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Kevin Sloan’s allegorical paintings tell of the intersection of natural and man-made worlds. He aims to convey the darkness in this conflict and to create a sense of hope, illustrating a
transitional world where, he says, “some things will be lost and others will continue on.” His art comes from “the tension between loss and the [remaining beauty].”
This issue’s (#68) cover art, Delicate Garden: The Bear, is part of Sloan’s Delicate Garden series, in which he depicts animals as porcelain objects. His creatures are positioned as if they are still lifes and marred with cracks. Like the natural world they are “alive, sentient, and very fragile.” They are, at once, wild and manufactured. Nature persists as flora grows through broken spaces. Our ursine cover model exudes a relaxed air, his expression pleasant, as he sits on a pile of littered clocks—evidence of humanity’s intrusion.
Sloan’s influences range from the landscape of his home state of Colorado to the visual narratives found in advertising. While he uses photos as starting points, he follows an organic process. He begins with soft charcoal and reworks the structure of each painting until he has a strong foundation. From there, he adds acrylic washes, switching back to charcoal or chalk when necessary. “Eventually,” he says, “the painting starts to need me less and less, until it has reached some sort of equilibrium. It’s almost like a perfect tone, not too sharp or flat, just right.”
You can see more of Kevin’s art here.
We are sad. We don’t have a ferryman any more. The ferryman is dead. Two lakes, no ferryman. You can’t get to the islands now unless you have a boat. Or unless you are a boat. You could swim. But just try swimming when the chunks of ice are clinking in the waves like a set of wind chimes with a thousand little cylinders.
In theory, you can walk round the lake on foot, keeping to the bank. However, we’ve neglected the path. The ground is marshy and the landing stages are crumbling and in poor shape; the bushes have spread, they stand in your way, chest-high.
Nature takes back its own. Or that’s what they’d say in other places. We don’t say so, because it’s nonsense. Nature is not logical. You can’t rely on Nature. And if you can’t rely on something you’d better not build fine phrases out of it.
Someone has dumped half his household goods on the bank below the ruins of what was once Schielke’s farmhouse, where the lake laps lovingly against the road. There’s a fridge stuck in the muddy ground, with a can of tuna still in it. The ferryman told us that, and said how angry he had been. Not because of the rubbish in general but because of the tuna in particular.
Now the ferryman is dead, and we don’t know who’s going to tell us what the banks of the lake are getting up to. Who but a ferryman says things like, “Where the lake laps lovingly against the road,” and “It was tuna from the distant seas of Norway” so beautifully? Only ferrymen say such things.
We haven’t thought up any more good turns of phrase since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The ferryman was good at telling stories.
But don’t think that at this moment of our weakness we ask the Deep Lake, which is even deeper now, without the ferryman, how it’s doing. Or ask the Great Lake, the one that drowned the ferryman, what its reasons were.
No one saw the ferryman drown. It’s better that way. Why would you want to see a person drowning? It’s not a pretty sight. He must have gone out in the evening when there was mist over the water. In the dim light of dawn a boat was drifting on the lake, empty and useless, like saying goodbye when there’s no one to say it to.
Divers came. Frau Schwermuth made coffee for them, they drank the coffee and looked at the lake, then they climbed down into the lake and fished out the ferryman. Tall men, fair-haired and taciturn, using verbs only in the imperative, brought the ferryman up. Standing on the bank in their close-fitting diving suits, black and upright as exclamation marks. Eating vegetarian bread rolls with water dripping off them.
The ferryman was buried, and the bell-ringer missed his big moment; the bell rang an hour and a half later, when everyone was already eating funeral cake in the Platform One café. The bell-ringer can hardly climb the stairs without help. At a quarter past twelve the other day he rang the bell eighteen times, dislocating his shoulder in the process. We do have an automated bell-ringing system and Johann the apprentice, but the bell-ringer doesn’t particularly like either of them.
More people die than are born. We hear the old folk as they grow lonely and the young as they fail to make any plans. Or make plans to go away. In spring we lost the Number 419 bus. People say, give it another generation or so, and things won’t last here any longer. We believe they will. Somehow or other they always have. We’ve survived pestilence and war, epidemics and famine, life and death. Somehow or other things will go on.
Only now the ferryman is dead. Who will the drinkers turn to when Ulli has sent them away at closing time? Who’s going to fix paperchase treasure hunts for visitors from the Greater Berlin area, in fact fix them so well that no treasure is ever found, and the kids cry quietly on the ferry afterward and their mothers complain politely to the ferryman, while the fathers are left wondering, days later, where they went wrong? Those are mainly fathers from the new Federal German provinces, feeling that their virility has been questioned, and once on land again they eat an apple, ride toward the Baltic Sea on their disillusioned bicycles and never come back. Who’s going to do all that?
The ferryman is dead, and the other dead people are surprised: what’s a ferryman doing underground? He ought to have stayed in the lake as a ferryman should.
No one says: I’m the new ferryman. The few who understand that we really, really need a new ferryman don’t know how to ferry a boat. Or how to console the waters of the lakes. Or they’re too old. Others act as if we never had a ferryman at all. A third kind say: the ferryman is dead, long live the boat-hire business.
The ferryman is dead, and no one knows why.
We are sad. We don’t have a ferryman any more. And the lakes are wild and dark again, watching, and observing what goes on.
Saša Stanišić was born in 1978 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and currently lives in Germany. His award-winning debut How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone has been translated into 32 languages. Before the Feast was a bestseller in Germany and won the prestigious Leipzig Book Fair Prize.
Tin House invited a select number of early readers to read Before the Feast by the “offensively gifted” Sasa Stanišić. The novel has already sold over 70,000 copies in Germany, and won the 2014 Leipzig Book Fair Prize. Clever, funny, and whimsical, the novel builds in short comedic chapters that detail 24 hours leading up to an annual feast in the small village of Furstenfelde —how each citizen prepares, both for the feast and for life after. But despite its fairy-tale-like whimsy, Before the Feast is getting at something bigger. Stanišić tackles the flattening effect of capitalism as well as the disappearance of tradition, regional identity, and the particularities of a people and a place and a time.
We surveyed our galley club members and here are their responses.
Saša Stanišić was born in 1978 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and currently lives in Germany. His award-winning debut How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone has been translated into 32 languages. Before the Feast was a bestseller in Germany and won the prestigious Leipzig Book Fair Prize.
From our current Summer Reading issue, Dorianne Laux’s “HONEYMOON.”
Dorianne Laux’s most recent collections are Facts about the Moon and The Book of Men. She teaches poetry in North Carolina Sate University’s MFA Program.
She thought that the moment was probably supposed to be poignant—when she discovered the origins of her name—but since she was sitting on the toilet when she read the letter it lacked elevation. Henceforth, when she imagined her name, she saw it written out in her father’s slanty cursive beneath a harsh yellow light and behind it, her thighs.
When she finally brought herself to listen to the song—the beat-up 1967 record was among the possessions he’d left her, part of a hoard of cultural memorabilia she figured was meant for her “education”—it was, in fact, patterned with words that a daughter might like to hear (“my little darling,” “angel,” “pretty one,” etc), and carried a message appropriate to a father who’d abandoned his child under dubious pretenses, and she could have been singing along by the end of minute two. But only marginally deeper, it revealed itself to be another case of the Conniving Poet, a song about a desperate girl (the eponymous Marianne) and a powerfully disinterested boy, something she could imagine her father listening to while he was wantonly fucking women in 1970s Berlin, a name chosen during an afternoon he’d assigned himself the task of selecting it, casting his eyes around his studio on Potsdamer Strasse and scanning for relevant influences, falling on the record, his hand idly down the front of his pants. Visible through the window of the apartment, across the street, there were colonnades, a Jürgensburg horse, but there were no good songs about them.
He told Nikki when she was fifteen, in the first of what was to be their monthly phone calls—a smirk she could somehow feel through the phone—and she knew instantly that she hated her father. He hadn’t told her mother where the name came from those years ago, just left it with her with its appealing diminutive and atypical double-consonant and promptly fucked off forever, this stupid little mystery in his wake.
Nikki hadn’t known the song or the movie, but as she heard the controversial lyrics for the first time and realized how callous her father had been in telling her now, how plainly vindictive, she felt increasingly like her name had been the first move in a game set up for her by someone else, planted like a goalpost, and she was only working up to it. She didn’t like the idea that her $145 Hieronymus Bosch shoes and torn tights were somehow genetically predetermined. She wanted them—needed them—to be singular, and in the aftermath of the call, scuffing along the side of the most populated road in her neighborhood, which was mainly a place people came to transfer trains, she imagined the parallel moments, when her father looked down at his newborn daughter and decided that she should be named for the most famous sex fiend in all of popular music, and later, when he felt the stippled holes of the phone’s speaker on the corner of his mouth, pictured the body connected to a voice he was hearing for the first time and which, if he played his cards right, he might one day be fortunate enough to meet, and decided that he was ready to relieve this burden.
