Litdish: Gayle Brandeis, Author

Welcome to our new Amuse-Bouche occasional series, Litdish. This is a solicited series of interviews with writers and artists in conversation with our staff about literature, art, social justice, and community activism. Please enjoy. ~The Editors

 

Gayle Brandeis is a poet, writer, and activist. She is the author of the poetry collections The Selfless Bliss of the Body and Dictionary Poems, as well as a craft book Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write.  Her novels include Delta Girls: A Novel, Self Storage, and My Life with the Lincolns. Her first novel, The Book of Dead Birds, won The Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social EngagementBrandeis’s work has appeared in numerous publications including Salon and The Nation. Her recent essay “My Shadow Son: A stranger insisted he was my son for over a decade” has been featured in The Washington PostIndependent, and The Chicago Tribune. Her new memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, is a raw and poetic exploration of trauma and healing. Currently, Brandeis teaches writing at Antioch University Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada College. She is the editor of Tiferet Journal and Lady/Liberty/Lit, as well as the 2018 judge for Lunch Ticket’s Diana Woods Memorial award for nonfiction writing. In December 2017, I had the opportunity to meet up with Brandeis in Los Angeles to talk about the intersections of life and writing. Here is an excerpt of our conversation.

Interviewed by Kori Kessler and edited for clarity.

 

Kori Kessler: You’re the next judge for Lunch Ticket’s Diana Woods Memorial award for nonfiction writing and a lot of the submissions explore trauma. I was wondering how creative nonfiction, as a genre, helps in the healing process when it comes to going through trauma?

Gayle Brandeis: It helps in so many ways. For me, it allowed me to dive as deeply as possible into my own story. I have a tendency to shy away from hard stuff and I told myself I really need to go there and just swim around and explore this as thoroughly as I can so I can try to come to some sort of understanding about what happened. So it allowed me to immerse myself in my pain as a way of moving through my pain. But at the same time, it gave me some detachment from my own story which was really helpful because I had to see it clearly from within and without, and stepping back from it gave me more compassion for myself in a way and allowed me to see things more clearly.

The writing does help me get closer to my own story and step back from my own story, so there was this kind of double consciousness that allowed me to see things in a fresh way, it was so deeply cathartic. The first draft especially was deeply cathartic and then the revision was when I was able to gain the detachment. I started seeing my story as art and not just catharsis. So it became both catharsis and art.

KK: Is that [artful presentation] what you look for in other creative nonfiction?

GB: I think so; I certainly want to see someone approach their story in an artful way so it’s not just like reading someone’s journal. Like seeing someone grappling with their story and transforming it into art.

KK: Do you feel that creative nonfiction can help in the healing process that we are going to have to go through as a nation to help us navigate the current political situations and powers?

GB: I think it can be a very important part of the healing process. I know that reading think pieces by other people, especially if they are very rooted in the writer’s own experience, it helps me understand what’s going on. And I think there is so much we as a nation need to confront right now and process, and I think our voices can help pull each other forward. I know that for myself, I often don’t really know what I know and understand until I write it down. And I’ve heard other writers say something very similar. So writing can definitely help us to grapple with the confusion and chaos of this ridiculous world. And our voices can really be hands reaching out to each other saying you are not alone. Let’s join in solidarity.

Our individuality is so important, but when we each raise our voices we can create this collective chorus that I think will help change the cultural story. When we change the story, we change the culture.

We see that happening with the #metoo movement, with not just women, with people giving voice to things that have been kept silent. When we start telling these stories, things change. I think writing will be vitally crucial during this time.

KK: Do you think that creative nonfiction as a genre is going to help bridge gaps in polar ideals?

GB: I hope so. I feel like it has to help eventually, but our culture is divided into such polar camps. I don’t really know what it’s going to take to build that bridge. I do have faith in deeply human stories, that beneath all this ideology we all have heart beats, we all can enjoy a ripe plum. There are these simple basic human experiences, giving birth, breathing, our loved ones. If we can meet on that basic human level, which we can do through our stories, I think that provides the greatest opportunity for a bridge. But it’s scary when we come to our stories with such different ideologies and people have a different idea of what truth is. It can be tricky, but I still have faith in the deeply human story.

KK: How has your writing process changed throughout the years and has this current memoir changed your writing process at all?

GB: Yeah. I’ve been writing since I was four, so writing has always been a huge part of my life. So my process has definitely changed over the years. I feel like writing this book has been liberating in so many ways because I think that in writing fiction, without realizing it, I was kind of trying to work some stuff out subconsciously of my own life. And being able to face my own story head on through this memoir was really important to me. I’m someone who has not been very forthcoming with my own story. I’ve kept a lot hidden and so to be able to be honest about my own life has made me feel just so much freer as a human being. I feel like I can speak more freely; I can move more freely through the world because I’m hiding less. And that make me feel braver as a writer across all genres. I feel like I can just kind of bust forth with whatever I need to write on.

KK: Which non-writing related aspect of your life influences your writing?

GB: I would have to say that dance and writing are really interwoven for me; those have been my two main modes of expression my whole life. And I don’t dance as often as I’d like these days but when I do, it feels so good and I just like to cut as loose as possible and I definitely dance as if no one is watching. The freedom that I feel when I am dancing is something that I like to capture every day. So just feeling completely at home in my skin when I dance, which I don’t always do as much in my life as I want to, I definitely want to translate that into my writing as well. Feeling fully my body, fully alive, fully open to the moment and a little bit wild.

KK: Do you have any advice for writers of creative nonfiction?

GB: I go back to this TED talk by Brené Brown on vulnerability. She talks about how she discovered that the original definition of the word courage is to tell one’s story with all one’s heart and I think that is the courage we need when we tell our own stories, to jump into it with our whole heart, our body, don’t forget your body as you are writing. And our experiences are all right there inside our skin so tap into that. Be as brave as you can be.

Finding that radar that tells us whether we need space or a kick in the pants can be tricky to find, but just keep coming back to that sense of courage. I think that is what readers are looking for.

I know there are times when we are not quite ready to tell certain things. We have to develop some sort of inner radar that tells us when we need to listen and give ourselves that time and space so we can be ready later when we need to give ourselves a bit of a nudge.

KK: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received, and what has been the worst?

GB: I always go back to Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts.” I think that was so liberating and that has been something reiterated by a lot of writing teachers. Just the importance of giving ourselves permission to write the most horrible stuff. I’ve been a perfectionist when I was younger. I did some child modeling as a kid, which was not well-suited for my temperament. I was so shy. I was given this job where I had to be at trade shows where I was modeling this very rudimentary early classroom computer called the System 80, and someone asked me to push the wrong answer to see what it would do. I couldn’t do it. I started crying and I had to be carried away from the demonstration by my mom because I was sobbing because I could not push the wrong answer. I was this awful perfectionist.

Luckily I’ve let go of a lot of that and some of that has been through this advice of just writing shitty first drafts; just giving yourself permission to play, to explore, to be messy, to not worry if it’s right or okay, that you can make it better through revision. That has been advice that has been deeply, deeply helpful.

As for the worst advice, I can’t think of anything specific but anytime advice is really prescriptive, and says that you always have to do this or never have to do that, I bristle against that. I bristle against absolutes in terms of writing advice because I think that we each have to find our own best pathways which can be very different from someone else. My feeling is when someone says to never do something, I want to do it.

KK: What are you currently reading?

GB: I am kind of dipping in and out of a few different books right now, and I’m loving all of them. I’m reading Lydia Yuknavitch’s The Misfits Manifesto, which is based on her TED talk, and it’s just this inspiring book about the power of being a misfit. I have felt like a misfit in many ways in my life and I just love her book. I am also reading this really interesting book of essays called Circadian by Chelsey Clammer which was recommended to by a Laraine Herring, a dear friend whom I graduated with. There’s a really interesting form in this book. It’s very free in terms of possibility for the essay. And I also started reading Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado a short story collection which is super freeing as well.

KK: Do you have a favorite TED Talk?

GB: I love Lydia Yuknavitch’s TED Talk. I love so many. They are a great source of inspiration.

 

Kori Kessler has work published in Tiferet Journal. Currently, she attends Antioch University Los Angeles and is co-associate managing editor of Lunch Ticket. She lives with her three dogs Ginsberg, Elliot, and Stella.

À La Carte: Colors for the Diaspora

Blue-green watery globe
tugging to a red core
we are a distant comet,
white cloud of unburnished rocks,
frisking the heavens
for an arc
to earth, sea, home.

Green-brown Palestine,
cactus fruit and wild thyme,
olive orchards, cypress trees…
we travel on your mountain tops
tethered by voices from suitcases
and the yaw of blackened keys.

Blue-black night
silver stars of ancestors
traveling a displaced orbit
around a lost sun, repeating:
when will we see the colors of our land,
when will we land….

