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The Art of the Sentence: Lucia Berlin

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“I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.”—Lucia Berlin

Call me impatient, call me lazy, but I’m tired of reading backstory. I want the frontstory—if I may—to do the narrative work. Info-dump is, I think, the best way to make a story go cold, which is why I so often turn to authors who pen extra-short short stories; not flash fiction, necessarily, but fully-realized five-pagers that crackle with life played out almost entirely in the present action. Think Denis Johnson à la Jesus’ Son. Think Lucia Berlin.

In Berlin’s “Angel’s Laundromat,” for example, the narrator sits in a plastic chair as her laundry tumbles through a public washing machine. She notices a man in the mirror—also sitting in the Laundromat—studying her hands. Suddenly she sees herself anew, and Berlin lets us in on her striking double-consciousness: “I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.” This spare and circuitous self-characterization is the lifeblood of the story. Without plunging into flashback or extraneous anecdote, Berlin brings to the surface her protagonist’s personal history, and she does so in a way that is recognizably human and complex. Not only do we learn that this woman has children, has had many lovers, has tended a lifetime’s worth of flowers, but we also begin to understand something of her psychological process—this is a highly attentive character who uses small details to build a greater mosaic of self-understanding. We might even intuit a touch of neurosis, a hypersensitivity to ordinary existence. Her hands’ supposed scars and wrinkles and blemishes come to her—and to us—laden with meaning. They signify.

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Of course, this sentence presents a conundrum when considering the classic creative writing mantra show don’t tell. Is Berlin showing or telling? In one sense, she’s merely telling. Without actually setting anything in motion, she gives the reader a little factsheet: now we know a few things about this character’s love and home life, her status as a mother. We don’t see a teething baby biting her hand. We don’t see her cracking knuckles as she stays up late awaiting some unruly lover. We don’t see her toiling in a thorny garden. Instead, we see her—at most—staring at her hands and rather abstractly plunging into a process of existential metonymy.

And yet, the line is so evocative that it does, in fact, show us these things. Maybe we don’t tangibly see—watch—Berlin’s protagonist crouching in a garden, but we certainly feel the action’s lurking history. The power lies in the syntax; “I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.” Could see. The word choice is purposely at once distant and close. Here is the notion of ability, the idea that memory is there for perusal if only the protagonist wants to indulge it. Her backstory, then, is available for inspection even if it doesn’t necessarily invade the present moment in the form of a secondary scene. If, on the other hand, the protagonist uttered that she saw these things in her hands, Berlin’s choice not to launch into flashback would feel deceptive because we, as readers, would be set at a remove. This would be telling not showing, the character ultimately surveying a hidden and inaccessible world. Instead, Berlin weaves this backstory—that entire mysterious life—into the fabric of the present. She is simultaneously precise and approximate, and the details of the protagonist’s life come to the forefront of the present action without taking any historical detours.

Still, to some this might seem a throwaway line. The story, after all, focuses primarily on the man doing the staring. From the very first sentence, the narrator tersely and fragmentarily directs us toward the story’s alleged subject: “A tall old Indian in faded Levi’s and a fine Zuni belt.” We are thereby encouraged to fixate on him. But it’s really her—the narrator’s—presence that commands the story, and she expands in the peripheries until, finally, she easily dismisses the man at the end by saying, “I can’t remember when it was that I realized I never did see that old Indian again.” We’re left to realize that we’ve tracked the wrong character. And the only thing left to do is look back down at our narrator’s hands and recognize that they hold the real story.

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Taylor Lannamann holds an MFA in fiction from The New School. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Literary Review and The Paris Review Daily. He is currently at work on a novel.

Posted in Art of the Sentence

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Ask a Librarian: What’s the Strangest Thing You’ve Found in a Library Book?

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In Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons (on shelves February 7), Ingrid writes letters to Gil about the truth of their marriage, then hides them in used books from their library. Carefully collected over the years, these books are filled with “left-behind photographs, postcards, and letters; bail slips, receipts, handwritten recipes, and drawings; valentines and tickets, sympathy cards, excuse notes to teachers—bits of paper with which he could piece together other people’s lives, other people who had read the same books he held and who had marked their place.”

Inspired by Swimming Lessons, we went to the experts in unexpected ephemera and well-loved books—librarians—and asked them to tell us the most interesting thing they’d found in a library book. Their answers delighted, disgusted, and exceeded our wildest expectations. It was hard to pick our favorites, but here they are.

A few takeaways: novels pair well with bologna, don’t even try to get a secret code past a librarian, and our books tell more stories than perhaps any of us realize.

THE QUESTION

What’s the most interesting, memorable, or just plain weird thing you’ve found in a library book?

THE ANSWERS

**Winner** A taco, perfectly preserved and pressed like a flower in the middle of a book. It was so slim you wouldn’t know it was there until you opened the book. —Amanda Monson, Bartow County Library System

**Winner** I am a first generation immigrant from Russia. My senior year of college, at least the last semester of it, I had to write a senior thesis. I had gotten permission to write a historical fiction, a creative piece but one that would demonstrate my impressive researching skills. So, I chose to write about Soviet era Russia, primarily the political and religious oppression that existed. I was very familiar with this topic, having arrived in the U.S. as refugees due to the fact that our family was persecuted for our religious beliefs. I scoured the internet for books on the topic; I had to dedicate an entire bookshelf to those books. One little book called “Konshaubi: A True Story of Persecuted Christians in the Soviet Union” by Georgi Vins. Georgi Vins was a big name in our community. He was expelled from Russia, along with a few other dissidents, in 1979 in exchange for 2 Soviet spies. As I flipped through this very humble book, I landed on a page of photos. On one of them, I noticed three familiar faces. My grandfather, grandmother, and uncle’s. My grandfather served four 3-year sentences (total of 12 years) in the Soviet prisons for his involvement in the Baptist church. My uncle served 3 years. My uncle had just died that February. It was so shocking to see his face and the faces of my grandparents. I showed my mom, and she cried when she saw her parents and brother. It was, and still is, the most memorable and interesting find in a book. —Violetta Nikitina, Union County Public Library

**Winner** A letter in a sealed, stamped envelope that had never been sent. I decided to mail it. —Christina Thurairatnam, Holmes County District Public Library

Sonogram pictures of a developing baby. —Chantal Walvoord, Rockwall County Library

A piece of bologna! It was in a children’s picture book, so I think someone was snacking while reading. —Joy Scott, Steele Creek Library

Bologna. —Helen Silver, Spanish River Library

Bologna. —Kate Troutman, Calvert Library

A patron found a handwritten note which he took to be a threat on the life of then Vice-President Al Gore, reported it to the FBI and members of the Secret Service showed up at my office. —Teresa Newton, Lawrence County Public Library

Divorce papers. —Sarah Lilly, Robbins Library

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Posted in Interviews, Tin House Books

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Dust in the Wind

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The mix CDs David #1-4 were made quickly, compiled by an old friend of my dad’s. We played them at the wake and funeral, in the car on the way to the cemetery. Mama and I wandered through those days after his sudden death as the dazed hosts of a series of bewildering parties. I was seventeen, and she was wailing. It was helpful to have a ready-made soundtrack. One less logistic.

These songs—“She Talks To Angels” by the Black Crowes, “Angie” by the Rolling Stones—reflected my dad in some ways: the man his friend mourned, and the regret of aging rock and roll bands. At the funeral, Mama and I took our places in the front row of chairs, and the first strains of “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas drifted over the assembled.

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I was instantly mortified. My friends and I had just seen the comedy Old School at the movie theater. In one scene, at the burial of an elderly frat pledge who died in the midst of a KY jelly wrestling match, Will Ferrell sings “Dust in the Wind.” He warbles to the overblown finish, then chokes out, You’re my boy, Blue! You’re my boy.

I couldn’t help myself. I turned backwards in my chair and dissolved into laughter. A few rows back, one of my friends, welling up, mouthed for me to shush. I only laughed harder. I shook.

Beside me, Mama shook, too. She whimpered, crying out loud in the way of children and dogs. We were the only noise in that cottonmouthed Indiana funeral parlor. She looked at me, her eyes all blue sky and flood. She gripped my shoulder and cried harder.

I never said, Dad would know this is corny. That he would remember the original late-’70s music video: the band’s absurd ruffled shirts, the self-important strings, the Jesus fros, the yodel of Nothing lasts for-EV-er but the earth and sky… That I had come home after seeing Old School on a Friday night and told him he would love it. That he would laugh.

I never told Mama that I wasn’t crying. But when we got home, I made David #5, my first mix. It ends with “Baby Blue” by Badfinger and opens with “Good Riddance” by Green Day, a band our little family had loved since my dad brought home Dookie. He’d told me to listen to the tinny drum sound, told me I’d get why it was cool. In the car we sneered the lyrics at top volume: It all keeps adding up / I think I’m cracking up / Am I just paranoid or am I just stoned? I was eight, and it was my first record.

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Over the years, I burned dozens of CDs for Mama, the titles carefully lettered around the hole at the center. When I was twenty-nine, Mama got engaged to a man she’d known since high school. In addition to the toast and table arrangements, she assigned me the job of wedding DJ. I loaded my iPod with hundreds of songs, the Mama and Jim mix, not only for the ceremony and reception, but to play for her throughout the day. The right songs could keep her calm, could cement a memory or bring back a better one. It was one less logistic. I carried around a soap dish lifted from the wedding hall to serve as a makeshift speaker. I vowed to anticipate the just-right song to play in any given situation. That meant no “Dust in the Wind”—no songs at all from the David mixes.

The afternoon of the wedding, as we stuck final flowers in the centerpieces, the electricity went out all over town. Never mind the lights—we still needed hair and makeup. In a hotel out by the highway that had somehow escaped the blackout, Mama perched on the edge of the bed. She swung her leg and drank cheap Chablis. I cued up “(Just Like) Starting Over” by John Lennon while she checked her phone again for messages from well-wishers and with news about her friend Kimmie, who was in the hospital and too sick to make it to the wedding. Kimmie had been at the wake. Kimmie with her black bob and rolling laugh, too loud in the dim, carpeted room, handing Mama a Bud Light from a soft cooler. In the background, Lennon sang his worry of neglected love—It’s been so long since we took the time—and buoyed it with bouncing doo-wop. Lennon was Jim’s favorite, and any reminder of Jim soothed Mama those days.

The teenaged stylist fluttered over my cheeks and eyelashes and I asked what Mama thought. I was trying to distract her, but she was already distracted. I remembered six years earlier, when she and Kimmie were both offered promotions that would require them to move across the country. Both of them flew out to interview, looked at condos, tried to imagine new lives in a new city. I didn’t tell her I wanted her to go. I didn’t tell her that I was twenty-three and collapsing under the weight of her gaze. Our grief reflected back and forth like an infinity mirror. I just said that it wouldn’t be “starting over,” but a chance to look forward.

In the end, Kimmie took the job and moved across the country. Mama stayed.

Mama’s phone rang. It was Jim, calling to say that the band claimed they couldn’t learn Al Green for the first dance. I told him not to worry—it was the wrong song anyway. The first dance had to be to “Here Comes My Girl,” from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes. Mama has always insisted that she can’t dance, but this beat is easy to find and sway to. It’s a talking blues, and it’s a romance: Yeah man when I got that little girl standing right by my side / You know I can tell the whole wide world to shove it! For sixty-year-olds who’ve worked hard and lost so much, it’s a love song that rebels against suffering. The chorus swings like a meteor shower.

