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We as a culture have perhaps never before talked more about the body. Yet this conversation spins again and again through the same rhetorical loops: the body-positive marketing couched as affirmation, the girl power slideshows, the call for all women to feel beautiful that points back to the failure of all women to be treated as such.
Enter Mona Awad’s fantastic new genre-bending fiction, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, which escapes this doublespeak. Awad’s book turns our attentions from the diluted and universal to the powerfully specific in this story of how one woman is shaped by her shape. Sharp, perceptive Lizzie, Awad’s eponymous “fat girl,” sees her social powers wax and wane as her weight and sense of self evolve over the course of the book. Awad’s writing is white hot, and deserves to be invoked alongside Gaitskill in its observation and cutting humor, its literary pleasures. It’s impossible not to care for Lizzie: not a talking point, but a sweet, calculating, hurt person—that is to say, a real woman, who leaves that scarequote-worthy cliché miles behind. Mona and I conversed via email earlier this spring.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: From its title inward, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl takes on the dual project of showing us how much who Lizzie is perceived to be is determined by her body, and of truly seeing this girl in all her particularity. To me, this is precisely what makes this book great: Lizzie is a singular, incredibly human character. Which came first, Lizzie or an interest in writing towards a bigger conversation about women’s bodies?
Mona Awad: That’s a great question. Probably, I would say they came roughly at the same. I think I first started with the image of a young woman in a dressing room staring at a piece of clothing she already knew wouldn’t fit while her mother and a saleswoman waited outside. She actually sort of appeared to me during a long car ride in Utah. She wasn’t particularly specific in terms of her exact body size and her physicality. But I knew this was a woman for whom body image was a deep struggle. I knew this was a woman who saw herself as a fat girl, and that the term itself was a loaded and complicated one for her. Who and what were shaping that way of seeing herself? And then a number of other images came to me: that same woman having lunch with a friend, having sex, out with her mother. In each of these scenes, this notion of herself as a fat girl was playing itself out differently, being reinforced differently. And I knew I wanted to explore all the ways in which that notion of herself as a fat girl had affected her life–especially her relationships–and the way she was in the world. That was when the idea of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl came to me–I wanted to challenge and complicate all of the assumptions, images, and simplifications that come with this term, to explore how “fat girl” isn’t simply a question of flesh—it’s a far more dynamic, psychological and relative state than this, one that can hold contradictions, is internally and externally constructed.
EKH: What were the most surprising things you discovered about Lizzie over the course of writing the book? Were there parts of her psychology or choices she makes that you couldn’t have anticipated?
MA: She was crueler and harder at times than I thought she would be. She was certainly less of a victim than I expected. She was also more obsessive than I initially imagined. I think the story in which she becomes fixated with a larger woman after she herself has lost weight was a story I did not anticipate writing. But I also think it was an extremely important confrontation for Lizzie to have—this is a woman who is happy in her own skin and Lizzie still isn’t. I also was very surprised to leave her where I left her at the end the book. But I was committed to portraying her with as much honesty as I could and to leave her anywhere else would have felt false.
EKH: Lizzie has a terrifying, powerful line early in the book in which she wishfully imagines herself older and thinner and says, “I’ll be hungry all of my life but I’ll also have a hell of a time.” What do you make of this choice that Lizzie sees for herself? Is this dichotomy between happiness and eating always so extreme, or only so as seen from Lizzie’s teenage vantage?
MA: Yes, I think that sentence definitely betrays something of Lizzie’s overall psychology and certainly her teenage one. One thing I really wanted to explore in the book is the dynamic relationship between perspective and body image, the space between how we see ourselves, how we imagine are seen by others, and what might actually be happening. I think the first story/chapter in the book, in which Lizzie says this as a chubby teenage girl, sets up those tensions and those disconnects. It also prepares the reader for the stories to come and for the mind, the eyes and the body that they’re going to inhabit throughout the course of the book.
EKH: Lizzie’s insecurities make her vulnerable to the dubious, exploitive friendships of other girls like Mel and China. It’s satisfying, and I think also very perceptive of you, to see how Lizzie is also able to capitalize on the role she’s been cast in by dint of her weight. My favorite section of the book is probably “Your Biggest Fan,” in which we realize Lizzie is seeing not one but a number of needy, aspiring songwriters, all of whom assume she’s otherwise desperate for affection. Can we talk about that? How does Lizzie manage to leverage other people’s assumptions about her in her favor?
MA: “Your Biggest Fan” was definitely a very pleasurable section to write. Each story is titled after a different way that Lizzie believes she is seen or imagines she is seen by others. Ways that she resents. Ways that are simplifications. Ways that box her in as a victim which I then attempted to complicate or trouble and even subvert throughout the course of the chapter. In this chapter, I think the notion of herself as a victim of this self-obsessed musician gets subverted. He also becomes her victim in the end—in part because he needs her just as much as she needs him and his need gets used against him. We often get pinned into certain roles because of other people’s needs and weaknesses. There is real power in realizing that. And Lizzie does. Being seen as a “fat girl” isn’t necessarily a branding or a stamp of victimhood. It’s far more complicated. Certainly it can be that, but it can definitely also be a position of power too. When we use other people’s less than flattering assumptions about us (especially the ones we resent) in our favor, we challenge those assumptions. Ultimately, Lizzie is neither a victim nor a hero of her own story. She is both, often simultaneously, and I think that is what makes her human. Continue reading
This unlikely conversation took place in Santiago del Cuba. We (Andrew and Clancy) were on vacation with our families in Havana when we were invited by two tarot card readers, bluff cigar-smoking local women who spoke French, to meet a “very old crazy Frenchman who tells prophesies,” and who, according to them, scavenged fish and octopi on the bay in that hot, clamorous city on the southeastern side of the island. One of the tarot readers had a nephew there she wanted to visit, and we had a car and an outsize interest in prophets. We looked at each other with excitement: “A Cuban Jodorowsky!” Our wives and children declined to join us.
When at last we found the man on a garbage-strewn beach, he was sitting in filthy clothes on a couch with three legs and no cushions, cooking pencil-sized fish over a fire. His hair white and wild, he looked to be at least a hundred years old, and, casting each other questioning if hopeful glances, we sat down to watch him suck the meat from the bones of the tiny fish, snapping his fingers when he was through with each one. After a time, he began to regale us with stories of Paris, insomnia, the coming apocalypse, and despair—and Andrew, his interest overtaking his impatience, at last asked him: “Have you ever read E.M. Cioran?” “I am Emil Cioran,” the man replied. “Are you from the police? Or are you priests? My father was a priest…” He fell into inchoate babble then, but we opened a beer for him and his lucidity seemed to pick up with the wind. Soon we became convinced that this was, in fact, the great Romanian philosopher—or his ghost come back to life on that desolate bay with the black water at our feet. The conversation lasted long into the night. We have offered just a part of it here . . .
Clancy: Emil, you say that we moderns have discovered hell inside ourselves and that is our good fortune. How could that be lucky?
EMC: What would have become of us if we had only hell’s external and historical representations? Two thousand years of fear would have driven us to suicide. Saint Hildegard’s description of the Last Judgment makes one hate all heavens and hells, and rejoice that they are only subjective visions. Psychology is both our salvation and our superficiality. According to a Christian legend, the world was born when the Devil yawned. For us moderns, the accident of this world is nothing more than a psychological error.
Andrew: Right, and that depresses me on two levels, even as it gets me off the hook for Hell-Hell. If there is indeed an error to our world, if existence is some sort of mistake—or even if it’s only the case that we sometimes experience it that way (as I do)—I want us to take the error very seriously, perhaps even—dare I say it?—sacredly rather than secularly. At the very least, I sometimes hunger for there to be a massive “mistake” that is outside of us, bigger than us; I long for life’s scary cruelty and inexplicable indifference and just general madness to be ontological, cosmic, rather than personal and selfie-ish. What about you, Clancy? I’m desperate to know if you ever have this longing, or even see the situation this way at all.
Clancy: The good fortune, the happy accident, is that having hell inside ourselves gives us, if not control over our hellish situation, the possibility of reconciliation with our hell, and perhaps even the opportunity for liberation from it. In one of The Buddha’s early sutras, he talks about “the two darts”: the first dart is the pain of physical or mental suffering, the pain of birth, old age, sickness and death, the pain of so much of our emotional experience, the pain of our “selfie-narratives.” I remember once, when I was still in the jewelry business, a Swiss watch wholesaler was in my office and he looked at me quietly and said: “What is it, Clancy? Internal dialogue driving you crazy again?” That’s the first dart, which is the internal hell that we’ve represented externally. Our salvation, which is also our psychological error and the world that we all live in, is the second dart: how we respond to the first dart. The second dart is one we throw at ourselves. It is the crying out of protest at the first dart.
EMC: A cry means something only in a created universe. If there is no creator, what is the good of calling attention to yourself?
Andrew: Great—our session has hardly begun and I already feel superficial, trapped in psychology and a meaningless, uncreated world. I feel ashamed! Continue reading
With the scholarship deadline for our 2016 Summer Workshop fast approaching, we thought it was the perfect moment to acknowledge (for the first time publicly) our 2015 Tin House Scholars, whose work continues to inspire us. Honored to have them be a part of the Tin House family.
Jamel Brinkley is a Kimbilio Fellow, a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the 2015-16 Provost’s Visiting Writer in Fiction at the University of Iowa. He has been awarded scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, as well as the diFilipis-Rosselli scholarship from the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. He is at work on a collection and a novel, and his short stories have appeared in A Public Space.
Olivia Clare is the author of a short story collection, Disasters in the First World, and a novel, both forthcoming from Grove Atlantic. She is also the author of a book of poems,The 26-Hour Day (New Issues, 2015). In fiction, she is a recipient of a 2014 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and a 2014 O. Henry Prize.
Drew Johnson was raised in Mississippi and lives in Massachusetts. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, VQR, Cosmonauts Avenue, and as a single-issue chapbook from The Cupboard. His nonfiction has appeared at Literary Hub, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Paris Review Daily. These pieces and others may be found at walkswithmoose.com.
Ruth Madievsky is the author of a poetry collection, “Emergency Brake,” which was named Tavern Books’ 2015 Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series selection and was published in February 2016. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, Rattle, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. She is originally from Moldova and lives in Los Angeles, where she is a doctoral student at USC’s School of Pharmacy.
Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint is a PhD candidate in English-Creative Writing at the University of Denver. Her work has appeared in Caketrain, Sleepingfish, The Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere and has been translated into and published in Burmese and Lithuanian.
Mai Nardone’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Indiana Review, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review Online, Slice, and the Tin House Open Bar. He has also received a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a fellowship from the MacDowell Colony. He lives in Bangkok.
Shelly Oria’s fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s and The Paris Review among many other places, and has won a number of awards, including the Indiana Review Fiction Prize. Her short story collection, New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (FSG & Random House Canada, 2014) earned nominations for a Lambda Literary Award, a Goldie Award, and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction. The book was recently translated into Hebrew and published in Israel by Keter Publishing.
Kate Petersen is from Arizona. Her work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Zyzzyva, New England Review, Epoch, Paris Review Daily, The Collagist and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Stegner Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize, and currently teaches at Stanford as a Jones lecturer.
Jenn Shapland is a nonfiction writer. Her essays appear in Tin House, The Lifted Brow, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She’s currently writing a book of nonfiction called The Autobiography of Carson McCullers.
Aurvi Sharma has been awarded the Gulf Coast Nonfiction Prize, the Prairie Schooner Essay Prize, the Wasafiri New Writing Prize and the AWP Emerging Writer Prize. Sharma’s work has also appeared inFourth Genre and Essay Daily. A Pushcart-nominated writer, she recently received the MacDowell Colony Fellowship.
Randall Tyrone is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Wyoming and editor for Essay Press.
Kawai Strong Washburn was born and raised on the Big Island of Hawai’i. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016, McSweeney’s, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and Mid-American Review, among others. He also received a 2015 scholarship to the Bread Loaf writer’s conference.
Yesterday was the first day of Spring, marked by the Spring Equinox, a complicated astronomical event and a perhaps even more complicated Wiccan holiday. What better time to dive along with Alex Mar into the history and personality of celebrated 20th century witch Doreen Valiente? The following essay appears in our current issue, Faith.
One particular image of Doreen Valiente tells two unresolvable stories at once. In this black-and-white portrait, perhaps taken in the fifties at her home in Brighton, she is, at first glance, a suburban wife seated before a pale curtain, wearing a patterned cocktail dress, a string of stones around her neck. (She was in her thirties then, her jet-black hair cut short in a wavy bob, her lips and brows painted in.) But then the photograph becomes complicated: spread before her on a table is an altar laid out with a crystal ball, a bowl, rope, candles, and incense; in one hand she holds up a large bell, in the other a ritual knife. Her eyes peer at us from behind large librarian’s eyeglasses—she looks dead into the camera, not in a confrontational way, but smiling a strong, tight-lipped smile. Propped on her elbows, leaning toward us (her audience a half-century into the future), she exudes all the confidence that comes with a hard-earned outsider identity, forged in small-town England in a rigid time. She is vibrant. She is the face of every woman with a secret life. She is the Nerd Queen, a person of rare esoteric knowledge. She is Doreen Valiente, the Mother of Modern Witchcraft.
