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Calm Lights, Big City

Uzoamaka Maduka and Jac Mullen founded a monthly literary journal, The American Reader. A three-way conversation about poems and chic parties, Hegel and the human spirit, the exaggerated New York media hype machine and the quiet generational revolutions.

(Read it in Italian, here)

Interviewed by VICE, Uzoamaka Maduka said she does not like the world of New York literature because she feels like “it is constant self-censoring, constant withholding.” It is a world where “The conversation never happens. The ‘hello’ never happens.” Uzoamaka Maduka lives in New York. She did not intend to come there. To be clear, she says, “I am Nigerian. I am American. I am a Marylander.” On the phone, she adds, “I literally am African-American, given that I’m the only one of the family who was born in America, but my parents are Nigerian, and culturally speaking I feel Nigerian. My upbringing was way far from the idea one usually has about the ‘African-American experience.’ Which, in the end, is an artifact – I mean, are we talking about Caribbean? Africa? Who cares?” Max looks very smart and beautiful, going by the pictures I have found on the Internet, being actually very tall, polished and sophisticated. With a hearty laugh, she has quite a nervous voice, looking like the Nigerian version of Annie Hall. She couldn’t be cooler. Maduka, who goes by Max, studied at Princeton. There she met Jac Mullen, co-founder of the literary journal The American Reader, which has led her on the pages of Forbes, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vogue. In addition, on Studio, from today on.

When I ask them how they have found the journal, Max answers first. “It all started one year ago, yet another of the countless conversations we had at the university. We often discussed about the things missing from the American cultural conversation, and we both realized there was a huge, basic part missing, and all of a sudden, one night we understood we could have a go at it – we could do something. Basically, we’ve decided to stop complaining about the cultural conversation – literature, reviews – and to be part of it.” Dramatic pause. Let’s roll back and see what The American Reader is.

Well then, if you take a closer look, you realize there are small design choices differentiating it from the real old good magazines. A touch of madness.

TAR is a monthly (yes! monthly!) literary journal, about literature, poetry, reviews. They founded it one year ago. Each issue features one or more short stories, some poems, a short essay, some reviews and a focus on a different country, with poems and “lettres” translated solely for the magazine. It also has a website. With very few advertisements. It is financed by a mysterious donor, whose identity is a secret to everyone, and it looks like an old good magazine – you see it in New York news-stands and it seems it could have been there for 50, 60 or 70 years. My father could be among its subscribers. For sure, you wouldn’t think it has been there for just 11 months. Well then, if you take a closer look, you realize there are small design choices differentiating it from the real old good magazines. A touch of madness.

Still, the felling you get is that TAR actually is part of the literary establishment – see the choice of the articles for instance, writers such as John Ashbery and Diane Williams. Sometimes there are new, fresh works, such as some Robert Lopez fiction, but the contents seem a bit randomly picked. What would you say about the publication of a story by James Baldwin, with its screaming headline on the second issue cover? That story has been available for years now on the Internet, even with its own Wikipedia entry! Why the publication, then? Up to me, it was a matter of haste. Max and Jac are young, I mean, very young guys: it is ok for them to be overwhelmed by their own enthusiasm. The very idea of having “A story by William Baldwin” on the cover was far too tempting.

When I ask them whom they prepare their journal for, it’s time for Jac to speak. A little more hesitant than Max, he has a deep voice and talks with long breaks in between. “We had this picture, loads of different people around America. Each of them with an old, never used radio in their house. Or, with a radio they tune to the wrong frequencies. As simple as that, we wanted to create a new frequency. We believe these people are everywhere.” What do you mean? Uzoamaka had previously said that “the literary scene is one of the last bastions of white male privilege.” And added “Even when you bring in women or people of color, it’s still, like, Harvard, Princeton, Yale.” Maduka graduated from Princeton.

Then I go on asking how they are trying to “create new frequencies.” You know, they’ve just hired two white men from the literary scene in New York, Ben Lerner and Ben Marcus, as Poetry and Fiction editors. Max has the floor here: “There’s the idea that talking to the masses is something wrong, that you can’t do it. However, we’ve realized that there are those loads of people out there in America who have been completely excluded from the literary conversation. These people read every day, yet they’re out of the scene. The great silent majority.” Here, I’ve to say I wonder how Joyce Carol Oates and Diane Williams can fit in when a) talking to masses and b) talking to people out of the literary conversation. I put my thinking cap on and ask them if it’s a matter of generation gap. The line goes mute for a while.

“It is generational, indeed,” says Max. “I mean, each generation bears the responsibility to restart the artistic, literary and reviews conversation over, dealing with the contemporary age pressing topics.” Still the last issue of TAR features an essay on Hegel, and I still wonder how to connect the dots between what they say and what they publish. Is it just another refined, high-priced and good-looking business card?

Frankly, this is not their fault, it’s American media’s fault – there, every news is “THE BEST EVER!”