By early evening, the guests arrived for the ceremony. Mama got word that an usher delivered a corsage to my grandmother and seated her at the designated family table. The problem was: It was the wrong grandmother. It wasn’t Mama’s mother. It was my dad’s.

So I played “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb, a song I’ve always thought sounds like Mama. She took another drink, said oh my, my and pulled at the corner of her eyelid. But then she grinned, listening. Growing up, “Sunny” was one of her nicknames, for her penny-colored hair and her fizzy disposition. She snapped her fingers and mouthed, Sunny one so true. She loved the way he says it. I was in the makeup chair, talking with my eyes closed, when Mama’s phone buzzed again. I was trying to get her to recognize how the marimba-like riff of “Sunny” is ripped straight from the James Bond theme song, saying, See? Hear that? — when she cried out.

Kimmie was dead. In the mirror, the stylist’s fingers in my hair, I watched Mama’s bright blue eyes obscure in middle-distance, watched her mouth go ragged. In the air around us, Bobby Hebb was still cooing, but Mama bawled No. No. Then she stood up and staggered out of the room.

The last song on David #5 is “Baby Blue” by Badfinger. When I was sixteen, my dad once left Badfinger’s greatest hits album on my bedside table. I was angry with him that day, as I often was then. His note explained that Badfinger showed more songwriting depth than the Beatles. Who knows what they could’ve become if Pete Ham hadn’t killed himself, if they’d gotten a better break. It was his kind of apology.

After ten minutes, Mama hadn’t come back. I went sprinting down the hotel hallways. Jumping down the stairwell, I thought I could hear her somewhere nearby. Her sobs grew louder, resounding in the space. I sheared the corner, swinging into the lobby, and saw her there in the middle of the room.

Mama whimpered. Hotel guests waded around her wreckage.

But she was in Jim’s arms. At some point, she’d called. He came. He whispered in her ear, he held her hair. He said, better now. He said, baby.

I walked up beside them and pressed a hand to her back. Her eyes were closed. She clasped my sleeve in two fingers then turned back to Jim. I went upstairs and put on my dress.

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There would be other disasters. I forget to eat at the reception and white wine makes my blood rush. The speakers blare too loud, and both of my grandmothers hold their ears. Inexplicably, during dessert, the band plays “Dust in the Wind.”

When it’s time for the first dance, the band has not, in fact, learned “Here Comes My Girl.” So I send them on a smoke break and plug in my iPod. The drumbeat build-up, the chiming piano. Mama and Jim hold each other and dance, moving lightly in the space. The chorus breaking open, a cascading guitar. They keep their eyes on each other. They mouth the words. They grin. And she looks so right, she is all I need tonight. They stroll around the floor, their fingers touching. And even though it isn’t my job anymore, I keep watching from among the amps and wires. I laugh, then I laugh harder, then I stop.

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Katie Moulton‘s writing appears or is forthcoming in Day One, Ninth Letter, Post Road, Quarterly West and other publications. Her work has been supported by scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, OMI International Arts Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Indiana University, where she earned her MFA. A music critic for Voice Media newspapers since 2009, she currently lives in Oakland.

Posted in Essays

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See You Next Year!

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Letter from a Liberal Minority

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On the last day of February 2016, a leap year, a man was executed in the dark recesses of Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. His crime was the 2011 assassination of the Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province. The killer, Mumtaz Qadri, had been Governor Salman Taseer’s bodyguard. Qadri was motivated by the Governor’s support of a Christian woman who had been accused of blasphemy. Taseer had publicly criticized Pakistan’s ambiguous blasphemy law, a weapon in the hands of the country’s Sunni majority. For this, he met his death. After the shooting, Qadri did not run or hide; instead he proudly proclaimed the righteousness of his act.

Assassinations are, by nature of their horror, their sudden and stunning infliction of death, seismic events. In the case of this assassination, the horror did not end. As Qadri was arrested and a murder case registered against him, hundreds of thousands of men took to the streets to protest his being charged as a murderer. The man had done the right thing, their leaders, scions of Pakistan’s many Islamist groups, proclaimed from the stage. The riled up and rage soaked crowds that pulsed through the streets demanding Qadri’s freedom agreed. And it was not simply the uneducated, the easily angered or the ignorant that supported Taseer’s murderer. At Qadri’s first court appearance, hundreds of lawyers, supposedly enlightened men suited in the white and black that Pakistani courts require of advocates, festooned the man with rose petals. So it was for every single court hearing after, the rabble on the streets and the supposedly educated in the courts united in support of an avowed killer.

Political comparisons are inherently approximate, but nevertheless necessary and even instructive. In the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, American liberals betrayed a sense of apprehension that felt familiar to me from the time I spent in Pakistan during those years. The rage and anger of Trump rallies, their open denunciations of tolerance, their garish greed for dominance and, beneath it all, their strategic use of desperation as a means to whet the poor against the weak, bore more than an incidental resemblance to rallies that have raged through Pakistan in the past decade. These Pakistani processions of rage railing against America and its incursions, demanding the executions of Shia Muslims, inaugurating pogroms against Pakistani Christians, rely crucially on the same paradigms of hatred and exclusion, of populist pandering that have been witnessed in the United States in the past year and a half. Exchange hatred of China and Mexico and Muslims for a hatred of America, India and Israel, add railing against the “unpatriotic,” the wink and nod to intimidation of minorities, and you have a skeleton strung of the same bones, if of different flesh.

Pakistanis light candles in commemoration of slain governor of Punjab Salman Taseer in Lahore on Jan-1. 7, 2011. Taseer killed bodyguard commando reportedly decreeing death for insulting Islam.

Pakistani liberals paid a price for a nation instigated to hate them; consider them the inauthentic, insufficiently Pakistani and smugly elitist. Anti-intellectualism was sold as virtue and imbued with the heroism of bringing down the avaricious elite that cared nothing about them. The actual elite, padded by armed guards, offshore accounts and European real estate holdings, did not suffer. It was the scholars, the lawyers who insisted on defending those accused of blasphemy, the activists who insisted on staging rallies, however small, for love instead of hate, that paid the price.

Those who did not die had to hide. In the years following Taseer’s murder, literary festivals had to become small, quiet affairs to avoid bomb threats. Concerts could not take place in large venues for the same reason. Then in 2015, an activist named Sabeen Mahmud was killed on the way home from the small literary and creative arts space she maintained. That space, “T2F,” a rented room on the upper floor of non-descript building, had hosted activists from Baluchistan who were protesting the state’s human rights abuses against indigenous Baluch. When her killer was caught, he confessed that he had murdered her because he did not like what she had to say. There is a video of the evening at which he made up his mind. In it, he sits among the audience at an event at T2F. The topic that day was urban sustainability.

The United States, of course, is not Pakistan. Its civil society and institutions, one hopes, are robust enough, its democracy old enough, to withstand an onslaught of illiberalism. There is, however, a terrible and similar cruelty at play when the poor are promised a magical reversal of their misfortunes if they agree to hate enough people. American liberals, like Pakistanis at the outset of their own country’s move to the right, seem in the aftermath of their electoral cataclysm uncertain and self-doubting. Some seem so crushed by electoral loss that they seek to disavow the platform that made them better, if not the victor. Calls to end identity politics, to move away from the concerns of minorities and toward a more effective pandering to white majorities, ring out on social media and in political columns. To hear them and read them is almost more frightening than the grim November night that has occasioned the conversation.

On this last fact, Pakistani liberals may have some small but hard-won lessons to offer their American counterparts. Even with death hanging over their heads, Pakistani newspapers have continued to publish challenges to the blasphemy law, to Islamism, to misogyny. Pakistani singers still appear on stages that may be bombed. Pakistani lawyers squeeze into courtrooms ringed by angry mobs, and a whole lot of others, teachers and professors, try to underscore that the narrative of intolerance that dominates is not the only one, nor the right one. Being outnumbered has not deterred them.

The days after Mumtaz Qadri’s execution this February were also dark ones in Pakistan. Many thousands took to the streets, angry that their “hero” had been put to death. A video of him, cherub faced and singing a religious hymn into a cell phone camera in his prison cell, went viral. Watching so many so enraged and so opposed to the values of religious tolerance, rule of law, and democratic governance, provokes deep desolation and even dissolution. But this same moment of uncertainty can also be one of realization and resolve, a time for blunt assessment of the work to be done. Pakistani liberals have faced that moment, persevering sometimes, splintering at others. It is now America’s turn. If American liberals look beyond their borders, they will find many friends who can understand the despair of their present, but also point them to the possibility inherent in the future.

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Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon, 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury, 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan and writes the Read Other Women series at the Boston Review. You can follow her at @rafiazakaria.

 

Posted in Essays

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The Very Best of 2016

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We’ve all said it: 2016 is a year we’d mostly like to forget. But for all that was grim and all that we lost these past months, our faith remains steadfast in the ability of art not just to say what needs to be said, but to bring us back to our humanity and our best selves. These are the voices, muses, stories, and sources of inspiration that gave us hope in 2016. We’ll carry them with us as we take on 2017, wiser and kinder and ready for the fight.

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Elissa Schappell, Tin House Editor-at-Large: I worshipped Bowie and still mourn him so it may sound strange to pick Blackstar as a bright spot. But it was. Blackstar is about being Bowie at this moment in his life– a dazzlingly intimate, elegantly subversive work of genius about grief and dying and resurrection. It is Bowie, as ever, making his art his life and his life his art and doing it right there in front of us–writing the end of his human story for us, because he knew as much as he needed to make that music we needed it to mourn him. Such an extraordinary gift. It blows my mind.

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Thomas Ross, Tin House Assistant Editor: We all have our little rituals to get us through the year. I make time once a month, six months a year, to read the latest issue of Saga, a space opera comic book published by our new neighbors in northwest Portland, Image Comics. (Can you see us, Image Comics? We’re waving!) The book relies as much on the emotional dynamism of writer Brian K. Vaughan’s characters as it does on artist Fiona Staples’s delirious, gorgeous art. This year’s arc has been especially moving, from the tragic death of an already dead ghost to the nebulous redemption of a robot villain (fueled by poignant images on the TV he has for a head), and I can’t wait to see how Vaughan and Staples will break my heart next year.

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Tony Perez, Books Editor: What a shitty year for narrative movies. While there were a handful I’d go to bat for—Green Room and The Invitation were exemplary genre exercises, Christine an excellent character study, Love & Friendship a genuinely funny, costumed surprise (and, OK, I’ve yet to see Moonlight)—little else managed to grab or hold my attention. Luckily Dana Spiotta came through to sate my cinema-starved 2016. Innocents and Others is about a competitive but complicated friendship, phone phreaking and proto-catfishing, what it means to make art, and what it means to tell stories (the opening one—an affair with an unnamed Orson Welles—is alone worth the price of admission). Usually reading about fictional art is like hearing about other people’s dreams (interesting if you can read between the lines and make some projection about their insecurities). Spiotta creates these fully formed forgeries that not only further her plots and reveal her characters, but make me worry that—after a few too many Christmas Party eggnogs—I might slip up and claim to have seen them. I had more fun reading about Meadow and Carrie’s pretend films than I did watching this year’s real ones.  Continue reading

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In Support of Violence

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From the current issue, Issue 70, comes a poem from Christopher Soto.

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Two hundred Indian women killed their rapist on the courtroom floor of Nagpur in 2004. When Police tried to arrest lead perpetrators // the women responded “arrest us all.”