Though a definitive biography of her life has yet to be published—both scholarship and her own writings have focused on her magical life—we know the basics. She was born Doreen Dominy in 1922 in Surrey, outside London. Her parents were conservative Christians; her father was a civil engineer; but Doreen felt marked for a different life. When she was still a child, she had her first mystical experience one night while staring up at the moon. By thirteen, she believed she was having psychic episodes, and she began experimenting with magic. Doreen made a poppet to protect her mother from a local woman who’d been bothering her, and she believed the spell had worked. Hoping to cure their daughter of her interest in witchcraft, her parents decided to send Doreen to a convent school. But before her second year was up, she walked out the door and never returned.
Doreen was seventeen when World War II broke out, and she soon signed up for a secretarial position in Wales. There she met and married a Greek seaman in the merchant navy—only to have him go missing during the war, eventually presumed dead.
Three years later, she married again—a Spaniard who’d escaped the Spanish Civil War and fought with the Free French Forces. The couple settled in Bournemouth in the south of England, where she took an office job and he found work as a chef. Doreen, who already saw herself as an outsider because of her occult interests, became even more set apart from the mainstream for having married a foreigner in a time of desperate national pride.
She began researching magic more seriously, reading up on the practices of the nineteenth-century occult society the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and studying Hebrew, a language useful in many rituals. Proving that libraries are dangerous places, she also read up on the relatively new Spiritualist movement, which held that both women and men had the natural ability to become present-day mystics; and when a major biography of Aleister Crowley was published, she was thrilled to read, for the first time, the life story of a notorious, unrepentant magician. Finally, in the fall of 1952, she came across a magazine article that mentioned the recent opening of a place called the Folklore Centre of Superstition and Witchcraft, on the Isle of Man. In the piece, the owner, Cecil Williamson, spoke of witchcraft as “the Old Religion” and plugged the center’s “resident witch,” a man named Gerald Gardner.
The Witchcraft Act of 1735 had finally been repealed just a year earlier, making it legal for someone to publicly claim he worked with magic or communed with spirits, and Cecil Williamson had jumped at the chance to capitalize on the situation. Partnering with Gerald, who had been practicing witchcraft in the New Forest , Cecil immediately launched a publicity campaign for his new museum, which led to headlines like “CALLING ALL COVENS” and the equally exuberant “HE PLANS A JAMBOREE FOR THE WITCHES OF THE WORLD.” For Doreen, the possibility of contact with real-life witches was irresistible. She immediately wrote a letter to Cecil, who in turn connected her with his resident expert.
And what came next was a revelation: lessons in how to practice a living, present-day incarnation of witchcraft. Continue reading
At the Best Buy on Reserve, I saw my future self in line to buy an Xbox. He had twenty years and fifty pounds on me, and he’d lost his hair. But he was me; I recognized myself, like you can recognize your red Outback in a parking lot full of them. I don’t play video games, hadn’t since middle school, except for the brief period when it was socially acceptable for parties to devolve into rounds of Guitar Hero or Rock Band, the way they now do into YouTube sessions. Why, in my late forties (or thereabouts), had I regressed?
Of course, the purchase could have been for his kid, or kids. But somehow, I didn’t think so. My future self radiated excitement, turning the box over in his hands, reading the fine print. In his shopping cart there were three or four game cases with ominous-looking covers. Battle games, killing games. And well, all right, the strongest clue to this being a personal purchase was his—my—outfit: an oversized (pretty bitchin’) Ride the Lightning t-shirt, shorts that went far past the knees, shiny basketball sneakers. This was not the wardrobe of a man bringing a gift home to his children. My future self would be in a dark room with these purchases in an hour, and he would abandon them only to urinate and pay the pizza man until he had to shower for work on Monday morning. Work doing what? Where did this prophetic vision of myself find employment? It seemed that I’d given up on the teaching and writing life I imagined for myself.
I chided myself for being cruel. What was my present self doing in Best Buy on this sunny Saturday at 1 p.m.? I’d come to buy fancy headphones (because I deserved them?), and now also had on my person the new Drake album, a deeply discounted Tom Petty boxed set, and a nearly free DVD of 50s horror films that had passed into the public domain. And my own outfit wasn’t much worse than his—a pink dress shirt with holes in it, black jeans that were inexplicably a size too big for me, a Red Sox hat covered in grime and dog hair. Let he who is without grave sartorial misjudgment cast the first piece of obsolete technology to hand, I guess.
My future self seemed to be having trouble finalizing his purchase. He had six Best Buy gift cards spread across the little plastic shelf next to the conveyor belt.
“I’m pretty sure there’s something left on most of these,” he said in my voice, though it was lower and rougher with age and cigarettes. I reminded myself of my foolproof plan to quit smoking before I turned thirty.
The young, pixie-cut woman at the register sighed and began hurriedly swiping the cards.
“You’ve got… $4.53 on this one… $3.19 on this one… nothing on this one… nothing on this one… nothing on this one, and… nothing on this one. OK?”
“So how short am I?”
“Well, the cost of your complete purchase minus, like, seven dollars,” she said. “Right?”
“I really thought I had more on those,” he said, and pulled his wallet out of his shorts. It was my cloth Timberland wallet, two decades dirtier.
The sale went through, thank God, and his visible relief—he’d stopped scratching the back of his neck, at least, another habit I apparently hadn’t broken—gave me the endorphin surge I needed to get out of line and put my purchases back where I’d found them. I would illegally download the Drake album, and the other crap would gather dust here, for free, rather than in my moldy apartment. I didn’t need headphones; I was deaf enough to the cries of others without them. These decisions seemed meaningful at the time.
I walked through the store’s sliding automatic door in time to watch my future self back his Ford pickup out of a tight parking spot, leaving a deep black scratch along the length of my Outback. As I ran towards his truck, he turned, caught my eye, and sped out of the lot. I tried to memorize the license plate—VDD… something, but why bother? I’d only be raising my own insurance premiums. Or something. I wasn’t sure how insurance, or the future, worked.
Anyway, because of that, and a longstanding but weakly enforced opposition to corporate enterprise zones, I never went back to that Best Buy. In fact, I didn’t set foot in another one until I moved to Virginia a few years later, whereupon I was surprised to discover that discounted box-sets no longer factored significantly into the store’s business model.
Andrew Martin’s stories have appeared in The Paris Review (the latest in the Winter 2015 issue), and his essays and reviews have been published by The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, andBookforum, among others. He was recently a fiction resident at the UCross Foundation, and he’s currently at work on a novel and a story collection.
The pork chop was exhibit A.
When my husband Phil and I got married 24 years ago–he a Protestant, I a Jew–we agreed to raise our children as Jews. I had grown up in an observant neighborhood in Elizabeth, NJ, and though my family was Reform, being Jewish was simply who I was. I explained to him that when it came to our kids, it was important to me to have a plan and sense of purpose for the future.
To prepare for our interfaith marriage, we spent three hour-long sessions with a rabbi in a dank converted basement outside of Boston as she attempted to get to know us and gauge our commitment to maintaining a Jewish home. In the spirit of going forward, my husband appeared open to the discussion, though he wasn’t connected to any specific religious roots. Though his biological father was Jewish, he was raised by a single mother who seemed too busy getting by to pay much attention to religion.
In our seven years of marriage before children, there was a shared generosity of spirit in which we embraced one another’s spiritual side. During the December holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah we lined up a brass menorah and tin angel chimes side by side on the dining room table. We ate latkes with applesauce and lit the menorah. I once brought home a Christmas tree as a romantic gift for my husband, tied to the roof of my car.
When our son was born in 1992, he was circumcised, and we honored the memory of my deceased father by choosing a name for our son that started with the first letter of my father’s name–in keeping with Jewish tradition. Years passed and we skirted the issue of religion as much as possible with skeletal, but festive, versions of the Passover Seder, hiding the afikoman (matzoh) and tentatively setting a place at the table for Elijah the prophet.
In the preschool years, we were invited to the Seders of new-found friends, along with Rosh Shoshana meals, and break-fasts on Yom Kippur. Neither my husband nor I had families nearby to guide us, so we were left to wing it.
By the time my son was 8, his brother 4, I decided we had to take a firmer stand. A clock had been introduced into the situation. The Reform temple in Belmont had a religious school program that started in 4th grade, and would prepare my son–and us–for his bar mitzvah at 13, at which time he would be considered a man.
Phil was skeptical after meeting the rabbi. We went to a series of parent education sessions for interfaith couples where my husband challenged other parents into strains of doubt with his philosophical questions about god. Phil was clearly uncomfortable.
“Does any of this really mean anything to him?” he asked, incredulous, taking me aside as my son was buckling himself into the car for a religious school class on Sunday morning.
“Of course it does,” I said. “And it will in the future when it’s too late to turn back the clock. I wish you could be more supportive. I wish you could at least pretend. That was our agreement, remember?”
We argued, though at the time I didn’t completely understand why. Later, I realized that my husband’s time spent in the temple and on Jewish related things, was very difficult for him, upsetting him in ways he couldn’t articulate.
We by no means kept kosher. But I started to suspect that Phil was longing for something closer to his own tradition. He reminisced about going to mass on Christmas Eve in college, and even though we did an egg hunt in the yard, I felt red-faced and bereft knowing I could not morally produce a ham for Easter. Instead, I persevered according to plan and learned to cook a brisket.
But there was one thing I couldn’t help but notice: as my husband’s resistance to gathering at the temple for religious classes and special events tied to our son’s impending bar mitzvah increased, quietly and without a word, he started buying pork chops. Thin parcels of pink-gray meat, bone-in or bone-out as cutlets, on the surface not altogether that different from a chicken breast, except taken from an animal with cloven feet. It was actually kind of sweet. He didn’t want to seem like he was outright rebelling or thrusting his disbelief in my face, so he would buy them on nights he knew I would be out of town or out for dinner. Sometimes not just pork chops, but cans of brown bread to go with it, linking him to some alien post-depression era meals that I imagined his beloved Yankee-stock grandparents cooked for him.
We should have known our plans were doomed. As time went on, the religious choice we made ignited distrust in one another that couldn’t be ignored. Ordinary decisions about who would take our kids to temple on the high holidays, and who would participate in community service (Mitzvah Day) programs, led to altercations in which the responsibility fell to me. He didn’t exactly decline, but always seemed to need to be somewhere else. In a room full of families assisted by both parents, my two sons potted tulip bulbs in clay pots to be delivered to the elderly, crafted felt blankets for the poor, and wrote letters in support of political prisoners for Amnesty International without their father. Our children were angry too–perhaps sensing my husband and I were divided in our commitment–and began to balk at the idea of attending Sunday School. Some kind of attenuated, moral fissure snaked its way through the household days before a special event might require us all be present at the temple at once. We were by no means the only interfaith family in the congregation, but other families seemed to be coping much better. This is not to say my husband and I fell out of love with another, but our relationship during all those years was strained.
The bar mitzvah itself was a success. Our son led the Shabbat service, having worked with the temple’s cantor for the better part of a year to learn to chant select portions from the Torah (the book of Jewish written law) and his haftorah (a selection from one of the biblical books of the Prophets.) Even in our Reform temple, non-Jews are forbidden to touch the Torah itself, which meant that Phil was not able to engage fully in the Bar Mitzvah service at its most poignant moments. I felt terrible for him, being barred from the kind of intimacy that should have bound us together. It seemed unfair and must have contributed to his sense of alienation. He tried to be good-natured about it, but the look in his eyes told me he felt like a second-class citizen. “I’m so sorry,” I said to Phil, taking his hand. I had no idea. You’re as much his parent as I am.”
It was only years later that Phil told me he believed in the Christ story. I stood there with my mouth open. I hadn’t had a clue that he had cared about this so passionately. How could he have agreed to my terms about raising our children in the Jewish tradition and still said, “I do?”
Looking back, I realize he must have felt he had given up something too quickly without knowing how it would feel. We had both been dishonest to a degree. I took him at his word in order to satisfy what was important to me. I wish we had been able to talk about it more openly without retreating to our separate corners. After all, our common goal was to do something protective and stabilizing for our kids. To lead the way towards some kind of spirituality that could possibly help them feel connected to the earth even after we were gone.
No matter how much we say we are, or wish we could be different, we are never far from our roots. My earliest emotional connections to belief hold true. After my older brother died unexpectedly when I was 13 and he was 15, and my mother and sisters and I returned home from the funeral, the kerchiefed orthodox women in our neighborhood—usually seen only from a distance—had joined with us to assuage our grief and were waiting on our front porch with pitchers of water to cleanse our hands.
Despite all of the conflicts, my husband and I have remained together and have made our peace. We still get a Christmas tree. We still light the menorah. My husband continues to prepare pork chops with a sense of ritual and familiarity that must feel like coming home. The kids have grown up—now 23 and 19—one bar mitzvahed, the other a devout atheist–and are free to make religious commitments of their own.
Sometimes when I think back, I wish it had all gone differently. On the surface, it all looked good. We went forward into our marriage in good faith based on a commitment to one another. Today interfaith marriages are more and more common and many successfully manage to merge belief with belief. Or omit it entirely. Today what’s important to me, with or without a specific religious doctrine, is acting from a humanitarian point of view, having a social conscience, a commitment to what our rabbi used to call gemilut hasadim, acts of loving kindness.
While I don’t think either of us feels good about our half-hearted attempt to create a Jewish home, after 24 years of marriage we’ve moved into another realm of appreciation for one another that acknowledges what we tried to do—even if we didn’t succeed.
