One morning, there are people in her house.
Caren lives alone. She never married and her last long-term thing ended five years ago. She’s fine. She likes it: those early hours sipping coffee, her cat, Guster, winding through her bare legs. She can wear her rattiest t-shirts, hum off-key while getting ready.
But now as the light slants in the front window of her little city rowhouse, two people are sitting at her kitchen table. She’s never seen them before. Their clothes are formal; the man in a yellowed button down and the woman in a white dress with a lace collar. Their posture is impeccable. They’re not from around here, she’s pretty sure.
The man and woman stare back at her. The woman looks frightened. She turns to the man as if Caren’s the interloper, a pale ghost before them.
Caren thinks about picking up a fork or a butter knife. Calling the police. Her cell phone’s in the bedroom.
Guster threads through the strangers’ legs. The man clears his throat. “Bread,” he says in a strong accent.
Caren wants to ask all the questions. She still wants to pick up a butter knife. But instead, she looks through the fridge.
“It’s low carb.” She’s apologizing to them. She’s lost her mind.
The woman still looks frightened.
* * *
Two days later and they’ve fallen into a routine.
The man is Michael, she’s learned; the woman’s name is Bea. Michael speaks English, badly, then translates for Bea. Caren doesn’t recognize their language.
She’s just not sure about the whole thing. They’re so quiet, so dignified. They sleep in the living room, only use the bathroom when she’s at work. They eat modestly, hardly more than Guster. She probably throws out that much in a week.
* * *
The next night, she brings home candy from the office. Twizzlers. They each take one and manage to eat them neatly, which seems impossible.
Then Michael brings out a fruit plate. He’s carved her last, neglected apple into thin slices that cover the entire surface. Caren feels like crying. Michael’s a magician, making something out of nothing. A meaningful gesture out of what would otherwise rot.
* * *
In her bedroom, she decides she will call the authorities. She’s not in any danger, or not, at least, the usual kind. But she can’t let them break her heart every night.
She won’t be that bourgeois woman whose life is transformed. She refuses to make them her new family. She’ll never truly know them and that is as it should be.
The trouble is, she shouldn’t have waited so long. It would have been easier to call right away.
Two weeks later, the number’s still on the notepad beside her bed.
There’s a knock at the door.
A tall, sandy-haired man smiles at her, lines crinkling around his eyes. “I’m looking for someone. Two, as a matter of fact.”
The living room is empty. They must be hiding.
Caren smiles back at the man. How easy it is to be with someone who speaks her language, whose gestures mirror her own.
“Sorry,” she says. “There’s no one here but me.”
Genevieve Abravanel is Associate Professor of English at Franklin & Marshall College. Her scholarly writing has appeared in such venues as Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Modernism/modernity, Mosaic, The Journal of Caribbean Literature, Journal of Modern Literature, and Modernist Cultures. She’s held grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Association for University Women, and the Penn Humanities Forum; in 2012, she published a book of academic nonfiction with Oxford University Press. She lives in Lancaster, PA, with her family.
I was first introduced to Issac Bailey at the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest last June, where he spoke about his book My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South. My Brother Moochie is a powerful, personal exploration of race and racism and of the impact on a family when one of its own serves a life-sentence for murder. In Moochie, Bailey addresses the issues of shame and isolation. In addition to having brothers who have spent significant time in prison, Bailey has a severe stutter, which he says has proved to have a greater impact of his life’s trajectory than his race.
My Brother Moochie is not an easy read as Bailey challenges his readers to look at issues from many different angles and to examine their own biases about race, poverty, and crime. Bailey examines shame and marginalization through a personal and historical lens; he asks questions and, with brutal honesty, shares his own struggles growing up and as an adult raising children in a less-than-perfect world.
Bailey spent his childhood roughly thirty-five miles north of Charleston, South Carolina, the fifth of eleven kids. He began his journalism career with The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, where he started as a part-time reporter and calendar clerk before taking on various positions, including feature writer, real estate reporter, business editor, blogger, and the paper’s primary columnist. His investigative reporting led to policy and legal reforms within the South Carolina Department of Social Services and was instrumental in changing how the agency handles child protective services cases.
Bailey was a 2014 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and has been published by several dozen publications, including Time magazine, Politico magazine, Esquire online, CNN.com, The Washington Post, and Longreads.com. He is currently an editor-at-large for TheRoot.com and will be teaching journalism courses at Davidson College in North Carolina in the fall. He is working on his third book, A Black Man in Trumpland: Why We Didn’t Riot – But Should Have, which “concerns why black people are angry in the age of Trump.”
I had the great pleasure and honor of interviewing Issac Bailey over the phone in October 2018.
Diane Gottlieb: Good morning, Issac. I loved hearing you speak in Chicago and it was a pleasure talking to you at the book signing. I have to tell you that My Brother Moochie just blew me away.
Issac Bailey: Oh, wow. Thank you very much.
DG: It really did. I’d like to start where you start in the book. You begin with a pretty intense interaction you had with your own son when he was thirteen. You were angrier than you later thought you needed to be, and you relate your feelings to the particular struggle that black parents have raising black sons. This topic’s been covered before by Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example. It’s that fear for their black bodies out into the larger world. But you also added a whole other layer to the discussion. And that’s what I appreciate so much about your book and your articles. You add these really difficult, complex layers. And in this case, it’s the layer of shame.
IB: That’s right.
DG: Yes. So, if you could just say a little bit about how you see the unique intersection of fear and shame when it comes to parenting a child or teen of color?
IB: Yes. Actually, the hardest thing about trying to parent is that you’re not just parenting your own kids. You are also trying to prove how people who look like you are worthy as human beings. It’s like that at least for me. I’ve actually become too afraid for my kids. So now, I’m trying to be really aware of that.
DG: I read your article about you not giving them “the talk” about how to respond if they’re ever approached or pulled over by the police.
IB: Yes, exactly.
DG: That balance, I think, that every black parent has to carry is enormous.
IB: Oh yes. Yes. And so, at least for me, one of the reasons I don’t give that talk is simply because I think that that burden should be placed on the person who actually has the most power in the situation. In this case, that’s not my son. It’s the cop. I want cops to be held more accountable during these situations.
DG: I have a question about police accountability. What do you think about the verdict in the Jason Van Dyke case?
IB: I actually thought, finally, something wonderful is happening because the jury didn’t just simply buy his story. The cop said that he felt scared and then because of that it was actually okay to murder someone. The jury didn’t buy it.
DG: Do you see this is as maybe a tipping point or a turning point?
IB: I am hopeful that it is. But I’m not sure. There were two other cases like this in Texas this year where we also saw guilty verdicts. Yes. So hopefully, this is a start of something new, yes.
DG: We need some new starts.
IB: Yes, exactly.
One major thing is that I try to tell uncomfortable truths while not giving any fodder to racial stereotypes. That is a really delicate dance.
DG: Back to the book. I see shame as being at the heart of the book, just as it is in many, many problems in life. And the pain that shame causes. It’s palpable.
DG: And what really interested me was when you said that your family, and families of perpetrators of violence in general, are the “black sheep of the black sheep.” Could you talk more about what it was like to have no space for your family’s grief and trauma? And about the burden of being the black sheep of the black sheep?
IB: Yes. Essentially, it is one of the most suffocating feelings that you can have because there is no place to turn. Even your friends and your neighbors have to keep you at arm’s length because if they get too close to you, they, too, will have to carry the extra burden. One of the most devastating parts about it is that it forces you into silence. And that makes it impossible to really grapple with everything that actually happened and to get help when you really, really need it. You have this trauma that will manifest itself later on in various ways.
DG: Was this an internalized understanding that there was no place to go? Or did you try to get help and were shut down?
IB: I think that it was more of an understanding. But I know that my mom had tried to get help. One of our neighbors was a state representative, and my mom went to him and asked him to say something positive, anything positive, about Moochie to the prosecutor or write a letter to the judge, for instance. But he said no. He turned her down.
DG: He said no?
IB: Yes, exactly. That was the typical response, yes.
DG: Oh, wow. That was probably up there—almost as hard as facing the actual event.
IB: Yes, exactly. That’s for sure.
DG: Another part that really, really moved me in the book was how you described the challenge of balancing your love for Moochie and for your younger brothers with the hate for what they did. That balance of holding the history of racial inequality and violence against blacks along with the fact that your brother actually killed somebody. Could you talk a little bit about that balance, about what you call your “schizophrenic endeavor?”
IB: Yes, yes.
DG: I love that—”schizophrenic endeavor.” Because how else can you describe it?
IB: Yes, yes, that’s for sure. I love my brothers, but at the same time, there were periods where they actually felt like a danger to my family and the town of St. Stephen. We could not get them to stop, to change. It was extremely frustrating. I felt helpless. There I was, trying to love them, but also recognizing the fact that they were real dangers to people that I also loved.
And then there’s also all the reading and research I’ve done on racial history. I mean, especially when it comes to, say, maybe somebody like Thomas Jefferson, for instance. There does not seem to be any real struggle, at least for many white people, to try to honor the good things he did and also to grapple with all the awful things that he did.
IB: Yes. It seems as though that kind of struggle is a bigger deal for black people. And I’m not sure why.
DG: You know, it reminds me of the first question, of carrying the shame. I loved when you said in your book that white people don’t seem to question why it’s only white kids that go in and shoot up schools and movie theaters. And, you know, I always say, “Ah, another white kid. Another white boy.” And I really can relate to the feelings that people carry. Like when there’s a mass shooting. I can just imagine Muslim Americans saying, “Please, please not. Please don’t let it be a Muslim.”
IB: Exactly. Exactly.
DG: I’m Jewish. And I remember when the Bernie Madoff thing came out. And, I remember saying, “Oh no, please. Anything having to do with money, please don’t let it be someone Jewish.” You know?
IB: Of course.
DG: And it’s this shame that you carry for the stereotypes people have of you, whoever you are.
IB: Exactly. Exactly.
DG: But white people who are not in these other groups don’t carry that shame. When a white person commits an atrocity, everybody’s suddenly an individual. They just say, “well that’s not me. It’s got nothing to do with me.”
IB: I know, exactly. I know, right? Exactly. Then it’s just, “We’re all individuals.”
DG: Right. Okay. So, while I was reading Moochie, I thought—on many occasions—this guy’s going to offend everyone! You just challenge all sides, all views, biases, all assumptions with equal zest. And I know from reading several of your articles that you’ve gotten pushback from all sides. It doesn’t seem to bother you too much, or at least it doesn’t stop you. What have been your greatest challenges when writing about race?
IB: Oh, yes. One major thing is that I try to tell uncomfortable truths while not giving any fodder to racial stereotypes. That is a really delicate dance.
DG: It is.
IB: Especially when you’re writing about crime and black men. That’s my biggest struggle. I’m always trying to find that sweet spot, that most honest place.
DG: That is really a struggle, right?
IB: Oh, yes. Massive struggle. Yes. That is my top struggle, that is for sure.
DG: And you know you’re going to hear about it later.
IB: Yes, exactly. Exactly. Yes.
DG: So, we can’t talk about race in our country without bringing up the criminal justice system.
IB: That’s right.
DG: There definitely has been movement in the right direction. But mostly for non-violent drug offenders.
IB: Exactly. Exactly.
DG: I love how you even question that. You just get in so deep and bring up ways of thinking about issues that most people haven’t considered. For example, when you said that drug trafficking is not a non-violent offense.
IB: Exactly, it’s not.
DG: Because it is a violence. And whether this guy shot somebody or not, he’s engaging in violence by trafficking drugs. There is extreme marginalization of violent offenders, and their needs must to be considered in the prison reform movement too. Can you tell me what that would look like for you?
IB: That is a great question. A first step would be a philosophical recognition that we are not the worst thing that we’ve done. In practical terms, we need to look at our history going back to the 1950s and ‘60s, for instance. Even when people did something violent, we did not automatically give them really, really long sentences. If we can get back to some of that, well, I think that would go a long way.
DG: The acknowledgement piece, though. I just don’t see that around the corner, you know? People are so afraid.
It seems as though many people are actually trying to understand when it comes to race and ripples of trauma. Since the book has come out, I’ve had more opportunities to fully explain myself and what families like mine go through. And that’s been very helpful.
DG: People see others who have committed violence and say, “Oh no, they’re not me.” And what struck me is that through your own experiences with PTSD, you’ve debunked that statement. It could be me. It very well could be me. There, by the grace of God, go I.
So, here’s another thing you said in the book that’s really interesting,” My brother is a murderer or at least a man who committed a murder.” And, to me, that’s a really important distinction. It’s not just a matter of semantics. It’s a whole different perspective. And do you have that perspective?
DG: Like, do you sometimes see him as a murderer? Or do you see him as a man who committed a murder?
IB: I’ve actually gone back and forth on that. That, too, was part of my struggle for many years. When I was in college, I actually did not mention his name once. I saw him as a murderer because I knew that’s how that he was viewed. I’m stronger now and much clearer. I definitely don’t see him that way anymore.
DG: But it was a process.
IB: Oh yes. A long process. That was a years-long process, yes. For sure. It definitely was.
DG: Has writing the book helped you to heal some of the shame?
IB: Yes. It seems as though many people are actually trying to understand when it comes to race and ripples of trauma. Since the book has come out, I’ve had more opportunities to fully explain myself and what families like mine go through. And that’s been very helpful.
DG: So, I think part of this shame thing is the invisibility. Shame makes you want to hide. For a lot of people, though, invisibility is not a choice. It’s forced on them.
DG: Like, when Moochie was put in solitary confinement for not cutting his hair.
DG: Do you feel that writing and putting these things out in the open has helped to alleviate the shame? Is that part of it? Becoming visible about it?
IB: Yes. And the biggest part about it is that you actually feel less of a need to hide. It’s been this massive relief.
DG: How else has the process of writing this personal—deeply personal—account changed you?
IB: One of the biggest changes is that I’m now more open with my wife. And when I catch myself trying to retreat emotionally, I am actually able to stop myself from doing that.
DG: That’s great. That’s wonderful. So, she probably wants you to write more books!
IB: Yes, exactly. Exactly.
DG: Has Moochie read it?
DG: And what was his response?
IB: Well, he’s been happy about it simply because he thinks that it has given him voice again.
DG: That’s great. So that’s been healing for your family, too.
IB: Yes, yes. It’s been a process, for sure, yes.
DG: One of the gifts that I feel I got from reading Moochie is that it introduced me to your larger body of work in journalism. I love how you challenge yourself and your readers!
Because, at least for me, hope actually comes through tensions and struggle and from people embracing that tension and struggle. I think that’s when real progress is going to come.
IB: Thank you.
DG: And you have no problem calling anybody out. You write a lot about race and about writing about race. In one article “Don’t Shy Away from Dealing Forthrightly with Race,” you mention Dina Temple-Raston and Matt Taibbi. Both are white and both have written important books that deal with race. Any thoughts or advice for people who want to venture into this territory?
IB: Oh, yes. Yes. At least my views on this are pretty basic. Just as long as it’s a worthy story told well. As long as that’s the case, then I think that nothing else really matters.
DG: I’m with you. Aren’t we here to learn from other people and from their experiences? Otherwise, we’re just stuck with our own boring selves.
DG: You’ve stated that murder made you a journalist, right?
DG: But how has journalism informed your memoir?
IB: It gave me the skills to get as close to the truth as possible.
DG: So, we should all do some journalistic reporting, right?
IB: Yes. Yes, exactly.
DG: What did you find were some of the differences in approach—writing a memoir as opposed to writing journalism.
IB: I think the transition was easier for me because I had already been doing column writing, which is shorter journalistic memoir, essentially.
DG: That makes sense. I loved your article in which you talked about the Clinton emails and how the media handled that. Have the media learned anything?
IB: I’m not too sure. I’m not too sure. I still think they are trying too hard not to be labeled biased. And, therefore, sometimes the truth takes a back seat. I think that that’s one of our biggest issues.
DG: It certainly is. You also talk about disappointments like Harvard and Michelle Jones and Trump’s election. Are you at all hopeful?
IB: I’m not sure that I am right now. Because, at least for me, hope actually comes through tensions and struggle and from people embracing that tension and struggle. I think that’s when real progress is going to come.
DG: Yes, and nobody’s doing that now.
IB: Yes, yes.
DG: How do you think race and gender are going to play into the next presidential election? Because we hear Elizabeth Warren called Pocahontas and with Kamala Harris and Cory Booker as contenders, do you think things are going to get even uglier?
IB: The ugliness will definitely still be here in 2020. But I think it will make it very difficult for him [Trump] to win.
DG: Because people will be sick of the ugliness, you mean?
IB: Yes. Yes.
DG: Oh! From your mouth to God’s ears!
It was interesting how you weaved your stuttering into the book. And how you feel that you could’ve been where your brother is, but in some ways, your stutter protected you from that path. At the same time, you say that your stutter has had a greater impact on your life’s trajectory than your being a black male, that it held you back in your journalism career. Can you touch on this?
IB: Yes. Having a severe stutter has been like nothing else that I have ever experienced. We only make up one percent of the population. At least with race, there are some people trying to understand.
But yet, with the stutter, most people don’t actually try to understand. The stutter isolates you even more. When it comes to my career, I’ve actually missed out on many more opportunities because of my stutter than my face.
DG: I’m sitting here, six degrees of separation from Barack Obama because you interviewed him. I can’t not ask you about that.
IB: Well, he did not seem to be bothered at all by my stutter.
DG: Yes, I read that in the book. I’m not surprised. Were you nervous about that?
IB: I guess that nervous is not the right word.
DG: Okay. What would it be?
IB: I always have to plan ahead. For any interview. Because I simply don’t know how difficult my stutter will be that day.
DG: Do you get star-struck?
IB: No. I guess that’s one of the blessings or curses of stuttering. I actually have had to wear blinders of sorts. Therefore, I don’t respond to such things like most people do.
DG: How is Moochie these days?
IB: Well, he’s getting better day by day. He’s actually been out for about four years now. He is still adjusting to this new world, of course.
DG: Sure. Has he gotten help for his PTSD?
IB: Yes, he has been seeing a counselor.
DG: Good. What’s next for you?
IB: What’s next? That’s a good question. I actually love teaching. So, I’m probably going to do that again next year.
DG: Great. And would it be journalism? Is that what you teach?
IB: Yes. I teach journalism and ethics.
DG: Ethics? I can’t think of a better person.
IB: Wow. Thanks very much.
DG: So, I have nothing else right now. I just want to say what a joy this was.
IB: Oh, wow. Thank you very much.
DG: Issac, I feel like I’ve made a friend.
Diane Gottlieb writes fiction and nonfiction is currently working on a murder mystery with a social justice bent. She is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles and is the lead editor of creative nonfiction and a member of the interview team for Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in Panoply and Lunch Ticket. You can also find her weekly musings at dianegottlieb.com
A strange sound wakes you.
Your heart? Your stomach? Just the pipes.
Two-thirty in the morning. A pale lane
of light pollution looms between the high rises
on the horizon. Above it, a thin
strip of sky. Like clumps of minerals
in a newly discovered mining cavity,
dim stars shine. The night swallows the minutes’
mine carts, the years. And it all stays down
in the deep forever. The past tears away,
like a quarry’s steep cove.
Cold water. A few movements. Hands.
What you think about, longingly and full of surrender,
is what has already come to pass.
And suddenly, you recognize—a few elementary
words, a child’s outfit—this was your life.
The direction of the winds has changed.
In place of the rotting smell of salty
Seaweed, drifts the resin aroma
Of the almond trees. In summer’s
Dense company, wavy
Watered-down death shines.
It’s easy to spot the city’s spires.
Like faint female figures,
They stand there, and their dresses,
Sewn from leaden steam,
in this flammable moment,
drop to their ankles.
My friend and I were sitting at a bar
drinking dark beer and whiskey,
watching the sluggish bartender behind the taps.
The beer wasn’t bothered by anything, the beer would’ve run
over the rims of glasses,
over the rims of mouths;
but the guy was slow, patient, persistent—
he waited. He tamed the golden
brown animal before him.
We were sitting at the bar, my friend and I,
counting down the past,
change hitting the glass,
We meditated on the future,
brought up an old mutual friend,
how he’d lost his way, messed up, doesn’t stand a chance.
We finally stepped out onto the street, drunk.
And steaming there before us on the sidewalk
on that November night was a pile of shit.
Human or animal? It didn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter. “You going
home?” “I’m going.”
We shook hands, headed home
in two directions.
It was cold. Foggy.
Winter had already dressed up and was waiting
I walked. I was cold. I fished out a cigarette.
When the flame of the lighter came to life,
I thought about how that pile of shit on the sidewalk
in front of the bar was probably frozen by now.
And while I shivered and blew smoke
and my steps knocked along the sidewalk,
I thought about what it was
that kept you with me so long,
and if I haven’t turned yet, what will turn
me against you in the end.
Street lamps on the closing curve,
off-white silk skirts
swish. It’s midnight.
Growing claws, tomorrow hangs
The city laid out after rain
like a freshly washed corpse.
Love’s not enough for anything.
It does not turn deceit good.
It does not obstruct spite.
It does not ease death.
There has to be something else
Valami különös neszre felriadsz.
A szív? A gyomor? Csak a vízvezeték.
Hajnali fél három. A fényszennyezés
sápadt sávja dereng a toronyházak közt
a látóhatáron. Fölötte keskeny
szelet égbolt. Mint frissen feltárt
bányaüregben az ércrögök, fakó csillagok
ragyognak. Az éjszaka elnyeli a percek
csillesorát; az éveket. És mind lent marad
a mélyben örökre. A múlt leszakad,
mint egy bányató meredek öble.
Hűvös víz. Pár mozdulat. Kezek.
Arra gondolsz, vágyakozva és lemondással
teli, ami előtted már alászállt.
És hirtelen felismered – néhány kezdetleges
szót, egy gyerekruhát –, hogy ez volt az életed.
Megváltozott a szélirány.
A hínárok sós rothadásszaga
Helyett a mandulafenyők
Gyantaillata száll. A nyár
Tömör közegében hullámzó,
Híg halál ragyog.
Jól látni a város tornyait.
Mint halovány nőalakok,
Állnak, és ólomgőzből
E lobbanásszerű percben,
Ültünk egy barátommal egy bárban,
barna sört ittunk, whiskyt és
figyeltük a lomha pultosfiút a sörcsapok mögött.
A sört nem érdekelte semmi, a sör futott
volna, túl a poharak száján,
túl a szájakon;
de a fiú lassú volt, türelmes, állhatatos –
kivárt. Megszelídítette ezt az aranyló
Ültünk a pultnál, a barátom és én,
számoltuk le a múltat,
aprópénzt a pultra,
latolgattunk jövőt, és egy közös
barátról is szó esett,
hogy ő mennyire félrement, elrontotta, esélye sincs.
Kiléptünk az utcára végül, részegen.
És ott gőzölgött, a novemberi éjszakában,
a járdán egy kupacnyi szar.
Emberé vagy állaté lehet? Nem számított.
Nem számít. „Mennél már
Kezet ráztunk, és – ketten kétfelé –
Hideg volt. Köd.
Már felöltözött a tél, és türelmesen
ácsorgott a színfalak mögött.
Gyalog mentem. Fáztam. Előkotortam egy cigit.
Mikor az öngyújtó lángja föllobbant,
Eszembe jutott, hogy mostanra talán
a bár előtt, a járdán az a kupac szar már megfagyott.
És míg reszketve fújtam a füstöt,
és a léptem kopogott,
arra gondoltam, mi volt,
ami megtartott eddig neked,
és ha nem fordultam el, mi fordít
végül mégis ellened.
Utcalámpák a záródó kanyaríven,
suhognak. Éjfél van.
Karmot növeszt, kapaszkodik
a tegnapba most a holnap.
Kiterítve eső után a város,
mint egy frissen mosdatott halott.
A szeretet nem elég semmire.
Nem teszi jóvá az árulást.
Nem akadályozza a haragot.
Nem könnyíti meg a halált.
Valaminek kell még lennie
a szereteten túl.
I first came across some of these poems at a reading Babiczky gave in Budapest in the winter of 2017 that I attended, several months before Unfinished Poems, the collection in which these poems appear, was published. I was instantly pulled in by the cold, seasonal imagery of the first poem Babiczky read, “Advent.” It was winter outside, the first winter I’d spent in Budapest since I left the country as a child. I was also discovering the city on my own for the first time after leaving a relationship that summer that was immensely important to me. I was still nursing old wounds in Budapest, and the last few weeks I’d spent in the chilly city helped me to easily identify with the speaker as he who walks through the frozen streets of Budapest meditating on what it will take for his feelings to change about his ex-lover.
By the time Babiczky made it to the end of “VII.,” a poem about his mother’s days on the Balaton shore as a young woman, I was visibly sobbing. My mother, who likewise spent many summers of her youth on the Balaton shore, often questions her decision to have left her home country behind for America, and later, in looking over my first draft of the translation, admitted that she also cried when she read “VII.” I know I must translate a Hungarian work into English when it speaks to me on an emotional level, and often that helps me to bring it more seamlessly into English, but that is not always the case. In translating these poems, however, I needed simply to find and latch on to the emotional tenor of each piece to bring them into English. The process was surprisingly quick, when, in fact, I wished I could have stayed in the poems longer, revel in the deep emotions each one strikes. Babiczky and I spoke a few times, once even in person, about the translations, and his feedback was immensely helpful, particularly in maintaining the sounds, rhythms, and occasional rhymes of certain of the poems.
Timea Balogh is a Hungarian-American writer and translator with an MFA in creative writing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A 2017 American Literary Translators Association Travel Fellow, her translations have appeared or are forthcoming in The Offing, Two Lines Journal, Waxwing, Split Lip Magazine, Arkansas International, and the Wretched Strangers anthology from Boiler House Press, among others. Her debut original short story was published in Juked magazine and was nominated for a PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Another of her stories is soon to appear in Passages North. She divides her time between Budapest and Las Vegas. You can tweet her at @TimeaRozalia.
Tibor Babiczky was born in Székesfehérvár, Hungary, in 1980. He earned degrees in Hungarian and English from Pázmány Péter Catholic University in 2005. He has worked as a journalist, editor of a literary magazine, and a book editor, which he still does today for the Hungarian publishing company Libri. He has been twice nominated for a Horváth Péter Literary Grant, a Margó Grant, and is the winner of the Móricz Zsigmond Grant. His poems have been translated into English, Czech, French, Greek, Croatian, and Polish. Tibor has published six poetry collections and one crime novel. The poems submitted here are all drawn from his latest poetry collection, Félbehagyott Költemények (Unfinished Poems), which hit bookshelves in the spring of 2018.
The hospital walls were stark white and we weren’t allowed to have pens: they were on the list of things we could potentially hurt ourselves with, alongside other items like shoelaces and earrings. I was thirteen and doodling with Crayola markers on construction paper. Even with the “non-toxic” declaration written on its label in the same vibrant purple of my marker, a staff sat beside me and watched my hand move, making sure it didn’t go anywhere it didn’t belong. Marker to paper and back again, until the felt tip was back inside its cap. Across the table there were two windows that had bars on them that were less like bars and more like braided wire, more similar to a tightly woven fence rather than a jail cell. Just behind the wire was the kind of blue sky that only appears in early spring, a blue that feels like hope after a long Chicago winter. I hadn’t been outside in nearly a week, and the blue was taunting me. I was in art therapy. It was my first time in a psychiatric ward.
“Why don’t we go around and share our work?” the therapist asked.
A girl named Emma volunteered. From the chin up, Emma looked young, innocent even. Her bare face was spotted with freckles and her under-eyes were white, not a deep purple like mine. From her chin down, it was like she was a different person. Red and purple rope burns covered the sides of her neck but when I’d asked her how she’d gotten them she told me they were hickeys. She said her boyfriend’s mom had walked in on her fucking him in his trailer home and they couldn’t deny what they were doing because of them being naked and him being inside her and the evidence he’d written all over her neck. I knew, though. We all did. Maybe if we were on the outside I could’ve believed her, but one look at the windows and the wire and those horrible bruises and burns made any faith I had in her story fade away. There is no way to hide that you want to die from someone who understands.
I even had a nurse ask one day during breakfast why I looked so upset, as if I hadn’t been hospitalized for depression, as if we all didn’t want to die. Despite this, I wondered how my sadness could measure up to anyone else’s, even if I felt like I would crumble if anyone tried to touch me to make sure I was real.
“I drew the bottom of a swimming pool,” Emma told the therapist. “Because I don’t think there is anywhere safer than being on the bottom looking up.”
I had tried to drown myself a few weeks prior. I hadn’t understood that no matter how hard you try to empty your lungs, keep your eyes squeezed shut, press your head to the bottom of a bathtub, that your body will force you to the surface. Your mind can scream “kill me” while your body screams “let me live,” and your body will always win.
I understood what Emma was saying. The bottom of a bathtub, the bottom of a pool. Somewhere that was quiet and deep. A place between worlds.
I didn’t want to die forever, necessarily, but I didn’t want to be in this body and living in this world, either. I was too young to think about eternity, or getting married, or even turning sixteen. All I knew was that if life felt like this, I didn’t want to live it anymore. But my attempt at an ending failed, just like the attempts of the twenty other inpatients on the adolescent floor of Woodland Park Hospital’s psychiatric ward. So there we were, in art therapy, on a Tuesday afternoon when we should’ve been at work, or in math class, or, really, anywhere but there.
Sitting in the emergency room five nights prior, I couldn’t have imagined I’d have been admitted at all, no less kept for a week inpatient and six weeks in a day program of intensive therapy. I couldn’t have known I would be sent to a residential treatment center for at-risk teenage girls for ten months, or that just half a year after graduating that program, I’d be back at another hospital, followed by another day program. I hadn’t even told the doctor who spoke to me in the emergency room that I wanted to die, or about the bathtub. All I had said was that sometimes when I sat in the bathroom and cut myself with a pair of scissors, I worried I’d take it too far.
I did worry I’d take it too far, but what did ‘too far’ mean? Even I didn’t know. After all, what truly constitutes a suicide attempt? I’d hung my body over railings atop ten story buildings, feeling the blood swell to the bottom of my fingertips with my weight and gravity pulling them down, but I’d never jumped. I’d often sat with my back to the glass railings that lined the third story of the mall, hoping the glass would shatter and I’d fall, but it never did. I knew if things got to be too much, there was always a pill cabinet to raid and a knife waiting for me in the kitchen, but I never took them up on their offer. To sit in therapy alongside a girl with rope burns covering her neck, or a twelve-year-old boy who had stabbed himself in the stomach, and say, “I tried to drown myself in my bathtub,” felt incredibly lame, so I didn’t say anything at all.
To say what I’d done, or rather, what I’d failed to do, out loud would’ve been too shameful, too real. So I listened to Emma lie about her neck and cried when a girl named Bella told me she’d swallowed twenty Advil and washed them down with bleach. I envied every new admit that came in with stitches on their wrists and silently cursed myself for not having the guts to bleed like they did. I wanted to go back to the world I knew before the hospital; before a friend had called my parents and told them I was cutting, that she was concerned. But that world had already moved on without me, and I was watching it pass by behind layers of wire and glass.
I stayed up every night in the hospital, eyes trying to find the ceiling in the dark. The months leading up to my hospitalization seemed to go on forever. I couldn’t remember a time before this sadness. At some point after turning thirteen, something inside me had broken, and I began to feel a hollowness that started to eat me from the inside. Every friend I had was fighting depression in one way or another: was I really that much worse off than the others? Was I really the one who needed to be saved? I know there was a time when I complained of a headache and the nurse at school didn’t ask to check my wrists, leaving me so grateful that I’d chosen to cut my thigh the night before. I know there was a time before my teachers followed me into the bathroom because they were worried about me being alone, even only for a few minutes. I’d been in the hospital only a week, but the days before it felt somewhere far away, like a dream I had partially forgotten.
* * *
A few weeks before my hospitalization, my friend Teddy had asked me to video chat. When the video connected, he didn’t even say hello before putting his chin to the sky and dragging a razor blade from it down to his chest. I had watched blood form like droplets of morning dew and slip from his pale skin, dripping downwards, staining his white t-shirt. I hadn’t said anything as I watched that stain grow, and I stayed silent as he swallowed an entire bottle of Excedrin by the fistful. There was nothing to say that could undo what he’d done, so instead I cried.
I texted him asking him to vomit, to call an ambulance, to please not go to sleep—I couldn’t bring myself to say any of it out loud. He ignored my requests and didn’t speak, either. His actions had done the talking. I think he just wanted a witness, someone to understand the extent of his pain. When he exited out of our video chat and told me he was going to sleep, I printed out the suicide note he’d written me and clutched the paper like it could keep him there.
I’ma miss you and everyone else so tell them that, K? Thanks for supporting me when I was fucked. I know you care about me but I need you to swear you won’t kill yourself or anything. If anyone kills themselves over me it would ruin me even as I’m dead. What really surprises me is that I’m only twelve, right now I think I sound a lot older…I know you’re probably crying as you read this, but I am too so don’t feel left out. I don’t really know what to say anymore, but if anybody tries hurting themselves please stop them for me. Thanks, I love you, and I’ll maybe see you in hell one day if you go there too.
I read his words over and over until I had them memorized.
The next day, I climbed into the passenger seat of my car, looked my mom in the eyes, and told her what had happened. My voice was monotone, my demeanor calm. I had spent the last four hours unsure if my best friend was dead. I had nothing left to give.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “Do you want to stay home?”
Her eyes were wide and filled with concern, her voice shaking. I told her I was fine; I couldn’t bear to sit at home with my sadness. I had to see my friends, ask if any of them had heard from Teddy. The waiting game was too much, and I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing his bloody neck, but the only way I knew how to handle it was to keep moving.
I went to school with swollen eyes and his suicide note folded in my pocket, showing it to anyone who would read it. When I saw my cousin in the cafeteria, I broke down sobbing and fell to the ground beside the foldout lunch table she sat in, handing her the note so she could understand. She picked me up and took me to the bathroom, where I stayed and skipped gym class to hide in a stall and cut his initials—T.L.—into my arm, needing at least a piece of him to stay with me forever. The police picked him up later that day and took him to Woodland Park Hospital.
Each night during my hospitalization, I thought about Teddy and wondered if he’d slept in the same bed I was laying in then while he was an inpatient. I wondered how he had gotten released after a mere three days, and how I’d been hospitalized for nearly a week. It didn’t make sense to me how Emma and her burns were already out the door, how a girl named KT, who had been in the ICU fighting for her life for an entire week after she overdosed before coming to the ward, came and went after only two days. I watched those who appeared much worse off than I was come and go, and I stayed put. No one talked about my discharge date. I even had a nurse ask one day during breakfast why I looked so upset, as if I hadn’t been hospitalized for depression, as if we all didn’t want to die. Despite this, I wondered how my sadness could measure up to anyone else’s, even if I felt like I would crumble if anyone tried to touch me to make sure I was real.
I was released after seven days of inpatient care, and then continued with six weeks of outpatient therapy that replaced my going to school. I watched those who were still inpatient from the other side of the dayroom, trying to tell them I understood through just a look because those who were inpatient and those who were outpatient weren’t allowed to talk to one another. I was okay until I wasn’t, and I headed back to treatment. This time my stay extended from seven days to ten months. I graduated. I was okay until I wasn’t. I became a frequent flier of the psychiatric wards of the greater Chicagoland area. I am always okay until I’m not.
The thing doctors don’t tell you about getting better is that Better isn’t a destination, but rather the road between Bad and Good. Some months I do well. I forget about the doctors, about Emma’s neck, about that night I spent watching Teddy nearly die. I almost don’t remember the months I spent desperately fighting for my life in a treatment center full of thirty-two other girls who were doing the same exact thing. I take my Lexapro without really thinking about what it’s for. And when someone who knows my story asks what it felt like to want to die, I can’t even remember. “I don’t know,” I tell them, and I’m being honest. I’ve forgotten. Sadness feels so far away. It’s like the girl who was hospitalized at thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen isn’t even me. Those months, I’m living in Good.
Other months I feel like I’m just treading water, waiting for a riptide to pull me under or for my legs to go limp. Barely holding on. Taking my pill at night and cursing it for not doing the job it’s assigned. Crying when I accidentally drop my Eggo waffle on the way out the door in the morning, and feeling like I don’t know who I’m looking at when I see my reflection in the mirror. Bad is a place that scares me shitless.
I’ve been out of the hospital for eight years now. I haven’t intentionally hurt myself in seven years, and my scars have all but faded to nothing. I have spent years fighting whatever part of me it is that tells me I want to die. Call it a chemical imbalance, Major Depressive Disorder, whatever. More than half of my life, it and I have been at war. I don’t know why everyone else I knew who was fighting depression made their way out without help, why it took me years of intensive therapy to overcome what they could on their own. Maybe they’re all fighting silent battles, but my depression has never been a beast I’ve been able to keep quiet.
When doctors with prescription pads and reading glasses on chains around their necks promise you happiness is possible, they don’t tell you it’s a job. You don’t get to Good and get to stay there forever. Most of the time you’re just running in place, just trying not to fall behind.
There is no way you’d know by looking at me that I spent years of my life in and out of hospitals, going doctor to doctor desperately trying to find the right medication, and wearing long sleeves in the middle of summer to hide that I’d hurt myself. There is no way you’d know that on my eighteenth birthday I sobbed uncontrollably to my friends because I never could’ve believed I would live that long. That even just turning eighteen felt like magic.
When doctors with prescription pads and reading glasses on chains around their necks promise you happiness is possible, they don’t tell you it’s a job. You don’t get to Good and get to stay there forever. Most of the time you’re just running in place, just trying not to fall behind. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth the fight, but it is a goddamn marathon. It also doesn’t mean that Bad doesn’t sneak up on you once in a while. Every few months Bad comes back as a reminder that this is my forever, and I’m reminded of the cyclicality of things. All I can do is try to get help before the hospital has become my only option and I become the girl who believes even her sadness isn’t enough, again.
I once read a poem by Richard Siken that says: “a man takes his sadness down to the river and throws it in the river but then he’s still left with the river. A man takes his sadness and throws it away, but then he’s still left with his hands.” I may always have that reminder of my own river, that night I spent in the bathtub. I may always be stuck in this cycle of Good and Bad and back again. I may be left with my hands, but I was still able to cry on them when I turned twenty-one, so fucking grateful to be alive.
Courtney Cook, an essayist, poet, and illustrator, is an MFA candidate at the University of California, Riverside, and a graduate of the University of Michigan. Courtney’s work has been seen in Hobart, The Manifest-Station, The Cerurove, and Entropy Magazine, among others. When not creating, Courtney enjoys napping with her senior dog, Francie.
So damned sick of delicate things.
My co-worker who was raped over and over. I want to time travel,
tell his five-year-old self, Punch your father’s friend in the face the next time he touches you.
Don’t say resilience. Children are breakable.
I’m tired of my toe poking through the sock printed with zebras, and I just bought the socks.
Stupid delicate things. As if they were made of sand.
How my oldest son barely keeps the sarcasm out of his response when the cop studies his license
and is surprised he has an Anglo surname. When he and a friend are pulled over
for an infraction so slight.
Control of the voice, hair trigger.
A sock that should last more than a season.
The brain’s hair-fine bridge between thought and action. Tired of delicate cycles,
how they leave clothes soaking wet.
Bones of the ear like scrimshaw, one’s favorite drinking glass,
the balance of water in semi-arid regions of Kenya.
The part that snaps that they don’t make anymore.
Your shield against inner rage that crumbles like a brittle castle
of drying sand. So fed up with delicate issues in your family, between brothers born too close.
Like who pays for the fiftieth wedding anniversary bash and is thereby king. The fur on Esau’s body.
Sick of the whiskey makers putting it delicately on their labels, Enjoy responsibly. The moment
the bridge is crossed.
The split second I’m no longer your wife but a she-devil. The delicate shift of target.
Dendrites soaking wet with Tullamore Dew, tentacles in a tide pool slammed with waves.
The fractured plastic that keeps the sliding door of the van on its track.
The cheek of our son with autism which the broken piece almost grazes
when you hurl it.
Thin quilts on the bunk beds where I lie with our sons. The vapor of alcohol on your breath
in the next room.
The door that never works again, and the boys
forgetting and standing at it to be let in. The flimsy gate of memory that then admits
a deafening howl, the party gone wrong, fists, Why did Daddy push Rogan?
The soft-spoken man I’m tutoring from Kenya who’s writing a story about a boy collecting every drop of rain. The way the man sets down the glass bottle holding spring water. He’s brought it for me, carrying it in a quilted bag.
The circle of damp
on the library’s table.
* Oh, delicate ring.
Laura English posts a daily blog called “Eat More Life,” a healing space for women living with anorexia. On Sunday afternoons, she teaches writing to people from all walks of life. Her work has appeared in dozens of magazines including the minnesota review, The Sow’s Ear, Cider Press Review, Adanna, and Straylight. A chapbook, Graves Too Small to Be Red (Finishing Line Press), was published last year.
Austin orders an entire seafood boil for himself. He ignores the crawfish and halved cobs of corn, focusing instead on the crab legs, which he cracks open with such force the buttery juices mist Jorge’s face. Jorge’s plate is nearly empty now. He had devoured his crispy-fried cod sandwich in five minutes and spends the rest of their meal together picking at coleslaw, catching only two or three strands of wet cabbage at a time on his fork. Austin finishes a fourth crab leg and leans back in his chair. He drapes a napkin over his lap. That was delightful, he says, but I can’t eat another bite. Austin smiles at Jorge, his teeth flecked with parsley. You should try some, he says. But seafood is not Jorge’s thing. The ocean, he believes, is swarming with aliens. No need to search for them in outer space when they lurk in the darkest depths of the earth. And certainly no reason to eat them. To roll the aquatic flesh around in his mouth would be an act against God. Hard pass, he thinks. But there was still so much shrimp and sausage and crawfish and potatoes cooling out on the newspapered tabletop. He imagines biting into the untouched crawfish now: some uneasy chewing to start, then a rough swallow. Then, he suspects, the dead little fucker would be revived by the bath of his stomach acid. Reborn, it would swim down, deeper into his gut, burrowing itself within him forever. Jorge, you really must try some, Austin says again. Just one bite, please. He grabs a lobster from the pile, twists its body, and pulls until the tail separates from its torso. They could get a to-go container. There is still time. It’s what other couples might do: wrap up the remains and tote the bounty back to Jorge’s apartment, to be later consumed in a post-sex haze. But that never happens, does it? Jorge sees into next morning, and he knows Austin would leave the bag in his fridge, as he had done with a slice of vodka pizza from their first date, and the stuffed cabbage from date two, and the Thai food from the third. The chocolate cake from date four never made it home. But for all those other leftovers, Jorge made sure to eat them. He was raised to be a garbage disposal. No waste, ever. He picks over whatever Austin leaves in the mornings, shortly after Austin vanishes into the backseat of a Lyft. Off to class or work, Austin says. Alone in his kitchen, scraping his fork against the aluminum takeout container, Jorge watches the Lyft app every time, notes how the driver passes Austin’s job, and the school, and even his apartment. Jorge watches Austin slip away, upstream. Austin is squeezing the lobster’s torso now, and the red shell compresses under his fingers, cracking. Juice rains down over the newspaper. From the carnage, Austin presents Jorge with a lump of yellowish-green meat pulp, balanced delicately on his fingertips. That’s it? Jorge laughs, he has to, everything feels too wild. So much effort and mess? All of that for so little? He’s serious. He’s confused. You’ll see what all the fuss is about, Austin says. He swears it, raises the mass to Jorge’s face. Jorge thinks about the bag of seafood, how it will surely sag, the paper thinning out over time, long after tonight, eventually breaking open all over his bottom shelf. Rancid garlic butter everywhere, and a mountain of invertebrates left to rot. Jorge opens his mouth, welcomes Austin’s fingers. He rolls the meat on his tongue, fights against the stinging in his eyes and rising bile in his throat, tries to push through. Austin is a wide smile and two celebratory balled fists. So good, right? he gasps. I knew you’d love it. But Jorge is still chewing the lobster, nodding his head over and over again. The hope is the movement will guide the sea bug down his throat and he can will himself into saying this thing is good. The hope is it won’t be a lie.