 

In this windowless room // where he poured acid & stole money // arrest us all

In this windowless room [shut like the gut of an ox] arrest us all

 

Gored & gorge are words to describe a wound          Gorgeous // the opening

Of a blade inside his chest       Gorgeous // black galaxies, growing

 

Across his skin, we threw rocks & chili pepper

Arrest us all

 

On the railroad tracks // where he murdered our sisters & left their dead bodies

On the railroad tracks // where black ants began // biting crowns into

 

Calves //                           The world is spinning and we’re // falling from its bed

How could we mourn?      He kept killing // & threatening // & raping us

 

Arrest us all                           On the red puddle // on the white courthouse floor

Arrest us all                     We sawed his penis off // & tore his house // to rubble

 

Look // the streets are swarming // in protests                         [welcome home]

The night is neon & buzzing like bumblebees

 

We never wanted to kill // only to stay alive // &

We waited like virgins // for the gentleness of strangers // to help or empathize.

 

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Christopher Soto aka Loma is a poet based in Brooklyn, New York. He is currently working on a poetry manuscript about mass incarceration. For more information visit christophersoto-poet.com.

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Bona Fides

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Enjoy this dip into our archives for a poem from American master James Tate, from Tin House #19: Lies.

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Cornell was a great wit and raconteur. He had an effortless natural grace that made us feel we were all clever. He never sought to be the center of attention, it’s just that we could never wait to see what he would say next. His wife, Priscilla, couldn’t take her eyes off of him she was so proud. He turned out book after book, always bristling with intelligence. We all felt so lucky to know him, to claim him as a part of our inner circle. Without warning, he died one day. His family, about whom we knew little, insisted that the funeral be a private affair. We felt cheated, of course, not being able to say goodbye. He was buried somewhere far from here. Priscilla wasn’t answering the phone. We all just wandered around in a daze, not really wanting to get together. Cornell wasn’t even cool in his grave–wherever that was–when rumors started circulating about his affairs, not just one or two, but perhaps dozens of them, or even hundreds. His whole life seemed to be an intricate web of lies, and not just to Priscilla but to all of us. Beneath the surface of the charm, there must have been one scared, panicky animal, always planning his next deception. I ran into Gwen downtown. “How’s Priscilla taking all of this?” I asked. “She’s moved,” she said. “She doesn’t want to see any of us ever again. Too painful.” It all seemed so sudden. And then the charges of plagiarism  hit the papers. The article cited endless instances of pure theft, and his life’s work was discredited, his honor lay in tatters. There seemed to be a kind of awful joy taken in this work. His old friends in town could barely speak of it. “Did you see that article?” “Yeah, yeah.” I never took his books down from the shelves to look at anymore, and eventually I removed them and stored them in a box in the garage. It wasn’t long before the rumors and the articles stopped altogether, and then it was as though he had never existed. And, yes, Cornell had more life in him, more good cheer and warmth and brilliance than anyone I have ever known. I had no way of reconciling what had happened to him, what a swift, harsh vengeance had struck down his memory. I had a picture of him on the mantel, holding his glass up high, toasting the camera. We know now that he was a man of many dark secrets. Maybe his name wasn’t even Cornell. Maybe he’d never gone to school. Maybe he wasn’t even a human being. Maybe he was just a piece of tumbleweed that had taken on flesh for a while before blowing on, and he’s laughing still. I guess no one ever knew him, but, nonetheless, we all loved him. I was getting all choked up just thinking about him and staring at the photo on the mantel when the phone rang. It was Emory. “Listen, Alex, you’re not going to believe this, but I think Cornell is alive.” “What?” I said. “I was in the city this weekend and I think I saw him. He’s grown a mustache and dyed his hair black, but I’m sure it was him. He was eating lunch in this little Italian cafe with this really good-looking babe,” he said. “I don’t believe you, I mean, it must have been some kind of mistake, just some guy who looked a little like Cornell,” I said. “It was him all right. I recognized the laugh and the gleam in his eye,” he said. “Did you speak to him?” I said. “Oh no, he was no longer the Cornell that we knew. He was someone else altogether. I watched him a moment, then waled on,” he said. We said goodnight. It didn’t matter to me one way or another if he was dead or alive. Some of us had been touched by magic, and, later, people wanted to tell you it wasn’t magic but a bunch of lies, you want to ask them, Who are you? Show me your bona fides. I stared at his photo until it faded from view, and there was nothing left but ust flowing across the prairie on a cold night such as this. And then I went to bed.

Tiny-House

James Tate (1943 – 2015) was the author of of over twenty books, including Dome of the Hidden Pavilion,
The Eternal Ones of the Dream: Selected Poems, and The Ghost Soldiers, and was the recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Posted in From The Vault

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Intruders in Ms. Hansen-Knudsen’s Class

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1. THE UNBORN

Ms. Hansen-Knudsen was the most beautiful woman on earth, so her second-grade class was not surprised when the two chicks emerged fuzzy and so plump, and calm-seeming, and sunshine yellow: perfect. For a time their little chirps floating out from the pouch Ms. Hansen-Knudsen made in her blouse were enough to put everyone in the class in an ecstatic trance, but there was the problem of the third, unhatched egg. The specter of stillbirth was so unwelcome in the bright and clean classroom of young Ms. Hansen-Knudsen that a few of the most gallant boys in the class conspired to dispose of the unhatched egg without disturbing their beautiful teacher. But it all went wrong for these boys, and indeed for the whole class. Archie was caught with his searching hands inside of the incubator, and Ms. Hansen-Knudsen became, in her angelic way, upset. This is only to say that she expressed disappointment, and everyone felt the growing pains of the lesson they were learning. But she also took away the incubator and the two live chicks and the unhatched egg and brought them to her home. The unhatched egg was a different type of egg, which took longer to hatch, and when it did hatch it was a duckling that emerged. It was a filthy gray color, and standing next to the two spherical tiny chicks it looked buffoonish and slow-witted. But Ms. Hansen-Knudsen preferred it on account of the feet. It had the most harmless, charming webbed orange feet, whereas the chicks’ talons implied the spiky horrors they would grow into. Ms. Hansen-Knudsen kept the duckling for a while longer; the chicks, she fed to her cat.

 

2. THE EARLY LATECOMER

On the first day back from winter break there was an unremarkable amount of snow, and a two-hour delay was called. Two-hour delays made everyone feel wretched because they didn’t have the virtue to be school days or the guts to be snow days; they were days without moral character. And when the second-graders of Ms. Hansen-Knudsen’s class arrived at last, they learned that two-hour-delay-days were Trojan horses for new and unexpected enemies.

Thomas was new to the county and he didn’t get the alerts yet, so he didn’t know about the two-hour delay and he came to school on time. So did Ms. Hansen-Knudsen, who often came early to prepare her classroom for its daylong sacking by her class. So she took the opportunity to create an intimate bond with the new student, who spent two hours helping her with the sacred, opaque, adult tasks of teaching, such as going into the copy room to make copies, and preparing overhead slides.

When the second-graders of Ms. Hansen-Knudsen’s class were introduced to Thomas, they were open-minded. But when Ms. Hansen-Knudsen told them that she and Thomas had already spent the morning getting to know one another, all their minds closed at once, like so many exits from a room where a bad thing is about to begin. They began to fantasize about all the cruelties they would visit on this boy, who was small, probably born late for their year. The girls would lash out with physical insults and then retreat into surliness. The boys would blame misbehaviors on him, to turn Ms. Hansen-Knudsen sour. The girls would spread rumors to their mothers, to be brought up in serious adult places. The boys would invite him to copy and then give him wrong answers. He would atrophy, and fall into a depression, and his work would suffer, and then instead of coming anywhere with them he would be held back. And he would loom, hulking, among the next second graders, his held-back brain swelling inside the body of a third grader, like the giant duckling, too huge to be believed. A humiliation, perhaps, but perhaps a miscalculation: for what punishment couldn’t be borne for the sake of getting Ms. Hansen-Knudsen all to himself for another year, while the others were forced on?

 

3. THE UNBORN 2

They lived in terror of pregnancy and when it befell her they blamed themselves, for stinking of fear. There was no change in her shape yet when she told them all and slotted a letter into each of their take-home folders. Everything was going to change for the worse. They wanted to hurt it, but it lived within the borders of Ms. Hansen-Knudsen. They wanted to make her stop liking it but it touched her from the inside.

They counted out the months and saw that when it arrived, they would all be gone. It was the sickening relief of learning, as they would in Earth Science, that it will be a billion years before the Earth falls into the sun and perishes, nothing we need to worry about. What a relief, maybe, to die of something else besides that. Was that right? Or had they been tricked into craving the slow sludgy summer, away from her shifting moods? They watched Ms. Hansen-Knudsen spread the chalk dust around on the board. They were as good as already incinerated, watching her palm pass over her widening self.

Tiny-House

Maddy Raskulinecz lives in Baltimore, where she teaches writing at Johns Hopkins. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in Guernica, 3:AM, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter: @littleraskul.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Consider This Case: An Interview with Melissa Yancy

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This has been a tumultuous year for us all, and Melissa’s Yancy’s own life has seen its share of momentous changes. Her debut story collection, Dog Years, won the University of Pittsburgh Press’s Drue Heinz Literature Prize, she received a coveted NEA fellowship, and also gave birth to her first child.

In the midst of our disastrous election, I had the pleasure of chatting with the LA-based author about recalibrating when it rains all at once, healing rifts on the left in Trump’s America, keys to a successful workshop experience, amplifying marginalized voices, and more.

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Luke B. Goebel: Congratulations on your recent NEA and Winning the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. And the baby! And being married! And your first book! What does it feel like to have it rain so hard all at once? Are you floating, drowning, swimming, or slogging?

Melissa Yancy: My friends are excited—I feel like I have dozens of parents rooting me on.

From the outside, it must look nice. A close friend recently told me how happy he was, how he didn’t feel any of the schadenfreude he might have if this had happened ten years ago (although he said schadenfreude—the joy in someone else’s misfortune—he meant the suffering in someone else’s joy, which some people call gluckschmerz, a word Charles Baxter made up). It’s yet another upside of failure, or should I say protracted apprenticeship—people are happier for you.

Let’s just say that in typical circumstances I’m the kind of person who can’t remember her phone number. I’ve heard that having a child can cause permanent neurological changes. I now get all my homonyms confused—is that normal? On the plus side, I have no mental space left for anxiety.

LG: I understand that feeling, the anxiety and the staying busy staving it off.  How about now with the election of Trump and everything else?

MY: I’ve joked that my son didn’t want to be born because I’d watched too much election coverage (I went to 42 weeks and he still wouldn’t come out), but of course, that’s deeply unfunny when you think about it. I was hospitalized for severe pre-eclampsia a few days after he was born—the treatment is a 24-hour magnesium drip—and I remember the fog of surgical recovery, the hormone bomb, the leaking milk, the ache from the magnesium and the thrum of television news in the background. I tried watching other channels, but anything unpredictable—an image of a baby, or violence, or a sentimental television commercial—was more than I could handle. I watched election coverage because I already knew what was happening and the punditry was all on repeat.

I read and watched an obscene amount of election coverage over an 18-month period, but as the election wore on, it started to feel like a Chinese finger trap—the harder we pulled, the tighter the trap became. That’s not a metaphor about coming to the middle. It was just easy to see that no arguments were hitting the mark. People couldn’t even sway their own spouses. I think Obama came closest to finding it the most effective critique when he said we don’t look to be ruled—I thought that, if nothing else, would appeal to the sense of self-reliance and individualism. But when some people heard I alone can fix this, they seemed to think, this is what it would be like if I got a shot to be President.