 

Zeina Azzam is a Palestinian American writer, editor, and community activist. She works as an editor for a Washington, DC think tank. Her articles have appeared in The Hill, Middle East Eye, Al Jazeera English, and Common Dreams. Her poems have been published in Mizna, Sukoon magazine, Split This Rock, Heartwood literary magazine, and the anthologies Gaza Unsilenced (Alareer and El-Haddad, eds.), Yellow as Turmeric, Fragrant as Cloves (Fowler, ed.), The Poeming Pigeon: Love Poems (The Poetry Box), and Write Like You’re Alive (Zoetic Press). She holds an MA in Arabic literature from Georgetown University.

Photo Credit: Jeff Norman

 

Spotlight: Don’t Worry, Be Happy

[translated fiction]

It’s my weekend with my daughter.

Vilhelmína is standing between us wearing a Batman T-shirt and a wool jacket, a red tulle skirt and new rubber boots. She’s also wearing a backpack that’s much too big for her scrawny back with a decorative little umbrella hanging off it, and I feel a tug at my heartstrings when I notice a scrape on the cheek that’s facing me.

Her mother is standing impatiently in the doorway, trying to hold down her blonde hair, which is being pawed at by the wind. Her wide pajama pants flap around her legs and I know her old T-shirt well. It’s one I’ve often touched. In the darkness behind her, I can just make out a bearded man in a button-down shirt. How can she find that guy attractive?

“You two are going to do something fun, aren’t you?” Her voice is far too peppy and the question’s followed by a look that speaks volumes. She’s in a hurry to get rid of us.

Vilhelmína and I look at each other quickly and that scrape nudges at the dread that has hunkered down in some indeterminate place behind my ribs, in a fitful embrace with my guilty conscience. All the things that can happen when I’m not there to keep an eye on her. And who exactly is this man hiding in the shadows behind the woman whom I once called my own? I’ll question Vilhelmína—gently, cunningly—and figure out what happened. How things are with her, whether there’s anything amiss. Careful not to scare her, not to put words in her mouth. Didn’t her mother say once that this guy was a teacher, her coworker?

It pleases me to see that she’s looking at the new Volvo that’s waiting for us by the gate. “You always land on your feet,” my former wife says sarcastically.

I just smile and shake the car keys in front of her face.

Vilhelmína looks at me expectantly and for the umpteenth time, I wonder why our father-daughter weekends always have to revolve around something fun. Why can’t I just take my daughter’s hand and bring her along on my daily comings and goings? Let her see what my reality is like? There’s always got to be something happening. Sometimes, it’s even been decided beforehand, down to the smallest details—where we’ll go and what we’ll do—without me having any say in the matter. I don’t know how it got like this, but, now, I’m saying stop. From here on out, I’m in charge of the agenda. I’m not letting people get away with pushing me around anymore.

Our last weekend adventure is still painfully clear in my memory when we drive off. On that occasion, my Ex had gotten the idea that it would be a good idea for us to give bread to the ducks on Tjörnin pond. This weekend pastime, beloved of the nation, has never appealed to me. Not even when I was a kid. But I decided to do my best, was going, in fact, to buy old bread at the bakery on Lækjargata. They were all out, though—some senior citizens had gotten it on the cheap—so in the end, we splurged on fresh parmesan bread.

Then, per our instructions, we stood there on the banks of the pond and shivered in the cold, inhaling the faint scent of decay, tossing out little morsels of bread and, in the intervening breaths, had a couple ourselves. The ducks took a long time perking up—I’ve got my doubts about the intellect of the Tjörnin waterfowl—but the seagulls were on the ball and snapped the morsels up before they’d landed in the water. One of them also snapped up the cigarette butt that I flicked away, but didn’t seem any worse off for it. I’d started to get cold and decided to make the morsels bigger. Vilhelmína thought this was brilliant (she thinks everything I do is brilliant) and we were making quick work of the bread.

Then, out of nowhere, a furious swan appeared. It was like a prehistoric creature in a horror film, its wings and beak beating, biting, and chopping in all directions. Truth be told, I’d never figured out just what kind of creature a swan is, that its wings should be so big and strong. Vilhelmína, who is about the same height as the average swan, didn’t have the sense to be afraid of the bird and defended herself with great courage, but I had a bad feeling about where this was going and so chucked the rest of the bread into the pond as I carried my daughter, kicking and screaming, off the battlefield and into the safe haven of the car. We were both silent afterwards, all the way to the Laugardalur neighborhood on the east side of town, where we’d been invited for dinner at my mother’s house. Vilhelmína won’t mention giving the ducks bread again. That’s one of her innumerable good qualities: she never asks to do anything more than once.

*     *     *

Today, a trip to the carnival next to the harbor has been planned for us. I’m upset with myself for not having anticipated this beforehand, and I drive faster than I mean to in the direction of the harborside grounds, with my daughter fastened securely in her car seat. But it’s also Saturday—so-called “candy day” when shops nationwide sell sweets at half-price—so we pay a quick visit to the corner store on the way and the girl at the counter is remarkably patient while Vilhelmína picks out candy for her bag. She tends to be a bit finicky.

The girl at the counter looks familiar, although I’m sure I’ve never seen her before. She has a prosthetic hand and I wouldn’t forget a thing like that. A chill goes through me when I look at those stiff fingers—there’s something obscene about that pink, artificial flesh—but I try to hide my feelings.

“And then I’ll get that big, green lollipop there,” says Vilhelmína finally. “It’s Kryptonite,” she tells me confidentially, when we walk out. “Kryptonite is the only thing that can defeat Superman. Otherwise, he can do anything. And he’s always saving people.”

I nod my head, say that I’ve heard as much and am glad to have him around, but at the same time, I wonder whether it’s normal for girls to play superheroes.

“Mama says there’s a roller coaster at the carnival,” Vilhelmína adds excitedly, when we’re back in the car.

“She didn’t want to have a go herself?” I can’t stop myself from asking ironically.

But Vilhelmína is impervious to irony.

“Nah, she doesn’t have time. And also, she gets sick on roller coasters.”

I know for a fact that Vilhelmína’s mother is neither particularly busy nor prone to queasiness, but I keep this to myself.

When I try to worm out of my daughter how she hurt herself, she just quietly says that she’d been fighting with a boy and refuses to comment any further on it.

It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that there’s constantly more and more that I don’t know about the child whom I thought I knew as well as I know myself, but we keep driving in companionable silence.

“Tell me a story,” she says, all of a sudden.

“About what?” I ask, somewhat distractedly.

“Superman and Batman.” She looks at me exuberantly.

“One weekend, Superman and Batman decided to take a vacation,” I start, trying to come up with something. “They were bored to death with villains and rescue missions and thought it was high time to do something fun, so they decided to go to the carnival.”

I’m a little distracted because there aren’t many places to park, but finally, I find a spot and a half a few blocks away on Hafnarstræti and have the presence of mind to snag it ahead of a mournful-looking Lada.

“Just like us!” She claps her palms together and looks at me adoringly.

“Yep, just like us. And now we’re here and what we do, they’ll do, too,” I say as I open the car door, release my daughter from the prison of her car seat, and hand her umbrella to her.

“That’s a good idea!” Vilhelmína springs out, pops open the umbrella, and smooths her skirt.

“You can be Superman and I’m Batman. I think you look like Superman. He’s really strong and nothing can defeat him except Kryptonite!”

Touched, Superman looks into Batman’s sky-blue eyes and nods.

*     *     *

Down by the harbor, there’s a smattering of frozen parents wandering around with ruddy-cheeked and excited children. Chimes that sound like they’re coming from an overgrown music box manage, just barely, to rise above the noise of the wind and I button our jackets. I’m going to be firm today. It’s too chilly out to be lingering around, and anyway, I’m looking forward to showing Vilhelmína the new computer game that’s waiting for her at home on Tjarnargata. It’s called The Sims and it pretty much lets you arrange people and the universe however you want.

I start by putting a somewhat offended Vilhelmína on a merry-go-round that’s revolving slowly and venerably at the edge of the harbor, while I settle myself in the shelter of a wall in the meantime. Then I see she’s the only rider, and realize I have to do better on the next one.

“You can pick three rides, then we’ll get you some cotton candy, and then we’re going home,” I say, ready to strike a bargain.

“I want you to come on the rides with me.” Batman slips her little hand into Superman’s.

“Yes, of course. It would hardly do to make you ride by yourself.”

Then we start making our way over to the roller coaster. My daughter’s an opportunist.

“Aw, Villa, honey. I think you’re too young. Look! There are some fun wagons shaped like all kinds of animals over there. Why don’t we try those?” Even I can hear how cloying my voice sounds.

“That’s just for babies. You only want to let me go on something like that.” Vilhelmína’s disappointed.

“OK. How about the electric cars, then? What if you took me for a drive?”

Vilhelmína agrees and we join the short line.

“Ew—there’s hair on your lollipop,” a boy in front of us says, giving a shudder.

“It isn’t a lollipop.” Vilhelmína’s voice takes on a pedantic tone. “It’s Kryptonite, and I’m Batman.”

“Batman doesn’t wear a dress.” The boy’s disdain is boundless.