It happened that we were driving through Ramallah late at night searching for the grave of the poet Mahmoud Darwish. The location of the site was well-known to the locals, but not to us, and our driver kept pulling over to ask for directions from passersby on the sidewalk, at traffic lights, on bicycles. He began asking in Arabic, “Where is the grave of Mahmoud Darwish?” but over time, as the night grew later and it became clear that we weren’t making any real progress towards our destination, his entreaties became more and more abbreviated and clipped, until we’d reached a point where he would careen towards the sidewalk whenever he spotted a pedestrian, roll down the window and shout, “Wen Darwish?”—Where is Darwish?—until the poet became one with his resting place, existed in singular form somewhere between life and death, totemic, connoting all in one a time, a place, and a name.
Simon Jacobs is the author of SATURN, a collection of David Bowie stories available from Spork Press. He may be found at simonajacobs.blogspot.com.
Dear Indie Booksellers,
Without you, we are nothing.
Forever yours, Tin House
Let this Summer Reading 2016 issue be a love letter to all of the fantastic indie bookstores and booksellers around the world. Those who took a chance on us when we first debuted in the spring of 1999, when “distribution” required hand delivering issues from the back of a beat-up old Audi, and to the bookstores today who continue to help sustain us.
In January I was in Denver for the Winter Institute for independent booksellers, where I had the honor of hanging out with six hundred of the most passionate readers of contemporary literature I have ever encountered. Their enthusiasm was infectious and after a single afternoon with these tireless, ruthless pushers of the written word it was easy to understand why bookstore sales are up, and why the number of indie bookstores, which in the dark Amazonian year of 2009 numbered 1,700, has increased to over 2,300. Booksellers like the ones I met in Denver challenge us to keep seeking out the most exciting and thoughtful work by new and established writers from all over the world, and because of them we’re confident there is an audience for their work. In this issue we’re proud to bring you two fabulous translations: Dorthe Nors’s “By Sydvest Station,” translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra, and Jean-Phillipe Toussaint’s “The Dress of Honey,” translated from the French by Edward Gauvin. Alexis Smith’s debut novel, Glaciers, was an indie sensation, and here we feature an excerpt from her follow-up, Marrow Island. Smith is joined by other indie darlings, Deb Olin Unferth, Josh Weil, and Saša Stanišić, as well as esteemed poets Dorianne Laux and John Ashbery, who return to our pages. We’re also happy to welcome new-to-us poets Anna Journey and Sam Rivierre.
To all of the booksellers who have carried us and who continue to carry us, we thank you. To all of our readers, who have carried us and continue to carry us in your backpacks and handbags, on planes, trains, and buses, we are so grateful.
—Rob Spillman, Editor
Watch this space for more excerpts from the Summer Reading issue, or buy it now from your local indie bookstore! (Or from us!)
I am walking the border
of a playing field in the back of a school,
the dog running ahead.
I stop to peer down into the undergrowth–
a tangle of bushes,
small yellow berries in clusters,
a sudden reminder
that no scalpel is whizzing
along my abdomen this morning,
nor have I been taped to a chair
in order to be questioned, slapped,
and asked the same question again.
So I have the luxury of standing
here looking at yellow berries
wondering if they are safe to eat–
a thing I would need to know if I were starving,
if there were no market down the road
where all kinds of berries wait in their boxes.
who probably know the answer,
surprise me when they twitter up from the knotted vines.
And as I watch them fly off,
I decide that when my day comes,
I am going to refuse to die–
just chin-up, arms-folded refuse,
unless I am guaranteed clusters
of yellow berries
hanging in the afterlife,
a spacious green field,
and well-informed birds darting through the air.
Billy Collins served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003. He was very kind when he once found himself of a Brooklyn Book Fest bingo card made by Tin House.
She was late to the Mass dedicated to her boyfriend’s late mother, who died just two months before her father. Stepping into St. Monica’s, making sure her heels didn’t click too loudly, she saw him—Matt the Agnostic—In the very back pew.
She slid in next to him. “You told me it was on East 81st,” she hissed. “It’s actually on E. 79th.” Her own mother would rather turn around and go home than enter church late.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I don’t know. I don’t know why I said that if I did.”
“Think about it,” she said. “Think about it” was a code in their relationship. It meant, in psychoanalytical terms, to think about both the latent and manifest meaning behind what you meant by what your actions. Like, keeping basic Freud in mind, did he unconsciously tell her the wrong address on purpose? Maybe he didn’t want her to come. Or . . . had she considered the real reason behind why she was late? If there even was one.
“What?” he said. Thank God, he hadn’t heard the “Think about it.”
“Nothing,” she said.
She figured she needed to have an answer.
“I have to pee,” she said. “Like, for real.”
“Oh.” He conferred with his sister. “It’s on the right, downstairs.”
“I’m not going during service!”
“OK,” he said. A small sigh.
When Mass was over, he told her she could light a candle for her dad. They went over to the candles, which lit up electronically with the push of a button. He gave her a dollar, and she dropped it into the slot, then pushed a button for her candle. Nothing lit up. She pushed another. Nothing. She pushed one button after the other, and not one of them worked. She looked at him in a panic.
Matt started stabbing at the buttons like it was a video game. She could tell he felt responsible, since he was the one who told her to do this in the first place. She wasn’t even really Catholic. Her father was Catholic. Her mother was Baptist. She hadn’t been baptized in either church. Was it maybe time to take care of that? After all, Matt’s step-father was a deacon. He was sort of a big deal at St. Monica’s, actually. And her ties to St. Monica’s was that when Elaine’s was still
open, she would occasionally drink with Father Pete, who until recently was the pastor there. So at least she was well-connected; that was important.
Matt pushed random buttons over and over until finally, finally, a candlelit up. She crossed herself and kissed her fingers. It was sort of the way she picke dup since she sort-of decided to be a Catholic. It was the most ostentatious way and everyone knew she appreciated that.
Matt then directed her over to a place to kneel and pray and she asked, “Is that how it works? It seemed like there were a lot of steps.”
“I don’t know, he said. It’s just what I’ve seen people do.”
About three weeks before his death, her father had turned to her and said,“You have deplorable taste in men.” This was unfair, pretty much completely. If he was upset about the drug thing, well, that was in Matt’s past. To dwell on it was just so middle-class.
And yet, his words stuck in her head. To her left was a statue of two saints. People were touching the saints, rubbing them, touching their fingers in holy water and touching the statues again, crossing themselves, then kissing their fingers. Oh, how her mother would laugh. Perhaps—think about it—her budding Catholicism was a rebellion against her mother and a way to posthumously ally with her father.
Worth thinking about it, to be sure, but not too much.
She went downstairs to the bathroom. It was completely dark.
She reached for the light switch, but then stood for a moment in the dark.
She thought about what she and Matt had both lost and, with that in mind,if they were enough for each other. If this was why people got married—partially out of love, part out of fear—well, then, now she could see how that could happen. Of course this was why people grasped onto traditions—traditions previously empty to her, but now, well, maybe they meant something. Or maybe they didn’t. But there was a purpose to all of it. At the very least, something to pass the time.
Sheila McClear’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, both where she was a features reporter, Gawker.com, the Daily Beast, and the New York Observer.
Not long ago, I attended a book party in New York. The host, an urbane and high-powered magazine editor, toasted the author warmly, claiming that “this is a book that might explain Los Angeles to the rest of us.” Charmed as I was by the tribute to my native city, I was also confounded. What is it about Los Angeles that seems to demand an explanation, an argument, a plea, even? One might say a book “describes” San Francisco, or Paris, or even New Orleans, but “explains”? Only Los Angeles, that most vaporous and bewildering American idea (I’ve always thought of it as somewhat akin to Italo Calvino’s “Penthesilea,” the city he describes—in Invisible Cities—as merely “the outskirts of itself”), seems to demand as much.
Enter Eve Babitz, whose radiantly specific Slow Days, Fast Company (actually, the full title is Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A.: Tales, but we’ll get to those subheadings in a moment) might serve to explicate LA better than any other book I’ve ever read. Except it does more than that, naturally–so much more. If there’s a reason Babitz’s book isn’t better remembered, isn’t as widely circulated as it deserves to be, I’d wager it has something to do with that subtitle, or at least with that deceptively gratuitous-seeming “and L.A.” (Shouldn’t The World and The Flesh be signposts enough?) Slow Days, Fast Company is, as you’d expect if you know anything about Babitz’s life story (goddaughter of Stravinsky, famously photographed naked with Marcel Duchamp, lover of everyone from Ed Ruscha to Harrison Ford, etcetera), studded with boldfaced names and locations. Musso & Frank, Ports, Tana’s, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin: the Los Angeles of the late 1960s is magnificently accounted for. And yet, of course—or perhaps not “of course,” since if there’s anything that’s a drag about the way Babitz is remembered, it’s how she tends to be presented as some scenester whose books are practically incidental, Mata Hari with a paper trail—what renders the book worthwhile isn’t merely the experience it describes. Rather, it’s Babitz’s radical intelligence, her insight, her style. Like her generational and aesthetic peer Renata Adler, Babitz has a nervous, windblown eye, a knack for perceptual and associative leaps. Like her West Coast fellow Joan Didion, she has a stringent–in fact, rather stark–intelligence. Unlike Didion, she clamps down on the geography of Southern California in a spirit of pure exuberance, even exultancy. Writing about the Santa Ana winds and a night when they “were blowing so hard that searchlights were the only things in the sky that were straight,” Babitz comments on Didion’s regard for such winds as evil forces, and then notes: “Every time I feel one coming, I put on my dancing spirits.”
