Writers Read: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and MeThe much talked about Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is about murder—the murder of black people by white people in a country that has thrived, since its inception, on the abuse of black bodies. This thriving is economic, but it is also cultural and, therefore, part of our identity as Americans. Over and over again, Coates describes this culture, providing painful examples with piercingly beautiful language. Coates writes to his son:

I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much. And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names. But you and I have never truly had the luxury. I think you know (9).

Between The World and Me is an honest open letter from Coates to his fifteen-year-old son, written in the wake of the not-guilty verdict in the Michael Brown case. The book addresses the climate of fear, rage, grief, and sadness around the tradition of violence against black bodies in American society. Through chilling direct prose, Coates describes the vulnerability of black bodies, leaving unearthed the truth that American history has authored this violence, fed it, and normalized it. Coates’s writing draws overlapping circles around his questions about Black culture as it has evolved within this institutionalized violence, and traces his own intellectual and emotional growth within both American culture and the Black community. American history and Black history are part of one another; the violence, the guilt, and the deep belief in race are inexorably linked. But Coates describes a world white people may not know. Or rather, they know it, but they have only ever known it from the perspective of dominance. In this letter, Coates provides a nuanced view, not found in the media. The primary intention of the letter is not to be our teacher, yet it is a teacher—drawing strength from a perfect entangling of intellect and vulnerability, from direct storytelling and fluid, poetic language.

This is the book I want to hand to the person who says they don’t believe in racism, the person who thinks that Black Lives Matter is overly dramatic, the person who sees no connection among Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Dontre Hamilton, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Akai Gurley, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Tony Robinson, Philip White, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, and Freddy Gray.

Coates describes the mechanism of racism, pointing to white culture’s investment in it. “The people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration” (97). This is the book I want to hand to the person who says they don’t believe in racism, the person who thinks that Black Lives Matter is overly dramatic, the person who sees no connection among Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Dontre Hamilton, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Akai Gurley, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Tony Robinson, Philip White, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, and Freddy Gray—all unarmed black people killed by police during 2014 and 2015.

I got those names through a single Google search. I searched “black men killed by police.” I was fairly confident that I could have access to that list quickly, and that the names would exceed the cases I myself had heard about. That list does not even include the mass murder of black churchgoers last summer or any acts not perpetrated by police but by white civilians who are guaranteed more legal protection than a black person would be if they murdered a white person or child; don’t forget—Tamir Rice was just a child. I want to give this book to those who do not grieve these losses or who grieve them less than the loss of white bodies. Between The World and Me is a gift to American culture from a brilliant writer who was willing to write about his wounds and his pride and his love for us to read. “It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this” (10).

Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author. (Photo by Liz Lynch)

Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author. (Photo by Liz Lynch)

Coates writes about the fear weaved into life, masquerading as courage. “The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-length, fur collared leathers, which was their armor against their world … I think back on those black boys now and all I see is fear, and all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered ‘round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away” (14). Coates’s writing serves as an x-ray, revealing the bones under the culture. We sense the lineage of fear informing everything. He describes the culture of the boys as, “A catalogue of behaviors and garments enlisted to inspire the belief that these boys were in firm possession of everything they desired” (14).

Through chilling direct prose, Coates describes the vulnerability of black bodies, leaving unearthed the truth that American history has authored this violence, fed it, and normalized it.

To his son, Coates writes, “I feel fear most acutely when you leave me” (15). His visceral language consistently cuts through my unwillingness to read and listen and comprehend and change. Describing the American Dream, he writes, “The dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies” (11). In Between The World and Me, a father tells his son how he has survived, begging the question, Why should some people have to survive, while others get to simply live?

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between The World and Me. New York: Spiegel and Grau. 2015. Print.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between The World and Me. New York: Spiegel and Grau. 2015. Audio Book.

Meredith ArenaMeredith Arena is from New York City and resides in Seattle. She is a student in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in SHIFT Magazine, a queer literary arts journal. Meredith Arena is from New York City and resides in Seattle. She is a student in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in SHIFT Magazine, a queer literary arts journal.

Yoni Hammer-Kossoy

Spotlight: Lift / After the Rain / Caveat Emptor

Lift

Up here
even a slim wind
sets the outstretched
jib singing, but
that doesn’t bother
me any more than
the crane’s height
or cab’s close
quarters. The way
my son tells it,
you’d think I lift
a hundred tons
on my back
every day and build
those buildings
with my bare
hands. I say no,
it’s like any job,
hard hours broken
by bouts of stress,
and I don’t know
why the words
come out sharp
as they do, any more
than I could explain
the catch of breath
early morning
when a low sky
goes crimson,
and crows call
below my feet,
or name the sense
of tight-rope balance
that might happen,
mid-shift, when
construction site
suddenly becomes
circus dance.
I can point
in every direction
to apartments
I’ve helped raise,
yet when a project ends,
and I’m on the ground,
it’s always
the disappointments
I strain to stack away
like overloaded
pallets of cement.


After the Rain

If I were keeping score
the way we did when I was a kid
on an index card my dad taped
to a kitchen cabinet door
and marked presumed & confirmed
with squat black tallies
for all the dead things
our inside-out cat left
as casual offerings of love
then the pomegranate tree’s leaves
I find one damp December morning
strewn like golden feathers
across the backyard grass
would count as one point
while the tree itself shaken
bare to the bone save a few
forgotten husks of fruit
would count as three.


Caveat Emptor

Displayed on a patch of worn velvet,
the egg is bigger than any egg
you’ve ever seen,
heavier than a full-grown
chicken and must be held gingerly
with both hands
like the start of an idea.

But don’t let the salesman
see that quicksilver wonder,
and when he promises
a gourmet dinner
if it’s boiled for an hour
or better yet, a chance to hatch an ostrich
if incubated for six weeks,
you would be wise to consider
the merits of a fast, empty-handed exit.

For this is no curly-haired puppy
to be housebroken in a cardboard box
but a modern-day dinosaur
that will grow a foot more each month
until you’re forced to turn your bedroom
into a cage with a wire fence door
and the shutters mostly down
to keep away the neighbors.

He will peck with curiosity
at all things shiny, like your watch
or wedding ring, and get spooked
by sudden movement including you
bringing breakfast and dinner.

He will hiss and never sing,
rage at your kids
with his feather-duster wings,
want to run on those backward legs
and broken ballerina toes
but have nowhere to go.

He will learn to hate you,
and you will hate
the glossy black mirror
of his prehistoric eye,
until this shared knot splits
like a rotten peach pit
and you drag him to the street
and walk away not caring
if he is hit by a bus or rescued
away to the zoo.

If only to feel relief
and not just regret
for the first time in a year
when you go back inside
to broken-shell silence.

yoni_hammer_kossoy - photo_ResizedOriginally born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Yoni Hammer-Kossoy has been living in Israel with his family for almost twenty years. His work has recently appeared in Unbroken, Pidgeonholes, and the Hermeneutic Chaos Journal, and you can connect with him on Twitter @whichofawind.

 

Writers Read: The Art of Recklessness by Dean Young

I was hoping that at some point I would figure out what this book is about—maybe you are too. – from The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction by Dean Young (p. 153)

It’s difficult to digest all of The Art of Recklessness into an annotation, probably by design.  Writer Dean Young often loses the reader with lines like: “It is the very overabundance of referential capacity that makes for the breakdown of any single referential stability, or at least conscribes it.” Then a few pages later, he redeems his academic-speak with: “If you want to learn how to cook a lobster, it’s probably best not to look to poetry. But if you want to see the word lobster in all its reactant oddity, its pied beauty, as if for the first time, go to poetry. And if you want to know what it’s like to be that lobster in the pot, that’s in poetry too.”

What you’ll like here: Young’s ideas of desecration and recklessness.

What you won’t like: long, overly academic dissections of historical movements, pieces of art, poems, poets, etc.

The Art of Recklessness will remind you, slightly, of Poe’s Eureka or D.H. Lawrence’s The Fantasia of the Unconscious. Both are long, if sideways, ars poetic, and profoundly affective, in ways you can only suspect and catch out of the corner of your eye. They seem to employ a strategy of over-complicated, drawn out, partly absurd dissection and analysis interrupted by bright shafts of dark profundity—like poison in a hearty soup.

You’ll make a lot of marks in this book; many, many lines will be underlined, many things will be drawn—squiggles of importance and notes written in there.

Young’s book, though, doesn’t quite reach those magical depths. Perhaps that’s a personal failure—failure of audience not author. There is so much in the book that is good, that expands and unfolds truths about poetry and about the self, but this reader may not have reaped any real dark truth or transformation.

So, you’ll like his ideas of desecration as a creative effort to reach divinity—destroy the idol and in the pieces something shines through. And you really will be affected by his recklessness—much more so, though, after actually seeing how all this works in his poetry.

You’ll make a lot of marks in this book; many, many lines will be underlined, many things will be drawn—squiggles of importance and notes written in the margins. It’s a good book, but long. It takes a long time climbing over a lot of big words, college words.

Dean Young. Photo by Jana Birchum.

Dean Young. Photo by Jana Birchum.

You’ll also really appreciate this:

“We must cut ourselves out and off to move toward a sophisticated sense of the art beyond our sense of self, to develop a historical sense, to see what we write in dialogue with the poetry of the past, to see poems as things, material to be manipulated…We must risk a loss of passionate connection to distance ourselves from our work, to grow a little cold to it in order to revise, in order to look at a poem as a series of decisions.”

That will ring true. You hadn’t really thought of that deliberate cutting out so deeply. Most of your poetry was all personal eruption, for nobody but the passion of the moment. And you like all that stuff, but it’s often unsophisticated and uninteresting. Too personal, much self-pity, self-centeredness.

So you’ll appreciate this idea of distance, deliberate distance, and recognize yet fear the risk of it. The calculated gaze of an author is much different from the curiosity of the child.  “Poetry is not discipline,” Young says, but it is. It’s a series of decisions, made recklessly and with much risk. You’ll like that. The distance isn’t always so far, but it’s so the connections and passion aren’t hugged to death and smothered in petty subjectivity.

