Word from the Editor

“Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old,” wrote Brian Doyle in “Joyas Voladoras.” His recent death left my heart weary, in this year, this season, this month that had already delivered so much sorrow. May 2017: we mourned for Richard Collins, and then for Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Rick Best, three men murdered by white supremacists—homegrown terrorists. We memorialized wordsmiths Doyle and Denis Johnson, each gone too soon from cancer. We grieved the events in Manchester and Kabul, and remembered so many—too many—who didn’t live all of their two billion heartbeats. Doyle’s passing at the end of a particularly brutal week left me in despair. I knew him only through his words. So I turned to my community of writers with his words resonant in me: “We all churn inside.”

Reading earlier “Words from the Editor” in our archives, I revisited our responses to contentious elections, to white supremacy and terrorism in our streets, in our churches, in our institutions of higher learning. We, the collective we of Lunch Ticket, have been here for five years and eleven issues shining light into as many dark corners as we can find. Our community of forty volunteer graduate students shares a commitment to social justice, a commitment to speaking up. We grieve but we write. And here we are again, publishing art and writing in a version of the United States of America that seemed impossible before the 2016 election illuminated the depths of our darkness. Through our pain in the dawn of this 2017 reality, we came together with language to resist the call of the post-truth sirens; to bring you this issue.

Within Lunch Ticket Issue 11: Summer/Fall 2017 are seventy-seven works we are honored to share with the world. This issue’s essay section confronts the myth of a post-racial America. Featured essayist Amber Wong revisits the question she posed in Issue 10: “Are We There Yet?” Spoiler alert: we’re not. In “The Heavy Bag,” she shares her feelings of isolation and visibility as “the only minority—in a sea of white” that is Seattle. In “Ambivalence,” young writer and activist Ty Kia writes of casual racism in the Midwest: “no amount of privilege will rescue you from the stereotypes your complexion conjures in others.” And Californian Caesar Kent writes of the “correlation between Mexican men and crime—or, at least, convictions that put callused brown hands to work” in his flash essay “Weekend Work Program.”

Many of the pieces in this issue explore questions of diversity. In our Lunch Special, Lunch Ticket staff blogger Angela Bullock discusses Negroland with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Margo Jefferson. Jefferson says, “One of the many barriers for black people has always been the imposition of simplification, stereotypes, assumptions, even definitions of what the best kind of black person is or what a real black person is.” In conversation with our creative nonfiction editor and blogger Meredith Arena, writer and teacher Geeta Kothari discusses “the other” in fiction. Newbery Medal-winning author Matt de la Peña, interviewed here by YA assistant editor and blogger Kim Sabin, describes a new diversity and the importance of young people seeing themselves on the page. And in our featured interview, author and translator Katrina Dodson speaks with Gabo Prize and translation editor Lauren Kinney, lamenting the necessity of defending literature’s usefulness in this divided world: “Obviously this is important for humanity, thinking about our own interior experiences and how they bump up against other people’s interior and exterior experiences, so I always feel tired out by the weak position of literature and always having to defend it in this capitalist society, or usefulness-driven society.”

Our narratives counter American myths. From our features come explorations of identity: in both “Arroz y Dulce,” fiction by Rebecca Komathy, and “Scented Brains,” YA fiction by Scarlet Jones, two young narrators face the challenges of biracial identities. In creative nonfiction, Sossity Chiricuzio’s memoir excerpt explores growing up poor and queer in the American West. Nancy Au’s flash fiction, “She Is a Battleground,” is about an old woman finding her voice. N’kenge Feagin writes with “powerful imagery” and “subtle humor” paired with “devastating self-awareness” in her Diana Woods Memorial Award-winning essay, “Dead Daddies and White Castles.” Gabo Prize-winning translator Anne Gutt brings “alive for us the strange and magical world” found in Ukrainian poet Ganna Shevchenko’s “Quotidian Blues.”

Within these pages are voices from around the world, from writers and artists of many colors and genders and ages—from many identities—from Nigeria to El Salvador to Iraq to India, from eerily dystopian to satirical to heartbreakingly real. Our translation pieces originate in French, Spanish, Italian, Urdu, Chinese, and Farsi. The voices are urgent: torrin a. greathouse searches “for porn with bodies like mine / that are not made fetish” in their poetry; Tiffane Levick’s translation excerpt of Emmanuel Adely’s powerhouse multi-POV novel looks unflinchingly at the never-ending war in Afghanistan: “making blood run to defend the free world that is why they are here why they are hot why they are sweating why they are tense why they are concentrating why they are preparing;” visual artist Mellissa Redman’s portfolio seeks “to make the hidden external, to depict how swallowed fears and anxieties would appear if made tangible and visible.”

At Lunch Ticket our mission includes a call to engage with issues of social, economic, and environmental justice. As we celebrate Issue 11 with you, we also prepare to launch Issue 12’s production team. We have re-committed ourselves to our mission, and will have some exciting projects to share with you soon. Our torch stays lit. When you read our journal please share in our passion—fresh literary and visual art balanced with conversations about social justice and community activism—by telling others about us.

“So much held in a heart in a lifetime,” Doyle writes. “So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment.” Take heart in your community and thank you for sharing in ours.

Katelyn Keating

Matt de la Peña, Author

Matt de la Peña During Antioch’s June 2016 residency, my mentor suggested I pick up a copy of Matt de la Peña’s Newbery Medal-winning picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, to explore the effective use of diversity in children’s literature. When I returned home to Arizona, I not only picked up a copy of de la Peña’s book, I became an immediate fan. Matt de la Peña’s gentle writing accomplishes what only the best children’s literature can—it taps into the collective sense of wonder that continues to exist just under the surface, long after we dare to grow up.

During the course of his highly acclaimed career, de la Peña has written six young adult novels: Ball Don’t Lie (2005), Mexican WhiteBoy (2008), We Were Here (2010), I Will Save You (2010), The Living (2013), and its sequel The Hunted (2015). His picture books include A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis (illustrated by Kadir Nelson, 2011), and Last Stop on Market Street (illustrated by Christian Robinson, 2015). Matt received his MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and his BA from the University of the Pacific, where he attended school on a full basketball scholarship. De la Peña currently lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and young daughter. He teaches creative writing and visits high schools and colleges throughout the country.

I had the good fortune of attending a lecture that de la Peña gave at Antioch’s December 2016 residency on exercising restraint when writing for young people. As he gave his presentation, it became quite apparent that de la Peña personifies the complex qualities of the diverse characters he writes about. He is an eloquent educator who thinks of himself as working-class. He is a quiet observer who speaks with a casual familiarity that makes you swear he lived just down the street where you grew up. He is at once a formidable ex-athlete and a gentle creative.

On an early March afternoon in 2017, I spoke with Matt de la Peña at his office at San Diego State University via Skype. We spent an hour discussing diversity, politics, craft, and daughters.

Kim Sabin: You have such an interesting personal background. Can we start with how you came to pursue your MFA and professional writing career?

Matt de la Peña: I went to undergrad at University of the Pacific on a basketball scholarship. I didn’t really see writing as any type of professional path, but I had really supportive professors in undergrad and I took a couple of creative writing classes. I ended up winning this school writing competition and it really was validating. I think my professors said, “Look… if you want to pursue writing, you could try to get an MFA.” I’d never heard of what that was, so they had to sit me down and tell me. Then I ended up leaving undergrad and working in a group home for a couple of years. My professors, without me knowing, had pulled together my work, and sent it out to a couple of MFA programs. They told me, “We did your manuscript, now you have to do the actual formal part, if you want to do this.” And so, I was like, “Sure!” So that’s how I ended up in an MFA program.

KS: You’ve labeled yourself as a “working-class writer”—both in regards to your family background and your approach to your daily writing practice. Can you share what you mean by this?

The way I look at it is—instead of working with cement, I’m working with words. But it’s the same kind of laborious, hard-worker, show-up-every-day kind of situation.

MDLP: There are some people who are just geniuses and they have incredible ideas and they wait for that moment of inspiration where it hits and they produce really quickly a really interesting quality of work. That’s a very small percentage of us, though. Most of us, if we are going to finish a piece, we have to sit down and do the hard work and clock in every day. It’s approaching writing not from inspiration, but more from the idea that it’s just like any other work. The way I look at it is—instead of working with cement, I’m working with words. But it’s the same kind of laborious, hard-worker, show-up-every-day kind of situation.

KS: I remember listening to another interview and you literally show up every day. You have an office you go to…

MDLP: I do. Right now, I’m actually sitting in an office at San Diego State because I’m teaching here a semester. But back home in Brooklyn, I have a writing studio and I have to go there every day.

KS: You didn’t self-identify as a “kidlit” author when you began your career. You studied straight fiction writing in your MFA program at San Diego State. Can you talk about how you fell into both the YA and children’s literature genre? How has your MFA background shaped your approach to children’s literature?

MDLP: That’s a good question. When I came out of my MFA program, children’s literature wasn’t as big of a thing as it is now. It wasn’t as commercially viable. These days, in the past two years in some cases, children’s literature is carrying the publisher, which has never happened before. I think we had Harry Potter, and then ultimately that led to Twilight and The Hunger Games. Those big-ticket, commercial ones opened up doors in the publishing industry and the industry started scooping up everything they could that had a young protagonist. My book got caught up in that wave—my first book. And then, if your first book does well, your publisher’s going to say, “Do that again, only different.” So, I found myself writing a second young adult novel. At that point YA was becoming a popular thing—not just the big commercial stuff, but even in a literary way. I started realizing that these were stories that were close to my heart. I love the coming-of-age stories. It ended up being a good fit.

The picture book part of the equation came later. It was my agent who talked me into it. He actually said, “There are parts of your first book that I’ve showed publishers and said, ‘Don’t you think that this language style could make for an interesting picture book?’ And a lot of them said, ‘If he has something… let’s do it!’” That led to my first picture book, which is about boxing, and then my second picture book. I feel like in both cases, I didn’t aim for children’s literature—YA or picture books—but it is, actually, a good fit.

KS: In an online interview with VOYA, you said, “I don’t believe in happy endings, but I do believe in hopeful endings.” Can you explain what you mean by that and how that applies to YA and children’s literature?

MDLP: Some people, when they think of kidlit, they think of some lesson or moral or “what’s the message?” of the book. That’s a bummer, because really good children’s literature doesn’t have a message so directly. When you’re starting to look for that happy ending, you’re also veering into the territory of the message—especially with YA. It’s very important to provide hope, but that’s just good storytelling. I don’t think it’s that different from adult fiction versus YA. In good storytelling there is an element of hope because that’s just the human existence. We look for hope. But the happy ending… It either feels too neat, and too aligned, or it feels too moral. Those are the things I try to duck. But for me, the hopeful ending, especially if it’s vaguely hopeful, it’s not fantastic… It’s really satisfying.

KS: Realistically hopeful?

MDLP: Exactly.

KS: You sit on the boards of both the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and We Need Diverse Books. Inclusion and diversity are hot topics in kidlit right now. Can you talk about why stories representing underrepresented demographics are so important in children’s literature?

MDLP: It’s very interesting. I meet so many young people who got caught up in a book or a series and they loved it at the time. Then they speak about it now and they realize, “Wow… I was really identifying with a story where I actually didn’t have a place within the story. I tried to shoehorn myself into it.” Now, we’re meeting people—young people—who are actually seeing themselves in books more. The biggest thing that I’m seeing, the way that I describe it is, it’s a whole other level when you actually identify with a main character who is an “other.” It’s really validating. You’re actually inside the book before you even read the story, and that’s important. I recently was at this school, and I’ve been asking kids, “Why is it important to see yourself in books?” This one kid, he didn’t say it eloquently, but I thought he said it the best. He said, “I love reading. I love reading stories that are fantastical. I love reading stories with wizards or fairies, but when I read a book with a character like me…” (He was a mixed kid) “…There’s just something extra for me.” There is that little something extra that needs to be spread around not just with mainstream readers but also with all readers.

KS: In 2012, your YA novel, Mexican WhiteBoy, was banned in Arizona. How did this come about? What did this experience mean to you and has it changed the way you approach your writing?

My book, Mexican WhiteBoy, was deemed “anti-white,” which is interesting because the main character is half-white. What happened is the kids were reading the Mexican WhiteBoy books and some people from the superintendent’s office came in and literally pulled the books out of the kids’ hands, put them in a box, and placed them in the basement.

MDLP: You write these books and you don’t really think about where they’re going to end up or what’s going to happen to them, and you work on the next one. Mexican WhiteBoy had been out for maybe a couple of years and little did I know there was this program in Arizona, Tucson specifically, called the “Mexican-American Studies” program—the MAS program. A group of educators said, “We have a struggling student body and it’s predominantly Mexican-American. Eighty-five percent. What if we, for extra motivation, had a curriculum that was focused on teaching books that featured characters that looked like them? History about their lives? Written by people whose last names they would identify with?” It was a really successful program.

One of the books in this curriculum was Mexican WhiteBoy. It got caught up in the political situation that was happening there. I think somebody in the program said, “Republicans hate Mexicans.” Which isn’t true, but it started this whole thing. The school board said, “Okay, there’s obviously something wrong in this program.” My book, Mexican WhiteBoy, was deemed “anti-white,” which is interesting because the main character is half-white. What happened is the kids were reading the Mexican WhiteBoy books and some people from the superintendent’s office came in and literally pulled the books out of the kids’ hands, put them in a box, and placed them in the basement. They were illegal to read in that school district. It was a huge bummer and it’s still in the courts, actually… seven years later. It was one of those weird experiences where you go, “Oh my gosh. The book when I finished it is no longer mine.” It’s used by different people for different purposes. One group was using it to inspire kids that looked like the main character or felt like the characters in the book. Then another group came along and used it as a political tool in the opposite way.

KS: It’s almost like you release it to the world and it becomes what someone needs it—or wants it—to become.

MDLP: That’s why when some writers try to take too much control over views or stuff like that, you’re not seeing it correctly. The truth is… It’s no longer yours. It’s actually an incredible honor to have your book used in these other ways. It means you made something that is a tool for others.

KS: You won the 2016 Newbery Medal for your picture book, Last Stop on Market Street. In your acceptance speech, you praised librarians and said, “In a time when some people want to build walls, you give young people the tools to tear them down.” Within the industry, librarians and teachers are referred to as “the gatekeepers.” What responsibility do these gatekeepers have within our new political climate in the United States? And do you think it is the role of children’s literature writers to plant the seeds of social justice within their young readers?

MDLP: That’s a good question. I’ve seen so many writers, myself included, who are starting to think, “What does it mean?” With what’s going on politically now and how we’re seeing a nationalistic view of the country and this ideology that’s like, “We need to keep ourselves safe and everybody else out.” A lot of people want to react directly against that. And again, this is where you start to enter into the pitfall, I should say. I read this article in the Wall Street Journal, I think it was, by [Haruki] Murakami, a novelist, and he said, “If your dog dies, and you want to write a story about your dog dying, there should be no dogs in the story.” That’s what we have to do. It’s there, but it’s super-subversive. Because if you hit it too head-on—I’d equate it to putting pop culture in your book—it time-stamps it. If you have Pepsi in your book, then, “That’s today.” You know what I mean? You have to find a way to do something universal but that is subversively providing another way of looking at the world. It’s funny because I just finished a picture book that’s coming out this fall. It’s called Love and it’s a reaction to all of this stuff. But there’s no politics in this book. It’s subversively about what’s happening, but if you read it thirty years from now, you could never actually locate where I was coming from.

KS: One of the bonuses of writing for young people has got to be school visits. I’d imagine that immediacy of interacting with young readers must be fulfilling. Can you talk about that experience?

MDLP: The bummer is you have to do them a lot. Sometimes, you find yourself doing too many of them and it’s really hard to keep up on your work—your writing—when you’re out in the schools. I’ve been trying to limit them, because if I limit them, they’re more powerful for me. My favorite thing is meeting readers who, seriously, don’t know what a Newbery is… They don’t care. And it’s just cool to get their authentic interaction about a book and a story and a character. I’ve been doing high school visits for years and years, but I’ve been doing more elementary school visits… and they are fascinating. Just the kids you meet and the things they say—they’re so authentic.

KS: Your picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, tells the story of young C.J. and his grandmother, Nana, taking a bus ride through their urban community. While C.J. laments for all of the things he wishes he had in his life, Nana gently reminds them of their good fortune. Why do you think this particular story struck such a nerve at this moment in American culture?

MDLP: Again, I have to be very honest here. If this book came out six years ago, it would’ve been a very small book, very quiet. Some people would have loved it and other people would’ve never heard of it. We were fortunate to get on Morning Edition on NPR and that introduced the book to a lot of new people. And then, of course, it wins an award and that’s ensures that it’s going to be introduced to many more readers and it’s going to be in every school.

There’s a new thing happening and it’s my personal approach to writing diversity right now, which is I’m trying to write characters that are diverse—which I always have been doing—but putting them in stories that have nothing, at least overtly, to do with diversity. This is the new diversity.

So, what about this book at this moment? There’s a new thing happening and it’s my personal approach to writing diversity right now, which is I’m trying to write characters that are diverse—which I always have been doing—but putting them in stories that have nothing, at least overtly, to do with diversity. This is the new diversity. It’s where it exists in the story, the main character is a non-traditional protagonist, but it’s not about that. It’s about something else. In this case, it’s about gratitude, but also subversively, it’s about seeing yourself as beautiful. It’s also timely, because there was this reaction that not enough books with diverse characters were getting recognition and so some committees, if you want to be honest, were like, “You know what? We’re going to do this. This is this story’s time.” You like to think that your book is just an incredible work and it’s rewarded for that. But it’s not just that. Every award selection is a political act. Again, my book was caught up in a political act and it’s something I have to acknowledge. Of course, it’s one of those things where it was good enough to be put in the place as a tool for this committee. You see what I’m saying?

KS: Christian Robinson was the illustrator for Last Stop on Market Street. My daughter is a senior in high school, but I can’t remember seeing a tattooed character in any of the children’s books we read together. This small detail felt groundbreaking to me. Was this something you and Christian discussed? Can you talk about what the collaborative process between the writer and illustrator on children’s books looks like?

MDLP: This is a very non-traditional relationship we have. Usually, the author and the illustrator are kept apart until the book comes out. The reason why they do that, of course, is to make sure the writer doesn’t take too much ownership of the story. Because in the best picture books, the illustrator actually is telling a slightly different story, in and out of the text. You know, those are the best illustrators. But, we have the same agent and we met before I was even done with the text. It was sold with Christian attached. We talked a few times. We switched a couple of things. One of the things he really wanted in the text after he read the initial draft… He said, “I would love to have an animal somewhere.” That was interesting, because it led me to think about the blind man with the dog, which kind of is one of my favorite parts of the book. So, that was one switch we did.

We also talked about this idea of just having diverse characters in a story that isn’t about diversity. I said, “Anything you can do visually to support that idea, you know, go for it.” We didn’t talk directly about the tattooed guy, but when I saw him, I was like, “Man, that’s it!” He found it. Originally, when I wrote the text, it was a Mexican kid. But I met his grandmother, who raised him, [as] I found out, and I thought, “I’ve got to use my resources here.” So I switched the characters to black and this led to, to me, one of the most important things, which is they’re sitting in the front of the bus… That’s an incredibly important moment in the book. Nobody ever talks about it, but it’s a callback to the Civil Rights movement. It’s weird how those little magical things made the book better than if we were kept apart.

KS: In an interview with YALSA you said, “I love the strange mix of innocence and sophistication in great picture books.” You’ve already discussed how you transitioned from writing YA novels to writing picture books. Do you use similar craft techniques when approaching both categories?

When I write a picture book, I look at it as a spoken-word poem.

MDLP: When I write a picture book, I look at it as a spoken-word poem. Before I ever wrote fiction, I used to write spoken-word poetry. It was so much based on rhythms and music. Before I even knew how to craft a story, I was doing that. So when I write a picture book, it’s about music—getting the story right, and then getting the music right. The biggest thing is making it all feel authentic. You have two audiences when you write a picture book. You have the adults and you have the child. You’re nodding to both, but erring on the side of the young person. It’s an interesting balancing act. Now, I’m not good at writing goofy. There’s some really great, amazing books that are silly and goofy that kids love. My daughter loves them. But I like to write picture books with weight and sadness. Those are my favorite picture books to read to my daughter and they are my favorite stuff to try to write. But I will tell you, she’s more likely at her age—she’s two-and-a-half—to reach for silly. But occasionally, she’s ready for the weighty book and we get into great discussions. I’d rather my book be pulled once a week as opposed to twice a night for that substantive conversation.

KS: What’s your favorite genre to read? What are you currently reading?

MDLP: I love gritty, sad, adult, literary fiction. I just read Underground Railroad [Colson Whitehead], which I thought was fantastic. My momentum is carrying me toward a lot of nonfiction, but a lot of social justice stuff. I just read Just Mercy [Bryan Stevenson], and Evicted [Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond], about the social justice system, which is even more important now. Cormac McCarthy is my favorite writer in the world and he’s super-dark and he writes these incredible, hacked sentences. I love Junot Diaz. I love the way he marries Spanish—and not always the language of Spanish—but just Spanish is in his sentences, even when they’re in English. It’s a slightly different rhythm to his sentences and he has a kind of street-sensibility. I love that. I read this book called Lab Girl recently [Hope Jahren], which is about a female scientist. By the way, I’m reading a lot of feminist stuff right now, because I have a daughter… I’d like to see the world through her eyes, you know? In terms of young people literature, I love Christopher Paul Curtis, who wrote Bud, Not Buddy. I love Markus Zusak, who wrote The Book Thief. I like realistic stuff. I struggle with fantasy. Not because I don’t appreciate it, but because the real world is so fascinating… I want to stay there.

KS: Can you share any projects that you’re currently working on?

MDLP: I have Love coming out in the fall. I did a picture book with Pixar for a movie that they have coming out called CoCo. That’s coming out in the fall. CoCo is about the Day of the Dead. It’s a Mexican kid who plays the guitar. I’m super-excited about that, because I’ve never done a tie-in and it was really cool because they gave me complete freedom to go away from the story with the main character. I got to see the movie already, so that was amazing. I also have a book called Carmela Full of Wishes, which is a picture book that will come out maybe January of next year. And then I have my YA… I have two projects. I have one called One of Those Likes Used to Love Me, which is an older YA. A nineteen-year-old character right about to go to college, super working-class kid—mixed-race. I’m also doing Superman, which is a pretty crazy project where four authors are doing superheroes—you know, DC [Comics] superheroes. Wonder Woman is coming out first, and then Batman, and Catwoman, and then I’m doing Superman. That will come out, I think, late 2018.

KS: Wow! And you’re teaching and you have a two-and-a-half year-old…

MDLP: That’s why I’m a year late on my YA.

KS: Matt de la Peña, thank you for your time.

MDLP: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

 

Kim Sabin studies writing for young people in the MFA Creative Writing program at Antioch University Los Angeles. When she isn’t driving across the desert to study craft, she lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with her husband and daughter. Kim is currently working on her first YA novel and blogs for Lunch Ticket. You can find her on Twitter @kimswrites.

Natashia Deón, Author

Natashia DeónNatashia Deón is a 2017 NAACP Image Award Nominee. The New York Times and Kirkus Review named Deón’s critically acclaimed debut novel, Grace, a Best Book of 2016. She is a practicing attorney and law professor, and creator of the popular LA-based reading series, Dirty Laundry Lit. Her works have appeared in American Short FictionBuzzfeed, LA Review of BooksThe Rumpus, and other places. Deón is the recipient of a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship.

I first met Natashia Deón when she was the guest fiction writer at Antioch’s December 2016 MFA residency. In addition to presenting a seminar, she gave a reading from Grace. On March 14, 2017, I interviewed Deón by telephone.

Judy Gitterman:  In your daily work, you’re an attorney working on post-conviction appeals. This work likely involves representing defendants convicted of violent crimes, such as murder, rape, or child molestation. Do your experiences as an attorney inform your writing?

Natashia Deón: Absolutely, all the time. They say that as writers, as you know from your program, everything affects you, especially politics. It’s part of the stories that I tell. In Grace, the novel, there are a lot of things like justice and mercy, forgiveness and issues that I have to deal with in the courtroom, so it is part of the story that I choose to tell. How do we forgive somebody who does something like that, like molestation, or murder? Are there degrees of it? For example, what’s not forgivable?

JG: Because you write about these topics—mercy and justice—how does that affect your representation, for instance, when the defendant has confessed to the crime?

ND: Recently, I had a case that actually affected me that way. During the time when the woman who was raped recently—the big case where she was behind a dumpster, passed out drunk, and this guy raped her—he was on the swim team at Stanford. He was given [a sentence of] something like six months, something completely obnoxious. She wrote a beautiful letter, a victim’s statement of how it affected her and how she didn’t deserve that. Just as that was happening—when there was so much response and so much heartache over this case—I [was defending] the case of a man who had done a similar thing with a girl who was fifteen years old. The sentence he got was less than a real battery; it was the lowest possible conviction you could get for what he had done to her. I believed everything he [had] said. He said, “I just touched her accidentally. I shouldn’t have done it.” That’s why the sentence was so low.

But then I didn’t actually get the victim’s statement until I was there, on the courthouse steps, about to go into the courtroom, and it talked about how he had raped her. It was so real it was just like reading the story about what happened to the woman who was raped behind the dumpster. That made it hard to go into the courtroom that day to defend him and to ask the court to forgive him for what he had done. I wrote about that experience in an essay. It affected me in both ways, as a writer and in defending this person. I defended him, but I couldn’t even look at him after that day. I was totally changed.

JG: Who are some of your literary influences?

ND: I have so many. Toni Morrison, Walter Mosley, contemporary poets—I’m in love with Chiwan Choi’s book I’m reading, The Yellow House—Alice Walker. I love Dr. Seuss. I think everything I read influences me—they touch me, in a way. They influence the kind of writing that I do. The Bible. There’s so many. Roxanne Gay, I love.

JG: Did any influence the novel, Grace, more than others?

Before I thought [voice] had to be so literary, especially the story that I wanted to tell. I thought that literary meant a certain highbrow.

ND: Sapphire’s Push. Because it was the first time I read a book where I felt I had permission to use the voice that I use in Grace. Before I thought it had to be so literary, especially the story that I wanted to tell. I thought that literary meant a certain highbrow. But the voice I was hearing for Grace wasn’t that way. It had a lot of dialect—simple but intelligent. When I read Sapphire’s Push, it was the first time I knew that I could use the voice I’d heard to tell the story that I felt I was supposed to tell.

JG: You’ve mentioned that you worked on Grace for seven years and it was originally written as a screenplay. Can you talk about how you began writing Grace and how the work developed into a novel?

ND: I’d never written a novel before Grace. I’ve written stories. All my life, I’ve always told stories. My sister and I used to always sleep in the same room. She was four years younger than I, and I always told her stories. I told the same stories the same way because she would demand it, even though they were totally made-up. I’ve always written. I’d written screenplays. And then, I was walking down the hallway and I had this vision of this woman and she was running. She had blood on her dress and it was a yellow dress. I remember thinking that she was a slave and knowing that she was a slave. I knew it was Alabama, and it was in a town where I used to visit until the time I was about eighteen years old every summer.

My family is from a small town called Tallassee, Alabama, and I knew it was there. I recognized the place, and that vision became the opening of the novel. But when it first came, I’d never written a novel; I’d only written screenplays. I wrote it down but I didn’t know what to do with it for a long time. I just had the opening. It was only two pages and it’s largely unchanged. It’s still chapter one of the novel.

I started taking classes. I wrote it first as a screenplay. It took maybe three months, six months, to write the screenplay. Then, when it was being optioned, I was invited to a meeting, and I remember sitting there listening to all the talk about the screenplay: how it should develop, who should play what. I said, no that’s not how it goes, that’s not the story. I should have never been there in the first place, but I think I was there for a reason, in hindsight. I had to tell the story.

The first thing I did, I enrolled in UCLA extension. I had this idea but I didn’t know what to do with it. At first, I thought I could copy and paste it from my screenplay and put it in a Word document and it’s a novel. It was horrible, as you can imagine. I started taking classes and I started at page one. The only thing that survived totally was the opening, the vision that I had.

JG: Your mention of Tallassee leads to my next question. Grace is a work of historical fiction and it takes place in Alabama and Georgia. You said you visited that area up until you were eighteen. Did you go back while you were writing the book?

ND: No. I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to remember it the way I did in my childhood. I’ve found that going back to old places, like going back to the old place [where] I grew up in Los Angeles, it doesn’t look anything like I remember it. In our memory, we create our own version of what that reality is. The house looks much smaller. Of course, I was younger when I was there and the neighborhood looks different. I wanted to remember [Tallassee] the way that it was in my memories, the way that it was in that vision. I didn’t feel the need to go back, but I did look on Google Earth just to remember. But then I didn’t want to; I felt I was losing something by even looking. I have to go back this August for our family reunion and I don’t want to go back. All I remember is how green everything looked, just green. Those memories are going to be altered a little when I go back.

JG: Your writing meets head-on the brutality and violence that blacks, slaves, and women endured before, during, and after the Civil War. How did you approach writing these graphic and violent scenes?

Most of the violence that is in those pages are actually from real-life situations, especially the rape. … I wanted to present the crimes of rage that actually change people’s personality and their ability to see the world or trust the world.

ND: I was honest with the violence. I wanted be honest and I had to make a decision. I’m a graphic writer anyway. I couldn’t imagine that kind of violence in my own mind. But there’s some cases that I’ve had recently—2013, 2014 or 2015. There was a point in my career where I said, I can’t do this work anymore because I can’t read these stories, hear this testimony. Because I was representing victims. Most of the violence that is in those pages are actually from real-life situations, especially the rape. A lot was cut out by my editor. I think it haunted me. I wanted to present the crimes of rage that actually change people’s personality and their ability to see the world or trust the world. You could see how it happens and I wanted to show readers that there are some things that you just can’t un-see.

I had a victim I represented. The rape was so brutal and she ended up coming to a clinic that I worked at as an attorney. It literally ripped her as if she’d had a baby—one end to the other, so she had one orifice there. She was raped over several hours by multiple people. When you see that kind of devastation, you ask how does somebody get up, put on their clothes, and walk and go to work or go to school. It’s just devastating. So, it’s not violence from a time gone—this is what’s happening today. Women today. I had a second-grade teacher just a few months ago, end of 2016. A similar case involving her boyfriend. Forty-years-old. We still have these things that happen. We think that’s somewhere else, some other time, but it’s right here. I couldn’t imagine that for anyone.

There’s a line in Grace where one of the characters in the book, a child molester, tells a little girl, “You can touch you anywhere you want.” That was a line from testimony, a case that I had in 2014. So, all that stuff, the violence, is very real.

Women have to deal with it all the time. A lot of this is covered up. These victims are often mothers who are dealing with all this stuff and it’s hard to be good mothers. They’re trying to raise children, and there’s no safe place. It was especially bad for people from older generations who had to endure a lot of things through time. Now there’s more help. Where did you go back then? When there’s no help, no therapist, no one you can talk to that can say, Yeah, that happened to me too. It was such a prison.

JG: There are two stories in Grace—Naomi’s own story (told as flashbacks) and the story Naomi tells as a ghost following the life of her daughter Josie, who is born the day Naomi dies. The chapters alternate between these two threads and stay in Naomi’s point of view. Did you write one story before the other, and how did you settle on the structure of the interwoven narratives?

ND: Initially, when I wrote the story, it was in chronological order. It was the mom’s life, she dies, and then Josie continues. But it didn’t fit well. It didn’t work well for me because I wanted to show the cyclical nature of abuse and how we’ve come to where we are and that we’re still in the cycle.

When I wrote Grace, which was before the election of Trump, people were saying, “Why are we still telling these slave narratives?” And I tell them it’s because we’re still in it. There’s still people angry, who think that something wrong happened. People who think the Civil War—they think everything was wrong. They’re still angry and they still want these things, and we’re still in it and we don’t even realize that we’re in it. We haven’t told this story—exposed this thing. And now we’re seeing it so much, this hate and this anger that never went away. We haven’t healed.

We’ve grown a scab over the wound [of slavery] but it’s all infected. There’s pus underneath it. On top it looks like it’s healing and it’s fine until you take the stitches out and it oozes a little bit…

We’ve grown a scab over the wound but it’s all infected. There’s pus underneath it. On top it looks like it’s healing and it’s fine until you take the stitches out and it oozes a little bit; the pus oozes out, and it’s like, oh, it’s still not healed underneath that skin.

To me, that’s what we’re seeing right now in society. But when I wrote the story, I wanted to show the cyclical nature, that we’re still in this. We haven’t fixed a lot of problems and the problems that we have just passed down from generation to generation.

The reason I chose the flashbacks for the mom is because I’ve always generally been fascinated with people who have near-death experiences. They say, “My life flashed in front of my eyes,” and then they tell the story. And I wonder (and that’s something I put in the book): who chooses what we get to see in our lives? What impression, what moment: being at a wedding, seeing our child being born, meeting the love of our life. Whatever that is, who shows us that? What in our brain, what chemical reaction made us save that one, made us say, “Let’s bookmark this.” Do we do that or does something else? Does the universe do that?

I wanted to use that as a structure to go back in time to show how the narrator came to her moment, but also to show the cyclical nature of Josie going forward. How we’re still in this cycle until we choose to break it. Like any cycle of abuse, you have to choose to walk away. Or choose to deal with it head-on and move away from it. But when we pretend like it’s not there, we end up staying in it. We go from one abusive relationship to another one to another one with a different-looking person but it’s still the same kind of abuse in a different way.

For America, I think that was the theme that I wanted to talk about. How do we look at this thing head-on and choose to do something different? We’re doing that now with the election of Trump. So we’re looking at this thing. Problems that have never resolved and seeing that we’ve only been forming new abusive relationships instead of fixing the problem.

JG:  At a seminar during Antioch’s December 2016 MFA residency, you mentioned that at one point your editors wanted you to eliminate the spirituality part, which would have resulted in taking out half the book. Can you tell us how you dealt with that request and about your final decision to stick to your original intention?

ND:  I knew that my editor knew what he was talking about. Because I’d gone through the MFA program and had dealt with so much criticism, I had to trust that he knew what he was talking about and that it wasn’t working, but I also had to make the decision that I wanted it to work and that I was going to have to earn it. So, I needed to do better. Sometimes people can be right but only you the writer know how to fix your own work. They can only offer you suggestions. That’s one part. It’s earning it. And then the second part is knowing why you’re going to make the change. If I don’t understand or agree with the reason for changing something, I won’t change it. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever change it. It means that either I need to grow as a writer and come to that or just not do it. So, usually I don’t make changes until I can understand why and justify them in my own mind. It doesn’t matter if they’re right or not because at the end of the day, the book on the shelf is your book with your name on it, and it’s your decision. If you don’t understand a comment then don’t do anything, because eventually, down the road, as you grow as a writer, you come to that [realization] if they’re right. It’ll happen anyway.

JG: That’s what happened with Grace?

ND:  By changing other things that weren’t even related to the spirituality, in the sense that certain things had to change that informed each other. There’s a scene between two of the characters—a love scene between two of the women characters. My editor said, “No, you can’t have that”—but the reason he gave didn’t matter to me. I don’t care what people will think about it. Those things didn’t matter to me. What mattered was that I wanted to show this loving relationship and then the type of relationship that it was, but as I began to write, I didn’t need that scene. He said it didn’t work [for] reasons that I didn’t agree with, but it turned out it didn’t work for a whole different reason. It didn’t need to be there. I didn’t want it to be gratuitous. There’s so much violence, there’s sex in the book already, and I didn’t want to water down the loving relationship. He was right that it didn’t need to be there, but for different reasons.

As I changed that part of the story—they’re not going to have sex here—it was the butterfly effect. You can take out something else because you don’t need this conversation, you don’t need this. Because everything serves the story to get you to this point and then it starts changing.

The spirituality part, surprisingly, it’s working out. Everything changes each part that’s connected to it. It changes. I started to understand different things about the story and once I cut one chapter, I understood the spirituality thing better. I was telling [Naomi’s] abilities in the beginning. That was one thing that happened. Telling how she was moving. Once I took that out I realized that it didn’t matter, and there was a way I could make it part of the action. People could learn things without me telling them things, without me telling them the rules. It just changed the whole flow of the novel.

So, she still does the same thing. But I don’t have to tell the reader, here’s the rules, now remember these rules, now let’s apply them. So many stories tell you the rules. Those were the films that I was watching. For example, “This is your scepter and it does this.” Instead, she just did it through action. You see her passing through things; you see her doing things.

JG: Speaking of sex scenes, you also mentioned that your pastor asked to see the manuscript and that you were quite nervous about it, especially the sex scenes. What was his reaction, and was it what you expected?

ND: No, it wasn’t what I expected. I didn’t show it to him before it came out. I showed it to him after the book was already in imprint and going out. I didn’t want any regrets or anything to make me feel bad about it. But he read it, and he said, “I read the whole thing.”  (Nobody ever asks me about the sex scenes [laughing]. Of all the interviews I’ve done, no one says anything. This is the first time.) I said, “So you read the sex scenes?” He said, “I read the whole thing.”  I said, “Okay.” And I just left it at that. That was that.

JG: Early on in Grace, there’s a place where Naomi says that justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is not getting the bad you deserve and grace is getting a good thing even when you don’t deserve it. Naomi says she would have named her daughter Grace had she had the opportunity to name her. Can you elaborate on how this theme plays out in the story?

Social justice isn’t so much standing to defend as it is about understanding what the other side is saying, coming to some middle point. In order to stand, you have to be a bridge in society. That’s what social justice is. Standing up for yourself and being a bridge.

ND:  First of all, Naomi gets to be with her daughter even after she’s passed away. She gets to be there for her, in her life. Which is getting something more than she thought she deserved. She’d killed somebody, not the person she’d been accused of killing, but she had killed somebody. But even though she’s dead and she’s supposed to move on, she doesn’t. She gets this time, these years, to spend with her daughter when she’s alive, though she’s not able to touch her, not until the end when she gets to touch her grandchild. To me, all of that is grace—getting something more than she thought she deserved. Also, sometimes people deserve justice and that’s also what happens in the ending. To me, it was a merger of all these things: mercy, grace, and justice at the end of the book, where they all come together.

That line that you’re reading is the last thing I wrote in the whole novel. I had no idea that that’s what I was writing about until it was over. I got a fellowship to go to Belgium, and I was sitting there and I was supposed to be there for ten days writing, and my editor already had Grace. We were beginning to do the edits. I was sitting there and I was supposed to be writing and editing—and I only wrote that one line, and that was it for the whole ten days.

JG: What advice would you have for young writers today who want to write about social justice for African-Americans and women in our society?

ND: I would tell them first of all to read, to live, to travel. To travel even if it is to the town next-door. Even if you can’t afford Belgium or something like that, or you don’t get a fellowship and you can’t go to New York or Boston. Travel to the next city over and just sit in a café and listen to people. Go places where people don’t agree with you. To understand.

You don’t want to preach to the choir. You want to preach to change hearts, to change minds. Social justice isn’t so much standing to defend as it is about understanding what the other side is saying, coming to some middle point. In order to stand, you have to be a bridge in society. That’s what social justice is. Standing up for yourself and being a bridge. Right now, we live in a society so divided, one against the other. I guarantee you even people who are on my side, we call it the Christian left or just the left, the social justice side, there are people even on my side, who if they get in power their plan is to crush the other side. Now you have exactly what’s happening to us that’s going to happen to the other side. It goes back and forth. I believe in a different America, where we can live respectfully with each other. We have to listen to each other, at some point be a bridge, but still stand up against injustices. That’s social justice. Defending, standing, and also being a bridge so we can have a better America instead of becoming the bullies we hate or being bullied. It’s another option.

JG: What are you working on now?

ND:  I have a new novel right now. I’m really excited about it. It’s a historical novel, and has a supernatural element. I’m excited because I haven’t actually gotten too far into it—everything is a possibility when you start. It’s exciting to be beyond the blank page, the frightening blank page. I know how it goes and I’m so excited. You know, once you start writing it can be like, I suck, I’m horrible, this is the worst story ever written. But right now, I’m on the high and am thinking, This is great!

JG: What time period does it take place in?

ND: So far, I think the early 1900s. But I don’t want to say too much—I don’t want to jinx it!

 

Judy Gitterman Judy Gitterman is a writer who lives in Santa Monica, California. She is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles and a practicing attorney. She has served as co-lead fiction editor of Lunch Ticket, and is currently its assistant editor for writing for young people/YA.

Weekend Work Program

We cannot tell these Sunday drivers that we have already faced judgment, that we’ve pled no contest to our sins, that we are only lesser criminals, serving a softer version of hard time. Their looks could never be as harsh as handcuffs and a hangover on the hard benches of a holding cell. We are only faces in the windows of a silver sheriff’s bus, and they cannot see the bright orange vests, the sign of a sentence that reduces a man of words to three letters: WWP. Because words have no place here, I turn to numbers, breaking down hours into fractions and percentages on a cheap wristwatch; I am 15% through this day’s hardship, with 6.8 hours until freedom. The Spanish volleyed up and down the aisle is a reiteration of the correlation between Mexican men and crime—or, at least, convictions that put callused brown hands to work. We can tell from the scarcity of darker bodies that things could be worse, that there are preselected alternatives for those whose complexions stray too far from the color palette of tortillas or skin that scorches to the color of mild salsa—like the man in front of me who complains loudly, needing a cigarette. I’m sharing a seat with a middle-aged man with whom I’ve formed a meek fraternity, a silent friendship of smiles and nods as we shirk gathering garbage in the shade beside buildings and under bleachers at the fairgrounds until we are scrambled by a crotchety woman on a Gator who alternates between offering idle threats and cold water. At lunch, I am 50% through this day’s hardship, with four hours until freedom. Some of our colleagues gather and distribute dingy cigarette stubs they found in the dirt, light them with smuggled matches; the red-faced man from the bus is one of them. On the ride back, his fingers drum on his bouncing knee, and he grabs his head, breathing deeply. He notices my watch and asks the time: we are forty minutes from freedom, 90% through this day’s hardship. The freeway’s passenger-side jury cannot see our orange vests, but until next Sunday, at least I can take mine off.

 

Caesar is a semi-nomadic California wordsmith living around the Bay Area and dividing his time between open mic stages, dive bars, and clouds. He writes from the frontier between flash narrative and spoken-word poetry. His work has been described as “exquisite,” “pretty good,” and “zip zap.”

Photo by Jorge Sanchez

Katrina Dodson, Author & Translator

Katrina DodsonIn 2015, I bought Katrina Dodson’s translation of The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector, even though I didn’t really know who Lispector was at the time. There was a buzz around this book. Every time I’d go in to Skylight Books (in Los Angeles), I’d see it on the bestseller shelf, and there was something about her eyes, which stared out from the book cover.

I read the collection in its entirety during a semester in my MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, in which I was concentrating on literary translation. It was harrowing, but I couldn’t stop. I’d read in public and then shut the book and stare at passersby, forlorn, like a ghost. I’d snap at people for no reason (embarrassing but true)—I learned I had to give myself time to adjust after reading Lispector, before entering the world of people. I wrote a critical paper about animals and identity in Lispector’s short fiction, but I couldn’t explain why she got under my skin, and still can’t, really.

Without Katrina Dodson, Clarice Lispector never could have gotten under my skin. Among other awards, Dodson won the 2016 PEN Translation Prize for her translation of The Complete Stories. Alongside the rest of the New Directions series of new Lispector translations, Dodson’s translation of these stories helped extend Lispector’s appeal beyond those who were interested in Brazilian literature, or Latin American works in translation. I met Dodson at the 2016 Conference of the American Literary Translators Association, where I heard her give talks in panels about the etiquette of sharing authors with fellow translators, and on translation as performance, where she talked about how absorbing herself in the distinctive work of an author as revered as Lispector sometimes felt like she was channeling “Clarice” (first name only, as she is known in Brazil).

In February 2017, I got the chance to talk to Dodson via Skype about Clarice Lispector, the book that kicked off her career in literary translation, and the life of a translator.

Lauren Kinney: How did you get started translating? Did you translate before you were in graduate school, and how did your academic studies shape your translation practice?

Katrina Dodson: My first experience with translating was taking Latin class as part of my PhD requirement in comparative literature [at University of California Berkeley]. You have to take a classical language. I’ve always been interested in languages, but with Latin, because it’s a dead language, most of what you do is translate the classics of Latin literature, so, speeches by Cicero, poetry by Catullus. I really enjoyed it, and I think, at that moment, I still hadn’t thought about it as opening up this line of translation. The first time I translated something closer to my literary interests was actually Clarice Lispector.

Coming through a comparative literature department, you’re always in dialogue with people who don’t speak the same languages that you do. In different seminars, when I had a professor who didn’t speak Portuguese, I would have to find a translation of the work that I was writing on. And so, it was a mix of being dissatisfied with some of the Clarice Lispector translations of stories I was reading and writing about, and then also just an attempt to understand her stories better. “The Egg and the Chicken” is one of my favorite stories, and I think it’s one of her most puzzling stories. I translated that, and I translated another short story called “Temptation,” about a red-haired girl that has this encounter with a red-haired dog. Those were just in notebooks. It wasn’t until I met a friend-of-a-friend who was a literary agent that I started thinking about translation more. He asked me to be a scout for books that were written in Portuguese by authors who would be interesting to translate into English.

Shortly after I met him, I went to Brazil that summer for research, and I went to a major literary festival in Paraty. It’s called FLIP, the Festa Literária Internacional Paraty. I went to a panel, and I heard two young authors, Emilio Fraia and Vanessa Barbara, read from their [collaborative] novel and talk about it. I just felt this shared humor and sensibility and thought, “Hey, you know, I’m doing this scouting for this person, but what if I also try to translate something myself.” I introduced myself to them, and that became the first thing that I translated for publication: the novel that they wrote together. That was in Two Lines. Do you know Two Lines?

LK: The press?

KD: Yeah, it’s the Center for the Art of Translation, and they have a yearly anthology of literature in translation. I actually sent the sample to McSweeney’s. They weren’t interested, but they sent it off to the editors of Two Lines, because we’re all in San Francisco. You start close to home with people you know. But Two Lines accepted that excerpt, and that got me started. Those two authors independently got their stories accepted into the Brazilian Granta, so when the English Granta decided to translate the Best of Young Brazilian Novelists issue (Granta 121), they asked me to translate the selections from those two authors, because they knew I had a relationship with them. That’s how it all started—it’s one thing that leads to another. Then I met Benjamin Moser while he happened to be in Rio. I was there on a Fulbright, and I had been interested in translating some Clarice Lispector, but some smaller, less-known pieces, like crônicas, for a small press. I didn’t know anything about rights at the time. We talked, and he liked me. Almost a year and a half later, he invited me to do The Complete Stories. That was after my work in Granta had come out, and we had a correspondence, so he had a sense of how I worked, and what our dynamic was together.

