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It’s hard to believe that it took Imbolo Mbue three years to find an agent, not only because because her debut novel, Behold The Dreamers, wound up selling for seven figures but because it’s the kind of compelling tale that keeps ratcheting up the drama and tension until the last page. In the novel, a struggling Cameroonian immigrant couple, the Jongas, become entwined both professionally and personally in the lives of a wealthy Wall St. executive and his family, the Edwards, during the time of the 2008 financial crash. Mbue’s deft storytelling often left me wrong-footed when trying to predict the outcome The author, who hails from the small town in Cameroon town of Limbe (as do her protagonists) and holds an MA from Columbia, has captured the intense sacrifice and determination as well as the anguish and humiliation that some immigrants undergo to achieve the American Dream. The novel ultimately begs the question: Is it worth it?
Jeff Vasishta: Your personal story as a writer is in many ways the American Dream Jende & Neni dream about. Take me through your story – writing the novel and getting a book deal.
Imbolo Mbue: My definition of the American Dream is quite different from Jende and Neni’s—to me it’s more about opportunities to make the most of one’s potential than it is about material/financial success—but like them, I left Limbe, Cameroon for the US, excited about what lay ahead. I went to college and graduate school here, and then got a job in New York, which I lost during the recession. It was while I was unemployed that I went for a walk one day and noticed chauffeurs waiting for executives in front of the Time Warner building in midtown Manhattan. I’d never met anyone in America who had a chauffeur so I was intrigued by what I’d seen. Being that some of the chauffeurs looked like they could be African immigrants, I wondered what the relationship between a white executive and his African immigrant chauffeur might be like, and the different ways the recession might have affected them. I began writing a story about a fictional Lehman Brothers executive and his Cameroonian-immigrant chauffeur and, after several drafts, I started looking for an agent. It took me almost three years to find an agent—she eventually sold the novel to Random House. The journey from getting the inspiration to completing the story was approximately five years.
JV: How did you find your agent? Did the process of trying to find one and the feedback you got change your novel in any way?
IM: I found my agent through a website called Agentquery, a great site with all the relevant info on US-based literary agents, including their contact information, names of some of the authors they represent, and what kinds of manuscripts they’re interested in. Before my agent signed me on, I’d emailed pretty much every agent listed in the database who I thought would be interested in my manuscript, and I’d gotten a mountain of rejections. I must add, however, that the rejections I got weren’t because the agents were dismissive but because the story needed more work. Several agents who read earlier versions of this story were generous with their time and told me why they’d rejected me, while encouraging me to continue writing. So even though the rejections were painful, they forced me to dig deeper and the kind words I received meant a lot to me.
JV: Did you base Jende and Neni in anyone in particular?
IM: No, they were both inspired by various men and women I’d met in Limbe and New York; the challenges they faced as immigrants were inspired by stories told to me by fellow immigrants—friends and acquaintances as well as strangers whose names and faces I’ll probably never remember, but to whom I’ll always be indebted.
JV: Neni is so interesting because on one hand she has the guts and determination to do something quite profound and outrageous, but ultimately she obeys her husband even when he is categorically in the wrong. As she says in the novel, she is not an American wife. She still gives her husband respect and makes it a point not to damage his pride, even in the most trying circumstances. How did you craft her character development?
IM: She is indeed an interesting character, and probably the easiest of the four main characters for me to develop, because I grew up around women like her—tough, opinionated women who were unafraid of saying what they wanted to say or doing what they needed to do for their families, and yet, they recognized that their husbands had the final say. I also thought about immigrant women I’d met in America—women who worked long hours while going to school and/or raising children, all so they could take advantage of the opportunities America was offering them. Considering their determination to achieve the American Dream for their own sake and the sake of their children, they were willing to do whatever they had to do to get past obstacles standing in their way. Maybe they didn’t exactly do things like what Neni did but they still had to be undaunted when faced with tough choices.
JV: Without giving anything away, you steered clear of clichés about white employers and employees who are people of color– i.e., the white savior story. Did you toil over the ending or always have that outcome in your mind?
IM: No, I didn’t toil over the end—it appeared to me very clearly from the very first draft and even though I did dozens of revisions, the story always ended the same way.
JV: One of the Jongas’ most admirable qualities is their ability to save money, which is something many immigrants, particularly the older generation, certainly my own mother, was very good at. Alas I am not. Are you a good saver? Do you think the younger generation of immigrants, moving into such a consumerist world, have kept those traditions?
IM: You’re the first person to mention the Jongas saving skills to me—thank you. Yes, like your mother, they’re are good savers, and thankfully, so am I. I’ve never been much of a spender so saving comes quite easily to me. I also believe in living as debt-free a life as possible, and I actually haven’t owned a credit card in over a dozen years. Still, I recognize it’s not easy to be a saver in a culture where one is constantly being bombarded with seductive messages about things to buy—things which will supposedly bring happiness. Considering how loud and prevalent these messages are, it is understandable how children of immigrants might not value saving as much as their parents. That notwithstanding, I believe it’s not only a consumerist culture that makes it hard for the younger generation of immigrants to save but the challenges of making ends meet. I imagine there are thousands of hard-working young people who’d love to save and live a debt-free life but can’t because low salaries, massive student loans, high cost of housing, and the concentration of most of the country’s wealth in the hands of a tiny minority make it difficult for them to have any money left at the end of the month.
JV: Immigrant novels tend to show how hard the struggle is in a new country but yours also has a twist in that it depicts the opulence and dysfunction of the Edwards as well. But it’s nuanced, I find. The Edwards kids redeem the family. There was no motive behind their friendship with the Jongas, no class barriers. Cindy was the only one who usurped her perceived power. I almost felt sorry for Clarke.
IM: I was interested in examining both sides of the American Dream—those striving to achieve it and those who’d already achieved it and were equally striving to hold unto it. These pursuits take a toll on both families in the novel, as it does on countless families in America, regardless of which side of the Dream they’re on. In addition to their struggles, the Edwardses and the Jongas are also interdependent on each other and this gives the characters powers over one another, powers which they wield differently to keep their dreams alive.
JV: Unlike the Jongas, though, Cindy Edwards seems to wield a certain power of her husband. He acquiesces to her concerning terminating Jende’s employment in a way that I couldn’t imagine him doing if the roles were reversed. Clarke seems to be ultimately a weak person.
IM: Indeed. There is marked difference in the kind of husbands Jende and Clark are—the power they exude out in the world and the power they exude in their homes is different, and I can completely see why you think Clark is a weak person considering the fact that at home he’s not the powerful man he is at Lehman. Then again, is Jende any less weak considering some of his actions? Their wives, on the other hand, make the best of their limited powers and there is something to be said for that.
JV: Are you turning into a celebrity back in Cameroon and Limbe? There must be a big buzz on the novel? Have you been back recently?
IM: A celebrity? Ha ha, hardly. I haven’t been back to Limbe recently but I imagine that, thanks to the Internet, a few people there have heard that someone in America wrote a book about a family from Limbe. The book hasn’t been published in Cameroon so most book-lovers there know nothing about it, though, I’m hopeful it will be available there one day—I imagine readers there, particularly in Limbe, will have a singular interpretation of the story.
JV: What is your writing routine like? Are you as hard working as your characters?
IM: I write at the dining table in my living room and I don’t have much of a routine—I write whenever I can string an hour or two together, though I prefer to write when the apartment is quiet. And I certainly think of myself as hardworking. There’s a scene in the novel where Neni is in the living room doing homework from late at night to the early hours of the morning—I, too, stayed up all night, dozens of nights, so I could take advantage of the quiet to work on this story.
Jeff Vasishta started his writing career as a music journalist interviewing legends such as Prince, Beyonce, Dr. Dre and Herbie Hancock for publications such as Billboard, Yahoo.com and The Daily Telegraph. He’s recently written for Rolling Stone, Interview, The Amazon Book Review and, of course, The Open Bar.
