The Voices in Our Heads: Polyvocality, Power & Nnedi’s Lagoon

When we speak or write, our voice is not the only one being (re)produced. It is a mutant composite of your mom blasting Rocio Durcal at 7 a.m. to announce it’s cleaning day, all day; of your pops saying Boiya, you think you smart when you finally gathered the courage to challenge his authority; of your crew saying stop being such a bitch and go talk to her when you was a young drunk at the bar; of your body trying to activate experiences beyond immeasurable skies over tract homes; of even your mind when it tries to walk amongst the intellectual redwoods of Cedric Robinson and Michael Foucault. You and your voice are not you, you are many: people and things . . .

Yet, in fiction (and most creative arts), the artist generally tries to gather all that personal and historical DNA, and mask it inside the “default” singular voice. This tendency usually results not only in a point-of-view that leans towards (or staggers out of) a dominant First World—straight, white, male, Christian—gaze, but a voice that tends to reanimate the marginalities and silences that people want to resist when facing social, political, and aesthetic borders. Our first impulse is to acculturate, not resist. WSCP hegemony is not only theory; it is real and difficult terrain to work through, personally and aesthetically.  

I offer an author and book we can look to: a bright star in a constellation emerging against not only old guard ideas around narrative, characters, and content, but the singular point of view. Nnedi Okorafor’s third adult novel Lagoon is a high-minded sci-fi fantasy drama that replaces singular/univocality with the power of polyvocality: the practice that many points-of-view and ideas can coexist to shape and drive a narrative. Sure, our bookshelves and the academic canon celebrate the traditional gawds of polyvocality, Toni Morrison and William Faulkner, but Nnedi rides a giant wave all her own.

Lagoon imageWithin Lagoon’s tight yet expansive 293 pages, Nnedi does so much to move literary desire and language outside of the normative imaginary: the story takes place outside of America’s borders in Lagos, Nigeria; women and men occupy equal space in the trajectory of the protagonist(s) struggle and resolution; the world is populated only by African bodies; the words characters speak do not privilege “the King’s English,” while slang / creole vernacular blooms easily alongside it; the celestial beings that come to Earth are not there solely to colonize; and sex and sexuality are constantly represented as fluid.

Those elements alone could be and have been explored in movies, television shows, books, and music, but together in Okorafor’s novel they create a narrative body that is biomorphic in style and content. When building a scene where one of the four heroes is a child protecting his siblings from vile family members, she writes:

Edgar sat on the small porch watching them come. Their cars and SUVs pulled up and they waited. Gathering like ants preparing to haul away a dead spider. Ants never sleep. Ants are relentless. And ants know the scent of opportunity and do not hesitate to follow its trail.

In Lagoon, the tale of an alien invasion and its human defenders, the real world and local mythos, the human and animal experience, all coil into each other to build its vision.

Okorafor’s vision is greatly aided by using the tool of close-third omniscience to create a fictive world where the pages have a cyclical feel rather than a linear one. Readers can see and feel the conflict in Lagos through the eyes of the four main protagonists, or by one of the extraterrestrial organisms in the sea, or a deaf-mute boy, or a spider before it’s crushed on the road, or a part-time secretary / part-time prostitute, or a cross-dressing leftist militant, or, finally, by a mutated bat before it’s obliterated by a plane. By the end, the book reveals itself to be about the consciousness of a city and its future possibilities. In many ways, Lagoon is a textual experience of moments before the Afrofuture actualizes.

Lagoon is not an exploration of bourgeois angst, millennial despair, the travesties of the third world, the poverty of Africa, the criminality of Nigeria, or about a single diven chosen-hero destined to save the world. It’s about being woke to the possibilities of science, hope, and political resistance. When we understand power as the relationship between racial, economic, gendered, and sexual forces, Okorafor’s literary work is the embodiment of creative-social justice. In its pages, we get a nuanced critique of Christianity, explorations of how patriarchy is expressed and confronted, complex representations of the LGBTQ community, a survey of non-American Blackness, and the will to fight and embrace desire. She and the book are active in resisting typical or normative formations of social and narrative bodies. That is power.

Obviously, creating a polyvocal text is not easy, nor is it the only route to explore when attempting to generate a text that aims to gives voice to bodies and communities either pushed to the periphery or erased by the core centers of technological and industrial advances. I would even bet that most mentors encourage writers to master the illusion of the singular point-of-view first. Yet, polyvocality is a critical tool to access when thinking through how narrative bodies and fictionalized worlds should not reproduce the redundant and unimaginative language of our collective American (and beyond-American) stories. It is one that asks and searches for viewpoints beyond the already-trod narrow path.

Many artists are doing this critical work. Oscar Wao, through the stylized narrative prism of Yunior De Las Casas, is polyvocal; Long Division, through the laptop cipher of Baize’s search and reconstruction of her family history, is polyvocal; Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, with Esch’s seemingly “locked-in” first person point-of-view, is polyvocal by the way she obsessively speaks of the bodies and actions of her family and community; The Wire was televised polyvocality; even Kanye West, when he credits every writer and producer who helps him make one song, to the ire of old guard malcontents, is engaging in polyvocality.

Yet, Okorafor’s Lagoon quintessentially embodies polyvocality, because many narrative bodies, human and otherwise, speak through the story’s arc. It feels like Nnedi Okorafor swallowed the whole damn world, focused her energies on Nigeria, and said okay, let’s really explore our position in the intergalactic space waves. Her version of polyvocality jars readers from the everyday expectations of normative POV, and pushes against the lies of WSCP’s creative endeavors. It lets the reader swim in a vast, clear ocean with the many.

FranciscoFrancisco McCurry is a decolonizing native traveling the space ways of planet air, bold and broke. He is working on a novel called Lucha Libre in America and holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. He pays bills working in education and knows Wu-Tang is Forever.

Seeing Myself in Jane

There was no possibility of picking up Jane Eyre from my nightstand. Instead I rolled and writhed, wiping my tears with the sheets after the used, crumpled tissues disappeared under pillows from the restless tossing. Each page of the story found a new way to open me up raw, to twist the knife. Continuing was out of the question.

But I had an essay due. When I mustered the strength—or when my self-pity had been exhausted—I thumbed for the last dog-eared page, peering through bleary vision at the passage:

Gentle reader, may you never feel what I then felt! May your eyes never shed such stormy, scalding, heart-wrung tears as poured from mine. May you never appeal to Heaven in prayers so hopeless and so agonised as in that hour left my lips: for never may you, like me, dread to be the instrument of evil to what you wholly love.

I slammed the book shut, and dropped it off the side of the bed. Hairs stood on the back of my neck, prickling with anxiety. Either the story was mirroring my life, or I was going insane. Was I living Jane’s story? Or was I like Bertha, the mad woman in the attic?

bed

*         *         *

When I was 21 my boyfriend of four years and I were attending UC Riverside, where he was a history major and I studied English. We carpooled our junior year and spent hours on the road to and from class in heated philosophical discussion, or passionate debate—hands locked on the center console, eyes bright with inspiration. Our teenage tryst turned into a marriage of the minds through our desire to learn from and inform each other; I thought we’d be happy forever in our pursuit of knowledge. We’d each found a soul mate in the other.

But reader, there was someone else. I fell for his puzzling, dark stare across the dining room, the conscious brush of his hand against my ass in the kitchen, or the post-shift fantasies expressed via text message. The bartender at my work was persistent, and I was in love. One late summer night I went to his house for a party, and at the end, we were alone together. What little ability we had left to resist melted like the ice in our unfinished gin and tonics.

streetI had no choice. A few nights later, the night before the first day of our senior year, I sat with my boyfriend in his parked car and told him I wanted a break.

“I just need time to figure things out. I need to figure myself out.” I didn’t mention the bartender.

After the thousandth utterance, he understood that the conversation was over; he couldn’t change my mind. He sat stiff in his seat, gripping the wheel with both hands; I looked straight ahead, avoiding the sight of the bags under his eyes. He was grappling with the loss like I was, seeing the dream of our futures together scatter like a kicked pile of leaves. Losing the only love we’d known, our hearts broke together. Hurting him was the last thing I’d ever wanted. What had I done?

“We can still carpool tomorrow, if you’d like.”

*         *         *

On the first day of class I walked in with puffy eyes and a yellow pad of paper in place of my laptop, which I’d forgotten in the blur of an emotional hangover. Typically I approached the front row like it was Christmas morning; this day, I sat off to the side and sunk into the baggy sweater I’d layered myself in, longing to disappear.

The course was titled “Seeing Yourself in Victorian Literature,” and I avoided the gaze of the instructor, Summer Star, as she apologized for the “sparks that would shoot from her eyes” when teaching us her “secular bible”: Jane Eyre. Summer glowed. My face flushed as I half-heartedly scribbled notes from the introductory lecture:

“Meanings of reflexivity”
“New models of self-consciousness”
“Know thyself- a tradition”

The last thing I wanted to do was look at myself. A liar, and a cheater. I’d nearly split myself in two by loving two people at once. What was in my heart, at the very center? A rotten core. Know myself? Pass. Hard pass.

*         *        *

Starting Jane Eyre without my ex in bed with me, with his nose also in a book, was impossible. My attention drifted from the page to the unfinished gin and tonics, the chill of cold sheets next to me—the mess I’d made. Reading required the ceaseless reigning in of my thoughts.

Until I was wooed by Jane’s narrative. The Bildungsroman pulled me in, right beside her. She was familiar, like a childhood friend. The words startled me as I turned my back to the empty side of my bed:

Reader, though I look comfortably accommodated, I am not very tranquil in my mind . . . It is a very strange sensation to inexperienced youth to feel itself quite alone in the world, cut adrift from every connection . . .

As though I’d turned a corner to see a mirror where I’d expected a wall. Could I have described my state better at that moment? I read on.

. . . all [his] energy, decision, will . . . were full of . . . an influence that quite mastered me,– that took my feelings from my own power and fettered them in his. I had not intended to love him; the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected.

Had she known the bartender?

Human beings never enjoy complete happiness in this world. I was not born for a different destiny to the rest of my species: to imagine such a lot befalling me is a fairy tale—a day dream.

Then I read the passage, “Gentle reader, may you never feel what I then felt!”

Books had resonated with me before, but I’d never experienced such a strong parallel. Each address to the “reader” called to me as though it were my own name. She knew the harsh winds, the burn of my cries. Had she heard my prayers? The words were mine, though it was my first time seeing them. My dreams were dashed by the mad woman: myself. I had fallen for, and left Rochester.

I scoured through the rest of the novel as though uncovering Jane’s fate would reveal my own, as if it held an answer—the answer—to my troubles. Was it coincidence that the story fell into my hands at that time? Fate, that our narratives aligned? Was Jane, Charlotte speaking to me?

I researched the topic for my essay.

*         *         *

I sat under the bright glow of florescent grids hanging overhead, a sacred hush filling the third floor of the library, and read. Dug. The stack of texts I’d gathered reached two feet high, and it dwindled down over the hours like candy empties from a gumball machine. Among the collections of essays I dogeared or annotated with a feverish punch to the keyboard was the holy grail of my quest, titled Dear Reader: The Conscripted Audience in Nineteeth-Century British Fiction.

It told me the intimacy was intentional in Charlotte’s work (and Emily’s, and over a dozen other Victorian authors). The narrator Jane appeals to us in her most isolated, vulnerable moments because she desperately wants us to see that despite her actions and choices, she is a good, and worthy person. Further, she wants us to see that despite our actions and choices, we are good and worthy people. If readers can understand and accept her, then she can accept herself. And if we can accept her, then we can accept ourselves too.desk

The connection I felt was what Jane intended me to feel. The book, once painful to lift to my tired, wet eyes transformed into a mirror in my hands. A companion in my bed. By spurring emotions in me that I’d only felt in isolation, that I couldn’t put into words myself, she offered this truth: we are not alone.

When I finished Jane Eyre, I saw myself clearly for the first time in months. Not the cheater or the mad woman in the attic, but a person—creature, thing—who was confused. Hurting because I’d hurt someone, like Jane. Like everyone. Her voice called out to me like a supernatural whisper, a hill-sent echo; I’d found my soul mate.

“In spirit, I believe we must have met . . .

perhaps your soul wandered from its cell to comfort mine.”

Diane Williams, Duality, 2013. Oil on canvas, 11 x 14 in.

Paintings

“Coming from an ethnic background and living in a diverse city like Los Angeles, my work reflects my identity as an Asian American…”

Driving, Not Speaking

the way doubt
sits in your eyes
like a flat left
front tire
waiting for me
to rummage around
in the trunk
for a spare whisper
of encouragement
a tire iron
of hope

Karen Vande BosscheKaren Vande Bossche is a Bellingham, Washington poet and short story writer who teaches middle school students who ask questions such as “What color is your real hair?” Some of her more recent work can be found in Damfino, Damselfly and Silver Birch Press and is forthcoming in Sediment, Straight Forward Poetry, and Burningwood. Karen was born in the Midwest, raised in Southern California, and is firmly planted now in the Pacific Northwest. She believes that writing is one of the few venues to continued sanity in today’s world and that she has finally (finally) begun her real work.

Lifted

[flash creative nonfiction]

I juggle the groceries in my arms: a box of granola bars, a chunk of ginger, an onion, a carton of eggs. I only came in here for the eggs. Ahead of me, a woman juggles her own groceries, plus a ruddy-faced toddler screaming for sweets. The registers in the self-checkout line are all taken.

A handful of hard hats ring up deli-wrapped sandwiches, sodas, and chips, thick fingers fumbling on the touch screen. I realize I have been staring when I make eye contact with one of the men; I shift my gaze to their steel-toed boots, willing them wordlessly to swipe faster, pay quicker, so that we can all be on our way. The mother in front of me, the businessman behind me—we all have places to be, places more important than this self-checkout line. We have done what we came here to do—select our purchases—and our goal now is to pay for them, get in our cars, and move on to the next item on our agendas. On mine: sending a package at the post office, returning a pair of pants that don’t fit right, picking up a book of poetry on hold at the library.

On hold.

That’s where we are, caught in the in-between.

My uncle Eric, a European computer programmer who speaks fluent English, French, Flemish, and code, attended a conference in France about internet privacy. During a conversation over dinner, Mark Zuckerberg asked him why the French were more reticent about adopting Facebook than Americans. My uncle offered his explanation. The French language is built on two verbs: ETRE and AVOIR. To be and to have. All other verbs rely on these. English, on the other hand, depends on a foundation of action verbs. While the French value ‘being’ as the ultimate action, Americans protect their right to do above all else. Waiting in the self-checkout line, we—the mother, the businessman, and myself—are stripped of this fundamental right.

I watch intently as the construction workers retrieve their receipts and lumber towards the exit. The mother and child ahead of me and I take hurried steps to occupy the empty registers. Relieved to be freed from the fetters of waiting, I ring up my groceries with relish. Eggs. Beep. Granola Bars. Beep. But it is while searching for ginger in the system that a strange sound makes me stop mid-swipe. It is a voice, and the voice is singing.

I twist my head to the left, to the right, to the left again, but I find nothing out of the ordinary. I stop and listen. The voice is still singing. It is coming from behind me, this honey-soaked song, a dark spiritual amongst the cacophony of commerce. I turn my body and find its maker.

She is wearing the guacamole-colored apron required of all the grocery store employees; a black visor with a lime green ‘P’ sits atop her close-cropped curls. Her hands are gathered quietly on the podium in front of her, and her eyes watch her hands. Her lips are barely moving, but it is she, without a doubt, who is singing.

The hinges of my jaw soften. My hand forgets the ginger it holds. It is not a song I know, but it’s not a song I don’t know.

There is nothing to be done but to stare and listen and wonder: How often does she sing like this, in the self-checkout line? Did her grandmother teach her this song? Does she sing it to her baby at night? Will her boss reprimand her for this?

My gaze sweeps the faces around me for confirmation that what I am hearing is real. The businessman wearing a crisp dress shirt and navy tie does the same. Our eyes meet for a startled second before our bodies return to the machines demanding our attention. I continue my search for ginger, but my pulse slows. I feel my cells rise and fall, following the intoxicating lilt of this strange woman’s offering, a lullaby made of milk and bone that holds its own against the metal clang of shopping carts and the harsh clatter of cash tills.

Carmella GuiolCarmella de los Angeles Guiol teaches and studies creative writing at the University of South Florida, where she is the nonfiction and arts editor at Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Toast, The Normal School, Spry, and The Inquisitive Eater. You can sometimes find her in the garden or kayaking the Hillsborough River, but you can always find her at www.therestlesswriter.com

Elise Capron, Literary Agent

Elise CapronElise Capron is a literary agent at the Sandra Dijkstra Agency in San Diego since 2003. She represents many talented authors including Maureen McHugh, Jonathon Keats, and National Book Award Longlist, Cynthia Barnett.

This interview took place on July 31, 2015 via Skype.

*     *     *

“Did you want video? You’re only coming through as a call.” Elise Capron’s voice is talking to me from my computer.

I’m frantically trying to sort out the recording device on my phone, which I “tested” for three solid minutes before realizing it wasn’t on. “Can you see me now? I can see a picture of you and your dog.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve Skyped—it’s the second. Amateur that I am, I thought I had to be friends with someone for the call to work. We’re ten minutes late for our meeting because I was waiting for her to approve my friend request instead of just dialing the number. Not the smoothest of starts, but Capron is gracious and understanding. Traits I suspect run deep. When the video starts working, I take in the office surroundings, lots of books (of course) and even a few movie posters. I remembered when I heard her speak earlier this year she said her agency has worked with many Asian-American authors, such as Amy Tan and Lisa See. Impressive stuff.

I originally saw Capron in the hallway at Antioch University as she was waiting to give a Writers-At-Work seminar during my last residency. First impression: killer style. She had a badass platinum blonde pixie haircut, radical glasses, and rocked a gorgeous dress. Second impression: even over Skype, she commands a presence but not in a way that would overwhelm or upset. She looks like the kind of woman who could charge into an office and demand an explanation for a book jacket mishap or an ignored comma splice, and then tell you all about her favorite café or secret hiking spots. In short, with over a decade at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency in San Diego, Capron’s exactly who you want representing your book. With her knowledge of comma splices—she wouldn’t be uncomfortable with a red pen and a bleak essay—before there were plans of a career in publishing, she was looking to go into academia.

“I was exploring during college. I was in a great undergrad program at Emerson College that incorporated publishing classes, which schools are doing a little bit more now, but when I was in college, it was a rarity . . . So, I was doing internships during my summers. I interned at the Dijkstra Agency . . . I was struggling with deciding whether to pursue a master’s and go on to teach. Instead, I decided to jump at a job opportunity. I had to see what being an agent was really about. That was almost twelve years ago.”

[blockquote align=left]What do writers do? They write! They don’t get stuck on their one life’s work and forget about everything else. When you’re going through the submission process to agents, go work on a different project. Don’t think about the book you have on submission. Keep doing good work and let the submission process go through what it needs to go through.

For people looking to get into the field, Capron acknowledges that she knows only one agent who actually sought out a degree in publishing. And while courses can be good for getting a foundation in the field, she admits, “One of the biggest benefits of going through a formal publishing program are the connections you make. You get a little groundwork on the business, but it’s hard to know what it is really like until you are working in publishing. So at a lot of those publishing programs, especially in New York, they’re bringing in editors, they’re talking, and it’s those connections you’re making that will probably lead to something down the road . . . For this same reason, if you don’t go through a publishing program, the best thing someone who wants to work in publishing can do is to get an internship.” Internships like the two Capron did with the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

SDLA is a mid-sized agency. There are about eight people on staff, which is large for a boutique agency but nothing like the few giants. Capron feels this is one of their biggest strengths. Like many small offices, there’s a built-in support network that fosters an invaluable give and take. “Creative problem solving is one of the biggest parts of my job. And the rules in publishing—the way we get to the finished product—are flexible. Every day is different. We have the chance to be creative and, to an extent, invent the process as we go along strategizing for each book. This is a job where you can make it what you want it to be. You have a lot of independence. And we work with projects we really love. How many jobs can you really say that about?”

Capron is vibrant when she delves into every little thing she adores about being an agent. Whether she fell into it or not, authors worldwide would be lucky to have an agent with a fraction of her enthusiasm and joy. “It’s so rewarding to be part of the process of a book ending up in the world. It’s very special.”

At this point of the conversation, being an agent sounds like the only path to happiness. But she confesses that sometimes projects don’t go the way everyone hopes. “Because there are no real rules in terms of what is going to make a book successful, you never know. Sometimes you think you have a sure thing, you know, this book’s going to be easy to sell and will really work in the market, and then it ends up being a struggle. Other times a project you love but imagined might be a small sale can end up surprising and everyone is happy. We’re taking risks on anything we represent. When, very occasionally, a project just truly doesn’t work out, it’s hard on everybody. It can really be a downer.”

Because Capron isn’t working in more commercial, market-driven genres like YA, she doesn’t tend to focus entirely on trends. “I rarely look at a project and say ‘That’s going to be a bestseller!’ I’m thinking more in terms of growing careers.” Capron looks for what the market is missing, not how it’s flush, and goes from there. “I look to build a brand. I like to find clients who are at that beginning stage and I see a lot of potential in the long run. I want to build them over several books.” Good news for all the budding, not-yet-published authors here.

Of course, it’s important to be prepared. No matter how much Capron can offer, it’s irrelevant if an author doesn’t do their homework. That’s the biggest mistake you can make. When you’re “submitting to agents who are clearly not right for you . . . you’re going to get a rejection. Take the extra time to do the research. It will save you a lot of effort, time, and potential heartbreak in the long run. And make sure to not only submit to agents who handle your genre, but take that extra step and target agents who you think will truly be a good fit.”

Then, of course, there is the actual writing—the meat of an author’s existence. “Don’t send out the material or the query letter before they’re ready. That can kill your submission. So can submitting an unprofessional letter.”

Even after endless hours of homework and research, there are still so many agencies and so many places to send work. There’s a pro and con to each type of agency and Capron is a big believer in the benefit of the smaller approach. “We’re in the age of boutique agencies and that is where most writers will end up though there are advantages to working with a large agency. They have entire departments dedicated to sub-rights [subsidiary rights] and contracts, and significant clout when it comes to important, bigger-picture industry issues like e-royalties. You’re also on a much bigger list of titles and authors. Does that mean you’re going to be neglected? No, certainly not, but being at a large agency, you’re a small fish in a big pond. At a boutique agency, we’re keeping a smaller list of books, a smaller list of active clients at a time. You really have the one-on-one direct connection all the time with your agent. [Djikstra Agency] is the perfect size, in my opinion, because we actually have an in-house contract manager, finance manager, and sub-rights manager (many boutique agencies do not have separate in-house people for those functions) while also getting the one-on-one personalized relationship. You’re going to get a little more care on that small list.”

Capron is so casual and friendly while disseminating all this brilliant information that I’m distracted. There’s so much to learn, but mostly I’m wondering if maybe she will accept my Skype contact request so she can be my first Skype friend. Maybe we could Skype all the time. I would do my best not to be that obnoxious friend of the please-help-me-get-published variety. She’s just so enormously charismatic that even when we’re not talking shop I’m enthralled.

“Oh FitBit! I’m obsessed with mine. I’m actually sad I don’t have it on right now.” She gesticulates toward my wrist where my hideous green band is. A gift from my mother that was less in the vein of generosity and more of a last ditch effort to get me to lose weight. But if Elise Capron—my soon to be best Skype contact—likes it, maybe I’m not giving it my all. She slips seamlessly back into our conversation.

“In terms of finding an agent, one of the most important things is making sure that that agent’s been around long enough and isn’t just testing the waters. They’re establishing a real career.” That’s not to say that newer agents should be avoided. In fact, Capron seems to think that can be one of the best bets for an author. “I often get the question of whether a writer should target brand new agents. It can be a great thing! They’re jazzed. Maybe they’ve made their first couple of sales and are actively building their list of clients. They’re going to give you a lot of attention and a lot of their time because they want to help you launch your career. That agent is going to give you her heart and soul. If you’re that agent’s very first client, I know it can feel like a risk, but we all have to have our first client at some point. More importantly, it comes down to getting a sense that an agent is engaged with what’s going on, has a decent internet presence and that you feel confident that she is establishing herself in whatever genre she’s working in.”

Once you’ve done your homework, decided on the type of agency, written and rewritten your manuscript, it’s time to query. Capron has been clear that it’s much easier to avoid the slush pile if you’re using the network you’ve created. In her seminar at the Antioch residency, she recommended getting an author who knows your work to write a blurb for you to lead off your query letter. And as unpopular as name-dropping can make you at a cocktail party, it’s one of the best things you can do for your writing career. “It would be pretty hard to over name-drop in a query letter because that’s where you want to be doing everything you can to sell yourself. That said, don’t name-drop just for the sake of it, because that isn’t productive. I want to know who’s a realist for you, who you can actually reach out to.”

And if you don’t have any working authors who can lend you that valuable blurb, don’t fear. “A strong, professional query letter stands out. After that it becomes, in great part, persona. Do I click with the idea or not? This is why it’s so important to be able to describe your book clearly and concisely in just a few sentences. I want to understand your pitch from the get-go.”

As pleasant and enjoyable as Capron is, finding an agent and getting published can still feel hopeless. But she insists we should press on. “I’m a very optimistic person. We’re in an exciting time in publishing where there are more opportunities and venues and outlets for everybody. There’s a place for every type of writer. There are more agents and publishers than ever. It’s so easy to fall into this feeling of rejection, rejection, rejection. It’s a hard road. It takes a lot of perseverance and belief in your work. Also, it takes knowing when it’s time to put that project in a drawer for a little while and focus on something else. The worst thing that can happen is letting yourself get so bogged down in a project that you spend three years querying and feeling depressed instead of focusing on forward momentum and continuing to produce. What do writers do? They write! They don’t get stuck on their one life’s work and forget about everything else. When you’re going through the submission process to agents, go work on a different project. Don’t think about the book you have on submission. Keep doing good work and let the submission process go through what it needs to go through.”

Sager words have rarely been spoken. We’ve been talking for a while now and I know the conversation is winding down. She has a dog to walk, I have a cat lovingly terrorizing my foot, but she leaves with some final insights. Probably the hardest words to hear for any writer used to toiling away alone in front of a blinking cursor: “Be social. Keep yourself out there and engaged in the community. You never know what it will lead to.”

And she totally accepted my Skype contact request.

Tai FarnsworthTai Farnsworth is an LA-based writer. Her short story about desire, “The Girl You Love”, can be found in Issue #15 of The Quotable. When she’s not working on her manuscript she is often cooking up and photographing tasty food. She lives with her upsettingly talented partner, her embarrassing cat, and far too many mason jars.

Birds of LA: Mixed Media

A Few More Miles

It never gets easier, you just go faster. —Greg LeMond

After my father’s stroke, after months of rehab, after coming to terms with the fact that the blind spot on his right side—his lost peripheral vision—was the new normal, his doctor told him he couldn’t ride his bicycle.

Last fall he had aortic valve replacement surgery to fix a heart condition he was born with, the same condition that ultimately killed his own father. The surgery went according to plan. They didn’t know he’d suffered a stroke until two days later, when he had recovered enough from the anesthesia for someone to notice that he was acting funny. In the aftermath of his surgery and the stroke, my father says his heart is twenty years younger, but I know that twenty percent of his brain is gone forever.

He lost his ability to work his job of twenty-nine years, he lost a good bit of short-term memory, which forced him into an early retirement, and now this: his beloved bicycling. This too was going to be taken away from him.

I have a picture from early September, before the surgery, of my parents at Scooter’s, an ice cream shop they like to ride to together on a black Burley tandem. They celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary with a ride and two giant sugar cones. My mom held hers in the air, as if giving a toast. Dad did the awkward selfie lean, trying to get them both in the picture.

And what now?

[blockquote align=right]Life is a stage race like the tour, not one all-out sprint or time trial. There are days of sun and days of rain; wins and losses; successes, failures, and recoveries.

After a winter of too much TV, daily walks around the neighborhood no matter how cold it was, painstakingly typed comments on my Facebook page because of how slowly his writing skills are returning, I was afraid he would give up. I feared my father—this man who called me on his fifty-eighth birthday and told me he’d set out to ride fifty-eight miles in honor of the occasion, but tired out and only rode fifty; this man who had ridden every single mile of two coast-to-coast bicycle trips, from California to North Carolina—would become a couch potato. I feared he would sit at home and watch Fox News all day.

*     *     *

Greg LeMond was the first American to win the Tour de France. It was 1986. I was two years old. This was before Lance Armstrong became famous, and then infamous; before helmets were required; before all of the doping scandals. Back when hardly anyone in the United States was paying attention to the Tour.

I grew up admiring LeMond. Every summer my dad and I would sit on the couch in our family basement and watch the Tour. I cheered for whomever my dad favored that year, with English journalist Phil Liggett’s voice—synonymous with quality sports commentary—in my mind.

As a child I was carted around the Midwest to bicycle road races. I cheered for my dad from a big orange blanket along the sidelines. There were usually children’s races, too, and when I was old enough I rode my pink tricycle down the short, straight course at one of them. I pushed those black plastic pedals as hard as I could, my chubby little legs pumping up and down. I received a bronze medal strung on red, white, and blue ribbon, and ate pink cotton candy with my family to celebrate.

When I was six, I got a pink two-wheeler for my birthday. It came with training wheels, but soon my dad was teaching me to get along without them. He’d run behind me, holding onto the seat for moral support, and then he would let go. I would fly down the sidewalk, skidding to a stop with the coaster brakes when I reached the corner, waiting for him to help me cross the street and begin again.

The joy that pink bicycle brought to my childhood was not so different from the joy bicycling has continued to bring me throughout my life. There have been many family vacations spent camping and riding, afternoons pedaling around with friends in the neighborhood where I grew up, escapes from campus on warm afternoons in my small college town. There has always been a bicycle in my life.

When I graduated from college and moved to North Carolina, I had never owned a car, or even had a driver’s license. Everyone thought now that I had a college degree in hand surely I would grow up, learn to drive, and buy a vehicle like any self-respecting adult in North America. But I was about to begin graduate school in theology, and the idea of buying a car seemed laughable to me. I didn’t want to drive and never had, which was why I hadn’t gotten a license when I turned sixteen. Instead I sought out an apartment that was within walking distance of campus, the grocery store, and a coffee shop, arguing that those were the only places I was likely to hang out for the next two years. That proved mostly true.

Graduate school didn’t last forever though, and when I finished my master’s degree I took several part-time jobs and no longer had time for walking and waiting at bus stops. When my parents came down for graduation, Dad spent an afternoon on the porch with the old purple commuter bike he and my mom got me when I was fourteen. He overhauled the drivetrain, trued the wheels, and added a rack on the back to which I could attach panniers for carrying my groceries. It was everything I needed in a reliable vehicle. Then he presented me with a Duke-blue tire pump with a big bow on it. My graduation present.

*     *     *

The transition to daily commuting was not entirely smooth; there were obstacles ranging from flat tires to fitness to inclement weather. Few things make me want to stay in bed more than waking to the sound of rain on the rooftop in February. If the temperature is below 40, I may even start wishing that I had a car.

I get up anyway. I make coffee. I check weather.com. I forgo a shower, because it never seems worthwhile when I know I will be doused with rainwater shortly. I put extra socks and shoes in my waterproof courier bag, pour what’s left of my coffee into a thermos, and tuck that in the bag as well.

Donning a navy blue raincoat, black nylon pants with velcro at the ankles, and my oldest sneakers which smell like wet dog from previous soakings, I am out the door into the rain. I swing my leg over the crossbar of my white road bike and push off down the street. The drops fall freely, without concern for the inconvenience they’ve caused me, weighing down my long hair, obscuring my vision. I live near a golf course and the long, flat stretch of road that runs alongside it presents a different view every morning. On bright, chilly winter days I watch the sky turn pink and orange through the tree line as the sun rises. On humid days my eyes pick out benches and sand traps through the dense fog. In summer, I see early risers getting in a quick game before work.

On rainy days the course is abandoned. In the early morning dampness everything looks a brighter shade of green. The air is clean and invigorating as I start to pedal harder, moving toward my destination by the strength of my own legs. I have been dreading this since I woke up, yet it is never as bad in actuality as it seemed from the warmth of my apartment.

Bicycling is hard work and, especially in the summer, that work induces sweat. In four years of bicycle commuting, despite lots of sunscreen, I’ve watched my face become more and more freckled. I’ve chosen to ignore catcalls induced by skimpy clothing, because when the heat index is over a hundred degrees, who really cares what the homeless guy I pass each day on Ninth Street has to say about my legs? I haven’t the energy. I’m focused on movement, labored breaths, the feel of the sun beating down on my back, and the heat radiating from the pavement when I stop at a red light.

I’m picturing Greg LeMond riding into Paris and I am willing myself to keep going, to beat my only competitor, the voices inside my own head:

Grow up and get a driver’s license.

Its unattractive for a woman to be so sweaty all the time.

We live in a car culture; get used to it.

Cycling isnt safe in cities in the United States.

Why arent you in better shape after four years of this?

This last one runs through my head every time I ride up a street with a respectable hill. It never gets easier.

Not long after LeMond’s historic win in 1986, he was injured in a hunting accident on a trip with his uncle. He survived with thirty shotgun pellets inside his body, and spent two years in recovery before his career picked up again. He went on to win the Tour de France twice more, in 1989 and 1990. LeMond was among the best in the world, yet most people in the United States didn’t know who he was. Oh, sure, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated after his comeback in ‘89, but what about all of those years leading up to that? Years when people believed that American cyclists would never be able to compete with Europeans? His victory in ‘86—the first ever for an American cyclist in 85 years of the Tour de France—happened in relative obscurity when compared to the fame that later followed Lance Armstrong. LeMond was never a celebrity in that way.