Each year as I celebrate the Jewish New Year, followed by Yom Kippur, a Jewish day of fasting and atonement, I know I will be doing these alone. Not because of the presence of any pork chops, but because everything in our personal history gets factored in to what we believe. Despite the presence of the North Star and Google maps, it’s still up to each of us to find our own way.
Donna Gordon’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Story Quarterly, the Quarterly, The Boston Globe Magazine, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, Carleton Miscellany and Solstice. She has at various times been a PEN Discovery, Ploughshares Discovery, and a Stegner Fellow. She is completing work on a novel, WHAT BEN FRANKLIN WOULD HAVE TOLD ME. She was a 2012 Tin House Summer Workshop contributor in fiction, a Joan Jakobson Scholar at the Wesleyan Writer’s Conference in June, and a contributor at Bread Loaf. She had the good fortune to play tennis with Serena Williams last March at Indian Wells!
From Issue #62
DIAGRAM OF SELECT CUTS
Divided like a continent. Spitting image
of the British Jack. Brisket I whispered,
disregarding the language of the area,
I am on to you. Who doesn’t want to be
reconfigured? Asking nothing of the condemned
but bones and a clean break. This close to you
I am skeletal, sir, unlucky. The structure
is already underway, its spiked beams and bright
steel. How will this distress be concealed
in the pictorial dictionary? A diagram of select
cuts. A coat of arms with Catherine wheels.
Carey McHugh‘s first collection of poems, American Gramophone, came out in May.
The following appears in the current issue of Tin House, Faith.
Writing about the subject of faith in a country named for faith, founded upon faith, with faith as the central word of its national motto, is, shall we say, a somewhat fraught endeavor. I have for the past six years again lived in Pakistan, where I was born and spent about half of my younger life. Pakistan is the stan, the land, of the pak, the pure. It was founded as a home for the Muslims of British Imperial India as the British left and partitioned India. Pakistanis learn from our first schoolbook, and see inscribed on signs and posters and sometimes in the form of flowers on the grassy margins of roads, the exhortation “Unity, Faith, Discipline.” Unity around faith. Discipline in faith. Unified, disciplined faith.
Even so, I was struck anew upon my return to Pakistan by the degree of coercion and compulsion and indeed violence in matters of faith. When I was a child, restaurants still served food, albeit discretely, during the fasting hours of the month of Ramadan. They do so no longer. When I was a child, I did not know which of my friends were Shia. It did not seem to matter. Now people are not infrequently killed for being Shia, murdered by shadowy assassins. Others are killed for belonging to other sects, or for questioning the nation’s blasphemy law, or for defending those who question the nation’s blasphemy law.
No, my present home does not seem a particularly auspicious venue for inquiries into faith.
And yet faith takes many forms. There is, of course, the faith one might have in organized religion. And then there is the faith a farmer has when planting a seed purchased with borrowed money that this year the rains will arrive on time, that it is possible to farm and make a living from farming, that a farmer and his family can somehow survive. There is the faith a parent has when sending a child to school that she will return. There is the faith a writer has when sitting down alone, day after day, year after year, that the words will come.
There is also the faith that the place where one lives is indeed a sensible place to call home. In my case, this last item of faith has during the past six years faced a bit of a test.
“Why the hell do you live there?” friends in New York and London have been known to say, a question somehow both mildly offensive and warmingly touching at the same time. My friends say this especially after a recent massacre or bombing or discovery of a terrorist mastermind residing next door to the country’s military academy.
My answers turn to family: to the pleasure I get, having grown up in an extended, tri-generational family, to live in a situation where my children can play with their grandparents every morning before the children go to school and the grandparents, who reside next door, go to work. I tell my friends about the importance to me, a storyteller, of feeling I am part of a story, and how I do feel part of a story here. I mention some vague yet not flimsy romantic attachment to Lahore, the way the city moves me.
But I know, have perhaps always known, that the choice to live in Pakistan is at heart a matter of faith: the faith that this land will live up to at least some of its vast potential, that it will stop devouring the dreams of its residents, that its children will grow up with more stability and less potential violence than they face today.
When I first moved back I felt cautiously optimistic. Pakistan had survived so much. Free elections had just transpired. Surely things would begin to improve.
I do not remember the first time I despaired. Perhaps it was brought on by an untimely funeral. Or by schools closing for the holidays prematurely, because of a fear of attacks. Or by glancing at a newspaper one morning. Or by yet another friend finally, after long resisting, packing up and moving abroad.
I have often thought of leaving again myself, but I have not yet left.
My faith in this place has, I will admit, been shaken. But my faith in New York was once shaken, when I lived there. My faith in London was once shaken, when I lived there.
I suppose I have learned to live with intermittent faith in a place. I leap from moments when I think, yes, my home will flourish, to others when I think, no, all that awaits is decline. Maybe this ebb and flow is common. Maybe it has more to do with me. Maybe it is the nature of a fiction writer, some fiction writers, to exist suspended between what is and what we desire there to be, unable, in the end, to pick one over the other, to commit to the life, to reality, or otherwise to the dream.
Mohsin Hamid is the author of three novels, Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and a book of essays, Discontent and Its Civilizations. Born in Lahore, he has spent about half his life there and much of the rest in London, New York, and California.
While Marlon James was a deserved winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize for A Brief History Of Seven Killings, British Indian author Sunjeev Sahota, or rather his publishers, could have been forgiven for feeling a little disgruntled at the outcome. His brilliant second novel, The Year Of The Runaways, which was a runner up for the esteemed literary prize, is an enthralling look at the lives of illegal Indian immigrants living in Sheffield in Northern England. It weaves a compelling tapestry of hard luck stories and the brute determination needed to exist in the underbelly of society.
Soul crushing tragedy interspersed with brief moments of triumph co-exist in the lives of three men, Tochi, Randeep and Avtar, along with a British Indian woman, Narinder as we follow their journeys from India to England. All are in flight, living under the radar, surviving, fighting for scraps. Tochi, a chamar or untouchable, the lowest rung on India’s complex class system ladder, has the added handicap of dealing with the bigotry of his fellow Indians.
It’s the kind of novel whose characters and their plights seem as real as if they were blood relatives and who stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. As Salman Rushdie blurbed, “All you can do is surrender, happily, to its power.”
Jeff Vasishta: These characters are so detailed and rich, I wonder if you take a pen and pad every time you stay in India.
Sunjeev Sahota: I often think I should, but there’s always so much other, more pressing stuff to be getting on with in India – family, festivals, food, drink, the general havoc of the country – that a pad and pen just doesn’t figure. I am, however, constantly asking questions, constantly interested.
JV: There’s a little known faction of British Asian culture that you capture so well. In particular, Sikh culture often seems to be so insular and regimented which is why the depiction of Savraj, the prostitute living in a garden shed, is so shocking. How did her character come about? Was it based of someone in particular?
SS: Not on any one particular person, no, but her story does mirror what some women who made the trip across to the UK experienced. Really, her character didn’t exist, even in my mind, until I started writing Narinder’s chapter. I mean, I didn’t start the novel with an intention to show the plight of women from the subcontinent who have been forced into being sex-workers in the UK. I needed Narinder to have a UK-based, characterological link to India and from there Savraj grew.
JV: The world of your stories is so fully formed and you talk about India with real authority. How long have you been going there? Do you just stay with relatives or travel around?
SS: I was six when I made my first trip, a family holiday, and have been going roughly annually ever since – my maternal family is there, on the old farm. I used to always just stay with relatives, in Punjab, but over the last 10 years or so I’ve broadened things out: Kolkata, Kerala, Tamil Nadu (Kanyakumari, in fact). However, it’s also true that I was born and brought up on an estate in Derby amongst a strong immigrant community, full of recent arrivals from Punjab; so strong and recent that, looking back, it was like an Indian village transplanted to northern England.
JV: People may be surprised to find out that you did a degree in math before turning your hand to writing. Where did you work? How did you find time to write?
SS: I worked in financial services for a while – in insurance and then in mortgages – writing in the evenings, weekends, and holidays. I didn’t tell anyone I was writing a book and I think that was right for me: there was no pressure; I could take my own sweet time. Continue reading
The diabetic alcoholic across the street had lost all limbs by now. He only came out anymore for Medi-Van transport to dialysis. It took two strong men to hoist him and his wheelchair down the splintered wooden front stairs. He lived alone with his aging mother, who never came out to wave goodbye. That mother? I’d guess she was about a hundred and fourteen by now.
She was on a reverse mortgage, hidden away.
The diabetic had gone to dialysis. It was a blasting hot spring day. I was staring out the window, enjoying the calm. A Cutlass pulled up in a rush of shaking bass blasting from rattling speakers. A girl ran out of the diabetic’s tiny, old house toward the street. She ran like an escapee, and moved like a track star, fast and smooth. The sun flashed against a long silver blade in her hand, making her gleam like a goddess. She clutched a butcher knife. She slammed against the Cutlass and yelled, “Get out of here or I will kill you.” Every word carried the force of her full conviction.
A flood of people poured out of the house behind her. So maybe the diabetic didn’t live alone with his mother? Except, who were all the rest of those people, and when had they ever gone in the house? I had never seen any of them arrive. I’d never seen them knock, or leave, or hang out on the porch. It was like they were born inside the house and never emerged until now, as far as I could tell. Some were barefoot. They were all in lounge wear, pajamas and slips. One kid, maybe ten years old, came out still holding a box of Fruit Loops, spilling as he trailed behind.
They yelled, “Don’t do it!” The voice of reason came as a chorus. They yelled, “You’re only wrecking your own life.”
A man pushed his way ahead of the pack and caught the raging girl by her elbows. He pulled her backward. She stabbed the knife in the air toward the car, but she let herself be dragged. In his arms, she walked backward down the sidewalk, over the yard, up the stairs, into the house. The car peeled out backward. Everything had gone into rewind.
When the street was quiet the Medi-Van brought the diabetic home, back to home sweet home, to recover.
Late that night, I was still up when the doorbell rang. It was a drunk who climbed onto our porch, who rang the bell just after midnight. Our front door was open to bring in the cool night air, the security door we call a screen door there to hold the world out.
He said, “I love you! I’ve always loved you. I will love you forever.” Those words traveled like the worst kind of threat, the wrong kind of love, a rusted razor of high hopes.
I offered back, “You have the wrong house.” Wrong person, wrong time, wrong season, wrong promise.
He said, “I love you! Only you!”
It was too late to close the door without moving close to this man, where his fingers were laced through the grating. From my dark corner, I said, “Good night.”
He said, “But I love you.” His voice cracked with his truth.
I didn’t call for help and he didn’t make any threats except eternal love, a non-threat that seemed able to sustain itself forever.
I said, “I don’t know you.”
He said, “Only you.” I was alone and he was alone and we had nothing in common short of being human at night. The moon loomed over his shoulder, white and bald.
“You have to go,” I said, Juliet to his Romeo.
Finally, he turned around. He wobbled down the stairs. He tipped to the right toward the roses, then he tipped to the left, and held the old metal railing to keep steady. “Goodbye,” I whispered, just loud enough that he might hear.
He turned back to me then. He said, “I never loved you. Not at all. I never did.” He took his cloud of sweat and love and left me only the moon, alone.
Monica Drake is the author of The Folly of Loving Life, Clown Girl, and The Stud Book. She holds an MFA from the University of Arizona and designed and launched the BFA in Writing at the Pacific Northwest College of Art where she currently is faculty. Her short stories and essays have appeared in the The New York Times, Paris Review Daily, The Sun, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Northwest Review, and other publications.
The cover art for Tin House #67: Faith is part of a series concerning past lives and soulmates. Artist James R. Eads says that A Hundred Sunsets “is meant to capture the indescribable feeling of being reunited with someone after what feels like thousands of years.” He writes further in this companion poem:
A Hundred Sunsets
And then it happened
like a hundred sunsets all at once
the many secrets of life and death
were no longer hidden
and we were left alone
to bask in the light.
Though his artistic background is traditional, Eads’s work has a distinctly modern feel—the colors and amoeba-like shapes of A Hundred Sunsets have a neon, almost psychedelic vibe. An experienced woodcut artist, Eads has translated his knowledge of mark making into the digital medium. These printmaking techniques are evident in his use of negative space, specifically where fine lines of color break up the black silhouettes of his figures. He is also influenced by the Impressionist paintings of Monet and Seurat.
Through his art, Eads expresses complex themes, such as the notion of an eternal soul and the passage of time. He gives the soul a physical form, suggesting “something inside us in between the heart and the mind.”
You can see more of his work at www.jamesreads.com.
Today, we dip back into Tin House #59: Memory, for this conversation between Rachel Kushner and Dana Spiotta, both faculty at this year’s Summer Writer’s Workshop.
Dana Spiotta and Rachel Kushner mine our artistic and political history in a way that few contemporary novelists do. They are the descendents of DeLillo and Didion, but each has struck out on her own to stake claim on new fictional ground. Both writers’ work is characterized by their sharpness of language and their precise emotional registers, as well as their ambitious, politically charged themes. Spiotta is the author of three novels, Lightning Field, Eat the Document (a finalist for the National Book Award), and Stone Arabia (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award). Kushner is the author of two novels, Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers, both of which were finalists for the National Book Award.
