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Improvisation without Accompaniment
In the field, the tractor spins its giant wheels.
How fierce defiance is, or seems. Mechanical
in a sense: our pistons firing to set aflame
some teepee of longed-for brush, this being
hope’s kindling. Just once, I’d like to witness
beavers constructing a dam made of last spring’s
windfall, dead limbs crooked and bent. I’d like
a roan horse, a wide-open pasture to ride across.
Laughter. A bottle of cheap wine. These acres
of heartland filling up with snow and snow and—
for our next trick, what will be expected of us?
The chromosomes divide with such precision.
This is the part where the origin myths diverge.
Give me something gold to grapple with: three
apples to juggle, a scrap of paper to fold
into a dove. I have seen pigeons nesting atop
the steel beams in the station, as the trains arrive
and depart, come and go. All I want to do is sit
on the porch at evening, in a pinewood rocking
chair, and watch the desert sun melt over
the hills. But it is this notion of now that gives me
trouble. There is no parachute, and that is sad.
Matt Morton’s poetry appears in Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. He has received the Sycamore Review Wabash Prize for Poetry, and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He serves as associate editor for 32 Poems and is a Robert B. Toulouse Doctoral Fellow in English at the University of North Texas.
For years I wore what my mother called costumes. By the time I was thirteen I worked selling over-dyed WW II German military clothing on Melrose Avenue and spent my earnings on second-hand clothes. I didn’t call them vintage; they were thrift store clothes—veiled pillbox hats, rhinestone earrings, elbow-length gloves—the best of them bought in charity shops supporting ladies auxiliaries.
My most beloved source was a little bungalow tucked beneath eucalyptus, with a picture window framing the star-nippled Amazon of the Ivar Theatre strip club (immortalized by Tom Waits in “Emotional Weather Report”: “It’s cold out there. Colder than a ticket taker’s smile at the Ivar Theatre on Saturday night”).
I knew the shop’s spotty opening hours by heart, but it’s gone now, as is much of the Hollywood I grew up in, the so-called industry having cannibalized its own glamorous decrepitude and spit out a pile of Disneyfied bones.
At that time, though, Hollywood Boulevard was a haunted trail of crumbling pagodas and footprints of the dead, where hustlers, junkies, wig-hatted crazies, and ancient, natty, could-have-been starlets waited under stark sun for buses that likely as not would pass them by. I loved it.
I planned my outfits each night before performing arts school. If the theme was turquoise, I’d wear every turquoise thing I owned: hand-painted circle skirt, 40s pajama top dotted with sleeping kittens, Lucite earrings embedded with tiny sea horses. If I didn’t have turquoise shoes, I’d spray paint cowboy boots on our front lawn.
My closet was stacked high with shoe boxes inscribed with the characters invoked by each pair: Girl Scout (regulation loafers), Barbarella (gold lame boots), Fred Astaire (squeaky wingtips), Beatnik (pointy flats), Hysteric (battered orthopedic), Blanche du Bois (pale silk mules), F. Scott (two-toned), F. Nightingale (nurse’s whites), W.P.A. (seam-toed oxfords), Theda Bara (Victorian velvet jeweled slippers), Mrs. Robinson (leopard heels).
My mother called me her little Sarah Bernhardt, and although she once favored an andro-glam mix of Bowie-circa-Hunky–Dory and Janis-circa-Pearl (glitter platforms, velvet hot pants, feathered halters, octagonal granny glasses, Ziggy Stardust shag), although she once dressed me in happy face and peace-patched jeans that her mother took from the laundry and buried in the trash, she now was uneasy about my costumes.
Sartorial soul sister Little Edie Beale of Grey Gardens breaks down her revolutionary costume for filmmakers Albert and David Maysles like so, “The best thing is to wear pantyhose or some pants under a short skirt, I think. Then you have the pants under the skirt and then you can pull the stockings up over the pants underneath the skirt. And you can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape. So I think this is the best costume for today. Mother wanted me to come out in a kimono, so we had quite a fight.”
My mother instituted a Four Accessory Rule. Lipstick counted. Two and three decades later she apologized for attempting to tame my bohemian spirit. Both times I quickly assured her said spirit had prevailed: I’d simply stuffed my handbag and completed my ensemble as I walked to school.
Is this story about my love of flash, my equal distain for authority, or the way I axiomatically protect those I love from my sufferings, large and small? Or all of these things?
You can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape.
Kim Wood’s writing has appeared in Out Magazine, McSweeney’s and on National Public Radio. She has received grants from the Jerome Foundation and is a MacDowell Colony fellow. She is working on a book, Advice to Adventurous Girls, based upon the unpublished archive of a 1920s motorcycle daredevil. Her documentary film on this subject has screened internationally in festivals and museums including Sundance and the Guggenheim, where it double-billed with an episode of ChiPs.