Most of life is like that. The goals we set, the things we care about, what we hope to accomplish—very few people will see them. Training rides, weightlifting, junior races—LeMond did these things like every other racer, building his career one day at a time. Cycling, even as a commuter, is a mental game as much as any competitive sport I have ever played. When I am sticky with sweat, when my mouth is dry and my muscles burn and I want to quit, I think about LeMond after that accident and the pain of getting back on a bicycle after physical trauma, when people said he was finished. I think about LeMond racing and not winning. And then I think about a poster on my brother’s bedroom wall of LeMond sprinting for the finish line at the 1989 World Championships with two European riders on his wheel, in the rain. His muscles bulge, wet hair is plastered to his forehead, and his mouth hangs open as if releasing a battle cry. His eyes are focused straight ahead on the finish line. He is going to get what he came for.

As I pedal up these modest hills in North Carolina’s Piedmont, I have to fix my eyes on the road ahead and keep pedaling. Life is a stage race like the Tour, not one all-out sprint or time trial. There are days of sun and days of rain; wins and losses; successes, failures, and recoveries.

*     *     *

Someday I will lose him.

That is the thought most present since the stroke. That, and he is still here. We get to keep him for a while.

Death, mortality, finitude—these are not new concepts to me. I have pondered their meanings philosophically. I have experienced the yawning chasm of loss. My uncle, Steve, when I was in 6th grade: heroin overdose. My other uncle, Joe, when I was in 8th grade: liver failure due to alcoholism. My seventeen-year-old friend Ryan: car accident. Gravel, tree, the curve of a road that led not to the endless possibilities of life beyond high school, but to one final ending for him, confusion and grief for the rest of us. But these losses never prepared me for the reality that someday I will lose my own parents.

Since the stroke, my father has been more open. He cries easily now. He simply cannot hold certain emotions in any longer. Home in Kalamazoo for Thanksgiving, I sat in a chair across from him while my sister played the grand piano in the living room. A month after his surgery, the scar across his chest was still pronounced, his heart healing while the rest of his body was in limbo. Tears filled his eyes and I watched him blink them back in what appeared to me a silent denial and quiet sorrow, and also, somehow, gratitude. He could have died. He knows this. Instead he is sitting here, listening to his daughter play piano as he has so many times before.

“I cry more easily since the stroke,” he told me on the phone last week, verbalizing what I had already seen. He says it like it’s a physical side-effect and, though I don’t know much about medicine, I assume this is his way of explaining displays of emotion previously so out of character. Before this, there was only one time I remembered seeing my father cry, and one time when I heard it in his voice over the phone and tried to ignore it.

The first time was after we packed up the Volvo to drive to North Carolina the summer I moved to Durham for graduate school. My clothes and books and a few stray boxes of kitchen stuff were packed tightly into the trunk, my cat was in her pink carrier in the back seat, drugged up for the long drive, and Dad had loaded my bike onto the roof rack. He, my mother, the cat, and I would be road-tripping down, and then they would drive off and leave me in a city and state I had never laid eyes on before, where I didn’t know a single soul.

In the driveway he told me he was proud of me. I politely pretended not to see the tears in his eyes, while more welled up in my own.

And then there was the night before his surgery, when he called me.

It was only in the weeks right before the surgery that its seriousness took hold of me.

They will break his sternum, I thought. They will cut open his heart. They will break him open; will they be able to put him back together?

On the phone that night before the surgery he tried to hold his voice steady, but I could hear everything he wasn’t saying—everything I wasn’t saying—in the tremor of his voice. A friend was picking me up as I said goodbye; she and I were going to our favorite brewery for a drink. I was in a hurry, and I felt guilty about that, but I also think now that it wasn’t just about getting where I was going. It was about my inability to fathom my own fear that this conversation could be the last one I ever had with my father.

It wasn’t. And yet it was the last one I ever had with that version of him. They cut him open, they sewed him up, they gave him back to us—but he will never be the same.

If you spoke with him, you might not know that anything is wrong. His short-term memory was the primary loss; most of the other difficulties have been overcome, gradually, with therapy. So he pauses mid-sentence, dancing around the word he wants but cannot find, his brain trying to form new pathways where the old ones have been erased—trying and sometimes failing, though succeeding more often now than in those first few months. Still, it isn’t enough. The loss of memory and the loss of sight on his right side, led to the loss of his job. He is only fifty-nine and was not ready to retire.

We used to talk about how someday, when he was ready to retire, he would come down to North Carolina and we’d take a bike trip together. Bicycling had become the glue to our relationship, which has been difficult as I’ve become an adult. I don’t see eye-to-eye with my parents on much when it comes to politics and religion and—though they are supportive of my work, my art, my impractical career choices and graduate degrees—there is a breach between us that often seems impossibly wide.

A couple of summers ago I rode on the back of the tandem with him for the first time. It was a strange experience, riding a bicycle and not being the one in control of steering it. I told my mother when we got home that he was the only person I could imagine trusting enough that I would be willing to give up that control. He’s been cycling for decades, and I trust his experience. Also, I am his daughter.

Riding the Blue Ridge Parkway is a dream of mine, and I thought one of these days perhaps we’d do it together. He rode sections years ago on those coast-to-coast trips—another thing I dream of doing with him—though I’ve known for a while that he probably didn’t have a third one in him. But part of the parkway—that, I always thought we could do together.

*     *     *

I guess he couldn’t take it anymore.

He didn’t listen to his doctor. He trusted the fact that he has ridden the same routes in Kalamazoo for decades, that his favorite route is all right turns. He chose to believe that he could learn his new limits and that, even though he’ll never be able to drive again, he could learn to bicycle once more.

In April, on the first day he rode, he posted on Facebook—grammar and spelling only slightly jumbled—that it was the best day since his heart surgery six months before. The best therapy he could ask for, he said. His heart was ready for this.

But his eyes might not be.

Yes, six months after surgery he rode his bike. I did not believe that would ever happen again. But even in my joy I knew that this was not a step on a brilliant recovery narrative. His eyesight is not coming back. These limitations are here to stay. And so he will adapt. He will have to limit himself. And many of our plans will not fit within those limits.

He tells me how he double- and triple-checks before crossing busy streets. How, because of the way his vision was affected by the stroke, cars look closer than they actually are. We take comfort in this: better that they appear closer, making him overly cautious, than the other way around.

He rides with friends, some new, some old. They look out for him. And yet, he tells me, one day a couple weeks ago he started to cross an intersection and stopped at the last minute when he realized there was a car coming he’d missed the first time he scanned. He stopped in time.

But it scared him. It scared me, too.

I would never tell him to stop riding. I cannot. I cannot bear the thought of losing him, but I will lose him either way. The father that I love will waste away if he cannot do this, of that I am sure. And I would rather he take this risk in order to live than that he give up and tumble into despair.

My father worked too hard for many years. He coached my soccer teams, went to all of my figure skating competitions, worked third-shift and overtime so that my siblings and I could have the education and opportunities he did not have.

I wanted him to have the retirement he planned on, and that is gone now.

Today, he will go to occupational therapy. Today, he will check Facebook, and “like” the link to my latest blog post. Today, he will say something political that I disagree with, and I will choose to ignore it because I love him too much to fight anymore. Today, I still have my father and I don’t much care about brilliant recovery narratives, climbing mountains, or triumphant entries into Paris.

I will never get on the back of that tandem with him again. I will never ride the Blue Ridge Parkway with him. But maybe, next time I am at home in Michigan, we will take a spin out to Scooter’s. We will ride together a few more miles.

Meghan FlorianMeghan Florian earned an MTS from Duke University and an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. She is the Creative Writing Editor at The Other Journal. Her work has been published by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Salon, Religion Dispatches, and elsewhere. She lives, writes, and teaches in Durham, North Carolina.

Two Poems

After a Night in the Alley of Worshippers

The point is not the frayed light of six a.m.
or the barking of dogs, half-crazed by the scent
of blood, who we had to drive away.
Nor the fatigue from a night spent deep
in death, the network that only now falls
silent, the shouts from the platoon above, identifying
bodies, the sense that all this was to be expected.
The point is not how they lay there, after
the dogs lunged into them, their faces
distorted, their wounds festering, strewn together,
black-garbed, the dirt of the road stained darker
by their blood. One held the trace of a smile,
not wicked or revengeful, just lost.
The point is, I volunteered, and Vish, the officer,
was my friend. But when we got there I could not,
I simply could not. To this day I see Vish and a soldier,
shoving them into the armored truck. They are dropped,
are dragged, I don’t have a better image for all this:
the bodies dragged, dropped,
over and over.

 

Unity

We travel the silk road of evening,
tobacco and desire flickering
between our hands. We are warm travelers,
our eyes unfurled, traveling in psalms,
in Rumi, in the sayings of the man from the Galilee.
We break bread under the pistachio tree,
under the Banyan tree, under the dark
of the Samaritan fig tree. Songs of offering rise up
in our throats, wandering along the wall of night. We travel
in the openness of warm eternity, celestial voices
announcing a coupling as the quiet horse gallops
heavenward. We travel with the rest of the world,
with its atrocities, its piles of ruins, scars of barbed wire,
traveling with ardor in our loins, with the cry of birth.
We sit crossed-legged within the rocking
of flesh, the quiet of the Brahmin, the bells
of Mass, the tumult of Torah. We travel
through the eagles of death, dilution of earth in rivers,
in eulogies, through marble we travel, through the silk
of evening, our hearts like bonfires in the dark.

prose_section_divider

 

 

אחרי הלילה של סמטת המתפללים

הָעִנְיָן איננו באור האפֹר וְהַמְרֻפָּט של
שש בָּבֹּקֶר, או הנביחות
של הכלבים, מְטֹרָפִים מריח הדם,
שנאלצנו לגרש. גם לא הָעֲיֵפוּת
של לילה בתוך הַמָּוֶת,
הַקֶּשֶר שרק עכשיו שתק, הצעקות
בפלגה למעלה, זִהוּי הגופה,
התחושה שכל זה היה צפוי.
הענין הוא לא שהם שכבו שם, אחרי
שהכלבים נגסו בהם, פניהם הגלויים
מְעֻוָתִים לגמרי, הָרָקָב הִסְתָּמֵּן
בפצעים, קרובים אחד לשני, לבושים
שָחֹר. העפר סביבם היה כהה יותר,
לאחד מהם היה סוף של חיוך,
לא מְרֻשָּע, לא נקמני, אבוד.
הָעִנְיָן הוא שהתנדבתי, וְשֶוִּיש, הקצין,
היה חבר שלי.
אבל כשהגענו לשם לא יָכֹלְתִּי,
פשוט לא יָכֹלְתִּי.
עד היום אני רואה את וִיש וחיל שעבר שם
מעלים אותם לספארי, הם נשמטים להם, נגררים.
אין לי דמוי יותר טוב לכל הספור הזה:
הגופות נגררות, נשמטות,
שוב ושוב.

אחדוּת

נוֹסְעִים בְּדֶרֶך הַמֶּשִי של הָעֶרֶב,
סחורות טבָּק ותשוקות מְהַבְהֲבוֹת
בין ידֵינו. נוסעים חמִּים,
עֵינֵינוּ פתוחות לראות, נוסעים בתהילים, אצל רוּמי,
בדברי האיש מן הגליל.
בוצעים לחם תחת האלה, תחת עץ הבַּניאָן,
תחת תאנת השומרון הכֵּהָה, מנחות שירה עולות
בגרוננו, מטילות על קיר הלילה. נוסעים
בְּנֶצַח פתוח וחם, בנות קול מכריזות זִוּוּגִים,
הסוס השקט מנתר לשמים. נוסעים עם
כלל העולם, עם הזְּוָעוֹת, עם עִיֵּי הָחֳרבוֹת,
עם צלקות התיל, נוסעים בלהט הַחֲלָצַיִם
ובכי הלידה. דרך שכול הרגלים, דרך נדנוד
הבשר, דרך השקט של הברהמינים, דרך פעמוני
המיסה, דרך המֻלת בית המדרש.
דרך נשרי הַמָּוֶת, דרך מהילת האפר בנהר,
דרך ההספדים, דרך השיש, נוסעים בדרך
המשי של הערב ולבנו מדורה בָּאפלה.

Translator’s Note

Translation involves a deep reading of words. I hold each one up to the light, I turn each one around in my mind until it twinkles and shines. Yonatan Berg’s words began shining for me the moment I read them in their original Hebrew. I was attracted by their quietness but also by their power. The steady diction beckoned me to follow each poem through to the end, a lyric journey into the mind of Berg. His poetry relates strongly to his upbringing on a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, to his service in the Israeli army and the questions he asks while looking back at these moments.

Berg stares unflinchingly at life in Israel today, way beyond the cliches and the headlines. His voice is one that deserves to be heard in other languages.  Cynthia Ozick wrote that “a translation can serve as a lens into the underground life of another culture,” and my wish while translating was to create this lens for readers of English.

Yonatan BergYonatan Berg is an Israeli writer and the youngest recipient ever to win the Yehuda Amichai Poetry Prize. He is the author of two books of poetry, Hard Sails and Hours Next to the World, and one novel, Five More Minutes.

 

 

 

Joanna Chen-translator-of-Yonatan-BergJoanna Chen’s poetry, essays, and literary translations have been published most recently in GuernicaWild Age Press, Poetry International, and Asymptote, among others. She authors a column in The Los Angeles Review of Books.  

Stonewall and the Village

I lived on Waverly Place then, around the corner from the local cruising stretch of Christopher Street. The acquaintances I collected at the time thought I was somebody, had to be somebody to live in the center of Greenwich Village. But of course I was the nobody Rilke spoke of in the “Homeless Waif,” Ich bin niemand und werde auch niemand sein, who always would be nobody. Nevertheless, some of the Warhol crowd courted me. Andy was always on the lookout for another dubious talent to dub, “Super Star.” With my long hair and bangs, dark eyes, black turtleneck and green fatigues, I reeked “poet maudit.” With me ubiquitous in the streets of the Village, the white-haired ghost apparently thought I could be groomed to be another “super star.” To be possibly played with like a cat tossing a mouse. Who cared then? FAME, that was the game. But, a pity. I shattered that illusion by selling poems in the street like a common mendicant. A nobody.

That evening I had been over in the East Village, traversing the river of humanity down Eighth Street. It was still an early night, but the East Village had been tame, so I moved on. Staid and predictable as the West Village was to me, it was home. Not totally boring, however. I had met a flood of acquaintances there. And, as well, the healthy young studs from Jersey who cruised Christopher all the way to the trucks parked overnight at the docks. Action in those vacant trucks was legendary. It was a big step up to a slippery floor and silent groping fingers. Pleasant enough, but ultimately redundant to me. The East Village was more like a jungle, more hazardous and pleasantly drug infested. It had vitality. I felt alive there, hipsters hunkered down in their cave-like apartments. From Tompkins Square on, the East Village bloomed. The alphabet avenues. By the time you got to “C,” it was heavy. An element of danger electrified the air.

So, back I trudged my queer ass to a small West Village room that was home, possibly to connect with a Jersey boy. As I rounded the corner by the Women’s House of Detention, the regular cliff of voices screaming obscenities down to the “faggots” strutting by, was in full orchestration. But this time something else grabbed my attention. Further down Christopher, I heard a clamorous crowd of hundreds. I dashed to this new action, ignoring the ladies in their “castle.” They were generally disregarded anyway, unless they became creative in their invective, which was seldom. Off I scampered to this new action. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Christopher Street was packed; people everywhere, even backed up to the intersection of Waverly Place. My corner. I inhabited that corner quite frequently. The crowd overflowed into Sheridan Square, pointy little triangle that it was with its barely confining decorative but low iron fence. All eyes were directed toward the Stonewall, a noisy gay nightclub frequently “raided” by the police. I read later that in the hubbub that night, a famous folk singer who was in the Stonewall slinked out into the Lion’s Head next door not to be perceived as “queer.” The latter establishment was a basement hangout for writers of the Village Voice newspaper, and acceptably hetero. However, the slink did not pass unnoticed, and was mentioned later in the Voice by a gay writer who didn’t hesitate to “out.”

The crowd appeared festive. New Yorkers seem to enjoy spontaneous entertainment. Especially involving the police. Particularly at the expense of the latter. I quickly discovered the source of their merriment. Police were barricaded inside the Stonewall. With a discordant chorus of queens shouting, “Get the pigs,” and other unflattering epithets sprinkled with obscenities, the “straights” gathered there seemed delighted. They may have despised “faggots” or “queers” in separate dialogues at other times, but now they were cheering “gays” for displaying such cajones. I think a few even joined the shouting, infected with mob mentality.

I decided to feign being a reporter and interview a demonstrator or two. Made sense to me at the time, since I was generally an observer of the scene anyway. I found one young queen with flaming red hair who was engrossed in his vocal vilifications. I was hesitant to interrupt his soliloquy of “down with the pigs” and similar concise verse, repetitively declaimed in a rather high pitch for such invective. His arms would flay up, perhaps to give his meager chest more air. Who knows? It was dramatic. One can’t accuse us ‘faggots’ of not being dramatic. I tapped him on the shoulder and he flung around. If I hadn’t ducked I probably would have been hit in the face.

“What?” he screamed at me. “I’m not doing anything. It’s the pigs. You’re not a pig, are you?” His eyes were positively raging. It could have been frightening if he were any less fem. It was intimidating enough, as it was.

“No. I’m not police. I’m a writer. I’m one of you. Fuck, I’m gay. I was over in the East Village tonight. Just got back. Hey! What’s happening anyway?”

“They tried to grab one of our sisters. Enough is enough!” He then tossed a few copper coins toward the door of the Stonewall shouting, “Here’s money, pigs. You haven’t been paid off enough!”

“What’s this all about?” I continued.

“They wanted to arrest one of our sisters and we fought back. Finally. We just want to have a good time. They don’t need to do that. Raiding us all the time. Pigs! And we were dancing. It was lively, man.”

“Pigs!” he yelled again.

“You were in there?”

“Sure! I’m there almost every night. I haven’t seen you, honey. I’d notice you. You do look familiar, though.”

“I’ve been in there. Not much, though.”

“Butch thing like you must go to the trucks. That’s where all the leather queens are now. Scared of this, I guess. Dykes and us nellies. That’s who’s fighting the pigs.”

“Pigs!” He shouted. Mentioning the word set him off again.

“What happened?”

“I told you. We were dancing. Having a great ole time, and the pigs come in, grab one of the dykes, Sheila, who was giving them lip and were going to arrest her. That’s when we started fighting back. ‘Don’t you touch our sister’, I yelled at ‘em. We’re getting tired of this. We don’t have to take it anymore. They raid us every week. Almost. I know the Stonewall pays them, but they still raid. Damn pigs.”

“How’d you wind up out here?”

“They chased us out like they always do when they raid and were going to hold that sister, but we fought them and brought her out with us. Then they closed the door and then we started yelling. They’re barricaded in there. Behind that door. Chicken shit pigs!” He then gripped a parking meter and tried to rock it back and forth.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going to pull this fucker out and get at those pigs.” I envisioned his using the parking meter as a battering ram. But his efforts merely succeeded in loosening the meter a bit. There was no way he was pulling that thing out of the ground. It was just as well. I found out later that the police had their pistols pointed at the door and would have shot anyone trying to get at them.

Coins got tossed more regularly now. Apparently the crowd received the message, it was all a matter of payoff to the police. Not getting enough payoff, holding up the owners for more. And for once the “cocksuckers” fought back. Oh, it wasn’t that Mr. and Ms. Straight thought the ‘faggots’ weren’t sick, but this was a fun way to begin a weekend. A pleasant June evening, and who knows, it might be in the papers. The time the queers had balls. And those damn police, they always carried things too far.

Everything continued for a while that night but eventually the police radioed for reinforcements. These newcomers in blue first cleared the streets, then rescued their comrades cringing inside the bar. On a subsequent night it was announced that the police would clear Christopher Street to prevent any further disruptions. At that time I lived around the corner (my corner, remember) and followed the events daily. Christopher wasn’t a particularly wide street, with brick buildings of modest height and occasional little shops and residences. It felt old. Old New York. With faggots cruising up and down the sidewalks. It was, after all, their street. Except, with the rosy fingers of dawn and the bustle of people making a living, queers faded into the walls, to only materialize much later like vampires.

That next night a phalanx of police in riot gear and big plastic shields marched down Christopher completely filling the area between the buildings. As they marched, a little group of queens fearlessly did a can-can in front of the police line singing, “We are the Stonewall Girls, we wear our hair in curls, we wear no underwear … to show our pubic hair.” Not the cleverest of lyrics, but the dance itself was a spectacular display of joyous contempt. Those precious daring fairies. “Fuck you!” it said, as only a faggot can. One can imagine the response of the police personnel inside their helmets, their stoic belief in masculinity threatened with this affront and their authority mocked by “fairies.” My old Village compatriot, Harry Koutoukas, claimed he orchestrated the can-can. I didn’t believe him then. Who knows? It happened. That was what mattered.

The next day as the police marched down the street in a scene reminiscent of a war movie, I was with an acquaintance, Willane. She was trying to interest me in a friend of hers from Texas after she not too cleverly discerned she was not my type. Her friends said she had a real knack for selecting faggots as potential mates, an unfortunate honing device that amused and was useful to her gay friends. Of the latter there was no scarcity since most of her friends were in the arts in one way or another.

“Sweet boy,” she told me, referring to the young Texan she had in mind for me. They were all part of a contingent of Texans who decided to invade New York. They had done Austin and were preparing for a larger playing field. Several were in theatre, several in music. Artsy as I said, but Texans, nevertheless. Willane, who like most Texans dripped with money, had an apartment right on Christopher with a balcony from which we could observe the incredible passing scene.

Sometime during the Stonewall events we were stuck on the street, Willane and I. And the police were advancing. “Willane, dear, do run,” I said and took off like a deer myself. She followed but gleefully chided me afterwards, implying cowardice on my part. “Do run,” she mocked. I figured she could certainly take care of herself and I had not been brought up in the “protect the gentle sex” mode like I have observed the Texans do, regardless of their sexual persuasion. Her particular Texans had, thank God, advanced to the state where they found my reaction droll rather than reprehensible. As for myself, I found a Texan to love for a few years, which is sometimes all we can ask for.

The Stonewall incident brought a kind of solidarity among the Village queens. And tourists. In particular, gay tourists. Gays who hadn’t visited the Village much before. I remember one outlandish black queen, Nova, who was slim and rather pretty with cute little breasts. “Estrogen,” she’d say, explaining the bumps. “Feel them. They’re real. I don’t even wear a bra.” That was obvious, of course. I didn’t feel the necessity of taking her up on her generous offer.

Nova was saving up for “the operation.” Occasionally one would hear that in the Village those days. Being poor and basically untalented except for her candor (a quality often underappreciated), Nova hustled. But it could be a precarious existence. Adding to that, she had to traverse Spanish Harlem at night to get to her home uptown. The Puerto Rican men she encountered in the streets must have been threatened by her blatantness or thought she was a real woman and thus vulnerable to their charms. So, she carried a hatchet in her purse.

One time, a cop stopped her and discovered the hatchet sticking out. “You can’t do that. It’s a deadly weapon. It’s against regulations.”

“But what is a poor girl to do? I’ve got to protect myself. I go through Spanish Harlem every night to get home.”

“Well, I suppose you could carry a hammer. There isn’t any regulation against that, or at least it’s less obvious.” So, Nova did just that.

“But what good is a hammer, Nova?” I asked.

“I may be a lady but I got muscles. Feel these.” And she flexed her arm to demonstrate a smallish but very hard bicep. “Let them spicks bother me now. I got my little ball-peen hammer right here. And I can do some damage.” She patted her purse. I didn’t need to see how she could protect herself. Her will demonstrated that.

One day when I encountered Nova, she informed me that she had met our local national celebrity, someone whom I really did admire: “Miss Allen Ginsberg,” and “I told her a thing or two.” I smiled at the female address she used, as many fem gays do when referring to any gays. I myself regarded Allen as relatively masculine and certainly much too hairy to be a “she.” His friends would be appalled. That alone elicited an extra dimension to my grin. I loved Allen, he did a lot for gay awareness and beat poetry. But his pedestal was getting wearisome.

And yet. Where would gay liberation be without Allen Ginsberg? Oh, it was amusing, those first few weeks of gay liberation to this cynical observer. The meetings of Gay Lib served with less-than-sophomoric Marxism, with a dash of strident calls for “Robert’s Rules of Order.” An obvious attempt to imitate the black and women’s movements and more established organizations, but generally we were not an orderly or overly rational group. It was our charm. Ultimately, our strength. But I couldn’t take it seriously. However, I do applaud their efforts. They made it. WE made it, I guess I should say. But no way was I about to take part in meetings. Just not my thing despite the eventual amazing outcome of it all.

There was one young gay-lib enthusiast we christened “Miss Boston” in honor of that person’s port of origin. A slight boy with strawberry blonde curls. You’d think of him as Irish. Not one of the Back Bay elect, I would guess. More likely of the great “unwashed” multitude issuing from that more reserved city north. “She” referred to her hometown regularly as a place to be avoided at all costs. And with the onset of liberation, she spread her wings here in Manhattan, and flowered in alleys … unlit doorways … and between cars. One could say she was an unbelievable slut. I myself had my moments, but she put us all to shame.

“C’mon, honey. Right in here,” as she both pointed to a doorway right on the Christopher stroll and grabbed at my zipper. I pulled away.

“No, Boston. It’s right out in the open. Everyone can see.”

“Who cares? They don’t. Just jealous. Why don’t you? I haven’t had you yet?”

“No Boston. I just don’t want to. I got a friend.”

“Everyone’s got a friend. I have several, but that doesn’t stop me. Besides, as tall as you are, I bet you’ve got a big surprise for me. I’ve seen it swinging,” she nodded glancing quite shamelessly somewhere below my midsection. To be honest, I think she was deluded there, but who was I to pop her fantasies.

“I said, NO.” She was starting to annoy me. Persistent little soul.

“It won’t take very long. I’m very good. They all say so. Come on,” as she tugged on my shirt trying to pull me into the doorway.

“NO. And that’s it… honey,” I added to sweeten the rejection. She shrugged her shoulders and we continued down the street, Boston cheerfully ready to take on the next customer. She’d have lots of opportunities with people much less squeamish than me. Though I did enjoy the hussy’s company. So unaffected in her way.

The Village was definitely a unique part of the city. When I looked toward Manhattan the few times I ventured into the wasteland that was Jersey, it was so apparent that there was a continuous elevation, a base line of about 5 or 6 stories that comprised the island from which the numerous skyscrapers loomed. I guess the reason for that base line was that 5 or 6 stories was the highest a walk-up would dare grow. Otherwise one would require an elevator. And that was what gave the rise to skyscrapers, of course. Elevators. However in the Village, sometimes, there would be buildings of only two or three stories. I lived on the upper level of a three story brick nineteenth-century dwelling. The first floor was actually below the level of the street. Spent quite a few hours on the tarred roof of that Waverly Place residence looking over the adjacent chimney pots. It was my Paris. Though that implies a fantasy world. New York was very real.

And, my god, you could meet the most fabulous freaks. One of my favorite besides Nova was “Terrence.” I don’t recall his real name. He was a legend in his own way, the fellow with four tits. He wandered into New York from vagabond San Francisco. Actually he originated from some meaningless-to-him town in Washington State. A musical comedy queen. His world was that stage, and he lived it as thoroughly as any street person could. Often, when he could pan-handle enough for a night, he resided at a flop house on Bleeker Street with the wretched and perpetually potted. More fortunate times, he would spend the night with a trick he’d pick up in the street. Terrence conveniently was very democratic. Not fussy by any means. And he was tall and lanky, kept himself clean, and had impressive genital credentials. Many moments, I found him singing songs from all sorts of musicals. And relate them to his life. As miserable as that might have seemed to others, Terrence was ever-cheerful.

The four tits came in handy too. “Wanna see my tits. I got four.”

One day he came up to me, almost blissful. “You won’t believe who I met. Slept with too.” Then he sang a few bars from a song.

“I give. Who?” Although I recognized the song I didn’t have his knack of knowing the complete Broadway repertoire, composer, choreographer, director, even some individual singers and dancers. He was a veritable encyclopedia of Broadway trivia. When he told me the person’s name, even I recognized it. And then, of course, wondered how the hell he connected. But that, of course, was the marvel of New York at that time, certainly of Gay New York. You never know who you’re going to meet in the street and what might ensue. And Terrence did keep himself presentable.

Sort of. Terrence, being perpetually broke and enjoying a regular smoke, would pick up butts from the street to smoke. “It’s the same as bumming a smoke from somebody.” I was wary. Then, Terrence, ever cheerful, informed me, “I got trench mouth. I don’t know how I got it.” I didn’t bother to try to explain. He went to the clinic and got healed. Until another time, I guess.

One day, Terrence came over completely beside himself. It was as though he were levitating. “I met her. At a party some trick took me to. It was her for sure. And you know what? She’s going to introduce me to ‘Mama.’ Imagine! Mama!”

“Slow down, Terrence. Who did you meet and who’s Mama?”

“You’ve got to guess. I can’t say her name. And Mama.”

Well, I’m very poor at this game. It might be anyone. Show biz, of course. But anyone. Yet at this juncture I could tell that before long Terrence would not be able to hold back. And he couldn’t.

“Liza. Liza Minnelli.” Well, this time I was certainly surprised. She wasn’t that big then, but Mama was alive. No one was bigger. Not only to a show-biz queen, but to many people, for that matter. I envied him. Terrence, though, was able to ingratiate himself with people. It was a definite talent. He would gush like Old Faithful. Yet with him it was genuine. Or at least I couldn’t tell the difference. I could see how he might manage to get an introduction to the lady from the Wizard.

“I’m happy for you, Terrence. Very.” Though I was, of course, extremely jealous. “Maybe you could introduce me to her. Judy. Mama.”

“Oh you know, Paul, I will. But I’ve got to meet her first. You know.”

Well, I was green. That’s for sure. Much as I appreciated his good fortune, there’s no way I didn’t wish it had happened to me. “Now don’t forget, Terrence.”

“O.K.” Well, as fate would have it, he never met Mama. She died first. But not before I reminded him often to introduce me. Ah, what fools we appear in hindsight. The actual intriguing encounter, of course, was Terrence with his four tits. He did tell me he was invited to the funeral with James Mason officiating. James Mason of A Star is Born, you know. They must have kept in touch, James and Judy (not that I was really aware of Judy’s inner circle). I gave Terrence a poem I wrote after viewing Judy’s corpse at Campbell’s Funeral Home uptown, where everyone gets laid out. I was just inches from her head. You could see the blackness under the make-up. They say barbiturates do that. And her fingers were surprisingly worn. I went to Central Park afterwards where the lines of my poem came to me. I instructed Terrence to give it to James Mason:

Leaves clap in Central Park at dawn while a bird who sang flew over the rainbow.

There was more, but that’s all I remember. Really liked the leaves clapping metaphor. I laid it in Terrence’s hand. “Now be sure to give it to James Mason. He may read it at the funeral.” Well, wouldn’t you know it, Terrence never made to the funeral.

At least that’s what he told me.

“I overslept.”

But that’s not the only tidbit about Terrence. It seems that my landlady had developed an aversion to Terrence due to a little incident. Apparently, one night he couldn’t rouse me and managed to get in the building. Of course you just needed to buzz another buzzer if your friend wasn’t answering for one reason or another. Or follow someone in. Terrence may have been a little under the weather or he would have climbed the stairs to my little room and knocked until I came to the door. As it was, he lay on the cool tile floor at the entrance against my landlady’s door and slept. The floor must have been pleasant on that hot summer evening, though hard. Terrence was used to varying accommodations anyway. But Mrs. Dougherty, fierce little chubby soul that she was, was not accustomed to having to step over bodies to get out of her doorway in the morning.

“Paul. That friend of yours slept on the floor at my front door last night. That tall bum. I almost called the police.”

There was no doubt who it was. I was rather pissed off at Terrence. Such presumption! My existence in that particular building was getting tenuous anyway. I did have visitors at all hours. That’s the way life was for us then. But not for Mrs. Dougherty. Terrence could have really screwed it up for me, once and for all. I believed I had to make her think of Terrence as someone special.

“He really is a Broadway creature, you know. Knows all sorts of people.” That was certainly true.

“I’ll bet. He knows you.

“But really. He’s probably going to be someone someday.”

“Harrumph.” And she slammed the door behind her.

Oh, yes. You probably want to know about the four tits. Sounds better than it was.

He had two regular nipples where they should be and a few inches lower on his bony chest were two brownish bumps, too light-colored to be moles, but still you had to be told they were nipples. However, by the time one would question their authenticity, Terrence had his pants off and treated the viewer to an impressive fleshy member adequate for all sorts of play. I admit that although I admired the abundance and his willingness to share, I eschewed the pleasure of indulging. His whorish history tainted the appendage in my eyes. And though immense, it lacked beauty.

So, Terrence with your four tits. Nova with your new tits. And Boston with your unabashed élan. Where are you dancing now? It’s been so many years. Amazing how that small event at the Stonewall mushroomed into a worldwide movement. The night those “candy-assed faggots” fought like tigers. Being gay I can claim kinship, but not as an active participant in the events of that night. Being here to tell the story is all. Now, despite AIDS and the persistent conflict with the malicious right, GAY is here to stay. Stonewall has become a significant part of history. And our stories still float in the air there on Christopher Street.