“Yeah-huh, he wears a dress when he feels like it. And this isn’t a dress—it’s a skirt. Don’t you know anything?!” Then she folds up her umbrella and lifts her skirt as she steps daintily into the driver’s seat.

Glowing with pride, I glance at the boy who looks after us with a dumb expression on his face, and I enjoy the warmth of Vilhelmína’s skinny shoulders when she steers between the other cars with remarkable skill.

Maybe I should buy a house out in the country. Land, even. The two of us could have a horse. I don’t know anything about horses, but we could learn together and girls like grooming horses and braiding their tails. I don’t know where the idea comes from, but it’s exciting and the idea sends a current of warmth through me. It could be our special place and I’d demand to have Vilhelmína every other week. Then I’d just work from home on my computer while she pottered about with the animals. Of course, we’d have a dog, too… When I look at those little hands that are getting bigger so quickly, that are holding the steering wheel so knowledgably, I’m hell-bent on making this day special, creating a beautiful memory for the both of us.

Next, Vilhelmína wants to test our sharpshooting skills, which yields depressing results—I’m half-distracted because my thoughts are still wrapped up in the land idea. And then there’s just one ride left.

“The roller coaster,” says Vilhelmína. The one here is soo small. She emphasizes just how small by pointing the sticky, poison-green lollipop that doesn’t seem to be getting any smaller to her knee.

“No,” I answer, with all the authority I have. “Let’s find something else.”

Hungry and cold, we wander around the harborside grounds and don’t feel like arguing anymore. I’ve forgotten my watch at home and don’t know what time it is, although I suspect it’s getting late, so we settle on checking out the Hall of Mirrors. I have good memories of the Hall of Mirrors, whose thin and fat reflections were a source of perennial amusement. What could go wrong? I think, pleased with myself as I pay a toothless man an absurdly high entrance fee.

There’s a thick, black curtain over the entryway. The man pulls it back and lets us in. When it falls, heavy and silent behind us, we’re suddenly alone in a dim hall and the dust-thickened air coats my tongue with a moldy flavor. Curious, Vilhelmína walks further in and I follow hesitantly behind her. This isn’t like I remembered. Where are the old funhouse mirrors? It’s a maze dressed in mirrors, and our own faces, pale and distorted, peek out from countless dark niches. This isn’t funny.

I’m gripped with claustrophobia, but Vilhelmína thinks this is great fun and to my horror, she runs ahead, cheerful and curious. In the blink of an eye, my child has disappeared. I try to follow, head uncertainly into the maze’s interior, but quickly realize that I’m completely lost. At first, when I call out to Vilhelmína, I get a distant reply, but before long, there’s nothing except silence and my reflections.

I stop and listen, but no matter how I try, all I can only hear is my own heartbeat and the ringing in my ears, which is only getting worse.

Take a deep breath, I say to myself and try to keep my cool, but the air is getting denser and more humid the further in I go. It fills my throat and nostrils and I feel like I’m drowning. I start to sweat—the back of my shirt is soaking wet and my heart thumps in my chest. I’m gripped by an intense and sudden terror.

Frantic, I take off running until my shaking knees give out under me and I collapse. The noise in my ears is now deafening and my fingers go numb and stiffen as if in a spasm. Am I having a heart attack here, all alone in the dark? I rip open the collar of my shirt.

Countless reflections stare at me reproachfully, white as sheets.

Eyes clenched, I finally start to crawl. The silence beyond the buzzing in my ears is terrifying and in order to keep myself from going crazy with fear, I begin to hum: Don’t worry, be happy. I’ve never liked the song and I only know the chorus, which I repeat over and over. An off-key voice reverberates around the maze, quiet and shaky, and I can hardly believe it belongs to me. Every so often, I run into a wall, but anything is better than opening my eyes, seeing the endless hallways, and looking into the eyes of my reflections.

A whole eternity passes until I feel a faint breeze and warily open my eyes, just a sliver.

*     *     *

There’s daylight at the end of the hall. A small group of people has gathered and standing in front of them is Vilhelmína, who’s staring at me, frightened. Her umbrella is closed and she’s still holding the sticky lollipop. There’s a strange green glow emanating from it in the pale sunlight.

I quit humming, stand shakily up, and try to smile at Vilhelmína.

 

 

“Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” an excerpt from Raddir úr húsi loftskeytamannsins

Það er pabbahelgi.

Vilhelmína stendur á milli okkar í Batman­bol innanundir ullarjakkanum, rauðu tjullpilsi og nýjum gúmmí­stígvélum. Hún er líka með allt of stóran bakpoka á mjóu bakinu sem í hangir lítil, skrautleg regnhlíf og ég finn hvernig hjartað tekur kipp þegar ég tek eftir skrámu á kinninni sem snýr að mér.

Móðir hennar stendur óþolinmóð í dyragættinni og reynir að hemja ljóst hárið sem gusturinn rótar upp. Víðar náttbuxur blakta um leggina og gamli bolurinn er kunnuglegur. Ég hef oft snert hann. Í myrkrinu á bak við hana grillir í skeggjaðan náunga í bómullarskyrtu. Hvernig getur henni fundist þessi maður aðlaðandi?

En þið feðgin ætlið að gera eitthvað skemmtilegt, er það ekki? Röddin er allt of glaðleg og spurningunni fylgir talandi augnaráð. Henni liggur á að losna við okk­ur.

Við Vilhelmína horfumst snöggvast í augu og skráman hnippir í óttann sem hefur hreiðrað um sig í krampakenndu faðmlagi við samviskubitið á óljósum stað innan við rifbeinin. Allt sem getur komið fyrir þegar ég er ekki til að passa hana. Og hver er eiginlega þessi maður sem felur sig í skugganum á bak við konuna sem ég kallaði einu sinni mína? Ég ætla að yfirheyra Vilhelmínu, varlega, lymskulega, og komast að því hvað gerðist. Hvernig hún hefur það, hvort eitthvað sé að. Passa að hræða hana ekki, gera hana ekki leiða. Sagði mamma hennar ekki einhvern tíma að þessi maður væri kenn ari, samstarfsmaður hennar?

Það gleður mig þegar ég sé að hún horfir á nýja Volvóinn sem bíður okkar við hliðið. Þú lendir alltaf ofan á, segir fyrrverandi konan mín hæðnislega.

Ég brosi bara og hristi framan í hana bíllyklana. Vilhelmína lítur eftirvæntingarfull á mig og ég velti því rétt einu sinni fyrir mér hvers vegna pabbahelgar eiga alltaf að snúast um eitthvað skemmtilegt. Af hverju má ég ekki bara taka í höndina á dóttur minni og hafa hana með í þessu daglega stússi? Leyfa henni að sjá hvernig minn veruleiki er? Alltaf verður eitthvað að gerast. Stundum er meira að segja búið að ákveða fyrirfram, og það í smáatriðum, hvert verður farið og hvað verður gert að mér forspurðum. Ég veit ekki hvernig þetta varð svona en nú segi ég stopp. Héðan í frá ætla ég að stjórna atburðarásinni, ég læt ekki fólk komast upp með að ráðskast með mig lengur.

Ævintýri síðustu pabbahelgar eru enn óþægilega skýr í minningunni þegar við feðginin keyrum af stað. Þá hafði konunni dottið í hug að það væri snjallræði láta okkur gefa öndunum á Tjörninni brauð. Þessi þjóðlega helgarskemmtun hefur aldrei höfðað til mín. Ekki heldur þegar ég var barn. En ég ákvað að gera mitt besta, ætlaði meira að segja að kaupa gamalt brauð í bakaríinu í Lækjargötu. Það var þó búið, einhverjir eldri borgarar höfðu fengið það ódýrt, svo að lokum splæstum við í glænýtt parmesanbrauð.

Þarna norpuðum við samkvæmt fyrirmælum og önduðum að okkur daufri rotnunarlyktinni á tjarnarbakkanum, kastandi smámolum fyrir og í endurnar á milli þess sem við fengum okkur sjálf nokkra bita. End­urnar voru lengi að taka við sér, ég hef mínar efasemdir um gáfnafar andastofnsins við Tjörnina en mávarnir voru með á nótunum og gripu bitana áður en þeir lentu í vatninu. Einn þeirra greip líka sígarettustubbinn sem ég henti frá mér og virtist ekki verða meint af. Mér var farið að verða kalt og ákvað að stækka bitana. Vilhelm­ínu fannst þetta sniðugt (henni þykir allt sniðugt sem ég geri) og það gekk hratt á brauðið.

Þá kom óður svanur aðvífandi. Hann var eins og forsöguleg skepna úr hryllingsmynd, barði, beit og hjó með vængjum og gogg í allar áttir. Ég hafði satt að segja aldrei áttað mig á því hverskonar skepna svanurinn er, að vængir hans væru svona stórir og sterkir. Vilhelmína, sem er svipuð á hæð og meðalsvanur, hafði ekki vit á að óttast fuglinn og varðist af miklu hugrekki en mér leist ekki á blikuna og henti restinni af brauðinu út í Tjörnina um leið og ég bar dóttur mína æpandi og spark andi burt af vígvellinum, inn í öruggt skjól bílsins. Við þögðum bæði á eftir, alla leiðina í Laugardal­ inn, þang að sem við vorum boðin í mat til mömmu. Vilhelmína mun ekki tala aftur um að gefa öndunum brauð. Það er einn af óteljandi kostum Vilhelmínu; hún biður aldrei um að gera neitt aftur.