Such dancing spirits abide, indeed preside, throughout Slow Days, Fast Company. That “flesh” in the book’s subtitle isn’t incidental either: one is reminded that the Bloody Marys at Musso’s (“unparalleled in Western thought”) smell like cinnamon, that the Hamburger Hamlet in Palm Springs is drastically inferior to the ones in town, and whenever Babitz opts to describe actual flesh, the effect is close to jaw-dropping. Of one character, a singer named Terry Finch, she writes, “Her eyes were a strange gray color, her teeth were small and white, and her inside bones were brittle lace. But she was covered with skin that always seemed as though she’d just stepped off the yacht, tan and poreless, with cheeks the color of baby’s feet. One by one her eyelashes spiked their way around her gray eyes, a miracle of textures.” The precision and the playfulness of such writing, at once vulnerable (“baby’s feet,” “brittle lace”) and pointed, are miracles of texture themselves. Continue reading
THE IRANIAN BLUE-GLAZED POTTERY
sat on our parents’ shelves for years, the best memento, more valuable than the hookah with the handsome mustachioed man painted on the base, the long rope of copper camel bells, more treasured than the leather saddle seats with brass studs, the rough clay worry beads, the woodblock tablecloth that never seemed to fade.
The pottery bought by Father for 3,000 paper rials at Tehran’s bazaar was the symbol of that time, when on our alley a scratchy recording of the mullah blared, calling our neighbors to prayer, the apartment’s aviary filled that spring with plastic ferns and dusty taxidermy peacocks that stared accusingly at the American family unsuccessfully studying Farsi around the borrowed kitchen table.
The blue plate once served the Barbari bread shoveled from deep ovens and purchased on chaperoned walks down the block, the black pebbles clinging to the doughy seams like barnacles, chipping our mother’s teeth. In the blue cup we once arranged the overblown roses gathered on jeep trips past wide cement gutters full of water for drinking / cooking / washing, into the provinces where men in vests and loose pants travelled the empty roads to mosques adorned with thousands of tiles far bluer than the summer sky, then farther still to the Caspian Sea, a quiet green monster asleep on its side.
Don’t wake it, the memory too big and rich to swallow, like the soapy tasting gumdrops rolled in sugar we bought on Citroën cab rides to Tehran’s corner shops — dastè râst, dastè chap, turn right, turn left, nearly all of the broken Farsi we could recall. Everywhere, the women in black veils like dark ghosts who came alive when the autumn winds threw open their chadors to expose rock concert T-shirts, Chanel skirts, the wrists laden with gold bangles snapping the cloth closed again, a magic trick almost too quick for our eyes.
The blue-glazed pottery overflowing with images of Zafar, the houseboy forever sweeping our front steps, dark eyes full of murder, laughing mouth full of white teeth when we pushed the winter snow from the apartment roof down onto his bent back. Then he was gone, the Shah’s portrait replaced with the Ayatollah’s in every shop, chanting from the main street, the electricity failing as though in a nightly storm, khodahafez, good-bye, the last of our Farsi, truly.
Flying home with all of the other Americans, off to Wichita and New Brunswick and San Diego, we watched the brown country recede through the plane’s window, saw it move even farther away through the glass screens of TV evening news reports, finally disappearing to a pinprick, until one day the tablecloth had faded, the beads cracked, and the Iranian blue-glazed pottery had vanished, sold at a California garage sale to a stranger for one U.S. dollar, paid with a pocketful of change.
Lynn Mundell’s work has appeared in The Sun, Superstition Review, Eclectica, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Literary Orphans, and in many other literary journals. She lives in Northern California, where she co-edits 100 Word Story.
Termites never sleep. From birth until death, they eat nonstop, consuming plant-based cellulose in felled and decaying wood. They rarely kill living trees. The matter they digest is returned to the soil as nutrients.
My first winter in New Orleans, I took my coffee on the front stoop. There was a small corner bakery across the street, where familiar but nameless faces dined at tables along the curb. From my steps, I listened with a lazy ear.
One morning, my mother called me. She never calls.
“I have to talk to you,” she said.
“Is it depressing?” I asked.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because whenever you call it’s something depressing.”
“Your grandmother had a stroke. She’s in the hospital.”
My grandmother was a woman who was arrested at age 86 for protesting unfair labor practices. In the 1970s, she organized fundraisers for the Black Panthers, with whom she not-so-subtly implied she had had affairs. After her husband left, she spent decades as a social worker for drug addicts and the homeless.
As my mother explained the fallout, I noticed a pile of leafy debris collecting on the top step where I sat. Papery slivers snowed down from the jamb and architrave of the door. Termites, I grimaced, as I swept away the pile.
The next day, my friend Holly invited me to the insectarium. We packed her son Zion into his car seat and headed for the Quarter. Inside, he scuttled from one terrarium to the next, falling and picking himself up. When he took an interest in the leaf-cutters, Holly read him the description in a slow and even tone.
They left me behind in the termite room. A whole room dedicated to the termites. I read about New Orleans’s dueling species: the eastern variety, indigenous to the city, and Formosan subterranean termites, which arrived on ships returning from World War II and spread along the Gulf Coast.
Eventually, Zion rescued me from my own distraction. Taking my hand, he led me through the Louisiana Swamp Gallery to a verdant artificial garden. Arias of brightly colored canaries were locked in a cages along the wall. Holly stood on a plastic bridge and butterflies filled the air. An immense azure morpho landed atop her head. She knelt down to show Zion its palpating wings.
On the drive home, Zion kicked off his shoes, ready for a nap. I thanked Holly when she dropped me off at my place. As they drove off, I noticed another pyramid of flakes gathering atop the stoop.
Formosans termites aren’t deterred by obstacles that keep other species away. They circumnavigate plastic barriers and concrete walls, building tunnels 300 feet long. Using a mixture of chewed wood, mud, saliva and excrement, they can build nests in trees and the walls of buildings. I texted a picture of the refuse to my landlord.
Up close, a termite is a pale, vile-looking creature. Workers are about the size of a grain of rice, with distended, semi-translucent bellies. They pile hungrily atop one another, eating then returning to the nest to regurgitate their meal. Their nature is so ingrained that death is their only respite.
My mother moved from Los Angeles to New York after graduating college. Her parents had separated while she was at college and she needed to put a nation between her and her family. She met my father at a party in Manhattan and they have been together since.
Four decades later, my grandmother took a fall and was no longer able to live on her own. She left the fragrant L.A. apartment where she had lived for thirty years and moved to the East Coast to live a tiny cube half a block from my parents’ house.
Sitting on my stoop the morning after the insectarium, I remembered when I was a boy, my grandmother took me to an artist friend’s studio. She chatted with her friend, a longtime student and friend of Sol LeWitt, as I wandered around the palatial studio filled with paintings that pictorially represented musical rhythm and meter. This woman had spent her life creating these meticulous colored grids. I put my coffee down on the steps and went to buy a ticket home. Continue reading
A GOD TO BELONG TO
I want to kiss as I want
to weed the garden—a cleansing.
This, too, is how God would kiss,
I imagine. I am myself also
a God. Because my body, too,
housing surprise at the grand narratives
we’ve created. Heaven, Hell—
just other words for garages bloated full
of belongings from the dead. I am walking
and I remember something that you wrote:
“be your best gifter.” You, sweet friend,
who are also a God and you knew it, which is why
you are no place and every place. Which is why
when I walk I walk to pay attention. There are kittens
or a newborn crying from the house nearby,
who can tell? Dahlias in dusk light
from a stop sign in the rain.
I am thinking about the last of the milk
weed flying about the yard and how it is erotic
turning to tuft like that as it does, unfurled
in its last becoming. God is the romance of the world
trying to free itself. Of this, I am sure
as I stand in front of these autumn dahlias. I reach
out to touch them like sun fingering contrast
into the day and I think again of the fool that
I want to become. An unlocked thing: the milkweed,
the kittens and newborns in new skin
sagging in the dusk light—all Gods
in their quiet declarations—showing in a moment
all it is we can belong to.
Rebecca Maillet is a poet, an educator, a lover of the earth, and is deeply committed to educational justice. She teaches and studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she is a PhD candidate in English. She currently lives in Northampton, MA with her beloved dog, Oliver.
I was looking for a song. All around Bed Stuy were these record shops that were really junk shops that were really some guy’s basement, accessible from the street. Summer afternoons, I dug through stacks of disintegrating LPs in dim, mildew-scented cellars.I had heard it at a party or in a passing car or a bar—where in the year 2000 in New York, I could still drink at nineteen years old. This was before Shazam, before I bought my first cellphone. It was before mp3s took over, when we still had binders of CDs, before I stopped making mixtapes. I was studying creative writing in college, but spent my nights and weekends shooting speedballs and fanatically arranging playlists on blank tapes whose tracks I piped from the record player in my apartment to the heavy double cassette deck that sat atop my record crates.