Short answer is: by accident.

LK: What is the difference between translating short and longer fiction?

Clarice Lispector has a very coherent voice. It’s a very strong voice. … But over the course of eighty-five stories, she’s doing different voices, different characters. Her style changes. That’s what made it a really breathless operation to do all of those stories in just two years’ time.

KD: The nice thing about translating a longer continuous work is you really have time to develop a voice and become immersed in the text. It’s a similar dynamic to working with the same author again. You already have a sense of their voice, and what your voice for them is in English. That was one of the big challenges of doing The Complete Stories: I had to start over again eighty-five times. Clarice Lispector has a very coherent voice. It’s a very strong voice. She has a strong sense of rhythm that has variations, but it’s still very recognizable as “her” over this forty-year career. But over the course of eighty-five stories, she’s doing different voices, different characters. Her style changes. That’s what made it a really breathless operation to do all of those stories in just two years’ time. But I think I got so much faster doing it, because when I translated the stories for Granta, one was eight pages and the other was slightly longer. It took me about a month to do each single story. [Laughs] There is a momentum that accumulates when you do a longer work, even when it’s separate stories.

Right now I am editing someone else’s translation of a poetry collection by a really great poet, Ana Cristina Cesar. She died in 1984, and this collection is from ’82. She committed suicide at the age of thirty or thirty-one. She’s a mix of Sylvia Plath and Gertrude Stein, and a major reference point for all the young Brazilian poets writing today. And the other thing I’m doing is a novel, this experimental modernist novel from 1928 called Macunaíma. That’s a big challenge to do, but because it’s just one novel straight through, I’m able to take things that I’ve invented and worked out for one chapter and apply it across the book, in a way that was harder to do with the Lispector stories.

LK: What do you recommend to translators, beginners or otherwise, who are looking to develop their craft?

KD: I’d say, one, be really aware of your own tastes. I say, read widely, but be aware of what kinds of voices or stories or styles or writers appeal to you, and hone that. It’s important to be aware of what you do well. For me, I know I do humor really well, and I gravitate towards things that are a bit strange, a bit experimental, a bit, maybe, perverse, but also comic. For me, Clarice Lispector’s stories are what I most wanted to do. But I also have a good ear for rhythm, so I gravitate towards authors whose words you can feel in your body. Knowing what you respond to helps you know what to pursue and what to say no to, in terms of your work. I would also read and watch a lot of interviews or writing by other translators.

I didn’t do an MFA. I don’t think you need to do an MFA in translation, but I do think it’s a way to fast track your development and get an instant community. I had that through doing the doctorate, but not in translation, so I was teaching myself by reading a lot of essays about translation.

I also read and watched a lot of interviews when I had questions like: how taboo is it to look at a previous translation of the work that you’re also translating? Do other people do this? How far should you go? I watched a great panel at Columbia University. It was a panel on retranslating the classics with Edith Grossman, Wyatt Mason, who was doing a new translation of Montaigne, and the couple that does all the Russian classics, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. For me, it was really instructive to hear these very established translators talk about even just their workday and their approach. In that sense, you become more aware of your own process, and what works for you and what doesn’t. It’s just nice to hear from other translators what their challenges are on a practical, everyday level.

LK: In preparing to translate The Complete Stories, did you read previous translations beforehand?

KD: I was familiar with Clarice Lispector’s work and the criticism around her. I had studied her and been reading her since my early twenties, even before I went to graduate school. I had known her for already thirteen years, so I felt very comfortable with my knowledge of the range of her work. I had also taught some of her stories, and wrote about some of the translations, especially Elizabeth Bishop’s translations, because my dissertation was on Elizabeth Bishop. She published translations of three Lispector stories.

I was aware of the translations of the stories but I was careful not to go back and look at them until I had finished a polished draft. Even then, I went to look at places where I was having trouble to see what someone else did, when I was curious about the tone. It was almost like having a ghost editor—you see someone else’s suggestions for how to solve a translation problem. Almost always when it’s a situation that calls for creativity, no two people will think of the same solution, but oftentimes I would see something else, and it would give me an idea for a third solution that I thought was better. There were times when I would see [the other translators’] mistakes on simple things, or they would help me catch my mistakes. That’s one benefit of coming after—you can check in with other translations and do these little checks that an editor would do for you.

I did read all of the other translations in the same series from New Directions that I was joining. The Complete Stories was the sixth book to be translated in this new series, and I’d already read the others. I read The Hour of the Star and then the four novels that came out at the same time, and so that helped me get a sense of what the “Clarice house style” was, but at the same time it let me see what the distinct variations were among the translators, because whether you realize it or not, your voice and your use of language is your own, even if you try to neutralize it, or write outside of what you think is your own voice. There was a translator from Australia, one from England, one from Houston, one from Pennsylvania. We have all different kinds of regional, international Englishes, and that comes through in each person’s individual translation. (The constant is Benjamin Moser as editor.) It helped clear up some questions about, say, how literal or not to follow her punctuation or the idiosyncrasies of her voice. That’s a really unique situation in that I was not translating in a total vacuum—it’s a part of a series —so that was important for me to understand where this translation fit in with the others and how readers were going to put them all together to make this tessellated portrait of Clarice Lispector.

LK: That makes sense. I’ve also heard you talk about channeling Clarice Lispector as you translated her work, both to conjure her distinctive voice and also to feel, perhaps, less intimidated by the task. I was wondering if you feel the same sense of channeling an author when you’re translating someone who’s not Clarice Lispector, or if there are other translation metaphors that resonate with you in those cases?

KD: I think that it varies from author to author. It’s very different to translate a famous dead writer or poet than to be translating a living one, of course. I’d say that when you’re translating someone, it’s such an intimate relationship, and you’re thinking about them all the time, and what went through their head as they were writing and what their voice was like, and you feel that you’re trying to tap into the current of life that is in their work. I can say that right now, working on these other authors’ work, I have Ana Cristina Cesar in my head. I have lines of her poetry in my head all the time. I think about what kind of person she was. I have Mário de Andrade, who wrote Macunaíma—I’m thinking about him also all the time, and to what degree he was being ironic in places, or when he was having fun, or when he was kind of agonizing over pieces of his masterpiece novel. So you’re always kind of haunted.

But I do think that there was something particularly strong about the idea of this intimate communion with Clarice, as she’s known in Brazil. She’s known by her first name, so you can just call her Clarice. [Laughs.] The reason that it’s so much stronger with her is that she has a very intimate voice in her writing. It sounds like she’s whispering directly into your ear like a lover or sister or mother. In a lot of her writing, she has these moments that feel like she’s just thinking with you, or revealing these deep philosophical or spiritual truths that she’s come to.

[Lispector] had religion and spirituality all around her. On top of that, in Rio, you have also a strong current of Afro-Brazilian religions—she writes about Candomblé, which is sometimes called Macumba, in some of her stories. There’s a strong current of spirituality in her work, and she was interested in the occult. She went to a fortune-teller. She was interested in astrology.

I think of her as something of a mystic. She came from a Jewish family that escaped the pogroms in what’s now Ukraine, and grew up in a Jewish household in one of the most Catholic countries in the world. She had religion and spirituality all around her. On top of that, in Rio, you have also a strong current of Afro-Brazilian religions—she writes about Candomblé, which is sometimes called Macumba, in some of her stories. There’s a strong current of spirituality in her work, and she was interested in the occult. She went to a fortune-teller. She was interested in astrology. She’s always talking about magic and witches, and she was invited to the First World Congress of Sorcery in Bogotá in 1975.

Even if you were a person who had learned through academia or a more secular upbringing to be skeptical or wary of being overly mystical or judged for thinking that you’re communing with the dead, it’s just something that she brings out in you.

This was my first book-length translation. Going from academia and writing in a scholarly context where you have to ground everything you write in all kinds of research and footnotes and facts or, some kind of grounded subjectivity—for me it was liberating and an important creative awakening to be able to approach this work, which I knew very well, from the perspective of translation. Part of this ability to think about what it means to channel someone’s voice, or to feel an intimate relationship to this writer, freed me to be able to think about having a closer relationship to Clarice Lispector in her work without shutting down that line of thinking or feeling as irresponsible as I would as a scholar.

It was such an enriching experience to think about her work on a deep level and intuit what she was doing in her writing, to understand it in order to reproduce it, rather than to write about it in an analytical way, which ends up shutting doors or giving premature answers to these questions that she opened up.

Just one caveat to that is that I think people should be writing about her both inside and outside of academia. I’m excited to see what these new translations generate in terms of thinking about her work. It’s very fraught, especially for me personally, to try to write about her in a more analytical way, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth trying to understand her from many different angles. I’ve been invited to a Clarice Lispector academic conference at Columbia University. They’ve invited me to give a paper, so I’m thinking of it as an opportunity to think about her both from my experience translating her but also from a scholarly perspective at the same time.

LK: You’ve avoided doing that so far, since you’ve been translating her?

KD: The way I’ve written about her, for example in my translator’s note and in various lectures I’ve given at different universities, is somewhere in between. That’s exciting for me. Anytime we’re able to fuse our different areas of knowledge and training, it’s very satisfying. I don’t think of myself as just a translator or just a scholar; I also think of myself as a writer. It’s exciting to try to figure out how to think and write about Clarice Lispector on a deep level that draws on this intimate reading experience I’ve had of her through translation, but also takes into account things that other people have written about her—things about her role in Brazilian literature or in world literature.

For example, for this conference, I’m thinking about the role of voice in Clarice Lispector. In a practical sense, I thought about what made her voice so strong and coherent as I was translating in order to reproduce it. But I’ve also given papers about translation as performance and how in some ways, it’s like you’re interpreting a script, or you’re like a musician or a singer interpreting a score. These things are coming out of my own experience, but I’ve also been reading more in translation theory, and I’m looking to read more on other theorizing of voice in literature to expand and ground my thinking.

I’m writing an essay about the translation that’s based on this translation notebook I was keeping. I kept this journal for the whole two years, just writing down random Google searches, or interesting translation challenges that were coming up, or things that were going through my brain. That document is both very personal and a more analytical look at the practices of translation, and the things that I was noticing about Lispector’s work that I had never thought about before translating her. That essay and that book will be some hybrid of personal writing mixed with theory of translation, and it would be a book for people who are interested in understanding Lispector’s work more, and thinking about it on a different level.

LK: I love that idea of keeping a translation notebook. I might steal that idea. It seems very useful.

KD: It’s very useful. What language are you translating from?

LK: Spanish. I have done one semester of that so far. Antioch’s MFA program is low residency, so I had a mentor, and sent pages to him and then he’d give me notes. I have been struggling to imagine what it will be like when I don’t have someone to send things to and have a conversation.

KD: I’m a mentor now in the Mills MFA program, also low-res, so it’s a similar thing. My student translates Francophone literature. It’s such a solitary practice and there are so many little decisions and little trails of research that you do on so many different levels. There’s so much stuff going through your head that it’s nice to let it out somewhere without thinking about organization or the logic of what you’re writing.

I call it a notebook because it sounds good, but I just had a Word document open whenever I was translating, and it was just a dump. Something would come into my head, or something funny would happen. No one was accompanying me the whole time. When I laughed with myself, or wanted to remember something for later, I would write the date and then write down whatever observations were going through my head. I do think that it is a good way to become more aware of your process and what you’re doing.

For me, it’s a nice document of my development over this two-year project, because so much changed. It took me six months to translate the first two collections. (The stories come from nine different collections.) And then with everything else, I got faster and faster and faster and faster.

But I think there’s a lot of self-doubt in the beginning, a lot of fear and anxiety. I can even track in that journal the point when I felt like I really had it, and her voice had come together, and I had internalized a lot of decisions I was making based on various algorithms of dictionaries, internet searches, and this Excel spreadsheet of key words and how I was translating them. At a certain point, something switched and I had more clarity about what directions to take. In some ways that didn’t happen till I was going through the edits. I sent Benjamin Moser one collection as I was working on it, and he sent me back edits so I could see what direction he was going in, but then I just translated the whole entire thing and didn’t see his edits until the very end. It was in going through his edits and figuring out, okay, that’s a good idea, that sounds good to me. Okay, definitely no, that’s not the voice, definitely not this… It was great to respond on a gut level to the edits and feel what was automatically better, [what] streamlined things, and what didn’t work for me. It would make me dig for a new solution.

What you were saying about how you’re in dialogue with your mentor right now—I’ve actually never done a translation without being in dialogue with someone. Maybe Macunaíma, the one I’m doing now—but I always at least have an editor. The young authors also speak English and so we would talk about the text a lot. This poetry collection I’m editing, it’s with Brenda Hillman, the poet, and we’re working on it with another Brazilian poet, so the three of us are always in dialogue, and I always have a group of colleagues on the Portuguese side and on the English side whom I send questions to and where we have things going back and forth.

LK: I’ve been reading short fiction by Joy Williams lately, and she wrote a list of eight essential attributes of the short story, and number four is “An animal within to give its blessing.”

KD: Ha! I love that. [Laughs]

LK: And every single story of Joy Williams that I’ve read has an animal, even if it’s just mentioned in passing. Number five on Williams’s list is “Interior voices which are or become wildly erratically exterior.” Both of these things remind me of Lispector, although unlike Williams, Lispector’s characters seem to act out their inner worlds erratically without explaining them, necessarily. I think those two things are related in Lispector’s writing—the animals and the erratic human characters—something about beings who don’t communicate with words. I wanted to ask you about what you see the role of animal characters in her stories are.

KD: I love this question, and I want to get the reference! I’ve been meaning to read Joy Williams for a while now. Ever since The Visiting Privilege came out, people keep telling me that I would love her and I keep hearing people rave about her. You just pushed me over the edge, so I need to get that book today. [Laughs]

LK: That’s what I just read: [The Visiting Privilege].

KD: Which story is it from?

LK: This was a list she wrote to Lincoln Michel when he interviewed her for VICE, trying to explain where her stories come from.

KD: Those two things speak to a lot of what is powerful and so absorbing in Clarice Lispector’s writing, and especially in the stories. There are animals everywhere, and one of the things I love most about her is the way that she writes about animals. She gets their movements, the tilt of a head of this animal called the coati in “The Buffalo.” It’s so perfect.

I was actually just in the Amazon and I met one of these coatis. They’re like a cross between a fox and a possum and a raccoon. They’ve got this little long nose, so adorable. And it tilts its head in this quizzical way in that story, and it kills me. All the monkeys, the chickens. Her animals are both very animal and at the same time feel very human because she imbues them with so much personality—but stops short of completely anthropomorphizing them. It’s always a joke. In the story “A Chicken,” the chicken is almost like a woman. She’s almost human, but then all of a sudden, she’ll be apathetic and blinking, with her little button eyes, just like a chicken. Then they just eat her. There’s a lot of humor and affection, and also deep philosophical truths about the condition of being and living in the world, in the way Lispector depicts animals.

There’s some way in which she’s writing in a grammar, a style, and a logic that defy what we think of as logical or rational, but because her interior voice does become exterior and it’s so coherent and seductive, it draws the reader into its world, until the logic of that interior world surrounds you.

So much of her writing is trying to get beyond language and the way it shuts down understanding and feeling and experience. It’s one of the central conundrums in her work; she writes with this deep suspicion of language and what it shuts down, even as it is the medium that she’s chosen to work in. But that’s also why she’s always tripping up your reading with strange commas or new combinations of words, or words that seem like they’re just the wrong word in the situation, but that make you stop and think—I give some examples in my translator’s note. There’s some way in which she’s writing in a grammar, a style, and a logic that defy what we think of as logical or rational, but because her interior voice does become exterior and it’s so coherent and seductive, it draws the reader into its world, until the logic of that interior world surrounds you.

A story like “The Imitation of the Rose” is incredible. You’re really inside this woman’s head. It’s about a housewife, Laura, who has recently returned from a mental institution. You don’t know exactly what the nature of her episode or crisis was, but you can tell that everyone around her is walking on eggshells, and she’s got to drink her milk every day, and she’s trying to hold on to this sense of a banal self and her role as a housewife and a normal woman. She wears brown, and she’s not supposed to be special in any way. It’s such a strange story because if you try to explain the story, you say, “This is a story about mental illness, and it’s about a woman who had a mental breakdown, and she and her husband and everyone around her are trying to keep her on the straight and narrow, keep her part of sane society.” But if you’re inside the logic of the story and her head, there’s all this stuff about her trying not to be brilliant and shining and special and original, like there’s something about her that’s too bright and too much for the boring people around her. But they also read that as a sign of there being something wrong with her. It’s an incredible story.

Clarice Lispector used to be married to a diplomat. She had this whole life before they got divorced and she went back to Brazil in which she lived in Italy, Switzerland, and D.C. She had to be this conventional diplomat’s wife, and put roses in the finger bowls, shake hands, and have this plastered smile on her face. In one of her letters to her sisters, she talks about a woman in her circle who uses this adjective “original” to describe things that make her uncomfortable, like artists or ideas, and she’s always saying about Clarice, “She’s so original.”

[Laughter] It’s this suspicious adjective to use against people who are different, and so Clarice thinks, I try not to be original but I guess I’m just too “original” for this woman and these people. That’s something I think about in a story like that, one that has an incredible way of surrounding you and making you feel as if you’re losing your own mind and your grip on reality, just by being inside the mind of this woman.

LK: You mentioned understanding. There is a lot of talk these days about how fiction increases readers’ capacities for empathy, as a defense of literature, when it seems like the appetite for literature and people’s capacity for empathy is embattled. I thought about that as I was reading your translation of her stories. You said that Lispector’s writing is meant to disrupt understanding. Do you think we’re meant to empathize with her characters, and do you empathize with her characters?

KD: I get so tired out by the need to defend literature’s usefulness in terms of these measurable, moral and productive terms. Obviously this is important for humanity, thinking about our own interior experiences and how they bump up against other people’s interior and exterior experiences, so I always feel tired out by the weak position of literature and always having to defend it in this capitalist society, or usefulness-driven society.

That said, Clarice Lispector, even despite some of her more abstract or impenetrable work, also had a very deep feeling for her fellow humans, and that comes out most clearly in the [short] stories. It comes out throughout her novels, especially The Hour of the Star and its character, Macabéa. Both started out poor in the Northeast, which was part of Clarice Lispector’s history, but this character is from a totally different social and educational class than what Lispector ended up in. I think it’s all over her work, but what draws me to the [short] stories especially is that there’s a lot of humor and affection for human frailty and hypocrisy, human struggle and pain. There’s specifically a lot about women’s everyday lives, especially in Brazil in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, through the ’70s—a lot about the struggles women faced with having to live up to these ideals of what a “perfect woman” should be, and being defined as a mother, a wife, and not being able to realize her own potential as an individual. The ways that women are condescended to.

There’s a short story, which is more of a crônica, called “Mineirinho,” about an escaped convict in Rio who was shot down by the police in the ’60s—killed with thirteen shots, no trial, just killed—and his body was tossed in the forest in a different part of Rio than where he got shot down in the favelas. It made headlines in its time. I find that crônica brutal and so powerful because she’s asking, what does it mean to be safe in our apartments in the bourgeois neighborhood of Copacabana and witness someone who was gunned down? You feel her anguish—I think it’s what a lot of us are feeling now, and in the last few years of attention on problems of police brutality. You want to scream; no words will contain this combination of outrage. But you also feel guilt and impotence as a witness to these things, and as someone who might be less vulnerable than these other bodies. I don’t think that Lispector had an agenda to make people empathize with these other characters—she’s sometimes been accused of being apolitical. I think that she never really had a political or moral agenda that she wanted to put forth in her writing—you’re not meant to do anything but just read her work and be open to it—but I do think that it’s very clear that she had a deeply ingrained sense of justice and a sense of outrage to injustice. It comes out in so many subtle ways in her writing. Then, at other times, it will explode in a more overt way, like in “Mineirinho” or in The Hour of the Star.

There was just something else I wanted to say about animals and erratic characters. That’s an apt juxtaposition in that part of the humor, empathy, and wisdom in her stories comes from her understanding of all the ways that we act outside of the limits of what we’ve been taught by language, or “rational thought.” There are so many ways in which [her characters] act impulsively, or in these funny, petty ways, or lose sense of what they’re doing from a human, social point of view. That’s where the human and the animal, or the animal and the human, meet up: in these moments when a character, whether human-animal or animal-animal, is acting in these ways that make total sense in the context of the story and Lispector’s narration, but which, from a perspective of someone who’s thinking about the rules of society, seem totally erratic, insane, or out of the blue. But there are so many ways in which we act and we can’t explain. [Laughs] That is a great wisdom of Clarice Lispector’s writing. She understood on an intuitive level, and she was very interested in these outbursts of passion or impulse that happen in our daily lives that are unexplainable.

I do think that’s why we keep going back to her stories and her writing with the desire to explain them. A lot of readers understand her stories on an instinctive level, but find them hard to explain if you try to break them down.

She gave a famous TV interview in the year that she died: 1977. The interviewer asks her about the difficulty of some of her books, like The Passion According to G.H., and she says it’s not about intelligence, but about an inability to enter into the writing. She says there’s a teacher at this very prestigious private high school in Rio, who says he’s read The Passion According to G.H. four times and still can’t understand it. Meanwhile there’s an eighteen-year-old girl who says that it’s her bedside reading, and one of the most important books to her; she’s been able to enter into it on an instinctive level. That’s another reason that there are so many ways to enter into Lispector that are outside of a scholarly approach, or even a rationalized, analytical approach. There are many ways to enter into her writing without having to be able to explain everything that’s going on in her stories in a sentence-by-sentence level.

 

Lauren Kinney is a writer and musician in Los Angeles. She is a student of fiction and literary translation in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work can be found in Queen Mob’sDrunk MonkeysThe Turnip Truck(s) and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @lauren_kinney.

Journey to Iraq 1 (I try to visit in my dreams and am stopped on the tarmac)

in the dream that got me fired
The plane was just a stomach,
really.
I said, “eat me”
It insisted on retching

and language was like dry bread
cu-clut-clawing
at my throat.

clog
glug

we could just say it was the fault of the Security Clearance,
oh that agency is in the blood now,
lineage of martial-bureaucrat understanding,
lines tactical and quick …

LET’S say Iraq turns into a lifeboat

it’s a little country

the lifeboat needn’t be large …

it contains a stack of paintings,
stone tablets and manuscripts.
add Scheherazade’s stone hands.
no people, after all, this
was an imaginary place

the library colludes to have me believe
this country doesn’t exist,
garlands of holy books no longer even part carboniferous
when people ask me where are you from i’ll tell them
“i come from an imaginary country”
“i’m an ice pop made of frozen rosewater holding together thinly sliced tongues”

 

Noor Al-SamarraiNoor Al-Samarrai is a California-born poet and performer with Iraqi roots. She’s currently living in Amman, Jordan, where she is working on a book-length poetry project about life and love in mid-twentieth century Baghdad with the support of a Fulbright Creative Arts Grant. She believes that poetry is as much a relational and somatic practice as a literary one, and has had the pleasure of teaching and performing poetry to people of all ages and backgrounds. Her debut poetry collection, El Cerrito, is forthcoming in 2018 from Inside the Castle Press. You can follow her adventures at milkgirlblog, and listen to her music at dogmaw.bandcamp.

Out of Houston

When I think back to that bar in Houston, the one that offered us mahogany and beveled glass and a brief reprieve from our hot, damp lives, I can still see Lynda and me: my blue-jean jacket, her skeleton earrings. We’ve swiveled onto our stools, and she’s paid for our drinks. She is laughing, leaning into me, and I nod, slowly agreeing to something.

Now that I am a professor, I catch whiffs of that familiar stink on them: a mix of sweat and burritos, of ego and anxiety.

We were graduate students then. Grad students inspire little pity because their misery is self-generated—what fools to chase education to such an extreme—and they are often obnoxious. Now that I am a professor, I catch whiffs of that familiar stink on them: a mix of sweat and burritos, of ego and anxiety.

But the agonies of graduate school don’t feel manufactured and optional while you’re going through them. They feel like hell. When I finished my orals, for some reason on Wuthering Heights, I went home and wept to General Hospital, my daily, and, I am not proud to say, singular guilty pleasure. I’d become unhinged enough to think of getting a couple of cats, of naming them Edgar and Heathcliff, and of finding this enormously amusing, but I doubted that I could support two feline suitors on a teaching assistantship.

Yes, life as a TA was tough, but what other choice did we have? To work full-time? A Maynard G. Krebs shriek formed in our sensitive throats. The poorer and older of us already had been there, done that. We’d slung enough hash to fatten whole towns, coming home with pockets full of crumpled bills, our hair smelling of other people’s food. Or we’d put in our time at pink-collar jobs, playing secretary in skirts and fingernails. We’d filed and phoned and tried to write poetry on the side, knowing that no one in Poe-Biz would take someone like us seriously.

Being in a creative writing program changed that.

We got to call ourselves writers, not secretaries, not waitresses; we deemed this to be a sacrifice worth making.

I remember breaking down to spend fifteen dollars on a lamp so I could have a decent light to read by. And dragging a mattress and box springs—a lucky find by the apartment Dumpster—up three flights to my lair. Sleeping on that bed was like lying on a slab of rock, with smaller rocks randomly embedded in the primary boulder, but I took pleasure in getting off my two-inch foam pad, in my upward move away from a cigarette-stale carpet.

Lynda was no better off than I. Her apartment had air and light and nothing in it. Well, a card table and two folding chairs, her pink three-speed propped against a wall, a plugged-in radio. I don’t think that I’m erasing furniture from my memory. I recall an impromptu gathering: after one of our fellow students had shot himself in the head, wham bam, dead and gone, a stunned and drunken group of us sitting on the hardwood floor, our backs against the wall because there was nowhere else to sit.

It always looked as if Lynda could be packed and on a plane in half an hour. And she could. Yet in the end, she chose not to fly but to drive her dirt-brown Honda Civic home to Washington. She’d had enough, gotten her MA, screwed around for another year in the PhD program while her beloved awaited and, apparently, issued ultimatums, as beloveds are wont to do. Lynda wanted company. It was a long way to go alone, especially in that rusty bucket of hers.

We had both come into a bit of luck, having been granted the two creative writing fellowships offered that year: five thousand bucks each. The director called me first, and I asked if I could tell Lynda, my best friend, the news, so I rang her up when she was still in Seattle. First, I told her that I’d gotten a fellowship. There was that half-second pause of disappointment, discouragement, despair before she breathed into the phone, “That’s great. That’s really great. Congratulations.” “Oh, yeah,” I said as if I had just remembered something. “You got one too.”

In Houston, we celebrated by ordering fancy lady drinks. I liked something the mahogany and glass bar served that tasted similar to strawberry tea with cream, and Lynda always fancied Pernod, that awful liquid licorice. She would have been a great Absinthe drinker.

We said that we should buy ourselves leather jackets, cocaine, and sexual favors, but we didn’t do these things. I paid bills, bought books, and forked over a thousand of my five so that one of Lynda’s questionable friends, a kindly Charles Manson lookalike, would rebuild the engine in my flame-red Karmann-Ghia. I also decided to take a summer off from teaching in Houston: one of the all-time worst ways to spend that season, wading through one hundred percent humidity into frozen classrooms filled with restless, albeit friendly, Texans.

I should spend the summer in Berkeley, Lynda told me, in that beautifully cool bar. I could see my mother, drink Peet’s coffee, and stroll under the Liquidambars, which blessed my shoulders with drops of their mysterious water. After another drink, I agreed to make the drive with her to the West Coast even though I would have to buy a one-way ticket back to Houston in August, even though it would be a long haul, and even though her tiny car, like mine, lacked AC. She made it sound good: a road trip, two girlfriends taking to the highway, a last hurrah. Lynda could be silver-tongued, and I can make rash decisions.

Usually I flew home on my annual pilgrimage to California, but the year before Lynda’s invitation, I had elected to take the train instead. My on/off ex/boyfriend dropped me at the station, then waved me off as I mounted the metal steps onto the car. Someone directed me to my seat, which was plush enough but did not recline a single inch. I felt a band of panic tighten my chest. Forty-eight hours, they’d said. Forty-eight hours in that seat? I couldn’t imagine enduring this, but the landscape already clipped past the tinted windows.

My seatmate was twenty, a handsome bagger at Kroger’s. We talked for awhile, then drifted downstairs to a small “screening room,” which ran B movies all night long. At 6:00 a.m., talked out, sleep-deprived, we were propped up on our elbows in the observation car, sipping too-hot coffee from Styrofoam cups and watching small, wild pigs jog around the seemingly endless prairie. He kissed me goodbye in San Francisco.

On the way back, I hung out with an eighteen-year-old guy who was traveling with his mother. Young men and trains go together, I guess. As we strolled around El Paso, he gallantly made sure to stay on the street-side of me, puffing up his chest, my protector. Having waved goodbye to his mom, we found a quiet spot and made out to while away the hours. I arrived with hickeys blossoming on my sleepy neck, but my ex/boyfriend didn’t seem to notice.

Let me set the record straight: mostly, I don’t want anything to happen to me. I want to stay where I am, usually prone. I want to eat in the same restaurants and order the same food because it was good before and it’s bound to be pretty good again. I like routine, comfort, security. But a vixen in my head sometimes says, “Take the train. Sit in the observation car until dawn. Let that boy slip his eighteen-year-old tongue between your lips.”

So I arranged everything, got new contacts (another fellowship expenditure) and prepared to depart with Lynda. The day before we were to go, I grew convinced that one lens wasn’t sitting well on my eye. How could I leave and not be able to see?

“Oh, honey,” Lynda murmured. She had a good voice, sincere yet amused. “I’m so sorry,” she said, then added, “I hate it when I get like that.”

After a moment, I realized that Lynda wasn’t saying she was sorry my contact didn’t sit right; she was sorry I was crazy. Okay, so Lynda turned out to be right. Eventually, the lens did seem to fit. I accustomed myself to it, maybe.

We drove off, Lynda wiping the dust of Texas permanently off her cowgirl boots, I temporarily retreating from the confusion of loving and hating somebody I wasn’t exactly sleeping with anymore.

The trip was a drag.

We talked, sure. That was the good part. Lynda assured me that I was open-minded when I told her I feared I was judgmental. She made fun of the red bandanna on my head and all the bobby pins that I helplessly had stuck into my layered hair to keep it from getting wind-whipped. One arm grew stiff and pink; then the other. My nose reddened. By the end of the first day, my throat ached from shouting over the sound of the engine.

Lynda leaned to the left of me. I was a liberal and a feminist. She was a Marxist and a lesbian. She told me, laughing, that I kept her in touch with the mainstream. It is true that I made her watch The Princess Bride. Munching popcorn, she looked over at me with a buttery smile of surprise. “I thought it would be more ironic,” I said, but she shook off my apology. Lynda took me, along with half a dozen rowdy cowgirls, to see Desert Hearts, a sensitive and sexy lesbian love story. I tried to interest her in thirtysomething, my favorite television show at the time; she sat on my Salvation Army couch and scoffed. “You mean it’s all about these whiney white people?”

The last time that Lynda had gone west she had done so with her love, the woman with almost the same name as mine. Lynda’s girl had lived with her in Houston for a few years before she called it quits. She was pug-nosed and fair, with small breasts, short hair, and strong legs.

A young man circled around her for a while. Finally, he asked, “You a boy or you a girl?” “Girl,” she’d answered. Then he asked her out.

Once Lynda’s girlfriend told me about working at a gas station, squirreled away all night in a glass box. A young man circled around her for a while. Finally, he asked, “You a boy or you a girl?” “Girl,” she’d answered. Then he asked her out. Obviously, he was attracted to her any which way, but he wanted to make sure he’d gotten the gender straight. I loved that story, but I don’t remember her telling too many tales, at least not to me. Hearty and able, she worked at the natural foods market. I felt weakly feminine around her, the effete geek that Lynda dragged home to share their dinners of brown rice and saitan, the straight chick who didn’t even know what saitan was, for Christ’s sake.

On our road trip, I wanted to stop in real restaurants. I longed to be served, to be indoors, and to be out of the wind. Lynda objected. She and her girlfriend had eaten peanut butter and crackers by the side of the road, and they were perfectly happy. “I’m not going to sit by the side of the road and eat peanut butter and crackers,” I snapped.

As a vegetarian, Lynda had a hard time in the places we tried. She ordered cheese sandwich after cheese sandwich, and paid what I’m sure she felt was too much money for them. In New Mexico, at some in-between restaurant in some in-between town, I’d contentedly tucked into my turkey club, and she seemed mollified that they had pasta salad on the menu. Then her dish came: iceberg lettuce leaves beneath a mound of cold spaghetti, on top of which wobbled a large glob of mayonnaise. Pasta Salad. The cook must have put those two words together as best as he could. Lynda laughed but put her fork down. “I don’t think I can eat this,” she said, and she sounded close to tears.

It isn’t easy traveling with someone you’re not sleeping with. Of course, it isn’t easy doing so with a lover either. In my early twenties, a boyfriend and I spent three months wandering as far as our Eurail passes and limited budget could take us. We made it to Monte Carlo, to Morocco, to Athens, to Stockholm. This sounds exciting and romantic; in truth, the trek was difficult and tedious. I remember a fourteen-hour train-ride in Spain, crouching on the wet floor near an overflowing restroom, bound to each other and hell-bent. Afraid of the Babel of tongues and of men looking at me as though I were a side of beef, I clung to my guy, who came to want nothing more than to shake free of me. We parted at the San Francisco airport, each taking BART different directions towards our parents’ homes.

You travel with a partner, you break up. That’s the lesson I learned. There is greater politeness with friends; at least there is for me. I don’t get really rude until I have sex with someone. But it’s tiring being polite, and when you shift out of politeness into extended pissing and moaning, the switch can be a bit of a shock. Plus, you lack sexual soothing to help you through the other person’s terrible sense of direction, endless wheel-turning, or lead foot.

When Lynda and I checked into our first motel, she trilled with self-congratulation on her find—the place was terrifically cheap—but I remained peevish about the cracked tile and funky shower. I prefer standard brands: Motel 6, Travel Lodge. I like sterile and blank, not interesting and creepy. I fussed over the dingy shower curtain, then flopped on my twin bed in a vintage black slip that I wore as a nightgown. Lynda smoked, pleased with herself.

For the first time in our friendship, I felt uncomfortable, as if I had been traveling with a girlfriend, my bestie, and she suddenly transformed into a man.

I hate to admit that I suffered from classic straight-person’s anxiety: the fear that her gay friend will want to have sex with her, that she’ll be in love with her, that there will be weirdness, that there will be a scene.

What was I thinking in that Spanish-style hovel? That Lynda would make a move on me? That she’d try to seduce me? That I’d have to beat her off with a stick? Something along those lines. I hate to admit that I suffered from classic straight-person’s anxiety: the fear that her gay friend will want to have sex with her, that she’ll be in love with her, that there will be weirdness, that there will be a scene.

I had never felt such discomfort with Lynda before. I was surprised when she’d apologized for wearing a thin undershirt in front of me. We were friends; who noticed loose boobs? But Lynda slept with women. She noticed loose boobs. I remember her admiring the dark, cloudy beauty of a woman in our program one night. “She’s a vampire,” I said. “She’d bite your neck and drink your blood.” I didn’t care for the woman myself. “I’d bite her back,” Lynda insisted, and I turned my head away, shy to hear the lust in her voice.

In truth, my discomfort didn’t come simply from my nervousness that Lynda might hit on me. I’ve had a number of male friends flirt with me, make discreet sexual overtures, and, in a couple of cases, overt and awkward passes. But I am used to there being a certain degree of erotic tension with male friends. As long as they don’t push things, that extra zing has been the hot mustard to the hamburger of our friendship. But my relations with men haven’t been the same as those with women. I don’t preen or purr or pose with my women friends.

Yet I’ve always liked lesbians.

When I lived in San Francisco and taught at a private high school, before I’d had enough of kids and gone back for my doctorate in the hope that I would one day teach adults, I answered an ad that promised a household of varying sexual preferences and moved into a fantastic apartment off Van Ness, with a lesbian couple, a cult-happy bisexual, and a woman who seemed to be predominately asexual, which made me the resident hetero.

The pigeon coos of lovemaking on the other side of the wall didn’t bother me, and the nutty bisexual and I got to be pretty friendly. I even let her take me to see Rama, that eighties’ guru, though I didn’t witness his bursting into a shower of lights; apparently, one needed to be enlightened to observe this.

Naïve as I was, I’d thought that the lesbian and bi women in my household also would be intellectual and political. But no. I was “the school-teacher.” The white woman in the couple worked as a cosmetologist, “a lipstick lesbian,” as she termed herself, and spent her free time giving her partner facials. “I used to go for black men,” she told me. “Then I met her.”

Her partner kept taking my typewriter, which annoyed me, but she scared me a little too, with her impressive biceps, on one of which a large, crescent-shaped scar shone. Finally, I got the nerve up to ask what had happened. “I got bit,” she explained. I pictured a mad dog, but she told me about being attacked by a former lover. “Human mouths are filthy,” she said. “That’s what they told me at the hospital.”

We never became more than amicable strangers. I often ate in my room, grading exams, half in love with a beautiful student, who sometimes drove me home in his father’s BMW.

Although I’ve always liked lesbians, I have never gone for women sexually. Well, once, when I was twenty, I made out with a woman at her birthday party. Someone had put on a tape of old Beatles’ songs, and a group of us shouted, “I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND! I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HA-AH-AND!” She and I slung our arms around each other, buoyed on the endless Beatles high.

We were in the same acting class, and she’d been sleeping with our married teacher, a man I also found desirable, so I envied her position as the designated student-lover. She was pretty, as I recall, blonde. We ended up in her bedroom, and she, drunk, blathered on about how attractive she found me, about how she’d never been with a woman before.

Then she threw up in the attached bathroom. However, the waves of nausea did not deter her. She’d washed her hands and brushed her teeth, she told me. I was lying on her bed, flipping through a magazine. She wanted to kiss me, so I let her kiss me. Back then, I was “open to experience.”

My friend’s face felt thin, her skin smooth, lips soft, a mirror of my own. I didn’t feel a fire light in my loins, but I let her stroke my jeans as I perused ads in Vogue. She complimented my ass, and I like being complimented.

Finally, I told her that this wasn’t going to happen between us, and she raged more than I would have thought her capable of doing. Then she slipped out the window of her bedroom because it seemed to her less embarrassing to reemerge through the front door than to come out of the bedroom with me. I left the way that I came in and weaved home.

Some days later, she left a note on my door. She wasn’t embarrassed, she said, about being attracted to me, she didn’t hate herself for it, she hoped that I didn’t either. I never responded. I didn’t despise her for coming on to me, but I distrusted the melodrama of that window-exit and the rather extended rant. Now I wish that I had written her a note, called her, something. Because I think that she was embarrassed and that she did hate herself a little for being attracted to me.

At first, I didn’t know that Lynda was gay. I came to Houston as one half of a couple (my troubled and troubling ex/boyfriend), and I was on guard against all comers (one of his troubling qualities was an inability to remain monogamous for more than a minute). Lynda had prematurely gray but hiply spiked hair and a nice figure: slender with curves. I remember watching her warily as she bounced on the balls of her feet and laughed at my ex/boyfriend’s jokes.

We were all in workshop together. She’d turned in some poems that didn’t impress me; one about a grandmother I found sentimental. But I liked what I thought was a poem in which a man tells his father that he’s “a queer.” “Lynda wrote an interesting dramatic monologue,” I told my ex/boyfriend. “Um, I don’t think it’s a dramatic monologue,” he said. I felt like a fool, but I had never heard a woman refer to herself as “a queer” before. I liked Lynda more after that.

“What does it smell like to you?” he asks his friend. “Fish gut or pussy?” That’s how the poem ended.

Then she handed in a poem that made me want to be her friend. Lynda had down all the details of waiting tables in a nice restaurant: the fanning of cloth napkins, snapping open of a lighter. The waitress goes through her professional moves, believing a man to be a good tipper. Then she feels him tug on the hem of skirt. “What does it smell like to you?” he asks his friend. “Fish gut or pussy?” That’s how the poem ended. It knocked me out.

When my ex/boyfriend gave me the boot, I called up Lynda, and she met me for gigantic glasses of iced tea, a Texan staple, and microwaved quiche. I confessed my heartbreak and made her my (perhaps reluctant) confidante, pushing us into emotional intimacy.

As a high school freshman, I had a terrific crush on this senior, Wally Silva: long black curls and sky-blue eyes. Cool to the nth degree. One night he actually called me. True, it only happened once; then he made up with his tempestuous girlfriend and never sought me out again, but it was a magical moment nonetheless. Wally Silva called me! Unbelievable! That’s how I felt about Lynda’s friendship. I couldn’t get over that someone as hip and cool as she was liked me, really liked me.

Of course, Lynda didn’t make a pass at me that night in New Mexico. We made fun of the TV and ate potato chips until we fell asleep. In the purple morning, she happily rubbed the soles of her feet together under the sheets, sounding like a human cricket. I told her to knock it off. We kept driving.

By the time we made it to the Bay Area, we had tired of each other. My mother welcomed us, and Lynda tried to be nice, but neither of us was in good spirits. When I ran my hand over my mother’s cat, creating a cloud of fur, Lynda abruptly said, “Stop it.” Then she bought me a red wooden goat from the import/export shop on College Avenue. I had admired it, and I still do. Faded to pink, it watches me in the bath, peeking out between pots of ivy.

Lynda tried to convince me to come with her all the way to Seattle, but I refused, no longer charmed, for the moment, by her seductive offers of adventure. She went on alone, and I spent the summer sure that I had stomach cancer, smoking cigarettes and drinking heart-palpitating coffee, hanging out in my mother’s studio apartment, a flowered curtain dividing our beds.

My ex/boyfriend called to say that he was seeing somebody in the program. Seeing somebody. As if he were spending his evenings watching some woman duck-walk back and forth in his living room. I wailed into the pillows on my mother’s couch as she offered me a cheese danish from Nabolom Bakery and a glass of pucker-sweet sherry.

Lynda didn’t stay on Vashon Island very long. A year, maybe. Then a fellowship to Provincetown, a reckless move to a bad section of Brooklyn. Sirens and car horns drowned out her voice on the phone. She sounded thrilled that I got a teaching job in Rhode Island, just a quick train trip, and came to see me in my new digs on Benefit Street.

I had purchased a shit-brown Civic similar to her old one, after the fiery demise of my Ghia, and chugged to Providence to begin my first tenure-track position. Mostly, I moved through the US mail (books and papers and clothes). Everything else had been folded in tissue, including my neon coyote, a final gift from the ex/boyfriend, and strategically positioned in my small car, while allowing enough breathing room for my little dog, Percival.

My ex/boyfriend and I drove in tandem to Ohio, where he would begin his own job. We traveled like that for days, Percy watching me from his carrier. I watched my ex/boyfriend’s drugged Siamese crawl up the back of his seat and wrap around his head. I laughed when I saw the turn signal frantically sputter on. That drive was us all over: traveling together and alone.

We swallowed mile after mile like that, past countless dead armadillos, their small bodies armored and not cute, out of Houston at last, leaving behind a lot of our history along with fluffy biscuits and white gravy. He dropped off his cat at a feline hotel and came with me to Providence, where we said goodbye for good.

As lovers, I mean. We’re still friends. Well, friendly exes. The cat died, but he’s got a kid, and I think he’s pretty happy. I am pretty happy too. I’m married to someone who doesn’t (seem to) have issues with monogamy. My mother is dead, gone to Alzheimer’s, then gone altogether a few years ago. And Lynda is long dead.

When she came to see me in Providence, she looked great, newly blond and pink-cheeked, but she flicked drops of sweat off the end of her nose as we strolled around the East Side. She bled on my ivory-colored couch: a sudden period. Unfairly, this annoyed me. My first brand-new couch!

Not much of a pet person, Lynda was prepared to dislike Percy, a frou-frou with orange Troll hair, but he put his fox-like face on her shoulder. “Well, that is cute,” she conceded.

In a Thayer Street bar, Lynda admitted that she hadn’t been feeling well, then tapped her pack of cigarettes on the table. “And this,” she said, “has got to stop.” I told her that she looked too good for anything to be seriously wrong. She said, “Isn’t that how it goes? Everyone says that she looks great and six months later she’s dead?”

Lynda didn’t even make it to six months: an unusual and relentless cancer, the tumors not as “meltable” as the oncologist had promised as he blasted her body with poisons.

Lynda didn’t even make it to six months: an unusual and relentless cancer, the tumors not as “meltable” as the oncologist had promised as he blasted her body with poisons.

“I’m terrified,” she told me over the phone, having limped home to her family in the Midwest. “What are you afraid of?” I asked, dense as usual. “Of dying,” she told me flatly. She wasn’t ready to meet her maker, to make her peace. Her ex sent her books on death and spiritual transcendence; she threw them out. I got together a care package that she liked: boxes of chocolates and some sort of “healing” crystal, which Lynda said she clutched to her chest as she slept.

Her ex/girlfriend was with her at the end. With Lynda unconscious, on a respirator, I talked to her former partner on the phone. “Please tell Lynda that her spirit is welcome to visit me any time,” I said. She curtly said that she would. I imagine she thought Lynda’s spirit would never want to hang out with a nerd like me. Of course, after I’d made the invitation, I thought the same thing. Of all the places to go in the after-world!

I haven’t believed in a life-after-death for quite a few years. Instead of praying, I retell stories, I look at pictures. Lynda and my mother with their arms around each other, my mother alarmingly white-haired. Lynda and me, my hair alarmingly Texanned, long with poufy bangs. The quality of the photographs isn’t good. Our faces are slightly out of focus, the outlines blurred. But I like those arms around each other’s waists. We love each other; you can see that much.

I remember one long night in Houston when I bewailed the seemingly endless seesaw with my ex/boyfriend: how could I be so damnably weak, why did I let this thing drag on? Lynda shook her head. “Miss Calbert, nothing is harder than breaking up with someone,” she told me. “The truth is, we’ll do anything for love.”

Well, she was wrong, and she was right. There are some things that are harder than breaking up with someone, and we will do many things for love.

 

Cathleen Calbert’s poetry and prose have appeared in many publications, including Ms. Magazine, The New Republic, The New York Times, and The Paris Review. She is the author of four books of poetry: Lessons in Space, Bad Judgment, Sleeping with a Famous Poet, and The Afflicted Girls. Her awards include The Nation Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Sheila Motton Book Prize, the Vernice Quebodeaux Poetry Prize for Women, and the Mary Tucker Thorp Award from Rhode Island College.

 

Mythic City: Oil Paintings

Dara Hyde, Literary Agent

Dara HydeDara Hyde loves books. After a decade as an editor and rights and permissions manager at the independent publisher Grove Atlantic in New York, Hyde moved to Los Angeles to become an agent at Hill Nadell. Hyde represents a wide range of fiction and nonfiction, including young adult, genre fiction, graphic novels, narrative nonfiction, and memoir.