Í dag er búið að skipuleggja ferð í tívolíið við höfnina. Ég er sjálfum mér reiður fyrir að hafa ekki séð þetta fyrir og ek hraðar en ég hafði hugsað mér í áttina að hafnarsvæðinu með dóttur mína kirfilega bundna í barna stólinn. En það er líka nammidagur svo við stöldrum við í sjoppu á leiðinni og afgreiðslustúlkan er afskaplega þolinmóð á meðan Vilhelmína velur sælgæti í poka. Hún á það til að vera svolítið smámunasöm.

Afgreiðslustúlkan er kunnugleg, þótt ég sé viss um að hafa aldrei séð hana áður. Hún er með gervihönd og ég gleymi ekki svoleiðis. Það fer hrollur um mig þegar ég horfi á þessa stífu fingur, það er eitthvað klúrt við þetta bleika gervihold, en ég reyni að leyna því hvernig mér líður.

Og svo ætla ég að fá stóra græna sleikibrjóstsykurinn þarna, segir Vilhelmína að lokum. Þetta er kryptonít, segir hún mér í trúnaði þegar við göngum út, kryptonít er það eina sem getur sigrað Súperman. Annars getur hann gert allt. Og hann er alltaf að bjarga fólki.

Ég kinka kolli, segist hafa frétt þetta og vera feginn að eiga hann að en velti því jafnframt fyrir mér hvort það sé algengt að stelpur séu að leika ofurhetjur.

Mamma segir að það sé rússíbani í tívolíinu, bætir Vilhelmína spennt við þegar við erum aftur komin í bílinn.

Hún hefur ekki bara viljað skella sér sjálf? get ég ekki stillt mig um að spyrja kaldhæðnislega. En kaldhæðni bítur ekki á Vilhelmínu. Æ, hún hefur ekki tíma. Og svo verður henni óglatt í rússíbönum.

Ég veit fyrir víst að mamma Vilhelmínu er hvorki önn um kafin né klígjugjörn en ákveð að halda því fyrir mig.

Þegar ég reyni að veiða upp úr dóttur minni hvernig hún hafi meitt sig svarar hún bara lágt að hún hafi verið að rífast við strák og neitar að tjá sig meira um það.

Það er erfitt að sætta sig við að það verður sífellt meira sem ég veit ekki um þetta barn sem ég hélt að ég gjörþekkti en við keyrum áfram í vinsamlegri þögn.

Segðu mér sögu, segir hún svo allt í einu. Um hvað? spyr ég, svolítið utan við mig. Súperman og Batman. Hún horfir upprifin á mig. Súperman og Batman ákváðu eina helgina að taka sér frí, byrja ég og reyni að láta mér detta eitthvað í hug. Þeir voru orðnir hundleiðir á glæpahyski og björgunarleiðöngrum og fannst kominn tími til að gera eitthvað skemmtilegt svo þeir ákváðu að fara í tívolí.

Ég er svolítið utan við mig því það er ekki mikið um laus stæði en að lokum finn ég eitt og hálft í Hafnarstræti og tekst með snarræði að ná því á undan þunglyndislegri Lödu.

Alveg eins og við! Hún klappar saman lófunum og horfir hrifin á mig.

Já, alveg eins og við. Og nú erum við komin og það sem við gerum gera þeir líka, segi ég um leið og ég opna bíldyrnar, losa dóttur mína úr prísund barnabílstólsins og rétti henni regnhlífina.

Það er góð hugmynd! Vilhelmína stekkur út, spennir upp regnhlífina og sléttir úr pilsinu.

Þú mátt vera Súperman og ég er Batman. Mér finnst þú líkur Súperman. Hann er alveg rosalega sterkur og ekkert getur sigrað hann nema kryptonít!

Súperman horfir snortinn í heiðblá augu Batmans og kinkar kolli.

Við höfnina er slæðingur af kuldalegum foreldrum á ráfi með rjóð og spennt börn. Tónar sem hljóma eins og úr ofvaxinni spiladós yfirgnæfa vindgnauðið með herkj um og ég hneppi jökkunum að okkur. Ég ætla að vera fastur fyrir í dag. Veðrið er of hryssingslegt til að vera að drolla þarna og svo hlakka ég líka til að sýna Vilhelmínu nýja tölvuleikinn sem bíður eftir henni heima á Tjarnargötunni. Hann heitir Sims og gengur út á að ráðstafa fólki og tilverunni nokkurn veginn að vild.

Ég byrja á að setja Vilhelmínu, nokkuð móðgaða, í hringekju sem snýst hægt og virðulega á hafnarbakkanum og kem mér fyrir í skjóli undir húsvegg á meðan.

Svo sé ég að hún er eini farþeginn og skil að ég verð að vanda mig betur næst.

Þú mátt velja þrjú tæki, síðan færðu kandífloss og svo förum við heim, segi ég samningsfús.

Ég vil að þú komir með mér í tækin. Batman laumar lítilli hendi í lófa Súpermans.

Já, ætli það sé ekki vissara. Það er varla forsvaranlegt að hleypa þér einni.

Þá byrjum við á að fara í rússíbanann. Dóttir mín er tækifærissinni.

Æ, Villa mín, ég held að þú sért of ung. Sjáðu! Þarna eru skemmtilegir vagnar dregnir af allskonar dýrum. Eigum við ekki að prófa þá? Ég heyri sjálfur hvað röddin er smeðjuleg.

Þetta er bara fyrir smábörn, þú vilt bara leyfa mér að fara í eitthvað svoleiðis. Vilhelmína er svekkt.

Ókei. En rafmagnsbílarnir? Hvernig væri að þú færir með mig í bíltúr?

Vilhelmína samþykkir það og við stillum okkur upp í stuttri röð.

Oj bara, það er hár á sleikjónum þínum, segir strákur sem stendur fyrir aftan okkur og hryllir sig.

Þetta er ekki sleikjó. Það er fyrirlestrartónn í rödd Vilhelmínu. Þetta er kryptonít og ég er Batman.

Batman er ekki í kjól. Fyrirlitning stráksins er takmarkalaus.

Jú, hann fer í kjól þegar honum sýnist. Og þetta er ekki kjóll, þetta er pils, veistu ekki neitt?! Svo leggur hún regnhlífina saman og lyftir pilsinu um leið og hún stekkur fimlega í bílstjórasætið.

Heitur af stolti gjóa ég augunum á strákinn sem horfir á eftir okkur með aulasvip og ég nýt þess að finna ylinn af mjórri öxlinni þegar Vilhelmína stýrir á milli hinna bílanna af ótrúlegri leikni.

Kannski ætti ég að kaupa hús uppi í sveit. Jafnvel jörð. Við feðgin gætum verið með hross. Ég veit ekkert um hesta en við getum lært á þá saman og stelpur hafa gaman af að kemba hesta og flétta á þeim taglið. Ég veit ekki hvaðan hugmyndin kemur en hún er spennandi og það fer hlýr straumur um mig við tilhugsunina. Þetta getur orðið samastaðurinn okkar og ég fer fram á að hafa Vilhelmínu aðra hverja viku. Ég vinn þá bara heima í tölvunni á meðan hún stússast með dýrin. Auð­ vitað yrðum við líka að vera með hund … Þegar ég horfi á þessar litlu hendur sem stækka svo hratt og halda svo kunnáttusamlega um stýrið er ég staðráðinn í að gera þennan dag sérstakan, búa til fallega minningu fyrir okkur bæði.

Næst vill Vilhelmína reyna skotfimi okkar með niðurdrepandi árangri, ég er hálfutan við mig því hugurinn er enn bundinn við jarðarkaupin, og þá er bara eitt tæki eftir.

Rússíbaninn, segir Vilhelmína. Hann er pínulítill hér. Hún leggur áherslu á hve lítill hann er með því að bera klístraðan, eiturgrænan sleikibrjóstsykurinn sem virð­ ist ekkert minnka við hnén á sér.

Nei, svara ég með öllum þeim myndugleika sem ég á til. Finnum eitthvað annað.

Við ráfum um hafnarsvæðið svöng og köld og nennum ekki að þrasa meira. Ég hef gleymt úrinu heima og veit ekki hvað klukkan er en mig grunar að það sé að verða áliðið svo við semjum um að kíkja inn í speglasalinn. Ég á góðar minningar úr speglasölum þar sem mjóar og feitar spegilmyndir voru sígilt skemmtiefni. Þetta getur ekki klikkað, hugsa ég feginn um leið og ég borga tannlausum manni fáránlega háan aðgangseyri.