The hype buzzing around them is enormous, in the typical New York style, and it sounds dodgy to me (frankly, this is not their fault, it’s American media’s fault – there, every news is “THE BEST EVER!”). For instance, The New York Observer: “The American Reader isn’t your average literary magazine. The Princeton grads who run it have barely closed their second issue, and already it is being hailed as the next Paris Review or n+1.” Then, the appraisal of how well dressed Ms. Maduka was at the magazine launch. Sam Lipsythe was there (“There was something about the invitation that made me wear a jacket,” he says) and Shala Monroque – a regular on the fashion circuit, Prada’s muse, formerly romantically linked with Larry Gagosian (“I’m often really bored at fashion parties, while it’s nice to get to have intelligent conversations at literary ones,” she said). Well, I wrote to Lorin Stein, Paris Review editor, and I asked him if he feels like these two founded a literary journal in order to be the invitees at a Vanity Fair party talking about Dostoevsky, more than for being the editors staying at home at nights to write a review on Dostoevsky. Lorin is far wiser than I am, and replied it would be better to wait and see, without judging hastily. Hence, I try to follow his words and to keep an open mind.


“Every generation has to create an incisive body, able to understand the world surrounding it, capable of propping the conversation,” says Jac. Why such a classic magazine then? Even from the point of view of design, it seems to me that TAR is trying to enter the American literary scene without a clear-cut stance on it. Unnoticeable differences between TAR andHarper’s covers, for instance, can easily get you confuse the magazines with one another. “In some way, we think classic is a break, a different perspective, in its very generational essence. It’s a break because we are making it.” OK, now I’m getting that. “The real break these days is a quiet, sustainable cultural conversation,” Max adds. “Every single thing so far connected with our generation has been fast, we’ve been living the throw-away society. We want to be revolutionaries in saying: stop. Take your time.” Jac says “We all are 25, 26. We are not the ones who had created this world. We are those inheriting it. Perhaps we just want to break the tradition and say we like reading, we love discussing politely, quietly, rationally. We are far stronger, calmer and more intelligent than what you see in a New York Times op-ed on Millennials.” Max, again: “From my own experience it was essential to create a very ‘human’ magazine. I don’t want ‘a story about China’ or ‘a story about Nigeria’ – if you’re lucky, given that they are usually ‘an Asian story’ or ‘an African story’. I don’t want stories written ‘to explain Nigeria’ to the international public, to have readers dip their toe into that pool without actually being there. I want that kind of literature finding the truth, the things beneath, the human condition – the common feature of us all. That’s where I’d like to be. Again, it’s not a white male privilege to tell the ‘human condition,’ while everyone else must tell their ‘specific condition.’ What’s ‘gay literature’? Is there any? Isn’t it possible for a gay to be a ‘writer’? I hate these labels: they’re so typical of past generations. And we want to change the situation.”


Then, I’ve realized it: The American Reader is totally, a hundred percent, a generation project. It doesn’t want to be the newParis Review or n+1. It wants to be the magazine of this generation. It wants to be a real generation manifesto. That’s the viewpoint for the things I wasn’t persuaded by: its traditional design, its chic parties, its choice of publishing big names, its haste in emerging from the literary scene. These are not sign of them wanting to show off. They are part of a project that aims to bring a new generation into the literary scene, to prove past generations that even if we were born in the ‘80s we can read more than a tweet or appreciate pictures out of Snapchat. We love studying Hegel, reading poetry, appreciating culture. “We wanted to look like a classic because it’s a way to show that, in some way, we’ve always been here, we are not different, we are just like everyone else,” Max says. “We publish Stephen Dixon and Ashbery, but also very young writers, as Diana Chien. Our target is to start up the conversation, to link different generations. If we published only ‘old’ or ‘young’ writers, we would misrepresent the reality of the American literary scene, where different generations and different worlds live side by side, where the clash between these realities is a distinguishing feature. Even when we publish big names, we like them to use our pages in a different way, allowing them the space for, let’s say, poetry, that other magazines such as The New Yorker do not grant. We publish long, difficult poems. Even when we give a Stephen Dixon’s story to a peer, it’s like saying OK, you thought you knew him, but, give it a go again. That’s the way we use to get different people into the conversation.”

I hesitate before a new question. I’m charmed. I’d had a bias against them but, just like Ben Marcus and Ben Lerner, Uzoamaka and her words made me change my mind. I’m on their side now. They’ve infected me with their passion, their will, with Jac’s clumsy answers and Max’ journalistic ones, with their relationship and energy. Not a small matter, especially when you are used to the stilted literary world. I sincerely hope to get invited to one of their parties. Of course, I’d like to receive an invitation, a real one, in my letter box, finely printed on thin cardboard. For sure, I’d wear a jacket. If there is just one thing I learnt from Jac and Max, is that young doesn’t equal youth looking. It doesn’t mean you can’t be classy.

From Studio #18

Translated by Marion Sarah Tuggey

Illustration by Jacopo Marcolini