In the fall of 2013, Kushner ventured east from her Los Angeles home and taught a seminar on Proust at Syracuse University, where Spiotta is on the faculty. On the occasion of these two great writers and thinkers being in the same place at the same time, we asked them to talk about process and cultural memory. Not only did they oblige, but they also went down a few surprising and inspiring avenues, including how to make a life out of one’s idiosyncratic strength and how to achieve “bravery from reading.”
Dana Spiotta: Can you describe your writing process? Where did you begin with each of your novels? How did you find your way into them?
Rachel Kushner: Because I’ve written only two novels, I don’t quite feel there is a system. Or maybe I don’t want to settle into the confidence of thinking there is one. The process was perhaps different with the first, Telex from Cuba, than with the second, The Flamethrowers. But there were elements of commonality. I’m drawn to images and seem to start with them. Or one. Something I imagine, a scene or detail, or even a photograph, something that has a charge of meaning that can’t be easily reduced. With the first book, I had gone to Cuba and spent almost a month there—just for a trip, not to write about it—and while visiting the newly renovated Castro family farmhouse, which is near Preston, a former American colony, I realized that the place had been recently painted the color that United Fruit painted all their company homes, a bright but chalky mustard yellow. I thought, Hmm. Perverse. The long answer to how Fidel’s revolutionary government could come to accidentally coat its leader’s boyhood home in the paint of the American occupier would probably require a whole novel. And yet I don’t get near trying to explain that specific thing in the actual book I wrote. Rather, I delved into the atmosphere that was imported and sustained by the Americans, the ways in which they witnessed and maybe sped up the oncoming revolution by their more or less colonial presence on the island.
With The Flamethrowers, I was thinking about New York City in the 1970s, the kind of classic image of the looters in the Bronx during the blackout of July 1977. And downtown at that time, the artists, the way their pieces were also sometimes a kind of looting, Gordon Matta-Clark breaking into an empty pier building and sawing a giant half-moon-shaped hole in it. So I started with that: New York as a blighted place of freedom and unpredictability. But very quickly, I made a kind of sharp left into what was going on in Italy in the 1970s. I was thinking of an image of one hundred thousand people pouring into the streets of Rome, also in 1977, just a few months before the blackout. And I had a photograph that I’d printed out and taped up, of a girl in theater makeup, singing, a playful act of defiance, countered by police with tear-gas canisters.
In short, I think, daydream, take notes, and, finally, try to find the tone. That can take a very long time. I don’t really move forward until I’ve found the tone, the register, of the telling. I’m sad to be reminded that the tone of both books took me quite a while to locate. But once it was located, then things moved along swiftly. There was no middle for me, somehow, with either of those novels. There was a long beginning, a rooting in the dark, and then a hurtling toward the end.
DS: We are very happy to have you teaching Proust in the Syracuse MFA program this fall. Can you tell me how your work has been influenced and inspired by Proust? I find I return to the novels that help me feel brave and take bigger risks. What does reading Proust permit you to do in your own work? Which other writers (fiction and nonfiction) do you return to for inspiration?
RK: It’s been a lot of fun and also a real honor being an interloper at your program. I like that idea, of getting bravery from reading, instead of from whiskey (which I don’t drink). It changes for me what writers and books I go to. For boldness, with The Flamethrowers, it was perhaps Céline, Journey to the End of the Night, and Gaddis—but specifically the first novel, The Recognitions, which for me is something singular and apart from his later work. With Telex, it was Duras, and Alejo Carpentier, and maybe Baudelaire and Genet. Also Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea, which is crazy, on account of its long prologue. No one would get away with that now. We have absolutely no equivalent to Victor Hugo. Proust is always an inspiration to me, and teaching him has been exhilarating: it’s the only word that can describe the experience of rereading him as a teacher, the one who is supposed to walk into class with a structure, a theory, and help form a bridge between the practice of writing and Proust’s literature. His book is a wonderful laboratory on the formation of an artist, and as a rumination on the properties of art, and of genius, and, of course, on all the earthly stuff of daily life, jealousy, love, memory, egos, ambition, loss, the social world, Second Empire and turn-of-the-century France, and so on and so forth. I think when I first read him I felt inspired to take my time with each sentence, letting it flow to its needed length, with phrases that take little trips, become tributaries that then rejoin the main point, all in the interest not of indulgence but of precision, to render a truth that has an exact and full meaning. Sometimes language, rhetorically called into service, can clip or reduce, for its effect. With Proust, that never happens. The rhetorical structure is bigger, more complicated, initially more difficult to navigate than a lot of literature, because it is fully in service to meaning: it is meaning. In Proust, the sentence is never a trick of language.
He had an unparalleled command of language and an otherworldly gift at putting it to use telling the secrets about what it’s like to be alive. It’s hard to express all this briefly without sounding both corny and kind of reductive. He’s the master. The more I read him, the more convinced of this I am.
DS: Can you tell me about your early writing? Did you work on short stories? If so, what were they like?
RK: My early writing is poetry. Then the poems became prose and I decided to try to get an MFA in fiction, so I wrote “stories” in order to apply, and then when I went to Columbia, I worked on stories because that was what everyone else was doing, and I felt out of my depth and wanted to go along to get along. It’s probably not that simple, but it’s hard for me to think back, now, and recall ever wanting to be a writer of short stories. The goals, the arc, the structure, the pressure on the sentence, the need for an epiphany: I don’t relate to it even remotely. My earliest writing, from elementary school, is strangely not all that different from how I write now. There is something about the tone that is the same. I wrote a novel in first grade. It’s very short and has, you know, illustrations. It’s called, “The Richest Cat in Hestery” [sic]. It’s about a “plutocat” who flaunts his wealth and thinks he’s superior and goes around putting down the other cats. By the end of the book, needless to say, he is mauled and driven off by them. Maybe my endings are less predictable now. I hope so.
DS: Did you ever have a breakthrough moment in your writing? What helped you develop into the writer you are today?
RK: I guess finding the right tone for Telex was a breakthrough. There are parts of it—the prologue, and a late chapter in which an American social club is bombed—that were, initially, more like prose poems, and I decided, just . . . that’s who I am. I don’t have to approach the novel as other people do. Now that idea seems like, Well, of course. The idea is to use your secret idiosyncratic strength, just exploit the hell out of it, make of it a life, a synthetic reality. But initially, I did not have the confidence in myself to do that. Once you do do that, there is really no risk, I don’t think, of being overly affected by influence, because anything you read goes into the brew, the brew of one. A solipsism that takes in the world, but remains itself. Continue reading
My mother and I found The Desert Fathers in a Kansas City used bookstore called Prospero’s. It was my second trip to the store and her first—I brought her there after discovering a tall shelf devoted to Catholic spirituality that I knew she would want to see. While we browsed the packed display tables, one of the employees snored in an armchair while another laughed at his coworker from behind the counter. On one table, bundled together as if from a single donor, my mom and I found a sort of mystical trove: The Flowers of St. Francis, Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation, Calvino’s Mr. Palomar, and The Desert Fathers—Helen Waddell’s 1936 translation of the stories and sayings of fourth-century Christian monks living in the deserts of northern Egypt. We grabbed them all and walked past the sleeping employee to the counter, where my mother insisted on buying them for me, as a gift. The book would stay on my nightstand, along with the other mystical texts, for about a month.
It was a strange summer for me, and I think my mother’s gift was a small kindness acknowledging this. I’d just finished a year on a writing fellowship and, with no clear idea of what I’d do next and no money coming in until a nannying job began in the fall, I subleased my Ann Arbor apartment and moved in with my family in Kansas City for the summer. I spent those months staining strangers’ decks, watering plants, digging post holes, and, in one case, shaping a pile of five hundred bricks into a tidy stack of five hundred bricks. At night I’d return to my parents’ house covered in red deck stain, looking like I’d been attacked by wolves. I was lonely and often theatrically sad.
The other, greater reason she bought me the books was our shared interest in Catholic mysticism. Mine was ostensibly for fiction. I had grown up in Indiana, attending a strict Catholic school (a pre-Vatican II throwback) where we wore uniforms and were required to attend Mass every morning. At eighteen I had moved with my family to Kansas, where members of Fred Phelps’ congregation protested my college graduation with crude signs that read “GOD HATES FAGS!” By the time I applied for an MFA in fiction, I had disavowed religion entirely. Over the course of graduate school, I had come to explore religious themes in my writing, but with a what I’d hoped to be an ethnographic remove.
My mother’s interest in Christian mysticism was deeper and more urgent: In the fall she would begin the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius—a program of guided mediations and mental exercises—at a nearby Jesuit parish. She was preparing herself.
It was these, the Spiritual Exercises, that would finally bring me to read The Desert Fathers. Shortly before I returned to Michigan, my mother told me she had finished her written account of her faith journey to submit to her potential spiritual director. I asked if I could read it. Instead, she read it to me aloud, by the TV in the living room.
She’d written the story of her life: her identification with God the Father after her own father’s death when she was ten, her marriage to my father, her brother’s death from AIDS in 1995.
“Kansas was a desert,” she said, referring to the year my family moved from Muncie, Indiana, where my brother, sister, and I had been born and where she’d lived for twenty years, to Manhattan, Kansas. She talked about my brother’s and sister’s difficulties with the move, my depression, and her loneliness in all of it. This desert had humbled her, she said, and made her rely on God. This, all of it, was the first frank account of her loneliness and suffering I’d ever heard from her.
I asked if I could have a copy, and before she turned in the original to the Jesuits, she gave me a photocopy of the handwritten pages.
Later, while thinking about what she’d said about the desert, I picked up The Desert Fathers and began reading.
I found myself confused as to where, exactly, The Desert Fathers began, or what it was in the first place. The men known as the Desert Fathers (or simply “The Fathers”) fled the cities of Alexandria and Thebes to found their desert communities in the third and fourth centuries. For the next millennium their stories and sayings existed in various editions until they were compiled in the Vitae Patrum (“The Lives of the Fathers”) by a seventeenth-century Jesuit named Heribert Rosweyde. The resulting text is a messy, multi-book anthology—a patchwork of histories, accounts, books-within-books by different authors, many the subjects of biographies of their own (St. Jerome, John Cassian). Waddell’s The Desert Fathers, published in 1936, is a selected translation of the larger, motley text.
Helen Waddell’s reputation nowadays is modest (she edited the journal The Nineteenth Century, socialized with Max Beerbohm, George Bernard Shaw, and Siegfried Sassoon), but her output—a novel, two plays, nearly a dozen translations of medieval Latin verse—is astounding. Her 1936 introduction to The Desert Fathers gives a sense of her energy. Here, Waddell gives an overview of the Desert Fathers’ philosophy and legacy, mostly through reproducing the accounts of their lives found later in the book, or framing the Fathers’ ethics in contrast to the Roman civets of their urban, humanist contemporaries. What is more interesting, however, is the stirring moment in which Waddell champions what the Desert offers the human arrogance of her own time. After an anecdote of a young monk’s sad, unnecessary death, she offers her own, frank Jeremiad that reads as a prophesy not only for the world war only three years in the future, but for the rest of the twentieth century as well:
For the martyr’s grave of these lesser pilgrims is not only the waste of youth in human experience. Leaving aside the annihilation of an entire generation in four years, not yet a quarter of a century ago, how many have died or been maimed in chemical or biological research: how many liter the track to the Northern or Southern Pole: how many have been taken by Everest and his peers: how many dead and still to die in the conquest of the air, or in that last exploration which gives this generation its nearest approach to religious ecstasy, the annihilation of space in speed? (22-23)
As for the lives and sayings of the Fathers themselves, the text is certainly hagiography. Abbott Macarius converses with a severed head (XX.xvi). Agathonicus cuddles with a lion (Patrum Spirituale clxvii). Occasionally the Devil shows up and complains about the monks’ annoying piety. But the most fascinating passages of the Vitae Patrum have nothing to do with the magical or miraculous. While much of the Vitae Patrum depicts frightening feats of self-denial and deprivation (what might look like eating disorders to modern readers), others offer mysterious, moving stories of love and compassion:
There is another place in the inner desert […] called Cellia. To this spot those who have had their first initiation and who desire to live a remoter life, stripped of all its trappings, withdraw themselves: for the desert is vast, and the cells are sundered from one another by so wide a space that none is in sight of his neighbor, nor can any voice be heard. One by one they abide in their cells, a mighty silence and a great quiet among them: only on the Saturday and on the Sunday do they come together to church, and there they see each other face to face as folk restored in heaven. If by chance one is missing in that gathering, straightaway they understand that he has been detained by some unevenness of his body, and they all go to visit him… (History of the Monks of Egypt, xxii)
A certain brother had sinned, and the priest commanded him to go out from the church. But Bessarion rose up and went out with him, saying, “I too am a sinful man.” (IX.ii)
The Fathers privilege silence, and when they do speak, it is mostly in koans: “An old man said, ‘The cell of the monk is the furnace in Babylon, where the three young men found the Son of God: and it is also the pillar of cloud from which God spoke to Moses,’” (VI.xxxviii). The bulk of The Desert Fathers consists of terse parables depicting the monks’ rigor as they overcome the temptations of the world within and beyond their cells. As Waddell reminds us, “[T]he records are of their ways with men. There is little or nothing of their ways with God.” The monks, in keeping with their conception of God as a mysterious being, do little to define or contain the divine in terms of doctrine. These accounts are, in many ways, about the inexplicable nature of a god that lives somewhere far beyond language or comprehension. This is perhaps their greatest legacy. Thanks to the Fathers, Waddell says, “The sense of infinity is now in our blood.”