Svart, þykkt tjald er fyrir innganginum. Maðurinn dregur það frá og hleypir okkur inn. Þegar það fellur þungt og þögult á eftir okkur erum við allt í einu ein í dimmum göngum og rykmettað loft leggst með myglubragði á tunguna. Vilhelmína gengur forvitin lengra inn og ég fylgi hikandi á eftir. Þetta er ekki eins og mig minnti. Hvar eru gömlu spéspeglarnir? Þetta er völundarhús, klætt speglum og okkar eigin andlit gægjast fram föl og afmynduð úr ótal myrkum kimum. Þetta er ekkert fyndið.

Innilokunarkenndin grípur mig en Vilhelmínu finnst þetta stórskemmtilegt og mér til skelfingar hleypur hún á undan, kát og forvitin. Á augabragði er barnið mitt horfið. Sjálfur reyni ég að elta, held hikandi af stað inn í innviði völundarhússins en kemst fljótlega að því að ég er rammvilltur. Þegar ég kalla á Vilhelmínu fæ ég í fyrstu fjarlæg svör en fljótlega er ekkert þarna nema þögnin og spegilmyndirnar.

Ég nem staðar og hlusta en hvernig sem ég sperri eyrun finna þau aðeins minn eigin hjartslátt og suðið í höfðinu á mér sem ágerist.

Anda rólega, segi ég við sjálfan mig og reyni að halda ró minni en loftið verður rakara og þéttara eftir því sem ég fer lengra, það fyllir hálsinn og nasirnar og mér finnst ég vera að kafna. Svitinn sprettur fram, skyrtubakið er rennandi blautt og hjartað hamast í brjóst inu. Ég er gripinn ofsalegri og fyrirvaralausri skelfingu.

Trylltur hleyp ég af stað þar til skjálfandi hnén gefa sig undir mér og ég hníg niður. Hávaðinn í höfðinu á mér er nú ærandi og fingurnir dofna og stirðna eins og í krampa. Er ég að fá hjartaáfall einn hér í myrkrinu? Ég ríf upp hálsmálið á skyrtunni.

Ótal spegilmyndir stara náhvítar og ásakandi á mig. Með samanklemmd augnlokin skríð ég loksins af stað. Þögnin handan við suðið í eyrunum er lamandi og til að sturlast ekki úr skelfingu byrja ég að söngla, Don’t worry, be happy. Lagið hefur aldrei höfðað til mín og ég kann bara viðlagið sem ég endurtek í sífellu. Hjáröddin endurómar lág og skjálfandi í völundarhúsinu og ég á bágt með að trúa að hún tilheyri mér. Stundum rek ég mig utan í veggina en allt er betra en að opna augun, sjá endalausa gangana og horfast í augu við spegilmyndirnar.

Það líður heil eilífð áður en ég finn örlítinn andvara og rifa augun varlega.

Við endann á göngunum er dagsbirtan. Þar hefur safnast lítill hópur fólks og fremst stendur Vilhelmína sem starir hrædd á mig. Regnhlífin er lokuð og í hendinni er hún enn með klístraðan sleikibrjóstsykurinn. Frá honum stafar framandi grænni birtu í fölum sólargeislunum. Ég hætti að raula, stend skjálfandi upp, og reyni að brosa til Vilhelmínu.

 

Larissa Kyzer is a writer and translator who was a 2012 Fulbright recipient to Iceland, where she has lived and studied for five years. Her translations include works by Andri Snær Magnason, Auður Jónsdóttir, Kári Tulinius, and Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir, as well as a collection of horror stories by Icelandic children. She will earn her MA in translation studies from the University of Iceland in October 2017.

 

Steinunn G. Helgadóttir Steinunn G. Helgadóttir is an Icelandic visual artist, poet, and prose writer, who has previously published two volumes of poetry. Her collection Kafbátakórinn (The Submarine Choir) was awarded the Jón úr Vör Poetry Award in 2011. In 2017, she was named one of Literature Across Frontiers’ “New Voices from Europe.” The story “Don’t Worry” is a standalone excerpt from Raddir úr húsi loftskeytamannsins (Voices from the Radio Operator’s House), a novel-in-stories or short-story cycle, which earned the author the 2016 Fjöruverðlaunin, an annual award for women writers.

How Baseball Saved My Life

Corner of Haight and Ashbury circa 1967

My family and I arrived in San Francisco in 1969, a couple of years after the Summer of Love, seven years after the San Francisco Giants’ last World Series appearance. A trail of incense and marijuana still wafted through the City. I was about to turn twelve, and it is that scent that I most remember, because it was new and it stank of drastic, indecipherable change. The cold and the streets crowded with people I neither knew nor understood cast out such distances between where I was, and where I came from, that I thought I’d never again remember home.

Only a week before, I had been in Havana, in the sun, embraced by the warmth of family. They had overwhelmed me with love, more than normal, in anticipation that perhaps it would be the last time they’d ever see me. I remember their tears each time they hugged me. I was in the known.

The Cuban Revolution was evolving and making every effort to eradicate western culture. Cuba was a place where long hair and American music were not permitted. A place where wearing bell-bottoms was an offense worthy of jail time, regardless of age. I’d hear adults argue about how their freedom was being systematically stolen from them. I’d hear them talk about leaving to the United States, where they could be free. But I never understood any of that. To me, there was only one thing: baseball, and my team was Industriales, Havana’s team.

    *     *     *

I found that in this strange place even the Spanish I heard some people speak was not my own. My uncle, whom I’d never met before, was nice but still a stranger, as were my cousins. Everything that was home, that meant home, was gone and seemed irretrievable. I supposed this was what freedom was like, but I didn’t like it. Instead, I felt alone, trapped, and less free than I’d ever been.

For months, I wallowed in self-pity and melancholy; I missed the only friends I knew up to then, the family we left behind, the blue skies, the warm sun, the pounding rains, the slap of the domino pieces over the constant chatter of the players, the red clay stuck to the bottom of my shoes, drinking water from the hose, the sweat, the laughter and the music. We all did, my sister, my brother and me. It was worse for my mother, Mima. She wanted to carry that burden for all of us, but her task was already daunting. She was a widow when we left Cuba. A lone woman with three kids making her way to a place she’d never been, to make a new life.

We lived in a small two-bedroom basement apartment in my uncle’s house. We were cramped, but thankful for all that we had. At least that’s what Mima kept saying. I felt different; the walls seemed to be getting closer to me each day. My brother and I shared a bunk-bed. I slept on the top bunk. Some nights I’d lie down, stared at the ceiling pressing down on me and cry myself to sleep. The more time passed the more isolated and lost I felt.

*     *     *

One day my Uncle came downstairs and asked me if I liked baseball. I said I did. He asked me if I knew Willie Mays, Willie McCovey or Juan Marichal. I didn’t know who they were. He went on to tell me all about how Mays was the world’s best center fielder and McCovey a great slugging first baseman and that Marichal’s delivery was a thing of beauty and made him a great pitcher. And that all of them were Giants. He made sure to tell me that from then on the Giants would be my team, and the Dodgers my hated rivals. I listened but felt no passion for any of it. I didn’t know the players, or the team.

Six of Industriales’ most famous players: Pedro Chávez, Agustín Marquetti, Santiago “Changa” Mederos, Pedro Medina, Javier Méndez y Orlando “El Duke” Hernández. (Fotos Archivo de BdeC)

To me, Pedro Chavez was the world’s best first baseman, Tony Gonzalez the best ever shortstop and no one could ever hit Manuel Hurtado, my star pitcher. He had no idea who these guys were. He dismissed them. We argued and in the midst of that argument, I remembered home. But the memories were not external, or even in my mind’s eye, like a faded photograph; these memories came from someplace deeper, someplace that suddenly made my skin once again sense the caress of the breeze back home.

As I began to pick up a little bit of English, I would hide away at the school’s library, to read the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sports page. Back then it was called the “Green Sheet” because they printed it in a light green color and made it easy to find. Growing up in Cuba where politics came at you from all angles, the one thing I came to enjoy most about this newfound freedom was that I didn’t have to deal with it any longer. I could care less what was going on in the rest of the world. I went right to the box scores. Those were things I understood. You see in Cuba, you learn about such things as the infield-fly rule, balks, balls and strikes, well before you learn to read. In Havana, my friends and I would talk about how many hits Chavez got the night before or how many strike-outs Hurtado had, and then we’d argue about why Chavez took a fastball down the middle on a 3-2 count with two outs and men on base, or why Hurtado served up a slow curve in the sixth that resulted in a game tying home run for the opposing team.

I remember reading about the Miracle Mets, when they won the World Series in 1969. I began to recognize names: Earl Weaver, Tom Seaver, Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson. Following baseball pulled me away from my struggles to adapt; still, the names were unfamiliar and strange sounding.