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LG: Not to plug the house of tin, where we will run this conversation…but you attended the Tin House Summer Workshop a few years ago and studied with Anthony Doerr.  What was it like to work with him? Care to talk about workshopping as practice for writing, education as a writer, and as cultural phenomenon? Is social media just one great workshop?

MY: By all means, let’s plug the house of tin. I’ve often credited that workshop as a turning point in my work. The faculty are second-to-none, and the week is set up to maximize your experience—workshops, exceptional craft lectures, readings, partying. Even the food is good.

The funniest part—a story I don’t usually tell—is that in my workshop there was a guy from my graduate program, basically the guy who’d slept with all my female friends. On the first day when we did introductions around the room, he realized he knew me, said he thought he used to date my friend. I responded, I’m pretty sure you used to date all my friends. The class just looked at us like, ooh, drama! Not sure that got me off on the right start with Anthony Doerr, but he forgave me. And the guy ended up bedding the girl in the room next to mine, so not much had changed. That’s another plug—Tin House, you could get lucky.

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Knowing

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Our newest issue has hit the newsstands. Here, from its pages, we are pleased to present a poem by Ruth Madievsky.

Tiny-House

KNOWING

How does the tongue know how do the fingers
know the leg the cunt
the cable running from eye to nose
this feeling like an empty illuminated office
where a stockbroker
is eating out his intern how does the mind know
which stories not to share at parties
in what organ does loneliness reside
loneliness a wool blanket
a seizure of light
the secret handshake by which the woman
who feels like a throw dart knows
what the man who feels like a safety razor knows
the knowing that one thing
suffocating another does not mean they touch
that eventually everything even loneliness atrophies
and still there are autopsies
that read like book reports there are lemons
that can’t grow seeds
what do the inessential organs know
and is it different from what the body
at the bottom of the lake knows
if everything was once ocean
why aren’t there shells beneath our feet

Tiny-House

Originally from Moldova, Ruth Madievsky is a poet and fiction writer living in Los Angeles. Her debut poetry collection, Emergency Brake, was published by Tavern Books on Valentine’s Day 2016 as their 2015 Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series selection.

Posted in From the Magazine, Poetry

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Tin House Issue 70: Winter Reading

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In case you missed it, Issue 70 was released late last week. Here with an introductory note from the past is our editor, Rob Spillman.

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As I am writing these words before the election, I do not know if the United States has elected a madman who has the potential to scorch all life from our planet. What possible value can art and story and poetry have in the face of such pending insanity? Everything.

Jo Ann Beard’s harrowing story “The Tomb of Wrestling”, brutal and beautiful, about a woman facing an intruder in her rural home, contains enough life and heart to power us through the next ten elections. Jim Shepard takes our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, specifically our decaying rails, and makes art from the raw material. Thank you Jim and Jo Ann and all of the storytellers. And thank you to the poets at this time, at all times. Walt Whitman, in the Song of Myself, wrote, “I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable; I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” Thank you, Rae Armantrout, Chaim ben Avram, Shayla Lawson, Ruth Madievsky, David Tomas Martinez, Miller Oberman, Tommy Pico, Christopher Soto, Gerald Stern for your untamableness, your irreducibility, your mysteries.

We hope that the barbaric yawps contained within these pages reflect our times and are also timeless, that they capture what it is to be alive now, and for those of you reading in the future, that the words resonate with you as well.

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Issue 70 features fiction by Jo Ann Beard, Antonya Nelson, Jim Shepard, Michael Andreasen, Rebecca Makkai; poetry by Rae Armantrout, Ruth Madievsky, David Tomas Martinez, Shayla Lawson, Tommy Pico, Gerald Stern, Christopher Soto, Miller Oberman, Chaim ben Avram; an interview with Mark Leyner; and Lost & Founds by Sam Lipsyte, Julia Cooke, Steve Almond, Jess Pane, Teow Lim Goh. It’s available online and at your local bookstore!

Posted in From the Magazine

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What Needed Screwing Got Screwed

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An excerpt from Los Angeles in the 1970’s: Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine (edited by David Kukoff) 

Tiny-House

Any good craftsman carries his tools.
Years ago they were always at the ready.
In a car. In a knapsack.
Claw hammers, crisscrossed heads,
thirty-two ouncers. Wrenches in all sizes, sometimes with oil caked on the teeth. Screwdrivers with multicolored plastic handles (what needed screwing got screwed).
I had specialty types: allen wrenches,
torpedo levels, taps, and dies.
A trusty tape measure.

Maybe a chalk line…

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In the 1970s, I labored within industrial Los Angeles—in a steel mill, a foundry, a paper mill, a chemical refinery, and in construction. I had skills: truck driving, mechanics, welding, carpentry, smelting, piping, down, and dirty. When people think of the city, they generally don’t conjure up steel mills or auto plants. The images tend toward Hollywood. Glittering lights. Marquees. Sunset Strip. More like beaches.

Los Angeles is that, but it’s also the country’s largest manufacturing center. Today it leads in aerospace, defense, and the so-called creative economy—movies, music, fashion, design. It has the largest commercial port in the US: the Los Angeles/Long Beach harbors.

I’m now part of that creative economy, the current official poet laureate of the city with fifteen books in poetry, children’s books, fiction, memoir, and nonfiction. I cofounded and help run a cultural space, bookstore, and small press called Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center in the northeast San Fernando Valley.

But in the 1970s I was an unlikely working class hero (I was more likely a working class fool). When union-negotiated consent decrees in the 1970s brought African-Americans, Mexicans, Native Americans, and women into the higher-paid skilled jobs, previously dominated by white males, the Bethlehem Steel Plant in southeast Los Angeles hired me for their “repair gang.” Prior to this I labored in unskilled drudgery. The year was 1974. I had just married my “high school sweetheart,” who received her diploma only two months before the wedding. Less then a year after, we had our first child.

I recall donning my hard hat, safety glasses, steel-toed shoes, and mechanic’s uniform, and staring at the mirror. I felt as if my life had purpose, direction, longevity. This job had rotating shifts, including “graveyard,” often double shifts (sixteen-hour days), and great pay, particularly with overtime.

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The plant’s nineteenth-century equipment was brought over from back east around World War II, when LA also boasted fabrication, assembly, or refinery work in auto, tires, garments, canneries, shipbuilding, aerospace, meatpacking, oil, and more. We had GM and Ford plants, Firestone and Michelin, Boeing and Lockheed. This industry drew workers of all ethnicities from the South, the Midwest, the Northeast, the Southwest, and Mexico for what were largely well- paid, mostly union jobs with pensions, health benefits, and a taste of blue-collar stability.

Despite being miles removed from the industrial powerhouses of Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and the like, in LA you could follow much of this industry from the northeast San Fernando Valley, to the Alameda Corridor north of downtown, down to the Harbor. Whole towns with names like Commerce and Industry thrived.

But in the mid-1970s, deindustrialization began to hit throughout the country, picking up steam in the 1980s, mostly due to advanced technology, including robotics. Labor-saving devices became labor- replacing. Major industries also sought cheaper labor markets in the South, Mexico, Central America, Southeast Asia, and such— impoverished areas with little or no regulation, down to dollar-a- day wages, and low living standards. Then during the first Reagan administration, the worst recession since the Great Depression exploded in 1981–82 and the unemployment rate went to double digits. Only the 2008 recession cut deeper.

Homelessness became a permanent feature of American life.

We all know about the Rust Belt that traversed through states like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. Los Angeles may not be considered part of the Rust Belt, but the impact was the same. As plants closed, the two most industrial cities—Los Angeles and Chicago—were known as the “gang capitals” of the world when drugs, guns, and gangs became key to a new, largely illicit economy.

Mass incarceration, which heightened in the 1990s, turned into its own “industry” arising from the crisis. In California alone, the state went from 15 prisons with 15,000 people in the early 1970s to a height of 34 prisons and up to 175,000 prisoners in the 2000s.

The places I worked at during the height of industrial might in the 1970s went down—Bethlehem Steel in 1981, and at St. Regis Paper Company, National Lead Foundry, Chevron Chemical Refinery at various times… I can go on and on. Some three hundred big mills and plants were gone by the mid-1980s. Forever. And with it, any illusion of stability.

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What needed screwing got screwed…but only figuratively. In the literal sense, it was far less constructive.

I don’t want people to forget the City of Angels as a City of Workers. My decade or so in that time, that industry, were extremely meaningful to me. At the same time, we can’t go back fully to that kind of work. Instead the city, the country, and the world is crying out for something new and momentous—aligning our governance, our economy, our environment, and our culture to the possibilities of the new technology as well as the creative potential in every person, family, and community.

And, again, Los Angeles leads the way…

I often met other travelers, their tools in tow,
and I’d say: “Go ahead, take my stereo and TV.
Take my car. Take my toys of leisure.
Just leave the tools.”
Nowadays, I don’t haul these mechanical implements. But I still make sure to carry the tools
of my trade: words and ideas,
the kind no one can take away.
So there may not be any work today,
but when there is, I’ll be ready.
I got my tools. 

Tiny-House

In 1954, Luis J. Rodríguez was born in El Paso, Texas. He grew up in Watts and the East Los Angeles area, where his family faced poverty and discrimination. A gang member and drug user at the age of twelve, by the time he turned eighteen, Rodríguez had lost twenty-five of his friends to gang violence, drug overdoses, shootings, and suicide. He wrote two autobiographical accounts of his experiences with gang violence and addiction, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing (Touchstone, 2012), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, and Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. (Curbstone Books, 1993), winner of the Carl Sandburg Award of the Friends of the Chicago Public Library.

His books of poetry include My Nature is Hunger: New & Selected Poems, 1989-2004 (Curbstone Books, 2005), winner of a 2006 Paterson Poetry Book Prize; Trochemoche (Curbstone Books, 1998); The Concrete River (Curbstone Books, 1991), which won a PEN West/Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence; and Poems Across the Pavement (Tía Chucha, 1989), which received San Francisco State University’s Poetry Center Book Award.

He is also a journalist and critic and the founder of Tía Chucha Press, which publishes emerging, socially conscious poets. In May 1998, Curbstone Press published his first children’s book, entitled América Is Her Name. In 2014, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Rodríguez as the poet laureate of Los Angeles. Rodríguez currently resides in California and manages the Tía Chucha Cultural Center in San Fernando.

All Photos by Luis J. Rodríguez

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The Eighteen Days’ Campaign

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Translated by Edward Gauvin

from The World of Paul Willems

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I was in what they call the 18 Days’ Campaign. Eighteen days of war is, of course, not a lot at all, but for me it was a very intense time, of which I retain a very vivid memory. I was called to active duty in September 1939. Near the Albert Canal at first, not far from Herentals, and then to Liège, where I found myself on May 9, 1940. I was in the mounted artillery. During my days of compulsory military service, I had a horse, but upon being called to active duty, this horse metamorphosed into a bicycle. As I was on leave that night, I’d gone into town with a few fellow soldiers and dragged my heels about going back, lingering a bit in the cafés and streets. It was nice out. At dawn, I returned to the heights of St. Nicolas, where the army had requisitioned me a room. It wasn’t very far from my company’s command post. On my way back, I saw a light on there and went to investigate. They told me a very serious alert had been sounded, that something significant was underway, and I should go put on my combat uniform. So I went and got ready and packed my bags, thinking that this alert was probably no different from the others. Fifteen minutes later, I stepped outside and saw in the clear blue sky—it was a splendid morning in May—hundreds of planes flying high above, seeming to shimmer with light. In the distance, detonations could already be heard, and I realized that we were at war.