A week after I turned thirty-three, I was listening to cello music on internet radio, contemplating that this was my Jesus year, when my roommate called to say she’d found this dog wandering alone, tagless, no collar, by the Hudson River. She’s sweet and friendly my roommate said. What should I do?
Don’t bring her home, I said. Take her right to the shelter. But my roommate had logistical reasons for coming home: no purse, no cash, needing to change her shoes. So, that day, I got a fuzzy little mutt with one crooked ear.
Later in my Jesus year, Mom called to say Dad had pain in his legs. They weren’t married anymore. Dad lived in Los Angeles and she lived in Alexandria, Virginia. But he treated my mom like she was his mom, and handed her the difficult vulnerable parts of his life that his friends wouldn’t hold for him. Mom claimed she didn’t love him anymore. But who would do that for someone they didn’t love?
The pain turned out to be blood clots.
Phlebitis, no biggie, they’ll put him on blood thinners, Mom said. She phoned me twice a week because she worried I’d get murdered living in Newark.
Aren’t blood thinners basically rat poison? I said.
Really, Theresa, she said. I do not need the negativity.
Mom, I got a dog, I said. Her name is Lily. She’s so snuggly. She’ll lie on her back on my lap and let me scratch her belly.
How are you going to look after a dog? she said. Dogs cost money.
Now who’s being negative? I said.
But it was true I’d been experiencing mercury in retrograde or some other planetary disruption. This arrangement with my roommate should have been temporary but I couldn’t move in with my boyfriend because he refused to stay on his meds.
I was lightheaded and dizzy and needed to walk barefoot in cool grass and absorb the earth’s energy and photosynthesize the sun. Since there was no grass near me, I purchased an earthing-grounding mat on the internet. It cost a hundred dollars and never arrived. I argued with someone on the phone who claimed the package had been signed for, which meant it was stolen off my porch.
Instead of an earthing mat, Lily came into my life. At night she crawled under the covers with me. Sometimes, in the morning, she suffered seizures. I pressed my palms on her quivering body, laying on of my hands to relieve the afflictions of this dog, who was not the baby I’d probably never have.
I never anticipated that in my Jesus year I’d be massaging human bodies at a movement salon in Manhattan. The commute from New Jersey was long. Sometimes I massaged eight clenched people in a day and by evening, my left shoulder hurt so bad the pain radiated into my neck and jaw, and numbed my face.
The phlebitis didn’t recede. Blood clots formed in Dad’s arms. Like beads on a rosary, he said. Mom told me I should visit him so I used the money I’d been saving for my spiritual trek to Nepal.
He was diagnosed with a rare cancer caused by a tumor that had originated somewhere else in his body and spread to his blood. They didn’t know where the tumor originated so they called it an occult tumor. So much for rosary beads, I said. It’s the occult. The situation had a name: Trousseau’s syndrome. Nothing to do with my mental baggage, he said. I think he means emotional baggage, Mom told me when I mentioned it. Either way, I read about the syndrome on the internet. There was no hope.
So, there she is, Dad smirked when the taxi dropped me off from LAX. He couldn’t bear to display true happiness because it would make him vulnerable. He was living at his friend’s house in Sherman Oaks. I’d never met his friends. I had never visited him before because he was too busy for guests. I can’t entertain you, he used to say, and I took the hint.
His friend had an extra bedroom with flowered wallpaper that used to be her daughter’s before her daughter got married, so I stayed there. Dad’s room was off the kitchen pantry in the back, adjoining a small bathroom. He slept in a rented hospital bed. His friend worked as a personal assistant to a movie star whose name I was not supposed to mention, and at 4:30 every afternoon she came home from work and started drinking gin-and-tonics. Lord have mercy, she would say after the first one. Other friends came over to play poker in the evenings but Dad didn’t play poker anymore. He went to bed early so I retired to my room where I watched the flowers on the wallpaper unfurl their petals. The house was huge, with several bathrooms. I tried to use each of them in turn.
Dad was dying. I suggested acupuncture, cranial sacral therapy, reiki, and any modality that might release his negative energy and let the healing in. He said I was in denial. People die, Theresa, and there’s nothing you can do about it. He was undergoing chemotherapy even though it made him sick. Pot brownies were the only food he could stomach, so I baked batch after batch and we ate them together. In the afternoon, we’d sit on the sofa and stare wonderingly at our hands, those veins, those fingers, the miracle of opposing thumbs. I was staring at my hands the day Lily was run over by a car. I saw a golden shimmer like an aura around my fingers when the phone rang and it was my roommate, hysterical.