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Special Guest Judge, Sharman Apt Russell:

“What I loved about ‘Stonewall and the Village’ was its jazzy immediacy, its knowing and rambling voice, its rambunctious details—all evoking a sense of being there, that place, that time. The Stonewall riots in New York in 1969 are said to have launched the gay liberation movement. But for the narrator of this memoir/essay, they are just the background to his life, the context of being young and brash and in the streets. Mrs. Dougherty is a fierce and chubby soul, and Terrence has four tits, and the black queen Nova carries a hammer for protection in Spanish Harlem. These characters seem perfectly real and cheerfully at home as the winds of cultural change swirl around them. The urban, name-dropping energy of Paul Thiel’s prose reflects and resonates with his subject matter, and this makes for a compelling read.”

++++++++– Sharman Apt Russell, author of Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and ++++++++Other New Ways of Engaging the World , the young adult novel Teresa of the New World, ++++++++and the forthcoming speculative fiction Knocking on Heaven’s Door (due this January, ++++++++2016).

Paul ThielPaul Thiel received his AB from Washington University in St. Louis, and an MS from the University of Montana. He decided that he would rather be a minor poet than a world-famous geologist, so on he went to San Francisco and the Haight Ashbury in the sixties, which inspired his play, Ode to the Queen Serene. Later, in New York, he published a long experimental poem in Extensions. He was a finalist for Columbia University’s Frank O’Hara Award, and gave a reading in the “Decadent Poets of NYC” series at Hunter College. Now, in St. Louis, he recently published and promoted a book of short stories by St. Louis writers, titled Under the Arch, and is currently working on autobiographical sketches.

Eternally, Jane

[flash fiction]

Dearest Andrew,

I hope this letter finds you, unlike the others which have gone astray. I cannot start my day without writing to you.

With everyone off fighting The Kaiser, Charlotte now helps me roll out the pastries. Despite having to run it by myself, business is good. I have attempted a new recipe with a secret ingredient. People seem eager to buy it, because, I think, it helps ease the heartache of absent loves.

Irrevocably yours, Jane

*     *     *

Treasured Andrew,

Please thank your superior for the note.  How kind of him to take the time.

I am quite busy today. Charlotte keeps pestering me to know the secret ingredient for Heartache Cakes. I tell her only that understanding is better than knowledge. That puzzles her.

Yours, and yours alone, Jane

*     *     *

Most Beloved,

Dad wrote. He is baking away at headquarters, keeping our boys fed. He says he worries about me, but I can’t think why.

The Heartache Cakes are flying out of here on wings. No one can keep their money in their pockets long enough to let me restock.

Ever yours, Jane

*     *     *

My Love,

I received the package today, but have not yet opened it.  Yes, Father Schneider received his.

I apologize for the brevity of this note, but I must return to my kitchen.

Hurriedly, but perpetually yours, Jane

*     *     *

Dearest Husband,

Charlotte’s begun to spend every moment with me, saying, of all things, she worries because I am too cheery. She is a dear, but I fiercely defend my time alone. I feel if I do not write to you, I will wither away.

She is asking more questions about the secret ingredient for the Heartache Cakes. No doubt, she received an offer from a rival bakery.

I pray with every breath that you are restored to me soon.

Yours everlastingly, Jane

*     *     *

Andrew, Andrew, Andrew,

Pardon my poor script. I rather burnt my hand stoking the ovens. This last month has proved terribly difficult. Dad says I should rest, but I cannot with business so strong. Charlotte scolded me about smiling so often. How absurd.

It is ridiculous. You are not gone. The belongings the Army sent are meaningless. The returned letters are a mix up.

Charlotte tells me I do not understand. I told her once she finds true love it will forever fill her heart as yours has filled mine.

Unerringly yours, Jane

*     *     *

My Sweetest Heart,

Charlotte, Dad and Father Schneider do nothing but reproach me. They hound me so.

As soon as I write the letters to you, I cast them into oven. The ash, the steam from my tears and the imperishable emotion rise in the heat. My cakes, which are our cakes, are touched by this and therefore changed.

Everyone who eats them knows as I know: despite the madness of war, love is forever. If something is forever, it is never lost.

With that understanding, I smile again.

Rest assured, I will never stop loving you.

Eternally, Jane

The ninth daughter of a surgeon who accidentally cut off the tip of his own index finger, Virginia Elizabeth Hayes developed a keen eye for the absurd at an early age. She has been published internationally in literary magazines and journals. She is the author of the novels A Saint Nobody’s Heard Of and Welcome to Lamentation.

I’ll Write You Letters

On birch bark,
with chicken bone shards
dipped in a pot of moth wing dust:
an ink only visible near bioluminescent seaweed.
I’ll roll and slip them into glass capsules
and load these onto hummingbirds’ backs.
You’ll know my words have reached you
when the wingbeats fill your ears,
and you’ll learn that love
sounds a lot like a lawnmower.

Duckworth Jonathan Louis Duckworth is an MFA student at Florida International University, where he serves as a reader and copy-editor for the Gulf Stream Magazine. His fiction and poetry appears in or is forthcoming in Literary Orphans, Fourteen Hills, Sliver of Stone, decomP, Cha, The Penny Dreadful, Off the Coast, Gravel, and elsewhere.

Party of One

Wo shi yi ge ren.”

Chinese for I am alone. Party of one. In English the phrase sounds celebratory: you’re alone, but hey, it’s still a party. Chinese lacks that aura of metaphorical festivity. You just count. One. I contemplate counting as I report my solitary number to the hostess at a restaurant in Suzhou, China’s city of canals.

I’m used to being a party of one. At home in Minnesota, my husband, Will, often sends me on my own to the opera or ballet, offering himself up as a chauffeur if it means I’ll excuse him from actually having to sit through the performance. I’ve traveled alone before, to New York and LA and Europe. I’ve hiked alone in the forests along Lake Superior.

But this trip is different. I’m 56. It’s my first time in China. I studied Chinese almost 40 years ago, before it was easy for Americans to travel and study here. Now I’m speaking more Chinese than I’d anticipated, surprising myself and the occasional Chinese service worker, like this hostess in Suzhou.

I picture what she sees as she looks at me. A middle aged white lady, walking around China alone during the off-season. The light rain has fogged my glasses and frizzed my hair. I am short. I am stout. I am sporting a travel-safe purse, strapped across my chest like a beauty queen’s sash. My sturdy walking shoes and water-resistant winter jacket proclaim neither the crisp sophistication of an international businesswoman nor the one-world panache of a globe-trotting bohemian.

If it proclaims anything, my appearance is screaming, “Help me, I’ve lost my tour bus.”

But when I open my mouth, I speak calmly in Mandarin. The hostess shakes her head, blinks and stares. It’s what most Chinese people do when they hear me. My accent isn’t great, but at least half the time they understand what I’ve said.

*     *     *

Friends were impressed that I decided to travel to China on my own. Being a party of one isn’t usually impressive. More often than not, it’s just embarrassing. I felt embarrassed when I went alone to a Garth Brooks concert about a month before my trip to China. I didn’t tell anyone I was going, and I was nervous about being there alone. What if the audience started singing? Or worse, dancing? Who would help me if someone spilled beer on my head? These perils didn’t typically arise when one went solo to a movie or the opera, but this concert would be different. It was being held in a big arena. Did people even go alone to shows like that? Would the other concert-goers feel sorry for me? Would they think I was a strange, pathetic creature in late-middle age, lacking the social wherewithal to find even one person to accompany her to a major, 11 sold-out performances, entertainment extravaganza?

[blockquote align=right]Going to Garth Brooks was a lot like crossing the streets in Ho Chi Minh City. You just have to step off the curb.   Once I’d bought my ticket and gotten myself downtown, there was no choice but to keep going.

But I really wanted to see Garth Brooks. The country megastar had been the soundtrack I’d used to raise my children. It started when my son, Anthony, was about two. He didn’t talk much. I didn’t know too many other at-home moms. It was before any of my friends had children, before I’d figured out whether and when I’d resurrect my professional life. But Anthony had a cowboy hat and boots, and he loved dancing to the Garth Brooks CDs I’d play on our living room stereo. And in that long stretch of empty between end-of-nap and dinner, I would wait for Will to get home and I would watch my son dance and I would listen to Garth’s fast licks and riffs, the bright major chords, the lyrics that celebrated wild red-haired girls and rodeo riders and all those friends in low places. The thumping tempo was a heartbeat pulsing through my lonely afternoons.

Years later, when the papers announced the concert, I knew I had to go. None of my friends wanted to come with me, and I knew better than to ask Will. A reasonably devoted husband in most ways, Will hates country music almost as much as he hates downtown traffic. He didn’t even offer to give me a ride.

Will did give me a ride to the airport the morning I left for Asia. I was nervous before the trip, like I’d been before the concert. What if I didn’t have the right visas? What if my luggage got lost? What if I was so overwhelmed with loneliness that I became too dispirited to sightsee, and wasted days and nights in my hotel room, a hermit hiding from adventure who’d traveled across the world just to order room service, watch TV, and mark time for nearly four weeks? What if there was no TV?

“You’ll be fine,” Will assured me. Easy for him to say. He couldn’t guess how sad I might feel when I finally stood under the image of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, but was standing there alone.

Still I knew I had to go. Our daughter, Lydia, was on a yearlong study program in Asia. The college had invited the parents to a banquet in Vietnam. It was too expensive for Will to come with me, but I wanted to see Lydia during her long year away. And Vietnam was just a stone’s throw from China. I’d waited decades. I had the vacation time. I was used to going places on my own. And I knew enough Chinese to be able to request a table for one.

*     *     *

My meager language ability wards off total isolation as I travel through China, but I’m not delusional about my skills. When I ask the Suzhou hostess for a table, I reflexively extend my right index finger upward, pantomiming my solitude in case my pronunciation isn’t clear. When it comes time to order I’m relieved that the menu translates the word for eel, a local specialty that I’m eager to try.

In the end it’s just as well that I’m on my own, because I’m making a mess with my chopsticks. The thin slices of eel keep slipping back to the plate, even when I try to secure them with a strand of fresh ginger from the miniature condiment bowl. A waitress rushes over, holding out a fork, but I smile and wave her away.

Kuaizi hen hao,” I declare, the chopsticks are fine.

I’m hoping she’ll understand from my smile—and the fact that I know the word for “chopsticks”—that I am not the type of traveler who requires culturally inappropriate tableware. Still, the eel is coated in thick, sweet sauce. When the waitress returns with extra napkins, I’m happy to accept them.

*     *     *

And there are times when I’m happy being alone.

Art museums, for example, I like to read the signs and learn the history. Sometimes I just want to sit in front of a painting for a long time without worrying if a companion is getting bored. I’ll stare at the brushwork, marveling at the texture of Van Gogh’s strokes or at how the flecks of gold leaf still adhere after centuries to the surface of a Gothic altarpiece. As much as a book may transport the reader, the author’s pen hasn’t physically touched the pages; the same is not true for paintings. I think of the artist’s hands, the brush on the canvas, the decades or centuries that separate me from the corporeal reality of the work’s creation. Sometimes my heart races. I am a private time traveler, a party of one to my own imaginings.

*     *     *

I become a real time traveler when I cross the International Date Line, a party of one en route to Ho Chi Minh City. It’s almost midnight when I arrive. The streets are mobbed with cars and motorbikes. Lights in every color canopy the way to my hotel. Decorations for Christmas, just a few days away, the hotel driver tells me, and for the Vietnamese New Year, which will follow two months later. I am dazed from almost a full day of flying, and the lights are like a dream.

I have a few days for sightseeing before Lydia’s group arrives. My first morning I walk to the Reunification Palace, the Ben Thanh Market, the Central Post Office. Crossing the streets takes practice. The daytime roads are even more jammed than they’d been the night before, and few of the intersections have signal lights. Traffic never stops.

At first I’m terrified, so I slyly attach myself to groups of other pedestrians when I need to cross a street. Eventually, however, I’m stranded at a big intersection. Individual walkers here and there are getting across, but there’s no one else standing on my side of the curb. I wait. The engine din and stream of motion seem endless, but finally I get a sense of when the traffic will break. I find a focal point across the street. I keep my eyes forward, inhale the diesel-choked air, step off the curb and walk. My steps are even in time and equal in length; I trust the cars and motorbikes to weave around me.

When I reach the other side I look around, wondering if anyone has noticed. I wish I could tell someone how Zen it felt to become one with the chaos of traffic, to let go of my fear and adapt to this wild rhythm. None of the strangers walking past me in Ho Chi Minh care. No one gives me a thumbs up or offers a high five. I have stepped into the maelstrom of Ho Chi Minh traffic and will do so dozens of times over the next few days, but I will never share my triumph. I will coalesce into the swarm, become part of the city’s rumbling, ceaseless energy; but each time I step into the street, I will join the crowd alone.

*     *    *

Going to Garth Brooks was a lot like crossing the streets in Ho Chi Minh City. You just have to step off the curb. Once I’d bought my ticket and gotten myself downtown, there was no choice but to keep going.

It was a long walk in from the parking lot to the arena. I stepped sprightly in my close-toed shoes and “secret-stretch” jeans, keeping my eyes forward until I found my seat. No one around me especially cared that I’d arrived, but I felt ready to celebrate. I hailed a vendor and bought myself an over-sweet, over-priced strawberry daiquiri that was served up in a souvenir plastic container shaped like a long-neck guitar. No one stared. No one spilled beer on my head. And the music was fantastic. When Garth played “Friends in Low Places” I sang like gangbusters, one off-key voice merging with the crowd’s.

*    *   *

Sometimes being alone works out better than expected; sometimes you don’t expect to be alone at all.

After Vietnam, Lydia and I travel together to Shanghai. She’s been here before, but back when we were making our plans she said it would be fun to go to Shanghai together. I’d imagined her showing me the sights, showing off her Chinese, the two of us strolling through Shanghai’s museums and along the Bund. Turns out Lydia is tired after a semester of studying. She has papers to write and friends to see. I am a party of one for most of my sightseeing in Shanghai, and when Lydia goes out with her friends one evening, I decide to stroll the Bund alone.

The Bund is Shanghai’s most famous street, lined with Art Deco and Beaux Arts banks and hotels that were built in the 1920s and ’30s, monuments to commerce and European imperialism and Shanghai’s age of glamour. On the other side of the Bund a raised pedestrian boulevard overlooks the Huangpu River. I cross to the promenade, aided by traffic lights; in China’s big cities, being a pedestrian requires no special skill.

From the promenade I look across the river to Pudong, a new part of Shanghai. It’s a city of tomorrow with skyscrapers created from orbs and angles and open spaces that soar like a fantasy amalgam of outer space, Disneyland, and dystopian cinema. At night the skyscrapers dazzle with bursts and patterns and rhythms of moving light and color, fireworks wrought in architecture. Behind me, along the Bund, the grander, more dignified facades are also illuminated, with stately lights that shine motionless and white. I walk the promenade, as if suspended between the river and the century that separate these two places: the stasis of history on one side, confronting the chimera of an inchoate future on the other.

I’m not nervous, alone at night. There are plenty of people out, but the promenade is not unpleasantly crowded. In just two nights, I will be in Hong Kong and will hear on my hotel television that 35 people were trampled to death on New Year’s Eve at the exact spot where I’m walking now. Someone will throw some money into the air and the far larger crowd gathered for the holiday will go out of control. But tonight I can easily find a space against the wall to stop and look out at Pudong, and I feel comfortable taking my time.

*   *    *

Time has changed how we experience being alone. There are some types of modern solitude that I love, like shopping online. It’s efficient and convenient; it protects my anonymity while eliminating any need to worry about being a party of one at the mall. And internet commerce doesn’t make me feel especially alone. Like most people, I shop online for lots of reasons, not just to protect myself from the embarrassment of public fitting rooms. Moreover, nothing about the items I purchase reveals the solitary process through which I acquired them. I can wear these new goods without being marked a loner.

There are, however, other technologies whose sole function is to promote and celebrate solitude. Those innovations make me uncomfortable.

It’s the difference between selfies and the selfie stick. Selfies, the smartphone’s unintended gift to autobiography, are innocent enough. A cell phone, after all, has many functions; it’s not just a tool for promoting narcissism and isolation. So a traditional selfie can result simply because you happened to find yourself alone at a marvelous place and were so overcome by the moment that you impetuously decided to use your phone to take a picture. There’s no shame in that.

Selfie sticks, on the other hand, destroy any possibility that one’s narcissism was unintended or one’s solitude unanticipated. Indeed, these collapsible rods, designed for the sole purpose of improving the photos one takes of oneself, require considerable forethought. You have to know you’re going somewhere interesting, anticipate the desire to take a picture and acknowledge the fact that you will inevitably want to be featured in the picture. You must also at some point have recognized the difficulty of achieving a flattering composition and angle, and spent the time and money necessary to acquire the photo-enhancing stick. Then you have to remember to pack the stick and carry it along. But the final mortification is that you use the stick in public, revealing to anyone who cares to notice the level of effort you’ve put into ensuring that your party of one photo will be the best picture possible.

I knew I’d be alone for some of the highlights of my trip to China, and I suppose I knew I’d end up taking pictures of myself at places like the Great Wall. Still, in all my planning and shopping, I didn’t think about getting a selfie-stick. I’m not immune from the seemingly insatiable modern desire to consecrate one’s image. But I prefer the illusion of spontaneity. I prefer not to broadcast the fact that I’ve anticipated my vanity photos, or that when those photo-worthy moments occurred, I knew I would be alone.

*    *   *

The Bund is Shanghai’s classic photo op, and I have enough archival drive to want to memorialize my presence here. People all around me are taking selfies. Young men who seem to be here alone photograph themselves with Pudong in the background; clusters of young women photograph themselves individually first, then take group selfies with their friends. I am virtually the only non-Asian around, and it is hard for me to tell if my fellow promenaders are locals or tourists, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Everyone is taking pictures; no one is asking anyone else for help.

I am similarly self-reliant. Phone in hand, I stand with my back to Pudong, extend my arm, and smile brightly. It takes several shots for me to capture a picture in which the lights of Pudong are in focus and I—frizzy hair, blotchy skin, eyes open way too wide—don’t look totally crazed. Finally, I’m satisfied. In part. Truth is, I would have loved a picture of Lydia and me on the Bund.

*   *   *

Before my trip I hadn’t worried about being alone on the Bund, because I thought I’d be with Lydia; but I worried a lot about being alone in Tiananmen Square. Not because of safety or the possibility of getting lost or the legacy of the 1989 government crackdown on the student democracy movement. When most Americans think of Tiananmen I know they picture that grainy news photo of a tank barreling toward a lone student who’s raising his fist in protest.

Not me. My picture of Tiananmen goes back at least a decade earlier, to the beginning of my obsession with China. I was 15. I had been focused on French and German and getting to college where, my parents used to assure me, my “time would come.” Then I met my summer Park and Rec boss, Roy: handsome, blond, seven years my senior. Roy was also studying Chinese. I was interested in foreign languages and cultures and travel. I didn’t have to fake my interest in China, the way I had to fake just happening to run into Roy outside the YMCA on days I knew he’d be driving by on his way to work.

Maybe Roy wished he’d had a little sister. Over the next couple of years he took me on several platonic “dates,” during which we ate dim sum, went to screenings of Chinese revolutionary cinema, or shopped for propaganda posters. One day he bought me a poster of Tiananmen Square. It showed a long view of the square, facing the side with the iconic picture of Mao flanked by revolutionary slogans written in Chinese characters on horizontal banners. The Forbidden City, Roy explained, lay just beyond.

None of it was political—Roy had no agenda with Mao or with me. But I fell crazy in teenage love, not just with Roy, but also with this world of melodrama and rosy-cheeked peasant soldiers, and with this language that was written in tiny pictures and pronounced with tones. It all whirled together in my mind: China, Mao, the fact that a super-cute older guy was routinely spending time with me alone. At the end of our outings Roy would drop me off at home and say goodbye with a wave and a frustratingly appropriate kiss on my cheek. It sparked a fervor that was not purely revolutionary.

*   *   *

When I drop Lydia off at the airport, my heart clutches as I wave and watch her head off to rejoin her classmates. I’m on my own again, traveling in a seemingly magic bubble of sunshine. Beijing is the last city I visit. It is notorious for pollution but when I arrive the sky is blue, the air is crisp. I don’t want to waste the light, so I leave my hotel moments after I check in. I walk to the nearby park and climb the hill to a pagoda that offers a panorama of the Forbidden City, former palace of the emperors. The north gate is just across the street, but the buildings and courtyards that comprise the emperors’ palace stretch south for almost a mile.

I am standing in the hilltop pagoda, looking out at the Forbidden City in the fading winter sun. It’s getting late but I know just where I need to go. I hold my hand up between the sun and the horizon line. I’ve got at least one hand’s width, at least an hour. It will be about a 40 minute walk around to the south gate. I have four nights in Beijing, and it’s already been a long day with a train trip and hectic transfer to my hotel, but Tiananmen, the south gate of the Forbidden City, is the place I’ve most dreamed of seeing. I start walking, fast.

*   *   *

My poster of Tiananmen Square had hung on my dorm room wall all through college. I carried it with me long after I’d let go of my feelings for Roy. That image was the backdrop to my young adult years, like Garth Brooks was the soundtrack to the years I spent at home when my children were small. But truth be told Tiananmen, and China, was more than a backdrop. I studied Chinese in college and in graduate school, which is where I met Will, who was studying chemistry at the same university. A few years later I was married and distracted from thoughts of working or traveling in China. Eventually I rolled up my Chinese posters and stored them away.

But I didn’t forget. I held on to some of the Chinese I’d learned, to my fascination with anything having to do with China, to that image of Tiananmen Square. Over the years I’d drag Will to whatever Chinese movies or dance performances came to town. I took a few Chinese classes. I ate dim sum whenever I could. Meanwhile, by the time Lydia reached junior high, Chinese language study was commonplace. With just a bit of motherly prodding, she chose it as her elective.

By then my Chinese was pretty rusty, and I had learned from Maoist era textbooks. My knowledge wasn’t always useful. I could say “diligently serve the people” but could not ask for a cup of tea. I’d learned the word for “comrade” right away but did not learn the words for “Mr.” or “Mrs.” until my third year. Still, I helped Lydia with her homework, and a lot came back. Not just vocabulary. When Lydia went on a 6-week study trip after her junior year in high school I scrolled each week through the photos her program posted on a blog. When I saw a picture of Lydia with the group, grinning and standing proud in front of Mao and the revolutionary banners in Tiananmen Square, I cried. Happiness for Lydia, pangs of yearning for me.

When my chance came, I knew I had to go. I’d had a picture of Tiananmen Square in my mind since I hung that poster on my wall in college. In the months before the trip, getting to Tiananmen was the moment I’d most anticipated. It would be the most important moment, the moment I thought would be the hardest to experience alone.

*    *   *

When I get to Tiananmen the sun is skimming the tops of the buildings. I am almost but not quite breathless from my walk and from excitement. Although the square itself is a huge open area, the police have somehow funneled access through a security gate and metal detector. I pass through quickly and find there are also stanchions keeping people off the road that runs in front of Mao’s picture.

I’m jammed in with a crowd and can only look from an angle, but after almost 40 years, I’m here. I stare up at the enormous image of Mao, and the banners with their Chinese characters whose shape and meaning I’ve had memorized for decades. I am surprised to see that the “banners,” as I’ve always thought of them, and Mao’s picture, seem to be made of metal. My poster was printed from a black-and-white photograph that had been hand-painted to add color; in it all the edges of Tiananmen seemed soft. But the image I’m staring up at is crisp and hard, like the cold blue sky where the sun is quickly fading.

The crowd at first is more focused on the road in front of the gate than on the gate itself. They seem to be waiting, as if for a parade.

Nimen deng shei?” I ask a stranger. Who is everyone waiting for?

My Chinese is not good enough to understand her reply. It doesn’t matter. After about 15 minutes the police move the stanchions away. I’m able to move to the center, directly in front of the image of Mao.

I stay at Tiananmen long enough for the sky to darken and the picture of Mao and those revolutionary slogans to become illuminated. My poster had an old-fashioned look; I hadn’t imagined that Mao’s picture and the slogans were electrified. I read the familiar characters, mentally pronouncing the Chinese while translating into English: “Long Live the People’s Republic of China,” and “Long Live the Great Unity of the World’s People.” Behind Mao, the entrance, the actual Tiananmen or “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” is also illuminated. Tiny rows of lights outline its Qing dynasty architecture. The atmosphere around me is festive. People are here for the view and to take pictures, as they were that night on the Bund.

I am the lone westerner in a crowd of Chinese people. I am thousands of miles from home. I don’t really speak the language. It is cold and night is falling and I will have to walk two miles back to my hotel. But I feel like I belong here. In so many ways, I’m like everyone else in the crowd. I’m excited. I’m doing what everyone else is doing: walking around, taking pictures, trying to get a better view. I can even read all the Chinese characters; it’s just those two big banners, and I’ve been reading those for decades. I’ve imagined myself at this exact spot for almost 30 years. The place is bigger and sharper and brighter than I’d ever imagined, but it’s also more familiar than I ever dreamed it would be.

This is the moment. I wait for a gap in the crowd and step up to the waist-high metal barrier. I turn my back to the gate, pull out my phone and hold it in front of me. I position Mao in the background centered between the slogans, and I take my picture.

Tracy HarrisTracy Harris is a writer, pro bono political asylum attorney, and art lover living in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her essays have appeared in Lascaux Review and Mason’s Road. She is a frequent participant in the Cracked Walnut series of literary readings throughout the Twin Cities, and a former member of the editorial board of Water-Stone Review.

Lynell George, Journalist and Essayist

Lynell George

Lynell George is an LA-based, journalist, and essayist. Currently an arts and culture columnist for KCET’s Artbound, she has had a long career in Los Angeles journalism as staff writer for both the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly–focusing on social issues, human behavior, and identity politics as well as visual arts, music, and literature. She has taught journalism at Loyola Marymount University and is also a Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities Fellow and an USC Annenberg / Getty Arts Journalism Fellow (2013). Her work has appeared in various essay collections, including The Black Body, Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, and the recently released LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas, and in news outlets including The Smithsonian, The Washington Post, Essence, The Root, Ms., and many more. She is also the author of No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso/Doubleday), a collection of features and essays drawn from her reporting.

Rochelle Newman interviewed Lynell George on July 24, 2015 in Los Angeles.

*     *     *

When Lynell George suggests we meet at Los Angeles restaurant Post & Beam, I flash on a story she shared during her workshop, The Art of The Reported Essay. The workshop was held at my Antioch University MFA residency this past June.

“Be open to the serendipity of your reporting,” she’d said, reflecting on how an interview she’d once scheduled with a musician almost ended before it began. George had flown to New Orleans expecting to conduct the interview at the musician’s home studio. With less than seventy-two hours on the ground, time was of the essence. “I get there and there’s a text: ‘Welcome to New Orleans. I’ll meet you at this café at 11 a.m’. And I’m like — Whaat?!! I flew all this way to meet at a café? But I didn’t push it,” George explained. “I went and, as it turns out, it was the place he lived when he first got to New Orleans.”

The café was exactly where she needed to be. Where it all began.

I know Post & Beam isn’t just any restaurant. Almost a year to the date of our lunch, KCET’s hyperlocal website, Departures, published George’s essay, “A Seat at the Table: Post & Beam in Crenshaw Builds Community One Course at a Time.” Meeting here places us in the community where George spent much of her childhood, where it all began.

In her essay, George calls Post & Beam “a space [that] serves as a touchstone for Angelenos who have grown up in one of these contiguous neighborhoods,” (referring to the Crenshaw-Leimert-Baldwin Hills hub), “and may want to travel back, to not just a physical place, but to a time.”

When we sit down at the restaurant, I ask Lynell to do a little time travelling and think back to her earliest memories of wanting to be a writer. How had her community influenced her?

It did. I think I didn’t realize it until I got a little older . . . I was always a reader, and I think part of the need to write came from wanting to write stories about what I saw.

As she speaks, George looks out toward the surrounding streets. It’s almost noon on a Friday in late July. We are sitting on the restaurant patio, enclosed by thick shrubs and sleek wood walls. With its herb garden and homey furnishings, the space feels more like the private backyard of a family friend than outdoor seating adjacent to a major “inner-city” shopping mall. Although our view is blocked, George draws pictures with words, and soon it’s as if there is a window looking out onto the neighborhood.

She points to the medical building across the street where her pediatrician, Dr. Littlejohn, once had his office. She remembers family trips to a nearby shopping center, which, she says, is now a ghost town. There were visits to nearby Leimert Park, a historic African American arts and cultural enclave. Her godmother lived there, as did some of her mother’s closest friends.

The library I grew up going to is on West Boulevard, not too far from here. This was an area we circled, and we were a part of a lot. Just like this restaurant, where I run into people from different parts of my life.

George’s focus moves inside. It’s early so we have the patio to ourselves. As she scans the space, I get the sense that many of the tables hold memories.

When I was starting out as a kid, [my writing] really had to do with sketching a place and time and mood that corresponded to what I was experiencing. Then, definitely, as a journalist that’s what I wanted to write about . . . I realized that these stories were not the stories you were seeing on television, in the news, or in the newspaper. There would be some features that dealt with African Americans in Los Angeles, but a lot of the stuff was sports page or the news section and it was always crime or some sort of pathology . . . I thought this is ridiculous. There shouldn’t be two stories a year about these communities and two stories that—I’m not saying they have to be positive or as they say in the newsroom “brights”—[But] they should at least add flesh and form to our sense of community and those statistics that we read.

[blockquote align=left]Part of my being a journalist is that I often feel like I’m chasing ghosts, like  something is just getting ready to drop away. I can’t remember which culture has this  saying—and I’m sure each culture has a version of this—“having an elder die is like having a library burn down.”

As a long-time staff writer for both the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, Lynell George has covered social issues, human behavior, identity politics, as well as visual arts, music, literature, and LA cultural and place-based stories.

During our lunch, I learn that George’s mother came to Los Angeles from New Orleans on a music scholarship but wound up studying journalism instead.

Now this is not why I went into journalism. I didn’t even know that part of the story until much later. But I did know that she wrote for the Los Angeles Tribune—that was a black paper—she learned how to use a Speed Graphic . . .

Her mother went on to spend over thirty years teaching English composition and literature to junior and senior high school students in Los Angeles.

In an essay for the Los Angeles Times entitled “Memoir: ‘Listening’ to Mom Through her Books,” George writes:

As a very young child, I imagined bliss as a house built of books, furniture made of softcover titles with wallpaper you could read, and vivid color plates standing in for framed artwork. This I know must have come from growing up in a household where books reigned. We lived with them, not the other way around. Not only did they crowd ceiling-whisking shelves, but they also grew in stacks like tall tropical trees, separated into groves by genres.

This living library was curated by my mother, who built her life on and around books. That affection was passed to me by both osmosis and example: the excitement of entering its world, the suspension of inhabiting and trusting the story.

I ask about favorite childhood books.

I loved Harriet the Spy. That book was really significant to me, and that had nothing to do with journalism. It was much more about being an engaged observer. Curious at a young age. I think it was that obsessive note-taking that gives you something to do and a place to put those observations.

What about the scarcity of characters of color in children’s literature? Was she conscious there was rarely anyone like her in the books she was reading growing up?

Yes, and my mother did work hard to try to find those books for us . . . We had this huge library of all kinds of books like African folk tales and African-American folk tales and poetry. And reading aloud became part of our growing up so I think I didn’t feel the lack as dramatically because she tried so hard to fill in the blanks with other things. There was pride . . . I [could] see a tradition of storytelling. I might not be able to find Harriet the Spy written from a black girl’s point of view but I [could] look at all this storytelling—this whole thing about griots and having people in the communities who held stories—how important that was . . . I know it filled in the blanks . . . I felt that our stories were important and other people needed to know—which is what I think pushed the journalism thing—Yeah, we came from something.

As if on cue, George’s fleur de lis silver earrings catch my eye. The iconic symbol of New Orleans, they remind me that two LAs play a prominent role in George’s life: Los Angeles and Louisiana. I shift the conversation from her Crenshaw roots to her Creole roots, focusing on something I read in her book, No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels. In the closing essay, a quote from artist Mark Broyard states: “In order for culture to exist, there have to be artifacts.” I’m curious if George sees a connection between writing and artifact.

Part of my being a journalist is that I often feel like I’m chasing ghosts, like something is just getting ready to drop away. I can’t remember which culture has this saying—and I’m sure each culture has a version of this—“having an elder die is like having a library burn down.” That’s what it’s like when you lose someone who has that piece of a story. I’m acutely aware of that when I go to a place like New Orleans where my family is from. Even when I hear a voice that’s like my grandfather’s—which I miss, I miss that accent and it hits me hard—I want to hear what this person has to say. I want to hear it in his voice. So if I can write in a way that . . . is like a container for that story—it’s not going to be that person exactly sitting across from you telling it—but if I can [write] it as close as possible to that, so that you feel like you have that experience [of] hearing that person move and speak. That’s why I tend to tape rather than just take notes, because I want the rhythm of those voices. And I always know if I’ve got it if I feel like, ‘OK. I just got a little chill down my spine.’ I think I got it right.

Having your story not just formally told in-between pages but told in the voice that you would tell it to me, that’s the artifact. That’s the thing that we can pass on when people go.