Also, the idea of conversing with history and recognizing the conversation is important and fun, too, like a dorky sort of party. Young’s position is that poetry is not just a revolt against convention, which is adolescent and reductive, but a dialogue with what is being resisted, historically. The dialogue is then affirmative and playful and not so self-serious.

Young’s position is that poetry is not just a revolt against convention, which is adolescent and reductive, but a dialogue with what is being resisted, historically.

You’ll sometimes feel that he is on the edge of something, and you’ll want him to go further, risk a little more, believe a little more. He says in his discussion of modernity:  “The futility of existence is related to the inability of identity, of subject, to take on the stability of authority and knowledge, of insight, to not be a victim of itself, the jarring loose of the single vanishing, point meaning the vanishing of god.” He goes on to disagree, thankfully, and makes the metaphor that the beauty, not futility, of the self is in this inability to hold together.  That the destruction is like music and life is like music, moving from one electric disruption to the next, constantly rebuilding. “If there is divinity in us,” he ponders, “it is in the process of allowing ourselves to unmake and remake ourselves.” So close! A tease! What is that process of allowing, Dean? Go on, more.

The self is fluid. Yes you’ll want him to say. Always deconstructing, stitching itself up, but there is the possibility of decision. Self can be discipline, but vulnerable discipline. A gifted, magic discipline that feels kin to surrender, that comes from somewhere else other than inside, not you. He suggests as much in his poems, too. They are not without a believer’s hope, but are beautiful in their hope.

Also, you’ll keep remembering bits out of order, like debris floating up to the surface. You’ll enjoy when he muses about copying, “… your originality will come from your inability to copy well: YOUR GENIUS IS YOUR ERROR.”  To seek out that error, it’s playful.  It’s funny. You’ll want your poetry to be that.

Young, Dean. The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2010.

Joshua Roark currently lives with his beautiful, amazing, fellow writer wife in Los Angeles, working as a homeschool teacher for young kids while pursuing an MFA from Antioch University. He also works as an assistant editor and web manager for Antioch’s literary magazine, Lunch TicketHis poetry has been published in San Gabriel Valley Poetry QuarterlyKiller Whale Journal, and 3 Elements Reviewamong others.

R.L. Gibson, Do I Know You, 2014. Xerography (mixed media), 16 X 20 in.

Spotlight: ‘Do I know you?’- A Xerography Series

In one year, my father died in a crash due to complications of diabetes; I had two surgeries reserved for women 20 years my senior; and I became the guardian for my 92-year-old Grandmother Emma, in the end stages of dementia. My mother, and each of her eight siblings, had diabetes and high blood pressure by age 50, bunions by 55, some form of cancer by 60. […]

Writers Read: Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz

LA-based writer Wendy C. Ortiz writes about her loss of innocence in her debut memoir Excavation, which has received rave reviews since its 2014 release. Ortiz’s writing is rife with figurative language like simile, metaphor, personification, parallel structure, alliteration, and repetition, but it is also incredibly self-reflective. Whether it’s the temporal distance that gives her this perspective (a forty-something Ortiz is far from her adolescent self) or her background in psychology (she holds an MA in clinical psychology), we the readers relish the connections she deftly makes and the brave insights she offers through the hindsight perspective and a strategic sampling of literary devices.

It is by way of simile that Ortiz introduces us to the man who strips her of her naiveté. “Chalk dust scattered away from him [eighth grade English teacher Mr. Ivers] like an aura,” she writes (11). Pages later, his eyes meet hers, and a thirteen-year-old Wendy is biting her lip (15). All too soon, he’ll be “pressing his hardness against [her] and licking [her] thighs, then [her] clit” (23). All too soon, “the fevered rub of hips against the floor, the burn of carpet through clothes, the clenching of toes” will mean young Wendy’s undoing (29). But Ortiz is sure to convey said undoing beautifully. She compares the purple of concealed hickeys to flowers: “A small field of hickeys hid like violets under my t-shirt,” she says, thinking back on an afternoon romp with her former teacher. She has been marked, and it will take decades to excavate the hurt—to free “her body from the bitumen” (234). 

Predators can sniff out girls like she once was—girls who come from broken homes where Mom is “despicable with drink,” Dad is an “occasional apparition,” and “I love you” is something you say “to the sidewalk.” As predators go, Mr. Ivers has a highly-attuned sense of smell.

Unfortunately for Ortiz, predators can sniff out girls like she once was—girls who come from broken homes where Mom is “despicable with drink,” Dad is an “occasional apparition,” and “I love you” is something you say “to the sidewalk” (30, 141, 63). As predators go, Mr. Ivers has a highly-attuned sense of smell. He notices Wendy when her own parents do not. He takes an interest in her writing and in her “dormant sexiness” (23). He steeps her in praise, then makes “unspoken promise[s] of sex” (23, 39). He hones in on the child with the “cream-colored Princess phone” and has her seeing cream as the stuff of sex, instead (44). Ivers sexualizes his student before she’s ready, whispering salacious suggestions in her ear and playing games of “tongue and touch” (73). (Notice Ortiz’s use of alliteration there too, with “cream-colored” and “tongue and touch”.) The narrator puts it succinctly: “I imagined I was a woman … actually, I was a girl” (177). It is lines like this that make the reader think: This lady gets it. She’s done the hard work of “brush[ing] this bone off” (235). She’s reflected. She understands her story.

Author Wendy C. Ortiz. Photo courtesy of FORTH Magazine.

Author Wendy C. Ortiz holding a copy of her second book Hollywood Notebook. Photo courtesy of FORTH Magazine.

The disparity between girl and woman is all the more pronounced as Ortiz inserts her young adult voice into the narrative as a counterpoint to the authorial voice of reason. The innocence of, “‘So like it doesn’t have to be specifically about school?’” contrasts sharply with the adult voice that explains, “It would be years before I could find the words that would fit my experience” (16, 41). Likewise, her “little girl’s headboard” and “little-girl dresser” and “cobwebby stuffed animals” sit in stark opposition to the “men in cars that stopped and offered [her] rides,” the “hit of acid,” the “inhalations of laughing gas … the next sexual encounter that … spoke of love” but reeked of wine coolers and marijuana and illicitness (93-95; 90; 162; 172; 135). The adult narrating lets us know she is at the helm with statements such as, “I felt thirteen, which was becoming more rare” (60); or “I saw my expression go from fourteen to ageless” (70); or “Suddenly, ‘fun’ sounded like something a fourteen-year-old would say” (87); or “I realized that was maybe the sixteen-year-old thing to say. I was often guilty of this” (178).

This guilt is something Ortiz wrestles with until her experience comes full circle—when she becomes a teacher to young students herself and later, a parent. “Could I ever imagine having some kind of sexual relationship with these kids?” she asks almost rhetorically when she is “twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one.” The answer, of course: “absofuckinglutelynot” (28). Now, as a mother herself, she says, “I want nothing like what happened in my life to happen in hers … I want a magical existence for her” (233). And if you follow Ortiz on social media, you’ll see how beautifully she’s rising to the challenge (and also that her daughter is freaking adorable). As an adult in two authoritative roles, Ortiz is changing the narrative. She is reclaiming control. She is breaking the cycle. She is assuaging the misplaced guilt of her youth—the guilt that should be saved for Mr. Ivers and the “parents who were [in]capable of interpreting those [help me] signs” even though she “had undergone unthinkable acts right under their noses” (106, 233). With this book, the narrator bares herself, removing the “cloak of secrets and shame around [her] shoulders … [that she] would wear, always” and revealing instead a self-assured woman (read: perceptive, edgy, cool) and a proud member of both the queer and literary communities (212).

Ortiz, Wendy. Excavation. Portland: Future Tense Books, 2014.

Melissa Greenwood with Wendy OrtizLA native Melissa (pictured here with Ortiz at the 2016 AWP conference) is a graduate of Antioch University Los Angeles’s MFA program, where she studied creative nonfiction writing. In her past lives, she freelanced for various entertainment magazines and local papers, taught middle school English, and custom-fit women for high-end bras at a specialty lingerie store in Toronto, Canada. Most recently, Melissa lived in beautiful Victoria, British Columbia, but now shes back in sunny Los Angeles, where she works in communications at a local private school, teaches mat and Reformer Pilates, reads a whole lot of nonfiction books, serves remotely as Copy Edit Manager for Lunch Ticket, and tries to sneak in the occasional Netflix viewing, usually while on speakerphone with her Canadian boyfriend as he drinks maple syrup straight from the source, and she nibbles daintily on dark chocolate (it’s an antioxidant, and besides, she deserves it after all that core work … or so she tells herself). 