Very soon, within half an hour, everything had come to life, soldiers were arriving from all over. Instead of dispatching us to our post, which was toward Seraing—we’d have had to cross the Meuse—we were told to beat a retreat because the Germans’ first thrust had broken through our frontlines and the army had to regroup farther back. An hour later, as we were readying to leave Liège, the German planes appeared, much lower than those we’d seen at first, but they didn’t drop any bombs. When the infantry saw the planes, they fired at them with their rifles.

Just then, I felt—I think many people had the same feeling—a kind of wild joy, as if at that very moment I found myself freed from the weight of all my life had been up till then, as if an absolute freedom had suddenly risen up before me. Perhaps the world was about to explode, perhaps everything would be destroyed, but at that moment everything was still intact, and the only unmistakable thing was the total availability of the present moment and our total ignorance of what would happen an hour later. And all those soldiers firing on those planes seemed overjoyed: naturally they knew it would do no good but they were in an incredible state of exaltation, one that however had nothing to do with courage or fighting spirit. And I said to myself: this is it—finally, everything’s going to blow! I didn’t know what was going to blow, but still, the feeling of exaltation was there.

And the retreat began. I’d been given a priest’s old bicycle; it still had wooden rims, and on the rack I carried the manuscript for my first novel, Everything Here Is Real. The novel wasn’t entirely finished yet, and at the time, it was the most important thing to me, much more so than being mobilized, or the war.

That first day of the retreat was still fairly dangerous, because the Germans had started bombarding the roads. But I was not—at least not that day—directly threatened. I beheld from a distance those infamous Stukas diving down at forts, and the detonations were very violent, but it all seemed unreal. And so we fell back all that day, and through the night, too, until one in the morning, on foot, on wheels; we weren’t going very fast, of course, since the roads were mobbed with refugees and the whole army pulling back. At around one, we came to a halt in a small garden, I can’t remember where anymore. It was spring, there was a wonderful smell of flowers—wisteria, it was. We could hear the endless rumble of carts going by, but inside that garden, where we were to await our platoon, I was very happy. I felt simply wonderful. And since I had a little flashlight, I dove into Everything Here Is Real and revised certain passages. I hadn’t a thought for sleep. The curious thing is that I could’ve worked on the book the night before, the ninth, but since we weren’t at war yet, I’d gone out drinking with friends instead, and it wasn’t until the night after that I felt the urge to work, amidst that tremendous tumult, just as one world was sliding by, when we felt ourselves invaded.

 

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Aquabot

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Since Kurt didn’t relate well to living things, his sister Val got him an Aquabot for his birthday. It arrived from Amazon in an oversized box that held an ordinary glass fishbowl, a green plastic shark and an extra card of button batteries. “Activates when submerged in water,” the directions said, so Kurt filled the bowl, dropped the fish in and carried it to the coffee table. Seconds later, he was enjoying a wine cooler and chips while the robotic shark dove up and down, swam laps and explored his world with apparent eagerness. After another cooler, Kurt called Val and waited for the beep. “Good present, I like it,” he said. In fact, he liked the Aquabot so much, he went online to search the company’s other products. Turned out, they made several, and over the next weeks, he ordered their electro-magnetic ant, spider, larva and scarab, all functional without the water and each capable of different tricks. His favorite, the larva, wriggled along his kitchen floor, swerving on its micro-robotic wheels when it detected obstacles with its infrared sensor. Next best was the hyper-charged scarab, which scuttled furiously in one direction, then took off in another, bouncing off walls and flipping over when it landed on its back. They were plastic, sure, the larva deep, dark blue, the scarab a lurid red, but they were lively and entertaining, till their batteries ran down.

Kurt, a retired widower who’d driven a bus for thirty years, bought a few for every room, appreciating the activity and the company but of course keeping this to himself. Who had to know? He lived alone, his sister Val in another state. He wasn’t friendly with his neighbors. Only once in a while did he take his pets outside, if, say, he felt like grilling on his hibachi.

One day, stepping onto the patio, he left the slider open and two scarabs shot out, disappearing under rose bushes, where he could hear them stalling and spinning. “Just sec,” he said. “Hold your horses—” loading wienies on his grill. Before he was through, one of the bugs seemed to free itself and scampered toward him with animated glee. “Why you little—” It wasn’t the bug, though. It was a cat, who’d somehow managed to leap his fence and find the toy. Black and white, it studied him briefly like a maître d’ in a tux. Then, with a weird grumble in its throat, it gathered itself and sprang at the scarab. The scarab dodged it. The cat crept flat along the ground and pounced—the scarab scuttled sideways. After a few minutes, when his meat was crisp, Kurt sat down to watch them fight it out.

This cat was not like other cats. It didn’t meow for food. It didn’t rub against him for attention. It just wanted his bugs.

All afternoon they stayed outside, Kurt changing the batteries when the toys ran down. At night, he collected them and invited the cat in. The cat accepted, but coolly, stretching first, as if to emphasize that no promises were being made. Kurt opened an extra can of tuna. When the cat paced beside the door, he let it out, leaving the door open for it to let itself back in. Before bed, he set two larvae squirming across the kitchen, and the cat played till it got tired. Right there, curled on a pile of dishtowels, it conked out.

In the morning, Val called. “You okay? I’m worried about you, Kurtie. Why not move here to Minnesota?”

Kurt tucked the phone under his chin and poured Cheerios for the cat and himself. The cat ignored the food and whacked a scarab into the pantry, pursuing it till Kurt heard them crashing around amid Coke cans and tumbling boxes. The cat skidded back into the room. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said.

Spotting the Cheerios, the cat trotted over and sniffed, then sat down to wash itself.

“You’re not lonely?” Val asked.

It was hard to fool this guy. For instance, with the Aquabot. Kurt had carried it to a counter and switched it on, expecting the cat to go wild.

The cat studied him. That’s a fish? Don’t make me laugh.

Did it wink then? He thought it did.

“Not really,” he said.

Tiny-House
Los Angeles writer Susan Heeger has published fiction in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Good Housekeeping, Brain, Child and Pinball. “Aquabot” is part of a story collection she’s working on with LA illustrator and graphic designer Simon Steiner called Animals Like Us, in which animals help humans solve problems, fall in love, improve their characters and find peace.
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Lost & Found: Pedja Jurišić on Meša Selimović

Lost & Found

Even the greatest literary triumphs of a small language often suffer the fate of a shipwrecked heroine lost at sea: If by extraordinary luck and effort she manages to briefly catch our attention, we soon lose her in the tide, she is again disappeared and remembered only by her loved ones.

So it is that the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Death and the Dervish, one of the best novels in the rich Serbo-Croatian literary tradition, has passed by largely unobserved. Unless you have a personal or professional interest in the Balkans, it is very likely you have not encountered the masterpiece or its author, Meša Selimović.

For those of us with the good fortune to be acquainted with his works, Selimović’s novels are often personal and affecting. Set during Ottoman times, Death and the Dervish grapples with heavy subjects: loss and injustice; guilt of the survivor and the unrepentant perpetrator; consciences stained by a lack of moral courage. These themes resonate especially strongly with we many who, in our various ways, experienced the catastrophic destruction of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Though I’ve since argued that such a historicized reading can impede richer interpretations of Death and the Dervish, I, too, first experienced the novel as a portrait of Bosnian psychology.

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In Death and the Dervish, the brother of a Sufi dervish is thrown into a fortress for unknown reasons. The dervish attempts to intervene on behalf of his brother but his slow and indecisive measures stand little hope of success. The plot of the novel is drawn from the tragedy of Selimović’s brother, Šefkija. An officer in the Partisan resistance during World War II, he misappropriated bits of furniture in the wake of the liberation of his home town, and was summarily executed for the offense. There were people who thought his brothers didn’t do enough to save him.

While he was still just a tall child, the body of my brother became his own inscrutable fortress. Suddenly and without any apparent precipitating cause, he lost an awful lot of weight and grew increasingly weary and jaundiced. A kid at school asked him what was up and noted that he looked like Big Bird from Sesame Street—an excellent joke, my brother thought. The doctors finally diagnosed him with primary sclerosing cholangitis—PSC—a rare liver disease. He received his first liver transplant at 15, his second at 24. In the next three, five, or ten years, he will require a third transplant, someday likely a fourth, and so on. By the example of our father, a concentration camp survivor who coped with his traumas with stoic magnanimity, or from some other incomprehensible, bottomless reservoir of strength, my brother has faced his own mortality with more dignity and courage than some of us have confronted hair loss. He sometimes explains his illness as having “won” an unfortunate genetic lottery and accepts his condition—and a dizzying accompaniment of complications that encumber his health and daily life—with extraordinary equanimity and capacity for pain. To this day, I haven’t heard him complain once. Continue reading

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Ghost Songs: Excerpts

 

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Daddy and me

I hear breathing, a dry broken noise like fabric dragging on rough wood. On the wall in my hospital room, something shimmers in the afternoon light. It is my father. I sit up and avert my eyes and he becomes more defined, as if he is meant to be seen from the far side of the eye, where apparitions live.

The air is mineral-heavy, like it might rain inside the room. A sharp, sweet odor deepens around me—garbage and rotten apples. Sitting on the edge of the bed, I collapse forward, close my eyes, and hold my breath against the smell—but I can’t hide from the sound, a dry struggle to breathe. My father is lost and doesn’t know where to go.

 

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My parents throw a party in the big house on Park Hill in Yonkers. Grown-ups gather in the living room and there is a lot of talk and laughter, a record playing low in the background, Rosemary Clooney singing about the mambo.

My brother and I are the only children at the party. I am four and Jerry is five. My baby sister, Tracy, is still too small to be out of the playpen.

“Look, Mommy!” I say and dance side to side to the mambo song. The ladies laugh and clap.

Cigarette smoke drifts overhead toward the kitchen, blown by two fans set in open windows. Everyone is sweating. Two ladies take turns leaning their faces and bare necks close to one of the fans.

“Cheers, Vincent!” a man with rolled-up sleeves says to my father, who is holding a bottle and pouring more into their glasses. “And where is your mother-in-law this evening?”

“That great doorfull of a woman?” my father asks, and the man laughs boisterously. “Be glad she isn’t here, Emmet, she’s got a tongue that could clip a hedge.”

Someone takes the needle off the record and asks my father to sing “Nell Flaherty’s Drake.” My father stands:

He could fly like a swallow or swim like a hake

Till some dirty savage, to grease his white cabbage

Most wantonly murdered me beautiful drake!

Everyone smiles and claps.

“To grease his white cabbage . . .” my mother echoes, then bows her head and laughs, her eyes wet.

“Sing the part about the pig!” Jerry cries out.

May his spade never dig, may his sow never pig

May each hair in his wig be well thrashed with a flail!

People raise their glasses. My mother says my father’s name: “Vincent,” and it sounds like the noise dimes and pennies make when he jingles them in his pocket.

“My uncle Michael never sang that one,” my mother announces to everyone, “and he knew them all. He and my father were off the boat!”

My father, who is standing in front of the screen door, takes his handkerchief from his pocket and wipes the dampness from his forehead. “Romantic Ireland is dead and gone,” he says. “It’s with O’Leary in the grave.”

Thunder sounds just then and everyone cheers. Behind my father there is a sudden downpour.

“Ye brought the rain, Vincent!” Emmet says.

I go to my father and stand at his leg. I touch his freckled forearm and he puts a big hand gently on my shoulder, nods slightly at me.

“Thank God!” cries one of the ladies who had been standing near the window fans. “This should cool things off.”

