each taking turns in front of the mic. Some of the singers were pretty "hard-core", some were more "top 40", but the whole thing had the air of a 1980s hair-metal concert, pretty cheesy in feel. The crowd loved them all, singing all the lyrics to all the songs, but clearly favored the heavier songs, which allowed them to "rock out" to greater ecstasy.

The relatively expensive $5.50 ticket prices made the concert all but unaffordable to any but the most wealthy — e.g. connected to the military or their political cronies, but you’d never have known it from the crowd. The concert was packed with thousands of adoring, exuberant fans, crushed together doing the Burmese version of slam dancing. The crowd was 90% sweaty young men, all in their teens or early twenties. Even thought there was a lot of testosterone-fueled energy, and empty water bottles were being tossed in all directions, I never felt threatened by their enthusiasm.

A lot of the men wanted to say hello to us and ask us where we’re from, and some particularly wanted to talk to our little blond French companion Fanny, but there was no ill-will in evidence. For her part, Fanny pulled us deep into the crowd, as close to the stage as possible, and within moments we were all completely drenched with sweat. Pushed in on all sides, it was an intense introduction to Burmese pop culture.

Iron Cross on stage
Iron Cross on stage

The adoring crowd

The adoring crowd
The adoring crowd

Émile and Badoux enjoying the experience
Émile and Badoux enjoying the experience

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,518 other followers