That summer, my Kansas City certainly wasn’t a desert. (If anything, it was a vast, sprinklered lawn.) But in The Desert Fathers I found a pursuit of holiness, of goodness, that was without dogma—one that has helped me find a “sense of infinity” in my own blood. And it was in my blood. Reading the Fathers’ book and hearing my mother’s testimony, I felt moved by the longing for a kind of truth I found in both accounts. It is this, the lonesome striving for truth and goodness, that I so admire in my mother. Together, they have helped me to understand religion as a language for the ineffable, not simply as an excuse for uniforms or hateful protest. They have allowed me to see myself as one of many inheritors of the ancient projects of making meaning in the sprawling deserts of the world, whether in Egypt or Kansas.
The end of Waddell’s selection offers the biographies of two women, St. Mary the Harlot and St. Pelagia, also known as “the Harlot.” As their titles suggest, these women’s stories are more about their conversions (credited to monks) rather than their wisdom. Reading beyond Waddell’s selection, however, I learned more about the other women who shared in these monks’ search for holiness in the desert. The accounts of the Fathers were written by men for a male monastic audience (no surprise here), and so the Mothers have mostly been overlooked—aside from the short “harlot” biographies, they represent only two or three lines within The Desert Fathers. But since the publication of Waddell’s translation, their lives have been rediscovered. Saint Paula, Amma Syncletica, Amma Sarah of the Desert. These women, like my mother, came to the desert striving for their own sense of the divine. There were Desert Mothers, too.
Daniel Hornsby‘s work has appeared in Indiana Review, DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry, and Unstuck. He is currently working on a novel.
As you may have noticed, we’re having some good old fashioned website problems. We’re working on restoring the content we lost (including the online excerpts from our new Faith Issue and the last few months of blog material. We’ll try to have your favorite recent Art of the Sentence, Lost & Found, and Flash Fridays posts up again ASAP. In the meantime, to revisit our Flash Fridays series, you can always check those stories out on the Guardian Books Network.
Now, because you deserve something new and shiny when you visit The Open Bar, please enjoy this excerpt from the Faith Issue by Natalie Diaz.
THE HAND HAS TWENTY-SEVEN BONES
Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, where you go.
1. I make my faith in my hands. A writer can declare faith in nothing but must bear faith in her hands. Hands are the inventors of language. We make words for what we must do. Our words are made of hands. 2. The pen isn’t separate from the hand but like all instruments it is an extension of the hand. Pen becomes hand. 3. Written letters, manuscripts, are drawn like threads from the manus, are connected to the manus. Manus as puppeteer—bowing the n in supplication, lifting then lowering the leg of the h as it breaks into a run, opening the mouth of the v to its white teeth, making a cup of the u then drinking from it. 4. We press our hands into the page until the page becomes our body. We are an ouroboros—writing ourselves onto ourselves. 5. Consider your hand in its moment of making. Hold your fingers and thumb together so there is no space between them. In this pose it’s easy to remember your hand as it was in the beginning, before it became itself—a paddle, a fin, a solid clayed thing. This was before we were finished. 6. To be finished, the hand had to be broken. Lessened before it became more, split four times, crafting the fingers and thumb—our hand-some hydra. 7. Georgia O’Keefe called lover Alfred Stiegletz, my hand. She wrote, Greetings—my hand—It’s Sunday night 9:30— 8. I once had a lover I called my hand. 9. I had another lover whom I also called my hand. 10. Both lovers are gone. My hands remain. 11. My hands are an archive. 12. Some linguists believe masturbate is derived from the words manus (hand) and stuprare (defile). 13. A year ago, my mind and body wrecked. I had to find a new way. My doctor prescribed medicine I didn’t want to take. I talked about this worry to a friend, who is also a poet and doctor. He said, You need to masturbate. I laughed. He said, You need to masturbate a lot. 14. The scientific explanation: orgasm releases oxytocin and lowers cortisol. (Midwives once masturbated women suffering hysteria as a type of treatment.) I took my medicine and my friend’s advice. 15. My hands wanted to touch your hands / because we had hands, wrote Frank Bidart. It’s a mise en abyme—he wrote about his hands with his own hands. To touch a lover’s hands with our hands, to know our hands in a new way through hands not ours, to become them as they are becoming you, is to be placed into the abyss of touch. 16. Physics say we never truly touch anything. Electrons in our hands repel electrons in the object we think we are touching. Touch is the brain’s interpretation of the repulsion taking place between our body’s electrons and the object’s electromagnetic field. 17. The feeling of touch is just luck. 18. In alchemy, the Hand of Mysteries represents the transformation of man into god. The symbols above each finger signify the formula for physicorum, a red ethereal fluid that can turn any substance into gold. 19. There are twenty-seven bones in the hand and twenty-seven protons in the nucleus of an atom of cobalt. Cobalt blue. Our hands are the masters of our blues. How many times have I given up my head for them to hold? 20. Are the acts my hands act on my behalf, the tasks I set them to upon her body, different than what our creators did when they molded our bodies? When I am behind her, my hands pressing her hips and shoulders, she pushing back into me, doesn’t it seem as if my hands have conjured her? From this position, if you looked upon us, would you believe she is leaping brand-new from my rib? 21. A hand lying on the shoulder or thigh of another body no longer belongs completely to the one it came from, wrote Rilke. I don’t know if he wrote this before or after he pushed his wife down the stairs. Pushed implying hands—perhaps there was a moment when they were not his hands fully but half hers. Did he believe she shared the blame? 22. In Florence I saw the hand of David. Like the way Athena was born from the axed-open head of Zeus, David’s body must have escaped from this soft marble hand. Michelangelo’s hand again and again upon the hand of David—the bend of his fingers and his own smooth veins. A hand giving birth to a hand. 23. Cheiromancy divines the future by studying lines of the hand. To know my hands is to know me—they are my thoughts. Their wishes become mine. Read my hand, can’t you tell they will soon reach to touch her? 24. My hands—my body’s gates of tenderness, the tools of my wonders. The things I reach out with—toward her wrist, toward the orange and the stone alike, into every darkness before me. Strikers of flame to the lantern wick, looseners of the laces of my shoes. 25. Again and again they command the copper button of her pants back through the button loop and each time it is no different than leaping a bright tiger through a fiery hoop to the applause and whistles of the crowd of blood dizzying my head—all this, the circus of love, the lighting of dark, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, at the tips of my fingers. My little makers, my ringmasters, my revelers of joy. 26. Without the hand, the lamp would stay cold. 27. I’m an artist because of my hands. They are two artists building things with me. My hands, me—we are three in one.
Natalie Diaz was born in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. She splits life between Princeton, New Jersey, and the Mojave Desert.
For readers of Jon Krakauer and Susan Orlean, The Coyote’s Bicycle brings to life a never-before-told phenomenon at our southern border, and the human drama of those that would cross.
Prologue: EVERYBODY LOVES A BIKE
This is the story of several thousand bicycles that made an incredible journey. They were very ordinary, used bicycles. Mountain bikes, with their knobby tires and sturdy frames, made up a large percentage of the total. Some of these sported shocks and disc brakes—accessories you might think necessary for a trip of this distance and nature. But there were also fragile-looking ten-speeds, three-speeds, and fixed-gears. I once glimpsed a pink-and-purple girl’s bike with a small white seat and frills at the handle grips. Heavy American beach cruisers rolled on comfortable balloon tires. English roadsters and Dutch omafiets suggested sleek market runs down grass-lined lanes. The bikes were made in France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and China. They were adorned in all manners, but the consistent theme was an admirable patina of road wear, rust, dings, dents, and scrapes. The seats and handle grips took the shapes of the bodies that touched them. Yet there were bikes with no seats, no brakes. Some bore labels of origin—shop emblems, registration stickers, or evidence of sale at auction by a police department. In a superstitious, totem-like fashion, an unknown cyclist had drawn simple, elegant waves along the black rubber sidewalls of an unremarkable bike’s tire—giving it the blessing of oceanic drift. There was another cycle I remember because of its brilliance: a classic lowrider fashioned from a boy’s Schwinn, with the “ape-hanger” handlebars, crushed velvet banana seat, gold piping, and gold-colored rims. The bike lay on its side, spokes sparkling in the dirt like a roulette of icicles. Many of the bikes fell into the category of “utility,” a style that peaked in the 1960s and conjured the image of a straight-backed professor pedaling between ivy towers. There were a number of rugged BMX racing bikes that evoked sunny suburban lots and dirty socks. A few high-tech-looking road bikes and classic gems turned up, but soon vanished. I never saw a tandem bicycle, but could easily have missed it. A high-wheel would have been impossible. Clown bikes, depending on personal definitions, abounded. Most of the bikes were not worth much. Some of them were missing important parts. All of them had generated thousands of dollars in their life spans. They had been snatched up by criminals, confiscated by police, purchased by human smugglers, dumped in a swamp, sold to a movie studio, contracted to the military, utilized in war training, co-opted in prisoner reform, donated to orphans, sold at swap meets, cycled and recycled again and again.
Not one human being who influenced the course of the bikes understood their full trajectory or end destination. No one knew how far they had traveled in a group. Few who handled or pedaled them were aware of their specific bike’s origin, its next step, or even its next owner. The bikes were not invisible, but at important stages, they were unseen.
The journey was not made entirely on their own two wheels.
The bicycles rode in trucks packed tight alongside boxes of AK-47s, grenade launchers, and pyrotechnics. They shipped out to a small, craggy, restricted island off the coast of California called San Clemente. They were crammed into the backs of border-enforcement vehicles. They flew to the Hawaiian archipelago. They drove north to Canada, east to Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia. The bikes rolled over the Mexican border powered by the feet of illegal immigrants. They rolled under the seats of actors and horse trainers and pumpkin farmers. Convicts rode them in prison. Real soldiers preparing for battle in Afghanistan took time out to pop wheelies on them. Finally, after years of service, the bikes again coasted under the feet of regular citizens, boys and girls. The bikes are out there now, still rolling. You might own one yourself. Most of their riders have no idea how well traveled their well-worn wheels really are.
When I tell the story of the bikes, listeners invariably ask, “How do you know?” or “Who arranged it all?”
To the first question, all I can say is that I happened upon a large pile of ordinary bikes in an unlikely place, under bizarre circumstances. Everybody likes bikes, I’ll say, and when I saw this motley collection of tubes and cranks and frames and wheels—the bicycle equivalent of a shipyard after a hurricane—I discovered that I liked these bikes most of all. I am a person attracted to thrift stores and yard sales. The more battered and unloved an item’s appearance sparks an equal and opposite sentiment in me. But I wasn’t the only one. A small, feverish cadre of people—ranchers and farmers and alley-trawlers—drawn by the mysterious arrival of bicycles in the bushes, in the river, abreast trails, by the roadside and under bridges, bicycles that poured down with a winter rain that seemed never to end, stopped to pick them up without knowing why. Or, maybe, even caring. Lucky finds don’t inspire deep inquiry.
I, however, am also attracted to a yarn, to irony, circularity, and meaning. It is a documentary flaw, I know. Phenomenal events take place without portent or meaning every day. And so, despite the mystery of the bicycles in plain sight, it is understandable that not many who wheeled their prizes homeward ever bothered to ask why—why here? A front-page article in the city’s only major newspaper reported the event but never asked as much—emitting only a “Huh, look, a bunch of bikes.”
And yet, varying ideas of value just might help answer the question of “Who arranged it all?” Because, maybe, we all did. A pile of discarded cars is an eyesore called a junkyard. The last time I entered a junkyard, I needed a rear turn-signal assembly for a 1982 Nissan extra-cab. I didn’t look around or admire the other clunkers. Bikes, however, belong to that class of essentially elegant innovations of travel—an airship, an airplane’s wing, a sailboat’s hull, a keel, a kite, the fin of a surfboard, a bicycle in motion. Bicycles execute the willpowers of the people who buy, find, steal, trade, and use them; they mark the memories of the people who love them. I like to think that it was the curious sight of ownerless cycles descended from nowhere that sits at the heart of this tale—because suddenly they became available to the will of whoever came upon them next; suddenly their destinies were without limit. I didn’t collect the bicycles myself. I merely wanted to know where they came from and where they were going and how far they could get. I began to understand the nature of their remarkable journey only by seeking out, speaking to, and investigating the people who had handled them one to the next.
At a certain point, as I charted the expanse of the bikes’ adventure, I tried to draw rude diagrams and flow charts. I once tried to draw a map of the journey, but this was difficult; I needed to illustrate things as big as the world yet include details as small as a ditch. In truth, I felt as though I’d caught the tail of a comet, all of the glinting and glittering bits shooting past in the darkness and somehow the very trailing end slowing just enough to get me all tangled up in it. The question of the bikes cost me a good few productive work years when I could least afford it. Following worthless bikes, I was warned a number of times, could cost me everything. On a couple of occasions, I was told, “Don’t end up with your head in a bucket,” and “You might end up off in the desert somewhere.” This was due to the fact that on my own, I was unqualified to sniff this story out. My Spanish is questionable. I’m not a criminal. I’m not affiliated with the military. My motives to expose the story ran at odds with the interests of those who knew the story best. There was no way I could ever keep up with either the speed or trajectory of this comet. It was headed for strange places and worlds that wouldn’t admit a regular, unassociated citizen like myself.