No, no, no, went the song. You don’t love me and I know now. No, no, no. It was a haunted minor-key blues progression transformed by the one drop rhythm of reggae. The singer’s voice seeped languorously over the beat, No, no, no, you don’t love me yes I know now. She was broken hearted but oh so far away, her keening remote, transmitted through a pipe, or the distant end of a telescope. It was a sound I recognized from Billie Holiday, whose music had prompted me to study singing for four years. It was the early Phil Spector hits that I had gorged on as a girl. It was spooky and sad and sunk its teeth into the soft bowl of my hips, set them steady rocking. Her lover was not there to listen so she sang to us, to her own cracked heart maybe, of that sorrow emptied of desperation.
I was sorrowful and I was desperate. I craved that distance from my own relentless hungers, a remove at which the tragedy of them could be a pretty, haunted thing. A story to tell to the bartender. A song to play at the end of the night.
I must have known I’d find it. I also appreciated the easy tension of looking for something that I simply wanted, that I didn’t need the way I needed heroin. It made me feel human. And unlike heroin, sometimes when I found a thing I wanted, I got to keep it – that hunger sated for good.
Feel Like Jumping: Best of Studio One Women was one of the more satisfying purchases of my young life. I listened to that record more than any other, more than “Crimson and Clover,” more than Cyndi Lauper’s cover of Prince’s “When You Were Mine,” more than Otis Redding. Well, maybe not more than Otis.
My only easy memories of those years are Sunday mornings home alone. If I wasn’t dopesick, if I had enough weed to roll even a small shwaggy joint, if I didn’t have anywhere to be or anything to chase, I could slip that record on and just be okay—a rare and precious quality for me back then.
Studio One, “The Motown of Jamaica,” was founded by Clement “Coxsone” Dodd who cut his first recordings at the Kingston studio in 1963. His house band, Sound Dimension, defined the trademark sound that evolved ska into rocksteady into the reggae that birthed dancehall in the late seventies and was introduced to a mainstream white audience through the hits of acts like Blondie, Paul Simon, and The Beatles
Griffiths was best known for her 1989 recording of Bunny Wailer’s “Electric Boogie,” the highest selling reggae single by a woman singer in history and the basis for the dance, “The Electric Slide.” “Feel Like Jumping” was her first success, in 1968. It’s a good song, though far from my favorite on the album.
My favorite, the song I had sought in those basements, was Dawn Penn’s “You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No).” It is a 1994 dancehall revision of a song Penn recorded at Studio One in 1967, based on Willie Cobbs’s blues standard, “You Don’t Love Me,” which was based on Bo Diddley’s earlier “She’s Fine, She’s Mine.” That is to say, encoded in the song is the history of American music, at least as it interests me.
In a recent literature class, frustrated by my (all white) students’ slowness to grasp the legacy of Frederick Douglass’s narrative; the progression from it to the works of James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and ZZ Packer; I resorted to an analogy I knew would reach them faster: music. Through the classroom projector, I played recordings of early African American prison work songs, Youtube videos of early rhythm and blues performances, Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn,” and finally Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks.”
I didn’t explain how the name, “rhythm and blues” evolved from “race music” or that Bo Diddley’s name likely derived from a hybrid of the “diddley bow”—a West African influenced instrument played by southern field workers—and “diddly squat.” But I did draw a line on the chalkboard and suggest that at its leftmost end were American slave songs, and nearly all the musical culture that they had ever worshiped was traceable along that line.
I knew only a little about this progression when I was their age, when I found this album in a Bed Stuy basement. I knew better what sounds set my hips rocking and echoed my own heart in their howl. I heard the Rolling Stones before I heard Muddy Waters, Blondie before Marcia Griffiths, Paul Simon before Lee Perry. But the further back I followed that sound, the clearer I heard it.
Music is my one true hobby. It is the only thing I have loved as long and as hard as I have loved books, and perhaps is a purer love, because I have loved music privately, never conflated its value to me with my value to anyone else. Music performs the most direct alchemy of all art that moves me—a universal pain rendered beautiful in its specificity. Encoded in the musical DNA of every song I love is the long tragedy of our human history, not just lovesick hearts, but the colonization of land and bodies and sound, and the ways people have found to answer it.
The word reggae is said to have originated in the Jamaican patois term, streggae, which denotes a loose woman, a raggedy woman. Maybe, I love it so because I am also a woman who has made art out of a loose place, a raggedy place. And the naming of my own pain has been my best solution.
I still listen to the music I discovered in my worst years: Studio One era reggae, dancehall, and soul songs typified by (especially the early) Stax Records. In these songs and on my favorite tracks of Feel Like Jumping are the same irresistible ache nestled in the cradle of rhythm.
Back in 2000, the only place I much felt like jumping was off the Brooklyn Bridge. I might have died back then. I came close. The things that saved my life were art and faith and the love of good people. The practice of prayer, like the practice of creation, like that of love, is a lot like moving to those old dancehall hits—the mind recedes, the body’s percussion takes over, becomes a boat that can carry that weight when our minds cannot.
It was a dark time, a keening time, and it has passed. But the stutter of the one drop rhythm still moves through me, as it moved me through those Sunday mornings.
Melissa Febos is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press 2010) and the forthcoming essay collection, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury 2017). Her work has been widely anthologized and appears in publications including The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Glamour, Guernica, Post Road, Salon, The New York Times, and elsewhere. The recipient of an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, she is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University and MFA faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). She serves on the Board of Directors of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and co-curated the Manhattan reading and music series, Mixer, for eight years.
You and I had not seen each other for decades when we decided to meet, with our husbands (acquired in the meantime), at an old hotel built during the gold rush. Of the two of us, you had changed least, looking much the same as the pretty girl I remembered from Maine, an only child, always at the top of our class. Unless I am mistaken, it was late September and slightly cool when we met again, but we opted to have dinner outside anyway, the only guests who did, and at some point during the evening a slight, blond woman in a summery dress came out to have a cigarette. Green and deep red ivy covered the back of the brick building, which she leaned against, smoking, below the string lights crisscrossing the patio. Our husbands had hit it off right away, both of them charming and talkative, generous with the wine and bourbon, probably relieved that what might have been an awkward evening was going smoothly. The sounds of live music, some sort of wedding party, drifted out of the hotel whenever the blond opened the door to lean in and listen for a few seconds, before she let it close again and lit another smoke. The truth is, I don’t remember much about her because you were telling me about a ghost from your childhood, that of a woman who had once lived in your centuries-old house and been raped repeatedly by men in the area because she was disabled and unable to fend them off, and you’d had had filmy visions of these doings as a child without understanding what they meant. One doesn’t hear a compelling ghost story very often, and you had such a rapt audience for your tale that neither of us cared that the blond, bored with smoking and a bit tipsy, it seemed, had come over to talk to our husbands. Kristen—I will call her that; she looked like a Kristen—told them her ex was inside and she didn’t feel welcome there, also that she was a hairdresser; she ran her fingers through my husband’s afro to indicate, I suppose, that she knew how to work with black people’s hair. Now you were at the crux of your story, though, and I paid them scant attention. Often women try to engage my husband because he has a kind face and expressive eyes. Will you believe me when I say that I didn’t even mind when she sat or fell down in his lap? He must have resisted a little then because suddenly she rose, came to our side of the table, and took our hands as if she were a priestess, saying how special it must be for us to see each other after so long. Only then did I notice how young and drunk she was, how hard she was trying to stay upright, and I didn’t care, I only wanted her to leave so you could finish your story. Which has long since laid itself within this one, causing me when I am not paying attention to mix up Kristen with the woman in your story, and vice versa.
Beth Spencer edits poetry and short fiction for Bear Star Press. “Women Be Wise” is from her unpublished chapbook of acrostic micro-fiction, Bebop Galactic. Her poems and stories have been published in a variety of print and online journals and blogs. She lives in rural Northern California with her husband and dog.
There’s a quote I love by Susan Sontag from her collection of essays On Photography: “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
These lines never fail to move me, because there is an inherent nostalgia in their honesty. We can never truly preserve a moment in time. Trying to only makes its transience even more obvious. Attempting to capture and still a moment, Sontag tells us, is the fastest way to come face to face with time’s passing. And yet in a photograph an echo of the past does remain, forever preserved in the archive of things even after the actual moment has fled.
According to science, salt, or sodium chloride, has over 14,000 uses – it can season food, restore a sponge, remove watermarks from wood, deodorize armpits, detoxify bodies, set color in clothes, kill bacteria, freshen breath, emulsify skin, kill slugs, preserve food.
Today I want to talk about preservation.
What is salt if not the oldest form of preservation? A way to slow the quickness of time? To keep its power of decay at bay, if only for a little while?
In his book Salt, Mark Kurlansky tells readers that a history of salt is in fact a history of the world. The body needs salt to function and since the beginning of time, civilizations have been finding ways to exploit and trade it.