Christopher Gonzalez serves as a fiction editor at Barrelhouse and a contributing editor at Split Lip Magazine. His stories appear or are forthcoming in a number of journals, including Third Point Press, Cosmonauts Avenue, Pithead Chapel, and The Acentos Review. He was the recipient of the 2015 Ann E. Imbrie Prize for Excellence in Fiction Writing from Vassar College. Cleveland-raised, he now lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY. You can find him online at www.chris-gonzalez.com or Twitter: @livesinpages.
Young writers are finding ways to speak out through character. Pulled from the news, fiction and fact condense into compelling personal accounts. But Naima Coster isn’t politicizing a message. Her work is far more reaching, more tender, and more carefully wrought. This Yale, Columbia, and Fordham graduate draws the straight line of success from classwork to her beliefs and book sales. Coster’s debut novel, Halsey Street, a Finalist for the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Fiction, encompasses one family’s downward spiral while its dual perspectives expose a community’s erasure and rapidly changing identity. Coster’s lead woman, Penelope Grand, and her mother Mirella, emphasize their struggles and the importance of loyalty.
Penelope serves as Coster’s voice, allowing the author’s observations about race, class, and gender to proliferate the novel. In truth, Penelope is simply attempting to manage, make art, and embark on a relationship while juggling varied cultures. Coster understands balancing differing worlds and she cultivates a liminal place out of her own experience. Originally from Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, she received a prized education in a prestigious all-girls Manhattan high school.
The navigation isn’t easy. Neither is writing a work called forth as a seminal representor of gentrification’s impact. But Coster gracefully moves through these pressures, citing an emphasis on self-care, time with friends, and a commitment to focused storytelling.
A lovely woman with a notable glimmer in her eyes, Naima Coster shares her eloquent thoughts and hearty laughs in a quiet Antioch University Los Angeles office where she is a guest mentor for the MFA creative writing program. Coster’s stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Rumpus, Catapult, Arts’ Letters, Aster(ix), Kweli, and other publications. Other accolades include teaching writing in youth programs and to students in jail and at universities. Naima Coster tweets at @zafatista, writes the newsletter, Bloom How You Must, and lives with her family in Washington DC.
My experience in workshops have been very formative for me. They gave me a sense of what I needed to work on as a writer but even more importantly, in some ways, helped me understand popular sensibilities of other writers that I could then just keep in mind as I was working.
Andrea Auten: I loved reading Halsey Street. And I love how you personalized the breaking down of a neighborhood, and its changes, and its impermanence. The way it can be invaded and tenderly expressed, the same in the intimacies of a family. Could you tell me about the journey between the animate and the material in building Halsey Street?
Naima Coster: It’s a really interesting question. I think that interest in the material started for me probably with thinking about place, and the different ways that place can send us a message about who we are, or how we’re perceived, or can be something that people use to try to understand what’s going on in a neighborhood and a people. So, I thought mostly about the materiality of Brooklyn, and Bed-Stuy in particular, and how as it changed; the story of people in Brooklyn is changing. But I thought that that was also true of houses. Like how people craft their homes, and are able to care for them, or are not. It was especially relevant for Penelope, for someone who has a lot of trouble talking about her emotions or putting them into words and engages with the world mostly in physical ways. So, whether it’s the physical act of holding a paintbrush or running around the neighborhood and noticing what’s around her, it felt like a way to hold emotion, and psychological depth in the book when the characters couldn’t always.
AA: Yeah, right. I really did feel that.
NC: I’m glad that you did.
AA: I could get inside her, and I don’t think that was just because I’m an artist either. Are you an artist? Do you do any visual art?
NC: I don’t do any visual art, but I would’ve always liked to, and maybe I still will one day, although I feel daunted by it. Writing about a visual artist was a way to vicariously experience all of that. So, I did some research. I watched videos of people painting. I read art magazines. I just picked them up when I was in the bookstore, and went through them, and I had a friend who’s an artist read the book just to let me know what I’d gotten wrong.
AA: Had you gotten much wrong?
NC: Not from her reading of it, and I think part of that was because I was careful about what I elaborated on, and what I didn’t. She said that the art school experience that I described really resonated with her—which is interesting— because that was just an imaginative exercise, sort of thinking about and pulling from what I know about elite institutions, about artists, if not visual artists, but some of the ways artists can grandstand around each other. I was glad that it rang true with her.
AA: That leads me to my next question because I was taken with Penelope’s art, and it’s true that Halsey Street isn’t a book about art. It’s a book about an artist confronting these other issues and her response to the RISD crits (critical evaluations). You know, those Rhode Island School of Design students wear these shirts that say “Crit happens!”
NC: Oh! That’s Great!
AA: Yeah, right? Those crits are excruciating in the arts programs. Musical theatre boards can be like American Idol on steroids with that type of rigorous review. What do you think about artistic criticism for students studying the disciplines?
NC: My experience in workshops have been very formative for me. They gave me a sense of what I needed to work on as a writer but even more importantly, in some ways, helped me understand popular sensibilities of other writers that I could then just keep in mind as I was working. That didn’t mean I would write to that sensibility, but I could be aware of when I was doing something that might offend or unsettle or interest that sensibility. While I found them helpful, I think that something that can [get lost] in the room in the middle of a crit is how vulnerable all the people in the room are, and what they’re bringing with them into the room.
So, for someone like Penelope who’s bringing in already a sense of being alienated from her privileged peers—and there being no way that that’s meaningfully accounted for in the classroom—the crit is on her in this particular way. I think that’s true for everyone in a crit, or in a workshop. Everyone has a past, things that are going on in the present that affect how they hear feedback, and also how they give it to others. That’s not always an element that we wrestle with. We sort of just think of everyone as a writer because everyone is, and we can forget some of the more human feelings and fears that people bring with them into the room. And human prejudices, human—all of the things that are a part of us because we’re not just objective readers with good taste.
It’s difficult to figure out how to write a book that raises really provocative questions. It also makes some claims, I think, but making sure that it’s all subtle, and filtered through character in a work of fiction, but also making sure that the subtlety and the ambivalence aren’t so great that the book ends up saying nothing about gentrification, or about the theme.
AA: You were able to present gentrification without smacking the reader. I appreciate that. How did you dwell long term in a hard piece? It must have been really draining. What did you do to keep your energy up?
NC: Oh, that’s a good question. I think that’s something that always kept the book alive to me and kept the themes from feeling tired, was constantly uncovering new layers of character. So, I think I would’ve run out of steam if I just sort of fought through gentrification, and the book would’ve become too large and unwieldy because there are just too many things to say and explore, and my book couldn’t hold the pressure of telling some sort of authoritative account of gentrification in Brooklyn. But I was continually interested in what it meant for Penelope, and what it meant for her as she’s embarking on this relationship with her landlord, as she’s watching her father’s decline, as she’s meeting other artists. That kept it interesting and alive for me, following her character.
You ask how did I get inspired? Well, I didn’t work on it constantly for four years. There were ebbs and flows to my work on it, although it was more or less consistent, and I felt that the time that I was away from it made me sort of itch to get back to it and write. I ingested a fair amount of art during this time, so film and books, and that kept me really energized, and interested in things that I wanted to try on. Also, just having writing partners, and encouraging people, I found was really helpful when I didn’t always have the internal clarity about it. Meeting with other people who were spending their time in the same way, worrying about the same things was really affirming, and encouraging. Maybe not every writer needs that, but I certainly do.
In the beginning, I had an idea or a vision for the book, and then once I switched point of view, I thought that what the heart of the book was going to be was going to shift. It wasn’t just that the book would remain the same, but told through these two points of view. But what was ultimately at the center changed, which was challenging, but also really rich.
AA: Oh yes, because how did you keep from raging?
NC: Part of the fun of a novel is that the characters can have a range of responses and hold a range of emotions. There can be Ralph (Penelope’s father) in the book who’s sort of unapologetic in his lamentation of how the neighborhood has changed and his critique of gentrifiers, and then there’s Penelope who’s got this ambivalence and is in this in-between place. She gets to rage in the book which is different than the book raging. But I gave her permission to do it, and to do it without punishment. She’s not punished when she lashes out at her landlord and his friend who wants to buy in the neighborhood. Those moments, I thought, became really critical ways to suggest something about gentrification without making the book into a polemic. Even with her relationship with the Harpers, there are moments of tenderness and sweetness that I think keep the book from totally villainizing them. I would say that the book doesn’t totally condone their presence, their way of being, but kind of leaves that as an open question for the reader.
AA: There’s this moment with Mrs. Harper and I think Penelope is just using her observant power to figure some things out. Oh, this woman. How somewhat narcissistic in her needs; her problems are the largest in the room. How that was something Penelope had seen in other places, and I thought that was really… I don’t think tender is the word I want, but poignantly handled. It wasn’t this explosive point. It was just like, this is an observation. I thought that was really well handled. Not rage-y, really well handled.
NC: Thank you. It’s difficult to figure out how to write a book that raises really provocative questions. It also makes some claims, I think, but making sure that it’s all subtle, and filtered through character in a work of fiction, but also making sure that the subtlety and the ambivalence aren’t so great that the book ends up saying nothing about gentrification, or about the theme. Or that the book only says it’s complicated, rather than it’s complicated and this is true. Like, there’s a cost to displacement, so that was a delicate balance for me, and I imagine it’ll continue to be in my work.
AA: That struggle: in your LitHub article, “Who Gets to Write about Gentrification?” You say Penelope on her own might not be enough, and Mirella—the demanding character who stole more of your time-challenged expected behaviors. How did changing perspective impact your writing experience?
NC: Well, I think changing perspectives challenged my sense of what the book was about. In the beginning, I had an idea or a vision for the book, and then once I switched point of view, I thought that what the heart of the book was going to be was going to shift. It wasn’t just that the book would remain the same, but told through these two points of view. But what was ultimately at the center changed, which was challenging, but also really rich. I also thought it was good to get away from some things that were easy for me to default to. It was so easy to default to writing about someone with a similar educational trajectory to me. I didn’t drop out of art school, but someone who had a higher education. Penelope and I are not the same age, but someone who’s roughly in my age range.
So, it really helped challenge my sense of who I could write about, who was interesting to me, who I could follow, and also points of connection between the characters because there are as many points of connection between me and Penelope as there are between me and Mirella. Also, with some of the other characters, even if they’re not as fully formed, and I find that they’re pieces of me. Whether that’s questions, experiences, emotions, in all of the characters, even the ones who seem really biographically different.
AA: You had mentioned something about having found out your book was described as quiet and having some ambivalence about finding that out. I’d love to hear more about that if you could share.
NC: Yeah, so I’ll clarify that I heard it in two different ways. I heard it in a wonderful review from Kirkus Reviews that I loved, and I loved the use of it there because it didn’t seem like a condemnation, and it wasn’t cited as a flaw of the book. I thought that was just a really insightful, encouraging review. But I did hear it in other places as a critique. So, quiet. I wasn’t really sure what was meant by it, but what I think it means is that it’s about the internal world of these two women, and their thoughts and feelings and impressions. That, I thought, shouldn’t be a reason for critique at all. In large part because so much great fiction is about the internal world of characters, but perhaps characters who we have minds that are interesting, or energetic, and I think these women are actually quite loud in their convictions and beliefs. So it felt gendered…as much as it felt about some…I guess publishing world sensibility about what people read. Sort of like the minds of great men aren’t called quiet, but I might be wrong about that. But that’s my sense.
AA: There’s a lot to be learned right in the comments you’ve just made. Also, in this more tumultuous place, a white woman loved a book you were reading, and said, “Oh, I love that book. It’s about race without being about race.” I thought that was awful, truly awful. You state quite clearly that your book is about race. In this moment, I wonder about white fragility, and what’s appropriate to even ask you? So, I thought I’d be upfront about where I am with that.
I believe in educating myself, a big follower of bell hooks. I believe in doing the work, researching, reading, using books, such as yours, to increase my understanding. I do the best I can to not bring my questions or guilt or shame or grief caused by my people to people of color in my scope. I also believe in growing this sense with other white people in my scope. So, with that in mind and with regards to white fragility, how might your book work best? If we can talk about that. Or if you don’t even want to talk in that regard, I mean, I do want that question answered, but I go back to the first point of what’s appropriate to ask you?
NC: That’s an interesting question. I think that it’s great that you’ve brought up white fragility and race because I think they do shape readerly responses to literature just like they shape our lives at all kinds of levels: political level, at the level of the neighborhood; but we’re not always transparent about how that affects the assessment of a work of art, or whether a reader says something like I didn’t relate to this book. Or I was offended by this book. Or I just couldn’t get into it. Sometimes those responses can be totally shaped by race and racism, by white fragility.
So because I can’t control what is in a reader, nor would I want to, I do think that the reception of my book is beyond my control, and that readers will bring what they bring to the text, and I can only really think about how I craft the text itself. I saw some of this play out when I was reading online reviews of my book, sort of reader reviews, and then I stopped. Just because every writer I knew told me that was a bad idea, and I don’t regret stopping, but it was interesting to see how much racial politics were informing people’s view of the book in a range of ways. From deeming it important and urgent, to deeming it highly relatable, and including experiences that they had gone through in their neighborhood, people thanking me for the portraits of Brooklyn, to people deeming the book racist, or the characters unrelatable, or the use of Spanish alienating and frustrating, [or] not worth the money paid for the book. So, all those responses had nothing to do…or were not inevitable responses to my book, but were coming out of whatever the reader brought to the text. I am not going to change what I want to write in order to be palatable to any reader, or certainly not a reader who’s bringing white fragility to the text. But, you know, knowing that those responses are shaped by
so many other factors has been really helpful.
AA: Thank you, because it leaves me with: How do we all talk to one another, especially in this current political climate?
NC: Yeah, and I think that there has to be room for readers, classmates, teachers, to do some self-reflection about what they’re bringing to their assessments of texts, of other people, of art, and to think about how internalized oppression is shaping the way we interact with each other, and with creative work. Whether that’s sexism or racism or transphobia, whatever it may be, knowing that those things can’t be a part of us, and a part of our culture without affecting the way we talk about books and art and artists.
AA: Right, right, and the canon that has been given to us with our Eurocentric education. Looking at your teacher and how old your teacher is, and assuming how that person was educated and what they had to unlock. If we’re going to try not to bring how we were educated into the next generation, we have to unlock what was given to us.
NC: Yeah, and it shapes not just how we respond as readers, but also what we create as writers. I’m always struck by how beautiful a lot of the characters in fiction are, how conventionally beautiful, and thin. That’s another way that our ideas about who’s worth following shaped the work because it certainly doesn’t reflect the world we live in, that everyone is slender, and long- haired.
I think a lot just about how I have been given, and I’ve taken the time and space to really value my own mind, which I think a writer has to do, and I don’t think it’s something that women of color are always encouraged to do. I think in some ways my education gave me some sense that what I have to say and what I think matters and is valuable and might be useful to someone else. That has been no small thing.
AA: I invited one of our BA creative writing students from [the Antioch program] to hear you read. She had just attended Michelle Obama speaking in LA on the Becoming tour and was so thrilled. She’s an older student, a person of color, and an emerging writer. What would you like her, and others like her, to know?
NC: So many things. I would highlight the importance of finding a supportive community. Whether that’s a community that you can retreat to, to talk about some awful feedback you got, whether it’s in class, or from an editor, and just to have people who believe you. People who will believe you—and believe your assessment if you feel it’s something that was happening was because of who you are—and not just because of the work, just to have a community of people who will believe you, and encourage you, I think is really critical.
Also, there are a lot of people of color in the publishing world who are looking out for each other, who are amplifying each other’s work. Whether on Twitter, or through inviting people to speak, or buying their books, sharing resources. It’s very encouraging that there are sites of power that people are creating and sharing with one another. I would tell her that it’s important to keep going, and it’s a simple thing. I had a professor who said it all the time to us, and it really frustrated us—those of us who were his students—because we thought: can you just introduce us to an agent? Or tell us how to make it better? But he would always encourage us to keep going. Once I was out of the structure of school and working on a novel myself, I realized how much that had to become a mantra for myself when it really wasn’t easy to keep going. So, I would tell her to keep going, and that a supportive community will help with that, and to give herself whatever else she needs to keep going as best she can.
AA: In the college world, have you been confronted with surprising messages? How are students gaining a better understanding, coming together, listening, trying to make room for marginalized voices to speak?
NC: Yeah, I’m really cautious about constructing any sort of overarching narrative that explains America today. Something like students are taking charge and resisting more and more, or things are getting worse and worse. I always resist those overarching narratives. In part because I don’t feel qualified to construct them, but also because I am skeptical about how they often seem a-historical or just to erase complexity. What I do know is that both resistance and awareness, as well as ignorance and hatefulness, are consistent.
AA: Your education was a powerful driver for your parents, and then clearly, you continued it. How do higher academics empower women? And did your degree work push you away from anyone?
NC: Push me away from anyone? That’s a good question. I think that it’s always difficult when one has experiences that really differentiate them from their community or their family. Whether that’s having a different language and culture to claim than the generation before or educational level, it can create rifts and difficulties as well as new possibilities, but I wouldn’t say that it pushed me away from anyone. But it certainly established some differences between me and people in my community, and me and my family. But also lots of points of connection and similarity. It’s not all rifts. But in terms of how my education has empowered me, I think a lot just about how I have been given, and I’ve taken the time and space to really value my own mind, which I think a writer has to do, and I don’t think it’s something that women of color are always encouraged to do. I think in some ways my education gave me some sense that what I have to say and what I think matters and is valuable and might be useful to someone else. That has been no small thing.
AA: In the Kenyon Review, you mentioned once feeling anxiety, doubt, and a sense of failure when creating your art. Other times, you bring up hard times with the body. But when I read the powerful Paris Review piece, “Who Gets to Be Brooklyn Born?” or this beautiful piece about a wedding on the train tracks, I don’t find the lingering wisps of doubting your professional ability. Oh, that piece on your wedding! There was something about those two pieces right there, and I just was hit with your power.
NC: Oh, thank you!
AA: How are you handling your power these days?
NC: Yeah, I think I’m still learning to recognize my power, and to handle it. I have moments where I’m more in touch with it than others, and publishing a book has not changed that in terms of when I feel connected and empowered, and when I don’t. I do think that writing is a place for me where I feel most powerful and in touch with it. That’s probably why I started writing, honestly, as a child, because it felt like a way to establish my own authority, and my own version of things, and again, to value my mind. And so I think I’m still learning how to hold on to a sense of my power, and not forget about it, and then remember it, and forget about it. I think that the writing helps me to remember.
AA: And it seems like it’s growing with you. Even just reading the Cobain piece—
NC: You read so widely, thank you!
AA: I really enjoyed it too. What do you say to women who are feeling meek, beaten down, or worn out?
NC: Oof. Yeah. I guess I would say I’ve been there. And so have many of us. It’s a difficult experience, but not one in which you’re alone. Something that I think a lot about is how to honor my feelings, but also push myself beyond them in terms of action. Sometimes feeling meek, but doing the brave thing anyway is helpful. So, I try to do that a lot, to not always act out of my feeling. I’ve acknowledged the feeling, but sometimes you do the things anyway. I had a woman give me the advice where she was like, “sometimes you just put on a dress and sit at the grownup’s table.” I was talking to her about feeling sort of meek, and she’s much older than I am and further along in her career, but she said that there were times when she had to do that, as well. I think that that can be really helpful and can be a way of shifting feelings. Not always full, but introducing new feelings, too.
AA: I like it. The dress could be Doc Martens and jeans. What’s next, Naima?
NC: Yeah. I have two books in the works. One that I’m working on much more actively right now. That one is set in North Carolina, and it’s similar to Halsey Street in the sense that it’s about how place shapes people, how things that are happening in a community reverberate throughout, and it’s about two families. It’s a family drama with all of the themes that really interest me, so the interior lives of women, relationships across lines of difference, intergenerational trauma. It’s thematically really similar, but a whole different set of characters, a different place, and was formed by my time in North Carolina, which was really precious to me.
And then the other book is sort of a quest story that I started as a challenge for myself as a writer. That also has a lot of the same themes, but it’s about a young woman who has to go on a journey, and not just a figurative one, a literal journey to protect her family. It’s a different kind of book for me, but out of the same sort of questions. And the question of that book, I’ve shared this elsewhere, but I’l share it with you anyway—the question of that book is, how do you learn to be tender when life has required that you be hard? That’s the question that I’m kicking around throughout the book while this woman is on an adventure. I often start writing with a question in mind.
AA: Thank you, so much, Naima. This was really fun.
NC: Thank you for your thoughtful questions.
Andrea Auten is a writer and a visual and performing artist. A writing specialist for Antioch University Los Angeles, she is the community outreach, social media associate managing editor, and youth content coordinator for Lunch Ticket. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and lives with her husband, sons, and beloved writing partner, Dusky, the family cat. Find her at andreaauten.com.
Becca drops her announcement into the conversation casually. “So… I met someone and it’s looking pretty serious so far.”
She is sitting at a long table in the party room of the Hasidic shteeble near her childhood home, the small synagogue that her parents, creatures of habit that they are, still attend. Her father prays in the old shul three times a day but also likes to schmooze politics and business with the men; her mother attends services on Shabbos and holidays and finds some measure of peace murmuring psalms from her tattered Tehillim. Becca is surrounded by the smells of her youth: the tang of gefilte fish, the must of yellowing tomes and the mildew of unwashed woolen prayer shawls, and by family members and their various extensions: sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews. Her parents. They are gathered to celebrate the bris of Becca’s sister’s first grandson. (Becca still has difficulty wrapping her head around the fact that she is, at age thirty-two, attending the circumcision feast of her great-nephew!)
Becca believes she’d murmured her news privately to the sister sitting nearest her, and so is taken aback by the silence that greets her pronouncement. Becca’s father eyes her mistrustfully.
Becca is to blame for the inordinate amount of time their mother spends on a therapist’s couch and for the startling amount of silver in their father’s beard. Becca is single-handedly hammering the final nail into his coffin.
During the course of the evening, Becca’s family learns her new boyfriend’s name (Paul); what he does for a living (attorney); that yes, he most certainly is Jewish even with a name like that (and the grandson of Auschwitz survivors—because that little nugget tends to seal in authenticity like nothing else); that they met on JDate, and yes, that means she dates online which means on a computer, yes exactly that kind of crazy meshugas; that he’d grown up strictly Orthodox frum and attended yeshiva just like Becca and now no longer considers himself observant.
Just like Becca.
The family is unprepared for this last revelation. It is one of those glaring truths of which everyone is acutely aware but works really hard to ignore.
* * *
Some weeks later.
Becca answers her youngest sister’s call apprehensively. The caller ID flashes “Sara Leah” but she knows her other three sisters are conferencing in. The group call begins as an intervention of sorts.
“Bec, we’re calling because we all agree” (something new there, Becca muses) “that you’re intent on making Mommy and Tatty ill.” (Nothing new there. Surprise, surprise.)
The sisters all begin to talk over one another. Becca, pacing in the galley kitchen of the apartment she shares with her new fiancé Paul and her two-nights-a-week-and-every-other-weekend son Ari, puts the call on speaker and lets Paul listen in. It’s easier than trying to find the words to explain her family’s dysfunction, the unclouded contempt that erupts from them when faced with the agnosticism of one of their own. Their voices are jumbled, and all four are shouting over one another in a loud bid to be heard first. Angry fragments filter through the speakerphone: “…frumkeit means nothing…” “…not observant, unbelievable…” “…what about Ari…” “…what kind of example for your son…” “…a shiksa now…” “…marrying a goy…” “…killing us slowly…” “…a shanda, shameful…” and so on.
The message becomes clear: Becca is self-centered and arrogant. Becca is difficult and ungrateful. Becca is a terrible daughter and an even worse mother who thinks of no one but herself. Becca must surely be on drugs because why else would she behave this way. Becca is responsible for their parents’ anxiety, high blood pressure, and cholesterol. Becca is to blame for the inordinate amount of time their mother spends on a therapist’s couch and for the startling amount of silver in their father’s beard. Becca is single-handedly hammering the final nail into his coffin.
“We thought you should know how we all feel. And just so this doesn’t come as a surprise, we thought it only right to tell you that Tatty called each of us separately and forbade us to come to your wedding.”
In a remote recess of Becca’s reeling brain she is able to think, Forbade you? Are you nine or are you all married women with husbands and kids and mortgages? Actually, scratch the mortgage part—all her sisters are still dependent on their father’s financial support because their husbands are “learning,” i.e., warming a bench in a yeshiva for young married men and not making a living, and their families are hard pressed to make ends meet on a teacher’s or secretary’s salary. So yes, it actually makes perfect sense to Becca that each sister has branded herself Tatty’s champion and waves his banner furiously before the charge.
And in a separate corner of her mind lurks her ultimate fear: Now that Paul’s seen my hideous skeletons, he’ll run for the hills.
Years of practice have made Becca adept at compartmentalizing her thoughts and keeping them hidden deep.
* * *
Some weeks later.
Becca is called in for a parent-teacher conference. It is an unusual time for a conference, given that her middle-school son is nearing the end of a remarkably productive school year, all things considered. This is a golden son, a hard-fought-and-lost son, a son who’d been unceremoniously dropped back into Becca’s life by his indifferent father who’d swiftly lost interest in the daily grind of parenting. A son who remains the epicenter of his mother’s existence. This is Ari, whose response to Becca’s cautious coming-out of the religion closet had been a flustered, “You mean like, you eat like, pork and stuff?” and “You mean, like you drive on Shabbos, like in a car? Things like that?” He’d briefly mulled over this new version of his mother before regaining his composure, then hugged her and said, “I’ve never seen you as happy as you are with Paul. So that’s the most important thing to me, Ma. That you’re happy.” This is Ari, whose teacher now wishes to speak most urgently with Becca.
Between one heartbeat and the next Becca feels the blood drain from her cheeks; breathing is something she suddenly needs to remember how to do.
Rabbi Goldblatt is waiting for her in the yeshiva’s office, surrounded by black-hatted teenage boys all talking with their hands, all talking at once, ritual fringed tzitzis swaying from their belts. He shoos them out of the room and waves her into a chair opposite him.
“I hope you don’t mind the hasty nature of this meeting, Rebecca—may I call you Rebecca? …As I mentioned on the phone, there is no need to worry about Ari, he’s doing just fine. He’s not aware that I’ve called you in.” He hesitates.
Becca’s anxiety trickles down her back into the waistband of her skirt. She manages a cautious half smile. “Please. I’m listening.”
Rabbi Goldblatt seems a decent sort. This past year, all of their interactions on behalf of her boy had revealed a sympathetic person whose emotional intelligence, to Becca’s surprise and relief, consistently matched his scholarly aptitude. Today, however, the rabbi seems discomfited.
“Someone came to visit me recently. Um, this is awkward to say the least.” He clears his throat. “It was your father. Ari’s grandfather.” Becca feels her windpipe closing. Rabbi Goldblatt continues haltingly.
“He seemed to think it his urgent duty to warn me. To warn me that Ari’s continued exposure to you, his mother, would be catastrophic for the boy’s spiritual health.” He stops, catching Becca’s eye. She believes she sees compassion brimming in him.
“It was a highly unusual conversation. Quite difficult. But I imagine it’s far more difficult for you to hear this than it was for me. Shall I continue?”
Becca nods silently, adrift. She listens as if from a distance.
“Your father told me things I had no right to hear. Things about you. Things… I did not need to know. He felt he was safeguarding his grandchild by exposing you, or should I say branding you as an unfit mother. He…well, he believes you’re corrupting your son. He said your home is not kosher, and—actually he said quite vociferously that…that you blatantly desecrate—that you’re mechalel Shabbos…” Rabbi Goldblatt exhales quickly, clearly unsettled by his role in this particular play.
Rivky loves to read Victorian novels and in this pursuit often bumps up against phrases that describe various ways one may suffer from, or actually die of, a broken heart.
“Listen, Rebecca. I know you as Ari’s mother. You’ve always shown yourself to be a mensch, a good person, a good mother…even so, it’s none of my business, you see? I’m not the judge of you.
Rabbi Goldblatt’s forehead is shiny with sweat, with the effort of playing referee in the midst of a melee. “Your father,” he resumes loudly, “is portraying his own daughter as a shiksa who doesn’t deserve to raise her own son! I’m sorry, but none of this is my business, first of all, and second of all,” the rabbi pauses, the energy gone from him. “I just—I just think you deserve to know what’s going on behind your back.”
Maybe his voice trails off or maybe Becca stops listening. Between one heartbeat and the next Becca feels the blood drain from her cheeks; breathing is something she suddenly needs to remember how to do. Clouds of déjà vu settle in her memory. Her father, she is forced to admit, is indeed capable of such cruelty. Her father, her Tevye, who rails against the rebellion of a daughter. Her father, her not-Tevye, her father who is unable to eventually come around, like Tevye, to tolerate what he cannot control. In the name of God, religion, and faith, Becca’s father takes no prisoners.
* * *
Some years earlier.
Becca is not Becca yet. She is still Rivky, still a slender eight, still eleven and whip-smart, still a coltish fourteen, still fearful of her father, of rabbis, of Yom Kippur the awesome Day of Judgment, of enumerating all the myriad sins of the year that’s passed and klopping al chayt, beating her chest with a closed fist as she recites rivers of tears in shul, her youthful back bent to the sorrow and guilt of one much, much older and hardened to the world.
She is still Rivky, she is twenty-two, and she is leaving her young husband. She wants to explore the outside and change her name and wear blue jeans and fling the shaitel from her head and grow her own hair back and inhabit the world fully, and the only way to do this is through divorce. Rivky expects an angry husband, a husband who will marshal the resources of family and community to keep her home, keep her covered, keep her hidden, keep her obedient. But she is unprepared for the summons to her father’s office. She is unprepared to be peppered with questions, with accusations, from bearded big-bellied men sitting, watching, hovering from their seats in a semi-circle as Rivky, unprepared, stands before them, trembling and terrified and stripped naked in front of the questions, the questions, the insinuations of slut, the censure, the sins.
Rivky floats away from her body, her body that stands like a target. She watches herself from afar.
“Where did you go late at night last week? Who were you with?” Rivky worries a thread at her hem and sees her skirt unraveling, unraveling, until there is no more skirt…
“Do you go to the movies in secret? Do you check out filthy goyish books from the library?” Rivky breathes in the light as the sleeves of her jacket slip off her arms…
“Do you spoil your holy body with treif food from treif restaurants?” Rivky’s shaitel, made of someone else’s hair, slides back from her head, exposing the uneven shaved stubble on her scalp, and drops whispering to the floor…
“Do you corrupt your soul with indecent goyish music? Do you turn on the lights on Shabbos?” Rivky watches her blouse fall from her shoulders and gather in soft folds at her feet…
“Do you dip in the mikvah after you menstruate to be permitted to your husband? As the Torah commands?” Rivky’s opaque tights are suddenly sheer, showing her legs…
“Are you a lesbian? Are you an adulteress? Have you had forbidden relations outside of the sanctity of your marriage?” Rivky’s bra and panties are visible to all the men in the room. She is undressed, she is visible, to all the men in the room.
And so the bearded men, her father’s friends, her father sitting amongst them, decide that Rivky is unfit to mother her toddler son, because every month she insists on wearing tampons while going for her Shabbos walks which, her concerned husband worries, could be construed as carrying, which could be interpreted as violating the laws of the holy Sabbath. They consider her unfit because she was once seen stepping out of a McDonald’s (a McDonald’s!!!) with a cup of coffee, which could only mean she was blatantly flouting the laws of kashrus. They deem her unfit because she’d recently attended a nursery school orientation for her son, after which the menahel hastily phoned her father to say he was very sorry to do this to a man who is such a pillar of the community, BUT. Your daughter, the mother of the little boy Ari, does not belong in our school. The young woman is immodest, her wig is long. The young woman stands out, her skirts are modish. The young woman is noticeable, indecorous, visible.
The tribunal of bearded men is not yet done with Rivky. They decide as well that she must leave the community and that it is best for Rivky’s husband to raise the boy. Never mind that each of these men has a separate feud, over money or shul politics, with Rivky’s husband. Still. He is the one best suited, they believe, to raise Ari up as a respectable member of the Hasidic community. Much like themselves.
Rivky loves to read Victorian novels and in this pursuit often bumps up against phrases that describe various ways one may suffer from, or actually die of, a broken heart. In this moment, listening to the panel of rabbis sitting in judgment of her, deciding her fate—in this moment, facing the loss of her child, her family, her friends, all of life as she knows it—only in this moment does Rivky understand “broken heart.” She pushes the shame and the rage and the humiliation down, down into a deep place where she will try to forget, and be forgiven.
It is decided. Rivky becomes outcast.
Rivky becomes Becca.
* * *
Becoming Becca means leave-taking, means reinventing, means self-immolating. Becca means to fight her way out of her rigid, glistening chrysalis. She digests the worm that is her self and from the soup she pulls her eyes, newly sighted, and wings, antennae. Becoming Becca means flying, means running, means rounding corner after cutting corner, means slamming. Slamming doors that shut fast on the past and open up to poetry and song. She wrenches words from somewhere deep. Words explode onto her page, words burst from her lips. Words buried in vaults, words hidden in hollows of shame, words that air the soil of secrets to the cleansing light of day. Words that reignite her mother’s distress, her father’s wrath, her sisters’ rage, disappointment and dishonor all around. Becca writes lyrics to rap songs, staccato punches that reverberate with anger, sorrow, truth. She writes poems of anguish and celebration. She slams in dark dodgy East Village basements. She writes torch songs that fuse the fiction of her imagination and the reality of her torn, almost beautiful life. She sings in Bowery lounges that stink of beer and the press of flesh. She sings, she tests her brand new wings. She writes. She writes like she’s running out of time, like she’s Alexander Hamilton reimagining her country from the ground zero up. Becca builds a world. She puts the pieces of the broken one back together. She is mother. She is partner. She is nightingale. She is red bird rising, leaving ashes at her feet.
* * *
Sometime here and now.
Becca knows enough about fetal ultrasounds to note the absence of a tiny heartbeat. She is almost seven weeks pregnant, or she was, until this morning’s bloody flush in the toilet. The doctor explains to Becca and Paul about gestational sacs and embryonic poles and fetal viability and then schedules a D&C. He leaves and softly closes the door to the examination room to give them space to begin the grieving process. It is three months before their wedding; it is Ari’s twelfth birthday; it is the day after Yom Kippur.
Becca thinks that the timing of her miscarriage, exactly a year before her son’s bar mitzvah and directly following the Day of Atonement, is significant. She is wracked with grief and guilt. She begins to venture down the rabbit hole. Maybe her family is right. Maybe she truly is unfit for motherhood. See, she cannot even sustain a viable pregnancy after leaving her roots behind. Maybe she is indeed uprooted, unmoored, a waif in the wind at the mercy of the elements, with no Torah, no tradition, to anchor her. Becca resolves to visit her father to make amends, but she is paralyzed by fear. She is in no shape to be in the same room as her father, let alone confront him. Paul steps up.
“Why don’t I meet with him? You know, man to man. I can make him see how special you are, I can convince him that he’s missing out on his own family.”
Becca and Ruchi have a long history of laughter, secrets, tears, and hushed whispers. Back when Becca still answered to Rivky and Ruchi’s close-shaven scalp still sprouted brunette strands, the two were inseparable on summer nights out on Ruchi’s parents’ back porch.
Becca starts to interrupt him—“He’ll eat you alive!” but Paul calms her.
“I don’t have a history with him like you do. He doesn’t affect me the same way. I’m sure he’ll come around to me.” Becca is comforted by this proposal. Paul is good in the living room, like Jerry Maguire; he has a gift for getting people to buy what he’s selling. She is heartened by the notion that Paul’s natural dignity, his reasonable lawyer’s mien, his cool head, will prevail.
Within a few days, Paul meets with his future father-in-law in Becca’s childhood living room. They talk. (Or, as Paul recounts to Becca afterward, Tatty talks and Paul takes a beating.) To every one of Paul’s explanations of misunderstanding, to each of his protestations of innocence, to all of his avowals of Becca’s virtue, her gutzkeit, Becca’s father puts forth arguments of ancient Talmudic law, imagining justice being meted out as if they are living in the Second Temple era, as if Paul is actually a Gentile and not, in fact, a Jew born and bred.
“If we were living during the time of the Beis Hamikdosh, do you know Rivky would be sentenced to death by skilah! Yes, stoning—don’t look so shocked. Because she’s like the Gemara describes, a ben soyrer umoyreh, a rebellious child. Doesn’t heed her parents’ discipline. And because she’s mechalel Shabbes. And as her father, I would be responsible for being the first to push her off the cliff!”
“You know Paul, you seem like a nice person, but—maybe not such a good yid, you know… And for the life of me I can’t understand why you would want to marry Rivky—but in any event I’m not permitted to allow you sit at my Shabbes table, because then the wine would be considered yayin nesech, tainted, contaminated.”
Paul notices he is being lectured. He is highly educated in Talmudic law from his own yeshiva days and recognizes the fallacies inherent in the arguments so passionately put to him by Becca’s father. But this is beside the point.
Eventually the Holocaust makes an appearance and wraps up the session. “It’s not enough about our families—Rivky’s grandparents, my aunts and uncles and cousins… It’s not enough how we suffered at the hands of the Nazis? People died because they refused to give up Shabbes, my parents in the camps didn’t give themselves a heter, an exemption, to eat treif, they didn’t allow themselves to make excuses to eat non-kosher…and they had the biggest excuse of all! And my own daughter? Who I had such high hopes for? Mein eigene tochter, she turns her back. Such beeshes heaped on our heads… Such humiliation. Mommy and I can’t talk to our neighbors, we mamesh can’t even walk in the street…”
And practically in the same breath: “But I’m always ready to forgive her. I’m waiting for Rivky to come to her senses and leave all this foolishness—all these shtisim behind. Tell her I’m waiting for her to come back and be part of the mishpucha again. If she behaves the way she’s supposed to, the way she was taught. She knows—she was raised in my house! She knows exactly what needs to be done. The basics. Nu, genik shoyn mit di narishkeit. This madness has gone on long enough. Tell her I’m waiting.”
At this last, Paul silently thanks whatever angel of a filter he possesses for not allowing the news of Becca’s miscarriage (and of course, her illicit pre-marital pregnancy) to escape him today. But this is beside the point as well. The point is Becca and Paul now recognize they must sever ties with her delusional parent if they intend to fashion a healthy life for themselves and their future family.
* * *
Some weeks before Becca marries Paul.
Becca glances at the handwritten sign in Hebrew and Yiddish announcing this is a house of mourning. She gently eases open the door to the women’s entrance and steps inside. Her old friend Ruchi, now a prominent rabbi’s wife herself, sits in a low chair close to the ground, her head bound with a black satin tichel wrapped tightly, revealing the one-inch band of synthetic hair that is her shpitzel, her blouse torn at the neck to reveal a modest black shell. Ruchi is surrounded by her mother the rebbetzin and her sisters, all sitting in similar low chairs. All their blouses are torn. All their heads are bound. There is a steady murmur of women’s voices, women who are there to comfort the bereaved among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, as the traditional blessing says.
Becca and Ruchi have a long history of laughter, secrets, tears, and hushed whispers. Back when Becca still answered to Rivky and Ruchi’s close-shaven scalp still sprouted brunette strands, the two were inseparable on summer nights out on Ruchi’s parents’ back porch. Their favorite game was “What If,” a rich springboard for their delirious girlish fantasies and dreams. “What If” encompassed boys, periods, high school, goyim, parents, clothes, music, hair, and weddings and marriage (specifically, the cost-benefit ratio of the freedom of marriage to the requisite post-ceremony shearing of the kallah’s bridal hair). Many a moonlit night they passed in pursuit of these faraway notions. Ruchi remains one of the precious few who loves Rivky and Becca equally, as if they are same person. Ruchi loves Becca without looking over her shoulder to worry who’s watching them walk together down the street. Ruchi loves Becca regardless of her bare head, her exposed arms, the obvious immodesty of her wardrobe. Ruchi is able to love Becca even though their paths have diverged because Ruchi possesses an extraordinary and uncommon sense of self, a self that was forged together with Becca in the fires of adolescence and stoked into a pillar of strength by a father capable of loving her. Now, Becca returns to the friend she never lost, as radically different from each other as they appear, to console Ruchi as she sits shiva for her father.
While he was alive Ruchi’s father had been the rav of the little shul on the corner, the very shul where the family now sits shiva for their lost father, where the congregation mourns their lost leader. Every year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Rivky/Becca would feel transformed from her insides out, listening to the rav pour his soul into the davening, his prayers, she imagined vividly, rending the heavens, bypassing the angels, landing directly at Hashem’s throne. The rav was the only human being she’d ever known who could lift her neshama, her soul, out of its earthly confines and allow her spirit to soar. The High Holy Days in Ruchi’s father’s shteeble were, for Rivky back then, the height of religious ecstasy. There was no sin she could commit that would not be forgiven, no good will she could not achieve.
But that was then.
Now, Ruchi implores Becca with tears of love for her gone father, for her precious friend: “Becca. It’s time to make amends with your father. He won’t be around forever. Take a look around you—we are sitting shiva for a man we thought had so much more time. Time will cheat you, Becca. Forgive him.”
* * *
Ruchi’s words, their weight. Her pale tear-streaked skin and puffy pink eyes. Her sudden orphan status. All of it, swirling around in the vortex of Becca’s head. She begins to see her father, mortal and limited and not forever for this earth. She imagines him, still and silent and stone-cold, the lone inhabitant of a plain pine box. Her heart skips; she catches a breath. Becca forgets, briefly, his stance on the status of her sinner’s soul. She discounts, fleetingly, the cruelty of his discipline. She ignores, for the moment, his intractability. Becca scours the very depths of her conscience, her spirit, her perceptions of a daughter’s fidelity. After some emotional wrangling with Paul—who, after all, had been on the receiving end of a mere fraction of the whole, and admittedly tries his very best to appreciate the enormity of his fiancée’s misgivings, her ambiguity, her doubt—after arguing and shouting about pride and family and death and ego and being right and the thickness of blood, Becca ultimately secures Paul’s blessing and she finds herself, two weeks before their wedding day, at the entrance to the shteeble where her father prays. The men’s entrance. She swallows a steadying breath and pushes open the door to face a wall of white fringed talleisim, swaying and murmuring. Becca searches the front of the room and notices her father’s distinctive stoop, shrouded, swaying, his face obscured by the ceremonial silver atara wrapped across his forehead, the hum in the room and the rhythm of his swinging prayer shawl almost hypnotic in the stifling heat of the old beis medrash.
