Plain China, Bennington College
review by dana diehl (susquehanna university ’12) and colin o’donnell (susquehanna university ’15)
In an abandoned mine town, underground fires warm the earth and leave holes the size of sandboxes in basements. At a KFC, a man with spider webs inked into his elbows begs for money. In southern Delaware, lost seagulls fly over sandy fields as flood waters recede. These are the settings and characters created by some of today’s most talented young writers, and they make up a world that is captured elegantly and evocatively in the third issue of the online national literary anthology, Plain China.
The editors of Plain China describe their mission as the formation of a “collective narrative reflective of and relevant to the undergraduate writing experience.” Since 2009, they have showcased undergraduate writing from across the country, while also providing a venue for top-notch artwork. Based in Bennington College, each year a team of student editors reviews and selects works out of undergraduate journals from across the country. The result is a cornucopia of talent comparable to that of many accomplished professionals.
Poetry, nonfiction, and fiction are represented in Plain China by pieces that are powerful and controlled. The magazine prizes work that illustrates honesty and stark, immediate images. In her poem “Watermarked,” Nathalie Trepagnier shows the reader her home in southern Delaware: “There’s a town called Hardscrabble near a town / called Little Heaven. And I believe Heaven / is sun-baked roads in July and summer / handing you a ripened-red tomato.” The images that Trepagnier shows the reader are concrete and specific.
Tessia Bekelja’s story, “Moss,” describes a town that is falling apart as it sits atop ceaselessly burning coal fires, but an undaunted elderly couple refuses to leave for love of their home and each other. Bekelja writes, “Sometimes our bodies hurt from walking on the uneven floors all the time. Everyone else has moved away. My brother moved away as soon as he was old enough. He’s dead now. My mother moved to the next town over, but she is dead now too. They are both buried there next to my pop and their graves still steam like the rest of the ground here.” Her character’s voice is simple and direct, but the piece’s depth and beauty stem from this simplicity. The stories in Plain China are all very human, holding hope in one hand and despair in the other, occasionally choosing one but often leaving the reader to decide.
Plain China’s website is highly accessible and clean. The home page features an excerpt from the Bennington Poetry Prize winner, which gives the impression that the content matters in this journal above all. It also immerses visitors immediately in the students’ work. Other pieces from current and past issues are easy to locate, as the editors take pride in putting the students’ work first. Every piece of literature is paired with a piece of student-produced artwork. The art selected by the student judges is as stark as the writing. The image paired with “Watermarked,” for example, is a sepia photograph of an old windmill. Plain China selects images that allure the viewer without distracting from the content or voice of the writing.
This journal demands a reading for the quality of its content and clean presentation, but what may be most admirable about Plain China is its unspoken commentary on the sometimes-underappreciated community of undergraduate writers. It is the first online anthology of undergraduate work on a national level. The professionalism of the work in Plain China validates undergraduate journals and students alike. The journal gives us a glimpse at the voices of today’s young writers, and together they make a whole that is mature, thoughtful, and on par with many post-college journals in circulation.