When colonizers first embarked on the seas, how far they could travel was limited by how much food they could carry. When sailors discovered they could soak food in brine to preserve it, that salted fish and meat lasted longer, their colonial exploits expanded. Their violence spread over the seas, salty themselves, and beyond.
What does it mean to preserve something? In today’s world, who chooses what gets to last?
Readers of Audre Lorde will recognize this quote, lifted from the epilogue of her book Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
In a blog post about the quote titled “Selfcare as Warfare,” Sarah Ahmed reminds us that for some people, to last is to embark on war. To last in a body that the world does not want to see last, radical act. To continue to love people that the world does not want you to love, a fight. To flourish in a skin color the world is trying to hold down, defiance.
Bodies that are brown or black or any color that does not quite fit into the picture culture wants to paint of itself. Bodies that want to love the kinds of bodies society tells them not to. Bodies that are fat or alter-abled or do not have the right religion or do not have the right eyes or the right hair or the right vocabulary or the right passport. These are the bodies that go to war when they choose to care for themselves, when they shirk the shadows and seek out visibility – to “slice out a moment” from their life “and freeze it.” They thread themselves into the future.
I’m reminded of course of the anti-trans bathroom bills in passing now in North Carolina. It has become a newsworthy event for trans teens to go to the bathroom in their schools. Trans people open themselves to violence on a daily basis to do the kind of rote tasks many of us so often take for granted.
To become visible is to strike out a place for oneself in the currents of time – to say I am here, and I refuse to disappear.
How do you find salt? Lifted from dried up seas, dug up from salt licks, panned from living oceans. Hundreds of feet below ground salt rivers flow, waiting to be exhumed. The early globe is sliced to bits with trade routes established solely for the transfer of salt – a commodity so precious it sometimes doubled as money.
To be worth one’s weight in salt is to be deserving of your pay. Our English word salary comes from the Latin salarium which means salt. Because rumor has it, salt is what Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in.
Salacious comes from the Latin salax which refers to someone in love, or more appropriately, in a salted state.
Since the beginning of time, animals have plodded trails to salt licks. Early humans followed their tracks to uncover the saline sources. You see, people have always understood the power of preservation. Whether they used the power for good is another story.
When we archive something, we save its place in history. We give it weight, belonging, sometimes a shelf or a frame. We create space for it among other narratives. Our histories inform our present. The stories we tell and retell shape our tomorrows. What we choose to archive, to add to our spaces of preservation, are direct reflections of what culture – at least parts of culture – finds valuable.
When the tides of time wash over us, as they invariably do, what is left behind? What do we give to the libraries of our future?
Archives need not be static, dusty shelves filled with past ornaments and withered pages. They can be evolving, breathing ideas that move alongside culture, pressing up against belief systems, normativity, stasis. They construct concurrent realities that give breathing room for other bodies and document, if you will, an alternative truth to the one shown on the news each night.
A literary journal is kind of archive. Blogs, Google maps, and Facebook newsfeeds are kinds of living archives. Twitter? A forever refreshing archive. When we “like” a comment or photograph, we give it a kind of historical weight. The things we salt with attention get folded into the future.
We are all of us archivists, armed with our own kinds of brine. When you see something powerful, don’t let it slip through your fingers, preserve its power, fix it from decay. Make it last.
A version of this essay first appeared as a spoken editorial introduction to Amsterdam’s reading series VERSO /.
Genevieve Hudson is an American writer living in Amsterdam. She earned an MFA from Portland State University, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bitch, Portland Monthly, The Rumpus, The Collagist, Alpinist, Believer Logger, No Tokens, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere.
Recently my husband and I spent two months on a small island off the Gulf Coast of Alabama, near Mobile, the city where he was born and raised. We met a lot of folks who’d grown up on the island, and almost every one of them asked us, “Where’re you from?”
As usual, the question sparked my own anxious self-examination. Originally? Now? Where have I lived longest? In truth, I’m not sure I’m from anywhere.
I grew up in Texas, but I always had the feeling that the stork had made a bad drop. I never came to recognize the flat, dry land and flat, seasonless passing of days as home. Even as a child I lived with a sense of nostalgia for a country I had never seen, a haunted certainty that the most beautiful place would disappear before I found it.
Plus, Dallas in the 1950s could be brutal for anyone who wasn’t a straight, white, wealthy, football-loving male. I connected the teasing, bullying and flat-out meanness I saw around me with the bleakness of the landscape. Looking back, I see I longed for a kind of ecological utopia, the opposite of my surroundings, where physical beauty and balance begot human kindness and decency.
I read Hawthorne and Cather and fell in love with the group of friends in The Wind in the Willows, especially Ratty, who spent his days boating and helping Mole and Toad. Then, in college I stumbled upon The Country of the Pointed Firs, by Sarah Orne Jewett.
Jewett was born in South Berwick, Maine in 1849, and though she traveled widely, she always returned home. As a child, she didn’t like school and was often ill, so her father, a country doctor, would take her on his rounds. She credits him with calling to her attention the speech and dress and customs of small town life. “Don’t try to write about people and things,” he told her. “Tell them just as they are.”
Jewett became a loving observer of the landscape and people around her. She frequented the country stores, listening to the gossip and jokes “and Munchausen-like reports of tracts of timber pines ever so many feet through at the butt.” Over time she fashioned herself into a perfect guide, the Beatrice in my utopia.
The Country of the Pointed Firs is a kind of prose hymn to Dunnet Landing, an imagined composite of the small seaport towns along the northern coast of Maine. By contemporary standards, very little happens. We follow the progress of a writer moving deeper and deeper into a world of rough beauty and rugged silence, human kindness and heartbreak.
The writer (we never learn her name) arrives in Dunnet Landing in search of a quiet place to spend the summer and work. The book opens with a brief introduction in the third-person omniscient, which lends the whole tale a timeless, mythical quality. Then that writer becomes our narrator. She takes a downstairs room in the home of Mrs. Todd, an imposing character, a sybilline healer who dispenses herbal remedies and whispered advice through the kitchen window or, for more serious cases, by the front gate. Continue reading
Never think of yourself
as someone who did not count —
festival of the souls.
– Matsuo Bashō (trans. Makoto Ueda)
Every article about Aleksandar Hemon repeats his backstory: In 1992, the Bosnian was visiting Chicago when war erupted in his native Sarajevo. Unable to go home, he settled here knowing almost no English, and then, in a supremely rare feat for adult language-learners, became an author of award-winning English-language books. Twenty-four years on, he’s one of the city’s most famous writers.
Chicago is my native city. Because Hemon himself has accurately appraised “the blessed scarcity of celebrities in Chicago, most of whom are overpaid athlete losers,” his workaday presence at a university a few blocks from my house strikes me as mildly otherworldly, almost as though a fictional character had stepped out of a book into real life.
That’s not what makes me love his work, though. It’s how I felt his influence half a planet from here, in a place he’s likely never been, with a woman illiterate in any language. It’s how Hemon’s work contains a few lines that stand out now for how wrong they seem.
♦ ♦ ♦
On the day she survived a massive fire in a garment factory called Tazreen, Sumaya Khatun was 16 years old. Employed since age 11, she was one of Bangladesh’s uneducated working poor, the sort of person most vulnerable to the kind of massive industrial disaster that the Tazreen fire was. The conflagration killed 112 of her coworkers, and Sumaya, a sewing assistant, narrowly missed becoming the 113th. Running through black smoke, she’d tripped over machines, slammed her face into the concrete floor, and managed to escape out a window, half-conscious, only because coworkers helped her.
If that was the sum of Sumaya’s misfortune, there’d be little more to say, and certainly nothing about Hemon. But weeks later, Sumaya began to get wrenching headaches. That winter, her mother, Amiran, slowly hawked everything she owned to get her daughter healthcare. By spring, doctors diagnosed a rare tumor in Sumaya’s brain. The illness was related to the fire, but only through political deception. That spring, labor activists began to help Sumaya access healthcare. In part, they exchanged their support for her participation in legal battles against Tazreen’s owner, which gained ground through scientifically implausible claims that the fire caused her deadly disease.
Their involvement brought me to Sumaya, and Hemon in turn to me. I’d started publishing my writing in Bangladesh while doing Fulbright health research. When the activists told me about Sumaya, I felt an unstoppable urge to understand the entanglement of unethical allegations with the last days of this dying child. But I was making my way into journalism unguided, alone, in one of the world’s least livable cities. In all of my reporting — eight months of following Sumaya, from summer 2013 to her death the next March — I had one only memorable touchstone: Hemon’s “The Aquarium.”
The essay appeared in Hemon’s The Book of My Lives in 2013, the same year Sumaya’s tumors grew. It recounts the death of Hemon’s infant daughter, Isabel, from a rare brain cancer, through her final, miserable days of surgeries, chemo, and intensive care, during which, Hemon writes, “our existence was horribly and irreversibly transformed.” I’d read it before meeting Sumaya, but remembered it only in February 2014, after her tumor had metastasized across her brain and body and even a glance made her terminal status clear.
That Valentine’s Day, I left her hospice ward and stopped in an open-air market nearby. The strawberry harvest had just begun. Although my mind felt glued to Sumaya and her imminent death, I wanted some of the luxurious fruit for another friend.