In February 2017, I interviewed Dara over the phone in a conversation that went by in the blink of an eye. Her knowledge and interest in her work is palpable, and her answers reflect her experience and investment in quality work. She’s motivated to make sure everyone who wants to write understands what it takes to get a literary agent, because that’s what’s best for publishing.

That’s largely what we talked about, with a little bit of politics and its impact on writing and literature mixed in. When we finished talking, I had a much better idea of what it takes to get a literary agent. I mentioned this to Dara and she said, “That’s the whole idea!”

Emma Margraf: For my first question, I thought I would start out basic and ask you to tell me about your daily life as a literary agent. I don’t think that a lot of folks really know what your life is like.

Dara Hyde: I agree: a lot of it seems shrouded in mystery. One of the things that I actually love about my day as a literary agent is that it is never the same. Even days where I think, “This is what my day is going to be,” things can come up and change. Maybe the easiest way is to say what I have to do today… because it is all over the place. Today I had a deal announcement that was reported in the Hollywood Reporter. It was a big, fun exclusive, so I was monitoring that. I have a call later with a client, to go over a contract, which we have some issues with. I’m also going to be talking to a client [about] retooling a book that we sent out and didn’t get the responses we wanted from a couple editors; we are going to pull the manuscript back, retool it, and send it out again. I’m discussing with an editor [regarding] which one of us has a better relationship with a big-time author, to ask for a blurb for a book that’s coming out. I have a book that’s on deadline to go into production, so I have a call into the editor to make sure that’s going okay. I have to prepare an update for our foreign co-agents, [to] help us sell translation rights on a book that’s getting a lot of really good reviews, so that they can help finish getting foreign deals for that book. I have clients who are headed to Los Angeles to do meetings with film studios about a show for their book, and they are really nervous—I am going to talk them through that. I have to chase a few publishers who are late on their royalty reports.

None of those things involve me reading, even though that’s one of the biggest parts of my job—that all comes later in the evening, or on the weekends. Some days I take a reading day, when I know I am going to get through a bunch of stuff. Because during the day—even though it’s so much a part of my job, [reading] gets pushed down sometimes, especially on submissions, [in favor of] all the books that I already have deals for or are in process. I get help. I have an assistant who helps me read. We get so many submissions. I definitely need help on that. From there, [I] look at the ones that come in with promise.

Agents are involved with their clients throughout the entire process. From getting the book ready to submit to publishers, to negotiating the deal, to making sure the book goes through production correctly, and then also helping them exploit all of the sub-rights that go along with a book—whether that’s film and TV, or merchandising or foreign rights—we help with every stage of it. After all that, making sure they get paid correctly and all of that.

EM: What are your primary goals and objectives? Reading, or helping the author through the process?

DH: Being an ally for the writer throughout the entire process and getting deals, that’s our main thing. I don’t get paid unless I can secure a deal for my client. A lot of our focus is “which books are the most ready to go out,” and pushing to make sure that those deals happen. Then from there, you need to make sure that the publisher is doing what they need to do, and that the writer knows what they need to do, and that everyone is comfortable. You do spend some time being an intermediary and helping communications.

Let’s say a cover comes from the publisher (and they usually give you a few examples), and they say, “These are the three covers we think are the best.” They want the writer and the agent to buy in and agree—but sometimes you have to negotiate. What if you love the cover and the author hates it? Or the publisher and the author disagree on which cover is the best? There are a lot of discussions like that. It’s making sure the entire process works well so it’s a great experience for everyone.

There’s also researching new editors I may not know, or keeping track of who has moved from one publishing house to another, or if somebody has a new publishing initiative. There is research that goes on in the background all the time. On any given day, the focus may be different depending on what the client needs that day.

EM: Do you have authors or genres that you are particularly interested in representing?

DH: I have a really diverse list. It seems eclectic—except that it’s all stuff that I love. I worked in a publishing house for years before I became an agent. I worked at Grove Atlantic, which has an amazing list, but it’s a little narrow. They don’t do graphic novels that often, or children’s books, or genre-heavy books. When I became an agent, what was exciting for me was that I could be a generalist. If I think something is really great—if I know how to sell it and I have a vision for it—I take that client on. That’s allowed me to have a really diverse list. I represent graphic novels. I represent fiction. I represent nonfiction. I have lots of experience with literary fiction, so my list is probably heaviest with literary fiction. But I’ve noticed that my tastes tend towards something [with] a genre twist. I love lots of different types of genre, whether that’s thrillers or some supernatural or fantasy elements. I’m not someone who would do just straight fantasy, because it doesn’t appeal to me quite as much. I don’t have quite the same vision for it. I do say no to strong projects when I think, “I really don’t know how to do this.” The agency represents so much but I don’t necessarily have experience, say, in cookbooks. I wouldn’t be the best advocate for that. But Bonnie [Nadell], the other agent in the office, does. She’s great with them and she knows exactly how to shape them. I’m limited to my own expertise. I do some YA and graphic novels, but the much younger children’s books are not my area of expertise, either.

Every agent is looking for something fresh, something with strong language and, also, really readable. It’s always exciting when you find something new like that, whether it comes from recommendations, or from the slush pile. Something smart and unique, that makes that writer the writer to tell that story. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, there has to be this vital need to tell that story.

EM: Graphic novels are among the top sellers right now. I’ve noticed a lot of market stories about them. Is there something in particular that draws you to that particular genre?

DH: I’ve liked graphic novels for a long time. My husband (in full disclosure), worked at Random House and then DC Comics for years and years. Even before that, he educated me on the comics medium, way back in college. When something really great would come along, he would pass it to me. He knows my reading taste. I started to understand the medium much more. He has his own PR firm where he does publicity for comic book creators and writers. When I became an agent, I knew some people who already worked in the graphic novel world and they were like, “I need an agent.” There had already been some relationships started. From there it just grew.

I have to navigate when somebody sends me something: one, do I love it; two, do I actually think that it fits in the marketplace right now, and do I know where it can go.

In the comic-book world, when somebody works for one of the really big publishers like DC or Marvel, a lot of that is work-for-hire. That’s working on the [publisher’s] own intellectual property, which doesn’t necessarily have an agent attached. But when somebody creates their own material, where they’re making up their own characters and stories—that’s where the agent often comes in. That’s the stuff I represent. It usually goes to independent publishers, sometimes a graphic novel imprint within a much bigger book publisher, or sometimes a publisher that just does comics and graphic novels. I have to navigate when somebody sends me something: one, do I love it; two, do I actually think that it fits in the marketplace right now, and do I know where it can go. The graphic novel marketplace is quite different; a lot of the different publishers have very different ways of doing business. It’s a different model because of the way they structure their business. One of the most exciting things for me is to see how many bookstores are carrying graphic novels and how much it’s going toward a younger audience: middle grade and high school. Schools and librarians are using it as a literacy tool. That opens up storytelling to a whole new group of people who may not have necessarily been interested in books.

EM: The graphic novel world is a different world. I, too, was introduced to it as an adult. You walk into Comic Con [the San Diego Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention], and there are thousands of people dressed in costumes. It’s so vast and multifaceted. It makes sense to me that you describe it as operating with a different foundation. Because it has its own separate world in a way that it seems like many other genres do not. Is that correct?

DH: It is. Within that medium there are many different types of storytelling. Within that medium, there is stuff that is literary, stuff that’s pulpy; there is stuff that is aimed for younger audiences, and stuff that’s aimed at older audiences; stuff that is very unique, stuff that’s black and white or in full color. For me I love good stories coupled with good art. It is such a huge spectrum. For a long time it seemed like a closed group of people who read them. You would get people who were interested in reading monthly comics from established creators with established characters, and then there were indie stories that were being told. Now it’s expanded so much that the readership is much wider. I know grandmothers who read graphic novels and I know young kids who read them. It’s another form of entertaining, writing, and getting a message across. Nonfiction graphic novels are doing really well right now, whether it’s as a way to talk about history or memoir to a younger audience, or even to an older audience. It’s a different way of digesting material.

EM: You see that with John Lewis winning the National Book Award this year.

DH: Absolutely! Which is so exciting.

Presenting something as serious and important as John Lewis’s civil rights history in a graphic novel is really something. Maus [the series by Art Spiegelman] had done it years before. It’s a powerful medium. The fact that you can marry the pictures with the words—it changes for some people the power of images.

EM: For those of us who are history fans, the combination of John Lewis and Colson Whitehead winning this year was amazing.

DH: Presenting something as serious and important as John Lewis’s civil rights history in a graphic novel is really something. Maus [the series by Art Spiegelman] had done it years before. It’s a powerful medium. The fact that you can marry the pictures with the words—it changes for some people the power of images. It’s one reason why memoir and nonfiction graphic novels are seeing more popularity than they used to.

EM: Just to get back to the process for a bit, are there specific characteristics of a piece of writing that are sure to get somebody noticed?

DH: The biggest thing for me is to do the work. It is to work so hard on writing the best thing you can write and being true to that. There are different agents who deal with only one specific kind of book or who chase trends. I don’t. Sometimes I will be aware of trends—but for me finding that original, strong voice is the most important thing. So that’s what I’m looking for: someone who has done the work. Once you’ve done the work, once you’ve written the most amazing thing you could—you’ve revised it and revised it and revised it, you’ve had beta readers, and you feel like, “This is as far as I can take it by myself. Okay, now I need an agent.” Then you stop [the writing] to do the research there.

What some people don’t realize is that there are a lot of agents, and they all are looking for different things or have different expertise. It is worth the time for someone to do the research and to do a targeted outreach on submissions. We get so many a day. When I switched from being at a publishing house to being at an agency, there was a little Publisher’s Weekly write-up that I had done—just a job-move posting, which is an industry insider thing. That went up and within the first week I got 800 submissions from people I didn’t know. Not even the people who were like, “Dara is now an agent. I’m going to send her something.” These were just cold emails. Eight hundred. We now get several hundred a week. That’s a huge volume, so you [the writer] have to figure out how to stand out. We don’t look to say “no.” We’re looking to find great stuff, but if you send it to “Dear Sirs” and this is an agency with only women agents—that tells me that you didn’t do your homework. Also, if you just say, “Dear agent,” even just that first line, why are you sending it to me? You can find out what I represent online very easily. That didn’t used to be the case. There were obscure books that you had to really search to find out who the agents were; it’s not that way anymore. We want to know why you are sending it to us and we want to know what you are looking for in an agent. Even if you are sending it to a lot of agents, you just want it to be agents that make sense. If you have written a cookbook and you send it to me, why would you do that? Unless you say, “Actually it’s a graphic novel cookbook.”

Query letters are super hard to do and it is worth working on them. It is important to try to represent your work in as succinct and as professional a way as possible. It is a professional relationship, and so we look for professional letters. We don’t want something that is too familiar if you don’t know us; we don’t want something that is combative. Some are combative right off the bat, which is really strange. It should be proofread and well-written. A poorly written query letter is usually not followed by an amazing manuscript. Some are like, “I’m going to do something to really catch their attention,” and that can work sometimes, but it has to relate to what you’ve written or it has to show your voice. If you have written a very serious literary work but your letter to me is full of weird jokes, that doesn’t quite match. If your book is supposed to be funny, a funny query letter isn’t a bad idea. It needs to convey simple information: this is who I am. Even if you haven’t written other things, what else do you do? Who are you? This is my book; it is in this particular genre, or type of book. Here’s something about one of the main characters. Here’s a little bit about the plot, enough to get you interested. Having a good log-line is helpful. If you can’t explain in a line or two what your book is about, that makes it really hard for someone else to understand what your book is about.

EM: Did you say log-line? Can you explain that?

DH: People use it in film. It’s just a quick thing, like the elevator pitch. It’s a quick way to distill your book, which is hard to do. Some people will ask other people to help them with that, because sometimes it is hard to talk about your own work. So you have a beta reader and you can talk about it with them: what do you think my book is about?

The other thing is to be a good literary citizen, to be involved somehow in the literary world. Whether that is reading a lot of contemporary books, going to readings at local bookstores, supporting other writers on social media, or contributing to journals. There are some people who can work in a vacuum, but being part of a writing community is a really helpful thing. It could be a book group or a writing group. It’s an important thing for sanity.

EM: Do you think there is a social justice component to your work?

DH: I definitely have writers and projects that I represent that have a strong social justice component, but I have other ones that don’t, that are for pure enjoyment or escape. I think there is room for all of that, and there is room for all of that within my clients. Some clients have work that has a social component and then switch to another project that doesn’t. In general right now, it feels like just continuing to write and to tell stories is social justice. [Laughs] Free speech as a general idea.

The million-dollar offers don’t happen that often, and [most times it’s] not a lot of money to live on unless you’ve been doing it a long time or you get very lucky. That also scares people away from it as a job.

To be honest, post-election and even during the election, we had talks in the office: “I’m not a human rights lawyer, I’m not a brain surgeon, I’m not on the front lines of certain things—but at the same time I feel strongly that reading, education, and the arts are incredibly important for our government, our system, and for our culture and society.” That won’t go away, and maybe it’s now even more important to just allow the imagination; to allow research. Publishing has work to do as far as diversity, but some of it is not for a lack of trying. I have a diverse client base and I’m always looking for new, different voices. Sometimes it seems like such a strange and remote place. People don’t know how books are published and they don’t know how people even get to find publishers. Doing talks like this and being open about the process should help. Unfortunately, except for very few people, [this business] doesn’t pay well. A lot of my writers have full-time jobs, most of them do, and I encourage them to keep those jobs. [Sometimes] you do really well and you find the book deals that make a lot of money, but even then it gets split up over several payments over several years. The million-dollar offers don’t happen that often, and [most times it’s] not a lot of money to live on unless you’ve been doing it a long time or you get very lucky. That also scares people away from it as a job. I was a scholarship student, I do not have anything to fall back on, and we’ve [my husband and I] had to figure out ways to be in an industry that doesn’t necessarily support you financially until you get to a certain level, whether you are a writer or you are on the other side of publishing. When the overtime rules came through from the Obama administration, there was a lot of talk about how in publishing, people work overtime constantly. It’s a 24/7 job. As an assistant, I didn’t do all my work in the office; I would read on the subway on the way home and on the way to work; I would read at night—and that was all work. I had to read these manuscripts—but of course, you don’t get paid for that. That also is a stumbling block. There are a lot of people in publishing who come from money.

Honestly, on an economic level, that can be a huge barrier for anybody. It was almost a huge barrier for me, but I figured out a way to make it work. It’s not just having new voices out there, it’s also finding a way to make it sustainable. That part’s really hard, and I don’t have a solution for that. The profits in publishing are incredibly small. For most publishers, they do get a few big books and those help subsidize smaller books that don’t make money, and they still continue to do it because they believe in publishing.

EM: Talking about writing communities… For those, say, in a small town, can they still succeed if they don’t have access to big city events? Can anyone succeed in the digital age?

DH: Part of it is access to books, whether it’s libraries or bookstores or even online. The internet does help bring people from far-off areas together and [helps books] be part of a culture. I was raised with books; we had no money but I was raised with books, and my child is raised with books. Having a culture where the only time you read a book is because you are assigned it in school: that’s not going to help. There are places that are book deserts, where it’s really hard to get access to them. But there are also little free libraries popping up all over the place, and book exchanges in places where there aren’t necessarily libraries or mobile libraries. There are a lot of writers who are vocal about that, writers who have reached a certain level of success, and [are] giving back, whether it’s donations to bookstores, doing work with libraries, or [bringing] the community together. Some people think they are only publishing in New York; that’s not true anymore.

I’m based in Los Angeles. There are others, both on the agent side and the publishing side, [who are in] Washington, Oregon, the Bay Area, San Diego, Austin, Denver, or Chicago. More of the industry is scattered than there used to be. New York is still the center. We also have writers from all over the world. I represent quite a few writers from west of the Mississippi, but also from the East Coast and from foreign countries. That’s the internet: the ability for people to email and communicate with each other, [while] not being in the exact same spot. There are also reading groups and reading series that are popping up. Salons have been around for centuries, not just for wealthy people, as a way to talk about ideas and books, and as a way to come together.

EM: Simon & Schuster got quite a backlash for publishing* Milo Yiannopoulos, including Roxane Gay backing out of her book deal. Does this affect your work? Is the current political climate is affecting your work? Our current president is not a reader…

DH: Right, and we’re coming from a president who was a huge reader and very vocal about reading. Before that, First Lady [Laura] Bush was a huge reader and a librarian. Publishing does always react to the state of the world around it, just like a lot of industries do. I tend to represent books that I believe in, and [that] are somewhat aligned with my own political beliefs, [but] beliefs that don’t match my own still have a right to be heard. The First Amendment is first for a reason. At the same time, giant publishers have so many imprints, so the imprint that Milo’s book was sold to has always been a very conservative one. It publishes books that are in line with that particular political point of view, but within Simon & Schuster, there are other imprints that do completely the opposite. I’ve sold to Simon & Schuster, and I actually have a YA novel there that has a huge social justice component coming out next year. A big writer like Roxane Gay has the wherewithal and the muscle to back out of a deal that a lot of people don’t—and I don’t necessarily think they should. If you boycott everything a particular publisher does, you are hurting the writers who actually may be writing something you agree with. I can’t speak for [Simon & Shuster], but I wouldn’t have represented that book, nor would I have sold it. But I may have represented something that is the complete opposite, which also deserves to be heard. That part’s complicated.

I was actually at a reading for a novel last week—not a political novel, but there was a political question [posed] to the author. That will happen more and more; something not political can be viewed in a political light. It’s a dialogue and that dialogue is healthy, and asking tough questions is great. If it allows for a broader conversation, and allows for journalists to get book deals that they might not have gotten in the past because they are doing great investigative journalism—then that’s also a great thing.

EM: Do you see the polarized nature of our country potentially affecting your work?

DH: Not necessarily. Fortunately, the books that I represent and a vast majority of the books that sell go to people who read. There is a big portion of the population who doesn’t read. They do all those surveys on how many books did you read this year. Some say they didn’t read any books at all—and I think those people will continue not to read. Right now, in film and TV, so many shows and movies are based on books or graphic novels; that points people back to books sometimes, which is great. I know that’s a little backwards, but it makes people interested.

I don’t feel like every submission that comes to me has to be political, or people [have] to completely change what they’ve written to reflect the times, but I do expect that we’ll see some more [political books], or even just books that have already been written [will] be politicized. March [Congressman John Lewis], The Handmaid’s Tale [Margaret Atwood], or 1984 [George Orwell], or any of the books that [are] getting more press or more attention: I think that will continue to happen.

EM: 1984 was trending for a while, wasn’t it?

DH: I think it was number one on Amazon for a while. Even people who didn’t realize their books were political may find that parts of them are, but that’s something that happens continually as the world changes and adjusts. If you’ve been working on a novel for six years and it finally comes out, there may be changes in the world that are reflected in your book, and you didn’t realize you were tapped into something that was already part of the conversation. That’s happened a couple of times with some of my writers; they started working on a book years ago that didn’t have a social justice component, but was more a “what if” or this topic needs to be discussed because no one’s talking about it. Then current events happen that make the book even timelier than they meant it to be, and that’s been interesting to see. It’s just another medium for expression; right now a lot of people are upset, worried, and concerned and that will be reflected in art.

EM: This onset of “fake” news, and the conversation about what is true and what is not, has this had an impact on the literary world?

DH: The idea of fake news being targeted during the election and afterwards: it’s not like that’s new, but [it was] the way people were sharing it, from whatever side of the political spectrum [they spoke from]. There are a lot of fake stories that are done either to appeal to their base or to get clicks.

Around middle school, students are taught to verify sources. It’s part of the curriculum. [If] you are going to write a research paper, for instance, you [ask yourself] where your sources are, and you vet your sources; or if you are going to do a contemporary news story, you go to the most original news source that has a direct link to what you are looking for. The core idea of vetting your sources in the age of the internet has gone away. People forget; they share things without verifying. They’re like, “This aligns with my personal beliefs so I’m going to share it.” Then they realize that it’s not based in anything real.

Journalists have for a long time been talking about that, and the idea that the 24-hour news cycle is hard. The more sensational [a story], the more people want to watch, talk about, or share it. But I think, in a good way, there is so much pushback against that right now. People are realizing the value of journalists, whether print or TV, who have the integrity to vet their sources, to have verifiable facts. Nonfiction has always been striving for that. A lot of nonfiction writers, whether they are writing something that is narrative nonfiction, doing interesting research into one topic, or trying to look at history because books survive more than a 24-hour news cycle, are vetting more. What’s happened with online journalism is that things cycle through so quickly, it’s hard to keep up. In the book world, it hasn’t happened nearly as much.

EM: Are you saying that, in the end, this will benefit your nonfiction clients?

Fiction helps distill reality. I heard a writer talk recently about [the question] “Why write fiction,” but fiction is truth. It’s just a different way of presenting it.

DH: I do. Right now people are looking for experts. They’re looking for people who understand the Constitution on a deep legal level; for people who have a record of writing about social justice, covering crime, politics, or the White House; or for those trying to understand our relationship with foreign countries. People are hungry for knowledge right now. Things aren’t running smoothly, so why aren’t they running smoothly? What’s going on? [On] Google and Merriam-Webster, their word of the day often is some kind of legal word, because people are trying to figure out what the emoluments clause is. [So people go to] experts, or those who, through fiction, talk about the human condition and our current [social] climate. Fiction helps distill reality. I heard a writer talk recently about [the question] “Why write fiction,” but fiction is truth. It’s just a different way of presenting it.

EM: Are there trends in the literary world that we should be aware of, outside of politics?

DH: There always are. But they also come and go pretty quickly. Some genre books, whether they are thrillers, YA, supernatural, or fantasy, tend to follow trends. People are definitely on the lookout for something that isn’t similar to what’s been out there before. I can see things that are happening, maybe books that people are interested in, but I try not to follow. I just try to follow the best work.

Bookstores have been doing much better than they have been, especially independent bookstores, but individual books are selling a bit less, because there are so many of them and they are spread out more widely. E-books are down for the first time in many years, hardcover books surpassed e-books. Some of that has to do with book pricing, but it also is like the vinyl resurgence in music. Actually owning a book, feeling and smelling it—people in publishing talk about that all the time—we love physical books. I read e-books too, but part of the reason I am in this business is that I physically love books. Seeing that trend is interesting.

I’ve also seeing a trend towards reading on apps, which is different than reading e-books. [It is] looking at serialized storytelling for people who are constantly on their phones, and [who] maybe won’t read an e-book—but they’ll read something that is on an app and in a community with stuff that they already like. What’s exciting to me is that it is a really diverse time. Publishers are doing really great work from small presses to big presses. They’re always looking for something new.

EM: Is there something that we haven’t gone over that hopeful authors should know?

DH: For some people, [publishing] seems like such a mysterious thing. [But know] that publishing is still a fairly small world, and a lot of us know each other and have known each other for a very long time. It is not a mercenary business; we are in it because we love it and we want to find great work. Even though a lot of my job is to say no, I also hear no a lot from the other side. I submit books to publishers and a lot of times editors will say no, but then if you get one yes or a few yeses, that’s all you need.

For a writer starting out looking for an agent, it’s daunting, because you are like, “I’m going to get a lot of rejections.” And you will. Knowing that rejection is part of it is important, but knowing that rejection actually continues and that you need one yes to find an agent, then you need one yes to get a publishing deal, and one yes to get a great review. It’s both daunting and encouraging, and also just knowing that agents get so many submissions. [In our case], a lot of them aren’t right for us, but I personally know when someone hits “send” to query us, that that’s a huge deal. Finishing a book and having the guts to send it out to get agented is tough and hard. A no isn’t personal at all; it’s just, “this doesn’t work for me or I don’t know what to do with it.” There are lots of reasons why those no’s can happen. Maybe it’s not the right time, or I have something that’s too similar: there are lots of different reasons. I think also knowing that the profit margins are really small. People hear about these giant deals, but the reality is that a lot of them are not huge. Most writers have other jobs, even if they seem super successful and have written like five books: they teach or do other things, because they love writing. That passion is throughout the entire industry.

EM: Is there anything I’ve missed? Or anything you would like to add?

DH: It’s incredibly important for writers to work on their craft. But it is important for them to educate themselves about the business side. I do a lot of that with my clients; there’s a lot of educating them about the ins and outs of how it works. I don’t expect my clients to understand all the minutiae—that’s my job—but having a general sense of how it works is a good idea. It’s great that MFA programs have that ability to talk to professionals and have that contact. It’s helpful to talk to people behind the scenes.

EM: I agree, it’s really helpful. And from this interview I have a pretty clear sense of how far I have to go before approaching someone like you with a query. So I think others will too.

DH: Great, I hope so.

 

*Editor’s Note: Since the time of this interview, Simon & Schuster canceled the book deal with Milo Yiannopoulos

 

Emma Margraf

Emma Margraf is a writer who lives in Olympia, Washington, works for the state government, and writes for several local publications in the South Sound. She has also been published in Manifest Station and is a candidate for an MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles.

Mapping Coordinates of Poor, Queer, and Feminine in the High Desert Air

~an excerpt from the unpublished hybrid memoir Honey & Vinegar: Recipe for an Outlaw

Ruth and I both love horses, wear jeans and plaid shirts, are strong and kind of skittish around boys. We live in remote parts of the desert, where going anywhere means miles of walking or begging a ride. We are both dirt-poor. No shiny new shoes. No hamburger lunches with straw wrappers and easy laughter flying. Free lunch program and the outside edge of a bus seat, grudgingly given. Home-cut hair and hand-me-downs. These rare afternoons of horse care and trail rides and Uno are an escape for us both. Not only from boredom and chores, but of the need to hide our empty pockets.

I will sometimes, but not often, stay the night. The horse corral, her room, these are good places. Full of comfort and easy conversation. Her father, however, poisons every moment he is a part of. His is a sneaky cruelty meant to shame. Anything she values is fair game. Any audience who cares makes it better for him, especially if it is another teenage girl. I never let him within four feet of me, wear my baggiest clothes, and stare hate at him. I wish I could make him disappear for her, don’t even try to disguise it.

Her horse is everything to her. Riding, grooming, training him to barrels, feeling that freedom of movement. She has been carefully growing out and tending his mane and tail for months, getting ready for the rodeo, hoarding change for ribbons and practicing plaits. Every bit of pride her life doesn’t allow for her own sturdy beauty is poured into that chestnut coat, that black horsehair. One afternoon just three days before show-time, her father saunters into the house, swinging a large, rusty pair of shears. “Spring haircut…” he drawls, and she’s already out the door, running for the stable.

Had he come out to view the effect of his deed, he might’ve found how dangerous two downtrodden horse-crazy teenage girls could be with a pitchfork.

I find her swallowing rage and tears, face pressed hard against that broad shoulder, while all around their feet lie ragged hanks of hair. Cut right down to the bone of the tail, and in inch-long clumps along his neck, unrepairable. Unbearable. Had he come out to view the effect of his deed, he might’ve found how dangerous two downtrodden horse-crazy teenage girls could be with a pitchfork. With some predator’s sense of danger, he chooses instead to head to the bar to laugh about how sensitive women folks are.

I stay all day, through endless games of cards, and distract her with fantasies about a horse ranch run only by women. As usual, ramen is the only food available, and not the freshest ramen at that. As we carefully strain the weevils out with the water, mutually ignoring the fact of what we are doing with practiced moves, the dream of owning land stands stark in my mind as impossible. As with the weevils, we ignore it. We need the dream.

*     *     *

The stars seem closer than usual, even accounting for the fact that I’m up a tree. The storm pushes them towards me, or me to them. The leaves flatten against the wind, dream of flying free. Or maybe that’s me again.

The lightning stretches blue-white light across the length of timeworn mountains and the back of my eyelids. My skin is tingling from widow’s peak to toes curled tight against peeling bark.

This rough tumbling of air and electricity, this press of sap and breath and gravity, is another channel entirely. I want to open up like roots to water. Want to climb the sky.

I’m snugged into a thick crook, hugging the trunk, head back and mouth open to better taste the ozone. To better smell the creosote, wet for thunder. Want is deep in me like a jagged splinter, invisible pressure on a bundle of nerves, impossible to grasp with my fingers.

Almost all I’ve known of sex is pain. Passive and stolen away. This rough tumbling of air and electricity, this press of sap and breath and gravity, is another channel entirely. I want to open up like roots to water. Want to climb the sky.

*     *     *

I was raised with a strong sense of justice and fairness, among people who share easily and often. Nobody has much, but nobody goes without. There are plenty of toys, of books, of clothes, none of it new, but no less good for that. Until public school. Until the contests of popular began, and secondhand was second-class. I hold firm against the taunting until high school, when every day is a war. Everything about me is a target. My name, body, brain, all counting against me. I am tired. Tired of have not. Tired of making do.

I don’t remember the first thing I stole, but I remember whole lists of things I didn’t. Things I never had. I have my own rules—no stealing from people or small businesses, or just for fun. I know it doesn’t make it OK, but it makes it bearable. Most of what I steal I give away. None of my friends have much, either, and whether it is caretaker or courtship, I want something to offer. That giving streak, it runs in the family, and I’m not the first to make questionable choices in service of it.

I swipe steel-tipped three-inch heels from a factory discount store on a trip up to Tucson. Slip my fingers in the toes on my way past the table and out the door, so smooth my friend walking next to me doesn’t notice a thing. I wait until we are in the car to tell her, knowing she’ll freak out. Knowing also that she enjoys living vicariously through me and my bad-girl ways. Knowing these shoes hold some fundamental piece of my forming identity that makes them a need, not just a want.

I wear them with tight skirts and silky blouses and a black cotton duster, a wide-brimmed Aussie hat on my head and dark sunglasses. I learn how to walk in them quickly, climbing the stairs to collect the slips that show who is missing from class, and turning (most of) them in. Working in the front office gives me freedom to prowl the halls alone, and gives my friends and other weirdos a break. Not always, but if they really need it. High school is a sequence of forced circumstances, and sometimes it’s just too much. Sometimes the need to slip away and lick our wounds in private, or in drunken company, is too big. Those slips, they get lost on the way to the office. Sometimes.

I steal bras and underwear, makeup, and seven silver rings of varying designs that I give to the group of girls I most often hang out with. Misfits and nerds and poor kids, a Venn diagram of different that gives us safe ground to meet on. It is 1988 and none of us has found the language to hang our thoughts on, but we stand strong together. Spin stories of protection and revenge against men that hurt us, or want to. Support each other’s crushes, even if we share them. Pass notes and make up code names, quirky semiprecious stones. I have no words for the safety net they give me, the hope they embody. I want to give them a token of gratitude, and my clever fingers slip seven shiny sparks of love into my pocket.

 

Sossity Chiricuzio

Sossity Chiricuzio is a queer femme outlaw poet, a working-class storyteller. What her friends’ parents often referred to as a bad influence, and possibly still do. A 2015 Lambda Fellow, she writes as activism, connection, and survival. Current projects include a hybrid memoir, poetry chapbooks, her ongoing column, “Embody,” for PQ Monthly, and the performance duo Sparkle & truth. Chiricuzio has been published in a wide range of journals, including AdrienneGlitterwolfNANO FictionLunch Ticket, and great weather for MEDIA, as well as anthologies such as The Remedy: Queer and Trans Voices on Health and Health Care, Glitter & Grit: Queer Performance from the Heels on Wheels Femme Galaxy, and Not My President: The Anthology of Dissent. For more info: sossitywrites.com.

Photo by J Tyler Huber Photography

An Eon of Thirsts

My haunt my drinking place was
there, lit by a moon
I was not there.
My intoxication
personified, was there
Not I.
On the slippery slope to
that bar, lips craving wine
I was not there
An eon of thirsts
tottering, was there
Not I.

 

 

Maikada

mai-kada thā chāñdnī thī maiñ na thā
ik mujassam be-ḳhudī thī maiñ na thā
mai-kade ke moḌ par ruktī huī
muddatoñ kī tishnagī thī maiñ na thā

 

Translator’s Note:

Translating poetry is not just about fidelity to the words but to the essence of the words. In my approach to translations, I look beyond the words for the meaning, the central play in the original poet’s mind. Where possible, and especially in Urdu ghazals, where there is a strict rhyming and syllabic count sequence, I try to recreate a rhyme.

 

Ajit S. Dutta

Ajit S. Dutta is a Sikh-American author and published poet with an MFA from UC Riverside. In his professional career, Dutta managed a management consulting business with several offices in Africa, Haiti, and India, which brought him in touch with several cultures and countries. Mr. Dutta published a book, A Father’s Poems, in 2000. His poems are also part of an anthology of published poetry in India. In addition to his poetry, Mr. Dutta translates poems from Urdu and Braj Bhasha into English. Dutta currently lives in Oakton, VA.

Photo by: Ajit S. Dutta

Abdul Hameed Adam started writing poetry in his teens and was a master of poems written in clear, simple and, even, pithy words which, nonetheless, touch your heart. He was a career accountant, retiring as the Deputy Assistant Controller of Military Accounts in Pakistan in 1966. He was a heavy drinker which ultimately led to his death.

The First Checkup After My Mother Died

The doctor noticed me fidgeting with my ears
like a toddler, and asked if he could look at them.

Yes, I told him, they had been bothering me,
and I didn’t know why.

After the examination, he asked if I had been
through something traumatic recently—

a breakup, or a loss of a job. Yes, I told him,
not wanting to explain. How did you know?

Well, he told me, this type of infection
is most commonly among people who have

gotten in a pattern of holding back tears.
If you don’t allow those tears to drain the way

they are supposed to, they stay inside, cause a lot of pain.
Do you think this is what’s happening to you? he asked.

Yes, I nodded,
and held back my tears.

 

Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz is the author of six books of poetry, most recently The Year of No Mistakes (Write Bloody Publishing, 2013), which was named TX Book of the Year for Poetry by the Writers’ League of Texas. She is also the author of two books of nonfiction, most recently Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine (Avery Books / Penguin, 2014), which was on The New York Times Best Seller list for three months. Her seventh book of poetry will be released this winter by Write Bloody Publishing. www.aptowicz.com

The Garden Collection: Acrylic Paintings

The Day We Buried My Father

On the day of my father’s funeral, I wake up in a twin bed at his house. Liz is still asleep in the identical twin bed across the room. Dad and Penny bought these beds for Caroline and Cate, my nieces, but as usual, we make accommodations that negate the previous accommodations we’ve made for them, and so, at thirty-five years old, my pregnant wife and I are sleeping in twin beds in a room cluttered by toys that piss me off for reasons I’m still trying to nail down. People tell me I’ll get used to toys like that, but I honestly don’t think so. And the way they tell me pisses me off. They say things like, “Just you wait… You’ll see come June, when you become a daddy.” And they say it with this all-knowing grin on their faces, and I wonder if my child will hate me some day for hating when people say well-intentioned things. Because it feels wrong, but I don’t want to stop hating people for that.

As if a childless person is too mentally stunted to see the benefit of a functional arm. I know I need to get my shoulder fixed but my dad is gone.

I try to guess what time it is, but I have no frame of reference beyond that it’s still dark outside. I don’t sleep well when I need to be marking things off my to-do list. Instead of sleeping, I recount the things on that list over and over, and I try to work out the steps I need to take to complete those tasks. What have I neglected in these days leading up to my father’s death? I try to remember if it’s the electric bill or the gas bill I haven’t put on auto-pay yet. I’ve been ignoring my work email completely. I think I scheduled a meeting with our wellness coordinator for this morning to look at my shoulder. I can’t do much with my left arm and it’s been this way since September when I moved a bookshelf down a flight of stairs, and I have to get it fixed they tell me: “You’re going to need that arm come June when you become a daddy, you’ll see.” As if a childless person is too mentally stunted to see the benefit of a functional arm. I know I need to get my shoulder fixed but my dad is gone.

I make a mental note to reschedule my wellness appointment, but that’s as far as I get on my to-do list. I’m too distracted by what the day will bring. We are putting my father in the ground today and I will never see his body again. I lie in that twin bed and consider my dad’s life until I can’t keep it all in my head at the same time, and I feel like if I can just write it down I can come to terms with it. So, I tiptoe out of the bedroom and walk in the dark to the dining room where the large table is covered with a smorgasbord of food the church ladies brought last night, and I have to move the dishes around a little to make room for my laptop.

There’s a tray of nine homemade cinnamon rolls. I start to cut one from the edge, but the one cinnamon roll in the middle looks so soft, and it has no hard edges because the other eight cinnamon rolls have protected it. I think about how my sister would cut the cinnamon roll from the center because it will undoubtedly be the gooiest. She always does things like that. She will run her finger along the bottom of a chocolate cake tray to get extra chocolate while I will insist on getting only the chocolate goo that is intended for my allotted piece. It pissed me off so much. I remind myself of how my sister strongly suggested Liz and I sleep on the twin beds instead of the room that was built for us with the queen-size, and I decide I won’t be able to handle seeing her get the middle cinnamon roll. And so, I put it on a plate and stick it into the microwave for fifteen seconds before sitting down to write about my dad.

To really understand who Dad was, a reader will have to understand the stock he came from and the heritage he was so proud of. And so, in explaining my dad, I begin writing about his grandfather, whom Dad will soon be sharing a patch of ground with. Maybe I get too into the weeds, but after a couple of hours of writing, I’m still ninety-some-odd years away from the part of the story where my dad is born. That’s when Liz emerges from the darkness into the light of the dining room. She has this look she gives me during the early morning hours, when she doesn’t know how long I’ve been up and she finds me at my computer. It’s a look that says she didn’t like me not being there when she woke up because she missed me while she was sleeping. Even if we were in twin beds. That look is a reminder of how much she loves me, and I take comfort there on this day that has already been committed to both formal and informal sadnesses.

Liz gets a cinnamon roll and laughs at the vacancy in the middle of the pan.

“You didn’t,” she says.

But I assure her I did. I am eating my grief, and it becomes clear to me that my grief warrants a second cinnamon roll. We heat them up and share a fork so there is one less utensil to wash later.

The others wake up and trickle into the kitchen for coffee and to survey the breakfast options. Penny, her friend Anita, my sister’s family. I sip my tea and watch my little nieces sitting at the bar eating cinnamon rolls that are the size of their faces. They’re still in their pajamas—cotton gowns with Disney princesses on them. Cate, the five-year-old, asks why my tea is in a coffee cup instead of a regular glass. Because it’s hot, I tell her. That’s not tea, she says. Yes, it is. It’s hot tea. No, it’s not, Gunkel. I don’t know what to tell you, Cate—it’s hot tea. She’s confused and embarrassed at the things she does not know yet because she is only five, so she changes the subject.

“Talk like St. Patrick’s Day!” she says. That’s her way of saying she wants me to use an Irish accent, but my Irish accent is terrible and I don’t want to do it in front of adults. When I tell her as much, she is unsatisfied.

“Talk like Mommy!” Caroline, the nine-year-old, says.

I can do that, I tell them.

The girls look at me expectantly with their big, little-girl eyes, waiting for my impression of their mother. “Caroline, Caroline—hey, listen to me for a second.” Caroline thinks I’m talking to her in real-time, rather than doing an impression and she drops her head down to listen to what I’ll say next. Chris, my brother-in-law, is listening and he laughs.

“That doesn’t sound like Mommy,” Cate says.

Chris assures his daughters it does sound like Mommy.

“Talk like Daddy!” Cate says.

I tell Chris to say something and then I mimic the line as best I can and the girls laugh.

“Talk like Penny!” “Talk like Aunt Liz!” “Talk like Nene!” I roll out my best impressions for my nieces and it’s fun, but I can feel the inevitable conclusion long before we get there.

“Talk like Papa!” Cate says.

I can’t think of what my now-deceased father sounded like. For years, when I thought of him, I thought of how he would say, “Good grief,” when something had completely exasperated his patience—quite often his son—but the girls wouldn’t know about that. Ever since that first brain hemorrhage three and a half years ago, Dad had all the patience in the world as he endured one thing after the other—the stroke and the physical therapy and the occupational therapy and all the rehabilitation and the shitty food and not being allowed to drive. The seizure while behind the wheel shortly after he got his license back, the wreck that it caused, the tumor on his brain that caused the seizure, the house fire in the middle of the night that nearly killed him because the medicine he had to take at the time made him sleep hard, the tumor that came back on his brain after they told him there was a 99% chance it wouldn’t, the four tumors on his spine they stumbled across by chance moments before they went in after the tumor on his brain, the sleepless days and nights in the hospital that Dad called the “beepin’est place he’d ever been in.” He had times when he could barely breathe, yet he endured the goddamned hiccups as a side effect for two years. And of course, there were the treatments, the treatments, the treatments, and there was the deterioration of the man who let me steer on the dirt road just before we reached our house when I was six. The man who told me to watch the ball and keep my elbow up. The man who took me bear hunting with a BB gun because he just wanted to go to a piece of land he loved and walk around there with me for a while. He just wanted to give me a life I would enjoy. And I hope I can do that as well for my son as he did for me.

Cate was two when Dad got sick and from that time on, so much of his communication was reduced to short but strained yesses or no’s—Are you cold? Yes. Are you hungry? No. I try to think of an impression of her Papa that she will recognize, but I can only think of the last words he gave me. Three days before he died, Dad lifted his head barely off the pillow, which required significant effort, so I knew he meant to tell me something important. I was alone with him, sitting at the side of his bed, and I leaned in so he wouldn’t have to speak any louder than he had to. “What is it, Dad?” I whispered. He had no medicine that day and so I knew he had his incomparable wit about him. I put my hand behind his head to help him lift it.

He looked at me through what became his foggy, gray eyes and he said, “Just. Shoot. Me.” And he looked at me with what I think was hope.

He looked at me through what became his foggy, gray eyes and he said, “Just. Shoot. Me.” And he looked at me with what I think was hope.

“Dad, I can’t do that,” I said.

“But maybe, you can,” he said.

“It’ll be over soon,” I told him.

A stranger might interpret Dad’s asking me to end his life as weakness, but I assure you it was a testament to the dignity with which he lived. Long before he ever got sick, Dad said, “Son, if I’m ever stuck in bed and unable to care for myself with no hope of recovery, just shoot me.” And now he was living up to those courageous and selfless words he’d laid out for me then. My father was strong and dignified, even in those final days—especially in those final days.

He looked cold and I saw his hand trying to pull the plaid blanket, but he was too weak to move it. I straightened it for him and tucked it around his body, up to his neck like he liked it. I asked him if he remembered tucking me in when I was a little boy. He nodded slowly. I told him how I remember watching him tuck my sister into her bed across the hall before coming to tuck me in. And how after he would tuck me in I’d watch him go back into her bedroom and turn on the lamp so they could check her for ticks. She always claimed to have ticks as a way to get him to come back in to see her. And when he’d finally turn out her lamp for good, I’d fear what might be waiting for me in the dark—a possessed Teddy Ruxpin, or an animal of some kind just outside my window, maybe—but I told him how I found security in the sound of the television coming through the wall behind my headboard. Because as long as I could hear that television, I knew my dad was awake on the other side of the wall and would ward off anything that might get me. And if they attacked, he would use his pickax to destroy them, just like he did that copperhead I almost stepped on in our driveway. And I’d be reassured by his strength and his ability to keep anything bad from ever happening to me.

A tear fell down my dying father’s cheek as I conveyed the memory to him. I wiped it with my hand and I told him I loved him and that he was a good dad to have. I sat with him until he fell asleep and I never saw him awake after that.

I don’t know how to do an impression of my father that the girls will recognize and I am stalling until finally Caroline says, with attitude, “Okay, moving on…” the way nine-year-old girls do. And we stop the game and I go to the bedroom with the twin beds and the toys that will hopefully stop pissing me off “once that baby gets here,” and I pull out the suit and tie I will wear on this day when we will bury my father.

 

Guy Choate earned an MFA at the University of New Orleans. Among other literary journals, his work has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly and Cobalt Review, and he is currently working on a manuscript about his attempt to walk across the country with his friend Rory. Guy is the founder and director of the Argenta Reading Series in North Little Rock, Arkansas, where he lives with his wife, Liz. They are expecting their first child, to whom Guy addresses his photo-a-day blog, which you can follow at getoutofthisplace.tumblr.com.

Photo by Joshua Asante

Tara Ison, Author

Tara IsonI read Tara Ison’s first novel, A Child Out of Alcatraz, shortly after its publication in 1997. I’d spent a good chunk of my own adolescence in San Francisco living in Fort Mason while my father was stationed at Oakland Army Base, across the East Bay. At the time, Fort Mason was a smattering of standard-duplex base housing just steps away from the Marina. Whenever I needed room to breathe, I ran down the hill to the water, where the once-infamous Alcatraz prison loomed between San Francisco and Marin County. When my best friend gave me Ison’s novel, I was intrigued to read about everyday life long ago on that mysterious island during the decades that it served as a formidable prison. What I didn’t realize was that in reading it, I would find a little piece of myself—the experience of growing up female in a cloistered, patriarchal environment was not unlike my own experience growing up in a military family.

Since the late nineties, Tara Ison has asserted herself as a fierce feminist voice. In addition to A Child Out of Alcatraz, she has published two novels: The List (2011) and Rockaway (2013). Her latest short story collection, Ball (2015), challenges us to witness female characters breaking beyond convention, often placing themselves firmly within situations that move far beyond the comfortable. Likewise, her recently published essay collection, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies (2015), is an exploration of female identity through a cinematic lens both profoundly personal and political: a must-read for anyone who grew up searching for her reflection on the screen. Ison refuses to bow to the edict that women must be protected or sanctified. Instead, Ison’s women are free to act, think, and breathe on the page—to be fully human, to be flawed, to take up space, to occupy life in complicated ways. In her essay collection’s concluding piece, “How to be a Writer,” Tara Ison speaks to every woman who is struggling to find her purpose as writer in the current political climate when she asserts: “the writer’s job isn’t to save the world; it’s just to keep the faith, and write.”

As a fan of hers since her debut, I was thrilled to talk with Tara Ison about writing, feminism, and the female experience, particularly at a time when many women are experiencing new heights of fear and outrage, as well as the occasional spark of hope. I spoke with Ison by phone on February 17, 2017. Our conversation was, without a doubt, one of the sparks of my winter.

Melissa Benton Barker: I spent my high school years in San Francisco while my father was stationed at Oakland Army Base. My best friend and I read A Child Out of Alcatraz together shortly after it came out. The novel, which is about a girl whose father is a guard on Alcatraz, resonated with me because it was about a girl growing up within a patriarchal, authoritarian environment, and it reminded me of my experience growing up as a military brat. I felt like I was seeing this particular piece of my own experience represented in a book for the first time. In your acknowledgements, you wrote about your research process, including interviewing a man who grew up on Alcatraz, and who became hostile when you revealed that you were writing about a female protagonist, as if a girl’s story is not worth being written. How did you react to this?