Most recently, George has been exploring performance art. Love, Los Angeles: A Conversation in Words and Images is a multi-media piece created by George and poet Marisela Norte. Working individually and in collaboration, the two writers brought their distinct voices together against a backdrop of photographs, music, and audio design, capturing the city’s idiosyncratic sights, sounds, and stories.

I had never done anything like that before. It was a kick, but it was really different . . . I loved having the conversation with Mark McNeill, the DJ, because I said part of what I want is not just music but the environment. I want people to walk in the room and feel like they are in LA. So we were thinking about things like the sprinklers. I said it would be great to have the air brakes from the bus. It would be great so the people feel like they’re home. Because different parts of the city sound different too. They look different. They sound different. They move differently. I wanted to convey that as well.

George is also working on a new book—an exploration of chance and creativity.

It’s still shape shifting. I don’t want to write a book that’s loud and obvious and quirky, I want to write about these shifts that happen in people’s lives and in their world—this quiet nuance.

We talk about what it’s like to write for both page and stage, and about how the proliferation of media formats has changed the way she pitches. At this point in her career, it often comes down to evaluating who is going to give her the room to tell a story the way she feels like it needs to be told. As for having a writing ritual—

I’m not one of those people that gets up at five and writes and then goes on a walk or vice versa. I pretty much do write every day. Like literally every day. It might be assignment writing, it might be blogging, it might be emails which tend to be more like letters. There are these two editors I write to. We write almost every day to one another about what’s going on, what we’re working on, what we’re trying to puzzle out, what’s going on in the news. I think that kind of replaces my newsroom conversation, like the water cooler chat or ‘let’s go down and get a coffee.’ I realized how necessary that was in my life. I’ve worked in a newsroom since I was in my twenties, so it was weird not to. In a way, that has replaced it. And social media has too, but then I have to be very good about pulling a plug and being focused . . . What I’d like to get better at [is] trying to figure out more time to do more creative—and it’s strange to say more creative writing—because I really don’t partition it . . . I guess I should say more writing for myself that is solely for me. If it’s puzzling around and trying to develop an idea, or not even, just playing. Time to play with the page rather than thinking about a deadline.

I hear the word deadline, and I think procrastination. I hesitate to ask if she procrastinates. I’m hoping she does.

I think if I had continued on a fiction route nothing would have ever been finished: ‘Oh it’s almost finished. It’s close.’ But journalism just forces you to finish. It’s a draft and then you make it better . . . Sometimes I spend months on a story, and in that time I will have collected way too many notebooks and on top of that there’s a bunch of stuff to transcribe. And I get overwhelmed. [So]then I’ll think: ‘I really don’t feel like starting on that right now . . .’ That’s usually the trigger—wanting to do a good job but realizing that starting is scary. But then I learned this from an editor: ‘Put it all away. Think about what you would say to a friend about what you just experienced. You wouldn’t be looking in your notebook and trying to find an exact quote, you would tell me what happened.’ And it’s true.

When I met George at Antioch in June, the Rachel Dolezal story had just hit the news. We spoke about it briefly. At the time, I was interested in George’s point of view on the legitimacy or lunacy of the NAACP president who claimed to be black in spite of overwhelming evidence that she was a white woman raised by white parents. Now, I was interested in George’s take on creative nonfiction. Dolezal aside, how black and white should a writer be when they position their work as CNF?

I think the journalist in me is, like, fact is fact and fiction is fiction. But then we have this thing called memory and so even when I am interviewing people, I am acutely aware that memory fails and that people remember things in different ways. We used to say in class when I was teaching Beginning Interview Journalism: it’s this truth as far as we know it, as close to the truth as we can get. As reporters, that’s what I’m trying to get when I’m talking to people. But then when I think about the nonfiction writers I love the most, and I think about memoir in particular, some of the most beautiful books I’ve read are people who have just said ‘I know that this is not something that should be looked at as record and total truth. This is the truth, this is the best I can remember it, and I am going to use some techniques of fiction in order to weave this together.’ Like Leonard Michaels, he wrote what he called a fictional memoir. I just think as long as the reader knows going in what it is then I don’t feel like I’ve been deceived. And if you can’t do it that way, then just call it fiction.

From transparency we move to authenticity and accountability. How does she feel about a white writer’s ability to develop black characters? Or about the responsibility of any writer who decides to write what has been termed “other”?

When you’re observing a culture or a tradition there are things you think you know because you’ve been around them enough, and there are things that you may not get. That’s when you check with people. Like giving your book or story to someone who you really trust, who will call you on your crap . . . I think if you are writing about the other, and an other that you have no experience with, you better really, really be able to understand the levels of experience. There’s a potential to be arrogant. You have to be a really great storyteller, like Susan Straight. I think she’s a good example of somebody who has had lived experience. But also she’s a storyteller, and she lets people tell her: “call me on it if it’s wrong.”

George is no stranger to navigating issues of culture and craft. In her essay, “My End of the Bargain,” from No Crystal Stair, she reflects on her own experiences as a young MFA student:

In writing classes, I was dissected and tossed about in discussion like an absent third party, informed that my fiction wasn’t ‘like Toni or Alice’s;’ that it didn’t address tenements or sharecropping, nor did I shed any light on the ‘suffering implicit in the black experience.’ There were ‘problems’ with my autobiographical pieces, according to one workshop member: ‘Your being black might add some drama to this . . . Did ‘blackness’ add no texture at all to your young life? . . . Do you never suffer a moment’s torment that you weren’t born with soft, golden hair and blue eyes? Didn’t the little white boys prefer little white girlfriends?’

Is this what people truly believed I wished for? What we—black people—felt would ‘get us over?’ Would set us free? If ‘blackness’ failed to fit these narrow parameters, I found they had no use for it. No use for me. I found it more than frustrating or insulting. I found it lamentable.

What I really want to ask is: can it be fixed?

It starts with not making assumptions . . . One of my professors, actually a teacher in high school, she had us write numbers on our papers rather than our names because she was worried that students would make assumptions about who should be writing about what and that it would free the discussion . . . Classrooms are mixed but you may have only one of whatever—one Chinese student or one Native American student or one black student or three or whatever, a gay student. And very often a teacher will put that student on the spot in the classroom and say, ‘Well, what do you think, so-and-so.’ And that kid might be making themselves really small in the chair because they don’t want to be the person that has to explain everything . . . Yes, you can learn from the student, absolutely, that person who comes from that experience, but let them be ready to talk about it and explain it the way they want to. And deal with the work as the work itself. Like if I did something confusing with the characters, maybe they slipped in and out of ethnicity or there are some structural issues, but let’s deal with what’s on the page . . .

The waiter appears reminding us that our meal comes with dessert. We order coffee, and I toss out the classic “if-stranded-on-a-desert-island” question. Which books would she bring?

Oh wow. That’s hard—

You can see George’s mind working. Images spring to life as she takes stock of her most prized possessions.

I have one bookcase that is for the books that I revisit or want to. Or I just like looking at their spines because there’s a lovely memory attached to it. James Baldwin—and I’m trying to think which one it would be—the easy answer would be Price of the Ticket—which is all of his non-fiction in one volume. Could I bring my Kindle? If I couldn’t do the collection I would say Notes of a Native Son. Yeah — This is a hard question for me.

As we wrap up, it becomes clear that we are both heading to the San Gabriel Valley. Lynell lives there now, as does my MFA mentor with whom I have scheduled a late afternoon meeting. Had I put two and two together, I could have saved Lynell the trek. It took her over an hour to get to Post & Beam. With Friday afternoon traffic, it could be a two-hour ride back.

I start to apologize but she takes it all in stride. The location wasn’t out of the way. It was home—it’s where we needed to be. Reflecting on Post & Beam’s success, George once wrote,“If you want to build and foster something meaningful—you have to understand it from the ground up.” It’s a philosophy that is as relevant to a restaurateur as it is to a writer, especially one that roams the city chasing ghosts.

Rochelle NewmanRochelle Newman is an MFA candidate at Antioch University. An award-winning playwright, stand-up comic, and multicultural marketing specialist, she credits her Lower East Side roots with her sense of humor and social justice. Her writing has appeared in such trade and literary publications as Ad Age, NAILED Magazine, Role Reboot, and Lunch Ticket.

Treatment: Digital Prints

[In the white of my poems] / [Dans le blanc de mes poèmes]

 

[In the white of my poems]

In the white of my poems
I’m dying

Dressed by alphabet letters
I escort myself to the grave

The word I write
becomes another word

How its cry inscribes
the page

My teeth of wildcat
grinding

Each poem
is a mark of my claws

Evening
death approaches

But on the table
bread invites us
to exist

I consumed my father
and my mother
my lovers

One gesture per century
was enough
to devour them

My dead mother does not rest––
she walks in my body
she wrestles me
so like Jacob and his angel

I sing for her––
for all that passes by
as nothing more will

Through her kisses
my mother breathes me
into her abyss

She guards
my lost part

She whitens my words
and my hair

My guiding star never arrived––

While my dead mother’s comet
blazes

It annihilates me
and all around me

I draw myself up on the earth
with the tree

I see my death
among the trunks that fall
like brothers

And your body––
earth to live
to die

By my word you became
by my suffering

Let me comprehend
what I don’t understand––

at the river’s edge
death polishes me
with stones

The rain does not extinguish me

If it succeeds
to lay me on the soil
like a too-ripened field

I rise up again
savaged grass
along the roadside

prose_section_divider

[Dans le blanc de mes poèmes]

Dans le blanc de mes poèmes
je suis en train de mourir

Habillée par les lettres de l’alphabet
je m’escorte jusqu’à la tombe

*

Le mot que j’écris
devient un autre mot

Comment coucher son cri
sur la page

Mes dents de fauve
grincent

Chaque poème
est une marque de mes griffes

*

Le soir
la mort s’approche de nous

Mais sur la table
un pain nous invite
à exister

J’ai usé mon père
et ma mère
mes amants

Un geste par siècle
a suffi
pour les anéantir

*

Ma mère morte ne se repose pas––
elle marche dans mon corps
elle lutte avec moi
tel Jacob et son ange

Je chante pour elle––
pour tout ce qui passe
car rien ne passera plus

*

A travers ses baisers
ma mère m’aspire
dans son gouffre

Elle y garde
ma partie perdue

Elle blanchit mes mots
et mes cheveux

*

Mon astre n’est jamais arrivé––

Tandis que brille celui
de ma mère morte

Il m’anéantit
et tout autour de moi

Je me dresse sur la terre
avec l’arbre

Je vois ma mort
parmi les troncs qui tombent
comme des frères

*

Et ton corps––
terre pour vivre
pour mourir

Tu est devenu par ma parole
par ma souffrance

*

Que je comprenne
que je ne comprenne pas––

au bord du fleuve
la mort me polit
avec les pierres

*

La pluie ne m’éteint pas

Si elle réussit
à me coucher par terre
comme un champ trop mûr

je me relève
herbe ensauvagée
au bord du chemin

(Voice credit: Alain Borer)

Translator’s Statement

While the patient work of translation is very often a solitary endeavor, the practice itself depends on what Paul Ricoeur names linguistic hospitality: “the act of inhabiting the word of the Other paralleled by the act of receiving the word of the Other into one’s own home, one’s own dwelling.”

The idea of writing in a language other than the one in which one has lived her entire life took on new significance when I found myself in a new country, surrounded by words I did not know. The temporary inability to rely on the very capacity that typically connected me with others was confounding, and often isolating. With no language to tether me to another, I assumed a kind of invisibility. Pleasantries became stripped to a minimum for fear of malapropism, humiliation, or worse—of giving offence.

And yet, as I lost words, I gained language. Initially, it was the language of the body—eyes, hands, face—that opened (or closed) communication. Such careful attention the language of physicality requires! How I fell into my bed each night, exhausted! As I began to gain linguistic fluency, others took notice and addressed me. I began to speak, new words growing less strange on my tongue. Isolation began to melt, diminishment turning to freedom, embarrassment to laughter. Such does a giving up of words open us to new language, language anew.

The language of Anise Koltz was introduced to me by French writer Alain Borer, who suggested we meet. Born in Luxembourg, Koltz wrote for years in one language until she could no longer bear its words. Now 87, Koltz continues to write in the language we both discovered when we forfeited the words of the language we had always known.

The sequence here was found via research through the University of Southern California’s online library resources, appearing in a journal cited as Europe and dated April 1, 1995. While the layout replicates as closely as possible its original publication, the translation trades solid dots for asterisks, as English seemed to ask.

Anise Koltz is one of Luxembourg’s major contemporary authors. Born in 1928, Koltz began writing in German, but the death of her husband—he never fully recovered from the Nazi occupation—compelled her to work in French. Koltz is a recipient of several major awards, including the Prix Apollinaire and Prix de littératire francophone Jean Arp. Since 2007 Koltz has published seven new collections in French. That she continues to be celebrated well into her 80s speaks to the continuing urgency and relevance of her work.

Marci Vogel and Anise Koltz

Left-to-Right: Marci Vogel, Anise Koltz

Marci Vogel is the author of At the Border of Wilshire & Nobody, winner of the 2015 Howling Bird Press Poetry Prize. Her poetry, essays, and translations have been published in FIELD, Plume, Jacket2, The Critical Flame, and Drunken Boat. Currently a Provost’s fellow at USC, Vogel was awarded a 2014 Willis Barnstone Translation Prize. She has received invitations to share her work at the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco, L’école des beaux-arts in Tours, France, and the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium.

Quilting Will Improve Your Health

Ultimately, our mother was made to realize her error. You would have thought she would have noticed it herself at some point, looking at the boldfaced headline from The Herald News. Quitting was the first word in both the headline and the article, one that she clipped from the paper and affixed by magnet to the refrigerator. “Quitting Will Improve Your Health.” Had she read the article, she would have realized sooner that the whole article was about cigarettes. By the time my sister, Ginger, announced her discovery that the article was all about “quitting”, our mother had already been to the craft store on Route 17 numerous times. A large plastic bag holding “her quilting gear” had, according to our father, “taken up permanent residency” in the dining room, next to the mirrored curio, which contained most of my mother’s rarely used wedding china.

That bag contained colored broadcloth and batting, but that was nothing compared to what had been laid out on the dining room table. These she had categorized, separating the quilting tools, her frames and hoops, a cutting mat, and seam ripper from what she described to us as her quilting notions, the adhesives, quilting clips, and tape measure. And these items hardly amounted to the entirety of her supply of quilting paraphernalia; there was a large basket containing the miscellaneous items, and this she had begun to carry with her from room to room.

“What’s in there, Peg?” our father wanted to know.

“Stuff.”

“Really? Couldn’t figure that one out by myself. What kind of ‘stuff’?”

“Don’t think I don’t know where this is going.” My mother shot him a look of slight disgust. “Like you haven’t been mocking my quilting since I took it up.”

“I just want to know a little about your project,” he demurred.

“It’s not my project. It’s my hobby.”

Curiously, my mother did not remove the news clipping from the refrigerator even after learning of her error. The correct wording was pointed out to her by Ginger, who was at the house to pick up some winter clothes she had left in the attic following the move to her own apartment, an excuse that she called a family visit. Casey, my other sister, was there as well, so that the whole family could serve as Ginger’s rapt audience, her well-manicured nails splayed against the refrigerator while she reviewed the headline.

“I never had a hobby before,” my mother told Ginger and everyone else in the kitchen in response to Ginger’s observation.

“So really, what do I care? As long as it improves my health.”

There was no evidence, at least not in the newspaper article before us in the kitchen that morning, to indicate that quilting actually would improve my mother’s health, but she was making at least a pound of bacon at the time, so that drew most of our attention.

[blockquote align=right]As my mother’s quilting talent developed, her hands giving shape to the many squares that she was to piece together, we began to anticipate the appearance of the final product, something that might hang proudly on a wall in our family room.

I had to wonder about Ginger, who had been alone in the kitchen with my mother for almost an hour but never mentioned the article until the rest of us were there to hear her. Something in her manner suggested to me that it was really Casey she was addressing, when pointing out Mom’s mistake. I should have said something to her on the phone when we spoke later in the week, as we sometimes did in the evening. Ginger was the ideal of an older sister, the one who had successfully moved out. She doled out “healthy” connections to Casey and me in sparing phone calls, so I chose not to mention the timing of her observation.

*         *        *

Because the air conditioning in my car was leaking water and probably other chemicals, I had to borrow my mother’s car the day after Ginger’s visit. It was the car I used when Casey needed a ride to work. My sister who, at age twenty, still did not drive. Casey heaved a bag with apparently more quilting material out of the passenger seat before she got into the car.

“What is this stuff?” she asked. “I thought quilts were like material and cotton stuffing. That was heavy, you know, for just cotton balls.”

“I didn’t look,” I told her as I backed out of the driveway, my head turned over my shoulder so I could avoid the large oak tree whose roots were infringing on the edge of our property.

“I think it’s more of her quilting material. Maybe there’s some notions underneath.” Casey rolled down her window and lit a cigarette, thoughtfully blowing smoke in the direction away from me.

“You don’t mind, do you?” she asked after she had smoked the cigarette three quarters of the way down and flicked the remainder out the window.

Casey is my twin. We are not identical, although we have a stronger resemblance than most sisters. Someone once told my mother that we were a hybrid of sorts, the kind that share an unfertilized egg. The egg splits in half and each is then fertilized separately so only half of our DNA is identical; the DNA of our mother. I looked this up after my mother told me the story and found out the whole thing about the unfertilized egg is just a theory. We don’t really know if it’s true.

So we are not identical twins, but when Casey turned her face forward, just staring at the windshield with nothing to occupy her but the road ahead now that her cigarette was gone, I could swear it was my profile.

“When did you stop wearing a uniform?” I asked, concentrating on the navy sweater she had matched with pale blue pants, a sweater that was mine. I had last seen the sweater cleaned and folded neatly in my drawer.

“I do medical billing.”

“You always wore a uniform, even when you worked for Dr. Margulies,” I told her.

“That was a small office. I sat at the front desk with the nurse.”

Casey had left Dr. Margulies’ office three months earlier when she didn’t even have another job. “Because it was boooring,” she had told us. Now she was working at Rutherford Pediatrics, located in the Medical Arts Building on Berkery Avenue. She had been there for less than two weeks. This was the first time I had seen her in non-uniform attire. My sweater was stretching uncomfortably over the folds of skin that draped the waistband of Casey’s pants. Casey did not even pretend to diet, the way some people do. I turned onto the one-way street that led to the parking lot.

“Let me off here,” Casey said quickly. “I like to get coffee from Jerry’s.” She leapt out, slamming the passenger door.

I sat for a while in the car next to the convenience store, which offered better coffee than the “swill” that was brewed in the back office space of Rutherford Pediatrics. I wanted to catch Casey buying the packaged baked goods that I knew she was stockpiling. I sat watching nothing at all pass by out the window. Customers parked and walked into Jerry’s Minit Stop, one after the other. They all came in different cars and trucks, except the last two who worked for the same refrigeration repair service. The men held the door for each other. There was still no sign of Casey even after several of the men I observed walking in had come out minutes later holding cardboard cups of coffee and matching logoed paper bags. I called my mother to see if she needed the bag that Casey had thrown into the back of the car, deciding not to wonder what Casey was doing in the Minit Stop. Not caring if she ate an entire box of cinnamon frosted donuts while pretending to peruse the magazine rack, as she had once been caught doing when Ginger had agreed to drive her home from Dr. Margulies.

When my mother answered the home phone, I explained in detail the items we had found in the rear of her car.

“That’s just some extra cotton, dear.”

“You don’t need it for your quilt?”

“Not now. You can just leave it in the car.”

That was the first feeling that my mother was hoarding her quilting material. Purchasing quantities beyond her ability to stitch her squares together. Spending money on cotton fluff and gold lacing that she did not want my father to know about. I moved the plastic bags from Marcia’s Crafting Attic to the trunk of the car when I got to my part-time job at Healy Dry Cleaning. The bag would be there for my mother to find, should she need the materials, which I began to doubt that she would. I had left while Casey was still in the convenience store and tried not to wonder about that.

My mother had begun a pattern entitled “Crossroads,” she told us over dinner.

“It took me a while to think about which quilt I should start with.” She lifted the lid off the butter substitute that she spread over a roll she had peeled open.

“I almost did “Monkey Wrench” because, to tell you the truth, it’s a pretty pattern. I just couldn’t get past the name, Monkey Wrench.” She balanced her grease-smeared knife on the edge of her plate. “Monkey Wrench. The woman at Marcia’s told me it’s an all-time favorite, but in the end, I just couldn’t go for it.”

Casey eventually picked up the thread of conversation that my mother had left hanging for us to gather.

“I’m sure that Crossroads will come out fine.”

“Well, I just want to do some justice to the pattern,” my mother announced.

“Justice?” Even my father could not ignore that clue.

“The woman, …Bonnie,” my mother began, turning her attention away from the remains of her second roll, “is a member of the American Quilter’s Society. And she says that it makes a wonderful story, even if no one can actually prove it.”

“Are we still talking about quilts?” Casey asked.

“There is evidence,” my mother informed us with as much authority as she could infuse into her voice, “that quilt patterns, such as Crossroads and Monkey Wrench, were part of a code.”

We thought that she had paused for dramatic effect, maybe she wanted us to pull the information from her, as she teased us along. Her attention was focused on a portion of string bean casserole on her plate until one of us interrupted her gaze.

“Code.” Casey used her facial expression to make this a question.

“In the underground railroad. Quilts were used as codes, hung on a line, left on a fence, so that the escapees would get information they needed.”

“Information? From a quilt? What kind of information are we talking about, here?” my father asked.

A long sniff emerged from my mother.

“The kind of information that an escapee would need when they were making an escape.” After her triumphant reply, she repeated several times that, as Bonnie had mentioned, it was a wonderful story.

The structure of the Crossroads quilt occupied my mother. Its construction, its supposed meaning. Left, in various stages of completion in our family room, it occupied all of us as well, mostly because we were constantly moving bags of material from couches, the passenger seat of my mother’s car, anywhere a plastic bag full of batting could possibly be set down. As my mother’s quilting talent developed, her hands giving shape to the many squares that she was to piece together, we began to anticipate the appearance of the final product, something that might hang proudly on a wall in our family room. All that remained was for my mother to actually complete the quilt.

*         *        *

And while she continued to speak often about the Crossroads pattern and its specialness, my mother never told us the quilt’s secret meaning. It was my guess that she did not know. That remained curious to me. During a break from class, I wandered into the computer room of the library. The equipment was not intended for personal use, there were warning stickers on every computer. But most of the staff at Ramapo Community College was tolerant, as long as you were discrete. I sat at a terminal and typed in “quilt codes.” After scrolling through various websites, I was led to a page with eight distinct patterns, the illustrations depicted in black and white. There they were. Monkey Wrench and Crossroads. There were others as well. Log Cabin, Bowties, Flying Geese, Drunkard’s Path, North Star, and Tumbling Blocks. Each had its own paragraph in justified text. The secret codes revealed. Crossroads, a block pattern quilt, spoke of travel. Travel onward to Cleveland, Ohio! Cleveland having been the crossroad of the Underground Railroad.

Most of the “secret codes” were not very secretive at all, although Bowtie was said to have meant “choose a disguise.” There were instructions on how and when to leave. And what to do once on your way. Particulars, like follow the birds north to Canada (Flying Geese). Or go “zigzag” (Drunkard’s Path). Of all the coded meanings, my mother had chosen Crossroads, often described as simple, a “quick block pattern. No doubt that simplicity figured most into her decision.

I swiped my student ID and printed out the page with the eight quilts and their secret codes. I printed the page and placed it in my binder even though I had seen other websites claiming there was no proof from oral history or otherwise that the quilts were used as codes along the route of the Underground Railroad. Many claimed that some of the quilt patterns had not been designed until the early Twentieth Century.

*         *        *

Another of Ginger’s phone calls came when no one else was home. She must have planned it that way.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

When I asked Ginger how things were going for her, she began to speak rapidly. I held the phone slightly away from my ear, thinking how much better my room would look with lavender walls. Changing the color of my room was something I had been considering for a while. That, and moving out entirely. All of the books on my desk would have to be cleared off and boxed so I could store them in the basement. If the choice were painting my room.

“She needs to stay away from the carbs!” Ginger was yelling into the phone. “Are you listening to me? What are you keeping in the house? Doughnuts? Is that what they’re eating?”

“I don’t, I mean, I’m not sure. Doughnuts?”

“Yes. You’re the one that can talk some sense into them. I’m not there and Dad, he’s, I mean, really. Do you think he gives any thought to carbs?”

“Okay.” I answered. She barked a list of approved fruits and vegetables into the phone, demanded to know whether I was writing all of her instructions down. Ginger was good at giving advice, letting us know exactly what she thought. I had a harder time of it. Casey would see my weakness, ignore my best efforts to keep her off doughnuts.

It was Casey, after all, who was stronger than I was. She was the sister I admired most when we were younger. Not Ginger, to her immense disappointment, although she did not have to wait long to reclaim her rightful spot as older sister, as the boss of the family. As the boss of me. But for a brief moment, it was Casey who I adored. Casey, with her blonde, confident wedge haircut, the one that I copied shamelessly. Her bold stance as catcher on our softball team. Casey could hit the ball, could throw it. She could do everything. At night, we would talk, as sisters do, going over the days events, what we thought of our neighbors, the Nichols family, the first people we ever knew to get a divorce.

Over time, the conversations would change. At night, Casey would tell secrets to me about the girls in school that she hated, how they were mean to her. How they secretly avoided her in the locker room, rolled their eyes, “accidentally” bumped into her in the hall. When we reached high school, I understood, then I understood, that Casey was not sharing secrets with me. She was telling me all of the reasons to avoid her. All of the reasons I should enroll in drama after school, the student newspaper. Anything except softball with Casey. I began to model myself after Ginger. Taking the time to groom myself. Growing my hair out of the wedge. Like all of the other girls, who wore those long, silky layers.

At some point, a package arrived from The Basket Factory, a local store for shoppers looking for knockoffs of better quality home goods. Inside were four really good-sized baskets with lids. My father opened the cardboard crate with the utility knife he retrieved from the bottom kitchen drawer. It was a dull paring knife we kept only for slicing tape off of deliveries. He left the baskets for my mother in the family room, and when she came home that afternoon, she placed her still-in-progress quilt in one, the plastic bag from Marcia’s Crafting Attic in another. The other baskets were soon filled with Mom’s quilting notions and fluff. They looked good in the family room, the varying shades of rattan soft and unoffending. The baskets were useful as ottomans. No one cared if you put your feet on them while slouching on the plaid couches that formed our conversation circle.

The college library was often noisy and there were only a few carrels. I preferred the family room where I could study on the couch with the new basket/ottomans for my books. On a Wednesday afternoon shortly after the quilt had been put away, I heard the tiny click of the rear door returning to its place against the jamb and looked up, expecting to see my mother, who sometimes came home for lunch. Casey was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the family room. It was almost 1:00 and I was due to pick her up from Rutherford Pediatrics at 5:30.

“Don’t you have work today?” I asked.

Casey had most of a muffin pressed into her mouth.

“Ummm.” She kind of nodded along with that answer.

“Work. I thought you were working today.”

She added a half shrug to the information that she had already provided.

It felt like we might have the exact conversation as when she left Dr. Margulies. At any moment, she might look at me and say, “It was boooring.” Or she might say nothing this time and just leave me with her little shrug. If I were to pursue a better answer. Of course, her means of transportation, how she had wandered home, remained puzzling.

There was not a lot of room to hang out in our house. The spaces were small, our rooms too narrow and confined for us when we were in high school, and we were older now. Young adults encased in bedrooms that barely fit our twin size mattresses. Casey moved a plastic bag filled with shiny ribbons onto the floor and sat across from me. It was, I noticed, the lone bag that had escaped enclosure into the baskets. I also noticed that Casey seemed to have swallowed her muffin. Her speech was much clearer.

“Did you get a flu shot this year?” Casey asked.

I moved my yellow highlighter across a portion of text that explained the cycle of water being absorbed into the atmosphere. I heard a noise coming from Casey’s direction. It sounded like marbles. I used my highlighter to underline another sentence. Humidity is the amount of water vapor in the air.

“Here,” Casey said. When I looked up her arm was outstretched, a few vials resting on the palm of her open hand.

“What?”

“Flu shots. I got them from the office.”

“They gave those to you? What, I mean . . . why? Why would they give you flu shots like that? Don’t you need a nurse to give you the shot?”

“I’m a technician,” Casey announced.

“Right. I know. Right. But you don’t do that at the office. I mean, you file and stuff like that. Right? You file.”

“So? You don’t need to be a genius to give someone a flu shot.”

Casey looked around. The lid was off one of the baskets, revealing the partially constructed quilt that our mother was producing, the pattern that may or may not have once told an important story. “You want one?” she asked.

“No thanks. I got one at the pharmacy. They started giving them in the back near the reading glasses around October.”

“Oh.”

I would have to remember to go to the pharmacy and get my flu shot there, something I had been meaning to do for a while. That was preferable, not having to tell Casey what to do with her flu shots, that she was only a barely competent technician who just made her way through six months of training. We had that conversation once before, when she was in school, at a time when I could not leave her failure alone. Casey was missing her classes, leaving books that had their bindings perfectly intact in the kitchen, not doing any of the assignments. One afternoon, I just had to tell her.

“You never read these. It’s so obvious. Look at this book. It’s never been opened.”

I picked up the book and opened the cover, a stiff movement of paper.

“How do you know what I do? And why do you care?”

“You’re going to get thrown out of that school, you know that? Thrown out.”

“They don’t do that when you’re paying, you know. They never throw you out of school when you pay them.”

“Really? I think they do. When you don’t show up, when you don’t do any of the work, I think they do.”

And it was because she looked so much like me, her cheeks the same as the ones that I brushed with pink bronzer, it was because of those cheekbones that I choked on those words. But apparently she had been right because she had earned her technician’s degree and now here she was with a handful of flu shots and most likely syringes as well.

She was wearing sweatpants and a matching long sleeve tee shirt. Her office attire. Perhaps there were other drugs that she stole from her new office, from Dr. Margulies as well. Maybe that was why she left his office, before she even had another job. Most people took pain killers, things that you wanted but could not get for yourself easily, things that you could sell. Casey took flu shots and wanted to administer them to her family. Would my parents let her? I could picture my mother, holding the little vials close to her face, her eyes squinting behind her glasses. They could be tucked away with the mounds of quilting material, just disappear and Casey would never get into trouble for stealing them. Lost among the notions and the barely remembered tape measure.

Here is the thing about the quilts and their secret meanings. We used to see drinks listed on the placemats at Valley Forge Restaurant with names that hinted at more. Those names, Singapore Sling, Sloe Gin Fizz, Caribbean Rum Punch, suggested dark mystique. Nothing unfathomable, nothing beguiling existed in names like Bowtie or Log Cabin. But if you did your own research, found out a little more on your own, then it all came out. Beyond the quilts, beyond the small paragraphs and their meager information. Then it all flew right at you.

The code name for Cleveland was Hope. There, on Lake Erie’s shore, someone might reach Hope. That was the message of the Crossroads quilt. Nearing the end of a long journey, with Port Stanley, Ontario just across the water. Port Stanley. Code name “God be Praised!” Surrounded by dark woods, no one to trust but some quilts that may or may not have been imbedded with secrets that you had to rely on. Secrets coming from total strangers whom you had been told to trust like the family you never really had. Around you is a kind of darkness no one has ever seen before and now you are alone and in danger and desperate for the North Star. True North. The truest star in the night sky. The quilt told you one thing, inspired and encouraged you at the start of the journey but how could you trust everything that they told you. How did they know? This is what you would wonder, about the Crossroads quilt, whether its message was real.

And then the faintest sound of water. So tiny a sound at first that you might think it was just a soft rain getting ready to fall a little harder. But the water is rushing, you hear it now as a river now that you are nearer. It starts to smell of cardinal flower and swamp rose mallow and dampness itself and everything wet and cold but it is Lake Erie and you rush forward, as fast as the river. Maybe faster. It’s there across the water. Port Stanley. Waiting for you to cross. God be Praised!

Imagine that.

Or imagine our home that afternoon. Surrounded by our mother’s new baskets and never-to-be finished quilt, snoring in an easy chair on a Wednesday afternoon, there was my sister, my twin. The ugly plaid of the family room, the ottomans, none of it large enough for all the misplaced strips of gold quilting, the more often than not flawed stitches, nothing to make all of the flaws and imperfections disappear, or at least unknowable. How I longed to not look at her. Or maybe just once to see her differently. With long, silky layers of blonde hair.

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Melanie AnagnosMelanie Anagnos is an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College and the current nonfiction editor of LUMINA. She was awarded the Kathryn Gurfein Writing Fellowship at Sarah Lawrence for her short fiction. Her work has appeared online and in Ozone Park Journal. Melanie lives with her husband and two children in Haworth, New Jersey and is completing a collection of linked stories.

Bats in the Attic

[flash fiction]

There are bats in the attic. I’m not being euphemistic. There are bats in our attic and they are pushing me to the border of my sanity. The scuttling and whispering of teeth and wings above our heads sets my teeth on edge. Somehow, you sleep, your chest rising and falling with criminal ease. When you finally wake, they’re still. You cluck at me and leave me with a blue pill to help me sleep. They’re quiet once you’re gone.

Every night for a week I lie awake listening to them cavorting smugly in the space above our heads. Every morning you insist it’s my imagination, like those other things that weren’t there, the cries in the night from ghost babies.