 

Inch Strand

 

I am still a child when I find out that neither of my parents has actually ever been to Ireland and I wonder how they can love and miss a place their ancestors left before they were born. Yet somehow I understand. And even though I am young, the idea of Ireland fills me with an inexplicable nostalgia, as if it belonged to me once and I somehow lost it.

 

 

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Nanny does not like our house in New Mexico. It is in a development on desert land just off the highway to Albuquerque. New houses are being built around it; construction workers yell at each other in Spanish between the deafening sputter of a power saw.

I like visiting Nanny in her room, where she sits on a chair most of the time with her door ajar, smoking Salems. She gives me Mounds bars and Hershey’s Kisses, sings to me, “I love you, a bushel and a peck! A bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.” She calls me sweetie and tells me what a good girl I am. She praises my drawings and tapes them to the wall under her crucifix. I can close my eyes when I hug Nanny and feel the hard drum of her heart against my arm, and traces of my mother are there.

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We four kids stand in a little group in front of the house. Dad holds the Brownie box camera at his stomach and looks down into the window at the top, where he sees us reflected. Then he snaps.

Jerry says that the camera has an eye that’s just like a human eye because the lens turns what it sees upside down. Dad taught him this, he says.

Later when the camera is on the kitchen table, Jerry calls me over to look at it.

“It came from the East,” he says. “It’s older than me and you.”

I peer down into the square window, but all I see is a faceted chamber made of thick glass.

Jerry says, “When you press the click button, the camera remembers.”

“It has a memory?” I ask.

He nods.

When the Brownie box camera is left for weeks high up on the bookshelf in the living room, I wonder if it is my father’s eye and memory that are in there, separated from him.

 

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Dad has bought Mom a new camera. It is small and held to the eye, not to the chest or stomach like Dad’s Brownie box camera. Mom’s eye and the camera’s must be in synch. It sees what she sees.

I watch her on the lawn, watering the trees. After she turns off the hose, she crosses the street and holds the camera to her eye. She does this a few times, and then backs up a little farther.

Later, she comes in, removes the film, and drives away to drop it off for developing. I get the camera and take it outside, cross the street, and stand where she had been standing.

Is it the height of the trees she’s charting? When we first came to this house, the ground was unplowed, unirrigated desert land, dry and hard. My mother worked it until it was rich and black, the hose and sprinklers on for long hours every day until water ran over the sidewalks and down the sloping street. She planted gardens and a lush lawn, a willow tree and poplars that have grown into giants. In the dry desert neighborhood, our house is enclosed in its own forest of shifting shadows.

 

 

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I’m sitting at the table trying to write a paper for school when I sense that something, someone, is lying very still on my mattress. I know it is a she. The air feels silky with this fact. She does not want to hurt me. She doesn’t threaten me.

I sit frozen, unable to move, and as if to snap me out of my paralysis, the refrigerator in the kitchen shifts on and hums, a low, steady rumble.

I know who she is. I stand, but I won’t look at her. She is me, deflated and tired with her eyes closed, lying on her back under the covers. I would go to her and smooth her hair and tell her that everything is all right, as if she were a younger sibling, except that I might discover that she is cold, that she is not breathing. Or even worse, she might be cold, not breathing, and then suddenly open her eyes.

Cliffs of Moher

 

When I leave Inisheer very early in the morning to visit the other two islands, turf fires burn along the shore. We lift sail in a good breeze just as the sun arrives, the gray overcast weather utterly gone. I can see in every direction. The horizon to the west is endless, without a definite demarcation between sea and sky, and the mainland to the east, cliffs and lowlands, beach and rocks.

We soon dock at Inishmaan, which we tour on foot, a small group of us led by a tall, long-limbed Galway man named Michael Slattery, who asks us to call him Mick. We pass limestone cottages issuing smoke, fragrant of both earth and kelp. Curious children watch us from doorways. Indolent cows graze in fields congested with wildflowers.

Mick tells us that the three islands have four or five dark-haired families said to be descended from seals, and that less than a decade before, the local priest drove a witch from these shores.

After viewing gravestones defaced by weather, druid altars, and prehistoric forts overgrown with moss and lichen, we go on to the big island. Walking along roadways in the brightness, I search for signs of Laura, but she is nowhere to be seen. Mick remarks that the island is curiously empty of tourists for such a fine day.

I take out my map of Ireland and draw a tiny dot on the north point of the northernmost Aran Island. This is where I am in the world right now, ocean all around me. I look toward Galway Bay to the east, its circle of water washing into the Atlantic, where my grandfather and uncle Michael set sail for America.

 

Tiny-House

Regina McBride is the author of four novels, including The Nature of Water and Air (a Barnes & Noble Discover Book) and The Land of Women. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, she lives in New York City and teaches creative writing at Hunter College.

Posted in Essays, Tin House Books

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Lost & Found: Joseph Lee on Francis Stuart

Lost & Found

In 1940, Irish novelist Francis Stuart traveled alone to Nazi Germany, leaving behind his wife and children. Stuart lived in Berlin for the next five years, two of which he spent making radio broadcasts for Irland-Redaktion, a German radio program that broadcast Nazi propaganda to Ireland. Stuart’s best-known novel, Blacklist Section H, fictionalizes this experience. Stuart’s legacy remains controversial today. Many Irish critics admire him as one of the most important Irish writers of the 20th century; some cannot forgive his Nazi ties. Despite this controversial status—perhaps because of it—little is known about him and his motivations. Most of his books are now out of print.

I first encountered Blacklist my junior year of college and spent the following summer tracing Francis Stuart’s path through Ireland and Germany. I also went to the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, where I read Stuart’s diaries from the war years. Everything I learned added depth to the novel and made me question the roles and responsibilities a writer faces as I think about what kind of writer I want to be. The stakes of these questions seem almost as great in our time as they were in Stuart’s. What will art in Donald Trump’s America look like? What should it do? Although flawed in many ways, Blacklist Section H is a significant attempt to navigate and figure out what public work artists can and cannot do.

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Stuart’s protagonist in Blacklist, H, believes that “nothing short of the near despair of being utterly cast off from society and its principles could create the inner condition conducive to the new insights that it [is] the task of the poet to reveal.” H’s conviction that poetry and literature come from a place of exile mirrors the foundation of the real-life Stuart’s interest in Nazi Germany. Stuart believed that he needed to go to Berlin to unlock a hidden part of himself, a dark yet essential part of his being, deeper than political belief. Throughout Blacklist, H repeatedly expresses his desire to be despised, as he struggles with his own apathy toward other people.

Although Stuart was in his 40s during the war, I like to think of Blacklist Section H as his bildungsroman. He spent his twenties and thirties in Ireland building his literary career and his family with Iseult Gonne (a prominent figure in Dublin’s literary elite). As his personal life began to fall apart—largely because of his own insecurities—he focused more and more on seeking the ineffable, mystical space that H yearns for in Blacklist. Even though he was 20 years older than I am now, I identify with Stuart’s stumbling attempts to combine art and politics while dealing with the difficulties of his personal life. What political responsibilities does a writer have and how should we as readers respond to a writer who held offensive or dangerous views? Ignoring their work seems almost as bad as venerating it. We may not be in a World War, but our political reality also demands art that takes responsibility for the world it comes out of.

Figuring out what Stuart did with this responsibility is complicated by his own attempts to erase all negative evidence from the war, which is ironic because of H’s belief that society’s scorn will elevate his art. In journals from the end of the war, Stuart often wrote that things were going badly “for us” or that “we” might face difficulties, a clear indication of the degree to which he had mentally and perhaps politically aligned himself with the Germans. Many of these lines have been edited; Stuart (usually in a different pen, possibly many years later) has crossed out the “us” and “we” and replaced these first person pronouns with more objective terms like, “the Germans.”

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Early in H’s days in Berlin, he gets sent to Frankfurt to speak with a British prisoner of war who is a fan of his novels. Captain Manville asks H why he came to Germany—“siding with the enemy,” he calls it—and H replies that “The situation I’ve involved myself in, however disastrous for my reputation, and perhaps because it is disastrous, gives me a chance of becoming the only sort of writer it’s in my power to be.” H doesn’t fully endorse societal alienation until after he is settled in Germany. Bound to this choice, H attempts to make the best of it; perhaps being in such a place might be good for his career. At the end of the chapter, H muses, “Though being branded as a Nazi by those from whom most of his readers would have to come, scarcely argued well for his future, no matter how his work developed.” Living in Germany and being relatively apolitical doesn’t make Stuart a Nazi, . Stuart, who fled to Berlin because of personal insecurity about his work and his marriage, bet his literary career on the premise that public revulsion would transform his writing. And it did, but maybe not in the way he hoped. Continue reading

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Coastal Craft: Ada Limón

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As we continue to make plans for our upcoming Winter Workshops, we check in with a few of our faculty to discuss their own classroom experiences. 

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Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience (as a participant)?

Ada Limón: I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington in Seattle and I had never had a poem “workshopped” and I was surprised at how the experience felt so overwhelming, but also useful. I was terrified at first, especially when a reader would get something “wrong” or misread my intentions, but eventually I learned to love that workshop because I learned what advice to take and what advice not to take. It immediately made me aware of readers and audience. It was key in forming my writing later on.

Tin House: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?

Ada Limón: The best piece of advice I heard in any workshop was that everything in the poem had to be working toward the larger meaning of the poem.

Even if a line was brilliant and beautiful, if its not furthering the thrust and life of the poem, it needs to be cut.

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Tin House: Strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?

Ada Limón: I studied with Phil Levine when I was a graduate student at New York University. He was a generous teacher, but also notoriously hard on poems that he didn’t feel were really working.

He once looked at a poem I was working on and I could tell he hated it. Kazim Ali, my friend and classmate, said “But Phil, don’t you think there are some beautiful lines here?” And Phil said, “Yeah, I just wish she’d put them in a f*%$!ing poem.”

It destroyed me at first. But, he was right

Tin House: We tend to listen to a lot of records during the workshop weekend. Do you have a favorite “at the ocean”album?

Ada Limón: We lived about an hour from the beach growing up and my best friend and I used to listen to Van Morrison when we were driving out to Salmon Creek or Bodega Bay in her little red pickup truck. So Van Morrison’s “His Band and The Street Choir” “Astral Weeks” “Moondance” “Into the Music” well, all of it really. His voice reminds me of the waves now.

Tin House: A favorite winter poem, story, or book?

Ada Limón: My favorite poems always change and alter depending on my mood, but there’s this marvelous poem “Elk” by Robert Wrigley that I adore:  It’s dark, but wow, amazing.

Tiny-House

Ada Limón is the author of four books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry, a finalist for the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award, and one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by The New York Times. Her other books include Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World, and Sharks in the Rivers. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program, and the 24Pearl Street online program for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer splitting her time between Lexington, Kentucky and Sonoma, California.

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Saint Burma

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Plottoists brought it all back home last week for our final round of THE MASTER CONTEST OF ALL PLOTS, and the judges phoned in from their respective Thanksgiving locations to fight it out for the winning story. Congratulations to winner Nikki HoSang, whose clever “Saint Burma” delivers a homecoming we never expected.

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Jo was fluffing the vermiculite bedding around the snake eggs when Mary, the kid who cleaned cages and answered the phone, stuck her head in the door.

“I know you’re getting ready to put the eggs in the incubator,” she whispered, “but there’s a guy on the phone? He says he has your snake?”

“Did he say what kind?”

“He said it’s a Burmese python.”