Tara Ison: That was such an incredible moment for me, in that it clarified and focused and validated what I was trying to say. It hit me on a very visceral level. It hit me in my body—the dismissal of the female experience. But I didn’t fully appreciate or understand the power of what he was saying until a bit later. I couldn’t put it within the context of the larger dismissal of women’s experiences. I don’t know that I was able to tap into [my] anger about it. I can now. One thing I do remember feeling was gratitude that he was so open in his condescension and ignorance and arrogance in dismissing the female perspective. The mere casualness about it, his blatant casualness, his lack of shame in saying what he was saying, was a gift, because it really showed me in very clear words how prevalent that attitude still [was]. That was twenty years ago. Now we talk a lot about racism, bigotry, sexism and where is it hidden, when is it the soft bigotry and when is it in your face. There’s almost something to be said for when bigotry and prejudice is so in your face, because when it’s so open you can deal with it in an entirely different way. And you can confront and begin to appreciate the more subtle nuances of bigotry.

MBB: What drew you to writing the story of girls and women in this heightened patriarchal environment?

TI: I had always been interested in Alcatraz the way everybody is interested in Alcatraz. I had taken a tour of Alcatraz and somewhere in the tour there was one sentence about women and children, families of the prison staff who lived on the island. It was just one sentence, within this tour. It was this tossed-off comment, this passing reference and it was swallowed up by all of the other information about Alcatraz, the most threatening, foreboding place in the country. The violence, the brutality of the system, and the juxtaposition between [this and family life on Alcatraz] really stuck with me. I started researching [the lives of the families living on the island]. There was not a lot of information.

As I was researching the prison itself and how it was run, I began to see a parallel between the power structure of the prison—the triangle of warden, guard, inmate—and the classic nuclear family structure of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s of father, mother, child. They matched up in terms of the power dynamic, in terms of societal convention, the definition of roles, the definition of behavior, and I thought there was something there. In focusing on the story of a mother and daughter within this system, ideally I was revealing a larger dynamic that I wouldn’t necessarily feel qualified to discuss. I’m not a historian, I’m not a sociologist, but I could tell the story of this one woman and this one daughter and the juxtaposition of this female-centric experience set against this incredibly masculine, patriarchal structure.

I want to create a psychological or emotional aneurysm for my characters.

Something that I also wanted to be careful about was that it wasn’t as simple as the men were the villains and the women were the oppressed victims. I cared deeply about the father in the story, and I saw him almost every bit as much as a victim of the system as the women were. His need to fulfill what he felt was his role as a strong head of the family, the provider, the male presence, the patriarch—he didn’t know anything else. For him the definition of a man, a good husband, a good father, was something that he cared deeply about and he did the best he could with the model that he was given as well.

MBB: In your recent work, you represent the female experience in a way that pushes the reader beyond comfortable notions about feminine identity. Your 2015 short story collection, Ball, fearlessly portrays unexpected women: the vengeful, the shallow, the violent, the “crazy.” Would you talk about what drew you to the unexpected in these stories?

TI: The emotions that the women in these stories are experiencing to a large degree are the emotions that we all have. They are the darker angels of our nature. The pride, the fear, the anger, the jealousy, the insecurity. And I think to some degree we all experience those. We might be in denial about some of them, or we process them in healthy, very functional ways. I am interested in characters who get stuck in emotional turmoil that they can’t talk their way out of, they can’t process their way through. Very often they are unwilling to admit to themselves how deeply immersed they are in the dysfunctional dynamic or the disturbing emotions that they’re experiencing. I want to push them even one step further. I want to create a psychological or emotional aneurysm for my characters. I want to get them to the point where the pressure of either trying to deny the ugly emotions that they’re feeling or the pressure of just trying to restrain or redirect themselves fails until it tips them over the edge into a behavior or a coping mechanism that is not allowed. It’s beyond dysfunctional. Sometimes they get beyond disturbing, but it tips them over into a kind of darkness that isn’t allowed. It might be allowed in fiction. It’s certainly not allowed in real life. That moment is what interests me more than anything. It’s pushing the character just that one step further. I consider myself a realist writer, yet in some of the stories I slightly cross the line into fantastical or absurdist. I’m interested in that very fine line between what is real and what steps just slightly beyond that.

MBB: Do you consider the protagonists in “Ball” (who has an ultimately destructive relationship with her dog) or “Wig” (who is having an affair with her dying best friend’s husband) to be unsympathetic? What informed your choice to write through the lens of the unsympathetic character?

TI: The whole question of “unsympathetic” for writers is interesting in that we’re often told as a criticism that [our] characters are unsympathetic. The issue of whether [a character] is sympathetic: I don’t think that’s the right question to be asking. As a reader, I am not interested in sympathetic characters. I’m interested in characters I can relate to. I’m interested in characters I can understand. I don’t think I was ever consciously wondering—am I taking this character too far? Is this character unsympathetic? From that perspective, all of my characters are deeply unsympathetic. I can relate to all of the characters if not their ultimate behavior. I can relate to the darkness of some of their emotions. I always tell myself as a writer, as a woman, as a human being, if I can relate to that emotion, other people can relate to that emotion as well, and if I’m tapping into a kind of emotional/psychological/spiritual darkness, I don’t think I’m an outlier in identifying those dark places of the soul. I think that those exist within all of us, again, to varying degrees. And to varying degrees we deal, we process those darker aspects of our emotional life. So to me, my characters are just very human. Seriously flawed human, but very human. Even if I push them to behaviors that some might consider inhuman.

MBB: From a craft perspective, what techniques did you draw upon to allow the reader to relate to and/or see themselves in the flaws of these characters?

TI: For me, story always comes down to the question of what the character needs. There’s a Ken Kesey quote that anybody who’s ever had a class with me has heard me say a dozen times. It really gets to the core of storytelling. “Story is about somebody who needs something, and what he’s going to go through to get it.” That always brings me back to why I tell stories in the first place.

If the writer has a clear sense of what the character needs, then the story writes itself to some degree. A need is the fuel of the story.

If I look at “Ball,” if I look at “Wig,” if I look at any of the stories in the collection, the characters are consumed by a need for something. And the action that they take to get that need met becomes increasingly dysfunctional, dark, deranged, but I think that need is what defines us, what makes us human. If the writer has a clear sense of what the character needs, then the story writes itself to some degree. A need is the fuel of the story. Because we all have needs, that is what humanizes us. When I write a story or a novel, if I lose sight of what a character needs and what the obstacle to the need is, and what she is doing in order to overcome the obstacle, if I lose sight of that, I’ve wandered out of the story. And when I’m writing a story if I’m feeling lost or bored, or confused, adrift, I will stop and I will consciously ask myself those questions: What does my character need right now? What is the obstacle? What is it that my character is doing about it? [These questions] will always bring me back to the story in a way that allows the story to move forward and increase the narrative momentum.

MBB: Many of the stories in Ball are explicit in their depiction of female sexuality, which is an area that, unfortunately, remains relatively rare in literary fiction. It’s refreshing to read stories that include sexuality without centering the male perspective and male pleasure, while remaining explicit in their physicality. Sometimes women hesitate to write graphically about sexuality. Have you always felt comfortable doing so? If not, how did you arrive at this place?

TI: I have never felt comfortable writing about sex. I can’t imagine I ever will feel comfortable writing about sex. There are moments in those stories where I remember I sat there with my hands poised above the keyboard, unable to type out certain words or certain phrases, certain descriptions, because I was so incredibly uncomfortable with what I was doing. I was uncomfortable with the mechanics of it, because I have written many sentences of somebody getting dressed, or getting into a car, but I had very little experience in forming sentences drawing on explicit sexuality. From a mechanical perspective—what is the correct word to use, how to structure the sentence, how to avoid cliché—that was very difficult for me. I felt almost like I was having to create a new language for myself. Also, emotionally and psychologically, I felt very naked. I felt very exposed. I thought: are people going to attribute this kind of sexuality to me? If so, why should I care about that? Where do I end and the characters begin? But what I always tried to come back to in writing explicitly sexual scenes was the emotional context and the psychology. For my characters, sex is a means to an end, so it really does come back to what I was saying earlier, about what is it that the characters need in that particular moment and how they are using sex to try and get a need fulfilled. I think a little bit of explicit sexuality goes a long way. [I tried] to keep the balance of the explicitness of the sexual language, the sexual positioning, the description of sexual activity, with what is really fueling the scene. For me [the fuel of the scene] is rarely lust. It tends far more often to be a more vulnerable moment for the character, where the character is grappling with something very profound and sexuality is a way to work through it.

MBB: It’s helpful to hear that even as a seasoned writer you are still pushing through discomfort in your work.

TI: Yes, I’m working on a new story right now, and I’m really struggling. I want it to have a sexual dynamic. And it’s every bit as awkward for me as it has been with any story I’ve written in the past. I feel like I’ve never written about sex in my entire life. I don’t know how to do it. The struggle continues. The discomfort continues.

MBB: That’s probably what makes the writing so interesting. It seems like you went into a lot of cultural taboos with this book. I’m wondering if you received any pushback for choosing to write frankly about sexuality or about unsympathetic female characters? If so, how have you reacted to this?

TI: Absolutely. Not with every story. For example, the story “Bakery Girl,” which is one of the more sexually explicit, I was approached by a website called nerve.com that features very literary sexual writing. I knew that’s what they wanted, so I went into that story deliberately looking to explore a sexual dynamic in a relatively explicit way. I didn’t get any pushback on that one. But yes, for some of the other stories I’ve had editors who were hesitant, who questioned, do you really want to do this? The best example would be the story “Ball.” I had submitted the story to Tin House and I heard back from the editor: “Tara, I really like the story. I’m submitting it above me to the next level, and we’re curious, are you willing to change the ending?” This was my first published short story, by the way. I had a dark night of the soul. I emailed a former professor of mine from grad school who had read the story and I explained the situation and I said, “What do I do?” He wrote back and said, “Sometimes you really need to be open-minded and listen to your editor. The editor is very experienced, this is an outstanding journal, you want the story published, and sometimes it’s a good idea to do what the editor is asking you to do”—pause —“but not with this story.” And I thought, okay, I have permission to stick to my guts. I wrote the editor back this long, rambling, “I’m so sorry, I would really like to change the story because I’d hoped you’d accept it … but I cannot change the ending of the story.” And he wrote back and said, “No, no, no, I’m happy with the ending, but our senior editor is having a really hard time with it. I’ll keep trying.” It took about four months, and he wrote me back and said, “Okay, the story’s in.” I was very proud about that. Cut to many years later when the collection was being assembled, and my editor of the collection said, “The stories mostly have been published. There’s a little editing to do, but I do want to talk to you about the ending of the ‘Ball’ story.” He didn’t so much want me to change the ending, but he did want me to soften it a little bit. He wanted some revision to how I was phrasing a couple of things, and I said no. I wouldn’t change it. I changed other things. Revision can also be a very collaborative process. But you just have to listen to your gut as a writer, and that particular story was one that I’ve had to push back on, I’ve had to fight for, on more than one occasion. And it’s worked out. I’ve never regretted it. It’s probably one of my favorite stories.

MBB: In your 2015 collection of personal essays, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies, you depict the tension you’ve experienced between being a “good girl” and taking on more subversive identities, such as, to quote the chapter headings: Lolita, slut, drunk, and Mrs. Robinson. How does this tension inform the choices you find yourself making as a writer?

The whole thing with being a good girl—don’t make waves, get along with people, don’t be too loud, don’t be difficult, be responsible—I think that those are some aspects of womanhood, of femininity, that I, along with so many women, have internalized as a way to move through the world.

TI: The whole thing with being a good girl—don’t make waves, get along with people, don’t be too loud, don’t be difficult, be responsible—I think that those are some aspects of womanhood, of femininity, that I, along with so many women, have internalized as a way to move through the world. It might be the reason I’m a writer, because a lot of pressure builds up when you feel you should always be a good girl and play by the rules. Writing, for me, is an escape valve. It allows me to access, explore, depict, express, and communicate things about my experience of the world where I’m not such a good girl. It’s at a safe distance. My name is on the cover, my name is on the story, but I am able to fall back on, Hey, it’s fiction, it’s just a story, it’s a character I’ve created. To some degree, every character is an aspect of myself working through something I might not have the courage or the strength to deal with in my own real life, but I force my character to deal with some of those things.

MBB: If writing is an escape valve where you can express things that are “unacceptable to express” as a woman in our culture, was writing nonfiction, publishing this book of personal essays, a different experience for you?

TI: Yeah, there’s no scrim. With fiction, I can say, Oh, I make things up, I make characters up. I think that was why I didn’t feel either capable or interested in writing a straight memoir. I was interested in looking at this actual conflict between the roles we feel compelled to play in real life and the roles that are presented to us through cinema. That took it a little bit out of myself. It gave me something else to talk about. It gave me another way to explore some of the role-playing we do in real life in a larger context. I love movies, so I was really happy to talk about movies. But by working through some of these questions of sexuality, addiction, mental health, faith, creativity, all of the themes of the book, and by working through those in relationship to my relationship to characters—Mrs. Robinson, Lolita, Lillian Hellman—I was able to talk about those cinematic role models and their struggles as a way to illustrate my own questioning of different roles. Yes, it’s closer to home than fiction because I don’t have the ability to say this isn’t really me, but I had company in doing it. If I’m trying to figure out my feelings about having a sexual relationship with a man seventeen years my junior, I wasn’t alone in that because I had Mrs. Robinson keeping me company on that journey.

MBB: In January 2016, you published an article on Salon entitled, “Too stupid to be c*nts”: The new normal of toxic male entitlement on campus,” which deals with your experience as a professor being confronted with casual linguistic misogyny from a male student. The essay speaks to the everyday use of derogatory language directed towards women and girls. How do you think this has impacted our culture? How, if at all, have your views on this changed since the essay was written?

TI: First of all, that was not my title for the essay and I’m not really happy with the title. I was unhappy with the subtitle about toxic masculinity on campus because I thought it was a click-bait title. I was unhappy with defining the essay before somebody might have a chance to read the essay. To me, an essay is an exploration, an essay is inquiry, and once you term something toxic masculinity, that’s making a statement and it shuts down some of the inquiry of the essay itself. That aside, in the essay I refer to a phrase that Toni Morrison uses: “disinterested violence.” That kind of casual disparagement. That term you used, “casual linguistic misogyny” [reminds me of] the guy we talked about earlier, the guy [I interviewed about] Alcatraz, who was so open in his condescension and disparagement of women. The misogyny has become so casual and acceptable. [In the essay], here is this kid walking across campus, speaking very loudly on his cell phone, and speaking about women in an incredibly ugly way, and what was most uncomfortable to me about that moment was that he wasn’t riled up. He wasn’t venting. He wasn’t angry, even. He was casual about it. There’s something very, very disturbing about that casualness. In the essay, I was thinking about how once that kind of attitude gets watered down to the point where it’s permeating casual speech, casual conversation, it spreads. I think it can spread very, very easily, more so than a single violent outburst of anger can. Because people will immediately put their guard up against a rant. But this wasn’t a rant. It gets into the bloodstream more easily that way, and spreads more easily that way. And I don’t see it going away any time soon in our culture. I think if anything it’s spreading. That’s what I was looking to explore in the essay. My feeling is that it hasn’t changed, certainly in the last year. If anything, I’ve become even more discouraged at the level of discourse and I think a lot of people are grappling with this right now. The level of discourse has been so degraded and has descended to a level of such ignorance and intolerance and thoughtlessness. It’s happening everywhere, and it’s very disturbing.

MBB: In your commencement speech at the Antioch University Los Angeles MFA program in December 2016, you quoted Junot Diaz on the importance of providing human beings with a reflection of themselves, in order to prevent us from becoming monsters. [The quote is from Diaz’s speech at Bergen County Community College in Paramus, New Jersey: “If you want to make a human being a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”] In your opinion, how do readers benefit from seeing themselves reflected in literature? What do you see as the role of the writer in this particular political climate in the United States?

TI:  There is a responsibility of the artist to reflect back upon ourselves, upon society, upon the world. When it is reflected back to us it inspires a kind of self-reflection, self-inquiry, that I think [is] a more subtle way of getting human beings to confront ourselves. It’s why, even though I write nonfiction, I still primarily think of myself as a fiction writer. You can disguise the interrogation. If you’re holding up characters grappling with things, it allows the reader, invites the reader, to reflect upon their own experiences, attitudes, beliefs, needs, struggles, behavior, in a friendlier way than direct confrontation. I think that’s the power of fiction. Conversely, the flip side to the reflection is that fiction, literature, allows us access into another human being’s inner life, their consciousness, their perspective, in a very unique way. I joke with my students that the only way to get into someone else’s head more intimately than fiction is with an MRI or a CAT scan. We are allowed access into another person’s experience through fiction in a way that we will never be allowed even to understand our best friends, or our siblings, or our parents. There’s a greater intimacy that is allowed in fiction. By the very nature of spending some time in another being’s heart and soul, it creates a sense of empathy; [it creates the] ability to appreciate our shared humanity. In addition to reflecting back on ourselves and ideally triggering a kind of self-inquiry into our own thoughts, feelings, behaviors, it allows us to begin to understand the experience of other human beings.

MBB: As we wrap up our interview, do you have any last words of wisdom for emerging feminist writers?

TI: I feel that anything I want to say diminishes how hard it is. What I want to say is: Don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks or tells you. Be fearless. Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke. Tell your truth. Be strong. We need your voice. But that’s all easier said than done, and those sound to me like cheery slogans. There’s so much work to be done. I am terrified with every sentence I write. But we have to do it. And we have to keep telling women’s stories and being true to their experience.

 

Melissa Benton Barker is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. A Navy brat and native of nowhere, she currently lives in a small Midwestern town where she spends her time imagining stories, wandering in the woods, and raising children—sometimes simultaneously! Her work appears in Lunch TicketSmokelong Quarterly, and Literary Mama.

She Is a Battleground

[fiction]

Twelve-year-old butter boys face the old Chinese woman they call Baboochka. Imagine: the eighty-year-old woman on their apartment’s shared front stoop, the silver moon caught in her tousled hair, her yellow sweater vest, her milky-white Velcro E-Z Steppers. She jostles grocery bags from one hip to the other as she digs in her pockets for keys. She grumbles about the checker at the vegetable market pocketing her change, about her arthritic fingers too weak to open jars but too strong for the wet lettuce bag, about the bus driver that did not hear her call out for a stop. And now, the butter boys on her stoop who whistle for sesame candy, beg to see inside her bags, throw dirty leaves in her hair when she refuses.

The old woman knows that in two years the boys will become teenage fools: lanky legs, smelling, soiled underpants, an erection when someone taps their shoulder or sloshes in a puddle or fires a gun. It doesn’t take much. The fools will come home from school and find the old woman weaving long green blades of grass into her house slippers like laces, her purse filled with acorns, resting against her stockinged feet. The fools will laugh and point their sticky fingers at Baboochka, some so close they leave fingerprints on her eyeglasses.

And the old woman will choose to fight back. In her own true myth, she is not a corny grandmother, soft like a pillow. She is not Mother Dear. She is not Lady Khorosho, just waiting to become a ghost. She does not weep and cry and mumble. No.

She is a battleground. Lui yun is her real name, she will tell the fools, Go and puk gai. She is a person. She is sex. She is useful poison. She is a survivor of wars. She is a dream. She is a sarcastic beast. She is the skeleton key who understands little criminals. She will yank the fools’ earlobes with joy, grab handfuls of shirt and rip them a new hemline.

And the arrogant snots will call her mad, crazy, a shithead, a starry buttock, a whore. But the old woman will laugh and laugh, howl like a bolshy dame. The sound, quick, scratching, the sweetest noise you’ve ever heard. Like an ancient drug, with chipped teeth like tin bells, a tongue like a rake, a fighting drive to live, a horror heart in woolly slippers.

 

Nancy Au

Nancy Au is a queer bisexual writer, artist, and teacher living in Oakland, California. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Pithead Chapel, The Pinch, Beloit Fiction Journal, Hermeneutic Chaos Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Word Riot, Liminal Stories, Foglifter, Forge Literary Magazine, and Midnight Breakfast, among others. She was awarded the Spring Creek Project residency, which is dedicated to artists and writers inspired by nature and science. She has an MFA from San Francisco State University, teaches creative and science writing at California State University Stanislaus, and is cofounder of The Escapery.

“She is a Battleground” is a Best Small Fictions 2018 winner, selected by Aimee Bender. Congratulations to Nancy Au!

Excerpt from The Very Troubling Confession of the Man Who Took Down the Greatest Son of a Bitch the Earth has Borne*

© Éditions Inculte (2014)

*or who shot him first
or who shot him second
or who is the first to have seen him dead
or who is the one who in the helicopter sat on his body

or who made it all up
to have a story to tell

 

Based on real facts and first-hand accounts.

1/ He is not Argentinian he is American he is not Belizean he is American he is not Bolivian he is not Brazilian he is not Canadian he is not Colombian he is not Costa Rican he is not Ecuadorian he is United Statesian he is American him

he is white he is American he has light brown hair he is American he has Prada sunglasses ($350) he is handsome he is brawny he is wearing shorts here on an American base here in Afghanistan

he is unshaven he is wearing a Ralph Lauren polo shirt ($135) he is sweating he is six-foot-two-inches tall he is solid he is thirty-five years old he is a sharpshooter he smells of hot sand he has tattoos on his arms and his neck and his back and his leg he is holding an American football he is American he is tall he is American

he is the one in battle gear with night-vision glasses with his flask on his belt who is going to fire

two shots in the forehead

then one shot in the forehead

who is going to shoot down

this son of a bitch

he is the one in battle gear with night-vision glasses and his flask filled with piss who is going to fire two shots

then one shot

right in the middle of the forehead

of this dirty son of a bitch

he is an American he is not a Guatemalan he is not a Honduran he is not a Nicaraguan he is not a Panamanian not a Paraguayan not a Peruvian but an American a real American a real American

He is thirty-five years old

he is the one who is going to shoot down the greatest son of a bitch on the earth

the next day

three bullets in the forehead of the greatest son of a bitch that the earth has borne

—with his flask filled with piss

fuck

 


2/ He is in the middle of other Marines

other guys around ten twenty thirty

on an American base in a desert in Afghanistan here in the heat of a desert and all of them are in this stone desert here they are

tattooed as well solid as well virile as well handsome as well strong as well terribly appealing as well enough to bring the girls to their knees the queers too all getting hot in front of the males in uniform

He plays ball with other Marines on this advance base of the United States of America in an Afghani desert

wearing a Ralph Lauren polo shirt wet with sweat that outlines his muscles out here in the stone desert in the middle of bunkers of sheds of soldiers of helicopters of fences and under the American flag

that is waving

the colors red white blue of the American flag the banner of the free world

Woah

It’s Saturday

they have been waiting here for two days under the banner of the free world in the middle of helicopters of sheds of barracks they play ball they throw horse shoes around a post they sweat their muscles glisten their polo shirts wet and their movements terribly aesthetic they wait they are unshaven they are handsome they straddle chairs they get up they sit down they play they walk they straddle they wait

Sean (his name has been changed) Sean he has his iPod Nano ($149) in his pocket with the song blasting in his ears by the band Game singing Red Nation of red blood Satan

to shoot down

and to fuck the world

until a slut

in Louboutin heels

makes him come in his sorbet-colored Ferrari

the sluts on their knees the males standing the sluts on their knees in front of the males

I make the blood run I make the blood squirt and

it sets the tempo the desert and the stones and the terribly aesthetic movements of the Marines sitting standing playing and not playing and they’re waiting the longest is waiting for something to happen

for the green light

to put their terribly aesthetic bodies

into action

 


3/ They are ready

to go to attack to fight to kill to fuck to take out this fucking bastard of a motherfucker like all the other bastards they have already brought down—making blood run

enemies they are always fucking assholes

they don’t count them anymore these terrorists these bastards these sons of bitches that they have brought down

it’s their job—go inside a house clean it out

leave

they are trained to do that they are always ready and ready from the start almost from birth

twenty-three guys who like action they have that in common that and living on the fringes

always on the edge

they could have ended up in the slammer they know this they say

it’s evening

they could have ended up in a gang and tattooed with sluts on their knees wearing Louboutin heels they laugh but they chose Good

yes

Good

and making blood run to defend the free world that is why they are here why they are hot why they are sweating why they are tense why they are concentrating why they are preparing

Brad (his name has been changed) he inspects his weapon—my gun is my best friend

he oils his weapon—my weapon is human

he cleans the cannon of his weapon—my gun and me we will pretend

he checks his cartridge clip—this is how it is until America’s victory

he’s chewing here—in the middle of the guys and the helicopter rotors eating up the sand

a piece of nicotine gum because he gave up smoking three years ago

 


4/ It’s evening

there are individual rooms it’s basic like in a motel individual beds and individual bathrooms and a common room and the television and all the cable channels and a kitchen to heat up pizza in

they are wearing T-shirts with the veins on the arms shining when they lift the cans of soda they are sitting on the sofas in the common room

they are watching cable they are talking they are really worked up

watching Entourage they like Entourage and watching The Shield they like The Shield and watching Sons of Anarchy now they’re talking about Kip Epps aka Half Sack in the series because he says he had a testicle ripped out in Iraq so he went to war and that already

that’s something

and Half Sack he says in the series that having one less ball turns the girls on the girls who to be patriotic lick the skin of the empty sack thinking they’re being patriotic it makes them makes the guys laugh but at the same time it makes them think about all the guys they’ve lost during assignments

so they talk more about the testicle so that they don’t think about the guys they’ve lost and losing a testicle is really annoying it doesn’t stop you getting hard but still it’s ugly it’s weird I’d rather die even if they’ve seen dead guys completely mangled shreds coming out of shreds

fluids organs

it’s a hell of a fucking machine when you’re alive your body

and they don’t want to think about that even if they’re thinking about it as well

and they talk about testicles so that they don’t talk about the assignment because it’s dynamite this mission it’s dynamite so don’t talk about it

me I’d rather be totally dead and in pieces than walk around with a half a nut sack and you what do you think

me so long as I can get hard that’s the main thing

me if I’ve only got one ball fuck that must be weird what do you do to grab to hold your balls in your hands if you’ve only got one imagine the emptiness in your hands instead of two you’ve only got one it must feel like something’s missing

just in terms of weight

And they eat pizza

Which is a vegetable in the United States of America

 


5/ It’s a game

Life—a gamble every day’s a fucking gamble

Lil Wayne says that in Red Nation

either you win or you lose

it’s always been like that they say with their legs crossed on top of the table and their thigh muscles nice and tight in their shorts either you win or you lose

blood like lace it’s red just like when you die and the chicks they’ll only suck off the victorious

they’re waiting for the guy the one who will protect them with his pants around his ankles there the girl she feels protected it’s all well and good using fancy words for it’s always been like this right from the start look at Gemma in Sons of Anarchy she’s not just a slut even if she’s put out a lot she’s a mother and she’s a grandmother as well

and they laugh with their legs crossed on top of the table saying do you get it do you realize we’re going to screw this son of a bitch

this fucking bastard

and Gemma even though she tries to kill her daughter-in-law she does it for her family even though she’s not sure the kid’s actually viable since his mother’s high as a fucking kite you don’t know if the kid’s viable and if he’s got all the right brain cells to make his head work you don’t know if he’ll be normal but you don’t care it’s your blood so you have respect for that your blood you have respect and she’s a fucking good woman a real one because she does everything so that her family stays together even if the kid’s going to be a retard it’s your flesh you understand

they say and they nod their heads all you’ve got is family

yes

that’s what family is it’s the foundation it’s the glue you have to do everything you need to do for your family you have to do everything you need to it’s all you have in the end nothing else is sure nothing else is your blood blood it’s the only thing that means it all counts the blood you come from the blood you give your kids through your sperm

you don’t have anything else for sure

nothing

Only your family

—And the guys as well

sure

the guys as well

they say while eating pizza

which is a vegetable because of the tomato sauce

 


6/ That’s what it’s like for boxers

or sportsmen

there are different theories about what you should do the night before a battle

jerk off

or not

Everyone has evidence about that it’s better

that it’s more effective to jerk off

or not to

to blow off energy or to conserve energy it’s up to you thinking of a slut wearing Louboutins when you jerk off you think of a slut in red heels with a nicely filled bra and wet panties and she’s there she’s hot and you’ve got a tissue or a sock around your cock like it’s a cunt

not your wife’s cunt you don’t think of your wife’s no your wife you respect her

There’s also the question of the trip the night before a battle and since it’s always the night before a battle you ask yourself the question

every day

because it’s happened to everyone it’s happened at least once that they shit in their pants during a raid or a parachute jump or in the middle of the bullets you shit yourself you’ve got shit right down to the inside of your socks that’s what the reality is that’s what it’s like there’s shit inside

So there are guys who say right I’m going to take a shit or who say right I’m going to go polish the jewels and who come back saying that’s it I’ve taken a shit or that’s it she screamed the slut fuck she would’ve gotten off on it

and all the guys laugh

That way they sleep better the ones who jerk off and the ones who don’t and the ones who take a shit or the ones who don’t and the ones who take sleeping pills or the ones who don’t because you have to deal with the fact that you’re a machine with an ass with a cock everyone has their own strategy

 


7/ He’s not going to bed yet

he’s too on edge sitting on the sofa Don (his name has been changed) he’s with a guy who is his battle brother but really his brother because he’s the one he lost his virginity with meaning that both of them on the same day at the same time in the same place

in Ramadi in Iraq

killed their first man so that creates a strong fucking bond that you remember as much as if not more than your first fuck

it’s really powerful

Don and his brother they’re sitting there in the common room both of them the others have all gone to bed it’s night

the dog is at their feet

a five-year-old Belgian shepherd whose name is Cairo—like the city

it goes with them on missions

dogs are useful they intimidate they keep people at bay they disturb they surprise they paralyze and they’re there to pick up the scent of women behind a burqa to find out if they’re really women and not men hiding

with a Kalashnikov

With the dogs at night they arrive they go inside they leave they’re so quick you might think you dreamed them

And people

afterward they’re out of their mind

they say they were attacked by

ninjas

that have lions with them

So they’re here Don and his brother on the sofa legs spread over the mutt

they’re playing video games

playing Call of Duty 4

 


8/ This kind of mission it’s 100% good to go it’s 100% in my genes

it’s like mowing the lawn he says

Fucker he says

the other one

laughing

 


9/ They’re sleeping they’re not sleeping they’re on the lookout all the time even when they’re sleeping they toss and turn in their beds they sweat in these corrugated iron shacks they’re wearing briefs or boxers with their battle gear ready to slip on it’s night it’s morning they get up they take a shower they dry themselves they put on their shorts they eat cereal they drink coffee they wait for Obama to say OK now’s the time guys go for it you have the green light to bring down this fucker of a

son of a bitch

because it’s this here fucker this son of a bitch that they’re going to bring down there’s more than a 60% chance that it’s The Most Infamous Terrorist of Our Time that they’ve located there in Pakistan in Abbottabad in a fortified residency in a crazy fucking complex with walls ten meters high barbed wire chicanes a real entrenched camp even if he’s not

The Number One Star of Evil

he’s a fucking important guy and he’s worth the trip

and the chick from the CIA the one who tracked him and who is with them her in the entrenched camp in Afghanistan she’s sure she’s 100% sure that it’s The Most Infamous Terrorist of Our Time that it’s not fucking intuition she tells them she’s sure that it’s him that it’s him this fucking bastard

and that they’re going to shoot him down

And at the same time it’s exciting to think to themselves that they’re going to shoot him down

Him

that they’re the ones who are going to bring down the greatest son of a bitch that the earth has borne and at the same time it’s a mission like any other every night they’re taking out assholes some more important than others so it’s the same thing so much so that before they knew it would be Him

the target

it was a joke before each mission to bet that it would be Him I swear this time it’s Him

yeah like fuck it is

no I swear

stop it

I’m not joking says Clint (his name has been changed) just before they’re told that it’s Him

I swear it’s Him he says

and the guy from the team he says OK buddy

if it’s Him I swear I’ll suck your cock

and Clint he says OK buddy you’re on

 


10/ It’s morning it’s Sunday morning they’re concentrating they’re exercising they’re running on the treadmill their body is crucial it’s what allows them to run to track to work to fuck to take out anyone

in any conditions

so they train they do push-ups they struggle among themselves they know that each exercise is a wild card for the future each movement that prepares for movement for ready oiled practiced action all the way all their muscles and their poses can do

they’ve got knee pads and gloves for the hot sharp stones of the desert and for the stupid scrapes they get just before a mission that stop them from being 100% operational so they exercise slowly in slow-motion in the dust that forms a halo it’s golden

obviously

or sepia

they practice killing softly nimbly graphically

twenty-three guys in the dust intertwined separate sweating

and it’s beautiful as all hell

like a clip by the band Game with skull scarves around their heads skull scarves that are really classy impressive it’s beautiful as all hell

yes

these guys with their trained tattooed nervous impatient bodies ready to kill with their skull scarves on their heads making them anonymous

and dangerous

They stop they breathe they wipe their brows they drink soda they talk about their trip about its consistency right I’ve got ten hours ahead of me

I’ll go just before I will

but that’s not it’s not right

to hold back

they play a round of poker

they fuck around

they listen to music

 


11/ In Iraq and in Afghanistan

before the interrogations

brawny

they loosen up the prisoners

In Iraq in the beginning

they use music by Metallica

turned up loud

for hours and for days

to loosen up the prisoners

they use music by Metallica AC/DC Pantera

it works well

it disorientates

it creates fear

But Metallica has got wind of this and they say

Hey guys

you’re nice and everything but please don’t use our music

because we here we don’t want to incite violence

that’s what they say

Fucking shit right

But they stop using their music

Then the band Demon Hunter contacts them and says

guys we here we’re completely behind what you’re doing

100%

they send them CDs

And Keath (his name has been changed) he listens to one every mission

 


12/ Operation code-name

Neptune Spear

 


13/ They eat cereal pizza vitamin bars chocolate bars nutrition bars sitting on seats

out in the stone desert

they say do you really think it’s him

they drink soda

they say fucking dynamite if it’s him

they chew gum

they say my ass we’re going to run into shit

they look at their watches

they say we’re going to find some tail

they look at the helicopters

they say fuck me if there’s any tail there

they laugh

they say hot Arab chicks wearing little G-strings

they laugh

they say I’ll tap that straight away I will

they say your cock’s too small

they say they’re used to better

they laugh

they say remember Bin Siffredi

(Bin Siffredi it was in Afghanistan one night

they walk into a barracks and there are three guys inside and they take them down

after they have to cut their clothes off to make sure they’re not wearing explosive belts

They undress the first two guys

They undress the third guy

only his cock goes all the way down to his knees)

they laugh

 

La Très Bouleversante Confession de l’homme qui a abattu le plus grand fils de pute que la terre ait porté*

selected extracts © Éditions Inculte (2014)

*ou qui lui a tiré dessus le premier
ou qui lui a tiré dessus le second
ou qui est le premier à l’avoir vu mort
ou qui est celui qui dans l’hélicoptère s’est assis sur son cadavre

ou qui a tout inventé pour
avoir une histoire à raconter.

 

Tiré de faits réels et de témoignages de première main.

1/ Il n’est pas argentin il est américain il n’est pas bélizien il est américain il n’est pas bolivien il n’est pas brésilien il n’est pas canadien il n’est pas chilien il n’est pas colombien il n’est pas costaricien il n’est pas équatorien il est états-unien il est américain lui

il est blanc il est américain il a les cheveux châtains il est américain il a des lunettes de soleil Prada (350 $) il est beau il est musclé il est en bermuda

là sur une base américaine là en Afghanistan

il est mal rasé il est en polo Ralph Lauren (135 $) il transpire il mesure 6 pieds 2 pouces il est solide il a trente-cinq ans il est tireur d’élite il sent le sable chaud il est tatoué sur les bras et le cou et le dos et la jambe il a un ballon de rugby américain à la main il est américain il est grand il est américain

c’est lui en tenue de combat avec des lunettes de vision nocturne avec sa gourde à la ceinture qui va tirer

deux coups dans le front

puis un coup dans le front

qui va abattre

ce fils de pute

c’est lui en tenue de combat avec des lunettes de vision nocturne et sa gourde remplie de pisse qui va tirer deux coups

puis un coup

en plein milieu du front

de ce sale fils de pute

c’est un Américain ce n’est pas un Guatémaltèque ce n’est pas un Hondurien ce n’est pas un Nicaraguayen ni un Péruvien mais un Américain un vrai Américain un vrai Américain

Il a trente-cinq ans

c’est lui qui va abattre le plus grand fils de pute que la terre ait porté

—avec sa gourde remplie de pisse

Putain

 


2/ Il est au milieu d’autres Marines

d’autres mecs autour dix vingt trente

sur une base américaine dans un désert d’Afghanistan là dans la chaleur d’un désert et tous ils sont dans ce désert de cailloux là ils sont

tatoués aussi solides aussi virils aussi beaux aussi vigoureux aussi terriblement esthétiques aussi à faire craquer les filles et les pédés qui chauffent devant les mâles en uniforme

Il joue au ballon avec d’autres Marines sur cette base avancée des États-Unis d’Amérique dans un désert d’Afghanistan

en polo Ralph Lauren humide de sueur qui dessine ses muscles là dans ce désert de caillasse au milieu de hangars de casemates de soldats d’hélicoptères de grillages et sous le drapeau américain

qui flotte

les couleurs rouge blanc bleu du drapeau américain la bannière du monde libre

Waouh

C’est le samedi

ils attendent là depuis deux jours sous la bannière du monde libre au milieu d’hélicoptères de hangars de baraques ils jouent au ballon ils envoient des fers à cheval autour d’un piquet ils transpirent leurs muscles sont luisants leurs polos humides et leurs mouvements terriblement esthétiques ils attendent ils sont mal rasés ils sont beaux ils s’asseyent à califourchon sur des chaises ils se lèvent ils s’asseyent ils jouent ils marchent ils s’asseyent à califourchon ils attendent

Sean (son prénom a été modifié) Sean il a son iPad Nano (149 $) dans la poche avec à fond dans les oreilles le tube du groupe Jeu qui chante la Nation Rouge de sang rouge Satan

à abattre

et baiser le monde

jusqu’à ce qu’une salope

en talons Louboutin

le fasse juter dans sa Ferrari couleur sorbet

les putes à genoux les mâles debout les putes à genoux devant les mâles

je fais couler le sang je fais gicler le sang et

ça cadence le désert et la pierraille et les mouvements des Marines terriblement esthétiques assis debout jouant et ne jouant plus et ils attendent le plus long c’est d’attendre qu’il se passe quelque chose

qu’ils reçoivent le feux vert

pour mettre ces corps terriblement esthétiques

en action

 


3/ Ils sont prêts

à partir à l’assaut au combat à tuer à niquer à buter ce putain d’enculé de sa mère comme tous les autres enculés qu’ils ont déjà butés—à faire couler le sang toujours des putain de saloparts des ennemis

ils ne les comptent plus ces terroristes ces enculés ces fils de putes qu’ils ont butés

c’est leur boulot – entrer dans une maison la nettoyer

repartir

ils sont formés à ça ils sont toujours prêts et prêts depuis le début presque depuis la naissance

vingt-trois mecs qui aiment l’action ils ont ça en commun et les marges

toujours sur le fil

ils auraient pu finir en taule ils le savent ils disent ça

c’est le soir

ils auraient pu finir dans un gang et tatoués avec des putes à genoux en talons Louboutin ils rigolent mais ils ont choisi le Bien

oui

le Bien

et faire couler le sang pour défendre le monde libre c’est pour ça qu’ils sont là qu’ils ont chaud qu’ils transpirent qu’ils sont tendus qu’ils se concentrent qu’ils se préparent

Brad (son prénom a été modifié) il inspecte son arme – mon fusil est mon meilleur ami

il huile son arme—mon fusil est humain

il nettoie le canon de son arme—mon fusil et moi on fera mouche

il vérifie ses chargeurs—ainsi soit-il jusqu’à la victoire de l’Amérique

en mâchant là—au milieu des gars et des rotos des hélicos qui malaxent le sable

un chewing-gum nicotiné parce qu’il a arrêté de fumer il y a trois ans

 


4/ C’est le soir

il y a des chambres individuelles c’est sommaire comme dans un motel des lits individuels et des salles de bain individuelles et une salle commune et la télévision et toutes les chaînes du câble et une cuisine où faire réchauffer les pizzas

ils sont en tee-shirt avec les veines qui sillonnent bien les bras quand ils soulèvent les cannettes de soda ils sont assis sur les fauteuils de la salle commune

ils regardent le câble ils discutent ils sont vraiment excités

en regardant Entourage ils aiment bien Entourage et en regardant le Bouclier ils aiment bien le Bouclier et en regardant Les Fils de l’Anarchie là ils parlent de Kip Epps alias MonoCouille dans la série parce qu’il dit qu’il s’est fait arracher un testicule en Irak alors il a fait la guerre et ça déjà c’est quelque chose

et MonoCouille il dit dans la série que sa couille en moins ça fait grimper les filles qui pour être patriotes lèchent sa peau vide d’une couille en pensant être patriotes ça les fait rigoler les gars mais en même temps ça les fait penser à tous les gars qu’ils ont perdus dans les missions

alors ils parlent plutôt du testicule pour pas penser aux gars qu’ils ont perdus et perdre un testicule c’est vraiment chiant ça n’empêche pas de bander mais quand même c’est moche ça fait bizarre moi je préfère crever même s’ils ont vu des gars morts carrément déchiquetés les morceaux qui sortent des morceaux

les liquides les organes

c’est une putain de machine ton corps quand t’es en vie

et ils veulent pas penser à ça même s’ils y pensent aussi

aussi

et ils parlent de testicules pour pas parler de la mission parce que c’est de la bombe cette mission c’est de la bombe alors ne pas en parler

moi je préfère être complétement mort en morceaux plutôt que de me balader avec un demi-sac de burnes t’en penses quoi toi

moi si je bande c’est ça qui compte et toi

moi si j’ai qu’une couille putain ça doit faire bizarre comment tu fais pour te soupeser les burnes si t’en as qu’une t’imagines le vide dans ta main au lieu de deux t’en as juste une ça doit manquer

juste au niveau du poids

Et ils mangent de la pizza

qui est un légume aux États-Unis d’Amérique

 


5/ C’est un jeu

la vie—un pari chaque jour est un putain de pari c’est Lil Wayne qui dit ça dans Nation Rouge

ou tu gagnes ou tu perds

ç’a toujours été comme ça ils disent avec les pieds croisés sur la table et les muscles des cuisses bien tendus dans les bermuda ou tu gagnes ou tu perds

avec des dentelles le sang est rouge pareil quand tu crèves et les meufs elles sucent que les vainqueurs elles attendent le mec celui qui les protège avec son froc aux chevilles là la fille elle se sent protégée t’as beau mettre des beaux mots autour c’est toujours comme ça depuis le début regarde Gemma dans Les Fils de l’Anarchie elle c’est pas qu’une pute même si elle s’est bien donnée c’est une mère et c’est une grand-mère aussi

et ils rigolent les pieds croisés sur la table en disant tu te rends compte putain tu réalises mec on va niquer ce fils de pute

ce putain d’enfoiré

et Gemma même si elle essaie de tuer sa belle-fille c’est pour sa famille qu’elle fait ça même si elle est pas sûre que le gamin il est viable au final avec une mère dopée à donf qu’est-ce que t’en sais que le gamin est viable et qu’il a tous les neurones qui font marcher la tête t’en sais rien s’il sera normal mais tu t’en fous c’est ton sang alors tu respectes ça ton sang tu respectes et c’est une putain de vraie bonne femme elle parce qu’elle fait tout pour que sa famille elle tienne même si le gamin ça va devenir un débile c’est ta chair tu comprends

ils disent et ils hochent la tête la famille t’as que ça

oui

c’est ça la famille c’est la base c’est le socle tu dois faire tout ce qu’il faut pour ta famille tu dois faire tout ce qu’il faut c’est tout ce que t’as ça au fond tout le reste c’est pas sûr c’est pas ton sang le sang c’est le seul truc qui fait que ça compte le sang dont tu viens et le sang que tu donnes à tes gamins par ton sperme

t’as rien d’autre de sûr

rien

Que ta famille

—Et les gars aussi

sûr

les gars aussi

ils disent en mangeant de la pizza

qui est un légume à cause de la sauce tomate

 


6/ C’est comme pour les boxeurs

ou les sportifs

il y a plusieurs théories quant à ce qu’il faut faire la vielle d’un combat

se branler

ou pas

Chacun a des preuves que c’est mieux

que c’est plus efficace de se branler

ou pas

d’évacuer l’énergie ou conserver l’énergie ça dépend de chacun en pensant à une salope en Louboutin quand tu te branles tu penses à une salope à semelles rouges avec le soutif bien rempli et la culotte humide elle est là elle est chaude et t’as le mouchoir en papier ou la chaussette autour de la queue comme une chatte

mais pas celle de ta femme tu penses pas à celle de ta femme ta femme tu la respectes

Il y a aussi la question du transit à la veille d’un combat et comme tu es toujours à la veille d’un combat la question du transit c’est tous les jours que

tu te la poses

parce que c’est arrivé à chacun c’est arrivé au moins une fois de chier dans son froc dans un raid ou lors d’un saut en parachute ou au milieu des balles tu te chies dessus t’as de la merde jusque dans tes chaussettes t’as beau fermer ton cul t’as tout qui lâche c’est comme ça le réel c’est comme ça y a de la merde dedans

Alors il y a les mecs qui disent bon je vais chier ou qui disent bon je vais me secouer le manche et qui reviennent en disant ça y est j’ai chié ou ça y est elle a gueulé la salope putain elle aurait pris son pied et tous les gars rigolent

Comme ça ils dorment mieux ceux qui se branlent et ceux qui ne se branlent pas et ceux qui chient ou qui ne chient pas et ceux qui prennent des somnifères ou qui n’en prennent pas parce qu’il faut gérer le fait que t’es une machine avec un cul avec une bite c’est chacun sa méthode

 


7/ Il se couche pas encore

il est trop sur les nerfs là sur le canapé Don (son prénom a été modifié) il est avec un gars qui est son frère de combat mais vraiment son frère de combat parce que c’est avec lui qu’il s’est fait dépuceler c’est-à-dire qu’ils ont chacun le même jour au même moment au même endroit

à Ramadi en Irak

tué leur premier homme alors ça crée un putain de lien ça tu t’en souveins autant sinon plus que de ta première baise

c’est très fort

Don et son frère ils sont là dans la salle commune tous les deux les autres sont allés se coucher c’est la nuit

il y a le chien à leurs pieds

un malinois belge de cinq ans qui s’appelle Le Caire—comme la ville

qui les accompagne dans les missions

c’est utile les chiens ça impressionne ça tient en respect ça inquiète ça surprend ça paralyse et ça sert pour flairer les femmes sous la burqa pour savoir si c’est vraiment des femmes et pas des mecs cachés

avec une Kalachnikov

Avec les chiens la nuit ils arrivent ils entrent ils repartent c’est tellement rapide qu’on peut croire qu’on les a rêvés

et les gens

après ils délirent

ils disent qu’ils ont été attaqués par des

ninjas

accompagnés de lions

Donc ils sont là Don et son frère sur le canapé pattes écartées au-dessus du chien

c’est la nuit

ils jouent sur la console

à l’Appel du Devoir 4

 


8/ Ce genre de mission c’est tellement rodé c’est tellement dans les gènes

c’est comme tonde la pelouse il dit

Enculé il dit

l’autre

en riant

 


9/ Ils dorment ils ne dorment pas ils sont aux aguets tout le temps même quand ils dorment ils se retrouvent dans les lis ils transpirent dans ces baraquements en tôle ils sont en slip en caleçon avec la tenue de combat prête à être enfilée c’est la nuit c’est le matin ils se lèvent ils se douchent ils se sèchent ils mettent leurs bermudas ils mangent des céréales ils boivent du café ils attendent qu’Obama dise ok c’est pour maintenant les gars vous y allez vous avez le feu vert pour descendre cet enfoiré de

fils de pute

parce que c’est cet enfoiré-là cet enfoiré de fils de pute qu’ils vont descendre il y a 60% de chances que ce soir Le Plus Infâme Terroriste de Notre Temps qu’ils aient localisé là au Pakistan à Abbottabad dans une résidence fortifiée un complexe de dingue avec des murs de dix mètres de haut des barbelés des chicanes un vrai camp retranché et même si ça n’est pas

La Star Numéro Un du Mal

c’est un putain de mec important et ça vaut le déplacement

et la nana de la CIA celle qui l’a traqué et qui est avec eux là dans le camp retranché d’Afghanistan elle est sûre elle à 100% elle est sûre que c’est Le Plus Infâme Terroriste de Notre Temps que c’est une putain d’intuition elle leur dit qu’elle est sûre que c’est lui que c’est lui ce putain d’enculé

et qu’ils vont l’abattre

Et à la fois c’est excitant de se dire qu’ils vont l’abattre

Lui

que c’est eux qui vont descendre le plus grand fils de pute que la terre ait porté et à la fois c’est une mission comme une autre chaque nuit ils butent des salopards plus ou moins importants alors c’est la même chose au point qu’avant de savoir que ce serait Lui

la cible

c’est devenu une blague avant chaque mission de parier que ce serait Lui je te jure cette fois c’est Lui

et mes couilles

non je te jure

arrête

je déconne pas il dit Clint (son prénom a été modifié) juste avant qu’on leur confirme que c’est Lui

je te parie que c’est Lui il dit

et le gars de l’équipe il dit ok mec

si c’est lui je te jure je te suce la bite

et Clint il dit ok mec pari tenu

 


10/ C’est le matin c’est le dimanche matin ils se concentrent ils s’exercent ils font du tapis de course le corps c’est capital c’est ce qui leur permet de courir de pister de bosser de niquer de buter n’importe qui

dans n’importe quelles conditions

alors ils s’entraînent ils font des pompes ils luttent entre eux ils savent que chaque exercice est un joker pour l’avenir chaque mouvement qui prépare au mouvement de l’action rodée huilée exercée jusqu’au bout du possible des muscles et des postures

ils ont des genouillères et des gants pour la caillasse chaude du désert et coupante pour les écorchures débiles qu’on se fait juste avant la mission et qui t’empêchent d’être à 100% opérationnel alors ils s’exercent lentement au ralenti dans la poussière qui fait un halo doré

évidemment

ou sépia

ils s’exercent à tuer doucement agilement graphiquement

vingt-trois gars dans la poussière imbriqués séparés transpirant

et c’est carrément beau

comme un clip du groupe Jeu avec sur la gueule les foulards têtes de mort qui sont vraiment classes impressionnants c’est carrément beau

oui

ces mecs aux corps entraînés tatoués nerveux impatiens prêts à tuer avec cette tête de mort sur la gueule qui les rend anonymes

et dangereux

Ils s’arrêtent ils soufflent ils s’épongent le front ils boivent du soda ils parlent de leur transit de sa régularité bon j’ai dix heures devant moi

moi j’irai juste avant

mais c’est pas bon ça

de se retenir

ils font un poker

ils déconnent

ils écoutent de la musique

 


11/ En Irak et en Afghanistan

avant les interrogatoires

musclés

on assouplit les prisonniers

En Irak au début

ils utilisent la musique de Metallica

à plein volume

pendant des heures et des jours

pour assouplir les prisonniers

ils utilisent la musique de Metallica AC/DC Pantera

ça marche bien

ça désoriente

ça crée la peur

Mais Metallica a vent de ça et ils disent

Hé les gars

vous êtes sympas mais s’il vous plaît n’utilisez pas notre musique

parce que nous on ne veut pas inciter à la violence

c’est ça qu’ils disent

Grosse merde oui

Mais ils cessent d’utiliser leur musique

Puis le groupe Chasseur de Démon les contacte et leur dit

nous les fars on soutient totalement ce que vous faites

à fond

Et Keath (son prénom a été modifié) il en écoute un à chaque mission

 


12/ Nom de code de l’opération

Trident de Neptune

 


13/ Ils mangent des céréales des pizzas des barres vitaminées des barres chocolatées des barres diététiques assis sur les banquettes

dehors dans le désert de caillasse

ils disent tu crois vraiment que c’est lui

ils boivent du soda

ils disent putain la bombe si c’est lui

ils mâchent du chewing-gum

ils disent mon cul on va tomber sur de la merde

ils regardent leurs montres

ils disent on va trouver de la meuf

ils regardent les hélicos

ils disent baise-moi si y a de la meuf

ils rigolent

ils disent de la bonne rebeute en string ficelle

ils rigolent

ils disent moi je l’enfile direct

ils disent t’as une trop petite bite

ils disent elles sont habituées à mieux

ils rigolent

ils disent souviens-toi de Ben Siffredi

(Ben Siffredi c’est en Afghanistan la nuit

ils entrent dans une baraque il y a trois mecs dedans qu’ils butent

après il faut découper leurs vêtements pour s’assurer qu’ils ne portent pas de ceintures d’explosifs

Ils désapent les deux premiers mecs

Ils désapent le troisième mec

juste il a une bite qui descend jusqu’aux genoux)

ils rigolent

 

Translator’s Note:

In The Very Troubling Confession of the Man Who Took Down the Greatest Son of a Bitch the Earth has Borne, Emmanuel Adely relates the assassination of Osama bin Laden from the perspective of the twenty-odd US soldiers involved in the epic mission. These men watch Sons of Anarchy, listen to Lil Wayne, and play Call of Duty as they wait to be called to complete their duty: to locate and destroy the person they refer to as the “greatest son of a bitch the earth has borne.” Bubbling with testosterone, Adely’s book reads like an extended piece of slam poetry, without punctuation, as he attempts to penetrate the minds of the soldiers, adopting their mentality and way of speaking to communicate their fears, doubts, and aspirations in their quest for victory and for revenge.