Today I wake in the yellow midday, and swallow the three pink pills you’ve left on the counter with cold coffee. I wipe the wet ring underneath the mug with my sleeve and run the faucet until the dishes look clean, then place them on the shelves. I carry myself with dread to the nursery, and continue the awful work of packing it all into cardboard boxes. Tiny booties that have never been worn, rattles, and stacks of cloth diapers. We’ll try again soon, you keep promising. But you haven’t touched me since they wheeled me out of the hospital, stunned, broken ribs and battered face, with no baby. The crash changed everything.

I am nuzzling a teddy bear against my cheek when I hear that familiar fluttering paper sound, wings on drywall. I dial your number, but you send me straight to voicemail.

I arm myself with a frying pan and wool gloves, and tie one of your wispy scarves around the bottom half of my face. Then I ascend the ladder and crawl through the trapdoor. The attic is dark, dangerous terrain filled with mountains and minefields of cardboard boxes and unsupported slats. I creep along the border. My breath, kept close by the scarf, is loud in my ears. They’re louder, fluttering madly. I swat at them with the pan, but they’re fast. They know where to hide. Bats can fit through holes the width of a pencil. I tear open the boxes, howling a war cry. Summer clothes, unstrung tennis rackets, stacks of magazines. I smash them all. Where are you when I need you? I can’t see them but they’re everywhere. I hear them swooping and gliding, stretching their wings aggressively. After a while I start to cry, because this would never happen if you were here.

When you come home, I’m lying in a circle of broken Christmas ornaments.

“Bats,” I say, my heart battering the walls of my chest.

You look at me for a long moment, and I touch my fingertips together and reach for you in a desperate prayer. “Please,” I whisper.

“No bats,” you say in a voice as hollow as an empty grave, and begin to sweep the thin, fragile, colored fragments of glass that surround me.

Dana Mele photo credit: David McQueen

Dana Mele lives in the Great Northern Catskills with her husband and son. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Right Hand Pointing, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Bird’s Thumb, and Mad Scientist Journal, among others. She is currently working on her first novel.

On Fear, and the Location of My Ass

I am the oldest of three sisters. My youngest sister, Lizzy, calls me a “joy hoarder.” What she means is that if something (a book, a song, a piece of sky) gets my pulse up, I take pains to make sure no one knows. Think of Scrooge McDuck. He has a vault full of gold coins with a diving board in it, so that he can plunge headlong into his money as the spirit moves him. That’s me, too. Except that I’m backstroking through a panic room full of unspoken affections and exclamations and exaltation. I imagine a knock on my steel door and I shout “Go away! Nobody’s home!” And I snuggle back into my private treasure, having averted all risk of having my soft humanity discovered.

I applied to MFA programs so I could get rescued from myself. I thought that if I went back to school, I could figure out how to be an eloquent sharer and less of an apparently impassive robot. And so, last spring, in some sort of fugue, and with my vault reaching critical mass, I sent out applications. I started school  and assumed that soon someone would teach me how to gather my thoughts into respectable coherence. The clutter of my feelings, the delight and heartbreak, could be laid straight. I would emote, but I would be airtight and self-assured. The point is, I finally wanted to share.

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Photo credit: Mary Birnbaum

The nice thing about sisters is that just when you think a mask of stoicism makes you look smart and discerning, they let you know that you are being an asshole. Sisters tell you when you have salad in your teeth, spiritually speaking. They know that your miserliness, like all miserliness, is just a byproduct of fear, fear, fear.

But risk aversion also exists in the context of a society which tells us simultaneously how threatened we are and how we should never let them—our terrorists, our readers, our children—see us scared. What happens when I admit I am moved, or afraid. What horror do I open myself up to? What mistakes might I make?

A gentle reminder from one’s sister is particularly apt when one would like to make good art. They remind you that, when it comes to art (when it comes to love), if your ass is not on the line, your ass is likely in the wrong place.

By way of random illustration: I speak Italian. I love the languid way the language sounds. I love that, compared to other languages on this shrinking planet, learning Italian gives you relatively little commercial advantage. (I have never heard a parent say they plan to send their child to an Italian-immersive preschool in wishful preparation for a future MBA.) I gravitated to Italian the way one might gravitate to a song, to a sonnet, to an open flower—because it’s beautiful and I wanted in. But I don’t utter it out loud. I haven’t really spoken it since I defended my undergraduate thesis. I keep it in the vault with the rest of the things that stir me.

When my first child was born, my mom suggested I speak to her in Italian. What a pleasant idea that was. I imagined my tiny, clever, bilingual child and I felt my heart expand. Then it contracted again. I would never do it. What keeps me from speaking in Italian to my kids is the same stiff fear that kept me away from writing for so long: fear of mistakes and what the wide world will do to me when I make them. Italian is full of tricks and idioms. It’s rich and complicated and hard. What if I did it wrong?

Here’s the thing. No one is knocking on my steel door. Maintaining a vault of secret feelings is predicated on the suspicion that anyone cares what I am doing. The simultaneous advent of social media and reality television created the illusion that people are watching us. Worse, that people have a particular interest in the minutiae of our lives. They don’t, except for when one is genuinely vulnerable. Because vulnerability is interesting. Mistakes are interesting. And fear of blowing it in Italian is based on the possibility that my toddler is going to catch me in the misapplication of the subjunctive tense.

I want to be clear. I’m talking about value in risk taking and mistake-making. I’m not talking about taking your pants and panties off and running through the streets because the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time since 1918. Which I might have done. I’m not talking about getting hammered and finally blubbering about feelings to whichever poor soul you cornered at the party. I’m talking about risk that’s both subtler and more compelling. It’s not about making my drivel fit for consumption, it’s about making something. Admitting what makes my heart thrum. Turning it inside out so that I can get a better look.

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Photo Credit: Mary Birnbaum

My middle sister, Emily, recently launched a Kickstarter to fund a movie she wants to make. She wrote it and plans to act in it. When she told me about the project, my mind was a discotheque of flashing lights and sirens. Asking for financial backing bears emotional risk. But the possibility of my sister getting the funding was an even scarier prospect. I want to confess here that not only did I doubt her chances of making budget, but I also secretly hoped the proposal would fail. What I mean is, I hoped she wouldn’t get the chance to fail.

The thing about Emily is that she operates exclusively, compulsively on the edge. She is an actor and a stand-up comedian. You go with her to a dive bar in San Diego and she sings ten songs over two hours, and somewhere between Cher and Melissa Etheridge you realize that she is stone cold sober. Once, at the talent show my sisters and I throw every year, she performed an interpretive dance to the score of Lord of the Rings, which culminated in her clenching a ceramic dinner plate between her butt cheeks. For a full minute. She accessorizes wildly. She is unreserved and spastic and terrifying. Sometimes I’m overcome by the feeling that she is me, turned inside out. (Though this might be self-flattery.) She bears herself to the world without ever having to take off her pants, and she does it without hope or expectation of an audience. She does it because she can’t help it.

A couple of days ago, her Kickstarter met its goal. Two hundred fifty three people supported her quest and my sister is going to make her movie. I called her to tell her how happy I was, which was true. She said she was scared and excited. I was surprised when she said scared. But she is my best teacher, my sister who is sometimes an inversion of me. The Cratchit to my Scrooge. Because it’s never about being fearless—as writers, as singers, as mothers. What we need is not to appear as steely and invulnerable as androids, but to reveal our humanity. To be a mess of impressions and devotion and sadness. To be scared, and sing it.

Net: Chromogenic Prints

Richard Russo, Author

Richard Russo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist. Russo grew up in Gloversville, New York, a small upstate town that once produced ninety percent of the nation’s dress gloves in its factories. Much of his work is inspired by his experiences of small town, working-class life. He has published seven novels, two short story collections, and the memoir Elsewhere (2012). His novel Empire Falls won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and was later adapted into an HBO miniseries based on his screenplay, and starring Paul Newman, Ed Harris, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Helen Hunt. His most recent novel, Everybody’s Fool (Knopf), is the sequel to Nobody’s Fool (1994), and will be published in Spring 2016. Russo serves as a vice president on the Author’s Guild Board of Directors, and is the fundraising chairman for the Gloversville Public Library. He received his BA, MFA in Creative Writing, and PhD in English at the University of Arizona. He has taught at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois and Colby College in Waterville, Maine. He has two daughters and lives with his wife in Portland, Maine.

Erin Anadkat Schwartz interviewed Russo in-person on June 19, 2015, during the June 2015 residency at Antioch University Los Angeles.

*     *     *

We stopped for a lunch of brisket, BBQ chicken, and pulled pork sandwiches—with sodas from the coolest soda machine I have ever seen—at Chop Daddy’s BBQ in Culver City, during the weekday lunch rush. The conversation first started over a jumble of lunchtime chatter, obtrusive sirens, and other resounding LA traffic noise in the background, while ’90s music like U2, Bryan Adams, and The Bangles blared on the jukebox inside. Our talk ran the gamut: bizarre Gloversville-insider stories and scandals; a restoration project Russo is working on for the Gloversville library, built by Andrew Carnegie in 1905; ways of building thriving communities where artists can survive; the Somali population in Portland, Maine; the government-in-exile of Somalia, now partly relocated in Minneapolis.

Erin Anadkat Schwartz: Do you find it a challenging process when another writer adapts your novels to screenplays?

Richard Russo: I tried everything to get somebody else to do the screenplay for Empire Falls. It was Paul Newman who actually talked me into [doing it]—like, how do you say no to Paul Newman? [laughter]

ES: I don’t think you can.

RR: He kept saying that if I didn’t do it, there’s a decent chance it wasn’t going to get done. It was part of—it was done for HBO, and they were going to obviously be spending a lot of money on it, and . . . but anyway, he asked me if I would do it, and I said yes, and I did it. And when it came out, and I still feel this way about it—it seemed to me that number one, I loved it, I loved what they did with it. But I thought the actors were wonderful, Fred Schepisi did a wonderful job, I thought, directing. The only thing that wasn’t fresh about it, it seemed to me, was the writing . . . I would have loved for—because the book was so long . . . Thankfully, we didn’t have to condense it to two hours like you would with a normal movie, we had three and a half hours to work with. I had worked on that book for so long, and I had solved so many problems in the novel in a particular way, that by the time it came to write the screenplay, I just don’t think I was very fresh on it anymore. And I tended to solve the problems of the miniseries in much the same way that I solved the problems of the novel.

[blockquote align=left]What I’m asking of the reader is to dream really deeply . . . and at the end of it, come up out of it as if waking from a dream, but which you look around at the real world and say, wow, I was asleep for a really long time there, and that was such a vivid dream. Ok, now I’m back in reality.

I’ve done a couple screenplays based on other people’s work. When I did a screenplay of the Ice Harvest, based on Scott Phillips’s novel, I found that I was able to take a book which I loved, and I was able to look at that and see some things that could be cut . . . And it was all fine in the novel, but for the screenplay—because it was going to be an hour and a half, an hour and forty-five minutes—I just saw some things that could be cut. If that had been my own work, I doubt I would have been able to see that, only a few fresh set of eyes coming in would have seen that kind of trim. And that’s my only regret about Empire Falls, really, because those actors were so brilliant, was that I think an outside screenwriter would have probably been able to see some different solutions to the same problems that I didn’t see.

After navigating LA traffic back to the Antioch campus, we continued the rest of the interview in a room with less surround sound. Earlier that morning, Russo had been featured in a Q&A session led by Antioch faculty member Peter Nichols, whose novel The Rocks was published in Spring 2015 by Penguin.

ES: During the Q&A earlier, you mentioned, regarding your relationship with your father, that it was important for you to avoid nursing “unproductive grudges.” What did you mean by that?

RR: He was an interesting guy . . . in the sense that he had an ability to treat other people, to whom he had no particular enforceable obligation, as if they were related to him, in much the way Sully does with Rub in Nobody’s Fool. In Nobody’s Fool, Sully’s son Peter has not been a part of his life for a long time. And Peter, at the beginning of the book, has just returned. The event that sets events in motion, sets the plot in motion really, is the return of Sully’s son. But one of the things that Sully has done in his son’s and his wife’s absence, is to manage to create another substitute family. He’s got Rub, who is not really his son, but whom he treats like a son. And he has a woman to whom he’s not really married and has no enforceable obligations, but there she is, in place of his wife. And he’s done that on a couple of other levels, with other people too.

But for Sully, and I think too for my father, it wasn’t that he didn’t want to give people things. He was an incredibly generous person with money, and really with everything, he was incredibly generous with his time. He was the kind of guy if somebody needed desperately to get someplace that’s a two-hour drive, because somebody in the family was sick and the kid needed to get there, something like that, he’d say come on, hop in, he’d take him. He was incredibly generous. But he shied away from enforceable obligations. He would be generous when the generosity was his free choice, but he disliked being told he had to do something because of convention or because he was married or because he was a father. And if you just hung around, you would not only know his generosity, you would be the beneficiary of his generosity. But . . . after the war I think he was all through being obligated.

ES: As writers, we sometimes have emotional obstacles that are difficult to confront and that can get in the way of writing. Did your relationship with your father ever feel like an obstacle for you?

RR: No, no. If there was an obstacle, it was more my mother than my father. My father, I recognized, even long before I wanted to become a writer, I recognized my father as a wonderful source of entertainment. I’m really deeply indebted to both my mother and my father in terms of becoming a writer, because it was my mother who made me a reader. And I certainly wasn’t going to be a writer without first being a reader. She was the one who filled our apartment with books. When she was dog-tired after a long workday and could’ve easily been forgiven for sitting down and watching at 10 o’clock at night, for watching an hour, hour and a half’s worth of television, she was always the one who grabbed a book and read. I was able to read, and was able to check out books at the library. I was just a voracious reader, and I have my mother to thank for that . . . .

What my father did was that he gave me something to write about. Because he was a genuine rogue, he was off the rails, many times. He was the kind of guy whose name would be in the paper on Sunday mornings sometimes, or Saturday after Friday night . . . He had a way of making people feel good about themselves, feel special, even if it was for a very short period of time . . . I think that the way I did things with him, resulted in the best possible outcome, as opposed to my mother, where everything I did was wrong. If I had to do that over again, I would do it all differently.

ES: What kind of books did your mother like to read?

RR: There were some wonderful books that she would read, some of which I still go back and revisit from time to time. She wasn’t what I would call a reader of literature as we would commonly define it, I don’t think. But she did love well-written books, which meant that she gravitated to the kinds of books that were very well written, but very hopeful. Very entertaining, hopefully that took place far away, sometimes in space, sometimes in time. Someplace that allowed her, after an incredibly long workday full of obligations and often not a great deal of success, some place that she could escape to. So she used to love—and I still do sometimes too, a kind of a guilty pleasure, to read some of those books from what people now refer to as the Golden Age of British crime fiction. She was very down the nose about Agatha Christie, but for her, a writer like Josephine Tey or Ngaio Marsh.

A lot of those writers—Dorothy Sayers—those writers who in the last twenty years, whose profiles have been raised by all those wonderful PBS renditions of those works. She loved those. And as I say, I don’t look down my nose at those, they’re wonderfully entertaining books, and I’ll go back and revisit them from time to time, partly because I still admire them. And partly because she loved them so much, I want to go back and just refresh my memory about what meant so much to her, what she liked about those things. And how important it was for her to leave the confines of her own small existence, which was becoming smaller and smaller and smaller as the years went by, to escape into a world of possibility, and great acts of danger and derring-do, and a good love story, ended up with the right couple together at the end—oh, wow.

ES: Are you a 9-to-5 kind of writer—what’s your daily process like?

RR: It has a lot to do with where I am in the process. When I’m beginning something, if I’m at the beginning of a novel, first draft, first two hundred pages, I am pretty easygoing at the beginning. If I get two good pages in a day at the beginning of the novel, I feel really good about that. And if I get those in the mornings, I’ll revise them in the afternoon, and if I’m done early and I’ve only worked three hours for that day, that’s perfectly fine. In the beginning.

By the time I’m at draft, whatever, where I have a completed manuscript, and I can both see and smell the finish line, by that time I’m working much, much longer hours. And part of that is because I’m not inventing anymore, at that point I’m revising revisions, and there’s still the occasional surprise. It’s wonderful when that happens, especially towards the end. But for the most part, I now have just a certain number of tasks to perform, and at that point, I will be working long hours every day . . . so I might be working eight or nine hours towards the end, as opposed to three hours at the beginning. But at the beginning, I’m quite happy to be done at the end of three hours, or three and a half hours, whereas towards the end, if I’m working three times, I still have the feeling I’m not working hard enough. So when you get to that point, or when I get to that point, it becomes important to soldier through.

My friend Jess Walter, I was talking with him one day, and he said that the closer he gets to the end of a book, the earlier he gets up. When he’s working on a novel towards the beginning, he’s perfectly happy to get up at a reasonable hour, read the newspaper, make breakfast for the kids, all that. If he sits down to write by ten o’clock, that’s perfectly fine. By the time he’s close to finishing a book, he’s up at four in the morning. And I don’t do that, but that’s . . . the difference between how hard you work, depending on where you are in the process . . .

There are times in a novel where you don’t know that you have it in you, for some reason or other, you’re just in a point in the book where you don’t know what comes next, or whatever’s going on, and you just think, Oh God, can I do this? By the time you get to the end like that, you know you can do it, it’s just a matter of working through the necessary tasks, to putting in the necessary hours. And when you do that you get to go back to the beginning, which is the most fun.

ES: Is that your favorite part of the process [the beginning]?

RR: By a longshot.

ES: What is your relationship like in working with your editor?

RR: My editor, who’s been with me for all except three books in the middle, he did Mohawk, and then he left Random House and went somewhere else . . . and then he came back . . . and then all the other books have been with Gary [Fisketjon]. And he is an absolutely brilliant stylistic, page-to-page, line-to-line editor. We really have very little discussion about what happens in the book, unless there’s just something that’s not clear. He feels that once I’ve got the story, once I’ve got the characters doing what they should be doing, and have a satisfying resolution, he really doesn’t want anything to do with the story itself. He wants to help me with style, making sure that everything is as clear, as clean as it can possibly be.

He leaves virtually no sentence of mine unedited, not because he wants me to do everything the way he’s suggesting, but because he wants me to have options. And so he’ll—computers, interestingly, have been really helpful to him in editing—he’ll do a word search, discounting small words like “and” and “the,” but [targeting] substantive words. He’ll do a search on that and find out the frequency of words. So if you have an unusual word, and it turns up fifteen times in the book, it probably shouldn’t . . . so he’ll be on the lookout for those kinds of things. He’s wonderful . . . he’s got a great ear. If a word turns up too often, every time it does it’s a “ding” in the back of his mind, and he’ll be looking for that, to make sure that if words turn up more than they should, it’s because they’re important in terms of the theme, or something like that. He’s a meticulous editor, he’s a really old-school editor, I don’t know many editors anymore that do that kind of line-by-line work.

ES: How long does the editing process usually take?

RR: It takes a while. I think he told me one time that seven to ten pages of edits, for him, is a pretty good day. So if he’s getting five hundred and sixty pages from me, it’s going to take him a while to edit that. I suspect he probably forces himself into longer days when he gets a book from me than when he gets, say, a Kent Haruf novel. And it could be that Kent Haruf is a lot cleaner writer than I am, but he’s edited Kent, and he’s edited Richard Ford, and Donna Tartt, and a whole slew of writers with very different styles. He’s very meticulous. And I’m really grateful to him, it makes my work on the second and third go-arounds, it gives me more to do, but the end product is much better than it would be if he weren’t doing all that heavy lifting.

ES: How did your first novel get to your agent?

RR: I’ve been blessed. I’ve had two editors, only one agent. My agent is one of the very few that really scours the literary magazines. And just as Steve [Heller, chair of the AULA MFA program] published that early story of mine in Mid-American Review, and it might have been that, that my agent Nat Sobel saw, and said when you have a novel, let me know. And Nat has always subscribed, because he likes to support these literary magazines, which are kind of feeders for the mainstream. They’re kind of really wonderful little, babbling brooks that are going to eventually form a much larger river. And he’s always subscribed to between eighty to one hundred literary magazines. And he doesn’t read every word of every issue, but he reads around every issue, and if it’s fiction published in a literary magazine, even with a small circulation, there’s a pretty good chance he’s either read it, or read some of it. He found this [Russo’s short story “The Top of the Tree” was published in the first issue of Mid-American Review in 1981 – ES] in Mid-American Review at the time, it had probably a circulation of three hundred. And without any particular reason of thinking a story by Richard Russo would be good, he read it. He’s eight-three, I think, and he’s still doing it.

ES: I find there is a mix of humor and seriousness in your work. Do you consider yourself a comic writer at all?

RR: I consider myself a comic writer, but actually in the more classical sense of comedy, as opposed to tragedy. Comedy in the Shakespearean sense means that it’s just much more likely to end with a wedding. In that, comedy is essentially hopeful, which can be trying to find the optimism and, especially, if you’re going to go to dark places . . .

And for the comic writer, that’s the trick I think: to end a book, if not with a wedding, at least with the possibility of happiness. These people have gone on a journey, and they can’t arrive either right where they started or with some sort of truly tragic consequences, not after they’ve worked so hard. And so you’re looking for that.

You’re not trying to tie everything up in a pretty bow and pretend that things are better than they are. But you want to acknowledge, I think the comic writer wants to acknowledge, the possibility that hard work ends if not happiness, at least the possibility thereof. When I say I’m a comic writer, I’d like to think it’s that, because I’m sometimes funny, but more importantly than that is my view—my comic view of life—is guardedly hopeful.

You get challenged in that. Yesterday was a challenging day, with what happened in South Carolina. [The day before this interview, nine people were killed by a gunman during a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.] It was just a challenging day. You saw Jon Stewart went on last night and didn’t have a thing to say. And the president came out and spoke, saying essentially that [he’s] been here too often. And there’s a time when humor fails, but most of the time . . . . There’s just no place to go with pessimism, is there?

ES: Tell me about the book you collaborated on with your daughter, Kate.  

RR: We did this collection called Interventions—three short stories and a novella-size thing. I really wanted the emphasis to be on the art. So she did—there’s an illustration, each story contains an illustration, and then there’s also cover art for each piece, and it all slips into a beautiful slipcase, and her husband Tom did the book’s design, it was kind of a family project. I would give her the story and without instruction say, make of this what you will. It was a lot of fun to do that, it was with a small press, but it was an enormous amount of fun to do. And better yet, when the book came out, we did a regional book tour with it in New England, which meant I got to spend close to a month on the road with her flogging this book. And of course all the years she watched me go out on the road with book tours and everything, and then to do one together with her was just a kick. I think by the time we were done she was glad it was over, because it can be grueling to be away from home for a long period of time . . . she was beginning to recognize what all that was about.

But I would love to do another book with her at some point, because one of the things that I think is happening as result of eBooks, is that print publishers are really striving to find out what’s the added value of a print book. If you can do it all with ones and zeroes and you don’t have to kill a tree to do it, and it costs so much less . . . if you’re going to sell a $30 hardback, what’s the added value of that? And so we’re beginning to see now books that are really beautiful. Not the most recent, but the Murakami novel before that that was incredibly beautiful—

ES: We were just passing that around yesterday!

—I think we may be moving towards an era in which the glory days of books being illustrated by artists, think of those wonderful N.C. Wyeth illustrations, books like Treasure Island, those books were just incredible works of art. That’s one of the directions that print book could be going in, to give added value—because an image on the screen is just not the same thing, is it?

ES: You mentioned in an interview with Down East magazine that one of your favorite short stories you’ve written is “Sister Ursula.” Why so?

RR: Part of it is that I don’t write short stories very well. I have a really difficult time holding on to the reigns tightly enough to keep it from being a novella or a novel. I’ve been at this long enough to know that my vision is expansive. Some writers start in a small frame and they just go deeper and deeper and deeper into the frame, but the frame never gets that much larger. I, on the other hand, tend to start with that same small frame, but very soon the frame is just blown out. I’m not maybe going that much deeper, but it’s suddenly, you’re in the world of a mural now . . . .

And so, I’m particularly proud of that story, first of all because it’s a successful short story, and I’m almost never able to do that. But part of it, too, is just Sister Ursula, she’s this wonderful woman, she’s an eighty-year-old Belgian nun, and she comes into this guy’s short story writing class determined to tell a story that she herself doesn’t know the meaning of. It’s the story of her and her mother—and her father—but primarily her mother. And she has the tremendous desire to share with the other writers—despite the fact that they’re all kids—the other writers in the class and her instructor. She has this overwhelming desire to share her story, and her parents’ story, without ever suspecting for a moment that she doesn’t understand what it is. And she embodies for me a lot of people who would like to do that, the storytelling urge . . . Sister Ursula is one of the most heartbreaking characters I’ve ever had the privilege to hang out with for a time, because she is so desperate to understand something she doesn’t understand. She thinks by telling this story that she’s sharing something very important with other people, and what she’s really doing is just entering a terrible voyage of self-discovery. I just so enjoyed my time with her.

ES: As a traditional fiction novelist, how would you say autobiography comes into play in your work?

RR: In traditional stories, I think it’s kind of assumed that if you’re doing what everybody tells you you should do, which is write what you know, then writing what you know is part and parcel of your own experience. It’s kind of assumed that if not you, then someone you spent a lot time with or whatever, there’s some core of reality from which you are going out like the spokes of the wheel. But you don’t jump from the air into the air, you jump from the ground into the air, which means whatever your ground situation is, it’s probably based in some way in experience—yours or someone that’s close to you. But the most important thing, of course, is that you’re giving that person a name that’s not yours.

What I’m asking of the reader is to dream really deeply . . . and at the end of it, come up out of it as if waking from a dream, but which you look around at the real world and say, wow, I was asleep for a really long time there, and that was such a vivid dream. Ok, now I’m back in reality.

I think what the post-modern novel does when it incorporates autobiography in a much more blatant way, and a writer, for instance, uses his or her own name as a character in the book, something as obvious as that—I think what that writer is saying is, don’t dream too deeply. I want you to be aware that this is a construct, right from the beginning. This is a construct, and it is a story—don’t confuse it with real life, and if I ever get going too far where you get too caught up in it, I’m going to wake you up. Just to let you know, I’m going to wake you up. And then they’ll proceed to do that, whether it’s Borges, or whoever will tell you that I’m going to tell you a story, it is a story, I’m going to remind you that it’s a story, and then after that I’m going to remind you again—and oh, by the way, the main character’s name is Borges. They’re both [traditional and post-modern] using autobiography, but I think they have two completely objectives.

ES: What is your connection to Gloversville now, outside of your work?

RR: I’m going home a lot more now, it’s easier for me. After my father died, it was difficult because I would just see him careening around corners as I negotiated those same streets. And while my mother was alive, she hated the place so much, it made it difficult for me to go back, and for a long time, I just didn’t, even though I have family there, and friends there, I just didn’t go. I’m going a lot more now, back a lot more now than I used to . . . the family that I have left there, my cousins that I’m close to, every time I go back there I run into someone I liked. And during the time when I wasn’t going back, people used to ask me all the time, how come I never come home? And I would say, what are you talking about, haven’t you been reading these books? [laughs] I’m always there. Can’t you see that, every day of my life, for the last twenty-five or thirty years. I’m just not physically present, but I’m certainly there all the time. In that sense, can you ever leave? Well, I tried, for all the good it did me, and now I’m not trying anymore to leave, made some sort of peace. It has something to do with my parents’ death, and affection for my remaining relatives and friends. But also for, as I said, I had a wonderful childhood there . . . .

For a long time, people who read Mohawk, The Risk Pool, and Nobody’s Fool, in particular my early novels, and then again with Bridge of Sighs, which is my most Gloversville, Gloversville-novel—people have told me that these books, my writing of these books, has validated their lives in the sense that they realized someone was paying attention. Everybody else was chasing money, or chasing status, or was chasing all the things that people chase, the chimeras that people chase.

And the kinds of people that I write about are not any of those people. The fact that I chose to write about them, and their lives, and treated them with the kind of dignity for how hard their lives were, and all of that, that meant a lot to them. And many of them were grateful to me for that. I think now that I’ve been able to go home and do some other things in person, I think that means as much, or possibly even more. That going back in the flesh has meant a lot to a lot of people. I kind of wish I’d done it sooner, but . . . . One of the things that I noticed when I went back to do this work for the library is that my physical presence meant a lot . . . . I found that if there’s a way to turn fame into something productive in terms of community and society, then why not do it? I don’t see what the counter-argument is at that point.

Erin SchwartzErin Anadkat Schwartz is a MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles and working on her first novel. She has a background in journalism, film/TV production, and interactive media. Find her online at http://literaryla.kchungradio.org/

Counter Intuitive

The cop that wrote me up for trying to use a fake ID at an Ocean City bar was wearing yellow-striped shorts, an embarrassing reality that defused any grand aspirations of mine to spin the tale into one of proud delinquency. Where that cop is today, I do not know, and he does not know where I am, and it’s unlikely that, beyond the hour during which I sat on the curb reciting personal information for his report, our lives will ever cross again. Where those shorts are now is also a mystery—they could still be adorning his skinny, tan legs as he apprehends more underage drinkers; they could have been passed along to another officer; or they could have become undesired, as the yellow fabric faded and the threads loosened at the seams after many long, taxing hours under the Maryland sun. Once undesired, clothing can be interred in a messy closet, tossed out, or, in some cases, given a shot at new life via donation. If given to a thrift shop, those yellow-striped shorts would join the massive ocean of used clothing donations made by Americans every year—4.7 billion pounds, by some estimations.

During busy hours at the 96th Street Housing Works, one in a chain of thrift shops operating in New York City, it can feel like all 4.7 billion of those pounds have arrived in a single afternoon, unloaded unceremoniously at the donations counter for the attendant to sort through. I know this because I am the attendant, serving 40 hours of community service assigned by a Maryland judge as punishment for my use of that fake ID in Ocean City. My options for completing the hours were plentiful—volunteering at a soup kitchen, picking up trash in Central Park, cleaning animal cages for the ASPCA, and so on. I chose Housing Works at 96th Street at the recommendation of a college classmate, who called the labor boring but manageable.

[blockquote align=right]I look down at my own body and imagine myself stripped down, my possessions assessed and passed along.

During the chunks of hours I put in over the weeks following my sentence, the Housing Works manager assigned me a variety of duties. Sometimes I swept the floors and wiped down the furniture. Sometimes I re-racked the clothes to comply with our color ordering scheme—red, pink, orange, yellow, green, blue, gray, brown, beige, black, white. Once, after a rack of blazers was stolen, I was told to act as a security guard and walk around looking for possible thieves. (What they expected me to do with the type of guy that pilfered items from a thrift shop was never explained, nor was how to differentiate a potential criminal from our less-than-polished clientele. I puffed out my chest anyway and stalked around the place, keeping an eye out for suspiciously stuffed pockets or hurried hand movements and fantasizing about foiling getaways with Heisman-worthy tackles.) But most of the time I stood at the gloomy and gray linoleum donations counter, as I do now, waiting for people to come in and drop off their stuff. In five minutes, I will have completed 39 hours. Today will be my last day.

A woman walks up to the counter. She’s wearing a pantsuit and has very straight brown hair and the click-click of her heels turns our hard thrift shop floor into a metronome. She probably just got off work. Along with the lunching hours, the end of the workday is the busiest time for donors to drop off their used clothes at Housing Works. In between are lengthy stretches of inactivity during which I struggle to stay awake. A man, her husband I presume, trails behind her with two black garbage bags.

“Welcome to Housing Works,” I say with a hint of enthusiasm, although she’s definitely not listening—could I have said “Welcome to Hell” without her even flinching? Her husband plops the bags on the counter and I untie the knots. Out spill high-end dresses, designer jeans, and a pile of silk scarves. One of those donations. Along the wide spectrum of quality that encompasses our endless and varying donations, this woman represents the superior end, the end created by Manhattan socialites who need to un-stuff their closets for the new season so they dump their dated collections at Housing Works for us to paw through. These prized contributions aren’t frequent, though. More often donors will leave sartorial flotsam: torn sweaters and stained shorts, frayed hats and scuffed sneakers, undesired uniform shorts and even some underwear every now and then.

At the bottom of the second of the couple’s two bags is a cardboard box with a sewing machine in it. Can this woman have ever even considered repairing something once it ripped? I stack it next to a dusty Cuisinart on one of our appliance shelves. The fact that we take household items in addition to clothing leads to the expected—old plates, spare pillows, video cassettes—and also the unexpected. One woman dropped off a bag of about 300 female condoms, looked me in the eye, and demanded I put them somewhere where they’d be sure to sell. One man deposited a set of wall curtains, each several hundred square feet in size. My manager knew that the few people who shopped for wall curtains probably didn’t do so at a thrift shop, and ordered me to tear them into pieces and throw them out. They proved to be perforated by an army of needles that stuck into my palms as I angrily ripped at the cloth, a bandana across my face to block my inhalation of the colloidal fabric that levitated from the shredded curtains. Another woman donated an unmarked box of assorted clear plastic pieces. A half-hearted attempt at assembly revealed the contraption to be a used breast pump. This too was deemed worthy only of the bottom of a trash can.

The reality is that a sizable portion of donations find their way to the garbage. The donated items are transported from the counter and placed in the storage room several yards behind, separated from the store only by a plastic curtain. The curtain hides us as we choose what to keep and what to discard, an essential barrier since some donors would be appalled if they could see how quickly we decide to throw out their former possessions. Although I don’t think this woman in particular really cares whether we keep her stuff or throw it out or if I put on six of her dresses at once and tap dance on the counter.