Becca gathers her courage. Her voice rings out: “Tatty!”
An abrupt hush. Dozens of tallis-draped men turn to stare in shock at the intrusion, at the woman in their sacrosanct midst. At the front of the room, directly facing the ark containing the holy Torah scrolls, a stooped figure swathed in a yellowing prayer shawl straightens perceptibly. Tatty tosses his tallis imperially over his shoulder and stands like a crowned king, the embroidered silver atara loosely framing the top of his head, the black box of his phylacteries strapped regally to his forehead, the second box of tefillin wrapped tightly around his left bicep, the straps digging deep into his left forearm, marking him indelibly as a man, an observant man, a man of God. Becca, habitually relegated to the world of women across the mechitzah, the opaque divider that separates the sexes, has rarely, if ever, witnessed the glory that is her father in prayer. She gasps at the sight of this king. All it takes is this moment and his silent scowl, and Becca’s resolute intentions threaten to fall away; she is in danger of shrinking back into the little girl she’d fitfully outgrown, the little girl at the mercy of a hostile world. She is in danger of becoming once again the wayward, dissolute, impossible daughter, the intrusion, the disturbance in her father’s carefully ordered, regulated kingdom.
He opens his mouth to rebuke her. He speaks, but the words that spill from him, white-tipped with rage, crash against the sheer rock face that is the backbone of his daughter. And Becca—Becca listens, she listens, finally she listens and she heeds, after years of being told, admonished, scolded to listen, listen to elders, listen to men, listen and obey, listen, follow, observe and heed heed heed the words thrown at her, finally Becca listens to her father and what she hears sounds like a eulogy for a girl named Rivky whose small corpse lies battered, dashed from the cliff.
Tatty speaks, but Becca looks past him, past his harsh words, past his glare, past the anger he spits in her direction. She looks past the crowd of gaping men swathed in traditional prayer shawls, past the men wrapped in the suffocation of ancient things, past the men murmuring their astonishment, their strangled displeasure, past the overheated, overwrought, smothering room lined with antique tomes and threadbare siddurim, worn prayer books that had seen their share of human misery… Becca looks further, ahead, past the motes of dust swimming in banners of sudden sunlight and sees the room renewed, rows of chairs now seated with elegant wedding guests, the fashionable women chattering, glittering, the tuxedoed men smiling, nodding, the dust motes sprouting colored wings like fluttering butterflies. She sees her mother, for years torn into atoms of anguish between her husband and child, their twinned tenaciousness. Becca sees her mother there in the new room, dressed in funereal black yes, her rheumy eyes rimmed with the ghosts of many tears, yes, all of that yes, but there, there leaning on her grandson Ari’s shoulder, waiting to embrace her daughter as Becca stands, beatific, with her new husband Paul under the chuppah, luminous in white beneath the marriage canopy. Becca looks past, and peers closely at her future. She believes she can see the faint flicker of flaming red wings shimmering at her back.
Deborah Kahan Kolb is the author of Escape of Light (forthcoming from Finishing Line Press) and Windows and a Looking Glass (Finishing Line Press, 2017), a finalist for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Contest. She is a recipient of the 2018 Bronx Council on the Arts BRIO Award, and her work has been selected as a finalist for the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Award and an Honorable Mention for the 2019 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. Deborah is the producer of the short poetry film Write Me. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in PRISM, Shirim, Poetica, Voices Israel, New Verse News, Literary Mama, 3Elements Review, Poets Reading the News, Paddock Review, Tuck, Rise Up Review, Writers Resist, Mom Egg Review, and Veils, Halos & Shackles, an international poetry anthology addressing the oppression and empowerment of women. You can find her at www.deborahkahankolb.com.
Christopher Castellani, the son of Italian-American immigrants, is best known for his critically-acclaimed trilogy of novels about an Italian-American family: A Kiss from Maddalena (Algonquin Books, 2003), The Saint of Lost Things (Algonquin, 2005), and All This Talk of Love (Algonquin, 2013). Filled with real and complex characters living in turbulent times, the Grasso family’s story reminded me of my own, even though my father’s family comes from Ireland, and my mother’s family from Mexico. Like many readers, I found familiarity in the issues and challenges that the Grasso family faced, since most immigrant parents are continually carving out a new identity in their new home, while simultaneously shouldering responsibility to traditions and values that they’ve left behind. Castellani’s novels proved to be delicious historical fiction that I found hard to put down.
And yet, it was Castellani’s craft book, The Art of Perspective (Greywolf Press, 2016) that I brought to the winter residency for Chris to sign—a craft book that I read before the Grasso family trilogy. It’s the one Castellani book that remains my favorite, for its unique voice that imparted level-headed wisdom. As I continue to labor over my own novel—seven years in the making— The Art of Perspective continues to be my go-to craft book as I discover the right narrative strategy for the whole story.
Castellani’s newest novel, Leading Men, is described on his website as “an expansive yet intimate story of desire, artistic ambition, and fidelity, set in the glamorous literary and film circles of 1950s Italy.” It’s a story that takes place over a span of years, beginning when Tennessee Williams and his lover, Frank Merlo, meet a gorgeous, aspiring Swedish actress, Anja Blomgren, at a party in Portofino, thrown by a mutual friend, Truman Capote. Frank remembers the events of that summer as he lies dying in Manhattan, ten years later, waiting for one last visit from Tennessee. Anja is now legendary film icon Anja Bloom, who lives as a recluse until she is forced back into the spotlight after it is discovered that she possesses the only copy of Tennessee Williams’s unpublished, final play—written especially for her.
Castellani now lives and works in Boston, serving as Artistic Director for GrubStreet, a non-profit agency that runs a renowned creative writing program, where writers help other writers in the community. Chris and I connected via Skype at the beginning of February, just as he finished a busy day at the GrubStreet offices. There, he found a quiet room and we started talking about his upcoming book tour.
If I have too many options when I’m writing, if everything is open, in terms of narrative, I get paralyzed and my imagination shuts down.
Janet Rodriguez: Congratulations on Leading Men. I saw your book tour schedule and I counted forty stops. What are you thinking? Are you going to sleep?
Christopher Castellani: (laughs) Yeah, it’s crazy, I know. Probably not. I’m so flattered and honored that so many places want to have me. I get a lot out of the experience of presenting and talking to people and all that, which is fulfilling for me, which is nice.
JR: I know, when you read at Antioch, you were wonderful. This new book is a bit of a departure for you, isn’t it?
CC: In the sense that it doesn’t have any basis in family stories, yes, it’s a departure, but it also has the historical or alternative fiction elements to it. In a way, it is actually quite similar to what I did with my family story. If you think of my family story as a family history, what I was doing was taking pieces of that real history and transforming it into fiction. It’s not so different taking the history of people I don’t know and transforming that into fiction. In some ways, it’s not a departure, it’s just a different cast of characters.
JR: So, what’s it like, fictionalizing “history”?
CC: (laughs at my air quotes) I found it strangely freeing. People think that’s counterintuitive, but I loved having the constraints. If I have too many options when I’m writing, if everything is open, in terms of narrative, I get paralyzed and my imagination shuts down. In the case of this book, there was a missing week in the journals that Tennessee Williams was keeping. I decided to write the book inside of that missing week, so I had the constraints of time, the constraints of geography, and, of course, the constraints of a few known characters. Within those constraints I felt like I was fully playing. I could really use my imagination and go crazy but within a certain set of limits. To me, that was the ideal circumstance to write this book.
JR: I like how you say you feel free within those constraints—you’re free to play and use your imagination.
CC: Exactly. I get paralyzed when I’m relying on one-hundred percent of what comes into my mind. I think I would be a really good color-by-numbers painter, rather than a blank canvas. [laughs] I would change the numbers, of course, but I like having the lines around them.
JR: The first book of yours that I ever read was The Art of Perspective. I loved the entire series by Grey Wolf Press, but I thought your book had one of the best beginnings of any craft book I have ever read. You illustrate how important it is to get connection with the reader, pull them into the story, and then—boom! —they’re off with you. I think it has the most wonderful beginning of any book—let alone a craft book—and I really enjoyed it.
CC: Thank you. Thank you so much.
JR: Why is it so important for writers to get the right perspective?
CC: Well, like I tried to illustrate with that example [at the beginning of The Art of Perspective], it changes everything. Ultimately, every story is about the narrator, whether they realize it or not. So, it really makes a huge difference who you have controlling the narrative because, ultimately, it’s going to reflect on that character. It’s the same if you have an omniscient, or an amorphous narrator, it still has that sensibility defining the whole narrative. You’ll have main characters and minor characters, but who’s pulling the strings of characterizing them in one way or another? That’s the author or the narrator, and ultimately, the book and the story is a reflection of them. So, it really comes down to who tells the story.
This is true of anyone who tells you any story, even someone you meet in person on the street. Let’s say you meet an old friend for coffee and she’s telling you about her marriage, her children, or whatever. What she’s saying is only true based on her own perception; it’s only one side of the story. If the novel that’s written about that family is told by her, it’s going to be a very different book than if it’s told by the son, her husband, her sister, or the neighbor. It’s going to be a different story if it’s told by all of them, from multiple different points of view. Each of those options carries a different effect on the overall project of the book. The truth really doesn’t matter; it’s all kind of relative.
JR: Do you believe that a story gets written when you can’t write it any other way?
CC: I think there’s a truth to that. I don’t know if you have to actually write from every point of view [laughs], but I do think you have to consider the narrative from a bunch of different angles and consider what would happen to the narrative if you told it another way. Finally, you’ll hit upon the one that feels the most true to you.
The way into the story is not necessarily the way out. So, if you start a story from the mother’s point of view, and you think, “Well, because I started it that way—that’s what I was organically led to—then that’s the way the story has to stay.” That’s completely not true. The mother’s point of view is often just the onramp to the story, but the story might be told by a different character or using a completely different process or a different strategy once you know what you want the story to be about.
We often go into the story thinking that we know what we want it to be about, and we think we have the right way of getting there, but once we’re in the middle of it, we realize it’s actually about something else. Once we realize that, it’s probably unlikely that the same person can still tell it. So, we have to constantly be open to reorganizing or reassessing our strategy.
JR: Is there a strategy to finding the right narrator? A shortcut?
CC: I wouldn’t say there are shortcuts, but what I do recommend that people do—and I’ve done with every book—is write a lot outside the story or the novel. I write journal entries of characters that I know won’t end up in the book, but it’s just a way of getting to know them better. So, I write in their voices. I’ll write letters from one character to another, just to see what they would say to each other, even though I know it’s not going to end up in the book. I’m getting to know them on that intimate level, in a way that will not necessarily be a part of the book. When you do this, it’s so important to tell yourself, “None of what I’m writing is going to end up in this book.” Because then, you can unlock a part of yourself that isn’t trying to impress anybody; you’re just trying to get to know these people.
From the beginning, if you know you’re gay from early on, which I did, or if you know you’re different, at least, early on, which I did, you knew exactly what that meant. It forces you to watch people’s behavior because you have to figure out a way to operate and get through it.
Once you start to amass this material, you do start to see, “Oh, this is where the energy is! This is whose voice that I want to tell the story.” Or, “These are the multiple voices that I need to tell the story.” Or, “Okay, it’s actually about this time of their lives, but I’m going to tell it from thirty years later, for whatever reason.” Only when you amass a lot of material can you make a decision in an informed way, but as I said, that material doesn’t have to end up in the story.
It can be anything: notes, pictures, almost anything that would be like making a scrapbook of a character’s life, whether you’re jotting down notes from them, whatever. This is just a way of gathering material. Only when you gather a lot—it’s almost like [laughs]—have you been watching the Marie Kondo show on Netflix?
JR: Yes! Oh, my word, I’m addicted to that show!
CC: You know how she gets them to throw everything into a pile? You have to do that so you can see what you’ve got before you know what you really want to keep. And that’s really what I’m talking about. I guess it’s just like the Marie Kondo guide to writing a story.
JR: [laughs] Did you do all this with Leading Men?
CC: I did. I did a lot of this with Leading Men. I wrote a lot outside the story. I wrote many versions of various scenes from different perspectives. I had a whole other structure of the book for a while, that I only realized wasn’t working because I had so much of it and I could see I knew too much. I had an idea that added up too neatly. I had two characters who were telling the story, and they were like perfect contrasts to each other. In a way, it was too perfect. It was too obvious, and I needed something—like an X factor—to shake up the narrative. Only when I introduced a new character, who was completely fictional, was I able to really see the book for what it really was.
JR: Anja Bloom—is she completely fictional?
CC: [smiles] Yup. She’s the character I was talking about.
JR: You know, I thought so. I searched online and in library resources: Who did Tennessee Williams and Frank know before she became famous? Who is Anja Bloom? And so, now you tell me she’s made up?
CC: [laughing] Yeah. She’s inspired by someone like Liv Ullman or, in a way, Greta Garbo, but she’s completely fictional. She came from a line from a letter that Truman Capote wrote at the time.
I always identified with my mother’s story, her sense of dislocation as a very reluctant immigrant. She never really had the life she really wanted and yet felt too powerless to change it.
JR: I’ve always been a fan of Tennessee Williams. I think the way he wrote women is incredible—especially the way he was able to get inside the psyche of his female characters—and here he is, a man. Do you think he has influenced your writing?
CC: That’s an interesting question. This is not in any way to say that I am as talented a writer as he is—but I feel like I gravitated towards him because he and I have a similar sensibility when it comes to women in particular. The types of women characters that he is drawn to are the same kind of women characters I am drawn to. So, it’s not like he taught me, but it’s like we found each other, or I found him, and I recognize him. He’s a better version of what I want to be. He’s doing what I am doing, or what I want to do.
JR: The way you researched and wrote the trilogy was amazing, but even more amazing was how you wrote the women. Like you knew each one. You seem very sympathetic with a woman’s perspective… Do you want to say anything about that?
CC: I’m a total mama’s boy [laughs]. That might have had something to do with it. I always identified with my mother’s story, her sense of dislocation as a very reluctant immigrant. She never really had the life she really wanted and yet felt too powerless to change it. And that tug between being traditional and breaking free of tradition, I feel like I really identify with that, and so many women are in that position. They feel they want to be or they’re raised to be the traditional type, or they have feelings of loyalty or responsibility to that traditional model. At the same time, they have feelings, I guess like we all do, to break out and burn it all down. [laughs] I think that men are… kind of given more permission to do that kind of thing, and forgiven for that, and women aren’t. And as a gay man, I think I can really identify with that in that regard.
JR: I was just going to ask you that, and I’m really glad that you went there. Because I’m kind of old school, and among me and my friends in our generation, we used to say that you need a gay friend—a gay man friend—to really talk to. But if I say that out loud in the community I’m in now? [around my young friends/university with a focus on social justice] I’m kind of out there. So, do you want to address that?
CC: Just call me, call me! [we laugh]
Well, I’ll address it this way: I’ll say that being gay, [and] being a woman, what they share is similar. From the beginning, if you know you’re gay from early on, which I did, or if you know you’re different, at least, early on, which I did, you knew exactly what that meant. It forces you to watch people’s behavior because you have to figure out a way to operate and get through it. To navigate the world in a way that you’re undetected. So, you’re watching people’s behavior all the time. You’re saying, “If I want to be a real man or a real boy, I have to act this way.” So, you’re imitating and you’re watching, and you’re studying human behavior and the way people interact with each other. I think that’s why so many gay people are artists, because we’ve been forced to analyze human behavior. And women have to do that as well, mostly in terms of self-protection, as a way of keeping safe, keeping watch over your bodies, over your everything. We’re both in similar positions because we both have to be constantly aware. We both have to be conscious of the way we behave in that dynamic.
JR: Before we end, can you tell me a little bit about your craft? How you’ve honed it?
CC: Are you asking about my process?
JR: Yes, if you can talk about process, please do—especially, how would you direct someone who was beginning?
CC: Well, first of all, quickly, I should say that my process is not very different than most writers. I’m writing a little bit every day, treating it like a part-time job, showing up for work even when you think you don’t have anything to say or want to say, and then just accumulating pages, and then stepping back, seeing what you have, going back through it, and just repeat, repeat, repeat that process over and over again.
I do think if you’re writing a novel, you owe it to yourself to try to immerse yourself in that novel, for at least a period of days, if not weeks, if you can afford it, to really see that novel. Because you really have to see it all at once and immerse yourself in that world, once you have maybe 300 or 400 pages to just really immerse yourself in it.
JR: What are the most effective tools to get good?
CC: I know it sounds like the most boring, cliché answer, but the absolute, best way to become a better writer is to read more. As they say, read like a writer, but read in a way that opens things up.
Think about pure imitation: “This is how this writer is doing it and I’m going to do it the same way,” and then try to do it in the exact same way. Chances are, you’re going to do it your way, even if you think that you’re imitating them. You’re letting what they’ve done open up possibilities for your own work.
And, again, don’t think you have to write like every successful writer. If you write more like Raymond Carver, then try to be the best version of a Raymond-Carver-like writer you can be. You’re always going to bring your own sensibility to it. Don’t worry about ripping him off. But you can’t be Raymond Carver and Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace all at the same time—you’re going to be a total mish-mash! Gravitate toward what speaks to you and what moves you, and try to learn from that. Don’t try to copy whoever is hitting it big that year.
I do think we recognize our kindred spirits when we look for our writing models. They can’t be foisted on us. I’m never going to write like Raymond Carver, as much as I admire him. I’m never going to write like David Foster Wallace, but there are people who I gravitate towards, and I can make myself a better version of myself if I look to them as an example.
I guess it’s about finding your literary kindred spirits and trying to be the most like them that you can. I guess I’ve always done that, whether I’ve meant to or not.
JR: Chris, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to me.
CC: It really was a pleasure, so thank you.
Janet Rodriguez is an author, blogger, teacher, and editor who lives in Sacramento with her husband, extended family, three dogs, and one cat. In the United States, her work has appeared in Cloud Women’s Quarterly Journal, Salon, American River Review, and Calaveras Station. Rodriguez has also published essays, stories, and two biographies in South Africa.
Her writing examines themes of identity and morality in faith communities, and the mestiza experience in a culturally binary world. Currently she is a Cardinal cohort at Antioch University Los Angeles, serving on the magazine, Lunch Ticket, where a bunch of younger nerds keep her on her toes. Follow her on Twitter @brazenprincess or her personal blog at www.brazenprincess.com.
I awoke from an exquisite dream. That pissed me off right there, cause in my dream, I was being devoured by love. When I flip the switch, a billion fucking cockroaches scatter. Naturally, I go batshit crazy, careening around the room, stomping and cursing. Now the neighbors are up. “Hey, cut that shit out!” this lady’s yelling. Downstairs, a guy’s shouting, “I have to come up there, I’ll break your fucking bones. I swear.” I recognize that guy. Big, fat Hungarian dude from the second floor. I don’t know his name. Same guy who busted my balls that time I was practicing my scales on the sax.
Next day, I call this fumigator I know. “Cut me a deal, Frankie,” I say. “No can do, Jimmy. Roaches, they got no respect for boundaries, see? You wanna solve your issue, you got to fumigate the entire goddamn building. Otherwise, you’re just playing whack a mole.”
So I go see Yorgi, the super. “Yorgi, we gotta fumigate this shithole.” I say. “Buy a fogguh.” Yorgi says. I think he and the landlord are cousins or something.
Next day, I run into Patty. Patty and I were kids together. I was walking around midtown, minding my business. There she was, demonstrating, marching around in circles, yelling and screaming with a bunch of fucking losers. I hadn’t seen her in forever. Patty with her buck teeth. I always had this crazy crush on her.
“Serendipity,” she says.
“Patty Cakes,” I say.
“Jimmy, you still playing the sax?” she asks.
I was really flattered she remembered. I didn’t wanna confess I pawned it.
“Nah,” I say. “I quit that business.”
“Too bad,” she says. “I’m singing in a band. We could use some more brass.”
She hands me a matchbook: Fergie’s Supper Club out in Queens.
“Come see me,” she says.
You ask me, there’s nothing sexier than buck teeth. The guys, they used to call her “Bucky.” Not me. I called her “Patty Cakes.” Back in the day, she’d watch us playing stickball in the street, dodging taxis and delivery trucks. Outta the blue, she appoints herself cheerleader. She starts doing cartwheels on the sidewalk. Then one time, this cop tells her to move cause she’s blocking the way. He was new on the beat.
“You got a bad case of stupid,” she says to him.
“Freeze right there, honey,” he says, like he’s gonna cuff her.
“Bite my crank,” she says and takes off laughing.
After that, everybody started saying it. Every time the guys got together, somebody’d say, “Bite my crank.”
So I took the train out to Queens to see Patty.
In the parking lot, a guy says to me, “You gotta move your car, buster.”
“I don’t own a car.” I say.
“Whadda you, a smartass?”
“Nah. I’m a pedestrian.”
This guy, he don’t like that remark, so at this juncture, I’m getting invisible quick. I got no ax to grind with this asshole. You can’t be channeling Jackie Chan every time some jerkoff starts feeling his oats. A guy could get messed up pretty bad going down that road.
Anyhow, some supper club this was. Buncha hooligans chowing down buffalo wings and fried cheese. Loud and rude, too. I felt like standing up and telling these clowns to shut the fuck up, but what am I gonna do? Start a brawl? Some people are just ignorant. I elbowed my way up front so I could hear. Patty sounded sweet, like an angel.
Sometimes I wonder if things might have turned out different. Like if this hadn’t happened, or that hadn’t happened, or the phone hadn’t rung that one time…or it had. Or I didn’t decide to do what I did that one night or decided not to do. Maybe I wouldn’t be living in a shithole. Maybe me and Patty coulda been a team. We coulda played at classy places. She crooning all torchy and heartbreaky. Me on the sax, hitting those soft notes; the one’s that purr like a cat when you stroke its belly.
After the show, we went out to a diner.
“You want a coffee?” I say.
“I’m caffeine free,” she says.
I ordered her a lime Rickey and let her talk. I’m watching her teeth. She was so sexy.
She stirred the glass with her finger while she gabbed. That was sexy, too.
“Patty, be my girl,” I say.
“Bite my crank, Jimmy.”
Richard Graddis began his career as an attorney on the East Coast, but later moved to Los Angeles, where he became a private investigator, engaged in the business of tracking down missing heirs. He is now retired. He lives with his wife in Laurel Canyon. He has dabbled in writing over the years, but only recently took it up seriously. He spends his time writing, playing tennis, and worrying about the future of the human race.
Natashia Deón is the acclaimed author of Grace (Counterpoint Press, 2016), a Kirkus Review Best Book of 2016, a New York Times Top Book 2016, an Entropy Magazine Best Book of 2016, and winner of the American Library Association Black Caucus 2017 First Novel Prize, among other honors. Deón is a graduate of the University of California Riverside-Palm Desert MFA program in creative writing and the creator of Dirty Laundry Lit. She is the recipient of a host of prestigious fellowships and residencies, including PEN America Emerging Voices, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and Yale. In addition to being a writer, she is a practicing attorney and a law professor. Deón is the author of the forthcoming novel The Perishing, due out in 2020.
* * *
Within moments of meeting Natashia Deόn the evening before our interview, I know what type of person she is—she’s the type of person that people want to be their guru. And understandably so. She is both confident and humble, sharing as openly about her failings as she does her success. She speaks with the ease and authority of someone who is firmly grounded, someone who has gone deep within herself and emerged feeling at peace. That’s no small feat. It’s how I imagine Oprah would be if I met her, how I imagine we all would be after decades of meditation, self-reflection, and hanging out with Deepak Chopra.
But what Natashia Deόn is grounded in is her faith in God, and she speaks of it freely, reverently, without fanaticism and mostly without any self-consciousness. After sharing her belief that the story for her novel Grace was given to her by God, she says, “That’s how I feel about it, however that comes out or however that sounds.” As a woman of faith myself, it sounds reasonable to me, but that is not always the case with industry decision makers who often are concerned with more earthly matters. Despite that moment of self-consciousness, Natashia’s identity and her process as a writer are rooted in her faith, and her adherence to it in the face of opposition is the secret to her success.
We discussed this and other topics when I interviewed Deón on December 18, 2018 at the Antioch University Los Angeles campus. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
A.D. Lowman: I’ve got some prepared questions, but I’m totally open to wherever this goes. What I was thinking about as I prepared for this interview is that we read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer last term, and she says something that I totally agree with, which is that we do students of writing a disservice by not exposing them to the drafts of finished works. We study all of these finished works, but we never really see the process to get there. And so we end up comparing our works in progress to these finished works, and we’re expected to get there without fully seeing the process.
I wrote my questions for you with that in mind, and knowing that we’re all very interested in the circuitous, messy, sometimes depressing process that we hope will lead to an acclaimed work at the end. A lot of the interviews I’ve read that you’ve done have been about the content of the book; I want to be able to do something a little bit different.
Natashia Deón: Great!
ADL: Your novel Grace engrossed me from the very first page and has received almost universal critical acclaim. Did you have a sense as you were writing it, or once you completed it, that you had created something so resonant?
ND: I felt like, if I’m going to be completely honest, I felt like it was a big book. I felt it because I felt that it was given to me. As a writer, I see…myself as a servant first of words, and I think my story came from God. That’s how I feel about it, however that comes out or however that sounds. So I knew that if I could carry it to this imaginary finish line, that He would be there. Because He wouldn’t give me something to fail or not show up at the end. And that’s what kept me writing it, so I knew that it was going to be big. I didn’t know that I was the writer to do it, but I knew that I was going to be obedient and I knew He was going to show up. So it wasn’t really like a confidence in me, like, “Oh, I’m so great that everybody’s going to love what I write.” It was my confidence in Him, that He would come through for me. And so in the middle of the night I’d wake up with these dreams of how to change something, or with these visions [of] “Oh, I didn’t think of that!” It was kind of like [God] was my editor. I just trusted that, so that’s what I always knew is that He would show up.
There was one point in the book where I had a vision of all these slaves standing on the battlefield and they were all frozen and they weren’t moving. It was like it was a photograph and I’m walking through them.
ADL: In an interview with the LA Times, you talked about the powerful vision you had that gave you the setting, story, and opening scene of Grace. How did you get such a firm grasp on both the geographic and historical settings for the novel?
ND: My family is from Alabama. My mom and dad were the first to leave a very small town in Alabama called East Tallassee, Alabama, since the end of American slavery. Pretty much everyone else [in my family] stayed there, or the farthest they’ve gone is Atlanta. But pretty much everyone is still there. They were the first to leave, but in the summers, I used to go there and spend time there, so I knew the setting from when I was young, even though I was born in LA. And I would read a lot, so I was researching, but it was really based on my childhood memories of the place, and it doesn’t look anything like that now. And I didn’t want to go back to it because I didn’t want anything to change in my memory. And I don’t want to correct anything. Anything that I got wrong, I didn’t want to see it differently. And I used to ATV around the woods and stuff, you know? I wanted to remember that and honor that.
There was one point in the book where I had a vision of all these slaves standing on the battlefield and they were all frozen and they weren’t moving. It was like it was a photograph and I’m walking through them. And it was after my book was already being edited and [I] was like, “I’m missing something, I’m missing something.” And I’m on this battlefield and all these slaves are just frozen there. And it just answered the question that I had which was—because people kept saying, “Well, why isn’t the Emancipation Proclamation this moment of happiness for slaves?”— and it was because obviously they weren’t free, number one, and two, they were released in the middle of the Civil War. So there was nowhere for them to go, they were standing there like, “We can’t go.” They’re literally standing on the battlefield like, “I’m not going to cross the battlefield. I need to stay where I am. It’s safer here.” And it answered that question for me. So a lot of the details that I saw in that vision [answered] questions like, “Why didn’t my family leave?” They were freed, but why did they all stay where they were slaves at one time? So details like that, God just showed up for me.
ADL: Critical acclaim of Grace hails it as “flawlessly constructed,” and I would agree. Can you talk about how you created such a strong backbone for the novel?
ND: You know, I didn’t have a backbone [at first]. My novel just went linearly, and I remember finishing it thinking…it’s not moving. I get it, but it’s not moving the way that I want it to. I always had the opening, because I had that from the beginning. I didn’t want her to go through her life, then die, and then it starts the story of her daughter. And I went to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts to do a fellowship. For two weeks I’m there. They give you a studio to write in and an apartment, and you just sort of do the work. And I didn’t write a single word. They feed you, I went to the gym and I was like, “This was a waste of my time. Two weeks, it’s too quiet! There’s horses…” But the day that I got home to LA, and I woke up the next morning, I knew the structure of it. I knew it was going to go back and forth in time. So that’s sort of how I got the structure. And I thought about death and how people have near-death experiences, so I wanted to do it like that. Because my question is, “What scenes do we see?” Do we get to see this one right now, us sitting in this room? Like, why would we or would we not? So I was always interested in that, and I thought I could tell the story like that, and it worked.
ADL: What was that interaction like with an editor? Is that something you did before it went to that process?
ND: Yeah, but I talked to other editors who didn’t want that. What happens after you get your agent [is] you send it out and your agent will put you in touch with editors who are interested in buying it. So then you have this editorial call with them to see what their vision is because you want to make sure your editor sees what you see. Because Grace was 600 pages, and I had to cut it. So I’m like, “What do you want to cut? Do you want to cut the structure?” Things that you don’t think about as a writer.
Like to get into a book club, usually their page count is limited to 150. If your book is over 150 pages, the big ones like Well-Read Black Girl [look for] those books…to read on the big circuit. You know you’re not thinking about that as a writer, this is a 300-page book. It still made it to book club. I’m just saying…if that’s your eye for people to talk about it in book clubs, stuff like that is what [editors are] thinking of.
So I’m talking to my editor like, “I don’t think we’re going to go from 600 pages to 150 and still preserve this product.” He says, “We can still do it. How do you feel about the time jumps? Can we make the Emancipation Proclamation a happy day?” And I say, “No, it doesn’t make sense.” But there were other editors who were like, “We need to change it so it revolves around one day: the Emancipation Proclamation.” And I’m like, “No, that’s not how the story goes.” Or we need to leave out all the extra characters who aren’t black, and I said that’s not how the story goes. So you have to pass on big houses and it hurts. But at the end of the day, I felt like I wanted the book that God gave me and entrusted me with. Who am I going to give this baby to? So that became my decision instead of a financial one, but I think it worked out because I got the best team.
ADL: Your novel has also been praised for having the “propulsive plotting of a suspense novel,” and “sustain[ing] a murder ballad’s intensity for hundreds of pages.” How did you keep the literary and suspense aspects of your novel in balance? How did you keep one from overtaking the other? The phrase that has been used [at the ongoing MFA residency] is the “contract with the reader.” The opening tells them whether to expect literary, suspense, etc., so how did you handle that?
ND: I had ten days to edit Grace by the time it got—because there’s such a thing as trends. Because Underground was coming out, Yaa Gyasi’s book [Homegoing] was coming out, all these books. And my editor came to me in November, and my book wasn’t supposed to come out until the fall of the next year and the distributor PGW—which is the largest producer next to Simon & Schuster which does all the small presses—they were like, “If your book doesn’t go now, it may not go. So we need you to edit it and have it ready for Winter Institute.” So this is the first week of December. [They said], “We need to have it ready to be printed, galleyed, so you can be in this thing called ‘Winter Institute’ in January.” So we have ten days, and it was over Christmas and everything.
So we had to have it printed and I remember I was like, “Okay, Dan, I can do this, but I need a week after we edit it. You have to promise me that you’re going to give it back to me, no matter what we do…” And he’s like, “Okay, we gotta send it to the copy editor.” And what you get in a galley is usually not copy edited. So as I was reading through it, there were three chapters at the beginning that slowed it down. So if I’m in this rush, am I still wanting to turn the page, or am I slowing down? And so I had to cut, and I said, “Dan, I need to see it! You promised me a week!” He said, “You got three days!” So I read my book in three days and I just chopped Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, and it just went. And then I added some stuff, changed some stuff. And then it made sense to me, and that’s how it went.
[You and I] talked about this “writer instinct” because you know that something’s missing, so as much as you love it, you want a reason for the reader to turn the next page. There’s no reason, so you have to give them a reason, so that’s what I intentionally did.
ADL: Wow, I don’t even know what to write from that. I’m just going to have to take that from the recording!
ND: Just trust your instincts! Don’t let anybody else tell you, you know already, you know already. It’s just how to do it. Your only question as a writer is, “How do I do it?” I know there’s a problem here, and I know I’m trying to fake it and do all this stuff. Maybe nobody will notice, they’ll appreciate the literary, but they don’t. That’s the reality. And I knew because I was under that gun. I [loved] this character because there was a friendship—a best friendship—I said, but I had to lose her because audiences will close the book.
ADL: You said in the LA Times interview that it took you seven years to write Grace. You also mention in your acknowledgments about it starting out as a screenplay. What did that seven years entail? Are there any lessons you learned during that time that aspiring authors could benefit from?
ND: You know it’s funny…so the screenplay is different than the novel because it’s a different art form, right? But when I got that vision in the beginning, I had never written a novel. I didn’t know how to write a novel. But I had written screenplays for like MTV, so I like knew that form. So when I had that vision and wrote that opening page, I was like, I felt like it was supposed to be a novel, but I was like, “I can’t write a novel! I’m not a novelist. I’ll write it as a screenplay!” So I wrote it as a screenplay in six months. It was done and it was sent out to film festivals where it was winning screenplay [awards]: Charleston, London, Beverly Hills, it was winning all these awards everywhere.
Always trust your writerly instinct. Never take a note that doesn’t resonate with you. There are notes that people could give you that are right, but right now you’re not at a place where you could receive that note.
It won eight awards, and then I went to an option meeting. And I’m sitting at the table with all these famous, powerful people and they’re talking about the book like, “Well, Cynthia, we’re not going to make her Jewish. We’re going to make her this other kind of character. We’ll make her like biracial. She’s not a prostitute because you can’t be Jewish and a prostitute.” I was like, “What are we doing? This is not how the story goes! This is not how it goes!” And then when it was time to sign, I said, “I can’t sign. I need to write this book so that at least it’ll be the story that I was given before you make it the story that you want it to be.”
So I enrolled in Novel Writing I at UCLA Extension Program. And then I just started learning how to write a novel. The rest didn’t come inspired like my opening, but I put in the work to learn the craft of it. And that’s how it became what it is. And it’s plotted differently, but I learned dialogue. Because you learn how all dialogue has to reveal character, reveal emotional state, move the story forward, so it helped me with that.
The first two years was this screenwriting thing because I thought it was going to be a movie. And then I was in an MFA program. So after I finished, I was a PEN Emerging Voices Fellow for a year, so that’s like three years now and two years is in the MFA program. So now we’re talking five years because you’re not really writing. At least in my MFA program, you’re reading other people’s stuff, you’re not working specifically [on your own writing]. So it really took two years in earnest but I had all that pre-time to think about sort of what I wanted to do and learn the craft. So it took about two years to write it and sell it and for it to come out. So seven years is not really [accurate].
ADL: In that process, was there any point where you felt delayed or discouraged, or did you feel—because in what I’m hearing, at least, there is a lot of purposefulness and intention behind the decisions you’re making and what you’re accepting and what you’re not accepting for your story. So I guess I’m just curious what advice can you give to writers in that process?
ND: It’s to always trust your writerly instinct. Never take a note that doesn’t resonate with you. There are notes that people could give you that are right, but right now you’re not at a place where you could receive that note. And it could be three years from now that you’re like, “Oh! That’s why!” But if you take a note because that’s the consensus to make this change, and you do it but your heart is not in it, you won’t see it as an artist, and you’ll end up writing something that you don’t like, that you don’t love and was never supposed to be in there at that moment. It could be a future revision, so you just hold onto it, put a pin in it. Reject notes that you don’t understand or that don’t feel right to you. They could be right but they’re not right for you right then. It’s all a journey.
There’s one scene that’s not in the book that I held onto for a very long time, till the very end. People were like, “You can’t do this, people will close the book.” I was like, “Nope.” Because this was reality, this was how it happened in my life. I was using a real-life experience, and I’m putting it in there. And even the rape scene that’s in the book, I had to pare it down, but I wouldn’t. I was like, “Nope.” Because I want people to understand that rape is not only date rape. I need people to really understand this thing. And then finally I was like, in those ten days of editing, my editor was like, “Natashia, it’s too much for some people,” but I was like, “This is real! This is real life!” This was my client, somebody who was torn from one end to the other. I was like, people should see what we talk about when we talk about rape. It’s not just a word people throw around, you know? There’s violence. He was like, “I just think it’s too much. We need to pare it down.” I was like, “Alright.” So I pared it down, and he was right. But I had to understand it at that moment, but it didn’t resonate with me until right then that it didn’t have to be that harsh. And people still complain about that scene.
ADL: After sitting with your novel for that long, what was it like when it was finally published?
ND: It was great! You know, it happened so fast. You know how people say that? It literally [did]. December we’re editing and January I’m at Winter Institute and they hand me my galley while I’m sitting with booksellers at a table before we go in and I’m just crying. So this is like January 13th and remember December 27th [I was] editing this thing. And they’re like, you need to go in this hall with all these writers around this huge hall in this hotel. And people are coming and asking me to sign it, and I’m like, “What?” So I’m signing books, and there’s a huge long line of people and it just doesn’t make sense to me, but I’m just like, “Okay!” And then they sold out within the month.
So February I was in my second printing. That same month, Amazon and Blackstone went into a competition for the audio rights, and then Blackstone blocked Amazon. And I’m like, “What?!” So all my advance and everything is paid off before I even start. So I don’t have to pay any money [back]. So I make money with the first book. And then Lisa Renee Pitts—[the movie] Straight Outta Compton had just come out—she was Dr. Dre’s momma, and she’s the actress they choose to voice it. So now we’re only in February/March and then it was in the fifth printing by August and I’m traveling the twenty-two cities. So there was never a time where I got to sit and [contemplate]. And at my book release, all my friends came out and it was exciting. But I didn’t feel like it happened. I’m signing books like, “What is this thing that they’ve given me?” So that’s how fast it happened.
ADL: In addition to being a writer, you’re a practicing attorney, law professor, wife, and mother. Do you have any advice for those of us writers who also balance families and/or alternate careers about how to keep the plates spinning?
ND: First of all, you just have to give up hope that you’re going to have time to just sit down… especially if you’re a mother. You’re not going to have the time that single people have, so stop comparing yourself to single people or people who don’t have children because your life will look nothing like that. Be with [other] people who are moms, who are even spouses, because you’re responsible for taking care of other people, and [being a spouse is] like taking care of a child or someone else, and your schedule is not based on what you want to do. It’s based on working [around] everybody else who affects you. So if you’re moms, specifically, don’t compare yourself to people who are single. And it’s hard to do. You have to…look straight ahead in your own lane.
[Just] give up hope that you’ll have time. But schedule time, even if you have to do a little writing retreat. Save money, or take your tax money or whatever, [and] make your own retreat. Because you know, you miss deadlines, because the deadlines are like nine months for all the good retreats, so you forget them. Just set up to go to another city in a hotel and just write. Make your own retreat. And also write whenever you can. Whenever you have an idea, put it in the notes section of your phone. Just put it in there. I wrote most of Grace in the notes section of my phone waiting for my children to get out of school. You have to trick yourself. Even if it’s one scene, I just want to write the conversation with Cynthia and Naomi. Any way that you can move forward.
Every day you should try to move forward, even if it’s a bad sentence. Like, for instance, in the book I just sold. The last thing I wrote before I sent it to my agent was something that came to me when I was walking and it was, “I’m a fragile instrument” [and] something about being used by God. And that was it. And it ended up being the opening. I redid the opening and made that the opening line, sent it to my agent, and that’s the one that they bought. So even if it was a weak sentence, you never know. Just write it. You make your own schedule. You’re your own boss.
ADL: When people are asked to reflect on their lives, a lot of times they’ll say that good or bad, they wouldn’t change a thing. I completely disagree with that, and there are many things I would edit in my life story, given the chance! What about you? Is there anything you would change on your writer’s journey if you could?
ND: Yeah. Real talk? I would change being upset when things didn’t happen for me that I thought that I deserved, and doing it publicly. I had this moment, this very embarrassing moment where Grace, it was requested by a prominent magazine that I love. And I didn’t win, let’s be real. [She laughs] But I knew—or I felt, true or not—that my book was stronger than this other book that did win. And I [said it] was just because this person’s popular, just because they’re a male, all those other excuses that could be true or not. And I went to social media and I said something about it. It was up for maybe five minutes and then I took it down, but enough people saw it. And two years later I went to a conference, and someone says, “Can you believe someone would do that?” as she’s looking at me. And I had to tell her, “I did that.” Because I thought at the time that it was true, but you know what? It doesn’t matter.
I wrote most of Grace in the notes section of my phone waiting for my children to get out of school.
And I know that more now because I’m a judge for the LA Times Book Prize. I have 275 books to read. If those first few pages aren’t good, I’m like “Thank God, I’m moving on to the next book.” And that’s what life is like. And I know a lot of the people in my pile. And I feel horrible because a lot of these people are my friends and I’m not choosing [their] book and that hurts. So there’s a lot of things that come into play. Is this book too big? Like you have Bill Clinton’s book, and he’s doing first fiction (one of the Book Prize categories). You have so many things that go into play and you can’t worry about contests. You just have to worry about writing the best book that you can write. Because 100 years from now, somebody will open up the pages of your book and be like, “Who is this person? When did she live? Is she still here?” That’s all you have to worry about. Did you write the best book that you could write right then? And don’t worry about what other people are doing. And then learn how to applaud when other people get [recognition]. And if it’s not natural, just start practicing. Just say, “Good job!” until it becomes who you are. So that’s what I had to do, and I have a whole different attitude toward it, but I had to make that mistake to learn it, fully.
ADL: Do you have any ongoing or upcoming projects you’d be willing to share with our readers?
ND: The book that I just sold is called The Perishing, it comes out in 2020. And it’s about a black woman…in 1930s Los Angeles, [who] basically becomes aware that she may be immortal just as she finds a love in a city worth dying for. So it’s all about the 1930s, between the two World Wars here in LA, and it’s not about Hollywood. I mean, there’s parts that reflect [that], but it’s about the people who lived here and what they went through.
ADL: Are you still working on Dirty Laundry Lit and some of the other projects that launched you?
ND: Well Dirty Laundry Lit is on a long hiatus because I wanted to focus [on something else]. I have a commitment to mentoring and bringing up the next generation of writers. Like, there was nobody for me saying, “Come on, Natashia,” so there was a lot of floundering, figuring things out, getting it wrong, offending people. “Should I be mad at this, should I not?” There was no sounding board, so I’m trying now to make myself available for other people and give them a platform.
And I’m redefining friendship in my life. You know, I’m at an age where I want friends not just to commiserate with me and say, “Oh, look how terrible it is,” but people around me who can help, who can do something about it. Because they want to, because they can. Because I’m a giving person anyway, and I’ll show up for people, so now I’m asking people to show up for me. So let’s be friends, but I have people to commiserate with. I need this kind of person, now I’m hiring!