The market’s sidewalks were dotted with disabled beggars on tattered prayer mats moving their mouths in supplication. But Dhaka is a mega-city of 16 million, a knot of perpetually jostling crowds and nerve-shredding traffic. The market, noisy as an industrial slaughterhouse, drowned out their begging.
More curiously: The street’s overall din seemed muted. I felt quite apart from everything, as though the perfect blue-sky day went on behind panes of glass.
In “The Aquarium,” Hemon describes the same sensation. “One early morning,” he’d written, “I had the intensely physical sensation of being inside an aquarium: I could see outside, the people outside could see me inside (if they somehow chose to pay attention), but we lived and breathed in entirely different environments.” Suddenly, I grasped what he meant. Continue reading
Nights in the dark: a slasher film on TV. I lived for the devil, said the girl
on the screen. You and me: two shadows. We watched the girl on TV.
The body: opened. The blood and the meat. B-actors, shoddy doubles.
Two shadows and a screen. Come closer, you said. Each night
the night that bedeviled me. Your drawer full of pills. Your carpet
with a stain. In the morning, your mother called and told you her dream.
The killer kept calling. You muted the noise. Come closer, you said.
Night was a slasher film on TV. You and me: two dark spots, two ghost
spots side by side. Ghosts of some other people, on opposite sides of time.
The remakes, the sequels. The phone ringing one more time. The call
was coming from the house, from the room. From inside. New girl,
same knife—I couldn’t mute the noise. Every pill was a devil.
They set us alight. In dreams, I kept dying. The call came from inside.
The devil slept sound, dreamless as daylight.
On TV, I was dying. We watched on the screen. You were the devil.
I was the mute with apocalyptic dreams. Or no: we were just guts,
blood—devils moved in and out of us like bees. Time made mutes of us
all in the end. Time was the thing that bedeviled me. Time with its ax,
its cleaver. Its violence once removed. Time, with its complicated
mother issues. The last scene belonged to the final girl, who survived.
Took off down the highway, a storm in the night. She knew:
always you’re the girl or the knife.
I too lived for the devil, crashed holes through the night. I took up
with tornadoes. I wrecked towns and lives. Lost time was gathering
like a storm. TV anchormen gave me names—alphabetical,
like hurricanes. I was all mute, all noise. Tuned to every channel.
I was calling from everywhere: the last scream, the longest shadow,
the final girl I’d be. I rang out like a called name inside me.
Emily Geminder’s short stories, poems, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, New England Review, Prairie Schooner, American Short Fiction, Kenyon Review Online, Mississippi Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Witness, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Award, a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award, and a fellowship award from the Vermont Studio Center.
I hatch. I slip out of my egg cell after tearing through its skin. Slowly, I sink. My arms uncurl. I float. I sink. I float.
Hovering over the sandy floor, I see above me the other eggs strung together. Milky pearls hanging from the scratchy rock like necklaces, like clusters of alien grapes. And there is the other self, ugly and massive, brooding upside down over her drooping white nest. An endless fanning of dark, warted arms.
Others hatch. They sink. Their arms curl and uncurl. They float. We float. We tumble and collide. We gasp. As we breathe, our heads, bulbous, pulse. We are small and translucent. Above, her thick arms sweep and splay, brushing over the remaining eggs. Brushing until what are left are withered petals, not pearls. Condoms torn and discarded.
She will kill herself. Her work is nearly done and her body, each organ, each tissue, will sequentially fail her. And we? We too may soon be killed. So we rise. A cloud of us. Swimming, drifting, amidst plankton, like plankton. Here, we eat and are eaten.
I feast on copepods, larval crabs, larval starfish. I fatten and thicken. With each meal I sink. I outgrow the plankton cloud. I sink.
On the floor, among rocks and coral, I find homes have already been made. I crawl farther. I have no shell to snugly sleep inside, so I vanish. I become the cracked pale surface of coral. I become a rock, hard and speckled. I become the swaying dark leaves of kelp. My skin contracts and expands. I darken and disappear.
A crab crawls by. My arms crack its shell. I hold it close to my mouth. I crawl and find a slant crevice between two rocks on the coral floor. As I crawl, one arm brushes against a shell. Another finds a pebble. I carry crab, shell, and pebble to the rock. The crab I push inside. My arms bring more pebbles and shells. Shells and pebbles are now littered before my home. My arms reach out, grappling, feeling, digging. The pile of debris grows before the opening until what is left is a small mouth, as big as a sucker on my body. I squeeze. I push myself through it, head first. My arms slide in after me. I gorge.
Soon I need a stronger fortress. I crawl, vanishing and appearing. In the distance, a dark fish, long and lean. I wait. The fish swims towards me. I retreat. I back into rocky rubble and my skin, as it settles on the surface, picks up the pattern of light and dark. I vanish. The dark fish swims closer. Its snout twitches. I blanch. I cannot help myself. I fling myself forward. I balloon. All white, save for a spot of brown near my eye. A phantom eye to fool the fish. I form a wide canopy with my body. But the fish is still larger. I spurt. A cloud of ink, and I flee. My head leads the way. My arms become one. One heart stops beating. The other two, the ones at the gills, pump my coppery blood. Dizzy, I falter. I lay myself flat on the sand and wait.
This goes on. I grow. I crawl. I vanish. I hunt.
I am outside my newest home. A burrowed enclave beneath a gnarled rock. I am idle. My arms wag. One arm touches another arm, but not mine. He is smaller. He embraces me with two arms, and a third tickles around my head. I squeeze myself thin, to slip from his grasp. But he hugs me tighter. His third arm, the tip of it, finds behind my head the mantle. Each arm of mine pushes against him. His arm slips inside. I am stunned. His arm slips out, but his body still presses against mine. Again his third arm slides around my head, to the back, again slipping inside to deposit his sperm. I squirm. Our arms are interlocked. He does it again, and again and again and again and again. I lose count. I am red . His head, heavy, leans against mine and I feel his arm sneak around me again. He is slower now. Tired. I seize him. Each arm of mine wraps around his head. Now I watch him blanch. I tighten my grip, he wrestles me. Once it’s over, I drag his body towards the gnarled rock. I push him, squeeze him, into the burrowed hole. I gorge.
Once it’s over, I feel heavy. I crawl out and am struck by light and warmth. I crawl until I can crawl no longer. On a reef, on its hills and valleys, I rest. I heave. Like vomit, I expel in one force below me white pellets. Miniscule and many. Little pellets caught in the current, floating away from me. My arms grab towards them, pull them back. It is an impossible game. I hold them in place. Then I weave them. It takes a long time. I sway water over them. I clean them. I sit forever, heavy and weak.
Then they hatch. Out they tumble, miniscule. I sway water over them and watch as they skip and spin. From my siphon I issue a jet of water. They are caught in its current and I watch them, little pulsing selves, rise far above me. I will watch that shimmering cloud for as long as I can. But then. Here I sit. For forever I lie on top of them. And now? More hunting and crawling and feeding? No. Here, now, I sit on the torn white tissues of their eggs. I will sit on this litter now. Not vanishing, not hunting, not crawling. Here I will sit now. I will sit until whatever keeps me—my skin, my arms, my hearts—alive, stops.
Zehra Nabi holds an MFA from Johns Hopkins University, where she works for The Hopkins Review and teaches creative writing. She previously worked as a journalist in Karachi, Pakistan.
With an illustration of a pregnant woman on the cover of Pamela Erens’s provocative new novel, Eleven Hours, the book’s subject isn’t exactly a mystery. But who is the book for? I exchanged emails with the author, whose work I’ve admired for some time, to get to the bottom of that very question. Over the course of several days we talked about pain, tattooing, childbirth, nursing and other “big human events.”
Jim Ruland: Before we get into whom the book is for, I’d like to talk about what the book is about. Ostensibly, it’s about a difficult birth, but for me the book is about trauma. Would you agree with this characterization?
Pamela Erens: Interesting. I did not have that word or idea in my head as I wrote this book. That may be because of the way I define “trauma.” It’s a scary word to me, with the connotation of a psychological injury that one doesn’t survive, that maims one permanently. You could certainly make an argument that the protagonists, Lore and Franckline, have been traumatized. But that wasn’t really how I approached the material. I wanted to show a woman going through the particular trial of childbirth and show what she brought to it, how she rearranged herself to handle it. And in addition, what both characters have done to bear the losses in their lives. I see the novel as more about what we bring to pain—good or bad—than about what pain does to us. But that may be semantics.
JR: I like that concept of “what we bring to pain.” Obviously I’ve never given birth but as a heavily tattooed person, I have a relationship with pain, an intimacy with how my body responds to the wound that is tattooing. But I’m fairly certain this knowledge would leave me woefully unprepared for the freight train of pain that is childbirth. There’s just no comparison right?
PE: I’ve never been tattooed, so it would be really hard for me to compare. I imagine that the pain of tattooing is very sharp and localized. The pain of childbirth is more expansive, and it’s deep inside, which makes it hard to describe. And unless tattoos routinely take twelve to twenty-four hours, the pain of childbirth lasts longer!