Then Lily barked her timid polite little bark outside the window and I said, Dad, Lily’s here, see? She wanted to meet you. But Dad had stopped breathing.
Laura Catherine Brown’s first novel, Quickening (Random House), was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover selection. Her short stories have appeared in fiction anthologies with Overlook and Seal Press, and forthcoming at Bellingham Review. Her work has also appeared in The Fiddleback, Monkeybicycle, Numéro Cinq and Paragraphiti. She has been awarded residencies at the Djerassi Foundation, Millay Colony, Vermont Studio Center and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She lives in New York City where she’s currently writing another novel. Visit her at lauracatherinebrown.com or on twitter @lauracbrown.
Welcome to Tin House’s Bookseller Spotlight, a series of interviews with indie booksellers across the country. This week we stopped in with Benjamin Rybeck of Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas.
Tin House Books: What was the first book you read that made you fall in love with reading?
Benjamin Rybeck: People ask booksellers this question sometimes, and I wish I had a better answer: If you tell people that, as a young man, you fell in love with Hemingway, you get a lot of eye rolls. But growing up, I was, first and foremost, a movie geek, and so when I found The Sun Also Rises, it felt, well, cinematic: lots of dialogue and action, not much interiority (even though isn’t the book written in first-person? who the hell ever thinks of Hemingway for “interiority?”)—and, perhaps most importantly, short as hell. (Probably falling in love with this book began my lifelong preference for short books—you can read ‘em in a day and feel like you’ve accomplished something!) With The Sun Also Rises, though, I never much related to Hemingway’s whole masculine deal—and in most of his other books (I don’t like many of them, honestly), this sense of masculinity feels like a glass jar the work sits in, preventing me from actually touching it. What I loved—and still love—about The Sun Also Rises was how the whole damn book turns on that one last scene, that one last moment. The entire novel seems tough and agile, but then, on the final page, you realize how sad it is, how much has gone unsaid. Still, to this day, what provokes me most about my own life is how much seems to go unsaid.
THB: If you could spend the day with a character, who would it be and what would you do?
BR: My first thought? I’d like to spend the day with the version of Richard Nixon in Robert Coover’s The Public Burning—but does that say something fucked up about me? Also, I’m not sure what we’d do, so let’s chuck that notion. Maybe better, I could spend the day with Henry Perowne from Ian McEwan’s Saturday, or Mrs. Dalloway from whatever that book is called, I forget the name. We would simply go around town, running errands. I need to get better at running errands—most days I simply do not get shit done—so maybe I could learn something? Of course, neither character has a terribly good end to his/her day, so I’d bail before the bad stuff went down.
Another thought (if I can pick somebody from outside fiction): I’d like to hang out that Harold Pinter character. You know the one: the sinister young man who enters a home, speaks elliptically, plays mind games. Hell, man, somebody’s gotta shake me out of the comfortable, bourgeois existence of book selling…
THB: How has being a bookseller changed your relationship to books?
BR: Ha! How honest can I be here, and how badly can I get myself into trouble? (I kid, I kid… )
It has changed my relationship in ways both good and not-as-good—or, at least, ways that make me less happy. I’ve been a bookseller for not long, less than two years. Before that, I came from an academic background—an MFA in fiction, several years teaching writing, long afternoons drinking beers and shooting the shit with other aspiring authors—all of which is dangerous in the hands of a haughty, pretentious dude like me. Hang mostly with writers for years, and watch your talk get abstract and poetic real fast. When I first started at Brazos Bookstore, hand-selling books to customers, I would say things like “the formal experimentation of this book recalls _______” or “the language plays with _______” or “the author explores the theme of ________,” and rarely would I accomplish more than making the customer scratch her face and then ask for the location of the bathroom so she could climb out the window as though escaping a bad date. Then, I started listening to my fellow booksellers (smarter than I, all), and they said things to customers like, “This is book is about a mom and son who reunite to go rob a bank, and it’s fast-paced and visceral,” and customers would snatch the book and run to the register. Turns out people care about story! (Who knew?) The good way that being a bookseller has changed my relationship to books is that it has made me fundamentally aware of the people who buy books, who read books—and what those people tend to look for—and of course, any writer who isn’t, ultimately, thinking about what s/he can do for the reader isn’t going to get very far. Continue reading
It’s a long story here.