Imbolo Mbue is a native of Limbe, Cameroon. She holds a B.S. from Rutgers University and an M.A. from Columbia University. A resident of the United States for over a decade, she lives in New York City.
An optometrist who tortures his clients by giving prescriptions that are slightly off; A prose poem that compares the old Greek men on the local soccer field to Homer’s Greeks, their ancient, tan bodies darting across the green battlefield; A faceless narrator watching a pair on the beach, trying to determine if they are mother and son or a couple; A hotel worker who sees his family every two months, but the story’s language never devolves into sympathy or romanticism; Someone walks into a taxidermy store where there’s a two-headed calf. “How much for one,” she asks. A sweaty man answers, “we’re only selling them together, we can’t break up the band”; A previously uncontacted tribe comes violently out of Latin America’s jungles, carrying babies and spears and the bloated bellies of those who live off the land; An alternative history of language in which women own everything; A story that opens up a hand that reaches out to caress the reader, then gives one, vigorous slap à la Williams. Of these, the story of The Girl is the most sustainable, because of its arc, though I’ve spoiled it already. She dies. Just today a jogger’s body was found in the marshes, her underwear pulled down, handprints like ligatures around her neck. It’s unrelated to The Girl’s Killer, except in all the ways that it is the same crime, with different details, a shade lighter or darker, a curled tendril or long wave, the same dead eyes—regardless of color—now look up at the metal sky of a morgue drawer, which is not unlike our sky, dimmed as it is by all the excess light that drowns out whatever luminous corpses might turn a pitiful eye toward us.
Adrianne Bonilla is a graduate student at Columbia, where she won the Henfield Prize in Fiction for an excerpt from her novel Astral Cemetery.
Consider your donut loyalties. Consider a donut’s ideal shape and weight; consider ideal donut density.
Jelly-filled. Crème. Traditional hoop versus the donut hole. Donut rebels: cronut or cruller.
Myself, I advocate the classic glazed, but my loyalties here run deeper than mere tastebuds. I am, perhaps, blinded by a particular allegiance.
When my family first moved to Winston-Salem, my mother pacified us three kids with Krispy Kreme.
We’d been living in a small New England town for a decade, and now we were trundling south to Carolina, where suspiciously happy strangers asked after our church, where they didn’t have snowplows or a major league baseball team, where the lawns stayed greenish and bare into December. Jesus smiled benevolently down from billboards. Empty Skoal containers dotted the parking lot.
I was 15 and petulant. The Hot Now sign glowed off of Stratford Road.
Ushered inside, my brothers and I stood obedient in the palace of sweets. Solemnly, we placed the paper Krispy Kreme hats upon our heads.
Before us, clusters of doughy rings plopped into a shimmering bath of oil. They glowed under the fluorescence of the store. The rings floated along into the mechanical flipper, and on the other side, they came out golden, fried and beautiful. Like the gentle, corpulent attendants of a log flume ride, they bobbed drowsily forward until a metal rack lifted them out to dry land. They traveled along the belt, cooling, until they got to the heart of the process, the Kreme that followed the Krisping.
The glaze waterfall: thick, white, uniform. It appeared soft and curiously quilt-like. The donuts disappeared into it, and appeared again blessed, baptized in frosting. They travelled a couple more yards, cooling further to optimum donut temperature, until an employee delicately lifted three donuts and placed them in polka dotted wax paper to hand to us kids, bewildered, transplanted, transfixed by sugar: we three devoured.
The Tin House Summer Workshop is known for its lectures: brilliant, practical craft talks that hone our writerly chops and make us hungry to work. In this same spirit, Tin House’s Brooklyn outpost is proud to offer Tin House Craft Intensives, a series of afternoon workshops focused on facets of craft and led by Tin House editors and writers. Less lecture and more laboratory, the intensives combine close reading, discussion, and in-class writing to offer a potent dose of inspiration and explore what makes writing work when it works.
Join us! We’re thrilled to offer classes the following classes this fall:
Oct. 23rd – Setting the Clock: Manipulating Past, Present, and Pace in Fiction, with Pamela Erens
Nov. 6th – Eternal Structure of the Spotless Story, with Marie-Helene Bertino
Nov. 13th – Literary Swagger: On Crafting Unforgettable Characters, with Naomi Jackson
Nov. 20th – Rebuilding the World–On the Page, with Leigh Newman
Find full details and apply here.
Stuck In A Ball
Think of the rivers of blood, spilled by all those generals and emperors,
so that in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters,
of a fraction, of a dot. – Carl Sagan
If you want to feel really small you think of Carl and his photograph
taking one last peek at Earth before entering bottomless skies.
If you begin to read of galaxy filaments you could wind up so cloudy
you’d rip the cord from your desk and take a walk outside
to catch the last of the sun nesting down below the rim.
With each step taken on your city block you start to swell.
A house sparrow tucking in nods at your largeness.
Rectangles of light form a quilt to cover buildings and you know each
one to be an envelope holding people and pets and worn linen and boards.
You could look in each direction and settle on up, on Carl’s sky
to realize you might need to undo a button or two, you’ve grown so thick
now fastened to this city, smelling only earthly smells, stuck in this ball.
Becca Lamarre is an Indiana native and a graduate of Ball State University. After a stint in the Adirondack foothills of New York, she landed in Chicago where she is at work on her debut poetry collection. Her work has most recently appeared in Red Rock Review, SunStruck Magazine and Driftwood Press.
zings through the century of a window all day
till dusk, then finds a light bulb to orbit. Yesterday
in the hospital I marveled at the newborns, pink
sacks of time, their faces scrunched with the future’s
weight. Walking outside now, beyond the baled
alfalfa, I gaze up where a comet dashes like a mouse
across the kitchen floor of heaven, and there, just below
the Belt of Orion, the photo-ionized gas of the Trapezium
Cluster glows part red blood cell, part luminous wing.
As we get older each look in the mirror gets farther. “Come
back,” they say. On the third floor of the ward I sat with Lonnie,
head shaved like a monk’s, talking about that pond
in Pennsylvania where we once as lovers swam. Now
I stare and would like to part the glass of this sky’s window.
Mark Irwin is the author of six books of poetry, including Large White House Speaking, Tall If, and Bright Hunger, as well as American Urn: New and Selected Poems. He lives in Colorado, and Los Angeles, where he teaches in the Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature Program at the University of Southern California. He lives in Colorado, and Los Angeles, where he teaches in the Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature Program at the University of Southern California.
When Ahab was an infant his mother would bathe him in seawater. They lived on Nantucket Island, where everybody lives by the sea. This comes from the sea, she said, rinsing him, this is the sea, and he giggled and sucked his fingers. And then his father’s ship came home, overflowing with oil from a famous whaling voyage, and they were rich and together again. That night his parents washed the baby Ahab in sperm oil, slick over a washpail. It was one of those spontaneous and illogical things very happy people sometimes do as a monument to their feeling. It was so wasteful it felt like a ritual: candlelight and Ahab’s little nude body covered in a substance worth more than gold, and his mother’s fingers pressing the oil deep into the knee-folds of his chubby thighs and over every baby wrinkle of soft skin, roving with the volitive ownership only available to the fingers of mothers. A soul, she thought to herself, a soul. I have given birth to a soul.
Young Ahab giggled and his father leaned close and said he smelled like the wood barrel they had stored the oil in for the long journey home. And he did, he smelled like lightly charred staves of white oak, and he smelled like the whale. The oil warming on his body had come from the great tun of the whale’s head, and had been, over and over again, to the very bottom of the sea.
He smells of oak, his father said. He is our whale.
There was a long time when neither parent spoke, just looking at their glistening son. Young Ahab cooed in the middle of them, and his father took his own forefinger and poked his son softly over the heart.
Right here, he said, turning to his wife and smiling completely, so in love it made him drunk, right here is where you stick ‘em. There’s your fortune.
Things went on gently like this for a very long time.