Spotlight: The Last Cigarette

On September 26, 2009, at about a quarter past one in the morning, while outside, a cloudy night sky was closing in on Padua, he, lying on his king-sized futon next to his profoundly asleep wife, was shaken by a violent cough. Eyes staring into the dark bedroom, he was overcome by the age-old fear of asphyxia. When he started breathing normally again, he got up, stumbled to the bathroom, entered the darkness there, leaned on the sink and started coughing again. When it stopped and he turned on the light, he noticed that the white porcelain, the faucet, and the edge of the toothbrush holder were covered in tiny specks of blood. He stood perfectly still for a second. He could hear his wife moving in their bed, as if she were pulling up the covers, and then becoming still again. He cleaned the sink with some water, dried his hands, wet his forehead, his cheeks and neck. The reflection in the mirror was that of a middle-aged man, balding and terrified; underneath, he could read the caption: lung cancer at the age of forty-two. He had started smoking when he was fourteen and a half, at school, in October, at recess. He got his first cigarette—a Merit—from a friend who would steal the money from his mom to buy them. In a year’s time, he was smoking a pack a day. His wife kept asking him to quit; she made him promise every New Year’s Eve, the minute they raised their champagne glasses. He would have liked to quit, but he couldn’t. He’d try and then start up again almost immediately. Cancer seemed, in his opinion, to be a remote possibility—something that happened to other people, like the lightning that struck shepherds in summer, at random, in the fields, at night. But the blood in the bathroom sink was undeniably his. He ran a hand through his hair. He had never been so close to death. He closed his eyes. His chest ached. He opened his eyes again. He peed, trembling. The kids’ toys were in the tub: a dinosaur, a Hot Wheels, a small-winged Winx. He turned the light off. The silence in the condominium sounded like distant thunder, barely audible. Before returning to the bedroom, he stopped at the door of his kids’ room, taking in that warm darkness full of breaths. In the semi-darkness, he noticed that his son had thrown off his blanket and had wrapped his legs around the enormous stuffed dog they’d bought at Ikea some months earlier. His daughter slept arms spread out, mouth open, eyes closed. What was she, a four year old, dreaming about? A shiver ran down his spine: Those two would soon lose their father, and he, too, would lose them forever. Morning came slowly. At five it was still dark, and was raining heavily; at six the white light of dawn started to filter through the blinds. He got up, went to the kitchen and looked out. Fat yellow leaves floated in enormous puddles that dotted the road; he went back to bed and tried to fall asleep. His neighbor’s alarm clock went off at half past six, and was immediately silenced: an oversight. At seven his wife yawned; at seven-fifteen, she yawned again; then she woke up, one piece at a time. When she opened her eyes, he told her about what had happened that night; she minimized it, or tried to. The children woke up at eight-fifteen and they got in the big bed with them. The little one, in her pink Hello Kitty pajamas, took his face in her tiny hands and kissed his cheek noisily—she did that every Sunday. His boy, who was six, and was particularly proud of his Ben 10 pajamas, was missing one front tooth; his wife tickled him to see his sweet lopsided smile. The warmth, the limpid intimacy that marked their Sunday mornings, like a sort of family ritual, now tugged at his heartstrings. How could he separate himself from his children? How would he find the strength? In the bright light of that autumn morning, he understood that the meaning of life had always escaped him; and that disarming, unbearable thought was a gift that death was awarding him: a reparation of sorts.

But it wasn’t cancer: Death was not pointing a finger at him. Two weeks later, a sixty-or-so-year-old doctor, who looked like he had seen too much pain to still feel pleasure, told him he had nothing: nothing. They had x-rayed him, CAT scanned him, ultrasound scanned him, twice; they’d ordered ten pages of blood tests, urine tests; they’d palpated and examined; they had moved him from one doctor’s table to another, from one doctor to another. Nothing. His cells continued to reproduce normally. The blood that had stained his sink on the night between September 26th and 27th was probably just the consequence of a particularly violent cough. But he had to stop smoking: Everyone said so. He was still young enough to benefit from the immediate suspension of that stupid habit. You won’t be forty forever, said the sixty-year-old physician; don’t forget that. And he, lying almost naked on those cold doctors’ tables, had an overwhelming desire to have grandchildren, to spend Christmas with his grown-up children. He absolutely had to meet their future families. Who would his daughter fall in love with? Would her husband be like him? And his boy, who at six had an almost paternal love for his little sister, and his class mates: What kind of father would he be? He imagined him tall, with a beard that was impossible to imagine now, and a child on his shoulders: They were both smiling and the child was missing a tooth. When he completed all the physicals, and he was finally spared, he promised his wife he would never smoke again. The packet he had bought on the morning of the 26th at the tobacconist’s near his house lay closed in a desk-drawer in his study, like an alternative he had decided against. To him, it was as if death itself were locked in that wooden prison.

He resisted. He put on an inevitable ten kilos, which, in part, he lost the next spring when he joined a gym. And even if it wasn’t true, he told everyone he could really taste the flavor of food again. He was less tired in the evening. Every once in a while he really craved one—especially after lunch, while the taste of coffee lingered in his mouth. But he resisted. He thought about his children. Their future. Before going to bed at night, he would go into their room, stand near their beds, and it seemed to him that there was nothing more beautiful than his two children sleeping peacefully: Their fragility was safe under the roof that he and his wife had built, or bought. When at night it thundered, his little girl would slip into the big bed, and cuddle up close to him, because she knew her father was stronger than the storm. On some nights his boy would help him clear the table, carrying the plates one at a time, stumbling between the dining room and the kitchen, as proud as could be. Sometimes, the boy would yell at his sister. Lovingly, tenderly, firmly, he would tell his son not to yell but saw himself in his son’s stance.

After so many years of empty days, he was suddenly happy. Up to now, he had floated on the surface of life; now, finally, he had leapt into the palpitating heart of his existence, fully: Death, which had, for one night, touched his home, his life, had awarded him a new outlook—clearer, deeper, fuller.

The night of September 26, 2010, he and his children were home alone. His wife had gone to a meeting planned by a cousin of his who had just had a baby and, to pass the time or to earn a little extra money, sold products for the home: air fresheners for the bathroom and herbal toothpastes. The children were a little older now: His son had a huge new front tooth in the place of the one he had lost, but was missing the other one; and his daughter had started acting like a pretty little miss. In the morning she would ask her mother to braid her hair. She was in love with a friend in nursery school, or at least she thought she was; and as soon as she got home, she would tell them that she and Luca had slept next to each other after lunch. The teacher said that they often held hands.

They ate. They watched a few cartoons. Then the children asked if they could take a bath, both of them: It was a while since they had taken one together. A few months earlier his wife started saying that they were too big, and that it wasn’t proper. They insisted a bit. In the end, he said yes. He prepared the tub. His little boy went to get the dinosaurs he kept in his room; his little girl scurried under the bed to get two Winx. He turned on the electric heater to warm the bathroom, then, diligently, turned it off, and put it back in the cupboard under the sink. He looked at the toothbrush glass: Had there really been blood on it a year before, or was it just a bad dream? The children got undressed, threw their toys in the tub, and jumped into the warm water. He could still see the lines of their bathing suits. He told them not to squirt water on the floor, and to behave; he winked at his little boy, who smiled. Then he went to get their bathrobes. He passed in front of his study. Was his packet of cigarettes still inside his desk drawer, or had his wife thrown it away? He opened it. It was still there. He lifted the cardboard lid: There was one left. He pulled it out. Exactly a year had passed since that night with the blood, and the panic. In the end, he had won. He was free. Sure of that fact, he wanted to try the thrill of that last cigarette.

He went to the kitchen, turned on the gas burner, leaned his head in and, careful not to burn his hair, lit the cigarette. While he was going out onto the balcony, he looked at the clock on the oven: It was nine thirty-four. He closed the door behind him—he didn’t want the smoke to filter into the house. He leaned his back against the wall, and breathed in deeply. The sky was bright, lit up by the yellow lights of Padua. He could see the Big Dipper up above. In summer, before going to bed, he would go out onto the balcony, sit on the white lawn chair, light a cigarette and look at the stars: Month after month, they moved slowly north. He breathed in again. An airplane flashed through the sky. What if it were to explode right above his house? He imagined the ball of fire lighting up the sky, the deafening crack that would come immediately afterwards, the pieces of aircraft falling to the ground. A huge wing would fall right in the garden in front of his place; and the bodies, the bodies of the passengers … how would they fall? A human downpour. Crashing sounds as they hit the ground. He shivered. What were the chances of an airplane exploding then and there? He waited. The shiny outline disappeared silently. No explosion. Lightning, blood in the sink: The wheel rarely stopped at death in the lottery of life. On the balcony opposite his, a man wearing underwear and an undershirt appeared with a cigarette dangling from his lips and waved from across the garden that separated them. He waved too, drawing a luminous circle with the red tip of his cigarette. Had the neighbor, too, imagined the airplane explode in flight? He looked at the clock in the kitchen: nine thirty-eight. A smoke, therefore, took four minutes. He went back in.

It took him a bit to understand that the shrieking he heard was his son’s voice: It seemed much older, much more distant—but it was coming from the bathroom down the hall. How long had he been screaming? He was calling out desperately: Papa, Papa, Papa. He ran. He opened the door. His little girl was floating head down near her Winx; a T-rex was looking on from the edge of the tub, white-eyed, paws held out as if praying. She’s not breathing, shrieked his son, she’s not breathing anymore, she’s not breathing, and he cried, mouth open wide, tooth  missing, face exactly like his father’s. And he, holding the wet lifeless body in his arms, thought about the blood in the sink, the airplane falling suddenly, the drawer with his cigarettes, the lightning that in summer struck down the creatures of the earth, at random, like a blind and terrible finger.

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L’ultima sigaretta

Il 26 settembre 2009, intorno all’una e un quarto della notte, mentre fuori un cielo pieno di nuvole scure si chiudeva intorno a Padova, lui, disteso sul letto matrimoniale in stile futon, accanto al sonno profondo di sua moglie, fu scosso da un attacco improvviso e violentissimo di tosse: con gli occhi sbarrati sull’oscurità della camera, sperimentò l’antichissimo terrore dell’asfissia. Quando riprese a respirare, si alzò, barcollò fino al bagno, entrò in quel buio, appoggiò le mani ai bordi del lavandino, e riprese a tossire. Quando smise, e accese la luce, vide che la porcellana bianca, il rubinetto, il bordo del bicchiere con i quattro spazzolini, erano ricoperti da minuscole goccioline rosse. Rimase fermo per qualche secondo. Udì sua moglie muoversi nel letto, come se si stesse sistemando le coperte sulle spalle, e tornare immobile. Con un po’ d’acqua pulì il lavandino; si asciugò le mani; si bagnò la fronte, le guance, il collo. Lo specchio davanti gli mostrava l’immagine del volto di un uomo di mezza età, un po’ stempiato e pieno di paura; sotto, scorrevano i sottotitoli: cancro ai polmoni, a quarantadue anni. Aveva iniziato a fumare a quattordici anni e mezzo, a scuola, in ottobre, durante l’intervallo: la prima sigaretta – una Merit – gliela offrì un suo compagno di classe che rubava alla madre i soldi per comprarsele. Nel giro di qualche anno, arrivò a un pacchetto al giorno. Sua moglie insisteva perché smettesse; se lo faceva promettere ogni capodanno, mentre facevano tintinnare i bicchieri pieni di spumante. Lui avrebbe voluto, ma non ci riusciva. Ci provava, ma riprendeva quasi subito. Il cancro tutto sommato gli sembrava un’eventualità piuttosto remota – qualcosa che poteva succedere solo agli altri, come quei fulmini che d’estate colpivano pastori a caso, in campagna, di notte. Ma il sangue sul lavandino del bagno gli apparteneva in modo inequivocabile. Si passò una mano tra i capelli. Non era mai stato così vicino alla morte. Chiuse gli occhi. Il petto gli faceva male. Riaprì gli occhi. Pisciò tremando. Nella vasca da bagno erano rimasti i giocattoli dei bimbi: un dinosauro, una macchina delle Hot Wheels, una piccola Winx con le ali. Spense la luce. Il silenzio del condominio sembrava un rombo lontanissimo, appena percettibile. Prima di tornare in camera, si fermò davanti alla stanza dei bambini, e gettò uno sguardo su quel buio caldo e pieno di respiri: nella penombra, vide che il grande aveva gettato a terra il copriletto e ora stringeva tra le gambe un enorme cane che avevano comprato all’Ikea, qualche mese prima; la piccola teneva le braccia aperte, la bocca spalancata, gli occhi chiusi: cosa stava sognando, quella creatura di quattro anni? Ebbe un brivido profondo lungo la schiena: presto, quei due piccoli avrebbero perso il padre, e lui, avrebbe perso loro per sempre.