You have so many things that go into play and you can’t worry about contests. You just have to worry about writing the best book that you can write.
I also want to be able to help people who are coming up. I’m not like Toni Morrison or somebody like that, but I have something and I want to share this one little piece with somebody else. So I started The Table Reading Series, which is at Hollywood Hotel because they called me and told me they wanted to host Dirty Laundry, so I said how about I do a new reading series and I bring in up-and-coming producing groups to produce their own readings. So I have my black women writers, then I have the LGBT, the ex-prisoners, we have all these different groups to come [to The Table]. I show them how to contact their readers, how you make an invitation and all the bits and pieces of how to do it, so they can create their own, so hopefully they’ll be able to multiply that way.
ADL: So what are you reading these days?
ND: Everything! I told you I’m doing the LA Times Book Prize! The books I’m reading for the LA Times are all books that were published in 2018. The books I chose for my [MFA mentoring] group are books that I think are really well-done but reflect something different:
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy because of its strong setting.
- How Are You Going to Save Yourself? by J.M. Holmes because of the difficult racial issues it raises. (“Writers are the conscience of the nation.”)
* * *
I close our interview by asking Natashia if there’s anything I didn’t ask that she wished I had. She turns the question back on me and tells me she wants me to ask her if she thinks I can become the writer I think I can. It makes me blush a little, but I ask her. In response, she feeds back to me the qualities that she’s picked up about me in the short time since we met as evidence that I have what it takes to succeed as a writer. It’s when she starts talking about the sacrifice I’m making as a mother to pursue my writing career—a sacrifice with which she is intimately familiar—that I start to tear up.
This probably wasn’t the most auspicious way to end my first author interview…but guess who just found their new writing guru?
A.D. Lowman is a management professional, consultant, and community leader. Her leadership and career advice has been featured in Essence, Money, and Diversity Woman magazines. She is pursuing her MFA in creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles where she serves as a blogger, interviewer, and assistant web team manager for Lunch Ticket.
In the middle of an IKEA showroom, I agonized over the transition between two sentences. I was wrestling with a second-grade assignment on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While I knew any seven-year-old could cobble together two statements about Dr. King, bridging together two thoughts about his achievements with one seamless transition proved to be impossible for me. I treated the plywood desk as my own while I sulked in its Örfjäll swivel chair and stared at my elementary school homework with my head in my hands. Unaware that her only child was facing a literary crisis, my mother took her time as she flipped over price tags on the matching bedroom set. She was busy furniture-shopping for our new apartment. I got up from my desk to interrupt her and tugged on her shirt for help.
“Add the word ‘hence’,” she answered. Then, she glanced at the assignment again to suggest a more age-appropriate solution, “Or even ‘henceforth’.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It’s like, uhm…” After a long pause, she handed me back my paper and sighed, “Just write it.”
Explanations were always difficult for Mom. Finding the right words to provide additional context often left her feeling vulnerable and easily frustrated. She was especially annoyed when she had to provide such explanations to her young, American-born daughter who only spoke English. My language would never be quite as seamless for her compared to her native tongue of Tagalog. Although my mom could speak English fluently, she still fumbled with pronunciations out loud as she confused her f’s and p’s—the fine line between foot and put being a classic example. She took long breaks between sentences as she searched her mind for the right phrases in her upcoming thought. She repeated nonsensical errors in her speech when they were left uncorrected. They even bled into my own imperfect English and became the reason why I thought easy over was my favorite style of eggs.
Somewhere between fumbled words, botched sayings, and foreign accents, my mother and I were destined to be lost in translation. While there were certain lessons in language she’d be willing to teach, explaining the terminology behind the complexities of love was never one of them.
My mom’s written English was an entirely different story. She gravitated toward lengthy formalities and embraced vocabulary that most people would find verbose. It was as if each written document was an opportunity to prove her English was up to par. She could take time articulating her thoughts and flaunting her fluency. In the safety of her handwritten notes, no reader could criticize her mistakes or fault her for having an accent. So, in addition to hence, henceforth, and other advanced adverbs, my mom would teach me to write formally as well. Every time Father’s Day, Christmas, or my dad’s birthday rolled around, she would pick out a card for him. She’d then instruct me to pen the salutation, “Write, ‘Dear Dad’.” After a brief pause, she’d correct herself, “‘Dearest Dad’.” The first few attempts included “Father,” and as she stared at the end of the card, I could practically hear her debating the use of “Cordially” in her head. When signing the card, I’d ask my mom if she wanted me to include her name. She’d politely decline with a shy smile. Her response always confused me, and in the early years of their separation, I think it confused her too.
Like many IKEA shoppers, Mom was living on her own for the first time in America. Because, like one out of every two American couples, she was ending a marriage. While the separation should have upset me, I was more concerned with the details of my paper on Dr. King. At seven years old, I easily adapted to our new normal because my parents hardly spoke about their problems. I took my dad at his word when he told me the change was temporary, and I simply assumed my mom’s silence was her way of agreeing with him. While I was confused when she moved into her new apartment, I took comfort in the reassurance I had been given and focused on other matters at hand. After all, Mom needed my help with picking out new furniture.
The apartment had a decent amount of space to fill as it boasted two bedrooms, a sizeable living room, a terrace, and a kitchen that was much larger than the one in our original apartment where Dad still lived. However, our new Grand Concourse neighborhood seemed different from our former Riverdale home. There, we lived in a co-op that came equipped with a kids’ playground and a modest garden where our elderly Jewish neighbors would sit and quietly gossip with their nurse aides. Mom’s new apartment was in a walk-up with no amenities, and we only had one neighbor named Victoria. A kind woman whose bright blue eyes amplified her sadness while alcohol stained her breath. I’d usually hear her fighting with her husband downstairs, but occasionally she’d come up to our apartment to talk to Mom and ask her for help. Sometimes she’d cry, other times she’d have bruises, but every time, she’d go back to her husband.
Mom eventually stopped allowing Victoria to visit. It became too difficult for her to support a new neighbor while being in the thick of her own marital issues. While I understood that much about the situation, I still wanted to know the details. When I asked my mom to explain the circumstances, she refused. For one thing, the pronunciation of the word circumstances always tripped her up. She’d pronounce the “I” in the first syllable as “ɪr” rather than “ər” so that it sounded more like searcumstances. After avoiding that word, she then told me I was too young to understand such adult topics. These were including but not limited to why married people fight, why they stay together, and why they don’t. She shifted the conversation by asking me if I could higher the volume and close the doors so her cooking didn’t smell the room. She’d leave the conversation at that and go back to preparing our dinner. In turn, I’d make sure the bedroom doors were closed and then raised the volume on our TV to drown out the sounds of Victoria and her husband as they either fought or loudly made up.
Coming back from IKEA, Mom and I lugged our new furniture up the second-floor walk-up. We left the packages of disassembled pieces scattered on the living room floor for us to deal with later. Then, we collapsed onto her bed where my mother smiled and held me so tight. Without any words, I knew she was in a state of bliss. The separation was the start of a life that she chose for herself, and the happiness it gave her was not lost on me. While our apartment may not have been in the perfect building or neighborhood, she took pride in the fact that it was ours. As we cuddled in her new bed, I was surprised when Mom prompted a language lesson. One that would be filled with explanations and translations that usually annoyed her.
“Do you want to learn my language?” she smiled.
“TAG-a-log?” My American-born tongue was too heavy on the “T” and elongated the first syllable, but I was intrigued. My father never wanted to teach me Tagalog. Also raised in America, he feared I would be teased at school like he was for adopting even an ounce of Philippine culture. He made sure my English was like his, smooth and free of any alarming accents. However, my mom presented her language as an opportunity rather than a burden. When I agreed to a lesson, she excitedly propped herself up on the bed and tried teaching me simple numbers.
“Can you say, ‘Isa’?” she asked.
“Good. Then, ‘dalawa’.”
“Da-LAH-wahhh,” I joked.
She repeated herself, “Dalawa!”
“Your language sounds funny,” I told her.
My mom made a few more reluctant attempts. Her foreign words, odd pronunciation, and strange-sounding syllables were only met with more teasing. It was the first and only time she ever tried teaching me her language. Although my immature responses were said with laughter, they managed to serve as an unforgiving echo of her new reality. She was a foreigner who was living on American soil. An immigrant who was on her own for the first time. A single-mother who was misunderstood by her only daughter. Mom would continue speaking imperfect English while teaching me written words that were several years above my grade level. She would do her best to downplay her accent in public. She would hand me the phone whenever she needed to order take-out. Every now and then I’d hear her speak to family members and certain friends in Tagalog, all the while never knowing what exactly she said.
During yet another round of furniture shopping, Mom explored our options in a nearby shopping mall as she crossed her fingers for a sale at Stern’s. Although I was warming up to our new apartment, I began to develop more questions about my parents’ marriage. I was hearing about a word called divorce that, unlike a separation, was permanent. It was gradually being used more and more along with other ominous terms like custody and attorneys. My family members repeated these expressions in whispers when they thought I wasn’t listening. Even my friends and classmates talked about it as their own parents showed concern. It seemed as if divorce was a bad word that wasn’t so much connected to my mother’s newfound happiness but more so to my father’s sadness and our family’s disbelief. While Mom tried her best to shield me from the complexities of marriage, she couldn’t contain my curiosity as the finality of our new normal began to sink in.
“Why are you and Dad getting divorced?”
My mother got quiet, not expecting the question to come in a parking lot during an afternoon shopping run. “It’s hard to explain,” she replied. I pouted in the front seat. I knew she wasn’t great at explanations, but I wanted an answer. Now seven-and-a-half years old, I deserved to know what was going on. “How about this,” she smiled, “I’ll tell you when you turn sixteen. Promise!” The white lie and allure of a grown-up birthday present was exactly what my mom needed to buy herself some time and to quell her young daughter’s growing curiosity. With child-like satisfaction, I agreed to her offer and held her hand as we walked to the mall.
Somewhere between fumbled words, botched sayings, and foreign accents, my mother and I were destined to be lost in translation. While there were certain lessons in language she’d be willing to teach, explaining the terminology behind the complexities of love was never one of them. While there would be a time when she finally spoke about irreconcilable differences, falling out of love, and other intricate phrases that shaped her marriage, these explanations never took place during my childhood. Or even on my sixteenth birthday, as promised. They happened well into my adulthood when factors, such as time, experience, and patience, would gradually mend our language barrier. Perhaps my mom could have explained things to me right then and there in the parking lot. Perhaps she could have written down the details with her eloquence and precision. But neither of those options were the choice she made. It wasn’t that the divorce and its adult terminologies were too difficult for an immigrant to teach. Rather, they were too painful for a single-mother to convey. Looking back on it, I’d like to believe my mom was simply trying her best to find the right words.
Kristen Gaerlan is an emerging writer and native New Yorker. Her home is in Brooklyn, her roots are in the Bronx, and the roots to her roots are in the Philippines. Her work has been featured in publications that include Bustle, Pop Sugar, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She’s currently writing a memoir about Filipino-American assimilation.
“Your mother’s your slave,” a girl in the playground taunted.
“Is not!” I insisted, but even at six years old, I recognized the truth in her words.
My mom pulled socks on my feet while I lay in bed to save me from the shock of cold tile, read to me in the bathroom when I had trouble going, brought sweaters out to whatever stoop I’d landed on instead of calling me home.
Meanwhile, my mom did none of this for my sister. She spat Andra’s name. She screeched with anger. A curse or lie slipped from twelve-year-old Andra’s lips and she’d have to kneel in the kitchen, the cutout specks in the linoleum patterning her knees.
* * *
“Where’s-my-sis-ter?” I chanted one afternoon, bouncing a pink ball in rhythm.
My mom kept browsing The Pennysaver. “Probably out with friends.”
Andra didn’t show up for supper, or after I finished my homework, or when I sat with my dad while he watched Gunsmoke. Outside, night had spilled all of its ink.
“She’s always home by now. She should be here.”
“You’re right,” my dad answered. “She should.”
* * *
After that, Andra left often. Even when she pinky swore she wouldn’t. Even after we watched Dorothy tell Auntie Em there’s no place like home.
* * *
At home, Andra taught me to draw girls with slants of hair covering one eye. She explained why Fred Flintstone wore dresses and kept a pet dinosaur.
“Don’t tell,” she’d say, lighting a Kool in our hideout behind the garage.
Shaping her mouth into the O from my name, she sent bracelets of smoke skyward. I watched them spread and disappear.
* * *
The next time Andra returned from wherever runaways go, my parents threatened to send her away. “There are special schools for girls who keep looking for trouble.”
It seemed upside down to me. Why banish someone whose worst offense was leaving?
* * *
Eventually, Andra was sent to what was described to me as a girls’ boarding school in upstate New York. I pictured a line of teenagers standing frozen in a row like Barbies at the toy store.
When we finally visited, we sat at a picnic table surrounded by trees and distant mountains. Andra probably told us something about her days there, but her words are as lost to me as the dialogue on the silent screen at the drive-in across from our motel. All I recall is needing to touch my sister, pushing her hair back from her pretty face.
* * *
A decade later, Andra visited me on my own grassy campus. I was eighteen, studying poetry and women’s literature.
“Well, excuse me, Miss Educated,” Andra quipped when I claimed to practically live at the library.
“Schoolwork,” I mumbled, glancing away. I couldn’t articulate that reading was how I escaped the painful imbalances at home.
Miss Educated. Listening back through the years, I can hear pride beneath her teasing. But at the time, it felt like an indictment. Who was I to move so far past the sister I once worshipped? Her education ended in eighth grade at the school I didn’t yet know wasn’t a school at all.
I also didn’t know that when Andra arrived there, at thirteen, she’d already reached what for her would be late middle age. She died suddenly and violently the year after our stroll through my college campus.
* * *
It took thirty years—both parents gone, my own child a teenager—before I thought to call the library in Hudson, New York.
“My sister attended a boarding school in your town in 1970. Would you know what the name of it might’ve been?”
Hearing the word reformatory, my breath caught in my throat. That pretty campus had been a lockup. I wondered what crime Andra could’ve possibly committed. Then I read about the Wayward Minor Act, which allowed the incarceration of children for deeds no more serious than skipping school or running away from an unlivable home. Under this state law, parents could bring charges against their kids simply for being difficult, simply for being kids.
* * *
The New York State Training School for Girls. The focus wasn’t on education, but on discipline and keeping the twelve to sixteen-year-old inmates sealed off from the world. Inside, they faced forced labor, violence, sexual abuse, and long stretches in solitary.
Throw adolescents together and they can be relentlessly cruel. Thankfully, they can also be loving and fiercely loyal. Training School girls fell in love, held wedding ceremonies, claimed other inmates as their children. The families they formed could be as rough as street gangs, but also caring and protective in ways many, including Andra, never experienced at home.
* * *
“Don’t tell,” Andra often made me promise. I never did, but I also never asked.
Where were you, I’m asking now. What happened there? What got you through?
Without her here to answer, I turn to school and court records, case studies in yellowed books, memoirs by women who were once incarcerated girls—reading, finally, not to escape, but to bear witness.
“About time, Miss Educated,” I hear my sister say.
Ona Gritz’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Utne Reader, MORE magazine, and elsewhere. “It’s Time,” which appeared in The Rumpus, was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, 2016. Ona’s books include the memoir On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability, and the poetry collections Geode, and Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems, written with her husband, Daniel Simpson.
- The first one was in the egg shop. I was a baby, strapped to my mother’s back in a blue nylon carrier while she wandered Kotwali bazaar. Shelves of eggs, a single room with three walls and a pull-over aluminum door. All of the eggs broke. After the shaking stopped, the street dogs rushed in, thrilled, lapping the floor and shelves.
- They happened all the time in Dharamsala, my dad says. My brother remembers the one that broke the cottage above Macleod Ganj where the other ex-pats lived; he was in school reciting square root tables. My sister remembers, too; she had been on the roof, sweeping off monsoon rainwater.
- Halloween when I was 11: Katie and I went out—her witch hat, my face stamped with moon and stars—and got candy one last time. What are you? mothers asked, scowling at us. We were old now. In the morning, it was in the papers. They were rare in New England, after all. None of us had felt it, and we all wished we had.
- The train was too far from Matt’s house in Kent, Ohio, to hear the horn, but the vibrations woke me up at 4 a.m., 6 a.m., 8 a.m. I didn’t know yet that this is what an earthquake feels like. I slowed my breathing, one breath for every two of his, until I fell asleep again.
- In my lab in La Jolla, I was always worried I’d be working with radiation when one happened. I’d be closed in what we called the hot room, and the radioisotopes would spill over the bench, the floor, burn through my gloves and shoes and fry my ovaries. When one did come, I only had a bottle of saline solution. It went on so long that we all looked around at each other, wondering if we should get under the desks and hold their legs like the video said. We just stood there, eyebrows up, flasks and pipettes in our frozen hands, shaking. It passed and we got back to work.
- I felt one in the apartment in San Diego, too: rumble, pause, rumble. Max came back from his run, dripping, a half hour later. He hadn’t felt it: it turns out that in motion, you can’t feel the earth move under you. Oh man, he said, I missed it!
- In Berkeley, I sometimes startle awake at 2 a.m., bed shaking. I always wait, but when another movement doesn’t come, I know it’s just the subway shaking the ground.
- None of us are prepared. I have some dust masks, a hand-crank radio, but only a gallon of water stored under the bed. No canned food, no can opener, no crowbar to hack out of a collapsed building when The Big One comes. And my building will collapse: my walls already show cracks; my ceiling is already starting to buckle. No one I love has the money to live somewhere safe. Maybe this is why no one I love has bothered to get the recommended welding gloves, or waterproof matches. In the shape we’ll be in, we don’t want to survive.
- The last time, you were there with me. My bed was our bed for the evening; my body your body for the night. I was over you, my hands braced on your shoulders, hearts thumping. And then the bed shook. The headboard rattled. We stopped moving, eyes locked. A framed photograph fell from the wall. The ground kept shaking the building, and the building kept shaking the bed, and the bed kept shaking us, until my heart fell out of my chest and onto yours. It lay on you, throbbing, wet, ruby-red and oversized like a cartoon steak. I bled over you. The blood ran off your sides, pooled under your ribs, your belly button. You tried to place, and then shove, my heart back in my ribcage, but it wouldn’t fit. Well, you said, I think this is The Big One. You put your fist where my heart had been and stopped the bleeding.
Hope is a science writer in Berkeley, California. Her work has most recently been published in Lost Balloon, Pidgeonholes, and The Rumpus. You can find her at hoperhenderson.com, and on twitter @hoperhenderson.
[translated flash prose]
Take this seed. Plant it in an olla that has only been used to make coffee. Water it lightly Tuesdays and Fridays around midnight. It will grow into a plant with black flowers. Cut them with a man’s knife and grind them up in a new lava stone mortar. You will be left with a bit of paste resembling congealed blood. Drop this into a bottle of mezcal and let it brew for twenty-eight days. By then you will have a perfume. Sprinkle a few drops on the sheets each time you bring a woman to your bed. If she is the woman you are destined to love, the bed will fly through the window, sail to the shore and at the shore become a boat and disappear at sea. Nothing will be heard of the two of you again but why would you want to return to land if you’ve found true love. But if she’s not the one, the bed will become a wild mare, will leap through the window and run with you all night long. When you wake in the morning, nothing will matter to you. You’ll ask why you would want to meet your soulmate if a woman who isn’t yields such grand pleasure.
Toma esta semilla. Plántala en una olla que se haya usado sólo para hacer café. Riégala un poco los martes y los viernes cuando esté por dar la medianoche. Crecerá una planta con flores negras. Córtalas con un cuchillo de hombre y muélelas en un molcajete nuevo. Te quedará una pastita como sangre coagulada. Ésta la vas a echar en un cuarto de mezcal y la vas a dejar ahí 28 días. Al cabo de éstos tendrás un perfume. Rocías unas gotitas en las sábanas de tu cama cada vez que lleves una mujer. Si es el amor que te toca, vas a ver que la cama sale volando por la ventana y se va a playa y en la playa se convierte en una barca y se pierde en el mar. Nunca se volverá a saber de ustedes, pero para qué quieren regresar a la tierra si ya encontraron el amor. Ahora que, si no es la mujer que te toca, la cama se convertirá en una yegua bronca, saltará por la ventana y se los llevará a correr toda la noche. Cuando despiertes en la mañana, ya no te importará nada. Dirás que para qué quieres encontrar a la mujer que te toca si con la que no te toca es tan grande el placer.
Agustín Cadena intends to subtly connect “Black Magic” to indigenous magical beliefs of rural Mexico and does so with three words: olla, molcajete, and mezcal. I was able to keep olla, that unique receptacle, because, of course, it has only been used to make coffee: café de olla is as particular as café au lait. Generally speaking, alcohol needs no introduction, so mezcal should be fine. Molcajete was the problem. The sentence describes the grinding done in it, but a molcajete is not just a mortar. It’s a dark lava stone mortar used by country folk and when it’s new, the stone is as coarse as a concrete block. The rest of this wild flash story is all Agustín Cadena.
Patricia Dubrava teaches writing and literary translation at the University of Denver. She has two books of poems and one book of stories translated from Spanish. Her translations of Agustín Cadena’s stories have appeared most recently in Mexico City Lit, Exchanges, Asymptote, Numéro Cinq, and Cagibi. Her translation of a Cadena story was a finalist for Lunch Ticket’s Gabo Prize in 2017. Dubrava blogs at www.patriciadubrava.com
Photo Credit: Ella Dascalos
Agustín Cadena was born in Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo, México, and teaches at the University of Debrecen, Hungary. Essayist, fiction writer, poet and translator, Cadena has won national prizes for fiction and poetry. His books include collections of short fiction, essays, poetry, five novels, and eight young adult novels. His work has been translated into English, Italian, and Hungarian. Cadena blogs at www.elvinoylahiel.blogspot.com
Photo Credit: Roberto Garza
I take a breath and hold it before putting my key in the lock. It’s four o’clock on a Thursday, which means Mom is on her way home from work at Boutique Aspirations. It sounds nice. Imagine a boutique selling hopes and dreams, but the boutique is a vacuum-repair shop. Her job literally sucks.
Aspirateur is French for vacuum cleaner. The verb, aspirer, means to suck out and create a void. Aspiration is also when gastric contents end up in your lungs and cause infection. A void created from life being sucked out of it, and the inside of a lung infected with bile is how I’d describe Mom’s house.
If we own a vacuum cleaner, it’s been taken over by a colony of dust Godzillas. Mom’s mania with collecting stuff got out of hand when Dad left two years ago. Ever since, Mom is like the ballerina in my music box spinning round and round, never stopping to look at herself in the tiny mirror.
I turn the knob and push the door open. Obstructing it are plush giraffes, tigers, and bears. I force the door as far as it will go. I turn sideways to get in. I walk through the maze and mounds of boxes, clothes, and other lonely objects, some with the price tags still on.
I’ve gotten so used to it, I was able to navigate around the house during a black-out. Jenny, my twelve-year-old sister, is terrified of the dark and panicked when the lights went out. She couldn’t stop yelling, “Something will fall, Sarah, get me out!”
My muscles have the maneuvers memorized. It’s a climb up a hill of plushies; a walk over large storage containers (which, incidentally, are empty); a giant leap over the newspapers at the base of the stairs; and an obstacle course on the way up. I’m like a spy dodging booby traps.
I feel more anxious than usual because ballet lessons start up again on Saturday, and it’s where I can stretch out, move, and find freedom. Ballet keeps me fit so I can climb the rope in gym class faster than most boys. It also keeps me limber enough to move around the house without making anything fall.
I get to my room and exhale. The air in here is less rancid and, in comparison to the rest of the house, my room is immaculate.
Jenny and I have shared a room since mom’s obsession with sewing. After a shopping spree, Mom filled Jenny’s room with a sewing machine from the thrift store, rolls of fabrics, and patterns from the flea market.
When she came home with the stuff, Mom was on fast-forward. She spoke quickly and loudly, charged with excitement from her purchases.
“My mom taught me how to sew when I was a kid. I forgot all about it until I saw these patterns. I can make all of our clothes,” she told us as she loaded the items into the house.
“Where will you sew?” I asked, making a pirouette and gesturing to the two-foot wide space between piles of debris.
“There’s space in Jenny’s room,” Mom answered as she carried her load up the stairs.
Jenny moved in that night. I’d rather have Jenny here than across the hall of shopping-cart nightmares.
I sit and read while I wait for Jenny to get home from school, but I’ve read the same sentence over several times. I decide to pack instead, hoping the evening goes by quickly. Tomorrow is Friday, and Dad will pick us up to spend the weekend at his place.
Dad is not my father. Dad is Jenny’s biological father. He’s been my Dad since the year after my father died, when I was two.
I feel more anxious than usual because ballet lessons start up again on Saturday, and it’s where I can stretch out, move, and find freedom. Ballet keeps me fit so I can climb the rope in gym class faster than most boys. It also keeps me limber enough to move around the house without making anything fall.
Mom gets resentful when we leave Friday nights, especially with me because I don’t have to go. He’s not my father, and I have no right leaving her alone to see him.
But if I don’t go, I’ll be sick right on top of all of her crap. I know it stings when we leave because it’s a reminder of how Dad doesn’t love her. The junk fills the void.
When Jenny gets home, we make sandwiches for dinner in the cramped kitchen, and spend the rest of the night in our room, doing homework.
School the next day is a bore except for the time I spend with Jake at lunch and between periods.
“Can we hang out this weekend?” He asks, nuzzling my hair.
“Of course. See you tomorrow.” We kiss, and I run to catch my bus.
Dad’s waiting for us in Mom’s driveway at 5:15. I tie my long hair back and load our stuff into his car. Jenny and I both sit in the back seat. I can finally breathe.
“How’s your mother?” Dad asks.
Jenny looks at me as if she wants to tell Dad our secret, but I don’t let her. I squeeze her hand to let her know she should not say anything. She responds by looking at the ground. Nobody would let two children live there if they knew what it was like. Jenny could go live with Dad, but what about me? Mom won’t let me stay with him. I don’t want Jenny and I to be separated. I have to help her with her homework and teach her how to stay organized, be her guide to Tampax, and bras, and high school. We’ll have to tough it out another two years.
“Is it that bad?” Dad sees Jenny’s sad face in the rear-view mirror.
I try to lighten the mood and tell Dad, “She’s still upset you’re gone, Dad, but it’s okay.”
“We’re okay. What about you? And Alice?”
“She’s fine,” he responds.
Alice is Jenny’s stepmom. Technically, she’s not my anything, but I wish she was.
She wears pearls and teaches little kids. Her house always smells like freshly-baked something opposed to week-old something. Her dog doesn’t stink, and his feces are not in every corner of the basement. Mom’s Chihuahua, Buck, is allowed to relieve himself in the basement because she doesn’t have the energy to take him for a walk. I’ve tried to walk him, but he bit me before I got the leash on. I can’t go in the basement. The stench makes me sick, and I don’t ever let Jenny go. Thinking about it makes me want to set the whole place on fire. Alice’s dog is sweet and fun and smells like outside.
At Dad’s, Jake can come over since his mother lives nearby. At Dad’s, I can get through the house without having to twist sideways to fit through mounds of debris. We can walk straight through the house to the hot tub where Jake, Jenny, and I splash around and have fun. At Dad’s, I have my own room and Jake can come upstairs and we can sit on my bed and play video games, and kiss. I have to leave my bedroom door all the way open. Nothing obstructs the doors at Dad’s house.
Some Saturdays, Alice takes Jenny and I shopping, but I never get anything. Dad and Alice’s money is not mine to spend. In her guilt during her shopping sprees, Mom will usually buy a few new pieces of clothing for Jenny and me. If we always have new clothes, no one at school will suspect our secret.
At Dad’s, I always bring laundry. I say it’s hard to get it done during the week at Mom’s with homework and I don’t want to bother her with my laundry. I do mine and Jenny’s, so Dad and Alice don’t have to. They think I’m responsible and independent but it’s to hide the truth. This way, I have clean clothes all week and no one knows Mom doesn’t have a functioning washing machine. It broke down last year and became a place to pile things on. Sometimes she washes her clothes in the bathtub. The dryer still works, but it takes three cycles for stuff to actually dry. Mom usually buys new clothes when she can’t be bothered to wash and dry them.
You’d think my mom lives in poverty, but she receives money from the government since my father died in a work-related accident. He worked for Hydro Québec and fell while repairing electric cables after an ice storm. It was slippery as hell, and he lost his footing. Mom hasn’t said more about it. I guess it’s too painful. With the compensation she gets to take care of us, I make sure we get things we need: new shoes, supplies for school, and lunch at the cafeteria because it is impossible to cook anything but toast at Mom’s place.
When we get to Dad’s Friday night, Jenny and I make popcorn and watch superhero movies until midnight with Alice and Dad cuddling on the couch. I like these nights when we’re a normal family.
Then, it’s finally Saturday. Ballet class is liberating for the first half hour. My grand plier is gorgeous, my pas de bourrée is right on time, and I float through the air like a seagull. Then I realize seagulls usually end up on trash heaps left by litterbugs. I tell my dance teacher I don’t feel well, and I leave early.
* * *
Monday mornings are easier at Dad’s. Alice helps pack our lunches, and all I have to do is get Jenny to the bus stop on time. I don’t have to hike up and down mountains of mislaid objects or empty soda cans.
At the bus stop, I kiss Jenny goodbye and tell her, “I’ll see you at home tonight, okay, kiddo.” She’s looking at the ground again. I read her thoughts, “I know, Jenny, but I can’t tell Dad yet. If he finds out, Mom will have to leave the house, or we’ll have to leave, and she can’t be alone yet. I know. It’s hard. But I’ll be ready soon.”
“I want to live with Dad and Alice.” Her voice is firm. I barely recognize it. Jenny never gets sassy. She usually complies easily. But she’s twelve, not stupid.
“So do I, but I don’t think Mom will let me live here permanently, and then we won’t be together and…”
“I told Alice,” Jenny cuts me off. I’ve been defeated by a skinny 12-year-old in pink-framed glasses.
I stay calm so as not to upset Jenny. “What did she say?”
“We can both stay here. She likes you.”
“What exactly did you tell her?” My voice cracks, and my chin quivers.
“I said Mom’s house is gross. I told her about the piles of stuff everywhere and I’m scared they’ll fall, and we can’t even open the doors. I told Alice about sharing a room. I mean, I like it in our room, but I had to leave my room because of the stuff. I told her about the basement, and the washing machine. I told her I don’t want to live at Mom’s. Are you mad?”
I’m so mad. I want to yell at her, pull her stupid ponytail and leave.
“No, Jen, I’m not mad. You deserve better. But I can’t leave Mom alone. Not yet. I’ll figure it out. Dad and Alice will help. It’s okay.” I put my arm around her because she’s sobbing. I’m angry, but I’m also proud of her for standing up for herself, and for being honest. I love her to bits.
I don’t get a chance to talk to Dad about it before he and Alice pick us up after school. He drives us to Mom’s and, in the car, I don’t know what to say to prepare him for the disaster within. For the first time since he moved out, Dad gets out of the car and walks to the front door. I think this must be difficult for him.
As I take out my keys, I feel my shame rise to the tips of my ears.
I whisper, “Dad, it’s horrible.”
“It’s okay. Don’t worry about me. Open the door.”
I unlock the door and open it as far as it will go. I step in and over the heap of sewage.
“Holy shit.” The words fly out of dad’s mouth. He covers it, as though stuffing the words back in so we won’t hear.
Jenny starts to cry. She pulls off her glasses and wipes her eyes, but she can’t control herself.
“Alice, you can wait outside,” Dad offers. She turns and leaves.
We climb over the mess to get to the staircase and up to our room. I lead him in.
“Your room is great. Great job, girls.” Dad is more relieved than proud. He sees I wouldn’t let Jenny down.
We hear stirring in the basement. Mom is climbing the steps. She opens the door and Buck runs up to my room and barks at Dad. He’s a possessive mutt even if he is the size of my foot. Mom follows him and freezes when she sees Dad.
“Greg? What?” She looks at Jenny and me. “No.” She gets defensive because she realizes we are here to pack our things and that we’re not staying the night or coming back tomorrow. Her scream bleeds betrayal, “No!”
“Girls, pack up what you need. We’ll be downstairs.” Dad is firm, but I hear the shake in his voice. He steps out of the room and over the trash in the hallway. Mom and Buck follow him downstairs. I hear the shame and anger in her footsteps, and she kicks objects out of the way.
I help Jenny pack all she can carry in her duffle bag. Most of my possessions are books, and they’re too heavy to carry with me all at once.
“I guess these will have to wait,” I say, looking at my shelf.
“What about The Princess Bride? It’s your favorite. Didn’t your father read it to you when you were a baby?”
“It’s just a book, Jen. I’ll pick it up some other time, along with the rest.”
Jenny goes to the closet to see if she has left anything important behind. Mom and Dad are talking in hushed tones.
“Sarah, what’s this?” From my corner of the closet, Jenny pulls out a string of sheets tied together with large knots. I stuffed it in my corner of the closet. It’s about twenty feet long.
I confess, “Before you moved into this room, I made an escape plan. I knew if something caught fire, it could block the front and back doors. The sheets are long enough to reach the patio from our window if we ever needed a quick escape. I can’t get to the smoke detectors to change their batteries, and we might not make it out in time. I knew I’m strong enough to climb down, and I would’ve caught you if I had to. The end can be tied to the bedpost and might’ve held long enough for us to get out.”
Jenny is in shock, but manages to speak, “What about Mom?”
I look at her carefully. I can’t see the Mom who took us to the park when we were little, or made cookies for a school bake sale, or took us to the movies. I see clutter. I see loss.
“Her room is near the front door.”
She holds back more sobs.
“Girls, let’s get going,” Dad calls.
We lug our things downstairs.
“Time to go, girls.” Dad must be anxious to leave.
I dread leaving. Will Mom grab us, hold us, and yell at Dad for taking us? Will she say he has no right to take me from her?
She looks at us. I thought she would be crying, but no. She is calm. Stoic, even.
“It’s alright,” she says. We can’t live here. Not like this.
“So, what now?” I ask.
“You’ll both go live with Greg until I get this place cleaned out.”
“You’re going to clean it? How? It’s not possible.”
It’s Dad who answers, “Your mom is going to get some professional help with this. If she gets help, and gets this place clean, then I won’t get child protective services involved, and you can come back.” He’s looking at her as he speaks. Mom nods in response, but she looks to the ground. She and Jenny have the same sad face.
Dad works as a lab technician at the hospital and knows a psychologist who can help Mom. He doesn’t have to do a thing to help her, but I can see what is left of his love for her. Maybe Mom sees it too, which is why she’s going along with it.
We get in the car and Alice drives us home. I know Dad is crying. I’ve never seen him cry, but I can tell by the way his head is down, and his back curved, and Alice’s hand on the back of his neck. He clears his throat and looks out the window. I think he mostly feels guilty.
Before Dad left home, he and Mom used to argue about money. He makes a decent salary, but Mom spent her inheritance on things we didn’t need: waffle makers, a new television, and too many clothes. It frustrated him, but since it was her inheritance money, he couldn’t stop her. I think he felt like he was with a child more than a partner.
Their relationship crumbled, but I know he still cares for her.
There’s traffic on the T-Can and it takes forty-five minutes to drive up to Dad’s house.
There is darkness across the lawn. The garden lights are on and the specter of near-winter casts shadows as we approach the driveway. We walk in as Jenny notices she doesn’t have her glasses.
Dad looks exhausted, but he zips his coat up again and gestures to Alice for the keys, “I’ll go get them.”
“Can’t it wait?” Alice hands over the keys while she asks.
“I can’t do my homework without them. I’m so sorry. Maybe I can get them after school tomorrow?”
“It’s alright, Jenny. Your dad will go,” Alice realizes Jenny’s stress level rising, and puts her at ease. “The traffic shouldn’t be so bad now.”
“I’ll go with you,” I suggest. I don’t want to go back, but I don’t want to leave Dad alone either.
“We’ll be back soon,” Dad kisses Alice and Jenny on their foreheads and we leave.
The drive is quiet. There’s still traffic from the West Island into the East end, but it’s starting to clear as we get closer to Mom’s. I know I have to say something.
“You’re amazing, Sarah. I don’t know how you do it, but you have taken such good care of her. And Jenny, and yourself, but it’s not your job.”
“I’m making it through each day, but I usually feel helpless. I don’t know how it happened.”
“I think your mom has had to deal with a lot. When your father died, it must have been so hard, but with you being a baby, she had no choice but to move on. When I met her, she was a bit scatterbrained and disorganized, but a packrat at her worst.”
“So why do you think it got so bad?”
“Your father died. She had no choice or control in the matter, but I chose to leave her. People do amazing and scary things when they don’t know how to deal with loss. I think her feelings got piled up. Like the stuff in the house. She doesn’t know how to let it all go. But she’ll get help, Sarah. I promise.”
“She’s a good Mom. I mean, she loves us.”
“I know she does, but she’s not being a good mom right now, Sarah. She will be though.” Dad is full of promise and fear. I know he doesn’t know how things will turn, but he wants to comfort me, so I let him.
When we turn the corner onto her street, I can see black smoke rising. The clouds above mom’s house are twinkling with amber. The flashing lights from the emergency vehicles make me squint. Fire trucks are driving to and from the house. I know what to do. I’ve thought about it so many times. Except, I’m not in the house. I’m in the car. I never thought of what to do if I was on the outside.
The car stops and I move to open my door, but Dad holds me back.
A police officer approaches our car and Dad rolls down the window.
“Sir, you can’t go this way.” The officer is young. He speaks firmly, but his eyes dart back and forth from the house, then to us.”
“This is my daughter’s house. Her mother lives here. She was inside the house.”
Dad’s voice is shaking.
“The woman in the house has already been taken to the hospital.”
“Oh my god, is she okay? What happened? Is she okay?” I want to run out of the car.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know how she is now,” the offer speaks sympathetically.
“Okay, thanks,” Dad starts to roll his window back up.
“Sir, I can find an officer to escort you to the hospital.”
Dad parks his car, and we get into a police cruiser and rush to the hospital. In the back seat, Dad holds my hand, and we sit in silence.
When we arrive, we find mom in the emergency room. She is lying on a stretcher with an oxygen mask over her face.
“Gail!” Dad is the one who reaches for her hand first. I feel guilty about hesitating, but I don’t know how to feel. All I keep thinking is, I hope she’s alive, I hope she’s alive.
She removes the mask, lets out a slight cough, and speaks, “Hey. I’m okay. Smoke inhalation.”
Dad’s phone is buzzing, and he answers it in the hallway next to Mom’s curtain. I back up as though she’s a snarling wolf.
“I’m sorry, Sarah. I’m okay.”
I get closer.
“What happened?” I almost don’t ask because I feel I might be somehow responsible, but I know how impossible that is. Still, I feel guilty about something.
“Before you and your dad arrived, I was in the basement, trying to fix our stupid dryer. I left it on when I came up to see who was home and I forgot about it. The damn thing caught fire. I was in the sewing room when I smelled the smoke. I wanted to get Buck, but the flames…” She starts to cry. “I’m sorry about Buck, Mom,” I don’t know what else to say.
“And all our stuff,” She places the oxygen mask back on when the nurse walks by.
“It’s your stuff, Mom. And it’s not important. Who cares?” She cries more. Harder. Sobbing.
“Yeah, but it’s all gone, Sarah.”
I look at her carefully. I can’t see the Mom who took us to the park when we were little, or made cookies for a school bake sale, or took us to the movies. I see clutter. I see loss. I see she doesn’t realize how lucky she was. It didn’t happen in the middle of the night, and I didn’t have to use my rope. I see Boutique Aspirations and I know I have to let go, because Mom is in a vacuum. I leave her to go find Dad, who’s explaining everything to Alice. He puts the phone back in his pocket.
“Hey, how is she?”
“I can’t say. She needs to see your doctor friend, and I want to go home.”
Dad calls Mom’s sister Izzy in Québec City, who I haven’t seen in years, and takes me home. I fall asleep in the car.
When we get to Dad’s, Alice has already told Jenny about the fire. They’re at the kitchen table when Dad and I walk in. The look on Jenny’s face is oddly one of relief. I don’t quite understand it, but she explains it well.
“Mom is safe. Nothing can fall. It’s all gone,” she says. Jenny is so smart.
It is all gone: the junk, the smell, the nightmares, all of it. What’s left is Dad and Alice and hope ahead of us. I sigh in relief.
“Sorry, Jenny, we couldn’t get your glasses,” is all I can manage.
I sleep well, and the stress of having to get through another day melts away. I can enjoy tomorrow, and the next day.
Mom goes to stay with her sister three hours away. I don’t get to see her, but we talk once in a while.
I don’ know what to say to her when she calls, but she says she wants to get help.
It’s been months since the fire, and she hasn’t seen a doctor yet. Dad’s friend even found her someone she could see near Aunt Izzy’s, but she has yet to make an appointment.
When she calls me, I follow Jenny’s lead and decide to be honest. I know she’ll be hurt, but I need to tell her how I feel. “Mom, I think maybe we don’t have much to say to each other. Jenny and I are fine. School is good. Dad has filed for custody. I’m sixteen and I can make the choice to stay here. We asked you to get help. You’re not. It says a lot.” I’m curt and to the point, because I’ve spent enough time not saying what I think.
“I miss you both, Sarah.”
“Then go see the doctor, Mom,”
But the rest of the conversation is her trying to guilt me into going to Québec City, which is ridiculous because why would I leave Dad and Jenny and Alice and Jake? I resolve to live with Dad without Mom in my life.
About a month after our last phone call, Mom sends me a package in the mail. It’s a copy of The Princess Bride. I leave it on my desk and stare at it. I hadn’t thought about it since the night of the fire. I start to think the reason Mom had so much stuff is the same reason I kept my books. I didn’t even like The Princess Bride, but it was all I had to connect me to my father. I couldn’t grieve him since I never knew him, but I still felt the loss. I think Mom felt the same way. I don’t think she got to grieve either. She felt the aspirations dissolve, replaced by the void, and filled it with stuff reminding her of good times, like the sewing machine.
“What’s that?” Jenny sees me sitting on my bed from the hallway. She stands in the threshold.
I hold up the book.
“Do you want me to read it to you?” I ask, hopeful.
Jenny sits on my bed, and I start reading to her. She snuggles into my pillow and I read until she falls asleep. I look at her and see all of our real aspirations. We have the room to be us. I can breathe and I can be.
Lea Beddia is a high school English teacher in Québec, Canada. She enjoys writing for children and young adults and is currently working on a young adult novel. When Lea isn’t teaching, reading, writing, doing laundry or playing with her children, she can be found sneaking chocolate away from the kids. Visit her website www.leabeddia.com or find her @LeaBeddiaWriter.
Some say the Shekhinah is the queen
of presence, pulsing upward through
the living earth, bidding us to bloom
in our skins. The apple orchard
in full blossom. But when you see me,
I am a burning flame,
blonde hair billowing behind.
You have no throne festooned with ribbons,
no needle to embroider my plastic chair,
no silks to shimmer with my light.