JR: Definitely not. I’m good for about three hours under the needle and then I need to tap out!
PE: It’s hard to compare pain generally. A hundred women who go through childbirth are going to experience the pain in completely different ways, partly depending on the vagaries of that particular birth, partly depending on their constitution—apparently some people really are more physiologically sensitive to pain—and partly depending on what’s going on around them. I had two very positive birth experiences, overall, which you might not guess from reading the novel. I had a doula both times. I can’t overstate the importance of having someone around who is experienced in births and can keep you (and your partner, if you have one) from panicking because she knows just what is happening at each stage. That was our wonderful doula. My husband was also incredibly involved and caring. If you feel loved and supported, pain is different—less like something you’re lost with. Being alone with pain magnifies it greatly. In the novel, of course, that’s Lore’s situation. Although her nurse, Franckline, steps into the breach as best she can.
JR: No pun intended! When I’m experiencing pain, I want to be left alone. I often read while getting tattooed so that people won’t talk to me. In your book, pain isn’t a thing that happens but a thing unto itself with its own catalog of expressions. How did you arrive at pain as a subject?
PE: I was a small, skinny, unathletic kid who was terrified of physical pain. At my annual checkups I literally used to run from the doctor when it was time for a shot—I had to be chased and cornered. As I got older I had the idea that I was someone who couldn’t tolerate serious pain, that it would break me if I ever encountered it. “Break me” seemed to mean becoming some sort of gibbering idiot, my mental organization unraveling. I don’t know why I had this extreme vision. Maybe precisely because I’d been so protected; I’d encountered pain so rarely. But in any case I was terrified of childbirth. It almost surprises me that I was willing to become pregnant, given the level of my fear. As a result of the terror, I read up on every single thing that could happen during a birth. I prepared myself to the utmost.
JR: Not to oversimplify things, it feels as if desire + knowledge > fear.
PE: Exactly. The whole process was a Very Big Deal to me, and getting through it made me feel very powerful. I didn’t fall apart. I didn’t go insane. I discovered I had strengths to bring to the process. Afterward, I felt such a respect for what women go through in labor; I felt as if we do this truly honorable and heroic thing. All this just burrowed away in my consciousness until I was ready to write about it. The trigger was reading the fine novel Tinkers and thinking, “If Paul Harding can write a book all about someone dying in bed, maybe I can write one that’s all about someone birthing a baby.”
JR: I think it’s mistake to consider the title and think that the book is about eleven hours of labor when it’s more accurate to view those eleven hours as a narrative constraint. Would you agree with that?
PE: I think you could argue it both ways. It’s really and truly about those eleven hours: a granular view of childbirth. But it’s also about everything that has happened to Lore and Franckline to make them experience those hours the way that they do. It’s about how our psychological histories collide with biological fact. And it’s about how childbirth is a metaphysical event as well as a physical one.
JR: Did you collect stories of painful childbirth for the purposes of the book or was there an incident that you built the book around?
PE: I had enough stories in my head simply from my own two experiences and those I’d heard about from friends and family. One member of my family had had a very difficult first birth and after speaking to her to get more of the details I used her story, with some alterations, for the book.
It is night, and my mother and I return to an empty home.
On my childhood bed I lay my clothes out: T-shirts, underwear, shorts for the hot weather. A black tie and a black suit I had hoped not to wear.
I am unpacking after a restless thirteen-hour flight from San Francisco. After fifteen hours by my father’s side in the hospital and then in billing and then the morgue. After three hours in traffic, behind the metal rattle of jeepneys, going home to the provinces from Manila. I need to change my clothes. I need to lie down.
I look at my bed and see myself as a boy, my skinny limbs clutching a pillow, feet not yet dangling over the foot of the bed.
I don’t really want to be here. My brother is at the funeral home, making important decisions about the coffin and flowers. I want to be somewhere where I can be of use, get things done.
I hear my mother calling me from their bedroom, asking me to do something. A favor. It’s late and I’m exhausted and I want to protest, but I go anyway.
She’s getting her clothes ready for tomorrow’s wake, laid out on her bed, one by one: a white blouse, a checkered scarf, dark slacks.
She says, I own nothing in black.
She never wears black. Malungkot na kulay, she always called it. A sad color. No clothes the color of her hair, dyed in a black too dark to match her eight decades.
You need to get some rest, I tell her.
You need to help me first, she tells me, pointing to my father’s clothes in the closet.
I shake my head. I tell her we don’t need to do this now, that there are more important things to do tomorrow. Visitors to feed. Papers to sign. All that.
But she insists. Just come look now, she says, walking to the closet.
I look at her bed and imagine her in her faded nightgown, lying sleepless, a thin arm outstretched to my father’s bed alongside her.
I look at his bed and see his pillows smoothed and propped up, his sheets tucked tight, his blanket folded at the foot.
So I follow my mother to the closet. My father had been bedridden for a year, and wore only pajamas and hospital gowns. I look closer at the shirts, a row of starched empty sleeves, and see dust sprinkled on the shoulders.
She says, Take them all with you. What will I do with them, she asks.
They won’t fit, I say, and I don’t wear those colors.
My father was partly color-blind. Sometimes he wanted a second opinion. What color is this flower, he’d ask. The second opinions never quite matched his.
So my father owned clothes of, well, unusual hues. Colors absent from both my vocabulary and my wardrobe.
My mother shows me a rain jacket. Waterproof, she points out. He loved this jacket, she says. He would have wanted you to have it.
It looks too big. It’s also a combination of two shades of gray and yellow. The latter is an awful cross between a highlighter and a canary.
I say no.
She shows me his shirts, their patterns and loud colors an affront.
She has a story for each: Your brother gave him this for his 80th birthday. We bought this at an outlet store. He wore this at the church anniversary. He couldn’t decide between these two so I got them both and he was really happy.
She shows them to me, wanting an answer for each, one by one.
I say no, again and again.
Just try them on, she says.
I am tired. I am so, so tired, and so must be my mother. But I sigh and give in.
To my surprise, my Dad’s shirts fit me perfectly. His arms are my arms. I look in the mirror and I see my father, and I see myself.
I didn’t need a second opinion. I brought home half a dozen shirts, and the rain jacket. It still looks like nothing I would ever wear, but I will.
And I want the sky to crack open above me, I want the clouds to let go, I want the rain to fall and fall and fall.
Benito Vergara is the author of two academic monographs, Displaying Filipinos: Photography and Colonialism in Early 20th-Century Philippines and Pinoy Capital: The Filipino Nation in Daly City. His work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Entropy, and the anthology Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 7, and he has received a fellowship at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley summer writing workshop. Follow him at @thewilyfilipino.
In college, just as I was starting to think of myself as a writer—also known as my “insufferable” phase—I felt a vague anthropological obligation to interview the elderly people on my mother’s side of the family. I figured I only had a couple of years, tops, before they all died. My uncle’s parents, for instance, had been born just after the genocide in 1915 and, though they’d been living in California for most of my life, couldn’t speak a word of english. I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted from the interviews, but I assumed they’d grant me access to harrowing stories of Evil, Survival, Redemption, and other capitalized morsels that whet the appetites of the insufferable. Besides: I didn’t feel the need to explain—or understand—my motives. As far as I was concerned, my only responsibilities were to the twin gods of History and Posterity. So I logged on to Tele-BEARS and—as nobly as possible on a service named like a cartoon about sentient fruit snacks—enrolled in Introductory Armenian.
Once the righteousness faded, I was left with a searing anxiety and a profound sense of regret. Somehow—maybe because I’d seen so many ads for language-learning software you could use alone in your underwear—what I’d forgotten about classes was that you had to take them with other people. This worried me because unlike the Spanish I’d taken in high school, or the French David Sedaris takes in “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” Armenian was a language only others Armenians learned. I was a halfie, but I had a few strikes against me: I didn’t know more than a handful of Armenian words, I looked white, and I was going into the whole thing the way a beginning writer would, to learn something more than just the language—you know: insufferably.
The anxiety led to a kind of bitterness against my mom, who could have passed the language on, I thought, and saved me all this trouble. But the bitterness quickly passed, because the truth was I had no one to blame but myself.
My mom immigrated from Armenia in the 70s, but she retained a unique take on english cliches. “Simple as that” was dented into “Simple is like that,” and “Am I right or am I right?” into “Did I say it good or did I say it good?” She did not say it good, my younger self thought. She did not say it good at all.
Who did say it good—said everything well, I thought—was my father. Unlike Mom, he was an American by birth, and when he spoke—in an english that wasn’t just his first language, but his only language—his speech seemed graced with a kind of purity, a word you can’t use without winking unless you’re a kid or an idiot. When he spoke, I listened differently. I tended to listen to my mom just enough to parse out the information she was giving me. But when my dad spoke, I listened the way a writer reads, paying close attention to the choices that, deployed with such incredible confidence, didn’t appear to be choices at all. That I looked more like him than I did my mom seemed less important to me than that I sounded more like him. I decided to learn as little Armenian as possible.
