Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

Editor’s Dive into the Archives: Cortney Esco on “New Work in New China by Michael X. Wang

“New Work in New China” by Michael X. Wang, is a remarkable story that follows the difficult decision of Pei Pei, a poor man from the country, who is offered the chance to become a gong-gong, a manservant to the Chinese emperor, a position he must become a eunuch to accept.

The vivid Chinese landscape Wang has created through lasting images serves as a poignant backdrop for the struggles Pei Pei endures as he tries to weigh his deep love for his wife and his desire for children, against the money and power a position close to the emperor can provide him. Beyond being just a manservant, gong-gongs, like concubines, make up a kind of sexual senate for the emperor. The reality is that although they do not hold official power, public intrigue gives them power nonetheless, so much so that it is possible for them to create great change in New China, even possibly usurp the throne someday.

Complex cultural considerations press on the story throughout as everyone around Pei Pei, including his own family (except for his wife who does not know about the offer until the end of the story), considers it a great honor that he should be given the opportunity to become a gong-gong and sees it as his responsibility to his family, and his duty as a man, to accept.

The intricately intersected paths of Wang’s incredible characters really push the story forward from beginning to end with their ever-developing and shifting power dynamics. The strong desires of Pei Pei’s family who want him to serve the emperor with honor, of Pei Pei’s cousin Zhang Mei who is already a gong-gong and wants to be the future of New China, of Lady Xiu who is an educated concubine that wants to overthrow the emperor with the growing rebellion, as well those of Pei Pei himself and his wife, continuously raise tensions, pulling readers deeper and deeper into the harsh realities of Pei Pei’s world. Only when Pei Pei observes Lady Xiu using her position to help those less fortunate, does he start to truly understand the possibilities open to him if he chooses to join her.

As the story progresses, Pei Pei begins to understand the state of his country and government in ways that he never has before. He is, for the first time in his life, in a position to play a real role in the future of his people, all depending on one difficult personal choice he must make. Though Pei Pei has never wanted to be a gong-gong, he recognizes the rare opportunity to be able to elevate himself and his family—at the cost of having his own children and family—and also to act on behalf of the Chinese people and use his position to truly benefit New China.

The universal human struggles explored in this story, the desires for power, safety, and love, are age old, but told in ways both unique and surprising. The story deals with nothing less than some of the greatest questions human beings have always asked themselves, questions of duty and moral responsibility and the greater good. The stakes of Pei Pei’s choice go beyond a sense of family and manhood and respect, and grow to encompass his country and all his people and his world. In the end, this is a story of choice that is both heart-breaking and thought provoking that leaves readers asking themselves important questions, as all great stories should.

“New Work in New China” can be found in Issue 106 of The Greensboro Review.


Cortney Esco is a second-year MFA candidate in fiction at UNC Greensboro and Managing Editor for The Greensboro Review

Editor’s Dive into the Archives: Matt Coz on Drunk At The Zoo by Brad Vice

You may be wondering how I stumbled upon Brad Vice’s story “Drunk At The Zoo,” first published in the 68th issue of The Greensboro Review in fall 2000, and I will tell you with complete honesty:

About a week ago, I stood before one of the many, many bookcases in The Greensboro Review office, and for no reason in particular, I pulled the 68th issue off the shelf. I brought the issue back to my desk and, avoiding work, thumbed through it. I read a few poems—one by alumna Julianna Baggott, another by Gillian Kiley—and somehow or another I flipped to page 47 and read the first line of “Drunk At The Zoo” by Brad Vice. It reads: “It is the smells Jim remembers first when he remembers Prague: boiled cabbage in the halls of his apartment building, the yeast of pilsners, the fumes of unrefined petroleum that accompanied the boxy Eastern European sedans” (47). And for a moment, I wasn’t at my desk procrastinating. I was with this stranger, Jim, in Prague.

We often talk about the transformative effect of stories, and the good ones can transform you in the matter of a sentence. Suddenly I’m immersed in this strange world with Jim as the story presses pause on mine, as my computer screen darkens and goes to sleep. I will emerge from this story a bit later, wiggle the mouse to awaken my computer, and get back to my day, but for now I’m with Jim in Prague.

“Jim and Tereza fell out of love at a puppet show” (47), the story continues—yet another sentence that further immerses me into the story. Who is Tereza? I’m thinking, and why did they break up? To answer these questions, Vice shoots us back to the beginning, the day when Jim and Tereza met, and from there he depicts the fractures and differences that led to their relationship breakdown.