La mattina arrivò lentamente. Alle cinque era ancora buio, e pioveva forte; alle sei la luce bianca dell’alba iniziò ad infilarsi tra le tapparelle: lui si alzò dal letto, andò in cucina, guardò giù: foglie gialle e gonfie galleggiavano nelle enormi pozzanghere che riempivano la strada; tornò a letto, cercando di dormire. La sveglia dei vicini suonò alle sei e mezza, e fu subito spenta: una dimenticanza. Alle sette sua moglie sbadigliò, alle sette e quattro sbadigliò di nuovo, poi, si svegliò, un pezzo alla volta. Quando lei aprì gli occhi, lui le raccontò cos’era successo quella notte; lei minimizzò, o cercò di farlo. I bambini si svegliarono alle otto e un quarto, e si infilarono nel lettone. La piccola, tutta rosa nel suo pigiama di Hello Kitty, gli prese il viso tra le minuscole mani, e gli baciò una guancia con uno schiocco – lo faceva tutte le domeniche. Al grande, che aveva sei anni, e che era particolarmente orgoglioso del suo pigiama di Ben 10, mancava un dente davanti; sua moglie gli fece un po’ di solletico per vedere quel sorriso sbilenco pieno di simpatia. Quelle calde tenerezze, quell’intimità senza ombre che accompagnavano tutte le loro domeniche mattina, come un rito fondativo della famiglia, ora gli straziavano il cuore. Come avrebbe salutato quei bambini? Con quale coraggio? Nella luce vivida di quella mattina autunnale, gli fu chiaro che il senso della vita gli era sempre sfuggito; e quella consapevolezza disarmante e insostenibile era un dono che la morte gli anticipava, come una specie di risarcimento.

Ma non era cancro: la morte non aveva puntato il dito contro di lui. Due settimane dopo quella notte, un dottore sulla sessantina, con lo sguardo di chi aveva visto troppo dolore per poter essere ancora felice, gli disse che non aveva nulla: nulla. Gli avevano fatto i raggi X, una TAC, due ecografie, dieci pagine di esami del sangue, urine, palpazioni, ispezioni – il suo corpo era passato da un lettino all’altro, osservato da medici sempre diversi. Nulla. Le sue cellule continuavano a riprodursi con i ritmi consueti. Il sangue che aveva sporcato il lavandino durante la notte tra il 26 e il 27 settembre probabilmente era la meccanica conseguenza di una tosse particolarmente violenta. Ma doveva smettere di fumare: questo glielo dissero tutti. Era ancora abbastanza giovane perché l’interruzione immediata di quello stupido vizio sortisse qualche effetto. Lei non avrà quarant’anni per tutta la vita, gli disse il medico sessantenne, ci pensi. E a lui, quasi nudo sui lettini gelidi di quei gelidi dottori, venne una grandissima, improvvisa voglia di nipotini, di Natali trascorsi con i suoi figli ormai grandi – voleva assolutamente conoscere le famiglie che avrebbero avuto. Di chi si sarebbe innamorata la piccola? Suo marito sarebbe assomigliato a lui? E il grande, che a sei anni mostrava già un senso quasi paterno verso sua sorella e i suoi compagni di classe, che genitore sarebbe stato? Lo vedeva alto, con una barba che adesso era impossibile immaginare, e un bambino sulle spalle; sorridevano entrambi, e al piccolo, mancava un dente. Quando finì tutte le visite, e fu finalmente graziato, promise a sua moglie che non avrebbe più fumato. Il pacchetto che aveva comprato il 26 mattina, al negozio di tabacchi vicino a casa, rimase chiuso in un cassetto della scrivania nello studio, come un’alternativa alla quale si era detto di no. Gli pareva che in quella prigione di legno fosse rinchiusa la morte.

Resistette. Mise su l’inevitabile decina di chili, che però in parte perse in primavera iscrivendosi in palestra. Anche se non era vero, diceva a tutti che aveva ripreso a sentire il gusto del cibo. La sera era meno stanco. Ogni tanto gli veniva una voglia feroce di fumarsene una – specialmente dopo pranzo, quando la bocca sapeva di caffè. Ma resistette. Pensava ai suoi figli. Al loro futuro. Prima di andare a dormire, si fermava in camera loro, accanto ai loro lettini, e gli pareva che non esistesse nulla di più bello di quelle creature che dormivano serene: quelle fragilità trovavano riparo sotto il tetto che lui e sua moglie avevano costruito, o comprato. Quando la notte tuonava, la piccola si infilava nel lettone, e si stringeva a lui, perché sapeva che il papà era più forte del temporale. Certe sere il grande lo aiutava a sparecchiare; portava due piatti alla volta, barcollando tra il salotto e la cucina, pieno di orgoglio. A volte, sgridava sua sorella, con affetto, tenerezza, fermezza: lui gli diceva di non farlo, ma si riconosceva in quei gesti.

Dopo tanti anni di giornate vuote, era improvvisamente diventato felice. Fino ad allora, aveva galleggiato sulla superficie della vita; adesso, finalmente si era tuffato nel cuore palpitante della sua esistenza, fino in fondo: la morte che per una notte aveva lambito la sua casa, la sua vita, gli aveva regalato uno sguardo nuovo – più lucido, più profondo, più vivo.

La sera del 26 settembre del 2010, lui e i suoi figli rimasero a casa da soli. Sua moglie era andata a una riunione organizzata dalla cugina del marito: da poco aveva avuto un figlio e, per passare il tempo o per integrare lo stipendio, vendeva detersivi per la casa, profumi per il bagno, dentifrici alle erbe. Per cena, prepararono tortellini. I bimbi nel frattempo erano un po’ cresciuti – il grande aveva sostituito il dente che aveva perso con un nuovo incisivo sproporzionato, ma aveva perso l’altro; la piccola aveva iniziato da qualche mese ad avere atteggiamenti leziosi, da femminuccia. La mattina chiedeva alla mamma di farle le treccine. Si era innamorata di un suo compagno all’asilo, o così le sembrava: dopo pranzo, raccontava quando tornava a casa, lei e Luca dormivano in due lettini vicini. La maestra disse che spesso si tenevano per mano.

Mangiarono. Guardarono un po’ di cartoni. Poi i bambini gli chiesero se potevano fare il bagnetto, loro due: era molto che non lo facevano insieme. Sua moglie, da qualche mese, aveva iniziato ad essere contraria, le sembrava che non avessero più l’età, che non fosse bello. Insistettero un po’. Alla fine, lui disse di sì.

Preparò la vasca. Il grande prese alcuni dinosauri che teneva in camera e li portò in bagno; la piccola raccolse due Winx da sotto il letto. Accese una stufetta per scaldare l’aria, poi diligentemente, la spense, e la ripose nel mobile sotto il lavandino. Guardò il bicchiere degli spazzolini: c’era stato davvero del sangue, lì sopra, un anno prima, o era stato solo un brutto sogno? I bambini si spogliarono, gettarono i loro giochi nell’acqua, si infilarono in quel tepore bagnato. Avevano ancora il segno chiaro del costume. Lui si raccomandò di non fare schizzi sul pavimento, e di comportarsi bene; strizzò l’occhio al grande, che sorrise. Poi uscì a prendere gli accappatoi. Passò davanti allo studio. Dentro al cassetto della scrivania, c’era ancora il pacchetto di sigarette, o sua moglie lo aveva buttato via? Lo aprì. C’era. Sollevò il piccolo coperchio di cartone: ne era rimasta una. La tirò fuori. Era passato un anno esatto da quella notte di sangue, e spavento. Alla fine, aveva vinto lui. Era libero. Fu per questa sicurezza che volle provare l’ebbrezza dell’ultima sigaretta.

Andò in cucina, accese la fiamma azzurra del fornello, chinò la testa facendo attenzione ai capelli, e si accese la sigaretta. Mentre usciva in terrazza, guardò l’orologio sopra il forno: segnava le 21 e 34. Si chiuse la porta dietro – non voleva che il fumo entrasse in casa. Si appoggiò con la schiena al muro, e aspirò forte. Il cielo era chiaro, illuminato dalle luci gialle di Padova. In alto, si intravedeva la costellazione dell’Orsa Maggiore. D’estate, prima di andare a dormire, andava in terrazza, si sedeva su una sdraio di plastica bianca, si accendeva una sigaretta, e guardava le stelle: mese dopo mese, si spostavano tutte insieme verso nord. Aspirò ancora. Nel cielo, il luccichio di un aereo. E se fosse esploso in volo, proprio mentre passava là sopra? Immaginò la palla di fuoco illuminare il cielo, il boato assordante che sarebbe arrivato dopo qualche secondo, i pezzi della carlinga che cadevano giù. Un’ala immensa si sarebbe piantata nel giardino davanti casa; e i corpi… come sarebbero scesi, i corpi dei passeggeri? Una pioggia umana. Il tonfo quando arrivavano a terra. Rabbrividì. Quante possibilità c’erano che quell’aereo esplodesse in quel preciso istante? Aspettò qualche secondo. La sagoma luccicante si allontanò in silenzio. Nessuna esplosione. Il fulmine, il sangue sul lavandino: la morte esce raramente, nella ruota della vita. Nella terrazza della casa davanti comparve un uomo in mutande e canottiera, che teneva una sigaretta in bocca; con la mano fece il gesto del saluto, da una parte all’altra del giardino; lui ricambiò, disegnando un cerchio luminoso con la brace rossa della sua sigaretta. Aveva visto anche lui, l’aereo esplodere in volo? Buttò un’occhiata all’orologio della cucina: 21.38. Una fumata, dunque, durava quattro minuti. Rientrò.