Aaron Allen is a recent graduate of Columbia’s MFA and translation program. His manuscript of stories, New Myth, won the State of Utah’s 2015 Original Writing Competition. This is his first publication. He tweets mostly Arrested Development GIFs @aaronisalive
My parents were reasonably on top of the psychological complexities of raising a biracial child in the eighties. Our downstairs neighbor made sure I knew about Tupac and En Vogue by the time I hit adolescence. But I didn’t grow up with my older sister, so there was no black, female presence to monitor my fixations the way I imagine, now that she’s a part of my life, my sister might have done. The four-inch thick orange binder that I filled with magazine images of Kate Moss got a curious grunt from a visiting cousin, but went otherwise ignored.
My subsequent obsession with actresses like Nastassja Kinski and Monica Vitti—let’s face it—rages to this day. Some part of this has to do with the fact that I am attracted to women. But the small black girl ever coming of age inside my heart still holds herself alongside these blondes, their particular brand of beauty blurred with the swoon of appreciation that I feel toward the films in which I first found them—Paris, Texas, Red Desert, L’Avventura. The film lover in me had to shut part of herself down when the nearly naked black acrobats passed a wine glass from one to the other like a circus act in an Italian nightclub in La Notte. And again in L’Eclisse, when Monica Vitti donned blackface—black body— and began prancing around the room, doing her best imitation of Kilimanjaro.
So it was with a mixture of embarrassment and relief that I finally read Tisa Bryant’s Unexplained Presence (2007), a book of prose that infiltrates, reimagines, and gives much needed interiority to the black bodies or black presences that appear as passive, muted or ornamental in European art, literature and film. I claim this book as one I’ve lost and found not because I am encountering it again after a long period of time, but because it fills or speaks to an absence I have long felt, acutely. The book, like one of the characters it revives, “calls out into the Continuum from the fixed boundary of her human life. To all the other unexplained presences living in isolation, living in community, in and out of the kumbla, beyond her ken, beyond Kenwood.”
The genre of this writing is not fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, but it is a celebration of what’s possible within the generous bounds of ekphrasis. Some writings read like a museum placard underneath the title of a piece of ancient art. Others offer a lengthier burst of prose, delineating the goings on of a painting without glossing over, the way our eyes might, the “black page in ornate suiting,” whose presence is highlighted here—altering the tone of everything else about the composition, especially the caption: “Heyday! Is this my daughter Anne?” Longer pieces read like short stories, if short stories were poems that could be projected onto a wall in the form of a silent film while a DJ wove together theory, history and song. In a nod to Roland Barthes, Bryant decides not to include images from any of the works she re-inhabits, “but to instead enter into the foxy realm of myths that images, signs and metaphors create, and to bring you with me.”
The language of every piece manages to replicate the particular style of each aesthetic space it interrogates. When Bryant gets to L’Eclisse, the pause-drenched, black and white cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni emerges in Bryant’s language in all its abstractly intimate, elliptical glory: “You turn the lights on, then off, and darkness deepens, or grays. You hold a black shawl up to your face. You become a swath of darkness with white hands. Anita sighs.” The “you” here is played by none other than Monica Vitti. Her blackface, hip thrust “dance” is bracketed by raised eyebrow quotation marks, and it is interrupted on the page not by the friend who walks in on the performance and stares with judgment, as in the film, but by Bryant’s invention of a “dark silhouette following her, surrounded by walking sticks, bones and jars.” Bryant searches the performance for evidence of a moral center, encouraging us to contemplate just how many layers of ventriloquism are at play: “Is this where Antonioni secrets himself?” she wonders, “Or is this a simple homage to the complexities of Hemingway?” Continue reading
I was signing copies of a new novel in a nearly empty bookstore when my friend Frank obligingly rushed in, shouting, “I need a novel! I need a novel!” I sympathize—I often need novels. At present I seem to need novels about working women with responsibility: women on the job, but not just menials and not just underlings starting out and getting yelled at.
I want a female main character with power. And I want her to do harm, because there’s no story without trouble. A woman in charge in a novel needs a problem—a problem that, if it doesn’t ultimately lead to disaster, might lead to disaster. If she’s the captain of a ship, it will almost sink—or it will sink—in part because she makes a mistake. If she’s the owner of a factory, it will almost go under—or go under—after she makes the wrong decision, or takes an exciting but reckless chance, or heroically makes an ethical choice that’s so expensive it puts her out of business.
I want her responsible, powerful—and complicated. Flawed. Maybe too distracted by her personal life—by sex, family, love—to make the right decision every time. Or maybe she thrives at work, but something else suffers. Moreover, I want this powerful woman to be the character with whom we identify. I want an equivocal ending for this book that I want to read (or write)—an ending we can argue about.
In a story centering on love, friendship, or family life, work may be little more than a convenience for the author, without much importance to the plot. Work—performed by a man or a woman—gives a novelist a place to send characters when the story needs them gone: a secret is told while someone works late at the office; an affair starts when a spouse is away on a business trip; a teenager gets into trouble while her parents are distracted by their jobs. Novels in which work is background are not hard to find.
But what about books in which work is at the center, in which work causes problems, provides solutions, threatens the solutions, and is part of the resolution? What about books in which the traits that make a protagonist successful—in work and in life—also make that protagonist fail, or almost fail? Good novels about work may describe an activity that’s narrow and specific, with its own jargon, but they have universal relevance. For centuries writers like Dickens, Melville, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Malamud, Updike, and Roth have written books about men with responsibility, in which work life and private life intertwine to bring about tragedy or triumph: books in which men are tested in war or business or farming or money-making as well as in private life. But books like that about women are still hard to find. The nineteenth-century British novelist George Gissing wrote The Odd Women about women in charge of a business (training women to be secretaries, though men had held those jobs before) but the newness and rarity of the main characters’ responsibility is the point.
Of course, during most of the period in which novels have been written, men have held the responsible jobs. But if, these days, a female secretary of state can run for president, can’t somebody write a serious novel about a female secretary of state who runs for president? Continue reading
Minnesotan Association of Rogue Taxidermists
We’ve all had to confront our chimeras
and give them life.
If not life, a voice.
If not voice, a body more true
to their 1-3 immortal soul(s).
Only we can take the garter snake and
recognize the hydra in its separate skins.
You think it’s roadkill
but we can hear it—
deliver us from evil.
How bodies come together!
The cat runs away three times
and returns still with seashells
another tail to keep it company
as wild as our imagination, as free.
Ryan Dzelzkalns has work appearing or forthcoming with Assaracus, DIAGRAM, The Offing, Rattle, Waxwing and others. He completed a BA at Macalester College where he received the Wendy Parrish Poetry Award and an MFA at NYU. He works for the Academy of American Poets and is the tallest man in New York.
Cross-legged on the sidewalk of Rustaveli Avenue, a teenager in a Jim Morrison t-shirt strums his guitar. On a window of the Entreé cafe a peeling tourist advertisement reads, “Tbilisi: The city that loves you.” Pink heels rush past a Roma toddler who sleeps beside a bowl half full of tetri coins, undisturbed by the vendors haggling over metalware, jewelry, portraits of Marilyn Monroe. In Freedom Square I give a line of Georgian script to a taxi driver who nods and starts his car. We speed through Merab Kostava, past the Ilia State University, down Dimitri Arakishvili. As the taxi drives away I walk up the steps to the final stop on my journey, the Eliava Institute.
I had come to Tbilisi to conduct graduate research on the history of medicine. Some medical treatments succeeded in the Soviet Union but failed in America in the early 19th century, and I wanted to know why. I interviewed researchers, sifted through old Russian papers and textbooks, talked to patients. And yet, I didn’t feel completely satisfied by what I learned. It wasn’t until I came home that I found the answer to my question in an unexpected place: American literature. In the 1925 novel Arrowsmith, Sinclair Lewis fictionalizes a contemporary scientific discovery in his story of a scientist who discovers “phage therapy,” a treatment that can be used as an alternative to antibiotics. This same treatment has been at the center of the Eliava Institute’s research for nearly a century.