Adely sought inspiration for the content of his novel through various first-hand accounts published in American magazines, and he presents the soldiers’ story in his own chilling and compelling words. He offers an insider’s perspective from an outsider’s point of view, linguistically, culturally, and geographically, pointedly translating all cultural references without using a single word of English in his French text. The force of his language, in its arrangement, vulgarity, and rawness, provide a challenge for the translator, who must attempt to identify the most powerful solutions to convey in English the same vigorous energy of the innovative and skillful flow of the French text. This is not always a straightforward process, since much of the power of the original text relies on the way in which certain words and ideas are emphasized through transitions and follow-throughs achieved via constant line breaks. The same transitions are often impossible in English, largely due to the syntactic differences between the two languages, and this impossibility requires the translator to identify creative solutions that ensure the reader of the English text is not jarred by incongruous transitions nor deprived of the vigor communicated through the novel’s style.

The extracts chosen for publication here represent the first thirteen of the novel’s eighty-one vignettes.

 

Born and raised in country Victoria in Australia, Tiffane Levick has been based primarily in Paris since 2009. She is currently in the second year of her PhD at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University, where she writes about issues related to the translation of slang and of rap. Alongside her research, she leads translation workshops, encouraging students to think about the relationship between theory and practice, and translates books.

Emmanuel Adely’s work has been offered in French to readers by a number of publishers and journals (Minuit, Seuil, Gallimard, Stock, Argol, among others). It is malleable, political, and reverberating, discarding the “language of books” and thriving alongside the literary field and the media. For Adely, words in all their forms provide matter for creation: articles, investigation reports, speeches, the list goes on. He harnesses dates, facts, and hours, and molds them into a language that is unique in terms of flow, rhythm, and sense. His work has yet to be translated into English.

Photo by Enna Chaton

Bombs Bursting

She loved the theater despite its flaws: the faded carpets and cracked poster frames, its lack of a curtain call. She clutched broom and dustpan and strained to hear the happenings in the dark room. Sometimes people clapped at the end, and she could pretend winter had passed and spring had come and she was on stage as Sandy in Grease. The director told her, after posting the cast list, that she might be the first Afghan American ever to play the role in a high school production. When she heard that she’d felt like there was a small sun in her throat, aching to get out.

And: yes, there, the clapping. Someone whistled. She practiced her bow as bodies flooded the lobby.

This was one of those dumb comedies. People fled once it was over, guffawing, repeating favorite lines in a way that would get exhausting over cheap pizza. Three middle-aged women emerged from the group of teen boys, laughing, hiding smiles behind manicures, rushing away from Theater 12 to stand next to the more respectable period drama for their post-show rundown.

She poked her head in again. Credits still rolling, but emptier by the moment. Enter, she thought, stage right. Holding her head high she imagined a crowd cheering when she appeared, clapping so loud the show stopped. She assessed the audience. So it wasn’t a full house, but there in the third row were those two guys—she’d ripped their tickets, the ones with the big smiles. Nice white boys, the whole town was full of them. These were embracing.

She’d been working at the movies since the summer, and was no longer scandalized by couplings of any kind. She never mentioned them to her mother. When inevitably interrogated after work she would leave this out, the strange and almost lovely way one man bent over the other.

Anyway, if she retreated every time she saw a couple going at it, she would never join another musical, or scrape the popcorn off the floor. Ducking her head, she let them do what they had to do, sneaking one more glance to sigh at the broad shoulders on the darker one, who was probably Italian.

She swept up fallen M&Ms and imagined her mother’s face if she invited the Italian or his blonde friend over for kofta kebabs. It was difficult to picture. Her mother worried and prayed and worried and worked and worried, but, after all, she did agree to the Grease audition, and to this job at this cinema. She thought of her mother like a rock, shaped by time and by the steady seeping of lovely, boring America.

The front rows were maddeningly clean, and she paused when she got to the boys. They were not making out, as she had thought, and she was happy for the reprieve from the PDA she had to endure at her high school. There, everyone wanted to express affection in physical ways, tilting heads to avoid noses, rushing towards each other like waves breaking over the clash of lips and tongues in a movement so coordinated and violent that she didn’t think she would ever participate, let alone master it. No, the boys (they were probably men, but in her experience every non-father was a boy, so she would continue to think of them as boys) weren’t kissing. The pale one was curled in his seat, every line and angle pulled taut. The dark boy’s head was close, not in a kiss, but as if trying to make sure his companion was still breathing.

It was a scene, and she read it like she would a play: THE ITALIAN, a scruffy looking fellow, sits in a darkened theater after a cheap matinee and attempts to shake his friend THE BLOND out of a waking nightmare.

She leaned against her broom and wondered how much a soldier would appreciate help from a brown teenager. Even if she were the only one in the theater—maybe even the whole suburb—who knew those gestures. Who knew that look. It was the one that said: you’re okay; you’re home; I’m here.

She had a job to do, and theaters to clean, and sometimes people who were used to wearing guns noticed she was a Muslim and little else, but she retreated to the lobby anyway. Not for the pale boy. For his darker friend who probably smelled of the sea.

The front room surprised her, with the big glass doors that led to the small Pennsylvanian world made blindingly bright by its blanket of snow. She got a bottle of water from the employee breakroom and asked Barb, a paraplegic who sold tickets at the counter, to keep the lights low in Theater 12.

“A big spill?” Barb asked, which was code for vomit.

She nodded a lie and retreated across the stain-studded carpet.

Abandoning the cleaning equipment entirely, she reentered with all the false confidence that she was cultivating for the musical. She flashed a smile, the cheerleader one she’d been practicing, at the maybe-Italian boy, who, up close, was a dead ringer for her Grease love interest Danny Zuko.

She gave him a bottle of water and he barely looked at her when he said, “Thank you.”

She’d predicted the choreography. The way eyes would flicker to her scarf, not her face. The pursing of the lips.

Perhaps this was a scene, too, a small one: THE ITALIAN ignores the GIRL in the hijab. She’d predicted the choreography. The way eyes would flicker to her scarf, not her face. The pursing of the lips.

It gave her an opportunity to look at him. This T-bird had high cheekbones and an elegantly curved mouth. He smelled not of brine but of a mother’s nightmare, of back rooms and back seats and possibilities. His friend looked like a pale and crumpled version of Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan, like he’d seen too much of explosives, or a desert.

She had cousins in the war on the other side of the world. She’d seen their bodies curl for cover, just like this. How their eyes followed invisible phantasms, just like this.

She felt like she was intruding. She had other jobs to do. But Danny Zuko was handsome and in his twenties and when she looked at him her stomach twisted, so she stayed, and ventured a guess. “Iraq?”

Danny Zuko looked up and she felt all at once exposed. This time they locked eyes. He took in every inch of her, the long sleeves of her uniform, the chipping French tips courtesy of a sleepover party. And he was surprised, as if she was mind-reading and not simply following the stage direction. “Afghanistan,” he said.

“Oh,” she said, biting her bottom lip. She could leave, of course, and let these two fend for themselves in the dark. She had given them water and as an employee of the theater perhaps she owed them nothing else. But instead she leaned her broom against the wall and took the seat closest to the aisle.

The other boy, the soldier, seemed to be trying to remember how to breathe. She tried to think of something to say over the silence. “Did you like the movie?” She winced immediately at the way her voice sounded, high and lilting and young.

Danny Zuko had a hand on his friend’s knee, and the grip looked firm. “It was the fireworks at the end.” His eyes were like flints. Combine that with her skin, the color of dead wood left to bleach in the sun, and she knew that if he leaned forward just a bit they could burn the world. “He’s been okay.” He flexed his fingers. “But the fireworks.”

She nodded. He uncapped the water and offered it to his friend. When he didn’t move, Danny Zuko drank deeply, and handed it to her. She thought of his lips on her lips and blushed as she shook her head no. Her mother could probably smell Italian saliva.

The boy took another long swig of water, then capped it and asked, “What’s your name?”

But there was good drama and bad drama, and America coming to save the day was a bit dramatic. So instead she said “Marina,” which was the name of her sister.

There was a true answer: America. She’d won the name honestly, from parents who were thankful to have a daughter born in a suburb of Philadelphia instead of the outskirts of Jalalabad. But there was good drama and bad drama, and America coming to save the day was a bit dramatic. So instead she said “Marina,” which was the name of her sister.

“Joe,” the darker boy said. “This is Seth. He’s a good guy, really. Only good guy I know who joined up. But he just got back. I should have known about the fireworks, but I just didn’t think.” He took a deep breath. “Anyway, thanks for the water.”

Seth was leaning back in his seat, gripping the arms. His hair was still in its regulation buzz cut and shimmered gossamer in the low light. He would, America thought, be entirely beautiful when he grew up.

“We’ll be out of your hair soon,” Joe promised. He had extraordinarily long eyelashes.

America wondered how to make him kiss her, wondered what flouncing and flirting she’d seen on TV would work here, in the dark. She wondered if he would kiss her, even though she was still growing into her long legs and was waiting for her breasts to catch up with her height, even though she was brown all over and spoke Arabic at home just like the terrorists on TV. And yet she leaned forward. Just a little bit. She would have to kiss onstage in the spring and wanted her first experience to be something less scripted.

He smelled like soap and something fresh, maybe rosemary. He had an array of freckles on one cheek and the other side was smooth except for a scar the size of a fingernail right next to his nose. She was pretty sure he was leaning towards her, too, that it wasn’t just the rotation of the earth. Was she doing this right? His lips looked soft and warm as a summer’s day.

When Seth gasped, Joe jerked away, his hand reaching out towards his friend. America watched, heart hammering, for what could have been.

She sensed her scene coming to a close. She stood, wondering if she were a bit player in their story or if they were a duo who had wandered into hers.

“Stay as long as you like,” she said. Her broom was still by the door, and there was Theater 13 to clean before the next show. She hesitated. The boys seemed apt to disappear when the dark was dispelled by the luminescence of the silver screen.

She plunged a hand in her back jeans-pocket, came up with an old receipt and a stub of golf pencil. “Stay away from these movies.” She listed the new action flicks, obviously, but also one that had a ritualistic cannon ceremony and another whose crashing waterfall could sound like the thunderous chaos of an infantry. She paused, then wrote down a new animated movie, too—for kids, but there was a surprisingly violent death by exploding car.

Joe took the list. “What’s left?” he joked, then lifted his eyes to hers. “Thank you.” Their fingers touched. She guessed she’d have to settle for that.

She wanted to tell him that it could get worse, nightmares and daymares, or it could get better, a gradual lessening of tension until only the fear of fear remained. She wanted to tell Joe her name, and ask how old he was, and if he’d mind taking a just-legal America out for a spin.

Seth was curled away from her, the back of his shirt hitched up. She wanted to touch his skin, to see if it felt like it looked, like the shuddering flank of a war horse.

Instead, she said, “Thank you for your service,” and left.

 

Katie Avagliano graduated from Florida State University and spent the next six months working at Walt Disney World while figuring out her life. She started writing fan fiction at age twelve and forgot to stop; as a result, she is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing in Washington, DC.

Find Your Happy Place

It was Father’s Day and Maeve was in Friendly’s. After all this time, she was still a sucker for a Conehead. She and her father had spent countless hours here scarfing down the clown-faced sundae with whipped cream for hair and Reese’s Pieces for eyes when Maeve was a child growing up in Levittown. They always ate the cone that doubled as a hat dipped in fudge first.

She was approaching forty and already a sneeze could make her pee, yet she still wanted her daddy despite the fact that he was a loudmouthed prick who’d made millions out of bullying anyone who disagreed with him.

The last time Maeve and Dad had spoken was on the phone one year earlier when he was trying to give her advice about her own career, not so subtly suggesting that she wasn’t thick-skinned enough. She was a political pundit, like him. She was doing just fine. She had tons of requests for radio interviews and podcasts and even had a book coming out, Liberal Two-Step: Screw and Be Screwed. So she politely told him to fuck off and that she’d speak to him on her own time. He’d respected her wishes. That pissed her off even more.

Now he was off the air and trying to make amends with anyone he’d ever offended, including her. So, Maeve had made the trip down from Albany to the Friendly’s on Hempstead Turnpike. It was a Santa Claus-red building with Taco Joe’s to its right and a giant abandoned Kmart to its left. Maeve stood in the foyer, sunglasses still on inside, because God forbid if anyone recognized her. On the drive down, she’d already seen a bus with her mug plastered on it, her jet-black bob and seaweed-green eyes staring back at her as if she dared herself to disagree. The bluster, the rapid hand gestures she was known for—it was all for show when it came down to it. The last thing she wanted was to discuss taxes or school budgets with this crowd even though she probably agreed with more than half the people in here.

She leaned against the pole by the takeout window and hid behind a sticky menu that no doubt someone’s entitled brat had touched. Maybe this whole thing was a bad idea. Already she was disgusted by the dirty-mop smell of the place. But she had to give it points for longevity, for surviving when most of the other chains across the island had closed, and for keeping the names of their ice cream sundaes as is. Like “Happy Ending.” What a riot.

The place was teeming with dads as expected. Normal dads who gelled their hair and donned NYPD T-shirts and blue jeans instead of a suit every day. Every now and then she’d look up from behind the menu to find one of them about to jokingly smack his kid or give them a noogie in a headlock and she was thankful she hadn’t stretched her uterus out. Just as she was questioning the cost-benefit of the $5.55 entrée section for the umpteenth time—where the hell was Dad?—one man caught her eye and limped over to her with a toddler clinging onto his leg. Damn it.

“You’re Maeve O., right? The Bull’s daughter,” he said. Maeve O. That was her dad’s brilliant marketing idea. “I’d recognize that pretty face anywhere.”

“Nope. Must be another pretty face you’re thinking of,” she said. She turned her back and pretended to be impressed by a teen swirling hot fudge behind the counter.

A few years ago, she’d made it onto Manplate’s “25 Most Gorgeous Female Politicians” list even though she wasn’t a politician, technically, but she let it slide. It helped her political game.

A few years ago, she’d made it onto Manplate’s “25 Most Gorgeous Female Politicians” list even though she wasn’t a politician, technically, but she let it slide. It helped her political game. All the crusty men she kicked back martinis with loved that she, who had a standing appointment at the salon every week, was one of them. She had to give a shit upstate; it was part of her job. Down here was different. Being home gave her the ultimate permission to be a slob if she wanted to. But she’d second-guessed herself and opted for a breezy blouse and capris combo, with a gold necklace that doubled as a pencil. It had been a gift from Dad when she received her first nasty comment on a blog. He told her she was on the right track to success.

Now look what this clothing choice had made happen.

“No, really. I know it’s you,” the man said. He tapped her shoulder and she turned around out of habit from fundraising parties she reluctantly attended. He was waving to a woman who was standing underneath a giant sign of a Friendly Frank, swinging a crying baby in a car seat. “Honey, come here a minute.”

The woman gave him the finger. Maeve would much rather talk to her.

“Skeedaddle,” she said. She waved the menu toward the woman who looked like she might throw the car seat through the window. “Go be with your family. Stop talking to strangers.”

Dad would be flipping his shit if he heard her. If this were him, he’d slap the man on the back, make some joke about his kid being a cracked-out zombie, and they’d be talking about how there’s never been a better deli than Fred’s.

“Fine, fine. I know when I’m not wanted,” he said. “I just gotta tell you, you socked it to that news anchor the other day.” He winked at her. “Fucking bleeding hearts, you know what I mean?”

Sort of. She was a sucker for cute cat videos and if really pressed, believed heroin antidotes at CVS were the way to stop the island’s epidemic. Dad was more of a secret liberal than she was. He gave money to the homeless as frequently as he ridiculed them. But only when he was in a car, so he could zip away without anyone seeing him. One time, years ago when she was just starting to make a name for herself, she’d teased him about leaking it to the press. “Don’t be a moron,” he said. “Maeve the Moron. That’s one for the tombstone.” He’d been calling her that ever since. And each time it was a gut punch—a soft one of the kind a man who only used his hands to pick up a knife and fork could do, but a punch nonetheless.

“Table for one?” The hostess was an older woman, and had a plastic gold name tag with Joanne written on it.

“God no, Joanne,” Maeve said. “Two. My dad’s meeting me here. He’s late.”

“Bastard,” Joanne said. “You’ve been standing here for a while.”  The nerve of this woman.

“It’s not his fault,” Maeve said. “He’s probably stuck on the L.I.E. like every other schmo today.”

“Sure, honey,” Joanne said. “Follow me to your table.”

Every table in the restaurant was buzzing. There were kids climbing over booths, kids crying, kids throwing their chicken fingers on the floor. Every now and then scattered in the chaos was an elderly couple slowly lifting spoons of ice cream to their mouths.

Joanne tried to seat her in the middle of it all. Maeve pointed to a booth tucked in the corner.

“That one,” she said.

Joanne shrugged. “Whatever you want.”

Maeve sat down and kept expecting one of the adults to recognize her, but nobody said a word. They were too busy dealing with the messes of their own lives. Just as well. She took her sunglasses off. She grabbed for the napkin holder so she could keep busy and started fiddling with the waxy paper napkins. She made a pinwheel first to see if she could still do origami after all these years. She nailed it. Next up was the crane. Then the rose. As she was creasing corners, her phone dinged. It was a text from Dad: Too many knuckleheads in traffic today. Got off on the wrong exit. Love, Dad the Dumdum.

She could just see him deadlocked on the L.I.E. checking himself out in the rearview mirror, combing his hair while puffing his cheeks. The windows would be down and he’d be inevitably snapping his fingers outside the car to some horrible Eagles song. He could be a bastard but she missed how ridiculous he was and how seemingly oblivious he was to it.

She texted back: If by “wrong exit” you mean Mr. Beery’s, I swear to God!

He sent a smiley face back. He loved his $1 pitchers of Bud. Man had tons of money and still was Cheapo Charlie.

She sighed. She couldn’t believe she had to sit at this dump longer than needed. Although the vintage black-and-white photos of men in bowties scooping ice cream were charming, she’d give them that. Nostalgia always wins. And boy, did Friendly’s go for it. There was a giant “Share Your Memories” wall in the far corner with scribbles and doodles of all kinds, what, she couldn’t exactly see from where she was sitting, but she could tell they were sappy. She fiddled with the card for a Sharks Frenzy Sundae. The electric-blue color of the ice cream tickled her gag reflex, but her stomach was empty and she wished she could bite off the heads of those gummy sharks. Right. This. Second.

Once, Dad let her slip underwater at Bluegrass Lane pool when she was about seven. When she came up, spitting water, he was laughing.

Once, Dad let her slip underwater at Bluegrass Lane pool when she was about seven. When she came up, spitting water, he was laughing. The only thing he’d said was, “You survived the shark tank, kiddo.”

She turned the crane over and wrote with her necklace pen: You got to learn to swim for yourself.

Joanne walked by after escorting a family of five to their table. She stopped in front of Maeve and drummed her hot-pink nails in front of her.

“Dad still a no-show?”

“What’s it matter to you?” said Maeve.

“Ha! Not so friendly are we, doll. Might want to try Fire & Ice over there,” she said, waving menus toward the Turnpike.

“Funny,” Maeve said. She wanted to tell her to fuck off. But she couldn’t be too much of an asshole in person or else the leftie loons would be all over her.

She handed the crane to Joanne, who raised one badly plucked eyebrow and shoved the crane into her apron pocket. Maybe now she’d leave her alone.

There was a man to her left, sitting alone in the booth and slurping the bottom of his strawberry Fribble. Gross. At least she wasn’t that guy. She could take out her phone and Google her name like she always did when she was bored and needed to feel good about herself but lately, the internet trolls had been too much for her. There was one comment from armoredarmaggedon about her one stubborn tooth that stayed buck despite braces (okay, so she forgot to wear her retainer when she was younger), and as much as she tried to forget about it, every time she looked in the mirror now that’s all she could focus on. These trolls destroyed her father’s politics, but never mentioned the stray nose hairs that creeped out the corner of his nostrils.

That’s how it went in this game. She knew it and still loved it. The minute she became a lifeguard at age sixteen, she had no problem declaring herself a Republican. It was the way to get promoted, after all.

She turned the rose over. Follow the crowd. They’re always right.

Joanne breezed by again. It seemed every time Maeve looked up there she was, looking like she owned the damn place, as if she were seating guests at her own private dinner party in the Hamptons. This time Joanne was arm-in-arm escorting some Latino or Hispanic guy—she still wasn’t sure of the difference—to the table catty-corner to her. Two preteen girls were behind him, phones out and giggling. She could smell their obnoxiously coconut fragrance. Joanne handed the man the menu, but not before patting the tall, stiffly gelled spikes he called hair. He acted offended before squeezing Joanne’s shoulders in an embrace. Maeve let a laugh slip. He looked at her. Holy shit. It was Ian. Ian Bonilla. She was almost sure of it.

Her phone dinged. I’m sorry.

She was starting to get pissed, really pissed and not fake pissed. For what, she wanted to text Dad back. Selling her mother’s new boyfriend up shit’s creek by getting him arrested on some phony drug charge? Making her sit here while he shucked off responsibility and a promise, again? Or how about squeezing her arms so tight during a fight her senior year of high school that even concealer couldn’t hide the bruises in her yearbook picture? But saying anything would set him off and upset the fragile everything-is-fine illusion they’d both agreed to just so they could sit down at this sticky table. She’d gotten this far.

She needed a drink. She wished the Conehead had a boozy option for adults. Five shots of chocolate vodka poured over the clown’s face instead of hot fudge.

Joanne made some comment, that Maeve couldn’t hear. The man who she thought was Ian laughed. It was the sputtering kind, starting out in small fits and gradually going full steam into a guffaw.

The laugh removed any doubt. His lips had thinned and he’d gained some much-needed bulk on those skinny ribs of his, and let’s not even get into his ridiculous coif, but that laugh made her sure that this was her best guy friend from high school. The guy who at one point in her life had been the only person to see through her bullshit and call her on it and still want to hang out with her anyway.

Fuck. This was the last thing she needed. It was a good time to go to the bathroom. Or walk out the door. She got up quickly and the origami rose that had fallen into her lap, unnoticed, bounced along on the floor. It slid right under the table at one of the girl’s feet. The one whose braces somehow made her more attractive.

She leaned down. Her cleavage was tiny, but taut, and Maeve stared unapologetically.

“Your, uh, flower?” the girl said, as she picked it up and handed it to Maeve. She turned to the other girl wearing a sweatshirt with white HOFSTRA letters sewn on it and they both burst out laughing. The buns on the top of their heads bobbed back and forth, taunting Maeve with how young and perfect they were.

“Oh, this, I don’t even know where I got it…” she said. The girls scared her.

“Maeve?” Ian said. “Maeve O’Flannery?”

His bedroom. A couple of weeks before high school graduation. The two of them rolling around on sheets that smelled of musty Cuban cigars and fried plantains mixed with Ian’s Drakkar cologne. Downstairs, the party sounds of Rolling Rock bottles clinking and exaggerated moans from the Spice Channel. His drunken hands on her, grabbing aimlessly, hungry for whatever her body would give. They said they’d never do this but it was nearly the end of high school and they were both still virgins so why the hell not. It was an agreement they made during one of the phone calls they’d had every night.

She didn’t love him, at least not that way, and was a good Irish Catholic girl. She put the condom back into the drawer, moved his hands down. His fingers stabbed around inside her. It hurt. She squirmed. He pulled her panties off, put his warm mouth on her, and her body fizzed. When he was done with her he went downstairs. She turned the light on and there was blood on the sheets. Shit.

The next day at school there was a jar of maraschino cherries by her locker. Ian’s friends walked by her in the halls and chanted, “Bloody Bloody Maeve-y.” Like it was her fault that he didn’t know what he was doing, that he wasn’t gentle enough. Ian didn’t meet her at her locker to go to the deli for lunch. That night she went home and cried. It was Dad who came in the room and held her. She didn’t say a word about it. Neither did he.

She ran into Ian at a few parties here and there, but their friendship was never the same after that.

“Ian! Oh, my God! I had no idea it was you!” she said.

“Dad, you know her?” said the girl who picked up her flower.

She tried to be a good role model, show them that politics wasn’t all nasty business.

It was sweet when the young ones recognized her. She tried to be a good role model, show them that politics wasn’t all nasty business. She reached across Ian’s table, grabbed a couple of napkins, and twisted open her necklace.

“Maeve and I go way back, sweetie,” Ian said. He patted the girl on the back. “I used to draw tattoos of the solar system on her arms in science class.”

“Yeah, and I had to scrub the damn things off every day,” she said. “I could never get all the ink off. My mom hated it.” She signed Maeve O’Flannery on the napkins and added an extra swirly flourish on the y.

“But you still let me do it,” he teased.

“Yeah, well, that was light years ago.” She didn’t know what else to say. She bit the inside of her cheek and handed the girls her autographs. “Here. One for each of you.” The napkins dangled in the air.

The girl with the Hofstra sweatshirt took them both.

“Uh, thanks?” she said.

They didn’t know who Maeve was. Of course, they didn’t. It was stupid of her to think otherwise. She screwed the pencil back, tight, into its insignificant hole.

“Maeve’s a big deal, honey,” he told his daughter. “Right, Maeve? I’ve seen you on TV a bunch.” When he tilted his head up toward her, one of the stiff spikes of hair fell onto his brow. “I always knew you’d do something with those smarts of yours.” Goddammit if he wasn’t still charming.

Joanne’s butt bumped into Maeve. She was carrying two strawberry Fribbles whose cream was frothing over the sides.

“Sorry about that, doll,” she said. She looked at Ian. “Your sundaes will be up in a minute.”

“You be with your family,” Maeve said to Ian. She wanted him to shut up.

“I see these girls all the time. They’re sick of me. Why don’t you take a seat?” Ian said. “Catch up.” The girl with the braces rolled her eyes and elbowed her sister.

“I can’t,” she said. “Good to see you.” Maeve forced a smile that stretched her gums and reached out her hand to shake his. He looked it at for a second. Then he shook it anyway with hands that were limp and clammy. She expected different.

She sat back down at her table, facing the back of Ian with his neckline that faded into a perfect triangle, decorated with a birthmark the shape of a lumpy potato. A neck she had stared at so many times while daydreaming in class or sitting behind him as he drove to the billiards place. It was thicker, but still familiar. She opened up her phone and Googled Ian. There was next to zilch on him. He didn’t do the social media thing. There his name was in the Yellow Pages as the owner of a custom wood furniture business. Good for him. She found one picture of him by a lifeguard stand at Jones Beach with his arms around a woman who looked like she frequented Beach Bum Tanning. Could be his wife, but the girls looked nothing like her. Most likely girlfriend. Oh, and here was his member picture in a club of men who liked to fly toy planes.

Maeve grabbed a napkin and fumbled as she tried to make an origami butterfly. She tried folding the wings but her fingers were shaky and slippery and the napkin couldn’t hold the creases.

She texted Dad. Be straight with me. You coming or what?

Ian was laughing, tapping the handle of his knife against the rims of the glass bowls their sundaes came in, pretending to make toasts to pretend people. “To Queen Cookie Butter, the sweetest ruler in all the land! To my friend Jim Dandy, the most stylish man I’ve ever known!” The girls tried their hardest not to giggle.

Maeve kept trying with the butterflies until the holder was nearly empty. Ian tapped louder and faster. His laugh started to sound like a distressed seal. Her whole table was a stockpile of mangled butterflies, her shaky hands botching their fragile wings. She grabbed one and wrote: Broke but not forgotten.

She was one second away from screaming at Ian. Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up.

Hofstra girl jumped up. She moaned, covered her mouth with one hand, and stomped in place. Blood trickled through her fingers.

“I ate glass! I ate glass!” she screamed. She tried to spit out a wad of blood. It dribbled down her sweatshirt and colored the H and O.

Ian scooted out from the table.

“I’m so sorry, sweetie,” he said. He put his arms around his daughter’s shoulders. “I’m so sorry.”

What did this asshole expect? Actions have consequences.

He grabbed the last two napkins on his table.

“This fucking place!” he said. He threw the holder onto the floor. “I need napkins!”

She texted Dad again: Mr. Beery’s. 15 minutes. He gave a thumbs-up back.

On her way out, she grabbed a handful of butterflies from the pile and chucked them at the girl. Ian scrambled to pick them up off the floor while Maeve sidestepped him.

 

Celeste Hamilton Dennis is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in various literary journals including Drunken Boat, Boston Accent Lit, Gravel, Barely South Review, and more. When she’s not engaged in the arts activism space or being a mom to two little girls, she’s working on a book of short stories connected by her hometown of Levittown, NY. She can’t stop writing about chain restaurants and mouthy women.

Photo by Ali Lanenga

Fady Joudah, Poet

Fady Joudah

Photo by Cybele Knowles

Fady Joudah was born in Austin, Texas to Palestinian refugee parents. He spent time growing up in both Libya and Saudi Arabia, and returned to the United States to complete his medical education. He currently works as a professional physician in Houston, Texas. Joudah is the author of three original works: The Earth in the Attic (2008), Alight (2013), and Textu (2013). In 2007, The Earth in the Attic won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, the oldest annual literary award in the United States. Joudah’s work additionally includes the translations of Mahmoud Darwish in The Butterfly’s Burden (2006) and of Ghassan Zaqtan in Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me (2012), which won the International Griffin Poetry Prize in 2013.

Fady Joudah is a multi-talented force to be reckoned with. He is a poet, translator, physician, father, volunteer, and someone I consider quite humble, considering his fascinatingly intellectual mind. Joudah and I met at the hotel where he was staying in Culver City in December of 2016. We spent a little over an hour exploring thoughts on poetic influence, innovation, and the ever-looming (for me) post-MFA conundrum of maintaining balance.

Doni Shepard: What spurred your original passion for poetry?

Fady Joudah: I don’t know if anything spurred it, but perhaps it’s something one’s born with. I think one’s more likely to be exposed to poetry at a young age in school. When these things took place in my presence as a kid, I remember having a very strong attachment to the power and the sound of poetry.

DS: I can remember that as a kid, just having this vivid connection to poetry and all elements of creative writing. That’s something that speaks to you very young, I think.

FJ: Yeah, I think one’s brain is wired in a certain way to perk your ears up when you hear it.

DS: Who would you consider some of your greatest literary influences?

FJ: I grew up with Classical era poetry. I wouldn’t necessarily name one, but I would note the history of Arabic poetry, whether pre-Islamic or Abbasid. Of the contemporaries, of course, Mahmoud Darwish has been important. It’s interesting because he’s a poet who brings a whole history of language and literature and is able to channel it into his poetry. If you are able to have a deep connection with it, you are able to see a whole universe through it.

I would say that my biggest relationship to poetry would be through pre-med and medical school classes, because it’s really like learning a third language. A lot of it is in Latin and Greek so it opens up the imagination.

I found Rilke very compelling at a younger age—not that I’m old, but because it was interesting to see what his work offered in English. I thought that was interesting. It was partly a function of my relationship with English as a spoken language in the first place, because I didn’t grow up speaking it or living in it. I don’t have a fabulous story as far as the list of names that I can mention. I would say that my biggest relationship to poetry would be through pre-med and medical school classes, because it’s really like learning a third language. A lot of it is in Latin and Greek so it opens up the imagination. Much of the history of literature in the world repeats itself so much, so you can choose one major spring and dip to your heart’s fill.

DS: I really like how you spoke about the connection to pre-med. I have some background in the medical field, and it’s much like learning an additional language. When you incorporate that into poetry or any sort of writing it adds a whole new layer to things.

FJ: That’s what poetry is, another layer of language, either added or peeled off. It’s an interesting experience to think that my scientific training has been actually a poetic training.

DS: Among your many responsibilities and talents, you are a driven poet, translator, parent, and medical doctor. How do you maintain diligence in creating balance?

FJ: I no longer know the answer to that because I think that fatigue sets in. As I get a little older, fatigue manifests in different ways, where one’s more emotionally fragile or one’s graciously less certain about several things. Your kids grow up and my body grows up and I’m not at the same energy level. I’m often asked that question. I get asked a few questions that often other poets don’t get asked in a structural sense; this is one of them. Maybe it’s easier to just want to ask the question back and say, “Well, why are you asking?” because I’m not so sure that my position is any different than anyone else who leads a full life with things to do.

DS: Maybe we are all searching for those answers. Especially people coming out of the MFA program, we all want to get the sense of how we will survive out in the world and balance all of our lives. There isn’t always a perfect answer. You see people that, of course, look like they have it all together and want to get a grasp on how that is possible.

FJ: In my case, I did medicine first. I still have medicine and this break is rare for me. Interesting, though, you reflecting back by saying it’s about your own futuristic anxieties. I would say that obviously, my experience has been that the market is limited. Also, the market tells us that if you stay “in” you have a better chance of making it because you’re “in.” You can’t get a promotion in a company you don’t work for. It’s harder in my position to be “in” when you’re from the outside, so I’m a less common event.

DS: What is your take on the ways in which poetry and other forms of expressive arts are being used in medical facilities? Do you feel that poetry and other forms of creative writing have a place in the medical realm as a form of therapy?

Sometimes I think that this question about poetry and healing is a vestigial question. It’s a hang-up that poets have, because that’s how poetry supposedly should be thought of. For millennia, poetry has been thought of as a vehicle for grief.

FJ: They do. It is rarely seen though. It’s a lot more talked about and studied and written about by academics than it is something that is implemented, in my experience. Sometimes I think that this question about poetry and healing is a vestigial question. It’s a hang-up that poets have, because that’s how poetry supposedly should be thought of. For millennia, poetry has been thought of as a vehicle for grief. Then we say it’s also oral history and other things. It’s not just one thing. Today there are many ways for us to heal or to seek healing through various mediums. Everything is actually so prescribed that the notion of the question for me is problematic because it wants poetry to serve as a possible prescription in a mechanical world. Maybe ultimately poetry is only able to serve that function for just one person, maybe the one who writes it.

DS: In Textu, a beautifully composed pocket-sized gem, you demonstrate a uniquely created form of poetry. You provide readers the explanation of “the Textu” by explaining that each poem “be exactly 160 characters long, specific to text-message parameters.” Did you find this structure in any way limiting to your creative expression, or did it serve as a welcome challenge?

FJ: It was very welcome. It gave air to the compulsions I was dealing with so I was very obsessive about taking the world in, trying to get it out in 160. I also thought it was an interesting moment artistically to have art be somewhat of a historical document: knowing that the text message is on its way to being obsolete in the sense that you have so many forms of communication that require no character count. People are always like, “Yeah, that’s what I do on Twitter!” and they don’t know that, no, Twitter is 140, and already people don’t communicate anything meaningful on it. You can upload or include hyperlinks, bits, etc… I already knew that texting, which will continue to exist, is much more intimate like poetry is. It’s much more private. I wanted a documentation of the intimacy of that language in that format to see what happens. I don’t know. Maybe Textu will seem to be a book more worthwhile ten or twenty years from now. Maybe I’ll look at it twenty years from now and laugh.

DS: Poetry has found a substantial following by way of social networking, providing exposure to artists such as Christopher Poindexter, R.M. Drake, and Rupi Kaur. In previous talks about Textu, you advised that you would send many of your original messages to loved ones after creation. Do you feel that a project such as Textu allows for a level of accessibility to poetry that didn’t always exist?

FJ: I can’t make such a claim. Maybe Textu is the opposite. It’s the manifestation that it is true that poetry can exist in all forms, you just have to find it and give it form. I don’t know if Textu necessarily is a public service for poetry’s reach into the world. Who the hell reads poetry? Very few people.

DS: I feel it’s becoming—in short bits—much more mainstream. People are getting a feel for poetry who maybe would have never been exposed to it prior. I see people, even celebrities, sharing little bits of poetry across social media platforms. I hope that in these smaller formats, that if it’s compact enough—there is an idea that maybe people are going to have a bit of poetry that they would have never experienced before.

FJ: It exists in ways—in an app that sends you a poem-a-day kind of thing, but the other problem with that is again that the poems are going to be guided by such things. The poems in Textu are not always easily accessible. The methodology of trying to make poetry reach more public makes one think about what kind of a poem will an average Joe stomach. So, you end up promoting a certain idea of poetry. That still recreates the same circles that exist in the literary world. We like to think of ourselves as some unique little pocket in America or in the Western world of great liberal thinkers. We’re no different than the rest of the culture. Maybe we’re not alt-right but I think we’re quite representative of the imperial citizen in the liberal age.

DS: In 2006, you translated three collections of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish with The Butterfly’s Burden. You have received and additionally been nominated for various awards for your work in translation. Has your background with translation influenced the way you approach new creative work?

Translation is a very close form of reading. If you’re able to achieve a close form of reading then you perform an act of translation. The other way is to say that translation is an act of original literary criticism.

FJ: Translation is a very close form of reading. If you’re able to achieve a close form of reading then you perform an act of translation. The other way is to say that translation is an act of original literary criticism. In that sense, you get to notice what you get to notice. If someone else does the same things that I’ve done, they might have a different relationship with their own idea of language than I have from the experience I’ve had with translation. One of the earliest things that I learned in the process of translation is that any body of work that seems to be worthwhile exists in part because that poet has created their own private dictionary. Kilito, a Moroccan critic, says that he believes, “You write one book in your life and you spend the rest of your life trying to write it better than you did the first time.” Such an endeavor means that you inevitably create your own lexicon, your own private lexicon. Then you have to be aware that you have created this. After that step, you have to know what to do with it and how to develop it, how not to continue to repeat it. It has to evolve. That’s the major thing I’ve learned from sitting with this large body of work for different poets. You see that when you go through these you’re actually going through their relationship with language. Then you realize that this is what you will have to go through as a writer.

DS: What are some of the most prominent factors that sway your writing and the creative projects that you take on?

FJ: It’s the way I see my life. My perception of my reality.

DS: Simple and powerful way to put it. I think that speaks to a lot of writers. Has your writing focus shifted at all due to the current political or cultural climate?

FJ: No. It’s about understanding where I’m at with my life, with my writing, and with my language, and focusing on that. I’m definitely someone who is conscious of the body and that connection, as we all are. My experience is different as a professional physician and the various experiences that I have had. I get to see the body from a different aspect. Having touched dying without being the one dying, [and doing] so frequently, is an interesting thing. I did not survive an illness, a trauma, in any classic, immediate sense of those words, but in a way, I have to deal daily with my own trauma being a participant. I deal with constant despair. That’s really all one encounters as a physician after a while—other people in need, vulnerability, or despair, even if it is brief. That is something that catches up with me and says, “Hello. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.” It’s something that is the world-over whether it’s through poverty, famine, war, epidemics—whatever it is.

DS: I have read various interviews where you speak about the attachment of designations as a poet. In what ways have you worked to move away from the coined terms that often follow your name (“Palestinian poet,” “physician-poet”), and do you have any advice for poets who struggle to shed their own taxonomy?

FJ: I don’t know if I have succeeded, and I don’t know if in that department I will succeed, because in the end, it’s others who chose to call you things for their own convenience, reduction, categorization, or what have you. It’s probably important to reach a point where one doesn’t care and one just focuses on one’s life’s work and that’s it. Again, it’s a problem of how much we mimic the outer culture. People say Jim Carrey tried so hard to break away from the slapstick comedy, so he tried to do tragedy and maybe he pulled it off in this movie and didn’t pull it off in others, and maybe he didn’t do it as well as Robin Williams did. I know this is also performance art, but it’s the same conversation. I don’t think there is a way one will escape these things; I just think it’s about finding a community as free of labels as possible.

In my situation, there’s a catch-22. Anything you want to say about a minority position or a marginalized position—we have a system similar to a Pez dispenser. Once you push your own little tablet out, there will be twenty other tablets that tell you, “Here we are in solidarity,” but it doesn’t work out that way, actually. It turns out in horizontal violence. It works out in intersectionality more than it does in solidarity. Each one with a grievance who wants the grievance headlined and identified. [Those in] the default modes, ironically, are the ones who form the most entrenched form of identity politics, yet project the accusation onto others because that’s what power does. There’s an entrapment to focus on what is called “identitarian issues,” because that categorization and the algorithms are already there. One should do what one needs to do and feels like doing; those who are obsessed with naming can name. It’s really a circus out there.

DS: As we close, do you mind sharing what types of creative projects you are working on now?