*     *     *

That first Christmas, my uncle gave me a baseball glove. It was used, but it was the best gift I’d ever received. The glove was broken in, but not the way it should’ve been. I went on to dip the glove in water, put a ball in it and wrap a string around it. He watched me do that with a strange look on his face. I told him not to worry, that I knew what I was doing. Once the glove dried I slipped it under my mattress. I could feel the bump under my legs each night as I slept. It was like I was incubating the thing, waiting for it to hatch. After a week, I pulled it out from under the mattress and it was perfect, the pocket broken in just right. When I slid my fingers into the glove, I again sensed something that wasn’t a memory but more akin to seeing land after drifting for months in the open ocean.

Our house backed into the Sears parking lot, which was often empty in the summer nights after they closed. It was still light out and occasionally I’d see some kids running around playing baseball with a tennis ball. I drifted out there one afternoon, glove in hand and asked them if I could play. There were enough kids so that one guy batted and the others fielded. We took turns hitting and fielding. To them, it was just a game. But I was playing for my country, imagining myself as a member of the Cuban National team, playing against these Americanos. We would trade gloves each time one took the field while the other one batted. When it was over, I went to get my glove from the kid I’d lent it to. He was a bit taller than me. Instead of handing it back, he punched me in the eye and ran, glove still in hand. It was as though he’d taken home right out of my grasp. I chased the kid for three blocks until I caught up to him and smacked him in the back of the head. He fell and I snatched the glove from his hand. I was about to punch him again when he covered his head with his arms. I stopped short of hitting him and yelled the worst curse words and flurry of threats that I could muster. This was my glove. I’d been yanked from my home once and it would not happen again. He looked at me, not with fear, but with a furrowed brow. You see, all that yelling was in Spanish. I ran out of breath, and of words. Finally, I just screamed “Okay?” He nodded, and I walked home proud.

*     *     *

Later that summer, my uncle came down on a Saturday to tell my brother and I that we were going to a baseball game on Sunday, a double-header no less. It wasn’t to see Industriales, but I was nevertheless excited to see a real ballgame for the first time in my life. On Sunday my uncle his two sons, my brother and I drove to Candlestick Park on the South end of San Francisco. Years later that park would be derided as a “dump” of a stadium, but to me, on that day, it was a jewel. As I strolled in and through the tunnel, the green outfield and the manicured infield, with bright white bases perfectly aligned, unfolded before me like a colorful peacock tail. I stopped and thought of my childhood friends in Cuba. If they could only see this. Willie Mays patrolled center field for the Giants that day and I found out that Tito Fuentes, their second baseman, was Cuban. I became a Giants fan that day. Industriales were still a part of me, but it would be years before I’d be able to follow them again. And this place was now beginning to remind me of home. This language of baseball, I understood. It transcended borders. When I heard the first crack of the bat, it felt as though a new part of me, a new limb, reached out and touched the Havana I’d left behind.

*     *     *

My mother’s last birthday, with my brother, sister and me (on the right)

My mother died in October of 2014. That year, she watched just about every Giant’s game on TV. She loved Buster Posey, their catcher, because of his boyish looks and clutch hitting. She called me each day, sometimes at work, when they played back East and I wasn’t able to watch or listen, to give me updates of the score. She was our stalwart, our star, and our hero. Her death came in her sleep, as she’d hoped. My brother, my sister and I were devastated by losing her It was difficult to imagine life without her. Once again, I found myself forced to leave behind a time of my life that I’d never see again.

(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

We held a service for my mother, to celebrate her life. Family and friends gathered at my brother’s house after the service. By early afternoon, everyone had left. I, along with my brother, his partner, my sister, my kids and nephews, were left with the emptiness. On that same day, the Giants, in an impossible season reached the seventh game of the World Series against the Kansas City Royals.

We turned on the TV, to watch the game, but also to remember her. We watched Madison Baumgartner stroll out of the bullpen in the fifth inning, in a do or die game. Salvador Perez popped up in the ninth and Pablo Sandoval caught the final out, falling back to the ground and raising his arms in victory. We hugged and cried. We all wished she’d been able to see them win. Then we all agreed she probably helped them win. Whether she did or not we’ll never know.

Once again, baseball had given me the feeling of yet another limb reaching across time, across memories, across loss, to steady me and remind me that there are still a few more innings to play.

Jesus Francisco Sierra is currently working through a post MFA semester ​in Fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. He emigrated from Cuba in 1969 and grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District. He still resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. Although he has been a lifelong writer and storyteller, he makes a living as a structural engineer. His inspiration, and his most supportive audience, are his adult daughter and son. He is fascinated by how transitions, both sought and imposed, have the power to either awaken or suppress the spirit. His work has previously been published in Marathon Literary Review and The Acentos Review.

 

 

Those Who Have and Those Who Don’t

Money flows in the North Shore of Long Island. It flows through the shops along the Miracle Mile. Hermes, Gucci, Prada, Dior. You can see money here, in the tight, trim bodies of Soul Cyclers, in the faces surgically sculpted to stave off time. You can hear it too—in the bright cha-ching of the crisp, quick steps of the scores of men, Brooks Brothers-clad, rushing to catch the early morning train into Manhattan.

Women learn to smile, polished, white smiles and to drive huge SUVs. They learn to play tennis, play bridge, and play not-so-nice with the teachers who don’t give their kids A’s.  Kids play lacrosse here, row crew. They attend Villanova or Cornell and send their resumes off to Goldman or Morgan or Chase, their futures, so carefully, predictably plotted, like bad fiction. Except this is real. This is the North Shore, and it is filled with those who have.

There is another Long Island, a short distance away. No railroad tracks separate the two. Instead there are numbers and zip codes, ones for those who have, others for those who don’t.  Living in areas in one zip code places you at an average household income of $334,144 [1] , the other at $54,402 [2] .  In one zip code, your risk of being the victim of a violent crime is 1 in 1022 [3] , in the other 1 in 138 [4] .

I live in the space between, the middle class, in one of the last middle class neighborhoods left in Nassau County. 11040 is my zip code, an area mixed in age and race and nationality. I can’t say we all blend in, but we are a colorful scene. While I make my home squarely in this middle, I make my living, in each of the other sides.

*     *     *

I wish affirmative action reached more people. But it’s just a myth we tell ourselves about evening out the score. Affirmative action kicks in only if you make it through your struggling high school (a mere 38 percent of students Hempstead High School in the Long Island zip code 11550)  [5]  and weather the hurdles of poverty (42.1 percent of children in some sections of 11550 live below the poverty line) [6] – this, in the thirteenth richest county in the country  [7] . There is another type of affirmative action, though, one we don’t call by that name. In fact, we don’t name it at all. But it’s there, and it’s powerful, and it keeps the score rigged.

This is the affirmative action for the wealthy. And it wears a different face—mine. I am the high-priced tutor who will come at will, when the paper is due, when the test is tomorrow; I will work with your child to break that 1500 on the SAT; the one who will guide your child through the college essay and help him put his “best self” on the page.

I sometimes feel complicit, another cog in the unjust money wheel.  I ask myself if I’ve sold out. I have a master’s degree in social work, for God’s sake. Shouldn’t I use my energies fighting the inequality gap, instead of accepting money to hold it in place? I once was a Pilates queen. I grew up on the low end of the middle class, a child of immigrants and the first generation in my family to get a college education. But in my early 20s, I married my high school sweetheart, who graduated from Harvard Law. We had the house (and a second one upstate). My kids had tutors. Should they not have? What would I have done if there was no Jerry Larkin, our neighborhood tutor, when my son who struggled was in the fourth grade?

I may wear the complicity hat in the evenings and on weekends. But I play both sides of the zip code game. During the school day, I’m a home instructor for those who have not, those in the Hempsteads and the Westburys of Long Island; I teach English to kids on suspension, to teen-aged girls on “maternity leave,” to kids out of school for psychiatric complications.  It’s complicated.

We schedule sessions between court dates and doctor visits, and we read Shakespeare and the classics, though the students’ reading levels are often fifth grade. There is nothing more humbling than reading A Raisin in the Sun with the children of undocumented immigrants, learning of their American dreams—to become veterinarians, fashion designers, immigration attorneys—and nothing more moving than reading To Kill a Mockingbird with Tanya, my student with ebony skin and deep, brown eyes, whose brother sits in prison. Why, she asks, is there no Atticus for him? We sit at her kitchen table on the side closest to the electric heater (the gas company turned off the heat), and we read to the backdrop of the drip, drip, drip, of the water coming in from the hole in her roof through the hole in her ceiling as it hits the side of the bucket placed just inside her front door.

Later that evening, I will ring the doorbell of a home on the opposite side of town. A brown woman from Honduras or a black one from Jamaica will answer the door and show me to the dining room, where I will take my seat (on one of fourteen chairs) by the light of the chandelier hanging from the ceiling 12 feet above. I am surrounded by leather and luxury, and everything is neatly in place.  It is cold outside, but no worries. I feel the warmth rise from the radiant heat under the wide oak planks just below my feet. Alexa, my student, with long blond hair and the greenest of eyes, has been assigned A Raisin in the Sun. The play has a different meaning for her, a meaning no less important and one that I must not minimize. The Youngers offer no recognition but rather spark an awakening, an exposure to a world Alexa has never seen. She is stunned. Later that year, when we tackle Mockingbird, Atticus becomes her new hero. I feel grateful and hopeful and proud.