I am an environmentalist drinking
from a Styrofoam cup. In cafes, I am silent,
can’t chat about good coffee and bad men. In the sukkah
sleeping under the eyes of myrtle, I dreamt I
was walking in Umm Batin and from under the main street
Hebron’s sewage rose till I was wading,
waste on my face, slogging until I got to a tent
to sip thick coffee and smoke a negilah, a minyan
of black-clad men in a corner bobbing. No
sewage here. It settled back into the earth.
I awoke shivering, sick under the patchy sky,
choking on ashes. I longed to tell my friends,
to dwell in the tabernacle of fellow feeling,
to harvest some compassion, to share
how our eyes always on Jerusalem blinds us to the stranger
who also dwells here, who doesn’t need the sukkah
to know everything is connected—new settlement
bathrooms, sewage leaching into the soil, meat, and cheese.
Next year in Jerusalem the chance of a Bedouin
getting cancer up 60 percent. I opened my mouth
but bees flew out, buzzing about a village girl
molested by her brother. Silence heavy in the sukkah.
In Wadi el-Naam, the health clinic I built to help
sits on a toxic waste dump. I ring out the last drops
of my strength in that village. I now pay to protect
the solar panels. My partner
accuses me of getting kickbacks from doctors.
This land holds magic and poison,
everything that sustains, every toxin.
It gets into your blood. I burn
to be part of the tribe, harvest rainwater,
farm like Ruth and Naomi, tend grapes and olives
without grabbing from those who have so little left.
How can you break bread around the Shabbat
table with those who don’t care?
So I live in a flat in Tel Aviv
no earth between my fingers, no growth to tend,
gates to God closed. My land, my heart
cordoned off with eight meters of concrete
and spirals of wire. The Wall
where papers are checked
and compassion halts.
In Hebrew, the word for person
is adam; adama, soil, has the same root.
I want this place
to feel like home.
The Key to the Cinema
My psych of genocide
prof invited me to a Friends
of Palestine meeting.
There each spoke around the circle
of their connection with Palestine.
A woman showed an old
photo, opened a box
on the mantel, took out
a key. Outside Jaffa
Gate was my house.
It’s a cinema now.
Her son said he’d never
walk and there it is—
the Cinematheque. Not
the same walls—abandoned,
demolished—maybe what Mahmoud
meant when he said a house
dies without its owner. So
when the dead or dreaming visit,
they see old rooms;
the children’s ghosts chase
each other with a toad when no one’s
around like the day I wandered through
(why open yet empty?), red
ropes holding nothing back,
and from theatre four I heard
Grandma’s soft snore
as she took her rest before suppertime.
The Very Breath of Children Is Free of Sin
from a short passage in Raja Shehadeh’s Strangers in the House
As children were walking home from school
men kidnapped a boy
walking home from school
and shot randomly into the crowd of boys
walking home from school
who ran to the hills for cover.
Children were walking home from school
but one boy had not returned. His mother went
to the prison where she was told her son was kept
she was afraid he was cold and brought a sweater
to the prison where she was told her son was kept;
the prison guard took it from her
at the prison where she was told her son was kept
and promised to hand it to him
inside the prison where she was told her son was kept.
Aching, three days. She waited, yet
the boy was not released
from the prison where she was told her son was kept;
a shepherd found the boy
dead above the village
killed by one of the men’s bullets
walking home from school.
The granddaughter of a captain in Israel’s War for Independence, Joy Arbor grew up in Los Angeles, CA, listening to his stories of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To listen to other points of view, she joined the Compassionate Listening Project’s citizen delegation to Israel and the West Bank. Poems about her experiences have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Scoundrel Time, and Scintilla. She is also the author of the chapbook, Where Are You From, Originally? (Finishing Line Press, 2016). She lives with her husband and son in Michigan’s Thumb and blogs occasionally about genocide and racism at https://joyarbor.net/blog/.
As you stare at the photo hanging above the fireplace, you are acutely aware of your wife in the other room, folding laundry. You wonder if she can sense this shift in your life, triggered by what just arrived for you in the mail. Though you’ve never seen her handwriting in English, as soon as you see the tiny block letters spell out your name in the English phonetic interpretation that you’ve adopted in your new country, you know. Yoona left her name off the envelope, but there is a return address. Sugar Land, Texas.
He’s got a government job, you imagine nuna telling Jihyun excitedly, as she often did when she ran into prospective suitors during your single days. As the only daughter, nuna made it somewhat of a mission to find a suitable mate for her siblings, an activity that you and your brothers regard as women’s work. You remember the day she urged you to accompany her to church.
You convince yourself that it is the impracticality of space and distance that is keeping you apart, a mere physical hindrance instead of the dictates of tradition, the expectation of a carefully curated family tree.
“We never went to church back home. Why start now?”
“Don’t you know that’s where all the Korean girls are? Anyway, there’s this sweet girl I think will be good for you.”
Nuna gives you the rundown. Jihyun is twenty-two. Been in America for less than a year, by way of her older brother who owns a dry cleaning business in Chicago. The third daughter of a farming family from Nonsan City, 120 kilometers north of your hometown, where you left Yoona behind. You acquiesce. You know this is the way it works.
The last time you saw Yoona, you were sitting on the outdoor steps of the student dormitory at the private university in Gwangju, your hometown. You stare down at your lap as you tell her that hyeong, Older Brother, is able to bring you to America. “After everything,” she says, “you are just going to leave?” You think about the events of the past spring. Storming the city square, Yoona’s hand in yours, high on the sense of solidarity, the knowledge of doing something big, as you joined your fellow students and townsfolk, chanting, singing, Ari-Ari-Rang. Then the bullets. The screams. She must know that it is not safe to stay, that you cannot pass up the opportunity to start a life in America. You want to tell her that you will take her with you, that you will wait for her. Instead you reach for her palm, silently communicating that you had tried, that if the world wasn’t the way it was, you would be asking her to be your wife.
“I won’t allow it,” Ahbuhjee said when he learned of your plans to ask for Yoona’s hand. “A daughter of a divorcé is not suitable for our family.” You can’t imagine living a life separate from her while existing in the same space, knowing that even if you were to run to the opposite corner of the country, she would still be just a few hours drive away. And so you decide to leave. You convince yourself that it is the impracticality of space and distance that is keeping you apart, a mere physical hindrance instead of the dictates of tradition, the expectation of a carefully curated family tree.
After five years of marriage, your dinnertime conversation still resembles that of two strangers at a party, forced into awkward small talk because they don’t know anyone besides the host.
Jihyun is a good wife. She excels at making your favorite food from back home. Every day when you come home from work the table is already set with a steaming bowl of sticky rice and soondubu or some other jjigae, the broth still bubbling in the claypot. Or, if the weather is nice enough to open the windows, samgyeopsal, thick, slick slices of pork belly, grilled right on the table and wrapped in romaine picked from the garden. Once a month, she takes a giant steel basin outside to make kimchi, squatting on the concrete patio in the backyard of your suburban home, kneading salt and gochujang into the cabbage leaves.
After five years of marriage, your dinnertime conversation still resembles that of two strangers at a party, forced into awkward small talk because they don’t know anyone besides the host. How was work? How was your day? The food is delicious. As soon as you finish your last bite, you stand up, go to the living room to watch the news as she clears the dishes, washes them by hand even though you have a working dishwasher.
The photo that hangs above the fireplace is a candid shot from your wedding day, the two of you facing each other against the blurred backdrop of the church’s altar. Neither of you are smiling, as if in deep reverence of the words of God being expressed through the pastor. But you know the real reason. For her, because the flowers are late, and for you, the overwhelming clamor of the mantra you’ve been reciting in your head since that day you first set eyes on the woman standing before you. She is not Yoona, but you can learn to love her.
You shove the letter into your briefcase, taking extra care to jumble the numbers on the combination lock. You plan to read it in your car tomorrow, in the safety of the parking lot of your office. You know Jihyun will not sense anything out of the ordinary, for perhaps the letter did not change anything at all. For you always knew what you would do if this day were to come, the day where one of you traversed an entire ocean to bridge the space that had been keeping you apart. You knew this before you hid the letter in the briefcase, before you slipped the ring on Jihyun’s finger, before you boarded the plane nine years ago onto the twelve-hour flight that would bring you to where you are now.
Dhaea Kang is a singer-songwriter and emerging fiction writer from Chicago, IL. She has been dealing with her seemingly endless songwriter’s block by channeling her energy into writing stories.
The children pick
the peeling yellow
paint from the bathroom
pipes and lick it
while Mama is gabbing
on the phone with
her sister. Papa returns
from work at four
and takes the yellow
plastic strap out of
the second dresser
drawer and whips
their thighs since
Mama has delegated
punishment for their
during the day:
failure to put toys
picking at sausages
at lunch, plucking
on their walk
Tomorrow they’ll go
to Headstart and tell
the teacher the first
thing in the morning
they see is rets and
she’ll inquire, “Is
rets your dog?”
Jan Ball has had 285 poems published or accepted in journals across the globe in the Atlanta Review, Calyx, Connecticut Review, Main Street Rag, Phoebe, and Verse Wisconsin. Her two chapbooks and first full length poetry book, I Wanted To Dance With My Father, were published by Finishing Line Press. When not writing, Jan likes to work in the garden at her farm and work out in Chicago at FFC with her personal trainer. She and her husband travel a lot but like to cook for friends when they are home.
She is sitting in an arm chair next to a broad window that overlooks Fairbanks Avenue and Lake Michigan. She ignores me as I walk from the doorway, across her hospital room, then perch on the broad windowsill. I welcome the cold of metal as the sensation seeps through my white coat, then my scrubs, to the back of my thighs. I should inquire about her postpartum body—the new wound on her abdomen, vaginal bleeding, pain, her fevers, engorged breasts, swollen legs, bruised skin, distended belly. Instead, we watch the wind push snowflakes back toward the sky. “Look. Upward snow,” she says. “Sounds like a band name,” I reply. Then we settle into silence.
Yesterday, her baby died.
Whitney Lee is a Maternal Fetal Medicine physician, an assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University, former OpEd Public Voices fellow, and a veteran. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Booth, Typehouse, The Rumpus, Crack the Spine, Gravel, Numéro Cinq, Huffington Post, and Women’s eNews. She lives in Chicago with her husband and four children. Currently, she is working on a collection of themed essays about a physician’s experience with death.
Dime-a-dozen, fair-weather friends—the ones you met to do nothing but sit around, drink beer, and gab. The night we hung out was of the same kind. On one side of the booth sat men who wanted a one night stand. None of the ladies on the other side were seeking Mr. Right, either.
Nobody listened to anybody amidst the peal of women’s laughter, the men’s coarsening chatter, the overspill of shouts from the other booths, and then I heard it.
“The Love Designer,” went an announcement behind me.
“Is that a thing now?”
“When is anything not a thing?”
“How does it work?”
The woman’s coy question was answered by the unseen man’s low but self-assured voice.
“Say a guy’s been chasing after you. You ignore him. If this guy doesn’t know the love designer, he is done for. But if he finds me, he’ll end up becoming enamored by you.”
“You manipulate affections?” The woman laughed in delight. “No way.”
Something in her voice said she had put on a sly glance.
When I turned around, the woman was stealing looks left and right. Her teasing gaze then trained on me, and—here’s the damnedest thing—she smiled.
As drunk as I was, I beamed back. But, as if having expected it, she whipped up a stink-eye, and looked away. The self-proclaimed love designer looked like he had at least a decade over us, with a genial face and a highball glass of tomato juice in front of him.
I only remember drunkenly thinking, If I met a real enchanter like this fellow is on about, I’d make this broad fall for me. For cutting eyes like that, I’d make her fall for me, and then jilt her to lifetime despondency.
On one side of the booth sat men who wanted a one night stand. None of the ladies on the other side were seeking Mr. Right, either.
Two of the three stupidities in my life, I do drunk. I may have even bumped into the fellow in the men’s room and grabbed his business card…?
Through sheer luck I made a massive fortune that no other twenty-something could amass, and that was when I found myself in company of these friends.
Three years ago, they latched on to help me scatter my money, like sand through fingers. Three years ago, I was a loner—and now I had a small herd following me day and night. I guess they thought they were using me: taking advantage. I didn’t care what they thought, what mattered to me was that wild friends sat under the shade of my wallet whenever I wanted some fun company. The little boy inside me didn’t think he had been leeched, wheedled or swindled even though he had been. The boy was that strong, that naïve. We humans are like an animal that blends into its environment. That night, I noticed the absence of the smiling boy, who had trusted everyone.
I used to think life should be interesting. I even indulged in the smallest intrigue to make life interesting: I bought sundry fun-sized toothpastes to try as many flavors as possible. My friends were also fun. But I yearned for other kinds of fun. At the time, I had bought my first personal computer, and I was addicted to surfing the Web. Every time I was back from that opium-like, fabricate world, I would call my booze friends. Yet, echoing above our usual drunk conversation were those words:
“The Love Designer.”
Let me cut to the chase. It’s unwieldy to write, it must be unwieldy to read.
I met the strange fellow again and asked him to entangle me with that smirking woman.
“Perhaps I can introduce you two first,” said the stranger in an ingratiating tone, “See if she’s into you. Who knows? Perhaps you don’t need me after all.”
Two days later, we had a “chance” encounter at the bar. Just as the conversation was flowing, the love specialist excused himself and left me with her.
The woman wasn’t into me from the get-go.
Afterwards, I invited her to dinner at a ritzy restaurant—twice—with no luck.
“Sorry, it’s not that I am busy,” she said. “You’re just not my type of guy.”
Hearing these words stirred not so much my desire but my vindictiveness, so I called on the love designer. My interlocutor said:
“She looks coquettish but she’s wily as they come. Not an easy game. I’ll use a special method. How about she dream of you in the coming nights? Can’t do anything else for now. I’ll think of something if it fails.”
Well, shit, I thought. He’s just another scammer. In my most naïve voice, I said:
“What? She’ll dream of me?”
“It’s gonna be dreadful for a while.”
“Think about it! You said she didn’t give you the eye, right? Who in their right mind wouldn’t be discomfited when some indiscernible guy visited them every night, caressed them to goosebumps, touched their intimate parts, and left them in the morning with vivid memories and a palpitating heart?”
“For several nights, before the break of dawn…”
“My goodness, if that were to really happen, I—”
Just as I bit my tongue for sounding so gullible, the love designer coolly said, “Pay me.”
It was expensive to spite a woman who spurned you. He justified his exorbitant fee by saying, “Life can be over anytime. No use counting on days ahead. If you’re getting a hooker, settle for the prettier and more expensive one.”
He’s totally in cahoots with that lady! I thought. Oh, well, whatever. All I’m after is something to add intrigue to that which can be over soon.
For what it’s worth, he stood insanely confident. I even thought I had picked such an easy woman.
While waiting for the money, he continued his scheme. “She’ll dream of you starting tomorrow.”
She could be dreaming of me. I could be fucking this haughty, cold-shouldered woman, in her dreams. Isn’t that the most tempting, if not the most ludicrous, idea? It was funny to see how naïve I was at the same time. I supposed that woman would be calling to say, “I can’t help but dream of you. It’s driving me nuts.” They’d be snickering after she hang up the phone. Nevertheless, I kept wondering how exactly it would go down. A subtle shudder took over me; I thought I must be going insane as I forked the money over.
“You won’t dream of her, though,” he said. “Only she of you. Bare as you were born. And if you have any marks, tattoos, she’ll see them. That okay?”
“No. I wanna see her dreams. Put her dreams in my dreams.”
“Aren’t we already beyond that?”
I thought it no small feat to be staring down a con-artist. In any case, I prevailed the stand-off with dignity. He kept quiet.
“All I want is to see her,” I said. “To caress and—some intimate moments with her. Losing that makes me sad, even if it’s only in a dream, even if it won’t really happen in a million years.” I added that this could be the most important event of my life. I was already channeling my Romeo.
The love designer eyed me for a beat, and said:
“It’s gonna cost you.”
The next morning, I awoke—shell-shocked from my sensual dream—and lobbed myself off my soiled cover.
“It’s all my fault,” I thought nervously. “I’ve always been the wretch wired to fall for these traps.”
After dreaming of the coquettish-yet-haughty woman seven days straight, I realized it gave me no pleasure, but sheer dread. You dumb Romeo, you’ve met the devil!
Presuming that devils exist, I was all about running away. I had been tied down to a large business venture as an investor. A partner said:
“Gotta make a big move. We can only profit big by spending big.”
I asked back, “If the gaining and losing are about the same, why the hell is it worth it?” It stymied my partners and thankfully liberated me.
I holed up in a foreign country for three months, then in the northwestern-most soum in Arkhangai aimag for two years. I lost my unhelpful, unforthcoming, parasitical friends for good in the process. But it turned out you can’t elude your dreams.
No sooner had I returned to the capital and turned on my no-longer-trendy cellphone than came a new message. Thinking it was the love designer looking for me, I opened it. The number was the woman’s. Now was the time to renounce the hex. I had to see her and ask everything.
The woman had not changed at all. She said I looked tanned, like a country boy. I can’t recall how we steered the conversation into the topic. Both of us needed some drinks.
“Yes, I dreamed that.” The woman glowered. “So what?”
“It wasn’t a dream.”
“What do you mean?”
“We really were intimate. Part of me was left deep inside of you. Like permanently. What we dreamed happened for real.”
“Are you out of your mind?”
“I think I am, but it doesn’t matter. If you’re analyzed in whatever kind of screening however far in the future, I am sure that my cells will be found in you.”
“Could you be any more ridiculous?”
“It’s all real. Just like that guy who forgot his mother tongue.”
“You lost me.”
“One morning this guy in Arkhangai woke up to talk at his mother in a foreign tongue. He’d never studied any language. Nobody believed him right off. But by and by, they discovered that he hadn’t memorized a single foreign word before. He could only comprehend Spanish, nothing else.”
“Am I supposed to believe in that story?”
“When you stand up barefoot, you come up to my chin. I didn’t realize you were so short, so I was surprised. I’ll never forget how your tongue tastes like. You always smile when you let me put it in. We lock eyes when we do it. You smile and you pinch my back. Do you remember when I said ‘Sorry,’ the first time we did it? Why do you think I said it? Why do you always smile by the way? Why do you keep your eyes open?”
“Shut up!” she cried, which rang out with the same imperious but quivering tone as her “Harder!” and “Don’t stop!”
It pleased me to realize this commonplace voice of my dreams belonged to a real person. As if this had been my wish all along.
We sat in silence until she said abruptly:
“OK. Let me see that scar.”
“No. If these dreams are real, let’s go there.”
I tripped over my mouth. Where were we anyway? Was there a specific place? But then I sensed that the woman wasn’t really buying it.
“You don’t remember?” she asked ironically. “You said you’d never forget it.”
“You still don’t believe me? At least you believe in your dreams, don’t you? What, did we just dream the same sequence of events? I think you were in that dream as much as I was. It wasn’t a dream, don’t you get it?”
“It’s just a dream,” the woman said through her teeth, “That’s it!” and sprang away from the table.
I don’t know why, but I felt relief. Yes. Isn’t love, this miraculous phenomenon that everyone praises, nothing but an asinine dream? When I walked after her, she flounced down the street. A gray cab screeched to her hailing; she climbed in and left.
After all we’ve been through, she still won’t be mine.
I took out my phone and deleted the pretty woman’s number, she of the inviting stare and cold soul. It was a pity. But what are you gonna do, right?
After my dreams returned to normalcy, I located the home of the man with the ability. We drank all kinds of vodkas and wines. The love designer had a wife and a grown-up son.
“I didn’t bear him any children because he never asked me to,” said the wife.
“Didn’t you say you two had a son?”
“It’s not my husband’s. But he doesn’t accept it. My son doesn’t have a clue he’s not his biological father. He said he’d divorce me if I brought this up to my son, so I haven’t let out a peep.”
Isn’t love, this miraculous phenomenon that everyone praises, nothing but an asinine dream?
The love designer smiled quietly at her wife. Later, when his wife had turned in, he said, “What do you make of what she said?”
“About my son not being my biological son.”
“What can I say? It’s more common than you think.”
“No. Do you understand why I didn’t want us to have a child?”
“Either of you had issues?”
“No issues whatsoever. If I wanted it, we could have had as many children as we wanted.”
“You don’t like children.”
“Not at all. I love kids! Before I was married, I wanted to have nine kids and name them after the nine treasures.”
I dreaded he would reveal something remarkable, or worse, something disturbing.
“My son thinks I am his real father. That sits well with me. If he finds out someone else is his father, I’ll be hurt. It feels like my life will cave in when it happens. So I refused to have my own child. If I had, it would become evident to my son that I am not his father. The ability from my side would come out, wouldn’t it? My son would see his younger sibling, compare himself, and one day he’d realize I am not his father. I didn’t want that.”
“You forfeited your nine treasure names?”
“The desire to have many children is, in a way, a naïve cupidity,” he said.
Quietude descended on the room; even the cars passing outside made no sound. Not bearing to stand the silence any longer, I decided to say something.
“You must love your wife a lot.”
“Love is one of life’s fun things,” he replied.
As I left their place, the warm autumn wind blew into my eyes, which in turn welled up. It’s as if we’re born with an intuition about someone who would swoon our hearts. That intuition solidifies in our childhood, grows with us in our mind, and becomes potent enough to burst out of our adulthood. By then, we are overwhelmed by the gap of that someone in our lives, and lose our minds. Well, not losing, per se, because this is an act the mind is meant to do in the first place. So, we embark on a quest for that person. Whenever we meet someone, we perceive them through our bespoke lens. The closer our partner is to our imagined soulmate, the happier we fare. If they are different from our imagined soulmate, or, if we realize that to be the case, the epiphany leaves us bereft.
As for the enchantment, the bewitchment…It’s not worth mentioning. Other people don’t enchant us, we enthrall ourselves. In truth, we leave ourselves spellbound, and unscathed people mock our weakness.
It just so happened that the mocking, mysterious trickster was actually a writer.
On the table sat a thick manuscript, and as he left me momentarily, I stole a look at the top page to read the following:
“If they called this eccentric, feeble and gullible loser an angel for easily falling in love, we’d laugh our ass off.
– So nothing. The guy just spread his wings and took off…”
Even though I had gone there to find out about the dreams that tormented (not just) me, I left the place without making any efforts to figure out the most mysterious happening of my life.
ДУРЛАЛ ЗОХИОН БҮТЭЭГЧ
Ямар ч зорилгогүй, хаа нэгтээ шар айраг ууцгаан элдвийн хоосон зүйлс ярьж баясахаас өөр хийх юмгүй, залуу насанд олонтаа таардаг тийм л найзууд. Тэр орой ч бас л нэг тийм цуглаан болсон юм. Уушны газрын ширээний нэг талд зүгээр л нэгэн шөнө энгэр зөрүүлчих хүүхэн хайсан залуус. Нөгөө талд суугсдынх нь дунд ч эр нөхөр хайсан бүсгүй байсангүй.
Хүүхнүүдийн инээд чангарч, залуусын яриа задгайрч, зэргэлдээх ширээнээс мөн л чанга чанга үгс бидний яриа руу ирж холилдоод, хэн ч хэнийг ч анхааралтай сонсохоо больчихсон үед гэнэтхэн:
-Дурлал зохион бүтээгч! гэх содон танилцуулга чих дэлсэв.
-Бас тийм ажил байдаг юм уу?
-Байхгүй ажил гэж бас байна уу?
-Тэгээд яаж зохион бүтээдэг хэрэг вэ дээ? хэмээн хүүхэн хүний аальгүйтэн инээх асуултад, царай нь надад харагдаагүй нэгэн эр даруухан мөртлөө итгэлтэй дуугаар:
-Чиний хойноос нэг залуу гүйлээ гэж бодъё. Чи түүнийг нэг нүдээрээ ч тоож хардаггүй байжээ. Хэрэв нөгөө залуу дурлал зохион бүтээгчийг танихгүй бол, тэгээд л дуусаа. Харин дурлал зохион бүтээгчтэй уулзах аз тэр залууд таарах юм бол, чи шууд л мөнөөх хөөрхийлөлтэй залуугийнхаа хойноос унаж тусан гүйх болно гэж хариуллаа.
-За арай ч дээ. Хүний сэтгэлийг шууд засварлачих юм биз дээ? гээд хүүхэн тас тас хөхрөв. Ийн хөхрөнгөө лав ийш тийш сэмхэн харж байгаа даа.
Намайг эргэн харахад үнэхээр л тэр бүсгүйн нүд тогтворгүйхнээр эрвэлзэж байсан бөгөөд над руу бүр тэгэхээс тэгэх гэсэн шиг манартал ширтсэнээ инээмсэглэв. Халамцаж хөхиүн болсон би өөрийн эрхгүй дагаад инээчихэв. Яг үүнийг анаж байсан юм шиг л бүсгүйн харц цочирхон ширвээд, намайг алгасч одлоо. Дурлал зохион бүтээгч гэж өөрийгөө өргөмжилсөн эрхэм нь харин биднээс лавтайяа арваад насаар ахмад, хаа очиж нүдэнд дулаахан нэгэн байх агаад өмнөө улаан лоолийн шүүстэй өндөр шилэн аяга тавьжээ.
“Хэрэв энэ нөхрийн яриад байгаа шиг, дурлал зохион бүтээх ид шидтэнтэй таарвал ч, хажууд нь суугаа энэ сээхэлзүүр амьтныг өөртөө дурлуулаад, над руу ийм дорд үзэнгүй шоолж ширтсэнийх нь төлөө бүх насаар нь аз жаргалгүй болгоод хөсөр хаячих юм сан” гэж согтуурхан бодож сууснаа л санаж байна. Амьдралынхаа гурван тэнэглэлийн хоёрыг нь бид согтуудаа хийдэг. Бие засах газар мөнөөх эртэй танилцаад, нэрийн хуудсыг нь аваад ч байл уу?
Надад цочирхон аз таарч, хорин хэдтэй залуусын хэзээ ч олохооргүй их мөнгө гарт минь тэмтрэгдсэн тэр үеэс л би ийм найзуудтай болчихсон юм. Гурван жилийн өмнө тэд гарынхаа салаагаар элс шиг асгаж буй мөнгөнөөс минь үрэлцэхээр цуглаж билээ. Гурван жилийн өмнө ганц ч найз нөхөргүй явсан залуу ийнхүү гэнэтхэн л өдөр шөнөгүй хамт явдаг сүрэгтэй болов. Амьхандаа тэд намайг мэхэлж, ашиглаж байна л гэж бодоцгоодог асан биз. Надад бол тэд юу бодох нь хамаагүй, хэн нэгэнтэй дарвиж баясах хүсэл төрөхөд миний түрийвчний сүүдэрт чамгүй хөгжилтэй залуус сууцгааж байх нь л чухал байсан юм. Миний доторхи тэр хүү өөрийгөө мэхлүүлж, залилуулж, ашиглуулсан ч мэхлүүлчихлээ, зальдуулчихлаа гэж ер бодоогүй. Тийм л хүчирхэг байжээ, тэр гэнэхэн хөвгүүн. Хүн гэж арьсныхаа өнгийг сольдог амьтан шиг л хувирамтгай байх юм даа. Ердөө гуравхан жилийн өмнө дотор минь инээмсэглэн сууж асан, хүн бүхэнд итгэдэг, цайлган цагаан сэтгэлтэй жаалхүү энэ залуустай найзалдаг болсноос хойш л харин намайг орхиод алга болчихсоныг би яг тэр үдэш мэдэрсэн байв.
Амьдрал сонирхолтой л байх ёстой гэж би боддог байсан юм. Сонирхолтой байлгахын тулд өчүүхэн зүйлс дээр ч болов чармайж, жишээ нь, шүдний оог л гэхэд, шинэ шинэ амт мэдэрч байя гэсэндээ ямагт жижиг савлагаатай, өөр өөр нэр төрлийнхийг хольж авдаг байлаа. Найз нөхөд ч бас зугаа. Гэхдээ надад арай өөр зугаа хэрэгтэй санагдаад болдоггүй. Тэр үед би анхны компьютерээ худалдаж аваад, интернетийн учрыг олох гэж хорхойсч эхлээд байв. Хэн нэгний бодож олсон, хар тамхи шиг энэ ертөнцөөсөө буцаж ирэх бүртээ нөгөө л архичин нөхдөө цуглуулна. Гэвч эдгээр хөлчүү наргиан ч сонирхол татахаа улам бүр больсоор буйг харж суугаад сонссон үг болохоор тийм содон, ер бусын дуулдсан ч байж мэднэ.
“Дурлал зохион бүтээгч”.
Яриагаа товчлоё доо. Бичихэд залхуутай зүйлийг уншихаасаа залхуурцгааж л таарна.
Хачин нэрийн хуудасны эзэнтэй холбоо барьж, намайг дорд үзэн ширвэ татсан нөгөө хүүхэнтэй орооцолдуулаад өгөөч гэж хүслээ.
-Эхлээд та хоёрыг танилцуулъя. Чамайг анхаарч харах нь уу, сонжицгооё. Анхнаасаа чамд талтай байвал миний туслалцаагүйгээр учраа ололцчих ч юм бил үү? гэж Дурлал бүтээгч хэмээн өөрийгөө өргөмжилсөн үл таних эр сүрхий найр тавьснаас хойш хоёр хоногийн дараа бид уушны газар “санаандгүй” тааралдав. Яриа овоо жигдрээд ирэхийн хэрд дурлалын мэргэжилтэнд чухал ажил гарч, намайг нөгөө бүсгүйтэй орхиод явахаас өөр аргагүй болсондоо өршөөл эрлээ.
Хүүхэн анхнаасаа л намайг сонирхсонгүй.
Дараа нь би түүнийг хоёр ч удаа тансаг зоогийн газарт уриад ердөө татгалзсан хариу л дуулсан юм.
-Үгүй л дээ. Би чөлөөтэй хүн. Харамсалтай нь, чи миний сонирхдог залуу биш!
Энэ үгийг сонссоныхоо дараа би хүсч тэмүүлсэндээ гэхээсээ илүү, шаралхаж хонзогносондоо Дурлал бүтээгч рүүгээ дахин очив. Зорьж очсон хүн минь:
-Харахад аальгүй хэрнээ муу санааны туйл болсон хүүхэн дээ. Хялбар ан биш. Тиймээс нэлээд өвөрмөц арга хэрэглэе. Цаадхи чинь ойрын хэдэн шөнө чамайг зүүдэлбэл ямар вэ? Одоохондоо би өөр юу ч хийж чадахгүй. Энэ бүтэлгүйтвэл аяндаа өөр нэг санаа төрөх биз гэсэн сэн.
“Ээ хөөрхий, байдаг л нэг луйварчинтайгаа таарчихжээ” гэж харуусан бодсон ч, би аль болохуйц балчир царайлж,
-Юу гэнэ ээ? Үнэхээр тэр намайг зүүдэлнэ гэж үү? хэмээн асуулаа.
-Нэлээд хэдэн өглөө сэрэхдээ хачирхаж эвгүйцэх байх даа…
-Яагаад эвгүйцнэ гэж?
-Үгүй, тэгэлгүй яадаг юм бэ? Чамайг огт тоохгүй, бүр нэг нүдээрээ ч харахгүй байна гээ биз? Гэтэл нүдэнд нь огт тордоггүй хархүү шөнө бүр зүүдэнд нь хүрч ирээд л, хамаг биеийг нь шархиртал энхрийлж, аль л нууц газруудад нь хүрээд, өглөө сэрэхэд нөгөө зүүд нь яг болсон явдал шиг, түүнээс болж зүрх нь долгисч чичрээд байвал балмагдаж эвгүйцэж л таарна шүү дээ.
-Шөнө бүр ээ?
-За, үүр шөнийн заагаар л гэх үү дээ. Нэлээд хэдэн шөнийн турш…
-Бурхан минь, үнэхээр тийм зүйл болдог сон бол ч…
Би ийм гэнэн зүйл хэлчихсэндээ ичээд хэлээ хазах үес,
-За, тэгвэл мөнгөө төл! гэж дурлал бүтээгч хүйтнээр сануулав.
Эмэгтэй хүнд тоогдоогүйдээ хорссон хонзонгийн минь төлбөр шаггүй юм гээч. Их мөнгө нэхэж байгаагаа:
-Амьдрал бол хэзээ ч дуусчихаж болох зүйл. Чамд үргэлж хангалттай цаг байгаа гэж найдах ямар ч шалтгаан үгүй. Тиймээс биеэ үнэлэгч авлаа ч, арай илүү үнэтэй, илүү царайлагийг нь сонгох хэрэгтэй! гэсэн сургамжийн үгээр зөвтгөхөд нь дотроо би “Чи тэр хүүхэнтэйгээ хуйвалдсан л байж таарна. Яахав ээ, тэр хэзээ ч дуусчихаж мэдэх зүйлийг чинь сонирхолтой болгочих зүйл л надад хэрэгтэй” хэмээн бодож суув. Тэгж бодохоос ч өөрцгүй, мань эр өөртөө маш итгэлтэй байсан юм. Би бүр арай ч хөнгөн хялбар хүүхэн онилчихов уу даа гэж харамсахад хүрснийг яана.
Дурлал зохион бүтээгч мөнгөө авахаар хүлээзнэх зуураа:
-Маргаашаас эхлээд тэр чамайг байнга зүүдэлнэ гэж намайг зальдах ажлаа үргэлжлүүлсээр байв.
“Тэр намайг байнга зүүдэлнэ. Намайг нэг нүдээрээ ч харахгүй байгаа тэр хямсгар амьтныг би зүүдэнд нь эзэмдэнэ!” Үнэмшилгүй хэдий ч сонирхолтой санаа биш гэж үү? Ийм гэнэхэн зүйлээр хуурчихаж болмоор өрөвдөлтэй амьтан харагддаг гэдгээ олж мэдэхэд надад бас сонин байлаа. “Цаад хүүхэн нь над руу утасдаад, -Би чамайг зүүдлээд болдоггүй ээ! Галзуурах нь! гэж хэлэх байх даа, бодвол. Харилцуураа тавиад тэд намайг шоолж хөхрөлдөнө. Гэвч иймэрхүү үгсээ хүүхэн яг яаж хэлэх бол?” гэхчлэн төсөөлж, сэм догдолсондоо үл мэдэг чичирхийлсэн гараар мөнгө тоолж өгөхдөө “Би лав галзуурсан байх аа” гэж бодлоо.
-Гэхдээ чамд тэр зүүдлэгдэхгүй. Чи л түүний зүүдэнд орно. Яг л байгаагаараа, чармай нүцгэнээрээ… Аа, тийм, хэрэв энд тэнд чинь мэнгэ шивээс байгаа бол тэр чинь ч түүнд харагдана шүү дээ. Зүгээр үү?
-Үгүй ээ, би ч бас түүний зүүдийг хармаар байна. Түүнд яаж зүүдлэгдэхээ хармаар байна!
-Та чинь боломжгүйг бүтээгч биз дээ?
Луйварчинтай халз ширтэлцэнэ гэдэг хэн бүхний чадах ажил биш. Юутай ч би энэ хэсгийг овоо нэр төртэйхөн даваад гарчихав. Тэр ам нээхгүй байсан тул:
-Түүнд зүүдлэгдэх нь биш, түүнийг зүүдлэх нь л надад чухал. Хэрвээ зүүдэнд минь тэр жинхэнээсээ харагдаж, бүр жинхэнээсээ миний энхрийлэлд автаж, тэр минийх байх юм бол, түүнийг нь би мэдрэхгүй өнгөрнө гэдэг хайран байна. Амьдрал дээр тийм явдал хэзээ ч огт болохгүй өнгөрсөн ч хамаагүй, түүнд зүүдлэгдэж байгаа тэр зүүдэн дотроо л би орж үзмээр байна. Магадгүй, миний амьдралын хамгийн чухал зүйл тэр ч байж мэднэ гэж хэлэхдээ би Ромеогийн дүрдээ аль хэдийнэ итгээд эхэлчихсэн байсан юм.
Дурлал зохион бүтээгч хүйтнээр сонжин ширтсэнээ:
-Үнэтэй шүү дээ! гэж билээ.
Маргааш өглөө нь амттай зүүдний гор – бохирдсон хөнжлөөсөө сэжиглэсэндээ би ухасхийн босов. “Би өөрөө л буруутай. Би угаасаа л луйврын хялбархан олз болчихоор сэтгэлзүйтэй амьтан юм байна” гэж бодохдоо ч барьц алдсан хэвээр л байлаа.
Тэр аальгүй мөртлөө биеэ тоосон, ихэмсэг хүүхнийг долоон шөнө дараалж зүүдэлснийхээ дараа би энэ бүхнээс баясал таашаал биш, айдас түгшүүр амсч байгаагаа мэдрэв. “Гэнэн тэнэг Ромео минь, чи чөтгөртэй уулзчихаж!!!”
Чөтгөр ганц биш ч байж магадгүйг ургуулан бодоход, зугтахаас өөр юм толгойд орж ирсэнгүй. Уг нь би нэлээд дориухан ажилд хувь хамтрагчаар оролцож хүлэгдчихээд байсан ч,
-Том хөдөлнө өө, хэдүүлээ. Маш их мөнгө хаяж байж л тэр хэрээрээ маш ихийг олно шүү дээ гэж хэлсэн нэг хамтрагчаа:
-Хаях, олох хоёр нь адилхан л маш их юм бол, ямар ч ашиггүй юм биш үү? гэсхийн мадлаад л түншүүдийнхээ урмыг хугалж чөлөөлөгдөв. Тэгээд хилийн чинад гурван сар, дараа нь Архангайн баруун хойд захын суманд хоёр жил гаруй бүглээ. Амьдралыг минь огт сонирхолтой болгоогүй, үгүй ядахнаа ямар нэгэн зүйл ухаарч ойлгоход минь ч нэмэр тус үзүүлээгүй, ердийн л шимэгч нөхдөөсөө ийнхүү бүрмөсөн салж амрав. Гэвч зүүднээс зугтаж болдоггүй юм билээ.
Хотдоо буцан харьж, энэ зуур хоцрогдож гүйцсэн гар утсаа асаамагц л зурвас ирлээ. Дурлал зохион бүтээгч л намайг хайгаа болов уу гэж бодоод нээтэл, нөгөө бүсгүйн дугаар байв. Одоо л энэ ад мөрийн ховсоос ангижрах цаг. Түүнтэй уулзаж, бүгдийг асуух ёстой!
Хүүхэн огтхон ч өөрчлөгдсөнгүй. Харин намайг “Хөдөөний царайтай болчихжээ” гэж тодорхойлов. Яриаг нөгөө сэдэв рүү яаж хандуулснаа би санахгүй байна. Бид хоёрт хэн хэнд маань жаахан архи хэрэгтэй болсон л доо.
-Тийм ээ, би тэгж зүүдэлсэн. Тэгээд юу гэж? гээд хүүхэн ууртай хялалзав.
-Тэр зүүд биш байсан.
-Юу гэх гээд байна?
-Бид үнэхээр ойртсон. Чиний биеийн гүнд миний мэдээлэл үлдсэн. Үүрд арилахгүй. Бидний зүүд бол жинхэнэ явдал байсан.
-Чи солиорчээ дээ?
-Хамаагүй ээ, солиорсон байх. Гэхдээ чиний дотроос миний мэдээлэл хэзээ ч арилахгүй. Хожим чиний тухай бүх мэдээллийг хаа нэгтээх дэлгэц дээр хэн нэгэн шүүж үзэх үе ирлээ гэхэд, миний эд эс чамаас илрэх болно.
-Арай үнэмшилтэй юм ярьж болсонгүй юу?
-Энэ бол үнэн. Яг л нөгөө хэлээ мартаад сэрсэн залуу шиг.
-Юу ч ойлгосонгүй.
-Архангайд нэг залуу нэг л өглөө сэрээд ээжтэйгээ шууд харь хэлээр яриад эхэлсэн. Гадаад хэл ер үзэж байгаагүй мөртлөө шүү. Анхандаа хэн ч түүнд итгээгүй. Гэвч нарийн нягт шалгаж үзэхэд, тэр өмнө нь нэг ч үгийг нь цээжилж байгаагүй испани хэлнээс өөр ямар ч хэлээр ойлголцох чадваргүй нь тогтоогдсон юм.
-Наад үлгэрт чинь би бас итгэх ёстой болж байна уу?
-Чи хөл нүцгэн зогсохдоо миний яг эрүүгээр татдаг. Би чамайг тийм жижигхэн гэж бодоогүй тул их гайхсан. Чиний хэл ямар амттайг би хэзээ ч мартахгүй. Чи намайг өөр рүүгээ оруулахдаа дандаа инээмсэглэдэг. Бид хоёулаа нүд нүд рүүгээ халз ширтэлцэж байгаад тэр зүйлийг хийдэг. Чи инээмсэглэж, бас миний нурууг чимхдэг. Хамгийн анхны удаад “Уучлаарай” гэж хэлснийг минь санаж байна уу? Яагаад тэгж хэлсэн гэж бодож байна? Ингэхэд чи яагаад дандаа тэгж инээмсэглэдэг юм бэ? Яагаад чи нүдээ аньдаггүй юм бэ?…
-Амаа тат! хэмээхдээ бүсгүй яг л нөгөө “Ахиад! Бүр хүчтэй!” гэж дуу алддаг шигээ зандрангуй, сандрангуй, чичирхийлсэн хоолойтой болжээ.
Зүүднээс байнга сонсогддог учиргүй танил тэр дуу хоолой амьд хүнийх гэдгийг мэдэх надад сайхан байлаа. Миний хүссэн зүйл ердөө л энэ ч юм шиг.
Бид удтал таг дуугүй сууцгаасны эцэст,
-Алив, тэр сорвийг чинь үзье! гэж бүсгүй гэнэт хэллээ.
-Үгүй ээ. Хэрэв тэр зүүд үнэн л юм бол, тэр зүүднийхээ газар руу очъё.
“Хаана болсон юм бол оо? Тийм тодорхой газар байл уу?” гэж эргэлзэн, түгшин бодонгоо мартахын аргагүй мөнөөх зовлонтой зүүд нь бүсгүйн хувьд бас тийм ч тодорхой биш болохыг анзаарав.
-Санахгүй байгаа юм уу? гэж бүсгүй хоржоонтой лавлалаа.
–Хэзээ ч мартахгүй гээгүй бил үү?
-Чи надад итгээгүй хэвээрээ л байна гэж үү? Ядаж өөрийнхөө зүүдэнд итгэж байгаа биз дээ? Чи бид яг ижилхэн зүүдийг зэрэг зүүдэлсэн болж таарах уу? Миний бодоход, чи ч бас яг л над шиг маш олон удаа тэр зүүдэн дотор байсан юм шиг байна… Энэ бол зүүд биш, ойлгож байна уу?
-Зүгээр л тэнэг зүүд. Тэгээд л гүйцээ! гэж бүсгүй шазруухан хэлээд үтэр зугтах мэт босов.
Би юуг нь мэдэхгүй нэгэн зүйлийг ойлгочих шиг, гэнэтхэн л тайтгарчихсан. Тийм дээ. Дурлал хэмээн хүмүүсийн нэрлэдэг мөнөөх гайхалтай ид шид гээч нь яг үнэндээ ердийн л тэнэг зүүд ч юм бил үү? Араас нь гарахад бүсгүй гудамж уруудаад хурдан хурдан алхаж байлаа. Тэгснээ таксинд гар өргөөд, шурхийн ирж зогссон саарал өнгийн машинд суугаад явчихсан сан.