Non capì subito che la voce che sentiva urlare era quella di suo figlio: sembrava molto più adulta, molto più lontana – e invece veniva dal bagno, in fondo al corridoio. Da quanto gridava? Lo chiamava disperato: papà, papà, papà. Corse. Aprì la porta. La piccola galleggiava immobile accanto alle sue Winx; un TRex la guardava dal bordo della vasca, gli occhi bianchi, le zampe davanti come in preghiera. Non respira, gridava il grande, non respira più, non respira, e piangeva, con la bocca spalancata, con il dente che gli mancava, con il viso uguale a quello di suo padre. E lui,  con il corpo bagnato e inerme tra le braccia, pensò al sangue sul lavandino, all’aereo che cadeva all’improvviso, al cassetto delle sue sigarette; al fulmine che d’estate colpiva le creature della terra, a caso, come un dito cieco e terribile.

Translator’s Note

I always translate using two columns, in parallel. I set my author—in this case, Paolo Zardi—on the left-hand side, and trudge along down the right, stumbling, falling, picking myself up again. His words are there on the left guiding me; his words in my voice are on the right. I try to listen to him carefully, but it isn’t always easy. Sometimes, he gets ahead of me. His text rushes forward, while mine lags behind. And not just because his has already been beautifully created. Sometimes it’s a matter of strokes. Length. Space.

I hate it when the parallel text isn’t parallel at all because one language needs more words to say the same exact thing or perhaps not exactly the same thing. (Nuance.) So I adjust the margins, making the texts run parallel again. And the words walk hand in hand for a bit, until one of the two languages falls behind, and I start playing with the margins again. I do this while flipping pages, jotting down notes, rummaging through the thesaurus.

I like it when I find exactly the right word, and the original is reflected in it. I like it when my column is finally complete, and the two versions can stand next to each other. And I like to hope the author’s words are reflected but never distorted.

Matilda - Translator - Photo_ResizedPaolo Zardi published his very first short story in the anthology Giovani Cosmetici. Since then he has published two collections of short stories: Antropometria [Anthropometry] and Il Giorno Che Diventammo Umani [The Day We Became Human], two novellas: Il Signor Bovary [Mr. Bovary] and Il Principe Piccolo [The Tiny Prince], and two novels: La Felicità Esiste [Happiness Exists] and XXI Secolo [XXI Century], finalist in the 2015 Italian Strega Prize. He was the editor of the anthology L’amore ai Tempi dell’ Apocalisse [Love in the Age of the Apocalypse] and has published short stories in numerous reviews and anthologies. He blogs at grafemi.wordpress.com  

 

 

Matilda - Photo_ResizedMatilda Colarossi is a freelance translator and teacher. Born in Italy, raised in Canada, and adopted by the city of Florence in her adult years, she loves to read, write, translate, and teach. She blogs at http://www.paralleltexts.wordpress.com

 

 

Writers Read: The Ecstatic by Victor Lavelle

The Ecstatic by Victor LavelleThe Ecstatic is Victor Lavalle’s intriguing debut novel cataloguing two months in the life of Anthony James, a 23-year-old horror-movie loving, obese, unstable, socially inept, obsessed with cleaning, sometimes-schizophrenic, college dropout. Anthony’s narrative begins on September 25, 1995, when he is abruptly rescued from “living wild in his apartment” (3) in Central New York and hauled back to the family home in South Queens by his women-folk, which include: his also sometimes-schizophrenic mother, his 93-year old tabloid aficionado grandmother, and his 13-year-old half-sister, Nabisase, a beauty-pageant debutante. Here, he is ensconced in the basement of the house for his own “safe keeping.”

Anthony, in a type of stream of consciousness conversation with the reader, narrates The Ecstatic in first person. He tells the reader about the ins and outs of his new life. The audience only ever sees the world through Anthony’s eyes. The dialogue of others is given to the reader by Anthony in hearsay. Rather than using customary dialogue techniques, employing bi-directional conversations with punctuation and quotation marks, the author begins sentences meant to convey dialogue with m-dashes. This technique has the effect of locking the reader even further in the mind of the protagonist. Scenes, which would otherwise be felt as taking place between people in casual, expectedly real world settings are, instead, narrowly focused and conveyed, unfiltered through Anthony’s mind’s eye. Add to this that Anthony’s descriptions are only “moment specific,” that is, he doesn’t give you an overview of any of the people or places he experiences, just specific (and remarkable) descriptive observations about one or two particular characteristics about them. The reader is left with a distorted view of both characters and their surroundings. Unable to gain any accuracy of perspective of what is actually going on in Anthony’s world, the reader has to live it with him on a moment-to-moment basis.

The reader lives every detail of people, places, things, and events strictly through Anthony’s incredulously fractured perspective. This tactic on the part of the author works implicitlycreating a window that appears natural into Anthony’s unsteady, erratic unnatural world.

In this manner, Lavalle never allows the reader an exit out of the protagonist’s mind. Anthony’s inner thoughts and perspectives are the reader’s only companion, the reader’s only window into the world of The Ecstatic. The reader lives every detail of people, places, things, and events strictly through Anthony’s incredulously fractured perspective. This tactic on the part of the author works implicitlycreating a window that appears natural into Anthony’s unsteady, erratic unnatural world:

We reached Baltimore –What exit? I asked my mother.
—None.
—I thought we were going to Maryland.
—Virginia. You don’t listen.
I had been to Baltimore once, that bipolar city. On one block was moderately regal Penn Station, then four blocks over a quadrant of desiccated row houses. The neighborhoods went like mood swings, good to bad, horrendous to opulent, without warning (86).

The instability and unreliability of the main character, in combination with the unusual point of view created by the author, makes reading The Ecstatic much like walking through a house of mirrors inside the mind of a madman. The reader feels trapped, disoriented; perceptions are unreliable, distorted. The overall mood is detached and effectively surreal. The Ecstatic’s first person point of view limits the exposition of the story from being seen from any other perspective other than that of the offbeat narrator’s. Lavalle peppers Anthony’s descriptions of his experiences with a multitude of peculiar, yet creatively effective similes and metaphors. This further defines the odd character of Anthony making him seem almost larger than life.

Hence, the plot of The Ecstatic is minimal, the story heavily and almost exclusively character driven. The overt tone of the protagonist as he tells his story is curiously light-hearted, almost casual, as if the crazy things he does and experiences, the social exchanges he has with secondary characters, are completely normal and expected in his world. This only adds to the air of madness that plays about the narrative.

The instability and unreliability of the main character, in combination with the unusual point of view created by the author, makes reading The Ecstatic much like walking through a house of mirrors inside the mind of a madman.

The extreme character driven plot causes scene descriptions to be dependent solely on the perspective of the protagonist and whatever facts, sometimes incomplete, he chooses to share with the audience. As such, scene transitions are disjointed and hard to follow, though once inside a scene, firmly planted again inside the mind of the peculiar and idiosyncratic twenty-three-year-old Anthony, scenes become vivid and easy to picture in the mind’s eye: “Inside the reception area was a mix of purple and cream. The carpet, the chairs, the walls were these two swirled hues. It was like standing inside a bruised sky. Heaven as a lounge (46).”

In this manner, Mr. Lavalle diligently leads the reader, through Anthony’s unconventional perspective, to the real under-story masking the overt one: though we, as a society, tend to judge and classify others based on collective, established norms of behaviors and expectations, we all may be at one point or another in our existence people whose actions and behaviors are difficult to understand, “in some way like strangers”… “people at the mercy of their minds,” or ecstatics (the title: an explanation).

The author, Victor Lavelle. Photo by E. Robateu. Courtesy of Random House.

The author, Victor Lavelle. Photo by E. Robateu. Courtesy of Random House.

At first, the abrupt ending of The Ecstatic may put-off the reader. Its conclusion leaves the narrative abruptly hanging, unfinished, its purpose somehow unexplained. Yet, upon reflection, it seems evident that Lavalle may have purpose, and a very surprising conclusion he hopes his audience will get as they muse and lay hidden within the folds of flesh that envelope them when they, reading, become a part of Anthony and live life through his tilted focus.

The author presents an unexpected parallel between living the human condition and the pack of feral dogs that willy-nilly roams and dominates the neighborhood. That parallel seems to indicate that whether you are young or old, rich or poor, American or foreign, black or white, male or female, perpetrator or victim, ecstatic or seemingly normal, living the human condition is like living the hard, mean, conflict-driven existence of “a dog’s life.” In The Ecstatic, and for Anthony, this implication seems to carry a double meaning, as living “a dog’s life” seems to suggest both a “dog-eat-dog world,” and/or “a dog’s life of Riley,” depending on circumstance or opportunity. “Now there really are only two ways to react to the extraordinary,” says Anthony, “The first is to ponder the grand purpose until all the fun is sucked away and the second is to enjoy it” (271).