It would be easy to take the morality stance and blame the families who have, but this issue is not as simple as that. The institutionalization of inequality and racism runs deep in our United States, but the responsibility for its continuation is not as black and white as the demographics these zip codes suggest. Most of my students—both those who have and those who don’t—are creative, compassionate, and kind.

*     *     *

For now, I continue to ride the middle, complicit as that may be. I continue to teach my heart out between court appointments and keep pushing my most fortunate students to discover their best selves before putting them down on the page. Maybe the study of literature and the practice of writing can help bridge the gap. Bring on those black-ties for the arts. God knows, in this administration we need them.

Maybe some of my kids in 11550 will make it out of that zip code.  I have faith that some will come back to help others. And maybe some of my sheltered kids will use their power and opportunity, use the knowledge they will gain from their top tier educations to make the difference, to break free from the scripts that they were handed and muster the courage to change the flow. Two of my own kids are making a life doing just that. Maybe one day 11030 and 11550 will signify nothing more than different postal routes. And maybe the kids from both zip codes will grow up and cure both poverty and privilege and heal our nation’s bodies and souls.

*     *     *

Author Note: Please take a look at what some kids in high needs NYC schools are doing right now to address the inequality in their education system. The video, telling the kids’ story, was made by three young men of privilege. Let the healing begin!

 

Fighting Segregation in Our Schools – Ep. 067 – Teens Take Charge

NYC has the most segregated school system in the country, according to a 2014 report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.No, we aren’t talking about the 1950s. We are talking about HERE. TODAY. IN OUR CITY.—-Nelson and Whitney are two high school seniors who aren’t afraid to speak out about this issue. They want to reform their city’s schools and they are using their unique talent in Spoken Word poetry to make their voices heard.If you believe in fighting back against segregation, share this video!Huge thanks to Whitney, Nelson, Taylor and the rest of Teens Take Charge NYC for spending some time after school with us!Follow Nowhere Men on Facebook!

Posted by Nowhere Men on Wednesday, January 3, 2018

 

[1] https://www.neighbohood/scout.com/ny/flowerhil-hill

[2] https://www.point2homes.com/US/Neighborhood/NY/Hempstead-Demographics.html

[3] https://www.neighborhoodscout.com/ny/manhasset/crime

[4] https://www.neighborhood/scout.com/ny/hempstead/crime

[5] https://www.schools.newsday.com/longisland/graduates/gradrates

[6] https://www.neighborhood/scout.com

[7] https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/richest-counties-in-the-united-states.html

Diane Gottlieb writes both fiction and nonfiction and is currently working on a murder mystery with a social justice bent. She is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles and is an assistant editor of creative nonfiction and blogger for Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in Panoply and Lunch Ticket. She lives in New York and Florida.

Alysse Kathleen McCanna

Spotlight: Husband Ghazal / Reckoning

[poetry]

Husband Ghazal

He who cuts the head from the chicken gets the heaping plate; he breaks a wing
with a quick snap, slurps marrow, gravy dripping. He falls asleep without swinging. We sing.

I am wrist-bound to static eternity—like Daphne, but a plastic houseplant. Don’t
put your hair up he says as he slinks to the bedroom, eyes red, puffed like bee stings.

If a neck is honey, pour hot tea until I dissolve, singed red like scars, like cut kisses, like the moon
sliced into slivers; soon I will turn night-animal: bat, fox, owl, wolf; hungry, screeching.

Husband, will you pass the cherry pie and the knife, the one I like? Let me have it, let me touch
its Damascus, its topographic skin. Why must you hide it? I cling to your ankles, beseeching.

His first wife is late, yet arrives everywhere. We share the same feet, dog, hair, skin, and bear
of a man. I will her forgotten, but she remains. And now the hallway needs sweeping.

The children grow tall as my belly extends, spine bending—if ever Time sat on my lap,
he would laugh at my heart’s leaping. I don’t want to be the mother who jumped, reaching.

In my dream that night he says Wife, I sell you to yourself and I reply I purchase. My purse is thick
with petals. I push them in his mouth until full, but he never quiets, still, always, preaching.

 


Reckoning

I have washed the scarf,
the last thing that smelled like him.
I have cried into

The washing machine,
cruel arms twisting, the red sock
leaking. I have been

To the lake, crunched leaves.
I have gotten wet in cold
water, I forgave

My heart for breaking
him, but my hands, I cannot
stand to see them so

Full of nothing, light.
The scarf of him, the last I
had, pure now and warm

Around my neck, his
words a shawl, not dying
after all.

 

Alysse Kathleen McCanna Alysse Kathleen McCanna is a PhD student in English at Oklahoma State University. She received her MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College in 2015. She is the associate editor of Pilgrimage Magazine; her work has appeared in several poetry journals and won a 2017 Academy of American Poets prize (Poets.org), and is forthcoming in Barrow Street, and Four Chambers.

Is This My Essay?

The first seminar of my recent MFA Residency at Antioch University Los Angeles—a creative nonfiction exploration called “Stating Your Case”—dazzled and baffled me. I raised my hand to confess I am a newbie; a blind baby bird with its soft-bone beak clapping open and shut. “How do you know what to write about?” I asked. “And why? And what angle to take? Do you have the right? Does anyone even care? What’s the point?

“That’s your essay right there!” the professor stated, and the class laughed, heads nodding in agreement.

Afterward, a fellow student approached and said, “You should join Blog Team.” At her behest, I applied—submitting, mind you, a fictional short story about a 13-year-old kid, way too hairy for his age, who masturbates to nightly romps with wolves. I was accepted onto Blog Team. I was also asked to be the first essayist, which meant I’d have less than a week to figure it out….

I felt like a desert highway, ridden by lonely cars late at night, black as a lizard’s eye. Even though I knew where I was headed, I was neither sure how I would get there nor what I would find upon arrival.

At the MFA Night Out, I approached the Blog Team Lead Editor and sat down beside her. Christmas lights twinkled in garlands strung across the top of the bar. The smells of crusted shrimp and cheese-plate wafted the air. I clutched my Irish Mule; bubbly, sweet, and strong. “Help me,” I said. “I’m scared. You picked me to be the first essayist. As Editor, what do you want to see right out-the-gate?”

“Well, what do you have for me?” she asked.

I swallowed a lump in my throat to talk of my late brother, an epileptic who passed twenty years ago after a Grand-mal seizure caused a spill that broke his neck, resulting in paralysis. He struggled for a while but did not win the fight. He was only 26. We shared a bedroom when were little. He had seizures in the middle of the night while the room was pitch black and the world silent as an undiscovered cave. It sounded like a demon thrashed and spat and babbled in tongues ten feet away. Frozen with fear, it was all I could do to crawl out of bed after he’d tumble out of his own, head thrashing against the cold floor, to gently shove my fingers in his mouth so that he wouldn’t swallow his tongue. I’d clean up his urine, or vomit, try to coax him back to sleep. His epilepsy came with a severe learning disability, so he was bullied, beat-up, ostracized, pranked, and dismissed his whole life. Blanketed by guilt, grief, and anger for the better part of my life because of him, I still wonder if anything or anyone in this life will ever be the salve I ultimately seek. Search as I may, I cannot find where peace hides. It eludes me, like that kid in the neighborhood who always found the best hiding spots.

Perhaps this is my essay?

“What else is on your mind?” she asked. We stirred our drinks.

I cleared my throat, dry and irritated from the noxious air of the Southern California wildfires that burned all around us. I told her that I’d performed in a world-premiere play earlier this year, in which two men—one the alter ego of the other—searched to uncover the mystery at the heart of his family. I instantly took a liking to my co-star. He was friendly, funny, talented, and he reminded me of a grown-up version of Elliott from E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. As the weeks passed and our commitment to the show intensified, it felt like our souls merged, resulting in so intimate a connection, it was unfathomable. After the show ended, four months after it all began, a great hurt crashed onto the shore of my heart like a rogue-wave, wiping everything out in one fell swoop; salty, weedy, fishy, and foamy. Why? Because my co-star retreated into the fog of “after-show”: the place where artists return to tend to family and business obligations, to survival jobs. The place where texts are not answered, emails and phone calls ignored, where hope is but a little pile of molted snake skin on the floor. It’s an Empty Place, where you wonder, in the fizz of a sleepless night, whether it is worth sharing your heart, connecting with someone, helping them out, only to have them disappear on you. What happened? We were best friends for months. We agreed we wouldn’t fall out of each other’s lives. Instead, “after-show,” like a villain, flung its cape of heartbreak over my head. I don’t blame him, though. If anything, I blame myself—I never should’ve let myself get that close. ‘Occupational hazard’, isn’t that what they call it? That lesson, learned with every new artistic venture, hurts more—costs more—each journey out.

This is my essay for sure.

“Next?” she asked. A Duran Duran song blared.

“Well,” I said, emptying my mule. “There’s always Freeze.”