The source of our endless garbage is twofold. Sometimes people assume we can make use of items that we actually can’t, such as wall curtains or a used breast pump. More often the owners of these doomed donations had always meant to throw them out and wanted to leave that task to someone else. The thrift store donation counter is a hassle-free alternative to garbage disposal. Donors let us sort through paper, plastic, and glass. They let us decide what to do with their unwanted belongings. They let us feel the guilt of throwing away former favorites. They don’t want to look a teddy bear in the eye before tying the plastic knot above his grave. And best of all, they can shirk this responsibility all in the name of charity.

I scrunch up the garbage bags and the woman swivels on her heels to leave the store.

“Would you like to fill out the tax write-off?” I half-yell at her as she distances herself from the counter, waving the form like I’m bidding her goodbye from the deck of an outgoing ship. But she casually throws up the back of her hand as if lazily batting away a fly: she is like most donors, simply wishing to flee the scene of this hot-potato game of garbage passing. Some leave before I can even identify whatever they’ve left, the retail version of ding-dong-ditch.

Others do accept the chance to claim the deduction. The form asks that donors be thorough and specific about the things that they’ve donated and to determine values of items based on 40% of their original retail price. Most donors, predictably, stretch the limits of this suggestion. They scribble down a loose definition of their donations—“clothing”—and pause for a moment before deciding that they are worth as much or more than they originally cost. Somehow a moth-bitten hat has accrued value in the decade since it was first bought. They snatch up the yellow carbon copy of the form and zip out of the store, having been paid to not deal with their trash.

This is Housing Works. This is how it works. And I have an hour left.

*    *    *

An old couple walks in. The woman is pushing a black cart full of junk, and the man with her holds a stuffed garbage bag in each hand, also, presumably, full of junk. They shuffle their way to my counter. I brace myself for the incoming storm of clutter.

“Welcome to Housing…” I say, trailing off. The man spills out one bag onto the surface while the woman plucks objects one-by-one from her cart and lines them up. The items that emerge are virtually unsellable. Packs of cards with a third of the deck missing. A board game without the top to the cardboard box. Cracked bowls and dirty cups. A stack of withered books interspersed with the couple’s personal papers—are they really donating their own mail? A lamp with a severed power cord. Ragged T-shirts and mismatched socks. A Reagan-era PC that stares apathetically back at me.

I expect them to bolt from this glorified garbage dump, but instead the woman begins recounting a story for almost every item that sits on the counter. The cards and board games were purchased to entertain their grandchildren when they were born, but they have since outgrown such trinkets. One of the sets of bowls came from a vacation to Venice several decades ago. The books have all been read and reread.

“It’s time for someone else to enjoy them,” the woman says. I stack them up.

“He claimed he could fix this,” she says, gesturing toward the lamp. She looks at him and he chuckles. “I guess not…” she says.

The woman puts her hands on the sides of the computer and tilts it up to look at it. “We haven’t turned this thing on in years,” she says, “And my daughter bought me a new one in the spring anyway.”

They don’t explain every T-shirt as I fold them, but they do offer anecdotes for a special few. A University of Wisconsin shirt with a faded badger, the school’s mascot, draws a story of their son’s college days. A Regent Seven Seas shirt is the product of a recent cruise trip, an Obama ’08 shirt an expression of their political affiliation.

Eventually the counter is clear. I mention the tax deduction form but they brush it off.

“The money doesn’t matter,” the woman says. The man compresses the empty garbage bags and tosses them into the cart. I offer the couple my standardized gratitude for their donations. They smile and then weave their way through customers to the store’s exit. The bell above the door jingles as they pass through.

I transport all of their donations into the storage room. They all seem a little bit less shoddy now that a lifetime of stories has been attached to them. My grandmother used to have board games for me. The lamp could be resuscitated by any passable electrician. Was my first computer somewhere in the basement at home?

One of my superiors joins me behind the counter.

“Look at all this shit,” she says, scanning the items that the elderly couple dropped off. She pulls shut the curtain that separates the stock room from the counter, hiding our ruthless sorting of donations from our unsuspecting customers.

“Keep the books, the housewares, and the computer. Everything else is trash,” she says, and leaves me behind the curtain to dispose of the unwanted items. I scoop up the stuff, hugging it against my chest, before unloading it into the dumpster we keep in the storage room. What little order the couple had preserved is undone as I toss away their erstwhile belongings. The board game pieces scatter within the can and nestle in the corners of the bag. The shirts unfold and cardboard royalty slip from the deck of cards and down through crevices in the pile of rubbish.

I tie up the bag and sling it over my shoulder. I walk through the store, a bizarro Santa carrying the world’s rejected possessions. At the curb outside I stack the bag on top of the others from the day, totaling perhaps a dozen. There are homeless people waiting for the drop-off, a daily sight outside of Housing Works. As soon as I turn, they undo my knot and start rifling through the bag. I glance back one more time when I get back into the store. One homeless man has found the jackpot: the stack of old T-shirts. He jams them under his armpit and scoots down the block with his prize. The faded badger peeks out nervously from under his brown jacket.

Back in the storage room, I turn over a milk crate and sit down to start pricing the couple’s books, as directed by my boss. We have instructions on how to assess the value of the many used books that we receive—criteria revolving around the size, condition, and renown of the book, and even the original price tag if it can be found—but the process is somewhat arbitrary. I absentmindedly stick freshly inked 6s and 7s from the pricing gun to books I’ve never heard of.

I begin to think about all of the items that the couple donated. Where they began—toy stores, housewares outlets, clothing shops, onboard cruise ships, and where they ended up—a garbage dump, adorning a homeless man, or sentenced to an idle eternity on a Housing Works shelf. I look down at my own body and imagine myself stripped down, my possessions assessed and passed along. My pants and shirt hung on racks at Housing Works, my shoes pecked at by crows at some lonely landfill, my cell phone disassembled and separated into computer chips, my keys melted down and re-constituted as nuts and bolts. I sit there on the milk crate, naked. Then my skin is ripped from my flesh and fashioned into hide. The meat is torn from my body and molded into burger patties for a fast food joint. My eyeballs are extracted with tooth picks and frozen in glass and modeled in a museum. My hair is shaved off and stuffed into the cushion of a desk chair. My ligaments are tied into rubber bands and used to bind the elderly couple’s piles of mail. My bones are stacked up and tossed into the Housing Works garbage can, where bugs nip at them until nothing remains but a few chalky specks.

At the bottom of the pile of books I find The Moviegoer, a novel by Walker Percy, my namesake. My thoughtless streak of pricing comes to an abrupt stop. I put the gun down and hold the book in my hands. What are the odds that one Walker would find another in the bottom of a stack of forgotten books? How had this title avoided being carried away by a vagrant, left under a bed in an apartment, tossed casually in the garbage, burnt or buried? Surely this passing of men in time and space, this interaction between person and object, this evanescent moment of possession should be recognized! I set the price gun to $61,092, those digits a standard numerical representation of my date of birth. I stick the white rectangle on the cover, flattening it with my thumb. The book will have to be repriced, assuming no one is willing to shell out sixty grand for a shabby paperback from a thrift store. But for the moment it holds my mark and indicates that it once passed through my hands. I take it and the rest to the bookshelves in the store and spread them out. There is room enough that only one line of books needs to be formed, but I nevertheless hide The Moviegoer behind two others, saving its bogus price tag from a quick death for at least another day.

It is 7 P.M. I take off my Housing Works lanyard and leave it on the desk in the back office. I fill out my final shift’s paperwork and make sure the previous ones all add up to forty hours. I thank my boss, put my jacket on, and exit the store, to buy and sell, to collect and dispose, to cherish and forget, to meet the man behind the counter and attempt to explain value.

Walker HarrisonWalker Harrison is a young writer living in New York City. He works for a start-up and writes both fiction and non-fiction in his spare time. He studied applied mathematics and creative writing at Columbia University. His most recent published work can be seen in the Cobalt Review‘s annual baseball issue.

Gutter Maps

ocean ellipsis mouth
we catch ourselves
a grumble in the time gap
maw’s energetic swallow
her beast, her quickening

where were all the murderous
bowlegged dangers i avoided
rollerskating down Mermaid Avenue
back when tides washed the back legs of youth’s agency

there in the subatomic catacomb
an organism of prisms
sold in the back junk shops
i washed my poverty in anonymous
erotic paperbacks i washed
my ideas about poverty through
the camera’s ground glass

the smiling was a circle
i swung to – the sun
beat the boardwalk and its
nostalgic catastrophe of magics
a map of gaslight gutter
rainbows i followed to the sea

Melissa Eleftherion Head ShotMelissa Eleftherion grew up in Brooklyn. She is the author of huminsect (dancing girl press, 2013), prism maps (Dusie Kollektiv, 2014), Pigtail Duty (dancing girl press, 2015), and several other chapbooks and fragments. Her recent work appears or is forthcoming in Entropy, Negative Capability, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, So to Speak, ​Tinderbox, ​and Vector Press. Melissa lives and works as a reference librarian in Mendocino County where she manages the Teen Services department. She also maintains the Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange, a community-curated digital chapbook archive she created and developed for the Poetry Center at SF State University.​ You can visit her @apoetlibrarian and www.apoetlibrarian.wordpress.com. ​

Hand Job

It is Linda’s first night home after a four-day sales trip that takes her from Connecticut to Maine and back home again to Connecticut. She goes out on the road every other week. On the first night home after one of her trips we stay home, order in, get wrecked and do sex—mostly in that order. Tomorrow we will go out alone for dinner and on the third night we usually get together with friends. Somewhere in this scenario is at least one argument. Linda and I can argue over how the other says hello.

She sells specialty stuffed bears—mostly to card and gift shops in hospitals. Bears are still number one in the stuffed animal world. The company she works for is called, Physically Imbeared. It specializes in stuffed animals that are impaired in one way or another. She says that it’s a great niche market for kids with physical limitations. For example, her biggest seller is Bear With Glasses. The animals can be ordered with any of the following: glasses, hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, wheel chairs, iron lungs, walkers, or the biggie which is Bear In The Bubble.

I take the night off from my bar and hope that my manager doesn’t become my partner. She’s new, been with me only three weeks, so I chance she won’t start stealing yet.

We are in the Jacuzzi eating Chinese. Linda is having the only thing she ever orders—a Number Three. That’s a combination egg roll, pork fried rice, and sweet and sour chicken. She still won’t even taste anything else after six years of my trying to broaden her food horizons. I guess it shouldn’t, but this angers me. There’s a series of things that Linda does to anger me. This is one and she knows it. Won’t even take a taste of something different. Never does. I don’t understand her lack of curiosity. I’m having one of their specials—Wonderful scallops in most delicious and unusual surprise spicy sauce with lichees.

Linda is looking at her hands, holding them out in front of her, turning palm up, palm down—sometimes empty handed or with whatever she has in her hand at the moment—chopsticks, a joint, a bar of soap, the carton of white rice. She’s been doing this since she got home. It’s another one of her habits that angers me. Instead of coming out directly with what she wants to say or discuss, Linda would rather put me through the torture of twenty questions. I’d like to start my own line of bears and call them Emotionally Imbeared.

I sit in the tub and look at her, the heart-shaped face and high forehead that I always found attractive, and still do. She changes hairstyles often, but not color. Tonight her hair is hanging straight—almost to her shoulders and she has wisps of bangs splayed across her forehead.

I’m not going to ask her what she’s doing because I know it’s driving her crazier that I’m not asking. I’m just hoping for a fortune cookie that will let me segue into an argument that will lead to her moving out of my house and back to her apartment in the next few weeks—by Thanksgiving. She’s got to be out before the Christmas season begins. I have to make the argument seem real—not contrived. That’s for my benefit. She knows it’s going to happen—she expects it, but I just can’t come right out and tell her the real reason. It would be cruel and I don’t want to hurt her feelings. The less said the better.

“Did you ever notice my hands?” she finally asks in a tone as if the thought just entered her mind. “I have hand model hands.”

“No kidding,” I say. “What does that mean?”

“It means that I have very special hands—thin and well proportioned—the kind of hands that hand models have.”

“Oh?”

“I can make a living modeling my hands,” she says proudly.

“Someone will pay you to show them your hands?” I ask.

She gives me her look. “It’s not only the hands, it’s what they are holding and how you use them. See what I mean?” she asks, showing me her hands as she holds the egg roll in her wet left palm and points to it in a showy way with her right pointer finger. “I have the right shape hands and the long thin fingers that are in demand,” Linda says, sounding like a pitchman for the Acme Hand Models School.

[blockquote align=right]“Did you ever notice my hands?” she finally asks in a tone as if the thought just entered her mind. “I have hand model hands.”

“Pass me the egg roll,” I say, “and let me try.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she says. “You don’t have hand model hands.”

“If you have them, I want them too.”

“Your fingers are too wrinkled and short and you also have scars on your hands.”

“So?”

“So, you can go to all the modeling agencies in the world and you’ll never get a hand job unless they happen to need someone with wrinkled, short, scarred fingers.”

“Where do you fit in this world of hand jobs?” I ask.

“I fit in well, thank you—and I just happen to have an appointment with a photographer who specializes in models to do a hand portfolio for me this week.” Linda says.

“How do you pay him? With money or a hand job?”

“Maybe both. Everything’s a joke with you,” Linda says. “For your information I was told by an agent who represents people in commercials that I have perfect hands. Can you imagine making big money just because you have perfect hands? I can give up the bears and stop traveling by car. Models travel first class.”

“Where did you meet this agent?” I ask suspiciously.

“What difference does it make? I met him.”

“Was it in a bar?” I ask.

“Yes,” Linda says. “As a matter of fact it was the hotel bar in Newport.”

“You sound as if there is an ‘and’ coming,” I say.

“There is no ‘and’ coming,” she says.

“Really?”

“It’s no big deal. We both had business in Boston the next night and met for dinner. We discussed my hands and he told me the benefits of having an agent.”

“Let me guess,” I say. “He offered to be your agent.”

“Yes, he did.”

“That kind of says it all,” I say, recognizing an opening when I hear one. I get out of the Jacuzzi, “I can’t trust you on these trips. I always knew it.” I wrap the towel around my waist. “I won’t fuck you again without a health note,” I tell her.

“That’s why I don’t tell you everything. You are a sicko and I won’t fuck you even if you have a note from your mother.” Linda turns on the loud Jacuzzi jets to end the conversation.

While lying in bed reading and waiting for her, condom on the nightstand, Linda walks in dressed and says, “What’s the big rush this year? I was planning to move but it’s not even close to Thanksgiving. You’re getting to be like Hallmark—moving the season up a little earlier each year.”  She walks out and I hear her car drive off.

She’s right. It is earlier than usual. It’s only the beginning of November and I usually start “the argument” right before Thanksgiving.

This has gone on for most of the seven years we’ve been together. It was our third year together when Linda moved in and we stayed together right through the holidays. I swore never again. It was the Christmas tree. I grew up with menorahs and latkes in December, not a dead tree with tsatskes and flickering annoying lights dominating the living room.

I didn’t know how to tell Linda that I couldn’t deal with Christmas in my house. No more trees and the best way to have no more trees was to have no more Linda. I was marking time with her, I would never marry her but I was too much of a coward to tell her.

All those years ago, with her husband away on business, when we first made love, Linda asked me—right out—then and there—if her not being Jewish mattered to me. Not having thought about it before and not wanting to lose the moment I told her, “No, of course not.” As I said it I realized that it did matter and during all these years I never corrected myself, and she never brought it up again. Linda used that brief exchange as an excuse to get out of a bad marriage. She hung in with me for her own reasons. Love? In all of our years together, sober or stoned, in bed or out, neither of us used the word or was courageous enough to chance the question.

Over the years when she moved back into her apartment I would drive by nightly until I saw the lit tree and then I’d call her. I’d buy her Christmas presents, apologize, and court her again. We’d end up spending New Year’s together and then sometime before Valentine’s Day Linda would move back in. Some might call this a sick relationship, but it’s no different than the games that married people play for far longer periods of time. I knew Linda wanted to get married. She never spoke about it and I certainly never brought up the subject. The real problem was comfort. We became comfortable in this scene and before we realized it seven years had passed. I wanted to get married too, but not to Linda. The trouble was that wishing wasn’t going to find me a new mate—action was—but wishing was easier. I’m sure she thought the same.

I keep driving past Linda’s house and never see any signs of life much less a Christmas tree in her window. One of her girlfriends tells me that she went to stay with her parents in Florida for the holidays.

I overhear Candy, one of my waitresses, telling the bartender that her husband is away on a business trip until after Christmas. She is happily married but not adverse to a little adventure now and then. I wait for an opening and then I offer to take her to Bermuda over Christmas. She is silent for a minute. Finally she gets off the stool, says, “Wait,” and walks over to talk to the bartender. On her way back he gives me a look that says, “I’m going to steal double while you’re gone for moving in on me.”

“You’re on,” she says. She tells me she’s excited about the trip. I’m excited about Candy. She has the girl next-door looks with a dazzling smile. Her hair is short and brown and I’m enamored with her rich, full lips.

Bermuda is better than either of us expected. As the plane is taxiing for takeoff she whispers in my ear that she’s so nervous she forgot to pack or wear any underwear. I look at her. Candy’s dazzling smile sets the tone. The beaches are great, the lovemaking better and, for the most part, I put Linda out of my mind. Candy and I arrive home on the twenty-seventh with neither making promises to the other. We shared a great few days with lots of laughter and gossip and we both know that it may or may not happen again. “Merry Christmas,” I say as I drop her off at her car. “Back to you, big guy.”

Pulling up to my house after dropping Candy off I’m floored. It’s decorated. There are Christmas lights in trees and around the door; an illuminated Santa stands defiantly on my roof. Inside, I find the decorated Christmas tree. I feel uncomfortable in my own house. The strong smell of pine adds to my discomfort. There’s a box under the tree wrapped in Christmas paper. Linda knows I don’t like getting gifts wrapped in Christmas paper. It’s another thing she does that angers me.

I pick up the box to open it and all of a sudden realize that I’m in a lit-up house and thoughts of my friends driving by gives me a panic attack. Rushing to the bathroom, I grab an anti-anxiety pill from the medicine cabinet and then run outside to turn off the lights. I yank on Santa’s extension cord so hard he comes crashing down into my bushes—but at least he’s no longer glowing. Running from tree to tree I manage to get all the lights out and decide that I’ll work on removal in the morning. The blinking lights around my door surrounding the mezuzah are the final straw. I yank the cords and smash the bulbs. Spent, I sit on my stoop and then it dawns on me that one of my neighbors might come by and say something. I dash inside and pick up the phone—but I’m not sure who to call or what to say.

Sitting on the floor, facing the darkened Christmas tree I rip open the box. Inside is a framed section of the local newspaper showing an ad for menorahs. The ad shows a very beautiful silver menorah resting on a glass table. It has a full complement of new unlit candles. There is one hand gently holding it on the side and the other hand is pointing at it. I recognize those long skinny fingers and their position. It’s the same way Linda pointed to the egg roll in the tub. She really does have hand model hands. I flash back to an earlier memory—one of our sitting in a restaurant and I’m looking down at her hands resting on top of mine while we talk. I nostalgically remember how good those hands made me feel—their lightness and their warmth.

Paul BeckmanPaul Beckman has had over two hundred stories published in print and online in the following magazines, amongst others: Connecticut Review, Raleigh Review, Litro, Playboy, PANK, Literary Orphans, Blue Fifth Review, Flash Frontier, Metazen, Boston Literary Magazine and The Brooklyner. He’s had a novella and three collections published, the newest, Peek, by Big Table Publishing in February of this year. His published story website is www.paulbeckmanstories.com.

 

Éster Terracina

From the translator’s note: The biographies that make up this collection are a blend of history and fiction. They all contain events and people that have existed, or could have existed.  They are not easy; Davide uses a challenging and unconventional vocabulary . . . The stories in Città distrutte: Sei biografie infedeli deal with difficult themes: loss, failure, love and worlds with immigration, war, dictatorships but they do not lose their sense of humor. When a character like Éster exaggerates, when she holds a funeral for Che Guevara, as readers, we can smile, not laughing at her, but understanding her radical heart.

from Città distrutte: Sei biografie infedeli: 

Éster Terracina (1951-1976)

I love the words of the philosophers. So here is a chance to use them: Patrice Vuillard calls them “strings of coincidence” (Dynamique des abandons, Paris 1983, p. 54). Words so powerful they push those stories deserving a place in history into memory. They are bound with an “invisible glue” (Id., Regles, Paris 1992, p. 123) or better yet a series of “hidden chains” similar to “psychohistoric seeds” (Jakob Daniel Wegelin, Briefe uber den Werth der Geschichte, Himburg, Berlin 1783, pp. 127-128) connected to human actions, apparently intertwined unwittingly in a meaning that could only have been established in hindsight. Oppressed by the misfortune of having happened, the story begins like this: and no one would call it “chance!” In the past century, on the last day of ’51, Ernesto Guevara commences his journey while in an apartment in Once, a neighborhood in the center of Buenos Aires, Éster Terracina lifts herself up from a velvet pillow and takes her first steps. [blockquote align=left]I looked all around wondering: who will come to destroy my elation? Today little Éster walks. Another reason to be happy: to have put a woman on this earth.

Her mother notes in her diary: “I looked all around wondering: who will come to destroy my elation? Today little Éster walks. Another reason to be happy: to have put a woman on this earth. Alberto came home and embraced us. Will I be able to sleep tonight?” The euphoria that Norma Terracina would experience from the first elections in Argentina because of universal suffrage was a mere month away; it explains the exuberance in her writing. I would like to thank historian Guillermo Viera of the Universidad Nacional de Jujuy for having suggested this interpretation of the text. Like many of her compatriots at the ballot for the first time Norma has no doubts: she leaves the nation in the hands of the Perón matrimonial alliance. Her sister-in-law Graciela writes about her in a letter addressed to their cousin Iginio Malinverno. The message reads (preserved at the private archives of the Malinverno family in Rosario): “The idiot voted like she said she would. She’s infinitely grateful. All she talks about is Evita. It gives me a headache. Fortunately the slut will die.” Graciela’s political sympathies for the Unión CÍvica Radical of Balbín and Frondizi, for which her husband Fernando is an activist, motivate and spur her crude words. Who really knows if rancor can also incite affection. Is hate contagious? If there is a scientific answer it ought to be made public. As for me, I cannot stop thinking of little Éster who on that last day of ’51 took her first quick-footed steps. I wonder to what extent her aunt’s sentiments, along with Guevara’s journey, had an influence on the following events.

[blockquote align=right]Those who have preceded Éster guide her onto a new path. She is immediately master of her actions, though her blood is impure. An inheritance. A memory. A distant, antiquated sling holds her upright.

Those who have preceded Éster guide her onto a new path. She is immediately master of her actions, though her blood is impure. An inheritance. A memory. A distant, antiquated sling holds her upright. Her gait recalls the memory of strolls through her grandfather, Giacomo Terracina’s, books. Bruna’s husband, Alberto’s father, the man who had a premonition one year before Mussolini’s Race Laws went into effect. He closed the legal bookshop in San Pantaleo, their neighborhood in Rome. The event didn’t go unnoticed but Terracina had made up his mind, he took the family and decided to leave. In Napoli they boarded a steam liner. In ’39 the port of Riachuelo awaited them, as did a row of shacks. Years of thankless toil. In ’44 he opened a printing press in Corrientes, in ’46 he handed it over to his son in order to dedicate himself to his true passion: botany. His soothsaying powers, however, are transmitted only in part to Éster: when ’76 arrives she will stay in Buenos Aires.

When at nineteen Alberto arrives in Buenos Aires he is already someone else, melancholy is now part of his genetic code. He works construction, he works on the Jose Amalfitani Stadium, opened for Velez in ’43; in ’44 he begins working at his father’s printing press and marries Norma Reyes, in ’46 they have their first son Mario Roberto and in ’51 Éster. Alberto likes to fall asleep in his chair with his daughter in his arms, he reads about Italy in the papers, he pines for his native land. His wife describes him in her diary as “somewhere between indignant and nostalgic;” so as not to contradict her, he also supports Perón.

And what of Norma Reyes, born and raised in the Liniers neighborhood amongst the shops of the old station and the stops of Rivadvia. Alberto met her recovering at the Hospital de Agudos after a shoulder injury he procured while working on the stadium. (Norma, on the other hand, was there visiting an aunt.) From her very first months Éster reproduces her mother’s exuberant voice along with many other characteristics, but it is the voice that stands out. Norma and Alberto date for a year and then marry. Norma converts to reform Judaism and the bourgeois ways of the Terracina family. Despite all of this there is an unpredictable pulsing in her womb, passed down from her mother María Teresa Reyes Sulewski, militant of the Federación obrera argentina, close friend of Radowitzky and in-demand explosives expert. Éster would find refuge with her grandmother when it was her turn to fight.

[blockquote align=right]Secretly her classmates fall in love with her, the girls offer either friendship or envy (at that age no feeling comes watered down).

This is Éster’s gift, which only grows with time. The rapidity of this development is thanks to the marvel of narration. The first thing to go is the velvet cushion. Arms and legs lengthen, in ’59 while Guevara enters Havana she climbs atop a magnolia tree in Plaza San Martín and falls, passes a month in a cast, in 1960 she gets the chickenpox, in ’61 the measles, a scar remains on her forehead, then her “swan neck” grows long (as her mother comments in her diary in ’62), her breasts bud, her hair grows long, her face seems sculpted from soft caresses, freckles from the fingertips of a god who has shown her favor, her voice blushes a bit, the look in her eyes is touching. It all happens suddenly. In ’63 she passes through the gates of the Colegio Nacional where no one dare give her bad marks. Secretly her classmates fall in love with her, the girls offer either friendship or envy (at that age no feeling comes watered down). In ’66 she joins the Perónist Youth, her mother, disheartened by Perón’s fall approves the choice in her own political sadness, but her aged father looks upon her with caution and suspicion. On June twenty-eighth of that same year she discovers with her own eyes the meaning of a coup d’état and writes to her friend Penelope Di Castro while on vacation in Mar del Plata, (Di Castro has preserved the letter): “So finally I have seen it: the liturgy of the uniforms, the violence of the words. The lies found therein! Onganía gagged on them and spoke of revolution! Listen to me Penelope: we must stand up. Remember our conversations from last summer? Let’s begin from there, from Cuba and General Perón. I am not sure how to explain it, but I believe those two paths must meet.” “They don’t seem like the words of a fifteen-year-old girl,” comments Penelope Di Castro in her memoir Calle azul. Una vida entre revolucion y repression (Buenos Aires 2002, p. 34).

A month later there are military raids at the university, a friend loses an eye in the fighting and Éster’s anger hardens. A year from then Guevara is killed, she sees a photo of him dead in the newspaper, the stupor of the mouth agape and the puffy eyelids, as if the corpse were still in protest asking: this is what you do to me? Éster organizes a wake at her grandmother’s house, where no one present can hold back tears.

[blockquote align=left]A family dinner: the elderly parents caressing their daughter who they haven’t seen in over a year and lavishing the young man, who could be her boyfriend, with attention.

The following year she enrolls at the university where she meets Julio Mattucci, bartender by night and student by day, obstinate at the desks of the bourgeois. Julio sympathizes with the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadors of Mario Roberto Santucho, whose collected works he gives to Ester; thus Éster moves closer to Guevarism and to Julio. But really, what brings them together is the bed. On Julio’s mattress, in a one room apartment in Barrio Sur. Éster will write to a friend who wishes to remain anonymous: “It was like we had discovered a new continent.” From that night forward they are inseparable, together they participate in the Marcia silenziosa in ’69. The federal police break up the crowds and Julio gets a rubber bullet to the stomach; seeing him collapse to the ground, Éster, standing beside him, learns what it means to be close to death. A few months later they marry, they go to live at Villa Soldati; marriage does not placate Éster’s rage.

In 1970 Giacomo Terracina dies (he was strolling through the garden when he collapsed at the foot of a palm tree). Alberto closes the printing press, sells the house in Once and moves to the countryside with Norma.

In the summer of ’71 Julio and Éster leave for Misiones. One day in San Ignacio Mini, treading on the rust-colored earth that inters the Jesuit city, Julio confesses to her that he has become a guerilla fighter. Éster tells him he’s crazy; she ponders suicide. They return to Buenos Aires where they face days of violence.

[blockquote align=right]She takes refuge in the country with her parents, a wrinkle forms on her cheek, it crosses vertically and like a curse appears only when she laughs…

Éster and Julio pass many hours at home lavishing one another in tenderness. After a long hibernation I add new soil and manure to a peach tree I keep, the pot is filled to the brim: Julio accepts Éster’s overflowing attention and yet, he saddens. At the beginning of June he leaves without saying where to. A few weeks pass. Éster learns that his group has been massacred; Julio does not return.

She takes refuge in the country with her parents, a wrinkle forms on her cheek, it crosses vertically and like a curse appears only when she laughs; she spends time with her father’s citrus trees and takes hot baths. Because of psoriasis she cuts her hair short, she wears long-sleeved men’s shirts and white cotton underclothes, she has lots of time to read and falls in love with the work of Mario Benedetti. She sleeps long hours, twelve a night; getting out of bed is tiring, she laments the cruelty of never having given Julio a child, but that is the savagery of time. We look again to the diaries of Norma Terracina, which I quote here: “She didn’t rise all day from that chair in the garden, not even to eat or use the toilet. She seemed dead, a seated cadaver; she stared at the leaves of lackluster laurel trees. In the kitchen I found Alberto crying, he passed those tears to me.” She lives a year in mourning only broken by her deep desire for danger. “During those months, along with her suffering, a new path to militancy emerged,” explains her friend Penelope Di Castro. “I know it may seem callous, but it was as if each of her actions and thoughts were the product of exacting calculation.”

[blockquote align=left]She sleeps long hours, twelve a night; getting out of bed is tiring, she laments the cruelty of never having given Julio a child, but that is the savagery of time.

She returns to Buenos Aires in ’72, she studies to become a teacher and makes a living as a substitute, she lives in a single room in the Barracas neighborhood. Éster serves in the PRT-ERP. She isn’t a guerilla fighter but works at El Combatiente, the party’s secret newspaper, printing and paginating, embracing the trade her grandfather brought from Rome. Again Penelope remembers: “We distributed the paper in the factories and poor neighborhoods; if they found a copy on you there was the risk of prison or worse. But this didn’t scare Éster, actually, it seemed like she looked for danger; she went around with a whole stack of the Combatiente under her arm! That’s what makes me say she wasn’t quite human.”

She satisfies any sexual needs that arise with party comrades but she never gets attached to anyone and can’t even recall their names. Anyhow, regarding these matters I haven’t any testimonies, only assumptions.

In October of ’73 Éster returns to her little ones at Villa Soldati and starts her language courses again, in January of ’75 she participates in the robbery of a supermarket in Guaminí; in June they show her the remains. Amongst the dark, clay covered scraps found in the earth they dig up a skeleton and she recognizes the lily-printed handkerchief of Julio Mattucci there in the dirt. A few days later Perón dies, they watch the funeral on television, her mother sits beside her, speechless; she has another attack of psoriasis that forces her to hide behind a mask of cotton, she will only defeat it later, in the first months of ’75.

[blockquote align=right]She, who had always had the most transparent prose, now alludes to “lost love” and “unhealed wounds,” she justifies her escape by claiming “an urgent need to reflect” yet she juxtaposes it with a “definitive need for action.” Penelope Di Castro would state that now she was humanized.

Of this next period there remains only a series of confusing traces, she falls into an abyss along with the country she inhabits, leaving only the echoes of a biography. Éster leaves her job and her room in Barracas, she writes her mother a senseless, unclear letter. She, who had always had the most transparent prose, now alludes to “lost love” and “unhealed wounds,” she justifies her escape by claiming “an urgent need to reflect” yet she juxtaposes it with a “definitive need for action.” Penelope Di Castro would state that now she was humanized. For some Éster has vanished while others claim to see her in various locations. For example her former colleague Horacio Pucet maintains that she went to work in a cafeteria in Balverana. By another account ERP militant Arturo Coloccini swears to have run into her in Salta: “She worked in the café at the Hotel Continental,” writes Coloccini. “I remembered her from Buenos Aires and I recognized her immediately. We chatted for a few minutes without going into who I was or who she might be, never taking the rules of militancy for granted. I asked her if she had enough to eat and she said yes. I offered her a beer which we drank sitting at a table in the open square, where she told me she loved Salta because each day was sunnier than the last” (Arturo Coloccini, Cartas desde el norte, La Plata 2006, p.134). The policeman Arturo Corrente, however, has verbally contradicted these reports in his testimony, arguing that he arrested the beggar Éster Terracina Mattucci only a few meters from the Obelisk, smack in the middle of Buenos Aires, on the fifth of September in ’75, and to have kept her in a holding cell overnight.

She reappears in Buenos Aires during the first days of ’76, shortly after the dismantling of the ERP in Monte Cingolo, but nothing links the two events. She finds hospitality with her grandmother María Teresa Reyes Sulewski who immediately tells her own daughter, though Éster has explicitly told her not to do so. She contacts the few comrades that remain. At the Confitería Ideal she encounters one of them, Aurora Maturáno. Éster asks her if she can join her faction and the other responds that she will need to talk to her superiors. She refuses to meet with her parents. On the 30th of March, six days after the coup d’état, she receives a telephone call, not from Aurora Maturáno but from a friend who warns her: Aurora has been abducted, she will be tortured. She might give them names. It could be a false alarm but she decides to hide in a closet in the wall, deep behind the winter coats and sweaters.

[blockquote align=left]One afternoon, exhausted, she sneaks into a wake, she sits beside the grieving women to rest, but her eyes, instead of closing, swell with tears. The women, who do not recognize her, look at her sobbing but feign normalcy and pretend that she is part of the family, like this Éster can finally grieve.