We learn that Tereza writes scripts for a boutique pornographic company. When she invites Jim along to see one of their shoots, we’re introduced to an almost absurdist ensemble: the director, Rolfe (“a failed art student, a refugee from Berlin coffeehouses, a pretentious gopher” [53]), Gregor, the male talent (“even more muscular than in the movie” [53]), Illena (the semi famous star of “Teacher’s Pet” and “Love Paint”), Gretchen and Sabina (“feline looking twins” [54]), and Bobo (“a clean-shaven dwarf” [54]). The story takes a detour when the shoot gets cancelled and Jim and the unlikely employees of the pornographic company wind up instead drinking rum and going to a local zoo.

While the story takes an almost absurdist turn that embodies the essence of precarious situations in a foreign country (“no one back home will ever believe this happened” [57]), it never fails to fulfill the promise that Vice made to the reader at the beginning of the story: the promise of showing how the relationship between Jim and Tereza breaks down. We see this most prominently when Jim analyzes a note Tereza writes him later that night:


Gone to dinner.

Be back soon.


Tereza” (58).

Vice writes: “He studied the note for almost a full minute, attempting to interpret whether the word love on the note referred to their declaration, or was it merely the kind of love that always appears on notes” (58). And it’s within these subtle details, these nuanced train of thoughts where the heart of the story lies, the lines that force the reader to be right there alongside Jim, hoping this “Love” isn’t what it really seems.


Matt Coz is a second-year MFA candidate in fiction at UNC Greensboro and current Fiction Editor for The Greensboro Review

Editor’s Dive into the Archives: Chris Swensen on Dixie Whistle by Neil Serven

If you are a reader like me, you may have a deep abiding skepticism of 1980s nostalgia and the well-worn tropes of coming-of-age stories. Yet despite this the Neil Serven story “Dixie Whistle” maddeningly blends these exact elements and masterfully makes a touching and funny portrait of adolescent loneliness. Sure, there’s your 10-year-old protagonist and her obsession with CB radios, there’s collecting The Empire Strikes Back commemorative cups from Burger King, and there are even the last vestiges of a romantic trucker lifestyle of a bygone era. Yet at its heart, “Dixie Whistle” manages to gracefully and subtly balance these elements enough to be a compelling story about a young unwitting nomad finding much-needed connection and escape by calling out over the radio waves like B.J. and the Bear. It’s exactly the kind of story you want to discover in a journal; the story that exceeds expectations and elevates the use of those elements you thought you were more than done with. In this case those are elements you had your fill of since the last time you dared read Look Homeward, Angel or watched Netflix’s Stranger Things. Yet, writer Neil Serven takes those elements and makes something oddly beautiful and charming here. These elements are brought together with more subtly and grace in this piece than is found in today’s Nostalgia Industrial Complex or typical coming-of-age stories.

The story follows 10-year-old Candy who fled with her mom from an abusive household in Connecticut. They share a small house in Georgia with Candy’s aunt Vicki and older cousin Maxine. Despite this crowded arrangement the story perfectly captures a kind of helpless loneliness that comes with being younger than those intertwined with the complexities and desires of adult life. When Candy was younger her cousin Maxine was like a sister “but Maxine’s got boyfriends now, wears tank tops and has boobs, and is hardly ever home” (74). Her mom spends all her time working at Upton’s, or later on in the story, with her new boyfriend Philip. Even her mother is made unfamiliar by the pursuits of adulthood; “When they go out, it’s often the three of them packed in a row in the cab of Philip’s truck with Candy on the hump, the radio playing the twangy music they like down here that Ma was never into before she met Philip but suddenly she knows the words to, sings along to sometimes” (86). What is Candy to do with this lonely restlessness? She takes to the CB Radio, giving herself the titular moniker “Dixie Whistle.”

Before the COPS born infamy of “lot lizards” and the near corporate consolidation of the trucking industry by companies like C.R. England, there was still a nomadic romanticism in the idea of the trucker lifestyle in the 1980s. That romanticism enthralls our protagonist, who being an unwitting nomad herself can’t help but live vicariously through a hardy and charming lady trucker called “Sandstorm.” Something of a relationship develops between Candy and Sandstorm, at first over the airwaves, and then in person as Candy makes a daring outing to the local truck stop. There she meets Sandstorm and the prose in this charming moment perfectly captures the way that just being close to Sandstorm has a surreal and empowering effect that is shown in heightened physicality; Sandstorm buys Candy a Coca-Cola “which Candy sips from a glass bottle that feels cold and substantial in her hand” (81). This desire to live vicariously through a figure like Sandstorm speaks to Candy’s desire to seek out a restless lifestyle on her own terms; a restless lifestyle where fellow nomads are charming, rugged, and most importantly, just one radio squawk away.

“Dixie Whistle” can be found in Issue 107 of The Greensboro Review.


Chris Swensen is from the radioactive mountains and valleys of southern Idaho. He is a second-year MFA candidate in fiction at UNC Greensboro and current Fiction Editor for The Greensboro Review