—MINERVA PEREZ, NEIGHBOR
Midway through my first year as a newspaper reporter, I walked through a two-story apartment building in Brownsville, Texas, where a poor young couple had murdered their three children. My assignment was to write about the local debate as to whether the decrepit but historic building should be demolished. It sat on a corner on the outskirts of Brownsville’s downtown, just a handful of city blocks from Mexico. There, tropical birds effortlessly crossed into the United States from points south, while human travelers traversed international bridges or paid coyotes to hustle them surreptitiously across the Rio Grande. Yet, even among the quotidian dramas of the border, the deaths of Julissa, John Stephan, and Mary Jane were not merely reported—they were communally grieved.
When I interviewed people about the murders, some cautioned that the crime was a black hole that held nothing within. Heinous crimes are like that, people said. They do not teach lessons, they only confirm the worst suspicions about what can happen in our world. To venture close to an entity so dark and try to wrest value from its depths was not only foolish, it was dangerous: a black hole withholds and mangles all it consumes and devours anything wandering too close to its invisible mouth. Yet, the same people who compassionately issued this warning also told me, often at length, of all the crime had come to mean in their lives, how it had challenged their beliefs or fortified them. How it continued to flicker as a figure on the edge of their peripheral vision, moving out of range when they turned to see it head-on.
That the victims were children, that the father was from Brownsville, that an explanation seemed always out of reach, had caused people to question their understanding of their community, their spirituality, the values they held as universal. As they reckoned with these questions, they necessarily reconfigured the world around the shape of the crime in its wake.
As I began to visit the building with increasing frequency, I noted a cloud hovering overhead—an accumulation of meaning more dense and persistent than I’d ever intuited. It signaled that there was more to this story than the simple details, the dates and quotes and analysis that a reporter usually assembles. The cloud was heavy with palpable ambivalence, an existential dread about what had happened here and how it had burrowed through and ruptured the landscape, leaving damage that had yet to be completely measured. I began to realize that, if I wanted to comprehend this city, a place layered with unwritten history that seemed to lie naked and obscured in the same instant, this story was key.
I had never before been drawn to tragic crimes. Like many people, I pushed them out of mind when I could. It was easier to box them up and store them on a mental shelf of humanity’s worst moments. Media cover these stories for a while, until the case is closed and the criminal is punished. Then, more often than not, the stories retreat into the background, at least on a national level. For the cities that survive them, what changes? Something must change, even if the difference is unnoticeable on the surface. People continue with their lives, having families and teaching their kids. They fall in love and break up. They get degrees and jobs and build new homes. As for the criminals, I figured they still eat and sleep and talk and think.
John Allen Rubio, the father of the children, had become an infamous figure in Brownsville, known by all three of his names. He was both a product of the city, born and raised, and seemingly its communal enemy, guilty of an act almost too terrible to make sense of. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, lost, and was sentenced to die. After winning an appeal, his second trial took place seven years after the crime. Again, he was convicted and was given the death penalty.
When I started writing to John, I didn’t expect him to respond. But he wrote to me for years. He told me about his childhood, his depression, and the three children who died that night and early morning. I never fully got used to those envelopes from the Polunsky Unit, sitting alongside the bills and catalogs in our mailbox. John’s answers to my questions were candid and conversational in a way I found captivating. He was a confessed killer, but his personality leaped from the pages, undeniably human, full of ideas and memories. In my mind’s eye, I could see the curtain at the edge of the proscenium being tugged away. A construct of this man’s life had been built by headlines and court documents, but it was complicated, predictably, by his reflections, his language, his version of that life.
After that first tour, I fell into the building’s orbit. I’d drive by on my way home from work and pause for a long moment at the stop sign out front. Later, I would park and walk around the perimeter slowly, cataloging its every corner and blemish and frailty. The cloud lingered here, whether the sky was dense with fog or crisp and blue. Someday, John and the building would be banished from the earth. It felt as if everything were disappearing, or about to, until all that would be left was a sad story with no meaning.
There had to be meaning; it hung morosely overhead. I could feel it following me, leaving a damp film on my skin when I got home.
I began to compile evidence about what had happened on East Tyler Street and its aftermath and sort through it. The collection came to include more than just the testimony and confessions from the murder case. Much of what I considered evidence was tangential: a house where John lived as a boy, the moral claims of the district attorney who prosecuted the case, the arguments made by people in the neighborhood for why the building should be destroyed. Confounding questions emerged, ones I’d never before considered, which couldn’t be resolved by searching a database or conducting a few interviews. Like the algorithm marked in chalk on a mathemati-cian’s blackboard, or the brew in a cauldron, it seemed that if the correct elements were fused, they would deliver the answers.
As I was compiling this collection, a letter from John arrived. It contained a request—for a comic book. His birthday was coming up, he said. He would be thirty-two, nearly ten of those years spent in prison as he went through the appeals process. I imagined him, as I often had over the previous year, sitting in a cell I conjured from Hollywood, wishing for a simple gift, a fleck of life as the days dimmed to black.