The author seems to further clarify this meaning as the pack of feral dogs race around the neighborhood in mirror and parallel to the absurdity of the human condition of racing through life, trying to get ahead, only to start all over again:

The dogs sprinted along 145th Avenue until they reached 225th Street. There they made a right for one block, right again on 144th Avenue, down to Brookville Park, right once more to the corner of 145th and started again. A good-sized circuit. I thought some driver, at least one, would beep at the dogs and scatter them, but not one did. (271)

The Ecstatic also provides an illustration for the way society’s labels and stereotypes isolate and separate people from each other. The reader is meant to ponder whom is actually the crazier, the one who maintains and adheres to the tedium of social expectations and appears normal, or the one who, out of “madness,” chooses to disregard them altogether in favor of a more personalized, yet reviled type of freedom.

The Ecstatic also provides an illustration for the way society’s labels and stereotypes isolate and separate people from each other.

Overall, the take-away from this curiously different narrative is the fresh and innovative perspective Lavalle presents on characterization. However, for most of the narrative, The Ecstatic moves roughly, disjointedly and unreasonably between scenes retold by an unreliable and unlikeable narrator and takes too long to get to its point. Anthony is obviously intelligent, and yet he makes repeated decisions that are unwise, improper or just foolish, and the reader is forced to go along with it, or quit reading. Secondary characters are intense, in-your-face, but equally unlikeable. It is hard to have sympathy for either Anthony or the people that populate his world. And, even though the message of societal freedom versus bondage and the plight of the human condition is commendable, the message comes too late in the narrative to be truly appreciated or integrated in conjunction with the developing story.

In the end, varying degrees of annoyance at all of them undermines sympathy for the characters and their plights.

Miriam Gonzales-PoeMiriam González-Poe holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in The Round-upCulture ShôkFine LinenInner Circle, and other publications. She is currently a staff writer for Drunk Monkeys and lives in Los Angeles with her family, where she spends her time balancing the demands of the real world with her personal harmonic convergence. She is also an award-winning jewelry artist, producing works under Mac Originals.

Writers Read: The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca SolnitRebecca Solnit gets the title for her work The Faraway Nearby from Georgia O’Keefe. “From the faraway nearby” was how O’Keefe would sign letters to the people she loved after moving from New York City to rural New Mexico. Says Solnit, “It was a way to measure physical and psychic geography together” (108). It is in this way that the author takes us on a journey through her own life along with the lives of a number of historic figures, literary and otherwise. The Faraway Nearby is memoir meets history lesson meets philosophical musings. It’s as much about Solnit’s relationship with her mother and the impact that Alzheimer’s has on them as it is about the craft of writing and the role storytelling plays in all of our lives. On the surface, this is a book about family dynamics, a trip to Iceland, mental and physical health problems, and the dilemma of dealing with three big boxes of apricots. That said, this is not a book that allows the reader to remain on the surface.

“What’s your story?” asks Solnit. She not only poses the question throughout the book, but also chooses this as the narrative’s opening thought. She quickly establishes that stories “are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there” (3). She then deepens our understanding of how empathy connects with the book’s overarching theme of searching and journeying by bringing us back to this idea periodically, including toward the book’s concluding pages, in which she states, “Empathy means that you travel out of yourself a little or expand” (194). Solnit allows us to travel and expand in this way as a result of what she has to say and also because of how she has opted to say it. The Faraway Nearby begins and ends with “Apricots,” not only as a story element, but also as a chapter title. In fact, the structure of the book is such that the thirteen chapter titles reverse and repeat after reaching “Wound,” “Knot,” and “Unwound”—the sixth, seventh and eighth.

On the surface, this is a book about family dynamics, a trip to Iceland, mental and physical health problems, and the dilemma of dealing with three big boxes of apricots. That said, this is not a book that allows the reader to remain on the surface.

The book jacket refers to the work as “a marvelous Russian doll of a book in which stories contain stories and chapters mirror themselves,” and this Russian doll analogy is contained within. “I am, we each are, the inmost of a series of Russian dolls,” writes Solnit, adding, “you who read are now encased within a layer I built for you, or perhaps my stories are now inside you.” While this imagery is certainly relevant to the experience of reading Solnit’s work, it is the ways in which the narrator describes a labyrinth that captures this work most powerfully and provocatively. “A maze is a conversation; a labyrinth is an incantation or perhaps a prayer,” says one passage. “It’s not ultimately a journey of immersion but emergence” (188). Additionally, a description that associates labyrinths with “a spool of thread and the words and lines and pages of a book” acts like a mirror used to reflect the book’s own structure and spirit (189). This is not only a product of the previously mentioned repeating and reversing chapter titles, but also the result of a second story line—literally a line—that appears on the bottom of every page. From its enigmatic opening statement, “Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds” to its concluding question, “Who hears your story?,” the spool of thread-like story unfolds page by page and requires a constant emergence from the primary story in order to follow along. That is, of course, unless one were to read the two stories separately, finishing one before starting on the other.

Rebecca Solnit. Photo by Sallie Dean Shatz. Courtesy of Viking Books.

Rebecca Solnit. Photo by Sallie Dean Shatz. Courtesy of Viking Books.

The Faraway Nearby is a compelling example of how simple, seemingly contained personal stories can become expansive and universal. “My own story in its particulars hardly interests me now,” says Solnit, soon after she proclaims that “writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone” (65, 64). In doing so, the narrator underscores the responsibility of those who travel into creative nonfiction territory, a responsibility that includes having “an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand” (65).

Solnit, Rebecca. The Faraway Nearby. Viking Adult, 2013. Print.

Rochelle Newman

Born on a small island near Puerto Rico called Manhattan, Rochelle credits her Lower East Side roots with her love of culture, humor, and language. She lives in Los Angeles, has over three decades of U.S.-Hispanic marketing experience, and is a recent Antioch MFA graduate. She holds a BFA in theatre from UC Irvine.

Spotlight: Maranda on Fire

I started firewalking after seeing a picture of a monk burn himself to death, but of course it’s more complicated than that. The monk came to history class where we were studying Vietnam, talking about what a mistake it had been, and about the protests against the war, in our country, and over there, where they took it a lot more seriously. You see, in Vietnam they’re Buddhist, and they’ve got monks, and to make their point these monks didn’t carry signs or pass out flowers; instead they’d go to busy city streets, douse themselves with gasoline, light themselves on fire, then just kneel down and burn, not moving a muscle, not flinching, or even gritting their teeth. They’d just burn and melt and die. In class we were looking up at a slide of one of these monks in flames. Maranda was in class with me, sitting across the darkened room, and I glanced over to see the side of her face catching the light from the screen. Her eyes were fixed ahead like the others and then she asked, “How did he do it? Not feel any pain?” Our teacher said it had something to do with meditation, detachment, letting go, some kind of crazy Buddhist trick he didn’t quite understand. The room was quiet for a few more moments then somebody mumbled something about paper cuts, another mentioned toothaches, and most everyone agreed that this guy was not like us, not even close. But I knew they were saying that because they didn’t understand. And though I didn’t understand either, how he did it, I knew we weren’t that much different from each other, that monk and me, it was just that he’d figured it out, how to control his thoughts, shut off his mind.

*     *     *

That night I was sitting in my friend JD’s basement playing poker. It was about ten o’clock, I had a pair of jacks, and was wondering if it was good enough to win the four dollar pot. Then I realized I didn’t care either way. I folded, then at the end of the hand got up and said I was leaving.

“What?” JD asked. “Why?”

“I just don’t see the point in it.”

“Come on, Owen,” he said. “We’re having fun, hanging out, there doesn’t have to be a point, does there?”

“Maybe not, but I just …”

“Is it Maranda?”

“What do you mean, is it Maranda?”

“Something happening with you two?”

“Come on,” I said. “We’ve been friends since first grade.”

“You’ve been acting funny around each other lately,” he said.

“They haven’t even been talking to each other,” my other friend Pete added, and I looked at the both of them incredulously, as though they were confusing me with someone else, though really I couldn’t believe they’d noticed, that they’d been paying attention at all.

“I’m just tired of playing cards, that’s all,” I said and left.

*     *     *

On my way home I walked past Maranda’s house. She lived on the same block as I did, our big backyards touching at the corner. I saw the light on in her bedroom and slowed but didn’t see her. We’d been friends, like I said, for a long time. She’d never been a tomboy exactly, but had always liked to play—kickball, soccer, ghost in the graveyard, that was our favorite. Base was the cedar deck on the back of her house, and there were lots of good hiding spots in the evergreens that ran between our yards. Some days if it were just the two of us we’d race back and forth from one end of her yard to the other. Maranda was faster than I was when we were kids and usually won, but neither of us cared. It was just fun to race.

We weren’t quite kids anymore though. That had all changed the last weekend of summer. Maranda had been gone July and most of August, to her aunt’s farm in Gettysburg, where she went every year. When she returned, I didn’t recognize her. I was at a party and I saw her profile from across the room and I said, “Wow, who is that?” When she turned and smiled at me I realized it was Maranda, but she looked taller, thinner, with her cheekbones higher on her face. Her skin had a new glow to it, and she’d let her hair go long; it was down to her shoulders, and lighter than its usual brownish-red. She walked up to me smiling and gave me a hug, which was something new. As she held me, I felt her breasts on me, and this was new too.

“Owen,” she said finally. “How are you?” Even the sound of my name coming from her mouth was different. This was a new Maranda.

The party was at Ginny Bauer’s place, which was an old farmhouse with a big barn, silo, and a few acres of property. Most of the houses in our town were built in the ’50s and ’60s, so when you went to Ginny’s you really felt like you were going somewhere, doing something different, and because her parents liked to travel, she had a lot of parties. This night just about everyone was there, and there was lots of beer, which I was drinking, and rum punch, which Maranda was drinking, but neither of us had ever been much at drinking, and we began to feel pretty carefree in a short while. It was a warm night, the house had a big in-ground pool, and most of our friends were hanging out there, doing cannonballs or complaining about being splashed, but Maranda and I found ourselves stealing away, walking back behind the barn where we sat on some old tractor tires and unexpectedly began to kiss. At first I couldn’t believe it was Maranda and me, but she was so warm and curvy, such a good kisser, that after a few moments I forgot about that. And as we kept on I forgot about everything else. I’d kissed girls before, but only awkwardly. This was different, it was like the rest of the world had disappeared, and I think I really lost track of myself for the first time in my life.