FJ: I have finished up a fourth collection due out in 2018, published by Milkweed Editions, titled Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance. Mostly working on a nonfiction book—trying to think about memory and life forces through human and non-human forms.

 

Doni Shepard Doni Shepard is a poet, mother, and lifetime learner who currently resides in Phoenix, AZ. She spends her days managing content for a popular startup, mommying an extraordinary three-year-old, and serving as Lunch Ticket’s poetry editor. Upon nightfall you can generally find her in an insomniac haze binge-watching streaming television with a fluffy orange feline named Doobie James. Her work has been featured online by Dirty Chai, Bloodletters Literary Magazine, Calamus Journal, Crab Fat Magazine, and Ursus Americanus Press, and may be found in the love anthology Spectrum 3: LoveLoveLove. She holds an undergraduate degree interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in art therapy from Arizona State University, and is currently an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, concentrating in poetry.

Sleight of Hand

[fiction]

You’re walking home from Chester Park Elementary School, where you have the happiness of being in the sixth grade. As you’re passing the windowless flank of a multistory parking garage, a four-eyed classmate of yours named Dresner steps out of the doorway he’s been skulking in.

—Check this out.

The small volume he produces for your inspection has a black leatherette cover. Nothing is printed on it. It reminds you of the sort of book found on the backs of pews. You’re reluctant to touch it.

—What is it?

—Open it.

Before you can, it’s snatched from your hands by another classmate of yours—Falk, his name is. A gangly lout with a face like the Big Bad Wolf’s, he flips through the pages under your nose, while you try but fail to contain yourself.

—That’s disgusting!

—Where’d you get it?

Dresner, used to being ignored by Falk, is thrilled to be admitted to a conversation with him.

—In my father’s closet. Hey, what’s the idea? Come back with that!

Falk laughs at him over his shoulder.

—Or what? You’ll tell your father?

That Dresner doesn’t dare to pursue him as he saunters off can only be due to the fearsome reputation enjoyed by Falk’s headlock. You have to hurry to catch up with him before he reaches the corner.

—You should give it back.

In the shadow of the parking garage, Dresner has sagged down onto his pudgy hams, as if the wind’s been knocked out of him. He looks so stricken even Falk can’t help feeling for him.

—All right, here.

Grudgingly he surrenders the book and disappears around the corner. You make sure Dresner isn’t watching when you slip it in your pocket.

 

Stephen BailyStephen Baily is the author of three novels, ten plays, and short fiction that’s appeared in some thirty-five journals. His novel, Markus Klyner, MD, FBI, is available as a Kindle e-book. He lives in France.

Spatial Awareness: Digital Collages

Food Truck Rodeo

As the credits roll on the theater screen, I check my phone. Eleven thirty-four p.m., still too many hours until morning. Dad left for work a few hours ago. He’s working nights at the hospital this week. I make a list in my mind of things I can do tonight to pass the time. Read. Study for my upcoming AP biology test. Clean the bathtub. Reorganize the Tupperware. Sort bills from the junk mail for Dad. I walk out of the mostly empty theater into the yellow lights of the deserted lobby. The girl behind the ticket booth waits for the last few customers to leave.

A guy dressed in jeans and a Bush Hills Swimming T-shirt exits the theater through the opposite door. I recognize the shirt before registering that the guy is Tripp Casener. I’m surprised to see him here, even if the movie was only a dollar. The Tripp I remember could barely sit still through a thirty-minute sitcom, let alone over two hours of South Pacific. His mom always reprimanded his incessant talking while my mom snickered under her breath. My throat goes dry as my mom’s memory resurfaces into my conscious thought. One hundred fifty-seven minutes of peace destroyed in seconds, just from seeing Tripp.

“Caroline!”

At first I don’t trust my ears when I hear my name. I walk toward the front doors that lead out to Cary Street. But I hear it again, louder this time, and turn back around. Tripp breaks into a slight jog to catch up to me. I’m not looking for a conversation or even recognition. Shared history doesn’t guarantee a shared present or future.

“Hey,” he says, taking the door and holding it for me.

“Hey,” I say back.

“It’s been a while. How are you?”

“I’m fine.”

We stand a distance apart. I smash an ant beneath my shoe, wondering why he approached me. I notice his height, only a few inches taller than me, which puts him well under six feet.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, trying not to sound like he’s intruding, even though I feel like he is.

“Do you want the honest answer or the one I’ll make up to protect my reputation?”

“The truth.”

“I love musicals.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

This revelation surprises me. In all the time we knew each other as kids, he never mentioned this.

“Where you headed?” he asks, as I begin walking toward Sheppard Street.

Mom didn’t leave any specific funeral wishes, but Dad and I both knew her well enough to know she’d want us to say goodbye to her beneath a bleeding crucifix and stained-glass Virgin Mary.

“I parked over by the church,” I tell him. There is no need to specify which church. Mom didn’t leave any specific funeral wishes, but Dad and I both knew her well enough to know she’d want us to say goodbye to her beneath a bleeding crucifix and stained-glass Virgin Mary.

“Let me give you a ride to your car,” he says.

“It’s fine,” I tell him. “It’s four blocks.”

“I know, but it’s dark.”

He doesn’t know the darkness is familiar to me now. I walk at night often, wandering through neighborhoods to a natural cacophony of crickets chirping and toads croaking.

“I’m not scared of the dark anymore.” I was, back when we were friends. As soon as the sun began to set in those summers, I headed inside. The neighborhood kids stayed out late, playing flashlight tag and ghost in the graveyard. Tripp always stopped by to ask if I wanted to play. He even promised to stay with me and let me pick the hiding spots. I always declined. I hated the dark, the unknown of it, the endless possibilities of terror, mostly the thought of being kidnapped like Elizabeth Smart and Samantha Runnion. I never suspected that the true terror would come under the blinding lights of a hospital hallway.

“I know,” he says. “I’ve seen you walking before.” I stop. We are at his truck, but I hesitate to get in.

“What?”

“I see you walking late at night.”

“Oh,” I say, like my secret has just been announced over the intercom and everyone in the school is looking at me. I wait for him to ask why, to say something else about it, but he just unlocks the truck and climbs into the driver’s seat.

I stand beside the blue truck, my hand on the door handle. The street light makes the door shine, like it’s just been washed. Tripp hasn’t started the engine; he sits behind the steering wheel, staring ahead. It reminds me of the time we went to King’s Dominion and rode the antique cars together. We were only ten, a far cry from driving age, but I remember thinking Tripp looked so natural behind the wheel. That evening we stayed until the park closed. It was one of Mom’s good days, while she was in remission. This memory, of my mom still healthy, propels me into Tripp’s truck. He is one of the only people who might remember her that way, instead of wasting away in a hospital bed.

“Are you hungry?” Tripp asks, as we near the church. My car is parked just beyond it, on Belmont Avenue.

“I could eat,” I say.

“I know the perfect place if you want to grab a bite.”

I haven’t talked to Tripp in years, a combination of Mom’s death, busy schedules, and his parents’ divorce. Being around Tripp and his family was hard after Mom died, a constant reminder of the family I would never have again. Then, his mom moved across town, a twenty-minute drive on a good day. The distance may as well have been hours because we barely saw each other after that. The fadeout happened naturally.

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.”

This cryptic response should raise some red flags. I wonder, as we drive down Boulevard, whether I should have declined the offer. But it’s almost my birthday, and I know my mom wouldn’t want me to spend it alone, the way I spend every other day of my life. So I try not to think too hard about it. Tripp turns into the parking lot of a brewery. Four trucks sit in a row in the empty lot. I’ve heard about the food truck rodeos held down here, but I’ve never ventured out. There’s something about eating food made in the back of a truck that doesn’t appeal to me. Apparently they stay open late on Tuesdays.

Tripp parks the truck and gets out. Even before I open my door, I smell the grease and fried food. The red “Fire Truck” has flames painted on the side and only serves spicy food. There’s a lot of sriracha on the menu. We pass it. The next truck makes only grilled cheese sandwiches with a variety of different cheeses, meats, and vegetables to choose from. The gouda-pimento-bacon is on special for buy-one-get-one-free. The chalkboard at the window says “It’s So Gouda, You Need More Than One.” I cringe at the terrible pun. I remember that Tripp hates grilled cheese, so we continue walking. We pass the hibachi truck without hesitation. Asian cuisine from a truck makes my stomach turn. Finally, we stop in front of Timmy’s Tacos, at the end of the line.

“Think you can still beat me in a taco eating contest?” Tripp asks, grinning.

I used to challenge him all the time. We would each have thirty minutes to eat as many tacos as possible, while our mothers tried to talk sense into us. We never listened. I beat Tripp every time. The competition ended the evening Tripp challenged me to a wrestling match directly after dinner. I had to forfeit in order to make it to the bathroom in time to vomit all nine tacos back up. Our moms officially declared the end of the taco wars that night.

“No way,” I say.

“It’s on me.”

“Tripp, no.”

“So you’re forfeiting?”

“Can’t we just eat tacos like adults and enjoy them?”

“You’re eighteen now, so you can’t have fun?”

“What?”

“It’s your birthday,” he says, checking his watch. “In four minutes, it’s your eighteenth birthday.”

“I didn’t know you remembered.”

The smile drops from Tripp’s face, as if something has suddenly crossed his mind. He puts his hands in his front pockets like he’s checking them for holes. Before I can ask him about it, the strange look is gone and he purchases ten tacos from Timmy, who used to play on the school volleyball team, led them to states his senior year. I guess he sells tacos now.

Minutes later, I discover these aren’t just any tacos. I know after my first bite that they are the best tacos I have ever eaten in my life. It’s a simple recipe: moist ground beef, crisp lettuce, and instead of shredded cheese, melted queso, the white kind, filled with chopped jalapenos. We sit on a grass margin in the lot. Parking lot lights cast shadows across Tripp’s face. A trace of stubble lines his upper lip, trailing down to his chin and up to his sideburns.

“You started the clock, right?” I ask Tripp between bites. He throws me a thumbs-up. We eat in silence, taco after taco, until all ten are gone. Five each. I finish just a bite ahead of Tripp.

“Call it a tie?” I ask.

Tripp considers this, as if something important hangs in balance.

“We did eat the same amount,” I say, trying to sway him.

“A tie is better than another loss.”

I lie on my back, hands on my stomach.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to walk for an hour.”

We stare into the nothingness. The lights prevent us from seeing any stars, but knowing that they are there even though we cannot see them comforts me.

“I’ve got nowhere to be,” he says. The paper trays the tacos came in fill the wide gap of space between us. Tripp stacks them together and puts his keys on top to prevent them from blowing away before lying down, his hands folded behind his head. We stare into the nothingness. The lights prevent us from seeing any stars, but knowing that they are there even though we cannot see them comforts me.

I realize that besides my dad and my teachers, I haven’t talked to anyone else for an extended period of time in a while. My swimming friends and I lost touch when I quit the team, and after a while, the girl who’s always sad about her mom isn’t fun to hang out with. At least, that’s what I assume they think. I never asked, just disengaged a little at a time. If I don’t let people in, they can’t leave. If I don’t care about anyone, I can’t end up hurt.

After a while, Tripp says, “Happy birthday.”

“Thanks.”

“How does it feel to be an adult?”

“Being eighteen doesn’t make you an adult.”

“What does then?”

“Life.”

“Guess I’ve been an adult for a while,” he says.

“OK.” This comes out harsh, sarcastic, because I don’t know what else to say. He can’t seriously be comparing a divorce to a death.

“Caroline, I’m sorry I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Whatever, let’s go.” I stand, brushing dirt off the back of my jeans.

*    *    *

Tripp drops me at my car at a little after one. It shouldn’t take longer than thirty minutes to get home at this time of night. The beltway will be clear.

“Thanks,” I say.

“It was fun,” he says. “Felt like old times.”

I offer him a small smile.

“I’m sorry,” he says again. I exit the car without responding.

*    *    *

The bags under my eyes keep darkening, but I use concealer and wear bright lipstick. It draws people’s eyes to my mouth instead. They always comment on the reds and pinks, never on the purple.

The house is quiet. I navigate the rooms in darkness, by sheer familiarity. I change into a pair of yoga pants and an old Bush Hills Swimming T-shirt. I should get into bed and try to sleep. I feel tired, but I know that as soon as I get into bed, my mind will start racing and it will keep me awake. If I told Dad, he’d probably prescribe some sort of medication, over-the-counter or otherwise. He always wrote scripts for me as a kid, for antibiotics and naproxen, even steroids the time I had bronchitis for over a month. But I don’t want him to worry. I’m managing, even without a lot of sleep. The bags under my eyes keep darkening, but I use concealer and wear bright lipstick. It draws people’s eyes to my mouth instead. They always comment on the reds and pinks, never on the purple.

I study, trying to memorize the nuances of cell organelles, mitosis and meiosis. It’s all much more complicated than what we learned in tenth grade. I read until the organelles feel cemented into my brain. I flip the page and study the cell-division diagram. The chromosomes become chromatids and then go back to being chromosomes again. It happens over and over, every second in our bodies. A little purple box at the bottom of page 113 explains that one mistake in this delicate process throws it entirely off balance. I shut the book with force, thinking how pointless it is to know all of this when our cells betray us anyway, leading us slowly and painfully toward death.

I crawl into my bed and shut my eyes. I wait. Nothing. I think about my mom, about Tripp, about the simple summers that included both of them. Sleep does not come.

Two hours later, I go for a walk. The leaves rustle on the trees, and twigs snap somewhere within them, most likely from raccoons or some other night animal. I tread the familiar paths, my mind conjuring images of my mom, trying to hear my name roll off her tongue, the way she drew out the long “i” in my name, so it sounded like Caroliiiine. I do this often, a part of my nightly routine. I am scared that if I don’t, I will forget. I can’t imagine a world in which I cannot hear my mother’s soft, lilting tone or her eruptive laugh, even though that is the world in which I now exist. I want to remember her green eyes, as I inherited my dad’s brown ones.

I decide to take a route that passes Tripp’s house, to continue with the nostalgic feeling of the night. Despite the years, being with him wasn’t awkward. It felt natural, like getting back on my bike after I’d broken my arm. Light shines from one downstairs window. I wonder if it’s him, or if it’s his dad, up late preparing for a big case. I pass the house, and a minute later I hear my name, called from a distance. Just like at the theater a few hours ago, I turn. Tripp walks down his front steps and to the end of his driveway.

“You’re still up.” I walk back to meet him.

“You sound surprised,” Tripp says.

“I am.”

“I figured you’d be making rounds,” he says, hands in his front pockets.

I am taken aback that he waited for me.

“Well, here I am.”

“You sound tired.”

“I am, but I can’t sleep. I already tried.”

Tripp joins me, and we continue to walk, rounding the cul-de-sac and making our way back toward his house.

“You gonna keep walking?” he asks.

“I’ll probably just go back to my room and stare at the ceiling.”

“At least you have those glow-in-the-dark stars to look at.”

I can hear his grin though the dark masks his face.

“Those fell down years ago.”

“Oh.” Another reminder of the time that has passed and how our relationship has changed. Not changed as much as dissipated. I think of seeing him at football games, huddled by the bleachers, an arm around Janie, instead of in the stands watching the games with our parents and me; of seeing him in line at the movie theater with his friends instead of sitting on his couch with a bowl of popcorn.

We reach his house and hover at the end of his driveway, by the mailbox that has CASENER engraved into the newspaper slot. I run my finger along the groove of the C. It catches on a tiny piece of split wood. I pull it back, the pain sharp and concentrated. I step onto the wooden railroad tie that lines his driveway, which makes me taller than him.

“Why are you doing this?” I’m skeptical of his motive. We haven’t spoken in years. “Why now? Why tonight?”

“I don’t know,” he says. His head tilts towards the ground; he kicks at the gravel in his driveway and puts his hands in his front pockets again. His mouth forms a straight line, and he looks up at me through his eyelashes. I can’t tell if the look contains pity or something else.

I bite my lower lip and shake my head. I turn and begin walking away.

“What?” he yells.

“I don’t want your pity, Tripp,” I shout back. I keep walking.

“Caroline, wait!”

I roll my eyes, but I turn around. Tripp waves his hand at me, but I can’t see what he’s holding.

“What is that?” I walk back towards him.

He hands me a small brown parcel, no more than two inches wide. My name is written in a sloppy cursive script, like a third grader’s. I realize it is my mother’s; she must’ve written it towards the end. I wonder what’s inside it, a locket with her picture, some piece of memorabilia she wanted me to have. Dad still has her wedding ring, so I know it can’t be that. We move to the steps of his front porch.

“Is this why you were at the movie?” I ask him, the whole night suddenly making sense.

He nods. “She made me promise I’d give it to you.”

“How’d you know where to find me?” I feel violated at the thought that this night was not a random encounter but a calculated plot.

“Your dad gave me a few ideas.”

I don’t speak. I look at Tripp, the uncertainty in his eyes. I hardly feel the weight of the small brown paper in my hand, yet I feel weighed down.

“Why didn’t she leave it with my dad?”

Tripp shrugs.

I stare blankly at the small package in my hand. Tripp has had it for the past five years. He never mentioned it. He never handed it over. My hands shake.

“You should have given this to me years ago,” I say.

“She made me promise. Not until your eighteenth birthday.”

“It wasn’t your choice to make,” I shout.

“I’m sorry.”

“That’s all you’ve said all night. You’re sorry. You had no right to keep this from me.” I am so angry that I don’t even care that a deep sadness fills Tripp’s eyes.

“I thought about giving it to you a hundred times.”

“But you didn’t,” I say. “You kept it. And you didn’t even stay in touch.”

“That’s not fair.”

He’s right. I withdrew. I couldn’t stand to be around Tripp and Mrs. Casener. Every second of being with them intensified the void of Mom’s presence. And once his parents got divorced I barely asked Tripp how he was. I left him alone with his grief because I was incapable of navigating my own. I look down at the folded brown paper again. The thought of opening it terrifies me. I’ve spent the last five years figuring out how to live without her, and now I feel like I’ve made no progress at all.

“Happy birthday, Caroline,” Tripp finally says. I hear the screen door creak open and the click when it closes. I sit on Tripp’s porch for a few minutes staring at the little package that could change everything. It can’t bring her back, but it’s some sort of link to her. I want to hate Tripp for keeping it from me, but for some reason, Mom trusted him. She probably thought we’d still be best friends right now. She had no way of knowing that the Caseners would divorce and the family friendship would fall apart. It dawns on me that Tripp and I are connected, whether we want to be or not. My mom trusted him with whatever is in this little package, so I decide to trust him, too. I stand and open the screen door, stepping into the foyer of his house. He sits on the couch like he expected me to come back in.

“Tripp,” I say reluctantly. I know I should say something else, but I don’t want to admit that I can’t open this package alone. Tripp takes his keys out of his pocket and walks out the front door. I follow. When we get into his truck, I put the small parcel between us in the cup holder.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“If we’re going to be up all night, we’ll need sustenance.” Tripp smiles.

We sit at a table in Luna Sweets. I eat a peanut butter chocolate fudge cookie, gooey from being warmed in the microwave. Tripp chooses a sugar cookie covered in blue icing. We each intermittently sip from large cardboard coffee cups. I left mom’s present in the car, but it consumes my mind as we sit in silence. What could she give to me that needed to wait this long? How could she know who I would become? So much changed when she died. Life kept moving. She doesn’t even know me anymore.

When we leave, I direct Tripp to the yoga studio run by Jada Winston. She is strange and wonderful. Her hair is always done in microbraids and pulled up into a fabulous bun atop her head. I’d gone to her classes for a while, but when Mom died, she gave me a key to the place, said that you never know when you need to focus on your energy. I don’t typically come here in the middle of the night, but I need to find some inner peace before I can open the surprise package.

“You should open it,” Tripp tells me. He carries it inside with him.

I glare at him. He shrugs. We walk through the lobby, where there is a small alcove that serves as a welcome desk. Wooden cubbies cover the opposite wall. I remove my shoes and put them in a cubby before locking the door behind us. Beyond the front lobby is a large, empty room with wooden floors and a wall of mirrors, painted cerulean blue. I point Tripp towards the door at the back of the room and instruct him to get two mats while I walk to the sound closet and begin the recording. I leave the lights dim. We set our mats next to each other, and Jada’s voice fills the room along with soft music.

“Lie down on your back,” she tells us. “Close your eyes. Place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly. Focus on your two life-sustaining forces. Thank them for carrying you through to this moment.”

I do as her voice tells me. My heart rate is slightly elevated, since Tripp and I are alone in this sanctuary. I concentrate all of my thoughts on the hand on my belly, how my breath rises and falls, even though I am not telling it to. I switch my focus to my heart, beating constantly along with my breath, amazed that even if I asked it to, it would not stop. I hold my breath for a moment to hear Tripp breathing next to me. I sneak a glance at him, and he lays on his mat, eyes closed, doing exactly as Jada says.

“Your mind is an elastic, flexible thing,” Jada’s voice croons. “It can go into the past and into the future. The true challenge of yoga is to train your mind to be present, to occupy the same space as your body.”

Focusing on the present means feeling the pain beneath my ribs each time I breathe a breath without her.

Before my mom died, I never gave this much thought. Of course my mind is present, that’s how I’m here, I always thought. Now, I see with unfortunate clarity what Jada means. My mind spends little time in the present anymore. I spend my hours thinking about the past life I shared with Mom or the life I am continually forced to live without her. Focusing on the present means feeling the pain beneath my ribs each time I breathe a breath without her. Opening her birthday present will only exacerbate that pain.

We move into what Jada calls our happy asana, finding our most comfortable posture and bringing our hands to our heart center. This is my favorite part. I get to choose where I am, how I am. Everything in this moment is up to me, within my control. I determine what happens here. I sit with my feet touching, my legs splayed in a butterfly. My hands rest in a prayer position at my heart, though I do not pray. I focus on my breath, forcing myself to be painfully aware of each one. Jada tells us to move to a standing position, but I remain seated. I hear Tripp rise next to me. I listen as my heart beats in my ears, and I am acutely aware when tears begin to fall from my eyes. They roll down, along the bridge of my nose, over my lips and down onto my chin. I do not move my hands from my heart center to brush them away. Jada moves the imaginary group into another exercise. My tears fall continuously. This is what it feels like to be present, I think. This is what it will feel like to be present for the rest of my life.

My over-awareness of my present body means I feel Tripp’s hand on my shoulder the instant it lands there. My skin does not burn beneath it. I do not shiver or feel giddy inside. Instead, a widespread comfort flows through my body, from the hair follicles on my head down to the tips of my toes. When I open my eyes, Tripp is looking at me. I am thankful he is here.

I sigh. Tripp walks to the sound closet and turns off Jada’s recording and turns the lights up. He scoots his yoga mat so it touches mine, and he sits cross-legged, his happy asana, facing me. He brings his hands to their heart center. I match his posture. We sit like this until my tears stop. I bow. He bows back, then hands me the package.

My heart beats in my ears as I unwrap it, treating it like a fragile piece of china. Inside is a rose-gold chain with a circular silver charm. A single pearl hangs in the center. I hold my breath for a moment as the weight of this gift sinks in.

When I was younger, Mom called me her little pearl. I haven’t thought about this nickname in ages; it’s part of the distant past, before the hospitals, the cancer, the chemo. She wasn’t supposed to have kids. Before she and Dad had me, she had three miscarriages, but somehow, I made it. I survived despite that none of the others did. She and Dad chose to keep me even when the doctors recommended an abortion. It was a rough pregnancy that she always assured me was worth it, just like the pearl is worth all the irritation in the oyster.

More tears make their way down my cheeks, and I realize I’ve cried more tonight than in the last few years combined. The nearness I feel to my mom in this moment makes it feel like she might appear, but the perfect gift reminds that she is really gone, that she is not coming back. I try to clasp the necklace behind my neck, but my hands shake and the necklace falls to the floor. The clink of metal against the cold floor echoes in the silence. Tripp picks up the necklace and fumbles with the lobster claw clasp, much too small for his large fingers to maneuver. As he tries a few more times, I think of why she gave this gift to him instead of my dad or Mrs. Casener. Maybe she sensed my coming withdrawal and wanted to make sure I stayed connected, kept relationships with people. Tripp finally succeeds, and the necklace lays flat against my chest.

Am I closer to allowing my body and mind to occupy the same space at the same time, or am I beginning the process that leads to my mom’s memory slowly fading?

Before we go our separate ways again, we stop at a gas station to get more coffee.

“It’s going to be a long day,” Tripp says as he dumps two packets of sugar into his cup. We drive back towards our houses. The sky gets imperceptibly lighter as we both fight sleep. I only notice because Tripp’s face begins to get clearer, no longer obscured by the darkness. A breeze pulls a few leaves off the trees, and they float to the ground. We turn onto Genito Road, and the sun breaks through the horizon. A quiet settles in as light illuminates the world around us. I take a sip of my coffee as we round the bend in the road, turning into my neighborhood. I focus on the details of the moment, the hum of the truck’s engine, Tripp drumming on the steering wheel with his fingers, on his breath, on mine. I realize that these breaths are not so painful. I’m not sure if this is progress or regression. Am I closer to allowing my body and mind to occupy the same space at the same time, or am I beginning the process that leads to my mom’s memory slowly fading? I slide the charm back and forth on the chain. Even if memories fade, she will still be here; I understand this to be true. We pull into my driveway and I press the charm against my heart, which keeps on beating, just like the sun keeps on rising.

 

Morgan Coyner is a Virginia native who is pursuing her MFA in creative writing (fiction) at Georgia College. In addition to reading and writing, she loves to knit sweaters, drink Diet Coke, and watch crime shows on TV. Until now, her only known audience has been her car, Harrison Ford, who listens to her sing Taylor Swift at top volume. Post grad school, Morgan hopes to move to Nashville, the city that most inspires her.

Big Ball of String Theory

Yoo-hoo! I’m back here, in the bedroom, in the bed. I’m seventeen, I’m twenty-two, I’m thirty-seven, fifty. I dress in white and lie here. Let’s just say it’s mono, or Some Disease, the lazies, or the dreads. Let’s just say I never learned to spell élan vitale right. Let’s just say I should be dead.

My mother says I don’t complain. I’ve been sentenced to six weeks. Not that people will notice. I’m barely a blip at school. Mom tries to fix that with plenty of pudding to fatten me up. She buys me a blue Princess phone for my bedside, and dashes off to work. She went back to school and is all professorial now in her swinging skirt and trim jacket. She always carries a stack of papers. Always. Since Daddy died, she’s raised us on her own.

Sweetheart, she says, I hope you get better soon. Better to her means going to school, cheering her up, not dying. Better to me means getting a letter from my boyfriend back east at one of the Ivies, closing my eyes, floating back to holding hands, filling the neighborhood streets with Prufrock’s love call, back and back again through pheromones thickening the air in the back seat of his mother’s blue compact car. Oh please, don’t wake me up.

Problem is, I’m stuck between hormones and hosannas, shopping for a mate when my purchasing power is zilch, and will be for years.

Problem is, I’m stuck between hormones and hosannas, shopping for a mate when my purchasing power is zilch, and will be for years. In Mom’s dictionary, college always comes before marriage, a case of the pot trying to keep the kettle from turning black. Get married, and I’ll cut you off at the pockets, she threatens. So I lie here, spend hours composing letters to send far way. I am what I write. It’s perfect. Just don’t make me talk on that phone, make the words come out of my mouth. If I knew what to say, it would have been, Shut up and kiss me.

Mom comes home at night and asks after my day. I got a letter, but it’s my sweet secret. At dinner she talks about work, so I’m off the hook. I study the grain on the table, cultivating my opaque veneer. She has single-handedly integrated the faculty senate by crossing the aisle to sit with the men. Feminism is just around the corner. What are you reading that for? she asks when The Feminine Mystique shows up on my lap. She has always preferred male company. If she had a best friend, it wouldn’t be me.

After dinner, she types on the Royal. Seventy words per minute, hour after hour—lesson plans, letters, agendas. She’s been doing this my whole life. My first lullaby. No matter what her job is, she never stops being a secretary. I want to be a philosopher. I read Durant’s one-volume history into the night. Plato, Augustine’s Ethics, then on to Spinoza. She makes me take two terms of typing, which I ditch, forging her name on the slip.

Last weekend my sister came home. We’ve slipped into a truce now that she’s going to college away. She got a call during dinner—a meeting of all the new cheerleaders. Mom and I couldn’t stop laughing. She’s always tripping over herself. I was the acrobat. She got the boobs and the bubbly thing, all those guys with their gropey hands. If I had a line of guys at the door, I’d probably crawl back in bed. What she didn’t know then is this—one guy used to kiss me.

Let’s just say I’m not proud of it. Let’s just say I needed the practice. Let’s just say, Every dog has its day, which is what she said to me when she finally caught us.

One year later, my love and I turn eighteen three time zones apart. It’s spring, and his letter says he wants to get married. Nay, nay, I say, my wings are still wet. He mentions his mother, who’s for it. I don’t mention mine. We call the thing done, and I date his brother, who dated my sister, then romance a flurry of friends and friends’ friends, until the connections dead-end. After four years, he finds another blonde hometown girl. After forty years, they’re still at it.

At twenty-two, I’m a senior at Berkeley, where my words are confined to paper, my spoken self broken, no dates in two years. America’s armies invade Cambodia. My fever won’t break. In the next bed a Japanese student is reading haiku. They tell me you can’t get this twice, but, Look, here I am! I feel my credibility sinking as low as my blood count. Outside my window, my classmates are marching, out raging and outraged. Some students are dead on TV. I am holding my debutante ball here, so white and so pure. No one drops in, no one dances. The nurses are starchy in nurse-caps, my makeshift attendants. Two little white pills a day and you’re back on your feet in a week, right back where you started.

When you spend lots of time between sheets, things start to look different. When I turn thirty-seven, they give it a name. Something I had all along that turned ugly, like the divorce. They want to cut out the pain, but I won’t let them do it, not yet. I’m thinking of healing. Months later, a chastened shadow, my ghost gets the message to let it begin—the removal of scraps of organs, one piece at a time. Let’s just say I must have had more than I needed. Let’s just say there are surgeons still sunning themselves on deck during cruises Aruban. Let’s just say there was only one time in ten when I didn’t want to wake up.

When your body is disappearing into biohazard bags at a good clip, it’s time to take stock. Are you still the who that you were, without this, without that? Have you left all the right things behind? What about all those brain cells that live in the gut? I turn on the TV that hangs from the ceiling. The Challenger shuttle explosion is looping the loop, transfixing a nation, blasting carnage and smoke from incredulous skies, and indelible tears from school-aged eyes. My neighbor tells me she’s seen my son ditching classes. My step-daughter hates him. Her friends steal my car.

Let’s just say you’re the Maytag repairman, so lonely the phone is repelled and refuses to ring, or the Dalai Lama, watching it all move through you like wind through tall grasses.

Let’s just say you are Donna Reed, and the kids are clean and squeaky. Let’s just say you’re the Maytag repairman, so lonely the phone is repelled and refuses to ring, or the Dalai Lama, watching it all move through you like wind through tall grasses. Let’s just say you are Harriet and Ozzie is on his way home with takeout. After dinner, the whole family sings.

At fifty, I have my lastectomy. My son stops by with a jones and I pay him off so he’ll go. They stitch me up crooked, take out some nerve endings too. Who cares. I’m getting divorced again. I move to a new town, re-date my first love’s brother, but soon get re-dumped, after making fast friends with their mother. Who the hell knew.

Most days I’m fine now. My own mother’s up on the mantle. I don’t complain. Let’s just say I’ve made some adjustments. Let’s just say I can make the case for adversity, and then rebut it. Let’s just say that in another universe, available in theory via strings, quarks, and quantum leaps, my mother stands in a doorway, misty-eyed in an apron, and blesses a union, one in which love finds a voice that speaks in my voice—a world where I not only squeak through alive, but finally walk away whole.

 

Linnea Wortham Harper writes on the banks of McKinney Slough on the central Oregon coast. A retired psychiatric social worker, she labors under the impression that she is still writing chart notes to make sense of what otherwise won’t. When she was five, she introduced W.H. Auden to the works of A.A. Milne. This has been her greatest literary accomplishment.

Swallow / Swallowed / Swallowing & Masturbating to Greek Myths

Swallow / Swallowed / Swallowing

swal·low | noun

1. a small oscine bird with a short bill, long pointed wings, & a deeply forked tail,
which feeds on insects caught on the wing.

swal·low | verb

1.  to take or receive through the mouth & esophagus into the stomach.
2.  to accept without question, protest, or resentment.
3.  to utter (as words) indistinctly.

example: i swallow my fear & it perches on the edge of this
city’s hungriest bridge / devours the sound of sunset &

disappears by morning.

example: we swallow each other’s names / supplication

quiet
prayers &

choke / on fistfuls of feathers

example: i kneel & bury him in the soft, wet
dirt/y of my mouth
like the mud plucks &
swallows our animal / bodies

how they tell us we choose this
burial / how a grave & i share

the same unclean throat.

example: the officer’s hand perches
on his gun / hands
up! [faggot] / & we must swallow
our razorslick tongues / or else

be swallowed or received
by the dirt or a jail cell

& by this i mean: we break / bird wings
off in the back of our throat

re-teach words / not to fly
before a nightstick or bullet re-teaches
our bodies / animal & sunset / flood
of red feathers pressed into the dirt

how the horizon opens
like wings [or a mouth] to swallow us

like a lover might.

 


Masturbating to Greek Myths

i am searching for porn with bodies like mine
that are not made fetish / this word for image
to pray over / word defined by deviation
from a norm / my body made false idol

+ so i am masturbating to Greek myths + how they remind me
of my chimera body + how almost every monster was just
the best parts of other animals sewn together / how i am
stitching together the best parts of woman + what i was born with

i lay back against the sheets + charybdis
both this body’s hungry mouths / let my fingers
feel what wet wreckage / what good + greedy
breaking / these can make of any body

name this sometimes-unwanted part of me—hydra
how you sever the head of a snake / + it grows again
+ it grows again            + it grows again
like this blood-hardened body / reminds me of its presence

+ in this myth / woman is born from the severance of man
my hands slur semen + sea-foam / into one word / a sound
like i am born + drowning / in myself + these sheets
body breaking the surface / mouth gasping for air

 

torrin a. greathousetorrin a. greathouse (they/them or she/her) is a genderqueer, cripple-punk from Southern California. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Black Napkin Press. Their work is published or forthcoming in Duende, Apogee, Frontier, Lunch Ticket, Assaracus, & Glass: Journal of Poetry. She is a 2016 Best New Poets, Bettering American Poetry, and Pushcart Prize nominee, and semifinalist for the Adroit Poetry Prize. torrin’s first chapbook, Therǝ is a Case That I Ɐm, is forthcoming from Damaged Goods Press in 2017. When they are not writing, their hobbies include pursuing a bachelors degree, awkwardly drinking coffee at parties, and trying to find some goddamn size 13 heels.

Success Avenue

That night, I’d just opened all the windows in the living room and collapsed on the sofa. My husband was sitting out on our stoop, listening to the oldies station too loud. I took my first sip of coffee when I heard Sammy talking to someone.

“Yeah, go on in,” he said, and the screen door squeaked and slammed. I didn’t know who he could be inviting in, maybe his cousin Billy. I was in no mood. I’d been waiting to see this movie on TV, a murder mystery with an actor I liked. I work long hours at the nursing home, so I don’t get too many moments to myself. I tried to get ready to see who I had to entertain.

Soft little steps in the hallway told me who it was: my neighbor, Terri. She’d moved to our street a while ago, and lived with her three kids in a small Cape a few doors down on the other side. I’d gone to high school with her. We’d gotten a little friendly, but not really close. We’d talk occasionally about neighborly things: city plow trucks, the garbage men who scattered our cans everywhere, or the cop cars we saw rushing to Success Village, the brick co-ops down the road. We lived in real houses on Success Avenue, and this made us feel superior in a tiny way, even though we knew there was no real difference between us and them.

It had been a long day. I didn’t want to see her. I was tired.

She looked older than forty-eight, but our neighborhood had the tendency to age women fast, me included.

“Mary Ann,” she said, looking at me in the dark, squinting. She stood just inside the living room. Her brown uniform pulled against her skin, emphasized her extra weight. Her hair, two toned from a fading dye job, fell out of a messy bun. She looked older than forty-eight, but our neighborhood had the tendency to age women fast, me included.

I didn’t say anything. I already knew why she was there.

“I’m sorry to come here so late. I don’t want to bother you.” She blinked. “I just need a little money.”

This had been going on for years. She’d come here, desperate, asking me for ten here, twenty bucks there. I felt bad for her. Her husband had left her, and she was just getting by, but even less than the rest of us. She worked early in the mornings at UPS, loading trucks. I kept giving her loans, but then I’d seen her walking out of Barron’s, the bar on Barnum Avenue, loaded in broad daylight. My husband said, I told you so. You’re too soft. Now you know what she’s doing with your money.

“All I need is three dollars,” she said. She looked over to the front door, I guess trying to make sure Sammy didn’t hear.

I almost reached into my pocket, but I remembered what Sammy had said. If I gave her the money, I was proving him right, that I was a pushover. So I said, “No.”

“But three?”

I nodded to the doorway. “Will you please go?”

She stood there for a good five seconds. She opened her mouth to speak, but closed it without a word, without a fight. Then she left.

I turned back to watch my movie, but it was on a commercial. I laid my head against the back of the couch. I looked up to the mantle, at the pictures of my children when they were little, but I couldn’t really make them out in the darkness.

When the movie came back on, I realized I’d missed something important from before, but I tried to follow along. I wanted to forget Terri, but I kept thinking about her, about the money. I heard the damn screen door again and Sammy came in, carrying his radio.

“How much?” he asked.

“Three dollars.” I couldn’t figure out what she wanted with three. Not really enough for a drink, unless she was just a little short.

Sammy sat down on the couch, next to me, crushing the velour cushions. “That’s all?”

“Yeah.”

“Not too bad this time.”

“I didn’t give it to her.”

I thought he’d be proud of me, but Sammy’s eyes went droopy. “You should’ve turned her down if she was asking for twenty dollars, but what’s wrong with three? We could spare that.”

“Excuse me,” I said. “You were the one who told me to stop giving her money.” I picked up my coffee cup again, lifted it to my lips. It was cold.

“But three bucks? It’s nothing.” He rose from the couch, ruffled my hair, and walked into the kitchen.

I slammed my cup down on the table. “Never satisfied, Sam!” He turned the radio up louder, and I cranked the volume on the TV. I tried to watch the movie, but he ruined it for me. After about fifteen minutes, I shut it off.

It was always like that, the little digs, the disappointment. After the kids grew up and moved out, we were alone again. Freed from criticizing our children, we shifted back to criticizing each other. I blamed him for everything in the house that was broken, for all my lost Saturday nights wasted with his boring friends, for him not getting it up enough. He always complained about the thirty pounds I’d gained, the chicken wings I served over and over, the way I managed the money.

I sat in the dark for a moment, then reached into my pocket. I pulled out what I had, four dollar bills, all that was left after grocery shopping. Might buy me a new nail polish, if that. I folded the bills and put them back in my pocket. I grabbed the arm of the couch as I got up and stepped into my shoes.

“I’m going for a walk,” I said, but Sammy kept his head bent over his crossword puzzle. He didn’t say anything when I left, but I knew he was probably gloating. I was doing what he wanted, even though giving her the money was what I always did before. He just got to feel like he taught me a lesson.

I started down the street. I walked between parked cars, and checked for speeders before crossing. I didn’t know what I was going to say. Everything I thought of was wrong: I always gave you money before; I wanted to be alone; I just wanted a time when somebody didn’t want something from me.

I took a deep breath and climbed her stoop, which was missing a railing on the right side. I didn’t know how I could face her. I thought about leaving the money in her mailbox, ringing her bell and running. But I had to stay. I pressed her doorbell, but I didn’t hear anything. I waited a few moments, then I started knocking.

When the door opened, instead of Terri, it was one of her daughters, the middle one, who’s about thirteen. She peeked from behind the door, fingers curling around the edge. I couldn’t remember her name. I asked, “Honey, is your mom home?”

With her brown hair, the girl seemed to disappear into the darkness of the hallway. “She went to C-Town,” she said. The grocery store.

“Okay, hon, thank you—” The door clicked shut before I could finish my goodbye.

Maybe she just wanted a couple bottles of soda, a box of doughnuts, some tiny comfort.

I stood on the stoop for a moment. I decided to walk there, see if I could find her and give her what she needed. Maybe she just wanted a couple bottles of soda, a box of doughnuts, some tiny comfort. I moved as quickly as I could, which isn’t very fast because of my bum knee. The ache started right when I was almost to the corner of Boston Avenue. I saw Terri turn onto the street. She carried a gallon of milk.

We both froze. Then she held up the plastic bottle. “I got home and the kids said we were all out.”

I stared at the milk. Shame filled me up, made my insides tight.

A wailing ambulance sped past us on its way to the hospital. We’d both been so accustomed to the noise over the years that neither of us turned to look. The sirens were a constant reminder of what living in Bridgeport meant: no matter what, somebody always had it worse off than you.

When it faded, Terri bit her lip. “I’m going to pay you back.”

My voice scraped its way out of my throat. “I want to apologize for before.”

Terri pushed a piece of loose hair off her face. “No. You don’t, really.”

What did she mean by that? That I didn’t have to or I didn’t want to? She moved to walk past me, but I stepped in front of her.

“You’ve gotta listen.” I tried grabbing her arm, but she shrugged out of my touch. “I always help you out, and I shouldn’t have gotten angry with you.”

Terri shifted the milk to her other hand, wiped the sweat of the bottle off her right. “Uh-huh.”

“I’m not that kind of person, you know that.” I didn’t like the upward turn my voice took, so I swallowed hard.

“And what kind is that?”

I looked at the bottle again. “You could have just told me what it was for.”

“Why’s that matter? People talk enough already.” She looked at me steady for the first time.

“How’d you pay for it?”

“And that’s your business?”

I dug my hands into the sides of my legs. “Ok, you’re right. But still.”

“I got one of the girls at the market to loan me what I needed.”

I knew it probably took a lot of talking to convince a total stranger. I couldn’t imagine what she said, but it must have been bad. It must have made her feel low, as low as I’d made her feel. I reached into my pocket, and my hand shook while I took out the bills. I held them out to her. “I have four dollars here. Go pay her back.”

“I don’t want it.”

“Take it.” I grabbed her right hand and pressed the money into her palm.

Her fingers curled around the bills, but she wouldn’t look at me. She balled up the money, paused for a second, then shoved it in her pocket. She walked right around me, not another word.

She took the money like I thought I wanted, but then I didn’t want her to anymore. I thought I caught the smell of whiskey. “You’re so high and mighty, Terri!” I called.

She never turned around.

I stared at the abandoned bank building on the opposite corner, the weeds shooting up from the cracked parking lot.

At home, the screen door slammed behind me, no tension in the spring anymore. Sammy was still at the kitchen table. He glanced at me. “You find her?”

“Yeah.” I walked to the sink, turned on the water, and turned it off again.

“And you gave her the money?”

“Yes,” I said, turning to him. “But she’d already bought the milk she needed.”

Sammy snorted. “How’d she pull that off?”

“She found somebody else to give it to her.”

“She don’t know how good she’s got it,” he said, turning a page in the crossword book.

“What’s so good?” I asked. “What’s she got to look forward to?”

Sammy put his pen down. “She’s got a job, she’s got a house. If she wasn’t a goddammed drunk, she’d be fine.”

I gripped the counter behind me. “How do you know that, Sammy? Take a good look around.”

He put both palms on the table. “Watch it,” he said.

“Nothing ever changes. We’re gonna work until we drop dead. We’re no better off than twenty years ago. You think that makes me happy?”

He stood up. “Stop.”

“Or what, Sam? What are you going to do?”

He took a step towards me and grabbed my upper arms. I thought he was going to shake me, hit me, but after a couple seconds he lowered his forehead to mine, shut his eyes tight and let out this cry. It took my legs out from under me. Then he just let go and walked away.

I slid down the cabinets and sat on the floor. It would’ve been easier if he had hit me. That I could have dealt with.

I slid down the cabinets and sat on the floor. It would’ve been easier if he had hit me. That I could have dealt with.

It occurred to me that maybe this was how it happened to Terri. Maybe she pushed too hard one day, pissed off her husband too much. Or maybe it wasn’t that at all: maybe one stupid tiny thing, one thoughtless moment, was all it took for her life to go to hell. Did she even know when it happened? Would I? Was this it?

The faucet dripped and my back ached. I sat there for a long time, trying to make myself move. Get up, I told myself. You always get up.

But I just couldn’t go.

 

Jessica Forcier is a native of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her fiction has been previously published in New Delta Review, Moon City Review, Coal City Review and Paper Nautilus. She received her MFA from Southern Connecticut State University.

Friends of Friends

Violet and Sydney Schiff were an extremely sophisticated English couple, rich, cultured and cosmopolitan, who moved between London and Paris. He was a translator and writer, using the pseudonym Stephen Hudson, but first and foremost he was a patron of the arts, on friendly terms with Modernism’s greatest talents. She was an elegant and captivating Jewish woman, a friend of Katherine Mansfield and T.S. Eliot. On 18 May 1922, the couple organised an evening that looked likely to go down in history as the dinner party of the era, an event that would bring together the two greatest novelists of the twentieth century: Marcel Proust and James Joyce. The entourage of guests setting the scene for this extraordinary meeting lived up to the occasion: a gala evening in one of the Hotel Majestic’s private rooms, to celebrate the première of Le Renard, the ballet created by Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Diaghilev. As well as the Russian composer and choreographer, other guests included Pablo Picasso, the art critic Clive Bell—Virginia Woolf’s brother-in-law—and the cream of Parisian society. The Schiffs were friends and passionate admirers of Proust. The French writer, whose first four volumes of À la Recherche had already come out, was at the height of his fame: he had won the Prix Goncourt and was published by Gallimard, the most prestigious firm in France. The second volume of Sodom and Gomorrah had appeared a few days before, and in fact Proust had dedicated it to the Schiffs, the soirée’s hosts. The author was very ill: he was abusing a variety of drugs and lived only for his work, shutting himself away to write in his Rue Hamelin apartment and only going out at night after an injection of adrenalin and caffeine to keep him awake. Joyce was the younger by ten years—he had just turned forty—but in Paris, where he had moved as part of his self-imposed exile from Ireland, he was already an idol, the new star of world literature. Ulysses, banned for obscenity in the United Kingdom, had been printed in the French capital just over three months earlier by Shakespeare and Company, the little publisher-bookstore owned by the American Sylvia Beach. Although Joyce was always short of money, he spent freely. He was a heavy drinker and notoriously difficult. Like Proust, he was not in good health: he had iritis as well as heart trouble and was suffering from depression. And like Proust, he thought everything in the world existed only to fill the pages of a book.