In reading Arrowsmith, I found myself picturing Lewis’s scenes in a Georgian setting. When I read his description of a phage laboratory, I remembered white-coated Georgian researchers bending over microscopes and test tubes. When Dr. Martin Arrowsmith treats a plague-stricken population, I thought of the epidemiologists who travel across the Georgian countryside to vaccinate nomadic farmers. I felt like I was looking through a kaleidoscope – every time I added a piece of Arrowsmith to the science I’d seen in Tbilisi, I watched as shapes and colors coalesced into new patterns I hadn’t considered before. I had always thought of science and literature as parallel disciplines, since they both examine the world and our place in it, but I hadn’t realized how much their intersection could teach us.
Even before Georgia and Arrowsmith, I insisted on studying the arts and sciences in tandem. In my last semester as an undergrad, I had a Renaissance drama seminar that ended ten minutes before my infectious disease lecture began. (Between the two, I learned more about syphilis than I imagine anyone really needs to know.) I felt divided between the two disciplines, so I turned to my Latin classes (yes, another instance of my lifelong dedication to practicality) to see if I could tease out the origins of this division. The root of the word “science” is the Latin verb “scire,” which means “to know.” In my science courses, I felt distinctly that my professors considered science to be a search for knowledge untainted by the cultural trends and human passions that plagued the humanities and so disqualified them from the pursuit of truth. “Literature,” conversely, comes from the Latin “litera,” or “alphabetic letter, writing.” From literature classes and discussions, I was taught that words are, in fact, ideas, representations of our perception. Words link us together in the present, and they allow us to study ideas of the past. Words are the closest thing we have to understanding ourselves and each other, and reducing the ideas they express to biological pathways and chemical equations disregards creativity, passion, beauty.
Given my own experience with intellectual division, I was able to empathize with Dr. Arrowsmith, who spent his college years struggling between two modes of intellectual inquiry. He was at once encouraged to pursue truth in the “pure,” disinterested investigation of a research scientist and told that the “applied” work of a doctor was in fact a more honorable pursuit. He began his career as an idealistic medical student but, alas, was stricken by the one truly incurable malady – love. Marriage prompted practicality, and Arrowsmith spent years working as a doctor and public health official. He eventually returned to research and developed phage therapy, a treatment that uses bacteriophage (a virus that kills bacteria) to treat human bacterial infections. In this therapy, bacteriophage samples are collected from the environment and applied to the bacteria present in a given infection (e.g., a staph infection, salmonella, E. coli). Phages that work against the bacteria are combined in what is known as a “phage cocktail,” a collection of effective phages that is frequently updated as bacteria evolve. This cocktail can be consumed orally or even directly applied to an open wound.
Throughout his research in phage therapy, Arrowsmith struggled to reconcile his idea of “pure” research with the public image of science. He was committed to understanding the biological underpinnings of phage therapy, but he was also under pressure to commercialize this therapy in order to bring in grants and public acclaim for his research institution. This is no less of an issue today, as John Oliver recently emphasized when he discussed the inconsistency of scientific reports delivered to the public. For example, one such report claims that coffee can cure cancer; another claims it might kill you. Science is always changing, but consumers want absolutes, products, prescriptions. Arrowsmith is instructed to use phage therapy before he really understands how it works; his superiors tell him to think of the good he could do, the money he would make. Likewise, in the early 20th century, prominent American pharmaceutical companies such as Eli Lilly produced phage therapy and marketed it as a revolutionary panacea. But they were selling promises – in reality, their products rarely (if ever) effectively treated infections. Like the institutions in Arrowsmith, companies sold phage before they understood it. Given both this premature marketing and the advent of antibiotics, phage ultimately disappeared from American medicine. Continue reading
We’d been playing pretend for almost a year and he still wouldn’t go back to his life. Meade wouldn’t acknowledge he had another life at all, though he’d bring me into it in ways, mentioning how Cole seemed to like me, driving me by the ranch where he and Cole and his wife had lived before the great domestic unraveling. Testing, I suppose, fantasizing—feeling at the edges to see how I might be assimilated into his greater life.
Meade was cleaning out my apartment cabinets and making lists of domestic goods he thought I needed. I found his possessiveness comforting, though I admitted that to no one.
He said, “You need paper towels.”
I said, “You have a wife who may or may not actually want a divorce.”
He touched his ear with his thumb, just the quickest gesture. I prided myself on being able to recognize his myriad ticks. He could have been brushing away a fruit fly, for whatever I didn’t have, I had fruit flies. We’d tossed all the produce weeks ago, and the flies still rose from the dark when we opened a drawer for a fork. A friend said to fill a mason jar an inch full with vinegar then make a funnel from a sheet of paper and slide the funnel into the jar. This paper chute was supposed to steer the flies to an acidic death. We’d filled the jar and it had sat on the counter for a week next to a piece of plain white paper. Neither of us seemed able to roll and insert the killing device.
Meade said, “You also need aluminum foil. Then we could save leftovers when we cook.”
It happened like that a lot—something I needed subtly moved into something for both of us.
“And a son,” I said. “You have a maybe wife and a son.”
“New dishtowels, too,” he said.
“Meade,” I said. The room was too quiet. I wished fruit flies made noise, like the blood-sluggish horse flies Meade had pointed out when he drove me to his ranch because he wanted to show me where he’d come from. “Where I’ll probably always be,” he’d said and ground a cigarette out in the gravel, got quiet under his moment of self-pity. I don’t think he’d had anything in mind but to show me that road and that house and let me feel that wind and see those rocky pastures after months meshed together on my floor and in my bed.
Cole would be getting out of school soon. He was the first one picked up in the mornings and the last one dropped off in the afternoons, and the bus ride home was nearly an hour long. That was one of about five facts Cole had shared with me the one time we’d met. Meade had called me at work and said, “Come to the Perkins up the highway for lunch. I got a surprise.” The surprise turned out to be an eleven year old boy, shaggy blond hair squirting out from below a Colorado Rockies cap, drinking a Cherry Coke through a straw, and looking very little like his father, whose face and body I knew well—the small brown eyes edged at their corners with crow’s feet, the acne scars along his shoulders, the ankle he’d dislocated twice being thrown from the same horse and which popped when he stood up, the huge calloused hands.
Cole had told me the ride wasn’t so bad in the afternoons. He enjoyed watching the other kids climb off the bus, liked waiting to see if they’d run up to their houses or skulk back with their heads hang-dog low, dreading it all.
In January and February, Meade drove the half-mile down to the head of the ranch road to meet the bus. “I walk it in December and March,” Cole had said. “December and March aren’t really winter. Dad says they’re like the preamble and the postscript.” I knew Meade was imagining me sitting beside him in the cab this winter, waiting at the end of a dead gravel road for a boy who was not my own.
“Meade,” I said, “I have to go to work.”
He closed the kitchen drawer and looked up at the window. We could see the brick side of St. Anthony’s with its red and gold stained glass windows. The clock on the church’s steeple face had been broken for two weeks now, and we’d spent a lot of afternoons speculating about when men would come with scaffolding to fix time. This was in between talking about when it would snow. Talking about that seemed easy still. Meade said it always snowed a little in October in Montana.
“I’m saying what if I don’t want all that,” I said.
He opened a cabinet and said, “It doesn’t change its being there.”
Then I walked out of the apartment, leaving Meade with the fruit flies and the view of St. Anthony’s. I was going to walk until my feet felt as cold as Cole’s stomping down that ranch road in December and March. And when I got home, I knew I’d find Meade on the thick brown rug in the living room with his feet up on the couch. Sometimes he was so much like a confused boy that I couldn’t look away from him.
Greg Brown‘s fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Epoch, and Narrative Magazine, among others. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he lives in western Maine with his daughter and his partner and is working on a novel about family mythology, Penobscot Bay, native river rights, and a territorial lobstering feud.
We had a book. And in the book, there were hundreds of pictures of the Civil War. The book was heavy and cool as a rock. When we were both eleven we held it between us, the left side would fall on his lap and the right on mine. We shared it slowly, gravely. Whenever our families got together, we opened the book.