So on the trail, I made unlikely allies: movie makers, a Border Patrol agent, a Homeland Security investigator, a couple of Navy SEALs, a few ranchers, some environmentalists, human rights activists, human smugglers—people Mexicans generally refer to as “malandros” or bad guys—bike freaks, social agitators, artists, architects, academics, and people obsessed in various ways with small aspects of a story I couldn’t always explain. Everybody likes bikes, was my simple premise. Everybody likes to talk about bikes. And to get this story right, I had to believe that people like to talk about bikes to the extent that they’ll talk about them even while they’re stealing them, fencing them, breaking them down into sellable pieces.
The most critical part, however, the questions of where the bikes I was interested in had come from, and how they ended up in ownerless piles, was only answered after I made an alliance that became a friendship, with a fifty-year-old, ex-con deportee who worked at the public bathrooms in Tijuana and lived in a fake ship. Our meeting was not preordained, but it was meaningful in a way that defied logical connections. Because, as it turned out, El Negro was not just a man with entrée but an extraordinary investigator who delved into the border slums. And from his underworld interviews—with the dons of Tijuana smuggling and itinerant cycle mechanics alike—I was able to piece together the story of El Indio, an impoverished child of campesinos who walked out of his tiny Oaxacan village, arrived at la frontera, and built an empire on the strength of a single foolhardy idea.
Abandoned bicycles hold the unique ability of reflecting the desires of their finders. They are equally junk and prizes. Art and vehicles. They move people and goods and plans along. They become machines in the service of their riders’ willpowers and destinies. By following the mass of these bikes that caught my eye even as they rested, I thought I’d discover just where that collective willpower and destiny led.
Everybody likes bikes.
Kimball Taylor is a longtime contributor to Surfer Magazine, and the author of two books about the sport: Return by Water: Surf Stories and Adventures and Drive Fast and Take Chances. Taylor holds a BA in journalism, a MFA in creative writing, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.
The first thing you should know is that I had the privilege of witnessing nearly every poem in Amanda Nadelberg’s remarkable new book, Songs from a Mountain, move through multiple draft stages and sometimes into radically different forms.
Amanda and I have been friends for a long time. Since her Minneapolis days, when she lived in a 1920s apartment with iron radiators that clanked and hissed six months out of every year. This was in the Linden Hills neighborhood, which is neither terribly hilly, nor full of an unusual number of linden trees.
So how can it be that Amanda’s poems are still so wonderfully mysterious to me? I should be the world’s defining expert, but I still feel like a total novice. I think it would be easier for me to explain lava. Songs from a Mountain is swirling and immersive in ways that make it very difficult to describe outside of the poems. As its title suggests, it’s a book that invents a new kind of mythic singing for our distracted, troubled age.
John Ashbery says of this book: “Amanda Nadelberg’s poetry resembles a city where all kinds of things are happening at once, some of them funny and others pretty scary. The quasi-epic ‘Matson’ takes the form of a swarm. Suddenly words, thousands of them, have accrued to this particular subject; no one knows why. Its mass is almost frightening but good to be with. Songs from a Mountain is a dizzying achievement that rings out loud and precise and clear.”
Dobby Gibson: Because I think it’s one way to understand the shape of your new book, can we begin by having you describe the shape of your daily routine?
Amanda Nadelberg: Oh good one. I work in the city in the afternoon for a nonprofit environmental law firm, so I spend the morning at home usually. I wake up early, I enjoy coffee, one cup now. I walk up these crazy staircases and little paths on the Oakland / Berkeley border that have helped me improve my decision making skills and also function as a natural gym, of which I make use now that I have this new bionic hip (five years now). Sometimes I walk up the hills with my next-door neighbor. I’ll do side jobs like editing for other people in the morning, sometimes I write but not regularly. I read. I read the news and send articles to my parents. I write you and others emails. In the late morning I walk thirteen minutes to Bart and wait for about seven more because I’m always early even though it only takes me thirteen minutes to walk a distance I allow twenty for, and then I ride twenty minutes more into the city (if I’m lucky there is a dance performance and clapping on the train car) where I go to work and as a Receptionist and moonlight there (in the day) as a therapist/candy-bartender/life guru to the good people I work with, telling them about companies that stand by their return policies (L.L. Bean) and Marie Kondo (I’ve converted at least 2 people) or how you should only buy plane tickets on Tuesdays—I let them know when cookie-cakes, flowers, and their packages have arrived, I ask a lot of questions, sometimes about what they’re reading and watching, and on one occasion accidentally helped a guy remember it was his anniversary—while the doorbells and phones ring, faxes come and go. At 3:00 each day I have a 20-minute break and take a small walk in the FiDi, maybe I find a penny, I began to pick them up again two years ago, and I hear what people say and what they’re constructing today, who is honking at whom. The city still feels make-believe to me, how can it go on? I go home after 5 and sometimes take the bus with my friend (it’s slightly more expensive but a lot nicer of a way to go home, above the Bay than below) or sometimes get squished on the train, watching passengers be horrible to each other. I walk home, I make dinner, sometimes I meet friends. I don’t have a dishwasher—I wonder if I ever will—I wash the dishes. My closest friends don’t live here so I communicate with them. I don’t know if I’ll ever enjoy texting. I use the telephone. I talk to my sister. I try to remember to do 20 or 30 pushups, since last December, which I associate with beginning to watch Game of Thrones but I think it’s unrelated. I look at the calendar a lot like it’s a book to read, not with appointments, just the empty days. I go to bed at a reasonable hour because sleep is important, it’s nature’s best beauty aid, no it’s not (yes it is).
DG: Interesting that you don’t mention any kind of daily “poetry practice” (poetry is not pushups!), and yet the poems in this book exude an unmistakeable dailiness. Sometimes I even experience them as elegies for the very dailiness out of which they appear to have sprung. Did these poems just sort of occur to you everywhere? I’m thinking of that Ashbery quote where he says he senses poems going on all the time in his head, and to write one he simply has to reach up and snip off a length.
AN: In the past couple years I’ve tried not rushing to record things when they happen, to see if they’ll come back (or if other things will) when I make time to write. I’ve lost a lot of lines, surely, but I’ve also become more trusting of the whole process. I’ve never been someone who writes every morning, and I don’t think I’ll ever be. (I’d rather do something else than sit there and force a bad poem into the apartment.) And while I do a lot more editing than I did ten years ago, I see how a few of the poems, at least the ones with longer forms, create a shape for days to fit into. I think you’re right, that there is an accumulation of thinking and then a form is sprung, and the actual writing becomes a way to record time. I realized in the last few years that it’s good to use the life you’re in to make forms. When I was little and on a swim team I’d create these little games to combat the boredom of laps, (i.e. when I’m between the flags and the wall a shark can get me, or when I’m between the flags and the flags a shark can get me, etc.) and in the past few years I see how I’ve found my way back to that kind of logic in making forms for poems, and once the form is there—however imaginary—it’s a container. Form is another word for propulsion. Matson, for instance, I began on Memorial Day weekend, 2013, and ended by Labor Day, and I spent the summer in it. That was a container (and rudimentary form) for those particular days. And when I wanted to write, the writing went into that.
DG: So let’s talk about Matson for a second, an important poem to this book. Here, not only is form a “container for…days,” as you say, but the poem’s triggering subject is a particular form of container: a shipping container. For those who don’t know—which is probably nearly everyone—what is Matson? And how did your daily Matson experience get poured into this particular poem container?
AN: I started working where I do in the city in the fall of 2012. The first day, while commuting—nervous, disoriented by Bart manners and protocol—I noticed as the train went past the Port of Oakland these beautiful arrangements of shipping containers, and they appeared to me as a concrete poem in space, and I wrote in my notebook a little picture as if they were a concrete poem with the accompanying sounds of “Matson, Matson, Matson!” Each day the configuration would be a little different, a few of the vessels removed or delivered. On some days the big Matson ship would be there too, picking up things for the sea. And there’s this actual audible element, when the train goes by the Port, it slows a little and in slowing it makes a new note—sometimes I wonder about commissioning a composer to write the music of the commute, there are also bell sounds when you’re in the tunnels approaching a station—I think the note by the port is a little higher, and it kind of emits an “Aaaaaaaaa!” Holy Heavens sound which tends to make me turn from the highway to the water and there would stand this little concrete poem of Matsons built. So since that first day I knew that I wanted to write a poem called Matson but it wasn’t until eight or so months later that I realized the form: a simple doubling of stanzas creating accumulations of lines and then decreasing back into a couplet. (But! Deciding to begin the form happened to directly precede a listserv job blast about a position at the Matson shipping HQ. I almost wept from the coincidence which became a kind of mandate. I mean what are we looking toward in life if not that?) To answer your other question, Matson is a transportation company with the mission to “Move freight better than anyone.” I think it also used to serve as a tourism cruise company, but now no more. The Matson building on Market Street is also beautiful, though I never noticed it until long after the poem was finished. In the winter of 2014, Matson’s dock moved, so it’s harder now to see from the Bart rails. It’s so funny how cumulative increments of time prove the changes in things. For instance, there have been three different flower shops in the same little spot on my walk to the train station. Still flowers. But textured depictions of time and efforts in the form of brick and mortar. Continue reading
This month sees the release of our newest issue, the Faith issue. Read our Editor Rob Spillman’s introduction below, scope some hopefully tantalizing quotes, read a few excerpts online, and then buy the issue or—better yet—subscribe! We have faith you’ll make the right call.
Samuel Beckett famously ended his novel The Unnamable “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Why? How? Is it faith that drives us onward? And if so, faith in what? Writers have struggled with this question since the first hominids started scratching symbols into rocks. Do we put our faith in our survival skills or create a pantheon of deities to guide and protect us? By the Twentieth Century, writers like Beckett put their faith in words. In our time of worldwide upheavals and immanent climate catastrophe, our faith in words is under constant assault. Yet writers do go on. For Joy Williams, a selection of micro-fictions from 99 Stories of God (soon to be published by Tin House Books) grapples with many of the same themes of her nearly fifty years of writing—the divine and the uncanny. Poet Natalie Diaz writes, “I make my faith in my hands.” Alan Lightman puts his faith in the laws of nature, while Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid contemplates the fraught nature of writing in a country named after faith. President Obama’s favorite writer-interview subject, Marilynne Robinson, argues that “faith and religion are neither synonyms nor antonyms.” Mira Ptacin visits Maine in search of the Spiritualists, while Alex Mar examines the life and legacy of Doreen Valiente, the Mother of Modern Witchcraft. Father-and-son authors Jonathan and Adam Wilson discuss their faith in the family seder, the rituals and food that transcend time and space. In his primer on the history of faith, James Carse makes the case for complexity and how not to define religion. We know that there are no simple answers to questions of faith, but after reading this issue perhaps you will be as Plato said, “twice armed if we fight with faith.” Our hope is that you are fighting the good fight.
“What is redemption, real redemption? It is sometimes ordinary. It is my parents saving Green Stamps so that their daughter, raised in a little North Dakota town can listen to King Lear every night as she falls asleep.”
“During a particularly easy period for things unrelated to the complicated business of baby-making, a YouTube series I’d started, called Nate Draws the Internet, took off.”
“This world compares to the next world as sleeping does to wakefulness.”
“Quantum mechanics doesn’t somehow salvage the supernatural, but it does introduce quite a weird and seemingly ineradicable wiggle into the natural.”
“I make my faith in my hands. A writer can declare faith in nothing but must bear faith in her hands.”
“A few times in my life I’ve felt a woosh of divinity, but never do I sense the invisible world more strongly than I do in one of my favorite novels.”
“Seven children squatted in a semicircle surrounding him in the middle of the railway footbridge, almost pressing him against the barrier, just as they had done some half an hour earlier when they first attacked him in order to rob him, exactly so in fact, except by now none of them thought it worthwhile either to attack or to rob him, since it was obvious that, on account of certain unpredictable factors, robbing or attacking him was possible but pointless because he really didn’t seem to have anything worth taking, the only thing he did have appearing to be some mysterious burden, the existence of which, gradually, at a certain point in Korin’s madly rambling monologue—which ”to tell you the truth,” as they said, “was boring as shit”—became apparent, most acutely apparent in fact, when he started talking about the loss of his head, at which point they did not stand up and leave him babbling like some half-wit, but remained where they were, in the positions they had originally intended to adopt, squatting immobile in a semicircle, because the evening had darkened around them, because the gloom descending silently on them in the industrial twilight numbed them, and because this frozen dumb condition had drawn their most intense attention, not to the figure of Korin which had swum beyond them, but to the one object remaining: the rails below.” —László Krasznahorkai, War & War, trans. George Szirtes
This is the second sentence of the novel War & War. The first, consisting of just twenty-three mostly single-syllable words, is more dramatic—its purpose, I suspect, to pull the reader into the narrative—a little getting one’s feet wet before the plunge. It works, too, but I have to say this second one made me twitch with absolute pleasure, in large part because of its length. Long sentences are like unpacking complicated gifts, gifts that often are not what they appear to be on the surface, and Krasznahorkai is a contemporary master of this kind of unwinding, begun, he once said, as a way for him to wrap himself in a shield of words that the (then) Communist state could not penetrate—not so dissimilar to the way Korin’s rambles protect him from the mini-thugs.