Grandmother Sulewski brings her food twice daily, she has a basin and a plastic container for feces; before sunrise, and no more than once a week she leaves the closet to bathe. When she presses her ear against the piles of garments to listen for what his happening outside she hears nothing. She fears everyone is dead, that a cloud of poisonous gas has exterminated all of Buenos Aires save only herself, and she asks herself if she ought not to go out and look around if only to be certain (for Éster’s impressions during the days in the closet see the interview with Elena Tamburini in ¡Habla Argentina! 2 June 2011). Her grandmother has a coughing fit that startles and assures her: life goes on. But so do the killings. One night there is a break-in, Éster hears everything: they tear the house apart looking for her, they threaten her grandmother, she hears Sulewski’s cries, then a man’s voice, full with pummeling violence. Who knows why they don’t open the closet but they go. The next morning she decides to leave, even if her grandmother begs her not to; she wanders for days between cafés and shopping malls, she sleeps in a movie theater, between the docks of Puerto Madero, behind the bushes of the Recoleta, she is startled by every uniform she sees. One afternoon, exhausted, she sneaks into a wake, she sits beside the grieving women to rest, but her eyes, instead of closing, swell with tears. The women, who do not recognize her, look at her sobbing but feign normalcy and pretend that she is part of the family, like this Éster can finally grieve (again refer to the interview with Elena Tamburini for the full episode).

They sequester her during a routine check on a bus, exhausted she trusts the soldiers, she claims she just wants to sleep while they take her to the Centro Piqué detention facility where she will meet her torturer: Juan Guzzetta. The criteria of subjection are included in the proceedings at Piqué and they are not particularly different from methods used elsewhere. That said, I will not elaborate further on the combinations of electric shock with barbed hooks, of asphyxiation and drowning in fecal liquid, or go into the endless inventory of psychological cruelty that is well known to everyone. Guzzetta tortures her himself while simultaneously feeling a certain attraction (he will admit to this at the tribunal); it is this very reason that keeps him from killing her. He rapes her often, demanding silence in exchange for her life. He speaks to her as one would a lover. He says that in his family he feels misunderstood, given that his wife is an idiot only good for reading fashion magazines and his sons are two imbeciles; it is only with Éster that he is able to speak in a common language. During Guzzetta’s visits inexplicable things happen. It is difficult to judge the feelings that develop in the torturer, whether to catalogue them into the vast index of monstrosities or to extract a fossil of affection: one day he brings her flowers and therefore owes it to himself to tie her to the bed and spread open her thighs. Another day, knowing that she loves Benedetti, he gives her a collection of his stories, but it is not an unconditional gift, the minutes that follow the literary offering go to show that.

[blockquote align=right]Weathered and chiseled she makes even more of an impression: the years of sacrifice on her shoulders and full knowledge that more would lie ahead, wasted blood from every wound and scare, lessons learned, landscapes that live only in memory, the body’s emotions, she annuls the very act that gave her life, she sacrifices her mother and her father.

On the tenth of August in ’76 he brings her new clothes and make-up, he informs her that she has been admitted into a rehabilitation program and she will be able to leave the Center. Éster asks to visit her parents. Guzzetta decides that he will accompany her himself. On the eleventh of August, as the magnolias and Chilean pines along the access road begin to blend into the evening sky, Juan Guzzetta’s car stops in front of the Terracina family home. “I feel like I can trust this young man with kindness in his eyes,” notes Norma Terracina in her diary. “After dinner I took him aside and explained how Éster had always been a good and polite girl. An idealist cannot do damage to the fatherland. He agreed with me, and when he asked to see her old photo album, I knew he would bring her back to us. Alberto said he had the same impression: Éster is in good hands.” A family dinner: the elderly parents caressing their daughter who they haven’t seen in over a year and lavishing the young man, who could be her boyfriend, with attention. Éster didn’t give them anything to be suspicious about, her clothing hid the bruises, her smiles disguised the rest, Guzzetta behaved like someone else completely; after dinner they have a drink by the fire, upon leaving Guzzetta receives hugs and handshakes, as though touching his body were a stamp of faith. They kiss Éster, her mother scolds her for cutting her hair so short. Norma and Alberto Terracina watch the car as it drives down the road. Back at Piqué, Guzzetta beats Éster with more unseemliness and violence than usual. Can one speak of passion? When he leaves the cell Éster crouches over shivering.

[blockquote align=left]A family dinner: the elderly parents caressing their daughter who they haven’t seen in over a year and lavishing the young man, who could be her boyfriend, with attention. Éster didn’t give them anything to be suspicious about, her clothing hid the bruises, her smiles disguised the rest.

The first of October in ’73, “due to guilt and a desire for justice” (his own words as spoken at the trial) Guzzetta informs Éster that he has obtained her transfer to the prison at Villa Devoto, which for her was like passing from darkness into light, from non-existence to visibility, by earning habeas corpus her parents could demand a trial and get her a lawyer: salvation. An extraordinary decision for a torturer and it deserves a bit of elaboration: for a month Guzzetta had stopped beating Éster, he allows her body to heal, inflicting her only with sexual abuse (the only abuse, of course, which could never heal) taken methodically every other day. Searching for any desire for justice within Guzzetta will bring us off track. To find the actual truth one need only look a few cells down from Éster, where the ERP fighter María Ines Caciotti had recently arrived, not just any militant but one of the orchestrators of the revolution and therefore a priceless victim for the oppressors. Not only that, but she is beautiful, famous in fact for her beauty “that paralyzes you just walking by her, if you make eye contact you’re set ablaze” (Osvaldo Perlizzi, Recuerdos de la voluntad, Barcelona 1993, p. 44). So Guzzetta decides to personally attend to her and the cries that come from María Ines’s cell, alternating cries of refusal and then suddenly the silence of shock, attest to the torturer’s new commitment. Éster is no longer the favorite: herein lies her salvation. Guzzetta decides to send her off in surprisingly bloodless fashion and here we can accept the thesis that his guilt was mixed with some mysterious element, that “unexplainable, remote yet present seed” (Wegelin, op.cit.) that lies in the subconscious of human behavior.

[blockquote align=right]Éster’s new cell-mate is unable to sleep, instead she consecrates the night with her cries and by day she bears the tortures as a pittance, when they are alone she thinks of her son aloud in quivering yelps. Éster is unable to calm her and perhaps witnessing her torment leads to her next move.

And now the end. (Arbitrary and unnatural, considering Éster’s age.) The twentieth of October ’76 they bring a her a cell-mate, Elena Tamburini, who looks like her in surprising ways (same size, identical haircut, even the voice and the eyes). She carries, of course, her own painful story, not coincidentally she passes hours crying and scratching at the walls: not the weary resignation that so many militants and their friends and family often have after they’ve been captured. Elena seems like an insect snatched up by a sparrow at the edge of a flower; unexpected. She howls. What happened to her? It is she herself who explains it all in a letter to the military Junta and from the very beginning oozes with naivety. Addressed to the “illustrious President Jorge Rafael Videle, the compassionate General Ramón Agosti and the generous Admiral Eduardo Emilio Massera,” she clarifies immediately to her eminent readers who they are dealing with: “It is a mother who writes to you,” she explains and adds: “I do not know what I am doing in prison” and she asks for “clemency” from her oppressors and defends her innocence, never having been implicated in political activities, simply taken from her work as a hairdresser and from caring for her six-year-old son, now abandoned, at home with neither his mother nor his father. Then the story of her capture: September fifteenth, as usual at work in Carlos Encinas’s shop, Elena has the misfortune to find herself washing the hair of a wanted woman (an aside: the woman is María Ines Caciotti). She had just washed out the shampoo when the oppressors burst in and sequester both of them, the hunted and bystander. Taken away by violent and dark individuals, strapped in the car for hours, she will recount on the television program ¡Habla Argentina! in 2001, I was shaking and I could only think of my little Raúl who I had left at home. They bring her to Piqué and they torture her in an underground cell, afterwards when they don’t know what to do with her they transfer her into Éster’s unit. During the pauses between the terror she wrote to the Junta, but I doubt if her letter ever gained much attention. (The text is cited from a conference on prison letters recently published.) Éster’s new cell-mate is unable to sleep, instead she consecrates the night with her cries and by day she bears the tortures as a pittance, when they are alone she thinks of her son aloud in quivering yelps. Éster is unable to calm her and perhaps witnessing her torment leads to her next move.

Here I will pause to examine Éster’s decision. Weathered and chiseled she makes even more of an impression: the years of sacrifice on her shoulders and full knowledge that more would lie ahead, wasted blood from every wound and scare, lessons learned, landscapes that live only in memory, the body’s emotions, she annuls the very act that gave her life, she sacrifices her mother and her father. I don’t know how to explain it. Willfulness does not leave marks on history, it only has effect, but for whatever memories of that time are worth, after all those years, Elena remembers it as such: She was always smiling, she offered me part of her food rations and consoled me, I could not imagine the gift she was to give me, but she had already begun to save my life.

[blockquote align=left]Elena becomes Éster and Éster, Elena. The exchange is remarkable, the neon light bouncing through the darkness helps, the rashness of the action gains plausibility by the mere fact it has occurred in this place where everything is permissible and reality unravels.

Everything rushes forward. The twenty-third of October Juan Guzzetta learns of his own transfer, the new torturers arrive, the destination of Guzzetta and his group is unknown, he has forty-eight hours to tie up loose ends, he dedicates that time to Caciotti and ascertains Éster’s move. On the twenty-fifth they communicate that they will soon be picking her up and she should be ready, but on the twenty-sixth it is Guzzetta who is the first to leave, he finds within himself the decency to depart without a farewell. The night of the twenty-sixth, awaiting Elena’s usual havoc, Éster proposes that they switch clothing and therefore identities, that way Elena will be closer to freedom and to her son. Here is the choice. Without reflecting I said yes, remembers Elena, and we began to undress. They slide out of their paltry dirty clothes and stand there naked before one another, breasts bare in the shadows. A passage by the poet Julia Koenigsberg translates the intimacy of those two bodies into words: “So love has features! Our nudity its outline, we have nothing else to offer” (Enchangted Days, Edinburgh 1950, p. 75). For the first time since they have arrived at the center they strip of their own free will, not encased in violence. Éster raises an arm and passes her clothes to Elena who is about to do the same, but she stops: Only then did I realize it and I asked her why, but Éster responds only with a nod of the head and shakes the clothes at her. They dress. Elena becomes Éster and Éster, Elena. The exchange is remarkable, the neon light bouncing through the darkness helps, the rashness of the action gains plausibility by the mere fact it has occurred in this place where everything is permissible and reality unravels. The change is complete, Éster Terracina has given to Elena the only gift she has. Elena remembers having embraced her and having cried into her neck, then Éster stops her: now she lies down on the cot—also switched—and she doesn’t move from there, they should retreat to their respective corners, not speak a word, wait. [blockquote align=right]She gave of herself, she saved a child that was not her own, she watched the future and waited: the only traces that remain of Éster. Even if there had been something else (some bones, a skull) she would have remained anonymous: there were no surviving relatives.

Through the night they pretend to sleep. Elena upset by thoughts she will recall with furor over the course of her lifetime. Éster is already fixed in the trade (Elena claims to have heard her crying, but it is possible that in the exchange of identities she had also mixed up some ideas, thoughts: from whom did that cry come, the true or false Éster.) At dawn the next morning three soldiers come in and ask for Éster Terracina, Elena looks at her cell-mate on the bed: she is immobile, as if her name no longer belonged to her. Elena rises, they take her away, they guide her to a courtyard yet untouched by the morning sun, they push her onto a truck. That same day I was at Villa Devoto, my mother and son came to visit me, that way they knew I was safe, then I had a lawyer and I was granted freedom. Still today (looking directly into the television camera, in tears) I am so grateful to that woman.

She gave of herself, she saved a child that was not her own, she watched the future and waited: the only traces that remain of Éster. Even if there had been something else (some bones, a skull) she would have remained anonymous: there were no surviving relatives. Her story has become legend, which has been damaging in reconstructing the facts. There are those who say they have seen her in the center of La Cacha but it’s hard to believe. In fact, others even claim she lives in Catalonia. Illusions of hope. What really happened is that she died brutally. They discovered her deception, they took revenge.

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Translator’s Note

An editor friend asked me to read one of Davide Orecchio’s short stories and share my opinion.  She was looking for new Italian writers to feature in translation.  I remember reading that first story and feeling an immediate excitement, a connection with a new author I had never read before.  From that one story I wanted more and I read Davide’s other work and began soon after to translate his collection of stories, Città distrutte: Sei biografie infedeli.

The biographies that make up this collection are a blend of history and fiction. They all contain events and people that have existed, or could have existed.  They are not easy; Davide uses a challenging and unconventional vocabulary; translating his work has widened my understanding of the possibilities of the Italian language.  In fact, I don’t believe there is anyone like him writing in Italian today—he reminded me of some of my favorite writers: Borges, Calvino, Kiš, Sebald, while also being nothing like them.  The stories in Città distrutte: Sei biografie infedeli deal with difficult themes: loss, failure, love and worlds with immigration, war, dictatorships but they do not lose their sense of humor. When a character like Éster exaggerates, when she holds a funeral for Che Guevara, as readers, we can smile, not laughing at her, but understanding her radical heart.

“Éster Terracina” exemplifies the biographies in this collection.  She is the daughter of immigrants, a revolutionary, a poet, and she doesn’t always find success.  I admire Davide’s ability to deal with failure, to show triumph of character in strange ways throughout these stories.  This quality appears within the narrative and plot but also within Davide’s style.  Éster leads a life of passion and violence, interspersed with tenderness and pain; the rhythms of these emotions are found within the prose itself.  Translating this sense of urgency in the story-telling was a challenge and a goal in each draft.

I’ve always enjoyed the analogy of translation to a conversation and I’ve been in conversation with Davide Orecchio’s brilliant book for about two years now.  “Éster Terracina” is full of particular life experience and historical knowledge that I had to study in order to better understand and translate. These are stories that I would never have written and that is part of the beauty of translating.  I think this may be one of the main reasons I was drawn to translation in the first place: it is a form of extreme readership and I consider myself lucky to inhabit these stories and words, these phrases and characters, and bring them to new readers.

orecchio photoDavide Orecchio is a writer and journalist. He spent more than ten years studying history between Rome, Berlin, and Milan. In 2012, he published his first work of fiction: Città distrutte. Sei biografie infedeli, SuperMondello Prize. 2014 saw his new novel, Stati di grazia (il Saggiatore). He’s a member of the lit-blog Nazione Indiana.

 

 

Allison Donahue author headshotAllison Grimaldi Donahue is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in The American Reader, The New Inquiry, tNY Press Eeel, Omega Metatron, and The Diner Journal.  She has been an NEA fellow at the Vermont Studio Center and a Bakeless fellow at the Bread Loaf Translator’s Conference. She is the fiction editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse. Allison lives and writes in Bologna, Italy.

A Box of Chocolates in China

I cling to the back of a motorcycle, my hair wild in the wind, arms clenched around the slim waist in front. I am flying through the night, lights winking as we buzz around bumper-to-bumper traffic in a Chinese city of three million. Have I lost my mind, never having been on a cycle in my life? Am I so immersed in the culture I just don’t give a damn? Or is it love, crazy love?

How did I end up here? I responded to an ad: Volunteer for a month teaching in China. From that point everything careened out of my control.

[blockquote align=right]I am flying through the night, lights winking as we buzz around bumper-to-bumper traffic in a Chinese city of three million. Have I lost my mind, never having been on a cycle in my life? Am I so immersed in the culture I just don’t give a damn? Or is it love, crazy love?

*     *     *

The orientation took place on a tree-covered campus in Virginia. Eleven of us sat through the spiel of The Chinese Lady Professor whose project we had become. She assigned the volunteers: four to elementary kids in summer English Camp, four as high school tutors, and two to a northern university near Russia.

I looked around, perplexed. “You haven’t assigned me.”

You will teach the teachers.”

What!? I wanted little kids, games with flash cards, like cat and dog. Fun. “I work with high school students,” I said, “and I was hoping for something different.” I didn’t say easier, but that’s what I meant. And she knew it.

The Lady Professor paused and looked over her list.

“But you filled out the questionnaire that you would work . . . let me see . . . wherever needed. I need you to teach the teachers. English teachers in China recertify just as you do, every few years. The government requires they be taught by a native speaker with a Masters in English. It’s you. Don’t worry, you’ll be great, trust me.”

Trust you! I should walk out and drive home. Well, I didn’t, but I sulked, and the snit lasted awhile. During break I had a talk with myself in the Ladies Room: Okay, put your money where your mouth is. You talk about teaching in a foreign country, your next great career. Quit talking, get off your ass, and do it.

I smiled at The Chinese Lady Professor. “Okay, I’ll do it. I’m supposed to fill up four hours a day for a month, right? So, where’s the curriculum?”

“You’ll bring it,” she responded, with what looked like a smirk.

*     *     *

August, 2001. Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, China.

I stand in front of my class with the first of my brilliant teaching strategies, The Quotation for the Day.

“Each day we’ll start with a quotation. I’ve brought dozens. We’ll talk about the quotation in English without worrying about grammar. Chat away. It would be fun if you’d bring quotations too. Something meaningful, maybe a family saying.”

No response. They smile.

Twenty-two faces look up at me, nodding. I am Teacher, what they call me on day one and every day afterwards. Not my last name, not my first name, not anything I suggest. Simply, Teacher. Twenty-two Chinese teachers will treat me like royalty, argue over who has lunch with me, who takes me shopping, who gets me for dinner.

Now, however, they just smile.

“In my country when we don’t know the origin of a saying, we claim it’s an Old Chinese Proverb. For instance, here’s my favorite.” I write it on the board: Give me a fish and I eat today. Teach me to fish and I eat for the rest of my life.

They smile. A timid voice from the back, “We don’t know that one. It’s not Chinese.”

“Oh, okay. Do you have one you’ll share?”

No takers.

“Come on. In my country we participate in class. I need a quotation.”

They smile. Silence. Finally a hand in the air. It’s Ivan, twenty-one, the youngest in my class. Ivan’s not his name, or course, but they insist on using the English names they chose in university—Ivan, Leaf, Stream, Moon. I call them whatever they want.

Ivan waves his hand. “I have one, my favorite.”

Everyone smiles, waiting.

‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get.'”

Now no one’s smiling. They’re looking around, nodding, laughing, and the ice is broken. They agree it’s wonderful, and they all know it.

“From my favorite movie, Forrest Gump,” says Ivan. “Forrest’s mother says it. The movie is about surprising things in life, and I agree. Life is about surprises.”

From that moment, the first hour of my first day in a class in China, I find that almost everything I have assumed is wrong. The Chinese I meet are not shy conformists, not unassertive, not out of the global mainstream. They are not immune to capitalism, ignorant of world history, lousy foreign language speakers, or all afraid of their government. Not characters out of a Pearl Buck novel. Not much different from me.

For one month I am enchanted and battered by the kaleidoscope that is China. My students stun me with knowledge, embarrass me with personal questions, frighten me with insights, challenge me with assertions, and humble me with kindness.

*     *     *

A few days after my arrival I walk my neighborhood, forced outside to fight loneliness. The students leave me after lunch, and except for special invitations, I’m on my own until next morning pick-up. The other volunteer Americans live outside the city, teaching kids in English Camp. They have each other, but I’m alone, feeling sorry for myself.

Ridiculous. So you can’t speak the language or read the street signs, just go out and wander. I grab a hotel card with directions in Chinese, pay attention to landmarks, and meander through the neighborhood. I find the river, sit under newly planted trees, and read.

Every day going to the river, I pass an old woman, squatting on her haunches, hawking fruit, glaring at me. Intimidated, I walk across the street to avoid her. One day, though, I look the old woman directly in the eyes and call out, “Ni hao,” the one phrase I know in Chinese—hello.

She jerks around, taken aback. A grin spreads across her face, revealing toothless gums. “Hello,” the old woman shouts in English, cackling like a hen. “Hello, hello, hello.” Every day afterward she waves and calls as I pass.

After the old lady welcomes me to street life, wandering becomes part of my day. I scramble through back streets of the market, swatting flies, my nose assaulted by dried blood, foul water, rotten fruit, and urine. Pigs’ heads, chicken carcasses, ducks’ feet, and unrecognizable innards dangle on iron hooks, but I don’t ask what they are. I adore Chinese food and help myself to most everything on a buffet, but usually I don’t ask what I’m eating. One day with Ivan I had broken my rule. “This is delicious, like corned beef. What is it?”

“Donkey,” Ivan replied, “a specialty of this restaurant. Not cheap.” Since then I’ve not asked. The only thing I refuse is fried scorpion, which looks too much like what it is.

*     *     *

One day in class as we discuss American history—and my students know lots of it—I digress to McCarthyism and the ‘commie scare’ of the 50s. I end by commenting, “It was a dark chapter in American history.”

A few days later Laura, my oldest student, recounts her experiences in the Cultural Revolution. She’d grown up in a house full of books until the Revolution, when she read Western classics secretly from torn-out chapters hidden throughout the house. “I could never get the whole plot because we had only a chapter here and there. Now I read the whole book and say, ‘Oh, so that’s how it ended.’ . . . The Cultural Revolution was a dark chapter in Chinese history.”

I choke, hearing my words echoed verbatim. I am stunned, almost frightened, by the power I have in this classroom. In some ways, my students are sponges, and I wonder if I should be more careful what I say.

The class talks of religion, politics, books, AIDS, postpartum depression, teenagers, and even Falun Gong—which we were told during orientation not to discuss under any circumstances. “Are there forbidden subjects in China?” I finally ask.

My students are indignant. “There are no forbidden topics. What are you talking about?” There’s nothing they don’t want to know, so after a couple of days, I quit worrying, and talk about whatever they request.

One day someone asks me to sing the American national anthem, which I wouldn’t have done earlier. I joke that it’s too hard, I can’t sing, and I don’t know the words, all true. They insist. So instead of The Star Spangled Banner, I belt out, completely off key, My Country ‘Tis of Thee. At least I know all the words.

They love it. After a round of applause, they beg me to write every word on the board so they can copy it. Then suddenly the entire class is singing it with me. A few tears sneak down my cheeks while I sing like a kid about my country in a sterile classroom halfway around the world. I never really thought about the words before.

What’s happening? Something’s getting weird here.

*     *     *

“What do you want to discuss today?” I ask the next morning. No longer hesitant, my students fight to pick the Topic of the Day.

“The One Child policy,” someone answers, and a lively debate ensues with strong opinions on both sides.

“We must keep it. It is the backbone of our strong economy and our new place in the world.”

“No, it’s immoral and should be illegal. A government should not dictate such things. It’s a family decision.”

“The peasants are the problem. They get exemptions that no one else gets. That’s not fair.”

“If we want to increase the standard of living and feed everyone, we need it.”

“Soon there will be no one to take care of the elderly, too few young people, and too many old people.”

“But that wouldn’t happen if young people still had the old values of responsibility. They’re too busy moving to the cities, getting ahead in their jobs, making money, buying clothes, and going to clubs.”

“What happens if you have more than one child?” I interrupt.

“We lose our jobs,” a couple of my students respond simultaneously.

“My mother had an abortion two years after I was born,” says Ivan. “She was sad and didn’t want to have it, but she had to or lose her job. Sometimes I wonder what my sister would have been like.”

I’m excited now. Here’s a topic I’ve wanted to explore since the day I arrived. “During the weekend I went to Pingyao with the other Americans,” I say. A six hundred year old UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pingyao is a village in the country, architecturally and historically significant. “We were walking down the main street when I saw a blackboard in the square with chalked numbers. Our guide thought it had something to do with numbers of children. Anybody know?”

“I know,” says Stream, the only one of my students who lives in the country. Principal of a rural elementary school, he rides his bicycle two hours round-trip each day to come to my class.

“Peasants are allowed more than one child,” explains Stream, “depending on circumstances. They can have two if they are elderly or disabled, or if the first child is a girl—they need boys in the country. But no more than two children are allowed. Sometimes, though, the peasants don’t care about the rules, and they’ll have three, four, or more. If they do, then the village committee fines them for each additional child. What you saw in Pingyao is the name of each peasant who owes a fine. His name will stay on the blackboard until he pays. The fine is huge, and the peasant is poor. Sometimes his name is there until he dies, and the family inherits the debt.”

At this point my students ask me what I think about the One Child policy. Each side wants me to support its conclusion.

“I came to China thinking it was a bad policy, but now I’m not sure. I’ve never seen so many people, and I can only imagine what it was like before the policy. I understand why the government thinks it’s necessary, but I also understand women like Ivan’s mother who grieves for her unborn child.”

I’m thankful not to have such a decision. Keep a child, lose a job; keep a job, lose a child.

*     *     *

We continue the exhausting One Child debate during lunch, and after my students finally leave, I head upstairs for a nap. Strains of The Wedding March waft down the hall next to the elevator—not music I expect in China. I peek around the corner and find a wedding in progress. The band stops, the bride and groom begin their toasts, and they spot me, embarrassed, spying on the gathering. The couple stops in mid-toast, and I prepare to flee. But they leave the table, come to the door, and pull me into their reception.

The bride wears the red dress of the traditional Chinese wedding. A formal ceremony, like this one—in a hotel, red dress, banquet, orchestra, cake, flowers, hundreds of guests—occurs months or even years after the civil ceremony. Couples wait until they, or their families, can afford the huge celebration, and sometimes it never happens. A number of my students have been married for years with no red dress yet.

The bride takes my hand and pulls me to the head table. Suddenly I am an honored guest, and the entire wedding party drinks a toast to me. Traditionally they drink three ‘neat’ cups of alcohol as a toast. I throw one down, and although they cheer, holding up two more fingers, I decline.

I escape as soon as I can, but the wedding makes my day. The entire incident takes place with none of us having the vaguest idea what the other is saying, smiles and gestures the international language we all understand.

I am never lonely again in China.

*     *     *

If I want to be lonely, or even alone, Cherry will not allow it. My most assertive, boisterous student, Cherry becomes my guide to life outside of class.

“Tomorrow we go to the Night Market,” she says one day. “We’ll eat and arrive when it opens at eight, stay a couple hours, not until midnight when it closes. No one comes to Taiyuan without visiting the Night Market. It’s one of the most important parts of our culture, and you won’t believe it.”

“Okay.” I don’t argue with Cherry. No one argues with Cherry.

Born into poverty, she grew up with a disabled widowed mother in a cold water flat on the top floor of a building with no elevators. As a child Cherry trudged to the basement every day, mixed water and coal to make ‘coal cake’ and hauled it up four flights of stairs. After supporting her mother and three younger siblings for years, she married late. Cherry is short, with a ragged, spiky haircut and crooked, brown teeth, but what she lacks in appearance, she makes up for in guts.

A feminist, Cherry takes no guff from men and considers most of them dependent and self-indulgent. “I will quit teaching, get a PhD in international relations, and go into government. If my husband doesn’t like it, I’ll divorce him, and he can stay here.” So much for the stereotype of submissive Chinese women.

I love this woman, but sometimes she’s a little scary. When she bargains, she turns into a harridan. A couple of weeks ago, I made the mistake of telling Cherry I wanted silver zodiac charms, after which she bargained with a street vendor, and it got ugly. Bargaining is serious business in China, elevated to high art, and when Cherry swings into gear, I don’t want to be within an arm’s length of her. She’s formidable, even mean. Maybe it’s my American sensibility, but extreme bargaining embarrasses me, so that day I moved away and pretended not to be with her.

The charms were cheap, and I was willing to give the woman her asking price, but Cherry would not have it. “She’s cheating you because you’re a foreigner, and I won’t allow it.” I suspect her attitude was about more than that, but I said nothing. We stood at the stall for twenty minutes while the arm gestures increased, voices of the two women rose higher until they were shrieking, and a circle surrounded us, like spectators at a boxing match. This was high drama, even for China.

Cherry won, of course. She snatched the money from my wallet, threw it contemptuously on the table and smiled at me, her crooked, gold capped teeth gleaming. I was humiliated and felt like a cheap, unsympathetic foreigner. The woman who lost the duel gave us both a disgusted look, muttered under her breath, and spat on my shoe. An ugly scene.

*     *     *

I dread to think how many conflicts Cherry might instigate in an area as big as The Night Market, which is where she takes me now.

Sales start at eight, but vendors set up when they leave their day jobs. By the hundreds they migrate to their stalls, and the largest Night Market in Northern China unfolds. For blocks along both sides of the street, hawkers sell everything from toilet seats to trashcans, blouses to baby clothes, candy to vinegar, bicycle wheels, pirated CDs, fruit, jewelry, junk. And a unique meat on a stick—donkey penis.

You name it, someone’s got it, and if he doesn’t, he’ll go around the corner and get it. Men, women, and teenagers—everyone’s got something to sell. I’m flabbergasted by the conspicuous consumption, the ingenuity of the entrepreneurs, and the selection of wares. What’s going on? This doesn’t look like communism.

I ask Cherry, the political scientist, who sets me straight.

“In China we are communists in government, not in economics. We are as capitalistic as you Americans, and a person’s income in the marketplace is limited only by how hard he works. Everyone here has a regular salary, but they make a lot more at market than on the job. Someone’s always thinking of something new to sell. Everything in China changed after Mao’s death, when Deng Xiaoping declared a socialist market economy. ‘To make money is good,’ he said. He was a wonderful man. We missed him when he died. With him, we became a nation of entrepreneurs.”

At dinner a few nights before, Ivan had put it more poetically. “Deng Xiaoping said that whether you are a black cat or a white cat doesn’t matter. If you can catch a mouse, you are a good cat.” I had nodded as if I understood.

I don’t understand Deng Xiaoping’s cat, but I do understand that if what I witness here at The Night Market is duplicated in thousands of cities and villages throughout this country, China could become the world power of the twenty-first century.

*     *     *

A few days later Cherry continues to expand my understanding of The New China. “I’m taking you to The English Corner tonight.” She has become the self-appointed director of my social calendar.

“Every Friday night anyone who wants to practice English shows up in the square to chat for a couple of hours with hundreds of others who want to speak English. Everyone from kids to grandmothers. There are no rules, except we cannot speak anything but English the whole time. You’ll love it, you’ll be a big hit.”

And she’s right. I am mobbed like a movie idol, everyone pushing in to chat with me, even a press reporter who’s gotten wind of my presence. This might seem incomprehensible, but Taiyuan is not a city where foreigners drop in every day. I am a sensation. The reporter inundates me with questions, wanting my impression of his city: Do you think Taiyuan is pretty? Polluted? What do you like about the place? Dislike?

The city is horribly polluted, under a gray industrial haze so thick I never see the sun. Everyone knows this, and the reporter does too. I want to answer honestly, particularly about the environment, but I’ve become Chinese enough to put on a good face, so I don’t tell the entire truth. Instead of talking about the filthy air, I compliment the new trees by the river.

One mother elbows the reporter and pushes her son in front of me, commanding, “Speak to the foreigner.” And to me, “Speak to my son. He’s twelve and needs to practice.”

In perfect English, without an accent, the wide-eyed boy asks, “Do you have a Chinese Corner in your city where everyone comes to practice Chinese on Fridays?”

I am too humiliated to answer and pretend not to hear.

*     *     *

After the English Corner I lie awake, thinking about the global impact of language. I feel guilty not having learned any Mandarin. Typically I learn a little language when I travel and I carry a phrase book. Not this time. I had bought books and cassettes, but my attempt to speak lasted two days. Pronouncing ma with four different inflections did me in, to say nothing of thousands of indecipherable written characters.

“Don’t you hear the difference?” asked Li, the Chinese student I recruited to help me before I left home. “These are four different words, pronounced in distinct ways. If you don’t get it right, you could make a terrible mistake. There’s a rising tone, falling tone, even tone, and a lilting tone that combines a fall with a rise.” You’ve got to be kidding! After I called my mother a donkey, I called the whole thing off. My attempt to learn some Mandarin was depressing me to the point where I no longer looked forward to the journey.

The language thing makes me wonder about the role of our country in the twenty-first century. Do we suffer from complacency, arrogantly assuming everyone will speak English? Will we follow Great Britain into history books as the next ‘has been’? China has mandated that beginning in 2002 every first grader will study English. Already, privileged kids compete for spots in weekend and summer English camps, for which their parents pay steep prices. The government has put out an international call for native English speaking teachers for all areas of the country, offering special stipends in the far northwest autonomous region near Tibet.

“You should stay and teach in Urumqi,” urges Cherry. “Five hundred US dollars per month, a free apartment, and transportation costs. You could come to Taiyuan for holidays and visit me.”

Five hundred U.S. dollars a month is a fortune in China. I could live like a Hong Kong ex-pat, even hire a cook and a maid, and I think seriously about this for maybe two minutes. I have obligations at home—family and a full-time job. I’ve barely been able to carve out a month for this adventure, so staying is out of the question. I tuck the idea in the back of my mind and return my attention to my current students.

*     *     *

The month speeds by with invitations to homes and restaurants, and before I know it, I’m packing my bags with a mixture of excitement and despondency.

My last day in class, my last day in Taiyuan, almost my last day in China, I arrive to a class bustling with energy, too excited to keep a secret. “Surprise,” they call out. “We have a party for you.” What am I to do with my careful plans for the last day? I am, after all, American, and a teacher to the core—always evaluations.

“Oh, forget the evaluations,” I concede. “Let’s party.” They’ll never tell me the truth anyway—they like everything I do.