It was her python. Just bigger, older, slower. The guy who called said he’d traded a Vietnamese blue beauty snake and a couple of cat geckos for it. Normally, he said, he wouldn’t have let that little blue beauty go for nothing, but once he saw the markings on the Burm’s head, he was a goner, a dead man, in love. And then, he said, and then! He remembered reading Jo’s article in SCALES! and put two and two together: his new giant girl had to be her old childhood pet, her old buddy Saint Burma.

“It’s not every day you see a snake with a cross on its head,” he said. “Something special like that, you know the owner’s missing that animal bad. And besides, she just seems like a little saint.”

 

They worked out a deal. Saint Burma would stay where she was for a few days more, just until Jo got a cage set up at her place. Just a few days more, that’s all.

 

Homecoming day and Saint Burma smelled like roses! Had the guy given her a bath or something? He swore he hadn’t bathed her at all, swore she was just freakishly clean.

“Her shit don’t stink, either,” he said.

“Oh, come on,” Jo said.

“Seriously,” he said. “If anything, it smells like burnt sugar.”

“Like caramel? Right,” Jo said. She locked Burma in her cage and looked around,

suddenly ashamed. The guy patted her on the shoulder, one awkward pat, and then another, and then a little sentimental squeeze. He let himself out.

 

Size. Eleven feet? Twelve? She’d been barely six feet when Jo had driven her out to the wildest park she could find, slung her around her neck and walked and walked until she found a big, sunny rock to lay her down on. It wasn’t meant to be cruel. She was just too big, too vast, too patient. Who could trust a gentle snake?

 

Now she was beatific beyond reason. She stared into some unseen mystery just beyond the kitchen counter when she wanted Jo to let her out, she slithered up on the couch and nosed the remote until Jo came and turned the TV on. She liked to curve herself around Jo’s shoulders, and she liked to thump the floor with her tail. Jo stopped channel surfing when she stopped thumping. Another wholesome Dolly Parton movie.

What was she this time, an angel?

Tiny-House

Nikki HoSang lives in California, where she works for a public library.

Here’s the prompt that inspired Nikki’s story: {B}, for many years mysteriously absent from her home, seeks a happy renewal of old ties by returning suddenly and unheralded to her native place.

Next up: our five winners go pen-to-pen for the Grand Prize, a long weekend writer’s retreat at the Tin House studio in Portland. Stay tuned to hear the winning stories (read by their authors) and a live announcement of the Plotto Writer In Residence December 10 on Oregon Public Broadcasting. And revisit the winning stories from Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, and Week 4!

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTSIn the 1920s, dime store novelist William Wallace Cook painstakingly diagrammed and cataloged his personal writing method—“Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict”—for the instruction and illumination of his fellow authors. His efforts resulted in 1,462 plot scenarios and Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots was born. A how-to manual for plot, Plotto offers endless amalgamations to inspire limitless narratives. Open the book to any page to find plots you may never have known existed, from morose cannibals to gun-wielding preachers to phantom automobiles. Equal parts reference guide and historical oddity, Plotto is sure to amaze and delight writers for another century.

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Pieces of Soap: About the Cover

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In the design brief for Stanley Elkin’s Pieces of Soap, editor, Tony Perez, suggested I look to the title essay for ideas. In Elkin’s humorous meditation on mortality and compulsion, he writes about his soap-stealing obsession, describing the massive collection of pilfered soap that fills his home:

Because I have, in basket and hamper, in all summertime’s lanyard-laced, twiggy, wickery woodwork like a woven porch or patio furniture, stashed in its indoors-outdoors texture like supple, vaguely rain forest, vaguely jungly splinter (vine, picnic’s processed straw like a coniferous soup or an evergreen vegetable, all the indeterminate tropicals and periodics of the American breezeway elementals—Adirondackian, Poconosaic, Ramapoaon—spread over good green loaves of lawn, all that luxuriant matter of the undeciduous year), five or six thousand bars of soap.

Coincidentally, soap was already on my mind as I’d just spent some time looking at vintage soap labels for a side project. Tony and I both grew up using and reading Dr. Bronner’s and the iconic type-packed label was another influence.

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As I thought about designing the cover to resemble a label, I began to envision the book itself as a bar of soap. And why not make an actual bar of soap? Having zero soap-making experience made the idea even more appealing.

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The Rest of the Novel

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THE REST OF THE NOVEL

For conveying ideas, novels are among the least functional and most decorative of the blunt instruments. (Could this be a universal truth, some starry, operative mathematical principle? Most stars are decorative too, of course, their function merely to peg the universe in place like studs in upholstery, servicing the elegancies, strumming its physics like a man with a blue guitar, fleshing all the centripetals and centrifugals, stringing the planets like beads, some beautiful pump of placement, arranging night, moving the planetary furniture, and fixing the astronomical data, but less useful, finally, in the sense that a handful more here or a dollop less there could make as much of a never mind as corks or rhythm, less useful, finally, than mail or ice cream.) And if, a few times in a way, novels like Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast or Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath come along to legislate, or raise a consciousness or two, or rouse a rabble, to make, I mean, what history or the papers call a difference, why that’s decorative, too, I think, a lip service the system, touching the bases like a superstitious braille, pays art—like, oh, the claims made a few years back for the “We Are the World” folks when it was really the Catholic Relief Services already on site during the Ethiopian famine that did the heavy lifting.

Well it’s not the novelist’s fault. Not that they don’t deserve some of the blame, leaking encouragement like someone paying out line to fish, some of your have-cake-and-eat-its like a little miracle of the loaves. And there are still a few big mouths who stake claims for the ameliorative shamanism of—hark! this is interesting: not the book so much as the writer—the practice of fiction—the loyal, Nutso Art Jerk Groupie, like some devoted cultist, the last Deadhead, say, worrying like holy beads the shoelace on his wrist he thinks is a bracelet making confrontation with an Elvis Presley impersonator.

Isn’t it pretty to think so, though? To take oneself as seriously as one’s readers sometimes do? To believe, if only briefly, and if only by the light off the gloss of the brittlest mood swing, in the justice or even the palpability of one’s cause, to Don Quixote principle, any principle, and raise to the level of purpose what in the final analysis is only what given egos, fashionably or not, fashion or no, frozen in mere season’s hipped au courantness, perceive as beauty.

Because aesthetics is the only subject matter, because style is, and all calls are judgment calls. Because ideas are even scarcer than those fabled two or three stripped plots, those fabled three or four basic jokes, art a fugue ideal finally, the hen’s-teeth variations, genre revolving around itself, the spin-off, like a few chips of colored glass in a kaleidoscope.

Because ain’t, when you come right down, the rest of the novel like the rest of the novel, as all detective stories are like all other detective stories, dick-fic a piece of the mother-lode main? Not just who done it but how it’s done, how it’s always done, the who-done-it as orthodox and ritualized as positions in ballet in which, like the do-re-mes, all music has its source, from Natchez to Mobile, from Memphis to St. Joe. Almost as if a detective’s relentless, endless questions along the stations of his investigation, the forced march of his focused, inquisitive rhetoric, were the natural music of the world, or as if such men were tone deaf to intrusion, to all the hectoring socratics of their quest. And the hell this plays with character, all the battering-rammed intent of obsession, the armored callus of the soul, the boring tyrannicals of personality. To say nothing at all of the other played-upon players in the game, their passified, invaded lives and suspect, squirmed evasions. Form, I mean, creates cliché. It horses stereotype. Think of Mr. Falk’s Columbo and you have almost encyclopedically the finite limits of the genre—only his rumpled raincoat and his smarmy awe and merely partially put-on turnip-truck airs and naïves, only the feigned clutter of his personal human laundry, only that final question delivered at the door and springing, it would seem, from the goldened-over grove of his slapped and mythic forehead a studied idosyncratics all he has for character, shtick in lieu of life and charm and will, tic in lieu of depth, as if Hercule and Holmes and Dalgleish and Marple were really, give or take an eccentricity, ultimately the same invulnerable party, their very invulnerability almost a product not so much of their slick sleuthfulness as of their authority, the fascist bent of their being, and their recyclability as characters, their cloned and clannish serial essence, not even the motives of the criminals changing—love-greed or cash-greed—only always the victims and cases, sometimes the weapons. In it, amateurs or not, professionally, which is to say objectively, which is to say marginally, indifferent and blind as Justice herself, with no more rooting interest in who did what to whom than, ideally, the jury impaneled to determine the guilt or innocence of the party arrested. In it professionally. So standing outside the loop of the novel itself. Which is, of course, no place for any proper protagonist to stand at all. Their invulnerability protected, too, not just by the almost apostolic authority of their badged office but crazily, by, well, profit motive, so that sometimes even after their authors age and sicken and die, their characters live on, doomed like ghosts to sequel their lives, their impersonate lives assuranced, too, by the genre in which they ask their bruising, devastating questions, questions that, in real life, would earn, at least for the amateurs and busybodies, the private eyes and mercenaries, blows, bullets, all the wrenching, gut-kicked pile-on of a cornered rage; even the Mike Hammers, Sam Spades (colored into character by first-person rhetoric), and laconic dirtied Harrys a sort of race of stunt men finally, their asses covered by camera angle, so that for all the knocks they take to the head, for all their stand-in saviorhood, they are guaranteed survivability, too, as though the life/death arrangements of their furious, spurious danger were only a kind of faked sportsmanship, like taking fish with a net, say, or shooting game from out the window of an airplane.

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Laws

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PLOTTO took a turn for the harrowing last week. Protagonists committed crimes ranging from casual murder to poor artistic taste, political apathy to the unleashing of spiders. Or did they? Congratulations to winner Zana Previti, whose mysterious “Laws” brought us characters so convincing we thought we knew them, and so haunting that, by the end, we weren’t so sure.

Check out this week’s prompt here!

Tiny-House

Sister Clotilde held the boy by his shoulders and marched him into the Headmistress’s office.

“Hey!” protested the secretary.

Sr. Clotilde turned, glared, and slammed the door.

“Sister?” Sr. Frances asked.

“Tell her,” Sr. Clotilde instructed the boy, “exactly what you said.”

The child—Max Patrick, nine, and clearly wearing the school uniform of an older, larger brother—sighed.

“I told Billy. I think, I maybe killed someone.”

Sr. Frances stared.

“Yeah,” said Sr. Clotilde. “Yeah.”

 

Sr. Clotilde was young; she taught third grade at Saint Margaret’s. It was, despite its name, an all-boys school. Sr. Clotilde had taken her vows at twenty-five, didn’t wear habit, and she had hard, grey, unblinking eyes. Despite the others’ seniority, and the rumors that another teacher had once broken a first-grader’s hand, the boys feared only Sr. Clotilde.

 

“Explain, please, Max,” said Sr. Frances. She capped her pen.

Max glanced at Sr. Clotilde.

“You may leave, Sister,” said Sr. Frances.

“Nope.”

“Sister!”

Sr. Clotilde spun and banged the door shut.

Sr. Frances raised her eyebrows. “Explain, Max.”

“Then I can go to recess?”

Sr. Frances considered. “Yes,” she said. “Why would you say that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Was someone hurt?”

“I didn’t—I just told Billy. No.”

“Told Billy what?”

“Mom and Dad were arguing. They thought I was asleep.”

“Okay.”

“They said, when I was really little . . . I don’t remember hurting anyone. But they said, like, killed.”

“It’s okay, Max.” She handed him a tissue.

She recalled something. She’d been worried, at the time. When he was starting pre-school, Max sitting and coloring . . . his little hands sore with red, tiny marks.

She looked at him.

“I don’t know,” he said.