In 1863, in a section of overgrown farmland that had been worked dead and then abandoned, two great armies met in tangled willows and thick pine. They bumped into each other, like blind men, before radios, or satellite, or even accurate maps. They killed each other with their hands, or shot into the wilderness, hoping to hit something they couldn’t see. Wild pigs ate the dead and wounded in the night. From outside of the wilderness, in their camps in the cleared fields, the men heard screams all night.
A year of war passed. Moving in circles and turn-around the armies returned. The rotten ground stood again between them. This time, they turned up the bones of last year’s dead. After the fighting and charging, sometime in the night, a fire started. First low, in the dense leaves and brush, then running up the trees like a flag up a mast. And again, sitting in their tents, with the wilderness like a black sea between them, the armies listened to the screams of the men they couldn’t save as the fire moved through them and spread both ways outward. In one picture from the morning after the battle there are bones and ashes.
We loved the photograph of the burned bodies under the burnt trees. I think we knew that it was horrible. What we were doing was wrong, or it felt that way. The book sat openly on the shelves, but when we read it together, we hid. Or maybe it was because under the dead weight of the cover, half on my lap, half on his, our legs touched from thigh to calf and charged me like rubbing my feet on the carpet. I could feel him move against me as we flipped through picture after picture, pointing out the bones, the bones, the bodies.
We used to hide out by the northeast corner of his house, where it was always cold and in shadow. The woods came right up to the clapboard there, the blackberries and birch spilling over the stone wall like waves, rising back into the dark pines and up into the sugar bush. If I think of him at eleven, he slips away over the stone wall like one of the family’s cats, and I can watch his white blond hair fade away into the darkness like a white tail running, into the wild places where it is easy to lose your way.
Megan Baxter is a MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Originally from New Hampshire, she is currently living in South Carolina. Most recently her essays have appeared in Carte Blanche and The 3288 Review. Megan is working on a memoir and a collection of linked lyric essays. She received her BFA from Goddard College and is a graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy.
Translated from the Ukrainian by Alan Zhukovski
Birds cry. Fishes’ eyes
Are filled with tears.
after the flood
we listened attentively
to fishes’ tongueless
through the lines
of gelid water
the fishes swam above
our sunken ships
and we observed
the gently swinging
fixed to their eyes
Serhiy Zhadan (born 1974) is a Ukrainian poet, novelist, and short story writer. English translations of his poetry and articles about him have appeared in The New Yorker, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poetry International, Asymptote, The Wolf, and elsewhere. He has received the Joseph Conrad-Korzeniowski Literary Award, the Angelus Central European Literature Award, the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature, the Hubert Burda Prize, the BBC Ukrainian Book of the Year Award, and the Brücke Berlin Prize.
“You’re like a radiant corpse,” she said to the man in her bed. She had wanted to say it for days.
“I know,” he said brightly, looking up from his book. He was older than she was. “I get exhausted,” he explained. “I really do. But then I get excited.”
“Then you forget your body,” she added.
“I really do,” he smiled.
“You’ll be on your deathbed,” she said. “And then you’ll get excited.”
“And then I’ll live for ten more years,” he said, returning to his book.
She chucked her head back with a laugh. “You’ll be like, I forgot to die.”
He laughed too. He liked her cavalier attitude toward death— his death. Perversely it relaxed him.
She moved the sheet off her naked chest and wanted to kiss him but instead stared, which felt tantric—a slow burn.
He didn’t mind being stared at. He felt the measured heat of her gaze and soaked it up like sunshine. Being loved—it was exactly like being at the beach. She was the sun and the ocean and the hot sand too, enclosing him in airy pressure.
She went on staring with her head on its side. She could tell he hadn’t been handsome as a younger guy. But age had pushed his face into another dimension. He was handsome now. It was so often like this for funny-looking young men, she thought. Funny looked better later—rotting.
And it was just the opposite for baby-faced heartbreakers. They aged into ugly guys, she thought. All of them did. Because their perfect soft beauty wore down and all you could see was that it was gone. They age like women . . . old peaches, she thought, smiling wide.
He wasn’t looking at her but he could hear the wet sound of her teeth being revealed. It was like a wolf breaking out of a child’s face.
“Tell me about acid,” she said because she’d never done it. She really wanted to but feared the things she’d do, slice her arm open or just stare into the mirror and into herself, going permanently insane.
“I already did.”
“Tell me again. Tell me about looking at money.”
“Well I remember looking at a dollar—the pyramid. It seemed like a religion.” He set his book down. “This one guy who wasn’t tripping—he was leading us—he decided we should eat pizza. And it was the kind of pizza with bubbles—you know, like airholes. So it looked like it was happening in front of us.”
“Happening in front of you?”
“When you’re tripping nothing is still so it wasn’t just a pizza that had a few bubbles—it was like it was bubbling right there. Like it was the surface of Mars blowing up. And you would no more think about eating this thing than you would think about throwing your face down on lava and licking. It was the craziest thought in the world. So we were like scared children and of course this guy was laughing.”
She smiled giddily, loving the story and his face as he told it. And she knew it was a kind of sickness, how she fell so hard and wore her weird heart on her sleeve like a little hungry roach. “I love that you did so many drugs,” she said and felt like a moron. What she meant was “I love you.”
“I never wanted to be anything,” he said. “I just wanted to feel good.”
She nodded and thought to herself that he was still living that life.
“I was a pleasure kid,” he said.
She smiled. “I don’t know if I am.”
“I think you are.”
“I might be a masochist.”
“No.” He shook his head as if to say that he had fucked many young masochists and was therefore an expert. “You like to feel good,” he commented.
She lay there and considered her own existence, coating and enslaving her. Did she like to feel good? Sure. Good and then blank. She loved this man and would soon feel nothing for him. Even in the heat of her love she could feel the devil peering, waiting to enter her. The devil is blankness, she thought, hating what she contained. It was why she didn’t want to do acid. Evil was too close. It lived in her cells and yearned to sing. Continue reading
From Issue 66
Ode to the Tampon
white-jacketed worker who clears the table
prepared for the feast which goes uneaten;
hospital orderly; straitjacket
which takes into its folded wings
the spirit of the uncapturable one;
dry dock for the boat not taken;
seeker of the red light of stars
which have ceased to be before we see them;
unhonored one; undertaker;
you who in the cross-section diagram,
before the eyes of a girl child,
glide into potential space,
out of the second-stage rocket’s cardboard cylinder,
up beyond the atmosphere,
where no one has gone before;
you who began life as a seed in the earth,
you who blossomed into the air like steam from a whale’s blowhole,
you who were compressed into a dense calyx,
nib which dips into a forty-year river;
mute calligrapher—we write you here.
Sharon Olds is author to 12 collections of poetry and holds numerous honors including a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. Her most recent collection, Stag’s Leap, was the recipient of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the T. S. Eliot Prize. She was New York state poet laureate from 1998 to 2000 and currently teaches for New York University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program.