But I guess you can only kiss for so long, or maybe Maranda had drunk more than I, but after a while she stopped kissing me and was unbuttoning me, and all of sudden she’d taken us beyond just the kissing, and I guess I’d been dreaming about something like this happening, of course I had—daydreams, night dreams, all kinds of dreams—but I hadn’t expected them to ever come true. In a way, I was more awash in sensation, the tingling feeling shooting all the way to my fingers and toes, but at the same time the world had come back to me, and I opened my eyes, was looking around, trying to get my bearings, checking to be sure no one was watching, and then I guess I couldn’t resist looking down at Maranda, and she was pulling her hair back from her face, and like I said, this new profile of hers was absolutely beautiful, and I felt myself smile at the sight of us. But I guess she must’ve felt me looking at her because she opened her eyes and looked up at me, and from straight on she looked like the old Maranda, the old friend I’d played with all my life, and she must have seen something too, maybe the same thing, because she pulled herself back quickly, as if startled, and then we both looked away from each other. She got up and stepped away while I stood and buttoned up. She’d pointed herself away from me, and I felt I myself wanting to say something, but only let out a low “Uhhmmm …” She began to walk quickly back to the party with her long, loping stride, and I followed behind.

*     *     *

We’d avoided each other since then, not so much as looking each other in the eye, and I’d been doing all I could to stop thinking about her, but it was hard, because I didn’t know exactly what I was thinking. I only knew that I didn’t feel like myself when I thought about her and that I’d wake each morning before five o’clock, with the feeling that all the air had been sucked out of me. I’d try to fall back to sleep, but never could, feeling at turns dirty, raw, weepy, weak, or desperate, and this anguish was something I’d never really experienced before in my life, as everything had always gone along just well enough. My friends—who I’d always done most everything with—they and I didn’t do sports, or drugs, and we didn’t have girlfriends. I’d been getting tired of that, had hoped it might change that year, that something might actually matter, but then finally something of consequence happened, and it was only making everything worse.

*     *     *

When I got home that night my parents were out, gone as every Friday during the season to my brother’s football game. Our town was mad for football and my brother was the team’s starting center. He said it was one of the most important positions on the team, but I figured who’d want to be the center, having the quarterback putting his hands between your legs every play? Sometimes he wanted to practice snapping the ball to me, but after the first time I always came up with a good excuse to avoid it, and he’d get our dad to do it instead. I guess I didn’t understand football, or my brother, or my parents that well. But this had never been a big problem for me. It’s not like I thought I’d be better off with another family. My mom, with her television shows and coupons, my dad with his job and newspaper, my brother always hiking his football: They were my family. I couldn’t imagine things any other way. It just so happened that I was the one always on the outside. Sometimes I even felt like a visitor, like I was watching them be a family. But this was just the way things had always been. I was used to it.

I went to my room and started looking through some boxes of old papers and pictures and stuff. I knew I was too young to be sitting home on a Friday night reminiscing, but there I was, looking over old class pictures from grade school, wondering where the years had gone. And there were other pictures too—a big group of us eating popsicles on Maranda’s back deck on the Fourth of July, Maranda and me at Six Flags, smiling at the camera, not a care in the world. I wondered again how it had happened. There’d been no reason for us to wander off together, go sit on tires, kiss, any of it. We’d even talked about it over the years, when others had coupled up; we could see how silly it was: the handholding, the phone calls, the dates, the inevitable breakups. “Just gets in the way,” we’d agreed, though exactly what it got in the way of we didn’t say. I thought maybe we’d talked about others as a way of talking about ourselves, but it never felt like that. It just felt like, well, Maranda and me, like it always did. I shook my head and told myself I had to stop thinking about her. But I knew it wasn’t as simple as telling myself to stop. I had to keep my mind occupied.

I put the pictures away and went through some of my old schoolwork, finally pulling out a report I’d done on firewalking in junior high. According to my report, firewalking had been used as a ritual by lots of different cultures, as an initiation into manhood, proof of faith or bravery, or an act of penance. And even though the fire would be between 600 and 1200 degrees, the key was simply telling yourself you wouldn’t get burned. You had to be “in the moment,” and unafraid, which isn’t easy because we’re born with two fears—of falling and of fire.

I thought about that, and the fact that we acquired all our other fears over time, through living. It seemed to me that fear of falling and fear of fire were both kind of the same thing—fear of death. I figured that’s what all fears were based on and thought that would have been an interesting angle to add to my report, though of course I wasn’t thinking about that in junior high. I stopped and tried to remember what I had been thinking about then, what had kept my mind occupied, but I couldn’t do it. Then I thought back to that monk we’d seen burning up in class that day, and that’s when I decided maybe I should try it—not burn myself or kill myself—but firewalk. I needed to do something, and thought if I could walk on fire I’d kind of be like that monk; at least I’d have more control over things.

*     *     *

In our town you could burn your leaves, and the next Friday night, after my parents had gone to the game, I raked the leaves from the back yard into a ten by three foot section behind the garage. I covered them over with small pieces of kindling and mulch we got for free from the city dump, then doused it all with lighter fluid, threw down a match, and watched the fire burn. I couldn’t walk until the flames had died down and there were only coals, the embers. While waiting I tried to sit and relax, not meditating exactly, I didn’t know what that was, but I was just sitting there close to the fire, watching the flames dance, feeling the heat, listening to the crackles and hiss. All week I’d been thinking about it, preparing myself, imagining myself walking over the coals. Now I was going to do it.

I had a small tub of water set up at the end of the run, just in case. After the flames had died down, I got up and walked around the edge of the bed barefoot, figuring to build up to it gradually, like settling down into a steaming hot bath. I did this a few times, concentrating not on my feet or the fire, but my breathing like I was supposed to. Finally I told myself it was time to go through. I stood at the edge, and standing close like that, in my bare feet, it was easy to stay “in the moment” because all my senses were paying close attention. Survival instinct, I suppose, like peering over the edge of a cliff. I stood a few moments, took some deep breaths, looked ahead, exhaled one more time slowly, then took a step, then another, then a third. The coals felt crunchy, like eggshells. I could feel that, but not any heat, not any pain, and I felt myself smile at this realization, and then I felt it—sharp prickles of heat under me, and I lunged forward, getting off the coals in two quick strides. I stepped into the tub of water swearing quietly, but when I stepped out a minute later I couldn’t feel any pain. Back in the house I inspected my feet and saw there were no blisters or burn marks. I rubbed a little Aloe vera on them just to be safe, then told myself though I hadn’t made it all the way, it was a start. I’d walked on fire, and more importantly, I’d been “in the moment,” “let go,” and stopped thinking about Maranda. Of course, once I told myself this, I started thinking about her again. But still it was progress. And nice to have gotten away for a while.

 *     *     *

The next Friday night I set up another fire. As it got going, I strolled around the perimeter again, breathing in and out, visualizing myself going through. When it was time to walk it, I did so without a thought, not feeling the fire at all, not even realizing I was moving until I was done and stepping back onto the grass. When I looked back over the fire bed I could hardly believe I’d just gone through it. I had no recollection. My feet felt fine. I waited a few minutes, then did it again. Same result. I did it again. Success.

“What are you doing?” a voice asked from behind me. I looked over. It was Maranda.

I was sure she’d seen me so there was no sense in denying it. “Firewalking,” I said.

“Why?” she asked, calmly.

“Something to do, I guess.”

“Can I try?” she said, coming closer.

“I don’t know,” I told her. “You’ve got to plan for it, you’ve got to think about it, you can’t just jump on and—”

“I’m going to try,” she said, taking off her shoes.

“I don’t know, Maranda.”

“You just did it, right?”

“Yeah,” I said, and she looked straight at me and shrugged. This was how she’d always been. If I or someone else could do something, climb a tree, go off the high dive, bike around the block in under two minutes, she could do it too. Or at least she’d try. So I didn’t argue with her, but just watched as she stood on the edge of the fire and took a few deep breaths. “Just breathe,” I said. “And don’t look at it.” She gazed ahead, which gave me an opportunity to really look at her, and again I was amazed that this was Maranda, so regal and lovely and curvy. She was wearing a snug white sweater and blue jeans which she’d pulled up around her calves. She exhaled once hard, then took a step forward, then another. I walked backwards to the end of the fire, and looking at her face almost straight on I could see again that she wasn’t as beautiful as from the side: Her eyes were a little too close together, her chin a little square, there was still some of that obtuse matter-of-fact quality in her that had always surfaced when she was concentrating. She looked like the old Maranda again as she was making steady progress across the embers towards me. As soon as she’d finished though, and set her feet onto the grass beside me, she relaxed and smiled, and I was nearly knocked over by her transformation back to a beauty.

“Wow,” I said.

“I did it,” she said excitedly.

“Yeah.”

When she turned to go past me I could smell the shampoo in her hair. She went to pick up her shoes, turned halfway towards me, then said, “You know that party?”

“Yeah,” I said quickly.

“I don’t know what happened.”

“Me neither,” I said. “That was … strange.”

“I never, I mean, I never did that before,” she told me. “I don’t want you to think that I—”

“No,” I said. “Of course not. I didn’t think that. I just … well, I guess I don’t know.”

“We can just forget about it, right?”

“Yeah, we should. I mean, well, maybe …”

“You don’t want to forget about it?” she asked, turning towards me.

“I don’t know,” I said, looking down.

I could sense she was waiting for me to say something more to her, but nothing came to mind. “Well, I think we should just forget about it,” she said, then turned and walked back towards her house.

After she left I realized I’d been spending my energy trying to stop thinking about Maranda and what had happened, but hadn’t considered what she’d been thinking, or feeling, and I began to think about that, especially what she was thinking about me, and this was even worse. I didn’t feel just empty, but nauseous. I tried to walk the fire again that night but one step and my feet were burning. Concentrate, I told myself. Then I said, No, don’t concentrate. And then I gave up; I knew I was trying too hard.