They spoke a little longer. Sr. Frances sent him back to recess. Then she dialed a phone number.

“Mr. Patrick,” she said. She explained her purpose. “John, I have to ask.”

“Yes,” he said. He was quiet. Sr. Frances waited.

He explained.

“His hands,” she said. “She bit him?”

“Yes,” he said.

Sr. Frances nodded. And after a moment, she hung up the phone. She closed her eyes.

 

After lunch, Sr. Frances found Sr. Clotilde grading quizzes. The boys, at their desks, worked on long-division problems.

Sr. Clotilde looked up. Sr. Frances came over to her, then bent and whispered in her ear.

The young woman exhaled and took the Sister’s hand. They looked at the children. Twenty fragile mysteries raised their heads and stared back.

Sr. Clotilde’s grey eyes clouded, then looked away. And one boy sitting far in the back suddenly wondered if any of it was true at all . . . if prime numbers were as unbreakable as they said, if zero times anything was always zero, if the way he had been taught was the only way, or if there were other ways, infinite ways, and if one day the laws of division might—suddenly—no longer apply . . . all these problems made unsolvable, all his careful work made nonsense.

Tiny-House

Zana Previti was born and raised in New England. She earned her MFA in fiction from the University of California, Irvine, and her MFA in poetry from the University of Idaho. Her work has been published in The New England Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, RHINO Poetry, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She was recently named the recipient of Poetry International’s 2014 C.P. Cavafy Prize for Poetry, and works now as the Fall 2016 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. 

Here’s the prompt that inspired Zana’s story: {A} believes himself guilty of a crime which he cannot remember having committed. 

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTSIn the 1920s, dime store novelist William Wallace Cook painstakingly diagrammed and cataloged his personal writing method—“Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict”—for the instruction and illumination of his fellow authors. His efforts resulted in 1,462 plot scenarios and Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots was born. A how-to manual for plot, Plotto offers endless amalgamations to inspire limitless narratives. Open the book to any page to find plots you may never have known existed, from morose cannibals to gun-wielding preachers to phantom automobiles. Equal parts reference guide and historical oddity, Plotto is sure to amaze and delight writers for another century.

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Pieces of Soap

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PIECES OF SOAP

This would have been after the ms was first diagnosed but before the chair glide was put in, before, in fact, anything very important was wrong with me at all. Before the wheelchair, before the walker. Probably before the canes even. Though I may already have owned a cane. Using it larkily, boulevardierly, like Fred Astaire, say, like a prop for my disease.

Ourselves, a visiting professor, and the Lebowitzes in the living room conjoined. For drinks and dip and conversation assembled. And I forget now how it came up, though you have my word it was naturally. No one, I mean, set anyone else up. So it must have been naturally, in the sense, I mean, that anything coming out of left field like that is natural, thrown in compulsively—from the hip, on the mind, off the chest. Naturally. Organically. The visiting professor had made this, well, confession. Or maybe not this confession at all so much as this shy, tentative admission, sly, something between a pretended amusement at a harmless foible and the genuinely expeditionary—a little like someone fishing for a compliment.

I didn’t need Joan’s or the Lebowitzes’ encouraging glance. What, for an opening like this? Your one-chance-in-a-million opportunity? I was out of my chair and on my feet like a shot. (So it would have to have been back in the mists of time, back in the golden age of my arms and legs, of my skin and balance.) I grabbed the professor’s elbow and motioned for him to follow. “Come,” I called over my shoulder, taking the stairs two and maybe three at a time. “Are you coming? Good,” I said. “Come up, come up.” I remember I was already laughing. (Because I knew what I was going to say. Because your chance-in-a-lifetime, one-in-a-million-opportunities don’t come up every blue moon or cold day in hell, so maybe without even knowing it, you have reflexively, already prepared, primed and polished, not staircase wit but its opposite, as down pat as a comic’s practiced squelch, except that mine was not even rehearsed but something all condition-ripened second nature, like ouch! or yippee! Natural. Organic.) And now he was in the upstairs hall with me. I directed his attention this way and that. “What,” I said, “you steal soaps from hotels? You do?” I directed his attention to the bathroom. “You think so? You do?” And even had a reply ready, what I hope I would have said in his place. This was not staircase wit either. “No,” I hope I would have said, and offered up the punch line from the old joke, “but the guy that sells me salt, can he sell salt!” Though come to think of it the professor’s was close enough in its way, even though what happened was that all expression drained from his face, he closed his mouth, and narrowly shook his head a few times. It wasn’t a punch line. It was better. It was pure submission signal.

Because I have, in basket and hamper, in all summertime’s lanyard-laced, twiggy, wickery woodwork like a woven porch or patio furniture, stashed in its indoors-outdoors texture like supple, vaguely rain forest, vaguely jungly splinter (vine, picnic’s processed straw like a coniferous soup or an evergreen vegetable, all the indeterminate tropicals and periodics of the American breezeway elementals—Adirondackian, Poconosaic, Ramapoaon—spread over good green loaves of lawn, all that luxuriant matter of the undeciduous year), five or six thousand bars of soap.

The thousand-bar point spread is not insignificant. There are men so rich they cannot reckon their true wealth and must wait on probate for even a ballpark figure. I do not really know the extent of my soap collection.

But this ain’t about souvenir. It isn’t even about memento. Proust isn’t in it, or near it—or wasn’t. And if I’m no connoisseur of soap, then neither am I soap’s bag man. His assorted flotsam and jetsam, his cardboard dreck, is for the rainy day—provisional, pointed and purposeful as annuity. It is, I mean, contingent—plan abiding time, tool waiting on emergency. Not like my own two or three hundred pounds of wrapped motel, hotel, airline, railway, and steamer soaps and others, too, some of which I have and some of which I have seen only (from the stately homes of England, royal weddings, the sealed tombs of pharoahs, from all impressive, high-ticket places—the soaps of San Marino like an intimate postage, the Great Wall, soaps of the poles and trade winds) in imagination—equatorial soaps, space soaps, soaps of the jet streams and ocean currents. The stamped soaps of Heaven. The branded soaps of Hell.

I write, you see, more from the grave robber’s viewpoint than the collector’s, more from some spiritual homeopathy than either. Soap’s little miniatures passed out like Halloween candy, soap as superstition, soap as sod and soap as relic. As a piece of my private public record.

Oh, it’s complicated. Here, I think, is how it happened.

My father was a traveling salesman. On his rounds two and three weeks, three and four weeks at a time. Bringing back in the dop kit, like little picture postcards, the house Palmolives and Luxes, their Camays and Lifebuoys. From the Radisson in Minneapolis. From the Milwaukee Pfister. From Grand Rapids and Greencastle, Indiana. What Fargo looked like, what Rapid City did, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids. Views of Springfield, Illinois, and Joplin, Missouri, two and three bars high in the medicine chest. My pop’s soap strictly for use, for blow, not show. Knee-deep in ethics, tutored in the waste-not/want-nots of his sensible prairie territory and ecologicals, my old man never stole a soap he didn’t intend to bathe with. Glimpses of motor courts in Nebraska a bar’s sidebar, never the point. For whom a mile held neither nostalgia nor beauty nor even simple interest, who kept score in a different currency altogether and who would have worried about me if he’d caught me pouring over, like some kid miser, the architecturals of the various hotels, counting the stories, its “fireproof” rooms, the skyline of individual blocks, studying the little cars out front, squinnying the tiny, to-scale, guest populations entering, exiting, the revolving doors on the wrappers. It was quite like examining the drawings on money, or the golden graphics on a package of Camel cigarettes, trademark’s mysterious etchings. Some tropism in me for logo itself. With all the makings but without the knowledge of a stamp collector. This accidental tourist altogether. Who put no stock in baseball cards and had no hobbies. (Though, briefly, when I was seven, I actually did have a stamp collection, a hand-me-down from a college-bound distant cousin who put away childish things and gave not just into my charge but granted me in absolute freehold and fee simple forever her stamp books and catalogues and little waxy envelopes. All of which for a promised but reneged, undelivered quarter from a closer cousin, I tore up, burned, destroyed.) Not even, not yet, the simple hobby of soap.

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Lost and Found: Nathan Knapp on Shohei Ooka

Lost & Found

“Experiencing the sacred is the opposite of being alienated,” wrote Susan Sontag in a 1971 journal entry—yet Sontag knew also that the “‘sacred’ always involved risk of death, annihilation.” Shohei Ooka’s Fires on the Plain (1951) is strung along just such razor wire. A Japanese novel about a troubled young soldier during the darkest days of World War II, the novel seamlessly braids Christian imagery with the nightmarish effects of cannibalism. On the surface, it’s a combination that sounds totally unpalatable, but Fires on the Plain—based in-part on Ooka’s own experiences as a soldier in the Pacific Theater—is a novel of strange and horrifying beauty, deserving to be set on the shelf next to the most necrotic of works by Cormac McCarthy. Though during his life Ooka became one Japan’s most well-respected and admired novelists, his work is almost entirely unknown today in the West.

Tamura, the book’s protagonist and narrator, wanders through the thick jungle and burning plains of Leyte Island in the Philippines, cut off from his fellow soldiers, starving. Forced to forage for whatever food he can, he is invited by a dying officer to partake in the officer’s flesh, presented as sacrament. The annihilation of one being contributes to the life of another, but results in a kind of holy madness.

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It’s just such holy madness that dominates Fires on the Plain. Tamura is followed everywhere he goes by a pair of eyes that may be the eyes of God—and may be the eyes of a hungry killer. A disembodied flame comes to him in the night, quietly driving him toward the holy—or perhaps unholy—madness that marks the rest of the book. “It was not because I was still alive that I clung to the notion of life, but because I was already dead,” he writes in the novel’s early pages. But: “if I no longer belonged to the world, I at least did not have to undertake to kill myself. I smiled with satisfaction.” (This is one of the novel’s more cheerful pairs of sentences.)

I found the novel quite by accident on the shelf of a small bookshop, The Globe Bookstore, on a cloudy day in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. I’d never heard of his work, never seen it in a bookstore. The note from the translator on the copy I found, published in 1967, placed awkwardly on the back cover of the book, claimed it was known as “the most important novel to have come out of the last war,” meaning World War II. Despite the book’s supposed importance, it seemed odd to me that the book’s publisher could not be bothered to update the book’s jacket copy—America had already finished the Korean War and was in the midst of the Vietnam quagmire at the time of the book’s printing. The most recent edition of the book in English, released by the same publisher, came out in 2001.

Finding anything out about Ooka proved to be just as much of a head scratcher. There is precious little biographical material about him available in English. There has been only one book-length English-language study of his work. So much for “the most important” Japanese novel of World War II. (This is certainly not an indictment on the novel itself, but on America’s nearly total ambivalence towards works by non-Western writers.) What I was able to find about him amounted to little more than the short bio contained in my copy of the novel itself, which made it clear that the novel was at least partially based on his own experiences fighting in the Japanese Army in the Philippines near the tail end of the war, and that he’d been captured as a POW.

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Originally published in Japanese in 1957 as Nobi, the book combines the nightmarish mood of McCarthy’s Child of God with the contemplative, oblique darkness of W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. Whereas McCarthy describes the horror of inhumanity in its externally manifested forms—on-page necrophilia, say—and Sebald indirectly underscores the horror of Germany’s past in the subconscious imagery of his narrators, Ooka’s novel does both. Fires on the Plain begins with a sense of oncoming death, segues into the horror of cannibalism and total human deprivation, and culminates in a surreal, perverted religious fervor only matched by the work of Flannery O’Connor. Continue reading

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