If you walked into that house you’d think you’ve just walked out of it. It always smells like toast. Toast and fertilizer. There are a lot of green plants around but none of them are alive, unless you believe plastic breathes, and the man in there does. He does tai chi after breakfast every morning but calls it yoga. If you saw it you’d call it dancing. There’s nothing blue in the house because the woman in there thinks blue should only be for the sky. After you arrive she’ll decide to live in the backyard with the stacks of half-melted records. Lots of reggae. No soul. You’ll want to ask her, what about the blues, but I wouldn’t. There are no bedrooms in the house, only closets, and the closets all have porcelain white sinks. Water’s everywhere, mold like bruises on the ceilings, and yet when you ask, they’ll say they’ve never made toast. Soon you might think you’ve never made toast. Don’t worry, that’s normal. The kitchen is pink. The kitchen is also yellow. This will make sense when you’re there. You should open the refrigerator. There’ll be a small girl in there with purple eyes and gold teeth. Crack a joke and she might smile, but she almost never does. The man and the woman know she’s there and they won’t talk about her if you ask. Don’t touch the girl. Just watch her. She’ll count off her fingers. Her fingers will be so large, so swollen, and you won’t know her name. You don’t need to. Her hands are covered in something that looks like black paint but it isn’t. You’ll wonder if she’s cold, if you’re cold. You’ll wonder how long she stays in there. Again, this is normal. There’ll be eggs and apples in the fridge with her, but that doesn’t matter unless you’re hungry. I’d only eat an apple if I were you. An orange one. The girl will show you the number when she’s done, her fingers dark and sticky. The number will be higher than you think and it’ll follow you around the house like a song. The woman will start to talk in circles in the yard. It’ll sound like coughing. You should nod if she ever looks at you. There isn’t a working record player but the man always dances. Like most things you’ll hate it but watch it anyway. In the house, the nights are like days, like a windowless room with florescent lights, and you won’t be able to sleep. You’ll wonder if the light ever turns off in the fridge, you’ll forget which of the sinks work. Days slip by like overripe bananas. It’ll finally happen over dinner. You’ll realize the man’s eyes are purple, that you’ve never seen the woman smile. The dinner will be eggs. Remember, only an apple. You won’t be able to look at them after this, so look at the table. Think of all of people and places you’ve forgotten. Quietly, in unison, they’ll ask you for the number. If you remember it, they’ll let you leave, and when you do, you’ll realize how long it’s been, how blue.
Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate at Louisiana State University. This is her first publication.
At first the ladybugs were pests. I crushed them between squares of toilet paper. I clung to their mummied bodies with uneasy fingers. I learned to dread their metallic smell, and the eerie weightlessness of their shells. I joked that my apartment was the land of single ladies, and planned to dress as one for Halloween, because ladybugs were all I could see.
Then they became my roommates. But they were roommates I’d found on Craigslist, strangers with whom I happened to share a kitchen and a shower. I began to notice the kinds of things you notice only about people and bugs that you live with. The way they lingered on bathroom tiles and stray receipts, drawn to the color white. How rarely they interacted with one another, and how, if they did, they huddled in corners or paused mid-wander, butt-to-butt, at ninety degrees. The way one black wing looks when it licks out from under the shell, so thin at the filigreed tip it is gray. I decided the darker, more densely spotted ones were the wives.
I became adept at handling their carcasses: I was a ladybird cemetery attendant, the caretaker of a graveyard that happened also to be my home. I learned to use the flat, ridged side of the body as a grip, since putting too much pressure on the glossy shell would cause the insect to slip. I learned to regulate my body’s reaction to the hint of slip before the full slip, which if I didn’t steel myself would make me think the bug had reanimated, alive.
Now I greet them when I come home—“Hey, guys!”—in the same voice I use to greet chin hairs before I pluck them, each wiry time they arise. It was easier than I thought it would be to transpose the letters of pest, to begin to think of the ladies as my pets. I didn’t know what they ate (yet). I didn’t know how they reproduced, or how long they’d been alive (two years, maybe three) when I lay them on the surface of my toilet’s water and counted them before flushing them away. I didn’t know if the black spots on my ceiling were their feces, my mold, or their eggs. But my vacuum cleaner exhaled the musk of their bodies every time I turned it on. “How did an apple seed get in here?” was my benign thought when finally one showed up in my mouth. “Tickles”—when, driving on the highway, I realized a harlequin ladybird was roaming inside the warm toe of my sock. “How sweet!” the time I watched one use its snout to steer a friend’s corpse round my sink. And if you tell me that ladybugs eat other, peskier bugs, I will react with smug satisfaction: of course they do, those old maids, my little skunks. They dot my floor like pimples, and pimples can be sexy.
Helen Betya Rubinstein‘s essays have recently appeared in Parcel, STORY, Okey-Panky, The Millions, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. She lives in Mount Vernon, Iowa.
Now that we have said a tearful goodbye to our Portland summer campers, we wanted to take a moment to acknowledge those writers who were the recipients of a 2016 Tin House Scholarship. We could not be more excited by the pages they shared with us, as well as the work yet to come. So proud to add them to our scholar marquee.
Carson Beker is a writer, playwright, storyteller, and actor with an MFA and MA from SFSU. She is the co-founder of The Escapery, an SF Bay Writing Unschool and has also taught creative writing at San Francisco State University. She is the former Fiction Editor of Fourteen Hills. Her work has appeared in Gigantic Sequins, Sparkle + Blink, Transfer Magazine, and Bourbon Penn, her plays have been at the San Francisco Olympians Festival and at Z Space. She’ll be a 2016 Lamdba Literary Resident in Fiction.
Jennifer Croft is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, and National Endowment for the Arts grants, as well as the Michael Henry Heim Prize, and her translations from Polish, Spanish, and Ukrainian have appeared in The New York Times, n+1, Electric Literature, BOMB, Guernica, The New Republic and elsewhere. She holds a PhD from Northwestern University and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She is a Founding Editor of The Buenos Aires Review. Read illustrated chapters of her novel—in a wide range of languages—at homesickbook.space.
M. V. Fierce was born in Moscow four years before the Soviet Union collapsed. Her childhood consisted of wearing giant bows in her hair, eating borscht, and visiting Lenin in the Red Square mausoleum on school field trips. She now writes short stories in Toronto, Canada. She was on the longlist for both the 2015 and the 2016 CBC short story prize.
Gabriel Houck is originally from New Orleans, where his family still lives. He holds MFAs in writing from California Institute of the Arts and from the University of Iowa, and is currently a PhD candidate and Maude Hammond Fling Fellow at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s creative writing program. His story, “When the Time Came,” was selected as a distinguished story in the 2015 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by T.C. Boyle, and his writing appears in journals such as Mid American Review, Western Humanities Review, Grist, PANK, Moon City Review, The Adirondack Review, Fourteen Hills, Lunch Ticket, and The Pinch. His fiction has also won Mid American Review’s 2014 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize, and has earned finalist honors in StoryQuarterly’s 2014 Fiction Prize, among others.
Dennis Norris II is a graduate of Haverford College and holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. His writing has appeared in Bound Off: An Online Literary Audio Magazine and Madcap Review. In 2015 he was named a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and has previously won awards and fellowships from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, VONA, and the NYS Summer Writers Institute. He lives in Harlem and is hard at work on a novel.
Olaniyi Omiwale was born in Lagos, Nigeria. He shares his birthday with Fela Kuti, the late Afrobeat pioneer. His favorite writers include Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe— both of whom he cursorily read in his childhood but rediscovered with renewed interest in his youth. Olaniyi was also a participating writer at the 2015 Yale Writers’ Conference.
Cam Terwilliger’s fiction and narrative journalism can be found online in American Short Fiction, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and Narrative, where he was named one of Narrative’s “15 Under 30.” In print, his writing appears in West Branch, Post Road, and Gettysburg Review, among others. His work has been supported by fellowships and scholarships from the Fulbright Program, the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts.
Leila Chatti is Tunisian-American dual citizen, who has lived in the United States, Tunisia, and Southern France. She received her M.F.A. in poetry from North Carolina State University, where she was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize. Her work appears in Best New Poets 2015, Boston Review, North American Review, Narrative, Missouri Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, and other journals and anthologies, and she serves on the poetry staff at The Adroit Journal. She currently lives with her partner Henrik and their cat in West Bloomfield, Michigan, and will be heading to the Fine Arts Work Center as a writing fellow this fall.
Diana Khoi Nguyen is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Denver. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Poetry, American Poetry Review,PEN America, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere.
Tommy “Teebs” Pico is author of the chapbook app absentMINDR (VERBALVISUAL, 2014), the books IRL (Birds, LLC, 2016), Nature Poem (forthcoming 2017 from Tin House Books), and the zine series Hey, Teebs. He was the founder and editor in chief of birdsong, an antiracist/queer-positive collective, small press, and zine that published art and writing from 2008-2013. He was a Queer/Art/Mentors inaugural fellow, 2013 Lambda Literary fellow in poetry, 2016 Tin House summer poetry scholar, was longlisted for Cosmonauts Avenue’s inaugural poetry prize (judged by Claudia Rankine), and has poems in BOMB, Guernica, the Offing, and elsewhere. Originally from the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay nation, he now lives in Brooklyn.