Out comes the food, the dishes I have come to love in this great sprawling buffet of a country. Laura has been up since four a.m., making me moon cakes, time-consuming holiday treats—sweetmeats wrapped in fragile bamboo leaves, tied with delicate ribbons of straw, works of art. I am touched almost beyond words.

“Why would you get up so early to make these?”

“Because,” she responds, “I love you.”

*     *     *

After the party Ivan asks me to go out that night to celebrate his twenty-second birthday in a dumpling restaurant. Not his mom, not his dad, not his friends. Me.

“I will pick you up on my motorcycle, and I swear I will drive as carefully as if you were my mother. I feel as if you are my godmother. So I will take great care.”

After three hours, three dozen dumplings, and a bottle of rice wine, before he takes me home, I extract a promise from Ivan. He will follow his dream, break out of the teaching he never wanted, return to university, and become the journalist he thinks he can be.

I sit on the back of the motorcycle, my hair blowing in the night wind, and chant my mantra: I am in love with this country, I am in love with these people, I will return, I will return.

*     *     *

AFTERWORD

Two weeks after I came home from China, on September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center came down. My college daughter sat on the roof of her dormitory at Columbia University and looked downtown as black smoke billowed into the sky. Emails poured in from my friends in China: Are you okay in Virginia? . . . Do you live close to the Pentagon? . . . Is your daughter safe in New York City? . . . Did you lose friends in the collapse? . . . We are sad for you, for your family, for your country . . . Our hearts are with you . . . China grieves for the U.S. . . . We love you.

In August, 2001, I walked on The Great Wall, marveled at The Forbidden City, wandered in the Temple of Heaven, gaped at the Terracotta Warriors, and cried on the stones of Tiananmen Square. I know this because I have photographs of me in those places; but when I think of China, I don’t visualize Beijing, Xian, or Shanghai. I see twenty-two faces filled with love and friendship in a gray classroom in a gray city that no one visits. When I hear complaints—everything’s made in China, the Chinese poison babies and dog food, China causes the crisis of the dollar, China instigates North Korea—I do not join in.

For me, China is no longer faceless.

Esther JohnsonEsther Whitman Johnson is a former high school counselor and English teacher from Southwest Virginia who now travels the globe doing volunteer gigs on five continents, often writing about her journeys. She has completed a dozen international builds with Habitat for Humanity, the last in Mongolia, the next in Bolivia. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Broad River Review, Main St. Rag, Artemis, Dirty Chai, Colere, Earth’s Daughters, Virginia Literary Journal, among others. She was first runner-up for the 2014 Ron Rash Poetry Award and winner of 2014 Asheville Writers Memoir competition. “A Box of Chocolates in China” is the short version of a chapter in her travel memoir in progress.

Sonya Sones, Author

Sonya Sones is the author of the young adult novels in verse Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy, What My Mother Doesn’t Know, What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, and To Be Perfectly Honest. She also wrote the adult novel in verse, The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus. What My Mother Doesn’t Know has landed on the list of top one hundred books banned over the past decade.

Roz Weisberg interviewed Sones in September 2015.

*     *     *

Novelist and poet Sonya Sones invited me to her home in Santa Monica to speak during September’s unending heat wave that dominated life in Los Angeles. It was the end of the day on a Friday, and commuters were already in full force using the wide residential street she lives on as a way to avoid major intersections on their way to the 405.

The traditional house with its brick walkway is set away from the street with a large protective tree that shields the front from the sun. Sones led me to the cozy living room with its vintage reading lamps, old family photos, and book-lined shelves. I couldn’t help but notice the old toys—including a talking Pee Wee Herman doll—scattered among the books. The noise from the street faded away as we settled in, and I felt like I was catching up with an old friend.

We talked for an hour and a half about everything, from how her past lives as a film editor and animator influenced her transition to writing, to the responsibility she feels for her audience, and her sense of pride for getting “banned in Bakersfield.”

To start, I was curious about how her background as an animator and film editor influences her poetry, and how she found the form of narrative poetry.

Sonya Sones: I see each scene as a movie. I wrote poems when I was a little kid and then when I got to be about sixteen, I kept a journal and I wrote everyday. Sometimes I would live for twenty minutes and spend half an hour writing about it and then live another twenty minutes and spend half an hour writing about that. I have boxes and boxes filled with my gushing journals.

Then when I was sixteen I learned how to make animated films, so filmmaking is what I thought I was going to do. I had worked my way up to being a film editor, but I didn’t have too many good credits. The one I’m proud of is co-editing River’s Edge. That was my first time of getting to edit footage of really great actors like Dennis Hopper.

When I had my kids, I didn’t want to go to work twelve hours a day. So, I looked around at my life and I thought “what else can I do,” and here’s where the animation weirdly led me to writing. My favorite time of day was when I read to my kids. I really loved that, and so I thought maybe I could write and illustrate books for kids. I thought, I used to make animated films so I know how to draw—that was my theory. Turned out, I could draw pretty well, but my first book, Smitty the Hollywood Kitty, absolutely stunk. I didn’t realize it was bad. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and went to a conference and brought Smitty the Hollywood Kitty and got a critique of it. Before I went into the meeting I had proudly showed it to so many people who said “nice illustrations” that when I got to the critique I already knew that my words were lousy. But through the SCBWI, I started making friends with other people who wanted to become writers, and then I started hearing about classes, and then I started taking classes at UCLA which were pretty good. I kept hearing about Myra Cohn Livingstone and what a mean and scary teacher she was, and how she was super critical and made people cry, and I was afraid to take her class, but a friend of mine said let’s do it together.

[blockquote align=left]I do like the books to be more poemy, but if they can’t be, they can’t be. I have to go with whatever each book is needing. It’s like when people ask, “What’s your favorite book that you’ve written?” and you say, “I don’t have a favorite, I love all my children” and that’s true so you just have to accept what gets born. My real kids are fantastic. My book, well, to put the amount of time into writing a book, you have to love it while you’re doing it.

I was taking Myra’s class, and very quickly I became the funny one in the class. I would read a poem and everyone would laugh and Myra would say, “Oh Sonya, you bring us up, what would we do without you? Oh Sonya, you bring us up from the depths!” And I loved being the funny one. Then she gave us an assignment, write in dactyl and trochee rhythms, which are very somber rhythms. I sat down to do my homework, and a poem popped out about my sister having a nervous breakdown and having to be sent to the hospital and how horrifying and scary it was. I was really concerned about passing this in to Myra. I thought, this isn’t going to bring anyone up from the depths, and what is she going to think? It was so personal and private I couldn’t bare the thought of reading it aloud in the classroom to the other students. I wrote copiously in my journal trying to decide what to do and I decided to compromise and pass it in to Myra, but not read it aloud. And then I had to wait a week to see what she thought.

She hoped to see the initial “VG” for very good across the top. Instead the note read: “we have to talk about this one!”

I thought she was going to say, “Stop writing this, do what you’re good at. You’re funny, what are you doing?” and instead she said, “You should write more of these and if you can put yourself through it, you’d be doing a service.” The idea of doing a service, and the idea of pleasing my teacher who I had on a pedestal, seemed so fabulous to me even though I didn’t want to particularly think about my sister and that terrible time in our lives. I tried writing more poems about her. Myra’s theory was that anybody who had anyone in their family who was throwing the rest of the family off-kilter would be able to appreciate these poems and would feel they weren’t alone.

Sones credits her editor Alex Reed at HarperCollins for asking the right questions that led her to the novel-in-verse form.

Alex wrote me this ten-page letter that was so nurturing. It would say, “I love this poem and here’s why . . . and I loved this poem and here’s why . . . and then this poem made me wonder if you shared a bedroom with your sister. This poem made me wonder if your parents ever met your boyfriend . . . .” So she asked all these questions, and I was so thrilled and excited that my book was going to be published that I wrote fifty more poems in two months. I had a notepad next to the bed and I would say to the family, “Wait, wait, I gotta go write something down.” I was just in a state of exaltation and it was thrilling. [Alex] turned it into a novel-in-verse by asking me so many questions.

And then once I finished that book, I realized that that was a form I could really enjoy doing. I had written some love poems in that book or poems about falling in love and that’s what led me to wanting to write my second book, What My Mother Doesn’t Know, because that was all about firsts and I think firsts are so powerful for a teenage girl.

Roz Weisberg: Does the poem come first or the narrative?

SS: Each book varies. I would say the second book started out very much the way Stop Pretending did. I knew I wanted to write poems about first experiences, so . . . I just mined my own first experiences and then the character’s voice emerged. It happened with one poem. The first poem in the book “Nicknames”—after I wrote the poem, I walked around happy for two weeks because I felt like my character had walked up to me and introduced herself: “Hi my name’s Sophie and I have a sense of humor and I’m a real romantic and I don’t like to put up with any shit from anybody,” and as soon as I knew those three things about her I could write the rest of the book.

But you know three books, Stop Pretending, What My Mother Doesn’t Know, and The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus, are much more poemy than the other books. One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, and To Be Perfectly Honest are more narrative. The way that I realize it is, when I think about what poems I can read at readings, the ones that are more poemy are easier for me to pull and read out of context and can stand alone. The ones that are more narrative, it’s hard to just read one poem; I feel like I have to read four in a row or it won’t work. At first I was worried about this other kind of book, the more narrative kind, but I am a novelist so I have to let the story come first. If the story is the kind of story that needs more words and more dialogue, and feels less like a poem, then I’m going to do that. The poems may not like it, but that’s how it’s going to be.

RW: Do you have a preference?

SS: I do like the books to be more poemy, but if they can’t be, they can’t be. I have to go with whatever each book is needing. It’s like when people ask, “What’s your favorite book that you’ve written?,” and you say, “I don’t have a favorite, I love all my children . . . ” and that’s true so you just have to accept what gets born. My real kids are fantastic. My book, well, to put the amount of time into writing a book, you have to love it while you’re doing it.

The book I’m writing now, which is called Saving Red, it was so much easier for me than any recent book has been. It felt almost back to the first glory days. It was flowing out of me, but here’s what I did to trick myself: I set the book in Santa Monica, which is where I live, so I didn’t have to do any research because I knew all the settings. I did not allow myself to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Once I completed a poem I moved it to a file called “locked poems.” I was allowed to read the previous five poems that were in there, but then I had to work in a new file on my newer poem, and at the end of the day I could move the poem into the locked file. I wasn’t that strict, I allowed myself to tinker a little bit, but I tried not to look back.

My first draft of this book was 317 pages. I cut it to 264 pages instantly so I didn’t waste any time revising something that I later was going to remove. I left things sloppy for the first time. I even had notes in the margins asking if this word was right or to cut this stanza, but I left them that way ‘til I got to the end. So when I first went through it, I cut out all the stuff I didn’t need, and then got rid of all my notes and answered any questions that I needed to, and it saved me a ton of time by not revising something that was going to disappear anyway.

I also wrote an outline for the first time. It was interesting. I didn’t know the first thing about writing an outline and felt very at sea. So I looked online at Syd Field’s screenwriting book, and he had the three-act structure so I thought I’d see if I could put the three-act structure into this. I decided ahead of time that this is a story about this and this, and at the end of the first act this going to happen, and at the end of the second act this is going to happen, and this is the ending. So this time, I actually knew it instead of just writing a bunch of poems.

This book happens to be about a girl who has to do community service and she’s waited ‘til the very last minute, so her only option if she doesn’t want a bad grade is to help Santa Monica do their annual homeless count. There’s an annual homeless count they have to do every year. She goes out that night to count the homeless and she sees this one person who wakes up and is having a nightmare who’s only a few years older than her, and she’s very moved by this girl and thinks, “Wow, she’s just a little bit older than me and here she is living in Palisades Park and how terrible.” It’s December and her school break has just begun and she decides to make it her mission to get this girl back to her family in time for the holidays. That’s what she wants to do. It was so good knowing that and I discovered a ton of stuff along the way.

RW: You didn’t feel burned-out by the outline process?

SS: No, it was very undetailed so I didn’t feel like I’d already written [the book]. I just felt, “Whew, I know where I’m going.” And my husband is a writer, so right before I would begin each act, I would go to breakfast with him and tell him, this was going to happen and then this is going to happen. And he’d say, “That’s fabulous,” or “This part is great, but I’m not sure about that,” and it was so useful having someone I could bounce my acts off of.

RW: What was the inspiration for writing about homelessness?

SS: I thought about writing about a teenage girl who befriends a homeless person for years, but every time I pitched it to my husband or my agent, it sounded like a bad after-school special, it was maudlin. I originally thought the homeless person was a grown up, but once I realized she was 18 and my main character is 14 about to be 15, the whole thing changed for me.

The germ of this idea came from two different things. One, when I was sixteen and walking home through the Boston Public Gardens, and I saw all these people gathered in a circle around a crazy person who was spouting about our Lord and trying to proselytize to everyone that they should be into God. Everybody in the circle was taking turns making a joke about the person and what she was saying, and then everyone would laugh. I watched for a long time and my sixteen-year-old self was so horrified because my sister had a mental illness, and I finally got the courage together to stand up to them and say, “If you don’t like what she’s saying fine, then go away, but don’t just stand here and make fun of this person.” I actually said that at sixteen, and it was a powerful moment in my life that I had the courage to do it. I actually thought that moment would happen in this book and it happens, but in a much less brave way.

The other germ of the idea came from the fact that my sister does have mental illness, and as a kid I used to worry that she would end up homeless, that she would have a mental break down, that her medication would stop working and she would disappear because she lives in New York and I live here and she’s not married. She can go out of her apartment and then not come home and she can become a bag lady. That thought was really scary to me. This is kind of a fictionalized version of what I imagine could happen to someone like my sister because this girl who is homeless has mental illness. I’m sort of revisiting that theme in my own life, and how do we help somebody with mental illness, and how do we try to destroy the stigma against mental illness?

We talked about how Stop Pretending resonated for me as an adult, and how I wished I had the book when I was fourteen.

SS: That’s lovely to hear. I’m thrilled because that book was huge for me in terms of the amount of feedback I’ve gotten for years from readers, and that book came out in 1999. I still get these gorgeous heart-rending letters from people thanking me for that book.

I recently switched from Simon & Schuster back to HarperCollins, and my editor, just the other day, was telling me that they’re going to repackage Stop Pretending and reissue it even though it’s never been out of print, and give it a whole new look and a whole new push right when my new book comes out. I feel very glad about that because the more chances it has to be alive the better.

It occurred to me as we talked how Stop Pretending specifically, but also her other books as well, create a platform for teens to talk about difficult subjects that adults don’t know how to discuss either.

SS: It’s interesting you use the word “platform.” When I got the courage up to tell [my sister] I wrote this book about what happened I thought, if she doesn’t want her life exposed in the manner, which would be completely fine with me, it’s her private life, I’ll use a pen name. But as soon as I told her about it she said, “Oh, that’s so great. A book like this can be used to open up discussion about mental illness in schools.” And those were the first words out of her mouth, and she [had been] a public librarian for twenty years. After she said that I was so moved, and I feel like in some way the fact that that book is out there helping people has kind of redeemed her suffering a little bit.

I feel a responsibility when I write for teens that I leave them with a feeling of hope. I had two teenagers living in my house when I started writing those books, and my characters didn’t have sex because my kids hadn’t had sex yet and I didn’t want them to feel, “What’s wrong with me, the characters in my mom’s books are all having sex.”

RW: Speaking of teenagers having sex, What My Mother Doesn’t Know is on the most banned list.

SS: And there’s no sex, there’s no drugs, there’s no cursing, no alcohol.

RW: So what was it?

SS: People who ban books are idiots. I often will get a letter from a parent who says, “I read excerpts of your book and . . . .” They’re just reading two or three pages that someone might have pointed out as possibly objectionable, and they don’t ever read the whole book so they take it out of context. Here’s an example: In What My Mother Doesn’t Know, after the girl falls out of love with her first handsome, gorgeous boyfriend because she realizes he’s an anti-Semitic idiot, she ends up falling into an online relationship with a guy named Chaz. And the reason I put that in was it was the early days of internet chat rooms and I wanted to show teenage girls without being didactic that it was unsafe to go meet up with people who you don’t actually know, who you’re meeting because you met them online. Therefore, I had to make this guy do something horrendous to make her realize just in the nick of time, “I’m lucky I didn’t go meet him because he could have raped me.” He seems very funny and charming at first, and this is all done over email and online. Then he says, “What’s your favorite thing to do?” and she says, “I don’t know, what’s yours?” And he says, “I like to jerk off in libraries.” So, if a parent just reads the page where a boy says, “I like to jerk off in libraries,” they might think my book is smutty. If they read the whole book, they would realize it’s teaching twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls to be safe when they meet people online.

That was one issue, and another big issue was with the poem called “Ice Capades,” where it says, “Sometimes/on cold nights/I like to press my breasts against the cold glass of the window,/unbutton my nightgown,/and press my breasts/against the cold glass/just so I can see/the amazing tricks/that my nipples can do.” That poem with the nipple word in there, and the idea that she would press her breasts against the glass and her nipples would get erect, was more than people could handle. They couldn’t take it. They were freaked out. It wasn’t even a masturbation poem, it was a “first.” She was going through having breasts for the first time. “Oh what can they do?” And it wasn’t in the daytime, where anyone could see it, it wasn’t for an audience. It was at night, in the dark and she did this thing. I can’t tell you how many letters I got from girls telling me, “You made me feel like I’m not so weird.” It didn’t mean they were at home putting their breasts against a glass, but they were doing something else that they were feeling weird about, and then they don’t have to anymore because this character has done this thing. That’s why I left the poem in. After I wrote it, I told my husband I didn’t think I could put this one in there, and he said, “No, you gotta keep it in there.” I’m glad I did.

Sones explained the process that happens when there is “a challenge to a book,” the forms from the American Library Association that asks for the offense, and then how the book faces the City Council for public libraries or the school board.

SS: It’s actually a great thing, because the whole community has to come together and decide whether this person should have the right to remove the book, and kids will get in on it and say, “No, you can’t do it.” And I was thrilled that my book was one of the Top 100 Most Challenged Books of the decade. Because as a result of that, I often get asked to speak about why you shouldn’t ban books, and you can’t change an adult’s mind about that, but when you get out to a middle school or high school those kids may never have even thought about it, and so you get to them before a misguided adult gets to them and tells them banning books is okay. I like that I get to influence younger people.

I was at a middle school speaking, and it just so happened that Ellen Hopkins, who also writes novels-in-verse, had just been uninvited by a book festival because a parent found her books objectionable. I thought this is a good example of it, so I told the kids what happened and that some of the other authors in solidarity decided not to come and speak, so if you were one of those authors, what would you do? A girl raised her hand right away and said, “Well, what I would do is I would go, but when I got there instead of reading from my book, I would read from Ellen’s book.” What a fantastically subversive, brilliant thing. So it’s great to be able to talk about banned books with kids. The way I describe it in a nutshell to kids is if your mother doesn’t think you’re ready for a certain book, she has every right to say, “I’d like you to wait until you’re fourteen to read it,” but why should your mother be able to tell every other kid in your school they can’t read it too?

I wondered if she felt like she had to self-edit or reconsider how she approached the themes and ideas she was interested in as a result of the ban.

SS: It would be the other way around. I would be delighted if one of my other books was banned, but I think it had to do with the title. What My Mother Doesn’t Know made them perk up their ears and peek over their daughters’ shoulders and ask, “Wait, what does this character’s mother not know? What do I not know about my own daughter?” I think the title itself might have gotten it into hot water. One of Those Hideous Books got banned a little because two of those characters are gay, but no one had the nerve to say it was because those characters were gay.

RW: You’ve tackled mental illness, teen firsts, and homelessness. What’s next?

SS: I have a huge file, and I find when I’m writing I’ll often come up with a gillion ideas that seem so much more interesting than what I’m working on, which is just smoke screen. You’re putting things up in front of yourself to keep you from doing the job at hand, but rather than just throw those away, I put them in a file. I know I’ll find something good in there to write next, but I’m not allowing myself to think about it yet.

Roz Weisberg is an MFA Candidate in Fiction at Antioch University and the current Y/A Editor for Lunch Ticket. She serves as a mentor to teen girls at WriteGirl and mentors aspiring screenwriters at the Cinestory Foundation Retreat in Idllywyld, CA. When not developing stories, consuming pop culture, or planning her next adventure, she awaits March Madness and the underdog Cinderella Team that will inevitably break her heart.

Three Japanese Poems

April Grammar

That night

We promised

Each other apart

Like artichoke hearts

Then quickly

Cleared the table

And into chairs we

Fell

 

You

Bundled up the afternoon

And went to climb Mount Sinai

From the bottom of the dark

Stairwell

Up to your room

Hemmed in by dark

Windows

Into the utterly

Laughable futon you

Then fell

 

The side dish of soaked natane

And grated radish we ate

On your birthday

At dusk

Were the

Botanical adverbs

Of our relationship

We drank sake

In solemn sips

To what we had

The camaraderie of inanimate objects

And the emptiness of

Travel

Piccolo mondo antico

 

I watched as

People dressed for battle

Walked the wide flat road

Of the Kōshū Kaidō

In my mind

As I woke to

Love in a different era

With nobody around

Just parents

Sitting cross-legged

Grilling rice cakes

With long metal chopsticks

And afterwards

A deaf man forgetting

How to comfort his wife

His wife who was pregnant

I still had plenty of time

To die piece by piece

By checkout time

(Tomioka [1967] 1968: 96-98)

 

Again Tonight

Everyone has gone home

The winter gathering is over

In no uncertain terms

You lock the door

In no uncertain terms

You wash your hands

The day after tomorrow

All children born

Of woman will die

You break

Everything around you

Starting with

The dishes

(Tomioka [1967] 1968: 95)

 

Bread

Don’t misunderstand me

If I talk of roses

Instead of bread

I don’t take bread for granted

I simply cannot help myself

It is my disorder: compelled to eat roses

It is because roses are more real

To me than bread

 

I will eat bread

To keep from starving

I will eat roses

The day before that happens

I can hold out longer than anyone

 

Don’t blame me for having bread

Blame me for eating roses

(Yoshihara [1964] 1973: 67-68)

prose_section_divider

四月の文法 [April Grammar]

その夜
われわれは約束した
朝鮮アザミのように
バラバラに
それからいそいで
皿をかたづけ
椅子のなかに
おちた

きみは
ひるまの感覚をたたんで
シナイの山をのぼるのだと
くらい
きざはしをのぼった
くらい
窓にとりかこまれた
部屋の
ちゃんちゃらおかしい
フトンのなかに
それからおちた

うまれた日にたべた
夕ぐれの
菜種のオシタシと
だいこんおろし

きみの関係の
植物的な副詞である
もう云うことのない
物質の友情と
ハカナイ
旅行のための
儀式に
酒をすすった
ピッコロ   モンド   アンティコ

起きぬけのアタマで
眺める
平面の
甲州街道を
いくさの装束をした
ひとびとがいく
だれもいない
時代の恋愛
ひとの親だけが
あぐらをかいて
カキモチを
かね火箸でやいている
それから
ツンボのおとこが
おんなをあやす術をわすれて
おんなは孕んだ
あたしが帰るまでには
バラバラに死ぬひまが
まだあった

 

では今夜また [Again Tonight] 

みんな帰った
冬のひとびとのあつまりはおわった
きみは具体的に
ドアのカギをかけ
きみは具体的に
手を洗った
あさって
女のうむコドモは
みんな死ぬだろう
きみはまず
手もとにある
食器から
こわしはじめた

 

パンの話 [Bread] 

まちがへないでください
パンの話をせずに わたしが
バラの花の話をしてゐるのは
わたしにパンがあるからではない
わたしが 不心得ものだから
バラを食べたい病気だから
わたしに パンよりも
バラの花が あるからです

飢える日は
パンをたべる
飢える前の日は
バラをたべる
だれよりもおそく パンをたべてみせる

パンがあることをせめないで
バラをたべることを  せめてください–

Translator’s Note

Tomioka Taeko (b. 1935) and Yoshihara Sachiko (1932-2002) produced some of Japan’s most memorable post-war poetry. Their sophisticated and stunning use of stylistic effects, along with their candid treatment of gender and sexuality, set their work apart from their male contemporaries, yet they remain conspicuously under-translated writers (particularly Yoshihara). It is tempting to suggest this is due to the unusual form of their poetry. Tomioka and Yoshihara both created highly idiosyncratic poetic worlds in which the incompatible is commonplace. Their poems are often confessional in nature, which no doubt explains part of their emotional impact. However, they also draw much of their power from being able to implicate older poetic forms, like the uta, with its fixed poetic vocabulary, while at the same time incorporating modernist influences like free verse and stream-of-consciousness. (It is perhaps no surprise that Tomioka once translated Gertrude Stein).

“April Grammar” is one of several Tomioka poems in which “grammar” is a force with physical consequences. In this dislocated reality, “grammar” takes over the reins from fate. Grammar is responsible for the unexpected, odd twists that a sentence (or an event, or a relationship) must sometimes take in order to make sense. Other Tomioka poems give us the disconcerting feeling that there is no external world at all—that there is just language—and there is no stepping outside of it. Nowhere is this claustrophobic sense stronger than in “Again Tonight,” with its closing of doors and closing of possibilities. The poem also has an important function within Tomioka’s wider body of work, in which she uses a full complement of distinctly gendered personal pronouns, prompting the reader to ask time and again: Is this another speaker? A splinter of the self? A new identity with more expressive potential?

If there are surprises waiting in between Tomioka’s poems, the reader of Yoshihara’s works is liable to feel like he is waiting for and experiencing surprise alongside the poet. There is the distinct sense of something incredible being improvised. The fact remains that Yoshihara yields a lot of the page, by bits and pieces, to the performance of hesitation. A glance at virtually any page of her poetry reveals conspicuous gaps between words, like holes punched out of the text. The effect of reading these pauses is to feel that even the poet is surprised at the word she came up with next, and decided to memorialize that indecision in the structure and typographical look of the poem. “Bread” is a poem in the same vein, but with one crucial difference: the breaks she puts between words and lines are not a record of hesitation or discovery, but a sight guide for how to perform the poem to achieve full rhetorical impact.

TomiokaTomioka Taeko (b. 1935) began her prolific literary career as a poet, publishing five critically acclaimed volumes between 1957 and 1970, after which she gave up poetry for fiction and other genres. A respected critic, she is also known for her work on the script for the 1969 film Double Suicide. The same year, she translated Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives into Japanese. A native of Osaka, she often incorporates Osaka dialect into her writing. (Work cited: Tomioka, Taeko. Tomioka Taeko Shishū. Tokyo: Shichōsha, 1968.)

 

Yoshihara SachikoYoshihara Sachiko (1932-2002) published her first collection of poetry in 1964 to critical acclaim. Its themes of motherhood, death, love, and betrayal would continue to inform her work in the years that followed. In 1983, along with fellow poet Shinkawa Kazue, she founded the influential poetry journal Gendai-shi La Mer. The recipient of numerous awards throughout her career, Yoshihara was also an accomplished essayist. (Work cited: Yoshihara, Sachiko. Yoshihara Sachiko Shishū, Tokyo: Shichōsha, 1976.)

 

James GarzaJames Garza is a freelance translator and writer living in Japan. His work has appeared in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, tNY.Press, and Wild Quarterly, among other places. He holds an MA in Japanese studies from the University of Arizona.

Word from the Editor

A few days after our last issue’s publication, in South Carolina, a gunman entered a 199-year-old church during a prayer service. This specific place of worship had held a prominent role in social activism from the slave era to the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Lives Matter movement. The white gunman, in what is now known as the Charleston church massacre, confessed that he attacked the black congregation during a prayer service and killed nine people in the hopes of igniting a race war.

A few weeks later, an officer in Prairie View, Texas pulled a woman over for a routine traffic violation. In viral footage from the officer’s dashcam and a video recorded by a bystander, the male officer, reported to be Hispanic, harasses the black female driver, Sandra Bland, a civil rights activist, forcefully pulls her from the car, threatens her with a Taser, and arrests her. Three days later, Bland was discovered dead in her jail cell. As of this writing, the investigation is ongoing.

This summer, as protests waved across the nation in response to these and other manifestations of culturally-ingrained biases—police brutality, racial injustice, economic inequality—another story about equality also dominated the news. In its landmark decision on the Obergefell v. Hodges case, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law and expanded the scope of human rights in this country. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “The right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty.” The marriage equality victory didn’t end the struggle for equal treatment and protection for non-heterosexual and non-binary-gendered people, but the ruled marked a significant cultural shift.

Like Antioch, our university-affiliate, Lunch Ticket is committed to dismantling ethnic biases, heterosexism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, discrimination based on religious, cultural and political affiliations, and other forms of oppression. As our staff engaged with the summer’s equality struggles, sorrows and triumphs, our submission windows opened, and our editorial teams began reviewing work for this, our Winter/Spring 2016 issue. Our own diversity underscored the powerful outcomes of respecting and reflecting a wide spectrum of values and voices. We were unified in our celebration of marriage equality, in our disdain of racial inequities, and our outrage at the senseless loss of lives. All the while, we have wondered how, as a literary and art journal, Lunch Ticket can make a meaningful difference in the cultural conversation.

In this state, I reached out to LeVan Hawkins to write the featured essay for our Winter/Spring 2016 issue. Individual narratives drive the broader cultural narrative, and as a journal, Lunch Ticket strives to publish work that has been and continues to be underrepresented in the literary ecosystem. LeVan’s talents as a poet, performer, and essayist, are rooted in his fierce commitment to honesty and insights. He is someone who I knew would draw upon his experiences as a black, gay man to illuminate universal truths of great import to all communities. We spoke for a long time about life as a writer, and about the intersections between the personal and political, and when I mentioned the featured essay, he knew exactly what he wanted to write about. However, before our conversation ended, he said, “You know, I wish people would stop reaching out to me to write essays about being black and gay.”

I understood what he meant. For a moment, I wanted to backpedal, to invite him to write about anything of his choosing. But we both knew that I had called because I wanted him to write about exactly that. We need writers willing to share their personal stories about moving through a world that is often oblivious to its own biases and stereotypes. We need writers who are willing to write about the intersection of their personal lives amid the socio-political climate. Their willingness to share their experiences can change the world for someone who identifies with those experiences, yet never sees them reflected on the page. So, too, they can change the world for all of us, by shining a light on experiences that, while new or uncomfortable to some, need to be known by all. And we need publishing platforms: newspapers, film and television outlets, online media, and literary and art journals that are passionate about publishing our collective and individual realities.

At Lunch Ticket, we believe in excellent craft, moving stories, intriguing art, and social activism. Reading and publishing is both a reflective and radical act. It is both local and global and it is unacceptable to strive for anything less than the removal of the prefix “under” from underrepresented. We must shift the meaning of marginalized away from any particular group of people, reserving it for that space where editors and others write notes. When we read works that illuminate the emotional connection between the familiar and the unfamiliar, we gain insight, empathy, and compassion toward others in our global community. This is our mission at Lunch Ticket: to be an amplifier for stories that move beyond historic conventions and traditional constraints into a truer reflection of our diverse, culturally rich, and complex world.

In this Winter/Spring 2016 issue, we feature 65 new pieces, from original material to translated works, across fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, author interviews and essays. Several pieces touch on grief and longing, as in Sara Walters’s “Where the River Ends,” a story in verse about a teenager grappling with love and loss, and in Dana Mele’s “Bats in the Attic,” about miscarriage. Many of our authors, poets, and translators take us on cultural journeys—to China, Vietnam, Israel, Argentina, Turkey, Japan, Ecuador, and more. Others share narratives that capture the complex multicultural U.S. quilt, as in Talar Malakian’s piece “Want Cokes?” about Armenian- and Mexican-Americans, Sabrina Fedel’s “Honor’s Justice” about an Iraqi-American family as their daughter assimilates, and Yoshie Sakai’s video installation, “‘Koko’s Love’: A Soap Opera Tale of One Family” about Japanese-American stereotypes. In their photography collections, Candace Jahn and Brooke Johnson tackle gender stereotypes, and in Robert Robinson’s “Boiler Rat,” he offers an insider view of the working conditions in an Iowa industrial power plant. These are powerful, moving works of art and literature, ones that we believe should be out in the world and read.

Of the whole collection, however, Carmella Guiol’s flash CNF “Lifted” perhaps best sums up what Lunch Ticket is about. In this piece, strangers standing on line at a grocery store connect over an unexpected moment of beauty. Music sparks the shoppers to connect with each other in just a glance across imagined and real differences. Throughout this issue of Lunch Ticket, I hope that you find meaningful engagement with narratives that resonate both familiarly and with strange newness. And, writers among you, whatever your journey through the infinite and constantly evolving combinations of identity, cultural or otherwise, I hope you’ll choose to share your unique voices and perspectives. After all, readers turn to story not only to discover other worlds, but to retrieve something that will be of use to them back in their own.

 

Take good care,

Arielle Silver
Editor-in-Chief

Miasma

The words return,
fold over and begin anew,
a shrouded spring
enveloping mockingbirds
in shaded trees
who curse their surroundings
in alternate rounds, as if fighting with the dawn.
Their tune’s timbre
recasts yesterday and all tomorrows
as a graveyard of upended trees.
Soon, all creatures bent on survival
will throb with the song suspended
in the thick of the forest
that dies by the dawn’s first light.

Amy Strauss Friedman Amy Strauss Friedman teaches English at Harper College and earned her MA in Comparative Literature from Northwestern University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in *82 Review, Rogue Agent, After the Pause, Fractal, Extract(s), Referential Magazine, Crack the Spine, and elsewhere. Amy lives in Chicago, where she is a regular contributor to the newspaper Newcity.