“Энэ бүхний эцэст ч тэр минийх болохгүй нь”.
Ингээд утсан дээрээ сануулсан мөнөөх аальгүй харагддаг мөртлөө хүйтэн, ихэмсэг, гоо бүсгүйн дугаарыг устгаж орхисон доо. Хайран л байв. Гэвч өөр яалтай билээ?
Зүүд минь эргээд хэвэндээ орсны дараа би нөгөө чөтгөр шиг увдистай эрийг хайж гэрт нь очсон юм. Бид есөн шидийн архи дарс хольж уулаа. Дурлал зохион бүтээгч эхнэртэй, том болсон нэг хүүтэй аж.
-Тэр намайг хүүхэд төрүүлж өгөөч гэж хэзээ ч гуйж байгаагүй. Тиймээс л бид хүүхэдгүй юм гэж эхнэр нь хэлэв.
-Та хоёр хүүтэй гээгүй бил үү?
-Нөхрийн минь хүүхэд биш л дээ. Гэхдээ нөхөр минь үүнийг огт хүлээн зөвшөөрдөггүй юм. Тиймээс хүү маань аавынхаа төрсөн хүү биш гэдгээ огт мэдэхгүй. “Хүүд энэ тухай ам ангайх л юм бол, чамаас сална шүү” гэж энэ намайг айлгадаг болохоор би ерөөсөө хэлээгүй…
Дурлал зохион бүтээгч ам нь халсан эхнэр рүүгээ чимээгүй инээмсэглэв. Сүүлд нь эхнэрээ унтахаар явсан хойно:
-Чи түрүүний яриаг юу гэж бодож байна? гэлээ.
-Бидний хүү миний төрсөн хүү биш гэдгийг.
-Юу бодох вэ дээ? Ийм амьдрал зөндөөн шүү дээ.
-Үгүй ээ. Яагаад би хүүхэдтэй болохыг хүсээгүй вэ гэдгийг ойлгож байна уу?
-Та хоёрын хэн нэгэнд асуудал байсан юм уу?
-Ямар ч асуудал байхгүй. Би хүссэн л бол, бид хэдэн ч хүүхэд төрүүлж болох байсан.
-Та хүүхдэд дургүй байх нь.
-Тийм биш ээ. Би хүүхдэд маш их хайртай. Гэрлэхээсээ өмнө би есөн хүүхэдтэй болно, есөн эрдэнийн нэр өгнө гэж мөрөөддөг байлаа.
Тэр ямар нэгэн, сэтгэл зовиурлам, ер бусын зүйл хэлэх нь гэж би хүлээв.
-Хүү маань намайг төрсөн эцгээ л гэж боддог. Энэ нь ч надад сайхан байдаг юм. Өөр хүн эцэг нь гэдгийг тэр мэднэ гэхээр надад дэндүү том цохилт болно. Тэгвэл миний амьдрал амьдрал биш болчих юм шиг надад санагддаг. Тэгээд л би өөрийнхөө хүүхдээс татгалзсан юм. Миний хүүхэд төрвөл би түүний жинхэнэ эцэг биш гэдэг нь илэрхий батлагдана. Манайхны талын ямар нэгэн зүйл маш тод илэрч харагдана аа даа? Дүүгээ хараад л, өөртэйгөө харьцуулаад л, тэр нэг л өдөр намайг эцэг нь биш гэдгийг ойлгох болно. Би үүнийг хүсээгүй юм хэмээн тэр үгээ зөөн байж ярилаа.
-Тэгээд есөн эрдэнийн нэрээ золиослочихсон хэрэг үү?
-Олон хүүхэдтэй болох хүсэл бол ердөө л нэг төрлийн гэнэн шунал юм даа, хөөрхий гээд тэр дуугүй болов.
Өрөөнд нам гүм, гадаа ч машин тэрэг явахаа больчихож. Тэсвэрлэшгүй энэ анир чимээгүйн дарамтанд бас өөрийгөө нэмэрлэж удтал дуугүй суухгүйн тулд:
-Та эхнэртээ үнэхээр хайртай юм байна гэхэд минь, тэр:
-Хайр дурлал ч бас бүхий л зугаатай юмсын нэгэн адил тэнэг зүйл шүү дээ гэсэн сэн.
Тэднийхээс гарахад нүд рүү минь намрын салхи мансуурам сайхнаар үлээж, нулимс ивлэв. Сэтгэл зүрхийг маань ховсдох учиртай хэн нэгний тухай төсөөлөлтэйгөө бид анхнаасаа л хамт төрдөг мэт. Тэр төсөөлөл балчир наснаас эхлэн ухаан санаанд маань биежиж, бидэнтэй цуг өсч торнисоор, нас биед хүрэхийн цагт зүрхийг маань дотроос нь түрж дэлбэ татахаар заналхийлдэг. Тэгээд л бид хэн нэгэнгүйгээр амьд явж чадахгүй мэт зөн совинд автсандаа, ухаан санаагаа гээчихдэг. Гээж байгаа ч юм биш ээ. Гээгдэх учиртайгаар анхнаасаа заяагдсан үйл л тэр. Ингээд бид мөнөөх хэн нэгнийхээ эрэлд хатдаг. Төсөөлөлтэй маань огт төсгүй хүн тааралдавч, бид түүнийг зөвхөн өөрөө л харж чадах тийм нүдээрээ өөрчлөн хардаг. Амьдрал дээр олдсон тэр хүн маань төсөөлөлд анхнаасаа л төрсөн хэн нэгэнтэй хичнээн олон талаар адил төстэй байна, бид тэр чинээгээр аз жаргалыг мэдэрдэг. Харин төсөөллөөс маань зөрчихвөл, хэтэрхий хол зөрүү байгааг гэнэт олж харвал, бид ухаан сууж, тэр хэрээрээ жаргалгүй болдог.
Илбэ, увдис, ховсын тухайд гэвэл… Яриад ч хэрэггүй биз дээ. Биднийг бусад хүмүүс биш, бид өөрсдөө л илбэддэг. Яг үнэндээ бол хүссэн илбэ ховсоо бид өөрсдөө л бий болгож, биднээс илүү ухаантай хүмүүс тэр сул талыг маань ашиглан тохуурхдаг.
Тохуутай, ойлгомжгүй луйварчин маань яг үнэндээ зохиолч юм шиг байна билээ л дээ.
Хэвлээд тавьсан зузаан хуудас бичвэр ширээн дээр хэвтсэн бөгөөд нэг удаа босох зуур нь би тийш өнгийгөөд хамгийн дээд хуудаснаас:
“-Гажиг, бүтэлгүй, дурламтгай, бусдад дандаа дээрэлхүүлж, мэхлүүлж явдаг тэр залууг Сахиусан тэнгэр гэж хочилсон бол, бид элгээ хөштөл инээлдэх байсан даа.
–Тэгээд л тэр. Мөнөөх залуу дөнгөж сая далавчаа дэлгээд нисчихлээ…”
гэсэн хэсгийг хальт уншиж амжсан билээ.
Тэгээд л, намайг (ганц намайг ч биш) тэгтлээ зовоож үймрүүлсэн амтат зүүднүүдийнхээ тухай л асуух гэж би тэднийд очсон хэрнээ, амьдралдаа тохиолдсон хамгийн хачин зүйлийн учрыг олох ямар ч оролдлого хийлгүйгээр тэр айлаас гарсан юм даа.
“The Love Designer” was the first story I had ever read of Gun-Aajav, and the collection this short belonged to almost changed my decision to be an English writer.
I grew up as a self-professed anglophile, and I strove to read books in English, almost exclusively. But here was this short story collection in my mother tongue, with characters so relatable and prose so strong I felt its metaphors, cadence, and verisimilitude hit me like bullets to my brain and wash over me as warm visions. I was ashamed of not having read more fiction in my mother tongue.
Fast forward to last winter, and I finally had enough time on my hands to rectify this injustice of our prolific author not having (almost) any presence in the English-speaking world. I know no translation, especially none of mine, will ever be a perfect conduit of the original work, but I hope the story’s nuance comes through in enough amounts. Although the way the narrator holds grudges (at not just the woman) is alarming, his rationalization belies a self-indulgent naïveté, which makes his experience with the love designer truly transformative. The love designer subverts the trope of “deal with the devil” because, in my opinion, he gives the narrator a soul.
Narantsogt “Natso” Baatarkhuu is a writer and translator from Mongolia. He holds a BA in English philology from Tomas Bata University and an MFA in creative writing from Temple University that he completed on Fulbright scholarship. His work can be found in Cracked, The UB Post, and SoWhyMongolia. He lives with his wife and two kids in the capital Ulaanbaatar, which is an iamb and a trochee, not two iambs. You can follow him on Twitter at @natsopersonal for more translation/fiction on Mongolia.
Ayurzana Gun-Aajav is an author of ten novels, eight books of poetry, and numerous nonfiction and translations. Born in 1970 in Bayankhongor province of Mongolia, he holds a BA degree from Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow, and he has been a Writer-In-Residence at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. His novels Durlalgui Yertontsiin Blues (The Blues of a World Without Love) and Ilbe Zereglee (The Magic Mirage) have won Mongolia’s National Literary Award Altan Oed (Golden Feather). You can learn more about his work at www.ayurzana.mn or follow him on https://www.facebook.com/Gun.Ayurzana/
Mr. Edwards calls me out tonight. He found another first-calf heifer in distress. The third one in as many years, bleeding and panting, eyes rolled back to whites under his flashlight. I sit on the porch steps putting on my mudders, cursing my stubborn joints, already knowing the likely outcome. Even so, I don’t dally. I don’t even bother locking the place up. Ain’t no one coming all the way out here to do me harm. Especially when I keep the place lit up like I do. Folks have accused me of doing it on account of being an old lady living out here alone. But I’ve never been afraid of country living. Now my girl, she was always foolish afraid of the dark, so leaving these lights on is my way of showing her I’m still right here.
I haven’t been practicing in years, but Mr. Edwards don’t like to call the new vet if he can help it. The new vet lives closer to town and has a new wife, both obstacles to swiftness even in daylight. But at 2 a.m., when cold darkness turns seconds into eternities, that’s too long to wait when he can see the calf halfway born and my light is on anyhow.
On my way out to my truck, I can hear coyotes yip-howling. My girl used to feed them ever so often if my hand wasn’t around to stop her. I’d try to reason with her how feeding wild animals just gets them killed. Either they stop fearing people like they should, or they stop knowing how to take care of their own. No matter the way, it destines them for unnecessary suffering. She was gone not long after we had words about it last, so I can’t argue no more with her now. It’s been near eight months since the last time she took meat out to the tree line. By the sound of it, the pack has pups now.
I did things the right way, and in the end, I didn’t make excuses. The weak ones never survive in the wild. Nature sees to that, one way or another.
Inside my truck, it smells of stale cigarettes. I never smoked, but my girl liked to show me she could be different than I thought her. The metal ashtray is full of her butts, pink lipstick stained. Never could tell if she took it up on account of pressure from others, or to look harder than she was, but I was never fooled. Mothers never are; we know the nature of our children. I check to make sure I have my bag, though Mr. Edwards should be prepared. I tap the rifle mounted behind my head like I do every time I get behind the wheel. I turn the keys in the ignition. The engine grumbles at the late hour, but she runs.
* * *
At the farm, I can see the figure of Mr. Edwards hunched over in the distance. The muck sucks at my boots and I have to be deliberate to keep my balance. I don’t look around, but I can feel animal eyes follow my path. At my heels is a yellow barn cat. I click my tongue to draw it closer and offer a quick scratch. It considers me, but scatters away from my hand when I bend for it. Cats have some of the best instincts if you ask me. My girl never did care for cats after her own ate three of her kittens. I tried to warn her. She’d been inviting her friends after school to peek and poke at the litter. Momma cats will eat them babies before she’ll let nasty strangers get at ‘em. It’s their God-given instinct. But my girl never would listen to me, even when I was trying to keep her from hurt.
When I was young, I didn’t mind the night work. Now, trudging in the dark field, I wish these farmers would stop calling me, but I know they won’t. Not until they’re dead or moved out. After that, I’ll watch the farms get sold off to men with bank accounts big enough to parcel the land into tiny squares of empty promise and open floor plans. I’ll sit on my porch in a rocking chair with a rifle, and keep them at bay until I’m dead, too. Ain’t no one desecrating my property, uncovering things best left, not while I’m alive.
I see when I’m close enough, it isn’t Mr. Edwards but his girl Jamie, her hair tucked under a hat. She stands when I’m close enough, but this kind of call doesn’t demand neighborly handshakes or ask-abouts.
She says, “Hey, Ms. Meeks.” She makes room for me to kneel down and inspect the situation.
“How long she like this?”
“Found her this way half an hour ago, maybe a little more. Somehow got out of her birthing pen.”
The calf’s snout is beginning to poke through, but not enough, its eyes still in the black well of its mother’s body, pink nostrils pushing and sucking for air.
“I tried to clear the mucus, but we couldn’t get her head out no further without some help. Dad went to call you and then see about getting some better lights out here.”
“Look here,” I say, so that she points the flashlight in the direction I mean, “the forelegs are out, but they’re crossed. Means the shoulders are wedged in her pelvis.”
Contemplating the work and likely outcome makes me sigh.
I ask, “Has she been having regular straining still, or has she gave up?”
“She’s been trying real hard. Just no progress. She started resting more. That’s what worried Dad.”
It’s good the heifer is flat on her side. Standing means a heavy calf can rest too low. I stand and look for a sign that Mr. Edwards is coming with extra light, but the night is dark except for the halo beam of Jamie’s flashlight. I worry for a second that she’s not fit for being witness if the heifer or the calf die. Lord knows I haven’t the patience for her being sentimental. Unlike what I tried to do right with my girl, the Edwards ain’t never raised Jamie to appreciate the world’s natural balance. But I never took the Edwards for having the right instincts for doing what was necessary.
“Think we should try and get her up? Move her back to the barn?” Jamie asks.
“Don’t you think if she was able your dad woulda already done that?”
Jamie shines the light back in the mother’s eyes but turns it away quickly. Her own eyes look tearful, but it’s hard to tell in the dark. Mr. Edwards never did see her weakness, like to say instead she was a sensitive girl. He confessed they stopped keeping chickens years back because Jamie would cry for days any time a fox stole a meal. No way to prepare the girl for the real world, if you ask me.
I say to Jamie, “If she got herself out here then it was her intention. Things are set now. You clean her and get her ready?”
“Best we could. Dad had the kit you gave him last season with the sanitizer. He applied some of the lubricant, too.”
My girl never wanted to help me at the clinic or on my calls, though I didn’t give her any choice in the matter. That’s where I’m different from the Edwards. I did things the right way, and in the end, I didn’t make excuses. The weak ones never survive in the wild. Nature sees to that, one way or another.
“You back home now with your folks?”
“Nah. Still got another year, this is only my spring break. I’d planned on going to Cancun like most girls my age, but…” She shrugged by way of explanation. When she speaks, she sounds like my girl used to when we talked, resentful but pleased with herself about it, too.
“Well, Mexico’s no place for a nice girl anyhow. Your kind tend to go missing down there.”
I say this knowing already she won’t listen to reason. It ain’t nothing but wasted breath on my part.
“I don’t know that Stone county is any better,” Jamie says, but then adds real quick, “I didn’t mean anything by that.”
Jamie says this, but no more. Folks are good when it comes to not asking about my girl directly. I never reported her missing, but folks noticed her gone. I know people assumed she was old enough and ran off on her own and I see no need to correct them. My girl ain’t the first in these parts to disappear, for one reason or another. She won’t be the last. I tell folks, if they press, that she’s out west. That’s true enough.
People, animals, they’re all about the same really. Some fight it, some welcome it,” I say. “You learn in the natural world dying isn’t always a cruelty, many times it’s merciful.”
We both look toward her house, waiting.
Still no sign of Mr. Edwards. The heifer gives a long, low moan. I see Venus low in the sky. My skin prickles. There’s not much time left before it’s too late for the calf.
“You still studying to be a nurse, like you thought?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Thinking I might take a year for the Peace Corps before I figure it out.” Jamie shifts her weight, and the flashlight shines on the flaring nostrils of the calf before she switches it to her other hand. “My dad says the Peace Corps is for hippies and I’ll just go off and get malaria or, heaven forbid, AIDS!” She says the last word drawn out so I know she finds it ridiculous.
“He’s thinking of your future. Not many places around here see the Peace Corps as job training.”
“Who says I plan on staying around here?”
“You’d be best not to stray too far,” I say. “The world won’t show no concern for a girl like you.”
Jamie half laughs; I figure she thinks I’m too old to know the truth of things. I pretend to check the supplies Mr. Edwards has placed on the tarp near the heifer so I have a moment to swallow the rest of my opinions. I’m certain he’s left her unattended for too long, that she’s grown far too weak to survive the pain that is surely coming her way. Only one thing left I can do if I want to be of service. Sometimes it’s better to take a life when you know the kind of suffering that’s around the corner. Most people know this deep down, but that’s why they come to me. They just don’t have the stomach for it.
“You ever seen an animal die?” I ask Jamie.
“I think you’re forgetting I’m a farm girl,” Jamie says, only I know hearing about it at the dinner table from her dad is different than watching living eyes go empty.
Jamie shines the flashlight into the blinking black eyes of the heifer like she heard my thoughts but, even if she did, she don’t know my memories.
I ask her, “How about a person?”
I hear a tractor start up, its lights pointing west, then watch it turn slowly toward us. Jamie doesn’t answer my question.
“People, animals, they’re all about the same really. Some fight it, some welcome it,” I say. “You learn in the natural world dying isn’t always a cruelty, many times it’s merciful.”
She stays quiet, both of us waiting for the tractor.
“Many times it’s an act of love,” I add.
Then she says, when Mr. Edwards is likely close enough to make out our shapes, “Do you ever get used to it? Putting animals down?”
“It don’t ever get easy, if that’s what you’re asking.” The tractor is nearing, but we’re standing just outside the reach of its light. That place at the edge where it always seems darkest.
“But I remind myself the hard thing can be the right thing. When you know you’re saving ‘em from a worse hurt.”
If she answers, I don’t hear it. It’s an old tractor and it’s loud. It drowns out our voices and the moaning of the heifer. It occurs to me it would drown out the sound of most anything, if need be.
I reach over and pull her away from the heifer, away further from the spotlight of the tractor lights, but only a step or two from where I imagine Mr. Edwards will need to turn the tractor to position it right.
“May I?” I ask and hold out my hand for the flashlight.
I reach my fingers in and around to the crest of the calf’s head and stretch the tissue of the hymen slowly. The heifer bellows in protest. Jamie is looking only at the calf, its nostrils still spitting out air, fighting for breath.”
She holds it out and I take it. I squat and use the light for a quick scan of the contents of my bag, even though I know what I brought. The tractor is nearly to us now. This might not be the reason Mr. Edwards called me out, but it might be a kind of calling just the same. I figure what needs to be done will be easier in the dark, so I switch off the flashlight.
The ground is uneven, and it can be easy to stumble. To accidentally fall. So, when I stand, I grab hold of Jamie. The tractor turns. It’s so close that the burning gasoline stings my eyes and they blur up. The pull of my weight on her arm catches her off guard. She begins to lose her balance. I need only a second more, another surprising shift of my weight. It was this way with my girl. Nature presenting an opportunity ripe for mercy. That’s what I’d be doing for the Edwards.
The lights of the tractor give a spotlight on the heifer. I’m drawn to her black bovine eyes. They are wild with panic. Her hooves kick in the air, useless to do anything but announce her fear. Her calf is trapped inside her body, dying, but she also sees the monstrous machine barreling toward them. I recognize that terror; all mothers do eventually. The world only grants us two choices.
But Jamie is stronger than I realize. And the heifer, in her flailing moment of fight, steals the extra second I needed. Jamie’s grip pulls me back. The tractor rumbles to a stop at our feet.
* * *
Working under the hot lights of the tractor, I push my gloved hand into the heifer. The calf is a tight fit. I’m surprised to find the shoulders aren’t stuck as I’d figured. It’s only that the heifer’s hymen is thick and resisting. The pain of the calf caught in the thickly woven tissue was so great that the heifer stopped pushing. Like she would rather kill her calf with her own body than feel the hurt of it ripping free of her.
“She don’t want to let it out,” I say to Mr. Edwards. “It’s too late.”
“No,” Jamie says. “We just need to pull.”
Mr. Edwards looks to me, “Do I need the chains?”
I can see he’s decided.
“Nah,” I say. “Chains won’t make a difference at this point. We’ll pull and let nature decide.”
Mr. Edwards crouches down on the tarp he’s laid for the delivery and hands me the lubricant. Jamie crowds in, bumping the bucket of hot soapy water her dad brought from the house.
“If you want in here, your hands better be clean,” I say to Jamie.
She looks me in the eye. “I washed ‘em before I came out. When Dad said he needed help.”
“You give ‘em another quick scrub in the bucket anyhow.”
The heifer grunts, her tongue foamy at the edges, her body hot to my touch. She ain’t fighting no more, but she ain’t gave up either.
“I just grab its legs?” Jamie asks. I can see sweat beads on her upper lip from the heat of the tractor lights.
I nod. Mr. Edwards doesn’t say a word. He stands up and moves back to make room for Jamie to position herself at my side.
I reach my fingers in and around to the crest of the calf’s head and stretch the tissue of the hymen slowly. The heifer bellows in protest. Jamie is looking only at the calf, its nostrils still spitting out air, fighting for breath.
“Now, on my word, you’ll pull one leg at a time, back and forth.”
I can feel Mr. Edwards hovering, likely calculating what hangs in the balance. I say to Jamie and to the heifer, “It’s gonna take all your strength. You best be ready.”
She nodded. Her eyes full of fight. “I’m ready.”
* * *
Back home, I park my truck in the same deep dirt ruts. Out west on my property, sitting silent in my distant dark yard, is a crumbling stacked stone well. For the first time in eight months, I can’t bear to look to it. I find Venus again. Years ago, someone on the television said that with the right telescope, the planet Venus would appear reddish brown. “Just like my hair,” my girl said to me. Proud the way children are over trivial connections. “I don’t care what the other girls say about my hair now.”
My truck door creaks in protest as I open it. It’s late, or very early, and there is no sound except the occasional trill of a tree frog. I walk toward my house, unable to blink away the memory of my girl’s eyes gone wild with panic, her useless kicking. That day we were pulling up buckets of water from the well. The garden near burned up from the sun. There was a man, she said. He said he loved her over the computer. She said she was leaving for California, no matter my say so. She said she already bought her bus ticket.
I had no choice.
Only, what about the heifer? Under those tractor lights, I witnessed how her instinct would have surely squeezed the life of her child if not for Jamie. I knew this truth the second that calf sprung free. I watched Jamie working her finger into the calf’s nostril, teasing a sneeze out of the calf to clear the mucus. Her pouring iodine and alcohol on the calf’s navel. Her sitting the calf up and counting its breaths. Walking back across the field with Jamie at my side, I felt turned about inside. I fumbled for Jamie’s hand again, hoping she could help me find my way back.
At home, walking across the yard to my door, the damp spring air chills me. I cup my hands over my mouth and blow warm breath into my fingers. I can still smell the blood on them. The screen door slaps behind me, but I make certain I hook it shut. I turn out the porch lights and I lock up the house door—both bolts.
Inside, the rooms are full of night, save the kitchen where a light’s glowing warm above the stove. I walk past it out of habit, only to turn back and switch it off. The Lord may have created the light, but sooner or later, we all face our own dark.
Heather Luby grew up in the Ozark Mountains, running barefoot and writing stories. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, JMWW, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, Shotgun Honey, among others. In addition to being a writer, Heather is on the editorial board for the Midwest Review and teaching with the Continuing Studies Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also the former managing editor of The Citron Review. Heather holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is represented by Bill Contardi of Brandt and Hochman Literary Agents.
When we were kids, Elliott and I could read each other’s minds.
It wasn’t like it is in movies, where one twin thinks in complete sentences and the other receives a live stream to their brain. We didn’t need words. When I played catcher, I always knew exactly how Elliott would throw. When my dress snagged on the handlebar of his scooter and I fell backwards onto my arm, he felt it break. When a new girl moved into the house across the street, Elliott knew right away I had a crush on her. He knew everything, sometimes even before I did.
No one really believed what we could do, but it didn’t matter. We were Elliott and Beth, two halves. We were all we needed.
* * *
The summer before my senior year at Eastvale, I let my girlfriend Cole come to visit me in California, at my parents’ house, which is how I’ve started to think of it. The night before she arrives, an earthquake shakes the house like a warning. It knocks a book off my nightstand and Elliott’s bat from the rickety nails holding it to the wall. It deepens the crack in the driveway and splits the concrete in two.
It’s not an exaggeration to say everything is magic at Eastvale… Cole coloring in a panel of her comics with her head crouched low to the desk. Cole sneaking into my room the morning of my chem final with a grease-stained box of chocolate donuts. Cole beside me on my twin-size bed, her arm curved into my arm, her hip to my hip.
I stand out there for a long time, digging my foot into the split in the earth, before I go inside. Elliott is lying on the couch, streaming an old Angels game on his phone. It’s white noise to me by now: the tinny organ music, booming commentators.
“Do you think we can fix the driveway? Is there something we can fill it with?”
“Not in the next hour.” He doesn’t look up. “Is she really going to judge you for a cracked driveway?”
“Then don’t worry about it.”
He’s spent most of the summer on that couch. Last year, he was at practice from dawn till sunset. After that he’d go out with friends. Now he has neither of those things. Now he’s a spectator to games that are long over. A spectator with a shattered elbow.
Without baseball, Elliott is slow. Everything he does is amplified. Everything he doesn’t is, too. It’s not just college or his career. Some essential piece of him is missing now. His muscles are weaker, his hair grown out in strange sandy-blond tufts. He clings to the list of things he still does better than me, and that list isn’t long.
“Mom know you’re taking the car on the freeway?” It’s not a question.
“Don’t make this a thing,” I say. “I’ve had my license for eight months.”
“You’ve been at school.”
“I drive when I’m over there. In the snow, when the roads turn to ice.”
“At a boarding school with more squirrels than people.”
I bite the inside of my lip. This is how we are now: civil, until we aren’t. I sit on the armrest of the couch, in his line of sight. “Please don’t make me take Mom to pick up my girlfriend. You cannot hate me that much.”
He touches his elbow. “Fine.” From his phone speakers, a tiny audience roars.
* * *
I started at Eastvale, a boarding school near Boston, three years ago, but I’ve never let anyone visit me, though they asked. Being from California was some kind of social currency; people were interested in it. They’d ask questions about reality shows, movie stars, Disneyland, Christmases on the beach. I got good at finding reasons I couldn’t have visitors: trips to Europe, all-summer internships.
When Cole asked, it was different. I couldn’t lie, but I didn’t know how to sum up the truth: the seedy liquor store on the corner with the peeling paint, or the guy down the street with the American flag sticking out the back of his truck, the one who catcalled me last summer when I was out for a walk. I couldn’t explain it, the vastness between the California I’d let everyone believe in and my actual home.
So now I’ll take her to all the places she expects: Hollywood, the beach, rows of mansions lined with white picket fences. I’ll try to gloss over everything on the way: the church billboards, the dirt roads, the woolly mammoth statue stuck on a hill next to the freeway. We won’t spend a second longer here than we have to.
* * *
I see her before the glass doors to the terminal open: effortlessly messy bun, black-framed glasses, ink-stained fingers gripping the straps of the $900 leather backpack she got for her birthday. I roll down my window and wave. My heart inflates. For a minute, my worries dissolve.
She puts her suitcase and backpack into the backseat and gets in the front. “Eliza. Fancy meeting you here.”
She takes the collar of my shirt between her fingers. Then she tugs the shirt toward her and kisses me. Hard.
With our eyes closed, the taste of her vanilla chapstick on my tongue, we could almost be back at Eastvale. We could be shaded by the white pine tree in the student parking lot. Maybe we’ll take our time getting back to the dorms, our gloved hands clasped together, savoring how the snow feels crunching under our feet.
It’s not an exaggeration to say everything is magic at Eastvale: the smell of old pages on the top floor of the library, old messages carved into the undersides of wooden desks, secrets seeping through the cracked pavement of every pathway. But most of all, Cole. Cole coloring in a panel of her comics with her head crouched low to the desk. Cole sneaking into my room the morning of my chem final with a grease-stained box of chocolate donuts. Cole beside me on my twin-size bed, her arm curved into my arm, her hip to my hip.
It’s only a matter of time before she realizes I’m not worthy.
* * *
I point out the orange trees around our yard so Cole doesn’t see the gash in the driveway as I’m parking over it. Inside, my mom is tossing pre-cut pieces of pineapple into a glass mixing bowl half-full with mushy kiwi and strawberries. Elliott has migrated from the couch to the kitchen table, but the baseball game persists.
“Hi,” Cole says.
“Oh!” Mom rinses her hands and wipes them on a nearby dish towel. “You’re early.”
“I told you 3,” I say. “It’s 3:02.”
She takes Cole’s hand in both her own. “It’s so nice to meet you, Cole. I’m Beth’s mom.”
“Eliza,” I correct.
“You too, Mrs. Malone,” Cole says.
I stiffen, thinking of the restaurant where I met Cole’s parents, where the napkins were folded into little birds and there were three forks for each person. How far we are, with chopped gray kiwi in a mixing bowl.
I steer her shoulders to face the table. “This is Elliott.”
“I hear you’re a baseball star,” Cole says.
His face hardens. “Not lately.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.” She looks at me, then back to him. “What else do you do?”
His mouth opens, then closes. He touches his elbow. I think of the ways I could answer for him: the beer, the pickup trucks, the endless loop of tiny baseball games. But I don’t.
“I’m going upstairs.” He stands, leaving his fruit salad on the table.
* * *
When I show Cole the guest room, which is Elliott’s rec room spruced up with some candles, she tugs on my arm.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
“It’s not you,” I say. “I should have warned you—it’s a sore subject.”
“But why?” She perches on the edge of the pull-out bed. It creaks underneath her. “Can’t he play again once his arm recovers?”
“College. He missed out on scouts this season, so he missed out on scholarships.” I fidget with a candle on a nearby shelf. Rosewater ivy.
“Okay—does that matter? Couldn’t he pay for college?”
I tense. “Well, he has to play college baseball to go pro. He was good enough for the Major Leagues. No doubt.”
“Really?” She sits cross-legged. “That’s so—painful. All those practices. It explains so much about you.”
“Why you are the way you are. He was the athlete, so you had to be the smart twin.” She watches me for a reaction. “Am I wrong?”
She’s not. I can still see the row of perfect report cards on the fridge. They’d fade in the sun whenever Mom opened or closed the fridge to pack it with Gatorades for Elliott’s practices. I got one day a semester; baseball was the focus for the rest of the year.
In eighth grade, when I told Mom I was filling out boarding school applications, she looked at me like something she didn’t recognize. A potato plant that sprouted a pumpkin overnight.
* * *
Mom appears alone at my doorway that night, wringing her hands into each other.
“I hear you have an itinerary for Cole’s visit.”
I frown. “LA. Beverly Hills, Hollywood.”
She nods once. “I’d like if you had Elliott drive.”
I don’t have to look at Elliott’s face to know this hurts him. I can feel it on my own face, in my own gut, like I set off a bomb and both of us were blasted.
“Please don’t argue.”
Blood rushes to my cheeks. I try to take slow, measured breaths. I can’t, won’t get angry.
“I can drive on the highway. I drive at school all the time—in the snow. And I drove to get Cole today.”
She shuts the door. I expect a lecture, but she says, “I know. It’s not you. It’s your brother.”
I wait for an explanation. “He needs the car?”
“He needs to do something besides scroll through Instagram and watch old ball games.”
“So you’re asking me to pretend to be bad at driving. For Elliott’s ego.”
She sits at the edge of my bed, not meeting my eyes. “If he thinks he needs to drive you, it will give him a sense of purpose—something tangible he can accomplish this week, even if he doesn’t think of it that way. It’s not a big thing, but maybe when he comes home he won’t think college research is so daunting.”
There’s something different about how she’s asking, but I don’t know exactly what. Something to do with how crumpled her eyes are at the corners, the note of defeat in her voice.
I think about asking if she’s still upset with him, about all those years at practices and games gone to waste. But she’s looking around my bedroom now, scanning the pictures and posters I haven’t changed since eighth grade. I don’t think I can bear to make her any sadder than she is.
“And you’re okay with him driving?” I ask. “After…?”
“He wasn’t the one behind the wheel.”
I pause. “But he was drinking.”
“It was months ago. It was one mistake.” The space between her eyebrows creases. “He’s a different person since you left. It’s been hard on him, you know.”
I close my eyes. “Fine. He can drive me.”
She stands, her expression unchanged, and squeezes my hand. In the doorway she stops again. “This means a lot, Beth—Eliza. I think you may be the only one who can reach him.”
I don’t tell her how wrong she is.
* * *
Later, Cole sneaks into my room. She closes my door without a sound and curls up underneath my blankets, pressing her warm body to mine.
“You don’t know how great it was to see you waiting for me at the airport,” she whispers. “In your cool California car. It’s like I know this whole other part of you now.”
I laugh. “I’m the same person.”
“But seeing where you come from. It’s kind of magical.” She burrows into the crook of my arm.
I let her stay another few minutes, trying not to fall asleep, but drift into half-dreams of hushed New England forests and dry, barren deserts, and Cole and I split between the two.
* * *
The night Elliott shattered his elbow, it was raining at Eastvale. Cole and I were in the library with our homework spread out over one of the heavy wooden tables. We had a draft of our college admissions essay due the next morning, and Cole hadn’t started. She hadn’t even picked a prompt.
“It’s bullshit,” she said. “They want me to write ‘honestly.’ But not about wanting to draw comics. And not about years of private school that were supposed to prepare me for this.”
I thought of my own essay, about moving across the country as an eighth-grader.
“You know 90% of our class will end up at an Ivy,” I said. “So there’s something they’re saying to get in.”
“Sure. They’re making shit up.” She clicked backspace, erasing Insert Title Here one letter at a time. “I legit read an example like: ‘I went to Brazil to build houses on spring break. Seeing how underprivileged everyone was really opened my eyes and made me feel like I had to do something.’” She sighed. “I’m not like you. You’re a shoo-in for any school you want.”
I opened my mouth to respond. I’d apply to the Ivies with everyone else, of course, but unless I somehow got a full ride, I knew I’d end up at UCLA.
My phone started buzzing on the table. We jumped. It was my mom.
I left Cole with her computer and went to a corner. I stood between two shelves and held the phone, shaking. “What?”
I didn’t understand what she was saying at first. A lot of medical-speak about torn ligaments and Type III fractures. I reached over to touch my own elbow, unswollen, unbroken.
“He’ll miss the season. All of junior year. And over something so stupid.”
The line was silent for a moment. The rain pattered on the library roof like a horrible metronome. “He was riding in the back of a pickup truck. Drinking. They hit a palm tree. He fell out.”
I didn’t say anything. My stomach felt hollow, as if the ground had opened up underneath me and split me in two. Everything was falling out.
“Beth?” Mom sounded staticky, faint.
I peered between empty shelves to look at Cole, scrolling through her phone. It seemed impossible that I’d just been talking to her about college essays, while across the country my brother was in a hospital. I crouched behind the encyclopedias.
“He’s okay, right?”
“He’s lucky he’s not dead.”
“But he’s okay.” It was strange not to know, to feel it. Not even a twinge in my elbow.
Static again. “Physically, yes.”
“And not physically?”
The phone cut out.
* * *
I’m quiet during the drive to LA. Cole and I sit in the backseat. She suggests a podcast, but Elliott flips on KROQ. He doesn’t turn it down when it goes to commercials. I stare at his hair, flattened in the back, and I wonder what he’s thinking.
“I don’t know anyone who listens to the actual radio,” Cole says, too quietly for Elliott to hear. She traces her finger over mine. “It feels like a statement.”
“It probably is.” But I don’t know what it’s saying.
She looks out the window. Yellowed grasses roll by. “Is this all LA? Your house, too?”
“A suburb of LA.”
Elliott snorts. “A distant suburb, maybe. If the moon is a suburb of Earth.”
Cole laughs. She turns to me. “When will you show me around your neighborhood?”
I think of the baseball diamond where Elliott had Little League practices, the corner where I broke my arm, the palm tree where his friend crashed the pickup truck.
“There’s nothing to show, really.”
“Your elementary school? I bet they have your name on a plaque in there.”
“No, just Elliott’s.”
He meets my eyes in the rearview mirror, but doesn’t say anything.
* * *
In Beverly Hills, we weave in and out of high-end stores: Cartier, where tourists take pictures of $200,000 necklaces, and Gucci, with handbags perched on white pedestals like they’ve won awards. We stop in a boutique where lace kimonos hang off the racks like delicate curtains.
Elliott looks at the tag on a cotton shirt. “Everything in here has Coachella written all over it.”
The cashier shoots him a look.
Cole laughs. “Have you been?”
“Coachella might as well be a million miles away.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a bunch of trust fund kids who don’t know what to do with their parents’ money.”
Cole grins at me. “He’s describing everyone at school.”
I put down the $60 candle I was pretending to look at. “We don’t have to keep shopping. Let’s go.”
She picks up the candle and holds it out to me. “No, wait. If you like this place…”
I think of where I usually shop: thrift stores in Boston where I comb through racks of discarded J.Crew. No one has ever come with me, especially not Cole.
“No, let’s go.” I turn around without looking at either of them, but I catch a glimpse of my flushed face in a mirror. I almost don’t recognize myself.
* * *
I knew parking in Hollywood would be bad, so I researched a structure near all the sightseeing. I give Elliott directions, but he turns the wrong way and we end up behind a line of cars. Throngs of people crowd the sidewalks.
A car in front of us pulls out of a spot. Elliott takes it.
I get out to read the sign overhead. “Two-hour parking till 3.”
Elliott nods through the open window. “Perfect.”
“The garage is $8 for the day.”
“We don’t need that. The meter is $2 an hour, free after 3.”
I think of Mom standing in my doorway and decide not to argue. Elliott rolls up the window.
Outside, the air smells like stale cigarettes. A crowd gathers in the sidewalk watching break dancers, their foreheads glistening. We push through to get to the theater, where movie stars’ handprints are preserved in cement. I feel Elliott’s irritation like an itch on the back of my neck. He pulls out his phone.
When Elliott found out I was going to boarding school, he didn’t speak to me for a week. He ate his bowls of cereal in silence across the table. He played radio stations he knew I hated when our mom drove us to school and pretended he didn’t see me when we passed each other in the hall.
I follow Cole. She looks at home here, sleek and mysterious in dark sunglasses. I half-expect tourists to take pictures with her. She presses her hands into Cary Grant’s prints, her rainbow ink in sharp contrast to the pale concrete.
“He was gay, you know,” she says.
“Really? Cary Grant?”
“Yeah. Everyone knew back then. It was this big open secret.”
I kneel down at the set of prints to her left. They belong to Jeanne Crain, 1949. I don’t try to fit my hands in the prints—they’re like a child’s. Her shoe prints have little dots where her heels pressed into the cement. “I don’t know who this is.”
Cole looks. “Can you imagine? You become this big movie star, you get invited to put your handprints in this fancy theater, and seventy years later, the kids are like, ‘Who’s that?’”
“I’m sure lots of people still know”—I check the name—“Jeanne Crain.”
“We only know the ones people still talk about. Marilyn Monroe. Or Cary Grant and his string of lovers.” She stands up. “We work so hard to make something of ourselves, but even if you’re successful, it probably won’t matter in a hundred years. So you might as well stop trying so hard.”
I look for Elliott. He’s leaning against the wall staring at his phone, deaf to this particular bit of wisdom. When I look back, Cole is studying me, her hand shielding her eyes from the sun.
“What is it?” I say.
“I’m trying to stop time. Right here, it would be perfect.” She drops her hand and wraps her arms around my waist. She’s close enough for me to count each freckle on her nose.
“What about school?”
“You love school too much. This is better. No college application bullshit, no finals. Just you and me and the warm sun.”
She reaches a hand behind my neck and pulls my head toward her, pressing her soft lips to mine. For a minute, I believe in Hollywood happily ever afters.
* * *
We walk down Hollywood Boulevard, hands clasped while Cole points out more famous names in the silver-flecked sidewalks. She pulls me into a souvenir shop brimming with screen-printed shot glasses and plastic Oscar statues.
At 3:28, we arrive back at our parking spot. The car isn’t there.
* * *
When Elliott found out I was going to boarding school, he didn’t speak to me for a week. He ate his bowls of cereal in silence across the table. He played radio stations he knew I hated when our mom drove us to school and pretended he didn’t see me when we passed each other in the hall. He shut his bedroom door as soon as he came back from practice every night.
I lay in bed trying to live stream my thoughts into his brain. I’m sorry. Please don’t hate me forever. Please.
I never got an answer.
* * *
Traffic piles up on Hollywood Boulevard, a wall of brake lights between the billboards and palm trees. We stand rooted next to our empty parking spot as if the car might reappear.
“You didn’t read the sign right. That’s the only way this could have happened.”
“I read it to you, word for word. It said two-hour parking until 3 p.m.”
“Meaning after 3, there’s no limit.”
Cole reads the sign, her expression blocked by her sunglasses. “Or no parking after 3 at all.”
“That’s obviously what it means.” I punch the towing company into my phone. It’s a mile away. “Come on. It’s off Highland.” I bristle at the sound of my own words. Even now, I’m trying too hard to sound like I know what I’m talking about.
“Wait,” Elliott says. I don’t. “Do you have any idea how much it costs to pick up a towed car?”
“Of course you don’t, because you don’t know how to drive.”
I turn around. “What?”
Cole, running to keep up, stops abruptly and almost trips. She wipes a bead of sweat from her forehead.
“It’s over three hundred dollars,” Elliott says.
Cole looks from him to me. “You need money?”
“No,” I say.
Elliott exhales through his teeth. “Jesus Christ. You think she doesn’t see what you’re doing?”
“Elliott.” I sound more alarmed than I mean to. If there’s ever been a time for him to read my mind, it’s now.
“What?” Cole asks.
“Beverly Hills. Hollywood. Boutiques with $500 shirts.”
“What should we do?” I snap. “Drive around drinking beer in the back of a pickup?”
Elliott’s eyes flare. He takes a quick half-step back, like he stepped on hot coals. “Fucking hell, Beth.”
“Do you actually think it’s that easy? Get a new name and a scholarship to a fancy school, and shed who you are—your family, your twin—like snake skin?”
I don’t say anything. A family passes us on the sidewalk, the dad leading his kids away by the shoulders as they stare. Cole gives them a wave, as if to say Nothing to see here. I look at the ground and press my shoe into a deep crack in the sidewalk until it hurts.
“I couldn’t survive here,” I say quietly. “I was in the shadow of your stupid fucking game. And now, what do you even have left? What would I have left, if I’d stayed?”
He doesn’t say anything.
“Nothing,” I say. “I’d be a depressed, pathetic mess—just like you are.”