Danielle Bainbridge graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012 with a B.A. in English and Theatre Arts, Cum Laude. Danielle’s past research has included comparative work on African American and Caribbean theatre. She is currently pursuing a joint degree at Yale University in African-American Studies and American Studies and the certificate in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies. Her creative non-fiction has been published in Moko Magazine and Killens Review of Arts & Letters.
Sarah Gerard is the author of the novel Binary Star (Two Dollar Radio), the forthcoming essay collection Sunshine State (Harper Perennial), and two chapbooks, most recently BFF (Guillotine). Her short stories, essays, interviews, and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Granta, New York Magazine‘s “The Cut”, The Paris Review Daily, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Bookforum, Joyland, Vice, BOMB Magazine, and other journals, as well as anthologies for Joyland and The Saturday Evening Post. She’s been supported by fellowships and residencies from Yaddo and PlatteForum. She writes a monthly column on artists’ notebooks for Hazlitt and teaches writing in New York City.
Allie Rowbottom was an East Coast based writer, splitting her time between the City lights and her equine companion at his barn. In 2008 she received her bachelor’s degree from NYU’s Gallatin for writing and women’s studies; in 2009 she relocated to the West to attend the California Institute of the Arts to continue nurturing these pursuits. She now lives in Houston pursuing her Phd.
Welcome to Tin House’s Bookseller Spotlight, a new series of interviews with indie booksellers across the country. This week, we talk to Pepper Parker, of Vintage Books.
Tin House Books: What was the first book you read that made you fall in love with reading?
Pepper Parker: When I was a child, there were very few books in our home. I was an outdoorsy kid, in a little Tennessee farm town, so I never thought I was missing anything. I must have read The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew six or seven times, so I was just done with books.
Then, somehow, when I was eleven, I found a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. Dr. Martin Luther King had recently been killed and I was just beginning to perceive the anger of my generation at the establishment, its values, its racism, its wars, all of it. I read To Kill a Mockingbird in one sitting, and then it really hit me: this is the power of books. This is what books are for.
THB: If you could spend the day with a character, who would it be and what would you do?
PP: The character who immediately jumps to mind is little Gavroche, from Les Miserables. I’d love to follow him around the Paris streets for a day, and learn to be untroubled and full of cheer in the middle of a revolution. I’d like to climb inside the elephant (where he lived). I’d like to have his resilience, his courage.
But then, I would also love to hang out with ANY of the quirky, lovable people in Brian Doyle’s Mink River. The Department of Public Works, the crow, the opera-singing police officer, the Native artist – they’re all adorable, and so real. I’m certain that one day, driving down the Oregon coast, I’m going to find that magical little town, Neawanaka.
THB: How has being a bookseller changed your relationship to books?
PP: That’s a good one. When I think about it, it feels like the books I recommend have almost become my children, and I’m anxious to see them prosper, and want to make sure that when they go out into the world they will be loved. Probably, if I were simply a reader, I wouldn’t take it all so personally.
THB: What’s a recently released book you keep recommending?
PP: The most recent one I’ve fallen for would be LaRose by Louise Erdrich. I’ve always loved her work, but this one is especially painful and ultimately, triumphant. A heartbreaking story of a man who accidentally kills his best friend’s son, and in his remorse, offers up his own son to the bereaved family. We watch how the boy, LaRose, grows up, the center of two families’ tragedy, the center of a mixed-race village and its history, the center of a tangle of betrayals and frustrations and old resentments – and in the end, the catalyst for a wide and profound wash of healing. Erdrich is certainly one of the truly great American writers of our age.
THB: What’s a book you love that not enough people know about?
PP: I’ll have to thank Tin House for this one – Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk! How could such an astonishing work be so little-known in this country? Here are the lives of two women – an elderly white woman who can neither speak nor move, and the young black woman who has been her servant (but more like a daughter) for many, many years. The whole history of Africa – the women’s history – unfolds in the story of this farm run by these two inseparable women. The book is so elegantly written, so elegantly translated, that you have to find someone to tell. It’s simply a gorgeous book.
Pepper Parker grew up in Tennessee, far from any bookstores, and never dreamed of having the fortune to work in one. She spent years working with the homeless around the country, some years as a hospice assistant, and then later as the director of Disabled Services in Portland, OR, until her children grew up and she was ready for a career change. Twelve years later, and she’s still at Vintage Books, the oldest, largest independent bookstore in Southwest Washington.
As we can’t get enough of Gregory Pardlo (his lecture, reading, and pants were some of the top highlights of our recently completed summer workshop), we thought we would revisit his poem from issue #54.
Alien-faced patriot in my Papa’s mirrored aviators
that reflected a mind full of cloud
keloids, the contrails of Blue Angels in formation
miles above the campered fields of Willow Grove
where I heard them clear as construction paper slowly
tearing as they plumbed close enough I could nearly see
flyboys saluting the tiny flag I shook in their wakes.
I visored back with pride, sitting aloft dad’s shoulders,
my salute a reflex ebbing toward ground crews in jumpsuits
executing orchestral movements with light. The bicentennial
crocheted the nation with the masts of tall ships and twelve-foot
Uncle Sams but at year’s end my innocence dislodged
like a powdered wig as I witnessed the first installment
of Roots. The TV series appeared like a galleon on the horizon
and put me in touch with all twelve angry tines of the fist
pick my father kept on his dresser next to cufflinks
and his Texas Instruments LED watch. I was not in the market
for a history to pad my hands like fat leather mittens. A kind
of religion to make sense of a past mysterious as basements
with upholstered wet bars and black-light velvet panthers, maybe,
but as such a youngster I thought every American a Philadelphia
Negro, blue-eyed soulsters and southpaws alike getting
strong now, mounting the art museum steps together
like children swept up in Elton’s freedom from Fern Rock
to Veterans Stadium, endorphins clanging like liberty
themed tourist trolleys unloading outside the Penn Relays,
a temporal echo, an offspring, of Mexico City, where Tommie
Smith and John Carlos made a human kinara with the human
rights salute while my father scaled the Summit
Avenue street sign at the edge of his lawn, holding a bomb
pop that bled tricolor ice down his elbow as he raised it like
Ultraman’s Beta Capsule in flight from a police K9 used to
terrorize suspicious kids. Your dad would be mortified too
if he knew you borrowed this overheard record of his oppression
to rationalize casting yourself as a revolutionary American
fourth-grader even though, like America, your father never lifted
your purple infant butt proudly into the swaddling of starlight
to tell the heavens to “behold, the only thing greater
than yourself!” And like America, his fist only rose on occasion,
graceful, impassioned, as if imitating Arthur Ashe’s balletic serve,
so that you almost forgot you were in its way.
Gregory Pardlo is the author of Digest, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His first collection Totem was selected by Brenda Hillman for the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007. His poems appear in The Nation, Ploughshares, Tin House, The Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere.
The boyfriend’s girlfriend used to speak to him like he was a baby. She would come up to him stringing nonsense sounds together like “jeebie jeebie” or “newmoo newmoo” and hug him or pinch his cheeks.
After she bought the dog, however, the girlfriend stopped talking to the boyfriend like he was a baby. Instead, she spoke like a baby only to the dog. She would go up to the dog and say, “mewkoo mewkoo,” and hug the dog and rub her face against the dog’s face.
When the boyfriend tried to hug the girlfriend in the kitchen one night, she pushed him away and said, “Leave me alone.” The dog witnessed the whole thing. And afterward, the dog came up to the boyfriend and licked his hand, and the boyfriend bent down and hugged the dog and said, “Are you my beautiful little princess?” which was what he used to say all the time to the girlfriend, before she bought the dog.
Trevor Fuller‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kentucky Review, Wigleaf: (very) short fiction, Vinyl, and Burningword, among others.