Proust arrived shortly afterwards, wrapped in a fur coat, pale and haggard, with the furtive air of a nighthawk or perhaps even a sleek rat, as one of the more malicious guests remembered him.

Those who were friends with both writers were convinced that the meeting between them would be perfect. They had imagined it for a long time and now the moment had finally arrived. Like all self-respecting stars, both guests of honour arrived seriously late, after midnight. Joyce was the first to turn up, already drunk and not wearing evening dress. As soon as he was seated, the Irish writer set to drinking an inordinate amount of champagne, perhaps partly to hide his awkwardness and his dislike of the moneyed, mondaine environment. He sank into his usual silence, occasionally snorting or dozing off. Proust arrived shortly afterwards, wrapped in a fur coat, pale and haggard, with the furtive air of a nighthawk or perhaps even a sleek rat, as one of the more malicious guests remembered him. The Schiffs welcomed him with all honours and gave him a seat next to Joyce, as planned. Everyone thought that the meeting between the two geniuses would lead to urbane and cultivated discussions, unmissable exchanges of ideas and opinions, perhaps disputatious scuffles and skirmishes, and certainly enough material to feed the Parisian gossip columns for who knows how long. But it didn’t turn out at all as expected.

To break the ice, Proust asked Joyce if he knew the Duke of so-and-so, and Joyce replied tersely that he didn’t. Then he asked him if he liked truffles, and Joyce replied that he did. After that the conversation petered out. Violet Schiff, hoping to fire it up again, asked Proust if he had read Ulysses and Proust said “No, I regret I don’t know Mr. Joyce’s work.” And Joyce immediately countered with: “I have never read Monsieur Proust.” In the end, they both started complaining of their ailments: Joyce was tormented by migraines and a burning sensation in his eyes, while Proust grumbled about his stomach ache. “I really must leave,” said the French writer at last. “I’d go too,” replied Joyce, “if I could just find someone to prop me up.”

This is, more or less, all there is to say about the meeting. A meeting that soon became legend, but which culminated in an exchange of wretched remarks about truffles and stomach ache.

*     *     *

There are two photographs showing Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy together at Gaspra, where the author of War and Peace had moved in 1901, to recuperate from a succession of illnesses in the warm sun of Crimea. Chekhov, who lived nearby in Yalta, heard Tolstoy was there and went to visit him, even though his own state of health was very precarious. Chekhov always became anxious before a meeting with Tolstoy: in his insecurity, he would try on different clothes and spend a lot of time getting ready. You can see it in the photographs: one of them shows the two writers sitting side-by-side on a white divan on the terrace, and Chekhov’s submissive deference towards the great old man is immediately obvious from their different poses. Chekhov is dressed in a dark suit and matching hat, a white shirt and tie and a pince-nez. Sitting hunched, with his legs tightly crossed and his hands clasped around his knee, he looks as though he wants to take up the least space possible. Tolstoy, on the other hand, looks very relaxed: wearing a loose cloak, long riding boots and a wide-brimmed white hat, he is leaning back on his elbow, one leg curled up under his other thigh. In the other photograph, Tolstoy is sitting at a little table, on the same terrace. They’re taking tea together, but Chekhov’s posture is, if anything, even more rigid and subservient: sitting some way from the table, he doesn’t meet Tolstoy’s eyes, but sits with his head bowed, his legs once again crossed and his hands folded in his lap. He appears almost contrite.

During this meeting, Tolstoy spoke a good deal, as usual, addressing a wide range of subjects. When the moment came for them to part he asked his friend to give him a farewell kiss. As Chekhov leaned forwards to embrace him, Tolstoy whispered earnestly in his ear: “You know, I hate your plays. Shakespeare was a terrible writer, but your plays are worse than his.”

Knowing Tolstoy and his idiosyncrasies, Chekhov can’t have been all that surprised. In any event, it wasn’t the first time that the ageing writer had criticised his plays. Once before he’d said: “A playwright should lead the spectator by the hand and take him where he wants him to go. And to where can I follow your characters? To the sofa in the drawing room and back again, because they’ve got nowhere else to go.” They laughed together about this, but Tolstoy had inadvertently put his finger on the originality of Chekhov’s dramatic concept, which would revolutionise twentieth-century theatre. Yet he continued to regard the lack of action in such plays as an unforgivable defect. Chekhov, on the other hand, worshipped Tolstoy like a god. On 11 December 1891, he wrote in a letter to his publisher, Alexei Suvorin: “Oh, Tolstoy, Tolstoy! These days he’s no longer a man but a superman, a Jupiter.” His adoration was such that he even derived some form of pleasure from being disparaged by his god. Actually, what he admired most about Tolstoy was the regal contempt he showed towards all writers. And even though sometimes Tolstoy admitted to appreciating Chekhov’s skill as a writer of short stories, describing him as “an incomparable artist”, technically superior to anyone else, the younger writer could never bring himself to believe that his work really pleased him: “It might seem that from time to time he praises Maupassant, or Kuprin, or Semenov, or even myself, but why does he praise us? It’s simple: because he sees us as children. And indeed, compared with his work, our stories and novels are all just children’s games.”

There was much that was Oedipal in Chekhov’s ambivalent attitude towards the grand old man of Russian literature.

Yet before he got to know Tolstoy, Chekhov had published an anonymous article in the newspaper New Times in which he attacked the writer for his condemnation of modern society. And in a later letter to his publisher he literally damned to hell “the philosophy of the great men of this world”, with particular reference to Tolstoy. There was much that was Oedipal in Chekhov’s ambivalent attitude towards the grand old man of Russian literature. One moment he was being hostile towards him, the next he was lavishing extravagant praise on him. The truth is that since a very young age, meeting Tolstoy had been not only Chekhov’s greatest desire, but also a source of terror. (Incidentally Tchaikovsky also admitted, years later, that he had felt “an incredible sense of panic” before meeting Tolstoy, who apparently frightened the life out of everyone.) When at last mutual friends succeeded in persuading Chekhov to go to Yasnaya Polyana, their first encounter took place in almost surreal circumstances. It was 8 May 1895 and Chekhov arrived at the very moment when the count was about to go and bathe in the river Upa, as he did every morning. As soon as he saw him, Tolstoy invited his new visitor to join him. Chekhov didn’t dare refuse and was obliged to undress in front of his Jupiter, whose long white beard bobbed majestically in front of him while they sat naked together in the water.

The meeting was far from disappointing. Tolstoy, in a letter to his son a few months later, described Chekhov as a gifted man with a kind heart. From then on, he remained friendly towards him, charmed by his humanity, his reserve, his calm manner and his “girlish” walk. Chekhov too came away from that first encounter with a “wonderful impression”. He described in a letter how he had felt at ease, as though in his own home, and had conversed freely with Lev Nikolayevich. I don’t know how truthful he was being. Looking at the Crimea photographs, it’s hard to imagine Chekhov feeling at ease while bathing naked with Tolstoy in the river. In fact, I can’t believe he ever really felt at ease with him, because he was cowed by him until the very end. And he certainly can’t have felt comfortable the next time they met, two years later, when Tolstoy went to visit him in a Moscow hospital. Chekhov had been taken there as an emergency after his first serious pulmonary haemorrhage, which had happened over dinner in a restaurant. Diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis, he was confined to bed and a regime of silence for several days. Only his closest relatives were allowed to visit him and then only for a short time. But when Tolstoy arrived, wrapped in his enormous bearskin coat, no one had the courage to turn him away. He sat down beside Chekhov’s bed and talked to him at length about the immortality of the soul. “All of us,” he said, “animals as well as men, will continue to live on in some principle (reason or love), the essence and purpose of which are a mystery to us.” But to Chekhov the principle described by Tolstoy seemed a “shapeless gelatinous mass” rather than a mystery. However, sentenced to silence, he was unable to explain himself better, though he later remarked in a letter to a friend: “I have no use for such immortality, I don’t understand it, and Lev Nikolayevich was surprised that I didn’t understand.”

*     *     *

As a boy, convalescing after a long illness, I happened to read a story by Henry James called “The Friends of the Friends,” which recounts the repeated and vain attempts by the narrator to introduce a male and a female friend to each other. These two had in common a private supernatural experience that had marked both their lives: the sudden, very vivid but fleeting apparition of a parent—her father and his mother—at the exact moment of their deaths, though both had died far from where the apparitions occurred. For years, despite the most favourable circumstances for a perfect meeting, every plan to bring them together comes to nothing, foiled by a series of hitches, misunderstandings and unexpected events. But at last the death of one the two—the woman, who had heart disease—achieves what had never proved possible in life. That very evening, the man is at last brought face-to-face with the dead “friend of his friend,” who comes to him in an ephemeral but telling apparition: they both gaze at each other silently for twenty minutes or so, in a prelude to becoming definitively united around six years later when the man dies, giving in to a “long necessity,” as though answering “an irresistible call.”

Deep down, we have a fear of bonding, of fusing with someone else. Perhaps that’s also why, in ordinary life, so many meetings that ought to be perfect are doomed to founder.

For a long time, I was obsessed by this story. Perhaps it was partly as a result of the illness I associated with it (like Mahler’s Fifth, which I heard for the first time during that same convalescence: since then I’ve always felt there’s something slightly febrile about its splendid opening and that trumpet fanfare in C sharp minor). I used to encourage everyone to read it and I even tried to get a screenplay and a reworking of the narrative out of it. I wrote a story called “Friends,” whose protagonist was a broker of elective affinities, a master of matchmaking, a man who had spent most of his life engineering perfect meetings between friends in common, manipulating destinies from the shadows, with a particular flair for weaving invisible webs of allusions, associations, and flattery. I even came up with a surprise ending that shifted into the supernatural, just like the Henry James story, but then I threw the whole thing away, concluding that the task was beyond my capabilities. Yet I still couldn’t stop brooding on the story: I kept wondering what the author was trying to tell us in this brief tale, so subtle that it verges on the abstract. A man and a woman who seem to be made for each other, but who never manage to meet except as ghosts. Perhaps he was trying to tell us that two human beings can never really meet? That you can only truly connect with someone else in absentia? That we must all surrender to the solitude of the soul? I don’t like to sound so pessimistic, but surely, we have all felt such a sweeping awareness at least once in our life. Perhaps this is what I was feeling in those years when the story obsessed me. After all, there’s no doubt as to what James was doing with the traditional ghost-story format: his ghosts are always and only phantoms of the mind, projections of the unconscious. Impossibilities, obstacles, hindrances—they’re all mostly within us, affecting our readiness to accept others, to receive them as though they were a part of us, even though we feel so similar, such kindred spirits, or perhaps precisely because of that. Deep down, we have a fear of bonding, of fusing with someone else. Perhaps that’s also why, in ordinary life, so many meetings that ought to be perfect are doomed to founder. Something always goes wrong: crossed wires, an indisposition, a misunderstanding, an act of reciprocal sabotage.

*     *     *

One of the most interesting aspects of the meetings between Chekhov and Tolstoy is that communication between them was almost always indirect, in letters or diary entries, and especially through other people. They met rarely and almost always in the presence of others: Tolstoy’s children and relatives or “friends of friends,” who then also expressed their opinions in diaries and letters about the meetings and about the relationship between the two writers. But did they ever truly meet? Unlike Proust and Joyce, they saw each other more than once and they didn’t talk about truffles or stomach aches, but exactly what we might expect two such giants of literature to discuss together: life, books, the immortality of the soul. Yet incomprehension pervaded their meetings. They were friends, they liked each other, but they didn’t understand each other because they were so different. Chekhov’s modesty before Tolstoy was almost embarrassing when you think how great a writer he was, while Tolstoy probably believed even more strongly than his friend that he was an immortal god. Tolstoy couldn’t bear doctors and preached a new gospel, while Chekhov, a doctor and an atheist, had no inclination for Tolstoyism—although he flirted with it for a few years—and in general didn’t lean towards any “clearly defined political, religious or philosophical point of view.” One was a count, son of a princess of ancient lineage, who idealised the peasant world and dreamt of becoming poor; the other was the son of a small shopkeeper, descended from a family who had once been serfs, a man who had known poverty and abuse as a child and believed in progress. Their paths led in opposite directions. I’m not sure that they really had anything in common, except for the fact that they both put the human condition at the centre of their work. Perhaps, without wanting to admit it, they felt threatened by each other. Tolstoy thought Chekhov as a man was “simply wonderful,” but perhaps thought less of him as an artist. In his diaries, he compared Chekhov’s importance as a writer to Pushkin, but the compliment only went so far. As with Pushkin, he deplored the “lack of content” in his friend’s work. Chekhov, for his part, never relinquished his Oedipal attitude towards Tolstoy. He never forgave the conservatism of his artistic judgements nor did he share his moral condemnation of modern society. And yet he thought him the greatest of all. Once he confessed that he had “never loved anyone as much as him.”

*     *     *

Some time after the disastrous dinner at the Hotel Majestic, James Joyce said he regretted the missed opportunity, even though his relationship with Proust remained ambivalent. He put it about that he had never had the time to read Proust’s work, and missed no opportunity to express opinions that were lukewarm, or indifferent, or downright negative about “a certain Mr Marcel Proust of here,” as he wrote dismissively to his friend Frank Budgen shortly after arriving in Paris, when the intellectual milieu of the capital was apparently seeking to match him against his rival. On one occasion he described Proust’s writing as “analytic still life.” The fame of À la Recherche probably nettled him, but he was even more irked by the fact that its author could write in “a comfortable place at the Étoile, floored with cork and with cork on the walls to keep it quiet,” while he had to write Ulysses in an apartment that was so noisy he might as well have been working in the street.

But when Proust died, on 18 November 1922, six months after the meeting at the Majestic, Joyce went to his funeral. Perhaps, like the character in the story by Henry James, he too felt a “long necessity,” an “irresistible call.” The same call that a month earlier had prompted him to write to his publisher/bookseller, with something between irreverent wit and belated tribute, that he had read the first two volumes recommended by Mr. Schiff of “À la Recherche des Ombrelles Perdues par Plusieurs Jeunes Filles en Fleurs du Côté chez Swann et Gomorrhée et Co. par Marcelle Proyce et James Joust.”

As though in that cryptic reference to an imaginary parody of À la Recherche written by four hands, whose authors’ names were welded together from their own two names, Joyce and Proust had finally got to meet through the acrobatics of language, redressing the famous failure of their meeting on 18 May 1922.

 

 

Gli amici degli amici

Violet e Sidney Schiff erano una mondanissima coppia di ricchi, colti e cosmopoliti inglesi che viveva tra Londra e Parigi. Lui era un traduttore e uno scrittore che usava lo pseudonimo di Stephen Hudson, ma era soprattutto un mecenate che conosceva i più grandi artisti e talenti del modernismo. Lei era un’elegante e affascinante signora ebrea, amica di Katherine Mansfield e T.S Eliot. Il 18 maggio 1922 i due organizzarono quella che doveva restare nella memoria storica come la cena del secolo, una serata dove far incontrare i due più grandi romanzieri del Novecento: Marcel Proust e James Joyce. Il parterre di ospiti che avrebbe fatto da corteo all’eccezionale incontro era consono all’evento: l’occasione era una serata di gala da dare in una sala riservata dell’Hotel Majestic per festeggiare la prima di Le Renard, il balletto di Igor Stravinskij e Sergej Djagilev. Oltre al musicista e al coreografo russi, erano stati invitati anche Pablo Picasso, il critico d’arte Clive Bell, cognato di Virginia Woolf, e la crema della nobiltà parigina. Gli Schiff erano amici e ammiratori fanatici di Proust. Lo scrittore francese, con i suoi primi quattro volumi della Recherche già pubblicati, era all’apice della sua gloria, aveva vinto il premio Goncourt ed era stampato da Gallimard, l’editore più prestigioso di Francia. Pochi giorni prima era uscito il secondo tomo di Sodoma e Gomorra, che l’autore aveva dedicato proprio agli Schiff, gli anfitrioni della serata. Proust era molto malato, faceva abuso di svariate droghe e viveva per la sua opera: si era autorecluso per scrivere nel suo appartamento di rue Hamelin e usciva solo di notte, dopo un’iniezione di adrenalina e caffeina, che gli permetteva di restare sveglio. Joyce era più giovane di dieci anni—ne aveva appena compiuti quaranta—ma nell’ambiente parigino era già un idolo, il nuovo astro della letteratura mondiale. Censurato per oscenità nel Regno Unito, il suo Ulisse era stato pubblicato poco più di tre mesi prima con una piccola casa editrice-libreria, la Shakespeare and Company della statunitense Sylvia Beach, proprio nella capitale francese, dove Joyce si era trasferito scegliendo l’esilio volontario dall’Irlanda. Seppure sempre a corto di denaro, lo scrittore spendeva senza ritegno, era un forte bevitore e aveva un carattere notoriamente difficile. Anche lui, come Proust, non stava bene in salute: aveva problemi di cuore e di irite, e soffriva di depressione; e anche lui, come Proust, pensava che tutto al mondo esistesse per far capo a un libro.

Gli amici in comune giuravano che l’incontro tra i due sarebbe stato perfetto. Lo sognavano da tempo e ora l’occasione era finalmente arrivata. Entrambi gli ospiti d’onore, come ogni star che si rispetti, arrivarono con notevole ritardo, dopo la mezzanotte. Prima Joyce, che si presentò già ubriaco e sprovvisto di abito da cerimonia. Lo scrittore irlandese, appena seduto a tavola, continuò a bere champagne in modo esagerato, forse anche per nascondere il proprio disagio e l’insofferenza per l’ambiente troppo ricco e mondano. Si chiuse nel suo abituale silenzio e ogni tanto sbuffava o sonnecchiava. Poco dopo arrivò Proust, che apparve avvolto in una pelliccia, pallido e smunto, con l’aria furtiva di un rapace notturno o perfino, come sembrò a qualcuno dei presenti più malevoli, di un “viscido topo”. Gli Schiff lo accolsero con tutti gli onori e lo fecero sedere accanto a Joyce, come previsto. L’incontro tra i due geni dal quale tutti si aspettavano dovessero scaturire dialoghi colti e raffinati, imperdibili scambi di idee e di punti di vista, magari scontri dialettici e divergenze, e in ogni modo materiale sufficiente ad alimentare le cronache mondane parigine per chissà quanto tempo, andò in maniera del tutto inaspettata.

Proust, per rompere il ghiaccio, chiese a Joyce se conoscesse un certo duca, e Joyce rispose di secco di no. Poi gli domandò se gli piacessero i tartufi e Joyce rispose di sì. A quel punto la conversazione languì. Violet Schiff, nella speranza di rianimarla, chiese a Proust se avesse letto l’Ulisse e Proust disse: “No, mi dispiace, non conosco l’opera di mister Joyce”. E Joyce, di rimando, contraccambiò: “Neanche io ho mai letto monsieur Proust”. Infine entrambi si lamentarono dei loro malanni: Joyce dell’emicrania che lo stava tormentando e del bruciore agli occhi, Proust del suo mal di stomaco. “Devo proprio andare” disse, alla fine, lo scrittore francese. “Lo farei anche io—rispose Joyce—se solo trovassi qualcuno che mi sorregga”.

Questo, più o meno, il resoconto dell’incontro fra i due. Un incontro che divenne presto leggenda, ma che si concluse con un misero scambio di battute sui tartufi e sul mal di stomaco.

*     *     *

Due foto ritraggono insieme Anton Čechov e Lev Tolstoj, a Gaspra, dove l’autore di Guerra e pace si era trasferito nel 1901 per riprendersi da una serie di malanni al caldo sole della Crimea. Čechov, che viveva nella vicina Yalta, quando lo venne a sapere lo andò a trovare, benché anche le sue condizioni di salute fossero molto precarie. Prima di un incontro con Tolstoj, Čechov entrava sempre in ansia: si provava diversi vestiti ed era insicuro, perdendo molto tempo nei preparativi. Lo si capisce anche guardando le foto: in una i due scrittori sono seduti insieme su un divano bianco senza schienale, in terrazza, e dalle pose diverse si nota subito la deferenza e la soggezione di Čechov nei confronti del grande vecchio. In abito scuro, camicia bianca e cravatta, cappello intonato al vestito e pince nez, se ne sta curvo, con le gambe rigidamente accavallate e le mani intrecciate al ginocchio, quasi come se volesse occupare il minor spazio possibile. Tolstoj, invece, appare molto disinvolto: indossa un’ampia mantella, stivaloni da cavallerizzo e un cappello bianco a falde larghe, con una gamba piegata sotto la coscia e il gomito appoggiato al bordo del divano. Nell’altra foto Tolstoj è seduto a un tavolino, sulla stessa terrazza: i due stanno prendendo il tè insieme, ma qui l’atteggiamento di Čechov è, se possibile, ancora più rigido e remissivo: siede distante dal tavolo e non regge lo sguardo di Tolstoj, ma tiene la testa abbassata, le gambe ancora accavallate e le mani conserte in grembo, con un atteggiamento quasi contrito. Durante quell’incontro Tolstoj, come di consueto, parlò molto, affrontando vari argomenti, e quando si avvicinò il momento del congedo chiese all’amico di dargli un bacio di addio. Mentre Čechov si chinò su di lui per salutarlo, Tolstoj gli sussurrò all’orecchio, con tono energico: “Tu lo sai, io odio i tuoi drammi. Shakespeare era un pessimo scrittore, ma i tuoi drammi sono peggiori dei suoi”.

Conoscendo Tolstoj e le sue idiosincrasie, Čechov non deve essersi stupito più di tanto. Del resto, non era la prima volta che il vecchio scrittore criticava il suo teatro. Una volta gli disse: “Un drammaturgo dovrebbe prendere uno spettatore per mano e condurlo dove lui vuole. E dove posso seguire i tuoi personaggi? Dal divano al soggiorno e ritorno, perché non hanno altro luogo dove andare”. Ne risero insieme, ma senza volerlo Tolstoj aveva colto in pieno la novità del teatro di Čechov, la sua concezione drammaturgica che avrebbe rivoluzionato la scena del Novecento. Eppure si ostinava a considerare la mancanza di azione di quei drammi come un difetto imperdonabile. Čechov, da parte sua, venerava Tolstoj come un dio. In una lettera al suo editore, Aleksej Suvorin, l’11 dicembre 1891, scriveva: “Oh, quel Tolstoj, quel Tolstoj! Egli, oggi, non è un essere umano, ma un superuomo, uno Zeus”. La sua adorazione arrivava al punto che perfino nell’essere denigrato dal suo dio trovava una forma di piacere. Ciò che ammirava di più in Tolstoj, infatti, era proprio questa regale forma di disprezzo che nutriva nei confronti di tutti gli scrittori. E anche se a volte Tolstoj non gli nascose la sua ammirazione come autore di novelle, definendolo “un artista incomparabile”, tecnicamente superiore a chiunque altro, Čechov non osò mai credere di piacergli davvero: “Si può pensare che, di tanto in tanto, egli elogi Maupassant, o Kuprin, o Semënov, o me stesso—disse—ma perché ci elogia? È semplice: perché ci considera come dei bambini. I nostri racconti, i nostri romanzi, in confronto ai suoi lavori, sono infatti tutti dei giochi da bambini”.

Eppure, prima di conoscere Tolstoj, Čechov aveva pubblicato un articolo anonimo sulla rivista “Il Tempo Nuovo” dove attaccava lo scrittore per la sua condanna della società moderna. E in una lettera successiva al suo editore, aveva mandato letteralmente al diavolo “la filosofia dei grandi di questo mondo”, includendovi soprattutto Tolstoj. C’era molto di edipico in questo atteggiamento ambivalente che Čechov mostrava nei confronti del vecchio padre della letteratura russa. La sua ostilità verso l’uomo si alternava alle sperticate lodi che elargiva all’artista. In realtà incontrarlo era stato, fin da giovanissimo, il suo più grande desiderio, ma ne era anche terrorizzato (e del resto, anche Čajkovskij confesserà, anni dopo, di aver provato un “incredibile senso di panico” prima del suo incontro con Tolstoj, che a quanto pare metteva paura a tutti). Quando finalmente gli amici in comune riuscirono a convincere Čechov a recarsi a Jasnaja Poljana, il primo incontro avvenne in una situazione quasi surreale. Era l’8 maggio 1895 e Čechov si presentò proprio nel momento in cui il conte stava andando a farsi il bagno, come ogni mattina, nelle acque del fiume Upa. Vedendolo, Tolstoj invitò il nuovo arrivato a unirsi a lui. Čechov non osò contraddirlo e fu costretto a spogliarsi davanti al suo Zeus, la cui lunga barba bianca, mentre se ne stavano entrambi nudi nell’acqua, galleggiò solennemente per tutto il tempo davanti a lui.

L’incontro fu tutt’altro che deludente. Tolstoj, in una lettera al figlio qualche mese dopo, definì Čechov un uomo “pieno di talento” e dal “cuore buonissimo”, e da allora non smise mai di volergli bene. Era incantato dalla sua umanità, dalla sua riservatezza, dai suoi modi tranquilli e dalla sua “andatura da signorina”. Anche Čechov ricavò da quel primo incontro un’“impressione meravigliosa”. Confessò, in una lettera, di essersi sentito a suo agio, come se fosse stato a casa sua, e di aver conversato liberamente con Lev Nikolaevič. Non so fino a che punto fossero sincere queste parole. Mi sembra difficile, vedendo le foto della Crimea, immaginare Čechov a suo agio con Tolstoj mentre facevano il bagno nudi nel fiume. Credo invece che a suo agio con lui non lo sia mai stato, perché continuò ad averne soggezione fino alla fine. E di sicuro non lo fu nel successivo incontro, due anni dopo, quando Tolstoj lo andò a trovare in clinica a Mosca, dove Čechov era stato ricoverato d’urgenza dopo la sua prima grave emorragia polmonare, avuta durante una cena in un ristorante. Gli diagnosticarono una tubercolosi avanzata e per vari giorni fu costretto al letto e al silenzio. Solo i parenti più stretti erano autorizzati a fargli visita e per poco tempo. Ma quando si presentò Tolstoj, avvolto nella sua enorme pelliccia d’orso, nessuno ebbe il coraggio di mandarlo via. Si sedette accanto al letto di Čechov e gli parlò a lungo dell’immortalità dell’anima. “Tutti noi, uomini e animali—disse—vivremo in un principio (ragione, amore), l’essenza e il fine del quale costituisce per noi un mistero”. Più che un mistero, però, a Čechov questo principio di cui parlava Tolstoj pareva una “informe massa gelatinosa”. Ma, ridotto al silenzio, non riuscì a spiegarsi meglio, salvo poi commentare in una lettera a un amico: “D’una simile immortalità non so che farmene, non lo capisco, e Lev Nikolaevič era sorpreso ch’io non capissi”.

*     *     *

Da ragazzo, durante la convalescenza da una lunga malattia, mi capitò di leggere un racconto di Henry James, intitolato Gli amici degli amici, che descrive i ripetuti e vani tentativi da parte della narratrice di far incontrare il suo fidanzato e un’amica uniti da una segreta esperienza soprannaturale che aveva segnato il loro passato: l’apparizione, vividissima e improvvisa, ma subito svanita, di un genitore—il padre di lei e la madre di lui—nell’attimo stesso in cui moriva, in realtà molto lontano dal luogo di quell’apparizione. Nonostante le migliori premesse per l’incontro perfetto, per anni si riveleranno inutili tutti gli appuntamenti organizzati, puntualmente falliti a causa di continui imprevisti, malintesi e ostacoli. Finché la morte di uno dei due—la donna, malata di cuore—renderà possibile ciò che in vita non era mai avvenuto. L’uomo, infatti, quella sera stessa finalmente incontra la defunta “amica dell’amica” in un’apparizione fugace ma rivelatrice: i due si guardano in silenzio per una ventina di minuti, preludio a quell’unione definitiva che avverrà dopo cerca sei anni, quando anche l’uomo cesserà di vivere, cedendo a una “prolungata necessità”, come se avesse risposto a un “irresistibile richiamo”.

Per molto tempo sono stato ossessionato da questo racconto. Parte di questa ossessione era dovuta forse alla malattia a cui lo avevo associato (come la Quinta di Mahler che ascoltai per la prima volta durante quella stessa convalescenza, il cui splendido attacco, con la fanfara della tromba in si bemolle, ha conservato per me da allora sempre un che di febbrile). Consigliavo di leggerlo a chiunque e provai perfino a ricavarne una sceneggiatura e una rielaborazione narrativa. Scrissi un racconto intitolato Amici, che aveva come protagonista un sensale delle affinità elettive, un artista degli appuntamenti concertati, un uomo che aveva impiegato la maggior parte della sua vita a organizzare incontri perfetti fra amici comuni, a manovrare destini rimanendo nell’ombra, con una capacità particolare nel tessere una rete invisibile di allusioni, riferimenti, lusinghe. E mi inventai pure un finale a sorpresa, che sfociava nel soprannaturale, proprio come il racconto di James, ma poi buttai tutto, considerando il compito al di sopra delle mie capacità. Eppure non smisi di rimuginare su quel racconto: continuavo a chiedermi che cosa avesse voluto raccontarci l’autore con questa novella di una sottigliezza che rasenta l’astrazione. Un uomo e una donna che sembrano fatti l’uno per l’altra, ma che non riusciranno mai a incontrarsi, se non come fantasmi. Forse voleva dirci che nessun incontro reale è mai possibile tra due esseri umani? Che solo in absentia si può entrare davvero in contatto con qualcuno? Che siamo, noi tutti, votati alla solitudine dell’anima? Non vorrei essere così pessimista, ma certo ciascuno di noi, almeno una volta nella vita, deve aver provato una consapevolezza così radicale. E forse devo averla provata anche io negli anni della mia ossessione per questo racconto. Del resto, è noto quale uso James ha saputo fare della tradizione anglosassone del ghost-novel: i suoi fantasmi sono sempre e solo fantasmi della mente, proiezioni dell’inconscio. L’impossibilità, l’ostacolo, l’impedimento, sono dunque soprattutto dentro di noi, nell’idea di poter accettare qualcuno, accoglierlo come parte di noi stessi, benché lo si senta così simile, così affine, o forse proprio per questo. È, in fondo, la paura di amalgamarsi, di fondersi con l’altro da sé. Forse è anche questo il motivo per cui molto spesso nella vita ordinaria gli incontri che si prefigurano perfetti sono destinati a naufragare. C’è sempre qualcosa che non funziona: un equivoco, un’indisposizione, un misunderstanding, un atto di reciproco sabotaggio.

*     *     *

Uno degli aspetti più interessanti degli incontri tra Čechov e Tolstoj è che i due hanno comunicato quasi sempre indirettamente, in lettere o pagine di diario, e soprattutto attraverso altre persone. I loro incontri furono pochi e avvennero quasi sempre in presenza di testimoni: figli e parenti di Tolstoj o “amici degli amici”, che a loro volta hanno raccontato in diari e lettere il loro punto di vista su questi incontri e sul rapporto tra i due scrittori. Ma s’incontrarono mai realmente? A differenza di Proust e Joyce, si videro più di una volta, e non parlarono di tartufi o mal di stomaco, ma proprio di ciò di cui ci aspetteremo che parlino due giganti della letteratura come loro quando si incontrano: la vita, i libri, l’immortalità dell’anima. Eppure gli incontri tra id due furono pieni di incomprensioni. Erano amici e si volevano bene, ma non si capivano, perché troppo diversi. Čechov nei confronti di Tolstoj era di una modestia quasi imbarazzante se si pensa alla sua grandezza di scrittore, mentre Tolstoj con molta probabilità era convinto anche più dell’amico di essere un dio immortale. Tolstoj odiava i medici e predicava un nuovo vangelo, mentre Čechov, che era medico e ateo, non aveva nessuna predisposizione per il tolstoismo—nonostante un’iniziale infatuazione durata qualche anno—e in generale non ne aveva per nessun “punto di vista politico, religioso e filosofico ben definito”. L’uno era un conte, figlio di una principessa d’antica stirpe, idealizzava il mondo contadino e sognava di diventare povero; l’altro, figlio di un piccolo bottegaio, discendeva da una famiglia di ex servi della gleba, aveva conosciuto miseria e maltrattamenti da bambino, e credevo nel progresso. Le loro strade seguivano sentieri opposti. Non sono sicuro che avessero davvero qualcosa in comune, salvo il fatto di aver entrambi posto al centro della loro opera l’uomo. Forse, senza volerlo ammettere, si sentivano minacciati l’uno dall’altro. Tolstoj considerava l’uomo Čechov “semplicemente meraviglioso”, forse superiore all’artista. Nei suoi diari paragonò la sua importanza di scrittore a quella di Puškin, ma era un complimento fino a un certo punto. Come in Puškin, condannava infatti nell’opera dell’amico la “mancanza di contenuto”. Čechov, da parte sua, non smise mai il suo atteggiamento edipico nei confronti di Tolstoj. Non gli perdonava il suo conservatorismo nei giudizi artistici e non condivideva la sua condanna morale della società moderna. Eppure lo considerava il più grande di tutti. Una volta confessò di non aver “mai amato nessuno come lui.”

*     *     *

Qualche tempo dopo la disastrosa cena all’Hotel Majestic, James Joyce espresse rammarico per quell’occasione mancata, anche se il suo rapporto con Proust fu sempre ambivalente. Andava dicendo di non aver mai avuto il tempo di leggere la sua opera, e non mancava occasione per dispensare apprezzamenti tiepidi o indifferenti o decisamente negativi sul suo collega rivale, quel “certo Marcel Proust di qui”—come scrisse sprezzante al suo amico Frank Budgen poco dopo essere approdato a Parigi—che l’ambiente intellettuale della capitale pareva volesse mettere contro di lui. Una volta definì la scrittura proustiana una “natura morta analitica”. La fama della Recherche, probabilmente, lo infastidiva, ma ancor di più lo infastidiva il fatto che il suo autore potesse scrivere in “un posto comodo all’Étoile, col pavimento e le pareti imbottite di sughero perché nulli turbi la sua tranquillità”, mentre lui era stato costretto a scrivere il suo Ulisse in un appartamento così rumoroso che era come trovarsi per strada.

Eppure, quando Proust morì, il 18 novembre 1922, sei mesi dopo l’incontro al Majestic, Joyce andò al suo funerale. Forse anche lui, come il personaggio del racconto di Henry James, cedendo a una “prolungata necessità”, a un “richiamo irresistibile”. Quello stesso richiamo che appena un mese prima gli aveva fatto scrivere in una lettera alla sua editrice-libraia, tra l’arguzia irriverente e l’omaggio postumo, di aver letto i primi due volumi consigliatigli da Mr Schiff della “Recherche des Ombrelles Perdues par Plusieurs Jeunes Filles en Fleurs du Côté de chez Swann et Gomorrhée et Co. par Marcelle Proyce and James Joust”.

Come se in quel criptico riferimento a una immaginaria parodia della Recherche scritta a quattro mani, coi nomi degli autori composti dalla fusione dei loro due nomi, Joyce e Proust avessero finalmente realizzato, attraverso le funambolerie del linguaggio, quel famoso incontro mancato del 18 maggio 1922.

 

Translator’s Note:

“Friends of Friends” (Gli Amici degli Amici) is an extract from Fabrizio Coscia’s book Soli Eravamo (“We Were Alone”), originally published in Italian by Ad Est dell’Equatore in 2015. Soli Eravamo is a collection of twenty-one essays/stories which examine moments in the lives of some of the great figures of Western art, literature, and music, including Kafka, Joyce, Proust, Dante, Hopper, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Mozart—and Radiohead. Coscia probes the humanity of these luminaries, making connections between them and creating surprising juxtapositions, drawing the threads together with his own personal reflections on life, art, and the relationship between the two.

In “Friends of Friends,” Coscia explores the disastrous meeting between Marcel Proust and James Joyce, the unequal relationship between Chekhov and Tolstoy, and Henry James’ story about a woman’s failed attempt to introduce two mutual friends. Each of these episodes is fascinating in its own right, but Coscia finds their common ground, a starting point for his own questions as to whether human beings can really ever meet on the same terms.

 

Emma Mandley had a long career in broadcasting and the arts before discovering that what she really loves is translation. She was born and lives in London, and translates from French as well as from Italian. A Friend in the Dark, her translation of a French novel for children by Pascal Ruter, has recently been published by Walker Books. She also translates regularly for the website Books in Italy, where she first came across Fabrizio Coscia’s work.

Photo by Joe Williamson

Fabrizio Coscia was born in Naples in 1967 and is a teacher, writer, and journalist. Among other newspapers and periodicals, he has for many years written for the arts-pages of the daily newspaper Il Mattino. His publications include the novel Notte abissina (Avagliano, 2006), the short story “Dove finisce il dolore,” in the anthology Napoli per le strade (Azimuth 2009, Girulà Prize 2009), as well as Soli Eravamo (Ad Est dell’Equatore, 2015), from which the submitted text is taken, and La bellezza che resta (Melville, 2017).

Photo by Sergio Siano

Geeta Kothari, Author

Geeta KothariIn December 2017, I met with Geeta Kothari to discuss her work as a writer and as the nonfiction editor of the Kenyon Review. In February of this year, Geeta’s collection, I Brake for Moose and Other Stories, was published; she was also the editor of Did My Mama Like to Dance?: And Other Stories about Mothers and Daughters (1994). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts ReviewFourth Genre, and Best American Essays (2000). Kothari currently directs the Writing Center at the University of Pittsburgh and teaches in its writing program.

Like me, Kothari is a native New Yorker, and I found her easy to talk with. She had just presented a seminar at December’s Antioch University Los Angeles MFA residency called “The Writer in Search of Narrator,” which helped me to understand the process by which nonfiction writers decide how to narrate their stories. At the beginning of the session, Kothari drew a large fish on the board, composed of two intersecting parabolic lines, as a way to look at the structure of a piece. (As she explained to me later, she adapted the method from a workshop with novelist Nancy Zafris.) Although I’ve heard Zafris’s students describe various ways to label each of the lines—plot versus theme, in the case of structuring fiction—in her demonstration, Kothari said the top arc represents the entire span of events in the nonfiction narrative, the “real life” or the “facts” of a piece. She then drew a middle line, which zigzagged between the top and bottom, which signifies the events that the writer chooses to pull into the narrative, to make meaning of them and to create an emotional experience for the reader, by, for example, exploring and repeating certain motifs or physical objects (such as photographs). In this way, and applying Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, Kothari explained that the top line can represent “the situation” and the bottom line becomes “the story.”

During our conversation, Kothari and I discussed the situation of writing stories, writing (and knitting) habits, family, writing characters that are not racial tropes, and representing the immigrant experience in literature. Kothari writes characters with a rich interior world; in her new book, I Brake for Moose, she creates multidimensional characters of various races who exist beyond stereotype. We began talking about how to structure our work, a conversation that I have since found quite useful in my own writing.

Meredith Arena: Speak a little bit more about the narrative model you discussed in the Antioch presentation?

I could write good sentences—and you can get away with a lot if your sentences are pretty or good, but at the end of the day, are you really telling a story?

Geeta Kothari: That model is something that Nancy Zafris taught me. I am one of those writers who takes a lot of classes. I love being a student. I was never a good student when I was actually a student, but I love these short [writing] workshops. When I took the Kenyon Review workshop with Nancy in 2006, I had been someone who, as she says, “Can’t write a bad sentence.” I could write good sentences—and you can get away with a lot if your sentences are pretty or good, but at the end of the day, are you really telling a story? She taught me how to think about story structure in an intuitive and holistic way. Once you have that fish in your brain, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. Her whole focus on the objective reality of the story, either in a novel or in a short story, is important because a writer wants to go into the deep thoughts. You just do if you’re a literary writer, and chances are you are already good at the deep thoughts, but getting your reader into those deep thoughts requires a lot of work. If you’re forcing yourself to think about the situation or the context, the broader stuff, it’s going to naturally take you to the story you want to go to. That is what that fish is. It is giving yourself the confidence to stay with that situation or that context, knowing that it is eventually going to get you to the story you want to tell if you keep doing that up and down thing [She moves her hand up and down in a zigzag pattern referring to how we use the details of the plot (or situation) to move us into the story (or the emotional material, the significance) and back again].

MA: So, you are saying that you have internalized this structure, but it leaves room for intuition. I think that is how a lot of people go into writing a creative nonfiction piece, intuitively.

GK: I took [a] class in nonfiction one summer. I lived at home with my parents and I went up to Columbia and took this class with this teacher whom I had studied with in graduate school, who had not been impressed with me. I am not sure that he was impressed with me in this class, either. And I learned the traditional modes­­—how to write a profile, how to do a story about place. We read the usual people you read and that class was the only class I took and I tried to write within the parameters he’d set up for these things that we had to do, and that is how I got my first drafts. I got my first published piece from that [class]. And that piece was quite different from what I had done in class and part of it came through this questioning process­­.

I ran into [the poet] Garrett Hongo at a conference, and he said I should send him something. I said, “I can’t. I don’t have anything,” and he said, “Where are you from?” That became the organizing question for that first essay. Those structures can be helpful, but more helpful is the things that morph out of them. They are just a starting point. You have to find a way to get your words on the page and with CNF, with writing about the self, the problem is there are so many options. Do you start with birth? Do you start with fifth grade? Do you start with the guy who tried to beat you up behind the concrete cylinder in the playground? What do you start with? What do you include? Giving yourself boundaries can really force the essays to a place where you can finally work on it.

MA: And then you can go back and change it.

GK: You can go back and change everything. In “Thirst,” the essay I read [at Antioch], I said okay— seven islands—the piece itself gave me the structure. I wasn’t thinking about situation and story, I was just thinking structure. The seven islands of Bombay were joined together, so I am going to have seven sections about my dad, but then it became twelve.

MA: What was the first essay that you published?

I asked the bartender where the bathroom was and the first thing he said was, “Where are you from?” … It was interesting because my husband, whom I was dating at the time, is actually from another country. He’s Canadian, but no one ever asked him where he was from.

GK: It was called, “Where are you from?” It was musings on identity and trying to figure out where I was from. It was something I was getting asked in Pittsburgh, and for my entire life I found it really irritating. [The essay] starts with an incident where I was at a bar. I asked the bartender where the bathroom was and the first thing he said was, “Where are you from?” And I was like, “I just want to use the bathroom.” It was interesting because my husband, whom I was dating at the time, is actually from another country. He’s Canadian, but no one ever asked him where he was from. Ever. It started from that irritation, but the original draft did not start that way. That was about going to Kleinfeld’s. Do you remember Kleinfeld’s in Brooklyn, the wedding store?

MA: Yup!

GK: I was going with a friend to buy a wedding dress and she was determined to buy it there and it was just not happening. It was not working for her, so I wrote about that, and about buying the dress, and her wedding, which was troubling to me because she was marrying a white man, and I was trying to figure out what that meant for identity. She was half Japanese. She read the essay and hated it and ended our relationship. I was really trying to figure out something. It was that self-investigation. I just had no words for it. I was young and I was trying to figure out what it meant to be married to someone else and what it meant for who you were, especially if you were marrying someone who wasn’t from your culture. I wasn’t thinking of marrying my husband. In fact, I said to him pretty clearly, “I will never marry you,” so obviously, I got that wrong.

So that [question] “Where are you from?” developed into a much longer, more complex essay because Garrett asked me to revise it. I was able to address some of the things my friend had objected to when she first read it and come a little cleaner.

I hadn’t seen myself as a nonfiction writer. I had really been involved in writing fiction. And my mom said, “Why don’t you just learn to write some other things. Try your hand at a different thing. You should be trying everything,” and basically paid for me to take this class at Columbia. So that was where it began.

MA: Do you think she knew that you would be writing a book about her?

GK: She didn’t want me to write a book about her. She very clearly said, “I don’t want you writing about me when I’m dead.”

MA: Were you writing about your parents when they were alive? If so, did they read the work?

GK: I was writing about them. I didn’t realize that I was going to be on such a trajectory of writing about them, but I interviewed them. I did formal interviews with them after I had moved to Pittsburgh. I began to realize that there was a lot about them I didn’t know. So, I did interviews and they had their canned stories that they kept telling. I still have them on tape. They were very private people, but they never told me while they were alive not to write about them. [I just couldn’t write about them] after their deaths. She said, “After I’m dead… I can’t challenge what you say about me.” She had this idea of herself as someone who was going to write back to me. My dad was much more sanguine. But my mother, I remember once she said, “Okay, you can write about anything or anyone, except your father, and you can’t write about your sister,” and I was like, “That doesn’t leave very much to write about.” There are only four of us. And then, “You can’t write about me when I’m dead.” You just have to not listen to some of those voices. It wasn’t as if I set out to write about them. It was just that those were the stories that came to me and they were interesting to me. I once said to my dad, “I find the two of you endlessly fascinating.” And he laughed.

MA: I really relate to that in your work. I find my parents really fascinating as well. They are still alive, but I relate to the longing that is in your essays “Listen” [Superstition Review], “If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?” [Kenyon Review], and “On Leaving Home” [Virginia Quarterly Review], even though my parents have not died yet.

My mom came here when she was twenty-two years old. What is an Indian woman, a girl, really, doing in New York in 1950? How is she managing? How is she living her life? How does she feel?

GK: I felt that longing before they died. I don’t know what that’s about, but I do think they were very private people and I’m nosy. That’s just all there is to it. I want to understand things about them. I found them interesting. They were so strange.

My mom came here when she was twenty-two years old. What is an Indian woman, a girl, really, doing in New York in 1950? How is she managing? How is she living her life? How does she feel? She can’t talk to her parents on the phone. When I tell people [that] she came in 1950—Indians—they say, “She came with her husband, it wouldn’t have been that bad.” And I’m like, “No, no, no.” She was here alone for ten years before she met my father. And then her decision to marry him had nothing to do with her parents. It was completely independent.

MA: This curiosity seems like why we become writers of creative nonfiction. Going back to the situation and the story, there is the top line, all the events that actually happened. The autobiographical events.

GK: We are interested in the motives. Why?

MA: What were you feeling?

GK: Yeah, what were you feeling?

MA: I ask my mother that a lot and she can’t always answer me. And my parents are not private. It seems like they are telling me everything that happened. But I want to know something else. I want to understand myself better. I’m forty now; I want to know how my mom felt when she was forty.

GK: Right, but they can’t tell you, because there is a level of self-examination that’s unfair to ask ordinary people to get involved in. They don’t want to go there, so that’s our job to do that. My mom didn’t want to talk about how she felt getting on that plane, she would only say, “I wanted someone to ask me to stay.” It’s a cultural thing. I have been brought up to say what I want, [such as], “I don’t wanna go.” But that wasn’t part of the deal then. She left home and she didn’t want to leave. She was never able to talk much about that longing. She couldn’t articulate it fully, partly because it would have been really painful. Most people don’t want to revisit their most painful moments.

MA: Does your book about your mother have a title yet?

GK: It’s a temporary title. It’s called Everywhere and Nowhere: Mapping My Mother’s Search for Home.