The next thing I love here is the situation: a guy is intimidated by children in a sort of reversal of roles that demonstrates simultaneously 1) his powerlessness and 2) his maintaining power by ignoring his tormentors, all contained in a single unit of thought. One of the other things about long sentences is there’s plenty of room for things to happen inside them; they’re little novels, in a way. And speaking of things happening, notice in this case how the pronouns shift from him to them, and also how the vision slides from being in the middle of things (with semicircles and halves, and twilight) to that last view of the “one object remaining: the rails below.” So this is a sentence that manages to waver between being vaguely threatening and comic, then ends on that ominous note of the rails below.
One of the other pleasurable things about any long sentence (in fact, almost a requirement for a long sentence) is that the whole thing be tied together by patterns of repetition. Here the repeated words are: rail, squat, semicircle, attack, point, and apparent, as well as all the pronouns. (Repeated sounds also hold long sentences together, but I’m not even going to try here because this is a translation.) Plus, there’s an unexpected bonus. Right after the tantalizing hint of “a mysterious burden,” comes the lovely moment smack in the middle of this sentence where the menacing children themselves are allowed to speak, to force themselves into the scene as if they are being interviewed (by whom?) about the quality of Korin’s monologue. Their verdict: “boring as shit.”
Finally, as is often true in the openings of many stories and books—although we can’t know this at the time we are reading it—the whole terrific novel that follows this will in fact be a digressive, tragic, and comic journey from here to “the rails below.”
So if you haven’t guessed, I’m a huge Krasznahorkai fan, and not only for his long sentences (the one I quoted is a baby compared to most) but also for the rigorous seriousness of his vision. “Heaven is sad” is the author’s epigram that begins War & War. Yes indeed, but it’s also heaven.
Jim Krusoe is the author of the novels The Sleep Garden, Parsifal, Toward You, Erased, Girl Factory, and Iceland; two collections of stories; and five books of poetry. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund. He teaches at Santa Monica College and lives in Los Angeles.
A man stops and stares at the water for a long time, looking for something. A while later, he walks away.
You see him from a distance. You are sitting, watching, you realize, the man watching the water. Did he find what he was looking for? You decide to approach the water to see if you can find it too, some meaning perhaps, some small vision.
When you arrive, are near enough to see the ripples approaching the edge at which you stand, you have your answer, or, really, two possibilities: either he did not find what he was looking for because it was not there, or he did, and he took it away with him.
Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of several books, most recently To Keep Love Blurry, and is the editor of Once and For All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz, due out in April from New Directions. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and children.
From our Theft Issue, the tables turn as Mary Higgins Clark gets robbed.
Eighteen years ago, I decided to insure my jewelry. I realized that over the years I had gradually accumulated valuable rings, necklaces, bracelets, and pins. The reason for my treasure trove was that every year when I turned in the latest book and got paid for it, I treated myself to an expensive reward for all my hard work. I also rationalized that with three daughters and two granddaughters everything I had would be greatly enjoyed by them in the future.
When I insured the jewelry, the insurer told me in no uncertain terms that I would have to keep it in a safe. Before that, I hid my goodies, except for what I was wearing, under old clothes in a box in my crowded attic. A new state-of-the-art security system was installed. The only problem was that we couldn’t figure out how to turn on the motion detector that would have signaled movement within the house.
One evening, we were going to a black-tie affair, so I was wearing some of my jewelry. At the dinner a waiter came to the table to say that there was an urgent phone call from the Saddle River police. Their message was that we had been burglarized. The police were searching for a gang of two or three men who had driven into town in a Mercedes. All wore ties and business suits, so they blended very well with the residents. The night we were robbed they hit three other houses in our neighborhood.
As it happened, even though the alarm would have been set off if any of the doors and windows had been opened, the sophisticated thieves had smashed a picture window in the library and gained access that way.
They did exit by opening the front door. I guess they didn’t want to risk crawling out over all the broken glass. When that door was opened, it triggered the alarm and the police immediately responded. By then the crooks had taken off with my jewelry in their Mercedes.
The new safe had been broken into as easily as though they had opened a can of tuna.
As I mourned my losses, I could only think that if my good jewelry had only been in the attic, snuggled under old clothes, it would have been safe.
I especially mourned one particular ring, which had a history to it. Sixty-five years ago, when I was a young bride, my mother-in-law had taken a number of diamonds from rings she seldom wore and had them designed into a beautiful three-tiered dinner ring. When she showed it to her son, my husband, she asked him how he liked it. His reply was, “Mother, to tell you the truth, I think it’s vulgar.”
She laughed and said, “Thanks very much. I was planning to leave it to Mary.”
She did leave it to me, and I loved it.
That was why, of all the lovely jewelry I lost that night, I missed the vulgar ring the most.
The burglary happened during November. The following spring, the landscaper arrived one morning to start the usual spring cleanup. A few minutes later he knocked on the door. He was holding an object caked in mud in his hand. It was the vulgar ring. It must have been dropped by one of the crooks on his way out of the house.
I have been happily wearing that ring to all the grand occasions ever since that burglary eighteen years ago.
Don’t you love semi-happy endings?
Now I have a formidable safe bolted into the floor and walls. But if any light-fingered crook happens to read this essay, don’t bother to try to open that safe or pull it off its moorings. It would be a wasted effort.
My good jewelry is now snuggling under old clothes in an even more crowded attic. Lots of luck finding it.
Mary Higgins Clark’s books are worldwide bestsellers. In the US alone, her books, including thirty-four suspense novels, have sold 100 million copies.
More than thirty years ago Thomas James shot himself in the head, but this isn’t about that. When I was twenty-seven, Lucie Brock-Broido gave me, like she had given countless other poets over the years, a poorly xeroxed copy of James’s Letters to a Stranger, but this isn’t about that either. As I read him for the first time, I was the same age as James was when he killed himself. But, really, this isn’t about any of that.
This is about how “the dead have such sweet breath.”
For me, poems fall into three categories: poems I admire and want to steal from; poems I admire, but don’t want to steal from; and, the third and largest category (of course), poems I simply don’t like. There is, however, a secret, fourth category: poems I admire and want to steal from, but know I’ll never be able to use, because the imagination behind them is too different from mine, the thinking too foreign.
This is about those poems; the poems that “dream of the innumerable antlers of winter.”
In Brock-Broido’s introduction to the reissue of Letters to a Stranger, reissued from Graywolf in 2008, she says:
How is it, exactly, that I can explain the peculiar spell cast between poets and this text? How is it that, when I teach this book, invariably, young poets seem to want to go home (as soon as possible) to write back to Thomas James, to begin their own dialogue with him? . . . Thomas James’s protégés want to reach him, see him, raise him (in all sense of that term), risk for risk.
As a poet who wants to write back to Thomas James, I do indeed want to see him and to raise him, but I know that I cannot match him risk for risk, because James is one of the riskiest of poets, willing to fail utterly at times, in order to be utterly perfect at others.
But this isn’t about the failures, it’s about “some small boy who owns the snow.”
It’s James’s pitch-perfect knack for turning the image just a little beyond slant that redeems his wildest exuberances. On first listen, the lines “I am too full of my own poisons / To be swallowed by anybody’s love” smack of familiarity, but the unexpected placement of the verb swallowed in this sequence, marrying it with the less expected clause, torques the image just enough, giving it a fine balance of familiarity and imagination.
This is about that balance, about “suffusing every muscle with importance.” Continue reading
Never let the ink
of biographers touch you,
but if it happens
learn what you can
of their witchcraft.
It will be useful
should you ever find yourself
I would never have risen
or circuit judge had I not studied
the alchemy of metaphor.
There are maybe two dozen gaps
in a given sentence.
Never mistake silence
for death or obedience.
Just because an anthem can’t be heard
over the bluegrass
of lawn parties and amphitheaters
doesn’t mean it can’t be sung.
If you stand on the porch
of the state house on a Sunday
you will hear the great flag
of the confederacy.
On some occasions
you may have to lower an earlobe
to the tongue whipping in the mouth
of the one Negro servant
who remains when everything else
is burned. Avoid anyone,
even your secretary, who talks
openly about revenge.
Master the filibuster,
for it will wear out the sentries
of heaven. Cultivate horticulture.
Marry after forty. Outlaw basketball.
Outlaw school buses. Outlaw
the manufacturing of transistors.
Outlaw jive-talk and rhythm.
If you intend to be re-elected
certain moods must be abolished,
it goes without saying. Remember
your duty. If you must apologize,
let it be in a language no one comprehends.
Grandma calls her sex robot Sony. We tell her that’s just the company who makes it.
“Well,” she says, “he looks like a Sony. Doesn’t he?”
We tell her he doesn’t. We tell her ‘he’ looks like an automaton with silver skin and copper eyelashes, which is exactly what he is, one of many mass produced for the pleasure of the lonely. We point to the round brass orb at the fulcrum of his legs. Do you know, we ask Grandma, what happens when that opens? Do you know what’s inside?
“Of course,” Grandma says. “A smart dildo. So?”
So. So nothing. We just ask her not to name him Sony.
To which she replies, “Well, what else am I supposed to call him?”
We tell her she shouldn’t call him anything. We tell her it is unseemly, having it in her house. We point to the needlework on her walls, the antique picture frames on her shelves, the holographic displays of great and great-great-grandchildren. Then we point at the sex robot, naked save for the round brass orb, stunning sculpted muscles in plastic relief, modeled, in fact, after Michelangelo’s David, though individual models are, of course, customizable.
Grandma’s, for instance, had the chest widened. Grandma is a sucker for a big chest.
“All sorts of people have these things,” Grandma says. “Why shouldn’t I?”
We tell her, people have them, they just have the decency to hide them. Their sex robots are in their closets, the corners of their basements. Their sex robots are tucked under their beds—all sex robots, of course, fold into the fetal position for easy storage. We tell her, you can have it, just keep it out of sight.
“Well,” Grandma says, “I’m just honest, I guess.”
No, we say, you’re insane. It’s too much, we tell her, too much. The sex robot is always with her. When we come to visit, it opens the door. When we call, she tells the sex robot what we’re saying to her. At Christmas, when we gather at Grandma’s house, the sex robot is there. Grandma puts presents for it under the tree. She knits a stocking with its name and hangs it over the chimney. At Christmas dinner, it carves the turkey. It sits next to her; it spoons sweet potato casserole into her mouth. And when she is finished with her meal, it massages her calloused feet. We tell her to stop. We tell her there are children present. Not physically, maybe, but digitally, watching open-mouthed through their screens.
“If you want to take him,” Grandma says, “you can. Just be careful stepping over my dead body, I want to look good for my funeral.”
We give up. The sex robot stays with her for seven years. Then, one night, Grandma’s heart monitor fails. The sex robot alerts local paramedics. No one knew it had that feature. We didn’t know it could open the door for the EMTs, or call and alert us after. We didn’t know it could stay by the door, opening it for us when we returned to figure out what could be sold and what could be shared.
The sex robot continues as if Grandma is there. At night, it sleeps on the left side of her bed, until we have her bed removed; then it sleeps on the floor where the left side of the bed used to be. Early in the morning, it wakes and makes coffee, until the coffee machine is gone. It picks out a grapefruit from the refrigerator, until there is no more grapefruit, no more refrigerator. The worse is when it sits at the table, when it cuts the grapefruit into perfect wedges, when it raises them and places them gently where Grandma’s lips used to be. When the sex robot lets go of the grapefruit, it falls on the chair with a wet plop. Until there is no more chair.
None of us has the heart to shut it down. It is powered wirelessly; if we do nothing, it will go on endlessly. Yet day by day, as we remove every last trace of Grandma, the sex robot remains. Until at last, it is the only thing that remains. In an empty house, it continues its precise pantomime of their lives. We decide together enough is enough. We must shut it down. Tomorrow.
Except, when that tomorrow comes, the sex robot is not there. We look everywhere. We know they can fold themselves into more compact units. We told Grandma so many times. We look in every corner, every closet. We’re all worried, but we don’t admit it. We just keep looking.
Someone suggests looking for the sex robot at the mausoleum. We laugh. We make fun. It doesn’t sound sincere when we do. Really, we were all thinking it. We were all picturing the robot, leaving the house at night, walking the streets, guiding itself to Grandma’s remains. We picture it there, looking on the brass plaque hiding her ashes.
But none of us admits to this, and none of us go to check to see if we’re right. We’re too afraid we might be wrong. Instead we go home. We perform our accustomed routines. We eat, we bathe, we climb into our beds. And from our closets, our basements, from under our beds, our sex robots unfurl themselves and join us, programmed to hold us until we fall asleep.
William Hawkins is currently a student in the MFA Program in Fiction at UC Irvine. He lives in Los Angeles.
I was in high school in England when, in 1984, the IRA bombed Brighton’s Grand Hotel where Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party were meeting for their annual conference. I remember watching the BBC news with my dad. I was probably too young to recognize the audacity of the attack and, as the IRA was rarely out of the news back then for blowing up one thing or another, it was soon forgotten in the tumult of my adolescent life. Without much emotional skin in the game it was easy to move on.
Now, as an adult I can appreciate just what a daring and sinister attack it was. It is to British author Jonathan Lee’s credit that his absorbing novel, High Dive (Knopf), which is centered on the bombing, makes for such a compelling read. The book transcends 80s nostalgia, its Choose Life t-shirts and the potential for stock caricatures of Irish terrorists and British politicians. All sides of the equation are humanized, both the IRA assassin and the innocent, fictionalized staff members of the Grand.