An excerpt from The Cathedral Of Mist (Wakefield Press)
Translated by Edward Gauvin
Requiem for Bread
Bread should never be sliced, my grandmother says, it must be broken.
And she takes the knife from my hands. I say nothing, silent in the presence of sacred words.
I ask my cousin to explain. She is twelve years old. I trust her because of her eyes. Great big eyes with bluish whites and moist, glistening irises each night paints anew with India ink.
I feel like she is about to unveil one of the secrets of the world to me, one of those secrets guarded by dragons.
She says, “When a knife touches bread, the bread screams.”
A short while later, my cousin and I play at leaning out the fourth floor window. She slips and lets out a scream. A feeble scream. But right away, I know it as the scream of death. She crashes into the sidewalk.
Every night since then, no sooner did I shut my eyes in bed than I would see her falling. A neverending plummet. Slowly she would twirl as if suspended in the air, always just about to crash into the sidewalk without ever hitting it. It was an unbearable sight. I’d let out a scream then, a very feeble scream, so as not to wake my grandmother, in whose room I slept. She’d come running right away, very alarmed. She would sit down on my bed.
“Hush, it’s nothing. Go to sleep,” she would say gently, “Go to sleep, nothing’s the matter. Go to sleep, she’s in heaven.”
Heaven was far away. My cousin! Why wasn’t she here with me anymore? Never again would I run to her in the morning to see the irises of her eyes painted anew.
“Cry,” my grandmother would murmur, “If you cry, you’ll sleep. If you sleep, you’ll forget. Cry, cry, it’ll do you good. And her too. If you cry, she’ll sleep better up there.”
I never could bring myself to cry. I kept seeing my cousin inside me, falling without falling, twirling without moving, dying without dying.
One night, my grandmother found the words to soothe me. She explained that there were heavens everywhere, some not far away at all. A special one had even been arranged for my cousin. She would soon be sent to the seaside, to Ostend, to a first-rate boarding house for little dead girls. I no longer dreamed I saw her falling. But still I could not cry.
My grandmother herself died a month later. Ever so pale, she lay smiling on her deathbed. I knew she was smiling for me, that she was saying, in silence, “Hush, it’s nothing. Nothing’s the matter. And tonight, sleep, sleep; it’ll do me good, for I’ll be sleeping too.”
Instead of crying, I smiled at her. I answered her as one speaks to the dead: in silence. “Go see her in Ostend, Grandmother, in that first-rate boarding house for little dead girls, and tell her not to forget me.” Continue reading
Once you wear a birch skin,
foxes can’t possess you.
You’ll see through their guises.
Cold July, a girl is peeling
the bark from a white birch
like a brittle tape.
Our climate is full of them.
We offer the fox god
rice in bean-curd purses
The girl holds her thin bark
against the paling sun
in the overcast sky.
Don’t scratch your scab. Foxes
are drawn to the smokey smell
of your healing wound.
Mother’s voice, rising mist.
and my hand undressing
the birch against all harm.
My child, my course of scars,
You’ll always fear being owned
by something other than
yourself. My unblessed.
Miho Nonaka is a native of Tokyo and a bilingual poet. Her poems and essays have appeared in various journals and anthologies, including Ploughshares, Cimarron Review, American Letters & Commentary, Iowa Review, Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House and American Odysseys: Writings by New American (Dalkey Archive Press). She teaches English and Creative Writing at Wheaton College.
Coop stepped forward and stood over the bag, his head cocked. “What the fuck did you do?”
From our current Summer Reading issue, “The Cat” by Jackson Tobin
We tumbled into Coop’s basement through the cellar door, tracking snow and stench from the putrid Backwoods cigars Fitz was always burning, mulch and sawdust rolled in a dirty sock. The four of us—Coop, Fitz, Nate, and AJ—like always. There were no windows, and many of the bulbs had burned out among the ceiling tiles, so where light did come from the recessed fixtures, it was a hazy cone of yellow, filtering down like a jail yard spotlight.
Nate burst in last, a full thirty seconds behind. He’d still been in the house when we took off running, and now he came in the door holding his backpack out in front of him. As we spread out on the floor of the Coopers’ filthy basement, peeling off our sweat-soaked ski jackets, he placed the backpack carefully in the middle of our circle.
Something was moving in the bag.
“What?” AJ said, his voice already squeaky with fear.
“Unzip it,” Nate said. He stepped back, sat down cross-legged.
Now we watched the black JanSport as if it were stitched up with dynamite. Our pupils were still shriveled from the blinding winter light outside, so we couldn’t trust our eyes—but there was no mistaking the sound. An angry rustle of paper, a tearing of fabric.
Coop stepped forward and stood over the bag, his head cocked. “What the fuck did you do?” he said to Nate. But his voice was fat with admiration, his grin a salute.
It had been Coop, that morning, blinking in the nuclear snow glare, who said, “Let’s go see Toby Peterson.” Toby was a prissy kid with doting doctor parents. Coop hated him the way Coop hated rich kids, and poor kids, roided-out jocks and Internet geeks, know-it-alls and idiots. Which is to say, it was nothing personal, exactly, us picking on Toby that particular snow day. Coop was all for equal opportunity when he terrorized.
We were out on the frozen baseball field, standing around grinning in our outgrown snow clothes. School was canceled. The night before it’d snowed hard, a whole season’s worth folded up in one long gray cloud. The temperature was falling all through the storm and by the end a hard inch of crust glazed on top of the powder. We felt taller, with all that new earth underneath, and feeling taller was of outsize importance to us. In any group we knew where we ranked in height and every other hierarchy: if we could slosh down a Poland Spring of cheap vodka without puking; how many times we’d been punched in the face; whether we’d had sex yet, and if so, how crippling the stories of our incompetence were. Unfortunately most answers put us right in the middle, and the middle is no place for a sixteen-year-old boy. To be at the top was fine, but even better to be at the bottom—to have suffered. To have a reason for the anger that came off us like a smell; sometimes loud and sometimes hardly noticeable, but always there if you got close enough.
But it had to be the right kind of suffering. Coop had a dead mom—this was the right kind, the cool side of pain. She died when we were still in middle school. Coop and his three brothers all buzzed their heads before the funeral, and when they stood in a line at the gravesite, they looked like different versions of the same person, as if each could turn to his left and glimpse his future, two years, four years down the line.
It was a horrible thing, of course, but mostly for the adults, who debated when a cocktail of Ambien and Belvedere was simply self-medicating and when it was suicide. For Fitz, Nate, and AJ, our parents’ affairs and slow poisonings now seemed fine. Just regular. And Coop? Coop finally had something to be angry about.
The rest of us had two-parent households and, unlike Coop, fathers who came home every night, fathers who asked us how we were—fathers who cried. We had no wars and no death and an inescapably bright future, and in the warmth of that future’s light we gnashed and squirmed. We were as furious as Coop. Maybe more so.
Toby Peterson lived in a big house on Falls Pond, all timber and glass. We’d been taking turns pissing in the Petersons’ mailbox when Fitz slunk around to the backyard. Oi, he yelled after a moment, and we all came around.
The door was open, just a crack. Fitz stood there, a bent little grin burning in one corner of his mouth. He had his hands jammed in his pockets, a posture of victory—he’d nudged up the bar and knew no one would get over it.
Except then Nate lurched forward, kicked off his boots onto the bristly WELCOME mat, and slipped into the house.
“Christ,” Fitz whispered. “I didn’t tell him to go in. Nobody said to go in. You guys saw.”
But no one said anything in reply. We stood there, our gloved hands cupping our eyes, pressing our faces to the glass. Through clouds of hot breath, we watched Nate slink around the first floor. Watched him creep up the stairs, his feet leaving the top step.
When his socks reappeared, we scrambled over the snowbank and out of the yard. AJ looked back and saw Nate stumble on his way out the door, falling farther and farther behind, but then we went around the corner and he was out of sight. All we could do was keep running and hope he was behind us. Continue reading