MA: It was helpful to hear you talk about your book project about your mother. We often hear writers say, “I struggled with it,” but hearing you say, “I’m struggling with it and here is why” is instructive. Thank you. It seems like the stuff arising in this conversation and the issue of identity and longing around family is also coming up for your fictional characters in I Brake for Moose.

GK: Completely by chance.

MA: Many of the characters are immigrants. I love the way the immigrant experience is all over. You are normalizing the immigrant story within American literature, which is so important.

GK: I am so glad to hear you got that from it.

MA: We (and by “we” I meant white people) tend to use the “other” as a story device, rather than the main story. But when you walk around a city, you aren’t walking around only white people. It is a diverse experience.

GK: There are two ways to look at this. I couldn’t write a whole book of stories about Indian immigrants. That wasn’t the way I was raised. You know New York. You’re raised around all different kinds of people and all those lives are interesting. That was part of it. But part of it was that issue of displacement. Who feels it? People who are immigrants or exiles. But there are also people who aren’t immigrants in this book.

MA: The teenage groupies [in the story “I Brake for Moose”]. What made you decide you want to write about early college-age girls who follow a band around? 

GK: I just wanted to write about that particular moment when you are really confused and have no direction. I knew people in bands. I was interested in this idea of being on the road and being very unhappy. Then I thought, how many Indian girls go on the road in 1987 with a band, and how would they do it. My parents would have had a heart attack.

MA: There is an Indian guy in the band, so that is what makes it okay with her parents.

GK: Exactly—and I don’t think my parents would have fallen for that, but I thought, I couldn’t write about her without her parents. It didn’t seem possible to me that she could pick up and go without telling her parents. I thought: I can’t kill her parents. There are so many dead parents in all my stories. It’s just a convenience at this point. I will have to make her deal with it. That story took me forever to write, damn it.

MA: How long?

GK: I remember sitting in my apartment trying to write it. I remember writing it out by hand on a legal pad. I could not find the form. Then I read a story by Joyce Carol Oates and I was like, “Why don’t I try this?” I thought, “If she could do it, why can’t I?” I would say it took me five years. I was writing other things. I work best when I work on multiple things.

MA: You have written about working on multiple projects in “The Other Things We Do: Knitting” [Necessary Fiction].

GK: My sister and I have talked about this. We are process knitters, not product knitters, so we will get really distracted by shiny new yarn, the feel of the yarn in the needles, and if the feeling isn’t right, it is hard to finish something. You lose interest. You learned what you needed to learn from that particular project and it is almost finished or halfway done and now you are ready to move on. I do think finishing is important. I am not saying you should have a lot of unfinished writing around you, that can be very distracting, but I seem to go through phases where I am creating a lot of stuff, starting things, trying them out. Then I will undo them or come back to them and start again. There is just this very messy process for me. I remember a friend of mine who said that when he works on a novel, he works on nothing else. I tried that. For a few years, I wrote a novel; I worked on nothing else and it was really hard.

MA: It sounds isolating.

GK: It was very lonely and isolating. There were all these parts of my life I couldn’t engage in and all these things I couldn’t do. It was not a pleasurable way to work. I finished the novel, but then everything hinged on getting it published and that wasn’t pleasurable for me either. I really had to rethink my relationship to my work, and the knitting is a way to rethink it.

MA: You want it to pleasurable to write.

GK: Yes. You want it to be pleasurable and you don’t want everything to be hinging on that perfect sweater. I make a lot of things that don’t fit me. I give away a lot of my knitting. I really get a lot of pleasure from doing it. That is how I feel about writing. I really enjoy just writing. Once I lifted that ban of not writing everything else, it freed me in many ways. I really need that distance.

MA: In this program, we often discuss how to represent characters who are not who you are.

GK: The “other.”

MA: Yeah, the “other.” You do that a lot. The story, “Crossing Cabot Straight,” features a white woman who is married to an Indian man. You write white characters. In I Brake for Moose, I remember a compelling character [in “Missing Men”] who was an African immigrant. They are different from you. They have different experiences. How do you go about creating those characters?

GK: It’s tricky, right? I am never sure I am doing it right or that someone isn’t going to read it and say, “Whoa, that’s an old trope you are engaging in, and why are you doing that?” But these are stories that attach themselves to these characters, and I couldn’t tell them any other way. That story, “Missing Men,” is an outtake from my novel. There were three characters in that book: a white man—a half-French, half-English Canadian—an Indian-American woman, and this African character, whom I deliberately did not attach to a country. In fiction, what is important to me is to explore these other lives and imagine what it’s like to be these people, and even [to write] from a male point of view. It’s not like you say, “I am going to write this from a male POV.” It is, “This is the story and it needs to be told this way.” I was influenced early on­­––I didn’t think about this until I was writing this book­––by Bharati Mukherjee, The Middle Man and Other Stories, which has its flaws but takes on multiple immigrant perspectives very deliberately. I don’t feel like I did that as deliberately in this book, but [Mukherjee] really wanted to represent that immigrant experience across cultures. There is a Filipino character and there is an Indian character in one of the stories. Whether [my effort] is successful is hard for me to gauge. I am too close to my work. All I know is that these are lives that I find very compelling and interesting.

I am very much influenced by the reading I do. I read a lot of nonfiction. That story about the African character was influenced by two things: a story I heard years ago, from a friend who was Ethiopian, and my reading of The Emperor: [The Downfall of an Aristocrat], by Ryszard Kapuscinski, which was about Ethiopia. For a long time, I was reading about the breakup of Yugoslavia, and this influenced one of my other stories [“Small Bang Only”]. I wanted to write about someone without a country, no way to go home. His passport changed, it’s completely invalid, but I didn’t want to write about the particulars of those places.

MA: Which forces me as a white-American reader, who is not super well informed, to think about the interior world of the character, which creates empathy. At first, I worried that I should know which country he was from and then I realized that no, this was about his interior world. You are great at creating the interior world of characters and portraying their intimate experiences. They are immigrants, they are having experiences that maybe seem like a trope of an immigrant experience­­­­––and tropes exist for a reason––but then you delve into their interior space within that experience. Your characters are full of doubt and confused about their lives.

GK: Confusion seems to interest me. It’s not something I set out to do, but in both those stories, I didn’t want the politics to overshadow the individuals. We have these big political stories, but it’s the individuals within those stories that interest me. That is why I tried to go for this kind of mystery about where they are from. It wasn’t to make you feel like you have to Google this stuff, but to make you hone in on the character rather than the situation. Hone in on the story, not the situation.

MA: What other writers do you see doing this type of work with the immigrant experience?

GK: We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo. What I loved in that book was the back and forth between the life in Africa that she left behind and this new life here. You know there is normalizing the immigrant experience and exoticizing it­—opening this little door into immigrant life just to see what it’s like—and I don’t know where to draw the line between those two things. I like stories where the fact of the person’s immigration status is part of the story, but not the whole story; that there is something else going on. Those are the stories where you empathize with the person beyond their status. Jhumpa Lahiri does a great job in her short stories.

MA: We talk about unreliable narrators a lot in CNF. You want your narrator to have some space from the experience. What does that mean for really young writers in their twenties and thirties writing memoir?

GK: It’s tough because you have to create that distance yourself, and that would mean knowing who you are now and knowing who you were then. It’s very hard. I have a friend who has been working on her memoir. She has been working on it a long time and has an interesting story, but she is about twenty years younger than me. There are all kinds of issues, especially if you are writing about your parents and they are still alive. Finding that distance is really hard, especially when you are living through some of the experiences you are trying to write about. I don’t think it makes you necessarily unreliable, but what the reader gets is a sense that you are withholding.

MA: But it’s stuff you don’t know yet.

Unless you are willing to look at yourself straight-on, memoir is not for you.

GK: It’s stuff you don’t know or stuff you can’t look at because the self-examination is too painful. Unless you are willing to look at yourself straight-on, memoir is not for you. There are times in our lives when we can do that and times in our lives when we can’t. Sometimes, when you are younger, it is just harder. How do you create that distance that says, “This is who I am now, this is who I was then, and who I am now can look back on who I was then and treat her with kindness and empathy and understanding even as she is saying the most horrible racist things on earth”? Or whatever. [This is true] when you write about depression or trauma.

Sue Williams Silverman: her memoir was about being abused by her father and it is painful to read, but it is very artful. She creates these sections. Starting from the time she is four, she recreates these different voices and levels of knowingness, so the reader knows what is happening before the narrator knows. That is a kind of unreliability, but you’re in the hands of a much older writer and you know she is doing this on purpose. There is a real structure to it. It is a deeply painful book to read. I found it hard, but if you can step back from the material and look at the craft, it is revealing. By imagining these voices that are related to the ages she has at different points of the book and recreating herself at those different ages, she sets up these structures for herself to work in and these limitations. I would say that [as a] younger memoirist, [you] should define a structure that you can work within that would give you that distance. I would hate to say, “Oh, you’re too young to write a memoir!” Those are blanket statements that don’t give anyone useful information. Maybe you write the draft of your memoir now and ten years later, you come back and rewrite it and it is a different book, but you have all the stuff you are thinking about now.

MA: In an interview with the online journal Creative Nonfiction, you mention that you wish you had known that you didn’t necessarily need to go to graduate school to become a writer. Your nonfiction piece, “On Leaving Home,”­­ progresses through the various stages of leaving home and the mutual freedom and discomfort that come with it. In it, you describe being unhappy and isolated in graduate school. You describe an experience when the white students were not respectful to you. [They had not read the work and they were snickering in the back of the room.] This is a topic that has been discussed a lot lately. I am thinking about Junot Diaz in his New Yorker article, “MFA vs POC,” and about Claudia Rankine’s keynote at AWP in Los Angeles in 2016. Can you share any more about your graduate school experience?

GK: I felt very unseen, invisible in graduate school. I didn’t attribute it to racism at the time, because I was so lacking in confidence that it seemed to be all about me and not about the other people. I didn’t feel that I was a very good writer compared to everyone else, and that part of me deserved to be ignored. So, it is this internalized view of the self. I would do things like write these stories and I knew the characters were Indian, but I would make up weird names for them and pretend they weren’t. I was too young to be in graduate school. That is the number-one lesson I got from that, I was too young, too sensitive, too unsure of myself.

I had not been an English major as an undergraduate. I had majored in Afro-American studies and government. Majoring in Afro-American studies gave me a false sense of what the world was like. When I went to the English department, I was like, “Where are all the classes on people of color?” This was in the eighties and I don’t think I even used that term [people of color]. I thought, “Aren’t there any classes in Afro-American lit?” I couldn’t believe it. I don’t know why. I just didn’t understand why there weren’t classes in Afro-American lit in the English department. It left me feeling lost, because that was my home in literature. That was what I had spent four years studying and writing about and suddenly none of that mattered. It just didn’t. People were talking about writers that I didn’t feel anything about, which was alienating. But I don’t think I understood it in that way. I just kind of understood myself as a failure.

MA: A lot of people will relate to that experience.

GK: Really? That is so sad. I am sorry about that. That’s why I think a low-residency program would have been better for me. That one-on-one mentoring would have served me better. I felt lost in the crowd. There was no help for it; I was underprepared and it was a bad combination of things. If I had more guts and been a little more brassy, maybe if I had been fifty-four, I would have said, “Hey, this is bullshit!” But at twenty-three, I would just come home and cry all the time and my mom was like, “You’re gonna finish this degree.”

MA: In this program [AULA], we don’t spend that much time around a table critiquing one another’s work. Just one crit per residency. And these crit groups are different every residency, so you don’t have the same group in each critique, which breaks up the ability for these biases to compound on one another. The group dynamic is always changing. In full-time residential programs, I believe it is the same people all the time, so the same dominant voices might take up space.

GK: What you are looking for in graduate school are your readers for this future. This exposure to different people is like you finding your people. The people you will stay in touch with after you graduate, who you will send your first drafts to. And it may only be one or two people.

MA: You are an editor for the Kenyon Review. As students in this MFA program, many of us work as editors for Lunch Ticket. Because it is a student-run journal, we do this for free. How do you get to do this for money?

GK: I wish the money were so good that I could recommend this as a job. It is practically like doing it for free. The way I see the money part of it, is that it pays for me to take classes or do other things. I got the job totally by chance. I was at the right place at the right time. They had published my food essay many years before. When Nancy Zafris stepped down as fiction editor, I had already been at the workshop once as a student and she suggested my name. I moved on to become nonfiction editor. It was not something I set out to do. I see it as a literary citizenship. I enjoy finding new writers. A lot of submissions are very good but are not quite right for us, and I think those pieces are going to find a home. Someone else will take it.

It is important to depersonalize that process. When I first started editing, I was intimidated because so much good work was getting turned away, and [so] I didn’t send out my work for about a year. It took a while to say, “Okay, I can get my work out there again, I don’t have to perfect or [be] the best. You just have to be good enough.”

MA: Do you write notes when you decline a piece? Do you suggest revisions?

GK: I don’t suggest revisions. If we make a suggestion for a revision, it has to be with the agreement of everyone [on staff] and it has to be doable. We have less time for that because the volume is so huge.

MA: So, a rejection doesn’t mean “this piece stinks.”

GK: Right. You just don’t know what is going to hit what reader at what time, so you absolutely can’t take it personally.

 

Meredith Arena

Meredith Arena is from New York City and resides in Seattle, where she works as a teaching artist in the public schools and facilitates meditation for adults. She is a student in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. She is a creative nonfiction editor on Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in Entropy, Lunch Ticket, and SHIFT Queer Art & Literary Magazine.

Margo Jefferson, Author of Negroland

Margo JeffersonI met Margo Jefferson on a February afternoon in 2017, in New York City’s West Village. We sat in a café to discuss her latest book, Negroland, the winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography. The memoir blends the author’s personal narrative with the history of America’s historical black elite. Jefferson, a member of this essential and idiosyncratic subset of American society, provides a unique perspective on its place in our social landscape by virtue of her personal history and literary skill. I suggest essential, because I believe the serpentine path of African-American upward-mobility would have been made intricately more difficult without the early and persistent accomplishments of this group of Americans. Idiosyncratic because of the black elite’s richly complex social order, allowing its members to thrive within a society constructed to deny their existence and thwart their progress. This private society, at various times called the Colored Society, the Negro Society, the Black Bourgeoisie, and the African-American upper class, cocooned itself within a system of exclusivity by way of social clubs and civic organizations, with membership based on skin color, education, family connections, and social class. For generations, the black elite socialized and married within its own closely guarded boundaries.

Tracing their beginnings to the Revolutionary War, the founders of the American black elite were, primarily but not exclusively, slaves who won their freedom through service in the Continental Army; slaves fortunate and enterprising enough to buy freedom for themselves and family members; slaves granted freedom, property and resources by virtue of familial ties with a slave master; or African-Americans born to freedom in free states.

The zenith of black society spanned the Abolitionist Movement, through the post-emancipation struggles for civil rights in the 20th century. Calling itself the Talented Tenth (a term popularized in the essay by W.E.B. DuBois, in which DuBois defines an elite class of African-Americans and their responsibility to lead the rest), members of the black elite saw themselves tasked with the responsibility of uplifting the entire race from degradation and servitude. Their influence waned in the 1960s and ’70s with the onset of civil rights and the rise of the Black Power movement.

The memoir blends the author’s personal narrative with the history of America’s historical black elite. Jefferson, a member of this essential and idiosyncratic subset of American society, provides a unique perspective on its place in our social landscape by virtue of her personal history and literary skill.

In 1995, Jefferson received the Pulitzer Prize for criticism while working as a staff writer for The New York Times. The winning body of work spans the breadth of American political life, literary art, and pop culture, including “The Thomas-Hill Question, Answered Anew,” her New York Times review of Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, in which Jefferson points to the coming-of-age similarities between Thomas and Richard Nixon; as well as essays on the personal letters of poet Elizabeth Bishop, their secrets and passions revealed, and the gay subculture of New York from 1890 to 1940. In her critique of Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, an account of a woman’s struggle with identity in the midst of a disfiguring illness, Jefferson writes: “Suffering is exact. Each kind has its own weight and measure. Fearing you are ugly is not the same as knowing you are. Anticipating pain you have never felt is different from dreading pain you know inside out. Feeling that you have been asked to bear too much is a far cry from learning to bear it anyway.”

Jefferson’s ability to sense, depending on circumstance, from which direction the wind is blowing, or what part of her “self” to expose, honed a keenly perceptive and empathetic eye. And it is that empathy and perception Jefferson engages in On Michael Jackson (2006), in which she explores what happened to the pop star turned accused child molester. Also a staff writer for Newsweek, Jefferson has published in New York Magazine, The Nation, Vogue, The Washington Post, O, The Oprah Magazine, the Believer, Guernica, Bookforum, and Grand Street. Her essays are anthologized in: The Best American Essays, 2015; What My Mother Gave Me; The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death; The Best African-American Essays, 2014; The Mrs. Dalloway Reader; Black Cool; and The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. She created and performed a theater piece entitled Sixty Minutes in Negroland, and teaches in the Columbia University MFA writing program.

With Negroland, Jefferson turns her gaze to her own privileged childhood. She presents its historical context at a time when current generations are acutely feeling the fluidity of American identity. What does it mean to be an American in 2017, as migratory trends to this country shift away from Europe to the southern hemisphere, and as demagoguery dredges tribal fears from the bottom of our psychic well?

No better time than now to explore the genesis and evolution of America’s Talented Tenth: the bourgeois class of Negroes who valued education, achievement, and social status, producing a great many African-American professional firsts among their ranks, while audaciously and snobbishly believing themselves to be the very best America had to offer.

From the beginning, America’s black elite were culturally invisible and merely tolerated. Their earliest members, close-knit and insular, shunned white society until it was safe to mingle. As they emerged to claim their place amid our country’s striving classes, the existence of the black elite remained absent in literature and film, with only the lowliest images of black American life acceptable for mainstream audiences. An acknowledgment by the prevailing social order of an African-American upper class, whose educational accomplishments and social graces rivaled its own while exceeding that of the general public, would have been a contradiction bringing into question that very social order. It was a willful blindness perpetuated by a self-conscious and insecure dominant culture.

We are now in the midst of a new renaissance. The slave narrative is confronting the antebellum era from a larger perspective, as in Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, bringing a fuller understanding to the complicated richness of our experience. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns gives life in vivid detail to the largest movement of Americans over a period of decades: the Great Black Migration, thereby filling a gap in history as vast as the Grand Canyon. As African American artists continue to take ownership of the narrative, Margo Jefferson’s Negroland adds an important piece to the puzzle that is our full humanity.

*     *     *

Angela Bullock: The title of the book, Negroland, evokes an era as well as a particular state of mind.

Margo Jefferson: Yes.

AB: Would you define the term “Negroland,” and explain why you chose it as the title for your memoir?

MJ: Negro was the preferred term—capitalized—for us, from about the start of the late 19th or early 20th century (it succeeded colored) to really the mid-to late ’60s when Black Power succeeded it. So, I wanted to signify that time period, all the political, cultural ways of talking about us as a people. Negroes and the Struggle—also we get that word capitalized. It was a big thing, to keep it separate from Colored, which had started to become a little reactionary. Black until the ’60s was often seen as an insult. So, I wanted to signify the cultural, and racial, and political atmosphere and assumption.

I added –land because in a way we are a land within and yet not. You know? A land is often the way people who share a culture now, or certain cultural habits, longings, that’s often how they describe themselves. There is a whole way of thought now: We deserve our own homeland. We’ve been taken from our homeland. It’s a powerful impulse and drive in black life. But also, within the cities so many of us grew up in—black neighborhoods framed by white neighborhoods—they are in a way lands. Those boundaries are the boundaries of separate lands.

AB: Matters of race consciousness within the black community have continued to evolve, particularly since the years of the 1970s Black Power movement. Why was it important to write Negroland now?

One of the many barriers for black people has always been the imposition of simplification, stereotypes, assumptions, even definitions of what the best kind of black person is or what a real black person is.

MJ: It’s very important right now that we [remain] aware of all the variations on our own history, all the stories that make up our history. That’s one of the things that was so wonderful about Isabel Wilkerson’s book on our Black Migration [The Warmth of Other Suns]—within this huge movement, so many particular families, individuals, and lives. One of the many barriers for black people has always been the imposition of simplification, stereotypes, assumptions, even definitions of what the best kind of black person is or what a real black person is. I wanted to record as clearly, as vividly, as honestly, as artfully as I could this history—personal and cultural—of this very particular black life and a slice of the life of this very particular group. The so-called Talented Tenth.

AB: I get a sense that there was a tight community, with a network of both local and national social clubs.

MJ: Absolutely.

AB: During your childhood, was Chicago the apex of Negroland culture or were the branches of the black elite pretty evenly disbursed nationwide?

MJ: Oh no, my goodness. There were branches all over. I think Washington, DC would have long considered itself the apex. Atlanta was very important. Really, so many cities could lay claim to being the apex. Chicago was important. We did have our own renaissance. So many people came to Chicago during the Great Migration. Philadelphia has quite a history too, important, but not the apex.

AB: You used multiple voices in the writing of Negroland. There is an objective historical narrator within a very personal memoir, which includes both second- and third-person narration. Why was it important to you to deviate from the traditional first-person narrative style for this memoir?  

MJ: It felt to me as if so much of the story I was telling involved the playing of different roles and the taking on of different personas: the good Negro girl, the strong black woman, [and then] when the ’60s came, the respectable Negro family, then the Negro girl who wanted to make her way in the more hip Negro circles. Performance was very much a part of how we grew up, how we were raised, what we were taught. Different viewpoints, I felt, would capture that. And that sense often that you were living out one role. You were reflecting on it and wondering if it was working and when would you have to shift and adapt to another situation. So those tenses and those cross-cuttings, along with first, second, third person, and even the moves between the historical narrator, a confessing narrator, a self-critical narrator, really helped me do that.

AB: You speak of many founding and pioneering members of Negroland, some individuals I’d never heard of, like Charlotte Forten. You write, “She is from one of Philadelphia’s most distinguished colored families, prominent abolitionists since the eighteenth century.” I feel a great compassion for her.

MJ: Oh my God yes!

AB: You say that “she strove for perfect selflessness and would upbraid herself for being insufficiently stoic,” in her dedication to uplifting the race. Forten wrote: “…it is ignoble to despair.” I draw a direct line from that sentiment to the inability to acknowledge depression within the generations of women that followed. Do you make that connection?

MJ: I absolutely agree. The demands and pressures (this did apply to men too, but men responded very differently), on the daughters, the citizens, if you will, of the black elite, the Colored Elite as they would have called themselves in her day, the Black Bourgeoisie, the Talented Tenth, the pressure to be perfect internally and externally, included many proscriptions. You had to excel, of course. You had to have excellent manners. And you never broke down, or showed utter fury. You had to have emotional control at all times. And to despair was in a way to give a victory to the white oppressor. Because that was in some way to acknowledge that he had defeated you, gotten inside your psyche and crushed it.

AB: I would expect that it would have also shown a lack of social class in the eyes of many?

MJ: Certainly, extreme emotional outbursts, yes. I think that is right.

So, we were lifting them up as the saying went, representing the race at its best, and of course, though some of them may have been very pleased about our “white blood,” we thought of ourselves as better than basically all white people.

AB: I am left with the impression that the class of black elites had a real stick up their butts [MJ laughs], yet I don’t see any other way social mobility could have been achieved without Negroland, given America’s history and racial divide. In the book, you also speak of the “Third Race.” Can you explain a bit more about what you mean by the term?

MJ: I spoke of how it seems ofttimes that we thought of ourselves as that. That’s a little different. As poised between all white people and the majority of less-privileged black people. So, we were lifting them up as the saying went, representing the race at its best, and of course, though some of them may have been very pleased about our “white blood,” we thought of ourselves as better than basically all white people. I certainly never heard that term literally used when I was growing up. But when I was talking about this world with a very old Negroland friend, and we were just thinking back and speculating, she said that, and I said, “Oh my God, you’re right.”

AB: And I assume you thought of yourselves as better than whites because of their discrimination.

MJ: Absolutely. We felt we have had to excel in ways that you really don’t. We are equal to the absolute top echelon of you. We’re as good as, and in some cases, we’re better. And we’re better than virtually all the rest of you. Our only competition is at the top, but we have to prove to you constantly that we are at least as good.

AB: Does the Third Race still exist? If so, what form does that Third Race take now?

MJ: That’s a question I can’t really answer. I know people from younger generations. I think it exists among some members of the black elite, in that all elites function and thrive, in part, on a sense of enormous self-satisfaction and entitlement. So, again, that may not be the words to use, but I think that sense—We are the best of our kind and we are the best of your kind too; we are the best America can produce—I think that does still exist. It’s probably more diversified because integration has changed the absolute tightness [of the community].

AB: And not defined by skin color, solely.

MJ: No. You were never defined if you were a man solely by skin color.

AB: That’s interesting.

MJ: And if you had other advantages—social, educational—that would help you if you were a woman. But the beauty standards for women were much more persnickety and intolerant. You know that. They still are. Whatever the prevailing standard is, it’s harder for women.

AB: When did you finally begin to feel comfortable in your own skin? I ask because it seems that each stage in your young life required a new adjustment in identity. There was your early school experience, where you began to perfect the art of code-switching.

MJ: Yes, absolutely.

AB: Then there was adolescence with its added sexual tension, and finally on to college at Brandeis, where your Midwestern cheerleader culture was put on trial in the midst of a rising counter-culture social order.

MJ: Yes, the Eastern intellectual culture and Black Power.

AB: I can only imagine that you were never quite black enough. You know the term?

MJ: I know the term very well. I did not feel that nearly as much in my youthful days. It was in adolescence, and in college, and after. That’s when those kinds of distinctions were made. They were very much tied to teenage-cool social behavior. And not black enough is a class code but it’s also a manners and behavior code. It’s a way of saying you’re not cool enough, you’re not hip enough, you don’t have the language, the style. You don’t have the street cred.

AB: Was there ever a time when you could relax and not have to negotiate a double consciousness?

MJ: You know, there always were times. I always had some close black friends. I had some white friends I could relax with. No life, unless it’s totally immersed in trauma and heartbreak, is without those moments when you relax. I had my family and their world, and within that, we all felt totally comfortable with each other. Also, my earliest forms of code-switching were, as you can see from the book, they were demanding, but they were not traumatic in a visible, political, social way. For example, the white school that I went to was not one of those 1950s schools where policemen were called in. Where you were challenged everyday: I’m going to beat you up on the playground. That just wasn’t it. It was in that way, progressive. Meaning there was a genuine space for comfort, ease, for security. That made a big difference. And that also existed in the black world of my family and their friends, where I was loved, despite all the demands. Families are demanding.

Oppression can damage. We know that. It damages both the oppressor and the oppressed. And the damages are generally incompatible. Do you know what I mean? The damages clash.

AB: Yes, they are. Your mom was very demanding.

MJ: My mom was charming, very smart, and a real perfectionist, about herself and everything in her world, including my sister and me. [Laughs]

AB: Your mother’s statement, “Sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro.”

MJ: As a young bride, when she was so happy. Yes.

AB: It’s such a profound acknowledgement to me. Is that when she said it, when she was a bride?

MJ: Yes, in the context of that letter, which is where she said it, writing in 1944, to a dear black friend. Yes. The literal context was that she was writing about a mutual friend who had just gotten engaged. And within the letter, she moves comfortably between talking about having seen Jane Eyre, the discrimination at Fort Huachuca [Arizona] that the young black doctors were facing, and playing cards. The letter just moves so easily through all of these things, and then she says at the end, “Oh I understand our mutual friend is engaged. Tell her I wish her all the happiness that I have, cause that’s as much as anyone could wish.” And then she says: “Sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro. That’s something, huh?” Just meaning: I am, in this point, just taking full advantage of the privileges that are my rights, pleasure, happiness, no cage of racial demands or bigotries on me. And this is a right and a privilege that we should all have, and maybe that is why it was so moving.

AB: From your vantage point, have we managed to advance beyond our obsession with our place in the hierarchy?

MJ: By we do you means blacks, or whites as well as blacks?

AB: I was thinking specifically blacks.

MJ: I wouldn’t use the word “advance.” I would say we are still struggling with it. Because it is real, the struggles are external, they are sociological, political, cultural, and we still bear the internal marks. Some of them are real scars. Some are real values that I honor, but the internal life of struggling with oppression, discrimination, the psychic inheritance: that’s an intense, complicated life. We are all in our different ways still grappling with it, making what we can of it, which includes art and brilliant political thought, but yeah, it’s challenging. Oppression can damage. We know that. It damages both the oppressor and the oppressed. And the damages are generally incompatible. Do you know what I mean? The damages clash. There isn’t a way as there might be, let’s say, in some personal relationships: Oh let’s work on this. You’re hurt in this way, I’m hurt in that way. In so much, alas, of the larger social, political sphere, you just feel the damage and the legacy just building up.

AB: A sort of backlash?

MJ: Yes. And to watch the rage that certain white people are feeling as if they’ve been discriminated against for centuries—is staggering.

AB: More and more, I feel freedom will be ours when we can rid ourselves of the need for acceptance from the dominant white culture. How do we achieve that in the midst of continued racial tension without succumbing to the psychic traps inherent to the Third Race?

Acceptance can be justice. Acceptance can also be craving for ingratiation and cleaving on to values that are not worthy.

MJ: Maybe it’s a question of our thinking through and fighting more carefully for exactly what kind of acceptance we want or need. If acceptance means, for example, economic justice and equality, we’ve got to keep fighting for that. If acceptance means a kind of approval of us—Oh, you do have good manners: Oh, you are just lovely, you are intelligent, we welcome you into white civilization—if it means that kind of patronizing, no. We find our own ways to claim what we want of that civilization. We accept praise, but they [the oppressors] aren’t the single standard. White people’s standards and views are not the single standard by which we judge ourselves. I think it’s defining. Acceptance can be justice. Acceptance can also be craving for ingratiation and cleaving on to values that are not worthy.

AB: And finally, you wrote, “Why is it always the Nigger Jims who show up in Mark Twain’s fiction? [MJ laughs] Why couldn’t he base a character on Warner Thornton McGuinn, the first Negro graduate of Yale Law School?” That must have been particularly frustrating to your teenage self, since Twain knew McGuinn.

MJ: I’ll tell you. I didn’t say that myself. I put that in the book as the kind of thing that my world was saying, and that I was feeling and that they were feeling. There was that knowledge, I started to say sense, but it was knowledge, and it was galling that we were visible almost no place in the culture. This world we were living in, this life we were living that was in every way the life that white people glorified themselves in. This is obviously why a show like The Cosby Show or even today, a much more sophisticated show like Blackish is getting the audiences they get. Oh, my God. They’re surprised. There we are. It was infuriating and it was so frustrating. Also, the barrage of ugly and demeaning images was much greater in those days. Yes, that was difficult. In that case, I was sitting in a mostly white, not all, but mostly white classroom, with upper-middle class kids and it was embarrassing to be parsing Jim’s dialect through Mark Twain. I have come to realize that this is a remarkable book in many ways. But we weren’t being taught, and we weren’t reading Frederick Douglass’s narratives, we weren’t reading his prose. We weren’t reading Charles Chestnut and we weren’t reading Charlotte Forten. So, there weren’t any equivalents or alternatives.

 

Angela BullockAngela Bullock is an Antioch University MFA Candidate in creative writing and a member of the Lunch Ticket blog team. She read her essay Thank You Donald at the 2016 NoHo Lit Crawl. A Los Angeles-based theater and television actor, Angela has received nominations for a 2016 Stage Raw award and a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, and a 2015 NAACP LA theater award for her stage work.

A Map for Roadkill

A whirring, choking noise, like a spoon caught in a garbage disposal, erupts from my John Deere. I cut the engine, pull back. A half-chewed bone protrudes from a mound of Georgia red clay. At least it’s not a pile of dried dog shit. When that stuff gets up in the blades it spews out like pesticides from a crop duster. I hurl the bone behind a wrought-iron fence. Jagger, Mr. Gillespie’s geriatric Rottweiler, ambles out of a doghouse that’s the size of a single-car garage. His shoulder blades crest out of his back like the plates of a stegosaurus, his ragged nails snag along the concrete. He pokes at the bone with his paw, gnaws at a few loose fibers, snaps his jaw around it.

I mow lawns the same way Appa used to vacuum the carpet of our apartment, in neat, equidistant rows. When the borders conjoin, a sense of satisfaction settles over me.

I return to the mower, flick the starter lever to the choke position, yank at the rope. I’ve only been doing this for a few months, but I can almost always crank the engine after just one pull. I mow lawns the same way Appa used to vacuum the carpet of our apartment, in neat, equidistant rows. When the borders conjoin, a sense of satisfaction settles over me.

Most of my clients live east of Antler River, though, like any financially-challenged prospective college student, I aspire to increase my clients in the west. Westsiders insist on weekly maintenance through Thanksgiving, long after their Bermuda stops growing and the grass morphs into spindly, desiccated carpets.

The front door opens wide. Mr. Gillespie steps out on the porch, squints. He’s cloaked in a plush, navy robe, brown loafers, khaki pants, a white polo shirt. His toupee resembles a pile of finely grated mulch. I resist every impulse to tackle him to the ground, yank it off.

His gaze drops. He lifts a foot, brings it down on something, swivels his shoe until he’s ground it well. He steps down from the porch, heads down the stone path.

I cut the mower, pick out my earbuds. “Mr. Gillespie?”

He startles. “Oh, Leela, I didn’t see you.”

I’ve been mowing his yard for an hour. The engine’s been vibrating the panes of his bay windows. He does this often, pretends to be clueless about work he’s already paid for in advance.

“Would you like me to plant some more bulbs this fall? You have a few weeks to think about it. Binh’s negotiating with some of the vendors now, trying to get the best prices for all of our customers.”

“Fall planting season already?” He opens the mailbox, extracts a few magazines, some envelopes. “Okay, I guess. You two are always so on top of things. I should hire you to run my franchise. The jerk managing it now doesn’t show up to work until noon.”

If there’s one thing Mr. Gillespie hates, it’s laziness. He loves to go on and on about how this country used to have a work ethic, and now it doesn’t, and we need more young people like me to lead the way. He never seems to work himself, though. I see him binge-watching Netflix and playing Minecraft through the windows. I guess this is what it’s like to live rich and alone.

Mr. Gillespie stares at me a little too long, as if my question about the bulbs has placed an undue burden on him. Or maybe he’s just high. I feel like I need to say something quickly to rescue the conversation. “No worries, Mr. Gillespie. You can let me know what you want to do about the bulbs sometime next month.”

“Sounds good,” he says. He nods, slogs up the stone path. His long arms hang low, like an orangutan’s. The white tag on the back of his robe flaps in the breeze. He shuts the door a little too hard. The wreath falls, bounces once on the welcome mat, stills on its side.

From a distance, a familiar horn honks twice. I rotate my mower. Binh’s black pick-up truck sidles up along the curb. The engine cuts off.

I jog down the hill to meet him.

Dark sunglasses hide the top half of his face. He’s rugged like the male models from an L.L.Bean catalogue. His beard-stubble looks like it’s been trimmed to perfection even though he does nothing to it. He’s deeply tanned but not burned, with the kind of face that gets him noticed by both women and men. I’ve known him since we were kids, seen him eat his boogers. I could never think of him as anything other than a brother, but when he starts MIT this fall on a full scholarship, I’ll miss him like hell.

He depresses the parking brake, looks me over, frowns.

The first thing he taught me about mowing safety was what to wear—hat, long-sleeve shirt, pants, closed-toed shoes. “To keep out the sun, the bees, the copperheads and the fire ants,” he said. But during my first solo job I got so overheated I almost passed out. Today, I’m sporting a yellow tank-top, jean cut-off shorts, a baseball cap and Vans. Disappointment is written all over his face.

“Leela, please tell me you at least put on sunscreen and tick repellant,” he says.

“Can’t you smell it on me?”

He shakes his head.

“You over here today?” I ask.

“I’ve got three houses here,” he says. “One’s down the street.” He picks something out of his teeth. “You good?”

“Yeah.”

Before my family’s downfall, Binh and his father Vu used to take care of our lawn. Binh bagged leaves and planted flowers, while his father cut the grass on our acre-sized lot. In between tasks, Binh and I would shoot hoops in my driveway. I used to beat him in “HORSE” until he turned twelve and sprouted up like a sunflower. After my family lost everything and I needed to make some serious cash, he took me under his wing, introduced me to his customers, told them I’d be taking over some of the work. He even gave me his old mower, though I had to pay him back for it after my first few jobs. Still, it was a bargain. He only charged me half of what he could have gotten for it on eBay.

He takes his glasses off, tosses them in the passenger seat. The sunlight highlights the golden flecks of his eyes. His lashes are so long they appear fake. He opens an ice chest, holds out a bottle of water. “Want one?”

I reach my hand through the window. “If it’s cold, I’ll take it. Mine’s the temperature of piss.”

He grabs hold of my fingertips. “Jesus, Leela. I told you to get gloves. Look at your hands. It’s like you’ve run them over a cheese grater.”

I don’t know if it’s because he lost a parent, too, or because he has younger sisters, or because we were friends before my life fell apart, but for whatever reason, Binh looks out for me. Days like today—when Amma sheepishly admits we’re two months behind in rent and that we might have to move again—I’m grateful. But I’m bitter, too. I used to be so on top of things, so independent, so meticulous with details. I never needed anyone. A fog has settled over my brain and I can’t seem to dislodge it.

I drop my head. “I forgot to bring my gloves,” I say.

He flips open his glove compartment, hands me a pair. “Here,” he says.

“They’ll be way too big.”

“Make do,” he says. He shuts the lid to the ice chest, turns the ignition, shifts into drive. “Call me if you need anything.”

“Okay, thanks.” I step away from the car. He gives a quick nod, checks the side mirror, merges. His newer-model mower, the one he bought after I bought his old one, bobs up and down in the bed of the truck.

I trudge back to John Deere, examine my palms. The skin is jagged, purple. I pick off a frayed edge.

Manual work was not a part of my former life. I never loaded the dishwasher or folded laundry or took out the trash. We had a maid for that. In the evenings, after homework and fencing, my fingers floated up and down the keys of our baby grand piano. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart filled our foyer, echoed off a crystal chandelier that resembled an upside-down ice castle.

A few autumns ago, when the mortgage industry collapsed, when terms like “credit default swaps,” “predatory lending” and “deregulation” streamed across the bottoms of our television screens, Appa was laid off. He worked in life insurance, didn’t deal with any of those financial devices, but still. The bank downsized him right out the door.

When he couldn’t find a new position in Atlanta, he tried Charlotte. When nothing panned out there, he searched for something in New York.

We should have had plenty of savings to ride it out, but our family spent big. We had a membership to the country club, vacations to Europe, South America, Iceland, brand new cars, original artwork. Amma was a PhD student in comparative literature. She earned a tiny salary through a teaching assistantship. It wasn’t even enough to cover our monthly Whole Foods bill.

We sold the baby grand first. It covered two of our mortgage payments. We hocked Amma’s bridal jewelry, followed by Appa’s Mercedes. Our underwater house sold for less than the amount of the mortgage.

I transferred to the local public school. Amma eventually found work as an assistant teacher at a childcare center. At night, she drilled high school students on Shakespeare sonnets and modernism, and SAT prep. She developed wrinkles overnight. I hardly ever saw her sleep.

I was the one who found him after school, curled up on his side, his arm slung across what remained of his belly. He looked like a small child taking a nap.

Appa sent out resumes, worked with headhunters, cold-called employers. He reached out to anyone and everyone in his professional network. After nine months, he quit leaving the house. I remember one night at dinner, noticing how his collarbones poked out of his V-neck T-shirt, how his forearms seemed to disappear underneath a blanket of arm hair.

Amma and I thought he’d snap out of it. That was our mistake—the pretending. The lies we told each other that things would turn around. Two winters ago, when Amma was at work, Appa swallowed four bottles of sleeping pills, crawled into bed, drifted into the kind of deep sleep he’d been denied since he first lost his job. I was the one who found him after school, curled up on his side, his arm slung across what remained of his belly. He looked like a small child taking a nap.

We continued the lie, Amma and me. Told people he had a heart attack. It was a way for us to keep pretending, to not blame ourselves for what seemed to happen right before our very eyes.

*     *     *

An hour later, I’m just about to wrap things up at Mr. Gillespie’s. I drag the mower back to the front of the house. The sweat on my forehead crests over my eyebrows. I lift off my cap, wipe it with the bottom of my shirt. That’s when I notice it.

A dark-colored heap, like an overcoat or blanket, sits in the middle of the road. When I take a few steps closer, I see it. Two light-colored ears flutter like butterfly wings freshly emerged from a chrysalis. A short tail flops back and forth.

It’s a deer. A baby. A doe.

Its body seizes and shakes. Its hind legs kick in the air, collapse. I make a wide circumference around it. From its torso, a pink curled rope emerges. Blood pools onto the pavement.

I lower myself to the curb a few feet away, reach for my cell phone.

*     *     *

The doe’s no longer alive by the time Binh jumps out of his truck, slams the door.

“Let me have it,” he says pointing to my phone. “Mine just died.”

He takes it from my hand, dials the number for Animal Control. He has it memorized. I wonder how many carcasses he’s come across just this summer.

“How long ago did this happen?” he asks me.

Binh’s voice sounds far away, underwater. It drowns out the sounds pulsing through my eardrums—the screams when I found Appa unconscious, the paramedics’ pounding on the front door, the grunts of their compressions, their hot breaths entering his mouth.

My face falls to my knees, my arms fly up around my head. Tears drench my shirt. A string of snot pools in the dimple above my lip.

Binh hangs up with Animal Control. He perches next to me, wraps an arm around my shoulder. From his back pocket, he removes a Kleenex. It’s shredded. I have no idea if it’s clean, but I use it to wipe my face anyway. “They’re swamped,” he says. “They can’t get out here until late this evening.” He pauses. His face moves closer to mine. “I have a shovel in the truck, Leela. We can bury it ourselves.

“Hey,” he says. “It wasn’t your fault.”

I turn away.

Amma has said these same words to me about a thousand times since Appa died. I still don’t really understand what they mean. It wasn’t your fault. If I had just skipped basketball practice, come home early from school, I might have found Appa sitting at the table drinking his coffee instead of motionless on the bed.

I stand, push the hair away from my face, face Binh. “I know just where to bury it.”

*     *     *

The houses in our former gated community had been thrown up practically overnight at the height of the housing boom. Swaths of paint in ivory, tan, and gray coat cedar-shake shingles and trim. Clasps secure shutters cut to look like chic barn doors. I haven’t driven past my old neighborhood since we moved out.

“Binh, pull over a sec.”

My former home sits behind a black wrought-iron gate, a prisoner behind bars. It’s the only home not hidden behind three, staggered rows of cryptomeria trees. Their needles connect to one another like barbed wire. The new owners painted our red shutters black, our shingles an olive green. They’ve removed the basketball hoop. A tricycle splays on its side in the grass near a Hula Hoop. An American flag drapes over the front porch railing.

A shadow figure, a woman with long hair, a skirt, moves behind the sheer drapes in the master bedroom. I wonder if she’s ever thought about my family, knows what happened to us.

“We can go now,” I tell him.

On the rest of the drive, I think about the nine long months of my father’s deterioration, how his depression swept over him like a tidal wave. I think of the times Amma begged him to see a therapist, to get a prescription for antidepressants. God will get me back on my feet, he’d say, returning to the makeshift pooja room in a hallway closet. I’d wondered whether they would be enough, the gods and goddesses lining the shelves, the burning incense. I wondered this but never asked him out loud.

A few miles down the road, our wheels crunch over gravel to a stop. I unlock the door, push it open with my foot. Pine, sap, a tinge of smoke infuses the air. The scents consume my lungs. I step onto the ground.

Binh is already at the truck bed. He slowly slides the black plastic bag toward him, gently brings it over his shoulder, as if the doe inside is still alive, requires his care. As if animals have souls. Six months after Appa’s suicide, when I was still so angry at him, Binh told me something I’ve clung to ever since: If my father felt he’d had any choice, he would have never taken his life. He loved me too much. He would never have chosen to leave my mother and me.

We cross the street together, pass a small blue sign for Cheshire Park, turn onto a narrow path that leads into the woods. The ground is crisp, dry, from the last heat wave. Twigs snap under our feet.

“It’s not far,” I tell him. “There’s a spot up here.”

“We need to hurry,” he says. The plastic bag shimmies against the back of his T-shirt. “It’s starting to get dark.”

I step softly but quickly over the earth, as if I’m walking over the graves of a cemetery. Knee high bushes line either side of the trail. The lips of my sneakers kick at small gray pebbles, stray bottle caps.

At a wood-planked bridge, the foliage opens up like a curtain. In a clearing, there are three other trailheads, a wide bench with a brass nameplate. Two Japanese maples, their leaves the color of cranberries, stand on either side.

I say: “Let’s bury it here, behind the bench.”

Appa and I used to rest here after our third loop around the longest trail. He’d sit on the bench with his hands propped on both knees, panting. On days when the humidity felt like a wet blanket, he’d pull a folded handkerchief from his shirt pocket, dab at his forehead, raise his glasses, run the cotton down the length of his nose.

We talked about the weather, my grades, the playoffs. I was still so pissed at him for selling the piano. I had no idea how much worse things would get.

On my last walk here with my Appa, after unpaid bills had stacked up like dirty dishes, after his job leads had vanished, a week before we moved out of our home, we sat down on the bench together one last time. Our conversation felt stale, forced. We talked about the weather, my grades, the playoffs. I was still so pissed at him for selling the piano. I had no idea how much worse things would get.

I close my hands into fists around the shovel’s handle, stab it hard into the ground.

*     *     *

The exhumed dirt feels cold against my knees. Binh jumps inside the hole, lowers the doe’s limp body. Its head escapes from the bag. Its eyes are perfect spherical orbs floating in white clouds, soft at the edges, pleading.

“Wait.” I lean over. My fingertips graze its pointed ears, its jaw, its wet, black nose. It is still beautiful, still warm and lush, a still life in the moments before decay.

Binh begins to shovel. The dirt lands with a thud, ingests the corpse. A tuft of violets sprout from a clearing. I ripe them from their roots, sprinkle them over the hole.

Above, tree branches knit through each other like a quilt against the purple sky. The scent of autumn wafts in the air. Soon the leaves will metamorphose, the trees will release them from their tentacles. They will float down until they settle over a patch of earth. Their brittle veins will disintegrate, seep through millions of granules. The doe that never knew a change of season might discover its wonders in the afterlife.

I rise, glance once more at the bench. A bird settles on its arm, tilts its head toward the fresh mound of dirt. I reach my hand out, take the shovel from Binh, lead the way back through the trail toward the sounds of car engines, and streetlights flicking on to illuminate the road.

 

Anjali Enjeti is an essayist, literary critic, and board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Quartz, the Guardian, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Pacific Standard, and elsewhere, including NPR and NBC. She lives near Atlanta, is working on her first two novels, and can be found on Twitter @anjalienjeti.