I don’t have to look at Elliott’s face to know this hurts him. I can feel it on my own face, in my own gut, like I set off a bomb and both of us were blasted. He walks down Highland, disappearing into a swirl of people and billboards, lights and palm trees, till he’s so far gone I can’t tell if he’s real or imagined.
* * *
Cole pays for the tow. She doesn’t say anything about it and I don’t, either. The car is coated in dust. I run the windshield washer as we pull out of the tiny garage, but it leaves a thick layer of grime around the edges where the wipers don’t reach.
We drive back to Highland and see Elliott on the corner where we left him, sitting on the curb. I half-expect him to be drinking out of a paper bag, but he’s on his phone. He gets in the backseat and doesn’t meet my eyes in the mirror.
I wish, on his behalf, he could have taken an Uber home. It’s the kind of statement only people with extra money can afford to make.
* * *
At the house, Elliott gets out before we pull into the driveway. I wait for him to walk to the door and stare at the gash in the asphalt, wondering exactly what it was I was trying to hide.
“I just wish you’d told me.” Cole’s voice is quiet, like it’s about to crack. We watch Elliott close the door.
I park the car, focusing on keeping the wheels straight. “You want me to tell you I’m poor? I’m a scholarship kid? Can you really blame me for not being upfront?”
“Yes. Because if you knew me, you’d know I don’t care. You’re supposed to trust the person you’re with.”
I don’t answer. My mouth and throat dry up. The air feels too thick, too heavy, like the car is about to burst. I open the door and step right into the split.
* * *
We walk for a long time without saying anything. We pass the old guy’s truck with the flag, the liquor store, then turn onto a dirt road lined with orange trees, the bits of rock sharp under our shoes. The sun is starting to set ahead of us, turning the sky orange and pink and framing a row of trees in the distance.
“Palms again,” Cole says.
“They grow better here than they do in LA. Those tall ones are California fan palms—they’re native to the desert. The climate is better here.”
She smiles. “You know everything.”
We’re silent again, our steps out of sync.
“I’ll pay you for the tow,” I say.
“Don’t be stupid.”
“I’m not. I let him park there. I’ll pay.”
She looks at me with a mix of irritation and pity. “Please don’t make this a money thing. I can’t believe you thought that would matter. It doesn’t.”
“You think money doesn’t matter because you don’t worry about it. You can pay for a $300 tow fee with no warning.”
She’s quiet. She scuffs her shoe in the dirt, sending a tiny cloud billowing out behind us.
“You’re right. And you know what? It makes sense that you got a scholarship. With everyone else, it’s always this scramble to get the best grades, test scores, because our parents tell us to. But you actually care about being there, about learning. It’s why I like you.”
I open my mouth to respond, but she keeps going.
“I don’t know Elliott that well, but I think I understand what he’s going through. He went his whole life being told if he kept doing this one thing really well, everything else would work. If my parents stopped being able to pay my tuition or something, I’d be in the same boat.” She chances a look at me. “But he has you for a sister. No matter what life throws at you, you’ll always be able to come back ten times harder. Anyone would feel inadequate next to you.”
I swallow and look down again.
“It sucks that you weren’t honest. I get that everyone at Eastvale wears Prada flip-flops in the showers. I get why you pretended. But I wish you hadn’t.”
“Why? So you could have paid for all my coffees and felt sorry for me?”
She nods to the orange tree beside us, dripping with fruit. “No, because this place is beautiful. I knew about Hollywood, Beverly Hills. But I wanted to see where you were from. And what you’ve let me see of you—it makes me love you more.”
I hold my breath, but the tears stream down, spattering onto the dirt below. She turns and kisses me. My head swirls with sunset, vanilla chapstick, and rainbow ink, and I want her to see everything.
* * *
By the time we get back, the sky is settling into a dusky purple and someone has moved the car into the street. Elliott is kneeling in the driveway, a black plastic pail next to him. Cole goes inside.
I kneel. He’s hunched over a putty knife, smoothing black, sticky gunk into the driveway crack.
He doesn’t respond. His knife makes a harsh, scraping noise on the asphalt.
He meets my eyes and lets the knife rest in his hand.
“Mom asked you to have me drive.” It’s not a question.
He looks at the ground, furrows his brow. “We should have gone to the garage.” He starts scraping again. “Look, I know I’ve been a piece of shit.”
“No, you were right. I’m not surprised you left. I’m surprised you stuck around as long as you did.”
“I didn’t, not forever.” He keeps scraping. “Do you have another one of those putty knives?”
He sits back, reaches under the lid of the asphalt bucket, and tosses one to me.
“We’re pushing it into the crack right now. Then we’ll drive over it to tamp it down. I watched a YouTube video.” He demonstrates and I copy him. Scrape, scrape. He pours the asphalt mix into the next section, and I watch the black, soft crumbles settle into the split.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here when it happened,” I say.
He meets my eyes over the patch. “I know, Eliza.”
We work until it’s dark, scraping over the asphalt again and again. We don’t say anything else, but we don’t have to. We don’t need words.
Melanie Dearman is a YA writer and graduate of UC Irvine. If not writing, she can usually be found playing ukulele or doodling with fountain pens till her fingers are covered in ink. She was the 2018 runner-up for the SCWBI Sue Alexander Award for most promising manuscript. She also won the 2016 SCBWI LA Mentorship Contest and was a runner-up for the Stony Brook Short Fiction Prize. Visit her at melaniedearman.com or on Twitter at @melaniethegreat.
Who is Isaac Fitzgerald?
This inked essayist is the love child of Jack Kerouac and The Dropkick Murphys on paper. He is gritty and adventurous like his beatnik predecessor, but has the modern punk rock sensibility of the same band that hails from his home state of Massachusetts.
Fitzgerald easily picks up where the beatniks left off. Instead of the East Village, he resides in Brooklyn. However, despite the change in locale, his essays have the same rogue spirit of adventure. Instead of mere sentences strung together, it is as if Fitzgerald is sitting on a bar stool with a straight whiskey in his hand talking to his reader about his fantastical life at the local dive bar. He delivers an Odyssey where the Trojan horse might be upstaged by something better, more grand, but also more likely to get one arrested. In works such as “The True Story of My Teenage Fight Club,” Isaac Fitzgerald channels and captures both angst and humor. In the ever identifiable “Why I Stopped Running From New York,” he speaks a truth many who live in the five boroughs (myself included) feel.
The former editor of McSweeney’s and The Rumpus and the current host of Buzzfeed’s #AMtoDM spoke to me. He was just as candid in person as he was on paper, admitting he was the only person he knew who got more into astrology after leaving the West coast. It was a pleasure not only getting to know the man behind the words, but getting to be positively impressed by the passion and process of this writing great.
April Brucker: Thought I’d start off with a few random and personal questions. What do you typically eat for breakfast?
Isaac Fitzgerald: I know this sounds really bad but I only have a cup of coffee. I typically wait to eat until lunch.
AB: What is your astrology sign?
AB: You are from rural Massachusetts and you seem to write a lot about your upbringing. Why did you pick that topic?
IF: I grew up reading, writing, and escaping through books. After seeing the world, I wanted to return to the place I escaped from. That’s one of the themes of my work. I wanted to give that kid who grew up in that small rural town a voice. Writing about where I grew up is a way to examine and work through trauma.
After seeing the world, I wanted to return to the place I escaped from. That’s one of the themes of my work. I wanted to give that kid who grew up in that small rural town a voice.
AB: You write about working in bars in Boston and San Francisco. What is the craziest bar you have ever worked in?
IF: Zeitgeist in San Francisco. It’s on 1 Valencia Street. It was a gay bar. Then a motorcycle bar. Then a hipster bar. Now it’s a bike messenger bar. These are the nicest madcap people you will ever meet. That’s why I always give the address.
AB: You have worked in a bar, been a firefighter, and worked on a boat. Out of these three what is your favorite.
IF: Actually the firefighter and working on a boat because both of those jobs went together. This was during high school when I was sixteen in the late 1990s, early 2000s on Star Island, which is ten miles off the coast of New Hampshire. It was an absolutely beautiful place and instilled a work ethic in me.
AB: You got a sword from a king. How did that go down? Explain.
IF: (Laughs) This is kind of a long one and I hope you have time. When I was in high school, I got a scholarship to a boarding school called Cushing Academy. We had a lot of international students there from all over the planet—and I mean all over the planet. Up to this point in my life I had never traveled outside the United States, maybe if I was lucky I went to Canada, but I don’t think I had yet made it that far.
At the time I played on the JV 2 basketball team. They were like the double secret JV. We only got the gym for forty-five minutes of practice each day. I made a friend on the team, a guy by the name of Jigme.
One day we are chilling in the woods smoking after practice and Jigme says, “I have a secret to tell you. I am the crown prince of Bhutan.” I was like, “Dude, it’s no secret, everyone knows that.”
I should have kept in touch but I didn’t, plus after college I disabled Facebook because I thought it was just for students so I didn’t need it anymore. Several years later, I’m in my mid-twenties, traveling through Southeast Asia, and I get a chance to visit Bhutan, so of course I take it. I want to look up Jigme… except we’ve completely lost touch and I have no idea how to reach him. However, since it’s a pretty safe bet he lives in the palace, being a prince and all, I head over there—looking like a sloppy trash American in a dirty t-shirt and ripped jeans—and somehow make it past the gauntlet of suspicious palace dudes, and there’s Jigme, playing basketball! We just look at each other. I say, “Jigme, I had no idea if I’d find you.” “Dude,” he says, “Why didn’t you just message me on Facebook?” Meanwhile, it also happens to be February 8, my twenty-fifth birthday, so Jigme takes a sword from one of the guards, and gifts me the sword.
My process as a writer is very piecemeal. I just jot things down on my phone as they come into my head. When I get home, I jot them down onto a yellow legal pad. Then I go and try to form them into something on the computer.
AB: When did you discover you in fact wanted to be a writer?
IF: Now that is a very complex question. I had always been a reader and discovered books early on, but from the ages of eight to eighteen I thought people just kind of made them. I knew I wanted to be a writer for sure when I was twenty-three, living in San Francisco, and came to this place called 86 Valencia Street.
On the wall there were edited drafts from adult students. I thought, “Wow, this is exciting, lets teach this to eight-year-olds.”
Up to this point I thought the whole writing thing was a gift from God and you got touched on the head and had the perfect manuscript. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that this might be possible for me to do this after all.
AB: In your essay, “The True Story of My Teenage Dirtbag Fight Club,” you seem like a narrator inspired by the Dropkick Murphys and grunge music. Does music inspire and inform your work?
IF: Yes! I feel as if it’s a soundtrack for my identity! Especially the band The Hold Steady. Before I listened to their music, I had never been a hardcore fan. In college years my friends got me an iPod because I would walk around with my computer and my earphones.
The Hold Steady introduced me to this other band, The Mountain Goats. I write about my love of music in an essay called, “How I Found the Soundtrack For My Unsteady Life.”
AB: What inspired you to write Dirtbag, Massachusetts?
IF: I got the inspiration from other work. I wanted to write it for the people who couldn’t/wouldn’t get out. Dirtbag was inspired by the work of Breece D’J’ Pancakes, an American short story writer and essayist. Both of us write about growing up in very rural very poor areas. Very similar.
AB: Where can people purchase Dirtbag, Massachusetts?
IF: It will be out next year, and if not the following winter.
AB: As a writer, what is your process like?
IF: My process as a writer is very piecemeal. I just jot things down on my phone as they come into my head. When I get home, I jot them down onto a yellow legal pad. Then I go and try to form them into something on the computer.
AB: I believe you do more editing work now, so how does that compare with writing? Are there many similarities?
Find your people. Since rejection and putting your work out there is such a big part of what we do, it’s important to have a support community such as a writer’s group.
IF: I actually love editing, and I don’t get to do as much of it now that I am working the morning shift at AM-DM on Buzzfeed—a talk show exclusively on Twitter. My process is more piling up random stuff and making it work. I know what my voice is. But when I am an editor, my job is to use my process to help someone else find their voice. When I worked at The Rumpus, I worked with a lot of writers at various stages, but all very talented. Some were brand new and only finding their voice. Others like Roxane Gay and Cheryl Strayed were almost perfect, it was only a period or comma out of place. As a matter of fact, some of the essays Roxane Gay would publish with Rumpus would go on to be featured in Bad Feminist.
AB: It can seem daunting trying to get your stuff published for a lot of people. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
IF: If it is one thing I can recommend, and I learned this at 86 Valencia, is to find your own community. That was the great thing about The Rumpus, is that it was this community of writers that were putting their work out there. Find your people. Since rejection and putting your work out there is such a big part of what we do, it’s important to have a support community such as a writer’s group. My fiancé, Alice Sola-Kim, a science fiction writer, has her own writers group that meets once or twice a month. She is a great writer. As a matter of fact, she is a much better writer than me. We have all known each other since we have been in our 20s (our writer community) and now we are in our mid-30s and we have grown together as writers.
April Brucker is an actress, comedian, ventriloquist, and writer. Her TV Credits include Last Comic Standing 5, Rachael Ray, Talk Soup, My Strange Addiction, The Today Show, The Wendy Williams Show, What Would You Do?, CBS Sunday Morning, and Videos After Dark. Internationally, April has been seen on BBC, Telemundo, MTV Europe, and Dutch National Television. A prolific writer, April has been a contributor to The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, and xoJane. Her books, I Came, I Saw, I Sang: Memoirs of a Singing Telegram Delivery Girl and April Unwrapped: My Naked Dreams Revealed are available on Amazon. April holds a BFA in Acting from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is a MFA candidate in creative nonfiction and screenwriting at Antioch University Los Angeles. For more information go to www.AprilBrucker.TV.
Josef didn’t realize how little I thought about religion—how complete my lack of belief.
“Are you religious?” I asked on one of our New York subway trips. I wonder now why I asked. I didn’t have the slightest premonition. I was making a joke, teasing, the way I might have said, “So, are you secretly addicted to amphetamines? Biting long, slim, feminine necks? Plucking wolfsbane in the middle of the night?” I was tickling. Didn’t realize I was asking a bigger question than I knew. Wanted to see if he’d giggle or flinch. He did neither.
I couldn’t believe how great this guy was, so I thought there had to be something wrong with him. There wasn’t, although his answer threw me—almost literally. I remember clutching my subway seat as though I were afraid I’d hit the floor.
To my surprise he nodded calmly. “Yes,” he said.
Yes, he was religious? Had I heard him correctly? This might be weirder than wolfsbane. An affirmative answer was the last thing I expected. He was a graduate student living in L.A. and somehow that added up to secular—at least to me.
“Really?” I said, after I’d caught my breath. He explained he was Catholic and Bavarian—I had yet to learn how completely these two identities merged. He wanted kids, and so did I, but I hadn’t realized he’d want the kids to be Catholic. He was asking whether this was okay with me. His expression said he wasn’t kidding. I looked him over.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s okay.”
Given his personality, I’d be doing our children no harm. I got that if I were to object, the deal would be off. He couldn’t contemplate raising non-religious children. But I still thought of his religion as a harmless eccentricity, the expression of a deficit: a few more New York Philharmonic concerts, another Alvin Ailey performance, throw in a Swan Lake—and I’d convert him from Catholicism to culture, I assumed.
Dr. Sternbach said when dealing with a schizophrenic patient (he reassured me I wasn’t quite that bad, although, he pointed out often, my brother and father were), he would walk in and announce, “I’m God!” Then, my analyst claimed, the crazy person would trust him and listen to him.
I didn’t consider myself remotely religious. From my frosty heights of presumed superiority, I told myself I’d grown up in a middle-class New York family suffused with art, dance, theater, and psychoanalysis, while he had grown up in a tiny German village to parents whose Second World War experiences and dawn-to-dusk backbreaking farm labor left no room for consolations other than churchly. I figured he grew up the way my father did. Traveling preachers presented the only form of entertainment in Dad’s North Carolina town. No books, no movies, no art, no circuses—just fire-breathing Presbyterian ministers spouting gruesome depictions of hellfire. My father had shaken the dust of old-time religion off his feet when he moved to New York, diving into psychoanalysis almost as soon as he got there. Mom swam in soon after—the two were united by their doting, or scheming, psychoanalyst, who kept a tight grip, bringing in a colleague of her own to manage me the minute I hit adolescence.
Josef had Catholicism, but I had Dr. Sternbach.
My fiancé hadn’t grown up with visions of hellfire, but rather maypoles sporting Bavarian flags, baby clothes and baby bottles—the latter two pagan holdovers meant to encourage fertility. He described huge bonfires on summer solstice—he and his friends, in an inebriated state, leapt over them. Before that, on Walpurgisnacht, a young man could plant a decorated birch tree outside the window of a young woman he liked. The ceremony was technically about St. Walpurga, but that phallic tree was about fertility and witches, drinking and cavorting. Although, he confessed, he and five guys planted a tree in front of the window of a fat, homely girl because they wanted to make her feel better.
His descriptions made me think of Breughel’s The Kermess, especially in the William Carlos Williams version. Jolly, fat peasants dancing, drinking, and doing what my Chaucer professor said peasants do: have sex in the fields so the recently planted seeds get the right idea. For my husband-to-be, religion seemed a merry combination of official Catholic ritual—he drank that wine and took that wafer, under the watchful gaze of plaintive Madonnas and soulful Jesuses hanging from gory crucifixes—and happy-go-lucky paganism. The jolly mood of forgiveness, the singing, the lights, the candles, the gleeful baroque angels, the community, seemed the dominant themes.
I could go for all of those, I thought, in the dreamy unreality of unexpected pregnancy. For a moment, I considered the possibility of miracles, since I was forty-one. Practicality took over: Josef had a home, the likelihood of a full-time job, and the luck of German health insurance, which would extend to his bride. We were to enjoy two more successful pregnancies. To this day, I attribute them to champagne, sex, and our unconventional fertility specialist. Josef doesn’t.
A few weeks after I’d moved to Bavaria, there was the moment when he asked, “But you do believe there’s a God, right?”
Surprised, I put down my cup of tea.
“I’m an atheist!” Where had he gotten this idea? Had I somehow said this?
His eyes widened.
“But you said you believed in the teachings of Jesus!” I shifted in my seat. I had indeed said that, but the one thing had nothing to do with the other. Memories of playing “telephone” as a child were now flooding into my mind.
“Yes, I do, but I meant Jesus is a great philosopher, a great psychologist!” Josef put his hand on his heart.
“Please don’t tell the priest that.”
His eyes traveled to a flaw on the rim of my poly-fleece pullover; I’d gotten too close to a burner while cooking, and a little spot had melted away. You could barely see the burned part, but his thumb gripped it. A bit ruefully, he said, “This is what happens to people who don’t believe!”
“You don’t really mean that, do you?”
I’m not sure he didn’t.
“I hope you can feel God’s love,” he murmured after the mandatory meeting with other betrothed couples and a Catholic priest in a roomy church.
“I can feel your love!” I told him.
The priest, if I remember correctly, talked about finding one’s wife sexy even when she’s wearing an old granny nightgown. The Catholic doctor wearily remarked, “That was too much material to fight with!” He was okay with the pill, since no life had begun, but experienced moral qualms about the IUD, since it worked to destroy a zygote potentially implanting in the lining of the uterus. The church, said both priest and doctor, didn’t like homosexuals “because they don’t have babies! We want children.” On the plus side, they said sex was “the mirror of the marriage,” and since Josef and I were having sex around eight times a day, I figured we’d be fine. We rode home through sunny fields filled with hay bales and had a nice dinner.
* * *
As I settled into life in devastatingly quiet Bavaria, taking long walks through the woods, my thoughts got louder. Now I had time to write. But I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I did produce a few half-baked descriptions of my parents and growing-up years, but always, an angry, disapproving face appeared in my mind’s eye—the face of the psychoanalyst whose patient I’d been for decades, and whom I thought of as a father, if not a god. He had raised me, in the sense that I considered my four-to-five day-a-week sessions in his office the central experience of my life from ages fourteen to almost-forty. He knew everything. He said so. Occasionally, I thought him a little selfish, but I felt guilty thinking that. He had done so much for me. I was very grateful to him. He insisted I go to college and graduate school. I had wanted to study dance and theater. He called me his “masterpiece.”
He’d been wrong about Josef. He’d said Josef wasn’t interested in me. When Josef flew to New York just to see me, Dr. Sternbach told me not to sleep with him—Josef would surely never marry me if I did. I didn’t. It took another few years for Josef and me to get together.
Even so, I told myself, walking that ploughed field trail from the shining meadow into the piney woods, the baby a snoring bump on my chest in his bright-blue Snugli, Dr. Sternbach was just trying to protect me. He had put so much effort into me. He said so. He hadn’t wanted me to feel disappointed was all. My marriage was my reward, and the person to whom I would forever be grateful, Dr. Sternbach, had cured me so that I, unworthy though he knew I was, had still managed to get married.
“We don’t ask for perfect,” he had said, looking me over one day when I’d been crying about wanting to be married. I still had many problems, I knew, that he, with a frown and a wagging finger, had daily pointed out to me. He warned me to keep everything about myself and my crazy family a secret from my husband. I had been “a brat” but now I was passable.
* * *
If you were to tote up superstition for superstition, ritual for ritual, obsession for obsession, sin for sin, and god for god, my husband’s Catholic faith and my own hidebound devotion to a secular deity irrationally enraged as an old testament prophet, then my husband would come out ahead. Way ahead. His was a god of love, and a relaxed one. Yes, my husband observes Lent, that holiday right before Easter when religious Catholics give up something they really love in order to honor Christ’s forty days of fasting in the wilderness. Just the kind of holiday I used to think of as an unnatural torment for innocent people who don’t know Freud.
My husband always gives up peanuts and beer, his very favorite things. At first, I thought this a cruel thing to do to himself—so out of character.
“Except for special occasions,” he said, smiling. “And… some weekends.”
I was always relieved to see him crunching away in front of the TV, washing down his Lenten peanuts with a glass of Weizen.
Did I have anywhere near the same easygoing self-indulgence in my own religious observances?
Walking from the subway stop on 96th and Broadway to Dr. Sternbach’s home office on 96th and Central Park West four days a week, I developed the habit of chanting to myself, “Dr. Sternbach is always right,” and this consoled me, because I liked absolutes and so did he—his absolutely right and my absolutely wrong ways of doing things. I was miserable, but I had the solace of certainty. I feared uncertainty. If I didn’t believe in him, I thought, everything would fall apart. I made sure to chant “he-is-right” in order to prevent what a Puritan would call “backsliding.” I had a need to remind myself that he knew better. I must be wrong, wrong about the boys I wanted to kiss me, the jazz dance classes I loved, and alas, about ballet.
I believed, no matter how miserable it made me, that my psychoanalyst had healed me, not destroyed me. I might as well have been Sister Melissa of the order of Perpetual Humility, devoted to Saint Sigmund the All-Powerful.
“You are not a dancer!” he spat.
My analyst always said he was an atheist, and praised Freud’s atheism, so I read every single thing Freud ever wrote about religion.
None of it’s flattering. But it’s clear that if you don’t believe in the Oedipus complex, you cannot be admitted to the world of psychoanalysis—you remain forever in the outer darkness with the people who believe in religion instead. Naturally, I considered myself an atheist too—I followed Dr. Sternbach’s contempt for religion. Having faith in everything Dr. Sternbach said was just part of the psychoanalytic deal—the only way I could ever be healthy, he said.
I never admitted to myself that I’d put my psychoanalyst in the position of a god, or that he’d encouraged me to do so, even though I joked about doing so, or he did, in almost every session. A Viennese refugee from Hitler, he said I was psychotic.
It’s easy to believe something bad about yourself when you’re fourteen, and when the grown-up spouting such poppycock has an exotic accent. When I was first sent to him, I was desperate to do anything to get away from my father, who drank and threw things, my mother, whose girlish helplessness appealed to everyone but me, and my brother, whose real and imaginary friends frightened me. Dr. Sternbach said when dealing with a schizophrenic patient (he reassured me I wasn’t quite that bad, although, he pointed out often, my brother and father were), he would walk in and announce, “I’m God!” Then, my analyst claimed, the crazy person would trust him and listen to him.
I was just young enough or nutsy enough not to question him. Or if I did, he yelled so loudly that I learned not to repeat my mistake. He loved a story about entering his building on a cold day and running into a patient. As they waited for the elevator in the freezing lobby, she looked him up and down, remarking, “God doesn’t wear an overcoat.” My analyst repeated that anecdote often.
Mostly, he insisted he was always right. I believed him to the point that I chose a college in New York City because he told me I needed psychoanalysis so could not leave him. I believed him to the point that I didn’t apply for a Time magazine internship during my senior year in college because it would have interfered with sessions, and he refused to let me have sessions at any other hours than those convenient to him. When friends expressed surprise or shock at the amount of time I devoted to psychoanalysis or blanched at some remark he’d made that I found amusing and they did not, I brushed off objections. I told myself my analyst knew better. I was smug. My analyst and I: we were the initiated, the ones in the know. I believed him when he said, “I am the only one who can help you.”
Sometimes, now, I look at videos of women in polygamous cults in their identical pioneer-style pastel dresses and hairdos, all smiling, all saying they are happy. I wore my analyst’s ideas, assertions, beliefs. I buttoned them on tightly—I strapped myself into them. I thought I had no idea what I wanted because I didn’t dare think about ambitions he had warned me to forget. He had a therapeutic group, and all members sat quietly when he interrupted, or yelled, that they were wrong and he was right. His expressions of disgust, uninhibited and extreme, seem to have impressed us all as the natural anger of a Jehovah who had every right to tell us what to do. His ideas, his beliefs, his assertions, were righteous. Ours were worthless.
* * *
In a village not far from Eichstätt, where Josef’s brother and sister-in-law had a farm, Josef and I visited his old friend, the retired priest with whom he used to have a beer, and who was going to marry us. The priest asked, “So are you willing to raise your children as Christians? With the knowledge of Jesus?” I rearranged some definitions in my head, smiled at the priest, whose face was filled with expectant hope, and said, “Yes.” The look of rapture on his face in the moment that misleading answer fell from my lips astonished me. I felt homesick. I had visions of my children stepping into dark confessionals and being told to say Hail Marys if they’d masturbated. On the other hand, the old priest didn’t look the punitive sort—he now had such an ecstatic look that if he hadn’t been a Catholic old man, I could easily have envisioned him dancing the Hora.
“You don’t actually believe in the devil, do you?” I asked my husband as we made our way back to the car.
“You mean a guy with horns and a tail?”
“Well, no, but we feel there is evil in the world, right?”
I could go with him on that. There was evil in the world. I decided to leave religion up to him. I remembered to make fish, or anything but meat, on Fridays, and discovered that baptisms and first communions seemed mainly occasions for big parties, good food, and presents.
“Daddy, will I get a camera?” was, to my relief, a pressing question of far greater interest than any doctrinal issue about Mary, Jesus or the Trinity.
Anytime a religious inquiry arose, I deferred to my husband: “Daddy knows about that! Ask him.”
A moment came when the kids wanted to know my religion. I admitted I’d been raised without any. When they pointedly asked what I believed, I confessed to atheism, remarking that Daddy and I had decided Catholicism was the best for them. Secretly, I wished our eldest would become a New York intellectual. Lo: he lives in Berlin and studies law.
“Mom, why didn’t you tell me there wasn’t a god?” he complained at about age sixteen. I started to say we didn’t actually know that, when he interrupted: “When I was ten, I thought there was something terribly wrong with me because I didn’t believe in God. You could have said something.”
And then I realized that I needn’t have worried—our children would make their own way, just like their Dad, who worried the most with our firstborn: “I wouldn’t want him to marry someone Jewish or Muslim.” That was too far from the true faith.
“You mean like you wouldn’t marry an atheist?” A look that was hard to interpret—a slight chagrin? being found out? embarrassment? guilt?—crossed his face. He grew up in a world where his Catholic saint’s day was a far bigger deal than his birthday, yet he and his brother both married non-religious Protestants.
Our younger two children went along with their first communions—they especially enjoyed choosing their costumes, my daughter her lacy white dress and patent-leather white Mary Janes, my son his “real suit!” For them, the church means becoming a grown-up, belonging to a group, and being in on the Christmas nativity scene. I worried all priests would be child molesters, but since German schools teach children about such things, I figured my kids would let me know about any funny business. Benjamin came home from his confirmation class with the information that when he told the priest, “I want to be the best,” the priest had advised, “You should just want to be yourself.”
That particularly good piece of advice was exactly what his fundamentalist Mom had never heard from her psychoanalyst, who was determined to make me over in his own image. My worst fear—that my children would go into religious orders—turned out to be what Freudians call a “projection.” It was I who had entered the religious order. I believed, no matter how miserable it made me, that my psychoanalyst had healed me, not destroyed me. I might as well have been Sister Melissa of the Order of Perpetual Humility, devoted to Saint Sigmund the All-Powerful. Whenever New York City came up in conversation or on TV, I’d get annoyed at my husband’s joke: “I’m glad I got you out of there!” Until one day I realized I was glad, too.
* * *
When my husband’s lungs worsened to the point where he had to use a portable oxygen tank and start losing weight in order to be eligible for a lung transplant, when my X-ray revealed a six-centimeter cancerous tumor on my femur, when we realized we had to start thinking about guardians for our young teenagers, I asked him whether he believed that our illnesses came from God, or whether the kind of God he believed in could condone or allow such things. I still don’t believe in a god, but when I’m scared I wish I did. In flights of fancy, I imagine Apollo and Dionysius, sun chariots, grapevines curling around trees, vats of purple wine, dancing fauns, Athena waltzing in with a dove and a shield, Hermes with his winged shoes flying me in some miracle cure. I could pray to all of them. Occasionally, I have. When I walked home in the evenings before I got sick, I loved to gaze at the full moon and recall Shelley’s description of her as a dying lady, “lean and pale,” but I imagined her as some sort of mother goddess and the evening star as the twinkling sidekick of my imaginary pagan companions. I half-believed I was praying when I asked Apollo, “and Josef’s God, if you’re around,” for good health and long life for my whole family.
That particular prayer seems not to have been heard, or maybe the gods resented it. I’m a part-time believer, a person who prays when she’s in the mood, which is not often. I don’t get down on my knees or go to church, except occasionally, to keep my husband company, and I don’t sacrifice sides of beef to anyone. I think of the Old Testament god liking the smell of burning meat. I not only haven’t barbecued a single sausage for him, I’ve forgotten him and all possible divine cohorts for long, happy periods.
I’m a part-time believer, a person who prays when she’s in the mood, which is not often. I don’t get down on my knees or go to church, except occasionally, to keep my husband company, and I don’t sacrifice sides of beef to anyone.
But I asked my husband what he thought, since I wanted to know how he was coping, too. He didn’t think God caused our illnesses.
“It’s fate,” he said.
It took me a moment to realize that wasn’t just his kindly stoicism responding—that was a quintessentially German answer. Fate, for Germans, is a massive, unyielding thing that cannot be fought and must be accepted.
I had a different answer, one I must admit is typically American. These illnesses—they’re a mistake, a fluke. There’s a new cure around the corner every minute, and if I just Google enough clinical trials, raise enough money on GoFundMe, consult enough experts, I’ll live. I’m a can-do gal: I’m American.
But I am still afraid to pray. So far, the gods have given me the opposite of what I requested. I must be doing something wrong. I can’t keep talking to them if they don’t like me, can I?
Then I see I’ve crucified myself on the remnants of my psychoanalytic past. It’s the angry analyst who’s behind my fears. I might as well assume kinder gods out there—like the one to whom my husband prays. He married me after all, though his mother, once upon a time before we met, allegedly waved a pitchfork at a woman not romantically entangled with him, but known to be Protestant. What would his poor mom do if she knew two of her sons married just the kind of women she’d chased with that pitchfork? Luckily for her, she was gathered to her foremothers by the time her youngest, and, I suspect, favorite son proposed to me. But if I know the family, and I should, after almost two decades of marriage, she’d be raising a Weizen, shaking her head merrily, explaining things to God so he wouldn’t get bent out of shape or feel insulted.
* * *
A friend told me of the man she wanted to marry, but could not, after meeting his parents. She is Jewish, and he’d grown up with German-speaking parents, in a very non-Jewish mid-western flyover town. His father, a Pole who had survived Auschwitz, and his mother, a German Protestant, both refugees from Hitler who lived in a permanent state of fear, insisted: “Children born of your union must not be Jewish—they’ll never be safe.” This doomed effort to erase identity deeply saddened my friend, who couldn’t imagine raising children with a buried identity.
When I met my husband, he said, “I’m a Bavarian.” He took me to the circus and a local cathedral. He never tried to convert me, but I could tell that secretly he felt sorry for my lack of belief, just as secretly I felt sorry for his entrapment in old wives’ tales. Loyalty, his chief quality, would never allow him to abandon the religion of his parents. But he makes of it what he will.
I, of course, started my marriage with the notion that I wanted my children exposed to the brilliant insights of Sigmund Freud, not the pathetic superstitions, as I saw them, of the Catholic church. But the brilliant insight of the Catholic church lies in the original meaning of καθολικός (katholikos, from two Greek words meaning throughout-the-whole or, approximately, all-inclusive). In the best sense—which reverses what the church as an institution has become—Catholicism means universal love, all-embracing acceptance. Psychoanalysis, meanwhile, has institutionalized a set of beliefs about insight and personality, with the notion that the seeker of truth needs a guide to get through the “underworld” of the unconscious mind, the way Dante needed Virgil to usher him through the Inferno. Dante’s Virgil remained, of course, his own construct—a piece of himself.
You might as well walk that trip through your personal Inferno alone in front of your keyboard, or your canvas, or your big hunk of clay. Costs less.
Now that I’ve relinquished psychoanalysis, I find I haven’t, really. A world devoid of dreams or an unconscious mind is one I can’t imagine; I could say Dante or Shakespeare or Woolf provided these ideas before Freud, but I’d be whistling in the dark. If I’m heading for that very dark place Hamlet calls “The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” I want a pathfinder. You can’t analyze death; analysis is all about distilling the known from the unknown—not the inaccessible. I can’t assume there’s a god out there in the way I can assume I might figure out what makes someone tick using high-tech psychoanalytic tools. I doubt I’ll ever talk myself into religious devotion, and I’m still with the Freudians in the notion that “man creates God in his image.” I can’t seem to exorcise the irritated face of Oscar Sternbach, even after years of happy marriage to someone as far removed from Sternbach’s world as I could find. Take it on faith, however, that I will try to do so.
Melissa Knox’s book, Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of Psychoanalysis, was published by Cynren Press in January 2019, and has received advance praise from Helen Fremont, Phyllis Chesler, and Charles Monroe-Kane. Recent essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Streetlight Magazine, Eclectica, and Empty Mirror.
in college, the men i
gave trembling permission to
scurry inside of me, would,
more often than not,
send me hobbling to the
student clinic. the nurse, as incandescent
as a light bulb with rage,
tells me that sex is not supposed
to require three tylenol. my
roommate, eyebrow raised at
the troupes of grubby-nailed
students, asks if i even
enjoy myself—and so
i allow myself to let them all go,
except for him.
he is so unlike the others in his stillness:
curled over as a comma at the back end
of the bar, hair rapunzel long
and perfumed against the heavy
leather of his jacket. i come to
him on purpose, duck my head
and listen to confessions:
how he misses the touch of newborn
animals now that he has
left the farm his mother raised him on,
how he wakes up with the
scent of birth in his nostrils
and finds it a comfort.
i remind myself
that nothing good has come
from boys who reverently speak of blood
under their nails but
maybe this one is permissible,
this outlier with eyelashes
stark and gentle, who passed a hand
over the flag on his jacket and
spoke of needlepoint with reverence,
who does not hide a soprano giggle
when i tuck a crocus behind the
conch of his ear and whispers,
sweet-eyed and limpid, that he
feels as if i am his
husband, in another universe,
in this one, i close my eyes
and kiss him open-mouthed against
the side of his car, hands sure
and calloused on the curve of
a hip, warn him
that my body greeting his
is nothing short of a
magic trick turned miracle,
never repeated twice.
Levi Cain was born in California, raised in Connecticut, and currently lives in Massachusetts. Their work can be found in The Hunger, Red Queen Literary Magazine, and other publications.
Vandana Khanna has published two full-length collections of poetry, Train to Agra and Afternoon Masala, as well as her most recent chapbook The Goddess Monologues. Among her achievements are notable features in the New England Review, The Missouri Review, 32 Poems, Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace, Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, and Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry, as well as the Crab Orchard Review First Book Prize, The Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize, the Diode Editions Chapbook Competition, the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize, and five Pushcart Prize nominations.
She has taught English and creative writing at Indiana University, Pitzer College, Whittier College and the University of Southern California, among other colleges, and is the co-poetry editor of the Los Angeles Review. Vandana and I conducted the following interview in person in early December 2018. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Amanda Lopez: We’ll start with this: When and what experiences urged you to begin writing poetry?
Vandana Khanna: I first started writing when I was really young, like I was nine years old and I tried to write my first novel. But I came to poetry more in middle school and high school. It seemed understandable why I would be gravitating toward something I thought was really intense, which was poetry. So, I pretty much started writing poetry in middle school and high school. And then from there, I was able to go into my undergrad program and work with the most amazing teachers ever. From my undergrad on, I took a poetry workshop every semester I was able to, which was all of them. I was really lucky because my first teachers were Rita Dove, Charles Wright, and Greg Ore, who were these like luminaries in the poetry world. I feel like I learned from the best early on. I was pretty lucky in that way.
AL: Do you think that their work has remained influential to your work, or has it shifted?
VK: Absolutely. I definitely learned so much from them and I feel especially with Rita Dove and somewhat with Greg Ore. I was really so enamored with their poetry it really influenced the way I wrote and what I still do in my poetry, and try to remember what I learned from them at such an early age.
AL: How did growing up as an immigrant influence The Goddess Monologues?
VK: Well, my first two books were really heavily about the immigrant experience. Primarily because it was such a shaping factor in my own life. With The Goddess Monologues, it just hit me that I am an immigrant, I’m raising biracial children, who are Americans, but I wanted them to still be connected to my culture and what I grew up with.
One of the things I did was read this picture book to my son, who’s now way older,—laughs—but when he was little, it was really important that if we read picture books they would be about Hindu mythology. Even while reading those picture books, I’d have to edit out some of the story—and this was really before he could even read, he was like three or four—because mythology, whether it’s Hindu mythology or Greek mythology or whatever, it’s pretty violent. Gods and goddesses are at war and they get kidnapped and their heads get cut off. While I was reading them, I’d have to edit them on the go. But it did strike me that they were all really about the gods. I was like huh, these goddesses have just become devices for these men, but in actual Hinduism, the goddesses get prayed to a lot; they become the god or goddess of the household, and you pray to a particular goddess. In actual practice, the goddess is beloved and prayed to and worshipped, but I also wanted to think about how they were being worshipped because they followed certain rules of conduct. I was kind of thinking Well what happens when you really strip away at it? You have these goddesses, young girls, or young women, and maybe they didn’t choose to be a goddess, and it was just their “destiny” or whatever. I thought about how it would feel to be a young woman on the precipice of being great or Holy, and what does that even mean, in very human terms. And it plays into the immigrant thing with the themes of my childhood being a good Indian girl and following certain rules.
Ultimately as a writer, you do have to be true to yourself. There are going to be editors and people who you won’t be able to please. There will be people who will be like Why don’t you write more about your ethnicity and growing up? and We don’t see enough of that in your writing.
These poems are also somewhat a reaction to growing up in that culture, which I think a lot of people can probably relate to. It doesn’t have to do with one particular culture. It’s the culture of our household or your family and what’s expected of you as a young woman.
AL: That kind of takes us to my next question: I’m a third generation Mexican-American, and although my grandma planted strong roots in our Mexican heritage, sometimes I have trouble navigating my work as a biracial writer when I’m so far removed from my immigrant ancestors. What advice would you give to a bi-cultural writer?
VK: It’s gonna sound a little hokey, but you have to stay true to who you are and the complexities of who you are. One of the things I really remember from growing up was that is it was really hard to navigate the space I found myself in, partly because there were only a handful of people I felt like who were having the same experience as I was. But as we move forward as a world and as people who intermarry more and have more multicultural children or multiracial children, there will be more people who will experience that complexity and multiplicity.
There are lots more role models now than when I was growing up. Like I wasn’t taught much about Asian-American writers until I went to college and I took one of these writing classes. Then I was finally reading not only Asian-American poets but Indian-American poets, you know, that I never read growing up. Ultimately as a writer, you do have to be true to yourself. There are going to be editors and people who you won’t be able to please. There will be people who will be like Why don’t you write more about your ethnicity and growing up? and We don’t see enough of that in your writing. And then there will be people like, Why are you always writing about x, y, and z? I don’t think you can please everybody; you should just please yourself as a writer, no matter what you write about or how you choose to write it.
But I think we’re in a space now that as we have more and more writers of color becoming editors and positioning themselves in situations that allow them to have more power, they can assess this work based on the complexities of who they are and what they’re bringing to the table, and not like I don’t understand that word or Gosh, that looks like an Indian word or a Spanish word, and I don’t feel like looking it up. I’m hopeful of writers of color being editors or judges of contests, that they bring all that experience with them. And that’s a good thing. Not to say that the status quo hasn’t helped certain people, but in general, if you have a diverse population, it should be reflected in leadership positions. And once you have that, it allows writers to just be writers, and not to have to carry all the other labels on them, and let society stew.
AL: How would you describe your creative process or writing ritual?
VK: It has stayed consistent for a number of years. Life kinda gets in the way sometimes. For me, when I’m not teaching or editing a lot, I try to write every day if I can. And if I can’t, if there are other work obligations or life obligations, I try to write once a week. I feel like if I don’t stay in touch with that part of myself on an almost constant basis, I’m a terrible person to be with. I’m a terrible friend, a terrible teacher. I’m terrible at all those other things because being a writer is so much a part of my identity at this point that if I don’t do it, I feel like I’m a sham.
I try to write if given the chance, every day. If not, I kinda look at my week and say On Friday I have like two or three hours, I’m just gonna dedicate it to writing. For me, it takes a little while to disconnect from the world. I have to incorporate that disconnect time into my writing time as well. So I try to write every day.
I want these girls and young women to be complex, I do want them to fail. I want people to acknowledge their pain without considering them to be victims.
I primarily have to write in my house because I get distracted very easily. I can’t write in a cafe—It sounds so romantic, like how you see people and you think, Ooh, I wish I could do that with my latte, but I just get too distracted. I like my house, I like to have a computer and a printer. I used to hand print everything, so I have several journals which were my first and second books. With the third book, I was composing on the laptop, which I’ve never really done. I used to compose by hand, then go to the laptop, then print that out and do this whole thing. Now I’m just composing on the laptop, and I like it.
I think once you’ve established a process and another emerges, you kind of just have to go with it, you have to do it. Because I will do anything to trick my mind into writing. I do have to write at home, partly because of the quiet, and partly because I tend to wear really ugly, comfortable clothing and I don’t think people want to see that in the world.—laughs—So for me, it’s quiet, comfortable, and then I usually start by reading something. I read a lot of contemporary poetry, so I will go to any lit mag’s website and start reading a current issue online and see what sparks me. Or if I’m on social media and one of my writer friends posts like Oh, I just got published in this literary magazine, here’s my poem I often will save those posts of theirs and I’ll sit down and read the poems in hopes that something will inspire me. I have to write a lot and often to feel I have even a little bit of material I like.
