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Aaron Hamburger

The novel Nirvana is Here showed up in mid-May, adding to Aaron Hamburger’s list of books: The View from Stalin’s Head and Faith for Beginners. While Hamburger will not exactly be “here” in Bellingham where I live, he will be at Third Place Books on June 4th in the Seattle area.

I’m going to hear him. When I attended the Stonecoast MFA program, Aaron was a sought-after faculty member––a sharp evaluator of both fiction and nonfiction and a critic who salted his feedback with wry observations. His attitude and approach were always about making our work the best it could be. I suspect students at Columbia University, George Washington University, and Brooklyn College where he has also taught, feel the same way.

Nirvana is Here is about sexual identity and has roots in Hamburger’s own experience. To check out the plot and determine whether you want to read a cleverly written, spiked-with-humor piece of fiction about a gay Jewish teenager who endured a trauma of the most difficult kind––rape by an older high school boy––scroll down through Amazon’s cluttered pages to Hardy Griffin’s review.

The musical group Nirvana’s been called the “flagship band of Generation X” and the band had a distinct effect on Aaron Hamburger. In 1991, he was “a nervous freshman” at the University of Michigan when a guy ran down the dorm hall yelling “You’ve got to hear this!” For Aaron, listening to “Smells like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana was

“an explosion of insolent Pacific Northwest cool into my deeply uncool and fundamental conservative world…Hearing his music was like receiving a dispatch from another spiritual plane, one that offered irrefutable evidence that there were other ways of living–and maybe other ways of loving, too.”

References to Nirvana’s music threads through Nirvana is Here. Kurt Cobain’s advocacy of gay rights impacted Aaron. “During his relatively short life and career…[Cobain] spoke with a clarity that inspired me to do the same, creating a kind of role model for me to follow.” (You can read more here.)

As for me, I paid little attention to Nirvana in the 90s. I was probably too busy saying “Turn it down!” to my children to attend to the rhythms and lyrics of Nirvana. When I asked my 35-year-old son if he knew the band Nirvana, he said, “Mom, that’s like asking an English major [me] if she’s heard of Shakespeare.”

Now, having revisited “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are,” on YouTube, I get it––the hard driving, powerful drumming of Dave Grohl and the raspy-voiced magic of Kurt Cobain. I see how Cobain contributed to the liberation of Aaron Hamburger and his fictional character Ari. Aaron integrated his own trauma into his novel and has advised other writers to

“Travel to dark, secret places in your work and expand your knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax so you have all the tools at your disposal to express your vision .”

But he’s not all serious. Once at a Stonecoast talent show, Hamburger participated wearing a chef’s apron and hat, and wielding a hamburger-flipping spatula. I wonder what surprises he’ll have for us in Seattle.