*     *     *

During the week I tried to do other things to keep my mind busy. One day I went to the basement and tried to work out with my brother’s weight set. Another I went for a long walk to the park at the other end of town. I worked on some old card tricks I used to be able to do pretty well. One night I snuck two beers from the basement fridge and drank them while I played chess on my computer. But nothing worked. When I’d see Maranda at school I couldn’t help but watch her, but she never looked my way. When my eyes were on her I’d get those tingling sensations, but I could hardly enjoy them because as soon as I looked away it was like I was catching myself, and then I’d feel lost, adrift, like a kid left behind at the mall.

*     *     *

Finally Friday came and I could do my firewalking again. And Maranda came over again too, and we took turns walking the fire, not talking much in between, and when we did, it was just about the fire, or school, or something else unimportant. We didn’t talk about each other, or that night. We weren’t comfortable like we’d been before, but when I was with her I didn’t feel quite so beat up about things; everything in me just sort of quieted down. Still, we didn’t look each other in the eye, even when we said goodnight, and she went through the evergreens towards her house. After she left and I put out the fire, I tried to get to sleep as soon possible, because I knew if I waited too long, the swirling would come back.

*     *     *

We took turns walking the fire, not talking much in between, and when we did, it was just about the fire, or school, or something else unimportant. We didn’t talk about each other, or that night. We weren’t comfortable like we’d been before, but when I was with her I didn’t feel quite so beat up about things; everything in me just sort of quieted down.

Somehow news of our firewalking got out, and the next Friday night there was a small crowd of kids from school gathered in my backyard watching me set up. A few said they wanted to try, but most just wanted to watch. I’d never had much attention paid to me, so this was something new, and I kind of liked it, those dozen or so people, watching me get the fire going, asking questions, waiting to see me walk it. JD and Pete were there, and they were looking at me like they didn’t know me. “You should try it,” I said to them, but they just shook their heads.

Maranda came over just after I’d finished my first pass and she said, “What’s going on?” to no one in particular, and they filled her in, as if she had no previous knowledge of the firewalking, and she let them believe that was the case. After I’d gone, two guys who’d been suspended from the football team tried, but neither could make it more than two steps without yowling and jumping off. Then a guy from the soccer team tried and he made it across, but nearly ran doing so, and not surprisingly burned the balls of his feet. A couple of girls consoled him while a guy named Rob, who’d been a kid with us all along, but who’d been sent away to a juvenile detention facility that summer for winning a fight a little too decisively, tried next, and he moved across the coals gingerly, methodically, breathing loudly through gritted teeth, but he made it all the way across. When he was done he got high fives from the other guys and said it was just a matter of “tuning things out.” But I could see when he pulled his socks and shoes on that his feet were hurting a bit. I did another pass then someone got a call on their cell phone about a party starting up, and everyone split, and it was just Maranda and me.

“Why didn’t you walk?” I asked her.

She just shrugged and bent to take off her shoes. “I’ll go now.”

Because I’d run out of leaves to burn, and maybe because there’d been a crowd, I’d added extra wood chips and the fire was hotter than ever before. Though Maranda walked it without getting hurt, she said she’d felt it a little, the heat on her skin, and told me to be careful when I said I was going to go one more time.

I stood at the edge of the fire, looked down at it, then up at the night sky, the branches of the empty trees swaying in the wind. I took in a deep breath and even with the fire before me, I could smell October in the air, I could feel the chill of autumn coming, and then I almost laughed at the ridiculousness of it: walking on fire in my backyard. It was as if it were the first time I realized what I was doing, as opposed to just being bent on doing it, and I felt glad, like something had been lifted off of me. I looked over at Maranda, she was looking at me, and I felt myself smile at her. I looked ahead then, took a few deep breaths, and stepped forward. I took two, three steps and felt nothing. I was even able to tell myself I was feeling nothing, and still keep on. I took another step, then another, into the middle of the fire, the hottest stretch of it, then I felt myself coming to a stop and I began counting: one … two … three … four …. While before when I’d walked the fire successfully I’d had no clear thoughts, had shut them off, just a blank mind, this time I was still aware of myself, with even a dim recognition of the fire hissing below me. But I felt no pain, felt nothing, and just stood motionless counting: … five … six … seven …. I got all the way up to ten then felt something—Maranda’s hand grabbing mine. Then I felt myself grabbing back. And then the pain came rushing to me, the feeling of my feet getting seared, as if the skin were being peeled off. I jumped sideways towards Maranda and we got twisted around each other and fell onto the edge of the fire, her shoulder dipping into the coals, the ends of her hair getting singed. She let out a little scream as we scrambled together onto the grass. And then we just lay there, wrapped around each other. I had my eyes closed, then opened them to see Maranda looking straight at me.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Hurts a little,” I said.

“Me too,” she told me. She was looking right at me, and I realized she was beautiful, even straight on like this.

“But this feels good,” I told her and pulled her closer to me.

She sighed and pressed her head into my neck and shoulder. “Me too,” she said. “I feel good.” And we stayed there a few more minutes until finally she put her mouth to my ear and said, “Let’s go to my house.”

“Okay,” I said, and we got up and picked up our shoes. My feet stung a bit, but it was bearable, and Maranda and I put our arms around each other and went through the evergreens towards her house. When she let out another sigh, I kissed the top of her head and pulled her closer to me. Maranda, I thought. Maranda. I didn’t want to stop thinking about her after all.

*         *        *

Steve Nelson - Photo

Steve Nelson lives and writes in Milwaukee and Chicago. He earned his PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and has had work published in The Rambler, Storyglossia, eye-rhyme, The Absinthe Literary Review, The Rathalla Review, and elsewhere. His essay “Mind Wide Open” is included in the anthology The Runner’s High: Illumination and Ecstasy in Motion, and “Night at the Store” was published in Phantasmagoria and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Writers Read: The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier

Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World is a historical fiction novel set between the 1750s and 1810s, encompassing the time frame of the Haitian revolution. Carpentier creates an alternative history to the popular narrative of Toussaint L’Ouverture. The story is narrated by Ti Noël, an uneducated slave of the French plantation owner, M. Lenormand de Mézy. He bears witness to shifts in power from the French slave masters and colonial government; to Macandal’s execution; to the slave revolt that forces de Mézy to flee with Ti Noël to Cuba; to the dictatorial King Henri Christophe and his forced labor; to the whips of the mulattoes that take control of the North afterwards, bringing the dark-skinned Haitians back into servitude. Varying degrees of racial hatred—between the French and Haitians, between whites and blacks, and to some extent, between lighter-skinned mulattoes and darker Creoles—lead to extreme violence: rape, dismemberment, and beheadings. Ti Noël lives through these later incarnations of suffering much like he did as a French slave. The novel is infused with the mysticism, voodoo, and music of the slave cultures brought from various parts of Africa (and embodied by characters like Macandal and Boukman). Creolization is hinted at throughout, especially when Ti Noël and de Mézy flee to Cuba, the African slaves spreading their culture and music throughout the Caribbean and beyond.

Voodoo, music, Macandal, Boukman, and animism: These systems of belief dynamically interface with the daily practices and culture of their believers. They exist.

The fable-like tale is rife with magical elements, which Carpentier refers to as lo real maravilloso, the marvelous real. The author is credited with the beginnings of Latin Magical Realism. Yet, Carpentier’s magical realism remains distinct from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s in that Carpentier never strays from the realm of the possible, focusing on the particular extremes of Latin America and native belief systems. In The Kingdom of This World, these elements are both magical and real, in the way that these African-bound ideologies exist simultaneously as magical and real to the resisting slaves. Voodoo, music, Macandal, Boukman, and animism: These systems of belief dynamically interface with the daily practices and culture of their believers. They exist. Macandal, a pre-revolutionary figure, becomes a voodoo folk hero and is burned at the stake by the French. Boukman is a voodoo priest. After Henri Christophe becomes king in the Cap Haitien, he builds his palace and citadel into the cliff face with bull’s blood and the labor of recently-freed blacks. Like Macandal does earlier in the novel, Ti Noël shape shifts into various animals, finding out with each form that he does not fit in, much like the problems he faced in Haiti as a poor black man, always on the losing side. He returns to his human form, and in a moment of clarity, realizes that he has squandered his life. While Macandal changes into animal forms to serve men, here, Ti Noël changes shape in order to hide from the violence and injustice. The various wars serve later causes, unbeknownst to those suffering through them. Ti Noël states:

Photo: Alejo Carpentier, author of "The Kingdom of This World."

Photo: Alejo Carpentier, author of “The Kingdom of This World.”

In the Kingdom of Heaven there is no grandeur to be won, inasmuch as there all is an established hierarchy, the unknown is revealed, existence is infinite, there is no possibility of sacrifice, all is rest and joy. For this reason, bowed down by suffering and duties, beautiful in the midst of his misery, capable of loving in the face of afflictions and trials, man finds his greatness, his fullest measure, only in the Kingdom of This World. (179)

In the end, Ti Noël disappears into a hurricane, which destroys the last remnants of the French plantation of M. de Mézy.

As an alternate history of the Haitian revolution, Carpentier leaves out Toussaint L’Ouverture, mentioning him only in a single line about a carpenter who builds a nativity scene for the slave masters. Much of the Haitian revolution occurs while Ti Noël and his master are in Cuba. A Cuban author and musicologist, Carpentier pays homage to the ripple effects of the Haitian revolution, namely the spread of African culture to Cuba and its huge influence on Cuban music. Slave music, as embodied by the drums of war and feared by the French as well as Henri Christophe, is a form of resistance. Similarly, this authorial decision also highlights Cuba’s own revolution and its failed ideologies. Carpentier differentiates between revolution and reaction—the former can be a means of progress while the latter reveals a cyclical and cynical pattern in history.

Carpentier, Alejo. The Kingdom of This World. Trans. Harriet de Onís. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1957.

Diana OdassoDiana Odasso is currently an MFA student at Antioch University Los Angeles and translation co-editor and blogger for Lunch Ticket. She has translated texts from French to English (published in Jim Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked), ghostwritten for an autobiography, and written blogs for the Huffington Post. An interview with author Susan Straight was published in Lunch Ticket in the 2015 winter issue. She lives in South Florida with her two young boys and Boston Terrier.