The comic was called Rosario+Vampire, Season II, Issue 9. It would be easy and inexpensive to send, and John told me he’d continue writing and answering my questions either way. The phrasing of the request, “Would it be wrong for me to ask you a favor?” struck a chord. Yes, I wanted to reply, this is not how the journalist-subject relationship works. But I’d never interviewed a person on death row before. I might be one of his only connections to the world beyond his cell.
I often felt grateful to John during the time we corresponded. I had hundreds of questions, and he did his best to answer them, sometimes breaking responses down into several letters to get to the whole list. I imagined he got something out of the exchange; there wasn’t much else to occupy the twenty-two hours he spent alone in his cell each day. Maybe it made him feel important to know someone was interested in the intricacies of his life story, his opinions, feelings, and memories. Still, he remained justifiably cautious as he wrote to me.
I have never spoken to any media member since this thing all happened and I will be frank and say that the reason that I have not is because it would not matter what I say be it true or false it will always be printed in a way that will make me look like more of a monster taht I already look as. I do not trust any media at all but I will give you a chance to show me if I have been wrong about my view on this because I can not blaim you for what others have done and said about me.
Beyond the implicit terms he was laying out—I won’t prejudge you, don’t prejudge me—John also made two explicit requests in that first letter. He asked me to convey his words the way he meant them. He also told me to ask no questions about the crime itself, though in later letters he began to volunteer that information as well. Maria Angela Camacho, his common-law wife, who was also convicted for her part in committing the murders, was serving three concurrent life sentences and would be eligible for parole in 2045. She did not respond to my letters.
My correspondence to John was businesslike. I asked him lists of questions and thanked him for writing back. I didn’t talk about myself or try to create a meaningful relationship. I didn’t want to give John the impression that I was trying to get him released or get his sentence changed. False hope seemed the cruelest currency.
But when he asked for the comic book, I wondered if I wasn’t being cruel in a different way. When I spoke to people outside the world of journalism, I watched their expressions change when I mentioned it. They regarded journalism’s ethical rules skeptically, like the intolerant and rigid laws of a fundamentalist religious sect. The comic book might not be a symbol of manipulation. Instead, giving this gift to John could be an act of uncomplicated compassion. Maybe it didn’t merit so much debate.
A month passed and another letter arrived. This one was filled with newspaper clippings—puzzles and articles with little cartoons in the margins. One article showed a picture of a baby beluga whale being fed from a bottle. Above the headline John wrote, “So sweet dinner time yum yum. Just a baby. Jesus is great.”
In the letter, John said the comic book had arrived and he didn’t know whom it was from: “I really did not want to ask you for anything it is just that I reeeaally wanted this book and now I do. If it was not you this is acquered!? Well, who ever did send it I am very happy.”
It wasn’t from me. I’d never made my decision. Continue reading
Let me suggest that whoever says “Where did I go wrong?” does not really want an answer. It’s one of those rhetorical questions asking for empathy, not a detailed reply. In fact, it asks for agreement that you are not the one to blame. You did your best, all things considered. And if you are a mother, you especially don’t want a bullet-point list of your parenting history to show you when and where you might have behaved differently so as to get a better result with your offspring.
No, the question directs attention to your plight, not your child’s. I’m suffering here because my son is caught in addiction. I’m sad/appalled/ashamed/confused/devastated/disgusted. I’m numb, flattened, and I don’t know what to do. It’s a question that is never more futile than when you’re trying to get it through your head that your child—now an adult in chronological age only, perhaps—has hit the meth wall. The one at which he no longer knows the difference between truth and lie, between right and wrong or organization and chaos, between self-preservation and certain demise.
Privately, these are the first things I consider when my son hits that wall: Is this my fault? What might I have done differently to usher him into wholeness? Why is he so hopelessly derelict? Where did I fail him? I ask these questions as if any of us has a direct line of admonition we can use to guide children into making the right choices and behaving in the most positive ways on their own behalf. We don’t, and they don’t. And none of it makes any sense in hindsight.
Who am I in his life now? Once I was his primary source of nourishment and love, his matrix, his guardian. He turned away and obliterated it all with methamphetamine. He removed himself from me and everyone else. I want to hate him for this trespass. I want to scream at his selfishness, contacting me only when he needs something, and then turning away again. I want to rage against his blatant disrespect—for himself and everything I hoped he would be.
But I don’t, not completely.