As for my throat, I pulled at it, kneading my Adam’s Apple. After I graduated from college, I spent time in the NYC nightlife scene. I consumed many drugs, wore skin-tight vinyl baby blue pants and gold eyeliner, and befriended very eccentric club-kid freaks—one of whom, named Freeze, I fell in love and moved in with. I planned my future around him. But that blueprint was destroyed after the revelation that in the months before we met, he and his friends, in a heroin and crack-induced haze, had murdered someone, chopped his corpse into bits, and dumped it in the East River. That’s not the best part, though. The best part is that I recounted the gothic tale in all its gory detail during a spoken-word performance at a theater in LA a few years ago, and the top casting directors at the biggest network studio happened to be in attendance. They called me in for an important and exclusive meeting wherein they asked me to regale them again with all the slimy nuances of the very embarrassing matter. It broke me a little bit, I have to confess: I’d been a working actor for three decades and at the time I told this tale, I’d been in LA for ten years and had never been asked to a big meeting like that. By anyone. Not after receiving scores of flattering reviews, a dozen prestigious awards, a reputation for a solid work ethic. No. What got me the attention of the bigwigs, finally, was the emotional retching of the most disgusting thing that ever happened to me.

Maybe this will make the best essay—it’s the most repulsive and embarrassing.

“Yeah,” she said. “But you’ll never write that in 1,500 words.” I nodded. She nodded. We both nodded.

It was time to leave the bar and go to Karaoke.

After singing a rousing but boozy rendition of “Somebody Else” by The 1975, I basked in the afterglow with fellow students outside and somewhat inadvertently took a teensy-weensy hit off of a friend’s joint. I gave up weed eons ago—some of us are too sensitive as it is; my brain is already a power line strung across a pole in some other dimension. I constantly attempt to re-route that current back to earth without being lit.

The high that overtook me was so potent and intense, you can only imagine the surge running through the line that night. I slept not one single wink. Instead, I paced the room at the hotel, listening to the perpetual drone of the 405 freeway, numb, eager, and morbidly curious about what I’d write, and why, and how.

What are these stories, anyway? What do they mean? Life experiences? So what, and why now? Do I diminish their relevance for the sake of insouciance, or sensationalize them for maximum effect? What the fuckballs is an essay? Why did I dump all of that onto my editor earlier? She knows nothing about me. Except now she thinks I’m a walking tragedy, a cursed and exiled sovereign from some dark dumbass fairy tale. It was all I could do not to flee that hotel at 4 a.m. for a bag of Doritos, a pack of American Spirits, and a road trip to that aforementioned other dimension.

Speaking of otherness: I study Writing for Young People. A head-scratcher, I know. In a university renowned for social justice, many of the socio-political warrior-poets and their beautifully rallying words of revolution and resistance cock their heads at me: “So, how does the Antioch mission, like, apply to your genre?” to which I shrug: “Kids. They speak truth.”

But the thing is, I ache to peek from behind the curtain of fiction, any fiction, be it adult or YA. I wonder what my tell-tale heart will rally to convey if let loose in a field of transparency, the way my dog goes wild when we take her to the Tommy Lasorda Field of Dreams near my house, a locked and private park that we are explicitly forbidden to enter.

I am a person with stories to tell, asking if these stories are what make me who I am, or if what makes me who I am are the stories that I tell.

Perhaps I am wrong in assuming my editor thinks the worst of me for what I’d told her; perhaps these are just the stories we amass as we go through life, and it is better to accept them, regardless of the consequences.

I’ve heard it said that the exegesis of the word “essay” derives, in part, from the Middle French “essai”: trial, attempt.

I attempt. I try.

I wonder what my next essay will tackle. Although I feel frightened to share, to pillage the parish of transparency, I am slouching towards the mirror and peering into it, hoping the answer lies within the reflection.

 

Tim Cummings is a current MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. Recent publications include F(r)ictionLunch Ticket, Meow Meow Pow Pow, LARB, and ANTHOLOGY: The Ojai Playwrights Conference Youth Workshop, which he compiled and edited for his Field Study project. He holds a BFA in Acting from NYU and is the recipient of two LA Drama Critics Circle Awards for Best Lead Actor and Ensemble, an LA Weekly Award for Best Supporting Actor, a StageSceneLA Award for Performance of the Year.

Writers Read: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

If the title of his childhood memoir needs clarification, before launching into his story of what it was like to grow up at the end of apartheid in South Africa, Trevor Noah includes conditions of the Immorality Act, 1927: The act of “illicit carnal intercourse” between a [white] European with a [black] native “shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years” for males or four years for females. In the eponymous second chapter, we learn more about his parentage: a black mother and a white father whose “crime” took living form when Noah was born. Unwilling to let government rule dictate her life, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, at 24-years-old wanted a child of her own that she could love, and sought the sperm donation of an older Swiss neighbor with whom she had a caring relationship but was not necessarily interested in being a family with him.

Headstrong with a healthy sense of humor and the grace of God on her side, Patricia raised her son to never feel held back by racial discrimination, even when he would have to walk on the opposite side of the street of his father when they spent an afternoon together; even when a colored neighbor would tag along to the playground so she could act as his mother while his mom would pretend to be a domestic. In his own family, he even benefitted from it; though he didn’t realize it when he was younger, being the light-skinned member of his African family he experienced privilege above his cousins in the form of more lenient punishments for worse offenses and special treatment just for showing up. “Growing up the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks,” Noah admits.

Among many traits he inherits from his mother is “her ability to forget the pain in life. I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don’t hold on to the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new.” Noah’s emotional amnesia allows him to get into trouble and work his way around systems that weren’t meant to work for him while reliving the often uncomfortable experiences through writing them.

A strength of a memoir is to be both unique and universal. With his rare position, Noah shares lighthearted accounts of dark moments in the recent history of racial inequalities. As he recounts being on the playground and having to pick whether he hangs out with the black or white or Indian or colored kids, up until he faces a similar choice when he finds himself in jail for taking his stepfather’s car, he relates his circumstances in South Africa to what has happened in other countries. “In America you had the forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.”

While Noah makes his experiences more accessible to American readers, he also acknowledges the deficits in educating about civil injustices. At the beginning of Part III which covers his later teens and early twenties, Noah addresses how German students learn about the gravity of the Holocaust and British schools teach colonialism with a disclaimer of shame, while South Africa follows American philosophies of handling race. “In America, the history of racism is taught like this: ‘There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it’s done.’ It was the same for us. ‘Apartheid was bad. Nelson Mandela was freed. Let’s move on.’ Facts, but not many, and never the emotional or moral dimension. It was as if the teachers, many of whom were white, had been given a mandate. ‘Whatever you do, don’t make the kids angry.’” This preamble leads into a chapter called “Go Hitler!”

Trevor Noah

Throughout Noah’s story, he discusses how his culture assigns names to children based on what traits their parents wish for them to possess. His mom chose Trevor because it had no prior associations so he could be whomever he wanted. On the other hand, for parents that wanted a tough kid, they would call him Hitler. The shortcoming of the education systems in Noah’s townships didn’t sufficiently teach the atrocities of Adolf Hitler, but rather merely presented him as a figure so powerful that the white people needed black people to help fight him. This goes without saying, but while Hitler and the Holocaust are off limits for jokes, the irony is both too rich and terrifying to omit the scene of township teens cheering on their top dancer, Hitler, at a cultural exhibition held at King David School. When a teacher reprimands Noah’s dance crew for being horrible and vile, which, with his ignorance about what terrors befell the ancestors of the Jewish students of the school, he assumes is about the sexually suggestive gyrations that were a part of the dance that represents his culture, he reciprocates outrage that she would dare disrespect their African moves during an inter-cultural celebration.

It may be hard to believe that none of Noah’s peers would understand how inappropriate it might be to cheer for Hitler at a Jewish school, but he reminds us: “The name Hitler does not offend a black South African because Hitler is not the worst thing a black South African can imagine. Every country thinks their history is the most important, and that’s especially true in the West. But if black South Africans could go back in time and kill one person, Cecil Rhodes would come up before Hitler. If people in the Congo could go back in time and kill one person, Belgium’s King Leopold would come way before Hitler. If Native Americans could go back in time and kill one person, it would probably be Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson.” Without diminishing the experiences of Holocaust victims or playing “Who suffered worse?”, Noah shows us some of the other big names in the recent history of racism—names that might be as reviled as they are respected.

We keep hoping that racial divides and racism are matters of the past, but too often reminded how prevalent they are in our present. Just as contemporary black South Africans may continue to feel the impact of Rhodes’ contributions to apartheid, we cannot allow ourselves to feel complacent about persistent oppression at home and on a global scale.

 

Noah, Trevor. Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood. First edition. Spiegel & Grau, 2016.

 

Nikki San Pedro is a Los Angeles based editor who recently worked on Kevin Hart’s memoir I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons, as well as a couple of essay anthologies published by 826LA. You can read about her experiences in the August blog post for Embark Editorial Agency. She is completing her MFA in Creative Writing for Social Justice at Antioch University.