Now I was enrolled in Armenian 1A, which met in a classroom the size of a kitchen, by far the smallest I’d seen on campus. Still, because there were only ten of us, the room felt as endless as Learning itself. Or maybe it only felt that way to me, since I took a seat at the back corner, as far as possible from the central cluster of students, who, without exception, were dark-haired and olive-skinned and already—through the Armenian Student Association—close friends.
They were raucous, too, reconnecting after the summer the same way my cousins talked—teasing and feigning offense and laughing all in single-breath bursts of Armenglish. The teacher hadn’t arrived yet, and I was starting to feel as conspicuous as a silent white guy in the corner of a loud classroom. Finally one of the group, a stubbly upperclassman with political stickers on his laptop, invited me to sit closer.
“Didn’t expect to see a white person,” he said, cheerfully. He seemed genuinely surprised, and I decided to take his honesty as a sign of kindness.
“Well,” I said, “I’m actually Armenian, too. Other than my dad, I don’t know my white side at all. My only cultural context for family, really, is Armenian. My mom immigrated from—”
“In this country,” he interrupted, somehow maintaining a tone of generosity, “you are what you look like.”
Welcome to Tin House’s Bookseller Spotlight, a series of interviews with indie booksellers across the country. This week we stopped in with Claire Tobin at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Tin House Books: What was the first book you read that made you fall in love with reading?
Claire Tobin: To be honest, the books that filled my nerdy middle school years all kind of blend together in a mixture of hormones and memories of reading in the corner at slumber parties. But if I were to pinpoint one book in particular that has traveled with me past those years, it would probably be Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now. I think it was the first time that I realized a story didn’t have to clean or beautiful to be good and that (what!?) a female character could in fact be stronger and cooler than her male counterparts. Girl power, for real.
THB: If you could spend the day with a character, who would it be and what would you do?
CT: I’m going to go back to my cliched roots and say that I would really love a day with Hermione Granger. Book browsing, butterbeer drinking, and bad-guy-dueling.
THB: How has being a bookseller changed your relationship to books?
CT: I started slingin’ books when I was sixteen and now it’s almost six years later and I still can’t quite understand how my love for books continues to grow at such an exponential rate. I’m also in my third year as an English major so I spend what feels like my entire life reading. I went abroad last summer and when I came back and started working again, I realized how much I had missed. I had missed all of these books that were released without my knowing it and I felt a profound sadness. I can feel myself growing along with these books and being away from them that summer, I felt like I was a million miles away from a best friend. Getting to be around these books, ones full of opportunity and beauty and whole worlds–it feels like the luckiest gift. Being a bookseller has taught me to appreciate that these objects we recommend and sell are nothing less than pieces of art. We should always feel like we are in the midst of greatness when we are in a bookstore.
THB: What’s a recently released book you keep recommending?
CT: Ok, I have a couple! I run the Feminist Book Club at Literati and we recently read Margo Jefferson’s Negroland. I was struck by Jefferson’s unapologetic honesty, something we in the book club highly appreciate, especially among women writers. It’s truly a beautiful, enlightening book. I also got really into Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. It’s the best and creepiest character study I’ve ever read. I started listening to the audiobook at 3 a.m. one very early morning when I had a long drive to make. It turned out to be the perfect time and place. If you ever get the chance to do a middle-of-the-night roadtrip, listen to Eileen.
THB: What’s a book you love that not enough people know about?
CT: One book that I love to recommend is Alissa Nutting’s Tampa. It’s insane. I think a lot of people are turned off by the subject matter (pedophilic and sociopathic behavior, duh) and they immediately put the book back down once they’ve read the back cover. Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve ever been more engrossed in a story than I have been in Tampa. It’s repulsive, cringe-worthy, and utterly magnetic. Some of the best writing I’ve encountered in recent years.
Claire Tobin is in her third year at the University of Michigan, studying English Literature and the History of Art. She has been book-slinging in Ann Arbor for five years and counting.
One day Quetzalcoatl would pay tribute to Mireille Enos. Quetzalcoatl ran the fabled motel and had grown up at the motel. More recently, he’d given testimony. Now it was up to her PA, Mireille Enos’s PA, to arrange a suitable occasion to pay tribute.
After sprinkling a dozen small curses—hazelnut laid side by side—Mireille Enos would need to put her money on the big gun: the golden dropout color pain charm.
Where was her PA? The hot springs of Malta ran smooth as silk, travelers sagged under the weight of their bedazzled topknots, guardians of Malta’s legendary pebbled rabbits prowled the pens with axes…all was well in Malta, except that Mireille Enos’s PA wasn’t responding to behests.
Her PA who was nothing but aggravation . . . regenerating aggravation . . . becoming more and more aggravating as she grew older. She’d been with Mireille Enos a whole six months and every cell in her body had died. And been dug up and replaced with aggravation.
In sheer distracted aggravation, Mireille Enos found herself braiding together twigs, remnants of the unsuccessful hazelnut—and the look that Quetzalcoatl gave her told her that she was onto something bigger than twigs each by its lonesome—a totally different dropout pain charm, the daunting gold of braided hazelnut, priceless access to a legion of demons—Quetzalcoatl’s somber expression spoke of darkness and a giant eyeball—not an actual eyeball, but an eyeball-shaped scar.
Hazelnut, the haymaker. She’d erranded her PA to loot kelp in a woods composed of iron pillars. Her PA wandered those woods in cowardly loyalty while Mireille Enos drafted a statement postponing the tribute. She would draft the statement herself while her PA totally blanked on iron pillars. Blanking on iron pillars was a tune her PA would soon be singing. Mireille Enos with an iron pillar in one hand would accompany her PA, silently.
No, wait. Quetzalcoatl would draft the statement. Mireille Enos would lock Quetzalcoatl in the revenue-producing room that had been his childhood dungeon.
Meanwhile Mireille Enos would adopt an attitude of “fuck the kelp” and go looking for the Belgian pralines for which Malta is world renowned.
She would rev herself up and in a miracle of accelerated herbivorous turnover would convert every cell of her body, overnight, into some variety of hazelnut!
Or no, weariness thwarted that ambition. She would content herself with one variety of hazelnut, her cells channeled into teaching a lesson to one runaway.
But maybe while she was waiting to teach the lesson she would rough up a box of pralines, not Belgian pralines but yesterday’s pralines, from yesterday’s gift basket.
Yesterday had been hell, wall-to-wall pralines, subpar pralines along the Hi-Line, an ante-Malta lifetime of fog and nightmare and vandalized hazelnut, abused hazelnut, hazelnut bark stripped from iron pillars and woven into lopsided gift baskets, gift baskets that projected ineptness and even sadness, the sadness of a skill acquired way too late in life, a late awakening into wasted weaving, forlorn and off-putting gift baskets exuding a fixation with hazelnut, the awkward baskets brimming with pralines and nothing but pralines, musty faux pralines from the desolate gully bakeries that had once been flourishing granaries, inedible French pralines, poseurs.
Under the overflowing sun of Malta, Mireille Enos would be reborn—would hold the jellyfish to account for the unanswered behests—would breathe hazelnut—would summon Quetzalcoatl and while aloofly dispensing doom would explain to Quetzalcoatl all the reasons why breathing hazelnut was fair and just.
Quetzalcoatl would take her side and would mentor her in the nuances of breathing hazelnut. The carefree jellyfish would finally learn responsibility, would slink off to a dark place. No—they would not allow her to slink. They’d send her on a second mission, the same mission, jellyfish vs. iron pillars, looting, only this time she would know the consequences of slacking and deceit. Scarred by iron pillars she would be thrown headfirst into iron pillars.
Behesting—problem solved—she would shove away her phone and watch her PA tap dance while Quetzalcoatl administered a form of punishment that she could never hope to master—too nuanced even for Quetzalcoatl to sign on as mentor—a bauble from the hidden menu in his repertoire—meanwhile needle icicles would plunge into the hearts of innocent pralines, which knew better than to dawdle beneath icicles but were uncharacteristically careless because they wanted to make themselves available to Mireille Enos.
Braving the respiratory toxins from the mausoleum, Mireille Enos would convey nothing but love while ransacking a numbered row of empty lairs in search of pralines.
Enlightenment, revival, virtue. Aggravation short-circuited the mantra. Fuck. She was armed with a mantra that gave off sparks, in lodgings that were nothing but kindling.
A splinter! Hazelnut had entered her. And vice versa. A gate through which she’d been admitted passage slammed shut. Having braided, she was now protected.
She filled her ice bucket and went looking for a gauntlet so as to avoid splinters.
• • •
Dear townspeople of Malta. We are sorry for the delay, but you’ll be glad to know that the bloodthirsty employee has been removed to a detention facility. And for comfort was provided with a horsehair blanket. Here at the till of Mireille Enos Enterprises, North Central Montana Division we spare no expense in protecting our own from themselves. Slacker or not, that employee won’t be roping herself any time soon with a lariat of her own making. Or wait, we should probably go and check to make sure. We do check but the ingenuity of our hires often surprises even us.
Fortunato Salazar‘s most recent fiction and translation appears at The Offing, Joyland, 7×7.la, and The Brooklyn Rail.