There is a Tibetan practice called tonglen. Buddhists do it in order to remind themselves that in life there is suffering. Everybody suffers, everyone experiences pain. Maybe we even come into this life with our own karmic dilemmas and proceed to act them out, sometimes compounding our own grief. Even we long-sacrificing mothers do. Compassion is called for, but we are not typically compassionate with each other right out of the primordial chute.
As one who appreciates the Buddha’s teachings, I recognize this basic state of suffering for what it is: attachment to wanting life to turn out a certain way. And I suspect that as long as anybody suffers, we all do. How can I think that my specific sad/appalled/ashamed/confused/devastated/ disgusted feelings are any more intense than anyone else’s? How can I possibly wish for the safety and well-being of my sons and daughters without also being concerned for all sons and daughters? We are in this together, whether we realize it or not. And as singularly devastating as it is to face my son’s wrecked life, I’m not unique, I tell myself. Everyone suffers.
Tonglen practice challenges perspective in this way; it trains us to get out of our small selves and be concerned with others. It works like this: You breathe in pain and suffering and breathe out relief and compassion. You start with yourself by naming your own personal desperation on the inhalation; then you name some compassionate form of relief on the exhalation. You go on to another individual—the president, for instance, or your addicted son—and continue to take in their suffering and extend to them the end of suffering with each breath, in and out. And if you are feeling magnanimous, you practice this technique on a grand scale, inhaling the suffering of all humankind and exhaling wishes for the end of suffering to all.
Why stop there? The earth is thrashing in bio-systems failure, it seems. Breathe it all in—the smog, the poisoned water, the dying trees. Send out a cleansing, restorative breath to the very planet under your feet, the one we seem to be hell-bent to destroy with our ignorance and our greed. Suck the life out of all the evil ever committed everywhere, and return absolute love and redemption on the release.
I try this. I start with myself.
The village to which my parents and grandparents belong nestles in a seemingly insignificant part of the world. Khanpur is home to a few thousand people who eat and sell what Punjab’s fertile land yields. It is just a few hours’ drive from Pakistan but bears no trace of a shared past. Occasionally on summer days military jets zoom across the sky and children run outside their homes in the hope of seeing more.
Like many Indian immigrants growing up in Britain in the 1980s, I visited the birthplace of my parents frequently and stayed there for long periods. Though Punjab was the epicenter of the sectarian conflict, rarely did I hear stories about the 1947 Partition, when the Subcontinent was cleaved into two nation states: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. My grandmother mentioned only a few times how the family house, the first brick dwelling built there in early 1900s, had been a refuge for our Sikh relatives who fled Pakistan.
Behind that house was a mound, an elevated dirt patch that belonged to our family where the boys and girls would go to play. That was where Taj lived, the village bachelor known for the quality of dung cakes he made, which were used in ovens throughout the village. It was a job my grandmother had given him. It didn’t carry much status—it wasn’t akin to working on the farm or taking care of buffalos. But what little he earned provided him with a roof over his head.
Over time, as an adult my visits became less frequent, and on each trip I would notice the ways village life changed. Brick rooms slowly replaced mud huts, financed by the steady trickle of remittances sent from families like mine living abroad. In addition to dung cakes, Taj carried gas cylinders for fire stoves. Though the village economy changed, there were few improvements in Taj’s life. He continued to live alone, in a mud hut, on that elevated dirt patch. I would see him out and about near the mound with a deeper bend in his lanky frame.
Once I graduated and embarked on a career in London, my new responsibilities didn’t allow for long visits to Khanpur. It was then that I turned to Khushwant Singh’s celebrated novel Train to Pakistan, first published in 1956. It tells the story of Mano Majra, a fictional village lost in the remote reaches of the frontier, where Muslims and Sikhs live peacefully. By the monsoon of 1947, more than a million people across states such as Punjab and Bengal have been slaughtered and millions more are on the move. Northern India is afire, but so far Mano Majra has remained peaceful.
The village Singh describes bears an eerie resemblance to the one I know. Mano Majra has three brick buildings, one of which belongs to the moneylender Lala Ram Lal. The other two are the Sikh temple and the mosque. A railway station distinguishes the place from surrounding villages. Life ticks to the rhythms of morning and evening Delhi-to-Lahore trains. It is when the cattle are rounded and the meals are cooked.
The plot revolves around three characters: Juggut Singh, Iqbal, and Hukum Chand—archetypes representing force, intellect, and power. Juggut, is a towering figure with a hard exterior known for petty crimes. But he is capable of redemption and we see this in the way he loves Nooran Baksh, a Muslim weaver’s daughter. Their relationship, a secret and forbidden for it crosses religious boundaries, is the only thing that anchors Juggut. Iqbal, is an urbanite and a socialist who is visiting the village to mobilize grassroots support for the socialist party of India. In the early parts of the book, the reader doesn’t know Iqbal’s surname, creating ambivalence as to whether he is a Hindu, Muslim or Sikh. Hukum Chand, the village magistrate, is a debauched figure with an insatiable appetite for young women and alcohol. His position lends him considerable authority but he is gravely unprepared for a new tumultuous era.