AL: Do you sense there’s a difference between writing manually and typing?
VK: I have to say because I made a shift between the second and third book, that the first two are very narrative, and this third book is narrative but it’s slightly more lyric than those. What I tried to do with this one is replace straight narrative with mood. It kind of worked really well, because in my mind the book was, rather than individual poems, it was like this big book of mood—laughs—It was easy to put it right on the computer, because even if I just came up with one line here or there, I could go back to that one line and connect it up to another one-liner. And that’s kind of how I built some of those poems because I was more concerned with that idea of mood than telling like a straight narrative of somebody, or one of the goddesses. I was more concerned with their emotions. If I was in a mood myself while I was writing, sometimes there were angry poems, sometimes they were sad or melancholy. I would just sit and write those and when I went back, I would try to put those lines together that were sort of similar moods. The book turned into a sequence of poems rather than broken up into individual stories.
AL: Are there any misconceptions or things readers tend to miss while analyzing The Goddess Monologues?
VK: I think some things people are going to miss because they’re not gonna look up, like these goddesses. And I’m okay with that because, again, what I want to get across is the feel of it, the feel of these women and these girls. And whether or not they understand the full scope of a particular story, I don’t mind that. In fact, I encourage people to just read the book. I have a whole notes section in the back, knowing some people will want to look at the notes and some people won’t. The poems should just stand on their own. You can just pick it up and get some sense of what’s going on, and what the implications are. But I don’t know, I’d have to see what people really feel about it. A lot of my titles have “girl” in it; when people come to a page and they see a title like that I wonder what their assumptions are, what they bring with them when they see “girl.” I’m not sure how people receive that, but I am sure it’s interesting.
AL: That is interesting! What is your intention behind “girl?”
VK: So much of our world ignores girls, and ignores their power and their pain. Or the flipside is true; we say women are all powerful and they’re not allowed to falter and they’re not allowed to fail. We’ve reversed this pendulum, which can be a good thing, but there’s also then this ultimate pressure of like, what if you fail? So I have poems in the book where the goddesses do fail. They fail these tasks, these certain moments, tests. I want these girls and young women to be complex; I do want them to fail. I want people to acknowledge their pain without considering them to be victims. Women are portrayed as all-powerful or victims, nothing in between. There’s no transition between the two modes. I hope these poems show that women and girls and even goddesses are complex and they do fail and sometimes they do get hurt but that they can move beyond that hurt—or they hold onto that hurt and it fuels them.
I do feel like a lot of my work questions assumptions we make about religion, about being holy, about gods, all of it, that expectation of what a holy person or what holy women should be like.
AL: And that complexity shows up in your titles like “The Goddess Shows Up Late to the End-of-the-World Party” which is so humanizing for these women, these goddesses.
Do you see writing poetry as a spiritual practice? A political act? Can it be both?
VK: I think they’re both in the sense that from a very early age when I first started writing poetry, and my first couple of books, I really am preoccupied with this idea of God and religion and how women navigate that space. Especially because I grew up Hindu, but I also went to Catholic school, so a lot of my early work is grappling with this idea of being between two religions. And now with the goddesses, I can’t seem to get rid of that idea. But I do feel like a lot of my work questions assumptions we make about religion, about being holy, about gods, all of it, that expectation of what a holy person or what holy women should be like.
I also think it’s political in the sense of just really always being interested in writing about girls and women, and even by putting “girl” in the title, by having people focus on it is a political act in its own way. I don’t think you can separate that. I do think sometimes my poems are probably subtly political and sometimes they’re more overtly political. But I don’t think you can separate that.
AL: Concerning your process again, do you ever throw poems away? Or do you like to keep the rejects?
VK: I have written whole poems, obviously, a lot of them that I don’t ever end up doing anything with. They don’t get published or get put in a book, and they’re just sort of there. And that’s okay because I needed to write those poems to get to the poem that I really wanted to write. I don’t throw them away, but they’re probably tucked in a file somewhere on the computer. But for sure there are, in every collection or book, there are some poems that never make it into that book because it’s a process. When I’m first writing, I don’t really want to assess right away if what I’m writing is worthwhile, because it’s important to just sit and write first, before bringing in the critic. If you sit down with the critic on your shoulder already, you’re never gonna write. After some distance, I assess what I have.
AL: The Goddess Monologues take place in an ethereal setting; if you had to place where the majority of the poems take place in the physical world, what kind of landscape would your characters, the goddesses, reside in?
VK: I think they would reside where we leave them, on the edge of a forest. That’s where I see them. And I think that’s where they will always go back to.
AL: Finally, if there’s one or a couple of things you want your work to be remembered for, what would you choose it/them to be?
VK: Oh my gosh… Well, I think I do pay a lot of attention to language and imagery. When I first learned to write, that’s what my teachers imparted to me, that people might not remember the story of your poem, or remember the narrative or that stuff, but you want them to leave reading your work with one image or one moment in that poem. So that’s what I hope, that people will at least leave thinking about that one moment, whatever it is for them. It’ll hopefully be different for all different readers, but that’s what I hope.
AL: Thank you so much for talking with me!
VK: Sure! Thank you!
Amanda Lopez is a poet studying for her MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles (AULA), where she serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the student-run literary magazine Lunch Ticket. She has served as a management assistant for Write Bloody Publishing and read on the literary journal The Redlands Review as Poetry Editor during her undergraduate years at the University of Redlands. Amanda is a Los Angeles native working on a collection of poetry about navigating relationships through mental illness. When Amanda is not writing, she finds passion in alternative and rock music and being a makeup and special effects artist.
Tala drinks her coffee in bed every day. She gives free rein to her thoughts, allowing a breathing space to think, to remember, to plan, or just to be.
Nadim looks in her direction. “You don’t need to come with me to the airport. It’s too early. I’ll take a taxi.”
“No,” she responds. “I’ll be ready in a few minutes.” She notices his frozen smile and hurries up. It was one of the earliest things she had noticed about him. That inauthentic smile that told her he did not approve.
She shrugs her shoulders stubbornly. He told her once that he loved her intransigence. She took that for the compliment it was intended to be.
Tala doesn’t know why she is insisting on going with him. She hates airports. She sees them as worlds in suspended animation, places and times that are boring in their repetitiveness. She knows that the trips are important to publicize his book, but airports accentuate her feeling of being in a state of perpetual waiting.
She understands Eliot’s Prufrock so well: “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons…”
“I’ll make some coffee. I just want to shake off this headache.”
“There’s no time for coffee, habibti. Hurry up.” She could see the smile forming. He had called her habibti, my loved one. Clearly he was upset.
The kitchen sink is filled with plates and glasses from last night. The kitchen will be clean in his absence. She will not cook. A salad and some cheese are enough for her. She does not like to waste time in the kitchen. She will do what she wants without worrying about being observed, judged, or expected to be a person he created in his image.
She wondered when she had bartered the transparency of her emotions in return for this sallow phase devoid of longing or anticipation. He had been the sanctuary to which she resorted to avoid the boredom of the mundane. She had discovered the aesthetics of the universe with him, so why did she hold him solely responsible for the chasm that now separates them? Did she not also step back for fear he would let her down when he saw her dependence on him?
* * *
In the garage, Nadim gets into the driver’s seat as he always does when he is with Tala. He does not like Tala driving when they are together. As they merge into the morning traffic, he says, “Just what I thought. Traffic is very slow at this time of day…”
She turns on the radio in the car before he has a chance to complete his sentence about wanting to leave the house early, and how she had delayed him.
She decides that silence between them is better. It hadn’t always been like this.
* * *
“To extrapolate from your analysis, Nadim, this existence of ours is absurd because it is based on binaries.”
“Well, think about it, Tala. Within us we hold both the thing and its opposite. Part of us is God-like, capable of creativity and love, and another part of us is a depth of darkness that results from the pain and frustration that we have buried inside us.”
“I know just what you mean! Reminds me of something I read once: A blind man does not know darkness because he has never seen light.”
“There you go: binaries.”
* * *
At the airport, she stands aside and watches him as he waits in the passenger check-in line. He does not look at her. It is as if he is already gone. She is distracted by the sight of all these people around her. She puts her hand in her pocket and pulls out a piece of paper, glances at it, then tosses it into the recycling bin.
As he finishes checking-in, she sees him scanning the crowds looking for her. She waves to him, and he smiles, walking toward her.
But he is somewhere else, thinking about other things that have nothing to do with her.
“You do not need to wait any longer, Tala. I do not like farewells.”
She shrugs her shoulders stubbornly. He told her once that he loved her intransigence. She took that for the compliment it was intended to be. She took pride in the clarity of her thoughts, and her ability to express them. She found now that she was less and less concerned about his likes and dislikes.
“I will not say goodbye, Nadim,” she says. Nadim comes up close to Tala and brushes away a lock of hair from her forehead. He starts to hum a verse from Abdel Wahab’s classic song which both of them loved, “Her eyes taught me how to love her, but love can kill.” Tala laughs. That song had once made her imagine she was dancing on the edge of a magic chord left in her heart by a rebellious god.
She feels nothing now. She returns his look with another, showing no joy, no grief.
Tala looks for something to say. She remembers how the words had flowed between them. She remembers their conversations, their words coming effortlessly, needing no clarification.
When did she forget how to speak to him?
He often provoked her with the subjects he chose. She would google the facts so she could find the fodder that would allow her to hold her own in their interminable discussions.
Her thoughts flashed back to one of their early conversations full of passion and absolutes.
“You’ve read Ezra Pound, of course.”
She did not reveal that she only knew the poet and critic by name.
“You must recall his famous letter to Harriet Monroe in 1915, in which he referred to his quest to make the arts an authentic guide that enlightened civilization. In his literary criticism, T.S. Eliot discussed the connections linking poetry, civilization, and society. He underscored the importance of being inspired by the past without being limited by it, and at the same time, to create worlds aligned with modernity…”
They sip their coffee in silence. She watches him as he settles the bill for the coffee. She loves him in jeans. He looks younger, like she had known him twenty years earlier.
He continued to hold forth, and she kept silent, except for the occasional comment, for fear that he would ask her a question that would expose her ignorance. He seemed to intuit her discomfort and changed the subject.
“As for us, Tala, well just look at us, we copy and emulate at best, but where is our creativity? All we have is the silence of graves.”
“By us you mean we who live in the East?”
“How can it be otherwise in a society that persecutes thought and prostitutes the arts? The East is in a state of clinical death, my dear Tala. It reminds me of a poem by Khalil Hawi, ‘Lukewarm ashes here, hot ashes there … but ashes to ashes.’”
* * *
“Now how is that headache?” asked Nadim. “Ready for a strong cup of coffee?”
“At least I will make up for that coffee I deprived you of at home…”
Nadim takes Tala’s arm and leads her to the nearby café. Once there, he takes his hand away and puts it into his pocket.
They sip their coffee in silence. She watches him as he settles the bill for the coffee. She loves him in jeans. He looks younger, like she had known him twenty years earlier.
She says silently, “I want to embrace you so that my body fits inside yours and we become inseparable.”
Instead she says, “Long journey. I hope you can sleep a little bit.”
“It’s hard to find any comfort in the seats. They are so narrow that I feel I have to compact myself.”
She remembers a conversation they once had.
“Think about it, Tala, music is the result of the silence between notes. In the same way, we have to learn how to listen to the silence between words. The hiatus creates words that have a hidden rhythm. It reflects the shadow of the truth or its absence.”
“How do we embrace this knowledge of pain with less sadness, Nadim?”
“We allow our hearts to be vulnerable. We feel the wound without fear of grief. It is fear and not sorrow that is the opposite of joy.
* * *
“The pressure in my head has eased. This coffee is magic.”
“You’re always tense, you just don’t know how to soften your reactions to things.”
“Is that how you see me now, Nadim? You used to say you loved my spontaneity, and my desire to find hidden truths.”
“And I still do. All I want to say is that you should try to give yourself a break.”
“Do you remember that line by Adonis? ‘There is no power on earth that can compel me to love what I do not care for, or to despise what I do not hate.’”
He looks at his wristwatch and says, “I better go. I also don’t want you to be late for work.”
“Oh, I have time, don’t worry. I’ll finish my coffee and then go.”
“Oh, sorry, Tala, I did not notice you hadn’t finished your coffee. Of course I’ll wait.”
“You do not have to, you’re right, it’s better to go to the gate early. The lines will be long.”
She rises so as not to leave him room for hesitation, and hastily embraces him. “Take care of yourself, Nadim. You’ll call me when you land, right?”
“Of course I will.”
He walks away. She watches him hand his passport and boarding pass to the security agent. She wills him to turn around. He does not.
She follows him with her eyes as he moves away, becomes smaller, disappears.
She orders another cup of coffee to take away, and moves to the glass façade that overlooks the tarmac. She watches the plane take off, and follows it until it disappears into space.
She does not understand the mysteries of how an airplane, carrying hundreds of passengers, is here one moment and gone the next. Had Nadim been here, she would have asked him.
“The clamor of my feelings is compressed into a tattoo which is carved into my heart.” Tala heads for her car, fumbling blindly for the keys in her bag. Did the keys stay with him? If he has her keys, the spare set is in the apartment. She takes a deep breath and rummages once more in her bag. She finds the keys. She sighs with relief, delighting in the feel of the keys. The sense of touch is so often discounted.
Tala gets into the car. She settles behind the steering wheel, enjoys a quiet moment of freedom. Free from his presence, free from the weight of his absence.
تشرب تالة القهوة في الفراش، ككل صباح، فترة محايدة تتسلل فيها أفكارها دون تتابع، تتذكر، تخطط، أو مجرد أن تكون.
يلتفت نديم نحوها ويقول: “لا داعي أن تأتي معي الى المطار، ما زال الوقت باكرا.. سآخذ تاكسي.”
“لا، سأكون حاضرة خلال دقائق”. وتنهض بسرعة حين تراه يبتسم تلك الابتسامة المصطنعة التي لا تخفى عليها والتي توحي
لها بأنه غير راض. لا تعرف لماذا أصرت على الذهاب معه، فهي تكره المطارات، عوالم معلقة بين الأمكنة والأوقات، مملة
في تشابهها. تدرك أن سفره ضروري لترويج كتابه، ولكن المطارات تزيد من احساسها أنها دائما تنتظر، تعيش حياتها تنتظر..
تفهم جيدا ما رمى اليه تي اس اليوت في قصيدته “أغنية حب لألفرد برفروك” حين كتب: “ مضيت أقيس حياتي بملاعق
“سأعد ركوة قهوة طازجة، لعلها تخفف من هذا الصداع”.
“لا وقت للقهوة يا تالة، هيا يا حبيبتي أسرعي”. تلاحظ تلك الابتسامة الباهتة على شفتيه وقد دعاها بحبيبته، لا بد أنه في غاية
تنظر الى حوض المطبخ وقد امتلأ بالصحون والأقداح التي تجمعت منذ ليلة البارحة. سيبقى المطبخ نظيفا في غيابه، لن تطبخ
شيئا، السلطة وقطعة من الجبن تكفيها… كل هذا الوقت الذي يضيع بلا معنى.. ستفعل ما تريد دون أن تشعر أن هناك أحدا
يراقبها، يحاكم تصرفاتها، ويتوقع منها أن تكون انسانة صنعها هو، على صورته.
متى قايضت شفافية أحاسيسها بهذه المرحلة الشاحبة التي لا شوق فيها ولا لهفة، رغم أن نديم كان المعبد الذي لجأت اليه من
رتابة اليومي، وأنها، معه، اكتشفت جماليات الكون؟ ولماذا تحمله وحده مسؤولية هذه الهوة بينهما، ألم تبتعد هي أيضا خوفا من
أن يخذلها حين يرى مدى حاجتها اليه؟
يدخلان الكاراج، ويجلس نديم في مقعد السائق كما يفعل دائما حين يكون معها. تسترق النظر اليه لا تغفل عن وجوده وهو يقود
السيارة في زحمة السير.
يقول: “هذا ما خشيته.. حركة السير بطيئة في هذه الساعة.”
تدير راديو السيارة قبل أن يكمل كلامه ويلمح بأنه كان يود أن يغادر البيت باكرا ولكنها أخرته. الصمت بينهما أفضل. لم يكن
الأمر كذلك في السابق.
“بناء على تحليلك هذا الوجود عبثي لأنه قائم على الثنائيات.” ويقول: “نعم يا تالة، حتى نحن في داخلنا الشيء ونقيضه لأن
جزءا منا الهي قادر على الابداع والحب، بينما الجزء الآخر قابع في عتمة الداخل نتيجة للألم والاحباط الذي دفنناه في
“أفهم ما تقول، مما يذكرني بجملة قرأتها أن الاعمى لا يعرف الظلام لأنه لم ير النور.”
في المطار، تقف جانبا تنظر اليه وهو واقف في صف تسجيل وصول المسافرين، لا ينظر نحوها.. كأنه رحل فعلا.. تتلهى
بالتفرج على الناس .. تضع يدها في جيبها، تتلمس ورقة قديمة تسحبها، تقرأها، تتوجه نحو سلة المهملات، ترميها… تعود الى
ينتهي من اجراءات تسجيل الوصول وتراه يبحث عنها، تشير اليه فيبتسم ويتوجه نحوها، غائبا عنها، يفكر في أمور أخرى لا
علاقة لها بها.
“لا داعي لأن تنتظري أكثر، لا أحب الوداع”.
ترفع كتفيها نفيا وعنادا.. قال لها مرة أنه يحب عنادها وتشبثها برأيها. أفرحها ذلك الاطراء اذ أنها تفخر بوضوح أفكارها
وبقدرتها على التعبير عما يختلج في ذهنها. لكنها لم تعد تعبأ بما يحب أو يكره…
يقترب نديم منها ويرفع خصلة شعر انسدلت على جبينها.. يدندن لحنا لعبد الوهاب كانا يغنيانه معا: “جفنه، علم الغزل، ومن
الحب ما قتل.” تضحك. مقطع من أغنية كان يثير عوالم راقصة في مخيلتها وكأنها ترقص على حافة وتر سحري تركه اله
متمرد في قلبها، ولكنها لا تشعر بشيء الآن.. تبادل نظرته بأخرى لا فرح فيها ولا حزن…
تتذكر كم كان الكلام ينساب بينهما ولا ينتهي… متى نسيت كيف تحدثه؟
كان يفاجئها دائما بالمواضيع التي يختارها، يستفزها، فتهرع الى غوغل تفتش عن المعلومات حتى تجاريه في نقاشاته. تتذكر
حديثا جرى بينهما، واحدا من جملة أحاديث مفعمة بالأحاسيس والمطلقات.
“أنت طبعا قرأت شعر ازرا باوند”. لم تقل أنها تعرف الاسم، وتعرف أنه شاعر وناقد، وهذا مدى معرفتها به. “لا بد أنك
تذكرين رسالته الى هارييت مونرو عام 1915، والتي يشير فيها الى سعيه لجعل الفنون دليلا مسلما به ومصباحا للحضارة.
الأمر الذي تناوله تي اس اليوت في نقده الأدبي حيث يناقش هذا الترابط بين الشعر والحضارة والمجتمع، وأهمية أن يستقي
الشاعر من الماضي دون أن يقتصر عليه، وفي الوقت نفسه يخلق عوالم تتماشى مع حداثة الحاضر”.
ويسترسل في الحديث وتبقى صامتة الا من تعليق هامشي، خائفة أن يسألها سؤالا يفضح جهلها. ولعله حدس ذلك، فيغير
الموضوع حتى يتجنب احراجها.
“أما نحن، فأنظري الينا يا تالة، ننقل ونحاكي في أحسن الأحوال، ولكن أين الابداع الخلاق؟ لم يبق لنا غير صمت القبور.”
“تقصد نحن في الشرق؟ “
“وهل يكون غير ذلك في مجتمع يضطهد الفكر ويعهر الفنون؟ الشرق في موت سريري، مما يذكرني بمقطع شعر لخليل
“رماد فاتر هنا، رماد حار هناك… رماد برماد “.
“ كيف وجع رأسك يا تالة؟” ما رأيك بفنجان قهوة قوية؟”
ويضيف ضاحكا: “على الأقل أعوضك عن فنجان القهوة الذي حرمتك منه في البيت.”
تضمها ذراعه ويقودها الى أقرب مقهى . يرتشفان القهوة صامتين.
تتأمله وهو يدفع ثمن القهوة .. تحبه بالجينز .. يبدو أصغر سنا، كما عرفته منذ عشرين سنة..
تريد أن تقول: أود أن أعانقك، أن أدس جسدي داخل جسدك لا أنفصل عنك.
ولكنها تقول: “الرحلة طويلة، آمل أن تتمكن من النوم ولو قليلا”.
“من الصعب أن نجد أي راحة في هذه المقاعد التي ضاقت لدرجة يضطر المرء فيها أن يتكوم على نفسه”…
“ يجب أن نتقن الاصغاء الى الصمت بين الكلمات، كما الصمت بين الأنغام يصنع الموسيقى…لهذه المسافة بين الكلمات ايقاع
خفي يعكس ظلال الحقيقة أو غيابها “.
تتساءل: “وكيف نحتمل هذه المعرفة بحزن أقل”؟
“بأن تبقى قلوبنا طرية، ونبقى قابلين للجرح دون أن نخاف الحزن. فالخوف، لا الحزن، نقيض الفرح.”
“خف الضغط في رأسي… ان للقهوة مفعولا سحريا”.
“أنت متوترة دائما، لا تعرفين كيف تخففين من ردود فعلك على كل شيء.”
“أهكذا تراني يا نديم؟ كنت تقول أن أكثر ما تحبه عفويتي ورغبتي في ايجاد الحقيقة المغيبة.”
“لم أقصد ذلك.. كل ما أردت قوله أن تحاولي أن تريحي نفسك قليلا”.
“أتذكرين هذه الجملة لأدونيس: “ما من قوة في الأرض ترغمني على محبة ما لا أحب، أو كراهية ما لا أكره.”
ينظر الى ساعته، يقول: “لعله من الأفضل أن أذهب …لا أريدك أن تتأخري عن عملك”.
“أمامي متسع من الوقت لا تقلق. سأنهي فنجان القهوة ثم أذهب.”
“عفوا، لم ألحظ انك لم تشربي قهوتك بعد. طبعا سأبقى.”
“لا داعي، معك حق، الأفضل أن تتوجه الى قاعة المسافرين، فالصفوف لا بد طويلة.”
تنهض حتى لا تترك له مجالا للتردد، تعانقه بصورة تلقائية، تقول: “انتبه لنفسك، ستتصل بي حال وصولك، صح؟”
يمضي، تراقبه وهو يعطي جواز سفره وبطاقة صعود الطائرة لرجل الأمن، تأمل أن يلتفت وراءه ليراها.. لا يفعل.
تتابعه بنظراتها وهو يبتعد، يصير أصغر، يختفي…
تطلب فنجان قهوة آخر تحمله معها وتمشي الى آخر الفاصل الزجاجي المشرف على المدرج تنتظر اقلاع الطائرة، وتتابعها
بنظراتها حتى تتلاشى في الفضاء.. لا تفهم ألغاز الوجود الغامضة، كيف كان هنا، كيف لم يعد.. لو كان نديم هنا لسألته…
“ صخب مشاعري يخفت في ملف مضغوط وشما مدقوقا في قلبي”…
تتجه نحو سيارتها، تبحث عن المفاتيح في حقيبتها، هل بقيت معه؟ ماذا ستفعل في هذه الحالة والنسخة الثانية في مكان ما في
البيت… تسترد أنفاسها حين تتلمس يدها المفاتيح في قاع الحقيبة، تفرحها الاحاسيس التي تولدها حاسة اللمس التي تغفل عنها في
معظم الأحيان.. تفتح باب السيارة وتجلس وراء المقود، لحظة هادئة خالية من كل شيء… خالية من حضوره، خالية من وطأة
Mishka Mojabber Mourani was born in Egypt and has lived in Australia and Lebanon. She is a graduate of the American University of Beirut, where she also taught cultural studies and leadership courses. She speaks five languages. She is the author of a poetry collection, Lest We Forget: Lebanon 1975-1990. Her short story, “The Fragrant Garden,” appeared in Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women [Telegram], and Lebanon Through Writers’ Eyes [Eland]. Dar An-Nahar published her Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir. She translates from French and Arabic, and she co-authored a bilingual poetry collection entitled Alone, Together [Kutub] with Aida Y. Haddad. Her piece “Once upon A War Night” was published in the Exquisite Corpse anthology by Medusa’s Press, “Fatma’s Fate” in The Studio Voice, “From its shore I saw Jerusalem” in Your Middle East, and “Stone Walls Do Not A Memory Make” in Rowayat. Her short story “Crossing the Green Line” appeared in Slag Glass City and “Aleri” In Sukoon Magazine. Her short story “Amira’s Mirror” was included in the 2018 anthology Arab Women Voice New Realities. Her writing deals with war, memory, identity, exile, and gender issues.
Aida Haddad was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and lived in Greece before moving to the US. She graduated from the American University of Beirut with a degree in Arabic literature. She taught Arabic as a native and foreign language. She has published her short stories and articles in various outlets, such as An-Nahar, Al-Hayat newspapers, Ghurba magazine, Cultural Studies Quarterly, Al-hakawati, Almukhtar, Mitra, World Bank blogs and others. She is the co-author of Albayati: Prometheus of Arabic Poetry. Together with Mishka Mojabber Mourani, she co- authored a book of poems, Alone Together, in both Arabic and English.
What do we know? Who then understands the depths of things?
The sunset glowed in the rose-hued clouds.
It was the end of a day of storms, and the west
Set the showers aflame in a ferocious blaze.
Near a ditch, at the edge of a rain puddle,
A toad looked at the sky, dazzled creature.
In solemn contemplation, horror considered the splendor.
(Oh! Why is there suffering and why is there ugliness?
Alas! The Roman Empire is littered with petty Augustuses
Tyrannous Caesars, as the toad is with pustules,
As the meadow with flowers and the sky with sunshine.)
The leaves were purpling in the vermillion trees.
The water glinted, twined with the grass in the ditch.
The evening unfurled as a banner.
The bird lowered its voice in the weakening day.
All softened, in the air, on the horizon; and, full of forgotten dreams,
The toad, without fear, without shame, without anger,
Gentle, watched the enormous solar aureole.
Maybe the damned one felt blessed.
There’s no creature who cannot see a reflection of the infinite.
No eye so abject and vile that it does not touch
The light above, sometimes tender, sometimes shy;
No cringing monster, bleary, louche, impure,
Who does not have the heavens’ immensity in its eyes.
A man passing by saw the hideous creature,
And shuddering, stepped on the toad’s head.
It was a priest with a book he was reading.
Then a woman, with a flower on her lapel,
Came and poked out the toad’s eye with her umbrella.
And the priest was old, and the woman was beautiful.
Then came four schoolboys, serene as the heavens.
—I was a child, I was young, I was cruel—
All men on earth, where their subjugated souls wander,
Can start the story of their lives this way.
We have game, inebriated by the dawn in our eyes.
We have our mothers. We are joyous schoolboys.
Gay little men, breathing the air,
Filling our lungs, loved, free, and happy. What to do;
If not torture a pathetic being?
The toad crawled along in the bottom of a rut.
It was the hour when the far fields turn azure.
Wild creature, the toad longed for night. The children saw him.
They cried out, “Kill the disgusting animal. And he’s so ugly, let’s hurt him a lot.”
And each one of them, laughing—children laugh when they kill—
Began to stab at him with a pointed stick.
Enlarging the hole where his eye had been, wounding
His wounds, thrilled, applauded by the passersby;
Because the passersby laughed. And the sepulchral shadow
Covered the dark martyr who could not even moan.
And the blood, the atrocious blood, flowed from everywhere
On the poor creature, whose crime was to be ugly.
He fled. He had one leg torn off.
A child struck him with a broken trowel,
And every blow skimmed the beleaguered beast
Who, even on a day that smiled upon him,
Even beneath an immense sky, lurked at the bottom of a cave.
And the children said: “Is he mean! He drools!”
His forehead bled, his eye hung out; in the scrub
And brush, hideous to see, he made his way.
We might have said that he had escaped a terrible embrace.
Oh! The sorry act! To worsen misery!
To add horror to deformity!
Dislocated, he stumbled from stone to stone.
The toad still had breath, without shelter, without asylum.
He crawled. We might have said that death
Found him too ugly and refused to take him.
The children wanted to tie him in a shoelace,
But he escaped them, slipping beside a hedge.
The rut gaped. He dragged his wounds
And dived in, bloodied, broken, his skull open,
Feeling the bit of freshness in the green swamp,
Washing the human cruelty in the mud.
And the children, with spring on their cheeks,
Blonde, charming, had never had such fun.
They all talked at once, from the big to the little
Crying out: “Come see! C’mon Alfred, c’mon Peter
Let’s finish him off with a big stone!”
All together, they fixed their gaze upon the being
Beset by chance. And the despairing creature
Watched as their terrible faces hunched over him.
—Alas! Let’s have ideals; let’s not have targets.
When we set our sights on humanity’s horizon,
Let us hold life, and not death, in our hands—
All eyes followed the toad in the mud.
It was a furor and it was an ecstasy.
One of the children returned with a brick.
Heavy, but for its evil purpose easily carried.
He said: “We’ll see how this will be done.”
But, in the same moment, on this very spot of earth
Chance delivered a heavy cart
Pulled by an old, lame donkey, skin and bones and deaf.
This exhausted donkey, limping and appalling,
Was close to the stable after a day of walking.
He pulled the cart and carried a saddlebag.
Every step he took, as if his next to last.
The beast walked, beaten, extenuated.
The blows enveloped him like a clouded mist.
His eyes were veiled with a vapor
Of that stupidity, which is perhaps stupor.
And the rut was deep, and so full of mud,
And a slope so sharp that every turn of the wheel
Was like a dismal and hoarse tearing.
And the donkey went on, moaning, and the master cursed.
The road descended and pushed the pack animal
The donkey retreated into his thoughts, passive beneath the whip, beneath the flog;
Sunk to a depth where no human can go.
The children, hearing the wheel and the clop
Turned noisily and saw the cart.
“Don’t drop the brick on the toad. Stop!”
They cried. “Do you see, the cart will come down
And crush him as it passes. That will be so much more amusing.”
Then, advancing in the rut,
Where the monster awaited his final torture,
The donkey saw the toad. And, sad—alas! Bent
Upon one sadder still—heavy, broken, mournful and scabrous,
He seemed to sniff with his head low.
This enslaved one, this damned one, this patient one, granted grace.
He gathered all his spent strength. And, stiffening
His chain and harness on his bloodied muscles,
Resisting his master who cried: “Go on!”
Taking the full measure of the terrible burden of his complicity,
In his weariness, accepting the fight;
He pulled the cart and lifted the saddle.
Haggard, he turned the inexorable wheel,
Leaving behind him the miserable toad to live.
Then, under the blow of the whip, he continued on his way.
So, letting the stone drop from his hand,
One of the children—the one who tells this story—
Under the infinite arched expanse that is at once blue and black,
Heard a voice that said to him: “Be good.”
Goodness of the fool! Diamond in coal!
Blessed enigma! Glorious light of the shadows!
The heavenly ones are no better than the doomed,
If the doomed, though blind and punished,
Think, and having no joy, yet have pity.
O sacred spectacle! The shadow saves the shadow.
The lost soul rescues the dark soul.
The stupid, moved to compassion, bends toward the hideous.
The good damned one awakens the chosen wicked one’s dreams.
The beast advances where the man recoils
In the serenity of the pale twilight.
The brute by turns thinks and feels she is sister
Of the mysterious and profound sweetness.
It is enough for a flash of grace to shine in her,
For her to equal the eternal star.
The beast of burden who, returning in the evening, weighed down, weary,
Dying, feeling its flat hooves bleed,
Takes a few extra steps, moves away and disrupts its course
To avoid crushing a toad in the mire.
This abject donkey, dirty, bludgeoned beneath the stick,
Is more holy than Socrates and greater than Plato.
You search, philosopher? O great thinker, you meditate?
Do you want to find what is real beneath our cursed fogs?
Believe, cry, lose yourself inside an immense love!
Whoever is good sees clear at the obscured crossroads.
Whoever is good inhabits a corner of heaven. O wise one,
The kindness, which in the world lights up a face;
The kindness, that gaze of the sweet morning;
The kindness, pure ray that warms the stranger;
The instinct that in the night and in suffering loves;
Is the ineffable and supreme link
That joins, in the gloom, alas!
The great innocent, the donkey, to God, the great sage.
Que savons-nous ? qui donc connaît le fond des choses ?
Le couchant rayonnait dans les nuages roses ;
C’était la fin d’un jour d’orage, et l’occident
Changeait l’ondée en flamme en son brasier ardent ;
Près d’une ornière, au bord d’une flaque de pluie,
Un crapaud regardait le ciel, bête éblouie ;
Grave, il songeait ; l’horreur contemplait la splendeur.
(Oh ! pourquoi la souffrance et pourquoi la laideur ?
Hélas ! le bas-empire est couvert d’Augustules,
Les Césars de forfaits, les crapauds de pustules,
Comme le pré de fleurs et le ciel de soleils !)
Les feuilles s’empourpraient dans les arbres vermeils ;
L’eau miroitait, mêlée à l’herbe, dans l’ornière ;
Le soir se déployait ainsi qu’une bannière ;
L’oiseau baissait la voix dans le jour affaibli ;
Tout s’apaisait, dans l’air, sur l’onde ; et, plein d’oubli,
Le crapaud, sans effroi, sans honte, sans colère,
Doux, regardait la grande auréole solaire ;
Peut-être le maudit se sentait-il béni,
Pas de bête qui n’ait un reflet d’infini ;
Pas de prunelle abjecte et vile que ne touche
L’éclair d’en haut, parfois tendre et parfois farouche ;
Pas de monstre chétif, louche, impur, chassieux,
Qui n’ait l’immensité des astres dans les yeux.
Un homme qui passait vit la hideuse bête,
Et, frémissant, lui mit son talon sur la tête ;
C’était un prêtre ayant un livre qu’il lisait ;
Puis une femme, avec une fleur au corset,
Vint et lui creva l’œil du bout de son ombrelle ;
Et le prêtre était vieux, et la femme était belle.
Vinrent quatre écoliers, sereins comme le ciel.
– J’étais enfant, j’étais petit, j’étais cruel ; –
Tout homme sur la terre, où l’âme erre asservie,
Peut commencer ainsi le récit de sa vie.
On a le jeu, l’ivresse et l’aube dans les yeux,
On a sa mère, on est des écoliers joyeux,
De petits hommes gais, respirant l’atmosphère
À pleins poumons, aimés, libres, contents ; que faire
Sinon de torturer quelque être malheureux ?
Le crapaud se traînait au fond du chemin creux.
C’était l’heure où des champs les profondeurs s’azurent ;
Fauve, il cherchait la nuit ; les enfants l’aperçurent
Et crièrent : « Tuons ce vilain animal,
Et, puisqu’il est si laid, faisons-lui bien du mal ! »
Et chacun d’eux, riant, – l’enfant rit quand il tue, –
Se mit à le piquer d’une branche pointue,
Élargissant le trou de l’œil crevé, blessant
Les blessures, ravis, applaudis du passant ;
Car les passants riaient ; et l’ombre sépulcrale
Couvrait ce noir martyr qui n’a pas même un râle,
Et le sang, sang affreux, de toutes parts coulait
Sur ce pauvre être ayant pour crime d’être laid ;
Il fuyait ; il avait une patte arrachée ;
Un enfant le frappait d’une pelle ébréchée ;
Et chaque coup faisait écumer ce proscrit
Qui, même quand le jour sur sa tête sourit,
Même sous le grand ciel, rampe au fond d’une cave ;
Et les enfants disaient : « Est-il méchant ! il bave ! »
Son front saignait ; son œil pendait ; dans le genêt
Et la ronce, effroyable à voir, il cheminait ;
On eût dit qu’il sortait de quelque affreuse serre ;
Oh ! la sombre action, empirer la misère !
Ajouter de l’horreur à la difformité !
Disloqué, de cailloux en cailloux cahoté,
Il respirait toujours ; sans abri, sans asile,
Il rampait ; on eût dit que la mort, difficile,
Le trouvait si hideux qu’elle le refusait ;
Les enfants le voulaient saisir dans un lacet,
Mais il leur échappa, glissant le long des haies ;
L’ornière était béante, il y traîna ses plaies
Et s’y plongea, sanglant, brisé, le crâne ouvert,
Sentant quelque fraîcheur dans ce cloaque vert,
Lavant la cruauté de l’homme en cette boue ;
Et les enfants, avec le printemps sur la joue,
Blonds, charmants, ne s’étaient jamais tant divertis ;
Tous parlaient à la fois et les grands aux petits
Criaient : «Viens voir! dis donc, Adolphe, dis donc, Pierre,
Allons pour l’achever prendre une grosse pierre ! »
Tous ensemble, sur l’être au hasard exécré,
Ils fixaient leurs regards, et le désespéré
Regardait s’incliner sur lui ces fronts horribles.
– Hélas ! ayons des buts, mais n’ayons pas de cibles ;
Quand nous visons un point de l’horizon humain,
Ayons la vie, et non la mort, dans notre main. –
Tous les yeux poursuivaient le crapaud dans la vase ;
C’était de la fureur et c’était de l’extase ;
Un des enfants revint, apportant un pavé,
Pesant, mais pour le mal aisément soulevé,
Et dit : « Nous allons voir comment cela va faire. »
Or, en ce même instant, juste à ce point de terre,
Le hasard amenait un chariot très lourd
Traîné par un vieux âne éclopé, maigre et sourd ;
Cet âne harassé, boiteux et lamentable,
Après un jour de marche approchait de l’étable ;
Il roulait la charrette et portait un panier ;
Chaque pas qu’il faisait semblait l’avant-dernier ;
Cette bête marchait, battue, exténuée ;
Les coups l’enveloppaient ainsi qu’une nuée ;
Il avait dans ses yeux voilés d’une vapeur
Cette stupidité qui peut-être est stupeur ;
Et l’ornière était creuse, et si pleine de boue
Et d’un versant si dur que chaque tour de roue
Était comme un lugubre et rauque arrachement ;
Et l’âne allait geignant et l’ânier blasphémant ;
La route descendait et poussait la bourrique ;
L’âne songeait, passif, sous le fouet, sous la trique,
Dans une profondeur où l’homme ne va pas.
Les enfants entendant cette roue et ce pas,
Se tournèrent bruyants et virent la charrette :
« Ne mets pas le pavé sur le crapaud. Arrête ! »
Crièrent-ils. « Vois-tu, la voiture descend
Et va passer dessus, c’est bien plus amusant. »
Soudain, avançant dans l’ornière
Où le monstre attendait sa torture dernière,
L’âne vit le crapaud, et, triste, – hélas ! penché
Sur un plus triste, – lourd, rompu, morne, écorché,
Il sembla le flairer avec sa tête basse ;
Ce forçat, ce damné, ce patient, fit grâce ;
Il rassembla sa force éteinte, et, roidissant
Sa chaîne et son licou sur ses muscles en sang,
Résistant à l’ânier qui lui criait : Avance !
Maîtrisant du fardeau l’affreuse connivence,
Avec sa lassitude acceptant le combat,
Tirant le chariot et soulevant le bât,
Hagard, il détourna la roue inexorable,
Laissant derrière lui vivre ce misérable ;
Puis, sous un coup de fouet, il reprit son chemin.
Alors, lâchant la pierre échappée à sa main,
Un des enfants – celui qui conte cette histoire, –
Sous la voûte infinie à la fois bleue et noire,
Entendit une voix qui lui disait : Sois bon !
Bonté de l’idiot ! diamant du charbon !
Sainte énigme ! lumière auguste des ténèbres !
Les célestes n’ont rien de plus que les funèbres
Si les funèbres, groupe aveugle et châtié,
Songent, et, n’ayant pas la joie, ont la pitié.
Ô spectacle sacré ! l’ombre secourant l’ombre,
L’âme obscure venant en aide à l’âme sombre,
Le stupide, attendri, sur l’affreux se penchant,
Le damné bon faisant rêver l’élu méchant !
L’animal avançant lorsque l’homme recule !
Dans la sérénité du pâle crépuscule,
La brute par moments pense et sent qu’elle est sœur
De la mystérieuse et profonde douceur ;
Il suffit qu’un éclair de grâce brille en elle
Pour qu’elle soit égale à l’étoile éternelle ;
Le baudet qui, rentrant le soir, surchargé, las,
Mourant, sentant saigner ses pauvres sabots plats,
Fait quelques pas de plus, s’écarte et se dérange
Pour ne pas écraser un crapaud dans la fange,
Cet âne abject, souillé, meurtri sous le bâton,
Est plus saint que Socrate et plus grand que Platon.
Tu cherches, philosophe ? Ô penseur, tu médites ?
Veux-tu trouver le vrai sous nos brumes maudites ?
Crois, pleure, abîme-toi dans l’insondable amour !
Quiconque est bon voit clair dans l’obscur carrefour ;
Quiconque est bon habite un coin du ciel. Ô sage,
La bonté, qui du monde éclaire le visage,
La bonté, ce regard du matin ingénu,
La bonté, pur rayon qui chauffe l’inconnu,
Instinct qui, dans la nuit et dans la souffrance, aime,
Est le trait d’union ineffable et suprême
Qui joint, dans l’ombre, hélas ! si lugubre souvent,
Le grand innocent, l’âne, à Dieu le grand savant.
My translation process is unique. I began my study of the text in French from a performance perspective. Working with a theatre professional in Paris (in person when I am there and via Skype when I am in the US), I honed the performance of the text in its original language. The result is an embodied approach to understanding the deep roots of the text and its emotional resonance in the body. Once I have fully explored the text from this angle, only then do I begin to translate. My aim is to preserve the old world flavor of the texts, while at the same time bringing the message forward for our times, so that it is immediate and relevant. So I am working with the words on the page and the felt experience of the text in the body.
The texts I am translating have long been in the public domain. In the case of Victor Hugo’s long poem, “The Toad,” it is a poem which has only ever been translated once before in the 19th century, in a translation which is no longer available. Yet the poem’s exploration of casual cruelty and innocence is as urgent today as it was when Hugo wrote the piece.
Mina Samuels is a writer, playwright, and performer. Her books include, Run Like A Girl 365 Days: A Practical, Personal, Inspirational Guide for Women Athletes, Run Like a Girl: How Strong Women Make Happy Lives, and a novel, The Queen of Cups. She’s created and performed two award-winning solo shows and her ensemble play, Because I Am Your Queen, was produced at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. She also posts weekly translations of Jean de La Fontaine’s 17th century French fables with contemporary commentary. www.minasamuels.com.
Victor Marie Hugo (26 February 1802 – 22 May 1885) was a French poet, novelist, and dramatist of the Romantic movement. Hugo is considered to be one of the greatest and best-known French writers. Outside of France, his most famous works are the novels Les Misérables, 1862, and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, 1831.
Connect With Us
Get Your Ticket
We’ll keep you fed with great new writing, insightful interviews, and thought-provoking art, and promise with all our hearts never to share your info with anyone else.