At the novel’s center are two invented characters, the hotel’s deputy general manager, Philip “Moose” Finch, and his teenage daughter, Freya. Once a promising teenage high dive prospect and local sporting hero, Moose is now middle aged, out of shape and divorced. He hopes that the British PM’s visit to his hotel, which he helped arrange, will be a career boost. Freya, too is finding her way. Her mother has all but walked away from her, and is left disappointed by a vacuous romantic interest, Surfer John, who also works at the hotel.
Lee succeeds in capturing the end of season melancholia of a British seaside town and combines it with the downward trajectory of its inhabitants whose lives are about to change. Suffused in are the quirky eccentrics of parochial Britain. The love between an impressionable teenage daughter and the single father who raised her is the novel’s tragic but brilliant beating heart.
Jeff Vasishta: How much IRA and general research did you do into the bombing? Roy Walsh the real name of the bomber but the other name you use for him, Dan wasn’t. How hard was the process of splicing fact and fiction?
Jonathan Lee: I did lots of research, as you’d expect, but the facts of the bombing of the Grand Hotel run out fairly quickly. We know the date it happened, the fact the bomb exploded in room 629, the fact a man named Roy Walsh checked into the hotel and planted it there, the fact Margaret Thatcher was the target … Move beyond that and you quickly get into the realm of speculation. That’s the realm I most enjoy inhabiting as a fiction writer. I’ve never found much truth, much depth, in straight-faced facts. What I was interested in trying to do with this book was to re-inhabit a moment of history and make it human again. Rather than distorting real lives, I chose to perform that re-animation by inventing three characters and placing their stories within the framework of the central factual event: the bombing. So we have the stories of the assistant manager at the hotel, his daughter, and a second bomber — the sorts of stories history so rarely records.
The second bomber was particularly interesting to me — in court testimony, staff at the Grand Hotel recalled a second man being in room 629 on the day when the bomb was planted. He’s never been found. So, I found him— in my imagination, I mean. I began to imagine his story. What’s that Kinky Friedman line? “There’s a fine line between fiction and non-fiction, and I think I snorted it somewhere in 1979.” Well, I snorted it too, somewhere between draft four and draft twenty.
JV: I grew up in Great Yarmouth in Norfolk so I’m very familiar with eccentric characters like the Captain. Every British town has them. Was he real?
JL: Great Yarmouth, eh? I so miss the names we have for places back home. Percy Passage. Boggy Bottom. Bushygap. Shitlingthorpe. Thanks for mentioning The Captain. I think about him often; he’s very real to me. The other day I thought I saw him in the street. And you recognized him, by the sounds of it. So he must be real, right?
JV: You show great insight into Moose’s marriage and fatherhood. What was the inspiration for his character, and why high diving in particular? It’s not a sport which was especially popular in the UK in the 1970s.
JL: No, you’re right. I wanted to find a sort of fringe sport, a lost sport, in the same way I was reclaiming, in the book, these lost stories of everyday lives. Whenever I tried to picture Philip “Moose” Finch, my deputy general manager at the hotel, I had this image of a guy who kept falling into trapdoors in his own past—falling and falling, unable to live fully in the present. I sensed he was a former sportsman of some sort, but given the kind of guy he is, it had to be one of those sports where you could be the fifth or sixth best practitioner in the whole of the United Kingdom and you‘d still be an absolute nobody, as far as the public is concerned.
It’s always difficult to talk about what I seek to do in my writing, because so much of it is beyond the level of consciousness, as with almost all writers, and you start lying as soon as you open your mouth. But when I look at everything I’ve written in the last 10 years, it’s all been, to some extent, about trying to magnify mundanity in some way— about trying to capture the sadness and absurdity of everydayness, of lost moments, of half-heard conversations, of half-formed dreams or betrayals or miscommunications. I want to find the animating quality in small moments, and the fun thing about writing High Dive was doing that act of personal salvage within the wider context of public history — the politics of the day, this extraordinary assassination attempt, offered a framework. Anyway, once I put Moose on the diving board, he was animated. My friend Elliott Holt, a brilliant writer who was once a talented high diver too, encouraged me to keep going in my attempts to capture what it’s like to spend your days in mid-air. I think we all know the feeling, to some extent.
The other reason high diving felt like an appropriate sport to include in the book is that I imagined the whole novel as a kind of dive. It’s all about the build-up to the bombing. The novel begins with this initiation of a young Belfast guy into the Provisional IRA and then follows the fall-out through the years that follow. We, the readers, are going through somersaults and twists, moments of slowness and moments of quick rigidity, heading towards this point of inevitable impact — the explosion. That was the idea, anyway, to tell the story of the before. So many disaster narratives focus on the aftermath. I wanted to tell the story of what life was like before it was broken.
JL: The epigraph for High Dive comes from Czesław Miłosz. He once said that, “when a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” Well, plenty of friendships get finished, too. At some point or other, every interesting corner of lived experience becomes material for a book, and you end up stealing your friend’s best in-the-pub stories. My friend Ed, years ago, told me a story about a friend of his. It was one of those friend of friend of friend stories that I love so much. This friend was dog-sitting for someone. The dog died on his watch, of natural causes; it was an old dog. But, shit, the dog was dead. What was he going to do? He needed to take the dead dog to a professional—a dog undertaker or vet or whatever. It couldn’t just lie there on the carpet for two days, could it? So he put it in a suitcase, took it on the London Underground, and the suitcase ended up being stolen. So, that went in the book: a dead dog in a suitcase being stolen, and the idea of a thief opening it and finding himself—not rewarded with designer clothes—but placed as the punch line of a shaggy dog story about a shaggy dog. Continue reading
Bryan Hurt on the Life of a Writer: Investment Banking, What Imaginary People Feel, and How Not to Teach Creative Writing
Bryan Hurt’s Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France was the winner of the 2015 Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction and published last fall. If you’ve read any of the stories in The Kenyon Review, The American Reader, Guernica, Tin House, or the New England Review (to name a few places), then you know it. His voice and the stories themselves are equally fresh, strange, and imaginatively researched—Aimee Bender meets George Saunders on the pages of a National Geogrpahic magazine or World Book Encylopedia. Says TC Boyle of the collection: “Bryan Hurt’s stories are like no one else’s. They are by turns hilarious, whimsical, arresting and heartbreaking, but what makes them such a delight is the sly simplicity and off-handed charm of their telling.” And it’s true—the stories are charming. They are whip-smart and challenging, yet absolutely pleasureable and fun to read. Bryan thereby strikes a balance between writing innovative fiction and upholding a promise to entertain his readers that is worth celebrating or—if you haven’t read them—definitely worth checking out.
In one of my favorites, The Beast of Marriage, the wealthy but famously ugly 18th Century Thomas Day (who can’t dance) adopts two girls in the hopes of raising one of them to be his wife. In another, we meet Alan Bean, the actual fourth man to walk on the moon, thrust into a sad but beautiful world of under-appreciated artists. I’m lucky enough to know Bryan from graduate school at the University of Southern California, and recall a trip to the MOMA where we were encouraged to take a good look at Rauschenberg’s Monogram (Angora goat meets used tire, for the uninitiated). So many of Bryan’s stories remind me of what is so unusual, sponteaneous and oddly emotionally resonant about the unexpected juxtaposition, or marriage, of that goat and tire. Bryan is also the editor of the successful Watchlist, an anthology of stories on surveillance, to be re-released from Catapult Books this spring. To read some of Bryan’s newest fiction, and latest nonfiction and critcism, check out his website at www.bryanhurt.com.
Bryan took a little time out of his very busy writing, family-rearing and teaching schedule to tell us a little about the life of a short-story writer, what motivates and inspires him, and the source of some of these truly wonderful stories.
Bonnie Nadzam: Percival Everett, one of our teachers in Los Angeles, once told me it was the easiest thing in the world to tell a student they shouldn’t pursue writing as a career, and much harder to tell someone with the ability that they should brace themselves for the life of being an artist. Have you ever wanted to quit trying? Or hear from someone that you probably should? We have so many colleagues and friends with first-rate fiction struggling so hard to get their pages into book form, and even after publishing a first book, you face again the blank page. Is publication the reason to keep going, or would you have kept going without the official publishing industry acknowledgement that you are, as it were, “a writer”?
Bryan Hurt: I guess that’s one way that Percival and I are different—that and Percival is a confirmed genius and I, on my best days, struggle to tie my own shoelaces. I would never tell anyone not to pursue this (although I’d caution them against going into debt in order to pursue an advanced degree in writing). Making art is hard and being an artist is even harder. By my estimation there are about a million things in the world that will try to dissuade you from being a writer, not the least of which is the lack of material well-being and financial compensation. When someone asks me whether or not I think they should give it a shot, I always tell them to go for it. I don’t want to be one of those million things, and really there’s no way of telling who’s going to make it and who isn’t. I think talent plays some role in it, but only a very small one. Discipline matters an awful lot and so does luck and perseverance.
I count myself as very lucky. So far I’ve been able to meet my material needs met while also being a writer. Of course I worry that my fortune will change and I’ll have to figure something else out, although I have no idea what that would be because there’s not a lot else that I’m very good at. But I’ve never thought about quitting, at least not seriously. Some days I’ll struggle with the page or suffer a minor setback or some kind of rejection and wish that I could go back in time and become an investment banker. But that’s not realistic and I don’t think investment banking would make me any happier. I like writing and I like being read and I’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to doing it. If nothing else I’m very stubborn.
BZ: You’re young enough to get an MBA or go to law school—but you won’t, right?
BH: That’s the same as the investment banker fantasy, and they’re all variations of “the grass is always greener.” My dad’s a lawyer and my wife is a very talented business person. I only have to watch what they do for about half-a-minute to realize that I don’t have the head or the heart or the stomach for it.
BZ: You spent some years writing “Everybody Wants to Be Ambassador to France,” and over these years, submitted it many places, to several contests. It finally wins the prestigious Starcherone Prize for Innovation Fiction, which comes with publication. But–after 15 years, the independent press for innovative fiction is closing its doors, struggling financially, and yours is its final title. How has this affected the experience of your first book publication?
BH: Publishing anything is really hard—a story, a poem, an essay, a book, it’s all hard—and so I think any time you’re lucky enough to do it it’s cause for some celebration. You’re right that I did send the book out a little before it was picked up by Starcherone, but each time it was rejected I was more relieved than disappointed. The book wasn’t ready and I knew it, but I was trying to fool myself otherwise. Luckily the editors weren’t fooled so easily. When I saw that Alissa Nutting was going to be the judge for the Starcherone Prize I sent the latest draft of the book and was cautiously optimistic. Alissa had rejected some of my earlier work when she was editor of the Fairy Tale Review, but she’d been really nice about it. Even after the book won the prize I did substantial edits. That’s the first thing I asked my editor at Starcherone when she called me about the prize. “I’m so embarrassed,” I said. “Can I change it?” I think that the published version of the book is almost 100% different.
It’s sad about Starcherone, and it was obviously something I knew about and that was hanging over the book the entire time it was in production. I wish that there had been more money for things like publicity and distribution, but I also know that Carra Stratton and Cheryl Quimba were working at and running the press as essentially volunteers and am grateful for their enormous efforts. I think that even without marketing or publicity the book has been getting some pretty good attention. My agent is looking for a new publisher to take over for a second printing, and I have every reason to be optimistic. I think what happened at Starcherone was an anomaly and doesn’t really signify any larger trends in the industry. As far as I can tell independent presses and short stories are thriving. I mean look at all of the really great independent presses: Catapult, OR Books, Graywolf, McSweeney’s, Coffee House, Melville House, Tin House (so many houses!), Two Dollar Radio. Adam Johnson recently won the National Book Award for his story collection; Phil Klay won last year. I think it’s a great time to working with independent presses and writing short stories.
BZ: It was not the first-book experience of multiple radio interviews, publisher-paid book tour, etc. Nevertheless, your book is getting great press. How did you do it?
BH: With a lot of help from my friends! Before the book came out I made a long list of names and emails. I called in favors, I asked for help. More often than not people were very generous. One of the authors who blurbed the book wrote an email along the lines of: “Phew! I really liked it!” This was particularly gratifying because I’m a big fan and so it was nice to know that there’s some kind of real and mutual admiration. But it was also good to hear because I want the book to be liked. I hope that it stimulates some kind of pleasure center. I think the people who’ve read it out in the wild are picking up on that and that’s one reason for the good reception. Recently, I was talking to a woman who read my story “Moonless” and she said, “It made me laugh!” Like this was some kind of surprise to her. I think it’s easy to forget that art runs the full spectrum. When we encounter “serious Literature” we tend to focus more on the tears than the laughter. But there’s room for both. They might even come from the same impulse.
BZ: The stories in this collection are beautifully written–fresh, engaging, surprising. They are–as its reviews and blurbs support–really good. I happen to know you write very slowly and deliberately–that just one of these terrific short stories, from start to finish, can take several months, or longer. How, given all the demands of our modern life and of raising a family, and the fairly insubstantial money and recognition most fictions readers get, have you come to the decision (no doubt repeatedly) to spend so much time and heartsblood writing stories? Why does it matter to you?