Love across religious lines is the cardinal sin and also what might in the end save the village. Every night Juggut and Nooran rendezvous by the green fields. One such night Iqbal disembarks at Mano Majra train station. “It is after seeing the world that one feels how backward we are and one wants to do things about it. So I do social work,” he tells the priest shortly after arriving. During long strolls in the village he laments the state of his country. Abandoned animals foreshadow human deprivation: “A mangy bitch lay on her side with a litter of eight skinny pups yapping and tugging at her sagging udders.”
Night and day as metaphors have a special place in Singh’s plot. Bad things happen only at dark. The day is when life returns to normal. One late evening, armed robbers come to the village and murder the moneylender. The murder is pinned on Juggut and he is arrested. Iqbal is amongst the first in the village to ask if the murder of a Hindu moneylender is a religious hate crime. Iqbal, too, is arrested for spreading his socialist ideology. In prison, Juggut and Iqbal form a relationship. “I hear we have our own rule now,” Juggut asks Iqbal. “Yes, the Englishmen have gone but the rich Indians have taken their place,” Iqbal says.
It isn’t long before communal violence strikes Mano Majra. One morning a ghost train arrives from Pakistan loaded with the dead bodies of Sikhs and Hindus. The mythical sanctity of dawn itself is violated: “When they woke up in the morning and saw it was raining, their first thoughts were about the train and the burning corpses. The whole village was on the roofs looking towards the station.”
What happens next is in large part shaped by the reactions of the three main characters. Hukum is confused and paralyzed when he is informed of a plot by villagers to derail a train and by killing passengers, turning it into a cargo of Muslim corpses. Singh shows how the political and intellectual classes prove impotent when base human instincts are unleashed. Even Mahatma Gandhi couldn’t appeal to the nation’s senses, and Hukum after all is a less perfect man. Hukum asks the sub-inspector what happened to the two men who were arrested for the murder of the moneylender. He releases Juggut and Iqbal, one in search for his love and the other in the quest of a more perfect country. How, the book asks, will the characters ally themselves? That question determines the fate of the village.
Soon after reading the novel for the first time, I remember asking my father about Partition. Taj, he told me, was a Muslim. His mother was amongst the few who had refused to resettle across the border.
The next time I returned to the village, I visited Taj’s home. Even he now lived in a brick room with a tin roof. He was old, and his hands had lost their agility. I asked him if he had relatives in Pakistan. Proudly, he showed me letters he still received, inviting him to visit. He was a child when his mother had refused to join the foot caravans heading west. Time passed and they never left. But he was too old to travel now. He never married because there were no Muslim girls left in neighboring villages. But he did have a request for me, he said, and the next time we would meet, he will ask me. Continue reading
Two days before the synchronized swimming nationals, our Flyer vanished. I don’t mean she didn’t show up to training, and I don’t mean she left the pool through a door and didn’t re-enter the door. In the ninth hour of training, we threw Uta Franke into the air and Uta Franke did not land.
The only person who was not underwater at the time, apart from the Flyer herself, was our trainer, Olivia. She sat in her usual spot, the fold-out chair beside the stainless steel ladder. Olivia says her eyes were averted from the pool because she was reaching for the stop button on the stereo. We hadn’t executed the barracuda position in time with the music, which was an unforgivable fuck-up two days before a competition, and she’d seen six-year-olds execute a smoother barracuda, and at this rate she might as well take twelve dogs from the shelter and throw them in the pool and they would still out-barracuda us, and—why not—look better in turbo swimsuits too. This is what she claims she was thinking that instant, when she banged stop.
I was the last one to touch the Flyer. My teammates and I had formed an underwater platform to launch Uta into the air for her dazzling spin and split combination. I was the topmost part of the platform, the shoulders Uta used for the jump. Naturally, it fell to me to explain her disappearance. But what could I say? Did her feet feel a little different that time, the umpteenth? Did her toes dig in to my skin a little more or a little less than usual, before she hurled herself into nothingness?
The first murmur among the team was that she’d drowned. After nine hours in the pool, two in the gymnastics room, it wasn’t implausible. Maybe her heart gave out. Maybe she passed out from a concussion; the twelve of us never swam far from of each other, a kick in the head wasn’t uncommon. But a drowned body would still be in the water. We checked! All twenty-two goggled eyes scanning, stupidly, the blue empty corners of the pool. Miranda, one of the lifters, even ducked under the floating walkway to make sure. It felt like a game of hide and seek, a little naughty because it was a little fun, since we still thought Uta would turn up.
“Drain the pool!” Olivia cried to no one in particular. She was hefty, broad-shouldered, with a bellowing voice you couldn’t say no to. It would fill the pool through the underwater speakers, along with the clack of her brass pipe against the ladder, her do-it-yourself metronome. One-two-three-four-one-two-three-four-split-those-legs-or-I’ll-do-it-for-you-two-three-four…
The technicians drained the pool.
Uta really, truly, wasn’t in the pool.
If not in the water, then, maybe she was somewhere in the air? It was ridiculous, we all knew it, but we had to check all possibilities. The way you check your pocket for your keys just one more time, even if the last three tries yielded nothing. I imagined Uta’s arms and legs dissolving midair during a spin, the molecules losing their bonds, getting sucked into the monstrous vents high up in the ceiling. Olivia had the technicians check those, too: “The girl is quite small.”
Authorities of all kinds swarmed the arena. Fire chiefs, police officers, paramedics shuffled around the empty pool, first responders looking for something to first-respond to.
The team fell into a state of muffled giddiness. We peeked under floor mats, shook out our gym bags. We pressed our fingers to our lips to keep from smiling. Uta had done what each of us had fantasized about during our years of training, even if the fantasy only lasted a second or two. Elize had tried it once, last season. After vomiting at Olivia’s feet, she propelled herself to the bottom of the pool, pressed her head against it, and refused to resurface. We looked to Olivia for instructions—it was forbidden to touch the bottom—but she shook her head. The girl would have to come up for air eventually, and after a full three minutes, she did. Training resumed.
The evening of Uta’s disappearance, no one spoke in the locker room. We heard only the squawk of latex caps being peeled off scalps. We eyed each other, not without suspicion, as if our bodies held some sort of clue.
Maria Reva’s work includes short fiction and opera libretti. She was a finalist for the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. Ongoing projects include a collaboration with City Opera Vancouver, The Lost Operas of Mozart, set to premiere in October 2016.
When I was twenty-two and single, I worked behind the counter at a bakery. Customers would point at pastries in a case, and I would hand them those pastries, my hand sheathed in a thin vinyl glove. Sometimes they pointed at a particular pastry—the biggest cinnamon roll, for instance, or the darkest croissant—and I would have to move my arm slowly until I reached the right one.
When I went home my apartment was empty, except for two cats who avoided me. One of them hid under my bed and the other one cried until I let him outside. I slept alone every night for over a year.
There was an older couple who visited the bakery every Saturday and always came in holding hands. Sometimes the wife leaned into her husband as he pointed to the slice of pound cake he wanted. They seemed to be aging unevenly. Though she was lovely, with auburn hair piled loosely atop her head, she looked like somebody’s grandmother, while he still had swagger. I concluded that she was lucky to have him.
The following year I took a job waiting tables. I worked the breakfast shift and tips were terrible: two quarters left next to an empty cup, one dollar next to an egg-streaked plate.
One morning the husband came in, alone. He sat by the window and when I came to take his order, his eyes traced my body. I was wearing a black skirt with white socks and I became suddenly aware of my bare knees. He asked my name, and I told him, though some part of me wanted to keep it for myself. He left me a five-dollar tip for a six-dollar breakfast.
For months after that I crossed paths with him everywhere—in the bookstore, on the sidewalk, at the bar. Though I avoided him, he always he spotted me, even from a distance, and always he called me by name and spoke to me as if we had a history, as if he had touched me in all my tender places.
I am thirty-eight now and my bare knees no longer interest men, but my body is in demand. My children fight over my lap. In the middle of the night my toddler summons me and I leave one shared bed for another. I don’t run into the husband anymore, but I often cross paths with his wife when I run on a trail through the forest near my home. She is on her morning walk. Her posture is straight, almost regal, and she looks just as she did sixteen years ago, her hair pinned to the top of her head with a silver barrette.
I nod as I pass, unsure if she recognizes me from the years she handed me bills from her purse, the years that I poured water for her tea, the years that my gloved hand reached for her husband’s cake. As I pass I imagine her body, ample and soft, receiving pleasure beneath clean white sheets. This is the thing that I wish for her—pleasure—as I continue to run down the trail, alone and sweaty and breathless.
Jennifer Berney is a mother, writer, and teacher. She is a contributing blogger at Brain, Child, and her work has also appeared in The Manifest Station, Brevity, and Cactus Heart, among other places. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her partner and two sons.
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